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Pride X Valkyrie ReVamp

Pride X Valkyrie ReVamp


By Albert Ruckholdt


2015 Copyright Albert Ruckholdt

Smashwords Edition


Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


This is dedicated to my family and friends who supported me on this venture when it first began a few years ago when becoming a novelist became an undeniable dream.


Special Thanks:

Shani, who edited and critiqued my initial draft with a sharp tongue, keen eye, and a woman’s touch.

My sister and her fiancé, whose quiet support I greatly appreciate.

To the many readers at Royal Road Legends who gave me the feedback I needed to complete this work:

Blacky, Cend, Phalkor, Xtremeloldude, Birdyman, Ariakan662, mg021, and many, many others.


Table of Contents


Chapter 1.

Chapter 2.

Chapter 3.

Chapter 4.

Chapter 5.

Chapter 6.

Chapter 7.

Chapter 8.

Chapter 9.

Chapter 10.

Chapter 11.

Chapter 12.

Chapter 13.

Chapter 14.

Chapter 15.

Chapter 16.

Chapter 17.

Chapter 18.

Chapter 19.

Chapter 20.

Chapter 21.

Chapter 22.

Chapter 23.




This book almost didn’t come to be.

After the fallout from “Pride X Familiar ReVamp” flopping dismally, it was only because of the strong reader support from the people of “Royal Road Legend” that made it possible to continue this series. With that said, a great deal of this volume changed because of the reviews and comments we received from the readers of RRL for Volume One.

The book, like its predecessor, is written in the anime/manga light-novel vein. As a result, not everyone enjoyed Volume One, but enough readers did, and we decided to continue the series. Whether or not the series continues will depend on a number of factors, primarily the response we get from readers, the number of readers following the series, and the response we get on our other self-publications.

To that end, we decided to try something a little different with this volume. While it’s still an anime/manga style light novel, and the perversity is still prevalent, the overall tone has changed and grown a little more serious. In effect, this is a darker book than Volume One. This may disappoint some of you, but it may please others. As always, it is never possible to make everyone happy. I can only try to make as many readers happy as possible.

With these words, I present to you the second volume in the “Pride X ReVamp” series – “Pride X Valkyrie ReVamp”.

I hope you enjoy it.

Illustrations, Maps, Cross-Sections








I looked at Caprice and wondered if she was being serious.

Then I looked at Miriya Harlow seated beside her banana shaped smart desk, and saw the contemplative look on her face.

She was giving Caprice’s request some serious thought.

Dr. Harlow was our new resident researcher and medical specialist at the training center under my nightclub, “The Python Room”, in Island Three, Habitat Two, District Two.

Dr. Van Demon—I meant Van Deeman—was off on another assignment; a very important assignment my aunt only alluded to but wouldn’t elaborate upon. I had a pretty good idea it had something to do with Caelum and the Kaiser’s Blessing. However, after the grilling and roasting from my aunt after the debacle that best describes the defense of Galatea Academy, I was walking on eggshells around her. Asking her too many questions was tantamount to courting disaster.

So, for the time being Miriya had taken over the medical specialist duties.

I noticed Caprice and Caelum were a lot more at ease around her than around Van Deeman.

However, I was worried we’d traded one devil for another.

At twenty-seven years of age, Miriya had dark, coppery hair, much darker than mine and was statuesque at five foot eleven with a body Caelum had unabashedly rated nine-out-of-ten. Apparently, he deducted points because she was too tall for him.

All that aside, I had to admit I was getting tired of having to bend my neck to look up at her.

Miriya crossed her legs over and swiveled slightly on her high-backed synth-leather chair. That chair was hers. She refused to sit in Van Demon’s old chair. So she had this one brought in from her old office. Dressed in a short business suit, she wore her white lab coat over it.

Miriya was studying Caprice as though she were an award-winning racehorse up for auction. Then she stood up and slowly walked around Caprice, all the while faintly nodding to herself. Finally, she dropped her hands into the pockets of her lab coat.

“Are you sure about this?” Miriya asked the girl.

Caprice replied in her usual deadpan manner. “Yes, Doctor. I’m very sure.”

Miriya turned to me. “Well, I did some research on this as a side paper to my thesis. I concluded it was possible. In fact, some of the other girls in my department expressed a strong interest in my work, for personal reasons, but we lacked the funds to perform ‘off-the-record’ testing.”

My stomach tightened. I looked at the two women in turn then addressed Caprice. “Why is it so important to you?”

Miriya raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you’d ask her such a thing.”

I almost gasped, then I tried putting myself in Caprice’s shoes. The girl was staring at me flatly but I could see she was hurt by my question.

I palmed my eyes and sighed loudly. When I lowered my hand, I stared at Miriya with an uncompromising look. “She comes to no harm. Is that clear? At the first sign of trouble or distress this is over. Agreed?”

Miriya arched her eyebrows at me somewhat miffed. “That goes without saying. I’m not about to put one of the Lanfear Pride’s prized Familiars in any danger.”

I was right. She was equating Caprice to a prized racehorse.

Miriya stepped up to Caprice and draped an arm over the girl’s shoulders. “Have a little faith, Lady Arisa. Besides, this is all for a good cause.” She looked down at Caprice. “Isn’t that right, Caprice Steiner afil Lanfear?”

Caprice closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, she gave me a thumbs’ up and a faint smile. She spoke in her usual monotone. “I won’t lose. Not to them.”

I winced inwardly.

Oh, she sounded ‘really’ enthusiastic. Then again, she invariably sounded like this.

Good gods girl, would it hurt for you to put some effort into your declaration of battle.

I sucked in a lungful of air and let my shoulders slump in defeat.

“Ah—have it your way,” I muttered. “Just don’t blame me when it affects your balance.”



I peered through the binocular-visor.

“So…which girl is it?”

A guy’s voice to my left said, “Let’s see. Third girl from the front. She’s coming onto the bend now.”

I said to the guy on my immediate right, “Best of nine, right?”

“As agreed.”

I smiled inwardly. “So one more win….”

I studied the girl carefully as she came running round the bend in the sports track. “What’s her name?”

A third male voice provided a commentary. “Her name is Melanie Heathencourt Sanreal. She’s a senior, class Three Aye. Height is five foot six. Weight is estimated at forty eight kilograms. She’s the captain of the Track-and-Field team. Last year she led the team to victory in the Inter-Island Championship, and then to fourth place at the inter-colony championships held on the capital world of Aeneas. The rumor is she has a scholarship lined up for a university on Aeneas, and she’s desperate to do better this year.”

I watched her run around the bend and pull into the straight. As she ran, I imagined someone else running the same track with her, and sympathy twinged in my chest.

If Caprice had been born an Aventis, or joined a Pride, there was no doubt in my mind she’d be out there running laps with these girls.

I sighed. It didn’t feel fair to me. No, it didn’t feel fair to me at all.

There were things we Familiars could do, but there were differences between the Aventis and us – noticeable differences – and being weaker than them was just one of them.

Even so, I couldn’t deny the desire of wanting to see Caprice run the track with these girls.

I sighed inwardly this time. For the time being, I pushed my downcast feelings aside.

I asked the guy on my right, “You ready for this Bradley?”

“I was born ready, Desanto. Bring it.”

The guy on my immediate left, Tam, called out, “Gentlemen, write your numbers.”

The enlarged and enhanced image of the girl filled the inside face of my binocular-visor.

I held up my palm-slate, and quickly jotted down my guess. “I’m done.”

“Same here.”

I raised my visor and showed my palm-slate’s screen to Tam beside me.

To the right of me, Sho Bradley did the same.

Seated beside Tam was the fourth member of our group, Milo Hassan. He looked over Tam’s shoulder. “Well, who won?”

Tam said, “Desanto has, bust eighty five, waist fifty, and hips eighty one. Sho has, bust eighty four, waist forty eight, and hips eighty.” Tam looked down at the data slate on his lap. “Okay, according to this her bust is eighty six, waist fifty and hips eighty.” He grimaced at Bradley. “Sorry Sho, Desanto was closer. That makes it five wins in his favor out of nine.”

“Aggh, damn it,” Bradley muttered but didn’t sound angry. “Fine, that makes it your win.”

I chuckled evilly but offered him my right hand like a graceful sportsman. “Good match.”

Bradley shook his head. “Can’t believe I lost.” Nonetheless, he shook my hand.

All four of us were seated on the grassy hill overlooking the west running track currently commandeered by the Track-and-Field club. Twenty-two girls did laps on the track during the hour-long lunch break.

School Week Five, Friday.

Galatea Academy was back in business after a two-week closure while engineers and construction workers repaired the worst of the damage to the school’s buildings. The closure had messed up the curriculum for the semester and I’d heard from the Countess that middle semester break had been cut from two weeks down to one, in order to compensate for the lost time. Additionally, some of the more proactive and assiduous teachers had suggested Saturday classes, which didn’t go down well with much of the student body.

With that being said, I should introduce my new likeminded companions.

To my immediate left was Tamworth “Tam” Conti Lorian. Brown hair, brown eyes, average build – for an Aventis. Despite that, I guessed the girls would rank him an eight out of ten. I wouldn’t know for sure since I hadn’t asked any girls, but I had heard the only reason he lacked female companionship was because of his hobby which girls frowned upon.

To the left of Tam was Milo Hassan Fenrir. He was taller than I was, sporting a good build that would have made him a regular starter on any sporting team where muscle and brawn were an advantage – and that was without the improvements made by the Symbiote. He had black hair that he kept short and neat. I’d say the only downside to his features would be his severe look which belied his calm and friendly nature.

Last, but not least, was Shotaru “Sho” Bradley Irulan. Tall, slender – I won’t call him thin – he wore glasses for show since his eyesight was on par with those of an Aventis. He paid particular attention to his appearance without being overly fussy. You could describe him as neat but not obsessive. Like the other two, he was quite intellectually gifted.

Like me, they were second year high-schoolers.

Like me, they all shared a common passion.

No need to guess what I’m talking about.

Unlike me, they were members of Class Two-Bee, which made them classmates with Maya Khayman afil Sora. Earlier, I’d wondered how that was working out and so I’d asked them about Maya. Their response was to draw back in fear, which confirmed my suspicions. If Maya had no qualms calling me Pervert Desanto on every occasion, then these three undoubtedly didn’t fare any better.

Thinking of Maya made me consider our sparring this week, which was my first week back to training following the injury suffered at my sister’s hands.

To say it was friendly was on a completely wrong end of the spectrum, and I was growing tired of being Maya’s stress relief. It wasn’t sparring, it was all out combat, and that set my nerves on end for two reasons. One, there were times I couldn’t defend myself at all. Two, there were times I defended all too well, and those were the occasions when I could summon both Gauntlets – the same Gauntlets I’d used against Celica. With both blades, I could defend and attack, especially when I stopped thinking about technique and simply let myself go with the flow.

I liked to think of it as falling into a Zen state, but I feared it was more akin to allowing the Kaiser’s Blessings to take over my body. Those were the times I could match Maya’s okatanas and skill, thus preventing her from turning me into a perforated training dummy.

Unfortunately, I was only able to summon both Gauntlets twice this week, which meant I spent the other three evenings fending for my life, lest she slice and dice me into shivering, quivering sushi.

I felt a nudge from my left.

Tam was watching me with a vague disquiet. “Hey, Desanto, you alright?”

I couldn’t help looking puzzled. “Yeah, why do you ask?”

“You were making a—how should I say this—well you looked like your best friend had just died.”

I blinked at him. “What—I was?”

He nodded faintly.

I laughed it off. “No, no. Nothing like that at all. Just—just women problems.”

Bradley muttered loudly, “Yeah, I guess it comes with the territory, especially when you have a harem around you.”

“A what? I don’t have a harem.”

“Good gods, he’s even denying it,” Bradley added.

Tam was nodding slowly. “The harem’s one thing, but rumor around the Academy is you and the Countess are an item of sorts.”

I faced him with a conflicted expression. “We—we’re what?”

Tam’s head continued bobbing. “People are still trying to figure it out. The girls in my class fiercely debate the issue in morning homeroom, which drives Khayman afil Sora mad. That girl really has it out for you.”

Bradley intoned smoothly, “That girl is not making any friends. For a while, the girls in our class looked up to her for taking on Crimson Crescent, but her attitude quickly drove them away. She’s digging her own grave.”

I thought of Caprice, who was finally making friends in class. She had Haruka to thank for that. I meant to thank Haruka but so far hadn’t, and it was beginning to weigh heavily on my mind. Maybe I could talk Haruka into meeting me at the mall over the weekend.

Bradley added, “Well, Khayman’s not completely friendless. There’s that girl from Two-Cee who comes round to visit her at lunch.”

I knew whom he meant. “Rina Sayen.”

He nodded. “Yeah, she’s the one. She’s cute. A little short, but cute.”

I pointed out, “She’s a Familiar.”

“Yeah, so?” He gave me a questioning look. “Does it matter?”

I turned away and looked at the girls on the track. “Nope—not in the least.”

“Well, if you know her, would you mind putting in the good word for us?”

I stared at him wide-eyed. “You serious?”

He looked a tad embarrassed. “I am. I can’t talk to her because Khayman’s around, and the one time I tried, I thought Khayman was going to throw her smart desk at me.”

“She’s that bad, huh.” I faced the girls on track again. “No problem. I’ll talk to her this afternoon during training.”

I sensed the three of them stiffen sharply, including Milo who was sitting to Tam’s left. I didn’t have to wonder why.

Tam asked in a low voice, “You’ve got one of those Fragment’s, don’t you.”

I inhaled slowly. “I do.”

Since coming back to class, I noticed some of the students were aware I was a Familiar bonded to a Fragment. I didn’t know how they found out, but somehow the cat was out of the bag. It earned me some wary looks from the guys and girls when I passed them in the hallways and corridors.

With a sidelong look, Tam asked, “You train on how to use it, along with the others, right?”

I gave them a slow nod. “By others, if you mean Khayman and Sayen, then yes.”

I chose not to mention Caprice. I didn’t think it was necessary. The girls in our class had learnt Caprice was a Special, and had asked her about her Fragment more than a few times. I was grateful they weren’t afraid of her. In fact, they seemed to have accepted her as their protector. That was a little troubling because I felt it was a double-edged knife.

Bradley sounded uncomfortable when he asked, “You went up against Crimson Crescent?”

I exhaled loudly and kept my gaze on the girls on the running track. “I only fought against one of them, and I didn’t do too well. If it’s alright with you guys, I’d rather not talk about it.”

In the corner of my eyes, I glimpsed them nodding apologetically. I wondered if I’d spoken too harshly, and that made me feel a little ashamed.

However, it felt like the right moment to change the subject so I took the opportunity to do so.

I turned to Tam. “So, I passed the test. What is it you wanted to show me?”

Tam reached into his school carry-bag and retrieved a box. It was obsidian in color, and looked professionally custom made, with rounded corners and beveled edges. I raised my eyebrows at it, my interest truly piqued.

He gave me a serious and level look. “This is a top secret prototype. Our group is still working on refining it. I might also point out this is version three.”

“Version three of what?”

He swallowed dramatically. “The Guesstimator.”

I gave him a blank look. “Huh?”

Milo muttered loudly, “Tam, get on with it.”

Tam opened the box by unlatching the lock. Of course, there was key code to enter which made the whole situation that much more intriguing. When he finally swung the lid open, I saw what appeared to be a wrap-around visor, much like the sunglasses I’d seen snow skiers wear during competitions held in Island Five, which had three habitats devoted to nothing but sports and relaxation. The visor was sleek and very stylish, and the darkly tinted lenses hid the wearer’s eyes.

I chose to play it down a little. “Okay, so it’s a visor. What’s the big deal?”

“Not just any visor,” Tam protested smoothly. “This baby is wirelessly linked to your palm-slate or data-slate running the Guesstimator software. She comes with binocular lenses here and here”—he tapped the outer rims of the visor—“and can be either voice activated or touch triggered here.”

“That’s all good, but what does it do.”

“You’ll understand better if we show you.” Tam lifted the visor reverently like he was holding a diamond tiara, and handed it to me. “Put it on.”

I did just that, finding it a little heavier than I expected but not uncomfortable. It was also smaller and tighter than the visor-binoculars Sho and I had been using to appraise the girls.

Beside me, Tam pressed a small button on the visor’s left wing that reached back over my left ear. I saw the inside of the visor crackle then clear.

“Hey,” I muttered, “what is this?”

Tam asked, “Milo, is the latest software patch on this slate?”

“Yep. Patch nineteen. The guys are saying patch twenty comes out next week.”

“Excellent. Now, let the demonstration begin.”

I was going to ask what ‘demonstration’ when my gaze fell on a girl walking in our direction. I didn’t recognize her, but I could tell she was angry from her expression and the manner in which she stomped toward us. I took her to be the Track-and-Field club’s manager.

“Desanto,” Tam said, “press the little button on the right wing, just behind where it blends into the visor.”

I reached up and after feeling along the length of the wing my fingers encountered a slight protuberance. I pressed it.

Suddenly an orange targeting silhouette soundlessly flashed up over the girl’s body. I watched bands of light run up and down her trim figure for a few seconds, then a collection of numbers appeared in the left hand portion of my vision.

I blinked in awe. “So that’s what it does. Wow. This is cool.”

Tam sounded proud of the device. “Doesn’t matter if she’s wearing clothes or not. Once it gets a good idea of size and distance, then it goes to work.”

I read the girl’s numbers. “She’s a disappointment. Bust seventy five, waist forty five, hips seventy three.”

Sho sighed loudly on my right. “Yeah, that’s my sister for you.”

“Eh!” My head spun as I faced him. “She’s your sister?”

Sho nodded sadly. “I think she and I took after our dad, cause our mother’s a knock-out.”

I slipped the visor off. “Man, sorry about that. I didn’t mean any disrespect.”

He waved a hand loosely. “It’s cool. But, she’s a senior in middle-school so you never know. She might ‘blossom’ after all.” He started to get up. “However, I think we should get clear of her. Otherwise, she’ll give me an earful when I get home.”

I looked at the other two on my left. They nodded in agreement.

I shook my head. “You guys go on ahead. I’ll cover your retreat.”

Tam and Milo looked stunned. “Huh? Man, you have no idea what you’re in for. That’s a tiger headed our way.”

I gave them a reassuring nod. “Trust me. I’ve handled bigger fish in just the first week of school.”

Sho said, “Your exploits aside, she’s still my little sister.”

“I’m not going to do anything to her. I’m just going to divert her attention. Now, get going before she gets here.”

“Ara ara, what do we have here?”

“Eek!” My shoulders reflexively hunched up, and I sharply bent forward.

The trio around me froze like statues.

Tam stuttered wildly for a moment. “V—Vice—Vice President.”

“Ara ara, aren’t you being naughty little boys. Spying on the girls, are we? Now what shall I do with you.”

Overwhelming panic washed over me.

Something inside my mind went ‘snap’.

I spun round as agilely as I could. “Guys—run! Save yourselves.”

I tossed the Guesstimator to Tam who reflexively caught it in the air.

Then I overclocked as I sprinted toward the Countess who stood a couple of meters away, perched prettily atop her Jimmy Chans with their three inch heels.

In slow-motion, I watched the smile of confident superiority on her beautiful face fade as I ran toward her.

Before she could utter a cry of protest, I crouched and scooped her up onto my right shoulder. Then with one hand over her back and the other against her buttocks to hold her in place, I ran along the grassy high ground that bordered the running track.

I think I gave those girls in the Track-and-Field club a run for their money.

Suffice to say the Countess’s cries of protest caught their attention, causing a number of them to stumble.

I must have cut quite the picture fleeing with a girl like the Countess over my right shoulder.

In any event, I ran until I arrived at the storage houses behind the gym, well out of sight of the Academy’s buildings. Only then did I put her back down on her high heels. She swayed unsteadily so I reached out and supported her for a few moments.

Simone’s silver hair was a mess. She brushed it back, straightened her uniform, and then smacked me across the top of my head.


“That was uncalled for,” she declared in annoyance.

I rubbed my head. “Sorry.”

She stared at me hard for a few moments, then relaxed and slowly shook her head. “Ara ara, why am I so surprised?” She rubbed her midriff for a little while. “That really did hurt.”

I bowed to her. “I’m truly sorry.”

“I wasn’t going to hurt them,” she said.

“Ah—I guess not.” I remained bowed before her.

She was quiet for a little while. “So, you made some new friends.”

I slowly straightened then held up a finger. “Associates. Acquaintances. Not friends.”

“Birds of a feather flock together.”

“Ah…well, they are like minded individuals.” I rubbed a hand through my hair shyly. “They sought me out. I guess my reputation precedes me.” I chuckled but stopped when I noticed her eyes narrow sharply. “Ah…Countess?”



“I won’t approve of you cheating behind my back.”

I choked. “Wh—what? What cheating? How could I be cheating on you if we’re not dating?”

“Ara ara, so you haven’t heard the rumors.”

“Geh—what rumors?” My stomach felt like a cannon ball weighing down on my bladder. Actually, Tam had conveniently told me about the rumors, but I wasn’t going to reveal that to her.

The Countess’s eyes widened, then a calculating look settled upon her face.

I shied back a little. “Count—Countess?”

“This is going to be interesting,” she murmured loudly. “However, just like you have a reputation to uphold, so do I.”

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning that it’s my duty to safeguard the girls of this Academy from you.”

“Huh? But I haven’t done anything.”

“Oh no? What about passing confidential information to the members maintaining the site for The Girls of Galatea?”

“I haven’t done anything of the sort.”

“Your talent for discerning a girl’s three sizes is uncanny. Naturally, I wasn’t surprised to hear the members had recruited you.”

“Eh? You heard about that.”

“Of course I did.” She waved a hand in the direction where the guys and I had been seated. “Those three boys were the leading members, right?”

I tried to deny it but eventually just nodded.

She planted her hands on her hips and leaned toward me. “How did they reimburse you for your hard work?”

I glanced away. “Uh…I did it for free….”

“Caelum,” she growled.

“Posters. They got me a handful of life-sized posters.”

“Ara ara, is that so? In that case, I’ll forgive you if one of those is mine.”

The cannon ball in my gut dropped a couple of inches. I averted my gaze a little more.

Simone noticed. “What’s with that grimace?”

“I’m not grimacing.”

“Yes, you are.”

“I—I think I ate something bad.”

She reached out and sharply pulled my right ear. “Caelum—!”

“Sorry, sorry. Yours wasn’t included.”

“Huh?” She sounded annoyed. “And why not?”

“They told me they were out-of-stock.”

Her lips drew a thin line across her face.

I swallowed. “That’s a good thing, isn’t it? It means you’re so popular demand exceeded supply.”

She was deathly quiet.

I swallowed again. “Countess…?”

“You asked for one of mine?”

I couldn’t nod because she was still pulling my ear. “Of course I did.” I swallowed nervously a third time. “They told me they couldn’t reprint yours because they were scared you might clamp down on their activities if they did.”

She released my ear, and I proceeded to rub it gingerly.

I gave her a wary look. “You’re angry, right?”

“A little. No, more like annoyed.” She folded her arms under her large bosom. “Just answer me honestly, Caelum. Did you get Prissila’s poster as well?”

The air caught in my lungs.

I gave myself away before I could do anything about it.

Plus, the image of the Princess in her racer back swimsuit was plastered behind my dormitory room’s door. Naturally it flashed across my mind.

Simone was tapping her foot impatiently.

I cringed. “Uh, Countess?”

“All’s fair in love and war. All’s fair in love and war. All is ‘not’ fair in love and war.”

I raised my hands. “Countess, calm down. I’ll take it down. I promise.”

She raised a hand abruptly, forestalling me. “No. I’ll deal with this my way.”

“You’re not going to tear up my room, are you?”

“Nothing of the sort.” She crossed her arms once more. “Very well, let’s leave this matter aside for the moment.”

I nodded hesitantly, while inwardly grateful.

The Countess fished into her skirt’s pocket then pulled out her palm-slate. “I came to show you this.”

I took the slate from her slender hands and studied the dossier it displayed. “A student…Serenity Artesan afil Avenir?”

The Countess said, “She’s a Familiar in the service of the Avenirs.”


“And she’s transferring to this Academy next week.”

I looked at the Countess. “Do you know why?”

Simone shook her head. Her silver hair swished gently about her face. Her bosom heaved when she took a deep breath. “I asked but was told not to. In particular, my sister told me not to question the directives of the upper echelons. This leads me to believe the order for her transfer came from the Sanctum…or maybe the Primogen Council.”

“What’s her Fragment?”

The Countess looked anxious for a heartbeat. “A Valkyrie….”

I frowned. “You mean it’s like Caprice’s.”

“Yes, though I don’t know if it’s locked down as a Fragment, or unlocked as an Artifact. Information on her is ‘sketchy’ at best.”

I swallowed nervously. “Do you think…she’s here to keep an eye on me?”

Simone regarded me with a steady look. “That remains to be seen. However, I do believe you’ll need to be on your best behavior.”

“In what regards?”

“Caelum, from now on, I want you to stick close to me.”

I straightened and stared at her, all humor gone from my body. “What are you up to, Simone?”

She shook her head gently. “It’s not what you think. I don’t want this girl looking for trouble with you. To that end, I’m going to make it clear that you’re firmly in my square.”

“Countess, I’m firmly in Arisa’s square, not yours.”

“What I mean is, I want this girl to see you’re co-operating fully with the Raynar Pride—my Pride.”

I studied Serenity’s image for a little while.

I won’t lie. She was ‘hot’.

She had that weird cartoon style, pastel lavender hair, but it fell beautifully like waterfalls over her shoulders. Combine that with her elfin features and violet eyes—wait, violet?

I peered at her image intently.

This girl looks awfully familiar. I mean, I know I’ve seen her before, but where?

“Caelum.” The Countess stuck out her hand, and I reluctantly handed the palm-slate back to her.

She fiddled with it before pocketing it into her skirt.

Taking a quick breath, I asked, “So, what does ‘stick close to me’ entail?”

“Well, to begin with…next weekend keep Saturday completely free.”

“Next Saturday? You don’t mean tomorrow?”

She looked distressed. “No, I can’t be with you tomorrow. Family affairs to deal with.” She rubbed her eyes for a moment. “Damn—Mother can be so insistent sometimes.”

She folded her arms again and looked at me.

My shoulders drooped in response. “So, about next Saturday. Let me guess, same place, same time, right?”

So far she’d monopolized every one of my weekends since she ruined Prissila’s plans. In fact, she had succeeded in keeping all other girls away from me, including Caprice. Actually, Caprice was keeping away of her own volition which made my heart ache in a strange, empty way.

Honestly, I didn’t mind Simone’s company, but I was quickly getting to the point where I wanted time for myself, especially on weekends. For now, she had skipped visiting our training sessions this week, and I was a little relieved. However, last week I was still convalescing from my gut piercing injury, and the Countess had dominated every afternoon and evening after school. If it wasn’t shopping, it was usually movies and dinner.

Again, I didn’t mind her company. Truthfully, I enjoyed being with her, but we were partaking in events that couples enjoyed, and that troubled me because she and I were not a couple.

I thought of Tam commenting on the girls in class trying to figure out my relationship with the Countess.

Just what was our relationship?

What did I want our relationship to be?

I found myself contemplating her. A girl like her, and I guy like me. There was just no possibility of that, right?

The Countess was shaking her head uneasily.

“Wrong,” she replied.

“Huh?” I was confused and hurriedly jumped back on track. “What do you mean I’m wrong?”

She took a really, deep breath, then let it out with a slow shudder. “Caelum, my sister wants to meet you.”

My eyes widened – I mean, they really, really widened. “You’re not serious—”

She lowered her arms and clenched her hands at her sides. “I’m completely serious. Completely!”

I raised my palms toward her. “Okay, okay. But does Arisa know?”

Again the Countess crossed her arms, but this time with a degree of reticence. “She gave her…very grudging consent.”

“Heh? You didn’t bribe her, did you?”

She drew her lips back in a sour smile. “Ah, well, there was one condition I had to agree to….”

“What condition?”

She hastily sucked in air, then spoke in a rush. “It’s not a concern. It’s all taken care off. For now, the priority is dinner with my sister”—her voice fell quickly—“and my mother….”

My innards turned to stone. “Huh?”

Simone closed her eyes – actually she squeezed them shut – then held her breath. Without warning, she stepped up to me and took both my hands in hers. With her gaze locked onto mine, and I was trapped by her imploring azure eyes.

“Caelum, please. I really, really need your help.”

“Heh? With—with what?”

“You—you need to make the best possible impression.”


“I promise I’ll tell you afterwards. You have to trust me—this is all for a very good cause.”

“Trust you? But you’re always—” My voice caught in my throat when she brought my knuckles up to her lips. “Wh—what are you doing?”

But it wasn’t my knuckles she was interested in.

She took my right index finger into her mouth and began suckling on it.

My breath caught.

Ah—what the Hell is she doing? What’s this weird feeling? Damn, she’s making me blush. Actually, I think part of me is already on fire.

I couldn’t tear my eyes away from her face as she worked her lips and tongue around my finger.

Damn it, what is it with this crazy tongue technique?

When she closed her eyes, a dreamy look came over her.

Damn, that is so incredibly erotic. No—it’s impossibly erotic!

A soft moan escaped her lips, and fireworks exploded inside my head.

“Aggh—stop, stop! Countess, I can’t take it anymore.”

I was afraid of pulling my finger out. Would she bite it if I tried? But what the heck could I do?

Amidst the fireworks continuously exploding in the cavern of my mind, a single thought shone bright and steady. My consciousness was drawn to it like a moth to a flame. That light was the answer to my current predicament.

It was telling me to give up.

I wasn’t going to win this round against her.

I spoke like a man drowning. “Okay, okay. I trust you. I’ll help you in any way I can. I’ll make the best possible impression. I’ll be so good your mother will start making wedding plans!”

Gah! What did I just say? I have to stop now! Someone stop me now!

She stopped suckling on my finger. She was careful to suck it almost dry as it left her mouth.

Then she stared at me intently. “You promise?”

I nodded fervently. “I do—I do.”

She frowned. “You do?”

“I do. I definitely do. No doubt about it.”

Wait! Maybe that was the wrong thing to say. I only realized that after she leapt onto me and threw her arms around my neck.

“You do, you do, you do,” she kept repeating. “Oh, I’m so happy.”

Gah—her breasts didn’t flatten against me. More like they crushed my chest.

Ah, still, I could die happy from this sensation alone.

Then my body warned me it would need air in a half minute.

“Simone, I can’t breathe.”

She whispered loudly into my ear. “Then let me go.”


She kept whispering. “Caelum, you’re the one holding onto me.”

My heart stopped for a complete second.

She was right. I was the one holding onto her.

In a blur, I quickly separated the both of us – or at least I tried to. Her arms remained looped around my neck and shoulders.

“Ara ara, could this mean—”

“No, no. Don’t even let your mind start running off in that direction.”

She sighed but smiled brightly. “As long as you keep your promise, I have nothing to worry about.” She started bouncing happily on her high heels.

I found it impossible not to smile at her buoyant expression.

Then I heard the sound of the first lunch bell. The second would ring in five minutes.

She removed her arms from around me, but then quickly kissed my cheek.

“Hurry back to class,” she whispered with a loving tone that almost turned me into butter.

Yet again, I ruminated the nature of our relationship, and then wondered if the one trying to deny the relationship was in fact me. Was it because of the other girls on the compass, or was it because I was afraid of committing to her? Was it because subconsciously I didn’t believe I could trust her?

Now her family wanted to meet me. I didn’t think this new development would bode well for me.

Simone walked away with that swish of her hips and buttocks that captivated my attention without fail, dispelling my worries as my mind followed a single path all the way to her shapely derriere.

If only she wore something more befitting than gym shorts under her skirt.

Ah, what a disappointment. It was enough to make my heart wilt.

The life support system in Habitat One had been shaky since the attack by Crimson Crescent. Shifts in temperature happened often, and gusts of strong wind were not uncommon.

As she continued walking away, a very strong breeze blew over the Academy grounds.

Her white skirt billowed upwards, then fluttered back down.

Almost as an afterthought she placed a hand on her skirt to keep it in check.

Then she spared me a glance over her shoulder.

I was too stunned to react. I felt as though I was experiencing an out-of-body event.

Crimson lacy ruffles with a very high cut and bows tied at the hips.

A vision of naughty loveliness that would haunt me for the rest of the day, and well into the night.



I heard him step into the living room of the penthouse suite, then I saw his reflection in the trans-steel glass windows before me.

He stopped at the top of the curved steps leading down into the living room’s sunken floor.

I didn’t acknowledge him.

I kept looking out the panoramic windows that encircled half the living room wall. Beyond them, Island Three’s Habitat Two stretched out in all directions. To the far right I saw the lights of the entertainment district. Ahead of me and to the left, shone the lights of the residential blocks, massive Aztec style pyramids with connecting bridgeways.

The habitat was observing the night time cycle, so artificial stars and moons drifted by overhead.

I reclined back on the triple seater sofa, bracing my lower back against the armrest.


I sighed and murmured, “What is it, Takehiro?”

I glanced at his reflection. He was keeping his usual stoic persona in place.

“Mistress, the last of your belongings will arrive in the morning. I’ll see to their distribution within the apartment.”

I nodded shallowly. “Thank you. You can go now.”

He bowed politely. “I’ll be in the apartment below.”

However, he didn’t leave.

I sighed again. “What is it?”

“I heard…I heard you left on bad terms.”

“No more than expected. They were a weak bunch of fools. Pathetic Familiars, everyone of them. In a year I managed to surpass them. I have no tolerance for their kind.”

“Even so, perhaps you should have worded things differently.”


“Your time at Galatea Academy is only temporary. When it’s over, you’ll find yourself back amongst that company of ‘fools’.”

“Then I’ll deal with them when the time comes.” I twisted my body on the couch and looked back at him. “Does it worry you?”

“A little.”

I shrugged. “It’ll be fine.”

“Galatea’s Familiars are an eclectic mix.”

“Weak. All of them.”

“And Caelum Desanto is the bearer of twin-gauntlets, the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

“That means nothing.”

He sighed heavily. “Perhaps you should approach them with a little more ‘friendliness’.”

I turned back to the view outside the windows. “Takehiro, please leave.”

He bowed weakly. “As you wish.”

I watched his reflection depart. Then I heard the door to the penthouse suite open and close.

I lay back on the couch and stared up at the glass ceiling made of concentric circular panels.

This would be my first night in this suite that occupied half the rooftop space of the apartment complex. It was larger than the apartment I’d been assigned to in Island One, Habitat One. I liked this suite much more. I was especially taken by the heated indoor pool.

Should I take a swim?

No, I might fall asleep in the pool.

Tomorrow, Saturday, was a day off from work. What a relief. I was getting tired of the constant workload I’d endured over the last few weeks. Between it and schoolwork, I was struggling to find the energy to summon up one fake smile after the other. However, even if I had no arranged work, I had three hours of Artifact training to attend to in the afternoon. That was something I couldn’t skip.

Maybe in the morning I could take a trip into Habitat Three, and visit the largest shopping mall in all of Island Three.

I swung my legs off the couch and rose to my feet.

I padded barefoot out of the sunken living room, and then into the master bedroom which was now my bedroom. My suitcase was standing upright at the foot of the bed. I picked it up with one arm and dropped it onto the bed. Then I opened it and began unpacking. The master bedroom had a wall-to-wall built-in wardrobe with folding doors. In one section of the wardrobe sat a drawer unit. I arranged my clothes into it, and hung up the dresses I’d brought along with me.

It was less than a third of my wardrobe. The remainder I’d chosen to give away.

I’d buy what I needed over the next couple of weeks.

Unpacking kept me busy for a good hour.

After that I treated myself to a long, soaking bubble bath in a tub fit for a baby elephant.

I swear I could swim in it.

After my bath I slipped into a white bathrobe and walked back to the master bedroom.

There was one small bag I hadn’t opened. It was nothing more than a canvas carry-bag and it lay on my bed near the pillows. I climbed onto the bed and crawled over to it. Unzipping it, I searched for the one item I wouldn’t leave behind.

I pulled out the picture frame and gazed upon the two dimensional photo within its borders.

After a little while, I crawled with it to the edge of the bed, and placed the picture frame on my bedside table.

I lay on the bed, and stared at the picture a little more.

“Not that you probably care, Mother, but I’m doing okay.”

Part of me wanted to tear the picture apart.

“Today I left Calista Academy and I start attending Galatea on Monday.”

It was a daily struggle, or maybe a daily ritual. Would I tear it or not?

“And how are you, Mother? Enjoying life in that big, big house, with all the luxuries that money can afford?”

In the end, the rest of me won and the picture survived to greet another day.

“Yes, Mother. I love you too….”

My eyes wandered over the image of her smiling face and mine.

It was a memento from a time when I lived in blissful ignorance of the truth.

My feelings soured, and I swore under my breath.

“You whore….”

Chapter 1.



Island Three. Habitat Two.

I woke up early in the morning to the sounds of the bedroom’s alarm clock.

I realized to my dismay I’d fallen asleep in the bathrobe, and I’d slept above the bed covers.

Great. I was naked underneath my robe.

I must have looked like a teenage boy’s wet dream lying on my bed a sexy mess.

As I slumped back on the bed, I knew better than to tell the room’s alarm to go back to snooze. I needed to be up early this morning because I had a special delivery coming in, and I was required to sign the paperwork upon its arrival.

I showered and dressed in denim hipsters, a violet tank-top, and indoor slippers. I ate breakfast, a bowl of cereal, while seated at the kitchen bench, watching the morning’s entertainment news on a holovid window. There was a story on some female pop idol from the colony world of Capernia visiting Pharos in a week’s time. Apparently she was going to do a tour of the nebula while travelling aboard one of the Mariners, the massive, asteroid-sized starships that sailed elliptical orbits around Pharos. These orbits took them light years into the Hurakan Nebula, and past many of the deep nebula mining installations. Even though the Mariners dipped into trans-space now and then to move faster-than-light, it still took them a year to complete a full orbit.

I munched on my cereal, wondering how bored out of her mind that chick was going to be.

Mariners were big – around nine kilometers long – and the modern day equivalent of the ancient super cruise ships of the twenty-first and twenty-second centuries on Mother Earth. But even with all their amenities, there’s only so much you can see before you just get bored. And this idol was going to be stuck on one for a year.

I wondered if this was her swan song.

Maybe her agency just got tired of her, and decided to put her out to pasture.

That made me think of how long I still had in the business, even limited as it was. Maybe my agency would tire of me too one day, unless I moved onto projects other than modelling gigs.

Thinking of other projects, I glanced at the data-slate on the bench. The script was open on the device. I glanced at it, then promised myself to finish reading the latest and seventh draft of the pilot by tonight. I wondered how many more drafts I was going to receive before shooting commenced.

I needed to make a decision on it soon. The production company and the agency were waiting on my reply.

Was I in or was I out?

I shrugged and finished off the cereal contents in my bowl.

Not a moment too soon. The concierge on morning duty called the suite to notify me of my delivery’s arrival. I was advised to head down to the parking levels, and then meet the delivery guys at my penthouse suite’s garage cage. Brushing my teeth quickly, I slipped on a pair of sneakers, and grabbing my keys off the kitchen bench counter. Remembering to take the little wallet with my identity card, and my palm-slate, I made my way down to the subterranean parking level by way of elevator.

Being the penthouse suite, it was allocated two garage cages with roller doors.

I only needed one.

As I walked up to it, I saw a large, grey delivery van with a sleek profile and non-descript writing on the side. There were two burly men waiting beside it, and it didn’t take them long to catch sight of me as I quickly strode up to them.

I decided not to hurry.

They were running their gazes up and down my body, and of course mentally undressing me. Their eyes made a number of stops at my chest, probably just to rest for a while, before moving on. I could have made a fuss, but why bother. It was really par for the course, and while it annoyed me a little, I wasn’t going to burst an artery over it.

After showing them my identification, the boss of the two waved a key remote at their van. The rear of the vehicle opened up and revealed a crane system built into the cargo bay. It ran on extendible rails along the van’s interior ceiling. But it also had floor rails that supported a platform or pallet.

I watched the pallet roll out of the van’s rear, and down a retractable ramp. The two men then pushed the pallet clear of the end of the ramp.

With my arms folded under my breasts, I watched the muscles of their arms flex as they pushed the pallet further along. It didn’t escape my notice that they were clearly showing off to me.

Hey, they got a good look at me, so why shouldn’t I get a good look at them? It’s all about give and take.

With the pallet on the ground, they quickly released the cargo bindings, then stepped aside to let me inspect my baby resting on its undercarriage.

Yes, my prized baby.

My Kawashima Two-Fifty Kay lev-bike, painted in deep red, with white trimmings.

I bought it three months ago with the salary bonus I received from the agency. While I was paid to smile, I reserved my ‘real’ smile for my lovely lev-bike.

It was built as part of a limited run of only five thousand and exclusive to Pharos. In fact, it was custom designed for use within and about the asteroid colony. Reminiscent of a short, stubby dolphin, it had sleek teardrop shaped sidepods where the fins should be, and its tail flukes served as levitator-field emitters. Though designed for one rider, it could carry a passenger but the ride wasn’t going to be comfortable.

I called it Scarlet. When I bought it, the dealership had the name ‘Scarlet’ printed on the forward fairings. They also added a pair of large girlish eyes with long lashes and purple makeup.

I did a slow walk around it.

It was the most powerful lev-bike I was legally able to buy since I was still on my Provisional rider’s license. Once I graduated to a full license in another year, I could afford to trade it in for a lev-bike with a bigger electron-fusion engine, though I didn’t think I would.

The two hundred and fifty kilowatt drive was enough for me. While floating off the ground, Scarlet could accelerate from zero to a hundred klicks in six seconds, and had a chip limited top speed of a hundred and forty klicks an hour. I could take it to a custom shop and have its photronics upgraded to get more out of the electron-drive, but that meant putting more load on the engine and reducing its lifespan. Also, I didn’t want it confiscated by the authorities. I was a Provisional License holder and not permitted to ride a customized lev-bike. As a Familiar in the service of the Prides, I was willing to break many rules, and avoid reprimand due to my status and importance to the Avenirs, but I wasn’t willing to risk losing Scarlet.

Scarlet was special to me.

Scarlet was my freedom in a different way from the Valkyrie Maiden I possessed.

When I moved accommodations from Island One to Island Three, I had to leave Scarlet behind at my old apartment complex. I didn’t feel like making a vacuum run between the two asteroid Islands. Scarlet’s effect-field impellers and thrusters could propel it through a vacuum, but I needed to wear a specialized rider-suit and helmet. Though the rider-suit’s skin was only a centimeter or so in thickness, it was fairly tight, and legally required if I was going to ride the lev-bike between the Islands.

Unfortunately, I had kind of outgrown my rider-suit, and needed to be fitted for a new one. It also had to be certified as meeting all the safety standards otherwise I’d be fined for wearing a suit that was deemed unsafe. It was all a bother, since I could simply summon my Artifact’s Valkyrie-skin and wear that while riding Scarlet. However, that was sure to land me in hotter water with the regulation loving Enforcers. Maybe even a chase down the streets of the habitat.

The alternative to making a vacuum run was to board one of the pressurized mag-lev carriages designed to transport vehicles from one asteroid to the next. But it was always a hassle getting on and off the carriages, and took a lot longer than just making the run on my own.

My last choice was to have someone bring Scarlet over for me.

So that’s what I did.

I paid a delivery company to transport Scarlet from Island One to Island Three. I had no doubt the van Scarlet was loaded into could make vacuum runs. It sat on six wheels, but the large bulges in its bodywork contained thrusters and effect-field impellers for propelling it between the Islands of Pharos. It cost me a pretty penny, but it sure saved me the effort of making the trip myself.

The delivery boss handed me a slate to sign, then sent a copy of the invoice and deliver note to my email account as specified on the identify documentation I’d given the company when I placed the order for the delivery.

So typical. Just typical. Both of them gave my chest another good, long look as I signed my name on the data-slate.

I handed the device back to the boss, ignoring the fact he was still focused on my breasts.

With that, the men gently eased Scarlet off the palette and onto its undercarriage.

Standing beside Scarlet, I watched them stow the palette, then seal up the rear of the vehicle. However, before they climbed back into the van, the younger of the two men walked back to me.

He handed me a printed business card.

“Here,” he said. “Don’t know if you’ve tried it out. It’s a racing circuit in Island Five, Habitat Four. They cater for all types of riders, even provisional ones that want to cut lose every now and then without the risk of being arrested.”

I took the card from his fingers, then looked up at him.

Now that I was looking at him directly, he behaved a little girl shy. I didn’t think it was an act, but I didn’t find it endearing.

Putting on a polite smile, I said, “Thanks. I’ll look it up.”

He hesitated, before asking, “Maybe I’ll see you there sometime?”

I laughed inwardly. Not a chance, buster.

Outwardly, I just smiled and said, “Maybe….”

He gave me a polite nod, peeked once more down my top, then hurried back to the van that was already idling.

I watched the van leave, tore up the card, then tossed the pieces into the air.

The palm-slate in my back pocket vibrated. I pulled it out and stared at the message that had arrived.

My request had received official approval.

I could now use my slate to track my intended target, regardless of the wishes of the Lanfear Pride and his Guardian, Arisa Imreh Lanfear.

Installing the application supplied along with the message, I waited for the program to give me a location fix on Caelum Desanto. I was surprised to see he was already on the move, then I noticed it was nigh on nine am.

I looked down at Scarlet beside me.

“Let’s go for a ride.”




Island Three. Habitat Three.

The biggest shopping arcade in the whole asteroid Island.

That’s where I found myself with Caelum in the morning.

The agreement was to meet up at the fountain just within the arcade.

Thankfully he was there before I arrived so I didn’t have to put up with guys trying to pick me up while I waited for him.

I came to a stop, and gave myself a minute to study him from a distance, unnoticed by him as he sat on the knee-high circular wall of the fountain’s pool.

He was dressed casually, a darkly sharp summer shirt, crisp denim pants and new sneakers. I recognized them from an advert and knew them to be quite expensive. I hadn’t seen him dress up like this before, and wondered if this was the Countess’s influence on him.

Seeing him dressed so upmarket was in stark contrast with the old Caelum.

I had to admit, I did find him…a little cool.

Actually, it made my heart beat a little quicker when I saw him like this.

Then I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. I felt I was betraying Duncan.

Ah, my sweet Duncan. Have no fear. My heart only has room for one…though it feels like Caelum still has his foot stuck in the door.

Taking a really deep breath, I almost resumed walking toward him when I caught sight of a trio of girls standing around a dozen meters away. They looked to be around my age, and were dressed in the latest trends that revealed a fair of bit of skin, including their slender tanned legs – artificially of course – and svelte figures. They hadn’t noticed me, but they had certainly noticed Caelum who was sitting quietly, anxiously glancing at his wristwatch from time to time.

As I watched them, I felt a pang of jealousy that was irrational since it should have been a pang of envy. Actually, I shouldn’t have felt anything at all. Caelum didn’t belong to me. He was just my best childhood friend, so I had no right to be jealous of those girls. But my feelings didn’t improve when the braver of the trio, a girl with long, curly hair and full lips, gathered her courage and started walking as casually as she could toward him.

Clenching my jaw, I kicked off on my booted heels and sauntered up to him, cutting off the girl, which earned me a startled then angry look as she suspected I was stealing her catch.

I ignored her and stopped a few feet in front of Caelum.

“Okay, I’m here,” I announced loudly, with one hand on hip. “What was so important I had to end my beauty sleep and get up early?”

I tossed my hair for effect, and in so doing gave the irate girl a warning look.

Beat it, sister. Go look elsewhere for a boyfriend.

She pressed her lips tightly in displeasure, and her eyes shot daggers at me before she turned away and walked with her shoulders rigid in anger back to her friends.

That’s it you hussy. Keep walking. He’s off limits. Besides the Countess would tear you apart if she learnt you’d tried to claim her man.

Huh? What did I just think just now?

I palmed my face as I shook my head and cleared my thoughts. Then I fixed a hard look on Caelum.

“Well?” I asked, a little less loudly this time.

He was staring at me with a funny look, but then ran his gaze over me from head to toes a couple of times. “Wow—when did you get this outfit?”

“None of your business.”

“Haruka, you look hot.”

“Geh—” I reached out and pulled his hair. “Answer my question!”

“Okay, okay!” He grabbed my hand, preventing me from pulling his hair out. When I let his hair go, he released my hand. “I’ve got a question I need to ask you. I can’t ask anyone else but you.”


“Cause you’re the only one I trust.”

My heart jumped a little and my chest grew a little warm. “What’s the question?”

He took a deep breath. Then he seemed to deflate. “Actually, there’s something I need to ask before that.”

I was starting to grow impatient so I crossed my arms and began tapping my right foot. I was wearing folded top, ankle high, tanned boots with a three-inch heel that reduced the difference in height between Duncan and I.

It also served to make my tapping that much louder.

“Caelum. Tick tock, tick tock. I have a date with Duncan a couple of hours from now.”

Thinking of Duncan made me blush.

Thinking of those kisses we shared last weekend made me grow hot and bothered.

Then a thought cut through the heat like an icy spear.

I leaned forward and said, “You should be grateful he’s such an understanding boyfriend. Most guys would piss hot steam if they knew their girlfriends were spending time with their childhood guy friends.”

He nodded slowly. “I know. He’s an upstanding senior. A really well respected dude. Whoopee.” Then his eyes bulged. “Boyfriend! Did you say ‘boyfriend’?”

“Yes. He asked me to be his girl last weekend and I said yes.” I took a menacing step closer to Caelum. “So don’t you dare mess this up for me!”

“I won’t. I swear, I’ll be very good. I’ll keep my envy tucked away.”

I raised a fist. “Caelum!”

He held up both hands, palms facing me. “Haruka, believe me. I’ve got more serious problems than worrying about who my childhood friend is dating.”

I crossed my arms. “Well, what’s the question?”

“It’s about the Countess.” He kept glancing around suspiciously before finally looking me in the eyes. “Have you heard any rumors about her and me?”

“Have I?” I stared at him in abject disbelief. “Of course I’ve heard rumors. I’ve heard lots of rumors. You’re the number one topic of discussion in the girl’s toilets.””

His eyes widened then narrowed repeatedly. “Wh—what rumors?”

I took a deep breath. “Well, to start with, the girls can’t decide whether the Countess is taming you or training you.”


“Then there’s a rumor about you being her personal slave—make that her pet.”


“The more serious ones circle around the fact she’s been spotted shopping with you many times around the habitat. They’re wondering why she’s dragging you into so many lingerie shops.”

He closed his mouth with a snap.

I finished off with, “And most girls believe you’re the reason the Countess and Princess are engaged in a cold war with each other.”

Caelum grimaced widely. “Gods, I knew those two weren’t talking but I didn’t think it was that bad.”

I gave him a serious look. “Caelum, what is going on? It’s like you’re stuck in a harem romantic comedy.”

He rubbed a hand through his hair. “Yeah, my life has turned into a dating simulation for lonely high-schoolers.”


“Games, Haruka. Dating sims are games. Haven’t you ever played them?”

“No. But leaving that aside, what are you going to do?”

“You mean about Simone and Prissila?” He shrugged despondently. “I have no idea. The Princess is pissed that the Countess ruined her date with me.”

I swallowed loudly. “Date? You and the Princess?”

He nodded while looking down at his sneakers. “Prissila was grounded by her family for four weeks. That was two weeks ago, which means in two weeks’ time the battle will resume.”

He looked really uncomfortable.

I couldn’t fathom what was going on. The girl he’d embarrassed was now interested in him? That made no sense at all? Something must have happened that I wasn’t aware of. But even so, we’re talking about the Princess of the Third Year student body, and this girl was a knock-out.

I peered at Caelum.

Is this really the Caelum I used to know – the Caelum that used to sweat when I took a hold of his hand and pulled him along?

No. That was Regular Caelum.

The young man sitting before me was Familiar Caelum.

Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear.

The boy I still couldn’t push all the way out of my heart.

I took a step closer, and hesitantly put a hand on his left shoulder. “Caelum, what’s wrong.”

He took a couple of long deep breaths. “Haruka…Simone wants me to meet her family.”

I felt my heart grow cold. “What? When?”

“Next Saturday. Her mother wants to meet me.” He looked me in the eyes and I saw flames there. “And her sister too.”

“Silia Alucard Raynar.”

He nodded faintly. “Yeah. That’s the one.”

Now I understood why he looked so distressed. This was the woman who’d carried out the order for his sister’s execution.

I swallowed and said, “Caelum, let’s go for a walk.”

“You sure your boyfriend won’t get upset.”

“No, and even if he does I’ll make it up to him.”

He gave me a lonely look. “You’re a really understanding girlfriend. He’s really lucky to have you.”

“Ah—I guess.” My face felt abnormally hot. I took a couple of steps back and away from him. Then I pointed down the length of the arcade. “Come on. Tell me your troubles. I only charge by the hour.”

We walked slowly side-by-side and deeper into the arcade. But we walked in silence, and it felt heavy and awkward. Caelum kept staring at the ground while absently twisting is lips into weird expressions.

I decided to break into his ruminations.

“Caelum, did the Countess pick out those clothes for you?”

He sounded weary. “Yeah…she said they would look good on me.”

“Well, she was right. They do.”

He looked up at me. “Really?”

“Oh yeah.” I took a quick breath and made sure to keep my eyes straight ahead. “I think…I think I can see why the girls of the Academy are interested in you.”

I glanced at him.

He blinked blankly a few times. “I don’t get what you mean.”

“Well…I’ve been asked about you a few times.”


“Yeah. Some of the girls are wondering if you’re really as bad as all the gossip says you are.”

“Why would they ask?”

I rolled my eyes at him. “How oblivious can you be?”

He jerked back a little though he kept walking. “Sorry. Please go on.”

Sometimes I felt like hitting him.

Actually, I often felt like hitting him.

I gathered my composure. “If the Countess wasn’t dominating your waking hours, I think more than a handful of girls would have approached you by now.”

He looked like a fish out of water.

Or perhaps like someone who’d just been doused with a bucketful of ice water.

I frowned in concern. “Caelum?”

His expression darkened. “That’s crap, Haruka. I mean seriously, how can you say something so stupid? Aventis girls interested in me? I’m just—well you know what I am. They’ve got a school full of good looking Aventis guys to choose from, and they all come from respectable families. They’re not orphans”—his eyes narrowed noticeably—“and they don’t have homicidal sisters like I do.”

My mouth fell open and I couldn’t help staring at him in shock.

He looked angry. No, he looked insulted with a heavy dose of disappointment expressed toward me.

Caelum swallowed and came to a stop. “Why would you say such a thing?”

My chest burned a little. “I’m not lying to you. I am telling you the truth. Why do you think Simone and Prissila are interested in you?”

“That’s because of this,” he replied and showed me the wide bracelet on his right wrist.

“But the other girls don’t know about that.”


I stomped up to him, feeling a surge of anger drive me forward. “Stop being so freakin’ dense, Caelum! Stop putting yourself down. That one thing’s always driven me bat shit about you. You have no confidence in yourself.”

“Hey, I do—”

“No, you don’t. You’re always belittling yourself. You really think the girls don’t notice you? If that’s the case you’re so oblivious you should live in a box. Better still, go hide underground.”

He looked shocked by my reaction.

I rolled right over him. “If you weren’t any good, I wouldn’t have fallen in love with you.”

His mouth fell open and stayed open.

I turned away angrily. But I couldn’t walk away, not unless I vented my anger properly.

I slapped him hard enough to send him down to his knees.

“You’re an idiot!” I snapped, ignoring the shocked onlookers.

Then I turned on my heels and half ran away.

I didn’t hear him come after me, and that almost brought me to tears.

Gods damn it, why did I say that to him.

Hadn’t I agreed to let him go?

Damn it, I’m sorry Caprice.




I leaned on the guardrail of the balcony overlooking the floor below.

So this is where Desanto was spending his precious morning hours.

Getting slapped to his knees by a brunette with an impressive rack, and a well cultivated girl-next-door image.

With my chin on an upturned palm, I watched Desanto slowly pick himself up off the ground and then walk over to a bench.

After the deliverymen dropped off Scarlet, I pushed the lev-bike into one of the two garage cages, and then returned to the penthouse, whereupon I changed into clothes more suitable for riding. Another pair of tight denim pants, knee high leather boots, a blouse and short denim jacket of a bolero cut. Yep, really suitable for riding.

Using the palm-slate application, I followed Desanto’s progress from Island Three’s Habitat One to Habitat Three. I was relieved he was staying within Island Three, since I didn’t have a vacuum resistant rider-suit.

I really needed to get myself a new one.

I had a fairly good idea of where Desanto was going, so I hopped onto Scarlet, and made the run to Habitat Three. Then it was simply a matter of figuring out which mall complex was his destination. There were three in this half of the habitat alone, but this was the biggest of them. Twelve stories of nothing but shops, shops, and more shops.

Because the mall complex had an open interior, I could see all twelve floors from where I stood against the balcony railing.

I looked up to the fifth floor.

The restaurant blown up by Crimson Crescent’s Familiar was still undergoing repairs. Well, its floor and ceiling were missing so that was no surprise.

I looked back down at Desanto.

The palm-slate app I was using to track him operated in three dimensions, and not just two. That was convenient because it told me if I was above him, or below him, or on the same level. Without the relative positioning, it would have taken me a lot longer to find him in the mall’s vertical environment.

I aimed my palm-slate’s camera at him, and snapped of a couple of quick pics.

Then I chose to make my move.

It was time to have a little ‘fun’ with him.



I stood up as best I could.

I watched Haruka disappear into the shopping crowd.

Well, that went well.

I walked over to a bench and sat down, rubbing my aching face slowly.

Damn she’s strong. Freakin’ Aventis strength.

In the past she would have barely rocked my face. Now she sent me to my knees.

My face burned, and my chest ached a little.

Well, those days are gone.

This is the new Haruka.

Better learn to deal with her.

I rose from the bench and wandered aimlessly past the shops. Then after a while I drifted into a department store. I’d come here a couple of times with the Countess. Thinking of her made me wonder why she left me alone for a weekend. I had a feeling she would make up for lost time next weekend.

The upcoming dinner had my stomach in knots despite being a full week away.

My feet guided the rest of me into the makeup and cosmetics department. I wasn’t looking at anything, my eyes sort of drifting aimlessly over the product stands and shelves.

Then a backlit poster caught my eye.

It showed a girl advertising a new facial cream.

She looked young, probably no older than Haruka. She was attractive too, as most models tended to be, with dark auburn hair. But she was also damn familiar, and my stomach was beginning to clench the more I studied her poster image. I stepped up to it, and searched the girl’s face.

Then the ‘anvil’ dropped and a sense of immense unease gripped me.


I almost jumped in fright, and overclocked, when I heard a girl’s voice snap at me from behind.

I half turned, and froze at the sight that greeted me.

Pastel lavender hair. Violet eyes. Elfin features.

Dressed in tight black denim pants that looked like they’d been painted onto her, she stood on black boots with a two inch heel, while wearing a denim bolero jacket over a stylish white, ruffled blouse.

I stared at her, then the poster, then back at her.

She snapped at me again. “I said, hey.”

“Yeah, I heard you.”

She pointed at me. “Are you planning on licking that poster?”

“Huh? No way.”

“Then stop drooling over it.”

My mouth fell open for a moment, then clamped shut. I took a step toward her. “You’re Serenity Artesan….”

Her eyes widened for a heartbeat then narrowed into thin slits. “Ah, so they told you about me.”

“Yeah. You’re the new Familiar transferring in to Galatea. Fancy meeting you here.”

She snorted. “Not fancy at all.” She raised her right arm between us. I saw the wide bracelet on her right wrist.

For a moment, my breath caught in my lungs, then I whispered, “Fragment….”

She smiled condescendingly at me. “You’re pathetic.”


“I sensed you from a kilometer away, yet you had no idea I was even around. I even watched you and the pretty brunette have a lover’s spat in the middle of the arcade.”

She sensed me? Wait—what did she say about Haruka and I?

“We’re not lovers. She’s my childhood friend, and she has a boyfriend.”

She snorted. “Really? How’d you let someone like her slip through your fingers?”

I clenched my jaw. “None of your gods damn business.”

She planted a hand on one hip while tossing her long, lavender hair with the other.

For a moment I was completely entranced by her pose and the sheer aura of confidence she exuded.

“Hey,” she snapped again.

“Yeah, what?”

“So now you’re going to drool over me?”

I drew back my lips. “Normally I would but today I’ll make an exception.” I pointed at the poster. “That’s you right? You’re the model in that poster, right?”

“Will you stop saying ‘right’ all the time!”

I clenched my jaw for a moment. “You said you sensed me. Did you come over just to bother me?”

“I didn’t expect to run into you this early, but I’ll blame my Artifact for that. It wouldn’t stop nagging me until I chased you down.”

I frowned and raised my own right wrist.

The Kaiser’s Blessing was strangely quiet. Not even a tingle.

I closed my eyes and concentrated my senses inwardly. That wasn’t easy when she was standing a foot away, and smelt like sweet flowers. But I persevered and finally reached my Artifact the way Kaleb had taught me.

I touched it’s Core Awareness and queried it.

Ever since my near death experience after fighting Celica, the Kaiser’s Blessing had been acting differently. As part of unlocking part of its Core Awareness, I was able to make use of its sensorium-field. The best I could describe it was like a radar field constantly scanning my surroundings. When I tapped into it, or rather opened up my mind to it, it enhanced what Kaleb called my Awareness of the outside world.

This meant I could close my eyes, and navigate through a crowded mall with ease.

It wasn’t just my spatial awareness that improved, but my hearing, eyesight, even my sense of smell. The aptly named sensorium-field bootstrapped three of my five senses to a new level of clarity.

However, using it came with a cost.

When the field operated at its widest – a radius of around fifty feet – I could only use it for a half hour or so before I started getting a kick-ass headache between my ears. Kaleb said that with time and practice, my mind would adjust, and it would get easier. He described it as the same kind of mental exhaustion a learner driver experienced. The more they drove, the easier it got, until they reached their full potential…whatever that may be.

Right now, the Kaiser’s Blessing was keeping quiet, not expanding its sensorium-field more than few inches beyond my body, and trying to avoid notice. Kaleb told me that it was possible to sense another Artifact or Fragment by detecting its sensorium-field. This was more-or-less akin to a radar station detecting incoming electro-magnetic waves from another active radar.

A thought trickled into my mind from the Kaiser’s Blessing.

No, it hadn’t sensed her. It was keeping quiet, acting like a passive sonar system rather than an active one. Yet this girl claimed sensing me from a distance away. How did she manage that if the Kaiser’s Blessing was staying quiet like a mouse rolled into a little ball with only its ears peeking out?

How did she sense me without alerting my Fragment?

I needed to talk to Kaleb about it when I saw him this afternoon at training.

I opened my eyes and looked into her violet ones.

I kept my voice low. “You found me. Now what?”

“Ask my Artifact, not me. I would have preferred to have avoided you altogether.”

I narrowed my eyes at her. “You make it sound as though it has a mind of its own.”

“You could call it semi-sentient, or semi-aware.” She grinned broadly. “You know so little about it. I expected more from the Lanfears, or could it be they’re simply too afraid to tell you about it.” She leaned forward. “Could it be they don’t trust you?”

“Probably. I asked you before ‘now what’?”

She was quiet for a moment. “Hold out your right arm.”


“Just do it,” she growled impatiently.

I carefully stretched my right arm toward her.

She reached out with her right arm and touched her bracelet to mine.

*You’re weak.

I blinked, hearing her voice in my head.

She smiled. *Don’t you want to be stronger? Don’t you want to be less pathetic?

What a weird feeling. It wasn’t just her voice in my head but her feelings too.

I swallowed. *All babies need to crawl before they can run.

*True, but you’re not a baby. You’re just pathetically ignorant.

I took a quick breath. *You have nothing better to say?

*Do you want to know more about your Kaiser? I can tell you and teach you a great deal.

I gave that some serious consideration. Her eyes never left mine. I found their color growing on me.

I asked, *What’s the catch?

She smiled, and after a moment said, *No catch. I just want to face a worthy opponent.

Her feelings ran through our bracelets, up my arm, and into my head. She was being honest with me.

She wanted to fight me, but not the weak me.

She broke the contact between our bracelets. My head felt cold and suddenly quite empty. I blinked, but refrained from shaking it as I lowered my arm.

Serenity was still smiling. “I wanted to face your sister, but they held me back. You could say it was like being told to forfeit the title match for ‘who’s the toughest bitch of them all’.”

I gave her an incredulous look. “You? Against my sister?”

She nodded happily. “Want to know more?”

I gave that some serious consideration. I felt that if I answered ‘yes’ I would be opening up Pandora’s box.


I glanced sharply over Serenity’s right shoulder.

Haruka stood there, her breathing a little labored.

Serenity turned her head and looked over her shoulder. “Ah, she’s back.” She faced me again. “Well, think about it. You know where to find me when you have an answer.” She closed the distance between us and whispered, “However, I’ll only make the offer once.”

Then she stepped back, spun smoothly on her heels and completely ignored Haruka when she walked past the girl.

I watched Serenity until I lost sight of her when she rounded a stack of shelves in the next department.

Haruka walked up to me. “Caelum, who was that?”

I didn’t look at her. “Transfer student. She starts school at Galatea on Monday.”

I turned to regard the girl in the poster.

Haruka was watching me anxiously. “Transfer student? What did she want with you?”

I shook my head narrowly. “I’m not sure. She said something about facing a worthy opponent.”

Haruka paled a little. “She what…?”

I shrugged heavily. “Actually, I don’t know ‘what’ she wanted. She could have been jerking my chain, and nothing more.”

“Caelum, did she know about—?”

“Yeah. She said she sensed me from a long distance away. She came to find me because her”—I hesitated—“because her Fragment sensed mine.”


Still staring at the poster I shrugged. “No idea.”

“So she was just greeting you? What the Hell kind of greeting was this?”

“Like I said, I just don’t know.”

“Caelum, what’re you going to do?”

I wanted to ask Kaleb about the sensorium-field, but then I wondered if I should tell him about this encounter or not. Should I tell the Countess? Should I tell Arisa?

“Caelum, what are you going to do?”

I faced her. “Haruka—I have no idea. Okay? I just don’t know. Give me some time to think.”

I said it more harshly than I intended.

Haruka swallowed and she looked apologetic.

I sighed loudly and rubbed my forehead. “Haruka, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound angry. I just don’t know what she really wanted. It just felt like more of a challenge than a simple hello.” I pointed at the poster. “Looks like she’s a model too. I wonder how the guys at the Academy are going to react to her.”

Haruka shook her head slightly. “She’s not the only model. The Princess has been known to model for a few magazines from time to time, including swimsuit magazines.”

I felt my stomach jump when I remembered Prissila’s poster on the inside of my dormitory room’s door.

Haruka peered at me. “You didn’t know?”

“Ah, nope. Didn’t have a clue.” I frowned hard at her. “Haruka…why did you come back?”

Her eyes widened for a moment and she actually blushed. “I—I came back…I came back to find you.”


She swallowed, glanced away, then focused her attention squarely on me. “I came back to say…I’m sorry. I’m sorry for hitting you….”

My eyebrows went up a few millimeters. “Oh. Okay. It’s cool.”

“Huh? What? You’re not angry?”

“Why would I be angry? It was my fault for being ‘dense’ as you put it.” I took a deep breath and scratched my right cheek. “But, I still find it hard to believe.”

“Find what hard to believe?”

“That girls would be interested in me. I really don’t have much to offer them.”

She gave me a disbelieving look, then shook her head while shrugging her shoulders.

“You really are oblivious, aren’t you?”

I looked in the direction Serenity had departed.


Chapter 2.


School Week Six.

Island Three, Habitat One.

Monday morning.

I told Takehiro I’d ride my lev-bike, Scarlet, to school, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

Thus, I decided to have him drive me to school in the sports convertible.

His sports convertible.

Traffic in the morning made it slow going from the apartment complex situated in Habitat Two, to Galatea Academy located in Habitat One. In fact, after forty minutes of travel, I was stuck in the car along with thousands of other drivers trying to get from point Aye to point Bee.

I should have travelled on the mag-lev to Galatea Academy. Crowded or not, I’d be at the Academy by now. Gods, even I can deal with a molester now and then in those close, cramped quarters. All I have to do is use the Artifact’s effect-fields to bend fingers, break fingers, break hands, a wrist or two….

I glanced at Takehiro through the corner of my eye, then swallowed before growling in my throat.

“I’m getting out.”

I glimpsed his surprise. “We’re almost there. We’re one district block away.”

“Yeah, which is why I’m getting out.”

“Didn’t you want to make an entrance?”

I slapped the car’s doorframe. “Jeezes—classes will have started by the time we get there. Fashionably late on my first day? No thank you.”

I turned in my seat, and reached into the backseat for my new school carry-bag. It possessed the emblem of Galatea Academy embossed on its side.

Takehiro’s words stopped me cold. “You met with Desanto on Saturday.”

“…so what if I did…?”

“That was a little premature.”

I stared at him as I sat back in my seat with my bag on my lap. “I’m going to meet him, and his harem eventually. What’s the big deal?”

Takehiro asked, “Are you planning to deviate from the mission directives?”

I flexed my eyebrows. “Huh? The mission directives? Jeezes, you make it sound so formal and boring. Would you relax a little?”

Takehiro breathed in and out slowly. “Then allow me to ask, what are your intentions with him?”

“Outside the ‘mission directives’?”

“That is correct.”

I faced directly ahead. “I’m thinking of having a little fun with him.”

“Fun?” Takehiro sounded concerned. “Didn’t you say he was weak?”

“He is weak. Pathetically so. That’s why I’m going to have some fun with him.”

“Serenity, you were given clear instructions not to harm him.”

My face contorted as I stared at him aghast. “Harm him? I never said anything about harming him. I said ‘fun’. You hear me? Fun, is the operative word.”

“Your definition of fun is not shared by the general public.”

“Really, are you saying my definition is unique?”

“I’m saying its counter to the mission objectives.”

I smiled thinly. “Which would be…?”

He may have sighed. I didn’t catch it in the ambient sounds of congested morning traffic. “Desanto afil Lanfear has potential, and it’s potential the Pride wishes to harness and capitalize upon.”

“Don’t you mean the Prides, plural?”

His eyes flickered my way.

I shook my head at him and rolled my eyes. “Of course he has potential. If only the Lanfears taught him what he needs to know.” I leaned my left elbow against the door and planted my chin on an upturned palm. “That said, how do the Avenirs plan on using him to their ends if he’s tied to another Pride?”

Takehiro didn’t offer me an answer, and truthfully I wasn’t expecting one.

Just what the Hell did my Pride want with him?

I shook my head inwardly.

Maybe it wasn’t what my Pride wanted, but what another Pride had forced upon them.

I pressed my lips tightly together.

Could it be the Raynars? Had they kicked off proceedings that resulted in my transfer?

