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Seanzilla

NC-17 Sorcerers

60 posts in this topic

December 24th, 2013
Christmas Eve at Theodore Grant’s Mansion in Duchess


This could very well be his very last Christmas Eve and for some reason had chosen to spend it among a group of people that more than likely consisted of people who would do their best to kill him in a little more than a week. Of course Noah Silverman has always been the type of man to easily succumb to the allures of fine wine and food; he just never realized his love of parties overruled all common sense. Neither did he realize that there were this many people who were the exact same way.

The invitation he had received described the ‘get-together’ as a black tie dinner party and as such Noah appeared in a black suit with silk lapels, white dress shirt, black bow-tie, black cummerbund and black dress shoes. Before arriving he wondered whether it was all just an elaborate scheme to make him appear overdressed at the party only to make a fool out of him, but luckily no such thing happened and the vast majority of the attending guests were dressed appropriately.

Noah sat by himself at one of the many large round tables, big enough to seat at least eighteen people, and took a look at his wristwatch while wondering how much longer it’d take before dinner would be served. The three glasses of scotch he’d drank while here tasted nice, but sitting all alone was getting boring and hopefully the rest of his party would arrive by the time dinner was served.

He briefly wondered why no one had approached him ever since he had arrived. He wasn’t on very good terms with any of the people he recognized, so their lack of courtesy came as no surprise, but surely some of the others would be curious as to who this mysterious stranger was? He snickered at the thought of his boyishly good looks being the determining factor in the distance created between him and the crowd. No way that it could be the fact that he was known as the Mage Hunter. Surely they hadn’t heard of that?

By now he had gotten so bored that instead of playing around with his glass of scotch he started examining the large ballroom. He had taken notice of it when he entered, but it wasn’t until now that he fully realized how much time, money and effort Theodore must have put into organizing this party. The old man must have been just as bored as Noah was.

He would never be able to explain how this sixth sense of his worked, but when a cold chill ran up his back he instinctively knew that it was time for him to turn his head to the entrance of on the ballroom located atop a grand stairway. As if acting upon that very cue the large white double doors opened and she came walking in and Noah’s gaze remained forever locked onto her.

Locked onto the way she wore her long dark hair loose and let it fall gracefully over her shoulders and onto her back. Locked onto the way she elegantly strode down the stairs, never losing her posture despite wearing high-heeled black pumps. And locked onto the way purple cocktail dress wrapped tightly around her form. It wasn’t until her green eyes examined the ballroom and met his that he snapped out of his trance and returned back to reality.

She was the cold Queen of Winter. She was the moon and the stars, brighter than anything else in the endless night’s sky. She was the eternal love of his life, Stella Lotharius.

Noah would sell his every belonging if that were the price to pay for time to stand still at that moment. Whether it was the three glasses of scotch he drank on an empty stomach in the past hour or the sincere feelings he had for Stella was uncertain, but regardless of the reasons the fact remained that her entrance had left such an impression on her that he remained dazed in his chair as she approached him.

The sound of Stella loudly clearing her throat was what it took for Noah to finally awaken from his second daze and rise from his seat. “I-I’m sorry!†He pulled the chair next to his out from under the table and took a deep bow while gesturing with his arms as if presenting the chair to Stella. She shot him a quick sideways glance before standing in front of the chair and allowing Noah to push it forward for her to have a seat. Without needing to check in with Stella he summoned one of the many waitresses Theodore had hired to attend to the guests and asked for a glass of their finest red wine before taking another bow for Stella.

“You may sit,†she said, without granting him another look, and he obediently sat down on the chair directly next to her. “Well?â€

“Nothing.â€

“Don’t tell me you spent the past hour drinking without doing the job I asked you to do.â€

“I am sorry, but Grant was nowhere to be found.â€

She scoffed. She was well aware that Noah did not have any regret at all. Asking him to end one’s life would always end up in a success, but something as simple as finding out what the deal with this party was was something outside of his capabilities?

Before she had the chance to actually berate him all the lights in the ballroom went out and a large spotlight shone on the center of the room to reveal and elderly man in a black tuxedo. “Welcome, to my final Christmas Eve dinner party, ladies and gentlemen.†Several guests started clapping at the sight of their legendary hosts, but Stella sat down silently with her arms crossed and Noah sipped at his scotch wondering what all the hype was about.

“As you all know when the clock strikes twelve it’ll be exactly one week before the start of the 50th War of Magic in Duchess and the thirteen Contenders present in this room will do battle to decide which one of them is the one worthy of inheriting my title and all of its perks.†Theodore paused and started coughing before resuming. My wish was for you all to share in one last night of festivities before going through the hell that is a War of Magic. I do not wish this fate upon you, but the will of the Cosmos must be followed.â€

Theodore took a long look around the room and made eye contact with all the Contenders before finishing his speech. “Good luck and bonne appetite.â€

“Stella,†Noah gulped down the remaining scotch, “I am unfamiliar with this world. It wasn’t until four years ago that I finally became a Champion so most of these people are strangers to me.†Stella quietly looked at Noah while waiting for him to finish. “Who is it we should be most worried of?â€

“Him.†She nodded in the direction of rather unimpressive Chinese man in his thirties. “Lin Junwei. I’ve heard many people mention that he is a shoo-in for the title of the 50th Lord. Not only does his group consist of at least 300 Vassals and Champions, he was also personally trained and raised by the 49th Lord.â€

“Good.†Noah got up from his seat and flashed a mischievous smile. “Watch this.â€

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Planeswalking is a lot less fanciful than a lot of people think it is.

 

The common impression of it is kind of like travelling in space with a warp drive, or perhaps teleporting using some of the more conventional methods. You have a flash of light, and then you're suddenly going through this tunnel at a really fast speed (the tunnel can be pitch black or filled with rainbow sparkles, depending on the version), and then you pop out on the other side and you reach your destination. Perhaps it really is like that for warp drives and teleportation, but not otherwise.

 

You see, it really is just like normal walking. To get to a place, you take a step in the right direction. To go up, you take a step up the staircase. And to Planeswalk, you step into another Plane. It's as simple as that.

 

Maya Iyengar Planeswalked into the center of Theodore Grant's mansion as the guests were still milling about, awaiting for dinner. She sort of faded into existence from an external point of view, landing upon the hard marble flooring with a sharp "clack" or her heels. For this special occasion, Maya had chosen to wear a flowing light blue dress that trailed along the floor behind her as she walked. It was adorned with jewels and was made of fine silk, but the most attention grabbing part was a large symbol which had been sewn onto the back of the dress.

 

She took a glance around the dining hall, briefly glancing at almost every participant before her gaze landed upon a lean but grizzled man in a black suit and tie just like the rest of the gentlemen at the occasion. "Frank!" She called out to him, nearly tripping over her own heels as she hurried over to the man. "There you are. I was worried you'd leave me alone at this horrid place."

 

"It is my job to protect you, ma'am," he replied in a deadtone manner, bowing towards her. "I was getting worried. You are almost three minutes late."

 

Maya waved her hand dismissively at him, pouting. "I ran into some trouble with the Kor back home. You know how it is! But I think you'll enjoy the company of our new friends," she tittered as she began to walk towards an empty seat, with Frank following wordlessly behind her. She chose to sit at a rather large dinner table, capable of seating up to eighteen people. Frank held out her chair for her before taking the one next to it shortly after, his eyes constantly scanning the room for any potential aggressors.

 

Not long later, the double white doors opened, and a woman in a stunning purple cocktail dress strode confidently in, drawing the attention of Maya almost instantly. She was so enthralled by the woman's beauty that stars could almost be seen in her eyes, and she felt overjoyed when the newcomer chose to sit at the same table as her. "What's her name, Frank?" Maya whispered urgently into her bodyguard's ear.

 

"That is Stella Lotharius," he explained. "Commonly known among sorcerer circles as the Queen of-"

 

"Miss Lotharius!" Maya called over to her with a wide smile, waving at the other woman across the table. "I really like your dress! Are you here as a Contender too?"

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"Ready?"

 

Elliot called out to his younger sister. Elyon bounded down the stairs right on cue, her suede pumps clacking loudly against the parquet flooring as she joined her waiting brother. Both of them were dressed in elegant dinner attires, all dolled up for the dinner party the Lord of Sorcerers, Theodore Grant III, is throwing.

 

"Ready." Elyon huffed, thumping her chest in a show of confidence. "Any last words?"

 

"No." The older Olivine laughed. "It'll be fine. We'll make it. Come on, dad's driving us over."

 

---

 

The young Sorceress pushed open the ballroom doors, taking in the familiar faces of her fellow mages with enthusiasm. Elliot followed closely behind his sister, joining in as she greeted old friends and mentors. Despite being born in a family of mages, Elliot did not have a single shred of magical potential in him. His sister however, was incredibly gifted in the arcane. Family and friends have often teased the siblings, joking about how Elyon has stolen her brother's share of magical powers. It wasn't all doom and gloom for him, though. Elliot has found his place in melee combat instead, using his physical skill to bring glory to his family name.

 

"Hey, Stella and Maya!" Elyon was already busy socializing with her fellow guests. "Hi, Altruis! Long time no see, Mr Lin!" 

 

Elliot knew Elyon has always been a cheerful girl, but he's still surprised at the positivity she's exuding with every word and handshake. This wasn't just another dinner party, after all. In fact, it may just be their last. Elliot could still recall the worried expressions hanging on their parents' faces as they read through Lord Theodore's invitation card, digesting the hidden meanings behind the courteous words written on it.

 

Take care of each other, they have instructed the siblings. We don't want to lose either one of you. 

 

---

 

"...My wish was for you all to share in one last night of festivities before going through the hell that is a War of Magic. I do not wish this fate upon you, but the will of the Cosmos must be followed.â€

 

As Lord Theodore's speech came to a close, a smattering of handclaps rose up from the guests, eventually strengthening to a thunderous applause. Elyon, however, kept her chin propped on both hands, eyes fixed locked on the Lord with an unreadable expression.

 

"What do you want to do?" She muttered, directing the question towards her brother.

 

"Hmm?"

 

"Must we fight?"

 

"Well..." He stretched out his hands, as a pair of steel tipped, fingerless gloves materialized over them. "You already know the answer. I'm even your Champion now."

 

"Pffff." Elyon conceded, letting out a rare sigh. "May as well enjoy this dinner while we still can, huh."

 

It seems like the party has went back in full swing. The quartets situated at the corner of the ballroom picked up their instruments again, filling the room with soft jazz music. Some guests have even moved to the center of the room and started dancing, almost as if they were equally determined to have fun in such bleak times too. Elyon stood up and stretched, shaking out her silvery pigtails in a childlike manner.

 

With a slight tug, the young sorceress dragged her brother over to Stella and Maya's table, intent on socializing some more. She plopped herself down on Noah's seat just as he left his, watching him creep over to Lin's position.

 

"What's he up to?"

 

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Surprisingly, Elaine hadn't showed up that late, as she was wont to do. However, getting to this godforsaken city had been a hurdle more difficult and frustrating than her most intricate, involved works of alchemy -- a sudden snowfall at London had delayed her flight by a crucial few hours, and consequently her journey to Duchess had been a hasty, nerve-wracking one -- one that had made her lose most of her faith in the English transportation system. Sometimes, she envied her fellow Sorcerers -- plenty of them had alternate means of travel, from magical steeds to simply sauntering over from some other dimension like it was the easiest thing in the world. And here she was, scrambling for time because she had to travel like a Normal.

 

Right now, she was staring down a glass of Scotch, trying to ignore the merriment going on in the rest of the room. They were probably going to turn the city into a firestorm between them in a scant few days time; just what was the point of exchanging pleasantries now, pretending that all was well with the world? It was a masquerade, and one that everyone in the room could plainly see through. She hadn't particularly wanted to end up in this War -- she had no need for the power and prestige of the Lord's position. While the Lord, the arbiter of Cosmos itself, was in most respects a god made flesh, she didn't particularly relish the attention of the whole world, and -- god forbid -- the responsibility it entailed. It sounded like more work -- a needless distraction from her pursuit of truth. 

 

But then again, the Lord of all Sorcerers probably didn't have to spend several hours twiddling their thumbs at some grimy, overcrowded airport. Maybe she should reconsider.

 

Nearby, an excited-sounding girl was dragging an older man to another table, probably intent on making introductions or something. Elaine vaguely recognized her -- Elyon Olivine, a fellow Contender. To be honest, Elaine had no idea why she'd gotten one of the coveted 13 spots. She was still young, and didn't have much in the way of a reputation -- nor much of a following. She probably had talent in some unusual field, in that case, or old Grant would never have considered picking her. She didn't seem like much of a threat, frankly. She didn't seem like a fighter, just some kid in over her head; Elaine honestly doubted such a bubbly, friendly person would have even harbored the thought of destroying the twelve others here with her today in bloody magical combat. It was really kind of a waste that a kid like that had been dragged into this; weren't Wars of Magic fought between withered old men with chips on their shoulders and one foot in the grave, each striving for that one last shot at glory?

