12

Aven feigned a smile as her eyes met with those of the nurse at the table. "Hey, I'd like to see…" The huntress gulped and began to tap the desk rapidly. A bead of sweat ran down her forehead. "I want to visit…"

The nurse stood straight, waiting patiently for the young woman to finish. She peeked behind the huntress and saw the growing line of frustrated civilians behind her. Today was supposed to be an easy day for the nurse, as the lunch shift was often the most leisurely. She held her hands behind her back and grasped them firmly together, praying for the girl to finally speak.

The huntress pursed her lips and bent her head down. A thought had run across her mind as she was thinking about the person. Why would she even do this? That girl didn't deserve something like this. This was a moment out of her own time, and she had decided to spend it here after all that had happened between them. Aven glanced up at the nurse with eyes wide, hoping that it was not too late to back out of this.

The nurse slowly lifted her hand up and pointed behind the huntress. "M-Miss, th-the line."

Aven spun her head around and noticed that the line had grown exponentially longer since she came. Perhaps she was fortunate to have had come so early. Yet, at the same time, she truly felt that this was a mistake. But she would never know if she didn't try. The girl turned her head away and shut her eyes.

"I'd like to visit Vanoria Lancaster-Clarke."

The nurse's eyes widened. "Y-You know Miss Lancaster-Clarke?! Sh-She just left a few minutes ago!" she spoke frantically.

"She can walk?!"

The nurse shook her head rapidly. "N-No! Another woman escorted her out on a wheelchair! I think it was her friend!"

"A woman?" Aven asked, her jaw dropping. "Was it her mom?!"

The nurse scratched the back of her head as she peaked behind Aven again. "W-Well, she was a middle-aged woman, but I'm not sure," she replied, gulping. The civilians weren't even standing in a line. Each was dispersed across the lobby, probably irritated at the lack of working staff. She shut her eyes, wishing someone would bail her out of this predicament. "M-Miss!"

"If it isn't her mom, then who is it? Do you remember her name?" Aven asked, leaning over the counter. "Was it a friend? I-It can't be a friend, right?"

The automatic doors of the hospital slid open before the nurse was able to respond. As if on cue, nearly all the civilians in the lobby reached into their bags or pockets and unveiled their cameras. The first click drew Aven's attention, causing the huntress to spin around. Despite the ceaseless flashing in broad daylight, she could see the two figures, one of which she recognized as Vanoria, who remained confined to a wheelchair after sustaining serious injuries in the battle with Baron. The other, although not having met her prior, appeared to share several physical attributes with the former.

"I-I knew it! I knew something was up! Screw you guys! No flash photography!" the nurse cried. "The hospital strictly forbids it! Out with you paparazzi!"

"Paparazzi? Vanoria's famous?" Aven mumbled to herself, watching as the pair slowly maneuvered through the sea of cameramen, who parted as the two progressed towards the table. "She can't be, or else I'd have known about this. Then who's that?"

Aven locked eyes with the teenage huntress, who looked back at her partner with the same surprised expression. She opened her mouth, but was unable to say anything. The teen turned her head away, staring blankly at the marble tiles. The way she acted. The way she carried herself. The way she moved. Something was off about Vanoria, and Aven knew it.

"H-Hey," Aven said finally. No matter how down the teen was, Aven just didn't feel right speaking to her. After all that she had done in the past, it felt impossible to see her as a friend, much less an ally. Still, she winced at the sight of the thick wrap around her waist. This wasn't the time to be putting her down. "A-Are you okay? How've you been feeling?"

Vanoria gritted her teeth, unable to even look her partner in her eyes. "I'm fine, but don't think you're better than me just because I'm like this," she replied, glancing back at the flashing cameras behind her. "I…I'll come back stronger. I want to be stronger, so…so this..."

Aven silently observed as Vanoria pulled her hands up to her glossy eyes and covered her reddening face. Her upper body jerked repeatedly as she wept quietly.

"V-Vanoria, if I sounded condescending, I swear I didn't mean it," Aven spoke, taking a step forward.

"You must be Aven Rostek," the other woman spoke, drawing the huntress's attention. "The Blacktail Cardinal. I've heard much about you, on the news and from my dear sister."

