Richard Zilos Chronicles:Rise of the Crimson Ravens Draft/Prototype

"Acts of heroism and acts of fanaticism are not as far apart as we would like to think. A hero is merely someone who not only knows both, but knows when one of these paths has to be taken."

-Nathan Zilos

Prologue: Wake Up Call

The citizens of the rural town of Zaylor normally saw the hot summer weather as a nuisance, but the type of "warmth" in the air today, the kind caused by explosive devices, was causing not annoyance, but alarm—to say nothing of fear, dread, and terror. No one in the town was as consumed with those feelings as the woman who was frantically running up a hill that had a mine entrance at the top, where it met the mountainside Zaylor sat huddled against. She was with a young boy in rags who clung to her tightly with one hand; and his sister frantically held onto his other arm.

The three heard screams of horror in the distance, but that shouting was overwhelmed by the noises of explosions, which were happening just about everywhere in the town and the surrounding lands. Screams of agony could also be heard, which made the children whimper. Hearing this, the women shouted over the audio chaos, "Don't stop now; we're almost there! If we can just make it to the mine entrance, we can use the secret passage to escape! "

As the trio continued to stumble uphill as quickly as possible, a harsh voice behind them snarled an order. "I saw movement above—could be hostiles springing an ambush! Frag 'em out, Chris!"

The three froze in their tracks, faces turning pale, as they saw a small metallic orb flying over their heads, in a trajectory that would put it right at their feet. Suddenly, though, a glowing blue sphere collided with the object and knocked it to one side. It bounced downhill a few feet before it glowed red and unleashed an eruption of flame. The eruption had been relatively small, but it dislodged a number of small rocks, which began to roll down the hill in a minor landslide.

The woman was looking frantically for their best path forward when, to her dread, she heard booted feet running in lockstep behind her. She swerved around to see a battalion of soldiers fully clad in blue plate armor and helmets charging towards them.

The two children grasped the woman fearfully as red lights —targeting lasers— dotted them. The officer leading them then yelled out, "On your knees, right now! Surrender or we fire!"

The woman immediately obeyed, and quickly got the children to do the same. As the children started to cry, she babbled, "Please, please spare us! We just want to get away!"

The soldier just aimed his rifle at her head and retorted coldly, "If you didn't want this to happen, then you shouldn't have started a fight! The only options you have now are to surrender and face the punishment of all traitors... or suffer the fate of all maverick terrorists! "

A soldier saw the little girl's doll, and, not having a clear grasp of what she was holding, shouted out, "—That a bomb? Drop 'em!"

The women grasped the children tightly, bracing for oblivion, as the ground between the three and the soldiers rippled. A wall of solid rock suddenly erupted from it, keeping the soldiers at bay. One of the men fired at the wall, to see if it was an illusion or hologram, and his shot left a scorch mark on the stone: it was a real obstacle, large enough to endure a few plasma rounds.

"I not letting anyone else die because of this madness!"

As the troops turned to circle the wall, a young man jumped in front of them. The military personnel quickly noted that the new arrival had shoulder-length brown hair, blue eyes, and was wearing loose-fitting white-and-blue plate armor that covered him from the neck down—he wore no helm.

A heraldric design had been enameled onto the rounded pauldrons: paired wings spread wide from a star behind a sword, all three in silver. It flashed in the light as the man regained a fighting stance, as did the only asymmetrical part of his ensemble: a bracelet made of a silver material that shone differently from the armor; a green jewel that shimmered like no mere gem —no matter how carefully polished and cut— was set in its center.

The interloper was no mystery man to the soldiers; in fact, his arrival caused their officer to snarl out, disgusted, "So you really are this foolish, Richard Zilos?"

Richard ignored that as he glanced back and shouted out to the villagers, "Quickly, you three—get to safety while I hold them off!"

After a few moments, Richard and the soldiers heard three sets of feet charging away as the woman and the children ran into the mine. The soldiers kept their guns aimed at Richard, and the officer said, in a voice full of disdain, "Are you happy about that stunt, Prince Richard? It'll be short-lived; even if those traitors pass over the borders, they still won't be able to escape! You won't either, for that matter—so stop now, before you make this even worse for yourself!"

Richard just panted as he looked around at all the dead.

The dead…. The young man had heard stories of massacres, bloodbaths, and outright slaughter before, but so had everyone else. It was another thing entirely to see it yourself….

There were not only men here —unarmed men,, for that matter— but women; children; the elderly; people that had no conceivable possibility of presenting a threat.

He could see the looks on their faces, the color drained from them, and the blood running onto the ground, frozen in that final moment when they took their fatal shots.

It was a sight he would not soon forget.

The soldiers continued to stare him down, and the group's officer just moved closer by the second. Richard was familiar with the sneering glare Commander Dafoe reserved for his enemies; now he felt it firsthand.

"I won't repeat myself again! Surrender now, Richard Zilos! If you resist, you will be shown no mercy!"

The young man didn't move, though his anger faded as he saw his position. However, he wasn't the only one who changed: a wave of conflict came onto the faces of some of the soldiers. One's throat moved as he swallowed; another uneasily looked to either side, trying to follow the lead of the other men. One of them asked, "…Commander, are you certain?"

While the sneer didn't move, Dafoe let out a single snicker that practically sounded like a snort. "He chooses to get in our way, so we'll deal with him just as we do any other enemy of the nation."

Richard glanced over the men for a few moments. The sight of them, with their guns trained on him…it had all the makings of a nightmare. —Yet seeing some hesitation gave him something to key on….

"Come on, guys—you really plan on shooting the Third Prince?"

He actually formed a weak —very weak— smile. "…After we got along so well this morning? I thought we had some laughs…. Well, one of us did…right, Bill? …Which one of you is Bill?"

Some of the solders seemed conflicted, yet they kept their sights trained on him. A harsh voice then cut the silence: "What's wrong, boy? —So clueless you didn't realized what you've done? Well, I'd say it's time for a wakeup call!"

The air suddenly grew heavier around Richard, and a shadow fell over him. His eyes looked up…and saw a rather heavy boulder sailing straight for his head.

Forgetting the rest, and eyes widening, the young man clenched his teeth and darted to one side. He threw his body to the ground and rolled just before a thunderous clap rang out, of stone crushing stone; a tremor came in its wake.

He still got smacked by a few rock shards when the boulder shattered on impact rather than rolling downhill, and, as he landed, he struggled not to show his irritation—and his fear.

Damn—thought I'd have more time to get away from him….

A voice like a hostile bulldog …or maybe just a bull… overshadowed the roar of the impact. "Even for you this is pathetic—what the hell is wrong with you, runt!?"

Rolling himself back up off the ground and into a standing position, Richard looked to the source of the attack and saw a wall of muscle, practically in the literal sense as well as the figurative—not just from how much bulk the assailant had, but in terms of how large he was overall.

A giant by most standards, his bald head shone from the wax he applied to it heavily. Aside from it, there was only one other thing that "shone" on his body: a heraldric design of paired wings spread wide from a star behind a sword, all three in silver, the insignia of the Magna Centurions.

The man walked right into the space before the soldiers, armor clanking, as the commandos all gave him a brief nod, still keeping their guns pointed at Richard. As the third Prince of Aurino watched, he braced himself.

"Long time no see, Steiner…" Richard muttered dryly. "I'd sort of hoped by now you'd be face-down in a ditch…. Ever heard of 'warning shots'?"

