Music is Magic [Ep 2]


#1

Albrook has a lot of bars. The Web’s largest city had a commensurately large appetite for booze. And as bar culture around the Web was different, you could find it all reflected in Albrook – Esperian pubs and Tasnican beer halls were the most common, but there were Eblanese sake dens, high-class establishments, and dives. There was even the famous Drunken Soldier Tavern, a veritable historical landmark, where (it was said) Celiose and Chrystalis would go drinking.

Albrook Harbor (“the AH”) had plenty of seedy, cheap dive bars serving inexpensive beer and grog to merchantmen and dockworkers servicing the busiest point of transshipment in the Web.

Osprey, of course, knew that all job searches required a good bit of legwork – simply sitting in the apartment all day on the computer sending out resumes would not do! Even in this OmniNet, hyper connected age, meeting people face to face was the way to go. He knew that there was always extra work to be had at Albrook Harbor. Most of it was menial day labor, loading and unloading ships, but occasionally voyages leaving for unsafe parts of the Web needed extra security. There were captains who needed rough men ready to do violence, and they came to the Rowdy Ray’s Tavern and Bar, home of two-GP shooters and well-known haunt for violent freelancers.

Osprey’s plan was simple: saunter in, look badass (which was easy enough!) and let the job offers roll in. He didn’t expect to find anything long-term, but anything to get a paycheck and build the resume was worth it.

Walking into Rowdy Ray’s Tavern and Bar, Osprey almost fit right in among all the other job-seekers – though, with his best ninja gear and Shiva’s edge, he was certainly more dapper than the scads of ex-GA veterans for hire that made up most of the tavern’s clientele. With all his confidence, he sauntered up to the bar.

“Give me the spiciest buffalo wings you have!” he demanded.

The bartender was momentarily taken aback. “Are you sure?” he said, shocked. “I should warn you, there are some mean sons-of-bitches that come through this place, but not one has ever finished a full plate of our spiciest buffalo wings.”

“I said bring them!” demanded Osprey. “I insist upon maximum spicination!”

“…do you want milk with that, at least?”

“No, I am lactose intolerant,” said Osprey.

Gravely, the bartender nodded.

This bold move had the desired effect. Osprey could feel the whole attention of the bar on him. Amongst the drab sea of washed-out GA types, he noticed a few more colorful characters: a beat-up looking Tigran, very far from Alter; a lady gunslinger from west, thoroughly dressed for the part; a “Mr. Johnson” working for some AAA corporation, with a suit clearly too nice for this establishment; and a man with a top-knot wearing loose fighting robes, with a large dao-style broadsword in a scabbard on his waste. It was this last man, who looked like he was from Fabul, who approached Osprey.

“Nice sword,” he said.

Osprey proudly grasped the hilt of Shiva’s Edge. “It is my most prized piece of equipment,” he said. “Forged from the frozen breath of a dying god.”

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the man, “I am Jin Gangdao, Red Pole of the Golden Axe Triad.”

Osprey had drawn the wrong kind of attention. The Triads were a notorious Fabul-based criminal organization. Despite his strong desire for gainful employment, and despite the fact that as a professional spy most of what he did was not strictly legal, there was a fine line between doing questionable things for a legitimate employer and entering Albrook’s underworld.

Still, he was curious. Albrook was a Zozoan Mafia town; for a Triad Red Pole to be here, and in traditional Xsian dress, was quite bold, on par with ordering the spiciest wings available. Something was afoot, and Osprey wanted to know what, without giving too much away about himself. Quickly, he conjured one of his patented bird-themed cover identities. “I am Pete Pidgeotto,” Osprey said, “fencer extraordinaire and all-around useful guy to have in a fight.”

“Pete,” said Jin Gangdao, slowly. “You interested in a job?”
“What kind of job?”

“One where you would get to use that sword,” said Jin Gangdao. “My organization is…new in town, and we are a little shorthanded.

Osprey smiled. “I’d be interested.”

“Good,” nodded Jin. Jin slid over a napkin with an address on it. “There’s a smuggler who needs to be a taught a lesson. Be at that address in two hours.”

Osprey nodded. Of course, there was one more thing needed to sell the fake identity: “What about…compensation?”

“You’ll be rewarded an honest night’s pay for an honest night’s work,” grinned Jin. “And, if you do a good job, there may be more work in it for you.”

“Excellent,” said Osprey. “I must go and get my gear. Barkeep! Please make my spicy wings to go!”


#2

Fara had received a text message from Osprey – “Be at this address soon. Something big going down. Triads are making a play.” Smacking around some mob goons seemed like a grand old time, and Fara found her Economics reading horribly boring, so she hopped on the A-Train down to Albrook Harbor and went to the address Osprey had specified.

The address Osprey had given her looked like a large garage. The door was locked. Rather than wait for Osprey, Fara decided she needed to learn more about her situation. She knocked on the door.

Violante Vaquero, the Damcyanese girl who lived across the hall from her in her dorm, answered the door. “Hola, Fara,” Violante said, confused. “I’m…surprised you’re here?”

“Guten tag, Violante,” said Fara. She was equally surprised to see Violante; she had come expecting a rumble with Triad mooks, not to run into one of her roommates. “I…I was just in the area? Thought I saw you, and I wanted to say hi?”

“You were just wandering around Albrook Harbor?” asked Violante.

“I was exploring the city…I wanted to check out the big statue of Celes at the Promontory – I hear it’s all lit up at night and quite impressive—but I took the wrong train. Figured I’d have a look around?” Fara wasn’t sure how convincing this all sounded.

Violante opened the door. “Come on in, Fara,” she said. “Albrook is so fucking cold, and it’s going to rain later anyway. Besides, I want to show off my work.”

Fara entered the garage. Violante had a pair of goggles, pushed up on her head; she was wearing cargo pants and a tank top. Violante was covered in grease; Fara knew that Violante was majoring in engineering, but it was clear she took a very hands-on approach.

But, entering the garage, it was impossible to miss the large, sleek-looking hovercraft.

Violante grinned. “Been working on it for ages,” she said. She walked over to the hovercraft, gesturing excitedly. “Ground-effect skirt is off a Kuat Erinyes mecha,” she said, “and the other turbofans are from Kuat Banshees.”

“Oh, my Dad helped design the Kuat Banshee!” said Fara.

“Solid work,” said Violante, approvingly. “The electronics are all Guardian, of course. And the power is from Esperian Motor Works. Her soul, though, is all Damycan. I call her the Velocity.”

“…is that because your name is ‘Violante Vaquero’, and you wanted another ‘v’?” asked Fara.

“Well, she’s also very fast!” snapped Violante. “Assholes in harbor patrol never catch me.”

“…why would harbor patrol be after you?” asked Fara.

“Because they’re assholes,” said Violante, which at this particular moment, seemed explanation enough.

Osprey descended from the ceiling, landing gracefully. Violante and Fara were both startled. “Do not be alarmed!” said Osprey. “It is I – Osprey!”

“Who?” said Violante.

Fara felt really, really awkward. “So…some introductions are in order? Osprey, this is Violante. She lives across the hall from me.”

“Charmed!” said Osprey.

Violante was taken aback by Osprey’s sudden appearance. “Um…who are you?”

“Osprey!” said Osprey. “I know that many of my missions have been kept secret, but surely Fara has told you my sad tale of heroism and unemployment!”