 

Come to think of it, there were plenty of Contenders who broke the mold this time round. The Chinese man Lin was one to watch; despite being relatively young, he'd been tipped to win the war by many. Old Grant had trained him personally, and he had what amounted to a small army at his beck and call. There were three other young upstarts, too. Altruis Black, that wonder boy who'd come up with a whole new Art in his parents' basement. Stella Lotharius, child prodigy and scion of the renowned Lotharius line. Maya Iyengar, who, frankly, was an enigma wrapped in a puzzle wrapped in a mystery. What was her deal, anyway? 

 

"Why the long face, milady? It's a party; young lass like you should be out making merry instead of soliloquizing over your Scotch." A voice piped up behind her. She didn't bother turning to look who it was -- it was unmistakably her trusty retainer and Champion, Leon Browning. He had his fair share of strange quirks, and probably had a closet full of skeletons somewhere, but she'd be damned if he wasn't good at his job, eccentricities notwithstanding.

 

"Young lass?" She let out a harsh chuckle. "Watch your tongue, Leon. I've never been one for small talk, least of all small talk with a bunch of people who'd be trying to kill me in a few days."

 

"You're no fun at all," he said with a sigh of mock exasperation. "Anyway, the main entertainment of the night's going to start soon. Even a grumpy old spinster like you's bound to enjoy this one."

 

"You're talking about the live music? You should know very well I'm not a fan of jazz," Elaine grumbled, taking a swig of her Scotch. "Well, not since I had to flee New Orleans."

 

"Ah, good times." Leon said wistfully, before tapping her on the shoulder and pointing towards Lin's table. "But that's not tonight's highlight -- that is." He gestured towards Noah, who was currently looking pretty damned suspicious right now. "That's the Mage Hunter himself, in the flesh. And tonight, we might just see that consummate professional at work. Frankly, I can't wait."

 

Elaine afforded herself a smile, and took another swig of Scotch. "You're probably right. We might be in for a very interesting night."

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Altruis was by no means an epicure, but good food and entertainment were very much appreciated. Events like Theodore's weren't his forte, but he wouldn't pass up a chance for a gathering, regardless of what was to come shortly after. Thus, he arrived as one of the first people, clad in his black tuxedo and bow tie. He was somewhere in Singapore the previous day when the letter arrived in an overly elegant envelope from what he assumed was sub-space travel. 

 

He stepped into the ball room and let a whistle loose at the elaborate set up. He admired it for a long moment, then noted his earliness and took a seat at one of the many empty tables, ordering a glass of wine from one of the waiters. Ember and Cody, his two closest champions accompanied him. Ember was dressed in a jet black, strapless silk dress. Her blazing red hair cascaded down her back in stark contrast, simply adding to her beauty. 

 

They waited as people filled the room and Altruis watched the many people enjoying themselves with enjoyment as he sipped casually on his wine. He greeted Elyon's friendliness with an equal smile saying, "good to see you again."

 

After Theodore announced everything, Altruis joined the series of clapping and whispered to Ember, "Looks like we've got more trouble on our plate than we thought."

 

Ember simply nodded in silence, her stern expression and sharp eyes not giving any ground. When the lights came back, Altruis said, "Well feel free to mingle you two. No reason to be tense at our last gathering."

 

Then, he brushed his hand through his dark brown hair and stood, bringing his wine with him, and called to Maya as he approached saying, "Oi, Maya. Long time no see."

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Cody was not one for gatherings, let alone such a formal one. Regardless, he could not simply reject Altruis' "offer" to accompany him to such a thing and Ember was more than excited to help him shop for the proper clothes for such an event. Needless to say, the beautiful woman had taken much more excitement from the search of clothes than Cody had, she choosing many different choices while he simply tried them on for her. He hadn't minded, though. Ember had done a lot for him and she was probably the closest person to him, save for his family.

 

So, it was not hard for him to wear a smile just for her as he also wore the slick black tux she'd chosen for him along with a tie she had adored. It looked just as black as the tux but, in the right light, it had a hint of red. And red always matched Ember.

 

Still, Altruis was not a stranger to him emotionally. The Contender had given him not only gifts but also a chance at a new life. With Altruis and Ember combined, Cody had been able to adapt quite well into new living conditions, much better living conditions. He now had money not only to live off of but also a small amount to spare. He also had status, allies... and enemies. And it was within this large ballroom that the majority of his new enemies were currently spending their time. It really made little sense to him, everyone gathering on an unspoken truce for tonight only to be going for each other's throats soon enough. And everyone knew it. So why were they all pretending? Why were they all trying to make friends? Weren't they worried they may become too attached and, therefore, become unable to fight one another? Or... or was that the goal? Could this event be used by everyone here simply to manipulate everyone else?

 

Cody shook his head. It still makes no sense. But I cannot disobey an order. So, he attempted to make the most of it, swirling the glass of scotch he held in his hand absentmindedly. He sat loyally beside Ember and obediently close to Altruis, following the motions of the party by clapping as others did and listening when announcements were made. However, when it came the time to associate with others, Cody suddenly felt a bit nervous. Unlike the others here, he was not well with lying or giving false affections. Everything he gave was honest and he was not willing to put the soon-to-come war in detriment for his 'team' simply because he made friends he could not kill.

 

Instead, he resolved he would use kind words should anyone come up to him to speak, but he would also closely watch his tongue in case some at this event really did try to use it to find information or to deceive. Keeping secrets was not a new thing to him and he saw it as different from lying. Ever since he'd met Altruis, he'd had to keep secrets.

 

He set his glass on the table and rose from his seat, offering his arm to Ember. Though he didn't want to associate, he knew Ember liked to talk and he felt he shouldn't have to be kept secluded in a chair. Better to walk around. Better to not seem weak or affected. Better to seem at ease, as everyone else oddly did. "Come. Is there anyone you'd like to catch up with? I'll escort you, your royal Highness." He gave a mock bow and flashed her a smile. She was no higher than he was but he did like to make her feel special. And he loved to hear her laugh. Besides, she was one of the very few he even knew here.

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Nobody saw her enter, as usual.

 

Slipping in behind a woman in a too-short, amethyst dress, Mei moved invisibly through the crowd, silently observing the people who would soon become her opponents. Her thin, pale fingers clenched tightly around the hilt of a razor-thin blade, no longer than her palm, as she picked up on the information that was dropped so casually, yet she didn't know at all. She'd been thrust into this without warning, and she needed to be sharp if she wanted to stay alive.

 

Lin Junwei. She turned her gaze to the Chinese man who moved with an easy confidence. With such a broad base of supporters, he'd be a challenge to take on, even with Maya's ample troops. His own skill would be formidable, not someone Maya could defeat alone, Contender or no. No, rather, let him tire himself out as the perceived greatest threat, defending from coordinated attacks from other Contenders while Maya conserved her own energy. There was no need to face him head-on; let the risk fall to the more reckless.

 

A pair about her age, clearly siblings. The girl was a contender, her brother her Champion. She was weak, suffering doubts about this war that would inevitably lead to bloodshed. She could be an easy first victory, serving as a source of intimidation. A definitive defeat with the loser crushed in body and spirit would demonstrate a lack of mercy, a total commitment to winning no matter the cost. It would make the others more wary, unsure of the complete extent of Maya's abilities. On the other hand, though, taking out a weakling could also serve to lessen her own standing, marking her as one who lacked the power to take on one greater. It was a fine line to walk.

 

Mage Hunter. The name was ominous, though the boy looked anything but. To approach Lin so casually--he was either a fool or very skilled. The latter was more likely, given his epithet, but surely not enough to pose a threat alone to the handpicked successor. Reckless, eager to prove himself, perhaps, to demonstrate that he did not fear the man. But fear was a good emotion, one that sharpened the senses and attuned one to the world around him. Fear had kept her alive in those early years, provided her with the motivation to fight past arduous training, to complete her missions and develop her skills until she no longer needed fear. But now... to say she was unafraid would be to lie. But it would help her, as it did before, in this unknown world of magic, keeping her alive until she knew enough to survive.

 

Smoothly, Mei made her way through the crowd, touching nothing and no one, her eyes fixed upon her target. When she stopped, she knew that Maya had sensed her, but the woman showed nothing amiss, chatting up the woman she called Stella Lotharius, another Contender. As always, Richards hovered over their master, stern and intimidating, and Mei had to stretch her body upward to whisper in his ear.

 

"Is there any instruction for me, Mister Richards?" she asked in a soft, lilting voice. Though she listened for his response, her eyes were still moving, roving around the room to see if anyone was looking in her direction or suspecting anything. She had no great confidence in her ability to take on these monsters, but that was all the more reason to retain her advantage of non-existence. This was a very different class of people than she had once worked with.

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What a bore.

 

The young lady of 18 years was dressed in an purple, sparkling dress, that hugged against her modest frame and ample bust, with a flowing, multi-layered underskirts waving from side to side down her legs as she walked. On her bare feet were a thin pair of silver heels, delicate and unassuming. Her long, black hair was tied up in a soft bun at the back of her head, with ringlets cascading down the back of her head from the not. Two thin strange of her long black hair were left to frame either side of her fringe. She was beautiful despite her youth, with a pair of reddish brown eyes, and soft, feminine features. Around her neck was a rather lavish silver necklace, with a ruby medallion encrusted in diamonds. Despite her ravishing appearance, she looked entirely bored as she watched the other participants of this affair mingle with each other. 

 

"What a pointless affair." She said bluntly to the man standing next to her. He said nothing in response. "Why would anyone want to socialise with the people they are to kill? It's equivalent to playing with a cow before you eat it. Pointless." she continued. Again her companion said nothing. He was a young man, but older than her by eight years. He was a good foot taller than her and dressed in a simple black tuxedo with a black bow tie. However he looked out of place, as his crimson mane of shaggy hair was loose and wild, cascading down his back like a wild beast. His eyes were emerald, but looked dull and emotionless, yet still alert as the man surveyed the room. 

 

"Still, at least the old fool has good taste in wine." The young lady mused as she sipped red wine from the glass in her hand. "Would you like a drink, Eli?" she asked, turning to her guardian. The red-haired man named Eli turned his head, raising his eyebrow suspiciously, yet still not speaking. After a moment his young charge gave a soft titter. "I'm joking of course. You're working, I can't have you dulling your mind with alcohol." She said, her voice full of mirth but laced with venom. She enjoyed poking fun at people. Especially Eli, who was duty bound to serve her unconditionally, without question or complaint. Eli simply turned his head back towards the party, the only sign of emotion being a brief flare of his nostrils as he sighed heavily out of his nose. 

 

Eli was not a man of passion. He was not a man of dreams, of ambition. His entire life was dedicated to the incredibly gifted young woman to the right of him. She was Lucia D'Rossilia, The Regal Seeress. He had been under the employment of her family his entire life. He had known nothing else. The position had allowed him to educate himself well, after all he was always at Lucia's side, even during her many lectures and seminars. Many had mistaken him for a man without brains, simply a blunt weapon for Lucia to use. Well that was partly true, after all, he was a weapon. However he was sharp, keen and always on top form. He was no mere man, he was a beast. a wolf in sheep's clothing. Even now he had already assessed most of the threats in the room. Many he considered more dangerous than others. The wise guy in the glasses had caught his attention. That guy, he was probably up to something. It was Eli's place to intervene though, at least not until Lucia's safety was jeopardized. Only then would he have to introduce the beast. 

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Stella wondered whether Maya was an airhead or simply fucking with her, regardless she had to answer the question. “Yes,†Stella’s expression remained blank. “And you must be Maya. I’ve heard a lot about you.†Before the conversation could continue Elyon sat down on Noah’s seat and asked what her Champion was up to, but Stella had no suitable answer so she simply shrugged and spectated along with the rest.

Lin Junwei was engaged in conversation with his companions while standing between a few tables. Noah was absolutely sure that he had approached the Chinese Sorcerer without giving away his presence to him, but when in a room filled with people wary of each other it was impossible for him not to attract a few eyes on him. He drew closer and closer, merely a few steps removed from being right at Junwei’s back when he slid his hand over a table and quickly spirited a silver dinner knife away.

A step and another step brought him two arms’ length away when Junwei turned his head and eyes sideways to gaze at Noah. What happened at that moment was something Noah would not be able to explain, but a certain feeling of dread suddenly overcame him and froze him right in his tracks. It wasn’t fear, Noah wasn’t exactly afraid, but something was oppressing him and preventing him from pulling off the prank he had planned.

“Childish,†was the only thing Junwei said when he turned around and placed his hand on Noah’s shoulder. An intense pain that propagated throughout Noah’s entire body followed, forcing him on his knees. “If you’re going to ‘hunt’ me, even your Transcend won’t be enough,†and with that Junwei left and took his seat at one of the tables, but Noah remained in the same position for several minutes before finally recovering from the pain and regaining his composure. Without a shred of shame he returned to his seat next to Stella, but he was visibly disappointed when it turned out Elyon was sitting there.

Stella looked up with an amused smile plastered on her face. “If you would excuse me, ladies,†Noah pulled out the chair and Stella rose from her seat, “it seems I must tend to my dog’s wounds. I shall see you all next week.†She quickly paced towards the exit while Noah took a last look at Maya, Elyon and their Champions to commit all their faces to memory before he briskly ran after her. “Was that what you wanted to show me?†She asked once Noah had gotten close enough.

