Initiation [Ep 6]


#1

At first, Fara had tried to fight it.

The reality was that her small dorm room, shared with Denise, had one television, and that necessitated certain compromises. Denise tolerated Fara’s obsessive sports watching. (This was PLAYOFFS! This was the year the Thunderbolts would finally bring the cup back to Egmont!) But in return Fara had to concede the television for a certain number of shows, and the show Denise absolutely refused to miss was Project Design Star.

Fara initially dismissed Project Design Star as reality show drivel. The show featured twelve up-and-coming fashion designers competing in a variety of challenges; Denise, a rabid fashionista, never missed an episode. At first, Fara had tried to study when it was on, or surf the swordfighting forums on the omninet, but the show exercised an almost hypnotic draw. Maybe it was the drama between the aspiring designers, maybe it was the vicious wit and wisdom of co-host Michel Bors, or the long stream of increasingly outrageous themes (“Formalwear for Dark Moogles in a time of Light”, “Early Great War Baronion Ducal Dress”), but Fara slowly found herself getting addicted. By the time Bertha Javelins appeared as guest judge, it had become a true roommate ritual.

It was during the first commercial break that Denise offhandedly mentioned to Fara, “So I met someone from Egmont the other day…I was wondering if you knew him?”

“Egmont is quite a big place,” said Fara. “I mean, you don’t know everyone from Centwerp, do you?”

“Yeah, but Egmont is smaller.”

“…actually, that’s not true,” said Fara. She was already digging out her phone to run an omninet search to back up her claim. “See? ‘Egmont is the second largest city in Tasnica, and the fastest growing.’”

“That was probably written a while ago,” Denise teased. Fara clenched her fist.

“It was NOT written a long time ago! This was accurate for just before I came to school here! Egmont will probably be bigger than Tasnicaport soon, like almost as big as Albrook!”

Denise was laughing. “Fara, I know how many people live in Egmont…but it is fun to see you get angry…”

Fara couldn’t help but smile a little bit. Even though she could be a pain at times, it was nice to have a friend who was…relatively normal. It grounded her to have someone in her life who was not a super soldier/former spy/smuggler/mythical being.

“Ok,” said Fara, “so you met someone from Egmont…what makes you think I would know them?”

“He said he knew you,” Denise said. “In fact, he actually specifically asked me if I was your roommate. I figured he must’ve been a friend from home.”

“That’s…incredibly strange,” said Fara, racking her brains. Most of her friends from home had stayed home, or gone to other schools, mostly in Tasnica. She was trying to remember; she met so many people during orientation, it was possible that there was another Egmonter in the mix. “I don’t really remember anyone?”

“Oh, you’d remember him,” smiled Denise. “He was gorgeous . Long flowing blonde hair, a dapper red outfit…

“You catch his name?”

“Marcus.”

Fara felt the blood drain from her face. She sat upright in her chair. “Marcus?” she asked.

“So you DO know him! I guess Egmont’s a small town after all!”

“…where did you meet him?”

“Oh,” said Denise, “at a sorority party the other day. I started chatting with him because he’s really, really ridiculously good looking, and he mentioned he’s from Egmont, and I was all like ‘Oh, my roommate’s from Egmont!’ And then he said, ‘Fara Somers’?”

“…and that didn’t strike you as creepy?”

“Well, it does NOW!” said Denise. “At the time I was pretty drunk. It made PERFECT sense to drunken-me that he would know you.”

“So what happened?”

“We chatted for a while, but he kept asking about pyra, and where he could get some, so eventually I bugged out,” said Denise. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a tall frosty glass of OJ now and then…”

“Yeah, you need to stop with the pyra, Denise, it’s actually a solution of nanites designed by an evil organization of androids from the future in order to induce mind control on a massive scale as part of a massive plot for global Web domination. I mean, I’m not being captain judgey here, it’s your body and you can do with it what you want of course, but you need to be responsible so you don’t end up laboring in the string cheese slave farms for the robot overlords.”

Denise giggled. “Fara, you crack me up!”

“…but yeah. Seriously. Pyra’s bad news bears.”

“I know the line between fun and addiction,” insisted Denise. “And this Marcus guy, he was gone . He had the orange tinted eyes. He kept asking everyone where he could get some…it was sad, really…”

Fara frowned. What the hell had happened to Marcus that had made him turn to pyra? And how had he come to Albrook?

