All Roads Lead to Albrook [Pilot]

fara_somers
roxanne
coh
osprey
esper_dimension
albrook

#1

Time flows like a river, and history repeats. The wheel turns again, and our story returns to the city of Albrook.

It was here, near Albrook, that Celes Chere made landfall to assemble a group of extraordinary heroes – the Fourteen Against Kefka – to defeat the insane clown to save the world. A giant statue of the former imperial general still marks the sport where she came ashore.

Only a few years later, the Esper Dimension discovered the wider Web of Worlds, and the Albrook Portal Set – overlooked by the Promontory of Celes – was at the heart of it. Albrook became a boomtown, a center of commerce for a growing, burgeoning Web of Worlds.

Twenty years after Celes came ashore, her son, Celiose Cole – a native Albrooker – left the city at the head of a new Grand Army. This soldier from the city of Albrook would lead a war that would end the Great War once and for all – and banish the Gods, both Dark and Light, from the mortal plane.

As the site of Grand Army Headquarters, Albrook became the center of a Webwide effort to wage the Great War. “All roads lead to Albrook,” it was said. The city grew, no longer just an economic center, but the military capital of the Web.

The city has been the site of many fierce battles, but still it persevered. Still it flourished.

By treaty, the city is open to all GACA member nations. It’s a port of call for traders, wanderers, spies, magic users, hustlers, soldiers, diplomats, and adventurers. In the shadow of the colossus that is the Grand Army, the heart of the Web still beats.

Now, twenty years after Celiose Cole left the city gates at the head of an army, another hero’s journey begins here, in Albrook.


#2

“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey, roommate!” Fara burst into her new home – Room 1002, Atlas Hall, University of Albrook. She was striking out on her own, living away from home from the first time, in the Web’s First City. She was so excited to meet all of her new best friends!

BFF Candidate Number 1, her roommate, took a break from unpacking to face Fara. “Oh, hi,” she said. “My name’s Denise. Nice to meet you.” Denise stood up, and Fara had the strange sensation she had seen Denise on a billboard or fashion or something. Tall, thin, blond hair, impeccable makeup, stylish hip-hugging jeans and a cute short jacket; Denise was a veritable fashion-plate, and Fara suddenly felt quite self-conscious of her more rugged jeans-and-hoodie combo. Denise was willowy, almost ethereal; Fara was shorter, more athletic.

“Fara,” she said.

“Nice hair, Fara,” said Denise, gesturing toward’s Fara’s short cut, red hair. “Is it natural?”

“Ja.”

“I’m so jealous! I tried being a redhead, but it just turned my hair green,” said Denise.

“Where ya from, Denise?”

“Centwerp,” replied Denise, haughtily. “You’re from Egmont, ja?”

“How’d you know?” asked Fara.

“All your clothes are from Kuat.”

Fara wracked her brains – yes, all the clothes she had on were indeed from Kuat. Surely she must have some clothes that weren’t…but she couldn’t think of anything. In fact, come to think of it, she struggled to think of any worldly possessions she owned that were not Kuat Consortium products, down to her toothpaste and soccer cleats.

Fara chuckled. “I am an Egmonter,” she said. “Land of Kuat, jazz, and slain rock demons.” Fara moved into the room, set down her suitcase and began to unpack. First things first: from deep inside her pack she extracted her poster of Egmont’s women’s soccer team, the Thunderbolts (signed by legendary goalie Theresa Tholby - the “Minister of Defense” herself!) “Follow sports at all?” Fara asked.

“No, not really,” said Denise. “I think they’re boring and lame.”

Fara was unperturbed. Her attempt to find common ground with her new best friends would continue. “What do you do for fun?” she asked. “Going out for any extracurricular activities?”

“Partying, mainly,” Denise giggled. “Isn’t that what college is all about? There’s a big welcome party for freshman tonight.”

Fara’s eyes lit up. Her first college party! It was going to be so cool! “Yeah, on the Rec Commons!” she said, failing to contain her excitement. “But, as fun as partying is…do anything else for fun?”