“I don’t think you’ve come up,” said Violante. “Fara was all ‘hi, I’m Fara, I’m from Egmont and I like swords.’ I don’t recall her saying ‘oh bee-tee-dubs, there’s a creepy birdman stalking you.’” Violante pulled a rather large wrench from her toolbelt, and raised it, defensively.

“You misunderstand,” said Osprey. “I think you’re in terrible danger – we’re here to save you!”

“I can take care of myself,” insisted Violante.

“We are just here to –“

Osprey and Violante continued to argue, but Fara couldn’t hear them. There was a sound outside, at first she thought it only the rain, but it was too loud and persistent for that. It was a persistent, loud hacking. Fara noticed the front door of the garage was taking a beating; no sooner had she noticed this than the door was punctured. By an axe. By lots of axes.

“Um, guys –“

A dozen men with axes tore through the front of the garage and stepped in. They were led by a man in loose, Fabul-style robes wearing a top-knot; he had a dao broadsword drawn. Osprey recognized him as the man from the tavern earlier.

Fara drew the Mana Sword, seemingly from nowhere. She decided to go full zweihander, for maximum intimidation; and she focused on Salamando, setting the sword ablaze.

“Fara?” asked Violante. “Why do you have a flaming sword?”

“Why are the Triads trying to kill you, Violante?”

“She’s a smuggler,” interrupted Jin Gangdao. “And she must learn that nothing gets smuggled into or out of Damcyan without the approval of the Golden Axe Triad.”

Fara brandished the sword. “No, I don’t think you’ll be chopping my roommate into tiny bits!” she said.

Jin Gangdao looked at Osprey. “Come,” he gestured, “Pete Pidgeotto. Earn your pay.”

“Fool!” said Osprey, triumphantly. “You have been played for a fool by the master spy, Osprey! I was merely using you to gain information!”

Jin looked enraged, but then merely irritated. “Humph. Enough dawdling!” He pointed his word forward, and the axe-wielding foot soldiers approached.

“Osprey, you handle the axe-men, I’m on the leader,” said Fara.

“I am the night!” shouted Osprey, and vanished into the shadows with poof of smoke.


#3

Fara pointed the Mana Sword, in zweihander form, straight forward, pointing out Jin Gangdao. In Taznikanze tradition, this was aristeia, where the champions of the opposing sides sought each other ought across the battlefield.

Jin Gangdao pulled his sword from the sheath, and spun it around in a quick flourish. He closed his eyes, slowly moving his broad blade in large circle; he looked like he was meditating. Fara waited (which was proper aristeia etiquette). Jin opened his eyes, and moved towards a fighting stance. He seemed looser than before, more flexible, and more alert.

Fara edged forward – in zweihander mode she had a big reach advantage, and also her sword was magical, and on fire. Feeling quite confident, she took a big horizontal swing.

Jin jumped over it; a quite impressive jump…his vertical leap must’ve cleared four feet. The trick with fighting with a big sword, Fara knew, was to keep it moving. Once you had momentum, the speed disadvantage was no so great. Coming out of her horizontal slash, she swung the sword over her head and brought the blade with a massive headsplitter.

Jin parried with his sword and stepped aside. His parry was stronger than Fara expected; it knocked her aside, opening up a weak spot. Jin went for a big cut, but Fara recovered in time and blocked it with her weapon’s cross guard.

“…you know,” she said, “I kind of expected my magical flaming sword to just sort of melt through your blade.”

“I have focused my chi through this, my ancestral blade,” Jin said. “Your silly magic tricks cannot harm me.”

“They’re not silly, they’re really cool!” insisted Fara. She pushed her sword forward, breaking the bind and pushing Jin out to “safe” range. She thrust forward with her sword, but again Jin easily dodged. Fara cursed herself; she should’ve seen that coming. The long, big swipes covering lots of area where the right move against an opponent as nimble as Jin. She unleashed another big cleave – diagonal this time in case he decided to jump.

Jin blocked the Mana Sword with the sword, and used the momentum from Fara’s mighty blow to launch himself into a flip.

“Show-off,” grumbled Fara, continuing her assault. It felt useless, though; it was like she was trying to cut through water. She was much more used to fighting rocks.

With Fara squaring off against the Triad Red Pole, Osprey dealt with the rank-and-file Blue Lantern of the axe gang. Individually they were unskilled, but of course quantity has a quality of its own. Osprey struck from the shadows, out two at a time. He took care to use the dull side of Shiva’s Edge; there was no reason to the death elemental power housed in the sword against mere street thugs.

Smoke pellets confused the ten other axe gangers; two quick shuriken to weapons arms, and then there were eight. The gangers were confused, disoriented; they had expected to rough up a smuggler, a helpless young woman, not to face a real fight.

Violante was not so helpless herself. The axe men were focused on trying to pin down Osprey, or rooting for their leader in the duel. Violante carefully snuck up on one and bashed him with her wrench, knocking him out cold. Only seven gangers remained.

Jin Gangdao backed away from Fara – although his duel seemed to be going fine, his mooks were getting their asses kicked. He frowned. “You had better try harder, Blue Lanterns,” he scolded, “if you want to be initiated into our Triad.”

“…or you could run, and not get your ass kicked!” shouted Fara. “Whatever this Golden Axe Triad is, it’s not worth it.”

“The Triad is like a family,” lectured Jin. “An ancient organization, blessed by Sung Chiang himself…not that I would expect you to understand.”

“Yes, I’m sure organized crime is an ancient and venerable Fabul tradition.”

Jin shook his head, pulling back. “This has been a stimulating fight, but now I must end it.”

Jin rushed towards Fara; where before he was all defensive, counter-and-parry, now he went all-out on offense. Before Fara was hacking at rain; now she had to resist the fury of a thousand foot pent-up gorge. He got inside her guard, and he was faster this time; he aimed low, and his big cut sliced a gash in Fara’s leg. Fara staggered back, trying to gain distance where her bigger weapon would have the advantage.

Fara considered her options. She could reform the Mana Sword from a zweihander to something more suitable for up-close fighting, but that would leave her vulnerable for a moment, and Jin would only need a moment to land a lethal blow. Jin’s Qi focus negated all of her elemental attacks….but not, perhaps, her elemental defenses. Desperately dodging and parrying, Fara focused on Lumina, the Elemental of Light. Lumina’s power gave her a quick burst of speed, and she dashed behind Jin before he knew what was happening. A sturdy pommel strike to the back of his head stunned Jin; he whirled around, clearly confused.

“But…how?”

“Magic.” Fara swung again, and this time there were no fancy kung-fu dodges, no artful parries, just a smashing blow that knocked the Red Pole flat on his ass.

Fara held her sword at Jin’s neck. “Drop. Your. Sword.”

Jin complied, and Fara bent over to pick up his sword.

Fara felt exhausted…clearly, using Lumina to go “light speed” was something she could only do for short bursts, for dashes or charges; she wasn’t going to be fencing superfast anytime soon. She also noticed that her hoodie and jeans had several huge tears in them; clearly, more than a few of Jin’s blows had been very close to biting into her flesh.

The other Triad gangers, after seeing their leader trounced, lost heart and ran into the rainy Albrooker night.

Jin seethed. “You have shamed and humiliated me!” he said.

