Prologue

Two moons illuminated the arid desert of the Gemini RF-13 territory. It was a largely unexplored region home to many dangerous creatures hiding from sight. The remains of a petrified forest sporadically populated the barren landscape, and a single outpost was constructed on the plateau of a wide, flat hill. The unnatural metallic sheen of the manmade fort was most obvious on cloudless nights when both moons shone, but the high black walls and jutting towers remained faithful to the naturally imposing cliffs of the region. Outlines of huge turrets pointed silently in the night while an assortment of smaller cannons and laser turrets dotted the gates and battlements.

Exile sat at the edge of a warehouse roof, chewing on a stick of jerky. The wind amused itself with her golden hair and then tugged hard on her twin braids. She slapped a hand over her head to keep her olive beret from becoming a distant memory and waited for the breeze to pass. When she let go, she lowered her brows and separated the dried meat with her teeth. Then she started rocking her feet back and forth, lightly tapping the building with her heels.

A woman with short, sunny blonde hair stopped beside her. She put a silver boot onto the ledge and leaned a gauntlet against her knee. "Exile, aren't you always complaining about staining your clothes—" Raine stopped herself. The little girl was wearing an apron with doodles of dinosaurs on the front. Exile looked up and nibbled at the end of the jerky. The woman stared back with pressed lips and dubious eyes.

Beside them a stoic man gripped his binoculars as fragments of wind billowed into his unzipped, red leather jacket, flicking glints of moonlight off the metal studs in his shoulders and cuffs. The spectacular display of man and nature would have painted a scene of constant vigilance in the dead of night, but as Razor panned from female to female, abusing the zoom function with all of his being, he caught one delightful show in the second story of a storage facility. A woman was standing in front of a vending machine, unbuttoning her shirt, and pressing a small can into her collar. He could feel her staggered breathe, panting and shivering.

Raine cracked her knuckles behind the man—still sporting a staunch facade—and gave him a whack that temporarily blinded him. As he clutched at his eyes, she wrestled the binoculars away, inadvertently strangling him with the strap.

"Let go, I was working!" Razor wheezed.

"The hell you were!" Raine answered.

Exile bit down harshly, made a noise through her teeth, and then ripped the jerky out of her mouth. The two people fighting suddenly stiffened and let go. As Raine smoothed the wrinkles out of Razor's jacket, and he apologized for being immature pervert, they forgave one another and tried to mind their own business. But Exile would have none of that.

"Raine, Razor," she called. She held up her small hand and slowly motioned them closer with a finger. Raine sighed and walked over as Razor put down his binoculars. They waited for a scolding but Exile held up the jerky instead.

"It's teriyaki," she said in irritation.

Raine offered a small smile. "I'm sorry, what?"

Exile shoved the wet end of the jerky against Raine's lips and cheek and drew a gasp from her.

"I'm good, thanks, I don't feel like eat—I don't want it!"

"Eat the damn jerky," Exile commanded. "That weasel of a vendor told me it was a new flavor; it's teriyaki. I require validation."

Raine gave up and took the jerky. She chewed it slowly and then brightened. "Oh, dis is good. 'Ove the tase. Not bad. This new flavor—"

"Teriyaki."

"—teriyaki is nice," Raine finished.

Razor sighed and brought the binoculars back up to his face. At the same time jerky found its way into his mouth. Exile told him to bite and he did. Raine was right though, it was pretty good. He didn't think it was teriyaki but he wouldn't be caught dead arguing with Exile over something so insignificant and stupid. He finished chewing and swallowed.

"I don't see the problem," Razor said honestly.

"You don't think it's teriyaki, do you?" Exile asked. "And you think this is insignificant and stupid, don't you?"

Razor nearly dropped the binoculars. He quickly turned away as he felt his small guild leader burn a hole through the back of his head with her gaze. He searched the horizon for the real target, begging for something to show up as a distraction.

"They're here," Exile whispered first.

Razor squinted and then turned slightly to his left. A line of five vehicles crept into view kicking up clouds of dust. The light from the two moons gave the billowing mass a surreal luminescence. The convoy followed a dirt trail between the husks of ancient trees and would arrive within a few minutes. As Raine stepped closer and squinted, Exile slid off the roof with an excited smile. She summoned a cloak of darkness and bathed in the black fire. A small woman carrying a massive scythe emerged. She continued to bleed dark flames from her skin as she fell.