“I dunno,” said Denise. “Maybe yoga? Some dance? This butt didn’t build itself. I don’t want to go the plastic surgery route, you can always tell.” A brief pause, before Denise gave the obligatory reciprocation: “and you? What do you do for fun?”

“Oh, I play soccer, as you probably guessed,” said Fara, who had already unpacked her lucky ball, shin pads, cleats, and other soccer paraphernalia. “I’m also into swordfighting, I’m excited to try it for the fencing team. I did longsword division at home, mostly, but I hear they have kenjutsu here, which I’m excited to try. Rapier I never cared for though.”

Showing polite interest, Denise asked, “Why not?”

“It’s a rubbish battlefield weapon. In a one-on-one duel against an unarmored opponent, the rapier’s pretty good, but you can’t cut with it, and you can’t break armor with it.”

Denise looked surprised. “Do you need to break armor and cut people open in competition?”

“Uh…no, not really,” said Fara. “Of course, a regular all-Tasnican girl such as myself would never have cause to use a sword in combat conditions. In-depth consideration of the pros and cons of a variety of bladed weapons against a wide range of opponents is really just a…hobby of mine.”

“Do you do, like, historical re-enactments?” asked Denise.

“…you could say that,” she said. “I have some Guardian friends who are kinda into it, too.”

“You’re kinda weird, Egmont,” said Denise.

Fara shrugged. “Everyone’s weird.”

“Fair enough,” agreed Denise. She jerked her head towards the door. “Let’s meet our fellow weirdos across the hall.”

The dorm of Atlas Hall was a byzantine labyrinth, with multiple branches terminating in pairs of doubles. Fara Somers and Denise Pascale roomed together in one suite; across the hall (according to the “Welcome!” signs) were Violante Vaquero and Kamiko Kurita. Violante and Kamiko had apparently already arrived before the Tasnican girls, as they were already quite progressed in their efforts to unpack and personalize their rooms. Kamiko’s side of the room was austere, simple, and elegant, adorned with Eblanese calligraphy. (The most prominent of which was, of course, the characters for “One Life for the King!”, which Fara recognized because it had been on Tor Stonecliff’s mecha at the Robotics Tournament.) Violante’s side of the room was a mess, an explosion of hammers, socket wrenches, and other tools strewn about the floor; she was in the middle of putting up a poster for a band called the Spoony Bards.

“Heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey, suitemates!” said Fara, excitedly.

Denise couldn’t help but giggle a little bit. “Hey, we’re your neighbors,” she said.

Kamiko rose to her feet, and gave a deep bow. Her every movement seemed calculated and graceful, like part of a dance. “I am honored,” Kamiko. “I am Kamiko, of the Noble House Kurita.”

Violante grumbled. “My roommate is a walking Eblanese stereotype,” she said.

“I was merely being polite,” said Kamiko, with a tone that was too polite by half.

Violante finished affixing her poster. “Violante,” she said, extending her hand. “From Damcyan.”

“Fara, from Tasnica,” she said, shaking Violante’s hand. “Wow, I’ve never met anyone from Damcyan before! What’s it like?”

“A beautiful country, with beautiful music and beautiful people,” said Violante. Violante was definitely one of the ‘beautiful people’, with raven hair and olive skin. She was maybe not quite so picture-perfect as Denise, but Violante had a bit of an edge about her; she was stocky, more athletic and rugged. “Well,” said Violante, “at least it was before a bunch of fascists occupied it. Now it’s kind of a shithole.”

Kamiko seemed shocked at the course language. The petite Eblanese beauty narrowed her eyes, processing a deep conundrum; such language, and such an over discussion of politics at a first meeting, was simply impolite; however, pointing out her roommate’s rude behavior was also impolite. What was a proper Eblanese lady to do? She opted to change the subject. “What are you studying?” Kamiko asked.

“…I haven’t really thought too much about that,” said Fara. “I mean, it’s the first day. Plenty of time to explore and try different things, you know?”

“Not for me,” said Violante. “I’ve been a gearhead all my life. I helped out in my dad’s garage. Engineering all the way.”