“Yes,†Noah nodded, “if he is as frightening as you made him out to be I thought it would be best for you to get a look at his magic.â€

“How were you so sure he’d use magic to punish you in the first place?

“Because if he hadn’t I would’ve stabbed him in the neck with a dinner knife.â€

Stella had trouble keeping her composure and started giggling at the remark. “Either way, his magic is weird. Understanding it isn’t enough for me to use it. I’ll most likely need a lot of time to be able to properly copy it, but I can at least replicate the state of the Cosmos.†Stella stopped walking once she reached the top of the stairs and turned to face Noah. “Well, what’s your verdict? Can you beat him as you are now?â€

“Not a chance.â€

“So I take it you will be going after him first?â€

“Yup.â€


 December 31st, 2013
23:52, New Year’s Eve as Rosemary Square in Duchess


Most people would be spending time with their families right now. Celebrating the end of this shitty year and hoping for a better one while deep down inside knowing that the next year is going to be just as awful. It never gets better, regardless of how much fun New Year’s Eve is. The sooner people would realize it, the better, but even though Noah was well aware that New Year’s Eve shouldn’t be treated any differently from any other day he could not help but envy the people having fun.

Unlike these people Noah was stuck sitting on a freezing bench in Rosemary Square. He was dressed in black sneakers, denim jeans, a black zipped up hoodie with the hood pulled over his head, a brown leather jacket and black leather gloves. Around him hundreds, maybe even close to a thousand, people had gathered to enjoy the firework show that would kick off at midnight. Noah couldn’t remember ever enjoying fireworks and he would rather spend the night at a gathering that demanded trading in his casual attire for formal dinner wear. Too bad Teddy didn’t throw a party on New Year’s Eve.

He took a look at his wristwatch, wondering how much longer it’d take for the minute hand to reach midnight, when he heard a female voice asking: “Ready?†He turned around and saw a woman close to his age, dressed similarly to him with the only difference being the leather bag she was carrying. The woman had short black and white hair with fringes covering her forehead, a blue barrette attached to the left side of her hair and blue eyes. “It’s time to go.†Noah nodded, stood up and walked right past the girl who quickly followed behind him. “Aren’t you worried? About Stella, that is.â€

“No,†Noah answered. “All of the Sorcerers and Champions loyal to her are staying in the Lotharius estate. It’d be incredibly dangerous to attack her now. I don’t think anyone is foolish enough to try.â€

“Don’t you think most Contenders will be as heavily guarded?â€

“Yes.â€

“Then why are we going after Junwei right now?â€

Noah reached out with his right arm and placed his hand on the small of the girl’s back. “Because they won’t expect it. Now hurry up, Aria.†He increased his pace into a slow run while gently pushing forward, forcing her to keep up. With less than two minutes left until midnight the pair reached the Elton Hotel, an extremely expensive Five Star Hotel that Junwei had taken residence in. “If the info we got from the Lotharius spies is correct, Junwei will be in Room 605 and heavily guarded. You remember the plan?â€

Aria nodded. “Yes.â€

“Remember, be back here and ready to go by 00:03. If I haven’t returned by then, leave without me.â€

“Are you sure three minutes is enough?â€

“If it isn’t… this plan was doomed to fail from the start. Now go.â€

Aria ran around the corner of the building. When she was out of sight Noah materialized a pair of Japanese swords, katanas that he had received from Stella as his gift, and quickly attached them to his belt. The moment the katanas materialized out of thin air he felt their power surge through his body as they granted him the ability to manipulate ice, a power he’d sorely need for his mission. Before commencing he took one last look upwards, identifying the window he needed to reach and took one last deep breath.

“One minute left,†he whispered before he ran toward the wall, jumped and took as many steps as he could before gravity started pulling him back down. He quickly reached for the wall with his hands and created a grip out of ice to hold on to. “No time to waste.†He quickly pulled himself up and continued creating grips for his hands and feet while climbing as fast as he could and making sure he stayed out of sight of any windows he passed by.

The mental countdown revealed that he had less than ten seconds before midnight by the time he had covertly positioned himself above the window of Room 605. “7… 6… 5… 4… 3… 2…†He closed his eyes and swung down. The second before he crashed through the window with his two swords drawn the lights in the room started flickering and burnt out.

There were two people standing at the window, they were caught unaware and quickly killed through decapitation. A third had gotten the chance to retaliate by manifesting a spear and trying to pierce Noah, but his eyes were unaccustomed to the darkness and made the strike easy to dodge. A diagonal cut on his chest made him unable to strike again. The fourth person in the room was a Sorcerer. He conjured a fireball and shot it towards Noah, but by quickly creating a wall of magic infused ice Noah was able to block it.

The Sorcerer created a hovering fireball to illuminate the entire room, but the dense ice wall prevented him from getting clear vision on Noah. All of a sudden two Noahs came dashing from both sides of the wall. It was obvious one of them was an illusion, but which one? He had no time to conjure a second fireball, so he had to guess which one was the real Noah. He decided to throw his fireball at the one who came dashing out second, hoping that Noah planned on the Sorcerer attacking the one that came out first, but when the fireball connected Noah’s body lost all color, revealing that it was made of ice before melting due to the heat.

Another slash and another dead man.

“If you’re looking for Master Junwei, he isn’t here.†The tallest Chinese man Noah had ever laid eyes upon stood in the back of the room. The man had a long pointy beard, a moustache grown into two long points and a fierce look on his face, obviously displeasured with the death of his four comrades. He was dressed in a black suit and materialized a heavily decorated guandao when he stepped forward. “We knew we’d catch something with this little trap of ours, but I never would’ve guessed it’d be the Mage Hunter right from the start.â€

‘46… 47… 48...’ The first minute of his three minute time limit was close to coming to an end when the man came rushing forward. He aimed for Noah’s throat with a horizontal slash, but Noah managed to dodge by bending backwards. His opponent quickly followed up by sweeping Noah’s legs with the back end of the polearm, forcing Noah to hop in order not to get hit, but then quickly stepped on the polearm to pin it to the ground.

Finally it was his chance to strike. He returned the favour by slashing at the man’s neck, but the man ducked, kicked Noah’s shins and pulled away his weapon to make him lose balance. Before he fell down he reached out with his arms to catch himself and quickly rolled forwards to dodge his opponent’s vertical slash.

Noah quickly got up to his feet to prepare for the next strike, another vertical slash, by crossing his swords and catching the blade of the guandao centimeters above his head. “I know who you are,†Noah grunted while pushing back the blade with all his strength. “Luo Zhongxian, Junwei’s Champion.†Zhongxian didn’t reply, but Noah didn’t need any confirmation. No other Champion in Junwei’s faction would give him this much trouble. “Well, gotta go.†Noah quickly covered the floor of the room in ice and managed to create distance between the two by pushing back and letting Zhonxian slide away on the ice.

‘173… 174…’ He jumped out of the window, created a platform of ice attached to the wall and slid downwards as quickly as possible. He looked upwards and saw Zhongxian staring down at him, oozing with frustration. Noah couldn’t help but smile. “Happy new year,†he shouted before jumping off the platform. He landed on the back of a motorcycle, with Aria sitting ready to go, and waved goodbye one last time before they rode off.

“How did it go?â€

“Failed. He’s smarter than we thought.â€

“Think anyone else tried to pull off something like we did?â€

“Don’t know. Don’t think anyone is as disrespectful as we are.â€

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Elyon stared in silence with Stella, watching Noah go ahead with his fruitless endeavour. Even a half baked mage knows the immense power and skill Junwei wields; let alone a capable Champion serving under one of the strongest Sorcerers. Is this really just a bid to show off, or...? His pokerface only served to ingrain that doubt as he trotted back to the table, though he did crack and let a small shred of disappoint show as he gazed at Elyon, who has plonked down on his seat next to Stella. So that man is still capable of feeling.

 

As if on cue, Stella rose up from her seat and left after exchanging a few more pleasantries, Noah naturally tagging behind her. Elyon did the same, flashing a cheerful peace sign at Maya before standing up and merging back into the crowd of guests milling about. "Stella's potential lies in her ability to analyze and learn." She reminded Elliot, twirling her way through the dancing couples. "The longer she stands, the more powerful she becomes."

 

"And Maya?" Elliot asked, keeping up with her weaving as she made her way to the hallways. 

 

"A mystery. She seems to be able to access alternate dimensions just like me though."

 

---

 

Their discussion went on a little longer till they arrived in front of two large, padded doors. Naturally, two intimidating men were blocking the way through, their large frames towering over the young lady's petite build. Both of them eyeballed the siblings tentatively before one stepped out to block their way.

 

"Do you need assistance, Lady Olivine?"

 

"I'd like to request an audience with Lord Theodore."

 

The guards exchanged a quick side glance with each other, obviously concerned about Elyon's request. The other guard spoke up for him this time round.

 

"Our apologies, but Lord Theodore doesn't wa-"

 

A loud clack from the door lock suddenly sounded out, before the twin doors started opening inwards. Elyon's exchange with Lord Theodore's guards has not gone unnoticed. With a quick nod, the siblings stepped between the now silent guards and into Lord Theodore's study. The elderly man's seated behind his desk, watering a small bonsai plant with an equally small watering can.

 

" 'Why must we fight', is your question." He stated bluntly, waving a hand towards the two chairs positioned opposite him. "Come, dears. Sit down."

 

"You're not the first sorcerer to oppose of this system, but yet, here we are. The way of the Cosmos cannot be defied, try as we may. A new heir must be chosen. There must always be a Lord to ensure the laws of the Cosmos are upheld. I don't think I'll be breathing for much longer, though."

 

Lord Theodore chuckled, despite the hopelessness of the discussion.

 

"The Cosmos is an all encompassing existence beyond our realm of understanding. It is all-knowing. It knows your thoughts, your goals. And since nothing's happening to stop the war, we're now also aware that it disagrees with your reluctance to fully dedicate yourself to it. I know your pain, little Elyon. I've been through it. There's nothing I can do."

 

"You must fight."

 

---

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Maya looked around the room with visible excitement, often commenting with an "Ooh!" whenever someone particularly impressive or well-dressed entered the room, and waved cheerfully at all the other Contenders who were greeting her. For some reason, despite her long absence from this Plane, she still managed to have her name known by so many powerful sorcerers.

"Isn't this great, Frank? Everyone's so warm and friendly," she chirped to her bodyguard. But then her gaze turned ice cold as abruptly as the blink of an eye, and the professional bodyguard felt chills run up his spine. "The Enlighteners haven't been talking about me, have they?"

He stiffened, staring straight ahead of him. "No, ma'am. I made sure of this personally."

Then Maya's expression returned back to the stupidly cheerful grin, as she patted the older man on the head. "That's my little Franky! I knew I could count on you."

It was then that Mei approached the duo, whispering into Frank's ear as she asked for instructions. Although she was also Maya's Champion, the Planeswalker did not meet her personally in the beginning. It was Frank who had approached her, holding the Cloak of Invisibility in his hands as he read out the terms of the contract and the details of the upcoming war. "Follow Stella Lotharius until the start of the war," he instructed. "And report to us her location on New Year's Eve. We will be in contact."

Maya tapped her finger on the table impatiently. "I'm bored of this, Frank. Let's go bowling. There aren't any bowling alleys in Zendikar, and I missed the sport."

Frank nodded at Mei, then turned towards his mistress and bowed. The Planeswalker grabbed his hand and stepped forwards - into eternity, and vanished.

December 31st, 2013

23:54pm, New Year's Eve at the Lotharius Estate

Maya and Frank stood atop a glowing blue platform, levitating several hundred metres high in the air as they looked down upon the sprawling estate below. Mei's surveillance had been successful, although Maya was kind of disappointed that Stella chose such a boring place to hide on New Year's Eve. She would have chosen somewhere flashier, like a floating castle, or perhaps a giant robot.

"The attack will commence in five minutes," Frank spoke into the transceiver that would convey his message to Mei. "It is your choice to participate in the assault. But whatever it is that you do, do not get captured."

"Hey, Frank," Maya asked, holding up two plush toys for him to see. "Which do you think is cuter? The dragon, or the bear?"

"Neither, " he replied.

Maya thought about it for a while, then smiled. "You're right. I'll use both of them then!"

The sound of fireworks could be heard in the background. Undoubtedly the attention of almost everyone in the city would be attracted to the wondrous display. It would be a sufficient distraction.

For the skies of Duchess were filled with flying beasts that night.

Wyverns and dragons soared silently across the night sky, eyeing the unsuspecting mages below. Down on the ground, bears, serpents, giant spiders and all sorts of other beasts crawled and creeped their way across the shadows, baring their teeth at the guards of the estate.

"Happy New Year, Stella," Maya said with a cheerful smile.

And on the strike of midnight, the assault began.

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The evening at the party was long and rather daunting. Altruis was constantly observed by all the people who thought him possible prey, or by those who simply desired to collect more information. He watched his every step as he went along, careful not to slip on anything and trusting his two champions that accompanied him to do the same. Ember was no stranger to the mages world, but her harsh personality kept her from making many friends, at least among those at the party. She accepted Cody's kindness though. Being so short, it made her feel better that someone like him might bow to her.

