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The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing [Tales of Berseria/Zestiria]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by CloudFry, Aug 22, 2019.

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  1. Threadmarks: C00 - Silence
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    The world Velvet Crowe once knew has changed. Now, the only way the former Lord of Calamity can achieve her goals is to play along with the rest of the sheep. Cloaked in self-hatred as a monster borne of irredeemable sin, Velvet is determined to twist the young Shepherd into a tool to suit her needs through whatever means available.

    A non-romantic interpretation of both games set during the plot of Zestiria, combining the original story with some of the various themes, characters, and lore of Berseria. Canon divergence.

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    [​IMG]

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    Preface: Hello! Only just now heard of this site, so I figured why not. I'm coming from FFN, Ao3, SB, SV, and Watt. Am I questing right?

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    Chapter 0 – Silence.

    It was quiet. The full moon hung in the starry sky, basking the rolling hills and lush forests with an otherworldly azure glow. The long shadows cast by the jagged trees and rough cliffsides contrasted sharply with the blanket of moonlight, dotting the land with pools of abject darkness.

    A damp, chilly breeze gusted through the land, rustling foliage and scattering leaves in the darkness. Somewhere, an owl hooted, punctuating the soft rush of the wind as it danced among the leaves overhead. A small stream flowed nearby, its chuckling accompanying the chirping of crickets occupying the patches of grass on the forest floor.

    The sudden snap of a branch rang out loudly in the tranquil forest, accompanied by the gratuitous rustling of foliage. In the dim, murky moonlight obscured by clouds and the canopy above, a wild animal padded out from the shadowed brush, halting soundlessly in the middle of the dirt path. Its ears were perked and alert, its eyes seeming to glow eerily in the darkness as it surveyed both directions up and down the road.

    The warm glow of a distant city vaguely shone through the tree trunks and branches on the left side of the path, silhouetting the figure of the wolf as it cautiously sniffed the air. Its eyes suddenly widened in alarm, its hackles rising.

    “Now, guys!”

    All pretenses of tranquility were shattered as blinding flashes of vibrant colors erupted from out of nowhere, accompanied by deafening roars of power as mana flew through the air towards the wolf. Fire and water sizzled loudly as both artes impacted right on target, sending the animal tumbling backwards with a yelp of agony.

    Despite the force of the initial attack, the wolf quickly found the ground with its paws and zeroed on its attackers. A grating snarl resounded from its belly as it found two human figures descending upon it with drawn weapons gleaming in the moonlight. The young man wielding a ceremonial sword was the first to let out a wordless yell as his weapon fell in a slicing curve down towards it.

    With deft movements, the animal leapt to the side, cleanly dodging the attack. Not missing a beat, his companion jerked her metal lance forward, landing a grazing slice on the wolf’s hide. Snarling heavily, the furious animal dodged the young woman’s follow-up slash before lunging to get inside the reach of her weapon.

    The other attacker was ready for it. Right as the wolf charged forward, the young man latched onto the grip of his sword with both hands, holding it horizontally in front of his companion.

    “Begone!” he demanded, slashing forward.

    A brilliant, otherworldly silver glow blasted out from his blade, illuminating the surrounding forest in stark contrast to the underlying moonlight. The harsh lighting framed his boyish features alongside his stark white ceremonial cloak that billowed behind him with the force of the mana charging through his body. With a roar of effort, the Shepherd slashed his blazing sword forwards, towards his enemy.

    Blade and fang met in a brilliant clash of flame and malevolence.

    A much higher-pitched yip of agony rang out as a completely transformed animal tumbled backwards into the mud away from the two humans. Residual embers of silver flame still clung onto its fur, evidence of its successful purification. Gasping for breath, the small fox glanced around, staring in evident confusion. It froze when it saw the two humans standing across the road from it, watching it. In a flash, it had sprinted off into the bush, vanishing into the night.

    Sorey slowly untensed, catching his breath and willing the adrenaline to stop pumping through his veins. “…Whew!” he breathed, flipping the short sword around in his hand and sheathing it at his right hip. “Nice job, everyone!” he exclaimed, turning to the other three travelers walking up to him.

    “Indeed it was!” Lailah agreed brightly with a happy smile and a dainty clap of her hands. “The both of you did a great job at fending the hellion off at close range.”

    “Not bad.” Mikleo allowed as he strolled up to his childhood friend, holding up his forearm with a closed fist. “You’ve been getting better at purification ever since we left Ladylake.” he observed.

    Sorey grinned as he reciprocated, bumping his own arm on the water seraph’s. “Your artes have been nothing to sneeze at either. I don’t think we could’ve taken that hellion down so easily if you and Lailah hadn’t weakened it first.”

    His friend let out a hmph. “But of course. What else could you expect from the Shepherd’s Sub Lord?”

    “Uh, a little modesty, maybe?” Sorey shot back grinningly, scratching his cheek.

    Mikleo rolled his eyes humorously in response.

    At his side, Alisha let out a light laugh as she delicately sheathed her spear. Her eyes wandered contemplatively towards where the hellionized fox they’d fought had disappeared. “Still. To think that so many of the local wildlife have become hellions.” The princess shifted on her feet, her armor clinking as she rested her head on her palm. “We must’ve encountered over a dozen such hellions just in the past few days. I shudder to think what sight awaits us in Marlind.”

    Lailah gave her a reassuring pat on the shoulder. “You shouldn’t worry so much about what’s yet to come.” She smiled softly. “It’s better to worry about the more pressing stuff.”

    “Like… what?” Alisha asked for elaboration.

    As if delighted she’d asked, Lailah’s face lit up. “Why, what’s for dinner, of course!” she chirped, tilting her head daintily to the side.

    Mikleo deadpanned. “Lailah, your priorities are questionable at best.” he muttered.

    “At best?!” Lailah gasped in horror. “Oh, no!”

    Sorey laughed and rubbed the back of his neck. “Still,” he conceded, “she does bring up a good point.” He turned to Mikleo, all business-like. “What is for dinner, anyways?” It was Sorey’s turn to be at the receiving end of Mikleo’s deadpan.

    Alisha gave a shudder. “Whatever the case, I do hope it isn’t whatever we had last night.” she remarked.

    Lailah giggled, holding a few casting cards up to her face to cover her smile. “I agree, that would be quite the prickle.” she chirped.

    Mikleo, at the height of irritation, exhaled a ponderous groan. “I told you guys,” he stressed, “last night was my first time trying to make prickleboar stew on my own! You can’t expect me to be a perfect cook on my first try!”

    “From what it looks like,” Sorey pointed out wryly, “they can, and do.”

    Mikleo glared at him. “Back me up here, Sorey! You know how good Gramps is at cooking. Me trying to copy all of his recipes by myself is bound to result in a few mistakes here and there.” he defended heatedly. “Perfection is the result of a ton of trial and error!”

    “Sorry, Mikleo. I can’t.” Sorey replied apologetically, giving a helpless shrug. “I guess I just thought I could’ve expected more from the Shepherd’s Sub Lord.” He shook his head disapprovingly as he began walking once more down the path, his boots crunching on the gravel. “Guess not.”

    “Sorey…” Mikleo grumbled as he followed.

    Lailah and Alisha shared muffled giggles, following grinningly behind the two boys as they continued to exchange verbal blows with no malice.

    High up above, the moon continued to watch in silence. Its body was reflected in the nearby waters of Lake Perniya, warping with the shifting of the windswept waters. In the distance, tall, imposing mountains surrounded the lake, their peaks meshing seamlessly with the increasingly cluttered night sky. Large clumps of dark grey clouds migrated through the heavens, casting dark, ominous shadows that travelled through the land of Lakehaven Heights in a silent, foreboding procession.

    A gust of damp breeze blew down the path of the group, rustling leaves and disturbing their clothing and hair. All around them, trees began to groan and waver under the weight of the powerful wind. Sticks and stray leaves blew through the forest, clacking noisily on the ground. They exchanged serious glances as they travelled down the path, their clothing flapping in the breeze.

    “…Looks to me like there’s a storm coming.” Mikleo observed seriously, glancing up at the increasingly overcast night sky.

    “Yes.” Lailah agreed with a nod, considering the group’s options. “If we’re not careful, we might be stuck out in the open with no shelter.”

    Alisha pushed some hair out of her eyes. “It would do us no good to arrive at a plague town being sick ourselves.”

    “Right.” Sorey’s eyebrows were furrowed. “Then we’d better start looking for somewhere to hole up for the night.”

    As one, the group picked up their pace, walking faster through the empty forest. The chirping of the crickets had ceased. The distant owl had stopped hooting. The chuckling of the nearby stream had been drowned out by the howl of the wind and the groaning of the trees. The lights of Ladylake had suddenly begun to seem much, much farther away than they had earlier. All around the group, the world continued to darken. What little illumination that had been provided by the moon had been cut off by the rapidly encroaching storm clouds overhead. Their steps quickened still; the animal instinct to run and cower from the forces of nature driving them urgently forward.

    The narrow path they were following abruptly entered into a small clearing nestled in the heart of the forest. Sorey blinked, slowing his steps and glancing around the unfamiliar space. High up in the sky, a brief break in the cloud cover overhead occurred, letting in a startlingly bright ray of moonlight to bask the clearing in otherworldly light.

    The group abruptly registered that the floor of the open area was in reality covered in brilliant pure white flowers that shimmered brightly in the moonlight. The whole area was sheltered by the surrounding trees from the wind and was therefore almost jarringly silent and peaceful compared to the forest outside. It was almost as if it were a different world entirely.

    “A meadow!” Mikleo remarked in amazement. “In the middle of the forest!”

    Lailah’s eyes were wide. “How pretty!”

    Alisha glanced around in awe. “A meadow in the middle of a forest…” she glanced at the seraphim of the group with a wry smile. “Like a place straight out of the fairy tales.”

    “Quite!” Lailah agreed brightly. Mikleo shared her sentiment.

    Sorey had a bright smile on his face as he gazed upon the natural beauty presented. “These flowers… they look familiar.” His brow furrowed in consternation. “What were they called again…?” His hand began to reach habitually for his copy of the Celestial Record in his pack. And then he froze.

    A cloaked figure stood motionlessly amidst the flowers, facing them.

    Overhead, the gap in the clouds letting the moonlight in began to close. Darkness once again began to overtake the shining meadow, obscuring the brilliant flowers from view. The motionless silhouette of the figure became nearly indistinguishable as the shadows engulfed the opposite side of the clearing. Yet from out of the darkness, two blood red eyes stared directly at him, burning inhumanly bright in the shadow.

    “Hellion!”

    Weapons were drawn in an instant as the group registered the threat awaiting them. Alisha’s lance was held in a tight, well-practiced grip. Mikleo’s staff was secured in his right hand and supported by his left. Lailah’s casting cards were fanned out in her palm, ready for use. Sorey’s sword sang as it left its sheath. His jaw was set as he fell into ready stance, angling his body against the threat presented by the pair of eyes watching the group unerringly.

    They waited, poised to defend themselves from the inevitable first attack. The shadows had nearly covered the entire field, leaving only the Shepherd’s group in a small, isolated patch of moonlight. And yet, no attack came.

    “…Lailah?” Mikleo whispered, keeping his eyes on the hellion watching them. “What’s going on? Why isn’t it attacking?”

    Lailah shook her head wordlessly, confusion evident in her expression.

    “What should we do, Sorey?” Alisha prompted urgently, keeping her stance low and ready.

    Sorey’s eyes were fixed on the hellion’s eyes, his brow furrowed. He didn’t answer, trying in vain to observe anything about their opponent.

    A distant thrum of thunder erupted, making the ground under their feet rumble. Ever so slowly, the clouds above drifted in the wind, closing off the last of the moonlight and cutting off the land below from the heavens and condemning it to darkness. The group blinked in the abrupt change in lighting as the meadow disappeared from their eyes.

    And in the darkness, it charged. Inhumanly quickly.

    Sorey’s blood ran cold as he belatedly registered a massive monstrous claw extending from out of the black and descending upon his body. Disbelief and shock flashed through his mind in a single instant. He could only stare uncomprehendingly as the hand of a giant fell towards his head; razor-sharp serrations poised to rend his flesh apart in an instant.

    “SOREY!” Mikleo shoved himself between his human friend and the attacking hellion, defensively raising his staff.

    CLANG!

    Sparks flew as the hellion’s claw impacted against Mikleo’s hastily casted shield arte, the clash illuminating surrounding meadow with flashes of azure blue and blood red.

    “Damn!” Mikleo swore, staggering back from the sheer force that had run through his staff from the attack. He scrambled for solid footing, his boots scratching noisily on the gravel underfoot. His opponent, on the other hand, had followed swiftly through with its initial slash, spinning smoothly around and pressing forward for a successive attack.

    Lailah and Alisha reacted immediately, flanking Mikleo and attacking the hellion with flame and spear.

    It abruptly vanished, rendering both attacks useless. Alisha stumbled forward, recovering from her missed spear stab. Lailah’s flame arte shot off into the distance, puttering out among a patch of flowers in the distance. The group glanced around wildly in momentary confusion, casting about left and right in disbelief.

    “…Above us!” Alisha cried in alarm, jerking everyone’s heads up.

    Right at that moment, a blinding flash of lightning lit up the sky; the first of many to come. And in the harsh illumination, Sorey got his first clear look at his opponent.

    A mask of steel covered its face, brightly reflecting the flare of lightning.

    Brilliant, demonic red eyes glared out of small slits in the mask. A tattered dark-brown cloak covered its mostly humanoid body from head to toe, billowing in the wind. Mostly humanoid, save for its left arm that extruded out from underneath the cloak and into a huge pulsating claw patterned with vicious-looking serrations. Its entire body was wreathed in sickening malevolence that trailed its every move.

    And it was targeting him.

    Sorey barely managed to get his sword up in time as the hellion slashed down.

    CRASH!

    A crash of thunder broke at the same time as the meeting of sword to claw, deafening Sorey’s ears as he was thrown bodily backwards by the sheer force of the descending hellion.

    “Aaagh!”

    He let out an involuntary grunt as he landed hard in the flowers, tumbling over himself amidst a plume of dirt and dislocated petals. The world spun around him as he tried in vain to get his bearings, grasping the crushed flowers underneath his body with his hands. A rumble of distant thunder further disoriented him as he struggled to find the ground underneath him. With a jerk of his head, he forced his eyes to focus on the battle raging between his friends and the invading hellion in the center of the clearing.

    Alisha faced off against the monster. The two of them circled around each other, Alisha’s unwavering spear keeping her opponent at bay. Meanwhile, her opponent’s movements were almost casual; mere steps in the dirt as it seemed to size the woman up.

    With a cry, Alisha abruptly lunged, thrusting her spear forward to sink into its torso.

    The masked hellion jerked its claw up, swiftly intercepting the path of the spear. Alisha cursed as steel slid right off the appendage as if it were made of metal, leaving her without stable footing. Silently, without uttering a single noise, the hellion whipped its claw around and bashed the off-kilter princess of Hyland off to the side. Alisha grunted in agony as she was thrown to the side of the clearing opposite to Sorey, her armor clanking noisily as she tumbled to the side.

    Alisha having been dealt with, the hellion targeted Lailah next.

    With a frightening burst of energy, it charged forward towards the casting seraph. Yelling fiercely, Lailah flicked her wrist forwards, finalizing her arte. An otherworldly hum rang out as the ground beneath their opponent grew molten orange.

    BANG!

    The hellion slammed its claw into the dirt and used the leverage to launch itself into the air as the arte detonated. Its cloaked figure was framed in the night sky by the brilliant orange hue that followed.

    Flying through the air, the hellion attacked with all the grace of a predator pouncing on prey. Lailah could only watch in horror as the claw descended upon her defenseless form. “No-!” She gasped.

    “Aaaagh!!!”

    Her cry of agony grated on Sorey’s ears as he finally managed to find his feet, sword in hand. He watched helplessly as Lailah was slammed violently onto the ground and crushed by the hellion’s claw. Instantly, the fire seraph’s body vanished in a flash of green, leaving nothing in the hellion’s grasp.

    The familiar sensation of a seraph returning into his body was an afterthought to Sorey as the hellion stood back up, turning its head to glare directly at him.

    A shiver of pure terror ran down his spine.

    He shook himself furiously, readjusting the grip on his sword and forcing himself to focus. “Mikleo!” He yelled urgently. His friend snapped his gaze towards him. They nodded simultaneously.

    “Luzrov Rulay!”

    Their voices rung out in tandem into the night, preceding the flash of brilliant azure blue as they armatized together, with Sorey’s body as a vessel. Divine artefact in hand, Sorey opened his now glowing golden eyes and set his sights on the hellion charging heedlessly at their merged form.

    “Take this!” Both Sorey and Mikleo roared, drawing the bow back and releasing in one smooth motion.

    The night was lit up by flashes of brilliant azure as a large charge of water mana blasted across the meadow, tearing through the air with a howl directly towards their enemy.

    Yet the hellion wasn’t fazed at all.

    Seemingly instinctively, the monster fell into a roll and let the arrow of mana blast harmlessly over its body. Without delay, it found its feet again and burst seamlessly back into its charge towards Sorey.

    “This one’s tough!” Mikleo’s voice rang out urgently. “Don’t slack on defense!”

    “I know!” Sorey responded, gritting his teeth and drawing the bow back once more, aiming at the hellion getting increasingly closer to their position. “Aim and fire!” He yelled.

    Multiple streams exploded out of the weapon, flying at varying angles in a blanket area attack. In retaliation, the hellion simply lifted its claw to shield its body from the assault.

    CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!

    Both Mikleo and Sorey watched in shock and dismay as the hellion’s claw deflected the might of the Armatus itself. Various strings of azure mana pinged off the claw, driving rough gouges on the surface of the claw before ricocheting off into the night.

    And then it was on them.

    “AAGH!” Sorey screamed as the massive blood-red claw slammed onto him, its wickedly razor-sharp fingers tearing into his clothing and drawing gouges of blood from the skin underneath. He watched with wide eyes as the monster stilled, its emotionless mask seeming to consider him as it stayed there, grasping his entire body with its huge claw.

    And then something started happening that felt wholly wrong.

    The entire arm itself began to pulse, siphoning the power of the Armatus away from him like a leech. Sorey’s flickering eyes widened in shock and disbelief as he registered what was happening.

    This can’t-!

    With a fierce tug, the monster jerked its arm out of Sorey. With it came Mikleo’s body in its grasp, forcibly disconnected from the Armatus.

    “Wh-What?!” Mikleo gasped, wriggling helplessly in the monster’s grasp as it held him up high in the air, leaving his legs kicking uselessly in the air. His staff was held ineffectively at his side, his arms pinned by the massive fist engulfing body. “How?!” He let out a cry of agony as the huge fist tightened abruptly. His staff fell into the flowers below, dropped by his limp hands.

    Sorey hacked out blood as he stumbled to his feet. “W-Wait!” He cried, beseeching the emotionless hellion holding his friend captive, watching him silently. He fell into a coughing fit, struggling to catch his breath. His blood splattered upon the white flowers between him and his emotionless opponent. Sorey’s eyes roamed the battlefield in dismay as he tried to catch his breath.

    Alisha laid on the opposite end of the meadow, clutching her broken right arm in agony. Lailah’s consciousness inside of him was dim and dull like a meek flame. Mikleo dangled from the hellion’s left claw, clearly exhausted and beaten.

    And yet… they were all still alive. Sorey’s eyes widened in surprise at the realization.

    The hellion still stood there, quietly, as if it were waiting for him to make his next move. It was watching him, keenly. Intelligently. There was now no doubt in Sorey’s mind that if the hellion had wanted to kill them all in the first place, they would already be dead. So that begged the question…

    He dropped his sword onto the flowers.

    “What are you-?!” Mikleo grunted in worry, his lungs constricted by the hellion’s grasp.

    “Sorey!” Alisha yelled urgently from her position on the ground cradling her injury. “Just what do you think you’re doing?!”

    Ignoring his companions, Sorey took a step forward towards the hellion holding his friend captive, unarmed. “You want something from me, don’t you?” He asked openly, meeting the hellion’s blood red eyes peeking through the oblique mask.

    A distant boom of thunder punctuated the silence that followed.

    He put a hand on his chest. “They call me the Shepherd.” He proclaimed. “I have the power to purify hellions like you,” he gestured towards the hellion, “and turn them back into regular humans. I swear, this doesn’t have to be like this!” He pleaded. “I can help you! I can heal you of all your malevolence, I promise!”

    He took another impassioned step forward. “Please!”

    Mikleo let out a scream as the hellion’s fist tightened in warning.

    Quickly, hurriedly, Sorey stumbled backwards, holding his palms out placatingly. Frustrated, he yelled, “What do you want?!” His eyes pleading the hellion holding his dear friend hostage.

    “Alright, listen!” He shook his head frantically, patting his chest. “Whatever you want from him, take me instead!”

    “W-What?!” Mikleo choked out furiously. “Sorey! Don’t you dare!”

    “Sorey!” Alisha yelled in horror. “You’re the Shepherd! This world needs you, now more than ever!” Her eyes turned to Mikleo’s suffering form, her expression filled with clear indecision. “Th-there has to be some other way!” She cried uselessly.

    Sorey’s eyes never left the hellion’s piercing red eyes.

    “…Please.” He pleaded earnestly. “Take me instead.” He took a step forward, freely offering his body in return for his friend’s. Flowers crunched underneath his boot; stained by his own blood.

    The hellion just stared back at him motionlessly, its brilliant red eyes underneath the mask piercing straight through his soul.

    Silence.

    Then all of a sudden, it dropped Mikleo and leapt off into the night, vanishing without a trace.

    Sorey sprinted forward as Mikleo crashed onto the flowers, coughing and heaving. Alisha had managed to get to her feet and began stumbling over to the two of them, fumbling in her pack with her non-dominant arm for some healing gels and bandages. All three of them had wide eyes, warily glancing around in the shadows in case their frightening adversary returned.

    SMACK!

    “Ow! The heck was that for?!” Sorey groaned, rubbing his cheek.

    Mikleo’s eyes were positively livid as he picked up his fist from the ground, having slammed it into his friend’s face the moment he’d regained enough energy to do so.

    “What the HELL, Sorey?!” He screamed, turning his head and coughing up some blood onto the ground. “Just what were you thinking?!” He exclaimed, clutching Sorey’s shoulder with a death grip. “Offering your life up to a hellion?! You’re an even bigger idiot than I ever thought possible!!”

    Sorey winced at his friend’s fury. “Sorry, Mikleo. I… I couldn’t stand it if anything happened to you.” He admitted shakily. “Besides,” he reasoned, “that hellion seemed intelligent.”

    Intelligent?!” Mikleo seemed on the verge of hysterics. “Sorey! Has living with Gramps and the others not taught you anything?!” He shook his head in disbelief. “Hellions are monsters, nothing more, nothing less!” He swiped a decisive hand through the air. “Don’t you remember that fox hellion?!” Mikleo yelled. “It ate Mason! How can you call the same kind of monster that would do such a thing intelligent?!”

    “But-!” Sorey began.

    “Sorey.” He turned to Alisha’s serious expression. “Like I said, you are the Shepherd.” She shook her head decisively. “If you fall, the world falls as well.” Her eyes were firm. “There is no doubt in my mind of that fact. You must treasure your life more than this!” She implored.

    “Even if it means sacrificing Mikleo?!” Sorey’s temper began to rise as well. “Alisha, are you telling me that given the opportunity to save myself or Mikleo, I should just leave him to die?!”

    “Yes, Sorey.”

    It was Mikleo who spoke. “You’re more important that all of us combined.” He stated simply. “That’s just how it is.”

    Sorey was lost for words for a second, flitting his gaze between the two people in front of him as if he couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

    The silence was abruptly broken by a flash of green and a familiar hum. Lailah appeared from out of Sorey’s body, stumbling onto the meadow and coughing laboriously.

    “Lailah!” Everyone exclaimed at once, forgetting their previous conversation and moving to help the injured seraph.

    “I’m… I’m just fine!” Lailah chirped unconvincingly.

    “Hey, take it easy.” Mikleo ordered worriedly, cradling the other seraph’s head and beginning some healing artes. “You took the hardest blow out of all of us.”

    Sorey’s eyes were deeply disturbed as they roamed over Lailah’s bruised and bleeding body. She’d been injured by blunt trauma, whereas no attempts had been made to specifically target her more vital organs. It clearly had been trying not to kill, only to disable. “…Just what did that hellion want from us?” he mumbled under his breath.

    “You… you sensed it too, didn’t you?” Lailah coughed again, forcing herself to her feet against Mikleo’s worried complaints. “That hellion…” The rest of the injured group got to their feet alongside her, staring off to where the hellion had first appeared. “There was… something very wrong about it.” she murmured, her breathing steadying. “Something especially unnatural.”

    Sorey furrowed his brow.

    Alisha shook her head in disbelief. “To think that there are that powerful hellions out there in the world!”

    “We need to get stronger.” Mikleo spoke seriously, reaching down and picking up his dropped staff with severe disillusionment in his eyes. “Much stronger, if we should ever hope to take something as powerful as that on.”

    “Yeah.” Sorey nodded soberly. “…If anything, this is just a reminder of how we need to work harder if we want to help the world.” He abruptly blinked, having felt a drop of water land on his forehead. As one, the group turned their heads skyward towards the fully covered heavens as the storm began to break.

    “…Am I the only one who thinks our journey just got a whole heck of a lot tougher?” Mikleo asked sardonically as he stared idly up at the clouds as the rain began to pour down upon them.

    Lailah glanced at the rest of the group. “Come, now.” She urged softly. “Let’s find shelter from the rain and heal up before tomorrow.” She shook her head, forcibly injecting false cheeriness into her voice and exclaiming, “Things always look better in the morning!”

    “Right.” Sorey agreed absently, following in the footsteps of his group as they made their way through the soiled meadow. His thoughts kept running over the hellion’s mysterious actions.

    None of it made any sense.

    Above the group, the rain began to fall with vigor, clattering noisily upon the crumpled flowers, washing the blood away.

    ---​

    Velvet Crowe leant back quietly on her solitary perch on an oak tree, watching as the group of humans and seraphim left the flooding meadow far below. All around her, the leaves pattered noisily as they caught large drops of rain, shielding her from the worst of the downpour as the storm broke with a vengeance. A rumble of thunder boomed in the distance, accompanying the howling gusts of wind furiously battering the tree itself.

    She had bundled up her disguising cloak and mask and had shoved them in her travel pack, allowing her cascading hair to fall freely once more. Her daemon arm had been dispelled, covered by the ever-present bandages that masked her true nature. Her eyes had returned to their normal shade of brown with the absence of her artes.

    The therion shifted slightly in her perch, letting her right leg dangle in the wind while resting her left arm on her left knee. The chains on her well-worn ragged clothing clinked softly amidst the cacophony of the storm. Her eyes were hard as she contemplated the yellowed, frayed bandages loosely wrapped around her seemingly human left hand. A flash of lightning framed her curled-up form in stark shadows.

    “…Shepherd.” She whispered the word indistinctly into the wind, contemplatively.

    Memories from long ago erupted all at once. Faces, once blurry from misuse, suddenly materialized in her mind as clear as day. Fragments of a time long past, indistinct in form yet sharp in hue, made up a mosaic of emotion that tinted her every thought.

    She glanced over to her left, surveying the view through the drenched leaves and the downfall. The surrounding mountains of Lakehaven Heights had become obscured in the quickly accumulating fog. The sea of trees surrounding her perch moved in contrasting waves, billowing in the whistling winds. The air was damp and crisp. The storm was battering the uncovered meadows below without mercy, wrenching petals helplessly away into the air. The entire area was quickly becoming thoroughly waterlogged underneath the torrential rainfall.

    Velvet watched as the formerly gorgeous blanket of white flowers drowned underneath a rapidly growing layer of water flooding the meadow. Her lips were set in a firm line.

    ---​

    “I’m impressed, Eizen.” Someone remarked. “You know a lot about everything.”

    “Not at all.” Came the dismissive reply. “There’s so much I don’t know. For example, the name of these flowers. That’s why I travel. To learn.”

    She opened her mouth.

    “Aldina Alabastergrass.”

    “That’s the name of the name of this flower?” He inquired.

    She nodded slowly. “Yes… A long time ago, my brother showed me a picture of it in one of his books. They’re fragile flowers. They die quickly on their own.”

    A pause.

    “But if enough of them gather together, they can survive. Fields of them form beautiful white carpets of flowers…” She explained, glancing around at her surroundings. “In some cultures, they symbolize kinship—the bonds between people.”

    “Kinship… huh.”

    Laphicet’s bright voice rang out sharply in the memory, as clear as if he were there right beside her.

    ---​

    A boom of thunder broke through Velvet’s reverie, sending her into the far, far future. Or rather, she reminded herself, the present.

    An indescribable mix of bittersweet emotion swirled in her eyes as she brought her hand to massage her temples tiredly. She stayed motionless on her perch for a long while; unfeeling towards the frigid raindrops battering her body.

    Suddenly, she clenched her fists. Her eyes opened, once more hardened with determination and drive. She shook her head and took one last glance back down at the meadows below. Floating petals drifted in batches throughout the swampy waters; evidence that a meadow had even existed in the first place being quietly swept away by the wind. There would be no flowers left when the torrential waters finally drained in time. That was just how things worked.

    Letting out a huff, her breath misting in the cold air, the therion shifted agilely onto her feet, her steel boots digging deep into the bark of the branch as she transitioned into a crouch. Poised like a hunting bird of prey, she slipped her soaking wet pack onto her back, seated firmly atop her black coat. Ever so steadily, the daemon tensed her stiff limbs, standing up on the branch blowing in the gusting winds. Her jaw was set firmly as she forced herself to look towards the present, not the past.

    She had her work cut out for her. And it was time to get started.

    With a fire burning in her eyes completely unrelated to her powers, Velvet Crowe pushed herself forwards off the branch, leaping through the leaves of the tree and into the dark night. Down below, the downpour continued to batter what was left of the meadow, rendering what was left of the field of flowers formerly known as Aldina Alabastergrass into nothing but a featureless quagmire of muck and grime. The once-bright world had now been fully enveloped in unadulterated darkness.

    Amidst the booming of thunder and the wailing of the wind, the silence of the night was no more.

    ---​

    Author’s Note: Hi! Thanks for clicking.

    This story is a sequel to the Wanderer of Worlds in the Berseria Fandom. You don’t need to have read it to enjoy this story. If you end up liking this fic, I urge you to consider reading the Wanderer of Worlds in between my (likely sporadic) updates! Enjoy!

    Oh, and have a Happy New Year, everyone!

    - CloudFry, January 1st, 2019


    Addendum: I realize I never mentioned this, however for this story (and all my works for that matter) criticism is very enthusiastically solicited. Please, if you would like, leave a review and tell me how I’m doing, regardless of how scathing it is. I’m always happy to improve my writing and to hear from readers!

    Cheers.

    (Edited October 23rd, 2019)
     
    Last edited: Oct 26, 2019
  2. Threadmarks: C01 - Foreigner
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 1 – Foreigner.

    She awoke to the chirping of birds.

    Warm, fuzzy sunlight beamed down onto the forest floor, baking patches of exposed, dry grass. A soft wisp of the summer breeze meandered through the trees, conducting a gentle orchestra of rustling leaves and branches as it went. The air was crisp and fresh in the aftermath of last night's storm.

    Hummingbirds and bees went about their business, carefully inspecting patches of flourishing flowers under the watchful gaze of the sun. Here and there, the faint rustling of foliage signaled the activity of small animals such as hares and pigs as they searched leisurely for food. Just above the trees, a flock of birds travelled in a synchronized dance, weaving gracefully through the cloudless blue sky.

    Velvet watched the group of birds fly as she allowed her body to slowly wake up, staying motionless in the same position in which she'd slept in.

    Her legs and arms cramped wildly from staying awkwardly bent all night. The ragged clothing that she wore was still utterly drenched from last night's torrential rainfall. Bunches of stray twigs and leaves were hopelessly entangled within her frayed, uncombed hair, having been caught in it as a result of the storm's howling winds. Crusted mud and stray strands of grass clung to parts of her exposed skin, leaving her feeling wholly unclean.

    She didn't pay the discomfort any mind. It had been a long time since such things had bothered her.

    Mud squelched gently underneath her steel boots as she stood up, gazing around the small clearing in which she'd chosen to sleep in for the night.

    All around her, life continued on. Birds continued to sing, insects continued to buzz, and bugs continued to crawl. If she wanted to, she could've used such a familiar setting and deluded herself into thinking that she was back in her own time. Back when everything was different.

    Suddenly, she winced, a flash of pain flitting through her eyes. She glared down at the source of the agony, holding her bandaged left arm out in front of her.

    SQUELCH!

    The infinitely familiar noise resounded out throughout the clearing. In an explosion of malevolence, her left claw burst outward from its sheath of bandages, extruding out twice as long as her opposite arm. Three deep, irritated gouges bristling in an angry shade of red greeted her, crisscrossing across the back of the claw.

    She let out a frustrated huff that turned into an irritated growl as another jolt of pain flew up her arm. Fighting that armatized water seraph had taken its toll. The gouges were markedly deep; she'd need malak artes to speed up the recovery. She shook her head, instantly dismissing the idea. The only person she could rely on at the moment was herself, and nobody else.

    A damp breeze blew through the empty clearing occupied by the lone therion, rustling her clothing and disturbing her hair. The metal chains on her outfit chimed softly in the wind.

    Ever so slightly visible in the daytime light, tendrils of purple miasma began to seep out from within her, shrouding her in her own sin. Velvet sighed, sliding her eyes shut and standing still, allowing the malevolence to naturally leave her being.

    Giving in to the demands of her body, she let her domain expand outwards.

    The world all around her seemed to gradually darken, despite the cloudless sunny sky. The air itself felt heavier, while the sounds of birds and insects began to hollow out. Particles of concentrated malevolence began to collect, drifting ominously through the air. A dreadful hum began to resound outwards from the very earth while unnatural gusts of fierce wind festered in the air.

    Velvet's hair and clothing whipped in the fierce gales as she held her eyes lightly closed. At her side, her monstrous claw seemed to flourish in the environment, its pulsating surface becoming even more volatile. Waves of malevolence erupted out from her being in waves, bursting outwards and tainting the surrounding landscape. Terrified animals fled away as fast as possible from the unnatural miasma, driven by pure instinct. All traces of the previously peaceful clearing had been eradicated in mere moments.

    She felt rather than saw all of this as she stood motionless in the center of it all. She had long ago become aware of the effects of her domain on the world around her. The aura of a hellish being so full of sin that the very earth itself reviled it.

    Yet, it had been a long time since such things had bothered her.

    "A-a-AAAAAAAHHH!"

    The high-pitched scream sliced sharply through the volatile air, snapping Velvet's eyes wide open. She whirled around, her coat flapping in the unnatural breeze, and found herself face-to-face with an intruder in her domain.

    The girl, seemingly no more than 8 years old, had her bulging eyes fixed directly on Velvet's form, her mouth agape in horror. She had been frozen solid from fear alone, her two tiny pigtails whipping around in the winds.

    For before her stood a monster amidst a whirling vortex of malice and evil.

    Velvet reacted instantly, launching herself forwards at a full-tilt sprint through the dirt towards the hapless girl. The poor girl could only watch in horror as the red-eyed monster closed in upon her. She had only managed to take a single step backwards and let out a paltry squeak of fright before Velvet's right hand curved in, slicing through the malevolence in the air and slamming roughly against the young human's left temple.

    The girl instantly went limp, her eyes rolling into the back of her head as her fragile body crumpled, toppling away from the blow. Her now limp hands dropped the partially-filled basket of herbs she had been carrying, which fell and landed on its side, spilling its contents all over the ground.

    Following smoothly through with her attack, Velvet spun around on her heel and transitioned into a crouch, easily catching the falling girl's torso with her right arm before her head cracked onto the ground. Absently, she dispelled her daemon claw, using the bandaged arm to get a better hold of the girl.

    She let out an exasperated sigh.

    "That was damn careless." She muttered under her breath, easing the human down onto the grass with easy movements.

    The girl's face had untensed, leaving her expression almost peaceful as she laid there next to her fallen basket of herbs. Standing up straight before the girl's unconscious form, Velvet crossed her arms, idly tapping her left bicep in frustration as she examined the human's appearance. The girl's outfit was relatively clean and well-taken care of. Her skin also appeared to be regularly washed, while her properly done pigtails told of the loving care of a paternal figure.

    "I take it there's a village nearby, then." Velvet surmised dryly. She glanced to the side. "…At least that means I'll probably find what I'm looking for there."

    With a shake of her head, she closed her eyes once more and focused on the malevolence still fountaining out of her being. With practiced effort, she blocked out all other senses and instead reached for the ever-present, simmering spring of malevolence festering deep inside of her.

    And then, with a harsh exhale, Velvet forcibly yanked it shut.

    Almost immediately, the inherently uncomfortable feeling of suffocating began to rise as the malevolence inside of her rebounded off the barriers she'd erected. Her own body revolted against her, fighting against the harsh repression of its nature. With gritted teeth, Velvet fisted her hands and suffered through the hardship of suppressing her own domain.

    All around her, the howling of winds began to die down. The lingering particles of malevolence began to dissipate, while the ominous pressure building in the air lifted slowly. The sun once more began to shine upon the land in the absence of great evil. With the disappearance of the chaos, a blessed silence once more fell upon the forest.

    Slowly, Velvet uncurled her hands, taking deep, long breaths as she opened her eyes.

    With marked satisfaction, she observed the lack of any malevolence seeping out from her body. She glanced around, finding not a speck of corruption left hanging in the untainted air around her.

    Having confirmed the successful suppression of her domain, Velvet turned around and trotted back across the clearing to where her travel pack laid against the tree she'd slept under. It was time to go.

    Suddenly, she stopped.

    Her head turned ever so slightly to the right, her lips held in a firm line as she glanced at the helpless little girl's body out of the corner of her eye.

    After a pause, her steel boots clinked as they were redirected back the way she'd come.

    A few minutes later, the therion left the sunbaked clearing with her travel pack slung easily around her shoulder underneath her hair. With her true nature hidden, she was merely another traveler braving the large, dangerous world.

    She stepped forward through the brush and left the clearing, headed onwards towards the future.

    Meanwhile, the unconscious little girl's pigtails swung gently in the wind that reached her snug perch up on a low tree branch; a location that meant her protection from both predators and bandits. Tied securely to the tree trunk alongside her was her small basket of wild herbs; neatly organized by both type and category.

    High up in the sky, the warm sun continued to glow.

    ----

    Tall grass shifted in the gentle breeze, giving the illusion of soft waves travelling slowly through a sea of flawless green. Idle clouds drifted through the noon sky, casting indistinct shadows down to the ground to act as ships traversing an ocean of grass. A single dirt path cut its way through the field, rising and falling with the rolling hills.

    A lone traveler in black trotted steadily onwards down the path, her long raven hair swaying with the light breeze.

    Velvet squinted up at the blue sky, gauging the height of the sun as she walked. Her steel boots crunched repetitively in the dirt, meshing with the constant buzzing of insects populating the tall grass on either side of her. The air she breathed was crisp and laden with the fresh scent of nature. Slung across her shoulders, her travel pack bumped companionably against her back, accompanying her every movement with the sound of shifting leather.

    Travel was of second nature to the therion. To her, life was always as ever a never-ceasing experience of forward motion.

    There was never an end to her path; never a place to return to. Yet she didn't mind; ultimately, the decision had been up to her.

    Suddenly, her footsteps came to a halt. Her head snapped forwards, her eyes narrowing in concentration as she focused on what her daemon-enhanced hearing could ascertain at a distance. A low breeze blew down the path, bringing with it the scents of fear and desperation.

    "Dad!" The high-pitched voice plea of a boy reached her ears.

    "Stay calm, junior!" A man replied, a tremor in his tone undermining his command. "Keep your head and the two of us might just make it!"

    "I-I'm not so sure we can!" Came the trembling response.

    Accompanying the voices were the snarls of feral creatures. Clearly, there were travelers in mortal danger ahead of her.

    After a moment's consideration, the therion burst forwards into movement, slamming her boots into the earth as she sprinted forwards down the path. Her breathing came out smooth and steady as she charged up the hill, her hair slinging behind her like a black cape. Her eyes narrowed as she summited the hill, coming into direct visual contact with the source of the commotion.

    A man and a boy stood back-to-back in the center of the path, shakily wielding crude wooden swords against their assailants; a pack of 4 snarling wolves, circling their position with increasingly acute rotations.

    The boy was the first to spot her with his desperate, terrified eyes. "H-hey!" He screamed, drawing the attention of the man by his side. "HELP! HELP US! PLEASE!" He cried.

    Velvet hadn't stopped running.

    She let out a harsh yell as she neared them, effectively drawing the attention of all the wolves to her person. With a rough shove of her legs, she catapulted herself high into the air, throwing the feral animals into a panic as they retreated away instinctively. Dirt and mud flew in the air as she slammed onto the ground and slid to a halt in front of the two travelers, placing herself directly between them and the group of four wolves.

    Her cold glare rivaled the ferocity of the desperate animals as they began to advance upon her, evidently undeterred by the presence of an additional human. She raised her left arm up into the sun.

    SQUELCH!

    With a fierce sweep, Velvet slashed aggressively down with her extended daemon claw, slicing through the air between her and the animals. Her eyes were hard.

    "Get out of here!" She demanded with a snarl. "Find your food elsewhere!"

    The change in the disposition of the animals was instant.

    Tails dropped down and growls turned into whimpers as the pack immediately whirled away and fled. Grass crunched under their paws as they fled away from the humans and into the dense field.

    Velvet waited until even her enhanced hearing couldn't register the rustling of grass before turning around and facing the two humans that she'd saved whom were both gaping wordlessly at her with wide eyes.

    She raised a single eyebrow in response.

    The boy was the first to break out of his shock. "H-Holy cow!" He gasped in awe. "You're amazing, lady!"

    "Oh!" With his son's comment, the older man also remembered himself and angled his torso down low in a deep bow. "Words cannot express my gratitude for having saved the lives of me and my son, madam. How can we ever repay you?!"

    Velvet waved her massive daemon claw carelessly in the air. "Don't worry about it. It wasn't a problem for me."

    With a disgusting squelch, the therion dispelled her claw, leaving her arm in the form that the two non-resonant humans saw. An innocent-looking bandaged arm; nothing more.

    For without the presence of her resonance-amplifying domain, the humans of this world had no way to see her true self.

    Yet another sign of how much things had changed.

    "…You're a real hero. Thank you." The man shook his head in disbelief. "I didn't think there was a single kind-hearted person like you left in the world." He admitted.

    At his side, the spiky-haired boy bounced up and down ecstatically, all traces of fear in his eyes having vanished. "You were like, HAH!" He imitated Velvet's leaping charge by hopping in place. "And then, you were like, 'Get out of here!'" He growled with as low a voice as he could manage, aggressively swiping his left arm through the air. "'Find your food elsewhere!'"

    Velvet had a wry smirk on her lips. "Yeah, I was there, too." She pointed out dryly to the child.

    "You're awesome, you know that?!" The boy exclaimed without missing a beat, trotting up to her with his hands fisted in excitement. "How did you know how to scare the wolves off like that?" He asked.

    She shrugged, shifting on her feet with a hand on her hip. "Wolves desperate enough to attack a pair of travelers in broad daylight in such an environment aren't looking for a fight." She explained, tilting her chin down at the boy. "Sometimes," she offered, "you just need to act scary enough so that the scary things run away."

    "Ohh…! That makes sense!" The boy breathed.

    "Hm." The boy's father had his hand up to his face, contemplatively stroking his stubbled chin. "Indeed, those beasts did seem extraordinarily thin."

    He shook his head in dismay, meeting Velvet's eyes. "A sign of the times, perhaps, when even the animals themselves are growing desperate enough to risk dying for their food." He turned his head and spat into the dirt in disgust.

    "Humans, animals." Velvet waved her hand carelessly. "A hard line to draw, if you ask me."

    "Quite." The man agreed. "Yet there is still value in such a definition." He nodded his head towards her. "Your actions in saving us speak loudly of such."

    "If you say so." She shrugged.

    Her eyes were drawn to the wooden swords held uncomfortably in their hands. "By the way," she added, "I'd suggest you get something that isn't wooden for travel protection. Those things are next to useless."

    Both father and son exchanged sheepish looks as they shamefully examined their wooden swords. "You're… probably right. To be honest," the man admitted, "this is our first time travelling."

    "Obviously." Velvet agreed harshly.

    She directed her serious gaze towards the father. "Despite how close we are to the capital, it's not safe in any respect." She shook her head. "Not to mention that with war on the horizon, things are bound get to worse. It's like you said." She gestured over her shoulder towards where the wolves had disappeared. "Animals. Conflict brings out the worst in people."

    "R… Right." Having been thoroughly lectured, the man's shoulders slumped. "I… suppose I was an idiot for thinking that a few days of travel wouldn't be dangerous."

    At his side, his son tugged at his hand. "It's fine, dad." He assured. "Nobody could've known that we would've been attacked by wolves."

    "Wrong."

    The two of them turned to Velvet, whose arms were crossed.

    "You can't take chances. Not with the people you love." Her words were hard, her left fist clenched in determination. "Only a fool would leave the fate of a loved one in the hands of chance."

    A gust of wind blew through the field, punctuating the silence that followed the therion's declaration.

    "…y… you can't call my dad a fool!" The boy objected heatedly, his earlier admiration having been forgotten. "He's not!"

    Velvet raised a single eyebrow in response, unaffected by the boy's anger. "And why is that?" She asked loftily.

    "Well… Well…!" The boy's retort was stopped by a hand on his shoulder.

    The father shook his head silently at his boy before meeting Velvet's eyes. "You… speak the truth, miss." He admitted softly, shamefully. "I… I put both my life and my son's life in danger because of my actions."

    "You did." Velvet ignored the wordless glare of the boy as she held the man's eyes. "Now, what are you going to do about it?" She demanded.

    He blinked in surprise.

    After a moment, he squared his shoulders and straightened his back, squarely meeting the woman's gaze. He nodded sharply. "…I'll make things right. I'll do better."

    "Good answer." Velvet replied, satisfied.

    The buzzing of insects amidst the summer heat filled the silence that followed.

    Abruptly, the man let out a chuckle, shaking his head. "Miss, I believe you've saved me, in more ways than one, today."

    Velvet let out an amused huff, shifting on her feet. "If that's the case, I believe I deserve a reward."

    "Y-yes, yes, of course." The man nodded deeply, accepting the demand. "Name whatever you want. You shall have it." He openly allowed.

    "Tell me how to get to the nearest village from here."

    Both man and boy blinked in surprise, exchanging looks.

    Velvet rolled her eyes. "Did I stutter?" She drawled, prompting the two of them to snap out of their stupor.

    "O-oh! Uh!" Shaking his head, the man pointed up the path. "There's a fork maybe half an hour's worth of travel down the path. Follow the left fork all the way until you arrive at the village." His eyes returned uncertainly to the woman's, as if still in disbelief that she wasn't asking more of them.

    "Thanks." Velvet nodded to the two of them and promptly spun on her left heel, easily resuming her brisk pace forward down the path, away from them without another word.

    With a rough shake to himself, the man remembered himself and called out a farewell to the quickly receding woman.

    "Farewell, miss!" He yelled. "I'll never forget the wisdom you gave me!"

    "T-thank you, lady! Thanks for saving us!" The boy added in a holler.

    Velvet didn't respond to either of them, moving unceasingly onwards. In her mind, the two humans had already become vague afterthoughts. All she cared about was the information that she had extracted from them.

    That was all that mattered.

    Once again, the crunching of gravel under her boots became the therion's only companion as she travelled onwards into the horizon.

    ----

    The sun was setting by the time she arrived at the village.

    A thin river weaved its way through the plains around the small unwalled settlement, encircling it in a gentle curve. Wooden fishing piers and boardwalks jutted out at various angles, hanging daintily over the slow-moving river and casting shadows upon the cold liquid. The warm orange-hued sky reflected off the clear waters, embracing the whitewashed cobblestones of the village buildings with a gentle backlight.

    Velvet strolled through the main thoroughfare of village, weaving between groups of fishermen returning home for the day and teams of traders packing up their stalls. Her eyes were constantly in motion, scanning the faces in the crowd as she walked through the well-trodden dirt.

    Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a small dog turn its head towards her direction, snarling, to the confusion of the woman holding its leash. Almost idly, Velvet allowed her daemon claw to burst out of its bandages at her side, watching the dog's reaction.

    Predictably, the resonant little mutt leapt in shock and fright, turning tail and sprinting away, heedless of the leash around its neck. Heads turned towards dog's squealing and the owner's cursing as the woman tried in vain to keep up with the adrenaline-packed sprint of the tiny dog sprinting away from her, its leash dragging on the mud behind it.

    Velvet rolled her eyes and kept on walking past the gawking onlookers, unnoticed. With a flick of her wrist, she dispelled her daemon arm, her true nature unbeknownst to the people she walked alongside.

    There had been a time, she recalled idly, when things had been different.

    A time when she'd been considered the lord of monsters; a time when people had shrieked and scattered from her mere presence alone, turning to the exorcists as their saviors. A time when she had had a place in this world.

    Yet now, she was but a stray wolf, strutting freely amongst a flock of clueless sheep. An intruder, in every respect of the word.

    Deep inside of her, the malevolence festered.

    "Oof!"

    She stumbled with a grunt of surprise, having been wrenched out of her swirling thoughts by someone bumping smack into her. Instinctively, her body tensed, her boots pressing into a battle-ready stance.

    "Sorey! You idiot! Pay more attention to where you're going!"

    Velvet blinked in surprise, untensing her body and turning around.

    The boyish face of the Shepherd grinned apologetically back at her, sheepishly scratching the back of his neck. The water seraph stood at his side with crossed arms, rolling his eyes at his vessel's idiocy. The princess and the fire seraph were nowhere to be seen; evidently the group had split up at some point.

    She had inadvertently bumped into the Shepherd and his seraph at the intersection of the main thoroughfare and a riverside boardwalk.

    It was much less crowded in this part of town; empty fishing huts and piers lined the boardwalk, closed down for the day. Velvet absently registered that she'd walked the entire length of the village, judging by the sight of the brilliant orange-hued river flowing softly behind him.

    It would seem luck that had favored her, leading her straight to her target.

    "Sorry!" The Shepherd apologized earnestly, holding a tome up in his hands in a way of explanation. "I get a little distracted sometimes. My bad."

    The water seraph let out a chuckle behind his back. "I pity the humans sometimes for having such a dolt of a Shepherd." He remarked humorously.

    "Shush." The Shepherd whispered back under his breath in response, his lips curling in a wry grin.

    Velvet watched the interaction with amusement. The two of them were very, very close; that much was clear.

    All around them, straggling villagers made quiet steps in the mud past them, finally headed home after a long day of work. High up above, the sun continued its descent down towards the horizon defined by distant mountains. The river seemed to glow ever so brighter, reflecting the brilliant light upon the white paint of the village buildings around them. The entire world had been transformed into one of soft, golden twilight.

    Velvet put a hand on her hip, idly shifting her weight as she responded to the Shepherd's initial words.

    "It's fine." She replied easily. "I'm well aware of how ensnaring a book can be." She shrugged. "So much so that the reader forgets pretty much everything else around them."

    His eyes seemed to shine with excitement at the comment. "Do you read a lot, then?" He asked Velvet curiously. At his side, the water malak rolled his eyes wordlessly at his friend's bookwormish tendencies.

    "No." Velvet easily admitted, waving a hand in the air. "But my little brother always drove me up the wall with his reading." Her lips were lightly curved with nostalgia. "That kid always insisted on squinting his eyes out, no matter what I told him."

    The Shepherd nodded his head sagely. "I absolutely understand." He held his tome out in front of him almost reverently. "It's just so cool how you can fit so much knowledge and insight into such a small package! There's no way I would ever let myself stop reading them. They're just too interesting not to read!" He exclaimed.

    Velvet rolled her eyes at the Shepherd's manic expression. "Something gives me the idea that that you also forget to feed yourself whenever you start a new book." She remarked dryly.

    The water seraph chuckled. "She's sure got you pegged, Sorey." He commented.

    Heat was crawling up the Shepherd's neck. "W-well," he stammered, shooting his seraph friend a glare before returning his gaze to Velvet, "…yeah, I guess I do that now and then." He grinned sheepishly.

    "Now and then?" The seraph scoffed dryly in response. "I have to slap the damn thing outta your hands before you starve yourself most times."

    The Shepherd rolled his eyes wordlessly in response before blinking curiously at Velvet.

    "If you don't mind me asking, is your brother nearby?" He asked.

    Velvet shook her head. "No." She answered, her eyes distant. "He's back home, right now."

    "I take it that's not here?" The Shepherd asked softly.

    "It's not." She confirmed, meeting his eyes. "It's far, far away from here."

    The Shepherd's eyes had taken on an empathetic shade. "That must be hard on you."

    Velvet nodded absently in response.

    The babbling of the river behind them continued in the background. The shutting of doors and the vague indistinct conversation and laughter of the villagers rang out into the softly lit air.

    "…Where are you headed?" She asked abruptly, letting her right hand drop from her hip and perching her other on the opposite side. The chains on her outfit clinked softly with the movement. "You're obviously not from around here, either."

    He nodded. "We're headed to Marlind." He explained.

    "And after that?"

    He gave a shrug. "We're not really sure. I suppose we'll figure it out once we get there."

    Velvet absently noticed that the water seraph's eyes had narrowed, now studying her with acute suspicion at her inquiry. She ignored him.

    After a moment's consideration, the daemon offered her open right hand to the Shepherd.

    "My name's Velvet Davidson." She lied. "I'm looking for my cousin."

    "Can I come with you?"

    Surprised looks flitted on the faces of both Shepherd and seraph at the sudden request. The water seraph's expression soon morphed into one of guarded wariness, while the Shepherd's eyes widened in curiosity.

    "Your cousin?" He parroted. "Do you have any idea where he is?"

    "None." Velvet shook her head. "The two of us were travelling together and ended up being separated." She elaborated honestly. "All I know is that he's not here."

    "So that's why you want to travel with us, huh?" The Shepherd summarized, putting a thoughtful finger up to his chin.

    "Sorey!" The water seraph urgently placed a hand on the man's shoulder, drawing his attention. "You can't seriously be considering letting her come with us?!"

    In an undertone voice that Velvet could easily hear with her enhanced hearing, the Shepherd replied, "People shouldn't travel alone. It's just not safe. And it seems we're both headed in the same direction. Why not? We might be able to help her out with her cousin along the way!"

    "As admirable as that is," the seraph conceded, "don't you think we have enough on our hands as it is? Besides! She's a non-resonant human that we know absolutely nothing about!" He shoved a hand towards Velvet's form to emphasize his point. "How do we know she's not just going to make off with our stuff in our sleep? You shouldn't just assume these things about people, Sorey!"

    "I'm not that much of a dolt of a Shepherd!" He shot back. "And if she does try anything bad, we'll just deal with it."

    The seraph facepalmed. "Your optimism terrifies me sometimes."

    Shaking his head, the seraph took in Velvet with renewed attention to detail. His boots squelched in the mud as he made his way over to the unsuspecting human. "She's travelling alone, like you said." He pointed out. "From what I understand about you humans, only suspicious individuals do things like that in order to avoid the attention of others."

    "She did say she was originally travelling with her cousin." The Shepherd pointed out under his breath.

    Completing his circuit around Velvet's unmoving form, the seraph shook his head. "And how do you know she's not lying to you?" He took urgent steps towards his friend, his back to Velvet. "Sorey, listen to me. You can't trust her just because of what she said." He waved a hand towards the woman. "Not to mention the fact that she'll probably only slow us down."

    Velvet had heard enough.

    SHING!

    With a high metallic musical note, the woman's gauntlet blade burst out from its sheath at precisely the same time she raised her right arm, leading to the end result of her razor-sharp sword lightly poking the back of the water seraph's neck.

    "You shouldn't just assume these things about people, you know." Velvet drawled dryly, enjoying the shock and surprise that colored the protective seraph's expression as he gaped at her, frozen solid by the kiss of cold metal on his flesh.

    "Mikleo!"

    Velvet's attention was drawn to the Shepherd's form as he took a few steps forward, his hand on his sword.

    With a flick of her wrist, her sword promptly collapsed harmlessly back into its sheath. She crossed her now unoccupied arms and raised an eyebrow at the two agitated travelers. "If I had wanted to steal from someone," she pointed out dryly, "I'm pretty sure the Shepherd and his seraph would be on the bottom of my list, don't you think?"

    "You can see seraphim?!" The Shepherd's eyes were wide in surprise.

    Gathering himself, the seraph twisted around and conjured up his staff in battle-ready stance. "And you knew Sorey was the Shepherd?!"

    "I was born resonant." Velvet lied with a shrug. She turned to the seraph. "And I was there during the Sacred Blade Festival when he pulled the sword out from the pedestal, so I know who he is."

    "That's… that's incredible!"

    Despite Velvet's actions, the Shepherd seemed utterly fascinated by the notion. "Mikleo!" He cried, turning to the seraph at his side. "A human who also can see seraphim!"

    "Sorey…!" The seraph growled lowly, still gripping his staff guardedly. "Is now the time?!"

    "I thought I was the only one!" The Shepherd exclaimed, trotting up to Velvet to his seraph's dismay. "So, you can see hellions as well?"

    Velvet nodded. "I grew up in a small town on the Hyland outskirts." She lied. "Some seraphim who lived there as well told me about my gift, and about how the world really works."

    "…Some stray seraphim out there in the world, it sounds like." Despite himself, the water seraph had untensed and had been drawn in to the conversation, similarly intrigued by the idea of another resonant human.

    He gave Velvet a guarded look. "Are they also travelling with you?"

    She shook her head. "No." Her eyes were distant. "It's been a long time since I last saw them." She mumbled.

    The streets had long since emptied out, leaving only the three of them there at the crossroads. In the distance, the last vestiges of sunlight peeked out over the distant mountains, quickly fading.

    "Well! That does it!" The Shepherd declared with a grin, plonking a fist in an open palm decisively. "You have to come with us!"

    The seraph at his side let out a drawn-out sigh. "Why did I just know you'd say that?" He grumbled resentfully.

    The Shepherd gave him a cheeky grin. "It'll be fine, Mikleo! Besides! You're just as curious as I am about what it's like for a human living with resonance!" He accused.

    The seraph just gave a roll of his eyes in response, inadvertently confirming his friend's point.

    With a bright smile, the Shepherd extended a hand to Velvet, officially. "Nice to meet you, Velvet! You're welcome to join us. I'm Sorey."

    "I know." Velvet responded easily, lifting her hand once more and grasping the Shepherd's extended hand. "I'll try to not slow you down." She drawled as she shook it.

    Heat crawling up the back of his neck, the water seraph retorted, "T-That was before I knew you were resonant, alright?!" He pointed out defensively, crossing his arms.

    With a chuckle, Sorey gestured to his friend. "This is Mikleo." He introduced. "He can be a little overcautious sometimes."

    "Because somebody has to be when it comes to you." Mikleo grumbled resentfully.

    Shaking her head in amusement, Velvet took a step forward and presented her hand to Mikleo as well. "Sorry about the sword, I just had to make a point." She apologized dryly.

    Mikleo's eye twitched.

    With a shake of his head, he uncrossed his arms and grasped the human's hand firmly. "You're lucky Lailah wasn't around to hear that joke." He muttered.

    "That's right." Sorey piped up as the two let go of each other's hands. "Do you think they're done shopping by now?"

    "Knowing how girls can be? Probably not." Mikleo retorted. He abruptly froze, glancing furtively over his shoulder.

    Rolling her eyes, Velvet waved a hand in the air. "Relax. I'm not going to behead you for that comment." She pointed out dryly.

    "Ahaha." Sorey chuckled while scratching his cheek. "Better get used to having another girl in the group, Mikleo."

    "I suppose I'll have to." Mikleo shrugged helplessly.

    "So," Velvet spoke up, "are you letting me stay with your group, then?"

    "Yup!" Sorey grinningly confirmed. "As long as it's not a problem for you. I promise."

    "…I appreciate it." She returned with a smile.

    At her side, Mikleo sighed in resignation. "I suppose me saying anything at this point is just a waste of breath." He blinked, turning to Velvet. "By the way, what's your cousin's name?"

    She put a hand on her hip. "Leonex Davidson. Leo for short."

    "Alright, we'll keep an ear out for his name wherever we go." Sorey promised. His boots squelched in the mud as he turned his body. "We have two more in our group who should be getting back to the inn by now." He scratched his neck. "We'll have to see how the whole room situation turns out with an additional human in the works."

    "How exactly does that work?" Velvet asked curiously, falling into step alongside Sorey and Mikleo as they walked down the empty thoroughfare. "Do you just make the seraphim sleep on the floor or something?"

    Sorey laughed nervously. "Well, normally we try and figure out two separate rooms with two beds, but a lot of the time we can't afford it."

    "Seriously?" Velvet's eyebrow rose. "Aren't you the Shepherd? Can't you just tell the innkeeper that?"

    "Sorey? Using his title for his own benefit?" Mikleo let out a scoff. "Not in a million years."

    "Hey!" Sorey grumbled. "Just because I'm a Shepherd doesn't mean that those innkeepers deserve to work at a loss just for my benefit!"

    "What, saying you're going to save the world isn't enough of a benefit?" The water seraph raised an eyebrow.

    "Well." Sorey hesitated for a second. "No!"

    Mikleo rolled his eyes. "And this," he explained to Velvet, "is why we sometimes end up sleeping on the floor while the women get the beds."

    "Ah." Velvet remarked. "How noble of you two." She shook her head, looking over the two of them thoughtfully. "…You know," She muttered, "you're not exactly what I expected from a Shepherd."

    "Well, what did you expect?" Mikleo grinned. "Some sort of actually competent, actually heroic person?"

    "Hey!" Sorey yelped indignantly.

    Velvet shrugged. "…I suppose." She mumbled.

    Their boots squelching through the mud filled the falling silence as they travelled through the quickly darkening town. All around them, the world was falling asleep. Crickets chirped from their various nests throughout the town. Dogs barked in the distance, calling out to one another. Crows flapped through the darkening sky.

    Velvet took the opportunity to consider her current situation. A daemon, travelling alongside a human and a seraph. Not so novel, given her history in this world. She glanced at Sorey's embroidered cloak. What was novel was the fact that neither of them knew her true nature.

    And she was determined to keep it that way.

    Suddenly, she noticed someone watching her from out of the corner of her eye. She glanced over and found a familiar face peeking out from behind the entrance to an alleyway, watching her with horrified eyes.

    The pigtailed girl she'd attacked this morning trembled in her shoes, watching the face of the monster walking plain as day in the middle of her village.

    Glancing at her left and making sure that the Shepherd and seraph were looking in the opposite directions, Velvet turned her head and made direct eye contact with the girl. Her eyes narrowed threateningly as she violently squeezed her bandaged hand.

    Thoroughly cowed, the girl let out a gasp of terror and turned to run away, but then slipped in the mud in her haste. Her involuntary squeak drew the attention of both Sorey and Mikleo.

    Sorey was the first to react, running over to the mouth of the alleyway and helping the trembling girl up onto her feet. "Hey there." He greeted gently, steadying the girl in his hands. "What's wrong?" He asked worriedly.

    The girl glanced over in terror as Velvet made her way over as well. Mikleo walked by her side, unseen by the non-resonant child.

    Velvet's eyes were gentle. "It's dark out. You should hurry on home." She suggested warmly.

    The girl could only nod, wordlessly, her bottom lip trembling.

    Exchanging a worried glance with Mikleo and Velvet, Sorey turned back to the child and gave her one last pat. "Take it easy, alright?" He urged.

    "I-I will, s-sir."

    With one last fearful glance in Velvet's direction, she took off as fast as she could, pelting off into the darkness of the alleyway.

    "Huh." Sorey mumbled as he stood up. "That was strange."

    "Maybe she was terrified by your extremely underwhelming appearance?" Mikleo suggested wryly.

    "…That'd be even stranger." Sorey scratched his head in befuddlement.

    Velvet rolled her eyes. "Come on, you two." She urged. "It's getting dark."

    "…Right."

    Forgetting about the child's odd behavior, Sorey resumed his walk through the twilight, Mikleo and Velvet at his heels.

    In the distance, the sun finally set, leaving the empty crossroads by the river in complete darkness. Together, the Shepherd, his Sub Lord, and the disguised former Lord of Calamity travelled together side-by-side, through the shadows.

    And so, the first day came to a close.
     
  3. Threadmarks: C02 - Duality
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 2 – Duality.

    Dense fog drifted soundlessly in between the shadowed cliffs of the canyon, suffocating the air and obscuring the rest of the world from sight. Diffused light from the morning sun glowed gently through the miasma, basking the floor of the shallow gorge in a vague milky-white backlight. Sporadic patches of brittle needle bushes laid motionless in the windless air accompanied by dead, leafless trees standing silently in the windless air. The harsh figures of the naked trees created dark, vague silhouettes that loomed out ominously from beyond the silent white void.

    "…Ah!" A feminine gasp of surprise rang out, echoing up and down the canyon.

    A messily bandaged hand clamped onto Alisha's flailing dominant right arm as she toppled forwards, arresting her uncontrollable momentum.

    Velvet held on firmly to the princess's arm whom had accidentally caught her left armored boot on a stray root invading the path's uneven surface. "Easy." She muttered beratingly, pulling her hand back and giving Alisha the leverage needed to recover. "Your arm just healed. Try not to break it the very next morning after."

    "R-right." Alisha's face was tinged a slight shade of red as she nodded. "I'll be more careful. Thank you, Velvet." Her armor clanked softly in the quiet misty air as she detached herself gratefully from the other woman.

    "You alright, Alisha?"

    Worry was clear on Sorey's expression as he trotted back down the path towards them, having quit leading the group upon her initial gasp. "Do we need to take a break?" He asked earnestly.

    Saving the young princess from further embarrassment, Velvet answered for her.

    "We're fine." She reassured lightly, resting a hand on her hip. "The two of us just happened to be chatting about girl things before Alisha accidentally tripped." She explained conversationally. She blinked, a thought apparently occurring to her. "Did you want to join us, Sorey?"

    It was amazing how quickly Sorey's face reddened. "O-oh!" He stammered. "Is that right!" He let out a grunt, having accidentally backpedaled into Mikleo to the seraph's displeasure. "S-sorry, Mikleo!"

    He turned back to Velvet's inquisitive face and waved both hands in front of him as if to ward an evil spirit away. "I'm fine, Velvet! You two can chat all you want." His eyes immediately seized onto Mikleo's befuddled face as a way out. "U-uh, Mikleo and I have something to discuss! Sorry!"

    Mikleo blinked. "We do?"

    "Yep!" Not unlike a lion pouncing on his prey, Sorey slung his arm around the helpless seraph and dragged him away, utterly deaf to Mikleo's complaints. "We'll be going on ahead!" He called back to Velvet and Alisha as he resumed the group's pace down the road with Mikleo in tow.

    Velvet shrugged disaffectedly in response. "Suit yourself."

    Alisha's laugh was soft and smothered as she giggled into her palm, watching the Shepherd and his seraph bumble off down the foggy road. "I appreciate the save, Velvet." She thanked gratefully once the men were out of earshot. "And I must say, that was remarkably well handled."

    "Yes! My sentiments exactly." The two women turned to find a clearly amused Lailah trotting up to them, a bright smile on her face. "Who would've known that all it would've taken to instill terror in the heart of the Shepherd would've been the mere thought of a woman's body?" She hummed, a single finger held thoughtfully to her chin.

    Velvet huffed in amusement as the three of them resumed walking together. "Guys like him are laughably easy to scare off." She pointed out. "Mention just about anything about 'girl things' and you'd think you had the plague with the way they take off." Her lips had curved upwards in an unbidden smile.

    "Ah, yes." Lailah agreed with a soft smile. "The eternally innocent boyish type. I'm quite familiar with those."

    Alisha had a grinningly thoughtful expression on her face as she inspected Velvet's expression. "From the sound of things, you've had a lot of experience in this field." She deduced slyly. "Am I wrong?"

    "My!" Lailah clapped her hands in surprise. "Romance stories already, so early in the day?"

    Velvet's eye twitched.

    "Hm…" Alisha hummed thoughtfully, putting an armored gauntlet up to her chin. "Now that you mention it, we should probably refrain from discussing this topic until after nightfall." She supposed. "Love stories are best told by a campfire, so I'm led to believe."

    "I agree completely." The fire seraph nodded wholeheartedly. "That is very wise wisdom to have, Alisha." She turned to the other woman and cocked her head to the side inquisitively. "Given that, would you please mind holding onto your stories until then, Velvet?"

    Velvet rolled her eyes at the other two women. "Let's… not jump to any conclusions." She muttered, waving a hand in the air dismissively. "All I meant was that I knew…" she shook her head and corrected herself, "…know a few people as innocent as Sorey. My cousin among them. That's all."

    "Oh… I see." Albeit disappointed, Lailah nodded her head understandably. "From the sound of things, you and your cousin are very close… I hope you and he reunite in the near future."

    "Yeah." Velvet agreed softly. "That would be nice."

    Gravel crunching underfoot filled the silence as the three of them continued to walk onwards. The sound of Alisha's armor and of the chains on Velvet's outfit clinking simultaneously combined to resemble a pair of wind chimes vibrating in the windless air. As they walked, Velvet found her gaze drifting towards the fire seraph, a contemplative frown forming on her face.

    Quite familiar… huh?

    "…Lailah." She abruptly prompted, drawing the seraph's attention. "Exactly how long have you been around, again?"

    Alisha winced.

    "Oh my!" As if a switch had been flicked, Lailah's eyes suddenly sparkled with mania as she leapt forwards on her feet, clapping her hands together for emphasis. "Look!" She gasped. "The fog! It's flawless! Just look at how it wraps ever so gently around that tree over there!" She pointed excitedly. "Nature can truly be a such a beautiful thing sometimes, don't you agree?!" She implored, spinning around gracefully back to face the other two women.

    Velvet face was locked in a dry deadpan. She turned slowly to Alisha. "Is she…?"

    "Yes…" Alisha confirmed with a deep nod. "Lailah has some things that she's not willing to share with the rest of us. This," she gestured in the general vicinity of the seraph's overtly enthusiastic form, "is how she copes with that limitation."

    "We should probably keep going before we lose our guiding Shepherd in the fog." Lailah suggested, turning on her heel and strolling onwards.

    "…Shall we continue?" She asked the empty air in front of her, her back facing the other two.

    "Yes, let us." Alisha agreed, easily letting the fire seraph keep whatever secrets she was holding.

    Velvet's brow furrowed as she studied Lailah's back as she too resumed walking, silently contemplating the fire seraph's unusual qualities.

    In the distance, the voices of Sorey and Mikleo could be heard clearly through the fog as they discussed the veritable climate of the region and how it could've affected the surrounding terrain in such a way. Somewhere in the outside sky, the morning sun continued to rise, its warmth trying valiantly to breach the thick shield of the fog.

    Eventually, Alisha slowed her steps and allowed Velvet to catch up to her side. She turned to her, a worried expression on her face. "Are you feeling alright, Velvet?" She asked quietly, breaking the silence.

    The woman in question blinked in surprise at the question. "I'm fine." She stated as an afterthought. "Why do you ask?"

    "Well, it's just that…" Alisha threaded her hands guiltily, glancing down at her moving feet as she walked. "Last night, you insisted on sleeping on the floor instead of taking one of our beds. I was… worried that you might be tired from poor rest."

    Velvet shook her head. "If that had bothered me, I would've paid for my own room. You don't have to feel guilty about something so small as that."

    Alisha blinked, closely examining Velvet's expression for any hint of falsity. Amazingly, she found none.

    "I… take it you're used to such conditions?" She asked hesitantly.

    "I suppose you could say that." The black-coated woman shrugged in response. "I've been doing this for a long time."

    "I see…" Alisha trailed off, deep in thought.

    A sudden burst of cawing drew the entire group to a halt, drawing eyes towards the sky. A murder of crows materialized in the fog, gliding in synchronized movements as if they were of a single collective consciousness. Together, the group of cackling birds circled lowly around the group, before ultimately deeming them alive and not dead food to scavenge, leaving just as quickly as they'd arrived.

    Silence fell once more in the canyon.

    In the quiet, Alisha mumbled soft, contemplative words. "…I must admit, you remind me a lot of my master." Her gaze was distant and thoughtful. "In more ways than one."

    Velvet blinked. "Your master?"

    She nodded, turning and meeting Velvet's eyes. "Lady Maltran, back in Ladylake." She elaborated. "She trained me ever since I was little to become a knight worthy of the kingdom. Everything I am today… it's all because of her." She shook her head in amazement. "Lady Maltran has been to so many places and seen so many things. She's surmounted obstacles so unimaginably overwhelming that they would be positively inconceivable to the average person."

    "And…" Alisha fixed her gaze earnestly on Velvet. "Everything I see in my master, I see in you too. Your hardiness, your well-travelled temperament; even the way you hold yourself; honestly, the resemblance is uncanny."

    She held a fist up to her chest in determination. "…I genuinely aspire to become as competent as both of you, someday." She confided.

    "Maltran… huh?" Velvet mumbled, committing the name to memory. "Well…" She shook her head. "I can't say anything about your master. But what I can tell you is…"

    She abruptly turned on her heel and began walking once more through the rough pathway, her long raven hair trailing behind her.

    "I'm not a person to look up to." She muttered as she left. "That's all."

    Alisha was left standing there, her hand on her chest, staring at the receding form of the enigmatic traveler in confusion. All around the lone princess, the fog seemed to churn.

    ----

    "Sorey… a… are you sure?"

    "It might look and smell a little funny, but you'll never know unless you try! Come on, Mikleo. Let's eat together."

    A drawn-out sigh. "Why do I get a bad feeling about this…?"

    The shuffling of boots crunching on well-worn gravel transitioned into the rustling of clothing as two people sat down on the ground.

    The hollow scraping noise of a wooden spoon leaving a wooden bowl rang out. "Alright, here goes!"

    "Yeah…" Another wooden spoon was raised from a different bowl in tandem with the first.

    Together, the sound of noisy slurping rang out into the fresh mountainside air.

    A pause.

    "…AAAAGGGGHHHHHHH!"

    "…HAAAAAAAGHHH!"

    Velvet's eyes snapped open; her light nap having been abruptly snatched from her by the piercing screams of two youthful idiots. She pushed off the lone tree she'd been sleeping against and got to her feet, tensing her muscles and glancing around wildly.

    The group had stopped for lunch on a shadowed section of flat land relative to the surrounding rough, downward-rolling hills angled towards the vast valley far below. The fog that had confounded them earlier in the day had dissipated the moment they had begun the descent down into the valley, allowing the bright midday sun to beam down onto the hills covered by bright green grass and sparse patches of foliage. The campsite they had found a little way off the main road had been wreathed in one such patch of foliage, allowing the group a comfortable place to rest and prepare some food to eat.

    The food in question had been the source of the commotion. Velvet did a double-take.

    "H-HAAAH! A-Ack! It-it burns! Agh!"

    Tears were rolling down Sorey's face as he rolled on the floor, getting dirt on his well-worn Shepherd's cape as he did so.

    Mikleo wasn't faring much better. "I-it really, really does-! Gah!"

    The water seraph was hunched over on the ground and actively casting a low power twin-flow arte to rinse his mouth in a vain attempt to remove whatever horrid taste he'd tasted.

    Velvet crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow, slowly turning to Alisha and Lailah for an explanation. Both ladies were sitting next to each other in front of the pot hanging over the simmering campfire, watching the two men suffer with wide eyes. Velvet jerked a thumb towards the suffering duo. "The hell happened here?"

    Alisha had a hand over her mouth in a mix of amusement and horror. "I… I don't think Lailah's cooking sat well with them..."

    Velvet stared. "…Seriously?" She glanced once more over to the two boys rolling around helplessly in the dirt and kicking their feet up in the air. "Lailah did this?" She asked incredulously.

    The fire seraph in question had all her fingers pressed up on her forehead in pure disbelief. "I only added a few extra of those peppers I found next to the creek to the soup! I… I had no idea that they would be that strong!" She seemed on the edge of tears as she watched Sorey and Mikleo suffering across the campfire from her. "All I wanted to do was to add a tiny bit more flavor! I was just… afraid the soup would be too bland…!"

    "M-Mikleo!" Sorey panted, crawling over to his friend, his words slurred and barely intelligible. "Waturh! Waturh!" He pleaded helplessly.

    "G-gimme a sec!" The seraph's eyes were squeezed tight in agony as he cradled his head. "It's h-hard to cast like this!"

    "Haaah! Hawht! It's too-Hehk!" Sorey gagged once more, hunching over in agony.

    Lailah's hands fell to cover her face entirely in mortification. "Oh, it's all my fault!" She moaned. "How could I have failed so badly? Oh, Sorey, Mikleo, I'm terribly sorry!"

    Her apologies were abruptly halted by a finger poking her shoulder. She blinked, her hands falling from her face as she registered someone sitting down next to her. "Velvet?"

    Without a word, the other woman reached over and picked up a full bowl of piping-hot soup from besides the campfire.

    Alisha let out a small gasp of horror, covering her mouth in shock. "Wait you aren't really going to-?!"

    On the other side, Mikleo had recovered enough to dimly register what was going on. He scrambled to his knees urgently. "What are you, crazy?!" He yelled. "That's poison!"

    Sorey's head shot up at this. "Velvet!" He cried, crawling forwards. "Th-the soup's too strong! Don't-!"

    To their joint horror, the woman calmly brought a full spoon to her lips and tilted her head backwards, sliding the red-hot liquid inside. Her eyes were closed as she seemed to taste the flavor while her arm fell down, gently settling the empty spoon back inside the full bowl. Her eyes opened to find a wide-eyed Lailah staring at her.

    With a light huff, a completely unaffected Velvet set the bowl back onto the ground next to the campfire.

    "…You need to remove the pepper seeds."

    Mikleo and Sorey exchanged looks of pure astonishment. Alisha blinked in surprise. Lailah was frozen in surprise.

    "It might be a good idea to use less peppers in general as well. Also," nonchalantly, Velvet pointed to the simmering pot of stew hanging over the campfire, "from the look of the texture, you went way too heavy on all of the seasonings." She observed. "You have to remember, that when it comes to cooking, moderation is key. Keep that in mind at all times."

    Velvet gave the fire seraph a light smile. "…But as far as a first try goes, it's honestly not the worst I've ever tried." She nodded firmly. "If you keep it up, I'm sure you'll get better. Don't stop trying to improve your cooking, and you'll be a master in no time." She finished encouragingly.

    Lailah's jaw hung wide open as she stared uncomprehendingly at Velvet. After a moment, the fire seraph finally registered all of the woman's words and intentions.

    A wide, bright smile appeared on her face as brought her hands together in a decisive clap, reestablishing her determination. "Oh, Velvet!" She cried brightly, tilting her head along with her hands. "Nobody's ever said such things about my cooking before! I can't tell you enough how much that means to me!"

    She grasped Velvet's bandaged hand with both hands. "Thank you, thank you!" She sang as she shook the appendage up and down.

    "H-hey!" Velvet grumbled. "Knock it off!"

    Alisha chuckled into her palm as Lailah eventually released Velvet's arm. "Apparently, the latest member of our group is also a culinary expert." She remarked warmly with a fond smile. "You are really full of surprises, Velvet."

    "No kidding." Mikleo muttered lowly, jerking his legs and forcing himself into a sitting position in front of the campfire, giving the contents of the simmering pot a sour glare. His eyes went to Velvet's imploringly. "And just how did you manage to eat that without batting an eye?"

    "Yeah, that was crazy!" Sorey seemed in awe of Velvet's apparent immunity to poisons. "It was so unbearably strong for me that I'm still a little dizzy, even now. But you didn't even flinch!"

    Velvet shrugged easily. "My cousin's cooking is worse. Let's just leave it at that."

    "…Worse?!" Alisha shuddered instinctively, putting a hand up to her chest. "Worse that what just happened to Sorey and Mikleo?!"

    Lailah had stars in her eyes. "So I really am not the worst cook in the world!" She gasped.

    "…You find the silver lining in everything, don't you, Lailah?" Mikleo muttered sourly.

    "Yeah… That would make sense..." Sorey addressed Velvet's explanation. "Having a cousin be that bad of a cook must've acclimatized your sense of taste, in a manner of speaking. That's quite impressive."

    Lailah hummed, turning to Velvet. "Between you and your cousin, I take it you're the better cook."

    Velvet pointed out dryly, "That's not really a high standard to meet."

    "Can we have you cook next time, then?" Mikleo muttered, turning his head and spitting some residual taste out of his mouth.

    Laughing, Sorey wrapped an encouraging arm around the water seraph's shoulder. "While I would like to try some of Velvet's cooking," he gave a nod in the woman's direction, "I also do want to give Lailah's another chance, sometime!"

    He grinned brightly. "I'm also sure you'll get better, Lailah! Just like what Velvet said." He squeezed Mikleo closer to his side. "And I promise, the two of us be here every step of the way to let you know how it tastes!"

    "Hey! Leave me out of this!" His seraph friend grouched, wrenching Sorey's arm off of him and retaliating with a jab to his friend's stomach. The two of them instantly devolved into a childish jabbing match as the women watched on in exasperation.

    Alisha leant back on her bent legs and rested her weight on her palms behind her, shaking her head at Sorey and Mikleo's antics. "Oh!" She blinked, glancing over at Velvet. "About your cousin," she prompted conversationally, "do you mind if I inquire as to the story between you and him? It sounds like there's quite the tale there."

    "A wonderful idea, Alisha!" Lailah agreed, settling herself back in her seat while expertly managing her flowing dress underneath her. "Now that we've finally had a break from travelling, I think now is the perfect time to officially introduce ourselves to each other."

    "That sounds great!" Sorey eagerly settled down as well, crossing his legs and resting his gloved and ungloved hands on opposite knees. "How about it, Velvet?"

    "I suppose." With a shrug, the woman obliged, also getting comfortable on the ground with her right arm resting on her right knee. "There's really not much to tell for myself."

    "Somehow, I doubt that." Mikleo remarked wryly, settling himself down cross-legged on the dirt.

    "Yes." Alisha agreed. "You seem like quite the character, Velvet."

    "Well, if you say so." Velvet shrugged and idly tilted her head upwards, letting her long hair slide on the rough gravel behind her as she gazed up into the clear blue sky. Her eyes grew contemplative.

    "…I come from an obscure, small town in the outskirts of Lakehaven Heights." She began. "There, in that peaceful town, I grew up with my brother, alone." With her daemon-enhanced vision, she watched a lone hawk flying through the skies high above.

    "Was he resonant as well?" Sorey's voice was soft and curious.

    She watched as the hawk disappeared behind an errant white cloud. "Yes. We both were."

    She turned her head down to meet the faces of the people she was lying to. "Like I said, there were seraphim living in that town as well as us. They helped guide the two of us into living with our resonance and allowed us to mesh seamlessly with other normal humans."

    "I can't even begin to imagine such a life." Alisha admitted softly, threading her gauntleted fingers together. "The past few weeks ever since I became Sorey's squire have been positively mind-boggling, at times bordering on overwhelming." She shook her head. "To think that there was so much in this world that I had not seen for so long! Seraphim, hellions, blessings, domains, malevolence; all of it. To live with such knowledge from birth…!"

    Velvet shrugged. "We managed."

    "And your cousin?" Lailah prompted.

    "Leo…" Velvet's lips were curved in a soft, nostalgic smile. "Leo and I ran into each other completely by accident, one day out of the blue." She recounted. "I hadn't even known I had had a cousin up until we discovered that we were related later on."

    "A long lost relative, then?" Mikleo blinked. "Was he resonant as well?"

    Velvet nodded. "When we met, he had a seraph travelling the world with him. A little wolf pup called Hawk. That's how I knew, instantly, that he was different."

    "Hawk…" Sorey's brow was furrowed. "A stray wolf seraph? Voluntarily travelling with a human?"

    "Strange, but not unheard of." Lailah remarked softly with a nod. "I'm sure the fact that Velvet's cousin could see him played a large role in allowing a human and seraph to bond together."

    "Seeing one other does indeed mean a lot." Alisha agreed quietly. "I myself can attest to that fact directly."

    "…Yeah." Sorey nodded seriously. "It must be difficult to believe in something you can't see."

    "Such is the problem of coexistence between humans and seraphim." Lailah agreed lowly.

    Sorey's brow furrowed deeper.

    Meanwhile, Mikleo's mind was racing as he considered all of Velvet's story. "A brother, a sister, and a cousin… all of whom were resonant from birth." He murmured under his breath. "That… would suggest that resonance is an intrinsic human trait passed on through blood."

    His eyes met Velvet's. "What about your parents?" He asked. "You said you and your brother lived alone?"

    "My parents died when I was very young." Velvet shrugged. "I'm afraid can't tell you anything about them."

    "Then why did you and your cousin begin travelling, while you brother stayed at home?" Alisha asked.

    Velvet shook her head. "That's… a bit of a long story." She muttered, effectively declining to elaborate.

    "…A tale for another time, then." Lailah assured, smartly recognizing Velvet's hesitance and putting an end to the conversation. She bowed her shoulders forwards gratefully. "I thank you for sharing your story with us, Velvet."

    "Yeah." Sorey nodded deeply. "Who knows? This information might be key in figuring out how resonance really works in humans, down the line."

    "About that," Mikleo spoke up, "wouldn't it be fair for you to say something about yourself, too? All she really knows is that you're the Shepherd, and nothing else."

    "O-oh. Right." Sorey grinned abashedly, rubbing the back of his neck. "Sorry! I get a little carried away with my thoughts sometimes."

    With a plonk of his fist on his palm, Sorey turned to Velvet, officially introducing himself. "Mikleo and I grew up in Elysia; a place where seraphim dwell high up in Lakehaven Heights. We only recently came down to explore the world of humans for the first time." His eyes seemed to shine as he held a fist up in the air; proof of his dedication. "And we have a dream for our travels. That is to explore ancient ruins all over the world!"

    Velvet cocked her head to the side. "Ruins?" She asked. "What for?"

    Alisha smiled. "One could call them Sorey's calling card of sorts. Him and Mikleo's."

    Lailah reflexively covered her wry smile with a fan of casting cards. "It is quite a sight whenever the two of them stumble upon an ancient temple. Given the chance, they could talk sunrise to sunset about an edifice without stopping for breath!"

    "Haha, I guess I can't deny it." Sorey grinned sheepishly and turned earnestly to Velvet, answering her question, "I believe that the secrets contained in the ruins from ages past hold the key to a bright future." His eyes were bright. "That's why I explore them. To help bring about that future."

    "A future… where humans and seraphim might one day live in harmony together!" He declared, a determined grin on his face. "That… is my goal!"

    Velvet carefully studied the Shepherd's face. To her surprise, she found nothing but true dedication in those eyes.

    Humans and seraphim… huh? She pursued her lips in thought.

    "And that's," Mikleo pointed out dryly, "why he decided to take up the mantle of Shepherd."

    "For with the title came the power of purification, allowing the Shepherd to purify hellions." Lailah finished, nodding slowly. "That is what happened during the Sacred Blade Festival, when Sorey offered himself up as my vessel."

    "Now," Mikleo explained, "our group is travelling the world in order to broaden our views and to better prepare ourselves for the Shepherd's true purpose."

    His true purpose. She knew instantly what he was referring to.

    Sorey nodded seriously, meeting Velvet's eyes. "And that is quelling the Lord of Calamity himself. The source of the world's malevolence."

    Velvet didn't blink, nodding slowly and neutrally at the declaration.

    "…And as the Shepherd's squire," Alisha put a fist on her chest, "my duties are to support Sorey's efforts to quell the hellions across the land."

    "Marlind would be one such stop along the way. Alisha's been sent there by the council of Hyland." Mikleo explained. "Like we said, we're not so sure where we're going after that."

    "But we'll figure it out!" Sorey promised brightly. "This is our world to explore, after all."