“I’m majoring in partying,” said Denise. “And drinking. And sex. Sex sex sexy sex.” Denise smirked, slightly.

“What about you, Kamiko?” asked Fara.

“I am studying all the various arts appropriate for an Eblanese noblewoman,” said Kamiko. She drew in a deep breath, before unloading, “these include history, archery, swordfighting, culinary arts, child psychology, strategy, horse and chocobo riding, calligraphy, poetry, history, diplomacy, traditional dance, and, of course, military strategy and Web history.”

“So your major is, like, everything, basically?” asked Fara. “What are you going to do when you graduate?”

“Attaining perfection is an end in itself,” said Kamiko, “and it would be foolish to assume that earning my degree completes my education.”

“She’s nobility, you know,” said Violante. “Not like us plebs who will have to work for a living.”

“Really?” asked Fara.

Kamiko nodded. “House Kurita is known throughout Eblan for its courage, righteousness, benevolence, respect, sincerity, honor, loyalty, and self-control.”

“Nobility, huh?” said Denise. “How…quaint.”

Fara decided to make an effort. “Well, you seem to know a lot about Eblan’s ancient and rich culture,” she said. “I am very interested in learning more about it. Do you know Metal Suit Damogun?”

Kamiko answered diplomatically, “Although I am, of course, proud that Eblanese animation is famous throughout all the Web, I would prefer to discuss something else.”

“Like ninjas?” asked Fara, hopefully. “How about ninjas?”

“Those don’t really exist,” said Kamiko. “I mean, if I were to go to Tasnica, would I meet a Valkyrie?”

Fara smiled, slightly. “You’d be surprised.”


#3

“A little to the left,” asked Roxanne.

Terrence Shale (aka the Shield) and Osprey (aka…well, just Osprey) obligingly moved Roxanne’s couch a little to the left.

“Too far!” insisted Roxanne. “Back to the right?”

Osprey grunted. “…why isn’t she the one doing this? Surely with her Valkyrie strength, she can lift her own couch…”

“There, there! No, you’ve gone too far!” said Roxanne. “You need to understand. I am a daughter of Zahd, the God of War and the Seas. I am the Northern Star. Mariners from time immemorial have relied on my precise, fixed location in order to navigate.”

Terry demurred. “I don’t think any sailor will be finding their way by the shining light of your couch, Roxanne.”

Roxanne sighed. “It’s just, well…I haven’t had a home on the ‘regular world’ for a long time…at least a few centuries.”

“It’s a nice place, Roxanne,” said Terry. “I’m actually amazed at all the custom work you’ve got done here, especially that giant fire pit downstairs.” Osprey kept his silence, as in his opinion, Roxanne’s apartment looked someone had taken a historically-recreated Taznikanze longhouse and vomited a random smattering of modern furniture and technology into it.

Roxanne’s doorbell rang. Roxanne couldn’t help but beam – visitors! She answered the door. “Guten tag.”

“Guten tag,” answered one of the visitors, a female dwarf, who was all smiles. The other visitor, an older-looking male dwarf, didn’t say anything; he clearly regarded himself to be too old for this shit. “Tasnican, too, ja?”

“Ja,” said Roxanne. She regarded the two dwarfs in front of her; she always felt slightly awkward around dwarves. She liked them well enough, but the typical dwarf was between four and five feet, while she was well over six feet. It seemed rude to literally look down on them, but bending to one knee seemed equally condescending. It was probably best to just ignore the height disparity, she thought; after all, we’re all Tasnicans here! “My name is Roxanne Zodsdottir, and I just moved her from…from Egmont, to take an adjunct professor position at the university, teaching the history of the Mana Dimension.”

“Nice to meet you,” said the female dwarf, “My name is Grilka Vrinnicus, and this curmudgeon here is my husband, Eleod.”

Eleod made a stab at being pleasant. “I hope you turn out better than the last neighbors.”

Grilka was chipper enough to keep plowing forward. “We just wanted to welcome you to our neighborhood,” she said. “I made you a cake.”