Traffic moved, and we edged closer to the school’s entrance by another fifty meters. One more set of lights to endure.

As I watched the commuters on the sidewalk, I jumped onto a thought that had been tracking around the back of my mind for a while now.

I didn’t know if Takehiro’s car was being monitored, though I could find out by using my Artifact’s sensorium-field to search for surveillance devices. However, I thought I’d play innocent and ask my question regardless.

“Hey, Hiro-Hiro, why did that old bastard pull me back at the last minute? I could have taken Celica Desanto down in a heartbeat.”

“Are you certain of that?”

“Of course I am.” I shifted in my seat as I faced him. “Why give it to me, then hold me back? I just don’t get it. They gave me the damn thing to master, I mastered it, then they told me I couldn’t use it anymore. I had to toss it into the Vault under Calista Academy. And now part of it is stuck inside me. Not that I’m complaining. But I would like to know why they suddenly got cold feet.”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “The order came from your father.”

I glared at him. “He’s not my father, Hiro-Hiro.”

“Mistress, please don’t call me that.” Takehiro was quiet for a moment. “He may not be your biological father, but he’s still your father.”

My glare intensified. “Oh really. Have you noticed my name is Artesan, Hiro-Hiro. That means he’s ‘not’ my father. Not even legally anymore.” I took a breath to calm myself. “I wonder if he regrets throwing me out now that I’m ‘this’ important to his precious Pride.”

“I’m sure he’s come to reconsider his decision.”

I snorted. “I guess so, especially after learning I was a Familiar that was compatible with the only Regalia the Avenir Pride possessed. That must have hurt like a knife under his ribs.”


“Hiro-Hiro, let’s talk about something else.”

“Yes…as you wish.”

The light turned green. This time we drove up to the entrance – the east entrance – though we had to wait a while to turn into it.

Again, I was tempted to jump out of the car and enter the school under my own power.

Takehiro took a long, loud breath. “Mistress, you have school ahead of you, and then there’s the magazine shoot this afternoon. You can’t be late for that.”

I muttered, “I won’t be.”

“And I need an answer from you regarding that drama you were offered.”

“I haven’t decided yet.”

“Then I’ll ask them for a little more time. I believe it’s a good opportunity for you.”

“Hiro-Hiro, I could end up crashing and burning badly to the words of some bad review.” I shook my head uneasily. “Besides, my schedule is kind of full already.” I sighed dispiritedly. “I’ll decide tonight.”

“Very good. Then I’ll tell them you’ll have an answer for them in the morning.”

I nodded almost absently to his words.

Truthfully, I needed more than one extra day to make up my mind.

Besides, I had the ‘mission directives’ to worry about. I really didn’t have the spare processing power to mull over the drama.

Gods damn it, I was going to get a headache and that was well before morning homeroom.

I needed a coffee. Something really black.

Takehiro steered the car through the entrance and into the wide car park beyond. Hundreds of students walked toward the two large buildings that bore the shape of an ‘H’ when viewed from above. We garnered a fair amount of attention as we drove by them and not all of it was flattering.

I smiled inwardly.

What a pack of sheep. Losers every one of them.

Takehiro parked the car. “Mistress—”

“I won’t forget the shoot. I won’t hurt Desanto. And I promise not to enjoy myself on my first day at a new school. Does that about cover everything?”

“You will refrain from using the Valkyrie?”

“Of course. Unless if I need to push through the line at the cafeteria.”

I opened the car’s door, but refrained from slamming it shut. I could be mean to people, but not to cars, and especially not to lev-bikes.

“I will pick you up in the afternoon.”

I gave him a petulant pout. “I can make my own way to the photo shoot.”

He regarded me with disappointed. “Mistress—”

“Fine. Do whatever you want. I have to go. If something comes up I’ll send you a message.”

I turned away from the car, slung my carry-bag’s straps over my right shoulder, and walked with a casual swing to my hips. I didn’t bother looking back over my shoulders. I could sense he was still there by briefly extending the sensorium-field behind me.

The paved path I was on led west from the car park, and past both the middle-school and high-school buildings. I noticed another building between the two, and guessed it might hold facilities for the Academy’s administration staff. I walked the path with hundreds of other students, a mixed collection of guys and girls, some of which noticed me and eyed me with varied looks. I saw the signs of whispered mutterings.

Let the gossip mill start rolling.

As I walked past the building shaped like an ‘I’, the first strains of my boredom lifted as something interesting caught my attention.

I saw ‘him’ being accosted by a quartet of female students. They were seniors by the look of their uniforms.

I bit the inside of my cheek and tried hard not to smile.

The lyrics from an ancient song started playing around in my head.

Fun, fun, fun ‘till daddy took the Warlord away!

I approached Desanto from behind, and directed my hearing in his direction as I stalked my prey.

He’d been brought to a standstill by the quartet forming a crescent before him. Beyond them, he was already gathering an audience of a few dozen high-school students who’d stopped to watch and listen to the irate girls.

One member of the quartet, a short brunette, stepped up close then seemed to realize she was too close and jumped back.

She pointed a finger angrily. “This is all your fault!”

Desanto protested, “How can it be my fault?”

“She’s been locked up ever since the attack on the school,” the girl said.

“But that’s because she was grounded,” Desanto replied. “And you can blame that on her reading habits.”

A second girl chimed in. “Grounded or not, she won’t even come out of her room for more than a few minutes when we go over to visit.”

A third girl said, “She’s really distracted, and kind of jumpy. And she looks like she hasn’t had much sleep. It’s like she’s running on high concentrations of caffeine.”

The fourth girl said, “And when we eavesdrop at her bedroom door, we can hear weird music playing and lots voices—boys’ voices. At first we thought it was a holovid drama playing, but she talks back to them. We can hear her having conversations with them.”

The first girl wrapped her arms around her body and shuddered. “And it’s really weird dialog. Ugh, it’s sickly sweet. And she sounds really happy and shy and weird when she talks to those boys we can only hear.”

Caelum raised both hands between him and the girls. “Wait—just wait. You said you hear music and boys.”

All four of them nodded but not at once.

I watched him tip his head to one side and say, “Maybe I’m wrong but she could be playing games.”

Girl One blurted out, “Huh?”

Caelum pressed on. “Dating games. You know, boy-games, where you play the heroine in the hopes of winning the heart of a boy. Usually you have to compete with other girls playing online or computer girls within the game.”

I watched the quartet stare at him in mounting shock and horror.

Girl One said, “That’s preposterous. She would never play something so demeaning.”

The other three shared concerned looks.

Girl Two said, “But what if he’s right?”

Girl Three pondered, “She does have some strange hobbies. Maybe it’s another side of hers we haven’t seen before.”

Girl Four proposed, “What if we snuck into her room? Maybe we could see what she’s playing.”

Girl One pointed at Desanto. “This is still your fault. Ever since you showed up, she’s been acting odd. You’re like some weird trigger on her behavior.”

“That makes no sense at all,” Caelum complained.

“Well then what else explains her downfall from serenity,” the girl snarked back at him.

Desanto raised his hands again. “Look, it’s just a theory. Okay—it’s completely uncorroborated. Besides, I know the Princess is exhausted because the Countess told me Prissila’s family hired an army of tutors to yank up her grades. She’s a senior and needs to be thinking of graduating and tertiary education.” He pointed at the four girls. “Wouldn’t you be tired from studying twenty-four seven? Have a heart, will you.”

The girls fell silent as they mulled over his reply.

I chose that moment to make my move.

Running up behind him, I reached up and covered his eyes. “Guess who!”

“Gah!” He jerked ramrod straight and gasped. He almost dropped his carry-bag.

Without looking directly at them, I still saw the surrounding quartet stare at him in abject confusion. But that confusion turned into disbelief, then anger.

Girl One snapped, “Desanto, you unfaithful bastard. You’ve been playing around behind her back!”

He reached up and pulled my hands free of his face. I pressed my body sharply into his back.

“Geh!” He froze again before croaking out. “I—I don’t know who you are!”

Wrapping my arms around his waist I planted my chin on his shoulder by standing on my tiptoes. “But we had so much fun on Saturday.”

I swore I felt his heart jump. “It can’t be—”

“In the flesh,” I answered sweetly.

Maybe I should take that drama role. The schoolgirl part they offered me wasn’t so different a role from the way I was behaving now. Maybe I could use him for practice. I would tell Takehiro to ask for one more week before needing to give the producers my reply.

I started running my hands slowly up and down his shirted chest. I purred into his ear, “Miss me?”

Wow, he really has a nice chest.

I can feel his muscles move when he breathes.

He grabbed my hands and held them still. However, he couldn’t turn around and face me as I was tightly pressed into his back.

I spoke loud enough to be heard by the quartet. “Darling, stop squirming. It’s too early in the morning, and it’s driving me wild.”

My antics were attracting the attention of dozens of extra students, adding to the already captivated crowd.

Through supreme effort, he succeeded in twisting around within my embrace. “Se—Serenity. What the Hell are you doing?”

“What do you mean, what am I doing? I’m saying ‘hello’.” I gave him a picture perfect smile, just like I did for a photo shoot only last week. Actually, he’s much nicer than the male model with whom I had to shoot opposite. “Besides, you transferred without saying goodbye. That hurt me deeply.”


I bounced on my toes. “But I spoke to Daddy, and he tracked you down for me. And he arranged for my transfer too. Isn’t that wonderful?”

He looked confused. His pupils kept dilating wildly.

I cried happily. “Now we can spend our school days together. You didn’t think I’d let you run away, did you?”

“Wh—what are you saying?”

“And you’re not getting out of our engagement either.”


That squeal came from the quartet and about a dozen other girls watching from nearby.

Desanto looked ready to faint.

I saw his conscious begin to fade and he stopped struggling against me.

“Darling, Darling—what’s wrong?”

His head rolled back and his tongue lolled out of his mouth. “Somebody…save me….”

I shook him gently as I held him upright. “Darling, I’m right here. You just tell me all your troubles and I’ll talk to Daddy and he’ll make them all go away. After all, my Daddy is very well placed within the Avenir Pride. So you leave all the wedding arrangements to him.”

A number of school carry-bags hit the ground as soon as I made the announcement.

About thirty faces stared at me in shock.

Actually, more like a hundred faces.

Desanto was deathly still in my arms.

What a weird feeling this is? As a Familiar I could hold him easily enough, but even so, holding onto him made me feel a little strange.

I heard girls muttering loudly in the background.

“Engaged? Pervert Desanto is engaged?”

“He’s going to get married?”

“Do you think the Countess knew about this?”

“Was he playing with her the whole time?”

“What about the Princess? I heard she locked herself in her room for a week in tears because of him.”

“Did he break her heart?”

“What a disgusting sicko.”

“Such a pervert—he told the boys my dimensions!”

“He told them mine too! But now I’m ranked thirty three. Last year I was only ranked fifty three.”

“What the Hell are you saying? Are you bragging about your ranking at a time like this?”

“No—no, I’m not.”

“Just because your breasts grew bigger you think you’re better than us.”

“No, it’s just my ranking. My breasts had nothing to do with it.”


“Grab her—she’s running away.”

I watched a group of girls chase after another who squealed for mercy as she ran up the path into the high-school building.


I blinked. Caelum was conscious once more though very pale. “Yes, Darling?”

“Can we go somewhere and talk? In private?”

I smiled at him happily. However, I wasn’t finished having fun just yet. “Darling, it’s my first day. Won’t you show me around the Academy?”

“Ah…that wouldn’t be a good idea.”

“But I don’t know anyone here.” I gave him a shy pout.

His pallor faded a little as he blushed. “Serenity, you’re giving people the wrong idea.”

“Oh? Is that what you think?” I fished around in my school carry-bag.

Where is that damn thing?

I dropped it in here thinking it might come in handy at some point in time.

I had the inspiration for messing around with Desanto last night, while reading the script for that drama the agency wanted me to shoot. The producer of that stupid show loaned me a special prop when he was trying to convince me to join the cast.

I found it, opened the case, and slipped it on.

Then I faced Desanto while holding my ring finger up for all to see.

“Darling, does this look like I’m giving people the wrong idea?”

Desanto stared at it with a thoroughly confused expression. “What is that?”

“My engagement ring. You gave it to me last year.”

He blinked slowly a handful of times.

As soon as I revealed the ring, the girls around us all edged closer for a better look.

“Pretty, isn’t it?” I asked the onlookers.

“Wow…it’s so big.”

“He bought her ‘that’ ring?”

“I thought he was poor.”

“Maybe it’s all a cover story to hide his family background.”

“You mean because he’s a Familiar? You think his family disinherited him?”

“But I asked Haruka Amiella, and she said he was an orphan.”

“Maybe she lied.”

“They’re childhood friends, but she’s dating Duncan Armand.”

“Is she two timing, Duncan?”

“Oh, that will make Melanie explode. She’s been cursing Amiella for stealing him from her for months now.”

“But Duncan and Melanie broke up a long time.”

“They broke up after Amiella transferred in. They say Duncan was smitten by Amiella at first sight.”

I noticed Desanto was listening to the girls’ conversations with an active ear.

Haruka Amiella. She was the girl I met on Saturday at the arcade. I will admit she was pretty in that ‘girl-next-door’ kind of way. But I was confident she had nothing on me…except for that massive rack.

I smiled brightly at the girls before choosing to face Desanto. In a blur, I grabbed onto his right arm, and pressed tightly into his side. “Darling, won’t you show me around?”

He gave me a hard look that bordered on a glare. “This is so going to backfire on you.”

I whispered, “Maybe. But I’m having way too much fun to quit now.”

He shook his head slowly. “You have no idea who you’re going up against.”

“You mean, the Countess?” I smiled confidently at him. “Simone Alucard Raynar.”

He studied me quietly for a moment.

I broke the silence first. “What could she possibly do to me?”

He shrugged weakly. “I have no idea. But whatever it is, I know I’ll be caught in the cross-fire.”

I touched my bracelet against his, and then pushed my awareness through the sudden link between Artifacts.

*I can teach you a great many things about using your Kaiser’s Blessing.

He narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. *Is this the catch? I have to play along with you otherwise you won’t teach me?

I thought about that. *Why not? Or do you like being played with by that Aventis? You do understand she’s playing with you? You’re a tool for her. You have value to the Raynars despite being affiliated to the Lanfears. She intends to use you for her ends.

*How much do you know about us—about what’s going on in this Academy?

I laughed and said, *They gave me a lot of well-prepared documentation on you.


I didn’t get the chance to respond because I noticed some of the girls were staring at Desanto and I with mixed expressions.

“Creepy,” one girl said.

“It’s like they’re having a conversation just by looking into each other’s eyes.”

“I think it’s romantic.”

“That shows they understand each other really well.”

“Maybe they really are engaged.”

“That’s a really big ring,” one girl whined enviously.

One member of the quartet of girls who first accosted Desanto suddenly stepped in front of him. “Pervert Desanto,” she growled and promptly buried her shoe into his groin.

He dropped to his knees, almost dragging me down with him. I thought he was going to throw up from the intense pain but he just squeezed his eyes shut and puffed his cheeks repeatedly.

The girl glared down at both of us. “Disgusting. You stay away from the Princess. This is your first and final warning.”

I stood up smoothly and grabbed the girl by the throat. Ensuring I had eye contact, I ‘shoved’ my consciousness into her. It wasn’t easy without the Symbiote inside me, but I had more enough talent to make do.

“Don’t ever lay a hand on him again.”

I felt her resistance to my Influence, but I pressed on and swept it aside. “Next time, I’ll turn you into a slut and have all the boys in your class play with you after school.”

My mind was like an icebreaker parting the icy water with minimal resistance.

Or should I say, a hot knife through cold butter.

She jerked in my grip and I worried I’d pushed too hard. I released her, and her three friends came to her aid. They supported her while staring fearfully at me.

I narrowed my eyes at them. “No one hurts my Darling. Is that clear?”

They didn’t nod. They simply departed in a hurry.

Desanto was on his feet by then. “Damn it, I’d better see a doctor. I can’t feel them anymore.”

I stepped up to him. “Would you like me to check them for you?”

He blushed so hotly I thought he’d burst into flames.

Flourishing my hands in the air, I said, “It’s a joke. A joke. Calm down.”

He started walking in the direction of the high-school building. The first bell had sounded, warning students they had ten minutes to arrive at their homerooms. I caught up to him and walked on his left.

Glancing at him I asked, “Are you going to be okay?”

He was definitely still in pain because he was walking somewhat hunched over. “I’d forgotten how hard she kicks.”

I laughed softly. “Don’t worry. I’ll make sure she never touches you again.”

He gave me a puzzled yet distrustful look.

I looked back at him and said, “Give me an answer by the end of today.”

“An answer to what?”

“To what we talked about on Saturday.”

He looked away with an uncomfortable look on his face.

Together, we walked into the building allocated to the thousand or so Galatea Academy high-schoolers.



Lunch break.

I stood in the Student Council room along with the Countess, the President, Caprice Steiner, Maya Khayman, and Rina Sayen afil Lorian.

I wasn’t part of the Student Council, but I’d received a message from the Countess to attend the impromptu meeting along with the Familiars. I knew before stepping into the room that the Student Council wanted to discuss the situation between Caelum and the new transfer student. But Caelum was missing, and he wasn’t answering his palm-slate.

The answer to that was simple.

Serenity had transferred into my classroom.

Let me rewind to morning homeroom.

Clarisse Fauntine, our homeroom teacher did the honors of introducing the new transfer to our class.

The girl introduced herself as Serenity Artesan afil Avenir to a room full of stunned students.

I wasn’t sure why my classmates were lost for words – and that included both genders – until one of the boys, Alex Domartine, jumped up to his feet and pointed wildly at the girl.

“It’s her—it’s Miss Young Idol February.” He started fishing around in the compartment under his smart desk. “Where’s that magazine?”

I stared at him, beginning to understand his excitement, when Lauren stood up and squealed, “It’s Serenity. It’s really her.”

More and more of my classmates began to mutter, chatter, than loudly repeat her name while tossing out the names of magazines she’d apparently been in.

All the while, Serenity stood smart, prim and proper at the front of the classroom.

A braver, rather good-looking boy by the name of Roman, waved his palm-slate at the girl.

“Serenity, you’re my wallpaper. Here look.”

The girl made a show of looking embarrassed. “Oh, dear me. I had no idea I was so popular.”

Alistair, who sat ahead of me, half turned toward me in her chair and asked, “Do you know her?”

I shrugged a shoulder. “Kind of. Short story. I’ll tell you later.”

Alistair started to press me for info right now, when a voice bluntly said, “Hey, she’s a Familiar.”

The class grew quiet rather quickly, and many of those on their feet turned to face the owner of that voice.

I looked over to my right at Zessica

She was staring back at her classmates with a puzzled look. “Why are you all so excited about her? She’s just a Familiar in some magazines.”

Roman inhaled deeply, ballooning his chest. “Just a Familiar? Is that all you have to say?”

Another boy chimed in. “Who cares if she’s a Familiar. She’s Serenity. She’s heads and shoulders better than you, even though you’re an Aventis.”

Zessica’s eyes widened and she started to retort angrily when Serenity coughed loudly from her position at the front of the classroom.

“Everyone, please. There’s no need for this. Yes, your classmate is indeed correct. I am a Familiar. I Awakened in my second year of middle-school. My family has been very supportive, and I’ve been fortunate to enjoy the support of my many fans who have encouraged me to follow my dreams, regardless of the stigma that being a Familiar carries.”

Serenity walked up to Zessica, who regarded her with suspicion.

Serenity bowed to her politely. “If I have offended you, I’m very sorry. It wasn’t my intention to do so. However, I do ask that you at least get to know me better before judging me too harshly.”

Zessica stood up hesitantly and bowed back though it wasn’t anywhere near as formal or polite.

“Uh, I didn’t meant anything by calling you a Familiar. Sorry.”

Zessica sat back down.

I watched Serenity smile, and for a heartbeat I thought I saw something untoward her in expression.

Something cold.

Something cruel.

Then it was gone.

The girl laughed warmly and said, “I know we’ll all get along just fine.”

Then she bowed to the class from where she stood beside Zessica’s desk.

“I look forward to spending my Academy time here with you. I’m in your care.”

My classmates responded with similar sentiments, which was par for the course.

To their surprise, and mine too, Serenity then took a seat to Caelum’s left at the back of the room. She did this before Ms. Fauntine could direct her to a seat.

Despite being caught off guard, Fauntine resumed homeroom.

A few minutes later morning classes commenced.

Every once in a while I darted a look at Caelum sandwiched between Caprice and Serenity.

To say he looked comfortable was an understatement.

He had the expression of a man with his head inside the open jaws of a lion.

As for Caprice, she was wearing her usual Noh mask expression, but does a simmering kettle change its look when boiling water?

As soon as the lunch break sounded, all the girls in my class surrounded Serenity, which gave Caelum a moment of respite as he was promptly pushed aside.

I stared at the girls in disbelief.

Forget about Serenity being a Familiar.

My classmates accosted her like paparazzi on the break of a major scoop.

I had no idea she was that well known and popular.

After Caelum encountered her on the weekend, I’d looked her up and discovered she’d done a few dozen photo shoots for teenage magazines. She’d also appeared on a handful of streamed Nexus variety shows.

In any case, my classmates surrounded her and immediately began questioning her about the large ring on her finger. When I heard her say she was engaged to Caelum, I almost passed out. However, before the situation could get any noisier, Caelum grabbed Serenity by the hand and literally ran out of the classroom with her.

He ran so fast Serenity was pulled along behind him like a kite with her feet in the air.

Moments afterwards, Caprice and I received a summons from the Student Council. A few minutes later and we arrived at the Student Council President’s office, however the meeting didn’t start until the Familiars were present – all except for Caelum.

I looked at the students standing in the room, and while their expressions were mixed, it was Caprice who stood out the most.

She was giving the Countess a flat look that added to the tension in the room.

It was as though she held the Countess responsible for the trouble Caelum was experiencing with Serenity Artesan.

The Student Council secretary, Carmen Medina, was reading out loud from an article she had displayed on her data-slate.

If she was here, then I realized that Carmen was part of the inside fold. That is, the girl knew all about the Familiars and their involvement in the fight to protect Galatea.

Rina Sayen was standing beside Carmen, leaning in to read from the same data-slate.

The Student Council President and the Countess, stood together on one side of the group, listening to Carmen’s report.

“She goes by the name of Serenity Artesan. She started modelling after being scouted in a mall in Habitat One, Island One. She’s become very popular in a short amount of time. According to this, she’s single.” Carmen looked up. “It doesn’t mention anything about an engagement.”

Maya snorted. “I heard she told people her daddy was well connected to the Avenir Pride. So I guess one or the other is a complete lie.”

Carmen shook her head. “Her parents were Aventis belonging to the Avenir Pride. They died in an accident when she was six. She was adopted by the Artesan Family, also members of the Avenir Pride, and well acquainted with the Augustine Family. If this is true, then she wasn’t lying. The Artesan Family controls a great deal of the entertainment industry here in Pharos. They’ve discovered countless young girls and elevated a great many to stardom. Once they burn out, they get replaced with a new batch. It appears they arranged to have their adopted daughter join the business.”

Rina looked confused. “But you said she was scouted?”

Carmen nodded and tapped the slate. “Yes, but after she was scouted her family pulled her into an agency that they control. Her modelling career took off after that.” Carmen paused, then looked at the President and Countess in turn. “Serenity is a Familiar affiliated with the Avenir Pride. However, this doesn’t say if she’s bonded to a Fragment or not.”

I noticed the Countess pursed her lips tightly but remained silent.

The President, Severin Kell, took the data-slate from Carmen and proceeded to read it quickly. “Whether a Familiar is bonded or not is not public knowledge. In fact, rarely is it made public knowledge.”

Maya spoke up. “We’re public knowledge. After what happened with Crescent, I’d say half the Academy knows that we’re classified as Specials and gifted with Fragments. Everyone in my class knows I have a Fragment.”

Rina agreed with a nod, and looked embarrassed.

Severin Kell sighed. “It couldn’t be helped. It was just a risk we had to take.” He glanced at the Countess. “You did warn him about Serenity, didn’t you?”

The Countess nodded. “I told him to stick close to me. I told him Serenity was gifted with a Valkyrie Armor, so he should be careful.”

I caught the faint ripple of surprise that crossed Caprice’s face. Her lips tightened into a very thin, pale line. However, she said nothing, and remained standing with her hands at her sides, though I thought I saw her fingers twitch nervously.

Simone rubbed a temple. “I didn’t think they’d meet before school today.”

Severin looked disappointed. “Simone, that’s not a warning. This is a serious matter.”

I raised my hand. “It’s my fault. I should have rung you Vice-President as soon as Caelum mentioned she was a new transfer student. I should have called you as soon as we ran into her at the mall. I really didn’t think she’d be this much trouble.”

The Countess shook her head quickly. “It’s alright. I don’t think it would have prepared us for this morning’s shock. Besides, I should have warned you about her as well.”

Caprice asked coldly, “Who is she?”

That earned her a number of confused reactions, however, Caprice was looking intently at the Countess and President.

The Countess said, “Just as the records state, she’s a Familiar affiliated with the Avenir Pride.”

Caprice shook her head. “Who do ‘you’ think she is?”

I saw Severin and the Countess both tense up.

Caprice nodded at the data-slate in the President’s hands. “You don’t believe that report is the truth, do you?”

The Countess bit her lower lip tightly for a long while. “She…she may be…someone from our childhood.” She shook her head quickly. “No, I could be wrong. Completely wrong.”

The President spoke softly while studying the article on the data-slate. “What if we’re not wrong? What if it is her?”

The Countess looked at him and spoke almost fearfully. “But that can’t be. I mean…how could it be her? It’s just not possible.” The girl swallowed hard. “She died when we were children, Severin. We attended her funeral. We saw her body in the casket. I laid a white rose on her, remember?”

I sensed the strain in the Countess’s voice, and thought her eyes looked a little wet. She folded her arms, and I saw her shoulders tremble.

The President looked up where the ceiling met the wall behind me. “These days, anything is possible.”

Caprice looked ready to snatch the slate from the President’s hands. However her expression grew unemotional once more and she asked, “Who is Serenity Artesan afil Avenir?”

The President sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I’m not sure. She may be someone Simone, Maya and I knew from our childhood. I strongly emphasize the ‘maybe’ aspect.” He looked at Caprice. “I need to do some additional digging around.”

Caprice wasn’t satisfied. “Can you at least tell us why she’s here?”

“We don’t know,” the President admitted. “The Vice-President has made enquiries to her sister but the Field Commander is remaining tight lipped.”

The Countess spoke up while staring down at the floor. “If her parents died when she was six…that’s around the time Celeste died…but ‘could’ it be her?” The girl shook herself. “I just can’t shake the feeling that it ‘is’ her.”

I noticed Severin gave Simone the merest of nods. “Agreed. However, I’m going to listen to my intuition. My gut feeling, as they say.”

Caprice asked point blank, “Is Serenity Artesan a danger to Caelum? Is she a danger to the Academy?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, sounding as though he’d been caught off guard.

“Just what do you know?” she asked flatly.

“At the moment, all I have are suspicions. Nothing more, and nothing less.”

Caprice nodded sharply. “Then this meeting serves no purpose.”

Maya started to walk out of the room. “I agree with her.”

The Countess said hurriedly, “Wait. Maya where are you going?”

Maya stared at the doors for a moment. “I couldn’t care less what happens to Pervert Desanto.” Then she opened the doors forcefully before leaving the room.

The doors closed automatically behind her. I stared at them, then shot a puzzled look at the Countess. Simone had a troubled look on her face.

Caprice glanced at the doors, then at the Countess. “She’s been growing worse day by day. It was difficult training with her over the weekend. She seems Hell bent on taking out her problems on Caelum. I thought it was just annoyance, but she seems to really hate him. I don’t know why.” Her voice grew extremely cold. “I won’t tolerate her behavior. If she injuries him during training, she’ll answer to me.”

The Countess narrowed her eyes. “Caprice, I don’t appreciate you threatening my—”

“Then you talk to her before I do,” Caprice said in a chillingly uncompromising voice.

The two girls stared hard at each other and neither backed down.

Rina raised her hand, and spoke up somewhat timidly. “That’s the other problem we need to discuss.”

The Countess and President faced her.

Rina spoke guardedly. “Caprice and I have noticed Caelum is having trouble with his Fragment. Sometimes, he calls up both shield-blades but is completely un-coordinated. At other times he’s frightening to watch, let alone spar against. He gave Maya a real run for her money on Saturday. I haven’t seen her so much on her back foot since we all started training together. Maybe she’s angry at him for making her work so hard.”

Rina shook her head slowly, her expression clearly worried.

The Countess crossed her arms and stared down at the floor. “Yes, Kaleb told me about Caelum’s difficulties with the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

“And about Maya?” Caprice asked bluntly.

The Countess hesitated before ignoring her. “Kaleb doesn’t know what to make of it. It’s like the link between Caelum and the Fragment sometimes breaks down, while at other times it goes into overdrive.”

Caprice declared, “That’s a matter for the Lanfear researchers to resolve. It’s not a Raynar problem. Your problem is dealing with Khayman, before I do.”

The Countess looked slightly offended.

Caprice gave her no room. “In addition, would you care to tone down your antics around Caelum. The number of times I’ve had to correct rumors and gossip is becoming tedious. Do you know there’s a blog page dedicated to speculation around the two of you? I spend half an hour each night shooting down blog post after post before giving up for the night.”

I blinked sharply at Caprice then gave the Countess a questioning look.

Simone chose to stare up at the ceiling when she replied. “I am aware of it, and I’m doing something about it.”

“Like what?” Caprice asked in a flat tone. “Do you plan to monopolize even more of his time? Or are you planning to make a major announcement on that blog page? Is that why you haven’t shut it down?”

I felt my chest tighten. Caelum had told me about the dinner event with the Countess’s family. Was this her way of dealing with the speculation?

“I can’t comment on that right now,” the Countess replied in a constricted manner.

Caprice took a long, deep breath. “I grow very weary of you.”

The Countess stared at her hotly. “What did you say?”

“If you continue to cause trouble for him—”

“I’m not causing him trouble,” the Countess protested.

“—you will lose my support.”

The Countess froze.

The President closed his eyes for a moment.

Caprice continued to stare at Simone, unwilling to let the Vice-President ‘off the hook’.

Then the Countess’s expression hardened. “How dare you threaten me.”

“It’s not a threat, it’s a warning. In fact, I’m telling you here and now to stay away from Caelum.”

Simone Alucard clenched her hands and stepped up to Caprice with thunder clouds in her eyes. “You do not tell me what to do. Is that clear, you little Familiar? Know your place!”

I sucked in air the moment my mind acknowledged her words.

Rina Sayen stiffened.

Carmen Medina’s eyes widened just a tad.

Severin Kell closed his eyes for a moment.

And Simone Alucard grew very still and somewhat pale.

However, it was Caprice who surprised me the most.

She smiled very faintly up at the Countess. “Thank you for not disappointing me.”

She gave the President a meaningful look. Then she turned smoothly on her heels and walked out of the room.

Again I watched the doors close automatically behind the departed girl, then I glanced at the Countess.

The girl was standing dead still and staring at the wall beside the doors. She didn’t look to be breathing.

The President spoke up. “Ladies, I thank you for coming. We’ll adjourn the matter of Serenity Artesan for now.” He looked at me and said, “Your discretion is appreciated, Ms. Amiella.”

I gave him a shallow nod. “Yes, Mr. President. I understand.”

He gave me a polite bow, so well-practiced I had trouble matching it. Then I left the room with Rina Sayen just ahead of me, and Carmen following from behind. In the corridor, Carmen excused herself politely and walked quickly ahead of us, no doubt hurrying to attend to other urgent matters.

A dozen feet down the corridor, Rina slowed to a stop, then half turned and faced the closed doors of the Student Council room.

I swallowed quickly as I approached her. “Rina, I think she knows what she said was wrong.”

“Is she wrong?” Rina whispered, just loud enough for me to hear. “After all, we are just Familiars.” She glanced at me. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“Rina, I don’t think of you as anything less than me.”

“Yes, I know you don’t. I’ve heard the girls in my class talk about you. They find you strange.”

I laughed nervously. “Oh, is that so.”

“But I don’t think they mean you any disrespect.”

I gave her a smile that meant ‘oh really’.

Rina smiled faintly at me, and it reminded me of Caprice.

I looked down the corridor. “I don’t think we should leave Caprice alone.”

After a moment, Rina nodded in agreement. “No, we should find her.”

Together, we hurried off in search of Caprice Steiner.



Simone refused to move from where she stood.

I had to grab her and sit her down on one of the two single-seater couches adorning the room.

I squatted before her. “Simone. Simone look at me.”


“Simone, I won’t ask you again.”

“…leave me alone….”

I decided to resort to shock therapy. I slapped her. Not too hard, just enough to make her left cheek sting.

She looked up at me then, and tears began welling up in her eyes.

“What have I done?” she whispered.

“Made a mess of things,” I told her with complete honesty.

I watched tears trickle down her cheeks.

She sobbed silently. “I’m…I’m no better…than any of them…my sister…my mother….”

I shook my head very slowly. “I have no idea how you’re going to fix this. I don’t think I can help you, Simone.”

She covered her lips. “What am I going to do?”

I didn’t have an answer for her.

Apologize? Words weren’t going to be enough.

I realized that Caprice Steiner had until that moment believed Simone might be different, but deep down the girl also believed Simone regarded Familiars just like the rest of Aventis society. Hence, she wasn’t disappointed by Simone’s words.

I took a few, quiet breaths. “Simone, we have a long year ahead of us. However, next year I leave for university. I had hoped to leave you in charge of things here at the Academy. I can see now that my hopes were misplaced…at least for the time being.”

Simone covered her face and cried behind her hands.

I swallowed discretely and then said, “Childhood prejudices die hard, Simone.”

She nodded even as she continued crying behind her hands.

I rose slowly to my feet and looked down at her.

I had no words of comfort for her.

I certainly couldn’t tell her that things would work out.

I didn’t know if Simone had expressed her true feelings, but she had made an uncertain future all the more uncertain.

Chapter 3.


Lunch break.

My favorite spot, on top of the rooftop hut that housed the air-conditioning units that served the west wing of the high-school building.

The rooftop courtyard where the high-schoolers came to eat their lunch was about forty meters away to the south.

I could hear the buzz of their conversation in the near distance.

Movement caught my attention.

Serenity sat on the edge of the hut and looked out at the facilities of Galatea Academy.

“What a great view,” she declared.

I stared at her slender legs stretching tantalizingly beneath her skirt. “Yeah, a great view indeed.”

She gave me a sideways look. “Darling, want to see more?”

“Gah,” I gasped.

She flashed the ridiculously expensive looking engagement ring. “Or do you want to wait until our wedding night?”


I took a step back and almost fell off the hut’s rooftop. Recovering my balance quickly, I heaved a sigh of relief then warily stepped a couple of feet closer to her.

“Serenity, is that your real name?”

“Nope. But it’s the name I have now.” She smiled and gave me one of those popular vee hand signs that idols commonly flourished before the cameras, along with their pearly whites, and Serenity’s teeth shone like polished ivory. “It’s my stage name. I sign all my autographs as Serenity.”

“Ah…I see….”

She stared at me in disappointment. “That’s a joke. Of course it’s my name. My family’s name is Artesan and they’re Aventis belonging to the Avenir Pride. When I awoke as a Familiar, I became affiliated with the Avenirs.” A disgruntled look settled on her face. “So, in answer to your question, Serenity is my real name.”

“Ah huh….”

She made a show of wringing her right hand in the air as though working out a cramp.

“Of course, after the first dozen autographs it can get pretty tiring.”

“Yeah, must be tough, what with so many adoring fans.”

She snorted. “Tell me about it. My mother should have picked out a shorter name. Something with one or two syllables.”

I tried coming up with a few suggestions, then realized I was simply coming up with the names of the gravure idols I already knew of.

Serenity fiddled with the engagement ring. “Besides, the old me is dead and buried, so for all intents and purposes my name is Serenity Artesan afil Avenir.”

I frowned down at her. What did she mean by that?

She glanced up at me. “So, are you going to ask me why I’m here?”

I asked, “Why are you here?”

“Because I was transferred here from Calista Academy. I go where I’m told. Not much choice in the matter. But if you’ve see one Aventis Academy you’ve seen them all.”

“Then let me rephrase the question. What’s your purpose here?”

“Ah, much better.” She looked down at the ring. “Are you asking in the long term or the short term?”

I hesitated. “The long term.”

“No idea.”

I leaned forward and muttered, “What?”

“The people pulling my strings haven’t told me yet.” She leaned back on her outstretched arms and arched her back, which served to push out her chest.

Now that I properly looked at her, I noticed how impressive she was up top.

She wasn’t oversized but rather, quite neatly proportioned. Not too big. Not too small.

I started picturing her in a bikini, while automatically estimating her dimensions.

Serenity carried on, her attention on the mimetic sky field overhead. “Do you want to know the short term answer?”

“Yeah, please go ahead.”

I thought she may have paused for dramatic effect. “I’m here to observe you, and determine whether you pose a threat or a benefit.”

“A threat? How are you going to do that?”

“I’m still thinking that one through. I haven’t decided yet.” She gave me a sultry smile that quickened my heart rate. “Of course, if you don’t do as I say, I’ll tell them you’re a threat and should be dealt with immediately.”

“You wouldn’t dare….”

She peered up at me. “Yes, I would….”

I suddenly remembered a line from a movie Caprice had made me watch. If I’m a benefit, then I’m not a problem. But if I’m a threat, then whose problem am I?

I studied Serenity. “What happens if you decide I’m a threat?”

“Hmm, that could be a problem since you belong to the Lanfear Pride.”

I belong to the Lanfears? Well, that was about right, though I wish she hadn’t put it that way.

Serenity added, “However, the Lanfears are just one Pride. They can’t possibly face down the other seven Prides and win. They might decide you’re not worth the time and trouble. So maybe it’s not a problem dealing with you after all.”

I felt my stomach tighten. “What other reasons do you have for coming here?”

She was quiet and thoughtful for a moment. “Well, I could be here to help you.”

“Help me?”

“You’re having trouble with your Artifact. I understand its interfering with your training.”

I started nodding then abruptly stopped.

How does she know about that? Do we have a spy in the mix?

Is the Countess responsible for leaking that out, or is it Kaleb’s fault?

What if Arisa had divulged that information? If so, did that mean she perceived my difficulties as an impediment to her plans – whatever they may be? Could this be Arisa’s way of getting me the help I needed to improve my synchronization with the Kaiser’s Blessing?

Was the situation regarding me that desperate?

Serenity was smiling. “I can help you with your Artifact. I can help you understand it better, and train you to open your mind to it. Right now, the link between you and it is tentative. You could say that it’s trying to decide whether or not it can trust you. By the same token, you’re uncertain of drawing out its power because of what happened when you fought your sister.”

I had to swallow hard upon hearing her revelation.

“You—you know about that?”

“Of course. I was given the after action report to review before transferring here.”

I was tempted to walk up to her, grab her, and force her to tell me what she knew of my sister’s involvement with Crimson Crescent.

However, Serenity was eyeing me with a distinctly predatory smile, and that held me back.

I felt a shiver of uncertainty run through my body.

It was as though I’d come to a subconscious acknowledgment that this girl didn’t survive on her looks alone.

She was dangerous, and both my Artifact and I recognized that.

Serenity’s smile grew wider. “Ah, you want to know what I know.”

I clamped my jaw shut.

Serenity laughed like a wind chime blowing in the wind. “Then you’d better say ‘Yes’ to me more often, or I just won’t help you.”

“Don’t bother. I’m doing fine on my own.”

She gave me an appraising look. “It’s true that by manifesting both gauntlets you’ve taken a step closer to fully unlocking the Kaiser’s Blessing, but there’s still a long way to go.”

She drew her legs up, and wrapped her arms around her knees.

“It took me months to tune to my Valkyrie. I can help you short cut the tuning process.”


“By linking my Valkyrie to yours. I can help you unlock your Artifact in stages, and give you a push through each door we open. After that, it’s just a matter of surviving what lies on the other side when you get to the final door.”

I swallowed. “Surviving? Other side? Final door?”

“Yes. You could say it’s like a test of manhood.” She looked down at the wide bracelet on her right wrist. “Mine was coming to terms with my death.”

The air froze in my lungs. “Your death?”

She nodded. “Yes. I died and came back to life as Serenity Artesan. But I hated my new existence, and I hated those responsible for my death. I still struggle with that hatred every day, but I’ve come to accept myself as Serenity Artesan. That being said, hatred and acceptance are two different aspects of my existence.”

Hatred and acceptance.

I thought of my own situation.

When my parents died, I blamed the Aventis for giving rise to Crimson Crescent. As a child, I blamed them for giving hateful people a reason to exist and direct their hatred. Yet, somewhere along the way over the past eight months, I’d lost some of the hatred I held for them. I still held them responsible for the loss of my parents, and for what Celica had become, but I didn’t harbor the hatred I once did. I didn’t think it was reasonable to do so.

As Haruka had once said to me, if I’d become an Aventis, what then? Would I have turned it down and lived as a Regular all my life, hating and resenting the Aventis? Or would I have taken the step and joined a Pride, and somehow worked through that hatred.

However, I had become a Familiar, and gained a different perspective on the situation between the Aventis, the Prides, and Crimson Crescent. I had realized that simply blaming the Prides out of the pain of loss wasn’t the right thing to do. The situation wasn’t black-and-white. It wasn’t clear cut. There were many angles to the problem, and holding onto blunt hatred wasn’t going to help me understand the relationship between the Prides and Crescent.

I needed to know why the super-freighter was destroyed, and that meant going beyond the obvious reason of Crescent stealing the Artifacts aboard the starship.

I needed to know why Crimson Crescent existed at all. What was the ‘Cause’ that Celica had mentioned in the tunnel below the Academy. In essence, I needed to know who the real enemy was – was it the Prides or was it the Familiars of Crimson Crescent.

I believed that once I knew the answer to that, I would know who to hold responsible for the death of my parents, and where to properly direct my hatred.

There was one thing I was certain of – I didn’t want to become like Celica.

For that reason, I’d made a choice while in the hospital.

I wasn’t going to hold onto my hatred too tightly.

I wasn’t going to let it define me.

I would put it away, out of sight but not quite out of mind, yet not have it cloud my judgment.

I was in an adult world now, and I needed to start thinking like one.

I took a really deep, shuddering breath, then regarded Serenity carefully as I picked up the conversation.

“I don’t understand what you mean. You said you died?”

“Ah huh. Dead and buried.” She took a couple of breaths before saying, “I accept who I am now. However, I hate those that did this to me.”

“Are you after revenge?”

“No. I would gain nothing from that. But by living my new life to the best that I can, I can at least hope that I’m staying true to myself.” She lay back on the hut’s rooftop, and used her folded arms for a pillow. “The truth is the people responsible for my death don’t care one bit what I do now. The only thing they care about is the fact that I’m a Familiar affiliated to the Avenir Pride, and that I can summon my Artifact completely.”

She shook her head while staring up at the simulacrum of a cloudy sky.

“That and the fact that I’m the only Avenir Familiar bonded to a Warlord.”

I think I swayed for a moment as my mind processed what she said.

Serenity’s gaze caught mine and wouldn’t let it go. “I told you before, I was ready face your sister when they gave me the order to pull back.”

“You…you have a Warlord?”

She nodded while lying on her back. “I do. It’s called, Avienda.”

I almost dropped to my knees as I stared at her in shock.

She sat up and tapped her bracelet, then her temple.

It took me a few moments to realize what she meant. Unsteadily, I walked over to her.

She stood up gracefully, then reached out and touched her Artifact to mine.

She spoke into my mind.

*I bonded with a Warlord almost six months ago. The Regalia that allows me to control it is inside my body. Apparently others tried and failed until I came along. The Regalia accepted me, but wouldn’t accept others. The Avenir researchers couldn’t explain why.

Her eyes narrowed mischievously.

*Needless to say this elevated my value to the Pride tremendously. I wasn’t worthless anymore, and they had a Warlord that could be used to further their goals.

*Goals? What goals?

She tipped her head, and glanced away. *Something to do with operating a Titan. I can only guess what that means.

*A Titan?

She gave me a very faint nod. *I heard the name a few times. It’s hard to get answers out of people when they’re constantly watching you. I can’t use Influence wantonly otherwise they’ll figure out what I’m doing. If they realize how strong my ability to use Influence is, they might do something about me.

Influence – the ability to push your consciousness into the mind of another.

I’d used it before, most probably by accident when I forced Haruka to flee the garden. It wasn’t until later that I realized what I’d done, and it worried me a little. I’d kept that incident to myself. To my relief, Haruka hadn’t mentioned it either.

Serenity sighed softly.

*To be honest, I’m surprised with the amount of freedom we Familiars have. I’ve often wondered why they don’t implant us with micro bombs or put explosive chokers around our necks.

*Yeah, I’ve wondered that too.

*Maybe they worry over how people would react if they found out. I mean, people don’t give us much of a second thought. They don’t even seem to worry that some of us are bonded to weapons. But if they found out we were so ‘dangerous’ as to need bombs around our necks, then maybe the masses would start to worry.

I swallowed, but it wasn’t to clear my throat. *It certainly would make life a lot tougher. Everyone would be afraid to go near us.

She gave me wistful shrug. *Maybe they should be afraid of us.

I frowned at her. *Why are you telling me all this?

Serenity gave me a smile that showed her perfect teeth. At least I knew her posters and banners weren’t digitally enhanced.

She leaned forward and bumped her forehead into mine.

*Let’s just say I don’t like to play by the rules.

While our foreheads touched, I found it hard to break away from her.

Thankfully she stepped back, yet out bracelets remained in contact with each other.

I swallowed hastily and thought of something to say before the silence that fell between us grew awkward.

Luckily something came to mind rather quickly.

I asked, *Didn’t you mention your other Artifact is a Valkyrie?

Serenity nodded ever so faintly.

*I was bonded to a Valkyrie months before I was tested for the Warlord. Afterwards, I was allowed to keep both, primarily because the Avenirs wanted to keep the fact I was a Khan a secret from the other Prides. So officially, I was only in possession of a Valkyrie.

I thought of another Valkyrie wielder.

*Does your Valkyrie manifest as a pair of armored legs?

She narrowed her eyes. *Are you referring to Steiner?

I nodded, wondering why I felt so hesitant.

She broke into laughter. *Ha ha ha, now that is funny.

She rocked back and forth for a little while as she allowed the laughter to run out of her.

I didn’t like the way she was laughing at Caprice and almost broke the contact between our respective bracelets.

However, Serenity abruptly stopped laughing, wiped at her eyes, and then smiled a pitiful smile.

*Steiner’s Valkyrie is locked down into a mere fragment of itself. She has yet to pass through all the doors that will release the bindings on her Artifact.

I cocked my head at Serenity. *What does she need to do?

The girl shrugged, and tossed her head a little.

*Suffer a little. Face her demons. Open up her mind and heart to the Artifact. It’s really the only way. Not even the master key can unlock an Artifact. That’s why Fragments are bonded to Familiars at an early age so that they’re given time to release the Artifact’s full potential.

She glanced away but I heard her voice in my mind.

*For some of us, it’s a lifelong commitment to the Fragment and Artifact. A marriage of sorts. By possessing a Regalia, you could say I’m cheating on my Valkyrie. However, it respects the fact that the Warlord is more powerful than it, so for now it’s behaving itself.

She edged closer and looked me firmly in the eyes.

*My Artifact is a Valkyrie Maiden, and its type is Sigrún. You would do well to remember that.

I swallowed and refrained from leaning back. *Do you know what type of Valkyrie Caprice has?

Serenity started to shrug, but she stopped. However, she did turn away and gaze out at the habitat skyline beyond the rooftop fencing.

Her reply was soft in my mind which confused me. She sounded almost…respectful.

*Steiner has the Valkyrie Maiden, Brynhildr.

I had a sudden thought, perhaps a little risky.

*Would you show me your fully summoned Valkyrie Maiden?

She released a short laugh, and shook her head.

An admonishing smile settled on her lips.

*Really, Darling. Isn’t that a little too much? Asking me to reveal my Artifact here on this rooftop. Shame on you. My Sigrún deserves better.

*Then where? Name the place. I’ll be there.

She blinked and her eyes widened. Her violet irises sparkled.

*Well…how about you do something for me, and then I’ll strongly consider it.

I held back a sigh. *What’s on your mind?

I was taken by surprise when she reached out with her free hand and took my left hand into a tight grip.

Standing on tiptoes she leaned toward me until our noses bumped and we went cross-eyed.

I could feel her sweet breath on my lips.

*Come with me on a date this Saturday.

*Saturday? This Saturday?

She nodded, and our noses brushed against each other.

Her smile widened as did the intensity in her eyes.


I stared at her, wondering how I was going to let her down easy.

I took a quick breath, which filled my lungs with her scent.

It had be Katriona Dior she was wearing. The recognition had been buzzing around in the back of my head for a short while now.

She cocked her head slightly. *Is there a problem? Why haven’t you said ‘Yes’ yet?

*Because I can’t.

She drew back a little in disbelief. *What? Are you seriously turning me down?

I nodded faintly.

Her eyes narrowed into a thinly veiled glare.

*And why is that?

*I—I have a previous commitment.

Her face twisted slightly. *Huh? Are you serious?

*It’s not much of a life, but I do have one.


I blinked. *Sorry?

Serenity planted her fingertips at my throat. *Explain the meaning of this other commitment.

I swallowed, and felt a droplet of sweat trickle down my brow.

*I have a dinner date.

Her eyes narrowed into thin slits. *With whom?

I swallowed again.

*With the Alucard Family.

Serenity’s eyes widened and she blinked sharply. She stepped back but our bracelets remained touching one another.

*The Raynar Witch? Will she be there?

I frowned just a little. *If you mean the Countess’s elder sister, then that’s a yes.

Serenity stepped back, breaking contact between our bracelets. She also let go of my left hand. She looked away in thought for a short while, before facing me.

“Your dinner date, what time is it?”

“I—I don’t know. I haven’t had confirmation yet.”

A hungry smile slowly spread across her lips. “In that case, keep the morning open. Don’t book anything for Saturday except your date with me.”

I started rubbing my hair. “I still have to attend dinner with the Countess.”

“But you’re free the rest of the day, right?”

I wasn’t certain if Simone had plans for us beforehand.

I shoved my hands into my trouser pockets. “I can neither confirm nor deny that.”

Serenity sighed loudly. “Dear gods you can be difficult to deal with.”

“Blame it on the Countess. I’m not exactly in charge of my life these days.”

Actually, I hadn’t been in charge for many, many months now, not since awakening to life as a Familiar.

“Well, whatever,” Serenity declared. “The Raynar Witch can have you for the evening, but I get you for the day.”

I wanted to sigh but closed my eyes in frustration instead.

This girl just wouldn’t take ‘No’ for an answer.

When I opened my eyes, Serenity was gazing down at the school.

Specifically she was looking at the top of the donut shaped building that was the high-school cafeteria.

“Now, is the Academy food here any good?” she asked.

I answered her with a question of my own. “If I guess your three sizes, will you show me your Valkyrie Maiden?”

Serenity looked at me with suspicion. “What was that?”

“If I guess correctly, will you show me your Valkyrie Maiden?”

Her lips drew back in distaste. “Ah, that’s what I thought you said.”

She inhaled deeply and placed her hands behind her back while swaying her hips side to side.

She wore a thoughtful look on her face.

I found her swaying hips oddly familiar, then put it down to something all girls did.

Damn it was fetching.

Once their hips started moving, it was hard to tear your eyes away from them.

Girls were like snake charmers, and that swaying motion was part of their charm.

Serenity abruptly shrugged. “Okay.”

I blinked, startled that she would agree. “You mean that?”

“You get only one chance.”

I sucked in a lungful air, and puffed out my chest. “That’s all I need.”

She stood arms akimbo, and dropped her weight onto one hip.

“So, what are my dimensions?”

I ran my gaze over her like one might a medical scanning wand.

“Bust eighty four, waist fifty, hips eighty five.” I paused before adding, “And you’re a C-cup.” I met her eyes. “Well, how did I do?”

She was looking at me with a fixedly pale expression. Then she smiled like the fox that trapped the hen.

“Oh, so very, very close.”

I frowned, and studied her again from head to toes. “What? I was wrong…?”

“Bust eighty-five.” She raised a finger. “I grew one centimeter this past month.”


“You quoted last month’s dimensions as reported in that magazine article I posed for.”

I shook my head. “No, I didn’t. I’ve never seen you in any magazines. Before last week, I’d never even seen a poster of you.”

Serenity lowered her hand. “Really…?”

I nodded. “Yes, it’s the honest truth. Actually, I’m pretty ashamed of myself. I can’t believe I didn’t know about you beforehand. I thought I knew all the top gravure idols.”

“I…I don’t do gravure, though my management is planning a release of a holo-album that’s a little risqué.”

“Really, that would be great. I’d definitely buy it. Especially a first edition.”

She blinked slowly. Her lips parted a few times, and but she said nothing.

Eventually her stomach growled and she blushed faintly. “Sorry….”

I shrugged, then quickly glanced at my watch. “We have fifteen minutes before afternoon classes start. How about we get something to eat?”

Her stomach growled again and mine joined her.

I gave her a sheepish smile. “Well?”

She didn’t get the chance to answer me.

From the courtyard surrounding the rooftop hut, the familiar voice of a young man scolded us.

“You kids, what are you doing up there? Don’t you know you’re not allowed on top of the penthouse huts? Get down from there now.”

I looked over the edge of the hut down at a young man, quite a few years older than me, staring up at us.

Recognizing him, I was too surprised to do more than stand and gape.

What was ‘he’ doing here in the Academy?

He pointed at Serenity and I, then down at the ground. “I said get down here now, before I have you hauled off before the Vice-Principal.”

I winced loudly. “We’d better do as he says.”

I jumped down with ease from the hut’s rooftop.

A few moments later, Serenity did the same, landing with the grace of a cat on the courtyard.

Kaleb Deneve scowled a little at the both of us.

I took in his appearance quickly, wondering why he was wearing a gym tracksuit, and carrying a bamboo sword like Ms. Karsen who taught physical education to the girls in second year high school, which included the girls in my class.

Kaleb exhaled loudly in disappointment.

“You kids are pushing detention. Next time I catch you up here I’m turning you over to the Vee Pee. Is that clear?”

I nodded, and bowed to him in afterthought. “Yes sir.”

Kaleb gave Serenity a hard look. “What about you? Nothing to say?”

Serenity was standing with her weight resting on one hip, somewhat insolently, and studying Kaleb through slightly narrowed eyes.

Then she shrugged a shoulder. “My bad. It’s my first day. Can’t you cut me some slack?”

“Oh, is that a fact. A new transfer, huh.” He cocked his head and grinned like some holovid gangster as he crossed the distance to Serenity. “I guess your old school was pretty lenient.”

“Not really. I just didn’t let the pointless rules bother me.”

“Is that a fact? And you think you can carry on here like you did back there?”

“Why not—?”

“Cause I said not.” He leaned down at her, and I suddenly saw a side to Kaleb I hadn’t seen before.

A cold, menacing side.

I thought of the tales of the Grim Reaper, and I suddenly wondered if Kaleb was a Reaper in human form.

I clamped down on a shiver. The air suddenly felt cold.

It could be yet another fluctuation of the habitat’s environmental controls.

I chose to believe so. The alternative was much too disturbing.

I glanced at Serenity, not certain of what I expected to see.

However, her reaction wasn’t within the bounds of what I’d imagined.

Serenity was standing dead still, like a store mannequin, not even breathing. Every part of her appeared caught in a moment in time.

Yet when I looked at her eyes, I saw them shining brilliantly with a violet light. It was a strong light fueled from deep within the girl.

And she was warding off Kaleb menacing aura with ease.

In fact, she looked to be relishing the encounter.

For some reason, I pictured her brilliance dispelling Kaleb’s aura like a mist before a strong bonfire.

Abruptly she leaned forward just a few inches, and narrowed the distance between her and Kaleb.

“Like I said, my bad.”

Turning away smoothly with the litheness of a dancer, Serenity began walking toward the gap between rooftop machinery huts.

I watched her depart, my gaze drawn to the swish of her tight buttocks.

It really was an awesome derriere.

Probably perfected through long hours of intensive training.

“Hey, Desanto, wake up.”

I blinked and jerked back at the sound of Kaleb’s voice cutting through my ruminations.

He was tapping his bamboo sword against his right shoulder. “You back with us?”

I half-frowned at him. “May ask why you’re here, dressed like that?”

“Humph, well, I’m your new P.E. teacher. I’m assigned to the high-schoolers, so you and I will be seeing each other at ‘least’ once a week.”

I fully frowned at him. “What? You’re a teacher here now? For real?”

“Definitely am. I have a teaching degree in physical education. Hey, why are you giving me that look? You don’t believe me do you?”

“No, no. I believe you.” I shoved my hands into my trouser pockets. “What happened to Mr. Rygart?”

Kaleb chuckled without levity. “He was given his walking papers.”

I stared at Kaleb in disbelief. “What?”

He inhaled deep, which made his t-shirt under the tracksuit jacket stretch impressively around his well-developed pecs. “He was found peeping on the girls during their shower time. Hidden holocam. That sort of thing.”

I stared at him aghast. “You’re kidding me, right?” As perverted as I was, even I drew the line somewhere.

“Nope, not kidding. The Academy’s senior faculty wanted to keep the incident under wraps. It was either he walked, or they had him arrested. I guess they figured this way would cause the least amount of disruption.”

For some reason, I couldn’t help suspecting the truth in Kaleb’s account.

I wondered if Mr. Rygart wasn’t the victim of some plot to have him removed and Kaleb instated as his replacement. But without proof, I didn’t think it was wise to even mention my suspicion.

Kaleb was studying me too. “Desanto, not a word about Rygart to anyone, especially the girls.”

I opened my mouth, but Kaleb rolled over me.

“I don’t want the girls suspecting for one moment that their privacy was violated. Do I make myself clear?”

I nodded, then nodded more firmly when I noticed he wasn’t satisfied. “I get it. You have my word. My lips are sealed.”

He studied me for a heartbeat longer before he appeared satisfied that I meant to keep my word. “And one more thing. Tread lightly around that girl.”

I swallowed down past the sudden lump in my throat. “Yeah…I think I know what you mean.”

He shook his head just once. “No, Desanto, I don’t believe you do. So I’m going to tell you again, tread lightly. That girl…she’s not normal.”

I found it a little hard to look away.

Then I glanced in the direction Serenity had departed, and decided to end the discussion in a manner that wasn’t out of the ordinary for me, where he wouldn’t suspect what I was thinking.

I took a deep breath.

“Damn right, she’s not normal. With those dimensions, there’s nothing normal about her. Gah—”

Kaleb’s bamboo sword delivered a solid whack to the top of my head.

“Get out of here, you mutt,” he complained.

Rubbing my head, I decided a strategic retreat was the better part of valor.

As I did, I wondered why gym teachers walked around with bamboo swords.



Wherever Caprice had run off to, Rina and I couldn’t find her.

I worried that Caprice had gone to find a new target – Serenity Artesan.

However, in the end the two of us raced to the cafeteria for a quick bite before afternoon classes resumed.

To my regret, it wasn’t long before I was proven right and Caprice had indeed moved onto her next quarry. She waited until classes and afternoon homeroom had ended before making her move.

As my classmates were departing for club activities or for home, Caprice rose from her chair and walked up to Serenity’s desk. She spoke flatly while Serenity looked up at her with a bemused expression that could have been an act.

Caelum looked worried and rose from his chair. “Uh, Caprice?”

“Why did you transfer to this Academy?” she asked Serenity.

“Because I was told to,” Serenity replied easily enough.

“To do what?”

“Huh? Oh, I guess…I don’t know yet.” Serenity chose to smile sweetly and tipped her head to the right. She gave Caprice a vee sign like those popular singing idols. “So for now, I’m just planning to enjoy life here at the Academy.”

She stood up and offered Caprice her right hand.

“I’m Serenity Artesan afil Avenir. Let’s get along, shall we?”

Caprice smiled faintly. “Considering your behavior this morning, you’re not serious are you?”

“Of course I am.”

Serenity smiled as though she were posing for the holocams. I was starting to wonder if there was something wrong with this girl. Couldn’t she sense how annoyed Caprice was?

Uh, actually, most people had no idea what expression Caprice wore under her ‘neutral’ face.

Serenity added, “Oh, and I’ll be taking caring of Caelum from now on.”

Caprice grabbed Serenity’s hand in the blink of an eye. “Not likely.”

I thought I glimpsed surprise flash in Serenity’s eyes, before she smiled confidently. “Oh yes, very likely.”

It sounded like a declaration of war, and it quickly turned into a tug-of-war with Serenity’s smart desk trapped between the two girls.

The few students that remained in the classroom became spectators to the unexpected spectacle.

I glanced at Siobhan and Alistair, and saw them staring in disbelief at Caprice and Serenity. Then they started edging closer toward the two girls.

For their part, Caprice and Serenity had each braced a hand against the smart desk between them. The plastic material creaked loudly as the two girls pulled at each other. Their indoor shoes squeaked incessantly and it was starting to gnaw on my nerves.

Caprice gasped, “You’ll have to go over my dead body to get to Caelum.”

Serenity retorted, “He doesn’t belong to you, flatty!”

Caprice hissed like a cobra. “Flatty—not flatty for much longer!”

“Give it up, you’ll never catch up to the rest of us girls.”

“Breasts aren’t everything.”

Serenity smirked. “They are in his eyes.”

“That isn’t true.”

“Well, he likes my legs too.”

Caprice floundered. “He—he likes my butt!”

Serenity laughed, “That’s as flat as your chest.”

Caprice planted a foot against the table. “Shut the hell up!”

Serenity did the same. “I’ll shut up when you give up!”

Caelum tried grabbing onto them. “Hey, stop it. Everyone’s looking. You’ll get detention.”

“Shut up!” they both yelled at him.

Caelum jumped back as though bitten.

I realized my mouth had fallen open, and it wouldn’t close as I watched both girls huff and puff in exertion.

Caprice snarled, “I’ll be done in a moment, Caelum.”

Serenity growled, “Just wait for me, Darling.”

Then both girls pulled extra hard on each other.

And the desk began to buckle between them.

My stomach twisted into a nauseated bundle as I pictured their arms tearing apart at any moment now.


They both screamed in agony.

The smart desk went ‘crunch’ and the screen shattered.

Suddenly two bodies crashed into them. One body sent Caprice onto the table. The other body slammed Serenity into the wall behind her.

It took me a heartbeat to realize Siobhan and Alistair had knocked both girls aside.

The tug-of-war was over.

Caprice moaned loudly and clutched her right shoulder as she slid off the broken desk and onto the floor where she ended up kneeling.

Serenity was doing the same as she slid down the wall and landed on her butt.

All the while, Siobhan and Alistair stood over the two girls.

“Are you both stupid?” they yelled.

It’s surprising how in tune they are at times.

I saw the smart desk was indeed heavily buckled, with its touchscreen completely shattered.

Siobhan noticed it too. “Damn it, you two broke the desk.”

“So what,” Serenity complained, “it’s just a desk. I’ll buy the school a new one.”

Caprice growled. “You’ll get your daddy to buy a new one.”

Serenity shrugged, then winced. “I’ll just let my manager handle it.”

Siobhan and Alistair helped both girls slowly back to their feet.

Alistair said, “I’m going to have to inform the Student Council.”

“Whatever,” Serenity muttered. “Run along then and tell your brother everything that happened.”

My eyes widened sharply. That girl really was well informed.

Alistair froze then took a step closer to Serenity. “I most certainly will tell my brother. You should look forward to a week’s detention as well.”

“Huh?” Serenity planted her hands on her hips then spoiled the effect by wincing loudly and grabbed her right shoulder once more. “This is starting to hurt like a bitch.”

Caprice snorted. “I guess you’d know all about being a bitch.”

Serenity mimicked Caprice’s snort, then focused her attention on Alistair. “You’re an Avenir. Give me your blood.”

Alistair looked dumbfounded. “Huh?”

“You’re blood. I need it. Otherwise this is going to hurt all night.”

Alistair took a menacing step toward Serenity. “How dare you.”

Serenity shrugged. “Is that a ‘No’?” She turned to me. “What about you, the ex-girlfriend? You have some blood to spare.”

I blanched. “Ex—ex-girlfriend?”

“That’s enough,” Caelum snapped. Before Serenity could retort I saw him touch his bracelet to her bracelet. Fragment to Fragment.

Then they looked into each other’s eyes for a long while – long enough to make me deeply uncomfortable.

Eventually, Serenity shrugged again then started to rock her hips coyly. “Sorry, Darling. I got carried away.”

Caelum clenched his jaw, then walked over to Caprice. “You okay?”

She looked slightly confused, not having returned to her usual emotionless self.

Caelum said, “We have training. You shouldn’t act so recklessly.”

She narrowed her eyes for a heartbeat then gave him a shallow nod.

Caelum addressed Serenity. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Sounds good to me,” Serenity chirped happily, still acting like a love-struck girl. Then she stopped abruptly. “Damn—I forgot. I’m supposed to be at that photo-shoot.”

She grabbed her carry-bag in a hurry.

As she ran by Caelum she kissed his cheek. “Darling, until tomorrow.”

I stared at her in shock as she ran out of the classroom.

Then all eyes were fixed on Caelum.

Siobhan muttered, “So you really ‘are’ engaged.”

Caelum’s eyes grew wide. “No—no I’m not.”

Alistair grumbled, “How’d you afford such a fiendishly large ring?”

He implored innocence with his hands. “I didn’t buy that for her.”

I pushed past the girls and stood toe-to-toe with him. “Caelum, what the Hell is going on?”

He opened and closed his mouth a few times. “Honestly, I don’t know. But I think she’s here to either help me, or mess up my life.”

“That’s obvious,” I snapped.

“Then I don’t have a better answer for you.” He hefted his carry-bag’s straps onto his shoulder. “Sorry, Haruka. I really don’t know what to tell you.” Then he walked past Caprice. “I’ll wait for you outside,” he said to her, touching her arm as he did.

When he stepped outside the classroom, Alistair and Siobhan gave Caprice a long look.

Siobhan warned, “Don’t you dare lose to her.”

Caprice nodded subtly. “I guarantee a win.”

Then she bumped fists with Siobhan and Alistair.

I stared at her discretely, wondering when those three had grown so close.



I was standing outside my homeroom when my palm-slate rang.

I saw the caller identification and swallowed.

I really needed to do something about those posters in my dorm room.

I answered the call. “Hello, Countess?”

Silence greeted me, then I heard a faint sound that made my chest tighten. I straightened sharply.

“Simone…what’s wrong?”

“…Caelum…are you alone…?”

“I’m outside my homeroom. Where are you? Tell me what’s wrong.”

“…please…I want to see you…just for a little while….”

“Tell me what’s wrong,” I repeated, trying not to sound insistent. “No, tell me where you are.”

“…the…Student President’s office….”

“I’m on my way now.”

I ended the call, then ducked my head through the doorway. I saw Caprice walking toward me.

“I need to go. I’ll meet up with you at the training center. I promise I won’t be late.”

She frowned at me. Yes, she actually frowned. “Caelum, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. Simone’s in some trouble. She was crying when she called me.” I turned away. “I won’t skip out on our training. I promise.”

Her hand snaked out and grabbed right arm. “Don’t go.”

“Huh?” Disbelief and surprise warred on my face. “Caprice—?”

Her eyes were flat yet her gaze was hard. “Don’t go, Caelum. Leave her.”

“Caprice, I can’t do that.”

“Leave her,” she yelled, shocking me like never before. Her grip on my arm tightened markedly.

I was growing more confused and worried by the heartbeat. “Caprice, what’s wrong with you?”

I saw emotions mix on her face. It was rare for her to drop her emotionless persona like this. What the Hell was going on here?

Her jaw muscles hardened then relaxed. “Her or me, Caelum. Choose.”

“What? How can you ask me that? Why are you asking me that?”

She released my arm. “If you go to her, I will never forgive you.”

Then she walked past me and out into the corridor. Not once did she look back at me, but I saw something I’d rarely seen before – I saw anger in every step she took.

Haruka startled me, almost making me jump out of my uniform. “Jeezes, Haruka—”

“Tell me what happened,” she said softly yet firmly.

“Simone called me. She sounded like she was crying. I was going to see her. Caprice got angry and told me not to go.”

Haruka closed her eyes and lowered her head. “Caelum, there’s something you need to know.”

“Can it wait?”

“No, it can’t.” She opened her eyes. “This won’t take long.”

I stared at her with mixed feelings as Haruka told me of the falling out between the Countess and Caprice.

It made it that much harder to turn, and make the long walk to the Student Council President’s office.

But it was a trip I had to make.

I found myself unable to leave that girl alone, not when she needed me.

For that matter, I found it hard to leave any girl alone in her time of need, whether she be Regular, Familiar, or Aventis.

Chapter 4.


The doors to the Student Council President’s office opened for me after I knocked on them.

I entered the room and found it dimly lit.

Simone was sitting on the wide couch, the pen remote in her right hand.

She waved it gently, and the doors closed behind me.

I dropped my carry-bag beside one of the single seat couches that doubled for chairs, and sat down opposite her, the low glass topped coffee table between us.

Her eyes were on me, and even in the dim light, I could see she’d been crying.

I truly wondered how she’d survived through the afternoon classes. Perhaps she’d excused herself and spent the time in the infirmary. I didn’t know, and I wasn’t going to ask. It wasn’t important.

Clasping my hands on my lap, I leaned forward on the seat, and met her gaze.

When it was apparent she wasn’t going to break the silence, I chose to do it for her.

I cleared my throat as discretely as I could.

“I heard what happened.”

She inhaled deeply and squeezed her eyes shut, then nodded shallowly.

I knew I was hesitating, but I was having trouble lining up my thoughts. Maybe it was best to just dive in and get it over with.

“When I was in hospital, I had a great deal of time to think about the last seven to eight months. I had time to think about the last six years, since the explosion that killed my parents. And I had time to think about my sister, and about Crimson Crescent.”

I took a slow breath.

“When my parents died, I blamed the Prides. I blamed the Aventis, not because they caused the explosion, but because they gave rise to Crimson Crescent. In my eyes, and in my mind, I saw the Aventis as a hateful race that gave rise to hateful people. If they didn’t exist, then Crimson Crescent wouldn’t have existed. I saw things in black and white, yes and no, true or false. I didn’t think beyond it. My mind was set, and I turned my resentment and hatred upon the Aventis.

“I’ve spent six years hating the Aventis, and what did it get me? Nothing. It made me a bitter, angry, resentful person. It made me someone that I didn’t want to be. And it cost me my friendship with Haruka, my childhood friend. If Haruka hadn’t taken the first step to mend our friendship, I certainly wouldn’t have tried to mend it on my own. I stopped seeing Haruka as the girl that I’d loved for so long. I saw her as something else. And I was wrong. Having the Symbiote inside her body hadn’t changed her. Having the Symbiote inside her changed me. I was the one that changed my perception of her, and my hatred twisted that perception. It made me see her in an ugly way.