Steiner's teeth became visible as he sneered. He took a step forward, the impact shaking the ground. "…'Warning shots'? —Think, just because you're a noble, that this is some kind of game? I'm a Magna Centurion, Richie. I cut down any and all targets. I don't give a damn if they call themselves 'traitor', 'psycho', or, in your case, just plain 'disgrace'."

In spite of the fury that Steiner was showing, perhaps even greater than Richard's —not to mention the power that he couldn't afford to just laugh off— the prince's own look turned hateful.

"I'm the disgrace? You and the rest of them cut these people down left-and-right because it's 'not good business', and you call me the 'disgrace'? —For forcing them out of their homes, to shoot them in the street? When did that part in the code about 'defend the innocent from all evil' get changed to 'act like mob enforcers'?"

Steiner rolled his eyes and took another step forward, looking annoyed, not morally conflicted.

"The big man let you read too many fairy tales growing up. The Magna Centurions mean one thing only: more power than the rest of the entire military put together. The king has a big problem, we're the big solutions; there's anyone causing a problem for the kingdom, we clean it up."

Richard tried to let his rage override his fear, snapping out sourly, "That's all fine when the threats are real, but oppressing those we are sworn to protect is the opposite of what we stand for!

"'Terrorists', my foot; you lied to me. You told me these were spies, not people just trying to defend themselves from a forced relocation. —Not people just trying to keep their families from being thrown into the wind so someone can expand a mine shaft, for crying out loud!"

Steiner just snorted in disgust, and Dafoe tightened the grip he had on his gun as he exhaled, the noise almost sounding like a sigh. "…I knew some parts of the nobility were 'culturally isolated', but even I never suspected a Prince to His Majesty would be naive enough to treat this like a children's environmental cartoon special.

"You're being conned, 'Young Master'; they're terrorist sympathizers, not 'harmless, innocent villagers'. They harbored, supplied, armed, and abetted those who think nothing of killing citizens of Aurino to accomplish their own goals, and they wouldn't bat an eye if any of us were shot dead by those responsible for this. Have you forgotten which lives are supposed to matter to you in the last few minutes? —And for what? —A few claims that this is somehow destroying their livelihood?"

The commander pointed behind Richard and the soldiers, back to the way he had come. "That mining site is one of the largest sources of Kaisonite in the nation. It's worth more than ten Zaylors, and would have provided guaranteed gainful employment for everyone in this town for generations…everyone except the scum you're trying to defend right now, who would have had records barring them from employment.

"…But, barring that…in case you haven't realized, Prince, this mine is right on the border. If your father was to turn a blind eye to this mine, you can be sure his enemies would not; there're already intelligence reports saying they're making ready to seize this area right from the king's domain. Do you think they would have been willing to extend the same courtesy of an ensured livelihood to these people? —Or would suffer terrorists or Aurino soldiers?"

As Richard looked conflicted, Steiner just seemed amused by the conflict in the young man's eyes, grunting out, "The job of the Magna Centurion is taking down threats, not making everyone happy—especially not good-for-nothing scum that barely have the right to call themselves citizens!

"It ain't pretty, it ain't flowery, and it ain't 'saving unicorns from dragons', or whatever the hell you think it is. We aren't here to have moral debates; we're here to do whatever the hell your daddy tells us to. He said these people need to die, so they need to die. You say they don't need to die, you defy us and you defy him."

Dafoe then added, "Your king already declared this private land, Richard Zilos. You're not just defying us; you're defying your father's edict and his will. If you refuse to come to your senses, then we will have no choice but to execute the penalties for treason. This is your last warning."

For a brief moment, a thought went through Richard's mind to actually comply: Haha! Sorry, bad joke—I'm with you guys, see? —Especially when Dafoe and Steiner put it that way, that this is, any way I look at it, defying my father.

The temptation was strong to forget the whole thing; to just pretend not to see, just this once. At the bare minimum, perhaps it would give him the time to talk personally with his father….

Until now, somewhere in the back of his head he had entertained they idea they were doing this more-or-less independently, without any input on King Andross' part. —But he knew that couldn't be true; they were too loyal, too devoted. The only reason they would be doing this would have to be orders…which meant…

…It's a mistake. It has to be a mistake. Dad has to have gotten bad intelligence…bad advice…

…Him. —It had to be him.

His resolve returning, Richard tightened his jaw and shook his head. "This is wrong…" he said quietly, then, with more conviction, "…He's acting on bad advice; these are innocent people here, just trying to protect their homes."

Swallowing again, trying to reinforce his own resolve, he spoke out in a shout. "I'm not going to let this madness continue, no matter what!"

He took a deep breath, and his sword slid out a few inches.

"I had only one desire coming here, Steiner—to see justice done. What you're doing here is committing a massacre, and anyone with eyes can see it. I want to talk to my father about this, and I will not stand by and watch one more shot be fired until that happens." He hesitated, moistening his lips, a quiver appearing in his muscles.

"Stop this. —All of you. —Before someone else has to die today for no reason."

Steiner saw Richard's expression wasn't changing, and gave a dismissive snort. "That's rich—you think you can talk back to me like that and get away with it? —Seems to me like you need one harsh, unforgettable example of how things really work!

"I wasn't kidding before, Boy. It doesn't matter if you're the third prince; anyone, anyone who tries to stop a Magna Centurion from completing his duty is going to be treated like a maverick, and pay the price. "

Richard saw the soldiers beginning to spread out. Dafoe muttered, "You're sure about this, Lord Steiner? Once we go through with this, it'll be hard to turn back…."

Steiner just looked delighted as he barked back, "Don't worry about taking any flak, boys. I know some of the royals might get emotional, but trust me: the king will understand that insolence can't be tolerated from anyone.

"The law of the land is that the penalty for treason is identical for all members of the Aurino Republic—regardless of gender, age, or status in society. Not even royalty is exempt. —And now I think it's high time that the law is enforced…."

His volume rose. "Drop him!"

Without another word, the soldiers all advanced, and their target knew without a doubt that any further attempts to settle this peacefully would be futile. As Richard released a sigh, his sword flew from its sheath even faster than it took to clench a finger.

Damn it—why did it have to come to this?

Plasma rifles were nothing to sneeze at; plasma was superheated gas that had freedom to diffuse into the target, its energy quickly spreading out from the point of entry and continuing to sear the target.

A direct hit would pretty much cook the inside of the hostile; even a glancing shot would be a serious injury. However, there were things in existence —many of which were privileged to ones like Richard— which were far better.

While the soldiers prepared to fire, and Richard drew his sword, the fingers on his left hand moved over the bracelet on the wrist of his other, grasping it and tightening as he pointed his sword outward toward those in front of him.

Through his lips spilled what would seem like babble to the uninitiated, but what any trained soldier would recognize as an incantation. At once, light was emitted from the symbol on the jewel, previously hidden.

The ethereal glow bursting forth from it shaped a rune that one familiar with magic would recognize as the base for the enchantment placed on every Wise Atom Neuron Deviser.

A heartbeat later, Auro Solais ignited in a bright blue light, and began to snake and crackle with electrical energy—a basic, yet highly effective, spell: Aura Edge.

That was all he had time for before the shots began to fire. Plasma was not quite as rapid as laser fire —which was fortunate for the young man— giving him a moment to sidestep and evade the first volley. An interesting benefit to the soldiers being so precise: they were aiming directly at him, without spread fire to ruin him by accident.

Even so, one of the shots went close enough to his cheek to sear right through the skin and spill blood—a painful reminder that he would not escape a second volley. It was only due to his own constant drilling that he managed to force a surge of calmness into his mind to clear it, ignore the blood rushing down his cheek, and turn all attention to the situation.