“CAKE!” shouted Osprey, his highly attuned spy senses tingling. “Bring it here!”

“Come on in,” invited Roxanne, and the two dwarfs entered.

“Thank you so much,” said Grilka. “Oh, is that your husband?” she said, looking at Terry. Then she looked back at Osprey. “Or, your husbands? It’s not for us to judge, of course…”

“Oh, no!” said Roxanne. “They are just staying with me for a while, until they find a place of their own.”

Eleod’s withering gaze passed over the apartment. “You’ve….really committed to this alte Taznikanze theme.”

“Yeah, I know some people who specialize in this sort of thing,” said Roxanne. “I grew up in Old Docktown, so this makes me feel at home. Where you from in Tasnica? Gaia’s Navel, I assume?”

“I’m a dwarf, so I’m automatically from Gaia’s Navel?” grumbled Eleod. “I’ll have you know there are dwarfs in cities throughout the Republic. Why, the vast majority of Tasnican dwarfs have never even been to Gaia’s Navel!”

“So sorry!” apologized Roxanne. “Where are you from?”

“…Gaia’s Navel.”

Grilka put her cake in the counter, and had expertly carved it up and had served it to Osprey and Terry (who were, of course, famished and in need of a pick-me-up after moving.)

“Yum!” said Osprey. “This cake is really good!”

“I’m glad you like it,” said Grilka. “I love to bake, but our kids are all on their own now so I don’t get the chance to do it so much. We would love to have you over sometime.”

“Actually,” said Eleod, “I don’t –“

“We would LOVE to have you over, wouldn’t we, husband!?”

Eleod sighed. “Yes, dear.” Then he muttered under his breath something about never having to deal with this during the Great War.

“That’d be great,” said Roxanne. “Republiktag, maybe?”

“Well, we’re elementalists,” said Grilka, “so we have holidays all the time. They all have their special foods, of course.”

Osprey continued to stuff chocolate cake in his mouth. “I am very interested in learning more about these cultural practices and rituals.”

Roxanne’s doorbell rang again; this time, it was Fara.

“Guten tag, Roxanne.”

“Guten tag, Fara. Come on in – Terry and Osprey are just moving some stuff around,” Fara entered. “Oh, these are our new neighbors: Eleod and Grilka. They’re also Tasnicans.”

“Welcome,” said Grilka. “You’re a student?”

“Ja,” said Fara. “Just started.”

Eleod’s withering gaze of contempt now fell on Fara. “Damn kids,” he grumbled. “Always coming around this neighborhood.”

“…you know, the university is IN this neighborhood,” said Fara.

Eleod frowned. “Don’t remind me.”

“Anyway, Roxanne, can I chat to you about some…sword-related business?” asked Fara.

“Sure,” said Roxanne, and gestured towards a private room, away from the neighbors.

“So,” said Fara. “I was wondering if I had any Mana Knight-related stuff you needed for me to do tonight. Ancient demons needing vanquishing, occult rituals disrupted…things of this nature.”

Roxanne’s eyes narrowed. “Isn’t tonight the big welcome party for freshman?”

“Well, yeah…”

Roxanne smiled. “Go to the party. Have fun.”

Fara pursed her lips pensively.

“You don’t seem so excited,” asked Roxanne. “Don’t you want to go?”

“I do, it’s just…well, Celiose Cole was already commander of the REF at my age. Shouldn’t I be spending my every waking moment vanquishing evil?”

“You think he’s a good role model for young people?” asked Roxanne.

“He is one of the greatest heroes the Web has ever known,” said Fara.

“And yet…you have the Mana Sword,” said Roxanne. “Mana didn’t choose Celiose. It didn’t even choose someone who had fought in the Great War.”

Fara sighed. “I’ve often wondered why the sword choose me.”

“Ask Rainere about it, if you see her,” said Roxanne. “Though you’ll be lucky to get a straight answer.”

“What’s this have to do with anything?” asked Fara.

Roxanne smiled. “I have been tasked by Rainere to guide and mentor the Mana Knight,” she said. “I think that, if you’re going to be saving the Web, you should appreciate it and love it and be part of it.”

