ORCHID 16 WILL OF THE HEART
The dazzling array of glass-like mana shards floats mysteriously in the air. Each individual crystalline piece glows in the light of the stunned soldiers' torches. A surreal stillness hangs in the cold air as the beautiful slivers of crystallized mana dance through the darkness, reflecting the terrifying red light from Tsukiko's eyes.

Ephraim pushes firmly against the glass shards with his axe, but Tsukiko's shield does not give, despite its seeming fragility.

Azure watches, his eyes wide with wonder. Before anyone else can react, Tsukiko allows the crystal mana shards to collapse. The temporary shield of glass falls apart around them. Tsukiko grabs Azure's hand and immediately flees, crying, "Let's go!"

In the clearing, Ephraim allows the two students to run without moving. He finally lowers his axe, his jaw rigid.

One of his underlings steps forward. "Y-your orders, Major General!"

Without looking, Ephraim hurls his axe forward. It lands dangerously close to the soldier's feet. He jumps back with a sharp intake of breath. "Spread out," growls Ephraim, "I want them captured. I have no idea who that girl is, but I want her in custody."

"Yes, sir!"


Azure and Tsukiko stumble wildly through the forest, occasionally looking over their shoulders to check if they are being pursued. Finally, the two of them come to a halt in a clearing deep within the forest. They double up clutching their knees, out of breath.

"Hey, tell me, Tsukiko…" Azure breathes into the freezing air. "Are you…?"

Standing quite still, Tsukiko gazes up at the nearly full moon in the sky. Its mysterious silver surface is visible just through the cracks in the trees' branches above them. Tsukiko's eyes have returned to their normal gray-black hue.

"It seems there is no more hiding from you. My name is Tsukiko Amherst, the illegitimate child of Emperor George VIII of the Grand British Empire and Princess Himeko of the Federated Empire of Japan and consort of George. Both my parents died when I was little. I was raised by Barclay Amherst, a cousin of my father's. As things stand now, I am by birth the first in line to the throne of the Grand British Empire."

A twig snaps as Azure takes a step backward in disbelief. "I'd heard the rumors that George had fathered an illegitimate child… but to think that they were true… Then…!"

"Yes," Tsukiko answers, without even needing to hear the query. "I have come to Britain to claim what is rightfully mine. My mother, Himeko, may have been a Japanese treaty bride, but I am still the flesh and blood of the House of Lincoln.

"The Empire as it currently stands is rotten, Azure. Can you honestly tell me that this Empire is not crumbling, content to bask in the glory of its own perceived significance? I'm going to take the throne, and change everything…."

Many thoughts cross Azure's mind. His father's search for Valhalla. Lord Wellington cursing at the Indian servant. R.A.I.N., and Macbeth's hatred for the Empire. Nathaniel Maxwell. Major General Ephraim. Tsukiko Amherst, standing alone against them.

Azure swallows.

Somewhere nearby, a cricket chirps. A moth dances through the air. "It all makes sense now…" whispers Azure. "What you were doing in Skyscraper One that day… Why Father decided to take you in…"

Tsukiko nods. "Indeed. Your father knew my identity from the beginning. His intent was to—"

All of a sudden, Tsukiko stiffens. She leaps to her right, as a bullet just grazes her shoulder. The bullet strikes a tree somewhere in the darkness instead. Tsukiko grimaces, immediately reaching for her shoulder.

"Ha! I've got you now, woman!" shouts one of Ephraim's men. His face obscured by his gas mask, he raises his assault rifle and takes aim.

At the exact moment that the soldier fires, Tsukiko also raises her mana shield. Crimson light spills from her eyes like blood. With a glimmer of light, several shards of glass-like mana materialize in the air around her. The bullet strikes this shield and bounces back, striking the soldier in the arm.

"What—?!" cries the man, raising his gun again. But Tsukiko gives him no chance to retaliate. She sprints straight up to the man and delivers a perfect roundhouse kick to his jaw, knocking him into the air. The soldier's rifle falls to the ground after him. Unhesitatingly, Tsukiko picks up the gun and fires at the downed soldier's head, killing him.

Azure watches this exchange with a mixture of awe and fright. He finally comes to as Tsukiko walks up to him. She cradles the rifle with one arm, and with the other, reaches a hand out to Azure.

"Now, Azure," says Tsukiko, "though my mana will protect me, it is not an offensive type. If we are to defeat these men, then I shall need your help. I will be your shield. Will you be my sword?"

His breath short, Azure remains still. He stares into Tsukiko's dark eyes, where a trace of crimson remains. "I can't do it... Not for a lack of trying, but no matter what I do, I can't seem to conduct mana…."

Without warning, Tsukiko steps straight up to Azure, so that their faces are no more than inches apart. She grabs his hand and places it directly over her heart.

"No, the difference between you and me is… will. Feel your heart and then mine. Your heart is beating frantically, thinking only of 'escape.' My heart beats quietly, thinking only of 'resolve.'

"A peaceful life is an admirable wish. But you must fight to protect that dream. Yes, fight, lest your dreams be crushed. If you wish to survive this night then you have no choice. Fight with me."

Even as Tsukiko finishes speaking, a loud commotion rises all around them. The voices of the soldiers steadily draw nearer. Torchlight bounces off the trunks of the trees. The moths scatter fearfully even as the light approaches.

After several more seconds, Azure extends his own hand. Tsukiko clasps it, as a bitter smile fills Azure's face. Resolve gleams in his eyes at last. "Let us fight together," Azure says. Tsukiko nods.

