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Aegis of Flame

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Chapter 1: Encounters (I)

The cloud sea. A vast expanse of captured humidity that blanketed the massive oceans below like a thick froth.

It’s very depths were too vast to even geographically map, simply put it was impossible for today’s age. Layers of rock and stone are laid waste to the forever moving streams of waters beneath the cloudy sheet- until those willing enough to venture down to seek out the mysteries of what lay deep within make their move.

Salvagers… Hired workers who get their fill from plunging into depths others were otherwise too afraid to or too gaudy enough to do it themselves. Retrieving treasures from scans made by machine probes like they were nothing more than living metal detectors; tools to get others richer. 

Off the back of a beast from God, one young diver took the plunge in an otherwise uninhabited area of the cloud sea. Crimson diving suit shining from the rays that could burst through the thick of it all- spotlights that only showed but a minuscule and insignificant size of what truly laid in the deep blue expanse of the world. Like a glimmering gemstone in the midst of a pile of rock, they gave off a light aura of color, leading the charge of their latest underwater expedition. The only light they needed was the ones from their suit, but natural light could always reveal otherwise hidden wonders that were masked by traces of sand and fragments of coral.

Readying their gear and flipping on their boot’s traction with their handy arm controller, they pressed hard down on the metallic footing that now laid under their brass feet.

Their steps let out small pulses of noise as they moved slowly to the rusty metal crate in front of them; judging by the surroundings, despite it being so old it was lost fairly recently. The crate rested on what looked to be part of a sunken ship with no debris around it, meaning no speks of rock caught on it’s edges or buildup of limestone. It wasn’t uncommon to be reusing old containers when traveling cargo, but who would bother?

Their thoughts were cut short as a thud from behind them sounded out, a small underwater case of all things Diver was lowered down via crane. Turning around they opened it up with ease, and pulled out of a netting cover a cylindrical object. Taking the parcel with them back to the crate, they slapped it onto the side with a small confirming latch noise and the creak of broken metal signifying it stuck in there good.

Bursting outwards, the top half of the object expanded rapidly to reveal it’s true design; a floaty expertly crafted to carry the most common metals among the vast world of Alrest. Thankfully it actually started to levitate up, and the crate began to rise slowly but surely.

Jumping up, the young diver quickly grabbed hold of the crate and managed to steer it the right direction. The crane and it’s small platform they arrived on in the low depths, waiting for it’s faithful companion. 

Latching the crate on the hook, they swam up and stood upon the grate platform. Surveying the landscape one last time, they felt satisfied enough to call it there; nothing left to take up with them, nothing left to bother with.

Turning off the lights of their helmet, they pressed on one of the crane’s switches, letting it take them back above the cloud sea. Feeling the crane pick up speed, they made sure to keep a close eye on their haul, because it would certainly suck if they needed to bring back down everything if the crate fell- or even worse, it broke open and they’d need to scramble to capture all the possible riches. Wasn’t the first time it’s happened, and it surely wouldn’t be the last.

Finally breaking free from the watery holds of the deep, the diver and their loot rose out of the sea with small falls of water pouring down alongside them. The diver’s crimson and brass steampunk getup is on full display and still shining proudly in the bright sunny day, a fine display of a recent and quite vigorous suit cleaning job.

As the crane dropped the parcel of metal down on the back of the giant beast the diver called home, they themselves hopped off shortly after and landed carefully in front of their spoils with a loud but controlled thud.

Unhooking their air feed and undoing a couple of well tightened bolts around their collar, they rose up their helmet and let it fall and hinge around to the small of their back, like an oversized hood.

Their longer, light brownish hair draped down around their more roundish face, with a bit of spiky fringes draping down over their forehead and a few spikey locks peaking upwards as well, longer streaks of hair going in front of their ears and landing down just above their collarbone. Her eyes of golden color shifted over to the crate.

With an exhausted sigh, the young female diver spoke, “...We really need to get ourselves a new depth probe… The ping was off by 150 peds to the east, that’s not gonna fly!”

Undoing the bulk of their gear they let down the arms of their suit and the overbearing amount of insulation, letting the versatile getup of theirs shift into something more fitting for the rather hot and sunny day. Showing bare their lower legs and baggy cloth shorts; choosing to keep on their sleepwear underneath their ‘casual’ wear simply was just more worth it than their assigned form fitting undergarments that came along with the divers garb. She probably wouldn’t even look at herself either; let alone let others see her like that. At least her shirt was fairly harmless with it’s fitting faded red, although it smelled a bit like salt-water.

She was quickly snapped out of her reverie by the calm and slightly gruff voice of her ‘guardian.’ “And what about the treasure, Rei? Was it in line with your expectations?”

Quickly jogging over to the cabin situated on the Titan’s back, she grabbed out a crowbar-wrench combo tool that she liked to use more than she’d be willing to admit.

Tossing it around in their hands a bit as she waltzed back to their spoils, she spoke with a bit more pep than usual, “It seemed pretty solid, Didn’t even have to reinforce it too much…” Inspecting the crate a bit more in proper daylight, they found a small indent on the side- perfect for a good prying-open. “Even with the labor costs, we should be able to turn a decent profit!”

Paying no mind to the loud stone-chirping noises behind them as they situated their device into the crevice they located, the Titan turned it’s rather long and slender neck around, his somehow gentle and prominently long-horned head staring at Rei with protective black irises and golden whites. “Honestly, it takes you two days to run the structural analysis… Yet somehow you can gauge the profit in an instant?”

Giving a good push in for measure, the tool sat suspended in reality as the young diver readied herself for the fight of her life. “Don’t go rainin’ on my parade, Gramps!” Latching her leather and brass grips on the device, she started to pry open the crate. “You know… ghk… I’m in the salvaging business… grk!... For the… cash!”