“Well, Fara,” asked Denise, “You know him?”

“Yes, I do,” said Fara. “He’s my ex-boyfriend.”

“…”

“…”

“…”

Fara broke the awkward silence. “Did you get his number, by any chance?”

“No,” said Denise. “And trust me, Fara, getting back together with your ex is a bad idea.”


#2

“Ok,” said Fara, facing Terry, Violante, and Osprey (and Bim, she supposed). “I’ve called this meeting of…of whatever we’re going to call our little group of plucky adventurers…”

“’Called a meeting?” Osprey lay splayed out in the couch, with one set of legs up on Bim, the griffin hand. “…who died and made you Generalissimo, Fara? Just because Roxanne is in Tasnicaport for a conference doesn’t mean you get to be all Miss Bossypants!”

“Oh, come on Os,” said Fara. “Aren’t you tired of sitting around waiting for crazy things to happen to us? I was thinking we could maybe go looking for people for help/crimes to solve/crazy adventures.”

“I am the master of my fate,” said Osprey. He clawed at the bottom of the bag of chips for crumbs. There was a whole other bag of chips in the pantry, but that would require him to walk to the pantry, and that was so far away. Osprey also considered ordering food for delivery, but his phone was charging in the bathroom. Although he was hungry, it was probably best to just wait for someone else to suggest food.

“Fara has a point,” said Terry. “I mean, if the Pyra Syndicate hadn’t tried to kill me, we never would’ve found out they were here. We need to be more proactive. I’ve been patrolling Altrega Beach more to try to break up the Mafia protection rackets there.”

“Um,” said Violante, “am I the only one who feels a little bit weird that we’re all here in Roxanne’s apartment, and she’s out of town?”

“I’m not sure where else we would meet,” said Fara. “Our dorm room? The school gym? Besides, Terry and Os are already here…though you’re supposed to be getting a new place soon, right?”

“Soon,” said Osprey.

“Yes, soon,” said Terry.

“I mean,” said Fara, “it’s been like most of the semester…”

“Fara,” said Osprey, “as denizens of the Gate Dimension, Terry and I have a somewhat flexible attitude towards time.”

“…yeah, I still don’t really ‘get’ what’s going on with the Guardian Royal Family anymore,” said Fara. “But these time-related questions need to wait for another…time…I guess…ANYWAY, I wanted to talk with all of you because my ex-boyfriend is back in town.”

“…and this concerns us, how?” asked Violante. “You want help getting back together, want an elaborate revenge prank, you want to make him jealous –“

“…it’s complicated,” said Fara.

Violante sighed. “It always is, with exes.”

“Well,” said Fara, “His name is Marcus. I used to go out with him in high school…he was like, my first real boyfriend. We were both on the fencing team.” Fara smiled, slightly. “Gods, he was so gorgeous…” Fara manifested the Mana Sword (classic longsword, solid crossguard.) “I ever tell you about my first adventure as the Mana Knight?”

“Come to think of it, I don’t think so,” said Terry.

“Well, short version: there was an EVIL magical conspiracy, and I stopped their EVIL ritual,” said Fara. “Marcus had been brainwashed into joining their cult…it turned out that he was also a magic sword-using type person, and I had to fight him.” Fara shook her head. “That was the last time I saw him.”

“But Denise saw him?” asked Terry.

“Yup. And it sounds like he’s in a tough spot – she said he had the pyra eyes,” said Fara. Fara started swinging the Mana Sword around, going through a few practice maneuvers. “It’s funny, you know,” she said, “when I first found the Sword, it seemed so random, so lucky. But now I know my real luck was finding Roxanne, and finding all of you. Marcus…wasn’t so lucky. He had a gift, too, but some bad people got ahold of him, used his power for their own ends, and now I think they’ve left him out to dry.”

Terry sighed. “Well, I know what that’s like,” he said.

“You and me both,” said Osprey. “I mean, if we hadn’t found Fara and Roxanne when we did, what would we have done after ZAPS? No place to live, no heroic adventures…probably, we’d just be forgotten by everyone.”

“You don’t really think you’d end up a pyra addict on the streets of Albrook, do you?” asked Terry.

“…and a few years ago, you didn’t really think we’d be drummed out of ZAPS and exiled from our home country, did you?” retorted Osprey. “Things could’ve ended much worse for us. ‘There but for the grace of gods go we.’”

