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CHECKMATE

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The grand ballroom was littered with men, women, and children engaging themselves with delightful activities and discussions—each donning majestic gowns and tuxedos of exquisite tastes, the latest jewelry, and accessories as well as with over the top cosmetic to enhance their already pompous appearances.

Suspended from the baroque themed ceiling hung a brilliant ornate chandelier, its several branches of tiny, luminous bulbs emitting a soft warm hue which radiated throughout the entire area. Below the chandelier was a five feet tall vanilla bean cake, embellished with pink, white, and yellow flower motifs situated on a large silver platter.

At the far end of the ballroom, sandwiched between the potted green plants and the left side entrance to the open balcony stood a young blonde man.

Dressed in a shamrock green suit, accompanied with his passive emerald green eyes and lackluster smile, one might automatically think of him as an ideal noble.

With his hands tied behind his back, the young man stood his ground, carefully distinguishing the wandering guests from the Imperial polices, who donned the iconic blue and white uniforms. On the other side of the spectrum was another brand of the police force who wore orange and silver. Unlike their counterpart, the orange and silver individuals were strikingly noticeable, as expected of the high-ranked elites in the field.

The young man tightened his grip on his gloved hands.

Of all the people present within the grand ballroom, a certain cousin of his was nowhere to be seen.

“Ioder.”

His ears picked up the sound of a familiar hoarse voice. Alarmed, he turned around to discover a platinum-haired man approaching him.

“Sir Dinoia.” The young man replied back with equal composure. Before he could bow his head in respect, the latter raised his hand, preventing him from doing so.

“Please. You don’t need to be so formal with me.”

“But— “

The older man raised an eyebrow at him.

The young man let out a sigh. Forcing a grin, he went on to address the older man as, “Uncle Alexei.”

In response, the older man cracked a weary smile. “That’s better.” He then stretched his arms out wide. “It’s wonderful to see you again, my boy.”

“You too, Uncle,” Ioder chuckled, stepping up to embrace the older man. “It’s been quite too long.”

“Two years to be exact.” Alexei pointed out, laughing heartily as he released his hold on him. “You’ve grown so much! I could barely recognize you,” He retreated a step back, eyeing the young man in front of him from head to toe. “My, look at you! Almost the spitting image of your father, Cornelius!”

“Your too kind, Uncle,” Ioder replied, the smile on his face never faltering. “I’m pleased to know that you haven’t changed.”

Alexei chuckled, patting the latter on the shoulder in an affectionate manner.

After the unfortunate passing of their parents, Ioder Argylos Heurassein and his dear cousin, Estellise Sidos Heurassein were raised under the same roof.

With the absence of parental figures, it was Alexei Dinoia, a close family friend to their household and the current commander to the Imperial Police force, who stepped up and took custody of them, raising them under his legitimate name.

Though he would venture off to different places prior to his profession, Alexei made certain to check up on them, often surprising the two with his random visits and at times, authentic trinkets he’d purchased for them in the duration of his journey. If it weren’t for his supervision and paternal support, both Ioder and Estelle would have never matured greatly into the well-sophisticated and talented noblemen they are now.

Speaking of which—

“Have you seen Estellise?”

Alexei crossed his arms over his armored chest, thinking it over. “I’m afraid not.” He mumbled, motioning his head the other way to clearly inspect the sea of dancing noblemen and police lieutenants idly patrolling.

“I was hoping if you’d be so kind as to assist me.” Ioder began as he shuffled his leathered boots across the ornate carpet flooring. “Since you’re here, maybe you could…”

“As much as I’d love to help…” Alexei trailed off, his strict expression twisted to that of uncertainty. “I’ll have to politely reject your offer.” Bringing his hands behind his back, he held his head high and added, “However, knowing that girl, there’s only one place she’d likely go to.”

Exchanging knowing looks, the two laughed earnestly.

“Go on and find her,” Alexei insisted, gesturing his chin to the right where the right-side entrance to the narrow halls was located. “I’ll take care of everything.”

Ioder smiled. “Thank you, Uncle,” Twisting his heel, he left the grand ballroom without another word, leaving the ever so reliable Alexei to take care of the rest.


Located in the upper east side of the metropolitan region lies the famous Heurassein manor—home to Ioder Argylos and Estellise Sidos, the direct descendants of House Heurassein. Shortly after the abrupt passing of King Perseus the IV, his beloved wife and his brother, Cornelius the III—the Capital kingdom, Zaphias, was left with no ruler.

In hopes to preserve the tradition, their children—Ioder and Estellise were forced to evacuate from their birthplace and migrate to Heliord, a recently built settlement found in the continent of Tolbyccia. Luckily for them, the headquarters for the Imperial Police Force was stationed there and through Alexei, their means of security and protection were tripled. From there, the two were raised, sheltered and strictly home-schooled under the care of the castle employees.

To further make certain that neither of them would go beyond the borders, they were exposed with frightening tales documented and accounted by Alexei. In his absence, his right-hand man, Schwann Oltorain who would replace him and reinforce such stories, often recalling his involvement of the Great War and the many scars engraved on his body.

Though this worked out well for the ever-so-pacifist Ioder, who would time and time again, would refuse to pick up a sword and hurt someone—Estellise, on the other hand, was a different case.

Every false information told by the officials and staff only seemed to fuel her desire to escape the manor. Over time, the number of stories began to dwindle. Determined to learn more about the outside world, the pink-haired woman would isolate herself in the library where she would read for long, tiring hours with no remorse of her health.

In the eyes of her potential suitors, she was nothing more than a prize on a pedestal. Adding to the fact that she was of royal standing and of eligible age to marry, her chances of being courted further increased as time went on.

To the very few who knew her as a person, Estellise was more than just the typical princess. Knowledgeable and kind-hearted, has a knack for reading, trained by the great Drake (one of the veterans of the Great War) with a shield and rapier, indulging herself with community work by assisting the poor residents in the lower sectors of Heliord—such factors proved her to be the complete opposite of the mental image which people generally perceive her as.

She was a damsel, who is more than capable to solve her own problems.

Simple as that.

Within the library, the pink-haired woman in question sat comfortably in her desk situated in front of the large glass windows, which gave her a perfect panoramic view of the estate garden, the flickering lights of the towering skyscrapers and the reddish-brown glow of the evening horizon. With her thick green book resting on her lap, she focused her full attention on its ancient context.

Pushing her translucent reading glasses to the bridge of her nose, she proceeded to lean back on her comfy maroon chair. Despite her minor movements, the concentration she held toward her book never wavered.

Her ears picked up the sound of shuffling footsteps from a distance. Even so, she remained in her spot, choosing to disregard the noise as part of her background.

“…Estellise? Are you there?”

No response.

“Hello? Estellise?”

Still no response.

“ESTELLISE!”

The pink-haired woman jolted in her spot, dropping her book in the process. Covering her swollen ears, she quickly whirled her head. Confused seafoam orbs clashed with brilliant emerald. “Goodness, Ioder!” She cried, rising from her chair to retrieve her book on the ground. “You nearly scared me half to death!”

Unfazed by her protest, Ioder simply smiled. “Why are you here?” He asked, tilting his head to the side. “Everyone’s waiting for you in the ballroom.”

Estellise frowned, turning her head the other way to avoid eye contact.

“This celebration is not meant for me,” Ioder explained as gently as possible. He took a few steps forward, stretching his hands to seize hers. “It is for you, dear cousin. In commemoration of your twenty-long-year existence here at Terca Lumireis.”

Estelle rolled her eyes. “I never asked for a party.” She pouted, veering her eyes to the wooden flooring.

Ioder’s facial features softened. “I know. But it is a part of our custom to do it.” He explained, his voice turning into a mere whisper. “When a member of a royal house becomes of age, there is to be a grand celebration in their honor.”

“Why must they be random strangers?” She suddenly cried, tearing her reading glasses from her face and setting them on the surface of her empty desk. “Why can’t we just spend it like we normally do? A private dinner with maybe a hint of a present or two? Just me and you and some of the royal staff. That’s all I want.”

Ioder gave her a sharp look. “Estellise, they are not strangers. They are of nobility standing, just like us.” He went on, “And I understand how much this party burdens you but we cannot bend the rule just for you. This is something that we must do."

"Our fathers and their fathers before them have long followed the tradition for many generations. The grand celebration is not just one big party. It is a sacred ritual of symbolic meaning, vital and necessary to the ascension of the royal throne. And you, as the crown representative of House Heurassein and daughter to King Perseus the IV, are required to fulfill the duty." As he said those words, Ioder's facial features softened. "Because one day, you will become the Royal Successor of— “

“No!” She suddenly cried, startling the latter.

Releasing her hold on his hands, Estellise retreated a few steps back. “No, I…” She inhaled a deep breath, holding tight of her thick green book close to her chest. “Forgive me. I don’t want to go through with this.” Shaking her head, she lifted her chin upward to face him once more. Her seafoam eyes narrowed, brimming with heated determination. “I refuse.”

Ioder sighed, bringing a hand to massage his throbbing temple.

As much as he absolutely adored his dear cousin, she was quite a difficult person to negotiate with. He frowned, becoming reminded of the many heated arguments they’d often get into behind closed doors. If only the rest of the world knew just how painfully stubborn and resilient she was…

The sound of knocking prompted the pair to stop what they were doing and turned.

“Captain Oltorain.” Ioder addressed the rugged haired and tanned-skin police officer. “Pleasure to see you.”

“Your Highnesses,” The aloof man greeted the latter with a respectful bow of his head. He then averted his focus to the sole female in the room, mimicking the same gesture he once did before. “I came on behalf of Sir Alexei Dinoia.”

“Sir Dinoia…?” Suddenly, Estellise gasped. “Wait! Uncle is here?”

Schwann simply nodded. “Alive, well, and in the flesh.” He described with his usual blank expression. “He wishes to see your presence at the ballroom. The cutting of the cake is about to commence and we cannot start without the honorable Highnesses of Heurassein house.”

Estellise quickly whipped her head to face the younger male next to her. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ioder simply smiled. “You didn’t ask.”

Estellise puffed her cheeks. “Goodness, Ioder!” Raising her gloved hand, she proceeded to lightly smack him across the shoulder.

Nevertheless, the blonde male chuckled. “Now you know of Uncle’s attendance, does it change your agenda just a tiny bit?” He questioned with a carefree smile.

Pressing a hand to her chest, Estellise snuck a glance at the book in her hands. She then peeked at Schwann, then at her cousin. “Well, it would be rather impolite not to greet him.” She answered with a defeated look.

“That's what I like to hear!” Ioder exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “If you will, Captain Oltorain, please lead the way.”

“Before I do so,” Schwann began, catching their attention. “I have something to give you both. A token of my appreciation to my many years of service under your House.”

Ioder and Estellise glanced at each other in confusion.

“There’s really no need for that, Captain Oltorain,” Estellise assured to him with a friendly smile.

For a second, there was a spark in Schwann’s grey eyes though she wasn’t able to catch it as he quickly resorted to his usual, bland look. “But I insist,” He pressed on, twisting his body to reveal a set of two decorative boxes in his possession. “It would please me so if you could accept them.”

Ioder pleasantly smiled. “Captain Oltorain, you really don’t have to do this— “

“I insist,” Schwann cut him off, his tone of voice becoming one of desperation. “Please accept them.” Without thinking, he quickly proceeded to distribute the boxes to the pair.

Again, Ioder and Estellise exchanged looks.

“Should we open them at the same time?” Estellise whispered lowly, referring to the wrapped packages in their custody.

Ioder nodded.

One.

Two.

Three—

They tore off the lid of the box, revealing a cluster of wrapping paper and tiny pieces of Styrofoam. Brushing them aside, Estellise's eyes widened.

And there he was.

“It's so detailed,” Estellise commented as she took in the sight of her respective doll which donned a beautiful knight suit, accentuated with touches of red and gold and long hair, pulled in a tight ponytail, as dark as midnight. She squinted her eyes, a smile gracing her lips as she carefully examined the doll’s effeminate facial features. “She’s so beautiful.”

“Actually, it’s a ‘he’.” Schwann began with a rather uncharacteristic sheepish smile. “He goes by the name of Yuri Lowell. I believe you’ve heard of him, yes?”

Estellise shook her head, followed by a bittersweet smile. “Sorry. Not really.”

“No need to apologize,” Clearing his throat, Schwann proceeded to explain to her. “He hails from Zaphias, just like you. Renowned for his superb swordsmanship and vigilantism.” He then brought a hand over his mouth in an urge to suppress his growing laughter. “And fear not, you are not the only one in the world to mistaken him as a female.”

Darting her eyes back to the box of her doll which she held in her arms, she smiled. “Who did you get, Ioder?”

Her blonde-haired cousin gave her a bashful look. “...I honestly don’t know.”

Peering over, Schwann firmly nodded his head. “My Lord, you acquired one of the finest knights in our ranking—Flynn Scifo. Like Yuri, he too hails from Zaphias. Ever so loyal to the sword, his top priority is to protect the people.” He explained before quickly adding in, “And I hear he’s quite the gentleman.”

Ioder smiled, nodding every so often as he listened to the older man’s description. His emerald eyes peered down, taking in the sight of the handsome doll with his slightly ruffed, golden sun hair perfectly aligning to his armored white and blue uniform. For some reason, he couldn’t seem to take his eyes off of him.

Something nudged him on the shoulder, causing him to turn.

“Yes, Estellise?”

The pink-haired woman leaned closer, whispering softly to his ear.

Ioder chuckled. “You get what you get and you don’t get upset.” He sang merrily, to which the latter pouted, hanging her head in dismay. Turning his focus to the older man in front of them, his grin widened. “Thank you so much, Captain Oltorain, for these fine gifts. We’ll take good care of them.”

“I’m pleased to hear that you like them,” Schwann replied, bowing his head once more. He then turned to glance at Estellise who looked rather doubtful. “Your Highness, is something the matter?”

“Oh!” Estellise squeaked, blinking her eyes. Her cheeks reddened, feeling somewhat embarrassed. “It’s nothing, really.” And forced a grin.

Schwann raised an eyebrow. Taking note of her crestfallen look, he smiled. “No need to worry.” He assured her. “Yuri might not look like it, but his heart is that of gold. If anything were to harm my Fair Lady, he’ll do whatever he can in his power to protect you.”

Estellise giggled. “You make it sound as if he’s real.” Much to her surprise, the older man wasn’t troubled by her comment. Again, there was that subtle spark in his grey eyes—hidden secrets that have yet to be uncovered.

“You must have a lot of questions for me,” He began, lowering his head. “But I assure you, all will be explained.” Stepping aside, he raised his right arm outward, directing toward the half-opened doors. “I’ll give you two a minute to process. I’ll meet you outside in the halls, waiting to lead the way.”

True to his words, Captain Oltorain dismissed himself from the room, leaving the two in a complete daze.

“What was that all about?” Ioder spoke out of the blue.

Estellise opened her mouth to say something, only to close it. Her eyes traveled down to the box where her respective doll peacefully laid in his ‘sleep’. She leaned a little closer, carefully inspecting the fine details of the clothes, hair and facial features. Finally, her curious seafoam eyes made contact with deep pools of ebony.

For a second there, she could’ve sworn that there was a mischievous glimmer embedded in his eyes. Blushing furiously, Estellise shook her head.

Nope. Definitely just her imagination.

“Estellise?”

Hearing her name, Estellise blinked. "Sorry, did you say something?"

Ioder shook his head. "Come on, let's get moving." Seizing his respective box in the custody of his arms, he proceeded to march forward. "We mustn’t let Uncle get impatient of us.”

“Wait!” The abrupt call of his name caused him to freeze in his tracks and look over his shoulder. “Before we do that, let’s drop by our chambers first.” Estellise explained, "We wouldn't want to be carrying these around for the whole night."

Ioder glanced at his box, then back at his cousin. He smiled.

“Good idea.”


A small group of individuals stood on the platform of a nearby skyscraper, hidden well from the public eye. Garbed in dark clothes, green ties, and masks to hide the upper portion of their faces, their blood red eyes were strictly set on their main target: from a distance, a sole two-story building blockaded with large castle-like walls which surrounded every perimeter of its domain.

There was no mistake of it—this was Heurassein manor.

“Everything should be going well as planned,” A voice spoke up, undeniably male. Emerging from the shadows, a tall, lean man with swept-back hair stepped forward into the reddish spotlight, revealing a humongous scythe gripped in one hand and a pair of binoculars in the other. “Now, we must wait until they give the signal.”

“…Heh, strike them while the iron is hot!” Another raspy voice joined in from the shadows, followed by a mechanical laughter. “Oh yes, I like that!”

“Patience, boy.” The first man calmly replied. Turning his attention to the spiky-haired assassin, he flashed a large toothy grin, his sharp teeth bearing a striking resemblance to that of a hungry shark. “…All good things come to those who wait.”


 

Chapter Text


 

 “Uncle!”

At the mention of his honorary title, the platinum-haired man whirled his body. A smile materialized across his lips as a familiar blob of pink, brown and yellow entered his field of vision. “It’s wonderful to see you again, my dear,” Alexei greeted, approaching the pair. He then glanced at his right-hand lieutenant who in return bowed his head in respect. “Thank you, Captain Schwann, for escorting them.”

The brown-haired man tipped his head, silently acknowledging his words.

“We’re so happy to have you here, Uncle!” Estellise cried, suppressing the urge to run up to him and squeeze him to death. “It has been too long since you visited.”

Alexei let out a low chuckle. “Alas, you have not changed one bit.” He commented, earning a pouty look from her. “Though I wouldn’t miss this for the world,” He replied, stretching his hand forth to ruffle the strands of her hair fondly. “Wouldn’t you agree, Drake?”

At the mention of her instructor’s name, Estellise quickly raised her head, her seafoam eyes widening at the sight of another older man standing behind her Uncle. “Master Drake!”

“Lady Estellise,” The general addressed his student, thrusting his arm over his thick armored chest and lowered his head in respect. Shortly after, he mimicked the same gesture to the younger man before him. “And His Majesty, Ioder.” As he raised his head, his wrinkled facial features softened. “It’s wonderful to see you both once again.”

“Now that Estellise is present, the party shall officially commence,” Alexei began, straightening his posture and folding this hands behind his back. Wasting no time, he led the way with his right-hand man, Schwann, on his left and Sir Drake on his corresponding right.

Ioder held out his arm to his female cousin and asked, “Shall we?”

Taking note of this, Estellise bit her lower lip. Inhaling deeply, she firmly nodded and looped her arm with his. Together, the two-marched forward, silently following after the three older men who led them to the center of the ballroom where the large birthday cake was located.

Some of the wandering guests and polices stopped what they were doing, their full attention directly on the Heurassein cousins as they passed through the crowd.

Estellise blushed, feeling embarrassed by the many eyes on her. Even so, she made sure to keep her shoulders relax, hoping not to overstep and make a mistake in the process. She snuck a glance at her younger cousin who seemed to be completely oblivious with the situation and displaying an air of sophistication.

Unlike her, Ioder was always level-headed—the calm and composed one.

With his vast array of expertise which included horseback riding, military tactics, and worldly knowledge of Terca Lumireis, there was no doubt that he was far more entitled to be the true heir to the Zaphias throne—the perfect king that everyone deserves.

Not her.

If anything, all she had were swords and a bunch of books.

She closed her gloved hand and gripped the hem of her teal dress.

…No, not even once did the thought of ascending as the next Queen of Zaphias crossed her mind. Remove the perks, benefits, lavish dresses, and her title as a nobility and she’s nothing more than a typical woman like the rest.

Oh, how she dreamt to run away as fast as her legs could take her, away from the manor and away from her predetermined fate…

…If only it was that simple.

Once the pair arrived at the epicenter of the flock, Alexei took hold of the microphone which was handed to him from a passing butler. Tapping on the round piece of the device a few times, he finally received the attention of the entire room.

Clearing his throat, he opened his mouth, “Ladies and Gentlemen—thank you all for coming in this wondrous occasion. For the first time, our dearly beloved Princess, Estellise Sidos Heurassein, has officially reached her twenty-long-years. Thus, marking her a legitimate candidate to ascend the Zaphias throne.”

On cue, a massive round of applause and cheers vibrated throughout the area.

Alexei glanced over to the young woman a mere distance away from where he stood and smiled.

“Lady Estellise has become the beautiful, intellectual, and clever princess we have all come to know and love. On behalf of all the guests and the Imperial Police Force present, we wish Her Highness all the best in the coming future.” His smile widened, his eyes sparkling with adoration. “Your late father, King Perseus the IV and late mother, Queen Selena, would be so proud of you.” A pause. “I, Alexei Dinoia, am proud of you.”

He then raised his other free arm high above his head and raised his voice. “Cheers for Her Royal Highness! May she reign forevermore!”

Once more, the unanimous applause and cheers erupted from all directions.

Estellise blushed, biting her lower lip. She then felt something nudge her on the shoulder. She turned her head, a tiny smile appearing across her lips as she caught Ioder flash her a pleasant smile.

“Happy birthday, dear cousin.” He muttered lowly under his breath.

“You are too sweet,” She mouthed softly, playfully nudging her elbow back at him for payback.

Exchanging mischievous grins, the two laughed earnestly.

“Estellise.”

The familiar voice of their Uncle caused the two to cease their laughter and freeze abruptly.

The pink-haired woman averted her attention to the Commander. She tipped her head to the side, her eyebrow raised in curiosity.

Smiling, Alexei slowly approached her. “Here,” And presents her the microphone to which she took graciously. “Your turn.”

Estellise’s grip on the microphone tightened.

Sensing her anticipation, Ioder gently released his hold on her cousin, though not before stroking her shoulder blade for support. “You can do this,” He encouraged her, flashing her another soft smile.

Hearing this, Estellise smiled. Taking a deep breath, she stepped forward.

While making her way to stand next to her towering birthday cake, she failed to notice a police officer hastily walking toward Alexei and Schwann in the background. Leaning forward, he placed a hand over the latter’s ear, muttering a few words lowly under his breath.

Alexei’s eyes slowly widened, though was quick to revert back to his usual composed expression.

Once the officer left, the platinum-haired man darted his eyes around the ballroom as if searching for something. His right hand stealthily slid to the leather brown strap on his waist where his large blade remained at the ready.

None except Schwann, Drake, and Ioder took notice of this sudden change.

Tapping the microphone a few times, Estellise brought the device to her lips. She inhaled a deep breath.

“G-good evening.” She began, forcing a smile on her flushed face. “I am Estellise Sidos Heurassein. I just want to say that— “

All of a sudden, a loud crash erupted from the halls.

Alarmed, everyone turned frozen in their spots.

Frightened, the children raced to their parents who quickly ushered them to hide under their wing for protection. The other guests, on the other hand, remained high on alert, their fearful expressions apparent by their trembling forms.

Instinctively, Alexei quickened his steps before finally halting in front of the pale pink-haired heiress.

“Stay close, Estellise,” He warned her, unsheathing his blade and raising it forward. His amber eyes narrowed as he carefully scanned the ballroom once more. “Schwann!”

“On it,” His right-hand captain replied, rushing forth to stand close to his superior.

“Estellise!”

Estellise quickly whirled her head around, just in time to catch her younger cousin and Master Drake running towards her. Once they were a few feet away from each other, a sudden thump erupted above their heads.

All eyes and ears veered up towards the slightly swaying chandelier.

In response, the police officers and other lieutenants stationed in the same area automatically equipped themselves with various weapons ranging from small knives, spears, bow, and so forth.

“Prepare men,” Alexei cautioned them, getting into a battle stance. “We must protect House Heurassein at all cost…”

A flurry of shattered glass exploded from the other side of the ballroom.

Screams of anguish and agony echoed throughout the ballroom as one by one, the colossal stained glass windows broke into million glass shards and raining down on the guests and police officers. A few bodies dropped to the ground as a pool of dark blood circled around them.

A silhouette hastily jumped inside, successfully landing onto the shiny, hardwood flooring. Moments later, more darker silhouettes appeared, multiplying by the number.

At this point, all hell broke loose.

More screams and sobbing intensified, causing Estellise and Ioder to squirm in their spots. The sound of heavy metal, fired gunshots, and battle cries pierced their ringing ears. So many things were happening, they couldn’t tell which to turn their focus on.

“BRING THE SURVIVORS TO THE NEAREST EXIT!” Schwann ordered, unsheathing his large broadsword as he battled it out with two assassins nearby.

Maids, butlers, and police force scattered about as they attempted to seize any of the remaining guests alive and usher them to safety.

From the corner of her eye, Estellise took notice of a little girl hiding under the sheets of the table. As she attempted to crouch down and assist the child, an eerie noise erupted from above.

“TAKE COVER!”

Once more, ear-piercing screams and sobbing resonated thunderously as the large chandelier which hung from the ceiling plummeted to the ground.

A sudden jerk from the arm caused Estellise to stumble backward. Her eyes widened as the chandelier hit the cake, along with the table and a muffled scream below the sheets.

Pieces of glass and large layers of white bean frosting piled along the slightly bloodied ground.

Estellise’s heart stopped beating.

She peered downwards to meet her gloved hands, her mouth agape.

“ESTELLISE!”

Blinking away her tears, she turned to the direction that called out her name. “No!” She replied back, releasing his hold on her arm and running back to the wrecked chandelier. “No!”

Suddenly, she felt her right wrist being held back, causing her to be flung back with force. To her discouragement, it was her cousin again.

“Please, Ioder!” She cried in desperation, “Let go of me!”

Ioder furrowed his eyebrows, trying to make sense of his cousin’s words.

Estellise opened her mouth to respond only to close it again. Bringing her hand over her mouth, she sank down, burying her face on her hands and cried.

Shocked, Ioder quickly rushed to assist his cousin. “Estellise! Please, you’ve got to stand up!”

“Your Highnesses!”

Sniffing, Estellise peered upwards, her seafoam eyes glistening with freshly salted tears. “Master Drake…” She addressed her instructor. She slowly rose up, only to stumble backward.

Ioder quickly reached out, assisting her as she regained her balance.

“Come, we must hurry!” Drake cried, pulling them forward.

“Wait!” Ioder exclaimed back, exasperated. “What about Uncle?”

“There’s no time!”

Grabbing their wrists, the older man rushed forth, dodging past the officers dueling against the dark-clothed assassins, the fallen dead bodies, and into the narrow halls.

Hoping to drown the chaos around her, Estellise shut her eyes closed.


 

The West Wing of the manor was bombarded with a sea of guests, imperial officers, and staff— frantically rushing and trampling others about as they attempted to get close to a nearby exit.

Hoping to avoid the crowd, Drake hastily angled his body to the right where he found himself face-to-face with the entrance to the cafeteria. Thrusting the door open with his armored boot, he pulled Estellise and Ioder’s wrists and ushered them to head inside.

Fortunately for them, the cafeteria remained untouched by the horrors of the chaos.

“What’s going on?” Ioder spoke up, breaking the silence.

Drake turned to face them and frowned. “It’s them again.” He began, unsheathing his blade from its scabbard and thrusting it forward, his hazel brown eyes locked on the closed door in front of them.

“Who’s them?”

“Leviathan’s Claw, I believe.” He then nodded his head a few times to confirm himself. “Yes…for many years, they’ve been trying to take control of the Zaphias throne. To ensure that House Heurassein does not fall to ruin, Sir Alexei Dinoia thought it’d be best to briefly erase your existence from the public eye. For a while, there was tranquil…” As his words slipped past his lips, Drake firmly gripped the helm of his blade. “That is, until two weeks ago, we’ve received notice of their supposed hideout…Manor of the Wicked.”

“Manor…of the Wicked?”

“A recently built vicinity located beyond the outskirts of Heliord,” Drake continued, “Sir Dinoia ordered spies to head inside and gather more intel…unfortunately, none of them made it. We are surprised just as you are that they planned to use Her Highness’s birthday celebration to initiate their assassination.”

“I don’t understand. Why hide something so big from us?” Ioder suddenly cried, “Why now?”

“Sir Dinoia ordered us to hide this information,” Drake muttered, his eyes hardening. “To protect you both.”

Ioder deeply frowned. “Still…”

“I’m tired of hiding!” Estellise suddenly exclaimed, alerting the two. “I’m tired of running! And by that, we have the right to know everything!” Inhaling a deep breath, she brought a hand over her beating chest. She reopened her eyes, looking more determined than ever. “How do you expect us to ascend the throne, to protect our people if we lack such knowledge?”

Both men turned to stare at their courageous princess.

“I’m afraid I’ll have to agree with the little lass.”

The unfamiliar German accent caused the three to freeze still in their tracks.

Looking around, they finally caught sight of a mysterious lean figure standing on top of the elevated cabinets. Though their entire form was bathed in complete darkness prior to the cloudy window, the humongous scythe-like weapon in his possession was clear to the naked eye.

Determined, Drake immediately went on his battle stance, raising his blade high. “GET BEHIND!”

In response, the Heurassein cousins did what they were told, their eyes never breaking away from the human shadow which loomed over them.

A minute later, the clouds were no more and moonlight entered through the closed window. The light shone over them, including the human shadow.

Deadly, crimson eyes.

Purple hair slicked in the middle.

Shark-like teeth, followed by a wicked smirk.

 “Yeager,” Drake muttered lowly under his breath.

The male assassin emitted a light chuckle. “Surprise, surprise!” He greeted back, setting one hand on his hip and the other under his sharp chin. “And my, are we in for some fun, ja?”

Drake leered at him. “Don’t you dare take a step closer!” He exclaimed, retreating a few steps back though not too close as to hurt the pair hiding behind him.

“I assure ya…I am not here for you…” Yeager sang flippantly, hopping out from the cabinets and onto the ground. He began twirling his large scythe around to and fro, almost as if he was playing around with it. Finally, he set his weapon forward, its large metallic blade mere inches away from the older general’s thick neck.

“I am here to do business…” His sharp crimson eyes averted its focus from the man in front of him and to the huddled pair. “…with them.”

“I WON’T ALLOW IT!” Drake cried, brandishing his sword forward. “OVER MY DEAD BODY!” Tiny sparks ensued as the two metallic weapons made contact with each other.

Registering his words, Yeager’s smirk widened. “Well, why didn’t you say so!”

Jumping backward, he pressed the helm of his weapon over the right side of his chest and clicked the trigger. In a matter of seconds, the weapon transformed from that of a scythe to a formidable sniper. “Beautiful, no?” He commented, caressing his hand over the weapon rather fondly. “I polished her yesterday for the sake of tonight.”

Peering over his shoulder, Drake softly whispered to them, “You must run from here.”

Estellise quickly shook her head. “No, we’re not leaving you!” She mumbled back, her gloved hands gripped firmly over her chest. “We can fight too! Let us help you!”

“No, Estellise,” Ioder interrupted her, “Sir Drake is right. We need to make haste.”

Again, Estellise shook her head.