Using all the strength she’s got, she kept pulling hard on the crate as the Titan over her shoulder silently chuckled at the sight. “A little business sense… mngk!... Goes a long…rngk... way!... All right?!”

Finally hearing the rusty bolts give way, she nearly got the thing off- when something from the inside acted first.

The metal face of the box burst off and outward came a indigo-ish blue beast with yellow-tipped pincers, long antennae lurching forward as it made strange gurgly crab noises, asserting its dominance by making sharp air-pinches in Rei’s direction as its 4 legs took it from side to side in a weird fighting stance.

Falling back a tad as the beast ‘roared’ as it tried to intimidate Rei by jumping forward a bit, the young diver readied herself. “I didn’t expect THAT! You’ve been living in this thing, big guy?!”

As if making true it’s promise of war, the beast lurched forward attempting to attack- but Rei was quicker and jumped back with a practiced spinning motion, landing a bit away from the beast.

“Rei!” Gramps shouted, the worry in his tone evident underneath his stern call-to-action.

“No worries, Gramps!” Rei shouted back with confidence, fully sizing up the opponent and tossing aside their multi-tool with a loud metal clang as it slid across the scaly back of the Titan, quickly turning herself around to dash into her home situated on Gramps’ back. Looking around for only a moment she spotted her rather guerrilla weapon of choice- a machine of her own design she liked to keep ‘handy,’ she dashed back out with a large bastard sword that looked to be mixed with a scimitar- more like an oversized combat knife than anything.

“I guess we know what’s for lunch!” She joked, ready to fight with her blade in hand, her body slouching a bit forward and her weapon on her right side, holding it by the handle the opposite way from the beast to allow for a full force swing much easier.

“Don’t go tearing up my back again, Rei! You’re putting my life on the line too!” Gramps shouted over her shoulder again, ready to watch the fight unfold.

The crab-like beast roared again and attempted to launch forward, only for Rei to dodge it with ease due to her lighter weight in comparison to the beast’s weighty attacks. “I’ve got this under control, Gramps, have faith in my fighting skills!” Rei shouted behind her shoulder as she started to carve into the beast, making sharp cuts in its thick ‘hide’ as it attempted to fight back, only barely nicking Rei’s figure as it attempted to slice them to pieces.

Gramps let out a loud sigh, and laid it on thick just for Rei. “I’d be more confident in your ‘fighting skills’ if it was more technique and less ad-lib! Your form is so chaotic I would think an infant would do better!”

Rei’s battle-grunts continued as she kept pounding into their opposing foe, trying their best to keep on the pressure so the beast couldn’t retaliate. “Hey, I’m not half bad, yaknow! Like I’d let some seafood take me down!” She shouted as she let a quite strong hit slice one of the beast’s legs clean off which she followed up with a forward thrust of her blade to slice into it’s left pincer, rendering it useless. “I’ll show you a thing-or-three, you King… Crust-tip!”

That certainly wasn’t her best insult ever, but it earned an annoyed sigh from Gramps, so she’ll take it!

Crying out with a gurgly screech, the King Crustip tried to force Rei on the guard by using both its pincers, regardless of injuries in a forward double-pinch, which she unfortunately wasn’t able to fully dodge, and her arm took a bit of damage from the slice. Luckily, she knew exactly what to do in this type of situation; “Anchor Shot!!” She shouted out as her wrist mounted grapple burst ahead and stuck itself in the beast.

Seizing the moment she pulled back and along with it came a burst of ether that poured out from the anchor into a small vial she had situated on it for battle purposes. The life-giving energy sapped from the beast and launched out in her direction, she caught it with one arm after quickly dropping her blade to pour it over her wound, and let it work its magic as it slowly healed off the damage. Before the beast could slice her again, she was fast enough to pick up her blade to block and counter.

“Thank goodness for Ether, right, Gramps?” She chuckled over her shoulder as she quickly sliced off another leg of the beast, leaving it immoble, but not stopping it from still trying to dice her up like mince-meat.

“This world has many things, but I suppose Ether was quite a good addition.” Gramps responded in kind with his own chuckle.

The battle finally drew to its end as Rei readied her last attack. “Time to earn my lunch!!” She shouted as she quickly hacked off one of the beast’s arms in whole, and used the momentum to slice off the other, and finally gave a hard jab straight through its core- swiftly ending the beast with one last gurgly screech as it fell lifeless on the back of the Titan.

Outward of its mouth came a fair amount of gold coins- gross but profitable, along with a fairly modest trinket of what looked to be a fairly well crafted metal statuette of some goddess. Or at least, that’s what Rei thought it was. A lady with long flowing hair on either side and a gem adorned on her chest right above her cleavage, it looked a lot like one of those ‘Blades’ she’s heard a lot about.

“Spoils of war, Rei? Going to keep some for yourself like last time?” Gramps piped up, snapping Rei once more out of her head. He always had a knack for that, and it honestly wasn’t that bad of a thing to have either.

“Nah, not worth my time! A few gold coins and this statue-thing are probably worth less than the cash we get from the job!” Rei shouted back, lightly placing her blade on the back of the Titan as she dragged the chopped hunks of the King Crustip over to a small grill situated nearby the entry to her metal cabin.

A rather interesting battle won, she turned on the gas of the grill, lit the flame, and began to cook herself a mean crawfish lunch!

 


 

‘An entire horizon of white… A sea of clouds… and at its heart, the World Tree, piercing the heavens…’

Situating a nice pincer on the grill, Rei watched as it slowly cooked and roasted over the open flame, the smell of seafood permeating through the open air around her.

‘This… This is the world we call home… Alrest.’

Feeling rather satisfied with her cooking skills to spend a bit of time letting it roast, she turned to look at Gramps. She always admired the man, he was an amazing person who cared just like any other human would. Cared just as much as Rei cared about him; caring enough to entrust upon each other their lives…

‘Everyone on Alrest lived on the Tree, together with our divine father, The Architect. According to the tales, it was a bountiful land… and the people there held the power to command even the heavens themselves.’