"Raine, wait on the roof until further notice," Exile called into her communicator. "Razor, find a spot below and support Alice. Alice, I want you to—Alice, you're still around right?"

A woman with short, curly brown hair walked the streets of the fort below. She adopted a comfortable stride and wore a pleasant smile. "I'm moving now," Alice answered. She bowed slightly to a guard, making sure to pinch the sides of her long grey skirt as she did, and then resumed her nighttime stroll. "I just need to facilitate a distraction?"

"Yes, my dear," Exile's voice answered. "You facilitate and I will subjugate."


"Opening the gate now," a guard called out. He pressed a thumb against a black button and the thick armored gate in front of his tower rattled and clanked. As it slowly lowered into the dirt, he hiked up the rifle on his shoulder.

"More supplies?" A second guard asked. He had his own terminals to attend but glanced over at his shoulder once he felt the moving gate rattle the floor.

"Nah, can't be," the first guard answered. "Three armored jeeps, an Armored Personnel Carrier, and three rank A mages to guard one utility vehicle?"

"Rank A mages?" The other guard gave a single laugh. "What the hell is out here that needs to be killed by a Rank A?"

The first guard waited for the last jeep roll through the gate. He hit the black button again to seal the entrance. "Or maybe, what the hell is inside that utility vehicle that needs three of those mages guarding it?" he jested.

The other guard shivered and went back to his terminal. But before he could busy himself with nothing in particular, something caught his eye. The convoy had stopped moving and people outside were shuffling back and forth with their weapons drawn. "Hey," he asked, "is that convoy some kind of police force?"

"Don't think so." The first guard kept his eyes on his screens. "It's listed as an academic expedition. I think they're just stopping here for a day or two before they head out again."

"Oh, because they're unloading their troops into the street."

The guard lifted his head and moved to the window. He brought up his rifle and aimed it down the road where he saw a woman standing at an intersection blocking the vehicles. He lowered his rifle slightly and then pressed his head closer to the window. He searched and then brought his rifle back up to check a roof. A woman stood at the edge, throwing glints of silver off her arms and legs. "Put the base on alert," he called back. "We might have intruders."

Something heavy struck the ground and he turned. A small woman hovered at the center of a bloody mess carrying a massive scythe as her skin bled dark flames. He backed into the wall and pulled up his rifle. Outside the guardhouse the other soldiers were too busy with the confusion caused by the convoy. No one noticed blood splashing onto the windows.

At the intersection, Alice stood with as polite a posture as she could muster. Her hands were neatly folded in front of her lap and a smile accompanied her introduction. In front of her the guards pointed rifles and staves with expressions that grew more menacing with each passing second. Then a man hopped off the top of a jeep. Alice gave a little sigh as he walked closer.

"Excuse me, miss?" he called out with a confident grin. "You're holding up an important expedition. I don't want to have to remove you by force."

Alice offered nothing but a quiet smile.

"Maybe you don't realize it, but I'm an A-4?" he continued. His tone dipped into frustration. "None of these guys can scan you but I can tell. You're pretty strong yourself, but still not as strong as me."

"Alice, I've secured all the towers along the perimeter," Exile's voice hailed. "How's that distraction going?"

"Unpleasant." She kept her eyes on the man in front of her but amused herself with his misunderstanding.

"What did you just say?" he asked with one eye larger than the other.

"A thousand pardons, but you can let loose as soon as I give you the signal." Exile giggled. "I'm going to go say hi to one of the rank A mages."

"What will this signal entail?" Alice asked.

"Oh, you'll know it when you see it."

The comm cut off abruptly and she glanced around. The man in front of her continued to deliver some drivel about how many monsters he had killed but Alice had more pressing matters. Exile was being very nonchalant about something incredibly important; the signal to start the operation. They had known each other a long time but vagueness had its limits. She noticed a jeep floating in the air and tilted her head. It impaled the side of a building with a deafening crash and sent chunks of stone and shards of glass in every direction. Then a small mass tumbled through the air and landed with a hard thud. It was the rank A mage that guarded the rear of the convoy. Alice allowed herself a smile as she realized Exile never failed to impress.

The man berating Alice took a step back and shuddered. Then a large chain whipped across his side and sent him bouncing off the ground and into a store front. He disappeared into the darkness with a loud crunch. Alice gave a curt smile to the onlooking soldiers as she twirled her hand slightly. Chains rattled and echoed from every dark corner of the street.