“Well, ok, you’ve convinced me,” said Terry. “But how are we going to find him?”

“He’s looking for pyra,” said Fara. “I figure after Terry’s fireworks with the Pyra Syndicate, it’s kind of hard to find locally.”

“You’re right, Fara,” said Violante. “Mafia and the Triads are staying away from it. I don’t think they want to call too much attention down from a certain Seraphim-clad vigilante.”

“How do you know that?” asked Terry. “You’re not smuggling pyra, are you?”

“Gods no,” said Violante. “After seeing what opium has done to Damcyan? I don’t run drugs, I don’t care how good the geld is. But in the smuggling business, you have to keep your ears open.”

“Ok,” said Fara, “thanks to Terry’s heroic efforts, there’s only a handful of pyra dealers left in the city. Marcus is probably a client at one of them.”

“I only know a few,” said Violante. “But they’ll know the others. Probably just getting a visit from “the Shield” will convince them to give up any information they have.”

“Fara, maybe you should’ve opened with ‘let’s put some pyra dealers out of business,” said Terry. “Where do we start?”

Violante thought for a moment. “Probably Carrie the Carp.”

“Sounds Priman,” said Fara.

“Yeah, she’s from Alter-Dragon,” said Violante. “She’s got a pair of huge Tigran bodyguards, and a small pile of guns.”

Terry smiled. “Doesn’t sound like anything we can’t handle.”


#3

“This is the place,” said Violante, gesturing to a small, ordinary looking door.

“Doesn’t look like much, does it?” said Fara. And, indeed, it didn’t; Carrie the Carp’s pyra den was a nondescript looking door, wedged in between a drycleaner and a convenience store. It was easily the kind of place you’d miss if you weren’t looking for it. Especially now, at night, it looked more like a service entrance for an adjacent building.

“Yeah, Carrie likes to keep a low profile,” said Violante, “she doesn’t like to stir up too much trouble.” Violante knocked on the door.

No one answered.

“Huh, that’s strange,” said Violante. She opened the door. “There should be a bouncer or guard or something, here…”

Fara, Violante, Osprey, and the Shield entered the pyra den. It was small and narrow, and cluttered with tables. The patrons did not even turn to face the newcomers; they ignored them entirely.

Fara approached one, cautiously, but even as she drew nearer, none of them moved.

“Um,” she said, “they’re all…stone? And stuff?”

Osprey approached another one. “This one, too,” he said. “Totally petrified.”

Terry, clad in his Seraphim armor, took a second to scan the room. “I’m not getting heat signatures off any of them,” he said. “They’ve all been turned to stone.”

Fara approached a huge Tigran, now an impressive looking lion statue, caught while reaching for his Atreus pistol. “Who would do this?”

“No idea,” said Violante. “This isn’t really the Mafia’s style.”

“Wait, I’ve got one,” said Terry. “Over in the corner.”

In the corner, as motionless as all the rest, was a single scarlet-clad figure. Violante approached him. “Hey?”

There was a blur of reddish motion as the figure swirled around. Violante didn’t have time to scream or react as she was pierced by the scarlet fencer’s sword and turned to stone.

“…Marcus?” asked Fara. Even though it had been years since she had seen him, she still recognized him. Although the fancy red cloak and breeches were new for him (and definitely not a Tasnican style), his gorgeous blonde hair and beautiful face were unmistakable.

Marcus smiled. He brought his rapier in front of his face in a mocking salute. “Fara,” he said. “What do you think of my new sword? I call it Erdnadel . I think you will find it a match even for your own magic weapon.”

Fara sighed. “It figures that I haven’t seen you in years, and the first thing you bring up is your sword.” Fara gestured around the narrow room, crowded with statues. “What’s going on here, Marcus? I heard you were in trouble – “

“You heard someone was in trouble, and you came running,” said Marcus. “Always helping those in need…just like your Damcyanese friend, here,” he said, gesturing his sword at the petrified Violante, “or that griffon hand you protected from Valkyries.”

“…uh…how do you know about that?” asked Fara. “And also: why have you turned everyone here into stone? Including my friend?”

“This is my initiation,” Marcus said. “By vanquishing you and your ‘friends,’ I will finally remove the stain of my earlier defeat.”