“Lady Estellise, you must listen…” Drake began, darting his focus back to the male assassin. He quickly dodged as his opponent swooped in, though not too far as to keep an eye on the Heurassein cousins.

Seconds later, a merciless kick was thrown at him. In retaliation, he thrust his armored arm high, blocking it in the process.

“You must get out of here no matter what! The fate of House Heurassein and the Zaphias throne rests on your hands.”

“But…”

“I will be fine,” Drake assured her with a soft smile. “For now, focus on your escape.” He then let out a grunt as he felt himself beginning to sink from the weight of the attacks. “You must hurry! I cannot hold him much longer!”

The sudden desperation in his tone brought Estellise back to her senses. She turned to her cousin who looked back at her with the same determined expression. Taking hold of Ioder’s gloved hand, she turned back to her teacher and softly mumbled, “Please be safe.”

Drake firmly nodded. “Go! Run!”

Nodding their heads, the two cousins bolted out of the kitchen and into the hallways.

Wasting no time, Yeager drew back before rushing toward the open entrance, pulling out his sniper and aiming at their retreating figures. Before he could set his finger on the trigger, a massive weight hit him from the side. He growled as he was brutally shoved into a cluster of barrels. Groaning, he brought a hand to nurse his aching temple and propped his head upwards.

Drake took a few steps back, his blade directly pointing at the German male. “You forgetting something?”

Yeager let out a light-hearted laugh.

“Oh, I never forget.”


 

After what seemed like an eternity, Estellise and Ioder finally reached the chamber halls.

Collecting her breath, Estellise released her hand from the latter and strolled forward. She then pressed a hand over her doorknob and pushed it open. Her eyes narrowed for any signs of anything suspicious. Once she realized that there was nothing, she quietly ushered her younger cousin to enter her domain.

When both of them walked inside, Estellise quickly twirled around to lock the door. She let out a sigh of relief.

So far, so good.

“Come here,” She mumbled softly as she walked over to her bedside table. “Take this,” And gave him the silver-tinted candelabra.

Ioder nodded and did what he was told. Afterward, she ushered him over to her large wardrobe. Opening its contents, she crouched down and threw her arms inside. “Come here a little closer,” She muttered, narrowing her eyes as she tried to make sense of the pit of darkness. When the light from the tiny flickering flames entered, she smiled and continued on her search.

“What are you looking for?” Ioder asked, peering over to see what she was doing.

“You’ll see,” She replied back before finally withdrawing two rapiers and two shields.

“What are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m preparing for battle,” Estellise stated matter-of-factly, rising up from the ground with a brown leathered belt and boots in her possession.

Unbuckling it, she proceeded to put the belt around her thin waist, refastening it and tapping it a few times for good measure. She then leaned over to remove her pink heels, clenching her teeth as she tore them off from her swollen bare feet and replacing them with a more comfortable wear. Taking her silver rapier, sheathed it through one of the open sockets. Afterward, she took the heart-shaped shield from the carpet flooring and raised it high.

“…Battle?”

“Indeed.” She replied, bending her knees slightly to take the other available rapier from the ground and presenting it toward him. “Here. For you.”

Ioder looked at her as if she grew two heads. “Estellise, you know more than anyone that I cannot handle weapons, much less a sword!”

“I know,” She agreed, her voice unwavering. “But we cannot take any chances. We cannot rely on Uncle, Captain Schwann, Master Drake nor the Imperial Forces all the time…” Once more, she offered him the available weapon. “And we cannot stand around and do nothing.”

Ioder glanced down at the rapier in her hands, then back at his cousin. Seafoam and emerald eyes meeting solace for a brief moment. Finally, he sighed. “Alright then.” And took the helm of the sword.

Seeing this, Estellise smiled. “Good,” And offered him the other shield. “Take this as well.”

Eyeing the strange heart design, Ioder gave her a sheepish grin. “Do you have anything else that might suit me more?”

“You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” She replied, rolling her eyes. “Besides, that’s the only one that’s been proven to be useful. The rest is purely made out of cardboard and wood.” And pushed the large material toward his chest.

Ioder lowered his head in dismay. “Estellise, you know I’m not strong when it comes to combat.”

“I’m not either.” She assured to him with a sweet smile. “But whether we like it or not, we still need to do this.”

“True words from our future Queen.” Ioder humored her.

Estellise glared. “Ioder, that’s not funny.” She warned him. “Anyway, there’s a secret staircase behind the painting over there—” She then gestured her chin over to the floral painting from across the room. “Head down the stairs and you’ll find yourself in the abandoned dungeons. From there, you should know where to go.”

Ioder turned to face the painting as well and nodded. “What about you?”

No response.

“Estellise?”

“…I shall remain here.” She said finally with a wistful smile. “And do what I can to help the others escape.”

Ioder’s eyes widened. “Are you mad?” He cried, completely taken aback by her declaration. “Why would you— “

A finger was pressed on his lips, silencing him from speaking any further.

“Someone’s coming…” Estellise pointed out, her eyes directed toward the moving shadows from under her doorstep. Removing her finger, she lifted her shield and drew out her silver rapier. Inhaling a deep breath, she proceeded to impersonate the same stance which Master Drake taught her. “You should go now.”

Out of nowhere, the door burst open, causing the tiny flames on the candelabra to die out in an instant.

Footsteps entered the darkened room, followed by a cynical laughter.

“What do we have here, eh?” The assassin wondered, licking his lips. He raked his red and yellow spiky hair, his eyes glowing with a predatory gleam as he registered the pair’s presence. “Fresh meat?”

“Ioder, flee now!” Estellise called out, startling the younger man standing next to her. “Take your weapons and go! Before it’s too late!”

Ioder opened his mouth, only to close it again. Instead, he nodded firmly in agreement. Placing the candelabra on the ground, he quickly grasped the rapier and shield in his possession and rushed off to the other side of the room.

“OH, HO, HO! AND WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING, AHH?”

As the male assassin chased after the latter, Estellise ran faster. At the sight of Ioder pushing the painting away and entering the hidden entry, she quickened her pace, outrunning the latter in time before he could dare touch her cousin.

She held her shield forward, evading the numerous slashes he kept propelling with his dagger-like blades. Whipping her head to the right, she glanced at her cousin who stared back at her through the tiny cracks of the painting.

“Go!” She mouthed to him in urgently.

Ioder nodded, veering his eyes downwards as he let go of his grip on the painting, allowing it to hide his presence from their sight.

Jumping back, Estellise groaned through ragged breath. She snuck a glance over to her right and a tiny smile appeared across her lips. Letting Ioder escape from here was all that matter to her. And now that he was out of the way, she could finally turn her full attention to the assassin before her.

“What’s your name?” She called out to him, sporting her rapier toward his general direction.

“Why does it matter, huh?” The assassin barked at her, getting into a battle stance. “We both know how this battle’s gonna end!” And just like that, he lunged right at her.

Once more, Estellise raised her shield at him.

One after another, the slashing of his daggers kept coming at her. She retreated a few steps back until she felt something hard behind her. Ignoring this, she remained still in her position, her shield still raised up as he continued to slash at her.

Two minutes passed the assassin finally withdrew back, though kept his eyes on her for any slight movements.

Estellise huffed, feeling her strength beginning to drain away. Biting her lower lip, she shook her head, refusing to give up. She needed to buy more time for Ioder to escape. Inhaling another deep breath, she stretched her arm forward, the tip of her rapier barely touching the assassin’s daggers.

“What’s wrong? Scared of me, huh?” The assassin provoked her. He threw his head back as he laughed mechanically.

Taking note of his unguarded stance, Estellise took this opportunity to draw out her rapier and counter. Alas, the assassin became aware of her intentions and evaded her attack…though in the process, a few strands of his reddish-yellow hair fell off as her blade managed to graze over the top of his head.

In an instant, his expression quickly returned to that of a predator.

“YOU BITCH!” He cried, whipping out his daggers and lunging at her once more. “UGHH! YOU’RE GONNA PAY!”

Again, Estellise raised her shield in defense only to feel her grip on the handle slipped away. Her eyes widened as the shield was seized by the assassin and was later thrown on her bed.

Refusing to give in, she held her grip on her rapier. “Don’t come any closer!”

Hearing this, the assassin smiled, his narrowed eyes staring at her dead in the eye.

As he kept advancing toward her, Estellise squirmed in her spot. Even so, she remained still in her spot. Closing her eyes shut, she inhaled a deep breath as she mentally prepared herself to die right then and there.

In response, the assassin laughed. Elevating his arms up high, he then thrust it downward. “NOW…DIE!”

Suddenly, a flicker of light exploded in the space between them.

The assassin howled, backing away as the sheer of light strengthened, invading and disrupting his sight.

Meanwhile, Estellise continued to brace herself, gripping her rapier close to her chest.

Once the light diminished within the entirety of the room, the assassin shook his head and forcedly opened his eyes.

In amidst of his blurry vision and the now darkened room, he could sense an otherworldly presence in his company.

Gritting his teeth, he proceeded to lung in and aim his daggers toward the pink-haired woman.

…Something metallic countered back.

But it wasn't coming from her.

Perplexed, the assassin narrowed his eyes.

And then he saw it.

“…WHAT THE HELL?”

Hearing the assassin’s words, Estellise frowned and slowly opened her eyes, propping her head upwards.

She blinked once, then twice.

And here he was—defending her from an incoming attack, his signature blade already unsheathed and making contact with the assassin’s daggers, which producing an ear-piercing, metallic sound and tiny, fiery sparks.

Long, shiny ink hair in a tight ponytail.

A knight suit as dark as midnight.

Estelle held her breath.

“…Yuri Lowell?”

Hearing his name, the dark-haired swordsman peered over his shoulder.

Ebony and seafoam eyes clashed.

His lips crinkled to form a bold smirk.

“You called?”


 

Chapter Text


 

For a moment, Estellise couldn’t speak nor moved as her mind became clouded with swirling circles.

“This isn’t happening…” She muttered lowly under her breath, completely shocked. Holding her rapier close to her chest, she lowered her head and shut her eyes. “I must be dreaming.” She convinced herself as she shook her head. “This isn’t…”

Cracking one eye open, she glanced over to her unexpected rescuer who bore a striking resemblance to the doll that Captain Oltorain gave to her.

“It’s not…real, is it?”

Her train of thought was interrupted midway as her ears picked up an unfamiliar male voice nearby.

“So, care to explain?”

Alarmed, Estellise motioned her head to the general direction of the sound. She squeaked, quite startled by the swordsman’s sudden appearance next to her.

Taking note of her lack of response, he turned to look at her. “Hey, you still with me?”

Estellise swallowed the lump in her throat. Inhaling a deep breath, she fixated her sights on him and nodded firmly.

In response, Yuri smirked. “Good,” And once more, averted his attention back to the staggering assassin. “Now, tell me what I missed.”

“There was an ambush,” Estelle began, gripping the helm of her rapier. “Uncle—err, that is, Sir Alexei Dinoia and Captain Schwann Oltorain are fighting off the other assassins in the ballroom as we speak. My cousin and I fled with Sir Drake but got separated along the way.” She switched her attention to the assassin in front of them. “And if you must know, the man you see here is— “

“Hold on a sec,” Yuri interrupted, cutting her sentence midway.

He stepped forward with his sword held out, deflecting an incoming attack that was supposedly directed at her. Seconds later, he swung his weapon outward, though was immediately repelled the same way as before.

“Anyway, what were you saying?” Yuri cried out of the blue. “That you and this man are together?”

Estellise blushed. “Excuse me?” She exclaimed, getting pissed by his misinterpretation. “I do not have any familiarity with him!”

Yuri rolled his eyes. “A simple ‘no’ would’ve sufficed,” He muttered lowly under his breath.

After performing a backflip, the assassin returned to his usual battle stance. Wielding his daggers, he gritted his teeth. “STOP TALKING AND MORE FIGHTING!”

Hearing this, the swordsman smirked. In a blink of an eye, he sprinted forward, exerting more force in their melee.

During their exchanges of deflecting, Yuri noticed an opening.

Taking advantage of it, he swiftly ducked down and swept his right leg over, successfully tripping the assassin in the process. Bumping his fist with his other, he angled his body over before ultimately thrusting his elbow straight into his abdomen.

Such brutal force prompted a spasm of pain to contort the assassin’s perspiring face. Breathing heavily, he dropped to the ground.

Reclaiming his sword, Yuri smirked. “You were saying?” He replied back, letting his respective blade rest on top of his shoulders.

Meanwhile, Estellise stood in disbelief.

In a few demonic swings, the swordsman already had the assassin on his knees in no less than five minutes. Her eyes traveled from his boots, his knightly tunic and his beautiful ponytail which gracefully swayed from side to side.

Sensing someone’s eyes on him, he turned.

Estellise held her breath.

His ebony eyes were like electric, exhilarating yet frightening.

The way how his hand seemed to twitch slightly and the crook of his lips curved somewhat downwards, it seems that the thrill of battle was not enough to quench his thirst.

This man in front of her, as Captain Oltorain described, was renowned for his vigilantism.

And if so, then…

Raising her rapier, she aimed toward him.

Yuri blinked at her sudden display of antagonism. “Woah, there!” He cried, startled by her action. Resting his hand on his hip, he sighed. “Look, I’m not here to fight with you.”

“Then what exactly are you here for?”

A deafening howl erupted, catching their attention.

Estellise slanted her head to get a better look at the assassin from a distance. She watched as a trickle of blood oozed out from the freshly cut wounds grazing on one of his cheeks.

Yuri, on the other hand, remained in his spot. His right hand slightly twitched the hem of his sword, his ebony eyes narrowing as he waited for any movements or reactions.

Collecting his breath, the assassin managed to pick himself up. Throwing his head back, he laughed mechanically.

“MAN, THIS IS GREAT!” He suddenly cried, lifting his daggers high as he basked in the glory of the moonlight filtering his entire form. “THIS IS REALLY, REALLY GREAT!”

Yuri clicked his tongue. “Hey,” He called over to the pink-haired female standing nearby. “The hell’s up with him?” And gestured his chin over to the deranged assassin.

Estellise bit her lower lip. Regardless of how much knowledge she attained over the course of her life, it wasn’t enough to explain the current state of the assassin. For the first time, she had no clear answer.

“You should run,” Yuri warned, startling her.

Once more, he flung his sword into the air and recovering it with his other hand. With his sights fixated on their opponent, he positioned himself in a battle stance. “He doesn’t look like he’s stopping.”

Following his direction, Estellise heaved in a deep breath. “No, let me help you,” She spoke up, taking a few steps and halting to stand beside him.

Never leaving his eyes on their opponent, Yuri raised an eyebrow. “Think you can keep up?”

With no hesitation, Estellise drew her rapier forward. “Watch me.”


 

The ticking heartbeat of the old grandfather clock echoed throughout the entire room. Seconds later, the screeching cries of metal against metal reverberated in all directions.

With all his might, Yuri shoved his sword at the assassin.

In response, the assassin swiftly dodged to the other side, barely escaping the sharp tip of his opponent’s blade.

Once more, the assassin growled and retreated a few steps back, keeping his distance away from the pair.

Wiping the drop of sweat from his chin, Yuri groaned inwardly. Fifteen minutes had long passed and no matter how many times he managed to deflect or attack, this idiot just keeps coming back on his feet.

As Yuri attempted to rise from the ground, a flash of pink and teal caught his attention. Blinking, he turned the other way.

Wielding her rapier, Estellise advanced forward to seize the fleeting opportunity. “Take this!” And slashed their opponent across his face.

Much to her surprise and satisfaction, she had managed to land a hit on him. Retreating a few steps back, she turned back to the swordsman who looked at her with a dumbfounded expression.

A swell of pride burst inside her chest. Before Estellise could open her mouth to say something, he beat her to it.

“WATCH OUT!”

Estellise hastily turned around.

Alas, it was too late.

Completely distracted, the assassin had darted toward her, the twin daggers present in his possession and ready to execute her at any moment.

Panicking, Estellise raised her rapier, only to have it thrown to the ground as similar to what happened with her shield. With no options left, she shaped her dominant hand into a fist and stretched it outward.

Unfortunately, her punch was captured by the assassin’s own hand. “AND JUST WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING, AHH?” He commented, licking his lips devilishly. Again, he burst into laughter. “IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT— “

Without any sort of warning whatsoever, Estellise smashed her head against his.

As a result, her unpredictable performance prompted the assassin to stumble backward, staggering him…and her as well.

Brushing aside her dizziness, Estellise seized this opportunity to reclaim her rapier from the floor. As she attempted to do so, her ears picked up the sound of rushing footsteps. She quickly looked over her shoulder. Her eyes widened. In spite of how successful her feat was, it only proved to be useless as the assassin had once again risen from the ground and was darting towards her.

“TAKE THIS, YOU WRETCH!” He cried at the top of his lungs, ready to lunge at her.

Out of the blue, an unknown fist was slammed right into his face.

The sound of bare knuckles touching skull made Estellise blink twice. As soon as the assassin landed on the ground, she paused momentarily still before finally letting out a sigh of relief when she realized that his chest was heaving up and down.

“Can you get up?”

The sound of Yuri’s voice snapped Estellise out of her trance. Whirling her head around, she was surprised to find him offering a hand toward her. She bit her bottom lip before shaking her head. “I can manage just fine, thank you,” And proceeded to stand up on her own. She then shifted her sights on the unconscious form laid on the carpet flooring. “What should we do with him?”

Yuri shrugged before smirking, “Leave him be,” Squatting down on his knees, he picked up her rapier and presented it to her.

Estellise nodded and reached out to retrieve her weapon.

“By the way, nice save back there,” He commented, catching her off-guard. “I was worried that I wasn’t gonna make it but…”

Estellise’s cheeks burned crimson. “Do not apologize,” She pointed out, averting her head elsewhere. “I did what must be done.” As she delivered those words, she snuck a quick glance at him.

Yuri tilted his head to the side, secretly eying her for a moment.

Realizing that they were both staring at each other, he cleared his throat and casually made his way over to the bedside table. He brought his hand down and took the scabbard that was meant for his respective sword.

“Mister Lowell?”

“Just Yuri.”

Estellise quickly nodded. “Right…uhh…Yuri.” She stammered, mentally cursing herself for tripping over her words. Taking a deep breath, she proceeded to bow her head in respect. “I would like to express my gratitude for saving me earlier. I wouldn’t be here now if it were not for you.”

Turning around, Yuri snorted. “Don’t thank me,” He replied with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I just happened to show up in time, is all.”

Estellise quirked an eyebrow. “How did you showed up?” She wondered while sheathing her rapier through the open socket of her belt.

“As I said, you called,” He explained matter-of-factly, motioning his head to face her. He then raised his hands above his head dramatically as he said his next sentence, “And now, here I am.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Does it have to be?”

Estellise nodded. “Well, of course, it should be. Everything must make sense,” She points out, approaching him. Taking her heart-shaped shield which she miraculously found on top of the comforters of her bed, she continued, “If it does not, then what is there to— “

Yuri raised a hand, stopping her. “Look, I’m not here to chit-chat,” He replied, stepping forward and inspecting the large expanse of her chamber. “We should get out of here as fast as possible before you-know-who wakes up from his sleep.”

Estellise shook her head. “I refuse to leave!” She protested, earning a weird look from the latter. “I still need to go out there and help everyone!”

Yuri turned with an amused expression. Resting a hand on his hip, he gave her a long, hard stare.

Estellise heaved a deep breath as she struggled to shoot a menacing glare at him.

As they both stood their ground, the distant cries and noises from the halls filled what was supposed to be silence in the room.

The more she heard them, the more her heart sank.

Finally, Yuri sighed.

“Why don’t you tell me what you want to do?” He began, breaking the ice. “And then let’s start from there.”

Estellise blinked. Were her ears deceiving her? Looking back up in hesitation, she mumbled softly, “…What did you say?”

“I’m giving you the power to choose,” Yuri explained simply. Crossing his arms over his chest, he gestured his chin toward a certain unconscious figure. “But you better hurry. I don’t think I wanna stay here too long to see this weirdo try to best me again.”

Estellise darted her focus at the assassin, then to the door, and finally at Yuri.

Collecting her gloved hands together, she veered her eyes to the carpet flooring.

She knew, deep down, how she desperately wanted to assist her people in need. At the same time, she longed to see her Uncle and Ioder once more. The thought of never seeing her dear ones again caused her to tremble in her spot.

As for everyone else, that was the obvious route for her to choose and nothing more. Serving her people and ascending the Zaphias throne as Queen…that was her predetermined fate, her calling. That was what she was supposed to do, right?

And yet…

Frowning, she closed her eyes.

If only Ioder was here. Unlike her, he was a natural when it comes to decision-making.

“So? You have an answer?”

Estellise lifted her chin upwards, her seafoam eyes clashing with its ebony counterpart.

At the sight of his encouraging grin, the weight on her shoulders was suddenly lifted off of her shoulders. And for the first time, she felt like she had a voice.

It was then that she knew what she had to do.

Clenching her gloved hands, she opened her mouth.

“I choose…to leave.”

Yuri’s eyes widened. “You sure about that?”

Thinking it over, Estellise nodded.

“I am,” She confirmed him. “If I stay here any longer, I would only endanger my loved ones. And if escaping is the only way to protect them from harm’s way..." She heaved a deep breath. "Then so be it.”

Yuri beamed, her words music to his ears.

“Then what are we waiting for?” He fixated his eyes from her and to the open balcony nearby. “Let’s get moving.” And strode forward.

As Estellise began to follow after him, he halted in his tracks.

"I forgot to ask," He began, peering over his shoulder. "What's your name?"

Estellise blinked. "Oh..." Smiling, she introduced herself as, "I am Estellise Sidos Heurassein, a direct descendant to House Heurassein, daughter to--"

"I asked for your name, not your whole backstory," Yuri cut her off, rolling his eyes. "Anyway, that's all I needed to know." And walked on. "Let's go, Estelle,"

Estellise slanted her head to the side. "...Estelle." She mouthed, letting the name roll off her tongue over and over to test it. "Estelle."

"Something wrong?" Yuri called out.

Hearing this, Estelle shook her head.

A hint of pink spread across her cheeks.

"No, it's nothing." And ran off to join him in the balcony.


A wink of reddish-gold pierced in-between the vast, open spaces of the colossal barriers overhead, eliminating the array of stars and the big moon that once adorned the night sky.

Soon, the sun manifested across the orange-pink streaked horizon—its transparent beams of light spilling unevenly in all different directions, touching and spawning from the open plains and woodland to the metropolitan city of Heliord.

Standing on top of a hill, though not too far a distance away from the renowned Heurassein manor stood a blonde young man. With his emerald eyes gazing at the sky, he dipped her head downwards to stare at the building that was once a home and prison to him and his cousin.

Discarding the rapier and shield at hand, he tore off the tattered shamrock coat and threw it over his shoulder. Sighing heavily, he seated himself at the base of the tree.

Gripping the strands of grass with his gloved fists, he dipped his head down as he recalled the events which led him to where he is now.

So many innocent deaths, so much tragedy in one night…

Closing his eyes, shut, he wrapped his arms around the box which contained his Doll.

Shortly after his miraculous escape through the secret staircase, he managed to sneak in through another exit which led to his own bedroom. The first thing that came to mind was to retrieve his Doll. With little to no concern of the many materialistic objects in his domain, he did just that and fled back to the staircase once more whereas what Estellise predicted, where the dungeons were.

From there, he had found another secret passageway which led him to the manor gardens, unscathed and unhurt.

As much as he would’ve liked to celebrate his victory from successfully escaping, another thought dawned to him.

Hot, salty tears flooded his cheeks and dripped off his chin, landing right onto the box resting on his lap. He opened his mouth to say something, anything but all that came out were deep, gut-wrenching sobs with minor hiccupping.

First, his parents.

Then his Uncle, Captain Oltorain and Sir Drake.

And now, Estellise…

One by one, everyone who he knew and loved were leaving him.

Ioder pressed an arm over his eyes in hopes that it would stop him from crying.

He was all alone now.

“I’m so useless…” He sobbed, tightening his grip on the box. “Why must Estellise prioritize my life over her own? Why couldn’t I…” He pursed his lips, lightly shaking his head. “Why couldn’t I be strong enough to fight back with her?”

“You are strong.”

Alarmed, Ioder immediately raised his head from the sound of an unusual voice. Coiling in his seat, he stretched out his hand to retrieve his shield next to him before quickly placing the material in front of him. “W-who’s there?”

No response.

“I-I’ll have you know that I am well-armed!” He went on while frantically searching around the area. “Which means I know how to attack and defend myself!”

“I’m not going to hurt you.”

That voice again.

This time, Ioder looked down at the box in his lap. Much to his surprise, the content inside the box was glowing blue. Curious, he lifted the lid.

A blast of warm light enveloped him.

Before he could register what was going on, a flicker of light entered his field of vision, blinding him in the process.

“Ahhh!” He cried, dropping the box as he shielded his entire face with his arm.

Soon, the light ceased to exist and all that remained was a shadow looming over him.

Rubbing his eyes a few times, Ioder removed his arm from his face and peered upwards.

His mouth hung open.

In front of him stood a beautiful man with slightly ruffled, golden hair and mesmerizing sky blue orbs. He was squatting down, with his armored knee planted on the ground while his right hand was set on the helm of his blade at his side.

Ioder felt his cheeks reddened as he failed to describe the beauty of such man.

Clearing his throat, the knight thrusts his steel-clad arm over his chest and opened his mouth to speak. Even his voice was gentle and warm, exactly as what he had imagined it to be.

“I am Flynn Scifo,” The man addressed himself, his lips curving upwards. “And from now on, I shall be serving under your liege.” And bowed his head in respect.

Hearing this, Ioder blinked in confusion. “Flynn Scifo…”

Strange. Where had he heard that name before?

And then it hit him.

Darting back at the box on his lap, his eyes widened.

It was empty.

“Is everything okay?”

Ioder quickly peered up once more. He gulped as he noticed how unbelievably close he was to the point of how the tip of their noses were about to touch.

“N-nothing,” He stammered and quickly whirled his head the other way. “Your name, Flynn Scifo…is that correct?”

In response, Flynn withdrew back and nodded firmly. “That’s right.” He confirmed, “And what’s yours?”

“…My name?”

“You are to be my master,” He continued, followed by a light chuckle. “As I am to be your servant. From this day, forth, I will do what I can in my power to protect you from danger in any means necessary. That is the sole purpose of our contract, after all.”

Ioder blinked once, then twice. “I’m not following you.”

Now it was Flynn’s turn to be confused. “Wait, so you don’t know?”

The sight of the latter’s confused expression caused him to frown deeply. “I see…” He mumbled, creasing his eyebrows. “Then this is quite unfortunate.”


 

Chapter Text


 

The long trek through the woodlands was quiet and unsettling.

Shifting her focus from the bright, morning horizon to her quiet male escort walking ahead of her, Estelle couldn’t help but tighten her grip on both of her gloved hands.

Since their grand escape by climbing down her balcony, the next course of action was to simply depart for the metropolitan city, Heliord.

And as the thought of stepping foot outside the manor for the very first time settled in, she knew that now was not the most appropriate time to openly express her joy.

Especially since she had barely made it out alive of what one might describe as a massacre.

And what’s more, her loved ones—Ioder, Uncle, Master Drake…how their fates remained uncertain as they are currently missing in action.

Bringing her joined hands close to her lips, she closed her eyes and muttered a silent prayer. “Please be safe…”

While chanting the same words over and over, she failed to take notice of Yuri who had abruptly stopped midway in his tracks. As a result, she found herself bumping into him in the process, face-first against his lean back.

Regaining her balance, she quickly resorted to bowing her head in respect. “My apologies!” She immediately cried out of habit. “I didn’t see you there.”

Yuri gazed at her in confusion.

“You don’t need to keep saying sorry all the time,” He advised her, resting his hand on his hip and sighing. “Anyway,” Lifting his arm high, he darted a finger toward the skyscrapers and nearby infrastructures a few distances away from where they stood. “Look, we’re already here.”

Estelle followed his line of vision and blinked. “…We are?” And looked up.

Without bothering to wait for her, Yuri strode forward.

Taking note of his absence beside her, she exclaimed, “Oh, wait!” And chased after him.

A few minutes passed until they finally made their way inside the downtown area of Heliord.

Looking around, Estelle smiled, her seafoam eyes twinkling as she took in every single moving and flashing image, person, bulletin board, sculpture, and colossal gothic structures all around her.

Such a hustle and bustle, overcrowded area—the smell of air pollution and gasoline by the passing vehicles over the highway, the many multi-spectrum of colors dazzling the public venues and the long, winding streets beyond her reach and as far as one can see—was truly a sight to behold.

Through the course of her childhood, Estelle had heard of personal accounts by the manor staff whom would often visit the urban environment. And now, the tall tales which she absorbed long ago have finally manifested into fruition before her.

“This is Heliord…” She spoke softly to herself, completely in awe by the refreshing scenery. Too distracted with her surroundings, she didn’t realize that she had mindlessly wandered into the crosswalk when the flashing red sign prohibited any individual from doing so. Before she knew it—

A screeching noise erupted on her right. Before she could comprehend what was going on, an unknown force suddenly pulled her back, causing her to stumble backward. The second she was forcedly moved out of the way, a large truck zoomed pass by, blasting its muffled roar like a maniac.

Estelle’s eyes widened twice its size, her heart pounding fast as she tried to process what just occurred.

“ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND?”

Blinking, Estelle turned to face an agitated looking Yuri. “I…”

“Don’t look at me like that!” He spat out, shooting her a glare. “What the hell were you thinking walking right into a busy street like that? You almost got yourself killed!”

Estelle bit her lower lip.

She had only stepped foot into the outside world for about a few hours and she was already making a mess of things. If not for Yuri, her life as she knew it would’ve been gone in a blink of an eye. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she once again uttered a soft-spoken apology.

Taking note of her trembling figure, Yuri brought his hand upwards to nurse his throbbing forehead. “Look,” He spoke up, looking elsewhere. “Why don’t you stay close to me, alright?”

No response.

“Hey, you still with me?”

Estelle slowly nodded her head in agreement.

Yuri frowned.

Seizing her wrist, he gently pulled her along to a nearby area where it was less overcrowded. When he was certain that they were alone, he leaned a bit closer to her ear.

“I’m guessing this is your first time in a big city, huh?” He asked her, making sure to lower his voice to prevent others from eavesdropping on them. Gaining a nod, he mustered a smile. “Then don’t worry about it. People make mistakes, especially when they get exposed to something that’s new for them.”

Again, she nodded.

“It’s terrifying but once you get the hang of it, you won’t be as afraid as you were just now,” Yuri advised, crossing his arms over his chest. “And next time, make sure to look out for the sign.”

Finally, Estelle peered up to face him. Her lips crinkled to form a tiny smile. “Thank you, Yuri,” She expressed, blinking away the tears that were threatening to spill from the corner of her eyes.