The convoy opened fire but a shell of dirt encased Alice in a protective shield. Razor knelt down near a side street, careful to remain hidden, but close enough to protect his allies. Beside him an infinitely long, dull grey chain slithered across the ground. It filled him with a dread only one other person could elicit; his guild leader Exile.

Alice brought her arms up and crossed them toward each shoulder. When the protective earthen sphere was whittled away, she threw her arms out in different directions. Chains of dull grey manifested from nothingness. They ripped through the air and along the streets until finding their victims. She hung one man from a lamppost, squeezed another through a window too small for his body, and constricted a woman until her bones succumbed to the forces. She even wrapped the Armored Personal Carrier and squeezed it tightly. The APC shuddered and tilted as thick chains sawed into its armor.

Razor gritted his teeth tightly as screams mixed with rattling chains. A man was thrown over his head into the darkness of the alley. He summoned another sphere to protect Alice from small arms fire and canon shells, but chains erupted from inside the sphere. They impaled the nearest guards and pulled them back to the earthen mound. Razor lowered his head and looked away as Alice covered her earthen shield with a human one. Razor put aside his convictions and moved out of his cover to finish off the last jeep.

"Raine, it's all yours!" he called.

Raine swiveled her head and then slowly exhaled. After she stepped off the ledge and braced herself with a tighter posture, her body smashed the top of the last heavy jeep and shattered nearby windows. The vehicle bounced and then rocked slightly as she wrenched her armored boots out of the indents in the roof. She gripped the barrel of the cannon and squeezed tightly with a bestial shout. It crunched and then bent upward. Raine panted and hopped off the roof of the vehicle. Then she jammed the doors and backed off.

Alice stepped up to the iron coffin with her hand twirling slightly. Inside the jeep, people cursed her or begged for mercy. Chains pierced the jeep and wiggled with tension. When they loosened and pulled out, blood dripped from the links. Alice gave a small bow of her head along with a silent apology.

"Don't let her incredulous cruelty misguide you," Exile said, stopping beside the trio of victors. "Alice is very protective of friends and downright merciless to foes." She dispersed the scythe and black flames and returned to her twin braided, beret wearing, dinosaur apron wielding childish demeanor. "She's a staunch ally when she graces the field at your behest."

"You honor me with such kind words, Exile," Alice said. A smile returned to her face.

"No no, your acquiescence speaks volumes to your character!" Exile answered. She held the back of her hand to her mouth and laughed.

Alice put a hand to her mouth as well and giggled into her fingertips. "Such locution does not suite you. Do not burden yourself with any misgivings I may have delineated. Discretion was mine alone."

Both women chuckled lightly into their hands as they faced each other. Razor looked to Raine for an explanation but she merely shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. After the two guild leaders had their laugh, they returned to the utility vehicle. Razor pulled a large white case from the wreckage and slid it to Exile. She put a foot on top of it and danced a finger through the air. When the suitcase unlocked, Razor opened and turned it but was quickly shoved aside by a squealing Exile. She reached inside and procured a six sided glass cube which she raised triumphantly.

"The Tome of Infinite Wisdom," she whispered. A shape swirled inside and after a gentle twist, it flashed. A tangled web of lines floated outside the cube. Exile opened her mouth in curious disbelief.

"Although it's in your possession, I am thankful for the chance to see it," Alice said.

Exile dispersed the cube and summoned her scythe instead. She tapped the pole against her shoulder with a grin. "The Magic Appreciation Society owes you a debt of gratitude."

"Tea Time for Alice is always willing to lend a hand," Alice answered. Then she added a giggle. "For a price of course."

Exile's grin widened. "Of course." Then she put her free hand on her hip and held her scythe still. The remains of the carnage came in the form of whipping fires from vehicles, crumbling debris, and cries for help. Exile relaxed her expression into one of total apathy. "Razor, Raine, purge any trace of us being here. Leave no witnesses."

"You got it boss," Raine said.

Razor brought a hand up to his head and dug a finger into his slicked black hair. His eyes went from body to body, most of which were punctured or twisted at some odd angle, no doubt the handiwork of Alice. "No one?" he asked quietly, remembering the woman in front of the vending machine.

"No one," Exile reiterated.