“So do I hate the Aventis? Yes, on a certain level I still do. I hate their arrogance, and I hate the way they flaunt their superiority over Regulars by relegating them to the status of secondary citizens. I resent their attitude toward the rest of humanity. And I resent their treatment of Familiars.”

I resisted the urge to sit back, and continued leaning slightly forward toward Simone.

“So what have I done with my hatred? I boxed it up. I put chains around it and tossed it deep where it wouldn’t get in the way. Sometimes, a little of it leaks out of the box, and it twists my judgment. It twists my better nature. I don’t want that. I don’t want to become like Celica, even if the reasons why we hate are different. If I become like her, I’ll hurt people, and I’ll be no better than Crimson Crescent. I’ll be no better than the Prides. And that’s something I refuse to become.

“I can’t hold onto the childish anger and hatred anymore. If I’m going to continue hating the Aventis, even if out of the pain of losing my parents, I need to know the real reasons for my loss. I need to know why my parents died, and so many hundreds with them. I need to know the truth about Crescent, the Prides, the explosion, and why the Aventis treat us the way they do.”

Her lips parted but she closed them quickly. She could tell that I wasn’t done yet, that there was more to come.

I gave myself a moment to compose my next thoughts before voicing them.

“I’ve boxed up my hatred, because I want to start again with as much of a clean slate as possible. I want to give the Aventis around me another chance, or the benefit of the doubt. I want to see the people around me not as Aventis, or Regular, or Familiar, but as people because in the end that’s what we all are. Disregarding the role of the Symbiote, we’re all humans.”

I took a deep breath.

“I’m not going to let my hatred in general for the Aventis stop me from ‘seeing’ the people that are around me. So I’m going to focus on those people that are part of my life, and not in the background. I want to look at Arisa, at Severin Kell, at Prissila Ventiss, and at Maya, Kaleb, Rina, at Caprice…and at you…and I want to see them for who they are…and not what they are.”

I shook my head gently.

“These past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that I was wrong about them, and about you. I have prejudices that are hard to kick aside, but I need to do so, otherwise I’ll never find my place—the place where I belong as a person and as a Familiar.”


“Simone, I’m going to be honest. I’m not going to see eye-to-eye with you, or Severin, or Arisa, all the time. That’s to be expected. We’re not of one mind. But I won’t allow my hatred which spawned from my loss to prevent me from moving forward. I won’t allow it to stop me doing the right thing, or from doing the best that I can.”

I unclasped then clasped my hands again.

“But I can only speak for myself…I can’t speak for you.”

I watched her turn away. I watched the muscles along her jawline clench repeatedly as she squeezed her eyes shut.

“Simone, I don’t know what I’m feeling right now. I look at you, and I just don’t know how to describe what I’m feeling. I’m disappointed, and yet I’m relieved. Part of me feels vindicated that you see Familiars like the rest of the Aventis. Part of me feels that I judged you right, and you’re no different than the millions of other Aventis. And part of me feels betrayed because that part saw you differently—because that part ‘wanted’ you to be different.”

“Caelum, I’m sorry—I am so, so sorry—”

“I know you are. But you’re only sorry because you know that you’re disappointing me, because I’m of value to you. You’re not sorry for what you said to Caprice. You meant every word. And that’s why…that’s why I have trouble accepting you.”

She looked confused, but then she looked afraid. “Caelum…what do you mean…accepting me…?”

I took another long, deep breath.

It was going to be hard to say, but it needed to be said.

“Simone, I don’t know what we mean to each other. I don’t know what kind of relationship we have. Are we schoolmates? Are we associates? Are we friends…or are we more than that? I don’t know how you see me? Am I a means to end for you? I just don’t know.”

She started to reply, so I held up a hand and stopped her.

“And I don’t know how I feel about you. I don’t know if I should open myself up to you.”

I lowered my hand back onto my lap, a dull ache forming in my chest.

“I like you, Simone. I really do. Not just because you’re beautiful, but because when I’m with you, I forget about the little things. I forget about the bigger picture. I forget that you’re an Aventis, and I can just let myself go. You’re fun to be with. You’re impulsive and spontaneous, and you’re always lively. You wear me out more often than not, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

I shrugged heavily, feeling the ache in my chest begin to grow.

“But then I’m left wondering if it’s all just an act, and I come back to ground, and it’s like waking up from a beautiful dream. It’s just a dream. And that really hurts. It really, really hurts.”

I shrugged again and my chest tightened so much it was hard to breathe.

“It hurts because it’s too good to be true…like most dreams are.”

Simone sat up and I watched her hands clench on her lap. “Caelum—it’s not a dream.”

“I want to believe that. But I can’t.”

“Yes—you can! Caelum, when I’m with you, I’m not the Countess. I’m not the Vice-President. I’m Simone. I’m Simone—”

“—Alucard Raynar.”

She sucked in air noisily. “No, that isn’t true.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, it isn’t.”

I stood up. “Yes, it is! You’re only with me because I’m of value to your family and to your Pride. You want something from me, and I don’t know what it is, but I know it’s there!”

Simone rose to her feet. “No—no, no, no! When I’m with you it has nothing to do with my family.”

“You have no idea how much I want to believe that.”

“Then believe it because it’s the truth. When I’m with you I don’t care about my Pride!”

I inhaled slowly and hardened my stare. “Why do you act like an Aventis to everyone else, and not to me? Answer me that.”

She clenched her hands. “Because you’re special to me.”


“Because you are. Because I care about you. I—I can’t explain it. But you mean so much to me.” She grabbed her head. “Gods—I can’t find the words.”


She took in several deep breaths. “Caelum, when I’m with you, I can be myself. I can be Simone and not Simone Alucard Raynar. I can just be me. I don’t know why but that’s the way I feel. I feel ‘free’ when I’m with you. I feel like I can forget or leave my family and everything else behind. I don’t know how else to say it. I just know that the time I spend with you is like spending time out of the prison of my life. When I’m with you I’m free and I’m truly happy.”

She pressed her hands to her chest.

“Our time, our relationship, is precious to me. And I’m so afraid that my family will step in and take that away. I am so freakin’ afraid that one day I’ll wake up and find that you’re gone. I’m scared that one day they’ll take me away from you. That’s how I feel. That’s what I’m afraid of all the time…ever since you stepped into my life…ever since you walked into this office six weeks ago.”

My heart was pounding so hard, it was hard to hear her.

I could feel and hear the blood rushing through my head, and crushing my chest.

Simone had closed her eyes but there were tears gently trailing down her cheeks.

Was this what I wanted to hear from her?

Is this what I’d come for?

No, no it wasn’t. I’d come here for a different reason, but somehow we’d both arrived at this point, and now I didn’t know what to do next.

She opened her eyes and when our gazes met, I couldn’t look away.

“Caelum…please…what am I to you?”

The earnest light in her eyes was making my heart twist in agony.

“I—I don’t know. I’m sorry, Simone, but I just don’t know.”

She lowered her hands from her chest to her midriff and I watched her shoulders tremble as I felt my breath shudder out of my lungs.

A heavy, unbearable silence grew between us, shrouding the room like a dank, unpleasantness in the air.

I stared down at the table between us.

“Simone…I think we need…I think we need some time apart.”

A soft moan slipped past her lips, and she slowly sat back down. She sat deathly still, and her eyes were distant as though looking through the wall behind me.

I clenched my hands, and buried my fingernails into my palms.

“I’ll attend the dinner with you and your family, but between now and then I believe it’s best we give ourselves some room.”

She didn’t say anything.

She just sat there, and continued staring at the wall.

Then I saw the ghost of a nod, and I heard her thready whisper.

“If…if it’s what you want….”



Caelum wouldn’t tell me any of what happened between him and the Countess on Monday after classes, but it was clear something painful had taken place.

On the one occasion where I met the Countess in the hallway, she smiled at me warmly and behaved as though nothing was the matter. She acted as though her outburst at Caprice had never taken place. But there was hurt in her eyes, and it made me feel for her. It made me want to pull her aside, and get her to talk to me.

However, she hurried away with an airy wave, and disappeared down the hallway in moments.

I had no better luck with Caelum.

When I tried asking him in the middle of the week, his face grew hard, and he wouldn’t meet my eyes. He asked for some time, and promised to talk about it later. He also asked me to help him pick out some clothes for a dinner he had to attend on Saturday. Again, he wouldn’t elaborate, though again he promised to talk about it later.

I will be honest. It hurt me to see them this way.

I told Caprice I was rooting for her, but seeing Caelum and the Countess wearing masks over their emotions was difficult to bear.

Having said that, what could I do to help?

Neither Caelum nor Simone appeared open for a third party to mediate between them. I realized I was thinking of it in terms of marriage counselling, and that did unsettle me a fair bit.

But there was another problem to address.

The problem of Caprice and her escalating rivalry with Serenity.

I don’t know whether to call it humorous, or purely stupid.

However, it started with that tug-of-war and it spilled into many aspects of Academy life.

Let me recap the week.

School Week Six, Tuesday.

Caprice gave Caelum the arctic shoulder all the way until lunch break where it came to a sudden shocking end. That was because Serenity chose to join the three of us for lunch in the cafeteria. Seeing trouble brewing, Siobhan and Alistair also joined in to observe the proceedings. Alistair made it a point to remind Serenity that the Student Council had its eyes on her so she should behave.

Serenity shrugged it off as she sat beside Caelum, and promptly replaced his cafeteria lunch tray with a lunchbox of food she’d carefully prepared for him. When she began feeding him, Caprice blew her stack. Swiping the lunch box from Serenity, she wolfed down the food faster than a hungry goat. Serenity sat in shock and disbelief then promptly launched herself over the table at Caprice, whereupon the pair began wrestling each other while we hurriedly rescued our lunch trays.

Needless to say Academy security came round and promptly escorted the pair away.

I heard later from Alistair they both received suspended detentions.

Apparently detention would interfere with Serenity’s modelling commitments so it didn’t seem fair to punish only Caprice, so they both avoided actual detentions.


During gym class Serenity and Caprice ended up on opposing volleyball teams.

What was supposed to be a team sport soon degenerated into a one on one battle as the two girls fought against each other, completely dominating their respective courts to the point where the rest of us walked off and proceeded to watch from the sidelines.

Unsurprisingly, Ms. Karsen blew her stack and whacked them both with her bamboo sword, before dragging them off the gym floor. They spent the rest of the class warming the nearby benches, pointedly ignoring each other.


A near repeat of Tuesday in the cafeteria.

This time Caprice and Serenity both brought lunches and took it upon themselves to shovel food into Caelum’s mouth. He did what any sane man would do in his a situation – he ran away. As luck would have it, Academy security guards were on standby – Alistair told me per Severin Kell’s instructions – and he was able to hide behind the men thus preventing Serenity and Caprice from giving chase.


Morning homeroom.

Éclair bursts into the classroom, catches sight of Siobhan, Alistair and I, and runs over to us like a mini-tornado with large breasts.

“Guys—you have no idea what I just saw.” She stared at the back of the room. “What—Desanto and Caprice aren’t here?” She shook herself like a wet dog. “Never mind—you have to hear this!”

“Hear what?” Siobhan questioned warily.

Éclair began waving her hands.

“So, Serenity is like in front of me on the path leading through the garden. You follow it and it leads you all the way to the side entrance to the boys’ dorms.”

Siobhan asked, “What were you doing there?”

Éclair blushed. “Well—well Mathew and I make it a habit to walk to class together.”

“This is the Mathew in Class Two Bee, right?”

Éclair nodded shyly, then again waved her hands in a flurry. “Anyway—anyway that’s not important.”

She bounced on her feet a few times making her chest bounce as well. I would like to point out that Éclair has certainly ‘grown’ in that department over the last few weeks, though she’s still a tiny five foot one. She must be drinking a lot of milk.

The girl stopped waving her hands, and narrowed her eyes confidentially.

“So, like I said Serenity is walking a few meters ahead of me. Then she sees Caelum coming out of the dorms. She starts waving a hand high and cries out ‘Darling, Darling’!”

Despite being vertically challenged, Éclair did a perfect imitation of Serenity.

“Then I see Caprice leap out of the bushes to the right.”

Éclair mimed a leaping cat.

“Wham—she tackles Serenity and they both disappear into the bushes on the left.”

Éclair tackled Alistair and they both landed on a nearby table.

Alistair cried, “Hey—Éclair!”

The girl bounced back onto her feet. “Caprice jumps out of the bushes, grabs Caelum by the hand, and pulls him behind her at a run. They zoomed past me so fast I honestly thought I’d imagined the whole thing. Oof—”

Alistair thumped Éclair’s head with a fist. “That hurt you dummy.”

“Sorry,” the girl mumbled contritely.

Siobhan and I stared at her, unable to disbelieve her words. Éclair wasn’t the kind of girl to think up these scenarios on her own.

Then we regarded the two—make that three empty smart desks at the back of the classroom.

Siobhan muttered, “So where the Hell are they?”

At that moment the door at the back of the classroom banged open with enough force to rattle the windows.

A harried looking girl with disheveled pastel lavender hair stood huffing and puffing within the entrance. Her uniform was marred with leaves and dirt, and the remains of multiple handcuffs dangled from her left wrist.

Serenity swept her gaze over the classroom like a heat wave before yelling, “Where the Hell is she?”

Éclair squeaked and hid behind Siobhan and Alistair.

I stood up slowly from my seat. “Serenity, calm down—”

Her eyes locked onto me. “You, the Ex—where’s Caprice?”

“The Ex?” I started walking toward her, but from my left I saw the class representative step up to Serenity. The boy was at least a foot taller than the girl, but somehow it felt like Serenity loomed larger than he did.

“Ms. Artesan, as Class Representative I simply cannot allow—eek.”

Serenity grabbed the taller boy by his shirt and pulled him down so that she could look him straight in the eyes.

“Where is Caprice Steiner?”

He stammered. “I—I don’t know.”

Their noses bumped as she peered into his eyes. “Then sit down, and shut up.”

“Y—Yes ma’am.” Our esteemed class rep hurried away back to his desk.

Serenity cracked her knuckles together. “Right, time go find that minx.”

She turned to leave the classroom, only to find her way blocked by a tall student almost everyone recognized.

Alistair gasped. “Brother—I mean President.”

Serenity straightened and stared at him for a long moment. “You’re in my way.”

Severin Kell smiled down at her. “Ah, you must be the esteemed Serenity Artesan. It’s quite an honor having a celebrity such as yourself gracing our humble Academy.”

“If you’re buttering me up for an autograph, I’m fresh out. You’ll need to talk to my manager.”

“Actually, I’m here to formally welcome you to Galatea Academy. I know it’s late, but so many recent events have taken my time.” He bowed politely. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Severin Kell Avenir, Student Council President.”

I sensed a pause in Serenity.

The girl’s emotions bled away and she studied Severin with an impassive expression.

“Is that so….”

Severin regarded her with open sincerity. “There’s still plenty of time before morning homeroom. Would you care to join me in my office? It’s not that far from here.”

“Sorry, but not this morning. I’m looking for someone.”

I frowned inwardly.

Serenity sounded oddly guarded, her previous fire definitely extinguished.

However, Severin wasn’t taking no for an answer.

“Actually, if you’re looking for Ms. Steiner, and Mr. Desanto, you’ll never find them.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

He tipped his head slightly and smiled a frightfully charming smile. “Because I’ve taken great pains to keep them safe from you this morning.”

Serenity dipped her head. “Huh?”

“Really, don’t you find such behavior inappropriate.”

“Not at all. And I don’t appreciate you getting in the way of my affairs.”

“I see. Well then, why don’t we discuss your grievance privately in my office?”

For a moment I thought the girl would reject the forced invitation, but abruptly she shrugged and tossed her hair.

“What the Hell, it’s not like I’ll find them before homeroom. But afterwards is another matter.”

Severin stepped aside and offered her the doorway. “Shall we?”

Serenity snorted loudly. “Lead the way, Mr. President.”

Alistair’s brother maintained his polite disposition. “As you wish, Ms. Artesan.”

I watched them leave the vicinity of the doorway and move out of sight.

I suddenly realized my heart was pounding madly, and sat down in my chair.

Near the front of the classroom a couple of boys were consoling a very shaken class rep.

“I—I never knew she could be such a violent person. My—my image of her is ruined….”

I thought our class rep was going to break into tears.

The few girls presently in our class were probably wondering how he was ever voted as class rep.

I noticed Alistair was standing up, arms folded, staring at the open doorway.

“Alistair, what is it?”

She didn’t reply at first, but after a few seconds she shook herself as though clearing away a bad feeling from her body.

“It’s nothing. It’s just…for a while now…I’ve had the feeling I’ve met that girl before.”

“Really? Was it at a family party or soiree?”

I was trying to be light hearted, but it went completely over Alistair’s head.

She nodded faintly. “Probably…but…it just seems like something that happened long ago.”

Alistair shivered, then laughed off what might have been a bad premonition, or a troubling recollection.

She gave me a hearty smile that I had trouble accepting as genuine.

“It’s nothing,” she said. “I mean, I’m sure I’d remember someone like her, right?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I simply nodded in reply.

Alistair clapped her hands and declared, “Sorry, nature calls. I’ll be back before homeroom.”

I watched her leave the classroom.

Did she really have to tell us that?

Siobhan watched her as well, and like me, she looked slightly worried about our mutual friend.

By common consent, we both left our chairs and followed her.



I had to keep myself from breaking out into a sweat.

It wasn’t easy to do, but I was glad I was walking behind the School Council President, and not leading the way.

I had known this day would come.

It was time to play things by ear and play them carefully at that.

I suspected trouble when we started climbing stairs, and found myself in a secluded courtyard on the rooftop of the east wing of the high-school building.

A breeze blew intermittently across the open courtyard, ruffling my skirt, but not enough for me to panic over having my underwear exposed.

Nonetheless, I felt relieved I’d chosen to wear demure white.

I looked up at the artificial morning sky with its strong blue and dashes of cotton clouds.

Crimson Crescent really did a number on the habitat’s environmental systems.

With all the failings it suffered since their dramatic entrance and departure, the habitat was starting to feel more like a planetary environment, complete with wind, and shifts between cold and warm temperatures. All it needed now was rain.

Gods, I didn’t even want to think of how bad that would be.

Rain inside a habitat.

Ah, I was getting distracted.

I walked to the middle of the courtyard and turned around slowly, pivoting on my toes like a dancer with my arms spread wide for balance. I pirouetted twice before stopping and coming to face Severin Kell.

“Nice. Lot’s of space. A little sparse for my taste, but the view is good.”

Kell stood a few feet away, hands behind his back, with an odd, unreadable smile on his face.

I added, “I guess it doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy. Could do with a couch, a desk, maybe some bookshelves, though I don’t know why since printed books aren’t that popular anymore.”

“On the contrary. There’s nothing like the feel of paper under the fingertips, and the sensation of turning the pages over, the sound of paper on paper.”

I shrugged in disagreement. “Paper’s only good for posters.” I smiled at him. “Posters of me.”

Then I flashed him the well-practiced smile and vee sign I normally reserved for the odd paparazzi shot or the cameras of holovid entertainment show.

The student council president folded his arms.

He was still smiling that unreadable smile.

“I’m sorry. I must apologize. Until a week ago, I’d never heard of you.”

I gave him a sour look. “Fine, I’ll send you an autograph later.”

“Much appreciated.”

I made a show of looking around the courtyard, and the habitat skyline beyond the Academy boundaries. The sounds of morning traffic continued to drift up into the air. If I wanted to I could use Sigrún sensorium-field to enhance my senses, and pick out individual conversations from the students below. But if I did that, I ran the risk of revealing my Valkyrie Artifact to nearby Familiars with their own Fragments, or Artifacts.

For the time being, I chose not to use Sigrún’s sensorium-field actively.

I did realize that using Sigrún would have allowed me to find Steiner quite easily. I doubted the girl knew how to mask or hide herself from an active sensorium-field.

What an amateur she turned out to be.

Quite disappointing.

I planted my hands on my hips.

“Well, we’re here, now what?”

Kell glanced at the fenced parapet to the south. “I’d like to show you something.”

He walked over to the edge of the courtyard, and after a counting to three, I followed him at a leisurely pace.

Kell stood beside the fencing, and folded his arms calmly and casually.

I arrived at the fence, and stood a few feet away from him. “Well, what?”

“What do you see out there?”

At least it wasn’t a loaded question.

I swept my gaze over the scenery.

From the southern edge of the courtyard, I could see the two sports fields belonging to Galatea Academy. Off to my left lay the H-shaped building, with the donut middle, accommodating the classrooms and facilities allocated to the middle-schoolers. I knew that behind me, to the north and out of sight, were the dormitory buildings for the male and female high-school students.

I held back a blithe shrug.

“I see Galatea Academy.”

“Yes, so do I.”

I almost rolled my eyes. “So what?”

Kell didn’t reply as snappily as I expected.

I peeked at him from the corner of my right eye.

He was gazing down at the students filing into the building’s entrance four stories below. The number of stragglers began to thin out as the seconds ticked by. I guessed the first homeroom bell would sound shortly.

I couldn’t hold my tongue any longer. “Hey, are you there? What’s the point of bringing me up here?”

“I’ve attended Galatea Academy since middle-school.”

“Oh, so you’re a pureblood.”

He nodded subtly. “This has been my home away from home for the past five years and counting. Honestly, I know the teachers here better than I know my own parents. I’ve spent more hours here than at home, and now this will be my last year as a student here…and my last term in office as the Student Council President.”

I already knew that, so I remained silent, but I did turn my head his way just a little.

Kell continued looking down. “When I resign from office, I’d like to leave this school in good hands.”

I sighed. “You’re giving your position way too much importance. You’re just the Student Council President. You don’t run the school. Besides, you’re an Avenir, and we all know that the Lorian Pride runs all the Academies here in Pharos.” I smirked at him. “Planning on changing Prides? Not going to happen. You’re not a Familiar so it’s impossible for you to change your stripes.”

“You mean my Symbiote.”

“Yeah, that too.”

He gave me pitying look.

I felt a surge of irritation wash over me then fade away quickly. “Hey, what’s with that look? I’m not wrong you know.”

“I fail to understand your point.”

“Avenirs all think like Avenirs. Even if you could change Symbiotes, which you can’t, you’d still think like an Avenir.”

“And how do Avenirs think.”

I smiled and rubbed my right index and thumb together. “They think money. They think power.”

“Are you implying the Avenir Pride is ambitious?”

“I’m saying it’s a conclave of greedy bastards and bitches that’ll sell they’re family out and whore themselves to whoever offers them the most reward.”

I noticed his eyes flicker, yet his expression became truly unreadable.

He wasn’t angry, of that I was sure, but I would have preferred something other than the perfect poker face he regarded me with.

Even his voice was unreadable. “Do you speak from experience?”

I almost swallowed. I almost stiffened. I almost turned away.

Shit! I almost gave myself away.

“Ha ha, is that what you think?” I gave him my most enigmatic smile, the best I could pull out of the proverbial hat. “Let’s just say, I’ve been tied to them for long enough to understand them quite well.”

Turning to face him, I clasped my hands behind my back, then leaned toward him coquettishly.

“I’d rather trust the Black Sheep Pride, before I trust the Avenirs.” I laughed. “Hell—I’d even trust the Raynars before the Avenirs.”

“I see. Are you thinking of changing your affiliation then?”

Still smiling, I asked in return, “Do you think I’d stand a chance of succeeding?”

Stepping away from the fence, I danced in a circle, moving gracefully as a product of years of forced training. Most people believed I’d been scouted on the streets of Island One, Habitat One, but the truth was my adopted parents, the Artesan Family, had groomed me for this for years. That whole thing about a talent agent spotting me in the crowd was a complete lie.

I was there at the pre-appointed time and place, a large mall on a Saturday morning, with my girlfriends, and so was he.

Yes, it was all quite random—not!

Oh, have I mentioned I play the piano?

Well, I do, but unfortunately even with the enhanced physical abilities brought upon by being a Familiar, I still play poorly, much to the disappointment of my parents.

Well, they should be happy I can at least sing, and I’m damn good at it.

I blinked, remembering I had an appointment with my singing coach on Saturday morning.

I grimaced inwardly, wondering if I’d double booked with Caelum.

I needed to call my manager, Takehiro, at the earliest convenience.

If only Severin Kell Avenir would hurry up and get to the point.

I stood arms akimbo and asked bluntly, “Can we hurry this along, or I’m leaving.”

Kell was studying me from his spot on the rooftop several feet away. He pursed his lips for a moment before breaking his silence.

“When I said I wished to leave this school in good hands, I meant it. Unfortunately, recent developments have soured my positive outlook.”

“Oh, what a pity….”

“Yes, indeed. However, while I’m still the President, I will endeavor to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the students here.”

“Didn’t Crimson Crescent put a dent in that ambition?”

“Most unfortunately, which is why I plan to avoid making the same mistakes.”

I grinned widely. “Ah, I see. You’re planning on facing trouble head on. No more maneuvering in the dark only to get out-maneuvered at the last minute.”

“I think you’re being unfair.”

I shrugged a shoulder and tossed my long hair with one hand. “Whatever.”

“To that end, I’m going to ask you directly…why are you here?”

I gave him a mock frown. “Really, you don’t know?”

“I wouldn’t be asking if I did.”

“Hmm.” I glanced away. “For now, my orders require me to observe and evaluate Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear, and report back to the Primogen Council.”

“Is that true?”

I shrugged yet again, and spun slowly around in a circle with my arms stretched out like wings. “If you don’t believe me, talk to Desanto. I told him the same thing.”

“Why did they send you? Are you even qualified to evaluate another individual?”

“That’s a matter of contention, I agree. But I was given the job, and I have no choice but to take it.” I stopped circling and faced him. “As a Familiar, we’re not privileged to say ‘No’ to our Handlers”—I mimed a mushroom cloud—“no matter how powerful our Artifacts happen to be.”

I saw the gesture wasn’t lost on him.

His expression grew taut. “Considering your recent behavior, you have an odd way of evaluating him. You’re spending more time battling with Caprice Steiner than watching over Desanto.”

“Oh, that’s just a side gig. I’m definitely keeping my eye on him, but I’m also keeping my eye on the competition.” I tipped my head playfully. “By the way, I thought I’d be seeing more of the so-called Princess of the Third Years. I’ve heard a great deal about her. Is she even attending classes?”

“She will be returning to the Academy within a few weeks. She’s been advised to adhere to the rules befitting proper conduct for a young lady.”

“Oh, so she isn’t chasing Caelum around anymore.”

“Let’s just say she’s had to curb her more adventurous behavior, but it doesn’t relate to Caelum Desanto.”

I made a disgruntled face. “How disappointing….”

I noticed the flicker of annoyance on his face.

“Not particularly,” he replied.

Hmm, I wonder if he’s somehow envious of Caelum and the Princess.

Kell folded his arms and leaned his shoulder against the fencing. “You seem rather well informed.”

I laughed sourly. “They gave me a mountain of material to read before I transferred over. I had to cram for three nights in order to get all my ‘homework’ done.”

“My, how diligent of you.”

I bent at the waist and leaned toward him. “Now, you’re just poking fun at me.”

The first bell for homeroom sounded.

I had five minutes before the second bell went off.

I started dusting down my uniform, shaking off the leaves and dirt stuck to it. After a few seconds of patting myself down, I was somewhat presentable. Pulling out a pocket makeup kit from my skirt, I flipped it open and looked myself over in the small mirror.

“Damn, I need my brush.”

Fixing my hair by hand was a bother, but I had nothing better on me.

Note to self, carry a small brush or comb at all times.

Damn that Steiner. I am ‘so’ going to pay her back.

Steiner had run off with my carry-bag, and my brush was inside. I was looking forward to making that girl regret she’d climbed out of bed this morning.

Closing the pocket kit with a snap, I gave Kell a happy smile and flashed him a Vee sign.

“Gotta run. Catch you later. Or maybe not.”

I turned away and started walking for the rooftop’s exit.

“Ms. Artesan, just one more question.”

Stopping quickly, I pivoted on my feet, and half turned to face him. “Yes, Mr. President?”

“Your Artifact…what is it?”

I broke into a grin, that turned into a crescent smile that I could feel splitting my face in two. “You already know what it is. It’s not polite to ask what you already know. Don’t do it again.”

I was pleased to see his poorly refrained reaction.

Then he moved away from the fence and stood with his arms at his side.

“In that case, Ms. Artesan, might I request that you ‘not’ summon your Artifact within Academy grounds.”

He really didn’t have the right to tell me that.

I certainly didn’t need to abide by his request.

However, I did debate the pros and cons for a handful of heartbeats.

I shook my head.

“No. You may not. However, I will state that I’ll only summon it if the situation demands it.”

“Does that include threatening Caprice Steiner?”

“She has a Valkyrie too, a very good one. Maybe I’ll give her a little push, and get her to unlock a few of the chains keeping her Valkyrie Maiden tied down.”

I let my smile drop away.

“The truth is I rather like that girl. She’s just like me. She just needs to ‘open up’ a little more. She’s just ‘too’ repressed.” I gave him a little giggle. “That girl is really wild inside. I just know it.”

I turned away and resumed walking across the small courtyard.

I did offer him a casual wave as I departed, one of my many practiced waves that I reserved for my fans at the end of an autograph signing session.

Then I used Sigrún’s sensorium field to sweep the vicinity within twenty meters.

As I’d suspected we did have an audience.

There were two individuals hiding behind the nearby huts on opposite sides of the courtyard.

And there were three little mice hiding behind the door that was the exit to the rooftop.

The very same door I was walking toward.

As I approached, the three little mice ran away.

Eavesdropping were they?

Not very nice.

Even without resorting to the sensorium-field to identify them, I had a pretty good idea who they were.

By the time I reached homeroom, I had a fairly good idea on how to stir the proverbial cauldron a little more.



I watched Serenity leave while I struggled with serious misgivings about the murky future.

I hadn’t expected her to divulge as much as she did.

She certainly wasn’t playing things close to her well-proportioned chest.

I blinked inwardly.

Perhaps a little too much of Pervert Desanto had rubbed off on me.

I must admit, I had given Serenity a quick once over, then another, and noticed she was anything if not attractive. As such, it was no surprise she had such a large and growing fan base.

Dispelling any inappropriate thoughts unbefitting my position, I looked in turn across the courtyard, as Simone Alucard, and Kaleb Deneve, emerged from their eavesdropping positions.

I waited for them to arrive within a few feet of me before breaking the silence that had befallen the rooftop.

“Your opinions are greatly appreciated,” I said to them.

Simone had a rather drawn expression on her, while Deneve had a more relaxed look on his face.

However, Simone spoke first. “I don’t know why, but I do feel it’s her.”

I inhaled deeply. “Rather difficult to believe, wouldn’t you say?”

Simone grew worried. “And yet, stranger things have happened.”

Deneve hid his confusion well, but I saw it flicker across his eyes.

I turned to him and said, “We have our suspicions regarding Serenity’s true identity.”

“Oh, how so?”

“We feel she’s someone we knew in our childhood.”

This time Deneve looked positively surprised. “Really?”

Simone spoke up, breaking in softly, almost hesitantly between Deneve and I.

“When we were children, there was a girl we knew. She was the daughter of a…prominent…Aventis family. However, she was killed in a vehicular accident.”

I nodded, and added, “Unlike us, she wasn’t a pureblood, though both her parents were. At the time, there were rumors that she wasn’t their legitimate child. Much later, I learnt of suspicions that she was the love child born of an affair between her mother and a member of the household staff—a member of their personal security.”

Deneve narrowed his eyes just a fraction of an inch.

“A Familiar?”

I sighed softly, and gave him a shallow nod. “Yes.”

Deneve was doing the math in his head. “So, they got rid of her before she could Awaken as a Familiar and cast shame upon the family.”

Simone said, “It’s nothing more than a suspicion. A rumor. And I learnt of it later from my elder sister, who made me swear to secrecy. I’ve just broken that promise now.”

Kaleb Deneve swept his gaze discretely over the skyline behind Simone and I. “In that case, maybe we should discuss this elsewhere.”

I held back a nod. “Indeed.”

Deneve wasn’t done though. “That said, why bring it up?”

“Uh…I’m not certain I know how to answer that.”

Simone looked uncomfortable for a moment, then softly stated, “She was a good friend.” She shook her head. “No, she was one of my best friends. Together with Maya, Prissila, Severin and I, we were very close.”

I swallowed and felt I had to add something. “I believe our respective families had plans for us. I believe they wanted to cultivate a close working relationship between the six of us from a young age.”

Deneve’s eyebrows rose marginally. “The six of you?”

A quick pang of unease in my chest gave me pause.

I smiled wistfully. “Well, there was one more member of our group. However, I’d like to keep that for another time.”

He shrugged a shoulder, neither dismissively or lightly, but as if to say he was happy with that answer for the time being.

The second bell for home room sounded.

I addressed Simone. “You should find Desanto, and make sure he ingests your blood.”

She looked startled. “Huh?”

I gave her an impatient stare. “Make him drink your blood.”

Now she looked uncomfortable again. “Why?”

“Because he may need it. Should I add that I don’t trust Serenity?”

Simone’s lips drew a thin line across her face, and her expression grew concerned. “Fine. I’ll—I’ll find him later.”

From her reaction, I suspected she and Caelum were still suffering from the fallout between her and Caprice Steiner.

Before I could saying anything else, she turned on her high heels and said, “I have to go. I’m late as it is.”

I closed my mouth, but replied with a faint nod.

Deneve tapped his bamboo sword against his shoulder. “That makes two of us. I got a class to teach.”

He wandered off after giving me a casual wave that reminded me of Serenity’s gesture.

At least he wasn’t making Vee finger signs.

I was certain I’d have lost my composure at that point.

Perhaps it was fate that I turned my head to look at Simone.

She reached the exit of the rooftop, turned, and then mimicked Serenity to a tee, flashing me a Vee sign in the process.

She fled before I could consider an appropriate response.

Chapter 5.


The girl, Carmen Medina, from the Student Council was waiting for Caprice and I at the shoe lockers located within the entrance foyer to the east wing of the building.

As soon as we’d changed into our indoor shoes, Carmen ushered Caprice and I into a secluded meeting room on the fourth floor of the east wing. She told us we’d be safe from Serenity here, advised us not be late for homeroom, and then locked the door from the outside.

That meant we could get out, but others couldn’t get in without the electronic passkey.

I paused to consider if that would be enough to keep us safe from Serenity.

Would she go as far as to destroy school property in order to enact revenge on Caprice?

It appeared the Student Council had been keeping an eye on both Caprice and Serenity, which led to their timely intervention in helping us flee from the lavender haired beauty who had turned into a raging she-devil after Caprice tackled her into the bushes.

I stared at Caprice, sharply aware of the ache in my left shoulder.

She’d given me a hard yank, and for a while I’d wondered if my shoulder had dislocated.

Remembering her strength, I had something else to wonder over.

“Hey Caprice, did you power up?”

That’s how we referred to drinking Aventis blood and having the Symbiote grow inside us at a phenomenal rate.

For five to six days it would live inside our bodies, fueling us as well as giving us a boost in strength, agility, heightened senses, and radically enhanced healing capacity. But then the power we gained from it would wane as our Familiar bodies consumed the Symbiote. Nine to ten days later, and the organism’s effect on our bodies would have completely faded away.

I regarded her back, since Caprice refused to turn around.

She was busy rummaging through a school carry-bag and it wasn’t hers.

It belonged to Serenity.

“Caprice, I asked if you powered up?”

“And what if I did?” she replied, while removing item after item from the carry-bag.

I swallowed quickly. “Whose blood did you drink? Was it Arisa’s?”

She paused and faced me with a flat stare. “Who else do you think I’d drink from?”

I took a deep breath and drew back a little.

I was relieved and worried because I felt she was taking her escalating differences with Serenity far too seriously.

Deep down in my gut, I feared this running battle was going to take a turn for the worse, and one of the two girls was going to end up in tears, or in hospital.

I rubbed my shoulder and slowly worked it around in a circle.

Caprice opened a small purse she found inside the bag.

While rotating my arm, I cleared my throat and asked, “What are you doing? What are you looking for in there?”

“Anything I can use against her.” She withdrew a flat, plastic package from the purse. “Caelum, what’s this?”


I blanched when I recognized what she held in her fingers.

Moving quickly, I grabbed the plastic wrapper and tossed it back into the purse, which I subsequently dropped back into Serenity’s carry-bag.

I didn’t question why Serenity was carrying a bedroom item such as that.

I just hastily put everything Caprice had removed and placed on the table back into the carry-bag.

Then I closed it shut, leaned on the table, and heaved a harried sigh.

“Caprice…why are you doing this?”

In the corner of my eyes, I saw her regard me with an empty quality. “Doing what?”

I turned my head slightly toward her.

“Why are you antagonizing Serenity?”

I caught the merest flicker of a reaction on her face, before she replied in her usual manner.

“Why do you ask?”

“Because this is wearing me out. You’re not making things easier on me, Caprice. There’s a lot going on, stuff that you and I don’t know about, and you’re playing games. Do you want to make my life difficult?”

“You think this is about you?”

I was surprised she asked that. “Yeah, I do.”

“And if I say it’s about me more than about you?”

“I’m not sure if I can believe that.”

Her eyebrows rose a millimeter or two. “Why?”

“Huh? Why what?”

“Why do you doubt me?”

I was taken aback by her question, and forced to swallow hastily, perhaps biding for time. However, she had asked me a question, and not giving her an answer felt like running away from the real issue I was facing.

I took a quick breath and spoke what I believed was the truth.

“Because right now, I don’t know you. I don’t recognize the Caprice before me. The Caprice I knew would never do this. She would never pick a weeklong fight with someone else. This isn’t like her…and I don’t like it.”

I could tell my words had driven home to her.

She was staring at me with a mixture of confusion, and regret.

She looked anxious.

However, she didn’t move away from the table, though she did cross her arms slowly under her breasts.

“Caelum, do you like her?”

I made an aghast sound. “Are you seriously asking me that?”

Caprice pushed away from the table and faced me properly, her green eyes locked onto mine.

She gave me a single nod. “Well…do you?”

I found her stare mesmerizing, and at any other time I might have allowed myself to be captivated by it. But not this minute, and not when I considered every bit of idiocy I’d been exposed to on account of her differences with Serenity.

I lowered my voice. I didn’t want to sound harsh so I kept it as even as I could. “Why are you asking me that?”

“Because it’s important to me.”

Her gaze was unwavering, steadfast to the point of hypnotizing.

I exhaled long and slow, then took a deep breath.

“If you’re asking me do I like the way she looks, then the answer is yes. I think she’s gorgeous, and her body is mouthwatering.”

Caprice almost flinched, and looked ready to retort, so I held up a finger, sharply forestalling her.

“But if you’re asking, do I like her as a person, then the answer is no. I don’t see myself dating someone like her—ever—no matter how gorgeous she may be.”

Her reactions had always been subtle, but this time I swore I could see her relief even though her eyes barely widened and her lips parted ever so slightly.

I took another deep breath, and stepped up to her.

“I don’t understand why you’re acting this way, but I’m going to ask you to stop.”

She shook her head faintly. “Not while she’s around you. I won’t tolerate it.”

“Caprice, I don’t want you acting like a jealous girlfriend.”

She jerked back, and it was so slight I almost missed it were it not for my enhanced senses, courtesy of being a Familiar.

It was my turn to shake my head at her.

“I don’t want you acting that way, because you have nothing to be jealous about.”

I realized that my words were ambiguous and double-edged, but I wasn’t going to spell it out for her.

She needed to realize what I meant on her own.

Or maybe I wanted her to draw her own conclusions.

However, I hadn’t finished saying what I had to say.

“She knows a lot about us, especially you.”

“What do you mean?”

I vaguely indicated the anklets she wore that linked her to her Valkyrie armor.

“Do you know that your Artifact is a Valkyrie Maiden?”

As her eyes widened ever so slightly, I realized that Serenity had spoken the truth.

Caprice quietly swallowed. “Yes. I found out shortly after the incident with Crescent. Arisa’s technicians discovered some of the locks had been broken. With greater access to the Artifact’s core, they were able to query its identity.”

I wet my lips. “And Arisa told no one?”

Caprice shook her head. “No. She said it was classified as need to know only.”

“And yet Serenity knew the identity of your Artifact.”

Caprice inhaled slowly, and I saw the unease that ran through her.

I tapped my bracelet, hoping to distract her a little. “She knows about the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

Caprice’s eyes flickered, and her eyebrows furrowed just a tad. “She does?”

I nodded, then pointed at the table. “Climb on.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Sit on the table. I want to show you something.”

She gave me a faintly puzzled look, but then sat on the table, and scooted back until her feet swung freely over floor.

I rolled up my right sleeve, then knelt before Caprice and took hold of her right ankle.

“Caelum, what are you—?”

“Just give me a moment.”

I had to take a couple of breaths, wondering if it would work.

But I was also relishing the feel of her ankle in my left hand. It felt slender under her black stockings, and I had to resist the urge to slip of her shoe and fondle her foot.

Did this mean I had a foot fetish? No, it couldn’t be. However, I couldn’t deny feeling the urge to play with her foot, even if it was just to rub it a little.

I chose to hurry things along, and brought my bracelet in contact with her anklet.

I felt a tingle, and then something in my mind that felt like a question.

It was as though I was being asked for permission to do something.

I didn’t remember this happening when Serenity touched her bracelet to mine.

After hesitating for a moment, I opened my mind up to the feeling, and answered in thought, ‘Yes’.

Caprice’s leg trembled.

When I looked up her eyes met mine, and a faint smile formed along her lips.


I blinked, and broke into a muted frown.


Her smile grew just a little stronger.

*I…I can hear you…how…?

I bit my lower lip, and answered honestly.

*No idea. But did you know about this?

She shook her head without hesitation.

*No. I wasn’t told that Fragments or Artifacts could do this.

A look of genuine wonder came through her. It was the first time I’d seen her smile so unguarded.

I realized that perhaps I was seeing Caprice’s true smile, and it warmed me in a way I’d be hard pressed to describe.

I guess you could say I was feeling her smile as much as seeing it.

I noticed our eyes hadn’t broken contact in a while, yet I didn’t feel pressured by her gaze at all, not when she was smiling as beautifully as she was.

The first homeroom bell sounded, disrupting the moment.

I blinked, disappointed by the chime that rang so loud it was hard to ignore.

I tenderly released Caprice’s ankle, then rose a little stiffly to my feet.

Caprice continued to sit on the table, her legs swinging gently, as she watched me rise.

I had to swallow and clear my throat before I dared using my voice again. “We…we don’t want to be late for homeroom.”

She gently shook her head. “No, we don’t….”

I picked up my carry-bag and slung its straps over my right shoulder, wincing a little as my left shoulder complained with a sharp pang.

Caprice climbed off the table, then knelt and removed the anklet on her left ankle. She quickly fastened it over her left wrist in the fashion of a bracelet.

She noticed I was puzzled by her decision.

“Caelum, if Serenity can summon her Valkyrie Maiden while wearing it like a bracelet, then I should be able to do the same.”

I frowned slightly. “Are you sure?”

“Yes…reasonably…I guess….”

She spoke with little inflection, but she definitely didn’t sound confident in her reply.

With a soft sigh, she fixed up her stockings and skirt, then quickly collected her carry-bag from where it rested against the foot of the table. Then she took Serenity’s bag, and slung its straps over her left shoulder.

I waited for her to be ready, before walking over to the door and opening it cautiously.

A quick peak outside revealed the ‘coast was clear’.

“Okay, there’s no one about.”

Hefting the straps of her own bag higher onto her right shoulder, Caprice walked toward the door.

“Let’s go,” she said.

It wasn’t easy to hide my qualms about her decision to swap her anklet for a bracelet, but Caprice slipped by me before I could say anything. She was through the door in a heartbeat.

I walked out and closed the door behind me, then hurried after her.

Walking just behind her left shoulder felt like old times.

We arrived at our homeroom just as the second bell was sounding.

The Student Council meeting room was actually quite far from our second floor classroom.

When we arrived, Ms. Fauntine was already waiting for us with an impatient cloud hovering over her head.

Caprice and I both bowed politely and hurried to our tables, while feeling a kaleidoscope of stares varying in intensity raking our bodies.

I heard the whispers and giggles of the girls in our class.

They felt like tiny pinpricks on my bare skin.

But what surprised me was that Serenity wasn’t sitting at her desk.

I’d no sooner sat down at my smart-desk when the front door slammed open, and a somewhat bedraggled looking Serenity strode forcefully into the room.

She didn’t bother acknowledging Ms. Fauntine, walking instead toward Caprice and I.

The cloud above our teacher’s head grew dark, and looked ready to break into thunder and lightning at any moment.

However, Serenity marched obliviously onwards and came to stamping stop before Caprice.

“Where’s my bag?” she demanded.

Caprice handed it to her, and Serenity yanked it out of her hand.

“Thanks,” she growled.

“Don’t mention it,” Caprice replied, then held up a familiar square plastic package. “By the way, I found this in your bag.”

Serenity’s eyes widened to the size of small saucers, and I felt the blood run cold from my face. “Where did you—?”

“In your purse,” Caprice replied.

I should have thrown it away. Instead, I’d foolishly tossed it back into Serenity’s purse.

Those classmates that could see the package held between Caprice’s fingertips broke into startled gasps and grew slack jawed.

Within moments the girls and guys started muttering noisily, while I sat rooted to my chair, held immobile by my fears for the immediate future and my safety.

“Is that—?”

“Can it be?”

“Oh my—how daring!”

“I didn’t think she was that kind of girl.”

“Maybe it’s true what they say about the industry.”

“Does that mean she comes prepared for those casting sessions?”

“Is that how she gained her fame?”

“My—my eyes are bleeding.”

“My nose too!”

“My—my holovid collection for a handkerchief!”

Serenity blushed the color of molten lava, and trembled like a volcano before imminent eruption. In a flash, her hand snaked out and swiped the package from Caprice’s fingers. But she lost her grip on it and it flew across the classroom before landing on one unwitting student’s smart-desk.

Everyone turned to stare at the seated student, Gil Beauchamp, who shot to his feet with a startled cry, stumbled on his chair, and fell back against the smart-desk behind him.

From the way he reacted, you’d have thought the package was a micro-fusion bomb seconds from detonating.

Gil was shying back with his arms thrown protectively over his body, one leg bent in the air.

Those classmates sitting in a perimeter around his desk were rearing back as well.

I felt giddy, wondering if the surreal experience would end soon.

All this while Serenity’s volcanic eruption grew imminent by the heartbeat.

The girl eventually blew her stack and ran toward Gil’s desk by jumping onto the intervening tables like she was running along rooftops.

She was almost there when a loud shout from Fauntine caught her with her hand outstretched toward the package.

Artesan—if you touch that you’re on detention.”

Serenity froze, caught like a statue in pose.

Fauntine stalked to the smart-desk, picked up the plastic package, then grabbed Serenity by the arm, and began pulling her away with the strength only an Aventis could demonstrate.

At least Serenity wasn’t foolish enough to resist.

Fauntine snarled, “You’re coming with me. I do believe the senior administrator for second year students will want a word with you. Maybe you’ll get a private audience with the Principal.”

Serenity grew limp, and her feet dragged along the floor as Fauntine pulled her out of the classroom.

Fauntine snapped over her shoulder, “Class rep.”

The tall boy serving as our class representative shot to his feet like a raw recruit singled out by his drill sergeant.


“Take over homeroom. The notes are on my desk. Don’t disappoint me.”

“Ma’am—no ma’am. I won’t disappoint you, ma’am!”

I watched him salute.

The girls all shook their heads.

Fauntine succeeded in dragging Serenity out through the doorway like a lioness with her kill.

She turned, slammed the door shut, and disappeared from view.

But we could all hear the sounds of Serenity’s feet dragging along the smooth floor of the hallway outside the classroom.

The class rep walked to the front of the class room, then bent down to pick up something off the floor.

With his back to the class, his shoulders quickly hunched over and he began to tremble.

I think it was Zessica who whispered, “Is he crying?”

Another girl muttered, “I guess the stress finally got to him.”

“Yeah, the Pink Power Puff really shocked the stuffing out of him this morning.”

It certainly look liked Sai, our class rep, had finally broken.

I leaned to my left, wondering what it was that had brought him to tears.

Suddenly we heard laughter emanating from the class rep.

He wasn’t in tears.

He was enraptured.

Siobhan muttered, “What is wrong with him?”

Alistair added, “He’s flipped. He’s finally flipped.”

A couple of the boys closest to him stood up, and tried to calm him down.

“Hey, hey, Sai—calm down.”

“Yeah man, you’re the class rep. You have to keep it together.”

Sai twisted his neck around to face the classroom. A maniacal grin split his face from ear to ear, while tears of happiness dripped down his cheeks.

One of the boys jerked back. “Sai—what’s the matter man? Get a grip!”

Sai laughed. “A grip? A grip? Oh, I have a firm grip—on this!”

His body blurred when he turned around and finally revealed what he’d picked up from the floor.

Holding it high overhead in both hands, Sai displayed his treasure for the class to see.

I stared at the white object in his hands, and my face fell into a grimace.

Groans spread from girl to girl across the classroom.

At the same time, the guys started to show interest.

“Hey—hey, is that—?”

“Is that her—?”

Yes,” Sai yelled in joy. “It’s her ladyship’s shoe.”

Indeed it was.

Her right indoor shoe by the looks of it.

Roman, one of the guys sitting on the left hand side of the room, stood up. “Hey, you can’t hog that to yourself.”

Haruto, sitting just ahead of Roman, concurred by nodding wildly. “That’s right. That belongs to the class.”

“Hey, we need to decide who gives it back to her.”

Sai looked aghast. “No—I found it. I’ll be the one to place it on her foot.”

“That’s not fair,” Roman declared, and a number of my male classmates agreed.

Alistair stood up and glared at them. “Why are you treating that tramp like she’s Cinderella? Did Cinderella ever carry a bedroom item like that in her bag?”

Roman looked annoyed. “How do you know she didn’t? She went to that ball dressed to kill.”

Alistair gaped a little, caught off guard by Roman’s counter.

Roman pressed on. “Besides, she only had until midnight. It’s not like she had the luxury to shop around for protection—”

“Enough!” Haruka rocketed to her feet. “For the love of the gods, can we not talk about that thing in her bag?”

“We’re talking about Cinderella,” Haruto pointed out.

Another boy, Klaus, raised his hand and threw in his money’s worth. “Besides, who knows what the Fairy Godmother put in her purse—guh!”

Something flew through the air and struck the side of Klaus’s head.

I realized a heartbeat later it was an indoor shoe, and it belonged to Éclair, the short girl with the gravity defying chest.

I couldn’t wait for swimming classes to start so that we could all see her in a swimsuit.

Éclair was standing on one foot, her body in pose after throwing the shoe which knocked Klaus off his chair.

“You want a shoe—there’s a shoe!” she snapped.

“You guys are sick,” Lauren intoned with a disgusted look on her face.

Klaus picked himself up off the floor. He was holding his head and Éclair’s shoe.

I sensed a change in the male students as they all turned to regard the shoe, and then Éclair.

Klaus broke into a slow grin as though all his birthdays had come at once.

Éclair turned red as she probably imagined what they were thinking of doing with her shoe.

Clenching her hands, she stood as tall as her petite five-foot one body could muster, and pushed out her chest.

“Give that back to me.”

“No,” Klaus replied.

Éclair leaned forward which made her bosom sway. “Klaus, give it back to me.”

“What are you going to give me for it?”

Éclair began to pout, then her shoulders trembled. “Give—give it back to me.”

Klaus rubbed his head. “Hey, this hurts. I want compensation.”

Éclair shivered and broke into tears.

At that, all the girls rose to their feet. It was easy to see they outnumbered the boys two-to-one.

And they looked angry. Really angry. And all that anger was being directed at Klaus.

The boy’s eyes grew wide as he regarded the wall of angry female faces. “Wh—what?”

Alistair stormed up to Klaus. “Give her back her shoe!”

It seemed the authoritarian blood ran deep in the Kell family. She was, after all, the Student Council President’s younger sister.

“Now, Klaus!”

I watched Klaus grow pale like a ghost and swallow noisily.

Then he squared his shoulders, steeled his back, and began pushing his way through the girls and toward Éclair. The girls parted for him, and Klaus walked up to Éclair who was sobbing quietly.

He knelt before her like a knight before his lady liege, and offered her the shoe with both hands.

“My lady….”

Éclair’s sobs quietened and she stood sniffing loudly, her eyes puffy and red rimmed.

Klaus continued kneeling, his head bowed and his eyes downcast.

I suddenly had an idea, and spoke up cautiously, afraid I would break the moment.

“Éclair…Éclair put your hands on his shoulders.”

The girl blinked at me through her drying tears.

I repeated gently, “Put your hands on his shoulders to support your weight.”

She looked down at the kneeling Klaus, then reached out with her right hand and rested it on his left shoulder.

I said to Klaus, “Now, Klaus. Do it.”

Klaus peeked over at me though his head was still bowed.

I mimed the action of putting her foot in the shoe.

He blinked and his eyes widened.

I saw a flash of fear cross his face, but then his gaze grew determined as he looked down at Éclair’s feet.

Tenderly, he lifted up Éclair stockinged right foot, and then nervously placed it in her shoe.

Everyone could see his hands tremble as he reverently returned the shoe to its owner.

Then he gently placed her foot back on the ground.

At that point, Klaus didn’t appear to know what to do next.

But Éclair spared him from suffering from indecision.


He hesitantly looked up at her. “Lady…?”

Éclair reached out to him with a white handkerchief in her left hand. Being short of stature, she didn’t have to bend far, and Klaus stiffened as her chest swayed hypnotically toward him.

His case of nerves was making him tremble anew.

However, Éclair seemed to pay no mind that he was entranced by her chest.

Instead, she used the handkerchief to dab at the blood that had dried on the right side of his head, just above his ear.

When he realized what she was doing, Klaus grew very still, and his eyes became distant.

Éclair dabbed at the dried blood until his skin was relatively clean.

It was only when she drew back and straightened that Klaus appeared to return to his senses.

Éclair folded the handkerchief carefully. “I’m sorry I threw my shoe at you.”

He shook his head quickly. “No—no, it was entirely my fault. I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

Her eyes widened and she broke into a shy smile.


She pocketed the handkerchief with nervous hands.

Klaus rose to his feet, then bowed to her politely, before walking back to his desk, leaving Éclair with a complicated look on her face.

As he sat down, the rest of the girls slowly returned to their seats.

All except one.

Unnoticed in all the commotion, Caprice had worked her way to the front of the classroom.

She stood before the class rep, who jerked back in fright.

Without warning, Caprice executed one of her famous standing leaps that made her a widely regarded menace on the volleyball courts, and snatched the shoe from his hands that were still held high over his head.

Sai cried out, “No—what are you doing?”

He tried to grab it back, but Caprice dodged him with a feline grace, and half-ran to the closest window. Yanking it open, she tossed out the shoe with an almighty throw.

Since our classroom was in the west wing of the ‘H’ shaped building, our neighbors were the gymnasium and aquatic center. Caprice had powered up with Arisa’s blood, so I guessed Serenity’s shoe probably landed somewhere on the roof of one of those two buildings.

Sai shrieked like a little girl, while the rest of the guys cried out in disbelief.

But to my complete surprise, the girls began to clap, until Roman quickly declared to the classroom, “I know where it landed—let’s go get it!”

As the guys began storming out of the room, Haruto snapped at Caprice, “You evil wench.”

Caprice smile faintly and flipped him a finger.

Someone else cried, “Don’t think we’ll forgive you. You’ll pay for this.”

At that, I started to rise too.

I wasn’t going to tolerate them threatening Caprice.

However, Alistair yelled, “You touch Caprice and you’re dead meat!”

Zessica added, “Don’t bother coming back. We’re locking the classroom doors.”

By then most of them had already departed at a run.

I say most of them.

Sai was kneeling on the floor at the head for the classroom.

And Klaus was sitting with his chin planted on an upturned palm.

Caprice dusted her hands dramatically and walked back to her desk.

I stared at her, and shook my head slowly. “You didn’t have to do that.”

She regarded me flatly. “Yes, I did.”

Alistair clapped loudly. “Alright everybody, funs over. Let’s get homeroom over with. We’ve got a number of items to get through.”

She walked up to the teaching lectern, and completely ignored the sobbing, broken figure of Sai on the floor.

“Now then,” she declared with authority. “First item. Swimming classes begin next week.”

I looked up with sudden interest.

A frightened squeak escape Éclair’s lips.

Almost everyone remaining in class turned to look at the girl.

Éclair trembled in her seat like a frightened mouse in a room full of cats.

I noticed the thoughtful, earnest look on Klaus’s face.

A look of concern for the girl.

Then he turned away, and focused on Alistair who was grinning evilly.

Alistair composed herself quickly. “Just kidding, Éclair.”

Chapter 6.


The entire class was given prompt detention.

No one was spared.

Not even Alistair who was the Student Council President’s younger sister.

And certainly not Serenity, who was rapidly becoming the celebrity bitch-queen from Hell.

At lunch time we all received notices on our palm-slates to present ourselves before the Principal, Lavinia Mason Lorian.

The entire class of thirty-seven, including Ms. Fauntine, filed into a meeting room designed for presentations and as such could seat as many as sixty people.

Mason, tall, limber, and quite striking in her sharp, charcoal grey suit, stood before us on the elevated stage and swept her displeased blue-eyed gaze over my classmates and I.

I made sure not to meet her eyes.

I didn’t think anyone would have the courage to do so, until Caprice and Serenity were called out to stand in front of the class.

Mason stood over the girls and asked, in drill sergeant fashion, “Are you eyeballing me, you brats?”

Caprice and Serenity both nodded.

Serenity went further and snarked, “You look at me, I look at you. You don’t like it, don’t glare at me.”

I though Mason would hit the roof.

Instead, she smiled thinly, almost diabolically.

“Ms. Artesan, you simply don’t know when to quit, do you.”

Serenity shrugged. “If I did, I wouldn’t be here, and I certainly wouldn’t have achieved as much as I have.” The girl cocked her head. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

Mason’s smile held steady, and she told Serenity to stay behind once the rest of the class was dismissed for the remainder of the lunch break.

As for Caprice, she said nothing, and continued regarding Mason with her trademark flat demeanor.

Mason pinched the bridge of her nose, and told Caprice to get back in line.

However, Caprice asked for a moment, turned and faced the class, and bowed to us politely.

“I’m very sorry.”

She then straightened and rejoined the assembled ranks.

This surprised many of my classmates, including myself, and might have gone a little way toward appeasing those who felt Caprice was responsible for the mass detention because she threw away Serenity’s shoe.

I didn’t think the girls had any right to complain.

After all, they had applauded Caprice’s actions, but knowing how fickle my gender can be, I wasn’t surprised when angry muttering had abounded after we learnt detention had been handed down. A great many of those whispers of discontent had been directed at Caprice, more so than at Serenity.

However, Serenity was clearly eager to dig her own hole.

She stood with a nonchalant expression a few feet shy of the Principal.

Before being dismissed, we were told detention would be served on Monday afternoon, after classes ended for the day. We were instructed to assemble at the northern courtyard, and to be dressed in our gym clothes. And we were not allowed to change in the gymnasium, as it was being used by students participating in after-class sporting activities.

Fauntine spoke up at that point, telling the girls they would change in our homeroom.

The boys would have to make do with the toilets.

No one doubted the guys were being punished for their united foray to retrieve Serenity’s indoor shoe from the grounds behind the gymnasium. To everyone’s shock, Caprice had thrown the shoe clear over the gymnasium’s roof, and it had landed somewhere to the west of the building, some two hundred meters away from our classroom.

The one to find it was Roman, who presented it to Serenity when she returned to the room at the end of homeroom. Serenity regarded him with an air of royalty. However, she quickly broke into an unreadable smile, and accepted Roman’s offer to place her foot in the shoe. Afterwards, she patted his head like one might a dog, and returned to her seat at the back of the classroom.

We trundled out of the presentation room and made our way to the cafeteria for what remained of lunch. As expected, the place was crowded, so Siobhan, Alistair and I bought sweet bread rolls we could eat while on the move. I invited Caprice, and she joined us reluctantly.

Alistair smacked the girl on the top of the head. “That’s for picking fights with Serenity.”

Caprice looked at Alistair with a flat gaze. “All she has to do is stay away from Caelum.”

I winced at that. “I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Caprice gave me an even look that I recognized as being studious.

“Why is that?”

I sighed, and gave Alistair a look. “I think we should tell her.”

Alistair looked undecided for a moment, then came to a decision and nodded in affirmation.

“Let’s go eat in the garden.”

We walked to down to the northwest garden. Along the way, I told them and Caprice about Serenity seeking out Caelum that Saturday morning at the mall.

My friends fell into thought, until the Siobhan asked, “Do think this has something to do with Crimson Crescent invading our school four weeks ago?”

I shrugged uneasily. “Maybe.”

Considering what we’d heard on the rooftop, it was clear that Serenity was here against her will.

I asked Caprice if she knew about Serenity being ordered to observe Caelum.

She looked surprised and faintly shook her head.

The three of us told her about what we’d overheard on the rooftop.

Alistair had an application on her palm-slate that turned the device into surveillance mike.

I decided not to ask why Alistair had a snooping application on her palm-slate.

Nonetheless, it allowed us to hear the conversation between Serenity and Severin Kell rather well. It also recorded it, so Alistair played it back for Caprice’s benefit.

When it finished, Caprice uttered softly, “A Valkyrie Maiden….”

She looked faintly disturbed, and this was the second time I’d seen her react at mention of Serenity’s Artifact.

I shared a look with Siobhan and Alistair.

The latter asked, “Do you know about it?”

Caprice glanced away, her expression unreadable yet her eyes were distant.

“Yes. Artifacts are categorized by their potential to cause destruction. The Valkyrie Maiden is considered one of the most powerful personal armors amongst all the Artifacts currently possessed by the Prides.”

I frowned a little. “Personal armor?”

Caprice nodded shallowly. “It’s worn by the Familiar. I’ve never seen a Valkyrie Maiden in action, but I was told by my Handler there are quite a few out there. The Familiars that wield them are invariably assigned as personal security to the Primogens and their inner circle. They are entrusted with the safety of the Prides’ leaders.”

Siobhan muttered, “Sounds like a cushy job.”

Caprice nodded again, just as faintly as before. “It is. To closely serve the Primogens is considered an honor, and carries a number of perks and privileges.”

I asked, “Do you think of it as an honor?”

Caprice was silent for heartbeat. “It doesn’t matter what I think.”

“That’s not answer,” Alistair declared.

“It’s the only one I will give you,” Caprice replied untroubled.

Alistair sighed and finished eating the last of her sweet bread. “Come on, time to go back to class.”

I glanced at my wristwatch and noticed she was right.

The first bell would sound in a minute. The second would sound five minutes later.

I called Duncan, and asked him if he was attending basketball practice in the afternoon.

He said he was, and promised to treat me to dinner if I waited for him after school.

I told him I would, and that I’d watch him practice with his teammates in the gymnasium.

As the call ended with the usual words of affection, I realized we hadn’t seen or spoken much to each other this past week.

I felt like I was getting more and more pulled into Caelum’s world.

I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing, but by the same token I just didn’t feel like leaving his world behind.

Maybe, just maybe, I was finding his world an attractive alternative to my own mundane existence.



Mason tried to pull rank on me.

I listened politely while standing before her desk in her spacious office, and then told her to lodge her complaints with my affiliated Pride.

I reminded her that I was only here on the orders of the Avenir Primogen.

I was stuck in this Academy, away from all my friends, in a class full of losers.

If she had a problem with my conduct, she should take it up with Xavier Augustine Avenir.

Mason assured me she would.

Then I asked her if she knew what next weekend signified.

I guess my wording wasn’t that good because she stared at me with an aghast expression and told me improve my spoken grammar.

I rephrased my question. “Do you know what event is being remembered next weekend in an official ceremony?”

“Don’t be smart with me, little girl. And yes, I am aware that it will be six years almost to the day of that explosion caused by Crimson Crescent.”

I planted a hand on my hip and dropped my weight onto it. I realized I’d fallen into a modelling pose, but I didn’t care. “In that case, considering Cee Cee’s recent and active interest in your Academy, don’t you think it’s better to have me around?”

Mason slipped on a poker face.

I blinked, and almost missed the transformation. I found it unnervingly alike to Steiner’s regular, public visage.

I glanced at Mason’s personal secretary, Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian.

The young, attractive blonde was watching me with tempered interest.

She was slender, with a fashion model’s build, so she was naturally tall, with sleek legs and modest breasts.

She was undoubtedly here because Mason didn’t trust being alone in the same room with me.

That knowledge warmed me up and made my toes tingle, as well as other parts I won’t mention.

However, I also knew of Weinberg’s involvement in the recent debacle with Crimson Crescent.

While Severin Kell Avenir and his people were busy trying to fight the good fight with a bunch of amateur Familiars, young Weinberg had been busy fending off a number of Crimson Crescent’s Familiars that may or may not have been associated with Celica Desanto. The incident had taken place in an area under the Academy that was rather close to the emergency evacuation tunnels.

It was possible the intruders had intended to harm the fleeing students.

It was possible these Familiars belonged to a separate cell, and were merely taking part as a diversion or distraction.

However, when Celica made her escape, Weinberg was unable to apprehend her three opponents, and they fled from underground the Academy. As a result, there were now at least three Crimson Crescent operatives hiding out somewhere within Pharos, and Public Security was hard pressed to find them. Considering the amount of surveillance Public Security and the Sanctum employed within and around Pharos, it was difficult to believe those three Familiars had yet to be located.

In any case, the battle between Weinberg and the Familiars had been recorded, and a copy of the data had been turned over to Public Security and the Sanctum. Because of my mission, Takehiro had shown me a copy.

I was convinced that Severin Kell didn’t know of the incident. I had to applaud Lavinia Mason for pulling a rug sack over Kell’s head and keeping him in the dark. She’d allowed him to play his game while she played her hand without his knowledge and involvement. Kell believed he’d been instrumental in protecting the Academy.

I knew better.

Lavinia stood up and strode around her desk until she stood a couple of feet in front of me. “You’re rather confident of yourself, and in your abilities.”

I was also confident Mason wasn’t aware of the Regalia within my body that would allow me to summon Avienda at the drop of a hat…before I was told to put the Warlord into the Vault under Calista Academy. As such, she only knew about my Valkyrie Maiden Type Sigrún, and that suited me just perfectly.

I was happy to leave her ignorant about my true abilities, and cocked my head slightly to a side. “Let’s just say, I know what I can do, and I know what others can do.”

Mason regarded me coldly. “I understand you’re the youngest Familiar to ever bond and successfully unlock an Artifact.”

I nodded. “I was bonded to Sigrún when I was fourteen. I had her unlocked by the time I was fifteen. I’ve been bonded to her ever since and she’s my trusted Artifact. I trust Sigrún more than anyone else in this universe.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

“Because Sigrún would never betray me. Sigrún has no ulterior motives. She doesn’t suffer from delusions of grandeur, and isn’t interested in politics, money, or power plays.”

Mason pursed her lips for a moment. “What makes you think that you can make a difference, should Crimson Crescent choose to involve the Academy during the commemoration ceremony to honor the dead and injured in that explosion?”

“Would you like me to show you?”

“What do you mean?”

I threw a smile at Weinberg while addressing Mason. “If I defeat your lackey in a one-on-one match, then you’ll call off detention for Class Two Aye.”

Lavinia Mason blinked, and her poker face wavered for a number of heartbeats, before it regained its integrity.

“Are you serious?”

“Absolutely. I’ve heard a great deal about Lady Weinberg. I’ve thought about facing off against her many times. You could say, I’ve been inspired to new heights by the tall stories of her achievements.”

I looked over at the pretty brunette who was now eyeing me with a calculating look.

“By the way, I wonder if I’ll be as easy to defeat as Celica Desanto was.”

Weinberg’s face grew ashen.

I dodged Mason’s slap with room to spare, stepped back and smiled at her.

Lavinia Mason stood ramrod straight with a burning glow in her eyes, all directed at moi.

I thought she would grow horns at any moment.

Maybe she’d drop her human form and reveal herself as a demon in disguise.

It made me smile even more.

Mason growled, “How dare you—”

“How dare me what?” I retorted.

“Don’t ever mention that name here again. Do you hear me?”

“Oh, why so upset? After all, she was student of yours, wasn’t she?”

I wondered if Caelum knew that Celica had attended Galatea Academy during her first year as a Familiar before being transferred to Calista Academy in Island One.

Mason swallowed tightly. “She betrayed her oath, and her Pride.”

I wagged a finger. “She betrayed her affiliated Pride. There is a difference. We Familiar’s don’t feel a kinship to the Prides the way you do.”

“Nonetheless, her crime was unforgivable.”

I sighed heavily and folded my arms. “Dear me, a woman of your age—I mean maturity—losing her composure. How disappointing.”

“Artesan, you’re treading on paper thin ice—”

“I want to fight her.”

Mason blinked sharply. “What was that?”

I pointed at Weinberg. “I want to fight her.”

Mason closed her mouth and regarded me with intense disbelief.

Yes, ever since Takehiro showed me the battle footage, I’d been dogged by the desire to test myself against Nicola Weinberg.

I pressed on. “I know that you didn’t send ‘Lady’ Weinberg to the underground entrance leading to the Vault. You deliberately kept her away from Celica Desanto. And if I know this, then so do the Powers-that-be, and that includes the Raynar Witch.”

Weinberg stepped forward. “That isn’t true. Lady Lavinia was—”

“Nicola—be silent,” Mason snapped.

My eyebrows shot up. “Lady Lavinia? Seriously? Is that what you call her?”

Weinberg looked incensed. “Are you criticizing me—?”

Mason raised a hand brusquely. “Nicola—that’s enough.”

Weinberg swallowed down what she’d intended to say.

I watched her quickly regain her composure, which was rather admirable.

Mason took a little longer to reclaim a semblance of calm. She fixed her trademark icy blue-eyed stare on me. It was the stare that made grown men wilt.

Too bad for her, it didn’t work on me, but I couldn’t fault her for trying.

“Artesan, you’re completely wrong.”

I arched my eyebrows at her. “I’m wrong about what?”

“Silia Alucard Raynar, instructed us to not engage Celica Desanto.”

My eyebrows really went up. “Oh? How interesting? I wonder why? Would you tell me?”

I thought Mason would snap something harsh at me, but instead she made me an intriguing offer.

“You wish to fight Nicola, then so be it. If you manage to land a single strike on her, a single effective strike, then I’ll tell you. If you manage to defeat her, then your class is spared from afternoon detention.”

I waggled my eyebrows at her like a dirty old man. “Ooh, I’m getting wet.”