Yuri grinned. “That’s what I’m here for,” He replied, “Come on, we should get moving.” And walked ahead.

Again, Estelle nodded, this time with a bright smile on her face.

As they wandered along the streets, Yuri’s ears picked up a few mutterings here and there.

“Who do you think they are?”

“Are they cosplaying?”

“They look so pretty!”

While walking, he snuck a glance at Estelle’s slightly tattered expensive teal dress, then at the knightly garb he was donning.

Yuri sighed heavily. Judging by their choice of outfits alone, it’s no surprise that they were attracting unwanted attention from their unintended audience in the background.

From a bystander’s perspective, the pair literally looked as if they had warped themselves from another world. What’s more, the weapons in their possession further supported this notion. Looking around, he caught sight of a clothing store not too far away from them.

Angling his body to the right, Yuri quickened his pace with Estelle being pulled along for the ride.

Confused, Estelle asked, “Where are we going?”

Peeking over his shoulder, he smirked cheekily. “Shopping.”


 

The bell situated on top of the entrance resonated throughout the entire store, signaling customers.

Forcing a grin on her face, the cashier cried out, “Welcome to the— “

Before she could finish her sentence, her words died in her throat as she saw the odd-looking duo enter. Unfortunately, she didn't have the chance to question them as she was suddenly drawn by a pair of narrowed ebony eyes staring back at her. At the sight of the tall handsome man approaching her, the cashier shuffled nervously in her spot.

“Do you have a spare of clothes we can use?” Yuri asked her. “It’s an emergency.”

The cashier gulped, her cheeks somewhat burning crimson. “Uhh…” She stammered, resisting the urge to melt right then and there upon hearing the sound of his deep, low voice. “Yes! Yes, we do!” She then stretched her arm to her right, “Over there, you will find apparels suitable for a gentleman,” And directed to her opposing left. “And over here, clothes suitable for a lady.”

Hearing this, Yuri smiled. “Thanks,” Turning around, he called for his partner to come over.

The pink-haired female nearby quickly rushed over. Much to the cashier’s dismay, she was as beautifully radiant as her male counterpart.

“Yes, Yuri?”

“Go find some clothes that you’d like.”

Estelle quirked an eyebrow. “What about you?”

“Don’t worry about me,” He assured her, waving a dismissive hand. “I’ll stay here and haggle.”

Estelle tipped her head to the side, looking a bit saddened. “No, don’t do that,” Fixating her attention to the cashier behind the counter, she gave her a sincere smile. “Miss, please pardon him and let me handle all of our expenses.”

“Estelle,” Yuri stressed, “Didn’t you hear what I say? I said that I’ll handle— “

Estelle shook her head, refusing him to continue.

“I don’t have much to offer but,” She spoke up, brushing a strand of her pink hair over her ear as she proceeded to remove her large red earrings. Afterward, she settled with removing a golden necklace strapped around her exposed neck.

With the pieces of jewelry gathered together, she then placed them on the surface of the counter to present it to the cashier. “Here. And if that’s isn’t enough,” She took a step back and twirled her teal dress around. “Though it’s a bit dirty, with a few minor fixings, the dress could still be used.” Looking up once more, she asked, “Please, take them as payment on behalf of the clothes we are about to purchase.”

The cashier gazed downward at the jewelry, her expression indescribable as she attempted to speculate them. “How much value are they worth?”

“Enough to buy a house, I believe,” Estelle stated without hesitation, earning baffled looks from the two.

And that was all it took for the cashier to immediately agree in return.

Smiling, Estelle turned to glance at Yuri who stared back at her in wonder.

“You don’t really have to do this,” He pointed out.

Estelle simply smiled. “I know,” She affirmed, putting her hands behind her back, “But you’ve already done so much for me. I believe it’s best that I return the favor.” And just like that, she twisted her heel and walked away. “If you need me, I’ll be in the women section.”

As he watched her retreating form disappear into the sea of clothes, a smile materialized on Yuri’s lips in regards to her recent feat.

Ignoring the cashier’s lingering stare on him, he casually made his way over to the other section of the store and began browsing.


 

Outside Heliord was a different story.

Choosing not to enter the city in fear that they might be spotted, Ioder and Flynn made the decision to head further north. Keeping pace with each other, they spent their time conversing while strolling within the deep forest. With the golden sunrays filtering through the small patches of the trees looming over them, their seemingly long walk became much easier to bear.

“Let me get this straight,” Ioder began, his eyebrows furrowed. “The contract states that as a champion, you are sworn to protect those who awaken you. Is that correct?”

Flynn nodded. “To live, serve and swore an oath to our master—our undying loyalty is our true purpose, thus entitling us with the status of a champion.” He joined in, directing his statement to the blonde noble walking beside him. “Under certain circumstances, we were made into Dolls, a phase which we call our ‘sleep mode’ while we wait to be summoned by our masters. Once awakened, we are to be eternally bound by our Master. We don’t have the option to choose who we serve under nor do they have the power to willingly choose their servant as well. Unless a master and servant are predestined to meet, the assortment among them is random.”

“Did you have a master before me?” Ioder pressed on, getting interested.

“Not that I’m aware of,” Flynn answered without hesitation. “You might be my first.”

Catching on to what he meant, Ioder blushed. “I see…” Clearing his throat, he proceeded to ask another question. “And what happens to a champion who betrays their master?”

“Good question,” Flynn admitted, “I’ve personally never experienced it. All I know is that the consequences of betrayal are rather limited. However, that doesn’t mean that they can easily be off the hook.” A pause. “Anything else?”

Ioder nodded. “Do all champions possess weapons?”

“That, I can answer.” Twisting his body slightly to the left, he placed his hand on the tilt of his decorative sword which was situated comfortingly on his right side. “Every champion is associated with a particular kind of weaponry. In my case, it is my White Knight Sword.” On cue, he gestured his chin over to his respective weapon. “This sword as well as other weapons are special and are to be exclusively used by their wielder.”

“Why is that?”

Flynn drew in a measured breath. “The weapons harness an ability known as a Mystic Arte,” He began to explain, averting his main concentration on the road ahead. “They are hidden, powerful techniques that only champions can activate. Performed under specific conditions, once they are set off, they have the capability to decimate hundreds, even thousands of lives alone with a multitude of attacks.” As he declared these words, he motioned his head to gaze at Ioder.

“However, there are ways to easily trigger it.” He went on, “If a champion becomes overwhelmed with their emotions, he or she can unconsciously activate their Mystic Arte on a whim.” His lips formed in a straight line. “In a sense, we champions are similar to that as a ticking bomb.”

Ioder frowned. “You don’t seem like one to me.”

Hearing this, Flynn emitted a low chuckle. “So, it would seem…” He trailed off, his voice becoming soft. “Though I can’t guarantee whether it may happen or not if I do end up activating my Mystic Arte,” Once more, he looked at the latter dead in the eye. “Promise me that you’ll run.”

Sensing the desperation in his voice, Ioder firmly nodded.

Suddenly, a thought occurred to him.

“Master, I— “

“Address me by my first name,” Ioder instructed him, “And I’ll call you with yours as well.”

Flattered by his words, Flynn smiled. “Certainly…Ioder.”

Cracking a pleasant smile, Ioder urged him to continue.

“Yes,” Flynn affirmed, “Forgive me, but I’ve failed to explain to you regarding our reasons.”

“Reasons?”

Again, Flynn nodded. “In order to be a champion, we must have a desire to make a wish and have it be fulfilled.”

Curious to know more, Ioder asked, “What’s your reason?”

“This is…well, going to sound a bit ludicrous.” Flynn mumbled, shifting his feet awkwardly. “But my wish is to reclaim my honor as a knight.”

Surprised by his answer, Ioder muttered a low, “Oh?”

“It’s ridiculous, I know,” Flynn confessed, refusing to meet eye contact, “You know what? I think it’s best if we don’t talk about it.” Laughing nervously, he stepped forth. “Anyway, let’s focus on getting out of this forest, okay?” Before he could take another step, something held him back. Confused, he turned around. “Ioder?”

In return, the blonde noble gave him an assuring grin. “I don’t think it’s embarrassing. I personally find it admirable of you to want to reclaim what’s yours.” He replied, before adding under his breath, “That's something which I lack.”

Concerned, Flynn called out his name.

“I’m fine, thank you,” Ioder reassured him, forcing a grin.

Flynn silently nodded, the look on his face remains a bit uncertain. “Well? Any more questions?”

Ioder frowned, thinking it over. “Actually…yes, just one more.” He confirmed, his expression filled with concern. “Are you familiar with the other champions?”

Flynn raised an eyebrow. “Yes, actually.”

Without hesitation, Ioder spoke up, “Then do you, by any chance, heard of the name ‘Yuri Lowell’?”

All of a sudden, the blonde knight stiffened in place, his shocked face looking as if he had seen a ghost. “How…do you know that name?”

“My cousin, Estellise, was given a Doll bearing the same name,” Ioder explained, grazing the sharp tip of his rapier along the rim of his metallic shield. “As I recall, she happened to receive him on the same night as I received you.” He sheepishly snickered. “I was wondering if you may know who he is.”

Gulping, Flynn bobbed his head, his expression pensive.

“Unfortunately, I do.” He admitted, lowering his head. “I do know that man.” Turning to face the latter once more, he tightened his grip on the helm of his blade. “If what you say is true, about your cousin being the one to possess such a doll, then I’m afraid her safety is in jeopardy.”

Hearing this, Ioder stared at him with widened eyes. “Why would you say such a thing?” He wondered, completely in shock. Angered by his words, Ioder proceeded to direct his rapier toward the other male. “Don’t you dare imply that she’s already dead!”

“Please, you misunderstood my words,” Flynn assured with his facial features hardening. “There’s no doubt in my mind that your cousin is still alive. It’s of the matter on whether or not she managed to have awakened him.” At the thought of his childhood friend, he clenched his teeth.

“Yuri Lowell…” He spat out the name as if it were poison to him. “is nothing but a lowly scum, a man who must be famed for the countless bodies he’s already dealt with his bloodied hands.”

His next set of words startled Ioder which only added more fuel to the existing fire.

“If your cousin isn’t careful, she could be next on his hit list.”


 

White clouds lazily drifted in the clear afternoon sky. Down below, the busy, lively façade of metropolitan Heliord was like of an illness—easily spread and contagious as its welcoming atmosphere beguiled the citizens and pedestrians swarming about.

Near the public square was a large train station.

Shortly after their brief exchange of clothes, it became rather apparent that they couldn’t stay in the city for too long. Especially upon stumbling across a large building as they were crossing the street which showed a large screen depicting the massacre that occurred last night.

While thousands of eyes watched as the news of the Heurassein manor were described in full detail along with blurry pictures of the dead bodies, they took this as a sign that they needed to get out of here as fast as possible and away from prying eyes.

Now that the public is fully aware of the tragedy that happened, this meant that it would become more difficult to hide, especially when there are people out there searching for a certain pink-haired female with the intention to murder her right then and there.

Settling herself on her seat, Estelle lowered her hoodie further until it touched the tip of her nose. With that out of the way, she then took this opportunity to scout the area, drinking in the many sights, smells, and noises all around her.

Raising her chin upwards, she sniffed the open air—her nostrils flaring as she suddenly whiffed the smell of petroleum overhead. Realizing this, she immediately covered her nose with her now bare hands and squeaked.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,”

Directing her focus to the male figure sitting next to her, she bit her lower lip. Despite not wearing the knightly tunic and putting up his hair in a ponytail, Yuri remained dashing as ever. She looked down at her attire which she exchanged from an expensive teal dress to a casual-looking wear—cotton candy sweater with a rather dull-looking gray sports jacket over it, a pink sailor skirt which stretched down to her knees and brown leathered boots.

From the corner of her eye, Estelle unconsciously glanced at her male companion and his change of attire. Half-zipped sweater over a gray plaid shirt, a dark long jacket, black pants, and gray leathered boots. Without his ponytail, Estelle was able to see just how long and beautiful his dark mane was.

Yuri caught her by the act and smirked. “Like what you see?”

Estelle blinked. “No!” She suddenly cried, her cheeks burning red. She shut her eyes closed as she mentally cursed herself to no end as she had once again, stuttered over her speech. “I mean…no, that’s not what I— “

Luckily, her words got cut off by the shrieking noises of an incoming metro train parking its way next to their respective lane.

Craning his neck upwards, Yuri silently read the sign in search for their train. Above their heads read three words in bold capitalized letters—

NOW BOARDING: DAHNGREST

“That’s us,” Yuri spoke up, rising from his seat and fishing out the ticket they’ve purchased. “Come on, let’s get going,”

Right away, Estelle rose as well and followed after him.

As they entered through the sliding doors of the train cart, they were greeted with a mass of people standing in all directions.

“Stay close,” Yuri warned the latter before forcing himself through the crowd. After much pushing and shoving, the pair eventually made it inside…only to find themselves with little to no personal space. As they attempted to move, they were left with nowhere else to turn to.

Yuri groaned. “Anddd we’re stuck…” Dipping his head downwards, he didn’t seem at all surprised by how frightened Estelle looked. Hoping to ease her worry, he wriggled his right arm from his side and carefully snaked it behind her.

Alarmed by this sudden touch, Estelle stiffened, not knowing what to do. As she tried to inch her hand over to the helm of her rapier, she was immediately reassured by a familiar voice in her ear.

“Relax, it’s just me,” Yuri whispered softly.

Catching on to this, Estelle slowly eased her shoulders, though made sure to keep her guard on high alert for anyone else who would dare lay a hand on her.

Once more, there was a bump on the railing.

Squeaking, Estelle unknowingly buried her face deeper against Yuri’s chest. Without realizing, she had unintentionally whiffed up his natural scent.

The smell of lavender and the steady beating of his heart was enough to make her head spin.

And slowly but surely, she could feel herself slipping away from unconsciousness…


 

After a few more stops, the once crowded train eventually dwindled and as a result, opened for more seats to be available to those who remained standing.

From the corner of his eye, Yuri spotted an empty section and proceeded to nudge Estelle.

No response.

“Estelle?”

Looking down, he was surprised to find her fast asleep.

Sighing, he wrapped his other arm over her back before lifting her up and settling her down on the empty seat. As he carefully placed her down, his eyes widened as her head naturally moved the other way and was instead, resting against a stranger’s shoulder.

Yuri clicked his tongue.

“Oh, dear!”

The sound of a sultry, feminine voice caused him to blink twice. Turning around, he eyed the woman who Estelle was currently using as a pillow. Seating himself down next to his partner, he noticed the way how the woman was eerily staring at Estelle.

Sensing this, Yuri unconsciously slid his hand over to his scabbarded sword which hung along the side of his belt.

Looking back up, he was startled to discover that the suspicious woman was now staring at him. With a faint smile, she pressed a finger over to her lips. “If you do that, you’ll wake her,” She warned him, followed by a wink.

After consideration, Yuri sighed and removed his hand from his weapon. As he laid his back against the seat, the woman took this opportunity to gently poke the sleeping female on the cheek.

Crinkling her nose, Estelle moaned and shifted her head from right to left, successfully landing the side of her head next to Yuri’s respective shoulder.

“You have a very cute girlfriend,” The woman cooed, smiling pleasantly.

Yuri opened his mouth to protest, but before he could answer, the woman beat him to it.

“Better keep an eye on her,” She interrupted him, her facial features softening as she delivered those words. “Before it’s too late.” Once she finished her sentence, the train gradually slowed down. Standing up, she brushed off the invisible dirt off of her blue jeans and strode off.

All Yuri could do was watch as the mysterious woman sauntered through the exit which leads to the next train cart, though not before turning back to emit another smile. Unlike the first, this one was rather melancholic.

Once she left the area, Yuri finally exhaled a deep breath which he held for too long.

Glancing over to his sleeping partner, he frowned deeply.

Unless she knew of his hidden agenda, time will only tell.


 

Chapter Text

The sunny, bright afternoon skies ceased to exist, transitioning into a silky and soothing collision of reds and yellows—the beginning of dusk. With the sun gradually descending to its slumber, the clouds parted away and venture elsewhere, and in their place, spawned the birth of tiny stars along with the reflection of the full moon.

A pair of emerald eyes stared at the gorgeous horizon with genuine wonder.

“Ioder.”

Hearing his name, the blonde noble fixed his attention to his retainer sitting across from him.

“Something on your mind?” Flynn asked, concerned.

Ioder thought for a moment before shaking his head. “Not at all,” He replied, followed shortly with a pleasant smile.

Registering his words, Flynn nodded. “…I see.” And then stood up, alarming the latter.

“Where are you going?”

Flynn peered over his shoulder. “Out for a hunt,” He explained, “You know, for our dinner.” And began walking away.

“Flynn, wait!” Ioder called out, getting on his feet. “Let me accompany you,” Before he could take a step forward, he saw the knight raise his gloved hand outward, prompting him to freeze in place.

“It’s alright,” Flynn assured him, giving him a soft smile. “Stay here and get some rest. I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

Registering his words, Ioder meekly nodded, muttering a soft, “If you say so…” under his breath and sat back down on the grass. Lifting his chin up, he gazed at the knight’s retreating figure.

From the beautiful, dark blue and white cape which swayed gently prior to his slow-paced movement, to his armored back and to his White Knight sword situated on his right hip…with his unkempt, sun-kissed hair and sky-blue eyes, Flynn Scifo was the perfect picture of a gentleman.

And for that, he couldn’t help but feel honored to have him as a retainer.

Sighing, Ioder leaned back until he felt the soft grass prickling him from behind. Narrowing his eyes, he focused his concentration on his surroundings.

A smile appeared on his face as a rush of excitement surged through him.

The peaceful ambiance of the forest—the constant chirping of crickets, the whistling howls of the passing gust of winds, the flickering sparks of the flame in front of him, and the artificial lights from the stars…everything about it, in general, was indescribable.

Who cares if the soles of his feet were covered in blisters from walking so much?

Or if his golden hair was in disarray?

None of it seemed to matter anymore—now that he was outside and was able to roam, to feel, touch, smell, and experience the things he never got a chance to, casting aside all of the rules and obligations of what’s expected of a noble and just be himself…

“Estellise would definitely lose her mind over this…”

Realizing what he had said, his expression hardened. In a matter of seconds, the blissful sensation he was feeling turned sour.

And just like that, the recollection of last night, of the massacre came flooding in.

Ioder tightened his hands, shaping them into fists.

No matter how hard he tried to bury or disregard them, he couldn’t seem to bring himself to do so. Choosing to let go of these memories would also mean having to come into terms that his Uncle Alexei, Captain Schwann, Master Drake…along with the royal butlers, maids, and guards have all fallen to their demise.

And as for his dear cousin, he knew in the bottom of his heart, that she was alive and well. But not alone.

The doll, or rather, the champion she was currently in possession of—Yuri Lowell, might be accompanying her in her travels.

Reflecting back to what Flynn had told him—if their master’s danger, then it is the duty of the servant, to protect them with their life.

However, in Ioder’s case, Flynn miraculously appeared when he was at a loss for guidance and support. Could it be possible that he had somehow sensed a disturbance in the area?

If his theory proved to be correct, then the chances of Yuri showing up to aid his cousin was a likely possibility.

The thought of his cousin paired up and wandering around with an infamous criminal made him frown.

Turning around, setting his sights on the set of weapons beside him.

Ioder closed his eyes as he began to recall the fleeting moment he had with his cousin before departing with her.

“You know more than anyone that I cannot handle weapons, much less a sword!”

“I know, but we cannot take any chances. We cannot rely on Uncle, Captain Schwann, Master Drake nor the Imperial Forces all the time…” Once more, she offered him the weapon. “And we cannot stand around and do nothing.”

Ioder heaved a deep breath.

“Estellise, you know I’m not strong when it comes to combat.”

“I’m not either.” She assured him with a sweet smile. “But whether we like it or not, we still need to do this.”

…There was no doubt that Estellise was absolutely right.

As a member of House Heurassein, their duty was to protect their people, their country.

Every single life out there would be depending on him and his cousin to guide them and pave a path for the impending future…

Ioder narrowed his eyes, tightening the grip of his whitened fists.

With Uncle Alexei and Captain Schwann no longer here to give him orders, running away and being his cowardly self was no longer an option for him to take.

The answer was clear and simple—he must fight.

And if his valiant cousin could do it, then…

“I’m back.”

Ioder blinked, losing his train of thought as he turned around.

“And I brought dinner,” With a winning smile, he presented the corpses of two medium-sized bird creatures forward, with one gripped on his right hand and another on his left. “With this, there’ll be enough provisions to last us for two whole days.”

Ioder nodded, listening in silence before shifting his focus on the rapier and shield once more.

“Ioder?” Flynn spoke up, concern etched in his tone of voice. “Is everything alright?”

The blonde noble stayed quiet, causing the latter to get concern.

“Flynn,” Ioder addressed the knight, breaking the silence, “I have a request.”

Registering his words, Flynn cracked a smile. “Sure,” He replied, approaching the bonfire to prepare their meal. “What is it?” As he propped his head upwards, he was surprised to find his master in possession of the sharp-pointed sword.

Rising to his feet, with both hands gripping around the handle of the rapier, Ioder locked eyes with the knight.

“Flynn Scifo…” He began, his emerald green eyes renewed with vigor, “Teach me the way of the sword.”


 

“Mhm…”

Sitting upright, Estelle brought a hand over her face, closing her eyes and rubbing them out of habit.

“Hey, you’re awake,”

Recognizing the voice, she motioned her head to the right. Upon realizing how close she was to the dark-haired man, she quickly moved away from him until her back was pressed against the cold, solid texture of wood. As she lowered her head in shame, her ears picked up the sound of a low chuckle.

Curious, she glanced the other way and blushed when she was greeted with the sight of Yuri looking back at her with a teasing grin.

“What’s with you?” He asked, laughing away, “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”

Estelle bit her lower lip, veering her eyes to gaze at her feet.

Catching sight of this, Yuri reduced his laughter to a simple smile. “You know I’m just joking,” He pointed out, waving his hand flippantly. “No need to take it seriously,”

“I know…” Estelle muttered lowly under her breath. Feeling his eyes on her, she cleared her throat. “Anyway,” She began, straightening her posture and redirecting her head to face him. “Where are we?”

“Still on the train,” Yuri answered, crossing his arms over his chest. He then motioned his head to the window behind him, his ebony eyes narrowing as he tried to decipher what was outside of the train. “…Nothing but trees and mountains over here,”

Estelle nodded as she, too seized the opportunity to look around, this time within the confinements of the train cart.

A smile graced her lips as she observed the people—mothers ushering their children to sit still, women actively chatting with one another, the elderly laughing at each other’s jokes, men and women in suits looking exhausted after a long, tiring day at work—and despite not knowing them on a personal level, she couldn’t help but feel content to see them enjoying the simple pleasures of life.

Binding her hands together, she gripped them.

These people were her people, and they must be protected at all costs.

As her eyes continued to wander in search for what else the train cart had to offer, she didn’t seem to catch the dark-haired man quietly staring at her.

All of a sudden, the train’s engines screeched to a halt.

“AHHH!”

Such a heavy impact caused a wave of panic and hysteria as the majority of its passengers, Estelle included, to forcibly fall back from their seats, colliding against each other, reaching out and assisting one another while some dropped to the floor.

“Estelle!” Yuri cried, grabbing her by the wrist before she descended to the ground. Once he got a hold of her, he gently situated her back on her seat. He took notice of her trembling form and frowned deeply. “Hey, you still with me?”

“I-I am,” She stammered, still shaken by what just occurred, “But what was that?”

On cue, a loud buzzing noise resonated throughout the train cart, which alerted all eyes and ears to avert their full attention to the screen monitors located on the far left and right corners of the train cart.

“Attention all passengers,” The announcer’s voice boomed through the sound speakers, “We regret to inform you that the train is temporarily down.”

Shouts of “are you kidding me?” and “we’re stuck here?” filled the air.

“Fear not,” The announced pressed on, the grave tone of his voice becoming somewhat light-hearted, along with a trace of an accent. “As our staff would do what they can to get the train up and running.”

Hearing this, Estelle’s eyes slowly widened.

That voice…

“For now, stay in your seats.” The announced emitted a light chuckle, “Thank you for riding with us!”

And just like that, the screen monitor turned off.

Estelle stared at the dark, empty screen in horror. “No…”

Flashes of last night resurfaced.

The shattering of glass.

Multiple dead bodies.

And blood.

Lots of it.

In a desperate motion, Estelle quickly turned to look at her partner, “Yuri!” She exclaimed, “We must evacuate these people!”

“What are you talking about?” He asked, confused.

“The one who spoke earlier…” She trailed off, her expression hardening. “I know him. He’s one of the people involved in the infiltration of the manor.” Standing up from her seat, she quickly headed for the exit located closest to them. “I guarantee that he’s the one hijacking the train.”

An unknown force pulled her back, causing her to pause in her tracks. Turning around, anxious seafoam irises clashing with ebony.

“What are you…doing?” She exclaimed, struggling to break free of his tight grip, “Let…go of me!”

Willing himself not to shout at her, Yuri clenched his teeth. “Don’t run off on your own,” He retorted back, “One wrong move and it’s over for you, me and these people on board.”

Estelle bit her lower lip as she dipped her head, listening intently to his words.

Silence ensued in the space between them.

Removing his hold on her, he planted his right hand on his hip and sighed. “Estelle,” Yuri began, sounding calm and composed. “What do you want to do?”

Here he was—granting her the ability to make a decision.

“I…” She trailed off, only to close her mouth again as she dwelled in her thoughts. She then shifted her focus on the people behind him—the very same people, her people whom she had sworn a few minutes ago whom she pledged to save and protect from harm.

Bringing her hand close to her chest, she inhaled a deep breath.

Once more, she peered up to face him. “I…want to help these people,” She expressed openly.

“Are you sure of this?” He pressed on.

Estelle nodded firmly. “Absolutely.”

Yuri stood there for a moment. Slowly, his lips curved upwards to form a lop-sided grin.

A blast exploded, causing the frost-tinted glass windows to abruptly shatter and the train cart to rock back and forth.

Yuri brought his arms forward, pinning the pink-haired woman against the wall while using himself as a shield to protect her from the incoming glass shards raining down on them from all directions.

Before they could register what happened, another blast occurred—a flurry of shock waves bounced throughout the confined area of the train cart, tossing and turning the people from their seats until they managed to hit solid ground.

Once more, Yuri braced himself while keeping his stance, clenching his teeth as one of the glass pieces managed to sink into his back. He lowered his gaze, a bit relieved that the female huddled in front of him remained unscathed.

Although blaring sounds of the blast eventually ceased to an end, it welcomed a new wave of hysteria throughout the area as the people hurried for the rear and front of the train cart to exit.

“I’m gonna go and find out what’s been causing those blasts,” Yuri concluded, lowering his hands from the wall and taking a step back. “You go on ahead and take care of these people.”

Estelle nodded. “Okay,” And began making her way toward the source of the chaos.

As he watched her leave his side, Yuri rushed for the nearby exit.

“Yuri.”

Stopping in his steps, the dark-haired man peered over his shoulder.

“Stay safe.”

His lips crinkled to form a bold smirk. “You too,” And then left for the next train cart.


 

Estelle heaved a deep breath.

Shifting her focus on the hysterical crowd in front of her, she furrowed her eyebrows.

“You can do this,” She muttered lowly under her breath.

Wasting no time, she headed straight for the center of it all. Due to the lack of space within the train cart, it was no surprise that the majority of the passengers were visibly pushing and shoving pass each other, hustling and bustling like mad as if caught in rush hour traffic.

Pushing herself through the sea of people, Estelle managed to find a seat and stand on top of it.

“Everyone!” She exclaimed, frantically waving her arms up and down in hopes to gain their attention, “Please listen to me! If you want to evacuate, by all means, follow me!”

Much to her surprise, most of the people heard her declaration and looked up, their once anguished and distraught expression becoming hopeful as they turned to await her command.

Jumping down from the seat, Estelle unsheathed her rapier from the socket of her belt before making her way through the parade of a hundred faces. While passing through the mass of crowd, she received an abundance of taps on her shoulder and back for encouragement and support.

Such small gestures were enough to make her feel motivated and driven to take charge.

Once she was at the front of the crowd, she twisted her body around, urged them to follow her before advancing toward the rear exit of the train cart.

Thrusting the door open, she turned around and entered without hesitation. With her rapier at hand, she quickly darted inside the new train cart, remaining collected as she encountered a cluster of more people.

Upon recognizing her presence, their eyes lit up with hope and joy.

Seconds later, she was welcomed with a tremendous amount of acclamations and applause.

Shaking her head, Estelle raised her hand high, silencing them.

“I am here to help you all evacuate,” She announced while beckoning the other people from her respective train cart to move forward and merge with the group she was currently delivering the speech to. “This train is being hijacked as we speak. To ensure a safe escape, I would need all of you to cooperate with me.”

Again, she was met with a wave of overwhelming support.

Before Estelle could continue further, a new voice beat her to the punch.

“I suggest you take them to the freight cars,” The voice said behind her, unmistakably female, “The blasts won’t reach them there.”

Estelle glanced over her shoulder, her eyebrows creased she tried to pinpoint the owner of the voice in the midst of the crowd. Shaking her head, she cleared her throat and diverted her fixation to the passengers once more.

She pointed the tip of her rapier toward her right, directing their focus on the rear end of the train cart they were currently in.

“Head to the fright cars,” She raised her voice, repeating what the voice had said earlier. “The blasts won’t reach you from there. And if you find more passengers, take them with you as well!”

Right away, the crowd headed off for the next train cart, doing exactly what she abided them to do. As the mass of people fled the confined space, Estelle dropped her arm to lower her rapier, heaving an exasperated sigh. Placing her hand over her thumping heart, she softly murmured a silent prayer in hopes that the passengers would reach their destination safe and sound.

“You’re not going with them?”

Estelle flinched in her spot. She turned around to find a short female figure standing not too far away from her—a brown-haired teenager wearing a black graffiti shirt over a red bomber jacket, ripped shorts which stretched down to her knees—one long red sock accentuated with yellow lines while the opposing right was shorter and exposed much of her fair skin, accompanied with red-themed sneakers.

“May I ask what’s your name?” Estelle replied back, approaching her.

“Rita Mordio,” The teenager stated, closing the green book she held in her right hand with a soft thud. “And you?”

“Estellise,” The pink-haired woman introduced herself before quickly adding in, “Though I much prefer being called Estelle.”

“Uh-huh…” Rita muttered, eyeing her from head to toe. “Well, whatever floats your boat,” She then pulled the rims of her goggles a bit downwards, revealing a pair of basil green eyes. “So, are you gonna answer or not?”

Estelle blinked. “Pardon?”

“Why didn’t you go with them when you had the chance?” Rita wondered, wearing a displeasing expression.