Giving a routine check of her stock of air, gas, and various other supplies of oil and steam for her devices that needed them, she gave an affirming nod as she picked up a small canister of gas to keep her grill running fine, and to make sure she didn’t cook herself a rare piece of crab.

‘They called that paradise… ‘Elysium.’ But then, one day… we were cast out.’

Digging around the various junk of the crate that King Crustip was in, she pulled out various hunks of broken metal, likely torn asunder by the beast inside. She could use some parts- not like they’d sell for anything in the state they were in. Wouldn’t hurt to keep around some scraps, that’s how she’s made plenty of things on this Titan’s back.

‘Nobody knows why… perhaps we angered our creator, or perhaps it was something else entirely.’

Sending the crate back down into the ocean to live out the rest of it’s mundane life as a lost box of junk, she lowered it as slowly as it raised back up, just like she always did.

‘All we know is, we were forced to leave Elysium to live here in Alrest… where it turns out, life was pretty hard.’

Setting away her newly acquired salty metal junk in what once was a ice-container that was refurbished into a ‘rubbish’ bin, she cleaned off her hands contently and rested them on her hips, looking quite proud with herself for doing a good job at cleaning up all the mess and wiping away a bit of the blue-ish blood of the crustian beast that it left behind.

Deciding to let in a bit more sun to her life, she opened up the back hatch of her metal shack home to admire the bright sunny day that was right over her bed.

‘But, when it seemed like we would surely die out, the Architect… took pity on us… Sending his servants, the Titans, to save us.’

Asking for Gramps’ input on some modifications made to her gear, she made a bit of small talk with the man as she continued to tinker and ramble on. She wasn’t sure if he really understood any of what she was on about, but it’s not like she minded that. He was a really good listener, and she was content with that above all else. A kind and wise soul that watched over her and kept her company on her sea-diving travels was just what she needed to escape everything else she had going on.

Part of her lifestyle was a conscious choice, part of it was a forced one. Working was at least a fun reprieve from her otherwise unfortunate life, because it was either that or she’d end up as some servant to some Nopon sleaze-ball somewhere else across the world, away from the closest thing she has to a family.

‘The few of us who survived, settled on the Titans… and we’ve lived in harmony with them ever since. But now, those Titans… are beginning to die out.’

Fully finished with her tinkering and ready to face the rest of the day’s trials with as much of a smile as she can manage, she smelled deep the fully roasted crustacean’s pincer; thoroughly coated with a few spices and herbs that she found while putting things away that she forgot about. Hopefully they don’t go out of date, hopefully.

Sitting down and ready to thoroughly dig into the scrumptious smelling sea-creature arm in front of her, she rubbed her hands like a greedy fly and was just about to jump right into her first proper meal of the day…

“A-Ah… The brazier does my weary old bones much good…” Gramps thought out loud, with a content sigh of relief, turning his head around to look once more at Rei.

“You want me to move it, Gramps?” Rei asked, smiling, knowing full well that Gramps didn’t want that at all, but willing to joke around a bit with him.

“No, that’s quite all right. Leave it right there- a-ah…” Gramps got out before he let out another contempt sigh, letting the heat of the grill sooth his rock-scaly body.

“Righto!” Rei responded, as she turned around to grab hold of the crustaceans leg, mouth watering at the smell and sight of the perfectly cooked seafood.

Tact be damned, she held it firm in her arms as she chomped right into a torn off bit of the beast that her sword cut into, and took a large hunk of its cooked flesh right down her gullet. For not having any proper cooking training, she absolutely had to say that she did a perfect job. Tooting her own horn was definitely worth it in this instance. It was just so damn good!

Before she could enjoy any more food, however, a loud cry of what sounded like a whale shot through the air, echoing in the vast expanse of space around them.

Rei got up and looked over Gramps’ side in the direction of the noise, mouth and eyes open wide with awe as they saw a massive titan far in the horizon peak out of the water. Jumping in the air and crying out with high pitched squeaks as it arched back into the seas, sending out a fast moving shockwave of air that reached even Gramps as it shook the homestead on his back a bit. Rei nearly lost her footing until the air pressure left as soon as it had come.

“Not another one… Been happenin’ a lot, lately…” Rei spoke, still staring to where the large beast once was.

“Mm… more so than before.” Gramps agreed, staring as well in the direction of the large beast, his eyes telling Rei that he was very deep in thought.

“I wonder… if anyone was living there…?” The girl’s thought’s spoke out loud as she turned her head to Gramps, as if he could answer.

“It seems not. And if there had been, they would have all left by now.” He responded, his expression not changing in the slightest.

“Makes sense…” Rei too responded, looking back over to the seas of Alrest. “Hey, Gramps,” They began. “D’you think… Fonsett Village will be gone too one day?” Rei continued, once more looking to Gramps for an answer.

“It would not be today, or Tomorrow, but one day, yes, it will fall.” The Titan answered.

“...And you too?”

“That’s how it goes, with us Titans…” Gramps responded, turning his head to Rei with a warming smile on his beast-like face. “There’s no way around it.”

Continuing to stare ahead, Rei was lost in thought as she looked into the white depths of the cloudy sea. “Eventually… there’ll be nowhere left to live.”

Gramps nodded. “Sadly.”

Turning herself around, Rei looked to the World Tree. The massive bundle of ginormous sticks that shot out from the seas and rocketed towards the sky, brambles and long branches arcing outwards as if they themselves were clouds in the sky, the greenery plush and airy, immovable by anything.

“So… you Titans were born up there, is that right?” Rei asked, looking up the World Tree.

Gramps let his attention follow Rei’s towards the World Tree, his neck sounding out loud movement and slightly creaking ‘rock.’ “So they say, for what it’s worth… mind you, I was born here, on Alrest.”