 

She mingled as best she knew how, trying to pick up what information she could with Cody at her side. Not long before they were ordered through telepathy to leave, Ember witnessed the terrifying scene of the Mage Hunter being made an example of. She could feel a cold chill go through her. "Things just got interesting," she whispered to Cody.

 

After the party however, Altruis was finally relieved of his stress. As the three of them stepped from the grandeur of the party, Altruis snapped his fingers and the white and blue attire he was so fond of returned to his body in a shimmer of distortion. "Well, best get back and prepare things while we have the chance," he said.

 

________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

 

The next day, Altruis went to the mages guild that he had backing in, Telmar Guild. Altruis had put efforts into helping them for years in various forms, and had their strong support. It was located rather close to Duchess, only a few cities over. Rather than teleport, the three of them took a bus, regardless of the uncomfortable conditions in winter. The guild master and all in company were informed and agreed to help, with convincing.

 

Altruis, though on good standing, had to convince them to allow use of their mansion for security. It was three hours of negotiations between Altruis and Levi, the guild master, before he was able to talk him into allowing use. After that was another hour to convince all fifty-five other members to aid as well. Finally, they came to an understanding though, and thus, the Telmar mansion became Altruis's base of operations with the fifty-six members and accompanying champions as their protection and support, as well as the connections the guild had with other people and places. 

 

Before new years, the mansion had been converted from the guild hall to a well fortified building with guards and magic alike. Altruis was placed in the basement within the three story mansion that was hidden with several magic barriers. They warded off normals from coming near the area, and to most it looked just an open field with forest in the back. Instead, there was a mansion hidden by magic, as well as other wings and facilities that ran under ground. Though it was the most fortified, that didn't stop Altruis from wandering around the place, as well as leaving for any purpose he chose. With only two champions, he might have been the least prepared of the thirteen, but he was prepared none-the-less. 

 

The night of New years found him watching the ball drop in Time Square. He stood on one of the many sky scrapers and watched as the cold wind bounced off the magic barrier placed into his clothes to regulate temperature. "I do love events like these. All the happy people enjoying the holidays, even if I don't celebrate myself," he said aloud to Cody and Ember who stood with him.

 

Ember, the fiery haired blazing eyed hunter, stood clad in her black attire. Black jeans with a black shirt, as well as at black cloak, one of two gifts from Altruis. The cloak of shroud, capable of bending matter around it's existence. He flaming hair cascaded down around her as always, standing out against the black. She remained silent as Altruis addressed Cody. "What do you think about it?" he asked, his purple eyes watching the excitement below with dangerous intelligence. 

 

The first night was always the most interesting, and so he waited.

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It was the night of New Year's Eve. Now, most would be out and about, possibly joining in the revelry leading up to the new year. However, Elaine L. Enfield would have no part in such trivial merriment. Well, it wasn't because she had no social life -- even though that much was true, if Leon's teasing were any indication. But the reason she was cooped up eating instant ramen three stories underground was that being out and about just scant minutes before the biggest magical war in 60 years erupted seemed about as wise as dancing on the top of a treeless hill in a thunderstorm. In full plate armor. While screaming blasphemies towards Zeus, Thor, Indra, Perun, Allah, the Lord Almighty and any other relevant deities.

 

She'd much rather remain right where she was -- over the past couple of months, she'd turned this rented basement room into her fortress, laying an intricate network of magical traps, barriers and wards, making it near invulnerable to both physical and magical intrusion. She could have slept off a nuclear holocaust in her little personal fortress, and to be honest, she'd built the place with that eventuality in mind; it wasn't inconceivable that some rival could have 'procured' a nuclear weapon from some glacier in Greenland or a silo in Siberia. Bombs had gone unaccounted for before, and she'd always suspected that in some of those cases, a Sorcerer was to blame. The lure of becoming close to a god could lead men to such desperate measures. She still had plenty of preparations to do in her little atelier, too -- she'd sent Leon to keep an eye out on things in Duchess while she put the finishing touches on some of her new alchemical projects.

 

She gazed approvingly on her latest handiwork, now humming merrily in one corner of her little room -- a miniaturized alchemical reactor, that channeled the power of the Cosmos to transmute the hydrogen in water into helium. While the magical muscle needed to get such a reaction going was nothing to sneeze at, someone with a bit of knowledge in nuclear physics would be able to tell that such a process unleashed a spectacular amount of energy, that if converted back into mana, would have produced a constant stream of what amounted to free mojo to power the rest of her constructs. While it had a good deal less oomph than the one she'd constructed back on the Enfield family estate, on just a bathtub's worth of water, she'd be able to keep all her magical wards running for several weeks, enough to last through the war, hopefully. She hadn't gotten that doctorate in physics back in the nineties for nothing.

 

Leon had suggested she stick one of them on a suit of armor, paint it red and yellow and go out beating terrorists to a pulp, but that could only have led to trouble. That guy really did say the darndest things, sometimes.

 

Her phone started blaring the strains of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, and she picked it up, glancing at the caller ID. Speak of the Devil, it's him. I hope he's got something worth reporting, and he isn't just drunkenly calling random people on his contact list. "Hello, Leon. You've reporting something worth taking my attention off my projects, I hope?"

 

"Oh, of course, milady. It's just gotten terribly interesting up here. You should really stop being like one of those Japanese hikikomori and come watch the fireworks with me." Oh, it was definitely him alright.

 

"Remember the last time you told me to look at something interesting? You know, Christmas Eve?" Her lips curved into a little, mocking smirk.

 

"To be fair, I hadn't expected the so-called Mage Hunter to be that underwhelming either. I'd expected him to have some trick up his sleeve, instead of just making a fool of himself in front of everyone." He did seem genuinely disappointed back then. He'd probably wanted to see what that man was capable of -- not that he wouldn't have plenty of opportunities to in this war.

 

"Don't discount him just yet. I've got a feeling he was up to something back there. The Lotharius girl's some spell-analysis prodigy, remember?"

 

"Speaking of which, that's exactly what's happening up here. Hugin spied that Mage Hunter guy making a solo assault on Lin's lodgings. Turned out he wasn't there; however, but he did bump off a couple of his less competent underlings."

 

"As expected. No idiot would hole themselves up in somewhere so obvious. Last time someone tried that in a Sorcerers' dispute, the hotel was "coincidentally" bombed by the IRA. He's probably sipping his thousand-dollar tea and composing Haikus somewhere in Sichuan now." 

 

"It's the Japs who write haikus, milady." She detected the slightest hint of reproach in his voice. Well, she'd made that mistake to test him. Obviously.

 

"Whatever. Anything else interesting out there?"

 

"Oh, of course, milady. That Iyengar girl's just unleashed a horde of phantasmal beasts on the Lotharius' stronghold."

 

"Ah, how bold. Do you think we should be getting worried?"

 

"As far as I can tell, not yet. The attack's a surgical strike, it seems."

 

"Ah, good to know that. I'm not quite done here yet. Just keep watching; maybe we could learn about that little scamp and her magic."

 

There was suddenly a pause from the other side, and Elaine heard hurried footsteps and gunshots over the line. 

 

"Sorry, gotta hang up. Seems like my hidden vantage point wasn't as hidden as I'd hoped." Then, the line went dead. Elaine frowned, and turned her attention back to the humming reactor in the corner. It wasn't good news that he'd gotten into a fight, but she'd worked with Leon for years already; he was quite the sly one. She shouldn't be unduly worried about him. Besides, it wasn't as though she could leave her workshop just yet. Her contingency plans weren't quite ready yet.

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As soon as she had her orders, Mei slipped away to where she could continue to watch Contender Lotharius from a safer distance. The woman didn't seem to have Maya's sense of perception, but that was no reason to fall into a sense of complacency. Accident, chance, coincidence, there were innumerable ways in which she could be exposed, a prospect Mei didn't relish this early into the game.

She observed as the Mage Hunter was handily defeated before retreating to his master. Strangely enough, he didn't seem upset at all, but rather self-satisfied, as if he'd achieved what he set out to do. As soon as he had returned to the table, Contender Lotharius stood to leave, with Mei silently following them out, staying just within earshot.

It was an interesting conversation to say the least, and she committed it to memory to transmit to Maya and Richards. It would give them an idea of what to expect from this Contender; the information itself meant little to her, unfamiliar with the jargon as she was, but they would likely understand the discussion about copying the Cosmos. Whatever it was, it sounded unsettling, but it wasn't something she needed to concern herself with personally. She only needed to follow Maya's orders; thus, at the first opportunity, Mei would pass on what she had learned.

________________________________________________________________________

"Mage Hunter Noah and escort Aria have left the Lotharius estate in pursuit of Contender Lin. Contender Lotharius and all other Sorcerers and Champions remain," Mei reported briefly after the two had run past her. She waited to receive acknowledgment and further instruction from Richards, quietly indicating her intention to fight. Silently, she began counting in her head.

300... 299... 298...

As she ticked down the time in her head, she armed her blowgun with her most poisonous needles. Anyone she encountered tonight would be an enemy, and she had no intention of leaving them alive to stab her in the back. Once that was done, she briefly checked the various weapons hidden in her clothing, adjusting the blades at her wrists for easier access. Hopefully, those preparations would prove unnecessary, but there was no harm in being ready for a face-to-face confrontation with another Champion.

6... 5... 4... Or that works as a signal, too, Mei thought grimly as Maya materialized all sorts of terrible beasts to start the attack. Winged monsters blocked out the starlight, casting immense shadows upon the ground as they wheeled ominously overhead. Within the darkness, solid shapes stirred, and Mei shuddered at the sight of gargantuan spiders emerging from thin air, pincers clicking hungrily as they stalked forward. Allies or no, those were one that she could live without.

As a bear lumbered past her, Mei swung herself onto its back, gripping its girth tightly between her legs while pulling herself low over its back. It would serve her well as a source of transportation and a shield, buying her time to escape if it were to prove necessary. As they approached the great manor, Mei raised the slender bamboo pipe to her lips, aiming at the closest guard.

With a soft puff masked by the crackle of fireworks, the dart sped from the barrel, aiming straight for the soft, exposed flesh of the neck. Death: imminent.

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Cody walked Ember around, keeping her on his arm as they wandered between conversations but didn't really join any. He was alright with that, though, glad he wasn't the only one seeing this night as nothing much more than false smiles and nice drinks. He was disappointed, though, that he was able to learn close to no information, and definitely nothing that would help them. These are high-ranked sorcerers and their champions. Of course they wouldn't be easily slipping up. He felt Ember's hand tighten on his arm as he heard her small gasp and her whispered words. He put a reassuring hand over hers and whispered just as softly, "Everyone has a weakness."

 

He glanced up as he heard Altruis' voice within his mind. 'Time to go you two.' He felt Ember lightly pull on his arm, showing she'd heard the call as well, and he sighed as he let her lead him outside. Letting Ember's hand slip from his arm, he stood loyally beside Altruis and nodded as his only response in the invitation to leave.