“You know, all those dodges and parries, those were pretty neat. I’ll have to study those,” said Fara.

“So….chatty!” growled Jin. “Spare me this ‘banter’! At least give me an honorable death! Send me to my ancestors!”

Fara clocked him with the flat of her sword, a blow modulated to knock him out. “Osprey, can you take him someplace the police will find him?”


#4

“So, Violante…” asked Fara.

“So, Fara…” asked Violante. “Why do you have a magic sword?”

“I ask myself that question a lot,” answered Fara. “Short version: I found it one day, now I use it to try to help people. Like, innocent college students who are attacked by criminal organizations.”

Violante smiled mischievously. “I’m not so innocent, Fara,” she said, “that would be…boring.”

“So it’s true?” asked Osprey. “You’re a smuggler?”

“It is true, I run guns into Damcyan,” said Violante. “My country’s occupied by Fabul, I do what I can to help the resistance…sometimes I sneak things in, sometimes I sneak things out. The Golden Axe runs Tripport, I probably pissed them off.” She sighed. “…you know, when the Mountain Master hears you’ve smacked one of his Red Poles, he’ll send a lot more thugs. These Triad types are all about face, and he can’t let this humiliation go unanswered.”

“Bring it,” said Fara. “I’m just getting warmed up! Just get this leg wound all magic’d away, and I’ll be good to go!”

“I kind of would prefer that my secret smuggler lair not become the site of a gang war,” said Violante.

“You’re no fun.”

“I’m plenty fun!” insisted Violante. “I just think of things like dancing, making love, and zooming around in a hovercraft are fun.”

“Ok,” said Fara, “I could see how you might see ‘getting attacked by major Web criminal organization’ as a ‘fun thing to do once in a while, on special occasions’ kind of thing. I feel the same way about bowling.”

“But seriously, that’s why I wanted Osprey to hang up Jin Gangdao like a piñata on the other side of town, far away from here….I wonder how that’s going?”

Fara sighed. She pulled out her phone. “He keeps sending me selfies,” she said. She showed Violante a picture of Osprey grinning next to the unconscious Triad enforcer hanging from a lamp pole. “He said it was for his portfolio.”

“You should come with me,” said Violante. “I have a pick-up to make…it should be a milk run.”

“Won’t they still be after us when we get back?” asked Fara.

“I think the worst will be over by then,” said Violante. “Triads will probably get run out of Albrook by the Garlandinis sooner or later.”

Osprey appeared, suddenly, from the shadows again. “An excellent idea!” he said.

Fara nodded in agreement. “Always wanted to visit Crystal.”

The three piled into the hovercraft, with Violante in the driver’s seat. Despite its sleek exterior, the interior had a ramshackle feel; this hovercraft was clearly made virtually from scratch, piecing together components from dozens of different vehicles.

Violante toggled some switches on. “Be sure to buckle your belts nice and tight,” she said. “She’s got a bit of a kick when she starts up.” The hovercraft roared to live; Fara could hear the mighty fans thrumming. And yet she had a strange sensation of floating, like she was sitting on top of a hockey puck.

The Velocity zoomed forward, out the doors of the garage, onto the waters of Albrook bay. It rushed past the Promontory of Celes, and through the portal to the Crystal Dimension.


#5

Traveling between the dimensions always felt weird. One minute you’re in a rainy, foggy evening in Albrook, surrounded by a bustling harbor overlooked by a giant statue of Celes, and the next minute you’re a bright, clear day on the oceans of Crystal. Surrounded by a giant fleet of Scandian ships. Blocky, scary looking, bluntly functional Scandian ships – the naval branch of the oppressive instrument of Web Communism—glowered down at the hovercraft.

“Oh….scheisse,” said Fara. She looked out the windows. Fara didn’t each individual ship class, but she did see the distinctive yellow, red, and black flag of the Scandian League everywhere. Jets roared overhead; they had surely been spotted.

“…shit is right, Fara,” said Osprey. “It looks like we just popped out into the middle of a carrier task force. Violante, do you have a way to get us out of here, FAST?”

“Don’t worry,” said Violante, steering her hovercraft towards one of the aircraft carriers. “They’re our pick-up. Just keep cool.”

“…yes, we’ll keep cool,” said Fara, trying not to think too much about the armada of communist doom around her. “You could even say we’re frostied.”

Violante turned the radio on. “Remorseless, this is Velocity. This is Lieutenant Vaquero of the Revolutionary Army of Damcyan. I’m coming in for my pick-up.”

A static answer came back, with a thick accent: “Acknowledged.”

The hovercraft docked with the aircraft carrier, and the trio ascended to the flight deck. Fara had never been on an aircraft carrier before, and although she knew sea ships were somewhat out of style these days, she had to admit it was kind of cool to stand on the flattop, standing in the midst of a hive of activity busily serving all manner of combat jets.

She, however, did half-expect to be killed on site as a capitalist running dog lackey. Armed guards approached her, eyeing her suspiciously.

“Don’t take it personally, Fara,” said Violante. “Scandians eye everyone suspiciously. It’s part of their charm.”

“…Yes,” said Fara, looking at the hulking gant with a supervolt rifle. “…charming indeed. I’m sure they’ll hand out snacks, soon.”

The gant –an oxlike humanoid over seven feet tall and built of pure muscle-- cracked a smile. “Hungry?” he said.

“Actually…yeah,” said Fara.

“Here, have some borscht,” said the gant, handing Fara a can of Aunt Nikita’s Own Borscht. “It’s standard rations for us…you just open the can and chow down.”

“Danke schon,” said Fara, and immediately regretted that she revealed herself to be Tasnican. The guard didn’t seem to care, though, and she opened the can of borscht and started eating it. Some small fiber of her being believed that she was somehow betraying the Republic by doing so, and she made a mental note to a giant dinner of bratwurst and beer when she got back to Albrook.

The guard’s crackled and squawked; Fara barely understood what it was saying. “Tribune Tarkov will see you now.”
The guard escorted them below decks, through a portal. In the office sat Tribune Georgi Tarkov, commander of SLCM-Sea. Tarkov was a big, black human; he was built like a football linebacker, and had massive, dreadlocked hair. On one wall was a massive portrait of Travin Rumanski, beaming beatifically into the glorious communist future for working people everywhere. On another wall, facing Rumanski, was an equally large portrait of Sahl Endeburg, looking very heroic in full Dragoon armor.

Tarkov pounded his desk angrily, and shouted with his booming voice: “How dare you bring a known Guardian spy onto my ship!”

“Actually,” said Osprey, “I’m no longer with ZAPS.”

“Maybe that’s what ZAPS WANTS us to think!” insisted Tarkov. “You are mysteriously dismissed and then you show up on MY ship. This, comrades, can be no coincidence! I’m well aware of your reputation, Mr. Osprey.”

“…really?” said Osprey. “Perhaps you have a job opening? I’ve heard good things about the Orca program…or maybe Spetsnatz, but I think that’s more S/31’s bailiwick…”

Tarkov pounded the desk again. “Enough!” He pointed at Fara. “And she? Who is she?”

“She’s…my college roommate?” said Violante.

“I have a magic sword!” said Fara, trying to be helpful.

Tarkov grumbled. “Should’ve known it was going to be amateur hour working with Damcyan,” he said. “Just like the Leviathan War.”