He swung his blade at the next volley of shots, which were more erratic as they attempted to re-target him. Any standard weapon, or even most magically-enhanced ones, would have found this effort to be meaningless; the plasma would burn through the metal like it was cold butter.

However, the spell that had magically coated the blade made it not only impervious, but caused the plasma to obey the will of its user, even if raw skill and physics couldn't: the plasma rounds, rather than bursting or disintegrating, were repelled back at his enemies along more-or-less the same path they took, slicing right through the weapons that had fired them, and into the soft flesh and weak bone on the other side.

Richard could only afford a slight wince of regret as screams of agony came from those whose own rounds tore into them; battle instinct left little room for torn feelings. As he was still surrounded, he had to take a calculated risk with his next move, and he decided to use the seemingly-suicidal tactic of diving into the middle of one of the groups.

The result was as he'd hoped: the soldiers hesitated in their fire, not wanting to hit their own comrades. A single gunner snapped out of this fear, and took aim at the seemingly vulnerable prince; seizing the opportunity, Richard's sword flew in his direction, the momentum enough to slash right through both the gun and the hand holding it.

The scream of their comrade seemed to alert the others into abandoning their reluctance to fire, but it didn't matter at that point: having just made himself a small opening, Richard dashed to the left, past the staggering troops, to avoid the next salvo of incoming projectiles.

He took a split second to assess the situation: the remaining survivors had been shaken out of their emotions as soon as the shots began, and had risen and broken for it, clearing the mines as fast as possible. Reasoning they were out of harm's way, he decided to pull out something bigger.

Again his hand went to his wrist "wand", and the gem glowed with power as a new string of words came forth from his lips. The commandos tried to clear in search of a good angle to fire from, but before they could get another shot out they fell victim to the next piece of the prince's magical repertoire: Geo Shift.

Their aim and footing were lost as a violent tremor rushed through the ground about Richard, shaking the ground like one shakes the cover on a queen-size bed. —Yet that was merely the prelude; pillars of stone then burst from the ground with the force and abruptness of shotgun blasts.

Each one had enough force to break a bone, but the young man had put the extra time into them, and made them go underneath the feet of all others in the area.

As if they had been placed on trampolines, the pillars launched the soldiers about him a good twenty feet vertically—and many more horizontally—launching them far away from their target.

A bit relieved, and surprised that his skill had been good enough to pull that off, Richard took a deep breath and wiped pouring sweat from his forehead.

No sooner had his wrist pulled away when he saw a rather brilliant flash growing quickly brighter at his side, aiming for him. His attention snapped to it, but he hardly had time to raise his sword arm to the side of his head before impact.

Unfortunately, that did little, as he felt a writhing surge of pain strike both his arm, face, and the bulk of his upper body. His head cleared relatively quickly, and he shook it, restoring his senses as well. His eyes soon focused on Dafoe—it appeared he had somehow managed to dodge the Geo Shift.

He had shifted his gun from firing mode to reveal an accessory function, shifting the barrel portion to deploy some sort of cuff that had been launched from the rest of the assembly to latch onto Richard's sword arm. It must have snagged it just now, with the "flash" he saw being it firing.

His eyes hardly had time to focus enough on Dafoe's face to see a victorious grin before he felt a second surge of electricity suddenly rip through his body. Again he seized, unable to cry out despite the agony, and this time it affected his already shocked-and-weakened body enough to drop him down to his knees…yet before it could make him collapse, it cut off again.

The device had to be partially mechanical, not powerful enough to bring a sustained charge and needing a moment to recharge. He knew that would be the only break he would get…and this would be the last one, as the focus he maintained on his own spells was nearly broken, and the last two shocks had already nearly robbed him of consciousness.

Before his would-be executioner could deliver a third shock, which would probably have knocked him out at minimum, he spoke again.

"Metal Morph."

By the time Dafoe could shock Richard again, it was already too late; a clicking and snapping was audible as Richard's own free arm twisted, melted, and reshaped, shrinking the steel limb as it formed a spike that extended and embedded itself in the barrel of Dafoe's rifle.

Normally, the electricity would have no side effects…except trying to shock the conductive substance the prince's arm was made of in its new shape caused a short-circuit that heated the rifle's plasma rounds and burst one within the weapon, turning the weapon into a fireball.

Dafoe's grin vanished as he cried out in a mixture of shock and agony, staggering back a few feet and extending his now-burned steadying hand, with the remains of his Suppression Rod loosely held in his trigger hand like so much junk.

"Goddamn prosthesis!" he shouted. The officer had forgotten a 'detail' on Richard's application papers…namely, that his non-dominant arm had sustained such a heavy mangling at one point that it had had to be totally replaced with an artificial limb. Originally, it had served to disqualify him from service in the Magna Centurions…that, however, was before it had been "modified" by the prince…

The distraction lasted only a moment before the commander swallowed down enough of the pain of the burned hand to go for one of the grenades at his belt. Richard was alert, and struck like a viper, dashing forward, grasping the fried rod —which nevertheless still maintained a grip on his arm— snapping it free, and then slamming the remainder of the weapon into Dafoe's neck.

His eyes bulged as he gagged and choked, this fresh pain, combined with the burns, enough to drive him to his knees. The rod easily snapped off into Richard's hand, enabling him to follow up by spinning it around once to build momentum before cracking it against Dafoe's head. He fell like a ton of bricks.

Panting a bit harder now, Richard gave a hollow smile before throwing down the rod and reverting his metallic arm back to its original shape.

However, his feeling of relief faded as quickly as it appeared when a snort of disgust refocused his attention on the man responsible for the current mess. He saw Steiner glaring at him, arms folded, like he was annoyed that his elevator was delayed.

The bald man looked his men, who weren't even stirring, and cracked his neck. "Damn it all—Despite everything, they let their hesitation slow them down, the cowards. —That means I have to waste even more time punishing you personally. I'll tell you what, Boy: you're going to wish you died by their hands by the time I'm done giving you the beating your father should have given you years ago!"

His hands went to his sides, and, with dual shiks, he had his own weapons, a pair of machete-like Tartarus Blades, out and at the ready.

"…Since you're still the king's offspring, 'Little Richie', you've got five seconds to get on your knees and plead insanity before you go back to him in a bodybag."

Swallowing again, trying to reinforce his own resolve, Richard shouted, "I told you—I'm not going to let you hurt anyone else!"

Steiner's previous rage multiplied, morphing into disgust as his body began to shift into a ready position. "…Oh? —And you're going to stop me?" He snarled vilely. "I've bulldozed through enemy lines in wars, you cheeky little brat! No son of a con-artist slut with Zenjyu blood is going to get in my way!"

Richard's own anger flared greater upon hearing the insult to his mother, overriding his last bit of hesitation. His free hand went over his wrist wand once again. He didn't speak this time—rather, through conscious will, he shifted his Aura Edge spell, the blue color and electricity giving rise to a thicker aura.

As this happened, Steiner launched his own assault. The Tartarus Blades went to his sides, and each step sent a thunderclap through the ground as he barreled at the young man like a mad bull.

He was on him in an instant, moving faster than his size belied, as both blades came down upon his target. To anyone else, such a weapon would be purely for stabbing and slashing. In the hands of Steiner, though, they might as well have been battle axes—and that's how they felt to Richard as Auro Solais reached up to intercept them.

The Aura Edge was the only thing that kept his arms from snapping from the impact. The ground beneath his feet literally crumpled, and any lesser man might have had their arms snapped off as the prince fell to his knees.