Mason snapped, “Mind your language, young lady.”

I made a ‘sure, sure’ expression, and waved a hand lightly. Then I leaned forward and gave Mason a hungry smile. “I can’t wait. When do we start?”

Lavinia Mason glanced at her watch. “The remaining lunch break is insufficient. I’ll have you summoned during afternoon homeroom.”

I raised a finger. “Do you mind if I make one additional request?”

“Oh? And what would that be?”

“I’d like Caelum Desanto and Caprice Steiner to watch the match.”

Lavinia Mason grew very still.

I added, “If you do, I promise to behave for the remainder of my time at this Academy, regardless of whether I win or lose.”

Mason was widely regarded as an Ice Queen, but that wasn’t the Lavinia Mason I was observing at the moment. The woman trembled for a good number of heartbeats, no doubt enraged by my suggestion. However, I had reason to doubt my assertion when she abruptly broke into short laughter.

Mason folded her arms and stared at me through narrowed eyes.

“Very well, I’ll grant your request. The match will be conducted under standard sparring rules. You are not allowed to draw blood. Is that clear?”

“Of course. I’ll play by the rules.”

“If you lose, and I have no doubt that you will, you’re going to be the perfect little Galatea Academy student. Is that clear? Not too much to ask?”

I curtsied before her.

“As you wish, Principal Mason—”

“And one more thing.”

I held back a grimace as I straightened. “What now?”

“Your hair. Lavender is not a color appropriate for a student of this Academy.” Mason’s eyebrows twitched. “You’ll be dying it black, the way it should be.”

The urge to smile at her ignorance was a little difficult to fight off.

However, I had no intention of revealing that I was a natural blonde, both up top and down below.

Instead, I gave her a disgruntled look.

“If I lose, and I won’t, I’m keeping my hair this way.”

I flashed her my well-practiced idol smile and a victory sign.




School Week Six. Friday.

Afternoon Homeroom.

I sat at my smart-desk, half-listening to a lecture being served by Ms. Fauntine standing at the head of the classroom.

I say half-listened because I was busy using my smart-desk to determine my schedule for the next week.

I was also thinking of the upcoming dinner engagement with the Countess’s family.

The Countess and I hadn’t spoken since that Monday afternoon when she revealed her true colors to Caprice and we agreed to give each other some space.

I thought about what she’d asked me. What did she mean to me?

I decided to go back to basics in order to address the question. Did I have feelings for her? Yes, I did. She was one of three girls occupying a spot on the compass of my heart.

And one of those girls was sitting to my right, listening with her chin on her upturned palm, with a deadpan look on her face.

I knew that look.

She was thinking of something other than what Ms. Fauntine was lecturing us.

When I peeked at her in the corner of my right, I noticed a slightly distant set to her eyes.

Her mind was definitely out of the room.

At least, that’s what I thought, until a knock at the front door of the classroom grabbed everyone’s attention.

It was then I saw her eyes move just a tad to the right without blinking.

I guess, after eight months, I still didn’t know her as well as I thought I did.

After all, hadn’t today’s events during morning homeroom clearly pointed that out.

I saw a number of my classmates face the door as Fauntine bade enter to whomever had knocked.

The door opened to reveal a young woman, with wavy chestnut hair, dressed in a crisp business suit, but it most certainly wasn’t Lavinia Mason.

The woman walked up to Fauntine, and spoke confidentially to my homeroom teacher.

Fauntine’s surprise was clear in the sharp blink she executed, yet she kept the rest of herself composed.

I watched her turn her face in my direction.

“Desanto, Steiner, and Artesan. You’ve been summoned by the Principal. Grab your bags, and follow Ms. Templar. You’re dismissed from homeroom.”

I could feel myself frowning and forced myself to stop.

Fauntine pointed at the door before any of us could say anything. “Now. Don’t make me repeat myself.”

To my left, Serenity rose smoothly, and after grabbing her carry-bag, she walked out with her head held high. She completely ignored Fauntine and Ms. Templar standing a couple of feet away.

I quickly rose to my feet, grabbed my carry-bag, and hurried after Serenity, with Caprice in tow. However, I bowed politely to our teacher, before exiting the room through the open door.

Outside the classroom, we found ourselves waiting for Ms. Templar since she was our escort to the Principal. The woman shortly stepped into the hallway, and slid shut the classroom door behind her.

“Follow me, please.”

I glanced at Caprice, who gave me a nondescript look, but when I looked at Serenity I saw an eager smile planted on her face.

At that point, I went from slightly confused to slightly concerned.

My gut balled a little as I suspected Serenity knew what was going on.

However, I chose not to ask, and dutifully followed Ms. Templar to wherever the Principal awaited us.

We crossed the walkway connecting the high-school building to the administration building which resembled the letter ‘I’ from overhead. From there we walked down a number of corridors until we arrived at an elevator bank.

Ms. Templar waved an ID card before the elevator’s security scanner, and after a short while a ping sounded, announcing the arrival of the passenger car.

To my surprise, she didn’t enter.

Instead, she instructed Serenity, Caprice, and I to step into the car.

Serenity did so without concern.

Caprice and I hesitated.

I asked Ms. Templar where the elevator would take us, but she said she wasn’t at liberty to say. In other words, we would find out soon enough.

Serenity grew impatient, and reached out to pull me into the elevator car.

Seeing that, Caprice was galvanized into action, and she almost jumped into the elevator.

As the doors closed, I found myself sandwiched between Caprice on my left, and Serenity on my right.

The lift started descending.

I wasn’t surprised we were going down and not up, but since I knew the Vault was situated underground, my anxiety levels jumped up a notch.

Fifteen seconds into the elevator’s descent, Serenity smoothly looped her left arm under my right, and pressed herself into me. She had succeeded in pushing my carry-bag out of the way so that her body was now firmly pushing its svelte contours into my arm.

The sensation of her warm body, and soft yet firm breasts made the air catch in my lungs.

Ah, how I missed this feeling.

It had been too long since the Countess had provided this service.

I could tell by feeling alone that Serenity’s breasts weren’t as large as Simone’s, but they were nothing to scoff at.

I was starting to feel light headed from the glorious sensation induced by her womanly charms.

Large breasts really were amazing, especially the well sculpted, firm yet supple kind.

Then I felt her shift her body such that her left breast pressed more insistently into my triceps. Something rather firm and pointy brushed against my arm.

I froze as I realized what it was.

Then another realization came shooting through my mind.

Dear gods in high heaven—she’s not wearing a—


I chocked. “Y—Yes?”

“Darling, I have something very special to show you—oof.”

I was torn forcefully out of Serenity’s arms by Caprice, who pinned me against the wall behind her.

The impact returned a semblance of control to my addled brain, but my right arm felt cold and lonely. I was still coming to terms with the knowledge that I’d just felt a girl’s vaunted peak, albeit through the skin of her blouse. As my arm remembered the sensation of her firm bud, the memory threatened to overload my consciousness.

I had to get a grip.

As momentous an event as it was, I still needed to keep my head on straight.

I couldn’t forget that I was trapped in an elevator with two very unhappy girls, glaring at each other like felines fighting over a mouse.

Yes, Caprice was actually glaring as she hissed at Serenity. Her Noh mask persona had completely dropped away.

“How many times have I told you—keep your breasts away my from partner.”

Serenity folded her arms under the aforementioned breasts, and began tapping one foot. “Not once.”

Caprice narrowed her eyes, then appeared to give Serenity’s response due consideration. “Really?”

Serenity inhaled loudly. “You know Steiner, I’ve tolerated you for a week because it’s actually been entertaining. I never had this much fun at my old Academy, and the Familiars over there are so weak and boring. But today I’m drawing the line. No more fun and games.”

“Good. Then stay away from Caelum.”

Serenity wagged a finger. “No can do. I’m specifically here for him.”

Caprice’s expression grew neutral with alarming speed. The Noh mask was back on in the blink of an eye. “Why?”

Serenity flashed the diamond engagement ring she wore incessantly on her left hand. “Because we’re engaged, silly. I’m not going to leave my fiancé behind, and I’m certainly not going to allow him to be tempted by a flat chest like yours—not that you’d ever succeed. But I just can’t take the risk.”

Caprice blinked slowly.

I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Her face was more bereft of emotions than ever before.

Then she quietly asked, “May I see that ring?”

Serenity’s confidence waved, but after a while she offered Caprice a better look at the engagement ring.

In a blur, Caprice grabbed Serenity’s ring finger and began pulling off the ring.

Serenity screamed in pain, and began desperately fighting to protect her ring and her finger. “Stop it you bitch!”

“Just let it go,” Caprice hissed, somehow keeping her Noh mask persona firmly in place.

“Like Hell I will.”

I flattened myself against the elevator wall, while the two tigresses battled over the ring.

Caprice had a firm grip on Serenity’s hand and finger, while the latter had a grip on Caprice’s wrists, thus preventing the expressionless girl from pulling the diamond ring off Serenity’s finger.

Serenity yelled, “You’re breaking my finger!”

“Stop struggling and give it to me.”

“You can’t have it.”

“Without this ring there’s no engagement,” Caprice deadpanned.

“That’s nonsense.”

“Then give it up already.”

Serenity suddenly grabbed Caprice’s head with one hand, and pushed her back against the elevator wall. “You do not tell me what to do!”

Caprice grabbed Serenity by the throat and reversed their positions, slamming the girl into the wall. “Stay away from Caelum if you want to live!”

I darted aside, debating furiously whether to step in and separate them.

The struggle was starting to get more and more physical.

I wondered how long before one or the other began losing articles of clothing.

That made me think of Serenity’s braless chest.

Should I wait for that eventuality?

No, no, no—I couldn’t allow the situation to degenerate into a mud wrestle without the mud.

As quickly as those thoughts crossed my mind, it still felt as though I’d contemplated for an eternity.

Both girls were now grappling madly with each other, while refusing to relinquish the engagement ring.

Was it really so important?

What is it with girls and diamond rings?

I made a note to ask Haruka about that.

Again distracted by my musings, I didn’t notice Caprice get the better of her opponent.

With a violent swing, Caprice sent Serenity literally crashing into the wall of the elevator with enough force to rock the car on its rails.

Serenity’s head hit the wall with a loud bang—not a thud—and the girl screamed out in agony. She slumped bonelessly against the wall, and then slid to the floor like a marionette with its strings cut.

At sight of her sitting broken on the floor, I darted forward and stepped between the two girls, just as Caprice succeeded in stealing the engagement ring from Serenity’s limp hand.

I tried not to brush Caprice aside as I hastily knelt beside Serenity, and gently cradled her head in my hands.

“Serenity—Serenity, can you hear me?”

The girl was blinking slowly, her eyes a little distant, and I noticed in fright the red smear trailing down the wall.

When I lifted my right hand from the side of her head, I saw it moist in her crimson blood.

Serenity moaned softly and tried patting my hands away, but I refused her feeble attempts.

I quickly dug my hands into my trousers, but I had nothing with which to staunch the blood. Being a Familiar, the break to her skin should heal within a few minutes, but even so I didn’t feel it was right to leave it like that.

Turning her head with my hands, I looked at the wound to the left side of her skull.

The cut was behind her left temple, and looked rather nasty, with a large bruise quickly forming around it. Yet even as I observed it, the bleeding was slowing. In a few minutes, it would be well on its way to healing.

“Damn it,” I muttered, then shot Caprice a heated look. “What the Hell is wrong with you?”

Caprice held onto the ring as she regarded Serenity and I with masked confusion. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

I carefully helped Serenity sit better on the floor of the elevator car. “I thought I told you stop acting this way. This isn’t like you, and frankly I’m getting sick of it.”

Caprice folded her right hand into a fist over the ring, as her lips pressed into a thin line.

I had to hold back my anger.

I didn’t want to lose my grip on it and say something I’d regret, but Caprice’s behavior was too aberrant for me to stay silent.

“I told you not to act like a jealous girlfriend.”

Just a little, Caprice’s chin rose as she stared down at me as I knelt with my arms around Serenity’s shoulders.

A second or two later, and the elevator chimed as it came to a smooth stop.

I looked up at the floor indicator and saw the designation, Bee Twelve, flashing gently on the screen. I took that to mean ‘basement’ but could the twelve really indicate a floor level beneath the Academy?

The doors opened, and a tall security guard stood there, perhaps waiting for our arrival.

He took one look at the interior of the elevator car, saw Serenity on the floor with me supporting her, and spoke into a lapel mike.

“Kotch here, confirming one down. Repeat, confirming one civilian down.”

My ears picked up a faint reply coming from the earpiece in the guards left ear.

It sounded like an acknowledgement with an order to stay put.

However, Serenity whispered, “Help me up”, and began rising to her feet.

I found her surprisingly light as I stood and gently lifted her to a standing position.

She gave me a weak smile, and when her violet eye met mine, I won’t deny my heart skipped a little.

It was the first time I’d reacted to her this way.

On other occasions, it was mostly my body responding to being accosted by her firm bust, but this time her violet gaze was sweeping me away, and I didn’t find it in the least unpleasant or inappropriate.

I was ready to gaze into her eyes for a lot longer, when she broke the moment.

“I’ll be fine,” she muttered feebly.

Even so, I refused to let her go.

When the guard offered us cleansing wipe which he extracted from one of many pockets of this uniform, I took it with polite thanks, and gently plastered it to Serenity’s wound. After a short while, she reached up and took the wipe from my hand, and pressed it down against her skull.

Serenity spoke to the guard. “It’ll take more than this to take me down.”

She removed the wipe, and looked at the blood drying on it.

Pressing it back against her head, she said, “Tell them not to worry. I’m still committed to the match.”

The guard looked uncertain, but Serenity shrugged off my support and straightened proudly before the guard.

“I said I’m committed to the match.” She folded the wipe and put it into a skirt pocket. “Now, lead the way.”

The guard hesitated for a second, maybe more, then spoke into his lapel mike.

“Kotch here. The civilian is up and mobile. I repeat, she is up and mobile.”

He listened to the reply, then nodded curtly and stepped back out of the elevator car, and into the wide corridor leading away from the doors into what was obviously a subterranean level.

When he spoke, he swept his gaze over Serenity, Caprice, and I.

“The Principal is expecting you.”

Chapter 7.


I walked behind the security guard as he led us down the unexpectedly spacious corridor.

It had diode lighting stitching its floor and ceiling, which gave it the appearance of a shuttle launch tube rather than a corridor.

I took the cleansing wipe out of my skirt pocket, and every so often would press it gently against the wound in the temporal area of my skull.

I wanted to slap myself for being so stupid, but that would only have made my headache worse. My vision had already wavered worryingly for a few seconds when I stepped out of the elevator car and into the corridor.

I had underestimated Steiner.

Not her in-fighting technique, but her sheer strength.

Without resorting to scanning her body with my Artifact’s sensorium-field, it was obvious she’d upped her strength by ingesting the blood of an Aventis, probably from her handler, Arisa Imreh Lanfear, the fiery redhead of the Lanfear Pride…and niece to the Lanfear Primogen.

I should have realized that fact in the morning when she tackled me on the path leading to the boy’s dormitory building.

Her strength and speed had overwhelmed me in heartbeats.

She hadn’t appeared that strong back when we sparred on the volleyball court, so I had to assume she’d ingested blood only during the last couple of days, or she had simply been holding back until now.

How very stupid of me, and now I was paying the price for my lack of situational awareness.

As I walked down the corridor, I had to shrug off Caelum’s attempts to steady me.

That wasn’t to say I didn’t appreciate his arm on my shoulders, though I would have preferred his arm around my waist.

Rather, I was seething inside for showing weakness in front of Steiner.

First she embarrassed me with that damn ‘package’, making everyone believe it came from my bag. Then she pitches me into a wall and probably cracks my skull. If I was a Regular, I’d probably be in a coma by now.

How the Hell did I let her get the better of me?

It’s her damn deadpan personality. It’s so bloody hard to read.

Through my bond with Sigrún, I used a limited sensorium-field to keep an eye on Steiner as she walked a few feet behind us.

Caelum had interposed himself between her and I for obvious reasons.

We arrived at an intersection where two additional security guards awaited us. A woman dressed in a medic’s garb and carrying a medical case accompanied them. At sight of me, she approached me with a scanning wand at the ready, but I glared at her and waved her back.

Caelum muttered, “You should let her check your wound.”

“It’s nothing. It’s healed.”

At that I tossed him the bloodied wipe.

He caught it wordlessly, and I glimpsed his disappointed look.

No—his disapproving look.

“Have it your way,” he retorted.

My chest tightened just a little at the harshness of his reply.

What did I expect? I was rude to him. Did I expect him to roll over for me like an adoring male fan?

I looked up at the corridor ceiling, and spoke forcefully into the air. Neither the guards, nor the medic, were surprised when I did so.

“I’m here. Let’s get started ‘shall we’, Principal Mason.”

I waited for a little while, then one of the guards tipped his head slightly as he listened to someone via his earpiece.

“Kotch here. Yes, Madam Principal. We’ll take her there directly.” He paused, and then nodded slightly. “Yes, Madam Principal. Turner will escort the guests to the observation deck.”

He faced one of his men, who quickly nodded and urged Caelum and Steiner to follow him.

I noticed the guard’s gaze linger nervously over Steiner.

Before they could leave, I called out to Caelum, and tossed him my carry-bag.

“Keep that safe for me…and from her.”

Caelum gave me a look that showed he understood what I meant.

He slung the carry-bag’s straps over his left shoulder, and said, “I don’t know what’s going on here. But I think I should say, be careful.”

I smiled at him my radiant best. “Oh, Darling. I’m so happy to hear you say that.” Flashing him a Vee finger sign, I added, “Won’t you kiss me for luck?”

He stood still for a moment, and I realized he was actually debating my request. But it lasted only a heartbeat, and he hastily muttered, “I guess you really hit your head hard. Something’s definitely broken in there.”

I planted my hands on my hips and pouted. “Darling, how rude.”

Caelum gave me a complicated look.

I thought he was going to turn and walk away without another word, but instead he stepped up to Caprice, and held out his hand.

“The ring.”

Steiner’s expression was blank as usual, yet a noticeable moment went by before she reluctantly dropped the ring onto his expectant palm.

Caelum walked up to me, and took my left hand into his.

I couldn’t stop my hand from trembling a little as I realized what he intended to do.

I have to admit, I did hold my breath as he tenderly slipped the engagement ring over my ring finger. My face felt hot, a certain indication I was blushing, and my heart wasn’t beating leisurely anymore.

Caelum’s eyes met mine and my heart skipped.

“Be careful.”

I managed a nod. Realizing my throat had grown tight, I swallowed hastily. But he quickly turned and walked away before I could reply, leaving me a little disappointed.

Wait—why am I disappointed?

The security guard, Turner, escorted Caelum and Steiner down corridor to the left.

For a little while, as I watched Caelum walk away, I fingered the ring, and then looked down at it. For some reason, and I didn’t want to ponder why, it felt better on my finger now than before. It felt…like it belonged there.

The female medic broke the silence left behind in Caelum’s wake.

“That’s a very nice ring,” she said.

I blinked and stared at her. To my surprise I didn’t feel like making some acerbic response. It wasn’t real. It was just me playing along with him, so why did I feel troubled?

She gave me a friendly smile. “You must mean a lot to him.”

My throat tightened again, and I found myself hard pressed to explain it was all just a joke.

But I couldn’t.

The words just wouldn’t leave me lips.

Instead, I looked down at the ring, and found it hard to say anything.

It was just a ring…wasn’t it? No, it was more than a ring.

The moment Caelum slipped it onto my finger, it became more than a ring to me.

I took a couple of deep breaths, then looked up at the young female medic and gave her my reply.

“Yes, and he means a lot to me too. More than I realized.”

Then I looked at Kotch.

“Please, lead the way.”

Turner had led Caelum and Steiner away down the left corridor.

Kotch led the other guard, the female medic, and me down the right hand corridor.

After walking half a minute down the corridor, we arrived at a stout pair of double doors, and entered through them into a large, well illuminated chamber that I quickly recognized for a gym or training center. It had all the ubiquitous equipment, but also a number of medical capsules along one wall, and what appeared to be a technician’s monitoring station. The chamber was hexagonal and had three exits. Using Sigrún’s sensorium-field, I sensed it to be forty meters across with a four-meter tall ceiling.

Kotch escorted me to a door intersecting one wall of the gym. It led into a spacious change room with adjoining showers.

I studied it for a moment, understanding quickly what he was suggesting by showing me the change room.

“Sorry,” I said, “but this won’t be necessary.”

The security guard looked bemused.

I sighed and said, “I appreciate the offer, but I don’t need to change. At least, I don’t need to use a change room. Just take me to wherever the match is held.”

He tipped his head a tad, listening to the voice in his left ear.

I could hear that voice faintly.

It was a woman’s voice, and one that I recognized.

“Take her to the Arena.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He addressed me. “If you’ll follow me.”

A third door led from the gym into yet another wide corridor with diode lighting. Again I felt as though I was walking down a launch tube.

I followed Kotch to a large domed anteroom a few dozen meters away from the gym chamber.

The double doors here were a lot bigger than any I’d encountered since entering the warren of tunnels and corridors beneath the Academy. These doors were made of rock. Yep. Rock. They stood a good fifteen feet high and ten feet across for a total span of twenty feet.

I felt like I was standing at the entrance to a chamber where the final game boss awaited.

For a moment, and I say just a moment, my self-confidence wavered. My headache worsened, and for a heartbeat my vision doubled up before it returned to normal.

Damn that bitch. Steiner really hit me hard against the wall.

No sooner had I cursed Steiner, when a thought pulse from Sigrún confirmed what I’d suspected since stepping out of the elevator.

I listened to Sigrún report on my status, and clenched my jaw against another sharp pang between my ears.

I needed to end this as quickly as I could.

*Sigrún, I’m going to use the Regalia to cut the match short. Sorry, but I need to use the boost it can give us.

Kotch was standing a few away, so I turned my head and faced him. “I’ll be fine from here. The doors open remotely into the Arena, right?”

He nodded. “Yes, Ms. Artesan.”

“Then you can leave me here.”

He wasn’t eager to linger around, and departed with a swift bow.

I felt a little odd at that, but bit my lower lip as my vision shimmered for a beat.

*Sigrún, let’s get this over with as quickly as we can.

My bracelet linked me to the Valkyrie Maiden nestled in its sarcophagus in a bubble of Pocket Space. Through the link, I could sense Sigrún’s concern as it drifted into my mind. It was different from when we communicated via thought pulses. In that circumstance, we were definitely ‘talking’ to each other. But right now, the Valkyrie’s feelings were entering my awareness as distinct emotions.

I didn’t lie to Caelum when I told him the Artifacts were aware.

Artifacts and Fragments were not machines. They were much more. When he realized this—when he accepted it—I knew he’d be one step closer to unlocking the Kaiser’s Blessing.

I took a really long and deep breath, as I watched the doors swim in my vision. Definitely not a good sign.

I listened to my Valkyrie’s words of caution.

*No—we need to win. I have to win. I won’t settle for anything less.

I stroked the diamond-encrusted ring.

*Besides, he’ll be watching me and I don’t intend to disappoint him.

I frowned as I listed to Sigrún’s reply.

*What do you mean you think he’s good for me? Hey, I get to choose who’s good for me.

I raised a hand.

*We can argue about this later. For now, just make sure I don’t collapse before I deliver the final blow. Do you hear me? I will not tolerate losing to that woman, even if we’re both blondes.

I regarded the massive rock doors looming before me.

*Besides, if I can’t beat that woman, then it means I would have failed against Celica Desanto. I need to know if I’m better than Weinberg. I need to know if I can really beat Celica.

I shot an impatient glance at the dome’s ceiling where Sigrún’s sensorium-field detected the holocams watching me.

“Hey, Principal, let’s get the show started. I don’t have all day.”

I turned the glance into a feral grin directed at the holocams.

“Or are you taking the time to memorize what your pet looks like before I rearrange her face.”

Despite my taunting, the doors remained shut.

I waited another half minute before glaring at the holocam again.

“Open the damn doors, or I’ll use my Artifact to punch a hole through them.”

A short while went by before Sigrún sensed the signal that opened the rock doors.

I must say I was somewhat disappointed not to hear them rumble open. Without the right sound, it just didn’t feel sufficiently ominous. It lacked ‘atmosphere’. Much like watching a horror movie with the volume turned down and the lights turned on. It detracted from the whole experience.

Nonetheless, I pushed my disappointment aside.

I kept my gaze locked onto what lay beyond those rock doors.

When the opening was wide enough for me to step through, I took a couple of deep breaths, and walked with measured steps into the so-called Arena.



The guard named Turner led Caprice and I up a set of rock stairs and into an observation deck that reminded me of the bridge of a starliner.

I’d never been aboard one, but I’d seen documentaries of the immense starships, so my mind drew an immediate parallel between that and the expansive room I now stepped into.

I guessed it to be around thirty meters wide with a six meter ceiling. It was split level, with an upper loft balcony overlooking the floor of the observation deck. The lower floor had a handful of seated technicians operating photon keyboards and touch responsive holoscreens. Floor-to-ceiling windows that ran from one end of the room to the other, looked out into an enormous cavern that was so large it took my breath away.

I came to a stop in front of those windows.

I shouldn’t have been surprised by what I was seeing, since the Island habitats were also large caverns that spanned scores of square kilometers.

Yet, those habitats felt like they existed ‘above’ ground, whereas this cavern was clearly something ‘below’ ground.

I stared in awe until a voice called out to me.

The voice of Principal Lavinia Mason Lorian.

I turned my head in her direction.

The Principal stood on the upper loft balcony, her blonde hair pinned back into what I recognized as a French twist. She regarded me with a cool expression befitting her Ice Queen moniker.

I bowed shallowly, and hurried after the guard and Caprice who were climbing the stairs leading up to the loft area.

Ahead of me, Caprice glanced repeatedly over her shoulder at the cavern beyond the windows.

I caught up to her, and then stepped onto the loft, whereupon Mason waved us over to a spot behind the balcony railing. I noticed the guardrail had holovid emitters built into it.

As though cued to my thoughts, a couple of rectangular holovid windows winked to life in front of Caprice and I, offering us a view of two separate entrances into the cavern referred to as the Arena. With a sinking feeling, I realized how meaningful my words of caution to Serenity were at the time.

Nervously, I gripped the balcony railing.

One of the technicians, a young woman by the sounds of her voice, called out from below.

“We’re ready, Madam Principal. Both combatants are at the entrances.”

I winced inwardly. Yes, this was definitely an arena. A gladiatorial stage. Ever since hearing the name, Arena, I’d suspected Serenity was going to fight a match of some sort.

The image in the holovid screens changed. They now looked into what appeared to be two domed chambers, and a lone occupant stood inside each one.

I recognized Serenity, but I didn’t recognize the young blonde woman standing in the other chamber. Like Mason, she was dressed in a form fitting business grey skirt suit – with a slightly shorter skirt – and matching mid-heel pointy pumps.

I arched an eyebrow.

I suspected her shoes were from the Calista Klein business women’s range.

I would have to inquire about them later.

Serenity’s impatiently sounding voice suddenly blared into the observation deck from hidden speakers.

“Hey, Principal, let’s get the show started. I don’t have all day.”

Then she grinned and her tone became downright cruel.

“Or are you taking the time to memorize what your pet looks like before I rearrange her face.”

I looked over at Principal Mason who calmly folded her arms under her chest as she studied the images in the holovids floating before her.

Mason spoke into the air. It was unnerving how she sounded so much like Caprice. “Nicola, listen to me carefully.”

The young blonde in the other chamber looked up at the ceiling, and nodded visibly.

Mason quietly cleared her throat. “Do not hold back.”

The blonde woman looked faintly quizzical.

Mason dipped her chin. “Because she won’t.”

Nicola started to reply, when Mason cut her off with a firm tone that brokered no interruptions.

“Nicola, I want you to remember that Artesan was sent by the Avenirs to intercept Celica Desanto. They sent her, and no one else.”

My stomach tightened into a fetal ball while the rest of my body froze.

Yet I was able to move my eyes, and my gaze fell on the holovid image of Serenity tapping a foot impatiently.

Mason’s voice drifted into my ears. “Even if the Avenirs changed their mind and ordered her to withdraw, at one point they must have placed a great deal of trust in Serenity Artesan’s abilities. That implies she is at least as capable as Celica Desanto. You understand what that means, don’t you?”

I glimpsed the nod Nicola gave the holocam, before she directed her attention on the doors in front of her.

Mason continued after momentary pause. “Artesan will not be pulling her punches, and I’m sure she’s seen what you are capable of. However, we don’t know what she can do.” Mason sighed heavily. “Nicola, remember…Artesan uses the same type of Valkyrie Maiden that Celica Desanto used when she fled with Crimson Crescent. They both use the Type Sigrún.”

My head spun toward Mason, and my eyes grew wide.

Beside me, I sensed tension in Caprice as she sucked in air sharply.

However, despite feeling my stare on her, the Principal ignored me.

Mason held onto a moment of silence. “Be careful, Nicola.”

Serenity again sounded through the speakers.

“Open the damn doors, or I’ll use my Artifact to punch a hole through them.”

Mason inhaled unhappily, before she addressed someone on the floor below. “Open the doors.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The view in the holovids changed to display respective entrances opening up on opposite sides of the immense cavern.

Serenity entered with a malevolent smile.

Nicola walked in with a nondescript expression.

The rock doors closed quickly behind them, and once within a few meters into the cavern, both young women were surrounded in the wispy, black mist that heralded the opening and closing of Pocket Space. They disappeared from view for long seconds, which served to keep my attention rapt on the holovid windows floating in front of me as I waited for Serenity and Nicola to reappear.

When they did, I got my first look at their respective Artifacts.

I already knew Serenity possessed a Valkyrie Maiden, but I didn’t know what to expect when I finally saw it.

Fully manifested, her Valkyrie gloved her body in a skinsuit that was shades of pinks and purples that did her curves justice. Her legs from the thigh down were clad in armor that resembled wedge-shaped broad swords, and her feet ended in tapered blades. In fact, I couldn’t see her feet and there were certainly no breaks in the armor for her ankles. The armor gave her legs a longer, sleeker appearance, and she probably gained three feet in height. However, I had no idea how she was able to walk and stand on them. She was like a ballet dancer constantly on tip-toes.

Floating while flanking her were two golden, pelvic-like structures that had three swords apiece docked to them. The swords resembled a cross between a wing and a wide broad blade, and I noticed two more of them attached to a stubby black device with a shark fin connected to Serenity’s back.

Finally, her arms possessed two gauntlets, each outfitted with a single narrow blade that was swung back against her elbows. When in combat, those blades would swing forward and extend three feet beyond her hands.

I wondered how similar the Sigrún type was to Caprice’s Brynhildr variant.

I spared Caprice a glance, and saw her studying the image of Serenity with a blank look. Yet I could tell her eyes were carefully scrutinizing what she could see of the Valkyrie Maiden.


She shook her head quite faintly. “It’s similar to what I’ve seen in my dreams, but it’s not Brynhildr. Although….”

“What is it?”

“Her leg armor is the same to what I remember dreaming, yet I’ve never summoned anything like it before. My Valkyrie Legs are…clunkier.”

Mason cut in smoothly, her voice casual yet even. “Your Valkyrie Legs, as they are called, are simply a component of the Valkyrie’s arsenal.”

Caprice turn her head toward Mason. “What do you mean?”

Mason didn’t look at her, but continued staring the holovid windows in front of her as she replied, “Your Valkyrie has a number of, shall we say, accessories that are kept in storage within its sarcophagus which both generates and resides within Pocket Space.”

At mention of a sarcophagus, I remembered the immense coffin-like structure that emerged from the Vault sphere deep under the Academy.

And I remembered the immense skeletal armor that emerged from it.

A Warlord contained within the sarcophagus….

Mason continued. “The leg armor you’ve been using until now is but one aspect of the Valkyrie Armor, but it is not part of the complete, unlocked Valkyrie Maiden.” She chose to spare Caprice sidelong glance. “You could say you’ve been using the Valkyrie’s spare armor.”

Caprice asked, “You mean I haven’t been using the true Valkyrie?”

“You’ve been using its accessories. Undoubtedly, when you finally unlock your Brynhildr, it will share many of the attributes of Artesan’s Sigrún. After all, they are both Valkyrie Maidens.”

Caprice turned back to the holovid windows.

I turned my attention to Nicola’s Artifact, surprised by what I saw.

It resembled the Valkyrie Maiden, but it was colored in black and white. It had legs that were more akin to what I’d seen Caprice wearing. That is to say, they lacked the pointed, tapered feet that was part of Sigrún. Instead, they had actual feet. Six flat wing-vanes hung down like palm tree leaves from where they connected to a stubby white device that in turn attached to the young woman’s back.

Nicola was dressed in a white skinsuit with many shades of blue, and she wore an elaborate hairband with two narrow antennae fins. Unlike Serenity, she held a large blade in her right hand. I was hard pressed to call it a sword, though it did have a hilt and pommel, but the blade was just humungous and fit for a giant; certainly not a slender young woman. Nonetheless, she didn’t appear bothered by its size or weight, as evinced by the ease with which she executed a few practice swings.

I asked, “What Artifact is that?”

The Principal replied after what might have been a dramatic pause. “That…is Siren.”


I saw Serenity look up directly into the holocam watching her. “Hey, Principal, remember the agreement.”

I peeked at Lavinia Mason.

The Principal waved a finger, and I noticed the photon ring on it.

She spoke into the air. “I will abide by the terms, as will you.”

Serenity shrugged. “Of course. I’m a woman of my word.”

“Very good, since I have the agreement on record.”

The pastel lavender haired girl laughed, and swung her arms in a blinding cross, cutting the air as she extended her gauntlet blades.

“Win or lose, I won’t be dyeing my hair. But I will agree to everything else.”

Mason said the next in a rather cold voice. “If you draw blood, the deal is off. Is that clear?”

I glanced sharply at the Principal, while hearing Serenity’s laughter filter through the hidden speakers in the observation deck.

“If she draws blood first, then I’ll have her head. Mark my words.”

In response, Mason made a ‘tsk’ sound, and her expression hardened.

“Artesan, Nicola, the rules of engagement are per standard sparring regulations. That means no piercer-fields, but barrier-fields are allowed. Is that clear?”

On the screens, both young women nodded with wildly disparate expressions.

Mason continued. “Points will be awarded on technique and landed strikes. You both know this. However, I will stress that you are to refrain from cutting each other into pieces.”

Serenity snorted. “Are you telling me to strike with the ‘back’ of my blade?”

Nicola replied, “I understand, Madam Principal.”

Mason was silent for a heartbeat, then announced, “One match. Ten minute rule.”

“Suits me just fine,” Serenity quipped.

“I concur, Madam Principal.”

I clock appeared in the top left corner of each holovid screen.

The ten-minute countdown.

Mason inhaled audibly. “Then you may begin.”

An alarm sounded in the observation deck, but blared out in the Arena. The clock began counting down.

I looked up at a third holovid screen, many meters wide, floating just below the ceiling.

It acted like a map, and I saw two avatars indicate Serenity and Nicola standing on opposite sides of the cavern. They appeared to be around a hundred meters apart.

However, that changed in an instant when both young women began to move.

Hastily I looked down at the two holovid windows centered on Serenity and Nicola.

Both combatants were circling around each other on opposite sides of a spiral.

Soon the spiral would shrink and the girls would clash.

I decided to send my awareness into the familiar overclocked state.

I had a premonition that if I didn’t do so, my mind wouldn’t be able to keep up with the imminent encounter.

No sooner had I done so, than I heard Mason whisper, “Be careful, Nicola.”

A heartbeat later, and both women charged at each other simultaneously.

In the blink of an eye, their weapons collided with a loud crash.



The damn woman was faster than I’d anticipated.

Yet it was to be expected of someone who’d once deployed to hunt down Celica Desanto on the orders of the Sanctum, and under the command of the Raynar Witch.

Sirens against the Valkyries, or rather, a squad of Sirens hunting down one lone Valkyrie Maiden. What should have been a one sided execution had ended with four dead Sirens and one wounded survivor, while a triumphant Celica Desanto had escaped with the aid of Crimson Crescent.

I had wanted to face off against Celica.

I had wanted to know which one of us was better.

She had experience on her side, so what did I have?

Unfortunately, she wasn’t my opponent right now.

My opponent was the single survivor of that bloody encounter.

Since I couldn’t face off against Celica, I’d chosen the next best available opponent.

Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian.

The only Siren Meister to be recovered alive from that failed encounter, and the only one to wound Celica Desanto.

If I couldn’t test myself against Celica, then I would do so against Weinberg. However, while this encounter was important to me, it was also memorable for Weinberg.

Celica Desanto’s Valkyrie was a Type Sigrún, just like mine. That meant Weinberg was facing the same Valkyrie type she lost against when she was sent to terminate Celica. Knowing that, I wanted to crush Weinberg, not just defeat her. I wanted her to suffer the loss of battle twice at the blades of the same Valkyrie type.

I refused to allow a Siren to defeat a Valkyrie.

We both ended the spiral approach at the same heartbeat.

I used all eight Vector Wings to change my direction, and kicked off against the ground for that little extra boost. Up until then, Weinberg and I had been flying low off the ground, mere inches above it, as though skating over it.

The Vector Wings cancelled out the majority of the inertia, preventing my body from turning into paste. Nonetheless, my breath caught in my lungs, but I was already prepared for that. Like the fighter pilots of ancient times who used to tense their muscles when executing a high gee maneuver, I tense my abdominals and diaphragm to keep the air in my lungs where it needed to be.

The hundred meters between Weinberg and I vanished in less than a second.

My gauntlet blades landed against her oversized sword with enough force to crush an inter-Island bus, yet she blocked me and brought my attack to a halt.

There was no point pushing against her. The first strike was always a test. This wasn’t some ancient samurai showdown. Neither of us was relying on one-strike suburi techniques. This was a battle between Artifacts, and rarely if ever was such a battle decided by the first blow.

I jumped back, redirecting thrust from six of my eight Vector Wings. The two behind me protected my body from the rapid acceleration and change of direction. Again, they kept me from turning into jelly.

My backwards somersault was fluid, elegant…graceful.

I’d executed it hundreds of times.

It had been recorded along with my training data, but all that data was kept locked away by the Avenirs, so there was no way Weinberg had reviewed it before entering the Arena.

Before I could complete my somersault, Weinberg charged at me.

A heartbeat later and I would have failed to block her forceful swing.

I used the impact to toss me back and give me some room.

I was overclocked.

Anything less and I wouldn’t be able to keep up with her.

The Aventis thought themselves so superior, yet they couldn’t overclock to save their lives. There were many things they couldn’t do, and many things we Familiars could.

How many times have I wondered who was supposed to have ended up on the top step when the War of Supremacy was over. I had my doubts the Aventis were the rightful victors. I didn’t believe they deserved the top spot or the corner office with the million dollar view.

Weinberg pursued me, pressing her attack.

She was nothing if not persistent, and she was hoping to find an early opening.

No, she was testing me. Probing me. Comparing her style of combat with mine.

After all, she wielded a massive sword that flicked about as though it were weightless, and I used a two long blades that extended down from my forearms.

A parry here. A block there. She used the blade to cover her inside and outside lines of attack, and I noticed she was right-handed.

She was keeping her thrusts short and tight, yet struck with enough force to make my arms tremble. The long sword looked nimble in her hands, but there was nothing light about it.

I kept my attention on her center, just below her sternum. From there, with my vision enhanced by the sensorium-field I could also track the movement of her eyes. But Weinberg’s gaze was also locked onto my chest in order to see my whole body.

Both her feet and mind rarely touched the ground.

We moved by using the mobility-fields in concert with the levitator-fields to make us skate over the ground.

I was skating backwards, while she was skating forwards, pressing her attack.

The more we clashed, the more confident and less probing her sword strikes became.

She believed she was getting the measure of me.

Silly girl. I may be young but I wasn’t inexperienced. Since bonding with the Valkyrie Maiden, I’d been spared no free time. My life had been a constant, grueling grind of training day-in and day-out. When it wasn’t fencing, or knife-work, or swordplay, I was practicing mixed martial arts. These days my modelling commitments cut into my time of training, but I was hardly out of practice.

Weinberg’s strikes were starting to open up as she sought to put more kinetic energy into each one. It was clear she wanted to wear me down.

I countered not by blocking, but by parrying in the traditional sense, which was to set aside or deflect her blade.

A committed block would tax me, even with my strength enhanced several fold by the Valkyrie-skin. Clad in the skintight armor, I could lift a large two-door coupe, and toss it over three lanes of traffic. And that was just relying on the Valkyrie-skin. Coupled with the Valkyrie Maiden, I could pick up a sixty-foot long inter-Island bus and toss it across a busy street.

I was using all that strength to keep Weinberg’s massive sword from crushing my body, and there was no doubt the Siren-skin was amplifying the woman’s strength almost as much as Sigrún was enhancing mine. Add to that the power afforded to us by our respective Artifacts, and I was certain we were delivering enough kinetic energy to crush flat a small office building.

In the three minutes since our engagement began, I was certain of two things.

One. Weinberg was no slouch. She had the moves and precision to execute them with little to no wasted effort. She was a master of her blade, and a master of her Siren Armor.

Two. Her Siren was equipped with a Canceller, just like Sigrún was. That meant she could nullify the forces that restricted change upon her body.

In other words, she could cancel out inertia.

I was going to have to give this my all.

In my overclocked state, my vision steadied, but it wasn’t the best.

However, it was time to get serious.

I concentrated past the pulsating headache, and narrowed the barrier-field around my blades. It was going to hurt a lot more to stop her sword, but I needed the extra speed it would afford me.

Besides, I was confident I had her measure now. Apart from the opening ‘salvos’, I’d avoided blocking all her strikes and smoothly parried them aside. I didn’t need to stop her attacks, I just needed to divert them.

Weinberg raised her blade over her left shoulder, parallel to the ground in a roverso.

It was going to hurt, but this time I needed to block it.

When she swung, I turned my body into the strike, both gauntlet blades up, and took the hit.

It felt as though my brain jarred inside my skull.

It would have knocked me aside several meters if I hadn’t used all eight Vector Wings to brace me against her strike.

Then I spun clockwise, and struck her exposed right flank with my right blade.

Had it been a piercer-field, it might have overwhelmed the barrier-field protecting her body and cut her in half. But in the interests of the sparring match, piercers weren’t allowed.

Nonetheless my blade struck with enough force to fold a traffic pole in two.

Weinberg cried out loudly, and flew several meters away from me. She didn’t crash to the ground, but her rhythm was broken as she staggered for a number of steps.

I kicked off the ground, and lashed at her with my gauntlet blades in rapid succession.

Now it was her turn to defend, and I made sure to press my advantage with every slash and stab that I delivered.

Because of their fixed nature, I couldn’t use my blades the way she could her sword, but that didn’t mean I was without options.

I could swing the blades back and forth, using them catch and deflect her sword early, while lunging at her as soon as she was left open.

I chose not to rely solely on my blades.

A kick with a pointy foot into her sternum, and it earned me a loud grunt from Weinberg, as it knocked her back a half dozen meters.

In truth, I was reacting on instinct – blocking, parrying, and striking back in second nature.

I wasn’t formulating a strategy because I didn’t have time to think of one. I moved from one practiced kata into the next. I reached deep into everything I’d learnt these past three years, and threw it all at Weinberg.

Yet I was barely keeping myself from blacking out.

The next six minutes were going to feel like an eternity.

I had to end it before then.

The rules of engagement allowed me that much. I just needed to get her to yield.

*Sigrún, I’m going to need a little extra help. Don’t get upset.

My Valkyrie expressed its displeasure courtesy of a thought pulse straight into my mind.

*I said, don’t get upset. I just need to force her down before the ten minute mark.

A second unhappy thought.

I grit my teeth as I used both blades to parry Weinberg’s sword. The woman had managed to turn a block into a counter. The impact jarred my skull despite the barrier-field dampening out and redirecting most of the kinetic energy. The Canceller protected me against the effects of rapid changes in direction, but not against the impact of weapon against weapon.

Weinberg pushed me back, then raised the sword high vertically overhead.

It left her exposed, but I was on my back foot and couldn’t charge in.

She swung the sword down and I had no choice but to block with both my blades in parallel, high over my head.

The impact brought me down to my knees.

The barrier-fields protecting my feet and legs cratered the cavern floor.

The air around me blew away as the shockwave raced over the ground like an expanding donut.

I grit my teeth against the effort required to hold back her sword, then used the power of the Vector Wings to push it aside, allowing me to duck out from under the blade.

I dodged her follow up by the merest of margins, but noticed Weinberg had lost a little of her steam with that last attack.

*We both know I won’t last more than a few minutes.

A third, less unhappy thought, tinged with concern.

I swallowed, and almost bit my tongue when Weinberg spun her body free of the Siren Armor, and landed a kick to the barrier-field wrapped around my midriff with her armored right foot. That was not expected, though I’d seen her employ the technique against the Familiars that intruded into the Academy.

In close proximity to her, neither of our Cancellers worked, so I couldn’t redirect the energy of her blows, and neither could she.

It made blows like those all the more painful.

Somehow I managed to stay on my feet, though in actuality I was floating a few inches off the cavern floor courtesy of the levitator-fields employed by Sigrún’s Vector Wings, and the mobility-fields wrapped around my legs.

If I had to keep score, and I wasn’t, I’d say Weinberg was up on points.

So I was probably going to lose on a points decision.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t aiming for a technical victory.

I wanted the knockout punch.

And inside me, the Regalia was going to give me the power for that knockout punch. It could only deliver it for a handful of seconds, but I was certain it was going to be enough to snatch victory from Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian.

Parrying a strike that would have cleaved an inter-Island maglev carriage in half, I again pushed her back, and fell into practiced moves.

Three years of combat training.

This was in between dancing, piano, and singing lessons.

This was between living a school life, and modeling on the side.

This was between putting up with men that thought every pretty little thing that walked through the doors of their studios was their ‘property’ for the day.

Two handed sword techniques was what I strove to master.

In other words, I was a double wielder.

But double wielding is like a dance.

It has forms you must adhere to.

The timing must be perfect.

You flow from one form to the next, and only practice will make it perfect.

Equal parts defense. Equal parts offense.

Even when tossing the offense aside in the need to fully defend, your block must not overlap.

No crossing of the blades. That will only work against you.

That’s something they only do in the holovid dramas to make a fight look ‘spectacular’.

It’s not the way the swords should be used.

I was a double wielder, yet Sigrún didn’t possess swords. She possessed the bladed gauntlets.

So for three years, I’d practiced to use those gauntlets like I would a pair of swords.

I learnt the techniques from not one, but two training masters.

They were techniques developed from the lessons learnt from past Valkyrie Meisters – from other women like myself who had unlocked their Artifacts and used them long before I was born.

It was all very scientifically done, and all calculated and devised to be an efficient form of fighting that suited Valkyrie Maidens like mine.

What I didn’t tell my training masters, was that Sigrún already knew those techniques.

That was because I had inherited the Valkyrie Maiden from someone else.

Someone who had used her during the War of Supremacy.

Someone who had already developed those combat techniques two centuries ago, not by Assisting Intelligence or simulation software, but by trial and error on the field of battle.

And she was someone who’d chosen to lock the Valkyrie down after the war, and seal Sigrún back in her sarcophagus until she was needed again.

Sigrún wouldn’t tell me who had possessed her before me, claiming that those memories were locked away deep in the Core. She did tell me that one day my memories of the Valkyrie – my experiences with Sigrún – would also be stored deep in the Artifact’s Core.

In a way, I would be preserved long after I died.

I didn’t like thinking that far.

I was seventeen years old, and looked forward to many more years ahead of me.

But right now, I was putting those three years of training to good use.

With the practiced fighting forms befitting the twin bladed gauntlets, I began pushing Weinberg back, and this time I left her no openings.

In so doing, I would show Caprice and Caelum just how strong I really was. When the Avenirs and that bastard Xavier Augustine reviewed this data, they would have to question their decision not to allow me to stop Celica Desanto before she entered the Vault chamber.

I parried a swing from Weinberg, then used my foot to kick down her enormous blade.

This gave me the opening I needed, and I aimed my free gauntlet blade at her left shoulder.

The tip of my blade shattered a narrow hole through the barrier-field Siren threw up to protect Weinberg.

It wasn’t enough to reach her, and I couldn’t risk drawing blood.

It was just a points bonus.

I could feel the barrier-field tightening up around the blade, so I slashed upwards with my left gauntlet, forcing Weinberg to reflexively dodge back, while simultaneously retreating my right blade a millisecond before I plunged it toward her.

She reacted automatically, twisting her body to avoid the stabbing thrust.

But that caused her to ditch her sword.

I didn’t know what else she had in Siren’s arsenal, but I wasn’t going to wait to find out at her leisure. With a single kick, I sent her sword spinning into the depths of the cavern, where it buried itself into the foot of a rock column that joined floor to ceiling.

The black mist surrounded Weinberg, and I sensed through Sigrún’s sensorium-field the partial emergence of the Siren’s sarcophagus.

Within heartbeats it had deployed a new weapon into Weinberg’s hands.

An extremely long curved sword that resembled an ancient okatana that glowed blood red in the young woman’s hands.

For a second I wondered if she’d broken the rules and allowed the weapon to emanate a piercer-field. However, Sigrún confirmed there was none, so I charged at her with the intent to bring her down within a minute.

Why a minute?

Well, because I didn’t think I’d be able to remain overclocked for a second longer.

In fact, I could feel my mind slipping in and out of the overclocked state.

Concentrating past the headache lighting up the inside of my skull was taking every ounce of willpower I had in my body.

I’d ingested Avenir blood the Symbiote would have healed the injury to my skull and the mush within. But that would have meant waiting for it to grow inside me, and then spread through my brain. It would have meant facing Weinberg as a boosted Familiar, and I didn’t want to defeat her that way, even though she had no qualms about ingesting Lorian blood into her body.

Yes, Weinberg had powered up.

I knew through a combination of Sigrún and the Regalia’s sensorium-fields that Weinberg was currently enhanced by the Symbiote inside her.

No doubt it came from our esteemed Academy principal.

Was Weinberg surprised I chose to face her without the aid of a Symbiote inside my body? Did she even know?

I wonder what expression she’ll make when I deliver the knockout punch.

I guess I’ll have to wait until she wakes up to see the look on her face.

A thought pulse from the Regalia, relayed unhappily by Sigrún, told me the final piece was in place.

Time to finish this.

And then I felt myself slipping out of accelerated time as my mind could no longer overclock.

Damn it, I’d been so close.

So very, damn close.

Chapter 8.


I tore my gaze away from the holovid screens, and spared Principal Mason a glance.

The woman’s eyes were locked on the match.

I thought I saw the nervous twitch of her jaw muscles the moment Nicola lost her sword.

Serenity was pressing her attack, and making the best of it despite Nicola gaining a replacement weapon from the Siren’s sarcophagus within a handful of seconds.

However, though the match swung in her favor, I sensed Serenity wasn’t making headway as quickly as she may have wanted. This was because her opponent was dancing back, avoiding Serenity’s blades, and generally making the girl work for every point she earned.

She was definitely gaining points, as determined by the Assisting Intelligence monitoring the match. She was quickly catching up to Nicola’s tally. If she kept it up, she was heading for a points win by the time the countdown reached zero.

Yet, as I glanced up at the clock, with three minutes left on the countdown, my gut told me that Serenity wasn’t going for a points win.

Even though this was my first time seeing her in a match, what I’d learnt of her this past week, led me to believe she was going in for the proverbial kill, and that she would do it soon.

The Siren darted back, floating over the ground with the grace of an ice-skater skating in reverse. It was as though its operator, its wielder, Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian, was using the kinetic energy imparted by Serenity’s strikes and thrusts to power her retreat.

I felt that was dangerous.

She could be leaving herself open to a grand hit from Serenity that could catch her unawares.

And Serenity was already hitting her very hard.

There was strain on Nicola’s face that wasn’t there before.

Yet Serenity’s face looked implacable, as though she wasn’t looking at her opponent but seeing through her.

Her expression gave me the impression that Serenity was seeing Nicola execute moves before they happened.

No, that wasn’t right.

Nicola was reacting to Serenity now. That meant Serenity was plotting her strikes ahead of time, and forcing Nicola to respond to the tune she was playing out with her gauntlet-blades.

I noticed I was clutching the balcony guardrail.

I forced my hand to relax, and spared Principal Mason another fleeting look.

Then I cleared my throat and asked her something that had been troubling me since before the match began.

“Principal…is it true what you told Ms. Weinberg about Serenity being sent to stop my sister, Celica?”

When she didn’t reply, I thought she may not have heard being as she was intent on the match playing out on the holovid screens.

Yet I only had to wait a little longer.

Mason raised her chin. “Artesan was deployed to intercept Celica Desanto, but she was never given the order to step in.”

“She was there?”

“That’s what I understand. As to why she was held back in reserve, I have no idea. Despite Crescent bringing their war to my Academy, the Primogens and Sanctum deemed me unworthy of an explanation.”

I looked at the Siren being chased by the Valkyrie. “Madam Principal, may I ask something else?”

“You’re wondering about Ms. Weinberg, aren’t you? You want to know where she was when Crimson Crescent invaded the Academy grounds.”

“Ah…yes, ma’am.”

“She was busy keeping Crimson Crescent’s people from tearing up the Academy.”

I faced her, and so did Caprice.

“What do you mean?” I asked in a low respectful tone.

“There were other Crimson Crescent operatives, besides those brought in by Celica Desanto. Nicola entered the underground tunnels and when they were coerced into one of our storage facilities, she drove them back in a three-on-one engagement.”

Caprice asked, “Were they captured?”

Mason shook her head gently. “No, they managed to flee in the confusion when Crimson Crescent’s starship invaded the habitat and threw the environmental controls into disarray.”

Caprice paused before asking, “So they are still on the run?”

Mason looked down at her. “I believe that to be the situation.”

I inhaled quickly. “Do you think they may come back here?”

Mason turned back to the holovid screens. “I don’t know.”

“And if they do?” Caprice questioned.

“Then we’ll decide whether or not to seek your support, and that of the Student Council.”

I swallowed and said, “You didn’t tell President Kell of your own efforts to protect the Academy.”

I thought I saw slight smirk on Mason’s lips.

“No, I did not.”

A warning from one of the operators seated below us, drifted up to the balcony.

“Madam Principal’s something’s happening?”

“Explain,” Mason commanded flatly.

“It’s—it’s the Valkyrie Maiden. Its speed has fallen.”

I studied the holovid images.

They were right. Serenity’s speed had fallen, and Weinberg was holding her off her attacks with ease.

The long okatana, a weapon that looked five feet long in Weinberg’s hands, flashed incessantly between striking and thrusting.

Serenity was at a standstill, and both girls were now on the ground, using it for purchase while the wings of their respective Artifacts began to glow with an intense blue-white light.

Again I found myself clutching at the railing.

Then I heard Caprice’s whisper. “…it’s my fault….”


“I hit her too hard. She banged her head. She’s definitely suffering from a concussion.”

My eyes widened, probably to the size of golf balls.

Mason regarded Caprice with a shocked visage. “What did you say? Steiner, what did you just say?”

Caprice bowed her head, and I saw her shoulders hunch.

“I swung her into the elevator wall. I was amped up because of my Guardian’s blood. Serenity wasn’t.” Caprice bit her lower lip hard. “She hit her head hard enough to dent the wall.”

“Gods damn it,” Mason snapped as harshly as I’d ever heard from the Academy’s Principal.

But I was also surprised by her reaction. Didn’t she know of the violent tussle between Serenity and Caprice? Did this mean she wasn’t peeping in on us in the elevator?

Mason’s gaze could have burned a whole through Caprice’s skull before she turned that burning gaze upon the holovid screens.

In a heartbeat, she made her decision.

“Stop the match! Stop the clock!”

Suddenly a loud cry was followed by roaring crash that filled the observation deck.

Out in the cavern, a cloud of pulverized rock was drifting away from a cavern wall.

I expected to see Nicola standing triumphantly.

Instead, I saw neither of the two women until the cloud dispersed and revealed the Siren on the ground, pinned down by the Valkyrie’s legs, while Serenity held a blade tip to Weinberg’s throat.

Serenity’s voice sounded loud in the observation deck.

“Do you yield?”

“How—how did you—?”

“Do you ‘yield’?” Serenity yelled.

For one heart stopping moment, I feared the blade would pierce the young woman’s throat.

Nicola didn’t nod, too afraid of being cut. “I…I yield….”

Serenity leapt back several meters. “Good…I thought you’d…never go…down….”

She turned, probably looking for one of the holocams.

But as she turned, she collapsed and the black mist surrounded her body as she lay on the ground. When it dissipated, Serenity was back in her school uniform, and the Valkyrie Maiden had returned to its sarcophagus.

It didn’t take Weinberg a moment to jump to her feet, and leap over to the unconscious girl.

A second went by before the young blonde woman looked straight at the holovid window. It felt as though she was looking straight at me.

“Get a medic. Now!”

Mason repeated the order, and one of the operators seated on the level below the balcony issue the request for medics, as well as for guards to escort them.

Then I heard Caprice’s soft groan. “She…she lost.”

I stared at her in confusion. “What are you talking about? Ms. Weinberg yielded in defeat.”

Caprice shook her head faintly. “No. The clock—the clock had already stopped.”

I looked up at the main holovid window which displayed the cavern map, the avatars of Serenity and Weinberg, and the match points.

I read the numbers three times to make sure I wasn’t wrong, though I wanted them to be.


My innards tightened as I acknowledge that Caprice had spoken the truth.

Principal Mason had stopped the clock a heartbeat before Serenity delivered the knock down blow that pinned Weinberg under her gauntlet-blade.

“Damn it,” I whispered, and my hands ached as I twisted them on the guardrail. “Damn it, she was so close. She was so close.”

In the corner of my left eye, I saw Caprice bow her head.

“It’s my fault,” she whispered softly.

“That’s enough,” Mason hissed sharply. “Save your regrets for your Guardian. With this turn of events, I have no choice but to contact her.”

Caprice nodded weakly. “Yes…ma’am….”

I chose not to say anything.

I chose to save my words for Arisa.



Such a strange evening.

To be called out by the Principal all of a sudden due to a medical emergency.

Yet what was more surprising was where the emergency led me to.

First, I was instructed to head to the infirmary located in the high-schoolers building. There I was met by Principal Mason’s aide, Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian. Hiding my surprise took a little effort, more so when she led me across to the administration building and to a specific elevator at the end of a long hallway. However, from that point on I suspected we were headed underground, and my suspicion proved correct.

After the incident with Crimson Crescent and Celica Desanto invading the Academy grounds, we learnt of the existence of a vast and complex network of tunnels, rooms, and chambers constructed under Galatea. The computer club and I had retained the data, while claiming otherwise, and together we’d identified something of a training facility under the Academy, containing a medical center.

Stepping with Weinberg out of the elevator, she led me down a wide corridor, and after a couple of turns into other corridors, we arrived a medical facility large enough to handle at least a dozen patients. To my layman’s eye, it looked to be outfitted with equipment one might expect in a hospital. I saw a number of medical capsules, as well as recovery beds with monitor rings.

Principal Lavinia Mason, and two medics were expecting us. They stood waiting beside a med-bed with an unconscious Serenity Artesan lying on it. From what I knew of reading the instruments, her vitals looked fine. However, one of the medics explained she had fallen into a coma due to a severe head injury that had gone unnoticed and untreated.

Mason asked me for a favor.

Serenity needed my blood – my Symbiote – to heal the damage to her skull and brain before her injury became life threatening with long-term complications.

I chose not to ask Lavinia Mason for an explanation, and not knowing whether I would receive one later, I nonetheless acquiesced to her request and gave Serenity Artesan afil Avenir my blood via a transfusion.

The Symbiote in my bloodstream grew quickly within her, as expected when it found itself inside a Familiar. The medics assured me that once the Symbiote began to heal the injury, Serenity would be out of danger, though the next couple of hours would be critical so they were keeping a close eye on her.

She would be kept at the facility’s med center at least until morning.

Mason had excused herself while the transfusion process was taking place. As such, Nicola Weinberg escorted me back to the elevator, then up to the Academy. Again, I was surprised when she asked me to follow her to the Principal’s office. Perhaps I would receive an overdue explanation as to why Serenity Artesan had suffered the head injury.

As Weinberg escorted me through the waiting area outside the Principal’s office, I noticed Mason’s secretary, Diana Templar Lorian, was still manning her art deco crescent shaped desk at this late of an hour. The young woman wasn’t quite on par with Nicola Weinberg, but then again I was a little biased. I did admire her dedication to her job.

Weinberg knocked on the doors to the office, then opened them and ushered me inside.

Lavinia Mason stood with her arms folded, regarding the scenery visible through the panoramic windows of her office that looked out upon the southern Academy grounds. From where she stood, she could see the east and west wings of the neighboring ‘H’ shaped buildings. She could also see the two full sized sports fields and the various club buildings adjoining them.

I approached her desk, but stood respectfully a few feet away from it.

Weinberg cleared her throat. “Madam Principal?”

Mason sighed noticeably, and I saw her shoulders drop just a little.

She was being rather unguarded with her mannerisms.

I wondered what she was playing at. Perhaps, lulling me into a false sense of complacency?

Mason turned and faced me, her back to the windows.

“Thank you for coming, President Kell.”

“I’m grateful to be of service, Madam Principal.”

“Your discretion is appreciated.”

“You mean, my keeping quiet regarding Serenity Artesan’s injuries?”

She sighed yet again. “Indeed.”

“May I ask how she came about to be injured?”

She sat down in her high-backed leather chair. It looked more expensive than mine adorning Student Council President’s office. However, I did feel that my desk was more opulent than hers, despite its toned down nature.

While standing before her desk, I listened to Mason recount the events that transpired following the culmination of afternoon homeroom. I would have liked to have seen the Arena personally, having only viewed it on a three dimensional schematic, but I was certain Principal Mason had other ideas regarding that.

Nonetheless, she had asked for my help and I’d given it, and in the process paid a visit to the underground training facility. So I was feeling a little privileged.

Lavinia Mason leaned back in her chair, making it creak a little, and regarded me silently for a short while.

“Nothing to say, Mr. President?” she asked wearily.

I glanced at Weinberg before addressing the Principal. “Honestly, I’m at a loss for what to say.”

“I shouldn’t be surprised. Or perhaps I should be.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

Mason stared up at a point above my head. “Then let me ask you this, what will you do now?”

Interesting question.

I regarded her while pondering my next move.

In the corner of my eye, I watched Ms. Weinberg shift ever so slightly on her feet.

Her expression was composed and calm, yet my instinct told me she was anxious.

I folded my hands behind my back. “Madam President, do you perceive the Student Council as a nuisance?”

Mason blinked. “And why would you think that?”

“Well, it’s clear now that you had resources at your disposal during the Crimson Crescent incident, yet you chose not to inform us. I know very well that’s your prerogative, but you were aware of the Student Council’s efforts to safeguard this Academy. We could have worked together.”

“Rather presumptuous, aren’t you.”

“Not all. I became president of the Student Council because I’ve always valued this Academy. My intention has been to safeguard the wellbeing of the student body, whether they be Aventis or Familiar. I don’t have ulterior motives regarding that.”

“You sound sincere, Mr. Kell. However, while your tenure as Student Council President ends this year, while my tenure as Principal of Galatea Academy will continue. I have to see beyond your time here at the Academy.”

“Indeed, which is why I’m looking for a suitable successor to my term in office.”

Mason arched an eyebrow. “Oh. I presume you’re considering Simone Alucard Raynar for the posting.”

“She is on the list, though not the only one under consideration.” I tipped my head slightly. “However, isn’t it a little too soon to be discussing my retirement from office?”

Mason folded her fingers under her chin. “You still haven’t answered my question. What will you do now?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it yet. I need time to consider what you’ve told me. However, I will keep your words in the strictest confidence. I have no intention of destabilizing the harmony of this Academy. And I most certainly don’t wish to put the Student Council at odds with your administration.”

“How very thoughtful.”

I inhaled slowly and stared levelly at her. “Madam Principal, I do believe I resent your tone.”

I watched Mason’s expression harden, but I kept my gaze on her straight and steady.

I wasn’t going to tolerate her subtle belittling of myself and my office.

Not anymore.

Mason returned my stare. “You’re an Avenir, and your family is close to the Augustines.”

“My aunt is an Augustine, however she married into the Kells.”

“Then I have a question for you, Severin Kell Avenir. Why was Serenity Artesan ordered to withdraw and not engage Celica Desanto?”

I cocked my head slightly. “What makes you think I know?”

“Obvious reasons. You involved yourself in the incident, and escaped without reprimand. What did you offer the Powers-that-be in exchange for your neck?”

“Unfortunately, the Powers-that-be have issued a decree that prevents me from answering that question.”

Mason snorted softly.

I chose to remain on an even keel, though I did soften my stare.

“Why is Serenity Artesan here?”

To my surprise, the question came from Weinberg.

Mason eyed her personal aide with a complicated look on her face.

In contrast, Nicola Weinberg regarded me with an earnest look. I had to admit, I’d always found her aquamarine eyes to remind of the calm sea of Island Five, Habitat One.

She truly was a stunning young woman.

If only I was older, I would have approached her with serious intentions.

I sighed inwardly, begrudging opportunities that were never there, and never to be.

Clearing my throat discretely, I replied, “Ms. Artesan is here to observe Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear on the orders of the Primogen Council.”

I glimpsed Mason nod faintly. “No surprise there.”

However, Weinberg looked uneasy. “Is that all? Just to observe?”

I hesitated before adding, “And to evaluate.”

The young blonde woman raised an eyebrow slightly. “Evaluate him as a person, as a Familiar, or as someone bonded to the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

So, she knew about Desanto’s Artifact.

Well, it’s not like we’ve been going out of our way to keep it a secret.

“All of the above.” I took a deep breath. “Without a doubt, the Primogens don’t trust him. His sister is near the top of the Most Wanted list. I’m surprised he wasn’t rubbed out sooner simply because he is her brother. However, since he’s affiliated with the Lanfears, and in possession of such a powerful Fragment, it’s quite possible that they intend to cultivate him.”

Lavinia Mason frowned. “What do you mean?”

“It’s likely they mean to use him against his sister.”

Mason started to chuckle in disbelief.

Yet Weinberg was taking my words seriously. A short while later, she turned away.

I must admit, I lost myself for a moment as I regarded the lovely profile of face.

A truly stunning young woman.

I turned my gaze upon Principal Mason.

“Madam Principal, from what I understand, Serenity Artesan is an extremely powerful Artifact Meister, and her Valkyrie Maiden is not to be taken lightly. To that end, I believe we should try making her ‘welcome’ here at Galatea. A bad evaluation from her, could spell disaster for Caelum Desanto—”

“That is not my concern,” she responded flatly.

I closed my mouth slowly.

Ah, how disappointing.

Mason pressed on. “My concern is the security of this Academy. I don’t wish for a repeat of the Crimson Crescent incident.”

“Might I point out that Caelum Desanto had nothing to do with that.”

Mason stood up rather smoothly, despite the form fitting nature of her business skirt suit. “Thank you for coming, President Kell. I trust what is discussed here, stays here.”

Again, how very disappointing.

I nodded politely. “I believe that’s wise, and I’ll adhere to that policy.”

“You have my gratitude.”

Oh, really now.

I bowed slightly. “As the President of the Student Council, it is my duty to support your administration however I can.”

“That’s most reassuring.”

I decided her comment didn’t warrant a verbal response.

Bowing politely again, I took my leave. “If you’ll excuse me, Madam Principal.” I also offered Weinberg a polite bow. “Ms. Weinberg.”

I glimpsed her slightly complicated reaction.

Hmm…how interesting.

I turned smoothly on my heels, and walked to the office’s door.

It opened before I arrived.

Once outside, I offered them another polite bow, as the door closed on my view of Mason and Weinberg.

What I wouldn’t give to place a listening device in that room.

Of course, it was doubtful such a device would last more than a few minutes without being detected.

I walked back to my office in the east wing of the high school building.

Once inside, I dimmed the lights and sat back in the high-backed leather chair behind the desk Prissila’s father had donated to the Student Council.

I couldn’t help tapping my fingers along the edge of the desk.

How surprising.

How asteroid shattering.

To think that Mason’s aide was a Familiar gifted with an Artifact, and a Siren Armor at that.

I didn’t think there were many around, and certainly not unlocked.

Mason hadn’t confirmed or denied the fact, but I had little doubt that Nicola Weinberg had been deployed during the Crimson Crescent incident.

So while the Student Council and I ran our intervention against Crescent, Principal Mason was running her own operation against them.

I leaned back in the chair, then pulled out my palm-slate from a trouser pocket.

Activating it, I ran through my list of contacts until I found the one I wanted.

I sent my aunt a salutation, and asked if I could meet with her over the weekend.

I chose not to tell my parents. Then again, it’s highly unlikely they would even care.

Folding my hands over my midriff, I closed my eyes, intending to mull over recent developments.

Unbeknownst to me, I fell asleep shortly afterwards, and dreamt of aquamarine eyes.



I turned away from the door, and swiveled in my chair to face Nicola.

“Alright, tell me what happened.”

She looked uncertain of how to respond. “Ma’am?”

I laced my fingers together on my lap. “How did you lose to her? How did Artesan defeat you?” I raised a hand quickly. “I’m not going to take the final points tally into account. The simple truth is that Serenity Artesan got the better of you. I want to know how that happened.”

For a long while, Nicola remained undecided. Then I saw a sense of confusion wash over her, and that included her body.

“I…I don’t know.” She shook her head very slowly. “For a few seconds I lost my link to Siren. I couldn’t move right, and the next thing I knew I was on the ground looking up at Artesan with a blade at my throat.”

I tried not to frown but failed. “You lost your link to your Artifact?”

Nicola didn’t respond. She looked to be having trouble dealing with the experience. Eventually she nodded faintly. “I have no other way of describing it….”

I watched her bite her lower lip in consternation.

Slowly her expression relaxed, but I felt it was deceiving.

“Ma’am, I’ve only experienced this once before.”

“Oh? When?”

“When I faced Celica Desanto.”

With my elbows on the armrests of my chair, I steepled my fingers as I regarded her. “Explain.”

She looked faintly pained at remembering the unpleasant encounter. “At that time, all my Siren sisters had fallen to her. I was able to wound her when—when Kara took the blade meant for me.” She clenched her hands. “Desanto was distracted, and I managed to land a strike that wounded her. But before I could deliver the killing blow, I lost my link to my Siren, and was knocked away. I was helpless for several seconds. She stabbed through my body, but left me alive.”

I lowered my hands to my thighs.

Nicola was trembling. To hide it she folded her arms tightly across her chest.

I gave her some solitude by turning away and looking out at the panoramic view of the Academy grounds.

I cleared my throat discretely. “So…Serenity Artesan is just Celica Desanto….”


