This story is not finished yet.

Please let me know what you think of it.

If you guys know a good title for this book then let me know.

Prologue:

When Malthus arrived at the upper level of the castle where the roof was broken it began to rain. The sky was dark and thick with storm clouds, but there were a few patches where the clouds broke and the night sky could be seen. As the first drops of rain began to fall, Malthus closed his eyes and let them fall on his face, drenching his brown hair. The rain grew heavier. He listened to its repetitive rhythm as the raindrops splashed onto his red leathered jacket, soaking the fur collar and dripping from his gloved fingers onto the stone ground.

Malthus opened his eyes. Standing across from him was a tall young guy with blond hair that was brushed back over his head and pressed flat by the rain. His long blue trenchcoat was slick with water, but the rain did not bother him. The young man raised his weapon a long steel-bladed katana and pointed it at Malthus.

Malthus grabbed hold of his own sword and pullet it out of the ground that got stuck in the fight. The image of a demon cross was carved into the side of the blade, along with a matching keychain dangling from the hilt. Malthus also wore a heavy metal necklace with that very same cross around his neck. Holding his sword with both hands, Malthus charged at his opponent. The blond man waited a moment before he charged as well.

The two young men clashed blades and the air became filled with sounds of battle. The blond man had superb skill with a sword they both did, fighting with equal skill and vigour. Malthus raised his sword and brought it down. His opponent dodged it smoothly and ran past it. Malthus turned. the blond man was standing behind him with his sword resting against his shoulder. With a mocking smile on his face he gestured for Malthus to come at him again.

Malthus did as he bade and charged. Again and again the two men crossed blades, swiping and slashing and stabbing, each one trying to catch the other off-guard. His opponent thrust his blade forward in a stabbing blow, narrowly missing Malthus. Malthus then brought his blade down again, but his opponent caught the blow easily on the flat side of his sword. They pushed against each other, but his opponent came out stronger and pushed him back. The blond man swiped his sword across him and Malthus ducked down to avoid the blow. He was then forced to jump back out of the way as another blow came whizzing past. The rain had stopped at this point but the ground was still slick; Malthus could feel his boots slide across the wet ground as he charged forward. He attacked in a ferocious assault, landing numerous hefty blows at his opponent. The blond man raised his sword and blocked every one of the blows, letting them ring off his sword.

Seeing that he was getting nowhere with a direct assault, Malthus jumped back once again. He decided to try using magic to distract his opponent, and then strike while his attention was diverted. Malthus charged forward with his hand held out, calling on the magic stored within him.

However the blond man had thought of this too, and was already making his move. Flames began to swirl around his outstretched hand, gathering into a ball in the palm of his hand. The flames glowed white-hot before firing out at Malthus. Malthus barely had time to raise his sword to defend himself before the magic hit him. He was thrown clean off his feet and fell onto the wet ground. Steam rose from his clothes as the heat from the rapidly vanishing flames caused the raindrops to evaporate.

Before him, his opponent smiled smugly. This battle was his, and he knew it.

Malthus grunted and climbed onto his knees. a shadow fell over him and he looked up to find his opponent standing over him. The blond man's blue eyes looked down on him almost cruelly as he raised his blade over his head, preparing to strike. For the first time in his life Malthus froze, staring as his opponent brought the blade down. It sliced across his face, cutting a long but shallow gash down his forehead and onto his cheek.

He felt the warmth of blood on his face. As he watched it spilled onto the ground in front of him, forming a puddle.

Malthus stared in shock for a brief moment before his eyes narrowed angrily. He glared up at his opponent, standing in front of him with Malthus's his blood on his blade. He was still smiling.

Anger welled up within Malthus. He stood, his boot sliding on the ground, and swung his blade. The tip scraped across the ground as he brought it up and slashed it across the face of his opponent, who only had time to tilt his head back. The blade slashed across his opponent's face in the same manner. Blood spilled down Malthus his blade.

Then... everything went white.

Chapter one: The unkown world

When Malthus opened his eyes, he found himself lying on his back in the infirmary. A cool breeze was blowing in from the open window, making the curtains over his bed flutter. Light streamed in from outside; it was morning. From his position on the bed he could just about see the blue sky, and watched as a few small clouds drifted by. The storm had passed, it seemed.

Malthus turned his eyes away from the window and looked up at the ceiling. He felt something tight wrapped around his head, probably a bandage. How did he get here from the castle? He couldn't remember. The last thing he remembered was falling onto the ground, and then everything had gone black. Malthus tried to sit up, but as he moved a sharp pain shot through his head. He grunted and clenched his fists, gritted his teeth against the pain. When the pain passed he relaxed and exhaled slowly. He heard footsteps enter the room and a voice spoke to him.

"How are you feeling?"

Pushing the pain to the back of his mind, Malthus forced himself to sit up. His vision swam and there was a piercing pain behind his left eye. It shot through his head and made him feel sick. Malthus put his hand to his head and closed his eyes for a moment. He felt the bandage, wrapped tightly around his head.

"…Ok," he replied.

The pain started to ease and Malthus dared to open his eyes again. He looked up at the person standing beside the bed. It was a nurse. She was middle-aged and very jolly looking, and was very well liked by the rest. She had a temper, though, and spoke her mind without reservation. She looked like he had a few words for Malthus, for her brows came together and she frowned at him.

"Take it easy next time, you hear?" she said sternly, waving her finger at him. Malthus said nothing. The nurse leaned over and examined his face carefully. "Looks like your eyes are focusing," she said. "You should be fine. Say your name for me."

"Malthus."

The nurse stood up straight and nodded her head. When she first saw the wound, she had feared potential concussion. But like she said, Malthus his eyes were focusing and, aside from a little drowsiness left over from the sleeping draught she had administered, he seemed to be thinking clearly. That would pass quickly enough, though she guessed he would have a headache for a while.

When the nurse left the room Malthus tried to stand up, but his legs are to weak to stand. After a couple of minutes he tried again but slowly. He walked to the door when suddenly Malthus saw an older girl behind the window. "We meet again at last" said the girl. The girl looked familiar to Malthus, but he didn't know from where. When the girl walked out of the room Malthus past out.

The next morning Malthus waked up on the bed. He asked himself how he did get back on the bed. The nurse walked into the room and looked at Malthus. "I said that you needed to rest why didn't you listen to me?"

"I need to get back" Malthus replied.

"Back to where?"

"Back to where I came from."

"But you don't remember where you came from?" Malthus really didn't know where he came from, but he didn't care he wanted to get back no matter what. The only thing he remembers is his own name.

"Do you know where I come from?" He asked.

"No I don't know, but maybe Lucas knows where you come from."

"Who is Lucas?" Malthus asked.

"He is a teacher and he is training the students to fight Sorceress Celestine. He is available tomorrow so please take a rest tonight."

When Malthus waked up the next morning he was still thinking about what the nurse said.

He stood up and walked to the nurse who was sitting behind a desk just outside his room.

"Who is Sorceress Celestine?" Malthus asked.

"Don't you know that? Go to Lucas he is in the classroom on the second floor." "He will explain everything to you." "first go get you're weapon back. It's next to the bed."

When Malthus found the second floor he was searching for the classroom.

"There are so much classrooms, Malthus said. Which one is the right one?" After a couple of minutes he found the room but there was nobody in the room. He waited for half an hour when a man walked in the room. The Man had black hair and blue eyes. He looked at Malthus and asked:

"Who are you?"

"I am Malthus, the nurse said that i should come to you."

"Come to me?" Why?

Malthus explained everything that happened and then asked About Sorceress Celestine.

"Sorceress Celestine is our enemy. He has an army of her own called The Crimson Corps and this place is called Nexus garden. Here we train people to fight Sorceress Celestine."

"Now let me show you around since you are new here."

Malthus together with Lucas walked slowly down the corridor, revelling in the silence.

Just as they reached the turnoff for the lift, Malthus heard the sound of running footsteps approaching. A girl's voice carried down the corridor, growing louder.

"I'm late, I'm late, I'M LATE!"

A short, brown-haired girl appeared from around the corner, head down and arms swinging as she charged forward. She was moving so fast that she did not see Malthus until the last moment, but it was too late for her to stop. She slammed into him.

"Waaah!" she cried. Thrown off-balance, she fell back onto the floor.

Malthus, meanwhile, staggered back. He recovered quickly, maintaining his balance. He looked down at the girl, kneeling on the floor.

"Are you okay?" he asked her.

The girl looked to be about his age, about Twenty or so, but had the appearance and demeanour of someone much younger. She had shoulder-length brown hair that was turned out at the ends and large, playful blue eyes. Those large eyes looked up at Malthus and the girl grinned sheepishly, blushing in embarrassment. Daintily she rose to her feet.

"There," she said, as she brushed herself off. He laughed. "I'm fine. Sorry, I was kinda in a hurry." She laughed again. Her laugh was so dainty and childlike that Malthus raised an eyebrow. The girl's eyes then widened as she suddenly remembered something. "Oh yeah! Hey, did you just come from that class?" she asked, stretching up to see over Malthus shoulder. "Is… Registration over?"

Lucas nodded.

The girl's face fell. "Woo… oh, nooo…" she cried in dismay. "This place is soooo much bigger than my last Garden!"

Malthus raised his eyebrow again. 'Last Garden'? Did that mean that this girl had come from another Garden? Now that he thought about it, her accent was different, and Lucas did not recall seeing her before. Not that he remembered many faces. There were so many students here at Garden, and Lucas was not one to make a point of remembering every face he saw. He wondered which of the Gardens the girl had come from.

The girl looked around helplessly, trying to figure out what she should do. Then her eyes brightened and she turned to Lucas. "Oh, hey, hey. I just transferred here. Do you think you could give me a quick tour of this Garden?" She looked up at him pleadingly.

Lucas sighed and put his hand on his waist. Was this girl for real? She had a childish charm about her, and an air of innocence that seemed too out of place for a military academy. He wondered why she was part of a military academy in the first place. She likely felt that it was some kind of game, playing soldier. Still, she was here, and there was no reason why he couldn't show her around.

"Sure," he said, turning back to her.

The girl jumped up and clapped her hands together. "Whoo-hoo!" she cheered. "Alright, let's go!"

Malthus ignored her cheers. "We'll take the lift to the 1F lobby and I'll show you the directory."

With that Malthus and Lucas walked past her and headed down the corridor towards the lift. He did not look back to see if she was following them. They could hear her though; her footsteps echoed lightly down the corridor.

The interior of Garden was built in a large circle, with a single lift in the central pillar that connected all of the floors. Malthus punched the button to call the lift up to the 2F. As he waited for the lift to come up, he glanced over his shoulder at the girl. She stood patiently behind him, her hands clasped behind her back, rocking gently on her heels. Malthus wondered how a girl like her had ever come to be in Garden, or why she transferred here from her previous one. Still, it was none of his business.

The lift beeped as it arrived, and the doors slid open. Malthus and Lucas entered the lift and the girl came in close behind them. They went down to the 1F and stepped out into the lobby. Lucas pointed down the steps to a large computer console situated in the middle of the lobby.

"That's the directory."

They walked down to the directory. Lucas pressed a button and called up a basic layout of the 1F of Nexus Garden. The girl's eyes widened as she stared down at it.

"Well, this is it," said Lucas. "Nexus Garden is pretty big, so it's a good idea to check where you want to go."

"I have a question!" the girl piped up suddenly, raising her hand as though she was in class. "How do you use this?"

Lucas gave her and Malthus a brief explanation on how the console worked. Touching the console would call up a map of the Garden, and then touching each location would give her a brief description of each one, as well as a list of Garden staff who worked there. Most new students were required to familiarise themselves with the Garden directory.

"Next, I'll give a quick explanation of the various facilities."

"Yes, sir!" The girl saluted.

Malthus sighed inwardly. Was this girl always this perky? "You'll find the dormitory to the north," Lucas said. "The majority of the students live in the dorms. There aren't too many students who commute."

"Yeah, I'm in the dorms, too!"

"You can rest and change in there," Lucas continued, ignoring her. "West of the North Block is the cafeteria. There's always a big rush for the hot dogs. You better get used to waiting in line."

"Got it!"

"East of the North Block is the Car Park. We usually take the Garden care when a mission comes up. The front gate is located to the south…"

He frowned, his finger hovering over the console.

"Next we have the quad, located in the West Block. There's an event being planned there…"

"I know! I know!" the girl interrupted. She clapped her hands, her puzzlement gone. "It's the Garden Festival! It's going to be great! I'm planning to be on the committee. Malthus you wanna help out, too!"

Malthus rolled his eyes. Somehow, the image of her working on something like the Garden Festival suited her more than on a battlefield. "Let's just continue," Lucas said. "South of the West Block is the infirmary. This is where you get treated for your injuries, but a lot of students just come here for advice."

"What's the doctor's name?"

"Dr. Dillamond. Now for the East Block." He pointed to the other side of the Garden map, indicating the East Block. "This is the training centre. It's the only facility open at night. It's used for training, and they have real monsters running loose here." He turned to the girl and looked at her sternly. "If you don't take it seriously you may end up dead. Just be careful."

His gaze grew sterner. The girl's cheerful smile faded, and she paled a little. "…Okay," she replied. She gulped.

Satisfied that his warning had gotten through to her, Lucas carried on. "South of the East Block is the library. There's a lot of material you can look up here, but the terminals in the classroom are a lot more efficient." With everything covered, he closed down the directory. "And you already know about the classroom on the 2F, right?" he asked her.

She nodded. "Yep. I remember that one."

"By the way," Lucas added. He turned to her. "The headmaster's office is located on the 3F. You need permission to get in."

"Another question. What's the headmaster's name?"

"Headmaster Ervin," Lucas answered. He folded his arms, thinking, trying to if there was anything else that the girl ought to know. Deciding that there wasn't, he relaxed. "That's about it," he said. "Anything else?"

The girl shook her head. "Got it!" she said.

Thanks a lot!" She smiled at him, gave him a wave, and then headed off into the Garden.

Lucas turned to Malthus and looked at him with a little smile.

"Do you understand everything I just explained?"

"everything is loud and clear for me sir. He said with a straight face. I will try to remember it all."

"Now come with me, I have arranged that were going to a fire cavern so that you can take the exam to become a full fledged student here."

Malthus looked at him with a shocked face and with a little disbelieve.

"Really?"

"Yes, and we need to be there in 30 minutes."

"I have a few things to explain before we head off," he began

"FS give us strength. The stronger the FS, the stronger we become… Respect them and they will be your strength in battle."

He was referring to Familiar Spirits, or FS, for short. Familiar Spirits were magical beings that fought alongside humans in battle. Although their presence was discovered years ago, it was only discovered eighteen years ago that their powers could be harnessed to human minds. This harnessing allowed the FS to be called forth from its normal plane of existence and fight alongside a summoner in battle. Once harnessed to a FS, the summoner was able to use para-magic.

There were uncountable types of Familiar Spirits in the world. Many gave their powers willingly to humans, eager to join forces. Others were more resistant and had to be defeated in battle before lending a summoner their powers. Some FS resided in the souls of enemies or even other humans, waiting for their powers to be awakened. These FS could be harnessed by the summoner they resided in or drawn to another person entirely, transferring their powers to another. Quite often these summoners did not even know they had a FS sleeping inside them. There were all of these FS and more—the list was endless.

The test of today is to obtain the power of a very specific FS known as Ifrit. Ifrit was a fire-elemental FS who resided deep in the Fire Cavern to the east of Nexus Garden. Any student who hoped to take the exam had to enter the Fire Cavern and engage Ifrit in battle. Once defeated Ifrit would harness his mind to that of the summoner, and would loyally answer the summoner's calls anytime he or he needed him. The summoning of FS was a trademark of White Wing, which was why the test was so important.

"Everything okay up till now?" Lucas asked as he finished his explanation on how to call a FS. "You can always ask me about this."

Malthus remained silent. He did not need to ask. Knowing this, Lucas nodded his head. Lucas nodded silently back. Lucas nodded once more. They were ready to leave.

"Once we get to the Fire Cavern," he said, "I'll explain how to use magic.

"Can I use magic?"

"I know you can Malthus, I can feel it inside of you and you will use it when the time is right."

Ready to go? The Fire Cavern used for the test is located east of here."

Chapter two: The two elemental rivals

it was gone midday by the time Malthus and Lucas arrived at the Fire Cavern. They were forced to take the long way around, as a warning had been issued saying that Behemoths were currently roaming the borders of Nexus Forest. Not wanting to get into unnecessary trouble, they took the road instead, following until they reached the turnoff to the port town of Nexus. Then they left the road and headed east, keeping themselves a safe distance from the forest.

Monsters were abundant in the Plains around Nexus Garden, one of the reasons why it was a perfect training area for White Wing candidates. The majority of weaker monsters, like Gutlingsand Bug Bites, tended to stay away from towns. These provided excellent battle experience for students not too confident in their abilities. Others, such as the vicious Behemoth, were more aggressive, and sometimes strayed a little too near for comfort.

Luckily for Malthus and Lucas there were few monsters out that morning, so they were able to reach the Fire Cavern without interruption. They stopped on the path leading up to the cavern's entrance. Guarding the entrance were two members of the Garden staff, preventing any unauthorised entry. The Fire Cavern was under Nexus Garden's jurisdiction, and no one outside of Garden was allowed to enter.

"Okay…" said Lucas, slipping into instructor-mode again. "Using magic. Now pay attention. I'll be explaining how to utilise the magic you have stocked."

Malthus listened as he explained the basics of storing magic and using it in battle.

Like physical effort, Lucas explained, magic was not an endless source of power. It could be built up, used, and depleted. Magical energy could be drawn from enemies, draining their own energy, and storing that energy in the wielder's body. Sometimes a wielder could discover a new magic whilst drawing energy from an enemy.

Once used up, the wielder had to either draw more energy, or rest to recover. This para-magic, as it was known, was different to the advanced magicks used by the sorceresses, who could draw seemingly endless power from an unknown, higher source. Harnessing a Familiar Spirit gave the normal people of the world the ability to use magic. It was this knowledge and use of Familiar spirits and para-magic that made The white wings such a valuable and formidable asset in battle. Their skill was equal to any military force, but unlike the military, they could be hired for any use.

"When you draw a new magic," Lucas concluded, "try experimenting with it when you combine. This is how you become stronger. Okay, ready to go? Oh!" He looked at Malthus. "You know how to use your gunblade?"

Malthus knew he was only asking out of propriety, but he sighed all the same. "…I already know," he replied.

The only thing he can remember of everything is how to fight. He never lost his fighting spirit.

"Oh, okay, the nurse also gave you two low-level FS to use for this mission" said Lucas. " He paused a moment, thinking, and then nodded his head. "Alright, let's go!"

They walked purposefully down the path. When they neared the entrance the two faculty members, dressed in white shirts, red dungarees and large, domed yellow hats that shielded their faces, drew together and blocked the entrance. One of them stepped forward and turned to Malthus.

"Objective: to obtain a low-level FS. A White wing member must support. Are you ready?"

"Yes," replied Malthus. He stood at attention. "I'm ready."

"I'm his support," Lucas said. He saluted. "Instructor No. 14, Lucas Krimlan."

The Garden Faculty slowly nodded his head, acknowledging that the required conditions had been met. The members of the Garden Faculty were well known within Garden for being sticklers with the rules, and were never lenient.

"Select a time limit. Choose one suited to your abilities. Challenging yet reasonable."

Malthus paused to think. He did not want to risk failing and being unable to take the exam. Mistakes could occur at any time. So, just to be safe, he selected a time limit of thirty minutes. Behind him Lucas nodded, approving his choice.

"Very well." The Faculty nodded. "Good luck."

The two faculty members then parted, unblocking the entrance. The one who had spoken took down a stopwatch hanging from a hook embedded in the cliff wall and set it to thirty minutes. He handed it to Lucas. The instructor set it going and attached it to his belt. Then he and Malthus hurried into the Fire Cavern.

The first thing Malthus noticed about the Fire Cavern was the heat. It was intensely hot, almost suffocating, and the air carried the faint scent of sulphur. The heat rose from the numerous pools and rivers of molten lava that moved sluggishly throughout the cavern. Every so often the lava would bubble and burst, sending a fresh wave of toxic gas into the air.

About eighty years previous, a powerful earthquake shook the land and caused the caverns inside the mountain to collapse. As the caverns fell, magma surged up from beneath the planet's surface. It was said that it was this earthquake that had awoken the FS Ifrit from his long slumber at the heart of the planet. It was also said that it was Ifrit's continuing presence that caused the lava to keep flowing, never cooling.

Since the earthquake, new tunnels had been made inside the Fire Caverns, formed by the liquid rock that continued to flow even now throughout the mountains. These tunnels wound their way all through the cavern to Ifrit's Lair, which was close to the cavern entrance. It was through these tunnels that Malthus and Lucas now travelled, hurrying towards Ifrit's Lair.

"My job is to support you in battle," Lucas told Malthus as they ran. "Everything else is up to you."

Malthus did not look back. "Fine."

They hurried on. Overhead, a large red bat dropped down from the ceiling and swooped across the cavern. It screeched; a terrifying, ear-piercing sound. Malthus put his hand on the hilt of his gunblade, his eyes following the bat. These monsters were vicious and had a nasty bite. However, the bat did not come any closer and headed off into the shadows above. Malthus relaxed his hand and carried on running.

"You know," said Lucas casually after a minute or so, as they turned around a bend, "the students often choke on this test when I come with them." He grinned. "I guess my face makes them nervous."

Malthus stopped. He turned and looked at Lucas, standing behind him. …Whatever, he thought.

Seeing his serious face, Lucas laughed. "I'm just kidding!" he said. "Trying to keep you relaxed, that's all."

Malthus's serious face did not change. Lucas laughed again. Something then caught his eye and he looked over Malthus's shoulder. His smile vanished in an instant and his hand rushed to his whip. Seeing him move, Malthus turned around.

Coming up rapidly behind him was a Buel, a monster native to the Fire Cavern. It was bat-like in appearance, with a flat, pudgy face and several tiny, pointed teeth. It had three large, leathery wings that framed its body. These wings beat slightly out of unison, making its movements somewhat jerky. Its small red eyes fixed on Malthus. It screeched hungrily and surged forward.

Malthus drew his gunblade, unhooking the hilt from one of the clasps on his twin belts. He charged at the monster. Lucas released his whip and watched in admiration as Malthus met the monster head-on. Without breaking pace, Malthus swung his sword and struck the beast. The blade cut through the monster's right wings, severing one and almost cutting right through the other. The severed wing dropped to the floor, its clawed tips twitching.

The monster recoiled, screeching in pain, startled at this sudden attack. It remained hovering even with the loss of its wing, though its movements were more erratic than before. Instead of learning its lesson and backing off, it bared its fangs and lunged again.

Malthus thrust out his sword. The blade plunged deep into the monster's face, which made up the majority of its body—apart from its wings. The monster died instantly and dropped to the ground, its wings folding around it. Malthus placed his boot on the monster and wrenched his sword free. He sheathed it and looked over at Lucas.

The instructor nodded, satisfied with the efficiency and skill in which Malthus had despatched the unpredicted threat.

Leaving the corpse of the Buel behind, they hurried on towards Ifrit's Lair. The lair was located not far from the cavern's entrance, and was surrounded by tall, pointed pillars of rock that rose around it like a protective cocoon. Malthus and Lucas came to a stop in front of it and gazed at it. Clouds of hot steam swirled around the lair, partially hiding the inside from view. Lucas turned his eyes on Malthus, looking at him appraisingly.

"I guess I was right," he said, mostly to himself. "You are in a class of your own. You have amazing strength and potential."

Malthus inclined his head, indicating that he had heard him, but not really caring about what he said. He preferred not to judge things based on strength or potential. All that mattered was getting the job done. Everything else was insignificant.

They headed into Ifrit's Lair, passing through the barrier of steam. The air smelled of sulphur—already Malthus could feel its effects on his body. Behind him, Lucas coughed. This was the second reason a time limit was imposed on the test: to complete the test before the sulphuric atmosphere caused harm to the body.

When they passed through the steam the air became clear and easier to breathe. Malthus stopped and looked around. The lair was wide, circular, with the rising pillars forming a rocky prison over him. At the centre of the lair was a large pit delving deep into the earth. At the bottom of that pit was where Ifrit resided, sleeping beneath a pool of hot, bubbling lava.

Lucas walked to one of the pillars. He removed the stopwatch and hung it on a peg that had been hammered in. He then picked up a baton and struck a large bronze gong hanging on the same pillar. The dull chime echoed loudly throughout the lair; Malthus could feel its vibrations through the ground. Lucas then returned the baton to its peg and came to stand beside Malthus.

"Okay, this is it," he said. "Are you ready?" Malthus waved a hand, and Lucas smiled. "You seem confident enough."

Steam began to rise from the pit, as the lava below bubbled violently. The smell of sulphur returned, along with another scent: dark and fiery. The lava flow swelled and then surged upwards as a large beast burst out of the pit and landed on the ground in front of Malthus and Lucas.

The beast was tall and muscular, with a broad, dark body. His chest was wide and his arms powerful. Two large, jagged horns rose from his head. His head was that of a beast, with narrow, intelligent eyes and a mane of wild, fiery red hair that rippled as he moved, as though it was on fire. Lava dripped like water off his muscles as he stretched up tall, towering over the humans standing before him.

"Another human come to challenge me?" he growled. His voice was deep and rumbled as he spoke. His breath carried the faint scent of sulphur. He looked down at Malthus. "Be warned, human, I will not submit easily. If you desire my power, then you will have to prove your worth to me."

Malthus responded by drawing his sword. He held the gun shaped hilt in both hands, standing ready for battle. Ifrit then turned his eyes to Lucas. The instructor unhooked his whip and flicked his wrist, cracking the whip against the rock. They were ready. Ifrit looked them both over, and he grinned. He flexed his large muscles, drew himself back, and then charged at Malthus.

Malthus braced himself for the first blow. He raised his gunblade and guarded his chest as Ifrit struck out with one of his large hands. His fist smashed into the side of Malthus's sword. The impact was stronger than Malthus expected and he staggered backward, his boots skidding on the rock.

When Malthus regained his balance, Ifrit was almost right upon him. The FS had his other fist raised, preparing for a second strike to pummel Malthus into the ground. The swordsman hurriedly dived to the left and rolled aside, just as Ifrit's hand hit the ground. The rocky ground cracked from the force of the blow, and tendrils of steam rose up out of the cracks.

Gripping his sword, Malthus pushed himself to his feet and charged towards Ifrit. He swung his sword and caught the FS on the back of his shoulder. The blade cut a deep but superficial gash across the flesh, leaving a bloody red line. Ifrit roared, more in irritation than in pain. The FS spun around, his fist raised.

There was a loud CRACK and Ifrit's arm suddenly halted just inches from Malthus's face. Ifrit glanced at his arm. It was wrapped in a long, slender whip that was covered in chain links. The FS peered over his shoulder.

Lucas pulled his whip tight, his lips pressed together as he fought against Ifrit's superior strength. Ifrit's yanked his arm forward. The sudden movement caught Lucas off guard and he tumbled forward. Maintaining his grip on his weapon, he gave it a tug. The whip unchained itself from Ifrit's arm, returning to his side. He gave the whip another crack, striking the ground near Ifrit's feet and forcing the FS to jump back. As soon as he landed Ifrit was forced to jump again as Malthus darted in front of him, swinging his sword.

"Impudent humans!" Ifrit roared, outraged.

He leaped up into the air. He rose up and up until he reached the top of his lair, where the rising pillars converged. Twisting his body in the air, Ifrit faced the humans standing below him. He drew back his fist, and flames began to flow over it, wreathing it in fire. With a roar the FS descended, heading towards Lucas.

Lucas leaped back barely in time, as Ifrit's fist crashed into the floor. The force of Ifrit's strike caused the rock to shatter, and flames swept over the ground. Both Lucas and Malthus retreated to the far edges of the lair as these flames moved rapidly, covering the lair in a layer of red fire. After a few moments the flames dissipated, though the air remained hot.

Moving quickly, before Ifrit could recover, Malthus hurried forward. However Ifrit saw him coming and spun to face him, raising another fiery fist. Malthus ducked beneath the blow and pushed forward. He swung his sword, and the blade sliced cleanly across Ifrit's bare chest. As the blade moved across the flesh, Malthus squeezed the trigger on the gunblade's hilt. There was a flash as a blank round was discharged from the chamber. The empty shot caused the blade to recoil, but the resulting force it gave pushed the blade deeper into Ifrit's chest.

Ifrit roared in pain and clutched at his chest. There were two slashes across his torso: one from the initial strike and the second from the recoil. Ifrit ran a claw over the wound, letting his blood spill across his fingers.

"Hm! Not bad for a human," he said gruffly, somewhat impressed. Very few students had been able to get close enough to land such a blow.

Lucas, who had been walking slowly around the perimeter of the FS's lair, stopped and turned to him. "Does that mean you acquiesce?" he asked him.

Ifrit snorted. He lowered his hand. A few drops of blood fell from his fingernails and onto the hot ground. The blood simmered and burned black. "That, I did not say," the FS retorted. "It will take much more than a few lucky shots to prove your worth!"

To prove his point, Ifrit leaped up into the air again. The FS crossed his arms over his chest, and flames emerged in the air around him. They spread quickly, covering the roof of his lair, creating a barrier of smothering flame. Malthus and Lucas could feel the intense heat radiating from above, threatening to burn up all the air in the lair. Malthus felt the air start to grow thinner, and he began to pant.

Ifrit then thrust out his arms, and the flames descended in a series of large fireballs towards the humans below.

Malthus dodged the first few fireballs as they came sailing past. They struck the ground, causing it to glow with the heat. One fireball came down too close for him to dodge, and so Malthus raised his sword and used it to cut right through the flames. The blade glowed as it sliced through, cutting the fireball in two. The flames separated and then flickered out, destroyed.

The swordsman cut through about four of these fireballs when he heard a loud crack behind him. Malthus glanced quickly over his shoulder and saw Lucas cracking his whip. The whip's tip flashed brightly as it touched one of the falling fireballs. The fireball shimmered as a casing of ice began to form over it, imprisoning the flames. The flames flickered and then died out. The ice then shattered, falling to the ground in a shower of ice crystals.

A loud roar sounded from above, and Ifrit burst through the flames. He descended on Lucas, whose back was turned, his fists burning as he prepared to strike him down. Malthus hurriedly cut through one of the last few fireballs and then darted across the battlefield. He ran between Lucas and Ifrit and raised his gunblade. Ifrit's fist slammed hard into the blade, almost wrenching Malthus's arms out of their sockets. Malthus grit his teeth but held firm, keeping Ifrit at bay.

Realising that he had once again been blocked, Ifrit jumped back. Clenching one fist, he slammed it angrily into the ground. Then he stepped back, his body bent over, his hands open and claws outstretched, waiting for them to attack.

There was a reason why he waited. Despite his fiery nature, Ifrit was not a wild, untamed beast. Like many other FS, humans intrigued him. He was drawn to those of great strength. When Nexus Garden was founded, the headmaster had entered his lair and sought him out. He had presented the FS a deal: that Ifrit should lend White wing his powers, and in exchange White wing would aid in protecting his lair from invaders and plunderers. Ifrit's only condition to the bargain was that he be allowed to engage potential White wing in battle, to test their strength and see if they were truly worthy of using his powers. That was how the prerequisite test was born, and how it had been for thirteen years.

Right now Ifrit looked at Malthus. The teenager was standing in front of Lucas with his sword raised, his face determined. Ifrit noted with interest the scar that ran along Malthus's face. Here was a soul that was unafraid. The human faced him without any fear or hesitation, and did not flinch from Ifrit's attacks but embraced them, fighting back with all his strength. Ifrit grinned, pleased. He had not seen many students with this level of potential. To a warrior like this, Ifrit would be glad to lend his powers. Of course, he still had to prove himself.

Malthus felt Ifrit's gaze upon him, and met the beast's gaze without faltering. The air around him was beginning to cool, and he could breathe a little easier. Behind him, Lucas watched him closely.

"The clock is still ticking," he warned. He gestured to the stopwatch hanging on the pillar. "You don't have time to dawdle. You need to end this and end it fast. Think about your opponent, and what he is. What do you have within you that will subdue him? If you need a hint," he added with a smile, "his temper could certainly do with some cooling off."

Malthus did not respond to his joke. He already knew the answer to defeating Ifrit. He had been reluctant to call upon the FS already harnessed to his mind, wanting to rely on his own strength to beat Ifrit. But with the stopwatch still ticking, he had no alternative but to summon her.

Not willing to wait any longer, Ifrit charged. Malthus and Lucas parted, diving out of the way as the beast came lumbering past them. The ground trembled with each step he took, causing the two to almost lose their balance. Ifrit stopped and turned, beginning to run after Malthus. He chased the young man around his lair, drawing closer with each great step.

Malthus darted past Lucas, who cracked his whip. The end latched around Ifrit's wrist, but with a single tug Ifrit pulled the instructor off his feet. While he was down Ifrit leaped over him and continued charging after Malthus.

The FS jumped at Malthus's back. The swordsman dropped down to the ground and Ifrit sailed overhead. He landed heavily, claws scraping over the rock. When Malthus looked up Ifrit was right in front of him. The FS slowly stretched to his full height, towering over Malthus. He stood so close that Malthus could feel the heat radiating from his body. Flames licked inside the FS's mouth. Ifrit stood over him, waiting.

Malthus rose to his feet. He stood unwavering before Ifrit. The stopwatch continued to tick the time away. There was only five minutes left.

Malthus lowered his sword. He closed his eyes and let out a slow breath to calm his mind. He called out with his thoughts, reaching out to the Familiar Spirit whose power lay sleeping inside of him, waiting to be awakened. When he felt her presence within him he held out his hand, bidding her to surface.

The air around him grew chill. It went from chill to bitterly cold, a harsh change from the stifling heat. His breath came out in small clouds of white and dispersed into the air, forming into tiny ice crystals. These crystals swirled down and touched the ground in front of Malthus. They expanded, stretching out over the ground. Malthus opened his eyes and jumped back out of the way, just as a large pillar of ice burst up out of the ground.

Encased in the pillar was a woman, barely visible through the layers of ice that shrouded her body. Her arms were crossed over her chest, eyes closed as though in sleep. Recognising her, Ifrit's eyes opened wide and he stepped back in alarm.

"They have Shiva!" he roared.

Upon hearing her name, Shiva's eyes snapped open. She inhaled, and when she breathed out again the ice shattered, releasing her. Her long blonde hair with its icy strands shimmered as it spilled over her bare shoulders and chest. Her body was bare, her modesty hidden only through thin blue layers of ice that rose up in swirling patterns over her legs, waist and torso. Her skin was cold blue and freezing to the touch; it would burn the hands of any who tried to lay hands on her. Her eyes, pale blue, settled on Ifrit.

Ifrit roared and leaped back to the other side of the lava pit, separating himself from Shiva. The FS spread his arms and called up a wall of fire from the pit, which rose up and surrounded him like a shield. Malthus and Lucas, who had been rushing in from the sides, hurriedly stopped and stepped back away from the flames.

The sight of the fire, however, did not daunt Shiva. She let out a shivering, icy breath. When she stepped forward, the ice that covered the ground crunched beneath her boot.

Shiva raised her arms, lifting them high over her head. A ball of cold, glowing light formed in her palms, growing brighter as she lifted her palm up. The icy FS leaned her body far back. Her eyes fluttered closed. Suddenly she flung her body forward and thrust her arms out in front of her, and the ball in her palms exploded into a fearsome shower of ice.

The ice shards went hurtling through the air. They struck the ground at the foot of the flame barrier protecting Ifrit. The ice cut right through the flames, parting them like a curtain. Jagged pillars of ice began to rise up out of the ground, replacing the flames and trapping Ifrit in a cold prison.

A final ice pillar shot up out of the ground, moving over Ifrit and encasing him within its dark layers. It stayed there for a few moments before the ice cracked and broke apart, releasing Ifrit. There were burn marks on the FS's dark flesh, one or two oozing blood. The intense heat of the FS's body was gone, cooled by the ice. Ifrit sagged heavily, his strength sapped away.

The heat of the lair finally began to seep through the ice, and the remaining pillars melted. Ifrit gazed at Shiva through his bedraggled mane, made wet by the melting ice. He growled and then dropped his head.

"Ugh," Ifrit groaned. "I underestimated Shiva." The FS took another deep, laboured breath. He turned to Malthus, standing nearby with his sword still raised, in case the FS tried to attack again. "Very well," he said, "I will join you."

With Ifrit defeated, Shiva gave a bow and dispersed into a cloud of ice, returning to the plane on which she lived. The ice crystals that remained in her wake evaporated into the air.

Malthus sheathed his sword and walked forward to stand in front of Ifrit. He looked the FS in the eyes. He showed no fear. Once again, Ifrit found himself impressed by this young human. It was humans like this one that drew Ifrit to the upper worlds. There was much to learn from them, and much strength to gain.

Malthus closed his eyes. Ifrit spread his arms wide. Flames surged up from the cracks in the ground and swirled around the two. The FS then closed his own eyes as the pact was formed between them—a pact formed not of blood but of the very soul. Ifrit's mind became harnessed to Malthus's. Malthus could feel the FS's presence in his mind.

Use my power wisely, the FS said in his mind.

The flames disappeared. The pact was complete. Ifrit severed their connection, jumped back and plunged into the lava pit, sinking beneath its ever-shifting surface. Malthus opened his eyes and breathed deeply; his blood felt hot.

Lucas walked over to the lair's entrance and unhooked the stopwatch. He checked the time remaining and noted it down in a notebook he carried in his pocket. Malthus watched him as he rang the gong again, signalling the end of the test. The instructor then walked over to Malthus.

"There isn't much time," he said, "but let me go over this real quick. Good, you got yourself a FS. If you combine that FS, you'll be able to use an elemental ability. Here's an explanation on elements."

Malthus listened as she explained how many FSs natures had natural elements, like fire and ice, thunder and water, etc. A FS's elemental nature could be harnessed to weapons, giving the wielder the same elemental ability. This technique of using a FS's elemental nature gave White wing a distinct advantage in battle.

"There're a lot of Fire elemental monsters here," Lucas finished, "so combine Blizzard. You'll have an easier time with Fire elemental enemies."

Malthus nodded, understanding. With Ifrit and Shiva, and the other FS in his possession, Zinogre, he could make use of fire, ice and thunder-based abilities.

With the test completed, Malthus and Lucas hurried out of the Fire Cavern. Time was running out. They headed back to Nexus Garden, where the White wing exam would soon begin.

Chapter Three: Departure

The clock had just struck half past three when Malthus and Lucas arrived back at Nexus Garden. The outside Gardens were quiet, with most of the students still in class. The two stopped by the front gate. Lucas stood in front of Malthus, his arms folded over his chest.

"Well done," he said. He took out his notebook from his pocket, noting down the successful completion of the test. "Let's see…" he added thoughtfully. "I thought there was something else I needed to go over with you before you take the exam…" He closed his eyes, and then snapped his fingers. "Oh yes! Taking care of your FS. This is something you have to watch out for."

Despite their magical nature, Familiar Spirits were not invincible. They were living creatures, same as humans, and as the test had just proven, they could be defeated or even killed. Realising this, the scientist who discovered FS also developed special items that could be used to heal them. All of this was the job of the summoner.

"Now," said Lucas, once he was done explaining, "change into your uniform and assemble at the 1F lobby."

Without a word, Malthus turned and hurried from the front gate to the dormitories at the other end of the Garden. The exam was due to start in less than half an hour, so he had to move quickly.

His uniform was laid out neatly on his bed, ready to wear. It was a much simpler design than the White wing uniforms, consisting of a navy blue tunic with patterned stitching across the shoulders, and navy blue trousers. The symbol of Nexus Garden, coloured blue, was stitched onto the right sleeve of the uniform. This symbol identified the wearer as a student of Nexus Garden.

Malthus changed quickly, leaving his leather jacket, trousers and belts lying on the bed. The last thing he removed was his gloves, placing them on the bedside table.

He looked down at his right hand. There was a ring on his index finger. It was made of plain silver, and had the image of a demon carved onto it. It was his favourite ring, although he could not remember how long he had owned it. It had been his for as long as he could remember, and he kept it with him always. He had a necklace made to match, also made of silver, bearing the same image of the demon.

The last thing Malthus picked up before he left the dormitory was his sword. Hanging it at his side, he made his way back to the lobby.

Most of the students were already waiting in the lobby when he arrived. There were not many taking the White wing exam—the written and prerequisite tests had purged the numbers quite a bit. Many of the students taking the exam were grouped together in their newly formed squads, chatting amongst themselves. Some students looked excited, others were a bit more nervous. Malthus did not pay attention to any of them and walked into the lobby, looking for Lucas.

"Malthus! Over here!"

Malthus stopped and looked behind him. Lucas was standing in front of the directory, waving to him. He had changed back into his White wing uniform and had a clipboard in his hand, containing the details of all the squads for the exam. In all honesty, he hadn't noticed Lucas when he arrived. He turned and headed over to him.

"I'll be announcing the squad assignments for the exam now," he said. He looked down at his clipboard. "Let's see… You'll be with… Wulffast Brandt. Quite a lively fellow."

He looked down the lobby, until he spotted the person he was looking for. "Over here, Wulffast!"

He was calling out to a young man standing in the middle of the lobby, practicing his martial arts. Wulffast Brandt was, as Lucas had described, a lively fellow, but with a tendency to act on impulse rather than reasoning. His eyes were blue and bright, and he had short blond hair that had been gelled up in spikes on the front of his head. His body was toned and muscled from years of training. Though his martial arts skills were unrivalled, his ability to control his emotions left much to be desired.

When he heard his name, Wulffast stopped practicing and looked up. He made his way over to them, performing a series of cartwheels and backflips. When he reached them he stopped and stood up. He grinned widely, and then looked at Malthus.

"Whoa!" he said loudly, making Malthus wince. "I'm with you!"

He wiped his hand vigorously on his trousers, looked at it, and then held it out. Malthus looked at it and then turned his head away, refusing to shake it.

Unperturbed, Wulffast lowered his hand.

"Look, I guess you heard of Zikael? Zikael's just being a pain in the ass. All you have to do is ignore him."

"That's none of your business."

"None of your business," said Lucas, at the same moment. He coughed to draw their attention. "Ahem… Excuse me, but… That Zikael you're talking about… He's your squad leader."

There was a moment's silence. Wulffast jumped and stamped his foot. "SAY WHAT!"

Lucas spread his hands and shrugged helplessly. "It can't be changed," he said. He looked through the crowd of students. "Zikael! Are you here?"

It must just have been Malthus's imagination, but the crowd became somewhat quieter when Zikael walked up. Zikael had a dark scowl on his face; obviously he was as displeased with the squad line-up as Wulffast and Malthus were.

Walking behind Zikael were Keegan and Gisela, his only and closest friends. Keegan was large and muscular, with dark skin and stubble on his chin. He was always more brains than brawn, in Wulffast's opinion. Gisela was female and by far the smarter of the two. She was slender but strong, with sleek silver hair and an eye-patch over one eye. She very rarely spoke, saying no more than a few words at a time, and so it was always hard to tell what she was thinking. One thing was clear, however: she was fiercely loyal to Zikael, as was Keegan. Both would follow Zikael anywhere.

Malthus watched as the two stopped behind Zikael. Keegan placed his hands on his hips and looked around the lobby, chuckling to himself. Gisela folded her arms over her chest, watching everything silently. Gisela and Keegan tagging along as usual… Wulffast's thought to himself. Guess that makes up the whole disciplinary committee.

Malthus looked at Zikael. He looked very familiar to him, but from where?

Lucas glanced at Keegan and Gisela, shook his head a little, and then looked at Zikael. "You're the squad leader," he told him. "Good luck to you."

"…Instructor," said Zikael with a sigh. "I hate it when people wish me luck. Save those words for a bad student that needs them, eh?"

"Okay then." Lucas gave him a very level, serious stare. "Good luck, Zikael."

Zikael's eyes narrowed. For a moment, Malthus wondered if he might retaliate. Then Zikael relaxed and shrugged. He signalled to his two friends. "Add Instructor Krimlan to the list!" he ordered sharply.

Dutifully Gisela reached into a pocket and pulled out a small, notebook. With practiced efficiency, she scribbled down Lucas's name. Malthus watched her curiously.

The list…? What is it?

When Gisela finished writing, she placed the notebook and pen back in her pocket. She raised her head and caught Malthus looking at her. She did not acknowledge his gaze. Her face remained completely impassive, unconcerned by what he might think.