“I don’t know how to break this to you, Fara,” said Terry, “but your ex-boyfriend is possibly insane. Maybe it’s the pyra.”

“Pyra?” cackled Marcus. “That was only part of my act, you see…I’ve played you all like a gods-damned harp!”
Marcus started to step toward the heroes. Osprey decided that allowing the raving lunatic with a sword that petrify people to approach unimpeded was a Bad Idea, and decided to incapacitate him with a blind spell.

It didn’t work quite as planned.

“I’m blind!” shouted Osprey. “What did you do?”

“You tried to cast a spell on me,” said Marcus, smugly. “It’s almost like you’ve never seen a Reflection spell before.” With a darting rapidity that stunned the heroes, Marcus lunged forward and buried his sword in the blinded mystic. Osprey, too, was turned to stone.

Fara manifested the Mana Sword, now, going full zweihander. In her mind, zweihander was a good choice for this fight – it outranged Marcus’s rapier, and it allowed her to cover a wide area, which was important because Marcus was always fast on his feet. She focused her elemental shield on Gnome, which would hopefully protect her from Marcus’s petrification attack.

Terry’s Vanguard shield lit up, and he pulled out his graviton beat sticks.

Fara and Terry attacked Marcus, but Marcus side-stepped both of them easily. Two versus one should’ve been an advantage, but within the narrow confined space, littered with statues, Marcus could control the space easily. Fara couldn’t swing her big zweihander to full effect, and it was Terry found it hard to get in close enough to make use of his beat-sticks.

Marcus was quick on his feet; with his rapier it was easy for him to thrust, then disengage quickly. “Fools,” he said, “I’ve been studying Siman masters. It is generally acknowledged that the most skilled Siman Fencer could easily best the greatest of Doman or Guardian Knights, and would make an utter fool out of a Baronian Paladin!”

Fara came down with a big hit; Marcus parried, but the force of the blow pushed him back. “Yeah, I read omninet fencing forums, too,” she said. “But the weapon or the style matters less than the person who wields it.”

Marcus snaked in a thrust past Terry’s defenses, but it glanced against the breastplate of the Seraphim armor. “This is idiotic,” said Terry. “Even if with your stupidly magical sword, you can’t pierce seraphim plastic.”

Marcus pulled back, leaving an apparent opening for Terry. Terry dived, his beat stick ready to deliver a finishing blow. Marcus twirled around it in a dodge; the force of the graviton hit blew a huge chunk open in the wall. Marcus, now behind Terry, thrust the tip of his rapier into the back of the suit’s knee.

“Every suit of armor has its weak point,” said Marcus.

“Terry, are you ok?” asked Fara. “Terry?”

Terry was silent – turned to stone.

Furious, Fara brought her zweihander around in a wide, sweeping blow – but Marcus side-stepped behind the statue of the Shield. With a strong blow, Fara could probably smash through the statue – but what would that do to Terry? Petrification was nothing a trip to the local potion shop couldn’t cure, but if she smashed him to bits it wouldn’t be so easy.

“Using my friends as cover is a dick move,” said Fara. In this small, enclosed, crowded space, her zweihander was less of an advantage than it would have been in an open area. She switched the Mana Sword over to a longsword – another strong style of hers. Marcus had a big reach advantage, but had more angles of attack with the cutting blade.

“Some Mana Knight you are,” taunted Marcus. “You can’t even protect your friends.”

“Where were you again when a bunch of rock demons attacked Egmont? Attacked our hometown ?” demanded Fara, swinging wildly. “While you’ve been gallivanting off with Simans in Merge or wherever, your mother was worried sick about you.”

Marcus scratched Fara’s face with his sword – just a pinprick. With Fara focused on the power of Gnome, she was immune to the petrifying power of the runeblade. “Alter,” said Marcus. “Simafort is in Alter…but intelligence was never your strong point.”

Fara danced to where Osprey was standing. Blocking Marcus with the Mana Sword, she pulled Shiva’s Edge out of the scabbard. Now dual-wielding, she launched a fury of blows at Marcus.

“Look who thinks they’re Astrid Sky-Eyes now,” taunted Marcus, but he appeared to be on the backfoot.

Shiva’s Edge was a full-sized katana, not really designed for dual wielding. It felt clunky in Fara’s hands, but she was angry, and she wanted to end the fight. With Shiva’s Edge she blocked Marcus’s rapier Erdnadel and swung with the Mana Sword, scoring a solid wound on his stomach.