Fara shook her head. “I thought I was giving all that up when I picked up the Sword.”

“Don’t get me wrong,” said Roxanne. “You will be tested…there will be challenges. And you can bet next week we’re going to drill the shit out of unarmed combat. But tonight? You should party, make friends, get drunk – go on and live.”

“Well, ok,” said Fara, with a knowing smile. “If my thousands-year old Valkyrie mentor says that I need to get drunk and party, who am I to argue?”


#4

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to inform you of my interest in the Line Cook position at the Web’s Wurst Restaurant. I have a wide range of previous experience in intelligence gathering and extensive skills in espionage and shadow magic which I believe will serve me well as I transition into a culinary career.

I am deeply passionate about the mission of the Web’s Wurst Restaurant, to bring affordable Taznikanze-style sausage of all varieties to the four corners of the Web. Recently, I visited Egmont, and had a bratwurst for the first time. It was delicious. I could not help but ask myself, where this famous taste had been all my life. If only there had been a Web’s Wurst Restaurant in Dorino prefecture where I grew up, I would not have had to wait to experience this spicy, meaty alte Taznikanze flavor. Since that day, I have been a convert.

I have a diverse array of skills to use at the Line Cook position. I am well trained in swordsmanship, so my ability to cut things into small pieces is excellent. My infiltration abilities will allow me to move around a crowded kitchen without interfering with the other cooks. I worked for my previous employer, ZAPS, for many years, and have a successful track record of helping them defeat their enemies such as the Omnisent, Ozzie, and the Defiler Army. I have every confidence I would similarly be a great asset in the Web’s Wurst Restaurant’s titanic struggle against Fuchi Sushi for ethnic dining experience market share.

I would also be interested in a server position, if those are available.

Very respectfully,

Osprey


#5

Fara was hopeful she could just swing into the Cristophe Springs branch of Republic Interdimensional Bank to do some student loans paperwork real quick. But it’s never that simple.

Although Albrook had been part of Tasnica until quite recently, and by treaty citizens of all GACA members were welcome in the city, she was still technically living abroad – which meant that her only form of legal identification was her passport, which she had left at home. She had a copy and was in the process of convincing the bank manager that that was “good enough”, when a giant fireball hit the computer the manager was working on. The explosion knocked both of them to the ground; Fara realized her passport copy was almost certainly incinerated in an instant.

“Alright, this is a stick-up!” shouted a man in a robe and a yellow pointy hat. The mage let loose a giant icicle for good measure, shattering the safety glass. The customers were cowed and frightened. “Don’t even think of reaching for your ‘guns’, I have a barrier spell up.”

Fara heard the teller mutter, “It’s Botian the Black, the mage bank robber…”

The mage bank robber’s fingers crackled with lightning. “Where’s the bank manager? You know the drill…open the vault before I let the juju fly…and be quick about it – I aim to be long gone by the time APD gets a mage-cop here! Everyone put their heads down – the first person who moves get a fistful of lit-three!”

Fara considered her options, and decided that a simple longsword would do best. The Mana Sword manifested in her hand. As everyone else put their head down, Fara stood up and faced the mage. “You must’ve been a pretty terrible student in evil magic school to end up robbing banks…isn’t there some arcane ritual or something you should be doing?”

Botian the Black turned, surprised. “Arcane rituals don’t keep me rolling in hookers and pyra,” he said. “And you have…a sword? Who walks around carrying a sword?”Botian the Black paused for a moment, as though trying to think of some clever zinger. “FOOL…you have brought a sword…to a LIGHTNING fight!”

Arcs of electricity sparked through the air. Fara saw the spell; not just the lightning, but the very weaves of magic powering it. With her sword, she cut through the strands of mana.

The lightning fizzled, leaving only a soft pop.

“ah, hell,” said Botian. “The sword is magic, because of course it is. We’ll let’s see how you fare…against the power of ICE! STAY FROSTY!”

This time, a great blast of freezing cold air whooshed towards Fara. The ground of the bank froze solid as it approached her. And again she cut the weaves of mana powering the spell. Slowly, determinedly, she approached the black mage.