Steiner grinned and let out a hoarse laugh as he saw he was able to overwhelm the prince so easily, pushing the blades down enough to touch Richard's shoulders. As for the young man, he could feel his upper body almost being ripped like meat from a bone. He could hear his prosthetic arm groaning.

…My arm!

Risking a move, his prosthetic arm came off of the sword hilt, immediately transformed into a spike again, and then drove forward, trying to hit the joint behind Steiner's left greave; the big man saw this and quickly leapt back.

Steiner grinned a bit more, clearly trying to mock him for failing in his attack, but it had accomplished the main goal of breaking the offense. Richard snapped to his feet to launch one of his own as the spike reverted back into a hand and doubled up on his sword hilt. Now wasn't the time for anger; he needed to look for more openings, keep Steiner off-balance.

The Prince soon charged in and prepared to strike, not going head-on, but performing a feint to the right, then trying to come from the left. However, when he got close enough to strike out, the larger man deflected the attack with ease, using one blade, before trying to follow up with the second in a move aimed to take Richard's head from his shoulders.

Richard managed to pull back, but still lost several strands of hair for the effort. It wasn't long before he tried again for a new opening, trying to get from a different side at another armor chink, but this one was deflected just as easily.

This went on for about thirty seconds, the young man trying to get an opening in the defense, and Steiner managing to parry each move, treating it like child's play.

Finally, after deflecting his latest blow, Steiner shifted back to offense. None of the Magna Centurion's moves were stabs or slashes; each one was intended to cleave off a limb. It took pretty much every bit of strength Richard had in his already-fatigued body to intercept each hit, and even then he buckled and/or retreated with every blow.

Even this wasn't entirely one-sided, though; the young man was attempting to get him accustomed to these blows, so he could make use of his opponent's own momentum. One of Steiner's slashes for his shoulder went wide, and the young man used it: he evaded, not by blocking this time, but rather by dodging and leaping.

By now, he was nearing the periphery of the site, and there was a large boulder and a car-sized drilling machine behind it. He leapt onto the first, making full use of Steiner's momentum spent overextending himself to get his footing.

The big man scowled as he raised his blades again and ran in for a stabbing blow, now that his opponent was more on his level. Nevertheless, the young man had had a moment to gather his wits, and as the Centurion stabbed inward, he once again overextended himself, letting the Prince vault forward and leap clean over his body, much to his surprise.

Even before leaping, he began to chant again, pulling out a new technique, this one covering his metallic hand with a chilling mist. Steiner seemed to realize that Richard was switching to magic, but it seemed he hadn't picked up that he was casting the Frost Surge spell. As soon as Richard landed, he snapped around and flung what looked like a mere snowball generated out of midair at the larger man.

The Centurion merely scoffed at it, and brought up a blade to slash it in two effortlessly. No sooner had the blade made contact than it burst like a water balloon—only, in this case, more like the eruption of a hand grenade.

In a snap, the entire immediate area around him —Steiner included— was coated in a layer of ice as the temperature plunged a good seventy-five degrees Fahrenheit. In a split second, he was a frosty statue.

The young man quickly pivoted around, and returned his free hand to his sword. He took only a second to see if he was successful, but then moved to dart in and finish the job…but his moment taken to check the damage cost him.

As he darted inward, the ice suddenly cracked, and abruptly the forward leg of the otherwise-frozen Steiner snapped up and connected with Richard's gut. If the man had been shorter, he wouldn't have had the reach necessary, but, given his size, he managed to extend past the range of the blade and nail the prince rather hard—enough to abort his charge and send him recoiling back, both from pain and the sheer force of the hit.

Richard coughed up once, noticing a few drops of blood spilling off his lips as he did so, before the rest of the ice shattered, and the big man on the other side emerged, practically strutting as he came out. Richard caught the delight in his opponent's expression to see the blood on his mouth as the huge warrior let out a laugh.

"…That might have worked if you were still dancing with the commandos, but I'm a goddamn Magna Centurion, Boy!"

At once he renewed the assault, not giving Richard a chance to regain his bearing. Again lowering himself, he did the mad-bull charge again, although this time he simply lowered his shoulder to charge into him in a tackle. This was more than enough, unfortunately, as Richard was too stunned to dodge or brace himself, and he soon had the feeling of a stone wall smashing into him.

Similar to what he had just done to the commandos, his own body was sent flying from the sheer impact, although he didn't go as far himself, due to his proximity to the mines; there was the stone face of a hillside to get in his way, and his pain was doubled as he crashed into it hard. Steiner didn't give his opponent a chance to regain his wits, following up immediately with a vicious shoulder tackle.

The prince slumped off it rather limply a moment later, his body wracked with pain, and his senses more than a little dazzled. As he forced his head up, he saw Steiner was lifting his blades once again for a follow-up assault…but rather than stabbing or slashing, he instead slammed both weapons together.

By a combination of technological and magical means, the two joined together to form what looked like a pair of shears…though perhaps 'pincers' was more accurate in this case. What was more, they rapidly enlarged.

In spite of his determination, horror went into Richard's gaze. He knew about this use of the weapons, Steiner's "signature" move: the Tartarus Grind. At once, Steiner dove right for the young man with his dominant arm in a stabbing gesture. Knowing he couldn't deflect that, Richard quickly raised his mechanical arm to seize one blade and braced with the vambrace on the other against the opposite.

For all his counter's strength, though, he was still unable to keep the tips of the blades from going all the way up to —and about half an inch into— the sides of his chest. It wasn't deep, but it broke the skin, and blood began to gather into and soak his uniform.

What was more, although he had stopped it, Steiner was pushing it in more, and Richard's face soon turned red and tight from trying to push back. He gave out an agonized grunt, struggling not to let it turn into a cry of pain, as the felt the blades slowly going deeper in.

Steiner saw how close he was to cutting in to Richard, and his look actually twisted into a sadistic grin.

"…So, ready to beg yet?" Steiner asked darkly. "Everyone begs; it just depends on how much pressure I have to apply before they break. I want to hear you whine like a puppy…."

Richard held a bit for more, sweat beginning to run down his face. He had been looking for a way out, increasingly desperately, and saw only one option. He wasn't sure he had the focus to pull it off, especially since he had had it demonstrated for him only recently, but so long as Steiner was trying to make him squirm, he realized he had to do it fast, while he still had a chance.

Abruptly, he let out an even more pained grunt and shifted his metal arm forward, to wedge into the space between the Tartarus Grind blades, so that he could brace the entire weapon with one arm.

Then he pulled his flesh arm out as fast as he could, the full force of the blade now on his steel arm, and made a fist which rapidly began to smoke and glow. Steiner's face shifted to slight confusion as he saw him gathering energy without speaking spell-words, before realization sank into his eyes…along with a bit of tension at the realization.

His palm opened and aimed forward, Richard leveled a dark glare at Steiner.

"…We'll see who is easier to break, Steiner! Mana Punch!"

With a sound like the blast of a small cannon, a burst of raw, explosive, magical energy—pure mana condensed into a burst— erupted from his hand.

However, the gesture seemed totally worthless, as it wasn't even aimed accurately enough to graze Steiner's cheek. It sailed high and clear beyond him, past his shoulder and his head, before an eruption sounded from its impact point. The tension on Steiner's face vanished almost immediately, forming a smug grin instead.

"…You're just full of surprises, aren't you, Richie? —Learned one of your old man's spells, eh? Too bad your throwing arm is weaker than a T-Rex's…."

