Mastery [Ep 11]

It was movie night again!!

There was some debate over whether or not to have it. Terry was out of town – one of his old ZAPS associates had alerted him to a Pyra Syndicate expansion in Trianable. Fara felt like she really should be studying for finals. Osprey, of course, insisted that any spare minute not searching for work was a wasted moment.

But Roxanne insisted – surely, after surviving a brush with the notorious Banelings, they deserved a bit of a break. She even extended an invitation to Eleod and Grilka, hoping for some neighborly bonding.
Grilka had been excited – she had baked multiple batches of cookies, in the shape of the twelve different elemental spirits. Fara had to concede that the air spirit Sylphid had never been so adorable, or so delicious.
Eleod had not seemed happy, and yet he was here at Roxanne’s place, his craggy, frowning visage darkening the otherwise relaxed occasion. He sat disgustedly on one of Roxanne’s polterchairs, surveying Roxane’s department disgustedly. “Do you really need all this crap ?” he grumbled.

“It’s not crap, it’s my trophies and mementos from an immortal lifetime of adventure!” said Roxanne. “There was a Taznikanze saying that anything worth owning has a story. Like this vase,” she pointed, “this was a gift from the ephemeral spirit-form of Genruo the Eternal Seer, from the Liang Dynasty of the ancient Xsian Empire,” Roxanne smiled, “he was quite the poet, actually. And a surprisingly good dancer, for someone with no corporeal body. Or that plaque,” she pointed, “that’s my Space Battles 20th Anniversary Commemorative Plaque, signed by James Moldenberry and the entire original cast. Gods, you won’t believe what I had to do to get that. I lost count of the number of fan cons I had to cruise to find the damn thing on sale. Or that harp,” she pointed to the harp on the mantle, “Fara got that for me. Really brings the room together, doesn’t it? It’s the harp of one of the greatest bards in history, King Edward of Damcyan.”

Eleod rolled his eyes. He should’ve known better than to ask. These Taznikanze types always believed anything worth having had to have a story – it was one of a million ways the Tasnicans had progressed from those savage days. Roxanne was dottering on about some boomerang or something from the Light Dimension when Fara interrupted her.

“So, as great as it is to hear about all your stuff, this is movie night,” said Fara. “…what movie are we going to watch?”

“I have a movie!” said Osprey.

“Is it a little-known samurai movie from Eblan that you believe is a “hidden gem” or an “underappreciated classic”?” asked Fara.

“….maybe?” demurred Osprey.

“Look, I like samurai movies as much as the next girl,” protested Fara, “and I love me some sword fights. But enough is enough.”

“No, you’ll see,” insisted Osprey, “it is an epic meditation on will and being, and the fundamental transience of all things –“

Eleod glared at Osprey. “I hate it.”

“I haven’t gotten to pick the movie in a while!” said Fara. “There’s one I want to see. It’s about a bunch of beautiful boys finding themselves in Aryth, and also being beautiful.”

“This sounds like something of…dubious artistic merit,” said Osprey. “Fara, do you really want to pass up your chances to have your cultural horizons broadened in order to ogle some eye candy?”

“What do you have against beautiful boys being beautiful!?” cried Fara. “Or going on voyages of self-discovery in Aryth, while exuding incredible sexual charisma?”

Eleod cast a withering glance over at Fara. “I hate your movie, too.”

“We could watch Deadlocked again,” suggested Roxanne, “Or some other Jacoby Armstrong movie. Everyone loves Jacoby Armstrong.”

“I don’t,” said Eleod.

“Well, at least Terry’s not here to bring up the awful movie he keeps going on about,” said Fara. “About Doan or something.”

Doan ,” said Osprey. “It won multiple Figgies. I’m sure it’s really good. I tried watching it once, but then I had an idea on how to finally beat the Dark Lich boss in [i] Manacalibur [i/], and getting that achievement took almost all night.”

“…which Doan is this about?” asked Fara. “Like the real Doan, are the crazy alternate universe one?”

“Doan classic,” answered Osprey. “Although there is a lot of noise about a reboot featuring the other one, Doan II .”

“That movie sounds long and boring,” said Eleod. “Also, needless reboots and sequels are stupid, worthless crap.”

“Well, on that we can agree,” said Osprey. “Butlesworth, do you have any ideas?”

The robot slowly turned his head; there was a brief, barely audible hum as its positronic brain matrix calculated possibilities. Although the robot had no memory, it was trivial for it to use a wifi connection to search through a huge number of movies and reviews in mere seconds. After extensive examination of the data, Butlesworth announced his verdict: “I have no strong opinion on the matter.”

“Oh, I have an idea!” said Bim. “There’s a Scandian film. It has a griffon. Seeing as I am the hand of a griffon, I would be very interested to see this.”

“Aren’t most Scandian films just blind propaganda?” asked Roxanne.

“No, I heard about this one, it’s more like well-constructed, thoughtful propaganda,” said Osprey. “It’s about Vashilov the Terrible. It actually sounded kind of cool. The Scandians don’t have any computers for CGI, so they actually built a griffon on a Dracoform skeleton. And they actually trained like a whole regiment of the SLCM in Oprichnik cavalry tactics.”

“Wow,” said Fara, “that sounds…kinda awesome actually. Like, surprisingly not-shitty for something from Scande.”

“Commie lies, damned commie lies,” spat Eleod, and he frowned, even deeper. “What has the Republic come to? Today, you’re showing some interest in their movies. Tomorrow, you’ll be eating borscht and making five-year plans, Ms. Somers….or should I say, Comrade Somers!??”

“Borscht isn’t that bad, actually,” retorted Fara. “I mean, I don’t think I would go out of my way for it, but if someone were to offer me some, I’d happily eat it.”

Roxanne rolled her eyes, and gritted her teeth. “Well, Eleod, what do you want to watch? Maybe a historical movie about the Great War?”

“They’re all unrealistic crap. I was there, why do I need to watch a movie about it?” Eleod grumbled.

“Maybe a love story?” suggested Bim, helpfully. The griffin hand was in usual spot, comfortably propping up Osprey’s feet.

“Sentimental tripe.” Eleod waved his hand, dismissively.

“What about a horror movie?” asked Osprey.

“They’re all boring,” the dwarf grunted.

“Oh, there’s a documentary out about Agarti gurus,” said Roxanne, “that could be interesting?”

“I know plenty of bloviating self-proclaimed mystics, I don’t need to watch a movie about them,” grumbled Eleod. “Your choices are all terrible.”

“…why are you here again?” asked Fara. “I mean, aren’t there some damn kids somewhere that need to be kicked off your lawn, or something?”

The argument over what movie to watch was interrupted by a rapping on the door – a heavy, determined knock. “Anyone order pizza or something?” asked Fara, opening the door.

In the doorway stood two tall, statuesque, blonde women. One had a grim, dour countenance, looking every bit as dour as Eleod, her long hair pulled up in twin long braids. The other, with sky-blue eyes, wore her hair nearly down to her waste. Both of them were clad in leather and furs – not really making much of an effort to blend in. Then again, the denizens of Albrook had pretty much seen it all – it’s not like the two Valkyries would raise attention anymore than any other pair of towering blonde beauties.

“Oh, it’s you,” said Fara. “ Guten tag? ….I guess you found those Foolish Seltzer Bottles?”

“Indeed, Margaret’s noble daughter!” bellowed Astrid Sky-eyes. She tossed her hair, showing off her ridiculously long, ridiculously awesome ponytail (as featured in one of her many alternate Manacalibur costumes.

Several months ago, when the Valkyries had turned up demanding to squish Bim, Fara had (oh-so-cleverly!) insisted the matter be handled in a duel by Foolish Seltzer Bottles. At the time, it seemed like a great idea…but Fara hadn’t anticipated that Astrid would actually find the bottles.