Botian’s hands flickered with fire. “Maybe it’s time…to HEAT THINGS UP!”

A ray of fire, like a dragon’s breath, roared forward from the mage’s hands. Fara could have easily cut the weaves again, but this time, she decided to do something different – mainly for practice. She focused the sword’s energies on Salamando, the Elemental of fire.

This was not really a fight for her; more like a tutorial. There were Twelve Elementals (in Mana’s traditions, anyway); by focusing on one, she protected herself against attacks of that elemental, and added its power to her own strikes. By focusing on Salamando, she made herself immune to fire and lit her sword ablaze.

The gout of flame harmlessly splashed around her. Even her hoodie was unscathed.

“Drat!” said Botian, well aware that he had exhausted his range of attack spells. Then again, if Botian was a clever fellow, he wouldn’t have had to use his magical knowledge for a life of petty crime. Fara closed to melee range. Botian pulled out his stabbing knife. “AHA!” he said. “I have you now! No black mage is ever without his stabbin’ knife!”

Botian thrust into the air ineffectually. “I’ll cut you!” he said. “I’ll cut you good!”

Fara sighed. “You’re not even holding that right…” Botian lunged forward, and Fara backed off slightly – with the longsword, she had the reach advantage. “Looks rusty…you ever sharpen it?”

“I keep it rusty in order to give my enemies tetanus!”

“Bladed weapons are to be treated with care and respect. You need to learn to use that stabbin’ knife responsibly,” lectured Fara. “I suppose you’ll have plenty of time to learn proper weapon maintenance…IN PRISON!”

“…that doesn’t make any sense. They wouldn’t allow me to have a knife in prison.”

“…it’s good that you’re so familiar with prison already, because YOU’RE GOING THERE!” said Fara. “Oh, snap!”

“….”

Fara made a mental note; although she was in fine form cutting weaves of magic, and was ok on the matter of elemental focus, when it came to witty one-liners, she still needed some work. With a broad swing, she smacked Botian the Black with the flat of her sword, knocking him clean out.

Of course, now her student loan paperwork was all ashes; she would have to come by tomorrow and start from the beginning.


#6

Albrook was mostly a well-ordered city, built to a grand design with a military planner’s eye for precision. But sometimes, life happens, and the wide promenades and neat grid of the A-train gave way to a seedier side of life. Every city has its seedy underbelly, and as everything else was on a huge scale in Albrook, so too was its slum.

Altrega Beach was not part of Albrook’s city plan; it was just a place Esperian refugees fleeing communist occupation ended up. First it was a refugee camp, then a tent city, and finally a slum. There were, of course, plenty of honest, hardworking folk among them. Klyde Munro had considered himself one of them; a tailor, classically trained in Jidoor, he once had a thriving business in Tzen. Even with Tzen occupied by the Scandians, and his family in the Occupied Zone, he still had his skills, and surely there would be a market for finely tailored dresses among the “General’s wives” social set. But of course starting a business required money, and here his troubles began.

“Where’s the money, tailor?” asked the Mafia enforcer.

“I don’t have it, Franky,” insisted Klyde. “Don Garlandini said I would have another week.”

“Times have changed,” said Franky the mobster. Franky wore a cheap suit and smelled of shitty cologne. He was a low-level footsoldier in the Zozoan Mafia; no made man would waste his time on such a smalltime errand. He pulled out his butterfly knife, and opened it with a swift motion.

Klyde slumped behind his desk. His shop – Klyde’s – had such a nice storefront, showcasing elegant Jidoor couture dresses. But of course, this was the wrong neighborhood. Who in Altrega Beach could afford such beautiful things? (Well, crimelords, as it turned out.)

Klyde reached under his desk and retrieved the shotgun. In one swift motion the gun was primed and leveled at the mobster’s chest.

“Idiot,” said Klyde. “Did you think knocking me over would be easy? I fought in the Great War, you asshole! Did you think I would just roll over to some two-bit with a knife?”