I sighed and again laced my fingers over my lap. “Somehow, by some undisclosed and confidential means, Celica Desanto was able to forcibly interrupt the bond between Meister and Artifact. I know this because I read some of the reports from that incident. But they were heavily classified.”

Nicola’s voice was low. “She took down my sisters the same way she disabled me.”


“And the Sanctum…and Silia Alucard…they knew about this ability of hers.”

I glanced at her. “I don’t know. The reports were compiled as after-action reports. It’s possible they didn’t know.”

“But if they did—”

“Then they sent you and your sisters out to die.”

Perhaps I was too blunt, but I believed she needed to hear it.

Nicola shuddered and looked faint. She started to pace slowly in my office, her arms folded below her modest breasts.

I swallowed and spoke firmly to her.

“On the other hand, if at that time they didn’t know about Celica Desanto’s ability, then they’ve certainly learnt their lesson.”

She stopped pacing and looked at me, understanding dawning on her pretty face.

Nicola’s voice was barely above a whisper. “If Artesan is like Desanto, and she can interfere with a link—”

“—then she’s the only one that can face Celica Desanto. She’s the only one that can resist Desanto’s ability.” I leaned back and pondered another possibility. “However, perhaps there is one other who can do the same.”

“Ma’am? Whom?”

“The Kaiser’s Blessing.” I paused before adding, “It’s conceivable our esteemed Student Council President knows more than he’s willing to reveal.”

“I’m not following you, ma’am.”

I inhaled deeply and sighed loudly. “Perhaps Severin Kell sent Caelum Desanto to face his sister, because he knew or suspected the Kaiser’s Blessing could resist her ability to interrupt the bond to an Artifact or Fragment.”

I swiveled in my chair and looked outside once more.

“It’s just a thought…nothing more…yet perchance we should follow up on it. We should learn what he knows.”

“…how should we do that…?”

Still in my chair, I half swiveled around to face her.

“Nicola, you’re an attractive young lady. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”

I watched her frown, and then blanch as she regarded me with disbelief.

She pointed at herself. “Me?”

I couldn’t help smiling at her, but I was interrupted by a chime sounding from my desk.

“Ah…Madam Principle.”

“Yes, Diana?”

“She’s here, Madam Principal. And her ‘wards’ are here as well.”

My smile doubled. “Very good. Very good. Diana, please do as we discussed. Oh, and do send her in.”

I looked up at Nicola. “I’m going to enjoy this.”

She looked confounded. “Ma’am?”

“My favorite pupil has returned.”



I missed training that evening.

So did Caprice.

Instead, we had to endure a harsh lecture from Arisa who’d driven down to the Academy after her lectures ended at Arcala University in Island Three, Habitat One.

She wasn’t happy to negotiate with evening traffic.

She certainly wasn’t happy after her meeting with Lavinia Mason.

Caprice and I had to wait outside the Principal’s office while Mason gave Arisa the third degree as though she was a student at Galatea Academy.

Mason’s secretary, Ms. Templar, had enabled the speakerphone, but turned the volume down a little, so we could hear what was happening inside. I had no doubt she had done so at Mason’s behest. I didn’t know why Mason wanted us to hear what happened inside, but it didn’t make for a good experience.

Templar smirked every so often as Mason proverbially steamrolled over Arisa, back and forth a number of times.

When Arisa eventually emerged, it wasn’t just her hair that was fiery red.

Her face was flushed and she looked ready to chew and spit out brimstone.

She grabbed Caprice by the upper arm and pulled her out of the office with only the strength an Aventis could demonstrate.

We had to drop by our shoe lockers to collect our outdoor shoes. Arisa waited testily while tapping a foot impatiently.

From there, I followed behind them to the east car park, walking behind Arisa and Caprice, listening to Arisa complain in low, simmering tones.

“Treating me like one of her ‘students’. Who does she think she is? That old witch hasn’t changed since the time I ‘was’ a student here.”

Caprice almost stumbled as Arisa abruptly dragged her along harshly.

However, she didn’t complain, and simply hefted the straps of her carry-bag a little higher on her right shoulder. She probably knew what kind of trouble she was in, and speaking up would only make it worse.

Arisa trembled violently in anger and shot Caprice a burning look. “As for you, I can’t believe you did that. Seriously. What were you thinking? Were you even thinking?”

Caprice hung her head slightly but offered no reply.

Arisa was acting like an older sister, chastising her younger sibling.

“You injured a member of the Avenir Pride. She may be a Familiar, but she was sent here by the Primogen Council. Even I know that.”

Arisa clenched her hands.

“I should have spoken to you earlier. I should have laid down the rules.”

She tossed her hands into the air.

“But what did I do? Nothing. Why? Because I trusted you and let you take advantage of my better judgment.”

Arisa palmed her forehead.

“By the gods, what was I thinking?”

“I’m sorry,” Caprice muttered. “I lost control.”

The fiery redhead glared at her. “Lost control? That’s an understatement.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Sorry isn’t going to cut it. I have no idea what I’m going to say to the Avenirs should they come knocking on my door.”

“I’ll write a letter of apology.”

“They may want more than that.” Arisa tossed her long red hair aside. “I’m going to have you examined by Miriya.”

Hearing that, Caprice missed a step. “What?”

“Maybe I can blame it on a medical condition.”

Caprice was looking aghast, in her own subdued way. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

Arisa ignored her. “I knew there were going to be consequences. Miriya assured me it was safe, barring the odd behavioral anomaly, but this is taking it too far. Talk about hormonal.”

I frowned a little, wondering what Arisa was talking about.

I knew who Miriya was, but what did she have to do with Caprice’s behavior.

Arisa growled, “I’m taking you in for a full checkup. Time to figure out what’s gotten into you. And we’re doing it right now.”


“Yes, now. And if Miriya so much as suggests that it’s because of the procedure, I’m going to have it stopped.”

We were almost at Arisa’s car, a crimson colored sports coupe. The car was low slung, and quite muscular in appearance. Though it had wheels, I suspected it was capable of making vacuum runs between the asteroid Islands.

Caprice suddenly stopped so fast her feet skidded. “No, you can’t.”

Arisa gave her a surprised look. “What was that?”

“You can’t stop it.”

Arisa’s slender eyebrows rose a little. “Oh? And why not?”

Caprice pressed down upon her chest. “This is important to me. And it’s working. And I don’t want to stop.”

Arisa’s eyebrows rose a little more. “Considering what you just did, are you really questioning me?”

“This is ‘important’ to me,” Caprice whined.

She was starting to sound like an emotional teenage girl, which is what she was – a teenage girl – but it took both Arisa and myself by surprise.

Caprice stepped back away from Arisa. “You don’t know what this means to me. You just don’t get it because you have it and I don’t.”

Arisa’s eyebrows lowered. “Caprice, you’re wrong. And you’re wrong thinking that this will change you for the better.”

“Let me decide that. Let me have what you have, and I’ll decide if I’m better for it.”

For a long moment, Arisa’s lips pursed into a thin line. “Caprice, I won’t allow this to continue if it’s going to change you in a negative way. You’re already behaving differently, and I’m sure others have noticed.”

I looked at Caprice who was clenching her jaw repeatedly.

She looked ready to burst into tears. “You’re not taking this away from me. I won’t let you.”

Arisa inhaled sharply, and took a step toward the girl. “Caprice—”

“I’m not going with you.”

Arisa stopped in mid-step.

Caprice spoke coldly yet her expression radiated anger and desperation.

She shook her head furtively. “If Miriya listens to you, she’ll stop it because you’ll tell her to. She has no choice. But I don’t want to stop. This is something I’ve wanted for so long, and now I can finally have it.”

Arisa’s expression had been firm, but now I noticed it lose its edge.

She approached Caprice who began retreating away from her.

Arisa frowned subtly. “Caprice, stop this. This isn’t like you. Look, all I want to do is have Miriya ensure that the process is safe. I don’t want you suffering complications.”

“You’ll have her stop it.”

“If it’s dangerous to you…yes.”

Caprice started to tremble, then I saw tears run down her cheeks.

I didn’t know what was going on, but seeing her in tears twisted my heart painfully.

I dropped my carry-bag and started walking toward her.

But she retreated away from me too.

“Stay away.”

I held my arms up in a disarming fashion. “Caprice, what’s wrong? Please, tell me. I can’t stand seeing you like this.”

“You and Serenity. That’s what’s wrong.”

I frowned a little. “What?”

“Don’t deny it. I saw the way you put that ring on her finger. I ‘saw’ the way you looked at her, and the way ‘she’ looked at you.”

Caprice made a gagging gesture.

“It made me sick. It made me so sick!”

I lowered my arms. “All I did was return her ring. That’s all.”

“That’s all? You think I’m stupid? You think I didn’t see the way you looked in each other’s eyes. You think I didn’t notice how she blushed, or how she trembled when you held her hand. Gods—how can you be so oblivious! How can you not see what I saw?”

Caprice dropped her carry-bag.

“I hate it. I hate the way you stand up for her.”

I shook my head. “Th—that’s not true. Caprice, you’re imagining things. I don’t feel anything for her. How can you possibly think that?”

“I’m so tired of this. I’m so tired of the hurt in here.”

She touched her left breast.

“It hurts and it doesn’t go away. And you make it worse whenever you’re with her.”

I swallowed hard, as her tears continued to fall.

I wasn’t stupid.

I knew what she was implying.

And deep in my chest, it was making my heart twist even more.


“I don’t want to hear it,” she snapped, and covered her ears. “I don’t want to hear your voice.”

I took a breath and steeled myself to walk toward her.

However, Arisa chose not to delay.

She stalked up to Caprice so quickly I thought she might have run.

Then she slapped the girl forcefully, sending Caprice down to one knee.

Almost immediately, Arisa dropped down to both knees and wrapped Caprice in a tight embrace.

I didn’t know what to expect, but the sight of Caprice suddenly shrieking out and trying to break free wasn’t at the top of my list.

Arisa held onto her so tightly her arms might as well have been made of steel.

Despite her strength as an Aventis, I saw her face contort in agony at the strain of holding onto Caprice who continued to wail and flail against Arisa. Yet not for a moment did Arisa relent her grip on the girl, even when I thought Caprice would forcefully tear herself free.

This went on for a minute, until Caprice began to lose strength, or simply the will to resist.

Little by little, her arms beat less forcefully against Arisa.

After another minute, she hung limply within Arisa’s embrace.

I swallowed hard, at a loss to understand what I was seeing.

This wasn’t the girl I knew as Caprice Steiner.

Or maybe it was, and she’d been hiding herself from me these past eight months.

I did know that seeing her like this was tearing me up inside.

I glanced around.

There were still students around, mainly those leaving their clubs.

Out in the sporting fields the Track-and-Field club was continuing their training, though I noticed a number of distant onlookers had turned our way, after all, Caprice had been crying pretty loudly.

A group of girls walking toward the west gate slowed down to watch Arisa hugging Caprice.

One of the girls walked toward me.

“Is everything okay?” she asked.

I didn’t know how to reply, so I gave her simple bow. “Yes. I believe so.”

Arisa spoke up, turning her head slightly. “We’re fine. We’re both fine. Please, go on your way.”

She continued rocking Caprice who was sobbing quietly in her arms.

I took a couple of deep breaths, and said to the girl, “It’s complicated. I’m sorry, but, please respect her.”

The girl was staring at Caprice, and I recognized she was a second year high-schooler.

She gave me an inquisitive look. “Sure. If you say so.”

I bowed to her again, politely. “Thank you.”

The girl lingered for a little while, then walked away to rejoin her waiting friends.

I breathed a sigh in relief. I felt like we’d dodged a bullet.

Arisa spoke to Caprice. “Here, wipe those tears.”

I watched Caprice take the white handkerchief Arisa offered her.

Her sobs had eased, and she looked a lot calmer.

She also looked tired.

I heard her voice, weak and frail, as she whispered to Arisa. “Please…give me…another chance….”

Arisa looked up at the evening sky already almost black as night as the mimetic field switched over to the night cycle. “Very well. We’ll discuss it with Miriya.”

Caprice hugged her back, and it was easy to think of them as sisters going through a disagreement.

But I couldn’t forget her words to me.

And I found it hard to admit that she wasn’t completely wrong.

And deep down…I hated myself for it.

I picked up my carry-bag and slung the straps over my right shoulder.

“Arisa, I’m sorry. I need to go.”

I turned away and began walking the long distance to the high-school boys dormitory.

I glanced back only once, in time to see Arisa help Caprice to her feet.

I knew I was running away, but I also knew that for now Caprice wouldn’t want me around.

Chapter 9.


I returned to my room in the boys’ dormitory for high-schoolers.

Dropping my bag beside the smart-desk, I took off my jacket, tie, and shoes, then lay down on the broad single bed.

I guess I can describe feeling empty.

Somewhere along the way to the dorm building, all my emotions had bled away, and I now felt empty.

At the same time, Caprice’s words rolled around the inside of my mind, making it difficult to keep my own thoughts.

I looked down away from the ceiling and toward the foot of my bed.

My gaze fell on the closed door, and the large, nearly life-sized poster of the Princess attached to it.

I hadn’t seen or spoken to her in a long time.

Apparently her family had decided she needed some home study, so they’d hired a platoon of tutors and teachers to keep her busy twenty-four seven. As her grades weren’t stellar either, so when considered with her reading habits – and gaming habits – the Ventiss Family had drawn a deep trench in the sand, and now Prissila was indeed a Princess caged in her own palace.

I knew this from the Countess who spoke to me of Prissila’s tribulations while she and I were still ‘talking’ to each other. The Countess had revealed that Prissila was scheduled to return in school week eight. She learnt this in her capacity as School Council Vice-President.

I sat up on the bed, and studied the poster.

On a whim, I pulled out my palm-slate, and recalled the number for the Princess’s slate.

Rather than call her, I decided to test the waters of the moat surrounding the Princess by sending her a message.

A text message.

I asked her if she was well, and hoping to hear from her.

After sending the message I lay back down.

My palm-slate chimed.

That was quick.

I read the reply.


I stared at the message for a while.

Something felt odd about that reply.

A new message arrived.


A tingling feeling running down my back made me wonder as to who was on the other end of the line.

I swallowed, then typed back.


I waited for a reply.

Nothing was forthcoming for a long minute, and I was starting to break into a sweat.

The slate chimed and vibrated gently.



I almost dropped the palm-slate as though it had suddenly burned my hands.

Of course, that was all in my head.

I stood up and paced in a tight circle, wondering how best to reply.

I decided it was best to play along.


I didn’t like the way it ended but I sent it before I could change my mind.

Then I paced for a little longer.

The palm-slate trembled in my hand.


I read the message twice before panic boiled up inside me.

Dress appropriately? The Ventiss Family Palace?

After pacing for ten odd seconds back and forth down the middle of my room, I finally worked up the courage to reply.


Was that the right thing to say?

I fervently hoped it was.

Another message arrived.


I felt some of the panic boil away as steam coming out of my ears.

Aggh…I had survived.

Even though it was a brief conversation by text message, I felt as though I’d experienced an audience with a monarch seated upon her throne.

I sagged onto my bed, the palm-slate limp in my hands.

A loud knocking on my room’s door sent my heart vaulting into my throat.


There was silence before someone on the opposite side of the door asked tersely, “Desanto—do you have a girl in there?”

I swallowed hastily realizing he’d confused my scream for that of a—a girl’s!

Pocketing the palm-slate, I walked up to the door and opened it.

The dorm manager stood on the other side.

Man, that dude was big.

Standing before me in the hallway, I couldn’t see the top of his head, though I did glimpse his eyebrows.

I shook my head.

“Dorm Master, no—no girl’s in here.”

“Watching ‘something’ were we?”

I took a calming breath. “No sir.”

“Oh…how disappointing.”

I tried not to let my confused feelings leak out onto my face. “What can I do for you?”

He regarded me with deep set eyes. “You know that’s what’s so odd about you.”

“Excuse me?”

“You see, there you go again. Most guys would just say, What, or What’s up. But not you. You’re always formal. Just doesn’t go with your reputation.”

I blinked slowly. “My reputation, sir?”

“Yes, your reputation, as Pervert Desanto.”

I frowned slightly up at him.

“I assure you, Dorm Master, I fully intend to uphold my reputation.”


“For example, observe.”

I stepped back, indicating he should enter, then closed the door once he’d lumbered inside.

Waving at the poster of Prissila in her swimsuit, I said, “I present to you the limited edition release of the Princess in all her racing glory. Only fifty of these were printed, and mine came with a certificate of authentication listing it as number one.”

He nodded. “Ah, a first edition.”

“I also have the calendars with the Princess on the cover and back. Another limited release. Only fifty sold in all Pharos.”

“Hmm, well done.”

I folded my arms. “I’m fortunate to know people in the right places.”

“Yes, indeed.” He tapped his chin. “Desanto, are you aware of the dorm rules and regulations?”

I glanced away for a moment. “Y—yes, sir.”

“Are you aware that this is considered contraband material?”

I blanched. “Are you going to confiscate it?”

“I haven’t decided.” He continued tapping his chin. “Maybe I’ll let it slide this once.”

I felt my heart beating painfully within my ribcage.

I felt like an idiot.

The Dorm Master cocked his massive head.

“You should get it autographed. It would be worth more.”

I blinked. “Autographed, sir?”


“Ah…yes…I’ll definitely try.”

He clapped me on the shoulder, and I thought my collarbone would break. “Relax Desanto. Let’s just consider this a stay of execution.”

I regarded him for a long moment.

Then I turned and stared at the poster for an equally long period of time.

I came to a decision.

It was somewhat spur of the moment, but I believed it would spare me from future troubles.

I stepped up to the door, and then carefully removed the poster.

Rolling it up with great care, I handed it over to the Dorm Master.

He had a blatantly puzzled look on his face. “What are you doing?”

“Consider this a token of my good will.”

He blinked slowly. “Desanto, are you aware of the rules and regulations of this dormitory?”

I cleared my throat of the emotional lump in my throat, and offered him the poster again.

“I won’t tell if you won’t.”

The Dorm Master regarded me, and the rolled up poster for a long moment.

He took it from my hands.

“Very well. We’ll consider this as never happening.”

I wanted to punch the man in his beefy gut. “Thank you, Dorm Master.”

He gave me an odd look, then his eyes widened. “Oh yes, I almost forgot why I came up here. You have a visitor.”

“I do?”

“Yes, Countess Alucard.”

I felt my stomach roll into a ball and tuck itself low in my innards.

He must have noticed my pained expression, because he gave me a curious look tinged with suspicion. “It there a problem?”

“No…no problem at all, Dorm Master.”

“Hmm, well don’t keep her waiting. She’s downstairs in the lobby.”

I nodded shallowly. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

He continued staring at me with suspicious confusion, even as he walked out of my room.

I closed the door behind me, quickly changed into a casual clothes, and a pair of comfortable, indoor shoes, then hurried downstairs.

I remembered to lock my door, and take my palm-slate with me.

I was feeling empty again, bereft of my prized poster.

What kind of an idiot was I to invite the Dorm Master into my room?

The urge to gush tears began to grow by the moment.

Luckily I arrived at the lobby before I could lose my grip on my tears.

The Countess was indeed there, sitting demurely while dressed in casual attire that consisted of black slacks, black high-heeled Jimmy Chan’s with an open toe and lace ankle straps, and a form fitting white blouse that shimmered like silk in moonlight.

Her silver hair was pinned back in a long braid that fell over her right shoulder and breast.

Dear gods, she looked beautiful.

And yet, I couldn’t help feeling betrayed as I walked up to her.

She stood up from the lobby sofa, and smiled weakly at me.

There was none of her usual confidence in her demeanor.

I cleared my throat, and cautiously tested my voice. “Countess?”

Her smile wavered, then grew a little stronger. “Hello Caelum.”

I indicated the sofa. “Won’t you sit?”

Her eyes flickered, and I thought I saw some…heartache in them?

“Actually, I only came to deliver a message.”

I searched my memory and came up with a suitable recollection.

“You’re here because of dinner tomorrow night.”

She nodded. “I am.”

I discretely slipped my hands into my trouser pockets. “Countess, I don’t think that would be a good idea.”

“I agree.”

That surprised me, and I wasn’t able to hide it. “What do you mean?”

“Caelum, let’s be honest. We’re not exactly where we were two weeks ago.”

“No, I guess we’re not.”

“And it’s my fault.” She tapped her chest. “And I don’t know how to fix that.”

I mulled over a possibility. “You could apologize to Caprice….”

“How? What kind of apology can I make that she will accept as heartfelt?”

I paused before replying, “I think you’d be surprised.”

She dipped her head a fraction. “Oh?”

I sighed heavily. “Although, right now is not a good time.”

She looked faintly confused and faintly alarmed. “What do you mean?”

I shrugged a shoulder very slightly. “Let’s just say, Caprice is having some issues. I don’t know what they are, but she’s having some issues, and I don’t think she’s ready to hear an apology from you.” I sighed again. “I don’t think she’s ready to hear an apology from anyone.”

The Countess’s confusion and alarm deepened. “Has something happened to her?”

I rubbed my hair. “A lot’s happened this week, but I don’t have an answer to that.”

“Is she hurt?”

“No, but I don’t believe it’s right for me to talk about her.”

The Countess’s eyes widened slightly and she drew back a little. “You’re right. I’m sorry. She’s your friend and I shouldn’t be prying.”

“Simone, she’s my friend and I care about her, but there are times she surprises me.” I went back to putting my hands in my pockets. “But I’d rather not discuss my relationship with her. It doesn’t feel fair to her. I just wanted to tell you that apologizing now isn’t a good idea.”

After a little while, she nodded slowly. “I see.”

“Back to the subject at hand.”

“Yes, tomorrow night’s dinner.”

“Not a good idea.”

“And I agree, and so does my sister.”

I tried not to frown. “Does she know about our…differences?”

“She knows we’re not on good terms, and she holds me responsible for that.”

I regarded her quietly for a short while.

If I took Caprice’s recent breakdown into account, perhaps the Countess wasn’t entirely at fault for what happened between her and Caprice in the Student Council President’s office. I was starting to suspect that Caprice had deliberately antagonized the Countess. She had played on Simone’s prejudices, and the Countess had fallen for her taunt because that’s what Caprice wanted.

If that was true, then I had a horrid suspicion parade through my mind.

Caprice was taking out her competition, and she had started with Simone, and moved onto Serenity.

Could it be that all this time I’d never noticed how devious and subversive she could be?

I’d told her not to act like a jealous girlfriend.

Had I thrown flammable liquid onto the burning fire, and made it worse?


I was startled out of my uneasy musings by the Countess, and noticed the worry on her face.

“Caelum, what’s wrong?”

I hesitated before shaking my head firmly. “Nothing, nothing at all.”

She started stepping closer, but then stepped back. “I’m sorry.”

I took a really deep breath, and let it out loudly. It wasn’t polite, but I felt like I needed to expel the bad feelings inside me. “Countess, is there anything else?”

She looked mildly startled, but recovered quickly. “Yes, there is. Our dinner engagement may have been cancelled, or postponed, but there is an event being held by the Primogens of Pharos next Saturday, and I’m expected to attend.”

“What event?” I blinked inwardly. “Next Saturday? Isn’t that the day before the Remembrance Day Service.”

I had attended four of those services to remember the dead and wounded as a result of the super-freighter explosion. But since Celica had disappeared, I didn’t feel like attending them anymore.

The Countess nodded gently. “Yes it is. The Avenir Pride had invited representatives all of the other Prides to attend. It’s going to be a big, lavish soiree.”

“How decadent.”

She bit her lower lip. “I knew you’d say that.”

“So…what’s the occasion?”

“No idea.”

I pressed my lips together for a moment. “And you’ll be attending.”


“Will you be jumping out of a big cake?”

The Countess narrowed her eyes, then grinned. “Ara ara, interested are we?”

“I might be.”

She pulled out an envelope from a back pocket. “Well, I have an invitation here with me.”

“Is that so….”

“And I get to bring a date.”

“I’m sure you’ll have many suitors falling over their feet for that honor.”

“Will you be my date?”

Again, I pressed my lips together. “You jest.”

She rocked from side to side like some snake charmer. “Ara ara, you don’t believe me?”

I felt my eyes drawn downward to her waist as her hourglass hips moved hypnotically.

“Caelum? Will you be my date?”

She swayed from side to side, adding a little extra to her rocking hips.

I squeezed my eyes shut, then opened them to look at her face.

“On one condition.”

She was surprised by my bluntness.

I was surprised too, but I was trying to keep my attention on her face, and not her mesmerizing body. Damn, it was far too easy to fall under her spell. A week away from each other, and once again she had me close to eating out of her palm.

I really needed to exercise self-control, though when dealing with the Countess, it required a herculean effort not to be charmed by her again. It helped to have other pressing matters at hand to distract me from falling into her clutches.

The Countess stopped moving. “What condition?”

“I need your help.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Oh?”

I nodded. “The Princess’s mother, the Queen, has instructed me to attend lunch tomorrow at their palace.”

The Countess stopped moving, and that included breathing. “Did she now…?”

“And I need your help.”

“With what, pray tell.”

“Clothes. How should I dress? And table manners. Which fork and knife do I use?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

“Because I wish to make a good impression.”

Now she dipped her head and peered at me through thin slits. “Is that so…?”

“Yes. Will you help me?”

“You jest.”

“Sincerely, I do not.” I watched her lips draw back in a feral snarl. “Countess?”

She was breathing low and shallow while regarding me like an angry wolf.

She waved the invitation before me. “If I help you, you will agree to be the perfect date.”

“Perfect in what way?”

“In ‘every’ way.”

I frowned just noticeably. “Could you…elaborate?”

She took a long step toward me, halving the distance between us to a foot.

“You will be attentive. You will have eyes only for me. You will not fraternize with any other ‘woman’ at the party. You will praise me. You will compliment me. You will lick my feet if I so command it.”

“Do you want a date, or a pet dog?”

“Both. You’re my dog. You will bark for me, and wag your tail for me.”

“Heh?” I raised my hands between us, frightfully aware of the proximity of her prominent breasts. “Wait a minute. Why are you so angry?”

“All is ‘not’ fair in love and war.”

I lowered my hands and grimaced faintly. “Are we back to that again?”

The Countess planted her hands on hips and gave me a stern look. “Caelum, how much clearer do I have to make this?”

“…make what…?”

“Prissila and I are rivals. Do you get it now?”

I swallowed nervously. I could feel the warmth from her body radiating toward me. However, I didn’t dare taking a step back.

“Rivals…for what?”

“Not what? Who.”

Drawing my head back a little, I anxiously asked, “Rivals for whom?”

“You! How ‘oblivious’ can you be?”

I felt my expression fall. “Huh….”

The Countess looked frustrated. “Seriously, how much clearer do we have to make things?”

“But—but why me? What have I got to offer?”

“Lots of things. Stop selling yourself short.”

I blinked sharply and my eyes widened as a memory planted itself between me and the Countess.

Haruka had said the same thing to me back at the mall.

Could it…really be true?

I closed my mouth as casually as I could, took a quick breath that was full of the Countess’s sweet perfumed scent, and asked guardedly, “Is this how you torment me? By dangling me on a string that could break at any moment.”

The Countess inhaled like a bellows.

She slapped the invitation envelope against my chest.

“You will sign your name on the dotted line, and return that to me in the morning. Am I making myself perfectly clear?”

“Crystal clear.”

“Good. Now take it.”

I did as instructed, and she folded her arms.

“Caelum, what time are you expected at the Ventiss Family estate?”

“Midday. I was told not to be late.”

She sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Then we’d better get started.”



I stiffened. “You mean right now?”

She pointed to the lobby’s exit into the dormitory building. “Go back to your room. Wash up, clean up, and dress up. We’re going out, and I’ll wait twenty minutes. One minute late, and the deal is off.”

I looked at the envelope in my hands.

I turned and ran back to my room.

It wasn’t until later while I was showering that I remembered seeing a number of seething male faces staring at me as I ran by. However, I didn’t have time to ponder the repercussions of the Countess’s declaration in the lobby.

I dressed in record time, even for a guy, and managed to avoid spilling cologne on me in my haste to run back down to the lobby.

Simone Alucard counted down the seconds on her wristwatch while I panted slightly after dashing through the lobby at a sprint.

She gave me a curt nod. “Safe…by five seconds.”

Dear gods this woman was harsh.

I looked at her warily. “So, where are we going?”

The Countess was running her gaze up and down my body. “To a restaurant….”

“Huh? Why?”

“Firstly, because I’m hungry. And secondly, because it’s the best place to familiarize you with the proper utensil usage.” She nodded in satisfaction. “Yes, that does look good on you. I’m glad I chose that ensemble.”

I felt myself blush, then felt the piercing, needle sharp glares of every male student that happened to be within earshot of the Countess and I.

I peeked at them from the corner of my eye.

The lobby seemed a great deal more occupied than it was a few minutes ago.

At least a dozen high-schoolers lounged about on the couches. However, none of them approached the Countess, and a void some fifteen feet in radius surrounded her and I.

They might not have approached her, but that didn’t stop them from eyeing her furtively.

Nor did it stop them from glaring daggers at me.

Feeling a rising sense of desperation, I grabbed onto Simone’s arm, and escorted her out of the lobby a little more urgently than I would have wanted.

I didn’t even ask where we were going. I just knew I had to get her and myself out of there.

It felt like a heat wave dogged my every step.

Maybe it was better describe it as walking through the valley of a thousand arrows.

Somehow we emerged out of the dormitory building unscathed.

The Countess was staring at me with a sly smile. “I thought you would certainly break.”

I took a couple of breaths to steady myself. “Your lack of faith in me is ‘not’ helping.”

“Ara ara, feeling the pressure are we?”

“Like I said, you’re not helping.”

Before I could stop her, she’d looped her right arm through my left, and now walked snugly at my side.

I feared that if I looked over my shoulder, I would see a terrible sight awaiting me upon my return to the dormitory. Not even the heavenly sensation of Simone’s firm and ample bosom against my arm was enough to fully distract me from my fears.

But the farther away from the dormitory we walked, the calmer I grew.


The less I thought about retribution of some kind at the hands of my dorm mates.

The more I thought of Simone’s heavily breasts pressed against my arm.

I quickly realized how impossible it was be calm when walking with Simone hanging onto me.



“Do we—do you really need to do that?”

“Do what?”

“Make a scene all the time.”

I wasn’t looking at her directly, but I did glimpse her in the corner of my left eye.

I could feel the heat from the quiet thoughtful look she was giving me.

Her voice was soft, and damn tender, to the point my chest ached upon hearing her.

“I can’t help it…it’s just the way…you make me feel.”

I didn’t know how to respond to that—at least verbally.

But my heart did, and it began to hammer painfully against my ribcage.

Eventually I managed to cobble together a meagre reply.

“You’re not being fair.”

I felt her stiffen slightly.

“You’re not being fair, Simone.”

I thought she might draw away, but she didn’t.

Instead, she shifted her arm and to my surprise her hand sought mine.

I could have made an effort to resist her fingers. I could have tried harder to draw the line.

But the moment her fingers touched mine, I turned to butter, and there was nothing I could do to stop her from slipping them through mine.

This wasn’t the first time we’d held hands.

On her frequent shopping expeditions I found myself holding her hand on numerous occasions, especially when I sensed the unhealthy attention of other young human males on her, and needed to make it clear she was off limits.

However, this time it felt different.

It felt more personal on a level I hadn’t experienced with her before.

I cleared my throat and said, “I thought we were going to give each other some space.”

“I gave you space. I gave you a whole week.”

“Countess, that’s not what I mean.”

Simone’s fingers tightened around mine. “Well, it was the worst week I’ve had in years….”

I didn’t want to look at her, as I didn’t want to learn what expression she was making. I didn’t think my pounding heart could handle it.

I had to change the subject, and did so in a hurry.

“Where are we going?” I asked, sounding more nervous than I intended.

“The car’s waiting for us at the east parking lot.”

In surprise I glanced at her. “The east parking lot? That’s—that’s quite far away.”

“Yes, it is. I want to enjoy the walk with you.”

I felt my response die in my throat as my heart again jumped into it and fell back down into my chest.

The east parking lot was a good seven to eight hundred meter walk on the path behind the dormitories. As expected, we did encounter a few students who remained on the Academy grounds after club practice. A number of those were girls that executed comic style double takes at the sight of the Countess on my arm.

I started to pull away from her, but Simone’s fingers tightened around mine, and I could sense her displeasure.

“Ara ara,” she whispered, “I won’t let you….”

I chose to weather the kaleidoscope of looks we garnered.

Simone waved at a group of girls who’d stopped to chat on the edge of the path, yet now eyed us like a curiosity…or a wellspring of gossip.

I could almost hear the rumors that would be in full flight by the time Monday came round.

Right now I could clearly hear their mutterings courtesy of being a Familiar gifted with acute hearing that almost rivaled that of an Aventis.

Simone greeted those girls as we walked by. “Evening girls. Don’t stay too late. You know Academy rules. Enjoy the weekend.”


“Yes, Vice-President.”

“Thank you, Vice-President.”

A heartbeat went by.

The mutterings resumed.

“Hey, ask her.”


“Ask ‘her’.”

“Are you ‘crazy’?”

“She’s right—we should ask her.”

“But it can’t be true.”

“I heard he’s engaged to that idol that transferred at the beginning of the week.”

“What if it was all a lie?”

Their argument was reopening my ulcers, and I wondered how long before they burned holes through the bottom of my stomach.

Suddenly Simone came to a stop.

Still holding onto my hand – or vice versa – Simone turned on her sharp heels and called out to the girls.

“Ladies, if you must know, Caelum is escorting me to dinner. We’re going to enjoy fine dining with an equally fine view at the Tower Piazza in Habitat Three. After dinner, a moonlight walk along the neighboring promenade, before making our way to the Hotel Arravista where we’ll partake in romantic activities for the night—oof!”

My safety valves ruptured and panic overrode my rational self.

I tossed her onto my right shoulder, bowed to the girls awkwardly, and then jogged away from them at great speed.

I ignored Simone’s protests until we arrived at the car park, where a black-on-black luxury sedan awaited us. I knew it was the right car because it stood out like a hawk amongst pigeons.

Only then did I put her down on her expensive Jimmy Chans.

The Countess ran her hands through her hair in a fluster.

“What is wrong with you?” she demanded.

I stared at her in shock. “What is wrong with me? What is wrong ‘with you’?”

“Ara ara, did I say something I shouldn’t have?”

“Will you stop that? Between you and Serenity, I feel like I’m trapped between a rock and hard place.”

“Ara ara, hard are we.”

“Simone,” I growled.

She smiled sweetly and innocently, and somehow she made her azure eyes sparkle, which I didn’t believe was possible.

“Caelum, sweety, don’t you know the difference between Serenity Artesan and I?”

“You’re both trouble in a different package. One in silver, the other in lavender.”

She shook her head. “I care about you, and she doesn’t.”

She stepped closer, and slipped her arms around my waist before I could stop her.

I might have succeeded if I’d overclocked, but that made it hard to hear people, and my heart was suddenly insistent on listening to her. And there was the added bonus of feeling her godly chest pressed firmly against mine.

My thoughts were started to drift already as my mind felt heady from the sensations induced by her body, and the intoxicating fragrance of her perfume.

What on Pharos was that brand she used?

Was it something bought over the counter or something custom made just for her, and designed to addle my thoughts.

I stared at her, my resistance to her waning rather quickly. Somehow I managed to utter, “I may be a Familiar, but I’m not your plaything.”

“And I don’t want you to be.”

I blinked slowly at her.

Simone was smiling coyly.

“Caelum, I want to change the way things are. I want to do away with the status quo.”


“I want to change the way things are between Familiars and Aventis.”

I blinked once more then sharpened my gaze. “What do you mean?”

Her smile turned enigmatic. “I wish to set the balance of power the way it should be.”

Before I could ask her again what she meant, she leaned forward and kissed my lips, then slipped away from me heartbeats later. She turned smoothly on her heels, and walked over to the waiting car.

I stared at her for a short while, fighting the shaking in my legs, while conscious of the cherry taste of her lips.

It took a few moments longer for me to follow her to the black sedan, where Simone waited by the door held open for her by the car’s driver.

“Hurry up, Caelum,” she called out. “The dinner reservation is for seven pm. We need to hurry if we’re to make it.”

I climbed into the car after her, thanking the driver with a courteous bow.

As he closed the door on the passenger cabin, I didn’t miss the thin look on his face.

A look of poorly veiled disdain.

Chapter 10.


Island Three. Habitat Three. District Twelve.

Since we were travelling to another habitat within Island Three, there was no need for the sleek, black sedan to execute a vacuum run from one asteroid to another.

I had little doubt the car could do so if need be.

The driver steered the vehicle between multiple lanes of traffic down the enormous tunnel connecting Habitat One with Habitat Three.

We made surprisingly good time, despite the late evening traffic.

Thirty minutes after departing Galatea Academy, the black sedan pulled into the cul-de-sac that circled past the entrance to the immense Tower Piazza that was actually a six-star luxury hotel that towered above every other building in Habitat Three. The Hotel Arravista was close by across a wide plaza that was large enough to build a half-dozen apartment complexes upon it.

When the car came to a stop before the entrance, two valets opened the vehicle’s doors for the Countess and I.

I must admit that did make me feel important.

However, my mood soured just a little when I noticed the way one tall valet, a rather handsome young man with neatly cropped hair and perfect teeth, smiled at Simone with obvious interest.

My chest twinged just a little when she smiled back at him…with equal interest.

I thanked the young man who opened the door for me, then walked with false confidence behind the car and over to the Countess’s side.

“Shall we?” I asked her, and offered her my left arm.

Simone’s eyes flickered for just a heartbeat.

I was smiling at her, and yet that smile was not reflected in my eyes.

She registered my true mood quite easily. The smile she gave me was just that little bit guilty.

She slipped her arm through mine, and our fingers entwined.

I smiled back my disappointment in her as I gave her hand a good ‘squeeze’.

“Remember who you’re with,” I whispered to her as I brushed stray locks of her silver hair away from her right ear.

To my surprise, I felt her stiffen and not through my contact with her hand and arm, but through the faint sensorium-field emanating from the bracelet that was connecting me to the Kaiser’s Blessing. Through the field, I could also sense the car pull away from the entrance, without the need to see it or hear it.

Swallowing as discretely as I could, I ‘escorted’ the Countess down the carpeted footpath to the wide double glass doors of the hotel lobby’s entrance.

I began consciously feeling out my surroundings using the sensorium-field. I will admit, I was tempted to feel out the Countess, but I quickly put that at the top of my black list of things ‘not’ to do. It might seem odd for me to say this, but I did believe that feeling out a girl with the Artifact’s field was a line I was unwilling to cross.

Even with the sensorium-field I was a little lost in the unfamiliar setting. Thankfully, the Countess knew which way to go and nudged me in the right direction.

The restaurant was located on the third floor of the hotel’s interior, and there was already a short queue of diners waiting to be seated. When it was our turn, the maître d’ greeted us, smiled broadly at the Countess, then instructed an attending waitress to lead us to our table. At that point I had no choice but to release the Countess’s hand as we walked between the tables to a partially enclosed balcony where a dozen or so tables were arranged a respectful distance from each other.

Once seated, my training began.

Our table was a little further away from the other tables, situated in a crescent shaped enclosure with a view of the habitat stretching out before us. However, by being a little more isolated from our neighbors, Simone was able to instruct me without the need to be overtly mindful of the other diners.

“Wrong,” she stated. “Your napkin—fold it with the edges toward you and the fold toward the table.”

“What does it matter?” I asked.

Her expression darkened. “Do you want me to teach you etiquette or not?”

“Well, I do. But I was just—”

“That’s the way it is. That’s the convention. And you’ll understand later that it does make sense.”


“Now, when you wipe your lips you do it like this.” She demonstrated using the inner fold of the napkin, then placed it back down. “Caelum, listen carefully. The important fact to remember is that you don’t want people seeing what you’ve eaten. So you hide it within the folds of the napkin. Comprenez-vouz?”

I felt my thoughts stumble. “I’m sorry?”

She pressed her lips tightly for a moment. “Do you understand?”

“I guess.”

“Good. Now, there are two rules here.” She placed her forearms at an angle against the edge of the table. “This is one way.” She placed her hands and arms on her lap. “This is the other way.”

“What’s the point of that?”

“The point is you keep your elbows off the table.”

I started to lean on the table. “You mean I can’t do this?”


I frowned. “What a bother….”

“I can see this is going to take more than one night.”

I gave her sour look.

She returned it.

I sighed and relented, placing my hands on my lap over the napkin.

From there the Countess began explaining the order in which the utensils were employed, from outside to inside, and that they would depend on the three-course meal. She described the glasses on the table, explaining which one catered for white wine, red wine, champagne, and water. I found that one to be the heaviest of the lot, with a short stem, and tall wide body. I almost thought of it as a goblet.

She held up one fork. “This is considered a cocktail fork. See how it is shorter and slenderer.”

“Hmm…so we eat our desert with it?”

“That is correct.”

I surveyed the table with my gaze, then looked up at her. “So, what we ordering?”

As though on cue, the waitress who’d led us to the table appeared at our side with two printed menu’s in leathering bindings.

I thanked her, as did the Countess, but was at a loss when I tried reading the names.

“Uh…what is this?”

The Countess gave me disbelieving look. “A menu.”

“Yeah, but…in what language?”

“It’s in French.”


“It’s a language. It comes from Mother Earth and has existed for millennia.”

“They didn’t teach it at my school.”

The Countess’s lips made odd shapes but she averted her gaze in thought. “Well, it is an elective at Galatea Academy. My mother forced me to learn it since I was eight.”

I frowned. “So you speak more than one language?”

“Of course. I speak French and Standard, which is a descendent of the English language that came from Mother Earth.”

I held up the menu. “So what’s this?”

“That’s an entrée. It’s Soupe à l’Oignon. Onion soup with cheese croûtons.”

“Which are…?”

“Small pieces of rebaked bread.”

I took a deep breath and sat back. “I think I’ll let you order….”

“Certainly,” she replied with a confident smile, then turned to the waitress standing patiently by the table, though I did notice the young woman’s amused smile.

The Countess ordered something in that language she called, French.

I listened to her and the waitress converse in soft, modulated tones, that lacked the heavy tones of Standard.

It was a gentle language. Even I garnered that much.

I guess it befit the Countess.

Listening to her, I grew conscious of the gulf between us, and not just in our genetics or gender.

It was a gulf that came to be the moment we were born into our respective worlds.

Simone Alucard was the youngest daughter of respected a family belonging to the Raynar Pride.

I was born into House Desanto – into a family of educated middle-class workers. My parents were dock managers, responsible for the movement of millions of tonnes of freight aboard star freighters that dwarfed Galatea Academy. It was a job that paid well, yet demanded long hours, and bore a great deal of responsibility. I wasn’t ashamed of my parents. I was proud of them. They had sharp, analytical minds and good managerial skills. Even as a child, I knew they were well respected by their peers.

Our family might not have been rich like the Countess’s or Prissila’s, but Celica and I never found ourselves lacking.

How strange that she and I would end up estranged in the worst possible way.

I wonder what our parents would think if they saw us now.

I swallowed and shook my head inwardly as I corrected that thought.

I wonder what our parents think as they watch over us now.

I don’t believe they’d be happy with how we turned out.

Disappointed is probably not strong enough a word for what they must be feeling now as they look down upon Celica and I.

I was distracted by the arrival of a change of cutlery.

The waitress replaced them with practiced ease.

I sat back a little so as not to impede her.

When she departed, I noticed the Countess studying me quietly with concern in her eyes.


I took a sip of water, grateful the waitress had filled the glass, or goblet, to the three quarter mark.

Simone’s voice was low and sincerely tender which again distracted me. “Caelum, is something the matter?”

“I was thinking of my family.”


I saw the question in her eyes. “I was thinking of the differences between you and I, and that led me to think of our respective backgrounds and the social-economic worlds we hail from.”

I held back from pointing out the obvious that she was a Pureblood Aventis and I was a Familiar.

Simone’s gaze fluttered down to the table.

I chose to look out at the habitat nightscape stretching out beyond the balcony. The mimetic sky-field projected a night sky replete with stars winking faintly as though behind the veil of an atmospheric layer.

The Countess’s words invaded my awareness.

“Does it matter, that our families are separated by wealth and social standing.”

I regarded her flatly. “You have a family. I don’t.”

Her expression grew tense for a heartbeat. “Caelum, I apologize.”

“It’s fine. What more can I say? My family situation is a mess. It’s not your fault.”

Why was I forgiving her so easily? Why was I making light of my situation?

Was I trying to be brave or stoic in the face of familial adversary?

I didn’t know. I didn’t want to dwell on it.

I came here to learn dining etiquette, not to be drawn into a disagreement with the Countess. And yet, try as I might, my mood slipped and soured, and I only had myself to blame.

It wasn’t Simone’s fault that my situation was thus. I was judging her, blaming her, when I had no right to do so.

Then I thought of her sister, the Raynar Witch.

Severin had told me she was someone he genuinely respected and feared. She was the woman my sister blamed for her defection to Crimson Crescent.

She was the woman who’d carried out the order for Celica’s termination, and she was Simone’s older sister.

Did I want to meet her? I felt it was inevitable that I would, but what would I do when I faced the person responsible for Celica’s drastic change?

Celica had once told me to keep an open mind, to see both sides of the page before coming to a decision, a realization, or what I believed was a correct understanding.

She spoke of figuring out the angles, and not jumping to hasty conclusions.

So what would I say to Simone’s older sister?

What would I ask her?

I looked at the Countess, meeting her gaze with mine and not letting it go. “Simone, will your sister be at the soiree next weekend?”

Her lips parted as she hesitated in replying. “I believe so. I will need to ask her. She doesn’t advertise her schedule, so I can’t be certain. However, if I received an invitation, then I would presume she was invited as well.”

“What about your parents?”

I was mildly surprised when the Countess glanced away for a moment. “My mother will be expected to attend.”

I frowned inwardly. What of her father?

When her eyes met mine, I chose not to ask.

Something in her eyes warned me it would be a mistake, especially after I realized it was pain I’d seen flash behind them.

So I decided to leave that question for another time. There was something else I needed to address.

“May I have the invitation?”

Her eyes widened noticeably. “You took it with you.”

Ah, she was right. I left it in my dormitory room.

I nodded shallowly. “Then I’ll sign it then.”

The corners of her eyes tightened. “You will?”


I took another sip of water, then returned the glass to my left hand side of the place setting.

The Countess was studying me as though I were a puzzle with too many sides for her to see at once.

I almost laughed at the expression she was making.

Abruptly she noticed and pouted at me. “Is this because I agreed to help you with dining etiquette?”

“No. It’s because I want to meet your sister, the Raynar Witch.”

Her chin rose sharply and I saw the tension in her eyes.

However, before Simone could respond, I gave her a sincere smile that could be difficult to interpret.

“I wish to meet the woman who carried out the order for my sister’s execution, and I want to ask her why.”

I smiled sincerely because it was the truth.

It’s what I’d come to decide in the last few minutes.

Rather, it was the culmination of disjointed thoughts at various times during the past few weeks.

My fears, worries, questions, and doubts all came together to this one defining realization.

I wanted to meet the Raynar Witch.

I already knew Celica’s side to the story, and now I wanted to know the Witch’s side.

I wanted to begin painting a picture that would allow me to understand what happened between them…and why.



I won’t describe the meal in detail.

I will say it was three course, with soup for an entrée, then followed by fish main course, which thankfully proved easier to eat because it was already deboned by the chef.

Last but not least dessert.

The Countess corrected me on everything, from the way I held the spoon to the way I used it.

“Remember,” she said, “a ship sails out into the nebula, then comes back to port. That means you scoop out away from you, then circle the spoon back to you like a Ferris wheel.”

Then there was my usage of the forks.

“Tines down,” she instructed. “No, turn it over. The tines of your fork face down. You don’t scoop the food. Don’t shovel it into your mouth. You place it in your mouth. Will you ‘keep’ the tines down. Oh, dear gods, just how were you raised.”

I chewed on the fish, then deliberately spoke with my mouth fool.

“I was raised pretty well. Normal family until the big accident. You know the one I mean.”

The Countess tensed up.

I watched her close her eyes, then take a number of quiet breaths before continuing to ‘educate’ me.

“Your wrists—loosen them up and make sure your arms are at an angle. Think of it as minimal effort, maximum efficiency. Like this.” She demonstrated with practiced ease. “Just, follow my lead. You’ll pick it up quickly enough….”

I did pick it up, though I found myself struggling against what I was accustomed to doing.

At least the food was good.

I was quite satisfied and that was before dessert was served.

I looked down at my apple crêpe moistened in caramel sauce.

Then I looked up at her parfait of multicolored ice creams and fruits.

I asked, “I don’t remember that being on the menu.”

She dipped into it with her cocktail fork. “Can you read French?”

“I know the word parfait. I’m sure I would have noticed that.”

“Caelum, just eat your crêpe.”

Was she growing tired of me? Probably.

I decided to eat it without further ado, though I did ask the waitress for some tea.

I don’t have a taste for coffee, and I doubt I’ll ever cultivate one.

Halfway through the crêpe, a felt a sensation like a breeze blowing over my skin.

Except it wasn’t a breeze.

It was something blowing against the Kaiser’s sensorium-field.

I hesitated with my fork halfway to my mouth. Even though it was only for a heartbeat, I feared the Countess would notice, but she was relishing her parfait with her eyes closed.

I quickly completed the act of ‘placing’ the food into mouth.

From that moment on, I was conscious of the Kaiser’s sensorium-field extending a couple of feet around my body like an invisible aura.

Something had brushed against that aura.

I continued eating in silence, somewhat relieved the Countess was so engrossed in her dessert to be rendered speechless.

Finishing the last of the crêpe, I placed my fork on the plate at an angle, signaling I was done.

Downing the last of my tea and trying not to hurry, I stood up, placed the napkin onto my chair and excused myself.

The Countess’s eyes widened slightly. “Caelum?”

“Nature calls.”

I bowed to her a few degrees, then turned and walked off the balcony area and into the restaurant.

I asked a waitress I encountered for directions to the restrooms.

She indicated which way I should go.

After thanking her, I walked into the men’s restroom, and instructed the Kaiser’s Blessing to extend its field to the max that I could endure.

My Awareness ballooned out to what felt like fifty or sixty feet.

I was suddenly seeing and feeling through the walls of the restroom, well into the dining area, and well out into the interior of the hotel.

Fearing complete sensory overload, the Kaiser adjusted the resolution of the field and I was able to handle the enhanced awareness of my surroundings a good deal better.

The Kaiser knew what I was looking for.

I listened to its suggestion, but told it not to actively search for it.

I didn’t need to.

I felt a response in the field like a spider might sense a vibration along its web.

Fixing the position in my mind, I quickly washed my hands at the nearest basin, dried up, then hurried out of the restroom.

I guess the rule of ‘wash your hands’ was deeply ingrained in me.

Again, I tried not to appear harried as I walked out of the restaurant. The maître d’ saw me, and I quickly said I was stepping out for a minute, and offered no further explanation.

The restaurant was on the third floor of the hotel’s circular promenade, but it wasn’t the only establishment on the floor, simply the most prominent.

I stepped onto the promenade walkway or balcony, and reached out with the Kaiser’s sensorium-field again.

It was more or less to confirm what I was seeing.

Ten meters away and beside the balcony railing, stood a young woman of average height, slender build, dressed in the casual attire of tight denim trousers, a black blouse, and ankle high boots with a two inch heel. Her chestnut hair was shoulder length, and styled with a side swept fringe. When she looked at me, I saw the light makeup on her face accenting her almond shaped eyes.


No, but very attractive, with a noticeable feminine bust.

For a moment – a rather long moment – I feared a recurrence of that time back at the mall when Cannon Girl showed up and blew half the restaurant away.

Swallowing tightly past the case of nerves clogging my throat, I steeled my back and walked several meters closer to her before coming to a stop.

She regarded me for a long moment, then pressed her lips into a thin, unhappy smile.

Her voice was melodious, though her words were spoken with an accent I couldn’t place.

“Who would have thought the Witch’s little sister would be in the company of a Familiar.”

I took a deep breath. “So that was you I felt, wasn’t it.”

She turned her body in my direction.

I saw the necklace she wore, and quickly understood it was her link to her Fragment, or worse still, her Artifact.

I felt the bracelet on my right arm grow a little warm – just one of many ways the Kaiser’s Blessing could employ to tell me it was readying for a fast summoning.

I acknowledged it with a thought I sent its way. I hadn’t told Kaleb, or Caprice, or anyone else, but I was getting a little better at ‘interacting’ with the Kaiser’s Blessing’s Core Awareness. It was like learning to talk a different language and becoming more fluent in conversation. Something along those lines.

The young woman planted a hand on her smooth hip. “You are?”

“Who are you?” I asked in reply.

She sneered ever so faintly. “So, you don’t want to tell me?”

“How about you? Want to tell me who you are and what you’re doing here?” I made a show of having a sudden epiphany. “Oh that’s right, you mentioned the Witch’s little sister. That means you’re here for the Countess.”

The young woman frowned. “The what?”

“The Countess,” I repeated. “Countess Simone Alucard Raynar. Don’t you know her title?”

Her frown turned upside down, and she started to laugh.

I watched her, and asked the Kaiser’s Blessing to extend the sensorium-field in a narrow band toward Simone back in the restaurant.

The young woman stopped laughing, and regarded me with faint amusement.

“You can call me Razor.”


“And I know who you are, Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear, bearer of the Kaiser’s Blessing, and brother to Celica Desanto.”

I closed my mouth and clenched my jaw for a long while until I couldn’t bare the ache anymore. “Where’s Celica?”

She shrugged lightly. “I wouldn’t know. I’m not part of her Crew.”


“Her gang. Her posse. Her squad.”

I ground my teeth. “You mean you’re not one of her bitches.”

Razor snorted softly. “You and your sister are indeed cut from the same cloth. Both prone to vulgarity.”

“Yeah, that’s because we’re siblings.”

“And of course, your parents were special in their own right as well.”

For a just one heartbeat, I felt my composure slip. “What did you say?”

“You’re parents were special in their own—”

I stepped forward. “What do you mean by that?”

Her eyes widened a little. “Oh…so your sister never told you. How unfortunate. And to think she had the perfect opportunity upon your reunion.”

“She was a little busy trying to kill me.”

Razor chuckled this time. “Oh well. It’s not my place to say.”

I clenched both hands and then forced them to relax.

I felt the ‘conversation’ was being diverted.

“Why are you here for Simone?”

“Who says we’re here for her?”

“You did. You didn’t expect to find me here. Just your bad luck.”

The Kaiser’s Blessing informed me it had a sensorium lock on the Countess.

She was seated at the table…talking to someone.

I resisted the urge to turn and run back into the restaurant fearing it would demonstrate to the woman that I could use the Kaiser to that extent.

*_Keep an eye on her,_ I told the Artifact, then focused on Razor standing with a hand on hip.

She was watching me with studious eyes.

“You’re very sharp,” she murmured but I heard her nonetheless. “You sensed she wasn’t alone.”

“Damn you,” I hissed. “You wanted me out here. You lured me by brushing against the Kaiser’s sensorium-field.”

I turned toward the restaurant’s entrance.

The Kaiser signaled it was ready to summon the gauntlets and blades in a heartbeat. In my mind I saw what it had prepared for me. The same blade and gauntlet combination I’d used against Celica. It lacked the oval shaped shields, but it had narrower, angular shields that extended from the back of the four-foot long, narrow blade that resembled that of a saber.

I was two steps toward the restaurant when Razor cried out to me, “Wait—stay here and she will not be harmed.”

I didn’t stop. I walked even faster.

“Walk in there now and she dies.”

I stopped so fast my feet skidded, and I half turned to face her. “What did you say?”

“He will kill her.”

I noticed I was trembling in both fear and mounting helplessness. “You ‘bitch’.”

“He just wants to talk to her. But you step in there, and he will kill her.”

Gods how I wanted to summon the Kaiser, even if it was just one blade and gauntlet.

I gauged how quickly I could summon it and cut the woman down.

I didn’t think it would be easy.

Compared to her, I was an amateur. The fact she’d sensed the Kaiser’s sensorium-field reaching out to Simone indicated she could wield her Artifact with greater dexterity than I could.

I didn’t know what Artifact she possessed, but if she went by the name of Razor, I had to assume it was a melee weapon like the Kaiser’s Blessing.

I imagined myself crossing blades with her, and Simone dying.

My heart felt like it was being crushed in a vice, its anger mirrored equally by helpless despair.

Razor raised a hand. “Just…let him talk to her. That’s all.”

“I don’t know who ‘he’ is, but if he harms a hair on her head—so help me gods above—I will ‘kill’ him and I will ‘kill’ you.”

She lowered her hand. “I don’t doubt that. After all, you are your father’s son.”

Despite the feelings roiling around in me, those words felt like a knife parting them aside. “What the Hell do you ‘mean’ by that?”

She swallowed visibly and said in a surprisingly respectful tone. “I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you, but I can’t.”

Then she bowed to me ten or twelve degrees.

I sucked in air noisily.

What the Hell was I going to do?

With the sensorium-field locked on Simone and her companion, I waited on the balcony, and stood mere meters away from the restaurant’s entrance.

Razor stepped up to the guardrail, and calmly folded her arms.

I clenched my hands into fists, and told the Kaiser to standby.

I could feel my Artifact balancing on a knife’s edge, a blink away from summoning the armor that would turn me into a lethal weapon.

A very, very lethal and very angry weapon.

Chapter 11.


She was beautiful, just like her mother.

No, she was far more beautiful than her mother, even at her age.

Her long silver hair was tied in an intricate braid that fell down her back.

Her womanly charms were hinted at without the slightest element of vulgarity.

She was dressed demurely, yet sensually.

She exuded sexuality with every breath she took.

Every anxious, nervous breath.

Azure eyes watched me.

They were so much like ‘his’.

She swallowed, and I caught the glance she directed at the interior of the restaurant.

The waitress who’d been serving her returned to the table with the glass of house white I’d ordered.

She didn’t question why I was in the chair, nor why I was seated at the table.

She had been Influenced not to question my presence.

I returned her polite smile, no longer amazed by how easily Aventis minds could be swayed.

They were so flexible. So malleable. Quite unlike those of a Regular. Quite dissimilar to those of a Familiar.

How many minds had I bent to my will on the whims of another? How many minds had I broken in my service to the Prides?

And how many more while working for Crescent?

Aventis prided themselves on their physical strengths and healing abilities. Yet their proverbial Achilles Heel was their minds.

I sipped at the refreshing liquid, a little unhappy with the slightly bitter aftertaste.

I tended to prefer a sweeter white wine.

Hmm…I should make a note regarding the quality of the house white at this restaurant.

I sipped a little more wine, careful to hold the glass by the stem.

One should never hold the glass by the base of the cup.

You didn’t want the warmth of your hand to heat up the liquid unnecessarily as it would alter the taste.

The girl’s eyes watched me, and watched the interior of the restaurant.

We hadn’t spoken for a minute now, beyond my telling her not to make a scene, if she didn’t want the patrons here to suffer a sudden death.

I was playing on her fears, since this wasn’t an isolated experience for her.

I had no doubt the event at the mall five weeks ago was fresh in her mind.

Placing the wine glass on the table, I sat back and studied her, waiting for her to break the silence first.

She didn’t disappoint me. “Why are you here?”

Her voice was steady. Remarkable, considering the situation I’d forced upon her.

I replied back in what I hoped was my most disarming tone. “Not going to ask who I am?”

“Would you tell me if I did?”

I smiled at her. “No, I wouldn’t.”

“So…why are you here?”

“To talk.”

Her eyes resisted the urge to glance away. “About what?”

“About you. And about him.”

Her attention centered on me fully.

“Where is Caelum?” she asked.

“Outside, being kept company by an associate of mine. Don’t worry. He’s unharmed. Truthfully, I doubt my associate could handle him. Once he’s serious about something, that young man demonstrates terrifying prowess. So she’s going to have to be very careful not to set him off.”

“Caelum isn’t that strong.”

I laughed. “Surely you jest.”

She looked uncertain.

I pressed on. “Do you believe the Lanfears would have bestowed the Kaiser’s Blessing on someone unworthy of that Artifact? Arisa Imreh Lanfear may be young, but she’s not stupid. The girl is not a dull knife, but a sharp one. She has ambitions for Caelum, as I’m sure you’ve realized by now.”

“Yes. But she cares about him too.”

“Of course. Her family and his have history after all, one that dates back all the way to the War of Supremacy.”

I watched her swallow.

Ah…so she knew about that…and she was keeping it from him.

I asked, “How do you think Desanto will react when he learns you’ve been keeping secrets from him.”

“He knows I keep secrets.”

I sighed softly. “Yes, just a like a woman would.”

“Are you belittling me?”

“Not at all.”

She pressed her lips together for a moment. “You’re here. So talk.”

“How do you feel about him?”

Her eyes widened and narrowed in a heartbeat. “About whom?”

“Desanto. What are your intentions toward him?”


“Please…don’t waste my time.” I added, “And don’t test my patience either.”

Her expression hardened. “He’s special to me.”

I blinked, my eyes widening just shy of mocking. “Special. Did you say ‘special’?”

“I care about him.”

I leaned forward, deliberately placing my elbows on the table. “Oh, then tell me. How much do you care about him? How ‘special’ is he to you?”

Her eyes narrowed further. “I’m not going to discuss my feelings with ‘you’.”

“You remind me of your mother.”

She froze.

I watched her breath catch. “You’re very much like her. Beautiful, bewitching, claiming to hold someone special in your heart.”

“And what if I do?”

“It’s nothing but a lie.”

Her expression hardened. “Don’t presume you know me because you don’t.”

“You are your mother’s child. Like mother like daughter.”

“I am not my ‘mother’.”

I watched the fury spread across her face. “Oh, your mother protested against the family just like you do now. Right up until she found out she was with child.”

Her fury took a hit.

I continued my assault. “Her love was rather fleeting once she understood the position she was in.” I sat back. “To her credit, she chose her unborn child over that someone ‘special’ she adamantly claimed to hold in her heart. She was blessed with the Devil’s Luck. The child was born a pureblood. Had it not, your mother would not have remained a member of House Alucard.” I snorted, thinking of another who’d been less fortunate. “Had you not been born a Pureblood, you would not be sitting before me today.”

Her expression grew complicated, a mixture of anger, disbelief, and uncertainty.

However, I also saw that she recognized the truth in my words.

I sipped more of my wine.

Simone Alucard Raynar.

You know your origins well.

She looked down at the table, her hands clutching at its edge.

I watched her forcibly try and relax them.

I watched her swallow and then regain her composure with surprising speed. She was certainly quite resilient. Just like her mother.

Her voice was also quite steady. “I am not…my mother.”

“That remains to be seen. So I propose a test. Let’s see how special Desanto is to you.”

She looked up in clear worry. “What are you planning?”

“As I said, I’m planning to test you. I want to see how much of an Alucard you are. I want to see how much of your mother is in there, and how much of your father—your real father. How much of his blood flows in your veins.”

Ah, the expression she gave me was indeed priceless.

I watched her tremble and I watched her eyes dart to the table in despair.

Her slender, elegant fingers tore at the cloth covering the table.

I watched her wallow in misery for a moment, then asked, “How did you find out? Was it from your mother’s lips?”

I thought she might not have heard me.

I thought she might deign to ignore me.

But a few seconds later, she shook her head weakly. “My sister, Silia. She told me. She told me when I was old enough to understand. Old enough to understand why I was treated the way I was.”

I chuckled under my breath. “You must have wondered, why you looked different from them. Your hair is silver, yet your mother and sister are both brunettes.”

“Yes…I did wonder…for a long time….”

“So what did your father, Damon Alucard, have to say about that?”

She clenched her jaw then relaxed it enough to reply, “Ask him yourself.”

“Perhaps I shall when my business is done, and I’m in a position to do so.” I smirked at her. “However, tell the truth. You’ve never asked him have you. In fact, you and your ‘father’ don’t talk. You’re the epitome of estranged, aren’t you?”

She was silent for a long while, and I watched the pain behind her eyes spill down her cheeks.

Ah, I made her cry. How terrible of me.

Her voice broke. “Why…why are doing this…to me…?”

I studied her carefully, looking for the signs I wanted to see.

She was almost there.

“Your father has never expressed a moment of love for you, has he. His presence is distinctly lacking in your family portraits. You’d be hard pressed to find him in a single holoimage with you. You’ve never shared a father daughter moment, have you.”

Her lips trembled and she closed her eyes.

I wasn’t done. No, not just yet.

“And your mother…she sees you as a constant reminder of her weakness. You represent her failings as a wife and member of the Alucard main family branch.”

“…stop it….”

“If she were to express affection toward you, it would be a sign of betrayal to her legitimate family. In effect, you serve as her perpetual punishment. Even if she loves you, to any degree, she cannot demonstrate it without reprimand.”

“…I said…stop it….”

“How unbearable your childhood must have been—”

“Stop it!”

She almost launched herself to her feet.


As it was, she trembled violently and her fingers caused the table to creak.

I gave her a moment, then swooped in for the proverbial kill.

“Are you going to repeat your mother’s failings? Will you betray the man you claim to be special, just so you can keep your position as an Alucard?”

Her face paled and grew lifeless.

“Will you tear Desanto’s heart, the way your mother tore your ‘father’s’ heart apart?”

She stared at me with eyes that lost their light.

A hollow expression spread out across her face.

I saw her grow weak and shrink in her chair.

I pressed on.

“He’s never forgotten about you. Not once. Not ever.”

I saw a flicker of life in her eyes, the merest of candle flames.

“He’s watched over you, despite the risks to his life. He’s been there, when he could be, watching you from afar.”

Her eyes met mine and her focus centered on me.

I swallowed and proceeded cautiously. “Simone…you’re father wants you back.”

I watched her chin rise slightly as she slowly registered my words.

I gave her a shallow nod. “The situation has changed in his favor.”


“Yes, the man you’ve never met, whose face you’ve never seen, and whose voice you’ve never heard.” I swallowed carefully. “He wants to take you home, Simone.”

Her breathing was shallow and sometimes ragged.

Yet her eyes held onto my mine like a drowning person would onto a log or raft in heavy seas.

Her voice was barely stronger than a whisper. “My father…?”

“I was given a message to pass onto you. Since I had business in the area, I agreed to drop it off…in person.”

I leaned toward her, keeping her attention on me.

“He’s watching you. He’s watching over you.”

I had the data chit in my pantsuit’s pocket. I retrieved it, and placed it on the table. It was no larger than a thumbnail.

She stared it for a long while, then reached out and picked it up.

Then her eyes sought mine again, and I gave her a nod.

She took out her palm-slate and slipped the data chit into the universal reader slot built into the slate.

For a few moments she fiddled with the slate’s touchscreen controls.

When I saw her expression grow conflicted, I knew that she’d found the message.

It should be playing on the palm-slate’s screen.

The device trembled in her hands, but her attention was rapt upon it.

I heard the sounds of laughing and playing children emanate from the slate’s speakers.

Her eyes were unblinking as though her entire being was locked solid by the images and sounds playing on the palm-slate.

I chose it as my cue to leave.

I stood, bowed to her faintly, then departed the balcony.

I doubted she even registered that I’d left her vicinity.

Stepping between tables with and without seated patrons, I exited the restaurant a short while later.

And found him waiting for me.

His arms were crossed, and his expression could have been chiseled from stone.

I smile inwardly.

Those eyes…how many times had I seen eyes like those face me down.

Caelum Rafael Desanto afil Lanfear.

He was like a knife unsheathed, or a spring wound tightly.

Anything could set him off.

I would need to choose my words carefully.

In the corner of my eye, I watched Razor step away from the guardrail. She was no more than five meters away from him.

I gave her a subtle finger gesture.


She remained standing where she was.

I took a breath and approached Desanto, though I kept my distance.

My Artifact was not the melee type.

Against him, I stood no chance.

My life was in his hands, and in Razor’s, and in the hands of my associates spread throughout the hotel promenade.

I regarded him for a long moment.

So this is what it feels like to be standing within the same cage as the tiger.

A most unpleasant feeling. Unpleasant indeed.

I cleared my throat as discretely as I could, and offered him a respectful nod.

“I leave her in your care.”

Desanto didn’t move. His eyes, his whole body, was deathly still.

I couldn’t help smiling at that.

He would grow into a terrifying young man.

He would be an incredible asset to the ranks.

If only…if only she could bring him along with her.

I could only hope.

The seeds had been planted, now all we could do was wait, and hope to nourish their growth.

Celica might not appreciate my efforts, but then again she had changed so much in recent weeks.

I hardly recognized her anymore.

Desanto’s lips moved. “Did you harm her?”

A frown flickered across my face. “No. However, she will need you now more than ever.”

“Why is that?”

“She will need to know…that she is not alone in her struggles.”

He was quiet for many heartbeats.

His voice was low and unnaturally calm which contrasted with his rock hard expression. “I won’t ask who you are.”

“Very well—”

“But I will ask that you never show yourself before her, or me, ever again.”

“I understand, but I cannot abide by that.”

“Let me rephrase that. I don’t want to see you near her, or me, ever again.”

I narrowed my eyes just a little. “Caelum Rafael Desanto, I will tell you this. I am not your enemy.”

He stared at me with unflinching, unwavering eyes. “I won’t repeat myself.”

I nodded subtly. “It’s good that you don’t.” I gave him a slight bow. “Enjoy the evening, and do pay special attention to her.”

If I’d worn a hat, I might have tipped it at him.

I turned on my heels and walked away from him.

By the time Razor joined me, I was at the escalators leading down to the second floor of the promenade.

She caught up to me and asked, “How did it go?”


“You gave her the message?”

“Yes. She was watching it as I left.”

“That’s good.” She sounded relieved. “I hope—I hope it means something to her.”

“It will. I’m certain it will.”

I felt my palm-slate vibrate in my pantsuit’s pocket. I pulled it out, and read the message it’d received.

Behind me, Razor asked, “What is it?”

“Talos says preparations are complete. The vehicles have been taken care of, and the entourage has been attended to. Our window is an hour at best. Everything’s set to go.” I sensed Razor’s uneasiness, so I spared her a look over my left shoulder. “Don’t worry. They don’t call me Maestro for no reason. Everything will work out fine.”

“We’re taking a big risk.”

“There can be no gain without risk.”

“If she chooses not to come willingly—”

“Then we’ll resort to Plan Bee?”

She pressed her lips together tightly for a moment. “And what of Andraste’s Crew? Can you trust them? Can we even rely on them?”

“Andraste has her own agenda. I called in a favor and it has been repaid. Her Crew did what we asked of them. Now it’s up to us to see the mission through to the end, simply because I don’t have many favors to call upon with her. This is as much assistance as we could hope for.”

“But the order to acquire Alucard came from ‘him’. Surely Andraste knows how important that is.”

“Andraste doesn’t care. To her it’s just a mission. Nothing more, and nothing less. I told you, she has her own agenda…like so many of our kind under the collective umbrella known as Crimson Crescent.”

