A/N: I am too tired to write anything elaborate, so I'll just leave it clear. This chapter done, yay, more actions and character stuff to follow (in 6B) Looks like interesting things are happening in this chapter. Enjoy the action sequences and whatnot, and I'll keep writing because at least someone reads it (laugh)


Chapter 5: Friend or Foe ~Light Skirmish… Not~ {Side B}

April 6th of Sol Calender, Kingdom of Carnaval


"Anyway, are you sure about this, lassy?" Hero of Justice #1, whose name just happened to be Shin the Bard, said softly as he watched over the two figures closely.

"Yes, I am positive. Please start when you are ready." Serena replied in a soft voice that trembled with anxiety. This was her first time after all, especially with a man.

"Alright then. Ecthel, you know the drill. Be gentle with her since this'll be her first. But make it an impressionable one, will ya? A hero of justice must go all the way, always!" Shin said to his sidekick, the man with the long phallus extended forward.

"I don't know why, but this conversation sounds rather off in context…" The man shrugged helpless, while maintaining posture and poised ready.

"Stop complaining and start already! I've wanted to watch this ever since I no longer have the ability to participate, being a cripple and all, heh." The bard smiled, and Serena couldn't help but staring into his armless left sleeve.

"Yeah right; your fighting ability is much better than your music making." Ecthel muttered.

"I heard that! How dare you insult this heroic figure whose song trembles the very heavens he serves? Anyway, quickly please, we don't have all day and I doubt you can last that long, so go damn it." Slight indignant, Shin sat like a spectator with his legs crossed and his guitar slackened. It was almost as if he were more into it than the two actually doing it.

"Man, what a bother. Anyway, I'll start moving, okay?" Bracing his lance, its tip facing Serena, Ecthel's blue eyes narrowed and readied for a strike.

Nodding softly, Serena held Frost Moon with no particular stance. Yet, from Shin's point of view, it felt as if she had no opening left at all. After hours of boring travel, banter, and ship-riding, he was about to see something interesting, just as Ecthel was about to get more than a warm up.

Ten minutes ago…

"You followed us all the way here, because you want to fight me? For what reason would a foolish girl like you do this?" The man wearing a weird assortment of equipment mixing between that of a knight and a mage asked. He must be hot in all that gear, but Serena wasn't focused on that particular detail.

"I saw what you did to save us, and I am grateful for what you have done, but-" The girl explained her intention to Ecthel, but was interrupted by the bard.

"Hey, what 'bout me? I was there to save you all from certain untimely death too!" Shin pouted.

"I am thankful for your timely disruption as well, for I can't even imagine what might happen should you not show up." Serena remained composed, but the two men could tell that her small shoulders had trembled slightly.

"That's right. See Ecthel? I knew it was the right time to interrupt them, before they commit indescribable atrocities upon the poor defenseless- wait a minute...." The happy-go-lucky musician stopped in his rant as he too noticed something off about the situation before.

Yes, at the moment right before his interruption, the girl with that flaming hair and argent irises was about to ignite. It was something hidden in Serena's subconscious, brought about by the pressure of danger and scent of death. Her hands were about to draw out something invisible and impossible to distinguish. Perhaps that was why he interrupted at the right time, for fear of something else… but what?

"Well, since my companion has entered his own little world, fortunately, I guess I'll take over. So, what is your true reason?" Shouldering his large weapon as if it were a child's toy, the man's elf-like ears twitched as he frowned upon Serena.

"After seeing what you can do, I realized that this world is not as friendly as I had expected. Seeing death… it's truly frightening… but to survive, I must defend myself, and death may be involved, so I want to be stronger. At least, it feels like the right first step to take." A soft breeze blew past, carrying her scarlet hair up in a gentle draft. Serena held her breath, watching the man in grim anticipation.

It wasn't like she had a choice. After seeing the death of the bandits in mere seconds – the afterimages of their bodies crushed and obliterated by unnatural gale-force winds lingering in her mind – Serena had made contact with the other reality of life. It was the rules of survival that most people had to adapt. If they wished to live in the boundaries where rules either didn't apply or could be broken, or at where law and order couldn't protect them, they needed the power to protect themselves.