    With a dry chuckle, the water seraph nudged the man. "As long as you don't get too carried away. Like you always do."

    "Come on! I do not!" Sorey denied indignantly.

    "But of course!" Lailah agreed brightly, smiling and tilting her head to the side. "As they say, one foot forward followed by another, with our eyes not far behind!"

    "I'm… not so sure that's how the saying goes, Lailah." Sorey pointed out grinningly, scratching his cheek with his index finger.

    "Huh?" Lailah blinked rapidly in surprise. "Wait, really?"

    As the conversation began to drift away naturally, Velvet stayed quiet, studiously yet discreetly studying each and every member fo the group, considering all the information she'd just uncovered.

    SNAP!

    Velvet abruptly stilled as she registered the snapping of a twig in the distance.

    She glanced to the side. The others were still chatting along merrily over the simmering campfire, ignorant to the chorus of sounds of things approaching up from all directions that only Velvet could hear. Subtly, she moved her head and spied a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye.

    Having confirmed the presence of an impending attack, the woman returned her head to forward position, mentally registering the locations of as many attackers as she could with her auditory senses alone.

    And then she waited.

    "Whatever you say!" Sorey was waving his hand dismissively in the air as he stood up.

    Mikleo was adamant as he too shot to his feet. "I'm telling you!" He grumbled as he bent down and collected the wooden bowls lying around. "I'm not scared of dogs!"

    "What's this about?" Alisha asked curiously as she trotted over, the now-empty pot of stew held in her hands.

    "Oh," Sorey turned to her with a bright grin on his face. "Mikleo saw a dog in the village yesterday and just about bolted halfway down the street thinking it was chasing him."

    "Hey! That's totally not what happened!" The seraph denied hotly.

    Alisha hummed, touching a finger to her chin. "This was while Lailah and I were shopping, correct?"

    "Yeah." Sorey nodded, kneeling down and kicking dirt onto the residual embers of the campfire. "As it turns out, the dog had run away from its master for some reason. I barely managed to catch it's leash as it ran by me!"

    Behind him, Mikleo grumbled sourly, "You should've just let it scamper off."

    "Hey, don't be like that, Mikleo." Sorey nudged him playfully. "Just because you're afraid of dogs doesn't mean you have to be mean to them."

    "I'm not afraid of dogs!"

    "Oh my!" Still sitting down on the ground, Lailah blinked in surprise at Mikleo's yell. "That was quite the outburst!"

    "Well." Alisha chuckled into her palm. "It would seem that we've found Mikleo's weakness."

    "I guess so." Sorey laughed in agreement. "Funnily, he never had any problem with the goats in Elysia."

    Mikleo's expression was sour. "That's because they were used to us Seraphim. Down here, all the dogs just think that we're evil monsters."

    "Then why does Lailah not have any trouble with dogs?" Alisha asked curiously.

    "Well that's because… because…!" Mikleo struggled to find a way to save himself. He couldn't.

    Accepting defeat, he simply turned his nose up into the air and looked away indignantly. "…T-that's because Lailah isn't afraid of them, alright?!" He admitted heatedly. "That's why!"

    Sorey and Alisha burst into simultaneous giggles at the seraph's red-hot face. "…Looks like we got him." Alisha observed wryly.

    "Haha! I'll say-WOAH!"

    "SOREY!"

    CRASH!

    One moment, Sorey and Alisha were laughing at Mikleo's expense, the atmosphere light and playful. The next, Sorey was down on the ground with his sword barely out of its scabbard, furiously wrestling the huge serpent hellion that had pounced on him. Blood splattered on the ground as the hellion's long fangs bypassed the Shepherd's thin sword and raked shallow gouges across his clothing.

    In that same instant, the hellions that had been lying in wait around the perimeter of the campsite had charged in, overwhelming the group.

    Alisha clumsily dropped the empty cooking pot in her hands, causing it to fall down in a freefall as she dodged a different pouncing snake hellion. Trying to run to Sorey's aid, Mikleo was intercepted by a group of snake hellions forming a tight predatory circle around him. Lailah barely managed to get to her feet and hop out of the way of another group of hellions swarming her position.

    The falling pot hit the ground with a clank.

    BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!

    The world devolved into chaos as the Shepherd's group fought back against the horde of hellions with everything they had. Flashes of azure and ruby rivalled the sun in brilliance as artes materialized and flew every which way. Earth-shattering explosions resounded out through the ground as mana impacted everywhere, casting shards of gravel high up into the sky. Cold hard steel whistled through the air as weapons flew out of sheaths, swung in wide, deterring strikes. Yells and grunts rang out into the noon air; proof of the group's stout and unwavering emotional strength as they rallied against the attack.

    "Alisha!" Mikleo yelled urgently, swiftly clubbing his staff against the back of a serpent's head and knocking it unconscious. He swore as another serpent quickly took the last one's place, blocking his path forward. "Sorey needs help!"

    "I'm on it!" The princess's expression was carved and determined as she leapt backwards, dodging a snake's venomous fangs. Her armored boots slid in the gravel before finally finding hard purchase. Her legs tensed.

    With a fierce cry, the princess of Hyland leapt up and into the air, soaring clean over the offending snake, her spear acting the part of the angel's judgement. The squealing of the snake was an afterthought to Alisha as she landed and pivoted on her left foot, twisting her spear and forcing the impaled, writhing body of the snake hellion to fly to the side and away from her. Quickly as she could, she broke out into a sprint and raced away from her pursuers, running to her liege's side.

    Suddenly, massive claws burst out from out of the nearby foliage, seeking to rend her flesh in half. She cried out in alarm, barely managing to dive out of the way of the massive attack, tumbling over herself in the gravel. She grunted, quickly finding her feet under her as she hefted her spear, taking in the massive form of the leader of the hellions as it slid fully into the campsite.

    A shiver of terror ran down her spine.

    Meanwhile, Sorey's blood-soaked grip was perilously slick as he wrestled with the heavy snake wrapping around his torso. Its thick green scales were near impossible to find purchase on with his hands, leaving him the only option of holding his sword horizontally to block the serpent's mouth from reaching his neck. The serpent's snarls filled his ears as he struggled as hard as he could for his life.

    With a grunt, Sorey abruptly twisted his torso around and forced both his and the snake's body to roll over.

    Capitalizing on the snake's disorientation at the sudden move, Sorey let go of the blade of his sword with his left hand and pulled his arm back as far as he could allow. With a cry, he slammed his fist on the soft underside of the snake's jaw, feeling a satisfying crack of bone in response. The serpent squealed in agony, its entire body untensing instinctively.

    Knowing that this was his last chance, Sorey tossed his sword up and into the air, catching it firmly with a fisted grip. Urging the powers vested within him to flow through his sword, he let out a cry and sunk the blade into the snake's underbelly.

    Blue flames erupted outwards, engulfing the writhing hellion. Now freed, Sorey quickly forgot about the purified hellion and got to his feet, panting and heaving as he finally recognized the wild chaos taking place all around him.

    "Sorey!"

    He turned his head towards the source of his name just in time to instinctively raise his left hand and catch the wrapped gel that sailed his way.

    Velvet gave him a firm nod in respect, her unbloodied gauntlet blade held at the ready. "Nice job." She said concisely, gesturing at the hellion that the Shepherd had fought off single-handedly.

    "Thanks!" Sorey returned, quickly breaking the packaging of the gel and roughly slathering the medicine all over his wounds. He glanced over at the woman, whom was keeping her distance away from the rest of the hellions and deterring approaching ones with kicks and slashes. "Be careful!" He warned urgently, moving forward with his drawn sword at the ready. He stood in front of Velvet and slashed forward, blue flames billowing out from his sword. "Leave the hellions to us. Just stay safe!" He urged over his shoulder.

    Velvet nodded wordlessly in response.

    She watched as Sorey charged forward, headed to aid the rest of the group. Her gauntlet blade was held limply at her side with no intention of usage. Her eyes were as keen as a hawk's as she studied the Shepherd's movements.

    He was resilient. That was good. Yet…

    She watched as Sorey slashed down once more, only to meet no resistance as the hellion he was attacking slithered backwards agilely in a dodge. He grunted in surprise, barely managing to guard against the hellion's counterattack with his sword.

    The Shepherd's sword skills were abysmal.

    Velvet shook her head softly in disapproval. She had thought that his skills were novice and inexperienced when she had tested him back in the meadow by Lake Perniya as well. This would not do.

    She would need a much stronger tool to accomplish the task she had in mind.

    "Everyone! I am in need of aid!"

    Alisha's cry of help drew Velvet's attention. She looked over and found the princess in a dire battle against a massive hellion. Almost twice as high as normal human, the monstrous mutated snake-woman hellion screeched as she lunged forward, her deformed clawed hands out for blood.

    "Alisha!" Sorey yelled, getting in-between the two combatants and slashing forwards with his flame-engulfed sword. Steel and claws met in a blinding flash of sparks. The Shepherd was cast backwards from the force, crashing into Alisha. The two of them went down in a tangled bunch, rolling backwards in the gravel away from the huge hellion.

    "Damn!" Mikleo swore, finishing an arte and causing a bolt of water to pierce the hellion hounding him. "Sorey! Alisha!" He yelled.

    Shaking his head to clear his head, Sorey managed to untangle himself from Alisha, only to find that his sword had fallen from his grip in the tumble and was lying between him and his opponent. His opponent which was quickly closing in on the two of them, out for blood.

    He opened his mouth to armatize.

    "Outta my way!"

    Sorey gaped as a blur of black leapt in front of him, raven hair flowing gracefully behind her as she attacked. Velvet yelled fiercely as she lashed out with her sword, driving the snake-lady backwards in a dodge. Not letting up, she twisted around and kicked outward, her iron boot shining in the noon sun.

    SHINK!

    The hellion shrieked in agony as a hidden blade burst out from within the woman's steel boot, drawing a rough gouge across its exposed abdomen. Velvet quickly drew her foot back close to her and leapt backwards, dodging the hellion's retaliatory tail strike. "Mikleo!" She barked urgently. "Now!"

    "R-Right!" Mikleo nodded sharply, finally finding some distance between the remaining hellions and raising his staff towards the massive adversary. "Here goes!" Mana whirled around him in a violent influx, jerking his clothing and hair around as the spell finalized.

    "TWIN FLOW!"

    Two spears of water burst outward from the tip of his staff and blasted across the campsite, directly over the extinguished campfire to spear the hellion through the chest. Its cries resounded outwards as it fell into a crumpled heap onto the ground.

    "Alright!" Mikleo yelled. "Sorey! Now! Purify…! Huh?!" He faltered, having registered the fact that Velvet had not stopped attacking after his arte.

    "Got you!" Velvet snarled decisively, sprinting forward through the gravel towards the fallen hellion. She raised a sword high in the sky.

    SQUELCH.

    Her gauntlet blade sliced cleanly and deeply down across the hellion's body; through both flesh and scales. Blood splattered on the ground, having been extracted from the victim's skin with the blade.

    Naturally, easily, Velvet's body pivoted around with the slice. She raised her sword once more to deal the final blow, letting out a fierce battle cry.

    CLANG!

    She grunted in surprise, registering Sorey's boyish face staring right back at her. The metal of his ceremonial sword squealed as it was pressed up against her cold steel gauntlet blade.

    "What are you doing?!" Sorey implored, his teeth gritted under the weight of her strength.

    Blinking, Velvet raised her sword arm to the relief of the Shepherd. "…What?" She asked incredulously, letting her bare blade hang loosely by her side.

    "The hell do you mean, 'what'?!"

    Velvet looked over her shoulder and was surprised to find the rest of the group standing behind her, having taken care of the rest of the other hellions. Mikleo had been the one to speak. The water seraph was now staring at her incredulously with a guarded grip on his staff. Alisha had a hand on her mouth in horror. Lailah's expression was uncharacteristically serious as she studied Velvet in a new light.

    Velvet turned back to Sorey and watched as the Shepherd raised his sword in the air, flames clinging to its metal, and waved it over the form of the bleeding hellion. With a flash of blue, the hellion reverted into the form of a human woman, lying there in a pool of her own blood.

    Sorey's sword returned to its sheath with a deafeningly loud ring in the silence. His back was to Velvet as he stared at the form of the hurt woman at his feet.

    The bright, cheery afternoon day suddenly seemed at odds with the seriousness in the air.

    "…Heal her, would you, Lailah?" He mumbled lowly.

    Behind Velvet, Lailah nodded. "Yes, of course." She walked slowly past Velvet and kneeled down to the human. "…She should be just fine after some treatment." She mumbled to Sorey, beginning to channel mana.

    "That's good." Sorey's words were soft.

    A dry breeze suddenly blew, rustling the foliage surrounding the clearing and playing with the clothing of the group. The dull hum of Lailah's healing artes filled the silence.

    Slowly, Sorey turned around, his boots crunching on the gravel. He met Velvet's eyes directly with uncharacteristically hard eyes. "…You were going to kill her." It was a statement. Not a question.

    Velvet blinked. "…Yeah." She nodded. "Is that… a problem?"

    "You're damned right it's a problem!"

    She turned, meeting Mikleo's furious eyes as he stomped over. "You were just going to go ahead and kill someone in cold blood!" He accused.

    "She was a hellion, wasn't she?" Velvet pointed out in confusion.

    "A hellion who was originally a human!" Mikleo yelled.

    Sorey took a serious step forward, meeting Velvet's eyes. "Velvet." He uttered lowly. "We don't kill."

    His hand rose to the side, pointing at the path ahead. His eyes were firm.

    "And if you do, then you have no place with us."

    A stray breeze blew through the land, rustling the leaves overhead and the brush nearby, punctuating his ultimatum. His meaning was clear.

    Velvet stared. Is he for real?

    Slowly, she got over her astonishment and recognized the fact that this naïve boy in front of her was dead serious. With an internal sigh, she realized that the only way for her to stay with the group would be to comply.

    Gathering her wits, she nodded, slowly.

    "…Alright." She muttered.

    "I suppose… it's different for all of you, since you have the power of purification." With a loud click, she sheathed her gauntlet blade and put a hand on her hip. "I'll leave the hellions to you all, then."

    And with that matter having been dealt with, she turned on her heel and weaved between Lailah and Alisha, walking off out of the campsite and towards the field. "I'll be back in a few minutes." She muttered under her breath, heading off to cool her head.

    She could feel the eyes of the group digging into her back as she left.

    A dry breeze began to blow through the fields, disturbing the lands far and wide.

    ----

    Crickets chirped, filling the night with a gentle chorus of ambient song. Up above, the waning moon hung quietly in the starry sky. Sorey's boots crunched in the grass as he trotted outwards through the night, idly fingering the pommel of his ceremonial sword sheathed at his side as he walked. Behind him, the vague glow of the group's distant campsite shined in the middle of the field; the only source of illumination in a sea of moonlit darkness.

    He let out a sigh, finding a small boulder amidst the hip-tall grass and settling down on it with a pensive expression. He rested a foot high up on the slanted boulder and propped his elbow on his knee, his eyes distant.

    Velvet Davidson…

    A murderer.

    His brow furrowed as he tried to reconciliate the vicious, violent fighter he'd seen with the hardened yet well-meaning traveler he'd been travelling with for the past day.

    It was too difficult a task for him to achieve.

    Just how could a person like her, who would be so kind to Lailah by encouraging her cooking, be so horrific as to attempt to commit the worst sin imaginable? Just how did one reconciliate the helpful traveler with the sinful survivalist he had witnessed?

    "…I suppose…" He mumbled to himself into the night sky. "…That killing was the only way she could survive against the hellions."

    He nodded to himself, almost hurriedly. "…Yeah. That sounds right." He felt almost relieved at the realization. That killing was a habit borne out of necessity, not out of malice.

    Yet… did that justify the act?

    Sorey sighed. He didn't have the answers. He didn't have anything, yet. With an idle tilt of his head, he stared up at the moon contemplatively, considering the newest addition to his group. He blinked, realizing that the moon wasn't there anymore.

    It had been blocked out by a rapidly approaching cloaked figure, falling directly towards him.

    With a yelp of surprise, Sorey barely managed to leap backwards off the boulder before the figure slammed onto it with a crash, deafening his ears. Scrambling for a foothold, Sorey wrenched his sword out of its sheath and held it shakily out in front of him, his wide eyes fixed on the cloaked form kneeling motionless on the boulder surrounded by a cloud of disturbed dirt.

    Slowly, its head moved up to face him. Two horribly familiar red eyes glared out at him from behind the nightmarish mask. A massive blood-red claw clutched the boulder beneath it, pulsating disgustingly in the moonlight.

    "Y-you again!" Sorey gasped, his whole body tensing instinctively in the presence of the powerful hellion. He glanced around, cursing his foolishness for wandering so far away from the rest of the group. His gaze returned to the motionless hellion, watching him from its perch on the boulder.

    The memories came back to Sorey in an instant. That horrific night. The pain and horror that had engulfed him. He stood no chance against it. He knew this. He thought back to Mikleo's words. Of how his friend had been convinced that no hellion could possibly be anything but monsters.

    Yet…

    With a curse, Sorey belatedly realized that the hellion was charging.

    CLANG!

    The blood red claw met his hastily raised sword. His sword stood no chance.

    "GAH!"

    With an involuntary cry, Sorey tumbled through the grass, having been cast bodily away into the distance. Grunting in agony, the Shepherd pushed his bruised and battered body back up and onto his feet, grasping his sword in his hand.

    To his surprise, the hellion hadn't moved from where it had attacked him, instead simply watching him from a distance.

    A soft nighttime breeze blew through the field, rustling the grass all around them. The crickets continued to chirp in the background, filling the tense air with song.

    "Wh…" Sorey let out a hoarse cough and shook his head, starting over. "What do you want from me?!" He yelled out into the field.

    The hellion's response was to raise its claw and charge once more. Cursing, Sorey raised his sword once more.

    CLANG!

    "AGH!"

    And once more, Sorey was cast bodily into the distance by the hellion's raw strength, tumbling over himself in the grass. With a grunt, the Shepherd found his feet under him and got up once more, his sword at the ready. And once more, he found the hellion simply watching him, at the same place where they'd traded blows.

    Ever so slowly, the blood-red claw rose once more, in a slow, obvious indicator of an impending charge.

    "What…?" Sorey breathed, tensing his body in preparation for the attack.

    And then the hellion charged, in the same manner as the past two attacks. This time, Sorey tried something different.

    Instead of blocking against the hellion's incredible strength, the Shepherd lunged to the side, dodging the hellion's charge entirely and rolling in the grass. Sorey's hair stuck up on the back of his neck mid-dive as he felt the malevolence rolling off the hellion's swiping claw wash over him.

    Grunting, Sorey recovered, stumbling to his feet and turning around, his sword at the ready against his adversary, now within a few meters of his position.

    He blinked, finding the hellion just standing there, its claw held limply at its side. The two blood-red eyes seemed to burrow into his.

    The two stood there; one gasping for breath, filled with confusion, the other stoic and silent in the darkness.

    Frustrated, Sorey smartly flipped his sword around shoved it resolutely into its sheath. He crossed his arm and faced off belligerently against the hellion toying with him. "Enough of this!" He yelled, standing firm. "Tell me what you want!"

    The two eyes narrowing was Sorey's only warning before it lunged.

    His cries of agony and pain filled the night as the hellion let loose upon him, clawing him relentlessly every time he got to his feet.

    But Sorey continued to get up every time he fell.

    "You…" He let out a cough, spitting out blood, struggling to his feet and glaring at the hellion. "You won't kill me." He stated with upmost conviction.

    "GAH!" He groaned as he was slammed down onto the ground, the massive pulsating claw pinning his entire body against the grassy ground.

    Sorey stared up defiantly at the hellion holding him still, clearly calling its bluff. He ignored the utterly horrifying sensation of the pulsating serrated flesh against his skin and clothing and instead capitalized upon his frustration. "I… I won't do anything until you tell me what you want!" He spat. "So, tell me! It can't be that hard!"

    The blood-red eyes were narrowed in apparent frustration.

    And then just like that, the hellion released him and leapt off into the night, leaving him lying winded and bruised on the grass.

    Grunting, Sorey got to his feet and shouted out into the night. "You just made my point!" He yelled.

    With a huff, the Shepherd bent down and picked his fallen sword, carefully wiping the dirt of it as he did so. He didn't bother looking around for the hellion nearby. He knew now that he would see it again.

    It was following him. And him in particular.

    If only he knew why!

    With a sigh, Sorey turned on his heel and began quietly walking back towards the group's distant campsite, absently slathering some gels on his bruises as he did so, frustration in his eyes.

    ----

    In the far distance, Velvet Crowe wrenched the mask off her face in frustration. She glared over her shoulder at the distant field where she'd traded blows with the Shepherd. The naïve idiot had a long way to go. A very long way to go until he would be strong enough to take on hellions like her.

    To take on a hellion like the Lord of Calamity Himself.

    With a sigh, forcing herself to calm down, Velvet stuffed the mask and her cloak into her travel pack once more. She would have to get back to the campsite before Sorey returned; to maintain her false persona.

    With one last disdainful shake of her head, the daemon tensed her legs and leapt inhumanly high into the starry sky under the cover of darkness.

    The field was returned once more to the silence, filled only by the soft chirping of crickets and the soft rustling of grass swaying in the night breeze.
     
    thegodofsky, sainen, Xinoz and 2 others like this.
  4. Threadmarks: C03 - Threat
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 3 – Threat.

    Sturdily bound logs creaked loudly underneath the repetitive steps of travelers crossing the bridge. The wooden groaning meshed amicably with the chuckling of the shallow creek glistening in the midday heat. Rusted chains maintaining the structural integrity of the weathered trade bridge clinked and clanked; disturbed by both the soft breeze and the weight of the travelers.

    Velvet travelled alone in front of the group, her steel boots digging harshly into the wood surface of the bridge. The Shepherd's group trailed behind her, keeping up with her pace yet still maintaining a conspicuous distance between themselves and the stranger ahead of them.

    It had been like this ever since the battle yesterday.

    The therion let out a sigh under her breath as she walked, idly listening in on the conversations happening behind her back with her enhanced hearing.

    "…not a hellion." Sorey was muttering to Mikleo, his voice low and argumentative.

    At his side, the water seraph responded under his breath, "And neither were those Scattered Bones assassins. Neither were those greaseballs in the council who tried to get you under their thumbs. I don't think it's right to say that any given human who's not a hellion is necessarily a good person."

    The sound of clothing shifting filled the brief pause in his words. Velvet didn't need to turn around to know that the seraph was gesturing at her.

    "You saw how she reacted to my question yesterday! How aloof and callous she was! I don't care if she expels malevolence or not, Sorey, there's no denying it. She's a murderer. Killing is of second nature to her!" He hissed.

    "That… does seem to be the only reasonable explanation." Sorey's admission was reluctant.

    "As much as I hate to admit it," Alisha added seriously, "I must agree with Mikleo on this." She let out a sigh. "Objectively speaking, at the end of the day, we must remember the dangers of the world we travel." Her armor clanked as she held a hand up to her chest. "…It may be that Velvet simply isn't the sort of person we want to have travelling with us."

    "What about your master, Alisha?" Sorey asked curiously. "You said she fought in wars before, right? Wouldn't that make her a murder as well?"

    "W-well…" Alisha began.

    "Most would agree that there is a difference between a soldier and a criminal, Sorey." Lailah interjected softly. "But not everyone agrees with such sentiment. There is no single standard to uphold amongst humanity. You, and only you yourself, must decide what you believe is right and wrong. That, in of itself, is part of your duty."

    "…My duty as the Shepherd, huh?" Sorey mumbled.

    "Well, here's your first hurdle, I suppose." Mikleo mumbled. "Ultimately, it's up to you what you decide what to do with Velvet. You are the Shepherd, after all."

    Sorey let out a grunt in response, clearly deep in thought.

    Silence fell once more, leaving the group travelling in silence. At the front of the group, Velvet kept on walking at a steady pace, regardless of her companions behind her. A light breeze blew across the fields surrounding them, rustling the sparse foliage and trees dotting the region. High above, the midday sun continued to shine, heedless of what occurred in the land below.

    Suddenly, Alisha cried out, "Enemies! Behind us!"

    Immediately, the group whipped around, weapons flying out of sheaths as they faced hellions charging up the path from behind.

    "Damn!" Mikleo cursed, raising his club. "An ambush!"

    "We must adapt to the situation!" Lailah urged, drawing her casting cards artfully through the air. "Fighters, to the front!" She called.

    "On it!" Sorey and Alisha both yelled, running forward with weapons drawn against their adversaries; a pack of three skunk accompanied by a single hawk hellion.

    Abruptly remembering something, Sorey glanced over his shoulder, finding the fifth member of the group running in to help. "Velvet!" He called, sprinting forward with his sword high in the air. "Stay back!"

    Velvet's eyes narrowed at the command, her boots skidding in the dirt as she came to a sudden halt outside of the area of battle. Her lips twisted into a scowl.

    "Take this!" Sorey demanded, slashing his sword down upon a skunk hellion and driving it away from the seraphim casters.

    "Hah!" Alisha yelled, dashing forward and performing a short, defensive stab against a charging sunk.

    Mikleo's arte completed with a flash and hum of mana. "Watch out, guys! Above!" His hand shot up into the air, palm facing towards the diving hawk hellion.

    With a blinding flash, a burst of high-pressure water materialized from his palm and shot up into the sky, slamming right onto the center mass of the hawk and knocking it clean out of the sky to fall into an uncontrolled tumble onto the ground. With a yell, Sorey leapt back away from the skunk hellion and slashed the fallen hawk with a blazing blue sword, purifying it.

    At the same time, Lailah's arte completed. "Sorey! Alisha! Here goes!" She cried.

    "Go for it!" "We're clear!"

    With a yell, her long hair billowing behind her, Lailah let her casting cards loose upon the world.

    BANG!

    A formidable explosion of flame and magma erupted from the ground directly in the middle of the group of three skunk hellions, sending their burnt and bruised bodies tumbling back every which way. A burnt, acidic smell hung in the air as the arte dissipated. Sorey and Alisha regrouped by the seraphim, their weapons held defensively at the ready.

    And from out of the smoke charged a single enraged skunk hellion, foaming from the mouth. Various burn wounds patterned its malevolence-soaked hide, glistening in an angry red hue.

    "It's gone berserk!" Mikleo warned urgently. "It won't stop until it's physically unable to attack. Careful!"

    "Lailah!" Sorey shouted over his shoulder. The fire seraph nodded sharply in response.

    "Fethmus Mioma!"

    A brilliant flash of red-hued light shot outwards from Sorey's body, imitating the sun high above as the Shepherd armatized with the Prime Lord. From out of the bright furnace charged an angel, wreathed in white and red.

    "Let's do it Lailah!" Sorey yelled, hefting the massive great sword in his hands.

    "This one's weak against fire! Don't hold back!" Came the armatized seraph's response.

    "You got it!" Sorey agreed, charging once more towards the enraged hellion.

    Sorey and Lailah let out a joint yell as they swung the great sword towards the charging hellion. A brilliant trail of blazing hot fire billowed out in the wake of the sword's swing. In response, the enraged skunk hellion leapt up and forwards, boldly meeting the blade's edge with its fangs and claws.

    BANG!

    A detonation exploded between the Shepherd and his adversary, sending both sliding backwards in the dirt away from each other, deflected by each other's attacks.

    "Is it down?!" Mikleo asked urgently, taking a step forward alongside Sorey's armatized form.

    "I don't know!" Sorey responded, his glowing yellow eyes raking through the smoky and hazy air, searching for the form of the hellion. "Stay alert." He warned. "It could come from anywhere."

    The group glanced around the trail and the surrounding trees, watching for the infernal beast to show itself and subject itself to its judgement. The smell of burnt flesh hung in the air, irritating their noses. Silence fell upon the tense group, deceivingly tranquil in its essence.

    SHING!

    Sorey froze at the sound of a gauntlet blade erupting from its sheath behind him. He whirled around, bringing his sword around to bear. At his side, Mikleo and Alisha had similar horrified reactions, whipping their bodies around to face the source of the sound.

    Behind them, Velvet's blade fell in slow motion, poised to rend the berserk hellion charging them in half. Sorey brought up a hand helplessly to stop the murder about to happen before his eyes.

    "NO!" He yelled.

    The flat side of Velvet's sword slammed against the side of the skunk, sending it stumbling off to the side, off-balanced.

    Without pause, the traveler stomped her left boot down into the ground beneath her and used it as leverage to pivot around, swinging her entire body in a single, powerful revolution. As she completed her spin, her other boot crashed into the flank of the stunned hellion with a loud crunch, sending it tumbling off to the side of the road. Its squeals of agony filled the air as it writhed around in the dirt, finally feeling the pain of its combined wounds.

    Velvet's sword sank back into its sheath with a loud click in the aftermath of the battle. She let out a frustrated sigh.

    "I'm done with this." She snarled, turning to face the group fully with fire in her eyes.

    She ignored the guarded tensing of their bodies and the tightening of grips on weapons as she advanced towards them with impatient steps. "If you all have a problem, then tell it to me right here, right now." She demanded hotly, stopping short in front of them with crossed arms and an index finger repeatedly tapping her left bicep. "If you don't then it's a waste of your time and a waste of mine."

    Her narrowed eyes jumped between the eyes of each group member; between Mikleo, Alisha, and Sorey's armatized eyes.

    "I kill." She admitted, waving a careless hand in the air. "That much is obvious." Her eyes burrowed into Sorey's. "My question is, why the hell do you all care so much about that?" She demanded.

    "W-why?!" Mikleo was aghast at the very question. "Why the hell would we not?!" He yelled back. "People shouldn't kill! It's just not right!" He shot back.

    "Oh, grow up." She scoffed back.

    "W-what did you say?!" Mikleo challenged lividly.

    Velvet's hard eyes turned to Sorey. "Just what exactly did you expect of a person living in such a world with resonance?" She asked in disbelief. "In a world where hellions are attracted to those who can see them? In a world where monsters that nobody else can see will happily kill and consume the resonant in the blink of an eye?"

    The low whimpering of the fallen hellion at her side filled the pause as she caught her breath. The group exchanged wide-eyed looks in response to the woman's words.

    "…I do what I need to do." Velvet growled lowly.

    "And if I have to kill to do what I need to do, then so be it. If you thought a surviving resonant human would be any other way, you'd be plain delusional." She swiped a hand through the air decisively.

    "And if you can't see it that way, tell me, so that I can leave now. There's all that's to it." She demanded.

    Silence fell following her ultimatum. She studied the faces of the group. Mikleo looked both furious and disturbed by her words. Alisha had a deeply contemplative expression as she stared at her. And Sorey…

    The armatized Shepherd shook his head slowly.

    "…I don't agree." Sorey mumbled softly. "I don't accept that. I believe that there should never be a reason to kill, ever, no matter what. No matter the circumstances."

    Velvet turned on her heel immediately, starting to walk away. "Alright." She muttered. "That's your choice."

    "But…"

    Velvet's steps slowed. She glanced over her shoulder. "…But?" She prompted with a raised eyebrow.

    Sorey's eyes were filled with mixed emotions as he met her eyes. "But… I'm willing to accept the presence of people who think differently to me." He stated softly.

    With a flash of bright light, Sorey dispelled the armatization, returning his eyes to his normal hue and reinstating him of his Shepherd garb. With slow, determined steps, he made his way up to Velvet.

    He let out a small smile. "…After all, there is no single standard to uphold amongst humanity. All we can do is do what each of us feel is right, in our own hearts." He finished softly, genuinely, while holding out a hand in front of him.

    Velvet stared.

    Slowly, ever so slowly, the therion turned around fully, keenly examining Sorey's eyes and searching for any hint of duplicity. She found none.

    After a pause, her human right hand lifted to meet his hand in a mutual handshake.

    Velvet let out a soft huff under her breath as they shook hands. "…Color me impressed." She muttered quietly. "I thought you were just a naïve idiot who wouldn't accept anybody different to him."

    Mikleo let out a scoff as he trotted up to them. "Then you haven't been paying enough attention." He pointed out, giving Velvet a hard look. "In case you've forgotten, I'm a seraph who's lived with him his entire life."

    "Ahaha." Sorey scratched the back of his neck shyly. "Right, yeah. There's that, I suppose."

    "Yes." Alisha agreed, stepping up as well. "Sorey does have the tendency to surprise with his inclusiveness. I know I myself was astonished that such a person could honestly be so kind and open when I first met him."

    She shook her head and gave Velvet a slow bow. "In any case, I believe I owe you an apology, Velvet." She met her eyes. "I admit that I had not fully considered the possible rationale behind your actions and the history that had led you to become what you are today. I apologize for judging without asking for your side of the story."

    Velvet stared. "…It's fine." She muttered after a pause, waving a hand in the air. "I understand the sentiment, if anything."

    "Still," Mikleo interjected firmly, "you know what you have to do to stay with us, right?" He prompted.

    Sorey nodded. "Right." He met Velvet's gaze firmly. "That is, if you travel with us, you can't kill." His words were final. "That is the only requirement I have for you."

    Velvet remarked dryly, "And here I was hoping you'd let me kill at one hellion a day." At their collectively aghast looks, she rolled her eyes. "I'm kidding." She drawled, waving a hand in the air. "I wasn't planning on it anyways, now that I know how much you care about the hellions you fight."

    "…Right." Sorey grinned sheepishly. "I suppose it does sound a little weird, wanting to save the lives of attacking monsters trying to kill you."

    "Such is the lot of the Shepherd." Mikleo shrugged helplessly. "And Sorey's hell-bent on doing just that, regardless of how dangerous it is." He glared at the man in question. "Because he's a stupid idiot."

    "Hey!" Sorey grumbled good-naturedly.

    "If that's the case," Velvet rested her bandaged arm on her hip, "We'd better get going… after we purify these hellions."

    Alisha blinked. "Oh! That's right! Sorey!" She prompted.

    "A-ah! I forgot!" The Shepherd yelped, whirling around and glancing around for the scattered unconscious bodies of the beaten hellions that had yet to be purified. "I'm sorry!" He apologized as he jogged over to them, pulling out his sword and channeling the blue flames from within his body. Mikleo and Alisha followed quick on his heels to help provide first aid to the purified hellions.

    Velvet rolled her eyes. "…He's a strange one, that's for sure." She mumbled to herself.

    Suddenly, she blinked, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up. She turned to her right and found Lailah staring directly at her, an uncharacteristically solemn expression on her face. The fire seraph had been silent the entire exchange, standing away from the others and watching the exchange with a terse expression.

    Velvet looked away, her eyes narrowing.

    She'd been found out.

    ----

    A night breeze blew through the sparse forest, rustling the leaves above in a symphony of chatting twigs and murmuring leaves. A branch cracked loudly as it was crushed under Velvet's steel boots; the therion was making her way through the forest with a single-minded drive, her eyes easily making out her surroundings despite the lack of a moon in the sky. Quietly, the raven-haired woman trotted uphill, pushing her way through the foliage hiding underneath the trees with steady, measured steps.

    Eventually, she managed to climb her way up to the top of a tall hill overlooking the rest of the forest. A chilly breeze blew once more, causing her hair and black coat to billow behind her like a cape. In the distance, her enhanced eyesight could discern the group's campsite in the forest down below. They would be far enough away for what was about to happen and not realize anything was amiss.

    Good.

    And then, she stood there, waiting with her arms hanging at her side and with her eyes idly scanning the moonless night sky.

    It wasn't long before Lailah arrived behind her, her steps soft and cautious.

    "…All that talk of trying to find your 'cousin.'" The fire seraph's voice was deceptively soft. "Was it… all just a lie?"

    Velvet shook her head softly. "…Not all of it." She muttered into the cold night air, her eyes distant.

    Her steel boots crunching on gravel echoed deafeningly loud in the quiet as she turned around to face the seraph, a cold, impassive expression carved on her face. Her amber eyes seemed to glow in the surrounding darkness.

    "It's just not why I'm here." She stated, coldly meeting Lailah's gaze.

    SQUELCH!

    Lailah's eyes widened in horror as an untold amount of malevolence erupted from the hellion before her, bursting out in waves of pure miasma. A vortex of unnatural wind blew out from the woman's form, violently disturbing the surrounding forest for miles around. An unnatural thrum ran through the ground under the seraph's feet, causing her to stumble in shock and disbelief.

    "A domain?!" Lailah gasped, recovering her footing and snapping her head up in disbelief towards the source of all the dense malevolence.

    The former Lord of Calamity stood calmly before the seraph, her true self bared to the world. Her figure was framed by the moonless night sky while her hair and coat billowed behind her in the gusts of her own domain. At her side, held with the familiarity of something inherently part of herself, hung a sickeningly familiar pulsating claw.

    Lailah held a hand up to her mouth in horror. "It was you!" She gasped. "That night in the meadow!" Shaking her head, the seraph took an impassioned step forward. "Why?! Why did you attack us?"

    Velvet idly examined the back of her claw. The three wounds that had been inflicted by Mikleo were healing well, she was pleased to see. She glanced over at Lailah and shrugged lightly. "I had to make sure this one wasn't a tyrant." She explained.

    "You mean… Sorey?!" Lailah's eyes were wide as she registered the meaning behind her words.

    Velvet let her daemon claw lower to her side as she faced the seraph fully. She waved her human hand idly over her shoulder. "I had to ensure that the tool I was planning on using would be easy to wield, didn't I?"

    "T-tool…!" Lailah seemed lost for words. "Just what are you planning, Velvet Crowe?!" She demanded over the roaring winds.

    Velvet raised an intrigued eyebrow.

    "…Out of curiosity, what gave me away?" She asked lightly. "Took you quite a while to connect the dots."

    Lailah shook her head heatedly. "I..." Her aghast eyes seemed fixated on Velvet's claw. "Your words today… they reminded me of something... He told me once…" She mumbled under her breath.

    Velvet looked away, off into the tainted air. "…I'm assuming you mean Maotelus." She muttered. The name tasted wrong on her tongue.

    "…" Lailah's silence didn't surprise the therion.

    She let out a huff. "…Right, your oath." Velvet sighed, waving a hand in the air. "I'm still piecing together the pieces, but from what it looks like, things have really gone sidewaysaround here since I've been gone." She let out a huff of disbelief.

    "Been… gone?" Lailah mumbled.

    Velvet shook her head, declining to elaborate.

    Instead, she addressed the seraph's earlier words. "As to what I'm planning…" She shifted on her feet, easily resting her human hand on her right hip.

    "…I'm here to save Maotelus." Velvet stated simply.

    The howling of the untamed winds and the thrumming of the disturbed earth filled the shocked silence after Velvet's declaration.

    Ignoring Lailah's wide-eyed expression, Velvet let out a huff, idly extending her gauntlet blade and examining her reflection in the polished steel. "…Strange, huh? A Lord of Calamity trying to save the life of one of the Five Lords?" She muttered, a peculiar pensiveness flitting through her expression.

    "I… I don't understand." Lailah shook her head helplessly. "Why would you want to save Him?"

    The woman let out a light sigh. "Why indeed?" She muttered.

    With a click, Velvet's gauntlet blade collapsed back into its sheath as she let her arm fall back against her side. She abruptly turned to face Lailah fully with narrowed eyes. All of a sudden, that horrifying claw seemed even more intimidating.

    "That's not what you need to worry about, Lailah." Velvet mumbled, taking a measured step forwards through the gravel towards the seraph. All around her, the domain shifted, following the source of the malevolence with her every move. Her expression didn't change as she held the nervous seraph's gaze as she approached.

    She stopped directly in front of the seraph, her daemon claw slowly raising up to fill the space between them. "What you need to worry about…"

    With a violent crash, the massive fingers clenched in an explosion of malevolence. Lailah instinctively flinched away from the unnatural corruption.

    Velvet's expression as grim. "Is what will happen to Soreyif you say a word to him about me."

    Visibly forcing herself not to recoil from the hellion in front of her, Lailah gathered herself and met the monster's eyes forcibly, her spine stiffening. "…I will do whatever I want when it comes to the Shepherd's wellbeing." She declared firmly, heedless of the danger staring her back in the face.

    "Then we should have nothing to worry about." Velvet gave a humorless smile, letting her daemon claw fall back against her side and waving her other hand in the air. "After all," she reasoned, "the only way I can save Maotelus is by making sure the Shepherd becomes strong enough to do so for me."

    Her eyes narrowed. "But don't worry. If the Shepherd turns out to be a waste of time for me, well." She shrugged callously. "I'm a daemon. I can just devour him and wait for the next one to appear in the next few centuries and try again. It's no problem for me." She assured.

    "You…" Lailah shook her head shakily.

    "…You're just like He said you were like." She muttered.

    Raising an eyebrow, Velvet shifted on her feet. "I'm sure He was right." She agreed, a strange expression on her face. Her eyes shifted to Lailah's. "…Then you know how much I'm willing to go when it comes to getting what I want." She prompted.

    "…I do." Lailah's jaw was set.

    "We're on the same page, then." Velvet seemed satisfied. Her eyes narrowed. "In that case, I have a question for you."

    "…What?"

    The therion's expression had gone dead serious. "Is the Armatus safe?" She asked lowly.

    Lailah blinked. "The… Armatus? It's been safe for almost a millennium now. Why…?" She mumbled in confusion.

    "Good." Velvet nodded sharply. With precise movements, the therion pivoted on her left foot and began to walk past Lailah.

    "…And one more thing." She added, halting in her tracks behind the seraph. "Sorey may disappear from time to time during the night. You're to keep the group from finding out about these times, understood?" She ordered into the air.

    "Disappearing?" Lailah turned around to face the therion in surprise. "What will you be doing to him?!" She implored.

    Velvet gave her a look. "My tools need to be honed if I'm ever to use them." She said in means of explanation. "And right now, Sorey's pretty damn miserable of a tool. Just keep the others from finding out, would you?" She smirked. "You'll do fine. You're pretty good at keeping secrets from them already, aren't you?"

    Lailah didn't have anything to say to that.

    "I've already tried to train him once a few nights ago, but he's proving annoyingly resistant to putting up any sort of fight." Velvet grumbled as an aside. She raised an eyebrow at Lailah. "I take it he hasn't mentioned anything to any of you about the incident?"

    "N-no." Lailah admitted, horrified to be hearing all of this for the first time. "He hasn't said anything out of the ordinary."

    Velvet let out a huff, shaking his head. "He really is a moron." She muttered under his breath. "He's way too sure of himself sometimes."

    As the therion began to walk off down the hill, Lailah remembered herself. "Wait!" She called. "Just how are you doing this?!"

    Velvet stopped and turned back to her inquisitively. "Doing what?"

    Lailah's arm shot outwards to gesture around them. "Your domain! Just how have you been hiding it to the point where none of the seraphim can feel it?!" She yelled over the howling winds.

    In response, Velvet simply closed her eyes and concentrated.

    To the fire seraph's astonishment, the domain began to dissipate as quickly as it had appeared. The winds began to die down, while the floating particles of malevolence began to naturally break down in the air.

    "I… Impossible…!" Lailah breathed.

    Opening her eyes, the now undetectable hellion put a hand on her hip. "Not really." She waved a hand in the air. "I was pretty much forced to develop the technique over the years…"

    "…Considering how my domain increases the resonance of nearby humans."

    Lailah's eyes were wide.

    "Call it a figment of a forgotten god." Velvet elaborated vaguely. "A god that once upon a time caused the whole world to see seraphim and hellions alike." Her eyes were distant.

    "And now…" She clenched her right fist. "…I'm the only remaining proof of his existence." She mumbled.

    "…But that's beside the point." She shrugged, waving her still-pulsating daemon claw. "The point is that I can suppress my domain to the point where it's undetectable, but at a price." She met Lailah's eyes. "It's one of the reasons why I'll be disappearing to teach Sorey as well. To expel built-up malevolence in the process."

    Lailah's mind was a whirl with the implications of such an ability. "You mean to say… the malevolence… collects inside of you as you suppress it?" She asked, aghast.

    "Yeah, I guess you could say that." Velvet shrugged.

    "But then what if you hit your body's limit?! Surely even you have one?" Lailah breathed. "Then, if that were to happen, all of the malevolence-!"

    "-Would overflow and would most likely turn any nearby seraphim into dragons in moments." Velvet's words were callous, her expression unchanged. "I'd imagine that doesn't sound very appealing to you."

    Horror was in Lailah's eyes. "Y-you know this, yet you still…?" She stammered.

    Velvet's jaw was set.

    "Like I said." With a precise spin on her heel, the therion turned around and resumed her downhill walk back towards camp. "I'll do anything to get what I want."

    "That's just the sort of hellion I am."

    Just like that, the therion left, leaving Lailah alone on the lonely hilltop, surrounded by moonless sky, windless air, and silence.

    Shakily, the fire seraph fisted her left hand and brought it up to her chest, willing her racing heart to stop beating. "…Velvet Crowe." Lailah breathed under her breath.

    Her expression fell into sorrow. "…Oh, Sorey." She mumbled hopelessly. "Just what have I gotten you into…?"

    All around her, the silence continued.

    ----

    "Ahahaha!" Sorey's face was nearly red from laughter at the sight.

    "Sh-shut the hell up!" Mikleo sputtered back, clumsily fumbling around and trying not to get himself even more wet.

    He abruptly blinked, having found a bandaged hand offering him aid out of the creek.

    Velvet raised an eyebrow, humor evident in her eyes. "Is this some sort of training for water seraphim or something?" She asked dryly, gesturing with her proffered hand at Mikleo's form.

    By her side, Alisha muffled her giggle with both hands.

    The water seraph had accidentally tripped and fallen into a creek by the side of the trading road to the amusement of the entire group, travelling for yet another day down the countryside towards Marlind.

    The sun was high in the sky and a soft breeze was blowing, rustling the sparse trees dotting the land alongside the babbling creek. Insects buzzed and chirped from their nooks and crannies hidden among the waterside plants. In the distance, a flock of ducks swam idly in the waters, fishing in the clear waters. High in the sky, pure white fluffy clouds drifted alongside the bright sun, occasionally blocking the sunlight for brief periods of times.

    It was just another peaceful day of travelling.

    Face completely red in humiliation, Mikleo haughtily turned his nose up and accepted Velvet's hand with as much dignity as he could muster, pulling himself out of the creek, soaking wet from head to toe.

    "Th-thanks." He muttered under his breath.

    Sorey trotted up to the two of them with a wide grin on his face. "I didn't know you could make such high-pitched noises, Mikleo." He remarked wryly, stopping before them with his hands on his hips. "I guess you learn something new every day." He supposed thoughtfully.

    Mikleo's glare was murderous. "…Oh, I can teach you something else right now." His hand twitched.

    Velvet gave Sorey an idle glance. "I'd start running, if I were you." She advised lightly.

    Sorey blinked in confusion. "Huh?"

    He abruptly registered the casting staff in Mikleo's hands.

    The man's eyes instantly widened, his open hands coming up defensively. "O-oh! W-wait! Mikleo!" He backpedaled hastily. "Hold on a sec! We can talk this through!"

    "Oh yeah?" Mikleo growled vengefully, advancing upon the hapless Shepherd. "I don't think so." With an ominous hum, the seraph began charging a low-power arte at the tip of his staff.

    Sorey balked.

    "G-GYAAAAH!" He screamed, breaking into a full retreat.

    "STAND STILL!" Mikleo demanded, charging after his friend.

    Alisha and Velvet exchanged fond eye-rolls as the two idiots began their chase down the road, both running at full tilt.

    "…I guess we'd better chase after them." Velvet shook her head wryly.

    "Hah, I suppose so." Alisha let out a huff of amusement, resuming to walk in the direction the two men had ran off in. "It never ceases to amaze how brotherly those two are." She remarked.

    Velvet shrugged as she walked. "Those two never cease to amaze, period." She let out a breath, waving a hand in the air. "I'll never understand how Sorey came to be a Shepherd."

    Alisha hummed thoughtfully. "Perhaps…" she supposed, "It's because of how unique Sorey is that he was able to become the one to take on the mantle of the world's savior."

    "The world's savior… huh?" Velvet breathed.

    "…Well." Velvet gave Alisha a shrug. "Good luck to him, I suppose."

    The princess nodded firmly, looking forward. "I myself have upmost faith in Sorey." She affirmed. "I know from the bottom of my heart that he is exactly what this world needs right now. Someone different."

    "…Right." Velvet muttered.

    Right on cue, Sorey and Mikleo turned the corner of the trail up ahead, both utterly soaking wet from head to toe, wide grins on their faces as they tried their best to squeeze the water out of their clothing.

    Sorey raised a hand. "Come on guys!" He yelled excitedly. "We found a lake up a head! It looks like a perfect spot for lunch!"

    "…Well, 'different' is one way to put it, I suppose." Velvet smirked.

    Alisha laughed, covering her mouth.

    "Hey, what's so funny?!"

    "Nothing of note!" Alisha called back easily, grinning.

    Mikleo and Sorey exchanged looks. "Girls." Mikleo sighed, rolling his eyes.

    "Haha, yeah." Sorey responded easily.

    Velvet and Alisha eventually made their way up to Sorey and Mikleo, whom were still trying their best to dry their soaking wet hair in the hot summer sun.

    Sorey blinked. "Say, where's Lailah?"

    Velvet gestured over her shoulder with her head down the path. "She's back there." She pointed out, referring to the fire seraph trailing far behind the group in the path.

    Alisha nodded deeply, her brow furrowing. "Now that you mention it… Lailah has been awful quiet lately. I hope she's alright."

    "Really?" Sorey asked worriedly.

    Velvet shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe she didn't get enough sleep last night." She suggested.

    "…You're probably right." Sorey nodded seriously. "If that's the case, then we have to go make sure she has good food to eat for lunch then!" He turned to Mikleo. "Come on! Let's go make some snacks for her!"

    "I'll try to be as much of a help as I can." Alisha promised.

    "That would be great if you could." Mikleo nodded appreciatively. "Let's go."

    As the three of them walked off, Velvet trailed behind, her steps slow and meandering as she let distance grow between her and the others. All around her, the buzzing of insects and the chirping of birds continued, meshing with the babbling of the creek and the rustling of leaves. The bright summer day continued all around the disguised hellion, as if there was nothing wrong in the world.

    Velvet turned her head over her shoulder and made eye contact with Lailah. She clenched her bandaged hand violently.

    Visibly shaken, Lailah nodded her head deeply, reaffirming her intentions to the hellion. She would not tell the group anything. She would not tell them of the fake in their group.

    For the only way to ascertain Sorey's relative safety was to give in to the monster's demands.

    Grimly satisfied, Velvet resumed her steps and moved to catch up with the group, intending to help Mikleo with lunch before the idiot seraph burnt the damn thing again. She knew she had nothing to fear from Lailah. The fire seraph already had so many secrets that a few more would not bother her. A small, satisfied smirk grew on her face as she walked on, feeling Lailah's eyes on her back.

    Things were going to plan.

    End of Part 1 – Means to an End.
     
  5. Threadmarks: C04 - Old Faces
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 4 – Old Faces.

    Water rushed furiously down the length of the river, splashing alongside the thoroughly battered riverbank and sending spray flying high in the air, clashing with the torrential rainfall showering the surrounding grasslands. The land for miles around vibrated with the fearsome force of the raging river, resembling the growl of a monstrous beast yet unsated by the destruction it had wrought. Fierce gales howled through the soaked, humid air, mixing with the ear-pounding roar of the waters. The world was one of nature's fury.

    Velvet's hair fluttered all around her as she stood firmly at the end of the ruined Griflet Bridge with her arms crossed, her eyes narrowed against the storm. Her steel boots were rooted firmly on the drenched stones near the edge of the crumbling bridge, her position providing her a vantage point to observe her surroundings.

    Dozens of waterlogged tents had been pitched at a relatively safe distance away from the Griflet River, their thin summer canvases completely ill-suited for the gallons of rainfall pelting down incessantly upon their pitiable frames. Lanterns and torches with a modicum of shelter from the falling waters could barely be discerned at a distance, winking pathetically in the foggy air against the wind. Various trade goods had been abandoned in scattered heaps underneath thoroughly soaked tarps dotted around the camp, their owners having long since given up hope of them ever making it to their final destination.

    Figures of drenched travelers could be seen running through the muck and grime from tent to tent like ants in a drowning colony. Likewise, pairs of patrolling Hyland soldiers could be seen trudging miserably through the rain, roughly using the butts of their spears as walking sticks. An air of depression and suffering hung over the entire makeshift settlement; a settlement founded solely from the destruction of a bridge and the anguish that had followed.

    Velvet shook her head to herself, absently brushing a few drenched tendrils of hair out of her eyes. Not a single one of those humans belonged out here. None of them had a place in this harsh land.

    "…It's just no good."

    Velvet's attention was drawn by Mikleo's distant words. She turned to the side and found the water seraph, Sorey, and Lailah walking up to the bridge, deep in conversation.

    Mikleo shook his head, a hand on his chin. "You'd think ever since we got rid of the hellion that had destroyed the bridge in the first place a few weeks ago, repairs would've finished by now, but…" He trailed off.

    Lailah nodded deeply in agreement. "Regardless of the Oroboros' absence," she observed, "bad weather in the surrounding region seems to have hampered the repair efforts of the Griflet Bridge significantly." She glanced over her shoulder at the sodden encampment behind them. "…It doesn't look like the construction will finish anytime soon."

    Sorey's frown deepened. "I guess problems like these don't just solve themselves overnight…" He muttered. He blinked, abruptly registering Velvet standing on the ruins of the bridge. "Velvet!" He called through the rain.

    The woman in question put a hand on her hip and shifted on her feet as Sorey jogged over, Mikleo and Lailah following close behind.

    "I take it the news isn't good." She prompted as they neared.

    Coming to a halt at the foot of the bridge, Sorey shook his head grimly. "I'm afraid not."

    Mikleo climbed up the bridge and keenly examined the partially constructed wooden frame extruding outwards from the ruined cobblestone. Clearly, he wasn't impressed by the repair effort that had been made. He glanced at Velvet. "It looks like we might all be stuck here for the time being." He explained seriously.

    Velvet gave a slow acknowledging nod in return. She turned to Sorey. "What now?"

    "Well…" Sorey scratched the back of his head. "I'm not entirely sure." he admitted. He gestured over his shoulder. "Alisha went to go talk with the local garrisoned soldiers about the situation. We should be able to figure out more after she gets back."

    Mikleo stepped down the bridge with crossed arms. "If it's only three people, it's possible that I could use my artes to transport us across the river." He proposed. "That would probably be the absolute limit of my powers, though."

    "Is that so…" Sorey let out a sigh. "I do want to help the people of Marlind as quickly as possible…" He promised. "…But that doesn't mean I can just ignore the suffering of the people stranded here either." His worried eyes were drawn to sprawling camp of the displaced travelers, his jaw set.

    Lailah's eyes held onto Velvet's for a split second before moving to meet Sorey's.

    "…It's impossible to lend a helping hand to everyone you meet along the way, Sorey." She shook her head. "All you must do is do what you can, with the strengths that you know you have."

    Sorey let out a breath. "…You're right, Lailah." He laid a hand on the pommel of his sword as he thought. "But… that doesn't make the decision any harder than it already is." He muttered as an afterthought.

    The howling of the winds filled the pensive silence as the group stayed there in the rain, mulling over the dilemma at hand. Behind them, the raging currents continued to flow underneath the ruins of the bridge with a dull roar.

    "Pardon me, young man?"

    The group blinked, turning to find an elderly old man approaching them, using a weathered walking stick to push off mud and help aid his way uphill towards the group through the rain. The man's breathing was heavy and labored, yet his steps continued determinedly on, his eyes fixed on Sorey's.

    "Oh, sir!" Sorey instantly made his way down the hill towards the man, raising his hands in a placating manner. "Are you sure you should be out here in the rain like this?" He implored worriedly.

    The bald man shook his head genially. "Thank you for the concern, but I just had to come and ask." He caught his breath, staring keenly at Sorey. "That outfit of yours… could you possibly be… the Shepherd?" He inquired.

    Sorey blinked. "Oh! Yeah, I am." He confirmed with a nod. "I'm Sorey!" He introduced with a grin, offering the old man his open right hand.

    The man seemed caught off-guard for a second, staring at the offered hand before snapping out his surprise. Pinning his walking cane under his arm, the man used his now two free hands to grasp onto Sorey's offered hand and shook it reverently. "I am honored, Lord Sorey." He promised, bowing his head with the motion. "My name is Neif, a representative of Marlind. My humblest of thanks for quelling the rampaging water spirit."

    The Shepherd scratched the back of his neck sheepishly. "You don't have to thank me for that, sir." He grinned reassuringly. "Honest." His grin faded slightly as his eyes were drawn to the collection of tents behind Neif. "…Besides, it doesn't look like it did much good in the end."

    Neif turned and followed the Shepherd's gaze, a grim expression on his face. "Not yet, no." He agreed soberly.

    "Nevertheless," he turned back and faced the cloaked man and gave a respectful nod, "had you not quelled the spirit, we Marlind folk would've had no hope whatsoever for ever returning back home. Yet now," he gestured to the river behind Sorey, "thanks to your efforts, we have a way forward. All that is left is for us normal folk to make do with the gifts you have so graciously provided us." He intoned wisely.

    Sorey seemed lost for words at the man's tangible gratitude. "Have I really done that much…?" He mumbled.

    Velvet's steel boots sunk softly into the mud as she walked up alongside Sorey. "Do all those in the camp agree with your sentiment, Neif?" She asked curiously.

    The old man blinked in surprise, taking in the hardened woman standing beside the Shepherd.

    In answer to his unspoken question, Sorey spoke up, gesturing to the woman. "Neif, this is Velvet Davidson." He introduced. "She's been travelling with us."

    "Ah." Neif nodded deeply, giving Velvet a bow. "A companion to the Shepherd deserves no less respect that the Shepherd himself." He promised. "I am honored to have met you, miss."

    Velvet blinked, taken aback by the man's sudden respect.

    "And in answer to your question," Neif continued, straightening his back and gesturing over his shoulder at the camp, "no, not everyone shares my sentiment." His eyes were sober. "Many of the Marlinders who travelled with me don't see much farther than the unused medicine in our tents and the sickness of their families back home."

    He shook his head slowly. "That is also partly why I came out here in the rain to meet you, Lord Sorey." He admitted. "I came to warn you to not reveal your identity to those in the camp."

    Sorey's brow furrowed. "But… why not?" He asked.

    Velvet put a thoughtful finger on her chin, recognizing the man's point. "Because if they knew who you were," she conjectured, "they'd probably beg you to help them."

    "Exactly." Neif agreed softly.

    "Are you saying I shouldn't?" Sorey asked in confusion.

    "Can you, truly?" Neif asked genuinely. "Are your powers as Shepherd so great that you could truly be the answer to their prayers?"

    Sorey opened his mouth to answer.

    "Sorey."

    Subtly, Sorey turned his head to find Lailah standing alongside Velvet, her head shaking in a clear message.

    "Lailah!" Mikleo hissed, walking up urgently alongside Sorey. "With the help of my artes, Sorey, Alisha, and Velvet can make it across with a reasonable amount of medicine. Why shouldn't we help them out?" He implored.

    To his surprise, he found Velvet giving him a sharp, reprimanding look from beside the fire seraph. "Quiet." She hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

    "…I thought so." Neif had taken Sorey's silence as an answer.

    The old man shook his head slowly. "Youngsters like them are hot-headed, and thus, when faced with great adversary, they are quick to seize onto the quickest and easiest solution, even at the expense of others." He let out a sigh, looking out towards the distant opposite bank of the river with a longing expression.

    "…As much as I want to return home just as much as they do and help treat my sick wife and grandchildren," he admitted softly, "It is just as important that the others remember what it means to accomplish life's trials with their own two hands, rather than wait for someone else to come around and do it for them."

    He met the Shepherd's eyes resolutely. "That… is what I believe is best for the future of Marlind." He affirmed.

    The pattering of rain on mud and the constant thrum of the river filled the silence following Neif's declaration. Howling winds whipped around the group of travelers, rustling their clothing and chilling them to the bone.

    Mikleo's brows were furrowed in thought. "What he believes is best…?" He breathed uncomprehendingly. "How couldgetting medicine back to his town not be his number one priority…?"

    At the water seraph's side, Sorey shifted on his feet. "I… I don't entirely understand." He admitted softly. "But I promise you, I will do everything in my power to help where I can."

    Neif nodded gratefully. "And I thank you for that, dear Shepherd. Regardless of how I wish my fellow townsfolk would remember their own power, I too wish to save my sick family as quickly as possible." He gestured over his shoulder. "Yet, regardless, I still urge you not to let those in camp know of your identity. For I fear that if they did, they would no longer believe in the strength of their own hands to solve their problems."

    Understanding, Sorey nodded slowly. "…Okay." He agreed. "Then I'll do as you ask."

    "Thank you." Neif nodded, gentle smile crinkling his face. "…Do not trouble yourself with the thoughts of an old man regarding his town." He urged softly. His walking stick squelched in the mud as he readjusted his grip on it. "After all, these are things that one truly learns only through the passage of time." He promised, straightening his back.

    "Farewell, gentle Shepherd." He nodded. "I humbly urge you to always remember the hope you bring to us all." With one last bow, Neif turned away from the group and began to walk back to camp through the rain; back towards his fellow townsfolk.

    Together, the group watched the old man recede into the distance through the howling winds.

    "…Do you understand now, Sorey?" Lailah asked softly, facing the young man in the wake of Neif's departure.

    Slowly, Sorey nodded. "…Yeah." He muttered. "I think I do."

    At his side, Mikleo's brow furrowed deeper as he considered the old man's wise words, a finger held to his lips.

    "So." Velvet stepped out in front of Sorey, her arms crossed. "What will you do then, Shepherd?" She prompted.

    After a moment of contemplation, Sorey turned to the fire seraph. "Lailah." He prompted. "Would you happen know of any earth seraphim nearby who might be willing to help us?"

    "What's your plan?" Mikleo asked, crossing his arms.

    Sorey met Lailah's eyes determinedly. "I was thinking, if I can find an earth seraph, I might be able to persuade him or her to construct a foundation for the bridge across the river!" He proposed impassionedly. "That way, I'll be able to help speed things along, but no so much that the people become reliant!"

    Her mind going over the Shepherd's process, Velvet was surprised to find little to no flaws in such a plan. "…A solution to both problems." She nodded, impressed. "Not a bad idea." She remarked.

    "Indeed." Lailah agreed, turning to Sorey. "In that case, you'll be pleased to know that an earth seraph dwells not too far to the west." She informed. "Specifically, in a mountain range known as Rayfalke Spiritcrest, a few days of travel away from here."

    "Great!" Sorey fisted a hand determinedly. "Then let's go tell Alisha and get ready to head out as soon as possible!" He turned to his side. "Come on, Mikleo!" He prompted.

    "Right behind you." Mikleo agreed. "Let's go!"

    Together, Shepherd and seraph set off on a brisk job through the fields towards the garrison on the edge of the camp. Velvet and Lailah watched as they ran off, bursting with determination to help the people around them. The rain continued to fall all around them, encasing the two of them in their own isolated world.

    "…He really does want to save everyone, doesn't he?" Velvet mumbled softly under her breath.

    At her side, Lailah nodded seriously. "…Yes." She agreed softly, carefully eyeing Velvet out of the corner of her eye. "Sorey genuinely wants to help every single person he meets." She affirmed.

    Velvet let out a scoff. "…Then you were right to stop him from offering to help the townsfolk." She huffed, looking off to the side pensively. "That sort of foolish thinking can only lead to disaster."

    Lailah was silent, her eyes carefully studying the former Lord of Calamity's demeanor.

    "…I honestly cannot find a way to understand you, Velvet Crowe." She admitted, shaking her head. "For the life of me, I cannot fathom why such a being such as yourself would want to help a Shepherd such as Sorey succeed."

    Velvet let out a sigh. "Forget it." She muttered, waving an uncaring hand in the air. "All I need from you is to keep teaching the Shepherd as you are." She met the fire seraph's eyes firmly, ordering, "Do what you have to do to make him grow into someone strong enough to take a 'being' such as myself down. That's all."

    "What will you be doing while I do so, then?" Lailah returned, her eyes narrowing.

    "I told you already, didn't I?" The woman abruptly turned on her heel and began walking off into the rain, away from the fire seraph. "I'll have to do something about those idiotic notions of his, though." She observed as she left, waving her bandaged hand over her shoulder. "Can't have him getting himself killed trying to do something impossible like saving every human in the world."

    Just like that, she walked off into the storm, leaving the fire seraph alone on the top of the hill. Silently, Lailah watched as the enigmatic woman walked off into the rain, towards the direction where the Shepherd and his seraph had gone.

    Behind her, the destroyed bridge hung uselessly from its perch, slowly crumbling to dust by means of wind and water.

    ----

    "Velvet, now!"

    "Got it!"

    With a cry, Velvet leapt towards the hellion's exposed back, her gauntlet blade springing out from its sheath. Deftly, the woman landed a single foot on the crumbling mountainside gravel and twisted, drawing her sword in a smooth arc across the back of the massive ogre. The hellion's guttural roar mixing bestial anger and agony resounded throughout Spiritcrest, bouncing off the razor-sharp cliffsides that made up the dense mountain range for miles around.

    Not missing a beat, Velvet followed through with her successful slash attack and used the momentum to swing her other leg upward, simultaneously activating the hidden blade in her boot. Two deep gashes were drawn on the ogre's back, both angry shades of purple blood and gore.

    Snarling and frothing from the mouth, the towering hellion turned deceptively quickly, bringing its club around to bear with frightening speed. Velvet swore, having only the time to bring her arms up in a partial block before the club landed.

    CRACK!

    Black spots danced in Velvet's vision as she tumbled roughly away from the attack on the sharp mountain gravel, her hair and coat tumbling with her as she finally came to a stop near the edge of the cliff. With a determined shake of her head, the woman dug a firm boot underneath her and got to her feet, only to have her eyes widen as she registered the ogre was charging directly for her, its club held high in the air.

    "Azure Flurry!"

    Right at that moment, a blinding swarm of otherworldly blue energy blasted through the dry windless air and smashed into the ogre's flank, causing it to recoil in agony and jerk its club to the side in reflex.

    Velvet barely managed to dodge the falling club by lunging to the left, rolling away from the devastating explosion of dirt and gravel behind her. Deftly, she found the ground under her hands and pushed herself up, regaining her footing and turning to face their opponent once more with narrowed eyes, gasping for breath.

    "You alright?"

    She glanced briefly over her shoulder at Mikleo, whom had evidently de-armatized from Sorey and was looking her over for injuries to heal.

    "I'm fine." She shook her head, dismissing the seraph's concerns. "We've got bigger problems to worry about."

    "…No kidding." Mikleo muttered, raising his staff and closing his eyes, concentrating to bring an arte into to existence.

    Velvet took the chance to catch her breath and survey the situation.

    The group had arrived at Spiritcrest after a few days of travel and had been searching for the whereabouts of the earth seraph when they'd been attacked by a powerful hellion hell-bent on destroying the intruders in its home. And now here they were, battling a fearsome opponent on a narrow cliffside with a perilous fall on one side, leading down into a foggy abyss far, far below.

    "Hah!" Sorey yelled, charging towards the ogre from his position across the cliffside path from Velvet. Behind him, Lailah let out a cry, snapping her arm outwards as she finished her arte.

    BANG!

    The ogre stumbled, its huge feet stomping heavily in the gravel and shaking the mountainside as it recovered from the explosion that had detonated at his flank. Capitalizing upon the distraction, Sorey rushed in and slashed a grazing blow on the side of the hellion, drawing blood.

    Quickly as possible, the Shepherd ducked, dodging the retaliatory club swing that came perilously close to his head. Stumbling on his feet, Sorey retreated out of range of the ogre's swings, gasping for breath. "That was too close!" He gasped, gripping his sword with a death grip as sweat dripped off his chin.

    "Be careful, Sorey!" Lailah warned worriedly, stepping back and drawing another casting card, preparing a second arte. "Your body isn't ready for another successive armatization just yet! If you get hit by that club…!" She didn't have to finish her sentence.

    "Right!" Sorey nodded, catching his breath. "I will!"

    "Velvet!" Mikleo abruptly yelled, his clothing flapping in the artificial wind generated as a byproduct of his casting. "Now's the time!"

    Nodding, the woman charged forward in an instant, feeling the mana thrumming through the ground as the water seraph's arte completed.

    SPLASH!

    Right on cue, furious rushing waters blasted through the air and collided with the ogre hellion's body, causing it to reel backward and stumble, struggling to regain its footing in the aftermath of the attack. Velvet charged headlong up the center of the cliffside trail, her steel boots slamming rhythmically into the gravel as she neared her prey.

    Suddenly, her eyes widened.

    From out of nowhere, a figure fell down from the cliffs above and slammed into the earth between her and the ogre in a burst of dirt and gravel. Tendrils of residual wind mana dissipated from his being in the wake of a seraphic arte that had cushioned his landing. With a wry chuckle, the man got up from his knee and idly rolled his shoulders with a luxurious groan.

    "Man, oh man…" He drawled into the stale, cold mountainside air, looking up into the heavens with his back to the group. "…What a bunch of amateurs."

    With that, the man reached behind his back for a weapon protruding from inside the back of his waistband.

    A very familiar weapon.

    BANG!

    Velvet held her bandaged arm up to shield her face from the vortex of wind that followed the activation of the man's weapon. A howl of unnatural wind blasted outwards from the shirtless man's form, resounding off the surrounding cliffside and echoing with a warped, twisted report that grated on the group's ears. Leather bands attached to his bare wrists flowed with the swirling winds, fluttering wildly alongside strands of his long, silver-green hair.

    Velvet's arm lowered slowly as the identity of the person before her began to sink in. Memories long lost began once more to shine unbidden inside her mind. Fragments of a different time and a different world; one of ships roaming vast seas, of corrupted monsters wreaking havoc, and of knights wielding enslaved spirits as weapons.

    And of a certain reaper. Of the rival he had tried so hard to save.

    "…It looks like Zaveid here is gonna have to show you first timers how it's DONE!"

    Zaveid the Whirlwind's astonishingly familiar voice resounded out as the seraph charged furiously toward the hellion, an unnatural wind at his back. "HAH!" He roared, flinging his arm outward while unleashing all of the charged-up mana stored within his body with a single arte.

    CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!

    A vortex of razor-sharp blades of wind drove out from the wind seraph's figure, slicing through the air towards the ogre and slamming into its bulky form. Violent pops and cracks echoed off the surrounding mountains as the arte impaled the helpless hellion with the full force of a hurricane. A howling gale accompanied the attack, shredding through the world with the force of thunder. The sheer power of the arte effortlessly wrenched chunks of solid rock off the cliffside and cast them outwards into the ravine, hurtling into the foggy abyss down below.

    The ogre hellion was cast bodily off its feet and onto its back, barely managing to slide to a stop a few meters away from the side of the cliff. Pieces of gravel slid with its body, tumbling over the edge of the pathway past its head and falling down into the abyss, rattling nosily in the deafening silence that followed the arte.

    "Heh."

    The wind seraph's steps were slow and measured as he approached the fallen ogre, his weapon gripped loosely in his right hand. Almost absently, the man reached into his pocket and drew out a single silver-tipped projectile and slotted it into the breach of his weapon.

    With a click, the weapon closed, aimed directly at the head of the fallen hellion on the ground.

    Lailah gasped, belatedly registering the seraph's intentions. "No, don't-!"

    BANG!

    Velvet watched the execution occur in front of her with her eyes narrowed. Just like that, the memories had been torn to shreds. Disrupted by the cruel reality of just how much everything had changed. Once, Zaveid had been just a fighter; nothing more. The man who stood before her now… wasn't him. For the world she remembered no longer existed.

    Her fists curled.

    "…You killed it." Velvet's statement broke the shocked silence.

    At the sound of her voice, Zaveid's body froze in shock. Slowly, ever so slowly, the seraph turned around, Seigfried held loosely in his grip.

    Ever so slowly, his wide brown eyes met Velvet's.

    She stared unaffectedly back at the seraph, crossing her arms and raising a single eyebrow in response.

    A rare, dry breeze blew through the ravine, warped by the surrounding jagged cliff faces to produce a haunting moan that sent a shiver down the group's spines. Pieces of gravel scattered in the soft wind, rattling off the edge of the cliff and falling noisily down into the abyss, echoing in the stale air. High up in the sky, the dull white sun continued to shine, providing little to no heat in the dark and shadowed gorges formed by the mountains of Spiritcrest.

    It was a place of nothing but emptiness and sorrow, wrapped in an ominous fog shielding the rest of the world from view.

    Abruptly, Zaveid let his face break into a big arrogant grin and raised his shoulders in an uncaring shrug, shaking his head and addressing Velvet's statement. "Hey," he drawled, "it was a hellion. And hellions belong in hell." He pointed out drolly.

    Mikleo stormed up behind Velvet, fury in his eyes. "You bastard!" He exclaimed.

    Sorey's voice was laced with horror as he stepped forward as well. "…We could've safely purified it. There was no reason to kill it!" He implored.

    "Safely, huh?" Zaveid let out a ridiculing laugh, tilting his head upwards in mock thought. "It looked to me like the lot of you were getting your asses kicked." He raised an eyebrow at the group. "You guys should really be glad that I stepped in when I did."

    "That doesn't mean you had any right to murder that human!" Mikleo yelled, taking an aggressive step forward and gesturing at the bleeding body of the human lying where the ogre had been. His eyes widened in horror as he took in the state of the corpse, balking at the sheer amount of blood. "H-how could you do such a thing?!" he breathed.

    Unaffected by the evident horror and disgust of the water seraph, Zaveid waved a hand in the air.

    "For some, death is a kind of salvation, you might say. That's why." He stated simply.

    A kind of salvation… huh?

    Velvet studied Zaveid's eyes acutely. There was no joking edge in the seraph's expression; no wry edge to his smirk. An unnatural coldness seemed to have slithered its way into Zaveid's eyes. She knew right then and there that he had meant every single word he had said about killing hellions.

    How things had changed.

    "How… how could you say such a thing?" Sorey mumbled, aghast. "You can't just decide something like that! Killing… killing should never be condoned!" Sorey declared. "

    His eyes were drawn briefly to Velvet at his side before he continued hesitantly.

    "At... At the very least, there has to be a good reason for why one does something so horrible!" He stated with growing vigor in his words. "That's what I believe!"

    Velvet blinked and glanced at the Shepherd with surprise at his words.

    To their astonishment, the wind seraph abruptly burst into laughter in response to Sorey's statement. "Oh, that's rich!" He exclaimed into the sky before lowering his head, meeting Sorey's eyes with a mocking grin. "I can always count on the Shepherd and his posse to be a bunch of goody two-shoes, can't I?" He remarked, crossing his arms across his bare chest.

    "…The name's Zaveid." He grinned arrogantly. "Pleased to make your acquaintance, gentle Shepherd." With that mocking statement, the wind seraph flung out his wrist.

    Quick as lightning, Velvet's sword flew out of its sheath and intercepted the pendulum shooting out from Zaveid's wrist that had been aimed at Sorey. The two weapons met together in a resounding clang that disturbed the silence of the world.

    "The hell is your problem?" Velvet challenged with a snarl, shifting in her boots into a combat stance before Sorey, her gauntlet blade held at a low ready. Behind her, the group tensed automatically, reaching for their weapons.

    Zaveid raised a single eyebrow in response. "My problem is that the moment I show up to wrestle with a dragon, the Shepherd and his toadies drop in unannounced to ruin my fun."

    "Dragon?" Sorey blinked.

    Mikleo gripped his staff tightly in his grip, shooting Sorey a glance. "…The people back by Griflet Bridge were talking about a rumored dragon living in Rayfalke Spiritcrest." He muttered. "But I thought it was just a myth."

    "Lailah?" Sorey and Mikleo turned to the fire seraph, whose eyes were troubled.

    The fire seraph shook her head. "Regardless, dragon or not," she addressed Zaveid, "we are not here to battle one. Your concern is noted."

    "Oh… but that just won't do." Slowly, the seraph fell into a battle-ready stance, his pendulum-wielding arms held low at his sides. He let out a savage grin, eying every seraph and human standing before him. "Do you really think I'm going to let you all get eaten by the dragon and compound his power?" He let out a scoff, rolling his shoulders and falling fully into a combat stance. "Now that's a risk I am not willing to take."

    "Better that you all die by my hand, here and now!"

    And just like that, the seraph charged.

    "Scatter!" Velvet ordered, raising her sword in preparation for Zaveid's attack. Behind her, Sorey and the seraphim backed off, with the Shepherd providing defensive protection from any casting interference attempted by their opponent. Taking an aggressive stance, the woman lunged forward and met Zaveid's charge, lithely manipulating her sword to guard against the two pendulums flying her way.

    "Damn, girl!" Zaveid drawled, spinning around and dodging Velvet's retaliatory swing, aided by a burst of wind mana. "You're good! What're you doing hangin' out with a bunch of losers like them?"

    Velvet's response was a swift and decisive kick, driving the wind seraph even further away from her position. "Mikleo! Lailah!" She yelled.

    "Okay!" "Understood!"

    Together, both water and fire seraphim finalized their artes and let the mana flow through their bodies. Flame and water mixed together in a trail of sizzling steam as both artes flew through the air towards their target. Zaveid grunted as he leapt upwards into the air to avoid the artes, aided by a gust of precisely incurred wind mana.

    As he arced smoothly through the air, Zaveid flicked his hand towards the casting seraphim in retaliation, sending spikes of wind hurtling their way. Both Lailah and Mikleo were hard-pressed to dodge, leaping out of the way of the impaling blades, which slammed into the earth they'd previously been standing on.

    Sorey met Zaveid the moment he touched ground, slashing his ceremonial sword towards the man's chest. With swift footwork, the wind seraph dodged and raised his arm to retaliate, only to be forced to leap backwards in a backflip as a gauntlet blade sailed through the air he had just been occupying.

    Velvet didn't let up, swinging around and slamming her left boot into the seraph's gut and sending him stumbling backwards, the wind knocked out of him. Sorey followed through and drove his sword from the seraph's shoulder to his abdomen, carving a light gash on his exposed skin.

    Hissing in pain, Zaveid retaliated by flinging his arms out to his sides, unleashing wind mana outwards and sending both Velvet and Sorey stumbling backwards and away from him. The two of them quickly regained their footing, shifting their weights and lifting their weapons to reinitiate the fight once more.

    With a grunt, the wind seraph abruptly held up an open palm, taking a step back from the fighters as they began to charge back towards him.

    "Whoa! Hold up!" He yelled, stopping them in their tracks. "I'm sorry, alright?!"

    Velvet let out a huff, sheathing her gauntlet blade and crossing her arms. "Didn't work out as well as you planned, I take it?" She deduced dryly, raising an eyebrow.

    "Damned right it didn't." Zaveid grunted sourly, absently taking his right hand and running it over the light gash Sorey had inflicted, healing it with an arte. He turned to the seraphim walking over with guarded expressions and shook his head. "That's enough guys, okay?" He called.

    "Hey," Mikleo's eyes were narrowed, "you were the one who attacked us!"

    "Geez." Zaveid relaxed and gave a helpless shrug, standing up straight. "I said I was sorry, didn't I?" He pointed out. His eyes were drawn to Sorey's guarded ones. "Let's call a truce for now. Deal?" he proposed.

    "Fair enough." Sorey sheathed his sword firmly, nodding his head seriously. "There's no reason for us to fight."

    "Did that stop him from attacking us in the first place?" Mikleo grumbled.

    "Aw, give it a rest." Zaveid grinned, strolling forward easily towards the group. On his way, he easily laid an elbow upon Lailah's shoulder, giving the fire seraph a friendly nudge. "Besides, we're all part of the same team in the end, ya know?"

    The fire seraph looked away from the man. "Are we, truly?"

    Zaveid leaned in closer to the woman's face with a grin. "Well, of course, I don't plan on becoming anyone's Sub Lord… but I'd say so." With a shrug, he lifted his arm from Lailah's shoulder and fell into an easy trot downhill away from the group. "Well then, I'll leave you alone, your Shepherdness."

    Sorey shifted on his feet. "It's Sorey." He pointed out tersely.

    Zaveid came to a halt and gave him a wry grin over his shoulder that showed just how much he cared. "Sure, sure." He shrugged. "Just don't forget, if you see a dragon, run. I hope you've got at least that much sense in that brain of yours."

    Slowly, his eyes seemed to wander into the distance, his grin fading from his expression. "…I'll leave you to it, Sorey the Shepherd. I've got better things to do."

    His eyes met Velvet's for a split second, an uncharacteristic seriousness in his expression.

    "…I've still got promises to keep."

    His gentle words rang softly into the stale air.

    And just like that, Zaveid resumed walking and left the group on the side of the mountain, the sound of his boots crunching in the gravel receding into the distance.

    Mikleo broke the silence. "…Just what the hell is that guy's problem?"

    Sorey shook his head wordlessly, glancing over his shoulder at the corpse still lying by the side of the cliff.

    Mikleo followed his gaze soberly. "…I can't understand someone like that." He muttered. "Someone who would kill because he thinks it's 'best' for someone."

    "…Yeah." Sorey mumbled. "It's sickening."

    At his side, Lailah's hands were held cordially in front of her. "…Let us be off." She urged. "We have our own agenda to fulfill."

    "Right." Sorey nodded softly.

    Unnoticed by the group, Velvet had walked off to the side of the cliff, staring off into the distance, alone. Her arms were crossed, tucked tightly against her chest in an instinctively defensive posture. A dull breeze blew through the gorge, gently clinking the chains on her outfit and filling the silence as she absently looked out into the dead, haunting landscape.

    Random conversations flitted through her mind.

    Lectures of ancient artefacts; the true worth of treasures waiting to be discovered out there in the vast wide-open ocean. Statements of a creed; a way of life that made existing a matter of choice and desire. Expressions of love for a crew; a family of those cast out from society whom had found solace and purpose in each other.

    A promise.

    Zaveid's words had unleashed an overwhelming cascade of dismay and horror through her body.

    The moment he'd uttered them, she'd known exactly what he'd meant.

    Velvet's fists clenched, hard. Her eyes boiled with a mass of mixed emotions. Unfamiliar and unwelcome feelings clashed with the bittersweet memories of a time long since passed. A searing hot lance of sadness in her heart threatened to overcome the steadiness and determination she always maintained.

    Sadness for the loss of the world she'd once known.

    In the distance, the peak of Rayfalke Spiritcrest loomed ominously; an inevitable destination in a long and arduous journey.

    ----

    The moment the group passed over the threshold into the domain, they felt it.

    A keen sense of repulsion and terror collectively lanced up their spines, driven by an animalistic instinct telling them to run; run as far away as possible from the being so unnaturally powerful as to dominate the surrounding area like so. Their steps came to a shuddering halt as they stumbled, grasping at their heads at the feelings of disorientation and nausea seeping in.

    "Gah…!" Sorey shook his head forcibly in an attempt to regain his senses. "What… what is this?" He mumbled, glancing around with scrunched-up eyes.

    The path had taken the group through the heart of Spiritcrest, leading them up and up into the heavens. The land had sprawled before them; their world laid out bare before the towering and foreboding shadows of the jagged mountain range. Plains, forests, mountains and hills had meshed together in a fantastic tapestry of pure unadulterated natural beauty. In the distance, the white, cool sun could have been seen slowly setting into the distant horizon, sending long, harsh shadows all across the fields far, far below.

    Yet now, the world below had become obscured by a whirling vortex of purple miasma. Particles of pure, concentrated malevolence whirled around the domain like snow in a whirling blizzard. Violent gales of wind blasted sporadically in every direction with no rhyme nor meaning, tearing through the air with the ferocity of an untamed beast. An otherworldly rumble emitted from the very mountain itself; proof of the extent of the domain's corruption.

    At Sorey's side, Mikleo had a hand up in front of his face, shielding him from the worst of the winds. "This… this must be the domain!" He realized in shock. He whipped around to face Lailah with wide eyes. "Lailah, can malevolence really corrupt a domain like this?!"

    "N-no." Lailah shook her head, distraught. "The strongest entity in the domain decides its form." She explained. "It has absolutely nothing to do with right or wrong…" Her eyes were drawn to the raven-haired woman standing behind Mikleo.

    "…or malevolence." She finished as an afterthought, blinking in surprise. Velvet wasn't listening to her.

    In fact, Lailah was sure that the woman wasn't aware of anything at the moment. The fire seraph's eyebrows furrowed as she took a closer look at the woman while Mikleo and Sorey began hurriedly discussing the implications of her earlier words.

    Both of Velvet's fists were clenched hard at her sides; almost as if she were physically attempting to force herself to focus through the catharsis of pain in her palms. Her entire body was stock still in the wind; a statue of suppressed emotion.

    Yet it was the emotion clearly present in the eyes of Velvet Crowe that confused Lailah the most.

    Horror.

    The manipulative, callous hellion that Lailah had come to fear now stood there in the midst of the occupied domain with trembling eyes and a shaken expression. That cold, calculated mask that she always wore had inexplicably vanished, leaving behind an almost vulnerablelooking woman in its wake.

    But why…?

    "Guys! Look out!"

    Mikleo's call of alarm drew the attention of the entire group, causing them to gaze up into the purple fog in shock.

    From out of the purple clouds fell a single arrow of darkness, approaching at blistering speeds towards the peak. In the blink of an eye, the monster shot lithely overhead the group, pushing down a furious gale in its wake to blast the group with an astounding amount of force. The group scrambled to find their footing in the furious hurricane that had been caused by the mere passing of the aerial hellion.

    Sorey slammed his sword into the ground and grunted, cranking his neck and tracking the speck of black as it circled around the peak. "…The legendary harbinger of destruction." He muttered, shoving himself to his feet, his sword in hand.

    "…A dragon." He breathed.

    By his side, Velvet's fists clenched harder, her nails digging sharply into her flesh. She stood up in the wake of the billowing winds, her eyes fixed on the form of the monster circling her high up in the sky. The monster that had she had once considered an unlikely friend. A fragment from a different time and a different world.

    "…Eizen." She mumbled under her breath, the word quickly snatched away by the billowing gales of the dragon's swirling domain.

    It had been too long since she had said that name.

    Her eyes closed in consternation as she shook her head slightly. No, that wasn't right. Rather, it had been too long since she had left.

    The reaper malak once known as Eizen no longer existed in this world. The ship that he had been first mate of had long since disappeared into the clutches of time. The lands and oceans that he had once known like the back of his hand had long since become unrecognizable.

    All that remained now…

    Her eyes slid open, her body tensing slowly as a fell determination overcame her with a crushing grip.

    All that remained was to make sure his ideals lived on. That he died on his terms, not on anyone else's. That nothing; fate, gods, or malevolence; held any part of who and what he was, and how he would live his life. That he would enjoy a short and brilliant existence, before the choices he had made finally caught up to him and doomed him to the end that he'd chosen.

    It was Velvet's obligation to make sure her friend followed his creed to the end. It was just that simple.

    Just the way Eizen had wanted his life to be.

    The dragon slammed onto the center of the peak across from her, uttering a terrifying roar that rattled the very stones of the mountain. Tendrils of pure malevolence weaved and winded its way around the body of the jagged beast's hide, encasing it in a prison of its own sins. Two massive horns jutted out from its angular, serrated head, complementing the pair of vast, flowing wings sprouting from its back, braced by thick, veined muscles. Glistening saliva dripped from the row of vicious, serrated teeth arrayed along the edge of its gaping maw, hungry for prey.

    This was the monster that she would have to kill to set Eizen free. The final stage of a malak afflicted with the curse of daemonblight; a being so powerful and so corrupted that it knew nothing more than the rending of flesh and the gnashing of bone.

    So be it.

    Her left bandaged arm lifted of its own accord, its palm angled directly at the form of the hideous monster across the peak from her. Malevolence began to emanate from the arm itself as she prepared to expel all her might in one forceful push. Her eyes narrowed in determination.

    It was time to set Eizen free.

    "…can't be! Are you Edna?!" Lailah's cry abruptly broke through to Velvet's senses.

    The name awoke something in her; a memory from long, long ago.

    A reminder of the one person whom Eizen had wanted to keep safe. The one person whom Eizen had longed to have alongside him, more than any other treasure in the world.