"Well then." Lucas's voice broke the silence that had fallen between them. "You're all assigned to Squad B. I'll be the instructor in charge." Lucas paused and looked around at the trio, giving them all a stern look. "Teamwork is of the utmost importance," he stressed. "Let's get through this exam, everyone!"

"Listen up!" Zikael cut in. "Teamwork means staying out of my way. It's a Squad B rule. Don't you forget it!"

Wulffast glared at him. He clenched his fists, and his body trembled with anger. Malthus sighed inwardly. So much for Wulffast's own advice. Sensing a headache coming on, Lucas rubbed at his temple. The exam had not even started, and already it looked like dissension would rip the squad apart.

"Everyone here?"

Everybody turned as Ervin Kramer, Headmaster of Nexus Garden, walked down from the lift to the directory. The headmaster was a middle-aged man in his forties. He had brown hair and a kind, gentle face. His eyes were also kind, though they seemed somewhat tired of late.

Lucas flashed the squad a stern glance before coming to attention. Ervin came to stand beside him. The other squads in the lobby came over and gathered behind them to hear the headmaster's address. Ervin peered at them all through his round spectacles. Seeing the students all gathered before him, he smiled.

"It's been a while, everyone," he said. "How's everyone doing?"

He looked around. The students appeared nervous and quiet. Wulffast fidgeted about, shuffling from foot to foot, though he did his best to appear calm. Ervin smiled, it was no surprise they were all nervous. The White wing exam could be the making or breaking of these young students. Ervin smiled. It was time to get to business.

"This exam will involve twelve members from Squads A through D…" he began. "You will be proceeding to a real battlefield. Obviously, the battles are for real.

"Life and death, victory and defeat, honour and disgrace… Each of these go hand in hand. There's only one way or another. How 'bout it? Are you still up for it?"

He leaned over, peering close at the students once again to see their reaction. All of them remained silent, but he could see the determination in their eyes. To the side, Zikael yawned loudly, bored. Lucas flashed him a stern glance.

"You will be accompanied by nine White wing members," Headmaster Ervin continued. "Should you fail, these members shall get the job done. They always do. Well, that's one less worry on your mind. The pride of Nexus Garden! The elite mercenary force, White wing!"

The headmaster's arms were in the air now. His voice was flowing with passion as he spoke, and the fervour was visible in his tired eyes.

"Learn from them, obey their commands and accomplish the mission. Prove yourself worthy of becoming a member of White wing." The headmaster lowered his arms and folded them behind his back. "Best of luck."

Without a word, the students turned and left the lobby. As per Lucas's instructions they headed towards the car park, where the Garden cars were waiting to escort them out. Keegan and Gisela remained in the lobby, waiting for Zikael to return.

Lucas's squad was the last to leave. Wulffast could hardly contain himself as he ran over to the car. Zikael took his time, strolling leisurely. Malthus, who had become lost in thought whilst waiting for the other students to leave, had to run to catch them up.

As soon as they were all seated, the car headed off. It rolled out of the Garden's underground drive and into the afternoon sunlight, beginning its steady drive towards the port town of Nexus.

With nothing left to do but wait, the students inside the car leaned back and relaxed. Nobody spoke for a while; the only sound was the roar of the engine as it moved down the drive. Every so often the car jumped as it rolled over a bump in the road, but otherwise the journey was smooth, calm… and boring.

At least, that's what Wulffast thought. Unlike Zikael and Malthus, he found himself unable to relax. His body was tense, like a coiled spring waiting to be released. He longed to get onto the battlefield and prove himself. Waiting around like this just made him more nervous.

He looked over at Malthus, sitting silently beside him. Malthus was staring down at the floor, his arms folded over his knees. Wulffast's eyes were drawn to the gunblade at the swordsman's side. This was the first time he had ever seen a gunblade up close before. The weapon was difficult to master, and there were few who even attempted it. Wulffast preferred to use his fists for fighting, but the gunblade intrigued him.

"Yo, Malthus," he said suddenly. "Show me your gunblade, will ya?"

Malthus did not even raise his head. "…"

Wulffast tried again. "C'mon, man!"

"…"

"Just a peek!"

"…"

Wulffast sighed. "Tch, fine…" he grumbled. He folded his arms across his chest, pouting. "Yeah, yeah…" He looked over at Malthus again. "Why you bein' so selfish!" he demanded. "Scrooooge!"

Still Malthus did not respond. "…"

"Say somethin', will ya!" said Wulffast, exasperated. "W-What's on your mind?"

Malthus sighed. "…Nothing."

"…Nothing," said Lucas at the same moment, once again pre-empting Malthus's answer. Malthus looked at him. Lucas's face was innocent.

Wulffast looked at them both. Somewhere along the line, he thought he'd missed the joke, although neither Malthus nor Lucas were laughing. "…" He sighed heavily and leaned back in his chair, trying to force his body to relax.

Silence returned to the car. Wulffast, still bored, drummed his fingers lightly on the armrest. He tapped his foot on the floor. Suddenly he got up out of his seat and began to practice his martial arts, punching at the air.

This went on for a few minutes until Zikael, irritated, glared up at him. "Stop that," he said, his eyes narrowing. "It's annoying."

Wulffast did stop. Zikael looked up at him. He smirked.

"…Chicken."

Wulffast's body trembled with anger. He raised his fists. "WHAT DID YOU CALL ME!" he shouted.

Zikael started to laugh, amused by Wulffast's overreaction. Lucas rose out of his seat and put his hands on his hips.

"Knock it off!" he ordered sharply, giving them both a stern glare.

Hearing his no nonsense tone, Wulffast immediately dropped back down into his seat. He folded his arms stubbornly across his chest and refused to look at Zikael. Zikael's chuckling quietened, but he continued to smile smugly to himself. Lucas waited a moment before returning to his own seat. He sighed and shook his head. It was hard to believe that they were all about the same age. They acted like little children.

Throughout all this, Malthus had remained silent. He had been thinking about the girl in the infirmary, the brown-haired one with the green shawl and kind face. He was sure he had not met her before, and yet she had known him by name. Malthus was puzzled. How could she know his name? Had he met her somewhere before?

Malthus raised his head and looked over at Lucas. The instructor was busying himself by examining his clipboard, running through some last minute checks.

"…Instructor…"

Lucas looked up at him.

"Who was that girl in the infirmary this morning?"

Lucas blinked. "Was someone there?" he asked. "I wasn't there. Is there a problem?"

"No…" Malthus looked back down at the floor. "Not really…"

Opposite him, Zikael started to laugh. "This is great…" he said, his shoulders shaking as he chuckled. "I have Chicken-wuss and a guy who's just reached puberty in my squad…" He laughed loudly.

Malthus did not respond. Wulffast's fists shook angrily. Lucas, meanwhile, put his hand to his head. It was going to be a very long evening.

A short drive later they arrived at Nexus. Nexus was a small port town, and it was from this town that Nexus Garden had gotten its name.

Although primarily a fishing community, Nexus was also a popular tourist resort. It received many visitors from overseas each year, wanting to sample the town's legendary fish dishes. It was also the only town on the continent with a shipping dock, so any people wanting to reach Nexus Garden had to pass through Nexus first. In turn any White wing wanting to head out on missions went through Nexus docks. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement that neither side disputed.

The car headed straight for the docks. A number of White wing-standard military ships had pulled in and were waiting at the docks. Some of them were already leaving and heading westward, intothe Serene Ocean. The car carrying Squad B pulled swiftly into the car park.

Malthus and Zikael were the first to get out of the car. They stood side by side as they looked up at the White wing vessel that would carry them across the ocean. It was the first time either of them had seen White wing's marine vessels. They were an impressive sight. The front of the vessels had been designed like battering rams, capable of breaking their way through any defence.

"So that's the vessel…?" asked Malthus.

Zikael nodded. "Ain't no turning back now," he replied. Then, catching the faint note of trepidation in Malthus's voice, he turned and looked at him. "Huh? You scared too?"

Malthus did not reply but continued to stare up at the vessel.

"Hey!"

The two men turned their attention to the dock, where three members of White wing were waiting for them. One of them was running towards the gate, waving his arms.

"You guys are the last!" he shouted, sounding a little annoyed. "Hurry up and get in!" They must have arrived late.

The car door opened and Lucas climbed out. Zikael leaned in close to Malthus and said in a low whisper: "Don't disappoint me now." Malthus did not respond.

Zikael then moved away from Malthus as Lucas came up behind them, his face stern. "Come on, move it!" he snapped.

Zikael flashed Malthus a cold glance before he ran off towards the dock. Wulffast went running after him, leaving Malthus behind. Lucas started after them and then, realising that Malthus was not following them, stopped and turned back.

"Hurry, Malthus!" he called, breaking him from his thoughts, and hurried towards the dock.

Malthus pushed his thoughts aside for the moment and went after him. He could think about that strange girl later. Right now he had to focus all his attention on the exam.

He reached the vessel. Everyone was waiting for him, except for Zikael, who was already making his way inside. Wulffast waited until Malthus reached the loading platform before he too made his way into the vessel.

Lucas waited until all three students were inside. He had a brief word with his colleagues, who would be remaining behind to await their safe return. Then the instructor boarded the ship, and the main hatch slid closed.

When the checks had been completed, the engines fired up and the ship moved slowly out of the dock. Children ran out to watch and wave as the ship joined the other White wing vessels, and then headed out across the sea towards the western continent of Blackwald.

"Hi, Lucas," said Xu as she entered the cabin.

Malthus looked up as Xu closed the door behind her and stopped next to the table. Lucas rose to his feet and greeted her with a wave. Xu was a friend from his student days, although he had graduated a year earlier. Although an ordinary member of White wing, today Xu was acting as one of the examiners for the exam.

"Well, these are the members of Squad B," said Lucas, gesturing to the three students sat around the table.

Immediately, Wulffast and Malthus rose to their feet. "Nice to meet ya!" said Wulffast.

"Pleased to meet you…" said Malthus, with a slight nod of his head.

Xu looked them over. She'd received the student reports prior to the exam, so she already knew who these two young men were. Wulffast Brandt, aged seventeen, from Nexus. He was a martial artist of unsurpassed skill… but had problems containing himself. Malthus, last name is unknown, also aged seventeen, had resided in Garden since his blackout. He was a gunblade master, but had issues when it came to teamwork.

Her eyes went to the last member of the squad, currently slouching in his chair with a look of boredom on his face. Zikael Izad, aged eighteen. She wouldn't even need a report to tell her about this one. Zikael she knew very well. Xu sighed and folded her arms. "Zikael," she said. "How many times has it been now?"

Zikael gave her only the briefest of glances, and then he looked away and shrugged his shoulders. "Oh, I just love these exams…" he said, and refused to say anymore.

Xu sighed again. This was not the first time she had seen Zikael take the final White wing exam. Or the second, or even the third. In fact this was the fourth time he had taken it, and if Xu were to make a bet, this would not be the last time, either.

It wasn't that Zikael did not have the skill to pass the exam. In fact, he was probably Nexus Garden's most talented swordsman. The problem was Zikael was his complete lack of respect for authority and his inability to follow orders, along with his unprecedented talent to rile people up. From the looks of things that still had not changed, and so Xu turned away from him.

"I'll explain the current situation and the mission," she announced. She looked at Wulffast. The fighter stepped aside and allowed her to pass. Xu took her place at the head of the room. On the wall behind her was a large computer screen. She stood in front of this, holding the remote in her hands, and faced the company. "Be seated!" she ordered, and Malthus, Wulffast and Lucas obediently took their seats. Xu coughed, clearing her throat, and then began her briefing.

"Our client for the mission is the Arcton Dukedom Parliament," she said. "A request for White wing was made 18 hours ago."

She stepped aside to allow the students a full view of the display screen behind her. She pushed a button on the remote, and the screen lit up. A map of Arcton, seaside capital of the Arcton Dukedom, appeared on the screen.

The Arcton Dukedom was an independent nation on the northeast region of the Blackwald continent. Its capital was built along the shore, protected by a large mountain range. The only way to enter the city on land was through a single pass through the mountains, and so Arcton had managed to maintain a peaceful existence. That was, until now, as Xu was about to explain.

"Arcton has been under attack by the B-Army since about 72 hours ago," she told them. "Forty-nine hours into the battle, Arcton abandoned their position in the inner city. Currently, they have retreated into the nearby mountains and are reorganising their troops. That's the current status.

"Now onto the mission objective. According to our reports, the B-Army is mopping up the Arcton troops in the mountain region. We're to make a landing at Lapin Beach." She indicated the spot on the map. "We're to eliminate the remaining B-Army within the city and liberate it A.S.A.P. Afterwards, White wing members will intercept any B-Army forces trying to make their way into the city from the mountain region."

The screen went off.

Zikael leaned back further in his chair. "So, what are WE supposed to do?" he asked, placing his boots on the table.

Xu stepped back in front of the screen. "White wing candidates are to eliminate the B-Army inside the city," she answered.

"Sounds important!" said Wulffast excitedly, flexing his muscles.

"Sounds boring," Zikael corrected with a yawn. He rested his cheek in his hand and looked up at Xu. "So, what you're saying is," he said, giving her a bored look, "we do all the dirty work…"

Xu remained silent. He really had not changed at all. She glanced at Lucas, who just shook his head. "… Oh," said Xu, suddenly remembering, "it hardly needs to be said, but… The order to withdraw takes priority. Do not forget."

She looked around the room to make sure they understood. Wulffast gulped. He wondered what would happen if anyone ignored the order to withdraw. They would be left behind, most likely. The fighter glanced over at Malthus to see his reaction. Malthus's face was unreadable. Wulffast scratched his head, shuffling nervously.

Xu nodded, satisfied that they all understood. She looked at her watch. "We're almost there," she told them. "We anticipate a battle as soon as we disembark. Just be prepared. That's all. Any questions, talk to Lucas."

The briefing over, Xu walked forward. Wulffast moved out of his seat, allowing her to pass once again. The White wing left the cabin, leaving the three students and Lucas alone as they waited for the ship to arrive at Arcton.

Silence fell amongst them. Malthus folded his arms over his knees and looked down at the floor, thinking about the mission ahead. According to Xu's briefing, they were to aid in the liberation of Arcton from the invading B-Army. Their task was to eliminate the B-Army inside the city and stop further troops from entering.

The Blackwald Army, or B-Army as it was known for short, had a long history of war and invasion, beginning thousands of years ago. In that time, the whole continent had been part of the Arcton Empire. Then a terrible tragedy had struck the continent and Arcton had become a divided empire. One of the powers that rose up in the wake of the catastrophe had been Blackwald, along with Redrest to the southeast, and the Arcton Dukedom, remnant of the Arcton Empire, to the northeast.

Blackwald quickly established its military might eighteen years ago in the war against the eastern nation of Asmarin and the invasion of its neighbour, Redrest. Since then, Blackwald held a reputation for subjugating other nations. So the invasion of Arcton had come as no surprise. Still, Malthus wondered why Blackwald had chosen to invade Arcton now, eighteen years later. What had prompted the invasion?

He must have looked very lost in thought, for Lucas leaned over and waved, catching his attention. He looked up. "What is it, Malthus?" he asked him.

Malthus looked back down at the floor. It didn't really matter. The reasons behind the Blackwald's attack were not necessary to the mission. His orders had been given; that was all he needed to know. Still, it was best that he made sure that he had understood the mission details correctly, before they disembarked. He looked up.

"Explain that again," he asked him.

Lucas sat up straight, assuming his instructor role. "Here's a quick explanation," he began. "The goal for this mission is to eliminate the Blackwald forces that have entered Arcton. The order to withdraw takes priority. Be sure to make your way back to the shore when you get this order."

"Listen up," Zikael said suddenly, cutting in over Lucas. "Our goal for this mission is to mop up all the Blackwald soldiers still left in Arcton. All you boys"—meaning Malthus and Wulffast—"have to do is take orders from me, the captain."

Lucas rubbed at his temple, feeling the headache grow stronger. He worried about the outcome of this exam. With Zikael in charge, almost anything could happen. He hoped Headmaster Ervin knew what he was doing.

On the other hand, Wulffast was becoming excited. "My first real battle…" he said. Malthus looked up. Wulffast's eyes were bright with excitement. "I'm getting pretty nervous."

"Better not piss in your pants," Zikael said offhandedly.

Wulffast glared at him. "Huh!" he demanded loudly. "You talkin' to me?"

"Heh heh…" Zikael laughed to himself.

"…Bastard," Wulffast growled.

Malthus sighed inwardly.

"Okay, enough talk," said Lucas, interrupting before Zikael or Wulffast could escalate things further. "We'll be landing pretty soon. Get ready."

Wulffast's mood changed at once, turning back into excitement. "Roger," he said. His wrath for Zikael momentarily forgotten, he began to crack his knuckles and stretch out his muscles, readying himself for the battles ahead.

"All right," said Malthus, without looking up.

"Yeah, yeah…" Zikael replied, yawning. He reached out and touched his weapon, as though reassuring himself that it was still there, and then sank back in his chair again. "Well then, Malthus," he said after a moment. "Go see what's going on outside."

It wasn't a request. "…" Malthus sighed. "…Okay." He rose to his feet.

"Good," said Zikael. "Because it's MY order."

Malthus stood alone on the upper deck of the White wing ship, watching the horizon. The ocean waters rippled as the ship ploughed its way through. Above him, the sun was beginning its slow descent, giving the sky a pale orange hue. The moon was already visible; its reflection was large and full in the water.

Around him were half a dozen ships, each one filled with White wing and other students. At that moment everyone would be preparing themselves for battle. The students would be nervous, gathering their courage. Their instructors would be giving last minute instructions, for once the students disembarked they would be on their own. If they did not perform their duty, they would fail the exam. Or, as a worst case scenario, they would all die. Malthus, however, refused to think about that option. All his thoughts were centred solely on the mission.

Malthus looked away from the horizon and down at a photograph of Arcton that he had picked up before heading out. It was a view of Arcton as it appeared from the sea. There was the shoreline and the city's many docks, along with the numerous wave-breakers positioned in various places around the shore. To the south of the city, on top of a sloping cliff, was an old communication tower.

Malthus then dropped a second sheet on top of the photograph. It was a transparent sheet, detailed with the plans of attack. It marked Lapin Beach, where they would land, along with the various points where the White wing and students would be dispatched in the city and mountains. Key positions had also been labelled; Malthus figured these were the main parts of the city they had to protect.

The swordsman lowered the photo and looked ahead. Arcton was directly ahead of him, but it was not the same Arcton that he had seen in the photograph. The Arcton he saw before him was a city engulfed in the grip of war. Explosions tore their way through the city, sending clouds of fire and smoke into the air. He could hear the gunfire even from here, and he could smell the scent of the smoke.

Arcton soldiers swarmed across Lapin Beach after being forced to give up their positions inside the city. They charged across the sand, trying to re-enter the city. A Blackwald soldier holding a bazooka opened fire and hit a truck parked on the beach. The truck exploded, sending one Arcton soldier flying and forcing many more onto their knees, covering their faces as clouds of smothering smoke filled the air.

Malthus watched the battle from the upper deck. More explosions erupted on the beach, as the Arcton soldiers were once again forced to draw back. The brightness of the flames glittered in Malthus's eyes as he narrowed them in determination. He was ready.

A loud roar rumbled below him as the ship's engines suddenly revved up. Malthus quickly ducked down below deck, returning to the safety of the interior.

The White wing ships broke formation and surged forward. They moved at great speed, heading towards war-torn Arcton.

The mission had begun.

Chapter Four: Life or Death

The White wing vessels approached the shore. They spread out, approaching from different angles, powering their way through the water. Their initial strike had to be fast, to move in before the Blackwald Army could realise they were there.

Two of the vessels were heading for the large stone wavebreakers positioned around the shore. The nearest ship veered away at the last moment, but the second carried on moving forward and crashed into the wall. There was a loud CRUNCH as the ship's specially designed hull smashed right through the stone, creating a large gap. The ship moved up and over the broken wall until it came out the other side and landed back in the water. Undamaged, the ship continued forward.

The ship hit the shore. It beached itself upon the sand. All around it the other White wing ships had done the same, anchoring themselves onto the shore. The ship's hull opened up and Malthus, Wulffast and Zikael came running out.

The scent of smoke was heavy on the air. It billowed up from the exploded truck, trailed along the beach and across the sea. Luckily there was a strong breeze blowing and the smoke moved quickly, leaving the beach clear. There was no sign of the Arcton soldiers; they had fled the moment that White wing arrived.

Squad B turned back to the ship. Lucas and Xu were standing in the doorway. They spoke for a brief moment, before Xu saluted and ran down from the ship. She passed Squad B, hurrying along the sands towards the city. Another squad of students ran out of one of the nearby vessels and also made their way towards the city. Squad B looked at Lucas, awaiting their orders. The instructor faced them, his face grim.

"Okay, you are to secure the Central Square!" the instructor commanded sharply. Another explosion sounded nearby, and he raised his voice to be heard over the boom. "Be sure to prepare your FS before you head into battle!"

Zikael turned from him. Raising his weapon, he pointed it down the beach. "Let's move out!" he ordered. Without waiting for their response he set off along the beach, leaving Malthus and Wulffast behind.

Wulffast looked at Malthus and rolled his eyes. The swordsman turned away from him. They had to get moving, or they would lose sight of Zikael. He glanced down at his gunblade, making sure it was secure, and then he ran after Zikael. Wulffast ran close behind him, excitement burning in his eyes.

Zikael was just up ahead, standing by the steps leading up to the esplanade. The squad that had ran past before was standing by here, waiting for Zikael and his squad to pass before they made the beach secure. When Malthus and Wulffast approached Zikael ran on ahead, leaping up the steps towards the top.

There were two Blackwald soldiers waiting for them at the top at the top of the stairs, drawn by the sounds of White wing's arrival. The Blackwald Army was easily identified in their blue uniforms and silver-coloured armour. In a normally quiet city such as this, they were an alarming sight. When they saw Zikael come bounding up the steps with his squad in tow, they reached for their guns and aimed at them. Seeing that they were not Arcton soldiers as they had expected, they hesitated.

"They're Arcton reinforcements?" one of the soldiers asked, looking at his comrade.

He got his answer quickly, as the squad reached the top of the steps and Zikael darted forward. Zikael was quick and struck so fast the soldiers barely had the time to react. With a single swipe of his sword he felled the soldier and then turned on his comrade. The soldier hesitated and stepped back. He then raised his gun, but his hesitation was costly. Zikael ran up to him and grabbed him by his helmet. He shoved, pushing the soldier hard against a wall. While he stood, dazed, Zikael pulled him forward and threw him over the balustrade. The soldier landed on the sand below, much to the shock of the three students standing below.

With the two soldiers dispatched the squad hurried on, leaving the other team to clean up the mess. With the promenade now under White wing's control, no other Blackwald soldiers would be able to advance on the shore. Now Squad B was hurrying to the Central Square to secure the heart of the city. They moved quickly through the city, following the main road.

As they ran down a street Malthus noticed that all the buildings were closed, their windows boarded up. There was no sign of any civilians, either. Presumably they had all fled into the mountains to wait out the battle. At least casualties would be reduced to a minimum, thought Malthus. But where were all the Arcton soldiers?

Just as Malthus was thinking this, Zikael suddenly came to a stop ahead of him. The squad leader looked up, and his eyes narrowed.

There was a stone walkway overhead, joining two buildings on both sides of the street. On this walkway were two more Blackwald soldiers, patrolling the rooftops. The soldiers spotted them and jumped down from the walkway, landing on the path in front of the squad. They raised their rifles.

"Look out, it's White wing!" shouted one of the soldiers, recognising the White wing logo on Malthus and Wulffast's uniforms.

The two soldiers opened fire. Wulffast jumped back out of the way, while Zikael and Malthus raised their blades to block the oncoming bullets. The gunfire stopped, as the two soldiers reloaded their weapons. In that moment the two swordsmen charged forward, moving together. They met the soldiers head-on. They clashed, grappled with the soldiers, and a few moments later the soldiers fell to the ground.

Zikael walked up to the two lifeless soldiers. He looked down at them, a look of disdain on his face. That look turned to anger and he kicked away one of the rifles, sending it skittering across the street. That had been pathetically easy. If there was one thing Zikael hated, it was an easy fight. He had hoped, with these being Blackwald soldiers, they would be more of a challenge. Still, there might be some soldiers worth fighting out there.

Without saying a word to Malthus or Wulffast, Zikael stepped over the bodies of the soldiers. He hurried on towards the Central Square.

Malthus and Wulffast hesitated, unsure of whether they should follow him right away. The bodies of the two soldiers were lying in the middle of the street. Somehow, it didn't feel right to just leave them there.

The door to a nearby café opened. Squad C came running out and took up positions outside the door, securing the main road. Seeing their fellow students, Malthus motioned to Wulffast to follow him. The other squad could clean up the mess. They had to secure the Central Square as quickly as possible.

They found Zikael further down the road, standing by an abandoned car, waiting impatiently for them to catch up.

"The Central Square is up ahead," he told them when they finally caught up. Turning away from them, he shouted down the path. "Hey! All you Blackwald cowards out there! Come out'n show your faces! Don't leave me hangin' now!"

Zikael then ran off, once again leaving his squad behind. Wulffast watched him go, his hand on his hip. "…What an idiot," he said, shaking his head.

Malthus said nothing on the matter. Despite Zikael's abrasive and provocative attitude towards this mission, they were making progress, and since Zikael was their squad leader they had no choice but to follow him. The two ran off again, quickening their pace to try and catch up with their leader.

As Zikael had told them, the Central Square was just ahead. Zikael, as expected, was already there. He stood beside a large fountain in the centre, his face creased into a frown as he was once again forced to wait for his squad to catch up to him.

Malthus and Wulffast entered the Square. Suddenly they both stopped and raised their weapons (or fists!), their eyes fixed on the fountain.

Zikael turned. A Blackwald soldier emerged from behind the fountain where he had been lying in wait and charged at Zikael with his gun raised. Zikael darted forward to meet him. He knocked the gun aside with his fist and then thrust his sword forward.

Seeing the blade coming, the soldier leaned back. The blade's tip stopped just inches away from his helmet. The soldier let out a sigh of relief. Zikael smirked. In a sudden, swift movement, he swung his sword. The Blackwald soldier did not even have time to cry out. He fell against the found and slumped to the floor, dead.

"There may be more…" Malthus warned, looking about the Square.

Zikael rested his sword against his shoulder, frowning thoughtfully. Wulffast walked past him and knelt beside the body of the soldier. Grumbling to himself, annoyed that he had not managed to get in on any of the action yet, he heaved the soldier up onto his back and carried him across the Square. He dumped the body in an alleyway behind a garbage bin. Still grumbling, he returned to his friends.

"All right," said Zikael as he came to a decision. "I want you guys to scout the area for enemies."

Malthus nodded silently. He began to explore the perimeter of the Central Square, keeping an eye out for any other Blackwald soldiers that were in hiding, waiting to strike. Wulffast searched with him, still grumbling under his breath. Malthus put the fighter out of his mind and focused solely on his search.

Malthus moved on to search the northern side of the Square. He was just walking past one of the closed shops when he heard a noise coming from his left. Malthus paused and listened carefully.

The sound came again: a low shuffle, and the sound of metal scraping on stone. Looking downwards, Malthus saw that the ground beneath him was patterned stone. There was someone nearby, hiding. Malthus let his eyes wander slowly to his left. There was a car parked nearby, next to an abandoned hotel. At the edge of the car he saw a moving shadow. The hider was there, behind the car.

Malthus glanced at Wulffast. The fighter had also heard the noise and was making his way slowly around Malthus, heading casually towards the car. Malthus rested his hand on the hilt of his gunblade as he began to walk towards the car. Zikael watched in silence as his squad advanced on the car and then, when they were close enough, they struck.

Wulffast leaped over the bonnet of the car, landing in front of their hidden assailant. It was another Blackwald soldier. When Wulffast suddenly appeared in front of him it startled him so much that he dropped his gun, letting it clatter onto the floor. He fumbled for it, but Wulffast grabbed the soldier by his armour and shoved him back. He then leaped on the soldier, his fists a blur of movement.

The soldier grappled with Wulffast and must have landed a lucky blow, for Wulffast suddenly doubled over, clutching at his face. The soldier shoved him off and scrabbled to his feet. He rushed for his weapon. A figure stepped in front of it, and the soldier looked up to find Malthus standing over him.

The swordsman swung his sword, forcing the soldier back. He backed right up into Wulffast, who had now recovered from the blow to his head and was right behind him. Wulffast cracked his knuckles ominously and drew back his fist. He swung it with all his might and caught the soldier on the side of his face. Malthus stepped aside as the soldier staggered forward and landed against the car, his legs buckling.

The soldier tried to recover, but Wulffast was in front of him again. The fighter delivered a second blow that sent the soldier flying over the car. He hit the ground on the other side. Wulffast flexed his wrist and moved to stand over him. The Blackwald tried sit up. Wulffast knelt and drew back his fist one more time. The resulting blow caused the Blackwald's helmet to crack and split apart, falling like a broken eggshell on either side of the soldier's face. The soldier, on the other hand, was unconscious, knocked out by the blow. Wulffast rose to his feet, and Malthus came to stand beside him.

"I think that's all of them," said Malthus.

Wulffast nodded. He rubbed his knuckles, pleased with himself. He turned to Zikael, grinning broadly. Let's see what Zikael had to say about him now!

Unfortunately, Zikael was not paying the least bit attention. The swordsman had turned away from him and Malthus and was seemingly lost in thought, tapping his blade absently against his shoulder. Wulffast fumed and clenched his fist. Angrily he turned away. He bent down to pick up the body of the unconscious soldier, planning to dump it in the alley along with his fallen comrade.

Malthus sheathed his sword and went back over to Zikael. As he approached he noticed that a small brown dog had wandered into the Square and was now standing at Zikael's feet, sniffing the swordsman curiously. Zikael did not seem the notice the dog, or just did not care that it was there.

"Well then," said Zikael when Wulffast had returned, "we're on standby 'til the enemy comes." He took a few steps away from them and looked around the empty Square. "Standby…" he said with a sigh. "How boring…"

With nothing else to do other than wait, the squad relaxed. Wulffast went to one side and began to do some simple stretching exercises to keep his muscles warmed up. Zikael, unable to relax, returned to tapping his sword against his shoulder.

The dog, also bored, padded over to Malthus and sat down in front of him. It whined, gazing up at him with its large, golden-brown eyes. Malthus knelt down and held out his hand. The dog sniffed his hand curiously. It then pushed its head into Malthus's hand, and Malthus gently stroked its fur. Its body was trembling slightly. The dog had probably been left behind when the people of Arcton fled for the mountains.

The silence was suddenly shattered by the sound of gunfire. Malthus looked up. The sound was distant, and came from the mountains surrounding Arcton. Malthus guessed that the battle had begun and the qualified members of White wing had engaged with the Blackwald Army, trying to drive the enemy forces back.

"Sounds like it's starting," he said, looking up at Zikael.

"Bring it on," replied Zikael, without looking at him.

The sounds of the battle continued to rage. Malthus looked back down at the dog. Its head was lowered and it was whining softly. He reached out to pet it again, but the dog pulled its head away from his hand and wandered over to Zikael. The swordsman had his back to the dog and so it nuzzled the back of his legs, trying to get his attention. Zikael ignored it. The dog then barked at him, and pawed at his coat. This time Zikael did respond—he turned and glowered at the dog.

"Get outta here!" he spat. "Scram!"

The dog did not move and continued to paw at him. Wulffast, seeing this, was forced to cover his mouth as he tried very hard not to laugh out loud. Fuming, Zikael turned and stormed across the Square towards Wulffast, and for a moment Malthus feared that he had heard Wulffast and was going to strike him. Instead Zikael brushed past Wulffast and stopped on the other side of the fountain. The swordsman began to swipe his sword rapidly, and the air made a whoosh as it passed over the blade.

"Hey!" he yelled, over the distant gunfire. "Blackwald soldiers! What are you waiting for! Come show me what you got!"

He gave the sword a few more furious swipes. Finally, his fury spent, Zikael lowered his sword. The streets, in response, remained silent. Nobody came to answer his call. The only response came from the dog, which barked loudly. There was no other choice. They would have to wait.

Nearly a full hour passed by, and still the students continued to wait. At the top of the hotel, a clock struck six. The sound of the bell was the only thing to pierce the sounds of the battle that still raged in the mountains, but the city itself remained perfectly still. The enemy was nowhere to be seen.

With nothing else to do but wait, Wulffast shoved his hands deep into his trouser pockets and paced across the Square. His eyes were fixed on the floor as he walked, tracing the intricate patterns inlaid on the bricks. When he reached the end of his cycle he paused, turned, and walked back the same way. Boredom showed strongly on his face. This was not how he had expected the White wing exam to go.

Malthus took another look around the Square. From his position he could see down all of Arcton's main streets, another reason why their position was so important. They would be able to see any soldiers trying to make their way through the city. Yet despite their prime position, the city was quiet.

"…Nothing," said Malthus, as he finished looking down the empty streets. He looked over at Zikael. His fellow swordsman was leaning against a wall, still tapping his blade against his shoulder. The dog, still hanging around, sat at Zikael's feet.

"Still keeping us waiting…?" Zikael said absently, mostly to himself.

Zikael had become more and more tense as the minutes passed by. His fingers played along the hilt of his sword, pausing only to tap the weapon against his shoulder. One time when he paused, his fingers ran over the blade's hilt. Zikael repeated this procedure many times, though for what purpose it served, Malthus didn't know.

Another minute passed. Then Wulffast abruptly stopped his pacing and punched the ground with his fist, causing the brick to crack. The dog, startled by this sudden movement, leaped back in alarm and flattened its ears against its head, growling.

"…The HELL!" Wulffast shouted. "Man… Now this is what I call boring." He rose to his feet and looked at Malthus with pleading eyes. "This ain't right, man!" he objected.

Malthus shook his head, remaining silent. What did Wulffast expect him to do about it? Receiving no response, Wulffast gave an exaggerated sigh and thrust his hands back into his pockets. With nothing better to do, he resumed his pacing.

Another minute passed by, and another, and another. Then Zikael, unable to contain his impatience any longer, suddenly cried out in rage. He began to swipe his sword in front of him again, slicing furiously through the air.

"That's it…" Zikael bellowed angrily. "I can't take it anymore! What is this, some kind of dog training!"

He swiped the sword again and again. As he brought the blade down it struck the ground, causing sparks to fly where the blade cut into the stone. The dog, alarmed once more, jumped up from its spot and ran away from Zikael. It ran to the other side of the Square and stopped by the fountain. Raising its head, it began to howl loudly. Malthus and the others watched it closely.

The dog continued to howl. Another sound then caught Malthus's ear. He turned and looked down one of the main streets leading away from the dock. There was nobody there. He was just about to turn away when he saw a flash of light by one of the doorways. It was the flash of sunlight catching on metal. So someone was there.

Malthus signalled to Zikael and gestured down the street. The swordsman glanced down, also saw the light, and nodded his head. Malthus tapped Wulffast on the shoulder. Wulffast nodded; he had also seen the light. Hurriedly Malthus knelt down behind the fountain, with Wulffast close behind him. Zikael stepped back behind the wall and peered out into the Square.

The dog stopped howling and ran off down the street leading to the dog. There was a moment's pause, and then a figure entered the Square. The squad recognised him at once to be a Blackwald soldier—there was no mistaking that blue uniform.

The soldier, however, was acting very strangely. At first they thought he was wounded, for he was crouching down and holding onto his armour. The soldier then paused and glanced around the Square, and they realised that he wasn't injured, just sneaking by. He was holding his armour so that it made no sound when he moved. After making sure that there was no one around, the soldier began to sneak down the southward street, towards the mountains.

A moment later more soldiers entered the Square, following the first one. They all moved in the same manner, sneaking by as quietly as they could. They all headed down the southbound street and disappeared from sight.

When they were gone, Malthus rose to his feet. "It's the enemy…" he said.

"Where the hell they goin'?" asked Wulffast, folding his arms.

Zikael ran forward and stopped at the top of the street. The soldiers were running now, making their way across a large stone bridge at the end of the street. On the other side was a mountain path that rose up a sloping hill. The sounds of fighting were not coming from this direction, but down the other street, the one leading out of the city. So why were these soldiers heading down this way?

Their gazes drifted upwards, following the mountain path. Perched on top of the hill was an old communication tower—the same one Malthus had seen on the map prior to their landing.

"Hey? What is that up there?" Wulffast asked, pointing at the tower.

A smile appeared on Zikael's face. He walked forward and pointed his blade down the path after the soldiers, who were just disappearing on the mountain path. "Our next destination," he announced.

"But that's against orders!" protested Wulffast.

Zikael sighed heavily. He should have known that chicken-wuss would be the first to object. "Weren't you just saying how bored you were?" he asked casually.

Wulffast's jaw dropped open. He turned away from Zikael and looked to Malthus, desperately seeking support. "Malthus!"

Malthus could feel Wulffast's gaze burning into him, urging him to speak. He knew what Wulffast was thinking. If Malthus also opposed the idea, then Zikael would be forced to reconsider his decision to leave their post. It was one of the standard rules of leadership in White wing. Of course, Zikael would go anyway, regardless of whether his squad approved his decision or not. And, despite himself, Malthus was curious to know where the soldiers were headed. He turned away from Wulffast and Zikael.

"I stand by the captain's decision," he answered finally.

Once again, Wulffast's jaw dropped open. Though he did not know what he had expected Malthus to say, this was as far from it as possible. Even Zikael looked surprised.

"…Captain's decision?" he repeated. He looked at Malthus approvingly, impressed by his rival's sudden show of support. He walked over to Malthus and placed his hand on the young man's shoulder. "You want to wreak some havoc too, don't you?"

Malthus brushed off Zikael's hand. Zikael stared at his hand and then glowered at Malthus, annoyed. Malthus turned to face him, looking at him with a steadfast gaze.

"It's a good opportunity to test out my training," the teenager responded curtly, not wanting Zikael to get the wrong idea. "Thanks to you, I feel like I can take on anyone. Even if they do fight dirty, like you."

"You'll thank me when the time comes," Zikael said, his voice barely a whisper. Malthus was just about to ask him to repeat it when another voice butted in.

"What the hell…"

Malthus and Zikael turned. They had almost forgotten about Wulffast. The fighter had his arms folded across his chest as he stared at the two, looking puzzled. "I thought you guys didn't get along?" he asked them. "You're like, all buddy-buddy now."

The fighter came to stand in front of them. "Listen," he said. "This ain't no ordinary battle. It's an exam, an important one. I'm tellin' ya, we have to stick to orders."

At this Zikael's brows creased and his face returned to its usual cold arrogance. "Then you stay here," he responded sharply. He heaved his sword up onto his shoulder. "I don't need any boy scouts."

In a flash Wulffast raised his fists. "What was that!" he shouted. His body was trembling with anger, and his face turned red. Zikael smiled that same arrogant grin. This only made Wulffast madder, and he longed to beat that smile off Zikael's face.

Malthus sighed. "Don't take him seriously, Wulffast," he said, and then turned to Zikael. "Zikael, if we're gonna go, let's hurry."

Zikael nodded. He faced his squad. "The enemy is headed for the facility. We, Squad B, are to secure the summit. Move out!"

"Alright," said Malthus.

Realising that he had lost the argument, Wulffast folded his arms. "Tch… Fine."

As the squad hurried down towards the bridge, the dog came out of its hiding place and padded back into the Square. It watched as Malthus, Zikael and Wulffast ran across the bridge. The dog whimpered and sat down, waiting for them to return.

Chapter Five: The communication tower

The bridge was eerily silent as the students made their way across. The only sounds came from the battle that was still raging in the surrounding mountains. It showed no signs of letting up just yet. Thick black smog hung like a pall over the cliffs and was slowly trailing over the city. The air around them felt charged, electrified, and every so often there was a flash of light from the mountains, coming from the White wing and soldiers using their para-magic or Familiar Spirits to aid them in their fight. Aside from that, everything else was silent.

There was no sign of any soldiers, but still they kept a close eye on the rooftops of the city behind them. As they passed the halfway point they turned their eyes to the mountain slope ahead of them. The rocky cliffs would provide adequate cover for any snipers, and so they watched them closely.

As usual Zikael pulled ahead of them. He made no attempt to hide himself. To his mind, that was the coward's way. No, Zikael wanted to be in the open, where the enemy could see him… and where he could see them.

Behind Zikael and Malthus, Wulffast was morosely silent. This was going against orders. If Lucas and the headmaster found out, then they would be punished. At the very least, they would fail the exam. At the most, they could be expelled. Yet even as he thought this, he could not help but feel a tingle of excitement. Disobeying orders or not, at least they were doing something!

They reached the other end of the bridge and hurried to the mountain path. They did not get far before they stopped and stared around them. Several dead and wounded Arcton soldiers lay slumped across the path. Blood lay splattered about the path, staining the shrubbery an ugly red. The stench of blood was thick in the air and would be nauseating to the weak of heart. Malthus heard Wulffast choke back a cough, and he himself felt a little sickened, though he did his best not to show it. Zikael, meanwhile, showed no reaction to the sight of the wounded.

"That's war for you," was all he said.

They walked forward. They moved slowly, not wanting to disturb the scene. Most of the soldiers seemed to have died from gunshot wounds; however one or two soldiers had injuries that definitely did not come from rifles.

They passed one soldier lying face down near the edge of the cliff at the entrance to some shrubbery that bordered the path. The soldier had a gunshot wound in his chest, but there were also two larger, bloodier marks in the soldier's waist and left thigh. To make the image worse, the left leg looked torn, as though it had been ripped hard and was now half-severed. The soldier had bled to death, and his face was frozen in a mask of terror. Wulffast gulped and Malthus instinctively placed his hand on his sword, keeping it close to hand. They continued on.

At the end of the slope was a set of rugged stone steps leading up the side of the cliff. Here the scene of carnage ended, and the three students hurried up the slope.

A slithering noise came from the nearby bushes. The students stopped and immediately raised their weapons. Malthus fixed his eyes on the bushes, noting every movement. The slithering noise came again, and the bushes rustled. They parted and a Arcton soldier crawled out. He was wounded. He had a bullet wound to his shoulder and there were char marks on his uniform where he had been blasted with Thunder magic. When he saw the three students he froze and stared up in alarm.

"Ahhh! W-W-Who are you!"

"Don't worry," said Malthus quickly, lowering his sword. Wulffast, too, lowered his fists. "We're White wing candidates. We've been dispatched by Garden."

This seemed to calm him. It was hard to see his face beneath his helmet, but he sighed heavily and dropped his head. Malthus glanced at his wounds. The bullet wound was deep but he did not seem to be bleeding too heavily. The burn marks looked superficial, but as the majority of harm caused by Thunder magic was done on the inside of the body it was impossible to tell just how badly he was injured.

"So what's going on up there?" asked Zikael, looking up the path.

The soldier raised his head and followed Zikael's gaze to the tower at the peak. "The Blackwald soldiers have entered the Communication Tower," he said. "On top of that…" He coughed. "That place has always been a nesting ground for monsters." He looked back at the students. "If you guys are goin' up, please be caref…"

A loud hiss came from the bushes behind him. They parted and a serpent's head came out. It opened its jaws and latched onto the soldier's leg, sinking its fangs into the flesh. The soldier cried out in surprise and pain. The serpent then pulled back, dragging the soldier backward. The soldier struggled and clawed at the floor.

"H-HELP!"

Malthus reached out to grab the soldier. The serpent drew back its head sharply and pulled the soldier into the bushes. There was terrible, pain-filled cry… which then became silent. The bushes rustled and the serpent rose up.

It was the largest serpent any of them had ever seen, hence its name: Anacondaur. More than twice their height, it slithered forward on large, powerful coils. It had a large spiked hood surrounding its tiny had, and a balloon-like sack just beneath its throat. Spikes ran along its mottled green scales all the way down to its tail. Its head was tiny compared to the rest of its body. Blood dripped down its jaws; there was cloth from the soldier's uniform embedded in its numerous tiny teeth.

The serpent opened its mouth wide and screeched loudly. Another shriek sounded back in reply and a second serpent emerged from the bushes. This serpent's fangs were also drenched in blood. The serpents had been drawn by the battle and were gorging on the wounded and the dead. That explained the soldier they had seen before, where his leg had almost been ripped off.

