1

A hooded man pushed open the door to a bank. Stepping in, he stuffed his hands into his pockets and strolled with his back hunched towards the tellers.

A young man walked in the opposite direction, waving a check between his fingers. He passed by the hooded figure, whose elbow jabbed his side. The right part of his upper chest throbbed, as if someone had smashed the head of a hammer against his rib cage. The check slipped out of his fingers as he clutched his sides.

"Yo, what the hell was that for?" the young adult inquired, clenching his teeth in an attempt to mitigate the pain. He bent over, snatched the check from the ground and shot back up. "You listening?"

The man ignored him and stepped towards the tellers. He could predict the young man's next actions though. Slowly, he pulled one of his hands out of his pocket and reached beneath his black cloak.

Murmurs rose among the other civilians in the bank. A Magus officer approached the two men, hoping to prevent a fight from occurring. The young man didn't seem to listen however.

"What the hell did you do that for? You stuck your damn elbow out!" the young adult shouted, grabbing the hooded man's shoulder.

The man paused. "Let go."

"Are you kidding me?" the young man cried, clenching his fists. "You're the one that started this!"

"Hey, stop acting like a kid," the Magus officer said, pushing the young man back. "It was probably an accident."

The young man shook his head as he tried to force his way around the stronger officer. "Yo, you didn't see what happened! That was on pur-"

Shluk. Blood splattered across the young man's face. A blade — as black as the night — pierced through the officer's heart, killing him instantly. But he too felt a sharp pain emanating from his chest. The sword had pierced cleanly through skin and bone, as if they were merely butter.

A loud shriek sounded throughout the bank. One woman, protecting her infant child with her life, started to run towards the exit. What a fool. The hooded man pointed his right arm at the door and fired a bullet from his gauntlet. The projectile split through her cervical spine and killed her.

The two bodies fell limply to the ground as the man drew back his blade. Blood ran down the edge of the sword and dripped onto the white tiles. He pulled back his hood, revealing nothing but a bushel of messy silver hair and a blank white mask.

~ u ~

Sirens blared throughout the southern region of Goldhart as a young woman ran atop the rooftops of the district's small buildings. The wind carried her brown overcoat as she leapt from one building to the next. She glimpsed down. Nothing there.

"Are you sure this is the best way to go about this, Aven?" Lilian asked. "Couldn't you have just come along with us?"

Aven grinned as she leapt towards the next building. She glanced down and shook her head. "Oh, come on, Lilian. You ride shotgun in a Magus car all day. What do you know about catching criminals?"

"First of all, my telepathy helps keep situations like these organized," Lilian replied. "Secondly, you're a mile away from the crime scene."

"A m-mile? I mean, yeah, I had this planned!" Aven cried, leaping once again. She bent her knees down once her toes made contact with the next roof, landing with a quiet, graceful thump. "The crime scene took place like ten minutes ago. He should be a mile away by now. This is all calculated."

"Uhh, have you considered the direction he took?"

"My direction."

"I mean, even if he went your direction, there's no guarantee he even ran a mile. You can't really make assumptions about these situations."

Aven gazed over the vast sea of buildings from her vantage point. It was always odd for her to see southern Goldhart in such a docile state. A roaring bustle often engulfed the district at this time in the morning.

"Aven?"

The girl snapped out of her trance. "Oh, sorry. I got distracted," she responded, turning her head towards the next building. "I'll go find the thief."

There was a slight pause. "I wouldn't consider him a thief."

Aven stopped at the ledge of the building and glanced down. She narrowed her eyes. "Why not? He hit a bank, didn't he?"

"That's true, but there's no evidence of him actually taking anything."

"You're wrong," Aven said, gritting her teeth. She extended her gauntlet forward and fired a grappling hook towards a distant building. The metal pierced through the cement, latching onto the edge of the building. "There's no doubt he's a thief — a robber of 28 lives."

"I see. It seems like you know what you're doing. I wish we could stay in touch, but I need to get this search operation under control," Lilian said. She paused. "Stay safe, Aven."

Aven nodded and pulled her gauntlet back several times, ensuring the durability of the line. Once she confirmed its safety, she clenched her fist, triggering a reel that propelled her across the expanse of ground below her towards the hook. Just before she reached the end, Aven lifted her body up, avoiding a collision with the building.

