So hey there everyone.

I'm going to keep this short and say that the reasons I temporarily stopped writing this story were complicated and personal – it has a lot to do with what the story itself was a vessel for in my life at the time of writing it, and now that it isn't the case as much anymore I was finding it hard to put the same love and effort into it.

But I'm going to change that, slowly and gradually.

I might not update this story on a daily basis (definitely not), but I'd at least like it to be a weekly or bi-weekly thing. Why? Because I have had it in my head for months that this story has its flaws, and it deserves to have them fleshed out and changed - but most of all it deserves to be finished. Not rushed into an ending, but given the ending it was meant to have gotten probably months ago. I will rewrite the story and change those flaws on my own time, when the story is complete.

But it's also been in my head that this story ought to be a comic. It was originally written as if it were a comic – just images jumbled up in my head connected by thin barriers of text that I was no good at slinging around. It's definitely a more visual story. These thoughts have been in my head off and on, and I'm at a point in my art that I really think I can pull this off.

But that's for another time. Right now, look at that – there's a blue moon in the sky. Halley's Comet has flown past. Something else of that sort – I've updated, and I intend to keep updating!

Thank you all for your love and support - I'm back, and I'm not going anywhere!

778: Building the Defenses (Part 2: Trenches? Really? Is That the Best We Can Do?)

The Shainingu Tokai was bustling. Loaño led Mattie out of the Legion's garrison, arms folded over her chest, trying to think of the best ways to fortify the walled city.

Why do I get the feeling that fortifications are just a placebo? She wondered. I doubt the Fates would send something against us that could be stopped by simple fortifications.

Maybe, AA said, maybe not. The Fates will either think too little of you, little one, or too highly. In their desperation, surely there might be something they have not accounted for?

We can only hope…

"This city is so pretty!" Mattie said, her voice light with awe. Her green eyes were wide with wonder as they traveled up and down the tall spires of shimmering crystal. She looked at Loaño and asked, "Are they really made of dragon's scales?"

Loaño nodded, recalling her own history lessons about the city. She said, "The oldest buildings are made of dragon's scales, but the newer ones are hewn from stone or wood, since there's peace between the Draygoons and the Elves now. Building their city from their enemies' scales was pretty much a way of telling them to fuck off."

"Elves… aren't very nice, are they?" Mattie wondered. "I mean, you and Yuugata-sama are, but…"

Loaño frowned. "It's not that they're mean," she said, "they're just a warlike people. They celebrate battles and conquests, and it means a lot to them to win – so they'll do whatever they have to."

Mattie played with a bit of her hair. "I get it," she decided. Looking up at the high walls of the city, she asked, "So… where should we go first?"

"I'm thinking we should do something about the land outside the walls," Loaño offered. Outside of the sprawling walls of the city there was nothing but plains, hills, and valleys of grass, with paths leading to the ocean on one side and the Forest on the other. Patrols stamped these paths down regularly, beating them into the dirt with their feet or the hooves of their horses.

"Like what?" Mattie wondered.

"It'd be too easy for whatever we're facing to climb up," Loaño explained. "Though the walls are smooth, anything with sharp enough claws can climb their way up – and there are guards patrolling the walls, but not enough to deal with something like that. Since we don't know what we're up against, we have to prepare for any situation."

"I understand," Mattie said quietly. She took a deep breath and then said, "It will take a lot of this world's natural power to do that, won't it?"

Loaño nodded. She felt sorry for Mattie – the only way to fortify the Shainingu Tokai any more than it already was involved tearing apart the earth and the surrounding trees. Mattie was so closely in tune with these things that Loaño imagined that she would feel it as if someone were tearing out each individual hair on her head. Not to mention that Shinji wasn't here for her to lean on.

Yet she felt a flash of anger for Yuugata – why send her, of all people to figure out a way to defend the city? Loaño was no military tactician. She had no experience with such things – all she had was AA, who was offering no forthcoming information about how to better defend the city and the people in it.

She was not the best-suited for the task.

Is there something he needs to do? Loaño wondered, Up there in that stuffy tower?

Possibly, AA told her. You know how he is, little one – he doesn't want anyone to get hurt. He's working on the best way of making that happen.