The second serpent slithered through the bushes and joined its comrade. Their tongues—about ten inches long and an inch wide—flicked out and tasted the air. They could feel the warmth radiating from the students in their scales and feel their racing heartbeats. Hungry, the serpents slithered out of the bushes and headed towards them.

Malthus took a cautious step back. At the movement the nearest serpent lunged forward. Malthus jumped back just as the snake's head slammed into the path. Any normal creature would have broken its skull after such a strike, but the Anacondaur's hard scales and thick skull meant it received nothing more than a dull thud. It drew back its head and gazed at Malthus. After a moment, it began to slither again.

Malthus continued to back away slowly, not wanting to draw the monster's attack. Zikael then suddenly brushed passed him and planted himself in front of the two serpents. The monsters reared up and hissed warningly, but Zikael stood firm. He raised his sword and gestured for them to attack.

They obliged. The nearest serpent lunged again, and as its head drew near Zikael swung his sword. There was a flash and the serpent shrank back, screeching in pain. Blood poured from its jaw where the blade had cut through the flesh of its mouth. The added power from the recoil caused the blade to cut through one of the serpent's many, tiny teeth. The tooth clattered to the floor. The injured serpent writhed and wrapped its coils around itself, hissing in pain and anger.

Zikael bent down and picked up the bloodied tooth, holding it in his palm. "Listen up!" he called to his two comrades. "The last strike… Save it for me!"

Wulffast muttered under his breath but said nothing out loud. He stepped forward to stand by Zikael and raised his fists. Malthus drew his sword and joined them, creating a unified—albeit unwanted—front against the two monsters.

The serpents were being more cautious now. The injured one was still writhing, wrapped tightly inside its coils. The other one, possibly its mate, made no move. Its eyes watched the students carefully, its unblinking eyes fixed on them. Clearly, the monsters had not expected humans—less than half their size and barely a tenth of their physical strength—to do them any harm.

Zikael stepped forward and swiped his sword at the second snake. The Anacondaur hissed and reared back, rising up to its full height. Its tail flicked warningly. As it moved its muscles—which were powerful enough to crush a double-decker bus—shifted beneath its dirty green scales. The snake coiled… and then lunged. At the same time Zikael charged, meeting the snake head on.

"Zikael!" called Malthus, but he was too late to stop him.

Zikael thrust out his sword. The serpent twisted its body aside just in time, and the blade slid past it. In turn its head had veered off course and slammed into the ground, stirring up dirt and dust. Zikael tilted his blade and pulled it back. The blade's edge caught onto the scales and ripped them from the serpent's body.

Agonised, the serpent reared back. It swung its barbed tail and Zikael dropped onto the ground. The moment the tail's shadow passed over his head Zikael jumped back onto his feet. He lunged, thrust out his blade a second time and smiled with satisfaction as the sword sank into the serpent's scaly torso.

The serpent shrieked and writhed in pain. Zikael withdrew his sword, carrying more scales with it. He stepped back as the monster began to thrash its tail, slamming it against the ground and cliff wall, causing the ground to shake. A chunk of rock broke from the wall and tumbled towards Wulffast, who jumped back out of the way.

"Wulffast!"

A shadow fell over him. The second serpent had recovered from its initial wound and used it mate's attack as a distraction to move in behind the group. As Wulffast turned the serpent was lunging at him, its bloody mouth open. Wulffast swung his fist and struck the serpent on its jaw, slamming the mouth shut. There was a sickening crunch as the jaw slammed shut—the bones cracked and splintered.

The snake pulled back its head, hissing loudly. Its jaw flopped open, broken. Many of its fangs were missing, driven into the roof of its mouth when Wulffast's punch slammed it shut. The Anacondaur writhed, its jaw flapping uselessly. While it writhed Malthus rushed in behind it and swung his sword. He called upon the Thunder magic he had stored within his body and unleashed it just as the blade hit the serpent's body. The blade crackled as it ripped through the scales, and then the Thunder magic leapt from the blade and onto the Anacondaur's body.

The thunder magic tore through the serpent's body, and the Anacondaur stiffened. It then began to thrash wildly, out of control. Malthus pulled back his sword and jumped back out of the way as the serpent began to writhe across the ground, heading back towards the edge of the path where it broke into a rocky slope.

Wulffast ran in to give it another swift punch. The Anacondaur recovered just enough to swing its barbed tail, forcing Wulffast to stop its advance. The serpent retreated into the bushes, hissing through its broken jaw. The pain must have blinded it to its position on the path, for it headed closer and closer to the edge of the cliff. Eventually it reached the edge and fell off, tumbling down the rocks, shrieking.

Zikael was still battling the other serpent. He jumped over the swinging tail and ran in close. He thrust out his sword, and the blade sank deeply into the Anacondaur's throat. The snake gave a strangled choke and slumped. Before the snake's excessive weight could overpower him, Zikael placed his boot on its torso and shoved it off. The serpent toppled backward into the bushes, where the natural shrubbery masked its presence. Zikael sighed in satisfaction as he took out a cloth and began to wipe his sword clean.

Silence returned to the path. Malthus looked up and down the path warily. The sounds of their battle with the Anacondaurs could have alerted the soldiers patrolling the area and come to investigate the commotion. No soldiers showed up, however. They were in the clear.

Wulffast went into the bushes and found the Arcton soldier. The man was badly wounded. His leg was torn up pretty badly, but he was still alive. Wulffast dragged him out and leaned him against the cliff wall. He placed his hands gently over the soldier's wounded leg. Coloured light began to shimmer around his hands. It descended onto the wound, and after a few seconds the wound slowly began to heal. The flesh started to knit together, bit by bit until, finally, it closed. The soldier was still unconscious.

"Monsters, huh?" said Malthus, looking down at the soldier.

Wulffast rubbed his hands together and rose to his feet. "That sucks."

Zikael shrugged. "More fun for us," he said. "Come on…" Turning his back on the soldier, Zikael hurried on up the slope.

Wulffast watched him go. "…Fun?" he repeated. He shook his head. "Pu-lease…"

Leaving the Arcton soldier to rest by the cliff wall, Malthus and Wulffast ran up the slope after Zikael. They found him at the peak, looking down over the edge of a cliff to the entrance of the tower. The tower itself rose way above them, its metal surface glinting in the afternoon sun.

Malthus and Wulffast joined their squad leader, and the three of them lay down on the dry soil to observe the tower entrance. There were two Blackwald soldiers standing guard outside. Malthus raised his eyebrow. The Arcton soldier had been right: the enemy had taken control of the tower. But for what purpose could they want it?

The door to the tower opened and Malthus returned his attention to the mission at hand. A third Blackwald soldier stepped out. His comrades turned to him.

"The generator is up and running!" said one soldier loudly, his voice carrying all the way up to the three hiding on the cliff.

"No problem with the boosters!" said the other soldier, just as loudly.

Wulffast shuffled along the grass and leaned close to Malthus. "…The hell they doing?" he asked in a whisper. Malthus did not reply. He was focused on what they were saying.

The third soldier raised his hand and saluted his comrades. "Cable disconnection confirmed! Beginning exchange process!"

"Roger."

After this brief exchange, all three soldiers then entered the tower. The doors slid shut behind them. With the coast clear, the three students stood up.

"Repairs…?" asked Malthus, thinking aloud.

Zikael shrugged. "Who cares?" The swordsman sighed and resumed tapping his sword against his shoulder. He looked at Malthus, who was gazing thoughtfully at the tower. "This must be your first real battle," he said to him. "You scared?"

Malthus glanced at him briefly and then looked away. "…I don't know," he admitted. He walked up to the edge of the cliff and looked down to where the three soldiers had stood. "I try not to think about it."

"I love battles," Zikael continued, as though he hadn't heard. "I fear nothing." He looked up at the sky and raised his hand, letting the light shine through his fingers. "The way I look at it, as long as you make it out of a battle alive, you're one step closer to fulfilling your dream."

Malthus turned and stared at him in surprise. "What! Your dream?"

Zikael lowered his hand. "You have one too, don't you?" he asked.

Folding his arms firmly over his chest, Malthus looked away from him. "…Sorry, but I'm gonna pass on that subject," he said quietly.

"Yo!" said Wulffast, walking over. "Let me in on it, too!"

"Mind your own business," Zikael snapped.

Wulffast scowled. "Friggin' hell…" he grunted irritably, and he swiped his fists in front of Zikael's face.

Unconcerned by Wulffast's display of aggression, Zikael casually leaned his head back and let the punches slide past him. "What's the matter, Wulffast?" he asked. "Swatting flies?"

Wulffast's face reddened and his fists trembled in anger. Zikael sneered at him. The swordsman then walked past him and headed down the path leading to the tower entrance. Once he disappeared around the bend, Wulffast tightened his fist and slammed it into the ground. "Damn you…!" he cursed. He shook his head.

"There you are!"

Wulffast jumped to his feet just as a small figure ran up along the rocks behind them. It was a girl, wearing a White wing student uniform. It took Malthus a moment to recognise her as the same girl he had shown around Garden earlier that day. He probably would not have recognised her at all if it had not been for that turned-out brown hair and innocent expression.

She made her way carefully over the rocks. Her shoe slipped, and she tumbled forward. She rolled over the rocks—Wulffast winced—and landed on the ground in front of them. Leaves fell from her shoulders as she sat up. She flushed and rubbed the back of her head. She grinned and stuck out her tongue. The girl climbed to her feet and brushed the dirt from her uniform, before turning to the two men in front of her.

"Are you… Squad B?" she asked. When Malthus nodded, the girl narrowed her eyes and looked at him closely. "Wait a minute…" she said. "You're the guy who showed me around, right!" Malthus nodded again, and the girl's eyes brightened. "Thanks! I don't get so lost anymore. Oh yeah, I haven't told you my name yet.

"I'm… a messenger," she continued. "Name's Selene, from Squad A." She looked at Malthus and then at Wulffast. "The squad captain's Zikael, right? Where is he?"

Malthus turned from her and looked down to the base of the Communication Tower. Zikael had reached the bottom and was now approaching the entrance. Before he reached the door he stopped and looked up at Malthus. Their eyes met. Malthus broke the gaze first and pointed down to him.

"One of these days," Zikael called up, "I'm gonna tell ya 'bout my ROMANTIC dream!" And with that, he ran to the tower. The doors opened automatically, and he ran inside.

Seeing her objective disappear inside the tower, Selene dropped her arms and sighed heavily. "This sure is tough…" she said, shaking her head. She then stood up straight, clenched her fists, and ran to the cliff edge. "Captain! Wait up!"

Then, as suddenly as she had come, she vanished, disappearing over the cliff edge. Wulffast jumped back in alarm. The girl had actually jumped off the edge! He waited to hear a crash and the sound of breaking bones. All he heard was a thud, scrabbling, and then the girl ran out onto the path below. Selene stopped by the tower and waved her arms back and forth.

"What are you waiting for!" she called up to them. "Come on! Come on!"

Wulffast stared at her, unable to believe what he had just seen. Jumping off a cliff like that… was this girl normal? It was no small drop, either, and there were a number of rocks clustered about the bottom. He was about to ask Malthus what he thought when he saw the swordsman walk forward and stand at the edge.

"Malthus…" he began hesitantly. "You're not gonna…"

Malthus did not reply. He peered down over the cliff edge to the rocks below, gauging the distance. The rocks had been piled neatly against the cliff wall, creating a slope. He could probably jump it. …Probably.

Seeing a serious look pass over Malthus's face, Wulffast paled. "It's a cliff, man…" he said feebly. "You're not gonna jump off…?" Surely Malthus wasn't actually going to…?

Apparently he was, for Malthus looked back at him and said: "That's the plan." And with that, he too jumped off the cliff.

Wulffast stared at the empty space where Malthus had previously stood. He shook his head. "Are you serious…?" he asked aloud, though it was only to himself.

Still, Wulffast Brandt was not a man to be outdone. So although every instinct inside him told him to play it safe and follow the path, he went up to the edge, stepped back, and then took a flying leap over the edge.

"Geronimoooooo!"

The ground rushed up at him. He landed on the rocks. His weight caused the boulders to shift and he almost lost his balance. Luckily his training in martial arts had given him quick reflexes, and so Wulffast adjusted his balance and jumped off the rocks to the path. Once there he paused, breathing deeply. He'd just jumped off a cliff! Was he as crazy as this Selene girl?

"Well, let's get goin'," said Selene when Malthus and Wulffast—still breathing deeply—finally joined her.

The three students approached the Communication Tower. It seemed much taller up close. Their gazes drifted to the top of the tower, taking it in. Malthus stared and then raised an eyebrow. The top of the tower was bare—the satellite dish used to transmit radio waves was missing. It was no surprise. Radio waves hadn't been used in nearly twenty years. HD cable, online broadcasting… that was the modern method of communication. That was why all of this didn't make any sense.

"So this is the Communication Tower…?" asked Wulffast, interrupting Malthus's thoughts.

"Sure is big…" Selene said.

They fell silent, staring up at the tower. For a building that was occupied by Blackwald soldiers, it was extremely quiet. Then, just as they thought this, a loud and terrified scream broke the silence.

"Ah… AAHHH!"

The screams came from inside the tower. The doors slid open and the two soldiers who had been guarding the entrance came running

out. They paid no attention to Malthus or his friends as they came dashing past, hurrying to escape the tower. The reason for their fear soon became clear as Zikael came running out behind them. The swordsman's blue eyes were glinting dangerously as he swiped his sword through the air, making it whoosh. He stopped in the doorway, watching as the soldiers fled.

"Cowards," he muttered in disgust.

Selene ran up to him. "HEEEY!" she said loudly, trying to draw his attention.

Zikael didn't even look at her. Nor did he look at Malthus or Wulffast. He just turned back to the tower and went back inside, disappearing into the shadows beyond. The tower doors remained open. Selene looked at the doors and then at Malthus, who hadn't moved. She gestured to the tower.

"The captain's getting away!" she cried, a not-so-subtle hint that they follow him.

Malthus looked away and placed his hand on his hip, thinking. There was no other choice. They would have to follow Zikael into the Communication Tower.

Whether he'd made up his mind or not, Selene was already on the move. She ran to the open doorway and paused at the entrance, peering around inside. As she looked around, Malthus noticed that she had a set of nunchaku—a brand known as the 'Flail', hooked onto the back of her skirt. It was an unusual weapon favoured by the students of Trabia Garden to the east. Well, at least that answered the question of which Garden this girl had come from.

After peering around to make sure the coast was clear, Selene hurried inside. Reluctantly, Malthus and Wulffast ran in after her.

It was quite dark inside the tower; only a few lights illuminated the darkness. The air was stale and had a thick, rusted odour to it. Clearly, this tower had indeed been abandoned for a very long time. Malthus wondered why the Arcton Dukedom had never dismantled the tower or put it to some other use, instead of leaving it as a rusting relic of days gone by.

The dust was thick over the ground. When they looked down they saw that much of it had been recently disturbed and was covered in footprints, likely from Zikael and the Blackwalds. There was no sign of Zikael anywhere on the ground floor, and no sign of the Blackwalds, either. They had gone.

A sound came from above and the three students looked up. An open platform lift was descending from the upper levels and approaching the ground floor. It settled on the ground, disturbing the dust and sending it up into the air, making Wulffast cough. The lift was empty.

"…Did he go up?" asked Malthus, referring to Zikael. The swordsman folded his arms. Had Zikael gone up and sent the lift back down to collect them? …Unlikely.

Selene stepped up to the lift and peered upwards. The lift appeared to go straight up to the top of the tower—there didn't seem to be any other stops. "Heeey!" she called, her voice echoing off the rising walls. "Squad B captain!"

There was no reply. Wherever he was, Zikael couldn't hear them. In fact, for a place that was occupied by Blackwalds, the tower was eerily quiet. Wulffast walked up to the lift and looked at a control panel, checking it out.

"I think we can take this lift up…" said Malthus finally.

Selene, who was also examining the lift, turned to him. "Wanna go up?" she asked.

Better than staying down here, Malthus thought. He nodded. "Go up."

The three students stepped onto the lift. Wulffast pushed a button on the control panel. The lift shuddered and began to rise, disturbing the dust once more. After a few shaky movements the lift rose steadily. There were no rails or bars to hold onto while it rose, so they had to keep as still as possible. Well… two of them did.

"Hey, this lift is pretty cool!" said Selene, peering over the edge.

"Don't get too excited, or you'll fall," Wulffast said with a chuckle.

"Like I'm really going to!"

"Major Renald!" said Lieutenant Maddox loudly, trying to draw the major's attention.

In front of him Major Renald, commander of the Arcton Invasion Force, grunted irritably. The major was hard at work at finishing off the repairs to the tower's outer control panel. Years of neglect had left the panel in a state of disrepair, as was much of the old Communication Tower. Many of the wires were rusted and exposed, and knobs and dials had fallen off. The major had protested vehemently when he was informed that he would be in charge of conducting the repairs to the old tower. Still, orders were orders. However, the major made sure that his soldiers suffered just as much as he was. He paid no attention to the lieutenant behind him.

Lieutenant Maddox tried again. "There have been reports of a monster-shaped shadow on top of the tower," he said. He waited to see the major's response. Major Renald, however, did not reply. "Major Renald!"

"Be quiet!" the major snapped, without turning. "I'm busy!"

Maddox flinched, startled. Major Renald looked down at the portable control panel in his hand, comparing the details on the screen with the console in front of him.

"This goes like this…" the major muttered to himself, fiddling with the dials. "And… Geez, what's with these crappy old tools?" He bent down to pick up a rusted screwdriver. Thrusting it into the console, he tried to pry out a knot of old wires. Flecks of red rust came off the wires as he fiddled about, covering his gloves. "And… and… Why do I have to make all the repairs!" he shouted, angry.

At that exact moment the console shuddered and crackled with electricity. The sparks danced over the console and onto the major's hands. Major Renald cried out in shock, dropping the screwdriver. "AHHH!" he cried, cradling his hands.

Lieutenant Maddox shuffled nervously. Major Renald was a terrifying man to be around when he was in a bad mood. Which, unfortunately, was most of the time. Just as unfortunately, Blackwald soldiers could lose a month's pay just because their superior was in a bad mood. Best to leave Major Renald alone, Maddox decided wisely.

"Sir, I'll check around while the repairs are being done," he said, knowing he was not being heard. The lieutenant then quickly turned and to explore the rest of the tower.

Major Renald did not hear him, or even acknowledge his departure. The major carried on with his repairs, reattaching the broken and rusted wires.

"Let's see… Hmmm…" he muttered to himself. He took two wire ends and twisted them carefully around each other, re-establishing the connection between them. After making sure they would not come apart, he placed them back with the other wires. Then he picked up a broken dial knob and slotted it back into place. "Put this here…" He tugged it a few times to make sure it wouldn't come off. "And…"

And so he went on with his work. In fact Major Renald was so engrossed in his work that he did not notice when the lift carrying Malthus, Wulffast and Selene came up behind him. Nor did he notice when the students ran out onto the outer grid.

"This goes here…" the major continued, oblivious to the stares of the three students behind him. "And… There, it's complete!" He pushed a button on the panel and then slammed the door shut.

A loud hum rumbled from deep within the Communication Tower. Malthus, Wulffast and Selene stared around them as the tower began to vibrate, causing the gridded plating beneath their feet to tremble. The trembling grew stronger—they could feel it in their bones—and Selene watched in awe as a spanner from the toolbox began to dance along the grid, shaken about by the hum. It moved along the grid until it reached a gap in the floor. It fell through the gap and tumbled downwards. It clanged against a metal beam and then fell to the ocean at the foot of the cliff.

Inside the tower everything was coming alive. Machinery that had lain dormant for nearly twenty years activated and rumbled with life. Lights flicked on and lit up the darkened corridors. More lights lit up along the outside. It was amazing that everything still worked even after all these years. Switches flicked and dials turned. In the bowels of the tower a shaft opened, releasing a metal tube. The tube surged up the shaft, heading for the surface.

Malthus heard its approach and turned in time to see the tube shoot up out of the tower. It came to a stop above him and clamps closed over it, holding it in place. There was a moment's pause. Then lights flickered on and the tube tilted sideways into an angle, its tip pointed up at the sky. It opened up like a flower, extending three long metal bars. These bars suddenly spread out and joined with one another, creating a large, flat disc. The disc curved over and Malthus realised at once what it was: the missing satellite dish.

He watched as numerous antennae emerged from the centre of the dish and extended outwards. They crackled and buzzed and the air itself seemed to come alive, pulsing with energy. It made the hairs on their arms and necks stand on end. Three smaller satellite dishes gathered around the main one also began to crackle, sending their own signals. The transformation was complete: the tower was active.

The Blackwald major was staring up at the transmitting satellite dish, pleased. Now the Blackwalds could achieve their goal. He hadn't even noticed Malthus or his group.

Malthus tore his eyes away from the satellite dish and ran forward to the major. "What do you think you're doing!" he demanded.

Major Renald also tore his eyes away from the dish and looked at Malthus. "Huhhhh?" he said in confusion. He then puffed himself up and assumed an authoritative stance. "Likewise, MISTER!" he retorted hotly. "What do you think you're doing!"

The major then paused as he realised, suddenly, that these kids should not be here at all. "H-HEY! What happened to all the soldiers down below!" he asked. He jabbed his finger at them. "MADDOX!" he commanded. "Take care of these twerps!"

He received no answer. Lieutenant Maddox was nowhere to be seen. Major Renald glanced around nervously, realising, for the first time, that he as alone here.

"M…Maddox?" he repeated, almost meekly.

His eyes flitted from student to student. He glanced at Wulffast, who flashed him a smug grin as he crossed one leg over the other and flexed his fists. He then turned to Selene, who placed her hands behind her back and smiled innocently. Lastly he looked at Malthus, who placed a hand on his hip and gave him a firm stare. The major's eyes drifted down to their uniforms and the symbol on their right sleeves. Recognition dawned in the major's eyes, and he gulped loudly.

"I… ah…" he stammered. His fingers drummed against the console he was holding. "Well… ah… I seem to be done here, so I'll just be on my…"

The major then began to shuffle slowly forwards, step by step, past the students. Malthus, Wulffast and Selene turned with him, watching him go. "Move it!" the major said, though his commanding tone had gone. "Move… move…"

He continued to shuffle until he reached the lift, which was just rising back to the top floor. Malthus couldn't recall seeing it go back down, but when it did come back up it brought Zikael with it. The major had his back to Zikael and so didn't notice him. Zikael stepped off the lift and swung his sword, catching the major's hand. Major Renald cried out and cradled his hand. His console clattered onto the floor.

"Sorry to crash the party," said Zikael casually. Wulffast tightened his fists.

Major Renald, still cradling his hand, stepped back in alarm. "Ah… AHH… AHHHH!" he cried. "Are you CRAZY!"

Zikael ignored the question and spat on the ground. "Just shut UP."

He raised his sword. Seeing the raised weapon, Major Renald turned and ran across the outer grid. He brushed past Wulffast, making him stagger against the wall, and ran to the console where he had been working. He picked up a rusty metal bar from the floor and held it in both hands like a club.

"Prepare for the worst, you brats!" he shouted loudly, and then charged at them.

He charged at Malthus first, hoping to knock the student off the tower. Malthus jumped back as the major swung the metal bar, narrowly missing his face. He landed against Zikael, who shoved him aside and then darted forward. Malthus staggered back, coming perilously close to the edge of the platform. Quickly Selene grabbed his hand and pulled him back.

The major swung his bar at Zikael, who raised his sword to block the blow. To Zikael's right Wulffast tried to move in for an attack, but Zikael thrust out his hand and pushed him back. He flashed Wulffast a glance and his message was clear: stay out of my way.

The swordsman advanced on the Blackwald major. He swung his sword in large, sweeping arcs, forcing the major back. In one arc the sharp blade sliced across the metal gridding. Sparks rose from where metal scraped along metal, and a long scratch was left in the sword's wake.

Major Renald used his metal bar to block the repeated blows. When the blade clanged against the bar it sent shudders all down his arms, but he held firm. Each blow left a dent in the metal, a dent that grew bigger with each strike. Eventually the bar snapped in two, unable to take the strain.

Zikael grinned and brought his sword down hard. Seeing this, Major Renald hurriedly crossed the two pieces in front of him. The blade smashed into the bars but did not cut through, and Zikael began to press down on them, trying make them snap. The major was at a disadvantage, having to use both arms to keep the sword at bay. He dropped down onto one knee to support himself, continuing to push back.

"Major Renald… Have you finished the repairs, sir?"

Malthus looked up. From behind the main console where the major had been working emerged Lieutenant Maddox. The lieutenant paused. When he saw his commander on his knees with Zikael's sword just inches from his head, he jumped back in alarm.

"What is the enemy doing here!" he cried, stepping out.

Zikael glanced up and cursed in irritation at the interruption. He pressed down harder on his sword, bringing the blade close to the glass of the major's helmet. Thin lines of metal peeled off the bars as the blade sliced through them. Major Renald grunted loudly and pushed back with all his strength, keeping Zikael at bay.

"MADDOX!" he bellowed through gritted teeth. "Where were you!" He flashed the lieutenant a scathing glance over his shoulder. "No pay for you this month!"

At this Lieutenant Maddox flinched, already feeling the loss in his wallet. "…Should've stayed home," he grumbled miserably. He shook his head. Then he drew his sword from its sheath and ran forward to support his commander.

Before he could reach Major Renald, however, another figure suddenly appeared in front of him and struck him a powerful blow on the front of his helmet. The lieutenant staggered back, startled, clutching his cracked visor. He looked up to see Wulffast standing in front of him. The fighter cracked his knuckles and walked forward. Malthus walked alongside him, his gunblade drawn and glinting in the afternoon light.

Lieutenant Maddox stepped back, and then stopped. He shook his head. What was he getting so worked up for? These were kids! This was probably their first battle. The one in the white trenchcoat looked like he posed a threat, but these others… The lieutenant smiled. He grasped his sword in both hands and charged.

Wulffast started to go forward but Malthus ran past him and met the lieutenant head-on. They clashed blades, which flashed as they caught the sun's light. Both men put all their weight into their blades, each trying to force the other back. Malthus proved to be the stronger of the two and pushed the lieutenant back. He staggered back, tripped over the toolbox, and fell back onto the floor. His sword fell next to him.

Then Wulffast was on him, punching him repeatedly in the face and chest. Somehow he managed to catch those powerful fists and pushed Wulffast back. Then he sat up, reached out and grabbed his sword. He swung hit and Wulffast rolled back and onto his feet. Maddox did the same, rising to his feet and briefly glanced over at his commander. His eyes widened.

Malthus ran up and thrust out his sword, and Maddox barely had time to raise his and blow the blow. Sparks rose from the clashing blades, and they resumed their previous battle. This time it was Maddox who proved himself the stronger and forced Malthus back.

The swordsman recovered his balance quickly. When he looked up the lieutenant was rushing towards him with his blade thrust out. Malthus quickly dived out of the way and rolled. Maddox passed him and carried on running. Only then did Malthus realise Maddox's true objective: his commander.

Major Renald was still locked in a fierce confrontation with Zikael: a confrontation that had ended up with Major Renald being perilously close to the edge of the platform. Zikael had him on the ropes and was driving him back with his sword, fully prepared to send the major falling over the edge. Seeing this, Maddox had altered his attack so that he would end up charging at Zikael in an attempt to rescue his commander.

Something flashed in front of him. Maddox only got the briefest of glimpses of it: a long wooden bar with golden studs, attached to a chain… It wrapped around the blade of his sword and then tugged hard. Maddox was pulled off his feet. He slammed hard into the ground, still holding his sword. He rolled close to Zikael, who jumped back out of the way. Major Renald jumped over him, not caring, and ran forward to continue fighting his opponent.

Maddox shook his head and started to rise to his feet. A boot then slammed down on his hand, causing him to cry out. He looked up. Selene—he had forgotten there was a fourth one—was standing over him. With a flick of her wrist the Flail detached itself from the lieutenant's blade and returned to her hand. Holding both bars, she tapped it nonchalantly against her shoulder, an innocent grin on her face.

A pair of strong hands grabbed the lieutenant's shoulders and hefted him roughly to his feet. He was spun around and then keeled over as Wulffast delivered a swift and powerful punch to the gut. The lieutenant coughed, winded. Wulffast then grabbed his helmet and pulled his head back up. He punched the visor, smashing it completely, and Maddox cried out as the fist connected with his cheekbone.

Maddox staggered back. He fell back onto the gridding. A sharp pain shot up his arm; he had a dislocated bone in his right hand where Selene had stamped on him. There was a flash of movement and Maddox scrabbled back, just as Malthus's sword came smashing down in front of him. The lieutenant stopped by the repaired console and leaned against it, cradling his injured hand.

He heard a loud grunt and Major Renald came staggering back to stand beside him. He had lost the metal bars he had been using as a weapon. He now fiddled with the mechanism on his right arm. Maddox looked at him and then at the four White wing students, who were walking towards them.

"Major!" the lieutenant cried, turning back to his commander. "We're doomed!"

Major Renald didn't even spare him a glance. "Stop your whining!" he snapped.

He turned to Maddox and spread his hands. A fluorescent green light passed over them and then descended onto the lieutenant. His armour sparkled as the light passed straight through and entered his body. His breathing became easier and there was a gentle, painless crack in his hand as a finger bone slid back into place. The cuts on his face from the broken visor healed. Maddox looked down at his hand and flexed his fingers. There was no pain. He was healed.

Malthus paused. Of course, he had almost forgotten: Blackwald soldiers could also use para-magic. He was also willing to bet that they had more para-magic up their sleeves than just healing magic. But it would be dangerous to use magic up here, with all of this equipment around them. He was sure the Blackwalds would not take such a risk.

Apparently he thought wrong, for when Major Renald had finished fiddling with his arm mechanism he raised it and pointed it at the students. He closed his fist, and a cloud of flame began to form around it. With his free hand he pressed a button on the mechanism and it opened fire, releasing a barrage of bullets. The bullets were coated in a special material, so that when they passed through the flames they caught fire. These fiery bullets headed towards the four students.

Malthus, Wulffast and Selene leaped back as the flame-covered bullets came zipping towards them. Many zipped harmlessly past. One bullet, however, caught Wulffast's forearm and cut a burning gash in the flesh. The fighter gripped his burned arm and dropped onto his knees. Malthus hurriedly darted in front and guarded him with his blade, shielding him from the advancing bullets.

Zikael, meanwhile, had not budged. He was completely unafraid by the fiery barrage flying around him. After blocking a few rounds with his sword he charged forward, a dangerous glint in his eye.

He charged at the major, who stopped firing and used his gun-arm armour to block the gunblade's attack. Lieutenant Maddox finally got back to his feet and ran in to attack from behind, but Malthus was faster and blocked the lieutenant's blade with his own.

And so the confrontation continued. The two Blackwald soldiers together proved a formidable pair, giving back as much as they received. Though outnumbered two-to-one, their skill and experience gave them a distinct edge.

Then, something strange happened. As the two groups separated, pausing to catch their breath, a strong breeze started to blow. It grew stronger, whipping around them. Malthus looked around him, trying to find the source of the sudden wind.

A loud roar—the roar of the wind—came from above them. Malthus looked up. A tornado had formed, rising from behind the satellite dish. It twisted in midair and descended upon the Blackwald major. Major Renald looked up in alarm as he was surrounded by the strong, swirling wind.

"What the…!" he cried.

The wind grew stronger, and before Major Renald knew what was happening, he was lifted up off the ground. The wind carried him up, spinning him in its rapid current. He rose higher and higher before finally emerging from of the cyclone. He sailed over the students and slammed into the grid behind them. He rolled, once, and then stopped.

The tornado then moved and passed over Maddox. The lieutenant's eyes widened in fright as the wind settled over him. He felt its strong pull on his body and he too was lifted into the air. His sword was wrenched from his hand and went flying dangerously through the air. It was blown out of the cyclone and went tumbling over the edge of the grid, falling down towards the ocean below.

"Ahhhhhh!" Maddox cried, as he found himself also being thrown through the air. He landed heavily on the gridding alongside his commander. He hit his head hard and lost consciousness almost immediately, rolling to a stop close to the major.

The tornado was still swirling. It stayed there for a few more moments before it thinned and dissipated. Zikael stepped forward, looking at the spot where the two soldiers had been standing just moments before.

A piercing screech sounded overhead. Wulffast looked up. When he saw the source of that screech his eyes widened in alarm, his pupils widening.

"What the hell is it!"

Chapter Six: The beautifull Siren

At Wulffast's cry, Malthus and the others looked up. A dark shadow passed over them, originating from a large and burly creature that had just risen up from behind the satellite dish. Its appearance was so sudden that Selene cried out in alarm. The creature flew over them and began to descend, floating on large, leathery wings.

The monster was called Banewing. It was a great winged beast, so large it towered over Malthus and his companions. The monster lived inside the abandoned Tower and had done so for many years, though no one knew for sure where it had come from originally. The citizens of Arcton were aware of its existence, and that was why nobody came to the Tower anymore. No one dared to disturb the nest of the creature that had made the Tower its home. With stretched, leathery flesh, giant claws on equally giant hands, and a sharp stinger sticking out of a tough, rock-like tail, Banewing was a terrifying sight.

Its face was mostly hidden by an elongated attached to its lower jaw. The only parts of its face visible were its burrowing forehead and cold white eyes. These eyes bored into them, brimming with hunger and malice, as the monster descended and settled in front of them, hovering off the ground. Its wings beat steadily, sending a breeze across the Tower.

"What the hell is it!" shouted Wulffast again.

At first, no one responded. Then Zikael raised his blade and pointed it at the beast. "Who cares?" he said. "Just take it down!"

With that, Zikael charged at Banewing. The monster moved forward and swiped its massive hand across the platform. Zikael dodged past the claws and swung his sword. The tip scraped across the rock-like tail, cutting a long, thin gash. Banewing screeched in annoyance and moved in for another attack.

Wulffast watched as Zikael began to duck and dodge past Banewing's sweeping hands. "You're kidding…!" the fighter breathed. He looked at Malthus. The swordsman said nothing, but nodded his head silently. Behind him, Selene raised her nunchaku. Wulffast stared at them both, sighed, and ran over to join them. He couldn't deny it for long: he too wanted a chance at fighting this monster.

Malthus raised his sword and broke into a run, charging at the monster. He ran past Zikael and approached the monster. He swung his blade. The blade struck the monster's tail hard, and Malthus grunted as he felt the shock of the blow shoot up his arms. The tail's hard surface was tougher than he had expected, and the blade left barely more than a scrape.

Banewing looked down at him. It's cold, pupilless eyes fixed on his. Looking straight into those eyes, Malthus froze for a brief moment. But in that brief moment, when their eyes connected, the swordsman felt the strangest sensation. It was as though in that instant when their eyes met, a second set of eyes looked out and peered at him.

Banewing swept its long arm across the platform. Malthus broke their gaze and jumped back. He skidded to a stop and gazed up at the monster. Was the Banewing possessed? No… Monsters that were possessed emitted a different aura. This one was not possessed. So what was this feeling…?

He had little time to ponder this, for Banewing was once again on the move. The monster surged forward and swept its arms across the platform again. It hit Wulffast, who had run in from the side, and sent him flying back into Zikael. As the two struggled and threw heated words at each other Banewing turned from them and continued its advance on Malthus. The swordsman raised his sword, ready to attack.

The monster thrust out its hand with the intent to swipe Malthus off the platform. Before it could reach him, however, Selene ran in and swung her nunchaku. The Flail whipped around one of the monster's long claws and then snapped tight with a loud THWACK! The young woman pulled with all her might, preventing the arm from moving.

Banewing's eyes turned to her, its face angered. Selene ignored its gaze and placed her hand on the claw's rugged surface.

"Blizzard!" she shouted.

The air around her grew chill. Banewing stared in confusion as ice began to form underneath the girl's palm and spread out along its claw. Selene flicked her wrist and released her nunchaku as the ice began to spread rapidly. It moved along the claw and onto the monster's hand. Banewing screeched at the burning cold. The ice grew thicker and then spread onto the ground, closing around the gridded floor. The monster was trapped.

Banewing flapped its wings and attempted to pull back. The ice was continuing to grow and was spreading up its arm towards its left shoulder. The monster shrieked, panicked by its sudden entrapment, and tried to pull its arm out of the ice. However, the ice was thick and refused to shatter. The monster resorted to beating its free arm violently against the ice, but still it refused to break. The ice was strong, and Banewing could not break free.

Seeing his chance to strike, Wulffast ran forward and leaped onto the monster's arm. He dodged one of the frantic blows and charged up to the monster's face. Banewing was uglier up close: Wulffast could smell its foul breath on his face. He ignored the foul scent and drew back his fist. With all his might, he punched and delivered a crushing blow to the monster's jutting jaw.

There was a painful crack, as Wulffast's knuckles connected with the exterior jaw. The monster's head was thrown sideways and chunks of flesh, ripped from the bone by Wulffast's studded gloves, went flying through the air.

For a short moment Banewing froze, overcome by the sudden blow. Then, realising that its jaw had not broken, it snapped its head back around and glared fiercely at Wulffast. Raising its arm, it swept Wulffast off its shoulder in a single blow and sent the fighter hurtling towards the ground.

Malthus ran in to catch him. The fighter slammed into him, and the two men went tumbling backwards. Wulffast groaned as he climbed off, and shook his head. Malthus meanwhile rolled onto his front. He groped about for his sword, which he had dropped during their tumble.

"Hey! What's-your-names? Look out!"

At the sound of Selene's voice, Malthus and Wulffast looked up. Banewing was right behind them, its wings beating steadily to keep it in the air. Its tail was poised and ready, with the stinger pointing straight at them. Razor sharp and about the same length as a human arm, it was a deadly weapon.

Without warning, Banewing thrust its stinger forward. Malthus and Wulffast quickly rolled away from each other. The stinger hit the metal gridding with a dull clang. Wulffast rolled clear and climbed back onto his feet. He raised his fists, ready to fight back.

But Banewing was no longer paying any attention to Wulffast. The beast was advancing on Malthus, who was cornered against the edge of the platform. With no wall behind him, the only exit was straight down into the ocean below.

Banewing raised its stinger and thrust it out again. The swordsman quickly raised his blade. The stinger struck the blade's edge, swerving off-course just enough to send it slamming into the gridding by Malthus's feet. Banewing roared in annoyance. It raised its large, clawed hand, and sparks of electric energy began to flicker around its hand. Thunder magic. Malthus braced himself for the blow.

There was a flash, followed by a loud KER-CRACK! Malthus's body tensed up, preparing himself for the intense shock. Except it never came. Malthus opened his eyes and looked up at the figure now standing in front of him.

It was Zikael. At the instant the Thunder magic was released, Zikael had run in front of Malthus and raised his sword. Using it like an electric rod, he had absorbed the magical blast. Electric sparks danced over the blade and up Zikael's arm to his shoulder. The swordsman lowered his arm and circled it to loosen up his muscles.

"Get up!" Zikael snapped, grunting as he flexed his tightened muscles. He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes narrowing. "If you aren't going to make yourself useful," he added in a cold tone, "then get out of the way!"

Malthus glared back at him, and then pushed himself back onto his feet. Looking past Zikael, he saw that Wulffast and Selene were fighting together to drive Banewing back against the wall of the Tower. Wulffast punched and kicked, and when he pulled back Selene unleashed another round of Ice attacks. Banewing was more wary of her now, and made sure to dodge. Seeing that her ice attacks were being dodged, Selene switched tactics and began to use Fire magic instead. She was very gifted at magic.

Seeing Malthus back on his feet, Zikael smirked and ran off to rejoin the battle. Seeing that mocking smirk, Malthus felt his face burn. Quickly he swallowed to regain control of himself. What Zikael thought didn't matter. Still, a part of him couldn't help but feel angered…

Gripping his sword tightly, Malthus ran back into the battle. The monster was now backed up against the wall, driven back by Wulffast and Selene. It screeched angrily as its wings scraped against the wall. It swung its arms, narrowly missing Wulffast and Selene, who both jumped back. That was a mistake. Seeing them supposedly withdrawing, Banewing surged forward.

Suddenly it stopped. Its eyes widened. It hovered in the air, frozen, with its arms outstretched. In front of the beast was Zikael, his sword embedded in the monster's rocky tail. The swordsman twisted the blade and the hardened flesh cracked further. Banewing screeched, agonised. Blood poured out of the wound, thick and slow.

Zikael started to withdraw his blade, but then thrust it in again for a second brutal stab. Again Banewing screeched and threw its arms into the air. The monster started to bring its arms down to brush Zikael aside, but then stopped and shrieked for a third time as a second blade—Malthus's—sank into its tail from the side.

Malthus gritted his teeth as he pushed the blade further into the tail. The rocky casing that protected it was thick and difficult to cut through. Malthus put all his weight into the blade, forcing it deeper. Banewing started to writhe and the two swordsmen quickly withdrew their blades. They drew back. As they stepped back Selene started to go forward, but Zikael pushed her roughly backwards and charged at the monster.

He swung his sword. Banewing pulled away at the last minute and the sword sailed harmlessly past. Before Zikael could recover, the monster reached out a hand and closed its claws around the man's body.

"Zikael!" called Malthus.

"Squad B captain!" cried Selene, from the ground where she had fallen.

Wulffast helped her onto her feet. They watched helplessly as Banewing lifted Zikael off the ground. The swordsman kicked and struggled, trying to break free of its grip. The claws tightened, cutting into his jacket, and Zikael gasped. He pushed back against the claws that kept his arms pinned to his sides, but his efforts were fruitless. The claws tightened further, forcing Zikael's hands open. His blade fell from his grasp and clattered onto the ground.

Banewing lifted Zikael higher, over its head. With a roar the monster then hurled him at them, as easily as if he were a doll. Wulffast pulled Selene aside as Zikael came flying past and hit the ground where they had been standing. Malthus looked back at him. Zikael lay still for a moment, and then rolled onto his front, groaning. He was okay.

A screech turned Malthus's attention back to Banewing. The monster's long, jutting jaw lowered as its mouth opened wide. It began to suck in air, and Malthus watched as its ribcage expanded to almost twice its normal size. Just when he thought the monster could not possibly hold anymore, Banewing paused and then let it all back out again in a single, powerful gust.

The air hit them in full force. It formed into a whirlwind, and when it touched the ground the gridded platform shook violently. The three students braced themselves as the wind whipped around them, pulling and tugging at them. Malthus suddenly remembered the two Blackwald soldiers, blown away by the same whipping wind. The swordsman spread out his legs and held his sword out in front of him, trying to block the ferocious wind.

There was a loud cry behind him and Malthus turned. It was the girl, Selene. The wind had caught hold of her and sent her staggering back to the edge of the platform. She stood at the very edge, her arms flailing. Wulffast left his place and hurried over to her. He grabbed hold of her hand just as she started to fall back, pulling her to safety. The two then dropped down onto their knees, bracing themselves against the wind.

After a few more moments the wind dissipated, as Banewing finished expelling the excess air from its lungs. When it saw that Malthus and the others were still standing, the monster roared in rage. Clearly it had not expected them to be still standing after its most powerful assault.

Malthus glanced around him. Wulffast and Selene were still on the ground recovering from the windblast. He could not see Zikael from his current position. It was just him and Banewing. The monster was hovering hesitantly, pondering its next move. Malthus did not want to give it the chance to decide. He readied his blade, preparing to charge.

Then he paused. Once again, he felt something… strange, as he looked up at the monster. Malthus lowered his sword and gazed up at Banewing. He looked into its eyes. There it was again: that flicker of intelligence that did not come from Banewing, but from something else. What was it…?

Then the answer came to him, so suddenly that Malthus could almost have kicked himself. He realised it when he felt a flicker of energy shift within him, inside his soul. That flicker came from the Familiar spirits he had bonded with. The monster Banewing must also have a FS living inside of it, and was reacting to the battle.

Banewing seemed to have made up its mind, for it suddenly surged forward. Malthus ducked and rolled as the monster flew overhead. The moment it passed Malthus rose to his feet. He held his sword ready before him, his eyes narrowing in determination.

He wanted that Familiar Spirit.

Banewing turned back to face him. It had forgotten about Wulffast and Selene, who were more than happy to use the distraction to run away from the platform's edge. It focused all of its attention on Malthus, and started to advance once again.

The monster swung its arm. Malthus dodged the sweeping claws and then charged. He called out with his mind; calling out to the FS's he had within him to lend him their strength. Only one FS responded: the FS Ifrit.