While smirking, the girl landed gracefully on the roof and drew back her hook. "28 people. Innocent people," she mumbled, clenching her fists. She turned around and observed the city. "All brutally murdered. Fucking bastard."

Aven could feel the blood in her vein boil. Even without the video feed in front of her, she could remember each scene vividly. The first two stabbed through the chest. A mother shot in the back. Everyone else beheaded. The girl felt her breakfast rise up her esophagus. She covered her mouth and silently stared at the ground.

After a long pause, she fell to a sitting position and glanced at the blue sky above her. She brushed her crimson bangs to the right and sighed. "I should have went with Lilian," Aven mumbled, pressing her hand against her cheek. "I hate to admit it, but she's probably right…as usual."

"Perhaps not."

Aven's eyes shot open. The voice came from behind her. "Who's there?!" she cried, pulling her pistol from its cartridge. She leapt to her feet and spun around, aiming towards the source of the voice.

The girl gasped. A chill ran down her spine and her hold over her weapon grew unsteady. The familiar ragged cloak, the black armor, the white mask. There he was standing before her. The culprit, the murderer, the thief. In his hands was a single blade, still stained with red.

After a long pause, the thief began to circle around Aven, who kept him in her line of fire. "Aven Rostek, I believe this is the first time we have met," he spoke in a surprisingly refined tone. The thief turned his head away and watched the district from his vantage point. "Welcome to Goldhart."

Aven gritted her teeth. She glared at his arms, which were both fitted with the same gauntlet type that she wore on her right arm. "Welcome to Goldhart? I've lived here all my life, bastard."

The thief shook his head. "I am sure there are other questions that lurk your mind, girl," he said, beginning to rapidly spin his weapon. "Ask them."

"Those people-"

"I will not answer that one," the thief interrupted. "Now, the other."

The young woman growled. "Why did you come to me?"

The thief ceased spinning his sword and pointed it at Aven. "The Blacktail Cardinal," he said. "I want her life."

Aven's eyes widened. "Th-That's me."

An explosive roar sounded from Aven's pistol, but the thief vanished into thin air before the bullet hit. The girl's eyes widened. She spun around, holding the pistol firmly in her hands.

A blade swiped at her pistol from below, splitting the weapon in half. Aven leapt back, stunned that she had failed to notice him. Grimacing, she tossed away the remains of her gun. Aven tightened her muscles and held her fists in front of her.

"Teleportation, huh. That explains how he got up here without me noticing."

"You are rather renowned for your hand-to-hand combat skills, Cardinal," the thief said, spinning his blade in his hand. "However, try as you may, the edge of my blade will always split through the flesh of a human."

"Give it your best shot!" she barked, glaring at the thief's blank mask. "Make sure you try your best too. I don't want you to die before I start beating the living hell out of you!"

The thief shook his head. "28 people. That's why you're here standing on this roof," he said, taking steps towards Aven, who unconsciously began to step back. "Try your best, girl. Keep that number at 28."

Aven's eyes expanded. "I'll never forgive you!" she cried, drawing a dagger from its sheathe.

The thief stepped towards Aven, grasping his blade's handle tightly. "I do not need your forgiveness," he repeated with a chuckle. "But I will gladly take your life!"

The man dashed forward, drawing his arm back. He matched every step Aven took backwards with long leaps forward. The thief slashed at her, splitting the girl's dagger in half. He swung again at her head.

Aven bent her body back, narrowly dodging the thief's horizontal swing, and kicked the blade out of his grasp. In a swift motion, she transition into a backflip and landed on her feet.

"You're quick," he said with a chuckle, watching the sword hit the ground with a loud clang. "I'm curious as to how long you can maintain such a speed."

The thief revealed a second blade from his cloak and, after twisting his body, launched it at Aven.

Aven's eyes widened. "Oh shit!"

The young woman pulled her right arm just high enough to hear the resounding clang of metal against her gauntlet. Predicting an immediate frontal attack, Aven fired her grapple dart forward.