The big man immediately pushed in harder now, with the intent of finishing off his scissor-like maneuver…but Richard was ready. His metallic arm immediately gave a twisting, metallic sound again as it once more shifted back into a metal spike, and while it was doing so, he also wedged it to one side, applying it as a lever against the weapons.

Steiner actually showed a hint of puzzlement at this move…before he heard a groaning from above and behind him, followed by a snap directly above. Richard took a moment to grin slightly, before he used the Magna Centurion's confusion to summon all his strength and push the blade up and out of him with a cry, then yank his body backward.

Steiner didn't have time to turn and see what had happened—that the shot Richard fired had never been intended to hit him, its wielder knowing that wouldn't be enough…but instead to decimate the "elbow" of a crane holding several large crates loaded with ore and iron tools.

The snapping sound had been the cable supporting them giving way, and now they bore down like an avalanche. Steiner's eyes hardly had a moment to look up and widen before the load smashed down on him like a rockslide.

The force was so great and strong that even the hulk of a man was flattened underneath them. Furthermore, thanks to Richard pushing up as best as he could with his blade-arm, the sudden force was enough to snap the ends of the Tartarus Grind blades clean off.

Panting hard, feeling the blood continuing to stain his uniform and run down his chest, his arms still throbbing and sore, Richard scrambled back to his feet.

His arm quickly reverted back into its original form, and he put both hands on Auro Solais. He still couldn't believe that hasty Mana Punch had worked—although he realized almost immediately it hadn't been quite as effective as he hoped for he began to hear an angry groaning, mixed with the occasional swearword.

One crate toppled aside, revealing Steiner's beet-red bald head —glaring bloody murder at Richard— but in spite of that, the other bits of debris only shifted for now. He couldn't rise as quickly, both from the pain and the weight.

An adrenaline rush, no doubt…or the last of his magic. That would explain why his blades weren't charged from the start, or I'd already be in pieces.

Richard's metal hand soon shifted to put pressure on the stab wounds, while moving his sword to his flesh-and-bone one, before he advanced on the pinned man. If possible, Steiner's face grew redder as he struggled more fiercely, perhaps dislodging one or two more boxes—but still not enough to break free just yet.

"I swear, you brat…" he growled in spite of compressed lungs, "…once I get outta here, I'm gonna rip you apart!"

Richard answered by focusing his energy into the Aura Edge spell once more, using it to magically sharpen the blade of Auro Solais further. He shifted into a thrusting position as his face turned grim, the panic he felt moments ago giving way to the anger he felt on seeing the piles of dead.

"Bolton Warrick Steiner…for disgracing our nation, and the Magna Centurions, and for killing innocent people, I sentence you to death."

The sword was inches from Steiner's exposed face. Even now, the bull of a man looked more enraged than afraid, as if the true thing to be upset about was Richard having him in this position. The young man yanked his blade back to drive it home….

"…If you wish to see a disgrace to our nation and the Magna Centurions, Richard, you need look no further than the nearest mirror."

The voice was calm and dignified, the polar opposite of the 'lion's roar' that was Steiner's own tone. It was also far colder…and elicited a far greater response from the young man. His body went rigid the moment he heard it behind him; in spite of his efforts to look bold, he knew his pallid skin grew more wan.

…Of course, it really wouldn't have mattered if he hadn't frozen in fear, considering the fact that a single hand was easily holding his stabbing arm back.

A split second later, a rather solid blow from a gauntlet curled into a fist smashed him in the back of the head. Even so, it was somewhat at an angle, so that rather than sending his body colliding into the pile of crates that had his opponent pinned, he was sent flying onto the ground nearby. He went for a tumble on impact, but not by choice; it was just momentum continuing to drag him along the ground.

Still pinned, Steiner's anger finally abated—but only to give out a laugh, both at his sudden change in fortune and the pain Richard had just been sent into. "…What the hell took you so long, Orion? —You had that much trouble taking care of fleeing, frantic rats?"

Richard was on his back when he finally stopped, but he still had to force himself to look up a bit and his head to stop swimming.

His vision revealed a man smaller than Steiner, but similarly dressed, except that the colors were purple and red, and the shoulder pads were more heavily armored, with arrays like hooked spikes, both for increased deflection as well as to catch —and break— blades. While he definitely had muscle of his own, he wasn't a hulk by any means; the toning was evident without the bulge.

As opposed to being bald, his head was crowned with a dragon-shaped helmet, yet even then one could see blonde hair flowing down behind his head from beneath. In his right hand was a large black lance with a golden handle; the ornate style resembled that of Richard's own sword.

The newly-arrived Magna Centurion, Orion, looked slightly to Steiner. "They had more mages in their group than we originally calculated, and it seems they smuggled in a Grizanaught. Their plans were well thought out, and their vigor was admirable, so it took me longer than I had anticipated. It doesn't compare to this disgrace of a fight, Bolton."

Steiner continued to struggle under the load, his face creasing and giving a bit of an angry mutter.

As for Richard, he had enough of his wits now to start getting to his feet. However, this conversation alone was upsetting him more as Orion looked right back at him. He saw the man's eyes glance over the bodies of the civilians…and they might as well have been the local rocks, as much as they changed his appearance. His sole discomfort seemed to be Richard himself, and it was more disappointment than sadness.

The prince knew that Steiner was psychotic; that he lived for the bloodlust of battle. His words to him just now proved he thought little of codes of honor and cared only about killing—but to see Orion acting as dismissive as that savage brute….

It began to fill Richard with dread of a different sort.

"Orion…. Why? Why are you letting this go on? You told me a true warrior fights with honor and pride for his nation; that the sole purpose of the Magna Centurions was to defend the innocent from injustice…."

The dragon-helmed warrior again noted the bodies littering the area, then looked back. "…And my words were true."

Richard's jaw loosened. "…You can honestly look at all this, and tell me that with a straight face!?" he nearly shouted.

"The fact that you are the one who hasn't grasped the true meaning of those words has little bearing on their validity," the man calmly countered. "Yes, the Magna Centurions fight with honor, and so do I. 'Honor' does not always mean 'kind'; 'honor' does not always mean 'pleasant'.

"Occasionally it means you must do things that are quite bloody and painful. I always feared that you wouldn't have the heart to go through with it, Richard; I regret to say that you've proven my intuition correct…but even so, I never anticipated it would make you a traitor to your king."

"What the hell is so damn 'honorable' about gunning families down? I trained to neutralize threats to the safety of our nation! —Crooks! —Terrorists! —Monsters! —Not people just trying to avoid being kicked out of their homes! They're only a threat because we pushed them to this point!"

"Must you insist on every one of our nation's foes dressing in black and sporting long mustaches, Richard?" Orion asked, his own volume rising. "—On the world being this simple? Just because a man or woman dresses like a civilian doesn't make them innocent; have you already forgotten how many they killed destroying that power plant the kingdom was building?

"Those were innocent lives, too; men and women with families, just trying to get by. —And they mattered less to these people you're defending than apparently our own soldiers meant to you. They had every chance to avoid conflict, but they were intent on defying our king in the bloodiest way possible, and so we responded accordingly…no more and no less."

"—No more?" Richard retorted. "There are children here, Orion…!"

"Mavericks to the nation must be dealt with, whether they're monsters, Jiodisan Union assassins, or crazed, disgruntled citizens," the knight cut him off. "—That's the vow I took when I wanted to take the trial to be a Magna Centurion, and, more importantly, that's the vow you took.

"The only reason I didn't strike you down as opposed to smacking you aside just now is because I wanted to make that clear to you. Treason has consequences, and this is the last time I warn you of them before I start administering them. Losing your nerve on the battlefield is a disgrace; attacking your own comrades is a dishonor worthy of death."