Her fellow Valkyrie, Gabriela the Grave, sniffed the air. “That scent…cookies!” she shouted. She pointed at Osprey. “You – bird man! The daughter of Zahd commands you bring her the cookies!”

“Sisters,” said Roxanne, “so…you’ve returned.”

The two Valkyries entered Roxanne’s apartment, inviting themselves to seats on her couch. Osprey dutifully brought Gabriela the Grave cookies; the eternally vigilant guardian of the Pure Land devoured them greedily.

“Uh, if you like them, I can share the recipe –“ suggested Grilka, hopefully.

Gabriela turned her head slowly, and somberly gazed at the dwarf woman. “A warrior has no time for such things,” she said, solemnly, wistfully. Then, she ate another cookie.

“We have come at last for justice,” boomed Astrid, “and the griffin hand will pay for his crime of violating the sanctity of the Mana Tree.”

“Weren’t there three of you before?” asked Fara. “Gabriela the Grim, guardian of the Pure Land….Astrid Sky-Eyes, known for her keen senses, and also being in Manacalibur . Where’s Ariela?”

Astrid scrunched up her face; a look of utter contempt. “Perhaps Ariela Open-Legs is too busy with her lovers,” she sneered. “We have no need of the slut to mete out Zahd’s justice.”

“Wow, that was….judgey,” said Fara, reminding herself that most Valkyries missed out on the 1500 or so years of social and technological progress.

Gabriela waved her hand. “Try to understand, noble daughter of Margaret,” she said. “Greatfather Zahd hath commanded that his daughters may only lay with those who best us in battle to prove their worthiness…and yet Ariela makes a mockery out of his commandment by allowing virtually any man or woman to best her easily. She has made a sham out of the heritage and honor of all Walkuren .”

Roxanne tensed, slightly. It was the same as before, Fara noted; having other Valkyries around always put Roxanne on edge, and it was easy to see why. Given what Gabriela and Astrid had said about Ariela, Fara could only imagine what they would say about Roxanne’s modern lifestyle behind her back.

Bim looked at Fara; though Osprey often found the creature inscrutable as a native of the Mana Dimension Fara had no such problems. Fara had to figure something, lest the adorable and noble individual who was also a comfortable foot stool be squished.

“Damn Valkyries,” muttered Eleod, “always comin’ round here starting some trouble…”

“I heard that, shadowy dwarfy, one!” retorted Astrid. “Nothing escapes the keen senses of Astrid Sky-Eyes! Though, out of deep respect for your accomplishments and service, I will not kill you where you stand, Thorek’s grumpy son.”

Eleod grumbled.

“So it’s not at all awkward that you showed up during our movie night…again…to kill one of our friends,” said Fara.

“Friend?” sneered Astrid, indignantly. “That vermin violated the sanctity of the Mana Tree and he will pay for his crimes.”

“You should know, before you squish him, that Bim is a noble warrior,” said Osprey. “He was a real big hand in the fight against the petrifying power of the puissant PRISM MAN!”

This was news to Bim, who mostly remembered being kidnapped by Prism Man and being forced to operate a camera. However, he was not one to argue the point. “Yes,” the griffon hand said, “I helped!”

“He also helped us out against the Banelings!” added Fara.

To be fair, Bim had mostly cowered on board the ship. But no doubt his specialty of providing a luxurious, comfortable place to sit and/or rest feet had proven inestimable value in the success of the mission. “Yes, I helped! Why, no less a figure than Admiral Rycar Mountbatten called me a true hero for my role in the Battle of the Sylphid’s Cloud Nebula!” The Valkyries didn’t need to know that his role in the battle mostly consisted of holding the Admiral’s coffee. “See, don’t squish me!”

“I care not!” thundered Astrid. “I have procured the Foolish weapon, and it will be your doom!”

“So,” said Fara, awkwardly, “…how did you find the Seltzer Bottles? I didn’t even think it was possible to get to Foo anymore.”

Astrid produced a small box. It was made of mismatched plastic and smelled of popcorn and elephant dung. She opened it; inside were three small seltzer bottles, each filled to the brim with fluid.

“…why three?” asked Fara. “One for me, one for you, one for…?”

Astrid smoothly seized two of the bottles and spun them in the air with a flourish. Without missing a beat, she launched into the air, and squirted seltzer water while moving her arms akimbo. She tossed the bottles into the air, juggling them briefly Foolish-style. When it was done, everyone had a full cup of impeccably mixed drunks.
“Surely,” said Astrid, “you would not expect me to do without my signature dual wielding?”

“…Fara, you know how to use Foolish Setzer bottles, right?” asked Bim. “That is why you picked them as the proxy weapon, right?”

Fara had watched a few Omninet videos on the subject, but she had chosen the bottles mainly because they were reputedly virtually impossible to find. “So, Astrid,” asked Fara, “how did you come by not one, but THREE Foolish Dueling Setzer Bottles?”

Eleod groaned. Any Taznikanze – especially a Valkyrie – would never pass up a chance to tell the story of how they came by a weapon.

“A harrowing tale,” began Astrid, a spark in her pale blue eyes. “At first I thought perhaps I could locate them in Tasnicaport…in time immemorial, the city was famous as the world’s greatest center of trade. It was said that if it could not be found in the Weltplatz of Taznikaport, than it could not be purchased anywhere in all the known worlds…at least for geld.”

“But my plan,” continued Astrid, “encountered some difficulty. You see, I hate Tasnicaport.”

“Yeah, the T-Port’s a bit of a hot mess these days,” agreed Fara.

“It’s ALWAYS been a scheiseschau ,” said Roxanne, a faint smile. “That’s part of the charm.”

“I despise the place,” hissed Astrid, “only a few faint reminders of a once-glorious, legendary era, all paved over to make way for such things as shopping malls and office buildings . I think it would make my poor, deer departed Kedir der Schwarze – one of the greatest warlords of the Taznikanze – weep to see his proud warrior race reduced to the this ignominy…a nation of merchants !”

“Yeah, it’s a real tragedy that Tasnica’s been reduced to owning the most of the Mana Dimension as well as a number of other countries,” said Osprey. “Being one of the Web’s Great Powers is a true humiliation, a real cross to bear.”

Astrid ignored Osprey; sarcasm, it seemed, did not register well with her. “So I determined to do what no one has done in an age: travel to Foo. My dear sister lent me her enchanted longship Skidbladnir, and I made the long voyage to that sad, misbegotten realm.”

Astrid shook her head. “Foo…a land once known for its bountiful – even infinite – resources, now twisted, warped, and malformed by an overdependence of Dark Matter. There are no maps of Foo. There would be no point. The landscape is ever shifting, ever changing – what was once moment a hill, is the next minute an ocean, and the next minute a towering column of interlaced sugary donuts and electric guitars. Truly, ‘tis a realm like no other.”

“It sounds silly,” said Eleod.

“It was,” said Astrid, “and yet, I was compelled to continue. I harvested one of the local Dark Matter nodes to build a makeshift shelter out of mah-jongg tiles, oversized novelty fuzzy dice, and interwoven bungee cords. These Dark Matter nodes are the only source of manufactured products on Foo, as the dimension has been totally cut off from trade with the outside Web. Little did I know that mah-jongg tiles are a highly prized building material among the Shadowklowns of Foo, who believe it to be an essential element in the ablative armor for their vast armada of Shadowklown Deathships, prophesied to one day reign destruction on all the enemies of Foo. A small car approached me and disgorged a veritable army of these dark Shadowklowns. They immediately attacked me, seeking to loot my structure for its invaluable mah-jongg tiles. I drew my twin blades – heart-seeking Tyrfing and blood-drinker Levateinn – and slayed the foul shadowy beasts. Though they fought with insidious Shadowklown weaponry – vile cream pies, malevolent balloon animals, and their awe-inspiring Cartwheel attack – they were no match for a daughter of Zahd.”