Violante’s force contorted to a mask of anger. “How dare you insult my country! And how dare you insult the proud Men of the Nation who died for Damcyan in the war! Yes, they were poorly led and they were in a hopeless situation, but that makes their sacrifice no less heroic! Even as my home suffers under the Fabulian jackboot, you belittle the national honor of Damcyan! Viva la Damcyan! Viva la Revolution!”

“Violante,” said Osprey, “maybe don’t pick a fight with the big dude who runs the Scandian navy. At least not while we’re on his carrier.”

“I will not allow Damcyan to be insulted and belittled!”

Tarkov took a deep breath. “I am sorry, Comrade Vaquero,” he said. “You are right. We are all brothers and sisters in this revolution, united in arms against the enemies of peace and freedom.”

Fara couldn’t help herself. “Well, I know when I think of peace and freedom, I totally think of the Scandian League. You’re just peace’ing and freedom’ing it up all over the Web!”

Tarkov grumbled again. “So you have a Guardian spy and a Tasnican comedian. On my ship.”

“Well,” said Violante, “Just give us the harp of Edward and we’ll take it back to Albrook as agreed.”

“…that’s what we’re here for?” asked Fara. “A harp?”

“Not just any harp!” said Violante. “The Harp of King Edward, one of our greatest bards! For Damcyan, it’s a priceless cultural artifact, like the original Code of Belgememnon, or the crown jewels of Guardia, or…” she eyed Tarkov “…something from Scande.”

“Also,” said Tarkov, “the harp is magic.”

“Yes, music is magic,” said Violante. “It can make people fall in love, inspire revolutions, and make kings cry. So, if you give us the harp, we’ll be on our way.”

“There’s been a snag,” said Tarkov. “The Orca commando team found the harp fine, and they had no problem with the smash-and-grab part of the operation. But their helicopters hit a nasty sandstorm on the way out, and they crashed in the desert. Fabulian troops have a fix on the position, and they’re moving in.”

“Send another team,” said Violante.

“Elite commando teams don’t exactly grow on trees,” grumbled Tarkov. “It takes years of training to become an Orca – and only one percent of applicants finish the whole course.”

“I’ll go!” said Violante. “I’m a smuggler. Getting things in and out of tight places is what I do.”

“I’ll go, too!” said Osprey. “Surely this volunteer opportunity is a chance to build my resume and make a favorable impression on a potential employer.”

“I’m in, too,” said Fara. “Rescuing a magic harp from an evil Fascist regime? Sounds like fun. Besides, it seems like you need the help, Violante.”

Tarkov eyed the trio suspiciously, as Scandians were wont to do. Could a ragtag band of adventurers succeed where an elite military unit had failed? “I’ve seen Osprey’s resume, I know what he can do,” he said. “He is quite a capable field operative.”

“Thanks!” said Osprey. “Actually, I’m quite interested in job opportunities –“

“PleasedirectallsuchquestionstotheSLCMseahrdepartment,” spat Tarkov, as though he were anticipating Osprey’s question. “But the red-haired Tasnican…what can she do?”

Fara manifested the Mana Sword.

“…so?” asked Tarkov. “A sword. I give you, it’s neat that you pulled it from nowhere, but it’s just a sword.”

Confidently, Fara left the office; the other followed. She walked outside. On all sides of the carrier were ocean, the perfect realm for Undine, elemental of water. She focused the elemental energy, and slowly, determinedly, badassedly, strode towards a Bloodhawk jump jet. With a swift cut of the sword, she froze the nosecone of the plane solid, and shattered it.

“…you wrecked my plane!” shouted Tarkov. “Why would you do that?”

“…sorry,” said Fara. “You were all like ‘what can she do?’, and I thought it’d be really cool to show off the sword, and –“

“You wrecked one of my jets!” shouted Tarkov. “After I brought you onboard. We even gave your borscht!”

“…I said I was sorry…”

Tarkov sighed, exasperated. “It is times like this, I ask myself…’What would Sahl Endeburg do?’” Tarkov considered for a moment, and decided that the beloved Dragoon would indeed take a chance on a ragtag group of adventurers. “Fine, Comrade Vaquero, take the Guardian spy and the loose cannon Tasnican to get back the magic harp. Try to make sure she doesn’t wreck anything else. I’ll tell you where you can make contact with our forward units.”

“Thank you, Comrade Tarkov,” said Violante.

The three re-entered the hovercraft. “…I still can’t believe we’re working with the Scandians,” said Fara.

“They’re not bad people,” said Violante.

“…we’re talking about the same Scandian League that’s the Web’s largest police state, right?” asked Osprey. “Massive suppression of free expression, total state control over every aspect of life…that Scandian League?”

“Well, ok. They are bad people,” conceded Violante. “But there are worse people in the Web. Much worse.”

“Fair enough,” said Osprey.


#6

The hovercraft zoomed along the desert; as a smuggler, Violante was well-practiced in dodging Fabul patrols. Fara wondered how she didn’t get lost; it just seemed an endless sea of sand and dunes, dotted by the occasional oasis or Kasbah watering-hole.

Violante sighed. “Home sweet home,” she said. “Use to sneak out with my dad’s hovercraft and race these dunes…there was a village near here that had great tango parties.” She balled her hand into a fist. “Burned down in the war, of course. The Leviathan War didn’t care so much for tango….mierda, the Scandians are only helping us now because they want some magic weapon.”

Fara was genuinely at a loss for words. She had never spent a great deal of time considering how the Web’s cycle of wars affected all not-Tasnica parts of the Web; even though her home at been attacked by giant rock demons, the idea that a hostile power would ever occupy the heart of the Republic was ludicrous. She had no idea what she could say to Violante; sorry, sucks that your country lost a war and everyone forgot about it seemed a little flippant. Osprey, too, was silent, reflecting on how his home was also lost, but in a different way: as an exile, he was unlikely to see Denadoro province in Guardia again.

Violante stopped the hovercraft. She opened the hatch, and scanned the horizon with binoculars. “Our contact should be here, but I don’t see anything…”

“You expect us to be spotted so easily?” came a voice. A handful of Scandian soldiers stood up, revealing themselves from their concealed foxholes. They were all wearing desert camouflage, except one, who was wearing a bright red cloak. One, a wolflike humanoid of the Forest clan, spoke. “I am Lieutenant Kieron. Me and my biker scout unit are providing recon for this operation.”

Osprey and Fara exited the vehicle. Fara had never seen a forest clanner before, but in Tasnica they had anthromorphic cats and vegetables, so an anthromorphic wolf was not too big a stretch.

“Honored, Comrade Kieron! I am Lieutenant Vaquero of the Damcyan Liberation Army. What’s our situation?”

The Scandian soldier wearing the bright red cloak answered the question. “Our situation is balls. My Dracoform is buried in sand and we have a KN unit sweeping this way.”

Fara looked at the Scandian in the bright red cloak; she had long, dark hair down to her waste, and was wearing bright red lipstick. “That’s…Sheila Sporr,” Fara whispered to Violante. “She won the Robotics Tournament…”

Overhearing this conversation, Sporr’s lips curled upward into a smile. “As seen on tv.”

“But wait,” said Fara. “I don’t see your Dracoform…”

Sporr sighed, frustrated, and gestured towards the giant sand dune behind her. “There it is….though, it’s only really buried up to the waste. We threw a tarp over it the rest of the way to conceal it.”