Orion wasn't the kind to ever make an idle threat, or not carry out what he intended; nor was he one to lose his resolve, and Richard already knew he was serious. Furthermore, the look in Orion's eye indicated he already knew what Richard would say…but still, he couldn't just forget about this. He had already made that choice.

"I attacked Steiner and the commandos to protect lives, and no more. That is how I see the vow I took and uphold it. —You'd really kill me over that?"

The look Orion gave him in response showed no hesitation, or even disappointment; it was simply a glare.

"I will do whatever it takes to erase what dishonors my kingdom…and my family."

Letting his own anger rise, for he needed it to push back the fear growing inside him, Richard tightened his grip on his sword and gritted his teeth.

"I won't let this injustice continue, even if I have to fight you!"

The face beneath the helmet showed neither mercy nor compassion. Instead, the lance, which Richard knew to be named Tenebrous, was abruptly coated in a flame that looked like living blackness, rather than any sort of light, fiery or otherwise.

"So be it."

The dragon-helmed knight opened with one of his own specific spells, the Infernal Gale; his lance swung upward and sent out a volley of blackened, melon-sized fireballs straight for Richard.

The Prince had his sword flashed out, still girded with the protective aura, and swatted most of the fireballs away…yet the last managed to get through.

He brought up his metallic arm to intercept it, but —though he felt no pain from it detonating against the prosthetic appendage— it immolated the metal, much to his shock. Quickly, he shifted stance and swung the appendage down in a chopping motion.

The sudden change of air was enough to smother the fire, making the young man grateful for the small favor of it still obeying that part of physics. He quickly tried to scan for a way out; standing his ground against Orion was a death sentence, after all….

He had no time, though. The dragon-helmed knight's free hand clenched into a fist, and soon a light burst forth from his right hand. Greater dread seeped into his opponent as an emblem burst forth from within the flesh and bone: a crystalline cross. He had seen it many times: the symbol of the Aurino Republic. It came forth every time Orion brought out his stronger magical abilities.

This would be the first time Richard was on the receiving end.

Tenebrous surged, the black flames changing into raw red energy about it, while the symbol on Orion's fist shone with even greater light, to the point of blinding.

Orion instantly launched into the air. As fast and hard as the columns of rock had smashed into Richard's foes before, this was greater; in an instant, Orion was a dot in the sky…although that dot quickly was wrapped in red flame.

The prince's stomach sank like a stone as he let out a visible tremble, realizing what his foe was using: the Erupting Nova Fang. A moment later, he pitched down, to slam the earth with the speed and appearance of a blazing comet….

The young man dashed out of the way as fast as he could, narrowly missing the lance-bearing warrior as he collided with the earth. Even then he was not safe; the moment the lance impacted the ground, it sent forth a tempest of energy about its wielder, whirling about and building in strength until he was wrapped in crimson flames. Half a second later, they took the likeness of fangs and burst in all directions from his body.

The sheer strength and speed of the blow had been enough to shatter the ground beneath Orion and his surroundings, and the fang-shockwave ripped outward with such force that it was enough to not only dent and partially crush the mining machines in the immediate area, but actually blast them aside as if they were chaff in a tornado.

The ground not only depressed into a crater in its wake, but the power he infused into it produced smoldering heat. While he had escaped taking the blow full force, Richard was once again rendered airborne by the power of the resulting shockwave.

If that wasn't enough, the raw heat it bore instantly engulfed him in flame. Screams of agony were peeled out from the feeling of fire roasting his skin.

Fortunately, it was only for a moment; the wave of wind and dirt cast up from the impact blasted over Richard, and smothered his burning body as quickly as it had lit him aflame.

—But that didn't stop the feeling of pain from the light burns even those momentary flames had caused. He rolled, sore and beaten from the impact as well as burned by the fire, and writhed on the ground momentarily.

Orion remained crouched against the ground, his lance still piercing the smoking earth. His face was still emotionless, and he exhaled slightly as he stood to full height again. As he did, he yanked out the lance and manipulated it slightly.

At once, sounds of metal shifting rang out as the lance collapsed and condensed, until it too was within a sword form, all while he walked towards Richard. The prince grunted and groaned as he rolled himself onto his belly. Skin tender and sore, his body bruised and weak, he began to push himself up.

"…What did you think you were doing, Richard?" Orion called out as he neared him. "…You think you can pretend the true nature of the world doesn't exist?"

Richard, still panting from pain and exhaustion, nevertheless leveled his gaze at Orion and shook his head. "No; I can face it head-on!"

At once he lunged at Orion, but it was clear this was a weak, flimsy flail at best. The dragon-helm knight actually let out a sigh as he intercepted the strike, and held Richard at bay with one hand.

The Prince, in turn, bit down and tried to push harder, but it hardly mattered; he was listless, his eyes-half-lidded, and he was barely standing on his own two feet.

Orion almost grimaced as he suddenly shoved forward, pushing Auro Solais out of the way. Although it was meant only as a disarming move, it threw the whole young man off balance.

He quickly followed up with a horizontal slash aimed for the chest. The armor hardly seemed to make any difference as the edge of Tenebrous cut right through it and into the flesh beneath, opening a rather nasty gash that erupted blood in an almost explosive stain.

Even then, it was only a flesh wound…but Richard cried out in agony nonetheless, both of his arms faltering and staggering back. His legs nearly gave way underneath him; it was clear that that slash had been designed to take the last of the fight out of him.

…Yet in spite of all of that, somehow he kept his footing. He leveled his stare back at Orion, forming the most defiant look he could.

The dragon-helmed knight's own face turned grim; his muscles began to tighten.

"Wait, Orion! Let me handle this!"

Both men paused, with Orion actually turning and looking behind him. They were just in time to see Steiner finally get enough strength —after Orion's shockwave had blown away most of the debris— to burst the rest of the way out and get to his feet. He staggered a bit at first, but, as he picked his way out from them and began to near the two, he rapidly steadied.

Orion's face was unchanged. "…Do I look like I need assistance, Bolton?"

Abruptly, his arm went out, just in time to intercept and deflect a surprise attack Richard had tried to use against him while his back was turned. The sword being deflected was nearly enough to knock him down by itself, but Orion quickly shifted his blade out to the pommel and smashed him in the face while he was still twisted to one side. With a rather solid impact, the Prince was flattened against the rocky ground.

"…And haven't you disgraced yourself enough today?" the dragon-helmed knight finished.

The "disgrace" comment seemed to make the bull of a man grimace, and he hesitated as he neared, speaking uncertainly. "Well…Uh…I meant to say, even someone as proficient as you should not have to deal with killing your—"

Steiner was silenced with a glare that could kill most men. "—Are you implying I lack the resolve to do what must be done? I won't shy away from my duty, no matter what is required, and regardless of how unpleasant it could be."

The big man tried to form an innocent face. "Hey, if you want that kind of nightmare to hang over your head, don't say I didn't warn you! —But what about the politics? It won't do much for your reputation! Especially what it entails…I mean…."

He looked to Richard, his look turning from innocence to clear sadism. There was almost a ravenous glint in them as he took his snapped blades, now separated, and began to reattach them to the hilts.

"…Killing a traitor isn't supposed to be 'clean'. It's supposed to make them an example."

In spite of his pain and exhaustion, the prince managed to grit his teeth at him.

"You lunatic…. At least Orion only has a warped 'sense of duty'; you're just doing it because you like the sight of blood, you damn animal…."