    His sister.

    And just like that, Velvet snapped out of it, whipping her bandaged arm back down to her side, cursing herself.

    "Oh, Edna… I can't believe it! You… a dragon…!" Lailah had apparently fallen into hysterics.

    "Nope. Guess again."

    BANG!

    A massive slab of rock abruptly jutted out from the ground with a deafening crack, slamming into the dragon with an explosion of rock and gravel and causing it to reel backwards in a daze. The group blinked in surprise, turning to the source of the arte approaching them from the other side of the peak.

    "Huh?" Lailah blinked in shock, taking in the form of the umbrella-holding girl trotting nonchalantly through the howling domain towards them. "There are two Ednas?"

    The earth seraph's blue eyes were unaffected as she stopped before the group and raised an eyebrow at the fire seraph. "Your conclusion is peculiar." She remarked, giving the members of the group a cursory once-over.

    Her gaze slid smoothly over Velvet without pause.

    Instead, the seraph turned around and faced the form of the dragon that had circumvented the slab of rock and begun snarling at the group once more. "Brother." She uttered in the malevolent air. "You must stop."

    Her response was another blood-curdling roar, shaking the mountainside and causing her umbrella to wobble precariously in her grip from the force of its bellow.

    Her eyes slid downwards softly. "…So. Even my voice no longer reaches you." She mumbled lowly, looking away.

    Abruptly, her eyes snapped back to the group. "He's coming." She announced furtively. "Run like the wind, now!" With that, she fell into a brisk trot past the startled group.

    Mikleo blinked. "Is she the seraph we were looking for, Lailah?" He asked hesitantly.

    Lailah nodded brightly. "She is!" She confirmed.

    "Then let's get going." Velvet interjected forcibly, falling into a run after the earth seraph. "Now!"She stressed over her shoulder.

    Lailah blinked, her eyes following Velvet's suddenly familiar demeanor for a few seconds before snapping out of it.

    "R-right!" She nodded, turning to Sorey and Mikleo. "Let's!" She urged.

    Together, the group broke into a frantic sprint, charging back down the hill and away from the lair of the legendary harbinger of destruction. The furious roars of the dragon echoed throughout the mountain range, hounding after the retreating humans and seraphim.

    As she ran, Velvet couldn't help but feel that there was a sort of anger in those bellows.

    Anger at her betrayal.

    Gritting her teeth, the therion forced herself to forget about it and keep on running. She had to keep going, she reminded herself. She had to keep moving forward. Away from the past. That was just who she was.

    The thudding of her boots on gravel was her only companion as she ran away.

    ----

    Clear blue waters flowed gently through the shallow river, calmly reflecting the tranquil image of the bright moon hanging high in the starry night sky. Crickets chirped in the grassy clearing surrounded by forest, their songs intertwining with the chilly night breeze softly rustling the trees and bushes.

    Alongside the soft murmur of the natural ambiance came the repetitive scratching of a brush on metal. The artificial sound rang out crisply into the quiet night. Velvet's eyes were distant as she worked, methodically scrubbing one of the group's cooking pots by the river with the aid of a brush and the clear flowing waters.

    The day's events continued to replay themselves inside her head. The abrupt encounter with Zaveid. The confrontation by one of the assassins of the Scattered Bones. Meeting Edna. Discovering Eizen's cruel fate… Her teeth gritted together as she gave her head a rough jerk to the side, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand.

    What mattered was that the group now had an earth seraph travelling with them. Edna had agreed to join the Shepherd's group shortly after discovering the true extent of Sorey's purity, quickly ordering Lailah to allow her to become her Sub Lord. And now the group was on their way back to the Griflet Bridge, determined to aid the suffering people with her help.

    What mattered was that there was once more a way forward for the Shepherd; more trials were now open for him to overcome.

    Velvet turned the pot over underneath the surface of the river, roughly scrubbing a particularly stubborn patch of soot on the outside. Edna was quite the character, she reflected dryly. Just the sort of person she'd come to expect from the little excerpts she'd remembered from Eizen's letters. She had to admit, it was particularly amusing to see somebody other than herself annoying Mikleo to high heaven.

    Suddenly, her brush stopped. Her spine stiffened as she registered the sound of somebody walking through the forest behind her towards the clearing.

    After a moment, Velvet laid the now cleaned pot on a dry towel arranged neatly beside her and reached for another one of the soiled bowls. It wasn't long before the light footsteps entered the clearing and approached her, stopping gently behind her.

    Velvet continued to scrub, working to ensure that the bowl she was cleaning was entirely clean, heedless of the other person standing behind her.

    After a pause, Edna moved to kneel down comfortably down alongside Velvet by the side of the river and reached for a bowl and a brush as well. The scratching of her brush mixed with Velvet's and rang out into the night.

    Neither of them said a word as they worked.

    The chirping of the crickets and the soft babbling of the river filled the companionable silence as both women cleaned the rest of the group's cooking equipment, each methodically ensuring that each dish and utensil was spotless before placing it on the drying towel.

    With an abrupt sigh, Edna put down the last of the pot she had been working on and leant back on her hands, gazing up into the stars.

    "Nice weather tonight, wouldn't you say, Lord of Calamity?" She observed conversationally.

    Not missing a beat, Velvet responded easily, "It's not bad." She flung loose droplets of water off her hands with a flick of her wrist and reached for the towel. "Used to be colder, though." She remarked.

    "Hm." Edna hummed. "I agree."

    The seraph glanced over her shoulder at a pile of dirty clothing lying at her side with a grumpy glare. "…We still have to clean all of that, don't we?" She muttered resentfully.

    Velvet shook her head wryly. "A thousand years go by and the men still expect the women to do their laundry for them." She remarked.

    "That's humans for you." Edna sighed, reaching over and tossing a dirty shirt over to Velvet who caught it with a firm hand. "Always stuck in the same old rut."

    "Can't argue with that." Velvet agreed, flapping the shirt in the air and sending grains of dirt and dust into the air. Together, the two of them got back to work, washing the clothing in the river underneath the night sky.

    "…Brother used to talk about you all the time in his letters." Edna's voice was soft and nostalgic, her eyes fixed on the task at hand as she worked. "It got kinda annoying, really."

    "Oh?" Velvet gave Edna a sideways glance as she scrubbed the dirt off the shirt. "Out of curiosity then, what did he say about me?"

    Edna gave a shrug, giving the pants she was washing a firm flick before plunging them in the waters. "Typical stuff." She dismissed. "He told me all about you and your little band of weirdos and your exploits around the world." She gave Velvet a glance. "…I wrote back and told him you sounded like a real bad influence, and that he should get his butt away from you before he caught your crazy bug." She claimed.

    Velvet raised an eyebrow at the seraph. "That… doesn't sound right. From what I remember," she pointed out, "what you wrote was something along the lines of me being… 'appropriate' for him, I think." She paused for a moment, thinking hard. "…And that one day, you'd love to meet me." The memories of that one night were suddenly crystal clear in her head, warm and fuzzy. A memory at stark odds with the mountain looming quietly in the distance behind her.

    At her words Edna let out a sigh, shaking her head softly and staring out into the waters with a distant look. "…If he trusted you enough to tell you what I wrote to him," she muttered, "then the two of you really must've really been close."

    Velvet let out a huff, a small smile growing unbidden on her face. "Your brother was a real handful, I can tell you that much."

    She laid the now cleaned shirt aside and leant back as well, curling up her left leg and resting her arms upon it pensively. "For one, that reaper's curse of his got our group into more bouts of trouble than I care to count." Her smile was soft and strong. "It was never a dull moment around with the reaper in our midst, that was for sure. I swear, there were times where I wanted to punch him in the teeth purely out of spite towards all the irritating crap that he caused to happen to us."

    Edna gently twirled her unopened umbrella in her hands. "…And yet," she asked quietly, "he still allowed you near him? He didn't… leave you?" Her voice was soft and gentle.

    Almost fragile.

    Velvet's face softened. She shifted, turning to face the seraph fully. "…Edna." She began seriously.

    "I can't say exactly how close Eizen and I were as friends back then, long, long ago." She admitted openly. "I can't honestly say for sure if we ever really considered ourselves anything more than allies headed in the same direction… even at the very end of it all." She shrugged. "That was just how our group was."

    She shook her head. "...But what I can say for sure is that none of us; nobody in the entire world even; ever came close to how important you were to him." She finished firmly. "I promise you that."

    Edna was silent in response, her unopened umbrella held motionless in her grip. Her eyes stared out into the distance, unseeing.

    She let out a soft sigh. "…I guess it's safe to say that you haven't changed over the years, Velvet Crowe." She observed dryly, turning her body to face Velvet fully and raised an eyebrow. "…I'd introduce myself, but that would be redundant."

    Velvet smirked openly. "Right back at you." She shot back.

    She shrugged. "And as for my personality," she addressed her earlier words, "well, I suppose that in some ways, I'm as stubborn as your brother in that respect."

    "Tsk." Edna clicked her tongue in disgust. "Like I said. Appropriate."

    Velvet let out a soft laugh, turning back around and resuming her work cleaning clothes. At her side, Edna followed her lead, starting on another shirt from the pile of dirty laundry. Together, they continued work; a seraph and a hellion doing the Shepherd's laundry.

    "…By the way," Edna eventually broke the silence once again, "exactly what was the deal with that doll he sent me?" She implored.

    Caught utterly off-guard, Velvet let a laugh as she was reminded yet again of another obscure memory.

    "That's… a bit of a long story." She explained dryly.

    Edna gave the therion a glare. "Do you know just how creepy that thing was?" She demanded hotly. "Staring at me when it thought I wasn't looking? Always watching me, no matter where I put it? Just what was my brother thinking when he sent that to me?!" She implored.

    Velvet raised an eyebrow. "But you kept it, didn't you?" She asked pointedly.

    Pouting, Edna let out an indignant huff and turned back to her work, inadvertently confirming Velvet's statement with her silence.

    Shaking her head wryly, Velvet explained, "That doll, Phoenix, was there to protect you, Edna. Regardless of how weird that little normin was, he always kept his promises to the letter." She shrugged. "That's why Eizen sent him to you; because he knew he'd protect you from anything that came your way."

    The therion reconsidered her own words. "Well, now that I think about it," she contemplated, "whenever he did pretty much anything… it was always with your safety in mind."

    Edna's fists clenched abruptly.

    "…That idiot." She growled under her breath.

    "My safety, huh? Just how fragile did that moron think I was?" Her eyes closed tightly as her jaw clenched. "…Did he really think I was worth what happened to him in the end?" She seethed.

    Just like that, the light atmosphere had been broken by the addressing of the elephant of the room. Behind their backs, the looming crags of Spiritcrest rose from the land, silhouetted ominously in the night sky.

    In the silence, Edna let out a sigh.

    "…He just had to die on his own terms, regardless of what it meant to anyone else." Her fists clenched over the grip of her umbrella.

    "…To me." She whispered under her breath.

    Velvet's eyes were soft as she watched the poor seraph suffer with the fate of her brother. In a way, she was reminded of herself. Of a young girl deep inside of a monster who just missed her precious brother.

    "Edna." she murmured into the air. "…I'm sorry."

    The words sounded pathetic the moment they left her lips. She cursed herself internally for being so useless.

    In response, the earth seraph shook her head slowly.

    "…You don't have to say that, dummy." She met Velvet's eyes with uncharacteristically emotional eyes. "It's obvious how much you care…" she paused haltingly. "…cared for my brother."

    Edna exhaled deeply and steadied herself, waving a hand to her side. "I'm sure it was a pretty nasty surprise to discover what had happened to him for you too." She observed dryly. "Regardless of your ancient reputation, Velvet, you can be certain that I'm very well aware of the kind of person you truly are."

    Velvet let out a soft smile in response. "…Eizen was that descriptive, huh?"

    Edna sighed. "Like I said. Annoyingly so."

    Together, the two women let a companionable silence fall between them as they stayed there, listening to the night ambiance and letting themselves remember times long since passed. Honoring and remembering the person they'd held dear to themselves.

    SNAP!

    Suddenly, Velvet blinked at the sound of a snapping twig, leaping to her feet and whipping around, her gauntlet blade held at a low ready by her side. "Who's there?!" She demanded into the air. At her side, Edna got up as well, following the hellion's lead and holding her umbrella at the ready in preparation for a possible attacker.

    In response, a drawling voice rang out throughout the clearing.

    "Hey ladies. Nice night, ain't it?"

    Velvet rolled her eyes, lowering her guard as Zaveid the Whirlwind strolled out from the bush and into the moonlight, a coy grin plastered on his face.

    "It was a nice night." Was Edna's dry retort as she poked the approaching shirtless seraph with her umbrella.

    "Ouch! Hey!" Zaveid yelped, hopping away, his hands held out defensively in front of his body. "Now is that really how a proper lady says hi to an old friend, Edna?"

    Edna let out a sigh, pumping her umbrella open and resting it lightly on her shoulder. "You certainly haven't changed." She muttered.

    "Oh?" Velvet put a hand on her hip, raising an eyebrow as she ran her eyes over Zaveid's starkly different appearance. "He seems pretty different to me from the last time I saw him."

    Edna deadpanned. "And that was what, a thousand years ago?"

    Grinning indulgently, Zaveid capitalized on Velvet's words and spun around theatrically, thrusting his hips outwards and raising his arms outward. "Ooh, yeah. She knows what's up." He smirked arrogantly, puffing his chest out. "Do tell, Velvet dear." He drawled. "You dig?"

    Velvet's eye twitched.

    Nonchalantly, the therion proceeded to drop-kick the perverted seraphim across the entirety of the clearing.

    "GAH!" Zaveid groaned, tumbling away from the two women as Velvet landed gently on the ground in the wake of her attack.

    Without words, Edna raised a single hand in the air. Following through, Velvet walked away from the twitching form of Zaveid and returned Edna's high-five with an indignant breath.

    "Heh… Damn." Zaveid laughed wryly as he found the ground below him and leapt back onto his feet, wiping dirt off his shoulders. "That's something I haven't felt in a while."

    Edna cocked her head to the side dryly. "Humility?"

    "Nah!" Zaveid laughed her comment off, waving his hand. "I was just remembering the times when Velvet kicked my ass back in the day." He grinned, trotting back over to the two women by the side of the river. "Those were good times."

    "That's your idea of a good time?" Velvet raised her eyebrow incredulously.

    "Masochist." Edna accused.

    Waving his hands, Zaveid elaborated, "I meant the whole Age of Chaos thing in general." He grinned nostalgically, glancing between Velvet and Edna. "You two should know what I'm talking about. Those were the days!"

    Velvet shrugged, a hand on her hip. "If you say so."

    Edna twirled her umbrella idly in her hands. "It's all a blur to me, really."

    "Awe, don't be like that, girls!" Zaveid implored. "C'mon! Let's just the three of us share some old memories like the wizened beings we are. It'll be fun!"

    A pause in the wake of his words, filled with the chuckling of the river and the chirping of crickets.

    Edna turned her head to the side. "We should get back to work."

    Velvet nodded. "Good idea."

    Together, the two women jointly turned their backs on the wind seraph and walked back over to the side of the river, sitting back down by the side of the river in favor of gathering more soiled clothes to wash.

    Zaveid's eye twitched.

    "Oh, come on!" He yelped indignantly, heatedly trotting over to the two working women and standing before them. "You can't tell me that doing chores is more appealing than chatting with the great Zaveid the Whirlwind?" He grinned.

    "People who refer to themselves in third person are strange." Edna's voice was utterly unaffected as she reached into the river with a bundled-up shirt to squeeze the dirt out.

    "Yeesh." Zaveid winced. "That one actually stung a bit." He muttered, turning around and leaning back casually against the side of a tree, watching the two women work.

    The splashing of water and the rustling of leaves in the night breeze filled the silence once more. High up in the sky, the moon continued to shine softly into the night, blanketing the world with a soft blue light.

    "…Say, Velvet."

    Zaveid's serious tone broke the silence. The woman in question glanced over her shoulder at the seraph who was now watching her keenly.

    "You wanna let me in on why exactly a big nasty Lord of Calamity such as yourself," he gestured towards her, "is hanging out with a new Shepherd's group? Especially without them being in the know about it?" The seraph held a thoughtful hand on his chin. "It's been buggin' me ever since I saw you earlier today, and I just haven't been able to put a finger on why."

    "That's because you're all brawn and no brain." Edna retorted dryly. "She's obviously here to save Maotelus by using Sorey as a purification tool." She turned to meet Velvet's eyes. "Isn't that right?"

    Surprised, but not too much so, Velvet nodded slowly. "…Yeah. That pretty much sums it up."

    "Thought so."

    Zaveid let out a low whistle, drawing the attention of both women. "Damn." He uttered. "So, that means you gotta put up with those goody-goody brats 24/7?" He let out an empathetic groan. "That sounds awful."

    Velvet shrugged in response. "It's not bad, really." she answered. "They're manageable, I suppose."

    Edna turned to her with a raised eyebrow. "So. What do you think? You think Sorey has what it takes to purify one of the Five Lords?"

    Zaveid abruptly burst out into raucous laughter at the very notion. "That straight-edge?! Yeah right!" He grinned, shaking his head. "Velvet, honey, I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but I'm afraid your Shepherd isn't fit to purify a gnat, let alone a god."

    Velvet let out a sigh, her eyes pensive. "I'm aware."

    "…Although… From the looks of things," Edna's words were quiet and thoughtful, "it looks like he does have a bit of strength in him. The annoyingly stubborn kind."

    Velvet turned to the earth seraph with a raised eyebrow.

    "…So, what do you think then, Edna?" She inquired softly. "Does the Shepherd Sorey have the potential to one day do what I need him to do?"

    Zaveid interjected, "I don't think you need an answer for that." He let out a lazy shrug, waving a hand towards Edna. "I think the fact that she became Lailah's Sub Lord says all you need to know about what she thinks about the precious Shepherd Sorey." He pointed out.

    He let out an arrogant smirk. "Whaddya think, Edna? Not so lacking in the brains department after all, huh?" He goaded.

    Edna gave him a terrifying glare in response. "Don't put words in my mouth." she growled lowly.

    Gulping, Zaveid instinctively raised his arms in surrender in the face of the earth seraph's terrifying ire, hastily backing away from her in acute self-preservation.

    Meanwhile, Velvet hummed thoughtfully, considering the wind seraph's words. "…I guess we'll see then, won't we?" She muttered.

    "I guess we will." Edna agreed, calmly turning back towards her work as if nothing had ever happened.

    Sauntering back over, Zaveid spoke up, "Speaking of which, hey Velvet, where's your buddy?" he asked curiously.

    The therion raised her eyebrow at the seraph in response. At her unspoken question, he elaborated, "I'm talkin' about Leo." He explained. "Where the heck is that guy? The two of you were damn close back in the day if I remember correctly."

    "Leo… I don't know." Velvet responded honestly, shaking her head. "When we got back, we were separated. I haven't seen him in months." Suddenly, an idea sprang to mind as she took a closer look at Zaveid.

    The wind seraph blinked. "Huh? Something on my face?"

    "…Zaveid." Velvet began. "Would you mind keeping an eye out for Leo and Hawk wherever you decide to go?" She asked.

    "Huh. A missing persons search, eh?"

    Zaveid rubbed his chin thoughtfully as he settled down in the dirt alongside Velvet, a pensive expression on his face. "…Well," he shrugged, "I think I do remember his face well enough to do so, and I guess it's no real inconvenience for me to keep an eye out for 'em."

    His grin grew cocky. "…I'll do it if you give me a kiss." He proposed.

    Velvet let out a long, drawn-out sigh.

    CRASH!

    "GAHAH!"

    Zaveid's cry of agony resounded out through the surrounding area, breaking the tranquility of the night. He laid back on his back, clutching a particularly red palm-strike on his right cheek, tears brimming in his eyes. "D-damn." He groaned, lifting his head blearily. "That's one hell of a way to ask a favor."

    "Idiot." Edna trotted over and poked his prone form with her umbrella. "Just what did you expect from the Lord of Calamity? Now get going."

    Zaveid grunted, swatting away her umbrella and getting to his feet. "What, you want me gone so soon?" he complained. "But I just got here!"

    Rolling her eyes, Velvet shrugged. "You can stay… But you have to help with the laundry." She met Zaveid's eyes with dangerously narrowed eyes. "Or else."

    Bristling, Zaveid met her challenge with a fanged grin. "Or else what?"

    Velvet held her bandaged arm up with a dry look. "I'll eat you." She threatened.

    "Oh." Zaveid's grin vanished. "Right. Forgot about that."

    "Now get to work or get out of my sight." she growled lowly. "Move it."

    "Y-Yikes. Yes ma'am…" Zaveid sighed as he shuffled obediently over to the therion's side. "…Remind me again," he mumbled resentfully, "just how exactly did this go from a casual chat between old pals to me washing the damn Shepherd's underwear in the river…?"

    Edna sighed, turning away from the other two and shaking her head in exasperation. "…Why do I get the feeling that nothing's going to get done tonight?" She asked into the open air. Despite her words, there was a peculiar smile on her face as she stared up into the distance, staring at the distant figure of Spiritcrest, silhouetted by the stars.

    "…Well. Looks like thing'll be getting interesting at the very least." She muttered wryly to herself.

    With one last twirl of her umbrella, the earth seraph turned her back to the mountains and went back to the former Lord of Calamity's side, her mind turning to contemplate the long road ahead for the Shepherd's group.

    The moon continued to glow softly high up in the night sky, accompanied by the dim celestial light emitted by the few stars keeping it company in a sea of darkness.

    ----​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
  6. Threadmarks: C05 - Masked
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Author's Note: You may have noticed a significant uptick in writing quality in the last chapter. That is because every developed chapter is now being processed by a beta! (But still also ultimately being finalized by me so it won't be perfect; that's my fault, sorry.)

    A round of applause for Paragon of Awesomeness for making sure my quality doesn't go down the crapper when exams come! I really appreciate it.

    ----

    Chapter 5 – Masked.


    "So, what's your deal?"

    Edna's voice broke the dull repetitive rhythm of the group's footsteps on dirt. Velvet blinked, turning towards the seraph staring up at her with her ever-present stoic expression carved on her face. "What?"

    "You." With a slight twirl of the umbrella resting on her left shoulder, Edna elaborated. "Nobody's said anything about why there's another human coming along with us who isn't Sorey's squire." She raised an eyebrow pointedly. "Who can see seraphim, for that matter."

    "Oh, that's right!"

    Sorey fell into step alongside the two women plonking a fist in his palm. "Edna, we haven't introduced you two!" He realized.

    "You haven't." She blandly affirmed.

    High in the sky the sun shone, basking the surrounding rolling green hills and accompanying the Shepherd's group as they headed due south back towards Griflet Bridge. The pouring showers that had tormented the area had largely moved on, leaving only a few stray dark clouds occasionally peppering patches of land with a gentle sprinkle. The air was crisp and fresh, and told of new beginnings.

    Grinning sheepishly, Sorey gestured to Velvet for Edna's benefit. "Well then, Edna, meet Velvet." He introduced. "She's been travelling with us for the time being."

    "You don't say."

    "Yeah." Completely immune to the seraph's inflectionless tone, Sorey continued explaining, "She's from a village up near Lakehaven Heights, and was born resonant. She's coming with us because she's been looking for her cousin."

    "…Born resonant, huh?" Tilting her head curiously, Edna met Velvet's eyes. "Then where's your cousin?" She prompted.

    Velvet shrugged. "No idea." She admitted. "All I can tell for sure is that he's nowhere near here."

    "So you figured that it would be a good idea to use the Shepherd as protection in your travels as you looked for him." She hummed thoughtfully. "Not a bad idea."

    Velvet's eyebrow rose. "I suppose you could say that." She allowed unaffectedly.

    Surprisingly, Sorey rallied in her defense. "It's nothing like that, Edna, really." He promised, shaking his head. "Velvet's been nothing but helpful to us in our travels. She's been teaching Lailah how to cook, giving us all useful tips to make our travels easier, and she even helps us quell hellions!"

    He gave Velvet an apologetic look, scratching the back of his head. "If anything, it's us who are using her." He admitted sheepishly.

    A wet summer breeze blew through the air, disturbing the grass on both sides of the partially dry dirt road upon which they travelled. Mikleo and Lailah were exchanging idle conversation as they walked at the same pace in front of them, leading the group onward. Behind them, the looming figure of Spiritcrest had all but receded behind the horizon.

    "…If you say so." Edna conceded to Sorey's words after a pause, her eyes carefully flitting between the eyes of the Shepherd and Velvet.

    She twirled her umbrella behind her perfunctorily. "As far as humans go," she supposed, "you don't seem too bad."

    Velvet gave her a look. "I'll take that as a complement."

    "You should." The orange doll on Edna's umbrella twirled around as she spun it once more. "Ordinary humans are idiots who only care about themselves."

    "So," Sorey asked curiously, "does that mean that you care about others then, Edna?"

    He balked at the narrowed eyes he received in response. "I'll pretend you didn't just ask me that." She growled.

    Gulping, Sorey nodded wordlessly, a confused expression clear on his face.

    Amused, Velvet pointed out, "First Sorey, and now me." She raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure you don't have a bit of an unfair bias towards humanity?"

    Edna gave her a dry look in response. "The only reason I consider you two humans to even be remotely bearable is because you're both extraordinarily weird. That's all."

    "Weird?" Sorey blinked. "Are the two of us really that unique?"

    Velvet gave him a look. "That's… a pretty accurate observation, actually."

    With a satisfied smirk, Edna closed her umbrella and let it dangle in her grip as she walked. "Fighting with monsters that nobody else can see? Chatting with spirits dwelling inside of one's head? Sounds like a pair of cuckoo lunatics to me."

    "You're one to talk."

    Mikleo's words were defensive as he fell into step alongside them, his eyebrow raised pointedly in the earth seraph's direction. "What sort of seraph walks around with an umbrella even when it's not going to rain?"

    "The same sort that would walk around with that dumb-looking face." Edna shot back easily with a smirk.

    "W-what?" Mikleo sputtered, his eye twitching. "That doesn't make any sense at all!"

    "Neither does your face."

    "If you're going to insult someone, at least make it a coherent one." Mikleo huffed, sticking his nose up into the air.

    "Okay then, Meebo." Edna opened her umbrella once more with a dry smirk. "If you're going to make snacks, at least make them edible."

    "W-why you-!"

    Mikleo floundered helplessly for a moment before gathering his wits, glaring angrily down at the insufferable little seraph. "…Mistakes are a necessary ingredient of becoming proficient in something." He growled lowly. "You can't just expect me to be perfect right off the bat!"

    "Hm." She hummed, twirling her umbrella. "A convenient excuse." She commented off-handedly.

    "It's not an excuse!"

    Sorey scratched his cheek sheepishly as the two seraphim devolved once more into a bout of bickering. He gave Velvet a grin. "Next to those two, I'd say we're pretty normal by comparison."

    Velvet rolled her eyes, waving a hand in the air. "Can't argue with you there."

    "My, just look at them go!"

    Lailah had a playful finger on her chin as she fell into step alongside Sorey opposite to Velvet, her eyes on the two seraphim exchanging verbal blows in front of them. "It's certainly gotten much more lively around here; that much is certain." She commented to the Shepherd.

    Sorey gave the fire seraph a grin. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone push Mikleo's buttons so well before." He commented. "Edna seems like quite the person."

    "Indeed." She bobbed her head. "Edna does seem to be having quite a lot of fun as well. I'm glad that you managed to convince her to leave Spiritcrest, Sorey. She can be quite stubborn."

    Sorey nodded seriously. "Yeah." He intoned. "I'm glad as well."

    The sun continued to glow high up in the sky as the group continued to make their way through the vast plains, the various conversations populating the air around them.

    Velvet's eyes were on Sorey, her lips pursed.

    "…Sorey," she prompted, causing his head to turn to her.

    "Did you really mean it?" She inquired. "When you said you'd try and find a way to save Edna's brother?" Her mind thought back to the words that he'd said back in Spiritcrest; the ones that had so unwittingly convinced Edna into joining his group.

    Sorey's expression was firm. "I meant every word."

    Velvet put a hand on her hip, her eyes digging into Sorey's. "…Saying you'll do something is one thing." She pointed out, waving her other hand in the air. "Doing it is a different story." Her eyebrows narrowed. "…Anybody can make promises they can't keep."

    Her skepticism was plain to both of them.

    Sorey's face was sober as he lifted up his left hand wearing the ornamented white glove emblazoned with the Shepherd's emblem and clenched it into a determined fist. "…I will find a way to save Eizen." He promised softly. "Regardless of how long it might take, and how hard it might be, I refuse to believe that purifying a dragon is an impossible task. That once a seraph becomes a dragon, they are doomed to that fate forever."

    Unconsciously, his eyes wandered forward, to fall on Mikleo's form. "…I just don't want to live in a world like that." He muttered as an afterthought.

    Velvet studied him acutely as they walked. "…And so," she summarized, "you'll do everything you can to reshape the world into a place you do want to live in."

    "…I suppose." Sorey nodded.

    Velvet glanced away, deep in thought. Oh, how that exact sentiment had nearly ruined the lives of all whom had lived in this world long ago.

    "But…" His head tilted upward, towards the partially cloudy blue sky, as he continued. "It all seems a little overwhelming at times, I'll admit." He let out a self-deprecating grin. "Like I've bitten off a little too much."

    At his side Lailah nodded slowly. "Such a feeling is natural, Sorey." She assured softly. As Sorey's gaze fell down to meet her own, she urged, "Remember the purpose of our journey."

    "To learn more of the world, right?" Velvet answered, also meeting the Shepherd's eyes with a thoughtful look. "If that's so, you should take your time." She suggested with a shrug. "I seriously doubt a person who only recently learned what money is would be able to change the world in an instant."

    Sorey laughed, habitually scratching the back of his neck. "I guess Mikleo told you all about that, huh?"

    Lailah held Velvet's eyes for a moment before returning her gaze to Sorey. "…She's right, Sorey." Her lips upturned into a soft, encouraging smile. "Make your own way in the world and decide what you think is best. That is all one can really do, in the end. As I said, the answers you seek are those you must discover for yourself." Her eyes were distant.

    "…Answers of my own." Sorey mumbled pensively. "And only then will I be able to make a stand against the Lord of Calamity, huh?"

    Velvet and Lailah were both silent.

    After a pause, Sorey abruptly nodded, unconsciously squaring his shoulders and standing up straighter. "…Got it." He confirmed firmly. "Thanks, guys, for the encouragement." He gave both women a grateful look.

    Velvet merely inclined her head in response, that thoughtful expression still present on her face.

    Their steps continued onward through the dirt. Overhead, a stray storm cloud had made its way over, causing a light drizzle to waft lazily in the air. The land all around the group became momentarily eclipsed in a soft shadow as the cloud obscured the sunlight from the heavens.

    "Stop calling me that!"

    "Do you make it a habit of always telling people around you what to do, Meebo?"

    Mikleo's eye twitched. "I do when they annoy me!" He yelled.

    "Such a bully." Edna's smirk was almost fanged.

    Velvet shut her eyes and massaged her temple with her left hand. "At this rate, every hellion for kilometers around will be charging over here if only to stop this racket." She growled irritably.

    Laughing nervously, Sorey stepped in before Mikleo fell for another one of Edna's taunts. "Come on, guys." He urged impassionedly. "Knock it off."

    "Yes," Lailah agreed wisely, "both of you, please do calm yourselves."

    Mikleo visibly contained himself with a deep breath, shaking his head. "…She started it." He muttered sourly, glaring hatefully at the smug earth seraph.

    Edna just gave him a vindictive grin in response, twirling her umbrella in the sprinkling rain.

    A blessed calm fell as the group moved on, walking together through the fluttering droplets of rainwater gliding through the air. Up ahead in the distance through the fog, the familiar features of the Griflet River were slowly coming into view.

    "Up ahead! Hellions!"

    Mikleo's alarm call put everyone instantly on guard, adrenaline instantly pumping through their veins at the abrupt introduction of mortal danger amidst the tedium of travel. Hands fell on weapons as the group zeroed in on a pack of octopus hellions lazily encroaching upon the path at the crest of a hill ahead.

    Sorey glanced back and quickly asserted the statuses of his group members before giving them all a nod. "I'm counting on you all." His gaze fell on the newest member of the group. "Edna, follow our lead, and be careful." He urged.

    At Velvet's side, Edna nodded, closing her umbrella and exposing herself to the sprinkling rain.

    "Alright guys, let's do this!" With Sorey's call, the group drew their weapons and charged up the hill towards the hellions. Within moments, the pack of octopi registered the invading humans and turned towards them, aggressively raising their spiked tentacles in response.

    BANG!

    With the might of a giant, a massive chunk of land sprouted violently from underneath one of the five hellions, sending the monster hurtling high up into the foggy air, its tentacles twirling helplessly behind it. With a loud splat, the hellion landed harshly on the ground, tumbling around with flailing limbs.

    Not to be outdone, Mikleo shook his head and turned away from Edna's form, instead focusing on finishing his own arte. With a yell, he swept his free hand outward towards the hellions.

    All of a sudden, a branch of innocent sprinkling rain merged together into a sharp, unnatural spear of water and hurtled downward through the air to slam into one of the hellions in an explosion of liquid force, slamming it flat onto the ground.

    "Not bad for a Meebo." Was Edna's comment as she waved her umbrella, finalizing a low-power arte to harry one of the other hellions. "A Meebo with an element advantage." She snarked.

    Mikleo grunted in irritation, digging his boots into the mud and running forward to fight the hellions at a closer range. "I told you to stop calling me that!"

    Sorey gave him a helpless grin briefly over his shoulder as he charged forward and met the first octopus hellion head-on, dodging the monster's tentacles. "I think you might just have to get used to it, Mikleo." He grunted, rolling to the side and avoiding the tentacles flying over his head before getting to his feet and slashing to the side, smoothly slicing through the slimy skin and eliciting a squeal of agony from the hellion.

    "That's what I'm afraid of!" Siding to a stop, Mikleo took the initiative and used his staff to club the head of the hellion Sorey had just struck. He leapt back with a grunt, dodging the retaliatory attack. "Lailah!" He called over to the fire seraph. "You sure there aren't any other earth seraphim nearby that we could ask for help instead of her?"

    "I'm very sorry to disappoint, but unfortunately that is in fact the case." Lailah's grin said she wasn't very sorry at all as she flicked her wrist, finalizing her arte and causing one of the other hellions to burst into flames. "Velvet!" She prompted.

    "Right here!" Acrobatically leaping through the air, Velvet dodged the attack of another hellion and charged up to the one that Lailah had set on fire before she fell into a cartwheel. The hidden blade inside her boot jerked out and carved a clear gash across the stunned hellion's skin. Recovering her footing, the woman leapt backward in a backflip with her arm outstretched, letting her extended gauntlet blade slash an additional wound in the body of the scorched octopus hellion in the process, leaving it fully disabled.

    "Nice one!" Sorey commented, himself slashing outward and slicing his sword through the slimy skin of the octopus hellion he and Mikleo were engaging. A brilliant flash of blue preceded the casting of the sacred flame upon the wounded hellion, relegating the monster into the form of a wounded jackrabbit that immediately began to scuttle away from the chaos as quickly as it could manage.

    Edna glanced briefly over at the purified rabbit before returning her attention back to the other four hellions. "Lailah!" She called. "Take the one in the back. I've got the closer one."

    "Right!" With a nod, Lailah stepped up firmly alongside Edna. Together, the two seraphim raised their weapons of choice and concentrated, focusing their efforts on the distant hellion.

    Meanwhile, Velvet jerked her hand, gesturing for Sorey to come to her. Nodding, the Shepherd broke into a run through the rain towards her and the fallen hellion beside Velvet. The other three hellions instantly converged upon him, their tentacles seeking to tear his clothes and rend his flesh apart.

    SPLASH!

    A barrage of water fell alongside him as he ran, wreaking havoc amongst the octopi and giving him leeway to arrive at Velvet's side with his sword drawn. He absently gave Mikleo a nod of thanks before turning to the fallen hellion and precisely waving his sword, purifying the monster.

    Unnoticed by him, Velvet had instinctively shied away from the burst of flame, her very being reviling the heat of the purifying fire.

    Shaking her head, the disguised therion moved hastily away from the Shepherd as he worked and instead pushed herself into a run towards the casting seraphim who were being defended by only Mikleo as the remaining three hellions encroached upon their position.

    "Gah!" Mikleo grunted as he stumbled backwards, his boots digging in the mud as he clumsily regained his balance while keeping both hands on his staff. "Guys! Hurry up!" He yelled urgently over his shoulder.

    "Quiet." Edna's face was scrunched in concentration. "Almost done."

    By her side, Lailah's eyes shot open, brimming with power. "Alright!" She cried, raising a casting page in her hand. Edna's umbrella lifted in tandem as the two seraphim finalized their arte.

    "NOW!" They yelled, their hair whipping around their bodies as the mana billowed with the initiation of their artes.

    BANG!

    CRACK!

    The ground shook for miles around as an explosion and an earthquake erupted at the same time. The hellions squealed in agony as they were cast bodily in different directions, tumbling away with rocks embedded in their charred skin. The moist, foggy air momentarily became flooded with the scent of burning fish and of lingering dust.

    Gasping for breath, Edna and Lailah stumbled away from the results of their artes, their hands on their knees. Edna coughed, waving her right hand in front of her face as she wafted the thick dust enshrouding her away.

    Her eyes widened when she registered a tentacled silhouette directly in front of her. She let out a cry of alarm.

    "EDNA!"

    Velvet shouted as she lunged forward, tackling the seraph and sending them both tumbling out of the way of the hellion's attack. Right before they hit the ground, she twisted her body and let her left shoulder take the brunt of the impact, her black coat gliding through the mud as she cradled Edna protectively.

    Not missing a beat, Mikleo ran up to the fallen women and finished his arte with a yell, casting a flying spike of ice to slam into the side of the hellion's head and distracting it.

    Sorey, now armatized with Lailah, charged in, using his great sword to bash the monster away from his friends. With a roar, the Shepherd charged after the hellion's form, continuing the fight.

    "You guys alright?" Mikleo asked worriedly as Velvet and Edna untangled themselves on the ground, absently keeping track of Sorey and Lailah's progress as they mopped up the rest of the hellions.

    "We're fine." Velvet assured, pushing herself back onto her feet and extending a hand to Edna.

    "That was stupid." Edna berated herself as she let Velvet pull herself up, haughtily brushing the mud off her legs and clothes.

    She gave Velvet a deeply grateful look. "…Thanks for that." She gave a slight incline of her head in appreciation.

    Velvet nodded, idly examining her mud-drenched clothing and bandages. "It's nothing." She jerked her head to the side. "It's Mikleo you should be thanking for distracting the hellion."

    The sour look that Edna gave her in response made the therion smirk.

    With a sigh, Edna turned to Mikleo reluctantly. "I guess I should thank you for that as well." Suddenly, her lips curved upward. "…Meebo." She finished wryly.

    Mikleo facepalmed. "Don't make me regret helping you." He muttered sourly.

    Together, the three of them turned and watched as Sorey dispelled his armatization and purified the last of the fallen hellions with a shaky sword.

    "Whew!" He exhaled, turning to the rest of them as the last of the purified jackrabbits scurried off into the field. "That battle was tough!" He glanced at Edna and Velvet's mud-soaked forms in particular with worry in his eyes. "You guys alright?"

    "We're fine." Edna reassured.

    She glanced over at Velvet and her mud-soaked arm. "Your bandages might need replacing, though." She raised an eyebrow at the therion. "Then again, I'm not so sure why you're even wearing them at all in the first place when you can clearly use your arm regardless."

    Velvet was about to answer when she registered the looks on Mikleo and Sorey's faces.

    She blinked. "…What?"

    The two exchanged hesitant glances before Mikleo let out a halting confession. "W-well," he stammered, "I figured early on that we shouldn't bring up your arm because you'd probably… not take it too well." Heat was crawling up the back of his neck. "S-sorry, we probably should've told Edna beforehand, so she wouldn't've asked." He mumbled respectfully.

    Velvet blinked at him incredulously. "…You were really that worried about how I'd feel about it?"

    Sorey grinned cheekily, explaining, "Mikleo felt kinda guilty about all his assumptions about you in the beginning when we first met." He said with a shrug. "I think it was just his way of apologizing for it. It's a very Mikleo thing to do."

    "Sorey…!" Mikleo growled out of the side of his mouth, furiously embarrassed. In response, Sorey just raised both hands in surrender, a wry grin on his face.

    "…I see."

    Shaking her head, Velvet addressed the topic at hand. "In any case, you don't have to worry about that." She waved the bandaged arm in question. "It's a sort of disease." She explained. "I have full use of my arm, but the appearance is rather off-putting to some, so I keep it covered."

    At their wide-eyed looks, she rolled her eyes. "Don't worry. It's not contagious… Much." She added with a dry smirk.

    Edna dryly shouldered her opened umbrella, raising an unimpressed eyebrow at the once-more horrified expressions Sorey and Mikleo were wearing. "She's kidding." She drawled. "Idiots."

    "Ahah." Sorey chuckled, scratching his nose. "Got it."

    Mikleo's face had gone red. "…So…" he mumbled, "you mean to say you didn't care at all about us mentioning your arm from the start?"

    Velvet shrugged, a hand on her hip. "Not one bit." She confirmed.

    "Moron." Edna goaded with a satisfied smirk on her face, her umbrella shadowing her face. "What, was it some kind of idiot guy thing to assume that all girls are fragile flowers?"

    Mikleo just let out a sigh in response, rubbing his temples.

    Taking pity on the poor water seraph, Velvet shrugged. "I suppose the thought is what matters." She gave him a nod. "I appreciate it, for what it's worth."

    Mikleo's spine seemed to straighten sharply with the expression of her gratitude.

    "Y-you're welcome." He returned haltingly, turning around and putting his back to them. "Anyways, we should get going. We're almost at the bridge." He mumbled hastily, walking off.

    The rest of the group exchanged glances before shrugging and following in the seraph's footsteps.

    Edna was right, Velvet reflected as she walked. They were just one big band of weirdos, the lot of them.

    What a familiar feeling.

    High up in the sky, the stray storm cloud began to move on with the wind, leaving the land once more exposed to the brightness of the sun.

    ----

    "Wait a minute." Mikleo asked incredulously. "You're going to do this right away?"

    Edna bounced the tip of her closed umbrella on the ground. "Don't you know what the humans will think of you?" She gestured over her shoulder at the bustling Griflet Bridge Camp framed in the golden light of the sunset. "What will happen if you demonstrate power that transcends their simple understanding right here, right now, in front of them all?"

    Velvet glanced over her shoulder at all the humans in question. With the torrential rainfall having finally stopped shortly before the group had returned back to the bridge, a flurry of activity had ignited in the makeshift settlement. Yells and shouts echoed throughout the camp as merchants and builders worked together to move waterlogged building materials though deep tracts of mud. Everyone had been whipped into a flurry of activity devoted towards rebuilding the structure and towards hastening their return home to where their sick families still awaited them, along with the precious medicine they carried.

    By her side, Sorey also watched the people in the camp, his jaw set. At his back, the rushing waters of the Griflet River continued to roar.

    "…I know." He muttered under his breath, answering Edna's question. "I know how they'll act. Regardless," he turned to face the seraph, "it's for everyone's sake that I get this done as soon as possible… so that they don't waste time pouring effort into building foundations that we'll be constructing for them."

    "You do have a point…" Lailah held a hand to her chest in worry. "Yet what of you, Sorey?"

    Sorey shook his head, facing her firmly. "Don't worry about me." He gave a smile that didn't reach his eyes. "I'll be fine."

    "…Suit yourself." Edna shrugged apathetically. "Maybe you like being treated like a monster."

    Velvet was silent.

    Mikleo nodded, meeting Sorey's eyes seriously. "It's your call. I'll go find Alisha then. The three of you should cross the river as soon as possible once the deed is done."

    Sorey nodded.

    As Mikleo left, the Shepherd turned to face the task at hand. Before him, the vast expanse of the Griflet River awaited, its surging currents still fierce and strong despite the lack of rain.

    "…Edna." He prompted. "Can I count on your help?"

    The seraph tilted her head apathetically, the ribbons on her outfit fluttering in the breeze. "The Shepherd has the ability to command the seraphim at will, isn't that right?" She pointed out. "I'm your Sub Lord. Do whatever you want."

    It was incredible how quickly Sorey turned around to face her, pure disgust on his face.

    "No way." He almost growled, uncharacteristically firm in his demeanor. "You are not a tool for me to use, nor are any of the other seraphim. If you don't want to help, I'll find another way."

    He shook his head impassionedly. "My dream is for humans and seraphim to coexist." He stated. "Manipulating seraphim is not what I'd call a peaceful coexistence. On the contrary, I find the very idea despicable."

    At Edna's side, Lailah explained, "Sorey was brought up alongside seraphim. In fact, Mikleo has been his childhood friend ever since his birth." Her words were logical and pointed. "Naturally, he'd revile such underhanded manipulation of other simply to achieve one's personal goals, having been brought up this way."

    Velvet didn't need to look over her shoulder to know that the seraph was looking directly at her.

    Edna let out a mildly impressed huff, shifting on her feet and letting the tip of her unopened umbrella drop to the cobblestones of the broken bridge below. "Humans and seraphim, huh?" She raised an eyebrow at him.

    "Then what about hellions?" She asked.

    The rushing of the bridge filled the silence.

    Sorey blinked in confusion. "Hellions? What about them?"

    Edna shrugged, opening her umbrella and resting it upon her left shoulder. "Nothing." She dismissed casually, looking vaguely off into the distance. "Just a random thought."

    The Shepherd's confusion was interrupted by a far-off cry. "Sorey!"

    The group turned as one to face Princess Alisha as she jogged up to them urgently, Mikleo at her heels. "Is what Mikleo says true?" She implored as she came to a halt, catching her breath. "Have you found a way to repair the bridge using your powers?"

    Sorey shook his head. "Not mine." He gestured to the newest member of the group. "Edna here's going to help us out using herpowers. She's an earth seraph, so if anyone can do this, it's her."

    Alisha abruptly registered Edna's presence with surprise, horror creeping into her expression. "O-oh! Forgive my manners, Seraph Edna." She hunched forward into a sincere bow. "I deeply regret my transgression."

    Edna's expression didn't change. "Yeah, you ought to."

    Her free arm fell to her side as she eyed the woman disapprovingly. "And we're already on a first name basis even though we just met?" Almost habitually, her gloved right hand reached up and grabbed the orange doll hanging from her umbrella. "You're awfully rude, you know that?" She accused.

    Alisha shook her head sorrowfully. "Please forgive me…"

    Seeing where this was going, Velvet decided to take pity on the poor princess before Edna could torment her any further. "As Sorey was saying," she drawled, smirking at Edna's pout at being denied her fun, "'Seraph Edna' here will be using her powers to construct a foundation for the new bridge before we cross ourselves."

    Getting over her shame, Alisha blinked as Velvet's words sunk in. She glanced back at Sorey and Edna in amazement. "The Shepherd can do that?"

    "Do you doubt my powers?" Edna raised an indignant eyebrow.

    Instantly cowed, Alisha bowed her head once more. "No, Madam Seraph… I apologize for my impudence."

    Edna's smile was fanged. "If you're sorry, then do the normincarena as penance."

    Alisha blinked, raising a questioning finger. "The nor… What now?"

    "You don't know it?" Edna's inflectionless voice somehow managed to sound both deeply disappointed and apathetic at the same time. "How disrespectful."

    The princess flinched. "Please forgive me…!"

    "If you're sorry, then-"

    Chuckling, Sorey prudently interrupted the redundant conversation. "Okay, that's enough." He berated lightly, a wry grin on his face.

    Within moments however, the smile slid off his face as the sight of all the humans desperately working to return to their sick families across the river faced him once more. Any sign of humor instantly vanished, leaving behind a young man struggling to fill the boots of the Shepherd.

    One doing absolutely everything in his power to do what he thought was right.

    Alisha instantly caught onto the serious atmosphere, her right arm bending to grasp onto her left instinctively. "Wait a second, Sorey." She turned to the Shepherd. "You don't actually mean to use your powers right at this moment in front of all these people…?"

    Edna waved a nonchalant hand. "He wants to make sure the other humans don't spend resources and time working on something he's making himself." She explained.

    Sorey nodded. "Yeah." He confirmed. "I've decided it's the best way to help everyone."

    "…If you're sure, then I won't doubt your decision." Alisha conceded.

    Velvet silently spectated the interactions taking place, keenly studying Sorey's stout demeanor and resolute determination.

    She was impressed.

    "Well, I guess then we'd better get started." With that, Sorey turned on his heel and trotted up to the edge of the bridge, Edna at his side. "Alisha, Velvet, if any of the people come near, tell them to stay back." He called over his shoulder.

    Velvet gave Sorey a slow, encouraging nod in return. "…Good luck." She wished.

    Sorey nodded back, before taking a deep breath and turning to Edna. "Ready?" He prompted.

    Edna closed her umbrella with a soft thunk. "Let's just hurry up and get this over with." She raised an eyebrow. "Your goal is to help the humans as quickly as possible, right?"

    "…Right." With growing resolution in his eyes, the Shepherd turned to face the trial before him and raised a hand high in the air.

    "Hephsin Yulind!"

    A bright glow overtook the young man's form as he armatized with the earth seraph. Two massive fists of mana-infused rock floated at his sides, mimicking the movements of his arms. Bright, angelic white clashed with the fiery orange of the accents of his outfit as well as the brilliant unnatural hue of his eyes.

    It was a sight that was a hauntingly familiar to Velvet. Just as the sight of Mikleo's Water Armatus had, it reminded her of a distant time when she had fought against now-ancient enemies. Enemies that had willingly sacrificed their own lives in a desperate, heroic attempt to best the ultimate enemy of their time. The one monster whose existence alone meant the suffering of countless others.

    Herself.

    With a rough shake of her head, she forced herself to focus on what was happening in the present rather than the past.

    BANG! BANG! BANG!

    Within seconds, the world had devolved into one ruled by chaos and anger. The ground below her feet shook with the unmatched ferocity of an earthquake while the waters behind her splashed violently upward as jagged shards of earth forced their ways brutally through the surface. The very river itself shook and undulated with the disruptions that caused waves to form and crash harshly against the riverbank, sending water flying high into the sky.

    Her gaze turned to Sorey, whom was hunched over and continually slamming his armatized fists into the earth before him, all the while forcing more and more slabs of rock to rise up into the air. Sweat streamed down his forehead as he pushed himself harder and harder, his teeth gritted hard in concentrated effort.

    "Wh-what's going on?!"

    Velvet turned sharply to the astonished jabbering of people before her. She and Alisha exchanged glances before facing the mixed group of soldiers, builders, and Marlinders staring at the Shepherd's form in pure, unbridled disbelief.

    Behind her, the tremors continued as Sorey worked.

    "People of Hyland, please!" Alisha's voice was shill and high in an attempt to override the crashing bursts of rock and water behind her. She glanced briefly behind her with wide eyes at Sorey's actions before she forced herself to focus instead on the people in front of her. "Stay back!" She cried, waving a hand. "The Shepherd is currently constructing a foundation to aid in the Griflet Bridge reconstruction effort!"

    "Th-the Shepherd?!"

    "He's the Shepherd?"

    "My gods! He's raising boulders with nothing but his own fists!"

    "T-that's c-crazy!"

    "How is this even possible?!"

    Velvet snuck an eye over her shoulder at Sorey as he continued to slam his fists into the ground. He could hear all of it. Every word, she knew. Every single word was like a dagger to his heart; another stark reminder of how he was different. Unnatural.

    How, despite his human heritage, he was as alien to the people of this world as the seraphim were.

    The shuddering of earth continued over the disbelieving muttering and jabbering of the masses. More and more people were coming to gather before the foot of the bridge; all of them collectively awestruck by the demonstration of powers beyond their imaginations. A complete contradiction to everything they had once believed their world to be.

    Velvet let out a huff and turned away from the gawking crowds, having had enough.

    She'd seen it all before. Despite how long it had been, it would seem that the fragile nature of humans would always be the same.

    Regardless of the land nor age, the fear and revulsion of those whom are different would always exist.

    Slowly, she made her way up the broken arc of the bridge over to the Shepherd as he slammed his fist on the ground one last time, heaving for breath. Behind her, the rampant murmuring and squabbling of the masses began to grow even louder in the absence of the earth-shaking blows. Standing on shaking knees, Sorey dispelled the Armatus. Edna reappeared alongside the other seraphim at the base of the bridge, similarly exhausted.

    Velvet was there to catch Sorey's lone form before he toppled over into the river, steadying him with a firm grip.

    "Idiot." She berated quietly under her breath as she let go of him, letting him stand on his own. "You overdid it." She accused.

    "Hah… I guess I did." Sorey breathed, shaking the stars out of his head and wiping the sweat off his forehead.

    The two of them stared out at the result of the Shepherd's Miracle; jagged boulders haphazardly erected from the riverbed and jutting out a few meters up from the raging waters. They would provide a solid foundation to allow for the rapid construction of a new bridge; one capable of sustaining the weight of aid wagons laden with medicine. With his efforts, he'd saved the people over a month's worth of hard work in digging foundations in the river. With his efforts, he'd helped to save their families as well.

    Sorey's eyes inevitably drifted to the people in question whom he'd helped. All of them; every single one; looked back directly at him, their eyes filled with the exact emotions he'd expected to see.

    Shock. Disbelief. Awe. Denial. Fear. Terror.

    A terrible shiver ran up his spine as he stood there before them all. There was nothing in this world that would've prepared him for that moment, he reflected idly. Nothing that would've prepared him for the revelation. Even Alisha, his squire, had seemed perturbed by his actions.

    All of them. They all looked at him as if he were something… different to them.

    Inhuman, even.

    All but her.

    His gaze drifted to Velvet, a strange look in his eyes as he stared inquisitively at the lone, unaffected woman standing before him, a sea of fearful people directly behind her.

    Interpreting his look, the woman raised a single eyebrow in response.

    "If you think I'm going to act all scared of you as well," she remarked dispassionately, "I'm afraid you're setting yourself up for disappointment."

    Sorey blinked.

    And then, ever so slowly, a hint of the Shepherd's normal self began to seep back once more into his frozen body. With jerky, halting movements, he scratched the back of his neck out of habit, forcing his eyes away from those of the people. "…Yeah, suppose so, huh?" He agreed with a humorless chuckle.

    As the seraphim began to walk up to the base of the bridge towards the two of them in the aftermath of the event, Velvet felt something come over her. The gawking people; Sorey's deeply disturbed expression; all of it drove her to open her mouth right then.

    "You know," Velvet mumbled under her breath, "you should feel relieved right now."

    Sorey nodded. "I am." He agreed. "Now the Marlinders will be able to build the bridge in much less time than before."

    "That's not what I meant."

    He blinked.

    Velvet shook her head, waving a dismissive hand as the seraphim of the group approached them. "…Never mind."

    "Well, that went well." Edna's voice was dry and laced with fatigue as she walked up to them alongside the other two seraphim.

    Lailah glanced worriedly over her shoulder. "…Yet it would seem that none of the people are willing to continue construction with us in the way."

    Sorey let out a breath, standing up straight. "That's understandable." He acknowledged.

    Mikleo gestured over his shoulder. "Alisha is busy trying to calm down the masses. From the looks of things, even the local garrison was stirred up by what you just did."

    "Then we should get going as soon as possible before the humans all reach peak freak-out." Edna summarized, turning to Mikleo. "Meebo. You ready?"

    He nodded. "Once Alisha comes, I'll be ready to transport us across."

    "Hold on a second." Sorey's jaw was firm as he took a step forward, down the bridge towards the people. "Before we go, I need to find Neif to get the medicine."

    Velvet's voice was soft.

    "…Are you sure you're ready for that?"

    Sorey nodded firmly, not turning around. "What's important… are the people of Marlind. That's all." He reaffirmed.

    It sounded like he was trying to convince himself.

    And with that, the Shepherd began a slow, measured pace down towards the flock of frightened sheep. Behind, the wolf watched him go over his shoulder, an intrigued glint in her eyes.

    The freshly raised array of rocky outcroppings jutting out from the surface of the Griflet River would remain there for centuries after that day; a testament to the almighty Shepherd's powers.

    Proof of his inhumanity.

    ----

    "Agh!"

    Sorey let out a yelp as he was deposited roughly onto the ground, rolling over himself in the dirt before coming to a rough halt. Blinking rapidly, the first thing he registered was the dampness of the dirt under his palms. The familiar howling of rushing water told him that he was directly beside the Griflet River. Pushing the disorientation aside with a vigorous mental effort, the Shepherd forced himself to recall what had happened as the world around him slowly stopped spinning.

    The group had crossed the river with the help of Mikleo's artes along with Neif's medicine and had made some progress towards Marlind before setting camp for the night. After a light dinner, they had all fallen asleep in a safe campsite tucked away from the main road.

    And then he'd been kidnapped in his sleep.

    The Shepherd let out a huff exasperation, finding the ground under his feet and standing up straight, staring up into the sky.

    Idly, he noted that no stars were visible; they'd been obscured by a thick blanket of malevolence. For the Shepherd was standing directly in the midst of a terrifyingly powerful hellion's domain.

    His cloak rattled on his back as the howling gales of the domain whipped it left and right in erratic patterns like a pitiable flag in a hurricane. Flakes of concentrated malevolence were everywhere, constantly swirling around him like a swarm of flies on a corpse. An otherworldly hum rumbled outward from beneath his feet, rivaling the rumbling of the river beside him. The ceremonial sword hanging from his hip felt like a useless paperweight in the face of such a display of pure, inherent power.

    "Y'know," Sorey began lightly, idly dusting the dirt off his cloak as he turned around, "if you wanted me to meet you away from the others like this, all you had to do was ask."

    He angled his chin downward and met the fierce red eyes of the familiar hellion standing across from him parallel to the river. The Shepherd raised an eyebrow, crossing his arms and facing the masked hellion fully.

    "…You don't have to keep up this façade, really." He reasoned. "I know you have motives regarding me." He shook his head. "And honestly, that's fine. I really have no problem helping you get what you want from me."

    To his surprise, the hellion actually reacted to his words.

    With almost hesitant movements, the monster tilted its head in a clear, wordless inquiry. Forcing himself past the shock of conversing with a hellion whom he could apparently reason with, Sorey tried to think of the best way to communicate his intentions.

    He abruptly chuckled at the absurdity of the situation, scratching his cheek sheepishly. "…That must sound pretty bad to you, coming from a Shepherd, huh?" He muttered, shaking his head wryly. "I guess… it's just a hunch I had about you."

    He gave the hellion a lopsided, honest nod. "I've only recently been coming to terms with how strange and wondrous this world can be." He explained softly. "Seraphim… shepherds… dragons… All of them. Legends whose validity I've confirmed through no more than the means of my own two eyes. And… I had a thought the other night." He took a gentle step forward, gesturing towards the hellion.

    "Why should hellions be any different?"

    His eyes were honest as he gazed at the emotionless masked monster before him. "…Your actions so far speak louder than anything you could've possibly said to me."

    He thought back to everything he knew about it. It's lack of murderous intent. It's distinctly intelligent movements. It's actions in following him in particular.

    "…And in the end," Sorey continued slowly, "there was only one reason I could come up with to explain them." He shifted on his feet, his eyes narrowing.

    "You… you want to… teach me, don't you?" He asked softly. "You want to teach me… how to fight…?"

    It sounded so absurd. Sorey knew that if he had brought it up with the others, they'd dismiss the idea in an instant, then berate him for even entertaining the idea in the first place. Mikleo in particular. And they would be right to do so. There was absolutely no good reason for him to believe in such an outrageous conclusion. And yet, something deep inside Sorey told him otherwise. His instincts told him that this hellion… this hellion was different, somehow. That this hellion was following him for a reason. A reason bereft of malice.

    He crossed his arms firmly and faced off against the hellion, awaiting its response.

    The rushing of the Griflet River permeated the cold, chilly night air in the silence that followed. All around them, the hellion's extraordinarily powerful domain continued to swirl in the darkness; a silent spectator to the encounter between light and dark.

    And then slowly, almost hesitantly, the monster gave a nearly imperceptible nod of confirmation.

    "Ah! I knew it!"

    Sorey's face broke into a wide, satisfied smile at the realization that he'd been right. He stepped forward, decisively popping his right fist on his left palm. "Then that settles it." He declared firmly.

    With a wave, he gestured at his surroundings. "From now on, I'll try to come out at night whenever I can find a chance to slip away from everyone else and meet up with you." He gave a noncommittal shrug. "Or whatever works for you, really. Just do something to let me know one way or another, and I'll come whenever I get the chance." He promised.

    He grinned weakly. "I hope you'll take it easier on me from now on, though." He wished half-heartedly. "With all this travelling we've been doing, the lack of sleep might raise some questions from the others." He let out a wry shrug. "But now that I think of it, you're so strong that you'll probably beat the snot out of me regardless of whether you're going easy or not." He chuckled. "I guess it can't be helped." It might've been his imagination, but it honestly looked as if the eyes of the hellion were almost disbelieving at his words.

    He blinked, abruptly remembering something.

    With measured, fearless steps, the Shepherd calmly trotted up to the motionless hellion emitting thick, overwhelmingly powerful waves of malevolence. He ignored his instincts that were screaming at him to run away from such corruption, and instead forced himself to come to a stop a mere arm's reach away from it.

    And, without further delay, he raised his empty right hand and offered it to the evil creature.

    "We should start over." He proposed gently, smiling honestly at the stoic mask before him. "I'm Sorey the Shepherd. Nice to meet you."

    All around them, the malevolence continued to swirl.

    The hellion remained as still as a statue, but his proffered hand didn't waver. "I really don't understand your motives at all." Sorey admitted openly. "I honestly can't fathom why you're following me, or why you feel the need to try and teach me how to fight of all things. I mean, for one, you're a hellion; beings who, from my experience, don't tend to be very pleasant."

    He shrugged. "But from the looks of things," he figured, "you don't mean me or any of my friends any harm." He gave a small yet earnest smile. "So, if that's the case, I'm happy to help you with whatever you need." He held the gaze of the malicious red eyes firmly. "I promise I'll do everything I can to keep this up. Does that sound alright to you?"

    His hand continued to hover in the space between the two of them, unwavering and determined. A symbol of friendship freely offered by the world's savior to a monster.

    It just felt like the right thing to do.

    Then, without warning, the hellion tensed its legs and leapt inhumanly high into the air, vanishing amidst the darkness brought about by its own domain.

    Sorey blinked in surprise, his offered hand falling to his side as he glanced left and right, vainly seeking for a hint of the hellion that had disappeared into thin air. All around him, the remnants of the powerful monster's domain began to dissipate; ribbons of malevolence slowly fading out of existence.

    In the tranquil, malevolence-free night, a quiet smile softly appeared on his face.

    "I guess I'll take that as a yes." He remarked, scratching the back of his head habitually. "I guess if he's following me," he supposed, "there's no need to really rush anything."

    He abruptly let out a sigh, looking around his surroundings in the aftermath of the encounter, his thoughts shifting away from the enigmatic hellion and to his current situation. "…Now the real question is," he mumbled under his breath, "just where the heck am I?" Shaking his head helplessly, he pulled out his copy of the Celestial Record and began the tedious process of determining his location from the rough maps and sketches he'd been working on.

    Far away, from a distant tree line, Velvet watched with crossed arms as the Shepherd eventually decided on a direction and began walking, snapping his copy of the Celestial Record shut.

    Her right index finger tapped her left bicep in irregular, agitated intervals.

    "…Naïve idiot." She muttered under her breath, utterly in disbelief at how trusting the moron had been with her after she'd attacked both him and even his friends. What kind of person would trust a monster like her? Especially when said person's only prior experiences with other monsters had all lead to violence? That sort of idiotic fairy-tale optimism of his would get him killed one day; there was no doubt about that.

    She blinked when she belatedly realized that, despite herself, a small, amused smirk had crept onto her face.

    She let out a disbelieving scoff and shook her head, forcing her thoughts back on track.

    With one last shake of her head and a firm mental reminder of her goals, Velvet gathered herself and took off into the night where she proceeded to doggedly follow Sorey's tracks as he made his way back to camp, intending to slip silently back into the group before he returned; with Lailah's help, naturally.

    In the dead silence of the night that followed, the Griflet River flowed at a loud but measured pace in stark contrast to the raging currents that had been caused by the pouring rain. Its deep, obscure waters ran endlessly into the night, moving ceaselessly onward towards distant lands.

    ----​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
  7. Threadmarks: C06 - Similarities
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 6 – Similarities.

    "…She's scary." Sorey whispered under his breath, while at the same time making sure to stay keenly focused at the task at hand as if his life depended on it. "Like, really scary."

    "'Really scary?'" Kneeling at his side, Mikleo felt a shiver run up his spine as he sensed the woman's eyes drilling into the back of his head. "That's putting it lightly! She's terrifying!" He hissed back, his heart pounding uncontrollably in his chest as he hurriedly shoved a pot into his pack.

    "Do you think maybe she might just be… overreacting, like, just a bit?" Sorey supposed weakly, gingerly easing a pack of valuable gels into a side pouch of his own travel pack.

    Mikleo shot him a look before quickly returning to his current task. "This is all your fault." He muttered resentfully, carefully arranging cutlery together in a neat pack.

    "How is all this my fault?!" Sorey hissed back incredulously, in the process of neatly folding all his clothes.

    "If you hadn't shoved all your stuff into our pack willy-nilly, this whole thing wouldn't've happened." The water seraph grumbled, bundling up a few rags together in his hands.

    "You can't blame me for that!" The Shepherd hissed indignantly. "Besides, don't pretend you did any better than me! You're in this mess too for a reason!"

    "Both of you."

    The two of them froze at the chilling voice that had come from behind their backs. Looming over their shoulders, Velvet Davidson's eyes narrowed.

    "Move." She snarled lowly.

    "Y-yes ma'am!" "Right away!"

    The two of them chorused hurriedly before returning to their work with crazed fervor, scrambling around like whipped dogs in an effort to re-pack their travel bags in a manner that would appease their vindictive overseer. As they scampered around shoving various travel items back into their packs – neatly and carefully, lest they incur the wrath of their taskmistress – Velvet tracked their movements with narrowed eyes, her boots planted firmly on the ground and her arms crossed harshly across her chest. A safe distance away from the fiasco, Edna watched on with an amused smirk, while Lailah and Alisha exchanged worried glances.

    It had all started so innocuously.

    It was a hot, hot day; the group was once more alone on the road, travelling towards Marlind in the heat by following a winding path through a light forest. Cicadas blared loudly in tandem throughout the trees, their squealing pitch grating on the group's ears. The spotty, inadequate shadows of the tree cover above their heads did next to nothing to shield them from the waves of heat emanating from the afternoon sun hanging directly above their heads. All the group could do was to keep on putting one foot in front of the other.

    That was what the group had been doing, that is, moments before an apple had fallen out of Sorey's pack.

    The Shepherd had paused at the sound of the fruit falling on the dirt behind him, turned around and stooped down to pick it up and blow the dirt off the skin, and then shoved it once more into his pack before resuming his pace.

    Then Velvet had descended upon him.

    "If you take one more step," she had growled over his shoulder, "I will personally see to it that you'll be walking bow-legged for the next five hours. Minimum." Pointedly, the woman had noisily tapped her steel-toed boot on the dirt.

    Needless to say, Sorey froze on the spot. "H-huh?" He had stammered, turning around and facing the suddenly terrifying scowl of the woman with wide, confused eyes. "W-what do you mean, Velvet?"

    The woman had simply pointed over his shoulder at his pack. "Your pack." She had pointed out. "Dump it on the ground. Now." She had demanded.

    "What? Why?"

    Mikleo had trotted over at this time, eyebrows raised in confusion. "Is there a reason why you're telling him to do that?" He'd asked, coming to the defense of his friend.

    He'd instantly regretted that decision as Velvet lasered in on him as well with narrowed eyes. "You too."

    The seraph blinked. "Huh?"

    "Do it. Before I bash your knuckleheads together." She'd growled lowly, a dangerous edge creeping into her voice. "Do not make me repeat myself."

    Gulping, both boys had exchanged glances and hesitantly complied, turning out their packs and gingerly dumping their contents onto the earth.

    Once they had done so, Velvet had let out a vicious growl, eliciting a flinch from both of them. "…The hell is this?" She'd asked in a deceptively calm voice, her eyes rising from the pile of stuff on the ground to glare at the two culprits while her hands slowly curled up into fists. "Explain yourselves."

    Meanwhile, the rest of the group had caught up with the rest of them, confused expressions of their face as they took in the three of them stopped in the middle of the path.

    Sorey had blinked innocently, glancing helplessly at the rest of the group hoping for some semblance of salvation from any of them. When none came, he was forced to look Velvet in the eye and point out lamely, "It's… It's just our stuff?"

    "Then tell me why…" Velvet had growled, her anger visibly peaking as the dam broke, "…the gels were in the bottom of your packs?" The woman had advanced aggressively towards them, a motion that had both boys scrambling a few steps backwards as if an unstoppable, rampaging monster was coming at them. "Tell me, why there was packed fruit bouncing around unorganized and unwrapped?" She had demanded. "Do you have any idea how unsanitary and wasteful that is?"

    She had shaken her head in disbelief, jerking her hand at Mikleo's pile. "And why was that pot at the top of your equipment? What possible rationale could you have for having that be the most accessible article of your equipment?" She had taken another harsh step forward, jerking her right arm at Sorey's pile. "And why were all of your clothes unfolded? Do you not give a damn about space management? The hell kind of a Shepherd can save the people if he can't even save his own clothing from getting wrinkled?!"

    Velvet's tirade hadn't stopped. Each harsh verbal blow had been accompanied by an aggressive step forward, causing the two terrified, wide-eyed boys to stumble backwards in self-preservation as the woman laid into them with all the fury of an enraged wild beast that would be sated only by the taste of their freshly spilled blood.

    "Even my cousin is neater than you two slobs." She'd snarled. "Now, get on your knees this instant and reorganize your things properly with the care and respect that is expected of two grown adults before I kick you both into next week!" Her eyes had narrowed dangerously, snapping between the two animals of prey cowering before her.

    "A-ah, s-sure!" Sorey had stammered. "We w-will!"

    Mikleo had glanced at Sorey in surprise, before realizing that complying with the beast's demands would be the least painful way to appease it. "Y-yeah!" He'd abruptly agreed, hastily bobbing his head in compliance. "Not a p-problem."

    As the two boys had scrambled around Velvet's rage-emanating form to return to their packs and began carefully repacking their stuff in a more sensible manner, Lailah, watching the entire spectacle unfold, had placed both hands on her cheeks in morbid amusement. "…Oh dear." She'd commented. "I suppose the task of teaching those two the value of proper organization had to fall to someone at some point."

    Alisha had put a hand on her mouth, clearly torn between feeling amusement and horror. "I… I suppose learning to be orderly is part of the experience of growing into the role of a responsible adult… but…"

    WHACK!

    She had winced as Velvet smartly whacked the back of Mikleo's head for trying to put his more fragile tools at the bottom of his pack. "…Does she have to be so heavy-handed about it?" She'd asked helplessly.

    At her side, Edna had had an extraordinarily satisfied smirk on her face as she twirled her umbrella for a single revolution. "They won't forget this lesson anytime soon, that's for sure." She'd pointed out smugly.

    "…But even so." Alisha had shaken her head sadly, holding her fist up to her chest. "Oh, Sorey, Mikleo." She'd wished softly. "…Be strong, both of you."

    Edna had shot the princess a wry look. "If you feel she's being too hard on them," she had pointed out, "you could always go over there and rescue them."

    "A-ah. Well…" Alisha had winced visibly in response. "While I would… normally do that, Velvet does… raise a good point in this particular instance." She then had managed to shake herself and put on a stoic front. "…But make no mistake." She had promised, holding a determined fist to her chest. "If I feel that Velvet is taking things too far, I will intervene. I promise you that."

    "Oh?" Edna had tilted her head wryly, a sardonic smile spreading on her face. "Even if doing so meant being on the receiving end of her anger?" She'd drawled.

    "Wrong!"

    Right on cue, Velvet had yelled out and had unleashed a vicious kick to Sorey's ankle for not folding his clothes properly, causing the poor young man to topple over to the side in agony. His cry of pure misery had resounded throughout the forest for miles around.

    Alisha had winced. "Of… of course I would." She'd mumbled, utterly unconvincingly.

    And that brought the group to the present, where the two young men continued to frantically shove things into their packs under the hawk-like gaze of the hardened woman overseeing their efforts.

    With one last hurried check to ensure he hadn't forgotten anything, Sorey got up and lifted his opened travel pack, displaying it to Velvet with a shaky grin. "That… That look alright, Velvet?" He tried meekly.

    He let out an involuntary yelp as the woman proceeded to snatch the pack from him, looking over the contents with experienced eyes. With a grunt, Velvet abruptly shoved the pack back into Sorey's arms, causing him to stumble back a few steps in surprise. He blinked, glancing up at her, nervously awaiting judgement. In response, she waved a hand.

    "…Keep it that way." She ordered shortly.

    Nodding fervently, Sorey hurriedly tied the pack up and shouldered it, backing off from the woman as quickly as possible. "I-I will! Thanks, Velvet!" And just like that, he trotted off, eager to get as much distance away from the positively terrifying woman as possible.

    Velvet turned her gaze over to Mikleo's sweating form. "You too." She all but growled.

    Belatedly registering that he was also off the hook, Mikleo's spine stiffened as he nodded hastily. "N-not a problem. T-thanks." Just like that, he took off as quickly as Sorey had done, shouldering his pack once more.

    Letting out an exasperated sigh, Velvet began walking once more. She paused, turning to the side and finding all three of the other women of the group staring back at her.

    "…What?" She raised an eyebrow.

    "O-oh!" Alisha shook herself. "I apologize for staring!" She fell into a hurried trot past Velvet, aiming to catch up with the men as soon as possible.

    Edna trotted up alongside Velvet as the group jointly resumed their pace down the road. "…Nice one." She commented offhandedly, a smug grin on her face. "Those two morons needed that lecture."

    Rubbing her temple in exasperation, the therion let out a grunt. "Nothing gets on my nerves more than idiotic tendencies like theirs. Honestly, how they even managed to make it this far is beyond me."

    "That makes two of us." Edna agreed dryly, gently opening her umbrella and using the canvas as a shield from the sun high up above as she walked.

    The buzzing of cicadas continued in the infernal heat as the assorted personalities that made up the Shepherd's group trotted through the sparse shadows of the light forest. Sweat-drenched clothing stuck to their backs underneath their heavy travel packs and irritated their skin. Every mechanical step taken was another taken under the burning hot sun and through the dense humid air.

    Suddenly, a rare breeze came out of nowhere and blew through the trees, disturbing the leaves above in a chorus of soft rustling.

    Velvet felt a welcome shiver run up her spine as the cool breeze wafted over her sweat-drenched skin and chilling her overheating body. With perfunctory movements, she pushed a few wet strands of hair out of her face with her bandaged hand and continued walking with her eyes naturally shifting from side to side, taking in her surroundings with systematic efficiency.

    Ahead of her some ways up the path, Sorey and Mikleo had evidently recovered from her psychological assault on their way of life and had shifted to a different topic of conversation as they walked. Alisha had caught up to them and had fallen in step with them, chatting animatedly with a smile on her face. Mikleo seemed to be arguing with her in good faith, gesturing to help convey whatever his point was. Between the two of them, Sorey had that familiar wry grin on his face as he supported one side or the other.

    "They really are a happy bunch, aren't they?"

    Velvet blinked and glanced over at the earth seraph trotting alongside her. "Looks like it." She agreed, returning her gaze to the Shepherd and his friends. "And that's good. The more people he has supporting him, the more likely he'll be to succeed in the end."

    Edna raised an eyebrow, her eyes firmly on Velvet's form. "…You sure you know what you're doing here, Velvet?" She asked pointedly, tilting her head towards Sorey. "What you're doing with him? A big bad hellion like you trailing after his innocent little footsteps and scaring him into folding his clothes properly?"

    "Oh, I'm sure." Velvet confirmed offhandedly, absently glancing off to the side and watching the trees as they slipped by. "Like I said, the more people he has supporting him, the better." She waved an uncaring hand in the air. "That's all there is to it."

    "You know they won't see it that way." Edna pointed out. "If they ever found out, they'd kick you out in an instant."

    The therion gave her a look. "What makes you think I care?"

    Edna shrugged in response, twirling her umbrella. "Right." She remarked dryly. "The daemon that gets what she wants, was it?"

    Velvet let out an amused huff. "Now you're getting it." She shook her head. "Regardless, I don't plan on them finding out anytime soon."

    Edna hummed thoughtfully, idly waving a hand through the hot air and swatting a buzzing fly away from her face. "Well," she concluded dryly, "I don't see those two idiots wizening up to it anytime soon."

    "That makes two of us." Velvet agreed dryly.

    She abruptly turned her head to the side, watching as Lailah increased her stride to catch up with the two of them, walking alongside Edna with a serious expression on her face. Her eyes met Velvet's after glancing down at her friend.

    "Velvet, did you…?"

    "Before you ask," Edna interrupted, "yes, I'm well aware of who she really is."

    Lailah blinked, glancing between Velvet and Edna in surprise. "…Truly?" She asked in apparent disbelief.

    Velvet waved a hand in the air dryly. "…Yeah." She agreed conversationally. "And now, I'm going to have to eat her since she knows my true identity."

    "Hm." Edna rotated her umbrella in a slow, partial revolution as she walked, her eyes fixed on a vague point in the distance. "Then you should know I don't taste good." She pointed out.

    "Is that so?" Velvet's brows furrowed in thought. "…Then maybe I should tenderize and cook you first?" She proposed. "Seraph meat might go well in a stew, but I'll admit I've never tried it."

    "You know what they say." Edna pointed out apathetically. "There's a first for everything."

    "Fair enough." The therion nodded seriously without ever breaking stride. "Then Edna Stew for dinner it is.

    "Oh, stop it you two." Lailah admonished in exasperation before blinking, catching herself in surprise.

    Edna gave the Prime Lord a smug look in response. "There. See how easy that was?"

    "…What do you mean?" Lailah tilted her head in confusion.

    Closing her umbrella and exposing her head to the sun, Edna waved her umbrella towards the therion strutting alongside her. "You don't have to be so worried about Velvet all the time, Lailah." She assured genuinely. "I've seen the way you act around her. She's not going to eat us in our sleep."

    Velvet gave an amused huff at the very thought, putting a hand on her hip. "Not yet, anyways." She remarked dryly, putting a thoughtful finger on her chin. "But now that you've mentioned it, Edna Stew sounds quite appealing." She remarked with a slight grin.

    Lailah blinked, glancing at the hellion in question before looking back at Edna, slowly piecing together the implications of her words. "Then does that mean… Edna, you know Velvet?" She asked incredulously.

    The doll on Edna's umbrella flew around in a wide circle as she twirled the object around once more. "My brother did." Her voice had taken on a soft tone.

    Lailah turned to Velvet. "Is this true?"

    "…Yeah. I knew Eizen." The therion affirmed, a distant look in her eyes. "He's… changed a lot since the last time I saw him, though."

    Edna grunted. "That's an understatement." She let out shortly, looking away.

    The brief flash of worry in Velvet's expression as she sent Edna a quick glance was not lost on Lailah. The fire seraph pursed her lips, her eyebrows furrowed as she silently put the pieces together.

    "…I see." She breathed, looking away in deep thought.

    Their steps in the dirt filled the silence that followed. All around the three of them, the cicadas continued to blare unceasingly into the humid summer air. The ever-present sun maintained its perch high up above their heads, beaming down through the branches and baking the ground below. Up ahead, a burst of laughter erupted from the young Shepherd and his friends, their bodies bending over in humor.

    Velvet found a dry half-smile on her face as she watched Sorey and Mikleo devolve into a poking fight once more. At their side, Alisha spectated their match, a gloved hand covering her smile as she giggled at their antics. Their yelps and laughing shouts filled the air and accompanied the bright warbling of cicadas.

    "When the fate of the world rests upon your shoulders..." Velvet found herself murmuring, "…the support of friends means everything. I know, because Eizen was one such friend to me."

    Edna nodded quietly. "It's safe to say he felt the same way."

    Velvet glanced at her and hesitantly opened her mouth. "Edna, if you don't mind me asking-"

    "How did it happen?" Edna finished her question for her, looking away.

    "…Yeah."

    The earth seraph slowly reopened her umbrella and once more laid its stem on her shoulder, hiding her face from the sun. She let out a short sigh. "The idiot never told me. He never said a word about it, but I knew something was wrong." She twirled her umbrella absently. "There was just something about the way he wrote every letter that screamed, 'I know my days are numbered, so here's everything I want to say.'"

    She rolled her eyes in disgust. "I'm sure he knew that I was onto him, but he refused to say anything about it. To him, all he wanted to do was to exchange a few more letters before he…" She exhaled harshly, closing her eyes for a moment before collecting herself.

    "…When did it happen?" Velvet asked quietly. She glanced briefly at Lailah's sober expression. "It wasn't that long ago, was it?"

    "No." Edna confirmed shortly. "It wasn't."

    Lailah decided to speak up. "The last I saw of you Edna, long ago," she observed seriously, "Spiritcrest was still your home, as it had been for centuries. You mentioned your brother in passing, but never anything of this variety…" She trailed off.

    The earth seraph let out a blasé shrug, strolling out in front of the two of them, her back to them. "Back then, I was still getting the letters." Her eyes began staring off into the distance, unseeing.

    "…But then, at some point, they just stopped coming."

    The footsteps of the group continued in the silence. Behind Edna's back, Velvet and Lailah shared a genuinely worried look together.

    "So… then the dragon…?" Lailah prompted softly.

    "I guess one day Eizen just had enough." Velvet conjectured slowly. "…And he decided to visit his little sister once more."

    Lailah gave her an incredulous, horrified look.

    "You're not too far off." Edna's words were bland as she twirled the umbrella, shielding her face from them. "The only reason I can think why he chose to fly back to Spiritcrest is that since I was always in his thoughts, when he turned, his warped brain thought only to come back to the mountains… to come back to me."

    "What he always wanted to do." Velvet mumbled soberly.

    Edna glanced over her shoulder at her, turning the umbrella to reveal her stoic face. "I guess."

    "Then, Edna, the dragon-!" Lailah gasped, holding a hand over her mouth. "You mentioned something about your words… reaching him?!"

    "Yeah." Edna confirmed, slowing her pace and falling once more instep with them. "When he first arrived, I thought for sure he was going to sample some Sister Stew right then and there." She sent a humorless smirk towards Velvet. "…But then he stopped, his open maw inches away from my face."

    "…Then even as a dragon," Velvet observed quietly, "Eizen knew not to harm his beloved sister."

    The therion tilted her head up and glanced unseeingly into the sky beyond the branches and leaves, letting out an empty laugh. "Yeah, that sounds just like him." She remarked. "In all the time I knew Eizen, nothing anyone said or did ever seemed to be able to stop that knucklehead once he had made up his mind about something."

    "Yep." Edna's voice was resigned.

    "…After that," the earth seraph continued, "the dragon my brother had become decided to make his nest up in the mountains. He still had enough of himself left inside him to remember not to harm me, but that was all there was. Nothing ever stopped him from taking over the mountains and killing anything that came near it."

    "So goes the tale of the dreaded Rayfalke Spiritcrest." Velvet summarized somberly.

    Lailah shook her head softly in disbelief. "Then no wonder the humans at Griflet warned us against going there." She cradled her hands together in front of her. "…Edna, I'm so sorry." She sympathized softly.

    "Why?" Edna gave her a look. "It's not your fault."

    "Even still." Lailah reaffirmed, leaning in and giving Edna a gentle, firm hug. "I can't imagine what you're going through."

    Edna had tilted to the side along with the fire seraph's hug, her expression stiff and apathetic. "Wow. Touching and feeling is such an ordeal."

    Lailah frowned, releasing the blasé seraph with a sigh. "You know what I mean." She accused disapprovingly.

    "Still," Velvet spoke up, "I wouldn't feel too bad." She gestured to their front. "Sorey's promised to save Eizen, after all." She reminded.

    Edna just gave a light huff in response. "And do you believe him?"

    "That I can't say." The therion admitted, waving a hand in the air. "But if there is one thing in common between Eizen and Sorey…" She let out a huff and shook her head. "It would probably be their inborn tendency to attempt to warp what is physically possible through the sheer thickness of their skulls."

    Lailah abruptly burst into stifled giggles at the statement, shielding her mouth from view.

    Meanwhile, a dry grin had grown on Edna's face. "…Sounds about right." She twirled her umbrella around once more.

    Lailah caught ahold of herself and smiled at the two of them. "Well, we'll just have to see the extent of Sorey's power, then, won't we?"

    "Hm." Velvet let out an amused huff, idly readjusting the straps of her gauntlet blade on her right wrist. "…That we will." She intoned ominously.

    Lailah gave her a gauging look. "…If that's the case," she summarized seriously, "then I can only hope that Sorey will eventually meet your standards as Shepherd, Lord of Calamity."

    "You should." Velvet returned evenly, looking ahead into the distance.

    Edna gave the two of them dry looks and sighed. "Forget about Sorey's thick-headedness. Nothing in the world beats the stubbornness of Ms. Evil Eyes over here."

    Velvet let out a soft chuckle in response. "Well, I won't deny it."

    "…Especially when it comes to organizing packs, I assume." Lailah remarked with an amused finger held to her mouth.

    At the reminder, the therion held a hand up to her temple in exasperation.

    "Oh yeah. That reminds me." She narrowed her eyes directly at the fire seraph, a threatening scowl on her face. "If you keep on condoning Sorey's pathetic excuse for how he folds his clothes, I'll eat both of you alive on the spot." She growled.

    Lailah could only blink uncomprehendingly in response, completely lost as to how to respond to the left-field threat.

    Edna turned a deadpan stare on Velvet. "You're not helping your case, you know."

    The therion waved her bandaged hand uncaringly. "I just thought I'd let her know what my 'standards' are. I have to be a good Lord of Calamity, after all."

    Edna's dry deadpan didn't change.

    Abruptly, Lailah shook her head in exasperation, a confused smile on her face. "I honestly still don't understand you, Velvet Crowe." She openly admitted.

    Her eyes met Velvet's firmly.

    "And yet… It seems like I'm starting to." She observed.

    "Good." Edna commented offhandedly. "Now you can stop tensing up like a frightened mouse every time she comes near you."

    Lailah blinked in surprise. "Oh. I've been doing that?"

    "I'm a hellion, remember?" Velvet pointed out in the fire seraph's defense. "One that's capable of expelling enough malevolence to lay waste to an entire town. It's only natural that seraphim dislike being near me." She raised an eyebrow at Edna. "I'm amazed that you're this comfortable around me in the first place, to be honest."

    In response, the earth seraph just gave her a dry look. "Dragon. Remember?"

    "…Right." Velvet closed her eyes. "How could I forget."

    By their side, Lailah walked quietly along with a thoughtful expression.

    All around them, the trees slowly rescinded as the group made their way out of the forest and into the open plains. Sparse shadows of branches and leaves became replaced with a blanket of boiling sunlight beaming down upon the grass-filled world as far as the eye could see.

    "Hey, you guys!"

    Sorey's cry drew their attention to where the Shepherd was standing, at the top of a hill up ahead, excitedly waving at them. "Marlind's in sight! We just need to keep on going a little longer!" With that being said, he turned back to Mikleo and Alisha and the three of them broke into a hurried trot down the hill.

    Velvet exhaled in exasperation. "I have no idea how anyone in the world can maintain that level of energy."

    Lailah bobbed her head with a soft smile. "Indeed, that's just how Sorey is."

    "Come on." Edna waved a hand in the air. "They're gonna leave us behind at this rate."

    Rolling her eyes, Velvet nodded. "Alright. Then let's go."

    Together, the two seraphim and single hellion fell into a hurried trot down the path and through the heat. Behind them, the warbling of the cicadas slowly faded away as the three of them moved forward away from the forest; onward, towards the uncertain future.