“Why send a Dracoform on this mission?” asked Osprey. “This seems like it should be a quick in and out…and Dracoforms are kind of, well, big and clunky…not so good for sneaking about…”

“Central Command and I don’t see eye-to-eye,” said Sporr. “I think they’d prefer me as a dead hero.” Sporr gestured for everyone to come closer. “Let’s go over the situation.”

Sporr drew a circle in a sand. “Ok, that’s us…”

“Really?” said Fara. “All this fancy technology, and you’re drawing a map in the sand?”

“It’s actually pretty standard, Fara,” said Osprey. “At least for forces in the field. See, she even has some pebbles for enemy forces.”

“Yeah,” said Sporr. “Didn’t they teach you this in the…what was your outfit again, Ginger? Republic Marines?”

“Uh, well, I, uh…”

“What exactly is your military experience? How many operations have you been a part of?”

“…this is my first time…”

Sporr sighed, exasperated. “By Rumanski’s hairy ass, this harp better be pretty fucking amazing.”

“This harp is a part of our musical heritage!” shouted Violante. “Used by King Edward himself in his journeys with Cecil to save the world!”

“Tetracom Kieron, give us the sitrep,” said Sporr. “That’s ‘situation report’, for Ginger, here,” she added, gesturing towards Fara.

Kieron drew in the ground with a stick. “We are here,” he said. “A few klicks away is the downed helicopter. That’s where the harp is. We don’t think any Orcas survived the crash, but the harp was in a heavy safebox and should be ok.”

“So…why don’t we just go over there and get it?” asked Fara. The Scandians eyed her suspiciously. Fara was started to get used to it.

The biker scout put down some pebbles. “We can’t ‘just go over there and get it’ because we have Fabulian units inbound. There’s some LCVs heading towards the crash site, and my scouts have spotted a KN unit sweeping this way.”

Sporr glanced over at Fara, and adopted the same tone she used to condescendingly lecture to particularly thick Crucible cadets. “The KN – or Kohinglen Newpound – mecha is a workhorse designed to use a wide variety of handheld armaments. A KN unit will usually have a variety of different equipment, and work together as a team.”

“So…”

“So, if this were like, a brick of Enforcers or something, it’d be a straight up firefight. But fighting a KN unit requires some strategy.”

“Like chess!” said Violante, trying to be helpful.

“Actually, I think Go is the better analogy,” said Sporr.

“Better than chess!?” squawked Osprey, shocked. “The game of kings, a past time enjoyed the web over?”

Sporr shrugged. “I just like go better, is all.”

“…I don’t really play either of those games…” said Fara.

“And Ginger again contributes nothing of substance,” said Sporr. “Kieron, continue.”

“Anyway, we’ve got about six KNs inbound…”

“Hold on,” interrupted Fara. “Dracoforms are like, the best mecha in the Web. Well, second best I guess, because everyone knows Seraphim are the best. And those Guardian NORNs look pretty good, too. So Dracoforms are like, second or possibly third best - ”

“Ginger,” interrupted Sporr, with the same lecturing tone, “as any mechawarrior worth a damn will tell you, the decisive factor in any mecha confrontation is the pilot.”

“Well, yeah…but aren’t you like…really good?”

Sporr smirked. “Well, if my Dracoform wasn’t buried in fucking sand I wouldn’t need any help for this. But being able to move is an important part of mecha tactics.” Sporr’s smirk vanished. “It’s a pity we didn’t catch them during the sandstorm.”

“You need sand?” asked Violante.

“My Dracoform has advanced thermographic vision – it’s easy for me to see through sand. It’s not easy for most of the KNs to do that.”

“The hovercraft kicks up a lot of sand,” said Violante.

“Great!” said Sporr. “Cut across their axis and draw their fire.”

“That’s loco,” said Violante. “I love it!”

“Draw them out of formation, lure them back here, and I can wreck them with the Dracoform,” said Sporr. She pursed her lips. “That leaves the KN Sniper…”

“What’s the problem with the Sniper?” asked Fara.

“Well,” said Sporr, “for one thing, the sand won’t mess with its targeting. It has improved sensors. Also, it outranges my Zog Dracoform…and since I can’t move to close range, once he figures out where I am he can just take me out at distance.”

“My scouts have a fix on him,” said Kieron, “he’s setting up a sniper nest a few klicks south of here…we don’t have any anti-armor weapons, though.”

“I have a magic sword!” shouted Fara.

“Like, how magic?” asked Sporr.

“Well, I cut apart a jet before coming here…”

“One of Tarkov’s jets?”

Fara nodded.

Sporr smiled. “Maybe you’re ok, Ginger. Anyone who pisses off Tarkov can’t be that bad. Tell me: You ever fight giant robots before?”

“Well, no…”

Sporr’s smile twisted even higher, into a grimace. “Oh, you’re gonna LOVE it! It’s better than sex!” Her eyes seemed lost for a moment. “Mm! Kieron, take her on your bike to the KN Sniper’s position so she can get her giant robot killing cherry popped. The hovercraft chick and I can handle the other KNs. Someone has to retrieve the harp, though.”

“Leave it to me,” said Osprey. “I am the night! The…desert night!”


#7

Sneaking across the desert, Osprey approached the site of the helicopter crash. Cloaked in the shadows, he spied the Fabul soldiers scouring the crash site. There were five men, standing near a light combat vehicle. Three were on point outside; two had entered the vehicle.

He judged the wind, and when the time was favorable, he tossed a small packet of itching powder. The powder landed with a poof in the center of the three soldiers outside. After a few seconds they each started to each, but thought nothing of it; perhaps it was just some mosquito or bug bite. But soon the itching became a burning, and after a few more minutes the men were distracted intensely. On of them left for the LCV to try to get a first aid kit; the other two were doubled over with burning, itching pain.

“It burns! The itching! THE ITCHING!”

Osprey effortlessly snuck by the soldiers consumed with the itching, burning pain; they were in no condition to notice him.

That left the two soldiers inside the helicopter, both unaware of Osprey’s presence (or that their comrades outside had been incapacitated by horrible rashes). The stink of dead bodies was in the air; the blood and corpses of the Scandian Orca commandos littered the interior of the craft. It was a truly violent storm that brought down the helicopter.

There were two Fabulian soldiers, and they were standing far enough apart that Osprey doubted he could take them both down at once. Taking down one would almost certainly alert the other to his presence. Neither of them looked like anything special, just standard grunts with Kuat-made N4B Bravo assault rifles.

The Fabulian military was quite large, but it was bloated. Osprey hoped that, if he stuck one of them quickly, the other would turn and run.

He choose his victim. Catching the Fabulian by surprise, Osprey knocked him out. He shot the other soldier a fifty-yard stare. “I am the night,” he said. “If you run, you may yet live.”

The Fabulian soldier did not appear intimidated in the slightest, but he didn’t go for us gone either. Instead he raised his arm, and with one swift motion summoned a hulking toad-demon.

This was no ordinary grunt; this was a Caller, capable of summoning great beasts.

There’s a saying in Web militaries: Kill the magic user first. Most magic users were of course aware of this, and wore uniforms and equipment that were indistinguishable from anyone else. Osprey had taken down the wrong soldier, and was now he was in close-quarters combat with a huge magic toad-thing.