Steiner let out a snort, rather like a dog. "…And since when is it a crime to love what you do, 'Little Richie'?" he asked as he snapped his repaired blades apart. The man looked about two seconds from going into another charge and driving them into him, regardless of Orion's wishes…

…When suddenly a new form joined them. Both Orion and Richard looked to Steiner's side as, amidst some of the earlier piled up rock rubble, one of the elderly, still-living civilians suddenly leapt out, using just about all of his strength to get on top of the rocks he had hidden behind, and leap from there onto the back of the hulking Magna Centurion.

Abruptly, Steiner snapped around in confusion as the old man grabbed onto the straps of his armor and held on for dear life.

"—The hell…? Get off me, you damn geezer!"

He began to thrash about wildly, trying to throw the old man off. As he did so, Richard got a better look…

…And saw that the old man's face was stained with tears.

"This is for my son, you monster…" the elder managed to croak through a shaking voice, before he freed one hand long enough to reach up into his lapel, revealing a mechanical collar with a conspicuous button mounted on it.

He pressed it, and, as a result…both Richard and Orion soon saw a ring of lights light up around his waist as he was thrown about, showing off flashes in his coat. It didn't take a genius to realize the man was a suicide bomber.

Orion opened his mouth to shout a warning to his subordinate, but it didn't seem to matter a moment later as Steiner used the fact the old man had released one of his hands and, as a result, swung out enough for him to grab to reach a huge hand behind him and seize the elderly man by the skull.

"You want to join your rebellious brat in hell?" he said with a wild, toothy grin. "—Be my guest!"

With a surge of strength, the hulking man ripped the elder right off his back, swung him over his head, and then slammed him down onto the ground face-first. Richard, his senses returning further all the time, felt sick to his stomach on hearing the wet crunch that had to be the old man's bones. Steiner had an almost wild —even delighted— look on his face; he looked up to Orion and gestured idly with one finger at the now-limp man.

"Hey, look, Orion! —A martyr! Let's make him a 'great' one!"

At once, he yanked the unconscious —or, more likely, dead— man up, spun around, and began to drive him headfirst into the rock wall nearest to him, again and again. Orion meant to call out about the bombs, to watch for whatever was acting as the detonator…but even he was rendered mute as he saw the look of almost maddened glee spread across Steiner's face. Richard, for his part, was a mixture of mortified and progressively more enraged.

While Steiner treated the man's body like a toddler treats a ragdoll toy, with about as much comprehension and morality attached to it, one of the bombs snapped off of his body, flew through the air, and then landed not too far from Orion and Richard, before beginning to roll toward the space between them. As it did, it gave off a beeping noise, which rapidly escalated, indicating whatever had knocked it loose had also apparently triggered it.

Having no idea how strong the bomb was, both men immediately broke in separate directions. Orion quickly headed out further away from the mine, while Richard, as weak and feeble as his body felt, somehow felt the adrenaline of new fear give him the strength to scramble back in a crab-walk, further towards and actually into the mine to get away from it.

A moment later, it let out a continuous chime and detonated two feet from the entrance proper, letting out a rather potent, yet localized, explosion that sent up a cloud of rocks that both men had to shield their faces from.

Furthermore, it dislodged a few rocks from the ceiling of the tunnel, and sent them toppling into the shaft.

This was not lost on Orion, who showed a visible frown as he spun back to Steiner. "Enough. Get rid of him now, Bolton. The king demanded minimal damage was to be done to the mine, and I won't risk any further destruction."

The man's sadism finally seemed to abate momentarily, as he turned to Orion to give a shrug. "You got a…point?" He trailed off midsentence, clearly seeing something past Orion, towards the entrance of the mine.

Orion, noticing that look, quickly tightened and spun around, sword at the ready. That lasted only a moment before abating. Richard, in turn, noticed they were looking past him and deeper inside. He turned and looked to see what it was.

A single unarmed child, her own face streaked with tears, had her hands cupped to her face as she nervously poked her upper body out from a turn in the mine path up ahead. Her sobs soon began to echo down from within the chamber.

"G-Grand…p-pa…"

Orion lowered his sword. "So…some of the citizens are hiding in the mine. They must be desperate if they would hide in such an unstable place…."

The girl only continued to sniffle and hiccup, unable to move…unable to do anything except stare at the bloody remains of the man in Steiner's hand.

Completely unmoved, the big man only grinned again as he tossed what was left of his last victim down to the ground, and cracked his neck, advancing on the mine. "…So, Daddy was a terrorist…and Grandpapa was a suicide bomber…. Two sneaky maggots already, and going for a 'hat trick', I'll bet….

"Well…one more cracked skull, and there'll be one less terrorist bloodline in the world." It was even more obvious now that his only real interest was in spilling more blood. He had almost a hunger for it in his eyes….

Seeing that look made Richard's rage redouble, but it did little good. As furious as he was, his body was wracked with pain; even reaching out to grab the sides of the rock tunnel and pull himself up was taking all of his strength, and it was failing again. He tried to glare at Steiner; however, he found himself involuntarily looking at his brother.

"That's enough, damn it! That's just a child!"

Even shouting that had nearly robbed him of his air—breathing was a forced process at this point. It didn't seem to be entirely without effect, though; for a moment, Orion looked silently at Richard. His face showed no expression or change…just studied him.

"…Enough, Steiner," he finally stated, not looking away. "—I said no damage to the mine. You're letting bloodlust overrun your judgment."

The big man let out a small chuckle as he made a small wave at Orion, as if dismissing him. His eyes, like a deranged maniac, were on the little girl. "Ah, this won't be anything, Orion. —Just one last, quick message to those terrorists…." Even as he spoke, his own wrist wand was beginning to generate magic power. A moment later, and it had already formed a green sphere of light in his palm.

Orion tensed on seeing that, and moved forward to reiterate his command, but Steiner had already begun to bring his arm up to throw it. Seeing this, Richard's own gaze widened as the child, frozen in fear, went rigid and gazed helplessly. He realized he had to move.

"No!"

A moment later, the arm loosed. Richard's arms felt like lead, and trying to shift them at all lit his slashed chest on fire with pain, but he realized he was the only one who could do anything.

Orion, even if he intended to intervene —which the young man suspected he didn't— wouldn't have time as the shot went right over his shoulder and into the shaft. Quickly, he forced himself off of the wall, into the path of the weapon, prayed mentally that his sword still had some of the Aura Edge enchantment left in it, and then swung it up, right into the projectile's path.

Luckily, the sphere was large and slow enough for him to hit it with the blade, and the ball of mana was cleft in two, both halves immediately splitting from one another and going to the sides, embedding themselves into the walls instead and letting off minor explosions.

Each one was only about as big as the bomb that had gone off before, and only set off minor ripples as they sent a deafening echo through the enclosed area, causing a rain of dust and debris from overhead. However, as the magical shockwaves rippled through the area, the walls of the cave suddenly began to hiss and spit like wet wood on a fire.

Soon, small snaps and crackles like sparklers began to emit form the walls—first from the zone of the explosions, but the effect rapidly traveled outward. In only about two seconds, they went from being a few isolated pops to many, spreading throughout the tunnel.

Richard blinked and looked about him as the pops grew larger and began to blast off pebbles, soon sending a rippling, continuous echo throughout the entire tunnel. As they did, pieces of the wall sloughed off, revealing it was interlaced with black and violet crystals.

"Oh, hell…."

Orion's own eyes widened on seeing this. "…Raw Kaisonite…!"

He had no time for anything else; it was only his instinctive reflexes, refined by years of training and experience, that allowed him to slam his sword against the ground and the spell to automatically come from his lips.