Estelle pursed her lips. “Am I supposed to?”

Rita snorted. “Clearly, if you don’t wanna die,” She retorted, crossing her arms.

“Then let me ask you,” Estelle started, taking a step forward. “Why are you so confident to say that the blasts won’t strike the rear train carts?”

Rolling her eyes, Rita simply answered with, “Because I’m the one who detonated them.”

Estelle’s jaw dropped open.

“Relax, I wasn’t targeting the passengers,” Rita explained to her, “It was to lure out the ones responsible for hijacking the train.”

“Then those blasts…”

“Smoke-free bombs,” Rita went on, “with a few modifications.”

A soft buzzing noise erupted, causing the pink-haired woman to freeze on her spot.

Unfazed by this, the short brunette brought her hand to the earpiece situated on her left ear, connecting her to the other person on the line.

“…Uh-huh,” She replied nonchalantly, glancing elsewhere. “…Affirmative. Proceeding to Phase Two.” Clicking the device, she tucked her green book underneath her left arm and strode off.

“Rita! Wait!” Estelle cried, chasing after her.

Groaning, the teenager whirled her head to face the pink-haired woman. “What is it now?”

“May I ask, where are you headed off to?”

“The main engine room,”

Estelle nodded. “Let me come with you then,” She insisted, sheathing her rapier back on its socket.

Rita shot her a weird look. “Tell me you’re pulling my leg…” She muttered lowly, only to jolt slightly when the familiar buzzing noise rang from her left ear.

“I know! I heard you the first time!” She suddenly cried, tapping the button on her earpiece and facing the woman in front of her. “Come on, let’s go!”

Again, Estelle nodded. “Lead the way.”


 

Forcing his legs to run, Yuri advanced onward.

Everywhere he looked, there was mayhem.

The excessive screams and outburst around him made him tighten his hold on his scabbard. Though it was difficult for him to ignore the frantic passengers, all he could do was trust in Estelle and focus on his own task at hand.

By the time he entered the third train cart, he looked around once more. From the corner of his eye, he noticed a set of ladders leading up to the roof. He wasted no time and climbed on the steps, keeping his ebony eyes trained forward.

Yuri extended his arm out, twisting the red bar in front of him a few times before thrusting the emergency portal open. Popping his head out, he was suddenly slapped by the intense force by the passing wind.

Wriggling himself out of the portal, along with his scabbard at hand, he rose to his feet and surveyed his surroundings.

Hearing a sound from the back of his ear, he immediately sprang into action. Twisting his heel, he drew out his signature blade—Second Star, and swung it, deflecting an incoming attack.

Lifting his chin, he saw them—a group of hooded figures with the upper part of their faces concealed with masks…

Bloody red eyes…

At the sight of his opponents, Yuri blew out a whistle.

“Nobody mentioned these guys to me…” He murmured to himself, his lips crinkling to form a bold smirk. “Guess I’ll improvise!” And charged toward them, his sword at the ready.

In response, the red-eyed enemies came fast-approaching, their long, red claws stretched out to attack. As the first one lunged at him, Yuri quickly dodged out of the way and swung his blade, successfully landing a hit.

Whirling his head, he was greeted with another red-eyed enemy. Yuri raised his sword, blocking their assault and threw a counterattack in retaliation. Afterward, he thrust his elbow against their chest, followed by a punch directly on the face.

With his blade, he shoved other incoming red-eyed figures away and jumped back. Thrusting his weapon up high while it spun around, he successfully caught it again, reclaiming it once more.

His ebony eyes veered at a few of the red-eyed figures left standing.

His facial features clenched in concentration. Bringing his hand out, Yuri gestured them to come over, taunting them. His smirk lengthened as they sprinted forth.

“Hah!” Yuri growled, rapidly swinging his blade, along with a few kicks and punches here and there. Minutes passed and the number of the red-eyed figures dwindled to a minimum.

Placing his blade on his shoulder, Yuri smiled as he marveled at the dogpile comprised of his unconscious opponents, failing to realize that a shadow was sneaking up behind him.

When he caught sight of it, it was already too late.

Before he knew it, his world spun around him as he was sent flying from the strong slash attack.

As soon as his back hit something solid, he uttered a low curse and brought his hand to nurse his throbbing head. Before he had the chance to recover, the two red-eyed enemies took this opportunity to swipe their claws at him in rapid motion.

Quickly, Yuri raised his sword in hopes to deflect it—

Out of nowhere, a spear was pierced through one of the opponent’s chest. Seconds later, it was drawn back with drops of blood leaking through its sharp, deadly spike before stabbing the other.

Yuri watched as a dead corpse was thrown at him to which he hastily pushed out of the way.

Peering upwards, he was surprised to find a familiar face.

The woman—clad in a light-blue crop-top, which exposes her abdomen, along with a fully-unzipped beige colored coat, long jeans, and heels—tilted her head to the side and chuckled lightly. Her long bluish-teal tails, which extended under the crook of her bun, swayed slightly from the passing wind. “Hello again,” She greeted him with a pleasant smile.

Folding his arms, he smiled in greeting. “Thanks for the save,” He replied, shaping his right hand into a fist and extending it outward. “I don’t believe we introduced ourselves properly.” He then presented her with his fist. “I’m Yuri. Yuri Lowell.”

The woman nodded and mimicked his gesture. “Judith.” She introduced herself.

Shortly after their exchanges of fist bumps, Yuri spoke up, “Judy is easier to say.”

Blinking, the blue-haired woman mulled it over before nodding, “Fine by me,” She agreed along, “By the way, where’s your girlfriend?”

Yuri gave her a weird look.

“The cutie with the pink hair,” Judith hinted, chuckling lightly.

Furrowing his eyebrows, Yuri shook his head. “She’s not my girlfriend,”

“Oh, but she’s a friend to you, isn’t she?” Judith pressed on, “And she’s a girl. Hence, a girlfriend.”

All Yuri could do was stare at her in disbelief.

Judith grinned, touching her antennae-like tails fondly.

She then slipped her hand to the earpiece on her ear. Clicking it, she began with, “Rita? Do you copy?” She beamed when she received an answer from her partner-in-crime. “Better hurry along now and initiative the next phase.” Listening intently to the latter, she nodded. As she opened her mouth to say something, she heard a buzzing noise—an implication that their connection got interrupted midway.

Sighing, she then rotated her head to face the dark-haired man in front of her.

“I’m guessing you’re already aware of what’s happening,” She started, her smile waning.

Yuri shrugged. “Just the basics,” He replied, fiddling with the handle of his sword.

Judith bobbed her head. Turning away, she clicked the earpiece and muttered a few words, only to get cut off again. She heaved a deep breath, her visage instantly reverting back to its usual poker-face.

And then her elf-shaped ears slightly twitched, sensing a disturbance.

“Get ready,” She warned him, thrusting her spear—Hades, out in front of her as she got into a battle stance. “Someone’s here.”

Yuri raised an eyebrow in confusion.

Malicious laughter broke out, confirming her suspicions.

The two turned their sights on the new intruder in unison.

Recognizing the spiky reddish-yellow hair and deranged appearance, Yuri groaned.

“Oh, hell no.”


 

Chapter Text

“FINALLY!” The assassin roared, throwing his head back to cackle malevolently, “WE MEET AGAIN!”

Shaking his head, Yuri groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me…”

Taking notice of his distress expression, Judith tilted her head. “An acquaintance of yours?”

“Hardly,” He grumbled lowly. Swinging his sword, he aimed the sharp tip at their enemy. “So, Judy,” he began, gaining her attention. “You up for the challenge?”

The female lancer beamed. “No need to ask,” She replied, followed by a playful wink, “I’m itching to make the first strike anyway,”

Yuri grinned. “By all means, ladies’ first,” He implied, granting her permission.

And that was all it took for Judith to spring into action. Charging in, she swept her spear in a quick rotation and thrust it forward.

“Luna Rise!”

Quick as lightning, she hit the assassin multiple times, followed by a powerful jump.

The assassin shook his head, recovering his momentum in seconds and proceeded to ascend as well. Once he was at close proximity with her, he launched an attack, delivering a swing of continuous slashes.

Judith geared herself, encasing her hold onto her spear as she was struck with a powerful blow.

One after the other, she managed to parry his attacks. When the assassin tired himself out, she brought her hand close to her mouth and emitted a whistle. In response, the wind gave her the boost she needed to knock the assassin swirling downwards.

“Go!” She cried in midair.

Nodding, Yuri dove in.

With his left arm raised above his head, he aimed his blade at the descending opponent’s chest. “Hraaah!”

Sensing this, Zagi raised his daggers in front of him, deflecting the attack.

“Like I’m gonna fall for that again!” He countered, parrying a direct strike from Yuri’s sword before retaliating back with a lunge from his daggers. Once he was back on solid ground, he rushed forth. “Now…DIE!”

Yuri retreated back a few steps, successfully evading his attacks from left through right.

At some point, the daggers brushed past his cheek, searing his skin. He fought back a curse and took this fleeting moment to attack more aggressively.

“Thunder moon!”

Judith’s outburst, accompanied by a loud rumbling noise overhead, caused Yuri to jump back. His eyes widened in awe as a collective sequence of bluish-purple lightning materialized out of thin air, striking the assassin on the spot.

Seconds passed and the lightning eventually ceased from the heavens.

“Agh!” The assassin snarled, collecting himself together. He blinked his eyes furiously in an attempt to regain his balance. Recovering his sight, he wielded his daggers forward and lunged himself at Yuri. “TAKE THIS!” As the assassin shoved his elbow at him, Yuri immediately responded with his own in defense.

“Your name…” The assassin huffed, shooting a glare at him, “WHAT’S YOUR NAME?”

Yuri clenched his teeth. “Like hell, I’ll tell you!” Spinning his heel, he proceeded to slam his back against him. He then threw in a roundhouse kick and a punch at his abdomen, earning a distasteful groan from the latter as he was sent flying several feet back.

As he attempted to get back up, a howling gale reached his ears.

Looking up, the assassin widened his eyes and hastily leaped back, escaping the deadly kiss of the spear. Gritting his teeth, he lashed out, “YOU ASKED FOR IT!”

With his narrowed eyes focused in on the lancer who landed gracefully back down, he seized this opportunity to counter.

Luckily, Yuri came in, just in time to block the hit supposedly for her.

Blinking her eyes twice, Judith motioned her head, quite startled. “Yuri!”

Before she could intrude in, Yuri grunted, exerting more pressure into his effort to push the other away with his sword.

“YOU’RE NAME IS YURI, EH?” The assassin wondered aloud, broadening his grin as he hunched his back to strike an intimidating pose. “I’M ZAGI—”

“Who cares?” Yuri growled, flinging his sword and reclaiming it. “Are we gonna fight or not?” As he delivered his words, he arched a mocking eyebrow. “Or are you just gonna stand there barking?”

Judith chuckled, catching the assassin’s attention.

“He’s got a point there, you know,” She agreed, smiling.

Zagi clenched his jaw. “WHY, YOU…” He muttered, loud enough for the pair to hear him.

Directing his line of vision toward the swordsman and lancer, he glared daggers at them.

“ONCE I’M DONE WITH YOU, I’M GONNA CARVE YOUR NAMES INTO MY BLOOD AND THEN CUT YOUR BODIES UP INTO MILLIONS OF PIECES!” He declared boastfully, “YES, YES! JUST YOU WAIT AND SEE!”

Yuri cringed. “…That’s disgusting,”

Exchanging quick glances with Judith, who in turn flashed him a wink, Yuri shook his head and closed his eyes shut. “Get ready,” He warned her, tightening his grip on the handle of his sword.

Judith nodded, getting into her usual stance.

“COME ON, COME ON, COME ON!” Zagi bellowed with all his might.

Finally, Yuri reopened his ebony eyes—driven with raw willpower.

Once more, he fixated his sights on the assassin.

“You want revenge?” He raised his voice, smirking devilishly. “BRING IT!”


 

On the other end of the spectrum—within the interior base of the train, Estelle and Rita made haste to get to the engine room.

Along the way, they encountered more passengers, seeking a place for refugee prior to the hijacking. Ever the orator, Estelle was the one to step forth and direct them toward the freight carts.

Minutes passed and as they continuously hopped from one train cart to another, they eventually found themselves in what appears to be a dark and dingy room.

“This must be it…” Rita murmured, plucking her goggles back on and entering inside.

Estelle remained quiet as she followed after her, though made sure to keep their distance to a certain degree.

As the pair walked in, Rita flickered the light switch along the way.

In response, the expanse of the room lit up—and upon first sight, Estelle turned pale.

Everywhere—the bland-tinted walls, the metallic flooring, including the unconscious bodies of the Conductors and employees—were painted with splatters of fresh, red blood. The smell of rotting decay and other wastes flared their nostrils, forcing them to pinch their noses from inhaling it in.

Estelle bit her lower lip, collecting her hands together and gripping them tightly.

As Estelle preoccupied herself with a silent prayer, Rita took this opportunity to search through the room. She crinkled her nose as she did her best to avoid stepping on the bodies and the massive pools of blood encircling around them.

“…How awful,” Estelle spoke up, breaking the silence.

“I agree,” Rita mumbled, avoiding eye contact, “But now’s not the time to mourn them. If we don’t do something about the train, who knows how many more lives are in jeopardy?”

From the corner of her eye, she noticed a secret passageway tucked between the large dense walls. After a few steps in, she halted midway in her tracks.

She brought her right hand close to her exposed chest, tapping the ruby on the center. Instantly, a large holographic projection materialized in front of her. Tucking her green book between the spaces of her underarm, she proceeded to set her fingers on the floating keyboard and tinkered away.

Once Estelle finished reciting her prayer, she cast a look at her companion. “What are you doing?”

“Getting access to the main controls,” The brunette answered quickly as her fingers danced along the keyboard in a rapid manner. “In the meantime, keep an eye on any intruders.”

Estelle nodded, abiding her request.

Turning around, she tiptoed back toward the same direction from whence they came. Before she could take another step, something caught her by the ankle. Alarmed, she quickly motioned her head to face a barely-conscious girl crawling toward her, her clothes somewhat torn.

“Please…” She begged, her coral-colored eyes glossy. “Help me…”

Right away, Estelle followed her instincts, stretching her arm to lend a helping hand. “Here,” She said, smiling sweetly.

The girl returned the gesture, lifting her hand to accept hers…

A sharp noise caught her attention.

Slowly, Estelle turned around. Her eyes lengthened in size as she found herself face-to-face with a lime-green haired girl sporting ruffled pigtails, a short sword equipped in her hand and was aimed square at her temple.

Estelle swallowed the lump in her throat, trying to process what was occurring.

When she pried her mouth to open, an unknown force pulled her downwards, reeling her to fall down into the pool of blood.

Hearing this, Rita stopped what she was doing and turned around. “What’s going—” Her words faltered the second she saw two mysterious girls cornering the poor pink-haired woman. “Estellise!”

Though her cry managed to reach her companion’s ears, the twins, on the other hand, didn’t seem to care one bit about her presence.

 “Can’t believe you’d fall for that simple trick!” A voice piped in, belonging to another girl, red hair with curly pigtails, who bore a strikingly similar appearance to the other intruder that walked in.

“What a fool,” The green haired one added in, slanting her head to the side, “Guess this is bye-bye for you— “

Suddenly, something hit her square on the head. “Agh!” She cried, dropping to the ground.

“Droite!” The other exclaimed, her expression filled with concerned.

As she crouched down to aid her sister, she spotted an item next to her. Surprised to discover that the cause of her sister’s pain was a green book, she clenched her jaw. Consumed with anger, she hastily turned back to face the pink-haired woman. “You did this to her, didn’t you?”

“No, I did,” Rita interrupted nearby, gaining the latter’s attention. Lowering her goggles, she shot the female a cold glare. “Got a problem with that?”

The red-haired girl seethed. “Why you— “

When she attempted to move, she noticed her twin struggling to stand up. “Droite!”

“I’m fine, Gauche,” The green-haired girl assured, her hand still planted on the side where the book initially hit her.

Gauche bobbed her head. Inching a bit closer to her twin, she noticed that the pink-haired woman was slowly rising to her feet.

Getting into a battle stance, Estelle unsheathed her rapier from the socket of her belt.

“You must be the ones responsible for the hijacking of the train,” She began, her gaze unflinching despite her fear. “Tell me…where is Yeager?”

“Yeager isn’t here,” Gauche countered, “He left a long time ago.”

“Which means everything is going according to plan~” Droite sang merrily, directing her short sword at the princess. “And that means we win and you lose~”

Estelle’s expression hardened.

“No, you’re wrong,” She chided, debunking their statement. “We will not yield here!” At that moment, she raised her rapier to deliver a series of slashes aimed at them.

Unfortunately, the twins managed to block her attacks and leaped back—with Droite on the right and Gauche on the opposing left.

“Sis, take bubblegum,” Droite instructed her sister, whipping out her blade. She then set her sights on the brunette who automatically slipped to a battle pose. “I’ve got a bone to pick with this pesky rat.”

Gauche silently nodded, bringing her hand behind her to reveal a strikingly similar weapon.

And just like that, twins advanced to their respective targets.


 

What was supposed to be a few minutes of minor clashing transitioned into that of a full-on brawl.

Yuri took a step back, feeling his energy beginning to drain.

“You still with me, Judy?” He asked the lancer nearby.

Judith nodded firmly, her eyes still trained on their opponent.

Following her line of vision, Yuri groaned.

Regardless of how many times the two of them attacked and parried back, there seemed to be no end to this. Gritting his teeth, Yuri jumped back into the fray and went for the offensive.

In retaliation, Zagi blocked the hit, side-stepping to dodge another incoming attack. Angling his body, he gripped his daggers and lunged at the latter, launching a flurry of swift blows in the process.

Yuri instinctively caught wind of this, evading the powerful slashes as best as he could. As he dodged for the umpteenth time, he managed to deliver a few punches and dropkicks.

Ensuring that the assassin was distracted, Judith took this window of opportunity to leap into the air. Twisting her spear, she proceeded to twirl around and around, increasing the velocity surrounding her form.

“Moonbeam!” She yelled, reappearing above Zagi and throwing her weapon at him, landing a critical hit.

Finally, the assassin dropped to his knees, cradling his heavily wounded arm.

Once Judith returned to the ground, she was greeted with the occasional fist bump from the swordsman.

Directing his focus on their enemy, Yuri smirked. “Give up?” He wondered, stationing his sword against his shoulder.

“YOU’RE TOUGH…VERY TOUGH,” Zagi commented in-between his ragged breathing, nodding to himself. Throwing his head back, he laughed in a psychotic manner.

“YES, YOU’RE DEFINITELY TOUGH! AND I CERTAINLY WON’T FORGET THAT!” He lifted his chin and made a sickly grin. “I’M GONNA KILL YOU SOMEDAY, YURI. GONNA CARVE YOU INTO LITTLE PIECES!”

Before Yuri opened his mouth to protest, the assassin slowly rose, staggering a bit in place before strutting off to the edge of the roofing.

“Hey!” Yuri exclaimed, his eyes widening. “What are you— “

With a devious grin, Zagi spread his arms out and jumped down, down and into the depths of the woodlands.

Bewildered by this, Yuri and Judith rushed to the same corner where Zagi had once stood. Gazing below, they searched for any signs of his presence.

“Did he make it?” Judith asked, arching her eyebrow.

On cue, a rustling sound was heard from one of the nearby trees.

Fixating their attention on that particular area, they were surprised to find a familiar blob of reddish-yellow hair emerges from the trees.

“What an interesting character,” Judith commented as she watched Zagi clumsily hop from one large branch to another.

Yuri rolled his eyes. “Hopefully this would be the last time we see him…” He drawled out, placing a hand on his hip. “So, what now?”

As soon as he said those words, an explosion erupted.

Yuri blinked once, then twice. “What…was that?”

The tips of Judith’s lips curved slightly downward.

“Oh, no…” She murmured, squeezing the grip of her spear. Bringing her hand to the shell of her ear, she pressed the earpiece and cried, “Rita? Rita, do you copy?”

No response.

“Rita, please answer!”

Still no response.

Switching off the other line, Judith glanced over to the swordsman. “Guess this is where we part for now,” She brought two fingers close to her lips, emitting a loud whistle.

A sudden gust of wind was summoned beneath her feet. As she prepares to soar into the air, her ears picked up the sound of scampering feet along the roofing. Motioning her head around, she noticed that it was Yuri rushing off elsewhere.

Jumping high, Judith managed to maneuver herself forward until she was close enough to approach the dark-haired man. “Going back to your girlfriend?” She asked, startling him.

“She’s not…” He retorted, only to stop mid-sentence and let out an exasperated sigh. “Look, I have to make sure she’s okay.”

Judith beamed. “Want a lift?” She offered, gesturing to the wind.

“I can’t fly like you,” He pointed out.

“Oh, you mean this?” Judith replied, gesturing to her floating figure. “No, this isn’t my doing. It’s his.” And then raised her hand upwards, pointing her finger to the nocturnal sky.

A heavy bellow from the heavens caused the swordsman to look up.

Raising his head, Yuri’s eyes widened—

“Is that a dragon?”

“Ba’ul, you mean,” Judith corrected him, her voice sounding pleasant before changing into that of urgent. “I’ll explain later. Time is of the essence.”

Yuri nodded firmly, accepting her hand.

With the aid of Ba’ul and his impressive winds, together, the female lancer and swordsman zoomed ahead.

“Hang tight, Rita,” Judith murmured under her breath. “I’m coming…”


 

The clashing of swords, along with a few sparks and fury, rang throughout the expanse of the room.

Estelle retreated a few steps as Droite swiped her short sword in rapid motion. Catching an opening, she ducked down and swung her rapier at the latter.

Unfortunately, Droite became aware of her intentions and with surprising speed, successfully blocked her strike.

For about a minute, the two opposing females stood there at a standstill.

Whirling her head, Estelle glanced over to her right—her seafoam eyes carefully watching the short brunette and green-haired girl a few meters away from where she currently stood.

Rita and her opponent, Droite, appeared to be taking their time, walking around in circles, sizing each other up, waiting for either of them to initiate the first move.

After what seemed like an eternity, Droite stepped in. Wasting no time, she hurled herself into the ceiling before descending, dropping a merciless kick in the process.

Quickly, Rita attempted to go for the offensive but with little to no options on her sleeve, she was forced to dodge. After a split second, a harsh kick to the face sent her spiraling to the ground.

Getting back up, Rita winced as she lightly touched the fresh purple bruise on her cheek and forehead. A low growl escaped her throat.

 “Oh…That is it!” Rita suddenly cried, gritting her teeth. “I am so gonna make you regret that!”

Whipping out her scroll, she untied the knot with her teeth and flung it into the air, enveloping herself in the whirlwind of endless parchment of paper.

As she danced around, a glowing reddish sphere manifested, engulfing her tiny form in its intricate framework made of ancient formulas. “Oh uncondensed locus, annihilate the vulgar before me…” Rita chanted lowly under her breath.

As she finished her sentence, she raised her hand forward, enabling the sphere around her to dwindle and reappear in front of her, this time taking the shape of a large cannon. Taking a deep breath in, she exclaimed aloud, “SPIRAL FLARE!”

With the flick of her finger, a fiery ball of fire, nearly twice the size of her own, emerged from inside the cannon and was released—zeroed in the twins who attempted to regroup but to no avail. And the next thing she knew, the far corner of the engine room exploded.

Prior to the impact of the raging blast, it resulted in a massive wave of dust particles and scorches of flames idly frolicking about. The ringing sound in her ear was deafening, to which she resorted to tearing off the earpiece and putting it inside the pocket of her shorts.

As the smoke gradually extinguished and faded, a triumphant grin appeared on Rita's lips, though was quick to dissipate when she noticed that the twins were nowhere to be seen nor found. From the looks of it, they seemed to have escaped through the abnormally large hole on the other side of the room.

“…Damn,” She cursed, adjusting her goggles. “I’ll get them next time, for sure.”

As she took in the chaos, a thought occurred to her.

“Estellise?” Rita spoke up, only to cough in the process in the midst of the flames and misty black clouds around her. “Can you hear me? Speak up!”

Narrowing her eyes, she searched the debris and rumble in sight.

Eventually, she noticed a blob of pink-hair coming into view.

Heaving a sigh of relief, the short brunette approached the woman.

Much to her surprise, the latter was still standing. Compared to her, Estelle’s wounds were devastating as they were open and could easily be infected. And yet, here she was, disregarding her poor health and instead, tampering with the controls of the engine.

“We…need to get this train…to function…” Estelle stressed, coughing brashly. “We must…for the sake of…the people on board.”

Shocked by her words, Rita shook her head and cried aloud, “That’s my job, you know.”

Pressing the ruby jewel on her choker, the holographic projection, along with her keyboard manifested. Once more, she returned to the task she initially came here in the first place—reviving the train. "I'll handle this."

While Rita drowned herself in her work, Estelle stood there, confused and uncertain as to what to do next. Slowly but surely, her world was spinning and she could feel herself beginning to fall…

She closed her eyes, volunteering herself to succumb to the embrace of the darkness.

Expecting the cold, hard flooring to hit her back and crawl along her skin, instead, she felt something radiant and warm against her…and it was breathing.

Confused, she lifted her chin and looked up.

Long trails of black entered her vision, flowing down and tickling her bruised cheeks.

…Dark ebony with a hint of worry and relief.

"...Yuri?" She croaked, followed by a cough. "Is that you?"

"Yeah, it's me," The dark-haired man confirmed, flashing her a lop-sided grin. "Can you stand?"

Estelle crinkled her eyebrows as she attempted to move, only to fall back down in his arms. "No, I can't..."

"That's fine," He assured her, his voice surprisingly gentle and soft. "Rest easy for now, okay?"

With half-lidded eyes, she mustered a soft smile and just like that, she gave in.


"Rita! Are you alright?" Judith exclaimed in an urgent tone, hastily approaching the teenager. Checking to make sure that the latter wasn't inflicted with heavy wounds, she finally emitted a low sigh of relief. "Why didn't you respond when I called you?"

The brunette casually shrugged, her eyes trained on the projection in front of her. "Does it matter?"

Judith loosened the grip of her spear. "I thought we were in this together." She murmured, just loud enough for the other to hear.

Fortunately, Rita did and she paused what she was doing to move her head to face the older woman. "I'm fine, you know," She stated matter-of-factly, gesturing to her slightly burnt clothes and smoky hair. "So don't worry. I know what I'm doing." And then returned to her work.

Hearing this, Judith couldn't help but produce a bittersweet smile. Leaning a bit closer, she lessened the distance between her and her master. "Rita~"

Groaning, the short brunette turned around. “What now?”

Chuckling lightly, the female lancer withdrew, collected her hands behind her back and softly said, “Please pay attention to me~"

Rita blushed as she suddenly found herself in an awkward situation.

“Look, let me focus on this, okay?” She protested, daring to avoid eye contact with her partner. "I'll...reward you with your efforts later." She stammered, her face turning red. "Now, quit bothering me and let me do this!”

All Judith could do was shake her head and smile. “As you wish,” She cooed before leaning in to give her a quick peck behind her exposed neck, causing the latter to stiffen in place.

Rita grumbled, brushing away the warm sensation bubbling in her stomach as she resumed her work.

With nothing else to do, Judith peered over her shoulder, taking notice of Yuri who seemed to be cradling the sleeping pink-haired woman in his arms.

Smiling, she approached him, though pausing halfway to retrieve the green book laid on the bloodied flooring.

“She’s worn herself out, hasn’t she?” She noted, emitting a pleasant smile. “Funny, how the first time I met her, she was sleeping soundly. Second time in and she’s still sleeping.”

“Can’t blame her. She went through a lot,” Yuri explained, eyeing the dried blood adorning her civilian clothes. Sighing, he carefully shifted her form with his dominant left hand gently cradling the crown of her head. Gradually, he rose, lifting the pink-haired woman off her feet.

Instinctively, Estelle rested her head against the crook of his neck, mumbled a few words too quiet to decipher before resuming with her sleeping.

“What are you planning to do from here on out?” Judith asked him.

Furrowing his eyebrows, Yuri thought for a moment. After a long silence, he spoke up.

“We were supposed to go to Dahngrest…” He trailed off, exhausted. “But since the train isn’t up and running, guess we’ll have to reschedule the trip another day.”

Judith pursed her lips. “You know, I could make an exception,” She pointed out.

Blinking, Yuri shot her a weird look. “Really? You can?”

Judith simply chuckled. “Come on, don’t tell me you’ve already forgotten?”

Walking over to the large gaping hole on the other side of the engine room, she proceeded to bring two fingers close to her mouth, releasing a high-pitched whistle.

Chapter Text

In the hours of darkness, the excursion of enormous, tumultuous clouds gradually spawned across the darkened horizon. Thunder rumbled in the distance and yet, that didn’t seem to stop a certain blonde pair who were currently engaged in a clash of swords.

Ioder pressed his hand on his right cheek, rubbing the sweat off his skin before diving back in to carry out an attack. “Ahhh¾!”

Unfortunately, the knight grasped his intentions and ineptly stepped to the side, instigating the former to stumble over his footing and plummet down on the patching of grass.

Chewing on his bottom lip, Ioder shook his head as he attempted to get back to his feet.

“Ioder.”

Looking up, he noticed the knight lower his weapon and offered his other hand to him.

“You all right?” Flynn asked, his voice veiled in concern.

Ioder blinked, surprised by his words.

Shifting away from his lustrous sky blue eyes, he glanced down to his awaiting hand. “…Thanks,” He mumbled, accepting his gesture.

As he was lifted from the ground, he veered his attention to the nocturnal skies.

Encasing his sword back into the slot of his belt, Flynn crossed his arms over his armored chest.

“Considering that this was your first time fighting with a sword, there is a lot that needs improvement.” He began, casting a somber glance. “For starters, the way you move is sloppy and your deliverance with your strikes are poorly untimed. In regards to the way you handle your sword, it’s easily predictable if you just come running in. Be careful doing that or you’ll allow your opponent to have the upper hand.”

Ioder closed his mouth and nodded firmly, listening intently to his critique.

“I know how difficult it is to swallow all of this information in, but I implore you to keep practicing,” Flynn continued, giving his master a reassuring smile. “If you do that, you’ll get the hang of it. It takes time to get better at anything.”

Again, Ioder nodded. “Does this mean we’ll do another round?”

Flynn shook his head. “No,” Dipping back down to retrieve the silver rapier, he then presented it over to his master. “Let’s call it a day.”

“…If you say so,” Ioder mumbled to himself, reclaiming his rapier before locking eyes with his retainer. “So, what now?”

“Dahngrest,” Flynn answered quickly, “The city is not much far from here. We can rest there for a while and restock our supplies.” Without another word, he took this opportunity to initiate the first step of their long march.

Soon, Ioder followed his example as he scampered ahead, in hopes to catch up with him.