The fiery FS's energy swept throughout his body like swift-moving storm. It surged through him, filling every part of him and bolstering his strength. His muscles burned and his blood felt like it was about to boil over. He felt Ifrit's presence with him, urging him onward.

Malthus stopped before the FS. He drew back his blade and, with Ifrit's added strength, thrust the blade up into the monster's chest.

The blade pierced Banewing's chest. It cut right through the tough flesh and sank deep. Bone cracked, and Banewing screeched in pain. At the end of its cry it breathed in, and Malthus could hear its breath rattling in its lungs. The monster screeched again. Its screech was hoarse and raspy, and flecks of blood appeared on its mouth. The monster flailed its arms, screeching in agony.

Malthus pulled out his sword. The red-hot fever that had overtaken him seconds before now faded, leaving him cool. Silently, he thanked the FS for his aid and then turned to face the writhing Banewing.

He placed his hand against the monster's tail. He took a deep breath. He let it out and closed his eyes. Reaching out with his mind, he called out to the Familiar Spirit living inside of Banewing. With the monster wounded, on the verge of death, he would draw out the FS and make it his own.

Come to me, he thought.

At the edge of his consciousness, he felt the FS's presence. Malthus beckoned to it, urging it to come forth. The FS responded and poured out of Banewing, abandoning its dying host. Malthus felt its spirit flow into him and merge with his own.

Only once the transference was complete did the FS finally reveal itself. In his mind's eye he saw a humanlike woman, tall and slender and with long, flowing hair the colour of gold. Two long wings protruded from her head, the same shade as her hair, their golden feathers rustling on their own. Her face was remarkably beautiful, smooth as marble, but it was her eyes that were the most amazing. They were bright green and hypnotising to look at. She held Malthus's gaze.

"I am Siren." Her voice was silent inside his mind. "You who defeated Banewing… My power is now yours. Use it well."

With that, the FS's image disappeared. The bond was complete, and Siren was now his. Malthus removed his hand from Banewing's tail. The monster was still writhing in pain, but it was not dead yet. Malthus raised his sword over his head, preparing to deliver the final blow.

Before he could strike, Banewing gave an agonised screech. Its body stiffened. The flesh of its stomach swelled and then split open. Malthus stared in amazement as the tip of a sword appeared through the slit. It was Zikael's sword. During the transference the swordsman had sneaked around behind the writhing monster and stabbed him, quite literally, in the back.

Malthus lowered his gunblade and stepped back. Zikael pulled out his sword and he too stepped back. The monster, floating between them, began to twitch and shudder. As they watched flames began to erupt from within it, bursting out in small explosions all over its body. The monster shrieked and roared as flames and smoke rose around it, tearing its body apart.

Banewing beat its wings, trying to put out the rapidly rising flames. It flew backwards until it passed over the edge of the platform. There its strength finally gave out and Banewing fell from the Tower. It plummeted, still ablaze, down towards the rocks and the ocean below. It landed with a splash in the churning seas. Then it was gone.

Silence returned to the Tower. It continued for long moments. Then Zikael pulled a cloth from his trouser pocket and began to clean the blood from his sword. As he cleaned he looked up at Malthus and flashed him a self-satisfied look. Malthus stared back at him. Clearly Zikael was pleased that he had delivered the final blow and not Malthus. Without saying a word, Malthus calmly sheathed his gunblade. The monster was defeated, and that was all that mattered. Zikael, amused by Malthus's apparent indifference, finished cleaning his sword and put the cloth away.

With Zikael in one place for the moment, Selene took her chance. She jumped over a gap in the gridding and walked up to him. "Squad B Captain?"

Zikael grunted and did not look at her. Selene tried again, raising her voice to ensure that he had heard her. "'Scuse me! I had new orders!"

At this Zikael sighed and turned to face her. Now that she finally had his attention, Selene cleared her throat and stood at attention. "All White wing members and White wing candidates are to withdraw at 1900 hours," she reported. "Assemble at the shore!"

"Withdraw!" Zikael shouted in protest. "There are still enemies around!"

"I know, but I'm just a messenger," said Selene.

"An order to withdraw takes priority," Malthus said. "I don't want to miss the vessel."

Again, Zikael sighed. He could not believe that the order to withdraw had been given already, when things were only just getting interesting. Still, as much as he hated to admit it, the order did take priority. He looked over at Selene. "What time d'you say?" he asked her.

"Like I said…! All White wing members and White wing candidates are to withdraw at 1900 hours. Assemble at the shore!"

Zikael glanced down at his watch. It was almost 18:30. "1900 hours… We only have 30 minutes!" He walked to the edge of the platform and pointed down at the shore with his sword. The beach was just visible beyond a rocky outcrop. There the White wing vessels waited for them. "You got 30 minutes to get down to the shore! Better run!"

'You'? Malthus raised an eyebrow. What did he mean by that?

Before he could ask, Zikael suddenly darted to the lift and punched the console. The lift started to go down, carrying Zikael with it.

"Heeey!" cried Selene. She ran to the edge and looked down. "Wait for us!"

But Zikael did not wait. Instead he leered up at them as the lift carried him down. Once again, he was leaving them behind. As he disappeared into the shadows, Wulffast folded his arms and frowned.

"Who the hell does he think he is!" he demanded, looking at Malthus.

"Why don't you ask him…" Malthus answered with a sigh. He turned away. "Let's go."

Selene nodded and stepped up to the edge, waiting for the lift. After a moment Wulffast joined her. His fists were still shaking, and his jaw was clenched tight.

Malthus turned from them and looked around. The two Blackwald soldiers, Major Renald and Lieutenant Maddox, were still lying unconscious on the ground. Malthus wondered if they should do something about them and about the satellite dish, which was still transmitting overhead. But dealing with the soldiers and deactivating the dish would take time, and they had already received the order to withdraw. Best to let the Arcton military deal with the rest, Malthus decided. They had to leave.

After a minute the lift came back up. Zikael at least had the consideration to send it back up to them. When it stopped the three students piled on. Wulffast punched the button and the lift started to descend, taking them back down.

Moments after the lift went down one of the two Blackwald soldiers came around. Major Renald groaned as he pushed himself back onto his knees. His head pounded. When he tried to stand his vision swam and he almost passed out again. The major dropped back onto his knees and pressed his hands against his helmet, moaning.

When the fog finally cleared, Major Renald looked up and glanced around the Tower. The Tower was still active, but there was no sign of the three students. The major cursed under his breath. How could he have allowed himself to be so easily defeated… and by a group of teenagers, no less. If he allowed them to escape, then his reputation as a Blackwald Major would surely be tarnished. For that alone he could not—would not—allow them to escape.

With that thought in mind, the major fought back against the overwhelming wooziness and began to crawl across the floor. He crawled, little by little, until he reached his handheld console. The console was lying by the main control panel, where he had dropped it. Fighting against his blurry vision and aching head, he reached out and picked it up.

"Those little twerps are the targets!" he grunted. He began to hit buttons on the console. It beeped, and Major Renald thrust his arm into the air. "Now GO!" he roared. "Go and DESTROY them!"

Another wave of dizziness overcame him. His vision went black. The panel slipped from his hands, which fell limp at his side. Major Renald slumped forward onto the ground and moved no more.

Somewhere, on the other side of the Tower, there was a loud, mechanical thud.

Chapter Seven: Escape out of Arcton

Malthus, Selene, and Wulffast came out of the tower. Suddenly they heard clanging. They looked up to see a giant shape climbing over the grating of the tower. Suddenly it jerked and jumped down onto the path. The three stepped back, but were not quick enough as it attacked.

Wulffast cast lightning on the robot and it shuddered a little. Malthus tried to attack it with his gunblade, but it glanced off on the side.

"It's weak against lightning!" Malthus said.

Wulffast cast lightning again and the robot collapsed. "Let's get the hell outta here!" he shouted. The three turned and ran as fast as they could. Suddenly, they heard the robot behind them again.

"I thought we took care of that thing," Malthus said. They kept running. They were almost past the bridge when the robot leapt in front of them. Malthus stepped back. The robot shout out its arms and scraped Selene across the abdomen.

"Cure," Malthus said. A green light covered Selene and her wound healed up.

"Time to end this madness," Wulffast said. He stepped forward and the magical aura surrounded him. He thrust out his hand. The familiar cloud gathered over the robot. Zinogre formed a dome of lightning and a huge bolt plummeted down onto the robot, frying it's wiring. Wulffast faded back in.

They could still hear whirring in the robot. "We should run," Wulffast said.

They turned and ran into the city. They were running down a street when the robot came after them again. They kept running. The robot smashed through some unfortunate person's car and kept on. The road curved ahead and they ran as fast as they could. They passed the pub again.

"Squad C withdraw!" Selene shouted and the cadets came running out. The robot was almost on them. It jumped onto the landing above the pub. Still they kept running.

They were almost at the beach. Suddenly, the robot slammed through a wall behind Malthus. He tried to run as fast as he could. He had to turn to reach the stair. Suddenly the robot slammed into him. The robots frame crashed through a wall and Malthus landed on the beach with a thud. He climbed to his feet. The robot raised itself out of the sand and pursued Malthus. Suddenly, bullets ripped forward and started slamming into the robot. Malthus looked up to see Lucas at the Cruiser's machine gun. He gritted his teeth as he fired at the robot.

Malthus leapt into the back of the cruiser as the door closed. The last thing he saw before the doors shut completely was the bullet ridden machine exploding on the beach.

Chapter Eight: The dance

Back in the port of Nexus, Malthus, Wulffast and Selene stood patiently on the docks, waiting for Instructor Krimlan. The rest of the students, including Selene's own squad, were already on their way back to Nexus Garden. The vessels now stood at the docks, waiting to be taken back to Garden's own hidden dock on the eastern side of the continent.

After a few minutes the ship's hatch opened and Zikael came strolling boldly out. At the sight of him Wulffast's fists clenched and he started to go forward, but Malthus thrust out his hand and blocked him. Wulffast looked at him, and the swordsman shook his head. Getting into a fight with Zikael was pointless. So, as much as he hated to do so, Wulffast lowered his fists and stepped back.

"ZIKAEL!"

Gisela and Keegan ran up and stopped in front of Zikael. Malthus raised an eyebrow, but he was not all that surprised to see them here. The two of them must have come to Nexus after Zikael left, waiting for him to return. The disciplinary committee disobeying orders as usual, Malthus thought to himself.

"How'd it go?" Keegan asked him.

At first Zikael did not reply. He turned his head and glanced over at Malthus. A twisted, mocking smile formed on his lips. Seeing it, Malthus folded his arms and looked away. Zikael turned his attention away from Malthus and back to his friends. He spoke loudly, making sure that Malthus and the others could hear him clearly.

"Man… All they did was get in my way," he said. "Being a leader ain't easy."

Gisela frowned. "SAFE?" she asked, an uncharacteristic look of concern on her face.

Zikael did not reply. He simply shrugged. To him the whole affair had been nothing, like a walk in the park. Gisela's expression relaxed and Keegan nodded in satisfaction.

Wulffast, on the other hand, was far from satisfied. Thinking of the way Zikael had behaved during the exam made his anger swell up inside of him. His jaw clenched and his fists shook. His face turned red and the veins on his neck pulsed. It took every ounce of his self-control to keep him from going to Zikael and punching him right in the face. Even Selene scowled and placed her hands on her hips.

Pleased with the reaction he had created, Zikael walked past Keegan and Gisela and headed for the Garden car. Gisela and Keegan glanced at each other, nodded, and then ran on ahead. Keegan climbed into the car, but Gisela waited outside for Zikael.

Malthus watched them go. Zikael was like an authority of his own—he followed orders only when it suited him. It was best to leave the matter to the instructors. The only thing Malthus was concerned with was whether or not the events of the exam had any impact on their overall performance.

He turned back to the vessel. Instructor Krimlan was just emerging from below deck. When he stepped out into the sunlight he paused and looked out at the ocean, shielding his eyes from the warm evening sunlight. When he stepped off the ship the other White wings gathered on the dock went up and began to detach the boarding platform so that the ship could be taken away. The instructor looked around. He spotted Malthus and his group waiting for him, and he smiled. He headed over.

"Good job!" he said, lightly clapping his hands. The instructor then paused and glanced about the dock. "Where's Zikael?" he asked Malthus.

Malthus turned and pointed down the dock. Lucas followed his arm to where Zikael and Gisela were stood talking next to the Garden car. As they watched, the two climbed in. Lucas sighed, unsurprised, and wearily shrugged his shoulders. He turned back to the three students before him, waiting for further orders.

"Just be back at Garden by sundown," he told them. "You're free 'til then. Okay, dismissed!"

The three students nodded. One of the White wing standing by the ship called Lucas's name. The instructor nodded and excused himself from Malthus and the others. The students, meanwhile, turned and walked down the dock to the car that was waiting to take them back to Nexus Garden.

Except that it was no longer waiting. As they approached the car doors slammed shut. The engine hummed into life.

"H-HEY!"

Wulffast ran forward, but he was too late. The car was already moving and was making its way out of the car park. In the windows he could see Keegan, grinning broadly and waving at them. The car then turned and left the car park, leaving them behind. Unable to contain his rage any longer, Wulffast slammed his fist into the ground.

"Not again, man!" he moaned. He stood up. "There goes Mr. Ego…"

The Garden car turned the corner and disappeared from their sight. It was gone. Malthus looked back at Lucas and the other instructors. They were still on the dock, deep in discussion, and had not noticed the car's departure.

He turned his eyes to the sky. The sun had already begun to set when they left Arcton. Here in Nexus the sky was still blue, the air still warm. On the horizon, however, the sky was tinged with orange and red. It would be an hour until sundown, giving them just enough time to make it back to Garden on foot. He turned to Wulffast and Selene, who were looking at him expectantly.

"Might as well walk it," Malthus said, turning back to them.

Wulffast and Selene nodded, though their faces fell just a little. Malthus could not blame them. He didn't much relish the idea of walking back to Nexus Garden either. However, with their transport gone they had no other choice, unless they wanted to wait for Lucas and the other instructors. Besides, unexpected changes were common when out in the field. There was no point in complaining about it now.

The students made their way through the town. They attracted a bit of attention from the locals, as some of them recognised the uniforms identifying them as students of Nexus Garden. A number of them recognised Wulffast and called out to him in greeting, telling him to be sure to check with his mother. Wulffast returned all their words with a grin and a wave, assuring them all he would call in on her soon.

Eventually they reached the edge of town and exited via the eastern gate. As they left the grassy fields of the Drisets Plains stretched out before them and into the distance. The fields surrounding Nexus rose and fell in gentle slopes, and far to the north the snow-capped Drisets Mountains glistened in the evening sunlight.

There was only one road leading out of Nexus, and that was the road that led straight to Nexus Garden. The Nexus continent was a small one with very few towns, so there was not a high demand for roads. This meant that the plains were almost completely undisturbed and filled with a variety of animals and monsters. Most of these were settling down for the night as sundown fast approached, and so the students walked without interruption back to Nexus Garden.

It was almost an hour later when Malthus, Wulffast and Selene finally reached Nexus Garden. The sun had already dipped behind the eastern mountains, and a deep orange glow now covered the sky. The light fell onto Nexus Garden and its reflective surface seemed to glow, its metal-blue colour transformed into a hue of warm orange-red.

Outside the Garden was quiet. The students would all be in the cafeteria by now, enjoying the evening meal. Classes ended at Nexus Garden at 5pm (6pm for the older students), and it was always a rush to get to the cafeteria. The students stopped on the road outside and Wulffast stretched his weary body, yawning loudly.

"Finally made it back…" he said.

"Seriously…" agreed Selene. She lifted her feet to check her boots for damage.

Malthus said nothing. He had barely said a word during the walk back, leaving all the chatter to Wulffast and Selene. His thoughts had been on the field exam. Would the events at the Communication Tower affect their performance? After all, they had left their assigned area. He had given Instructor Krimlan a full report of the events during the journey back from Arcton. At first he had been less than pleased, but he had become interested when he learned of the Army's activities at the tower. After that he had gone to speak with Xu, and Malthus had heard nothing else on the matter. Malthus folded his arms and frowned, thinking.

"Well," said Wulffast, interrupting Malthus's thoughts. "I guess we just wait for the test results. 'Til then." He raised a hand in parting. "See ya, Malthus!"

Selene also waved. "See ya!"

The two turned and headed off into Garden. After passing through the outer gate Selene started to run and Wulffast, not wanting to be outdone, ran after her. Malthus watched them go and he sighed in relief. At last they had gone.

Before entering the Garden Malthus paused and looked up. Overhead, the tall metal spires that marked the Garden's main entrance shone brightly. Its metallic surface reflected the light of the sun, making it seem almost on fire. It was bright and painful to look at, but Malthus took a moment to take in the sight of it before he headed into Garden. How long would it take the examiners to reach a decision?

Malthus walked on and entered the Garden's main lobby. As soon as he passed through the entrance the calm of the outside was broken by the loud hubbub of students gathered throughout the lobby. The students all talked rapidly with excitement and relief as they shared the details of the field exam with their friends, who looked on in awe and amazement at the things they had done.

Malthus weaved his way through the students, all of whom were too busy chattering to pay any attention to him. He fought his way through until he neared the Directory where Instructor Krimlan stood, along with Xu and Headmaster Ervin. Malthus stopped near the Directory, waiting for a chance to speak with Lucas. The three were deep in discussion, and their voices carried over the students around him. Unable to help himself, Malthus listened in on what they were saying.

"Mission complete! I think we did a pretty good job," Xu was saying. "The candidates are back safely, right?"

Lucas nodded. Malthus sighed, though he couldn't blame the instructors for being concerned. It was not uncommon for students to be injured—sometimes even killed—during the field exam. It was, after all, a real battlefield. That was what White wing was all about. Malthus started to turn away. He would just catch Lucas later.

"Although," Xu added, "we didn't realise the Blackwald Army was after the abandoned communication tower…"

At this Malthus stopped, his interest recaptured. He turned back to the trio.

"We've just received word from the Arcton Dukedom," the headmaster reported. "The Blackwald Army has agreed to withdraw as long as the communication tower is repaired and the uplink remains operational."

Lucas crossed his arms. That was an unusual move for the Blackwald Army. Not only did they attack without warning, but they also agreed to withdraw their troops if the communication tower was repaired? Lucas's brow creased in confusion. Nothing, from the attack to the withdrawal, made any sense.

It also didn't seem to make any sense to the other instructors, who looked at the headmaster questioningly. Headmaster Ervin, too, did not seem to have a clue, for he shrugged and shook his head.

"Well, in any case," Xu continued, "Blackwald is out of there. We could've made more money if they'd stayed and caused more agro." Headmaster Ervin nodded his agreement, but Malthus also noted a look of concern cross the headmaster's face. Something about the report from Arcton bothered him, though neither Xu nor Lucas noticed his concern.

After that the talk turned to finances and other Garden matters, and Malthus decided that it was a good time to leave. Maybe he would get a chance to speak to Lucas before they announced the exam results… whenever that would be. With nothing else to do, and not feeling particularly hungry, he decided to head back to the dorms to wait for the announcement.

Malthus slipped past the headmaster and the two White wing and headed down the East Block. Away from the lobby the din of the students became quieter and Malthus became aware of the sound of running water. A long fountain ran along the centre of the Garden, surrounded by plants and bushes. It was the sound of this fountain that had drawn Malthus's attention and he listened to the water as he walked, lost in his thoughts.

"Malthus!"

Malthus stopped, his thoughts broken. He looked up and saw Zikael leaning against the wall bordering the fountain. One look at Zikael's face told Malthus immediately that he was no longer in a good mood. His face was dark, his eyes narrow. He pushed himself away from the wall and stalked towards Malthus.

"D'you hear about the communication tower in Arcton?" Zikael asked him. Malthus nodded in reply. Zikael's lip curled. "We would've been heroes if it weren't for that withdraw order." His fists clenched tight, barely able to contain his frustration.

"You were only looking for a fight."

Zikael looked up and Malthus turned to look behind him. Instructor Krimlan and Xu were heading towards them, and they'd overheard what Zikael had said. It was Lucas who had spoken. The instructor's face was dark; his lips pursed together, his temper scarcely held in check. Xu, on the other hand, appeared much calmer.

Zikael was unfazed by the words and the dark looks he was receiving from Lucas. "My dear instructor," he said, speaking as though he was addressing a child. "I'm hurt. Those are rather cruel words for an aspiring student." He sighed in a dramatic manner and shook his head. "A mediocre instructor like you will never understand."

At this Lucas stepped back, stunned by what he said. Even Malthus was surprised that Zikael would say something so demeaning so openly, with complete disregard for who might overhear.

Xu stepped forward, rushing to Lucas's defence. "Zikael, don't be so stuck up yourself," she chided him, her tone harsh. "You'll take full responsibility for leaving the designated area."

"Isn't it the captain's decision to take the best possible action?" Zikael argued.

Xu put her hands on her hips and sighed. "Zikael," she said, choosing her words carefully, "you'll never be a White wing. Calling yourself a captain is a joke."

Those words struck home. The arrogance on Zikael's face vanished. He lowered his head, unable to meet the gazes of his instructors. Xu gazed at him in sympathy before she turned her back on him and waved to a figure waiting nearby for a chance to approach. At her signal the figure came forward and Xu walked off.

Headmaster Ervin walked up and stopped next to Lucas. Malthus watched as he spoke with him briefly, but he could not make out what they were saying. The instructor then nodded and bowed deeply before he too walked away. Ervin turned to Zikael. The swordsman was shaking uncontrollably, his rage visible on his face.

"Zikael," began the headmaster, his face stern. "You will be disciplined for your irresponsible behaviour. You must follow orders exactly during combat." His expression softened. "But I'm not entirely without sympathy for you," he continued, and at this Zikael stopped shaking and looked up. "I don't want you all to become machines. I want you to be able to think and act for yourselves. I am…"

He stopped abruptly, leaving his sentence unfinished. His gaze turned to Malthus, or rather behind him, to the South-East corridor leading to the Library. Malthus looked back. A member of the Garden Faculty was walking down towards them, and at the sight of him the headmaster frowned.

"Headmaster Ervin," the staff member said, "you have some business in your office…"

Ervin sighed and scratched the back of his neck again. "There are so many issues at hand here," he muttered. He looked once more at Zikael, who had gone back to looking at the floor. The headmaster's face softened and gave him a warm smile, and then he left to head up to his office.

Malthus watched him go, and once he was gone he looked back at Zikael. Zikael's fists were still clenched tight, and his face was burning with rage. For a brief moment he wondered if he should say something, but he dismissed it just as quickly. The Garden staff would deal with the situation. He had other things to do.

At that moment the Garden bell rang. A voice spoke from the overhead speakers, addressing the Garden: "All students who participated in today's field exam, report to the 2nd floor hallway. I repeat. All students who took the field exam, report to the 2nd floor hallway."

After hearing the announcement Malthus walked back along the corridor to the central lift. He stopped and looked back at Zikael. The swordsman had not moved. He seemed not to have heard the announcement, or was ignoring it. Feeling the eyes of the Garden Faculty boring into him , Malthus quickly left and hurried on up to the 2nd floor hallway.

The hallway was filled with students when he arrived. All of the students who took the exam were there, along with a few who weren't. Wulffast was in the middle of the hall, his hands thrust deep into his pockets, pacing back and forth.

Gisela and Keegan were also there. When she saw Malthus, Gisela flashed him a chilling glance, her lips twisted into a scowl. Keegan, too, did not look pleased. The larger man's arms were folded firmly over his broad chest and he was giving his darkest glare to any who dared look his way. The other students kept a wide berth from them, no one daring to get too close. The two kept their eyes firmly on Malthus as he entered the corridor, watching his every move.

Wulffast finished pacing one length of the corridor and turned around to head the other way. When he saw Malthus standing in the corridor he looked relieved and headed over to him.

"S'up," he greeted in a low voice. Malthus said nothing in reply. Wulffast inclined his head, gesturing the corridor where Malthus had come. "Said they're gonna call out names, one at a time…"

Malthus looked back down the corridor. The lift was just going up towards the 3F. The students whose names were called out were required to go up to the headmaster's office for their official inauguration. As the lift went up Wulffast sighed and shook his head. He resumed his pacing. Malthus went over to the nearby wall and leaned against it, his head lowered in thought.

The seconds ticked by. The only sound was the tap-tap of Wulffast's boots as he walked rhythmically back and forth along the corridor. No one students dared break the silence. They waited, completely still, awaiting the decision that could change their futures forever.

All the time he was waiting, Malthus felt the gazes of Keegan and Gisela burning into him. He dared a quick glance. He met their gazes and held them, his face impassive. Gisela's eyes narrowed, and her lip twisted into a scowl.

"RAGE," she said in a low voice that only he could hear.

Malthus said nothing and turned his head away from them. Let them scowl and stare if they wanted. He glanced back at the corridor. There was still no sign of Zikael. Malthus folded his arms and looked down. Would Zikael come to hear the outcome?

Gisela gave Keegan a shove in the back. The big man did as she bade and went over to Malthus. He stopped in front of Malthus and coughed loudly. Malthus looked up. Keegan folded his arms across his broad chest and leered down at him.

"Gisela was sayin' that it'd be all your fault if Zikael doesn't become a White wing," he said. He grinned, flashing his white teeth. "She can be pretty scary, ya know!"

Malthus gazed back at him, his expression unchanging. Keegan was taller than he was and much broader, but Malthus did not let that intimidate him. Keegan was the weakest member of the Zikael-Gisela-Keegan trio, using his strong muscles as his weapons. Gisela was the brains of the two, and Keegan would not do anything without the go-ahead from either her or Zikael.

Keegan continued to leer down at him. Finally he turned and went back over to Gisela, who had a small smile on her face. The two shared a glance and nodded at one another, before resuming their cold inspection of the corridor.

The seconds continued to tick by, turning into minutes. Wulffast's pacing became quicker as he became more and more agitated. What could be taking them so long?

Eventually the lift descended and a member of the Garden Faculty stepped out. Calmly and without breaking face, he made his way to the hallway. As he entered the hallway the students froze and Wulffast ceased his pacing. All eyes were on the staff member as he held up a sheet of paper and read out the names printed on it.

"Brandt… Wulffast Brandt."

At the sound of his name Wulffast leapt up into the air. He raised his fists high, his elation evident on his face. "OHHHH YEAHHHHHH!" he yelled. He waved a hand to the other students, his face beaming. "See ya!" he said to them, and then he waltzed off down the corridor.

The Garden Faculty member shook his head and returned to his list. There was just one more name. "Malthus… Malthus from Squad B. Please step forward."

Malthus did as he was told and stepped forward. Unlike Wulffast his face betrayed no signs of joy or out-of-control emotion. For Malthus, it was simply a matter of pass or fail. If you failed, you honed your skills and tried again. All this meant that his skills had been judged to be adequate enough to pass first time. He walked calmly down the corridor after Wulffast, who was waiting impatiently for him next to the lift.

With his job complete, the Garden Faculty folded the sheet of paper and placed it into his pocket. He looked around at the remaining students, who still looked at him with expectant and eager eyes. "That is all," the faculty said. "Dismissed."

The students groaned, unable to believe that they had failed. Gisela and Keegan shared glances with one another, the same thought running through their minds.

Zikael had failed.

In Ervin's office on the 3F, Malthus and the other exam graduates assembled before the headmaster. Headmaster Ervin sat in his chair at the head of the room. A member of the Garden Faculty stood at his side, watching them closely. At his signal the students came to attention, their heads high and their arms fixed to their sides, presenting themselves with pride at their inaugural ceremony.

Out of the twelve students who had taken today's field exam, only four had been deemed good enough to pass. Malthus and Wulffast were among them. The others were a young man that Malthus had never seen before, and Selene. Her skill in battle and her determination to complete her assignment no matter what the circumstances had gone down well with her examiners. Now they all stood before the headmaster, their goal to become members of White wing finally achieved. Malthus payed close attention when Headmaster Ervin said, "White wing is not just a mercenary force. I want you to go out and explore the world. I want you to see exotic sights and learn many things. White wing is..."

"Sir," A Garden Faculty Member interrupted, "Don't forget the meeting."

The faculty turned to the students. "White wing is an important aspect of Garden. Handle your missions with care." He looked over to Ervin. "Is that what you wanted to say sir?"

Ervin glared at the faculty member. Malthus could tell he was desperately trying to maintain his composure. He walked up to each of the students, pinning a medal onto their outfits. As he did so, he leaned in and whispered something to each of them.

To the black headed boy he said, "Do your best, even if you don't stand out."

To Selene he whispered, "I can't wait for the Garden Festival. Work hard."

To Wulffast he said, "Try to control your emotions a little."

Finally to Malthus he said, "Finally a gunblade specialist."

Ervin stepped back and smiled at them all like a proud father. "This ends the White wing Inauguration. Dismissed."

They all saluted their Headmaster and walked back toward the elevator. When it landed, they all stepped off. Immediately, Wulffast and Selene began running around in excitement.

"White wing White wing White wing White wing!" Selene repeated happily.

Malthus shook his head at them. "Come on Malthus!" Wulffast said, "Let's got back to the classroom. New White wings always get to make a speech!"

Malthus shrugged. The headed back to the 2F Hallway. They walked in and then stepped back in apprehension. Zikael, Keegan, and Gisela were there waiting on them. Malthus looked at them warily.

Then Zikael started clapping. Keegan and Gisela followed suite, congratulating them on their victory. The four students smile and walked on into the classroom.

Malthus entered his Dorm where he was surprised to find Selene waiting for him. She said, "They're holding a big dance for new White wings! Go and get changed into your new White wing Uniform!" she said happily. She danced around in her own uniform, obviously ecstatic about being a White wing.

He smiled and went into his room, closing the door behind him. He stripped out of the Cadet Uniform and switched over to the White wing uniform. He didn't really like the way it felt. It was stiff and too stuffy. He shrugged. He walked back out.

"Lookin good!" Selene said. Then she clapped her hands together, "Alright. Let's hit that PAH-TAY!"

Malthus stood by the wall. A waitress came by and offered him a glass of White Wine. He accepted it and said, "Thank you."

She nodded and walked off. Then, Wulffast came rushing up to Malthus. "Hey man!" he said. "This is so cool. We're White wings now! Aren't you excited?"

Malthus looked at him. "Whatever," he said.

Wulffast's shoulders slumped. "Ah well. Same old Malthus. I guess even being a White wing can't change you." He looked around a bit and spotted a table stand with Hot Dogs. He smiled. "Well, see you!"

He ran off. Malthus lifted his glass up and took a sip. In truth the stuff tasted awful.

Selene came walking up to him. "Hi Malthus!" she said. "Hey, I was wondering. I know we'll be busy with White wing stuff now and everything, but would you like to join the Garden Festival Committee?"

Malthus looked at her. She was really enthusiastic about it. He decided he might as well entertain her. "Sure," he said.

"Oh great!" she said. "Let's work really hard on it together! Thanks so much! Bye!"

She walked off. He heard her a little later saying, "Hey Wulffast!"

He turned and chuckled a little to see Wulffast walking off. He sighed and looked up to the clear skylight over the dancefloor. A shooting star streaked across the sky. He followed it's flight down and then caught sight of a girl with black hair wearing a white dress standing in the middle of the floor. She had been watching the star too.

She looked right at him and smiled. She pointed up, referring to the star. He shrugged and looked at her a bit. She smiled and came walking over to him.

"Hi," she said. He didn't say anything. She looked at him for a bit. "You know," she said, "You're the best looking guy here. Dance with me?"

He didn't reply, but took a sip of his wine instead. She looked at him, unwavered. "Let me guess," she said, "You'll only dance with someone you know?"

He looked her in the eyes.

"Okay," she said. She pulled off her necklace and dangled in front of his eyes, swinging it back and forth. "You're going to like me. You're going to like me..."

She stopped. "Did it work?"

He shook his head. "I can't dance," he explained.

"Oh you'll be fine," she said grabbing his hand. She began pulling him reluctantly onto the dancefloor. "I'm looking for someone and I can't be on the floor alone."

He barely had time to place his wineglass on a passing tray before the music started. The girl placed one of his hands on her hip and grabbed his other. She placed her other hand on his shoulder. Then she began to lead, trying to teach him to dance.

He wasn't lying. He was a terrible dancer. He was stumbling all over the place. Finally he got the basic step down. She got into the dancing so much that she forgot she was with an amateur. He was an excellent learner after all. She swung out, catching him off guard, so that when she returned he slammed into her.

He looked at her and his face flushed red. "I'm outta here," he said.

He turned to walk back to the wall, but she grabbed his hand and backed back onto the floor. "It's okay," she said. She looked into his eyes and replaced his hand. They began dancing again, but much to her dismay, they crashed into a nearby couple. The guy looked at her and Malthus as if he were about to say something. The girl stuck her tongue out at him and turned back to Malthus. She gave him a reassuring smile and they began to dance one more.

Finally, Malthus got the hang of it. He really was a fast learner. He and her were dancing right in time with the others. The dance ended while Malthus and the girl were pulled close. She looked into his eyes and he looked back at her. A loud bang drew them away from each other as they looked up to see fireworks filling the sky.

The girl looked at the fireworks with a sparkle in her eye. She lowered her eyes and then spotted someone over Malthus's shoulder.

"There he is," the girl said. She looked at Malthus as she backed away from him. "Thanks for everything," she said.

She walked off, leaving Malthus on the dancefloor alone with a bewildered look. Lucas came walking to malthus. He looked at him and smile. "I want you to get changed and meet me in front of the Training Center. This will be my last order."

Malthus looked at him worriedly. "What do you mean last?"

He shook her head. "I just have a lot on my mind."

He nodded and headed off toward his dorm room. He arrived and began changing. What could this be about? He wondered.

He walked out of the room and went to the Training Center. Lucas was inside, waiting on him.

"Yes?" he asked.

"Ok," Lucas said. He nodded to Malthus and they approached the glowing door. They entered. Suddenly, they were in a room outside of the Garden. It was a magically created space Malthus realized. Lucas walked onto the deck and peered out at the Garden.

This is where students meet up after hours," Lucas said.

"So we're here to tell them they're violating curfew?" Malthus asked, "If so then forget it. We can leave that up to the Disciplinary Committee."

Lucas laughed a little too himself and shook his head. "I just wanna talk."

He nodded and leaned on the balcony on which they stood. He was waiting for him to begin talking. He wondered what this was about.

"What time is it?" Lucas asked.

"Around midnight," Malthus answered.

"Oh," Lucas sighed. He put his head down into his arms. He looked up at him and then out across the night sky.

"As of now, I Lucas Krimlan, am no longer an instructor. I'm a White wing member just like you. Maybe we'll even be on a mission together sometime."

Malthus said nothing. He put his hands in his pockets and leaned further on the balcony.

Lucas sighed and looked down at the forest below them. "They said that I failed as an instructor and that I showed no leadership qualities. They took away my license and demoted me."

Malthus shook his head. "If that's their decision, then you have to abide by it."

Lucas sighed. "I guess. It's just that, I tried the best I could. I did everything I knew how. I just..." He looked at Malthus who had turned his back and was staring off into space absently.

"Are you even listening to me?" he asked.

He shrugged. "I don't like getting involved with other people's problems."

He looked at him pleadingly. "I'm not asking you to get involved," Lucas said, "I just wanted someone to listen."

He looked at him, no emotion showing on his face. "Then go talk to a wall,"

He was struck by his words. He watched as he walked through the glowing portal and back into the Training Center.

Talking to himself he said, "Failed Instructor. No leadership qualities. Perhaps they were right..."

Malthus was walking through the Training Center when Lucas caught back up to him. They began walking once more. Suddenly, a scream echoed out through the Training Center.

"Help!" came a voice.

"Come on Malthus!" Lucas said. He ran out the door into the foyer of the center. Malthus came in quickly behind him.

A large insect creature had a girl trapped against the opposite door. Malthus realized it was the same girl from the Infirmary.

"Malthus help me," the girl said.

The insect neared the girl and desperately she said, "Malthus," then she noticed Lucas and said, "lukie?"

Malthus drew his gunblade. Hearing the sound the creature turned to face them. Suddenly the ground rumbled and three stone like creatures rose up.

"These aren't supposed to be in the Training Center," Lucas said.

He closed her eyes. He summoned Siren out. As Siren performed Silent Voice, the insect creature flew out of range. The waves of music struck the stone creatures and they fell away dead.

Malthus eyed the creature warily. Then he decided to end the fight. He wanted to question the girl and find out how she knew him. He summoned Shiva. She broke out of her ice pillar and shot a huge blast of arctic energy at the insect. It froze up entirely. It fell to the ground and shattered. Malthus sheathed his gunblade and turned to face the girl.

Men dressed in white were helping her to her feet.

"Come along," they said, "It's not safe here. "They bowed to Malthus and Lucas and walked the girl out of the room.

Lucas watched them leave and said, "I wonder who that was?"

Malthus shrugged and headed out. Lucas followed him. He stopped him before he left and said, "You know, not everyone can get by on their own."

He walked off.

"Whatever," he said and went back to his Dorm Room. "I guess I'll go to sleep," he said. He crawled into bed and before long he had drifted off.

Malthus awoke to the sound of someone knocking on his new door. Before he had entered the dorms last night, Wulffast had stopped him in the Hallway.

"I've been looking everywhere for you man," Wulffast said. "I was supposed to tell you. Now that we're White wing members, we got new rooms."

Malthus got up and sat on the edge of the bed. Then he heard Selene's voice. "Get up Malthus," she said, "We got our first White wing mission. Meet by the Front Gate in 30min."

Malthus got dressed and headed out. He noticed a Weapons Monthly on his desk as he walked by, but he did not have time to look through it. He did want to check out the latest gunblade model when he got back though. He thought the other weapons were pretty cool too. He walked around the large circle and headed out past the directory. Was it just him, or was the directory not working anymore? He walked down a flight of stairs in the Garden's central foyer and stopped in front of the gates where Selene, Headmaster Ervin, and a Garden Faculty member waited.

After waiting awhile, the Faculty looked down at a watch and said, "One minute."

Suddenly, a whirring noise could be heard. The small group turned to see Wulffast flying in on a strange hovering board. Its lights faded and Wulffast kicked it up like a skateboard.

"T-boards are prohibited within Garden," the faculty said.

"I know," Wulffast said, "but this is really cool. Who knows? Maybe it'll come in handy on a White wing mission one day."

"We'll be the judges of that," the faculty said, "Confiscate it."

Another Garden Faculty Member walked up and took the T-Board away, leaving Wulffast with a bemused look. Even as Headmaster Ervin began explaining about their mission, Wulffast was watching as his T-Board was being carried away.

"The three of you will be going to Redrest. There you will support a resistance faction."

The Garden Faculty member said, "When you arrive, a member will approach and say 'Oh the forests of Redrest sure have changed.' At this time you must reply, 'But the Owls are still around."

The three nodded.

Headmaster Ervin looked at them all. "We have agreed to do this mission for very little money."

Once again the group nodded. Ervin sighed. "Dismissed," he said.

They turned to walk away. "Oh Malthus," Ervin said.

Malthus turned around to look at him. Ervin pulled out a satin bag. "I want to give you this," he said, "It is a cursed item, but if one with enough power uses it, it could be of great use."

Malthus accepted the item. He joined Selene and Wulffast at the Front Gate. They looked at the package curiously.

Malthus placed the lamp in his pocket.

"C'Mon. Let's go," Malthus said.

They walked out of the Garden. They didn't notice as Lucas silently watched them go. He sighed.

Malthus, Selene, and Wulffast stood on the streets of Nexus. Selene looked around. She yawned loudly.

"I'm bored. Can't we just go get on the train now?" she said.

"Well," Malthus said, "Let's get on the train then."

They walked toward the Station. An officer dressed in green addressed them. He said, "It's 3,000 Chronusto ride the train."

They paid him and got on. Selene immediately walked over to the door. "You have to use the keycard to get it open," she said.

Wulffast walked over to Malthus and handed him the afore mentioned card. He slid it through a reader and the door to the rest of the train unlocked. Immediately Selene ran through the door and began looking out the window.

"Let's check out the cabin," Wulffast said. He walked in, excited like a schoolboy. Malthus sighed. How could he work on a mission with these two?

He walked in after Wulffast. Selene was gazing out the window dreamily and humming to herself. He walked in a door to the left. Wulffast was on a purple couch bouncing up and down with excitement.

"This is so cool," Wulffast said.

"Well I'm glad you're so excited," Malthus said, his voice dripping with sarcasm.

Wulffast stopped bouncing and glared at him. He looked around. His anger was forgotten as he noticed a slot on the side of the couch. He looked in it.

"Hey," he said, "They even have magazines here."

He fished through them and tossed one too Malthus. Malthus picked it up and looked at it. The cover read Pet Pals Vol. I.

Malthus gave the magazine a disgusted look. Who would want a magazine published just about dogs?

The door slid open behind him. He turned to see Selene walking in. He went and sat on the couch. She stood in the middle of the room. Something was very wrong.

"'Sup?" Wulffast asked.

"I feel tired," she said.

"If you're sleepy, you should lie down," Malthus said.

She nodded and hit the couch with a thud. Wulffast jerked back. Suddenly, a swimmy sensation began to overwhelm him.

"W-what the?" he said, "I feel sleepy too."

He conked out on the couch.

"What's going on here?" Malthus said. Suddenly a loud buzzing sound filled his ears. He gripped his head as a headache rushed in. He fell to the floor and darkness enveloped him.

Chapter Nine: Welcome to Your Dream

A man in Blackwald armor ran through the burning field. Fires caused by the gunfire and bombs. Two men followed him. "Are you sure we're going the right way?" Leo asked. Leo was a heavy set man with a bandana tie around his bald head. The man with long black hair turned around to him and smile assuredly.

"Of course," Ephraim said.

"We're lost again," Edel said. The dark skinned man walked up to join his colleagues. Suddenly, there was movement in the brush.

"Get ready," Ephraim said. He drew out his machine gun. Leo drew a giant spear and Edel drew out two sharp blades called Katals. A mushroom looking creature appeared followed by what appeared to be two giant scorpions.

"I thought we were supposed to be facing the almighty Redrest Army," Edel said, "Why are we wasting our time with these dumb animals.

Inside Edel' head, Wulffast's voice thought What's goin on? Why am I dreaming about this?

Inside Leo, Selene thought, What happened. Am I dreaming? Who are these guys?

Malthus, not knowing the other two were present in the same "dream" imagined he dreamed he was Ephraim. He was silent however, watching the events like a movie. He noticed that all of his FS's were in Ephraim. How strange that he should dream that.

Ephraim summoned out Diablos. The area became pitch black and screeching bats flew in. They crashed into each other, merging like liquid. They formed a large glowing ball of blackness above the field. Suddenly, Diablos came out of the orb.

He growled as he looked down at the monsters below him. He raised his hand. Bands of orange energy lowered the orb down onto his arm. He clenched his fist inside of it. He then flung the orb down with all of his might. It crashed down, pressing upon the monsters, flattening them. They screeched as they died.

Diablos vanished and Ephraim was left victorious.

Well that was really weird, Selene though. I'm probably having a nightmare because of that scary FS.

The three men walked on through the field. They came upon a small brook. Wulffast, Malthus, and Selene all wondered where they were and why they would be dreaming such odd things. Nevertheless, they thought as if they were conscious.

I must have a wild imagination Wulffast thought. There was no way he could have thought up these three men. Especially them being Blackwald. Maybe it was the aftershocks of fighting in Arcton.

The men came upon a vehicle that was very odd looking. It reminded Malthus of a tank.

"Ah, here we are," Ephraim said, "Saltfall City, here we come."

The men piled into the truck and drove out of the forest. They drove along a road and pulled into the large town of Saltfall City. Ephraim stopped the car and jumped out.

"Hey," Edel said, "You can't park the car in the middle of the street!"

Wulffast chuckled to himself as his character spoke. What was this he was viewing? He decided (as did the others) that he would stop wondering and just watch his "dream" unfold.

Leo climbed out of the truck and followed the other two as they headed down a street. Selene realized (even though Leo already knew) that they were heading for the hotel.

They entered. The clerk looked up and then with a smile calmly went back to writing.

This Ephraim and his crew must be frequenters of this hotel Malthus thought. Ephraim turned right and headed down a flight of stairs. Edel and Leo followed him without question. They walked in and a waitress approached.

"Sir Ephraim," she said, "Your usual table is ready."

What? Malthus wondered, forgetting that the waitress was talking to Ephraim, and not him. Ephraim had already thanked her and taken a seat.

"What will you be having?" the waitress asked.

"The usual," Ephraim answered.