The toad demon was hulking, but squat; maybe around six feet tall. It was ugly, brown and horned, standing squat on three legs; summoned espers were always depicted in art as beautiful creatures, but this demonic amphibian was hideous. It also stank, even worse than the smell of the corpses; Osprey struggled to avoid vomiting up a plate full of very spicy wings.

“Go, Chanchu,” the caller commanded the summoned monster.

The three-legged toad demon of Xsian myth launched itself forward, belly-first at Osprey. It was a quick, sudden, powerful movement; only Osprey’s ninja reflexes allowed him to dodge.

Chanchu the esper swiped at osprey with its clawed, fin-like hands; Osprey dodged back, giving himself some space, and drew Shiva’s Edge. This was now a real fight. The toad demon swiped again, and Osprey cut up with Shiva’s Edge, slicing through bones and tendons cleanly and taking the summoned monster’s arm clean off. With a quick reverse he sliced through the other clawed hand; viscous, black toad bile was everywhere.

The stumps where the toad’s arms were bubbled for a moment, and then grew back.

Osprey wasn’t sure how he could beat a beast with such regenerative power. Unleashing dark bomb in these close quarters was dangerous; he was likely to blow apart the helicopter and destroy the very harp he was sent to save.

The toad demon’s tongue lashed forth, and wrapped around Osprey’s arms. Osprey had no leverage to make a cut or slash with his sword; he felt the sticky, slimy, throbbing mass of muscle tighten around him.

With an irresistible force, the tongue snapped back, and Osprey was pulled into the toad demon’s mouth, down into its gullet.

“Good work, Chanchu,” praised the caller. The toad demon grinned. The caller resumed his task of securing the lockbox with the harp.

A katana thrust out from the stomach of the toad demon, and a huge draw cut sliced the stomach of the toad demon open.

“That wasn’t going to happen to me again!” shouted Osprey. Now, at close range, he unleashed a swift barrage of cuts, showing the slice-and-dice skills that surely would’ve made him a valuable addition to the Web’s Wurst Restaurant as he reduced the once-threatening toad demon to a mere pile of stinky toad-kibble.

“Regenerate THAT!”

This time the Fabulian Caller was well and truly scared, but Osprey wasn’t about to let him get away; with a quick toss he launched two shuriken into the caller’s feet.

He then took his supply of itching powder and poured it over the hapless caller. All of it. The caller screamed and writhed in agony; his skin would be burning for days.

With the threats finally removed, Osprey had the chance to look around the helicopter. Handcuffed to a bulky, oxlike gant was a steel strongbox that looked like it had survived the crash totally intact. With a swift swipe of Shiva’s Edge, the box was freed.

Osprey opened it. Inside was an immaculately crafted wooden harp, the musical instrument of King Edward himself. It was an exquisite antique, quite beautiful, a relic of a different age of the Crystal Dimension.


#8

Violante maxed the rotation for all the fans of her hovercraft, kicking as much as sand into the air as she could.

There were six KNs in front of her. The front three were armed with N70 needle rifles and shields; the back three had bazookas. All six of them could easily destroy Velocity if they managed to score a solid hit. What’s worse, her smuggler’s hovercraft had no weapons that were a real threat to a mecha; just enough to poke them to get them to follow her.

She charged the KNs, and shot at one of them. Turning as tightly as she could, she doubled back into her own smoke cloud. She zigged and she zagged as cannon fire raked the desert.

It was like a dance, really. Like tango. It helped that the Fabulian pilots had feet of lead.

“Try to break up their formation,” came Sporr’s voice over the radio. “As soon as I open up they’ll have my location…I want to get the ones with the bazookas first. They’re the only ones that can really hurt me.”

“They can all hurt me,´ grumbled Violante, through clenched teeth. She launched her flares and chaff, hoping to through off the Fabulian KNs’ targeting system.

Violante heard a boom behind her; a missed bazooka shot.

“You’re lucky Fabulian pilots are shit,” said Sporr. “An Esperian would’ve made that.”

“…are you actually going to start shooting, or you just going to talk?” demanded Violante. She stopped and hit full reverse on her hovercraft, doubling back into her own sand cloud. She reversed behind a sand dune; she had to stay out of line of site.

One of the KNs carrying a bazooka collapsed, a stream of 75 mm shells from the Dracoform’s Demolisher cannon hosing it down.

The camouflage tarp covering the torso of the dracoform fell away; the rattle of fire shook some sand off. Although the Zog Dracoform was still buried in sand up to its legs, but it was still an impressive site, a draconic visage sculpted as a giant killer robot. The KNs were now fully alerted to the presence of another mecha.

Another bazooka KN toppled over, collapsing under the stream of shells. Another KN – this one holding a rifle – exploded into a shower of sparks and twisted metal, blown to pieces by a volley of missiles.

Sporr’s voice crackled over the intercom. “All too easy,” she said. “Better hope your friend takes down the sniper….shit.”

“…what do you mean, ‘shit’?” said Violante, getting nervous. “Things were going so well!”

“My weapons are jammed with sand,” said Sporr. “I’ll try to clear them, but you’re on your own.”

Violante considered her options. The three remaining KNs had fanned out into a triangle. They were approaching the Dracoform; with its armor the Draconic mecha could absorb a few hits, but as it was totally immobilized it was a sitting duck.

If this was a dance, it was time that Violante lead.

Violante fired up her engines and charged forward into the KN’s formation, spun around to aim her engines backward. This quick, on-the-spot 360 degree turn brought her to a complete stop. The Velocity idled, surrounded by three KN mecha. She counted out the beats in her mind, tapping her foot. One – they notice she’s here. Two – they notice she’s not moving, a sitting duck. Three – they line up their shots, and pull the trigger.

Four – she hits the Velocity’s hidden rocket engines, thrusting the hovercraft forward with a huge kick of acceleration.

The bazooka from one KN missed her, and crashed into the feet of one of the other mecha, bringing it to the ground. The rifle shots were all wide.

“Not bad,” came Sporr’s voice over the intercom.

“…yeah, I don’t think I can do that again,” said Violante. “You get your weapons working?”

“Sort of. I can a missile working, but they’re rattler rounds. I set up a minefield behind that escarpment. If you kite them over it, it should cripple them.”

“…won’t I have to go over the mines myself?”

“They’re set to pressure detonation. Your hovercraft won’t trigger them.”

Ok; it was time for a little ocho. Violante zoomed between the KNs again; they were holding their fire this time, being more careful to avoid friendly fire. Neither rifle KN could hurt the Dracoform, so they decided to pursue the hovercraft.

Violante made sure to keep an erratic pattern, making sure to stay under the cover of the sand cloud her engines were kicking up. Her tiny gun poked at the KNs, taunting them forward. She doubled back around, and made a jump on a hill up the escarpment – into the minefield.

The KN pilots must’ve been laughing; this sort of vertical obstacle was the kind of thing mecha were made for. Enthusiastically, both of them jumped up the escarpment to finally get to grips with this troublesome hovercraft.

The mines on the ridge exploded, taking out the legs of both machines. Although they were not destroyed, they certainly weren’t going anywhere. Violante returned to the Dracoform, hoping Fara had neutralized the KN Sniper.