Rei looked up to stare at Gramps, letting him continue.

“As for my ancestors, who could say where they were born... “

“Can it really exist? This ‘Elysium?’” Rei asked, looking at the very peak of the World Tree. “And the creator, who’s said to live there…”

“A land of plenty, atop the World Tree…” Gramps started. “If such a place did exist, perhaps we could all live in peace… with no need for fighting.”

Turning herself towards the cloud once more, she let out a dreamy sigh. “Sure would be great… For everyone… even folks in Fonsett. If the divine Architect can see us now, I wonder what he thinks…”

 


 

A successfully good nap taken, Rei stretched out as she took in a deep breath of the familiar salty air. She gave herself a good slap to the cheeks for good measure, and grinned widely. “All right! Back to making money!”

Walking over to check on her haul, consisting of a fairly good size of golden coins, various chunks of fine metals and that oh-so strange metal statue, she looked it over with a grin, hands on her hips and a content look on her face. “I think this haul should be enough for today!”

Looking up at Gramps, she put her hand in front of her eyes to shield herself from the sun a bit. “Oi, Gramps! Care for a little swim to the Argentum Trade Guild?”

Turning his head around, Gramps looked to Rei with a bemused and slightly grinning expression. “You’re planning on selling it now? It’s getting toward my bedtime…”

Rei could easily sense the joke-y nature and tone of his voice, so she responded in kind by giving him her best “I’m really angry with you!” Glare. “Don’t play the ‘lazy old man’ with me, there’s plenty of sunshine left yaknow!”

Chuckling once more, Gramps turned his head back to the front, letting his ‘thoughts’ free in the air. “Kids these days… No respect, I swear…”

Rei started giggling at the thought. “Hey, you know I’m only playing, right?”

“I do, but sometimes ‘Gramps’ gets a little bit much.”

She didn’t even have to look to hear that smirk on his face.

 


 

The Argentum Trade Guild. A massive moving monolith of a ship with a ginormous air-fairing Titan above it, plump and bug-eyed as it stared ahead, flapping its ‘wings’ slowly to stay in the air as free as it could from within the massive harness that looked to be made of some form of elastic and metallic materials. Hanging from the harness’ side rails were massive banners for all passers by to identify the structure, while multiple other ships with Titans in kind docked much like Gramps now was on the farthest dock away from the structure, to stay as discrete and out-of-sight as possible. 

Rei knew it wasn’t necessary, but as per customs she needed to use a rather loosely fitted rope to tie him to the dock. He felt no humiliation in this, he understood as well as she did that it was just regulation.

Double-checking stock with Gramps for a moment, she was interrupted by a familiar worker’s voice. “Why, if it isn’t Rei! How’s business treat’in ya, eh?”

“Goin’ alright! Else I wouldn’t be here, now would I?” Rei responded by putting her hands to her sides and standing confidently with her trademark beaming smile. 

The worker; Hirkham, chuckled and gave her a thumbs up. “Fair point. So, which one am I unloading?”

Waving her hand a bit, Rei kept her smile up. “We can leave that until I’m done negotiating, shouldn’t be too long!” 

Hirkham sighed, but smiled regardless. “Well, you know that the fare’s 15 gold per half day-”

Before he could finish his thought, he realized that Rei ran right past him towards the guild. “I’ll have your gold after I sell the stuff, all right? Later!” She shouted back to the man as she chuckled and waved.

“H-Hey, hold on! Yaknow I can’t do credit… gah, she does it every time too…” Hirkham mused, turning his head to Gramps, who was staring ahead.

“No wallet, I’m afraid.” He told them, looking down upon him with slight pity.

“...Figures…”

Her light dash stopped as she reached the bigger part of the dock, she slid to a stop as a massive metal ship caught her eye.

A cylindrical beast of a ship that had a very ornate and complex design with many golden trims, and it’s equally golden front jutting upwards with what looked to be a giant mo-hawk like spire design connecting it to the hull, it’s orange tinted glass being too thick to look through from the outside. Strangely, there was no Titan in sight helping pilot the machine like all the rest, it was only resting on the water itself as it was docked quite perfectly still.

“Awesome…” Rei mused as she stared at the mechanical marvel of a ship. “That thing’s huge, and it’s not even a Titan ship!”

Letting curiosity take the wheel, Rei walked along the wooden dock towards the ship, waving to the passing by people and Nopon as they talked with various workers and carried in crates and bags of cargo, filled with who knows what.

With arms rested on a metal railing, she leaned over to stare deeper at the ship. It truly was a marvel of modern technology, it looked almost futuristic in comparison to everything else there, and was definitely belonging to someone wealthy. Pray it’s not… Him, and at least someone nice.

One arm reached back to the satchel she kept in her diver’s helmet, it wasn’t by any means a smart place to keep one’s equivalent of a wallet, but hell if anybody walked close to a diver, because most of what they’d get are heavy layers of salt-water stench or get caught in the act by their usually keen sense of hearing. Holding it lightly, she checked her current stash of coins. There were only 33 of the small cylinders of currency, but she’d get paid soon, so it actually wouldn’t hurt to just give Hirkham the fee for the fare.

She heard small and quiet steps waddle their way over to her and she turned her head towards the noise; what looked to be a familiar tailor of a Nopon had waddled over to his firmly situated stool that she honestly didn’t notice was there, as they hopped on it and stared at Rei, and at the ship.

“Waaaah, Rei! It very good to see you, very good!” The Nopon whom Rei could easily remember as Periperi exclaimed, hopping up and down a bit.

“Hoy, Periperi!” She waved to them kindly. “Your clothes’re doing me just fine, thanks a bunch for making ‘em for me!”

“Ahhh, not problem, not problem at’all for Periperi! Truly, thank you for kind words!” They responded back, turning their attention back to the ship. “Before Periperi went in shop, Periperi was just whiling away time, watching ships go by till cargo all loaded on board.”