"Same," Edel added.

"Keep 'em coming," Leo said.

The waitress walked off.

"Well Ephraim," Edel said, "Julia should be making an appearance soon."

Who? Malthus wondered. Ephraim just nodded.

Suddenly, he heard beautiful piano playing. He turned to see a girl with short brown hair dressed in a beautiful red gown playing the piano. Malthus understood this to be Julia. How was his mind making all of this up?

He shrugged inwardly.

"Well," Edel said, "Go talk to her."

"I can't," Ephraim said, "I can't disturb her playing."

"So you say," Leo answered, "But we know you'll do it."

I know, Malthus thought, This must be because of the girl I met at the dance. Her identity has been plaguing me. But why would I make up the soldiers and where did all these names come from?

Ephraim had gotten up and made his way toward the piano. The girl Julia looked up at him and smiled, but she was still fully concentrated on her playing.

She sure is beautiful Ephraim thought. This guy's a flop, Malthus thought.

Ephraim stood there for a while, listening to Julia's playing. Ah, to be this close to her he thought.

Malthus was sickened. Is this guy for real?

Suddenly, a pain shot through Ephraim's leg. It was cramping up. He clutched in pain and began to limp around, trying to coax the muscle to relax.

Edel (Wulffast) and Leo (Selene) watched from the table.

Sad Wulffast thought, He'll never score like that.

Ephraim nodded to Julia and limped back to the table. Edel and Leo nodded.

"A job well done," Leo said. Yeah right, Selene said.

"Well...ahhh," Edel said.

"Um, we're gonna head off," Leo said.

"What's the rush?" Ephraim asked. "Let's have a drink."

"Drinks are on us," Leo said. He and Edel slinked off. Ephraim shrugged. He turned and came face to face with Julia.

"I'm sorry," she said, "Did I interrupt?"

"N-No," Ephraim answered. He slid over to let Julia sit down.

"You come here often," Julia said, "I'm glad you like to hear me play."

Ephraim looked incredulous. "You saw me?"

Busted Malthus thought.

"You were always smiling while listening," Julia said. Ephraim blushed. Julia giggled a little. Then she bowed her head.

"Listen," she whispered, "Let's talk in my room. There are too many people listening in here."

Ephraim looked up to see that, indeed, there were people crowded near the booth. He nodded to her.

"Ask for my room at the counter," she said.

She got up from the table and walked off. Ephraim breathed deeply.

Time to calm Julia with my manly charm Ephraim thought.

This guy talks to himself too much Malthus thought.

Ephraim went up the stairs and approached the front desk. "Whi...whi.." he stuttered.

Is he really going? Malthus wondered.

"Ah Mr. Loire," the attendant said, "Ms. Julia is expecting you. Please, this way."

He followed the attendant to a room. It was number 203. The attendant left him at the door. He waited a while before knocking. Julia answered the door.

"Come in," she said.

He nodded and entered the hotel room. She looked at him, gazing into his eyes. He walked around. He went over to the bed and sat down. Then he shook his head and got back up. He walked over to Julia.

"Surely you're not leaving already?" Julia asked.

"N-No," Ephraim answered, "It's just I'm a big fan and I'm really nervous."

"Don't be," Julia said, "I don't bite. I just want to talk. Would you like something to drink? Wine perhaps?"

He nodded. She fixed two glasses and gave him one. He sipped at it gradually as he spoke. He began to ramble on about how his dream was to quit the army and become a writer. He talked and talked and talked.

Man, Malthus thought, he's really loosened up.

"So..uh, what was I saying?" Ephraim asked.

Julia smiled as he caught back up with his story. He lied down and continued to talk. She sat by him, patiently listening. After a while, he drifted off to sleep. Suddenly, he jerked back up. Julia was standing near a table.

"I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't know wine made you sleepy."

He kicked himself for talking about himself too much. He looked up. Surely she must think him an obnoxious pig now.

"Julia," he said.

"Yes?"

"Tell me about yourself. What are your dreams for the future?"

Julia smiled. "I...I want to sing," she said, "Not just play the piano. I'd like to sing too."

"I'd love to come and hear you!" Ephraim said.

She nodded. She turned to him. "You're kind," she said. She walked over. He stood up from his seat on the bed. She grabbed his hand and gazed into his eyes.

"This is gotta be a dream," he said.

"It's not, is it?" Julia asked.

He gazed at her and leaned in. Suddenly there was a knock at the door. They jumped and looked toward it. Edel' voice came through from the other side.

"Orders from General Tiskon. Move out,"

Ephraim sighed. "I'll come back."

"You promise?" Julia asked.

"Of course," he answered, "I gotta hear you sing."

There was the sound of a train whistle blowing suddenly. Malthus opened his eyes. He was lying on the floor of the White wing cabin. He leaned up as the dream faded.

Chapter Ten: The president

An announcement came over the intercom of the train. "We will be arriving in Redrest shortly. "Malthus looked up at it. He crossed his arms and leaned against the bed in the cabin.

"So we were all asleep?" Wulffast asked.

Malthus nodded. "Maybe it was knockout gas. White wing has many enemies."

They all sat in silence for a while. Selene looked at them.

"Hee," she said, "I had such a wonderful dream."

I dreamt too, Malthus thought, but it wasn't wonderful. I dreamt I was a moron.

"But seriously," Selene said, "That Sir Ephraim guy was so cool,"

Huh!? Malthus thought.

"Wait a minute," Wulffast said, "There was a Ephraim in my dream too. He's a Blackwald Soldier right?"

Malthus looked around and then stared at the floor. Was it possible? "Ephraim, Edel, and Leo," he said.

"That's it!" Wulffast said.

"That's what?" Malthus asked.

"Look," Selene said, "There's no way we can figure this out. Let's just concentrate on our mission."

"Right," Malthus said, "Let's put this incident on hold. I'll report it to the Headmaster when we get back."

The all nodded. Then, as if planned on time, the train eased to a stop. They had arrived in Redrest. Malthus got off the train and the others followed. He looked around. The color blue stood out to him. He proceeded down the steps. Suddenly, a man in an orange jacket came up.

"Oh," the man said, "The Forests of Redrest sure have changed."

What was the answer? Malthus thought. He looked at them and then back to the guy.

"But the owls are still around," he answered.

The guy nodded. "Welcome to Redrest sir. Please, this way."

The guy ran across the train tracks, followed by Malthus and the others. The came upon a platform and waited. Soon, a weird looking train came along. It was definitely not one of the usual trains that made their way through Redrest.

They boarded the train. Immediately, a guy with black hair wearing a Blue jacket greeted them. "Thank you for accepting this mission," he said, "I'm Zone."

Zone looked over to the guy in the orange jacket and said, "You've already met Watts. I guess that only leaves our Princess."

Princess? Malthus thought, Are these guys on something?

"It's the Princess' naptime sir," Watts said.

"Oh geeze," Zone said slumping, "Look I'm sorry about this, but could you go get her?"

Malthus looked at the man as if he were an idiot. "Excuse me?"

Zone jumped back. Malthus had raised his voice and had an annoyed look on his face. "Are you mad?" he asked.

"We're White wing's," he said, "Not gophers. Were we hired just to run errands?"

Zone backed up. Watts looked over at him and sighed heavily.

Malthus shook his head. "This is the last time for this kinda thing," Malthus said.

He walked past Wulffast and Selene. "You tell 'em," Selene said, "They can't treat us like that."

"The Princess is in the last room down that hallway," Watts said, "If you need help, our guys in the back should be able to help you."

Malthus walked off without saying anything. He looked around the small train. These guys just don't have it together, he thought.

He passed by what he thought to be the control room for the train. A few guys were crowded around in there. Deciding he didn't need their assistance, he walked on past .He came to the end of the corridor where an exit sign stood. He turned to the right and came into view of a large room. It was so pink it sickened him.

He walked into the room, looking around. His attention was drawn over to the bed where a figure slept soundly. She was dressed in a light blue outfit and hard dark black hair. Suddenly the train came to a screeching halt. Malthus tried as best he could to steady himself, but resulted in crashing to the floor.

The girl turned over and sat up sleepily. Malthus crawled to his feet dusting himself off. He stood and turned to look at the girl.

No way! He thought. There in front of him was the girl from the dance.

"Hey," she said, "You're, you know, from the party."

She smiled warmly. A vision of his clumsy dancing filled her head. "So does that mean you're a White wing?"

He nodded. "So that's why you were at the party. To speak to Headmaster Ervin."

She shook her head, biting her lip a bit. "You know Zikael?"

Yeah, I know him Malthus thought bitterly. He nodded in silence.

"He introduced me to Ervin," she said happily, "Ervin is such a nice man."

Malthus nodded. The girl looked around thoughtfully. She looked behind Malthus with an anxious look.

"Is he here?" she asked.

Malthus looked at her. How was he supposed to know who "he" was?

"Zikael," the girl said, as if reading his mind.

"No," Malthus said, "He's not a White wing."

"Oh," the girl said. She looked as if that upset her some. She walked over to a vanity near a wall. She started looking through her perfumes and makeup. Malthus wondered if she was close to Zikael somehow. What else would explain the way she was acting?

He walked over to her. "I'm going back to the others now," he said.

"Okay," the girl said, "Let's go."

She walked out of the room. Suddenly she came running back in, "Oh yeah, my name's Loraine."

"I'm Malthus," he said. She smiled that same smile of hers. She turned around to see a collie dog walking into the room. Malthus looked down at it and shook his head.

"Oh," Loraine said, "This is my partner, Angel. He's really smart. Here, let me show you,"

She fell down and acted injured. Suddenly the dog ran and the came back in and threw a potion to her. She got back to her feet.

"See," she said, "I told you."

He nodded. They walked out of the room and headed down the hall. Then a thought struck Malthus.

"Hey Loraine," he said.

She turned around to look at him. "Yes?"

"I thought you might like to have this," he said, pulling out a magazine. It was the Pet Pals that Wulffast had given him.

"Oh cool!" Loraine said, "Thanks."

She took the magazine and started flipping through it. Happy, she put it in her room and they continued down the hall. They reached the front end of the train where the group was waiting patiently. Malthus led Loraine into the room.

"This is Selene," Malthus said pointing to her, "and this is Wulffast."

"Hi guys," Loraine said, "Well, shall we get started? The Conference room is just through here. Talk to Watts when you're ready."

She walked through a door beside the stairs. Malthus and the group looked at each other. Selene shrugged and Wulffast looked down at the floor. This was truly an unprofessional group they were working with.

The talked to Watts and then entered the conference room. Inside, Loraine was looking over a table. A model train set was set atop it. Zone was standing near a bulletin board posting up clippings of some man.

"Okay," Loraine said. "Here's our problem. President Saltfall is oppressing Redrest and keeping it occupied with soldiers. Our plan is to kidnap the President and..err...talk him in to relinquishing his rule."

"The president is planning to come to Redrest to make a live T.V. announcement," Watts said, "but we believe there is more to it than that."

The group nodded. "Do how do you plan on going about this?" Malthus asked.

"Come over here," Loraine said,

Malthus walked over to the table. He was now looking closer at the train model.

"This," Loraine said, pointing to a yellow train car at the top, "Is our base. And this is the dummy car designed to looked like the President's car."

She pointed to a train car attached to the yellow Base. The she moved over to a much longer train at the bottom.

"This is the train the president will be on. It consists of the locomotive, 2 guard cars, and the president's car." She pointed out each as she said them.

"The guard cars are connected to the rest of the train by coupling. We have codes located on an access panel at the bottom of each. By uncoupling each car, we can separate the train and move in."

The group nodded, absorbing the information she had just given them. She looked at each, and after confirming their understanding, she continued.

"First we uncouple the second guard car. Malthus, you and me will do this."

On the model, she unhooked the second guard car from the train.

"After the first uncoupling, our base and the dummy car will move in at the first combine point."

She moved in the base and the dummy car and connected it to the rest of the train.

"Our base has a special arm that will grab the second guard car and keep it moving with the rest of the train."

She pushed the second guard car up to the base.

"Then we will move across the president's car to the first guard car. We will uncouple that one as well."

She took apart the first guard car.

"The locomotive will move that car and our base will be powering the rest of the train. Now comes the tricky part. At the second combine, Selene and Wulffast will need to be ready to flip the switch for the tracks. The locomotive and the first guard car will pass straight through. Then they should flip the switch. Our base will detach itself from the second guard car which is then attached to the dummy car. It will turn right at the combine escaping with the president's car. Then the second guard car's momentum will connect it with the rest of the train."

"It's very complicated," Malthus said.

"And we have a limited time allotment too," Watts said.

"Wait," Wulffast said, "What about the guards? Won't they know the dummy car's a fake?

And shouldn't security be high?"

"That's where I come in," Loraine said, "While Malthus uncouples each guard car, I'll be keeping a lookout for him and warn him when a guard is approaching. Also, for the dummy car, we had a mechanic design a dummy president. It even talks when someone nears it."

Wulffast nodded. These guys had really thought this out. Maybe they weren't as disorganized of a team as they seemed.

The brakes on the Base initiated suddenly. "We're stopping," Loraine said, "I'll go check it out."

She ran out of the room. Zone and Watts stood by the door patiently awaiting her return. Selene and Wulffast looked at Malthus and he walked over to join them.

"Isn't this kinda risky?" Selene asked.

Malthus shrugged. "We are White wings. Many of our missions will be risky. We have to always be prepared for the worst."

They both nodded. They all turned as Loraine came in.

"We're going to be coming up on the President's car soon. Talk to Watts when you're ready. Please hurry."

The group looked at each other and nodded. They went over to Watts.

"Good luck sir," Watts said.

Malthus and the others followed Loraine back to the end of the hallway, next to her bedroom. Angelo came running out.

"No," Loraine said, "You stay here."

The dog whimpered a bit and walked off. Loraine nodded to the rest of the group and opened the door that said exit. They went out onto the deck of the base and turned. A ladder was beside the door. Loraine climbed up and the others followed.

The walked across the roof of the train.

"Okay," Loraine said, watching as the other train traveled beside theirs, "We're gonna jump across. Time your jumps well."

She readied herself and leaped across as the other train neared. Malthus and Wulffast jumped as well. Wulffast's foot hit the edge a little and he gasped, but made it safely to the other train. Selene backed up a bit. She ran and leapt.

Suddenly, the train pulled ahead. Selene shrieked as she vanished from the others' sights.

"No!" Malthus said.

Suddenly, he saw fingertips clinging to the edge. Selene was holding on. Wulffast and Malthus ran over and helped her up. She gasped and was visibly shaken.

"I'm alright," she said as Wulffast stooped over her, "Let's continue the mission."

The ran up the guard car.

"Wulffast, Selene," Loraine said, "Watch for guards as I relay the codes to Malthus."

The nodded. They ran over to the windows. A guard dressed in blue and a larger guard dressed in red stood in the cabin. They each watched one.

Malthus pulled out the cable Loraine had given him and climbed down the side of the car. He held on to the cable with one hand and opened a panel just below the door with the other. The panel had shapes instead of numbers, but Loraine had already explained:

One time Circle

Two times Crisscross

Three times Square

Four times Triangle

Malthus waited patiently as Loraine looked at her paper.

"The code is 2234," Loraine said. Malthus punched it in. A beep followed and the screen read:

Two Codes Remaining

"4213," Loraine said.

Malthus entered in the number.

Two Codes Remaining

Suddenly, Selene shouted, "Hey, the red!"

Malthus pulled on the cable and was hoisted back to the roof of the car. He and Loraine watched as the guard came to the window of the door. He held a gun in his hand. He looked out the window and looked around. Then he returned to his post.

Malthus was just about to go back down when Wulffast said, "The blue!"

Malthus waited as the guard came and repeated the other's actions. After the guard left, Malthus went back down to put in the last code.

"3421," Loraine said. He punched it in. The screen read Confirmed. Malthus hoisted himself back up onto the roof. He and the others watched as the mechanism between the cars released the locks and the train began to leave the guard car behind. The Base flew by beside them. The tracks were already switched ahead and the Based sped onto the track in front of them. It braked a little to let the guard car connect and then sped up to attach to the rest of the train.

"Let's move," Loraine said. They crawled across the front of the car.

"Okay," Loraine said, "Selene, Wulffast, I want you to reenter the base. Watts has a cable car ready for you. Get on it and drive ahead to the next combine."

They both nodded. They climbed back down the ladder on the base. Loraine nodded to Malthus and they crossed the President's car. The went across the other Guard Car.

"Okay," Loraine said, "This one takes 5 codes to uncouple. I'll try to look out for you as best as I can."

Malthus nodded. He threw the cable down and slid down.

"2222," Loraine said. Malthus entered it as fast as possible. He looked up to the windows. He didn't see any guards.

"1342," Loraine called down. He punched it in quickly.

Loraine looked over. "Malthus, the guards are coming."

He pulled the cable and then went up to the roof. Loraine looked at him and nodded. He watched as both guards came to the window, looked around, and then disappeared again. He went back down the cable.

"4321," Loraine said. He entered the code and waited for another.

"1234," she said. He punched the number in. He heard footsteps, but Loraine wasn't paying attention. He pulled the cable and shot past the window just as the guard got there. Luckily though, the guard didn't see him. The guard took a moment to light a cigarette.

"We don't have much time left," Loraine said.

The guard looked out the window and then walked away.

"Go," Loraine said.

Malthus flew down the cable.

"3321," she said. He punched it in. The screen blinked and there was a small click. Malthus climbed back up the cable. The mechanism once again unlocked. The locomotive plowed ahead with the guard car and Loraine and Malthus leapt from it to the President's car.

The tracks moved into place as Wulffast hit the switch. The Base and The President's car moved over to the other track. The base released its mechanical arm and the other guard car, now attached to the dummy car flew past. The tracks had been switched back over just in time by Selene.

The other train sped down the tracks and the base braked to allow Wulffast and Selene to get back on. Loraine and Malthus climbed off of the roof and entered the base.

"Now," Loraine said, "After all these years. It's time to start negotiations with the President."

Malthus nodded. He checked to make sure his FS's were equipped and followed Loraine through the door. She walked down the hallway with ease.

This girl's very headstrong Malthus thought.

She opened the door and burst into the room. The president sat at a table drinking a coffee.

"Who are you?" he asked turning around.

Immediately Malthus knew something was wrong. The "president" was acting way too comfortable for a group of strangers to have just busted into his private train.

"President Vincent Saltfall," Loraine said, "We have something to talk about. Don't make any sudden moves and you won't be hurt."

The president sighed and set his coffee cup down. "And what would you do," he said, standing to his feet, "if I did, young lady?"

Loraine caught sight of his face then. It was marred on one side by a sickening scar.

"Who are you?" Loraine said backing away. Malthus and the others moved to stand between her and the false president.

"Ah," the man said, "my butt hurts after all this sitting."

"Where is the president?" Loraine asked from behind the White wings.

"It's amazing what people will listen to," the man said, "especially after rumors of resistance groups spreading all over Redrest. You

pass a little false information along and they are bound to reveal themselves."

Loraine looked at the group before her. They now had there weapons drawn.

"I've had enough of this," the man said, "How dare you insult the president!?"

He launched forward and latched onto Selene. She shrieked as he tried to bite her. She shoved him off and a bolt of lightning struck the train's floor near his feet.

She turned to Wulffast who had just cast the magic. Malthus ran up and swung his gunblade at the man. He hit his arm and the limb fell off. Suddenly, it smoked up and dissipated into goo. Loraine looked up in horror as the man's skin started melting off.

It smoked as it hit the floor and soon the whole car was filled with the sickening stench. Loraine coughed and tried to see through the smoke. Suddenly, it cleared and before them was a horrible sight. A zombie looking creature stood before them. It had a deformed hand and foot, both like clubs. It roared and acid dripped from its mouth.

Loraine gasped and backed into a wall.

"What...is...it?" Selene asked. The thing lurched forward and they all took a battle stance. The creature raised its deform hand and bashed Wulffast to the side. He smashed into a table and crumpled to the floor. Selene gasped and cast Cure on Wulffast. As the green light washed over Wulffast's body, the creature backed away violently.

"What the?" Malthus asked. Suddenly, he remembered when Lucas had taught him about undead creatures.

When fighting and undead creature, the most effective way to defeat it is by using curative spells or items or by holy magic.

He cleared his head again. "Wulffast," Malthus said, "Cast cure on the creature."

"What!?" Wulffast asked.

"Just do it!" Malthus said. Wulffast reluctantly cast the spell. The creature howled as the green light hit its skin. It sizzled a little. Loraine looked up with her eyes wide. Curative things could hurt it?

She knew what she had to do. Malthus watched in confusion as she confidently walked past him. She pulled a vial from a pocket. He spotted some red substance inside and immediately knew what she was up to.

She threw the vial, containing Phoenix Down, at the creature. It shattered and the down let out an intensive light. I shown with all the life giving powers of the Phoenix and swarmed over the undead creature. The creature screamed in outrage and fell to the floor dead.

Loraine turned and nodded to the group. They nodded in return and walked out the door. The mission had failed and they all knew it.

"Well," Loraine said, returning to the conference room. "We'll need to come up with another plan."

Watts came rushing in. "Got some new info sir."

Loraine turned expectantly to him. "The President arrived safely in Redrest. He's going to the T.V. station."

Loraine nodded. "Okay, Let's come up with a plan."

Zone, Watts, and Loraine sat down on the floor of the conference room and began talking very quietly.

Oh come on, Malthus thought, What kind of organization plops down on the floor to discuss strategy? He looked over to Selene and Wulffast. Wulffast was wearing a very annoyed expression. Malthus walked over.

Loraine turned and said, "Oh good. Just in time. Here's the new plan..."

"Wait," Malthus said. "Could we see your contract with our Garden first?"

Loraine looked to him, then over his shoulder at Wulffast and Selene who nodded silently.

"Okay," she said. She felt kind of stung that they didn't trust her and her group. Why did they need proof?

She pulled out a paper and handed it to Malthus who snatched it away irrately.

He didn't have to do that, Loraine thought.

He read over it. Seemingly satisfied, he handed it back to her. He turned to Selene and Wulffast and nodded.

"Okay," Loraine said, "Here's what we're gonna do. We're going to Redrest and go into the T.V. Station. We'll look over the situation, locate Saltfall, and go from there."

Malthus nodded, as did the others. The followed her down the hall. She went into the control room.

"Return to Redrest," she told them.

The put the train into motion. Loraine and the others returned back to her bedroom.

"Well guys," she said, "I'm sorry. We had no idea that the president was a fake."

"It's ok," Selene said.

Loraine looked at her and smiled warmly.

"So," Wulffast said, "What do we do now?"

"We wait," Loraine said.

She sat down on her bed and began looking through the book Malthus had given her. She found and interesting article on a special skill dogs could learn called Invisible Moon. She decided to learn it and teach it to Angelo.

Malthus stood over by the door silently brooding. That was some strange creature they had fought. And it was intelligent enough to pretend to be a person. What could that mean?

Wulffast had taken up to practicing his moves over in a corner. He didn't tell any of them, but he learned a lot of his moves from a tutorial magazine called Combat King. He had read an interesting article on the Dolphin Blow, which cultivated the power of water in a strike.

Selene decided she would look through Loraine's perfume to see if she found any she liked. She looked over her vanity and looked in the mirror. Her hair was in disarray, so she began to smooth it out.

Then the train came to a stop.

"Okay," Loraine said, getting up from her bed, "We're here."

The walked out. The went to the main room of the Base and stopped to see Watts and Zone waiting on them.

"Good luck sir," Watts said.

"Me and Watts are gonna gather information and keep you updated," Zone said.

Loraine nodded and then turned to them.

"Okay," she said, "So who's going to the T.V. Station?"

Malthus turned. Selene was most likely still shaken up from the train mission, so he chose Wulffast. While Selene wasn't in the party, Her FS was combined to Loraine. Selene went with Zone and Watts to gather information and Malthus, Loraine, and Wulffast headed off to the T.V. station.

"The city is still occupied by soldiers," Loraine said, "So be ready to fight."

Wulffast and Malthus nodded.

"We need to restock our magic," Malthus said.

Loraine nodded as well. The walked off of the train platform and headed straight. They decided to take their time to look around while they were there. It was possible that they may not be coming back to Redrest. They didn't tell Loraine this of course.

The came up on a building that said Redrest Maniacs.

"What's this?" Wulffast asked.

"It's a magazine company," Loraine said, "They publish articles from aspiring authors."

"Let's look inside," Wulffast said. They went in. A lady in white stood at a window in the front. She admitted them through. They went inside and looked around. Malthus noticed the Fight Series, a magazine that he had already read every article of.

They went into a small room to the left. Inside, Malthus sensed a Draw Point, a natural space where magic gathered. He drew from the point, gaining several Blizzaga spells. It was the strongest of the Ice magic other than Shiva's attack.

After that, there was nothing else useful inside the building, so they left. The walked on a little ways more. The walked down the stairs toward a pub called the Aurora Pub. According to Loraine, they had to pass through this pub to get to the T.V. station.

They got to the bottom of the steps and stopped. Two Blackwald soldiers were harassing a civilian. They took something from him and then shoved him to the side.

"Heh heh," one soldier said, "These country hicks are too easy."

"Hey!" Loraine said.

They turned to look at her. They drew their swords and began to approach. Loraine extended her arm, revealing a weapon unlike Malthus had ever seen. She pulled back a tab like a bow and then released it. A blade flew out and struck the shoulder in the neck, killing him. The blade returned to Loraine's wrist.

The other soldier ran forward, but his charge was cut short by a bolt of lightning, courtesy of Wulffast. The soldier fell dead. Malthus walked over and found a card laying on the ground.

"What's this?" Malthus asked.

"It's a Trading Card," Wulffast said.

Malthus shrugged and went into the pub. Inside, the man that had been harassed by the soldiers was sitting in front of the exit door.

"What're we gonna do?" Loraine whispered to Malthus. He was tempted to swat at her for being so close to him. It was kind of annoying.

"I think we should give him his card back," Malthus said, "That might prompt him to move."

She nodded and took the card from Malthus. She went over to the man.

"Excuse me," she said.

"What!?" he asked irritated. He had a bruise forming on his brow. Malthus could see why Loraine and her group were wanting to get rid of the soldiers.

"Is this your card?" Loraine said, showing him the card.

"Yes," he said, "but how did you get it?"

"Found it outside," Malthus said.

The man looked as if he were about to cry. "Thank you," he said.

He took the card and moved out of their way. He sat over at a table looking at the card. Malthus wondered what it meant to him. It was just a game card after all.

He shrugged and walked out the door. Loraine and Wulffast followed. He walked forward and went up a flight of stairs. They stopped in front of a Giant outdoor screen. Red symbols were being displayed, scrolling down the screen.

"What is this?" Loraine asked.

"This is being broadcast over all of the frequencies," Malthus said.

"I don't like it," Loraine said.

They went to turn when Watts suddenly came running up the stairs.

Loraine turned to him.

"Sir," he said, "Securities super tight in the T.V. station. It's practically flooded with guards."

"So we can't just charge in," Loraine said, "Okay. We need to come up with another plan then."

Malthus crossed his arms and looked down over the edge of the stairs. He was visibly upset.

"What is it?" Loraine asked.

"Nothing," Malthus answered, "We're White wings. We'll act according to your orders."

"How sad," Loraine said, "Act on my orders? What an easy life it must be to follow other's commands?"

"Oh, and what about you!?" Malthus shouted before he knew it.

"Yes?" Loraine said.

"Nevermind," Malthus said.

"No," Loraine said, "the least you can do is finish it. This is an order from your client."

"Okay," Malthus said, "How serious are you? Really? You plop down on the floor to discuss strategy. Sure, you have the technology, but you're sloppy about how you go about it. How do you think we feel working for such an organization?"

"Malthus man," Wulffast said, "Lighten up."

Malthus realized he had just exploded on Loraine. "I'm sorry," he said.

"You know what," Loraine said, "I thought all of our problems would be solved when we hired White wing, but maybe we were better off."

She went to walk off. She turned around to look at him and said, "We going to go in the T.V. station after Saltfall leaves and make our own broadcast. It may not be finishing the president, but at least it's a start."

She walked down the steps and then turned back to Malthus saying, "We are serious. So serious, it hurts."

She ran down the stairs. The turned to follow them, but suddenly the large T.V. screen blinked and came on. You could see people such as directors moving around. The stepped out of the way and a blonde man stood behind a podium.

"People can you hear me, can you see me?" he said, "This is the first live broadcast in 30 yrs. How exciting!"

He thrust his arms out. Then he paused a minute. "Excuse me," he said, "I seem to have lost my composure. We present to you, President Vincent Saltfall."

He walked off. Then a middle aged man walked up. He had dark hair with greying streaks.

"People of the nations," he said, "I'm am President Saltfall. It is true that Blackwald has been at war with some countries for quite some time now, but I seek to amend that. I wish to introduce the Ambassador of Blackwald."

All this just to introduce an ambassador? Malthus thought.

The was a loud noise. The president stopped for a minute. Sensing it was okay, he continued. "The ambassador is the Sorceress."

Sorceress! Malthus thought.

Suddenly there was another loud crash. Selene had come up the steps by then and stood beside Malthus and Wulffast. On screen, you could see guards running past the camera. Suddenly, a guard flew back into the room.

A blonde guy rushed into the room, sword drawn. Another guard approached and he cut him down.

"Zikael!" Selene said.

Two guards grabbed him from behind. Zikael elbowed one in the face and kicked another that was approaching. The guard hit the camera knocking it sideways.

Suddenly, a man came onto the screen.

"Get back" he said, "You're only going to provoke him."

"Instructor Krimlan?" Wulffast asked.

Another guard came slowly walking up.

"I said get back," Lucas said.

He looked at the camera that was still on. "Redrest team, if you can hear me report to the T.V. station now. I need your help!"

Malthus looked at Selene and Wulffast. They nodded and the group ran up the stairs. They passed over a bridge hanging high above the town. They burst through the double doors of the T.V. station and immediately caught sight of them. Zikael was holding the president, his sword pressed against his throat. Lucas turned to them.

"He broke out of the disciplinary room, injuring many in the process." he said.

"You...Stupid IDIOT!" Wulffast screamed.

Wulffast please, Malthus thought.

"Be quiet," he said.

"Instructor, I know," Wulffast said, "You're going to take this idiot back to Garden and.."

"Shut up! No!" Malthus said. He knew Wulffast had just blown it for them all.

"So," the president said, "You're all from Garden."

"Nice going, Chicken Wuss," Zikael said.

"You know, if anything happens to me," the president said, "there will be immediate retaliation on Garden."

"Shut up," Zikael said, pressing the blade of his sword into the man's neck. He started backing away and disappeared around a corner. Lucas ran and followed him. Malthus, Wulffast, and Selene followed as well.

Zikael rounded the corner. Suddenly, there was movement behind the curtain. A slender figure emerged. She was wearing a strange looking helmet.

"Such a scared little boy," the sorceress said.

"I'm not...don't call me a boy," Zikael said.

Lucas came in suddenly. He looked at Zikael, completely ignoring the sorceress. The sorceress immediately felt the strong pulse of care coming from the man toward Zikael. He was going to be a problem. She raised her hand and a golden orb flew from her hand. Lucas went to approach Zikael, but the orb hit him in a blast. Lucas' control left him and he was forced down to one knee.

"You don't want to be a little boy anymore?" the sorceress said.

"Shut up!" Zikael told her. He looked down to Lucas who kneeled unmoving. What had the woman done to him? He went to back away.

The sorceress knew what she had to do. She brought out his feelings of hatred toward Malthus and she brought out his feelings of insecurity. He had to think that she was the only one that believed in him.

Malthus and the others came rushing in. Anger lit up on Zikael's face. The sorceress knew they were about to attack. She lifted her hand. A huge blast of power flew out from her, forcing them back.

"Wave goodbye to your childhood," the sorceress said, "and join me."

Zikael released the president who ran away in cowardice. Zikael waved his blade to the people who used to be his friends and followed the sorceress behind the curtain where they disappeared.

Chapter Eleven: On the road again

The group stood in the T.V. station. Zikael had disappeared along with the president and the sorceress as well. The had all stood there in silence, all of them in disbelief. Where had Zikael gone to? Loraine came running in.

"Where's Zikael?" she asked.

"We don't know," Malthus said.

Loraine sighed. She hung her head. "Well," she said, "let's go."

She walked out. Lucas followed her and Malthus, Wulffast, and Selene left as well. They descended the stairs of the tv station and went down to the alley behind the pub.

"They found our base," Loraine said, "Everything was destroyed."

"And everyone?..." Malthus asked.

"They're okay," Loraine said, "They're good at escaping."

"So what do we do now?" Malthus asked.

Lucas folded his arms. "We need to find somewhere to lay low."

Loraine nodded. They got up and went into the pub. Inside, a heavy set woman stood by the door.

"Loraine," she said, "I heard what happened. You can stay at my place until things settle down."

"Thank you," Loraine said. She turned to Malthus and the others. "Follow me."

The ran out of the pub, looking around warily for soldiers. They ran up the stairs and up onto the street. "This way," Loraine said, turning right. She ran into an old looking house. They followed her inside.

"Thanks Chief," Loraine was saying as they entered.

"Chief?" Malthus asked.

"She's the leader of the Forest Fox," Loraine said.

"Oh," Malthus said to himself more than anyone in the room.

"Let's stay here for a while," Selene said while peering out the window.

Lucas nodded. They sat around resting for a while. Wulffast dozed quietly. He hadn't said much since the incident at the T.V. Station They all knew that he felt that any actions taken against Garden would be his fault.

Loraine was talking to the chief and Malthus sat silently thinking. Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door. After the first knock, it turned into a steady banging.

A girl ran down from the 2f.

"Upstairs," she said, "Hurry."

The group crept up the stair. The chief headed toward the door.

"Will she be okay?" Loraine asked.

"Don't worry," the girl said, "The legend goes that my mother brought down thousands of men with her cooking and beauty."

"Wow," Selene said, "That beauty part sure makes it sound like a legend."

The girl ignored Selene's comment and rushed them up the stairs. Downstairs, they could hear the chief answering the door.

"What is this?" she said, speaking to a Blackwald soldier. "I have two small children in here. Don't do anything to frighten them."

Assured that she could handle herself, the gang quit listening to what was going on downstairs. Selene went over to a bed. A small calico was lying on it. She plopped down and lied back.

"So tired," she said. The cat, disturbed by her movements got up and headed downstairs.

Lucas stood in the middle of the room with his arms crossed. Malthus could see that something was bothering him. He walked over to him.

"Lucas," he said.

"When he discovered it was just you three going to Redrest he was really upset," he said, "'They send out three rookie members on a mission like this? They could wind up facing the whole Blackwald army. Dammit, I'm going to Redrest!' I never would've guessed he was serious."

You should know by now, Malthus thought, That guys always serious.

He shrugged and Lucas walked off.

"I wonder what's to become of him," Lucas said.

Malthus looked at him. "He may already be dead."

Loraine looked up suddenly. "How can you be so casual about it?" she asked.

Malthus looked at her. "It's just the truth," he said, "Zikael attacked the president. You can't stand to reason that they're just going to let that go."

Loraine looked thoughtfully. "Still, I'm worried about him."

Worried about him, Malthus thought, Zikael would love to hear that. He chuckled to himself.

"How could you stand there and laugh?" Loraine said, "You're terrible! MEANY!"

She turned her back on him and crossed her arms.

What did I do? He wondered.

"Sorry," he muttered.

Lucas sighed. He looked out the window. Wulffast sat in a corner, silently brooding to himself. Then the chief came up the stairs.

"The soldiers are pulling out," she said, "If you're going to leave then now's the time."

Loraine nodded. Malthus headed for the door.

"Wait Malthus," Lucas said, "What's your plan?"

Malthus turned back to him with an annoyed look on his face. We have to get out of here first, he thought.

As if he had read his mind, Lucas said, "Getting out of here is only the first step."

"What!?" Malthus asked. He was shocked. Maybe Lucas wasn't lying when he said he wanted to get to know him better. He was already thinking the same as him.

"Garden Code, Article 8, Line 7," he said, waving his hand dismissively.

Malthus thought, 8:7,If returning to the home Garden is not possible, report to the nearest Garden and await instructions.

"We'll need to head to the closest Garden," he answered.

"Right," Lucas said, "good. Now, the closest Garden from here would be Blackwald Garden. Leaving Redrest, you take the train to the Northeast Station. You'll have to cross through a forest from there."

"Okay," Malthus said, "who'll be going with me. We need to split up. Five people traveling together looks to suspicious."

"I'd like to travel with Malthus," Lucas said.

"Me too," Wulffast answered. It was the first thing he had said since the incident at the T.V. Station.

Lucas turned to Loraine saying, "Will you and Selene be okay traveling alone?"

Selene nodded from behind Loraine.

"I think we can manage," Loraine answered. Lucas nodded.

Malthus headed out the door. Wulffast and Lucas rose to follow him.

Loraine went to leave, but before she could reach the door, the Chief said, "Wait. Take this with you."

She handed Loraine some items in case someone got hurt.

"Thank you so much," Loraine said. The chief waved her off and she headed out the door. She walked by and noticed a Blackwald soldier.

She drew her pinwheel. Hearing the sound, Malthus and the others turned to see what was going on. They saw Loraine with her weapon aimed at the soldier and ran up to help her fight if need be.

"Wait," the soldier cried desperately, "It's me sir!"

"Watts!?" Loraine asked, lowering the weapon.

"Yes sir," Watts answered, "I've got some info sir. All of the trains have been shut down."

"Bummer!" Selene said.

"Well, what do we do?" Loraine asked.

"We're getting on that train," Malthus said.

"Right," Watts answered.

"What about you?" Malthus asked, "Will you be alright?"

"Don't worry about me sir," Watts said, "I'll fight to my last."

He saluted. Immediately, the White wing saluted in return. Loraine caught on and "saluted" also. She kept glancing behind her. When the others lowered their hands, she did as well.

"I'm happy sir," Watts said. He ran off towards an old looking house.

Loraine sighed. She turned and walked off, Selene following. Malthus turned to Lucas and Wulffast. Wulffast shrugged and Lucas rolled his eyes. They turned and walked off toward the train platform and Malthus followed.

They were about to enter when an old, dirty looking man approached them. Lucas looked at him with a rather disgusted look on his face. He smelt badly of spirits.

"Wait," the man said, "Loraine, Malthus."

Loraine turned to look at him. Confusion spread out across her face.

"Do I know you?" she asked, leaning in.

"It's Zone!" he said, sounding slightly aggravated.

"Oh!" Loraine said and backed off.

"The train tickets are all sold out," Zone said.

"Super Duper Mega Bummer!" Selene said.

"What are we gonna do Malthus?" Loraine said.

Malthus looked at all of them. Lucas rested against the railing and crossed his arms. He was waiting for him to do it and he knew it. He really was getting to know him.

He reached for his gunblade.

"No, now hold on," Zone said, "There's no need for that. I've got everyone's ticket right here," Zone said.

Malthus nodded and slid the gunblade back in its sheath. Zone proceeded to hand out the ticket.

"One's for you Loraine," he said, handing his leader one, "I've got three for you White wing people. I'll give them to the leader."

He walked over and gave the tickets to Malthus.

"And one for me," he said, clutching another ticket.

Then he noticed Lucas.

"Here," he said, offering him the ticket, "Take it."

"I couldn't," Lucas said, "That's your ticket."

Zone rolled his eyes, but he didn't see him. He knew what he had to do. He clutched his stomach suddenly and fell to his knees. He glanced at Loraine, assured that she knew what he was doing.

"Just take it," he said, and forced the ticket into Lucas' hand. Then he ventured over to a corner and knelt down, still pretending to have stomach pains.

"Will you be okay?" Loraine asked for Lucas' sake.

"Yeah, I'll go hide in a bathroom or something," Zone said, "Now go. The train is leaving shortly."

"Thank you," Lucas said.

Selene and Loraine hurried on ahead. Malthus walked forward and placed his hand on Lucas' shoulder. He nodded and they walked over. They handed off their tickets and headed onto the train.

"Do you remember the directions?" Lucas asked.

"Northeast to a forest which we will cross through to get to Blackwald Garden," he answered obediently.

"Good," Lucas said, "I'm glad we have a leader with a good memory."

He nodded. With a lurch, the train left Redrest and headed towards the forest that had become their destination.

Chapter Twelve: A Rest Stop Before We Go

The train rumbled along the tracks. The ride passed without any events. Needless to say, it was quite boring. Malthus had attempted to talk to Wulffast, but he remained as silent as ever.

The train stopped and they got off at a small, deserted looking station. It was no surprise. The station was just a stop in the middle of nowhere. Malthus sighed and looked at the group around him. Loraine and Selene proceeded into the forest. He looked at Lucas and Wulffast. Lucas was fiddling with his whip and Wulffast was looking around with his arms crossed.

"Let's go," Malthus said.

"Wait Malthus," Lucas said.

"What is it?" Malthus asked.

"Before we head to Blackwald Garden, why don't we take a rest stop in Arcton? They've made great progress in cleaning up the city since the White wing Exam."

"Okay," Malthus said, "I guess, but let me tell Loraine and Selene first."

Lucas nodded, but Malthus saw a look of frustration pass over his features. He hid it well, but he wasn't quick enough for him. He could tell that he definitely didn't want the girls along.

Malthus ran ahead after Loraine and Selene, who had already left the station and headed for the forest. Lucas sat down on the stone steps of the station. Wulffast put his hands in his pockets and looked out across the sky. His brow knitted and Lucas could tell he was deep in thought.

He began scratching his neck when Wulffast suddenly said, "Instructor..."

"Yes Wulffast?" Lucas asked.

"Do you think Garden will be alright? Do you really think they're gonna retaliate?"

Lucas sighed. He looked down at the whip on his side. He had learned how to use the weapon at the age of ten. War was a big part of his life. It wasn't logical to have thought that his calm life in Garden could've lasted forever.

"I don't know," He said, "There's no way any of us could know. Garden has great defenses and all of the students are prepared for any emergencies. If everyone is ready, I believe Garden will be okay."

Wulffast nodded and turned back skyward. Lucas knew it wasn't much consolation, but it was all he had to offer at the time. He sighed and waited for Malthus to return. Soon he had come back and told them that Selene and Loraine had already started on the way.

Good, Lucas thought, We can travel alone now. It wasn't that he disliked the girls, but he just didn't want them around at this time. In fact, she loved being around Selene. Her bubbly personality brought something back into his life that he had forgotten long ago.

They stood and head down the road towards Arcton. There was a large forest near Arcton, but Malthus decided to ignore it. He could've sworn he'd seen rocks flying around though. Lucas walked into the town. He stretched a little. The sunlight poured in over the bridge they had crossed. It was near sunset and was soon to be growing dark.

Wulffast walked along the road with his hands in his back pockets. A dog was playing in the street. He recognized it as the same one that had annoyed Zikael during their White wing exam. Boy had things changed since then. He was so worried about Garden it was making him sick. He hadn't eaten in a while. He wanted to hurry and get to Blackwald Garden and fast.

Malthus headed on into the town, taking the familiar street he knew. The one they had used to escape the giant, spider like robot. If it hadn't have been for the man beside him, he could have very well been killed. He was almost forced to rely on his FS for his life.

He was amazed how at how young Lucas seemed, gazing about the town in delight. He had to admit that Arcton had made great strides since the Blackwald army had withdrew. It started getting dark, and some of the street lights had started to come on. Malthus arrived at the fountain in the Central Square where he, Wulffast, and Zikael had been posted. Loraine was sitting on the edge of it and Selene was sitting at a table at the café. They both stood when Malthus walked up.

"So what are we doing here?" Loraine said.

"Lucas had something he wanted to do..." Malthus said.

"Oh..." Selene said, making it very obvious what her comment meant. Malthus rolled his eyes. Wulffast sighed in frustration and walked over to a large building.

"It's getting dark," he said, "Are we staying here tonight?"

"Might as well," Malthus said. "We'll report to Blackwald Garden in the morning."

They nodded. They entered the hotel, checked in, and went to their rooms.

"I'll be back soon," Lucas said. He walked out the door.

"That's strange," Malthus said. He decided it didn't matter and layed down on the bed.

The sound of a door closing was what woke Malthus up. He saw Lucas gaze down at a Trading Card before he slipped it in his pocket. It had a likeness to something he had seen before, but he couldn't be sure. He shrugged and drifted back to sleep.