“Well, obviously,” said Fara. “I mean, Shadowklowns are not exactly known for their combat prowess. I would say that they suck worse than Foo, but that’d be inaccurate, as by definition they suck exactly as much as Foo.”

Astrid nodded. “I have come through this ordeal with a greater appreciation for the exact amount of suck that Foo has,” she said. “After I defeated the Shadowklowns, I was beset by another group of clowns. These were not like the first, however – though they were still savages bedecked in fake red noses, white makeup, and colorful wigs, I sensed an inherent nobility in them. At first I was worried that they coveted my treasure trove of mah-jongg tiles…but they merely observed me. I gather that I was quite a sight to them.”

“…I take it you were naked?” asked Fara.

“Of course! I had shed my traveling regalia when I fought the Shadowklowns, as is the Taznikanze way, to show my utter contempt for their ability to do me harm. So there I was standing, a fine physical specimen—evidence of my divine parentage and warrior’s discipline – drenched in sweat from the battle, my twin swords Tyrfing and Levateinn tasting the viscous dark matter blood of the shadowclowns, as an ever-changing alien landscape unfolded all around me, and these clowns…just stared. Perhaps they were unsure of what to make of such an interloper, or perhaps they fancied they had a better chance at seizing my wealth of mah-jongg tiles.”

“Or they haven’t seen a naked with two swords, standing in the middle of nowhere, with the corpses of enemies all around,” suggested Osprey.

“A possibility,” admitted Astrid. “After a time, they approached me with a…calliope, and began to play notes, interspersed with bicycle horns, and nose honks. A rudimentary language…I’m sure it would be totally incomprehensible to most but I – Astrid, blessed with the keenest hearing—was able to understand them. They asked me who I was and what I was doing there – and I answered that a daughter of Zahd, Great God of War and the Seas, stood before them.”

“Did they know who that was?” interrupted Eleod.

“Well, no…”

Eleod laughed, a deep, guttural, phlegmatic chuckle – one of the only times Fara had ever heard him laugh. “Serves that old forgotten god right!”

The three Valkyries – even Roxanne – turned to glare at Eleod. The dwarf shadow priest didn’t seem to care – in fact, Fara saw the very slightest bit of a smile on his face. Eleod quaffed his beer and waved his hand. “Oh come on,” grumbled Eleod, “you think everyone in this Web remembers every fucking god everyone has? It’s not like you’re a daughter of Chrystalis or something.”

“Maybe next time you should bring them some pamphlets about Zahd,” suggested Fara. “I’m sure the poor, misbegotten lands of Foo could benefit from being enlightened about a baleful, mean-tempered ancient sea-god…it would be just the thing for them to return to their old place of glory in the Web!”

“Mock the Seafather if you will, Eleod shadow-speaker and Fara Egmont-born; it only shows this so-called modern ‘Tasnica Republic’ has descended to destitute depths of the decrepitude,” retorted Astrid.
Roxanne tried not to look exasperated. If only she could ever get through a whole century without some unwanted altercation with her relatives…

Astrid determined to continue her story, in the finest skaldic tradition. “Though the clowns were not aware of honor of having such a significant personage as myself in their midst, I told them that I was on a mission of great justice and to avenge a great evil, I required the famed Foolish Seltzer Rays.”

Fara glanced over at Bim; the griffin hand stood only a few feet tall, and was doing that thing he did where he snacked on some potato chips and Maranda Farms string cheese. “Yes, a great evil indeed,” she said.

“The clown circus communicated to me through their strange, yet haunting cacophonic language that they could help me…but they needed my help, too. They told me of a strange beast, a being who had been good and noble once…they called him…Mr. Foo.”

“The living pie chart?” asked Eleod. “I heard of him during the war…but I always thought it was just a stupid story.”

Astrid nodded. “The same,” she said. “Mr. Foo – companion to Kevin the Great and Kusader, anthromorphic data display, and hero of the Great War – had been warped into a monster by the uncontrolled release of dark matter. He had been terrorizing this circus of Foo clowns, and they offered to give me the seltzer bottles if I helped them by slaying the deformed terror Mr. Foo had become.”

“They told me where to find Mr. Foo…and, I say to you that though I, Astrid Sky-eyes, have fought many warriors over many eons on countless battlefields…nothing had prepared me for Mr. Foo. His original self – the pie chart – formed a sort of head, opening and closing in a great gaping maw that breathed scattergraphs that fell with mathematically function-determined precision…great bar-graph claws protruded from an amorphous body made of tessellated, three-dimensional spreadsheets with incomprehensible formulae…I dare not touch the beast, lest I find myself summed and divided, added to its superstructure as one more line-chart sproutling. He attacked me with a columnated sparkline, and if he had used the correct margins, that would have been the end of it…worse, he commanded the very landscape of Foo, and I was forced to dodge eruptions of imitation leather wallets, front-loading high capacity washing machines, fried rice husks, and things of this nature.”

“For many days and nights I battled the strange, unearthly beast…though I cannot be sure, as on Foo there is no day or night…but at last the very protean landscape of Foo proved to be my salvation…I was able to use components of my surroundings and some of Mr. Foo’s discarded detritus to trick him in a Venn Diagram, where he was trapped and strangled.”

“…you can do that?” asked Fara. “I didn’t think Venn Diagrams worked that way….but then again I’m not exactly acing math, so…”

“Foo has its own rules, said Astrid.

“Foo’s a silly place.”

“It is,” agreed Astrid, “though, I must say, I was saddened by the passing of Mr. Foo…though he was a silly thing, he was a hero, once, and our Web was somehow lessened by his passing…” She shook her head. “Once the deed was done, the circus was happy to give me the bottles…and they trained me in some of the savage, yet noble arts of their use. And now, my dear sister’s enchanted longship has borne me here, to once and for all put an end to this matter, and to punish the vermin for his impertinence in trespassing on the soil of the blessed Mana Tree.”

Astrid stood, folding herself to full height. Proudly, she strode across the room, and handed one of the seltzer bottles to Fara. She showed the trigger to her. “This button shoots water,” Astrid said condescendingly, “best use the other button to shoot dark matter extract energy beam if you wish to win this duel and save your friend.”

Fara held the bottle awkwardly. Part of her was a little in awe – this was a truly rare and exceptional weapon, perhaps one of the only true Foolish seltzer bottles to make its way outside of the dark matter-cursed dimension. On the other hand, it was of Foolish origin, which meant it would suck. Also, she had no idea how to use it.

She was going to lose this duel.

And Bim was about to be squished.

“Prepare yourself, Margaret’s misguided daughter,” said Astrid.

“Wait,” said Bim.

“The full Tribunal isn’t here,” said Fara, “without Ariela, you can’t finish this.”

“No more waiting, no more delays,” said Astrid. “This ends now .”

“Didn’t you hear how he helped us against Prism Man and the Banelings?” asked Osprey. “Surely, whatever wrong he’s done, he doesn’t deserve this!”

“We’ll let Zahd decide that,” said Astrid, “if he is worthy to live, than he will give glory to the daughter of Margaret.”

“No, WAIT,” screamed Bim. “Listen to me! Even if you squish me, there is something you must know!”

“What is this?” said Astrid, leveling her seltzer bottles at Bim. “Some kind of a trick, vermin?”

“No tricks,” said Bim, “but…back in the Pure Land…before I came to Albrook, before all of this…well, how to put it?..I mean, it was just an ordinary day in the Pure Land. There’s not a whole helluva lot for a griffon hand to do there, given how it’s totally inaccessible by virtually all mortal means, so I’m just kinda minding my own business, thinking about how I could impress a certain sexy lady griffon hand at the mixer next week…and then I saw something – a Valkyrie.”