    ----

    The night reeked of sickness.

    Shielded from the heavens by the mighty branches of a massive tree sprawled the vast, subdued town of Marlind; the City of the Great Tree. A wondrous town of knowledge nestled amongst holy trees whose branches were as a beacon unto the fruit of knowledge and the flower of aesthetics. A place no true scholar nor artist did not once frolic in.

    At least, that was what it had been.

    With the majority of the town's residents having been rendered bedridden, silence reigned supreme in the empty streets. Quiet, silent houses stood vigil alongside the path; their windows shuttered and closed tightly in a vain attempt to hide from the darkness haunting the community. Street lanterns dotted sporadically alongside the major town thoroughfares flickered meekly in the heavy darkness blanketing the night. Somewhere in the distance, a single wolf howled eerily into the darkened sky.

    It felt like nothing short of a ghost town.

    The crunching of steel on gravel gently dissuaded the silence of the night as a solitary figure quietly made her way through the emptied major pathway of the village. With her flowing black jacket and her loosely tied hair gliding behind her, her form resembled a specter in the night; one completely at ease in the overwhelming atmosphere of malevolence suffocating the surrounding world.

    Velvet's lips pursed as she walked, her eyes actively scanning her surroundings in perfunctory readiness as she traversed the quiet plague town. The chains on her outfit clinked in a repetitive pattern as she maintained her steady yet aimless trot down the road, idly considering the events that had transpired earlier in the day.

    The Shepherd's group had arrived at Marlind and had been positively horrified to discover the true extent of the townsfolk's' suffering. A thick, putrid cloud of malevolence blanketed the entire town, systematically inducing widespread illnesses across the people. Men, women, and children alike were seen stumbling through the hazy day-lit pathways, choking on persistent hacking coughs as they meekly made their way from one destination to another. The few fortunate souls whom had not yet been engulfed by the hellionized pathogen had ran about with dull, hopeless eyes, trying in vain to give some modicum of comfort to the sick.

    The sight that had been presented at the local sanctuary had been even worse. The dead had already begun piling up, as had been evidenced by the morbid sight of arrayed human forms underneath far too many ghostly white sheets in the courtyard. Inside the place of supposed worship, those on death's door had taken up residence, able only to suffer with wheezing breaths and uncontrollable coughing fits.

    All of this chaos that had been induced by a single corrupted being.

    Velvet came to a slow stop in the middle of a section of path whose street lamps had flickered out in the night breeze and looked up into the night sky with hardened eyes. Her daemon-enhanced vision let her make out the ever-present form of the young dragon constantly circling around the Great Tree of Marlind like a vulture patiently biding its time before some pour soul died. The monster flourished from the malevolence induced by the suffering of the humans below.

    Her eyes narrowed as she tracked the insufferable beast's movements. It continued to glide through the night sky stained purple by malevolence, silhouetting itself as it passed over the warped, ominous shape of the bronze moon. The haunting presence that none of the humans could see; a great obstacle for the Shepherd's group to overcome.

    The Shepherd's group. She had no right to interfere.

    With a shake of her head, the former Lord of Calamity wrenched her gaze away from the monster above and resumed her night time walk through the dark, unlit pathway. There was still plenty of time until sunrise; plenty of time for her to get her thoughts in order before the group woke up back in the inn.

    Suddenly, she froze.

    "A-AAH! S-stay back, pooch! B-bad dog!"

    The panicked, scratchy voice was accompanied by the vicious snarling of a rabid animal, coming from a place not far from Velvet's position. Without hesitating, the woman broke into a run through the unlit streets and towards the sounds. The moment she rounded the corner, her eyes took in the scene in an instant.

    An old man stood with his back pressed up against a street lamp, his trembling, wrinkled hands held out in front of him in a pathetic attempt to ward off his attacker; a snarling, rabid dog slowly closing in on its prey. Another local animal that had fallen prey to malevolence.

    Snarling, the hellion pounced upon its prey, its brilliant, harsh red eyes out for blood. The old man cried out in wordless terror, his eyes wide in horror.

    "DEVOUR!"

    And then out from the darkness came a nightmarish sight. A massive, inhuman claw tore its way harshly through the air, accented with glistening red serrations and engulfed with pulsating, dripping malevolence. The wolf hellion stood no chance as the swiping claw intercepted it mid-flight, slamming into its head and left flank and completely redirecting its velocity.

    CRASH!

    The monster tumbled over itself in the gravel, yipping in agony as the sharp rocks stuck to its freshly carved wounds on its fur; residual claw marks inflicted by the appendage that had eaten parts of its skin away in an instant. Driven by adrenaline and instinct, the rabid monster struggled to its limbs, gasping for breath.

    Only to be push once more into the dirt as the relentless claw slammed onto its head and pinned it down. Velvet's eyes were harsh and cold as she gave the prey squirming helplessly in her grasp a quick once-over.

    Almost out of instinct, she began to devour the hellion.

    Her claw came alive at her will. Its skin began to writhe and pulsate, a grotesquely familiar gulping sound filling the air as the appendage leeched the life out of the hellion. Malevolence, skin, and blood; all of it was food to the therion. The wolf gave a pathetic whine of protest as the merciless therion consumed it; its life leaving it by the second. It knew it was not long for this world.

    And then a hand fell on her shoulder.

    "N-no, don't. Please, miss."

    Velvet blinked. Her surprise was so great that she abruptly let go of the hellion, cutting off her daemon claw from its sustenance. She ignored the yearning in her body to resume eating and instead turned fully to face the old man whom had walked up to her and put his hand on his shoulder. To a regular non-resonant human, she could only imagine what her actions had looked like; bashing a rabid dog to the side with only a bandaged arm as well as using that same arm to then crush its head. In retrospect, her actions hadn't been very subtle. Yet they had been necessary to save his life.

    The old man's shaken yet stout expression stared resolutely back at her as he shook his head meaningfully, gesturing at the injured hellion behind her. "Please." He repeated, the tremor in his voice becoming less and less defined. "Let the pooch go."

    Finding her words, Velvet glanced over her shoulder at the wounded hellion lying there on the ground on the brink of death. "…He attacked you, didn't he?" She asked incredulously.

    "Nevertheless." The old man bravely stepped forward and slowly knelt down next to the wounded hellion, heedless of its growls and snarling. "I… I don't know what just happened here." The elderly man admitted softly. "I don't know how you just did what you did… but what I do know is that you just saved my life." He turned his wrinkled face up at the woman and smiled genuinely. "And for that, I'm deeply grateful."

    He turned his face back down to the injured hellion. "But the danger is done. There is no need to hurt this little guy anymore." Slowly, carefully, the man reached into his pocket and began slathering some gels over the wounds of the monster, careful to not apply too much pressure in his administration of the medicine. "Please, don't kill him."

    Velvet watched this happen incredulously, her daemon claw now hanging limply at her side. "…You sure?" She asked quietly. "That dog might just decide to attack someone else later on. It might even go so far as to kill a child."

    The old man nodded intently. "Then I will take steps to ensure that doesn't happen." With gentle movements, the man reached down and ever so gently stroked fur unmarred by blood, receiving a vicious snarl in response. "I shall personally take care of it and nurse it back to health." He turned his head around and met Velvet's eyes firmly. "There is simply no need to throw its life away. That is all."

    Velvet was silent as the old man returned to his work, watching with crossed arms and narrowed eyes.

    All around them, outside of the range of the street lamp illuminating their portion of the path, the darkness seemed to watch with bated breath. High up above, the drake continued to soar past the warped image of the full moon.

    Making a decision, Velvet dispelled her daemon claw and turned on her heel, away from the two.

    "…Don't go outside at night alone anymore." She murmured. "It's not safe."

    "I won't." The old man agreed softly, nodding his head. "Thank you again, miss. In these trying times, it seems that all we can do is rely on each other." He patted the injured dog once more with a soft expression. "That is all."

    Velvet was silent.

    Slowly, she walked off, leaving the man alone with the injured hellion that had tried to take his life. A kind old man and an injured monster, alone in a patch of light in a sea of wicked darkness.

    Was he wise, or merely a fool?

    She didn't have the answer to that.

    High up above, the drake continued to circle unceasingly over the town.

    ----

    The therion let out a sigh as she laid her head back on the hard wood wall of her room, idly appreciating the novelty of sitting on a clean, soft cot. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling of the brightly lit room; one of the three rooms that had been provided to the Shepherd's group by the local Hyland garrison in Marlind.

    The small yet cozy rectangular room was minimally furnished with empty wood furniture; clearly meant to house only the passing dignitary and not to act as a permanent home. Even in here, the malevolence that was permeating the outside world seeped in through the cracks, polluting the air with a light purple tint.

    Outside, the chirping of crickets could be heard through the thin wooden walls; their repetitive songs inducing a melancholic state of mind in the therion. It was sometime past midnight, she reckoned. She hadn't really felt the need to sleep, despite the ardors of the day. There was just too much to consider. She shifted on her bed, bringing her knee closer to her torso as she rested her right arm on it, idly considering her other, bandaged arm as she did so.

    Ever since she had arrived back in this world, she hadn't ever had the time to just stop and really think.

    Learning about the state of the continent called Glenwood. Discovering all of the changes that had occurred in the past thousand years. Immersing herself in the legends and myths surrounding the seraphim, hellions, and the Shepherd. She had been so preoccupied about furthering her goals that she'd lost sight of the fact that this world was in fact the same one that she had once called home.

    The place that she'd once lived a peaceful life in. The world where she'd chat with her little brother about the ships that he dreamed of one day travelling on; the world where she'd go prickleboar hunting to afford groceries; the world where she laughed with her family at the dinner table.

    The world that she'd lost long ago.

    The therion let out a sigh, letting her bandaged arm fall limply to her side. How things had changed. And yet at the same time, how things had stayed the same.

    How she was still the person she'd been forced to become back then.

    Her mind turned to the people of Marlind. The rows of bodies ready to be put into wagons and burned outside of town. The groups of sick children huddled together in the streets. The overwhelming sense of helplessness suffocating the people.

    People whom she'd save by achieving her goals. People whom the new, bright-faced Shepherd would so eagerly save if given the slightest chance to do so. People whom would be spared from the vicious plague of malevolence once the power of the fifth Empyrean, her precious little Phi, was restored. Something that would only come to pass once the Shepherd saved him from the current Lord of Calamity.

    People whom she'd just as quickly doom to their fates if it meant achieving her goals. Her fists clenched abruptly. It was the truth and she knew it.

    That was just the daemon she was. And will ever be.

    The ever-present ball of malevolence suffocated inside her being began to writhe and pulsate, overwhelming her body in a desperate desire to expel the material evidence of her emotions. Evidence of her self-hatred.

    She needed to leave. Now.

    Two knocks suddenly thudded on the door to her room. "Velvet?" Came the muffled yet distinct voice of the Shepherd. "Can I come in?"

    Blinking in surprise, Velvet sat up straight.

    After a pause, she answered, "…Yeah."

    With a noisy creak, the door to the room swung open. The Shepherd, sans his ceremonial cloak, stepped into the room with light footsteps. He blinked in surprise, registering Velvet sitting up on the bed, her long hair curled up beside her jacketless figure. "Oh! S-sorry!" He abruptly apologized, wincing. "I just saw the candlelight through door and thought you were still up." He abruptly turned to leave. "I-I'll just get going now."

    Velvet raised an eyebrow in response. "You're already here." She pointed out dryly, crossing her arms and leaning back against the wall. "Mind explaining why the hell you're up this late? You were pretty much ready to pass out when we got here."

    Sorey turned around and gave the woman a sheepish grin. "I… couldn't sleep."

    Wordlessly, Velvet beckoned the Shepherd in. Obeying, the young man closed the door behind him and stepped into the room, electing to lean against the empty table across the room from the bed Velvet sat upon.

    "So then," Velvet prompted, "what's all this about?"

    Hesitantly, Sorey scratched the back of his neck before meeting Velvet's eyes. "I've… been wanting to talk to you for a while now. I wanted to ask you something."

    "What is it?"

    Sorey shook his head firmly. "…I wanted to ask you..." He shifted on his feet, leaning in with a serious expression.

    "…How do you do it?" He asked softly.

    Velvet blinked.

    Sorey continued, "How did you live, knowing that you were the only resonant human around? How did you live, knowing about the existence of the seraphim and the hellions? Knowing the very truth of the world that everyone else is so ignorant of? How did you get used to being…" He trailed off.

    "…Different?" Velvet finished with a quiet voice.

    After some hesitation, Sorey gave a solemn nod.

    "…Yeah."

    The chirping of the crickets filled the silence in the wake of his question. Velvet's eyes were distant as she looked away, considering the Shepherd's words. At her side, her bandaged arm rested, innocent and motionless.

    "Do you remember what I said to you, back at the Griflet Bridge?" She asked softly.

    Sorey looked away, absently examining the texture of the table he was leaning against. "That I should be… relieved at the people's reactions?" He recounted, reaching up to scratch the back of his neck. "I… never understood what you meant." He admitted.

    "Think about it." Velvet ordered seriously, turning her gaze onto the young man. "When you commanded the very earth in front of all of those people, what did you feel?"

    Sorey frowned, looking down at his feet. "Like… I was a monster." He admitted. "Like I was something other than human; something that had no right to stand alongside them."

    "And why is that a bad thing?" Velvet pressed.

    He blinked. "Why…? But of course, it's a bad thing!" Sorey exclaimed, his eyes wide and incredulous. "Nobody wants to be seen as different." He shook his head. "And besides, it's not like I should be any different from them to begin with. I'm human, just as much as they are."

    "Are you saying that you want to lose your resonance?" Velvet asked, her eyes hard.

    Sorey froze.

    "Lailah, Mikleo, Edna. Your little family in Elysia." Velvet listed off. "Are you saying that the acceptance of the masses as one of their own is worth becoming as dull and ignorant as the rest of the humans?" She leaned forward on the bed, resting her elbows on her knees. "Are you telling me that you'd prefer to give up your resonance and simply become another human, clueless about the beings whom you claim to so dearly wish to coexist with?" She asked pointedly, raising an eyebrow. "Or were those words hollow from the start?"

    Silence followed in the wake of her harsh words.

    "…I see." Sorey mumbled softly, comprehension slowly dawning on his expression. "So that's what you meant back then."

    She nodded. "And there's your answer to how I live with being different from everyone else." She shifted, crossing her arms across her chest.

    "I'm just who I am. It's as simple as that."

    Sorey's eyebrows were furrowed as he digested her words. Hesitantly, he pointed out, "But then… what about me?" He held out his gloved left hand emblazoned with the emblem of the Shepherds. "I know I'm young, and I haven't gone through nearly the sort of trials that I'm sure you have…" He shook his head. "It's just… how am I supposed to know who I am? What kind of person I need to become so that I can be sure of myself… like you are of yourself?"

    "Isn't it obvious?" Velvet let out a scoff. "You're the Shepherd." She drawled. "The big, magical solution to the world's problems. The one destined to stave off the forces of evil, and to cleanse the world of all the havoc brought upon us by the Lord of Calamity."

    Sorey frowned. "But that's a title. Not a person." He pointed out.

    He shook his head. "…I have yet to decide what kind of person Sorey the Shepherd will be. There is so much that I have yet to learn; so much that I have yet to… even begin to comprehend." He let out a sigh, running a hand through his hair. "Even with the whole Griflet Bridge ordeal and the advice you and Lailah have been giving me… I'm nowhere near finding my answer anytime soon."

    Velvet's eyes had softened.

    "Then just keep doing as Lailah suggests." She urged quietly. "Continue your journey. Learn more about the world, and in turn, yourself. Find out what you think is right, and act accordingly. Only you can determine the sort of person you will become, Sorey. No one can simply tell you; not even if the answer they give you is the correct one."

    "…I see." Sorey nodded slowly.

    He abruptly met Velvet's eyes. "Then what about you?"

    Velvet shook her head. "…I've already found my answer." She stated, her eyes distant. "I've already discovered the sort of person I am. That's all there is to it. There is nothing else for me to learn."

    "I… don't believe that." Sorey's objection was surprisingly firm.

    He put a fist on his chest. "Gramps once told me that nobody ever stops learning; even him. Everybody makes mistakes, and everybody learns from them." He shook his head. "If I can change and find the person I want to become, then you can also do the same." He shrugged. "At least, that's what makes the most sense to me." Sorey gave a cheeky grin. "But, if you're happy with the person you've become, then I suppose there's no real reason to change who you are."

    "…Right." Velvet mumbled, looking away.

    Suddenly, the Shepherd let out an involuntary, massive yawn, standing up and stretching his muscles like a cat.

    Velvet's eyebrows narrowed. "The chit-chat can wait. We've travelled a long way, and we still have a lot of work to do in order to purify this town. Go and get your ass in bed." She ordered, a demanding edge to her voice.

    Sorey flinched, giving Velvet a sheepish grin. "Ahaha, yeah, that might be a good idea." He rolled his shoulders in exhaustion. "It's been a while since we've been able to rest in beds. I should probably take advantage of them while I can."

    Velvet glared as the boy's eye began twitching sleepily. "Then get going." She demanded. "Now."

    "Y-yes ma'am!"

    All of his instincts sensing the impending danger before him, Sorey stood up straight and quickly hustled to the door obediently. Just before leaving, however, he looked over his shoulder and gave his companion a genuine smile.

    "…Thanks for the talk, Velvet." He grinned honestly. "I really needed it."

    The former Lord of Calamity gave the Shepherd a soft smile back. "…Don't worry about it."

    Her smile turned into a frown. "Now go to bed." She growled.

    "Y-yep! Already gone!"

    And with that, Sorey closed the door with a gentle click. The sounds of his footsteps receding down the hallway echoed through the empty room as he left. Velvet let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding in, un-tensing her muscles and leaning back against the wooden wall.

    After a moment's contemplation, she shook her head and banished the thoughts of the recent conversation from her mind. Instead, she turned to the candles burning slowly on her bedside table and blew them out, returning the room to darkness. Quietly, the therion slipped under the covers and closed her eyes, levelling her breathing and allowing herself to rest after a long day's travel.

    She felt no need to expel malevolence anymore.

    That night, she would dream of the past; of warm memories involving a group of daemons, humans and malakhim. Outside, in the darkness, the crickets continued to sing.

    ----​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 28, 2019
  8. Threadmarks: C07 - Expendable
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 7 – Expendable.

    The creaking of rotten wood punctuated their every movement, echoing deafeningly loudly throughout the mansion. The dull grey walls of the hallway they traversed were utterly bare and riddled with mold. The decades-old red carpet under their feet coughed out dust with each step as they warily made their way deeper into the depths of the silent building. Stale, elaborate cobwebs silently stood vigil as the intruders proceeded, glistening hauntingly in the pale darkness.

    Every step, every shift of body weight, even every breath felt wholly unnatural in such a stagnant, confined space.

    Sorey took in his surroundings with keen eyes as he trotted down the dark hallway, his hand resting readily on the sword hanging from his right hip. All around him, flakes of malevolence drifted lazily in the silence, flourishing in the powerful domain of the hellion that had made the mansion its lair. Every muscle in his body remained tensed and rigid as he proceeded, driven by instinct in the face of such a dark and foreboding atmosphere.

    The soft clinking of metal in the quiet abruptly reminded him of his companion traversing the hallway with him, causing him to briefly glance to his side in her direction.

    Velvet Davidson's body was seemingly relaxed as always as she strolled forward on the carpet, her black coat and long raven hair gliding smoothly behind her. Her arms hung loosely at her sides, swinging rhythmically in tandem with each determined stride. He decided to break the silence in an attempt to calm his jittery nerves.

    "Hey, Velvet?" He prompted, his voice low and soft. "Do you think the others are alright?"

    She glanced over her shoulder at him before waving a dismissive hand in the air in response. "They'll be fine." She assured. "They're a group consisting of three seraphim and a single squire. I'm sure they'll be able to handle anything they find lurking about in here." She turned her head forward once more, her eyes actively scanning the darkness ahead. "If anything, I think it's us that you should be worrying about more." She pointed out dryly.

    "Yeah… You're probably right." Sorey agreed, following her gaze and also staring down the darkened hallway.

    Their footsteps continued rhythmically, echoing down the empty cavernous hallway as they turned the corner, wandering aimlessly in hopes of finding their way back to their group.

    "…Man, though." Sorey sighed, absently rolling his stiff shoulders as he walked. "Who would've thought that there would be a trapdoor back there in that room?" He commented. "And that it would open while we the two of us were standing on top of it, even!"

    "No sane person ever expects something like that." Velvet let out a huff of annoyance, her expression darkening. "All I know is that I'm having some choice words with the hellion occupying this wreck the moment we finally find it." She growled. "That was not funny."

    Sorey grinned. "You and me both." He agreed. He abruptly blinked and scratched his head sheepishly as a though evidently occurred to him. "Ah..." he groaned, "Mikleo's probably worried sick right about now."

    "Don't worry about it." Velvet gestured in his direction. "I'm sure Lailah would remind him that as a seraph, he'd feel something if his precious vessel had sustained any lasting damage." She pointed out.

    "Even if she did," Sorey shook his head, "I'm not so sure that would stop him from worrying." He shrugged. "Mikleo's always been the sort of person to worry like that." He reminisced.

    Velvet gave him a look. "By the way, what exactly is the deal with you guys?" She asked curiously as the two continued walking. "The two of you are from a village of seraphim, right?"

    "Yeah. Elysia." Sorey nodded with a soft smile growing on his face, his body unconsciously losing its tension as his thoughts evidently drifted towards his home.

    "Mikleo and I are lifelong friends." He explained, absently reaching behind his back and pulling out a familiar weathered book. "We grew up together." The Celestial Record slid open with a homely crack, revealing hundreds of detailed, notated pages of the history of the world. Velvet watched with amusement the Shepherd ran his excited eyes almost dotingly over the words of his favorite book.

    "…We must've explored all of the ruins in the vicinity of Elysia dozens of times over throughout our childhood." He recounted warmly. "It got to the point where we ended up making it into a game. Whoever finds the most historically valuable artefact wins." Sorey looked up from the book and gave Velvet a sheepish grin. "Gramps didn't find our games nearly as entertaining though."

    Velvet found herself smirking at the image. "I feel sorry for him." She remarked wryly. "The two of you are already a handful to deal with as teenagers. I can hardly imagine how stressful it must have been to have to worry about you two crawling around ruins as kids."

    Sorey scratched the back of his head bashfully, grinning. "To be honest? I feel the same way." He admitted freely. "Some of the things we did back then were super dangerous in retrospect. I really respect Gramps for putting up with the two of us back then."

    The woman tilted her head curiously. "Like what?"

    He winced. "Well, this one time," he recounted, "the two of us decided to try and race each other to the bottom of the biggest ruin in Elysia. We were about 8 years old back then, I think. Both of us had the same idea to take the same shortcut down to the bottom via a cliffside path."

    "Let me guess." Velvet interrupted dryly. "You tripped."

    Sorey chuckled, scratching his cheek sheepishly. "You guessed it." He confirmed. "Yet, the moment he heard me fall, Mikleo came to a screeching halt. Without a single moment's hesitation, he lunged off the cliff himself and tried to grab my hand as I fell."

    Velvet blinked. "Seriously?"

    Sorey nodded honestly. "I was really mad at him afterwards for doing it afterward, but the fact is that he ended up saving my life." His eyes were soft. In his hands, the Celestial Record was instinctively cradled close to his chest. "...After he had done so, Mikleo managed to grab a hold of both the ledge and my hand, leaving the two of us dangling precariously off the side of the ruins in the outskirts of Elysia." He recounted soberly.

    "I don't think I had ever been so scared in my life up until that point. I really thought I was going to die." He chuckled humorlessly. "I gotta say… That moment kinda sucked."

    Velvet's lips were pressed in a firm line as she imagined the scene. "That… sounds horrible."

    He nodded seriously. "…After we'd miraculously made our way back home, we both promised never to touch ruins again." He shook his head. "And after the lashing that Gramps gave us for it once we'd told him what had happened, we really meant it too."

    At this, she scoffed. "Right. Going by your current selves, I'm sure the two of you were right back at it within a month."

    Sorey grinned back sheepishly. "Try a week."

    Velvet facepalmed. "…Edna's right." She muttered, sliding her hand off her face. "You boys are idiots."

    Sorey chuckled in response.

    Together, the two of them continued to traverse the narrow corridors, randomly choosing turns to make in what was increasingly feeling like a complex labyrinth underneath the Dumnonia Museum. The stale, dry air was an unchanging constant wherever they went, plagued with thin traces of malevolence and filled with deafening silence.

    "How about you?" Sorey's voice broke the quiet once more. "What's your home like?" He asked curiously. "The one you grew up in?"

    Seemingly at ease, the woman looked away from the Shepherd, apparently reminiscing about the past. Internally, her mind was once more hard at work, actively linking falsehoods together in an effort to weave an elaborate tapestry that would ultimately obscure her true identity. Creating lies to tell in the face of the Shepherd's welcoming friendship.

    "…My village wasn't very interesting." She claimed, facing straight ahead, avoiding his eyes. "Me and my little brother lived in our own house in the outskirts of town, working to sustain ourselves on our own."

    Sorey's eyes were empathetic. "It must've been hard." He remarked softly. "Living without anybody watching over you and being all alone."

    Velvet shrugged. "We had each other." Her eyes were distant. "We were a happy family. That's all that mattered."

    "And… the seraphim that you mentioned?" His voice was decidedly curious.

    Faces appeared once more in Velvet's mind. A soft smile crept up into her expression. "There were two of them." She recalled. "One was a seraph who had travelled the world and had seemingly seen everything there is to have been seen." She glanced at him. "I'm sure the two of you would've had lots of talk about with regards to ancient artefacts."

    Sorey's face was bright and awed. "A seraph who has travelled the world…!" He cocked his head to the side curiously. "…And the other?" He prompted.

    "The other seraph…" Velvet's eyes drifted away once more. At her sides, her fingers slowly curled into fists. "…was nobody important." She muttered.

    "Oh." He blinked, taken aback by the statement.

    His brow furrowed. "…Hey, you said that the first seraph 'would've' had lots to talk with me." He pointed out curiously. "What happened to the two of them?"

    Velvet looked away, her expression darkening. "…Time." She muttered resentfully without thought.

    Sorey blinked.

    Suddenly, Velvet let out a curse and exploded into action, leaping to the side and body-slamming Sorey into the wall in the process. The two of them crashed painfully against the wall together right at the same moment something massive fell down from nowhere and landed on the floorboards that they'd been standing on with an ear-rattling crash.

    BANG!

    Wood splinters flew everywhere in an instant in the wake of the impact, accompanied by a choking cloud of displaced dust that billowed outwards and engulfed the entire hallway. Wood planks and faded carpet alike were shredded by the object that had nearly fallen on their heads as it sank deep into the floor with the force of sheer weight alone.

    Silence fell once more as the hallway once more regressed into a deceptively stagnant state.

    "Gah!" Sorey let out a massive breath as he let his picked his head up and regained his bearings, lying there a few meters away from where the object had fallen. He blinked, staring incredulously at what said object was. "W-what the heck?"

    "…You have got to be kidding me." At his side, Velvet got to her feet with a savage growl. "Just what the hell is this?!" She demanded.

    Sorey scratched his cheek with an amazed expression. "Uh… It… looks like a piano." He pointed out uselessly.

    The glare Velvet sent over her shoulder at him in response sent a chill up his spine. "I can see that." She grumbled. "I'm asking why exactly a piano just fell from the damn ceiling."

    She turned her glare back onto the utterly imploded piano that had indeed crash-landed right where the two of them had been standing moments before.

    Dusting his cloak off, Sorey got to his feet and stood next to her gazing up at the ceiling, which he only now realized featured a square hole leading up into the abyss. "…Oh!" He plonked a fist in his palm in sudden realization and whirled around to face an inquisitive Velvet with wide, enthusiastic eyes. "I got it!"

    Velvet blinked. "What?"

    Sorey gestured eagerly at the chute above their heads. "Doesn't that look familiar? It's the exact same dimensions as the pit that we fell through earlier when that trapdoor activated!"

    At his words, the woman took a closer look at the hole in the ceiling. Sure enough, the square opening was almost if not exactly the same dimensions. "Huh. Your point?"

    "I have a hypothesis." Sorey walked up to the fallen piano and turned to Velvet. "I think that this museum was originally built as a lavish mansion back before it was converted." He gestured animatedly with his hands. "Such a place must've been owned by a really, really rich person, right?"

    At Velvet's nod, he continued unceasingly, "Then that means that rich person must've hired a whole host of servants to help clean such an elaborate mansion. With so many people needing to go to so many places on such a regular basis, the mansion would've been way too hectic to be a relaxing place." Sorey pointed out. "So, I'm guessing that what we've been walking through," he gestured at the hallway they were standing in, "was meant as passageways for servants to go to and from in their duties, unseen by the patrons of the mansion."

    Comprehension dawned on Velvet's expression as she caught on. "So, the trapdoor that we fell through…"

    "Yep!" Clearly ecstatic that Velvet had registered his point, Sorey nodded with a grin. "That trapdoor was just one of the many trapdoors hidden around the mansion, meant as access points for the servants travelling through the mansion with these passageways."

    He let out a hum, grasping his chin with his hand and steamrolling onward with his hypothesis. "…I imagine that the servants would've used ladders back in the day to enter and exit the manor using the trapdoors. Those ladders must've degraded over time."

    He blinked, snapping his fingers in realization. "Ah! Then that means that all of this; the trapdoors, the hallways; all of it hasn't been touched for ages ever since the mansion was converted into a museum!" His eyes seemed to shine with enthusiasm. "That means we've accidentally stumbled on a sort of ancient secret passageway! That's awesome!" He exclaimed. "Wait 'till Mikleo gets a load of this!"

    Velvet rolled her eyes at the completely distracted Shepherd as he continued to pace back and forth, unable to contain the energy thrumming through his body at the revelation. "While that's interesting and all," she drawled wryly, "don't you think you're forgetting something here?"

    Sorey abruptly blinked, freezing in his steps and turning to face her. "Ahah." He chuckled sheepishly, scratching the back of his head. "Right. We should get going, huh?"

    She just shook her head in wry amusement. "Come on."

    Together, the two of them fell back in step, walking away from the wreckage behind them. Now that he had derived the true significance of the locale he was exploring, all signs of tension had left Sorey's body. Now, every step he took contained a bounce as he walked forward while his eyes eagerly drank in every single faucet of detail provided.

    Watching all of this in bemusement, Velvet couldn't help but roll her eyes. A bookworm and a weirdo. She couldn't help but be reminded of…

    "Oh." Sorey abruptly stopped and turned around, facing her impassionedly. "Velvet, I forgot to mention. Thanks for saving me back there, seriously. I would've been flattened without your help."

    "Don't worry about it." She waved him off. "You're the Shepherd, right?" She remarked, raising an eyebrow. "Your life is more important than mine. It's only natural that I do what I can to protect you."

    At those words, Sorey closed his eyes in consternation.

    "…Don't say that." He muttered harshly. "That's not true. Not in the slightest."

    Silence followed in the wake of his words. All around them, lingering malevolence intermingled with floating particles of dust, disturbed by their presence. The darkness enshrouded both ends of the hallway, leaving the two of them isolated and alone in the bowels of the museum.

    "…You really believe that?" Velvet's words were low and serious. Her eyes did not leave his. "You believe that, knowing that you're the only one in this entire world who has the ability to quell the hellions?"

    Holding her gaze, Sorey nodded solemnly. "…I do."

    The silence held all around them. There he stood, the Shepherd of the people; vehemently denying the importance of his own powers when the fate of the world itself was at stake. Velvet's eyes narrowed in disapproval.

    Abruptly, he blinked, tilting his head to the side. "Hold on." He breathed, his body tensing up in alarm. "You hear that?"

    Velvet turned her head towards where he was indicating. "What?"

    "…Laughing." Sorey seemed almost entranced by the sound, his eyes wide.

    Furrowing her brow, the woman closed her eyes and concentrated. A shiver ran down her spine as she registered what he was describing; the eerie, inappropriate, and unmistakable sound of childish giggling permeating through the air.

    The source of which was quickly closing in on their position.

    Both travelers exchanged determined nods and fell into defensive combat stances, readying their bodies in preparation for battle.

    Velvet moved her bandaged arm to form a protective angle in front of her while at the same time letting her sword-bearing arm dangle loosely at her side. At her side, Sorey slowly drew his sword, letting the ceremonial wooden handle slide through his fingers and right itself before him. They stood there together in the middle of the hallway, facing off against the encroaching darkness with wary readiness.

    And then the ghost hellion pounced.

    It took the form of a tall, horrifying specter wielding dual material blades in each transparent hand that emitted a deafening, shiver-inducing screech as it slashed its weapons towards its intended victim, Sorey. The Shepherd had only seconds to react to its appearance and raise his sword in a weak half-guard.

    CLANG! CLANG!

    The slamming of steel on steel echoed noisily throughout the hallway. Both swords of the monster impacted on Sorey's with overwhelming force, causing him to stagger back in the wake of the attack. The hellion capitalized on the opening, lunging forward and pressing its attack.

    SLASH!

    Only to cry out in agony as a hidden boot blade carved out a chunk of ectoplasm from its back. Velvet landed lithely in the wake of her kick and promptly raised her right arm and extended her blade to meet the hellion's clumsy retaliatory sword swipe. The cruel blade of the ghost sparked as it clashed with the therion's resolute steel.

    Undeterred, the ghost hellion screeched once more and spun around, bringing its second sword around to rend the woman in two. In response, Velvet leapt backwards in a backflip, feeling the harsh displacement of air as the blade sailed inches away from her body in midair.

    "Hah!" Sorey let out a yell as he jerked his sword into the hellion's side, eliciting a wild, enraged screech. Quickly as possible, the young man pulled his sword out and leapt backwards, dodging the hellion's furious swipes in response.

    Velvet took the opportunity to get the Shepherd's attention. "Sorey!" She yelled, turning back to her opponent. "When I tell you to, purify it."

    He nodded sharply in response. "I'm counting on you!" He called back.

    The hellion let out a screech, preventing further communication as it charged furiously towards Velvet with both swords held high up in the air like twin guillotines. Undeterred, Velvet simply took a single step back and readied herself, tensing her legs and waiting for her opponent to make its move.

    With a cry, the ghost hellion slashed swords down at the same time, swiping down and across its body and seeking to crush Velvet body in-between its blades.

    "RISING FALCON!"

    Instead, it found nothing but empty air.

    With a cry, Velvet pushed herself harshly up into the air and sailed above the monster's blades and twisted mid-flight, redirecting her velocity downwards and towards her target. With practiced grace, the woman pivoted her body and extended the hidden blade inside of her boot, angling it directly towards her victim.

    CRASH!

    The hellion didn't stand a chance as the woman slammed into its chest, her blade sinking deep into where its heart would've been. Losing its balance, the ghost hellion crumpled into a heap on the ground, its swords falling uselessly at it sides with loud clangs. Agilely, Velvet leapt off the monster's chest the moment it fell and landed a few meters away, rolling smoothly to absorb the impact. She got to her knee and made eye contact with the Shepherd.

    "Now!" She barked.

    Sorey didn't need to be told twice. Rushing in with blue flames bursting from his blade, the young man waved his sword over the fallen corpse of the hellion, allowing the purifying power to spread from his body and into the corrupted soul's. Velvet was blinded by the brilliance of the bright flame as it rudely invaded upon the darkness of the hallway, casting off all hints of shadow in the wake of its power.

    Sorey let out a shaky breath as the purification process ended, leaving behind nothing but empty air in the wake of the purified ghost hellion. "Alright!" He grinned, turning to his companion enthusiastically.

    His grin faltered when he registered the scowl on her face.

    "That was pathetic." The words rang out noisily into the now deafeningly quiet hallway. With deliberate, measured steps, Velvet made her way up to Sorey, crossing her arms and making her displeasure tangibly evident. "It's been bothering me for a while, but now it's getting to the point where I can't just ignore it any longer." She narrowed her eyes.

    "You've never been taught how to use a sword properly."

    It was a statement, not a question. A harsh observation of a reality that was evidently painfully obvious.

    In the face of the woman's harsh, reprimanding expression, Sorey winced. "Y-yeah." He nodded. "I trained myself to use the sword based off of only what I read in books back in Elysia. Nobody else used a sword but me, since they all had seraphic artes." He raised his eyes and met Velvet's with a bashful expression.

    "To be honest… I've been feeling rather useless next to your own swordplay." He gave Velvet a respectful nod. "Your moves are really amazing. The artes you use sometimes are just so complex…"

    Velvet's eyes had softened somewhat. She shifted on her feet, letting her right arm fall onto her hip. "

    …I can teach you, if you want." She offered gently.

    She shrugged, looking off into the distance. "I can't really say how good I am of a teacher, but…" She trailed off.

    "Really!?"

    Sorey's eyes were wide as he took an eager step forward. "You'd teach me, Velvet?!" He asked incredulously. "Just like that?"

    "Sure." Velvet confirmed with a nonchalant shrug. "You can think of it as thanks for letting me travel with you, if you want."

    "That would be amazing! Absolutely!" Sorey was beaming brightly as he sheathed his sword, his back straightening with the notion of being trained by someone so nuanced as her. He cocked his head curiously. "Does that mean you trained by anyone back in your village, Velvet?"

    Velvet hesitated.

    Plans must be solid, and reactions flexible. The familiar words, so old yet so very much engrained in her very soul, resounded in her ears.

    She clenched her fists.

    "…No. I'm self-taught as well." She lied, idly examining her sheathed gauntlet blade worn on her right wrist. "…I just use things I've picked up here and there." She dismissed.

    "That's really impressive." Sorey shifted on his feet. "Well, if you're willing, Velvet, I'd love to learn from you." He smiled determinedly. "If I could be even a tenth of how good a fighter you are in the end, I'd be more than happy."

    Velvet gave him an appraising look. "…Well. If that's the case, then I hope you're willing to work hard." Her lips curved into a malicious smirk, her eyes growing almost predatory.

    "Because you can be sure I won't be going easy on you." She promised darkly.

    Sorey gulped.

    "A-AAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!"

    Both of them flinched as a howling scream echoed loudly through the entire mansion, emitted by a very familiar voice.

    "Mikleo!" Sorey's suddenly panicked eyes shot to Velvet's.

    At once, the two of them took off through the darkness towards where the scream had originated. The pounding of Sorey's leather boots on carpet mirrored the slamming of Velvet's steel ones as they charged through the darkness and rounded the corner, finding and taking a set of stairs at the end of the hallway.

    Heaving for breath, Sorey stumbled to the top of the stairway and blinked, finding a complete and utter dead end before him. "W-what?" He breathed, hunching over and grasping his knees in exhaustion. "But I could've sworn that…!"

    "Move!"

    His thought was interrupted as his companion slid smoothly by him with the grace of a ghost and, without hesitation, pivoted her body on a dime while raising her left leg high in the air to slam her boot directly into the face of the wall.

    CRASH!

    Blinding rays of light flooded the darkened stairwell, causing Sorey to raise a hand up against the intrusive brightness. He gaped as he registered that Velvet had just kicked a hole in the wall; a wall that was actually made of temporary boards, judging by the cracked planks hanging from the sides. He blinked once more, belatedly registering the scene that awaited the two of them in the hole that Velvet had created.

    The rest of the group stared back at them with wide eyes, their shocked bodies frozen still in their former positions like actors in a scene from a play.

    Lailah apparently had been laughing judging by the fan of casting cards she was still holding up to her mouth. Alisha stood by her side, her hands still clutching her sides in the wake of a fit of giggles.

    And then there in the middle of the room laid Mikleo.

    Or, rather, that was what Sorey assumed, judging by the edge of his friend's familiar cape, as the rest of the seraph had been positively blanketed in what appeared to be a metric ton of flour.

    Sorey blinked. "…Mikleo?" He asked hesitantly, his voice ringing out in the shocked silence. "That you?"

    "Who else do you think it could be?"

    Edna's face was utterly and completely smug as she trotted easily forward up to the hole in the wall, a deviously satisfied smirk on her face.

    Almost daintily, the earth seraph held up a rather off-putting red and black mask depicting what appeared to be a monster of sorts into the air as an explanation. "Only he could be such a scaredy-cat and to let himself to be so surprised by this thing." Idly, the seraph tossed the mask over her shoulder as an afterthought.

    "Edna… you did this?" Sorey asked with wide eyes as the mask clattered to the floorboards behind her, aghast.

    "Hey, it's not like it's my fault." She pointed out apathetically and waved a hand towards a large spilt bag of flour lying in a mess behind Mikleo. "I wasn't the one who decided to jump backwards into some shelves and end up dressing like a ghost." She gave Sorey an innocent look. "…Besides. He was so tense, I figured a good scare would be good for him."

    Sorey was lost for words, gaping dumbly at the seraph.

    At his side, he heard a long, drawn-out sigh.

    He turned to find Velvet with a hand planted firmly upon her face. "Honestly." She muttered under her breath. "Like I said, you really didn't need worry about them." She waved her other hand in the air. "Clearly, our absence didn't worry them one bit."

    "Th-that's not true!" Alisha rallied in their defense, taking an impassioned step forward. "We were all extraordinarily worried after you two disappeared out of the blue like that!" She hesitated, glancing at the plume of settling flour that was vaguely shaped like Mikleo before gathering herself once more. "D-despite what it might seem like at the moment, we were all busy trying to look for you two!" She insisted valiantly.

    Lailah's smile was once more being covered by her playing cards as she gave her own two cents. "Yes, that was indeed the case." She nodded sagely. "One might even say that us four were doing everything in our flour to help!"

    Alisha blinked in surprise. Edna's eye twitched. Sorey's face split into a hesitant, forced grin.

    Velvet's eyes narrowed dangerously. "Lailah…" She growled lowly.

    "Ah!" Suddenly, Lailah prudently turned away with innocent sparkles in her eyes, away from the growling hellion in disguise. "It's probably best that we go help Mikleo before he inhales too much flour, don't you think?" She proposed innocently.

    "R-right." Shaking his head, Sorey gingerly pushed himself through the hole in the wall and stumbled into the brightly lit second floor room, squinting to help adjust his eyes to the blinding sunlight seeping in through the windows. "Geez! That's bright!" He groaned, blinking rapidly.

    Stepping past him, Velvet made her way up to Mikleo's knocked-out form and glanced over her shoulder. "Edna. Give me a hand." She ordered. "This is your fault, after all."

    Pouting slightly, the earth seraph surprisingly agreed to the command. "…Fine." She grumbled, trotting up to the therion's side and grasping an exposed, twitching right hand with her own hand. "On three. One, two, three!" Together, the two of them forcibly pulled the poor water seraph out of his powdery grave.

    "GYAAAH!"

    Like an abruptly reanimated corpse, Mikleo came to life thrashing and kicking, coughing and sneezing his lungs out onto the ground, groaning in agony.

    "Da… damn you, Edna!" He managed to articulate between coughing fits as he managed to sit up, glaring hatefully at the smug little earth seraph standing before him. "Why… why would you do that to me?!" He demanded, aggressively fluffing his hair and creating a massive puff cloud of flour to the amusement of those spectating. "What have I done that could possibly have warranted such punishment?!"

    "Hmm." Edna hummed, looking away. "You're a Meebo. Why else?" She said, as if that explained everything.

    "I told you to stop calling me that!"

    "That's enough!"

    Both of them blinked and turned around as Velvet put her hands on her hip, glaring down at the two of them. "Edna, apologize." She demanded, glaring at the earth seraph. "You went too far this time."

    Mikleo blinked in surprise at the surprise turn of events. What was even more surprising was the genuine emotion that flitted through Edna's normally stoic expression at Velvet's reprimand.

    In response, Edna gave a slow nod. "…Fine." She turned to Mikleo and, to his surprise, actually bowed her body forward in a small but undeniable gesture of apology. "…Sorry." She mumbled.

    That was it. None of the typical jeering or name-calling. Mikleo was left in a state of pure shock.

    "Mikleo."

    The seraph in question glanced at Velvet who in turn gestured meaningfully. "O-oh!" Registering what she meant, Mikleo blinked and turned to face Edna fully. "It's fine, Edna." He nodded slowly. "I get it, you didn't mean it to go so far. No hard feelings."

    "Hmph." Edna looked away. "Don't get used to it. Meebo."

    Sorey promptly shoved himself in-between the two of them with a calm, peacemaking smile.

    "Alright, come on you two." He urged lightly before the tentative peace could devolve into a bickering fight once more. He turned to his friend still sitting on the ground and offered him a hand. "Let's get going." He urged.

    It was only then that Mikleo truly registered the presences of the two missing group members. He shot to his feet. "Sorey!" He yelped worriedly. "You're alright! Where did you come from? You and Velvet disappeared on us all of a sudden without any warning!"

    "We're alright!" Sorey reassured placatingly with an easy grin, waving his hand towards the hole in the wall. "We fell through a trapdoor and only managed to find our way back to you all just now." He scratched his cheek wryly. "I'd say that your screams were what helped us find our way out of the maze down there. Thanks."

    Mikleo's face turned bright red. "O-oh. You heard that, huh?"

    "Pretty sure the whole continent heard you." Edna commented wryly from the sidelines.

    "Never mind that, Mikleo." Sorey refocused the seraph's attention on himself. His eyes brightened in scholarly fervor. "Just wait 'till you hear what Velvet and I stumbled upon down there!"

    As the Sorey eagerly began sharing the details of their adventure in the bowels of the Dumnonia Museum, Velvet trotted over to Alisha and Lailah, sharing their expressions of amusement at the mania of the two boys. "You two alright?" Velvet posed the question.

    Alisha nodded. "We're all fine." She glanced at the fallen bag of flour lying on the ground with a chuckle. "Well, save for a few casualties, that is." She added.

    "I'm glad you two could find your way back to us." Lailah remarked seriously, giving Velvet a thankful nod. "It seems that, despite a few hitches along the way, all's well that ends well." She commented brightly.

    "…It's not over yet." Velvet's voice had taken on a sudden edge.

    As one, the group dropped their conversations and turned towards the door to the room as a distinctly sharp, foreign sound approached from behind it.

    BANG!

    Weapons were drawn immediately, and battle formations were instinctively formed as a huge armored hellion charged through the remains of the shredded wooden door, wielding a mind-bogglingly long jousting spear in one hand. It was a monster consisting only of bright-golden pieces of armor, decorated with intricate patterns of distinctly cruel beauty. Its head consisted of nothing but an emotionless helmet with two wings jutting out from its top.

    Without pause, the hellion attacked the intruders in its domain.

    "Come on!" Velvet urged, charging in first.

    Sorey was quick on her heels, his sword held readily at his side. "Let's take 'em down!" He called.

    With brilliant flashes of mana and sparks, the Shepherd's group and the hellion clashed together in battle before the brilliance of the daylight sun streaming in through the open windows behind them.

    Together once more.

    ----

    The world lit up in blue and silver as the Shepherd's holy power took hold of the monster. All around them, the world seemed to lighten as the malevolence in the domain began to dissipate. Through their efforts, the Shepherd's group had managed to purify the monster that had been plaguing the Dumnonia Museum.

    An ear-grating high-pitched squeal abruptly burst out over the roaring of silver flames, resounding off the walls of the room.

    "Stop! Stop stop stop stop stop stooooop!"

    Sorey blinked, taking a step back as the helmet of the armored hellion grew two squeaky legs and charged at him, effectively cornering him.

    He blinked again when he registered a round body and two very irate eyes glaring up at him from underneath the oversized helmet.

    The little seraph squeaked indignantly up at him. "Stop it ya big lug! Prancin' prickleboars, what's gotten into ya?!"

    "I… uh…" Sorey stammered, hesitantly untensing his body and sliding his sword back into its sheath. "…Sorry?"

    All around them, the rest of the group did the same with their own weapons, approaching wearily after an arduous battle.

    Lailah in particular stopped short and shook her head. "…Oh, what a fool I was!" She exclaimed. "I should have realized you would be here." She inclined her head at the small helmeted seraph at the group's feet. "Atakk." She greeted.

    The change in the small seraph's demeanor was instant as he turned from Sorey to Lailah, a massive grin appearing in his chubby facial features. He let out a soft gasp. "Oh, my goodness!" He exclaimed, spinning around in a dainty circle and raising both arms high. "It's pretty Lady Lailah! How ya been?"

    The group watched as the little thing fell into a rapid shuffle directly aimed towards Lailah's legs before pouncing. Without missing a beat, the fire seraph sidestepped to the side, keeping her hands held cordially together.

    Clank.

    Having missed his target, the helmeted seraph named Atakk faceplanted straight into the carpet with a loud thud.

    "Aww…" Atakk groaned, pushing himself up and readjusting the oversized helmet on his head in the process. "You never were a lick of fun."

    As the small seraphim got up, Alisha idly clutched her right arm with her left hand. "Is this… a friend of yours?" She asked hesitantly.

    "Sort of." The fire seraph answered vaguely. "It was a long time ago."

    "My name's Atakk." Atakk introduced himself with a bow towards Alisha. "Cheesed to please ya!"

    Mikleo put a hand on his hip. "That's a weird name."

    "Well, aren't you rude!" Atakk huffed, crossing his stubby arms. "Don't you know that Atakk is a normin name of the highest pedigree?!" His spine stiffened. "Means I'm fancy!"

    Sorey blinked. "Hey, Lailah?" He looked at the woman. "What's a normin?" He asked curiously.

    Lailah glanced down at Atakk contemplatively. "They're a special kind of seraphim." She explained. "They aren't quite as powerful as a Lord of the Land, but rather they have the ability to boost another seraph's power." She tilted her head, humming to herself as she decided how best to phrase it. "You could say that they are all… maids, in a manner of speaking."

    Mikleo tapped a hand to his temple. "They're… all maids?" He shook his head. "I'm afraid I'm not so sure I get it."

    Atakk, meanwhile, had flushed red with Lailah's explanation. "Ahh, that's my Lailah!" He chirped, raising his hands once more in the air. A dreamy sort of quality overcame his eyes. "You know me like the back of your own lily-white hand…!"

    Just like that, the normin seraph shuffled forward once more in an attempt to grasp Lailah's exposed legs. And just like that, the normin seraph was foiled as Lailah nonchalantly dodged his efforts once more.

    Clank.

    Velvet Crowe looked away from the perverted normin's seraph's actions as she watched from her spot leaning against the wall behind Sorey, her arms crossed and her jaw clenched. She shook her head to herself as the conversation on the qualities of normin seraphim continued, only half listening. Atakk's unexpected appearance had caused a slew of irritatingly bittersweet memories to resurface.

    Honestly.

    Of all the things in her previous life here in this world, Velvet honestly would've never guessed that Bienfu would have been one of the things from her old life that she'd truly miss. Her brow furrowed as her thoughts began to wander, considering subjects that which she'd been purposefully avoiding thinking about.

    Bienfu… could still be alive, she realized with a chill running up her spine.

    Just as she had met Zaveid, there was a distinct possibility that that normin malak was still out there, being the perverted, spineless little dolt that he had always been. The things they could talk about. The things they could share… The bond they had was still intact, she was sure of it.

    There could then be one other being in this world whom had traveled with her in the olden days. One of the few whom hadn't…

    Velvet's expression darkened.

    …No, she decided. It would be best if she didn't meet him at all.

    In fact, the best-case scenario she could hope for would be that Bienfu had died long ago. That way, at least, she wouldn't be forced to confront the utterly unnerving notion of Bienfu living free from the service of his former mistress.

    For while Bienfu might've lived this long, she was most definitely dead. She… and also…

    Her fists tightened.

    "…et? Velvet?"

    The therion blinked, abruptly tearing herself from her swirling dark thoughts and finding the room empty, save for Sorey standing before her with a worried expression. "The rest of the group is headed out." He explained.

    The Shepherd took a step closer, genuine concern in his eyes. "Velvet… is everything okay?" He asked gently.

    Shaking her head harshly and pushing herself off the wall, Velvet waved off his concern.

    "It's nothing." She dismissed. "Come on. Let's go."

    With a strong, forceful stride, the woman forced herself forward and away from the monsters nipping at her heels. Worry still plain on his face, Sorey slowly followed after her out of the room.

    As the footsteps of the group faded away, the large room of the old decrepit mansion returned back to silence, waiting for the cloud of disturbed dust dancing in the rays of soft sunlight from the windows to settle and cover its ancient floor once more.

    Just another seemingly innocuous room in an ancient home filled with deep, cruel shadows.

    ----

    That night, the Shepherd left the city of Marlind, alone.

    The bright yellow waning moon hung softly in the night sky as the young man made his way through the empty field in the outskirts of town, idly savoring the cool night breeze that blew in waves across the grassy sea. The air here was starkly crisp and fresh; completely free of the choking malevolence that blanketed the plague town. Sorey stopped in the middle of the field and let out a sigh, closing his eyes and focusing on the feeling of the cold night breeze playing with his flapping cloak.

    Yet even now, in this starkly different environment, there was no hiding from the ominous thoughts plaguing his head. The growing anticipation was as a powerful leech; an all-encompassing vortex eagerly sucking away every other thought until the point at which every waking breath he took would be accompanied with feelings of dread and self-doubt.

    Naturally, there was no rest to be had for the world's savior.

    Sorey shook his head softly and vainly willed himself to think of matters other than the looming task before him. And yet, no matter what he did, the looming fight continued to hound his thoughts, leering at him from the dark corners of his mind.

    It wasn't long, however, before he was jerked from his swirling thoughts by the sound of someone approaching him in the middle of the field. With their arrival, the world once more regressed into a boiling cauldron of swirling malevolence; a domain announcing the presence of an unimaginably powerful being.

    The Shepherd turned and nodded his head in greeting towards the familiar figure of the masked hellion that had arrived across the field from him. "Hey there." He greeted, giving a small wave and a smile to the cloaked enigma. "Thanks for coming."

    The hellion didn't respond, simply standing there in the center of its malevolence and stared back at him in what he had come to consider as characteristic silence.

    Sorey scratched his head sheepishly and looked to the side. "Actually, before we begin… I have something to confess." His right hand habitually landed on his sheathed sword, idly drumming his fingers on the pommel as he tried to quantify the anxiety he was feeling. He glanced at the hellion's burning red eyes. "…I have to fight a dragon soon."

    The hellion didn't blink.

    "Well," Sorey corrected himself, "…a baby dragon. A drake, to be exact. The one that's circling over Marlind." His preoccupied eyes were drawn to the nearby silhouette of the Great Tree of Marlind to the west. "And, to be honest," he admitted softly, "I'm not really sure I'm ready to take on such a strong beast, even with the help of the others."

    He glanced at the masked hellion. "…But I have to try, if I'm to save the people in Marlind from the plague of malevolence." He shook his head, profound determination seeping into his posture. "If I don't, even with the rest of the medicine arriving by cart over the Griflet River, the townspeople will continue to suffer. So that's why…"

    He took a step forward. "I was hoping that you could help me out."

    Silence fell in the wake of his statement. A cool night breeze blew once more, rustling the surrounding grass and punctuating the quiet.

    Slowly, in response to Sorey's words, the hellion raised its pulsating claw and angled its open palm directly towards the Shepherd across the field from it.

    Sorey blinked.

    Then, in the blink of an eye, the world lit up for miles around as a huge, pulsating fireball was spontaneously conjured in the hellion's grasp, casting its cloaked figure in stark lighting as it took a step forward. Magma dripped from the raging inferno in its claw and fell to the ground below, igniting small grass fires that were trampled under the hellion's form as it approached him ominously, the fireball in its grasp growing and growing and growing.

    Behind its mask, its evil blood-red eyes had narrowed sharply with the unmistakable intent of violence.

    Finally gathering his wits, Sorey realized its intentions. He let out a shaky smile as he drew his sword and fell into a ready stance in response to its approach. "Okay." He let out a nervous chuckle. "I guess that works." He supposed.

    With a soundless cry, the hellion pulled its arm back and thrust it violently forward, hurling the blazing inferno directly at him.

    Cursing, Sorey dove to the side with a yelp, feeling the heat nearly scorch his back as the flames slammed into the ground directly behind him. Frantically, the Shepherd rolled on impact and forced himself into a stable crouch before he raised his sword up just in time to parry the hellion's massive claw as it descended upon him without pause.

    CLANG!

    Sparks flew as steel met claw as the weapons bounced off each other. Keenly aware of his opponent's might, Sorey took the first chance he had to leap off the ground and away from the hellion's range, readjusting his grip on his sword and slashing forward once more to keep it at bay.

    To Sorey's surprise however, the hellion simply barred through his attack, allowing its claw to take the brunt of the sword slash and lunged forward, swiping at him with a level of fury he was unprepared for.

    "GAH!"

    The Shepherd let out an involuntary grunt as he landed, his entire body aching from the sheer force behind the claw that had sent him flying. Even as the pain ran up his spine, a part of him still recognized and deeply appreciated the fact that the hellion was undoubtedly holding back with every blow; a fact that he had become keenly aware of through painful trial and error.

    It was chilling to consider how in reality, Sorey had absolutely no ideaof the full extent of the hellion's power. There was always that fear in the back of his head that one day, this monster would turn its claw upon him and his friends again, just like back by Ladylake. He knew, without a doubt, that despite how much they'd all grown, they wouldn't stand a chance against this enigmatic monster. He knew that he was playing with forces beyond his control.

    Still, he supposed, there was no point in crying over spilt milk.

    Shaking his head to clear the spots in his vision and to refocus himself, he scrambled to his feet before leaping to the side, just barely dodging an aggressive follow-up strike. The hellion's claw slammed onto the ground Sorey had just been lying on with terrifying force, drawing deep gouges into the grass and earth and shaking the ground itself with nothing but pure raw strength.

    Despite being taken aback by the level of force the hellion had evidently seen fit to apply to this training session, Sorey capitalized on its miss and jabbed his sword forward, aiming straight for the hellion's center of mass while its claw was jammed into the earth.

    His weapon met no resistance however, as the hellion kicked off the ground and used its claw as a pivot to catapult itself around and away from his attack. Without backing down, Sorey hounded after the hellion, using quick and short jabs to keep it on its toes.

    And then the hellion leapt up inhumanly high into the air, far out of range of his sword strikes, and, while falling down in midair, angled its palm directly at him.

    Sorey swore and dove forward.

    BOOM!

    The world lit up again in flames as a massive explosion detonated behind him, singing his cloak while setting the surrounding grass on fire. Recognizing the hellion's pattern of attack, Sorey was ready for it when it landed and charged at him. He leapt back, cleanly dodging its claw, and charged aggressively back in with his sword held powerfully at his hip in the wake if its attack.

    "Tiger Blade!"

    He let out a cry, jerking his sword upward while leaping high into the air. The slash connected hard on the back of the hellion's claw. Following through with the arte, Sorey gritted his teeth and pulled his arm back in midair before slashing downwards as he fell back down to earth, slamming his sword onto the hellion's claw with the full might of his attack having been made even stronger by gravity's assistance.

    At the last second though, the monster leapt back, dodging the attack and regaining its footing, skidding in the ground and sending grass and dirt flying in its wake. Its body tensed, its head angling forward while its massive claw fell readily to its side.

    Recognizing the signs of a charge, Sorey readied himself.

    With a sudden explosion of movement, the hellion flew at him, raising its claw in preparation for a horizontal slash.

    With a flash of inspiration, instead of dodging, Sorey improvised.

    Preparing himself for the possible searing pain that would follow in the wake of failure, he readied his sword. When the claw flew at him, he acted. Gritting his teeth in determination, the Shepherd bent his whole body backwards, letting his torso fall almost parallel to the ground, hoping beyond hope that he'd bent back far enough.

    He was rewarded with the sight of that horrifying claw sweeping mere inches over his chest, followed by a wave of utterly putrid malevolence that washed over him in its wake.

    Closing his eyes and willing himself to follow through, Sorey let out a battle cry and jerked his sword upwards towards the body of the hellion.

    And to his shock and horror, the attack connected.

    The hellion had only been able to dodge the surprise counterattack partially, which had resulted in a clear gouge through its cloak. It only took seconds to recover however, using its claw to break its fall and allowing it to get back to its feet a few meters away from him.

    Sorey's eyes were wide and horrified. "I'm sorry! I didn't mean to-!"

    His apology came to a shuddering halt as the hellion gave him a simple nod. He blinked before belatedly recognizing the all-to-clear intent that was being conveyed to him.

    He had done well.

    After a moment, Sorey broke into a soft grin. "…Alright." He shifted on his feet, readjusting his grip on his sword. "Thanks, by the way." He added, nodding respectfully at the hellion. "For going hard on me tonight." His expression grew firm. "I need it, if I'm to stand a chance against that drake tomorrow." Sorey's grin grew determined. "Okay then. Let's go again!"

    The hellion nodded once more.

    And with that, the two parties burst into motion once more. Two actors performing a play underneath the waning moon in the night; one acting out the role of the hero, the other, the villain.

    Sorey could only hope that it would be enough.

    ----

    "You got it! Normin power!"

    Atakk's squeaky battle cry resounded through the dark night air, followed by a rush of pure mana that congregated on Sorey's armatized form. A bright shine of luminescent blue bloomed outwards as the power flowed through his body, augmenting the seraphic powers provided by Mikleo's presence. With careful movements, the armatized Shepherd began to draw his bow back, using his vantage point from the top of an empty house to sight in his shot.

    The rest of the group watched the flow of power occur from down on the ground, holding their breaths. Alisha stood firm, determinedly readying herself for battle with her spear in hand. Lailah resided beside her with both hands held together in hopeful anticipation. Edna stood behind them both, her eyes fixed not on Sorey, but on the vague silhouette of the drake circling the vast tree high above them.

    And behind them all stood Velvet, her eyes hard and her body ready for the battle to come.

    This was it. There was no turning back from this point. She had done everything she could've done to prepare him for this. It was time for the Shepherd to show her what she was made of. And if he failed…

    She shook her head, instead focusing on the scene before her with unwavering resolve. There was no point of worrying about it now.

    Whatever happened next, happened.

    With steady hands, Sorey fine-tuned his aim as he tracked the obscure form of the dragon as it circled around the tree once more in the light of the waning moon. He narrowed his golden-hued eyes, his expression one of pure concentration.

    At his feet, Atakk strained, maintaining his powers and augmenting Mikleo's might. "Keee-ripes, that's some power…! I'll let ya know now, there's no way I can handle more than one shot!" He groaned.

    Sorey's expression didn't change as he moved the bow slightly to the left, angling his body slightly to compensate for the adjustment. "One shot is enough."

    There was no hesitation in his voice, Velvet was pleased to hear. Regardless of the obstacle between him and his goals, the Shepherd was determined to do whatever he needed to do to save the people from their suffering.

    She watched on with a stiff jaw as Sorey lined up his sights, waiting in quiet anticipation for the battle to begin.

    "Pardon me… Velvet?"

    She turned to find Alisha walking up slowly to her side, her eyes fixed on Sorey's form. The princess glanced briefly at her, worry clear in her eyes. "Are you… nervous at all?" She asked quietly, her voice barely auditable over the thrumming of power in the air.

    "I take it you are?" Velvet responded with a raised eyebrow, studying the princess's hunched demeanor and white-knuckled grip on her spear.

    Alisha nodded honestly. "I am." She admitted, looking away from Velvet. "…I know I shouldn't be… but a part of me just doesn't feel… ready for this." She shook her head in consternation, gritting her teeth. "I've only just become Sorey's squire a few weeks ago! I… I worry that I might become a burden on the others during the fight."

    Velvet looked away, up towards the night sky and towards the soaring drake high above. "…Do you think your master could take it down?" She asked.

    Alisha blinked. "Huh?" When she had processed her words, the princess seemed to consider the question seriously. "Lady Maltran…"

    She abruptly nodded, without hesitation. "…Absolutely." She put a fist on her chest. "She would have no problem at all taking that thing down." She stated firmly.

    "Then you won't be a burden." Velvet stated. She waved a hand in response to the princess's incredulous look. "You said it yourself, right?" She reminded her. "Your goal is to one day be as strong as your master."

    "That's true…" Alisha shook her head uncomprehendingly. "But… what I aspire to become says nothing about how I will perform in this battle tonight!"

    "That's a lie." Velvet turned around, deathly serious.

    Alisha almost felt the instinctive need to take a step back away from the sheer will radiating out from the traveler's form.

    Velvet Davidson held her gaze firmly. "…If something puts itself in your way towards achieving your goals, know, in the deepest depths of your heart, that you'll do whatever it takes to overcome it." She declared in a low voice. "No matter what."

    Idly, her gaze began to wander away from Alisha and towards the form of the dragon hunter atop the house behind the princess.

    "That's all that matters, in the end." She whispered softly, almost inaudibly.

    Somehow, Alisha knew that Velvet wasn't talking about her anymore.

    Even so…

    "…Thank you, Velvet." The princess smiled softly in the moonlight, her grip loosening on her spear as the fear in her body began to lessen in the wake of the woman's words. "You're right. If I cannot face this enemy, I have no right to call myself a student of Lady Maltran… and for that matter, a squire of Shepherd Sorey, or even a comrade of a woman such as yourself."

    She nodded deeply, respectfully, holding her free hand to her chest. "All of you have chosen to place your trust in me. The very least I can do is to try and uphold that trust as best I can in the field of battle."

    Velvet nodded quietly in the wake of the woman's words, impressed. "Good." She put simply.

    CRACK!

    All thoughts of conversation were eradicated the moment a streak of brilliant azure power flashed through the sky above like a shooting star casting off into the heavens. All eyes were on the arrow as it flew towards the moon, seemingly about to split the celestial body in two.

    And then the silhouette of a dragon flew directly into its path and exploded in a violent bang of mana.

    "…So, it begins." Velvet mumbled under her breath.

    "Come on guys!" Sorey cried as he leapt off the roof and charged forward; a glowing streak of white slicing through a sea of darkness. "This is it!"

    "…Right!"

    The determination in Alisha's expression focusing acutely towards the task at hand, the princess charged forward as well, matching Sorey's pace as he stormed towards the downed dragon in the center of the field underneath the tree.

    "Yeah, we're about to get eaten." Edna's dry remark rang out as the earth seraph ran forward as well, her outfit's ribbons trailing after her rushing form.

    Velvet rolled her eyes and followed suit, digging her steel boots hard into the earth as she caught up with the rest of them.

    Sorey glanced over his shoulder as she caught up, worry in his eyes. "Velvet." He breathed urgently. "If things look bad…"

    "Don't worry about it." She cut him off with a shake of her head, keeping her eyes on the distant downed dragon as they approached it. "Focus on the battle. Nothing else." She ordered shortly.

    The Shepherd blinked before nodding determinedly. "…Alright. Thanks. For all of your help." He added genuinely, turning back towards the task at hand.

    Velvet did the same, directing her attention towards the form of the dragon as they neared it.

    The drake had crashed hard enough to form a crater of grass and dirt at the base of the tree where it lay in a crumpled heap, its wings laying sprawled out all around it. On the right side of its belly was a brilliant open wound with Sorey's arrow still embedded deep in it, dripping copious amounts of purple blood and staining the grass below. With an enraged, feral roar, the monster lumbered to its feet and faced the humans and seraphim approaching it with raw draconic fury.

    "Circle formation!" Alisha ordered shrilly, charging forward and taking point.

    "Got it!" Velvet replied, branching off and heading towards the dragon's right flank.

    "Do not hesitate! Strike true and swift!" Lailah urged, planting two feet shoulder-width apart and readying an arte with firm resolve in her eyes, preparing to support the Shepherd in battle.

    Edna twirled her umbrella around and readied her own artes from behind the dragon. "That means try not to die out there, idiots!"

    "Alright, everyone!" Sorey yelled, arcing around the left side of the dragon and drawing his bow at the same time. "Remember, we are here to do what needs to be done. NOW!"

    At once, the Shepherd's group unleashed their own fury upon the weakened dragon.

    BANG! CRASH! CRACK!

    The world shook and the air went haywire with mana as the seraphim of the group unleashed their might upon the dragon. Jagged stalagmites jerked themselves out of the ground and impaled the strong scales of the monster while explosions of pure flame detonated on its wings. A piercing arrow accompanied by a furious torrent of water slammed onto its head, causing it to recoil with an angry roar.

    Capitalizing upon the attacks, Alisha and Velvet made their moves and charged in, rushing their quarry from two different angles.

    Only to be met with an open maw and a furious build-up of fire mana.

    Velvet snapped her head to the side. "DOWN!" She roared before leaping to the side herself.

    Alisha gasped and lunged out of the way in a clumsy roll, barely dodging the massive gout of flame that suddenly violently spewed out from the dragon's mouth and flew over her head.

    FWOOM!

    Edna cried out in pain as the force of the drake's expelled flames blew her away, sending the earth seraph tumbling in the grass away from the impact zone.

    And with that, the dragon rallied furiously. Charging forward like a bull, it met Alisha head-on whereupon it lashed out with its massive claws. The princess leapt to the side and rolled to dodge both swipes before slinging around and scoring a deep cut on its right paw.

    Hissing in pain, the monster whirled around, swinging its massive tail around. Alisha stood no chance of dodging and was cast bodily off and away.

    "Agh!" She grunted as she rolled to a stop, determinedly getting her feet underneath her as she shook the stars from her vision.

    That matter having been taken care of, the dragon abruptly flapped its wings with great strength, charging forward with a great burst of speed seemingly incompatible with its size and bulk directly towards Lailah.

    CRACK!

    Only to flinch and stumble as its shoulder was grazed by another powerful piercing arrow sent by Sorey.

    Seething in fury, the massive monster took in a massive breath.

    Sorey's eyes widened. Within moments, the armatized Shepherd leapt desperately to the side as a torrent of flame blasted the air he had just been occupying. Flames littered the field in the wake of the dragon's unholy breath.

    Without pause, the monster capitalized on the distraction and swept its hind leg around, slamming it straight into Lailah's abdomen.

    With a wordless cry, the fire seraph was sent tumbling backwards from the utterly devastating force the blow had delivered, her breathing ragged and uneven as she fell to the ground.

    "Lailah!" Sorey cried in horror.

    "Sorey!" Mikleo's voice rang out urgently. "This is bad! We have to end this soon!"

    With a determined grunt, the armatized young man stumbled back to his feet and raised his bow once more with gritted teeth and a clenched jaw. "…Take this!" He cried, forcing a massive amount of mana into his weapon. With a gentle release of three of his right fingers, he let the attack fly.

    "AZURE ASSAULT!"

    An enormous, overwhelming swarm of water projectiles blasted out from his bow, directed straight at the dragon turning ominously towards him.

    Then, with a powerful flap of its wings, the dragon launched itself clean into to the night sky. The attack missed entirely, uselessly burying itself in a distant copse of trees.

    Sorey's heart sank.

    "SOREY!"

    BANG!

    "GYAAAAH!" Sorey couldn't help but scream as the full weight of the dragon itself slammed directly onto him as it landed back on the earth, crushing him with its right claw. The sheer force alone was enough to disrupt the mental connection and dispel the Armatus, leaving him in a helpless human form, held hostage by the enormous hellion leering at him from above.

    Sorey sucked in a breath and his heart froze. He was done for.

    "Oh no you don't!"

    And like a vengeful spirit, Velvet descended upon the dragon with her blade extended.

    SHINK!

    With a loud, horrible squelch, the woman's sword sank deep into the soft flesh at the base of the dragon's neck as she landed on top of its back, eliciting a violent flurry of writhing and shaking as the dragon forgot about Sorey and instead began bucking and squirming in agony at the feeling of cold steel invading its warm flesh.

    Sorey sucked in a massive, painful breath as the dragon's weight left him, struggling to his knees as he watched in utter astonishment.

    And then, the dragon fell into a roll. Velvet barely had the time to sheath her sword and leap off before she was crushed, tumbling gracelessly into the grass. Without pause, the dragon recovered from its roll and slashed its claw at the exhausted woman getting to her feet.

    She didn't stand a chance.

    Her cry of agony grated on Sorey's ears as she fell to the ground, a single, terrifyingly large gash cutting through the back of her black coat and searing right over her spine.

    Sorey watched, frozen in shock and disbelief at what had happened.

    Velvet… had risked her life to save his own.

    He looked around, shell-shocked, his sword held limply in his hands. Edna, Lailah, Alisha, Mikleo… Velvet. All of them. They had all risked their lives for him, for the Shepherd.

    His gaze rose to meet the furious dragon's eyes as it began to lumber towards him under the watchful eye of the waning moon. A predator about to pounce on its helpless prey.

    Pure terror flashed in his expression.

    ----

    Blood seeping out of her mouth, Velvet barely had the strength to painfully turn her head and watch helplessly as the dragon approached the frozen Shepherd at an almost leisurely pace. It knew that he was beaten.

    And it was right.

    Velvet let her head drop tiredly back down into the grass as she stared up into the stars, blocking out the sound of the thunderous footsteps as she reluctantly accepted what was about to happen.

    Sorey was going to die.

    Her jaw clenched from emotions that had nothing to do with the pain coursing through her body.

    Despite it all; his apparent never-yielding determination to help others, the steadfast support of and reliance on his friends, the training she herself had given him under the guise of an enigmatic hellion mentor, the advice she had imparted onto him in the guise of a resonant traveler; all of it didn't change the fact that he was simply too weak. Too weak a tool to wield for her plans.

    Too weak to save her Phi.

    For she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that a Shepherd who could not best a mere Drake despite all the odds favoring him, could never best the Lord of Calamity even if he trained for the next thousand years; especially when the current one was also wielding a hellionized God. There would be no way that he could ever save Phi if he could not best even this minor obstacle.

    It was just that simple, however much it burned her to acknowledge it.

    She had accepted the possibility when the battle started; that if Sorey failed here, he would fail. There would be no saving him.

    And he had failed.

    Now, he would have to face the consequences of that failure.

    Her fists clenched.

    There would always be another one, naturally. Always another Shepherd to be born; always another tool to be picked up. Velvet would be there, always, right behind them, no matter how long she had to wait. She would wait until the end of time itself if need be, until the day finally came when she had finally found a Shepherd strong enough to accomplish the task she needed to use them for.

    For Sorey was no longer an option.

    She slowly closed her eyes and patiently awaited the falling of the headsman's axe.

    ----

    Then, all of a sudden, Mikleo's words, uttered long ago, spontaneously came to him.

    "You're more important that all of us combined." He had stated simply. "That's just how it is."

    Sorey's fists clenched harshly.

    "…All of you… Believe in me so much." He muttered lowly, sinking his boots into the floor as he raised his eyes defiantly towards the approaching dragon.

    Their faces flashed behind his eyes. The faces of all his friends. They had believed in him so much as the Shepherd. They had trusted him when he had led them into this battle. They had followed his every decision, believing in his ability to do what was right for all.

    "I suppose… there really is no choice, in the end." He chuckled humorlessly as he gripped his sword with both hands, tensing his tired and beaten muscles as the monster neared. He glanced briefly at the sprawled form of Velvet Davidson lying by the base of the tree before returning his gaze onto his opponent's.

    "…I have to do what needs to be done." He growled lowly.

    The dragon let out an earth-shaking roar.

    The Shepherd stood firmly before the monster, his cloak billowing in the wake of the monster's bellow. "COME ON!" He yelled back.

    With a final, furious roar, the dragon lunged.

    Then, as if it were completely natural for him, Sorey pivoted his torso backwards and let the dragon's right claw sweep over him. The world went dark as it was obscured by the dragon's massive claw as it passed within millimeters of his torso. He felt a harsh gust of wind as the attack passed over him; proof of how close the attack had come to rending his body into a pile of blood.

    Exactly like before.

    And then, without hesitation, Sorey wrenched his sword up. The same way he had done it last time.

    Directly into the open arrow wound in the dragon's belly.

    SQUELCH!

    A howl of pure agony flooded the world as the dragon unexpectedly tumbled onto the ground, writhing and thrashing in pure agony. Grass and dirt were torn up and flung high into the night sky as the hellion kicked its feet and slammed its wings into anything and everything in a vain attempt to mitigate the searing pain in its gut.

    Grunting as he got to his feet, with steel determination in his expression, Sorey began to run towards the dragon, his sword held at his side bursting into brilliant blue flames. With righteous fury in his eyes, the Holy Shepherd lunged towards the monster.

    "HYAAAAAAH!" He cried, sinking the blazing sword directly into the dragon's head.

    BOOM!

    The world became one of silver fury as the dragon's body became engulfed in violent explosions of power. Sorey roared as he pumped all of his power into the vessel, forcing every last speck of cruel malevolence away.

    The crumbling state of Marlind. The people who were sick. The people whom had died. The very being that had become a dragon in the first place. The suffering of his friends. All of it; all of it could be fixed by his hands, and his hands alone. Because he was the Shepherd.

    He'd be damned if he didn't at least try his best.

    With that thought, the Shepherd closed his eyes and forced every last drop of his being into his task.

    FWOOM!

    With one last final detonation, the purification of the scourge of Marlind was completed. Before him, in the place of a horrific monster, laid the innocent unconscious body of a wizened seraph in a patch of burnt grass. Gasping for breath, Sorey crumpled to his knees before the seraph, his entire body shaking with adrenaline and fatigue.

    Through the ringing in his ears, he was surprised to hear the soft clinking of metal in the silence that followed.

    Sorey turned his head and found Velvet, clearly injured and in pain, standing steadily behind him with wide eyes. "…You did it." She breathed quietly, the words nearly lost in the wind.

    He gave a shallow nod in the silence. "Yeah."

    He gave her an honest, wholly grateful smile. "And it's all thanks to all of you." He got back to his feet with a grunt, giving Velvet a nod of boundless gratitude. "Thank you, Velvet. For saving my life back there." He intoned genuinely. "There was no way I could've done it without you. Really."

    Velvet smiled softly back. "Don't worry about it."

    Her hands were rolled into tight fists by her sides.

    "AHHHHHHH!"

    Suddenly, a terrible scream rang out over the wind. The unmistakable, bone-chilling high-pitched cry of a terrified child crying out for help. Sorey and Velvet both jerked their heads in that direction at once, their bodies tensing.

    Behind them, Edna's labored voice rang out.

    "You two, get going!"

    Sorey turned around with worried eyes as he took in the seraph applying gels to the wounded group members lying around the battlefield. "You sure?" He called back anxiously, torn between the injured forms of his friends and the yelling and shouting coming from across town.

    "Go!" Edna ordered harshly.

    Exchanging a nod, Velvet and Sorey broke into a labored sprint towards where the horrible noise had come from. Panting, the two of them ran through the deserted streets of Marlind with the waning moon at their backs. The decreased levels malevolence from the drake's absence did nothing to dispel the looming atmosphere of doom plaguing the town. The closer they got, the louder the screams were.

    And then all of a sudden, a single man's cry of pure agony split across the night sky before it was abruptly cut short.

    The world went quiet.

    Sorey and Velvet exchanged looks and hurriedly sped up their pace, regardless of their aching bodies. There was no denying that something horrible had just happened. Their footsteps rang out deafeningly in the silence as they approached.

    They arrived to find horrifying scene in the middle of a crossroads in town.

    Terrified civilians looked on at a safe distance as a group of armored guards battled off against a rabid wolf hellion; one whose fur had been marred with countless wounds and was clearly on its last leg of battle. The Hyland guards, on the other hand, were ruthless in their efficiency as they used their long-reaching spears to trap the rabid dog in the middle of their circle formation, protecting the other citizens and preventing it from running away.

    And then, right in front of Sorey and Velvet's eyes, one of the guards at the hellion's broadside lunged forward and impaled the hellion straight through the heart. Blood squirted noisily as the steel sank deeply into its body.

    It died instantly on the spot, falling limp right there in the middle of the crossroads.

    Sorey's eyes bulged in horror. "No-!" He began, taking a step forward.

    And then he choked.

    By his side, Velvet froze.

    An old man laid there at the steps of the house in front of the crosswalks, his throat torn clean out.

    Over his corpse kneeled an aged elderly woman, sobbing profusely and utterly ignoring the commotion with the dog in favor of mourning the violent, horrific death of her husband.

    It was the old man whom had told her not to kill the hellion she'd saved him from. The hellion that had, in the end, torn off the hand that had offered to feed it.

    In the crowd, a small girl began to wail in a putrid mix of terror and horror. Her shaking body was covered entirely in congealed blood, being ineffectually wiped off by her sobbing mother as she held her daughter in shocked disbelief. Standing between them and the dog's corpse was the daughter's father with pure protective rage etched in his features.

    "Just what the hell was that old fool thinking?!" The father shouted angrily into the night, glaring at the dead body with utter revulsion at the deceased man's actions. "Walking around the village with that rabid animal?!"

    "That's enough out of you!" Snapped the lead guard, who wore the insignia of a sergeant, placing his boot on the deceased dog's back to yank his spear out. As the blade withdrew from the animal's flesh, blood cascaded out of the now open wound, streaming down the mangled fur and onto the cobbled road below where it began to form a crimson puddle.

    Shaking his head harshly, the sergeant who had delivered the killing blow took a moment to regain his breath as he took in the results of his handiwork before turning to glare at the enraged father whom he'd just rebuked. "Fool or not," he growled, "that's his wife right there." He jabbed a finger right at the woman sobbing quietly over the corpse. "If you won't show respect for the dead, at least show it to her for pity's sake!"

    The father let out a disdainful scoff, spitting on the floor with crossed arms. "That old bastard's getting no respect from me, nor from anyone in this whole town if I have anything to say about it!" He declared spitefully. "His stupidity near killed by precious daughter!"

    He threw his hands into the air, taking an aggressive step forward. "Just look at her!She'll be traumatized for life! How the hell can you even expect me to respect the bastard who did that to my baby?!" He screamed.

    All the while, the old man's wife just continued to wail hysterically.

    The sergeant let out a rough sigh, shaking his head once more. "…I understand your anger, sir." He conceded placatingly. He gestured with his bloody spear at the bleeding corpse on the cobblestones. "But your daughter's safe now and the beast is dead." He pointed out. "And as for the old man…"

    He turned to face the corpse lying on the cobblestones being silently mourned by the old woman with a sigh. "…He's already more than paid the price for his mistake, wouldn't you say?" He muttered soberly.

    Idly, he glanced around at the rest of the townsfolk gathered around the bloody scene. Mixed emotions filled the crowd. Many appeared to agree with the irate father, while some seemed to sympathize with the elderly wife. Others evidently had no idea at all how to react to the tragedy.

    The sergeant abruptly shook his head, suddenly utterly tired of it all.

    He waved his free hand towards the crowd. "…Enough." He ordered firmly, putting an end to the whispering and muttering. "The situation's been handled. Everyone, go back home. Now."

    The people began to comply, slowly heading back home in groups through the night. Doubtless, the town would be filled with gossip and heated debate in the morning regarding the old man's actions.

    The sergeant glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the guards as the crowd slowly dissipated. "…Come on, fellas." He muttered. "First round's on me tonight."

    A chorus of assent resounded dully from the rest of the armored men.

    The head guard took one last look at the corpse of the human on the ground and the wife mourning it, shook his head one more time, and left, taking his blood-stained spear with him as he did so.

    Meanwhile, the once-incensed father had turned his back to the scene, kneeling down before his trembling daughter and embracing her tenderly all the while whispering soft, comforting words in her ear. Gently, carefully, the man softly gathered the bloodied girl up in his hands and lifted her in his loving embrace, keen pain clear on his face. He met his wife's eyes and nodded softly. Together, the family turned their backs to the bloodied scene and trotted hurriedly off into the darkness, back home.

    Hoping beyond hope that they would somehow be able to recover from all that had happened.

    As the rest of the spectating civilians departed the bloodied crossroads, Sorey and Velvet stood there, watching the kind, foolish old man's loving wife sob and tremble over the body of her loved one, now all alone with nothing but an empty house.

    Without another word, Velvet turned on her heel and left.

    "…Velvet?" Sorey asked softly as she left.

    She ignored him.

    Without pause, the therion stalked right off into the darkness towards the exit of town, her eyes dark and hard.

    She was the same.

    She was the one who would unflinchingly turn on those around her if it suited her needs. She was a monster just like that wolf hellion. One who had been willing to cast off Sorey's life as if he were nothing but a mere tool. All the while she had pretended to be his companion; his friend.

    Lies. Lies. Lies.

    In the end, it was all fake. All of it was unnatural. Any laughs shared, any genuine moments had, any bonds formed; all of it was just a series of paper-thin distractions to hide the true evil boiling within her being. For everything was expendable to a monster such as her.

    And that was how it had always been.

    That was how it was. That was how it would always be. It was just the natural way of things. She was just acting with accordance with her own nature.

    The nature of a monster.

    It was just that simple.

    Malevolence beginning to overflow from her very being, the lone woman stalked eagerly into the darkness and away from town; towards a place where nobody else would get hurt by a monster like her.

    And in the wake of the tragedy that had befallen the town, silence fell once more under the watchful eye of the waning moon.

    ----​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
  9. Threadmarks: C08 - Scarlet
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 8 - Scarlet.

    A distant howl rang out into the darkness, resounding into the untamed grassy fields surrounding the quiet city of Marlind. A chorus of responding cries echoed the howl from a distance; a pack of wolves communicating with one of their own.

    Sorey sat by himself near the edge of a small cliff on the outskirts of Marlind, his eyes hard as he listened to the feral calls intruding upon the calm tranquility of the night. A light gust of wind blew and rustled his clothes and the leaves on the trees behind him, tickling his face and keeping him awake.

    He hadn't been able to sleep well ever since what had happened yesterday morning.

    The Shepherd stared off towards the direction of town, idly observing the patterns of torches and lamps visible in the darkness and trying to discern major thoroughfares and landmarks from them. Regardless of whatever he did to occupy his thoughts, the images just kept on appearing in his mind, as they had been doing throughout the day.

    The torn-out throat. The blood on the cobblestones. The body of the slain hellion riddled with spear wounds.

    He let out a grunt, massaging his temples softly as he sat up in his cross-legged position, trying in vain to force the thoughts plaguing his mind away.

    Snap!

    He blinked, registering the snapping of a twig behind him. A tell-tale noise he knew for a fact had been intentionally made to make him aware of its presence. Naturally, he'd known that it would've only been a matter of time until the masked hellion found him.

    The powerful, enigmatic monster that was teaching him how to fight.

    Without turning around, Sorey tilted his head up towards the stars as the hellion's malevolence began to seep into the air, closing his eyes.

    "…We beat the drake." He announced softly. "It was a close call, but we all made it out okay in the end. And it's all thanks to your help."

    He turned his head over his shoulder to glance at the familiar cloaked form of the hellion standing motionlessly behind him and gave it a nod, his eyes distant.

    "But… something else happened that night." He muttered, looking away from the hellion's form and into the distance. "Something horrible."

    Blood. Screaming. Wailing.

    Sorey's jaw stiffened. "…My friends tell me that hellions are all evil. Mindless beasts founded upon the worst emotions of all living things." He remarked, idly examining his gloved hand and the emblem emblazoned upon it. "And for a long time, I had no reason to think otherwise."

    "What I saw last night was… undeniably evil." He shook his head, the images refusing to leave his mind. "It was jarring, to say the least." He muttered.

    Slowly, the Shepherd got to his feet and turned around, facing the hellion fully with the waning moon at his back. He met its burning hot red eyes and held its gaze.

    "…But I suppose that just goes to show how sheltered I was."

    The silence was punctuated by another soft breeze, rustling the sparse grass between the hellion and its mortal enemy.

    Sorey abruptly grunted, reaching down to his hip and sliding his sword out of its sheath, falling into a ready position. He gave the monster across the clearing from him a sharp nod, narrowing his eyes and preparing himself for the next lesson. "…Shall we begin?" He prompted softly, holding the hellion's gaze. It stared back at him silently.

    And then, all of a sudden, it tensed its body and vanished into thin air.

    The beating of his heart quickly picking up speed with the recognition of the impending fight, Sorey took the few precious moments before the inevitable assault to distance himself from the cliff by breaking into a sprint towards the dense tree line in front of him.

    The lightest unnatural touch of disturbed air on his neck was his only warning.