Having already picked up the first blade, the thief severed the rope of the hook and stabbed at Aven, who caught the blade with her gauntlet. The edge of the sword grated against her metal glove, and the tip of the blade slowed to a stop just inches away from her chest. Right as Aven let out a cheeky grin, he kicked the girl back, narrowly dodging her left fist, and released his blade.

Aven let out a muffled grunt as she stumbled back with the thief's weapon. "You're really persistent, you know!" she shouted, grabbing the handle of the blade.

The thief reached into his cloak and revealed another sword — a blade with metal as black as the night. "I could say the same," he said, rushing forward as he placed both hands on its handle.

Aven gasped. "That metal!"

Snapping out of her disbelief, she dropped to the ground, dodging a fatal swipe at the head. Gritting her teeth, she cleaved at his feet with the thief's blade, only to find him already airborne. Her eyes widened.

The thief pinned the blade to the ground and swung again at Aven, who quickly rolled out of the way. Before the girl could rise to her feet, the man rushed forward, flowering both blades at inhuman speeds.

Relegated to retreat, Aven pounced away, just avoiding a crippling strike to her leg. Once on her feet, she began to backpedal, keeping her eyes focused on the flowering blades, which split through the concrete beneath them as if it were paper.

The thief, realizing that he would never reach her at this rate, leapt forward and slashed at the girl, who once again blocked the attack with her gauntlet. With a fluid motion, he spun around and struck at the girl's gauntlet again. He continued to twirl rapidly, using his blades as deadly extensions of his arms.

Aven continued to backtrack, blocking the violent swings with her gauntlet. She could feel the strong winds initiated by the thief's vortex-like motion. Despite the strength of her gauntlet, she felt its durability weakening with each coming strike. Her right arm began to grow numb, and she neared the edge of the building.

She had no other option. The girl dropped to her knees and leaned into the horizontal cyclone of metal. Keeping her head down, she launched her fist at the thief's mid-section with all her force, but her attack was easily stopped by the thief's two blades. Quickly, she performed a somersault to the right and bounced to her feet.

She brushed both shoulders and smirked. Her heart was beating rapidly. "How was that?" she asked, brushing the sweat off her forehead.

The thief bent down and picked his second blade from the ground. Unlike the girl, no sweat ran down his body nor did he breathe heavily out of exhaustion. "You're rather agile despite lugging that heavy gauntlet."

Aven held her fists by her chest and began to jab at the air repeatedly. "And you're rather well-spoken for a classless thief."

The thief chuckled, turning away from Aven. He gazed over the southern Goldhart district again, shaking his head as he did. "Classless. How funny," he uttered. "I want to know your opinion on the people of Goldhart, Cardinal. What are they like?"

Aven narrowed her eyes. "They're good people. They're innocent. The only reason why things have been going awry lately is because of people like you."

"Naïve. Just what have I done to rile up the South? Killing 28 people?" the thief said, turning his head towards Aven. "28. Why in the world would this district care about 28 people?"

"You bastard," Aven muttered, taking a step forward. "Don't you have any regard for human life?"

The thief paused for a moment. "What do you mean when you use the word 'human?'" he said, turning back towards Aven. "Do you refer to the mages of Goldhart, or the billions suffering in the Exile?"

The girl's eyes widened. She was at a loss for words for a moment. It was a question she didn't know the answer to. "Well, I…uhh-"

"That is what I thought," the thief said, sheathing both weapons. He took steps towards Aven, who returned to her battle stance. "I can see the fear in your eyes, hunter. Do you not hear the sound of your allies?"

Aven's eyes expanded. This whole time she didn't realize that sirens have been blasting from below the building. She turned around and glanced down. A squad of Magus vehicles lined the streets below. One Magus soldier spoke into a megaphone, but Aven wasn't able to make out his voice.

A chill ran down her spine. She quickly spun around, realizing that she had turned her back to the thief. Though, much to her surprise, the thief only picked up his fallen weapon and sheathed it. Each waited for the other to speak.

"If you have not already realized, no strike intended to kill you," the thief said, stepping towards the opposite side of the roof. He turned around, keeping his heels inches away from edge. "I only wanted to gauge you're strength."

"Yeah, I realized that near the start of our fight," Aven replied, clenching her fists.

The thief nodded. "Yes, but you too were holding back. Why?"