Gripping the handle of his respective rapier on his right and his shield on his opposing left, he raised his head a little. His emerald green eyes fixated directly on the knight’s exposed armored back and long flowing cape.

Shortly after his declaration to want to pick up swordsmanship, Flynn insisted that they begin their drill moments after they were finished with dinner. Few hours have passed since then and to his dismay, there has not been much progress over his workout. As his mind wandered elsewhere, Ioder furrowed his eyebrows.

…Speaking of which, was it just him or did the cooking taste a bit…off?

The so-called chicken they ate…was it intentionally meant to be burnt on the inside? On the outside, it looked so juicy and delicious…

Shaking his head, Ioder had to remind himself that worrying about something as trivial as a chicken should be the least of his worries. So long as the food’s appetizing, there shouldn’t be much concern over the preferences of his food.

“Are you okay, Ioder?” Flynn spoke up after much silence, “You’ve been quiet.”

“I’m fine,” Ioder affirmed, mustering a faint grin.

Flynn bobbed his head. “Good to hear,” He replied, “And also, I have a question to ask if you don’t mind.”

Ioder quirked an eyebrow. “A question?”

“I meant to ask you sooner but,” Flynn began, scratching the back of his head while looking away, “What made you suddenly get riled up to pick up the sword?”

Ioder grinned pleasantly.

“I should be asking you the same thing,” He tossed back, causing the latter to stop in his tracks and peer over his shoulder. “Flynn Scifo, what made you want to become a knight?”

Flynn brought a hand and placed it over his chin, mulling the thought over.

Becoming aware of the tense atmosphere between them, Ioder stiffened in place. “Forgive me for putting you on the spot,” He apologized suddenly, feeling embarrassed. “I didn’t know what came over me.”

“No, you did nothing wrong,” Flynn assured him, smiling. “And well, as for my motive…it’s sort of a long story.”

Ioder grinned in return.

“We have plenty of time to spare,” He pointed out, moving on ahead. “Why don’t we just walk and talk? You know, get a chance to know each other.”

Flynn bowed his head, happily obliging to his suggestion.

He then took a few steps, approaching the blonde noble. Once the pair were mere spaces away from the other, with Ioder in the front and Flynn on the side, they began to share their personal accounts with each other.

“I…aspired to become a knight to protect the people I loved.” Flynn professed soundly and genuinely,

“It’s a known fact that I hail from Zaphias but a lot of people, including my former subordinates, don’t know that I’m actually born in the middle quarter. My late father, who happened to be a knight, had passed away executing the same deed. And so, my mother and I…we had no choice but to move out of our home and live in the Lower Quarter. A year later, and she died from an incurable illness.”

Listening intently, Ioder mouthed a soft-spoken apology.

Flynn bitterly smiled. “It’s okay,” He assured him, “Over the years, I’ve come to accept that I am an orphan. But if it weren’t for the kind endeavors of the people in the Lower Quarter who raised me, I wouldn’t be the person who I am today.”

“And is that why you strive to become a knight?” Ioder pressed on, intrigued by his words. “To protect the people of the poor?”

“Yes, but that’s not all,” Flynn pointed out, sneaking a glance over at his White Knight sword set on the side of his right hip.

“I would also like to help others in need beyond the barriers. In the darkest and lowest point of my life, it was the community of the Lower Quarter and a few others who took me under their wing and lifted my spirits.” As he said that, his cheeks burned slightly crimson. “To express my thanks, I wanted to give something back to them. And so, a few days after my eighteenth birthday, I enlisted myself in the Imperial Knights Program.”

“That’s quite admirable,” Ioder commented, grinning.

Flynn bobbed his head in agreement. “And now, it’s your turn,” He noted, giving the latter a side glance. “So, Ioder, what made you want to pick up the sword?”

Ioder gripped his rapier and the handle of his shield tightly.

“I desire to be as courageous and daring as my cousin, Estellise,” He admitted, his eyes twinkling with eagerness for a split second before waning quickly. “You might not know this but…I’m really a coward. I’m not reliable with weapons nor am I an agile fighter.”

After a thick moment of silence, he forced himself to continue.

“Back at the manor, I wasn’t given the option to train with one of the Imperial guards or soldiers. Understandably, I was too feeble and weak to move around. There was a point in my childhood when I was forced into a wheelchair and could not venture around unless one of the staff members were there to aid me.”

“Because of that, it’s no surprise that our Uncle favors Estellise quite a lot.” Ioder forced laughter from his throat as he added in, “Honestly, I’m glad for her but I wish…” And then he paused briefly, contemplating over his words carefully.

“You wish for someone to recognize you…” Flynn finished off, arching an eyebrow.

 “I’m always in the background, you know?” Ioder explained further. “Always cheering for her, supporting her, happy if she’s happy or upset when she’s upset. But when it comes to our Uncle, there’s no doubt that he prefers her over me.” His expression sobered. “With Estellise being the oldest between the two of us, she is pressured to do so much. I do what I can to help her in any way but when I do, my Uncle would see me as a distraction to her and wave me off like I’m nothing.”

“And then I’ll be forced to dwell in the library, in my chambers—anywhere really, so long as I’m not venturing outside the manor…and as always, I’ll be waiting. Waiting until Estellise comes back from her studies or training and resume with whatever we were doing that day.” A light chuckle escaped his lips. “I must sound pathetic right now, don’t I?”

“No,” Flynn interrupted, his tone of voice growing serious. “Look, I may not know you as much as Lady Estellise…” He then placed his hand on the other’s shoulder, squeezing it. “But after what you’ve been through, I can tell that you’re strong—both mind, body, and in the heart. Forget whatever your Uncle said to you. Most importantly, don’t ever let anyone’s opinions of you drag you down. Because in the end, they won’t matter.” As he said those words, he grinned.

“The first time you summoned me, I detected incredible power inside you…great potential to do wonders and greatness. You’ve got a long road ahead, Ioder, and as your servant, your champion—” He went on to declare, his sky-blue eyes united in solace with emerald, “—I, Flynn Scifo, will do whatever it takes to help you attain your goal.”

Ioder blushed, appalled by his encouraging speech. “Thank you, Flynn,” He expressed, smiling softly.

“No, thank you,” Flynn admitted, “For granting me the opportunity to do so.”

Exchanging smiles, the pair laughed earnestly.

Shortly after, Ioder released an exasperated sigh. “It feels great to get that off my chest,”

“Doesn’t it?” Flynn chuckled, nodding to himself. Moving his head to revert his gaze toward his master, he added in, “I’m glad that I got to know a little more about you,”

“Same here,” Ioder followed along.

And so, they strode forward, sharing more about themselves, their fears, their strengths, their aspirations and so on—dispelling what was once a rigid and inflexible relationship between them into that of affable closeness.

Along the way, they managed to escape a few monstrous encounters.

Though at times, it was Flynn who decided to take up the mantle and fight, he always made sure to keep an eye on his master, who chose to hide yet made sure to keep close to observe the latter’s battle performances. Few hours have passed and gone with the duration of their journey extending from nightfall to the brink of dawn.

The first wink of sunlight gently graced the leaves from the towering trees from high above their heads to the lush grasslands around them.

Albeit exhausted and weary, the blonde pair finally arrived at their main destination—there, not too far from where they were currently standing, was a large city with two big bridges angling on each corresponding left and right edges. Vast, white ringlets soared throughout the perimeter of the elaborate warren of brown brick-and-stone structures.

“We…made it,” Flynn huffed, relieved.

Ioder grinned, “The City of Guilds…Dahngrest,” He mouthed to himself.

Without another word, they entered through the large gateway of the city and walked along one of the iconic bridges.

The blonde noble wandered animatedly, emitting a half, tired grin as he raced over to the stone pavement and leaned over, drinking in the majestic sight of the rushing waters underneath them. “Incredible…” He commented, “I’ve never seen anything like it…”

“Ioder,” Flynn called over, beckoning him to join him in the open streets.

Nodding, Ioder ran forth.

As he approached the knight, his ears picked up the sound of a feminine shriek.

Alarmed by this, the pair turned their heads, taking notice of a large gathering of people located at the center of the bustling market plaza.

Curious, the two of them made haste in hopes to discover the significance of the commotion.

Barely two minutes in, and another scream erupted, this time followed by a chorus of voices ranging from all directions.

“IS THAT WHAT I THINK IT IS?”

“WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT THING?”

“HOLY MOLY! A FLYING FISH!”

Halting in their tracks, both Flynn and Ioder fixated their sights toward the crisp, reddish-tinge skies. Seconds later, their neutral facial expressions immediately changed to that of utter astonishment.

“What the…” Flynn trailed off, trying to comprehend what was occurring.

Lo and behold, the folks around them were right—in the great distance, there appears to be a humongous hybrid of a fish-bird donned with light periwinkle feathers, monstrous golden horns, and a long tail.

Upon closer inspection, the monster was spiraling around, descending gradually to a nearby facility with a large ship mounted below its chest.

“Excuse me!” A high-pitched, boyish voice chirped suddenly, “Out of the way! Coming through!”

As if on cue, Flynn and Ioder took a few short steps back to allow the young boy with a large bag to zip past them and into the crowd.


 

“Almost…there!”

The boy pushed himself to go past his limits and kept running.

A few minutes flew by and as the large facility came into view, he eventually slowed down his pace. Stopping in his tracks, he peered up to the heavens, just in time to witness the giant Entelexeia’s graceful descent with the ship, notably called the Fiertia, sliding downward.

As soon as the ship had successfully parked next to the wooden dock, the door of the cabin burst open.

Beaming, the boy rushed forward.

“Judith!” He cried, waving his arms frantically above his head in glee. “Rita!”

On cue, the female lancer and her short partner emerged from the inside. Looking down from the ship, Judith flashed him a smile.

“Good timing, Karol,” She greeted him while walking over to a pulley. With both hands, she proceeded to crank the wheel over and over, triggering the thick wooden plank to rise from the flooring and slide through.

Folding her arms over her chest, Rita shot him a glare. “Where’s the Don?”

Frowning, Karol tilted his head in confusion. “He’s attending a meeting,” He explained, “Why? Something wrong?”

Rita snorted. “Something like that,” She replied casually with the wave of her hand.

Karol furrowed his eyebrows, not apprehending the meaning behind her words. “What are you talking about— “

Before he could finish his sentence, a male figure came into light…but he wasn’t alone.

Eyes widening, Karol’s mouth dropped open as he realized that there was an overwhelming number of people on board—at the front, at the rear, in the middle—everywhere he looked, they were tightly cramped in within the vessel. He watched as Judith and Rita ushered the passengers to start walking down the plank.

Without a moment’s notice, the people abide by their orders.

All the while, Karol stopped and stared at the commotion unfolding before him.

Glancing up, he took notice of the female couple, along with the man carrying a sleeping pink-haired woman, approaching him.

“What’s…going on?” He managed to sputter out.

"It was exactly as what Raven predicted a few days ago,” Judith quickly answered, her eyes sharpening to a certain degree. “That last night, the metro train headed for Dahngrest was hijacked at precisely 1800 hours by Leviathan’s Claw.”

Alarmed, Karol exclaimed, “Woah, you serious?”

Rita rolled her eyes. “Come on, this should be old news to you by now,” She groaned, shaking her head.

Bringing a hand behind his head, Karol sheepishly grinned. “Well, I…sort of, slept during the conference…” He trailed off, glancing the other away as he scratched his head.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed that some of the passengers were rapidly mixing in with the crowd of bystanders from nearby, seeking for some form of refugee and support.

From the looks of their sorrowful and anxious faces—with some children bawling their eyes out, mothers trying to calm them down, some able men and women supporting the elders while a few others desperately trying to get in touch with their loved ones through their electronic devices—he couldn’t help but sympathize with them.

“Did anybody get hurt?”

“Most of the elderly,” Judith expressed, a line etched between her brows, “But the rest are unharmed.” A pause. “And as for the death count…”

“The Conductor and his entire crew were eliminated,” Rita responded right away, “We both confronted the assholes responsible for the takeover but, of course,” She emphasized the last two words as she shaped her hands into balls of fists, “Those spineless freaks just had to flee the scene before we could capture any one of them.”

Registering her words, all Karol could utter was a soft, “Oh…”

As he motioned his head to the right, he noticed the dark-haired man still standing near them. Curiously, he inspected the pink-haired woman nestled in his arms. His eyes slowly went round the instant he saw blood on her tattered clothes. “Oh, no! She’s hurt!”

Looking back up to lock eyes with the man, he cried, “Come on, follow me!” And then ran off toward the main entrance of the facility.

Blinking, Yuri turned to look at Judith for some kind of explanation.

“Go with Karol,” She told him, giving him an assuring smile. “He’ll take care of the two of you.”

Yuri slanted his head to the side. “What about you guys?”

“We’re gonna go pay a visit to the big old grump,” Rita joined in, placing a hand on her hip. “For now, focus on tending to Estellise’s wounds.”

“Don’t worry,” Judith added in, “We’ll come running back as soon as we resolved everything.”

Yuri bobbed his head in response. “Thanks for the ride, by the way,”

“Thank nothing of it,” The female lancer replied with a playful wink.

With nothing else to say, he turned and strode off to meet with the boy who patiently waited for his presence by the door.

Once they were alone, Judith cast a glance over to her partner and asked, “Shall we?”

Rita released an exasperated breath. “Let’s get this over with,” She grumbled and began heading toward the direction of the crowd.


 

The facility was grand and spacious.

Like most of the buildings in Dahngrest, the brick and stone design were intact along with a few minor brown rusting. Despite the exterior frame somewhat lackluster, the interior within the compound was different.

Inside, there were a collection of decorative plant pots situated in-between the small spaces of beige-tinted couches and cherry-wood coffee tables. Large intricate tapestries, suffused in colors ranging from red, orange, yellow, green, and blue—were displayed throughout the walls. Up above, there was an inside balcony.

Yuri squinted his eyes, trying to inspect what was upstairs. From where he stood, he could decipher a mass of cluttered books and framed weapons.

“Nice place you got here,” He commented.

“Thanks,” Karol chirped, grinning bashfully. “I try my best to make it as hospitable as possible.”

Yuri blew a whistle as he took in the sight. “Where are we anyway?”

“We’re at the garrison,” Karol explained casually, “Originally, it was an abandoned warehouse. Thanks to the Don and Raven—Judith, Rita, Tison, Clint, Nan, and I managed to buy it. For the past year, we’ve been renovating this whole place. You know, to look more modern and chic. And now, I’m proud to call it my home.”

Raising his arms high, he proceeded to say, “This is the lounge room!” As he said that, he proceeded to stretch his arm outward, pointing a finger to the right. “If you go past that hall, you’ll find the dining room and the kitchen.” And then he pointed to the left. “And over there’s the first-floor bathroom.”

Yuri frowned. “How many floors are there?”

Karol froze in his steps and pondered. “I believe…three?”

“Three floors?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Karol confirmed, nodding to himself. “That’s because, on the second floor, we have the bedrooms and bathrooms.”

Tipping his head to the side, Yuri arched his left eyebrow. “And the third floor?”

“That’ll be the study room, the library, Rita’s laboratory…” Karol explained as he counted each room using his fingers, “There’s also a staircase which leads to the roof.”

Blinking, Yuri threw in a question. “What’s up there?”

“The observatory,” Karol went on, smiling, “You know, to see stars and stuff? Sometimes, Judith uses it to feed Ba’ul his grub.”

“Ba’ul?” Yuri wondered, puzzled. “Who’s…Ba’ul?”

“The Entelexeia that looks like a whale but with actual wings that fly. You know, the one that was mounting the boat you were on,” Karol described to him, “When we met Judith, he was already with her. He’s a lot scary at first, but if you get to know him, he’s actually not that bad…”

A chuckle escaped from his throat as he was reminded of the first time he encountered the Entelexeia, how he nearly pissed his pants and how he actually thought that he was going to die right then and there on the spot until the older woman had to reassure him that her dear friend would never commit to something atrocious.

“He can get pretty shy around strangers but once you get to know him, he’s actually a very friendly giant and—“

“You don’t mind if we just cut to the chase?” Yuri interrupts, causing the latter to stop what he was doing and peer over his shoulder in question. “Didn’t you say that you were gonna help us or—“

“Oh, yeah! You’re right!” Karol suddenly cried, his whole face burning light pink prior to his derailment on the focus of their trip. “Anyway, let’s head over here,” And walked over to the spindle, wooden-made staircase at the far-left corner of the lounge room.

Nodding, Yuri followed after him.

He held tight of Estelle’s unconscious form as they hastened their steps to go up. A minute later and they reached the second floor—as what the boy mentioned to him earlier, was specifically dubbed for the bedrooms and bathrooms. As they angled to another corner, Karol stopped, causing Yuri to freeze midway in his tracks.

“Here’s the room you’ll be occupying,” Karol explained, already twisting the doorknob and allowing himself in.

Shortly after, Yuri did the same.

Once more, he took a moment to scan his surroundings—the room was clean and organized, with two beds found on the left side of the room, accompanied by a bedside table and a lamp on top of it, a closet on the opposing right, a door which leads to a private bathroom and a large set of windows in the center.

“I’m gonna go and get a first aid kit,” Karol spoke up, causing the latter to turn and look at him with a puzzling expression. “Wait here, okay? I’ll be right back.”

As the boy rushed out of the room, Yuri quietly walked over to the nearest bed.

“There you go,” He mumbled, carefully placing the sleeping princess on the soft mattress. As soon as he laid her down, he finally released the breath he’d been holding in, stretching his arms up high and cracking his knuckles. He then staggered over to his bed close to the window, throwing his scabbard on the mattress. Crossing his arms over his chest, he snuck a quick side glance over to the female.

A smile unconsciously spread across his lips when he noticed a trail of drool leaking from her partly opened mouth.

“So ladylike,” He commented, shaking his head in dismay.

His ears suddenly perked up to the sound of scampering footsteps from the halls. Whirling his head around, his alarmed expression eventually subsided once he registered that it was only the brown-haired boy.

As promised, Karol held a large white bag with a red cross etched on the middle of the surface. Sinking his knees to the ground, he began to take out the necessary medical equipment and bandages from its container.

“President Kaufman’s gonna be here in a few minutes.” He explained, “She’ll be the one to inspect your friend’s injuries and help change her clothes…”

“What about me?” Yuri questioned with a teasing smirk. “Do I get the same treatment?”

“I don’t think so,” Karol replied, rejecting his suggestion. “But I can go ahead and grab some clothes for you,” As he rose, he turned to face the dark-haired man and added, “Come on, we should get going. Wouldn’t wanna disrupt your friend’s sleeping.”

Yuri thought for a moment before shaking his head.

“…No, I’ll stay,” He insisted, “After what we both went through last night, it’s best that I remain by her side in the meantime…you know, until that Kaufman person shows up.”

Karol nodded his head in acknowledgment.

Suddenly a thought occurred to him.

“Oh, by the way,” He began, grinning sheepishly. “I forgot to introduce myself! Name’s Karol Capel! What’s yours?”

“Yuri Lowell,” Yuri introduced himself, his eyes passive and jaded. He then jerked his chin over to the bed behind him. “And princess sleepyhead’s Estelle,”

Karol frowned, taking a moment to progress his words. “…Wait, you’re Yuri—the Yuri Lowell?”

Yuri’s lips curled upwards. “The one and only,” He affirmed, shooting him a bemused look. “Why? You know me from somewhere?”

The boy gawked at him as if he produced two heads. “Know you?” He exclaimed, jumping up and down excitedly. “I’m a huuuuuge fan of you!”

Yuri blinked a few times. “…You are?”

“Yeah!” Karol expressed, beaming excitedly, “You’re the infamous vigilante from Zaphias! A few years back, you were one of the few people who’s been granted the status of a champion! The Dark Enforcer! The Lone Wolf of the Lower Quarter!”

At the mention of the Lower Quarter, Yuri hardened his expression.

“Woah, easy there…” He told him, narrowing his eyes. “Where’d you learned all that from?”

“A lot of people here at Dahngrest talk about you! You’re practically a celebrity!” Karol explained, “Everyone adores you! In the newspapers, they always seem to report your feats like stealing from the rich to give to the poor, fighting evildoers and—“

Yuri raised his hand, silencing the boy from speaking any further.

“Those rumors and stories you keep hearing about me…” He warned him. “Accept them all you want, but they don’t depict the truth.”

Karol’s eyes widened. “They…don’t?” He softly murmured, growing curious. “Wait, what do you mean?”

Yuri sighed. “Never mind,” He grumbled, waving his hand dismissively. “Anyway, do I get a change of clothes?”

“Oh, right!” Karol exclaimed upon realization. As he rose from the floor and angled his body around, he was surprised to find an auburn-haired girl standing next to the door. Swallowing the lump in his throat, he forced a grin and exclaimed, “H-hey there, Nan! What’s up?”

The girl called Nan shot him a menacing glare. “Who are they?” She wondered aloud, jerking her chin to the swordsman and his unconscious master in the room.

“It’s alright, Nan, they’re our guests,” Karol simply explained, taking a step forward. “If you’re looking for Clint and Tison, they’re probably attending a meeting with the Don right now.”

Nan clicked her tongue, turning her head away. As she motioned her body to walk away, she stopped briefly to look back at the boy and asked, “Are you coming or what?”

Karol shuffled his feet. “Uh…” His lower lip quivered as he tried to choose his words carefully. “Actually, I’m…gonna stay behind.”

Surprised by this, Nan leered at him. “Oh?”

“You should get going,” Karol advised his friend, offering her a smile. “Wouldn’t want you to get in trouble with your teacher.”

Nan turned silent, mulling the thought over. Finally, she sighed. “…Fine,” She concluded, looking away. “But you better be here when I come back, you hear me?”

Karol smiled. “Yes, Nan,” He chirped, smiling.

And just like that, the girl sighed, snuck a deadly glance toward Yuri before hastily strolling away.

“…That was something,” Yuri spoke up, breaking the silence.

Karol nodded in agreement. “You can say that again,” Sitting back down, he let out a heavy sigh. “That girl you saw—her name’s Nan. She’s a friend of mine and well, she can be hard to deal with.”

Yuri chuckled. “I could tell,” He noted, “You seem pretty close.”

“Kind of,” The boy admitted, “Tison’s her teacher and guardian. She serves under him as his student. Recently, her heroic achievements became recognized and was rewarded with the title of champion a few months ago.”

Thinking it over, he continued. “In the future, she’ll be able to transform into a figurine and enter sleeping mode…you know, until she gets summoned by her master, forge a contract with them…the usual procedure. Only time will tell if she ends up doing it.”

Processing his words, Yuri smiled. “I’m sure she can handle it. She looks pretty capable to me,”

“Yeah, she is,” Karol agreed wholeheartedly. “For now, she’s still practicing. And I personally wanna be there and help her until she transitions…” As he trailed off, he turned his focus to the swordsman sitting next to him. “Anyway, what about you, Yuri?”

Confused, Yuri arched a questionable eyebrow. “What about me?”

“You’re a champion, aren’t you?” He asked. When he received a nod from the latter, he beamed. “What’s it like so far? I bet it’s pretty awesome!”

“It’s alright. Sure, it’s got some perks…” Yuri began, ruminating through his thoughts. His next set of words, however, caught the latter off-guard. “And then there are consequences that you cannot escape from…a duty that you’ll have no choice but to be forced to bear under your name.”

Karol slipped him a curious glance. Scooting a bit closer to the swordsman, he proceeded to ask the big question. “…Like what?”

Turning around, Yuri flashed him a devilish smirk—his ebony eyes electrifying, exciting…yet, daunting, all combined in one.

And that alone was enough to make Karol tremble in his spot. “Y-you don’t mean…” He drawled out, his eyes slowly lengthening in size.

“Once you’ve sworn yourself as champion, that’s it.” Yuri began, narrowing his eyes as he delivered his next sentence.

“…Congratulations—you just bought yourself a ticket to hell.”


 

Chapter Text

The large clouds, once bleached in pasty white, became darker and dense, altering into various shades of gray and roaming in places where the light could barely penetrate through—blocking out the sun and its laconic, marigold backdrop.

Slowly and surely, the smell of incoming rain was becoming heavy in the air.

And yet, at the northern part of Dahngrest, where a grand three-story structure with a golden dome is located, remains resistant and unyielding from the forthcoming storm. Beyond the large glass pivot doors were a collection of marble statues depicting warriors of old as well as with other decorations containing ornamental grasses and fiery torches hanging above the balcony.

The bronze-plated logo above the transparent entrance spells out — ‘UNION HQ’ along with the long slogan written underneath:

UNITED WE STAND, DIVIDED WE FALL

NO ONE SHALL BE GREATER THAN ALL

True to its words, the second largest city of Terca Lumireis—famously known as Dahngrest held a reputation of unity and stability.

With their government mainly dictated by the representation of the five master guilds—Mary Kaufman of Fortune’s Market, Yeager of Leviathan’s Claw, Barbos of Blood Alliance, Markham of Ruins’ Gate, Nobis Celestial of Soul Smiths and Don Whitehorse of Altosk who also serves as the head of the whole Union—such a united collaboration of these organizations discouraged the necessity of imperial control by the Royal Knights and the Imperial Police Force within their domain.

The freedom to live as you should and the ability to control your own destiny—for ages, that was how the citizens of Dahngrest abided with and as a result, the city as a whole flourished brilliantly.

Inside the headquarters—Judith and Rita raced through the wide-open halls, motioning their heads from left through right, searching aimlessly for a familiar set of thick, wooden doors.

“Over there!” Judith cried, pointing toward the right direction.

Rita gritted her teeth, advancing ahead and kicking the doors wide open with her right foot. A loud crash followed shortly, resulting in a few gasps and startled screams to erupt on the other side of the large room. Casually brushing off the invisible clouds of dust from her hands, the short brunette leisurely entered with the female lancer by her side.

This was the Round Table—an exclusive space where other founding representatives of other guilds, alongside the main five hold conferences and meetings regarding any social issues, dilemmas and other concerns that may befall upon their people and home.

“Now what’s with all this nonsense?” A booming, masculine voice exclaimed from nearby, catching their attention.

The two turned their heads to focus on the large, bulky elder man with mid-long silver hair sitting at the center of the round table. His wrinkly face was covered in red face-paint while his black and white clothes, accentuated in golden trimmings were half buttoned—exposing a faint, claw-like scar engraved on his chest.

Taking a step forward, Judith spoke up. “We came to deliver urgent news.”

Alarmed, the latter hastily stood up and raised his arm high above his head.

“Dismissed,” He announced, bringing his open hand into a closed fist—a well-recognized gesture signaling the rest of the other guild representatives to arise from their seats and rush out from the conference room.

Judith and Rita remained where they stood, their eyes deeply fixated on the elder male as more guild members, young and old, hastily left the room without another word.

The second they heard the door close behind them, the elder man nodded his head.

“Explain yer selves.”

And so, they did—starting from how the metro train to Dahngrest abnormally stopped in the duration of its journey, how they confronted the people responsible for the hijacking and fought back, all the way to their brief summary of safely evacuating the passengers on board.

“They are currently undergoing treatment in the local hospital,” Judith went on, her expression as pensive as ever. “The number of casualties is low, however…” Pausing briefly, she lowered her head and added, “The Conductor and his crew, unfortunately didn’t make it.”

“What the old man said was true,” Rita joined in, quickly glancing over to the ponytailed man nearby before switching back to meet with narrowed, brown eyes. “This whole hijacking nonsense was crafted by Leviathan’s Claw.”

Processing their words, the elder man brought a hand close to his head and groaned. “…Your premonition was correct,” He muttered over to his right-hand man who stared back at him with an impish look. “Got anything to say, Raven?”

The other male called Raven shrugged his shoulders. “Can’t say I told ya so,” He replied, putting his hands behind his head and yawning. “But man! Looks like a storm’s brewing, huh?”

Ignoring this, Rita continued with, “Now that we can confirm that they were the ones who did it, I propose that we track them down and end this once and for all.”

“No, we must take caution,” Judith warned her partner, placing the tip of her finger under her chin. “We still don’t know if the hijack was intentional or not.” She hung her head as she uttered softly, “Maybe there’s more to their agenda than what meets the eye…”

“I agree with ya, darlin’,” Raven started, removing his feet from the table and standing up to face her. “Yeager is someone who’s unpredictable. Knowing him, he’s probably rearranging his scheme as we speak.” He then turned his attention to the elder man sitting beside him. Noting the latter’s furrowed eyebrows, he frowned. “Whatcha thinking, Don?”

Don Whitehorse—commonly known as The Don by those around him, sighed heavily. “I was hopin’ it wouldn’t come ta this…” Slowly, he rose from his chair and moved his head to face his subordinate. “Raven, do me a favor and send a word out to Belius.” As he said those words, a hearty chuckle escaped his throat. “Notify her ‘bout the recent incident and ask for her assistance.”

Getting up on his feet, the ponytailed man rests a hand under his chin. “Why me?” He complained in a lethargic matter.

The Don flashed him a cold, menacing glare.

Catching this, Raven stiffened in place.

“Got it,” He replied, the corner of his lips curving upwards to produce a crooked grin. “So long, ladies!” And off he went, heading for the doors and vanishing without a trace.

Silence impregnated the room.

“Good job completing your assignment,” Don finally spoke. “Leave and rest for now.”

Rita arched an eyebrow. “What about the follow-up?”

The Don shook his head. “There’s no need for that,” He assured her, crossing his arms again. “For now, we’ll have ta wait to receive Belius’s answer before we take action.” He then veered his focus over to the large window. Narrowing his eyes as he peered through the glass, he noticed the cloudy sky.

Following his example, Judith collected her hands behind her back and tipped her head to the side. “Oh, my…” She drawled out with a pleasant smile. “Looks like it’s about to rain.”


 

After scouring through the city streets for a good long hour and a half, Ioder and Flynn finally succeeded in locating a public inn. Unfortunately, most of the rooms were unavailable and preoccupied with other guests, which left one more remaining.

Ioder was persistent to secure the availability and in the end, managed to win through the efforts of bestowing the clerk and the concierge with expensive trinkets he kept beforehand.

Once they’ve acquired the key to their room, the blonde pair took their time walking up the staircase. Few minutes passed and they found their designated room—on the far, right side of the second floor.

With Ioder possessing the key, he proceeded to insert it through the lock, twisted it and thrust it open. Upon entering the room, they were greeted with a small table and two chairs, red rectangular carpet which covered the center of the wooden flooring, a bedside table with a lamp and an open balcony beyond the rear of the space.

“…Ioder.”

Hearing his name being called, the prince turned to face his bewildered-looking knight. “Yes?”

Flynn swallowed the lump in his throat. “Um…how do I put this?” He mumbled to himself, scratching the back of his ruffled, golden hair. Releasing an exasperated sigh, he raised his chin to look at his master. Putting on a brave face, he gestured an arm over to his right and added, “Nobody mentioned about…this.”