#9

“The KN Sniper’s over that hill,” said Kieron the biker scout. “He’s focused on the battle below. Be careful…the snipers are usually given to the better pilots.”

“Aren’t you going to come?” asked Fara.

“…no, I just have a needle carbine. I’ll leave the giant robot killing to you,” said Kieron, who was already beginning to camouflage himself and his bike. “I’ll be here when you need to go.”

Fara crested the hill, and there it was: the KN Sniper. Sure enough, it was crouched, facing forward with a giant sniper rifle, just like a human infantryman. A 35-ton human infantryman. It hadn’t noticed Fara yet; and why would it, what could one little girl do to a mecha?

Fara had never fought a giant robot before, but she had watched the Robotics Tournament. The weak points on mecha were always the joints. She thought to repeat her trick from the carrier earlier, and focused on Undine. She manifested the sword as a zweihander; for a beast of this size, only a big sword would do.

With a massive cut, she hacked at the foot of the mecha.

It did not freeze – but it did get the mecha’s attention.

It occurred to Fara that calling upon the elemental power of water to freeze something in the middle of a desert was probably not the best strategy.

The KN Sniper rolled over, leaving its rifle on the ground. It stood, towering over Fara; it had nearly thirty feet on her. The cycloptic eye of the beast tracked downward, locking on to her, glowering ominously.

Fara felt really, really stupid all of a sudden. She focused on Gnome, the elemental of earth, to build a physical barrier against the fire that was surely coming.

The KN opened up with its chest machine gun; Fara raised her sword. Fortunately this was a small gun (by giant robot standards), and gnome’s power protected her from harm.

Fara charged the KN again, stabbing the sword deep into its shin. Of course, the petrification power of gnome was useless against metal; metal was already sort-of elemental earth. She didn’t know what she hoped to accomplish, except to get lucky and take out some key system (or something!)

The mecha stepped back. The pilot seemed unsure what to do; “attacked by lone assailant on foot with sword” isn’t a typical situation for a sniper mecha. After a moment of ineffectual Vulcan fire, the KN pilot hit upon the obvious answer, and pulled his own mecha’s sword.

“That’s a really big sword…” the mecha pilot was no fencer, but with a sword twice as big as Fara herself, he didn’t have to be. He brought the blade down; Fara dodged. Again the pilot took a swing, and Fara dodged easily. The giant mecha sword was designed for fighting other mecha; the KN struggled to come to grips with a lone, nimble attacker.

Of course, Fara hadn’t figured out exactly how she was going to hurt the KN.

Frustrated, the KN stopped attacking with its sword and pulled out a grenade. It backed away from Fara a few steps– it’s easy for something seven times your height to open up a distance. It tossed the grenade. Fara continued to focus on gnome, and ducked for cover behind a nearby sand dune.

If this had been an anti-personnel fragmentation grenade, continuing to focus on gnome would’ve been the right choice, as it would’ve protected Fara from shrapnel. However, this was a high explosive grenade. The explosion deafened Fara; the shockwave knocked her flat, and the dune in front of her was blown away by the force of the explosion. She could feel flash burns on her back. Probably, the dune in front of her had absorbed enough of the blast to keep her alive.

Her mind seared with pain. She had to focus, she had to take the offensive.

In the cosmology of Mana, there are 12 Elementals: Gnome (Earth), Sylphid (Air), Lumina (Light), Shade (Darkness) Althenar (Life), Kelthalis (Death), Sola (Sun), Luna (Moon), Dryad (Nature), Ofanite (Man), Undine (Water), and Salamando (Fire). The cardinal rule of elemental combat was that you wanted to match elements to defend, and use the opposing element to attack.

But the environment also had its say. What elemental was right for this situation?

The KN attacked Fara again, this time deciding to crush her like a bug. Fara dodged the stomp, but was well aware her elemental shields weren’t likely to stop her from being squished by tons of mecha.

She focused on Salamando, lighting her sword aflame – a natural choice for a desert environment. She slashed her sword with a wide cut, her superheated blade cutting through the armor easily.

…but she had to switch back to Gnome when the mecha fired its Vulcans. The Twelve Elementals had lots of powers, but Fara couldn’t access them all at once. Even the Salamando slash had only done superficial damage.

What else was strong in the desert?

The Sun. Duh. Sola, Elemental of the Sun – which also included physical forces such as gravity and sound.

Focusing on Sola, Fara felt the energy of the sun, the very laws of physics of the universe, course through her. She felt light as a feather; she jumped, clearing thirty feet easily and landing on the KN’s shoulder.

The KN’s heard turned to face her, the monocam eye of the beast glaring at her.

Fara stabbed her sword into the eye of the cyclops. Focusing on the power of sound, she sent a blast of sonic energy reverberating through the beast’s head. With a deafening cacophony, the mecha’s head exploded.

“Sonic boom!”

She hopped down from the mecha, and stood next to the sniper rifle on the ground. Sola gave her sword a lot of crushing power; it was like wielding a giant warhammer or mace. The mecha’s sniper rifle was over ten feet long. A blow from the Sola-powered Mana Sword smashed it into pieces.

The KN Sniper was blind, and without its key weapon. It was effectively disabled; Fara pulled back to where Kieron was waiting.

The biker scout took her back to the Dracoform where she met Sporr, Violante, and Osprey, who had acquired the Harp of Edward. The four climbed into the (somewhat scratched up) hovercraft Velocity, and zoomed back to the SLCM-Sea fleet.


#10

Fara, Violante, Osprey, and Sheila Sporr were back in Georgi Tarkov’s office on the aircraft carrier Remorseless, with the portraits of Georgi’s great heroes Travin Rumanski and Sahl Endeburg beaming beatifically at them. The safebox containing the Harp of Edward was on his desk.

“So you scuttled the Dracoform, Sporr?” asked Tarkov.

“Of course I did…I rigged it to self-destruct just before we left.”

Tarkov smirked, and shifted his massive frame back in the chair. “No wonder they’ll never give you a custom Dracoform…you always seem to lose them…”

Sporr pounded her hand on Tarkov’s desk. “Where was our air cover, Tarkov?” demanded Sporr. “Those KNs shouldn’t have gotten within twenty klicks of us before getting wasted by air strikes.”

“I was up to my ass in Coalition Navy!” insisted Tarkov.

“You fuckheads in SLCM-Sea can’t do anything right,” grumbled Sporr. “You know, when we’re all wearing ‘blue jeans’ and listening to Bertha Javelins, it’ll be your fault!”

“What’s wrong with Bertha Javelins?” asked Fara, who was also wearing blue jeans. “I like Bertha Javelins! She has good concerts, and it’s fun to hear her on the radio!”

Both Scandians in the room eyed Fara suspiciously. Fara admitted, it was started to become endearing, in a strange sort of way.

Sporr chortled. “In Tasnica, you listen to the radio,” she said. “In Scandian League, radio listens to you.”

Tarkov waved his hand dismissively. “Anyway,” he said, “it doesn’t much matter. We’ve had our mages go over the harp, but it doesn’t seem to be magic at all.”

“Nonsense!” insisted Violante. “Music can inspire people to love, to fight, to –“

Tarkov sighed. “Well, that’s maybe true,” he said. “But we were sort of hoping that the harp would be a little less…metaphorical? Like, something that could produce sonic blasts capable of destroying Seraphim plastic, or cause thousands of people to irresistibly dance, or lull enemies to sleep. But it can’t do any of those things. It’s worthless.”