 

~~~~~~~~~

 

The large bus rattled with every small bump they came across and Cody sighed for the hundredth time for this long ride. Why Altruis had chosen to take the bus was beyond him but he didn't like it. He didn't like arguing with Altruis, though he knew that when Altruis had 'assured' him saying how large the bus actually was that the assurance wasn't going to go far. It was the middle of winter and no one walked during this season. No, they drove and rode things like buses.

 

And he sure was right. This bus was as crowded as ever, people sitting arm to arm, making Cody as uncomfortable as ever, which only affected him by making him extremely annoyed. Still, his bad mood did not hinder his ability to be kind to Ember and he'd let her take the window seat and sat beside her, putting her in more of comfort's way and at least being pressed against someone she knew.

 

As the bus went in and out of cities, people got on and got off and Cody was relieved when he could finally put some distance between himself and Ember as fewer and fewer people got on while more and more people got off with the late hour and the fact that the bus was soon straying from cities and going more into open lands. Finally, there were more empty seats than people and Cody hopped over to one of the many empty seats and stretched out, laying in it.

 

It didn't take long for their stop to come up, though, and the three dismounted the bus and walked a short distance to their destination. Cody welcomed the walk, stretching and moving his muscles that had been seated and crowded for too long. As they approached the large building ahead of them, though, his sour mood was unlikely to change. He hated coming to visit the guild. They didn't exactly visit here often but every time they did made him feel so out-of-place. True, Altruis had a nice mansion of size and luxuries and Cody had had the time to get used to it, but he still didn't feel comfortable being about such nice things, let alone living among them.

 

And this mansion before them was no different. It stood tall... well, tall for Cody. It was two stories above ground while it had a basement below. However, it was much wider than it was tall, having many different buildings branching off from it.

 

They walked up the staircase to the front door and were allowed in, greeted warmly. Cody shed his coat as a guild member offered for their winter-wear and looked about the inside, always amazed when he came here. He could never remember how large and beautiful it was and his eyes could never encompass everything it held inside. Still, the nice fixtures and decorations and warmth welcomed him in.

 

He listened as Altruis began his opening greeting and slipped in his question of needing a place to reside for the war. He followed Altruis and Levi into a large room filled with couches and such and listened as the conversation began to grow and bit more tense. Well, I don't blame them. This will put them in danger as well and I'd still be iffy even if a friend was asking me to do something like this. Still, he stayed around and explored the room they were in, his curiosity not allowing him to leave and explore other rooms he had become unfamiliar with with time. His own body grew tense, though, as the discussion seemed to be getting a little heated and he loyally went to Altruis' side, the opposite side than Ember had already claimed. Out of the corner of his eye, he knew he wasn't the only one listening as a guild member walked in and went to Levi's side, her long brown hair falling down in soft waves but her equally brown eyes as defensive and on-guard as Cody knew his own were. He knew there were 56 guild members total within this mansion and that outnumbered them greatly, but it was his duty to keep Altruis safe at all costs.

 

Altruis nor Levi seemed to take notice of the slowly-forming fight that would start at a single word from either of them, but Ember's, Cody's, and the female guild member's bodies all began to relax as Levi agreed to allow Altruis and his small company stay and be granted protection, though Altruis was told he had to get permission from everyone within the home, as well. The guild member walked away to continue whatever she had left to guard her master and Cody slipped from Altruis' side, exploring the many objects in the room again, not seeing what Ember decided to do, though he assumed she'd stay with Altruis. She's pretty loyal that way. He thought as he picked up a nicely-carved small ballerina trinket. Odd. Who here would have- He glanced up from his thoughts to see the same brown-haired guild girl glaring at him from a room close by and he gently put the ballerina away, walking away from its home and the glare disappeared.

 

He decided to go into different rooms as Altruis spent hours convincing each and every guild member to accept their company, though it was much easier than convincing Levi, since every guild member of the house listened to their master's decisions. So, as soon as Altruis mentioned Levi's approval, things went much more smoothly.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Cody stood beside Altruis at the top of the skyscraper, looking down at the enormous amount of people below and thankful Altruis had at least let them be up here and not in that mess down below. The cold wind wound itself around Cody and was beginning to be able to break into his clothes, but he wouldn't allow it to go far. An oddly created warmth wrapped itself tightly about Cody's body so even if they wind did manage to break through his thick coat, it could not reach him. It was something he had been able to create.

 

He glanced at Ember, trying to judge whether she was cold or not, not knowing her own powers of gifts and making sure he shouldn't offer some of his own warmth to her. Seeing she didn't even shiver, he knew she had taken care of herself just as he had.

 

He looked at Altruis, though, as he spoke and he sighed in the beginnings of his answer to the question handed to him. "What do I think about the ball drop? Or us watching it? Because both answers aren't exactly kind." He turned to face Altruis, now, his curiosity itching. "Why are we here watching this, anyway? Shouldn't we be, you know, not standing in plain sight and maybe trying to win this war?" Though he respected Altruis and was more or less a slave to him, he still had never perfected his way of talking to him as if he were in charge when he was upset. He was not a fan of lying and hiding his true emotions in his words to someone he did care something for was a way of lying.

 

He turned back, though, as the large ball dropped from its perch and confetti started fluttering everywhere. This many people... in this cold of night... at this hour.... for... this? He sighed, this being his first time watching the ball drop and probably his last. "I don't like it." He muttered in response to Altruis' question. "It seems a waste."

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Lucia D'Rossilia found herself completely unconcerned with the festive cheer of ringing in the new year. Midnight had just gone but she paid the fact no mind. She was sat comfortably, staring out the window of a high rise apartment building. The building, Nocturne House, was previously a very high end hotel in Duchess. However her father had recently bought the entire complex and it was now her base of operations. She smirked to herself as she looked out of the window. While she was far away from the immediate dangers, she was well aware of their happenings. She turned around as she heard the soft shuffling of someone else in her apartment. Eli had arrived with a a glass of wine for his young master. 

 

He silently handed the glass to her and she accepted it with a nod before taking a sip from it. 

"Ah, that's more like it." Lucia said. "From Father's vineyard, yes?" she asked. Eli nodded in the affirmative, ever silent. Lucia turned back towards the window and looked out at the view. "It seems these idiots are quite trigger happy. Still, I will not complain at my enemies revealing their hand so soon. And all the better if a few of them get killed off. Yes, I'm happy to let them continue squabbling among each other. I will be staying out of it. And so will you, Eli." Lucia added, turning to eye her guardian. "I can sense your thirst for blood, but you will have to wait I while longer. I refuse to take my beast off of it's leash. You are to stay by my side always. Are we clear?" she asked. Eli simply nodded. "Good." Lucia said. "Although..."

 

Lucia left the window and walked deeper into the apartment, still carrying her glass of wine. She found her cellphone across the room by the bedside table. She picked it up and began furiously texting someone. "Information gathering is key. Even if other mages aren't getting involved in this conflict, no doubt many of them will be watching, acquiring data. After all even my own spies are out there keeping watch. However information for the enemy is a disadvantage to us. I think it's time we cut out their eyes, don't you think, Eli?" Lucia turned to her guardian. He simply nodded again. "I will send him out to do the honors."

 

 


 

 

"Sorry, gotta hang up. Seems like my hidden vantage point wasn't as hidden as I'd hoped." 

 

"Oh do not fret, love." The attacker replied. He was dressed in black boots and black trousers, with a blue tailcoat, with red lining and a high collar, fastened at the front with round, golden buttons. A red ascot was tied around his neck. His hair, meanwhile, was medium length and a fiery orange. The young man appeared quite effeminate, with thick black mascara around his purple eyes, and matching purple eye shadow. His smile seemed warm and charming, however his aura was quite menacing. As he drew closer to the man before him a swarm of objects began spiralling around him, each of them making strange chattering noises as if speaking with one another. "I'm afraid nothing can hide from my little darlings." the young man said quite matter-of-factly. 

 

"Oh forgive me for not introducing myself, love." he said with mock embarrassment. "I am Justin Friesch, third cousin of the Regal Seeress, Lady D'Rossilia. It brings me great joy to announce that she has sent me to play games with you, love."

 

Suddenly the strange creatures moved forwards, closer to the target. They were peculiar looking little dolls, comprising of hollow, empty faces made of clay, each of them with tiny little angelic wings. They moved in unison, like links in a chain, circling rapidly around the area. "How about we play hide and seek? I'll give you a head start, love. 5...4..." he began counting down. The dolls began to focus on Justin's opponent. A green energy began to generate from each of their open mouths, as if charging up for an attack. "4...3...2..."

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Minutes before midnight on New Year’s Eve Stella was sitting in the lounge of the Lotharius estate rapidly switching channels on the TV hoping to find something that’d entertain her. “Milady, it is almost time.†Stella was too busy surfing to react, but she was well aware her attendant was referring to Noah’s stupid plan to attack Junwei at the stroke of midnight. His groundless confidence annoyed her to no end, but surely he wouldn’t go against the person confirmed as the largest threat by himself without some kind of plan.

Shortly after several members of the Lotharius family came walking into the lounge. Apparently celebrating the end of the year without being annoyed by her family was out of the question, so she decided to partake in the festivities and grabbed a glass of champagne. It was less than ten seconds until the New Year when all members of the Lotharius family, even Stella, started counting down. The cheerful mood dissipated when at the stroke of midnight several screams were heard, coming from different directions.

“Seems like your attack dog isn’t the only insane one.†Alistair Lotharius, Stella’s father and patriarch of the Lotharius family, was a stern man in his mid-forties. When it became apparent that the Lotharius estate was under attack he started barking orders to everyone to make sure that the attack would get stopped. Alistair put his hand on Stella’s back and dragged her along with him. “When is Noah getting back?â€

“About fifteen minutes. You need him?â€

“Not here. Send him a message and tell him to track down whoever is attacking us. I’ll lead your Vassals on the ground floor, you take care of the roof.â€

Stella nodded and they parted ways at the lobby with Alistair heading towards the exit and Stella running up the stairs. By the time she reached the roof of the mansion several dragons as large as houses were circling in the sky while smaller wyverns hand landed on the roof or on land. A mix of Sorcerers and Champions loyal to Stella had engaged with the Wyvers, but Stella only had eyes for the four dragons ominously peering down at her.

Even without her powers it was obvious that these creatures were summoned, nowhere on earth would you find dragons normally. Stella decided that she would send them back just as easily as they were brought here. She clenched her fists, took a deep breath, raised her arms to the sky, exhaled and opened up her hands. Instantly several hundreds of meter long spears of ice materialized and launched towards the dragons at the speed of bullets.

Two dragons were killed immediately and came crashing down, but before they got in range to crash into anything they disappeared. Was that the work of the summoner? Or is Theodore doing his best to prevent collateral damage? She’d have to check afterwards, for now she had to deal with the dragons diving towards her. More ice spears would’ve been the easy solution, but as a Contender she had to show off a little. She wasn’t chosen as a potential Lord for nothing.

She waited patiently for the dragon to open its mouth in order to breath fire, but before it had gotten the chance to burn anything Stella whipped her right arm upward as if throwing a ball, but instead one she snapped her finger at the apex of the throw. The snap created a blue bolt of lightning that flew at the dragon at the speed of light, entered its mouth and exited through its back. The dragon stopped flapped its wings and like the two before it came falling down, dead. Before it was magically teleported away it had begun burning to ashes.

“Did you… did you just set a dragon on fire?†One of Stella’s cousins asked, clearly impressed with what he had seen.

“Yes. Now for my last trick.†Stella put a knee and a fist to the ground before she lifted herself up full force while using a gust of wind to carry her as high as the dragon. When she reached an altitude equel to the dragon she crossed her arms over her chest and the dragon halted its advance and took the chance to examine Stella. The dragon’s nostrils flared and blew out some smoke, but the threat meant nothing to Stella. She slashed out her arms horizontally and two blades of wind moved along with her arms and cut through the dragon’s neck. Stella released the gust of wind keeping her in the air and dropped back down to the mansion’s roof along with the dragon. Halfway through, like the ones before it, it disappeared into thin air.

Before Stella fell to her death on the roof of her home she restarted the gust and landed elegantly on her feet. The battle here had also ended, with all the wyverns slain and her allies hurt, but still breathing.

“Let’s go. Father might need our help.â€

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Leon's attacker had turned out to be a real class act. Sorcerers were often known for their anachronistic fashion senses, often treating their bizarre apparel as mark of distinction. Making them stand out from the sheep in human clothing, if you will. However, this guy's attire was pushing the limits of even a Sorcerer's sensibilities, let alone the criteria needed to be sensible combat gear. Great. I'll have to inform milady I was accosted by the most foppish dandy since Oscar Motherfucking Wilde.