Curious as to what he meant, he motioned his head over to the bed laid before him. His eyes slowly widened.

It was a single, queen-sized bed—perfect for two individuals.

Ioder felt his cheeks begin to burn.

“This must be some kind of mistake,” Flynn muttered, completely tomato red as well. “We should notify the staff as soon as possible.” As he whirled his body around and rushed for the door, he was surprised to find his master remaining still in his spot. “…Ioder?”

“I’ll sleep on the floor,” Ioder suggested, glancing at the knight from a mere distance. “You should take the bed.”

Flynn blinked. “No, I cannot allow you to do that!” He cried all of a sudden, his sky-blue eyes fueled with earnestness. “Please, let me take the floor and you take the bed!”

Creasing his eyebrows, Ioder shook his head. “Flynn, it’s fine.” He insisted, grinning pleasantly. “Anyway, I’ll be in the bathroom.”

Opening the door to the left, Ioder walked inside and shut it closed behind him.

Once he was alone, he leaned back against the door and exhaled deeply. Something was twisting inside his stomach and he didn’t know how to feel about it. Shaking his head, he scolded himself to stop worrying.

“It’s just a bed,” He told himself, nodding in agreement. “There’s nothing meaningful behind it.”

Moving forward, he stopped in front of the sink before looking straight ahead, his emerald eyes staring intensely at his reflection on the large square-shaped mirror.

Dark bags under his eyes, his already disheveled hair, and dry, fair skin…

Despite his disarray look, he remained in good spirits.

Ioder turned to his right where he found a row of towels situated on the hanging cabinets. Wasting no time, he began to unbutton his shamrock green coat, his brown pants and so forth. One by one, he discarded an article of clothing until he was left with nothing else on his back. He then walked past the shower curtains and once he seized hold of the handle, he pulled it toward the left.

A low moan escaped through his throat as his naked body was sprinkled with the inviting, warmness of the water droplets. And for the remaining ten minutes, he stayed inside the bathroom to cleanse himself of the dirt and grime that enveloped him—shampooing his hair and conditioning it, the usual bathing norm.

Once he was done, Ioder resorted to putting back his pants and white long-sleeved shirt, with a few of the buttons on his collar untouched and half-exposed. As he exited out of the bathroom, he was surprised to find Flynn sitting on one of the chairs provided for them.

The silver armor he originally wore was no longer present, becoming replaced with a black long-sleeved shirt, a blue and white vest and black pants. From the looks of it, he seemed to be inspecting the scrapes on his White Knight sword.

Scouting a bit closer, Ioder approached the knight, announcing that he’s finished occupying the bathroom.

Whirling his head to face his master, Flynn grinned. Placing his sword on top of the empty table, he stood up and leisurely strolled over to the half-opened door. Before he could go in, he heard a voice call out his name. Freezing in his steps, he turned around. “What is it?”

“…Something is bothering you,” Ioder pointed out. “Would you mind telling me what it is?”

“It’s nothing,” Flynn replied, forcing a grin on his face. However, the lack of emotion written on his expression and the falter in his tone of voice was rather off-putting.

Ioder stared at him, unconvinced.

Finally, the knight drew in a sharp breath. “I’m just trying to remember how to perform my artes.”

“Your artes?”

Flynn nodded.

“Basic, strike, arcane, magic…they are terms that refer to the power of combat, healing, and enchantment. As master and champion, you and I are the only ones who have the ability to conjure it.” He shifted his attention directly back to his sword which rested on the table. He frowned slightly. “Though I’m not too sure if we were able to unlock them.”

“Is there a requirement to attain them?” Ioder asked, getting interested.

“There should be…” Flynn murmured, placing a hand under his chin as he pondered over the thought. “If I remember correctly, the two of us must be able to form some sort of link with one another—building stable teamwork is one example of such.”

Listening to his words, Ioder smiled in return. “Then don’t you think you’ve already gained them?” When he received a blank look from the latter, his grin lengthened its size. “I got to know a little bit of you…” He walked a few steps onward before stopping, making sure that they had a gap that separated them, not too close and not too far from each other’s sights nor presence. “And you got to know a little bit of me…”

Flynn chuckled lightly. “That’s true,” He agreed along. “Though I hear that we need to be able to reach a much deeper level of understanding.” He lowered his head, his eyes losing a bit of its shimmering glow as he whispered softly under his breath. “Which means, there’s a chance that I might have to tell you…”

“Flynn?”

Flinching from his spot, the knight turned to glance at his master once more. “Never mind. Perish the thought,” He replied with another forceful smile. “I’ll be hitting the showers. You should go on and get some rest.”

Before Ioder could get a chance to say something, Flynn had already entered the bathroom and closed the door. Sighing deeply, the blonde noble sauntered over to the open balcony to get some fresh air.

Leaning forward on the railing, Ioder motioned his head to the right, silently admiring the view from down below.

For a city that’s renowned for its fearsome and lively atmosphere, the public streets were surprisingly dull and lifeless except for the sounds of sirens filling in the mysterious enigma of the area.

He moved his head to the left direction.

From the corner of his eye—he saw it.

There, standing under the dimly-lit street lamp was a sole figure with long, wavy snow-white hair. His attire consisted of mostly reds and yellows which made it somewhat effortless to spot him right away within the dreary background.

Equipped on his right hand was a red-purple blade with spirals of energy magically flowing in and out of its hollow center.

Interested by this strange phenomenon, Ioder squinted his eyes, hoping to get a better inspection of this cryptic-looking individual and their weapon.

Something about him seemed oddly familiar…

A clap of lightning rented the air and within seconds, the rolling boom of thunder reverberated overhead. Frightened, Ioder instinctively leaped back inside the comforts of the room with his hands already gripping the handle of the sliding doors.

Before he could do so, he snuck a quick glimpse back at a certain direction.

To his disappointment, the mysterious person was gone.


 

Ethereal white—so warm and bright.

Blinking her eyes a few times, Estelle motioned her head back and forth as she tried to make sense of her surroundings.

“My dearest Estellise,” A feminine voice spoke up.

Startled by this, the pink-haired woman followed the direction of the sound. Her eyes slowly widened as she discovered a couple donning lavish clothing appropriately fitting for nobility standing a mere distance away from where she stood.

Bringing her hand close to her chest, Estelle inhaled a sharp breath.

“…M-mother?” was all she could sputter out, drinking in the appearance of the long, rosemary-haired woman with sparkling, violet eyes. She then fixated her attention over to the male standing beside her—whose appearance held an uncanny resemblance to Ioder, though with a few additions like his stubble and glasses situated on the bridge of his nose. “And father…”

In response, the older man chuckled lightly. He slightly crouched down to his knees, spreading his arms wide open as if encouraging her to come forth. “We miss you so terribly, my little star,” He expressed, his facial features softening as he delivered his sentence. “Come and give Papa a hug,”

Estelle cracked a smile, her eyes gleaming with tears.

Without a second thought, she scrambled to her feet and rushed forward, ready to tackle her father and mother right then and there…only to pass through their bodies like a ghost.

Her steps slowed from their frantic pace as she hastily moved her head back, sadness clouding her expression upon realizing that she couldn’t feel nor touch her parents.

“You are next in line for the throne,” Another voice rang, belonging to an older male.

This time, Estelle instantly recognized this.

Peering over her shoulder, she watched as her deceased parents became replaced with her Uncle, Captain Schwann Oltorain and Master Drake Dropwart…

Her chest tightened as Estelle was suddenly reminded of their assumed deaths prior to the massacre.

Unfazed by her hesitation, Alexei emitted a half smile. “As a member of House Heurassein, your calling in life is to ascend the throne as our next Queen,” He proclaimed with sheer confidence. “That alone is your only purpose.”

Before she could give him a proper reply, she noticed a shadow lurking beside her. Hesitated, she slowly dipped her head to take a look.

Purple fur and the pipe resting on the tips of his mouth was the first thing she noticed right away.

“…A dog?” She mumbled, her facial features softening as she eyed the canine before her. As she crouched her knees and extended her hand out in greeting, the canine growled at her.

Rising from the ground, the canine sprinted toward her general direction with a knife situated on its mouth at the ready.

Consumed with fear, Estelle dodged the other way.

She turned around, her eyes broadening as she watched the canine dashed forward with its sharp blade aiming at a certain Commandant.

Estelle jolted, rising abruptly from the bed as she fluttered her eyes wide open. Breathing heavily, she covered her head with her hands as she attempted to steady her ragged breathing—escaping her accursed dreamland before she could release a scream. Wrapping her arms around her shaking form, she shut her eyes and hung her head.

“…Estelle?”

Sniffing, the pink-haired woman reopened her eyes and raised her chin. Frightened seafoam eyes clashed with cool, deep ebony.

“You okay?” Yuri asked as he settled down to sit next to her on the bed. “You were tossing and turning in your sleep,”

Hidden underneath the covers, Estelle clenched her fists. “I had a nightmare,” She admitted, still shaken. When she opened her mouth to reveal more, she shook her head. Instead, she enclosed a hand to grip on her right arm, taking a sudden interest on the floor.

Taking note of this, Yuri sighed. “It’s just a dream.” He said in an effort to ease her worry. “And it’s not real so don’t worry too much about it.”

Estelle bobbed her head. “I know,” She mumbled softly.

A moment of stillness ensued between them.

Once she managed to calm down, Estelle seized the opportunity to check on her surroundings.

Unfamiliar with the room she was currently in, her eyebrows furrowed.

As if he read her mind, Yuri answered with, “We’re in the garrison, located in Dahngrest.”

Estelle blinked. “…Dahngrest?”

Yuri nodded intently.

“How did we…” There was a touch of hesitation in her voice as more questions began popping in and out of her head.

“The train stopped working entirely. Luckily, Rita and Judy had an alternative and managed to get us out, along with the passengers.” When he saw her confused look, he chuckled lightly. “Anyway, the important thing is that we’re safe and away from danger.”

Estelle dipped her head downwards, surprised to discover that she was no longer wearing civilian clothes. Instead, she wore a pink cotton nightgown which stretched all the way down to her knees. From the corner of her eye, she took notice of the swordsman—just like her, he also changed his clothes into a simple black tank top and gray sweatpants.

She then reverted her gaze to her exposed forearms and knees that were wrapped with bandages. Frowning, she brought a hand over to her cheek, running her fingers across the white patch on her bruised cheek.

Upon contact, she shut her eyes and chewed on her bottom lip.

“How long was I asleep?”

Yuri shrugged. “Almost the whole morning.” He set his gaze to the clock on their bedside table and added in, “It’s almost 1 pm.”

Slipping out from the mattress, Estelle pulled herself together and hastily staggered toward the door.

“Woah, hey!” Yuri suddenly cried, chasing after her. “Estelle!”

Ignoring him, Estelle approached the door and extended her hand out to twist the knob. As soon as she managed to get the door to open halfway, something tugged her by the wrist.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

Without turning her head to face him, Estelle answered, “Please, I need to leave! I have to make sure that the passengers are alive and well!” Wriggling herself out from his hold, she proceeded to seize hold of the doorknob. She managed to crack the door open, only for it to get shut abruptly in front of her. Before she could protest, she was suddenly lifted off from the ground.

“Ahhh!” She cried in a panic.

Yuri shifted his arms, making sure to keep her nestled in comfortably. “Damn, you’re heavy,”

Estelle glared at him, elbowing him directly on the chest.

Brushing off the pain, Yuri forced himself to move forward. “You’re in no shape to be moving around,” He stressed, “What happens if you pass out again? I won’t be there to catch you, you know.”

Estelle furiously shook her head. “Yuri, please,” She insisted, struggling to release herself from his tight grip. “Just…let me go!”

Hearing this, Yuri smirked. “Alright then,”

Pausing in his tracks, he loosened his grip on her and began to dip her down in rapid motion.

Eyes widening, Estelle immediately wrapped her arms around his neck in fear that he’ll drop her right then and there. In desperation, she called out his name. A minute later and nothing happened. Perplexed, she slowly looked up.

Facing him once more, she took in the sight of his mischievous grin.

“Gotcha,” He teased, followed by another light-hearted chuckle.

Estelle puffed her cheeks, embarrassed that she had fallen into his trap.

Eventually, Yuri’s laughter ceased to an end. He then averted his focus to the pink-haired woman in his arms who stared back at him with an annoyed expression.

In response, Yuri countered back with a lop-sided grin.

Estelle quickly motioned her head the other way to avert her gaze, but the sudden rosiness of her cheeks gave her away.

Without warning, the door opened—revealing a bespectacled red-haired woman and a young boy, each possessing a tray in their hands.

Bemused with the sight, a sly grin appeared across the woman’s lips. “Oh? Are we interrupting?” She asked, wiggling her eyebrows suggestively.

“N-not at all,” Estelle spoke up, breaking the awkward tension in the room. She threw the man a quick look who silently nodded.

On cue, Yuri squatted his knees and gently put her down.

As soon as her feet had touched the wooden flooring, Estelle quickly set herself down on the edge of the mattress.

Once that was finished, the older female smiled. Silently, the two entered the room and laid out the serving of food on the bedside table.

“The name’s Mary Kaufman, senior president of Fortune’s Market.” She introduced herself and then gestured over to the boy standing next to her. “And this is Karol Capel, head of the garrison.”

“Nice to meet you!” Karol responded with a wave.

Smiling softly, Estelle graciously bowed her head. “I am Estellise,” She began, “But you can just call me— “

“Estelle, right?” Karol cuts in, grinning sheepishly. “Yeah, I know. Yuri already filled us in with everything and what happened last night.”

Becoming reminded of the train incident, Estelle inhaled a sharp breath. “Tell me, what happened to the passengers?” She asked, quite determined to know the answer. “Are they going to be alright?”

Kaufman nodded firmly. “They are in good hands, so you can relax now,” She said with a wistful smile. “As for you, young lady, I’m afraid that you are still undergoing treatment.” As she said those words, she moved closer to the pink-haired woman. “May I?” She asked, referring to the latter’s bandaged arms.

Estelle bit her lower lip. Nevertheless, she abided.

Kaufman narrowed her eyes as she searched for clues of any possible openings or tearing from the bandages she assembled about a few hours ago. A few minutes passed and a smile materialized on her face.

“Everything’s good,” She spoke up, releasing her grip. “The doctor prescribed us with medications earlier,” Once more, she gestured over to the tray on the bedside table and added, “Over there, you’ll find the pills in one of the empty cups. Be sure to take them, eat your food and then rest afterward.”

Again, Estelle nodded. “Thank you,” And then bowed her head in respect. “I’m truly in your debt.”

Kaufman grinned. “Oh, there’s no need for that.” Standing up, she darted her focus on the dark-haired man. “Keep an eye on this one, you hear? And if anything comes up, let Karol be aware of it so he can speed dial me.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Yuri nodded.

“Good boy,” She commented before switching her gaze to the other male. “Karol,”

Quickly, Karol straightened his posture. “Yes, ma’am!” He cried, forming a salute over his head.

“You take care of everything here,” She instructed him, her voice full of authority. “I’ll be back shortly.”

Karol nodded his head firmly. “Right!”

Bidding farewell, Kaufman retreated back to the half-opened door and exited out, her footsteps echoing through the halls.


 

“Judith and Rita are already downstairs,” Karol changed the topic, catching their attention. “They’re gonna come here in a few minutes.”

Without bothering to wait for their response, he went over to the bedside table and took the tray. Placing it next to the pink-haired woman, he proceeded to offer the next tray to her partner. “It’s minestrone soup. Hope you like it.”

Estelle mutters a soft, “Thank you,” And took the spoon next to the bowl. Dipping the utensil and lifting it upwards, she brought it close to her lips.

Blowing on it a few times, she consumes it whole. A rich, warm sensation filled her stomach, uplifting her spirits. “This is delicious,”

“Not too bad,” Yuri joined in, shortly after munching and consuming his own portion of the soup. “Did you make this?”

“Nah, President Kaufman did,” Karol admitted, grinning sheepishly. “All I did was cut the vegetables and stir the broth," Chuckling, he added in, “So, where’d you guys come from?”

Estelle tilted her head to the side, shooting him a confused look.

“You two were boarding the same train as Judith and Rita, right?” When he gained a nod from one of them, he continued. “So, that must mean you started from somewhere.”

Yuri snuck a glance over to the princess who was sitting next to him. She looked troubled and hesitated. Taking note of this, Yuri made it his duty to answer the impending question. “Heliord.”

“Really?” Karol suddenly cried, genuinely surprised. “As in, the same city where the blueblood massacre occurred?”

Yuri frowned. “The blueblood massacre?”

“You know, the one that happened about a few days ago. The nobles who were attending this huge party were killed. I heard that it was an attempted assassination by Leviathan’s Claw but who knows? Whoever whose killers were, not even the Imperial Police force had a chance against them.”

“Were there any survivors?” Estelle joined in on the conversation.

“No clue,” Karol said, sadly. “There were too many victims to count. I even heard that the princess and the prince’s bodies were nowhere to be found.”

Yuri arched an eyebrow. “Maybe they’re alive?”

“I hope so…” Karol mumbled softly. “Without a member of the royal family ascending the Zaphias throne, who knows what’s gonna happen.”

“Why so worried?” Yuri asked curiously. “Isn’t Dahngrest free of imperial control?”  

“Well, yeah…but when it comes to diplomatic negotiations overseas, Zaphias is the epicenter of everything—the bedrock of international relations and prosperity.” Karol explained further, “We may not be dependent on them, but their presence alone is symbolic to mobilizing and communicating with every major city of Terca Lumireis. Since the king’s death about fifteen years ago, Dahngrest became the go-to place for other representatives from different regions to band together and hold a conference. So far, it’s been going well but…there hasn’t been much progress since.”

Sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, Karol cleared his throat and continued forth with his account. “I’m not sure if you’re aware of this but there’s been a rise of secret organizations lately. And thanks to Raven and a few other spies on our side, we managed to crack down two out of the big three leads.” Extending his hand out, he proceeded to lift one of his fingers to count each respective group. “There’s Yeager, Leviathan’s Claw and then Barbos from the Blood Alliance.”

“Those two organizations you’ve mentioned…” Estelle began, becoming intrigued. “Aren’t they a part of the five master guilds that govern Dahngrest?”

Karol nodded, confirming her suspicions.

“That’s the problem.” He went on, sighing deeply. “Right now, there’s this big witch hunt to find the alleged perpetrators who are in league with them. In the three months since it’s been publicized, about fifty people have already pleaded guilty. Some of them were able to offer us valuable information to track down the rest who were hidden from sight.”

As he finished his entire speech, the boy brought a hand to nurse his temple. “I feel bad for the Don. For many years, he trusted those people only to find out that they’ve been lying behind his back the whole time. He must be in great pain for trialing them but at the same time, he knows it’s for the best.”

“Taking the job that no one else wants to do,” Yuri muttered lowly under his breath, though not loud enough for the others to hear. “…I understand that feeling.”

“How is the current state of Dahngrest?” Estelle asked as she placed her empty bowl into the tray.

“It’s not corrupted, to say the least…” Karol trailed off, thinking it over. “But in terms of who’s in control, only the Don and President Kaufman are the only ones left since the guilds that Nobis and Markham were in are suspected to be conspiring with the previous two. Sometimes, the Chief—err, I mean, Clint and Tison who runs the Hunting Blades, would pitch in and help them out. Judith and Rita would do the same.”

Burying his face on his hands, the boy groaned. “Meanwhile that’s all happening, I’m just here doing nothing and waiting.” He admitted, “I mean, sure I’m okay with combat and all but…I just wish they could give me a chance to prove my worth, you know? I hate not doing anything.”

Hearing this, Estelle creased her eyebrows together. For some reason, she couldn’t help but project a certain cousin of hers onto the sulking boy. “Don’t say that,” She began, startling the latter. “You’ve done more than your fair share. Your time will come eventually, I’m sure of it.”

Karol blinked a few times, surprised and touched by her declaration. He turned to glance over at Yuri who in return offered him an encouraging smirk. Averting his focus back to the pink-haired woman, he grinned rather sheepishly. After a brief hesitation, he spoke. “Thanks, Estelle.”

“What’s going on here?” A voice suddenly spoke up, catching their attention.

Turning their heads toward the direction of the door, they were greeted with familiar faces.

“Judith!” Karol cried aloud, quickly getting up on his feet and running ahead. “Rita!”

The female lancer smiled pleasantly as she spread her arms out, welcoming the boy into her arms. “I see that you’ve been taking care of our guests.” She pointed out, ruffling his tuft of brown hair in an affectionate manner. “Good work.”

Meanwhile, Rita veered her stern gaze over to the dark-haired man. Folding her arms, she jerked her chin in greeting.

In response, Yuri gave her a two-fingered salute.

Rolling her eyes, the teenager looked elsewhere and spotted a blob of pink nearby. Walking forward, she approached the slightly dazed princess.

“You doing okay?” She asked, her tone of voice surprisingly soft and gentle.

Estelle nodded meekly, at the same time trying to process the bucket of information she had just learned a few minutes ago. “…Rita?”

“What’s up?”

“I would like to express my gratitude,” Estelle assured as she looked up to meet her basil-green eyes. “For saving the passengers and for stopping the train.”

The brunette shrugged it off, deciding that it wasn’t too big of a deal.  “Don’t you wanna give yourself some credit?” She hinted, a bit annoyed.

To her surprise, the pink-haired woman shook her head. She then turned to her right where she found the blue-haired woman standing nearby.

Feeling eyes on her, the lancer moved her head and produced a smile. “Hello there,” She said as she approached her with the boy in tow. “I’m Judith. You must be Yuri’s girlfriend, I presume?”

Estelle blushed. “P-pardon?”

“She’s just pulling your leg,” Yuri came in to whisper in her ear.

Estelle tipped her head, a bit confused. Even so, she mustered a smile. “…Okay. Well, my name is Estellise but you can call me Estelle.”

“What a lovely name,” Judith cooed, “And I’m guessing that the two of you are master and servant?”

“…Master and servant?” Estelle repeated after her, sounding puzzled.

“You must be since Yuri over here is a champion.” Judith pressed on, keeping her voice steady and calm. “And I believe you’ve already met with my wonderful master and lover— “

“Judith!” Rita cried out, the blush on her face deepening. “Estellise, don’t listen to her! We’re not together!”

Amused by this, the lancer shot her a questionable look. “Oh? That’s not what you said the other night.”

Karol laughed boisterously. “That’s what she said!” He exclaimed, only to earn a smack on his head. Right away, he brought his hands to nurse his throbbing wound. “Ow! What was that for?” And shot a glare at her.

Avoiding the others’ curious glances, Rita turned her gaze over to her partner who flashed her a wink. Seeing this, her blush developed into a burning flame. “S-s-shut up!” She stammered, her voice surprisingly high-pitched and brittle than usual.

All Judith could do was smile. “Anyway~” She spoke up again, directing back to the matter at hand. “I have a question for you, Estelle. Was Yuri in his doll state before you summoned him?”

Blinking, Estelle took a moment to mull the thought over. A moment later, she nodded.

“Then it’s settled—you and Yuri really are master and servant.” Judith reinforced, clapping her hands together. “Now, another question.” This time, she averted her attention over to the swordsman. “Last night, I noticed during our fight that you weren’t performing your artes. Have you or have you not unlocked them”

Yuri frowned slightly. “Beats me…” He murmured, uncertain himself.

Rita scoffed. “It’s a yes or no answer.” She blurted out. “So, what is it?”

No response.

Growing restless, the teenager took a step forward. “Estellise, give me your hand,”

Fortunately, the pink-haired woman heard her and did what she was told.

Accepting her hand, Rita squinted her eyes as she searched for something on her exposed skin. She then fixed her eyes to the princess’s exposed neck, then her face and finally, her legs. “It doesn’t seem like you did…” She uttered, releasing the other’s hand.

Yuri cocked his head to the side. “How can you tell?”

Rita brought her hand over to her neck. “By this,” She answered, pointing a finger to her yellow choker. “As the master, Estellise should have some kind of emblem on her skin just like mine.” She glimpsed at her female partner. “As for the champion’s case…”

Hearing this, Judith nodded. “Karol, close your eyes,” She told the boy next to her.

Karol bobbed his head, quickly looking away. For extra measure, he covered an arm over his eyes to prevent himself from watching what was going to happen.

Once Judith was certain that the boy was looking away, she took the opportunity to grab hold of the end of her crop top and slowly pulled it upwards—revealing iridescent, scale-like tattoos on her covered chest. At the center of the tattoo was a fiery, red flame—Rita’s symbolism officiating her title as the lancer’s master.

Estelle snuck a peek over to Yuri, who seemed to be trying his best to keep his poker face intact. Then again, it was clearly obvious that he was ogling at Judith’s tattoos. Such a thought made Estelle feel secretly self-secured of her own body. Of course, he’d be attracted to someone as enticing as her.

Unknown to her, Judith caught this and chuckled lightly.

“As for the champion’s case, we bear unusual patterns on our skins as shown here.” She explained, trailing her finger lightly across her scarred chest. “Once you’ve established a bond with your master, you’ll be able to activate your artes and fight vigorously.”

“Not only that, but the masters themselves would gain access to the champion’s system as well.” Rita joined in. “Judith performs aerial-based attacks. As for me, I’m magic-based and to perform those, I’ll have to borrow some of Judith’s driving mana to unleash it.”

Estelle chewed on her lower lip. “And how exactly do we activate it?”

Judith and Rita shared a quick look.

Finally, it was Judith who stepped in. “There are two options,” She began, “However, I need to warn you that both alternatives are difficult. Even so, would you still like to pursue them?”

“Yes,” Estelle answered without hesitation, earning a startled look from her male counterpart.

Judith curved her lips upwards. “Excellent. Now, the first one is quite simple—as a master, you must be willing to train and collaborate with your respective champion. This would take years, almost a decade to achieve this.”

“I don’t think we have time for that,” Yuri expressed, threading a hand through his long, dark mane.

“Okay, well that leaves you with one more left…” As she said those words, her smile slightly crinkled, almost resembling a frown. “Mana transfusion.”

“Unlike the previous one, this one is short but difficult. However, I believe that it’s worth every second. Not only does it force you to dive into one another’s subconscious but you will also get to relive those memories as to how the other did.” Rita added in, her expression somber. “You have no control over anything. You will simply be a bystander, watching the events happen as a movie.”

“The perks of this is that you’ll be able to grow closer with each other,” Judith noted, smiling. “And if you can get through this, then you’ll be able to acquire your markings and activate your artes.” Lowering her crop top, she proceeded to poke the boy nearby.

Removing his hands from his ears, Karol looked around. For some reason, there was an air of awkwardness in the room. “Did I miss something?” When nobody responded back, he pursed his lips. “Come on, guys! Let me in on this!”

“…When should we get started?” Yuri spoke up after a moment of silence.

Rita’s next set of words caught them off-guard.

“Unless you wanna live to see another day, I recommend doing it as soon as possible.”

Chapter Text

The rain grew vicious and heavy.

In the depths of the forest, a young boy quickly scampered with fear etched in his large eyes. A gust of wind passed by, slapping him across his reddened cheeks in the process.

Ignoring the burning sensation on his face, he kept sprinting for dear life. Clutching tightly on the hem of his dampened shirt, he frantically turned his head back and forth and exclaimed at the top of his lungs, “Mommy! Daddy! Where are you?”

No response.

Getting desperate, the boy cried for his parents once more.

The sound of brash howling pierced through his ears, causing him to abruptly freeze in place. Running toward a nearby tree, the boy quickly hid himself to take cover. Gasping for breath, he slowly motioned his head to the direction of the howling noises.

The rustling of the branches above him caused his heart to thump rapidly. He brought both his hands to his mouth as he held his breath in. The boy proceeded to close his eyes shut, reminding himself over and over again that everything was going to be alright and that his parents would find him.

All of a sudden, something landed in front of him. He could hear heavy breathing—it was definitely not coming from him.

Curious, the boy cracked one eye open and tipped his chin upwards. His mouth partly opened as he saw a looming shadow before him, staring back at him with a predatory-like gaze.

With tears spilling from the corners of his eyes, the boy pushed himself further and further inside the bark of the tree. The shadow took notice of this and staggered forward. The boy watched as the stranger clumsily approached him and grew anxious, moving his head multiple times to find a possible escape route.

But there was none.

At that point, he knew that this was the end of the line.

Heaving a deep breath, the boy did his best to put on a valiant face as he peered back up to take a look at the stranger before him. As soon as they locked eyes, there was a hint of a spark between them.

“Y-you…” The shadow slurred, followed by brash coughing. “What are you looking at, you punk?” And just like that, the shadow fell to his knees and collapsed on the dampened soil.

The boy blinked once, then twice.

He waited for a bit, wondering if this strange man before him would somewhat stand back up…but he never did. The boy watched as he saw the latter’s unconscious body breathe in and out, a strong implication that he was still very much alive and that he must’ve succumbed to his sleep.

Looking around, he grabbed hold of a tiny stick and slowly approached the unconscious figure. As he closed the distance, the boy took in the appearance of the stranger—it was a man with reddish-yellow hair and a combat suit.

The twin daggers he held on each of his hands were a few inches away from where he laid with countless slashes and gashes of blood adorning his wearied facial features, arms, legs, and abdomen.

“…M-mister?” The boy mumbled, though not too loud in fear that he might attract other monsters lurking nearby. “…Are you alright?”

When he didn’t gain a response, the boy grew worried.

“Pauly!”

The boy flinched in his spot and turning around, he caught sight of his parents and a few Imperial Knights making their way toward them.

"M-Mommy, Daddy!" He exclaimed, throwing away the piece of the branch as he urged them to come over. "Quick! This man…he needs help!"


 

For two hours, the discussion about mana transfusion—with Judith and Rita filling in the details of what else to expect and the instructions to initiate the practice, was heavily touched upon.

The second option to unlocking a champion’s artes as well as officiating the bond between master and servant, a shared connection between the two must be implemented—otherwise known as mana transfusion or mana transfer for short.

“Let us know if you’re done,” Judith replied as she sauntered to the entrance of the room with the short brunette trailing behind her. Peering over her shoulder, she offered them a pleasant smile. “I wish you both the best,”

“And don’t get too carried away, you hear?” Rita added in as she averted her attention to the swordsman and then to the pink-haired woman. “Remember, this ritual is binding. Once it’s been made, it’s permanent. I say that you two should talk it over before you do it,”

Listening intently to the conversation, Karol took the opportunity to speak up. “If you need anything, let us know and we’ll come rushing over,” He piped in, followed by a big grin as he hoisted his arm high to give them thumbs up. “I’ll even cook some food just in case,”

Yuri nodded. “Looking forward to it,”

“Thank you so much,” Estelle expressed, bowing her head respectfully.