"And don't worry about your identity. I won't reveal it to anyone."

"Thank you."

The five remaining soldiers now emerge from the darkness, forming a large circle around them. Azure and Tsukiko stand back to back, their faces taut with tension. The red lasers from the guns slowly concentrate on their faces.

"Can you bring that sword you had earlier back out?" Tsukiko hisses to Azure. "Do not worry about holding back. I'll protect you with my mana. I'll defend; you just worry about offense. You can do it, can't you?"

"Only one way to find out!" barks Azure. He raises his bare hand. At once, a long sword made of purple mana flashes into life. Its blade crackles excitedly.

"On my count," announces Tsukiko, as the soldiers draw ever closer. "One… two… three… GO!"

Back to back, Azure and Tsukiko move into action. The two soldiers directly in front of Azure raise their weapons, aiming to take him out first.

With a flourish of her hand, Tsukiko raises a wall of crystal mana in front of Azure. The bullet shells merely bounce off the floating shards of glass, as Azure breaks through their midst and plants a blow across the shoulder of the soldier on the right.

The other soldier gives a howl and shoots again at Azure, who agilely deflects the round with his own sword. He stabs the man through the chest, downing him in one blow.

Meanwhile, the remaining three men surround Tsukiko. The one at the center turns to his comrades. "You two, go from both sides. We'll surround her and take her by force."

"Azure!" shouts Tsukiko, backing away from the approaching men.

"Coming!" answers Azure, darting forward like a blur. With a flying leap, he plunges his mana sword into the middle soldier's stomach. As he hears the click of the other men's rifles, Azure rapidly spins and uses their comrade as a human shield.

Pulling his sword out of the dead man, Azure now turns his attention to the last two. They quickly regroup and stand shoulder to shoulder, directing their rifles straight at Azure.

"Damn it!" they curse, their voices muffling behind their masks. "Die, you damn kid!"

Azure lunges forward without any sense of self-preservation. As the two men fire several more rounds, a shield of mana appears and deflects all of the ammunition. Letting loose a spirited howl, Azure breaks out from the field of dancing glass and plants a blow on each of the soldiers. They fall silently to the ground, blood gushing out of their necks.

Heavy footsteps sound from behind. Both Azure and Tsukiko turn as Major General Ephraim emerges from the darkness. The latter swings his axe with such force that even though Azure manages to cut it off with his sword, he is thrown backwards.

Landing roughly in a pile of leaves, Azure scrambles dazedly back to his feet. As he gets up, Azure finds that Ephraim has cornered Tsukiko. The soldier tugs harshly on her silky black hair, placing his axe across her exposed neck.

"Well, well," Ephraim growls, "so it seems we have a long lost little princess here. Even with Lord Winchester gone, I'm sure the Regents will be glad to hear that I've captured for them a new political toy. With this, I might even finally be made a baron…."

"Get away from her!" Azure threatens, raising his mana sword.

"Hm?" says Ephraim, scowling at Azure. "I admit, I don't really know who you are, kid, but you're just useless trash that's gonna get in the way. So don't take any offense if I dispose of you…!"

Azure jumps back as Ephraim lets Tsukiko go and cuts the air horizontally with his heavy axe. The sound of it cutting the air rocks Azure's eardrums. He clenches his teeth, leaping back as a blaze of fire erupts from the ground.

Both Azure and Ephraim stare each other down for several seconds. Finally, Azure is the first to move. He dashes at Ephraim, cutting diagonally upwards. To Azure's immense surprise, Ephraim remains standing still, allowing Azure to come straight at him.

Immediately, Ephraim reaches forward and grabs Azure painfully around the wrist. A loud snapping noise sounds. Azure's sword explodes, the shards of mana dissipating into the night air. Ephraim licks his lips with obscene anticipation as Azure squirms.

"Let him go!" cries a voice from behind the two of them. Two shots are fired into Ephraim's back. The Major General slowly turns, the bulletproof mesh material of his armor having absorbed the two rounds. Tsukiko steps back several paces. She tosses the useless rifle to the side.

Abruptly, Ephraim allows Azure to fall. He lands sprawled on the floor, grimacing from the pain. Clutching his injured wrist with his other hand, Azure slowly picks himself up, even as Ephraim approaches Tsukiko.

"Damn it, damn it all!" curses Azure, shuffling back to his feet. Miraculously, he manages to summon another mana sword. Using his left hand to hold his broken wrist for support, Azure hollers at the top of his lungs as he takes a run at Ephraim's back.

He slams the lightning sword directly into Ephraim's shoulder. To Azure's dismay, however, the attack barely registers an effect. Azure hacks at Ephraim several more times furiously, but Ephraim's armor simply swallows the abuse with ease each time.

"Persistent little brat," growls Ephraim, turning his attention back to Azure. With a swing of his axe, Ephraim strikes Azure with a punishing blow.

At the last minute, a shield of glittering mana blocks the attack. Yet even as the glimmering pieces of mana appear, they begin to crack and then break into a thousand tinier pieces. Tsukiko collapses to her knees, the strain of continuously using her royal mana taking its toll.

"Tsukiko!" Azure shouts, but before he can do anything else, Ephraim's axe breaks through the glass. Azure stumbles backwards. Having ducked just in time, he somehow escapes with just a scrape on the side of his face. Blood quickly seeps out of the stinging wound.

"Heh," smirks Ephraim. He stomps towards Azure, looking down at him from above. "Good try, kid. But it looks like it's game over for you."

-ORCHID SIXTEEN-