Regrettably, what this man lacked in common sense and manners, he made up for with power. His strange clay dolls had managed to deflect the first few gunshots he'd fired, and while the alchemically-treated explosive compounds within each steel-jacketed bullet had blasted the dolls to dust, he had plenty more, and his trusty Colt semi-automatic only held seven rounds. He could reload quickly, but judging from the horde of dolls floating towards him, balls of energy gathering in their maws, the second or two he'd have to spend to slap in a new magazine would probably be fatal. Maybe I shouldn't have travelled light today. That Belgian thing Elaine got me for Christmas might look like a dinky plastic box, but having 50 bullets to hose down this lot would be very welcome. Sure, they're newfangled teeny-tiny Belgian bullets that look better suited for swatting flies, but I'm sure milady's found a way to make 'em explode by now. Whatever, time for plan B.

Moments before the dolls' ray guns could melt his devilishly handsome face off, Leon pressed a button on a detonator he'd palmed in his sleeve. The rooftop where they'd been standing suddenly erupted into a cloud of choking grey smoke, and the dolls hunting him suddenly lost their direction, beginning to mill around aimlessly. Smoke canisters laced with magic-disrupting chaff. I feel like the goddamn Batman. Thanks a bunch, milady.

He decided it was high time to serenely skedaddle. He hadn't packed for a serious fight, and his Gifts weren't suited to this kind of up close and personal confrontation. Once the smoke dissipated, the dolls would come back under control and resume their task of frying him. Immediately, he leapt off the side of the building. It would have been a fatal fall if not for the grappling hook he'd deployed just three stories before hitting the ground. The hook dug deep into the brick facade of the building, and with a harsh jerk, the motors in the belt-mounted launcher deployed. The sudden jolt as he abruptly slowed was unpleasant, but certainly a lot less than going splat did. He touched the ground with nary a sound, and sprinted down a back alley, dropping a proximity-fused smoke canister behind him as he ran.

Not a moment too soon, too, for the building he'd just left suddenly quaked, several perfectly circular holes abruptly punched into several vital load-bearing pillars. Then, the building abruptly collapsed with Leon's attacker still on it, crumbling into a pile of rubble and a choking dust cloud within mere seconds.

A translucent reddish sphere seven feet across floated out of the dust cloud, and abruptly winked out of existence, revealing a man, who if anything, possessed even worse sartorial sense than Leon's previous attacker. No sane man would have worn a gold headband decorated with a heart or a skintight purple leotard, least of all paired with each other. He pulled out a mobile phone from somewhere on his ridiculous outfit and raised it to his cheek. "Brother, I've tracked down two Champions. Enfield's and Italian chick's attack dogs, I believe. They should be dead now, but I can't be sure until I've scoured the rubble clean of the survivors."

There was a chattering from the other side of the line, prompting him to let loose a harsh, barking laugh. "Collateral damage? Civilian casualties? A Contender, taking issue with such trivialities?! I'll tell you what, Brother -- if you're going to be such a fuck-witted pussy in this little War we have going, you should let me take charge and go back to that little study where you rightfully belong!"

The other party hung up, evidently having heard enough of him. Zuriel Finnegan sighed, turning back to the rubble pile he'd just created, preparing to find survivors. Well, his Final Arcana would find them all right, but it'd also make sure they quickly ceased being survivors. It'd have been the only way to be sure he'd killed the two dogs. They might have been dogs, but they were sly.

As Zuriel came face to face with the quartet of clay dolls drifting towards him, mouths ablaze with green light, he began to suspect one

of those dogs had outfoxed him.

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"Woah-hoh!" Maya exclaimed with surprise as she watched Stella take down four Phantasmal Dragons with relative ease, a feat which would have given a team of experienced Sorcerers a fair bit of trouble. So this was the power of an Earthborn Contender. From her vantage point in the air, she could see almost everything that was going on down below. The Lotharius family lived up to its name, repelling the illusionary creatures that Maya had sent at them without letting a single one cross the boundary into the mansion itself.

 

She had thought the Queen of Winter to be a substandard mage, from the way she had reacted at the dinner. Usually most mages who acted all haughty and proud were. They thought they had power, and couldn't handle the truth whenever they were faced with real power. Stella knew her stuff, however. Or at least, she possessed quite a lot of raw magical energy. It would be interesting to keep her alive for now, just so Maya could watch as she outsmarted and defeated the other, less capable Contenders. Perhaps she could even defeat that Junwei person.

 

"I changed my mind," she told Frank, like a 5-year-old who had gotten bored of her toy. "Which was the other Contender?"

 

"Nathaniel Finnegan, ma'am. The World Crystal user."

 

"Oh, the cutie!" Maya squealed. "Come on! Come on! Let's go see him!"

 

As the Planeswalker tugged impatiently at her bodyguard's sleeve, the two of them abruptly vanished into thin air. At that exact moment, every creature that was still alive in the assault on Lotharius Estate vanished into thin air, leaving behind a bunch of very confused mages. Perhaps it was rather rude of Maya to have left Mei behind as well, but the assassin could definitely get out of the place by herself. This was why she was chosen as a Champion in the first place, after all.

 


 

"That idiot!" Nathaniel disconnected the call with his brother as he stared at his phone indignantly. "We joined this war to protect the secrets of the World Crystals, not use them to massacre Normals...!"

 

He had always hated Zuriel. At first it had been jealousy, that a brother born under the same parents could possess so much natural talent as compared to himself, who could barely levitate a World Crystal for a good five years. Sometimes, the world was unfair like that. But through his hard work, Nathaniel had finally proven himself to both his parents and to the Lord of the Cosmos, who deemed him more worthy than his brother to be the Contender in the 50th war. His pride at the moment when his name was called had been unimaginable.

 

Nathaniel sighed, turning to walk down the deserted road. Normally, this place would have been crowded even at a time like this, but the New Year Festivities had attracted most of the city's population to the town center. He planned to go home and perhaps read up on the few Contenders he intended to take out first. That Lucia girl looked pretty hot...

 

"Hellooo~"

 

He looked up with a gasp, where a young woman was waving her hand cheerfully at him. Behind her stood an older man in a black suit and tie, presumably her steward or butler. How did the two of them get in front of him without his notice? There had been no footsteps or magical presences in a hundred metre radius. The girl looked familiar. Had he seen her at Theodore's party?

 

She cocked her head and looked at him sideways, examining him curiously. "You are Nat-chan, right? Did we get the wrong person?"

 

With a flourish, Nathaniel pushed back his white cloak and placed a hand on his chest. "Nathaniel Finnegan, at your service. How may I help you?"

 

"You're cuter up close." The girl giggled.

 

"Thank you. I get that a lot."

 

"Can I play with you?"

 

"Wha-!" It happened again! This time, he had been staring straight at the girl, but in a fraction of a second, she appeared right in front of him, a gleaming scythe in her hand as she swung it down at him in a wide arc. Nathaniel barely had time to raise the Shielding Crystal, generating a disc-shaped universe that rejected all magic and matter in front of him as the weapon rebounded off the surface. He collapsed the universe, but the girl was already gone- He hopped to one side as the scythe whizzed through the air behind him, a trickle of blood appearing on his arm as the weapon scraped him.

 

He raised his hands in a flourish, and seven World Crystals floated into an arc above him. "Who are you?! Are you a Contender?"

 

The girl spun the scythe in a circle and held it towards the ground. Her frame looked miniscule in comparison to the humongous weapon. "I'll tell you if you beat me!"

 

Three crystals struck the girl straight in the chest the moment she finished her sentence. "Goodbye," he whispered, gesturing as he opened up three universes simultaneously. It was a sure-kill technique. Contender or not, no magic would prevent the universes from destroying her body... But then the spheres collapsed, and the girl still stood there, untouched by the assault. He blinked.

 

"Oho, it worked!" She chirped. "I wasn't sure if I could pull off the Planeswalk with those weird crystals, but I did!"

 

Planeswalk. His memories came flooding back to him. So this was Maya Iyengar, the famed Planeswalker. He frowned - the Finnegans had thought that the limit of her ability to move between universes was that she could only go from one to another at one time. But she had just been in four different universes at the same time, and came out unharmed. Clearly his family's intel had been mistaken.

 

She raised her hand at him, and chains appeared all around his body, locking him to the ground. Instinctively, Nathaniel activated his Purge Crystal, which generated a human-sized universe around him that repelled everything except for himself. The magic chains disintegrated away, and the white universe vanished from his sight - only to reveal Maya right in front of him once more, flashing that innocent grin of hers before she slammed the hilt of her scythe into his stomach. He staggered backwards, grimacing and clutching his abdomen. Too strong! This girl was too strong!

 

"Is that all you have?" She asked, putting a finger to her chin.

 

Panting heavily, Nathaniel straightened himself up to look at her. It was a personal rule of his never to look disgraceful in front of a lady, even a monstrously strong one who was trying to kill him. "My apologies, Miss Iyengar, but I must take my leave," he gasped. "I promise I will be back with a bouquet of roses the next time we meet."

 

Before she could reply, he activated the emergency plan - the Return Crystal. It was a two-way universe which allowed him to travel from anywhere back into the safe refuge of the Finnegan mansion, which was located in a pocket dimension of its own. His vision went white, then settled slowly into the image of his own bedroom. Nathaniel heaved a sigh of relief; he realized that Maya was indeed playing with him. She could easily have taken his head in the moment when she struck him with the hilt of her weapon. Why did she not deliver the finishing blow? But before he could think any further, the pain of his wound finally overwhelmed him, and he collapsed onto the ground.

 


 

"Are you not going after him, ma'am?" Frank asked, showing the slightest level of curiosity.

 

"Nope!" Maya replied, twirling the scythe around while humming a small tune. "He's cute, and his powers are pretty cool, but he's no threat to me. Before we continue, Franky, I want to get a cup of chocolate milkshake. Do you know where I can get one?"

 

The bodyguard broke out in nervous sweat. "Most of the shops are closed at this hour, milady. I-I can try making a cup for you at your abode, if you wish."

 

"Mmm, I wanted to try the one at Fourth Street... But your suggestion sounds fine too!" Frank heaved a sigh of relief.

 

And then, for the second time in the night, the duo vanished into the Blind Eternities.

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"Oh no, you scared away my handsome opponent!" Justin's voice echoed through the rubble, it's direction unclear. "On the other hand you're no slouch yourself, love!" There was a strange chattering noise as Justin's dolls weaves individually through the dust clouds out of sight. The silence that followed was only brief, and then flashes of green light shot out through the dust, hurtling towards the enormous man.

The newcomer crushed something in his hand, and he was suddenly enveloped in a translucent, shimmering red globe that hid him from sight. A moment later, the sphere vanished, leaving a perfectly circular crater where it had intersected the ground. Standing in the middle was Justin's attacker, striking a bizarre pigeon-toed pose. "Grown men shouldn't play with dolls, Italian dog! Come out and fight me!"

"Such grace combined with such brutality!" Justin's voice echoed again. There was another round of chattering and then a man emerged from the clouds. The tall, bulky figure was a mimic of his opponent. He looked almost identical, except for hinges around his jaws and strange pins at his joints, like some kind of action figure version of Justin's opponent. The doll gracefully swung into action, mimicking the peculiar pigeon-toed stance. "Don't you agree, love?" Justin's omnipotent voice echoed across the battlefield.

Meanwhile, high above the rubble, Justin stood atop an oversized version of one of his dolls that he was using to ride on. He had to admit he had not expected the collapse of an entire building. If he hadn't acted quickly he would have been just a stain. A fabulous stain, but a stain none the less. The elegant dandy smirked gleefully, overjoyed at the new challenger. In the back of his mind he remembered that his job was to sabotage the other contenders' recon teams, however he noted that he had succeeded in this case, despite the plan going awry. Surely with the spy on the run, he was allowed to have some fun.

"Are you there, love?" Justin bellowed once more. Meanwhile his mimicking doll bent over and flexed, before blowing a kiss to his real life counterpart. "How about it, stud?"

Zuriel Finnegan looked at the curious thing that emerged, and his face contorted into a horrific rictus of rage. "You refuse to show your face, but have the audacity to mock your betters?! I'LL PUT YOU DOWN LIKE THE DOG YOU ARE!"

He vanished into the strange globe again, which plowed through the ground towards the doll, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. It passed through the doll, cleanly bisecting it, and came to a halt a hundred feet later. Zuriel then reappeared, wildly glancing from side to side in a vain attempt to discern his opponent through the drifting dust.

"Handsome, but not too bright!" Justin replied gleefully as his drones emerged from the dust, swarming around his opponents face, chittering away like annoying flies, before disappearing back into the haze of dust, the chittering echoing all around. "Next time I won't let you off so easily, love! Are you having fun?"

"Where are you?! COME OUT, YOU CHICKENSHIT FOREIGN FUCKWIT!"Zuriel screamed as he disappeared into the sphere, blindly charging in where he thought he had heard Justin's voice. There was a muffled scream as the globe passed through a trapped survivor in the rubble. Then, the globe turned around, haphazardly launching itself around the ruins of the building as Zuriel attempted to take his opponent out with a lucky hit.

Justin grinned from his safe perch high above the action. This guy was far too entertaining. He almost didn't want to kill him. Almost. He folded his arms across his chest, waiting for the buffoon to finally take a break, before he made his next move. However the devastation from below was worse than he had expected. Suddenly a piece of debris flew past Justin's face, cutting him across the cheeks. He swooned, clutching his face as if he had been gravely wounded.

"Aaaah! My face! My porcelain beauty!" He cried hysterically, as his doll flailed around in the sky haphazardly. After a moment it steadied itself and Justin removed his hand from his face, revealing only the tiniest of cuts. His eyes were ablaze with fury, his cheeks pink with rage. "You dundering brute! How dare you strike my face!"

As Justin glared down into the wreckage, his eyes glinted as Zuriel finally emerged from his orb. "You'll regret that, you disastrous oaf!" He shrieked as he flung his hands out like a conductor to an orchestra. "Feel the wrath of my Chaotic Dance!"

Justin's large doll began to groan, as energy began to build up at it's mouth. Meanwhile the other dolls began to descend into the rubble, rapidly firing a hail of green bolts down upon Zuriel, dust and debris flying everywhere as the battlefield was upturned in a crescendo of dust and green lights. Finally his big doll finished charging, and with a thrust of Justin's hands the energy dispersed, sending an arcing stream of energy crashing down to the earth like a scene from Independence Day.