I stopped at the next landing, before stepping onto the escalator leading down to the first floor.

I gave Razor a hard look. “Not everyone knows how important that girl is, and that’s how he wishes to keep it. It’s safer for her that way.”

I turned away, but Razor reached out and grabbed my shoulder. “What are you saying—that the other Cells, the other Crews, would come after her if they knew that she’s his—”

“That is a distinct possibility that he has been guarding against.” I calmly removed her hand from shoulder. “And you would be wise not to advertise the fact. Am I making myself clear?”

I stepped onto the escalator leading down to the first floor, then glanced back at her.

Razor was looking up at the restaurant in apprehension.

Taking a quick breath, I added, “Relax, Razor. I did not Influence her.”

“…I’m glad….”

So was I.

Her father would have my head if I used my talent upon her.

Then again, it was questionable whether it would work on her.

She was a Pureblood, but also subtly different from other Purebloods and Aventis.

I shrugged inwardly.

Giving Razor a reassuring smile, I commented, “With that girl, I did not need to.”



When I returned to Simone’s side, I found her watching something playing on her palm-slate.

I would describe her as catatonic.

It certainly took me a number of attempts to rouse a response from her.

It worked best when I took the slate from her hands.

Glancing at it quickly, I saw it was a holovid recording playing on a two-dimensional surface. The resolution wasn’t all that sharp, and appeared to have been recorded at a great distance.

I saw two little girls playing in a grassy parkland.

The oldest girl had raven dark hair, and looked to be around eleven or twelve years old.

The youngest, a girl of two or three, had long silver hair tied back into a braid.

Both girls were running around carefree and chasing each other in the park, under the watchful eye of men dressed in black suits, just visible in the corners of the recording, and standing dozens of meters away.

I realized who these girls were, even though I’d met only one of them.

Silia Alucard Raynar, eldest daughter of House Alucard.

Simone Alucard Raynar, youngest daughter of House Alucard.

I worked the palm-slate touch sensitive controls and ended the playback.

Then I pocketed the slate.

Crouching beside Simone’s chair, I reached out and shook her gently.

She wore a vacant, distant expression, and her face looked extremely pale.

“Simone…Simone, can you hear me? Look at me—look at me, Simone.”

She blinked very slowly, as though in a dream state.

Her vacant look remained, but her eyes began to focus on me.


“Yes, I’m right here. Look at me, focus on me.”

If I asked what had transpired between her and that man with blond hair, I doubted I’d get an answer.

She was barely registering her surroundings, much less capable of coherent conversation.

“Simone, we’re leaving.”

With my arm around her shoulders, I guided her into the interior of the restaurant.

I fully intended to pay, so we angled toward the register, negotiating a path between the tables.

I paid for the meal using the cash card Arisa had given me as part of my allowance for the month. Since I rarely used, the balance was considerable. I could probably afford to pay for dinners like these every night of the month.

Arisa was anything but a scrooge.

I was rather thankful to her for that, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend to the limit of my monthly allowance. It just didn’t feel right to me.

After the payment transaction was processed and approved, the girl at the cashier thanked me, and returned the card. With that, I hurried with Simone away from the restaurant, walking along the circular promenade toward the escalator leading down to the second level.

I was thinking that the Countess and I had the worst luck when it came to outside dining.

Together, we were like magnets for trouble.

Stopping near a collection of sofa seats near the escalator, I sat Simone down.

She’d recovered a little more of her color, but she was clearly confused by what was going on.

I handed her back her palm-slate. “Countess, we need to leave. Call your driver. Have him bring the car around.”

She blinked slowly, then a little quickly, and accepted the palm-slate I returned to her.

As she made her call, I walked away a few meters and made a call of my own.

Unfortunately, Arisa didn’t pick up and I resorted to leaving her a voice mail message where I quickly explained our encounter with Familiars that undoubtedly belonged to Crimson Crescent. I told her one of them referred to herself as Razor. Maybe that would clue her into the Familiar’s identity. I ended the message by informing her that the Countess and I were leaving the hotel and would probably return to the Academy, though I didn’t think it was a good idea. I told Arisa I wanted to take Simone to her family’s home, wherever that was. I didn’t believe it was safe to go back to the Academy.

I ended the call when I noticed the Countess was on her feet waiting for me by the sofas. She had a troubled look on her face as she watched me.

I walked back to her. “Well?”

“Who did you call?”

I frowned faintly. “I called Arisa. I told her what happened.”

She didn’t look pleased. “I wish you hadn’t. This doesn’t concern her.”

My frown deepened. “What? This concerns me as well. I was outside the restaurant facing Crimson Crescent’s Familiar while you were inside. I’m not going to leave Arisa in the dark over something like this.”

She looked ready to retort but then reconsidered whatever was on her lips. “Arnaud is bringing the car around. We should go down.”

I hesitated before asking, “How did he sound?”

She looked faintly startled, but then replied, “He sounded…fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.” The Countess gave me another somewhat displeased look. “Caelum, what are you implying?”

“I’m not implying anything.” Before she could retort, I stated, “Well, you seem a lot better. Got some of your fire back.”

Her eyes dilated acutely. “I—I’m fine.”

“Really, because I don’t know what happened between you and that guy—whoever he was—but you didn’t look fine to me. You looked ‘anything’ but fine.”

“Caelum stop it.” She reached up and rubbed her temples. “Please, stop it….”

It was then I noticed she’d been crying.

I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help the anger that welled up in me.

I wasn’t angry at her. I was angry at them—at those Familiars from Crimson Crescent.

I tried keeping my voice even and I didn’t quite succeed.

“Simone, what did he say to you? What did he say to make you cry?”

She stopped moving, but then gave me a shocked look.

I narrowed my eyes. “Tell me what he said, Simone.”

A conflict broke out over her face, but it was probably the tip of the iceberg when compared to the conflict within her.

I stared at her in growing concern that quickly dispelled or pushed aside my anger.


She shook her head so faintly I almost missed it.

“It’s personal. Please…I don’t wish to talk about it here.”

“Fine. Then what about reporting this to your sister? We need to tell her what happened.” I looked around the hotel interior. “Aren’t you supposed to be watched by those people your cousin arranged for?”

There were many hotel guests wandering about, but I saw none of the men in dark suits that usually watched over her. In the week during which I’d gone out with Simone on our after school expeditions, I’d grown rather perceptive of their presence. But as my gaze swept over the hotel interior, I saw no sign of them.

Warning bells began chiming softly in my mind.

This wasn’t a good situation. We needed support. We needed backup.

I knew that Silia Alucard was a member of the Public Security Division, an elite division of the Enforcers that policed Pharos. She was also the woman who had been ordered to execute my sister. But for now, I had to consider options for keeping the Countess safe, and involving her sister who had resources at her disposal seemed like a good option to me.

“Simone, I don’t think you should go back to the girl’s dormitory. You should go back to your home until this blows over. You should go someplace safe.”

I faced her, and was surprised to find her glaring at me.

Simone was standing rigid with the most threatening look she’d ever bestowed upon me.

I pushed my shock aside, and looked back at her with an open expression.

The Countess swallowed a couple of times, and locked her hands before her midriff.


“I’m not going back to that house. I will not return to that house. I will not.”

I shook my head at her. “Well you can’t go back to the dorms.” I looked at the hotel around us. “We shouldn’t stay here either.” I flexed my fingers and hands. “And I hate to admit this, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to protect you. Not alone.”

“Caelum, you’ll do just fine.”

I shook my head again. “No, I won’t. But I have an idea. I can call Caprice and the others. I can call Kaleb.”

“No.” She didn’t shout, but it certainly sounded harsh. “No, I don’t want to involve them. I don’t want them being dragged into this situation.”

“They can protect you. Maya’s your friend, Simone. You talked about taking down the wall between you and her, will this is a good way to start.”

“No. I said no, and that’s final.”


“Caelum, I don’t wish to talk about it here. This is a family matter, an Alucard matter, and I don’t want to involve your friends. I don’t want to involve Maya.”

I took a firm step toward her. “A family matter? Between you and Crimson Crescent? What the Hell does that mean?”

“We can discuss this later.”

“You won’t involve the others, but you’ll involve me?”

Her jaw clenched as she sucked in air. “You can leave if you want. I won’t hold it against you.”

I felt my innards clench. “Do you mean that?” I hardened my stare. “Do you want me to leave?”

Her expression weakened, and her lips trembled. “No…no, please don’t leave.” She shook her head weakly. “Please, don’t go….”

I swallowed hard. “Then I’m calling your sister.”

“No!” she yelled.

I grew aware her shout had attracted the attention of the people nearby. This could draw in the wrong kind of security.

Simone’s shoulders shook and she clutched at her arms. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry, but please don’t tell Silia. Don’t call her. Please, don’t tell anyone. I’ll deal with this. Let me deal with it.”

Actually, I didn’t have her number, so I couldn’t even if I wanted to.

Before I could respond, the Countess whirled away and began walking toward the escalators.

“The car’s probably here by now,” she declared while sounding noticeably distraught. “We should hurry.”

I had no choice but to follow her as she half ran down the escalator steps.

Even if she’d told me to leave, I wouldn’t have done so. There was no way I would leave her alone like this.

I caught up to her by the time we reached the first level.

By ground level, I was walking beside her and a short while later we stood outside the hotel entrance in the company of other guests waiting to depart. I had the Kaiser’s sensorium-field expanded to the most my mind could handle without hampering my mobility and perception. I didn’t sense another sensorium-field within the vicinity, though it didn’t mean that Familiars with Fragments or Artifacts weren’t lurking about. It was simply that I couldn’t sense them.

At sight of the black sedan, I hurried the Countess to the front of the queue, where the valets helped us in.

Inside the car, the Countess told the driver to take us back to Galatea Academy in Habitat One.

He acknowledged her, but in the rear view mirror, I glimpsed his veiled contempt toward me.

To be honest, I just didn’t care what he thought.

I just wanted him to drive us home, and away from here.

I wanted to talk to Arisa.

As I thought that, I glanced sidelong at the Countess who was looking out her window.

This was the strangest I’d ever witnessed her behave. It was more than just a little uncharacteristic. She was rattled and on edge, and desperately trying to remain in control, and I didn’t know why she was resisting my attempts to help her.

Why didn’t she want me calling her sister? Why didn’t she want to go home?

It had something to do with that visual recording she’d been watching on her palm-slate. To me it looked like something from her childhood, but why had it left her so shaken?

What did that blonde ‘bastard’ say to her?

The Countess had her secrets, I accepted that, but I didn’t think it was a good idea to keep secrets that put her—and me—at risk.

Chapter 12.


Before the car entered the six lane tunnel leading out of Habitat Three, I briefly debated giving Arisa another call.

Deciding in the affirmative, I started pulling my palm-slate out of my trouser pocket when I caught the suspicious glance the Countess gave me.

“I’m calling Arisa,” I stated. “You don’t mind me calling my handler, do you?”

The Countess’s lips parted, probably at the tone, then shook her head and turned back to the view out her window.

I dialed up Arisa’s number on the slate, then frowned when the No Connection message flashed up on the screen.

There was no signal to the outside transceiver network.

Was it just my palm-slate?

“Countess, can I have a look at your slate?”

“What? Why?”

I faced her. “Can I have a look at it?”

I could see her debating whether to acquiesce to my request. A few seconds went by before she handed over the slate.

I studied the signal reading on its display screen.

No Connection.

I looked outside through my window.

We were inside the tunnel, but that shouldn’t have been a problem since I knew they were fitted with communication transceivers every hundred or so meters.

I regarded my palm-slate and hers.

Even the Pharos Positioning System was down.

It must have been coincidence that I looked up and noticed the driver, Arnaud, glancing back at me in the wide rear-view mirror.

Could it be?

Feeling my suspicions rise, I closed my eyes and reached out – or inwardly – to the Kaiser’s Blessing, asking it to spread its sensorium-field and tell me if there was something blocking the signal reception to the palm-slates.

It’s reply came a few moments later, and it wasn’t what I’d been hoping to hear.

But it did satisfy my suspicions.

Now, I had to consider why this was happening.

The vehicle was generating a jamming field around itself, preventing our slates from talking to the outside environment.

We were cut off.


Was it part of the protocol to keep the Countess safe?

Did that mean she’d told the driver of the encounter with the Familiars back at the restaurant?

She’d expressly asked me not to tell anyone, so why would she tell him?

Or was he reacting to orders from the men in black who guarded the Countess from the shadows?

Had they observed the encounter and instructed the driver to take security measures?

If so, I had to consider that at least outside parties knew we’d been approached.

But then, why were we being prevented from making outside calls?

Was this just another example of ‘run silent, run deep’?

Was the car deliberately keeping itself hidden from outside tracking devices as it moved between the Habitats?

What the Hell was going on here?

I opened my eyes and looked out the window, catching a glimpse of an overhead traffic sign as it flashed by.

A few moments later, the car gently slipped out of the six-lane tunnel and entered a two-lane connecting tunnel.

My inner suspicion gauge jumped a full notch.

Staring at the back of the driver’s head, I offered the Countess her palm-slate. “Simone, call your sister. Tell her what happened back at the restaurant.”

“Caelum, I said this is a personal matter—”

“Call her, or I will. I have her number from Arisa.”

I lied, but that didn’t matter right now.

What mattered was getting her to start thinking outside of her own problems because it was clear we had a bigger one to worry about.

It took her several seconds to reach out and take back her palm-slate.

It took her a little longer to realize she couldn’t make the call.

“What’s going on…no signal?”

I kept my eyes on the rear-view mirror, and watched the driver’s eyes flicker between the road and the passenger cabin.

The Countess asked, “Arnaud, I’m getting no signal on my palm-slate. Can you contact home for me?”

His reluctance to reply wasn’t helping my anxiety, nor his case.

The Countess said, “Arnaud, I asked you to contact the house for me. Do it please.”

“I’m sorry, Mistress. I can’t do that.”

The Countess’s expression grew concerned. “Why not?”

“Orders, Mistress.”

“From whom?”

“Mistress, I have orders to take you home.”

“Yes, very well. So contact the house for me and let them know we’re returning now.”

“I have orders to take you home.”

“Yes, you said that already.”

“I have orders…to…take you home.”

I blinked slowly, and tried keeping my thoughts off my face as my stomach tightened.

“Arnaud,” the Countess asked slowly, “is something the matter?”

He didn’t reply to her, and kept driving down the two lane tunnel – driving us away from Habitat One.

I broke the silence. “Why are you taking her to the spaceport?”

In my peripheral vision, I saw the Countess glance at me with a start, then look out her window. “The spaceport…?”

“The sign back there indicated this tunnel leads to the spaceport.” I repeated my question to the driver. “Why are you taking the Countess to the spaceport?”

He refused to reply, that much I could see, but when I leaned over to get a better look at him in the mirror, I noticed the strain spread out across his face.

What was happening to him?

Was I right in what I suspected?

The Countess leaned forward toward the front seats. “Arnaud, what are you doing? What’s this about taking me home when we’re heading the wrong way? Answer me.”

“Ship…ship waiting…for you….”

I watched him blink as though clearing away sweat from his eyes though there was none.

Actually, he was sweating a little. I noticed that now.

“Mistress…take you…take you home.”

The Countess snapped, “Turn the car around. That’s an order, Arnaud. If you refuse me I promise you my family will not be lenient.”

“I’m sorry…I must take you…home.”

Suddenly the partition between the rear and front seating areas inside the car rose up.

Now we were distinctly separated from him.

The Countess touched a control panel on the inside of her door.

“Arnaud, you lower the partition now. I will not tolerate this.”

“Sorry…my Mistress.”

The Countess unbuckled her belt and then leaned forward to bang on the clear partition.

“Arnaud, you lower this now. Do you hear me? Lower it now.”

The partition became cloudy and opaque.

The Countess banged on it harder with the strength of a pureblood Aventis.

“Arnaud, lower this now. I will not tolerate this behavior. Are you listening to me—?”

I reached forward and grabbed her right arm. “Stop it. That’s not going to do you or us any good.”

She gave me a heated glare as she tried to wrestle her arm free of my grip. “Caelum, don’t interfere.”

I hardened my expression. “Simone, sit back and buckle up. Do you hear me?”

“Caelum, don’t speak to me that way—”

“Do it now!”

I don’t think I’ve ever stared at a woman as hard as I did just now.

Her obstinacy wasn’t helping. It was just getting in the way.

I used my strength to pull her back away from the partition and into her seat.

Actually, I had to use all my strength.

That’s just how strong she was.

Then I reached out and tossed one of the safety belt ends across her waist.

“Buckle up.”

Her expression waved between irate and confused. But there was fear creeping into it too.

For now, I needed her back in her seat, and out of my way.

To my relief, she silently buckled up her safety belt.

I took a deep breath, and fixed my attention on her.

“Can’t you tell?” I asked her. “He’s been Influenced. Do you understand what that means?”

Her eyes widened and the anger on her face evaporated as fear overwrote it.

I nodded faintly. “That’s right. Familiars got to him. While you and I were eating, they got to him. That means those two back at the restaurant were a distraction.”

The Countess’s gaze alternated between the partition and me.

“Then…then what do we do…?”

I glanced at the interior of the sedan. “I can use the Kaiser to deal with him, but I won’t be able to do anything about the vehicle’s auto-pilot system. I’m sure he’s locked the destination co-ordinates into the Assisting Intelligence that drives the car.”

I faced the Countess and jerked a thumb at the forward sitting area.

“That means we need to get you in there.”

Again, she glanced at the partition.

I leaned toward her a little. “Do you know the code to override the auto-pilot?”

She gave me a weak nod.

I frowned at her. “What’s the problem?”

Her voice was low. “How do you…what are you planning to do to him?”

I averted my eyes and sucked in a lungful air.

“I have something in mind. I don’t know if I can do it, but it won’t kill him if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Are you…are you going to Influence him?”

I shook my head faintly. “No. I need to drink his blood or yours in order to do that. I need the Raynar Symbiote inside me in order to exert Influence on him. Plus, I need to touch him to make it work better.”

Her expression wavered, then steadied.

A heartbeat later she rolled up the right sleeve of her blouse.

“Here. Drink.”

My eyes grew wide. “Wait—wait.”

“You need my strength don’t you. Drink. It’s not like you haven’t drunk from me before.”

A flashback to her wearing an overly stretched pink nurse’s uniform blasted through my mind like the proverbial summer wind.

I knew I was blushing hotly but I couldn’t help myself.

That memory was permanently ingrained in my head.

The Countess’s eyes narrowed. “Are you thinking about that time in the Student Council’s office?”

“Well, of course I am. I can’t help it.”

“Ara ara, did I make that much of an impression on you.”

“Yeah, those two certainly did.”

“Huh? What about the rest of me?”

I looked away feeling my face warm up a few more degrees. “Do I really need to answer that?”


I faced her hurriedly. “Now isn’t the time.”


“Look, I’ll answer that later. I promise. Just not now.”

She raised her wrist toward me. “So you’re not going to drink? It’s nice and warm.”

“Geh—” I flinched and turned away from her.

Her voice darkened. “Ara ara, what’s with that reaction?”

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to drink from her.

Rather, I was a little worried by how my body felt afterwards, and it didn’t have anything to do with power upping.

I reached out and took a hold of her hand, and lowered her arm down to her side.

She sounded just a tad disappointed. “So, you don’t want my blood.”

“I didn’t say that. Besides, using Influence on him may not solve the problem.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Like I said, the auto-pilot will continue driving the car.”


“We need to stop it from doing that.”

“…I know….”

“Which means you need to enter the override code.”

The Countess’s gaze wandered over my face repeatedly, but I could tell she wasn’t looking at me, but through me as though in distant thought. Abruptly, she picked up her palm-slate and typed something on it which she showed me shortly afterwards.


I raised an eyebrow at her.

She indicated the flat panel built into the inside of the door.

She typed some more onto her slate.


I typed into my own palm-slate.


She gave me a troubled look.



She fell into thought for a short while before typing quickly onto her slate.


I raised both eyebrows at her.



I lowered my eyebrows.


She hesitated before replying.


Now we were getting somewhere.

I typed a follow up question.


Simone’s expression grew tense. Did she wonder why I asked her that?

I wasn’t ready to tell her that it was something I suspected when I thought of the two little girls in the video recording.

After a moment she gave me a faint nod.


I suppressed the urge to smile.

I had one more question to ask.


The Countess considered her reply.


Suddenly Simone’s eyes brightened as though lit by a thought.

Her fingers flew over her slate’s screen.


She gave me a dazzling smile, thoroughly pleased with herself.

In a hurry she sat back and began entering commands into the door’s flat panel console.

I turned my head to regard the tunnel flashing by.

Before I could make my move, there was a question I needed answered.

I asked the Kaiser’s Blessing how would summoning the Artifact, even if only a Fragment of it, affect the interior of the car.

I realized I’d never summoned the gauntlets within a confined space.

Would opening up a portal to Pocket Space where the sarcophagus resided tear up the car?

I sent the question to the Artifact’s Core Awareness.

I sensed the Kaiser’s Blessing ruminate over its reply before sending it as a thought into my head.

The damage would be minimal…but there would be damage.

I swallowed as a second thought gave me an impression of just how much the car would be affected.

Ah, this could be bad.

At the same time, I wondered why the spatial distortion had a wider sphere of influence than when Caprice summoned her Valkyrie Legs. Was it simply a difference in the way the Kaiser and Valkyrie worked their magic on the fabric of space-time?

Or did the problem lie with me?

I asked the Artifact quickly while the Countess tapped furiously into the flat panel console.

A thought slipped into the forefront of my mind.

A power regulation issue? A problem with the mechanism generating the Pocket Space around the sarcophagus?

I blinked.

A side-effect of the forced unlocking from four weeks ago?

I clenched my jaw.

*Hey, hey, Kaiser, when were you planning to tell me you were faulty?

A muted bang dragged my attention away.

I turned my head a little and regarded the Countess as she hammered at the console then clenched her hands in defeat.

I whispered, “Hey…what’s wrong?”

Her head swiveled toward me, and she shook it weakly.

Not good.

Then her gaze jumped away as another thought came to her mind.

Speaking aloud, she said, “Special override condition. Countess ninety-one, fifty-eight, eighty. Emergency flash traffic to Witch One.”

What the heck kind of code was that?

Wait, could she be referring to her sister, the Raynar Witch?

And were those her three sizes?

The Countess glanced at the flat console screen that was palm sized.

I didn’t miss the frown that furrowed her brow. I took that as a negative response. “Did you quote them wrong—your dimensions?”

She shot me a hot glare.

I raised my hands placatingly. “Sorry.”

Then I sighed and unbuckled my safety belt, in contrast to what I’d instructed of the Countess not long ago.

“I guess we’ll have to do it the hard way after all.”

*Kaiser, I need your help. Can you limit the distortion around the breach into real space?

A miffed thought wandered into my mind.

*Okay, so you’re not faulty. Then what’s the problem.

I listened to its reply, then thought back to my time in the Vault.

*That forced unlocking of the restrictions messed you up? You mean the time you summoned both gauntlets to my defense?

An affirmative thought made me blink.

*Sorry…for being so weak.

The Kaiser was quiet for a heartbeat, then announced it was ready.

I guessed we would ‘talk’ about that later.

Inwardly I frowned, thinking there was a lot more talking happening between my Artifact and I in recent times. I hoped it was a step in the right direction.

I tried not to smile.

Odd, I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t even troubled by what I was going to do next.

I regarded the driver’s seat in front of me, sensing it with the sensorium-field emanating from the bracelet.

“Simone, don’t hate me for this.”


“Hold on tight. This is going to be a little bumpy.”

“Caelum—wait. There’s no guarantee the codes will work.”

“Sure, and there’s no guarantee the safety systems will kick in and save us.” I faced her sidelong and grinned. “But what the heck, we have to try, right?”

The Kaiser’s Blessing opened a breach between Pocket Space and the interior of the car.

The black mist swirled in, thickening in a heartbeat, bringing with it an intense chill.

Simone cried out in fear as darkness filled the inside of the car.

I kept my focus on the bladed gauntlet which settled over my right forearm.

Yes, it was the same configuration as what I’d used against Celica back in the tunnel below the Academy.

As the breach sealed, I sensed the sarcophagus deep within its pocket of Pocket Space.

It hadn’t emerged, but simply delivered the gauntlet through the breach.

I knew the Kaiser’s Blessing had tried to limit the distortion to space-time.

But the damage was already done.

The door beside me to my right was twisted and protruded outwards. The seat wasn’t so warped, but it clearly wasn’t right under my butt anymore. Nonetheless, it appeared the damage had been mostly isolated to the outer skin of the black sedan.

To its credit, the vehicle’s sturdy engineering had resisted the distortion quite well.

The car was still moving.

Great, we haven’t crashed yet.

Through the sensorium-field, which was stronger now that my right gauntlet had been summoned, I could detect the car was emitting some kind of distress signal. But the Kaiser read it and identified it as a standard vehicle-in-distress signal that was sure to be picked up by the tunnel’s transceivers.

It wasn’t anything special.

At least, it wasn’t the kind of signal calling out directly to the Countess’s security people.

Even so, there was the chance the men-in-black that accompanied her every move – while keeping out of sight – were listening in on the sedan.

The mist had cleared away enough for me to see the interior again.

The Countess had tucked herself against her door, and was shivering from either fear or the cold.

Yet the latter didn’t bother me, probably because I was bonded to the Kaiser’s Blessing.

The length of the blade made it unwieldy in the otherwise spacious interior of the sedan.

I drew my arm back as best I could, took aim, then plunged the tip of the blade into the partition wall ahead of me…and straight into the driver’s seat.

I felt a slight resistance as the blade – wrapped in a millimeters thick piercer-field – penetrated through metal, composite alloys, fabric, and real leather.

I felt no resistance when it perforated the driver’s body.

My aim had been good.

I missed his heart, and lungs, but the result wasn’t pretty.

The sensorium-field allowed me to sense the driver’s blood splash out onto the steering wheel and dashboard.

A few drops landed on the inside of the windshield.

Being an Aventis he would undoubtedly survive, and heal within a few days or so.

However, at the moment he was incapacitated by the intense pain radiating out from the wound.

I kept the blade in place as I didn’t want the healing to start just yet.

I wanted the car’s interior sensors to detect his state of distress and commence emergency stop procedures.

Twisting the blade a little brought a fresh cry of pain from the driver.

The Countess looked ready to launch herself at me, but the seatbelt was keeping her tied down.

She started to unbuckle it.

I yelled at her, “Don’t! Stay where you are!”

“Caelum—you’re killing him.”

“No, I’m not. But the car’s emergency intelligence has to register he’s no longer fit to drive.”

The Kaiser’s Blessing pulsed an urgent thought into my head.

The emergency system had kicked in.

The sedan was now talking to the emergency system monitoring the tunnel, and it was being directed to an emergency breakdown bay or lane a few hundred meters ahead.

I pulled the blade out, and more blood splashed out of the driver.

Remembering the agony I felt when Celica pierced my chest, made me empathize with his pain.

I made a silent vow to bring pain to whomever had used Influence on his mind. I didn’t think an apology on my part was going to make him forgive me.

He already despised me, of that I was certain.

Oh well, c’est la vie.

Again, I had trouble maneuvering the three and a half foot long blade in the confined space of the passenger area.

*Kaiser, can’t you make it shorter.

In response, the blade shortened by a foot.

That seemed the best the Kaiser could achieve, and it was better than nothing.

I glanced at the Countess through the corner of my eye.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “He’s still alive. Looks worse than it really is.”

I was lying but what the heck.

The Countess shot me a horrified look. “You have to be joking!”

She was sharp as usual.

I shrugged sheepishly. “Hey, I lived through getting speared through the chest, and I’m not an Aventis. He’ll be fine.”

Her look of horror grew worse as the blood rushed out of her face and neck.

Ah, I forgot that she knew about that incident back in the Vault.

I swallowed. “Sorry. One more thing to take care off.”

With that, I focused on what the sensorium-field was telling me about the driver. Then I reached out to him with the gauntlet, not the attached blade, and concentrated on generating an effect-field that I could use like an invisible hand.

The field emanated from my raised hand, and extended forward like an extension of it.

In moments it had penetrated through the partition, the driver’s seat, and was expanding around the man’s torso.

I kept my eye closed, visualizing everything I needed to through the sensorium-field.

I now had a firm grasp on the man, and kept him seated back.

I didn’t want to risk having him reach out to the dashboard or center console.

There would be no pressing of buttons today.

Just sit back and enjoy the pain.

My inner sadist was starting to emerge.

Down you bastard. Stay down.

Though my eyes were closed, my ears were not.

The Countess sounded tortured.

“Caelum, what are you doing?”

“Keeping him in the seat and not floundering about. Can’t risk him pressing something he shouldn’t.”

The sedan was slowing down, flashing its emergency hazard lights while at it.

The Countess kept shifting about, her hands wandering repeatedly over the safety belt buckle.

I sensed an abrupt change in her as she froze, then began peering out the window.

She spoke quickly. “There’s something up ahead. I see lights. It’s an emergency breakdown lane.”

Maybe this would work after all. Once outside the sedan, our palm-slates should start working again.

I cocked my head slightly in the Countess’s direction. “When the car stops. Stay in the car. It’ll be safer, so I’ll get out and make the call.”

“Are—are you sure?”

“No, but it’s the best I can think of right now.”

My concentration slipped and the hand shaped effect-field wavered, losing its grip on the driver.

I was starting to believe I’d wounded him worse than I’d intended.

Maybe I should have used the effect-field to strangle him unconscious.

Well, it was too late for a change of plans now.

The sedan slowed further as it pulled into the long and very wide breakdown lane.

That much I could sense from the Kaiser’s sensorium-field that was now radiating in a flattened sphere some fifty feet in radius.

When the vehicle came to a stop near the end of the lane, I released my grip on the driver. The effect-field vanished in a heartbeat, leaving me with an intense headache that made my vision swim and darken at the borders.

I glanced at the Countess. “Stay inside.”

I grabbed my palm-slate that had fallen onto the backseat between the Countess and I. Then I tried opening my door but it was jammed courtesy of the warping caused by the Pocket Space breach into real-space.

I used the gauntlet blade to cut myself an opening I then had to kick out.

Once outside the sedan, I quickly walked over to the driver’s side door.

It was locked from the inside, and I thought of using the gauntlet’s strength to force it open.

I chose not to delay. There was something else I needed to do.

I used the palm-slate’s voice recognition to call up Arisa’s number.

Again, all I got was her damn voice mail.

“Arisa, when you hear this, you have to contact the Raynar Witch—you have to call Simone Alucard’s sister. We’ve got a real problem. Her driver was Influenced. He tried taking us to the Island Three’s spaceport. He said something about taking her home. I don’t know what’s going on, but we need backup. Can you call Kaleb and the others? Arisa, I really hope you listen to this soon. I have a really, really bad feeling this is going to get worse. I’m going to use the emergency comm. unit here in the breakdown lane to make outside contact.”

I walked to the rear of the car.

On my way I peeked in through the opening I cut, and told the Countess to stay inside.

Then I walked round the rear of the vehicle and over to the stout communication panel built into the rock wall of the tunnel’s breakdown bay.

I pushed at the large flat button, surprised it wasn’t a touch sensitive screen interface.

The holovid image of a woman winked to life a few feet to my left.

“Hello there,” the woman said. “We understand your driver is in an injured state.”

I surmised the sedan’s Assisting Intelligence had reported that to the tunnel’s emergency service.

I nodded to the woman. “Yes, he’s been injured. He’s going to need medical attention.”

“Yes, we understand. A team has been dispatched. They should be there…shortly…ah….”

Her gaze was sitting firmly and squarely on the gauntlet encasing my right hand and forearm, and the long blade.

In a panic, I realized I hadn’t returned the bladed gauntlet back into Pocket Space.

Should I laugh and pass it off. No, that wasn’t likely to work.

She swallowed visibly. “Um, sir, if you’ll excuse me for a moment.”

“No—wait, I need to contact Public Security.”

“Yes, sir. Don’t worry I’ll do that for you. Right away—”

She disappeared before I could utter another word.

I stared at the empty space in dismay, then down at my right gauntleted arm.

Damn it. Should I send it back now?

Behind me, I heard a sedan door open, then the Countess’s voice.


I half turned toward her. “Medics are on their way.”

She was sitting halfway outside the car, and holding up her palm-slate. “It’s working again.”

“Then call your sister. Tell her what’s happened.”

However, the Countess was looked in the direction of the tunnel.

I turned in time to see a large black suburban vehicle pulling into the breakdown lane.

It had all the hallmarks of a special vehicle and the Kaiser’s Blessing detected strong effect-fields emanating from around its large, squarish body.

But that wasn’t what surprised me.

It was the fact it hadn’t so much as driven into the lane, as emerged into it.

The remnants of a thermoptic camouflage field faded around its side panels as it barreled down the lane.

It wasn’t slowing down. It was speeding up.

And it was driving headlong toward me.

I heard the Countess scream as my mind overclocked in a heartbeat.

I made my choice a fraction of a second later.

There was no way I could dodge it, so I buried the blade of my gauntlet vertically into the permacrete ground, anchoring me to the tunnel floor.

A barrier-field warped in a concave form around me, generating from the summoned part of the Kaiser’s Blessing.

Not for the first time did I regret summoning only a fragment of what was clearly and immensely powerful Artifact.

In slow motion I saw the Countess drop her slate and scream in terror.

Then I focused on the incoming suburban.

The effect-field it generated was clearly as strong as the Kaiser’s Blessing.

My Artifact must have realized that by now, for the black mist bloomed out around me.

In the blink of an eye, the second gauntlet encased my left hand and forearm.

The barrier-field surrounding me became a donut.

And the suburban crashed into me with a roar of its hydro-turbine engine.

The vehicle was clearly not your regular model.

For a moment, I managed to hold my ground, but then the blade was torn free of the permacrete and the barrier-field surrounding me wavered and shrunk, tightening about my body as I sailed through air, past the idling sedan, past the Countess frozen in terror, and into the wall at the far end of the emergency lane.

I struck the wall with enough force to crater it. The impact overwhelmed the donut shaped barrier-field. It couldn’t absorb all the kinetic energy, and a significant amount flowed through me.

I rebounded off the wall and into the ground.

I landed on my stomach, knocking my chin into the cold permacrete.

My consciousness took a battering, and my vision darkened into a murky grey mist.

For a heartbeat I feared the Kaiser had retreated into Pocket Space, but then I realized it was merely the cloud of rock debris showering me.

I must have cratered the wall a lot more than I’d first gathered.

If this much debris was coming down, I must have struck it with the force of a speeding maglev.

Then my fear came to pass, and I felt the Kaiser disengage from me.

My vision faded to black.

And it didn’t clear.

That’s because I was no longer conscious.

I had passed out on the ground.



I listened to both messages from him.

They were twelve minutes apart, the last only a few minutes ago.

Then I used my palm-slate to get a fix on his location.

There was none.

That could only mean one thing. The palm-slate was dead.

I used the tracking service I employed to call up its last known position.

The emergency lane of a side tunnel leading to Island Three’s spaceport.

My body grew cold as a horrible premonition swept through me.

As though muted by distance, I heard a woman’s voice call out to me.

“Arisa—Arisa, what’s wrong?”

It took a moment for me to register her words of concern.

Miriya Harlow was studying me with a cigarette in hand, but it wasn’t lit yet.

She was probably heading outside the medical lab for a smoke.

The lab was connected to the training center deep under the nightclub my family owned.

Because it was underground, Miriya avoided climbing up the stairs leading to the habitat street level. Instead, she normally smoked in the underground car park.

She knew how much I hated the smell of the stuff.

“Arisa? What’s the matter? You look like someone’s stepped over your grave.”

I gave her a horrified look, and she immediately jerked back and looked contrite.


I swallowed heavily. “What—what do you want?”

For a moment she looked confused by my response.

Shaking her head a little, she said, “Well, I was asking you that.”

“I’m sorry.”

She sighed softly. “But if you must know, I was going to tell you that Caprice’s results will come through in an hour. Other than that, she seems fine. She’s calmed down and her hormone levels are returning to normal. But a more detailed result will have to wait until the blood work is finished. For now, I’ve given her the all clear. You can take her home once she’s dressed.”

I nodded distractedly. “Oh…that’s good. Thank you, Miriya.”

She dropped her weight onto a hip.

“Okay, now your turn. What’s the matter? And you’re not walking out of here until you tell me.”

I took a couple of deep breaths. “Miriya, I think Caelum’s in trouble.”

She lowered her hand holding the cigarette. “Give it to me straight.”

I hurriedly replayed the messages he’d left for me.

Miriya listened while standing utterly motionless. Only when the messages ended did she give me a concerned look and mutter, “Not good.”

I felt she was stating the blatantly obvious.

Miriya shrugged. “Well, what do you want me to say?”

Ignoring the question, I glanced at my wristwatch.

Kaleb, Maya, and Rina Sayen had left the training center more than an hour ago after finishing their routine for the night.

I had a choice to make, and I’d better made it quick. “I’m calling Kaleb.”

“That hot, strapping young man?”

I gave her a thin look. “Damn it, Miriya, can you be serious.”

“I’m always serious. You just don’t notice it.” She started to light up the cigarette where she stood. “Want me to call in some more help. How ‘bout I give your brother a call?”

“No. I don’t want my family involved. This is my problem. Kaleb is affiliated with me, not with Justin.”

Miriya lit up the cigarette and took a long drag on it. She blew out the smoke through her nose. “Such a pity your older brother only chooses to affiliate female Familiars. I wonder why.”

“Because my brother is a hedonist. Now, don’t ask for answers you already know.”

She puffed on her cigarette.

Despite the worry eating at my innards, I gave her a flat look.

Miriya blew out more smoke, though she did avert her face away from mine. “What about the Witch—you calling her?”

I hesitated only for a moment, before regarding her in displeasure.

“What do you think?”

Miriya smiled wryly. “Okay, okay. I’ll go smoke outside.”

It was only when she moved past me on her way to the lab’s exit that I saw Caprice.

She was standing a few meters away, barefoot and dressed in her underwear, with her school uniform bundled in her arms.

I froze with the palm-slate at my ear.

I could be forgiven for believing Caprice’s emerald green eyes glowed with an unearthly light.

Of course, it was just my imagination…wasn’t it?

I certainly wasn’t imagining the sound of her voice.

“Arisa…what’s happened to Caelum?”

I swallowed again, feeling the weight of that gaze as though it were pushing my awareness, my sense of self, into the back of my skull.

She might as well have been holding me by the throat.

Caprice dipped her head and spoke very slowly. “What…has happened…to Caelum?”

I told her the truth. “His palm-slate is offline, and he may be in trouble.”

Caprice took a deep breath and began getting dressed.

I felt some of the pressure on my mind ease away.

When Kaleb’s voice answered me on the palm-slate, my composure had mostly returned.

“Kaleb, I’m sorry, but we have a problem….”

Chapter 13.


I felt myself rousing out of a deep, black ocean of nothing.

My unconscious state was giving way to my conscious one.

The sound of a man’s voice was like a lifeline pulling me the rest of the way out of the depths.

“…he’s coming to….”

“…good…we need to go…this guy’s stable for now….”

“…hey kid…can you hear me…?”

I swallowed, my throat feeling dry, yet there was a coppery taste in my mouth that I was familiar with.

It took a couple of attempts to open my eyes.

When I did, I saw the face of a man, probably in his mid-twenties, dark haired, and looking down at me in concern.

“Kid, don’t try to move. We’ll bring the stretcher along.”

I wanted to shake my head, but couldn’t.

Yet little by little my awareness was gaining clarity.

I was on my back, with my head resting on something like a small pillow.

“Where…am I?”

“On the Eye Aitch Five. About two kilometers from the spaceport bowl. Do you remember what happened to you?”

I forced myself to sit, surprised I could do so.

Then again, he did help me up.

I studied him as my vision grew stronger.

From his clothes, I realized he was a medic.

I saw flashing lights off to my left and thought it might be an ambulance.

When I craned my head around I saw the black sedan that had brought us here to the emergency lane.

I turned back to the medic. “A girl…was there…a girl?”

He shook his head. “No. Just the injured driver, and you on the ground lying in the rubble.” He spared a look to something behind me. “That’s one Hell of a crater. I’m not going to ask if you made that.”

My memory was returning rather well.

I gave him a nod. “Yeah, when I was rammed by a black suburban with military grade effect-field bumpers.”

He frowned slightly at me. “Kid, are you a Familiar?”

“I am. You know that don’t you? You scanned my biometric signature. It’s in the archives.”

“Yeah, I guess I just had to ask.”

I raised my right hand, showing him my bracelet. “I’m also classified as a Special.”

“Figured that much.”

I snorted softly, and then to my surprise I saw that my shirt was still intact.

That had never happened before. Whenever I summoned the gauntlet in the past, my shirtsleeve was the first to go. Did this mean I could now summon the gauntlet like Caprice could summon her Valkyrie Legs?

I wanted to laugh, but instead I smiled. Laughing at a time like this just didn’t feel appropriate.

The medic gave me a wary look. “Look, I scanned you with the med-wand. You lost consciousness which automatically puts you at a Grade Three concussion, but…it’s not what the scan is telling me. At worst you’re a Grade One.”

I looked at him blankly. “I’m sorry, what do you mean?”

“It means you’re doing better than you should.”

I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment. “Isn’t that good?”

“It’s probably because you have Aventis blood in you.”

I froze up as I realized what the coppery taste in my mouth belonged to.

He continued. “It’s Raynar blood. The Symbiote inside you is growing at a phenomenal rate. It’s probably what saved you from a major brain injury.”

I looked away. I had Raynar blood in me? Someone had given it to me and then left me here.

Was it…Simone?

I felt my heart beat a little stronger at the thought of her feeding me.

The medic touched my shoulder. “Kid, we need to go. We need to take you to the nearest med center.”

I shook my head. “No, I can’t do that.”

“I can’t leave you here.”

“I’m fine.”

I struggled to my feet, needing his help to make it up. But once I was standing, though I swayed a little, I was actually fairly stable on my feet.

However, the young medic wasn’t convinced. “By regulation, I can’t leave you here.”

“My name is Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear. My Guardian is Arisa Imreh Lanfear. If there’s a legal problem, you can leave it to them, but I can’t go with you. Not unless—not unless you’re headed to the spaceport.”

He blinked at me. “Actually, we are. They’re the nearest facility with a hospital to treat the driver of that car.” He indicated the sedan.

I almost laughed in relief.

Was my luck turning for the better?

The medic looked uneasy. “And there’s probably going to be an Enforcer detachment waiting for you.”

For some reason, I bit my lower lip rather childishly.

I didn’t need to ask why there would be Enforcers expecting me, but I had to do something about them. “I need to make a call.”

I fished in my pockets for my palm-slate but it wasn’t in them.

The medic bent down, and picked something up off the ground that turned out to be a broken palm-slate. “Is this yours?”

I took it from his hand. “Yeah. Great….”

From the ambulance parked a few meters away, another male medic called out, “Matt, we need to go.”

The medic next to me wave back at his colleague in reply, then face me.

“Kid, we can’t delay any longer.”

“Can I use your slate to make a call, maybe two? I’ll pay you for it.”

He inhaled deeply. “Fine. Let’s just get aboard.”

I thanked him, then spared the black sedan one more look before allowing myself to be led by the medic to the ambulance. I realized now what I hadn’t noticed before when we climbed into the car at the Tower Piazza – the registration plate on the sedan was different to the plate on the car waiting for us at the Academy.

That’s why Simone’s override codes didn’t work.

It wasn’t the same car.

So close as to be easy to confuse between the two.

But not the same car.

As I boarded the transport bay of the lev-ambulance, I had no choice but to acknowledge that whoever had taken Simone, had prepared for this night well in advance.

This wasn’t a random, or coincidental encounter.

I was suddenly very afraid for Simone’s life.



Caelum called me on a borrowed palm-slate.

He had memorized my number, rather than relying on his own palm-slate’s contact list.

Fortunate since his slate was history.

He explained the situation and told me he planned to go after Simone.

I asked him how he expected to do that, and he bluntly admitted to not having a plan. He was making it up as he went along.

I clenched my jaw, took a breath, and told him we were on our way to pick him up.

I assured him I would use my family connections to deal with the Enforcers.

At that, he wanted to know if I’d spoken to the Raynar Witch – Simone’s older sister, Silia Alucard.

I told him not concern himself with her, nor with Simone.

The girl was now someone else’s problem.

I said those words though my heart twisted a little.

I had to be honest with him as he was my priority, not Simone Alucard.

For a short while, I thought my decision would set him off.

Instead, all he said was a very calm, “I understand”, and hung up with a polite, “Thank you”.

I gave my palm-slate a guarded look, where it sat snug in its cradle in the center console of my car, then focused my attention on the road.

The entrance to the tunnel leading to Island Three’s spaceport was just ahead.

In moments we passed through the tollway, and into the three-lane tunnel.

Caprice’s voice was quiet, calm, quite flat. “You know he’ll go after her.”

I bit my lower lip. “Yes, I do.”

“Will you stop him?”

“Should I even try?”

I felt her gaze on the side of my face, but I didn’t face her. I just kept my eyes on the road ahead, driving the sports coupe with the auto-drive system disengaged. I wanted to drive my car, not some damn Assisting Awareness program.

Caprice had returned to sounding like her usual, deadpan self.

I could have been forgiven for disbelieving the emotional teenage wreck of three hours ago was the same girl.

“Arisa, do you mean what you said about leaving the Countess to her own fate?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“But you don’t wish to interfere.”

“I don’t have the resources for that. Now, if you don’t mind, I need to make a call.”

“To the Raynar Witch?”

“Yes, to the Witch. I need that woman’s help to get the Enforcers off Caelum’s case.”

“He’s a Special. He has the authority to defend himself.”

I sighed inwardly. “True, but it’s authority granted when on an errand for his Guardian and affiliated Pride.”

“And if he was protecting a member of another Pride?”

“Then I need to get that other Pride to co-operate.”

“Then you’d better make that call.”

I swallowed tightly. “Caprice…never mind….”

I made the call.

We were a ten minutes away from the spaceport bowl.

I wondered how long it would take to get through to the Witch.

It turned out to be a very short wait.



I ended the call and gave the palm-slate back to its owner, the medic seated across from me in the back of the ambulance.

He pocketed the device, then sat quietly watching me though he did monitor the Alucard’s driver, Arnaud, from time to time.

The driver I’d impaled was in a stable condition, bordering on conscious despite being sedated.

I looked at him, feeling no regret for stabbing him.

I knew I’d have to explain my actions, and I was ready to do so since everything I’d done was to protect the Countess.

Even so, I still wondered how much trouble this was going to bring Arisa.

I hoped she could cut some kind of deal with the Raynar Witch.

The medic broke the silence after he listened to a report delivered through the ear-bud he wore.

“We’re a couple of minutes from the hospital. You should know, it’s part of the spaceport.”

I took a quick breath. “I need to ask if you can let me off before you pull into the hospital.”

“You want to avoid the Enforcers?”

I nodded. “I have to find the girl I was entrusted to protect.”

He gave me a reluctant look.

I added smoothly, “If there’s any trouble with your superiors or the Enforcers, contact Arisa Imreh Lanfear. She’s my Guardian. Give her my name. Tell her that I asked you to do all this.”

He took a deep breath and sighed heavily.

I showed him my bracelet. “I’d rather you let me off, than me having to cut my way out.”

He looked through the windscreen, visible through the entrance to the driver’s cabin.

“Coming up on a set of lights….” He sighed again. “Hey, Paul, can you stop after the lights.”

I heard his coworker’s reply. “What? Why?”

“The kid wants off.”

“What? Look, he’s got Enforcers waiting for him.”

“Yeah, that’s why he wants off.”

I stood up, then walked to the back doors of the lev-ambulance.

It did surprised me the driver was keeping the vehicle low to the ground, when it was in fact capable of flying. However, that did suit me better. I’d rather not jump out of an ambulance flying over the donut shaped habitat that surrounded the immense spaceport.

There were two parts to the spaceport.

There was the actual port itself, and then there was the habitat surrounding it from the inside of the asteroid Island.

The spaceport was sometimes referred to as a bowl because it was built into a pre-existing crater on the outside of the asteroid Island. The crater wasn’t large enough so engineers made it larger, and reshaped into a stadium not for people but for starships. From my classes, I knew it to be five kilometers long, four kilometers wide, and a full kilometer deep. The inside walls of the spaceport ‘stadium’ – those facing into the crater – were divided into two stepped levels with hundreds of terminals for ships to land at. Vessels shorter than a few hundred meters made use of the levels, with the larger starships sitting on the bottom level, and the smaller ones at the top. Ships that were much longer, and unable to fit on the wide ‘steps’ were relegated to the middle of the spaceport stadium – what would otherwise be called the playing field.

That was the spaceport bowl, but while a lot of it existed outside the Island, a great deal more existed within.

Shaped like a giant ring, a habitat surrounded the port. It had a half-kilometer ceiling that was lower than for other Island habitats, yet it supported a mimetic sky field. Where it met the inside of the spaceport, the habitat offered a view of a massive wall with thousands upon thousands of lights. It was like looking at a cliff wall that ran the circumference of an immense elliptical slab, with ten thousand windows and balconies dotting the cliff face.

Under different circumstances, I would have taken the time to look around in wonder.

Not today.

The lev-ambulance came to a stop at the traffic lights, rather than run through them or over them with siren lights flashing.

Its unhurried progress felt…a little too sedate.

The medic with the nametag that read Mathew, unlocked one of the rear loading doors. “You said her name was Arisa Imreh Lanfear?”

I nodded. “Give her a call if there’s trouble.”

“I probably will….” He gave me an odd look. “I don’t know what trouble you’re in, but good luck getting through it.”


I jumped down out the door, to the surprise of the people in the car behind the lev-ambulance, then quickly ran between the cars stationary at the intersection.

In moments I’d joined a night crowd of people on the sidewalks.

The inside cliff wall of the spaceport, where it joined up with the donut shaped habitat, was a few hundred meters ahead of me.

As I ran toward it, I read the signs overhead indicating directions.

I saw the sign for the hospital, and veered away from where it indicated.

Instead, I followed the signs ones indicating entrances to the spaceport terminals.

Nearer the cliff wall, I spotted a moving walkway leading directly toward it. I picked up my pace and ran onto the walkway. It was moving too slow for my needs, so I jogged along its length, careful not to bump into people or their luggage.

Half a minute later and I was inside one of the many terminals.

I wandered into the spacious foyer, and looked about, hoping to quickly gain my bearings.

Even before entering the terminal, I knew I’d face the problem of finding Simone on my own.

There was also the possibility she wasn’t even here.

Heading to the spaceport could have been nothing more than a ruse – a diversion.

But I had nowhere else to start looking for her.

Yet now that I was here, I had no idea where to look for her.

I gauged whoever took her had a ten minute lead on me, maybe more.

There was a chance they were still here in a terminal, but nothing more than a chance. Not even close to a certainty.

I considered heading to one of the security desks, and asking the guards there to put a call out for a missing person.

Then I considered there was probably a call out on me, as a ‘person of interest’.

Enforcers could enter the terminal in search of me at any moment. I could be facing spaceport security guards with every minute that went by.

Even so, I couldn’t stand still and do nothing.

I wandered down the length of the terminal to where it connected to another terminal through a set of magnificent transparent glass doors.

An overhead holosign showing a map of the elliptical spaceport interior, indicating the facility was divided into sixteen terminals. With a circumference of around fifteen kilometers and multiple levels, a sinking feeling settled into my chest as I realized that even if she was here I had no hope of finding her any time soon.

I couldn’t do this on my own.

The sensorium-field produced by the Kaiser’s Emblem was limited to a radius of fifty-feet. Even if my Artifact’s abilities were fully unlocked, I didn’t think it could generate a field large enough to encompass the volume of the spaceport.

In short, there was nothing I could do to quickly locate her.

As I walked through the glass doors into the adjoining terminal, my chest ached from the hollow feeling of knowing she might soon be gone.

Believing I would never see her again, I began to despair.



Do I like Arisa Imreh Lanfear?

No, most certainly not.

Do I respect her?

Yes, I do.

So when she made the night call to my office in Island One, Habitat One, I listened to what she had to say, despite the interruption to my work on compiling recent reports on the activities of Crimson Crescent.

I listened, and I inwardly despaired.

Then I told her I would take care of the situation.

I tapped away a message to a member of my Crew, colloquially referred to within the upper echelons of Public Security as The Coven.

Jaxon was the first to reply.

A holovid representation of a tall, slender young man with dark hair came to life. The image was out of Imreh’s line of sight.

I sent him the voice mail messages that Imreh had forwarded to me from her palm-slate.

I instructed him to notify the Crew.

As Jaxon’s holovid image disappeared, Imreh surprised me with her next words.

“I can’t stop him when he gets this way,” she said. “So I leave him in your care.”

I frowned inwardly as I looked at the image of her driving. I didn’t bother asking if she was using the auto-drive system. Well, if she crashed, that was her problem.

Instead, I asked, “What are you saying, Imreh?”

“He cares about your sister. I know he doesn’t want to lose her.”

I swallowed tightly, thinking she had seen my reaction.

I knew what Imreh meant.

A Familiar and an Alucard Aventis.

History repeating itself.

I felt a pang in my chest, and steeled myself against it, closing the proverbial bulkheads doors on it before it could spread throughout the rest of me.

“What are you truly saying to me?” I asked.

“Use him.”

I blinked.

Imreh glanced at me for a heartbeat. “Use him, Silia Alucard. He’s a Familiar, but he’s bonded to the Kaiser’s Blessing. He’s strong, probably stronger than his father was at his age.”

She paused.

“So use him as an asset in the field. You have my permission to do so.”

I knew what she was after.

I said, “Fine. I’ll get the Enforcers of his case, because I know that’s what you want. But he’ll still need to come in for a debrief. He’ll need to make a statement and undergo questioning.”

“In the presence of a Lanfear representative?”

“That’s standard procedure.”

She was quiet for a moment. “I’ll agree to that. I don’t really have much of a choice.”

I shook my head. “No, you don’t.” I sat back in my leather chair. “Neither do I.”

“Can you guarantee the Sanctum won’t get their hands on him afterwards?”

I swallowed. “No. I can’t do that. If you want to keep him out of Sanctum hands, then you’ll need to involve your Primogen.”

I watched her lips draw a thin line across her face. She nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Then I guess I’ll have to consider that when we get to that bridge. We’ll talk later then. I’m almost at the spaceport habitat now.”

I studied her image for a moment. “Imreh, what are you planning?”

She spared me a long glance. “What do you think? I’m planning to support my affiliated Familiar in my capacity as his Guardian. What else do you think I have in mind?”

I looked aside. Jaxon’s holovid simulacrum was back.

He indicated silently that he wanted to talk. He looked pleased with himself.

“Imreh, I need to go.”

“Ciao then Silia Alucard Raynar.”

The call came to an end a heartbeat later, and Imreh’s visage disappeared from above my desk.

I didn’t have time to resent her attitude or tone toward me. “Jaxon, what do you have?”

“Found him. Found them.”

I stared at him in disbelief. “What was that?”

“I said I found them.”

My disbelief jumped another notch. “How—how did you find them?”

He laughed. “Hey boss, you know what my Artifact can do. Why do you look so surprised?”

I shook my head at him. “That’s not what I’m asking. I know you’re Artifact can infiltrate photronic systems. I’m asking how is that you found them so quickly?”

“Because they’re not bothering to hide.”

I cocked my head at him. “What?”

“They’re not bothering to hide themselves, or to hide Simone Alucard Raynar. Your sister’s out there in plain view. The security holocams identified her the moment she stepped into the terminal. Hell, the identified her the moment they parked their badass suburban into the parking lot.”

I heard the chime of alarm bells begin to ring in the back of my mind.

The smile on Jaxon’s holovid image faded. “I knew you’d react that way.”

“Jaxon, you’re part of my crew—my Coven—so it’s natural you’d know me by now.”

“Well, I’m thinking she’s bait.”

I gave that some thought. “Perhaps….”

“If not bait, then they’re probably confident we can’t stop them.”

That gave me a chill.

Jaxon nodded slowly. “My gut’s telling me they have a way out, and that there’s nothing we can do to stop them.”

I had to consider the possibility they had rigged something that would force our hand, or rather, ‘stay’ our hand. Something meant to dissuade us from stepping in.

I pressed my lips tightly for a moment. “That may be true, but it almost feels like they’re forcing a confrontation. Can you identify them?”

Jaxon’s face grew taut. “Yes, Boss. I just did.”

Four more holovid simulacra of people flashed to life in my office. Some of their surroundings were included in the holovid images.

I recognized them in a heartbeat.

They were the remaining members of my Paladin team, The Coven.

Three men, two women.

All Familiars. All trained by the Artemis and Paladins over the past years. All possessed unrestricted Artifacts they had spent years unlocking.

I swept my gaze over their faces.

A large man, built like a brawler, folded his arms that were thicker than a regular man’s legs. He’d shaved his head bald, which made him look older than his twenty-nine years of age.

“Got your call, Boss,” Harlan Hayes afil Raynar rumbled. His callsign was Witch Two.

A girl with dark blonde hair, tall and slender like a fashion model, planted her hands on her hips.

“It’s late. Must be important to interrupt my date.”

Eliza Hayes afil Raynar, Harlan’s younger sister, and callsign Witch Three.

The second girl in my team looked surprised. She was shorter, and sitting down on a sofa which I could see in the holovid image. She looked to be wearing pajamas, eating potato chips from a bowl on her lap.

China Milan afil Raynar, the youngest member of the Coven, and callsign Witch Six.

She sounded annoyed. “You cancelled our girls’ night out for a date?”

Eliza replied, “A very important date. And I’d rather spend time with a hunk than with you.”

“You bitch,” China complained from her sofa. “That’s it—I’m moving out.”

Eliza declared, “Then I’m not returning your bond.”

“Bitch, and double bitch,” her roommate retorted.

The fourth member of my team, a tall, well-built young man with light brown hair, and a rather handsome appearance offset by a pair of cold eyes, regarded the two female members of the Coven.

Jacques Werlander afil Raynar, age twenty-seven, callsign Witch Four. “Would the two of you shut up! The Boss is waiting on you.”

Eliza shot him a cold glare that was wasted on him. “Jacques, I think it’s time you got yourself a girlfriend so she can teach you how to treat women—”

“Cut the crap, both you,” roared Harlan.

The two women jerked back as though struck by a strong wind.

However, they didn’t utter a peep after that.

Harlan raised a palm. “Do you want me spanking you like last time?”

They both shook their heads in a hurry.

Then they shared a look.

They both nodded their heads in a hurry.

Eliza asked, “When can we get started?”

China grinned like a sex kitten. “Will you promise to tie me up this time?”

Jaxon started to laugh which earned him a glare from Jacques.

Harlan snorted like a bull, then faced me. “Boss, what’s the situation?”

I took a quick breath. “My sister’s been kidnapped.”

All mirth left their faces.

No more joking around. No more adult banter.

China put her bowl aside and stood up in a heartbeat. She started undressing while she ran into what might have been her bedroom.

Harlan was facing me, but Jaxon and Jacques’s eyes almost popped out of their sockets when China’s large breasts bobbed into view as the girl stripped out of her top.

It was clear she didn’t wear a bra while in the comfort of her own home.

Using two aerosol cans, China sprayed a thick mist of perfumed deodorant into the air. Then she danced naked inside the mist like some kind of exotic stripper.

I coughed loudly, but Jaxon and Jacques were oblivious to me.

I coughed again to no avail.

Then Eliza noticed China’s exhibitionist routine. “What the Hell are you doing?”

She pointed at the men watching China. “You two—turn away right now!”

Jaxon shook his head. “No way. I wanna see this to the end.”

Jacques nodded. “He’s right. This is worth the price we’ll pay later.”

I stood up slowly. “Gentlemen, aren’t you forgetting someone.”

“Who?” they asked without turning away from the sight of China swaying sexily inside the mist.

Me!” I yelled at them.

They jumped in shock. It was enough for them to stop staring at China as she hurriedly dressed into underwear, a black bodysuit, and a plaid, crimson skirt.

I spoke to her. “China, I’m not going to warn you again. No more undressing on holovid. Is that clear?”

She nodded as she tied her hair into a ponytail. “Boss, I had no choice. This is an emergency.”

I groaned in defeat. “Yes, yes it is.”

Harlan asked again, “What’s the situation?”

I played back the recordings Caelum Desanto left for Arisa Imreh Lanfear.

They listened – while China brushed her teeth – then regarded me with undisguised concern.

Harlan’s eyes could have been mistaken for chiseled stone orbs. “Influenced?”

I sat back down. “Normally it shouldn’t last more than a minute or so. But Simone’s driver appears to have been Influenced quite deeply.”

Eliza’s eyes met mine. “Pushing that deep can cause significant mental trauma. We’re talking permanent damage. That’s why I have to limit myself when using it on Aventis subjects.”

I nodded. “It appears whoever Influenced Simone’s driver had no qualms about inducing permanent damage.”

Jacques asked, “So who are we up against?”

Jaxon replied quickly. “I’ll show you in a second. First, I need to show you this. You’re not going to like it.”

A holovid bubble burst to life above my desk.

Six pairs of eyes focused on it.

The bubble showed a recording made from the holocams watching an emergency lane in a tunnel leading to the spaceport habitat.

A familiar, nondescript black sedan was visible in the lower left corner of the screen.

A man stood a few meters away from its rear.

He looked to be wearing strange armored gauntlets with a single narrow blade each.

Without warning a large, suburban vehicle much like the one employed by the security personnel assigned to watch over my sister, roared into view.

It struck the man, and I saw the air between him and the suburban ripple like water.

Then he was tossed out of sight, only to crash back into view, and lie unconscious on the ground. His armored gauntlets and blades vanished in a thick black mist.

The suburban shuddered to a stop, with significant damage to its bumper and bonnet.

Eliza and China were staring at the image with identical horrified looks.

Jacques muttered loud enough to be heard, “Jeezes, did he survive?”

Jaxon nodded weakly but remained quiet.

Had he already watched this recording?

Jacques asked, “Who’s the guy on the ground?”

Jaxon said, “Visual recognition identified him as…Caelum Rafael Desanto afil Lanfear – the registered wielder of the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

To the left of my desk, Harlan raised his chin then cast a tight look my way. “Boss? Did he say Desanto?”

I kept my eyes on the image. Desanto had never identified himself in the voice mail recordings he left with Arisa Imreh, so Harlan didn’t know it was him. “Not now, Harlan. Jaxon, keep playing the security footage.”

I saw two people emerge from the suburban, wearing Noh masks.

I shot Jaxon a look. He caught it and faintly shook his head as if to say, ‘wait, wait’.

I turned back to the holovid bubble.

My sister ran out of the black sedan to Caelum’s side.

The audio was turned down so I used the photon ring on my left index finger to raise the volume.

Simone’s screams filled my office.

The audio system automatically muted her to a bearable level. I knew it would normalize all other sounds in short order.

Simone was frantically trying to rouse the young man on the ground.

She rolled him onto his back.

Harlan inhaled deeply. “That’s Desanto….”

I watched Simone tear at her right wrist, and force the spilling blood down his throat.

She kept her wrist on his mouth as she yelled at the two people approaching her to stay back.

I bit the inside of my mouth as I watched and listened to her on her knees.

The voice of a man came through clearly in the recording.

He opened his arms invitingly to Simone. “Oh, we’re not here for him. We’re here for you. Remember what I said before? You’re father wants you to come home.”

Simone yelled, “And this is how he does it? By having you run over the boy I love.”

Her words were like a fist clenching around my heart.

The man shook his head. “You misunderstand. These are my methods, not his.”

Simone continued kneeling down beside Desanto. “I’m not leaving. I’m not leaving without him. Never.

“You wish for us to bring him along?”

“No.” She shook her head vociferously. “No. You don’t touch him. And you don’t touch me.”

“You’re being hysterical.”

Simone growled, “I’m ‘not’ going with you.”

“Ah, how disappointing. Very well, we’ll do this the hard way. I’ll apologize to your father later.”

He turned to one of his companions.

The Analytical Intelligence reviewing the recording identified her as a woman by her clothes and proportions. The woman nodded and her right arm was enveloped in the black mist prevalent when a Pocket Space breach occurred. The miasmic mist faded heartbeats later to reveal her right arm clad in a menacing looking gunmetal blue metallic arm with razor sharp claws.

China’s eyes dilated and she hissed, “That’s Razor! I’d recognize those claws anywhere.”

In the holovid bubble, the woman, Razor, reached out to Simone, and I realized she meant to grab my sister with an effect-field emanating from the Fragment.

Simone was jerked to her feet.

She tried grabbing at the invisible field. She tried breaking free.

It was futile for someone not gifted with a Fragment or another device that could generate an effect-field of its own.

The man stepped closer to Simone, and then waved a hand in Desanto’s general direction. “I’m sure he’ll follow you—if he cares—though I doubt the two of you have a future together.”

For some reason, I felt those words were directed at me.

No, they were directed at my family.

He knew the whole scene was being recorded.

He knew I’d eventually watch it.

Without another word, they took my sister with them. The woman with the razor sharp claws dragged Simone by the throat and tossed her into the suburban’s back seat. Then Razor climbed in after her.

The man climbed into the front passenger seat.

I had to assume there were at least three of them in the suburban – four if I included Simone – though the vehicle could drive itself using the auto-drive Assisting Intelligence.

Within moments the vehicle had backed up to give itself room, then roared out of the emergency lane with impressive acceleration, leaving the black sedan and an unconscious Desanto behind.

Jaxon said, “The lev-ambulance arrived three minutes later. The black sedan’s driver had a wound through his gut. Not lethal for an Aventis, but real painful nonetheless. Desanto regained consciousness and left aboard the ambulance.”

I said to him, “You told me you’d identified them.”

“I have, but only when they walked into the spaceport terminal with your sister. They weren’t wearing masks then.”

Harlan asked bluntly, “So who are they?”

Three holovid bubbles appeared above the bubble showing the scene from the emergency lane. Two of the new holovids displayed the security profiles on a man in his early thirties, and a woman in her early twenties. But the third holovid showed security image of a second man in his mid-twenties, and it offered no information on him.

Harlan frowned sharply. “What the Hell? Another unknown Familiar?”

China hissed again. “It’s her. It’s her!”

“Shut up!” Eliza snapped.

Jaxon looked faintly pained but he kept quiet.

However, Jacques and Harlan looked stunned as they stared at the profile of the first man.

“What the Hell,” Jacques muttered. “He’s here—in Pharos?”

Harlan clenched his hands, and I thought I heard his tendons pop.

“Maestro…,” he rumbled.

Eliza looked truly worried. “How—how did he get in?”

“Many ways,” Jaxon replied flatly. “There’s lots of ways in and out of Pharos, especially if you have a suitable Fragment or Artifact to help you out…like mine.”

“Enough,” I said and stood up slowly. “True, there’s still too many ways in or out, but for now they’re here, and their not bothering to hide anymore. And I don’t like that. More than anything that makes me nervous.”

Harlan said, “They’re ‘that’ confident we can’t stop them.”

I pressed a fist onto my desk. “Undoubtedly. In many ways, this is very much his modus operandi. Maestro doesn’t make a move unless he has the angles worked out. However, this time he’s being utterly brazen. It’s like he’s challenging us to make a move—a futile move. And that isn’t like him at all.”

Jacques faced me and asked, “Do we know if it’s the same three Familiars that invaded Galatea Academy four weeks ago?”

Harlan raised an eyebrow. “You mean the three Familiars that were stopped by Nicola Weinberg and her Siren Armor?”

Jacques nodded. “Is it them? Last I heard Public Security Sections Nine and Ten were still hunting for that group without success.”

Jaxon shook his head slowly. “Other than the fact that Maestro’s group chose to wear Noh masks, just like the other three who invaded the Academy’s underground network, we don’t know if it’s the same trio.” Jaxon waved his hands as he operated a photon keyboard. “The only thing we have linking Maestro’s group to the group from four weeks ago, is the fact that Razor uses a Lycan Artifact, and we know one of three that invaded the Academy made use of a Lycan Armor.” He shrugged. “But there are a few Lycan Armors out there. It could simply be co-incidence. I’ve got the Analytical System doing a biometric comparison between Razor and the woman from four weeks ago.”

Jacques nodded and fell silent in thought.

Eliza spoke up. “If they’re at the spaceport then they have a ship waiting for them.”

Jaxon shook his head. “Not necessarily at the spaceport.”

Eliza and China gave him perplexed looks.

Jaxon continued. “I checked the registry of every ship that’s docked or inbound to Island Three, and none of them triggered a red flag, a few yellow flags, but not a red one.”

Harlan folded his arms. “Are you saying they have a way out that doesn’t involve a ship?”

Jaxon shook his head. “No, I’m saying they have a way out that doesn’t involve a ship at the spaceport. There could still be a ship out there.”

I leaned forward a few inches. “Jaxon, issue an alert to Public Security Section Twelve. They monitor the space traffic around Pharos. Have them sweep the area for anything that remotely looks like a ship hiding out there. With any luck we might spook them into making a move.”

Harlan asked, “What about us?”

I looked at Maestro’s face frozen in the holovid bubble, barely able to suppress my burning emotions. However, I wasn’t going to lose my composure in front of my team.

No, definitely not in front of The Coven.

Inhaling as calmly as I could, I stood straight before them. “Yes, Maestro is here. Yes, he has my sister, and yes, he probably wants to take her off-colony. But we’re not going to allow that to happen.”

Harlan lowered his arms, and stood arms akimbo. “So…what’s the plan, Boss.”

I nodded shallowly. “They have a head start on us, and they’re quite a distance away. But it’s not over yet. Turns out we have an asset on the ground, in the spaceport.”

All five of them, except for Jaxon, frowned.

“Who?” Harlan asked.

“Caelum Desanto afil Lanfear.”

Eliza looked concerned. “But he’s just a kid. He’s untrained.”

“It’s true he’s not trained or skilled to your level. But right now he’s our best bet. And I’m fairly certain that in a short while he won’t be alone.”

They shared hasty looks.

I gave them a slow nod. “There’s another asset headed his way.”

Jaxon inhaled loud and deep. “You mean Steiner’s daughter….”

Harlan shot the young man a serious look. “You mean that little girl?”

I said firmly, “Steiner’s daughter is no longer a little girl. And like her mother, she’s a talent with incredible potential. Unfortunately, like her mother, she was awakened by Lanfear blood.”

China sounded puzzled. “Who are you talking about?”

Eliza shushed her with a sharp wave of her hand. “I’ll tell you later.”

Harlan shrugged his massive shoulders. “So we have those two on the ground. What about us?”

I crossed my arms. “This is what we’re going to do. To start with, Jaxon, tell the launch bay to get the Hecate warmed up. As for the rest of you….”

Chapter 14.


When my name was announced on the terminal’s public address system, I thought my heart would jump out.