A blue aura began to resonate around Aven's right arm. Black claws shot out from her gauntlet's forearm. "Look around, bastard," she said, pointing her fist towards him. "You had the advantage the whole time."

"Metal manipulation. Interesting," he uttered. "However, I have seen enough. Our fight is over."

Aven gritted her teeth and stepped forward. She shouted, "Hey, where do you think you're going?! Were you just toying with me?! Do you think I'm too weak for you?!"

The thief laughed. "Weak? No, but you are not strong either. I want you to grow more powerful," he responded, chuckling. "You play an important role in my plan, Aven Rostek. We will meet again."

He stuffed his hands into his pockets and slowly took a step backwards. His body tilted back, pushed down by gravity towards the black cement expanse below.

The hunter's eyes widened. Aven rushed towards the opposite edge of the building and stuck her head out the edge of the building. She glanced down, looking frantically for the thief to no avail. The body was gone.

Aven sighed, pounding the roof once. She dropped down, sitting on the building's edge. "I almost thought he died at first," she mumbled. "Suicide's too painless of a death for someone like him."

"Hey Aven, are you alright?" Lilian asked.

Aven shut her eyes and began to nod her head. "Yeah, I'm fine."

"What happened? I couldn't communicate with you for the past several minutes. Please don't tell me you entered one of those restricted areas. You know only Elites can go in there."

"Calm down, Lily."

"L-Lily. What a disgusting nickname. I told you to stop calling me that," Lilian responded. "I hear something happened on top of Beat Tower. Was that you?"

Aven fell back on the cold cement and spread her arms out. She thought back about the thief and his last words. Just what was it that he wanted her to do? The girl chuckled at the very thought of the question. She knew the last thing she would do is work alongside him.

"Aven?"

"Oh, sorry. What did you say?"

Lilian groaned. "Is something bothering you? You've been acting kind of strange as of late."

Aven paused for a moment. What bothered her most was the fact that she couldn't associate a face to the thief. The white, clean mask hidden behind the shadow of his cloak. That was all she remembered.

"Seriously? Aven. We need to talk."

The girl shook her head. "No no no. No need to talk. I just…" Aven gulped. "Met the thief."

Lilian paused. "Really now. Did you apprehend him?"

"Well, no." Aven pushed her arms against the cement and lifted her body up. She somersaulted away from the edge and landed gracefully on her feet. "But I know what he looks like. He didn't use them, but he owns two Equalizer gauntlets. One fires bullets. Not sure about the other yet."

"Two? Interesting. Doesn't explain why I couldn't use my abilities though," Lilian said with a laugh.

"He also had a black blade," Aven said, holding her hand to her ear. "That blade nearly split open my Equalizer."

"Interesting. I guess it really is Magebane. I didn't know more existed."

Aven frowned. "I guess? You make it sound like no big deal! He's pretty much invulnerable as long as he has Magebane!"

"Hmph, so what if it nullifies all magic. There's other ways around that," Lilian said. "It's just annoying that it gets in the way of my communication."

Aven chuckled as she glanced at her broken Equalizer gauntlet. "You should have seen the fight though, Lily. I need to get stronger," she exclaimed, giggling at the very thought of an upgrade for her own gauntlet. "Which is why I want built-in missiles. I know you can make it happen."

Lilian laughed for a moment. "Yeah, no."

"So what's going on over on your end?" Aven asked, glancing down at the Magus vehicles. Unable to contain her desire to prank her colleagues, she spat down at them.

"Well, I'll just have you know that the guy you saw was not the thief," Lilian said. There was a pause. "A drop of clear liquid hit the hood of the car. It's not raining. It's not bird poop. Forecast says it's probably Aven's spit. This is Lilian speak-"

"W-Wait! What do you mean that wasn't the thief?" Aven cried, unable to believe what she had just heard. Her eyes widened, confused by her friend's statement. "You saw the video too, right? I found the real thief!"

"But you didn't apprehend him, and this district wants someone's head," Lilian said. "So we found the 'thief,' and he will likely be executed publicly. I'm sorry, Aven. Elite's orders."

"Wh-What?"

"We're sending a helicopter up there now. I'll meet you back at the Hunter's Core. We can talk there."