“Which one?” asked Roxanne.

“…well, to be honest, you all kinda look alike to me,” answered Bim.

“…that’s racist,” muttered Osprey.

“Hey, they’re all tall, athletic, and most of them are blonde-haired…it’s not exactly easy to tell one from the other!” insisted Bim. “But anyway, I saw this Valkyrie, so at first I scattered, because some valks will kill my kind just for shits and giggles…but she didn’t seem interested in me at all. I was curious….and I had a bad feeling about it, you know? Like sometimes how you get a bad feeling, deep down in the pit of your stomach?”

“…you have a stomach?” asked Osprey. “…how does it work?”

Bim ignored him. “I knew something was afoot. (Hah! Because I’m a foot, get it!) Anyway, I followed her…even as she entered the forbidden area near the Mana Tree…”

“So you admit it!” shouted Astrid. “You admit you trespassed where you had no place!”

“Ok, this whole, ‘griffon hands can’t go near the Mana Tree’ thing, it’s totally bullshit, and it’s totally Zahd trying to prove he’s still relevant. It’s a dick thing. Rainere and Chrystalis – you know, the important gods-- don’t really give a shit because they have better things to do.”

“You DARE insult Greatfather Zahd?” bellowed Astrid. “He who commands lightning and shakes the very earth?”

Gabriela raised her arm, silencing her sister. “Enough interruptions, Astrid of the sharp senses,” she said, with a low, deep voice, almost a monotone. “I would hear the griffon hand’s story….as guardian of the Pure Land, I am troubled to learn that one of our sisters would have been there without my knowledge.” Gabriela turned to face her sister, facing her down with a determined gaze like an iron-forged hammer. “He will be allowed to speak.”

“So I followed this mysterious Valkyrie,” continued Bim, “and then I saw her take a Mana Seed.”

The room erupted. “A MANA SEED!?”

The Mana Seeds – born from the Web-spanning Mana Tree-- held magic as old as creation itself. Only a handful were known to be in the Web today – most were in temples, but one was being studied. Even though they had been a part of elementalism for as long as anyone could remember, they were still mysterious. They were, after all, a seed – pure potential incarnate. Like the Triforce or the Ticonderan Runes, they were objects of unfathomable magical power – the sort of thing that Must Not Fall Into The Wrong Hands.

“Yeah, that’s right,” said Bim, “I saw a Valkyrie take a Mana Seed from the Mana Tree…that’s when I knew I was in over my head.”

“…you have a head?” asked Osprey.

“So I stayed…tried to poke around a bit…see what I could learn…but then that one,” he pointed a talon at Astrid, “found me…and so I fled here, to try to find sanctuary.”

“But,” asked Fara, “why didn’t you say this before?”

“Because I am guilty,” admitted Bim, “I did trespass in the shadow of the sacred Mana Tree. And I didn’t want to get squished for it!” Bim made a sighing sound. “But now…I can’t be a coward anymore. I won’t! Fara stood up for me when I needed help. The Shield and Osprey saved me from Prism Man. I’m not going to let other people risk their lives for me while I’m too afraid to speak.” Bim hopped, turning to face Astrid. “So there you are. Squish me if you will…but Biminberrick J. Kinimkerrilvel will not die ashamed anymore!”

The room was stunned into silence. Neither Fara nor Osprey had any snark to offer, and even Eleod offered no salty remark – the dwarf looked pensive, deep in thought.

It was ever-serious Gabriela who broke the silence. “Well met,” she said. “Well met, Biminberrick J. Kinimkerrilvel, son of…?”

“Malenkovick H. Kinimkerrilvel. Of the line of Kinimkerrilvels.”

“Well met, Biminberrick, son of Malenkovick,” said Gabriela.

“You….you believe me?” asked Bim.

“Your claims are worth investigating,” said Roxanne. “…I think father would be interested to hear them himself, if indeed one of his daughters is involved.” She shook her head. “I wonder…which of our sisters would commit such a heinous act?”

“I’ll bet you it’s Isgird One-Hand,” said Astrid. “She’s probably still pissed about the time father smashed her hand with the Hammer of Sebedor.”

“Maybe it’s Jageura, the Wayward Light,” opined Gabriela. “She always played her own games…I could see this being some sport for her…”

“…it could be Lynnhilde, of the Iron Woods,” said Roxanne. “…last time I talked with her, she was….in a dark place. I don’t think she’s taken kindly to the rampant deforestation of her beloved Upperlands. It’s hard to believe that she could be capable of such a thing – I always used to look up to her – but the centuries have not been kind.”

“You know, maybe it’s Jalisa,” said Astrid. “With a Mana Seed, she could bring her lover Walen back…I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have my dear, brave Kedir at my side again…”

“….how many of you are there?” asked Osprey.

Roxanne smiled, quizzically. “As many as there are stars in the sky,” she said.

“….Zahd really got around, didn’t he?” asked Osprey. “It’s good to be a god, I guess.”

“Bim, we must take you to the Place Which Is No More,” said Roxanne. “There you can make your appeal to Zahd himself.”

“Whoa, wait,” said Bim, “won’t he just squish me for the sheer fun of it?”

“If you tell him your story, and I intercede on your behalf, he may show leniency,” said Roxanne. “…maybe….actually, a better strategy for you is to make sure his white-hot rage is totally focused on the daughter who betrayed him and would risk the very balance of creation by taking a Mana Seed from the Pure Land. Maybe he’ll just sorta forget you’re there.”

“But what of his crime?” asked Astrid. “He did violate the sanctity of the Mana Tree…he even said so.”

Fara piped up – she was, after all, still Bim’s designated second in this legal matter. “What about…something like a plea bargain? He confessed to a minor crime, sure…but he’ll help you catch the big bad guy?”

“An…interesting proposition,” said Roxanne. “Sadly, without Ariela we lack a full Tribunal…though I would vote for clemency.”

“I, too,” added Gabriela. “As guardian of the Pure Land, it is my purview to prevent the sort of crime Bim described…if he can aid in bringing this trickskin to justice, than he should be pardoned.”

“It’s settled, then,” said Roxanne. “We’ll leave tomorrow for the Place Which Is No More.” She looked at Fara. “It’s….quite a long journey. We may be gone for some time.”

Fara smiled. “I’m sure Os and I can handle any trouble,” she said. “I mean, it’s finals week, and I’ve got like ten papers to write.” She sighed. “In fact…if movie night’s canceled, I really should be studying…” She turned to Bim. “Good luck, Bim!”

“Fara,” said Bim, “…thanks. For everything, especially the part where you kept me from getting squished.”

Fara grinned. “No problem,” she said, “it’s what heroes do.”