Even if this was only her very first day outside the protective barrier of her family, and even if she had always desired peace and was naïve in her idealistic way, Serena saw and felt the world at its first real glimpse. So she understood at that point, the meaning of the good Captain's words when he had given her Frost Moon. She understood how important it was to revise her expectations and try to accept the reality.

So, as Serena finally drew her pristine blade from its sheath, Ecthel readied his lance for the charge. It was a sparring battle. He had fully expected to go easy on the girl. However, just like his companion, the half mage half knight lance-wielder had detected the shallow existence of the unknown trait. He could not analyze what it was exactly, as it was well-hidden within the girl, and the likelihood of her not knowing about it was rather high as well. So the best alternative was for Ecthel to bring it out with this mock battle – that was, if he could.

As Serena held her sword in no particular stance, she could only marvel at the beauty of the long sing-edged blade. Despite the radiant sunlight shining down on the edge, Frost Moon reflected only the winterized hue of soft blue. In fact, if it were curved more, she would compare it with that of a crescent moon. However, because it was only her second time

"Here I come, Miss Serena." Ecthel bowed lightly, and as Serena returned the courtesy, the battle began.

Dashing as if he were carried by the winds, the man carried his lance swiftly toward Serena. The silver lance tip aimed home for the girl's head. Before Serena could even blink, the silver point was already a mere centimeter away from her achromatic pupils before stopping perfectly still. A second later, she felt strength sapped away from her legs and found herself collapsed onto the sun-baked ground.

Wordless, Ecthel retracted his weapon and left a soft sigh. Perhaps he and Shin were wrong after all. The impulse they had searched for was probably just a delusional part caused by the heat. After all, despite holding a beautiful and rare weapon with perfect composure, Serena was nothing more than an ordinary girl with no fighting experience.

"I am sorry." After a while, Serena spoke up as she regained the strength to stand up. She still found it hard to believe just how fast everything had ended, and how she couldn't do anything when she was that close to being impaled by the giant lance.

"It's alright, lassy. It's all Ecthel's fault anyway." With a knowing smile, Shin the Bard interjected.

"What? How is everything my fault! I have to say, your way of comforting people is just plain stupid." Shouldering his lance/scythe, Ecthel walked over and looked at Serena straight in the eyes.

"Don't apologize. You did nothing wrong. It was simply your first time holding your weapon against an opponent." He said softly. Serena had expected a fiercer response, since he killed without even blinking once, but all Ecthel did was to read her mind and showed just how useless she really was.

"I see… thank you for your lenient words." All Serena could think was to make a courteous reply.

"Oh c'mon dearie, don't look so down like that. I mean, sure, you are new when it comes to fighting, but that doesn't mean you can't learn to protect yourself. Here, let me show you how it's possible even for a peaceful activist of justice like me." Noticing how crestfallen Serena was, Shin came to the rescue and tried to solve the situation.

"I think you mean how it's possible even for a crippled crazie like you to fight." Ecthel smirked for the first time since Serena had met him.

"Ooh, how dare you, the Sidekick of Justice. I'll show you how a real hero, like yours truly, can discipline his silly disciple with only one arm!" Narrowing his eyes while also grinning, Shin took out a small object reflecting brightly against the sunlight. It was a dagger with a cross-like hilt, possibly designed to catch and counter blade-type weapons.

"Um, are you two going to fight?" Confused by the actions of the two seemingly friendly companions, she asked.

"It's bound to happen. I can't just keep listening to the annoying sounds this guy makes. Besides, it's been a while since we've sparred. I think today will be a good day to remind you how it's your fault we are stuck on this continent, you arrogant bastard." Ecthel spoke, and began spinning his lance about his arms. The two scythe cross-trees became bright flashes under the sunlight as their momentum build up.

"I, Shin the Bard, am too good to be at any fault for any decisions I have made in the past. However, because you insisted and insulted my pride, I will discipline you." With that exaggerated exclamation, the duel between the two began before Serena could do anything.