"Can we get some Elf candy first?"

Mattie's voice drew Loaño out of her thoughts. She blinked at the younger girl, and then said, "Well… this is an important task… I don't think Yuugata will want us to get distracted."

Loaño sighed in defeat as Mattie's eyes grew wide and pleading. One could simply not ignore how convincing Mattie's begging face was.

"Fine," Loaño decided. "But only one or two pieces! No more, no less – got it?"

Mattie's eyes seemed to get wider.

"OK, five – but no more," Loaño amended. She crossed her arms and asked, "You know this isn't a vacation, right?"

Mattie's face turned back to normal. She looked around for a moment before saying, "I just want to do something fun before things start getting serious again. It just feels like we hardly have time to hang out and actually enjoy the places we visit anymore. You know?"

"Yeah, I get that," Loaño agreed.

"Besides," Mattie went on. "It's been a long time since just you and I hung out." She playfully nudged Loaño's arm with a fist. "It feels like we hardly know one another sometimes."

"I'm sorry," Loaño said. She had to admit that hanging out with Mattie had never been a priority – not when Haseo and Hikaru and Naota were all her age. Until recently Mattie and Shinji didn't go anywhere without one another as if they were attached at the hip; but now Mattie and Shinji were separated, and the two of them finally seemed to be growing up into their own people.

"It's all right," Mattie told her. "I'll admit that I'm not the easiest person to talk to."

"You were stone-faced the first time we met," Loaño reminded her, thinking back to the face behind the door.

"I had to keep my emotions handled," Mattie explained. "Especially back then – I was so… childish! In a lot of ways, I still am. But… you know what I mean about that, right?"

Loaño nodded. "It sucks when your powers are fueled by emotion," she agreed.

She patted Mattie on the back, gently. "Come on; let's get that candy," she said. "Maybe we can discuss more defenses so it doesn't look like we're slacking off."

Mattie giggled.

Loaño sighed, turning away from the Elf who managed the candy store. She couldn't ignore the feeling of the Elf's grimace, nor the way his employees had to whisper amongst themselves before serving her.

Despite having no Elven currency, though, they were given the candy for free. Apparently the news had spread like wildfire – faster, even – that the Protectors were in the city, and that they should be treated as honored guests. Apparently that meant getting candy for free.

It's not like I was lying about who we were, Loaño thought bitterly, sliding into the booth beside Mattie. It's pretty obvious we aren't Elves.

She opened the bag of candy and spilled the contents – five pieces each of the most Human-friendly candy the store had to offer – onto the table. Mattie let out a squeal of delight and immediately began nibbling at a stalk of what had looked and felt like some sort of taffy.

Chewing on her candy, Mattie asked, "Did they give you trouble?"

Loaño hazarded a glance back at the counter, ignoring the fact that the other Elves in the store were staring at her occasionally, not bothering to hide it. The owner of the store was still there, shaking his head and muttering to himself.

"Kind of?" Loaño replied, turning back. She unwrapped a piece of candy and popped it into her mouth – a butterscotch flavor enveloped her tongue immediately, subtly enhanced by the taste of some sort of cream. Pushing it into her cheek, she went on, "I don't think they like me."

"Because you're part-Elf?" Mattie wondered.

Loaño nodded.

"I think they're just confused," Mattie offered. She swallowed her taffy-candy and went for another voracious bite. After chewing some, she went on, "I don't think they know how to address you, or how to behave around you. If it were Yuugata-sama or me, they'd know how to act."

"I think they'd still side-eye Ojiisan," Loaño pointed out. "But I get your point."

She sighed and cracked her candy between her teeth. Crunching some, she told Mattie, "Be glad you're not an anomaly, Mattie. At least not one like me."

"I think you're the best kind of anomaly," Mattie confessed, licking her lips. They were sticky and pink with taffy.


Mattie giggled.

"I can say I have the power to lift the earth and grow grass beneath my bare feet – but you? You can say so much more," she told Loaño.

"I don't know, Mattie," Loaño chuckled, "I think being able to move the earth is a pretty awesome power. I've seen some of the shit you can do – it's impressive! Certainly more impressive than, well…" She snapped her fingers, and a spark of Light danced at her fingertips.