Rei hummed in response, taking her attention as well to the ship.

“What Rei say to meal together? Nice tasty Samod or somesuch?” Periperi asked, his cute and questioning tone giving Rei a small chuckle.

“Ahhh, sorry, I’m a bit busy at the moment, but another time, okay?” She responded, thumbing in Gramps’ direction for Periperi to get the idea.

“Mehhh… That too bad… but that okay! We all have thing going on in our lives!” The Nopon mused, bouncing up and down a bit still. “Periperi thought, would be nice to make happy memories before set out on long, long voyage… Ah, never mind Periperi. Is just being melodramatic. Rei keep up doing good work with salvaging!”

Laughing a bit, Rei smiled at the Nopon. “Will do, see ya, Periperi!”

Periperi waved goodbye with his longer arm over his plump body as Rei waved back in kind, watching him go back to his sewing work.

Waltzing over to the large ship, she walked down the runup dock that it was parked against, admiring its obsidian sheen in the bright sunny lights a bit.

“Hey there, Rei. That ship caught your eye?” Another familiar worker’s voice asked.

She turned to face Garram, another worker of the massive ship slash trade center. “Well, of course! Just look at that thing!”

“Yeah, I guess it’s not easy to miss.” Garram chuckled, adjusting his cap a bit as he stared at the large vessel. “Never knew they made ships this big without a Titan at the core… I can’t even begin to imagine how the whole thing works.”

Rei hummed in agreeance. “Yeah, it almost seems like it’s right from the future! Do you know who’s ship it is?”

Garram shook his head no. “Don’t know the details, but I think it’s some clients of the Chairman.”

She hopped Garram didn’t see her visibly wince at the utterance of that man. “Huh, I see…”

The worker just chuckled a bit and playfully slapped Rei on the back. “I know you’re curious, but don’t go climbing on board or anything, Okay?” 

Rei chuckled at the thought, and looked back to Garram with a smile. “I’m not that crazy yaknow.”

“Sure you’re not, and my name isn’t Garram either!”

Shoving the worker playfully, they both laughed a bit. “Aw, buzz off with that, will ya? I’m crazy, but even I wouldn’t try and attempt to break into that crazy looking thing!”

“Heh, alright, but just letting ya know before you end up doing something crazy.” Garram chuckled, readjusting his hat. “Gah, anyway I’ve gotta get back to work. You go do whatever it is you’re doing, alright?”

Rei gave him a smile and waved. “All right, then. See you ‘round, Garram!”

Watching the man go, she walked a bit more down the dock running up to the large ship, overhearing some people’s spoken about the ship as she continued to stare it down. The common consensus was that a lot of people had genuinely no clue about who owned the ship, and that whoever did was obviously a very wealthy or important figure. 

Then, Rei realized something. “Wait… I gotta cash in the loot!!”

Dashing back towards the building on hot feet, Rei jogged into the Bazaar of the guild, waving at a few passers by that she recognized and skidding to a stop in front of the all-too familiar central cylinder building of the massive trade guild hall.

“Ah, Rei-Rei, a pleasure! What Melolo do for you?” The Nopon clerk of the Central Exchange asks, shifting side to side a bit.

“S-Sorry for taking a while, got a bit sidetracked! Didya get the haul from Gramps?” Rei asked, attempting to catch her breath a bit in between sentences.

“Ahhh, yes yes Melolo did! Just as expected from the young diver protege, meh! You’re quite good at this stuff, Rei-Rei!” Melolo responds, pulling out a clip-board full of words that meant only one thing to her; their paycheck. Unfortunately, however…

“What, that’s it?!” The diver exclaims, staring at the measly 400 gold for all of that work.

Melolo just shrugs with their Nopon trademark wing-like second hands. “Is life, meh! This still more than I give to non-friend! If you bring military supplies you get good price!”

Extending one stubby arm towards a group of soldiers and workers who are checking stock of recently salvaged goods, Rei watches the large group converse about things she can’t quite hear over the hustle and bustle of the guild and Melolo at her side. “Ceasefire between Mor Ardain and Uraya not keep for too much longer, methinks… So weaponry is hot item!” The Nopon continues. “Well, what friend think? I make it worth your while!”

Nodding no, Rei looks to them with a stern expression while crossing their arms in front of them. “I told ya before, I stay away from that sorta thing.”

Melolo puts her head down in mock pity. “Oh, is shame! Rei good salvager, could be good way to earn pretty penny! Waste of talent if you ask me.” Turning her attention back to the document of payment, the Nopon quickly perks back up as if they didn’t just insult the person in front of them. “Anyhoo, where were we?”

Rei conceded with a more upset expression, but not by a lot. “I’ll take your offer. 200 now, and ya know what to do with the rest.”

“Okedoodles!” Melolo nodded. “Sending monies to Corinee of Fonsett Village. Is right?”

“Yeah, that’s right.”

Melolo nodded once more and adopted a more dreamy expression… “Is beautiful thing! Sending money home at such young age. I touched!” ...Until they adopted a more furious look. “Wish my own dum-dum littlepon did same!”

Rei chuckled a bit, and put on a smug look with finger guns on top. “It’s ‘cos Gramps doesn’t charge rent, Ehey?”

Melolo didn’t look particularly amused, but they nodded their agreement anyways.

Holstering their finger guns, Rei waved a bit to the Nopon. “All right, I’m countin’ on ya!”

“Roger, pleasure doing business, Rei-Rei!” Melolo waved back to them, and set back to doing their own work, as Rei walked deeper into the Bazaar. 

Before they could walk particularly far in, Rei was interrupted by a set of 3 people. 2 rather large men in suits that looked to be mixed with light armoring, and a small Nopon at the very helm, a familiar one at that.

Rei couldn’t help but feel her blood run cold at the sight of the Nopon, much more so than the guards at his side.