From: 1AngryDworf@tunapages.ts


this is eleod. i say this because I never use this email, not like the damned kids today who can’t pry their fucking faces away from their phones for the minimal seconds necessary to show any gods-damned common courtesy. as if me and my comrades fought and died in the Great War for everyone to have the freedom to take smiling selfies next to the victory street war memorials…and all on guardian phones, too, fucking johnny-come-lately parasites.

this business with the mana seed…i don’t like it. so maybe you remember these “new wraith” people a few years back, they got ahold of a mana seed, and they used it to power a giant space battleship and warped its energies to create a bunch of fucked-up seraphim called balseraph. this is the kind of power we’re dealing with.

valkyries don’t just break the laws of their father and all the gods of mana by stealing a mana seed for no reason. i think our old friend the master might be behind this. remember the master and the secret imperial society built the mana fortress, a weapon that almost destroyed our world…they would go to any lengths to acquire a mana seed.

there’s some contacts I have back in mana i need to talk to about this…there’s a guy in kakkara who knows more about mana seeds than anyone alive, besides maybe the master himself. he’s also a pompous, insufferable prick but if anyone could guess what the master’s planning to do with a seed, it’d be him.
don’t do stupid shit fara…remember last time the master used marcus to set a trap for you, he saw it coming. you are too quick to help, and too slow to judge. you trust too easily. when that filthy commie criminal from damcyan told you her sob story you assisted her without hesitation. when bim showed up on your doorstop you took him in with nary a second thought. it’d be so easy for the master to slip a spy into our ranks. it could be one of your roomates….it could be bim, and this whole mess about the mana seed is just a distraction…gods, it could even be osprey, you know how desperate he’s been for work. and i don’t like that new robot butler…i don’t know what exactly, something about it just feels off. oh and then there’s that tailor who seems to know a lot of suspiciously convenient skills.

you may think im being paranoid…i don’t normally agree with the scandians but they have a saying: its not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. i don’t know what fiendish plot the master has been brewing up…but he’s been watching you. be careful.

Trust no one.

Fara’s dorm room was a mess. The floor was covered with dirty pizza boxes, soccer shin pads, and Denise’s discarded fashion magazines; Fara’s signed poster of soccer player Theresa Tholby gazed from her wall with a slight twinge of a disapproval. Fara, of course, had every intention of keeping her room clean, but between homework, school athletics, and Mana Knight-ing it up, she had precious little time. Denise, for her part, seemed to show little interest in cleaning up the room’s common space (though her closet was meticulously organized.)

She cleared random bits of loose change and hot-sauce stained paper plates off her desk and fired up her laptop computer.

She tried not to think too much about Eleod’s scary e-mail. She tried not to think too much about the idea that an EVIL magical conspiracy led by an EVIL immortal sorcerer was most likely in possession of a Mana Seed, an item of unfathomable power and potential. She tried not to think of all the different things someone like that could do with something like that. If what the Secret Imperial Society claimed about themselves was true, they were the same people who created the Mana Fortress. History was never Fara’s strong subject, but even she knew that that the Mana Fortress was a superweapon that had twice nearly destroyed the entire world of Mana – the first time, it had brought about a dark age for all the civilizations on the World of Mana. The second time it had all but destroyed the power of mana and magic from the world – even with the intervention of the Mana Knight of that epoch.

But she tried not to think about any of that! Absentmindedly she clicked through various posts on the swordfighting forum Gladius Schola , feeling compelled to get involved in a heated debate whether the Baronian style or SimaFort style of fencing was better. (It is pointless to compare a battlefield style designed for use with heavy swords against armored opponents with a rapier dueling system used to resolve disputes between upper-class aristocrats, which should really be totally obvious to anyone who had actually been a swordfight, but the forum was filled with posers and faux tough guys.)

She checked her phone; a text from Denise, who was spending the night partying at the Palladium, Albrook’s famous goth nightclub. (Although Denise was anything but goth, she always knew where the best party was.) “Moonchild is here!” What followed was a deluge of selfies of Denise trying to pose with Fabian Lysandir.
How the hell was Denise going to pass any of her classes? Fara was really struggling. Even though she would PROBABLY pass Sports Medicine and Intro to Psychology, College Algebra was a near-run thing. And she was in deep trouble when it came to her survey course on the history of the Fringe, part of her requirements for graduation to take a course on a dimension other than her own.

She sighed, closing the Gladius Schola forums and opened a word processer. She really had to do an amazing job on this paper if she wanted to pass; if she couldn’t maintain at least a B-average, she could kiss her athletic scholarships goodbye. She really needed to do a good job on this paper, and not worry at all about the crazy evil madman with the power to destroy whole worlds.

She wrote the first line:

Bal is a large country in the Alter Dimension. .

No, something wasn’t right. She did a quick omninet search, and corrected it.

Bal is a country in the Merge Dimension.

That seemed wrong, too, even if it was what the ON said. Wouldn’t the “Merge League” logically include the whole Merge Dimension, just as the “Esper Union” included almost all of the Esper Dimension? Maybe she should’ve done the damned reading instead of going off into space to fight Banelings.

She got up from her desk and walked across the hall to Violante and Kamiko’s room. Unlike her own room, it was clean – well, half of it was clean. Kamiko’s side of the room was totally spotless; zen-like, even. Violante’s half of the room was choked with tools, technical manuals and half-finished mechanical gizmos. Though Violante herself was absent, Kamiko was far too respectful of her personal space to clean up her half of the room. Kamiko was hunched in front of her computer, working assiduously.

Guten tag ,” said Fara.

Konbawa ,” greeted Kamiko. Kamiko bolted upright, turned to face Fara, and give her a slight, welcoming bow.

“How’s the studying going?”

Kamiko’s brow furrowed; “Not well,” she said. She was deeply troubled by the small chance that she would only an A in her Traditional Dance Class, marring an otherwise perfect A+ record across her other classes: Intro to Psychology, Calculus IV, Scandish Literature, and the History of the Mana Dimension (Professor Roxanne Zodsdottir’s class). Perhaps she had been overly ambitious joining the kendo team, the chocobo riding team, and serving as a tutor for Eblanese classes. (And at no point was there any room for her to learn cooking and culinary arts, which was shameful, and would it make it much more difficult for her to accomplish her intended triple major of Web History, Child Psychology, and Culinary Arts.) “In order to attain my goals, I must redouble my efforts.”

“…good luck with that,” said Fara.

“Have you seen Violante?” asked Kamiko. “She has been gone for some time, and I am concerned for her success.”

“Oh,” said Fara. “She’s in Trianable. With Terry .”

“Ah,” said Kamiko, a slight smile crossing her lips. “ Soka .”

“Besides,” added Fara. “I’m sure she’ll be fine. She’s like a mechanical whiz.”

“Her mechanical aptitude is not in doubt,” said Kamiko, “but the cultivation of a more scholarly aspect is essential to success in an academic setting.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” said Fara. “I’m struggling with that ‘scholarly aspect’ at the moment. I can’t really focus. You know anything about Bal?”

Kamiko considered the question, and though she possessed in her mind a rough knowledge of Bal’s economy, geography, history, politics and culture, she considered it woefully inadequate. “ Gomen , Fara, I know a little bit, but since you have taken the class on the subject, I must humbly defer to your superior knowledge on this.”

“…yeah,” said Fara, sighing. “[i[ Danke [/i]…anyway, I’m going to the gym. Maybe it’ll help me think? Want to come?”

“Sadly, I must stay and study,” said Kamiko. “I must stay until my traditional Eblanese dances have reached perfection.”

“Yeah,” said Fara, turning to leave. “Have fun, I guess.”

The University of Albrook gym was mostly empty – most of the other students were busy with finals, and the athletic season was mostly done. Both of Fara’s sports had wrapped up – she was disappointed with her performance in the fencing league, because as it turns out sport fencing was not at all like battling giant robots. Soccer she had done well; playing at striker, she was the highest scoring player on the team (…and penalties. But best not to dwell on that.)

She started her workout with the jump rope. It helped her with her footwork in swordfighting, it was good conditioning, and it reminded her fondly of being in kindergarten. She was totally not thinking about the magically-powered madman who been spying on her for the past year and could at any moment use the power of the Mana Seed to destroy everyone.

She bent her angles, knees, and elbows; she avoided landing on her heels. She hopped about the empty gym, not missing a beat. The point was to keep light, limber; she’d always had lead feet and Marcus had exploited it the last time they fought.

Fara hated that all she could do was wait. Terry could fly around the city, and he had his connection to the APD with Detective Bronze. Osprey had loads of intelligence training to scout for trouble. What was Fara going to do? Ride around on the A-Train at night looking for trouble?