    A hurried grunt escaping his lips, Sorey immediately dove to the right without breaking his stride, barely dodging the hellion as it crashed hard claw-first into the earth exactly where he would've been had he kept running. Forcing himself through his roll and keeping his sword held at a safe distance so as not to slice himself, he barreled back to his feet, knowing that keeping his wits about him and maintaining his mobility and agility would be key if he intended to battle such a terrifyingly strong adversary. One that far outclassed him in every conceivable manner.

    CLANG!

    His sword and its claw met in a brilliant exchange of sparks as they slid smoothly off each other thanks to the canted angle of Sorey's parry. Smartly pivoting on his feet, Sorey feinted right before leaping to the left, effectively avoiding a follow-up sweep of the claw. "Hah!" He yelled, sweeping down low and driving his sword towards the hellion's ankles, cutting grass in the process.

    His sword received no resistance as the monster leapt up and to the side, out of reach of his blade. Following through smoothly with the missed slice, Sorey kept up the offensive, swinging around and harrying the monster with short jabs to which it responded with backward leaps and upward jumps, easily avoiding each attack.

    Sorey abruptly pivoted on the ball of his right foot, swinging his entire body around and slashing his blade with his arm fully outstretched in an attempt to encompass the hellion's entire range of motion and force it to move back.

    "Gah!" Sorey yelped as he abruptly found himself utterly empty-handed.

    He blinked in astonishment as he registered that the hellion had simply chosen to slam its claw into his arm, causing his sword to go flying out of reach. Without hesitating, the hellion swung its arm around and dug its claw deep into the earth behind it, tensing its body.

    Sorey didn't stand a chance as it flung its claw high up and into the heavens, casting him bodily with it. Hissing with the pain ringing through his body, the Shepherd tried to orient himself in the darkness as he fell, trying to get his feet below him for the landing. He blinked in shock again as he registered two glowing red eyes and an open, raised claw rising up to meet him.

    CRASH!

    "AGH!" Sorey let out an involuntary yelp as he was violently smashed downwards and into the dirt, his bones rattling in his body with the impact. Shaking his head harshly, Sorey abruptly pushed off the ground and to the left, rolling away from where he'd landed. His decision turned out to be prudent just a few seconds later when the hellion slammed its claw down and onto the dirt where he'd been laying with a furious degree of force and sending particles of dirt high into the sky.

    "W-whoa!" Sorey exclaimed as he leapt to his feet, taking no chances and breaking into a break-neck pace away from the rampaging hellion and towards the forest, making as much distance as humanly possible away from it. "We're not messing around tonight, I take it?!" He yelped.

    "Ack!" He abruptly ducked instinctively as he ran, dodging a flying claw that appeared above his head by a hair. The claw instead smashed into a nearby tree and utterly destroyed it, sending the medium-sized trunk hurtling downwards into the earth with a ponderous groan. Sorey shot a look over his shoulder with wide eyes, watching the hellion roughly tug its claw from the remains of the fallen tree and glare at him with its piercing red eyes. He shuddered and ran faster, digging his heels in and weaving in between the trees in an effort to conceal himself from the predator keen on his scent.

    "Weapon… weapon! I need something to fight back with!" Sorey breathed as he ran, weaving in and out of the trees and trying his damndest to not trip and fall. He shot a look to the right and briefly scanned the field outside of the forest for the glint of his fallen sword; he was decidedly helpless without it.

    SMASH!

    He came to a skidding halt, however, as four trees in front of him exploded in wooden shrapnel, revealing a cloaked form charging out inexplicably through the shadows and towards him like an assassin in the night. "Damn!" He grunted and pivoted to the left, using the closest oak tree for cover.

    BANG!

    The world trembled as a sudden red-hot explosion lit up the night, scorching the surrounding trees and utterly decimating the oak tree Sorey had ducked behind for cover.

    Lowering its smoking claw in the aftermath of the arte it had cast, the masked hellion slowly advanced towards the charred remains of the oak tree, its claw held dangerously at its side, keenly listening for any movement.

    Ashes crunched under its feet as it neared the blast zone, its figure silhouetted ominously by the small residual flames dotting the area.

    With precise movements, it raised its claw directly to the burnt trunk of the tree.

    BANG!

    Another explosion erupted right in front of it, utterly obliterating the remains of the tree and with it, any semblance of cover the Shepherd might've had. Burnt and charred bark rained down all around the hellion as it stood there silently, waiting for the smoke to clear and watching for its prey.

    Its red-hot eyes narrowed dangerously as it registered footsteps charging towards it.

    "Take this!"

    With a fierce battle cry, the Shepherd charged through the smoke, a fierce determination etched on his soot-marked face as he swung something at it. The hellion raised its claw to block instinctively as the broad swing neared.

    It hissed angrily as a searing sensation ran up the nerves in the back of its claw, causing it to recoil backwards and away, though more out of surprise than pain. It blinked, belatedly registering that its prey had dropped the weapon he had attacked with the instant it had impacted before running away.

    The long piece of burning bark Sorey had used as a makeshift torch-club laid innocuously at its feet, still burning slightly on one end.

    Narrowing its eyes at having effectively been distracted, the hellion charged quickly after Sorey, leaping inhumanly swiftly through the tree trunks and towards the sounds of his footsteps, which were now coming from outside the forest. The moment it burst through the tree line; it was ambushed.

    "I won't lose that easily!"

    The Shepherd unleashed a furious assault upon his unsuspecting opponent as he attacked it with his newly recovered sword. Left jabs, right jabs, feints, parries, stabs, lunges; he used every trick he had under his belt to capitalize upon his advantage and drive the hellion backwards.

    His efforts, however, went unrewarded as the monster smoothly counteracted a particularly hasty stab by once more slamming its claw into his outstretched arm and once more throwing his sword far into the distance, disarming him yet again.

    In the blink of an eye, Sorey had gone from pressing his attack to coming to an utter stand still with a cold, dreadfully sharp demonic claw pressed right up against the flesh of his exposed neck.

    His wide eyes met the hellion's as the two maintained that stance; one utterly silent and enigmatic and holding a deadly appendage at the other's neck as he gasped for breath on shaky, adrenaline-filled legs; his hands utterly empty and hanging uselessly at his sides. A cool breeze blew, rustling the trees behind them in the wake of the fight's conclusion. High up in the sky, the spectating moon continued to watch, basking the scene in soft yellow light.

    With slow movements, the hellion slowly removed the lethal claw from the Shepherd's jugular and let it dangle at its left side once more, watching him as unnervingly and as silently as always as he recovered from the fight.

    Sorey let out a massive breath now that the claw was no longer hovering over his neck and bent over in exhaustion, panting with his hands on his knees. "Hah…! Not… too bad, right?" He breathed, slowly straightening his aching spine and looking up.

    He blinked when he realized he was utterly alone.

    All around him, the traces of malevolence were fading with the wind, proving that the hellion had in fact truly left. All that remained in its wake was the damage that had been dealt to the surrounding land and trees in the wake of the violence. In the absence of the howling winds of its domain, the calm, soft winds of the night filled the silence once more.

    Pursing his lips, Sorey jerked himself out of his surprise and turned on his heel, headed towards the general direction where his disarmed sword had flown. Once again, Sorey found himself utterly befuddled at the enigma that was the masked hellion.

    Thanks to the training it had given him, he had managed to defeat the drake, and he had also become much more adept at fighting hellions in general. Through grueling trial and error in their nightly training sessions, he had begun to develop skills essential to supporting his swordplay and his overall efforts in battle with the rest of his friends.

    …But why?

    Sorey shook his head in befuddlement as he approached his sword glinting innocently in the moonlight in the grass close to the tree line. Bending down to reach it, Sorey let out a hiss as the newly-formed bruises on his body angrily let their presences be known while he picked it up.

    It had gone really unusually hard on him this night. And he had no idea why. He'd have to use more than a fair amount of gels to try and hide his newly-formed bruises, lest his friends start asking questions he really didn't know how to answer.

    Idly, his gaze wandered off towards the outlying fields wreathed in moonlight. The distant howling of wolves had ceased, but the cries still resounded loud as ever within his memories. His smile faded, his eyes growing serious as the events of last night flashed once more in his thoughts.

    "Hellions… huh?" He muttered under his breath.

    Monsters capable of great evil. Monsters borne of evil emotions whose only purpose was to induce more of the same hateful malice in humans and seraphim. Monsters whose very nature drove them to commit such repulsive acts.

    At least… that was what he had been led to believe.

    He glanced over his shoulder, a serious expression on his face as he thought back to his past interactions with the masked hellion.

    It just didn't fit.

    "…Just who the heck are you?" He breathed quietly, closing his eyes in befuddlement and envisioning the shape of the familiar, cold steel mask in his mind. A mask that served to frame those two, fear-inducing crimson eyes. Those eyes held malice; of that fact, Sorey had no doubts.

    And yet, there was no mistaking the intelligence behind them as well; no mistaking the brilliant fire burning in its gaze. Something drove it to act in this manner, Sorey knew; there was a goal in its mind that motivated its actions towards him. As for what that something was, Sorey had not the slightest idea.

    All he could tell was that it had evidently decided that empowering the Shepherd was the way to achieve what it wanted.

    Sorey shifted on his feet in deep contemplation. "What… do you want?" He mumbled into the night air. "And what exactly do I have to do with it…?"

    The empty silence was the lone Shepherd's only response.

    "…Ah, well."

    He let out a wry chuckle, rolling his shoulder and gingerly sheathed his sword, letting it click back into place at his hip. Glancing over his shoulder at the remains of the battle scene, he let out a nonchalant shrug laced with pain, a small, accepting smile on his lips.

    "There's no real point in getting too worked up about it I guess." He figured brightly. With a concise turn on his heel, he faced the path downward and back towards Marlind. "Things will sort themselves out in the end, I'm sure of it."

    And with that decision in mind, the Shepherd dusted off his hands and headed on back to town, the training session having run its course for the night. Behind him, the empty cliff face stood silently in the moonlight; motionless and foreign.

    ---​

    Sorey let out a ponderous yawn, stretching out his tired muscles and blinking blearily in the bright sunlight pouring in through the leaves of the Great Tree of Marlind high, high above town. Cradled gently in his arms was his well-worn copy of the Celestial Record, glowing happily in the sun. He lounged back in the deck chair, closing his eyes and savoring the feeling of the sun on his skin and trying to ignore the diminished yet still ever-present cloud of malevolence hanging above the town.

    With the purification of the drake two nights before, the malevolence in Marlind had decreased greatly. However, it seemed that the Shepherd's work in the plague town was not quite done yet.

    "Not sleeping well?"

    His eyes blinked open at the familiar voice. A quick tilt of the head revealed the form of Velvet Davidson as she sauntered up to him, an eyebrow raised and a hand on her hip.

    Idly rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, Sorey put on his most energetic smile and sat up in the deck chair respectfully. "It's not bad. I think it might be because my body's still healing from the battle with the drake." He suggested casually, dodging the issue.

    Velvet traversed the wooden planks of the deck and leant on the sunbaked iron and wood railing opposite Sorey's chair, crossing her arms and nodding in response. "You doing alright?" She prompted, gesturing at him with her bandaged arm. "That battle came pretty close."

    Sorey shook his head. "I'd be more worried about you." Concern was clear on his face as he leant forward, his elbows on his knees. "What you did back then… it was incredible." He expressed genuinely, thinking back to the hardened woman's heroic actions in distracting the dragon to prevent it from killing him. He winced as he thought back to how much blood had been seeping out the back of the woman's coat at the end of it.

    Waving his sentiment off, Velvet dismissed, "All of us were in rough shape by the end of that night; let's just leave it at that." She settled in her seat on top of the railing and glanced off idly towards the center of town. "It looks like everyone's been recovering just fine, though."

    "Are they all over in the park talking to Rohan and Atakk right now?" Sorey asked curiously, gently stowing away his copy of the Celestial Record in his pack at the foot of his chair.

    She nodded. "It looks like Rohan's finally recovered to the point where he can attempt to discern the whereabouts of this hellion that's preventing him from becoming the Lord of the Land. They should be back soon with news shortly."

    The Shepherd nodded deeply, putting a hand up to his chin in thought. "…Alisha really impressed him, didn't he?" He remarked contemplatively. "From the moment we purified him from being a drake, she's been nothing but respectful and honest with him." He shook his head in amazement. "She's been working so hard, lately. Not to mention how on top of interacting with Rohan, she's been helping out so much in the sanctuary, despite her injuries." He gave Velvet a shrug. "I suppose it just goes to show how dedicated she is to being a proper princess of the people." He supposed. "It's really impressive."

    Velvet let out an exasperated sigh in response. "I did tell her to take it easy and rest for a day or two before running around. Fat load of good that did." She muttered resentfully.

    Sorey grinned wryly. "See? She's even willing to disobey your orders to do what she thinks is best for the people." He pointed out brightly. "That's quite the accomplishment."

    She gave him a dry look in response. "…And what's that supposed to mean, exactly?" She asked pointedly, raising an eyebrow.

    The Shepherd balked. "Oh! N-nothing." He waved his hands dismissively with a disarming grin.

    Velvet let out a mild huff in response, looking away.

    For a while, the two of them simply stayed there, enjoying the sunlight for what it was worth; a brief spell of relaxation before they set off once more on their journey. All around them, birds chirped and fluttered in the air. High up above, the massive tree of Marlind stood, its leaves and branches shifting gently in the breeze. A rare flavor of tranquility fell upon their surroundings in the deck of the local inn, with not a single other human in sight.

    Slowly, a monotonous, steady rattling sound began to approach from the side, drawing their attention to the paved road running past the deck of the inn.

    "Ho there! Shepherd!"

    Sorey abruptly broke into a grin at the familiar voice, jumping out of his chair and trotting up to the railings next to Velvet as three covered horse carts rounded the corner, their wooden wheels squeaking noisily alongside the rhythmic clopping of horse hooves on stone as the animals were guided by their handlers through town. Men and women in distinctive merchant clothing trotted easily alongside the carts on both sides, chatting amicably amongst themselves and taking in the sights of the town as they walked.

    Sorey's grin widened as he immediately recognized the tall, well-groomed older man holding the reigns of the lead cart, raising a hand in greeting. "Eguille!" He called back. "What are you all doing here?" He asked curiously, taking in the entirety of the guild of Sparrowfeathers in all its splendor as the merchants rolled into town.

    "Business, of course." Eguille replied as the horses drawing his cart slowly came to a stop in front of the inn with his well-practiced handling of the reigns, giving Sorey a nod of greeting before leaning to the right and calling out to the rest of his guild. "Alright everyone! Take a breather here!" He called, his distinctive voice instantly drawing the voice of every Sparrowfeather in the convoy. "We make for the Sanctuary in half an hour!"

    "You got it, Captain!" Came a familiar feminine voice in response.

    With nimble movements, a redheaded merchant leapt out the back of the second stopped cart, dusting her hands and letting out a breath as she surveyed the scene with her hands on her hip. "Whew!" She breathed.

    She abruptly caught on to Sorey's face watching them from the deck, a bright smile forming on her face. "Oh, hey there!" She greeted the Shepherd cheerily with a two-fingered salute. "Saw what you did with the bridge! You're a superstar!"

    Sorey let out a soft chuckle, shifting on his feet in response. "It… it wasn't anything special, really." He eventually decided on as a response, rubbing the back of his head sheepishly.

    She raised an eyebrow up at the Shepherd on the deck, tilting her head curiously. "Nothing special?" She asked in disbelief. The redheaded merchant abruptly shook her head, dismissing the matter. "Well, never mind about that. Ya know, it's a good thing we ran into you here."

    Sorey cocked his head to the side. "How's that?"

    The merchant held up a single finger in response and lithely kicked off the ground, lightly pushing her right boot in between the wooden railing of the deck before pushing off that as well and hopping clean over the railing. She landed primly before the Shepherd with a light thunk, a crisp document in one hand and a pen in the other.

    "I need you to sign this." She explained brightly, offering both items to him.

    He blinked, squinting at the text written on the proffered form.

    "What's this all about?"

    Sorey blinked, abruptly remembering Velvet's presence as she walked up to the two of them with a curious expression. "Oh hey! That's right!" He popped a closed fist in his palm as he turned to Velvet, gesturing at the redheaded merchant with a smile. "Velvet, this is Rose, of the Sparrowfeathers. Rose, this is Velvet. She's been travelling with us ever since we left Ladylake." He introduced brightly.

    Rose tilted her head and saluted Velvet with a bright expression. "Nice to meetcha."

    Velvet gave the redhead a nod in return. "Who are the Sparrowfeathers?" She asked curiously, laying a hand on her hip.

    "They're a group of trading merchants that travel the continent doing business." Sorey explained. "They helped us a lot out back in Ladylake. They're real nice people!"

    "Real savvy people at that!" Rose added cheekily, giving Velvet a grin. "Remember, if you need quality service at quality prices, the Sparrowfeather have your back."

    Velvet waved a lofty hand in response. "So, what you mean to say is you only have my back if I give you money, right?" She pointed out. "Otherwise, I'm on my own?"

    At her comment, Sorey winced.

    "Well, duh!" Rose drawled easily with a grin. "How else would you expect us to make a profit and keep on travelling? We're not a pack of idiots ya know."

    "Hm. Seems that way." Velvet responded easily, a smile creeping into her expression as she crossed her arms.

    "…Then I'll keep your services in mind for the future in case I ever need them. Sound alright?" She offered.

    "Music to my ears." The merchant replied easily.

    With that exchange over with, she pivoted on her foot and faced Sorey again, near shoving the papers and pen into his hands by force. "Now then, you, Mr. Shepherd, better buck up!" She urged. "This medicine ain't going anywhere until you sign for it. The rules are rules for a reason."

    "Medicine?" Sorey blinked, glancing at the three wagons laden with cargo parked on the side of the path amongst the resting Sparrowfeathers. "That's what this all is?"

    "Paid for by a guy named Neif." Rose nodded. "Apparently, he and a group of people needed it all shipped to town as sharply as possible. That's why they paid us top dollar even when they were already headed in the same direction."

    "Oh, that's great!" Sorey exclaimed. "The sanctuary's actually close to running out of the medicine we'd brought when we first came here." Quickly, the Shepherd uncapped the pen and drew a rough signature on the line on the bottom before handing both items back to the merchant. "Were Neif and the other townspeople alright?" He asked curiously as he handed them over.

    "They were doing just fine, don't get your Shepherd britches in a bunch." Rose assured, primly taking the documents back and sliding the pen back into her pants pocket. "And thanks. We'll deliver the medicine straight to the sanctuary in a flash. You can count on it." She promised.

    She blinked, abruptly snapping her fingers as a thought came to her. "Say, you wanna come take a gander at our stuff? We got some fantastic new travel gear in stock!" She put both hands on her hips. "…But I can't guarantee a discount even for the savior of the world though, I'm afraid." She warned in advance.

    Sorey chuckled, putting a finger to his cheek. "Don't see why not."

    "Cool." All business-like, the sharply dressed merchant proceeded to beckon the two of them down the steps of the deck towards the stopped carriages. "Right this way."

    Together, the three of them trotted down the few steps of the deck and onto the pavement, mingling with the groups of Sparrowfeathers trotting here and there, all busily attending to the various tasks needed by their caravan. The air was filled with lighthearted chatter and activity as people sharpened knives, watered horses, and accounted for inventory. Velvet glanced around, impressed at the obvious cohesion at work around her. They almost resembled one big extended family, moving amongst each other with acute familiarity of those who had lived together for years on end.

    Eguille was waiting for them at the back of the first caravan, his arms crossed and ready as he stood beside the open display of travel items laid out beside him. "I knew she'd net you into this." He said as way of explanation.

    "Of course you did." Rose replied easily as she came to a halt before the display. "I'm the best, aren't I?" She turned and raised an eyebrow at Sorey. "Don't be shy!" She urged. "If you see anything you like, let any of us know and we'll give ya the price." Her eyes narrowed. "And don't even think about haggling! We're no petty street merchants."

    Sorey grinned back at her, scratching the back of his head. "Not a problem." With that, he trotted forward, his eyes eagerly taking in the wide variety of travel equipment, idly striking up a conversation with Eguille as he did so.

    Velvet strolled up to her and stood beside Rose, watching the Shepherd go about his business shopping. The merchant gave her a curious look over her shoulder. "…So, whatcha doin' hanging out with Sorey?" She asked conversationally.

    Velvet shrugged in response. "Better to travel with others than to travel alone, I suppose." She explained vaguely.

    "Nonsense." Rose instantly dismissed, waving a hand at the other woman. "A tough gal like you needing to travel with others?" She let out a laugh. "For some reason I find that kinda hard to believe."

    The disguised therion let out an amused huff in response. "You're free to believe what you want." She allowed easily with a shrug. "In any case, I'm travelling with him and Alisha for the time being."

    Humming, Rose held a curled-up finger up to her chin in thought. After a moment, she spoke up again.

    "…He's a bit of a weirdo, isn't he?" She asked, shooting a grin over her shoulder.

    A smirk rising on her face, Velvet let out a scoff in response. "That's putting it mildly." She remarked dryly. "I don't think I've ever met a single person quite like him."

    Turning to face her fully, Rose tilted her head to the side, a single hand on her hip. "Then again, the Shepherd ought to be like that, don't you think?" She suggested conversationally. "Anyone who marches out to save the world by themself has to be a little bit strange."

    Velvet nodded slowly, her gaze turning back upon the subject of their conversation. "Well, if that's the case, Sorey fits the bill, at least." She observed.

    Right on cue, the Shepherd let out an excited shout, lunging forward as if possessed and grabbing a particularly dusty book off one of the boxes inside of the caravan.

    "Hey!" Rose yelled sharply. "You break it, you buy it!" She warned.

    "Sorry!" He called back sheepishly, crawling out of the caravan and plopping himself back on his two feet, gingerly cradling the aged and weathered tome in his hands. Almost instantly, he forgot their existence as he tenderly opened the aged green cover of the book to the first page, reverently blowing off some dust as he did so.

    Rolling her eyes in exasperation, Rose tore her eyes away from the fascinated Shepherd and glanced at Velvet. "…Putting it mildly, huh?" She quoted wryly.

    Velvet waved a hand in resignation. "Yep." She breathed.

    The therion blinked, registering familiar figures making their way through the merchants populating the pathway towards them. She turned her head to the side.

    "Sorey." She prompted.

    At her voice, the Shepherd wrenched his eyes away from the tome in his hands and glanced at her. He followed her gaze and found the rest of the group trotting over to him and Velvet. "Oh! Hey there, Alisha." He greeted, discreetly acknowledging the three seraphim walking behind the princess as well. "Any luck?" He asked, gingerly closing the book in his hands.

    Alisha nodded. "We're to head to the Bors Ruins, about a day's travel away from town to the south." She explained.

    At her side, Mikleo elaborated, "Rohan and Atakk were able to determine that those ruins is where the powerful hellion is residing. Rohan assured us that if we took it down, he would then have no problem becoming Lord of the Land for Marlind by using the Great Tree as a vessel."

    Velvet tilted her head up towards the sun shining through the distant looming canopy, gauging the time. "If we leave now, we should be able to get there around midday tomorrow." She pointed out.

    Rose cocked her head curiously. "What'cha guys headed all the way out there for?" She asked, her gaze flitting between Sorey, Velvet, and Alisha.

    Alisha balked. "Well…" She trailed off.

    Sorey attempted to come up with an explanation. "A-ah. Uhm…" He held up a useless finger in the air as he grasped in vain for a lie to answer her question.

    "Shepherd things." Came Velvet's easy, nonchalant response. She gave Rose a mild shrug. "What else did you expect?"

    "Ahh… I see now." Rose nodded sagely, her lips curling up into a sly smirk as she evidently came to a conclusion from Velvet's words. "Headed off to a distant, isolated location with your companions, huh? Nice plan there, Shepherd." She gave Sorey a sly wink. "Don't worry. I won't tell." She glanced at both Alisha and Velvet, her smirk widening. "I just hope he shows you two a good time!" She chirped brightly.

    Her eyes narrowed mischievously. "He does seem like quite the ladies' man, after all." Rose drawled.

    Sorey and Alisha simultaneously choked on their own spit.

    Velvet, on the other hand, simply gave another light shrug in response to her words. "He does seem like the type. I'll have to see for myself if he can actually manage it, though." She replied, evidently completely unconcerned about the connotations behind her words.

    Rose grinned back at her. "I'm sure you will."

    "Hey there! Rose!"

    The woman turned to wave at Eguille who had wandered off towards the other two carts in the caravan. "What's up?" She called back.

    The man beckoned her over urgently.

    Her eyebrows narrowing at the serious expression on the captain's face, Rose glanced at the rest of the Shepherd's group. "Be back in a sec." She promised.

    With that she broke into a jog towards Eguille and the group of Sparrowfeathers huddled around him in deep conversation. Velvet watched her go, her eyes narrowed as well as she studied the serious air surrounding the group of merchants as Rose arrived.

    Something bad had happened.

    "…Hahaha!"

    Velvet turned around and watched with amusement as Mikleo had apparently reached his limit, bursting into snickers. At his side, Lailah seemed similarly amused yet was managing to mask her humor behind her hand. Edna just had a wry grin on her face as she spun her umbrella on her shoulder.

    Mikleo faced Sorey with a wide grin on his face. "A ladies' man, huh? Sorey, I never knew you had it in you!"

    Edna twirled her umbrella again, her dull smirk widening. "Wow." She remarked dryly. "Who would've thought? The Shepherd is a womanizer."

    Lailah let out a muffled giggle behind her hand. "Indeed! Ah, Sorey. A beautiful maiden latched onto an arm apiece, headed out together for a clandestine stroll in the untamed wilderness, their intentions a close-kept secret between themselves." She breathed, her eyes shining with romanticist light.

    Alisha's face could not have been redder. "S-stop it!" She demanded, mortified. "You know it isn't like that, Lailah!"

    Edna tilted her head to the side. "What part of it is wrong? That is technically the truth, you know." She pointed out mercilessly.

    "But… but that's not-!" Alisha began.

    Shaking his head humorously, Mikleo patted the princess on the shoulder. "Let it go, Alisha." He suggested wisely. "You really don't want to deal with the fangs on that one." He gestured disdainfully at the little imp known as Edna over his shoulder.

    In response, Edna stuck her tongue petulantly out at him.

    Sorey chuckled hesitantly at the whole ordeal, scratching his hair. He glanced to his side, finding the other 'lady' of the group standing there surprisingly unaffectedly watching the exchange. "You don't seem too bothered by what Rose said, Velvet." Sorey pointed out.

    The hardened woman waved a hand in response. "It got her off our case, didn't it?" She pointed out. "Besides, it hardly matters to us what she thinks. Better to play along and save ourselves some time."

    "Haha." Sorey chuckled, scratching his cheek. "I guess you're right."

    Alisha let out a sigh, shaking her head. "I do hope she doesn't go around spreading rumors." She hugged herself with her left arm. "I'm sure it wouldn't do the reputation of the Royal Family any favors."

    "I wouldn't worry about that." Sorey returned easily. "Rose is a nice person. She wouldn't do anything like that."

    "…Yeah, I'd agree with you on that." Velvet replied, crossing her arms and leaning back on the rear pillar of the stopped cart. Right on cue, the merchant in question trotted back up to the rest of them, a grim expression on her face.

    "…Trouble?" Velvet prompted seriously as she arrived.

    Rose nodded soberly; her earlier cheeriness having evaporated in an instant. "Trouble." She confirmed.

    She turned to Sorey. "If you guys are headed out to the Bors Ruins, you ought to know that a group of refugees just came from a nearby settlement. They say that their village that's not far from the ruins has been taken over by a gang of bandits."

    "…Bandits?" Alisha asked worriedly, holding a fist up to her chest. "Then it must be them…"

    "Alisha?" Sorey prompted.

    The princess nodded, explaining, "A few years ago, there was a group of soldiers who deserted the army and disavowed the kingdom, forming their own ranks and banding together as outlaws." She shifted on her feet. "They've been harassing villages and travelers on the outskirts of Hyland ever since, but this the first time I've ever heard of them doing something as bold as taking over an entire village."

    Rose shook her head. "Their taking over the village in of itself wasn't the worst part." Her eyes narrowed. "The worst was just how brutal they apparently were in doing so."

    "…Brutal, you say?" Sorey asked seriously, shifting on his feet.

    "Yeah…" Rose rested her right hand on her opposite shoulder, looking away with a disturbed expression. "Apparently, they attacked out of nowhere in the middle of the night, screaming and howling the whole while. At first the villagers thought they were being attacked by a horde of rabid animals! The survivors claimed that the bandits didn't even seem to care about taking valuables; all they wanted to do was to kill people!" The merchant seemed profoundly disturbed by the news.

    "Oh no." Sorey breathed softly.

    At his side, Edna closed her umbrella with a soft huff. "Hellions." She summarized succinctly. "A pack of them, it sounds like."

    Lailah threaded her fingers together in front of her dress worriedly. "The deviation from their usual behavior, going from highwaymen to outright murderers in the span of a few years does seem to support that theory."

    Mikleo met Sorey's gaze seriously. "We should stop by the village on our way to the ruins, just to check the situation out."

    Sorey nodded wordlessly.

    He turned to Rose. "Thanks for the heads up. We'll be careful." He promised.

    The merchant abruptly perked up and flashed a bright smile in response. "Naturally!" She jerked a finger at the book cradled in his hands, raising an eyebrow. "By the way, you arepaying for that, right?"

    "Ah!" Sorey gingerly set the book down on a nearby crate and reached for his wallet. "Yeah! I am. Sorry."

    "Sheesh." Rose shook her head as the Shepherd picked out some coin. "Out of all the stuff I thought you might've bought, that dusty old thing would've been the last thing I'd expect for you to buy." With a shrug, the merchant swiped the cash from the Shepherd's proffered hand the moment he handed it over. "Whatever. Pleasure doin' business with ya!"

    Sorey grinned back, picking the book back up and sliding it into his pack. "Thanks, Rose! And thanks again for delivering the medicine."

    The woman gave a salute. "Ain't no problem!" She reassured. With that, she turned and faced the rest of the caravan and sucked in a breath. "Alright guys!" She yelled out, instantly drawing the attention of the rest of the Sparrowfeathers. "Time to scoot! Let's go!"

    Choruses of "yes, Boss!" and "right away, Boss!" rang out in response as the merchants scurried around the caravan in an impressively synchronized fashion. The group was quick to hop out of the way of the rushing Sparrowfeathers as they secured the displayed goods and hauled them back into the cart, watching the spectacle with impressed looks.

    Nodding to herself, Rose turned her back to her fellow caravan members and gave Sorey, Velvet, and Alisha a wave. "Be careful out there."

    Velvet replied with a nod. "You too."

    With that, Rose turned back around and hopped on the back of the cart just as it started rolling, lithely making her way up to the front and plonking down next to Eguille at the front. The rest of the group watched as the Sparrowfeathers departed deeper into Marlind; a ray of sunshine in a dark forest for the plague town.

    Sorey glanced at everyone, gauging their expressions and conditions. "Everyone, ready to head out as well?"

    "Yes." Alisha affirmed. "We should make haste for the ransacked village at once."

    "Alright then." Sorey turned on his heel down the path where the Sparrowfeathers had come from. "Then let's go."

    Together, the Shepherd's group set off on their way towards the exit of town with the fate of Marlind on their shoulders. High up above, the Great Tree watched the rest of the plague town in silence, still enshrouded in a dreary cloud of malevolence.

    Awaiting its savior.

    ---​

    The sun was setting in the distant horizon, basking the world in gold as the group approached the village sitting beside plowed fields at the bottom of a large valley. Their bodies were tensed and guarded as they made their way down the dirt path cutting through the farms towards the small settlement, their gazes alert and constantly scanning their surroundings.

    Pillars of white smoke rose softly into the air from various points in town, rising into the golden sky and mingling with the cloud of malevolence blanketing the region. The faint, putrid trace of burnt wood and rotting flesh made itself known as the group crossed the threshold into town, their eyes wide and horrified.

    Claw marks were everywhere.

    They dotted the wooden walls, the doors, the ground; evidence of acts of violence permeated every inch of town. Some claw marks even had traces of blood gouged deep into them. Doors hung from hinges, creaking noisily in the wind. Metallic wind vanes installed on the rooves of the double-story buildings groaned as the breeze pushed them from side to side. Desecrated houses lined the empty main street, standing vigil in the haunting silence.

    Strewn debris scattered about in the dirt, tumbling over the abused belongings flagrantly strewn all throughout the path; valuables that had clearly been abandoned by the villagers in a flat panic as the sheer terror of the raid had set in. Amongst the clutter on the ground were scattered pieces of torn clothing soaked in blood, and various collections of cracked and fragmented bones could be seen dotting the path.

    Human bones that had been licked clean.

    Alisha had a hand over her mouth in sheer horror. "This… this is horrific." She breathed, aghast. "I had no idea…"

    Sorey's jaw was set as he took a step forward, kneeling down and picking up a battered and abused doll that had been lying on the dirt, covered in mud. He seemed to stare at it for a second before shaking his head and dropping it once more alongside the rest of the abandoned clothes at his feet. "Lailah." He prompted seriously. "What do you think?"

    The fire seraph stepped forward quietly. "It would seem to be indicative of a pack of werewolf hellions. People so consumed by rage and bloodlust that they become raging beasts as hellions." She looked around with worried eyes. "By the looks of things, there must've been quite a lot of them…"

    Alisha let out a breath, shaking her head. "Last I heard, the group was around 20 strong. They were all veterans before they deserted, and their group was small enough that they were able to evade our patrols, yet large enough for them to be rather notorious in these parts. They were giving our forces some serious headaches, but nothing to this degree." She fisted her hands. "…Had we done a better job in apprehending them, this tragedy… would never have happened." She breathed lowly.

    Edna tapped the princess's side gently with the tip of her umbrella. "Get angry at the monsters that did this, not at the people who tried to catch them." She berated sternly. "Doing anything else is just a waste of time."

    "Edna's right, Alisha." Mikleo weighed in, taking in every disgusting detail of the scene with righteous fury in his eyes. "Besides, who knows when the bandits may have turned into hellions? For all we know they could've turned months ago; there would've been no way normal humans would've ever stood a chance against them if that were the case." He shook his head. "No, the right thing to do now is to purify them before they hurt anybody else."

    "…Alright." The princess gave both Edna and Mikleo a gracious nod. "I appreciate it. I vow to help you all in taking them down."

    Lailah's voice was hesitant. "I'm… afraid that might not be possible, right now."

    "Why not?" Sorey asked, turning to face her. The rest of the group did as well, surrounded by the devastation of the village.

    Lailah shook her head at the rest of them, holding a hand up to her chest. "…We just fought the drake two nights ago and are still on the mend from that battle." She pointed out softly. "Furthermore, don't forget that our primary objective is to purify the strong hellion in the Bors Ruins." She gestured beyond them. "The truth of the matter is the hellions here are not strong enough to interfere with the Lord of the Land's domain. Yet in such numbers, it would be excruciatingly difficult for us to defeat them all at once. After such a battle, we would be severely weakened when the time comes to fight the hellion in the Bors Ruins."

    Understanding her point, Sorey shifted on his feet uncomfortably. "…So, we let them be for now." He summarized lowly.

    "Yes." Lailah confirmed. "That is, what I believe, the best option for us at the moment."

    Mikleo turned away, letting out a sigh. "The logic makes perfect sense… but that doesn't help make me feel any better about it."

    Alisha hugged herself in thought. "…You're right, Lailah." She agreed. "As a knight, sometimes the hardest battle to fight is telling yourself that the best thing to do is to hold off and fight another day." She remarked dully. "For that is the curse of the effective tactician."

    "…Right." Sorey nodded slowly, turning around and taking one last long look at the desolate village. "Then let's go. We'll come back for them another day, when we're stronger."

    "That's the spirit." Lailah remarked softly.

    At that moment, the wind changed direction, causing the surrounding wind vanes to creak loudly as they shifted with the breeze.

    AWROOOOO…!

    The group tensed at the howl that erupted only seconds later, reaching for their weapons as a chorus of other, very close howls joined the first. Various clattering resounded through the abandoned village as the cursed inhabitants began to rouse, tasting the scent of fresh meat in the air.

    Sorey turned sharply around, meeting the eyes of his group. "Come on, guys!" He urged. "Run!"

    As one, the group of seraphim and humans turned and began to run back the way they came.

    Suddenly, a thought abruptly came to Mikleo as he skidded to a halt. "Huh? Hold on a sec! Where's Velvet?!"

    The rest of the group came to a shuddering halt at the entrance to the village, their eyes wide as they whipped their heads around and confirmed that the woman had indeed vanished.

    "What the-?" Sorey jogged back into town a few steps and raised his hands to his mouth. "Velvet? Velvet!" He called.

    A chorus of vicious-sounding howls was his response as the hellions began rushing towards his location, drawn to his yelling.

    "Damn! Where did she go?!" Mikleo swore.

    Lailah blinked abruptly and pointed over to the right. "There she is!"

    The group turned and found the woman exiting a long, uniquely-shaped building and charging down the hill off the main road towards them, her long raven hair and coat trailing behind her. She waved a hand.

    "Move!" She yelled harshly as she sprinted towards them.

    Nodding, Sorey patted Mikleo's back and the two of them ran back to the group. Velvet swiftly joined them nearly at the same time, charging over with a steady pace. Together, the Shepherd's group turned fled the scene just as the first of the werewolf hellions came into sight, prompting the group to double time it as they fled from the monsters they wanted to so dearly vanquish.

    As they did, Velvet cast a dark glance over her shoulder at the village, her eyes narrowing.

    Beyond the distant hills of the valley, the sun slowly began to set over the abandoned down, casting its form into dark shadows.

    ---​

    The squeaking of the wind vanes being disturbed in the breeze punctuated the haunting silence blanketing the desecrated village. The dull breeze whistled keenly through shattered glass windows and battered doorways, invading the empty houses just to find there wasn't a single occupant to be found inside. Abandoned pieces of cloth strewn about in the dirt moved slightly in the wind catching on cracked fence posts and bloodied walls.

    Not a single source of light; not a single sign of life could be seen in the darkened, deceased village. Stars twinkled in the expansive night sky above the entire valley, unimpeded by any source of manmade light pollution. A foreboding darkness covered the world for as far as the eye could see. There was no moon in the sky tonight.

    Another quiet gust of wind picked up softly, rustling the dark jacket of a single lone, long-haired individual stepping over the threshold and into the village proper.

    Her steel boots crunched in the dirt as she moved, the sound seeming to resound across the settlement with each step she took. Her expression, hidden by the shadows, revealed nothing as to her intentions as she traversed deeper into the broken village. The damaged façades of the surrounding abandoned houses seemed to watch the lone intruder keenly as she passed them by.

    Beasts of the night lurking in the shadows stirred at the sound of a foolish human entering their domain. Their hot breaths misting in the air before their fanged snouts, the pack of hulking beasts began stalking their prey in the moonless night.

    They leapt from roof to roof towards her, their claws making minimal sound as they flew from one building to the next and clacking on the shingled rooftops upon landing. They crawled slowly through alleyways to get a glimpse of her, their mouths dripping with saliva at the sight of fresh meat before them. As one single massive organism with many minds, every one of the monsters in the cursed town lithely made their way towards the lone human, eager for the taste of fresh blood.

    Velvet paid them no mind. Ignoring the low snarls and the noisy clattering made by the mindless beasts as they stalked her, the therion simply continued walking towards the center of the village.

    Idly, she used her enhanced hearing to discern the differences in tone of the various sounds and came up with a rough approximate of the number of hellions in the village. There were around 30 of them.

    Alisha's information had obviously been outdated.

    Eventually, the woman reached the heart of the village; the town square. Her boots clanked on the cobblestones below as she cut her way towards the middle of the large circular area towards the large central well that had served as the life spring of the town. It had long since been demolished in the chaos.

    All around the square, evidence of the destruction was strewn about. Crushed trading stalls cluttered the cobblestones; smashed by raging monsters in an attempt to consume those who had been occupying them. The bones of humans dotted the area, all lying beside what had once been some sort of protective armor; the remains of one of the village's few guards, undoubtedly. All around her, the surrounding buildings had been subjected to particularly concentrated violence due to their high carrying capacities. Their tall designs had evidently turned them into utter slaughterhouses to be harvested by the monsters.

    The air here reeked of blood.

    Velvet came to a halt before the destroyed well amidst all of it, quietly taking it all in. Her fists were curled up at her sides. The sounds of the savage monsters approaching her had grown louder and more centralized. They were all there behind her; on the ground and on the rooftops. Every bestial eye was fixated hungrily on her form, she was sure.

    And then finally, she turned around to face the monsters that had done all of this, her long hair and jacket blowing softly in the wind as she did so.

    She counted 32 werewolf hellions, all salivating and snarling in eager anticipation of rending her to pieces. Realizing that they'd been discovered, the wolves began to close in on her, slowly and methodically stepping towards her on the cobblestones. They were all unique; some had coats of light brown while others were of midnight black. Some were massive and stood at near 9 feet tall, while others were small and more lithe at around her height. Some still had ripped articles of clothing attached to their bodies; proof of their previous existence as humans. And all of them were ready to tear her apart for food.

    Once again, that image that she'd seen earlier today flashed before her eyes, causing her jaw to lock up in utter fury.

    ---​

    A schoolhouse at the top of a hill. Freshly pruned grass, painted walls, small carved paths; efforts made to ensure the enjoyment of the village's younglings in their childhoods.

    The inside had been marred with blood.

    She'd stepped through the building alone, her eyes hard. The single church-like classroom had been ransacked. Bones had littered the floor, crunching under her boots.

    And there, in the corner of the building, still yet to be touched by the ravenous monsters pruning the town for leftover meat, had been the bodies of two children. Even in death, the resemblance had been clear. A brother protecting his sister.

    Both had been clawed mercilessly to death.

    She'd looked around, gauging what had happened. Evidently the rest of the escaping schoolchildren had been too tantalizing for the monster that had crashed through the window, leading it to forget about these two in the process.

    It wouldn't be long until these two bodies would be found again, she'd known. And then there would be not a trace left of the young boy's bravery and determination to save his sister, as the mindless beasts that had killed them consumed their bodies.

    She had stood there for a long time amidst that ransacked classroom.

    ---​

    Velvet opened her eyes and let out a feral growl of anger, taking a step forward and erupting in malevolence.

    The world darkened even further as waves of malevolence blasted out from the woman's form, causing all the accumulated hellions to recoil back in surprise and shock, yipping and yowling. Her hair whipped around with her cloak in the vortex of power, her eyes cold with fury. At her side, her claw had erupted from its sheath of bandages, wreathed in tendrils of purple miasma.

    Recovering from its shock, a tall, distinctive lycanthrope at the head of the pack took an incredulous step forward, opening its mouth.

    "You… you're a hellion too!" It exclaimed in a low voice that was raw and guttural from disuse.

    Velvet put her human hand on her hip, meeting the brown-furred lycanthrope's yellow eyes with her own. "…You're the leader here, I take it?" She asked darkly.

    "That's right. I'm the alpha here." The lycanthrope took a few more steps forward, cocking its feral head curiously. "What're you doing here?" He asked. "'Fraid that if you wanted some food, there's none left here."

    At this, the surrounding amassed hellions burst into rough, dark-hearted chuckles. Their bestial laughter echoed through the desecrated town.

    "…Is that so?" Velvet let out a humorless laugh as well, shifting on her feet and holding the leader's gaze as the surrounding laughter died down. Her eyes abruptly transitioned into an alarming shade of violet red.

    "Because I still see plenty."

    And with that, the therion exploded into action. Before any of them could even react, Velvet had materialized before the lead lycanthrope with murder in her blazing red eyes.

    The woman exploded in a blast of violet mana, slicing her foot upward while powering up into the air, bringing the lycanthrope's helpless body up with her. Without pause, the therion whirled around decisively and brought both her sword and feet to bear, slicing and bashing her airborne prey without remorse. Purple blood sprayed everywhere as she laid into it with all her might; an utter vortex of inhumanly powerful slashes and kicks.

    With one final snarl, Velvet vanished for a split second, leaving the limp body of the stunned lycanthrope arching through the night sky high above the square.

    She reappeared in a flash of malevolence high above the leader of the pack with pure fury in her expression and her sword arm drawn back. Violet mana wreathed her entire form as she angled her body down, poised to expel her wrath upon her enemies.

    "DEFIANT CONVICTION!" She roared, propelling herself downwards and straight towards the helpless lycanthrope's body, sword first.

    SHINK!

    A malevolent arrow piercing down from the heavens, the therion rammed her sword straight through the hellion's chest with the full force of her velocity, forcing both of them down and back down onto the ground. Sparks flew as the point of her sword crashed onto the cobblestones, having gone clean through the lycanthrope's body and imbedding itself into the street.

    The monster let out a choking cry as it squirmed from the agony of a sword impaled through its heart. Velvet jerked her blade out of the ground and the monster disdainfully, pushing herself off its writhing body with her knee and turned to face the rest of the beasts as they charged her, howling in rage and fury.

    She raised a challenging eyebrow in response, flicking the blood off her blade and angling her body towards the rest of them. "Come on then!" She snarled hatefully.

    The pack of werewolf hellions eagerly obliged, charging forward in bloodlust and seeking to overwhelm the single woman who had attacked their leader. The night was filled with howling battle cries and bestial snarls as the entire pack charged.

    Velvet brought her claw back over her shoulder as they neared her, untold fury in her eyes. "…I'LL KILL YOU ALL!" She screamed, tearing her claw over her shoulder and down upon the first werewolf to reach her.

    "NIGHTMARE CLAW!"

    Four trails of blood followed her claw through the air as she slashed straight across the hellion's chest, utterly disintegrating its skin as the appendage devoured its skin. Without pause, the therion lithely redirected the velocity of her claw having killed her first victim, pushing back up and slashing backwards into the sky while aggressively leaping forward and upwards. Blood flew as she tore into two more hellions with the swing, casting the bodies off with sheer inhuman force.

    She twisted in midair, bringing her claw down palm-first as she landed, slamming it upon her next victim, crushing it into pulp. Pushing forward and continuing her charge, Velvet pushed her claw to the right and lashed it in another backhand slash, casting off even more of her enemies who howled in agony as their flesh and blood was torn from them and devoured. She didn't stop, lunging forward and dashing every single body within reach of her claw and sending blood and bodies flying with merciless slashes.

    She killed all that she could.

    Blood splattered everywhere across the cobblestones once more; this time the blood of the monsters. Cries of agony and pathetic whimpers replaced the bestial howls of fury as the werewolf pack was decimated by the Lord of Daemons.

    Velvet hissed as a few werewolves managed to score a few slashes on her back and rolled lithely forward, landing on her two feet and facing them like a vengeful wraith. She let out a disdainful scoff. "Is that all you got?!" In retaliation, she lunged forward, her pulsating claw sweeping before her. "Hell's Claw!" She roared, forcing mana through her arm and collecting it in her palm.

    BANG!

    Dismissing the utterly disintegrated remains of the hellions she'd just killed in an instant, Velvet bent backwards in a dodge as another werewolf leapt clean over her with claws extended. She returned the favor by cartwheeling around, her hidden boot blade slicing deep into the hellion's flank. In response to its howls of anguish, she whirled around, her claw extended.

    "DEVOUR!" She snarled.

    It didn't stand a chance as she bashed it into the ground and ate it alive; her claw gulping its life force at an alarming rate. Within seconds, the monster exploded in a burst of blood and gore, splattering the therion in the process.

    It still wasn't enough.

    She wasn't close to being done.

    Without any shred left of the bestial hunger that had dominated their minds only moments earlier, the remaining stragglers that had thus far been left untouched by the monstrous woman turned tail and sprinted away as quickly as they could, driven by the panicked instinct of a predator suddenly finding itself playing the role of prey. Yips of fear and terror filled the air as they fled the square and scattered into the winds.

    Or at least they tried.

    Without pause, Velvet whirled around and charged mercilessly after the escaping hellions, her claw held low and at the ready behind her.

    Finally, she thought idly as she continued to kill every monster she could capture within her claw. After all this time of being a fake, pretending to hide it all, it was amazingly refreshing to finally do this. At long last she was finally being true to who she really was.

    A monster.

    With a dark, savage smirk forming on her lips, Velvet Crowe lunged forward, eagerly hunting down more of her prey. They would die, eaten alive as food for a monster, just like what they had done to the innocent people of this village. Such was their sentence.

    And in the end, not a single hellion managed to escape the town; doomed to suffer the same end as the townspeople upon whom they had feasted.

    This night was one of blood.

    Within the span of a few minutes, the monsters' last howls had faded into the night, leaving nothing but a deceptive tranquility to fill the valley. The wind vanes built on the rooves of the houses continued to squeak in the breeze, unperturbed by the massacre that had just concluded down below.

    Silence returned to the land.

    "Gah!"

    Coughing and hacking out blood, the lead lycanthrope stumbled to the desecrated well in the center of the deserted square, using the crumbling stone wall as leverage to haul himself weakly to his feet. He grunted, punching his chest as the wound that had been inflicted by the sword driven through his heart continued to heal agonizingly slowly. "D-damn." He moaned, heaving and wheezing for breath as he looked around the empty square, his eyes wide as he took in the sight of what remained of his former pack, splayed out in bloody heaps across the cobblestones.

    He froze to the sound of steel landing lightly on stone coming from behind him.

    Trembling in pure terror, the tall werewolf turned around and pushed himself even further back onto the ruins of the well fearfully as he took in the horrifying sight of that monstrous woman strolling leisurely towards him across the square, blood caking her entire body and face. He splayed his shuddering paws forward in the air disarmingly.

    "W-w-wait!" He stammered as the woman continued to approach slowly, her terror-inducing red eyes hard and murderous. "P-please! You've gotta understand!" He let out a yelp as he tripped while stumbling backwards, barely managing to regain his footing as he tried his best to maintain some distance from the approaching demon. "The others… the ones you killed; my pack! They were beasts!" His voice held a terrible tremor as he continued to back up with shaky legs. "They… they were going to eat me! The only way I could sate them would be by leading them to my village! I-I had to do it, I swear!"

    The cowering alpha let out a yelp as the trembling in his legs caused them to give up on him, sending him crashing back onto his rear in the middle of a pool of blood by the entrance to the village square, helpless as the woman continued to advance upon him. "P-please!" He stammered. "Let me go! I'm not like them! I'm just a coward, trying to save my own skin!" He clenched his eyes shut in terror. "It's not like… like I wanted them to kill the people of my own hometown!"

    He opened his eyes and sat up beseechingly as Velvet came to a halt before him with hard eyes. "You gotta believe me! Please! Spare me!" He cried.

    Silence fell as the terrifying woman actually seemed to consider his words for a split second.

    And then she opened her mouth.

    "If you think this is hell…"

    Terror filled the lycanthrope's eyes. He held up a single paw uselessly in front of him as he scrambled backwards.

    Velvet's eyes dilated violently.

    "I'M JUST GETTING STARTED!" She roared, lunging towards his helpless form with all her might.

    "HAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHH!"

    One last cry of agony split the night before it quickly faded, leaving behind a true silence in its wake.

    Heaving for breath, Velvet Crowe slowly lowered her claw down and let it grasp the head of the motionless body lying at her feet. The grotesque gulping of blood and gore echoed off the surrounding walls, finishing with a disgusting burst of malevolence as the hellion was consumed by the Lord of Calamity.

    She slowly straightened, bringing her feet together and raising her head, her long, bloodied raven hair slowly lifting from her back as she did so. A vicious wraith, standing in a pool of blood in the middle of a truly empty village.

    As she straightened, her red eyes went straight to the person watching her from the entrance to the village.

    Lailah the fire seraph stood there silently, her lips pursed, and her entwined hands held protectively in front of her dress as she gazed upon the grizzly scene. Her eyes were filled with mixed, indiscernible emotions as she took in the results of Velvet's work.

    Without a word, Velvet closed her eyes and concentrated. Within moments, her swirling domain was once again suppressed within her being, leaving the bloodstained town in a state of tranquility. With a flick of her arm, her pulsating daemon claw disappeared into its bandages.

    And then she turned on her heel and walked calmly right past Lailah, headed towards the exit of the village. Her footprints were tinged with specks of blood.

    Hesitantly, Lailah cast one last nervous glance over the utter devastation in the Lord of Calamity's wake before slowly following her back to the camp.

    As she made her way back down the path, Velvet made a mental note to wash her clothes before she got back to camp. That, and to wash the blood off her face.

    It was time to go back to hiding her true self.

    And so, the last two living things departed the scene, leaving behind the truly empty remains of what had been a village in their wake. A light breeze blew once more, whistling through the broken blood-stained walls and exploring the motionless settlement in the middle of the dark valley.

    From then on, the silence of the night was left unbroken.

    ----​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
    sainen and Dozla like this.
  10. Threadmarks: C09 - Sunlight
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 9 - Sunlight.

    The crisp forest air buzzed with the warbling of insects. Bright rays of sunlight emitted by the summer sun hanging high in the cloudless sky above pierced through the sparse canopy of lush green leaves. The world was calm and tranquil, with not a single stray gust of wind to disturb the gratuitous peace that reigned over the various critters living and thriving in the depths of the overgrown Bors Ruins.

    It was a peaceful day.

    An enclosed body of water filled with soft, crystal-clear liquid rested in the middle of the forest of green; a small lake gently nurtured by a collection of small bubbling streams weaving in and out of the shrubbery from places yet unknown. Waterfowl quacked and warbled as they jointly landed and took off from the surface of the lake at irregular intervals, leisurely fishing in the warm sunlight. Insects buzzed and converged on the plants growing on the edge of the water, idly searching for sustenance in the cool shadows of the leaves. Small mammals skittered through the underbrush, quickly dabbling their noses in the blissfully refreshing water of the lake before smoothly taking off once more, vanishing into the trees.

    Surrounded by such faucets of nature, groups of ancient, manmade stone pillars protruded haltingly outward in groups from the surface of the lake. The remnants of various chiseled carvings, having long since succumbed to the elements, peeked out from behind the thick strands of shadowed ivy wreathing the crumbling pillars. Their obscure, mysteriously etched lines seemed whisper softly into the summer air, reminiscing about forgotten times long since passed.

    It was in this calm place, underneath the shadow of a tall oak tree leaning lazily over the lake waters, that the Shepherd's group stopped for a much-needed rest after a long morning of non-stop travelling.

    "…Crap."

    Everyone blinked and turned away from what they were doing at the moment to watch as Mikleo shook his head in dismay and heaved a sigh, slowly dropping his opened travel pack back down onto the ground. Without looking over his shoulder at the others, the dejected seraph stated glumly, "…There's a hole in my pack."

    Alisha's eyes widened in surprise. "You don't mean…?"

    "Yep."

    The water seraph rubbed his forehead tiredly, running his fingers over the golden circlet hidden behind his hair. "It looks like all the groceries we bought back in Marlind fell out at one point or another on the way here." He explained dejectedly.

    Sorey ran a hand through his hair in consternation. "No way. That was all of our food!" He exclaimed. "Talk about bad luck."

    "Hm." Edna hummed. "I guess we'll starve to death." She shrugged, idly twirling her closed umbrella around in her left hand. "Oh well."

    At this point, leaning behind them all against the oak tree, Velvet couldn't help but roll her eyes.

    "…We won't starve." She pointed out dryly, causing the rest of the group to turn to her. "We're in the middle of a forest, and a lively one at that." She waved a hand towards the winding game path they had followed to get here by the side of the lake. She elaborated, "I saw animal tracks as we made our way here. It looked like a pack of prickleboars to me."

    Sorey perked up. "Oh, I saw those too!" He recalled, turning to Velvet with a growing grin on his face. "Well, if that's the case, then we should have no problem hunting some food for ourselves for today." He nodded to himself. "Groceries aside, I suppose there's nothing quite like a bit of hearty prickleboar stew on a day like this."

    Alisha abruptly balked, hugging herself with one arm and taking a defensive step back. "If that's going to be the case… Might I…" She found her voice. "…Request that someone else cook prickleboar stew this time?" She proposed shyly, her gaze darting to her side briefly.

    Next to her, Mikleo groaned, muttering under his breath.

    "Oh!" It was amazing how quickly Lailah's eyes brightened at the opportunity. She raised her hand enthusiastically. "I ca-!"

    POOF.

    Edna suddenly opened her umbrella in a surprisingly noisy manner, conveniently blocking Lailah and her raised hand from view entirely. The earth seraph turned to Velvet with a dry expression. "You." She said bluntly. "It's your turn to cook now." Her eyes narrowed, apparently daringthe therion to disagree.

    Velvet raised a single eyebrow in response, holding the impudent little seraph's gaze evenly.

    Getting over himself, Mikleo seemed to take the idea to heart. "…Hey, that's true, Velvet." He pointed out. "After all this time we've been traveling together, you've yet to do any cooking so far."

    He cocked his head curiously. "You think you're up for it?" He asked. "If you're not, that's not a problem. I can handle it if need be."

    She gave the seraph a disdainful look in response. "…I assure you there won't be a problem, thanks." She put shortly.

    "I can help hunt the prickleboars for you!" Sorey offered brightly, breaking the abrupt tension in the air as quickly as it had formed.

    In response, she turned and gave him a look, crossing her arms. "…You hunt?"

    He put a hand to his chin thoughtfully in response to her surprise. "Hmm." He hummed. "I guess I don't really look like it, do I?" He supposed objectively.

    She abruptly shrugged, waving a hand noncommittally. "I suppose you could've gone either way." She allowed.

    In response, the Shepherd grinned.

    Shaking her head, Velvet decided to give in. "…Alright, then." She agreed lightly, shrugging with a hand on her hip. "Prickleboar stew for lunch it is."

    At her words, Edna's umbrella abruptly closed with another noisy squeal, revealing a distraught Lailah pouting petulantly on the spot.

    Velvet took another look around the assembled group members, nodding to herself. "…I'll need a good fire and a good cooking pot." She announced. "Any seasonings you all can come up with would be useful as well."

    The rest of them nodded amicably at her requests.

    Velvet then shot Sorey a meaningful look. "…You'd better not get in my way in my hunt." She commented dryly.

    Sorey blinked.

    "O-oh!" He shook himself. "I'll do my best!" He promised. Discreetly, he shared a wide-eyed glance with Mikleo, panic in his eyes. Clearly, he had expected to hunt for Velvet, not with her.

    All he received back from his childhood friend was a helpless shrug in response.

    "You coming or not?"

    Breaking out of his shock, Sorey realized with a jolt of panic that the hardened woman in question was already halfway out of camp, rhythmically tapping her index finger on her left bicep while staring impatiently at him.

    "C-coming!" He yelped, breaking into a jog after her.

    Not waiting for the Shepherd to catch up, Velvet went ahead and turned around, strolling at a brisk pace away from the others and out into the wilderness. The two of them quickly headed out into the wilderness, leaving the rest of them with the duty of preparing for their return.

    "…Oh dear." Alisha commented, shifting on her feet and watching as the two of them walked off into the tree line. "I do hope that the two of them fare well in their hunt."

    "If you're worried about Sorey, don't be." Mikleo waved a dismissive hand in the air as he turned away, instead directing his attention to the cooking utensils in his travel pack. "He was one of the most adept hunters out of everyone back in Elysia." He reassured. "I'm sure he'll hold his own alongside Velvet."

    "You do have a point." Alisha agreed. "I do recall being very impressed by his form when he helped gather materials for me when I was there."

    She blinked as a thought occurred to her. "…By the way, I never got the chance to ask you, Mikleo." The princess tilted her head curiously. "Were you with us the entire time? Back when I couldn't see you in Elysia?"

    In response, Mikleo stuck his nose up in the air haughtily. "What, like you think I didn't have anything better to do than to stalk you two all day?"

    Chuckling lightly, Alisha conceded with a smile, "You're right. My apologies."

    Mikleo shook his head. "Besides, I wouldn't worry too much about what happened back then." He suggested with a shrug. "Many in the village hadn't even seen a human in years before you came along, save for Sorey. You were a sort of novelty to them at the time, I suppose."

    "Well, I assure you; the feeling is mutual." Alisha responded wryly.

    The princess shook her head contemplatively. "…It boggles my mind still, sometimes." She remarked thoughtfully. "To think it's only been about a month or so since that fateful day when I first met Sorey in Elysia." She gently rested her chin on her fist. "And yet since then, I've learned so much about the world. Things I never could've even dreamed to exist."

    Edna strolled over and knelt down next to Mikleo, perfunctorily helping the other seraph pull out pots and pans from his pack. "That's nice." She commented dryly. "Shame that you'd be labelled as cuckoo and locked up somewhere for a long time if you breathed a word about any of it to another human."

    Mikleo deadpanned. "You're just a ray of sunshine, aren't you?"

    "And you're an idiot if you think things will ever be different with humans and seraphim." Edna replied easily without missing a beat.

    The water seraph put a thoughtful hand on his chin. "Strange. This coming from a seraph who decided out of her own free will to come with a Shepherd whose dream is to nurture coexistence between the two?"

    Edna blinked apathetically. "Oh no, you're right. How did I not notice it before?" She said before letting out a fake gasp of surprise. "I'm surrounded by idiots."

    Mikleo glared in response.

    Alisha stifled her giggles as best she could with her hand over her mouth. "Come now, you two." She chided gently. "We still need to prepare for when Velvet and Sorey return."

    "…That's right." Mikleo nodded, suddenly all business. "I think it would be best if you two would go out and gather ingredients while Lailah and I set up camp here."

    "Understood." Alisha nodded. "We will do our very best."

    Edna stood up and went to the princess's side. "Let's hope that Ms. Grouchy and Mr. Optimist don't end up wasting everyone's time by not catching anything." She commented. Together, she and Alisha set off in the opposite direction from where Sorey and Velvet had left, chatting amicably to each other as they left the shade of the oak tree and stepped into the brilliant sunlight.

    As the rest of the group got to work all around her, Lailah stood there quietly for a while longer, watching the distant figures of two hunters walking away from camp with her lips pursed.

    She watched the figure of the Lord of Calamity sauntering through the daylight, her long raven hair flowing behind her. Hair that had been stained a dark red with blood last night; the essence of life, ripped from the dozens of people she'd brutally murdered without a hint of hesitation nor mercy. She watched the cool, calculated amber eyes of the demon lord as she moved forward, single-mindedly focused on the task at hand just as she always was; amber eyes that had stared just as unerringly back at her last night when she'd finished her rampage.

    Defiant, unrepentant, and resolute.

    And then she watched as Sorey the Shepherd followed her brisk stride, hot on her heels like a youthful puppy, eager to earn her approval. She watched as the two of them struck up a light conversation as they walked, following the natural curves of the lake as they headed out into the forest together.

    Polar opposites…

    She let out a soft breath, resting her head on her palm, all while in deep contemplation, mulling over the conflicting thoughts rattling about in her head as the two of them disappeared into the vibrant green wilderness of the overgrown ruins.

    Behind her, the gentle faces chiseled into the stone pillars rising out of the lake waters looked on with eternally ambiguous expressions.

    ---​

    Shallow, consistent imprints of hooves patterned the occasional patch of mud lying in the shadows of the tall trees that the game trail weaved around. The world was a sea of pastel shades of summer green, accented by flashes of bright yellow; expansive natural bouquets of dandelions flourishing in patches of brilliant sunlight alongside the trail.

    Their boots trod lightly upon the dirt as they followed the trail of the prickleboar tracks, the gratuitous crunching of steel and leather on earth meshing seamlessly with the constant high-pitched warbling of insects in the surrounding trees. Velvet and Sorey's eyes shifted left to right constantly as they moved softly through the underbrush, gently pushing aside low-hanging branches and leaves as they followed the tracks of their unsuspecting prey. Velvet walked in the lead, ducking and sliding smoothly through the shrubbery ahead while the Shepherd followed a few feet behind her, keeping up with her and shadowing her footsteps as she forged her way deeper into the Bors Ruins.

    Time trickled on as smoothly as a stream flowing in the daylight.

    The repetitive crunching of her boots quietly treading upon grass and dirt punctuated the surrounding sounds of chirping birds and falling leaves; sounds that inadvertently elicited a soft, acute sense of tranquility within her. It was a feeling she hadn't felt in a long while, she reflected idly as she went about the task at hand. The last time she had gone hunting in such an environment had been a long time ago, under much, much different circumstances. Although…

    She idly brought her left hand up to her right wrist and tightened the leather straps binding the gauntlet blade to her arm in ready anticipation for delivering a swift killing blow. A dry smile appeared on her lips. She supposed that, even after all this time, there were some things that hadn't changed at all.

    The game trail they followed eventually began to incline uphill; weaving around crumbling stone structures long since overgrown with foliage. At some point, Sorey had wordlessly ended up taking the lead. He now forged his way ahead, gently hopping up the crumbling stones scattered about the trail with his white ceremonial cloak trailing behind his movements. Velvet noted with idle satisfaction the Shepherd's purposefully soft movements and keen eyes as he scanned his surroundings with a certain degree of proficiency; one that came only from considerable experience.

    As far as hunting with a partner, she reckoned, having Sorey around as one was far from terrible. An extra pair of keen eyes and ears would almost certainly prove useful in attempting to track down game; especially in a dense environment such as this.

    They moved softly up the hill, artfully weaving their footfalls between the patches of dry grass and gravel in order to minimize the noise they created. A dry breeze blew through the forest, accompanied by the squawking of a couple of crows lazily drifting above the leaves. Lizards, disturbed by the intruders quickly encroaching upon their lands, scuttled back within their nooks and crannies in the rocky hillside, watching in keen vigilance as the boots of the two foreign humans moved on. High up in the clouds, a hawk let out a piercing cry - the sound of another hunter that also sought fresh meat from the vibrant woods.

    Abruptly, Sorey knelt down on the ground with his arms resting on his knees; his eyes narrowing as he eyed a fresh pile of droppings lying on the side of the game trail. He glanced up as Velvet came to a halt beside him, her arms crossed and her eyes narrowed.

    The two of them exchanged a silent nod in mutual agreement. Their prey was close by.

    The Shepherd got to his feet, the fabric of his clothing rustling softly, and let his right hand drop readily down to the pommel of the sword at his waist. Meanwhile, tense as a bowstring, Velvet took the lead, slowly stalking down the heavily forested game trail with her gauntleted right arm bent and at the ready.

    It wasn't long before they came upon them.

    The three prickleboars were there, leisurely drinking from the small, clear watering pool surrounded in all directions by sparse tree coverage. Patches of ruined walls were present all around this area as well; long-overgrown husks of ancient stone buildings mingled with the trees, casting dark shadows where insects thrived. Bushes and flowers flourished in proximity to the pool of standing water, populated by fluttering butterflies.

    Crouched behind a patch of bushes on the opposite side of the watering hole to their prey, Sorey and Velvet, having effectively gauged the situation, exchanged silent, meaningful looks. Without a word, Sorey pointed to the left side of the prickleboars and sharply gestured inward, before giving Velvet an inquisitive look. The woman responded with a short nod. And with that, satisfied that the Shepherd would do his part, she turned away and quietly slinked into the underbrush, careful to use her surroundings as cover in the process.

    As his companion's footfalls faded into the silence, Sorey, now alone, took another careful visual survey of the situation from his vantage point. Ultimately satisfied, he turned to his left and also began to move into position, opposite where Velvet had gone.

    The sun slowly moved in the sky as time passed, gently shifting the shadows of the forest.

    The three prickleboars continued to rest in the cool shallows of the watering hole, softly sucking in the clear waters underneath the bright blue sky. All around them, the cool overgrown stone walls stood watching in quiet anticipation.

    And then the hunters pounced.

    Sorey came first, charging from out of the brush alarmingly close to the boars with his sword held close to his body pointing outwards. His eyes were narrowed and his teeth gritted in fierce concentration as he sprinted straight towards the animals in the shallows as quickly as he could. His boots smashed loudly onto the grass and mud, with all pretenses of stealth abandoned.

    Instantly, the three prickleboars jerked in surprise, scrambling to find purchase in the muddy shallows of the water with their hooves. Squealing loudly in alarm, the animals instantly turned tail and charged directly away from the attacking human, their bodies splashing wildly in the waters as they leapt from the shallows onto dry land.

    As one cohesive unit, the three prickleboars charged away from the human with adrenaline surging through their veins, snorting and panting in primal terror.

    And then, from atop of one of the ruined stone walls, a blur of black fell swiftly to earth and slammed directly onto the largest of the boars at the back of the pack, eliciting a sharp squeal of agony and causing the animal to tumble over itself in the grass. Velvet fell into a graceful roll and quickly recovered from her pounce; her extended, bloodstained gauntlet blade held carefully up and away from her body as she did so. She jerked her head, clearing a few errant strands of raven hair from her eyes as she lifted herself from the ground with one hand, briefly surveying the results of her handiwork.

    The bloodied corpse of the prickleboar she'd stabbed in the broadside laid in the grass surrounded by specks of blood, wheezing its last few breaths. Beyond it, the remaining two prickleboars had ground to a complete halt, letting out utterly enraged squeals with all notions of escape having been forgotten as they turned as one to charge at Velvet.

    At the monster that had killed their mother.

    Eyes narrowing at the expected response, Velvet slid backwards onto her feet, tensing her body and holding her gauntlet blade readily at her side. She whirled around as the two prickleboars neared, sweeping her foot to the side to slam into the flank of one of the animals while simultaneously using the momentum to jerk her body out of the way of their charge. When the other prickleboar went to gore her in the stomach, she leapt backwards in an agile backflip, her raven hair whipping behind her as she did so. As she landed, in retaliation, she let out a fierce cry and slammed her iron boot straight into the beast with sheer force, hurtling it off to the side, causing it to tumble on the ground and struggle around trying get its feet underneath itself.

    And then Sorey arrived at the scene just in time to sink his ceremonial sword deep into the boar's broadside.

    A clean, ethical kill.

    Without missing a beat, Velvet burst into a sprint and jerked her arm, slashing her gauntlet blade at the other boar that had begun to charge furiously at Sorey, forcing it to dodge lest it wished to be cut. Heaving and snorting in fury, the boar scrambled back and away from her sword, turning its glare upon her instead. Pure hatred blazed within its eyes as it glanced between the body of its mother and sister at the hands of these two murderers. Tendrils of purple had begun to emit from its hide.

    It charged at her.

    And then it all ended in a flash. Once the adrenaline had faded, Velvet blinked, belatedly recognizing what had just happened.

    Two swords impaled the boar's body from two different directions. One was ceremonial, the other purely utilitarian. Both had gone through the skin and lungs to pierce straight through the animal's heart. Sorey had charged over to come to her aid, lunging forward and intercepting the prickleboar just as it had neared her. At the same time, she had fell into a cartwheel, smoothly dodging the animal's charge and thrown her gauntlet blade into the animal's opposite side as it had passed her. Catching her breath, she met Sorey's exhilarated eyes from across the animal.

    Both of them shared a soft chuckle as the thrill of the hunt passed through them in the wake of it all.

    High above the watering hole, the circling hawk let out another cry as the two began to move about the area, collecting their bloody spoils. They worked smoothly and efficiently, field dressing the wounded animals and gathering them up in nets in preparation for transporting them back to camp.

    As they worked, Sorey glanced briefly over his shoulder at his companion before refocusing on his task at hand. "That went really well." He commented brightly.

    "Yeah, that wasn't bad." She agreed, tying some gauze around the prickleboar's body with a firm tug.

    "You had the exact same idea as I did." He pointed out, rolling his prickleboar onto a net laid out on the ground. "You knew that once one prickleboar goes down, the rest almost always stop running and come to attack you."

    "Of course. They're familial creatures." Velvet remarked, gathering up her own net. "If you hurt one, the rest of them will want to hurt you back. That's also why prickleboars are often considered dangerous to hunt."

    "Does that bother you?" Sorey asked curiously, finishing up his work and turning to her curiously.

    Velvet gave him a considering glance over her shoulder. "…Did it ever bother you?" She asked back.

    Sorey openly nodded, sheathing his hunting knife and settling back on the grass, staring contemplatively out into the calm watering hole. "It did for a long time." He admitted. "It took a long while for me to get used to the idea of hunting. Especially hunting animals that obviously care about one another. Doing stuff like this…" His lips formed into a soft grin. "I don't think Mikleo ever really got the hang of the idea, even at the end. But he does agree with me that it's how the world works, ultimately." He glanced down at the body of the animal before him with a soft expression. "Sometimes… you just have to do what you have to do."

    Velvet looked away, back at the bloodied corpse in front of her and was quiet for a while. The soft scrunching of her knife in boar flesh filled the silence that followed.

    "…Were you taught?" She asked abruptly, without looking at him.

    Sorey blinked. "No," he shook his head, "not really. While there were a few seraphim in Elysia who had a few tips for me here and there… For the most part, I figured it out from reading books about the topic."

    She let out a scoff in response. "Of course." She commented dryly.

    He grinned sheepishly at her. "I guess that was kinda predictable, huh?" He cocked his head. "I take it you were?"

    Velvet nodded distantly in response. "I was." She replied shortly.

    Entirely unconcerned with her lack of elaboration, Sorey got to his feet and walked over to the edge of the watering hole, reaching into the waters and beginning to scrub his bloodstained hands clean.

    "I wish I'd had someone to teach me." He commented conversationally. "My first time out, I was so noisy that I didn't so much as see a single prickleboar in all of Elysia even after a whole day of being out in the forest." He grinned nostalgically. "Gramps rolled his eyes and just waved me off with a rare smile when he saw me tromping back into the village with nothing but muddy boots and empty hands. I don't think any of the seraphim in the village saw me as a viable hunter back then, and for good reason."

    "You got there though, in the end." Velvet pointed out as she too finished her work, tying up the net encompassing the prickleboar on the ground. She gave Sorey a nod of genuine recognition. "You're a great hunter."

    Sorey grinned brightly in response. "And you're not too bad yourself!" He complemented. "I don't think I could ever pull those moves on retreating prickleboars, even in a few thousand years."

    Velvet gave him a nod in response, accepting the complement.

    Smoothly, she drew herself to her feet, surveying both her and Sorey's handiwork, evidently satisfied with the result. She met his eyes. "Time to go back."

    He nodded in response, also getting to his feet. "I'm sure the others are starving by now." He glanced down at the corpses of the family of prickleboars at their feet with a more serious expression. "Let's make absolutely sure these guys don't go to waste."

    "Of course." Velvet agreed.

    And with that, the two of them began to lug the field-dressed prickleboars back the way they'd came. The sun continued to shine brightly over the vibrant watering hole, and the forest returned to serenity.

    ---​

    Chunks of meat bubbled in the stew, slowly but thoroughly cooking in the large, partially covered pot perched over the hot campfire built in the shadow of a tall oak tree. The smoke of the low-burning fire wafted lazily into the air above the lake, accompanied by the distinct, mouth-watering scent of meat expertly mixed with various, well-proportioned seasonings.

    Alisha couldn't help but glance over her shoulder once more and stare hungrily at the stew cooking over the campfire behind where she was sitting, where Mikleo was artfully managing the flames.

    "Be patient. It's almost done."

    The princess, despite herself, couldn't help but let out a soft sight of disappointment and turn away from the stew to face the bemused expression of Velvet Davidson, who was idly sharpening her gauntlet blade beside her at the edge of the lake.

    "…I know." Alisha shook her head ruefully, fisting her hands. "I just wish it would cook faster!" She muttered sourly. "It smells so good…"

    Edna sat down next to her with a wry expression. "Looks like going from a princess to a traveler takes some getting used to, huh?" She shrugged. "Typical."

    Alisha glanced at the seraph and slowly nodded her head. "…You're right. It does."

    Her back straightened. "Nevertheless." She furrowed her eyebrows in determination. "If I can't manage something as minor as this, I'm worthless as both a knight and as a princess." She pushed her gaze straight forward, her chin tilting upwards proudly. "I shall soldier through it, just as anybody else in this realm. For that is the duty of the knight." She declared.

    Behind the princess's back, Velvet gave Edna a dry look. "…You know just what to say to her, don't you?" The therion remarked with bemusement.

    Edna shot back with a dry look of her own. "Speak for yourself."

    Velvet let out an amused huff in response and turned back to her work, running the grindstone down the length of her extended gauntlet blade with a soft, level screech once more.

    Turning back to the other two women, Alisha found her eyes drawn once more to the weapon strapped to Velvet's arm. She laid her head on her fist as she followed the movement of the grindstone along the razor-sharp edge of the weapon.

    "…Hunting for one's own food." She murmured contemplatively.

    "I went with Sorey on a hunting trip of his back in Elysia and experienced it firsthand." She recounted. "Yet even now, I could never imagine myself sustaining such a lifestyle." She abruptly turned curiously to Edna sitting beside her, who was fiddling with her unopened umbrella. "Lady Edna, might I ask how you sustained yourself in the past, being a seraph and all?" She inquired.

    Edna shrugged in response. "…My brother did most of the work in the beginning." She explained with a soft tone.

    "He taught me most everything I knew before he left. How to maintain a small garden. How to cook and ration my own food. How to take things from the local human town in ways that wouldn't be noticed." She twirled her closed umbrella in her hand idly. "I never hunted, though. I never felt the need to do something that drastic." She finished.

    "I see…" Alisha blinked. "Wait, before your brother left-?"

    "As for me," Velvet interrupted, drawing Alisha's attention away from Edna, "hunting was a source of both food and income." She idly angled her sword away from her and began working on the other side with the grindstone. "Since my village was in the frontier, there were plenty of people who did something similar, all to support their own families."

    "You mean to say everyone did the same thing in your town?" Alisha tilted her head to the side, eager for more firsthand knowledge of her subjects.

    "Not at all." Velvet clarified, her eyes growing distant as she perfunctorily continued her task. "Most everyone in town had a different trade that they specialized in, and in turn offered services to the rest of the townsfolk. Some merchants, a few innkeepers, farmers…"

    A smile began to creep up into her expression, her grindstone sliding slowly across edge of the keenly sharp blade glinting in the daylight.

    "I had a friend of mine whose family were tailors by trade. She could effortlessly sew things in minutes that I could never even dream of making." She recounted softly, her lips upturning into a gentle curve. "On the other hand," she remarked warmly, "she was utterly hopeless as a hunter. Not only could she not bring herself to hurt so much as a fly, but her clumsiness would've driven game out of the whole woods the moment she set foot in them. All she could do was ask me or one of the other hunters in town for meat whenever she needed it." Soft nostalgia had seeped into her expression, while her sharpening stone had slowed to a perfunctory speed.

    Alisha and Edna exchanged glances.

    Finding her voice, Alisha tilted her head in acknowledgement. "…I see." She said simply. "It seems it was wrong of me to assume that all rural dwellers are of the same cut of cloth." She smiled brightly. "It sounds like this friend of yours is quite the character! I'd love to meet her someday. It sounds like the two of us might have more in common than one would first think."

    "…Yeah." Velvet replied softly, letting her eyes fall back onto the grindstone and the sword in her hands.

    Alisha glanced over her shoulder at the simmering pot still hanging over the campfire and noticed Lailah sitting silently behind her on one of the protruding roots of the oak tree. "Lailah?" She asked, cocking her head curiously as she pivoted her body to include the fire seraph in the conversation. "How about you? What was your lifestyle like back in the day?"

    "Oh!" At Alisha's prompt, Lailah blinked rapidly, her eyes refocusing on the world before her as she was torn from whatever was distracting her. "Me?" She put a hand on her chest, evidently confused.

    "Is there anybody else here called Lailah?" Edna asked dryly, rolling her eyes.

    Covering her mouth with her casting cards, Lailah let out a chuckle. "Ah, yes. You do make a good point." Her smile soon faded and instead she turned to the rest of them in thought as she considered the question seriously. "…What I did back in the day…" She mumbled to herself as she put a thoughtful finger to her chin, her eyes once again growing distant.

    After a moment, her expression fell.

    "I… I'm afraid I don't… actually remember too well." She confessed softly.

    Velvet blinked, her grindstone abruptly halting on the blade. "You forgot how you lived?" She asked incredulously.

    Lailah met her eyes with an unreadable expression. "…It comes part and parcel with being as old of a seraph as I am, I'm afraid." She explained softly, shaking her head. "Given enough time, some things are so unimportant that they just… disappear, eventually."

    "…I see." Velvet said after a moment, before resuming her task.

    Beside her, Alisha seemed profoundly influenced by the notion.

    All around them, the bright summer day continued. The sparkling waters of the lake bubbled and lapped against the land while the softly glowing fire continued in the shadows of the oak tree, encouraging the pungent, aromatic scent of boiled meat to waft higher into the crisp air. A paddling of ducks at a distant end of the lake quacked in the daylight, accompanied by the whisper of wind rustling the surrounding foliage occupying the overgrown ruins.

    Abruptly, Velvet's blade sank back into its gauntlet sheath with a quick squeal of metal on metal.

    The woman got to her feet and dusted off her clothes, idly rolling her shoulders as she looked around, eventually finding Sorey and Mikleo a ways away from their camp, opposite the lake talking about something or other. "Edna." She prompted without looking away.

    Edna looked up at her idly.

    Velvet glanced over her shoulder at her. "Don't let Alisha have any stew until I say it's ready." She ordered dryly, before breaking into a brisk, purposeful trot down towards the Shepherd.

    "Sure." Edna answered as she left.

    Alisha flinched. "I-I wasn't going to!" She denied unconvincingly, quickly snapping a glance at the extraordinarily tender-looking stew visible under the partially covered lid on the pot, and the exquisite aroma that constantly beckoned her toward it.

    Shaking her head in exasperated amusement, Lailah watched idly as Velvet Crowe sauntered up to Sorey and Mikleo in the distance, putting a hand on her hip and striking up a conversation with the two of them. Eventually, the three of them came to an agreement and Mikleo walked off to the side, crossing his arms in ready anticipation while Velvet and Sorey got into positions, preparing their weapons.

    It wasn't long before Velvet made the first lunge, her sword flying out of its sheath only to crash roughly into Sorey's hastily made guard as he raised his ceremonial sword. The clanging of steel on steel began to ring in the air, ebbing and flowing naturally with the course of the sparring session.

    Lailah leant back in her seat, letting her long hair gather in front of her before resting her head on the weathered oak trunk behind her. Her eyes went up to the leaves covering the blue sky above, distant and contemplative.

    The ducks continued to quack as they paddled through the sparkling waters, the sound mingling with the sound of deadly weapons clashing against each other ringing noisily over the lake's surface.

    ---​

    "SAINT'S ARROW!"

    CRASH!

    The jet of razor-sharp water mana flashed across the area, throwing the heavily shadowed overgrown stone plaza into stark blue lighting for a split second before the projectile pierced through the violet pulsating skin of the massive plant hellion, eliciting a horrific, ear-grating squeal that echoed off the surrounding walls and trees.

    Steel armored boots slammed on the vines covering the ancient brick floor as Alisha charged the wounded monster with unmatched ferocity, her spear singing through the damp air.

    Accompanying her charge, Lailah spun around in a circle and jerked her index finger into the sky with a cry, letting off an explosion that sent a strong shockwave flying across the surrounding woods, rattling trees and ancient overgrown structures built within the deepest part of the Bors Ruins.

    The towering armed plant hellion jerked back from the explosion, hissing vehemently as it was scorched by the flames, only to cry out once more as Alisha's spear slashed right across its right appendage, causing a spout of what could best be described as green blood to gouge out onto the floor. In retaliation, the plant pivoted on its rounded body, bringing its other appendage around to bear and smash it into Alisha's body, sending the princess flying.

    "Ah!" Alisha cried, tumbling over herself as she landed, keeping a firm grip on her spear despite herself.

    A human hand suddenly slammed onto her shoulder, forcibly wrenching her body up and to her feet, causing her to belatedly register the massive hellion slinging one of its extended appendages straight at her prone form.

    "Move!" Velvet snarled, half pulling, half dragging the princess out of the way right as the prickled fist of the Evil Plantasm smashed onto the ground where she just was. In retaliation, the woman twisted around jerked her sword into the air where the extended appendage had landed.

    With surprising agility, the hellion twisted its body, avoiding Velvet's sword with its left arm and bringing its extended right arm around, attempting to slam it into her back.

    CRASH!

    Only to squeal in dismay and recoil away from another azure projectile as Sorey, armatized with Mikleo, let off another shot from behind it, directing its attention away from the two women. This was compounded as Edna slammed her foot onto the stone floor, eliciting a ferocious tremor to shake the plaza, thoroughly disorienting their foe.

    Trusting the rest of the group to take off the heat for a while, Velvet turned around and knelt down next to Alisha who was lying on the stone floor, heaving for breath. Quickly and efficiently, Velvet zeroed in on the damage; a quickly-forming bruise on the princess's stomach.

    "Sorey!" She yelled out, her voice carrying across the clearing, barely auditable above the charges of mana exploding as the plant hellion retaliated against the group with its own artes.

    The Shepherd let out a grunt of acknowledgement as he dove to the side to avoid a violent spike of earth jutting out from the ground, his long golden hair of his Armatus trailing behind his movements. "What do you need?" He yelled back, getting to his feet and drawing his bow once more in retaliation.

    "Healing artes!" She replied shortly, getting to her feet and jerking her sword at a flying appendage that was getting too close to her and Alisha. "Get Mikleo over here!"

    "Right away!" In a flash of bright yellow light that lit up the darkened clearing, Sorey once more reappeared in his normal human form, his white cloak flapping wildly in the artificial breeze. He swiftly reached down and pulled out his sword, stepping forward and holding it out horizontally above his head as one of the Plantasm's fists came hurtling down upon him.

    CRASH!

    "Mikleo! Go!" He yelled, heaving with exertion as he fought the monster's unnatural strength as it bore down upon him and his sword. He let out a grunt as the monster lifted its fist only to slam it once more back down upon his sword, his boots digging painfully into the ground with his entire body feeling as it were being crushed.

    Having reappeared at the same time as Sorey, the water seraph followed his orders. "Edna!" He shouted urgently as he broke into a dead sprint towards the other side of the plaza where Velvet was defending Alisha from the monster's simultaneous assault.

    "Learn some humility!" Edna demanded, twirling her umbrella around sharply as the mana swirled around her body, whipping the ribbons on her outfit. "Air pressure!" She declared, conjuring four hovering beams of light surrounding the Phantasm that was assaulting both Sorey and Velvet.

    BANG!

    With a grunt, Mikleo slid to a kneeling stop before Alisha's prone form, conjuring up his staff and quickly taking in the situation as Edna's arte detonated over their adversary, relieving Sorey of the pressure and allowing Velvet to charge forward, capitalizing on her enemy's distracted state. With swift movements, the water seraph held his staff out horizontally before the injured princess. "You'll be fine, Alisha." He promised. "First Aid!" He recited, letting the mana flow through his body in a brilliant flash of colorful light.

    Coughing, Alisha pushed herself up to her knees as the light faded, giving Mikleo a grateful look as the pain began to die down. "I apologize for being so careless." She intoned, readjusting her grip on her spear once more. "Thank you, Mikleo."

    The seraph gave her a nod in return, holding her gaze for just a while longer before turning away.

    Meanwhile, Velvet and Sorey ran forward together, facing down the monster at close range with their swords singing through the air. Explosions and tremors shook the world around them as seraphic artes crashed into their adversary at dangerously close ranges. Chaos reigned supreme, and yet all that mattered to the two of them was the monster before them.

    Struck by an utterly random thought, Sorey found himself grinning as he leapt backwards, dodging one of the plant hellion's fists as it slammed into the ground in front of him.

    Panting, he remarked, "Oh yeah, Velvet!" He yelped as another fist went flying inches in front of his face, causing him to duck and slash his sword up in retaliation, eliciting a bellow of agony. He glanced over his shoulder briefly. "I forgot to tell you earlier; your prickleboar stew tastes really good!" He grinned brightly, sweat running down his forehead.

    Velvet couldn't help herself when she shot him an incredulous look, even as she gracefully leapt over a low-sweeping appendage, her sword singing through the air as she swung it at her foe in retaliation. "What the hell does that have to do with anything?" She demanded.

    "Well, I had a thought. I was wondering-" Sorey's eyes widened and he quickly leapt back, his sword held out at a canted angle to deflect a harsh punch. "-if you could possibly give Mikleo some pointers next time?" He gave Velvet a grin. "He was really impressed by your cooking earlier but was too shy to ask you for help." With a grunt, he lunged forward, driving a deep gash on the monster's flank, splattering the ground with even more blood.