Aven's jaw fell. "Sister? You're her sister?"

The elegant woman, outfitted in a simple pink summer dress that complemented her fair skin and blonde hair, smiled and nodded before turning her head towards the nurse. "Miss, please let me take my sister back to her room."

"B-But the regulations-"

"Please."

"W-Well, I guess I could let you, but just keep it between you and me," the nurse whispered before noticing the crowd of paparazzi eavesdropping nearby. The young lady gasped and slammed the counter. "H-Hey! If all of you guys don't beat it, then I'll give you all a reason to stay here!"

Vanoria bit her lip and softly whimpered. A single tear escaped past her hands and rolled down the side of her cheek. "Olivia, can we please go back?"

Olivia nodded her head. "We'll head there now," she said, turning her head to the young nurse. "I'm very sorry for causing you so much trouble. I wish I could do something about them, but they're always there wherever I go."

One paparazzi reached by Olivia's arm and head a microphone near her mouth. "Miss Olivia Lancaster-Clarke! What kept you holed up in your home for so long? Has something happened inside? The world wants to know!"

"Yeah, I heard you're having an affair with a STEFA member! Is that true? Others say that you're dating the CEO of a business! Could you at least tell us which one? Well, if that is true, of course."

"A-Any comments about your sister? This must be a devastating blow to the Lancaster-Clarke family! Can you tell us your thoughts on the family's future? Do you know her status as of now? We would all like to know!"

Olivia gulped and pulled away from the microphones. "Pl-Please, I just want alone time with my sister."

"Miss Lancaster-Clarke! I assure you my question won't take long, I promise!" another one of the cameramen shouted, bumping into the lady as he maneuvered his arm through the sea of paparazzi. "Going off of what the other man said earlier about the family's future, what is the status of your son? Has he recovered from his illness? I heard it was a serious one for his age. Will he…you know…d-"

"Hey, shut your mouth!" Aven cried, clenching her fists. "Is that really how you speak to someone in public?! That shouldn't be a topic for discussion, especially right now! She just wants to take care of her sister, and you all are making her very, very uncomfortable!"

"The Blacktail Cardinal? What's she doing here?" one spoke up.

"Yeah, I hardly noticed her," another said. "Wait, wasn't she one of the people that stopped Baron? Excuse me, could-"

"Buzz off," Aven said, forging claws from her Equalizer. She pointed her fist at the paparazzi, who immediately leapt back. "I said go away!"

The paparazzi slowly backpedaled towards the exit with each step Aven took forward. "We're going to tell your boss about this, girl!" one shouted with his fist raised.

"Go ahead! He won't do crap!" Aven shouted, seeing them off as they exited the hospital. With a light smirk on her face, she turned towards the Lancaster-Clarkes, who had already stopped by the elevator. The huntress locked eyes with the nurse, who smiled thankfully and gave her a thumbs-up.

At the far end of the lobby, Olivia turned her head towards Aven just as the elevator doors opened. She tipped her head as a gesture of thanks and mouthed an inaudible 'thank you' to the huntress before escorting her sister into the elevator.

Aven took a step forward, but stopped, realizing that it would be best if she had left the two alone. She could return tomorrow and visit the teenage huntress. How different was she from the group of paparazzi to them? Smiling, Aven shot one final glance at the elevator and turned towards the exit.

~( u )~

"Hello, how may I help you today?"

Aven slipped a check towards the banker underneath the glass barrier. "Hi, I'd like to just cash a check in."

The banker accepted the check and glanced at it. "Sure, let me just — s-s-s." The man's eyes widened as he motioned for the huntress to lean over. Still stunned, he slowly bent towards the window and whispered to her. "This is a weekly check issued by the Hunter's Core! How can a hunter make six hundred thousand seal points in a week?!"

Aven stared at him, her eyes hooded. Time and time again, she'd have to explain the situation over and over to whomever was behind the counter. She was rarely flustered in such situations, however, as she's likely the only person that handles her money in such a way. Clearing her throat, Aven prepared to respond.