Chapter Thirteen: Crazy Dream

Where did you go last night?" Malthus asked Lucas as they prepared to leave Arcton. Lucas smiled a knowing smile and reached into his back pocket. He pulled out the Trading Card he had seen him looking at the night before. Then he realized what he had seen. An image of the FS Siren was engraved upon it.

"Where did you get this?" Malthus asked.

"The owner of the pub had it. I played him and beat him. Oh, and I meant to tell you. I have an Ifrit card too. I found it when we fought him."

Malthus looked as he pulled out yet another card with the Fire FS engraved on it.

"I also know that you have one too," Lucas said.

Malthus nodded. He reached into his side pocket and pulled out the card he had found of Diablos after their fight. Lucas laughed a little.

"What?" he asked.

"Well," Lucas said, "I know the creator of the cards."

"You do?" Malthus asked.

"Mmm hmm," Lucas answered, "And he's doing a little favor for me."

"And what is that?" Malthus asked.

"Well," Lucas said, "I want you to start practicing this game when you have the time. I'm sure if you play enough, you'll find out what I did."

Malthus thought that was really weird, but he said nothing except, "Okay."

Lucas nodded. He handed Malthus the two FS cards and said, "Here, this should help."

He thanked him. They saw Wulffast over at the cafeteria. Malthus was glad to see him eating again, and wasn't surprised to see that it was a hotdog over on Wulffast's plate.

After Wulffast had eaten, Malthus said, "Okay you guys, let's head to Blackwald Garden."

They nodded and walked out of Arcton. They began making their way back to the forest. Wulffast looked around the forest as they entered. Suddenly, a mushroom like creature appeared.

Malthus extended his hand and shot out Blizzaga. A huge ice crystal spread out from the cent of the monster, freezing in entirely. The creature shriveled away and died. Up ahead, they found Loraine and Selene waiting.

The forest was actually quite beautiful. A path of dirt had been worn through it and beautiful flowers covered the ground. Loraine was gazing at a rose. Selene was perched on a fallen log that was covered in moss.

As they walked up, Lucas said, "It's not much further from here. Just over that hill there."

"Yeah," Selene said, "And then we'll be able to find out about Garden!"

That drew Wulffast's attention. "Malthus," he said, "Do you think that Blackwald will really retaliate on Garden?"

Malthus looked at him. "I don't know."

Wulffast was desperate now. He latched on to Malthus's hand. "But, but, Garden has all those White wings. There's no way they would lose to Blackwald is there?"

"It depends," Malthus said, "A lot of Garden's mercenaries are just students and Blackwald is a large army."

Malthus snatched his hand away from Wulffast's grasp.

"But," Wulffast said. He shook his head. That's when Loraine charged forward.

"Oh you're just great aren't you?" she said.

Wulffast moved out the way.

Oh, boy Malthus thought Here it comes.

"Your comrade is looking for your support," Loraine said.

I knew it would be something like that, he thought. He glanced up at Lucas who was shaking his head. He knew full well that he knew what he was thinking.

"What kind of leader are you anyway?" Loraine was saying, "You should be able to help your friends when they need it,"

Whatever, Malthus thought. Loraine rambled on and on and Malthus decided that ignoring her was the best plan of action. Then he started having a familiar swimming feeling. He pressed his hand to his head.

"Are you even listening to me?" Loraine asked indignified.

Malthus felt a high pitched sound reverberating through his skull. He clutched his head and fell to the ground. Loraine gasped and stepped back. What was going on?

Suddenly, Lucas gasped and collapsed. Selene started swaying along with Wulffast. Wulffast crouched down and Selene said, "Ugh, me too."

Selene collapsed also. Loraine, with a look of fear painted on her face, turned to Wulffast and said, "What's going on?"

Wulffast returned, "They've went to the Dream World."

Ephraim looked out over the chain railing into the deep valley below. Where were they anyway? Edel(Selene) walked up and said, "We're lost again aren't we?"

Ward(Lucas) came up from behind them and said, "Oh no, not again."

"We're not lost," Ephraim said. He pulled out a map. It was upside down so he flipped it over. He started scanning over it, looking for any familiar land markings they had passed. The map sure was small for the region they were in. He glanced down at the bottom and immediately thought, Oh no.

The map read: Map of Nexus

Ephraim shrugged. "Well guys," he said, "We're lost."

Edel and Leo shrugged. Inside Leo, Lucas silently viewed the scene, thinking he was just dreaming. He did wander however why he would dream of people he didn't even know.

"Okay," Ephraim said, "While we're here, we might as well investigate. Make sure all of you are equipped."

On instinct, Lucas looked down through Leo's eyes at his inventory. He was surprised to find that his FS was still equipped. This was certainly a strange dream.

"Let's go," Ephraim said. Edel and Leo followed him. Surprisingly, the dirt path led them onto a catwalk. A conveyer belt ran underneath it carrying huge stones.

"What's this big pile o' rocks?" Ephraim asked.

Edel shrugged .Then the bushes ahead rustled.

"Hey guys," Ephraim said, "We've got company."

A soldier came out wearing a shiny outfit. His full head was covered and bug like eye slots allowed him to see. He carried a strange weapon.

"Azmarin soldiers," Ephraim said, "Still wearing those flashy uniforms I see."

Leo had backed into Ephraim now, and Lucas was seeing what he was seeing. Three more of these strange soldiers had come up from behind. It was an ambush.

"E..Ephraim," Leo stumbled.

"Don't be such a baby," Ephraim was saying, until he turned around, "Whoa."

The three soldier rushed forward. Instinctively, Lucas called out his FS, but it was truly Leo who had called upon it. The familiar purple waves crashed over the catwalk and the magic filled the place, turning it into a sea. Siren sat perched on her rock. She extended her wings and played her harp, sending out the violent waves of music. They tore through the three soldiers, killing them instantly.

Edel ran forward with the two strange blades he used and in two quick swipes the forth soldier was no more.

Leo looked up from the battle scene. He could hear rustling from the path they were just on.

"There are more coming," he said.

"Let's go," Ephraim answered. The three slipped away before the other soldier showed up, retreating to safety for the time being. They climbed down a ladder in the center of the catwalk. Once they got to the bottom, they found themselves deep underground, surrounded by a crystal like substance. That had explained the pile of rocks. This was an excavation site.

They began making their way down the path that was dugout in the ground. They passed an area that had been blocked off, but were lucky enough to find another path. Suddenly Ephraim stopped and stopped to pick something up.

"What is it?" Edel asked.

"Looks like some kind of old key," Ephraim said, looking over the rusted object in his hand. Edel and Leo looked at each other and shrugged. Ephraim put the key in his back pocket. Then he said, "Hey, I feel a draft...on my butt."

He reached back and said, "There's a whole in my pocket!"

Sure enough, the key wasn't in there. He looked around on the ground but still couldn't find it.

"Ah well," he said, "Nothing cheaper then something free."

"Nothing cheaper," Edel started.

"Then something free?" Leo continued. They stood there and looked at Ephraim like he was an idiot.

"What!?" Ephraim asked. He stormed off and they followed behind him. They continued down the passageway till they came to a place where three panels had been sealed along the path. Apparently they had drilled there, but found nothing.

Ephraim walked over the panel and heard a squeaking.

"Hey!" he said, "this lever's lose."

"That could be dangerous," Edel said.

"Exactly!" Ephraim said with a mad gleam in his eye.

Oh boy, Leo thought. Then he asked, "What are you talking about?"

"If we loosen up this lever a bit more," Ephraim said, "Then some poor Azmarin fool will come along and, blam! Fall right in."

Edel and Leo looked at each other. Edel raised his brows.

"And you really think that the Azmarin soldiers are gonna fall for that?"

Ephraim looked up at him with that same look in his eye. "It never hurts to try! Now you two move over there."

He started on the first panel, trying to loosen up the lever.

"Huh?" he said, "It's stuck."

He shrugged and moved to the middle panel. He twisted the lever and it fell away. Then he moved to the third panel. He went to reach for the lever when Edel said, "Planning to fall for your own trap?"

"Huh?" Ephraim said. He looked around. Surely enough, if he loosened the lever on the third panel, it would leave him no way out.

"That's exactly what I was just about to explain," Ephraim said, "I think we should leave the third lever alone."

Edel sighed as his leader made his way over. They heard footsteps on the rung of the ladder and decided it was time to leave.

They proceeded into the next part of the passageway, unaware that a soldier really had fallen into the trap. He fell to his death below.

Ephraim and the other two came to a place with two entrances. They could hear the sounds of the forest through one.

"The exit!" Leo said.

"Hold on," Ephraim said, "I want to investigate some more. Something's not right about this place."

The other two sighed heavily, wondering what trouble Ephraim was about to tie them into now. Ephraim proceeded through the other opening and they followed. It lead to a long pathway. Again there was a split. One path led up to a ladder that, as they would come to find out, would only lead them back the way they had come. The other one led up into more of the crystal like substance. Then it branched off twice. One led up to a path of more crystal while the other led into what should've very well been the walls to buildings. Stair ran up this path. They took it and came out on a path of crystal. They took it and passed a boulder jammed into the wall. It looked like it was loose, so Ephraim pushed on it. Sure enough, it gave and rolled away. They heard an Azmarin soldier cry out and the boulder dropped off some ways away.

"You're like a child," Edel said, "going around touching everything you see."

"Well, at least it got rid of the soldier. And now the path is clear," he said, "It's like killing two rats with one stone."

"Don't you mean birds?" Leo asked.

"Whatever," Ephraim replied. He stormed off down the passage. They followed him. They went down a flight of stairs and came back out on the passage of crystal they had deemed not to take before. This place was just a big loop it seemed. Ephraim was looking at a switch on the floor and a boulder nearby.

"What is this?" Ephraim asked. He looked down. It was a controller with two buttons to match two fuses.

"A detonator, one would call it," came the reply from Edel.

Ephraim reached down to push the button for the furthest charge.

"Wait," Leo said, "Who knows how powerful that thing might be."

"It's okay," Ephraim said, "the detonator's right here. If we stand here we should be fine."

Without further argument, Ephraim pressed the button. Suddenly there was a loud rumbling like a huge explosion far off. The smallest of the boulders rolled away, trapping two Azmarin soldiers in a wall.

"Whoa, that was awfully loud." Ephraim said.

"See," Leo answered.

"Well, it's like I said," Ephraim continued, "You never know how powerful the thing can be."

"Um, wasn't it me that said that?" Leo asked.

Ephraim ignored him. He pressed the other button.

"It's gonna blow!" he shouted, "Run for it!"

The three hurried back up the steps they waited for the explosion. All's they heard was a little "pft" and the larger boulder ran away. It rolled down and plugged a hole. The three didn't know that the rumbling they had heard earlier also released the two panels Ephraim had tampered with.

"That was awfully quiet," Edel said as they returned to the place with the detonator.

"See," Ephraim said, "I knew this little thing couldn't have been that powerful."

Leo rolled his eyes. Edel sighed. He had enough of this.

"Don't you think we've tampered with enough around here?" he asked.

Ephraim shrugged. "Okay," he said, "Let's head for the exit."

They walked back down the path. Suddenly, a huge monster stood in their path. It was strange looking. It didn't look normal at all.

It raised its hands and suddenly Edel was lifted into the air. He struggled, realizing he was in the things telekinetic grasp. This must have been those manufactured fighters he had heard that Azmarin was using.

Ephraim ran forward and called upon Shiva. She burst out of the crystal like substance and immediately showered the strange creature with a burst of ice. It froze up and Edel fell to the ground. Suddenly there was a high pitched whining.

"Back!" Ephraim ordered. The thing blew up. It had been set to self-destruction on defeat.

"Let's go," Edel said. He was so ready to get out of this place.

They walked back through the passages. No more Azmarin soldiers came their way, and if that loud rumbling they heard hadn't been the fuse, then what was it? They reached the exit and went up a set of steps. They came out onto a cliff overlooking the ocean. Ephraim peered over the edge.

"A ship," he said, "Guys, a ship! We're saved."

"A vessel one would normally call it," was the reply from Edel. Suddenly, three soldier rushed upward from the ground below. Ephraim gunned down the first one and Edel dispatched the other.

Leo launched his spear and it flew trough. It pierced the other soldier. However, before the soldier died, it sent its weapon forth with energy surrounding it, performing Soul Crush. Ephraim ducked and Edel and Leo were hit by the attack. They were all thrown backwards to land in a heap and the entrance to the mines was blocked off.

Ephraim crawled to his feet. "C'mon guys," he said, "Time to go."

Leo mumbled something weekly.

"What?" Ephraim asked.

"I think his throat was injured in the fight," Edel said.

Ephraim leaned down to hear what Leo was saying.

"Thanks you guys," Leo whispered, "Ephraim, Edel, it was fun."

"Hey!" Ephraim said, "don't talk like that or I'll be forced to give you the cucchi-cucchi treatment."

He bent down and grabbed slightly at Leo's ribs. A small smile played at his face.

"There. Had enough?" he said. Leo was silent.

"Anyhow," Ephraim said. "We have to get to that boat. And the only way to it is over this cliff."

He turned, but saw they were making no moves. How strong could that attack have been?

He moved to pick each of them up. Slowly he made his way to the cliff side and calmly flipped them over the side. The water would ease their fall and the Blackwald armor was made to keep them aloft.

Then he looked over the edge.

"You guys sure are brave," he said, "Do you know how steep this cliff is?"

He went to ease himself down the cliff side, but his foot slip and he plummeted to the sea below.

Malthus woke suddenly with a start. Lucas and Selene were coming out of their dreams as well.

"Well," Wulffast said, "How's Ephraim doing?"

"Ephraim's in major trouble this time," Selene said.

"Looks like this isn't the first time for you three," Lucas said, shaking his head groggily.

Malthus nodded his head. "More to report to the headmaster."

They all nodded and turned to leave. Loraine stayed behind.

"Malthus," she said, "I'm sorry. I may have said too much."

Malthus waved his hand, dismissing the whole argument. It's alright he thought. They turned and walked out of the forest.

Chapter Fourteen:"Blackwald Garden"

Malthus, Lucas and Wulffast emerged from the forest. Loraine and Selene had once again separated from them and now they traveled across a canyon towards the Garden. They could see it from where they were. It was red and gold, whereas Nexus Garden was blue and silver. It was a short walk to the Garden.

They walked on in silence. A lot had happened since they had left Nexus Garden. Who'd have known that so much trouble could exist in such a small town as Redrest? Wulffast looked around and sighed heavily. It wouldn't be soon till they found out exactly what was going on with Garden.

They finally reached the front gates of the garden. It seemed Blackwald Garden was much different from Nexus. It seemed much more militaristic in a way. In fact, students were being trained above them in how to fly some kind of fighting machine. They watched in awe for a while and then proceeded into the garden. Loraine and Selene waited at the gates.

"This place sure is different from Nexus," Selene said.

"It's quiet," Wulffast added.

"I like it," Malthus said.

They all giggled a little at that. It was so typical of Malthus. Selene looked around and Loraine and Wulffast leaned on the turnstiles required to gain admittance to the Garden. Lucas looked at them. All of them were in a strange place he knew, so he decided he'd take charge.

"I'll go on," Lucas said, "I know the headmaster here. I'll go explain our situation."

He walked through the turnstiles. Malthus looked at the others and shrugged.

"We should head on into the Garden," Loraine said.

Malthus nodded and they all proceeded through the turnstile. Lucas had already moved ahead. There was a light fixture on the floor. The universal symbol for Garden was lit up in a column of light. Malthus and the rest moved to stand near it. Malthus sensed a draw point nearby, and apparently Loraine did too, for she had already moved to it. She drew up the spell Haste and stocked it.

Suddenly, an announcement came over the intercom of Blackwald's system.

"Would the White wing party from Nexus Garden please proceed to the waiting room on the 2F."

They all looked up and then to each other. They nodded and headed down a hallway on which stairs could be seen. They proceeded up the stairs and looked around. There were two ways the hall led, an elevator, and some doors. In other words, they were lost.

"Are you looking for the waiting room?" came a voice.

They turned to see a red headed boy in a green wheelchair looking up at them.

"Yes," Loraine said.

"It's right over there," the boy said, pointing to one of the doors.

"Thank you," Loraine said. They turned and walked in.

Once inside the waiting room, Wulffast plopped down on one of the couches and immediately went into what Malthus had deemed his silent mode. Loraine moved past the glass table in the middle and

stood facing away from them, clutching at what Malthus presumed was a necklace.

Selene moved behind another couch, looking outside of a large window. Malthus sighed. He moved over to a desk and leaned onto it. So Lucas knew the headmaster did he?

As if reading his mind, Loraine turned and said, "So did Lucas go to school here?"

Malthus shrugged. How was he supposed to know. Wulffast looked up suddenly, his face red.

"How long are they gonna make us wait!?" he said, angrily.

As if in answer to his question, the doors slid open to the room and Lucas walked in.

"Well, I talked to the headmaster and they understand our situation," Lucas said. Then looking to Wulffast he said, "And Garden is safe."

Wulffast jumped up, a big grin on his face. Selene clapped her hands and for once, Lucas looked like he could breathe again.

"And..." came Loraine's voice, "What of Zikael?"

Lucas sighed, looking at the floor, and said, "The trial is over and the sentence has been carried out."

"Sentence?" Selene came.

Loraine shuddered suddenly. "Of course there was sentence," he said sadly, "Zikael attacked the president. We should know that they would punish him."

Lucas moved to comfort Loraine but she turned and said, "Don't you see! It's all my fault. Zikael knew what was going on. He was trying to help us."

Lucas sighed. "Zikael always did what he wanted to do. He helped because he wanted to. Not because your group needed it. So don't think of it as him sacrificing himself for you."

He shook his head after what he had said and plopped down on the couch. "I'm sorry," he said, "I guess that wasn't much consolation."

Loraine nodded and clutched absently at her necklace again.

"You really hated Zikael didn't you Wulffast?" Selene asked suddenly.

"Maybe a little," Wulffast said, "But he was one of us. If we can, I want revenge."

"Zikael was a troubled man," Lucas said, "but he wasn't a bad guy. He didn't deserve this."

"I don't think any were as close as we were," Loraine said.

That got everyone's attention.

"Your boyfriend?" Selene asked.

Loraine sat down on the couch. "I..I don't know," she said, "I think I was in love. It was last summer. I was 16. Good memories..." she left the thought unfinished and sat there silently.

Malthus moved towards the door. Millions of thoughts were swarming through his head. How could they sit around and talk about Zikael in past tense this way. "He wasn't a bad guy, He was one of us." Would they talk about him this way if he died? He wouldn't have it!

He went to leave. Lucas stood up and said, "Malthus, where are you going?"

"I won't have it!" Malthus said.

"Are you mad?" Selene asked, looking at him as if he were crazy. He didn't like that look.

"I won't have anyone talk about him in the past tense!" Malthus said, and bolted out the door.

Lucas looked at them all. They each had worried looks on their faces. He knew Malthus better than any of them, so he said, "Something's bothering him. We may have said too much."

Loraine stood and walked towards him. "Let's go find him."

Outside, Malthus rushed down the steps. He bolted past a guy in a long brown jacket. He caught a glimpse of red hair and a cowboy hat and he pushed on past him.

"Hey," came the guys voice, but he continued down the hall.

He got to the glowing light fixture in the center of the Garden when he heard his name. He turned to look back up from where he came and saw two faces he wasn't expecting to see at all.

"Malthus," said Keegan, "Hold on, we'll be right down." Gisela and Keegan disappeared from sight for a moment and then reappeared running down the hall. They stopped short and looked at Malthus.

"Hey man," Keegan said, "Did you hear about Garden?"

Malthus nodded.

"ZIKAEL?" Gisela asked.

Malthus looked at them and said, "He's been executed."

"What!?" Keegan said, and Gisela put her hand over her mouth.

Regaining her composure, Gisela angrily threw her hand out to the side saying, "LIES!"

"Yeah, ya know?" Keegan said, "There's no way Zikael would go down like that."

Malthus thought it over. He considered the possibility. He was sure Zikael wouldn't go down without a fight.

"FIND," Gisela said.

"What? We're gonna find him?" Keegan asked, "Hey, we're gonna go look for Zikael." Keegan said. With that, the two members of Zikael's posse ran out the door. Malthus sighed as he watched them go. Then an announcement came over the intercom.

"Would the White wing party from Nexus Garden please report to the front gate."

Malthus breathed heavily and then proceeded on towards the gate. He found Lucas waiting on him with his arms crossed. He looked up, relieved to see him.

"The others are waiting up ahead," Lucas said.

Malthus nodded and moved to walk on.

"Malthus," Lucas said.

He turned to look at him.

"Are you alright?" he asked.

He nodded and gave him a reassuring smile. He nodded and they both ran out towards the gate. As he had said, the rest of the group was there waiting.

Wulffast was pacing back and forth as he often did. "Man, I'm sick of waiting," he said.

Loraine was seated on a wall, swinging her legs out in front of her. "When he comes," Loraine said, "Just pretend I'm a White wing too. It'll be less complicated that way."

Malthus nodded. They heard a sound then, and a car came driving up from the Garden. It stopped and a blonde man in very official looking clothing stepped out. He looked at them all. They had moved to form a line and they saluted him. Loraine was a little late in her salute, but the man didn't notice.

"I am Martel," he said, "Headmaster of Blackwald Garden."

They kept their salutes.

"At ease," Martel said. Understanding the command, Loraine eased herself as well.

"We have received an order for the sorceress's assassination," he said.

"Assassination?" Malthus said.

Martel nodded. "This mission will be unlike any other. It is a direct order from both Nexus and Blackwald Garden. We cannot risk any action taken on the Gardens by the military. With the sorceress gone, they will be left leaderless."

The group nodded. Martel walked over and handed the order to Malthus.

Malthus read over it and then said, "This says by means of sniper. We have no one in our team with that skill."

"No problem," Martel said. Then he shouted, "Weaver! Arturo Weaver!"

The group looked over to where Martel's gaze was focused. A man was lying on the grass. He had already been informed that this was likely to happen. A butterfly landed on his finger. He pretended his hand was a gun and shot it off. The butterfly flew away. He stood up and turned to face the group he was to travel with. He walked over to them, looking them over. There were some mighty fine women in this group. He nodded to each of them.

"Arturo will serve as sharpshooter in this mission. Should the sharpshooter fail, the rest is up to you. That is all."

Martel folded his arms behind his back, walked back to his car and drove off. Arturo looked at them all. He extended his arm and looked at the time. Then he formed his hand into the shape of a gun and said, "Bang!"

They jumped a little and he laughed. "So," he said, "We'll need to split up and board the train headed for Saltfall City."

He grabbed Loraine and Selene and left Malthus with Lucas and Wulffast and said, "How's this?"

Malthus looked over the groups. They were balanced out and he was comfortable travelling with Lucas and Wulffast.

"Fine," Loraine said. Then she leaned over and said, "C'mon Arturo. Let's go."

She hugged on him and Selene, catching on did the same. They walked off, rolling their eyes at Malthus. Lucas caught on to what was happening and grabbed Malthus, saying, "C'mon Malthus. Let's go."

Wulffast clutched his stomach laughing and they walked out of the Garden.

Chapter Fifteen: On the way to Saltfall City

Loraine, Arturo, and Selene started out across the plains, making their way towards the train station that would take them to Saltfall City, the capital of all of Blackwald. Suddenly, they could hear a whirring noise. Loraine turned around to see a Behelmel flying towards them.

She lifted her arm, preparing to shoot her Pinwheel. However, she was startled by a loud blast as Arturo shot the fiend down with his Shotgun. It twirled faintly and then plummeted to the ground, dead.

Meanwhile, Lucas, Malthus, and Wulffast were also heading towards the station.

"C'mon Malthus!" Lucas said, "I want to get there before them."

"Why?" Malthus asked, picking up his speed nevertheless.

"It's the principle of the thing," Lucas said, imagining Selene and Loraine's faces when they realized that he and Malthus had been "impatiently" waiting on them.

"Whatever," Malthus said. Wulffast was lagging a bit.

"Yo, wait up!" he called.

"Sorry, Wulffast," Lucas called back, "but a White wing should be able to keep up with his comrades."

"Son of a…" Wulffast said, but was startled as they were suddenly cut off by a Blood fiend. Lucas snapped at it with his whip, but it dodged out of the way. It swirled around towards Wulffast, but Malthus was there, bringing his Gunblade down on top of it.

"Oh geeze," Wulffast said. If that thing would have latched onto him, he would have been drained in seconds. "I hate those things," he said.

They ran on. The train station came in view. When they stepped onto the steps, they were all relieved. Lucas breathed out a bit and then said, "You never know when a track across a desert, a stop on the beach, or a stroll through a forest can become a fight for your lives. White wing members should always be prepared for battle."

"You still sound like an instructor to me," Malthus said.

Lucas smiled a little and sat down on the train station bench. He worried that he was getting out of shape. He wondered how far ahead of the others they were. Surely it wouldn't be that bad. They had all left at the same time and Lucas didn't think they ran that fast.

Loraine looked to see Arturo had sweat pouring from his face. She was glad he was here. A great fiend had appeared out of nowhere and they were having a hard time with it. Loraine had never seen anything like it before. There was nothing in any of the Monster Annuals like this.

It had three heads, each with the face of a woman, and long tentacle like arms. And apparently, it was an excellent spell castor. She leapt out of the way as a Blizzara crystal shot up out of the ground. Thankfully, the desert heat melted it quickly.

Arturo suddenly reached in his pocket and pulled out many bullets. He looked to Selene and Loraine and said, "Run."

"Wha…" Loraine said, but then a tentacle fist lashed out at her.

"Just run," Arturo shouted. Then he pumped the shotgun full with the shells. He began clicking and shooting as fast as he could. The special jacketed bullets were funning right through the monster. He checked once more to see that Selene and Loraine were still fleeing and continued his Fast Shot Special.

The monster fell with blood oozing everywhere. Arturo put his gun on his shoulder and breathed. Suddenly, the monster began to rise again.

"No way…" he thought.

However, the skies became dark and bats flew in from over the cliffs. A large orb formed over the monster and a nightmarish FS came down from it. Then, with great power, it threw the Gravity Sphere downward, crushing the monster.

The FS dissipated and Loraine stood there with a grin on her face. She smiled and she helped him up.

"What could be taking them so long?" Malthus asked.

Suddenly, a very tired and dirty group came up onto the train station.

"What happened!?" Lucas asked.

"Don't worry about it." Selene said. She had cast Full Cure on all of them. She just hoped that when they got to Saltfall that she could take a hot relaxing shower.

They boarded the train. Malthus went ahead and unlocked the door for Selene and stood to the side as everyone got on the train. Selene immediately went to the door. When it opened for her, she said, "Tee Hee, you caught on!"

"This train, headed for Saltfall City, will depart shortly," The intercom said.

Loraine giggled and said, "This is the only train bound for Saltfall City anyway,". That made the whole group laugh.

Arturo looked at Selene and said, "I think I'll go look around."

He passed through the doors. Immediately, it seemed like everyone got anxious.

"I don't really trust him yet," Wulffast said, "Don't let him in the White wing cabin."

"Malthus," Lucas said, "Don't you think you should go check on Selene?"

Malthus nodded and went through the doors, just in time to hear Arturo pouring his heart out to Selene.

"Selene darlin'" Arturo said, "We were meant to be together."

"Y-yeah right," Selene said.

"You're my kinda woman," Arturo continued.

Selene sighed heavily.

"A sigh of love?" Arturo sounded desperate.

"N-No!" Selene said, jumping up and down.

Arturo hung his head and went to walk away, almost bumping into Malthus.

"Pardon me," he said.

Malthus rolled his eyes. He walked up to Selene to make sure she was alright after being pressed like that. She was breathing heavily when he walked up.

"My thoughts are racing and my heart is pounding," Selene said.

"You'll have to get used to pressure," Malthus said. He shrugged and walked away. Selene didn't think Malthus understood at all.

Malthus came back into the room only to see Arturo starting the same speech on Loraine. He almost chuckled at that.

"Arturo Weaver, behave yourself!" Lucas said, "You are a valuable part of this mission and we expect you to act like it."

"None of you get me," Arturo said.

He began pacing the room and looking at each of them as he spoke. "Sharpshooters are loners by nature. We pour our entire being into a single shot; a single bullet."

Oh brother Malthus thought.

"We rarely hang in groups like this," Arturo continued, "So just leave me alone and let me be!" he said dramatically, before ending with, "Get my drift?"

Wulffast punched the floor of the train and cursed under his breath.

Suddenly, the train slowed considerably and the cabin was shaken violently. Then, it regained speed.

"Attention," came the intercom, "There was no damage to the train from that minor vibration. Err..I repeat. There was no damage to the train."

The group shrugged as the continued on their way.

Chapter Sixteen: The mansion

Saltfall City, the capital of Blackwald. The city was one of the largest and most prosperous in the present world. The city got its name from its president, who named the city after himself as an everlasting symbol of his rule and his dominance over the rest of the continent.

It was also, Malthus thought as the train pulled into the station, the home of the Blackwald soldier Ephraim. If the tales shown in the 'dream world' were to be believed, this was where Ephraim had returned to after fighting the Redrest army. He had left the battle to see Julia, the hotel pianist who wanted to become a singer. Malthus did not know if those 'dreams' were real or not, but now that he saw Saltfall City with his own eyes he could not help but think of Ephraim.

There were numerous soldiers posted around the station, keeping a close eye on the people getting on and off the trains. Malthus and the others tried hard to act natural as they went past one of the soldiers stationed on the platform. Luckily the soldier, bored from a long and tiring shift, paid them no mind.

They headed straight for the exit, where a large escalator waited to take them outside and into the city. At first they kept together but then Selene, filled with impatience, broke away from the others and ran on ahead. After a moment Selene ran after her, with Angel bounding along behind her. Selene reached the top first and ran into the street. Her eyes widened.

Standing opposite the train station was the Gateway. It was built at the very heart of Saltfall City, and was easily the most prominent building in the city, next to the Presidential Residence where the president resided. The gateway was nearly one hundred feet high, and stood a symbol of the city's strength and prosperity. Stone statues carved in the shape of lizards guarded the archway. It was thought, by some, that the gateway's designer had done this as a deliberate slight against the president. Whatever the reason was the statues remained, and had become a notable feature of the city.

Despite being mid-afternoon it was dark in Saltfall City. The Great Plains of Blackwald, on the northern edge of the continent, was covered in a perpetual blanket of heavy cloud. As a result the land seemed to be forever in darkness, except for a few days each year when the clouds cleared.

Holographic lights were positioned around the gateway, projecting colourful images onto the dark sky. When Selene saw these her eyes lit up and she jumped, clapping her hands in delight. She was not the only one impressed. Wulffast and Lucas too, seemed impressed with what they saw.

Only Loraine seemed unimpressed. "We're going to Tiskon's Mansion, right?" she asked. She pointed down the steps leading to the street. "Just take bus 08."

At this, Malthus glanced at her. How was it that Loraine knew that?

"Sounds like you know this place pretty well," said Wulffast. Loraine said nothing.

Selene turned to Loraine. "We're going there already…?" she asked, her face falling. "You don't wanna check out the city?"

Malthus crossed his arms and looked down. …That might be good, he thought. Maybe Ephraim's back from his duties. But what do I do if I see him? The swordsman shook his head. No, he could not think about that now. What mattered was the mission. "We should go see General Tiskon first," he advised.

Lucas nodded, and Wulffast clenched his fists. The two then headed down the steps towards the street, with Arturo, Loraine and Angel in tow. Selene remained a moment longer, pouting, before she ran down the steps after the others. There would be time for sightseeing later, she decided.

Now only Malthus remained on the steps. As the others walked on ahead of him, Malthus cast his eyes around the city. All the hustle and bustle, the sights, the smells… the sensations… They were all the same as they were in the 'dream world'. It was as though Malthus was back in the 'dream world' again, seeing through Ephraim's eyes.

Seeing it all now, Malthus became more and more convinced that what he and the others were experiencing was, in fact, real. Somehow, his consciousness was taken from him and was placed inside Ephraim's own consciousness, allowing Malthus to see and experience all that Ephraim saw and did. How it was happening Malthus did not know, and could not even begin to comprehend. The fact remained: it happened. The swordsman placed his hand on his hip, looking around.

So this is where Ephraim's from…?

Loraine called his name. She and the others were waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs, next to the bus stop. Coincidentally, the bus was already there.

The bus conductor turned to Malthus as he approached. "To Tiskon's Mansion?" he asked in rather curt tones. He jerked his thumb at the bus. "Get on?"

Malthus nodded. "Yes."

They paid the fare and got on the bus. It was crowded with people, citizens and tourists, and so they were forced to split up. Selene beat Wulffast and grabbed the nearest available window seat. The fighter glared at her, but Selene just flashed him a smile and stuck out her tongue. Wulffast was about to take the seat next to her but Arturo got there first, slipping past Wulffast and into the seat. The gunman smirked and tilted his hat. Wulffast, infuriated, shook his fists.

The others took their seats. Wulffast ended up sat next to Malthus, who looked less than enthusiastic at having to share a spot with the loud-mouthed fighter. The bus set off.

At first, Wulffast tried to engage Malthus in conversation, trying to tell him everything he knew about Saltfall City. Malthus ignored him but Wulffast was persistent, speaking in a loud, annoying voice. He was eventually told to be silent by the hard-looking bus conductor and the fighter gave up, lapsing into sullen silence.

The bus drove down the road. It left the central area and entered one of the upper-class residential areas. Here the buildings were grand and tall, the gardens were large and well-kept. On the other side of the street was a large park. People walked through and some of them lay on the grass, laughing and talking amongst themselves. The bus continued to rumble down the street. Malthus looked out of the window, watching as the city went by.

Malthus's thoughts drifted to their mission. Something was troubling him. The mission was a direct order from Nexus and Blackwald Gardens to assassinate the sorceress. Why did both Gardens feel they had to get involved? Not only that, they were to receive their instructions from General Tiskon, the Blackwald army's top officer.

Malthus had heard of General Tiskon before. He was a great man, powerful and respected. Known for his tactical skills, many of the army's campaigns were successful because of his planning and decisions. To hear that General Tiskon was involved in a plot to assassinate the sorceress was a surprise, and also a concern.

Tiskon is the head of the Blackwald army… Malthus thought. Could this be a coup d'état? No… I don't think he's out to overthrow the president. Malthus played with the ring on his right hand. He looked down at it, and ran his finger over the carving. If a revolution was not Tiskon's goal, then what was it? Was it even his place to ask?

The bus stopped outside of General Tiskon's Mansion. The group disembarked and gathered on the street outside. They peered over the treetops that filled the garden and looked up at the building. It was a very large building, and looked much like a castle. The sheer grandness of the building left no doubts as to the general's wealth and status in the city. It certainly left an impression on them all… except for Loraine, who looked up at the building with contempt and distaste.

There was a soldier standing guard outside of the main gate. When the group approached the soldier stiffened and stood at attention.

"General Tiskon's mansion is right through this gate," he said. Please, right this way, we expected you."

Chapter Seventeen: Briefing

The soldier led them towards the mansion. The building seemed even bigger up close. It was certainly very grand. The gardens filling the outer courtyard were vast and everything was in perfect order. The building was well-kept, and on the side wall the general's family crest hung from a banner. Malthus paused for a moment and watched as the banner flapped in the wind.

The companions followed the soldier as he ran towards the mansion. The building seemed even bigger up close. It was certainly very grand-looking. The gardens were vast and everything was neatly ordered. On the side wall, the general's family crest hung from a banner, flapping in the wind. Malthus paused and gazed up at it for a moment, before running ahead to catch up with the Blackwald soldier.

The soldier was waiting for them by the front door. As they approached he unlocked it and went inside, leaving the door open behind him.

Instead of going straight into the mansion, Malthus stopped outside. The swordsman folded his arms as he gazed down at the floor, thinking.

Both Nexus and Blackwald Garden are joining forces with the general of the Blackwald Army, the swordsman thought. …Why? Malthus frowned, looking troubled. He then shook his head. …No point in me thinking about it. 'White wings aren't meant to question why'.

That was another quote from the Garden Code. Its simple statement meant that missions were not to be questioned, no matter what that mission might be. The only thing that mattered to a White wing was the mission and its successful completion. Everything else was irrelevant. At least, that was how Malthus had interpreted it.

While Malthus was mulling this over, Loraine left the others and walked over to him.

"Umm…" she began. "Is my contract… still in effect?"

Malthus turned to her. She sounded nervous. …What is it this time? he wondered.

Loraine looked around her. When she was satisfied that no one was listening, she turned back to Malthus and said: "Don't leave me in this house, okay?" She folded her hands behind her back. "Want me to explain why?

Malthus sighed. This might take a while… he guessed. He placed his hand on his hip. "You should know by now," he told her. "Just tell us what to do and we'll do it."

On hearing this Loraine felt relieved. She relaxed. "Okay, then," she said. "Thanks."

Just then the others walked up, and Loraine quickly left Malthus's side. Malthus watched her for a moment, his suspicions growing. There was no time to question her, however, so he dismissed his thoughts and led the way into Tiskon's mansion.

Another soldier was waiting for them beyond the doorway. He greeted the group and escorted them to a waiting room on the ground floor. Malthus and the others hesitated, but Loraine walked straight and bold past the soldier and entered the room. The soldier's head turned to follow her as she walked by, but said nothing.

When everyone was inside the room, the soldier closed the door and left them.

So the group waited. And they waited. Ten minutes went by and still they waited. Wulffast's pacing quickened. Lucas started to frown, and Selene's fingers tapped against the windowsill. Only Arturo appeared to remain relaxed, lying back in Tiskon's chair. The gunman busied himself by polishing his shotgun with a cloth, opening the barrel and cleaning inside.

After a while, Selene turned from the window and said: "What's taking so long…!"

Lucas looked up at Malthus. "He's making us wait quite a bit," he said.

Malthus, who had been examining one of the paintings hanging on the wall, turned to him. Yes, it was a bit unusual that it was taking this long. He would have thought the general would be eager to see them and tell them the details of their mission. Perhaps the general had been delayed in some way, or—

"Hmph… He always does this!"

It was Loraine who spoke out. Malthus turned to her. The woman lifted her head and turned away, her lips pursed and scowling.

"So discourteous…" she continued. "Making people wait." Ignoring Lucas's inquiring glance, Loraine rose off the chair. "I'm gonna go complain," she announced, before striding over to the door. "Everyone just wait here."

Opening the door, Loraine walked out. She did not go far before she turned and came back in. "Oh, by the way," she added, "this is my house. So don't worry."

At this Wulffast jumped, startled. Lucas, too, rose to his feet in surprise. Loraine, however, just smiled and left the room again, shutting the door behind her.

Malthus laid his hand on his hip. So it was as he suspected. Loraine was General Tiskon's daughter. He had first suspected she had a connection to the general when he mentioned Tiskon's name at Blackwald Garden. His suspicions grew when they reached Saltfall City, when Loraine had let slip her familiarity with the city and the way to the general's home. Now it all made sense. Of course Loraine would know. This was her home. Yet Loraine was also a member of the Forest Owls.

Hope it doesn't lead to any trouble, the swordsman prayed.

the door opened and General Tiskon entered the room.

It was easy to tell from a glance that Tiskon was Loraine's father. They both had the same dark hair, and the scowl that covered the general's face was just the same as Loraine's. Yet despite how similar the two looked in appearance, they were polar opposites in personality. Loraine was free-spirited, and unyielding in her will. General Tiskon was also unyielding, but he also thrived on discipline and strict order. This was a man whose skill in military tactics, along with his unbending will, had earned him a place in the top ranks of Blackwald's army.

"Where's Loraine?" Malthus asked the general.

General Tiskon closed the door. "She has not received the type of training you all have," he told Malthus, "and may become a burden. It's for the best that she stays out of this operation."

Now Malthus understood why Loraine had asked if her contract was still in effect, and why she asked not to be left here, in her own home. Loraine knew that her father would try and prevent her from participating in the mission. Was that why General Tiskon was so late? Was it all a ploy to lure his daughter away from them?

Selene stepped away from the window. "So you're Loraine's father?" she asked.

An almost wistful smile crossed Tiskon's face. "I can't remember the last time she called me that," he replied.

"So the father's a top military officer," Wulffast said, "and the daughter's a member of an anti-government faction!" The fighter shook his head. "That's bad… Really BAD."

Malthus looked at Wulffast in alarm. Despite everything that happened with Zikael, Wulffast still had not learned to keep his mouth shut. It was entirely possible that General Tiskon did not know what antics his daughter got up to when he was not watching. His eyes darted to Tiskon, watching his reaction.

At first the general did seem surprised. Then he sighed and shook his head. "Yes, indeed," he confessed. "It's a serious problem." He walked past Selene and went over to the window. He clasped his hands behind his back and looked out at the city. "But it doesn't concern you," he said. "It's our problem."

That's not the case… Malthus thought with a frown.

"Besides," the general continued, without looking back at them, "we have more important things to worry about."

Malthus's frown deepened. Garden's directive and Loraine's orders have the same value to us, he thought. He approached the general. "Once our mission is accomplished here," he told Tiskon, "we're working for Loraine, as per our contract. I don't know what your situation is, but please don't interfere when the time comes."

At first the general did not respond. Then he slowly turned and faced Malthus. His face darkened. He frowned, and his brows came together until they almost met in the middle. His hands came from behind his back and rested at his sides, close to his trouser pockets. In his right pocket, Malthus noted the distinct shape of a gun.

"And if I do?" the general asked.

Malthus's eyes narrowed. The warning was in the words, not the voice, which was deceptively calm. Yet Malthus recognised the warning. What's his problem? he asked himself. Without taking his eyes away from Tiskon, he moved his hand to the gunblade's hilt. "We're all White wings here," he replied. "We'll act accordingly."

From across the room, Wulffast raised his fists and smacked them together, grinning. Lucas rose to his feet, his hand on the whip-handle. The general looked from him to Wulffast, to Selene and then back to Malthus. The swordsman held the general's gaze, waiting for the general's next move.

"Hey, hey, hey… Fellas…"

Everyone in the room turned to Arturo. The gunman was still sitting in the general's chair, the legs tipped back as he rocked back and forth.

"We're here to knock off the sorceress, right?" he asked in a calming voice. Placing his hands on the arms of the chair, he pushed himself up. He slid across the desk, almost knocking over an ink well in the process. His feet touched the ground. The gunman then leaned against the desk and casually pushed his hat back. "So let's get down to business."

Everyone in the room remained silent. Then General Tiskon sighed and relaxed his right hand. Malthus, after a moment, also relaxed, as did the others. Arturo was right: this was no time to be getting into an argument. All other issues, including their contract with Loraine, could be dealt with later. Right now, only this mission mattered.

General Tiskon crossed the room and went over to the door. He stopped in front of it. "Okay," he said, "let me explain the plan." He then walked out of the room. Malthus and the others went out after him.

The general led them out of the mansion. The soldier who had escorted them to the waiting room saluted at Tiskon before opening the door and allowing them to pass.

"I'm sure you know," General Tiskon said to Malthus as they walked down the path to the main gate, "about the Blackwald government reaching an agreement with Sorceress Celestine."

So the sorceress' name is Celestine… Malthus thought.

"There is going to be a ceremony tonight to commemorate the event."

Malthus nodded. Then he frowned. Celestine… There was something about that name. He was sure that he had heard it somewhere before. Where that was, he could not recall. Had it been in the 'dream world'? No, that wasn't it. It was more like a distant memory that he had almost forgotten. When he tried to reach hold of it, the memory seemed only to distance itself further.

The general reached the gate and nodded his head to the guard, who stepped aside. Tiskon whispered something to him before walking out into the street. Wulffast and the others followed him out, but Malthus remained a moment inside the grounds. The swordsman looked back at the mansion. His eyes scanned the windows. There was no sign of Loraine. Had General Tiskon locked her up somewhere to prevent her from interfering? No, he was just over-thinking things. Tiskon was her father; he would not do something like that to his own daughter. Would he…?

The others were pulling ahead. Malthus turned from the mansion and ran after them.

"It'll be held at the Presidential Residence," Tiskon was saying as Malthus caught up.

The general guided them down the main road to the end of the street where the Presidential Residence stood. Both Tiskon's mansion and the Presidential Residence where Saltfall resided were built in the same district near the centre of the city, as were the houses of other important government and military officials. The Presidential Residence was the grandest of all these, and stood at the end of a main road leading to the gateway.

The residence itself was contained inside a square perimeter, surrounded on all sides by a high concrete wall. A strong iron gate was the only way in and out of the building. The gate was currently locked, though people moved about inside, carting boxes here and there, preparing for the evening's festivities. A clock stood on top of the building. It was already 18:30.