The moment the sword entered the dirt, dark flames spread out from it and spread through the ground, and moments later rose before him. They didn't spread like true fire this time, but instead quickly formed a solid wall of shadows before him. As the tunnel's condition continued to worsen, he looked one last time to see Richard's still-shocked face before it vanished on the other side.

In spite of himself…he showed dismay.

Damn it….

A moment later, whatever Kaisonite wasn't already up in smoke detonated…and a blast that probably would have killed anyone short of Orion ripped through the area, blasting out the inside of the mine so heavily that it burst forth, up, and out from inside the mountainside itself, to rain further debris and destruction down upon the warrior. Even so, the barrier weathered not only the blast, but the debris that was flung by it.

His teeth clenched, he bore down in a desperate attempt to hold back the raw power, and still it raged against him, not only from the immediate blast, but from smaller, successive blasts triggered by other veins of Kaisonite that hadn't gone off with the first one as well.

A cone that missed destruction formed behind him; the stone and debris great enough to punch holes through whatever vehicles were still strewn about the area raged otherwise unchecked.

Finally the explosion died down. Under clouds of dust slowly drifting down, the sounds of rocks and pebbles settling, and the waves of power abating beyond, the sound of the barrier still sizzling from the activity could be heard.

His own brow a bit moist now, Orion exhaled once, and then slowly straightened. A moment later, he pulled his sword up as well, and at once his Shadow Wall spell faded.

Nothing stood before him but a pile of rocks and rubble; whatever hadn't been caved in or blown out directly had been buried in the ensuing rockslide from the hills overhead. Not only was Richard gone, but calling the mine a wash would be the understatement of the year; he could only make out one or two crumbling foundations protruding from the rubble as it was.

His hands slowly clenched into fists, his own anger at last beginning to fully come forth and twist his face. He snapped his head back to see a mass of sizzling armor cringing, head covered.

It took Orion a moment to suppress his seething anger before he was able to regain his stoic demeanor.

"Bolton, forgive my candidness…but what the hell were you thinking!? —Did you forget that the entire focus of this mission was to take out those who were threatening the power plant and the mine, not to destroy half of the Kaisonite with a single errant blast?"

The man blinked, and then gulped, not having an answer for that one. "Well, er…you see…. Damn it."

"If we didn't care about ruining it —not to mention not getting the rest out without digging a new mine— we would have just sent in Zaitrons and the rest of the fleet to bombard the area. We were called for a delicate operation. —What part of this…" —he barely restrained himself as he gestured to the mine— "…looks 'delicate' to you?"

Steiner's hands went up defensively. "Easy there, Orion! It's only because your brother screwed me up that things went nuts! Besides, so long as we got rid of him and the rest of the terrorists, then it's not a total lo—"

The Magna Centurion went silent as fear flooded his features, for he suddenly found himself, in the blink of an eye, in spite of being taller and more muscular, suspended above the ground by one arm.

That arm was attached to Orion, who now had him by the throat, and seemed not to be exerting himself as he gave him a look that showed he had quite enough.

"Your stupidity and blundering just ruined the entire reason we were deployed here in the first place, and you have the gall to blame another for it!? —What part of 'Do I look like I need assistance' wasn't clear enough for you?"

In spite of his situation, Steiner managed to swallow before protesting, "Oh, come on! —I know you can hit harder than that! You were going easy on him; you weren't going to kill him! Orion, even if he's your brother, he was still a traitor!"

"He should have stood trial, not died on the spot like a common dog!" the man answered as he effortlessly returned his sword to his sheath with his other hand.

"This was for the best!" the big man retorted. "The media would make the rest of the world think your father is a laughingstock! You know that this was what had to b—"

Steiner was cut off in a gulp as the grip around his neck began to well up blood around Orion's fingertips as it tightened.

"Do you also feel like disobeying the orders of your superiors, Bolton?" the dragon-helmed man asked coldly. "—If you ever show even a hint of insubordination in front of me again, I'll show you firsthand how little I hesitate to deal with traitors as I reduce you to a smear under my boot."

It seemed that was enough to rid Steiner of his mouth. He managed a frantic nod as his face turned blue. "Und…er…sto…od, Pr…ince…Orion. W—won't ha…ppen…ag…ain…." he rasped in a croak.

Orion gave him one last look of disgust before hurling his fellow Magna Centurion to the ground as casually as one would toss a log onto a campfire. On impact, Steiner let out a pained grunt, but he was of no concern to the higher-ranked warrior, who was already turning his head to the sky.

Twilight was upon them, but it wasn't the sun dipping that let out one last burst of light—it was the fires still raging around Zaylor. Even from here, he still heard the occasional distant scream…answered by plasma fire.

Letting out a dismal sigh, he pressed a button on the right side of his helmet. From his personal point of view, a small screen of data appeared. It immediately listed out textual data, which he glanced over.

"The Typhoon shall descend soon," he stated curtly after a moment, "We will ensure that the area is secure, and then return back to the castle to report." He frowned, his eyes turning downcast. "—Then we'll both have to explain how such a mess unfolded to King Andross…" He sighed. "…and my mother…and my sisters."

Steiner mumbled something as he began to rise, but didn't dare say anything intelligible before the stronger Magna Centurion.

Orion continued to look out over the landscape. After only about two minutes, with Steiner still coughing and clutching his throat from being throttled, he began to see a new sight emerge from over the horizon. From a distance, in the dimming light, one could just barely make out the colors of blue and white.

The appearance, however, was more like that of a great flying sword…although it was something a bit different. It was a Surge Zeppelin airship, specifically, the kind that Orion personally utilized.

This one was the Typhoon, and it immediately began to scan for a place to touch down. That would be somewhat difficult, considering the blast that had just occurred.

Thinking of it made Orion shake his head at the pile of rubble they had ended up 'winning'.

…What a disaster…all because Richard saw things too simply.

I'm sorry your intentions were too 'pure' for the real world, Little Brother…


Far beneath the ground, far beneath the floor of the mine, which had seemed solid enough, yet, in the wake of a blast of raw Kaisonite, was now little more than dust, and therefore easily susceptible to a cave-in…many hundreds of feet into the darkness, where bits of stone rubble from up overhead continued to fall down, some purely because they were loose, some still charred from the explosion…a single individual lay prone on the bottom of the cave.

He wasn't purely in blackness—some of the rocks were still gleaming due to the magic they had been smashed with, especially the ores and impurities. Among them were pieces of Magna Centurion armor, now little more than charred bits that served only to illuminate the battered and wounded body that had previously worn them.

Mouth caked with blood, head mottled with bruises and swelling, Richard's open eyes stared skyward, as if he was catatonic. To say the young man would naturally be in physical shock from what had just happened would be an understatement; yet the toll on his body, which was already far beyond the limits of many others', was little compared to the mental shock.

To him, it seemed as if all he had believed in —all he had placed stock in, and thrown himself behind— had suddenly shattered like a picture hitting the floor, fading away into ashes, their faint remnants raining out of the sky as so much refuse….

How had things gone to hell?

He let out a moan that no one could decipher if there were any there to listen. The last thing he saw before he drifted into darkness was a ruined piece of charred armor plating, fluttering down before his face like a dead leaf…

…Emblazoned with the singed, holey remains of the insignia of the Magna Centurions.

Authors Notes: Hello everyone, welcome to my story. Hope you like it enough to leave a review, look forward to hear your thoughts. Also, just to be safe, this work is the sole property of me, any unauthorized reproduction or usage without the author's consent is strictly prohibited.