    Velvet couldn't help but roll her eyes at that as she too lunged forward, driving her sword through an equally deep gouge in the opposite side of the monster's body. With a sharp exhale, she leapt forward and dodged the hellion's wild retaliatory swing, landing close to Sorey who too managed to avoid the attack. "If he wants pointers all he has to do is ask. The worst that can happen is that I say no." She pointed out dryly before the two of them split up once more to flank the monster as more seraphic artes bombarded its body.

    Alisha let out a yell as she too joined the close-ranged assault on the hellion, driving her spear deeply across the monster's skin before quickly leaping back and out of its range, having learned her lesson from last time. She glanced at Velvet. "I must confess, however, that I do understand Mikleo's reluctance to approach you regarding the subject." With a grunt the princess rolled out of the way of another fist flying at her. "You… do simply seem to exhibit a sort of… dangerous aura, I guess… you could say." She remarked, panting for breath as she regained her footing.

    Sorey let out a laugh while leaping backwards and out of range. "That's putting it lightly, Alisha!" He breathed, glancing around and gauging the situation. "I don't blame him at all, really."

    Velvet rolled her eyes once more at the two of them. "Please." She drawled easily. "It's not like I'm going to eat him alive for annoying me."

    She blinked abruptly, freezing on the spot.

    "Velvet!" Alisha and Sorey yelled together in abrupt alarm.

    CRASH!

    It was only by pure instinct that Velvet managed to avoid the worst of the impact as the plant hellion slammed both fists directly onto her position. Shredded rocks slammed into her body, tearing at her skin as she leapt backwards, having come extraordinarily close to being smashed onto the stone by the full power of the monster's fists. Hissing in pain, the woman managed to spin around in the air and find the ground with her feet, landing hard on the stones a way away from the Plantasm.

    "PURGATORY OF FLAME!"

    FWOOM!

    The world abruptly lit up in a blinding hue of blazing orange as Sorey, having suddenly armatized with Lailah, smashed his great sword onto the ground before the plant hellion with a tremendous bellow, followed by an earth-shattering detonation centered at the tip of the sword. Flames shot out in all directions, encasing the weakened Plantasm and wreathing it in a cloak of blazing flames. Its screeches echoed throughout the Bors Ruins, grating on the group's ears as it suffered from the continuous gout of flame pumped through Sorey's Armatus.

    Eventually, the screeches faded and the fire died down, revealing the smoldering fallen body of the Evil Plantasm on the scorched bricks of the plaza at Sorey's feet.

    "You alright?" Sorey was the first to reach Velvet's kneeling form in the aftermath of the battle, gasping for breath as he dispelled the Armatus from his body.

    Velvet shook her head, standing smoothing back up to full height with an unreadable expression. "Don't worry about it." She dismissed shortly, pushing the dirt off her knees. Her eyebrows narrowed.

    "…I was careless." She near growled under her breath, looking away.

    Sorey blinked in confusion at the raw frustration evident in the woman's dark expression.

    He ultimately chose not to comment on it. "Well," he said, turning back to the rest of the group as they regrouped around the two of them, "now that that's taken care of, the blessing should return to Marlind." He concluded, giving his followers a smile with his hands on his hips. "Nice work, everyone. Together, we took down quite the formidable opponent today."

    "Indeed." Alisha nodded, walking over to his side. "I must say, we've all come a long way when it comes to quelling hellions." She remarked.

    Mikleo came to a halt next to them all, a satisfied fist on his hip. "Indeed. I'd say Sorey in particular has gotten quite proficient at fighting hellions off, even without the aid of the Armatus." He commented.

    Edna twirled her opened umbrella perched on her shoulder. "Not bad." She remarked. "As far as Shepherds go, you're not the worst to ever live, I suppose."

    Sorey scratched his cheek wryly. "I'll take that as a complement." He supposed happily. He turned to face them all. "Thanks, all of you." He addressed them. "But we still have a long way to go, I'm sure."

    "Of course." Lailah commented softly, a small, happy smile on her face.

    A damp breeze blew through the clearing in the wake of battle, rustling the thick leaves above and causing rays of light to flicker briefly through the tree coverage before being once more obscured as the breeze died down.

    And it was in the silence in the wake of the breeze that Velvet, standing away from the rest of them with her enhanced senses, heard it before anyone else did.

    She turned around in what felt like slow motion. The information slid into her brain slow as molasses as the elements registered.

    Sorey, his body turned with his left side facing the group.

    There, behind him, the monster that they thought they had defeated rising silently as a ghostly specter in the darkened plaza, a single, bloodied fist poised high in the air and ready to fall upon the Shepherd, crushing him in one fell blow as all of his companions' backs were turned. And as for the Shepherd himself, for some reason, he apparently did not perceive the threat despite it being well within view of his right eye.

    She didn't hesitate.

    "SCARLET EDGE!"

    BANG!

    Blood pounding in her ears, Velvet belatedly registered what had happened. What she had just done. There she stood, her sword drawn and held high in the air, having expelled a gout of flame out of her sword while feeling the expelled mana surging through her body in the aftermath of the expulsion of a hidden arte.

    Too much mana.

    A massive crater had formed in the wake of the detonation, with the fallen body of the hellion lying in the middle, its faint twitching showing that it was still alive, albeit barely so. The blast of the overcharged hidden arte had been enough to rupture the canopy of the forest above, causing charred leaves and twigs to rain down into the crater and leaving a wide gap in the tree cover through which blindingly bright sunlight now streamed through with impunity.

    A shocked silence fell in the wake of the explosion.

    Mikleo was the first one to react. "Velvet…?" He asked in a shaky voice. "Was that… you?"

    Velvet's mind raced for a way to escape this predicament she'd stupidly brought upon herself. There was no human in the world, regardless of arte proficiency or knowledge in seraphic artes, who would've been able to expel as much mana she had just now. She mentally floundered, seeking a way to retain her cover.

    "That was partly my doing as well."

    Velvet blinked in surprise.

    Together, the group turned to face Lailah at the back of the group, who appeared to be wavering on her feet with a tired expression. She gave them an easy, albeit exhausted smile. "It would seem that Velvet and I had the same idea at the same time. Our simultaneous artes must've inadvertently compounded to produce such a… potent result." She explained thoughtfully.

    "…Incredible." Mikleo remarked, impressed. He turned to Velvet with a disbelieving smile. "You know, for a moment there I thought that all that power came from just you."

    At his side, Edna rolled her eyes as she twirled her umbrella. "A human with that much power? Yeah, right. Typical Meebo, always jumping to the kind of conclusions that make absolutely no sense."

    Mikleo's eye twitched in response. He opened his mouth with full retaliation in mind.

    As the two of them began to bicker and the topic slowly shifted away from the freak incident, Velvet's eyes subtly moved to meet Lailah's.

    Subtly, ever so subtly, the aged fire seraph gave the Lord of Calamity a small nod. Nothing more needed to be said.

    Velvet stared back.

    Abruptly forcing her eyes away from the reserved fire seraph and forcing her thoughts to focus on something else, she found herself zeroing in on Sorey, thinking back to what had just happened.

    And just like that, the frustration boiled over.

    Jerking her arm to sheathe her sword, Velvet stalked straight up to Sorey, interrupting the meaningless chattering of Edna and Mikleo and stopping directly in front of the Shepherd, scowling deeply at his questioning expression.

    "Just what the hell is wrong with you?" The harsh words came out almost as a growl.

    Sorey blinked in confusion. "Wh-?"

    "Your right eye." Velvet crossed her arms forcefully, tapping her bicep in agitation. "You can't see out of it, can you?" She raised an eyebrow, daring him to deny it.

    Sorey looked away slowly, his lips pressed firmly together.

    Edna lazily lifted a hand. "You can't hide it anymore." She pointed out. "It's obvious you didn't see it coming." Her eyes narrowed. "…If it weren't for Velvet and Lailah, you'd be dead." Her statement was firm and unrelenting.

    Lailah stepped forward urgently, her expression set. "So. The Squire's pact is affecting you…" She breathed. "Oh, Sorey. Why did you hide this from us…?" She asked helplessly.

    Alisha's short intake of breath in response to Lailah's comment was not lost on anyone on the group. The princess covered her mouth in horror as the full implications of the revelation sank in.

    Mikleo glanced over at Alisha quickly before taking an impassioned step forward. "Sorey was only hiding it for Alisha's sake!" He insisted. "You can't fault him for that!"

    "…Oh, I sure as hell can."

    Everyone turned as Velvet turned her glare upon Mikleo. "And more than that, you're telling me," she growled, "you knew about this, all this time?" her eyes burrowed into his. "And you didn't do anything about it?" She demanded.

    Mikleo, despite being clearly intimidated, swallowed and stood his ground.

    "…It was Sorey's choice whether he wanted to do anything about it. I respected that." He stated.

    "Then you're a terrible friend." Velvet's words were harsh and pointed.

    Mikleo flinched as her words hit him, staring at her incredulously.

    "If Lailah and I hadn't been fast enough just now, Sorey would've died." Velvet emphasized sharply. "And if he had died, then it would've been purely because of a poor decision he himself made… one that you had allowed."

    "How would you have felt?" She demanded, taking a step forward. "How would you have felt, living with the knowledge that your best friend is dead because even though you knew he was making a mistake, you let him keep doing it? How would you have felt, knowing that it was ultimately your decision to prioritize your friend's feelings rather than your own damn sense that led to his death?" Her words were soft but charged with righteous fury and disbelief.

    "…More than that, apparently you seem to have forgotten that he's the Shepherd." She added lowly. "By letting him do this to himself, you're an abject failure as both a friend and a sub-lord."

    Mikleo seemed to grasp for words but came up empty handed.

    Velvet shook her head harshly and continued. "…I don't know him well enough to tell these things about him." She admitted quietly. "Nobody here does but you." She held his gaze with an iron grip. "And despite that, you chose to do nothing about the danger he's been putting himself in." She waved a hand in the air. "I guess in the end, you don't actually care all that much about him, do you?" She asked sardonically.

    She let out a sigh, turning away from Mikleo's shaken expression and meeting Sorey's eyes with her own livid ones.

    "As for you… You need to drop this act." She growled lowly. "You can't pretend to be capable of saving the world if you aren't even capable of recognizing what needs to be done to save yourself."

    Sorey opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out. He was speechless.

    "Don't." Velvet swatted her bandaged hand in the air in response. "I have nothing else to say to you."

    Sorey's shoulders slumped more as the true weight of what Velvet was saying sank in. "…I see." He intoned softly.

    Watching the boy in front of her lower his gaze shamefully before her, Velvet just huffed sharply. Abruptly, she turned on her heel and began walking towards the exit of the ruins. Just as abruptly, she stopped next to Alisha and looked over her shoulder at the distraught princess.

    "…It's not your damn fault." Velvet assured her lowly. Her eyes flitted disdainfully to Sorey behind her.

    "It's the Shepherd's."

    And with those words, she turned and stalked off, leaving the rest of the group to follow in her wake. Behind them all, the sunlight continued to shine through the hole in the canopy, illuminating the fallen burnt body of the plant hellion slowly bleeding onto the floor of the ancient ruins.

    ---​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
  11. Threadmarks: C10 - Sins
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 10 - Sins.

    Dawn wasn't far off. The world was one of knee-high grass, waving softly in the silence befitting that of the quietest time of the night. Darkness engulfed everything as far as the eye could see, obscuring the distant features of the land and reducing them to mere silhouettes framing the brilliant canvas of stars accompanied by the partially filled moon hanging overhead.

    Sorey slowly slid to his feet, his boots crunching rather noisily on the trodden dry grass besides the lone boulder he had been sitting on. Laying his hand on the pommel of his sword, the Shepherd made his way into position, meeting the blood red eyes of his opponent across the field.

    The cold hard steel of its mask glinted in the night, the flare of the reflected moonlight framing its inhuman red eyes as it stared emotionlessly back at him. It stood there, wreathed in its ever-simmering cloak of malevolence, silent and unreadable; a terrifying being lurking beneath an opaque veil of tranquility.

    A moment of silence passed.

    And then the two opposing entities sprang into motion like clockwork, charging at each other underneath the curtain of stars. Both claw and sword sang as they sliced through the air towards each other.

    CLANG!

    The first strike was always the most jarring for Sorey. Recovering as best he could from the impact, he managed to retaliate quickly enough with a slash that forced the hellion to leap back to avoid it. Gratified by this start to the battle, the Shepherd took a step forward and pressed his attack with another slash.

    The steel of his ceremonial sword bounced right off the monster's parry this time as it smacked the blade away as if it were an irritating fly. Without missing a beat, the hellion arced its claw downwards and slashed, mowing a swathe of grass as it made to sweep the him off his feet.

    Sorey barely managed to jump over the claw, landing clumsily on one foot while the other flailed momentarily for balance. When the hellion's follow-up slash came, the attack rammed directly into his gut at full speed, sending him flying.

    CRASH!

    Gritting his teeth in pain, Sorey jerked his eyes open to find the sky spinning directly above him as he laid amidst a cloud of dirt and displaced grass. Spitting out blood from his mouth and cursing himself for stupidly biting his tongue, the Shepherd recovered as quickly as he could, bringing his sword up.

    Just in time to parry a massive fist pounding down upon his head. On instinct, Sorey hastily guarded at a canted angle that let the monstrous appendage slide off his sword, eliciting a grating squeal accompanied by a brilliant burst of sparks. Letting out a wordless cry, Sorey forced the claw away and to the side, bringing his sword back for a powerful diagonal slash across the hellion's body.

    His attack met only air as the hellion dodged his attack fluidly with almost frustrating ease. Still, he wasn't deterred in the least. Eyes narrowing, Sorey swung his sword once more, his body thrumming with both adrenaline and purpose. The rhythm of battle continued, growing smoother and smoother as the night progressed.

    Amidst the sweat, exertion, and pain that he had come to associate with such nightly training sessions, came the clarity Sorey had wanted.

    "You're an abject failure as both a friend and a sub-lord."

    The harsh, grating words Velvet had attacked Mikleo with earlier resounded just as clearly in his ears as did the sound of steel meeting hardened flesh as he once more traded blows with the masked hellion.

    He jerked his sword arm back and proceeded to unleash a flurry of rapid, indiscriminate stabs in the hellion's direction.

    The monster responded by leaping up and over his sword strikes while slinging its entire cloaked body around in a back flip, bringing its claw down and onto his body at a merciless angle. The blow connected with bone-crushing force.

    "As for you."

    Sorey groaned as he rolled to a halt in the grass, his entire body aching from the sheer force of the blow. He forced himself to get up on a knee, heaving for breath and wiping some more blood leaking from the side of his mouth with the back of his Shepherd's glove.

    "You can't pretend to be capable of saving the world..."

    He blinked hard and cursed as he dove out of the way of a conjured fireball screaming towards him. The boiling heat washed over the back of his neck as it missed him by a hair. A distant explosion rattled the world as the errant fireball crashed in the distance, briefly brightening up the world and obscuring the stars.

    "…If you aren't even capable of recognizing what needs to be done to save yourself."

    The Shepherd got to his feet again with his sword still tightly held in his hand, his cape fluttering in the breeze of the shockwave. He narrowed his eyes and forced himself to focus on the threat before him as the artificial light faded. He squared his shoulders and held his sword above his head readily as the hellion charged him once more, undeterred.

    "…It's not your damn fault."

    Sorey let out a wordless cry as he was sent flying through the air once more, hurtling through the air from the pure shockwave generated by the explosion that the hellion had conjured at point-blank range in front of him.

    "It's the Shepherd's."

    CRASH!

    It took far too long for his senses to return to him in the aftermath of his impact in the grass this time.

    Slowly, ever so slowly, the world began to regain coherency. The sound of the grass surrounding his fallen body waving softly in the wind eventually reached his ringing ears, while the cavern of stars above him came back into view as the spots left his vision. Painfully heaving for breath, Sorey forced his muscles to clench, laboriously getting to his feet with his ceremonial sword still firmly gripped in his right hand. Still panting for breath, he took a moment to regain his bearings as the world stopped spinning around him.

    The sound of something charging right at him quickly drew his attention.

    "Stop!" He demanded loudly, squared his shoulders to the attacking hellion charging him. "That's enough!"

    His voice echoed throughout the darkened fields. Punctuating his point, Sorey forcibly shoved his sword back into its sheath at his hip and instead crossed his arms, holding the approaching hellion evenly in his gaze.

    The cloaked hellion came to a sliding halt before him, staring emotionlessly back at him.

    In the distance, the first hints of a new day were beginning to form. Lighter swathes of darkness radiated out from beyond the sky, gently coaxing out colors and form from the distant mountains and forests that made up the distant horizon. Daybreak was fast approaching, and with it, the start of a new day.

    Sorey abruptly broke into a tired, grateful smile, letting the tension drain slowly from his shaky body.

    "I… I know what I have to do now." He breathed tiredly, shifting on his feet and letting his arms dangle at his sides.

    He gave the hellion across the field from him a deep, grateful nod, catching his breath. "Thanks for your help." He intoned, holding the red-eyed monster's gaze respectfully with his own. With that having been said, Sorey turned his back to it and set off, striding determinedly into the fading night.

    Behind the mask, Velvet Crowe watched motionlessly as the utterly beaten and tired Shepherd walked off determinedly into the breaking dawn, her lips drawn together in a fine line.

    She didn't see a boy walking away from a fight he'd lost. Rather, she felt as if she were watching a man walking forward with a purpose in mind.

    A man, – with just a hint, however obscure – of the regality and dignity befitting of that of a proper Shepherd.

    His boots crunching with the dry grass he trod underfoot with each step, Sorey made his way back to camp, his eyes forward towards the brightening horizon. His cape, dirtied and soiled, flapped regally in the morning breeze.

    ---​

    "Alisha?"

    The princess stopped a few feet away from the gates of Marlind and glanced over her shoulder at Sorey as he and the rest of the group caught up with her. "Sorey?" She replied, coming to a halt and turning to face him.

    The canopy of the familiar Great Tree of Marlind hung far over their heads like an umbrella shielding the outskirts of town from the blistering heat of the midday sun. The gates of town were open, and within the walls of the plague town, the townsfolk could be seen going about their business. Nondistinctive, animated chattering could be heard sporadically from within – evidence of a bustling town on its way to recovering from the effects of a plague that had at last begun to slowly fade.

    Just as they'd intended, the Shepherd and his group had been successful in dispelling the malevolence looming over the town by allowing the new Lord of the Land to reign over the area with the Great Tree as a pure vessel. Marlind would survive, given enough time, and establish itself as the artistic capital of the region one more. No more would its citizens suffer under dread and fear caused by rampant malevolence, by the grace of the Shepherd.

    Yet this was the farthest thing from Sorey's mind as he set his jaw and held Alisha's gaze, standing before her at the entrance to the purified town. "I have something to say."

    Behind him, Mikleo and Lailah exchanged a glance. Velvet stood behind them with her arms crossed, Edna standing solemnly beside her. The chirping of the birds and the chattering of the townsfolk became irrelevant as the elephant in the room was finally addressed.

    "As do I." Alisha responded in kind, her expression growing resolute.

    Sorey nodded. "Let me go first, then."

    He held her gaze firmly as he began. "I… ignored things that shouldn't have been ignored, Alisha." He admitted. "I thought that if I just trusted that everything will be alright in the end, things… would just work themselves out, no matter how bad they might've seemed at the time."

    He shook his head softly. "But Velvet was right. That was a stupid thing way for me to think." His eyes wandered over Alisha's shoulder towards the town of Marlind, his thoughts turning towards that one bloody night.

    "…I suppose that, in ignoring the problem and just moving along with it all, I was really just being overconfident in myself." He grinned apologetically, his fingers idly drumming atop his sword pommel. "I was putting blind faith in my position as the Shepherd to overcome any obstacle imaginable, no matter the odds. I figured that I could just find the power within me to somehow keep things going. Keep things the way they were."

    "But I'm not strong at all." He admitted. "I don't have that strength within me."

    He shook his head as Alisha opened her mouth in protest. "I never did. Far from it. Thinking otherwise was just arrogance on my part." He insisted fervently, taking a heated step forward. "And I've come to realize that if I'm going to have any chance at all at helping the people around me, and have a shot at making my dream of coexistence between humans and seraphim a reality, then I'm going to have to be as strong and powerful as I can manage." He crossed his arms and nodded his head to himself, reaffirming his thoughts.

    "…So, in order to achieve this as best as I can, I'm going to do something that I should've done a long time ago. One I really have nobody else to blame for not doing earlier but myself." He unfolded his arms and straightened his back, holding Alisha's gaze.

    "Alisha, I'm going to ask that you rescind the squire's pact." He put simply.

    A dull breeze blew in the wake of his words, filling the silence that followed. High up in the sky, the vast canopy of the pure Great Tree billowed gently in the wind, the thousands of leaves clacking together overhead resembling the crashing of waves on beach in the summer heat. Behind them all, Velvet watched on with grim approval.

    Sorey broke the silence once more, apologetically scratching the back of his head. "…I'm really, really sorry that I have to do this, but really from what Lailah told me regarding the lack of a squire's own resonance and how that affects the pact and-"

    Alisha held up a hand sharply, instantly silencing his rambling.

    She nodded sharply, holding his gaze. "You need not be sorry." She reassured him. "As a knight, I was taught that sometimes things happen that are out of your control, and that you should make the best of that, regardless of how unfair or unjust you might perceive that thing to be."

    Sorey blinked three times.

    "…Alisha… you're not mad?" He asked hesitantly.

    Alisha laughed incredulously, tilting her head curiously. "Oh, why in the world would I be angry at you, Sorey?"

    She smiled brightly at him, intertwining her hands. "I have the right to be nothing but grateful to you, Sorey, for all that you've done for me and the people of this nation." She beamed at him. "Without your kindness and your openness, I would not know half of the things that I now know." Her eyes turned to the other companions of the Shepherd, her expression soft and bright. "Seraphim… hellions… malevolence…"

    She met his eyes once more, firm and resolute.

    "…While I will be most disappointed at not be able to travel with you all anymore…" She shook her head, her eyes glinting with determination. "I promise I will not stop being your squire, even if I no longer bear the title."

    "Regardless of whatever happens in the coming years, you can trust that I, Alisha Diphda, Princess of Hyland, will continue to fight for a land without Malevolence, for Hyland and beyond, now and forever." She declared resolutely, her head held high and proud.

    Sorey's expression had transitioned from surprise to fondness. "Alisha…!" He grinned back.

    Behind him, Edna waved a hand lethargically. "You do realize that she was planning on leaving the moment she found out that the pact was causing you to lose your eyesight, right?" She asked dryly.

    Lailah nodded deeply. "Indeed. That had been my conclusion as well."

    "Oh." Alisha shuffled on her feet abashedly as she looked over at the seraphim. "Was I truly so transparent?"

    Mikleo shook his head as he walked over. "Never mind that, what I want to know is what you plan on doing next." He gave her a concerned nod. "What will you do once we part ways?"

    The princess answered respectfully, "You needn't concern yourself with me, Mikleo." Her gaze turned to sweep the rest of the group. "And neither should any of you."

    She stiffened her shoulders. "I've decided to stay behind in Marlind for a while, to help find someone to properly give tribute to Rohan so that he can maintain his domain for years to come." She nodded to the rest of them. "And, once that has been completed, I shall report back to Ladylake about what happened here." She glanced at Sorey proudly. "About how the Shepherd helped save the town."

    "…Sounds like you've got yourself figured out." Mikleo observed markedly, placing a hand on his hip. "I guess it was dumb of me to worry about you in the first place."

    Lailah smiled happily. "Of course! Alisha is one strong princess. She'll do just fine without us, I've no doubt about it."

    "Yeah." Edna twirled her opened umbrella, looking at Alisha in an idle glance. "You're pretty decent." She conceded. "For a human, at least." She added.

    Mikleo's eye twitched. "Edna, can't you say something positive for once without undercutting it in the next sentence?" He implored.

    "Depends." Edna shrugged. "Can't you say something not dumb for once?"

    Mikleo exhaled out of his nose at length.

    Hiding her chuckles behind her hand, Alisha turned to the last member of the group she had yet to address. "Velvet." She prompted.

    The disguised therion met the princess's eyes.

    "I must say," she remarked, glancing over her shoulder at Sorey, "it does my heart a great service, knowing that the Shepherd will have such a fine, experienced companion alongside him in his travels."

    She nodded to herself, crossing her arms resolutely. "In much the same way that I was glad that I had my master Lady Maltran with me at my side for every step of the way, I'm sure Sorey will be glad to have you along as his steadfast companion as well." She gave Velvet a deep, grateful nod. "Thank you for everything. I wish you the best of luck in finding your cousin."

    In turn, Velvet answered with a nod of her own.

    "…Stay safe out there." She returned simply.

    And with that having been said, Alisha turned and walked towards the entrance of Marlind before stopping and turning to face them all, her face set in determination and will. "All of you," she addressed formally, "I do not doubt I shall one day see you all again soon."

    She gave them all one last genuine smile. "But for now, until our paths next converge, I wish you all farewell." She lifted one armored gauntlet as her final parting.

    Sorey raised a solemn hand in kind. "Good luck, Alisha. I'm sure we'll see you again soon."

    Alisha nodded, her expression strong and empowered. With that, the princess of Hyland turned around and parted ways with the Shepherd's group, headed off to fight her own battles for the betterment of mankind.

    ---​

    "…Doesn't matter. You're it, quit whining!"

    "I'm not whining- h-hey! Get back here!"

    The loud sound of a raspberry blown by the little boy as he pelted away from the other child carried easily across the wide-open grassy field that made up the park of Marlind, located at the heart of the city besides the vast, aged trunk of the Great Tree.

    Leaning easily against the backboard of a weathered oak bench placed near the entrance to the park, Velvet watched the boy and girl play in the distance as she idly enjoyed the bright sunshine streaming in through the canopy above onto the revitalized city. Sitting primly on the bench beside her, Edna too spectated upon the game of tag currently in progress in the middle of the park, her head resting on her fist.

    Eventually, Velvet broke the calm silence. "Say… Edna?" The therion glanced over her shoulder at the seraph. "Whatever ended up happening to those nor dolls?" She paused as a thought occurred to her. "…Those and, for that matter," she added, "all that other stuff Eizen sent you?"

    Edna slid her eyes shut and let out a drawn-out breath in irritation. "Oh boy." She muttered. Her eyes opened as she sent Velvet a glare. "For the record, I still hold you partially responsible for that mess."

    Velvet raised an eyebrow. "Did you not like the gifts he sent you?"

    "Let's just say that I could've built a second Rayfalke out of all the stuff my brother sent me over the years." Edna grumbled.

    With irritation clear in her expression, the earth seraph twisted around and confronted Velvet. "Just what, exactly, was I supposed to do with a pot that was as heavy as myself?" She demanded incredulously.

    "The things he sent me were just ridiculous." She tossed a hand disdainfully in the air. "How many paintings did he think I needed before I had enough decorations on my shrine? How many old, crusty things did he think I wanted lying around just asking for me to trip on?" She shook her head. "My brother was such an idiot."

    With a hmph, she turned away, shaking her head some more.

    A wry smirk had crept onto Velvet's lips in the aftermath of the seraph's tirade. "…You never threw any of that stuff away, did you?" She guessed knowingly.

    Edna's only response was a wordless huff.

    Velvet leaned forward in her seat, casually examining her bandaged hand. "I'm guessing that if I look hard enough in Rayfalke, I'll find a weathered old lair of ancient treasures filled to the brim with old, crusty things." She remarked wryly. "Am I wrong?"

    "Why even ask if you know the answer already?" Edna shot back dourly.

    The therion chuckled warmly. "Fair enough."

    Velvet leaned back, watching the boy and girl playing tag on the other end of the park with a distant look. "…I guess I'm also guilty of keeping the gifts my brother gave me." She noted quietly.

    Almost instinctually, her right hand slipped into her coat pocket, pulling out two jagged shards of amber. Her eyes turned soft as she considered the broken pieces.

    Edna watched the therion keenly. "A broken comb." She observed impartially. "...I presume that has something to do with your younger brother?"

    Velvet nodded wordlessly.

    After a pause, Edna turned her head up to gaze at the expansive trunk of the Great Tree before them. "You sure you know what you're doing here, Velvet?" She asked quietly without looking at her.

    Her meaning was crystal clear to both of them.

    Velvet's fingers curled around the two broken comb pieces; her lips drawn in a stiff line. Her thoughts went back to the day before; the brief instant in which her act had slipped in the heat of the moment. For a single misguided second, she had simply forgotten her goal.

    That wouldn't happen again. She'd make sure of it.

    "…I'm sure." Velvet reaffirmed quietly.

    Edna was silent.

    The faint sound of clanking metal abruptly intruded upon the peace and quiet. The two of them turned and watched as a group of five armed men in orange uniforms strolled together through the grass towards her. The sunlight glinted off their polished steel armor, helmets, and sheathed swords as they easily tromped up to the bench where she was sitting. The joyful yells and shouts of the children continued on in the background.

    "You're Velvet, right?" The leader asked. "You're with the Shepherd?"

    She met the eyes of the leader and gave him a nod in acknowledgement. "And you're Lucas, head of the mercenaries that Sorey hired to protect town." She responded, idly returning the pieces of the comb back into her coat pocket.

    "Correct." The ponytailed warrior gave a prideful grin in response, puffing out his chest with his hands on his hips. "We Woodsmen did a damn fine job, don't ya think?" He waved his muscular arms around in a grand gesture, indicating their surroundings. "Wasn't a single bandit nor rabid animal that got through on our watch. His money was well spent, I assure you."

    Unseen by Lucas, Edna twirled her closed umbrella in her hands. "It's true, they didn't do too badly in the end." she supposed.

    "But never mind that." Velvet turned her gaze back onto Lucas as he got to the point.

    "We came looking for a chat with the Shepherd." The mercenary explained, crossing his arms seriously. "In their patrols, a few of my men came across some pretty significant holes in the defenses of the town that I think he might want to know about. We've already told the mayor of town, but I figured it would be best to have him in the know as well before we leave for our next gig."

    "That's very thoughtful of you." Velvet observed impartially. "After all the effort you put into protecting the town, I'd imagine you would've left by now."

    "Bah." Lucas swatted his hand dismissively in the air. "Don't make us out to be some sort of charity squad, missy." The scarred warrior gave her a crooked grin and jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "It's just that some of the townsfolk helped us out while we were here. We're just paying our debts as any honest mercenaries would. That's all."

    Velvet waved a hand in kind. "In any case, you can tell me where the issue is, and I'll let the Shepherd know."

    "Sure." The weathered mercenary seemed to survey Velvet's appearance closely, shifting on his feet as he did so. "…But out of curiosity, what's the deal with you and him?" He cocked his head to the side. "A lot of us are wondering what's going on with that kid who's been going around calling himself the Shepherd, you see, ever since we took the job." He raised an eyebrow at her. "And I also can't help but wonder what you all really want, in the end."

    He shrugged. "Not that you have to tell me." He added with a welcoming grin. "We don't really care too much about our clientele's personal stories; so long as they pay us, we're good."

    "Hmph." Edna huffed. "Another doubting human. How utterly surprising." She remarked drolly, rolling her eyes.

    In response to his question, Velvet crossed her arms and leant back in her seat, holding Lucas's scrutiny evenly. "The reason Sorey does the things he does is the same as the reason why you're all really staying behind to help in Marlind even after the end of your contract." She analyzed. "The same reason why you all even took such a risky contract in the first place without extorting Sorey for money."

    She abruptly got to her feet, the chains on her outfit clinking quietly in the breeze. Her eyes travelled from Lucas's to the other five mercenaries behind him, carefully studying the expressions of each armored man.

    "…Am I wrong?" She prompted, crossing her arms and raising an eyebrow at the leader of the Woodsmen.

    While the men exchanged looks behind him, Lucas kept his eyes firmly locked onto Velvet's with his hands on his hips. After a pause, his expression lightened, and he finally opened his mouth to speak.

    "Why… of course you're wrong." Lucas grinned wolfishly as he drawled, "Naturally, if it came out that the ferocious, greedy, and bloodthirsty mercenaries known as the Woodsmen were in reality a bunch of soft-hearted sissies, we'd be run right out of business within the week." He shrugged at length, glancing over his shoulder at the others. "And we wouldn't want that, would we, boys?"

    Roars of denial were his collective response.

    His grin widening, Lucas turned back around and gave Velvet a helpless shrug. "I guess that settles that." He supposed.

    His eyebrows narrowed thoughtfully.

    "…Still." He hummed. "If the Shepherd has such a keen-eyed lady like you travelling by his side… then I guess that means that he can't be all that bad."

    Evidently making up his mind, Lucas nodded to himself and let his hands drop from his hips, meeting Velvet's eyes. "If you or he ever need our services again, don't hesitate to search us out." he offered openly with a grin.

    "We Woodsmen value our customers. Never forget that." He gave the woman another nod. "And thanks in advance for passing along the message to the Shepherd. Let him know that both the south-southwest corner and northeastern section of the wall have pretty nasty breaches that ought to be fixed. That's all."

    And with that, he turned on his heel and faced the men behind him. "Alright, bums. We're done here. Get!"

    With that, the group of mercenaries turned and headed out of the park, their armor and weapons clanking loudly with each step they took. Soon, Lucas and his crew were out of sight as they left the area, their minds already focused on their future prospects. Velvet watched them leave with a thoughtful expression.

    She glanced over at the sound of footsteps to find Edna walking up next to her, also watching the Woodsmen leave from under the shadow of her opened umbrella.

    "…A thousand years of nothing but hardships and misery in this world." Velvet commented arbitrarily. "I suppose that doesn't stop a handful of people from still trying to use everything in their power to do something different for a change."

    "Like I said. Humans are stupid." Edna replied dryly.

    Velvet huffed in response, tearing her eyes away from the mercenaries and towards the setting sun. "Come on." She prompted. "Let's pass the message on. Sorey will want to hear it."

    Together, the therion and the seraph trotted down the hill in the opposite direction that the mercenaries had went, headed through the bustling city brightened by the golden streaks of the swiftly approaching sunset.

    ---​

    The heavens were painted a dark, bloody orange hue by the time the two of them finally made it to the inn as the sun slowly dipped down into the distant, grassy horizon beyond the tall city walls. Steel and leather boots tromped noisily on the plank stairs leading up to the deck of the inn as Velvet and Edna trudged up them, leaving the dirt and gravel roads behind.

    The Shepherd stood beside the railing alongside Lailah, a deeply troubled expression on his face. He turned around as the other two arrived in his presence, quietly sliding the weathered green tome in his hands shut as he did so. The long shadows drawn by the setting sun cast by his coarse hair framed his hard eyes as he greeted his fellow companions with a soft nod.

    "Hey guys." He greeted lightly, putting his free hand on his hip. "We've decided to try out the inn's cooking this time instead of our own, if that's okay?"

    Velvet didn't mince words. "What's wrong?" She asked sharply, raising an inquisitive eyebrow at his abnormal demeanor.

    "Nothing's wrong." Sorey hurriedly reassured, shaking his head with a calming grin that was somehow genuine yet forced. "I just came across something kinda off-putting, that's all."

    "…And that something was?" Edna prompted, twirling her umbrella slowly in the air.

    Behind him, Lailah threaded her hands in front of her dress, her expression distant and unreadable. Hefting the green book in his arm as he idly shifted on his feet, Sorey glanced at both Velvet and Edna before opening his mouth.

    "Well, I was wondering."

    "Have either of you two heard of the name… Velvet Crowe?"

    The chattering of two particularly noisy housewives doing the laundry in the distance filled the silence that followed. High up above them all, the Great Tree of Marlind began to sway ever so gently with arrival of a cool evening breeze. Velvet's hair and clothing rippled with the wind as she exchanged an unreadable glance with Edna in the wake of Sorey's question.

    Ever so discreetly, the therion's eyes narrowed with anger and quickly flitted to the side towards Lailah. Lailah met the hellion's glaring eyes and subtly shook her head. This wasn't her doing.

    Abruptly, Edna broke the silence with a bored voice. "Was that supposed to mean anything to me?" She asked dryly, twirling her umbrella once more.

    Sorey's eyes furrowed.

    He let out a sigh of disappointment, the tension leaving his body as he maneuvered his body to lean onto the railing standing behind him. "So, you didn't know about her either, huh?" He surmised. The Shepherd idly glanced up at the leaves high in the sky. "Lailah's also never heard anything about her before." He explained. "I was hoping that either of you two seraphim would've known more about her."

    Slowly reigning in the emotions swirling around in her head, Velvet found the presence of mind to speak up. "…Well, who is she, then?" She prompted neutrally.

    Sorey blinked and looked back down at Velvet Davidson with an apologetic smile. "Oh, Velvet I didn't mean you, of course." He added. "I'm talking about a different Velvet who lived a long time ago."

    His eyes narrowed, an uncharacteristic hardened edge to his expression. "That is, the woman who was called Velvet Crowe, the Lord of Calamity that brought about the end of the Age of Asgard once and for all."

    He gently maneuvered the weathered green book in his hands, carefully flipping it open once more. "It turns out that this book I bought from the Sparrowfeathers was actually written by a very, very old seraph a long time ago." Sorey explained. "It's written in the ancient tongue, so I doubt anybody who ever came across it ever recognized its true worth."

    He turned the green book around to display the weathered, barely legible cursive writing on its pages detailing the accounts of events that had long, long since passed. Smudged ink drawings of foreign continents and places were nested comfortably within long flowing streams of text that populated the tome.

    It was truly an invaluable relic that told of a time long since passed.

    "Sorey's been looking through that book all day." The planks making up the deck groaned as Lailah quietly made her way over to Sorey's side. "He's been quite obsessed with detailing every last tidbit of information in his own notes." The fire seraph's smile didn't reach her eyes.

    "Well of course I have!" Sorey exclaimed. "I'd be deeply ashamed of myself as an explorer if I didn't immediately see the value in doing so." He stroked the cover of the tome almost reverently. "The things in this book…" He shook his head.

    "While a good portion of the pages have become unreadable over the years and a whole lot of it just plain doesn't make any sense, the rest is still legible and are undeniable, concrete pieces of information thoroughly documenting a period of history that, until now, has been considered almost completely lost!"

    "And?" Edna interjected. "What have you learned?"

    And just like that, the excitement seemed to fade from the Shepherd's expression, replaced by what could only be described as a somber sort of reverence. "…Well, it's like I said. I now know the story of the Lord of Calamity and her exploits, one thousand years ago."

    He looked away, his jaw set. "I now know of the horrible things a Lord of Calamity is capable of."

    In the far horizon, the sun had finally set. A squad of town workers had begun travelling up and down major thoroughfares, igniting the various steel lamps set up around town. One by one, the lamps dotted around town blinked into existence, illuminating the streets with their paltry yet sufficient light.

    "Lailah." Sorey glanced over his shoulder at her in the growing darkness. "I'm slowly starting to truly understand what you meant back then. About what you said back in Ladylake."

    He idly tugged at his Shepherd's glove as he thought back to that day over a month ago when he was just starting out on his journey. 'The being who gives rise to the hellions.'" he quoted softly. "'A Lord of Calamity, who begets hellions with the overwhelming amount of malevolence…'" He glanced at the book in his hands pensively. "'…he or she possesses.'" he finished quietly.

    He abruptly glanced up at Velvet, a fierce determination etched in his features. "Velvet. About what you said yesterday. I wanted to thank you for what you said to me." He shook his head. "And not only that, but everything you've been teaching me. All this guidance and wisdom that you've been sharing… I'm really, truly grateful for all of it." The Shepherd put a fist to his chest in affirmation of his beliefs, giving her a nod of thanks. "Because the more I learn, and the stronger I grow…"

    His fist rose from his chest to reach out towards the sky and beyond. "…The better chance I'll have against such terrible beings." He breathed. "I need to grow much stronger than I am now to that end. For the sake of both my dream… as well as for the sake of the dreams of the people who share the world with me."

    His fist tightened in staunch determination.

    The two present seraphim exchanged glances in the wake of the Shepherd's words. Hesitantly, Lailah opened her mouth to try and say something.

    She was interrupted.

    "It's important that you understand the type of evil you're up against." Velvet's words were calm and logical. "That book's a good find. She shifted on her feet, putting a hand on her hip and looking away, her eyes distant. An abrupt, volatile urge struck her. "But tell me, Sorey…"

    "…why is it you think that birds fly?" Her soft question resounded through the silence.

    The Shepherd blinked in surprise at the outlandish question.

    Before he even had a chance to answer though, she turned swiftly on her heel and walked away, the chains on her outfit clinking gently yet loudly in the silence. Velvet waved her hand over her shoulder as she left. "If you ever find your answer to that question during your travels, come and tell me."

    With that, the woman stepped down the stairs and made her way back into town, leaving the rest of the group watching her vanish into the darkened night, her black coat shrouding her lone figure companionably as she did so.

    Why… do they fly? Behold my answer… Velvet.

    Those words that had meant so much to her. Words that her entire life had once revolved upon.

    Velvet's eyes were hard and unreadable as she walked on, deeper into the darkness.

    Sorey watched as his companion left, a thoughtful expression on his face as he contemplated her parting words as well as what unknown meaning could be hidden within them.

    He carefully closed the weathered tome in his hands and tucked it away in his pack, reminding himself to continue translating as much as he could in what free time he would have the future. There was still much to be learned from the history of the world.

    From the sins committed long ago.

    ---​

    CLANG!

    The next strike rattled Sorey's teeth as the hellion's claw crashed down upon his horizontal guard. His knees buckled and his boots dug deeper into the dirt as the cloaked hellion before him pushed down even harder, its hellish claw pushing down brutally upon his sword.

    His dirty face gleaming with sweat, Sorey quickly considered all the possible options he had in order to save himself from the current deadlock.

    He locked his gaze upon the emotionless red eyes of his opponent staring right back at him as he strained against its terrible might. His sword buckled as the monster added even more pressure upon his guard. He grunted, struggling to keep his body upright, glancing briefly at his sword held horizontally above his head. Mental images from previous battles with the hellion flashed before his eyes.

    He was determined to not repeat his past mistakes. He met the eyes of the hellion once more, locking on to its blood red eyes in clear defiance as the huge claw above his head pushed down even harder. He would not fall here.

    Suddenly, the crushing weight pressing down upon his sword vanished.

    Sorey blinked in shock, stumbling forward as the planned maneuver in his head became entangled with the unexpected turn of events. Regaining his balance and finding his feet once more, his head shot up towards the masked hellion, his entire body thrumming with adrenaline as fear of a counterattack ran rampant in his head.

    But it wasn't even looking at him.

    It turned away from him, instead facing outwards into the darkness with its malevolence-wreathed claw held at a low ready. A cold breeze blew, cooling the skin on Sorey's neck and disturbing the hellion's bunched-up and – he could only imagine – disfigured cloaked frame.

    A sea of treetops spread out for miles around in the dark of night. Scorched patches of grass patterned the field here and there, evidence of their previous training sessions in the past. The two of them stood upon what had now become familiar training grounds to Sorey within the vicinity of Marlind; an open field with a sharp cliff edge on one side and open forest on the other. High up above, the stars watched as Sorey took an urgent step closer to the motionless hellion ignoring him completely.

    "…What's wrong?" He asked softly.

    He was met with a glance over the masked hellion's shoulder. The single red eye angled towards him narrowed sharply, conveying an obvious message.

    Be quiet.

    The hellion then turned back away from the Shepherd and returned its attention to the dark forest in front of them; it's entire body tense as a drawn bowstring. At its side, the pulsating serrated claw, flexed ever so slightly in anticipation.

    Sorey immediately readjusted his grip on his sword and moved behind the monster's right side opposite its claw, his entire body tensing. He'd been around this hellion long enough to immediately recognize what that stance meant. It was getting ready to pounce.

    Dead silence followed. Still exhausted and spent from the exertion the night's training session had forced out of him, the sound of Sorey's suppressed yet labored breathing filled the air. Another cool nighttime breeze blew through, rustling the leaves of the vast sea of trees before them. From his perspective, there was absolutely nothing to be concerned about; they were alone. But he would not doubt the masked hellion.

    A chorus of wild howls shattered the silence of the night.

    Werewolf howls; primal cries of pure bloodlust and madness. Suddenly, a pack of rabid hellions charged out from the depths of the darkness born from the trees before them, and pounced upon their newly discovered prey.

    "Damn!" Sorey swore, instinctively taking a step back as dozens upon dozens of rabid werewolf hellions charged him all at once. He glanced over his shoulder furtively. The vast gulfing cliffside awaited him. There was no escaping this battle. His only options were to fight or die.

    At his side, the masked hellion exploded into action, its legs slamming hard into the ground in a fury of motion as it met the horde of charging hellions head on. Its claw slashed in the air long before its enemies were even in range, generating huge fireballs that whisked through the air to and detonate amongst the horde. Yelps of agony ripped through the night mixing with the other howls. When the closest werewolf hellion came into range, it was ripped out of existence in the blink of an eye with a feral swipe of the monster's claw.

    Eaten alive in an instant.

    Shaking his head harshly, Sorey snapped himself out of his awe and dug his boots into the grass, throwing himself into the fray. He would be damned if he were to leave this hellion alone to fend for itself.

    SHINK!

    He roared and channeled Lailah's power through his body, forcing the power of purification upon the body of the hellion he'd just stabbed. Jerking his sword out from the inferno of silver flames, he whirled around and slashed at the next werewolf to charge at him from behind, sending blood in crescent spray into the night.

    At his side, the masked hellion remained close and fended off the rest of the monsters as they mindlessly charged towards the two of them. Its claw swung and slashed with almost mesmerizingly terrible grace, drawing trails of blood as it ripped and shredded through the horde of werewolves… like they were all made of paper.

    Killing with each slash.

    Sorey glanced briefly of his shoulder, his heart aching at the bloody murders taking place right before his eyes.

    "You can't pretend to be capable of saving the world…"

    Velvet's words once more ringing in his ears, Sorey gritted his teeth and turned away from the screams and howls of the dying hellions, instead focusing on what he could do; purifying the ones within his sword's reach.

    He cried out fiercely, furiously, his eyes reflecting the vast swathes of flame drawn by his sword with each swing.

    Power that he just didn't have enough of.

    Every life the masked hellion took was a life he had failed to save… because he simply wasn't strong enough.

    He couldn't've saved himself had he been alone. He needed the murderous aid of his mysterious hellion ally to keep himself alive. Furthermore… he was the Shepherd. The world couldn't afford to let him die here. So instead, they had to die by means of the hellion's claw. He could do nothing else about it but keep saving those he could. And so he did.

    Life quickly devolved into nothing more than a simple, brutal struggle for survival as the rest of the hellions continued to charge. For most of them, it was to their deaths.

    Hack.

    Slash.

    Stab.

    Purify, purify, purify.

    The Shepherd rolled to the side to avoid another monster's slash before retaliating with a sword straight through its gut, the flames of purification flaring up once more and illuminating the world with a flash of silver.

    Just as soon as that hellion had been purified three more took its place, causing him to stumble backwards and give ground to avoid their attacks. Spinning around, Sorey cleanly sliced diagonally across another werewolf's breast, eliciting a furious roar of anger and pain from it. Blood that was not his own splattered across his clothing as the silver flames purified another monster.

    He had to live. He just had to.

    Absently, he noted that the clawed hellion whom was his ally was using its superior strength and abilities to stay close to him throughout the fray. For every hellion that he managed to purify, three suffered horrific deaths at the end of its vicious, merciless claw. That claw that had the ability to consume what it held. That same claw that he had sparred with for so many nights.

    In the end, it was no surprise that it had been holding back on him for his own benefit. Yet it was still immensely jarring to see the hellion be true to its nature and unleash what he hopedwas the full extent of its might. A natural killer, pure and simple.

    And to think that he still had no clue as to what it wanted from him!

    Sorey was forced to dive desperately to the side as two hellions slashed at him at the same time. He landed hard on his back on the grass, his sword tightly gripped in his right hand yet useless with such a compromised posture. As the two attackers adjusted their velocity to pounce onto him, he brought his sword up as a last-ditch effort to ward them off.

    CRASH!

    Yelps and howls of agony filled the air as the two pouncing hellions were bashed effortlessly away by the massive claw that had swept right over Sorey's body, saving him. Specks of blood flew off the bloodied claw, a few droplets landing on the Shepherd's face and making him wince.

    The blood was warmer than he'd expected.

    Adrenaline pumping desperately through his veins, he forced himself to roll to his feet. Without hesitating, he swiftly slashed away at another enemy trying to attack his hellion ally from behind. From there, almost instinctively, he and the hellion began to coordinate their efforts to fend the creatures off even as they fully encircled their position.

    BANG!

    The world erupted in bright light as the hellion cast a fully charged ball of fire mana into the distance, engulfing a trio of werewolves in flames and singing several others. Squinting through the sudden and unbearable flare of brightness, Sorey roared as he leapt forward, slashing at two similarly blinded monsters to drive them away.

    He grunted as he landed awkwardly on the grass, stumbling for just a split-second.

    That brief period of vulnerability was just enough time for a lucky hellion to charge right at him and get inside his guard. Sorey's eyes widened and he instinctually leapt backwards to avoid the razor-sharp claws sweeping inches away from his exposed neck.

    He raised his sword to prepare his counter-attack the instant he recovered.

    Yet his feet found only thin air.

    Everything slowed to a halt. He watched it all in slow motion as he fell off the edge of the cliff, his ceremonial cloak flapping uselessly behind him and his sword still clenched habitually tightly in his right hand.

    Above, the brilliant canvas of stars shining high in the night sky. Below, a vast drop with nothing but forest to meet him and his body as he eventually fell back towards the earth. Upon the edge of the cliff stood the werewolf hellion that would be ultimately responsible for his imminent death. Its rabid eyes were narrowed in fury as it snarled uselessly, its prey having escaped it in a final act of defiance.

    And behind it, Sorey watched as the familiar masked hellion he had considered an ally turned and saw him falling. He saw its inhuman eyes widen in utterly uncharacteristic emotion as its entire body pivoted on the spot towards him.

    He heard a faint, distorted, warped cry of horror.

    "SOREY…!"

    That was the last thing he heard before he fell down headfirst into the darkness to his death.

    ---​

    CRASH!

    Sorey's eyes shot open. The first thing he registered was the roaring wind mixing violently with the deafening screech of a something huge digging deep into the cliffside. His stomach lurched and his whole body jerked as his momentum was partially arrested as something seized his. He twisted his head up and his eyes widened in shock.

    The masked hellion gripped onto his belt with its right hand while its other inhumanly large appendage tore into the side of the cliff with overwhelming force, gouging out swathes of dirt and rock in its wake while at the same time managing to find enough traction to slow the two of them down in their fall.

    Sorey's eyes shot to the dark ground below. He let out an instinctual yelp of terror as he registered the trees shooting up towards the two of them as they neared the bottom of the cliff. Up above him, the hellion's claw dug even deeper into the cliff side with something akin to desperation.

    And then they landed.

    CRASH!



    His entire body ached.

    That was the first thought that came to his mind as he came to, the nausea and distortion buzzing around in his head ebbing and flowing with the spots that had appeared in his vision. He blinked hard and coughed, groaning in agony as he felt his body first. He eventually let out a breath of pure adrenaline-driven relief as he slowly realized that he hadn't broken anything.

    But what about the hellion?

    Worry spiked sharply in Sorey's heart. With a massive effort, the Shepherd forced himself to sit up, wincing as the world around him shifted in an alarming manner. He shook himself slightly and forced his eyes to focus.

    Dust hung in the air in the aftermath of the rock that had been gouged out of the side of the cliff face. The stars could be seen peeking through the heavy canopy of the tall trees surrounding his position. He had evidently tumbled for quite a while downhill, judging by the pattern of the disturbed grass at his side.

    Out of pure chance, he managed to spot the masked hellion leaning painfully against one of the trees in the distant darkness, its entire body slouched heavily against the trunk.

    His eyes widened as he took in the state of the hellion's human-like arm. It was clearly dislocated, if not outright broken. It was clearly a miracle that the arm was still attached to its body to begin with. Worried beyond belief, Sorey found his voice.

    "H-hey!" He coughed out, reaching out with his hand.

    The moment his voice rang out, the hellion's entire body stiffened. Without a second glance back, nor any thought or consideration given to its injury, the hellion slammed its claw into the floor and used it to propel itself far into the darkness, vanishing without a trace.

    Sorey stared blankly at where it had disappeared, his eyes wide in utter astonishment and confusion. He let his arm fall down limply by his side, idly registering that his sleeve was still caked in congealed hellion blood.

    In the wake of flagrant chaos, only the sound of chirping crickets and waving trees remained to keep the lone Shepherd company. Meanwhile, high up above, the hovering stars continued on as they always had been since the very beginning.

    Silent.

    Watching.

    Remembering.

    End of Part 2 – Closer.

    ---​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
    sainen, firedragonboy20 and Dozla like this.
  12. Threadmarks: C11 - Steel
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 11 - Steel.

    He couldn't sleep. Counting the number of individual planks of wood in the darkened ceiling wasn't helping, nor was the constant readjusting of his pillow. It apparently didn't matter the fact that his entire body was still sore and exhausted from the battle earlier in the night, nor that he'd finished applying gels and bandages to his various injuries a few hours ago.

    He was simply too preoccupied by what had happened.

    With a grunt, Sorey sat up in his bed, ruefully rubbing his tired eyes. The muffled sound of crickets chirping outside the inn of Marlind continued to ring in the silence as he made his way out the door, shutting it quietly behind him. He lingered for a second in the darkened hallway, his eyes drifting slowly towards the doors of the others' rooms.

    Then the moment passed. Shaking his head to himself, Sorey turned his body away and instead headed outside, braving the aging night. It felt like he had wandered for an eternity through the desolate streets of town with nothing but the crickets for company before he inadvertently found himself entering the park at the heart of Marlind. All alone, the Shepherd maintained his thoughtful pace as he trotted through the empty grass fields, idly appreciating the brilliance of the naturally formed patterns embellishing the vibrant bark of the Great Tree before him.

    He spent some more time there, sitting on one of the thicker roots of the massive tree a little way up from the ground and letting his mind catch up with itself in silence.

    "That tree's pretty old, you know."

    Edna didn't spare him a glance as she approached, training her eyes high up towards the towering tree valiantly enshrouding the town. Her pale translucent umbrella seemed to glow ethereally in the moonlight as she twirled it on her shoulder.

    "Edna!" Sorey blinked. "What are you doing up this early?" He asked as she came to a halt below his perch.

    She raised an eyebrow up at him. "Don't ask questions that you won't answer in turn." She reprimanded.

    Sorey winced. "...I-I guess that's fair." He conceded meekly.

    The earth seraph let out a soft hmph in response, disapproval clear on her face.

    Looking to divert the topic anywhere else, the Shepherd glanced up towards the darkened sky. "The Celestial Record says that the Great Tree of Marlind is a few thousand years old, at least." He recited by heart, squinting through the darkness to make out the vague outline of the expansive canopy above.

    "That's like, stupid vague." Edna pointed out disdainfully, delicately placing her oversized boots upon the bark of the tree as she climbed up to where Sorey was. "Can't that all-knowing book of yours give a definitive answer for once?"

    The Shepherd shook his head. "Well, there's only so much information that scattered old legends and spotty ancient records can provide, especially given just how vast the span of time it's trying to account for." he reasoned. "Figuring out history is like a puzzle, where you're only given a few pieces of a thousand and told to somehow replicate the entire image. Some things just aren't possible to find definitive answers for." His eyes seemed to gleam with familiar passion as he spoke.

    Edna knelt down easily behind Sorey on the root, hugging her knees with an idle huff. "So, the only thing that really knows the full truth behind the tree's story is the tree itself, then." She commented. "Nobody else."

    "I guess you could say that, yeah." Sorey nodded, appreciating the interpretation. He ran his gloved fingers over the glossy skin of the root he sat upon. "Still, imagine all of the things we could learn if the tree could talk to us!" He exclaimed. "Entire lost chapters of history – recovered in an instant!"

    "You sure you would even want that?" Edna asked, smirking. "You might discover that the world really isn't as simple as you think it is."

    "All the better." Sorey returned determinedly, leaning back on his hands and staring up into the sky. "Wisdom doesn't come easily, as they say. This tree might be regarded as a beacon unto the fruit of knowledge, but that doesn't mean that harvesting it should be as easy as plucking fruit from a tree."

    "Spoken like a true Sorey." She remarked dryly. "Your optimism never fails to astound."

    Sorey chuckled good-naturedly in response, grinning at the seraph. "I guess that's just who I am."

    "For now." Edna added shortly, kicking her feet out and letting them dangle over the curvature of the roots. "On the other hand… I wonder who you'll be at the end of all of this?"

    A thoughtful silence followed in the wake of her words.

    All around them, the world was steadily brightening as a new dawn fast approached, signaling the end of an eventful night. In the distance, the occupants of the houses bordering the edge of the park began to stir, waking up for another day of work. In the distance, an early-rising dog began to bark.

    Sorey winced as one of the bandaged wounds under his clothes stung him in protest as he shifted in his seat. He gingerly and discreetly laid back in a fashion that allowed him the least possible discomfort given his injuries while still keeping them hidden from Edna. With the renewed pain of his injuries stinging his body, his mind inevitably returned to dwelling upon the events from earlier in the night.

    About the masked hellion.

    He had never been able to make heads nor tails of that clawed hellion since the day they had first met. And all of that mystery had deepened even more over the past night.

    "SOREY…!"

    Once more he heard his name, yelled in anxiety and concern through the warped and distorted voice of a hellion that had wanted to train him in the ways of battle. It was capable of speech. And it had the capacity to care about someone else's well-being. It cared about him.

    He ran a hand through his hair in befuddlement.

    Ultimately, he just couldn't fathom why. Why was it doing this? Why did it care about him? Why had it protected him, even going so far as to injure itself to save him? For that matter, how could a hellion even be so… different? The gaping lack of motives and unknown goals of his enigmatic acquaintance elicited so much mystery and confusion in him that it made his head hurt.

    "…Edna?" He asked abruptly. "Can I ask you a question?"

    "You just did, doofus." Edna raised an eyebrow at him. "Stop stalling and ask already." She snipped.

    "Right." Sorey smiled softly at the sharp Edna-like retort before letting the smile fade.

    "When we met you back at Rayfalke," he began, dully noting the tensing of the Seraph's back at his words, "you mentioned that your bother no longer recognized you." He turned to face Edna fully, cross-crossing his legs underneath him.

    "Does that mean that he recognized you before? Even as a dragon?" He asked urgently.

    After a pregnant pause, she responded. "…Yeah. My brother did recognize me, even as a dragon." she confirmed softly. "Barely."

    "So then, did you ever…" Sorey fumbled for words, "…interact with him? Talk with him, even? Back then?"

    She gave him a look.

    "Why do you ask? Curious as to whether or not you can reason him down from gobbling you up in one bite?" She scoffed disdainfully, kicking her dangling legs in the air. "If so, I'd say you're even more optimistic that I first thought. Not to mention stupid."

    Sorey shook his head. "N-no, it's not that." He refuted soberly. "I'm fully aware as to the state Eizen is in right now. I saw more than enough proof of that back at the mountain." He shifted in his seat. "I was just wondering about… hellions in general, I guess." He admitted haltingly.

    A stray breeze blew, disturbing Edna's hair as she looked away. "…Is that so." She muttered.

    A pause.

    "Eizen never spoke." She began.

    "I was certain he wasn't physically able to… But I'm also sure he wouldn't have even if he could." Edna absently fiddled with her boots; her eyes distant. "But he did listen."

    Sorey blinked.

    She pushed a stay strand of golden hair out of her eyes as she elaborated, "It wasn't much, but I could tell it was my brother underneath it all." She sighed, shaking her head. "I watched over him as best I could. If any idiot humans strayed close enough to the mountain, I would try my best to force my brother to stay put until they left." She shrugged softly. "And he actually did… once in a while. Things like that."

    "…So," Sorey rubbed his chin in deep thought, "that means that seraphim have the ability to retain shreds of their personality even after turning into a dragon?"

    Edna sighed, repetitively squeezing the normin doll attached to her umbrella as she engulfed herself in memories.

    "Some days were worse than others." She continued softly. "Some days he'd barely be able to hold himself back from ripping me into ribbons. Others he'd be docile enough that I could go and sit right next to his head and talk with him." She paused and corrected herself, "Well, talk at him, I mean."

    Sorey's eyes were soft.

    "What did you talk about?" He asked gently.

    Edna looked away, staring at the grass below. "…Old memories, for the most part. Things that I hoped would trigger something in his awareness."

    She sighed. "Oh, but how I hoped some random thing would work." She muttered sourly. "Some stupid memory of him cooking things for me or of us playing silly games when we lived together. I tried talking about as many things as I could remember. Anything that might've somehow… brought my brother back." Her voice trembled briefly.

    "Edna…"

    She harshly shook her head, discreetly wiping her eyes with her arm before turning back to him, her blasé expression once more firmly plastered onto her face. "…Obviously, it didn't work. You saw how he was. He completely lost all traces of who he was by the time you showed up." She sighed. "It was a lost cause in the first place."

    Sorey nodded slowly in response.

    "…Nevertheless," he noted, "it's truly amazing that a hellion could even have that much awareness leftover from when he was a seraph to begin with." He shook his head. "From what I've understood about hellions, I'd have thought that once someone turns into a hellion, that person would then become a complete and total monster without a shred of awareness whatsoever." He shifted in his seat. "At least, that's what Mikleo and the others told me..." He trailed off.

    Edna gave him a calculating look in the wake of his statement.

    "So." She cocked her head at him. "What's the reason behind this sudden interest in hellions?"

    Sorey flinched.

    "A-ah! No reason, really." He grinned nervously. "Just… trying to understand what I'm up against, that's all." He scratched his cheek. "A-also, I remember reading a book back in Elysia that the best thing a person can do to prepare for battle is by reading up on one's enemy." He nodded hastily. "That's all I'm doing."

    "…Hmph." She slowly got to her feet, dusting the stray leaves off her dress.

    "It's going to be a long journey for you." Her umbrella squealed slightly as she opened it once more and laid it on her shoulder with a twirl. "You've got a lot to learn."

    Sorey blinked a few times at the statement.

    He eventually found his voice, a soft smile forming on his lips. "…I'm sure I do." He breathed to himself as he turned away from her. The two stayed like that for a while, watching as the sun slowly began to creep up above the distant horizon. A lone Shepherd and one of his seraphim, poised upon the fringes of uncertainty.

    Somewhere in the distance, a bell began to toll.

    Sorey exchanged a glance with Edna, warily getting to his feet as the faint sound grew steadily more frantic, its ringing echoing throughout the waking town.

    "What's that?" He asked guardedly, his eyes scanning the town for any signs of discord.

    Edna shrugged. "Sounds like more trouble." She observed in resignation.

    "Then we should get going." Squaring his tired shoulders and steadying his wandering mind once more, Shepherd Sorey placed his hand on the pommel of his sword and began to climb down the root. Edna close behind, mimicking his footsteps.

    ---​

    Velvet huffed, plunging her human arm into the small creek and retracting it quickly, splashing the cupped water onto her dirty face and neck, uncaring of how freezing cold the water was. She repeated the motion, thoroughly scrubbing any trace of the hazardous mishap she'd committed earlier in the night off her face. Droplets of fouled, dirtied water trailed down and dripped off her chin as she worked, glinting in the moonlight.

    Satisfied that she'd cleaned enough of the dirt off judging by her reflection off the surface of the creek, she hunched backwards and closed her eyes, exhaling slowly. The sound of the flowing of the tiny creek she was kneeling beside meshed with the crying of crickets and the rustling of the leaves of nearby trees in the wind. In the distance, the city of Marlind stood, solemnly in the dead of night.

    Suddenly, the therion drew her arm back and slammed her fist into the dirt, sending loose rocks and pebbles flying. She seized upon the sensation of pain in her knuckles due to the strike and let the feeling ground her chaotic brain as much as possible. "Damn!" She snarled.

    "Whoa! Easy there, moody."

    Velvet sighed, turning to face Zaveid's stupid grinning face as he trotted over to her from the tree line, his bare chest gleaming in the fading moonlight.

    "…What do you want, Zaveid?" She growled back, her voice at a dangerously low level. Yet despite herself, she found her muscles untensing for the first time since the battle in his presence.

    Zaveid coyly sauntered over to the kneeling woman with his hands on his hips. "Now now," he berated patiently, "is that any for the Lord of Calamity to greet her loyal minion?"

    Velvet flicked dirt off her hand and used it to sweep a few stray strands of raven hair behind her ear in annoyance. "I can't think of a single reason why any evil being would want to have you as a servant."

    "Nonsense!" Zaveid returned, coming to a halt beside her by the water's edge. "Such a gorgeous, vicious monster such as yourself just has to have a fittingly attractive co-conspirator in her ranks. Everyone knows hot babes need hot hunks by their side."

    He put two hands on his hips. "So then, won't you choose me to be your husband, your calamityness?" He drawled mischievously.

    She gave him a glare that promised death in return.

    "…I'll show you the real meaning of vicious if you don't shut up right now." She growled warningly.

    Grinning easily, Zaveid plopped down on the grass besides her with another easy reply ready. "But of course." he allowed graciously. "Your wish is my command."

    Velvet couldn't help but roll her eyes in response. "No wonder you get under Lailah's skin so easily." she observed under her breath.

    Shaking her head, the therion turned away and began scrubbing stray specks of hellion blood that had managed to find their way past her disguise and onto her clothing in the battle. She eventually gave up and ripped her whole ragged coat off, dunking it entirely into the cold water and squeezing it harshly to rinse the blood away.

    Zaveid watched her with a keen eye, idly toying with the long flowing straps of leather hanging from his wrists as she worked. The splashing of the water filled the silence as the blood seeped out of the hellion's clothing, corrupting the pure liquid with plumes of deep, dark red.

    "So, what's up?" He asked after a little while. "Shepherd finally driven you mad?" He guessed. "Too much naïve do-gooder attitude for even you to handle?"

    Velvet sighed, halting in her work.

    She stared down at the soaking wet black coat bunched up in her hands for a moment as she contemplated his question. "It's not that." She muttered, slowly resuming her work with distant eyes.

    "Then what?" Zaveid pressed the issue, sitting up from his slouched position and thoughtfully rubbing his chin. "Far as I know," he pointed out, "beating innocent dirt into a pulp like that isn't usually an indicator of everything bein' fine and dandy."

    She pulled the jacket out of the water, twisting it and squeezing it as dry as possible with a grim expression. The last few droplets of clean water splattered noisily into the chuckling stream in the silence.

    "I suppose you could say that I've been getting a little too… involved." She muttered reluctantly, her mind flashing back to that unfortunate slip earlier in the night. "I've come insufferably close to breaking my cover more than once these past few days. It's damned annoying."

    Her fists clenched over the bunched-up fabric in her hands. "…I just need to distance myself more from my work." She concluded lowly. "That's all."

    A wry, knowing grin slowly spread across Zaveid's face at her words.

    "Ah…" He exhaled at length. "…I see."

    He abruptly slid to his feet; his hands intertwined behind his neck as he trotted about around her. "Ya know," he began, "I used to think that Eizen's creed was just about the dumbest thing I'd ever heard." He remarked, his boots clinking on the grass.

    Velvet raised an eyebrow at the abrupt shift in topic.

    "Living just to live," Zaveid continued at length, "on his own terms regardless of everything else…" He scoffed, waving a hand in the air. "What about all the lives that he was ruining byliving on his own terms? It just didn't make any kind of sense. How selfish could one person get?"

    He hooked his thumbs on his belt, facing away and staring out at the city of Marlind in the distance. "…At least that's what I thought at the time." His long mane of silver hair rippled softly in the night breeze. After a pause, he prompted, "You remember, what it was like between the two of us?"

    "I do." She agreed neutrally, watching him carefully. "It was… irritating to say the least. Like having two giant boulders be repeatedly smashed against each other."

    He glanced over his shoulder at her. "But look at me now." he grinned.

    "…Your point?"

    He quickly spun around on his heel to face her, waving a hand in the air. "All I'm sayin', sweetheart, is that the same thing might happen to you." He gave her a careless grin. "If I were you, I'd be careful about Sorey's little naïve do-gooder attitude rubbin' off on you." he suggested casually. "That's all."

    "But that's just the opinion of one humble rock-brained dumbass… naturally." he demurred.

    She glanced away in the wake of his words, an unreadable expression on her face.

    The sky around the two continued to brighten in the silence that followed. In the distance, signs of life could be seen in the town of Marlind as the population slowly began to stir. The last of the present crickets began to let their songs fade, giving way to the entrance of a new day.

    "…By the way," Zaveid broke the silence once more, spinning on his feet and facing her with a hand on his hip, "Leo sends his regards."

    Velvet blinked twice. "You found him?"

    "Yeah." Zaveid confirmed, jerking a thumb over his shoulder as she got to her feet. "I ran into him and his mutt by chance in Pendrago." He chuckled nostalgically. "Just like the old days."

    In answer to her unspoken question, he elaborated, "So don't you go worrying about him, Velvet. He and I had a bit of a chat." he explained. "Turns out after he'd separated from you, the army ended up finding him and bringing him back to Rolance. He's been there ever since and looked pretty cozy over there last I saw of him." He raised both hands in a shrug and shook his head. "When I told him about what you've been up to, he shrugged and said that he'd stay put, and that you ought to do what you have to."

    "…Well, that's good to hear." Velvet breathed. "That's one less thing to worry about." She gave him a small, grateful smile. "Thank you for helping find him, Zaveid."

    He grinned back. "Bet you're happy to have me as your minion now, huh?" He shrugged, shaking his head. "'Sides, I gave you my word. And if Zaveid the Whirlwind says he'll do something, you damn well better know he'll do it!"

    "So it would seem." Velvet huffed in amusement, looking off to the side with a hand on her hip. She let out a long, drawn-out sigh and shook her head in defeat. "…I suppose I have to concede that you do make a rather half-decent minion." She remarked with a light smile.

    "Half-decent?!" Zaveid's eyes bulged in horror.

    He shook his head, regaining his composure. "Velvet-dear," he drawled, "you are quite the hard sell, ain't ya? Well, all the better, I say."

    He put his hands on his belt and thrust his hips forward. "I love girls who play hard to get." He purred suggestively.

    Velvet shot him an amused look in return. "Try me. You're free to do whatever you want." She shrugged, waving her bandaged hand in the air. "Although," she added dangerously, "as for what the consequences might be, I make no promises..."

    "Well now you got me all proper riled up!" Zaveid beamed. "Looks like I'll just have to make you fall for me, Velvet Crowe, one way or another." He proclaimed, wiggling his eyebrows salaciously.

    The woman in question let out a huff of amusement in response, bending down and picking up her drenched black coat. "Yeah. Good luck with that." She flapped the damp fabric harshly a few times before sliding it on to cover her bare arms. "So, what now?" She asked after a moment, raising her eyebrow. "Wherewill you go?"

    "Wherever the wind's blowin', Velvet dear." He answered solemnly, his eyes rising up as he turned his body towards the distant brightening horizon. "You know me. Zaveid the Whirlwind never stays in one place." He shrugged. "That's just not who I am."

    Steel boots scrunched in the dewy grass behind him as they approached. He glanced over as Velvet came to a halt beside him, her arms crossed as she stared out into the same horizon. "I guess you and I have that much in common." She noted dryly.

    A pause. Zaveid's lips drew into a thin line. "…Listen, Velvet."

    She turned at his tone of voice. He met her gaze carefully. "We never got to know each other too well back in the day…" he conceded, "but I'd like to think I'm a good people reader, myself." He shifted on his feet.

    "So I think you should listen when I'm tellin' you that I'm… a little worried about you these days." He crossed his arms seriously. "More than a little if I'm being completely honest."

    She gave him a look, flexing her bandaged hand. "I can handle myself just fine."

    "From hellions, seraphim, and humans, yeah, I certainly know better than to doubt you on that; hell, I've got firsthand knowledge in that respect." He waved a hand with a laugh. "I sure as hell wouldn't ever want to be on the business end of that nasty oversized claw of yours. Being eaten alive while squeezed to death? Nah, count me out." He abruptly took a step forward, holding her gaze carefully.

    "But thatwasn't what I was talking about."

    In the distance, the sun continued to rise, sending long, sweeping shadows across the landscape. The distant city of Marlind was beginning to stir as the early morning birds began to sing their collective songs.

    Velvet was silent, her expression hard.

    The wind seraph looked away distantly. "Just… try to learn a thing or two from what happened to Eizen, would you?" He fiddled with the leather straps on his wrists. "I'd hate to see another buddy of mine fall victim to their own convictions.

    "Just… something to keep in mind. That's all."

    She glanced to her side, over towards the creek slowly babbling away in the silence that followed. Her jaw stiffened. "…You're probably not as much of a people reader as you think," she gave him a hard look, "if you failed to recognize that I already lost myself a long, long time ago."

    A grotesque, noisy squelch resounded into the crisp, morning air, followed by a condensed burst of malevolence that expelled out from Velvet's left arm. Zaveid instinctively took a couple steps back, holding a protective arm up to shield his face as the putrid malevolence dissipated into the air around the therion. Velvet lifted her extended daemon claw up into the air, blocking the incoming rays of sunlight and casting a cool shadow across her grim expression.

    "I'm called the Lord of Calamity for a reason." She pointed out coolly, examining the back of her claw. "I will do what I have to in order to achieve my goals." The wounds inflicted upon her by Sorey and Mikleo in their first encounter had all but vanished from her pulsating skin, she was pleased to see.

    She turned and locked onto his gaze with her own fiery eyes. "That has not changed and that will never change." Her words were laden with finality. "That's just not who I am."

    Silence rang out following her statement.

    A soft sigh rang out from behind her. Zaveid shrugged helplessly, trotting back up to her side. "Alright alright… point made." He conceded benignly. "Calamity to the core. You got it, your evilness." He swept one leg back and bent forward in an exaggerated bow, his long hair falling past his face and sweeping the grass below.

    She rolled her eyes. "We're on the same page, then." With another squelch, her claw disappeared once more into the bandages on her left arm.

    "Ah… but I do pity ole Shep down there." Zaveid groaned, casually stretching his limber arms in the air with while eyeing the town down the cliff in the distance. "He hasn't the faintest idea as to the crazy stuff going on right underneath his nose, does he? Geez."

    Velvet shrugged. "The less he knows, the better." Her eyes hardened as she thought back to the night before.

    "It'll be all that much simpler..." She muttered under her breath. Behind her back, Zaveid looked on with a hard expression.

    Somewhere in the distance, a bell began to toll.

    The two of them exchanged a glance as the tolling coming from Marlind grew more and more frantic.

    "Hm. New dawn new day, huh?" Zaveid supposed seriously.

    Velvet nodded, glancing down briefly at her body to ensure all the blood from last night had been sufficiently removed. Once she had done that, she gave the seraph standing next to her a grateful look.

    "…Thanks for all your help, Zaveid." She dipped her chin in acknowledgement.

    Zaveid answered with a grin. "Anything for an old friend." His grin grew feral. "…And a smokin' hot one at that, if I ever do say so!" He gave her a salacious wink and a wave. "Ciao!"

    She gave him another nod in return. And then the two beings burst into action, with Velvet leaping straight off the cliff, angling towards Marlind while Zaveid dashed off in the opposite direction with the aid of his artes. The bells continued to toll in the distance, the sound heralding the coming of a new dawn.

    The bubbling creek continued to flow calmly in the morning sun.

    ---​

    "The empire…! The Rolance Empire is attacking!"

    Sorey grunted as he slid through the crowd amassed before the open gates of Marlind, his seraphim close by. Panicked faces of bystanders flashed before him as he made his way to the front of the crowd, apologizing and wincing all the while.

    "No!" A middle-aged woman put her hands up to her horrified face. "My son's at that front line!"

    "Damn!" A merchant stomped his foot angrily. "And here I thought the fools would give it a rest."

    "Mommy?" A little girl clutching a stuffed teddy bear cranked her neck upwards towards her mother. "Does this mean we won't get to see papa anymore?"

    "Hmph!" Another man shook his head furiously. "They never learn their lesson. But our boys'll show 'em, mark my words!"

    The agitation and underlying charged energy shimmered through the crowd as Sorey made his way to the forefront. There wasn't a single soul who wasn't affected by the news. Horror, excitement, anticipation, eagerness for battle, fear, hatred; the charged emotions seemed to swirl around, turning the surrounding air itself into an oppressive cauldron, overtaking the brightness of the morning.

    And this was just the beginning.

    Over all of the clamor, the alarm bells continued to ring, alerting the entirety of town to the encroaching storm.

    Sorey finally managed to squeeze past the last of the crowd, arriving at the entranceway at the front of town. He absently registered that Velvet had too arrived, pushing her way through the crowd to arrive nearby at the same time. They exchanged a quick glance of acknowledgement before facing the scene.

    Blood gushed out of the soldier's wounds. His armor had been ripped off haphazardly and strewn about the dirt as the resident healers tried their best to save the life of the man leaning awkwardly on the frame of the open gate. The crowd formed a half circle around the dying soldier, murmuring in horror at the scene. Sorey's eyes were wide as he took it all in at the edge of the crowd.

    "Hey, you! Get back!"

    Instinctively, Sorey wrenched his sword out of its sheath to guard against the spear threatening to prod him backwards. Steel met steel as their weapons collided awkwardly, ringing out noisily despite the clamor of the crowd.

    The town guardsman who had initiated contact jerked back in surprise, hastily regaining his footing in preparation for a fight. "Y-you-!" He seethed angrily.

    "Jack! Relax!"

    All eyes turned to the captain of the guards providing crowd control to protect the injured soldier. The man, whom Sorey recognized from a few nights before, nodded in his direction. "That's the Shepherd you're facing, son. Let him through."

    The change in the guard's demeanor was instantaneous.

    He near dropped the spear right on the spot, his eyes wide in shock. "A-ah! Shepherd Sorey. M-my deepest apologies." He bowed deeply. "I'm eternally grateful to the work that you've done for all of us." He shook his head helplessly. "Without your help… my grandmother would've… would've…"

    After a moment's hesitation, Sorey graced the man with a soft smile and gave him a firm pat on the shoulder, while simultaneously sheathing his sword. "No worries." He promised lightly. "I'm just happy I could help."

    And with that, he and Velvet exchanged a nod and walked through the ranks of the guards towards the injured guard. Murmurs from the surrounding spectators rose in volume as the people registered the presence of a legend in their midst.

    The savior of Marlind, in the flesh.

    A familiar old man kneeled beside the injured soldier alongside the working healers who glanced upon their approach. "Oh, Sorey!" Neif's smile was beyond welcoming. "I heard about all you've done for Marlind. Words cannot express my gratitude for all of your help, dear Shepherd."

    Sorey nodded in acknowledgement as he kneeled down as well. "What's going on, Neif?" He asked urgently. "What's this about Rolance?"

    Before Neif could answer, a coughing fit drew their attention.

    The soldier, nothing more than a young blonde teenager wearing bloodied cotton clothes, hacked out blood onto the dirt next to him before blearily blinking his eyes. "S…Shepherd...?" He moaned, utterly lost.

    The healers glanced at him. At their looks, Sorey swallowed and edged forward carefully, kneeling next to the man and carefully resting a hand on his shoulder. "My name is Sorey." He decided to say.

    "Shepherd Sorey… I've… heard about you." Another coughing fit. Sorey was alarmed to feel the raggedness of the man's breathing through his hand on his shoulder. "I… The name's Adam. I'm… honored to have met you." He breathed haltingly.

    "Hey, take it easy!" Sorey urged, briefly casting a glance over his shoulder and meeting Velvet's narrowed eyes as she stood behind him. "…You're hurt really bad." He pointed out, running his eyes over his hastily bandaged chest and leg.

    A burst of green otherworldly light that only Sorey and Velvet could see flashed out, announcing the appearance of Lailah as she knelt down opposite Sorey.

    After a moment, Lailah shook her head soberly, her long hair swaying with the action. "It would seem that he took two arrows to the chest and the calf." She threaded her fingers. "I'm… afraid he doesn't have much time left." She whispered. "Not if he keeps on going like this."

    Sorey's jaw stiffened.

    Adam coughed once more, hacking blood into an offered cloth from one of the medics. He groaned, letting his head fall back to rest against the stone frame behind him. "Shepherd… if you don't mind… please… bring me my horse."

    Neif looked aghast. "Young sir! Your wounds…! You cannot possibly expect to reach the capital in your condition-"

    "There's no time!" The soldier abruptly yelled out before seizing in agony as his injured muscles cramped. He scrunched his eyes and let out a howl of pain, clenching his fists. At his side, the medics scrambled to help mitigate the trauma as best they could, holding him down as tremors racked his body.

    Gasping for breath, Adam's pained eyes once more rose to meet the Shepherd's. "Sorey… please, listen." He gasped. "If I don't get this message to Ladylake in time… We won't get backup. My brothers are out there fighting, at this very instant." He winced as another shiver of agony ran up his spine.

    With a massive effort, wrenched his arm from the ground to seize the Shepherd's shoulder in turn, inadvertently staining it with his own blood. "P-please!" He sputtered with wide eyes. "I'm begging you! They'll all die! Slaughtered like animals by those damned dogs of Rolance…!" He choked.

    Neif quickly helped guide the teen's body back to lean against the wall as his energy ran out. "Son, I'm telling you." The old man stressed urgently. "If we let you go now, you'll die within the hour." His eyes turned soft. "We've a garrison in town. Let them take it from here. They'll organize and send out a messenger as quickly as possible within a few hours. Rest now. You've done all you ca-"

    "No!" The teen howled back. "That won't work! You don't understand!"

    He clenched his jaw, looking away with tears forming in his eyes. "The garrison will take too long! And besides, I'm… I'm not a coward! This was my job, and I'm doing it if it's the last thing I do!" His eyes latched onto Sorey's once more. "Shepherd, please!" He begged.

    Neif breathed out forcefully from his nose, shaking his head in frustration. "Adam…!"

    Another flash of green lit up the world.

    Mikleo glanced around briefly before crossing his arms. "…What will you do?" He asked quietly.

    Edna joined him in another flash of green, twirling her umbrella idly as she took a cursory glance out the gates. "He's dying, but all he can think of is his fellow soldiers fighting at the front line." She analyzed. "He thinks he'll be remembered as a coward if he doesn't accomplish his final mission." She rolled her eyes, showing off her own feelings regarding such foolishness.

    "Such is the dedication and learned duty of a true soldier." Lailah murmured softly. "Such is the basis of the trait of heroism valued so highly by humans…"

    The morning smelled of fresh grassy dew and of blood mixed with medicine. Behind them all, the crowd of Marlinders continued to whisper and murmur, coming to terms with the latest turn of life-changing events. Amidst the vortex of whirling emotions and chaos, the Shepherd knelt, quietly considering his options. Velvet watched on quietly with her arms crossed. Her still-wet black coat rippled in the morning breeze. Her eyes were as the wolf's, carefully studying the integrity of the flock.

    The Shepherd abruptly looked up; determination etched in his features. He carefully met Adam's hopeful, pained eyes.

    "I'm… sorry, Adam." He intoned. "I can't let you throw your life away."

    The shock in the soldier's eyes soon turned to anger.

    "…S-so, you don't get it either!" He snarled, blood clogging his throat and forcing him into another violent coughing fit. "…I should've expected as much! Damn poser!" Adam growled. "L-Let me do my duty to my brothers, damn it all!" He howled in equal parts rage and anguish.

    Sorey's hard expression didn't change. "I'm sorry." he said simply.

    He glanced over his shoulder at Lailah expectantly. In turn, the fire seraph slowly nodded in acceptance, agreeing to carry out his unspoken orders. With a sober expression, she lifted her left hand up in a casting figure over Adam's unseeing eyes.

    "Spirit Cage." Lailah whispered.

    The low-powered seraphic arte seeped into the air, urged by the powerful seraph's will. Flowing mana surrounded the injured soldier, rippling with a rainbow of colors. A low otherworldly hum filled the air, drowning out the protests of the soldier as the effects of the arte settled in.

    Adam abruptly crumbled limply against the wall mid-sentence, his eyes rolling back into the back of his head.

    A hush fell upon the crowd.

    The healers, Neif, the guards, the spectators; all of them had watched how the Shepherd had denied the young man, only for him to fall inexplicably unconscious within seconds of his declaration.

    Velvet watched on; her lips pressed in a firm line.

    Ignoring the confused hushed whispers of the crowd behind him, Sorey glanced to his side. "Mikleo. Heal his wounds, please." he requested softly.

    "Right away." Mikleo nodded, materializing his staff and kneeling besides Sorey, raising his hands over the wound on the man's chest first. "…I think I'll be able to stabilize him enough to save his life." He noted as he worked. "Provided he doesn't push himself too hard…"

    Sorey nodded wordlessly in response.

    He raised his eyes to meet Neif's wide eyes. "Neif, please have the garrison send out a rider to the capital as soon as possible to notify them of this." He glanced down at Adam's unconscious form. "Tell them to be as fast as they can. The lives of the men on the front lines depend on it."

    The old man found his voice. "R-right! I shall!" He cleared this throat harshly, getting to his feet. "I thank you once more, Shepherd." He nodded once more before turning and jogging off, huffing and panting.

    "It's done."

    Behind them, Mikleo stood up, letting his staff vanish into the air. When they turned to him, he elaborated, "He'll survive, given a few weeks of rest, I think." His brow furrowed. "…But I don't think he'll ever forgive you for what you did to his honor." he grimly pointed out.

    Edna shrugged, twirling her umbrella. "Figures how saving someone's life is worse than letting them run off and die of blood loss and exhaustion." She sighed in frustration. "Idiots. A whole pack of idiots."

    Standing beside Edna, Velvet quietly ran her eyes over the unconscious body of the youthful soldier, her lips drawn in a thin line.

    "Let us be on our way." Lailah suggested softly. "I don't think the healers will work on him with Sorey nearby."

    Sorey glanced to the side. Sure enough, the group of healers had taken to giving him a wide berth, nervously glancing between the miraculously healed body of the soldier and the Shepherd with shaky hands. The murmuring of the crowd had not stopped; on the contrary, it seemed to have only increased in volume as the people began to once more recognize that they were witnessing the otherworldly power of the Shepherd.

    "…Right." Sorey mumbled. He glanced briefly at Velvet before squaring his shoulders. "Let's go."

    The dark red shade of human blood staining his shoulder clashed horribly with the bright, elegant, flowing patterns of his ceremonial Shepherd's cloak. He turned his back onto the crowd and began to walk away, with Velvet and the rest of the seraphim at his back.

    The murmuring of the people only increased in the wake of his absence.

    ---​

    "Respectfully, Mister Shepherd, that sorta horse-crap should be thrown where it belongs." Lucas crossed his muscular arms harshly, shaking his head. "The battlefield is where we earn our living. While I appreciate the sentiment, fact of the matter is there ain't nothing more profitable for us Woodsmen than getting ourselves stuck knee-deep in blood and muck."

    The sun was high in the sky as Lucas, Sorey, and Velvet walked urgently through the bustling pathways through the tent camp of the Woodsmen outside the walls of Marlind. Men yelled and metal clanged as the mercenaries ran around, preparing themselves for war. Other people dressed in normal clothes trotted about as well; teams of local townsfolk aiding the mercenaries in their work.

    "Say," the head mercenary grinned, glancing over his shoulder at Sorey, "if you're so worried about us, then why don't you join us? I'm sure the great Shepherd would be a great boon to the war effort."

    Sorey glanced discreetly over his shoulder at Lailah following Lucas's words.

    The fire seraph shook her head with a sober expression. "As I said, the camp the Shepherd extends his help to will surely be victorious. Were you to enter the war, there's no telling how warped all of it could become."

    Sorey nodded, his expression grim. "I'm afraid I can't do that." He answered Lucas.