The companions paused to look up at the building. It was not as large as Tiskon's mansion, but it looked far grander. General Tiskon called for them to follow, and he led them across the street away from the residence.

"During the ceremony," Tiskon said to them as they walked, "you will be split up into two teams and get in position. The gateway team will enter the gateway and standby. The sniper team will stand by at the front of the Presidential Residence until the ceremony is over."

The general reached the other side of the street and stopped on the corner opposite the residence. He turned to the group. "This is where the sniper team will wait," he told them, "right here, where I am standing."

Malthus nodded, taking a note of the general's position. It was a good spot. It was close to the Presidential Residence, but not so close as to arouse any suspicions. Once the ceremony started, they would be able to blend in without being seen.

So, we're going to split into two teams: the sniper team and the gateway team.

General Tiskon turned and pointed up at the residence. "That's the Presidential Residence," he informed them. Everyone looked up at the building. "Once the ceremony ends, a parade for the sorceress will begin. That's when the gate will open. Lay low until then." He gave them each a stern glance. "The parade may be cancelled if there is any commotion. We must avoid that at all cost."

It was easier said than done. While Malthus knew they would not do anything to cause a commotion, the crowds were a different matter. It was probable that hundreds would turn up for the parade, all gathering for a chance to see the sorceress. It would take only one minor incident to escalate into something much larger.

"Once the gate opens, the sniper team will move out," General Tiskon continued. "With the parade drawing the crowd and the guard's attention, it should be rather easy to move about. The sniper team will head for the roof of the residence. In the corridor by the sorceress' room, there is a hatch that leads to the clock tower. There's a clock tower there housing a carousel clock. You'll find the sniper rifle there. Stand by in the corridor until exactly 20:00."

Malthus noted down the time in his memory. He wondered why they had to wait until exactly that time. Before he could ask, General Tiskon walked away from them and across the street towards the residency gates. He stopped in front of them.

"The parade will begin by the gate," he called. "The sorceress will be riding on the parade vehicle. After it leaves the gate, the vehicle will turn left. Like this. This way."

The general ran away from the gate, heading towards them. When he reached the road he turned and ran left, in the direction of the shopping district.

When he reached the end of the road Tiskon stopped. Instead of coming back to them, he ran back along the road until he reached the road leading to his own residence. "The parade will circle once around the city along the outer road and return to this space. It will return on this side. Then it will turn right…" He ran back down the road and then turned right, towards the gateway. "…And head this way."

When he was done with his demonstration, General Tiskon stopped running and walked back over to them. "Here's where the gateway team comes into play."

He motioned for them to follow him. The companions followed as he led them down the road towards the gateway. A few people walking through the square recognised General Tiskon. They stopped and turned to watch, but kept their distance.

"At exactly 20:00," the general said as they walked, "the parade will pass under the gateway." He led them underneath the main structure. At either entrance were large iron gates, pulled up. A door built into the wall led inside the structure. The general waved his hand at it. "At this point, the gateway team will operate the console to drop the gates. The sorceress will be trapped inside the gateway.

"At 20:00 the carousel clock will rise out of the roof, carrying the sniper team up as well. There will be no obstruction between the sniper team and the sorceress. Take the open shot… BANG!"

Selene and Wulffast jumped, and then relaxed.

The general, meanwhile, folded his arms behind his back. "Now we wait," he said. "You're free to go anywhere. Go check out the city if you wish. Just one thing," he added. He gave them all another stern glance. "Stay out of trouble."

Who do you think we are? Malthus thought in response. …We're not like your daughter. "We are White wings," he told the general.

General Tiskon looked at him, silent. Then he said: "Report to my residence when you're ready. We'll hold a final meeting then. After that, we'll proceed with the operation."

The general paused, waiting to see if anyone had any questions about the operation. There were none. The general then bowed his head and left, leaving Malthus and the others inside the gateway.

When the general was gone, the companions spread out. Malthus folded his arms and looked down at the ground. His mind went over what the general had said. They were to split into two teams. One would enter the Presidential Residence during the parade and wait until 20:00. The other team would wait inside the gateway until the parade vehicle carrying the sorceress passed beneath the gates. Once inside, the gateway team would drop the gates, trapping the sorceress inside. At that same moment the carousel clock would rise, carrying the sniper team up as well. Once up, Arturo would shoot the sorceress before she realised what was going on.

On the surface, the plan seemed simple. Yet, like their mission in Redrest, timing was crucial. Everything depended on everybody being in the right place at the right time. The sniper team had to be in the clock tower by 20:00. The parade vehicle had to pass under the gateway at the exact same time. A minute or two earlier, or later, and the entire mission would fail.

"So, what do you want to do now, Malthus?" Lucas asked, breaking into his thoughts. "Shall we go check out the city?"

"Yeah, let's go check it out!" shouted Wulffast. "We may as well, right? We have time before the ceremony begins." Next to him, Selene jumped up and down, clapping her approval.

Malthus looked away. He didn't have any particular reason to look around the city. He was much more interested in going back to the mansion and having another talk with General Tiskon. Loraine… He had to find out what would become of her.

"Well, I know I'm checking it out," Selene said, walking past Malthus. She lifted up the two broken wooden bars of her Flail, snapped because of the fights. "I'm going to the shopping district to get myself a new weapon." Folding her arms behind her, she leaned over and looked up at Malthus, Wulffast and Arturo. "Well?" she asked them. "Are you gentlemen going to let a lady go unescorted through a strange city?"

Wulffast pulled a face and rolled his eyes. Malthus, too, seemed reluctant to answer.

Arturo, on the other hand, grinned. He went over. "I'll go with you, Selene," he said, flicking his hat.

He tried to link her arm, but Selene nimble stepped aside and ran out of the gateway. She stopped in the middle of the road and turned back to them. She jumped, clapping her hands again. "Come on, come on!" she called after them. "Let's go do some shopping!" Then before anybody could stop her she ran down the road, leaving them behind.

"Selene, wait up!" Wulffast called after her. "Don't be so impatient."

Behind him, Lucas sniggered. "Impatient…?" he repeated. "Reminds me of someone else I know."

Wulffast looked at him. Lucas just laughed and patted him on the shoulder before running out of the gateway. Malthus and Arturo walked after him.

Wulffast, meanwhile, folded his arms. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.

Chapter Eighteen: Blackwald Parade

They managed to stock up on a few items during their trip to the city's shopping district. Selene replaced her broken Flail with a new nunchaku called 'Crescent Wish'—an attractive-looking weapon with silver-plated poles, each tipped with a star and a moon. Selene fell in love with the weapon on sight and bought it at once.

There were other weapons on sale in the district, imported from all corners of the world. Wulffast found a set of 'Maverick' brand gloves he rather liked, and Lucas spotted an upgrade to the whip known as the 'Slaying Tail', named after Sleipnir, the horse of the legendary FS Odin. Arturo browsed the gun section of the weapons store, admiring the latest models and topping up on his ammo. Even Malthus browsed the store, looking at the other gunblade models on the market, but he bought nothing.

When all the purchases were made, the group headed back to Tiskon's mansion. The general was waiting for them. He sat at his desk, going through some paperwork. He rose as they entered, and came forward to meet them.

"It's time to form the teams," he said, getting straight to business. He walked past Malthus and stood in the centre. "The sniper and the leader of this operation will form the sniper team," he said. He turned to Malthus. "The leader's role is vital."

Malthus lowered his head. …What does he mean? he asked himself.

Reading the unvoiced question in his face, the general explained. "If the plan fails for some reason…" The general turned to Arturo, over by the wall. "…Or should the sniper miss…" Arturo grinned and waved his hand. "… The leader must carry out a direct assault against the sorceress." He looked around at the others. "The plan was devised carefully because we intend this to be a covert operation. But our ultimate goal is to eliminate the sorceress, and we must achieve this at all cost." The general paused to emphasise that point. "Even if they uncover our identities." He turned back to Malthus. "So," he said, "who's going to lead the operation?"

One by one, all heads in the room turned to Malthus. It was an inevitable decision. Malthus knew, even before the general had asked, that he would be the one. He didn't like it, but it seemed he had no other choice. "I will," he answered.

Tiskon looked at him. "Fine," he said. "I'll leave the rest up to you."

The sniper team is decided, Malthus thought. Just the two of them would be enough. "Arturo and I will make up the sniper team," he said aloud. "The gateway team will be…" He paused and looked to Lucas, Wulffast and Selene, the only ones remaining.

Selene jumped up and down, clapping her hands. "Whoo-hoo!" she cheered.

Lucas rose to his feet and folded his arms. "Roger."

"Let's DO IT!" That came from Wulffast.

"So," said Selene, "who's gonna be the leader for the gateway team?"

At once, Wulffast raised his fist and began to punch at the air. This was it—his chance to show what he was made of. He would be the one to lead the gateway team.

Malthus turned to him. Wulffast looked so eager and confident that it would be him. Sorry, Wulffast, the swordsman apologised silently, before he turned his back on the fighter and faced Lucas. "Instructor Krimlan… Lucas Krimlan," he amended, remembering that he was an instructor no longer, "you're in charge." Behind him, Wulffast stopped punching. He let his fists drop as he sagged and shook his head, dejected.

"Okay!" said Lucas. "Leave it to me."

Out in the hallway, a grandfather clock chimed 18:45. Hearing the chime, General Tiskon pulled out his pocket-watch, confirming the time. In one hour and fifteen minutes, the operation would start. "Okay. Let's begin," he said. The general then left the waiting room, with Malthus and Arturo in tow.

Wulffast and Selene turned to Lucas. The former instructor took a moment to smooth down his shirt, and made sure that both his whips were hooked securely onto his belt. This was it. Their mission was about to begin. Lucas took a breath and then headed for the door.

Suddenly, Loraine was there. The woman ran into the room and crashed into Lucas, almost knocking him over, but Loraine was in too much of a hurry to notice.

"Hi!" Loraine said cheerily. Her face was red, and her eyes seemed to sparkle with barely contained excitement. "Finally got out of there! Did that man say something?"

'That man'… She spoke of General Tiskon as though he was not her father at all. The family feud between father and daughter ran deep. Lucas and the others shared glances and shifted about, uncomfortable.

"No, not really," Wulffast lied, avoiding Loraine's eyes.

Loraine did not seem to notice. She looked around. "Where's Malthus?" she asked.

Wulffast started to reply, but Lucas interrupted him. "I'm sorry Loraine, but we have to get going." He headed for the door.

Loraine stepped in front of him. "Hold on a sec," she said. Lucas did stop, looking at Loraine expectantly. He watched as Loraine delved into her pocket and pulled out a bracelet. It was an unusual-looking trinket, with a design Lucas had never seen before. Loraine grinned and she held the bracelet over her head. "Take a look at this!" she said. Her voice was overflowing with excitement. "This is called an Odine Bangle. I found it in that man's room."

Hearing the name, Wulffast jumped back. "Odine!" he exclaimed.

"Whatcha gonna do with it?" Selene asked her.

Loraine lowered her arm and looked down at the bangle. Good, she had caught their interest. She chucked the bangle into the air and then caught it. She threw it again. She walked forward, passing Lucas, continuing to throw the bangle into the air.

"It's supposed to suppress the sorceress' powers," she explained. "But, its effects are still unknown. So I don't think they're going to use it for this mission."

"If it's Odine brand, it should be pretty effective!" Wulffast told her. "They're NO. 1 when it comes to magical goods."

Loraine turned to him. "Right! Right!" she agreed.

While the conversation went on, Lucas had not moved. The more he listened to Loraine, the angrier he became. Loraine's plan was obvious: she wanted to use the bracelet to contain the sorceress' power, and defy her father in the process. Lucas folded his arms and chuckled to himself in disbelief. Was Loraine really this naïve?

"So what exactly do you want to do with it!" he asked suddenly, turning to Loraine. "Are you planning to have the sorceress put it on!" He stormed towards Loraine, his boots clacking against the floor. "Who? When? How?" he demanded, pointing at her.

"That's what we're going to discuss!" Loraine said back, unfazed.

"We don't have time for this," Lucas snapped. "Malthus and Arturo are already standing by. We have an operation to carry out, too." He walked up to Loraine. "You understand, don't you? This isn't a father-daughter quarrel. This isn't a game."

Loraine opened her mouth, but she shut it again. She clasped her hands and the bracelet behind her back. She turned her head and refused to look at Lucas. Lucas sighed and shook his head. Turning his back on Loraine, he left the room. Selene walked out after him. Wulffast remained a moment longer. He looked at Loraine, whose gaze was fixed on a corner of the ceiling. Then he too left, leaving Loraine alone.

The door clicked shut behind them. Hearing it click, Loraine unfolded her arms and looked at the door. So they had left her behind, after all. Loraine turned away from the door and looked down at the Odine Bangle in her hands. Her fingers closed around it.

"Who said this was a game…?" Loraine said to herself. She knelt down on the floor. "I understand what's going on…" Shifting, she sat down and pulled her legs up. She draped her arms over her knees. "It's not like I don't have a plan…"

Lucas's group caught up Malthus, Arturo and General Tiskon outside the mansion. Though Lucas said nothing about their delay, Malthus could tell from the look on his face as he stormed past him that it had something to do with Loraine. The swordsman glanced back at the mansion. At least Loraine would be safe here.

They left the mansion and headed towards the main gate. Malthus walked alongside Arturo. "I'll make the first charge when we make the full-on attack," the swordsman said to Arturo as they walked. "I'll try to buy some time."

"That won't be necessary," Arturo said back. "I'll get the job done."

They fell silent as they left the grounds and stepped out into the street. The streets were busier now, as people began to gather in the centre of the city. The crowds had already backed up as far as Tiskon's mansion and would back up further still as every person in the city turned out for the ceremony.

The road leading to the Presidential Residence was closed for the parade. Blackwald soldiers patrolled the roadside. It was easy to tell from a glance that the soldiers were nervous. It was no surprise. Hundreds of people were expected to turn out for the ceremony. Both excitement and fear rippled through the crowds—a lethal combination. General Tiskon cast his eye over the crowds before walking across the road. He waved for the others to follow him.

"So like…" Arturo began as they crossed the street. "Is it true that White wings aren't supposed to question their mission?"

That was a random question. There are times I'd like to know myself, Malthus thought. Like… now for example. But…

They reached the other side and weaved their way through the crowds. Nobody paid any attention to them. The general led them to a side street, cutting through a park next to the gateway.

"What do you care?" Malthus asked Arturo.

Arturo pulled out his gun and ran his fingers along the barrel. "So like… if you knew that your enemies were pure evil, you'd get more fired up to fight them, right?" He grinned and pushed back the brim of his hat with the gun barrel.

Malthus looked at him. …An enemy that is pure evil? he asked himself. Was that how Arturo defined it? The swordsman turned his gaze left. Above the trees he could see the roof of the Presidential Residence. He could hear the roar of the crowds gathering outside. Inside that building, the sorceress waited. Right and wrong are not what separates us and our enemies, Malthus thought. It's our different standpoints, our perspectives that separate us. Both sides blame one another. There's no good or bad side. Just two sides holding different views.

This mission was a good example. They were here to assassinate the sorceress—Sorceress Celestine—who was appointed as the peace ambassador for Blackwald. It was the view of Nexus and Blackwald Gardens, along with some members of Blackwald's army, that this was all nothing more than a façade. They believed that Blackwald planned to use the sorceress to create fear, and increase Blackwald's hold on the rest of the world.

Did that mean that Blackwald and the sorceress were evil, and that they were the good guys? No, of course it didn't. They were just two sides with conflicting views, each acting in their own interests. Good and evil did not even come into it. Was he the only one who could see that?

While he was thinking this, Malthus was unaware that Arturo was watching him. Arturo tried to read his thoughts but, as always, Malthus's face did not betray even a single one. The gunman smiled before sheathing his gun. Thrusting his hands into his pockets, he walked on ahead.

They left the park and came out next to the gateway. The crowds here were thick as well, though the gateway itself remained clear. The general led them through the crowds and underneath the gateway, with Malthus and the others close behind. Once underneath, the general stopped and turned to them.

"The gateway team will wait inside the gate until 20:00," Tiskon told them. He turned to Lucas. "You can enter through this door. The sorceress will pass through the gateway at exactly 20:00. In that instant, lower the gates using the control console located on the top floor and trap her inside the gateway." He jerked his thumb at the door, indicating that they should go inside.

Lucas looked at Malthus. The swordsman nodded. Lucas nodded back, then turned to his team and led them inside the gateway. In the doorway he paused, and for a moment his face looked troubled. Then it was gone. Lucas went through the doorway, closing the door behind him.

Once the gateway team were stationed inside, General Tiskon turned and walked out of the gateway. Malthus and Arturo followed the general as he led them back into the street. Nobody paid any attention to them as they made their way through the crowd. All eyes were on the residence.

The general led them to the spot he had taken to earlier that evening: the spot opposite the Presidential Residence. There he stopped, and turned to Malthus and Arturo. "You two will wait here," he told them. Tiskon turned away from them, his eyes scanning the crowd.

Malthus also looked around. There were so many people here. Soldiers stood guard on every corner, watching the crowds. Would they really be able to sneak into the residence with all these people around?

"General," the swordsman said, turning back to General Tiskon. "Why has the sorceress decided to have such an extravagant parade?"

The general did not turn. "She wants to establish her place in Blackwald Garden, since she has chosen it to serve as her base," he replied.

So that's why Blackwald Garden wants her out, Malthus realised.

General Tiskon looked up at the presidential clock, and compared the time with his pocket-watch. It was 19:02 precisely. He turned back to Malthus and Arturo. "It's starting," he said. "I'm returning to my residence. Good luck."

Malthus nodded his head, silent. The general looked at them both with a grave face before he walked past them and slipped back into the crowd. Within seconds after he passed the crowd closed behind him, and they were alone.

The general made his way through the crowd and came out by the gateway. His gaze turned to it. In an hour's time this spot would become a scene of violence and mayhem. If they succeeded, the sorceress would be dead. If they failed… Tiskon did not want to think of what might happen if they failed. Everything hung in the hands of the young White wings from Nexus and Blackwald Gardens.

Tiskon walked past the gateway. As he entered the park, the gateway door opened and Lucas came out. The former instructor's brow creased as he folded his arms across his chest. He chewed his lip. He seemed troubled.

Wulffast also stepped out. "Instructor," he said, "what's up?" Selene came out after him, looking at Lucas in concern.

Lucas did not turn. "Maybe I was too hard on her…" he murmured.

"Too hard?"

Lucas bit his lip harder. The pain helped him think. He nodded, his mind made up. He turned to Wulffast and Selene. "I'm going to go apologise," he announced.

Wulffast stared at him, confused. He scratched his head. "You mean… Loraine?"

"But… but… We can't just leave out post!" protested Selene.

Lucas looked down the street. The presidential clock struck 19:04. "We still have time until 20:00," he said, turning back to Wulffast and Selene. "You two wait here," he instructed. He then turned and walked away from the gateway.

Wulffast tried to call after him. "We can't just…" he began, but then stopped as Selene ran past him, chasing after Lucas. The fighter stared and shook his head. It was like the White wing exam all over again. He looked back at the gateway, and then at Lucas and Selene, heading further and further away. The fighter hopped from foot to foot before finally shouting "Hey, wait up!" and running after them.

Meanwhile, Loraine was still sitting on the floor in her father's office. She heard the door open, heard footsteps behind her. She looked back. It was her father. General Tiskon looked down at her, his arms folded over his broad chest, his stern face grave.

Normally, Loraine would stand up and face her father, but right now she was not in the mood. She turned her head from him and placed it onto her knees. She raised her hand and waved it, dismissing him.

"It'll be chaos out there soon," General Tiskon told her. "You'll be safe here."

Loraine did not reply. She just raised her hand and waved it at him again. The general sighed and put his hands on his hips, shaking his head. Loraine would never listen to him, or even believe him if he said he was only keeping her out of the mission for her own safety. As far as she was concerned, her father was just another member of the military she hated so much. Instead of arguing with her, the general did as she bade and walked out of the room, leaving the door open.

Loraine heard him leave. She raised her head. Her dark hair had fallen in front of her face but she told herself that she did not care, just as she did not care for her father's attempts to keep her under his wing. She was no fool. She knew her father cared for her and wanted to keep her out of harm's way. But did that mean he had to treat her like… like a child?

Loraine pushed back her hair and wiped her face. She stood up. Perhaps if she just talked to her father, explained her plan to him, then maybe he would—

A click came from behind her. Loraine spun around to face the door. The low sound of beeping followed, almost inaudible, except to those who knew what it meant.

"Oh no!" she exclaimed, as she realised what the beeping was. "He's gonna lock me in!"

Knowing she had only seconds to spare, Loraine ran to the door. There she stopped. For a moment, she hesitated. She looked down at the Odine Bangle still in her hands. An item meant to 'suppress the sorceress' powers'…

Loraine closed her fingers around the bangle and held it close to her chest. Her heart started to race. If she could only get the sorceress to put the bangle on, then there would be no need for an assassination. There would be no need for Malthus and the others to fight. Loraine knew then that she could not go to her father. He would not listen to her and nor would the others, Lucas and Malthus. It was all up to her. She was the only one who could carry it out.

"I… I can do it…" she told herself. Taking a breath, she ran out of the door.

Moments after Loraine ran out, Lucas, Wulffast and Selene ran in.

"Loraine," Lucas burst out, "I'm sorry, I…"

The ticking hastened. Suddenly it stopped, and the door slammed shut behind them. It was followed by another click, the sound of the lock turning. Lucas spun around to face the door. He ran to it and pulled on the handle. The door would not budge. He put his weight against it, but still it would not budge. Lucas released the handle and stepped away from the door, his eyes widening.

"Did we get… locked in?" he asked in disbelief. He shook his head. No… This couldn't be happening! Not now!

Selene stamped her foot. "…That Tiskon guy!"

"We're smack dab in the middle of a family quarrel here!" Wulffast cried.

Lucas again bit his lip. This time he tasted blood. If they were locked in here, then where was Loraine? Even as he asked, the answer came to him. A cold feeling spread through him. "This is bad," he said. "I'm worried about Loraine, too."

"What do you mean?" Wulffast asked him.

Lucas turned from the door. His face was pale. "Loraine's probably on her way to see the sorceress as we speak," he said. "She wanted to help us…"

After sneaking out of the mansion, Loraine made her way through the side streets until she reached the Presidential Residence. The streets were packed with people and she was able to move almost unseen. She carefully pushed her way through the crowds. She tried to keep as close to the wall as possible, which was not hard since everyone around her strained to get a good view of the residence.

Little did Loraine know that, at that very moment, Malthus and Arturo were also hiding amongst the crowd. They stood on the other side of the street, waiting for their own chance to slip into the residence.

The residence gates were open. A patrol vehicle carrying more soldiers came out. Loraine went as close to the building as she dared, waiting for her chance.

Her chance came after the truck cleared the gate, and the soldiers patrolling the residence were busy directing it along the road. The gate started to close. Loraine waited until the last possible moment before she darted for the gate. She slipped through just before they closed, and made her way into the grounds.

The outside of the residence was empty. Everyone was inside, preparing for the ceremony.

Loraine had heard someone in the crowd say that the sorceress was going to make a speech before the parade. She would probably be waiting in her room. That was the best moment for Loraine to approach her and give her the bangle. Loraine knew the layout of the building. She had visited it before with her father a long time ago, when she was very young.

Loraine ran around the side of the building. An old truck was parked up against the wall, surrounded by wooden crates. Loraine tried to peer into the crates, but they were sealed and she could not see inside. Stepping back, she surveyed the area. The walls of the residence were too high to climb, but she would be able to get onto the roof if she used the crates as stepping stones and then jumped from them to the roof. She could enter the residence from the roof, and make her way to the sorceress' room.

With that plan in mind, Loraine ran to the first of the crates laid out on the ground and began to climb.

"I'm not a White wing, but…" Loraine said to herself as she pulled herself onto the crate. She moved onto the next one. "I can do this…" When she reached the top of the first pile she climbed onto the truck and, from there, to the next pile of crates. "This isn't some kind of game…"

A jutting nail caught her finger. Loraine paused and sucked at the wound. Her thoughts went to Angel. She had considered bringing the dog with her but decided against it, and left the dog in her room. Angel was far too conspicuous, and now that she was here she regretted it. The dog was her trusted companion, and she felt safer when he was around. Kind of like Malthus…

Kind of like Malthus…? Loraine frowned and pulled her finger from her mouth. Yes, she supposed she did feel safe around Malthus. The swordsman was blunt and somewhat standoffish at times, but Loraine did feel safer knowing he was around. His presence made her feel braver, and gave her the strength to fight. Loraine smiled as she thought of him, and she continued to climb.

Loraine reached the top crate. She stood up. There was a sizable gap between the crates and the residence roof. Loraine braced herself and then jumped over the gap. She landed on the other side, wobbled, and dropped to her knees. When she was sure she was not going to fall she got up and ran on.

She ran along the roof until she found a ladder taking her to the upper levels. As she climbed up she realised where she was: next to the outer podium where the president would formally present the sorceress to the city. She could hear voices coming from the podium, so she kept low as she snuck along the roof to the rear of the building and slipped in through a back door.

Loraine made her way through the corridors to the sorceress' room. The door to the chamber was left open, and there were no soldiers standing guard. Loraine held her breath and entered the room.

Sorceress Celestine was sitting in a chair in the middle of the room. Artificial light streamed in through a glass dome in the ceiling, falling not on the sorceress but around her. A number of lucent curtains hung from the ceiling and draped over the floor. They caught the light from above, casting shadows onto the floor.

The sorceress had her back to Loraine. She did not seem to be moving. Seeing her sitting there, in that chair, Loraine suddenly felt afraid. The sorceress' power seemed to radiate from her body. It pressed down upon the room; Loraine could feel it bearing down on her. She knew what it was doing. It was trying to force her onto her knees, to make her kneel in awe before the sorceress.

For a moment, Loraine almost changed her mind and left. Perhaps her father was right. Maybe she would be safer back at the mansion, far away from here…

Then she remembered Malthus and the others. They were out there right now, ready to risk their lives to kill the very sorceress who sat before her. And here she was, alone with the sorceress, holding in her hands a chance to end this without any bloodshed. All she had to do was be brave.

Easier said than done, Loraine thought as she closed the chamber door behind her. It shut with a gentle click. Loraine flinched and looked back at the sorceress. Celestine had not moved. Perhaps she was not even aware of Loraine's presence. Loraine folded her hands behind her back, the bangle clasped in her hands. She took a few cautious steps and then stopped. She cleared her throat.

"Umm…" she began, her voice trembling. "Excuse me… I'm… the daughter of, um… Blackwald Army's, um… General Tiskon."

Loraine paused, trying to force the tremor from her voice. It was no use. Malthus and the others were not here. She was all alone… Could she really do this? Loraine shook her head. No, she had to persevere. The others were counting on her.

"I… thought I'd… come pay my respects…" Loraine said, trying again. "You know… 'cause of my father and all… So, I… um… brought you a small gift. Please…"

Gathering as much courage as she could muster, Loraine walked forward and approached the sorceress. It was only a short distance, but it felt like she was crossing a vast hallway, trying to reach a person she did not want to reach.

Loraine stopped behind the sorceress. Glancing over her shoulder, Loraine tried to see her face. She was still wearing that terrible birdlike mask; it was impossible to see anything of her face. The sorceress still showed no signs of acknowledging Loraine's presence. Perhaps she was in a trance, preparing for the ceremony.

The sorceress' hands rested on the arms of the chair. Her long fingers, encased in those silky purple gloves, were relaxed. This was her chance. Loraine held her breath as she carefully reached over the sorceress. She pulled out the bangle.

Something hit her. Bright white light filled her vision, sent her senses reeling. Loraine felt something pick her up and hurl her back. She hit the ground hard and skidded, sliding over to the door.

For a moment Loraine lay there, startled. When her head cleared she pushed herself off the floor and looked over at the sorceress.

Celestine still had not moved. Not a word was uttered from her mouth.

Loraine stared at her. Had the sorceress spoken, and she had not heard it? No, Loraine was sure she had not uttered even a word. Then what threw her back?

Her right hand, the one holding the Odine Bangle, twitched. Loraine turned her head and looked down at her hand. It twitched again. Loraine rubbed her hand. She then watched in horror as her whole arm started to shake. Loraine's eyes widened and she grabbed her arm, but she was unable to stop the shaking.

Suddenly, her arm was yanked up and Loraine was lifted into the air. She dangled in midair, held by an unknown force.

And still, the sorceress had not moved.

Something closed around her hand. It forced Loraine's hand closed and crushed the bangle in her own grasp. Loraine gasped as she felt the broken points dig into her palm. She struggled, but could not break free.

A cold feeling, like the spreading of icy fingers, moved down her arm. It spread across her shoulders and along her neck, her lips, and her cheeks. Loraine felt the coldness press against her head. She groaned and then shuddered as it forced its way into her mind, shoving her consciousness aside.

Loraine sagged. Her free arm fell at her side, and she ceased struggling. The force holding her released, and she dropped. Her legs crumpled and she slipped down onto the floor. The crushed bangle slipped from her fingers. It lay in pieces at her feet, small droplets of her blood staining its surface.

Now the sorceress moved. She raised her head and sat up straight. Long strands of iridescent hair rose and then melted, retreating back into the mask. When the last few strands reached her mask the whole thing shimmered. The birdlike mask split into two and pulled back to reveal the sorceress' face.

Sorceress Celestine was very beautiful. She had a heart-shaped face with smooth, pale skin, golden yellow eyes and full, violet-tinged lips. Her face betrayed no emotion, but her eyes were pure ice.

Placing her hands on the arms of the chair, Celestine pushed herself to her feet. Behind her, Loraine also stood. The young woman raised her head and gazed at the sorceress. Loraine's eyes were empty, her face blank. Her mind was overthrown, her body under the sorceress' control.

Celestine spread her arms above her. As she did so, golden spires burst out from behind her shoulders. They spread out and locked together. Two lucent sheets of cloth unfolded from the base of this golden structure, floating in the air. Celestine let out a breath as she crossed her arms over her and then brought them down over her body. The white cloth moved down with them, falling into place behind her.

Her preparations complete, Sorceress Celestine walked forward. When she reached the door, Celestine raised her hand. The door rippled and Celestine walked straight through it as though it were water. The door solidified behind her, as though it had never changed at all.

Sorceress Celestine stepped out onto the podium. President Saltfall was standing by the microphone stand, waiting to greet her. Beyond him, down in the streets, the citizens of Saltfall City began to cheer. President Saltfall turned to Celestine and smiled. He extended his hand, gesturing for her to come forward. Without a word, Celestine walked forward.

Down in the crowd below, Arturo turned to Malthus.

"Here she comes."

Chapter Nineteen: The confrontation

Here she comes," Arturo whispered to Malthus. The sorceress walked up to the podium. President Saltfall, still smiling, bowed his head and motioned for her to come forward. Sorceress Celestine did not look at him as she approached the stand. When they saw her, the people erupted into cheer.

Standing behind Celestine was Loraine. Deep under the sorceress' spell, Loraine's mind was completely overthrown. Her face was blank and her eyes were empty as she looked ahead, oblivious to everything that was going on around her. Her body swayed from side to side, much like a puppet being held by loose strings.

Arturo looked up at the podium. He saw Sorceress Celestine overhead, with President Saltfall standing beside her. Arturo frowned and turned his gaze away from her. His eyes fell on Loraine. He stared.

"H… Hey…" the gunman said in a hushed voice. "That girl…!"

He nudged Malthus in the shoulder and pointed. Malthus followed his pointing finger and saw Loraine on the podium.

"Loraine…?" What was she doing up there? And why was she just… standing there?

Malthus turned his eyes back to the sorceress. Whatever the reason was, he could do nothing for Loraine now. There were too many people around, and the gates to the residence were still closed.

Sorceress Celestine cast her eyes over the crowd. Hundreds people gathered before her, crammed together, all trying to get a glimpse of her. They were more like a swarm of mindless insects, drunk on the honey that was the promise of peace.

They had no idea of their president's real intentions. They believed in the picturesque setting he had painted with his words—a world without war, united under one banner. What the president had not said was that the banner would be Blackwald's. His words were not a promise of peace but a declaration of war against all those who would oppose the Blackwald nation. Any who rose up in defiance, would be crushed swiftly underfoot. And she, Sorceress Celestine, was meant to be the boot that crushed them.

Celestine's lips twisted and curled into a malevolent smile. She was one of the few who knew about the president's real plans. Yet what President Saltfall did not know was that she had no intention of being his tool of destruction. Her ambitions drove much further than mere world domination. Sorceress Celestine stepped up to the microphone and laid her hands on the stand.

"Lowlifes…" she began. Her melodic voice drifted through the air. "Shameless, filthy wretches. How you celebrate my ascension with such joy. Hailing the very one whom you have condemned for generations. Have you no shame?" Celestine shook her head. "What happened to the evil, ruthless sorceress from your fantasies? The cold-blooded tyrant that slaughtered countless men and destroyed many nations?" The sorceress spread her arms and lifted her head to the dark and cloudy sky. "Where is she now?" she asked. "She stands before your very eyes to become your new ruler."

Then she laughed. Her laughter was sharp as ice, and cut through the atmosphere like a knife. Yet the crowds, so absorbed in their cheering and revelry, did not seem to notice. It was as though they were already under Celestine's spell, cheering at her every word.

The sorceress' laughter faded, dying into the night. She lowered her arms and looked down at the crowd. "A new era has begun," she continued.

While she was giving her speech, President Saltfall looked sideways at Celestine. This was not the speech they had prepared. Confused, he went over to her.

"C-Celestine… Are you alright…?" he whispered. He reached out to her. "Celestine…!"

His last words came out as a gasp, for without warning Celestine raised her hand and thrust it out. Her long fingers pierced the president's chest like daggers, tearing through fabric and flesh, cutting through bone. Blood leaked out of the wound, spilling over his shirt and over Celestine's hand. The president looked down, and let out an agonised croak as Celestine then spread her fingers, slicing through his internal organs. Saltfall coughed, and blood filled his mouth. He looked at Celestine.

The sorceress had not even turned her head. With inhuman strength, she lifted Saltfall off the floor. The president tried to struggle, but his strength was drained from him and his arms fell at his sides. A burning heat started to grow within him. It grew and grew until it was almost unbearable. Saltfall tried to cry out to Celestine, but instead of words only steam came out. He was being burned alive from the inside! He was unable to move or defend himself. All he could do was watch as his skin started to blacken, and steam rose from his flesh.

Sorceress Celestine turned and looked at him. Her golden eyes, empty and unfeeling pierced his body as sharply as the fingers that penetrated him now. Looking into those eyes, President Saltfall felt cold, so cold that it took away the feeling of the heat that was burning him from within.

"This is reality," the sorceress said to Saltfall. She lifted the dying president higher. "No one can help you. Sit back and enjoy the show."

Saltfall stared at her. His eyes fluttered and then closed. His body fell limp.

Down below, the crowds erupted into cheer. Despite how easily they had been fooled, the truth of the matter was that no one in the city liked the dictator. To see him die at the sorceress' hands was something to celebrate, a sign that, at last, the ruthless tyrants of the world would fall. To them, this was the first of the many acts that their sorceress would perform in the name of peace.

Celestine smiled. She then turned and threw the president's body away from her. The body crashed onto the floor near the wall. Steam continued to rise from the corpse's body, still burning.

Sorceress Celestine lowered her hand. The blood on her hands shimmered and then vanished. Yet even though it was gone, the sorceress wiped it clean against her dress. She was not wiping it of blood, but of her contact with the president.

"Rest assured, you fools," Celestine then said, turning her attention back to the cheering crowd. "Your time will come. This is only the beginning. Let us start a new reign of terror. I will let you live a fantasy beyond your imagination."

And still the people cheered. They no longer even heard Celestine. They were too wrapped up in their joy to even notice the dangers right in front of them. Turning her back on the people, the sorceress left the stand. Loraine, still in her trance, remained where she was. The sorceress past her and walked across the podium. She past the body of the president without giving him so much as a glance, and returned to the residence.

She walked down the corridor that led to her chambers. An idea occurred to her, and she stopped. Her lips parted and spread into a cold smile.

"Let us end this ceremony with a sacrifice," she decided, and brought her hands together. She raised one hand high, and her lips whispered the words of a spell.

Her words left her lips and echoed back down the corridor. They left the residence and ascended into the air before diving down to the cheering crowds. No one heard the words as they drifted past them, the sounds of their own loud voices drowned them out.

The words kept on moving until they reached the gateway. They rose swiftly upwards, passing over the walls until they reached their targets: two large stone Iguion carved into the wall. The sorceress' voice passed through the lifeless stone eyes of the statues. A thud, much like a heartbeat, sounded from within.

On one of the statues, the eyes blinked. Its body rippled and the stone melted from its body, replacing it with cold, scaly flesh. When the stone covering its legs melted away, the Iguion raised its head and started to crawl along the wall.

After a few steps the Iguion stopped and turned its head. Its tongue, long and thick and wet, flicked out to taste the air. The scent of prey was everywhere, but there was one whose scent was particularly enticing. The tongue slid back into the Iguion's mouth. It leapt from the wall.

The Iguion landed at the foot of the gateway. A second Iguion—the other statue—landed behind it. The two beasts ran from the gateway and into the crowds. People turned and screamed as the beasts ran by them, but the Iguion were not interested in them. The target they searched for was elsewhere: waiting on the podium of the Presidential Residence. When the beasts neared the residence they jumped, leaping over the crowd.

Loraine, still on the podium, blinked as her mind was released from the sorceress' spell. She looked around, confused. Where was she?

She heard screams coming from below. The, above her, she heard a hissing roar. Loraine looked up and saw the two Iguion above her. They were descending fast, their mouths wide open with hunger. Loraine jumped back as the lizards landed on the podium. They ducked their heads down low and lashed their tails in the air. Their tongues flicked out. They pounced.

Loraine screamed.

Arturo saw the Iguion land on the podium, and he heard Loraine's terrified scream.

"Hey, hey, hey," he said, shaking Malthus by the shoulder. "She's in trouble big-time! We've gotta go help Loraine!"

Malthus looked towards the gate. Around him, the people were still cheering. They had not even noticed the Iguion fly overhead, or hear Loraine's scream. The swordsman pushed Arturo's hand away. "The parade hasn't started yet," he said back, sounding calm. "The gate's not open."

"You've gotta be kidding!" Arturo said, shaking his head. He looked up at the podium. The thrashing tails of the Iguion moved out of sight, and the sound of Loraine's screaming faded.

Meanwhile, Lucas and his group were still locked inside Tiskon's office. Lucas was peering out the window, trying to see what was going on. He could not see much, but in the distance he could see the Presidential Clock. It had just struck 19:25 and as it did so, Lucas heard the rising cheers of the crowd. The sorceress must have finished her speech, he realised.

"Oh no! It's starting!" he wailed, and turned from the window. "We need to get out of here, quick."

Selene was by the door. She pulled again on the doorknob, but it refused to budge even a little. She released the handle and turned. "We're completely sealed in," she said. "It's hopeless!"

Wulffast, over by the other window, rapped on the glass. He ran his fingers along the frame, searching for gaps where he could pry it open. When he completed his search he slammed his palm against the glass, causing it to rattle. "Not even a crack…" he moaned, and his shoulders sagged.

Lucas left the window and paced the floor. There had to be some way out of here. Perhaps they should break one of the windows and climb out that way… No, that was too rash. They would draw the attention of the mansion guards, not to mention the general himself. How could they explain how they had come to return to the mansion after being instructed to remain at their post? General Tiskon would be displeased, and the mission would still fail.

His pacing took him around the room to the wall by the general's desk. There Lucas paused, his arms folded, his head down. he started to bite his lip but stopped himself. They just needed to stay calm and think things through. General Tiskon was an intelligent man. Would he really put such a lock on his door so he could lock people in his office whenever he pleased? It was more likely used as a delay mechanism, to hold intruders at bay while the general escaped.

If that was the case, Lucas reasoned, then how did he do it? How did the general escape from this room?

The instructor raised his head and looked around. A painting of a pretty yet plain-looking woman hung on the wall. In the woman's hands she held a cup, a wine glass to be exact. The glass had no wine in it. That was odd.

A thought occurred to him, and Lucas walked to the glass case at the other end of the room. Lucas peered inside. Yes, there were wine glasses in the cabinet, much like the one in the painting. Lucas took one of the glasses from the shelf and examined it. It was expensive-looking, but it looked as though it had never been used. Lucas tapped his finger on the glass. Why would the general keep glasses here if they were never used? Not for decoration, surely.

Turning again, Lucas walked back to the painting, taking the wine glass with him. He was aware of Wulffast and Selene watching him as he moved, but he paid no attention to them. His thoughts were racing. He stopped in front of the painting and looked at it again. Yes, it was as he thought. The wine glass in the painting was the same as the ones on the shelf.

His excitement growing, Lucas looked around the room. In the far corner was a hollowed stone pillar, built into the wall. Standing inside the alcove was a marble statue—a statue of a woman. Lucas hurried over to it. The hands of the statue were folded in front of it. They were slightly parted with the palms facing upwards, as though she was meant to be holding something.

Now certain he was onto the general's secret, Lucas placed the glass in the statue's hands. The hands depressed and there was the sound of a click. The statue rotated to the side, sliding into the alcove to reveal a hidden tunnel.

Wulffast and Selene ran up behind her. "NO WAY!" Wulffast exclaimed.

"Pretty sneak-y!" said Selene, leaning over.

So there it was: a way out. Lucas folded his arms and said: "Let's go."

"But we don't even know where it leads!" Selene protested.

"No use staying here," Wulffast pointed out. He gave her a tap on the head.

Selene looked thoughtful, and then nodded her head. Wulffast was right. There was no use in them staying locked up in here. Even if they did not know where this tunnel led, at least it would take them away from here.

The group entered the tunnel. It was dimly lit, and as soon as they passed through the door the statue rotated back into place, sealing them inside. The tunnel was plunged into darkness save for a little light that came from further down the tunnel. They headed towards it.

As they walked down a set of stairs, they came upon the source of the light. A metal grate in the ceiling allowed light from above to filter down into the tunnel. Though they could not reach the gate, they could see trees and a lamppost—part of the general's gardens. The tunnel was taking them out of the house and beneath the gardens. Their hopes rose. Perhaps they could escape, after all!

They followed the steps down until they reached a ladder. This also led down, heading deeper under the ground. A faint yet foul smell drifted up from below: the sewers. They climbed down.

The sewers were a vast network of underground tunnels that wound beneath the streets of Saltfall City. Rivers of water pumped through the tunnels, and they were surprised to see that the water appeared to be quite clean. Waterwheels churned the waters, keeping them moving and eliminating some of the muck and grime. Narrow walkways lined the gutters and it was upon these that Lucas's group walked, following the only paths open to them.

They came upon their first obstacle almost immediately. A large metal gate, rusted with age, blocked the path ahead of them. Lucas turned the handle, but it was locked. He crossed the wooden bridge that connected the walkway they were on with the other gate, and tried that one. That was locked, as well.

The group turned and left the gates. They looked around. Another gate stood on the opposite side, and this one was open. The problem was that the walkways were not connected, and the gap between the two was too far to jump.

Next to the bridge, a waterwheel turned. Lucas looked at it, and had an idea. He said that if they climbed on the waterwheel, it would carry them within reach of the other side. At first Wulffast was sceptical, but Lucas ignored him and climbed onto the wheel. Wulffast and Selene held their breaths as the wheel carried him up and then over, but before the wheel could turn away beneath him, he jumped and landed on the other side. He stood and signalled for the others to follow him.

They went through the gate and hurried down the walkway. They passed under another grate in the ceiling, through which they could hear the sounds of people cheering. It seemed they had left the mansion grounds and were now under the city proper. They hurried on.

They were just approaching the next open gate when music started to play above them. The group stopped and looked up.

"It's starting," Wulffast said.

The music grew louder. It boomed through the ceiling, drowning out the cheers of the people above.

Almost directly above them, the parade was beginning. Malthus and Arturo watched as dancers gathered in front of the main gates and started to dance in time with the music. Dressed in an assortment of vibrant colours, they performed a rhythmic, yet almost sinister dance. Their faces were hidden behind masks and their bodies bent and moved in almost perfect time. It was a chilling sight.