Zuriel scrambled to summon his sphere again, but his World Crystal had already been stretched to its limits, and would have burned him if he'd so much brushed it. He desperately tried to get behind cover, but it was too late -- Justin's final beam lanced down upon him, and even though it hadn't hit him directly, missing his cheek by two feet, the sheer heat of the beam seared his face, making him fall to his knees and scream, frantically clutching at his face.

Justin through his head back in a fit of mad laughter. "Yes!! Burn! Burrrrn! Aha! Ahahahahaha! Aaaaaahhahahaaaaaa!" His cackling fit echoed throughout the skies as the dust began to settle and finally his position was revealed to his enemy.

In desperation, Zuriel grabbed the still red-hot World Crystal, scorching his fingers, and vanished into his sphere for one desperate attack. The sphere rushed at Justin with unprecedented speed, but the doll jinked to one side, evading the sphere of destruction.

The sphere then abruptly dropped downwards, but vanished before it landed, and Zuriel fell the remanding distance to the ground, rolling as he touched earth and striking another peculiar pose as he recovered, one hand clutching the burnt mess that was the left side of his face.

Justin's laughter stopped as he prepared himself for the real fight. He held out his hands like a conductor once more, however as he did so one of his dolls hovered at his ear, chittering quietly into it. The smile left Justin's face, disappointed by the message he had received. Lucia had called for his return. It was just typical of that witch to spoil his fun.

"this isn't over, love!" Justin yelled as his doll rose up further into the sky. "I'll settle this score before long!"

He looked skywards, and saw Justin drifting off upon his doll, now too far away for him to catch. But it didn't matter to him -- he'd managed to catch a glimpse of the man who had toyed with him and burned him.

"Mark my words, you filth... Someday, I'll find you...And I won't grant you my Final Arcana's mercy of a quick death..."

But it was too late for threats, as Justin had already taken off into the night.

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By the time Aria and Noah left the premises of the Elton Hotel the skies above the Lotharius estate had already been filled with flying monstrosities visible all the way from the Elton Hotel. Noah couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if a Normal got wind of the conflict going on in Duchess, with dragons and wyverns soaring during a fireworks show it seemed rather unavoidable that at least one Normal would look up to see flying lizards.

“Isn’t that at the mansion?†Aria asked, clearly having taken notice of the monsters, but Noah remained silent. It had to be a Contender that summoned laid siege upon the Lotharius estate, but who else could have the audacity to strike at midnight of New Year’s Eve? Noah was always under the impression that he was the only person foolish enough to try. He wondered whether he should be excited or terrified, but decided that that was an issue best left for later. “We should hurry, they might need help!â€

“No,†Noah replied, “Stella can take care of herself. We should see if we can find whoever is responsible.â€

“We can’t leave them! Are you insane? What will you do if Stella gets injured?†Aria protested the notion of abandoning Stella and didn’t understand why the normally eager to please Noah had suddenly chosen to forsake his responsibility.

“Aria, I think you’re confused.†Despite Aria getting worked up Noah remained calm. “I was never asked to become Stella’s Champion in order to protect her; she is more than capable of protecting herself. My job, our job, is to eliminate the other Contenders. Rushing to her aid would not only be disrespectful, it would also be neglecting our duties.â€

Aria didn’t answer, despite Noah’s explanation she felt that it was their duty to protect the Contender, but she had sworn to serve Noah, not Stella, no matter what and if this was his decision it was not her place to question it. She was still mildly annoyed and incredibly confused when she heard Noah tell her to “Look up.â€

She redirected her gaze from the road up to the skies above the mansion and saw the light of the moon being reflected off hundreds of shards of ice. If she had looked only half a second later she would have messed the spears soar into the sky at incredible speeds and taking down two of the four dragons waiting to strike. “Told you,†Noah’s tone of voice was extremely self-satisfied. “Stella is determined to win this… she won’t lose to a summoned creatures attack.â€


“So they were magical in nature?†Alistair asked.

Sitting at the table were Stella’s mother Kira, Stella, Alistair and Mary Silverman were sitting in the lounge discussing the events that had transpired that evening. “When I killed the dragons they disappeared,†Stellad added, “at first I thought that may have been the Lord trying to prevent collateral damage, but when I saw a dragon disappear up close I noticed that the changes in the cosmic energy didn’t correspond teleportation magic.â€

“What if someone possesses teleportation magic very differently from the ones we are used to,†Noah stood at the entrance, intruding on the conversation without being invited. Stella had a particularly annoyed expression when she looked in his direction. “I checked the surroundings; there was absolutely no one to be found. Whoever did this was gone before I showed up.â€

“Impossible. Even if the spell itself is foreign the nature of the spell is still the same so the shifts in cosmic energy will bear some similarity to a traditional teleportation spell. What I witnessed wasn’t the transportation of matter, but the disappearance thereof.†Stella leaned back on the sofa, folded her arms and legs and let out a deep sigh before continuing. “How about you? What’s the point of having the Hunter as my Champion if you can’t even hunt down my enemies.â€

“Sorry. Maybe they used some of that disappearance magic.â€

“Enough!†Alistair intervened. “Tell someone to contact that Olivine girl. You two are friends, it’s time you two worked together. And you,†he directed his ire at Noah, “we gave you the Gift because of your prowess at killing Sorcerers not for your strategic insight. Now leave.â€

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Altruis ignored Cody's irritation at how relaxed he was. "Hmm...That's too bad. I've always enjoyed events like this where people exude excitement and happiness. Of course, I understand what you mean. Maybe you'd like to watch something else then since this doesn't interest you. I could have stayed at Telmar and done this, yes, but then I'd miss the celebrations," he said without an explanation.

 

Several magic emblems came into existence as Atruis swiped his hand through the air, each of them a foot in diameter. With a flick of his magic and will, he cast a rather simple spell with them all.

 

Mono-magic

 

With the subtle sound of his voice echoing around, the light green emblems smoothed over with color and then became a screen viewing other places. Each one focused on a different set of actions by the different contenders acting that night. The one in the middle showed Stella as she decimated the four dragons with ease. Another showed the destruction of the building after the fight between Leon and Justin. And yet another showed the battle between Maya and Nathaniel, as well as two other views. Altruis smiled as they watched the powers of their competition. "Seems like we were right not to stay in Duchess tonight. Things are quite lively over there," he said focusing on the fourth screen from the left that showed Aria and Noah biking away from their mission.

 

He then looked at the far left magic screen where the building had collapsed. In the darkness, it was impossible to make out any faces from his magic view, but the use of the World Crystal was apparent as destruction rampaged in a continuing fight. I'm not familiar with this one. Is it still Justin here? There was also the shining light from another source he couldn't make out. "There are some very flamboyant acts out as well. Plenty to learn, plenty to watch out for. This fight is going to be hell," Altruis said while analyzing the various pieces he'd witnessed.

 

Ember stared at the carnage on the screen in a sort of disbelief. She was a hunter, but this type of careless destruction was on a totally different level from her discreet jobs. "This is unreal. Some of these people don't even care about the lives of normals. Have these champions forgotten that at some point, they were normals as well...

 

Altruis's smile vanished as he replied to her. "All's fair in love and war. I might not be one for this kind of stuff, but if I'm going to fight this war, I intend to win. It is a little late now, but I hope you both follow me with such determination as well," he said, all trace of his normally light tone gone.

 

Mono-magic

 

With another spell, the three of them teleported from the top of the building and onto the front lawn of the Telmar guild hall in a shimmer of distorted space. Altruis let the viewing screens dissipate at their arrival and he stretched as if he'd been sitting still for too long on the bus again. "There will be much worse to come I'm sure. All we can do now is plan, fight, wait, and fight some more. I suggest getting some rest for tonight. Tomorrow might be worse than this was."

 

With that final statement, he turned and walked for the building, the guards who stood outside making way for him to enter through the absurdly large doors. Once inside, he headed to the chamber set to be his residence on the basement floor for either the rest of his life in the war, or until he won. Once there, he could finally relax a little. That should be the large parts for the night. I should be able to rest easy for now. With these thoughts in mind, he conjured himself a cup of hot tea and sat in a lavish chair of blue and white, matching his outfit, and sipped at it.

 

Ember looked to Cody. "Altruis saved me from the darkness of my past. I intend to fight full force as well for his sake. I won't forgive those champions who've forgotten where they came from. They don't call me a hunter for nothing. You on this boat too Cody?" she finished holding out her hand to him.

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The scene was the lounge of Lucia D'Rossilia's Penthouse Suite. The large room was well spaced and lavishly furnished with comfortable leather armchairs and oak tables, with a beautiful, rich, red carpet lining the floor. Lucia stood with her back to the room, examining Duchess from the window, a glass of red wine in her hand. She was dressed in black leggings, and a pair of open toed, purple pumps. She wore a lilac skirt and a thick, cream cardigan with a wide collar. Her hair was down, immaculately straight.

The door to the lounge opened and Justin entered, still dressed in his usual attire, covered in dust from the building collapse he had just came from. As he walked across the lounge he felt a presence from above. He turned to the stairs that lead to the open plan indoor balcony that oversaw the lounge. The man was dressed in sneakers and loose fitting black sweat pants, with a grey, sleeveless hooded vest. His long, wild, red hair lay loose and untamed as always. He was carrying a bottle of water, and sweat was glistening on his brow.

"Eli, love, have I interrupted your work out?" Justin's asked playfully as Lucia's Champion reached the bottom of the stairs. Eli said nothing, but simply eyed the sorcerer, his expression stoic. In Justin's eyes this man was a Titan, the soul of a beast sealed within a body of chiseled marble. His disinterest only made him all the more desirable to a young man of raw passion like Justin.

"I did not summon you hear to flirt with my bodyguard" Lucia's voice was like ice as it travelled across the room. Justin turned to her, his eyes suddenly a little fearful and hesitant. Lucia faced the room, her expression stern and unforgiving. Her glare was fixed on Justin. He smiled nervously at her.

"My Lady" he said with a short bow of his head. "You look ravishing as always love"

"Flattery may work of the filth below, dear cousin" Lucia replied, "but I am afraid only results shall gain my favour" She looked at him expectantly as she sipped wine from her glass. As she swallowed she stepped further into the room, sitting on one of the armchairs and offering another to Justin who quickly accepted. For a moment there was silence. As they sat across from one another, Eli merely stood across from them, his arms folded, patiently waiting like an obedient dog.

"Well." Justin began, swallowing to moisten his increasingly dry throat. "Tonight has been eventful. My dolls have witnessed quite the display. It seems that the one they call Maya launched an assault of the Lotharius estate. All manner of creatures descended on the scene, but Stella dealt with them swiftly."

"The whole city is still shaking from that assault." Lucia replied venomously. "If I wanted you to state the obvious I would have asked!"

"Yes, um, my apologies, love" Justin stammered before continuing. "The Planeswalker ended up in a tangle with Nathaniel Finnegan. It seems she rather made him sweat, but they both still live. Meanwhile Stella's Champion made an attempt at Lin Junwei, and failed rather miserably. Most of the other contestants have been quiet. I did, however, manage to scupper the surveillance being conducted by Enfield's champion, Leon."

"By luck." Lucia added. "Or had you planned on another Mage to blow up a building?"

"Well that was rather unplanned." Justin explained. "However I made short work of the fool. No doubt he would be dead had you not called me away, love"

"Are you saying it is my fault that the filth still lives, cousin?" Lucia asked, her tone bubbling with danger. Justin held up his hands in protest.

"Of course not, love" he replied fearfully. "I did not mean to-"

"Mean to what!?" Lucia snapped. Suddenly there was a sound of tearing. The wooden frame of the armchair Justin was sat on began to rip through the leather, twisting and coiling around him like a rapidly growing tree. Before he knew it the wood was growing around his form, travelling upward, locking his limbs in place, crushing against his weak, mortal body. In mere moments he found himself trapped within a great oak tree that had grown so tall as to force itself through the sealing. He tried to speak but the thick tree had pressed so tightly against his form that he could barely breath.

He looked at Lucia fearfully. His gaze shifted to Eli, who simply watched, his expression apathetic. This was Lucia's ultimate magic. Her Tides of Time were like nothing he had ever seen, a level of sorcery who could not even comprehend. In mere moments she had reversed the time of the armchairs wood, bringing it back to life as a sapling, before sending it forward once more, sprouting out from under him as a great tree, passing by a hundred years in but a few seconds.

"You were given a simple task, cousin." Lucia said flatly, her voice now calmer but still cold. She swirled the glass of wine in her hand, before sipping it once more. "You were simply to survey, and sabotage the enemy. I did not instruct you to engage in open conflict over the rubble of a destroyed building. It is a shame that humans are beyond the reach of my magic's effect. If only I could mature you like I have done this wine. If only I could bring you to the point in time where you are at your most excellent."

Suddenly it was as if nothing had happened at all. Justin was sat in his armchair, free to move, free to breath. There was no damage to the ceiling, and the chair was entirely intact. The great tree was gone. Justin sighed heavily in relief. The lady doth giveth, he thought, and then she doth taketh away.

"Consider this your first and only warning, Justin" Lucia warned. "If you disappoint me again it will be the last thing you do. Do you understand?" She asked. Justin nodded fearfully in response. As he tried to catch his breath he turned to Eli once more. That man was always at her side, the caged beast. People often thought that Eli was the one to fear, but Justin was learning all to quickly who the real monster was.