Marcus pulled back, clutching his wounded midsection. Since Fara was focused on Gnome, her attacks had the power of the earth elemental, but since Marcus’s enchanted weapon was also earth-based, he was immune to the elemental effect. With two swords, though, Fara felt safe. She focused on Sylphid, electrifying the blade, ready to slice through the scarlet-clad fencer’s defenses.

Marcus smiled.

He stopped clutching his stomach, and fought with a renewed vigor. It was like dueling a whole new fighter; even with two swords, Fara could barely keep up with the flurry of blows. All it took was one thrust to get through, one prick —
Fara felt it, in her leg. A cold, hard knot of nothing, spreading through her body as she turned to stone.

“You never could beat me in a swordfight, Fara,” Marcus taunted.


#4

“Enough.”

From the shadows emerged two dwarves, priests to the elements. Wisps of shadow faded from the figures; they had been concealed, long watching the fight.

Grilka Vrinnicus, Priest to Althenar, the Elemental of Life itself.

And Eleod Vrinnicus, Preist to Shade, the Elemental of Darkness.

“What are you doing here, dwarf?” demanded Marcus.

“Teaching you damned kids how it’s done,” he said. For a brief instant Eleod was enveloped in shadow, and then there was a large, gooey patch of shadow stuff underneath Marcus and Fara.

Marcus couldn’t move his legs. “Impossible!” he said. “Some kind of spell? But my reflection magic…!”

Eleod’s face was a scowl of permanent contempt. “Magic Theory 101,” he said. “Reflection magic protects you from spells cast on you…it doesn’t protect you from spells cast on the environment around you.” Eleod shook his head. “Time used to be, SIS runemages would know that kind of basic magical fact. Maybe you should’ve spent more time learning BASIC MAGIC COMBAT instead of running off to hang out with frogs.”

Grilka asked, “Honey? Should I restore everyone of their petrification?”

Eleod grumbled. “Maybe better to leave them statues, for all the good they do.”

“They won’t learn anything if you leave them stuck like this,” said Grilka.

“Fine.”

Soft golden light enveloped Grilka; the tails of her hair flew high above her head as she chanted a spell. With the power of Althenar, Fara, Terry, Osprey, and Violante were restored.

“…how long were you watching?” asked Osprey.

“Long enough,” said Eleod. “Alright, Fara,” grouched the dwarf, “Without his fancy footwork, you should have no problem putting Marcus down.”

Fara tried to move her feet, but she was stuck in the same tar patch as Marcus. “Uh…your spell doesn’t let me move either.”

Eleod rolled his eyes and grumbled. “If you attune yourself to Shade, my spell won’t affect you,” he said. “I suppose I could just melt his face myself, since I’ve already gift-wrapped him for you…”

“Ok, old man, I’ve got it,” said Fara, focusing the Mana Sword on the power of Shade. With shadow magic coursing through her body, she was immune to the tar patch, and although Marcus tried to parry, his feet were stuck to the floor.

“No matter,” said Marcus. “I may have failed, but you’ll never stop the Master!”

“Yeah, whatever,” said Fara, and knocked Marcus out. She looked over at Eleod. “Does he mean…?”

“Yes,” said Eleod. “He has gone by many names, but you knew him as Mannern Fuchuan…the self-style ‘Master of Mana’.”

“That’s impossible!” said Fara. “I beat him! Like, he shouted ‘NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!’ and everything! I felt it was pretty conclusive!”

Eleod shook his head. “Sadly, his mastery over the Elementals is absolute, extending even to Kelthalis – Death itself. Instead of returning to the elements (as we all must), we was able to keep his conscience alive until his followers could find another body.”

“….what is he talking about, Fara?” asked Terry. “Some kind of evil dark god cult?”

“No,” said Eleod. He sighed. “So Fara never bothered to tell you, huh?”

“What’s to tell?” asked Fara. “They were a bunch of evil guys, and then I beat them. Fara Somers -1, Evil magical conspiracies – 0.”

Eleod growled. “Damn kids…” he shook his head. “No, not every bad and evil person in the Web is aligned with the Dark Gods, believe it or not,” he said. “In fact, the ‘Secret Imperial Society’ (one of their many, many names) prohibits raising Dark Gods…they find it always ends very badly.”