“Easy,” said Franky. “No need to get violent…I anticipated this might be a problem. That’s why I brought Enzo.”

On cue, a giant, brick-shaped battlesuit crashed through Klyde’s storefront tearing through a delicate white silk wedding dress. The blocky, angular machine had two arms ending in miniguns; missiles were clearly visible on its shoulder racks.

“That,” said Franky, “is a Kuat Ursus. According to the brochure, it’s used for heavy fire support in battlesuit regiments around the Web. Enzo just got it today, and he was so excited he wanted to test drive it.”

With a deafening roar, the miniguns of the battlesuit ventilated some of the shop’s mannequins. The slim, classic, little black dress, the flirty summer floral dress, and Klyde’s favorite, the eye-catching red evening gown were torn to pieces.

Franky backed away from the point of Klyde’s shotgun, and retrieved his needle pistol from his jacket. “Shotgun not so impressive, now, huh?” he said. “Always a bigger fish, as they say.”

“Well said, knave!”

Emerging from one of the fitting rooms was another battlesuit. This one was less blocky; it was clearly constructed with the user in mind. It had no guns, but in each hand it had a large tonfa.

“This is your chance,” warned the interloper. “Leave now, and leave this poor man in peace, or face the might of the SHIELD!”

“What the…”

Enzo’s Ursus turned to face the Shield. On some level, Enzo liked his chances in a fight. The Shield’s battlesuit had no guns, and no ranged weapons whatsoever. Plus, Enzo liked the idea of really putting his new toy through the paces. Using mil-spec hardware to scare up protection money was all well and good, but there was no point in having armor-piercing missiles if you never got to fire a few off. “Want I should ventilate him?” Enzo asked.

Franky merely gestured with his hand.

There was a high-pitched whine as the miniguns spun up to full speed, and then they unleashed a metal storm of bullets at the Shield. This was the kind of barrage that could cut down infantry platoons.

But the bullets just bounced off.

“This armor is Seraphim plastic,” said the Shield. “Your weapons cannot harm me.”

Enzo launched two missiles at the shield, red-tipped death shrieking across the small storefront. Both Clyde and Franky ducked for cover as each missile impacted the Shield, and detonated…to no effect.

“Allow me to restate said point: Your weapons cannot harm me,” said the Shield. At this point he felt vaguely embarrassed that the shop he was trying to save was now mostly collateral damage.

Franky sprang up, aimed his needle pistol, and squeezed off a full clip of rounds.

“…c’mon, man,” said the Shield. “You just saw your friend shoot a missile at me, and you think your pistol is all of a sudden going to hurt?”

Franky turned. “Enzo, you handle this, I’m gonna tell the boss what happened.” Franky sprang to his feet and started to sprint. The Shield activated his suit jets, and launched towards the mob soldier, tackling him and embracing him in a Seraphim bear hug.

Enzo, in his Ursus, was angry, and he began unloading another hailstorm of minigun fire into the Shield. “AAGAHGAGHAHGAHGGHAH!”

The Shield stood up. “You know, the screaming doesn’t actually make your bullets do more damage.” With his suit jets, the Shield got a running start, and a solid one-two hit with the graviton beat sticks dented the Ursus’s armor and knocked it flat on its ass. Once it was helpless, the Shield ripped miniguns off Enzo’s battlesuit, and smashed the launcher tubes with his beatstick.

Afraid, Klyde peaked up over his desk. “You…you saved me…”

“…sorry about your store…”

“I can make more dresses and more suits, even another store,” said Klyde. “I…I didn’t expect anyone to come. The APD is too busy with the rest of the city to ever come to Altrega Beach. And they don’t want to go up against the Zozoan Mafia.”

“’Tis an honorable thing, to protect the innocent against evil men,” said the Shield.

“Yes, ‘tis,” agreed Klyde. Klyde looked around his ruined tailor shop. “Though, next time, take the fight outside. It’s more honorable that way.”


#7

The security guard at the Cristophe Springs branch of Republic Interdimensional bank sat with his colleague in the security office, watching the tape again with his colleague. “Check this out,” he said.