“Of course the Scandians think anything that can’t be used to kill something is worthless!” shouted Violante.

“…you’re threatening the big man while we’re in the middle of his fleet again,” cautioned Osprey.

Tarkov looked angry. “And if you were Scandian you’d end up in a gulag for such an insult.”

Sporr burst out laughing. “Oh, by Caidin’s firm tits, Tarkov, you really want to threaten the people who helped pull off an operation that you almost fucked up?”

Tarkov forced himself to calm down. “I…suppose you’re right…that’s not the sort of thing Sahl Endeburg would do…”

“So we get the harp?” asked Violante.

“As per our agreement with the Damcyan Liberation Army, we remand the harp to your care,” said Tarkov. “I’m not looking forward to explaining to koyzha that it wasn’t magic, though.”

Violante took the safebox. Tarkov dismissed them from the office (though Osprey left a copy of his resume behind on his desk). Together on the carrier deck, the four shared a meal of borscht: Osprey the former ZAPS infiltrator; Sheila Sporr the Dracoform Ace; Violante Vaquero the smuggler; and Fara Somers, the Mana Knight.

“I never caught your name, Ginger,” said Sporr.

“Fara.”

“So how’d you like killing a giant robot?”

“It was awesome!” said Fara. “I mean, there was the part I almost died. But besides that it was awesome!”

Sporr stood up. “Well, I have to get back to my unit,” she said. “Comrade Vaquero, I am glad to be of service recovering your shitty, not-magical harp. Osprey, Fara – when the time comes to conquer capitalism once and for all, I look forward to crushing you as worthy adversaries on the field of battle. Dosvedanya.”

“Auf wiedersehen,” said Fara.

After the mecha pilot departed, Fara looked at Violante. “When we get back to Albrook, there’s some people I think you should meet.”


#11

Fara, Osprey, and Violante entered Roxanne’s apartment. “So,” Fara explained to Violante. “Osprey is a former ZAPS agent. He has shadow magic and some ninja stuff.”

“I also have Shiva’s Edge, a weapon forged from the frozen breath of a dying god,” added Osprey.

“This apartment,” said Violante, taken in the Taznikanze-longhouse-themed decor “who owns it?”

“Roxanne North-Star, Daughter of Zahd, God of War,” said Fara. “Where is she?” The group went downstairs, where Roxanne had a fighting pit installed. Roxanne, wielding the Daedalus Lance, was sparring with Terry in his Seraphim armor.

“You need to get better at fighting someone with a reach advantage,” Roxanne was telling Terry. “You can parry and step in; at close range your graviton beatsticks have the edge.”

“I’m trying!” insisted Terry. “Something’s off with the armor, though…left joint’s not working…”

“Is that…Seraphim armor?” asked Violante.

Terry turned, and smiled proudly. “It is,” he said. “Designed by Abe Zion himself.”

“Looks like it needs some maintenance,” said Violante. “I could have a look at it.”

Fara hurried to make introductions. “This is Violante, she lives across the hall from me. She’s good with machines. Violante, this is Roxanne, who I just mentioned, and this is…well, this is the Shield, the famous Guardian superhero.”

“You know the Shield?” asked Violante. “I mean, I thought you were kind of a dumb jock when I first met you, but you’re palling around with superheroes?”

“Well,” said Fara, “I’m kind of super myself. That magic sword of mine? The Mana Sword. I’m the Mana Knight.”

Roxanne lowered her spear, and turned to face Violante. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “It’s good to see Fara’s making new friends.”

Violante looked at the strongbox, which she had not parted from since returning to Albrook. “I have a favor to ask.”

“Well, anything for one of Fara’s friends,” said Roxanne.

Violante handed Roxanne the strongbox. “That’s the Harp of King Edward,” she said. “I just smuggled it out of Damcyan….with a lot of help. There will come a day when my country is free, and the songs of Edward–the original spoony bard—will be sung again.” She smiled, uplifted by the prospect. “But that day is not today. This is a piece of my country’s history…a piece of our soul…and it needs to be kept safe. I think this place of heroes is a good place to keep it safe.”

Roxanne opened the safebox, and examined the harp. “This is beautiful! This is just what my mantle needed! It’ll really bring the room together.”


#12

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to follow up on a conversation I had the other day with Tribune Georgi Tarkov, Tribune of SLCM-Sea. I am very interested in employment with your organization. After having the chance to work with SLCM-Sea up close, I understand now that it is one of the few organizations in the web maintaining the savage, yet noble art of ocean-based combat.

It was not so long ago that ocean-based combat threatened to vanish from the Web, like so many other forgotten traditions. Even the mighty Kriegsnavee had been hard hit by budget cuts! The sacred and honorable art of fighting on the world’s seas – an intrinsic and essential part of Web culture – was in danger of becoming extinct.

SLCM-Sea is more than a premier fighting force among the Web’s Great Powers, they are a historical preservation society. Much like my previous employer, the Zealan Arts Preservation Society, they are dedicated to preserving techniques and culture that would otherwise be in danger of being lost.

I am particularly interested in a position with one of the SLCM-Sea Orca teams. I have many skills in infiltration, ninjitsu, and shadow magic that I think would be useful. I have always wanted to expand my sky skill repertoire to include underwater demolitions, amphibious raiding, and closed-circuit diving. And also piloting midget submarines, because they are cool.

Sincerely,
Osprey

P.S. I know this coming weekend is the SLCM-Sea vs. Ground football game. Might I just say, go SLCM-Sea! Beat SLCM-Ground!


Dear Osprey:

We are sorry, but we cannot offer you a position with SLCM-Sea.
Although we appreciate your interest in the SLCM Orca teams, and your enthusiasm for preserving the traditional arts of oceanic combat, at this time employment in SLCM-Sea is only open for Scandian citizens.

But yeah, go SLCM-Sea! Beat SLCM-Ground!

For the Revolution!
Human Resources Department
SLCM-Sea


#13

The scarlet-clad fencer sat with an old man with a fu-manchu mustache, watching the video of Fara defeating the mage bank robber.

“You see,” the fencer said, “she cut through the spell like it was nothing. It has to be her.”

The old man stroked his mustache. “Yes,” he said. “There is no doubt.”

A woman entered, wearing excessively Western clothing: a wide-brimmed hat, a long duster jacket, cowboy boots, the whole nine yards. She was tall, and had dark hair and dark skin. She spoke with a thick accent. “I do declare! I dun heard a rumah that some red-headed girl with a magic sword whooped herself a Triad Red Pole. Sounds like it could be ah girl.”

The fencer nodded at the cowgirl. “Maybe…but maybe not. There’s more than one magic weapon in the Web.”

Again, the looped footage of Fara deflecting the black mage’s magic spells played on the video.

“Thunderation!” exclaimed the cowgirl. “If y’all want her so bad, ah dun see why ya don’t jus’ put a bullet in her head.” With her hand and fingers, she pantomimed shooting the television.

“It’s not so simple as that,” frowned the fencer. “Bullets don’t work on her.

“Ah fin’ that bullets most always work, if you bring ‘nuff ‘o them.”

The fencer shook his head. He pulled his rapier, and held it front of him as a salute. “No,” he said. “It’s like they say…live by the sword, die by the sword.”