“So what’s he want?” asked Terry. “Does he want to become a god?”

“Becoming a god isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” said Eleod. “You could find yourself banished to the Place Which Is No More by a certain troublesome Generalissimo…Salynae and Dorian jumped at their chances for godhood, but now that they are facing eternal imprisonment, perhaps they would’ve preferred to keep their mortality…and their freedom of action.”

“This is all fascinating,” said Osprey, “but perhaps a pyra den surrounded by petrified gangsters is not the best place for this conversation? Maybe we should go back to Roxanne’s place?”

Eleod still looked angry. The dwarf’s face looked incapable of looking any other way but tired and angry. “Fine,” he said. “I would say what I have to say to the Valkyrie.”

“Ok,” said Terry. “I’ll call APD to have them clean up the scene…they’ll make sure our fencing friend, here, is under wraps.”


#5

Roxanne had had to cut her conference in Tasnicaport short. This was the sort of thing that the tenure committee at the university would frown on – but she heard there was trouble.

She was sitting with Eleod, who was very angry, along with Fara and Terry. She was in her home office; Osprey was of course crashing in her living room, sharing a snack with Bim.

“So,” said Roxanne, “these people, the Secret Imperial Society, they’re back.”

“Yes,” said Eleod. “Their leader seems to have come back from the dead.”

“Old Taznikanze saying,” said Roxanne, “when a man has returned from the dead, the only solution is to kill him again.”

“But what are they after?” asked Terry. “I mean, they must think we can stop them…Marcus went to a lot of effort to lay a trap for us.”

Eleod shook his head. “I’m not sure,” he said. “But did it occur to you to ask HOW he knew you were coming? And HOW he knew so much about you?”

“Some kind of EVIL magic?” asked Fara. “That’s my guess.”

Eleod rolled his eyes. “Perhaps you should seek a more…mundane explanation. There is a spy in your ranks.”

“A spy?” demanded Roxanne. “But who?”

“I don’t believe it,” said Fara. “You really think that one of my friends is secretly working for an EVIL magical conspiracy?”

“Well, take your pick,” said Eleod, “there’s that griffon hand who you took in without a second thought, even though he’s a criminal and little better than vermin.”

“He’s not vermin, he’s adorable!” protested Fara. “Besides, I wasn’t about to let an innocent life get squished just because he got on the wrong side of some Valkyries.”

“There’s also that communist terrorist you’ve been palling around with,” said Eleod.

“You mean Violante?” asked Fara.

“Yes. The communist terrorist. The one with known contacts to the Scandian League Combined Military. Whom you’ve given access to a sophisticated suit of Shield armor, not to mention Terry’s secret identity. I wonder how much S/31 would pay for the identity of ‘Captain Guardia’.”

“I’ve never felt like Violante is playing me,” said Terry.

“If she’s any good, you’ll never see it coming,” said Eleod.

“I was in ZAPS, I know a thing or two about intelligence work!” protested Terry.

“Yes…you were in ZAPS…how much intelligence casework did you do? Or were you just Bekkler’s pet strongman?”

Terry pounded Roxanne’s desk.

“Wasn’t it Violante that took you to this place where Marcus attacked you?” asked Roxanne.

“Yeah, but Marcus attacked her right away!” said Fara.

“There’s one more person it could be,” said Eleod. “Osprey.”

“You’re kidding,” said Terry. “I have known Osprey a good long time…we were chained up together in an Omnisent prison.”

“Yes,” said Eleod, “and have you ever seen him so desperate? He’s applying to jobs all over town…maybe he ended up being recruited by the Master without even knowing it.”

“I can’t believe Os would betray us!” shouted Fara.

“You ‘can’t believe’ a lot of things,” retorted Eleod. He shook his head, and looked over at Roxanne. “This is all your fault, you know. You’ve failed to train her. You’ve wasted all this time with ‘college’ and ‘friends’…luxuries for a weak and peaceful era. She wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the Great War.”

“I don’t think my college education is a weakness!” protested Fara.

“What are your majoring in? Something useful, like military history?”

“Well…I’m not really declared yet, so…”

“Waste of time,” said Eleod, “you probably don’t even know who won the Battle of Frozen Bay.”

“Was it Celiose?” said Fara. “I’ll bet it was Celiose.”