With a blur of movement, Shin began playing his stationary guitar with the flat side of his blade. Although Serena couldn't tell what song he was playing, she felt the surrounding air slowly condense. Even the temperature of the afternoon heat felt off as it dropped at an unnatural pace. At the same time, Ecthel charged forward in the same fluid motion that had sent Serena frozen in awe. Holding the lance with the scythes facing parallel to the ground, he closed the distance between him and Shin to a meter in no time flat. The speed was comparable to gust striking one's face. There was no way for Shin to do anything at that close of a range – or so Serena thought.

As Ecthel swung his lance in a graceful arc at Shin, the figure wavered and immediately dissolved into thin air vapors. Instead of where he should have been, Shin miraculously appeared a foot behind Ecthel. His blade was draw, and there was a flash of light too fast for the normal human eyes to follow. However, Serena could see it –

The long dagger held by his one hand came down hard on Ecthel's exposed back. However before even coming in contact with his clothes, Shin had already missed. Expertly moving his body forward just a few inches more, as if he had eyes on the back of his head, Ecthel avoided the slash and threw one leg forward. Leaning forward on his extended leg, the armored man twisted his body and pole-vaulted the lance right at Shin's vulnerable neck.

Leaning back, Shin stretched his back until the bladed tip of the lance barely missed his arteries. As his body shifted forward, Shin threw his armless sleeve forward with the shrug of his shoulders. Just as Serena became confused as she observed the fight, something came out of the sleeves to Serena's complete surprise. What looked like a series of throwing knives flew out of the empty sleeves – right at Ecthel's arms and shoulders.

Sensing danger, Ecthel disengaged from deadlocking Shin and leapt back to avoid the blade projectiles. As the knives missed their targets completely and struck the ground soundlessly, the two combatants stopped for a small break.

"Heh, fighting dirty as usual. Makes me wonder what the real reason was for you to lose an arm." Ecthel remarked, positioning his lance once again for a second bout.

"It's embarrassing really. Remember when I told you and Ciel how I used to be a slave at a mining camp digging ore? Well, one day they decided to use explosives to excavate a particular tunnel by inserting the explosive deep into the rocks. The problem was, the fuse was wet, so they had to relit the fuse. But because it was already inserted into a socket in the ground, we had no choice but to pick straws on who was going to put their hand inside the hole and light the fuse again. Naturally, I got picked, thanks to good ol' lady luck." Grinning broadly, Shin revealed his tragic past as if it were no more than a casual thing.

"Oh my, I am so sorry to hear that, about your arm…" Shocked by the gruesome tale, Serena replied with an apology.

"Um, it's best if you don't believe everything he said. Why, when I asked him if I could examine his arm and see if I can do anything to help his disability, he refused outright." Ecthel explained with skepticism.

"I had every right to refuse. Don't you know anything about sensitivity? I was deeply hurt that you were so insistent on digging up my old wounds. Sometimes it's better to not pry so much into another person's life, you know that, Ecthel?" Shin pushed in a few sobs between phrases, and Serena almost believed in his sorrow. That was, until another she heard a new melody coming from Shin's guitar. It was more upbeat, and at a much faster tempo.

"Tsk, preemptive strike?" Ecthel said, suddenly changing his stance. He held the spear closer to his body, and held the blade tip closer while extending the opposite end out more.

Shin merely smiled. With a whirl of his body, more and more throwing knives flew out in all directions. However, something was odd about their directions, as their seemingly random trajectories were actually homing on to their target. Fluttering through the cold air, the knives danced wildly before some came directly at Ecthel. Maneuvering his heavily geared body, the man once more showed an impossible feat against nature with his fluid motions. Dodging in a zig-zag frenzy, he avoided encounter with any of the knives thrown. Some burst into flames as soon as they struck the ground, while others acted like lightning rods that drew lightning from the sky above.

Serena kept watching in amazement at the display of something close to magic yet not so foreign at all. The scene was simply beyond her imagination and made it impossible for her to tear her eyes away from the battle. Every time the exploding and electrocuting knives flew toward Ecthel, he expertly diverted their trajectories with a twirl of his lance while constantly in motion.

"Pretty good so far, but now it's my turn." As he landed after a leap uncharacteristic of the bulk of weight he carried, Ecthel smiled dangerously.