Mattie smiled softly. "Thanks," she said.

They ate candy in a relative silence broken up by Mattie ooing and ahing at the candies she put into her mouth.

"So…" Mattie finally said, slurping on a sucker, "do we have any idea what we're up against?"

Loaño sighed, admitting, "No. We have no idea."

"I wish we knew," Mattie said, yawning. She leaned back against the seat and went on, "We might be able to think of a better way of defending the city… you know, instead of just digging a giant moat."

"I was thinking of filling it with spikes," Loaño said, picking at one of the wrappers. "A giant moat filled with spikes." The idea seemed silly when she said it aloud – what would possibly fall for such a stupid trap?

Mattie giggled and licked then her sucker thoughtfully. "I could set up traps, but I'd have to be there to spring them… or at least nearby," she said. "The earth doesn't move without my telling it to."

Loaño suggested, "What if you fill it with magma traps? There's not much than can survive a blast of magma in the face."

Mattie frowned. "It takes a lot of concentration to direct magma," she said. She twirled the sucker's stick between her fingers. "I suppose it's as good as anything. A trench with magma traps?"

"If we had more time we could make it better," Loaño told her. "We could have the masons who built the Shainingu Tokai create small funnels in their walls so that the Elves who guard the tops could just open up a valve of some kind and it would all come out."

"Yeah… but we don't have time for that," Mattie sighed.

"If we had something flammable we could make a firewall," Loaño offered.

"Where are we going to get that much flammable liquid in only… not even two days' time?" Mattie wondered.

Loaño shrugged.

"We're going to be here a while, aren't we?" Mattie asked.

Loaño hesitated, but nodded.

Hikaru threw a bag onto Naitoryuu's back. It caught on one of his protruding spines, hanging there precariously. His dragon shape took up nearly all of the room that the Shainingu Tokai's central clearing had to offer – he had just barely enough room to take off. Elf children were gawking and gaping at him, begging their parents with skirt- and pant-tugging hands if they could pet him.

"You sure you'll be OK going off into the Forest on your own?" Hikaru asked, turned around to Naota. "We can drop you off."

"We should be fine," Naota replied.

"You had best hope you do not get lost," Naitoryuu rumbled. The fascinated Elf children let out a gasp at his rumbling voice. "We do not have time to detours."

"We know," Naota sighed, lifting his hands. "No pressure, right?"

"Do not worry for us," Amaterasu assured them. "I know my way."

"Well, I suppose we'll have to trust you in that then," Hikaru decided.

She patted Naitoryuu, and the great black Draygoon offered his massive paw. Hikaru hopped onto it with ease, and was lifted up and up until she could clamber onto Naitoryuu's back.

"Are you gonna be OK, dealin' wit' those Draygoons?" Izumi asked. Her arms were crossed, the metal of her left arm exposed. For once she was dressed a little differently, with a traveling jacket over a white shirt and cargo pants. Her hair, though, was the thing that made the most difference – it was put up in a ponytail, instead of lying flat against her back.

"We'll be fine," Hikaru replied, raising her voice to call down to them. "Naitoryuu's people were always easier to talk with than the Elves."

"Well…" Naota took a step forward. "Be careful, OK?"

Hikaru looked down at him. The boy that used to hide behind her, the boy who had had so little confidence he could never properly correct anyone about his gender or damn well near anything… With that sword on his back, and the way he had grown, he looked almost like a completely different person.

She was glad for that. She was glad that he had grown up, into his own person – not one attached to a particular person. He was strong with Izumi, but he was just as strong on his own.

I hope you stay that way, Hikaru thought. Always.

"We'll be just fine," she told him. "We'll see each other before the fighting starts."

Naota nodded, and took a few steps back. The others followed suit – but Naota was the only one to wave as Naitoryuu let out a bellow and raised his wings. The Elves gasped and cheered as Naitoryuu lifted off of the ground, his wings creating massive gusts that ripped plants from the ground and stripped leaves from the trees all around the sturdy Elven people.

Hikaru held on tightly as Naitoryuu lifted them off into the air, up and up and up they went; until the people below looked like ants in a shimmering anthill.

She took a deep breath of the free, clear air before saying, "Let's go, Naitoryuu – we've got work to do."