“Hello, Rei!” The small Nopon exclaimed with their very sophisticated accent, his two guards stopping behind him as they finally walked right in front of the young diver.

Putting on her best fake smile that she could muster, Rei gave the small Nopon a wave. “Pupunin, been a while!” 

The small creature wearing his own garb of suit-mixed-with-armor and his really strange smokestack cap up top, gave Rei his own smile, much more practiced and serious despite it coming from one of the cutest creatures of Alrest. “Rei looking high spirits! Ah, no, how say… Yes, peppy!”

‘If only…’ Rei internally mused. “Been worse! So, you got something for me? New job, maybe?” The diver asked, rubbing the back of their head with their leather mitt.

“Something like that.” Pupunin responded. “Ah, by the way… Rei come from Fonsett Village in Leftherian Archipelago, yes?”

She couldn’t help but feel a strong tingle climb up her back and felt as her blood ran even colder. “Yeah, that’s right. Why’d ya ask?” 

The small Nopon’s expression shifted to a bit of worry, strangely enough, small traces of fear in his voice. “Y-You should go straight to boardroom of Chairman!”

‘Shit.’

“W-Wait, what’s goin’ on?” Rei asked, not being able to hide the fear in her eyes at the sudden shift in tone from her small acquaintance.

“Chairman Bana ask for Rei by name!” 

‘By name, eh? What, did that blubbery bastard ask for Rex?’ 

“T-The Chairman? For me?!”

“Yes yes, for Rei! Go, quickly! Lest Chairman be more upset!”

As much as she absolutely despises that man for all the shit he’s put her through, she knows it won’t get any better should she avoid his suddenly urgent request.

Dashing past some people in the Bazaar and trying not to hurt anybody, Rei’s feet turned into solid lead as she stopped on the first step of the small set of stairs leading to the Chairman’s office.

That Nopon was the worst thing that she thinks ever happened to her in their entire life. She practically works as a slave for the fat bastard, she knows full well that he’s docking her payment on all these jobs, 400 is way too little for nearly dying by a giant crab that somehow managed to get inside… a sealed crate.

‘No… did he… did he set that up? Did that guy try to kill me by putting that monster in the crate?!’

There was definitely the answer as to why that old and rusty crate managed to get there, clearly placed recently. Bet the dumbass didn’t even think about altering the land around it to lower suspicion, just chose a rusty crate to shove a beast in with some miniscule gold and trinkets. At least the actual garbage he put in there was worth more, she thinks.

Having tight hold on her blade that she kept folded up like a switch-knife on her haunches, she slowly climbed the stairs.

Chairman Bana was an absolute sleeze of a Nopon- a complete waste of life even. What hurt more is the fact that he was the only connection Rei had to being who she even is to begin with.

That man was the only connection Rei had to not only payment of her family back in Fonsett, but also her only connection to modern medicine that she needed to be… well, her.

That man was a self-proclaimed savior, rescuing Rei from a tragedy that she herself honestly can’t quite remember. All that she can was that ever since she was forced to work for that bastard the rest of her life, unable to go too far away from the guild or else she be put on watch for what she would honestly assume to be assassination, knowing how shady that Nopon was. Bana was strangely fixated on the girl for reasons she didn’t even know, and he made sure she didn’t go out of his grasp.

But recently, it’s like he didn’t even care whether she lived or died. Likely the ladder. Having found out from his right hand Pupunin that the ‘medicine’ she needed was costing more and more as time went on, it was likely him trying to save money, buy quite literally attempting to cut Rei out of her life, despite how much he previously tried to keep her close by going just not too far enough to drive her away entirely.

It was hell, but it was unfortunately necessary.

That man was her only connection to the strange body-altering supplements of modern medication that was helping Rei become a girl, after all, and she wasn’t about to give up on them knowing that at some point they’ll lose affect and things’ll get bad. Small capsule like things that came in different colors, she didn’t really understand modern medication but if it didn’t exist, she wouldn’t properly exist either, so it’s a necessary evil.

While the world turned and technology became more and more prevalent, so did this modern medication that was only getting stronger and better. And thankfully the doctors were getting better as well.

Rei had hopped multiple ‘practitioners’ throughout her life, but all they really did was check up on them, give Rei instructions on what to do with this ‘modern medicine’ every morning and that was that. She had no complaints, downing a few of these capsules with a morning swig of water was absolutely childs play.

She thankfully, however, was able to go under the table with the Chairman. Her current ‘practitioner,’ a kind lady by the name of Athena who now lives in a large city named “Mor Ardain,” and was very graciously kind enough to offer the young scavenger free medication, as long as she can manage to see them again.

Knowing full well that she’s right under the Chairman’s thumb means that she likely wasn’t safe to visit anytime soon, they had both mutually agreed to part ways and hope that in the coming months they can meet again. Having left Rei with a good 3 months worth of ‘modern medicine,’ all she had to do was bide her time and at this point hoped and prayed to whatever god may be listening, hopefully the Architect, that he wouldn’t find a way to kill her somehow.

Climbing up that last step, it was make or break time at this point. It was either she was gunned down there and then somehow- she wouldn’t put it behind the guy, honestly- or she has to do another life-threatening job, which could just as honestly be the last if their previous attempt was to sick a monster on them, luckily unknowing of her adept combat skills beforehand.

This was going to be an even longer day, wasn’t it?

 


 

“Ah, Rei-Rei, so good to see, so good to see!” The polite voice of a receptionist Nopon sounded, giving just a bit more life for Rei before heading into probably certain death.

Rei waved to the small pink Nopon that was for some reason situated on top of the desk they should be working on. “Good to see you too, Helehele!” 

The small creature nodded politely. “Chairman Bana ready to see Rei-Rei now, best of luck, meh!”

While trying her absolute hardest to give them a fake smile, Rei could only go halfway. “Alrighty, see you soon, Helehele.”