Wait, that’s what she was going to do. That was all she could do, was wait. For all the power of the Mana Sword, Fara felt like she spent most of the time waiting for trouble to come to her, whether it was a griffon hand knocking at her door stop, her spring break trip being hijacked, or a bunch of rock demons showing up at her hometown. Maybe the Mana Sword came with a built-in weirdness magnet.

She put the jump rope down; with the gym mostly empty, she had her pick of the machines and weights. Denise always teased her for lifting weights, claiming that Fara would end up with “too many muscles”, as if getting totally ripped was something that someone could accomplish by accident.

She walked over to the squat rack and put some weight on the bar. For this amount of weight, a machine would’ve been safer, especially since there was no one around to spot her. But Fara was confident; hell, she had taught Terry the safe way to squat “ass-to-grass”, so she was damn well going to do this properly. Fara Alice Somers does not skip leg day.

She positioned herself under the bar, balancing the weight across her back. Slowly, determinedly, she bent her knees, and then, reaching the bottom of the movement, pushed back into the ground, pushing the heavy weights up.


Roxanne was traveling to the Place Which Is No More. Terry was busting up a pyra syndicate in Trianable. Eleod was investigating leads back in the Mana Dimension. And Fara? Fara was sitting her, doing nothing. Just waiting.


Waiting up a storm. Waiting for weirdness to strike.


“Hey, Somers.”

Fara startled; she dropped the heavy weights, and they hit the safety bar of the squat rack with a cloud klatter-klank.

“Oh…hey, Sean,” said Fara. Sean always seemed a little rough – all those years at Newcastle couldn’t quite shave some of the Ticonderan roughness off him. Fara immediately felt guilty for having that thought; despite the popular portrayals of Ticonderan criminals in Tasnican media, not all Ticonderans were gangsters and murderers.

“…hi,” said Sean. “Nice sword.”

Fara awkwardly realized she had manifested the Mana Sword; instantly she de-manifested it, putting it back in its ‘sheath’. “What sword?” said Fara. “No sword. It must be a trick of the light.”

“Strange,” said Sean. “So…working out? Aren’t you swamped with finals?”

“I am,” said Fara. “…in fact, I really should be getting back to work.”

Fara turned to leave, but she didn’t go right back to her dorm room. There was a knot in her stomach, a nervous energy; she didn’t want to go back and write about Bal or study math. She didn’t know what she wanted to do.

Aimlessly, she wandered around campus. She walked past the big statue of Celiose, painted up and decorated as a Foolish jester as part of an elaborate prank. She walked by the row of fraternities and sororities; this time of year, there were no parties going on there, and although there were a few open doors promising stale beer and overly handsy guys, she ignored it all. She came to the Rec Commons, but instead of entering her dorm she turned around to walk to the dining hall. Not the dining hall on the Rec Commons; she began the march to the late night one, on the other side of campus.

On her second circuit through the campus, she got a message – not from Denise this time. This time it was from Osprey. “Come to Roxanne’s apartment,” it said. “It’s Butlesworth.”

Fara had rarely seen Roxanne’s apartment so empty. Most of the times she had visited, it had been for a movie night or party – always festive, full of life. But now almost everyone was gone – no Terry, no Bim, no Butlesworth. Just a bunch of stuff , objects and mementos collected over Roxanne’s millennia-spanning lifetime (Roxanne often complained that she didn’t have room for more.) Fara glanced fondly at King Edward’s harp, inwardly proud that it had a place of honor among Roxanne’s extensive collection. Even after living countless lifetimes, Roxanne still had an obvious zest for life – Fara couldn’t help but admire that.

“What happened, Os?” asked Fara. “I came as soon as I heard.”

“Well,” said Osprey, “I was out with him shopping for groceries…Roxanne left behind some cash, but we were out of almond milk, and the corner store didn’t have any. One would think that the largest and most diverse city in all the Web of Worlds would be more accommodating to those of us who are lactose intolerant.”

“Maybe you could open a lactose-intolerant service-store?” suggested Fara. “Surely, a man of your skills could find suppliers for substitute yogurt, cheese, ice cream…things of this nature. I mean, if you can’t find work, maybe you should start your own business? Embrace the entrepreneurial spirit! It’s the Tasnican way!”

“I dunno, Fara,” Osprey said. “I don’t think that’s what I’m looking for….when I was in ZAPS, I was part of something larger than myself.”

Fara smiled. “You still are, Os,” she said.

Osprey smiled. “Well, in that case….can I use you as a reference? My previous employer is kinda…disreputable. On account of being an insane, disembodied mask.”

Fara chuckled. “Anytime, Os,” she said.

Osprey continued his story. “As I was saying…I was out looking for some almond milk. Butlesworth insisted he could run the errand for me, but I kind of wanted to get out…I was feeling a little antsy.”

“I know the feeling,” said Fara. “So what happened? Where’s Butlesworth?”

“I had found a place that had almond milk on discount,” said Osprey, “and then all of a sudden Butlesworth just starts…going somewhere. He wouldn’t say anything, he wouldn’t respond to anything I said. It was…really strange. I mean, I knew there was something special about that droid…he’s got no serial number, and some people at the slave auction were awfully keen to get him. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, so I followed him.”

“That’s strange,” said Fara, “do you think it could be some kind of malfunction? Like, robo-PTSD or something?”

“Possible,” said Osprey. “We have no idea what he’s been through….just that he’s been memory wiped. Memory wiping has a deleterious effect on a sentient mind - that’s why it’s illegal to use it on a sapient droid.” Osprey shook his head. “But I started to get a bad feeling about it all. I kept to the shadows.”

“No one noticed this?” asked Fara.

“Plenty of R-series in Albrook,” said Osprey. “So I followed him to the Mystic Ward…and he goes to the Tane Memorial.”

The Tane Memorial in the Mystic Ward was a monument to the thousands of innocent Tanes who were slaughtered in the Omnisent conflict in the Battle of Albrook. The powerful Arythian magical users had been leashed by the Omnisent, used like living weapons of war to fight against the Grand Army – Celiose defended the city by blithely detonating an Ultima weapon underneath them.

That was eleven years ago. Fara was eight years old when she heard about it, and she couldn’t understand it. Weren’t the GA the good guys? Why use an ultima weapon on your own city? Daddy had tried to explain that Celiose did what he had to do, but Fara didn’t get it. She assumed she’d understand when she was older.

“The Tane Memorial has a strange…astral background, I guess I’d call it,” said Osprey. “The death of so many powerful magic users in an Ultima explosion caused a strange…phenomena.”

“I know what you mean,” said Fara. “My first week in Albrook, I visited it with Violante. She didn’t pick up on anything, but to me it felt…”

“Like thousands of people screaming in your mind, but you couldn’t hear them?” asked Osprey. “But all muffled…loud, but distant, and falling away, into a great hole of mana.”

Fara tensed a bit. “I guess that’s one way to put it,” she said. “But Vee didn’t hear anything.”

“I’m not surprised…non-magic users usually don’t experience it,” said Osprey. “Butlesworth walked around the fallen Tane statues…and he goes up to the statue of Marien Othlan, who was Verund Cenrum, and he just…goes through a door.”

“A door?” asked Fara. “There’s no door there.”

“None we can see,” said Osprey. “It was an underground passage, in fact…but hidden by an invisibility spell.”

“An enchantment like that in the middle of the Mystic Ward?” asked Fara. “The whole neighborhood is filled with mages….wouldn’t someone notice a giant, anchored spell on one of the city’s monuments?”

“That’s the genius,” said Osprey. “Even I didn’t see anything…and hiding things and detection magic are sort of my specialties. Someone must have used the background count of the area to hide their spell.”