I stumbled and had to catch myself which by some grace from high above didn’t attract too much attention.

The announcement repeated.

Caelum Desanto, please got to the nearest information desk on this level. You have a call from your…little sister.

I blushed in embarrassment as couple near me laughed at the announcement, wondering who this Caelum Desanto might be.

They wondered if my little sister was cute and wore her hair in twintails.

Keep it cool. Keep it cool.

I wonder what they would think if they knew I had a big sister and she was a deranged psychopath.

I walked as calmly as I could to the nearest information desk, and swallowed hard before announcing myself.

The girl at the counter eyed me for a moment.

Then she handed me a palm-slate. “It’s your…little sister.”

I took it with a polite nod, and stepped aside from the desk. “Hello?”

“Ah, hello there. Caelum, it’s your little sister.”

I blinked slowly. “I…I don’t have a little sister.”

“Well you do now.”

I swept my gaze slowly over the terminal level. “Who is this?”

“My name is China, and I’ll be your little sister—ahem—I mean part of your support for the duration of the mission.”

“Mission—what mission?”

“To rescue the girl who declared her love for you.”

I had trouble thinking for a few seconds. What was this girl talking about? “Sorry, could you say that again.”

“Don’t you want to save Simone Alucard Raynar?”

“Of course I do.”

“Well, we’re here to help you achieve that. Now, I should warn you that her ‘big’ sister is watching you. You need to score one hundred over one hundred, or you can kiss your tight behind goodbye.”

I was starting to get the picture. “You’re with the Raynar Witch. Let me guess, you’re a Familiar?”

“Yes, and yes.”

I almost laughed. “Great job announcing my name over the public address system. If they didn’t know I was here, they do now.”

“Actually, you’re both in different terminals, and the announcement was restricted to your terminal. You’re actually a full kilometer away from them.”

It took a moment for her words to sink in. “You…you know where she is?”

“Yep. My colleague will take over from here. I need to hurry over to your location.”

I raised an eyebrow. In that case, why was I even talking to her?

I asked her that.

“Oh, it’s because you’re cute.”


“When this is over, do you wanna go out?”

I swallowed and stared at the slate.

A girl wearing a visor, and clad in a black-on-black skinsuit was waving at me.

I pressed the palm-slate back to my cheek. “No.”


“You look like too much trouble. And I’m having a hard time dealing with the women already in my life.”

“How rude!”

“Besides, I’m already engaged.”

“What? Really? Who bagged you?”

“She’s a model.”

“Geh—that’s it! I’m not wasting my time on him. Jaxon, you deal with him!”

I waited for a few seconds.

A young man’s voice came onto the line. “Hello there. Now, let’s not waste any more time.”

“Who are you?”

“My callsign is Witch Five. The young lady you just spoke to—and I apologize about her behavior—is Witch Six. Simple enough.”

“Don’t condescend me.”

“Then pay attention because I’m not in the habit of repeating myself.”

I tried standing at ease.

The girl at the desk was giving me a suspicious look.

I cleared my throat. “Sure thing, little sister.”

“Good. Now you’re standing in Terminal Four. Simone Alucard is in Terminal Six. That puts you around a kilometer away from her. You’ll need to start moving. Wait—wait, not yet.”

I kept my breathing even. “I’m still here.”

“Good. Now the Coven is mobilizing but it will take time to get to your location. A situation has arisen so we’re not going to involve the local Enforcers.”

“Why not?”

“It’s complicated. Call it, inter-division politics. You don’t have to worry about it. That’s for the Boss to take care of. However, it means that the Enforcers are going to wait for our signal before they charge in. That said, we don’t know how long we’ll be able to hold them back once the ‘shooting starts’, if you get my drift.”

“I think I do.”

“Very good. So, while they Enforcers play the waiting game and stay out of sight, we need to get you to ‘her’.”

“Then I’m going now.”

“Wait, wait. Just listen to me.”

“I don’t understand. Do you want me to go or not?”

“I do, but it appears time is not of the essence. They’re waiting, but we don’t know why.”

I frowned a little. “How do you know where they are?”

“Because they’re not bothering to hide. That means, they’re waiting for something, or someone, and they’re not worried about being seen. My guess is they ‘want’ to be seen.”

“So where in Terminal Six are they? What level?”

“They’re in a business lounge on Level Two, about two hundred feet north of the glass wall dividing Terminal Six from Terminal Five.”

I frowned inwardly. “If it’s a business lounge, is it occupied with other travelers?”

“Quite so. Quite well occupied. We’ll classify them as collateral cover.”

I swallowed. “You mean human shields.”

“Well, Crimson Crescent has a habit of not involving Regulars. They make it a policy to limit collateral damage to the Aventis and Familiars. But they try not to harm Regulars.”

“So if the people around them are Regulars, they won’t make a move.”

“But if they’re Aventis, then they may be as good as dead.”

I remembered what the Cannon Girl had said to me in the ruins of the restaurant. It felt like a lifetime ago, rather than just five weeks.

I nodded to myself. “I understand.”

“Now, we can’t initiate an evacuation order. Again, inter-division politics. In truth, we’d rather not involve the other Public Security Sections, and that includes the Enforcers Division. But the real problem is the Spaceport Authority is digging in its heels and refusing to co-operate with a ‘quiet evacuation’.”

“And you don’t want to set off a bad situation by going around their authority?”

“Correct. Which is why you’re going to ‘casually’ approach the business lounge.”

I took a deep breath. “Can you tell me Simone’s condition?”

“She’s drinking tea and being served crumpets by the business lounge staff.”

I narrowed my eyes. “If it’s a lounge, does that mean there’s a starliner nearby?”

“There is indeed. And Simone’s name is on the manifest.”

“So they are planning on taking her with them.”

The voice hesitated before stating, “We don’t believe the data is accurate. We believe the record of her booking on the liner is forged. We think it’s merely another red herring. The fact they were able to compromise the liner company’s data is concerning.”

I took a moment before asking, “Do you know who they are?”

“I’ll explain along the way. You may go now. You’re backup is here.”

“You mean Witch Six?”

“No, your other backup. Oh, don’t forget to return that palm-slate to the information desk. Talk to you soon, Big Brother.”

The call ended.

I stared at the slate, then walked back to the information desk and returned it to the girl who eyed me with suspicion again.

Then I turned and started walking in the direction of Terminal Six.

I stopped a few meters later.

A girl in a Galatea Academy uniform was walking toward me in a hurry though her face was a picture of calm.

No, she looked bored.

Ah, I recognized that look well. It was her unhappy look.

She stopped a couple of feet in front of me.

She was listening to someone on her palm-slate.

“Yes, I found him. He was where you said he would be.”

She lowered the slate.

I stared at her in a confusion that swirled with a host of other emotions. Eventually, my feelings settled on just confusion. “What…are you doing here?”

“Arisa dropped me off.”

“Wh—what? Arisa’s here?”

“She’s looking for a place to park, so she dropped me off first.”

I cleared my throat, stalling for time to organize my thoughts. “And why are you here?”

“I’m here for you.”

I took a deep breath. “I’m not going back. Not until I rescue the Countess.”

I started walking past her.

Now I understood why Witch Five kept telling me to wait. He knew Caprice was coming, and was waiting for her to rendezvous with me.

As I walked past her, I realized things weren’t adding up. Caprice was my backup?

I stared at her, noticing she’d fallen into step beside me. “What are you doing?”

“Going with you.”

“You mean…you’re going to help me?”

“Yes. I’m here to help you. I’m not helping her.”

I looked ahead. Her reply was unexpected in that I expected her to drag me away from the terminal. By the same token, it was voiced in her usual manual, yet I could tell she was unhappy.

I cleared my throat unnecessarily. “Thanks, I guess….”

“You’re welcome.” She handed me her palm-slate. “It’s your little sister.”

I flinched a little.

She held the slate higher. “Your ‘little sister’.”

I took the offered palm-slate, and pressed it to my ear. “Hello Little Sister.”

The male voice of Witch Five greeted me.

I was relieved, since I was expecting to hear Witch Six’s voice.

Witch Five spoke in a faintly amused tone. “Good, now pick up the pace a little.”

I mulled a thought over. “Did you guide Caprice here?”

“Of course. She’s an asset. We’d be remise not to use her. Ah—hold on. The Boss wants a word with you.”

“The Boss?”

My chest tightened involuntarily.

The Boss could only mean one person – Simone’s sister, the Raynar Witch.

Silia Alucard Raynar.

I realized I was clenching my jaw and forced myself to relax. I didn’t succeed.

A cold, brusque voice emanated from the palm-slate. “Desanto, can you hear me.”

Alucard’s authoritarian tone didn’t help her standing with me. Her question didn’t even sound like a question.

It sounded more like a command to ‘shut up and listen, maggot’.

I sucked in air against the unpleasant pressure in my chest. “Yeah…I can hear you.”

“We haven’t spoken before. Allow me to introduce myself—”

I stopped walking. “I know who you are.” My voice sounded like gravel to my ears. “Let’s leave it at that.”

There was a long moment of silence. “Very well. I can understand your negative disposition toward me—”

“Can you? Can you really? You’re the witch who tried to kill my sister, and turned her into a homicidal maniac who stabbed me through the chest. And you’re telling me you can understand my feelings toward you? Are you serious?”

“Desanto, I don’t appreciate your tone—”

“Let me make something really clear to you. I’m doing this for Simone, and only for Simone. Not for you. Never for you.”

“I expected nothing more.”

I nodded, more to myself than to her. “Good.”

Her voice had gained a sharp edge. “Now that we’ve dispensed with the ‘pleasantries’, let’s get down to the business of saving my sister.”

The damn pressure in my chest wouldn’t let up. “I’m listening.”

“You can listen and you can walk, can’t you?”

I looked up at the terminal ceiling. If I extended the Kaiser’s sensorium-field, I was certain I could pick out the security holocams hidden behind or between the light fixtures. However, I chose not to. Maybe another time, when I had nothing better to do but practice using the Kaiser’s sensorium-field.

“Yeah, I can walk….”

My feet resumed carrying me forward toward Terminal Six.

Caprice had been waiting patiently, and now fell in beside me once again.

Alucard’s voice grew icier than before. “We know who took my sister. We’ve identified them.”

I swallowed tightly. “Who are they?”

“Familiars associated with Crimson Crescent.”

“How many?”

“There are four of them. We have eyes on them through holocam security system, and they’re not bothering to hide from us. That is…problematic.”

“I was told they’re in a business lounge. That means there are other people around them.”

“Other people are not a priority. They are not the mission. Simone Alucard Raynar is the mission.”

A sneer drew back my lips. “I figured you’d say that.”

“Pay attention, Desanto. The man who orchestrated this is aptly known as Maestro.”

“May I ask, is that his real name?”

“No it’s not, and information on his Artifact is classified and compartmentalized.”

“What about needing to know? Doesn’t this situation qualify?”

“You don’t need to know. However, I will tell you his Artifact is not a weapon.”

A thought tumbled into my Awareness. “Can you tell me if it influences minds?”

There was a distinct moment of hesitation before she answered me. “It does not.”

That wasn’t what I was expecting to hear. I was tempted to ask about Simone’s driver, but decided not to. As Alucard said, the mission was getting Simone back. However, I didn’t appreciate her stance that all other concerns were secondary.

Caprice and I arrived at the glass wall dividing Terminal Four from Terminal Five.

We crossed through the open glass doors without slowing.

I clenched Caprice’s palm-slate. “What about the other three?”

“Look at your slate.”

I did that, and saw the image of the woman I’d encountered outside the restaurant.

Alucard’s voice emanated from the speaker. “She’s known by the moniker of Razor. She’s equipped with an Artifact known as a Lycan Armor. It’s a close quarters melee type. Very fast, and very agile. Be wary her claws and feet.”

The static image changed to a moving one. It showed a large man standing behind a lounge sofa. I couldn’t see all of him, but what I could see gave me cause for concern.

This man was huge, easily standing out in a crowd. His eyes moved slowly as he swept his gaze repeatedly over the interior of the lounge. His whole demeanor reminded me of a sentry bot. The only thing he lacked was a pair of electro-shock cannons for arms. His own arms looked strong enough to crush flat a sentry bot like one might crush a soda can.

I had to admit, he put my dorm manager to shame.

Alucard sounded icy, yet concerned. “This individual is a problem. We have nothing on him.”

I slowed down. “You don’t know who he is?”

“We have no data on him, let alone his Fragment or Artifact. And that is a concern.”

“How is that possible?”

“It’s possible if he’s not a local. That means he could have been acquired by Maestro out in the nebula, or on a colonized moon or planet. In other words, Pharos has no records on him. We are making inquiries, but it could be days before we get an answer. Not knowing who or what he can do is indeed a reason for caution.”

Beside me, Caprice was studying the holovid image on the palm-slate.

I angled it so she could see it better, then asked, “That leaves one more, doesn’t it.”

The holovid image slid away from the man, and settled on a young girl with short dark hair, possibly around my age.

At first my eyes focused on her, but then I saw the Countess seated beside her, and the anxious pressure in my chest grew quite significantly, making it hard to breathe.


Alucard’s cold voice felt like a slap on the back of my head. “Desanto, I don’t like repeating myself.”

I swallowed down my resentment toward Alucard, since she had a point and this briefing was important.

The image enlarged and centered on the girl beside the Countess, pushing Simone out of the frame.

The young girl was a pretty thing, with large brown eyes, a decent chest under her blouse, and a lithe build. However, she sat with a nervous countenance, and that was hard to miss.

I asked, “Who is she?”

“Again, we don’t know. Like her larger companion, she may well be from a colonized moon or world. There are a number of possibilities, but none of them help us in determining her identity. As for her Fragment or Artifact—no idea.”

I slowed to a stop, and Caprice followed suit. I glanced at her, and after a moment Caprice voiced what I was thinking too.

“She’s not a fighter.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I didn’t think so either. So we can rule out a combat melee type Fragment.”

“Unless if it’s a weapon like that cannon,” Caprice muttered softly.

I sighed inwardly. She had a point. Looks could be deceiving and that worked against us.

I took a long slow breath, and asked Alucard, “So what’s the plan?”

“Go up to them, and stall them.”

I stiffened involuntarily. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure. Did you think I wanted you to engage them in combat? Not likely.”

She was right. I’d been hoping to go up there and kick this Maestro’s ass. Stupid. Wasn’t I the one who brought up the issue of collateral damage?

Alucard added, “My Crew is already deployed. They’re on their way but it will take them time to get there. You need to stall them. Undoubtedly Maestro will be expecting such an attempt, however, I suspect he’s been waiting for you all this time.”

I couldn’t help feeling a pang of unease in my chest, which added to the tension I was already feeling in there.

I asked, “Have they been in Pharos all this time? That is, do you know if they arrived recently or have been here for a long while?”

“Truthfully, we didn’t know they were here. We had reports of Maestro operating deep in the nebula, but no indication he had returned to Pharos. In short, we have no idea how he and his Crew managed to slip into the Islands. This is something of an embarrassing and dangerous oversight.”

I had to agree with her, while wondering how Crimson Crescent managed to operate within the Island habitats despite the amount of security surveillance employed by the Prides. Were there that many black holes in the system? Or was it deliberate? Was someone knocking out the lights in their surveillance systems.

Alucard’s voice softened, but it was still icy. “Desanto, there are some unpleasant truths regarding my family and my sister. I ask that you keep an open mind, and that you not judge us unfairly, and that includes Simone.”

I felt like laughing.

I couldn’t believe I was hearing this from the woman who’d played a hand in turning my sister into the evil murderess she was now.

Alucard continued. “Simone hasn’t had the easiest of childhoods. I’ve done what I can for her, but I know that it’s simply not enough. Even so, I can’t lose her. She’s precious to me, so I ask that you help me bring her home.”

I closed my eyes and lowered the palm-slate to my side.

I can’t describe the conflicted emotions I was feeling.

It would simply take too long.

What I can say, is that during the long seconds that ticked by, I felt my hatred toward this woman solidify into an emotional bullet I one day hoped to fire into her chest. But not yet. As I’d told Simone in the restaurant, I still wanted to know why Alucard had chosen to hunt down my sister. I wanted to know why the Sanctum had issued the order for her purge. Until then, I was going to stay my hand and not fire that ‘bullet’ into Silia Alucard Raynar.

I raised the palm-slate to my ear, and spoke as evenly as I could, but it was my turn to sound icy.

“I’m going to remind you one more time. I’m doing this for Simone. I’m not doing this for you. I hate you. I despise you. And one day, I hope I can earn justice for what you did to my sister, and for what you turned her into.”

I lowered the palm-slate and ended the call, effectively hanging up on her.

Then I handed it back to Caprice. “Next time they call. Take a message.”

If she noticed my hand trembling, she said nothing.

She quietly pocketed the slate, and waited for me to find the resolve to continue.

It took me a few moments for my feelings to calm down, and for my proverbial keel to grow level.

We ended up walking in silence the rest of the way to entrance to Terminal Six.

Once inside, I used an interactive map display for directions to the business lounge.

There were eight such lounges in this terminal.

I groaned inwardly. “Great…I didn’t ask which lounge it was.”

“Lounge Four,” Caprice said in an unreadable tone.

I glanced at her, and noticed she was looking away from me. I didn’t believe she was ignoring me since she’d just answered my question. Then I realized that something had caught her attention.

She was looking at a holovid billboard.

The rectangular, portrait oriented billboard was playing a commercial for a line of cosmetics.

I stared at it for a short while, thinking the girl in the commercial looked familiar.

“We’re wasting time,” Caprice said, and walked off with a determined stride.

Taking a really, deep breath, I tried expelling the heavy feelings of unease, uncertainty, and downright fear, as I followed after Caprice who was walking toward a set of escalators leading to the levels above.

We had to ride the escalators up two levels.

As we rode them, I looked discretely around, gauging the number of people within the terminal to be in their hundreds. If a fight broke out here, it could get ugly, especially if it’s a fight between Fragments and Artifacts.

Is this why Maestro lured us here?

I looked up at the level above where the glass ensconced Business Lounge Four awaited us just a short distance from the escalator landing.

Maybe Alucard was right and they had lured me here, but why?

I had trouble rationalizing that when I considered these people had run me over and left me for dead. Was it a test? Was it a challenge to see how far I would risk life and limb for Simone Alucard Raynar? Or were they testing her?

I followed behind Caprice until we arrived at the entrance to the lounge, at which point I took the lead.

However, Caprice reached out and pulled me to an abrupt stop.

I looked across at her in surprise. “What is it?”

Her lips drew together, and I sensed a conflict playing out within her despite her calm expression. “Caelum, I told you before I’m here to help you.”

“Yeah, I know….”

“I’m not here to help the Countess.”

I faced her. “Yeah, I know that.”

“That said, there are unresolved matters between the Countess and I.” She paused for a short while before adding, “I don’t think it’s right for her to leave just yet.”

“She’s not ‘leaving’, Caprice. She’s being kidnapped.”

“That may be, but I still don’t feel it’s right for her to leave without us facing each other properly.”

I lowered my head a tad and peered at her. “Is this because of what she said? Are you after an apology from her?”

“No, because I know she wouldn’t mean it.”

I didn’t agree with Caprice, but I kept quiet when it seemed she had more to say.

She took a long, quiet breath. “I pushed her, and naturally she pushed back. I’ve been regretting what I said for a little while now.” Her faint smile returned, curling her lips ever so slightly. “You may have noticed, I haven’t been myself lately.”

I inhaled deeply, sighed heavily, and gave her a single heartfelt nod. “Are you back?” I asked softly.

Her faint smile held steady. “Yes, I believe I am…for the most part. Perhaps, I’m better than ever.”

I smiled back at her, but for some reason it came out a tad nervous. “That’s…that’s good to hear….” With another deep breath, I jutted my chin in the direction of the lounge’s glass entrance where a pretty young attendant greeted us. “Let’s go do this.”

With Caprice alongside me, I walked to the entrance where the attendant flashed us a polite smile in greeting. She wore a crimson and white uniform, with a knee length skirt, one inch heels, and a small cap on her head.

“May I see your tickets?”

I glanced at the holo-stenciling on the glass entrance, and read the entry requirements.

Caprice said, “We have no tickets.”

“Then I’m afraid I can’t let you in.”

I spoke quickly. “We’re being expected. We have associates waiting for us inside.”

“I’m sorry, but without tickets—”

I showed her my right bracelet. “I’m with the Lanfear Pride. You know what this is? It’s a Fragment. My associate and I are here at the behest of Public Security.”

“Even so, I cannot allow you inside without a ticket.”

Someone came up behind her.

My stomach clenched when I recognized the woman, Razor.

“Is there a problem?” she asked, surprising the attendant who gave Razor a cursory, annoyed look.

Then Razor leaned close to the young woman’s face and looked deep into the woman’s eyes.

“Is there a problem?” she repeated.

I watched the attendant stiffen, and start to retort, but the words died on her lips.

Razor’s eyes hardened. “Let them in.”

The young attendant blinked slowly and her expression grew slack.

She stepped back and waved us through with a mechanical motion. “Please enter.”

Razor smirked, met my eyes briefly, and then moved away from the entrance. She didn’t wait for us. Instead, she walked deeper into the business lounge without a single backward glance.

I gave Caprice a sidelong look.

Her eyes had narrowed noticeably.

After a heartbeat watching Razor’s diminishing back, Caprice gave me a gentle nudge. “Let’s go in…before ‘that’ wears off.”

I tried not to nod nervously and failed.

The young attendant was squeezing her temples. She didn’t even notice us walk by her.

We entered the lounge, observing that like the terminal outside, the lounge was far from empty. There looked to be a hundred people of varying ages seated at the numerous couches and sofas spread out across the floor in a mosaic pattern.

I saw children with their parents or guardians, and my stomach tightened again.

No, this wasn’t good but deep down I realized I was expecting this ever since Witch Five said they were waiting for us.

Caprice was looking in one direction. “Over there.”

I followed her line of sight, and saw the Countess seated at a long sofa with two young women on either side of her, one being Razor and the other the unknown young girl.

Standing behind their sofa was the giant of a man, again another unknown factor in the situation. His eyes moved relentlessly left and right, sweeping his gaze like a radar wave over the occupants of the business lounge.

On the adjoining single seat sofa, I saw the man I’d shared words with at the restaurant.


Shoulder length blonde hair, dark eyes, a calm, pleasing disposition. He was dressed in a dark business suit under a long coat, the same attire he’d worn at the restaurant. I wondered if he was overly warm dressed as he was, but then again the lounge was at a cool temperature.

I started walking toward them, but Caprice deliberately bumped into me, halting me.

She reached out and touched my right bracelet with the anklet she now wore on her right wrist.

I blinked as her voice invaded my mind.

*_Caelum, we need to consider something_.

I nodded discretely at her.

Caprice dipped her head an inch and peered up at me.

*Silia Alucard said she didn’t know how they got into Pharos. Right?

*That’s right. Kind of odd considering how much security exists within the Islands.

Caprice’s pupils contracted.

*What if how they got in…is how they intend to get out?

Involuntarily I wet my lips as I considered her observation.

Caprice added, *Don’t forget, we don’t know what kind of Fragments they are using.

I gave her a stronger nod, and broke the contact between my bracelet and her anklet.

I turned toward Maestro and his people.

At that moment, the Countess chose to look in our direction, and our eyes met.

I watched her face brighten unmistakably and her smile reached me all the way across the lounge floor, and then she blanched in fear and her gaze darted around.

The others beside her, including Razor, were already watching us.

I didn’t miss the look of thoughtful consideration that Razor spared for Caprice.

I spoke softly. “I guess it’s time to find out what they want, and to get the Countess back.”

Caprice pocketed the palm-slate, and followed me toward the corner of the lounge where the Countess sat with her unwanted entourage.

The girl beside Simone remained seated, though the large man walked around the sofa and stood beside it with his arms crossed over his massive chest.

I saw him eye Caprice cautiously, though with less interest than Razor, who settled for regarding us with a guarded look on her face.

The girl beside the Countess on the sofa, looked even jumpier than before, giving me the impression that she was new to all this. In other words, she was more of an amateur at these encounters than Caprice and I were.

Maestro remained seated, legs crossed, reading an article on a data-slate that rested on his thigh. He made a show of looking surprised to see us, which I didn’t find endearing in the least.

“My, my, if it isn’t Mr. Desanto…and his lovely companion, the very beautiful and enigmatic Caprice Steiner.”

I frowned inwardly. What’s this? Leaving out our affiliations? Probably a Crimson Crescent policy where they chose not to recognize the Aventis that leashed us. I felt a little ambivalent toward that.

Maestro rose to his feet before the sofa seat, and bowed respectfully to Caprice.

“Greetings, Lady Steiner.”

I watched Caprice’s reaction in the corner of my eye.


Was it possible Serenity and I were the only ones capable of drawing out wild emotional responses from her?

I looked at Simone who was sitting as pale as a ghost on the wide sofa.

Silia Alucard Raynar wanted us to stall them.

Maestro expected us to stall him.

What if I went ‘off-road’ and tried a different approach?

Ignoring the Familiars, and Maestro, I stretched my hand out to Simone.

“Countess. Let’s go.”

Maestro looked mildly amused by my action. “My, how rude, Mr. Desanto.”

I shot him a cold look, the coldest I could muster. “I didn’t come here to talk. I came for her. And I’m leaving with her.”

Maestro smiled. “Are you now? Are you certain of that?” He looked down at the Countess as though expecting her to speak up.

I faced Simone. “Countess, take my hand.”

Her expression grew distraught moments before her gaze fell to the carpet between us.

I swallowed as discretely as I could. “Simone, take my hand, and come with me.”

Maestro studied her for a beat. “Countess? The choice is yours. Remain here as you’ve been for the last seventeen years, or come with us and start anew.”

I blinked, and barely succeeded in restraining my confusion.

Start anew? What did he mean by that?

My gaze narrowed on Simone, who remained seated, her eyes downcast.

From what I could see of her face, I sensed the inner strain she was under. I could tell without meeting her eyes that a great struggle was playing out within her.

However, she wasn’t the only one struggling with roiling emotions.

The emptiness in my chest was spreading outwards again as I feared her slipping away.

I kept my hand outstretched toward her. “Countess…take my hand…and come ‘with’ me.”

Her eyes fluttered upwards and she met my gaze.

“Caelum…I don’t know…I don’t know what to do.”

The feeling, the sensation that I was losing her widened the emptiness inside me.

Simone’s voice was low. “Caelum…my father…my father wants to bring me home.”

It was growing harder not to express my confusion.

I knew her father was Damon Alucard Raynar. I knew this from a conversation I’d had with Severin Kell, who told me that the Countess and her father had not spoken words in years.

So why would he want to bring her home?

The Countess took a shuddering breath. “Caelum, I have a father that I’ve never seen, never met, and never spoken to.”

My arm ached just a little yet I kept my hand extended toward her. However, her words were too much and my confusion broke free. “Countess, that doesn’t make any sense.”

She took another breath. “Caelum…Damon Alucard Raynar is not my father.”

My arm trembled. “What?”

“He’s not…he’s not my real father.”

Confusion and disbelief washed across my face, expressing what I was feeling.

Maestro folded his hands behind his back, and the smile on his lips faded away. His tone was serious and distinctly somber. “She’s telling you the truth, young Desanto.”

My arm continued to tremble, and my hand wavered down a few centimeters. “Simone, what are you saying?”

Her gaze grew a little stronger. “My mother loved someone, someone other than her husband, and I was the result of that love.”

I couldn’t keep my arm up anymore, and it fell limply to my side.

I stared at her in shock.

The Countess smiled weakly at me with sadness and despair. “I’m—I’m a love child.”

My mouth kept from falling open, but only because my jaw had reflexively clenched.

Beside me, Caprice inhaled sharply but otherwise didn’t move.

The Countess paused before adding, “I’ve never met my real father.”

I swallowed, and found my voice. “Why?”

“Because he is a Familiar, and an exiled member of my family’s personal staff.”

Her hands on her lap, fidgeted nervously.

Yet her voice was steady, though a little weak.

“My mother was spared losing her place within the main family branch because I was born a Pureblood. If not, she would have been banished, and I along with her. But she was fortunate, and I was raised as an Alucard despite the fact that my father is a Familiar. I’ve done nothing but be the perfect daughter of House Alucard. Keeping up my grades, learning etiquette, learning languages, I even learnt to play the piano, which I had to give up in middle-school. I’ve done everything I can not to be a disappointment. I even ran for Student Council to prove I had some leadership qualities. But no matter what I do…it’s never enough.”

Her gaze wandered slowly over my face, and for a moment she regarded Caprice at my side before her eyes settled on me again.

“No matter what I do it’s never enough, because I’m not a true Alucard. I’m an illegitimate child. And every time my mother looks at me, she’s reminded of what she did, of betraying her oath and the Alucard Family. I serve as a leash around her neck. I serve to keep her in check. And because of that…I’ve never received any love from her. It used to eat me up inside. I would see how other parents treated their children, and wonder why my family treated me like I was…just someone that lived in the house with them.”

She laughed softly.

“They treated me like they would a member of the household staff, no better than a maid.”

Again she laughed softly, and dropped her gaze to her hands on her lap.

I took the opportunity that offered me. “And of what your sister, Silia Alucard?”

“My half-sister. She’s pure Alucard.”

“What of her? How did she treat you?”

The Countess looked up, and was quiet for a little while.

“If not for Silia, I’m quite certain I might have…taken my own life by now….”

She averted gaze as it grew distant.

“I—I hate that place. I hate my home. I can’t bare to live in that house which is why I moved into Galatea’s dorms as soon as I entered the Academy four years ago.”

I remembered wondering why she lived in the dorms. Now I knew why.

She bit her lower lip so hard I thought it would bleed.

“I hate my family. And I try not to hate myself.”

She looked at me then.

“I plan to graduate, attend college. I plan to live in the university dorms. I would prefer to study off-colony—to study at a real world like Aeneas or Faltera. But to remain here, in Pharos, is something I can’t bring myself to do. I know it will hurt my sister, but it’s something I’ve long decided to do. To get away. To just get away from it all.”


That’s how my chest felt.

So cold. So empty. So helpless.

I was an orphan, yet I could at least say that for most of my life, my family had loved me.

I couldn’t picture her childhood.

I couldn’t picture living in a home as cold as hers.

I wanted to help, and yet I didn’t know what I could do for her.

Caprice spoke softly. “Are you going to leave with them?”

The Countess looked at her.

Caprice asked again, “Are you going to leave with them?”

The Countess smirked. “Would that make you happy?”

Caprice nodded. “Yes. One less rival to worry about. If you leave, you won’t be dominating Caelum’s time. He’ll have more time for me. In fact, I’ll win him over in no time.”

The Countess’s lips drew into a thin line. “Are you trying to bait me?”

Caprice shook her head. “No. I’m happy if you leave.”

Simone’s lips grew tight and bloodless for a heartbeat. “Oh, is that right.”

“Yes. After all, a Familiar knows their place, so an Aventis should too. So leave. Go on. Leave this place behind. Leave your friends. Leave your family that you hate so much. Leave your sister too. And most of all, leave Caelum as well. Ever since you came into his life, you’ve done nothing but turn his world upside down. If not for you and your family, he wouldn’t be alone the way he is now.”

I stiffened. “Caprice—”

“Shut up!” The Countess stood up. “Don’t you dare tell me what to do. And don’t you blame me for what happened to Celica.”

Caprice arched a slender eyebrow. “Do you condone your sister’s actions?”

“No, I don’t. But am not in her position. I don’t know what pressures she is under. I don’t know what the stakes were.”

“Perhaps, but I’m sure that if you were in her position, you would have made the same decision she did.”

The Countess’s expression darkened. “When did this become about my sister?”

Caprice’s lips curved into the ghost of a smile. “Your half-sister, remember.”

“I don’t think of her that way.”

“Of course not. And since you’re so alike, you would have made the same choice.”

“I told you, I don’t know what circumstances my sister was facing.”

Caprice shrugged. “But the choice was so simple and so easy to make. After all, what’s the life of one lowly Familiar worth to your family. You made your sentiments toward Familiars abundantly clear to me, or have you forgotten already.”

The Countess grew very still, so still she was probably holding her breath.

Caprice continued smoothly. “If you choose to leave, then what? You’re going to live happily ever after with someone who ‘may’ be your father? With someone who’s a Familiar just like I am? Won’t that be a little ‘uncomfortable’ for you?”

The Countess frowned, just a little, but then her expression hardened.

Caprice peered up at her. “In saying that, you don’t even know if it’s true. You don’t know if this man will actually take you to your real father.”

In the corner of my eye, I watched Maestro for a reaction, but there was nothing there – at least not yet.

Caprice shrugged a shoulder. “I’m surprised you’d even consider trusting the words of Crimson Crescent since they’re all Familiars opposed to the Prides. After all, how trustworthy can Familiars be?”

“You’re little bit of psychology on me isn’t going to help.”

“Help with what? Are you saying you’ve already made up your mind?”

“I’m still thinking.”

“And what happens if you decide not to go. Do you think they’ll let you leave?”

The Countess shot Maestro a fleeting look.

His expression remained unreadable.

Caprice cocked her head. “If you leave, Caelum will never be yours. I’ll win him over for sure.”

“Don’t use Caelum as part of your argument!”

“Getting testy are we? Alright, then how about this?”

She tossed her palm-slate at the Countess who caught it before it could fall to the ground.

Simone looked at it in her hands.

I heard a voice emanating from the slate.

Simone—please, don’t go!

The Countess froze. “Sis….”

Please—no matter what it is—we can work through this. If you go—if you go then it’s over. Please, please, Simone. Listen to that girl. You don’t know if they’re telling the truth. You can’t trust them.

“But I—”

Even with my resources I’ve never been able to find your father, and believe me I’ve looked long and hard.

Maestro sighed and shook his head softly.

It was his first reaction in a while and it triggered warning bells in my head.

*Kaiser, get ready. Something’s going to happen soon.

Alucard’s voice was close to breaking.

Simone, I promise I’ll support your plans. I promise that if you wish to study off-colony then I’ll make it happen. But you can’t leave—not like this. It’s not fair. It’s not fair, Simone. You can’t leave like this—you can’t leave me! I don’t care about who your father is—I don’t care if we’re only half-sisters. To me you are my one and only sister. Please Simone.

The Countess was shaking her head now, softly at first then more forcefully.

“You don’t know what it’s like for me.”

The slate trembled in her hands.

“I’m so tired of that house. I’m so tired of everything to do with my family. I hate it. I hate them. And I hate that bastard.” Simone dropped the slate. “I hate that man so much! I hate my father!”

Maestro said, “Fernice.”

The girl to the right of Simone nodded and the black mist surrounded her, chilling the air.

I summoned the Kaiser’s bladed gauntlets, feeling the air around me twist a little as my summoning conflicted with the girl’s. Both our Pocket Space breaches collided with each other. Yet the weapons soon encased my arms, and as the mist cleared, I saw that Caprice had also summoned her Valkyrie Legs and bladed gauntlets. The latter looked so much smaller than mine, but I knew they could cut just as well, and she could wield them better than I could wield the Kaiser…at least for now.

Caprice and I weren’t the only ones summoning our Fragments.

Razor and the large man were now clad in their respective armors and skins.

The woman looked like she was dressed in a tight riding suit covered in spikes and blades, and her hands sported six inch claws.

The large man resembled a bronze statue nine feet tall, with arms that could compress a car or van into half its width.

While all this was happening, two other events were taking place.

First, Simone had fallen to her knees and was shivering from the cold.

Second, the people in the business lounge were fleeing like mad after witnessing us summoning our Fragments and Artifacts. Their frightened screams and cries filled the air.

I didn’t allow the commotion to distract me.

I reached for Simone, but Razor jumped at me, forcing me to block her leap with my right shield-blade. I say shield-blade because the back of the weapon was covered in an angular shield that looked too narrow to even be one. Yet I never doubted it for anything else, and I was confident it could generate a barrier-field stronger enough to block anything Razor could throw at me. After all, it was the same configuration that had served me well against Celica, until my sister got the better of me and stabbed me through the gut.

My blade stopped the woman in the air, and I reflexively summoned a barrier-field that knocked her back several feet.

Caprice’s warning cry stopped me from reaching for Simone again.

A number of objects had emerged from Fernice’s Pocket Space that resembled regular octahedrons. In other words, they were like four sided pyramids connected at their square bases.

Eight of these octahedrons circled in the air around us forming a circle with a thirty-foot diameter. They circled faster and fast, and without warning lightning cast between them, fencing us in.

Razor had pulled back and hefted the Countess to her feet.

The Bronze Giant had planted himself protectively in front of them, preventing me from trying to reach Simone. He raised his hands, palms toward us, and the Kaiser sensed the build-up of an intense effect-field – a barrier-field strong enough to knock a maglev carriage on its side.

I didn’t think. I simply darted in front of Caprice and faced the oncoming barrier-field with both gauntlet-blades together to form a triangle.

At least, that’s what I intended.

Instead, Caprice leapt past me straight at the Bronze Giant, and buried her own blades into his barrier-field.

As their respective fields clashed, I felt the Bronze Giant’s barrier expand with stunning force, knocking Caprice backwards through the air.

Her body flew through the lightning barrier, and I heard her scream in agony as the writhing tendrils of light raked her body.

Then she was outside the barrier.

I didn’t have time to worry for her.

I raised my right gauntlet-blade high, then slashed downwards.

The barrier-field that emanated from the blade extended its effective length five-fold.

It was like swinging down a giant club, rather than slashing with a sword.

I didn’t have time to be shocked by its size and strength.

The giant ‘club’ slammed down on the Bronze Giant.

The floor under him gave way, and he disappeared from view as he crashed into the level below.

At that moment the lightning around us intensified, forming a hemisphere.

Everything within the dome became monochromatic as colors were burned away by the intense light.

I squeezed my eyes shut while dropping my posture into a defensive stance.

I didn’t know what to expect, and I could hear someone screaming, probably the Countess.

Then something odd happened.

Images began to flow through my head.

Images of places I had never seen before.

Then one image came to the fore and remained there.

It wavered like a photograph held under a bath of developing solution, and just like a photograph it was growing in clarity.

In my mind, I could see something that resembled the interior of a hangar of some sort.

Could it be somewhere inside Pharos?

Or was it somewhere in the belly of a starship?

As I struggled to ascertain what I was looking at, I heard something lance into my mind.

The Kaiser was yelling its thoughts into me, telling me to focus on a place of my own.

Telling me to picture somewhere that I knew and to picture going there.

Telling me to disrupt the translation process, and to choose another destination, one that wasn’t defined by what Fernice envisioned.

Fernice’s Fragment or Artifact was capable of teleportation.

As soon as I understood that, it felt like a cool breeze flowed through my body, sweeping away some of my anxiety.

And then for some reason I may probably never explain, one image came to mind.

I reached out for that image and held onto it tightly in my mind until I could almost recall the details of the rock walls.

Then blackness enveloped my mind and the sounds of screams faded to nothing.

For a heartbeat, I wondered if I’d lost consciousness.

But when I opened my eyes I saw myself falling to a rocky ground.

Landing on my feet, I rolled with the impact, and came up in a crouch.

I’d reacted subconsciously to the situation due to long hours of training.

Cries of surprise and shock rang out in the air, followed by dull thumps, groans, and cries of pain this time.

I saw four human bodies roll about on the ground, two of which quickly gained their feet, those of a man and a young woman. The other two, both teenage girls, lay outstretched and motionless on the ground.

I looked at my surroundings, and recognized where we were, realizing in shock that this was indeed the destination I’d chosen for us at the Kaiser’s insistence.

It worked.

It had actually worked.

Somehow I’d changed our destination from that hangar to a place into which I’d never set foot. It was somewhere I’d only seen through large windows and holovid screens. And yet here we were.

Still crouched, I twisted my body around and focused in the direction of my travelling ‘companions’.

In the distance, some fifty feet away, Maestro was dusting off his black coat while studying the immense cavern interior with a nonplussed expression.

He didn’t look angry.

He simply looked…utterly confused.

Flummoxed, is what he’d probably say.

He turned toward the girls on the ground.

“I say, Fernice, do you mind explaining what just happened? This doesn’t look like the belly of the Zephyrus to me.”

One of the girls on the ground pushed herself up onto her hands and knees.

“Son of a bitch,” she muttered loudly. “That gods damn son of a bitch—changed our destination.”

“What was that you say?” Maestro questioned.

The girl, Fernice, rose to her feet, spun in a loose circle, then spotted me. She pointed an accusing finger in my direction.

“That gods damn son of a bitch! Somehow he changed the emergence point. I don’t know how he did it, but he overrode my control and changed our destination!”

I stood up just as Maestro turned to regard me.

He asked, “I say, young Desanto, do you mind telling us where we are?”

I couldn’t help laughing. It just came out, bubbling forth until I had trouble breathing.

I blamed it on the tension of the past hour. However, whatever the source may be, my feelings all transmuted into a case of wild laughter that lasted several seconds.

When I calmed down, I took a number of deep breaths, coughed a couple of times, then straightened and stared Maestro in the eyes. “Where are we, you ask?”

He nodded. “I do indeed.”

I smiled at him. “We’re inside a training arena.”

Maestro regarded me for a quiet moment. Then he sighed heavily and shook his head in disappointment.

“An arena you say. Very well. It seems you want a confrontation no matter what we do to avoid it.”

I laughed and shook my head. “What do you expect, you bastard. You ran me over, and I intend to pay you back. And if you wanted to avoid it, you should have escaped while you had the chance. Why’d you wait for us? How stupid can you be?”

The Kaiser was thrumming.

I could feel its power and strength flowing through my body from the bladed-gauntlets. Even without the skinsuit I normally wore, this was the strongest I’d ever physically felt. Thus dressed in my casual clothes and shoes, I took a combat stance, readying one blade up, and one blade down for equal measure offense and defense.

“Now, put ‘em up Maestro, so I can knock your sorry ass back into the ground.”

He held up a hand.

“I must decline, young Desanto. Instead, I’d like you to entertain my trusted associate.” He turned to his right, and called out, “Razor? Would you be so kind as to teach this impertinent young man a lesson in respecting his elders?”

Clad in her tight blue-black armor with numerous sharp blades, the young brunette woman turned toward me, and shook her head despondently.

“You ‘really’ had to make a mess of things, didn’t you, you stupid brat.”

A heartbeat later, she ran across the ground, then leapt with frightening speed toward me.

With a loud war cry of “Fangs Out”, she charged into my waiting blades.



I didn’t know where I was.

I woke up aching all over, but pushed myself up onto my knees.

When I looked about I saw people running away, and the sounds of loud screaming and a child calling out for her mother. A little girl was hiding between two sofas.

At that moment, my eyes met hers, and something in my mind snapped.

No…something in my mind snapped lose.

A memory.

A frightening memory.

A memory where I was the child, and I was the one hiding against the street door of a building.

Hiding and hoping they wouldn’t come for me.

Hiding because I was too terrified to run.

The little girl looked at me and I saw myself in her eyes.

And suddenly the floor between her and I tore apart as something surfaced into the level like a leviathan rising from the deep.

A man, or rather a giant bronze statue some nine feet tall, landed on its feet after having jumped through the floor from the level below.

The girl screamed in terror, and another part of me snapped free.

No, it wasn’t something in my mind that broke loose.

It was something in the Core Awareness that controlled Brynhildr, my Valkyrie Maiden.

It felt like one of the shackles chaining the Awareness had snapped open, and now that chain fell away and disappeared like smoke in the breeze.

Black mist surrounded me, darkening the lobby as it spread in the blink of an eye.

I felt the sarcophagus that held Brynhildr push its way into real-space, warping the space around me to an extent I had not witnessed before.

I felt my clothes lift away from my body, replaced by something that felt like a warm liquid that covered me from my neck down to my toes. The liquid grew hard and then my skin tingled, reminding me of the skinsuit I used when training. But it clearly wasn’t a skinsuit. It was something else.

Then I felt the Valkyrie’s armor take form around my legs, my arms, and something attach itself to my back – something with wings shaped like very wide broadswords. These were the Vector Wings, and identical to those used by Serenity’s Sigrún type Valkyrie Maiden.

The sarcophagus retreated back into its Pocket Space, and the mist dispelled heartbeats later.

When I could see the lounge again, my sensorium-field was so strong I could perceive everything within a hundred feet. Almost immediately my head ached with a nauseating migraine that clouded my vision and made it swim.

Quickly, the sensorium-field shrunk back to a radius of fifty feet, and my Awareness lost some of its blinding clarity, but I felt the strain on my mind ease, and the migraine reduced to a headache that I was certain I could weather.

The little girl’s eyes were on mine.

She wasn’t screaming in terror anymore.

She was looking at me in awe, as I remembered looking at my mother in awe.

But my mother had died that day.

My mother had protected me and killed all the bad men and the bad Familiars.

She had killed all of them but one – a Familiar wearing an Artifact that resembled a Valkyrie but was not a Valkyrie, and possessed six wings like those of an angel.

I swallowed and clenched my jaw, grinding my teeth as I glared in hatred at the Bronze Giant.

He wasn’t the one I had promised to kill, but for now he would do just fine.

And I would not be the one dying today.

Crouching slightly on armored legs that felt unfamiliar, I charged at the Bronze Giant, and slammed into him with a barrier-field so strong it actually made the air ripple madly.

He flew away more than ten meters, his feet off the ground by more than a foot, and crashed through the reinforced permaglass of the business lounge.

With him out of the way, I leapt toward the little girl, and scooped her in my arms.

“Hold onto me.”

She did just that, but it was difficult for her as my arms were armored all the way to my shoulders. I had to be careful not to injure her with the gauntlets.

The Bronze Giant was getting to his feet.

“You gods damn bitch! I’ll kill you—”

With the girl in my arms, I leapt away toward the escalators leading down to the level below. I flew over the escalators, my tapered feet mere inches above them, and touched own on the landing. I saw people running around me – running madly toward the exit to the next terminal. They were like a raging river that broke around me as I stood nine feet tall on my armored legs, towering over the fleeing mob as I carried the little girl in my arms.

Behind us, the Bronze Giant continued to shout at me in rage.

“You messed everything up!”

The little girl trembled. I could sense her doing so through the sensorium-field rather than my armored arms.

I needed to get her out of the terminal. I couldn’t fight with her in my arms. But if I dropped her on the ground she would be trampled by the running throng of civilians

Then in the near distance in front of me I saw two men – security guards belonging to the spaceport authority. They looked at me in fear, and the saw the girl in my arms.

I didn’t think twice.

“Save her!” I screamed at the guards, then leapt toward them, jumping over the heads of the running people, and landed a few feet in front of the men.

The guards stood frozen as I stepped closer with the little girl in my arms.

“Please, save her.”

Perhaps it was his training or something else that drove him to action, but regardless of the reason, one of the guards snapped into motion. He held out his arms and I dropped the girl into them.

The girl looked up at me, her expression a mixture of fear and awe.

I don’t know why but I stroked her hair just once, then I turned, and jumped over the heads of the thinning mob. I leapt back up to the second level where the Bronze Giant awaited me.

With both my gauntlet blades swung forward, I willed myself to move faster, and the wings of the Valkyrie Maiden rewarded me. The Vector Wings split like scissors, and suddenly my leap wasn’t a leap anymore.

It was a lightning fast dash straight into the arms of battle.

Chapter 15.


It took me ten minutes to find parking.

Gods damn spaceport parking.

The habitat was a stretched donut some nineteen kilometers in circumference.

So why did they build so little parking?

After battling with other drivers—including one woman with four kids who promised to slash my tires—I finally found some premium priced parking at triple the hourly rate.

Utter extortion!

To make matters worse, why today of all days did I choose to wear heels?

Normally I wore sneakers to my university classes, but my favorite pair had suffered a mishap and the others were all worn out.

These black kitten sling backs were marketed as comfortable.

Hah—what a laugh!

After today these shoes were going into the waste bin.

By the time I approached the nearest spaceport terminal, I was already in a foul mood.

I checked Caprice’s location using the tracker on her palm-slate.

I stopped in a hurry.

After parking the car, I’d checked Caprice’s position on the app used by the service I employed to monitor the girl’s palm-slate. At that time, she’d been moving through Terminal Five and toward Terminal Six.

However now, just a few minutes later, the app was telling me the device was no longer registering as within the spaceport habitat.

In short, Caprice’s slate had vanished from the tracking service.

That meant it was either damaged and not working, or within an area that prohibited the tracking signal from reaching the outside world.

I pocketed my palm-slate and approached the terminal entrance.

All of my aches and pains were instantly forgotten the moment I stepped into the terminal and almost drowned in a wave of people stampeding toward the exits with all available haste.

I dove out of the way, and managed to find shelter behind a car rental service desk.

What the Hell was going on?

It was utter chaos.

Those people that weren’t screaming hysterically wore expressions of extreme fear on their faces.

I had to wait for an interminable length of time before spotting a break in the wave.

I dove into it, and made my way in the direction from which people were fleeing, which happened to be Terminal Six.

A cold, sinking feeling began to settle in the pit of my stomach.

I encountered more people fleeing, but this wave was a little more orderly than the previous mob – by a hair’s breadth.

Not even the presence of security guards was doing anything to allay people’s fears.

Suddenly my palm-slate rang loudly in my pants’ back pocket.

I pulled it out as I continued walking against the flow toward Terminal Six, which seemed to be where the commotion had originated.

I answered the call. “This Arisa Imreh—”

“—What the Hell is your Familiar doing?”

I jerked the slate away to arms’ length.

I recognized the caller without looking at the ID flashing on my palm-slate’s screen.

The shouting voice belonged to Silia Alucard Raynar.

I kept ‘my’ voice firm but civil. “What are you screaming about you Witch?”

Up ahead I could see the glass wall separating Terminal Five from Terminal Six. It was actually a pretty tall wall because the level I was on had a four-meter ceiling. There was nothing crowded about the interior design of the spaceport. Wish I could say the same about the parking situation.

“Lanfear—they’re tearing the place apart!”


Abruptly I was grabbed by a security guard with a frantic look on his face.

“Miss—you can’t go that way. The terminal’s in lockdown.”

My expression contorted. “What?”

He tried pulling me away, and I struggled against him. Clearly he was an Aventis by the strength he demonstrated.

I protested, “Wait, I’m looking for my Familiar.”

He glanced at me aghast. “You’re what?”

“My Familiar. I’m her Guardian. She was heading into Terminal Six.”

“Lady, there is no way in high heaven that I’m letting you in there.”

I planted my heels firmly in the ground, so the guard was pulling me along as though I was some kind of wake boarder.

“And why not?” I asked bluntly.

“Because it’s a war zone back there.”

My palm-slate was shouting at me.

“Imreh—do what he says and get out of there!”

I was still staring at the guard in consternation when a loud, thunderous crash broke out behind me in the direction of Terminal Six.

Looking over my shoulder, I saw an incredible sight.

On the Terminal Six side of the glass wall, a large section of the ceiling had crashed down to the floor. Dust and debris billowed out in a grey-white cloud, covering everything and hiding Terminal Six’s interior from sight. Then it blew aside as something flew out of the cloud, and landed on the reinforced permaglass that formed the exterior façade of the spaceport terminal. That glass was supposed to be harder than steel, yet it fractured in a large star pattern when struck by the object rocketing out of debris cloud.

I had no longer than an eye blink to recognize what had struck the permaglass.

I failed.

Unlike Familiars, I couldn’t overclock.

In the next instant that ‘something’ had pushed off against the tinted, transparent permaglass wall, and launched itself back into the cloud. Another thunderous boom emanated from within, and a large, bronze colored statue tumbled out the opposite end, head over heels, and crashed deep into the terminal, tearing through anything in its path.

A holo-billboard shattered like glittering teardrops when the statue swatted it with a loose limb. A sofa suite in a waiting area was smashed aside by its mad tumble as though it weighed no more than paper.

I didn’t know where the bronze statue came to stop because it tumbled out of sight within heartbeats.

However, I did get another glimpse of the ‘something’ that was evidently locked in combat with the giant statue.

Clad in the Valkyrie Armor, Caprice stood still for a few seconds within the settling cloud before launching herself low and fast into the air, in pursuit of the bronze statue. But in those seconds of peace, while Caprice had remained motionless, I realized something startling.

Caprice’s legs were encased in sleek, armor that resembled thick, triangular swords with tapered ends for feet. It was unlike her usual leg armor, which was closer to a collection of swords that slid against each other. The armor she wore now was rather static.

Her arms were sheathed in tight gauntlets with familiar three-foot long blades extending past her fists. But a large dove-like tail hung down from her back, not quite like a cape, but very similar. The tail floated behind her, not attached to her. Two sword-like wings connected to the dove’s tail, giving Caprice the appearance that she was wearing a ‘winged cape’, while not actually wearing it.

As the girl leapt deep into the terminal and joined the battle that was out of sight, I realized this was the first time I’d seen Caprice wearing this limited configuration of her Valkyrie. Until now, she’d been getting by with summoning the ‘accessories’ rather than the proper Valkyrie armor. Yet somehow, she had succeeded in unlocking another piece of her Fragment. She was one-step closer to summoning her Artifact, the Valkyrie Maiden Type Brynhildr.

That’s when the proverbial penny dropped.

Okay…I get it now…that’s what the Witch meant by ‘your Familiar is tearing the place apart’.

The security guard breathed out a curse, then added, “What in the Hell are they?”

“Fragments or Artifacts,” I replied, “wielded by Familiars.”

In the corner of my eye I caught the look he shot me. “Are you telling me that’s Crimson Crescent?”

“My girl doesn’t belong to Crescent. She belongs to me. I don’t know about the other one though.”

His face contorted in disbelief. “Your girl—?”

The sounds of battle drew closer and suddenly the fight was once again visible through the glass separating Terminal Five from Terminal Six.

Caprice and the Bronze Statue – I really should think of it as a Bronze Giant – were trading blows and strikes with their limbs alternately wrapped in barrier-fields and piercer-fields.

My eyes had trouble keeping up with the frenetic pace of the combat, but I saw Caprice duck under a haymaker swing that would have punched through the skin of a tank. She cartwheeled aside and avoided a second haymaker. I noticed that when she moved, the dove’s tail and wings floated clear of her body, thus avoiding tangling up with her limbs.

The Bronze Giant kicked a piece of nearby furniture at her.

She sliced it cleanly with a gauntlet-blade, then dodged another set of furious punches by jumping over the statue.

Once behind him, she lashed out with her feet, and a couple of snap kicks brought the Bronze Giant to one knee, before it rolled away from a roundhouse kick that would have separated its head from its shoulders.

Caprice chased after it, attacking the Bronze Giant with a flurry of kicks, and slashes from her blades, most of which were blocked.

Whenever she landed a hit, I heard a dull boom and the zinging sound of barrier-fields colliding with piercer-fields.

As I watched, rooted to the ground in fascination, I realized I’d never seen Familiars fight each other outside the training ring.

This was an actual battle, not a sparring match, and both sides were out for blood.

That brought a chill to my heart, and I began to fear for Caprice.

A feeling of helplessness began to well up inside me.

It was hard to suppress when I watched Caprice get clipped by a kick from the Bronze Giant that sent her spinning into a shop front within the terminal.

I didn’t realize I’d taken a step toward her, until the guard pulled me back.

“Miss, we ‘really’ can’t stay here.”

Part of me agreed with him, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave, at least not yet.

Yet I didn’t struggle against him when he began pulling me away from the glass wall dividing the two terminals.

I raised my palm-slate to my cheek. “Witch, you have eyes on the situation—mind telling me what’s going on?”

“Your Familiar, Steiner, is busy tearing up the place while kicking that giant’s ass. In case you’re wondering, it’s an Artifact called the Talos. That giant’s armor is tougher than a star destroyer’s skin. Unfortunately, it takes an Artifact to fight another Artifact and your girl has only a Fragment.”

“So why is Caprice fighting that statue—I mean giant?”

“That’s a long story. For now, get out of there. My people aren’t far away, and the local Enforcer division is setting up a perimeter. That means no one is getting into that spaceport without approval.”

“But what about Caprice?”

“If she can keep that Talos wielder busy for the next six—no five minutes—my crew should be able to contain him.”

I clenched my jaw. “What about Caelum Desanto? Where is he?”

“Don’t know, and that’s the problem. He vanished from the business lounge along with Simone, and the other Familiars.”

“He ‘vanished’—?”

Suddenly the floor underfoot trembled violently for the first time, and I looked up at the sound of crashing glass.

The guard stopped dragging me and regarded the floor above us in trepidation.

More sounds of a commotion, and the clashing of metal on metal with that strange zinging sound in the air which was effect-field colliding with effect-field.

The battleground was now closer than before.

My heart thumped loudly as I realized that Caprice and the giant had probably crashed into Terminal Five, but they had done so onto the floor above me, and were now busy wrecking the place while trying to defeat each other.

There was a real risk they would bring the fight to the ground floor.

Actually, that was bound to happen sooner rather than later.

A serious of resounding crashes urged the guard into action.

“Sorry Miss—we are getting out of here!”

He grabbed my hand, and this time I ran with him, but when the sounds of rage and ruin overtook us, we both skidded to a halt as we realized the fight in the levels above was somewhere between us and the terminal’s exit.

I looked back toward Terminal Six, wondering if we could get through the ruined ground floor and find another way out.

Suddenly the guard pulled my hand again, and dragged me toward an enclosed counter, leading me deeper into the terminal and away from the permaglass façade that faced the habitat’s interior. We landed in a heap behind the counter just as part of the ceiling caved in about a dozen meters away.

The Bronze Giant fell through the ragged hole, and landed on its feet with a tremendous boom amidst an expanding cloud of ruin.

A heartbeat later, and a section of the ceiling much closer to us broke apart as Caprice dropped through it. She landed with a boom of her own, though it was softer, gentler, as befitting the fairer sex.

Caprice looked impressive in her Valkyrie Maiden armor, even if it was only partially summoned. I knew that Brynhildr had a total of eight sword-wings, yet right now Caprice had access to only two of them. I also noticed she wasn’t wearing her Galatea Academy uniform. Instead, she was dressed in a black skinsuit that accentuated her lithe form, including her recently blossoming bosom.

It took me a moment to understand that she was dressed in the Valkyrie-skin that was an extension of the Valkyrie Maiden’s armor.

She had certainly upped her game for this encounter.

In terms of pure destructive power, it had clearly doubled in her favor.

For precious seconds she and the giant faced each other.

Seeing her calm and steady composure, I couldn’t help myself.

She looked…cool…and I was immensely proud of her.

From behind the counter, I peeked out and yelled at the top of my lungs.

Caprice—kick his ass!

Caprice jerked and half-spun around to look behind her.

She actually looked surprised to see me.

And she looked exhausted. Part of her face was caked in dried blood, and her raven hair was a disheveled, dirty mess that was covered in grey powder.

Her surprise lasted only a heartbeat. She was back to her usual unflappable self the next moment.

I swallowed and yelled, “If you kick his ass, you can grow those Cee-cups you wanted!”

For a moment there was no reaction, until I saw her eyes widen.

I yelled, “And we’ll go bikini shopping together!”

Her eyes continued to widen.

Then a faint smile settled upon her lips.

The guard pulled me back down. “What are you doing? Now isn’t the time for that!”

“Hey, I’m giving her some extra incentive to finish the job.”

“Finish it? You think she can do that?”

“Of course.”

“And do you think she can do that without getting us killed?”

I gave him sullen look. “I didn’t ask!”

The Bronze Giant took Caprice’s distraction as an opening. It ran toward her with incredible agility, crossing the distance between them in the blink of an eye. Yet Caprice jumped aside, pivoted smoothly on a tapered foot, and slammed her spinning leg into the giant with enough force to make the air vibrate and the floor tremble.

I watched in disbelief as the giant was brought to an instant halt by the tremendous kick.

However, Caprice was knocked back by the recoil and had to recover her balance in a hurry.

Not wasting a moment, the Familiar encased in the Talos Armor swung at her with a fist the size of a basketball, but Caprice parried it with a gauntlet-blade, then pivoted on her feet again, and lashed out with a second kick that struck the statue’s exposed flank.

Another boom, another rumble that raced along the floor and air.

I cringed behind the counter as the Talos Armor was knocked aside several meters. It crashed into an information desk, and ripped right through the counter.

Caprice half turned toward me and gave me a thumbs up. Then she pointed in the direction of Terminal Five’s glass exit.

I understood what she meant.

Run. I’ll hold him off.

Satisfied I’d received the message, Caprice turned toward to the Talos Armor – the Bronze Giant – and spread the sword-wings on her back. She charged at the giant like a speed skater on smooth ice.

The guard hiding beside me stood up in hurry. “Let’s go.”

Before I knew it he’d scooped me up into his arms princess style.

“We are getting out of here”

I was too surprised to do anything other than throw my arms around his neck.

Boy, could he run. Almost at a sprint he rocketed with me in his arms past the battling Valkyrie and Bronze Giant.

I twisted my neck around to see Caprice and the Talos Armor trade a flurry of blows and strikes that were too fast for me to follow. It seemed the battle had picked up the pace from what I’d witnessed over the last minute or so. Without the ability to overclock like Familiars could, I would not be able to follow the battle in real-time.

And there was no point trying to call out to Caprice.

She was in there doing her part, her concentration at her limit. She didn’t need me distracting her.

If she succeeded she would get her wish. A full pair of Cee-cups courtesy of the magic Miriya was able to work on the Symbiote.

I only hoped I wasn’t going to regret what I’d promised her. Bigger breasts were not always the answer to a girl’s problems.

The entrance to Terminal Five was up ahead.

The guard lowered me to my feet, and together we hurried at a near run out of the terminal.

It was open, level ground to the perimeter line established by the hundred or so Enforcers responding to the situation. But running in these heels was proving to be agony. I almost asked the guard to carry me in his arms again.

At sight of us, the Enforcers in power-armor that completely encased their bodies beckoned us through the line.

One armor-clad Enforcer, standing eight feet tall with his face hidden beneath a domed faceplate, questioned the guard who’d fled with me. “Anyone else back there?”

He shook his head. “If you mean Regulars or Aventis—not that I could see. But going back in there is a no-no. It’d be like getting caught between a superhero and a supervillain.”

The Enforcer laughed and smacked his chest, much like a gorilla would.

“Well, that’s why we got these. They enhance our strength five-fold, and project limited barrier-fields. Latest and greatest tech to hit the market.”

The guard shrugged. “It’s your funeral, buddy.”

I didn’t have to see his face to know the Enforcer was displeased.

The armored Enforcer turned and looked down at me. “Miss—you alright?”

I nodded, and realized I still held the palm-slate in my hand.

I carefully hid it behind my back.

A second Enforcer in power-armor with gold stripes on its dark epaulets thundered over to us with heavy footfalls that reminded me of the Bronze Giant. This one appeared to hold some authority. I realized I had guessed correctly when the first Enforcer saluted the new arrival.

“Captain Hot Lips, ma’am! Other than the combatants, these two appear to be the last ones in that terminal. They just got out.”

At first I thought he was being derogatory to the Enforcer in the power-armor.

Then I saw the lips painted in hot pink on the domed faceplate.

For a moment, I didn’t know what to think.

Still recovering from the sight of those painted, pouting lips, I was stunned to hear a woman’s voice emanate from the power-armor.

“We’ve lost most of the security holocam feed from inside the terminal. What’s the situation inside?”

I blinked, and struggled to find my voice. “Uh…well…I….”

The painted lips swung toward the guard. “Can you do any better?”

I closed my mouth with a loud snap, feeling embarrassed. This woman probably thought I was a damsel in distress.

The guard realized it was up to him to satisfy the question, but he definitely looked distracted by those painted lips.

He took a deep breath. “Two Familiars, both using Fragments—maybe Artifacts. They’re tearing the terminals up as they fight each other. Don’t know who they are, but one of them is a young girl, probably a high-schooler.”

Hot Lips nodded slowly, which was impressive since the power-armor had no neck. “Hmm, a high-schooler. We determined as much before we lost visual contact—”

She was cut short by a loud crash that accompanied the shattering of part of the outer façade of Terminal Five.

The Enforcer Captain half turned, rather stiffly because of the power-armor, and regarded the terminal with her armor-shod hands planted on her armored hips.

“Gods damn Familiars. Just what we needed two weeks before Remembrance Day. This is going to stir up a public outcry.”

I stiffened slightly, but kept my lips sealed.

And I kept the palm-slate hidden behind me.

As discretely as I could, I slipped it into my back pocket, and that was because I could have sworn I heard the Witch yelling out of the palm-slate at me.

Captain Hot Lips turned our way.

“We’ll probably need a statement from you later once this is all over. So don’t run away.” She waved a thick, armored arm. “Stick around. Enjoy the show. There might even be fireworks later.”

Then she leaned down and pointed between the guard and I.

“What’s this? You two know each other?”

I looked down where she indicated and so did the guard.

My heart stopped beating when I noticed we were holding hands.

Hot Lips laughed. “Ah, young love in the face of adversity. I like it. Brings a certain ‘humanity’ to the whole debacle.”

I looked up at the guard and couldn’t help blushing hotly all the way to my ears.

As calmly as we could, we both extricated our hands from each other.

Hot Lips laughed again. “Some people never change….”

With that she turned away and walked down the perimeter line, passing other armor clad Enforcers who saluted her.

I cocked my head.

Had I heard that voice before?

The guard abruptly bowed to me politely. “Miss, I’m deeply sorry.”

I waved my hands gently. “No, no—please don’t apologize. I mean, it was all spur of the moment.”

He straightened, and I found myself looking into his eyes.

Huh…they’re green. Rather pretty.

He was definitely looking at me too.

Then he bowed again, and began stepping away.

To my surprise, he stopped and turned back. “Miss…if you wouldn’t mind…would you tell me your name.”

I felt my lips break into a smile. “Arisa. It’s Arisa Imreh Lanfear.”

He nodded faintly. “Arisa…I’ll remember it.”

My smile grew crooked. “Oh, why?”

I was only playing with him, and maybe he was playing with me when he shrugged lightly and replied, “Because, you’re the kind of woman a man gets to meet only once in his lifetime.”

Before he could turn away, I asked, “What’s your name?”

“Liam. Liam Desouza Raynar.”

Then he turned, and walked away toward where other security guards were congregating.

I watched him leave, my face feeling just a little hot. No, it felt really hot.

My back pocket vibrated forcefully, startling me such that I tore my gaze away from his rather well toned derriere.

I pulled my palm-slate out in a hurry just as a voice yelled angrily at me.

Imreh—how dare you hang up on me!”

I stepped away from the Enforcer perimeter line, and closer to the second line keeping civilian spectators away from the spaceport.

“I didn’t hang up on you. I was being questioned by an Enforcer captain with painted lips on her faceplate.”

“Ah…that one…yeah, do yourself a favor and stay away from her. Actually, I don’t care if you do or don’t. We have more important things to worry about.”

“Witch, tell me about Caelum. Where is he?”

“As I told you before, he’s gone. We don’t know where he is.”

“But what do you mean ‘gone’? Can you be a little more specific?”

I winced as I crouched and removed my kitten sling-backs from my feet.

From the palm-slate the Witch said, “One of the Familiars had a rift capable Fragment or Artifact that she used it to transport Desanto, my sister, herself and two other Familiars out of the business lounge within Terminal Six. Only Steiner and that Talos Armor were left behind because they were outside the boundaries of the transport field. We lost access to the security holocams within the business lounge shortly after, but picked up Steiner battling the Bronze Giant on holocams mounted nearby.”

“So what now?”

“Now, you do nothing. Stay clear of the spaceport.”

“I can’t leave Caprice without some kind of support.”

“Imreh—I’ll deal with the fallout. Steiner will not be held accountable. You have my word on that.”

I hesitated before flatly stating, “I will hold you to that.”

“Whatever. So long as we can capture that Talos Armor wielder, we’ll score enough points to make this a win for us. Besides, my people will be there soon.”

I sighed heavily, feeling tired and weak.

Then I noticed a shadow had fallen over me.

I slowly turned around and saw a familiar power-armor with bright painted lips looking down at me with its hands on its hips.

I swallowed nervously and said, “Ah…I’ll have to call you back.”

I hung up on the Witch and pocketed my palm-slate.

Then I stood up as smoothly as I could and faced the power-armor.

“Can—can I help you, Captain Hot Lips?”

The power-armor rocked a little as its wearer laughed.

“I knew it was you. Even if the facial identity mapper said so, I still had to come back and ask if it really was you.”

I gave the power-armor a confused, wary look. “I’m sorry?”

Suddenly the power-armor’s torso split along unseen seams and opened up, revealing a young woman, maybe a little older than me, with verdant red hair, maybe a little brighter than mine, regarding me with a hungry grin on her face.

She was pretty – definitely a head turner even while wearing a bandana around her head.

But it was her lips that were her defining feature.

They were full and luscious, the kind that just drew your attention toward them and made you wonder, regardless of your gender, what it would be like to kiss them or be kissed by them.

I found myself staring at them in awe.

She jerked an armored thumb at herself. “Remember me?”

I blinked slowly, studied her face, and wracked my brain for an answer to her question.

In a flash her smile vanished and she leaned toward me sharply with consternation on her face.

“Come on, Arisa. How could you forget your senior so easily after only a few years?”

Without warning she reached out, grabbed me in her armored hands, and pulled me close to her.

Before I realized what was happening, she was French kissing me with those big, red, luscious lips.

For several heartbeats my mind went white, only to recover when she put me back down on the ground.

She looked down at me from inside the power-armor.

“Well, do you remember me ‘now’?”

Flustered, I stepped back from her, both hands over my mouth.

I was shivering not from the delicious taste of her lips but from the memory of a ‘nightmare’ resurrected from deep within my closet full of skeletons.

I pointed a trembling, shaking, finger at her. “You…you…it’s you….”

She nodded. “That’s right. Who am I?”


She nodded some more. “Yes, yes, in middle-school. Now, who am I?”

I lowered my finger, clenched my hands in fury, and shot her a burning glare that matched the intensity of the scream that ripped forth from my lungs.

“You stole my first kiss!”

She laughed in delight, and planted her hands on her hips. “Ha ha, you finally remembered me—guh!”

Her head rocked back in the power-armor as my thrown shoe connected with her forehead.

The first step in paying her back for years of trauma.

Chapter 16.


I watched the battle between young Desanto and Razor.

It was clear that so long as Desanto failed to draw upon the Kaiser’s power and abilities, he would not be defeating Razor today.

At best, Desanto was barely managing to block her attacks, and I could tell that Razor was holding back. If she’d been serious, the boy’s head would no longer be sitting on his neck. That being said, Desanto was only tapping into a small percentage of what the Kaiser could offer, which was fortunate for Razor.

A sudden realization lit up the inside of my mind.

Of course, how daft of me!

If Razor pushed him any harder, it was possible the Kaiser’s Blessing would respond to the situation and ‘unlock’ itself just a little more.