The room with no door was practically the archway of some sort of pearly gated heaven. Walking under it, she kept a neutral expression as Bana, behind his absurdly huge desk piled over with books, documents and quills, looked at the young diver with his shit-eating grin he always had, his expertly shined and glossy gold jewelry affixed with various gemstones shining much too brightly for their own good adorning his second hands and all over his strange regal getup. 

Whatever was behind that gemstone encrusted patch-thing on his eye, it definitely wasn’t affirmation.

“Ah, why, if it isn’t Rex . How good to see. Thank you for accepting summons! I, Bana, Chairman of the Argentum Trade Guild.”

‘Gaudy bastard always introduces himself so highly, even now.’

Baring through the plentiful emotions swirling in her head, she gave a curt nod. “Pleased to make your acquaintance…”

Eyeing around the room a bit as she ducked her head down, she was genuinely surprised to see multiple exotic and more scantily clad women on either side of the room. Catching their eyes, they posed rather forcefully in a way that they really didn’t seem comfortable with. Of course this room has no door on the entrance, too.

“Me hear from Pupunin that friend has become well renown salvager. That being case, I have teensy weensy thing to ask of Rex!

Giving herself a mock surprised expression, she successfully landed the tone she wanted. “A request straight from the Chairman?!” She mentally gagged at herself for even giving him this much attention like that.

Spindling his mustache like a conceited asshole, he rubbed it down to the tip. “Reward is… 100,000 gold.”

Not being able to let out genuine surprise, Rei shouted; “A hundred thousand?!”

As if wrapped around his little… fluffy finger, Bana grinned. “Friend hear right! Actually, that just the advance . Another 100,000 provided upon completing job.”

Rei’s jaw dropped as she stared at the high-and-mighty Nopon. “200,000 gold in total?! I-I must be dreaming…”

‘There has to be a catch, I know there is…’

Her excitement showed right through her voice as she practically pleaded for this chance. She hated when she did this, goading the Chairman’s ego because she rises to bait so easily.

“I-I’ll do it! I hereby swear to use every skill I possess to ensure this job is successful!” She bowed quickly, then taking her head back up. “I promise I won’t let you down! Hahahahaha!”

Bana being admittedly quite surprised by the enthusiasm, quickly once more adopted his egotistical grin. “You agree without even hearing details of job?”

“O-Oh, right… W-What kind of job is it?” Rei responded with a tiny blush, very much hoping it wasn’t visible to the bastard.

He grinned even more “...You really have skills for this?”

Nodding a bit too quickly, Rei smiled, unfortunately a real one. “Of course, I’ll be fine!”

“Meh, if you say. Here, crew will explain task. Bring them in.”

With a roll of his hand, one of the exotic women walked over to the large twin doors on Rei’s right that led to a deeper part of the massive guild ship, likely to a part normal people weren’t allowed in to by any means.

The woman didn’t come back, but however, Rei heard loud footsteps of multiple people. The telltale clanking of armor, and even the sound of heavy mitts on the carpet they stood on- a massive beast.

Out of the dark hallway came first a woman no taller than Rei, silver hair that went to their collarbone much like Rei’s and large cat ears on top of their head, equally golden eyes staring them down and on full display, her expertly groomed bangs cut in an arc as to not at all obscure her vision, the strands on her sides kept in place by yellow faded ribbons. Their baggy mustard-yellow jumpsuit clanking just a bit with large chakram like weapons on one hip, kept still by a belt that hung up high on the other hip and draped down low. Across her top half was a large white hood with red embroidery held by a clip over their upper half, more white fabric matching it resting above her chest that connected to an ornate necklace that hung 3 diamond-shaped cut rubies. Her steps were soft and calculated in their high-top boots that shared the design motif their white hood did- that turns out now was more like a hood and cloak combo, two long strands flowing lightly as they walked near one corner of the room.

At the cat-ladies right flank was a giant white tiger with beautiful fur patterns, piercing blue eyes staring at Rei for a moment before following the girl, his golden armor shining and shimmering with adorned glowing blue gemstones. Along with the beasts stare the lady turned her head to size Rei up a bit, with an albeit kind of coy expression.

On their left flank was a goliath of a man- wearing entirely blacked out and shining pleated armor with huge shoulder coverings that rose up like pleated paper. Light golden trimming slightly faded due to years of wear and tear, the man’s equally shit-eating grin like Bana’s, his steel colored eyes stared a very sharp dagger right into Rei as his expertly combed and spiked black hair shot upwards to the sky, spiky fringes cut short above his eyes.

The giant even bigger goliath of a beast behind the man in black armor honestly scared Rei a little bit, it’s demonic gargoyle-like visage covered only by equally colored armor plating, their face obscured by a rounded helmet covering.

As the man and woman took their respective left and right sides, they revealed that behind them walked one more person- a man tall and expertly toned in nothing but white, light armor plating covering their upper half and down the sides of his torso, the rest being forms of fabrics- skin tight and baggy- showing the world his figure. His equally white and draping spiky hair glimmered in the light, underneath it all was his horned domino mask that hid his true desires, light blue eyes staring Rei down like she was about to be cut down by that massive katana he wore on his back in an instant. It’s almost as if he was the most casual out of the three, a turtleneck peeking out from his giant trench coat with his collar folded sophisticatedly down towards the ground and held there by large silver buttons- yet his shoulder pads held in place by a chest guard of light armor plating told Rei otherwise.

Whoever needed this young diver’s help, it appeared to be a group of Driver’s and Blades. This certainly wasn’t shaping up to be the best of times, now was it?

“Drivers…? And… Blades?!” Rei exclaimed in genuine surprise, looking between the three with her mouth once again left open. “Woah… they look so cool…” She mused quietly.

The man in white suddenly spoke up with a voice that was somehow both gravely and sultry, staring right into Rei’s eyes with an expression she couldn’t fully read. “So… there’s something that we want to haul up.”