This made Serena confused. Were they really fighting each other, or just playfully assessing each other's abilities like two friends arguing? The magnitude was of course on a ridiculous scale, but that was the feeling given off by the two combatants.

"Heh, bring it on. I can take on anything, because I am Shin the Lone Bard!" As he said this, Shin immediately began strumming his guitar with his only hand. Despite how an instrument usually required the use of two hands to make the proper notes, the bard was doing it with no problem. In fact, what he had created on the spot was a rather haunting melody.

"Oh, you are using that. I see… then I won't go easy on you either." As if sensing what Shin was about to do, Ecthel held his lance directly in front of him, parallel to the ground. Even if Serena knew little about combat, she could tell it was a defensive posture.

"I'd like to see you try. Watch as I, the true Hero of Justice, prevails! Euphonic Discord, first movement!" As he declared his move, Shin played slower and slower, until the haunting melody's music stretched out and hang in the thin air like a mist.

At the same time, something insane was happening to the air around him. Serena blinked hard, barely believing what she was seeing as what looked like silver blades appearing all around Shin. Orbiting around his body, they formed a dense, multi-ringed shield with their sharp tips pointing at Ecthel. When Serena turned to look at Ecthel's reaction, all she saw was him raising an eyebrow.

"Oh c'mon, stop looking like you aren't impressed, because this is only the start. Second movement, begin." Shin said in a half-joking manner, and raised his hand in preparation for a grand finish.

Before the others could do anything, Shin's hand fell. As it clashed with the sturdy strings of the guitar, Serena heard something that resembled a high-pitched scream. Wincing, she shut her ears with both hands, only to witness what Shin had in store for Ecthel.

At the trigger of that devilish note, the shield of knives erupted and expanded, forming a giant carpet of blades that covered the sky several meters above Shin's head. Less than a second later, the swarm of sliver blades rained down upon Ecthel like endless hail. Countless knives fell from the sky in an almost infinite stream, until they covered the ground where Ecthel stood completely. Serena felt her blood went cold as she stood paralyzed at the sight. There was no way for Ecthel to parry all of that; there were hundreds, perhaps even thousands of blades, traveling so fast they became silver beams of light striking continuously against their sole target. Ecthel was dead; his companion had killed him…

Then, something caught Serena's eyes. The mound of blades trembled slightly. It stirred, as if something was shaking the knives apart. As seconds passed by, more and more of those silver weapons fell from the mound with a dull clatter. At the same time, Serena felt the air around her thicken, as if her despair had made it hard for her to breathe. Not knowing why that was happening, all Serena could see was a buildup of blue vapors around the shaking mound.

"Blades Asunder!" Then, as clear as day, a loud voice echoed against the sky. Immediately, a blast of gale-force winds exploded like an oxygen bomb from within the knife-infested mound. The force of the blast was so heavy it blew apart the silver blades from the center, and miraculously almost all of them flying back at Shin.

"Woah, careful there. Those are pretty damn sharp ya know." Dodging his own weapons with the dexterity of a slippery eel, Shin took many steps back to watch as the knives struck nothing, and Ecthel emerged from his supposed grave.

"Heh, nice shot. But you are at least a hundred years too early to do real damage to me." The man's green hair was messy, his cloak tattered and there were trickles of blood on his cheeks, but they look like only shallow wounds. Possibly because of the armor plating on Ecthel's body, he looked fine and not a bit shocked that several hundred flying blades had tried to turn him to a living pincushion.

"That's what you think. Only a fool reveals every card in his deck. Anyway, demonstration is over. Serena, you watched the whole thing, right?" Shrugging off the previous hostile atmosphere as easily as that, Shin began picking up knives off the ground while speaking to Serena. At the same time, Ecthel was busy flicking knives to a single pile with his lance.

Unaccustomed to a situation like what had just happened, the girl found herself unable to react quite as normal as Ecthel and Shin. Or, she simply couldn't understand how they could act so normal when only a few seconds ago they were attempting to kill each other. All she could do was to nod her head forward in agreement.