Bidding farewell to their new friends, they left the room and closed the door behind them—leaving the pair to their lonesome. Sneaking glances at each other, Estelle was the first to break contact and turn the other way, wrapping her arms around herself as she shuffled her feet.

Yuri, on the other hand, simply smirked and looked up to stare at the ceiling with a blank expression.

There was nothing but awkward silence and the heavy shower of rain beyond the window to fill in the empty void.

“…Yuri?”

“Hmm?”

“Have you ever…mana transferred with someone before?” Estelle asked softly.

Thinking it over, Yuri half-shrugged. “Can’t say I have,”

Estelle meekly nodded. “I see,”

Taking note of her hesitated tone, Yuri sighed. Placing his arms behind his head, he laid down on the mattress and murmured lowly, “Damn, never knew that it’ll be like this…” Glancing over to the princess who hung her head as she stared blankly at the wooden floorboards, he frowned. “Look, if it gets too uncomfortable for you, we could always just do the other one,”

Estelle bit her lower lip. Shaping her hands into fists, she clutched onto the skirt of her nightgown and furiously shook her head. “I…” She paused briefly to take a deep breath. Lifting her chin, she looked at the swordsman with a hint of hesitation embedded in her eyes. “What do you feel about this, Yuri? With this whole mana transfusion, I mean,”

“I honestly don’t care, really,” He admitted as he looked the other way while raking his long, dark mane. “What about you?”

Estelle opened her mouth to answer, only to fall back on her words and looked elsewhere.

Taking note of this, Yuri sighed. “Estelle, look at me,”

Slowly, the princess turned her head to face him.

“I can tell that you’re conflicted,” He began with his voice surprisingly gentle. “And I know that we’ve only met for a short while. But for the past few days that we’ve been together, you’ve proven to me that you’re strong and capable of anything. As I’ve said before, you don’t have to force yourself to do this if it’s too uncomfortable,” A pause. “Now, be honest with me. What do you want to do?”

Touched by his words, Estelle mustered a small smile. “I…want to save my people as much as I can,” She replied, collecting her hands together in a firm grip. “I don’t have a lot of options left and I know that this whole ordeal sounds ludicrous but even so, I refuse to change my answer,” With determination in her eyes, she declared to him, “Yuri, I still want to mana transfer with you. I don’t care if it’s binding or permanent. I want to do this to get stronger and to help you unlock the artes that are a part of your title as champion,”

Yuri furrowed his eyebrows. “But are you really sure?” He pressed on, “You heard how Judy and Rita described it as. You have no control with what you’re dealing with,”

Estelle firmly nodded. “I’m fully aware of it as well as the consequences that come after. If this is what it takes to save my people, then I’m willing to do whatever it takes,” She explained, her cheeks burning red as she muttered her next set of words, “And maybe…I won’t be such a burden to you,”

Yuri frowned. “Come again?”

Estelle quickly forced a smile. “That said,” She began, changing the topic with enthusiasm in her voice. “Would you be willing to still do the mana transfusion with me?”

The swordsman thought about it for a while, wondering if this was really the best option for both of them to take. As much as he kept assuring himself that he didn’t mind, he knew that deep down, that this was a problem.

His tragic history, mistakes, and actions…all of them are going to be seen and exposed to Estelle and for some strange reason, that terrified him.

Once she’s seen everything, how would she react?

Would she perceive him differently or worse, would she run away from him?

Everything about him, since the day he was born into this world—he was bound to cause so much trouble to any individual he’d met, a walking disaster or a devil’s advocate as one might call it.

While this continues on his journey together with Estelle—for the first time, it didn’t seem to bother him as much as he used to. Somehow, he felt at ease and comforted, knowing that he had finally found someone who held no knowledge about his basic background nor the crimes that he’d committed with his bloodied hands.

Somehow, that gave him hope to want to start over again.

…But if this was what she really wanted, then so be it.

As he already knew that shortly after the mana transfusion, she’ll refuse to see him again and possibly distant herself from him.

It was expected, after all.

“I’m alright with anything,” He said finally, breaking the silence.

Removing his shirt, he inhaled a deep breath as he felt a sudden cold chill along his fair skin. Putting his hands on each side of his hips and crossing his legs together, he flashed the princess a confident smile and declared, “I’m ready when you’re ready,”

Bobbing her head, Estelle proceeded to bring her hand forward.

Her cheeks flushed crimson as her fingers made contact with his slightly toned chest. As she lightly brushed the surface of the skin, she could feel the steady beating of Yuri’s heart and for a few seconds, could’ve sworn she heard him click his tongue prior to her touch.

Clearing her throat, she ignored Yuri’s intense gaze on her as she fixed her concentration on implanting her hand at the center of his chest.

A purple-colored formula bearing different numerals and symbols materialized out of thin air. Sneaking a glance at the dark-haired man, who nodded for confirmation, Estelle focused her attention back to the formula.

Without thinking, she lightly tapped the center of the formula.

A blast of pure white enveloped the entire room, swallowing the pair and everything else in whole.


 

Blinking his eyes a few times, Yuri turned around as he tried to make sense of his surroundings.

From what he could make out, he seemed to be standing in the middle of a rather lavish-looking hallway. Narrowing his eyes, he unconsciously slid his hand to his Second Star sword situated on his left hip. With his hand gripping the helm of his weapon, he leisurely strolled forward, making sure to keep quiet and to keenly observe the entire area for any intrusion of enemies.

From the corner of his eye, he noticed a half-opened door encrusted with white and gold. Curious, he made his way toward it and as he popped his head through the small opening, he found himself in what appears to be a nursery room.

Sliding himself through the door, he took a moment to appreciate the beautiful star-themed wallpaper and pink carpeting. Animal plush of various sizes and picture books were scattered all over the floor, with a wooden rocking chair located next to the large white crib.

Smiling, Yuri approached the contraption and dipped his head through the white veil. Resting comfortably, underneath a blanket, was a small baby with tiny specks of pink hair sprouting on top of her head.

The swordsman’s eyes widened as he realized that the bundle of joy was none other than Estelle. Ever so carefully, he reached out toward her but before he could do so, he heard soft humming from behind him. Quickly, Yuri angled his body with his sword at the ready.

To his surprise, he was standing face-to-face with an older woman with long, pink hair and warm violet eyes. He stood there, inching closer to the crib to protect his young master as he waited for the latter’s next move.

The woman smiled earnestly and took a step forward.

Yuri remained in his spot, his eyes slowly widening as he saw the woman walk toward him, only to slip through him as if she were a ghost. Looking over his shoulder, he watched as the woman greeted the small babe inside the crib, cooing to her and showering her with so much maternal love and support.

No doubt about it, this woman was definitely the mother of Estelle.

“Hello, my little star,” The woman spoke as she welcomed her baby daughter into her arms and pecking her on the temple. “Did you have a good sleep?”

The baby giggled and reached out her tiny hands toward her mother.

Yuri’s eyes softened at such a heartwarming sight, cracking a small smile as he sheathed his blade back inside its scabbard. Unknowingly, he imagined a certain someone with a strikingly similar appearance in her later years, and like her mother, would be loving and warm.

He turned around, only to find himself in the same place as where he was initially before—the hallway.

Before he could step forth, he heard the sound of rambunctious laughter nearby. Seconds later, a seven-year-old pink-haired girl emerged from one of the rooms, followed by a younger boy with blonde hair and emerald eyes.

Right behind them were their respective mothers, teaming together to chase and catch their children who seemed to be having the time of their lives with their little game of tag.

“Catch us if you can!” Estelle sang aloud as she held onto the wrist of the boy who clumsily did his best to follow after her.

After a few minutes, she was captured by the loving arms of her father and was rewarded with multiple pecks on her cheeks. Squealing with delight, she insisted on another game of tag to which her parents, the boy and his parents wholeheartedly agreed.

Yuri smiled as a warm sensation erupted inside his chest.

Before he could blink, the scene dramatically changed—what was supposed to be a spectacle full of life and wonder had immediately transitioned into that of sorrow and grief. Yuri watched from a distance as he saw Estelle, no older than ten-years-old and the same blonde-haired boy, holding hands with each other as they strode through the empty hallways. Judging from the dark attire that they were wearing, it appears that they’ve returned from a funeral ceremony.

And then it hit him—the parents from the previous memory were not present.

Halting in their tracks, the boy brought his other hand to his face and began to whimper.

Estelle moved her head to take a look at her cousin and bitterly smiled. “Don’t cry, Ioder,” She comforted him as she enveloped her arms around him, welcoming him into her embrace. “It’s going to be difficult without them, but please remember, you’ll always have me,”

“I don't…want lose…anyone anymore,” Ioder sobbed as he buried his face deeper into the crook of her neck. “I don’t…know what I’ll do if…”

“I don't want to lose you either,” Estelle muttered as she patted him on the back. “But I want you to know that no matter what, I’ll be here to protect you,”

Releasing himself from her hold, Ioder sniffed as he faced her. “You…mean it?”

Estelle nodded her head. “As your blood relative and the next Queen of Zaphias, I vow to protect you with my sword and shield,”

Yuri remained stoic as he listened to her words, placing a hand on his hip as he sighed. Once more, the scenery changed and yet, he couldn’t seem to shake off the words that the young princess declared to her cousin.

“You’re always an advocate for those in need, helping them and protecting them,” He trailed off, his expression hardening as he set his sights on the young princess. “…But who’s protecting you?”

Unfazed by the next memory that was in store for him, Yuri examined his surroundings. He took note of the many beautiful flowers and the marble white fountain at the center of the area. With this in mind, he finally concluded that he was in the castle gardens.

Strolling around, he heard low grunts and thrashes on the ground. Poking his head out from a nearby hedge, he found Estelle, now eighteen-years-old and wearing what appears to be an attire consisting of a half-buttoned cream white blouse, brown pants, brown leathered pants and a belt to store her swords.

Her slightly tousled hair and determined gaze as she held onto her silver rapier and wooden shield before her enemy—aside from her dirtied hair and facial features, her overall appearance surprisingly suited her as she was known for her rebellious, tomboyish attitude.

Yuri quickly turned elsewhere, raking his long mane as he tried to suppress the strange foreign feeling that was beginning to blossom inside him.

“Stand up!” A masculine voice roared, causing the dark-haired man to whirl his head back to focus on the commotion.

Breathing heavily, the princess slowly rose from the ground. Brushing away the bead of sweat rolling along her perspiring forehead, she heaved in a deep breath and repositioned herself into a battle stance.

The elder man crinkled his eyes, crossed his arms, and cried, “That’s enough for today,”

Registering his words, Estelle shook her head as she tightened her grip on her rapier. Taking a deep breath, she shot her instructor a glare and exclaimed, “Master Drake!”

The elder man called Drake raised a questionable eyebrow at her.

“You said so yourself, that I’ve still got a long way to go,” She affirmed, raising her weapon and aiming its sharp tip toward his general direction. “And I’m saying this, right here and now, that I’m not giving up yet. We’ll stop practicing until I say so,”

Both Yuri and Drake widened their eyes.

“Your Highness…” The elder man began, only to stop himself from continuing as he noticed her body swaying a little. Finally, he shook his head. “Enough is enough,” He stressed, “You must reserve what’s left of your energy to the rest of your studies,”

Estelle’s expression contorted, a mixture of disappointment and frustration. “But— “

"Your Uncle would grow worried, knowing that you are overexerting yourself," Drake pointed out, which earned him a pouty look from his student. "I implore you, Your Highness, to follow my advice,"

Yuri shifted his sight from the elder man to the pink-haired princess standing not too far away from him. He watched as her once stiffened shoulders relaxed to a natural degree, lowering her weapon as she veered downwards to the ground beneath her feet.

“…I understand,” She said in a soft voice, her words unreachable for her teacher to hear, all except for Yuri who managed to catch it in time before the scenery altered again.

Just like before, Yuri found himself wandering through the hallways.

A minute later and he saw the familiar face of the princess, now donning a beautiful teal gown, standing before him, about five feet away.

Without hesitation, she closed the distance between them and as she slipped through him, Yuri couldn’t help but feel bothered by her sorrowful look.

Turning around, he leisurely followed after her to the library where she cooped herself inside with heaps of books to keep her company. Often times, he would observe her stopping every now and then from reading and gaze out into the large glass windows in front of her desk, her seafoam eyes full of curiosity and wonder as she yearned to leave the castle.

Leaning his back against a wooden pillar, Yuri grimaced.

As a young child, Estelle held a promising future.

Even at a young age, she was determined to protect the people she held dear. And now that her identity as the missing heiress to the Zaphias throne was revealed to him, he couldn't help but want to assist her—then again, that was exactly what his job as a champion entitles him to do.

“Estellise,”

Yuri turned to the direction of the voice, to which belonged to the same blonde boy with green eyes. With the only difference being that he had grown considerably taller than the latter, there was no doubt that this was the same young boy that he witnessed Estelle giving him a comforting hug.

“Ioder,” Estelle addressed the newcomer in the room with a lackluster smile, “How are you faring?”

“I’ve been well, thank you,” Ioder responded back with a light-hearted chuckle. “I am here to bring you marvelous news—or rather, a surprise,”

Estelle beamed, springing from her chair with delight, only to shoot him a suspicious glance a few seconds later, “What kind of surprise?”

Bringing his hands behind his back, Ioder chuckled. “A certain you-know-who,”

Tipping her head to the side, Estelle frowned a little. “I don’t understand,”

Even so, Ioder retained the pleasant smile on his face. “Oh, no matter,” He assured her as he waved his hand and with his other, directed it toward the large doors behind him. “Why don’t I just let the special guest come forth?”

On cue, the large doors opened.

Both Estelle and Yuri widened their eyes.

As the presence of the Commandant came into view, Yuri caught himself frozen in place. Before he could utter a word, he was startled to hear Estelle exclaim, "Uncle Alexei!" And rushed forward to tackle him in the process.

The swordsman shot a death glare at the silver-haired man who laughed heartily as he returned the embrace that the princess was offering him.

One after another, more and more flashes of Estelle, together with Alexei—engaging in conversation, her being patted on her head on a job well done during one of her sword practices, her and Ioder being taught various lessons and listening to the different stories by him and his right-hand man, Schwann kept resurfacing.

Until finally, the scenes settled with the recent events such as the Blueblood massacre that occurred in the Heurassein manor, Estelle fighting against Zagi as she tried to get her poor cousin to escape through the canvas, her encountering Yuri, to their trip to Heliord, the train incident and up until they reached Dahngrest, met with Karol, Judith, Rita, were informed with mana transfusion…

Processing everything, Yuri could feel his blood begin to boil.

Who could’ve thought that Estelle, of all people, was somewhat connected to Commandant Alexei—the same Alexei Dinoia who exterminated thousands of innocent lives, people that could’ve been saved…

Becoming reminded of the incident, along with a certain princess, Yuri shaped his hands into fists before punching the solid ground. “This whole time…” He murmured lowly under his breath as he sank to his knees, “…You knew, didn’t you?”


 

The bright flashes of light gradually diminished.

Once she managed to compose herself, Estelle lowered her arms and checked the environment around her. Looking around, she noticed a swarm of people attempting to enter what looks to be a public inn. Curiosity got the better of her and as she approached them, making sure to excuse herself as she passed through the pedestrians, it wasn’t until she became aware of her current form. Despite harboring the same appearance, everyone seemed to be slipping through her as if she were a ghost in disguise.

Even so, she took this as an advantage to advance forward. Once she entered the domain of the inn, she found herself staring at a couple, no more than forty-years-old. A short old man wearing glasses and a large ponytailed woman sat comfortably together on the chairs and nestled in the woman's lap was a baby with a tuft of black hair.

Smiling, Estelle slightly bent her knees and initiated a wave to the babe. Much to her dismay, the poor infant didn't seem to take notice of her and as she rose from the ground and dusted off the invisible dirt from her nightgown, her ears picked up the words, "Be careful, boy! Wouldn't want ya to get a bump on your head,"

Motioning her head, Estelle allowed a light giggle to escape her lips as the baby disobeyed the old man’s words and proceeded to sway himself left and right. She watched the woman shake her head and murmured, “Oh, what are we going to do with you, Yuri?”

Blinking, Estelle looked back at the baby who seemed to be falling asleep as his head was placed on the side of the woman’s neck. “Yuri,” She mouthed softly to herself, her eyes softening. “So, this is you,”

She extended her hand outward, ready to poke him playfully on the cheek, when all of a sudden, the scenery changed. No longer was she inside the inn but rather, in the same place as she initially was the first time—outside in the public square and standing near the functioning fountain.

“That’s enough for today,”

Estelle turned to the direction of the voice, surprised to find a young boy with blonde hair and blue eyes conversing with Yuri who took in the appearance of a young adolescent.

“What are you talking about?” Yuri cried, smirking as he held the wooden sword and thrust it forward. “I’m not giving up, just yet!” When he didn’t receive a response from the latter, he broadened his smirk. “Okay, I get it, you’re just chicken to fight back,”

The other boy scoffed. “Just drop it,” He explained nonchalantly as he walked away. “You gotta learn when to stop and reflect on your actions,” With his own respective wooden sword gripped tightly on his right hand, he added in, “Come on, let’s get moving. Hanks and Jiri are probably waiting for us,”

Estelle watched as the younger version of Yuri glared menacingly at the retreating figure of the boy. Sighing, he turned around and climbed on top of one of the wooden crates. Once he got himself comfortable, he veered his attention on the wooden sword resting on his lap and pouted as he looked elsewhere.

Listening to his words, the pink-haired woman couldn’t help but feel empathy for him.

Once more, the scene changed—this time, depicting a teenage-looking Yuri, along with the boy who Estelle could quickly identify to be none other than Flynn Scifo, the doll which her cousin, Ioder, currently owned in his possession. She observed from afar as they bid farewell to the old man who insisted that they should write him letters in the duration of their journey.

Seconds later, Estelle found herself watching every snippet of Yuri during his time as a knight rookie. She bit her lip as she saw him attempting to perform multiple aerobatics, kicks, and punches as he fought against Flynn. Another showed him sitting by himself and staring up into the night sky with a puppy sleeping on his lap, and then another of him initiating a bar fight, and then another of him declaring that he was quitting knighthood and strode off with the same puppy in tow.

And there, she stood—observing him, still indecisive and uncertain of what to do. Refusing to go back to his home in fear that he would be a laughing stock to his community, Yuri took on various jobs overseas, with most of them being assassination.

There was Ragou, the corrupted magistrate of Capua Nor, then there was Cumore, the greedy imperial general who labored the people of Heliord, and many more…with each and every single one of them contributing to Yuri’s title as a vigilant, together with the dog as his accomplice.

Eventually, Estelle came across a memory which showed Yuri confronting Flynn after so long, and from the way he looked disgusted with the latter, it was no secret that there was a heavy feud between them.

“So, I heard that you’ve been enlisted as a champion,” Yuri began, swinging his sword and carefully placing it behind his shoulders. “Congrats,”

The knight narrowed his eyes. “You should know why I’m here,” He grumbled as he drew his White Knight sword from the side of his right hip. “Yuri, look at me in the eye and tell me the truth—did you or did you not commit homicide to one of the missing Council members and Imperial Generals over the past five years?”

Yuri slanted his head to the side. “What is that supposed to— “

“ANSWER ME!” Flynn suddenly cried, causing Estelle to flinch midway in her tracks.

Shivering in fear, the princess watched as the two men glared at one another with both of their swords drawn out and ready to attack.

“…And what if I said yes?” Yuri murmured, retaining his stoic expression. “What would you do to me, huh? Put me in jail and let me rot in there or something?”

“No…” Flynn trailed off, raising his voice. “It’s finally come to my attention that you are no longer the best friend nor the brother that I’ve known. You are a wanted man, a criminal—everybody in the Lower Quarter, including Hanks, is aware of the exploits that you’ve done,” With his other hand, he raised the worn-out paper which depicted a poorly-drawn picture of Yuri, along with ‘WANTED MAN’ in big, bold words and below the picture was the ransom of 50,000 Gald.

Checking out the paper, Yuri whistled. “Sweet, they raised the price,”

“Stop changing the damn subject and listen to me!” Flynn demanded, clearly peeved. “I trusted you, I put my whole faith in you and look at this—working behind the scenes, assassinating those of higher standing on your own accord,”

“These so-called higher-ups are the same exact ones that taxed and overworked their people to the point of starvation!” Yuri ranted, taking a step forward, “What am I supposed to do, just idly stand there and watch them suffer?”

Flynn shook his head. “You should’ve contacted me from the very beginning,” He scowled, “There are more options besides attempting murder, Yuri—you’ve already broken so many rules and committed so many crimes and felonies I’m growing sick and tired of trying to appease it,”

“I don't need your help or anyone’s,” Yuri suddenly lashed out, causing Estelle to stiffen. “I don’t give a damn of what you think of me! I did what I had to do for the sake of those people,”

Processing his words, Flynn deeply sighed. “It has come to this, hasn’t it?” He muttered to no one else but himself. Clearing his throat, he lifted his chin to lock eyes with the dark-haired man and declared, “On my honor as a knight and on behalf of Commandant Alexei’s orders, I was entrusted with an important task. I wasn’t sure of what to do, but after talking with you, I’ve finally come to a conclusion…” As he withdrew his sword from his belt, he added in a soft tone, “It’s a difficult decision, but you’ve left me with no other choice,”

As expected, Yuri went on his battle stance, his hand on the grip of his blade as he prepared for what’s to come.

Estelle watched in awe as she saw Flynn’s body becoming shrouded with brilliant white.

Targeting his former friend, the knight extracted his White Knight Sword and ran toward the latter’s direction to initiated the first attack, only to get blocked in the process by another sword. Gritting his teeth, he retreated a step back and went along with another array of blows, this time, exerting much pressure compared to his basic attacks.

Becoming aware of this, Yuri smirked. “I see now,” He grumbled, licking his lips. “Alright then, guess it’s my turn to use my trump card too,” With a flick of his finger, a burst of light erupted, enveloping his form with overwhelming power and ferocity.

Sensing the strange atmosphere, Flynn slowly widened. “You’re…a champion?” He wondered aloud, his eyes widening as he allowed the information to sink in. “But how is that possible?”

Yuri cracked an impish smirk. “You have your own secrets,” He drawled out, extending his hand out and ushering him to come forward. “And I have mine,” Getting into his battle stance, he pointed the sharp end of his sword toward his former friend and declared, “Now show me what you’ve got!”

Getting triggered by his words, Flynn lashed out—a fury of sparks spawned in and out, creating a wave of energy around them.

All the while, Estelle stood in place, bringing her hands to her mouth as she watched the battle displayed before her. As much as she wanted to do something, anything—she knew that under Rita’s instructions, it was forbidden to intervene. Left with no choice, she forced herself to watch the battle, though at times, would find herself gripping the skirt of her nightgown as her ears picked up their battle cries along with a few grunts and intense clashing of their swords.

“Please, stop!” She cried, closing her eyes tightly shut.

Implanting her hands on each ear, she dropped down to her knees helplessly.

After what seemed like an eternity, the battle was finally over.

Estelle inhaled a deep breath and ever so slowly, raised her chin to take a good look at her surroundings. To her horror, everything around her—the rundown houses, the stone pavements, and the nearby well…it was decimated and crumbled into ruin. And there, standing before her, were Yuri and Flynn, frozen in place, their swords dropped to the ground and as a result, had resorted to punching the living daylights out of each other.

As Yuri managed to rise up, he was suddenly flung back to the ground as Flynn tackled him in the process. Having the upper hand in their battle of fists, the knight seized his White Knight Sword and aimed indirectly to the latter's exposed chest.

“This ends now,” Flynn murmured, his expression hardening as he held his weapon with both hands, ready to execute his former friend at any moment.

Tears spilling from the corners of her eyes, Estelle quickly sprinted toward them. She knew that she had no power to change anything—this was, after all, nothing more than a memory of Yuri. And yet, she couldn’t help but want to do something—and without hesitation, yelled vigorously, “YURI!”

And then a miracle happened.

As if he heard her words, Yuri quickly angled his body and lifted his arm, thrusting his elbow against the knight’s armored chest. Quickly, he grabbed a hold of Second Star but before he could swing it, he could himself aiming the blade directly at Flynn’s neck with the latter performing the same action to the vigilante.

Estelle held her breath, waiting for either one of them to perform an attack.

Another few minutes passed and still, nothing.

“Surrender now,” Flynn finally spoke up, his voice veiled with confidence. And yet, for a few brief seconds, Estelle noticed the hint of hesitation in his eyes.

“Please, Yuri…” He whispered lowly under his breath, “Don’t let me do this,”

Estelle turned to look at the swordsman who continued to bore a stoic expression. His eyebrows were crinkled together, his slightly chapped lights tightly straightened as he was deep in thought. Her eyes broadened its size as he threw his sword to the ground and raised his arms above his head. Preserving the passive look on his face, he said in a low voice, “Go ahead, do what you want,”

And for a brief moment, Estelle could've sworn that she felt his intense gaze on her as if he knew that she was there all along.

Before she could say anything, the scene changed again—with barely enough source of light to guide her way. It wasn’t until she realized, after roaming around that she began to take notice of the chains and iron bars nearby—she was inside the castle dungeon.

She moved her head to the right, surprised to find Yuri cooped up inside the jail cell. His black, half-buttoned tunic was tattered, leaving his chest to become fully exposed and out in the open. She lowered her eyes, biting her lower lip as she took notice of the bloody scars and gashes across the surface of his chest. His ebony eyes, once full of refreshing energy and potency was replaced with those of weariness.

Estelle brought her hands and gripped onto the iron bars as she continued to stare at the heavily wounded man before her. Once again, she felt utterly helpless.

“Yuri Lowell,”

Hearing this, Estelle quickly whirled her head and found herself standing before a familiar face. “Captain Schwann…” She mouthed, completely taken aback.

When he didn’t receive a response, he repeated the latter’s name one more time.

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you,” Yuri drawled out, waving his dismissive hand as he stared idly at a nearby stone wall. “What do you want now?”

Straightening his posture, Schwann began with, “We are currently arranging your execution as we speak. There are some Council members who favored that your death should be broadcasted live in the Capital and— “

“Why don’t you guys just hang me up somewhere and be done with it?” Yuri grumbled, hanging his head as he crossed his arms. “Seriously, I don’t care. Just what the hell do you want with me?”

A moment of silence ensued.

Sighing, Estelle slipped through the iron bars and allowed herself to sit beside Yuri. Lowering her head, she took notice of his tightened fist and for some reason, unconsciously brought her hand, letting it rest on top of his. Becoming reminded that this was nothing more than a dream sequence, pressing her hand with his somewhat lifted her spirits. “You’ve gone through so much,” She whispered, rubbing her thumb along the surface of his hand. “I’m so sorry, Yuri…”

“I came to ask you a favor,”

Both Yuri and Estelle looked up to face the older man.

“A favor?” Yuri echoed, which earned him a nod of approval.

“If you’re willing to do this,” Schwann pressed on, “You’ll be escaping death,”

Estelle beamed, quite relieved to hear that Captain Oltorain was on her partner’s side.

Even so, Yuri refused to accept the offer. “I thought you wanted me out of the picture,” He complained, raking through his long mane. “And why me of all people?”

“Your criminal record evokes plentiful of felonies and assassination,” Schwann explained, “And listening to Flynn’s side of the story, along with a few others, I became certain that you are the one to take up the responsibility,”

“Responsibility…for what?”

Schwann heaved a breath, crouching to his knees. Taking out the small photo from inside his breast pocket, he offered the item toward the latter. “To protect her,”

Seizing hold of the photo, Yuri looked down.

Curious to know who it could be, Estelle leaned a bit closer to speculate. Seconds later, her cheeks reddened.

“Her Highness is the epitome of purity and innocence…she’s knowledgeable of the outside world, and yet, she’s trapped inside her manor since she was a child. She'll be ascending the throne in a few weeks, precisely on her twentieth birthday…" Schwann went on, "But there are people who are out to get her. And I'm in need of someone who is willing to whisk her away from her home and find sanctuary for her,"

“Why me, of all people?” Yuri pondered, “You could’ve chosen Flynn or someone else. They’re better suited for the job than me,”

Schwann sighed. “I understand but I’ve already made arrangements with Flynn Scifo and he has agreed to protect someone else,” He explained further, “You, Yuri Lowell, are the person who I’m truly certain should be the one to protect Her Highness,” A pause. “The question is, are you willing to take up the offer?”

Estelle watched the swordsman fixed his eyes back to the photo gripped on his left hand. For some reason, she saw his eyes softened a little, though was quick to revert back to its natural degree.

“So, basically, protecting the princess is my ticket to freedom?” Yuri questioned, looking back to face the older man.

When he gained an affirmative nod, Yuri smirked. “Alright then,” And rose from the ground, still holding onto the small photo. “Sign me up,”

Before Estelle knew it, she was invaded by more flashes of memories—of Yuri donning the knightly tunic with a disgruntled expression, of him parting ways with his dog who she eventually recognized to be the same one from her previous dream, of him, swearing an oath to Schwann and magically turning into a doll…

And in the next few minutes, Estelle was forced to witness the Blueblood massacre all over again—this time, in the perspective of Yuri. She observed him battling against the lunatic assassin with her, then their escape from the manor and into the outside world, of them shopping for clothes and on the train. She blushed deeply when she saw herself fast-asleep while Yuri and Judith conversed with one another and once the latter disappeared, Yuri sighed, snuck a glance over to his partner and mustered a smirk. Then, the brawl that happened on the train, once again focusing in on Yuri as he fought against the same assassin from before, only this time with Judith by his side.

Estelle absorbed every memory as she possibly could, particularly the ones when she was unconscious and Yuri supported her in his arms, his grip on her tightened as he entered the flying ship that would bring him to Dahngrest, then the meeting with Karol, Kaufman, until finally settling with Rita and Judith entering and discussing about mana transfusion.

Up to this point, the princess felt that she had a sudden change of heart toward the swordsman.

All this time, Yuri wandered around in search for some kind of purpose in life and it was only until Captain Schwann, who entrusted him with the duty to protect her, that he went ahead and took on a journey together with her.

Knowing that Estelle felt something warm inside her.

Smiling, she surrendered to the bright light that would bring her back to reality.


 

About two hours passed in the real world.

The rain gradually waned, turning into a light drizzle. The room was cold and chilly, but neither of them seemed to care as they were mildly concentrated on the mana transfusion.

Estelle became the first one to break off, slowing fluttering her eyes open and smiling brightly as she saw her partner still fast-asleep. She reached out her hand and lightly brushed her fingers along his jawline…only to realize that what she had done caused him to wake up.

“Oh, Yuri!” She greeted him with a forceful grin. “Welcome back,”

Yuri blinked a few times, his eyes narrowed as he surveyed his surroundings. When he realized that they were in their room, he released an exasperated groan. “Finally, it’s done,” And veered down, smirking. “Well, would you look at that?”