Rei stared at the man with wide eyes as he continued. “There were some current shifts. It showed up in an uncharted area. But, it’s a long way down.”

Trying her best to remain calm and optimistic, Rei put her hands on her hips and rocked back and forth, her wide grin put to the test this time. “Nice… I like a good challenge!”

All the man in white did was stare them down with absolutely no change in expression at all, like he was simply just bored.

Bana spoke up loudly, as to try and remind Rei that he was in fact there. “Bana offered to assemble team of veterans for this job. But this crew very picky. They want small and elite team, only from Leftheria. That when Bana have stroke of genius!”

Pointing at Rei with an outstretched second hand, he ‘smiled.’ “Should hire Rex!

Rei didn’t notice that the cat girl behind them watched her visibly wince at the exclamation of “their name.”

Her eyes barely concealed by her position facing the Chairman, the cat girl frowned slightly as the girl’s eyes in front of her stayed lifeless, but she put on the act of overzealous excitement for the small crowd in the room. “Hah-HA! You made the right choice!”

Regardless, she couldn’t hold back a chuckle at the bravado of the young salvager in red. “Pfft… A child salvager? Jin, don’t tell me we’re gonna have to hire some babysitters for this outing too.” 

The girl in red’s expression quickly changed to that of anger, admittedly startling them a bit. “What the hell? You look as much like a kid as I do, lady!” They spoke up, walking forward just a bit and pointing at them.

The man in black armor and the man in white armor just started watching the two. The cat girl rising to the red girl’s words. “At least I wouldn’t wet myself at the promise of a measly hundred grand!”

Leaning forward with a cocky grin, the girl in red looked furious. “What’re you tryin’ to say?!” Walking forward, the girl in red was stopped by their faithful tiger-blade companion. 

Taking long strides with his pawed feet, the tiger-blade stood between the two angry girls and got the one in red to successfully back up. “Ahem… Rex, Was it?” they asked. Watching the girl wince visibly again the blade and their driver stared a bit more wide-eyed. Ducking low, the blade continued on regardless. “I implore you to excuse my lady’s… discourtesy.”

The driver of said blade spoke up right after him. “Dromarch! What have I told you about speaking for me?! Shut your-”

Drop it, Nia.”

Rei and the cat girl- Nia apparently- turned to face the man in black armor shift his way towards Rei, and watching out of the corner of his eye as the girl in red dropped their guard, folding their arms up and mock-pouting slightly, looking a now oddly fascinating wall away from them.

“In any case…” He continued, more effectively turning his way towards Rei. “It should be easy enough to make sure-”

Catching Rei off guard, the man suddenly dashed at them with blinding speed, Rei only being able to react with a “What-?!” As they ducked away from the quick side-slice the man attempted to cut her down with, another swift slice that Rei was also just barely able to dodge came right after. Sprinting away, she turned her body around as she drew her own weapon in attempt to retaliate. Rei’s slice clashed with the man’s golden-blue and fiery-designed weapon that jutted out from what looked to her to be one of those stick-club things the guards used, only held a lot differently, and designed a lot differently too.

The man only held out one arm to push back the girl’s two on the handle of their archaically designed weapon. Their expression of pure anger as their golden eyes stared into his cold steel. Thin brows arching downward over them opposed to the man’s raised and bushy brows that showed amusement more than any exertion.

Having enough fun, the man easily pushed Rei back with one arm as she stumbled backwards but managed to regain her footing, and fell into a fighting stance. “What’re you playing at?!” The girl shouted at him, effectively ready to duel.

“Well well well…” The man smiled and deactivated his weapon, holstering it on his back.

“Malos! What good is it, beating up a kid?!” Nia shouted at the black-armored man, now successfully identified as Malos.

The man looked all too smug as he turned in Nia’s direction. “You said it yourself, didn’t you? What if the kid’s not up to it?”

Quickly retorting, Nia spoke up with an even angrier voice. “I said nothing of the sort!”

Malos chuckled as his grin somehow gained even more ego. “But.. you were thinking it, weren’t you?” He turned back to Rei before he could care about Nia’s reaction- which Rei noticed was one of defeat. ‘ Ouch.’ “And anyways, now we know...” Malos continued. “You’ll do right enough. Though you don’t look like a Driver… Where’d you learn those arts?” 

Rei smiled while still in a fighting-ready stance. “Gramps showed me a thing or three. Even when I was little, that was his idea of playtime.”

‘Wished he’d let me have more fun with it, though.’

The man’s eyes squinted just a bit, sizing her up more properly. “Well, you’ve got some skill, I’ll give you that. Guts too.”

Having said his fill, Malos turned to walk out of the room. “Kid, you better work hard.” The man in white armor, if Rei remembered correctly being “Jin,” according to Nia, followed right behind him, lastly came Malos’ blade as the three walked out, leaving Nia and Dromarch in the dust.

Rei relaxed as she folded back up and holstered her weapon by her haunches once more, watching with slight empathy as Nia very visibly slouched down for a second, scoffed slightly at Rei, and walked out. Dromarch, being the ‘gentletiger’ of the room, bowed to Rei before he followed behind his Driver. 

Snapping Rei out of her anger, Bana spoke up very loudly. “Meh-meh-meh! Friends are such rowdy bunch!” Reaching around back to quite literally pull something out of his ass, (which in actuality, was just behind him in his chair,) the sleazy Nopon tossed over to Rei a large bag of golden coins. “Here is advance. Use to buy what gear you need, then go to dock on starboard… Bana has arranged excellent vessel for you there.”

Not fully dropping her anger, Rei looked to the Nopon with rage still in her golden eyes. “You got it.”

Walking out of the room in anger and with slightly more dragged out steps to ruin the man’s carpet, Rei finally left the room. Today was most certainly going to be hell. And hopefully, she wouldn’t end up dying today.