    Lucas nodded easily, turning his head forward again. "I thought as much. You're much too good-natured for something as rough as war." He waved his hand in the air in farewell. "In any case, I'd stop trying to convince me if I were you, Shepherd. Us war dogs will do anything for a bone. It's all we're good at." With that, he left.

    Sorey clenched his teeth, letting Lucas stroll off into the depths of the camp. The rest of the group came to a halt alongside him in the central area of the Woodsmen's camp.

    Velvet crossed her arms in the wake of Lucas's words. "That's about how I thought it would go." She watched Lucas tromp off through the mud with pursed lips. "There really wasn't all that much hope for you to convince him not to fight in the first place." she calmly pointed out.

    Lailah nodded somberly. "Much like the young soldier by the gate," she observed, "it would seem that the Woodsmen too have their own values that they live and die by."

    "Meaning, the sword." Mikleo shook his head in frustration. "Ugh. …Can't they all see that they're going to be used as nothing more but meat shields in the war?" He sighed. "They're well-meaning people. The idea of them being sent to die in this war is just… disturbing, to say the least."

    Velvet shrugged, her hard eyes scanning the surrounding camp. "Well, what else would you have them all do?" She asked rhetorically. "Sit around and gather dust like books on a shelf while their families go hungry?"

    "Of course not!" Mikleo shot back heatedly. "I'd just want them to do something… else! Something that doesn't equate to an untimely death for them!"

    "They live to fight." Velvet waved her bandaged hand dismissively. "That's how they chose to live, and now it's all they know." She turned and met Sorey's conflicted expression. "You might be worried about them, but ultimately it's their choice whether they risk their lives doing what they want to do." She shook her head, her words stern. "That's how they've chosen to live and how they've chosen to die, and that's all there is to it."

    Sorey sighed, slowly running a hand through his hair in response. "…It's just all so senseless." He muttered helplessly.

    Edna crossed her legs while twirling her umbrella. "That's the nature of war." She shrugged. "War knows neither justice nor malice. On the battlefield, there are only the survivors and the casualties. That's simply how it is." She waved a hand in the air. "And unlike that soldier back there, these humans are all fit and ready to fight. There's really no point in trying to stop them from doing what they can and will do."

    Sorey just shook his head again, wordlessly looking around camp as war preparations continued.

    "I am Commander General Landon of the Hyland Army. I was told the Shepherd was present?"

    Heads turned as the loud, commanding voice rang through the camp. Hooves and boots squelched loudly in the muddy camp trails as a massive armored warhorse trotted through, flanked by half a dozen weary-looking Hyland knights. Woodsmen mercenaries and Marlinders alike stood at attention as they went by, quickly giving way to the burly men.

    Lucas, standing tall and proud, strolled up to the men with a raised eyebrow as they neared Sorey and the others. He put his hands on his belt as the men came to a stop before them. "Was under the impression that war had just broken out." The leader of the Woodsmen remarked loudly. "What brings you down to seek the Shepherd in our lowly camp with so many troops, General Landon?" He nodded his head with due respect at the mounted man.

    The extravagantly clad general atop the black warhorse barely spared the man a glance before his eyes came to a rest upon Sorey. His single eye narrowed. "…You. You're the Shepherd?" He demanded, sparing Velvet a quick sharp glance before returning to Sorey.

    The Shepherd answered with a slow nod. "That's me."

    The general seemed to sneer for a second before returning his face into a neutral expression. "Then I am in the right place." He rolled his shoulder in a lazy gesture.

    In response to the man's prompt, one of the many soldiers clad from heel to toe in steel accented with blue uniforms stepped primly forward and unrolled an official scroll with the seal of the Hyland royal family on the back for all to see. All around, the mixed group of mercenaries and working civilians fell into a hush as the soldier cleared his throat in preparation for the formal declaration.

    "…On suspicion of using the Shepherd to foment discord against the state, as well as assisting the Rolance Empire with its invasion, the Kingdom of Hyland formally announces an official investigation and subsequent interrogation of Alisha Diphda, Princess of Hyland."

    The camp was silent. Wide-eyed mercenaries and townsfolk exchanged incredulous glances. Whispers already began to spread amongst the people as the news was quickly repeated to those outside of the crowd.

    "…That's… that's utter nonsense…!" Sorey seethed under his breath.

    The general had not taken his eyes off of Sorey. He seemed to note the Shepherd's clenched fists and narrowed eyebrows with a distinct amount of pleasure. "…It is not an arrest, Shepherd." General Landon assuaged easily, idly readjusting the gauntlet straps on his wrists. "Merely an investigation into her recent actions, many of which are undeniably suspicious in nature."

    Edna deadpanned. "Well, this certainly stinks to high heaven." She muttered. By her side, Lailah had her hands interlaced in front of her dress, concern clear on her expression.

    The general continued, "But… if the Shepherd-"

    "-If the Shepherd does as he is told, the Kingdom of Hyland promises to let their hostage go in exchange, is that right?" Velvet's sharp, harsh words cut through the silence and stirred the spectators into a frenzy of whispers. By the general's side, the soldiers too shuffled around in their armor, glancing at each other with unreadable expressions underneath their metal helmets.

    Landon himself turned to glare down his nose at the raggedly clothed woman with sheer disdain. "…And who might you be?" he growled.

    "The Shepherd's advisor." she snarled back. "Velvet." She shifted on her feet, putting a hand on her hip and defiantly meeting the general's glare. Disdain towards the general keenly radiated from her in all respects; disdain at such an arrogant insect of a man demanding the Shepherd's aid in such a way.

    "Hmph. Well then, Velvet." Landon let out a huff, shaking his head. "As it would seem that we have resorted to being blunt, I shall respond in kind..."

    He shifted in his saddle, sneering down at the insolent woman in turn. "It goes without saying that I would be more than happy to act upon your concerns, provided the likes of you could produce even a shred of evidence to support such ridiculous claims." He shook his head slowly. "Yet regardless, I shall not pretend that the Hyland Army would not greatly benefit from the addition of a… Shepherd in its ranks." He let out an amused chuckle at some inside joke.

    Abruptly, he jerked a hand in the air above his head and sucked in a deep breath.

    "This is WAR, need I remind you?!" He roared, his call resounding across the entire camp. People all around flinched at his undeniably commanding bellow as he addressed the spectators of villagers and mercenaries directly.

    He continued loudly, "The last thing I would want to see is our great and prosperous nation wholly desolated by those dogs of Rolance catching us off guard!" His arm fell down to cut horizontally around himself. "Look around you!" He ordered harshly. "This town, which I see is so well and fair, even after all of this plague talk… Torn to shreds! Your home! I would never in a millennium dream of seeing it razed to the ground under the fires of war! I imagine everyone here feels the same… or am I mistaken?!" He bellowed.

    The discomfort of the crowd grew palatably with his statement. Whispers whirled around Sorey and Velvet; whispers acknowledging the reality and validity behind his words. It was clear that the people did feel keenly to the general's goal, regardless of the means he was using to achieve it.

    By Velvet's side, Sorey's jaw tightened.

    Landon's grin was that of the one who knew he held all the cards as he returned his gaze upon the focus of his speech. He raised an eyebrow expectantly. "Now then. What say you, Shepherd Sorey?" He asked with a sneer, openly mocking the title of the boy standing before him.

    "Will you fight for the people you claim to love?" He leaned in maliciously. "Or… dare I say… is your title as Shepherd truly a mere façade, as many say it is? I do hope this is not the case."

    "Why you…!" Mikleo's fury was palatable. He turned to Sorey urgently. "The timing of this is no coincidence." The seraph pointed out lowly. "Think about it. War only broke out a day or so ago. That messenger from the front only got here this morning. There was no way any correspondence made it from the capital to the battlefield in that time."

    Sorey stared heatedly at the floor. "…That means that they've had this planned and ready for a while now." the Shepherd concluded softly.

    "Yeah." Mikleo shook his head, once more glaring at the general's sneering face. "Damnit!" he snarled.

    Edna sighed, rolling her umbrella on her shoulder. "We probably don't have a choice." She glanced off to the side. "If Alisha were to die at their hands…" She trailed off, looking Sorey in the eye.

    A quiet silence fell in the wake of the implications of that statement.

    Velvet glared up at the mounted general, her eyes hard and cold. Thoughts and calculations whirled through her head in an instant. Eventually, she came to a conclusion. "So," she drew his attention, "you're just asking the Shepherd to help you win the war. That's it?" She asked, pointedly raising an eyebrow.

    The general nodded graciously at the Shepherd's advisor. "Naturally." He confirmed. "That is my simple, humble request to the good Shepherd." He bowed his body slightly in reverence towards Sorey. "Given the victory of Hyland, all doubts against Princess Alisha shall be dispelled and she will be released with nothing more said on the matter."

    Velvet nodded, glancing sharply at Sorey. "…It's your decision, Shepherd." She said simply.

    He gave her a soft nod in return before meeting the general's eyes. He took a step forward and stood up straight, defiantly holding his chin up towards the mounted man. "Then you have my word." he declared. "I shall uphold my end of the agreement."

    The rest of the crowd shifted and murmured once more at his words. A certain degree of relief permeated the townsfolk as well. They would be saved! With the Shepherd at their backs, the army of Hyland would be unstoppable!

    Lailah quietly listened to the whispers of the surrounding people anxiously, threading her fingers in front of her dress in concern. "…" She let out an anxious breath, glancing at Sorey in deep concern.

    General Landon gave a pleased nod in response to the Shepherd's words. "Good. So then, Shepherd, I shall await you on the battlefield." He glanced around him, remembering the presence of the spectators. "As for all of you," He addressed them all, "do not fret. With the Shepherd at our side, the armies of Rolance have no chance against our combined holy might!" Grinning, he jerked the reins to turn his horse around, his accompanying knights following suit.

    As the clanking of boots and clopping of hooves in mud faded and the surrounding mercenaries and townsfolk slowly resumed their work, the members of the group exchanged worried glances.

    Velvet turned away from them all as they began to discuss possible plans for minimizing the impacts of the impending conflict, instead turning her eyes up into the sky. It would seem that the first real trial of the Shepherd was soon to begin.

    …And that her tool would soon either become a keener, stronger blade than ever… or simply break like brittle, untempered steel. She nodded to herself with a cold, determined expression.

    It would seem that all was still going according to plan.

    In the distance, dark storm clouds were brewing, encroaching upon the clear skies above the town of Marlind.

    ---​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
    sainen, firedragonboy20 and Dozla like this.
  13. Threadmarks: C12 - Velvet
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 12 - Velvet.

    Dark clouds blanketed the land for as far as the eye could see, broken only by occasional rays of sunshine; volatile threads of light briefly piercing down into the sea of darkness below. A grim, foreboding gust of dry air blew across the hollow, barren landscape, disturbing the ripped flags hanging from rotting rally point markers. A wake of black vultures circled quietly above, patiently biding their time until their next opportunity to feed. There was nothing green as far as the eye could see. A truly desecrated blot of land that was yet another victim of human conflict.

    Dark swarms of arrows, shot indiscriminately and at random, arced through the air overhead like terrifying squalls of fletched steel. Howls and cries of soldiers echoed throughout the basin as the clashes continued sporadically. Battalions fought against battalions, squads faced off against other squads, and man battled against man. Offenses, skirmishes, and retreats continued in a seemingly endless, futile dance of suffering and attrition. Oceans of azure blue uniforms crashed against seas of crimson red over and over again. Amidst it all, screams of agony meshed with vicious war-cries being cried out at the behest of both Rolance and Hyland. Among the chaos, both names seemed irrelevant.

    Footsteps slammed on the dry dirt as the lone Shepherd and his followers sprinted hurriedly through one of the many narrow canyons carved into the floor of the Glaivend Basin, gasping for breath. Even as they ran, the sounds of the nearby battles reached their ears, reminding them of the peril they were in for every waking moment.

    Mikleo gritted his teeth as he ran. "It sounds like the fight's getting closer." He panted. "I don't think the Hyland forces are going to hold out for much longer."

    Lailah glanced over her shoulder with a worried expression. "We must hurry!" She urged. "At this rate, Lucas and the rest of the Woodsmen will be overwhelmed!"

    "Looks like paid mercenaries are considered even more disposable than your average soldier." Edna noted with disdain. "That slimy general must've drawn his troops back the moment the going got tough and told the mercenaries to stay behind and cover their retreat."

    At the head of the group, Sorey gritted his teeth and lowered his head, picking up his pace. Velvet Crowe ran alongside the Shepherd with a grim expression, her hair and jacket slinging behind her in the breeze.

    Together, the group charged through the boiling, suffocating cauldron of malevolence, surrounded by the cacophony caused by the chaos of conflict. Overhead, the clouds seemed to writhe and shift in the volatile winds, throwing errant rays of sunlight every which way.

    By chance, Velvet's eyes abruptly registered hints of distant movement in her peripheral vision. She dug her ironclad boots into the dry dirt and skidded to a halt, causing the rest of the group to follow suit. "There!" She yelled.

    The uniforms of the Woodsmen were as an island of blaze orange amidst a rising tide of blood red. The group of a few dozen mercenaries had been corralled into a semi-circle by several squads of heavily armored Rolance soldiers, their backs pushed against the unscalable walls of the canyon. The battle cries of the relentless enemy soldiers mixed horribly with the howls of dying men as the numbers of the Woodsmen were slowly being whittled down bit by bit.

    With her keen eyesight, Velvet could clearly see the sweat-drenched face of the mercenary leader as he was harried by three Rolance pikemen simultaneously. Lucas' bellowing voice carried easily over the network of jagged canyons that separated the Shepherd's group from their battle. At this rate, it was clearly only a matter of time before the Woodsmen were completely wiped out.

    Sorey had clearly come to the same conclusion. He ran his eyes over the rugged landscape in his way before quickly finding the fastest solution. "Edna!" He prompted urgently over his shoulder. "I need you to get us over there, now!"

    "On it." The earth seraph nodded, closing her eyes and concentrating. Her dress began to flap in the artificial wind as the powers she commanded began to converge into an arte.

    "STOP RIGHT THERE!"

    Sorey turned around impatiently as General Landon rode angrily in atop his armored warhorse alongside a squad of mounted lancers, intercepting him at the edge of the cliff. The rest of the seraphim and Velvet stood guardedly behind him as the lancers immediately surrounded them, their hard steel helmets revealing no emotion as they blocked the path of the Shepherd's rescue attempt.

    The heavy clopping of the general's warhorse rang over the battle cries of the Woodsmen and the Rolance soldiers in the distance as he came to a halt before the Shepherd, his expression utterly livid.

    "Have you completely and utterly lost your mind?!" he bellowed furiously. "I order you to recall that on this battlefield, you are honor-bound to act under my orders, Shepherd. If I tell you to attack, you attack. If I tell you to retreat, you damn well better retreat!" He slammed his fist onto the chest of his heavy plate armor. "I am the highest-ranking soldier here, and you will give me the respect I damn well deserve!"

    Sorey took a furious step forward. "You're telling me to just stand by obediently as you let Lucas and the rest of his men be slaughtered without batting an eye?!" he demanded incredulously. He angrily slashed his gloved hand in the air. "You left them all to die!" was his harsh accusation.

    The General shook his head, scoffing incredulously. "To think I have to lecture a child on such infantile matters on the battlefield!" he spat.

    Shaking his head, he sneered down at the pathetically unlearned Shepherd. "This is war, boy. I'll explain how war works to you in such simple terms even a naïve kid such as yourself should be capable of understanding: I give the orders and say who will die while the others win. In this case, those 'Woodsmen' are part of the former." He gestured sharply in the air towards the dying men in the distance. "With those braggarts serving as a key distraction, the rest of the main force will have considerably less of a force to battle, conversely allowing us to plunge straight into the heart of their army and thus route them all from behind."

    He clutched his gloved hand into an iron fist with cold eyes. "Sacrifices go hand in hand with victory, Shepherd. It's only with a cool, cunning mind that an army has even the slimmest of margins for victory. And that's my job; to bring about that victory through whatever means I deem necessary." he sneered. "Hyland won't be saved from those Rolance fiends with just warm feelings and good intentions."

    He glared down at the Shepherd with upmost authority. "I'll say it again. This. Is. War. Now wake the hell up and get back in line. THAT'S AN ORDER!" he bellowed furiously. In the background, a sharp cry of mortal agony ripped through the air as another one of the Woodsmen was mercilessly disemboweled by one of the Rolance soldiers.

    Sorey had heard enough. His eyes flared with an otherworldly hue of brilliant yellow.

    BANG!

    A godly, thunderous roar utterly drowned out the bellowing of the angry general as entire boulders of dry rock that had previously been undisturbed for millennia violently jutted out from the ground in a circle surrounding the Shepherd's group. Well-bred war horses let out terrified screams as they were tossed in the air like toys, the soldiers mounted atop them being flung clear from their saddles. Men cried out in unadulterated horror as they tumbled to the ground like spent cockroaches whereas their horses crashed to the ground in crumpled heaps, with man and beast alike screaming in the agony caused by their dislocated limbs.

    General Landon of the Hyland Army was slammed harshly into the rock as his own warhorse bucked and bolted, leaving him lying winded on his back and gasping heavily for breath as his own heavy armor now made it difficult for air to enter his chest. His eyes were wide in pure shock and disorientation as he glanced around him, taking in the state of his personal elite squad lying on the floor wiped out. A thick cloud of dislocated dust and dirt hung in the air, obscuring the world around him and leaving him choking and coughing on the ground.

    His eyes widened in horror as he abruptly registered a figure walking slowly towards him, emerging from the cloud of dirt like a demon from legend.

    The Shepherd's eyes glowed unnaturally in the dim gloom as he walked up to Landon, his entire body thrumming with untold power. The very earth seemed to quake with each step the unnatural godlike being took closer and closer towards the downed general.

    Landon scrambled to gather his wits as best he could in the face of such terror-inspiring power. He tried his best to sit up, crawling backwards a few paces as the demon came closer and closer to him. "P-Princess Alisha-!" he began meekly.

    "'Princess Alisha will be freed once the Shepherd wins the war for Hyland.'" Sorey's voice was cold and steeled as he came to a halt with the trembling general as his feet.

    He narrowed his eyes. "You confirmed this statement in front of dozens of witnesses at the behest of my advisor." He glanced briefly over his shoulder at Velvet who was watching their exchange with an unreadable expression. "…At my behest, this statement was written down in an official document with the confirming signatures of all those whom had been present at the time, legally notarized by the head of the Sparrowfeather Merchants. Were you or the council to fail to honor the terms of our agreement, all of Hyland would soon know the full extent of your treachery and depravity."

    Sorey crossed his arms, emotionlessly holding the terrified, confused gaze of the general. "There wasn't a single aspect of that agreement that compels me to follow your orders, General." He pointed out coldly. "I might have been forced into this war by the likes of you and yours, but I refuse to bend over backwards for the sake of your twisted notions of sacrifice and victory."

    He gently rested a hand on the pommel of his ceremonial sword, his pure white cloak rippling in the winds generated by the power of armatization. "This power is mine and mine alone." He declared. "And there is no way I am going to let a sick person like yourself control the Shepherd around as if I were your personal hound of war!"

    Sorey shook his head and met the general's eyes once more. "…Regardless, I have a job to do. Please understand," his eyes narrowed, "I will do whatever I personally deem necessary to get it done." he promised. "Is that clear?"

    "I… Yes… I suppose… you would know… how best to use your power." The general stammered. Recognizing his complete and utter defeat on this matter, Landon lowered his head with a stiff jaw. "…Do as you wish, Shepherd."

    Sorey nodded. He returned his mind back to the task at hand, striding forward towards the Woodsmen. The various injured Hyland lancers strewn about at his feet quickly scrambled out of his way, trembling and muttering.

    Velvet followed quietly in the Shepherd's footsteps, briefly stopping to look over the sorry excuse of a general and his soldiers before she passed them with her lips drawn in a thin line. Landon was the sort of power-drunk, headstrong man who had probably never been truly beaten before in his entire life at anything, nor had he been forced to bow his head to anyone who did not already have his complete respect. Yet a mere encounter with the Shepherd was enough to put him in such a state within moments.

    Such was the nature of the terrifying power in Sorey's hands.

    Deep, powerful thrums resounded across the land as rocks once more jutted out from the ground, bridging the gaps between the landscape and allowing the Shepherd passage towards his goal. The group quickly resumed their hurried pace across the bridge of land, leaving the general and his men in their wake.

    Landon opened his eyes once more, exhaling a shaky breath. "…C-curses." he swore. "Why didn't I listen to the warnings of those damn chancellors?" He muttered under his breath as he ran a gloved hand over his face. "What a fool I've been."

    "G-General?" One of the fallen lancers managed to stammer as the Shepherd's group left.

    Once more reminded of his position, General Landon quickly found his wits once more and looked over the sorry state of his men, his racing heart slowly returning to normal. "…I'm fine." He grunted, getting to his feet. "On your feet, men!" He yelled; his voice thankfully bereft of any tremors. He jerked his gloved hand back towards the main camp of Hyland. "We go to rally the troops of the main division." He announced loudly. "Our counterattack begins the moment the Shepherd initiates his assault!"

    He raised his fist into the air, determined bravado once more steeling his features. "Never fear, for with that man at our side, victory for Hyland is utterly assured!" he bellowed. "DEATH TO THE ROLANCE EMPIRE!"

    The rest of the soldiers were quick to respond, raising their lances and following with cries permeated with keen bloodlust. Their joint howls of war haunted the Shepherd and his group as they broke back into a run towards the Woodsmen over the haphazard bridge of earth constructed by Edna's powers.

    Sorey gritted his teeth. This was just the beginning, he knew. As one, the group continued to run, deeper and deeper into the chaos.

    ---​

    "Damn it all! Where the hell are those reinforcements?!" Lucas snarled, twirling his massive broadsword around and battling off the pikes of the Rolance soldiers slowly prodding him farther and farther back towards the wall of the canyon.

    "BOSS!"

    Lucas swore as he belated registered a swordsman who had slipped past the pikemen slashing right at his exposed neck.

    SQUELCH!

    "NO!" Lucas bellowed, watching helplessly as another one of his men was cut down in front of him, having placed his body right between the enemy and his leader. "You'll pay for that, bastard!" He roared, spinning around and slashing at the man whom had just murdered his right-hand man.

    The swordsman who had just killed Lucas' comrade deftly leapt back, letting his fellow countrymen fend Lucas off of him with their long-reaching pikes. "There's nobody coming for you all." The Rolance soldier declared grimly, flicking his blade to get the deceased mercenary's blood off. "Those Hyland bastards have long since left you all for dead. Make it easy on yourselves. Surrender now, or we'll cut you all down to the last man."

    Lucas cursed again.

    He glanced around, reluctantly recognizing the harsh truth in the enemy swordsman's words. There were only a few dozen Woodsmen left, breathing raggedly and standing on shaky limbs. They had fought for far too long and against far too great numbers. They were properly surrounded on all sides by far, far too many soldiers. There was clearly no hope left for their sorry band.

    The lead mercenary gritted his teeth, hard. "…If we surrender, do I have your word that my men will be spared?" he implored.

    The swordsman nodded. "On my honor as Lieutenant, I swear." Behind his helmet, his mouth thinned. "However, I'm sure you're aware of the measures we as soldiers must take to ensure that your band of mercenaries never operates again as a result." he added soberly.

    Lucas's eyes were hard. "Of course I do." he growled. "I knew damn well what I was signing up for."

    He shook his head slowly, making his mind up. "…Alright, Lieutenant. You guys win." He exhaled a sigh as he let his body untense, standing up straight and proud. "If the seraphim find it in themselves to let me return to this world as a spirit, you'd damn well better believe I'm haunting that bastard general to the grave." he muttered savagely.

    "Alright you bums!" he yelled out commandingly, causing the fighting to grind to a halt. "That's it! We tried our best here today." He met the eyes of the lieutenant soberly. "…Stop fighting and throw down your weapons. It's time to go home." He ordered quietly. "This is my final order to you all."

    "Lucas, Sir!" One of them yelled. "You can't possibly-!"

    Lucas rolled his eyes.

    "I take it back, that was my second to last order!" He roared. "Shut up and let this happen!" He waved his free hand in the air. "You all know the rules of the game. We lost."

    The mercenary whom had spoken up cursed silently, angrily tossing his sword to the blood-soaked earth at his feet. "Damnit!" he swore.

    As one, the Woodsmen all collectively dropped their weapons where they stood, their expressions grim. In turn, the attacking Rolance soldiers lowered their weapons, standing down as the lieutenant stepped towards Lucas, taking off his helmet and respectfully holding the mercenary leader's gaze.

    Lucas nodded wordlessly in response, dropping his own longsword to the ground. The heavy metal hitting rock resounded loudly across the suddenly deafeningly quiet battlefield. He took a step forward, quietly discarding the plates of armor that hung on his frame onto the ground as well.

    The Rolance lieutenant stepped up before him, his broadsword gleaming in the gloomy lighting. "…Last words?" he prompted softly.

    Lucas shook his head quietly, visibly steeling himself.

    Nodding, the lieutenant drew his blade back, poised to ram into the man's gut.

    "LUCAS!"

    The world around the mercenary violently erupted into a chaotic flurry of earth, water, and fire. Soldiers all around screamed in shock and agony as they were tossed about by close-proximity explosions of flame, violent shards of protruding rock, and spontaneous, billowing waves of water. The air was inundated with otherworldly power flowing through the terrifying, awe-inspiring acts of magic the likes of which none of them had ever seen.

    The lieutenant whom had been about to execute him was tossed bodily away by a fierce, piercing jet of water that had shot through the air like an arrow. His cry of surprise and pain mixed amongst the cries of the rest of his men as chaos was wrought amongst them all through the means of incomprehensible powers. He stood there, shocked still as he watched the chaos unfold right before him.

    "GET DOWN!"

    Lucas struggled to comprehend what he was seeing as a familiar raven-haired woman seemed to materialize out of the chaos, charging right at him. He let out an involuntary grunt as she tacked him with severe force, bringing him down with her as they tumbled backwards into the rest of the Woodsmen whom were all utterly untouched by the chaos running rampant amongst the Rolance soldiers.

    The woman he somehow remembered was called Velvet got back to her feet and gave them all a harsh once-over, glancing briefly over at the explosions of magic behind her. Her narrowed eyes lingered on him. "Shut up and stay down, all of you." She growled lowly. "The Shepherd will take it from here."

    Lucas gaped at her, wide-eyed. "The… S-Shepherd?" He gasped. "You don't mean… that kid?!" His eyes were drawn to the center of it all.

    Sorey the Shepherd stood as a conductor, effortlessly organizing the chaos around him with impunity. Rolance soldiers scrambled and yelled helplessly as they were routed by the sheer ungodly power of the man. Dents were torn in the rock from an invisible giant's fist pounding the ground, sweeping whole squads of soldiers off their feet. Spontaneous explosions of flame lit up the canyon in flares of light that mimicked the sun itself, radiating ungodly amounts of heat and sending soldiers stumbling over themselves in a panicked, animal-driven instinct to flee. Finally, the Shepherd himself stood before the main mass of the soldiers, drawing his arms as if holding an imaginary bow and letting spontaneous plumes of water fly, eliciting huge detonations of liquid with forces comparable to that of a hurricane.

    The vast sum of soldiers he and dozens of other battle-hardened mercenaries could not even imagine quelling were instantly routed by the power of one man… no. This was not the work of a mere mortal, Lucas corrected himself. This… this was god-like.

    "RETREAT, TROOPS OF ROLANCE!"

    Lucas flinched as the unnaturally amplified voice echoed in his brain, rattling his teeth. The rest of his men had similar reactions, whereas the troops to for whom the message was meant for reacted instantly by dropping their weapons and clutching their ears.

    "D… DEMON!" The lieutenant from earlier, clutching a broken arm at his side howled loudly into the air at a volume that could barely rival the Shepherd's voice. "Hyland has monsters on their side!" The man screamed in terror. "RUN! Everyone, RUN!"

    Utter chaos followed. The Rolance soldiers, whom had earlier been so organized and structured, completely broke ranks and collectively bolted like a herd of terrified prey. Driven by their base instincts in the face of something so incomprehensibly terrifying, the men in red armor stumbled over themselves to retreat, let out cries of pure terror in the process.

    The last of the soldiers retreated out of the canyon at breakneck pace, with even the slower, injured soldiers soon vanishing out of sight, leaving the Shepherd standing alone amidst an empty, desolate field of abandoned weapons and land desecrated by his own inhuman powers.

    A deathly silence fell.

    Quietly, Sorey slowly turned around, his glowing eyes slowly fading in hue and returning to a seemingly normal green color as he let his gaze fall upon the cowering Woodsmen mercenaries. His jaw was set as he glanced over the terrified expressions of the people he had just saved, his gaze finally meeting Lucas' undeniably terrified and confused eyes.

    He stepped forward slowly, trying his best to ignore the flinching of the dozens of people before him. He quietly came to a halt before Lucas, his deceptively boyish face breaking into a soft, honest smile.

    "…I'm glad you're alright, Lucas." He remarked softly, though his words might've been as loud they had earlier with how the men winced in their wake.

    Lucas was lost for words. Nothing in his life had prepared him for this.

    Suddenly, a different voice rang out, echoing off the walls of the canyon. "You did well." Lucas watched as the woman named Velvet casually walked up to the god-like entity that was the Shepherd and placed a hand on her hip. "Far as I could tell, you didn't hurt anybody too badly." She shrugged, looking away. "…Though it was sloppy as hell."

    To Lucas's surprise, the Shepherd abruptly broke into a light laugh, though his smile didn't reach his eyes. "I know, I know. I still have a lot to learn when it comes to using my powers." He agreed, scratching his cheek sheepishly.

    Lucas blinked, bewildered at the conversation taking place.

    Velvet waved her bandaged hand in the air uncaringly. "You might want to work on your intimidation too." She added dryly. "I don't think your act could've scared a gnat away if they knew anything about what you're really like."

    "Heh." Sorey rubbed his nose with an index finger and a small, genuine smile. "Busted." He blinked as he noticed Lucas moving from his spot on the ground.

    "W-well… I… I'll be damned."

    Lucas slowly got to his feet on shaky legs. He met the Sorey's honest, boyish eyes as he hesitantly straightened his back, before glancing at Velvet, standing casually besides him. He shook his head, steeling his resolve and finding his voice. "…S-Shepherd Sorey." He managed to say respectfully. "…I thank you for your help. The Woodsmen are at your service."

    He shook his head, forcing strength into his voice. "I… Isn't that right, WOODSMEN?!" He roared.

    With the sudden reminder of who they were alongside Lucas's apparent display of fearlessness before the might of the great Shepherd, the rest of the Woodsmen clamped down on their own fears and found their voices.

    "…SHEPHERD SOREY!" They roared. "SHEPHERD SOREY!"

    Their rallying cries resounded off the walls of the canyon as they got to their feet, lifting their retrieved weapons in the air with powerful war cries. At their front, Lucas stood proudly, putting both his hands on his hips.

    Sorey's face abruptly broke into a genuine, warmed smile in the face of their combined support. "You guys…" He breathed.

    At his side, unseen by the rest of the mortals, Edna twirled her umbrella lightly. "Color me impressed." she commented lightly. The seraph glanced at Sorey. "I honestly thought you were going to cry." she noted with a smirk.

    Mikleo grinned, patting Sorey's back supportively. "Of course not. Our strong, fearless Shepherd would never fall prey to such emotion." he mock declared.

    Lailah's smile was soft as she gazed over the chanting Woodsmen with her hands intertwined in front of her dress. "It would appear that there are some flames out that even the might of the Shepherd can't stifle." she remarked.

    "…Yeah." Sorey breathed softly.

    He shook his head and raised his voice. "Woodsmen!" the Shepherd addressed. A few dozen faces looked back at him, standing to the attention of the almighty Shepherd himself with varying degrees of fear, respect and peculiar mixtures of both.

    Sorey nodded respectfully in the face of their attention. "…The Hyland Army has abandoned you all, and yet your flanking maneuver was ultimately successful." he announced. "From what I can tell, your work is done here. Please, rest easy, everyone." he suggested with an earnest smile. He then glanced at Lucas. "…And if for any reason they don't end up paying you what you and your men deserve, you tell them to come to me to dispute it." he finished with a cheeky grin.

    Standing behind him, Velvet let out an amused huff as she crossed her arms. The kid learned fast; she'd give him that much.

    The Woodsmen let out a much louder, more united rallying cry in response.

    As the cries of the mercenaries began to die down, Lucas quickly found his rhythm once more in what he did best. "Alright, bums!" He grinned wolfishly. "I nearly died just now for you all, so I expect top-notch work from everyone for the rest of the day!" The rest of the mercenaries chuckled good-naturedly in response.

    "Alpha and Bravo Squads secure the perimeter! We're fortifying this area for future Hyland offensives." he ordered. "Charlie Squad, I expect trenches to be at least at chest height by the end of the day! Runners, get ready to head back to the main camp, so you can let that bastard of a general know that we did what he wanted us to, and that if he needs us for anything else, he can go right to hell!"

    He turned back to Sorey with a grin. "'Cuz we got new orders from the Shepherd himself! That's everything. Everyone, don't slack off out there!" he yelled. The men responded in kind with fierce roars, quickly organizing themselves back into their units and dispersing, headed to their own individual tasks.

    Sorey watched the Woodsmen go, heartened beyond measure by the genuine respect he had gained from the people he had come to save.

    "…Come on, guys." He breathed, turning away and towards where the Rolance soldiers had fled. His smile faded from his expression as he hardened his gaze. "We're not done yet."

    The rest of the seraphim nodded.

    "We're right behind you." Mikleo reassured easily.

    Edna idly rested her closed umbrella on her opposite shoulder. "Don't get all stupid gung-ho about this, okay?" she reminded him. "Just do what you need to do to get it all over with."

    Lailah dipped her head in kind, her expression hardening. "…Indeed." she agreed quietly. "We shall do what we must, to that end."

    Sorey nodded grimly. He then abruptly blinked, registering someone walking by him. "Velvet?" He asked in confusion, turning to the woman walking past him towards the heart of the battlefield, alone.

    "…Sorey." she spoke softly, keeping her back to the rest of the group. "How do you feel now?"

    The Shepherd shifted slowly on his feet. "You mean… about how people have been reacting to my powers?"

    At her nod of confirmation, he crossed his arms seriously. "Well, it hurts quite a bit, to be honest." he admitted. "But… it's like you said, back in Marlind." Sorey's fist clenched as he held it up to his chest. "I am who I am, and who I decide to be." he reaffirmed softly. "I'll get used to being treated as a monster." he declared. "I'll do it if it means I'll have a shot at making my dream come true. That's all there is to it."

    "…I see."

    Velvet's tone was unreadable. She abruptly resumed walking. "Then go." she ordered. "Do what you have to."

    Mikleo's eyes widened. "Are you crazy?!" He demanded. "You're headed straight into the battlefield! That's no kind of place for a walk!" Beside him, Edna quietly exchanged a glance with Lailah.

    Sorey's expression didn't change as he took in his companion's words.

    "…Will we be able to find you afterwards?" he asked simply.

    Velvet stopped. "You and I are headed in the same direction. That much hasn't changed." She glanced over her shoulder and met his gaze, a strange look in her eyes. "I'll find you." she promised. Her gaze drifted away from his.

    "This is simply something you need to experience for yourself." she muttered.

    With that, the resonant traveler walked off on her own, her tattered black coat rippling in the dry wind of the battlefield. Sorey watched her leave, his eyebrows furrowed in her wake.

    "Sorey, you really going to let her just leave like that? There's no telling what might happen to her out there!" Mikleo implored in confusion.

    Sorey shook his head in response, instead turning around towards where the Rolance soldiers had retreated. "…I don't know why, Mikleo." he admitted. "But something tells me to just trust her on this for now."

    Lailah walked up alongside him; her lips pursed. "Yes." she breathed. "I believe… that would be the best course of action for now. We should trust that Velvet can handle herself."

    Behind them all, Edna shook her head, tapping her boots impatiently on the ground. "Hello? Don't we have a war to win?" she prompted.

    "…Right." Taking one last glance towards the departing enigmatic traveler, Sorey shook his head and put his mind back at the task at hand. "Come on. We're not finished yet."

    Together, the Shepherd's group set off, headed towards the center of Glaivend Basin, where the malevolence of thousands of souls boiled together like a massive cauldron of hatred and despair.

    Meanwhile Velvet Crowe walked her own path. As she always had.

    ---​

    Steel-plated boots clinked quietly in the dried dirt as a lone woman with long raven hair methodically traversed the various winding canyons of the basin. Screams and bellows of distant conflicts accompanied by the distinct clangs of metal meeting metal served as constant background noise as Velvet traversed the area, forging carelessly ahead through the thick malevolence permeating the air. She needed time to clear her head.

    The therion came to a halt in the middle of a deep, empty canyon and closed her eyes. Idly, she listened to the background noise of chaos and horror as the irrelevant war of the humans continued all around her.

    Her goals would never be fulfilled if she were to keep on acting as the Shepherd's crutch.

    Hardship, sorrow, and agony were all necessary ingredients to have him grow as both a person and as a Shepherd. It was necessary that she didn't assist him as he suffered through what trials he would undoubtedly undergo in the days and weeks to come. He would have to be beaten down and built back up, over and over and over again. And it would be up to her to force him through it all underneath a mask of duplicity, in both the figurative and literal sense of the word.

    Forging the boy into a worthy Shepherd required a harsh, manipulative agenda. Being his friend would never achieve anything, not to mention being completely pointless due to her very nature as one of the beings he was inclined to destroy.

    And so far, she'd been making good progress.

    Him standing up to the Hyland general earlier showed just how far he'd come in terms of sheer decisiveness since meeting her. That naïve boy that once had to look to Lailah for guidance with every choice he was supposed to make was long gone. Not only that, but Shepherd Sorey was also slowly gathering the self-confidence of a leader as evidenced by his interaction with the Woodsmen. For all intents and purposes, the Shepherd was indeed turning out to become a very fine tool indeed. At this rate, with her continued manipulations, he'd become a powerful, decisive Shepherd.

    One that could wield a sword of reason and will and be able to achieve the impossible. One that could finally free Laphicet from the clutches of the current Lord of Calamity.

    It would seem that she was accomplishing exactly what she had set out to achieve in the first place. Everything was going according to plan.

    Yet…

    Her fists curled harshly. Malevolence began to seep out from the cracks of her suppression, wreathing her body in the physical manifestation of her self-hatred. Her eyes opened, briefly flashing crimson as she twisted her expression into a scowl, hatefully staring at her own hands.

    Velvet froze abruptly, her ears picked up the acute sound of clanking metal approaching. She didn't move at all as the group of ten Rolance soldiers approached her, muttering amongst themselves in surprised voices she could easily discern with her inhuman sense of hearing. She listened as the leader of the team gave quiet, sharp orders to surround her immediately. The rest of the soldiers quickly followed his command, giving the strange woman standing in the middle of the canyon a wide berth with their weapons drawn.

    It was only until the boots of the leader stepped into her view did she react. "…What?" she growled impatiently.

    "Who in the hell are you?" the Rolance squad leader growled tersely, glancing around briefly before confirming that the woman was in fact, all alone. "What are you doing here, and who for that matter, do you serve?"

    When she didn't respond, the man let out a frustrated growl and unsheathed his shortsword, resting the point directly on Velvet's exposed neck.

    "Answer me damnit!" he spat.

    All around him, the rest of his squad tensed as well, uneasy in the presence of a possible Hyland spy.

    Velvet slowly lifted her head, her long hair lifting from her back, and glared directly at the impudent squad leader.

    "I'm in a bad mood." she warned in a low voice.

    "Eh?" the leader blinked. "Do I look like I give a rat's ass?" He shook his head and took an aggressive step forward, the point of his sword drawing a slight pinprick of blood from Velvet's neck. "Who. Do. You. SERVE?!" he bellowed at the top of his lungs.

    "…Myself." Velvet snarled.

    With a mere flick of her wrist, her gauntlet blade burst from its sheath. Exploding into motion, the therion thrust her head back, avoiding the laughable swing of the leader's sword, and brought her ironclad boot up in retaliation to kick the blade clean out of his hands with inhuman strength. Gliding through the air, she reached down and touched the ground, pushing off it and completing a full somersault away from the man.

    The moment her boots hit the dirt, she raised her bandaged left hand and uttered a fierce, unhinged scream. Her claw exploded out from its bandages, unseen by the non-resonant humans.

    The closest soldier moved to ram his pike through her abdomen. Without even sparing the man a glance, Velvet's claw jerked behind herself and she grabbed the neck of the pike. From the knights' perspective, they could only gape as the woman exhibited inhuman strength, swinging the pike over her shoulder as if it were a mere stick, heedless of the fully-grown armored man still gripping onto the other end helplessly.

    CRASH!

    The soldier was instantly knocked unconscious as he was slammed helm-first into the ground in front of Velvet. The woman didn't stop there, ripping the spear out of the other man's now-loose grip and spinning around, slamming the stick end into the side of the swordsman trying to charge her. The wood of the pike cracked with a sharp crack while her most recent victim was sent flying into the side of the canyon, slumping limply to the ground.

    Dropping the useless split pike, Velvet's eyes bulged as she charged forward towards her next target. "OUTTA MY WAY!" she screamed, jerking her blade towards the panicking soldier.

    Sparks flew as her sword rammed into his hastily raised shield. Without missing a beat, she whirled gracefully around, bringing her steel boot up to bear. The man let out a scream as the hidden blade of her boot leapt out and grazed a gash on his unarmored legs. He was quickly silenced when she spun again and slammed her other foot into his abdomen, completely bypassing his armor with sheer brute force and causing him to crumple to the floor.

    Velvet fell into a cartwheel, dodging two simultaneous attacks as a pair of spearmen attempted to skewer her at the same time from opposite ends. She retaliated by kicking one spear away, leaping inside the man's reach, and wrapping her massive claw around the man. He howled in surprise and shock as the woman lifted his entire body with a single handbefore he was bodily hurtled towards his fellow spearman. The other spearman panicked as his comrade was thrown towards him, hastily dropping his spear so as not to skewer him before the man slammed directly into him with unbelievable force. The two spearmen tumbled to the ground in a tangled mess of armor at one of the walls of the canyon, both knocked clean out.

    "Next!" The therion snarled, exploding into motion in a charge towards the few remaining soldiers who hurriedly tried to get into formation in preparation for her attack. Their best efforts were rendered moot as Velvet drew her claw back, snarling with effort as she charged a decent amount of mana into her monstrous palm. "Carve them up!" she declared, her eyes glowing a vibrant shade of blood red.

    "Hell's Claw!"

    BOOM!

    The limp bodies of three soldiers went skidding limply away, all rendered unconscious by the close-range explosion of mana delivered by the monster's claw.

    Heaving for breath, Velvet turned slowly towards the last remaining soldier, the chains on her outfit clinking softly in the silence. The leader of the team's mouth was agape as he stumbled backwards.

    "N-no!" he pleaded, dropping his sword.

    Velvet's eyes narrowed mercilessly. She tromped right up to him and slammed her fist into his stomach, feeling a minor but satisfying crunch in response. The man crumpled to the floor, groaning and clutching his abdomen before soon falling unconscious as well.

    In the aftermath of battle, Velvet stood alone, relishing the sensation of adrenaline surging through her veins. By her side, her daemon claw flourished amidst the malevolence in the air, pulsating hungrily.

    Suddenly, she registered the clanking of more metal. She cursed herself for getting too caught up in her emotions, belatedly remembering that there had been ten soldiers to begin with. Swiftly as she could, she let her gauntlet blade shoot out from its sheath as she whirled around, intercepting a second gauntlet blade that belonged to her enemy in a loud, harsh burst of sound.

    CLANG!

    Velvet's eyes widened abruptly in shock. Her sword arm slackened almost immediately.

    "…Leo?!"

    Leonex Davidson, wearing the bright maroon uniform of a Rolance soldier, grinned back wryly at her through the darkness of his dirty steel helmet.

    "Bug up your butt, Velvet?" He grinned.

    A flash of green abruptly filled the air alongside a familiar hum. Materializing down by Leo's feet, the wolf pup named Hawk rolled his eyes at his master's antics as he trotted forward and gently butted Velvet's left leg affectionately.

    The armored man sheathed his sword with a sigh, looking around and examining Velvet's handiwork all around them. His fellow Rolance squad members had been scattered about the canyon, all unconscious. "You know," he remarked dryly as he took his helmet off, "we've really gotta stop meeting like this."

    Finally, Velvet managed to break out of her shock, sheathing her sword as well. She absently flicked her left hand to dispel her hellion claw as she turned to face him fully. "…So, what happened to staying put in Pendrago?" she asked, raising an eyebrow while resting a hand on her hip.

    "Ah, yeah, about that." Leo ran a hand through his hair sheepishly. "Just hours after I had that conversation with Zaveid, I got wrapped up in a detachment of troops headed for the offensive at the front lines. So that really didn't work out as planned." he shrugged. "Still, I figured I'd most likely find you here anyways. You're just always attracted to trouble, ya know?" he added with a smirk.

    Velvet sighed. "Well, I can't exactly deny that." she shook her head, shifting on her feet. "I take it you haven't been sitting idly by these past few months either?" she prompted, gesturing at his blood-red uniform.

    "Of course not!" Leo knelt down and ran his gloved hand over Hawk, who gave a yip of affection in return. "I've been enjoying my time away from the horrid Lord of Calamity, you know." he grinned. "Rolance has some absolutely fantastic hot springs, by the way."

    "…Somehow I doubt that's what you've been doing."

    He shrugged. "Well, regardless, I think you and I have some catching up to do." His expression grew sober. "Especially given what happened to Phi."

    Velvet shut her eyes and nodded quietly. "That we do."

    Leo's eyes were keen as he studied Velvet carefully. He got to his feet, letting Hawk go off and romp around the canyon on his own.

    "…I heard from Zaveid about what you're doing." he said quietly. "Manipulating the new Shepherd, some kid called Sorey, into becoming someone strong enough to free 'Maotelus' from the current Lord of Calamity."

    She nodded wordlessly in confirmation.

    He crossed his arms, idly tapping his armored boots on the ground. He opened his mouth before closing it, glancing away. The sound of a distant battle continued in the silence that followed.

    Eventually, he settled for a different topic. "This place has changed just a bit while we were gone, huh?" he prompted humorously.

    She let out a scoff. "That's an understatement. It's all pretty much unrecognizable."

    Leo shook his head. "Not quite. Loegres might have a different name, but it is surprisingly similar to what it was in the old days." He broke into a wry grin. "And Zaveid is still here."

    "I'm not too sure if that second one is really a good thing." Velvet noted wryly.

    "And from what I could gather from my sources back in the capital," Leo continued, "It would seem that the little Empyrean has really done a great job keeping this place in line." He waved his hand errantly. "Yes, it's kinda gone to shit now, but it would seem that in the years following Phi's awakening, the world's experienced quite a few ups and downs."

    "Plenty of battles between Shepherds and Lords of Calamity, you mean." Velvet corrected.

    Leo nodded with a grin. "Makes for a much more interesting history book than having all of humanity losing their emotions, period. Don'tcha think?"

    "Ever the insufferable optimist." Velvet rolled her eyes. "You haven't changed."

    "And you're the same brooding ice-queen that you always were." Leo shot back without missing a beat. "You really beat the hell out of my squad!" he gestured indignantly around at the bodies littering the floor. "Just how the hell am I supposed to explain this to the captain, huh?!"

    Her eye twitched. "I don't think I should be held responsible when you didn't make your presence known in the first place!"

    "And what, pray tell, was I supposed to say?" Leo shot back. "'Hey, this weird ass lady standing in the middle of a battlefield isn't a Hyland spy, but actually an inter-world travelling buddy of mine?'" He waved his hand in the air dismissively. "I'd have a better time trying to convince them that I wasn't the one who stole their bacon the morning before the attack, but that in reality it was actually an invisible, spoiled little mutt called Hawk!" He glanced over his shoulder. "That's right you little shit!" He yelled indignantly. "I took the heat for you when you didn't even share any with me!"

    The wolf pup called Hawk simply flicked his tail lazily in response on the other side of the canyon as he sniffed one of the unconscious bodies.

    Velvet crossed her arms in clear disproval. "I could have ended up eating them all." she pointed out beratingly. "How would you have felt then?"

    "Velvet, I've known you long enough to know what does and what doesn't suit your palate." He dismissed immediately. "You never would've killed them without a good reason." Leo deadpanned. "Unfortunately, I also know that my cooking is even higher on that list."

    "Still no improvement, I take it?" Velvet huffed. "Typical."

    Leo just grumbled under his breath. "Listen. I didn't come halfway across the world just for you to insult my culinary skills… or lack thereof, alright?"

    She tilted her head to the side. "So why are you here, then?"

    Leo gave her a hurt look. "Why, to check on my 'cousin,' as it were." He raised an eyebrow. "At least, I assume that's what you're calling me this time around as well?"

    "Yeah." Velvet confirmed. "I told Sorey and the others I'm a traveler from a village on the outskirts of Lakehaven Heights, on a journey to look for my equally resonant cousin."

    "Had no idea you cared so much about me." Leo muttered wryly.

    He cocked his head to the side. "…So." he prompted. "Is Edna just like how Eizen described her? Zaveid seemed to hold her in pretty high regard. Or from little I could tell from his demeanor."

    "All that and then some." She smiled softly. "…I think Phi would like to meet her."

    Leo chuckled. "…I'm sure he will when we finally succeed." He abruptly groaned, stretching his shoulders. "Though I must say, I miss quite a few things about the old Desolation. For one, not having to walk everywhere would be nice." He sighed. "I miss the Van Eltia. And those stupid pirates."

    Velvet deadpanned. "And you call Hawk spoiled? Pot calling the kettle black, don't you think?"

    "Oh shut up." Leo easily waved her disdain off. "And then there's that annoying thing where this world doesn't even have gunpowder anymore. Much as I hate to say it, seems like Melchior was actually right, in the end." He jerked his thumb over his shoulder in irritation. "I had to dismantle and hide my rifle somewhere secret the moment I found that out. It was just a bit too conspicuous."

    "Forgive me if I forget to feel bad for you." Velvet shrugged.

    Leo's eye twitched. "You, on the other hand, literally, lucked the hell out!" he exclaimed, gesturing wildly. "You get to toss people about like they're twigs and all they see is just a particularily grouchy old hag with supernatural strength." he muttered resentfully. "Not fair."

    He winced as he registered Velvet's bone-chilling glare that he knew from experience promised imminent violence. "Kidding!" he yelped desperately.

    Hawk rolled his eyes, coming to his master's rescue by trotting back over and nudging the daemon once more. The hardened therion couldn't help but oblige the spoiled mutt by kneeling down and running her hand over the malak's fur.

    "…But hey, Velvet?" Leo's voice was soft.

    He hesitated as she glanced up at him. "Don't let things get to you too much, huh?" he suggested quietly.

    Velvet looked away, her petting becoming an afterthought. "What makes you think that I am?" she asked in an inflectionless voice.

    Leo let out a scoff, gesturing to his surroundings. "It's a bit obvious. Whenever you get into a bad mood, people around you tend to feel pain for some strange reason." He shook his head. "Just… don't let all of this get to your head, alright? You're not alone in this." he promised gently. "Don't forget that."

    Velvet nodded ever so slowly; her eyes soft.

    "…Right." She mumbled.

    "DEMON! THERE'S A DEMON!"

    Their gazes were instantly drawn to the mouth of the canyon out from which a large group of weaponless Rolance soldiers suddenly poured through, scrambling over themselves in a mad panic. Loud yet distant explosions shook the ground, rattling the earth underfoot and causing the retreating men to emit noises that betrayed their terror as they scrambled even faster away, sprinting past Leo and Velvet back towards the Rolance camp.

    "RUN! RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!"

    Leo crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow at Velvet as the panicked soldiers charged past them in a blind panic. "Sounds like you're needed." He guessed dryly.

    Velvet's eyes were hard as she nodded. "…Yeah."

    In the distance, more eruptions of sheer power detonated; proof of the fledgling Shepherd's rigid determination. Steeling her nerves once more, the therion turned towards the source of the commotion. It was time to return to the roles she had made for herself. Time to return to falsity and manipulation.

    She would do it because Phi's life depended on her.

    That was all that mattered.

    She took a step and paused, briefly turning around to face Leo and Hawk standing there together, watching her leave with soft expressions.

    Velvet smiled gently. "It was nice to finally see you two again." she said simply, the words barely managing to reach the other two amidst the rampant chaos surrounding them. "Thanks for checking in on me."

    Hawk yipped happily in response, his tail wagging enthusiastically.

    Leo chuckled, nodding his head in acknowledgement. "Hey, what are friends for, huh?" He grinned back.

    With that, he reached down and plucked his soldier's helmet from off the ground before sliding it back over his head. He gave his friend a two-fingered salute as he began to jog backwards, following the flow of his fellow soldiers. "Look for us in Lastonbell!" he called through the metal on his head. "See ya around, Velvet!"

    With that, the two of them took off, Hawk disappearing in a flash of green back into Leo as he disappeared into the crowd of retreating Rolance soldiers.

    Velvet stood there for a heartbeat longer, the smile slowly fading from her face.

    She abruptly turned on her heel, facing her body towards the opposite direction and steeling her expression. She still had a job to do, and she was far from finished. With that thought firmly engraved into her mind, Velvet Crowe stepped forward with determination into the fray, unceasing in her resolution as always.

    Above, permeating the air above the battlefield, the ungodly mass of generated malevolence hanging in the sky slowly began to churn and writhe.

    ---​

    Greed, conceit, lust, cowardice, selfishness, obsession, despair, hatred.

    All eight types of malevolence boiled around in the air in their most corrupted state, whirling around the incredible domain and wreathing the land itself. Billowing gusts of volatile wind whirled around in the vortex of forces brought about by the sheer concentration of human evil present in the air. A deathly low hum ground out from below as the very earth itself trembled amidst the cacophony of malevolence wrought about by the conflict between humans.

    It was a domain, one powerful and corrupted enough to rival even Velvet's. The domain of a being that embodied all of the worst aspects of humanity. Velvet gritted her teeth and increased her pace, charging through the chaos that now covered what had once been a battlefield where armies of empires battled one another.

    For within this domain, only chaos and madness remained.

    Lizard hellions, clothed with residual colored scraps of what had once been finely sewn uniforms of proud nations, snapped and clawed madly at each other as they were bereft of any residual intelligence. Battered and bent swords deteriorated even more as they were clubbed mindlessly against each other by the rioting hellions. The land had become a sea of monsters; all of whom had once been soldiers.

    The therion dodged salivating monsters left and right, weaving through the chaos as quickly as she could towards the eye of the storm; the source of all this malevolence. She absently recognized the body of an unconscious human lying on the ground as she ran by. General Landon's unconscious body was lying calmly amidst the storm, seemingly untouched by the chaos. The Shepherd had been here already.

    Her jaw set as she neared the center of the storm. She wouldn't let anything interfere with her goals, she reminded herself. That had never, ever changed.

    And it never would.

    ---​

    "…So. Another Shepherd is born at last."

    Malevolence oozed out of his being in thick, putrid waves. His face, utterly bestial and savage, twisted into something resembling amusement as the Lord of Calamity turned slowly to face the intruders in his domain that dared to retain their sense of virtue and rationality. Wreathed in a cloak of darkness accented by patches of pure, concentrated malevolence, the source of all evil in the world turned his gaze down to gauge the Shepherd and his group with an analytical eye.

    Sorey stood before the monster with his seraphim at his back, curling his fists in determination. "You…" he breathed raggedly as he fought hard to withstand the crushing pressure of malevolence suffocating the surrounding air. "You must be…!"

    "Hm." the bestial monster hummed, keenly noting the boy Shepherd's curled fist at his side. "…Frightened, are you?" he observed markedly.

    Sorey gritted his teeth harshly, trying his best to steel his nerves in the face of such an incomprehensibly malevolent creature. Behind him, the seraphim struggled to maintain their stance in the billowing waves of miasma.

    "And yet… the song of death." The massive hellion purred, leering at the Shepherd's group. "Ever so sweet."

    Sorey stared, almost mesmerized by the Lord's gaze for a second before snapping harshly out of it. "Lailah!" he yelled defiantly, steeling his nerves. "Now!"

    "R-right!" the seraph nodded nervously yet determinedly.

    "FETHMUS MIOMA!"

    His eyes emitting a brilliant hue of golden red and ablaze with determination, the Shepherd Sorey lunged forward towards the Lord of Calamity, determined to do what he must to achieve his goals.

    Velvet Crowe watched silently as his massive flaming longsword was effortlessly caught by the Lord's enormous claw, who smirked evilly as he slowly bent the sword back in Sorey's grip. The Shepherd let out an anguished cry as he was tossed back by a mere gesture of the Lord, the Armatus dispelling in the wake of his failure. She watched as the Lord of Calamity advanced slowly upon the helpless Shepherd, sneering down upon him.

    "How brilliant your purity… your innocence." the monster murmured observantly. "No painter could ask for a more… pristine canvas." Velvet watched on as the Lord abruptly let out a feral roar, concentrating his domain directly towards the Shepherd.

    And she watched as Sorey's very resonance was suppressed, leaving him completely and utterly unaware of the seraphim standing right beside him. She watched as the Lord of Calamity turned his back on the Shepherd dismissively, a soft, satisfied grin on his features.

    "Listen well, young Shepherd." he ordered, his voice managing to reach the boy behind him. "My name… is Heldalf."

    He let out a soft chuckle. "…I wonder. How much longer will you live?" he let out a soft chuckle.

    "What… what did you do to him?!" Lailah's shrill yell cut across the battlefield.

    "Sorey! SOREY!" Mikleo yelled and yelled, yet nothing could reach the unseeing human glancing around in utter confusion before them.

    Edna clicked her tongue. "We have to return back inside him, now." she said urgently, glancing around. "His resonance has been cut off. If we don't hurry, we'll be trapped outside him in this malevolence and end up as dragons." She poked Mikleo harshly. "We can't do anything for him right now. …You'll have to trust in him to make it through this by himself."

    Mikleo swore under his breath. "Damnit!" He glared at the unseeing Shepherd with a look of complete hurt; one that only came from sheer powerlessness. "Sorey, you'd better not die on me!" he yelled, despite knowing fully that his lifelong friend could no longer hear him.

    The two seraphim vanished in two plumes of green, leaving only Lailah standing by to follow suit.

    Lailah's fists were curled as she stared back at the Lord of Calamity merely strolling away from his handiwork. "What… Just what do you want?!" She demanded shrilly.

    Heldalf didn't answer, simply letting out a low exhale as he basked in the malevolence of his own domain. With the expanse of the chaos-ridden battlefield strewn out before him, his being was framed in a scene of pure and utter malice.

    Lailah let out a breath filled with resentment, turning away from him and back towards Sorey, preparing herself to return back to her vessel. Yet, just before she retreated into the safety of her vessel's body, her eyes inadvertently fell on a black-clad figure standing calmly on one of the nearby cliff edges overseeing the area.

    Her eyes widened in anger and betrayal… and recognition.

    Standing and watching idly from afar, Velvet Crowe met the seraph's eyes coldly, her arms crossed.

    "Fethmus… Mioma."

    Sorey's weakened, ragged voice drew both of their gazes. The Shepherd hunched over even deeper, his sword held weakly in a guard over his head as a single lizard hellion stood before him, shoving its fists downwards upon the weak human. He let out an involuntary cry as he was pushed down onto his knees, still weakly holding up his sword.

    "Fethmus Mioma!" he screamed, to no avail.

    Lailah's panicked expression turned once more to Velvet's cold one as the hellions began to surround Sorey. Her imploring face said it all.

    Save him, she begged. Save the Shepherd when nobody else can.

    Yet, Velvet didn't move an inch.

    It was just like what she had allowed to transpire in Marlind. Only through trial and triumph would a Shepherd rise to possess the incredible will and strength that the task she had set for them required. Heldalf, as he was called, had merely toyed with Sorey just now. There was no point in saving a tool that would never be able to live up to the potential she needed, let alone when its continued existence risked delaying the arrival of one that could.

    This was a test. One that she would not interfere with. If he couldn't overcome this trial on his own, she'd simply find another tool that had the capacity to do what she needed it to do, one way or another.

    Lailah's expression turned into one of pure dismay as she realized what Velvet was doing. Gritting her teeth, the now-powerless prime lord disappeared into Sorey's body, leaving him to face the dozens of hellionized monsters approaching him. Truly alone.

    Velvet watched on as the hellions closed in upon the Shepherd, her jaw set and her eyes resolute. Nothing could be permitted to stand in the way of her goals.

    Nothing.

    "HAAAGH!"

    Screaming in fierce defiance of the hellionized humans before him, Sorey abruptly lunged back in a roll, the fists of the hellion pushing down upon him slamming straight into the ground where he had knelt. Heaving for breath, the Shepherd didn't waste time, instead flipping his sword around in his hands and sheathing it. He didn't stand a chance against so many hellions in his current state, and he knew it.

    And so, the savior of the world turned tail and ran away as fast as he could.

    Everything had become a nightmare. Sorey gasped raggedly for breath with his limbs screaming for him to stop as he pelted through the battlefield, desperately weaving between the hordes of hellions rushing towards him. Gauntleted hands with inhuman strength clutched at him at every turn. Bestial snarls thrummed from the throats of seemingly normal men to his non-resonant eyes. For without his seraphim, Sorey was utterly, completely, helpless.

    The crushing realization was as unwelcome as the sensation itself.

    He yelled in fury at his own helplessness. He ran for as long as he could before he was forced to dive to the side as three hellions lunged at him at once. He scrambled to his hands and knees, forcing himself onto his feet as the monsters turned to fight each other over who would be the first to claim this prey.

    Terror had seeped into his very core. The helplessness… the insecurity… the fear. There was nothing he could do but run.

    He skidded to a halt, cursing as a former squad of Hyland soldiers lumbered towards him, their arms outstretched. He turned around to run only to hurriedly jump back in a dodge as an errant Rolance soldier leapt at him. He landed haphazardly on his back, his Shepherd's cloak being torn up by the gravel and debris on the ground in the process.

    Cursing, Sorey found his feet and kicked, just barely managing to slip through the closing grasp of a soldier attempting to grab his ankle. He couldn't help but let out a breath of sheer terror at how close he had come to dying as he took off running once more, the wind whistling in his ears.

    There was no plan. There was no end destination.

    Only the animal instinct to run; run as far away as he could from the monsters chasing after him.

    So therefore, it was only a matter of time before he was cornered like the prey he was.

    He suddenly skidded to a halt with a yelp, belatedly registering the gaping cliff at his feet. Dislodged pebbles tumbled down into the vast abyss. He couldn't see the bottom at all, the cliff face stretching for over a dozen stories. A dead end.

    An abrupt chorus of snarling from behind caused him to groan in dismay. He turned reluctantly to face the vast swarm of hellions as they slowly stalked towards him, completely and effectively blocking any possible avenue of escape.

    Sorey wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth with a grim expression. "I guess this is it for me." He gasped under his breath as his death loomed before him. He swore, gritting his teeth in frustration. "…Sorry, everyone. I guess I'm just not strong enough."

    Slowly, he reached down with his right hand and grasped his sword pommel, sliding his ceremonial sword out of its sheath with a soft squeal of metal on metal. He held it up high in the air, also holding up his other arm and idly observing the Shepherd's glove on his left hand.

    "…But I won't go down without a fight."

    Slowly, he let his gaze fall upon the dozens of hellions lumbering towards him. His fist curled around the ceremonial sword in his hand. "That's a promise." he breathed to himself, steeling his nerves.

    He sliced his sword determinedly through the air, standing up straight and proud as the monsters neared. "Come on!" he yelled defiantly in the face of certain doom. On his back, the Shepherd's cloak rippled in the wake of an errant gust of dry wind, framing the Shepherd Sorey in his final moments as a hero, bravely facing his demise. Alone, powerless and hopeless, but nevertheless possessing a spark of true determination.

    A spark that ignited a flame, showing that he was truly alive.

    For this particular human would not fall prey to despair quite as easily as the rest.

    Watching the scene from atop the jutting canyon cliffs above, Velvet's lips thinned with satisfaction. "…You passed the test." she muttered under her breath with marked satisfaction.

    There was no longer any doubt. This Shepherd would truly do nicely as her tool. One that would very much be immune to the threat of malevolence, even in the darkest of times.

    Before she could move to intervene however, something suddenly leapt through the air over the heads of the hellions towards the Shepherd. A hooded assassin clad in brown fatigues and wearing a jagged mask on their face, slid to a stop alongside Sorey with a dagger in each hand.

    "Damnit!" the assassin swore from behind the mask. "Why are you all acting like this?!" they demanded. They received only feral snarls from the possessed men in return.

    Sorey's eyes were wide in astonishment. "You're that assassin from the Scattered Bones who's been following us!" he exclaimed.

    The assassin in question glanced at the Shepherd briefly before turning back to the horde of assailants before them. "…At the bottom of the ravine behind us is a river, deep enough to stop our fall." The masked figure quickly explained under their breath. "When I tell you to, turn around and jump."

    Sorey blinked. "…Why are you doing this?" he breathed.

    "Not now!" the assassin hissed. "Ready?"

    Sorey nodded sharply, bringing his gaze determinedly at the hellions before him. "…Ready."

    As one, the hellions broke into a mad charge, howling and snarling as they stumbled towards the two humans.

    "NOW!"

    Both of them instantly turned tail and leapt off the cliff before the rabid humans could fall upon them. Yet before they managed to clear the cliff, one of the armed hellions managed to toss a spear across the gap, striking the assassin right in the leg as the pair of humans tumbled down into the void.

    Velvet watched as they disappeared down into the ravine, slowly forcing her muscles to relax. She let out a terse breath, watching as the horde of hellions grounded to a halt at the mouth of the ravine, seething at the fact that their prey had escaped them.

    Despite the unexpected turn of events, it appeared that the Shepherd was now out of harm's way.

    Her eyes narrowed as she spotted an inhumanly tall lion-headed man slowly stomping through the horde of hellions, all of which gave him a wide berth, before coming to a stop at the cliff's edge.

    Heldalf let out a breath as he gazed down the cliff's edge off which the Shepherd had managed to escape. He chuckled lowly to himself, satisfied. "…A Shepherd of magnificent resilience." he contemplated aloud. "Intriguing."

    Amidst his musing, Heldalf took a moment to examine the paw he'd used to catch the Shepherd's armatized longsword. The boy had been a bit stronger than his naïve appearance had led the Lord of Calamity to believe. The light sting he was feeling from having grabbed that flaming blade showed that much.

    Not that it had made any real difference.

    He blinked as he felt something strange shift within the core of his domain. He turned around slowly towards the source; curiosity evident in his expression.

    A lone woman clad in tattered black and red strolled towards the horde of hellions surrounding him, her eyes ablaze with rage.

    Heldalf let out a low rumble as he took in the presence of this newcomer with interest. All around him, the horde of hellions began to shift, lumbering towards a new potential victim in their midst.

    The woman didn't spare them a glance, continuing to walk forward and staring him down with pure, unadulterated hatred.

    When the closest of the lizard hellions abruptly lunged forward in an attempt to grab her by the neck, her left arm violently erupted in malevolence.

    Heldalf watched with a tilted head as the hellionized woman before him effortlessly swiped the insignificant lizard monster away as one would an irritating fly without even breaking stride. Her victim was cast bodily through the air with incomprehensible force, slamming into a rocky outcropping and splattering in a noisy squelch of blood and gore.

    A massive pulsating claw, dripping with partially absorbed blood and malevolence gouged from its last victim, hung from the frame the inhuman woman stalking towards him. When the bulk of the hellions, riled by the smell of blood in the air, charged in to attack her all at once, she opened her mouth and let out a feral scream.

    "DISCORD!"

    Every single hellion that crossed her path was rendered into bits of blood and gore as a serrated claw ripped straight through them with such force that it gouged trails into the very earth they stood upon.

    The enraged woman charged into the fray alone with all the self-control of a predator that had been starved to the brink of death only to have suddenly stumbled upon a feast. She tore into her foes with a mesmerizing mixture of graceful swordplay, ragged acrobatics, and brutal inhuman might.

    A true embodiment of unadulterated savagery and ferocity.

    Her sweepingly long raven hair whipped around with every move she made, increasingly being stained by the blood she was drawing with each strike. Her claw flourished as she feasted upon those she grasped, encasing their helpless forms in her crushing grip before devouring them in explosions of blood and malevolence. Her expression was the very picture of fury as she either cut down or crushed all those that dared get in her way.

    Absolutely no thought was given to herself as she ran berserk amongst them all. Splatters of blood dotted her ragged clothing in addition to her own exposed skin. Any grazing blows that her enemies managed to land on her were ignored completely, her own blood from the gashes mixing with the stains on her skin as she retaliated against each blow mercilessly, always lethally and with no less than ten times the force.

    It wasn't long before the horde of lizard hellions came to truly realize the sheer brutality and efficiency through which their numbers were being culled. Broken swords and shattered shields dropped to the ground, forgotten, as the monsters began to flee in terror in all directions away from the terrifying woman like rats on a sinking ship. The squealing cries of fear of the insignificant hellions filled the air as they ran, stumbling over themselves in an effort to save themselves from the unstoppable incarnation of wrath that they had foolishly challenged.

    Heaving for breath, the woman slowly came to a halt, surrounded by nothing more than upset dirt and malevolence. Rising and falling with the heaving of her chest, the hellionized claw held limply before her pulsated greedily as it absorbed the remaining drops of blood still staining its surface. Her head slowly lifted in the aftermath of the slaughter, the bloodied chains on her outfit clinking softly in the silence that had fallen.

    Her rage-filled eyes met Heldalf's once more.

    Suddenly, an explosion of malevolence erupted from her being in fierce waves. Heldalf's eyes widened and he took an involuntary step back as a massive, vast domain violently erupted directly in the midst of his own, the thick malevolence blasting out throughout the now-desolate battlefield.

    Her domain clashed harshly against his, causing a visible rip in the very world to form in the skies where they met. Thunderous crashing echoed deafeningly throughout the world as the two domains struggled against each other, pushing back and forth in the sky. The very earth shook violently as the two chaotic forces butted against one another, causing fissures to erupt spontaneously across the now-abandoned battlefield.

    Setting his gaze on the woman before him, Heldalf let out a low hum of undisguised interest.

    "…A domain to rival my very own." he noted. The screaming gales all around whipped his cloak and mane in the air as he crossed his arms thoughtfully. "Now who… might you be?"

    Had any seraphim been in the vicinity of the basin at all, they would've stood no chance against the untamed ferocity of the evil exhibited by two of the most corrupted beings in the world. This was where both of them belonged.

    Standing in the center of the physical embodiment of their own sins.

    Velvet's eyes narrowed as she stood her ground, her own black cloak whipping around in the wind alongside her hair. Between her and Heldalf, their domains continued to struggle against the other's in a visible, volatile jagged line of clashing malevolence. She scowled hatefully. This was him. The Lord of Calamity.

    The one who had Laphicet…!

    She took a deep breath, reigning herself in. This was not the plan. No, to save Maotelus, the only way forward necessitated the wielding of a sword of reason and will.

    "…I can't let you kill that one yet." Her voice, low and threatening, carried clearly across the forces of her domain. Her eyes dilated and pulsed blood red. "Stay out of my business." she snarled.

    And with that having been said, she turned on her heel and stalked away, her coat and her hair whipping about in the volatile gales.

    Heldalf watched as the strange woman departed, her domain slowly fading from existence as well, subsequently freeing the world around him from the surging chaos that had been caused by the conflicting domains. At his feet laid dozens of corpses, all rotting in the wind. Human corpses, with their malevolence having been simultaneously leeched out of them along with their lives.

    His eyes narrowed as he considered her, his mind whirling with the implications. "…An arm of crimson death." he muttered contemplatively under his breath.

    He blinked.

    Suddenly, a savage grin emerged on his face.

    "Ah…" he exhaled breathily. "…You."

    The tall lion-maned Lord of Calamity abruptly burst into gruff laughter, turning away and back towards where the Shepherd had disappeared. His grin widened as he crossed his arms, relishing the unnatural breeze induced by his domain.

    How he would enjoy this.

    Overhead, the dark clouds continued to churn. Malevolence continued to hang over the utterly desecrated battlefield in the wake of the devastation that had occurred. A clash between humans, monsters, and sprits. One borne of duty, honor, desire, and hatred.

    The vultures finally began to descend in great numbers, gleefully cawing their joy into the empty wind as they eagerly began to partake in a grand feast of rancid flesh.

    ---​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Oct 27, 2019
  14. WiseMack

    WiseMack Not too sore, are you?

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    The threadmarks are backwards, last chapter first and viceversa.
    Please Fix.
     
    CloudFry likes this.
  15. Threadmarks: C13 - Rose
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 13 – Rose.

    Sorey's boots crackled noisily on river rocks as he forced himself onto his feet, wincing from the countless aches and bruises flaring in protest to the harsh movement of his body. He forced himself to forge onward into the shallow waters, letting out an involuntary hiss as the ice-cold river waters lapped at his waist.

    "Come on!" he grunted through gritted teeth, stumbling towards the humanoid brown and black lump lying partially submerged in the water near the riverbank with something long and wooden protruding out of it. His breath misted in the cold night air as he panted, arduously tugging the unconscious body of the assassin through the water and back towards dry land.

    With the last vestiges of his strength, Sorey managed to heave the Scattered Bones assassin onto the lush grass growing by the riverside, soaking wet. He let out a groan, collapsing onto his back beside their body in utter exhaustion and fatigue. His breathing ragged, he kept his eyes open by staring up into the night sky high above.

    It was heavily obscured by the expansive network of leaves and branches of enormous oak trees standing vigil all around him. The canopy of the peculiar forest he was in was so high and thick that the entire area felt akin to an enormous cavern, supported by thick pillars of aged wood trunks. As his noisy breathing calmed, he slowly became aware of the other sounds filling the quite night. The crisp, flowing murmur of leaves waving in the night breeze. The babbling of the now calm river slowly lapping against a rocky shore. The parliament of owls hooting distantly into the chilly air.

    In the wake of the chaos that he had been embroiled in for the past day, the tranquility of the area seemed almost surreal. Feeling his mind lethargically reorienting itself in the wake of it all, Sorey slowly sat up and turned his full attention to the wounded person lying at his side.

    He froze in shock.

    Rose, the leader of the Sparrowfeather Merchants, laid before him unconscious, clothed in the dark, foreboding garb of a killer. Her mask had evidently fallen off of her face during the fall.

    After a moment's pause, Sorey directed his attention from her face to her wound. The thrown spear had managed to lodge itself partially in the woman's flesh and partially in her padded clothing, which was thicker than it looked. Thankfully, the wound didn't seem to be so deep that it would prove life-threatening. If treated soon.

    He glanced over his shoulder. "Mikleo?" he called out. His only response was the quiet groaning of wood in the cavernous forest.

    Sorey gritted his teeth. "That man. Just what did he do to me…?" Brief moments of his helplessness flashed before his eyes, reminding him keenly of how weak he had been. His fists clenched. His gaze eventually came to rest once more upon the fresh wound on the assassin's leg.

    Determination steeling his features, Sorey settled down cross-legged beside the woman's injured leg and reached for his medical supplies. Time flowed along with the river he sat beside as he tended to the assassin's wound. Idly, he registered the chirping of birds and the brightening of the world as the sun began to rise somewhere beyond the canopy of the vast, looming trees. His stomach growled while his throat screamed for water. His own body ached fiercely all over alongside the dozens of minor injuries dotting his skin under his ripped clothing. Eventually he sat back with a relieved sigh, carefully observing his handiwork.

    The bloodied spear had long since been tossed aside, whereas the puncture wound it had caused had only now been effectively treated with the bleeding having been fully stifled. He glanced around, only now fully registering that the sun had long since risen, its rays threading through the leaves above to carpet the empty forest floor around him with brilliant dotted patterns.

    On cue, his stomach let out an angry growl, causing him to wince. "…We gotta get out of here." he decided under his breath.

    After a moment's hesitation, he bent down and, minding her injured leg, hoisted the assassin up on his back. Acclimating himself to the added weight, the Shepherd randomly chose a direction and set off through the quiet forest, surrounded by nothing but the ambiance of the forest with only his own thoughts to keep him company.

    He thought about what had happened. His effort in the war to support Hyland. His failure in confronting the horrid Lord of Calamity. Him losing his powers as the Shepherd along with his ability to perceive seraphim. All of it. Ever since he had left Elysia, there had scarcely been a time when the Shepherd hadn't had his friends by his side, now that he thought about it. It had been a constant reassurance, knowing that his seraphic allies were always there, watching over him with every step he took in this vast, unknown world.

    In the end, he supposed it shouldn't've been such a surprise that he would be so weak by himself. He furrowed his brow as he stared down at the ground, watching his two feet make progress little by little.

    A groan from over his shoulder caused him to stop in his tracks. "…Hey." Sorey greeted gently as he turned his head towards the redheaded woman on his back. "You awake?"

    Her blue eyes blinked blearily back at him, slowly taking in her surroundings. All around them, birds continued to chirp lightly amongst the trees. "So." Sorey prompted conversationally. "You're the leader of that assassin's group."

    "Mm…" The assassin let out a quiet yawn in response. "…Surprised?"

    "Well… sure." He paused. "What should I call you?"

    "Rose will do just fine." She shifted slightly on his back, rolling her shoulders tiredly. "And hey…" She inclined her head towards her bandaged left leg, her eyebrow raised. "Why didn't you just leave me behind?"

    "You saved me. It's only fair to return the favor." Sorey reasoned. "Who you are or what you do doesn't change that." He tilted his head curiously. "…But what I don't get is what someone like you was doing there rescuing me in the first place."

    "I don't know." Rose admitted tiredly. "I'll have to decide later if it was really the right decision." She let her heavy eyelids slide shut before opening them again. "…But I can tell you're a good person." she breathed.

    Sorey tilted his head curiously.

    Suddenly, the assassin on his back went rigid. "We're being followed." she announced lowly. Observing her surroundings, Rose nodded to herself. "…Let's head north." she suggested. "There's a ruin off that way that we're currently using as a hideout."

    "Got it." he acknowledged. "Want me to set you down?"

    "I'm good." she declined graciously, slumping forward. "This'll give 'em a false sense of security."

    Sorey winced tiredly. "R…right." he mumbled, resuming his steps forward.

    "…By the way, did those signatures end up helping you out at all?"

    "Huh?" Sorey turned his head over his shoulder towards Rose, who was still playing unconscious slumped over on his back as he walked, before finally recalling what she was talking about. "…Oh! They actually did." he answered, thinking back to the document that had given him leverage over Landon back on the battlefield. "Thanks again for doing that for me back there."

    "Ah, it was nothing." Rose replied easily with her eyes closed. "Anything to stick it to that lousy general." She shifted subtly in his grip, readjusting her arms dangling around his neck. "Forcing you into the war like that was a real jerk move." she grumbled.

    Sorey couldn't help but chuckle at that. "I can't disagree there." He tilted his head. "But what were you doing on that battlefield?"

    "Just gathering information." She shifted on his back. "I was surprised to not see that friend of yours with you back there. Her name was… Velvet, right?"

    He nodded. "She and I split up for a time." he explained. "She said she'd find me later on after she was done with something."

    "Then it's a good thing she left when she did." Rose noted soberly. "I'm still not entirely sure what the heck was going on back in that basin, but whatever it was, it wasn't good." she sighed. "…Just when you think you've seen it all." she muttered.

    Sorey was silent at that.

    Once more, the two were surrounded by the sounds of the forest in addition to the rhythmic crunching of Sorey's boots on grass. Eventually, the two of them came upon a well-aged clump of ruined stone nestled between the huge root of a particularly large oak tree.

    "B… Boss?!"

    Sorey blinked and watched as masked people wearing black and brown materialized from out of nowhere before him, dropping down from hidden perches to gather before him and Rose. He watched as the assassins all took their masks off, revealing a varied cast of faces he recognized from his various run-ins with the Sparrowfeather Merchants.

    "The Shepherd?" The merchant Eguille's eyebrows were raised as he slid the mask from his face, stepping to the forefront of the assassins. His eyes narrowed as his gaze fell on the bandage around Rose's leg.

    With a spontaneous burst of energy, Rose slid lithely out of Sorey's grasp and trotted over, gingerly testing her injured leg before falling into a mostly regular stride. "We were followed, so I led 'em here." She jerked her head over her shoulder. "Now comes the fun part."

    Without question, the other assassins quickly followed her orders, dashing off into the wilderness in the indicated direction.

    Sorey's eyes were hard as he turned to Rose. "…You're going to kill them?" he breathed.

    Rose shrugged. "Depends." she replied ambiguously. She turned instead to face one of the other assassins as he approached. "I'm alright, Eguille. Don't sweat it." she stressed, stopping him from saying anything.

    The tall man closed his mouth and shook his head with a wry, exasperated expression. "…You know your limits." he conceded. "Go on, then."

    Rose nodded seriously. With that, she whirled around and burst into motion, dashing off in pursuit of the other assassins.

    "Hey-!" Sorey quickly turned to follow, only to be stopped by Eguille stepping in front of him. "…Let me through." he demanded.

    Eguille gave him a stern look. "And let you do what, exactly?" he asked, crossing his arms. "Get in the way as you try to stop killers from killing?" All around them, the remaining assassins staying at the hideout continued to watch the Shepherd guardedly.

    Sorey gritted his teeth, wrapping his hand around the pommel of this blade.

    "Move, Eguille." he stressed lowly. "Please." Slowly, his tired muscles clenched in clear preparation for a fight.

    Eguille carefully considered the Shepherd's determined expression. All around him the dozen assassins surrounding the Shepherd began to tense as well, reaching for their sheathed daggers and dirks. A thick silence fell in the wake of his demand; an unmistakable prelude to conflict.

    "…Alright." Evidently reaching a decision, Eguille abruptly stepped smoothly to the side, wordlessly letting the Shepherd through.

    Sorey gave him a nod of appreciation, letting his hand fall from his sword. "Thanks."

    And with that, he burst into a run, sprinting away from the ruins and towards where Rose and the other assassins had gone. Eguille watched as the Shepherd disappeared into the forest, a thoughtful glint in his eyes.

    ---​

    "Aaaaah!"

    A terrified, youthful screech echoed throughout the forest, followed by similar scattered screams as the Scattered Bones simultaneously fell upon the intruders in their territory. Metal knives and daggers screeched as they were ripped from their sheaths, their jagged points coming to a halt millimeters away from each intruder's neck and forcing all of them to freeze in mortal terror.

    Couched upon a thick root jutting out from the ground giving him a vantage point overseeing the meadow below, Sorey watched on motionlessly as the remaining children were efficiently rounded up and gathered at the base of an aged tree stump by the assassins. He watched on as the leader of the Scattered Bones stepped forward, spinning her right knife casually in her gloved hands.

    Rose came to a halt, running her eyes over the terrified faces of the children with an unreadable expression. She held the eyes of each child for a split second, her own eyes piercing each and every one. Her gaze eventually came to halt upon the oldest of the group; a young man who had only barely begun to grow facial hair glaring back up at her in stubborn defiance.

    The dagger spinning in her hand came to a swift halt as she lunged.

    "GAAAAHH!"

    The boy leader screamed as he fell to the ground, all pretenses of bravado shattered in an instant as two razor-sharp blades crossed in front of his neck, the cold kiss of metal shocking his hot flesh as his jugular rose and fell with his panicked breathing. Kneeling atop the boy with one knee pushing directly into his gut, Rose leaned down inches towards the leader.

    "You're not too good at this, huh?" she asked casually.

    The boy blinked rapidly. "Hu… Huh?" he stammered. "What do you…?"

    Rose straightened her back, still effortlessly holding her blades at his neck. "Well, if you wanna be the head of a group of killers, you gotta do it right." she reasoned. "A leader needs to have a backbone. You can't just bend and break at the first sign of danger, you know? You lose your own nerve, and so does everyone else in the gang." Her eyes narrowed.

    "Then again, I suppose slaughtering tired soldiers in their sleep doesn't really give you all that much of a challenge, does it?" she mused.

    All around them, the group of roughly a dozen children held hostage shifted nervously as one. The masked assassins holding them hostage stood quietly behind them all; terrifying embodiments of real-life reapers that had finally come to deal justice for the crimes they had committed.

    The breathing of their leader, still at Rose's mercy, grew even more ragged. "We… we didn't have a choice…!" he pleaded weakly. "We were going to starve… what were we to do?" When her merciless gaze didn't change, he squeezed his eyes shut, turning away from her blades.

    "…I'm… I'm s-s-sorry!" he whimpered, tears leaking down his cheeks. "I know… I know we d-did a… b-bad thing…!" he stammered.

    "I… I d-don't wanna d-die!" he cried.

    Rose sighed, glancing briefly up with hard eyes at the other children surrounding her. Some were shaking uncontrollably on the spot, while others were crying just like their leader. They were all just a bunch of desperate little kids.

    Making her decision, Rose gestured with her head. Just as quickly as they had drawn them, the knives of the surrounding Scattered Bones assassins were sheathed as they all simultaneously took a step back away from the children they had been holding hostage. Their leader hiccupped in confusion as Rose stood, gasping for breath as her knee left his stomach.

    He jumped in terror and surprise as something heavy landed on his stomach again, only to blink in confusion as he felt the ragged texture of a pouch of gald in his hands.

    Rose gave the kid down at her feet a dangerous smile, resting her left dagger on her hip while letting the other dangle at her side. "If I hear word of any of you hunting soldiers again, you won't get off so easily next time, I promise." She violently tossed the dagger in her right hand high in the air, keeping her eyes on the leader, only to catch it easily without sparing it a glance in a clear display of prowess.

    "Well go on, skedaddle!"

    She didn't need to tell them twice. Gasping and grunting, the group of kids scrambled onto their feet with shaky limbs, haphazardly following their leader as they bolted off into the forest. Rose gave a sigh as they ran off, absently twirling the daggers in her hands before sheathing them behind her back.

    "Make sure they don't double back on us." she gestured, having the majority of the assassins nearby run off after the children. "What a stupid mess." she muttered as they did what she'd told them to do.

    The sound of approaching footsteps drew her gaze. "…You know, I was honestly expecting you to try and stop us." Rose remarked, turning to face the Shepherd as he slowly came to a halt in front of her and the remaining assassins. "So color me surprised."

    "Well… I didn't see the need to." Sorey confessed honestly. "I had a feeling you weren't going to hurt them."

    One of the assassins standing nearby removed the mask from his face, revealing a youthful redheaded young man with a curious expression. "How could you have possibly known that?" he asked Sorey. "We're assassins."

    "I know that." he agreed. "And I still personally don't believe that killing is the right answer for anything. But…"

    Rose tilted her head curiously. "'But…?'"

    Sorey met her gaze. "I've come to understand the reality that not everyone who kills is necessarily a bad person." He reached up and scratched his hair. "And that's why I figured you guys wouldn't kill those kids; because you all aren't evil people. It was just that simple, I guess." Silence fell in the wake of his words, filled by the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves.

    "Hahaha!" Rose abruptly burst into incredulous laughter. "You're a real nutcase Sorey, you know that?" she snickered, rubbing her temple with her right hand.

    Sorey blinked in surprise. "Really?"

    The redhead who had spoken before chuckled, crossing his arms. "He's something else alright. I see what you were talking about, Boss."

    At the redhead's side, another assassin took her mask off, revealing a feminine face with strikingly similar features. "Contrary to everything I've heard about him, he's surprisingly level-headed." she noted.

    A man with a black-haired ponytail placed his own mask inside his pack behind him as he stepped forward. "What really impressed me was how well he handled Hyland's coercion of him into the war." He nodded towards Rose. "Quite the insight, him asking for you as a witness to his deal with the general."

    Rose put a hand on her hip, glancing at Sorey's sheepish expression. "He worked wonders on the actual battlefield, too." she pointed out. "I didn't hang around too long to see, but it looked like both sides had come to a complete standstill after his appearance. And it didn't look like he hurt anybody too badly; he was just trying to scare the Empire off."

    The male twin nodded deeply. "He wasn't lying when he said he doesn't believe in killing, then."