"First of all, the average pay for a hunter is fifty thousand seal points a week. My salary is forty thousand, so this check is the sum of about four months of work," Aven said. "Secondly, I've asked before and I'm asking now, please please please set up a bank near the Hunter's Core. I never come to cash anything in because I had to trek miles to get here. There're are only two banks in Southern Goldhart and…well, the other one is still closed. Anyways, I demand another one so I don't have to walk as far!"

The banker raised his eyebrows. "Couldn't you just buy a car?"

She raised her index finger, horrified by the man's response. "Wh-What?! A car?! Because…well, I…I…" Aven's eyes widened for a moment. For that brief period of time, she felt like the stupidest person in all of Country because that thought had never crossed her mind. She pressed her finger against her lip and pondered. "Holy crap, I could get a car!"

"Would you like to make a withdrawal?"

"No, not right now, but maybe another time!" Aven said excitedly, reaching into her pockets for her cell phone. "Just the deposit for today! Thanks!"

Aven darted out of the bank, holding her phone in one hand and pushing the door with the other. She licked her lips as she quickly dialed a number into the device before placing it by her ear. Her eyes glistened as she watched the countless varieties of vehicles zoom by her. She smiled widely, drawing her mouth back a little at the corners.

"Hello?"

"Lilian!" Aven shouted enthusiastically into the phone.

"Woah, that was loud! Are you alright?" Lilian asked.

"I just had an amazing idea. What if we did our job…in a car?" Aven suggested, unable to contain her excitement. She held her knuckles to her lips, begging for her friend to approve of the idea. "We could be a super team of huntresses. Kind of like a dynamic duo you'd see in comics!"

There was a slight pause. "Why do you want to drive all of a sudden? All this time you've been doing your job swinging around the city with Vanilla, and now you want to get around with a car?"

"Oh c'mon, you know you want to do it."

"Aven, I already operate a car. Remember when you spat on it a few days ago? Yeah, that's the one," Lilian replied. "Besides, my vehicle is usually full."

Aven raised her eyebrows. "F-Full? Really? You mean you can't even accommodate me?" she whimpered.

"Well, Alex is a frequent passenger. He's a capable hunter…but picks his nose a lot, which is atrociously disgusting. And then there's Karissa. She's…"

Aven chuckled silently, waiting for Lilian's continuation with a mischievous look on her face. The girl knew Karissa. While was kind and gentle-hearted, she was a complete slob. There was a time that she came to work in her pajamas around noon. Aven had also heard a rumor that she had not showered or brushed her teeth in a while, and the evidence was rather clear. Such employees truly exposed the nature of the Hunter's Core's selection process.

"Aven."

"Yes?"

"I'll tell you what. If you can find a way to appease them and find them new rides, then you're on board, but I'm driving," Lilian finally spoke. "Unrelated request. Could you go out and purchase several car air fresheners?"

Aven chuckled. "Got it, ma'am."

"Wh-Why you — n-nevermind. I'll see you later."

Aven shut off her phone's screen as she pulled it down to her pocket. She could hardly contain her eagerness in actually driving a car, something she hasn't done in years. While the skill was mandatory for her promotion out of the academy, the huntress never truly found a use for it until now. Her poor feet, after making countless treks back and forth across the South for the past couple years, already felt better with the news.

She started to dance as she made her way towards the sidewalk, throwing her arms out and kicking her feet in her exaggerated dance style. It had an odd charm to it despite its eccentricity, as her arbitrary motions worked to create something aesthetically pleasing like a jumble of music notes playing a lovely tune. With a confident smirk on her face, she began to copy moves that she'd seen professional dancers perform without a care in the world for how others were judging her.

Just before she made her way back towards the Hunter's Core, a limousine skidded to a halt beside her on the sidewalk. Aven froze and stared at the black glass. She gazed back into her starry, glossy eyes as she fawned over the luxurious vehicle. The huntress fantasized about fighting crime in a limousine, cruising through the South in a pair of shades, a slick suit, and a pistol. She almost began to drool at the thought of it.

One of the side mirrors of the vehicle's back seats rolled down, revealing a familiar face. His well-combed brown hair with patches of gray was unmistakable, especially to Aven, who had known this man since she was a child. The older man nodded towards the huntress. "Even if you hadn't dyed your hair red, I'd have recognized you from a mile away."