“…lucky guess,” grumbled Eleod. “But while you were futzing around in school, Marcus was studying to be a better fighter…all it took was you getting a little overconfident and you were done. It’s time you stop wasting your time with this nonsense and focus totally on your Mana Knight training.”

“It’s not a weakness for her to know the Web is worth fighting for,” said Roxanne.

“Saving the Web requires sacrifices,” said Eleod.

“And maybe the Web is filled with people a little too eager to make those sacrifices,” said Roxanne.

“I never expected to see a Valkyrie gone so soft!” said Eleod.

Roxanne made a fist. “In the good old days, I would kill any man for making such an affront to my honor.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“Gods!” shouted Fara. “You guys are worse than my parents!” I’m IN THE ROOM, you know!”

Roxanne and Eleod were momentarily shamed into silence, they still both looked angry. (But in Eleod’s case, this was his customary countenance.)

Fara probably only had a moment, she figured she had better make it sound good. “Understanding is a three-edged sword.”

Eleod sighed. “She’s even starting to sound like Rainere,” he grumbled.

“There’s three sides: your side, the other side, and the truth,” said Fara. “Yeah, Eleod, you maybe have a point. Marcus did play me like a gods-damned harp. And yeah, maybe Bim or Violante or even Osprey might be giving information to the Master – even if they don’t know it. But that doesn’t give you the right to piss all over Roxanne. When I first found the sword, I all wangsty about and didn’t think I even wanted it. Yeah, I knew it had to be someone to stand against the forces of evil and all that – but I didn’t want it to be me. She was the one who convinced me I could wield this sword – that I wanted to carry this burden. So if you’re going to help us, than help us, but if you’re just going to come in and winge about everything, you should just go back to the old folks home and swap stories about how great things used to be before you went and got old.”

Eleod gave Fara a dirty look. “Ok,” he said, “you’ve got spirit…let us hope that that is enough…”

“So we have no idea what this ‘Master of Mana’ is up to?” asked Roxanne. “Like, what kinds of things has he done in the past?”

“Depends on who you believe,” said Eleod. “The Secret Imperial Society claim their hand in many things…the creation of the Mana Fortress, for example. They claim to trace their roots back to Ajax the Scholar, the Mana Mage who first claimed that magic could be studied with logic and reason.” Eleod shook his head. “Whatever he’s after now, I have no idea…but I know it’s bad.”


#6

“Bless your heart,” said the gunslinger to the scarlet clad fencer. “You had to go and get captured, and ah had to practically blow up a whole police station to rescue you.”

“You should not have bothered,” said Marcus. He looked at the man with the fu Manchu mustache. “I have failed my initiation…not that you would understand, outsider…”

The Master folded his fingers, his twelve rings of power glinting in the light.

The gunslinger continued. “Ah’ve got no love for Johnny Law, mind,” she said, “but cop killing always brings down the wrong kind of attention.”

The Master waved his arm dismissively. “The mundane authorities are of no concern of mine.”

The gunslinger shook her head. “Ah’m a legitimate mercenary, suh. Protecting your wizzer gewgaws here is one thing, but bustin’ tenderfoot hear out of jail, well…”

The Master cocked his neck. “You desire more money, Beretta? Fine. Since material concerns are of no meaning to one such as I. “

“Much obliged,” said Beretta, the gunslinger. “Tanglin’ with the fuzz don’t come cheap…don’t know why you didn’t just let the little twit rot in his cell, though…”

“Now, I don’t expect you to understand,” chided the Master, “as an outsider, you do not appreciate that our Brotherhood has certain…scriptures. Duties. Like fraternity.”

Marcus cocked his beautiful face up at the man with the twelve rings of power. “But I failed…”

“Yes,” said the Master, “even forewarned of the dwarf’s presence, you were not prepared.”

“I had a reflection rune,” said Marcus. “I had thought it enough.”

The Master stood, and strode over to a lockbox. He held his hand up to it, and a rune glowed, opening the lockbox, revealing what was inside: a Mana Seed. “It is no matter,” said the Master. “For your failure advances the plan all the same.” The Master took the Mana Seed in his hand, using it to gather power. His rings of power glowed with mana; the chamber was pregnant with ethereal power.

“I am disappointed that you can not join me as my brother,” said the man with the fu Manchu mustache. He waved his arm, completing a ritual. “However…you will still serve your master.”

Marcus screamed, his body wracked by elemental energies.