“That doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing you learn as a freshman at G.I.M,” said Fara.

“No,” said Osprey. “An enchantment like that, well, it would require a master.”

There was a moment of silence. What Osprey said hung in the air, both fully aware of the obvious, but perhaps afraid to say it, afraid to make it real.

“Maybe the Master,” said Fara. She shook her head. “And now he has Butlesworth.”

“I’m trying to think why,” said Osprey. “I mean, yeah, the Mana Seed I get. The hiding out underneath the Tane Memorial I get. But all of that is magical – what could someone who styles himself ‘the Master of Mana’ want with a piece of technology?”

“Butlesworth’s not a piece of technology, he’s a person!” shouted Fara.

“I know, Fara,” said Osprey.

“And not just like ‘he’s legally a person in Tasnica, Guardia, and selected other countries’… he’s our friend!”

“I know. I gave him his name, remember?”

“Like, Vee told me about how he saved the Iceni by going into the reactor to fix it. That radiation would’ve killed a human, but he went in with no hesitation.”

“I heard that story, too,” said Osprey.

“I mean, yeah we just met him,” said Fara. “But he’s been memory-wiped, he’s totally innocent. Despite all that ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ programming, and weird connection to other machines, he’s basically just an innocent child.”

“Fara,” said Osprey, “I know , ok? But we have to think this through. We know the Master was interested in this particular droid because he sent one of his minions, a gunslinger, to the droid slave auction to pick him up. And said robot butler just HAPPENS to wonder off into a secret, magically shrouded lair just as we learn that the Master may have a Mana seed. Something’s not right…as the Scandians like to say, this, comrades, can be no coincidence.”

“So you’re saying Butlesworth’s the final component he needed for whatever fiendish plot the Master’s concocted?” said Fara. “The last piece of the puzzle?”

“….maybe,” said Osprey. He shook his head. “There’s still too many unknowns.”

“What is the Master going to do to him?” asked Fara.

“You tell me, Fara,” said Osprey, “you’re the one who dealt with the Secret Imperial Society before….but you haven’t talked much about it.”

“…there’s a reason for that,” said Fara. “Let’s just say we really, really need to rescue Butlesworth. Especially if you’re right and he’s the last part to the Master’s EVIL plan.”

Osprey demurred. “We don’t know when Roxanne will be back,” he said. “And we have no way to reach her while she’s en route to the Place Which Is No More. Eleod’s on some spirit quest thing in Mana. And Terry…well, I let him know, but he’s got his own problems with the Pyra Syndicate in Trianable.”

“Then let’s go, just us,” said Fara. “We’ve got this, Os. You’re good at sneaking, I’m good at countering magic, and we’re both really good at swordfighting.”

“I don’t know, Fara,” said Osprey. “Remember what happened when we went up against Marcus? He was ready for us. If it weren’t for Eleod, we’d all be statuary. What will it be like against the Master himself?”
“Well, last time I fought him, he cast some spells, and I cut through them with the Sword, and then he went down, easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy,” Fara said. “That was like…my first real adventure. I wasn’t even very good at swordfighting then. Why do you think he sent Marcus after us? Because even though he styles himself ‘the Master’, he can’t beat me in a fight. His main ability is magic, and I have a sword that counters all magic .”

“I still say we wait,” said Osprey. “When you’ve been in the field as long as I have…when you’ve survived some of the things I’ve survived…you get a sense about these things.”

“And what happens to Butlesworth while we wait?” asked Fara. “What happens if we wait and the Master completes his ritual to turn us all into newts or something? ‘Sorry, guys, couldn’t be helped – Os had a funny feeling!’”

“This ‘funny feeling’ has kept me alive when a lot of other agents ended up dead!” protested Osprey.
This didn’t seem like Osprey at all. In the past, he had always been up for some derring-do adventure; it seemed to help him remember that the relentless miseries of his job search aside, he was still good at his job, and that he still had value. Fara couldn’t believe that Osprey was being so intransigent.


Trust no one , Eleod had said. Could it be? Could Osprey really be the spy – could he just be doing this to stall?

Fara didn’t want to believe it. She didn’t believe it. Even entertaining the thought for a moment made her feel sick, guilty. Osprey wouldn’t betray them.

But even if Osprey wouldn’t betray them, he was wrong .

“Fine, Os,” said Fara. “We’ll do it your way. I have a stupid paper about Bal to write, anyway.”

Fara stood in front of the Tane Memorial, wearing her Kevlar vest and tactical pants from Weapons World. It was night, with a clear full moon illuminating the faces of the Tane statues. The memorial remained a subject of controversy in the city; many GA veterans felt that this was tantamount to honoring their enemy. They felt the memorial’s presence was tantamount to accusing the Grand Army of a war crime in the Omnisent Conflict, and ignored the reality that if Celiose had not acted as he did, had not killed the invading Omnisent army with an Ultima weapon, the city would have fallen.

A chill ran through the night air; climate and weather in the Esper Dimension had been erratic since the Cataclysm. It was late; there was no one else around the memorial.

Fara was here to save Butlesworth. She walked over, carefully, to the statue of Verund Cenrum Marien Othlan. Osprey was right; the spell hiding the entrance was well-hidden, and if Fara didn’t know what to look for, she would never have seen it. The weaves of mana tying it together were incredibly subtle and complex; this was no ordinary concealing spell. The strands of magic were tied together in an artistic, complicated knot, almost like calligraphy written in the astral plane.

Fara drew the sword and sliced the knot. A door appeared before her; carefully, she entered, and descended.

Fara wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, and she also wasn’t sure how she would fine Butlesworth once inside. After a short walk through a stone cave, she emerged into a large chamber. It was like…a museum. There was a shroud of calligraphy that looked Xsian; a well-worn hammer with Taznikanze runes; what looked like a bit of rainbow shell from Gate (though Fara had only ever seen pictures); and a few pieces of what were almost magicite. There were many more Fara did not recognize at all; mystical objects from across the Web, spanning dozens of centuries.

“You will not defile these mysteries!”

Fara turned with a jolt; a man in loose-fitting robes was charging her, brandishing a shotgun.

Quickly she focused her power on Gnome; his earthen power protected her as the shotgun belched lead into her gut. With a few quick steps, she was upon him, and with a quick slash she cut the sword in half.
“Mossberg,” grumbled Fara. “Next time try a Kuat weapon.” She reached in and grabbed the man by his loose fitting robes. “See this sword?” she said, gesturing to the Mana Sword, which had taken on a stoney aspect from Gnome. “It also does this ,” she said, focusing on Lumina, turning the sword into a glowing sabre of light “or this ,” she said, focusing on Salamando, lighting the blade ablaze. “I’m going to knock you out now, but you get to decide if you ALSO want to be on fire, or frozen solid, or tangled in poisonous thorns, or something worse.”

“The Master will defeat you!” shouted the acolyte. “The Secret Imperial Society has lasted for thousands of years. We will outlast you, foul pretender!”

“Yeah, yeah, your evil cult is the bestest,” said Fara, rolling her eyes. “I’m looking for someone. He’s an R-series robot, dapper fellow, impeccably dressed. Any idea where he might be?”

The acolyte gestured with his head. “That way,” he said.

Fara was surprised at his easy compliance; I guess they don’t make mindless, fanatical followers like they used to. True to her word, she knocked him out, pointedly leaving him neither on fire NOR encased in ice.
She took the indicated corridor, and after a minute or so she wondered if this was really a good idea – she had no way of knowing if the acolyte had told her the truth. She was prepared to run into more guards, although perhaps the Master considered his cleverly fiendish concealment magic enough to protect his lodge.
Fara entered a small room; in the corner, in a small cage, was Butlesworth. The cage crackled with electrical energy.