Again on the tape, the black mage unleashed a bolt of lightning. And again on tape, a short, athletically-built, red-hair girl had deflected it with a sword. No, not deflected; simply cut through it. Like there was a knot underneath it holding it together, and the sword cut through that and simply deflated the magic.

“What do you make of it?”

“Some kind of magic, obviously.”

“Obviously. Maybe some Tane trick?”

“Would they use a sword?”

“Probably not. Maybe she’s not magic, maybe it’s just the weapon.”

The two guards watched the video again, as the girl on tape unwove first lightning, then ice, and then absorbed a full gout of fire.

“I don’t know much about magic weapons, but this one seems weird. Like, if you go back to the tape earlier, she pulls it out of nowhere.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. You can watch her come in, and she’s not carrying a scabbard or anything. I’ve only ever seen magic weapons in a museum, but I have a hard time believing they can do that if the user’s a total mundane.”

“Hmm. Ok. Maybe, it’s, like rune magic? I read an article on it the other day. They can do lots of interesting things with enchanted weapons, and the caster can control its activation. A good swordsman with a runic sword would be really scary.”

A third voice echoed in the security room. “Indeed, he would be!”

The startled guards turned to face the newcomer. He was young, and had long, flowing blonde hair and a ‘pretty boy’ face. His clothes were flashy, even gaudy, and he had a rapier at his side.

“I will be taking that tape, please,” the young boy said.

The two guards chuckled. “Listen here, kid,” said one, “I don’t know how you got in here, but you should really go down stairs.

The young man fingered his rapier. “I won’t be leaving without that tape. That young lady is of great interest to my master.”

The guards were both standing, now; one was reaching for the pistol in his holster. “’Master’, huh?” said one. “Perhaps your ‘master’ shouldn’t have sent you to threaten two men armed with guns with just a pig-sticker.”

In a flash, the young fencer drew his sword. With a quick thrust, he stuck his blade into the flesh of one of the guards.

The security guard struck by the blade turned to stone.

“What the hell!?”

The other guard’s confusion was short-lived; it was a quick move to thrust the rapier again, and a mere prick was all it took to turn him to stone, too.

The crimson-clad fencer neatly sidestepped the two statues, and collected the tape of Fara’s fight with the black mage.


#8

The University of Albrook’s freshman welcome party was always one of the biggest of the year. The Rec Commons of the university played host to two live bands, three DJs, and a laser light show; the weather was just warm enough for the swimming pool to be open.

And of course, there was booze. This being Albrook, there was booze all the corners of the Web! The party even had a special drink, “Great Powers,” consisting of Esperian whiskey, Scandian vodka, Guardian sake, and Tasnican beer. (“It’s like a four-way contest for economic, military, and political dominance over the Web is happening IN MY MOUTH!”)

Fara met her roomates just before the party. “Hey, Denise,” she said. “Violante. Kamiko.” Fara took a small sense of pride in remembering the names of three whole people over the course of a day.

“Hey, Fara,” said Denise. “How was your day?”

“My trip to the bank took a little longer than I thought, but otherwise, things were ok!” said Fara. “You know, it’s really weird. I can’t believe I made it all the way to the end. I feel like things were just…stopped…for a really long time, and I was worried the world would never get moving again.” She laughed. “I know it sounds silly, it’s just one day. But here we are, at the end of day one, and it feels like an accomplishment.”

Her roommates all smiled back, perhaps not sure what to make of this moment of goopy sincerity. But deep down, they felt the same way; something was moving again after too long an absence.

That night, Fara got roaring drunk, she danced (badly), and she sang (really badly). She met more people than she could ever hope to remember, from countries she had never heard of before. She got into arguments about sports teams (“This is the Claymores’ year! They will go all the way!”), had deep philosophical discussions (“What about all those Gods that DIDN’T fight in the Great War?”), and tried to plan her future (“Why are you all so into military history?”).

In the morning, she could not remember much of the details; just a fuzzy blur of warmth, energy, and life. She had a warm feeling; the first day was over, and come what may, she had had a good time.

Fara’s college life had begun.