Celica Desanto had inadvertently discovered this during her encounter with her once beloved younger brother. It seemed the Kaiser’s Blessing had resonated with the anguish deep in young Desanto’s heart, thereby unlocking part of its Core Awareness which dictated the functionality of the armor.

It appeared the Kaiser’s Blessing responded well to adversity.

Perhaps it had a sadistic side to it?

I shook my head inwardly.

No, no, no. That wasn’t right at all.

What was the word for it?

Ah yes – Schadenfreude.

The joy derived from the misfortune of others.

The Kaiser’s Core Awareness received its ‘pleasure’ from the suffering and pain of its wielder.

It seemed that when that ‘pleasure’ gauge was maxed out, the Kaiser would unlock another piece of itself.

I had to wonder what kind of twisted psyche had created such a powerful and equally twisted Artifact.

Well regardless, it was a trait of the Kaiser’s that was ‘most’ problematic.

So while Razor kept him busy, she had to be careful not to push Desanto too hard.

With any luck, Desanto would ‘not’ be ‘levelling up’ any time soon.

That was all well and good, because we had problems of our own on this side of the immense cavern.

Even though we didn’t know where we were, it was clear we were inside one of the asteroid Islands, and if this was an arena of some sort – though to me it looked like nothing more than a giant cavern with hundreds of floodlights illuminating it – then it was certain to have security measures.

My concern was how long before someone came to investigate our intrusion into the arena

I looked down to my right.

Simone Alucard Raynar was kneeling on the ground, holding Caprice Steiner’s palm-slate to her chest like a precious gift.

From testing signal reception with my own slate, I knew the cavern was shielded in a manner preventing communication with the outside asteroid. So for now, I was happy to leave her with the palm-slate. At least she’d stopped crying.

However, her attention was rapt on the battle between Desanto and Razor.

I did not think she’d blinked once in the past minute, and I could barely discern her breathing.

Her father was not going to be pleased if I delivered her in this state.

I refrained from rubbing my face in apprehension over that inevitable encounter. At least it was a long journey home, so there would be time for her to recover.

Trying not to sigh, I turned to Fernice. “Well, how much longer do you need?”

The girl had faintly golden eyes, and she turned those toward me with a discernible frown.

“Another three minutes should do.”

“Hmm. Any chance of getting detoured again?”

I watched her jaw clench and her lips compress into a bloodless line.


I nodded. “Good. Because next time, I won’t be happy. And if I’m not happy, nobody deserves to be happy. Are we clear? Hmm?”

She noisily sucked in air. “He won’t divert me.”

“Good. To make things easier, Razor will ensure he doesn’t come near the transport field.”

I faced the interior of the cavern, and my gaze followed the blurring movements of Desanto and Razor as they danced about trading blocks, parries, thrusts and slashing cuts.

Hmm…had Razor upped her game just now?

She seemed to be moving a little faster than before, and delivering those ‘razor’ sharp strikes with significantly more force. The zing-zing of piercer-field colliding with piercer-field was audible even from a distance of a hundred meters or more.

I found it stimulating to my ears.

Some people enjoyed the sounds of ocean waves.

I enjoyed the sounds of field against field, especially those effect-fields generated by Fragments and Artifacts. Effect-fields produced by human machinery just didn’t have the same zing to them, as well as lacking the power and effectiveness of a field produced by Artifacts.

Desanto backtracked, his steps measured, and his blocks even and precise.

Had he upped his game too?

It appeared he was growing acclimated to Razor’s style.

It appeared he was accurately anticipating her next strike, slash, kick, or punch.

It was now clear why Razor had chosen to raise her game another notch.

Desanto had gotten the measure of her.

And he was quickly getting the measure of her again.

I didn’t know if this was a problem or not, but I had to admire his talent.

Yet it was an odd talent.

My own opinion was that Desanto would one day prove to be an extremely dangerous opponent, or an extremely valuable ally.

You could say, I believed in the young man’s potential – his untapped talent.

In contrast, all the data we had on him suggested he was a rather weak fighter, barely able to summon both gauntlet-blades at once.

Had we pushed him to the next stage? Was my faith in him beginning to be rewarded? Were we seeing the first glimmers of the Familiar he was destined to be?

I looked down at Simone Alucard on her knees.

Could it be…he really cares for this girl?

The profile on him indicated he despised the Aventis.

I didn’t believe that to be the case.

At the very least, there was one Aventis he didn’t despise.

Then again, the profile also stated he was weak against beautiful women, and Simone Alucard was nothing if not beautiful.

Perhaps he was just a young man confusing his infatuation for true love.

I pressed my lips together in debate.

And yet, he had made all possible effort to track her down and find her.

I had no doubt that he’d received a helping hand from a third party, most probably Simone’s elder sister, the Raynar Witch, who commanded a squad of frighteningly strong Familiars – all with bizarre personalities of their own.

However, it took a determined young man to pick himself up after being rundown, and set off in pursuit of the girl that was precious to him.

He had walked into the business lounge, and stepped up to us without a hint of fear in his eyes.

He had come for Simone Alucard Raynar, and he would not leave without her.

How was it possible for a woman to drive a man to such lengths…?

A violent zing-zing followed by a dull boom, and young Desanto was sent flying backwards into a jagged wall.

I had to cringe as I heard his body hit the wall, then rebound into the ragged cavern floor.

It reminded me of the time Talos had rammed the appropriated suburban into Desanto’s body back in the tunnel.

Ugh…I abhorred such violence.

But Talos was an obdurate individual who enjoyed the experience of running people over.

He was useful, but ultimately too stubborn for his own good.

I spared a brief thought for him, wondering how he was fairing back at the spaceport.

He was on his own now….

Alucard rose to her feet, jarring my thoughts. She was clutching at the palm-slate, and starting to take halting steps toward Desanto who struggled to gain his legs.

The young man was pushing himself up onto hands and knees only to be kicked along the ground by Razor.

I cringed, fearing she was losing her cool.

She looked noticeably tired, and distinctly annoyed.

Desanto rolled into a large rock jutting out of the ground.

I heard his cry of pain as the barrier-field around his body collapse, and failed to protect him from the full force of the impact.

Again, he rolled onto his hands and knees, and again he pushed himself up.

And again, Razor walked up to him and kicked him several meters across the cavern floor.

Ah…she was taking this too seriously. Not good. Not good at all.

I started to call out to her but was cut off by a plaintive voice.


Alucard continued walking toward Desanto. Her steps were gaining strength.

“…Caelum…stop…don’t hurt him…please, don’t hurt him….”

I quickly walked over to her, and jerked her to a halt. I really did try to be gentle.

“Lady Simone, please, it’s best if you don’t become involved. It’s quite dangerous out there.”

She shook her head. “No…no…she’ll kill him…she’ll kill him….”

The sight of fresh tears trickling down her cheeks made me wince.

But there was something I had to ask her.

“Simone Alucard, I can say the word, and Desanto will no longer be harmed.”

She turned her head and then hesitantly look up at me. “Please, please stop this.”

“Then agree to come with us.”

Her breathing was ragged, and a conflict broke out along her face.

I pressed on. “Come with us of your own will, and Desanto will not be hurt. In fact, I’m willing to consider bringing him along.”

A loud cry dragged my attention and hers toward the cavern.

Desanto had lunged at Razor with his remaining strength. He slashed a little too wildly, and Razor was able to use it against him, knocking him down.

But he picked himself up off the ground, and staggered again toward her.

Razor batted his feeble attempts aside.

She actually looked to be taking pity on him.

It cost her.

Desanto executed a tight, spinning slash that ripped a gash through her barrier-field and cut deep across the armor protecting her midriff.

In sudden anger, Razor lashed out with a couple of well-placed kicks that knocked the air from his lungs, and probably broke a rib or two since he no longer had a barrier-field protecting him.

Desanto cried out in agony and fell to the ground, where he slowly rolled over onto his hands and knees, until Razor kicked him so hard I thought she’d killed him. His body flew along the ground, trailing dust in its wake. When he finally came to rest, Desanto lay still, and the black mist of a Pocket Space breach surrounded his body. When it faded, the bladed-gauntlets were gone, retrieved into the Artifact’s sarcophagus, leaving him completely unarmed.

And unmoving.

Simone dropped to her knees, but a heartbeat later she broke into a run.

At the least, she tried to, but I held her back, using all of my strength as a Familiar to restrain her.

She struggled like a wild cat, and I almost lost my grip on her.

She struggled and cried out Desanto’s name repeatedly, growing hoarser with every cry.

I have to admit, her pain made my heart feel as though it was being crushed.

Nonetheless, I had to restrain her. It was for her own good, and for my mine.

Disappointing her father was not wise.

However, in the context of the assignment, he was aware of the possible outcomes as much as I was.

There was the possibility of failure, which we were currently skating around.

There was the possibility of success, albeit quite slim.

When I departed with my crew on this assignment, the outcome had not been predetermined, which was contrary to how I invariably operated. Nonetheless, despite the likelihood of failure, Carlisle had chosen to dispatch me on the mission to recover his daughter.

It made me wonder why he’d chosen me, and not organized for a larger, more coordinated effort to secure his daughter and bring her to his home.

Was I being tested, or was he testing Simone’s family?

I didn’t know, and not for the first time did I wonder at his true motives.

Not for the first time in many, many years did I wonder if he trusted me or not.

Simone Alucard’s cries ebbed away, and she slowly dropped to her knees, a sobbing mess.

I crouched beside her, holding her down lest she find another untapped wellspring of hidden strength and escape from me.

Fernice abruptly announced, “Two minutes.”

Beside me, Alucard continued to sob softly.

“…please…let me go…let me go to him….”

I took a deep breath. “Are you going to come with us?”

Her body shook as a violent shiver ran through it.

Then I saw her nod haltingly.

“…yes…please…don’t hurt him….”

Turning toward Razor, I yelled out, “Razor, that’s enough. Get back here. We’re leaving.”

The young woman gave me an uncertain look. She gave another uncertain look at Desanto who lay motionless on the ground a few meters from where she stood.

Then with a noticeable shrug, she began walking toward us.

Alucard raised her head.

“…please…let me see him…before I go…let me say…goodbye….”

I cringed inwardly.

Desanto was in a sorry state. Did she really want to bid her farewell with him all bruised and battered to the bone?

Well, who was I to deny her last request.

Only the gods knew when she would be able to return here, or when she would see him again, if ever.

I nodded just once, then helped her up to her feet. “Very well…let’s go.”

I would accompany her to the fallen young man.

As I walked with Alucard toward Desanto, her left arm firmly in my grip, Fernice called out, “Ninety seconds.”

I gave the girl a short wave. “This won’t take long.”

At sight of us walking in Desanto’s direction, Razor had stopped walking and stood with an uneasy expression.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Go join Fernice,” I instructed her. “We’ll be there shortly. This is a farewell of sorts.”

With the uneasy look on her face, I didn’t think Razor would comply, and I was right.

She decided to stand close by, watching us with the keen eyes of a wolf.

Desanto was indeed in a poor state.

He was bruised and bloodied, lying on his back. I almost thought he wasn’t breathing.

Alucard pushed me away with enough strength to break free. She ran the last few feet to his side, and dropped to her knees.

I watched her gently cradle his head in her hands.

I watched her tears fall onto his battered face.

And I watched her lean down close to him, and whisper something in his ear.

She whispered for a little while, and then kissed him as only a girl in love might.

As she knelt over him and kissed him again, undoubtedly hoping that her feelings would flow through her lips into his, a strange feeling overcame me.

I felt doubt.

I felt I was on the verge of committing a grave sin…or a grave mistake.

I had a premonition that if I separated these two young people from each other, a dire fate awaited us.

No, not just us, but a dire fate awaited all Familiars and Aventis.

I felt as though I was standing on the cusp of a critical moment in time where one simple decision to turn either left or right would determine the fate of millions.

In that moment, I felt not only her despair, but the girl’s undeniable love for this young man.

I saw…that she was ‘not’ her mother.

Given the choice, she would sacrifice her life for him.

In that moment…I found it difficult to stay the course.

Yet it was fear that drove me to action.

Fear of the consequences of failure for myself and for my crew.

Fear of the vision I had foreseen, one where Razor lay broken near my feet; one where Talos hung from a bladed weapon.

No, I would not allow that vision to come to pass.

I was at Simone Alucard’s side in a heartbeat. I had her on her feet a heartbeat later.

She struggled against me, but I reminded her of her promise, and her struggles grew weak.

It didn’t stop her tears, and it didn’t make me feel any better about what I was doing. But a job is a job. I had an assignment to complete, and my life and those of my crew depended on our success.

So I dragged the girl back to Fernice who announced, “Thirty seconds.”

“Good,” I replied, snapping back harshly, and regretting it immediately when her eyes widened. I swallowed down past the proverbial lump in my throat. “The sooner we leave, the better. The much better.”

Fernice nodded hesitantly. “The emitters are almost recharged. Twenty seconds.”

I allowed Alucard to drop to the ground, where she knelt on the hard rock.

Then I noticed she no longer held the palm-slate in her hands.

Abruptly uneasy, my eyes darted over to Desanto.

At that moment, a dense, vile black mist surrounded his body, completely enveloping it and a hundred cubic meters of the surrounding volume of space.

I glimpsed but for a moment the sight of a large, rectangular object – the sarcophagus – deep within the black mist that had condensed into a thick, black fog. I was certain that I saw it open its doors, and I was certain I saw something reach out from within, yet I couldn’t tell if the sarcophagus was in the process of delivering or retrieving.

The fog continued to expand, covering ever more of the cavern interior, so much so that even Razor gasped in surprise when our breathing frosted in the air and turned to icicles.

I had never seen such a breach before, and in the back of my mind, I urged Fernice’s Artifact to hurry along and generate the transport field that would deliver us into the safety of the Zephyrus’s belly.

Yes, I was growing more certain by the moment that we were in danger.

The damn vision flashed before my eyes.

At the same time, I believed we were witnessing the unlocking of the Kaiser’s Blessing.

Then the fog lost its consistency and weakened into a thin mist.

Before long, the mist began to disperse and I realized that Pocket Space’s intrusion into real-space had come to an end.

Standing within the mist was a tall, humanoid figure, bearing the familiar bladed gauntlets.

My concern jumped a level, and I felt a disturbing cold permeate my gut.

Desanto was on his feet, there was no doubt of that.

Yet clearly, something was different.

He stood much taller, and his body appeared stouter than before.

The mist continued to drift into non-existence, and before long I had a clearer view of him.

He stood a good eight, possibly nine feet tall – his legs wrapped in a greyish, triangular armor that ended in tapered feet with a slender, fragile looking heel. He no longer wore his casual clothes, but was instead clad in a skinsuit that rippled as though muscled. His chest was covered in a cold, grey-blue armor like a kavach, and his shoulders sported dark grey pauldrons. From his back emerged two sword-like wings, easily as long as a medieval broadsword. I knew them to be Vector Wings, and of a design shared with the Valkyrie Maidens, particularly the elite Brynhildr and Sigrún.

He looked strong, much stronger than when he first fought Razor, and that was to be expected if the Kaiser’s Blessing had unlocked another piece of itself, thereby coming a step closer toward the status of a full Artifact.

The question was ‘how’ much stronger had he become?

Standing still as he was, Desanto emanated a powerful aura that bordered on the menacing.

As the mist continued to clear, I saw his face.

His eyes were closed, and his expression calm, but when he opened them, his gaze met mine and I felt a chill run down my back.

Those familiar eyes then settled on Alucard, kneeling on the ground.

Desanto raised his left hand a little, and I saw the palm-slate he held.

I shot Alucard a look. “You left that with him?”

Alucard wasn’t crying anymore. She may have remained kneeling, but she smiling faintly – smiling with a light that had been lacking in her eyes.

She didn’t face me when she replied, “Yes, I left it with him.”


“So I could leave him with a promise.”

I frowned. “Oh…and what promise would that be?”

This time she did look up at me with a rather ‘shameless smile’.

“I told him that if he failed to rescue me, he’d never know what brand of lingerie I wear.”

I frowned a little deeper. “I’m sorry. Say that again.”

Her smile widened. “Don’t you know? Caelum is obsessed with women’s lingerie.”

Ah, now that she mentioned it, I did recall reading about that in his dossier.

I leaned down slightly. “And?”

She shrugged. “He’s obsessed with mine.”

My frown grew crooked. “So you promised to show him yours?”

Alucard laughed softly.

Despite her puffy eyes and tear streaked cheeks, she was still radiant to look upon, especially when she smiled.

“Actually, I promised to model my collection for him…my entire vast collection…in private.” She arched her eyebrows at me. “Now tell me, what man would refuse such a promise….”

I straightened, unable to suppress my disbelief.

Underwear? Women’s underwear? Was that all it took to get Desanto back on his feet?

I turned and regarded the young man standing some fifty or so meters away.

Dear gods, what kind of a ‘pervert’ was he?

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end.

A truly ‘terrifying’ pervert indeed!

Without warning, Razor grunted loudly and I felt a dull boom travel through the air around me.

Razor, clad in her midnight blue Lycan armor, flew through the air a dozen meters toward Desanto.

At first I thought she might have jumped toward him, but that thought was quickly dismissed when she landed an ungainly mess on the ground, rolling a few times before coming up onto her knees.

Her surprised, even frightened expression, was enough to make my thoughts stumble.

She was looking back at us.

No—she was looking back at where she’d been standing near Fernice.

Alucard and I both followed her line of sight, and I felt my stomach turn to ice at what I saw.

Fernice was floating in the air, her feet kicking futilely, her hands wrapped around her throat like a woman hanging at the gallows. She was held aloft by invisible means that could only mean one thing – an effect-field.

As I watched her gasp for air, Fernice’s face grew blue and her struggles began to weaken.

My gaze then travelled down and I saw a young girl dressed in the uniform of Galatea Academy.

The girl had long pastel lavender hair, a slender build, and very attractive features.

She also had a frightening smile.

It was all the more frightening because she appeared genuinely annoyed.

She held her right arm outstretched toward Fernice as though holding her up without touching her. After watching Fernice struggle for a moment longer, the girl turned her violet eyes toward me.

“What the Hell does a girl have to do to get some quiet around here?”

My mouth fell open.

Up until mere seconds ago, I had been completely unaware of her presence.

And not only I, but everyone else, including Fernice and Razor had failed to sense her at all.

Somehow, she had approached us undetected, as though completely invisible to our combined sensorium-fields. Quite simply, that shouldn’t be possible.

Not immediately recognizing her, I hastily searched my mind for a name and dossier to match her face.

Who the devil was this teenage beauty with the cartoon colored hair?

The girl shot a heated glare over at Razor, followed by a look of unbridled concern for Desanto, before finally directing her gaze on Alucard. “Countess Alucard, if this is your fault, I swear not even your sister will protect you from my wrath.”

To my surprise, Alucard rose rather fluidly to her feet. “My fault?”

“Yes, if it’s your fault my fiancé is injured, then I’ll make you suffer for it.”

My mind executed a double-take.

Fiancé? Did she just say ‘fiancé’?

Alucard shook her ash grey hair. “Don’t blame me. Blame him.”

She pointed at me.

The girl’s eyes narrowed as she regarded me. “Just who the Hell are you, and why is my Darling all beaten up?”

I swallowed, aware that Fernice was now floating unconscious in the air. My sensorium-field registered that she was alive, and no longer suffocating, but she was definitely unconscious and not playing possum.

I swallowed again, and gave the girl a slight bow. “Forgive me for not introducing myself. I am—”

“Ah whatever—I don’t care. Just shut up and stay over there.”

The girl tossed Fernice to the ground where she landed several meters away with a dull thunk that made me noticeably cringe.

Why were the women I encountered so prone to displays of violence?

The girl planted her hands on her hips, and regarded the scene before her. I heard her curse softly, “What a mess this turned out to be….”

I glanced at Razor who was rooted by indecision. She kept glancing at Desanto who was standing motionless with an unreadable look on his face. She was clearly afraid to turn her back on him, but equally afraid of this newcomer who’d slipped into our midst without being noticed.

With Fernice out of action, the situation was clearly not in our favor.

Alucard cocked her head. “Serenity, what are you doing here? How did you find us?”

The girl continued to stare at Razor and Desanto. “I wasn’t looking for you. I came down here because the alarms went off. Then I saw my Darling being beaten up and I couldn’t stand and watch and do nothing.”

“But how did you get inside?”

The girl waved an arm behind her. “I came in through that door.”

I looked where she indicated and saw an opening in the cavern wall.

Alucard asked, “So you came here to help?”

“No, I came here to properly motivate him.” She crossed her arms under her sizeable breasts. “After all, what woman stands by idly watching her fiancé get his ass kicked?”

Alucard sounded annoyed. “Are you still persisting with calling him your fiancé?”

The girl raised her left hand. “You see the ring on this finger, Countess? This is the engagement ring my Darling put on my finger. This is a sign of our devotion to each other.”

Alucard started to tremble. “I’d heard about that ring of yours.”

The girl lowered her hand. “Seventy carat.”

Alucard stiffened. “What? Really?”

The girl planted her hands on her hips. “Of course. Why would I lie about something so important?”

“But you’re lying about being engaged.”

“Since when?”

“Since you arrived at the Academy!”

“I’ve been completely honest at all times.”

“Stop lying! You’re seriously pissing me off.”

I coughed loudly and interrupted. “Excuse me, but aren’t you forgetting something.”

The girl cocked her head at me. “No, you’re just not that important. So shut up and be quiet.”

I felt a surge of disdain for this insolent brat.

Very well, time to demand a little respect.

The girl abruptly smiled like a feral beast. “If you’re thinking of making a move, don’t. I didn’t come here alone.”

I refrained from blinking sharply, but movement near the cavern doorway in the distance caught my attention.

I saw another young woman there, dressed in a tight business skirt-suit.

Using the sensorium-field to enhance my eyesight, I recognized her not long afterwards.

Nicola Weinberg afil Lorian, the so-called Siren of the Slaughter.

The only one to survive when her squad was dispatched to hunt down Celica Desanto more than a year and a half ago.

The girl, Serenity, laughed softly. There was something distinctly cruel about her. “Now, why don’t we stand here and watch.”

I eyed her with as much composure as I could muster. “Watch what?”

Serenity fiddled with the diamond ring on her left wedding finger. “I want to see how much my Darling has improved now that he’s unlocked another piece of the Kaiser’s Blessing.”

She glanced at Razor standing deadly still between Desanto and us.

Her voice was almost a whisper, yet her tone made the hairs on my neck stand on end. “I want to see if he’s strong enough to defeat her. I want to see him break her, and not just her body, but her mind. Her resolve. Her spirit.”

I clenched my jaw. I was curious too, but not curious enough to risk Razor’s life. Frankly, I didn’t want her broken in any way, because broken meant it was clear which one of my visions would come true.

Shaking my head slowly, I raised my hands in defeat. “No. It’s over. We lost and we surrender.”

The girl’s lips broke into a grin, though she looked disappointed. “I was hoping I was wrong, but I knew you’d say that.”

“Oh, and why is that?”

“Because you’re not a fighter. I can see that in your eyes. No, you’re a puppeteer. You like to stand in the background or on the edge of the stage, watching the actors play their parts from a script of your writing.”

I had the impression she was looking down on me.

With the grin still on her face, she turned and walked over to Fernice. Crouching beside her, Serenity grabbed the unconscious Fernice by the throat.

“We’re going to make this interesting,” she announced in a very strong voice. “If your woman over there defeats Desanto, then I’ll let all three of you go. In fact, I’ll make sure that woman behind us doesn’t interfere. I’ve already beaten her once today, so I’ll just do it again.”

I didn’t understand what she meant, but I wasn’t going to ask for details.

Serenity shook the unconscious Fernice like one might a plush doll. “But if Desanto wins, then you’re not leaving, and I’ll definitely make sure of that.”

I glanced at Nicola Weinberg standing some fifty meters away by the open doorway into the cavern. The apprehensive look on her face made me believe she was not in agreement with the girl’s decision, yet she remained standing by the entrance.

Was she holding herself back, or was someone holding her back?

From what I knew of Weinberg, her leash was held by Galatea Academy’s Principal, a woman with an icy, blue-eyed stare that could make strong men wither before her.

I looked up at the rock ceiling.

It suddenly became clear to me, that if Weinberg and this girl were here, then this cavern arena was somewhere near the Academy, quite possibly deep below it.

I looked at the exit, and estimated our chances of escaping. With Fernice unconscious and unable to summon her Artifact, there was no chance of escape.

Then I studied Razor standing silently. The young woman was repeatedly flexing her hands slowly. Where a lion might pace behind the bars of its cage, Razor flexed her ‘paws’ instead.

I turned back to Serenity. “I have your word?”

The grin was absent on her face when she nodded. “You have my word, as a Valkyrie Maiden of the Sigrún type.”

I suddenly understood where her confidence came from, and after a moment I asked, “And what of those watching us from afar?”

“You mean those watching from the observation deck?” She pointed up at a particular spot on the cavern wall well above the open doorway. “I’ll deal with them.”

I took a deep breath, yet was unable to quell the anxiety swirling within my chest like a lion waiting to pounce on my heart. What other options did I have to consider? None.

“Very well. I accept your challenge.”

Before I even turned to face Razor, the young woman was already running toward Desanto.

In a heartbeat, she threw herself at the young man clad in the Kaiser’s armor, and furiously slashed at him.

Chapter 17.


I heard her voice in the darkness.

It was laced with despair that complemented the agony raging through my body, for even in darkness I was in pain.

I heard the words carried by her voice.

I heard her clearly as though all the anguish shouting within my body had faded into silence for just one moment, allowing her words wrapped in her feelings to dive through the darkness and reach out to me before I could sink further into the abyss.

Three simple words that jump started my heart, and sparked a fire in the darkness.

I love you.

If those words had meant nothing to me, then my heart would not have kicked over.

If those words had not resonated with my feelings for her, then I would not have found the strength to answer the thought that strode into my mind and demanded an answer.

The needle of the compass that surrounded my heart, jerked sharply, spinning in a full circle a number of times, before pointing for precious seconds to one of the four girls that occupied each of the four compass points.

The needle held steady as it aimed my heart toward Simone Alucard Raynar.

The question was repeated in my mind, and this time I gave it answer.

Yes, I want to save her.

Another question. Another answer.

Because I need her. If she leaves me, she’ll leave an emptiness within me that I’ll be hard pressed to fill. She is unique, and she is special to me.

I listened to the next question.

No, all those girls are precious to me. Every one of them. I would give my life for them in a heartbeat. I would fight for them to my dying breath. That is how I feel about them.

I heard her voice, it sounded distant this time, and I listened to the words she whispered.

The promise she made to me, it staggered my pain-addled senses.

My mind struggled to wrap itself around the enormity of what she was offering me.

It was a dream come true.

The fire burning in the darkness became a bonfire.

Slowly, the darkness was pushed back as the flame grew stronger.

Her whispered words fueled the fire.

It became a raging volcano.

When the voice in my mind asked me again if I wanted to save her, I fervently shouted my reply as the volcano erupted.

And the voice answered me not with words, or thoughts, but with definitive action.

I felt myself drawn into an intense cold, so chilling I could not breathe, let along think, though I held onto one memory – the memory of a wind-ruffled skirt and sheer panties drawn over a sumptuous derriere.

It was a memory, an image, I held dear to my heart.

It served to anchor me, to give my other thoughts a point to rally toward, like the flag bearer who stands defiantly at the top of the hill, surrounded by a slaughter on all sides. However, there was no escaping the cold, and one by one my thoughts froze over and shattered, until only that one memory remained. Yet with nowhere to go, it too became a frozen memory, and when it shattered, my mind became a void.

In the darkness of my Awareness, a single thought strode into it.


The fire that had been extinguished flared to life, lighting up my Awareness, burning away the pain that had subdued my senses and incapacitated me.

My Awareness interfaced with the sensorium-field.

The lack of thoughts in my mind, the void surrounding my Awareness, gave me a clarity of perception I had rarely enjoyed.

It was as though every unnecessary thought had been swept clear of my mind.

All the clutter had been removed, leaving behind my unfettered consciousness.

I felt alive again, yet distinctly hollow, and though aware of my injuries, I felt strong and quite capable of moving once again.

The Kaiser’s Blessing spoke into my mind, into my Awareness.

I understood its warning.

I had been granted strength and power courtesy of the Kaiser breaking one of the shackles binding its Core Awareness.

I was another step closer to summoning the full Artifact.

Yet it was more than a step in the right direction.

It was a running leap.

With my eyes closed, I could sense the cavern around me within a radius of a hundred feet, more than double the previous range of the sensorium-field. It also felt clearer, and I could perceive my surroundings with greater clarity than ever before. The new range was enough for me to sense the presence of Simone, Maestro, the girl Fernice, and Razor standing beside her.

Without opening my eyes, I could clearly sense Simone’s smile.

I couldn’t keep them closed any longer.

I had to gaze upon her with my own eyes and not those of the Kaiser’s Blessing.

And yet, when I opened my eyes, I met the gaze of another.

I looked Maestro in the eyes, and regarded him coldly, yet with very little thought.

The void my Awareness floated within held steady.

I wasn’t so much as thinking, as I was reacting to my surroundings and to the situation.

It felt odd.

It felt…somewhat primeval.

It was as though my mind, my Awareness, had returned to operating on a purely instinctual level.

My gaze fell on the Countess, and my desire for her, my yearning to protect her and to save her, welled up within me. It filled the void of my mind not with thoughts, but pure, uncluttered feelings.

There was something in my left hand.

Through the sensorium-field, I recognized it for a palm-slate.

Her voice was softly whispering to me as her message repeated indefinitely.

I’ll wear that pink nurses outfit, you know the one, and I’ll nurse you back to health.”

I blinked slowly, picturing her as I remembered her when she wore the dress that was torture on her bust. If she was willing to put herself through that suffocating experience, what I right did I have to turn her down?

None. Absolutely none.

With a thought, I willed the palm-slate into Pocket Space.

The mist briefly surrounded my left, gauntleted hand, and the palm-slate vanished into the depths of the Pocket Space generated by the Kaiser’s sarcophagus.

I flexed my fingers, and my Awareness caught sight of something unexpected.

Serenity Artesan afil Avenir.

She wasn’t wearing her Valkyrie Maiden armor. She was dressed in her Galatea Academy uniform. Yet the kick she delivered to Razor’s exposed back would have crumpled an automobile in two, or sent an inter-Island bus spinning across three lanes of traffic.

I was surprised Razor didn’t fly all the way to my feet.

Through the Kaiser’s sensorium-field, I detected an effect-field surrounding Razor’s body.

It weathered the impact of Serenity’s kick, reduced how much time Razor spent in the air, and cushioned her landing to a degree where she was able to roll through it and come up on her knees.

Truly a remarkable feat when I considered the amount of kinetic energy Serenity had put into that kick.

However, Serenity hadn’t stopped there.

Using an effect-field, she held Fernice high in the air, strangling the girl.

I watched with growing discomfort as Fernice struggled futilely, her efforts rising with the panic she must be feeling, then weakening as her strength deserted her.

When she grew limp, I felt my heart tremble.

Serenity appeared angry, and strangling the girl unconscious had done little to placate her.

She tossed the girl aside like a rag doll, and faced Maestro.

As I listened to her exchange words with the Countess and Maestro, the void inside my mind began to waver. I wondered how it was possible that this girl was occupying one point of the compass that surrounded my heart. I wondered how it was possible that she had slipped into the compass unawares to me.

What was wrong with me?

How could I have allowed that to happen?

Then I heard the challenge she lay down to Maestro.

The void most certainly rippled as I considered the enormity of what she proposed.

If I lost the fight, was she truly going to help Maestro and his crew flee the arena?

What would the authorities, in particular the Raynar Witch, have to say about that?

There was no possibility Serenity would escape unscathed from any form of punishment or reprimand.

Then a dark thought slithered into the void and poked my Awareness.

It was something I needed to consider, and the implications made my chest tighten just a tad.

It was something I needed to shelve for now, though I promised myself I would find the time to confront Serenity over it.

Razor didn’t waste a moment.

Her body blurred over the ground as she ran toward me.

Even as my mind overclocked, I had trouble following her movements.

Her leap covered the remaining distance in the blink of an eye.

Claws fully extended, her right hand slashed at me not like a werewolf’s, but more like a large feline such as a panther or tiger.

I remembered the battle cry one of my childhood cartoon heroes would yell, as he engaged his opponents in combat. It was something like, ‘Strike Lightning Claw’, and preceded the burning slash of razor sharp claws upon hard metal.

Damn, I just couldn’t recall the name of that holovid show.

I did remember Celica buying me the action figures.

Oddly, I couldn’t remember what became of all those toy figures.

The void trembled again as thoughts began to filter into it.

I had to focus on my immediate surroundings.

Razor’s claws were mere feet away from me.

I considered my options.

I wasn’t certain of how well I could move on my armored legs.

In fact, I was surprised I was standing so well upon them.

I decided the simplest course of action was the best.

With my left gauntlet-blade, I swiped upwards at her inbound slash.

As the blade arced before me, I oriented it outwards to deflect the claws of her right hand away from me.

It was a direct and yet circular motion.

A fraction of a second later, my blade and her claws collided.

To be more precise, the piercer-fields surrounding our respective weapons clashed.

I thought I saw a brief flare of emerald light as the fields made contact; not something I’d seen before. Could it be because our respective fields were so much stronger now?

Then her attack was knocked aside.

However, this didn’t leave Razor exposed.

Her left hand, its claws extended and glowing hotly, was tucked against her flank, ready to lance forward into my armored chest like handful of daggers.

Yes, her claws really were that long, if not longer.

I chose to deny her the opportunity of burying said claws into my solar plexus.

Normally, it’s nearly impossible to avoid an oncoming opponent with such little room between you. The usual response is to block, and counter with a move that allows you to use their momentum against them. This might involve flipping them over, or allowing yourself to be pushed back in order give yourself that little bit of extra room. You could choose to grapple with them, using said momentum to spin yourself and your opponent around, and perhaps find an opportunity to disengage from them moments later.

The point is that you don’t want to be incapacitated.

The point is that dodging is difficult in practice.

However, I moved aside with an ease that both surprised and frightened me.

I didn’t remember pushing off the ground and sidestepping, so for a heartbeat I feared the Kaiser’s Blessing had instigated the move.

When I fought Celica, the Kaiser’s Blessing took partial control of my body, influencing my reactions and the manner in which I wielded both gauntlet-blades. I fought with a style and technique that was foreign to me, all because the Kaiser had stepped in. Whether it did so on this occasion might prove to matter later. However, I was grateful that I’d avoided the second strike that Razor had intended to deliver directly into my chest.

I glimpsed surprise on her face as she sailed past me.

She was sure to have looked more than surprised when I pivoted my body on one foot, and delivered a roundhouse kick to her back with my other tapered foot.

A faint flash of light where the barrier-fields made contact, and Razor flew through the air another dozen meters before landing hard on her feet. She had to pull off another forward roll in order to bleed away the extra momentum.

What an amazing experience.

My body felt light and moved with astounding dexterity and speed.

I’d always had trouble executing that move, yet now I was able to pull it off without a second thought.

I realized I was still moving on instinct, and the void around my Awareness was intact – smaller but nonetheless intact – yet I couldn’t attribute my success solely upon that.

It was the Kaiser that made it possible.

I owed it all to the Kaiser.

A thought pushed through from my Artifact, and I listened to it.

*Are you saying that you’re not pulling my strings?

A disgruntled thought followed.

I didn’t know how to respond to it because I was confused by what I was experiencing.

Then the Kaiser told me to concentrate on my surroundings.

Razor was charging at me again, this time with a little more tact and caution.

I decided to reciprocate as I was unfamiliar with the abilities of the Kaiser’s Blessing in this configuration.

Razor slashed at me, and through the sensorium-field I realized her claws had grown longer by six inches. They now extended some fourteen inches beyond her fingertips. I didn’t think her fingers could handle the strain, however, she was wearing a fully summoned Lycan Armor, so thinking in ‘normal’ terms was not wise.

Normal did not apply to us Familiars and our Fragments or Artifacts.

Then again, what we were able to achieve was indeed ‘normal’ for us Familiars, but beyond possible for Regulars and Aventis.

A thought I’d entertained more often as of late, slipped into the void encapsulating my Awareness.

Why were Familiars subservient to the Prides?

Why wasn’t it the other way around?

Did Crimson Crescent have a point in starting the war against the eight Prides?

Razor lashed out at me with a spinning kick that would have cleaved an armored Enforcer in two.

I barely succeeded in deflecting it aside with my right blade, and our respective piercer-fields flashed green yet again. Those flashes were definitely attributed to the increased output of the effect-fields surrounding our bodies and weapons.

I parried another kick, using the length of my gauntlet-blades to maintain an edge on Razor.

Despite the claws she fielded, her range was well shy of mine, so she resorted more often than not to using her legs. In addition, she could deliver more power through them.

I knew I could do the same, but I was distinctly aware that I lacked her skill when it came to employing my legs in a fight. As such, I resorted to using my upper body to defend and attack, while depending on my improved mobility to lessen the danger presented by her claws and the assorted blades covering her Lycan Armor.

As I sidestepped and dodged another slash, followed by yet another sweeping kick, I found myself wondering if she was employing her own unique style of capoeira.

Her movements reminded of Caprice’s combat training, and I briefly pondered over the span of milliseconds what it would be like to have the two women face off against each other.

The Kaiser intruded somewhat brusquely into my thoughts with a warning.

My injuries weren’t healing.

The Raynar Symbiote inside me was having a hard time keeping my wounds from worsening, and all this movement wasn’t helping. For now, the Kaiser was keeping the pain at bay, but it couldn’t do that for much longer – not when I was moving about at speeds that would tear a Regular human’s body to shreds.

I had to finish this quick, and I needed to do it sooner rather than later.

To reinforce that fact, the Kaiser kicked off a countdown.

It gave me sixty seconds to get the job down…or else.

Now who the Hell died and put the Kaiser in charge?

I danced back, still feeling light on my feet, but the added pressure was making the void around my Awareness contract and cracks began to appear in its black walls. It reminded me of a deep-sea diving pod slowly but surely succumbing to immense outside water pressure.

Damn that Kaiser. Who does it think it is?

I didn’t need a countdown in a corner of my Awareness like a great big neon sign in the dark.

It was distracting as Hell.

Razor slashed again.

This time I struck back, putting a bit more effort into the block and turning it into an offensive charge.

The recoil sent her back a step, and I took advantage of the opening in her stance.

Now it was my turn to strike and cut with my blades.

They felt as light as paper swords as they parted the air and clashed with Razor’s claws.

The zing-zing in the air grew more intense with each parry, each strike, and each hack that I delivered against my Lycan Armored opponent.

Razor’s hair was matted in sweat around her forehead and temples.

I could feel the sweat trickling down my scalp and neck.

I was going to need a long, hot shower before this night was over.

Razor darted back, dodging the tip of my right blade by a mere whisker, but not its piercer-field. It sliced through the barrier-field protecting her chest, and cut deeply across the Lycan Armor.

I saw a thin line of blood trail in the wake of my flashing blade.

I pressed forward without delay and pivoted a full circle on my feet. I used the added momentum to deliver another slash at the armor protecting her sternum.

Again she dodged the blade, but not the piercer-field.

Again, another thin line of blood welled up diagonally across her chest.

It was deeper and broader than a scalpel wound.

I saw the pain register on her face, and I saw panic flash fleetingly in her eyes.

Then she dug in her feet, and stopped retreating.

In a heartbeat, she had redirected her inertia forward, and charged at me with a clawed strike from her right hand.

I had no choice but to block it with both blades.

I avoided crossing the blades up, but it still made my next move feel confined so I hurriedly separated the blades.

For a fraction of a second, I was exposed to the claw daggers of her left hand.

I saw her begin to smile with the promise of victory before her.

She believed she had won.

She believed there was nothing I could do to prevent her win.

She wasn’t expecting me to kick into her midriff, and to do so without moving any other part of my body. Because of this, there were no telltale signs of what I intended to do. In short, she was caught unawares.

I silently thanked Kaleb for the training he’d put me through these last two weeks, forcing me to learn techniques that made use of all my limbs. Yet again I wondered if I was reacting to his training or to the will of the Kaiser’s Blessing.

For one thing, such a counter should not have been second nature.

Even in my overclocked state, Razor was moving too fast for me to stop and consider a choice of counter.

Was I truly in control of my body, or was I moving to the tune of the Kaiser’s Blessing?

The barrier-field wrapped around my tapered left foot buried itself into Razor’s midriff with a visible green flash and loud zing that sounded more like a zang.

The impact shattered the barrier-field around her torso, such that my foot almost physically made contact with her armored body. It came within an inch of connecting with her, the equal thickness of the barrier-field around my foot. The kinetic energy imparted by the impact travelled through Razor’s body in a heartbeat, compressing her gut by more than a few inches, regardless of the Lycan Armor she wore.

It did more than just blow the barrier apart.

It ruptured her organs.

The young woman’s mouth opened wide and blood splashed out of it onto my face and chest.

Then she slowly doubled over my tapered, armored foot, and lay still.

I knew without a doubt the encounter was over.

It was rather anti-climactic, but there was no denying that she had lost.

Deep down, I believed that Razor had been defeated not by my skill, training, or talent.

She had been defeated by the Kaiser’s Blessing.

A Lycan Armor was no match for the Kaiser, even in its limited and restricted form. It was a fact demonstrated here and now to the small audience within the cavern, and to those watching from the confines of the observation deck.

In the darkness surrounding my Awareness, the neon clock ticked down to zero. A small alarm went off inside my head. It might very well be my imagination…or the Kaiser’s Blessing playing mind games with me.

With my leg still outstretched, and Razor bent over my foot, I calmly lowered it and the young woman to the ground.

Razor wheezed and tumbled over onto her back, her arms wrapped around her crushed organs as more blood trickled out of mouth.

It was no surprise to see the Pocket Space generated by her Artifact’s sarcophagus breach into real-space. I took a long step back as the black mist surrounded her body. I took another step when I sensed the presence of her Lycan Armor’s sarcophagus. It didn’t emerge into real-space, but I could feel it lurking within the Pocket Space it maintained around itself. The mist enveloping Razor thickened rapidly, inducing a biting cold that failed to trouble me while I wore the Kaiser-skin. After a few moments, the mist began to dissipate and then vanish.

The breach between Pocket Space and real-space was sealed.

I looked down at Razor lying on her back, and saw she was once again dressed in the clothes she wore outside the restaurant. Blood began to soak through the skin of her injured torso, staining the black blouse she wore, and smearing her fingers.

Through the sensorium-field I could tell that she was going to need the aid of a Symbiote to save her, or immediate medical attention.

Standing nine-feet tall over her, I was surprised by how emotionless my voice sounded.

“What is your affiliation?”

Razor wouldn’t answer, or rather she couldn’t answer as she coughed up a mouthful of blood.

If I wanted an answer, I would need the Kaiser’s help to find it.

Focusing its sensorium-field on her body, I concentrated on narrowing it down into a thin band that offered the highest possible resolution. I quickly found what I was looking for, trace elements of a Symbiote in her bloodstream, and I asked the Kaiser to identify it. Within a handful of seconds, the Kaiser’s Blessing replied, and I winced inwardly at the answer.

Damn it.

I looked up at the Countess standing fifty-two meters away.

She appeared to be struggling to understand that the fight was over. Her mouth flapped open and shut but no sounds came out.

A few feet to her left, Maestro wasn’t doing much better as he gazed at me with his head held at an angle.

As for Serenity, she wore a pleased expression that once again roused my suspicious thoughts regarding the girl. She’d been confident of this outcome all along. It was why she made the offer in the first place.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t dwell on Serenity’s motives. I needed to take action as Razor’s vitals began to falter.

There was no more time to waste.

The gauntlet-blades had a special feature. They could unlock, and swing back out of the way, leaving my hands free and unencumbered. With the blades out of the way, I bent down and picked up Razor, carrying her in my arms Princess style as I jumped the intervening distance to the Countess.

Ignoring Maestro and Serenity, I gently placed Razor on the ground near the Countess’s feet, then looked the girl in the eyes.

“Simone, please save her.”

Her eyes widened slowly, then narrowed equally slowly.

I swallowed hard.

“Simone…I didn’t know my strength. This isn’t what I intended. Killing her is not what I wanted. Without your help…she will die.”

The Countess looked terrible, her face tear stained and exhausted. Yet she was still beautiful to me as I watched her regard the injured Razor near her feet. She studied the girl for a long moment before looking up at me with her azure eyes.

“Why?” she asked. “Why do you want me to help her?”

I took a quick breath. “Because at one time, I’m certain she was affiliated with the Raynar Pride. I know your blood can save her.”

She was quiet for a short moment, and I was conscious of time ticking away.

The Countess pressed her lips into a thin, bloodless line. “These people…they hurt you…they hurt me…they tried to take me away from here…away from you….”

“I know….”

Her expression hardened. “Yet you ask me to help ‘them’?”

I swallowed, and the void around my Awareness grew smaller and more fractures appeared along its spherical wall.

“Yes…I am.”

She shook her head slowly at me. “Why? Why are you asking me to save her? Why—?”

“Because I know that you’re not the kind of girl that would let another die…even an enemy such as Razor.”

Again she shook her head slowly. “You don’t know me that well.”

I inhaled deeply, then let it out gently. “I know the kind of girl you are. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t care for you as much as I do.”

Her lips parted a little, evincing the conflict I could sense within her, as she struggled to make a choice. I felt I was cheating since the sensorium-field gave me an insight into her distraught state of mind.

I chose to speak before she could respond. There was something I needed to tell her. It was something she needed to hear – a truth I believed would help her make her choice.

“Simone, my feelings toward the Aventis haven’t changed…only my feelings toward you.”

Her eyes widened slowly, and I saw her swallow with difficulty, before she tightly closed her eyes and lowered her head.

I spoke to her and to her alone, regardless of who stood nearby – regardless of Serenity watching me in a coldly, calculating manner. “I can’t save this woman. As powerful as it is, the Kaiser’s Blessing is first and foremost a weapon. It is meant to take life, not save it.”

I knelt down on one knee before the Countess, with Razor lying between us. I looked up at the girl, her long ash-grey hair veiling her face as it fell over her shoulders and down her chest.

“Simone, I did not intent to take her life. So I’m asking you, please, to save her, before she dies because of something I did. Please, Simone.” I shook my head feeling despair settle within my chest. “Simone, I don’t want to take her life. I don’t want her to die by my hand. I don’t want to be a killer. I’m not ready to be one…not yet.”

A long moment went by before the Countess raised her head and opened her eyes.

Wordlessly, she reached up and swept back her hair, tying it into a pony-tail that would keep it clear of her face. Then she lowered herself to her knees beside Razor who clutched feebly at her injured stomach with blood stained hands.

I watched Simone offer me her left wrist, and I understood what she intended.

Carefully, I used my right gauntlet-blade to cut the skin along her wrist. I had to concentrate for if I lost my balance or judgment, I could end up severing her hand from her wrist.

The incision I made was a few inches long, and blood immediately welled up from the wound.

Simone lowered her wrist over Razor’s mouth, her blood mixing with the blood staining the young woman’s lips.

Razor reacted automatically to the taste of the Countess’s blood. Her mouth locked onto the Countess’s left wrist, and she began drinking the girl’s precious blood.

After Razor had drunk a few mouthfuls, the Countess pulled her wrist away. She retrieved a handkerchief from a pant pocket, and wrapped it over her injured wrist. A second or so later, she rose less than steadily to her feet.

Our gazes met, and I saw the distress on her face.

My heart tightened painfully when I realized why.

Simone believed I had betrayed her by asking her to save Razor’s life.

I opened my mouth.

I wanted to tell her that wasn’t the case.

I wanted her to know that I believed in her.

I saw her not as Simone Alucard Raynar, but as Simone Alucard, the girl with her fingers on my heart.

Simone squeezed her eyes but it didn’t halt the tears that slipped free.

My breath caught, and I knelt helplessly before her, unable to find the words that would prevent her from turning away…from me.

Without a word, she began walking toward the doorway built into the cavern’s wall where Nicola Weinberg stood as still and silent as a trained sentry.

I couldn’t deny it.

I couldn’t ignore the impression that something had changed between the Countess and I.

My actions had forced us to cross a line neither of us had intended.

Our relationship, whatever it was we shared, had irrevocably changed.

In thinking that, I didn’t know if we’d grown closer, or begun to slip apart.

I only knew that things between us would be different from this moment on.

I was terrified that I would lose her, as I had lost Haruka.

The truth was…I was terrified of being alone.

Chapter 18.


According to Brynhildr, the battle between the Bronze Giant and I had endured for eighteen minutes.

During that time we had exchanged a combined nine hundred and sixty three blows, parries, strikes, and kicks.

It was a phenomenal number, and I had long since hit the proverbial wall.

Yet I kept moving.

To stop moving…was to die.

To slow down…was to suffer.

His armored foot swung round in a half-circle that was hard to follow even while overclocked.

I brought my arm down to block it and was late by a mere fraction of a second.

The impact against my improper block twisted my arm inwards at an abrupt angle.

It was enough to send agonizing pain up my right arm, into my shoulder, then across my chest.

I had no choice but to scream in order to lessen the pain.

I was fortunate. He’d put his all into the kick, and while it wounded me, it left him with no follow up strike. Taking advantage of that, I quickly leapt away, snagging a piece of lose lounge furniture and sent it spinning somewhere into Terminal Five’s third level.

At least, I thought we were on the third level.

Our battle had taken us all over two terminals of the spaceport. We were like wrecking balls trailing destruction wherever we went. I didn’t have time to ponder how much the damage bill was going to be. So long as I wasn’t paying, then that suited me fine. I was preoccupied with simply staying alive.

My initial goal of defeating the Talos Armor had long since faded away.

After the first few minutes it was clear to me I couldn’t win.

Then Arisa appeared and made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

However, even that wasn’t enough to secure victory. As the wielder of the Valkyrie Maiden type Brynhildr, there were things I could do, and much I still couldn’t.

Defeating an Artifact was one of them.

I briefly thought of how Caelum must have felt knowing he could not defeat his sister. Was it the same helpless despair that now circled around the edge of my Awareness?

The Talos Armor looked at me askance. “Not flying around so much are you?”

He had a habit of stating the obvious.

I wasn’t flying about as much, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t mobile.

He waved a hand about. The barrier-field surrounding it ruffled up a gale.

“You Valkyrie’s, Sirens, and Keres Artifacts are all the same. Up in the air or jumping about you’re hard to hit. But on the ground that’s a different story.”

He sounded amused. Exhausted, but amused.

He charged at me with a bronze smile on his face.

Inwardly, I cursed him. From somewhere the bastard had picked up his third wind, and he was coming at me with a strength I couldn’t match.

A bronze fist the size of a basketball thundered past me, narrowly missing my head.

I darted aside at the last heartbeat, not because I deliberately waited for his fist, but because I wasn’t as agile anymore.

My head pounded with a headache on par with a migraine and my vision was clouded. I had no idea how much longer I could maintain my overclocked state, but I feared I would fall long before then.

His fists moved with enough force and speed to generate vortices in the air that I could sense through the sensorium-field. If they struck me, I was certain I would fall and not rise again.

His voice sounded muffled and distended by my overclocking.

“On the ground, Valkyrie bitches are like wingless butterflies.”

I blocked a punch, and delivered a kick to his exposed flank that made him grunt, then disappointingly laugh.

“You’re so easy to crush.”

I kicked him again, this time his left leg and with enough force to smash a building support pillar. However, he shifted his stance, bending his knees at an odd angle that strengthened his posture and allowed him to remain standing though crouched. The ground under his feet fractured and cratered but did not collapse.

He shot his palms outwards at me. Though he failed to strike me, I felt the barrier-field around his hands expand and deliver a concussive blow that knocked me back several feet and half spun me round.

The Talos Armor stepped up its attack.

I protected my injured right-side, instead favoring his attack with my left, but that worked against me. I had to move faster, spin and turn quicker, in order to protect my right arm. Nonetheless I didn’t think I could take another hit of that magnitude against my injured arm, so I did what I could to protect it.

I used my legs to good advantage, delivering hard kicks that would have smashed through a permacrete wall. Against the Bronze Giant, the best they did was knock him aside a few feet. I had to wonder if any of the hits I’d delivered in the past ten minutes had resulted in any damage to him. Although his armor wasn’t as pristine as when our fight started, my blades had failed to produce more than paper-thin cuts along his chest, torso, and limbs. Many of those had already healed during the course of the battle.

In contrast, Brynhildr was battered and beaten, and its self-repair systems were struggling to cope with the damage I’d sustained.

The longer the fight dragged on, the more likely I would end up dead or battle beaten.

I lashed out with my right foot, striking the giant in the chest, then leapt upwards and delivered a second kick with my right foot that served to push him back and send me somersaulting backwards through the air.

The extra distance between us endured for a fleeting moment.

Then he was back to swinging hard, tight punches I found difficult to avoid.

Then one punch slipped past me and I connected with my chest.

I thought my heart would stop. The impact stunned me and left me dazed. I had nothing to offer to the kick he subsequently delivered.

I didn’t remember flying through the air, but I remembered the crash jump starting my heart.

The fight was over for me.

I couldn’t stand, let alone kneel. I had nothing to throw up in my defense.

I could feel Brynhildr wavering, as though moments away from retreating into its sarcophagus. If I allowed that to happen, then I would be truly defenseless.

Somehow, while lying on my back and on the dove’s tail beneath me, I was able to push myself up on my left arm. I stared at the Bronze Giant.

The ten foot tall Talos Armor quite clearly resembled a statue as he stood still and peered down at me.

I wondered why he wasn’t moving.

Then I saw the massive blade that had punctured through his chest.

Where my gauntlet blades had failed to penetrate his armored body, this one sword had ripped through his back and chest, and now held him upright like skewered meat. Almost in disbelief, the Bronze Giant began clutching at the blade emerging from his chest, but in moments his hands limply fell away.

Then his whole body was lifted up and off the ground.

I lay on the floor, struggling to understand what I was witnessing.

Incredibly, the giant’s feet dangled loosely in the air.

No less incredible was the sight of a tall, broad figure standing behind the Bronze Giant – an armored knight gripping the massive long sword that impaled the giant of a man.

Calmly, the knight continued to raise the Bronze Giant ever higher off the ground.

Its armor had a timeless aesthetic to it, a design that spanned the ages from the distant past to the far future. The helm it wore completely covered its face, though it sported triangular slits that were representative of eyes and a mouth, and gave me a point of reference for where to look at him.

Somehow, I perceived it was a man within the unknown Fragment or Artifact, but again it was more intuition than anything else. The sensorium-field emanating from the Valkyrie Armor was unable to breach the field surrounding the knight’s armored body. I wasn’t new to the sensorium-field, but I had yet to learn how to put it to decent use. By preventing me from peeking inside his armor, it was clear that the newcomer was already a more established Familiar than I was.

That skill undoubtedly explained how he’d snuck up on the Bronze Giant.

Then again, my opponent had been sensing victory and tasting final blood. He was so fixated on me he had little to no chance of sensing the armored knight behind him.

I watched the knight regard his victim, and it made me wonder why the knight was behind ‘him’ and not behind ‘me’.

Did that make him a friend rather than a foe?

If so…who was he?

It was a struggle to regain my feet, but somehow I managed to stand upright. My legs trembled through exhaustion and my mouth tasted like I’d washed it in battery acid. My stomach was much the same, cramping up every now and then, threatening to double me over. Adding to that, the pounding in my skull was making my vision swim and cloud around the border.

I was at my limit, and was reminded of a time eight months ago when I fought that girl on the rooftop on the day I met Caelum.

Was I going to going to collapse and lose hold of my Fragment?

I grit my teeth while concentrating on sustaining my grip on the Valkyrie Armor. I didn’t want it retreating back into Pocket Space, at least not yet.

Keep it together, just a little longer.

I was bound to get some support sooner or later. At that thought, I wondered if this knight was my support.

The knight looked at me, and his voice was clearly male. It wasn’t deep, but it wasn’t high either. He sounded older than me, maybe by several years. I briefly rated him to be around Kaleb’s age.

Again, I was basing all this on my woman’s intuition, but I ‘trusted’ my woman’s intuition.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said. “It took a little longer to find a way in. We had to park our ship on the spaceport outside, then come in by airlock.”

I blinked slowly, and shook my head to clear the sweat dripping down my eyes. “Who are you?”

“I’m with The Coven, that is, I answer to the Raynar Witch. My call-sign is Witch Four.”

I swallowed, the battery acid taste in my mouth making me grimace.

The knight cocked his head, then made a circular motion with his sword which spun the limp Bronze Giant in the air. He seemed completely untroubled by the giant’s mass. He also had no trouble switching from a two-handed to a one-handed grip on the sword’s hilt.

“Well,” he announced. “Time to go. If you want, you can claim this victory. I mean, he didn’t have much left in him at all.” He beckoned me over. “Come on. We have to hurry. The Enforcers will soon be charging in here. They’ve been keeping back while waiting for the battle to end. Once they realize it’s over, they’ll storm in here all gung-ho.”

The knight turned, and rested his sword over his right shoulder.

The Bronze Giant remained speared through by the knight’s long sword, and thus hung off the ground like wild game freshly killed. He no longer struggled, and blood dripped freely down his torso where the sword perforated his body.

I concentrated and reached out with the sensorium-field, narrowing it down so that I could sense out the Bronze Giant’s body readings. As I did, the black mist that heralded a Pocket Space breach surrounded both the Bronze Giant and the knight. I felt the wrongness in the air, which wasn’t common when a breach happened, but after a while the mist cleared, revealing the armored knight and a large man impaled on the knight’s sword.

My innards clenched as I realized the man was dead.

Familiar or not, there was no surviving a wound like that. It was then I realized the sword had run through the man at an angle, just enough to tear half the man’s heart along the way.

Caelum had barely survived when his sister had impaled him.

This man had died within seconds of being stabbed.

“Okay,” the knight declared. “Glad that’s over. Come on—no time waste.”

He turned away, his back toward me, and began jogging deep into the terminal, heading in the direction of the spaceport where hundreds of starships sat docked in the vacuum outside the asteroid that was Island Three.

I wasn’t inclined to follow him, until another knight appeared from the depths of the terminal, and this one was larger than the first. He exchanged words with the knight carrying the dead man on his sword, smacking the smaller knight across the back of his head, then yelled something that sounded like a dire warning.

I watched him approach me and then come to a stop in the near distance.

Calling him big was an understatement.

This knight stood well over ten feet in height, with comic book style proportions. I also noticed he had four arms, two of which were smaller than the arms connected to his massive shoulders.

He made the Bronze Giant look small.

With the Valkyrie Armor and its armored legs, I stood a good nine feet tall, but I still found myself looking up at him even though he was standing several meters away.

When he spoke, his voice was a deep baritone.

“Caprice Steiner afil Lanfear, my callsign is Witch Two. Witch One is expecting you. Please don’t keep the field-Commander waiting.” He pointed behind me at the glass façade of the terminal. “I’d recommend leaving before those Neanderthals charge in here, guns blazing.”

I looked over my right shoulder, past the Valkyrie’s Vector Wings floating behind me.

The Enforcers were beginning to line up like some kind of cavalry without the horses.

I wondered if Arisa was somewhere behind them, somewhere amongst the civilian spectators and holocam crews from the various news channels.

“Steiner, let’s go.”

I faced him. “Am I under arrest?”

“No. But the sooner we leave the better. You need to be debriefed. Don’t worry. The Boss said your Guardian will be there, Arisa Imreh Lanfear.”

I swallowed and then lost my grip on the Valkyrie Armor.

Almost instantly Pocket Space breached real-space and the armor left me as it was recovered by its sarcophagus. The cold completely enveloped my body, locking the air in my lungs and stealing my breath, but when it faded a few seconds later, I was dressed once again in my Galatea Academy uniform. That was new and convenient, though the sensation of being naked in the freezing air wasn’t welcome.

My feet touched ground, and I broke into a bout of shivers that wouldn’t stop.

I tried to remain standing, but my legs turned rubbery and I collapsed to the cold, ruined floor of the terminal. After that, I only remembered lying on the ground for a little while before the darkness bordering my vision washed over it, and my consciousness took a back seat.

I thought I heard my name called out as though from far away, but it might have been my imagination.



I read the message from Kaleb Deneve on my palm-slate.


I wrote back.


I wondered if he was unhappy with my request.

He replied with: WHAT’S THE NEWS ON STEINER?

That was a good question.

I looked up at the exterior façade of Terminals Five, Six, and Seven, part of the sixteen terminal donut that faced into the habitat ‘donut’.

For a while now, far longer than the five or six minutes Alucard had asked for, the sounds of battle had continued unabated, and they were still going on.

In the meantime, the Enforcers had drawn up a kilometer long perimeter a hundred meters away from the terminal façades, and camped behind the line. They showed no indication of preparing to advance into the terminals. On the contrary, they were busy setting up tents with refreshments and hot food. It was like they were expecting to be here for a while.

They were all so laid back and carefree.

It made my hackles rise when I thought of Caprice fighting tooth and nail against that Bronze Giant, while they calmly loitered about, eating and drinking, laughing and joking as though attending a day at the races.

I clenched my jaw and resisted the urge to storm back up to the terminals myself.

A woman’s voice distracted me.

“You know, I could have you arrested for battery against an Enforcer.”

I looked over at Captain Hot Lips, otherwise known as Rhonda St. Germaine Lanfear.

She was sitting on a stool that could support the combined weight of her and her power-armor. The top half of the armor was split open, revealing Rhonda dressed in a drab green tanktop, partly soaked with her sweat.

I guess it got hot in that power-armor.

To prove the point, she was drinking ice water from a plastic cup.

Hot Lips pouted her renowned lips at me. “Is that any way to treat your former senior in school?”

I glared at her. “I should sue you for sexual harassment. Let’s see how long you remain a captain after my family’s lawyers are through with you.”

She lethargically waved a hand that was free of the power-armor. “Pish posh, I’ve heard that so often it doesn’t bother me anymore.”

“How the Hell did you ever join Public Security?”

“I didn’t join them, I joined the Enforcer Division.”

Silica Alucard Raynar spoke up, her voice emanating rather clearly from my palm-slate in hand.

“Actually, she entered Public Security but went up and down the ranks so often she was finally kicked out after one kiss too many.”

Hot Lips lazily waved her hand again. “That’s all ancient history.”

I asked Alucard, “What do you mean up and down the ranks?”

“Surprising as it may sound, St. Germaine is actually rather talented. She went up the ranks quickly, but kissed too many people during her sordid career.”

Hot Lips shot the palm-slate a foul look. “Sordid?”

Alucard continued. “You could describe her career in Public Security as a game of Snakes and Ladders.”

Hot Lips planted her chin on a palm. “Like I said, all ancient history. I’m much happier here.”

I stared at her in disgust. “Why—because you can’t get demoted as often?”

“No, because I can kiss as much as I want and people don’t complain anymore.”

I quickly swept my gaze over the Enforcers nearby. “Yeah, I can imagine why they wouldn’t. You’ve surrounded yourself with faithful worshipers.”

Hot Lips nodded faintly. “True…men are such simple creatures.”

“So what are you, some kind of succubus?”

“Something like that….”

I couldn’t help gazing at her with disdain. “How did you get kicked out?”

Alucard provided the answer. “She kissed the daughter of the head of Public Security. That was the last straw, and they booted her out.”

I grimaced. “You are truly unbelievable.”

Hot Lips stared at me sidelong. “Why?”

“Because there’s a time and place for such a thing. There’s something called public decency.”

Her eyes narrowed. “When did you become such a prude?”


“I remember you stringing along the guys in our school like there was no tomorrow.”

“I never did that.”

“The girls called you Heartbreaker behind your back.”


“Maybe I created a monster when I gave you that kiss behind the gym.”

I glared at her. “I only kissed guys so I could wipe clean that memory—that nightmare!”

“How many guys did you end up kissing?”

“I’m not telling you that!”

“Humph,” she muttered and turned away. “Well, they called me Hot Lips, but all the guys called you, Lip Lock.”

I could sense my blood beginning to boil.

Planting a hand on my hip, I demanded, “When did this become about me?”

She gave me another sidelong look. “How did you manage to seduce Alessandro Alucard? He’s a tough nut to crack.” She touched her lips. “I tried with these and failed. Imagine that.”

I jerked back and almost dropped the palm-slate. When I recovered, my voice sounded like steel on steel. “If you know what’s good for you, don’t you dare go there….”

She turned away, but I heard her regardless. “Broke your heart, didn’t he…?”

I clenched my free hand, and cast my gaze down at my feet.

I had to look away from her, or I was certain I would punch her.

The truth was we broke each other’s hearts….

Hot Lips put the cup down on the ground at her feet, and stood up rather fluidly despite wearing half the power-armor. “You might not have noticed, but it’s gotten ‘awfully’ quiet in there.”

I looked over at the spaceport terminals of which Terminal Five was the closest.

Hot Lips had observed correctly.

It was much too quiet.

Slowly but surely, other Enforcers were growing aware that the sounds of battle had come to an end.

I spoke to Alucard. “What’s going on?”

“It’s over.”

“Huh?” I stared at the palm-slate. “What do you mean it’s over?”

“Your Familiar held him off long enough for my people to intervene. They finally managed to access the terminal from the spaceport’s side—from the crater—and have secured the offender and your Familiar.”

Hot Lips shot the palm-slate a slanted look. “Care to explain in detail, oh wicked witch of the west?”

“Call me that again, and I’ll have you thrown out of the Enforcer Division.”

“Just try it, you witch. You can go on resenting the fact my career moved faster than yours, and I didn’t have any family connections to rely on.”

I never relied on my family connections!”

I had to hold the palm-slate far away lest I lose my hearing.

Hot Lips again waved her hand, but this time she started slipping her body back into the power-armor. “Yeah, right, like anyone would believe that.”

Hot Lips!

I addressed Alucard. “So where is my Familiar?”

I could hear the woman taking deep breaths to calm down. “She’s safe with my people.”

I blinked a few times. “So it really is over.”

“That’s what I told you.”

I looked around me at the Enforcer line. “Well, they’ll either be disappointed or relieved.”

Hot Lips was fully suited up and the helmet with the painted lips was back on.

She faced me a little stiffly. “With this lot, they’re just happy getting the overtime. Don’t worry about them.”

I gave her a complicated look because that’s how she was making me feel.

“So what are you going to do now?” I asked.

She swung her arms, and flexed her armored shoulders. “Now we’ll go in there, and act all official and gung-ho.”

Alucard said, “They’ve got clean up duty.”


Hot Lips nodded. “Yeah, that means more overtime. More overtime means more money. More money means longer drinking hours.”

Again, I didn’t know how that made me feel.

Confused, disappointed, dismayed?

I certainly wasn’t happy with how my tax dollars were being spent.

I turned to look behind me at the second line where a countless number of people were hoping to glimpse some major development. I didn’t know what they were hoping to see, but I did believe they would be disappointed.

Hot Lips began rousing her men.

“Okay boys, time to go in there and give the folks out here a good show. So stow your sandwiches and grab your gear. We’re going in there guns out. Let’s make some noise. Just don’t shoot everything that moves. My source tells me the interior is pretty messed up so watch your footing, and watch your heads even if they’re rock hard.”

I moved aside as it suddenly became busy along the perimeter line.

Hot Lips pointed at me, then the spectators. “Lip Lock, get out of here. You’re likely to get flattened.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” I muttered, and dodged the lumbering Enforcers as I made a beeline for the spectator line.

Wait—did she just call me Lip Lock?

I got myself behind the line, and watched the men and women of the Enforcer Division ramp up the action. Within a minute they charged across the open ground between the perimeter line and the spaceport terminals like a bunch of medieval foot soldiers wearing oversized Kataphract armor. They lumbered over with surprising speed, kicking things along the way, including abandoned cars, just for the hell of it.

A cringed inwardly, thinking of the repair bill.

Then I wondered if I was going to have to foot the bill for the damages to the terminal.

I spoke to Alucard through my palm-slate. “Hey, who’s paying for all this?”

“Don’t worry. The spaceport is insured for acts of terrorism.”

I lowered my voice and spoke confidentially. “Is that what this is?”

“Well, do you ‘want’ to pay for the damage?”

“Of course not,” I hissed. “I was just wondering.”

“Relax, we’ll pin it all on Crimson Crescent. In case you haven’t noticed there’s a Crimson Crescent levy that’s paid on all purchases, aside from the regular goods and services tax.”

I looked up at the spaceport. “Is it enough to pay for the damages?”

“Hell—it’s enough to pay for a new spaceport. The Pharos Treasury has been collecting on it for years without having to spend a single dollar of it because the war’s been kept away from Pharos. They’ve had six years to earn interest on the money in that fund.”

“I guess I should be relieved to hear that.”

The Enforcers stormed the nearest spaceport terminal to the cacophony of shattering permaglass, crashing metal, and loud cheering. Never mind using the existing entrances. They made their own entrances into the building.

With the amount of cheering around me, I was surprised nobody yelled ‘Touch Down’.

It all made me a little uncomfortable, especially when I heard someone in the crowd mutter, “Go, kill those Familiars”.

I spoke into my slate. “Take care of Caprice for me.”

“Not a problem. She will need to be debriefed. Didn’t you want to be there?”

She was right. I had said that to Alucard before when I called her from my car. “I need to pick up my car, and pay the triple parking rate. Just tell me when and where to be.”

There was silence from Alucard’s end of the line. I sensed she was holding onto the moment. “Imreh…my family had nothing to do with going after Caelum Desanto last year.”

It was my turn to hold onto the moment. “I know.”

“That said, because of what happened between his sister and I, the decision not to bond him to the Raynar Pride wasn’t made lightly. He’s a very special young man. My Primogen was willing to overlook Celica’s betrayal and bring Desanto into the Raynar Pride as an affiliated Familiar.”

I watched a number of emergency personnel follow the Enforcers into the damaged terminals. When I glanced to my left, I saw a holovid camera crew making an on-site report for the evening news.

I turned away, and began pushing through the spectating crowds that stood between me and the vehicle parking lot where I’d left my car. I needed to leave the spaceport habitat and be present for Caprice’s debrief.

“Alucard…unless he knows the truth about what happened, he’ll never forgive you, let alone trust you.”

I didn’t tell her that my trust in her was less than paper thin, especially after learning what had happened to Celica a nineteen months ago.

Alucard spoke with a heavy tone. “Celica Desanto didn’t lie to him. She told him the truth. I followed the order the Sanctum issued and had those girls killed. I took the lives of the Artemis who trusted me, and for that I will forever be cursed. Heaven doesn’t await me, Arisa, only eternal damnation in Hell.”

I swallowed, then took a deep breath. “Why? Why did you do it?”

I could imagine her shaking her head as I listened to her reply.

“It’s what the Sanctum ordered, and it’s difficult to resist the Sanctum. If you say no to them, make sure you do so with a Primogen’s approval and backing.”

I cocked my head slightly. “In that case, tell me this. Why did you convince the Primogens to have Serenity Artesan monitor Caelum Desanto?”