"Good; you now have a sense of what fighting is all about. No matter whom you are or what kind of condition you are in, as long as you try and adapt, surviving in this world is not as hard as you think. So now it's time for you to decide." Speaking as if he had everything planned out from the very beginning, Shin the Lone Bard smiled in a persuasive manner.

"Oh no… not again." Ecthel could be heard muttering a few feet away.

"Decide on what, exactly?" Serena asked.

"On whether you want to travel with us, of course. We can't just let an ingenuous girl like you set loose in the wild-" Before Shin could finish his odd sentence, a fist of steel appeared against his face. Naturally, he flew – several meters into the air – and landed on the ground unceremoniously, kicking up dust as he slid on grit.

"I think you should stop with the weird talks before she gets any weird ideas. Anyway, what Shin here meant to say is, you can decide whether you wish to travel with us, or resume your journey – that is, if you have a particular destination in mind." Ecthel, owner of the steel gauntlet that blew Shin away, explained in a very calm manner.

"If I have a particular destination in mind…" Repeating the words softly between her pink lips, the girl thought hard about the long road ahead. How could she had so carelessly forgotten that in her quest to find her real family, Serena had absolutely nothing to go on other than the crescent moon pendant she wore around her neck.

"But why are you kind sirs willing to invite one such as me?" She asked, cradling her katana absentmindedly.

"Hah… I'm not sure if we can actually be called kind, but… suffice to say that it was from the look of your eyes. Although your approach is wrong, we commend you for your honest desire to become stronger. Well, just me really; that guy just wants another companion to boot. Lone Bard my ass." Pointing to the said figure covered in dirt, Ecthel replied in an exasperated voice.

"Hey now, that right there was just downright rude! Anyway, what do you say, missie? We're traveling the lands and seeing all there is to see. If you come with us, Ecthel here will teach you how to fight. I reckon that sooner or later, you'll even be good enough to become the Hero of Justice's second sidekick!" Getting up, Shin looked totally unaffected and even replied in a voice lacking any severity for suffering that treatment.

"Hey, watch that mouth of yours. Speaking anymore of that nonsense will be hazardous for our health, you know. First, I was never your 'sidekick' to begin with, and second, we're not here to wander around like hooligans. For one, we need to head to the port in Icaria or else she will be the one finding us first. But – I will be your teacher, Miss Serena, because Shin here's all talk and not an ounce of worth." And so, as if easily agitated yet at the same time carrying normal, friendly conversations, Ecthel and Shin continued to shoot back and forth. They were already on the move, and even helped in carrying the meager luggage Serena carried – even though she didn't need their help at all. It felt as if they had already decided to add her to their group but forgot that she had a right to opinionate too.

"But, it does not seem so bad, I guess." Smiling at the duo's strange yet amusing antics, the girl's silver eyes softened as she whispered to herself. Keeping up with their pace easily, Serena held on to Frost Moon and set off to her next destination, with two new companions.

Hidden in the shadows of the groves of trees, a man stood in silence watching the trio that slowly faded away in the distance. His presence was completely enervated that neither Ecthel nor Shin had been able to sense when they were only twenty feet away. Dressed in all black, the outline of his figure remained a constant blur as he continuously faded in and out from the dark shades.

Medley made sure they were completely out of earshot ad visual range, before finally stepping into the clear opening. Against the earthen area where Shin and Echel had 'sparred' only half an hour ago, the tall man could still discern traces of blue floating in the air. Twirling the vapors with his fingers, he could easily see identify what they were. They were mana trails – vapors of the inexhaustible energy that all magic and special powers feed on in order to exist. These mana trails could only be seen and felt by those who were born possessing power and magic since birth. Medley could even examine their densities to determine the strength of the users who had left them behind after using their powers.

"Tsk, that bard is more powerful than he gives off… though the other one is an entirely different matter. Looks like master will have to wait a bit for his next meal…" Like the passing breeze, his voice came to and fro before disappearing into the sky. Seconds later, the ground where he was standing before was no longer covered in nightmarish shadows. The man had retreated back into the darkness – or perhaps he was darkness itself. For now, Medley would continue his careful observation. After all, that girl with those startling argent eyes and crimson locks was an exotic find like no other.