    Standing beside him, his sister crossed her arms in agreement. "That speaks much about his character, at least."

    Sorey scratched his cheek shyly. "Uh, you guys? I'm standing right here."

    "We know." Rose chirped, turning to him. "We're just sharing thoughts to see whether or not you're a bad person. Oh, and by the way…" She stepped forward, steel suddenly lacing her voice as she declared, "If the Shepherd turns out to be a force for evil that leads people astray… We won't hesitate to kill you." she promised. "Keep that in mind."

    Sorey blinked.

    "Ah, so that's why you've been following me all this time ever since Ladylake." he concluded. "That's one more mystery solved, then." he summarized happily.

    Rose gave him an incredulous look. "…That's your reaction to a death threat?"

    "Haha, I'm sorry." Sorey grinned apologetically, running his gloved hand through his hair. "I figure if I get to a point where you people want to kill me, well." He shrugged. "I'll probably deserve it then."

    Behind him, the female twin shook her head. "…I suppose it's fair to say at the moment, you're not one of those who deserves to taste our blade." She abruptly stepped forward, offering a gloved hand to the Shepherd. "My name's Felice." she introduced herself with a gentle smile. "Thanks for saving our Boss back there."

    "Hey!" Rose pouted. "I would've been fine without his help, thank you very much!"

    As Sorey took Felice's hand and shook it, her redheaded twin stepped up beside her and did the same. "And I'm Talfryn. In case you couldn't tell, Felice and I are twins."

    "Rosh." Behind Talfryn, the other black-haired assassin inclined his head, keeping his arms crossed. "Pleasure to meet you in person, Shepherd."

    Sorey nodded to each assassin in turn. "It's good to finally see your guys' faces." he returned respectfully.

    Suddenly, a black and brown blur dropped seemingly out of nowhere to land before them all, causing Sorey to jolt in surprise. Rose didn't miss a beat, turning to face the newcomer assassin as he stood up from his landing. "Eguille?" she prompted.

    "The band of children have cleared the general area surrounding the hideout." The man reported gruffly, crossing his arms. "It would be best, however, to do a thorough sweep of the area, just to confirm we haven't missed any stragglers. I already have the rest of squad two inspecting the far reaches of the forest."

    Rosh nodded and stepped forward, taking the initiative. "Then Talfryn, Felice and I will skulk around the area nearest to the hideout."

    "That would be best." At Eguille's nod, the three of them swiftly turned on their feet and dashed off in different directions. Meanwhile, the man turned his gaze towards Rose and Sorey. "As for you two, go back to the hideout." he told them sternly. "Drink lots of water. Rest up."

    "No complaints here." Rose agreed wholeheartedly, breaking out into a tired yawn and stretching her limbs like a cat. "Yeesh. I'm totally pooped!"

    Sorey grinned weakly. "Me too. Carrying you for that long was seriously harder than I had thought it would be." He winced, rolling his sore shoulders. "Whew!" he breathed.

    "…Hey." Rose gave him a grouchy glare. "That's a little rude of you, don't you think?" she grumbled.

    She froze suddenly, turning her head off to the side.

    Eguille gave her a once-over with a sharp eye. "…What's wrong?" he asked seriously, looking in the direction that Rose was staring at. To his eyes, there was nothing but gently waving oak trees and foliage that could be seen in the distance.

    Rose abruptly shrugged, turning to face him with an easy smile. "False alarm. Just some wild animal." she dismissed, turning to Sorey. "C'mon, let's get going!"

    "Sure." Sorey agreed.

    Together, they headed out; a Shepherd and a lead assassin, brought together through random chance.

    ---​

    Rose yawned once more, stretching her arms as she and Sorey trotted through the scattered ruins at the base of the tree to arrive at an inconspicuous opening in the ground with an iron ladder pinned to the top. "Whew! I'd say that's enough for one day." She turned to face Sorey cheerily. "There's a bed down in the back. Use it whenever you want. Ask around if you need anything else."

    "Thanks, Rose." Sorey returned gratefully.

    When it became evident that she wasn't following him inside, he tilted his head curiously. "What will you do? You're still hurt, aren't you?" he nodded at the young woman's bandaged leg in concern.

    "Trust me, I'll be fine!" Rose waved his concern off easily. "I just gotta deal with a few more things before I can really rest up." She put both hands on her hips. "Go on, get inside, Shepherd!" She waved her hand urgently towards the opening.

    Nodding, Sorey went on ahead, leaving Rose alone amidst the entrance to the ruins. The leader of the Scattered Bones sighed, casually stretching her arms.

    "…You're pretty good at this, you know that?" She complemented, apparently speaking to nobody.

    She turned cheerily to face the raven-haired woman named Velvet appearing out of nowhere as the woman landed smoothly some distance away from her amidst the ruins with one knee in the grass.

    "Even Eguille didn't notice!" Rose continued. "And he's been in this business way longer than me."

    Velvet stood up in one smooth motion, strolling casually towards the assassin. "What can I say?" she asked, waving a lofty hand. "I've had a plenty of practice."

    "No kidding." Rose hummed amicably, putting a hand on her hip.

    As the other woman came to a halt before her, the leader of the Scattered Bones raised an eyebrow expectantly. "So. What's the actual deal between you and Sorey?" she prompted. Despite her lofty tone, Velvet could clearly tell based on the subtle cues of her body that Rose was keenly evaluating just how much of a threat she was.

    "I could ask you the same." The therion put a hand on her own hip, mirroring Rose's stance. "Why go through all this effort to see if Sorey meets your standards for a Shepherd?" she asked. "Seems a bit unorthodox for assassins to freely choose whom they kill."

    "Not all assassins are the same, silly." Rose berated with a grin. "It's just the job of the Scattered Bones to kill those who deserve it, and that's that."

    "A virtuous assassin's guild?" Velvet raised an eyebrow incredulously. "An oxymoron if there ever was one."

    Rose frowned. "Hey, we're not just that. Don't forget, us Sparrowfeathers are pretty kickass merchants, too." She put both hands on her hips happily. "As you can tell, I'm kinda proud of this little operation I've got going on here, and I'm not afraid to admit it!"

    Velvet let out an amused huff. "I can see why they all follow you." she remarked, shifting on her feet. "You're not someone who shies away from getting things done, are you?"

    "Darn straight I'm not!" Rose chirped happily. "I'm a no-nonsense sorta gal, through and through, no matter the odds!"

    The therion couldn't help but be amused at her choice of words. "…I suppose you could say you and I have that in common." Velvet waved a hand loftily. "Between you and me, I'm pretty sure the world could use some more people who just do what they want to do."

    "Ugh. Tell me about it." the assassin moaned, rubbing her head in irritation. "The worst offenders are those politicians in Rolance and Hyland, if you ask me. Or maybe it's just politicians in general. That's a big part of why I have this whole side gig going on in the first place." she grumbled. "They just piss me off, going on and on in circles to no end!"

    "It really is a broken system." Velvet agreed. "And when the system can't fix itself, you take matters into your own hands. Am I wrong?"

    "That's what we do. We're sorta like family in how we all care for each other and how we all just want to get things done." Rose remarked fondly.

    Velvet tilted her head. "What's the next move for you and your guild, then? Now that the war's been halted for the time being."

    The redhead cupped her chin thoughtfully. "…You know what? I haven't thought that far ahead yet." She laughed self-deprecatingly. "Sometimes you gotta just let these things happen and see where you end up. Wind in your sails, or something like that."

    "Right…"

    Velvet shook her head, letting her hand fall from her hip. "In any case, I'll be going on ahead." It was a statement rather than a request, and both of them knew it.

    Rose hummed quietly, shifting on her feet and carefully examining the other woman. A light breeze picked up, causing the sea of leaves high above their heads to wave and ripple. Dry leaves pattered noisily on the floor around them, punctuating the silence.

    Abruptly, Rose opened her mouth.

    "Well there's plenty of room to go around." she chirped brightly. "Feel free to ask Felice for anything you need in terms of food and water. She knows the hideout like the back of her hand!"

    Velvet nodded. With permission having been granted, the therion strolled past the assassin, stopping at the edge of the hole leading down into the hideout. Quietly, she glanced over her shoulder. "…Thank you, by the way." she muttered softly. "For saving Sorey from that battlefield."

    Rose blinked, whirling around in surprise. "Hold up. You were there too?!" she asked with wide eyes. "Why didn't you…?"

    Velvet just sighed, waving off her questions. "…I can't have my tools breaking on me." she stated simply.

    Rose watched as the enigmatic woman turned and leapt down into the hideout with a hard and serious expression. "Velvet Davidson, huh?" she asked no one, shifting on her feet.

    "…Just who the heck are you?"

    All around her, the leaves continued to fall.

    ---​

    "…Damnit, Sorey." Mikleo muttered under his breath, his boots squeaking quietly on the stone floor as he paced back and forth in front of Sorey's bed for the umpteenth time.

    Sitting primly on a neighboring bed, Edna sighed as she watched the water seraph send worried looks at the Shepherd every five seconds, as if afraid his friend would spontaneously vanish from sight in between glances. "If you keep this up," she pointed out dully, "the humans will be freaked out by the rut spontaneously digging itself into the floor."

    On a dime, the water seraph whirled around. "Edna, aren't you worried in the slightest?!" Mikleo exclaimed. "What if Sorey stays like this?! What if Heldalf's suppression of his resonance lasts forever, and Sorey will never see any of us again? I don't know I'd to do if that were the case!"

    Lailah trotted up, sending her own worried glance at the unconscious Shepherd before facing Mikleo placatingly. "Resonance is an inherent natural trait present in humans with varying degrees of acuteness. It is highly unlikely that that man with the lion's head was able to completely reshape the fabric of Sorey's being merely by focusing his domain onto him." she reasoned. "It was more of a… temporary hindering of sorts. I have absolute confidence that, given enough time to recover, his resonance will return in full."

    Mikleo absorbed took the information in like a sponge to water. "…So that's what that man called Heldalf did to Sorey." His fist curled in fury as he glanced away. "Despicable." he growled. "Just as I'd expect of such a being known as the Lord of Calamity…"

    "There does indeed appear to be little doubt as to the nature of the man we've met." Lailah nodded soberly. "He must be the one whom Sorey must ultimately seek to overcome in his path as the Shepherd." she concluded.

    Edna kicked her feet idly in the air. "He's totally doomed."

    Mikleo huffed haughtily. "…As much as I'd like to disagree with you there, I can't." he admitted reluctantly. "Had Heldalf really wanted to kill him back there, Sorey would've been totally helpless."

    "You noticed that as well, then." Lailah observed softly.

    "Of course." Mikleo sighed, turning away and resuming his pacing. "Anyone could've seen how that man toyed with Sorey back there, plain as day. He's far too powerful for us; there's just no other way to look at it." he growled. "…Bastard."

    The clinking of metal on stone abruptly began to echo through the chamber, announcing the arrival of a human into the empty room within the underground ruins. As one, the seraphim all turned towards the only entrance to the chamber to examine the newcomer.

    Mikleo halted, his eyes wide.

    "…Velvet!"

    The cloaked traveler strolled smoothly into the chamber, her eyes swiftly taking in all of the three seraphim surrounding the unconscious body of the Shepherd as she came to a halt before them, her hands on her hip. "You're all alright." she observed.

    "Mostly." Edna corrected with a dry smirk. "Personally, I could do with a lot less worrying from worrywart Meebo here. Worrybo."

    Mikleo's eye twitched. Taking a deep breath, he ignored Edna and instead implored, "How about you, Velvet? You left us in the middle of the battlefield!" He took a step forward incredulously. "How in the world did you manage to find us here?"

    Velvet shifted on her feet, tilting her head simply. "I told you I'd find you, didn't I?" her eyes briefly met Lailah's. "I always do the things I say I'll do." The fire seraph's lips were drawn into a thin line as she stared back at Velvet, her eyes hard. Velvet blandly held her gaze, openly unaffected by her judgement.

    Unaware of the palpable tension in the air, Mikleo held a hand over his mouth pensively as he considered her words. "…I take it the assassins got in touch with you?" he presumed.

    "In a manner of speaking."

    He nodded. "I see. But why…?"

    "Ngh…"

    All conversation was dropped immediately as those present turned to the Shepherd finally stirring from his deep sleep. Slowly, blearily, Sorey eased his eyes open, grunting as he slowly sat up in the bed.

    "Sorey!" Mikleo was the first at his friend's side, easily placing his hands on the young man's back and helping him up. "Take it easy! You've been out for a while."

    "Ngh… sure." Sorey grunted, steadying himself with the seraph's help as he rubbed his eyes.

    He froze abruptly, before whirling around, his eyes wide. "Mikleo!" he exclaimed brightly as he finally registered his friend standing over him. His gaze wandered past the water seraph to the others. "Edna! Lailah! You're all here!"

    "Well, duh." Edna tilted her head. "Where else could we have gone? You are our vessel, remember?"

    Lailah chuckled, clapping both hands before her happily. "It would seem you can finally see us all again." she observed. "You have no idea how worried we were about you this whole time."

    Sorey blinked a few times. "So you guys were all still with me this whole time?"

    "Of course." Mikleo nodded, crossing his arms. "Once we had left the oppressive domain of the battlefield, we were able to keep watch over you as you helped that woman Rose. According to Lailah, you merely had your resonance temporarily suppressed for a while."

    "…It was that man who did that to me, wasn't it?" Sorey's eyes fell, hardening. "…'Heldalf,' he called himself." His fists clenched over the bedsheets covering his body as they all nodded in confirmation.

    "He was toying with me." he muttered lowly.

    Lailah exchanged a quiet glance with the others before slowly bobbing her head. "That… did seem to be our conclusion as well." she confirmed reluctantly.

    Sorey's teeth gritted.

    "What's your next move, then?"

    The Shepherd jolted, the anger fading from his expression as he recognized the familiar voice. He whirled around in his bed, his jaw falling slack as he found Velvet Davidson leaning casually against the wall some ways away from the others, her arms crossed and her eyebrow raised intuitively. "V… Velvet! You're here!" he exclaimed in surprise.

    At her unaffected, pointed expression, Sorey found himself quickly thinking over her prior question. "…What my next move is, huh?" he echoed thoughtfully. Behind him, Lailah's lips pursed, her eyes leaping between the Shepherd and the therion.

    Mikleo took the question similarly to heart. "Now that we've finally met the enemy face to face and have seen just how powerful his corruption truly is, it's hard to say what's the best choice of action for the Shepherd now." he ruminated.

    Edna leaned back on her bed, causing it to creak subtly. "Isn't it obvious? Sorey needs to get a boatload of power if he wants even the slightest chance at beating 'Ol Kittybeard." she pointed out bluntly.

    Sorey's frown deepened.

    Lailah shifted on her feet, interlacing her hands together. "…Perhaps it would be best to leave such difficult questions for later." she suggested gently. "The answer will come to you, in time."

    He nodded slowly, meeting Lailah's eyes gratefully. "Thanks Lailah." he smiled. "And that goes for all of you." he added softly, facing the seraphim. "It's really, really nice to see you all once more."

    "Same goes for us." Mikleo smiled back, putting a hand on his hip. "It's good not to be ignored by my best friend all the time, at least."

    Edna tilted her head idly, glancing away. "Seriously. I was getting tired of you crying and sniffling this entire time."

    "…" Mikleo took a physical step back in shock before rallying valiantly. "…I did not cry!"

    Leaning against the wall of the chamber a little way away from them all, Velvet huffed in idle amusement. She suddenly noticed movement in the corner of her eye and turned to look. Slowly, the Shepherd and his seraphim too registered the presence of a group of assassins staring at him.

    Rose, Eguille, Rosh, Talfryn, and Felice were clumped together at the entrance to the chamber, staring at Sorey with varying degrees of curiosity, amusement, and incredulousness. At the front of the pack, Rose cleared her throat hesitantly, briefly glancing at Velvet leaning in the corner before returning her gaze upon Sorey who had been facing away from her.

    "Are you… talking to yourself?" she raised an eyebrow.

    "O-oh! I uh…" Sorey stammered as he stumbled haphazardly out of bed, running a hand through his frazzled hair. Eventually giving up and deciding to go with the truth, he grinned sheepishly and gestured to the seraphim to his left. "My friends are here with me!"

    This only confused Rose more. She cocked her head in befuddlement. "Huh?"

    Velvet watched in dry amusement as the Shepherd shuffled on his feet. "They're uh… seraphim."

    Rose took an impassioned step forward, her expression full of concern. "Is this a bad time?" she asked gently. "Should we come back later?"

    Velvet turned her head as one of the other assassins slowly edged her way over to her as the conversation progressed. "You're Velvet, right?" the redheaded twin whispered. At her confirming nod, Felice gestured worriedly over at the Shepherd. "Is he… alright? You know." She tapped her head. "In there?"

    The disguised therion sighed, shaking her head. "…Not one bit, if you ask me." she muttered.

    Felice didn't seem enlightened in the slightest. "I… see."

    Their gazes were drawn to movement as Sorey slowly walked towards Rose with a welcoming expression, holding his hands out placatingly as if approaching a caged wild animal. They watched as Sorey slowly latched onto Rose's hand, to her astonishment.

    "H-Hey?!" the assassin stammered wide-eyed.

    Behind her, Eguille had a hand on his hip and a raised eyebrow as he watched on. Rosh and Talfryn exchanged expressions of utter bemusement as Rose began to sweat in Sorey's two-handed grasp.

    Sorey's smile was benevolent. "Just try and focus, Rose. Close your eyes."

    "Uh… ah…" Rose stammered, hesitantly playing along and closing her eyes shut as she concentrated to the best of her ability.

    Velvet's eyebrow raised as Lailah walked up to her side and raised her hand hesitantly. "Is he… trying to bring out her resonance?" she muttered under her breath.

    At her side, Felice furrowed her eyebrows in confusion.

    Lailah cleared her throat. "Oh, Rose? Can you hear-?"

    "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!"

    Rose's screech of pure terror pierced the air and was akin to a knife straight to Velvet's brain with her enhanced hearing. She and the other assassins watched on as Rose began to frantically jerk her hand up and down, trying desperately to escape Sorey's grasp.

    Lailah's eyes were wide, her palms held together as she took in the assassin's reaction. "R-Rose, please just… calm down!" she tried to placate the hysterical woman.

    Rose shook her head violently with a cry. "I'm not hearing this!" she denied vehemently. "Let me go! Lemme go, you idiot!" she howled.

    "H-hey! Easy, Rose!" Sorey stammered.

    "Rose! Please, listen!" Lailah tried again helplessly.

    Suddenly, behind Sorey's back, Edna had an epiphany, evidenced by her plonking a fist in her palm. She lithely snuck past Sorey and Lailah to put her face perfectly positioned slightly behind Rose's right ear. "We're ghooooooooooooooooooooosts~" she cooed.

    Sorey froze.

    Velvet blinked.

    Mikleo and Lailah exchanged wide-eyed glances.

    Rose's scream of pure, unadulterated terror rattled the very foundation of the ruins as she instinctively jerked her free fist back and slammed a vicious left hook straight into Sorey's cheek.

    CRASH!

    Felice, Velvet, and the rest of the assassins watched, tilting their heads upwards as the Shepherd flew through the air in a gracious arc, his cloak twirling ridiculously behind him. His body slammed violently into the wall on the far opposite side of the chamber with an auditable crack.

    Standing beside a heaving, terrified Rose, Edna idly examined the results of her ploy. "Uh oh." she said simply. Mikleo and Lailah gave her wide-eyed looks in response. For Sorey, the Shepherd, having finally woken up after much, much deserved rest, had been slammed straight back into unconsciousness.

    With one final, shuddering cry, Rose whirled around and dashed past the rest of the assassins without another word.

    By Velvet's side, Felice broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles. "Oh, oh no." she covered her smile with a hand. "The Boss really can't handle stuff like that."

    Velvet let out a breath of exasperation. "You don't say." She ran her eyes over the dazed expression of the Shepherd as he slowly tried to regain consciousness, the rest of the Seraphim surrounding him as the other assassins came over to help him out. She heaved a sigh, shaking her head in bemusement.

    Tool or not, useful or not, there was no denying how much of a fool Sorey was.

    ---​

    "…Man."

    Sorey heaved a sigh, scratching his head as he tried to wrap his head around the current predicament, he and the others had inadvertently found themselves in. Here they were, in the heart of the ancient Tintagel Ruins that had served as the hideout for the Scattered Bones, exploring simply to take their minds off of what had happened regarding the Lord of Calamity.

    That was what they had been doing, at least, until Rose – whom had inexplicably tagged along for their impromptu expedition into the unexplored portion of the ruins – had clumsily triggered a switch and consequently trapped them all inside a featureless stone chamber.

    He scratched his head, walking around and staring at every square inch of the walls before him, finding absolutely nothing that could possibly let him and the others out of this chamber. "Some expedition this is turning out to be." he sighed.

    Meanwhile, the rest of the seraphim were finding similar things to do to bide their time as Rose tried her best to free them from the outside. For what else could they do?

    Edna was idly kicking around a clump of mossy rock that had been dislodged from the ceiling with her oversized boots. Mikleo was trying to beat Sorey in their little bet to find an exit to the chamber before the other and was having just as much success. Meanwhile, Lailah was simply sitting against one of the walls of the chamber, quietly running a comb through her long, flowing hair.

    The fire seraph had a soft smile on her face as she watched Sorey and Mikleo once more start bickering across the chamber from her. Memories from times that had long since passed flashed before her eyes, all colored with different, separate hues from the emotions that she had associated with them. Happy, sad, and bittersweet memories; the prime lord cycled through them all.

    It was important that she didn't linger in the past, however. This she had learned from experience.

    CRASH!

    "Hey! That sounded promising." Rose's voice echoed through the small peephole that looked into the chamber and resounded loudly throughout the enclosed space. "Sorey? Did that do anything?" she prompted.

    The Shepherd glanced around before shaking his head. "It looks like we're still trapped. Keep looking, Rose." he urged.

    The woman's grunt of frustration was plainly audible. "Why didn't the jerkheads who built this pile of stones leave behind a few legible pictograph instructions, color-code these levers, or for at least make this place in a way that actually made a lick of sense?" she demanded. "This is so stupid!"

    Edna's eyes had been fixed upon the ceiling ever since the thunderous boom that had sounded out once Rose had done what she had done. "…Hellions." she announced blandly.

    Sorey blinked, turning up towards where she was looking. "Huh?"

    Right on cue, a horde of snake hellions tumbled from the stone trapdoor that had suddenly opened in the ceiling, raining down upon the unsuspecting Shepherd's group. Blurs of black and brown crashed onto the flat stone floor below, hissing in pain and anger, coiling aggressively in preparation for a battle.

    Explosions and yells filled the chamber within seconds as the Shepherd's group scrambled to action, fending off the dozens of snake hellions threatening to overwhelm them all. Lailah was the most unprepared of all of them, hurriedly getting to her feet and dropping her comb onto the floor in the process. Seeing a trio of snakes rapidly approaching her, her first instinct was to take a step back and to initiate a close-range blast of flame. What she hadn't accounted for was the snake that had snuck up behind her.

    "Rising Falcon!"

    CRASH!

    Lailah jerked to the side in surprise as a blur of black and crimson slammed into the stones directly behind her, accompanied by a loud grating squeal of a hellion being kicked across the chamber. Velvet's steel boots screeched as they quickly came to a stop on the surface, whereas the woman had already redirected her attention to the other hellions closing in on her and Lailah from all directions. "Focus!" she demanded without taking her eyes off the enemy.

    The fire seraph shook her head once and did just that, turning away from the woman and completing her arte right in the nick of time.

    BANG!

    The trio of hellions attacking her were sent scurrying away with squeals of pain and their serpentine bodies fully ablaze for their efforts. Her eyes filled with determination befitting that of a wizened prime lord such as herself, Lailah took another step forward and gestured sharply with her hand. More explosions rang out in their immediate vicinity, sending the swarm of attacking snake hellions into chaos.

    Meanwhile, Velvet's sword and boots whistled through the air as she danced around snarling hellions, retaliating with non-lethal strikes and rendering each of their attacks useless, ensuring both herself and Lailah were unharmed. The two women inadvertently bumped back-to-back, briefly isolated from the rest of the group amidst a sea of conflict. Velvet whirled around in a complete turn, slamming her boot into two hellions at once and sending them hurtling towards Mikleo and Edna who dealt with them accordingly. "If you've got something to say to me, say it now."

    Lailah glanced briefly over her shoulder at the woman with an unreadable expression, absently gesturing in the air in an effort to formulate a new arte.

    Her long hair slinging behind her, Velvet tore around and slammed the flat side of her gauntlet blade into a snake attempting to sink its fangs into the back of Lailah's neck and swept it clean away. She glanced at the fire seraph with a cold expression. "I told you right from the start what I want. Nothing's changed. Sorey is a pawn to me, and nothing more."

    Lailah's eyes narrowed. "So it would seem…!" The fire seraph let out a fierce cry as she finalized her arte, directing her powers to a clump of hellions harrying Sorey and Mikleo across the chamber.

    BANG!

    The fire seraph, heaving for breath, sent Velvet a furious look. "Yet have you not a shred of compassion towards the innocent young man you are twisting so?!" she hissed. "Sorey has been nothing but open and welcoming to you. Surely you aren't so cold as to have not noticed this? Have you no feelings for the falsity and deceit that define your every waking moment in his company?!"

    To her ever growing agitation, Velvet gave her an unaffected shrug in response.

    "I'm sure he'll regret allowing me into the group once the truth inevitably comes out." she dismissed with a wave of her hand. The smirk that followed that statement was fanged. "Until then, I'll take every chance I can get to improve the tool at my disposal."

    Lailah let out an incredulous breath, turning around and slashing her hand in the air, conjuring a blazing phoenix that burst spontaneously through the air with a piercing cry to drive off her foes. "…I hope that you are truly aware as to how despicable of a person you are." she muttered under her breath.

    Velvet sighed, slowly standing up straight as the last of the hellions were mopped up by Sorey's purification powers. "Yeah, yeah." She shifted on her feet idly. "Tell me something I didn't figure out a thousand years ago."

    Lailah shook her head slowly, too standing up straight and letting her arms fall to her side. "…I've been thinking back to all of His vague comments about you over the years. I think I finally understand what he meant." Her jaw set as she turned to face Velvet squarely, her eyes narrowing. "That is, I think I am finally coming to recognize exactly what kind of person you are, Velvet Crowe."

    The woman in question crossed her arms unaffectedly, holding her judgmental gaze defiantly. "You just don't like what you've learned, huh?" She shrugged callously. "Funny how little I care."

    Lailah could only grit her teeth in response.

    "Rose!"

    Sorey's call echoed throughout the chamber as he fended off a new batch of hellions that had just dropped in and had promptly begun attacking him and Edna. "Rose, try something else, please! Things aren't getting much better in here!" he pleaded.

    "Hold on!" came the distant reply. "Unlike you, I'm new to this whole ruin-diving thing." A pause followed. "Maybe… this one?"

    CRASH!

    The group tensed, their eyes hurriedly sweeping the area in resigned anticipation for another battle. Yet none came.

    They were instead surprised by a welcoming, crisp gust of fresh air that sliced through the dank, stale air of the ruins like a knife through hot butter. As one, the group turned to watch as the thick stone slab barring the way forward slid downwards smoothly through the means of a hidden mechanism, revealing an additional chamber within. Sorey's face split into a wide smile as he jogged out of the imprisoning chamber. "Rose! You did it!" he exclaimed as the woman in question met them at the entrance.

    Following at a more sedate pace, Velvet stopped and narrowed her eyes, eyeing the assassin. "…Next time you try to kill us, use your friends instead of pulling an annoying stunt like that." she growled.

    "Aha…" Rose, laughed abashedly in response, running a hand through her short hair. "That might've been a better alternative, in retrospect. But hey! No harm, no foul I say." She shook her head, instead gesturing to her side. "But never mind that; when I pulled that lever, something else in this chamber opened up just now." She shifted on her feet, the charms dangling from her outfit swaying with the motion. "And when it did, for some reason I felt a breeze coming that way."

    Sorey glanced at Mikleo meaningfully before gesturing to Rose. "Let's go together, then." He offered her a smile. "If you're getting into ruin-diving, I should be around to help show you the ropes." he reasoned.

    "Sure." Rose grinned. "Then you can go first and get skewered by any traps that are hidden up ahead. I'll go home with the treasure."

    He blinked. "Huh?"

    Mikleo snorted into his palm. "Such a gentleman."

    Lailah clapped her hands together softly. "Since we've already fallen prey to one such trap, let us all stay vigilant, and ensure our noble Shepherd leads his lady through the perilous task before him."

    Edna rolled her umbrella once, shrugging wordlessly in response.

    "Right…" Sorey turned to the task at hand, Rose and Velvet exchanging glances behind his back as he stepped up to the mouth of the doorway, carefully feeling the frame and examining the passageway beyond the door itself.

    The darkness betrayed no secrets, and yet the faint presence of distinctly fresh outside air clashed harshly with the centuries-old musty aroma of the ruins around him. A soft rippling wisp of unnatural wind kissed his cheeks and ruffled his hair briefly. He froze, turning to the side in surprise as he felt...

    Rose tilted her head curiously as he stared directly at her.

    "…Something wrong?" she prompted.

    Blinking, Sorey shook his head and turned back to the task at hand. "Just my imagination." he dismissed as he brushed the feeling off.

    Breathing deeply, the Shepherd faced depths of the mysterious ruins, his followers at his side. Despite the danger and the uncertainty, Sorey found a light smile on his face as he faced the unknown. Despite the uncertainty of the future and his questionable abilities as a Shepherd, his passion for exploring ruins would forever stay beside him. That was just who he was. With that thought in mind, Sorey ducked his head and stepped inside, plunging headlong into darkness.

    ---​

    Rays of soft moonlight lazily drifted down from a bottomless well built on the surface high above in the ceiling of the massive chamber. Water dripped rhythmically in the surrounding darkness; moisture from the trees above falling down to gather into puddles on the weathered stone. Flourishing in the damp, dark conditions, patches of mushrooms sprouted from the stone intruding upon the ancient brick wall padding the circumference of the derelict underground chamber.

    An ancient, underground chamber; one that had been left undisturbed for centuries. He was the first human that had step foot in this ancient place for who knew how long? Stuff like this never failed to thoroughly boggle his mind.

    "You can close your mouth now."

    Even Edna's blasé attitude couldn't rain on Sorey's parade he whirled around, near shaking with enthusiasm. "Just look at all this!" he exclaimed wildly. "Think of how much effort this would've taken just to carve out, not to mention the demands of ensuring the place had enough structural supports to stop it from collapsing in on itself! It's so big! There's got to be a reason why the people who built this place went to such extraordinary lengths to construct this chamber!" His enthusiastic voice echoed off the surrounding walls of the vaulted chamber.

    Rose stared incredulously. "I mean, it's super cool and stuff, but…" She raised an eyebrow. "Aren't you reading into this just a bit too much? When it's all said and done, it's just a room."

    "No way." Sorey shook his head firmly. "This place is an adventurer's dream! There is so much to be gleaned from place like these. For example, the manner in which the bricks of the walls were made, how they were adhered together, and what they're made of; these things can tell us all sorts of things about who built this, when they built it, and how much it cost for them to build it." He crossed his arms, his brow furrowing. "And then, with that information, it's possible to begin theorizing. For instance, if it turns out that this chamber was built in a time period where it was once believed an ancient civilization had long since fallen, that would imply wealth and purpose and completely overturn decades of historical research and hypotheses!"

    At his side, Mikleo added, "Don't forget, even if it goes the other way and falls snugly within our current modern renditions of the timeline of history, that's just another piece of evidence to further set the current research in stone." He gestured around himself. "And that's just one example. Think of all of the little clues hiding in this very chamber that have the potential to completely revolutionize everything we thought about a given era."

    Sorey nodded sagely. "Just wait until we get the chance to really sink our teeth into these ruins here. I could write an academic tome with nothing but the contents of this chamber alone."

    Mikleo glanced up at the sky above. "Try two tomes. I'm completely lost as to why a well is connected to this chamber. Do you think maybe this entire place was submerged with fresh water at one point?"

    Sorey's eyes widened. "…No way!" he gasped.

    Edna's face was locked in a steady deadpan. "…They've turned rabid." she muttered as the two began to debate why a room would be designed like this, utterly and completely off in their own little world. She glanced to the side. "Lailah." she addressed. "Put them down. It's for their own good."

    The fire seraph giggled into her palm in response, thoroughly bemused.

    Behind her, Velvet's expression was unreadable as she watched the two boys go back and forth, collaborating their notes to the complete weirding-out of Rose who was watching Sorey animatedly talking ruin-gibberish to himself. She glanced away, her jaw stiffening.

    "…And there he goes, talking to himself again."

    Rose, evidently fed up with being ignored in favor of an imaginary friend, trotted around Sorey to explore the chamber herself, curiously checking under rocks and rubble for any potential treasure. "…I swear it just looks a bit like an oversized cave to me. I don't get what…" She blinked, abruptly registering something on the side of the wall. "Huh?"

    "Sorey!" she called.

    The Shepherd turned and his eyes widened as he saw what Rose was gesturing at. "That's… A mural!"

    "Looks like a map of Glenwood of sorts." Rose noted as Sorey and Velvet approached, turning towards the mural with a curious eye. "But not quite. Looks pretty outdated. And what's the deal with those markings dotted all over the place?"

    Stepping carefully around Rose, Lailah ran her eyes over the extensive map carefully framed and etched in stone before her. She glanced over her shoulder at Sorey. "This mural appears to depict… locations of shrines."

    Mikleo blinked, squinting at the weathered letters in the ancient tongue bordering the map. "…Four shrines containing four trials, each of which are meant to test…" His eyes widened. "'The one who is to be the Shepherd.'" he quoted.

    Sorey's eyes were wide. "…So then these trials are for me, huh?"

    At his side, Rose gave him a curious look.

    Velvet carefully scanned the map with her arms crossed. "Seems that way." She gestured with her head to the yellow emblem on the bottom left corner of the map. "That's the closest one to us right now."

    "Where modern-day Biroclef Ridge is, it looks like." Mikleo agreed. "I'll take a note of all of these locations. They'll most likely be very important to us."

    Edna glanced listlessly around the chamber. "We'll probably find stuff that's meant to help the Shepherd in those shrines." she surmised, turning back to the mural. "It probably won't be a walk in the park, either."

    "Something that'll help me out, huh?" Sorey repeated thoughtfully. "So, likely something to aid me in the battle against the Lord of Calamity."

    At this, Lailah glanced away, clapping her hands enthusiastically. "Ah! Inspiration! Tonight, we should prepare cheesecake for dessert!" she sang.

    The group ignored her, as per second nature.

    After a moment of consideration in the silence that followed, Sorey nodded to himself. "…Hey, Rose?" he asked abruptly. "Can I ask you some-?"

    CRASH!

    Sorey and the others whirled around in shock and surprise as something large and heavy smashed into the stone floor at the center of the chamber, having evidently fallen from the well up above. At the same time, they winced as considerable malevolence suddenly flooded the area, accompanied by sharp, whipping gales that swirled around like a maelstrom amplified by the curved walls of the chamber.

    "AAAAAHHH!"

    Velvet cursed as she registered Rose, whom had wandered away from the mural, now cornered on the opposite end of the chamber by the imposing winged hellion that had landed in the center of the chamber. Her eyes widened as the bipedal dragon's iron sword fell in a sweeping curve, aimed right at the woman's neck. "Rose!"

    CRACK!

    Violent cracks of air reverberated through the chamber as pendulums slashed with the wind, expertly conducted by the seraph that had suddenly appeared before Rose's trembling body, vehemently defending her from the attacking hellion. One wearing a black trench coat and a distinctive-looking top hat.

    Mikleo blinked, taking the scene. "The wind seraph from before?!"

    Sorey's eyes widened as he once again registered the sensation of unnatural wind bending on his skin. "Dezel!"

    Rose herself had frozen up in terror, her phobia completely immobilizing her limbs as she simply covered her ears and squeezed her eyes shut. "S… Stop it!" she screeched, shaking her head in denial. "This… t-this isn't happening!" The menacing shapes phasing in and out of existence in her eyes suddenly lunged directly towards her, accompanied by a terrifying, distorted otherworldly snarl. She screamed, wildly slashing her daggers through the air in a paltry attempt to defend herself.

    And then the world was tilted upside-down.

    Rose groaned and shook her dizzy head, lying sprawled out and winded on the floor of the chamber and staring up at the starry sky visible through the tunnel presented by the well in the ceiling. Through her fuzzy vision, she somehow managed to make out the figure standing over her body, snarling as she pushed back against the ghost with all her might as their blades locked.

    "Vel…vet?" she mumbled blearily.

    The woman's eyes flitted down for a split-second at the winded assassin whom she had just shoved to the floor. "Keep your head down and your mouth shut." she hissed through gritted teeth. She abruptly snapped her head to the side, her visibly trembling sword arm beginning to waver. "Sorey, now!" she yelled, forcing her body to the limit as she pushed hard, forcing the enormous hellion to take a step back.

    "Eat this!" roared the Shepherd as he crashed down upon his target, blasting the hellion with the full might of Edna's Armatus. The entire chamber shook in the wake of his landing, only to erupt once more in tremors as the Shepherd continued his assault, driving the Dragonewt away from Velvet and Rose.

    Heaving for breath with sweat dripping liberally off her chin, Velvet suddenly turned around and violently seized Rose's collar, jerking her straight towards her own face so that their noses were almost touching.

    "Wake the hell up!" she spat.

    Confused, winded, and still trembling from her rampant phobia, Rose could do nothing more but blink stupidly at the order.

    Velvet let out a disdainful exhale, shaking her head and catching her breath. "…You told me you're a no-nonsense gal who get things done, didn't you? No matter the odds?" The woman gritted her teeth and chopped her free hand sharply through the air. "Then what the hell do you call that pathetic display just now?!" she yelled.

    Rose's breath hitched.

    Velvet jerked her head towards the specter Sorey was barely managing to battle even with the full might of his powers. "As for your little assassin's guild?" she added vehemently. "Your beloved 'family'? The hell are they going to do when their leader disappears without a trace? The hell are they going to think when we go back and tell them you were killed because you froze during the one moment that mattered most?"

    She opened her mouth… but no words came out.

    "Tch." With a callous jerk of her arm, Velvet released Rose who barely managed to keep herself from falling on her back.

    The therion stood up sharply, turning away to face the fight only to be confronted by the unfamiliar wind seraph standing directly in front of her, his arms crossed and his jagged teeth showing. Her eyes narrowed in readiness.

    "Out of my way." she growled lowly. Down by her side, her bandaged left hand flexed instinctively.

    The hatted seraph paused. After a moment, he smoothly sidestepping to the side without a word, letting the woman pass. Beyond him, the fight between the Shepherd and the monstrous hellion dragged on.

    Velvet took a step forward but hesitated for a split second, glancing over her shoulder at the trembling mess of a woman behind her. "…Looks like I was wrong about you." she stated dully.

    With that, the therion burst into motion, charging headlong towards the Shepherd's battle and leaving Rose alone. The assassin could only watch her leave, her chest rising and falling as the woman's words sank in, cutting her to her core. She gritted her teeth, dully staring at her trembling hands. The sharp clang of steel slamming on steel alongside the wealth of warped noises induced by the otherworldly powers of the Shepherd filled the chamber, making Rose want to simply cover her ears and curl up into a ball with her eyes shut until the world went back to normal. She was just so… confused. So out of her depth. So damn lost.

    She shook her head again, trembling. This just can't be…!

    "…se… Rose!"

    Rose slowly lifted her head from her hands, trembling as the voice slowly seeped in through the noise. "H… huh…?!" she gasped.

    Standing before her, Mikleo smiled gently. "…So you can hear me now?" he observed quietly.

    "Sorry about Velvet." he apologized conversationally. "She can sometimes be extraordinarily terrifying, to everyone." He shrugged hopelessly. "And I have no idea why she blew up on you just now. She's rather strange, if you ask me."

    Rose gulped, holding a trembling fist up to her chest and slowly reinforcing her resolve. "S… S-she's… the strange one?" she replied weakly, still purposefully keeping her gaze away from where the voice was coming from. "C-coming from a ghost, that's p-pretty rich."

    Mikleo shifted on his feet patiently. "I'm no ghost." he explained. "You needn't be scared, Rose. It's as Sorey said to you earlier. We seraphim are indeed Sorey's friends." The seraph idly readjusted the grip on his battle staff. "…But to be honest, I'm not entirely sure that our presence is going to be enough in the coming days." he admitted. "Not with what we're up against."

    Everything was wrong. She shouldn't be hearing this. This wasn't real. She was going insane. Yeah, that was it. She was simply going insane. Bonkers. Loony. Easy.

    But wait…

    Rose's unseeing eyes slowly turned upwards towards Mikleo. "T-Then…" she began hesitantly, "you're telling me…"

    Mikleo nodded slowly. "I've seen who you are, Rose. We all have." he stated gently. "And not only that, you seem to be gifted with the ability to sense us seraphim; a trait that is all but extinct today." He absently shifted his staff in his grip. "My point is that if you wanted to, you'd be welcome to join us in our travels. Maybe even sharing Sorey's powers through a squire's pact, if you'd like."

    Rose slowly got to her feet, braving her trembling limbs to stare out blindly in the direction of Mikleo's voice. "S-so I can what, help make the world a better place or something?" she began to squint shakily, barely making out the faint outline of something… abnormal in her vision.

    Mikleo crossed his arms. "Something like that." he agreed. "In any case, it's ultimately your call."

    Rose nodded slowly, her gaze slowly falling to her feet down below. Her fists clenched harshly. "…Say, what's your name?" she breathed softly.

    "Mikleo." the seraph replied gently.

    Rose nodded slowly. "Mikleo… right."

    Slowly, her head began to rise, her eyes linking completely with Mikleo's eyes as she broke into a slow smirk. "I guess that means I can't be going mad then. There's no way I'm creative enough to come up with a name as weird as that." She grinned self-deprecatingly directly at him.

    Mikleo blinked.

    Rose blinked. Her eyes bulged.

    "…AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!"

    SMACK!

    Mikleo groaned, having been bodily shoved to the ground. "U…ugh." he grunted, rolling over onto his feet. "That's a fine how-do-you-do if there ever was one…" he breathed.

    Heaving for breath, Rose glanced around frantically. Everything was different. Nothing was the same. Everywhere she looked she saw new, unfamiliar things that were freaky as hell… but she wouldn't turn back.

    "A-Alright then you stupid ghosts, seraphim, or whatever! Sorey, Velvet… Mikleo!" She shook her head wildly before calming herself, forcing her eyes open steadily as she took a whole different world before her. "I… I see you! I see you all! Now gimme that pact thingie and get me in on this now before I change my mind!" she yelled shakily.

    With a cry, Velvet twisted her body in midair and struck the flat side of the blade attempting to slice her in twain with her boot, landing a few meters away from her opponent and glancing over her shoulder at Rose. "You sure you can handle that?" she called back with a pointed glance; the unspoken challenge clear in the air.

    Her eyes narrowing, Rose's chin dipped in determination. "I have to make up for the mess I made of myself, don't I!" she shot back, putting both fists haughtily on her hips. "I'll prove that I can in fact handle myself, thank you very much!"

    Velvet huffed in bemusement. "Then you'd better not waste our time." she warned before jerking backwards, dodging the flames of the Dragonewt sent spewing her way.

    Rose gave her a predatorial smirk in return.

    Sorey yelled as he unleashed a flurry of sword strikes against his opponent, driving him off for a bit longer. "Rose! Are you…?" he met her gaze, carefully studying the determination steeling her features. Evidently satisfied, he gave a nod. "...Thank you." he returned, before charging back into the battle. "Lailah!" he called. "I'll buy us some time!"

    The fire seraph took an urgent step forward. "But Sorey! You have to give her a true name first!"

    "Wilkis Wilk!" the Shepherd yelled as he and the hellion exchanged blows once more.

    Lailah blinked twice. "Huh?" When she didn't get a response, she smiled weakly and conceded, "A-All right!"

    Together, Sorey and Velvet coordinated their attacks, repeatedly driving the hellion backwards and way from Lailah and Rose as the ritual began in the background. Edna and Mikleo supplanted their tactics simultaneously, ensuring that the powerful hellion could never focus completely on one person at any given point in time. Once the rhythm of battle was established, it was only a matter of time before help arrived.

    "…FETHMUS MIOMA!"

    BANG!

    Both Sorey and Velvet leapt out of the way as a massive longsword cleaved through the air, exploding upon impact with the floor and conjuring a massive pillar of fire that engulfed the entire body of the Dragonewt instantly, eliciting hideous shrieks of pain and agony. Garbed in the flowing blaze-white clothing of Lailah's Armatus, Rose leapt back to land shoulder to shoulder with Velvet and Sorey, her eyes brimming with power. Her gaze landed on Velvet briefly as their opponent burned. "See? I'm not a liar, I promise." she pointed out gleefully.

    Velvet simply waved a hand in turn. "I never said you were." she replied with an innocuous smirk.

    Rose gaped at her incredulously.

    "W-wait a minute… Hey!" she exclaimed in affront, scrunching up both fists and pouting. "You totally riled me up back there on purpose!"

    "Guys." Sorey ran a hand through his sweat-matted hair in exasperation. "Not the time!"

    Punctuating that statement, the burnt and blackened hellion reared back and uttered a furious roar that bounced deafeningly off the scorched walls of the desecrated chamber before it charged at the three of them once more.

    Growling herself, Rose turned to face the monster before her in irritation. "Listen, you oversized punk!" she yelled back. "I'm having a very, very, very strange day today, and I'm not at all happy about it! And I also just happen to be holding a giant flaming sword that I know how to swing! So bring it on!"

    Behind her back, Velvet and Sorey exchanged a glance.

    "Hm." Standing besides Sorey, Edna twirled her umbrella. "I sure didn't expect this to happen." she remarked passively.

    Mikleo gave her a murderous look. "It was your fault that she thought we were ghosts to begin with."

    Together, the Shepherd's group charged back into battle, now with a new warrior by their side. With Rose's presence, albeit unexperienced, the newborn dragon was soon cornered and subdued by the combined might of the handful of humans and seraphim. The flames of purification spewed high and bright as the monster was engulfed in a silver bonfire, signaling the end of the arduous battle.

    Gasping for breath, standing on shaking legs, Sorey let out a shuddering breath, falling to a knee and bracing himself in the aftermath of battle on the damaged stone bricks at his feet. "Phew!" he exclaimed.

    Finally managing to let the Armatus go, Rose managed to plop herself down beside him, similarly exhausted. "Wha… what a workout." she groaned. "We… we sure showed that thing… whatever it was."

    When Sorey opened his mouth to correct her, she sent him a death glare.

    "Don't you dare try and shove another lecture down my throat right now." she growled. "I'm still an assassin, you know. You can read me my bedtime story later when we're back at the hideout, alright?"

    Chuckling dryly, the Shepherd obliged, hanging his head silently as he caught his breath. Velvet slowly stepped over, leaning down and sitting beside Rose with a labored yet controlled breath. All around them, the seraphim gathered, all completely spent in the wake of the battle. Silence fell, resigning the towering chamber to silence once more.

    Dezel was nowhere yet to be seen, and yet there was no doubt in anybody's mind that the strange wandering wind seraph was close by.

    Rose slowly let her head fall backwards, leaning against the cool damp wall of the chamber. "…By the way." she whispered, trying not to break the calm. "Before that all started, you wanted to ask me something." She tilted her head. "What was it?"

    Sorey blinked. "Right." He abruptly pivoted his body to face Rose fully whilst crossing his legs. "I had something to ask, because I've finally decided what I want to do next."

    Edna cocked her head to the side. "You mean you've finally gotten over your slump ever since you got beat up by Kittybeard?"

    Rose blinked twice. "Kitty-what?"

    Sorey gave Edna a serious nod. "I have."

    His gaze turned to pass over every one of the group members before finally coming to a rest upon Rose. He raised his left hand. The hand that was covered by the ancient glove bearing the holy crest of the Shepherd on its back. "…'The true purpose of the Shepherd.'" he quoted quietly, tracing the embroidered insignia that meant so much to him with his eyes.

    "I… I failed back there." he admitted softly. "I was weak. My domain didn't stand a chance, and I was helpless as a result." Sorey took a deep breath, clenching his gloved hand into a fist. "There's no way I can possibly achieve what I set out to achieve… my dream… if I can't bear the true burden of the Shepherd upon my shoulders."

    Mikleo's eyes were solemn. Lailah's lips were drawn into a thin line. Edna's expression was uncharacteristically serious. All eyes were on Sorey as he slowly lifted his gaze, meeting Rose's.

    "I won't pretend like my failure never happened any longer. I won't pretend like everything hasn't changed." he declared solemnly. "No, my path forward is clear to me. If I'm to be a proper Shepherd who puts a stop to the reign of the Lord of Calamity, I must find my path, and do what needs to be done." He snapped his arm out to the side, gesturing towards the weathered mural at his back. "Whatever the shrines alluded to in that mural contain, they're a step in the right direction towards my ultimate goal."

    "No more searching for answers." he declared. "I know now that the world will not be safe nor will my dream come true with such evil inhabiting the land. It would be wrong to not act accordingly."

    Rose shifted in her seat, slowly understanding his point. "You wanted to ask me to come with you and help in your fight, huh?" she concluded seriously. "To help you find your power so that you can do what you need to do."

    Sorey nodded. "If you don't want to, I can have Lailah-"

    Rose abruptly leapt to her feet; all previous traces of fatigue seemingly having vanished into thin air. "Then we're headed to the closet shrine to here, huh? That's what, in Biroclef Ridge?" she gestured impatiently. "Then let's get going! it's a long walk and I'm hungry already."

    Sorey blinked, a smile slowly growing on his face. "Rose…"

    The assassin turned around with a smile. "Come on! I told you I'd help you out, didn't I?" she urged, putting both hands on her hips. "If I say I'm gonna do something, you'd better believe I'm doing it."

    "…Alright." Sorey smiled warmly back, getting to his feet as well. "Lead the way, Rose."

    "You bet I will." She nodded sagely. "You can get me up to speed on this whole Lord of Calamity thing to me on the way back to the hideout."

    "Sure." Sorey agreed easily, following close behind.

    Together, the utterly exhausted group of humans and seraphim began the long trip back through the damp, crowded ruins, hungry and tired. Yet, despite their discomfort, their steps were sure and steady as they walked forward, once more reassured to as the purpose and determination present in their leader's mind.

    Up above, through the thin well tunneling up to the surface, the moon could be seen, slowly descending in a rapidly brightening sky. Silence fell as the echoing footsteps of the explorers faded, leaving behind only an empty chamber once more. The mural depicting the future of the Shepherd rested on the walls, patiently awaiting the next disciple to discover the secrets it offered.

    ---​

    Massive thanks to Paragon of Awesomeness for betaing this chapter!
     
    Last edited: Dec 27, 2019
    havefeith, sainen and Dozla like this.
  16. Threadmarks: C14 - Iris
    CloudFry

    CloudFry Making the rounds.

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    Chapter 14 – Iris.

    As always, he felt everything.

    The tranquil lapping of the crystal-clear waters and the subtle nuances in the currents signaling the presence of fish traversing the shallow waters. The family of common martins sleeping together in their nest on one of the branches of the aged oak tree arcing over the river. The fickle, erratic disturbance in the breeze as the herd of deer slipped quietly through the forest, leaving jagged game trails behind in the dry grass. The woman silently gliding in the darkness towards him, making next to no noise as she approached.

    Dezel crossed his arms, facing out towards the opposite riverbank as she mutely stepped out from underneath the shadows, her expression unreadable. The silence drew on until it became plainly unbearable.

    "What?" he prompted impatiently, breaking the quiet.

    She abruptly angled herself away from him, her eyes fixed on his figure. "Tell me." she ordered plainly. "Just how long have you been pulling Rose's strings?"

    Dezel exhaled sharply, turning face her directly. "…What's it to you?" he eventually settled on replying.

    The woman shrugged. "You could call it a vested interest." She crossed her arms herself. "The others told me about your interest in the Armatus. If you're going to become Lailah's sub lord, I'll need to know a little more about what you're after first."

    "What are you, some sort of babysitter?" Dezel shot back.

    She didn't care in the least about his comment, instead falling into a slow, methodical pace, circling around him.

    "You're the reason why Rose denied the seraphim in the first place." she observed matter-of-factly. "You've been controlling her body periodically even though her body rejects your presence. You use your powers to give her an edge whenever she faces more than she can handle."

    The woman put a hand to her chin pensively as she walked. "…And from what I could gather from what the other assassins told me, you've also most likely been behind many of Rose's more spontaneous choices; her decision to follow the Shepherd being a prime example." She came to a halt directly in front of him, raising a pointed eyebrow. "And now here you are, looking to quietly gain the power of the Shepherd for yourself."

    Dezel glanced away, gritting his jagged teeth. "…You're an observant one." he growled.

    He abruptly uncrossed his arms, a smirk growing on his partially obscured face. "…You're travelling with the Shepherd for your own reasons as well, aren't you?" he shot back, fighting fire with fire. "I myself happen to know that Rose doesn't trust you, and for good reason. You called him your 'tool,' and apparently was perfectly content to sit by and watch as he struggled for his very life." He let out a grunt, shifting on his feet. "Maybe instead of worrying about me, you should worry about yourself instead, Velvet." he growled her name at length.

    Velvet tilted her head to the side, unimpressed. "What you just said is all the more reason why I should be concerned about the presence of someone like you joining us." she retorted. "I have enough on my plate as is."

    "…Hmph."

    Dezel slowly turned away from her, absently adjusting his top hat with his right hand. "I suppose I can't disagree with that logic."

    He let his hand fall from his head as he stared out across the river. "I have my personal agenda, that much is clear." he confirmed, idly observing the pack of wolves on the opposite riverbank through the medium of the night breeze. "If Rose has become the Shepherd's squire and is now able to use the Armatus, I'll use that fact to my own advantage."

    Studying the man with a hawkish gaze, Velvet asked, "What are you after, exactly?"

    Dezel turned to face her fully. "Revenge." he declared coldly.

    "Against the hellion who killed my friend, tarnished the name of the Windriders, branded them as criminals…" His jaw set in fury. "…and forced them to live out the rest of their lives in secrecy as an assassin's guild."

    Silence followed his declaration.

    "…I see."

    Dezel turned her back to her, once more returning his attention to the pack of wolves hunting across the river. "Let the Shepherd know about this, by all means." he allowed. "It's not like he's the sort of person to doom a vessel-less seraph to the fate of becoming a dragon by taking his vessel from him." He glanced over his shoulder, deathly serious. "Nevertheless, don't tell Rose any of what you know. Not if you don't want your own activities revealed regarding who you're manipulating." he openly threatened.

    Velvet put her hand on her hip with a stale gaze. "I'll do whatever I want, as long as it furthers my own goals." she replied unaffectedly.

    Dezel let out a rough chuckle. "…Then the same goes for me as well." he returned evenly. "I'll do what I want, regardless of what you or anyone else thinks of me."

    She sighed and waved a hand in the air dismissively. "As long as it doesn't interfere with my own plans, I really don't care what the hell you do." She gave him an appraising look, pursing her lips.

    "…But know this.

    "If you keep walking this path, things are going to go far differently that you expect." she stated quietly. "The sins that you allow yourself to commit… might just come back to bite you later on."

    "And what, exactly," Dezel growled lowly, "is that supposed to mean?"

    "Nothing." Velvet glanced away; her expression unreadable. "They're just empty words.

    "…Speaking from experience, that's all." she muttered.

    Without another word, she turned on her heel and left through the forest, her coat flapping in the breeze. He frowned as he felt her leave through the wind, her parting words echoing in his mind.

    "…Tch."

    Shaking his head, he turned back to the river, once more expanding his senses towards the world. Out of all the things he could feel at any given moment, nothing stood out more than the keen sense of poignant, everlasting hatred he nurtured in his heart. Nobody else could understand this feeling.

    Nobody.

    It was what made him who he was, and that would never change.

    The river beside him continued to flow as he stood there, alone.

    ---​

    "…I thought we'd be fine… but now, I'm not so sure." Sorey mumbled under his breath.

    Mikleo's disembodied voice agreed. "I think it's best that you hide who you are, but the idea of making someone like you tell a lie is like…" he trailed off.

    "It's…" Although Lailah wasn't visible, her falteringly optimistic expression was clear in the tone of her voice. "It's like trying to convince your best hen to lay hardboiled eggs."

    "…Exactly." Mikleo confirmed.

    Dezel's voice rang out alongside the rest of the seraphim with distinct sense of urgency. "Guess we better get ready to make a run for it."

    Rose scratched her head nonchalantly, leaning back with her hand on her hip as she and Sorey took another step forward in the inspection line towards Lastonbell. They were surrounded on all sides by all sorts of travelers; merchants looking to find profit in the city of artisans, wearied family members just looking to find a bed for the night, and seedy-looking characters, anxiously glancing left and right as they were pushed closer and closer towards the line of soldiers inspecting the people entering the city.

    "Guys, we have passes and everything." Rose was evidently completely unconcerned despite being beside the very person the soldiers were looking for. "Just chill." she stressed. "I got this." She shuddered abruptly, visibly fighting her urge to hug herself instinctively. "Just… No creepy head-voices for the time being. Got it?" she hissed.

    "Hmph." Dezel wasn't too outwardly accommodating. "So long as you don't cause any trouble." he warned.

    Sorey himself gave Rose a nod, readying himself for whatever she had in mind. "Kay. I'll leave it to you."

    She gave him a look over her shoulder as they took another step forward in tandem. "You'd better." she warned. "Just keep your mouth shut, or the whole thing will come tumbling down like a house of cards."

    She suddenly blinked, glancing around in surprise. "Say... We're missing one, aren't we?"

    "Huh? …You're right!" Sorey too looked around in concern, tilting his chin upwards to see over the heads of the crowd. "Where's Velvet?" he asked, scanning for the familiar black jacket in the mix of travelers. "Did we lose her in the crowd?"

    "Edna's not here either." Mikleo abruptly spoke up again. "I can't feel her inside-"

    "Aaah!" Rose's instinctive yelp of surprise drew quite a few unwanted stares her way, which she quickly improvised and covered up by wincing and rubbing her foot as if she'd stepped on a needle.

    "…Hey!" she hissed under her breath as people slowly lost interest in her. "What did I just say about the voices?!"

    "You two! I said, 'next!'"

    Both she and Sorey stood up straight as they registered that they'd suddenly made it to the front of the line.

    "Coming!" Rose chirped cheerfully as she stepped forward, Sorey hurriedly dogging her footsteps while trying his best to appear calm and collected whilst at the same time keeping his mouth zipped shut.

    Meanwhile, perched high up on the city walls, Velvet watched from above as the Shepherd and his squire trotted up to the lead guard overseeing the operation in the center of the square leading to the grand city of Lastonbell, a mix of bemusement and exasperation on her face.

    A hum of mana announced the appearance of Edna who materialized standing beside her, her umbrella open to shield her delicate self from the sun battering down upon them. "Tired of playing along?" she asked.

    Velvet just sighed, waving the bandaged hand perched on her bent knee with clear disdain. "I've had enough of this game for a lifetime, thanks." she grumbled under her breath.

    Edna could only tilt her head in bemused curiosity at that.

    Together, the two of them watched as down below, the show began before an audience consisting of citizens of Lastonbell, travelers entering the city, and soldiers seeking the heretic Shepherd.

    A man with strikingly chiseled features stepped forward, habitually placing a hand on the steel sword with the subtle nuances of a person who knew how to use his weapon. "I am Sergei Strelka, Captain of the Platinum Knights, Defenders of the Glory of the Rolance Empire." He announced formally, proudly puffing his armored chest out in the process. He nodded to Sorey and Rose. "In cooperating to ensure the empire's peace, you prove your gratitude as much as your loyalty."

    Up above on the city walls, Edna twirled her umbrella. "Is he always like this?" she deadpanned. "Or are his boxers just chafing him?"

    By her side, Velvet let out a huff of amusement. "…like two peas in a pod."

    "Please." Edna waved her hand disdainfully. "I have some taste in my vessels, thanks."

    The therion smirked in response. "If you say so."

    "Here you go!"

    Rose announced happily as she pulled out and presented a stack of neatly pressed papers to the captain from her pack. "Our Merchant Guild pass." she elaborated. "We've come to Lastonbell on business. Specifically, the collection of a bill."

    "Hmm." The captain raised an impressed eyebrow as he inspected the document. "The Sparrowfeathers, are you? Quite impressive."

    Rose nodded amicably, shifting on her feet urgently. "We've got a strict deadline; no time to waste." She lifted a hand to point down the main thoroughfare cutting through the vast city behind the captain. "The place of business in question is the liquor establishment on the main road."

    "Ah… yes. Boris' Canteen?" Captain Sergei agreed readily, handing the papers back to Rose with a smile. "That place certainly gets an awful lot of business."

    Rose primly returned the papers to their rightful spot in her pack. "And we deeply appreciate being a part of it!" She tilted her head. "Is there anything else?"

    "No. My gratitude for cooperating with our inspection." The captain stepped aside to allow the two to pass, his silver armor clanking with the movement.

    "Thanks for all your hard work!" Rose said in farewell as she and Sorey trotted onwards past him and into the city.

    Up on the city walls, Edna gave Velvet a look. "What was it again that you were worried about?" she prompted.

    Velvet just shook her head, exasperation dominating her expression. "…Is it ever so simple?" she retorted dully.

    "Next! You there!" Rose and Sorey froze as the captain addressed the latter directly. "Quite some garb you're wearing." he remarked, stepping closer towards Sorey with a curious expression. "Are you this young woman's guard?"

    "Drat." Edna deadpanned before she vanished promptly in a flash of green.

    "Uh-"

    SMACK!

    Sorey winced imperceptibly as Edna suddenly appeared from out of nowhere just to poke him mercilessly in the leg with her umbrella, stifling any words that were about to come out of his mouth.

    "Oh, er…" Rose valiantly managed to pick up the slack, turning around to answer the captain's question. "A girl doesn't dare travel alone!" she replied lightly.

    The captain gave her an inquisitive look. "Then why does he carry an ornamental sword?" he asked pointedly.

    Mikleo appeared in a flash of green, taking an incredulous step forward. "He knew that Sorey's sword was ornamental?!" He exclaimed. "He's seeing right through us!"

    Dezel's boots squeaked on the pavement below as he took a battle stance, his pendulums hanging readily at the base of his palms. "He's less of an idiot than he looks." He uttered lowly.

    "Wait." Rose's whisper was urgent. "There are people watching."

    She quickly turned around; a wide, nonchalant smile plastered on her face. "Well, y'know… We have our reasons!" she eventually settled on saying.

    The captain's response was edged. "I'm asking your guard here." he stated plainly, turning his head towards Sorey expectantly.

    Rose swore under her breath.

    "Repeat after me."

    Sorey blinked in surprise as Lailah took the initiative, standing behind him evidently with lines ready to be recited. He nodded his head imperceptibly, turning his body to face Sergei.

    Up above, Velvet lifted a hand to rub her temples. It was an endeavor doomed from the start. Reports of the Shepherd's features and clothing would've travelled far and wide by this point. Combined with the undeniably bad luck that seemed to follow the group, there was not a chance in hell that the captain wouldn't've seen through their scheme. All in all, an irritatingly familiar scene.

    Now, all that remained to be seen was how the Shepherd would…

    "Please! Forgive my unquestionably suspicious appearance!" Sorey burst out monotonously and loudly. "The truth is, I am a son of a provincial lard!"

    SMACK!

    "Lord!" Sorey yelped, wincing as Edna's umbrella struck his leg again like a viper.

    Sergei blinked. "Hm?"

    Mikleo quickly walked around the participants of the play, giving Rose an urgent gesture. She blinked and nodded, trying her best to improvise.

    "That's right!" she chirped. "My husband here is nobility!"

    Dezel visibly recoiled from the statement.

    Lailah's eyes shined in amazement. "What?!" she gasped. "You're married?!"

    Mikleo facepalmed.

    The play continued. "Never had I lifted anything heavier than a fork in my life!" Sorey recited with a high pitch. "Yet by chance did I fall in love with a travelling merchant! In the throes of passion, I threw my money and land away to be with her, just over a year ago!"

    Apparently, Rose had forgotten the entire pretense at the first mention of needless financial waste. "You did?!" she asked incredulously.

    Dezel had pushed his hat down as low as it could go without falling off, covering his entire face.

    Both Lailah and Mikleo furiously consulted each other, managing to compensate for the assassin's slip. "E-Even my wife didn't know the full truth!" Sorey exclaimed. "The cruelties of the outside world taught me how feeble I truly am, but even so I knew a husband has a duty to protect his wife."

    Edna fiercely seized Sorey's right wrist, forcing him to draw his sword and wave it around like a pitchfork. "So," Sorey recited Lailah's fiercely whispered lines, "I wear an ornamental sword at my side, as a hollow pretense of strength." Mikleo half-heartedly moved his other arm in tandem with Edna's manipulations before giving up and quietly resting his hand on his face instead.

    "Laugh…" Sorey recited woodenly as his arms fell to his side in the absence of the guiding seraphim. "Laugh at the weak will of a sad, broken man!"

    Dezel roughly pushed past Lailah and jerked the Shepherd's head down, completing the image. Sorey let out an involuntary groan of complaint as he was forced into a pathetic bow of shame. "Sorry!" he hissed.

    Rose quickly took up the slack, jogging over and patting him reassuringly. "You're doing your best!" she responded with honest sentiment. "It's cool!"

    Sorey met her eyes as she held his shoulder. "…Oh, my dearest!" he exclaimed dramatically. "Your sweet words are succor to my tired limbs!" Edna roughly dragged his arm into an angle, forcing his hand to limply rest over Rose's on his shoulder.

    Mikleo's head dipped even deeper into his facepalm.

    So came the end of the play as the seraphim had apparently decided that was sufficient, leaving the two of them frozen in that position, awaiting the judgement of the audience.

    Up on the walls, Velvet continued to rub her temples in utter exasperation. She could only be grateful that she had had the presence of mind to slip away the moment she had seen where things were going. Her hand fell from her head as she instead watched the group of seraphim chattering frantically whereas the humans listened on silently with clear panic in their eyes. A mismatched group of strange characters brought together by strange twists of fate alone against the entire world. If only it weren't for her…

    She sighed, roughly forcing herself to consider her options. She would have to intervene and help them escape as quickly as possible, somehow. She could perhaps cause a distraction elsewhere to draw the majority of the troops away, or simply go in and try her best to clear the travelers at the mouth of the gates for a quicker escape. Either way, it would do her no good if her tool was captured and sentenced to death.

    "Sow the seeds of love, and they will bloom… no matter how arid the terrain!"

    Captain Sergei had evidently been utterly overcome with emotion. "Live. And be strong!" he cried, turning away from them both and squeezing his eyes shut. "…Next!" he announced, clearing his throat. Apparently, there wasn't any need for her to intervene at all.

    Velvet's eye twitched.

    "…The hell?" she muttered out loud.

    Sorey and Rose near stumbled over themselves while walking away, exchanging utterly incredulous looks between themselves and the seraphim walking alongside them.

    After a moment of processing exactly what had just happened, the therion perched on the top of the walls shook her head and turned her mind to the task at hand, regardless. The wind whistled in her ear as she smoothly leapt through the air and onto a branch of a tall tree near the interior wall before efficiently making her way down the tree and onto ground level without being seen.

    Eventually she herself made it to the front of one of the lines. By then the captain had been replaced by a lower ranking soldier of the Platinum Knights who gestured her forward gruffly.

    "The name's Velvet." she introduced, giving the soldier a nod as she stepped forward. "I'm here to see Leo."

    "Ah, you." The knight was quick to step aside with an amicable gesture. "He gave us a heads up that his cousin would be dropping by. You should go on over to the local garrison whenever you're free. He's always over there, doing some weird thing or another." He shrugged helplessly.

    "Thanks."

    She gave him a nod of gratitude before turning away and stepping forward into the grand city of Lastonbell, nothing more but an innocuous traveler with an easy in to enter the city during turbulent times.

    This time, thankfully, there had been no doves involved.

    ---​

    Children squawked and screamed at each other as they galloped through the crowded streets and alleyways, dodging and weaving between the multitude of travelers, merchants, and workers all traversing the path with varying degrees of urgency in their paces. Youthful teenagers gathered in packs at street corners in front of popular taverns and bars, chattering amicably amongst themselves. Scattered flocks of city pigeons fluttered noisily above the heads of the humans, migrating aimlessly between the tall stone towers and sloped tiled rooves in search of a by-chance dropped piece of food. Above all of the clamor and bustle loomed the Great Belfry of Lastonbell in the brilliant afternoon sky; a monument to the fruits of combined human labor towering over the sprawling metropolis.

    The entrancing melody generated by the machine-run Belfry resounded off the walls surrounding the group as they wandered through the shadowed alleyways of the town, carefully sidestepping the busy residents hurrying along the same paths. Sorey and Mikleo hadn't stopped gaping in awe, glancing animatedly about left and right in the wake of each turn.

    "It looks like the warehouse district of the city." Mikleo wagered. "This must be where all of the merchandise being shipped to and from places like the Capital are being held. It's a serious amount of dedicated space."

    "That explains the amount of guards patrolling the area." Sorey noted. "With so many goods tucked away in one central spot, it makes sense to keep it under careful lock and key."

    Mikleo glanced around some more, idly side-stepping a trio of children sprinting by Sorey and Rose. "Funny how the warehouses are all built out of fine material." he commented. "Normally such buildings would only be designed to keep out the elements. But here, at first glance they almost seem livable."

    "…Oh!" Sorey blinked. "You don't suppose these buildings are part of the old fort that this town used to be part of?"

    "The central headquarters, you mean?" Mikleo covered his mouth with his hand in thought. "…It seems possible. I doubt such aged, confined spaces built for minimalist wartime would be very attractive to those settling into the newly designated town. Perhaps the people of the town ultimately decided to demolish the interiors and simply keep the shells of the buildings to act as warehouses since nobody else wanted them."

    Sorey ran a hand through his hair. "Then all of this was once the grandest part of a massive military installation and is now regarded as simply storage space in comparison to the grand buildings overshadowing it. Incredible!"

    "There's so much history here, everywhere you look." Mikleo agreed wholeheartedly. "I could spend a whole lifetime here studying the ways the lives of the people today build off of the work of the people in the past."

    "All the intrinsic features of humanity are here, right before our eyes if you think about it that way." Sorey nodded, in deep thought.

    Rose exchanged a glance with Lailah as they trailed behind the boys.

    "…Guys seriously geek out over the weirdest things." She waved a helpless hand in the air. "Warehouses are just big glorified closets, aren't they?"

    The fire seraph giggled in response. "Well, let them have their fun."

    "…Hmph." Dezel pulled his hat down lower, trailing behind the group at a conspicuous distance as he listened to the world around him with the wind as a medium. A pack of stray dogs barked and yipped as they were chased off by a pair of guards from a nearby warehouse. A barn owl grumbled as it shifted in its upside-down perch, fighting to stay asleep in the darkness.

    The more prominent noises coming from the warehouses began to fade as the group made their way out of the district, being replaced by chirping birds and rustling crops. Bright patches of yellow neighbored lush brushes of green, waving in the wind. Together, the group walked alongside the fields, admiring the stark contrast between the industrial warehouses and the widespread farms laid within the interior of the city wall.

    "Say, Sorey?"

    Rose's voice intruded upon Dezel's meditation as she jogged up and barged in between Sorey and Mikleo. "Aren't you worried about how Velvet just disappeared on us back there?"

    "Not at all." he replied easily, resting a hand on his hip. "She can handle herself."

    "Sure seems that way." Her left hand made its way behind her neck in a display of idle curiosity. "…Say, how'd she end up tagging along with you in the first place? Been meaning to ask this for a while."

    The mildly transparent amber fabric bound to the frame on Edna's umbrella reflected the bright sunlight as she turned it in a single revolution. "Lost cousin. Inborn resonance." she explained simply. "She apparently thought she'd have a better chance at finding him if she travelled with the Shepherd."

    Rose blinked. "A lost cousin?" she repeated. "How'd she end up losing him then?"

    "Well…" Mikleo scratched his head. "That's about all we know. She actually didn't tell us too much about herself."

    She tilted her head curiously. "And that… doesn't worry any of you?"

    "Nope." Sorey shook his head with a smile. "If Velvet has things she doesn't want to talk about, that's fine with me. She's a friend of ours and has helped me and the others out more times than I can count. That's all that matters."

    His voice carried over the breeze, past the flowing stalks of wheat and tail ends of radishbells towards a raised stone park overlooking the entire area to reach the keen ears of the therion watching in the distance. Leaning against the stone fence encircling the raised platform, Velvet continued to track the progress of the Shepherd's group from afar with an unreadable expression.

    "Amazing, isn't it?"

    Weathered leather boots squeaked on stone as someone approached her from behind, accompanied by the sharp, acidic scent of tobacco. She turned around in surprise. "What?"

    A knowing smile greeted her, presented by a man clad in a thick, sky-blue jacket holding a softly smoking pipe held in his gloved left hand. His cheery smile widened as he returned her inquisitive gaze, stretching his wrinkled skin and moving his goatee and mustache consisting of uninterrupted silver facial hair.

    "They call it the city of artisans." He strolled forward with the gait of a man whom was more than accustomed to walking, gesturing with his pipe towards the view presented before them. "Every time I find myself in this place, I find myself swept away by the sheer novelty of it all without fail. The bells, the bustle, the sheer vibrancy of it all! Nowhere else in this entire world could a man possibly find a more colorful settlement booming with character and charm." He paused to lift his pipe to his lips, inhaling deeply with an air of satisfaction.

    Despite herself, Velvet found herself responding to the strange white-haired old man that had so suddenly struck up a conversation with her. "What makes this place so special?" she asked.

    "The simple prevalence of the arts flowing in its veins." he answered, his breath coming out accompanied by wisps of smoke. "The potter in the corner store. The architect on the rooftop. The trader on the street and the worker in the warehouse. Representatives from every profession in the world could be found here if you looked hard enough. It makes for a brilliant canvas of civilization."

    Velvet shifted on her feet, crossing her arms. "That would also include the army garrisoned in the city this close to the front lines, then. The farmers with withering crops and merchants with dwindling stocks of food as well." she pointed out blandly. "If you ask me, the people of this city probably ought to spend less time worrying about how pretty things look and more about keeping their families warm and fed through the winter instead."

    In response, the man nodded deeply, the shine fading from his smile. "…Indeed, lass. We are in troubled times, after all. The sort of times where the finer things in life seem to lose meaning to most." His pipe smoldered quietly in the midday heat, held up by his steady hand.

    "…If you look around," he abruptly noted, "you'll find strange variations in the design of the buildings surrounding this area in particular compared to the others in the city. Why, might you say, would this be the case, missy?" He left the question hanging in the air as he once more returned his attention to his pipe.

    The overpowering scent of tobacco surrounded Velvet's world as she tilted her head to the side, considering the man's question. "Because this place once used to be a military fortress." she answered. "That's the reason behind the tall city walls and the presence of a belfry that once served as a communication tower."

    The stranger sucked on his pipe. "Correct." he responded happily.

    He put his pipe down and crossed his arms over the railing of the park, closing his eyes and enjoying the light breeze. "This city, grand as it is in character and veracity, was built in the first place with the sole purpose to serve as an institution of warfare. A shrine to blood and battle; an impregnatable display of power and prowess to the enemy, whomever politics would dictate that to be at the time. Truly, rich within the very bones of this city, lies an allegory to the true nature of man."

    "Not a particularly optimistic outlook." she noted.

    "There will always be shadows that accompany the light." he replied evenly. "It simply seems to be a fact of the human condition. Conflict and peace. Abundance and famine." His head turned to meet her gaze, an unreadable glint in his eyes. "Prosperity… and Calamity." He turned to face her fully, his kind smile unwavering. "Wouldn't you agree, lass?"

    Her eyes had hardened.

    "…Why do I get the feeling you didn't start chatting with me just by chance?" she muttered.

    He shrugged unaffectedly, glancing over his shoulder at the distant belfry shining bright in the glistening sunlight. "…The clocks may tick," he muttered softly, "the bells may ring, but at the end of the day there is nothing more inevitable in this world than of the dual-faced nature of man. It is only through acknowledgement of this fact that mankind might move forward and create something better; something greater out of the ruins and chaos of the past."

    He met her eyes directly, returning her suspicious look with a serious gaze. "…And that, in its entirety,is the story behind why this city is so special. Make sense?" There was something distinctly familiar in that gaze of his. Unsettlingly so.

    With a creeping sensation nagging her, Velvet opened her mouth and began, "You-"

    "Mayvin!" Rose's call rang out in the air.

    A shiver ran down her spine.

    "Velvet! There you are." Sorey greeted cheerily as the rest of the group trotted up to her and the old man called Mayvin, who turned to greet him and Rose with a beaming smile. "This someone you know, Rose?"

    "Right." Rose jogged up and slapped the old man on the shoulder happily, who let out a mock groan in response. "This is Mayvin." she introduced. "He's not with the guild, but we owe him a whole lot. He's an explorer, and yes," she added, "they still make those."

    "Cool!" Sorey exclaimed.

    Mayvin chuckled heartily with a respectful nod. "Pleased to make your acquaintance. You are no doubt the Shepherd I've heard so much about?"

    "My name is Sorey. How'd you know I was the Shepherd?"

    "Hahaha! Isn't it obvious? Anyone could tell just by looking at you."

    Rose sighed, putting her hand to her temple. "We're lucky the guards at the gate weren't so observant then." She glanced at Velvet. "Looks like you've met Velvet already."

    "Not quite." Mayvin's boots squeaked on the stone as he stepped forward, producing a hand to offer to Velvet, a bright smile on his face. "It is a pleasure to finally meet the Shepherd's advisor as well." he professed. "You can simply call me Mayvin."

    Carefully watching his eyes, Velvet grasped the hand and shook. "Velvet." she responded simply.

    He answered with a nod; his broad smile unwavering. With that, he turned back towards the Shepherd and Rose. "That reminds me, Shepherd…"

    No longer the focus of the conversation, Velvet turned away from them all and returned to leaning on the stone railing, a hard look in her eyes. The city of Lastonbell sprawled out before her. High up above, the beautifully sculptured belfry began to clang once more.

    ---​

    Silence reigned supreme within the deserted sanctuary. Every single slip of the boot on carpet felt like sacrilege against the all-encompassing absence of noise in the vast vaulted chamber. Rows of pews lined the elegantly carpeted path towards the altar stationed beneath a glistening mosaic of stained glass that glowed serenely with an otherworldly light.

    "…"

    Amidst the silence, a soft, focused muttering became distinct to the others exploring the sanctuary. Sorey turned around curiously as Rose trotted up to him with a distracted expression. "What was that?"

    At his side, Velvet too came to a halt and turned around. "Something wrong?"

    Her muttering increased in volume.

    "Fethmus Mioma, Luzrov Rulay, Hephsin Yulind… Fethmus Mioma, Luzrov Rulay, Hephsin Yulind…!" Suddenly she whirled around, clenching both her fists and crying out into the empty sanctuary, "FETHMUS MIOMA, LUZROV RULAY, HEPHSIN YULIND!" Her voice resounded off the stone walls with a near deafening holy volume.

    Velvet dryly raised a single eyebrow in response.

    Beside her, Sorey took a step back. "W-Whoa, Rose! What are you doing?!"

    "You tell me!" The assassin grumbled back, pouting ferociously. "When I formed the pact with Lailah, she told me I had to remember those in, like, three seconds! And now I can't get them out of my head!"

    The seraph in question brought two hands together brightly, her cheeks reddening. "It was an emergency." Lailah defended herself. "I couldn't help it!"

    Velvet let out a breath. "If it's been bothering you so much, write them down." she suggested. "You should be glad the learning curve to be a squire isn't steeper."

    "If that's true, then why didn't you make a pact with Sorey yourself?" Rose grumbled, leaning on the arm rest of one of the pews. "You apparently have plenty of this 'resonance' stuff that the princess didn't have."

    Mikleo's chuckle preceded him playfully resting an elbow on Sorey's shoulder. "Velvet? Sorey's squire?" he laughed openly at the notion, nudging his friend playfully. "She'd totally eat him alive!"

    "Yep." Edna, sitting in the front row of the pews, deadpanned. "Guaranteed."

    "…Hmph." Dezel settled back on the stone wall in the corner, tilting his hat forward. "Like a lion for a housecat." he noted with amusement.

    Velvet just rolled her eyes. "…If you say so."

    Heat flushing his cheeks, Sorey fought back against all the emasculating comments of the seraphim. "N-no! It's nothing like that!" He winced, feeling Velvet's hard gaze turn on him. "I-I mean, yeah, maybe just a little bit…" He hurried on to the main point before his words could get twisted any further. "What I mean to say is that-"

    "Yeah, yeah." Rose tilted her head to the side. "Velvet is Velvet. That about right?" she interrupted dryly. By her side, Lailah burst into another fit of giggles, covering her smile with a hand of casting cards.

    "Y… yeah." Sorey finished with a weak smile.

    Velvet put a hand on her hip. "It's just not who I am." she answered simply. Her gaze slid dryly to the fire seraph standing beside her. "One could say it goes against my nature." she quipped ambiguously.

    Lailah's eyebrow twitched.

    Rose hummed thoughtfully in response. "…Yeah. That makes total sense to me."

    She shot Sorey a sideways smirk. "Sorey would totally suck at keeping a strong grown-ass woman like you leashed up like his own personal hound." she goaded.

    The Shepherd's embarrassed sputtering elicited grins from all those present.

    "A… anyway." Sorey managed to compose himself and turn his back to the rest of them, facing the alter of the sanctuary. "I think it's safe to say that there's no guardian seraph here."

    Edna crossed her legs on her seat in front of the pews. "Then what should we do?" she prompted. "Look for a seraph who can bless it?"

    Rose scratched her head. "Anyone wanna clue me in? What's a guardian seraph do?"

    "Guardian seraphim maintain a dominion over the surrounding area," Lailah explained succinctly, "helping to reduce malevolence and correspondingly the number of hellions created. For example, that was what we did back in Marlind to help reduce the effects of the plague, which was largely spurred on by the presence of overwhelming malevolence. By establishing Rohan as a primary benefactor of the area, alongside a dedicated caretaker of the pure vessel, we were successful in quelling the plague in the city."

    "But here," Mikleo analyzed, "we'd have no idea where to start looking for a seraph who could potentially serve in that role. We'd be here for weeks."

    Sorey nodded soberly. "We're better off leaving this place for now. We've got to keep our priorities straight."

    Edna tilted her head. "The shrines, then?"

    "Yeah."

    "…You'll have a hell of a time with that, "Dezel muttered, "if you can't even tell when you're being followed."

    "Who are you talking to? The stained glass?"

    Sergei Strelka, Captain of the Platinum Knights, Defenders of the Glory of the Rolance Empire stood alone in the entryway to the sanctuary, his left hand resting on the pommel of his sword as his eyes leapt between Sorey, Rose, before lingering on Velvet. "…Didn't you have urgent business at the restaurant on the main street?" he asked them conversationally. "What was the name again…?"

    Rose shook herself. "Y-yes, right!" she chirped. "Boris' Canteen!"

    The captain's eyebrows narrowed; all pretenses of conversation gone. "There is no restaurant by that name."

    Dezel cursed, readying his pendulum down by his waist. "He's alone. Let's take him down and get outta here!" He yelled, jerking his arm towards the armored man.

    CLANG!

    The pendulum clanged noisily as it was deflected against the wall of the sanctuary, having been driven off by a swift stroke of the longsword in the captain's hand. "What?!" Dezel gasped. "Can he see us?!"

    "Nope. He's just that good." Edna sighed, leaning back in the pew. "…Have fun with your human friend, Sorey." she said dismissively.

    Rose stared at her incredulously. "Huh? Seriously?!"

    The Shepherd put a hand on the pommel of his sword with a shrug. "This is a human problem, after all." He raised his voice, "Outside, then?"

    Sergei nodded sharply before turning around on his heel. "Outside."

    As Sorey started walking, following Sergei out the door alone, Velvet glanced to the side at Rose. "Worried?" she asked.

    "Well… yeah!" Rose exclaimed. "Aren't you worried that Sorey's a bit too in over his head? That guy's like, super strong!"

    Mikleo put a hand on his chin seriously. "I'd imagine she's just curious to see how far her sword training has taken Sorey." he guessed. "Am I wrong?"

    "…That about sums it up." Velvet waved a hand, beckoning them forward. "Come on."

    Together, the group stepped out into the bright evening sunlight, out onto the paved stones littering the neat fenced-in courtyard of the Lastonbell sanctuary. It wasn't hard to spot the glistening armor of the captain and the brightly embroidered cloak of the Shepherd as they squared off before the fountain in the middle of the enclosed space.

    "I shall apologize for deceiving you." Captain Sergei's commanding voice bellowed out. "Now then…" Metal sang as his longsword was ripped from its sheath, wielded by a determined warrior clad in silver. "You're going to tell me who you really are!" he roared as he slashed his sword towards Sorey.

    His blade whistled through empty air as the Shepherd merely sidestepped the blow, instead retaliating with a quick jab of his ceremonial sword inside the captain's guard. With almost incredible strength, Sergei tensed his muscles and wrenched his sword back up to parry.

    CLANG!

    Boots ripped on grass as the two began to circle each other like a pair of dueling bucks, eyes locked firmly onto the other's gaze. Through an unseen signal, both fighters lunged forward once more.

    Steel slammed harshly against steel over and over again between irregular intervals the size of fractions of a second. Sorey and Sergei both grunted regularly as they danced to the metallic tune of combat. The ceremonial shortsword of the Shepherd jabbed with quick and light stabs, punctuated by heavy-handed swings and somewhat unorthodox dodges. On the other hand, the captain's style was defined by bold, defining slashes carving unerringly through the air with a reach far outpacing his opponent's weapon. The fight continued.

    "Blade Fang!" Sorey cried, leaping upwards with a slash before quickly following the maneuver up with a downward stroke, forcing the captain to the side.

    "Impressive!" his opponent remarked, smoothly driving his sword to the left before retaliating with a sweeping slash at Sorey's gut. "Allow me to respond in kind!" His eyes narrowed as he took a step back, holding his offhand splayed before him in preparation.

    "LION'S HOWL!"

    BANG!

    Sorey barely managed to avoid the spontaneous burst of azure mana that erupted from the captain's left hand. "Whoa!" he yelped, quickly grasping his sword with both hands to guard against a follow-up swing. "What was that?!" With a grunt, the Shepherd pushed the locked blade off his own and answered with a whirling slash.

    Sergei side-stepped the move, readjusting his grip on his sword with a ferocious expression. "An arte! Handed down with pride in my country!" he declared, sweeping his blade from the grass to the sky with Sorey right in between.

    To his surprise, his opponent responded not by dodging by any orthodox means, but rather by diving towards his offhand side with his blade swapped to his left hand.

    "Eat this!" Sorey yelled, slashing as he touched down with his right hand on the grass.

    CLANG!

    "Agh!" The captain grunted and stumbled forward in surprise, fighting the pain that had violently erupted from his left ribcage where his opponent's blade had collided against his armor.

    Not letting up, the Shepherd got to his feet and tossed his sword in the air with his offhand. Tensing his muscles, he leapt up after it. His fist closed perfectly upon the hilt of the sword in midair as he fell down from the heavens, mana aiding his descent straight towards Sergei, whom had just barely managed to regain his grip on his sword in a clumsy upward guard.

    "SHATTERFANG!" Sorey cried fiercely, wrenching his sword down combined with his own momentum.

    CRASH!

    Velvet, Rose, and the rest of the seraphim whom had also come outside to spectate watched as Sergei's platinum armor tumbled across the courtyard, tearing up grass and expounding dirt into the air. Eventually the man came to a halt on his knees and sword, gasping for breath.

    Sorey soon found his feet, himself heaving for air as he quickly felt himself for any wounds in the wake of the attack. Having found none, he turn