The dancers started to move along the road. As they did so, the gates to the residence opened. The parade vehicle was waiting beyond, and when the gates opened the car roared into life and moved out of the drive. The parade vehicle was just as extravagantly decorated as the dancers, and sitting on a throne at the head of the vehicle was the sorceress. Sorceress Celestine lay back in her throne and her cold, yellow eyes passed over the throng of people cheering before her.

A firework shot into the air and exploded. More fireworks followed, plastering the dark sky with shards of colour. More dancers moved in behind the parade vehicle as it left the drive and started to turn left, just as Tiskon said it would.

Arturo turned to Malthus. "Now's our chance," he whispered. "Come on!"

He started to push his way forward. When he realised that Malthus was not following, he turned and ran back.

"What are you waiting for!" the gunman said in a sharp voice. "Loraine might die!"

That shook Malthus from his reverie. He pushed past Arturo and headed into the crowd. When they reached the road they ducked down low and ran along the street, heading towards the residence. No one paid any attention to them as they went by, not even the patrolling soldiers. All eyes were for the sorceress alone.

The duo approached the parade vehicle as it turned down the road. The sorceress was looking away from them, her gaze elsewhere. Malthus spared a quick glance up the side of the vehicle. As he did so, his heart almost stopped dead.

Zikael was on the parade vehicle. He stood close to the sorceress, his blade drawn and raised into the air. There was a smile on his face. Malthus could not believe his eyes. Zikael… He was alive…!

Zikael lowered his sword and rested it, tip-down, upon the roof of the vehicle. He gazed down at the crowd with a look of contempt, and then ran a hand through his slicked-back hair. He did not see Malthus.

The parade vehicle passed. Malthus kept on running, trying to focus his thoughts. So Zikael was alive, and he was with the sorceress. What did this mean…? Malthus shook his head. Forget Zikael, he told himself, what about Loraine!

As General Tiskon had predicted, there was no one guarding the gates. Malthus and Arturo passed through unseen and slipped into the grounds. They ran around to the side of the building and, using the same method Loraine had used, climbed onto the roof. Instead of sneaking around to the rear, like Loraine had, they climbed straight onto the podium.

The body of President Saltfall was still on the ground. The steam had died away, and his skin and clothing were charred black. Malthus could not feel any sympathy for him. The Blackwald president was a ruthless dictator with a long history of cruelty and oppression. There would be no one to mourn his passing.

Loraine was nowhere to be seen, and neither were the two Iguion. Malthus stopped and looked around him. Where was she? Where was Loraine? As though in answer, a terrified scream—Loraine's—came from inside the residence. Malthus and Arturo hurried inside.

They found Loraine inside the sorceress' chamber. She was on the ground, her Pinwheel lodged in the wall next to the entrance. The two Iguion were standing over her, their teeth bared, ready to strike.

"Loraine!" shouted Malthus.

Loraine did not move. The two Iguion, however, heard him and raised their heads. They bared their teeth as they turned towards him. Malthus drew his gunblade and stormed into the room to face them.

One of the Iguion screeched and ran forward. It leapt at him, and Malthus ducked and swung his sword. The blade caught the monster's throat and a deep gash was ripped in the flesh. Blood oozed out of the wound and scales were ripped from the monster's skin, falling onto the blade. The Iguion dropped and writhed for a second or two, and then lay still.

The other Iguion stared at its fallen companion. The scent of blood filled its nostrils. Its senses heightened by the scent, it also made a run at them. Malthus dived to one side as the beast snapped its jaws. The Iguion turned and swung a clawed hand at him.

A gunshot sounded. The Iguion shrieked and drew back, staggering, a bleeding bullet wound in its right shoulder. Arturo reloaded his shotgun and nodded his head at Malthus. "Go!" he ordered. "Help Loraine!" Arturo then fired again. The Iguion shrieked again, a second wound in its scaly hide.

Malthus took the gunman's advice and made a run for Loraine. The Iguion saw him move and leapt, dodging another shot from Arturo and landing in front of Malthus. Now the beast stood between him and Loraine. Malthus glanced at her. She still had not moved. Malthus stepped back and raised his sword. If this was how the Iguion wanted to play it, then he would have to cut his way through. He charged.

It took only a few strikes to finally subdue the beast. The blood loss from the wounds to its shoulder and hide hampered its reflexes, making it slow to respond. It could not defend against both Malthus and Arturo at once. A few more shots to its neck and side, and one deep thrust to the gut, and the Iguion slumped.

Even as the creature lay dying, Malthus could feel the presence of a FS inside of it. The swordsman laid his hand on the Iguion's hind legs and drew the FS from its body. The FS was Kihog, a small spirit who bestowed the summoner with the ability to reflect magic. Against a sorceress, a FS like this would be very handy.

Once the FS was drawn from its body, the Iguion shuddered and lay still. After a moment, the bodies of the two lizards stiffened, turning back into stone. They started to crumble, dissolving into dust. Malthus turned his back on the creatures and sheathed his sword. He ran over to Loraine.

Loraine was still on the ground. Malthus ran to her side and knelt down beside her. He looked her over. Malthus sighed in relief; she was alive. Her hair hid most of her face from view, but he could see her chest move as she breathed. Malthus reached out to her and touched her shoulder. She flinched at his touch, and her whole body started to tremble.

"I was scared…" he heard her say.

Malthus drew back his hand and stood up. He turned away from her. Loraine raised her head and looked up at him. She sat up and pushed back her hair. Suddenly she reached out and grasped hold of Malthus's hand. She held it tight.

"…Really scared," she said.

Malthus did not turn to look at her. "It's over now," he told her.

He tried to pull his hand away, but Loraine would not relinquish her hold. "I was scared…" she said again, her voice trembling. She tugged on his hand. "I was really, really scared."

Now Malthus turned his head and looked down at her. "You're used to battles, aren't you?" he asked.

Loraine lowered her head. One hand slipped from his and fell against her side. "I couldn't…" she whispered. "I just couldn't. I couldn't fight alone…"

She started to tremble again. She choked, fighting back the tears. Malthus watched her. …You're not ready for all of this, he thought. This was exactly the reason why General Tiskon had tried to keep her out of this mission. She was not trained to deal with situations like these. Malthus pulled his hand free of her grasp and looked away again. "Better get going," he told her. Back to the mansion where you'll be safe, he added to himself. He started to walk off.

Loraine's head snapped up. She saw him walking away from her. Pushing herself to her feet, she ran over and grabbed hold of his hand again. Malthus stopped and looked back. Loraine held his hand tightly in hers, too afraid to let go. She was trembling again, and her breathing was shaky. She truly was very afraid.

Malthus knew why she was afraid. She had said it herself. Alone… She was afraid to be left alone. Here, or in her father's mansion.

"I haven't forgotten your order," he reassured her. Even as he said it, he knew those words were not enough. Loraine was shaken, shocked by her own fear. The swordsman sighed and shook his head. This was not how the mission was supposed to go. Yet he could not send her back to the mansion by herself, not now. She would never make it out. He looked at her. "Just stay close to me," he told her, his voice stern.

Without saying a word, Loraine nodded. She released his hand.

With that business dealt with, Malthus headed for the door. Loraine stayed close behind him, still silent.

Arturo was waiting for them by the door. His gun was resting on his shoulder and he had Loraine's Pinwheel in his hand, which he had pulled from the wall. The gunman smiled at Loraine and flicked his hat before holding the Pinwheel out to her. She hesitated and then took it from him, reattaching it to her arm. She gave him a small smile of thanks. Arturo nodded at her. She would be alright.

They headed back into the corridor. Malthus spotted the hatch Loraine's father had mentioned and knelt down beside it. It was unlocked and opened easily to reveal a narrow stairway. The swordsman shared a glance with Arturo before climbing down the stairwell and into the clock tower.

For now, the clock tower was dark. Several hologram stands encircled the room, but these were switched off. At 20:00 the tower would activate and these stands would spring into life, projecting holographic images as the tower rose out of the roof of the residence to announce the hour. That would be their signal. At that moment, the sorceress would be trapped inside the gateway. Then they would strike… and end her life.

The sniper rifle that Tiskon spoke of was lying on the ground at the foot of the stairs. Malthus went over and picked it up. It was a fine rifle, one of Blackwald's best. It was fitted with the most improved add-ons to ensure that it fired long and straight. Only one round was fitted into the barrel. There was no need for any more—they would only get one chance. Turning to Arturo, Malthus held out the rifle.

"Arturo Weaver," the swordsman said, "it's in your hands now."

Arturo looked at the rifle that Malthus held out to him. The smile on his face faded, and his lips pursed together. He took the rifle and then turned away. Without a word he walked over to the other end of the clock tower until he reached the far wall. He leaned against it and then, slowly, sank onto the ground.

Malthus watched him, confused by this sudden change in Arturo's behaviour. Huh…? Why'd he get all quiet? he asked himself. Behind him, Loraine walked over to one of the hologram stands and sat down. The swordsman placed his hand on his hip and tilted his head. Loneliness of the sharpshooter… Malthus thought, recalling the gunman's words. I guess he has a point.

Malthus turned his attention away from Arturo and looked around at the clock tower.

Can't hear anything from in here… he thought as he gazed around at the walls. …What's going on with the parade, I wonder?

Thinking about the parade reminded him of Zikael. The swordsman stopped and laid his hand on his hip again.

Zikael… So he's alive.

Malthus moved to stand by one of the hologram stands. He sat down on it and then looked over at Loraine, sitting across from him, deep in thought. Malthus wondered… Should he tell her about Zikael? Would she be happy to hear that he was still alive, after all?

"Loraine," he began. Loraine looked up at him. "Zikael's alive. He was in the parade with the sorceress."

Somehow Loraine did not seem thrilled to hear the news, nor did she seem surprised. After her failure with the sorceress, there was little that could surprise her now. "…What does it mean?" she asked him.

Malthus shrugged. "Who knows?" he admitted.

He then looked down and frowned. If I were to face the sorceress directly… he thought. Would I have to go through Zikael? The swordsman shook his head and sighed. …That's the way it goes as a White wing. You can't choose your enemies.

"I may end up killing Zikael," he told her, looking up.

Loraine's shoulders tensed. She drew her legs up, kicked them in the air for a second or two and then swung them back down. She lowered her head.

"You're both… prepared, right?" She raised her head and looked at him. "That's the kind of world you live in. You've had a lot of emotional training. But… Of course," she added quickly averting her gaze, "I'd rather it not happen…"

Malthus could not answer her. He raised his head and looked at the ceiling. Was he prepared? He had trained all his life for moments like this. Zikael was a Nexus Garden student, a comrade. Yet he had chosen to side with the sorceress. That choice made him an enemy. On that point, Malthus figured he probably could kill Zikael, if it was necessary. It was, as Loraine said, the kind of world he lived in.

But did he want to kill Zikael…?

"It's all up to Arturo," Malthus said simply.

Loraine did not reply. Malthus left her and walked over to Arturo. The gunman was still sitting on the floor, the rifle resting against his shoulder. His hat had fallen forward, so Malthus could not see his face.

What he could see, though, was that Arturo was trembling.

Malthus knelt down. Huh… Is he freakin' out! "Don't tell me you're getting the jitters," he said.

Arturo raised his head. His face was green and drenched in sweat. He shivered.

"I… I can't do it," he confessed.

Malthus slapped his hand against his forehead, unable to believe his ears.

No… Not now…!

Chapter Twenty: Sneak attack

While Malthus and Arturo were making their way into the Presidential Residence, Lucas and his group continued to make their way through the sewers. They were forced to move quickly, without slowing or stopping, for time was running out. The parade had begun, and it would not be long before the parade vehicle returned to the residence and made its final run towards the gateway. No matter what, they had to make it back to the gateway before that happened.

It was difficult to navigate through the sewers. Each section appeared identical to the next, and there were no signposts to mark their way. They were forced to guess their location by listening to the sounds coming from above, or from what glimpses of the city they could see through the overhead grates.

As many of the gates were locked, they followed the only paths open to them. When they found their way was blocked they used the waterwheels to jump to different platforms. They had no idea if they were going the right way, but as long as they could find some way out of these sewers, then they could make their way back to the gateway. Or so they hoped.

There was another problem, as monsters also prowled the sewer depths. Red Bats, like the ones in the Fire Cavern, gathered in groups and clung to the sewer walls. They watched the group as they ran along.

More dangerous though were the Creeps. These monsters were almost invisible, their bodies dark and flat as shadows. Like their name suggested, they crept along the walls and the floor, blending into the darkness. Only their maniacal laughter and piercing red eyes betrayed their presence. They moved swift, keeping to the shadows, waiting for their chance to strike.

A number of Creeps had taken residence in the sewers. One of them tried to attack Wulffast when he stopped for breath. The only warning it gave was its laugh before it zipped out of the shadows and attacked. It was almost upon Wulffast when Lucas cracked his whip, driving the monster away. They hurried on.

After running for a while, Lucas called for a breather. They checked the area for Creeps and Red Bats and, once they were sure they were clear, relaxed.

Lucas leaned against the wall, panting hard. He looked up at a grate in the ceiling. Through it, he could see nothing but a cloudy sky. The music was still playing, and the cheers had died down a little. Where were they? Were they anywhere near the gateway at all?

While he was thinking, Wulffast went over to the edge of the walkway. He knelt down at the water's edge and looked into the water. Seeing the water flow by made him realise how thirsty he was… and hungry. The water looked clean enough, but he did not dare drink it. Instead he wiped the sweat from his brow and sighed.

Selene walked over to him. She sat down beside him and hung her legs over the side, kicking them against the wall.

"You think we'll make it out of here in time?" she asked him.

The fighter shrugged. "Who knows?" he replied. "This place is huge. We could come out anywhere." He picked up a rock.

Selene stretched out her foot and dipped the toe of her boot into the water, causing it to ripple. "I wonder if Loraine's all right…" she whispered.

Wulffast did not reply. Behind them, Lucas unhooked his whip and wound the tail around his hand. He pulled it tight and then gave it a loud crack, making Wulffast and Selene jump.

"There's nothing we can do about Loraine right now," Lucas said. He pulled her whip back and began to wind it again. "We'll just have to trust her and hope that she's all right. Besides, Malthus and Arturo should be in the residence by now. Perhaps she's with them." He hooked the whip back onto his belt and placed his hand on his hip. "Come on. Break's over. We have to hurry."

Selene nodded and got to her feet. Wulffast threw the rock he was holding into the water and got up as well. They hurried on.

A number of gates, Creeps and waterwheels later, the group reached the end of the path. They found themselves in a room with yet another churning wheel, with no other way out. Just as they were about to give up all hopes of getting out, they spotted a ladder at the back of the room. It led to a hatch, which would take them out of the sewers.

Without any hesitation, the three climbed up. When they reached the top they found themselves not on the street as they had hoped, but inside an empty room. They recognised it at once, and they could not believe their luck. This was the lower room of the gateway. Their path had taken them right inside the gateway! The ladder continued to head up, so they followed it to the very top to the gateway control room.

Inside the control room there was a large slit window that provided a large view of the city and the Presidential Residence. Upon climbing off the ladder, Wulffast ran to the window and peered out. He could see the Presidential clock clearly. The time was 19:59.

"Phew!" he said, and sighed in relief. "We just made it."

Selene joined him by the window. Together they looked down. Right on cue, the parade vehicle was approaching the gate. The costumed performers continued to dance in front and behind the car. The sorceress, still reclined in her throne, looked around at the cheering crowds.

The clock struck 20:00. As it did so, the roof of the Presidential Residence opened. The clock tower lit up and started to rise. Inside, Malthus looked up as everything around him burst into life. Loraine stepped away from the stands as holographic projections of circus figures appeared over them and began to turn. A melody started to play, and the figures turned in time with the music.

Wulffast and Selene saw the clock tower rise. They then looked down and watched as the parade vehicle started to pass under the gateway. When it passed under the first of the two gates, Wulffast turned to Lucas.

"Instructor, now!" he called to him. "Hit the switch!"

Lucas, standing by the console, nodded and threw the switch. The gateway shuddered as the gates were released and dropped, one by one.

The first gate slammed down in front of the parade vehicle, and the car stopped. Sorceress Celestine rose out of her throne. When she saw the gate blocking her way, her face twisted into an expression of rage. The sorceress then turned as the second gate dropped down behind her. She was trapped inside the gateway.

Up in the gateway, Selene, still by the window, held her breath. Lucas and Wulffast joined her. They looked at the Presidential Residence. Everything was in place. All that was left was for Arturo to shoot and finish her off.

"Arturo Weaver!" shouted Malthus.

The swordsman was losing patience. The clock tower had risen, and the sorceress was trapped inside the gateway. It had not gone entirely to plan, but they had made it here nonetheless. The only problem now was Arturo.

Arturo had completely frozen. His face was pale and sweating, and his hands gripped the sniper rifle so tight that Malthus feared he might break it in two.

"I… I can't…" the gunman said. His voice was trembling. "I'm sorry. I just can't do it. I always freeze like this… I try to act cool, joke around, but I just can't handle the pressure…" He took a deep, shuddering breath.

Malthus shook his head, unable to believe what he was hearing. "Forget it," he snapped, none too kindly. "Just shoot."

"My bullet… The sorceress… I'll go down in history." Arturo's hands twisted around the rifle. His knuckles turned white. "I'd change the history of Blackwald… Of the world!" He turned away from Malthus, lowering his head. "It's all too much…"

"Enough!" shouted Malthus, his patience lost. "Just shoot!"

"I can't, dammit!" Arturo shouted back at him. He put a trembling hand to his mouth, feeling suddenly sick. He looked away from Malthus, breathing deeply.

Malthus took a mental step backwards. He took a deep breath and let it out. Although he was aware of the time ticking away, he tried to control his impatience. "Arturo," he said, in a calmer tone. "Calm down. Everyone's waiting on you. I don't care if you miss. Whatever happens, just leave the rest to us." An idea then came to him and he added: "Just think of it as a signal. A sign for us to make our move."

Arturo paused. His eyes darted left and right as he mulled it over. His trembling ceased. He looked up.

"Just a signal…" he whispered.

That's it, Malthus thought with a nod. He gestured. "Please."

He waited for the gunman to respond. Time was ticking rapidly away from them. The clock tower would not stay up forever, and the sorceress would soon realise what was going on. If Arturo did not shoot her now, they would lose their chance.

At last, Arturo moved. He shifted onto his knees and knelt by the wall. He paused, and then raised the rifle. He pressed the butt against his shoulder and pointed the rifle over the edge. Holding one hand beneath the barrel to steady it, he peered down the sight. He could see Sorceress Celestine as she stepped out from behind her throne. Her head turned left and then right, looking around her. She did not seem to have figured it out yet. Seeing her there, Arturo felt his heart clench.

Once again, he hesitated. "…Just a sign," he told himself.

Arturo shook his head. He then raised the rifle and took aim. He focused the sight on Celestine's chest, right over her heart. He pulled the trigger and fired.

At the last instant Sorceress Celestine realised what was going on. She raised her hand, and the bullet bounced off a magic shield. The bullet landed on the floor by her feet, squashed flat. The sorceress lowered her arm.

Arturo threw up his hands. The sniper rifle clattered onto the floor. Arturo sat back and turned his head to Malthus. "…I'm sorry," he said.

Malthus shook his head. "It's okay," he replied. "Your aim was perfect. Just leave the rest up to me. I'm goin' in for the sorceress. Arturo, Loraine, just be ready to back me up."

The swordsman stood up and turned. Loraine was standing behind him. She looked at him, her face torn and full of concern. Malthus turned back to Arturo.

"Take care of Loraine," he said. Arturo nodded, understanding.

Malthus turned from him and climbed onto the wall. Loraine ran to the wall's edge as Malthus jumped off and landed on the podium below.

Malthus ran to the front of the podium. Down below, the crowd were in a state of panic. The attempt on the sorceress' life had thrown everything into utter chaos, just as they expected. The residence gates were still open, and people now swarmed through, filling the grounds. The soldiers were doing their best to keep the crowd in line, but things were growing out of control real fast. Malthus drew his gunblade. He needed to finish this quickly, before everything descended into mindless madness. Raising his gunblade over his head, he leapt from the podium.

Right beneath the podium, a lone Blackwald soldier fought hard to restrain the terrified crowd. A shadow fell over him. He looked up and caught a glimpse of Malthus as he descended from above. Malthus brought down his sword, smashing the flat side of the blade against the soldier's helmet. The soldier crumpled, but Malthus did not waste any time with him. He made his way through the crowds, left the Presidential Residence and ran out into the street.

A blue car was parked near the entrance. Malthus leapt into it. The keys were still in the ignition. Malthus turned them and the engine roared into life. Malthus spared a quick glance over his shoulder to make sure that no one was standing behind before he drove the car away from the residence and headed down the street. The people moved aside as he drove by, giving him a clear path to the gateway.

Once he cleared the crowd, Malthus switched gears and pushed down on the accelerator. The car sped up.

When he neared the gateway, Malthus spun the steering wheel and forced the car into a sideways skid. The wheels screeched. The car slammed into the gates. Malthus climbed out of the driver's seat and crawled across the car to the gates. He slipped through between the bars and entered the gateway. Approaching the parade vehicle from behind, he began to climb to the top.

After deflecting the bullet that was meant to kill her, Sorceress Celestine had returned to the front of the vehicle to wait.

Kneeling in front of her… was Zikael.

Zikael looked up as Malthus jumped down from above and landed in front of him and the sorceress. A grin appeared on Zikael's face, and his fingers curled around the hilt of his blade.

Sorceress Celestine turned her head and looked down at Malthus. When her eyes fell on him they opened wide and then narrowed, hard and full of hate. Her lips twisted into an ominous sneer.

So it had begun.

Chapter Twenty-one: This is it

Well," said Zikael, "this is how it turned out." Malthus stood up and looked at Zikael. He then looked at Sorceress Celestine, standing behind him. Her face was unreadable now but Malthus could have sworn that, for a moment, a look of anger had passed over her face when she saw him.

"So you've become the sorceress' lapdog," he observed, turning back to Zikael.

Zikael grinned. He also stood up. "I prefer to be called her knight," he said. He placed his hand on his hip and leered down at Malthus, his smile growing wider. "This has always been my dream."

Malthus said nothing. He drew his gunblade. The time for talk was over. Sorceress' lapdog or sorceress' knight, it made no difference. Zikael had made his choice. Malthus had no alternative. If Zikael was so determined to protect the sorceress, then Malthus would force his way through. He raised his sword and held it ready.

Zikael looked at the gunblade and then at Malthus. Somehow he had known this day would come: the day when he and Malthus clashed swords as enemies and not rivals. Zikael raised his own blade and pointed it at Malthus.

"Malthus," he said, "you're mine!"

He then ran at Malthus and stabbed with his sword. Malthus jumped back and off the parade vehicle, landing on the ground in front of it. Malthus looked up as Zikael walked to the end of the vehicle and also jumped off. He landed in front of Malthus and raised his sword again. The two walked around each other, blades raised.

"So, I assume the instructor and chicken-wuss are here, too?" Zikael asked.

"That's none of your business!" Malthus said back, and he charged at Zikael.

Zikael smirked. He also charged. The two met, and their blades clashed. They pushed against each other before separating and then clashing again.

Zikael sidestepped, letting Malthus pass him by. Pulling back his sword, he channelled Fire into the blade. There was a whoosh and flames swept across the blade. Zikael then turned and thrust out his sword, aiming for Malthus's head.

Malthus tilted his head to the side and dodged the blow. He felt the searing heat of the flames burn across his cheek. With his sword he knocked Zikael's blade aside and lunged at Zikael, trying to strike him while his guard was down. Zikael was faster, however, and was able to twist his body out of the way. The swordsman turned and nimbly moved behind Malthus. With the hilt of his blade he struck Malthus on the back of the head, causing him to stagger forwards.

With Malthus off-balance, Zikael clenched his fist and summoned Fire into his hand. A fireball formed around his fist, and when he punched out the ball flew from his hand and headed for Malthus.

Seeing the light of the flames in the corner of his eye, Malthus stamped one foot onto the ground and spun himself around. He raised his sword as he moved, swinging it in a large arc.

The blade sliced through the fireball, and when it was partway through Malthus pulled on the gunblade's trigger. The fireball burst and split wide open, emitting bright rays of blinding light. Zikael raised his arm to shield his eyes, and when he lowered his arm he saw Malthus running towards him through the dissipating flames. The swordsman swung his sword and Zikael barely had time to raise his weapon before Malthus's gunblade clashed against his own.

The moments that followed were almost a blur, as the gateway was filled with the sounds of battle. Sparks flew from the two blades as they sliced against each other time and again, as Malthus and Zikael struck and blocked, casting magic and dodging blows. The two swordsmen fought on equal ground, each as strong as the other, and each as determined to win.

Sorceress Celestine was watching the fight from the parade vehicle. Her face, cold and beautiful, remained blank. She showed no emotion at all as she watched the two men fight. There was not a flicker of feeling in her eyes. Her eyes were like glass, seeing but not really watching, as though her thoughts were elsewhere.

Celestine watched as Zikael cast another fireball at Malthus, who knocked it aside with his sword. The fireball flew past Celestine and struck the back of the parade vehicle, setting it alight. The sorceress did not even flinch. Smoke drifted past her, and the light of the flames illuminated her face, yet it provided no warmth.

Below her, Malthus ducked down and kicked out with his feet. He knocked the swordsman off his feet. Zikael dropped his sword and fell onto the ground. Seeing his chance to finish it, Malthus stood over him and raised his sword over his head. Zikael rolled over as the blade came down, and got back onto his feet.

Malthus was upon him before Zikael could have a chance to strike. The swordsman brought his sword in an upwards arc. Zikael blocked it, but the force behind the strike was so powerful that it forced Zikael's blade up into the air, leaving him exposed. Malthus punched and struck Zikael in the jaw, sending him reeling.

Malthus unleashed a flurry of strikes and swings. He left no room for Zikael to retaliate, focusing only on driving him back. It worked. With each strike Zikael found himself being forced to back away, keeping out of reach of Malthus's sword.

When he was near the parade vehicle, Malthus stopped attacking and jumped back. He called Blizzard into his fist, and even as the ice crystals started to form Malthus clenched his fist and slammed it into the ground. On contact, a number of icy stalagmites burst out of the ground, heading towards Zikael. Zikael saw them coming and leapt further back to avoid being impaled on the rising ice.

Switching elements, Malthus now called Fire into his gunblade. Flames swept across the blade. Malthus raised it over his head and brought it down on the ice. The flames shot from the blade to the ice. The intense heat caused the ice to crack and then explode, one by one in rapid succession. The explosion hit Zikael, picked him up off the ground and threw him backwards. He flew over the parade vehicle. Malthus waved his hand. Zikael landed on top of the vehicle, landing at the sorceress' feet. Sorceress Celestine did not even blink.

Malthus walked through the dying flames and climbed up onto the parade vehicle. He stood in front of Zikael, who was struggling to his feet. Malthus looked down at him as he raised his gunblade again, ready to continue the fight.

Slowly, Zikael got back onto his feet. His coat was black with soot from the flames. His face, cut from the shards of ice, was bleeding and sore. One shard had cut his lip, and blood trickled down his chin. Zikael coughed and staggered. Thrusting the tip of his sword into the car's roof, he pushed himself upright. The sound of the explosion still rang in his ears, sending his senses reeling.

When he felt he was steady enough, Zikael withdrew his sword and walked forward. As soon as he moved, a sharp spasm shot through his body. His muscles contracted sharply. His legs crumpled, and Zikael was forced to lean against his sword again. He coughed again, and his vision blurred. He tried to move, but his muscles were so tight he could hardly move.

"I… lost…!" he asked himself, his voice hoarse. He forced his head up and looked at Malthus.

The swordsman stood before him, his sword up and ready. Around Malthus's right hand, Thunder crackled. So that was it… As the explosion sent him flying, Malthus had switched elements again and sent a small charge of Thunder through Zikael's body. The shock was delayed, and he only noticed it when he tried to move. Now he was helpless, barely able to move or defend himself. Zikael's hand slipped from the sword and sank to his knees. His eyes narrowed, angry.

Seeing that Zikael was unable to continue, Malthus lowered his sword. "You're losing it, Zikael," he commented.

Zikael's head snapped up. He scowled, his blue eyes blazing. His teeth ground together. He could not believe it. He had lost… to Malthus!

His fight with Zikael done, Malthus turned his gaze to the sorceress. Sorceress Celestine was looking at him now. Her blank face was turned towards him and her empty eyes were fixed upon him. She did not even look at Zikael. The sorceress looked Malthus up and down, taking him in.

"…A White wing…" she said. Malthus could hear the disgust in her voice as she said the word. "Planted in a rundown Garden."

As she spoke, the blank mask that covered Celestine's face melted away. Her eyes hardened, her brows drew together, and her lips twisted into a dark and terrible scowl. She walked forward. She passed by Zikael, who was still trying to drag himself to his feet. Celestine waved her hand at him. Zikael saw the gesture and nodded. Forcing himself to stand, he retreated back to the throne.

The sorceress stopped and looked to her left as Arturo and Loraine ran around the side of the vehicle. They climbed up and stood on either side of Malthus. Their weapons were already drawn, ready to back Malthus up as instructed.

"I can fight if I'm with you!" Loraine said to Malthus. "That's why I'm here."

Arturo clicked his gun-barrel shut. "…I have to redeem myself," he said.

Malthus looked at Loraine, to his left, and at Arturo, to his right. He then turned back to the sorceress and raised his sword.

Celestine looked back at him. Her gaze drifted to Arturo and then Loraine, before turning her eyes back to Malthus. Her scowl deepened. "…The accursed White wing."

Celestine extended her hand and held it out to the side. The flames on the back of the vehicle flickered as they were pulled away, drawn to Celestine's hand. They swirled around her hand and her fingers, spinning faster and growing larger.

Seeing this, Zikael moved himself as quickly as possible around to the rear of the sorceress' throne. There he stopped and peered around the side. His gaze fell on Malthus and then on Loraine. Zikael stared at her. So, Loraine was here, as well.

The flames around Celestine's hand darkened and grew larger still, becoming more powerful. She turned her palm towards them, and the flames were drawn to the centre of her hand. They condensed, transforming from Fire to Fira and then into Firaga, the most powerful form of Fire magic.

Malthus, Arturo and Loraine braced themselves. This was it. The battle with the sorceress was about to begin.

When the magic transformation was complete, Sorceress Celestine swept out her hand and released the Firaga fireball, sending it flying towards Malthus. The swordsman did not dodge but swung his sword and cut the fireball in two. The two halves flew past and hit the gateway gates behind him. The gates shook, and the bars glowed red with the heat. Smoke sifted out from between the gates and drifted up to the night sky.

The sorceress swept her hand back and a second fireball flew from her fingertips. This one was aimed at Loraine. She dropped to the ground, and the fireball flew over her. It struck the fall wall, causing the whole gateway to shudder.

Loraine was still on the ground. She raised her arm and released her Pinwheel. The projectile zipped through the air towards the sorceress. Celestine thrust out her hand and a Protect barrier flashed up in front of her. The Pinwheel struck the barrier, leaving nothing but a ripple on the barrier's surface. Loraine flicked her wrist and the Pinwheel came swerving back to her.

On Celestine's other side, Arturo opened fire. Without turning her head, Celestine raised her other arm and a second barrier rose in front of her. The bullets hit the barrier and bounced off, also leaving no marks on its surface. When Arturo paused to reload his gun the sorceress lowered her barrier and waved her hand. A third fireball formed and flew from her fingertips. Like Loraine, Arturo also dropped and rolled out of the way, and the fireball smashed into the wall behind.

With the sorceress' attention on his comrades, Malthus ran at her from the front. Sorceress Celestine's head snapped around to face him and she thrust out her hand. Malthus swung his sword even as her Protect barrier rose. His sword hit the barrier and was flung back, carrying Malthus with it. The swordsman hit the ground, climbed back onto his feet, and ran at the sorceress again.

He brought his sword down on the barrier. Again the sword bounced, and again Malthus was flung away. He got back onto his feet and raised his sword, ready to try again to break through her barrier.

Sorceress Celestine brought her palms together and then raised one hand into the air. Lightning started to crackle around her feet, moving up past her legs, her waist, her chest and then finally to her arm. The sparks were drawn to her hand, collecting around her fingertips. They intensified, and their light became blinding. Like the Firaga magic, the lightning grew in strength, changing from Thunder to Thundara and then to Thundaga.

When the spell was complete Celestine lowered her hand and pointed at the party. The Thundaga magic shot from her fingers and headed straight towards them. Malthus raised his sword to shield himself from the blast.

The lightning storm struck. The gateway shuddered, and the air became charged with electrical energy. The bolts spread, striking the walls and the ground, and the gates. One bolt hit the doorway leading into the gateway and fused the lock. Lucas, Wulffast and Selene, still inside, were unable to escape. More bolts struck the gates, still glowing hot from the Firaga magic. More than one bar snapped in two and fell away from the gate, and more smoke billowed out of the gateway.

Despite all the damage that was being done to the gateway, not a single bolt hit Malthus or the others. Malthus opened his eyes and looked ahead.

There was a shield in front of him, which formed the instant the Thundaga magic struck. Bolts of lightning struck the shield but did not penetrate. Instead the bolts were reflected, bouncing off the shield and thrown back at the sorceress.

Sorceress Celestine only just managed to raise her defences in time. Instead of a Protect barrier, she called up a Shell barrier to minimise the reflected magic's effects. When the bolts struck the barrier flashed bright, blocking the sorceress from their sight.

Malthus looked around. The shield in front of him was still up. What had caused it?

He looked over at Loraine. She was kneeling on the ground close to him. There was another shield in front of her, which had risen at the same time as Malthus's. Loraine's eyes were wide as she stared at the shield, just as confused as he was.

Malthus then turned to Arturo. Like himself and Loraine, Arturo also had a reflective shield in front of him, and something else as well.

Hovering behind the shield was the FS Kihog, whom they had drawn from the Iguion. A giant, red ruby on the FS's forehead sparkled as he cast his reflective magic upon the party. Malthus stared in amazement. He had drawn the FS from the Iguion, but there had not been time to share that pact with Arturo or Loraine. Was it possible that Kihog had chosen to share its bond with Arturo and Loraine of its own accord on the moment of drawing?

The ruby's shimmering light faded, and the barriers protecting the three fighters faded. Kihog, his task complete, dived into a hole that had opened up in the roof of the car and disappeared.

The bolts of lightning striking the sorceress' own barrier flickered and died out. The sorceress lowered her barrier and swept her hand through the air in Arturo's direction. Something, much like a slap, struck Arturo across the face. It sent a shocking, numbing cold through his cheek and jaw, and the gunman staggered. He clutched at his cheek, and when he brought his hand away he saw that there were traces of blood on his glove. It was an astral-like strike. The sorceress could do damage without ever coming into contact with them.

Sorceress Celestine lowered her hand. Her eyes turned right and she swept out her other hand. Loraine, who was on her feet again and about to release her Pinwheel, was flung backwards. Her Pinwheel fired and swerved off-course, missing the sorceress entirely.

Loraine staggered back to the edge of the roof. Her feet slipped off the edge and she started to fall back.

"Loraine!" called Malthus, and he ran towards her.

A Fira ball, cast by the sorceress, flew towards him. The swordsman did not slow but swerved out of the way of the ball. He reached out and grabbed Loraine's hand. She held onto him as he pulled her back onto the vehicle. When she was safe Malthus stood in front of her and turned back to the sorceress.

Sorceress Celestine was watching them. Her eyes met Malthus's, and the swordsman had to suppress a shudder. Her eyes were like glass, with no feeling at all behind them. It was like Malthus was looking into an endless void, as though all feeling and time stopped at those eyes. Meanwhile, Celestine was able to see through those eyes and look right through him, as though he was not even there. It was an unnerving and chilling sensation.

The sorceress raised her hand. Flames started to move around her fingers.

"Brace yourself!" Malthus warned Loraine. She nodded and raised her fists.

The flames intensified. Arturo fired a shot to distract her, but Celestine just raised her other hand and raised her Protect barrier. The bullet bounced off. The flames gave a roar as they grew larger and became Firaga. With a wave of her hand the flames shot out, heading towards Malthus and Loraine.

The moment he realised what was happening, Malthus cast Blizzard. The ground froze over and a wall of ice burst up from the ground in front of him and Loraine. The flames hit, and the ice gave a groan. Cracks formed in its surface and the centre started to glow as the heat of the flames started to melt the wall away.

Loraine placed her hand over Malthus's. She also cast Blizzard, and the two energies merged to form into Blizzara, mid-level Blizzard magic. More ice rose from the ground and covered the wall, making it thicker and stronger. The ice continued to crack but it held firm. Malthus and Loraine worked together to keep the ice going—replenishing the ice as quickly as it was being melted by the fire.

Arturo finished reloading his shotgun and fired at the sorceress. His bullets, a combination of ordinary and magic-enhanced ones, bounced off the sorceress' shields without leaving any damage. Both the Shell and Protect barriers worked in unison to keep his shots from reaching the sorceress. Celestine did not even seem to pay attention to what he was doing; her attention was only on Malthus and Loraine.

Firaga magic continued to flow from Sorceress Celestine's fingers. It started to overwhelm the ice wall shielding Malthus and Loraine. The number of cracks in the wall's surface increased, and the glow from the flames was growing brighter as it forced its way through.

Realising that their ice shield was failing, Loraine turned to Malthus and shouted: "Keep it up! I'll summon Shiva!"

Malthus could barely hear her over the roar of the flames, but he nodded anyway. Loraine pulled back, and Malthus sheathed his sword before holding out his other hand. He poured more energy into the barrier, trying his best to keep it going.

Stepping back away from Malthus, Loraine summoned Shiva. An ice-cloud swirled around her before gathering in front of her. The cloud compacted, forming into the body of Shiva. The clouds then parted, leaving Shiva in its place. The FS raised her hands over her head and arched her back.

"Malthus!" yelled Loraine. "Move out of the way, now!"

The swordsman jumped back, just as Shiva threw down her arms and cast her magic into the barrier. A rising ride of ice burst from beneath her feet and swept across the roof of the vehicle. It shattered the ice wall and cut through the flames, making its way towards the sorceress.

Sorceress Celestine lowered her arm, and the swirling flames around her hand flickered and died out. She raised her barriers. The ice struck, slamming into the barriers with an audible thud. The ice encircled her and then grew up and over her, sealing her inside. Shiva stood up straight and clenched her fist. The ice condensed, drawn sharply inwards, forming a compact dome over the sorceress.

Malthus lowered his sword, watching the ice barrier. The ice was thick; all he could see of Celestine was a faint shadow. Loraine came to stand beside him, and Arturo also ran over to join his two comrades. The three stood together and waited.

A light flashed inside of the ice. A second flash followed it, and a crack appeared in the dome's surface. More flashes followed, and with each flash more cracks appeared in the ice. A loud rumble of thunder sounded from within the ice. Malthus and the others braced themselves.

The ice exploded, and a storm of lightning erupted from within. At the storm's centre stood the sorceress, her arms spread and her body cloaked in a coat of lightning that seemed to come from every part of her body. The thick ruffle of fur that framed her shoulders moved about as the static energy emanating from the lightning bolts passed over Celestine's body. They flickered and flashed and then drew back towards her, gathering in her open hands.

The sorceress' eyes were ablaze with fury. "Thundaga!" she said in a bellowing voice. She thrust out her hands and unleashed the storm in all its fury.

Malthus and the others cried out as the lightning bolts struck. There was no reflective barrier to protect them this time, so they took the attack full-on. The bolts hit Shiva, who screamed as her body was electrified by the lightning. Her body shattered, breaking up into shards of ice. The bolts hit them and then spread out to strike the rest of the gateway. The entire structure shook, and the gateway filled with blinding light.

Smoke drifted through the gates. The air of Saltfall City was thick with the scent of smoke, as the riots in the streets grew more and more intense. The soldiers had lost control of the crowds, and everything had descended into disorder. The blinding light faded, and the gateway plunged into darkness.

Inside the gateway, Malthus opened his eyes. He breathed, and he could still taste the static energy on his tongue. The swordsman struggled to his feet. His muscles were tight, making it difficult to move, and sparks still flickered across his body.

On either side of him, Loraine and Arturo were also fighting to stand. Charges of electricity also flickered over their bodies, but like Malthus, they refused to give up. The sorceress was powerful, her magic immeasurable. Even a FS could not contain this sorceress. Her reflexes were sharp; she could switch between attack and defence in the blink of an eye. She was also merciless, and did not hold back. She stood before them, her body also still flickering with traces of lightning. The blazing fury in her eyes was gone now, and gazed at them blankly.

Malthus managed to get back onto his feet. Though his body fought against him, he raised his sword and charged at Celestine.

The sorceress swept out her hand. An astral strike hit Malthus across the face. He stumbled, then spun on his heel and charged at her again. The sorceress, not expecting this, did not have time to raise her Protect barrier in time.

Fire whooshed across Malthus's gunblade as he thrust it into the barrier. The flames pierced it, and Malthus's sword passed through the barrier. Sorceress Celestine looked down at the blade as it stopped just inches from her chest. She looked at Malthus and met his gaze. Malthus frowned and pulled the gunblade's trigger.

A blast erupted from within the barrier, and it filled with flames. The barrier cracked and then shattered into shards of light, releasing the explosion within. Malthus was picked up and thrown away by the blast. He hit the floor and skidded over to Loraine and Arturo, who knelt down to catch him. They helped Malthus to his feet, and turned back to the sorceress.

The flames started to disperse. They saw Sorceress Celestine, standing at the heart of the flames, keeping over with her hand pressed against her side. It was a lucky blow. Malthus's sudden strike, combined with the prolonged use of her magic, had weakened the sorceress' defences, causing them to shatter. For all her powerful magicks, Celestine was still human. Like Malthus and the others, she too was prone to fatigue and weakness. It was this that ultimately caused her defences to break.

Sorceress Celestine took her hand away from her side and forced herself to stand upright. A single bead of sweat trickled down her forehead. The sorceress raised her eyes and narrowed them at Malthus. Her lips twisted, turning into a scowl.

"Impudent White wings!" she hissed.

A faint blue light appeared in front of the sorceress. It shimmered for a moment before drifting down to her feet, spreading out around her like a cloud. There was a flash and the light was drawn back again as Sorceress Celestine raised her hand. The light swirled around Celestine as she raised her hand higher and higher. The light swirled across her arm until it reached her hand. The sorceress spread her fingertips and the light danced over them until it reached the top, where it suddenly disappeared.

Another speck of light appeared. In the centre of the light a tiny ice crystal formed. The ice crystal then grew rapidly and its shape stretched and twisted, transforming itself into a long spear of ice. When it reached half the length of Celestine's arm the spear split itself into three, creating three spears. These grew longer still, until they were the full length of Celestine's arm.

Sorceress Celestine looked at the three standing before her. She then lowered her arm and cast the spears away. They whizzed through the air towards them.

Loraine twisted her body aside. The left-side spear whistled as it passed her by. Arturo jumped out of the way, the right-side spear missing him by inches.

The third spear hit Malthus in the right side of his chest. It ran through him, piercing his clothes and his flesh until it came through the other side and lodged there. The force of the impact dragged Malthus back to the edge of the parade vehicle. An agonising cold, more painful than he could possibly have imagined, ran through his body.

Loraine turned. When she saw Malthus there, impaled by the ice spear, her eyes widened. She screamed out his name, but her voice was lost in the rising cries of the rioting crowds outside.

Sorceress Celestine heard Loraine's cry but did not acknowledge her. The look of anger that crossed her face was gone. In its place: that blank and emotionless mask. Even as she gazed at Malthus, impaled by her own magic, she betrayed no feelings. Not a frown or a smile touched her lips. She just stared at him, her eyes empty, and her arm still stretched out in front of her.

Malthus gasped and tried to breathe. His breath was short, pained with numbing cold. His vision blurred, and the sounds of the outside became muffled. His strength started to ebb away. His head dropped to his chest, and the last thing he felt was the breath leaving his body.

The swordsman fell from the parade vehicle, with the ice spear still embedded in his chest. Loraine ran to the edge of the car, but she could not get to him in time. He fell away from her, falling to the ground below.

The last thing saw Malthus before he slipped into unconsciousness was Loraine's face. Her face was full of despair as she leaned far over the edge of the car. She reached out to him, but he could not reach out to her. Her lips moved, shouting his name, but he could no longer hear her. Then everything went dark, and he saw her no more.

All the while, Sorceress Celestine watched them, her eyes unblinking.

366