"Uncle Vance! I-I mean, Elite Lightland! Sir Lightland? H-Hero Lightland? Mr. Lightland!" Aven slapped her forehead. "Jeez, I just realized I haven't seen you at all since I became a huntress. What am I supposed to call you now?"

Lightland shook his head and chuckled. "Never change, Aven," he said. "Just call me Uncle Vance. Though, it seems both your brothers have moved on from that, but I don't blame them at all. It's odd to call another person that if we share no blood."

Aven frowned. "Hey, then why're you letting me call you that?"

"Well, you're still young, I assume," Lightland said with a laugh. "Don't worry, I assure you that you'll grow out of the habit like your brothers. Until then, I'm just Uncle Vance to you."

"Makes me sound like a total baby."

Lightland pushed open the door and invited the girl to come in. "I wouldn't call you a baby. You've grown much over the years. I remember when your mother informed me about an incident with milk and your home stairs."

Aven crossed her arms. "I-I don't remember that!" she cried, her face flushing red. "And why're you inviting me into your limo? Think I'm too much of a baby to walk back to HC?"

Lightland narrowed his eyes and turned away. "Actually, I wish it was something as simple and innocent as that. To be honest, this isn't something I wished I would have to speak to you about."

The huntress's eyes widened. "U-Uncle Vance? Is something wrong?" she asked, taking steps closer to the vehicle. "What's going on?"

"I'll explain in detail once you get inside, but in summary, there's someone targeting me, but rather than eliminate me, the assassin is killing those around me," Lightland said, gulping. The man glanced into the huntress's wide eyes and shut his eyes for a brief moment before opening them again to see the say concerned look on her face. "I am told that you are next."

~( u )~

A single ray of natural light shone down upon the dark abyss of the underground living space. The stench of the area was nauseating, tarnished by weeks without cleaning and spoiled by insects and animals. It was quite frankly the least ideal residence for any person: mage or Exile. But despite this, a small group of people have found a way to survive and adapt to this situation.

The grit they had built during their hardships in the Exile. The perseverance they had garnered in their pursuit for their goals. The determination they had created in the realization that their dreams are just ahead of them. All of the struggles they had to overcome had led them here: the next step of their plan.

"Scarlette, is it time to execute part two of the plan?" asked a man, who was clad in rough brown armor from head to toe.

Scarlette, a middle-aged woman, sat on a wooden seat, the only thing that she had brought along with her on this journey. The bangs of her unkempt black hair covered her forehead and the back was tied in a ponytail behind her with a red ribbon. The portion of her hair beneath the ribbon was dyed crimson, matching the color of the accessory. She wore a thin black jacket and a red corset underneath that exposed her midriff along with a pair of tight black jeans.

"Correct. It has been enough time since Roderick's noble sacrifice in his attempt to disable Captain Branford of Central Goldhart," she spoke, rising from her seat. The woman placed her hand beneath the single beam of light. "It's unfortunate that such a good man was forced to sacrifice his own precious life for our cause. I will never forget him."

The man shook his head. "But considering that stage one had failed, what shall we do? Captain Branford is a formidable foe. He alone could easily shut down our entire operation. If this fails, the prophet…He won't be pleased."

Scarlette narrowed her eyes and closed her fists. "If Captain Branford enters the fray, have everyone fall back," she said, glancing at her subordinate. "I refuse to have another life lost, whether that be on our side or theirs. A life is the most precious thing that we all share."

"But how can we win if-"

"I have the power to stop Captain Branford," she interrupted, stepping back towards her seat. "But that's enough talk for now. We have waited long enough. Right above us is the famous central plaza of South Goldhart. I believe it's time to gather our elite troops."

"Wait, I don't think we're ready yet. Isn't the goal of this entire operation to find the one destined to save the Exiles?" another soldier asked. "I suggest we send one of our own to search the city for any hints as to who exactly this chosen one is. A picture would be best."

"There's no need for a picture or anything of the like. I trust the prophet, and he provided me with the sole clue needed to locate this mage," Scarlette said, smiling. She slid her hand across the armrest of her chair and turned towards the crack in the stone above. "Find the one who can make a slave of metal."