Estelle lowered her head as well, astonished to discover that their wrists—Estelle’s right and Yuri’s left—were engraved with some strange-looking symbols. It was a four-shaped star, coated in purple with a singular pink petal at the center.

“…We did it,” Estelle mouthed aloud, her grin widening. “We did it, Yuri!”

Yuri looked up to face her and smiled, “We sure did,” And in a force of habit, raised his left hand high to which Estelle reciprocated with her own, shaking it in the process.

Ignoring this, Yuri simply laughed.

Once his laughter ceased, what followed was another awkward silence.

“So, uh…” Yuri trailed off, clearing his throat as he attempted to make a conversation. “Those memories of yours…were pretty interesting,”

Estelle turned crimson. “Y-yes,” She agreed along, tripping over her words. “It would seem so,”

“And what do you think of mine?” Yuri suddenly brought up, catching her attention.

Estelle moved her head to look at him and cracked a smile. “It’s a lot to take in,” She admitted, bringing her hands together and collecting them in a firm grip on top of her skirt. “The challenges and the struggles you’ve faced since then…”

Yuri nodded, preparing himself for the rejection any minute now. “I’m guessing you saw everything, didn’t you? Of the crimes that I’ve made since then?”

Estelle meekly bobbed her head. “It’s terrifying to hear it, especially having to witness it,” She went on, “But you know…I’ve noticed something about you,”

Quirking an eyebrow, Yuri turned to face her. “You do?”

The princess bitterly smiled. “You’ve been lonely, haven’t you?”

The seconds her words escaped from her mouth, she saw the latter stiffened his shoulders. “There’s no need to be ashamed of it. I was also lonely, despite being surrounded by luxurious things and having people who were there to support me…indeed, I was alone. And I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who felt the same way,”

Yuri listened intently, allowing her to express herself through her words.

“You’ve been misunderstood and looked down upon, nobody appreciated you nor took notice of you…” She continued further, her voice becoming a soft whisper. “But now that I know, I want to be the one who can help you,” Turning to look at him, she smiled sincerely, taking his hands and bringing it close to her chest as she added in, “I want to be your sword and shield, Yuri,”

Yuri’s eyes widened. He opened his mouth to protest, only to realize that he didn’t know what else to say. “You really don’t have to,”

“I know, but I want to,” Estelle stressed, her seafoam eyes brimming with determination. “You’ve done so much for me. I want to return your kindness,” Releasing her hold from him, she heaved a deep breath. “And I know that this is a bit sudden but…” Bracing herself, she leaned in with open arms, bringing him in for a warm embrace.

Yuri blushed as he felt his exposed chest making contact with the softness of her breast. Brushing the thought away, he focused on the contagious warmth that the princess was presented to him. For some reason, he felt somewhat at peace.

“I’m proud to call you my champion,” Estelle went on, tightening her grip on him. “And I hope that in time, we could be wonderful friends and…” Swallowing thickly, she quietly murmured to herself the next two words, “maybe more…”

But Yuri heard it and he couldn’t help but widen his grin.

Breathing in her scent, he wrapped his arms around her petite waist and held her close.

For now, the questions that he wanted to ask her would have to wait.

And for the next few minutes, no words were exchanged between them, allowing the peaceful silence and the pitter-patting of the rain from the window to lull them to sleep in each other’s arms.


 

Chapter Text

A day passed since Yuri and Estelle performed the mana transfusion together, successfully unlocking the ability to conjure the artes, along with the certified emblems etched on their skin—the four-shaped star with a singular pink petal in the center. By taking the risk, they allowed themselves to experience the past memories of the other, forging their contract as well as solidifying their bond as master and champion. With their memories connected and synchronized, they’ve become intertwined—together as one.

Sitting alone on the couch stationed in the living room, dressed in the spare clothes Rita and Judith lent to her which surprisingly fit her—a floral dress painted with white and pink and in her typical brown leathered boots, Estelle took it upon herself to inspect the alien environment. Looking around, she couldn’t help but smile as the peaceful ambiance and warm atmosphere swept over her, a safe haven for her and the others from harm’s way. At the same time, the stronghold reserved a sense of buoyancy with the colorful banners depicting various symbols she remembered from reading the many books in the estate library.

The flower-patterned insignia depicting the legendary five master guilds.

A surge of excitement filled her chest as she was instantly reminded of the fresh faces she and her partner became closely acquainted with.

The genius firecracker, Rita Mordio, who happens to be the master of Judith, a champion of the lance, and then Karol Capel, the youngest recruit and the self-proclaimed holder of the garrison. With the addition of Mary Kaufman, the redhead woman associated with Fortune’s Market—for the first time in a long while, luck was finally on their side.

Estelle closed her eyes shut for a moment, reflecting back to the time when she was alone with a certain dark-haired man. When the memory of the two of them locked in a tight embrace resurfaced from the back of her mind, she burned red and shook her head furiously. Bringing her hands to each side of her head, she drew a sharp breath in hopes to block out the intimate picture.

“Oh my goodness…” She muttered softly as she internally felt the need to rebuke herself for performing for such indecency—truly unbecoming of her as the princess. “What in the world is wrong with me?”

“Estelle?”

The sound of a familiar sultry voice startled Estelle. Quickly, she motioned her head. Upon recognizing the sudden presence of the female lancer, she beamed.

“J-Judith!” She stammered, blushing bright red.

Judith simply tipped her head to the side and asked, “What’s the matter? You seem troubled,”

“No, it’s nothing,” Estelle quickly assured her with a forceful smile. “…It’s good to see you,”

“You too,” She greeted back with a carefree smile. She jerks her chin to the empty spot next to her. “May I?”

Estelle smiled, moving a bit over to the right to offer her more space. “Of course,”

“Thanks,” The lancer plopped herself next to the pink-haired woman, leaning back and sighing heavily. “So? Were you able to do it with Yuri?” She started, nudging the other on the shoulder.

Estelle blinked. “What do you mean?”

“The marking,” Judith pressed on, leaning a bit closer. “I wasn’t sure if you guys completed the mana transfusion since Rita and I had duties to attend again,”

“Oh…” The princess shuffled in her spot, feeling embarrassed by the lancer’s intense stare on her. Inhaling a deep breath, she wore a brave face as she brought her right hand forward to show off the emblem on her wrist. “You mean this, right?”

Upon the sight, Judith beamed. “So, you have done it!” She cried, clapping her hands together with glee. “Congratulations,” Her sharp, magenta eyes examined the details of the emblem and whistled. “Such a beautiful marking,” She commented and looked back up to give her a blissful smile. “It suits you,”

Surprised yet relieved by the latter’s reaction, Estelle emitted a giggle. “…Thank you,”

“How was it?”

“…Excuse me?”

“Yuri’s memories,” Judith elaborated, placing her leg over the other as she folded her arms over her chest. “How was it?”

Estelle bit her lower lip. “It…was a lot to take it,” She admitted, hanging her head. “And to be honest, I was a bit scared. But at the same time…I’m actually glad that I did it,” She turned back to look at the female lancer and continued, “I wasn’t close to Yuri until we did the mana transfusion together. And now, I feel as if I’ve known him for a long time, despite having only met him for almost a week now,”

Judith crinkled her lips to form a smile and nodded in understanding. “I know,” She expressed, closing her eyes for a few seconds as she recalled the time when she and Rita performed the mana transfusion together. “It’s a weird procedure to do, but most effective to strengthen the bond between master and champion. If you’re not compatible when the time of battle comes, how would you expect to know the other’s mindset and emotions inside?” Suddenly, a thought crossed her mind. “Speaking of which, where’s Yuri by the way?”

“He’s accompanying Karol to a place called the market,” Estelle explained, sounding uncertain herself.

Judith raised an eyebrow. “And you’re not with them?”

“Yuri advised me not to go. Since I have pink hair, I’ll stick out like a sore thumb which would be too dangerous for me,” She went on, lowering her gaze to her feet. She snuck a glance at Judith who gave her a worrisome glance. Quickly, she reinforced another grin on her face and added, “But nothing to worry about. When they left, I’d figured it’ll be best if I could familiarize myself with this area,”

Hearing this, Judith chuckled lightly. “What do you think of it so far?” She asked, “Does the garrison suit your taste?”

Thinking it over, the pink-haired woman pressed a hand close to her chest. “…I’m embarrassed to say this but…” She trailed off, biting her lower lip. “It’s wonderful—it makes me sort of jealous that you and Rita are living here,”

“I know,” Judith agreed with her, “But you and Yuri are temporarily residing here as well, which means you’re one of the lucky ones too,”

Suddenly, Judith stood up from her seat. Stretching her arms above her head, she peered over her shoulder and said, “How much of the garrison were you able to see?”

The pink-haired woman dipped her head, pondering with her thoughts. “I’ve seen…most of the second floor and now the first floor,” She explained, taking a good look at her surroundings once again. “I’ve recently been to the study room but that’s pretty much it,”

Judith beamed. “That’s quite a good progress,” She replied and reached out to extend her hand toward the princess. “Have you been on the third floor?” She couldn’t resist lengthening her grin twice its size as she watched Estelle’s puzzled look immediately transition into one with overwhelming wonder and innocence.

“There’s a third floor?” She suddenly cried, rising to her feet as quickly as she said those words.

“Karol didn’t tell you?”

She observed the young woman who shook her head in dismay. “Why don’t I take you there?” Judith offered, taking a step forward, “I’ll even introduce you to my dear friend, Ba’ul,”

Estelle blinked. “…Ba’ul?”

Judith released a light-hearted chuckle. “Come, come!” Snatching the other’s wrist, she gently pulled her toward the direction of the staircase, pausing every now and then to allow the princess to keep up with her pace.

As she followed the older woman, Estelle allowed herself to feel the warm sensation building inside her—the same feeling which reminded her when she used to surround herself with her cousin, Ioder, of her Uncle Alexei, Captain Schwann, Master Drake, and a few of the castle staff members. That feeling of happiness and being utterly carefree, to be oblivious of the dangers beyond the borders…Oh, how she longed those days again.

And yet, for some reason, she didn’t want to.

Because this time, the feeling was different. Though she still lacked the knowledge viable to her and the safety of her people, she knew deep down, that in time, it would happen. The growing desire to serve them heightened each day…and till then, could she somehow embrace this brief sanctum?

Once they’ve reached the third floor, Judith and Estelle made their way to the narrow halls. Descending further into the depths, Judith abruptly paused in her tracks.

Right away, Estelle glanced at her and asked if everything was well.

“No, it’s nothing…” Judith assured her with a surprisingly soft whisper. She moved her head to face the pink-haired woman and gave her an apologetic look. “You don't mind if I check up on something?”

Estelle smiled. “Not at all,” She assured, giving her an encouraging nod, “Go ahead,”

Grinning, Judith mouthed a soft “thank you” before heading over to the nearby door on her right, and ever so carefully, twisted the doorknob.

Cracking the door halfway, she allowed her gaze to wander around the cluttered laboratory as if searching for something or someone. As she examined through the contraptions, messy blueprints, and heaps of opened books, there—resting in the middle of it was the young teenager, sprawled on the wooden flooring with a textbook on top of her head, snoring away with a trail of drool leaking out from her open mouth.

Releasing her grip from Estelle’s wrist, Judith carefully strolled over to her young master, all the while avoiding the risk of tripping over the books and blueprints across the ground. Once more, she eyed the area, smiling as she found a familiar quilt—the same one she remembered Rita offering her the first time she was summoned and was lost on her own.

Taking hold of it, the female lancer walked back to the direction of the sleeping teenager and slightly crouching to her knees, placed the blanket over her small form and ever so gently swept the bangs covering the upper portion of her face.

“Sleep well, my little fire,” Judith whispered softly and leaned down to give her a peck on the temple.

Through the tiny cracks of the door, Estelle watched the pair’s intimate moment with interest. Once more, she was reminded of her and Yuri sharing an embrace before falling asleep in his arms…and though she was doubting of the next part, but while she was fast asleep, she could’ve sworn she felt something warm touch the strands of her hair, which at the time, struck a chord inside her—as it happened to be the same gesture her late mother used to do to her when she was still young.

“Thank you for waiting,” Judith spoke up, turning around to carefully close the door behind her. “Rita’s always been staying awake at night and barely takes care of herself,”

Estelle emitted a sweet smile. Collecting her hands together, she proceeded to call out Judith’s name.

“Hmm?”

“…I’ve been wondering for a while now,” Estelle started, peering up to face her. She blushed a little as she tried to choose her words carefully. “About you and Rita,”

Registering her words, Judith widened her grin. “You’re interested?”

“You’ve mentioned before, about you being Rita’s lover…” She trailed off, tipping her head to the side. “Is it true?”

To her surprise, Judith gave her a bittersweet smile. “Actually, it’s more one-sided,” She explained, taking a step forward. “I have feelings for her, though I’m not so sure if she feels the same way,” A pause. “Then again, she probably doesn’t have a clear understanding of the concept between what’s friendly love and romantic love. She’s only seventeen, you know,”

Estelle’s eyes slightly widened. “You…love her?”

Judith firmly nodded. “When I was summoned for the first time, she was there, along with her colleagues who were there to bear witness. At the time, the researchers in Aspio were curious about the functions of summoning a champion, and so, they bought my doll from the Black Market, traveled back to their facility and once I was summoned, would put experiment on me,” She points to the long, beautiful teal colored antennae tails flowing behind her back and pointy ears. “These are one of the results of those experiments,”

The pink-haired woman tightened her grip on her joined hands. “I’m terribly sorry,” She expressed, bowing her head.

Watching this, Judith shook her head. “No need to apologize,” She assured her, “It’s not your fault, you know,” Refocusing her attention to the path ahead of them, she continued. “I remained in that facility for two months…and was suffering constantly, severely malnourished and beaten on a regular basis. And then one night, someone came inside and saved me—it was Rita, and she took me in and tended to me, making sure that I regained my strength and healed my wounds, though I still have faint scars from the damage, she mended my heart,” Her chest felt heavy as she remembered how Rita would sneak away during the night to purchase provisions and supplies for her, would stay up for long hours and remain by her bedside to watch over her.

“Around that time, the researchers were in a frenzy. They found out it was Rita who took me and demanded her to give me back to them. Thankfully, with my strength restored, I managed to summon Ba’ul, my dear friend and from there, we took to the skies and fled to another continent,” She went on, her eyes trained ahead. “The Hunting Blades captured us and took us to Dahngrest where we would soon meet up with the other five master guilds, but it was Karol and Kaufman who took to our defense and pleaded for us to be spared,” Judith grinned as the image of the young boy and the redhead woman welcomed them with open arms, and led them to their temporary stronghold, Fortune Market’s building at Capua Tori.

“We stayed with Kaufman for a few good weeks at another location, until Karol came in with news of an abandoned warehouse back at Dahngrest,” Judith continued, and once more the memory resurfaced—of her and Rita, together with Ba’ul and Karol soaring back to Dahngrest and taking their first steps inside the warehouse that would later become their safe haven, their home. “And from there, the rest was history,”

“What a wonderful story,” Estelle commented, smiling earnestly.

Chuckling, Judith agreed. “Rita…she may have a stubborn streak and at times, brash and arrogant, but really, she’s just a girl with a big heart. And I’m very grateful to have her in my life,” As she delivered those words, her eyes softened. “Without her, Ba’ul and I would never be where we are now nor would we ever stumble across you and Yuri,”

“…I see,” Estelle mumbled, nodding as she listened. “How long have you been serving her?”

“About a half a year now,” Judith answered without hesitation, all the while advancing ahead of her as they were close to the end of the halls. “And I believe we’ve been living here at the garrison for almost five months now,”

“And you’ve been loyal to Rita ever since?”

Judith widened her smile. “We had our ups and downs, more arguments than I could count, but in the end,” She paused in her tracks as she folded her arms and looked up to the ceiling. “I really love her, and wouldn’t trade her for the world. I’ll protect her at all costs,” She moved her head to face the princess and declared, “and would gladly sacrifice my life if it comes down to it,” She flashed a smile, though the slight crinkle at the corners spoke volumes. Without thinking, she moved forward. “Sorry for telling you so much,” She apologized, peering over her shoulder to offer her a frank expression. “But I’m really glad that you’ve asked such a question. It warms my heart to know that there’s someone who’s willing to listen,”

All Estelle could do was smile. “No, I should be thanking you,” She stressed, “It must take a lot of courage to speak about your demons and for that, I can’t help but admire you even more,”

Judith soaked in her words and chuckled. “You know,” She began, twisting her heel to face the pink-haired woman. “Something tells me we’re going to get along quite well,” And reached out to gently seize the other’s wrist. In a blink of an eye, her expression instantly changed to one of excitement. “Let’s go! I can't wait to show you my friend, Ba’ul!”

For the first time, Estelle found herself dismissing her worries, lowering her defenses as she felt a warm glow radiating within her.

“Lead the way,” She replied and allowed the older woman to guide her.


Outside was a different story.

As expected, the public streets were bustling with many aspects of life, with peddlers and vendors actively wandering in multiple directions under the large canopy of made up of umbrellas with a row of vendors urging the passing pedestrians to come over and take a look at what they were currently offering for the day.

In the middle of the chaos was Flynn and Ioder, each equipped with a sword and dressed in casual attire. Shortly after the rain stopped, they took the opportunity to go outside and fetch clothes to hide their identity from the public eye, and though it was difficult at first, they eventually found a store specializing in weaponry and armor—and through Flynn’s advice, Ioder managed to purchase himself a simple broadsword, along with a wooden one for their practice drills.

The following day, the pair was blessed with the afternoon full of clear blue skies and the presence of the blazing sun. Taking advantage of this, Ioder suggested that they should postpone their sword practice on a later day and take a moment to breathe and relax. Few minutes of negotiation led to where they were now—strolling in the main public square, observing the sights and quite possibly, in need of ingredients for lunch.

“This is incredible,” Ioder exclaimed, his emerald eyes twinkling as he soaked in the many new faces and the markets around them. “I’ve never seen so many colors merged in one place,”

Flynn emitted a grin. “Truth be told, this is also my first time as well,” He commented as he followed after the blonde noble. “And I’m glad that you’re having a good time,”

Ioder gave him a side-glance and grinned in return.

“Be sure not to stray too far,” Flynn points out, making sure to keep his pace with the latter. “I wouldn’t want you to get lost,”

Ioder laughed. “There’s really no need for that, is there?” He wondered and without thinking, grabbed a hold of the knight’s wrist as he guided him to a nearby stall. “Flynn, check this out!” He cried, gesturing to the many crates packed with fruits and vegetables.

While Ioder gushed about the array of foodstuff presented in front of them, Flynn took this time to inspect the people around them. So far, there seemed to be no Imperial Police officers patrolling the area nor anyone that looked familiar to him. He sighed, crossing his arms over his blue sweater as the breath he’d been holding in was finally released out of his system. Since they arrived at Dahngrest, he’d been on high-alert about every possible thing. Now, as he and Ioder remained in the city on their second day, he was secretly glad to know that he could brush off the negative thoughts and opinions he had of this place.

During his time a knight, he’d heard countless stories of Dahngrest—how it was raided and home to the many brigands, toughest warriors imaginable and how chaos would wreak havoc in almost every turn…and to his embarrassment, he believed every single word.

And everything he learned about the Den of Guilds never happened—no troublemakers, no brigands, no large beefy men the size of ogres nor was there a wave of disorder. Everything was tranquil, everyone seemed friendly and content, and overall, peaceful.

Rethinking over his thoughts, Flynn turned his attention to his master who appeared to be educating the vendor with the various names of each fruit and vegetable he had on display. Watching the latter engage himself with the outside world brought a smile on his face, and as he allowed himself to deplete his guard, his ears suddenly picked up a familiar baritone voice nearby.

“We sure bought a lot,”

“I know, right?” Another voice spoke up, belonging to a young boy. “And it’s great too, especially since everyone is coming over later to eat,”

Flynn hardened his expression, his hand automatically sliding to touch the helm of his blade. Slowly, he turned his head. His eyes widened, though was quick to revert back to its natural degree. He steadied his breathing, though was aware how his fingers were quivering.

Not too far away from where he and Ioder stood was the man who stripped everything from him and his loyalty to Alexei Dinoia and the Imperial Force, the man who he once proudly called his brother, his best friend since childhood…his other half.

But now, all of that was gone.

And here he was, as if the spirits blessed him with a second chance to correct everything—starting with his regret in which he failed to end the other’s life that would later send him into a spiral of endless humiliation and disorder as his title of a knight was taken away from him, getting kicked out of the Imperial Force program and become a laughingstock in the Capital of Zaphias.

All of it…was because of him.

Becoming blinded by his revenge, Flynn clenched his teeth and strode forward, failing to hear Ioder’s concern as he advanced to the direction of the dark-haired man. Quickly, he brandished his White Knight Sword and cried at the top of his lungs, “YURI LOWELL!”

Hearing his name, the swordsman turned frozen in his spot. He whirled his head to where the voice came from and upon recognizing the raging white knight, threw the bag of groceries he held to the young boy at his side. “Karol, get out of here!” He cried, drawing out Second Star which hung from his belt as he got himself into a battle stance.

Karol stood there, puzzled. “Yuri, what’s— “

His words got cut off by the sound of clashing blades, causing him to yelp and drop down to his knees. He watched in horror as Yuri held out his sword in front of them, successfully blocking the incoming attack that was meant for him.

Seconds later, a flurry of shrieks and hurried footsteps echoed throughout the market place, with the large crowds diminishing in numbers as the people frantically attempted to escape the area, along with the vendors who left their open stalls to fend for themselves.

“Karol!”

Alarmed, the boy looked up to face the swordsman. “You need to get out of here…now!” He urged him before returning his focus back to his opponent. “Go to the garrison and notify the others!”

Karol blinked, unable to comprehend the situation properly as his fear heightened. “Y-Yuri…” He managed to say, “But what about you?”

“Don’t worry about me,” Yuri assured him, keeping his eyes on the knight who jumped back and eyed him instinctively as well. “Worry about yourself first,”

Karol sniffed. “Yuri…”

“GO!” Yuri demanded, causing the latter to quickly stand up on his feet and run away without looking back. He listened to the scurried footsteps and smiled as he heard them begin to disappear.

Meanwhile, Flynn had the same idea. “Ioder, you need to hide!” He urged the blonde noble who looked back at him with a fearful expression.

“But you told me we need to stick together!” Ioder protested, taking a step forward. “I’m not leaving without you!”

Flynn heaved a deep breath. “I know, but…” He trailed off, tightening his grip on his sword as he snuck a peek at the swordsman waiting for his next attack. “This is something I must do,” Again, he faced Ioder and gave him an ambient grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll be together again,”

Ioder stood for a moment, quickly glanced over to his champion’s opponent who he recognized to be the doll his cousin possessed—the famed vigilant with a bounty on his name. He reverts back to the kind, warm eyes of the knight. “…Okay,” He said finally, “Please come back safely,”

“I will,” Flynn swore, his voice bursting with confidence. “I promise I’ll come back after,”

Those words were enough to encourage Ioder who smiled back and after blessing him with good luck, dashed off to get away from the clearing, away from the violence. Flynn watched on, his eyes fixed on his master’s retreating form and once he made certain that he was gone from his field of vision, returned his gaze to the swordsman in front of him.

“It’s been a while,” Yuri began, swinging his blade with an impish smirk. “How’d you been?”

Flynn shot a death glare at him. “Been well,” He spat out, narrowing his eyes. “I’m surprised to see you in good spirits,”

“Right back at ya,” Yuri replied back, reclaiming his sword as he took a step forward. “That’s a good look on you, by the way,”

Flynn rolled his eyes. “Still the same as ever, I see,”

Even so, Yuri laughed. Planting his hand on his hip, he put on his most confident grin and asked, “Say, how’s everything with the Imperial Police Force?”

At the mention of the organization, the knight stiffened in place.

“I’m surprised you’re here in Dahngrest,” Yuri went on, oblivious to the fact how his words were triggering a particular knight. “Still working for Commandant Alexei?”

“Shut up…” He muttered lowly under his breath.

Yuri blinked, unable to hear what he just said. “Can’t hear you,” He drawled out with a dismissive wave, “You’re gonna have to speak a little louder than that— “

“I SAID SHUT UP!” Flynn snapped, his anger rising to the surface. “You know exactly why I’m here!” By now, he realized he was yelling and yet, didn’t seem to care one bit. He swung his sword, aiming it straight to his target. “This time, I won’t hesitate to end your life…right here, right now!” He yelled, running at him.

Yuri held out his sword in front of him, retaining his smile. He dodged the attack, retreating back a few steps as he managed to retaliate with an offensive move, only to fail as it gets blocked in the process.

Flynn wasted no time as he raised his sword and performed another swing, prepared to take the risk of leaving an opening to bring his opponent down. At the last moment, he felt pain rush through him, gritting his teeth as he observed Yuri going for an offense and executing it with ease.

With a surprised gasp, Flynn nearly tripped over his footing, though was quick to recover. Straightening his posture, he veered at the swordsman who stared back at him with a listless look. The knight panted breathlessly, heavily winded.

“Giving up already?”

A sudden surge of energy swept over him. Looking back up, the knight glared. “Never,” And took his sword, wielding it forward. “We’ll see who gets the last laugh,” And charged forward.


Estelle stood there, breathless.

In front of her was the presence of a giant flying whale resting comfortably on a large empty lot, with a large boat placed on a wooden dock craning next to its head.

“Estelle?”

The princess flinched in her spot, glanced over to the female lancer next to her who gave her a friendly grin. “Don’t worry, Ba’ul doesn’t bite,” She assured her as she ambled to a large crate, almost twice her size, packed with krill. She places a hand on a wheel with bundles of rope suspended above her. She turned her head to face the princess. “Would you like to pull the lever?”

Estelle beamed. “Really?”

“Give it a go,” She urged, encouraging her to come forth. Judith took a few steps back to allow the energetic pink-haired woman to come over and take control of the wheel. “When you pull it, be sure to do it clockwise,”

“Okay,” Seizing hold of the contraption, Estelle adhered what she was told. Minutes later, the crates were delivered to the large wooden raft made out of burnt twigs and branches and as the countless numbers of krill descended onto the nest and started piling up, the large Entelexeia inclined its head and happily chowed down on its meal.

“Great job, Estelle!” Judith commented, giving her a good pat on the head. “Ba’ul looks very happy to be consuming his meal,”

Reverting her attention to the Entelexeia, she couldn’t help but smile. “He’s amazing, Judith,”

As if he heard her words, Ba’ul stopped what he was doing and snuck a glance at the princess. Sensing this, Estelle emitted a sheepish smile.

“Go on,” Judith encouraged her to the wooden docks, following suit to help her calm her nerves.

Gulping, Estelle moved forward with her hand reaching outward. Once she got close to the edge, she leaned a bit closer. Her fingers lightly touched his feathers, her smile widening as she discovered how surprisingly soft they were. Taking a step back, she beamed before leaping forward with her arms open. To her delight, the large Entelexeia moved closer, his humming piercing through her ears and yet, she didn’t seem to care at all.

“Ba’ul would like to thank you,” Judith translated for the princess to which the latter broke away and smiled at the gentle giant.

Heading back to join Judith, she beamed. “Thank you so much for this!”

“No problem! I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” Judith replied back with a smile of her own. “If we have some time, maybe I could—” Suddenly, her words were cut off when she noticed Ba’ul shifting his eyes to the right. Excusing herself, she raced to the edge of the wooden docks and looked to where her friend was directing her.

“Judith?”

The female lancer said nothing as she lowered her gaze downwards. Her eyes widened as she spotted a familiar young boy staggering toward the entrance of the garrison. Without thinking, she leaped off the wooden docks, startling Estelle who remained still in her spot.

“JUDITH!” Estelle cried, running to the edge of the wooden docks as she watched her new friend plummet down. She watched with bated breath as she prayed for the other’s safety to which was received by the passing gales and Ba’ul’s guidance, Judith managed to safely land on her feet with effortless strife. She looked downward, tightened her grip on her collected hands as she keenly observed the two small figures of her friends from a far distance. She snuck a glance over to Ba’ul. To her astonishment, he seemed to be staring back at her.

As if he read her mind, the Entelexeia gradually tipped his head to the side, beckoning her to come forth so he could envelop her with his gales.

Though hesitated, Estelle braced herself as she inhaled a sharp breath. Reopening her eyes, she made eye contact with Ba’ul and nodded firmly, wasting no time as she quickened her pace until she reached the edge of the wooden docks and leaped forward—and though she was unable to grab hold of the Entelexia’s feathers, he quickly summoned a passing gale to sweep her off her feet, catching her in time as she plummeted downward.

“Estelle!”

The pink-haired woman looked down, surprised yet relieved to discover her new friends, Karol and Judith rushing toward her as she gently reached the ground, and as she took her first few steps on the cobblestone pavements, the rushing winds surrounding her dissipated within seconds. She snuck a glance back to the Entelexia and smiled, “Thank you,” She mouthed, bowing her head respectfully.

In response, the Entelexeia blinked twice.

“Estelle!”

She turned to the direction of the two voices and beamed. “Judith, Karol,” She addressed them as they approached her.

“Are you okay? You didn’t get hurt, did you?” Judith began, inspecting the younger woman from head to toe, making certain she remained unscathed.

“I’m fine,” Estelle assured her with a smile, then focused her attention to the younger boy who suddenly tackled her on the spot. “Karol!” She cried, startled by his action. She looked up and searched the area, taking note of the dark-haired man’s absence. Something wasn’t right. “Did something happened?” She asked, going straight to the point. “Where’s Yuri?”

Karol sniffed, opening his mouth to say something, then closed it as he hiccupped.

“Estelle…” Judith began, stepping forth. “A fight broke out in the main square and somehow, Yuri’s involved,”

Estelle frowned, taking a moment to collect her thoughts. “Karol, can you tell us how the fight occurred?” She asked, retaining her gentle tone.

Karol nodded, released his arms from around her waist and looked up to face her. “There's this guy…he had a sword and just started attacking Yuri on sight…” He explained, blinking away the tears that were threatening to leak from his eyes. “Yuri told me to run, so I did…even though I really wanted to help him…”

“This person who initiated the attack,” Estelle pressed on, “Can you describe him for me?”

“He had golden hair and blue eyes…” He described, mulling the thought over. “And had a White Knight Sword…”

Estelle’s eyes slowly widened. All of a sudden, she found herself running to the direction of the commotion, ignoring Judith and Karol’s cries as she dove into the fray. As she ran faster, she pressed her hand close to her chest, her heart beating thunderously.

The description Karol gave to her rang a bell…and somehow, it oddly aligned to the doll her cousin currently owned.

And if her assumptions were true, could this mean that Ioder was still alive?

Biting her lower lip, the pink-haired woman quickened her pace, hoping and praying that she wasn’t too late.