“Fara,” said Butlesworth. “You shouldn’t have come. It’s dangerous.”

“Of course it’s dangerous, that’s why I’m getting you out of here,” said Fara.

“The cage,” said Butlesworth, “it’s electrified with Supervolt energy. If I touch it, I’ll get shut down. If you touch it, you’ll get electrocuted.”

Fara focused the Sword on Gnome again, and with its earthen power she smashed the cage wide open. “Rock beats lightning,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Fara turned to leave, but behind her was a tall, thin man, with wispy gray hair, and at fu-manchu mustache. He wore loose fitting robes; on his hands there were twelve elaborate rings. All around him the elements swirled; the power of mana oozed off his form. Although he was wearing a different body, there was no mistaking him.

“You’re him ,” Fara said, confronting her nemesis. “Mannern Fuchuan. The Master of Mana.”

The Master smiled, revealing yellowed, jagged teeth. “I have gone by many names….and been called many things. Lord of the Twelve Elementals. The Sagacious One. The Timeless Scholar. Guru of the Mystic Arts. Many others…and yes, the Master of Mana.”

“You’re a madman,” said Fara.

“I consider myself a teacher,” said the Master in a low voice. “Are you ready for your lesson?”

“Your lesson for today is simple,” the Master droned, in a low, strangely rhythmic, voice. He pointed a jagged finger at the Mana Sword. “Why do you have that sword?”

“The better to hit you with,” said Fara.

“I should’ve expected such an answer from an intellect of your caliber,” said the Master, “but if it is violence you seek, violence you shall have.” The Master’s rings glowed, and with a wave of his arms a giant cone of fire scorched through the air into Fara’s direction.

This was a big fire spell; the Master was a class above most other spellcasters. But all the same, the Mana Sword cut through the weaves of magic, leaving the fire spell to sputter into nothing.

“We’ve been through this before,” said Fara, “your magic won’t work on me.”

The Master smiled. “Do you think I am some sophomoric black mage, capable only of conjuring bolts of destruction?” He laughed. “The elements are capable of so much more.”

He raised a hand quickly, and on his command, a green vines erupted from the ground. The thorny vines writhed. The Master closed his open hand, and the vines constricted around Fara and Butlesworth.

Fara slashed through the vines, and the weaves of magic supporting them. The plants withered and died; Fara took a step forward. “None of your spells will work,” said Fara. “I wield the power of Mana.”

The Master beamed even wider, almost ear-to-ear, revealing rows of blackened teeth. Fara was really looking forward to wiping that shit-eating grin off his face. “You wield the power of Mana as a…gifted amateur,” he said, “but you will learn, in time, who is the Master of such forces.”

Fara sensed something at the edge of her vision – a rumbling, something big, and earthen. A reklar? Instinctively, she dodged as a massive stone hammer slammed into the ground in front of her, its impact landing with a thud that deafened the chamber.

A hulking being of stone and rock towered over Fara. Its skin was granite and stone. The stone hammer was a part of him; after missing it was reabsorbed in his body. It looked like it was wearing armor, or armor was a part of the being’s stony skin; crystals jutted from shoulder pauldrons, and the face looked like a mask carved from a cliff-face with reddish, angry eyes glowing behind it. The earth-thing had what looked like hair, strands of solid rock.

It looked familiar to Fara.

“….Marcus?” she asked, staring at the living mountain in front of her. “…gods, what have they done to you?”

“Though he could not join our Society as a brother, Marcus will still serve me as Fiend of Earth,” explained the Master.

Marcus formed twin spears of diamond stalactites out of his body, and charged Fara with them, stabbing quickly. For a being of pure rock, he was surprisingly quick. Charged herself with the electrical air-elemental energies of Sylphid, the best counter for Gnome. She lept forward and slashed, cutting deep into Marcus, leaving a gaping wound in his chest, a mortal blow for any human – but Marcus was no longer human. There was an earthly bellow, a sound like a crashing avalanche, and Fara realized that she had only succeeded in making Marcus angry.

Marcus punched back with massive boulder fists, with the force of a mountains rockslide behind them. Fara dodged; even with her Kevlar vest, a direct hit would cause her to crush bone.

“You see, my dear girl,” lectured the Master, “now that the elemental spirit of Gnome has been bound to his very being, the weaves of magic are too intertwined with his soul for you to counter his abilities without killing him.”

Fara changed the Mana Sword to Zweihander mode; this was a big enemy, it needed a big sword, and this was one of her strongest styles. Marcus molded a stonework bulwark out of his left arm to parry while creating a hardened diamond-tipped mace out of his right arm. Fara sidestepped the clunky mace and countered with the zweihander; the trick with fighting with big swords was to keep momentum going. If Marcus insisted on making this a brute force fight, she would have the edge; he was always more comfortable with finesse styles, and his transformation into an elemental-bound rock-beast wasn’t going to change that.

“Fara,” said Butlesworth, “allow me to assist….my combat modules have recently been coming online.”

“You need to get out of here, Butlesworth,” said Fara, striking Marcus with her sword’s crossguard. “Osprey thinks you’re the last piece the Master needs for some kind of evil ritual.”

The Master laughed, a cackling that filled the chamber. “He’s not the last piece, my dear Mana Knight,” he said. “ You are.”

Electricity arced off the huge, zweihander Mana Sword, crackling with sparks as Fara slashed it through the air, splitting Marcus’s shield. Fara had been training with Roxanne and Kamiko; she wasn’t about to let her rematch with Marcus go the same way her last fight had.

Butlesworth’s eyes glowed; he extended his palm, and a laser ray-beam lanced towards the master, darting through the chamber air. A few inches short of the master, the laser scattered, deflected harmlessly by a magical barrier. The man with the fu manchu mustache raised an eyebrow. “Have some fight in you, mechanical man?” he asked.

Butlesworth’s synthetic voice sputtered. “I cannot allow you to impede our escape,” he said, charging forward with a rocket-powered bodyslam. His powerful metallic frame should’ve crushed the master’s body, but instead it only met air as the master blended melted into the shadows and reappeared elsewhere. Clearly this was some trick or illusion, rather than teleportation.

The Master raised his arms and uttered a few words – words in a language that were not Common, and not spoken but ordinary men Red energy spurted out from Butlesworth. It was as though the robot was spurting blood from multiple gaping wounds, and all of it poured into the Master. Butlesworth’s light eyes sputtered out; his various displays and LEDs all turned to black. The robot slumped, shut down.

The Master gestured in the air, the ‘blood’ from the robot mixing with his own prodigious elemental energies.
Fara felt something going wrong. At first it was just a tingling, deep in her body, like a limb that had fallen asleep. But soon it became a prickling, a burning, a thousand needles on her insides trying to burst outward, like she had swallowed a grenade that was exploding inside her stomach in slow motion. At first she tried to ignore it, grit her teeth, play through the pain – but she made a misstep against Marcus, and he landed a stone-fisted glancing blow that almost knocked her flat. Then Fara felt a rip, something pulled out from her, and all her nerves seared with pain.

She didn’t have the Sword in her hands. She tried to manifest it again, to re-conjure it, tried to focus on elemental energies as she had so often before. With no Sword, she had no way to fight against Marcus; try as she might to dodge, without any way to parry, there was no way to deflect his blows. She took a rock-punch to her gut and doubled over; Macus’s giant arms seized her and threw her into the cage that had contained Butlesworth a moment ago. Using stalactites from his own body, he rebuilt the prison.

The Master approached the cage, the Mana Sword in his hand. Fara’s preferred zweihander was too large for him; even in broadsword form he held it low, and it dragged behind him.

“You didn’t even understand why you had this in the first place,” chided the Master, raising the Mana Sword slightly, “but now it is no matter. The Sword is mine.”