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Despite the trouble going on outside, the Olivines continued spending their New Years Eve sprawled in their living room, staring at their TV screens dejectedly. The troubles have already started, it seems. The screen was displaying a hellish scene, almost as if it was a shot ripped from an action movie. The words 'Terrorist Attack' were plastered across the lower third of the screen, but the Olivines knew better. The war has started.

 

"LIVE REPORT : More causalities have been found among the scene of the atta - "

 

Elyon waved the remote at TV before tossing it back onto her couch, changing the channels before it could show her any more depressing images. No one made an effort to stop her. With a sigh and an exaggerated stretch, she reached a hand into empty space - and pulled her smartphone out from it. True enough, it was ringing. She knew she felt a disturbance somewhere.

 

"Herro?" She chirped halfheartedly, propping her phone up with her shoulder. 

 

"Hello, Stella speaking. Perhaps you still remember me, I think we're friends. How are you?"

 

"Of course we are. In fact, we can even be sickly sweet bffs if you wanted to. Something the matter?"

 

"Not really. Just wanted to check how your New Year's Eve was, make some small talk and tell you to meet me at the Grand Central Cafe to discuss the conditions of you teaming up with me." A short silence came from her end of the call. "Oh wait, I should've phrased that differently. Ask you to meet me at the Grand Central Cafe to discuss the conditions of you teaming up with me."

 

"Huh. Now?"

 

Elyon would be lying if she said she wasn't caught off guard by Stella's sudden request. With a swift movement, she pulled herself back up to a proper sitting position and stubbed a toe into her brother's back, urging him to pay attention to the phone call too. A personal call from the Queen of Winter herself could only mean bad things... or can it?

 

"Now would be fine. I actually had some plans, but I don't mind cancelling them for you. Oh, also, I assure you I am not trying to kill you."
 
"...Sure, in that case. You wouldn't mind if I lugged my brother over too, will you?"
 
"That should be fine."
 
-----
 
In her haste to hurry over to the cafe, Elyon opted to drag her poor brother through her dimensional rift and out into an alley behind the aforementioned location. The night scene felt strangely different from usual. People were hurrying by the streets with their heads hung low, probably eager to leave the open and quickly get back into the safety of their homes. Not one New Years' Eve partier was seen hanging about. Even the cafe was relatively quiet when the siblings stepped through their doorway. The news of the terrorist attack must have spread. As if to confirm their point, a TV hanging from a corner of the cafe was tuned into the news channel they were previously watching at their home, blaring out more live reports coming from the area.
 
Elyon slipped into one of the booths and whipped out their menu, tracing a slender finger through the list of desserts the cafe offers. One particularly sumptuous looking dessert caught her eye. She waved a waitress over enthusiastically, eager to have her order taken.
 
"A CHOCOLATE MILLE CREPE! PLEASE!"
 
"I'll... have a coffee. Black." Elliot piped up, finishing the order. As the waitress walked back into the kitchen, he turned and muttered to Elyon with an reproaching tone. "Really? Dessert at such an unholy hour? Isn't this supposed to be a serious meeting?"

 

Elyon wisely decided to ignore her brother. Eventually, Stella dropped by and slid into the padded chair opposite them, just as the Olivines' desserts were placed in front of them. All three of them looked noticeably peaked. Maybe meeting in the middle of the night wasn't such a great idea after all. The younger Olivine pushed a slice of her crepe towards Stella in greeting, prompting Elliot to bury his face deep in his palms. Stella handled the situation a little better.

 

"Oh, no thank you. I might ruin my figure by eating so late at night. I can't risk my Champion losing interest in me when the War has already begun... who knows what betrayals that mad dog is capable of when he isn't lusting after me."
 
A slight snicker escaped Elliot's lips as he peered at his sister's ever expanding waistline through his fingers. Once again, Elyon ignored him. 
 
"It has, hasn't it. I've heard of the battles. It's a little self defeating, but we still have no plans to join the battle yet. Despite what Lord Theodore told us. But... hm. If you do eventually become Lord, what would you do with that power?"
 
"Nothing in particular really. It used to be a silly childhood fantasy of mine, but now that I have gotten the chance to participate I intend to win, and change the title of 'Lord' to 'Boss'. How about you?"
 
The siblings shot glances at each other. Was that Queen of Winter's attempt at deadpan humor? Has the war addled everyone's minds?
 
"We'd end this bloodletting tradition. Somehow. You should be able to see the stand we're taking now, though." Elyon replied hesitantly, looking at the carnage still displayed on the TV screen. "Can I still be of assistance to you?"
 
"That's naive, Elyon. Surely a Sorcerer of your level understands why becoming the Lord won't change anything about the War. You have to keep in mind that the Cosmos is omniscient. It knows your doubts and it has still chosen you to be a Contender, you were chosen to fight. By sitting on your ass... excuse me. By sitting out of this fight all you're doing is needlessly prolonging it."
 
Such a reply was not unexpected. The silver haired girl thought back to the one sided conversation she had with Lord Theodore, and the points he raised. You must fight, he had exclaimed. There's nothing I can do.
 
"In that case." Elliot's voice cut through her thoughts. "Consider our alliance forged. We'll end this fast, and then retire from this scene."
 
After another long pause, the younger Olivine pushed a puny, untouched piece of chocolate crepe towards Stella, along with a clean fork. Stella peered at it in disdain, but even the Queen eventually caved, stuffing it in her mouth with extreme reluctance.
 
-----

 

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Elaine was hunched over her workbench -- an antique desk carved from solid oak, inlaid with glyphs and alchemical symbols in copper and silver as aids for her transmutation. She was currently occupied with some modifications for the War -- Leon had a rather harrowing brush with an enemy mage who'd discovered his surveillance operation, and if not for the intervention of a certain Zuriel Finnegan, might have managed to kill him right there and then. He'd requested further modifications on the 'dinky plastic box gun' she'd gotten him that Christmas and stocks of specialized ammunition. For a man who was usually terribly self-assured in his own capabilities to the point of cockiness, his sudden request for 'all the handy Batman gadgets you can get your paws on' was worrying, to say the least. And he really ought to read less comic books in his free time.

 

She peered at the 'dinky plastic box gun', currently stripped and disassembled upon the workbench. The weapon, better known among gun enthusiasts and Call of Duty nerds as the FN Herstal P90, was a Belgian-made personal defence weapon featuring the latest in fancy features that go-getting slayers of men around the world seemed to value so highly -- ambidextrous operation, a good fit for a southpaw like Leon, a tactical rail for putting all sorts of fancy thingamajigs (though as far as she knew, the only way one could get a heartbeat sensor like in that one video game was by asking Elaine herself to enchant one -- really nicely), a compact bullpup design and unique round ejection system ideal for close-quarters urban operations, and, well, a magazine filled with 50 rounds of specially-made Belgian armor-piercing death.

 

All that put together made it quite a fine weapon, but Elaine would never have settled for just fine. She was an alchemist, a pursuer of ultimate truth -- only an exquisite masterpiece, a Rembrandt or Manet among instruments of rapid-fire death, would have satisfied her tastes, and so she'd extensively modified nearly every part with her alchemy -- reducing its already minute recoil, enchanting the barrel and internal components to minimize the need for cleaning and maintenance, reinforcing the metal of the barrel to put up with all sorts of abuse and repeated firing without incident, the whole works-- and Leon had still grumbled that it should have had tits and been on fire. That man truly was insufferable sometimes.

 

Personally, such newfangled weapons didn't appeal to her as much, and her own personal weapon lay locked in a sealed chest below her desk. It was no magic staff, of course -- this was the age of attack helicopters and GPS, not of castles and sweaty men in chain mail, and even though she was a traditionalist at heart, if she were tossed into a magical free-for-all against the best magicians on the planet, she was going to keep up with the times, damn it. Watching decorated sorcerers walk around with swords like they were LARPers was quaint, anachronistic, and in her opinion, rather sad. She hadn't been a fan of automatics, so she'd deemed converting a the wood of a traditional oak staff into the furniture for a rifle a worthy compromise. Hopefully, she wouldn't have to use it in anger in this war, though with the way things were going up there, that seemed more and more like an inevitability.

 

There was still plenty of work to do -- each individual bullet would have to be individually treated, and in this war, Leon and her would likely go through them like candy. And even after she'd finished with that, there was still the refinements to the mana reactor, putting a few more defensive layers on the shield specifically for hampering World Crystal activity -- the aftermath of Zuriel's first act in the war had given her a nasty wake-up call --, and then, most importantly, Plan B. At least she wouldn't be disturbed for a while. Leon was out keeping an eye on the Lotharius household, and wouldn't be back for a few hours. She could commit her mind fully to her work --

 

"Helllllooooo Elaine-chaaaan~!" A saccharine sweet voice suddenly echoed through the room, and Elaine promptly fell off her chair. Impossible! No one but Leon's allowed past all the wards on this place! And unless something really terrible happened to Leon while he was out, that voice sure as hell isn't his! There can't possibly be another vulnerability in my security network... can they...

 

When she'd turned around to see Maya Iyengar the Planeswalker behind her, her black-suited retainer in tow, standing in the middle of the atelier like they owned the bloody place, she almost fainted right there and then. How?! This place is warded against spatial rift manifestation as well! Did she disable the wards?!

 

But as far as she can tell, the integrity of the wards was intact -- she'd gotten in without compromising the intricate web of traps, sentries, barriers and fail-safes that comprised her base defenses, as if she were no more than some kind of ghost. She was fairly sure she'd warded against ghosts as well, though. It was a necessary precaution against necromantic surveillance, and not because they scared her, damn it. 

 

"What. The. Hell. Are. You. Doing. Here," she sputtered, glaring at the girl with a mix of confusion and outrage.

 

"Having tea, of course!" she replied, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. There was a wooden picnic table beside her lined with silverware and a steaming pot of tea -- Wait a moment. She very definitely did not own a picnic table, much less have one sitting in the middle of her workshop. What sorcery had that girl pulled out to put that thing over there? "Care to join me?"

 

"How did you get in?" Elaine asked skeptically, while pinching herself. Perhaps this was all a dream. She must have fallen asleep at her desk. It was far more likely than seeing some rival sorcerer slip past every single defense she had just to invite her to tea.

 

"From there!" Maya pointed at a nondescript spot of carpet. At first, Elaine was confused, but then the realization of what happened hit her like a ton of bricks.

 

To keep her mana reactor running, she'd needed to ensure a constant link to the Cosmos to catalyze the transmutation reaction that powered it. She'd tried warding the area around the mana reactor, but it had invariably shut down immediately after -- the wards worked too well in screening incoming magic, and had cut off the flow of mana into the reactor as well. She'd had to bite the bullet and leave a tiny gap in her ward network to ensure power from the Cosmos kept flowing in -- and somehow, that girl had located that vulnerable point, barely half a meter long and wide, through her multiple layers of obfuscation charms and the fifty feet of concrete and soil that separated her from the world above. She looked adorable, but that girl was terrifying. 

 

Elaine was coming to realize that this was no mere tea party. By teleporting straight in, Maya had accomplished the magical equivalent of holding her at gunpoint -- while she'd come in completely unarmed, and with delicious food to boot, she'd basically told Elaine that any time she liked, she could have come in and stabbed her in her sleep. Her clothes were already getting soaked by cold sweat -- this was exactly what she'd feared in her worst nightmares. This was the sorcerer's equivalent of grabbing a man by the balls and slowly but steadily squeezing.

 

"... Yeah, that sounds nice." Elaine said shakily, giving her best fake smile. The mask was cracking, though; she was painfully aware of the drops of sweat beading on her brow. Maya would have to be an idiot not to notice the effect she was having on Elaine. "Let's cut to the chase. You're here to get something out of me."

 

"Don't be so tense, Elaine-chan! I won't kill you." Maya chirped, offering Elaine a slice of cake. Elaine hesitatingly accepted. At the very least, Maya was being honest about her intentions this time. She wouldn't have poisoned the cake -- if she'd really wanted to kill her, she'd probably have been gone several minutes ago, with no trace of her presence but one very, very powerful time bomb. Or perhaps, knowing Maya, she might have dropped a piano on her instead. An exploding piano.

 

It had turned out to be a very good cake, and Elaine had eaten it appreciatively despite her reservations. This was a stick-up anyway, so she might as well at least enjoy what Maya had literally brought to the table. (Even though Maya had obviously brought the table, too.) "I came here because Frank insisted that I try this 'friendship' thing! It wasn't easy to find your house, but it's worth it!"

 

Well, that caught her off guard. "What."

 

"You're not like the rest of them -- all of them, so proud and talkative and too pretty." She'd obviously been referring to the Queen Bitch Dynamic Duo of the war -- the Lotharius girl and the Italian chick. Elaine didn't particularly like them either -- but then again, she was probably biased. She still looked their age thanks to liberal use of rejuvenation alchemy, but at heart, she was that grumpy old grade school teacher who'd give a kid a detention for smiling at the wrong time.

 

"So... Will you be my friend?" Maya said, giving a pure, angelic smile -- one that would have melted even Elaine's frigid bitch heart if not for the current circumstances. The air around her seemed to sparkle -- all in all, she felt more like a pre-schooler making her very first friend than an extremely dangerous Contender who could have killed Elaine any time she pleased.

 

"Well... okay." Elaine said. "I'll be your friend." Do I even have a choice?

 

"So, we're friends now... what are we going to do together, then?" Elaine ventured. Best to figure out this girl's intentions.

 

"Friend things!" Maya chirped. 

 

"Oh... Friend things?" Elaine tried to think back to her childhood, but it hadn't been much good. She'd spent most of her childhood learning things like why the synthesis of iron was the most elementary of the base transmutations. She'd just have to go off what little she knew about what normal girls did. "Like... um, doing our nails?"

 

"Mm-hm!" Maya started nodding animatedly.

 

"Having sleepovers?"

 

"Mm-hmm!" Maya's nodding became even more excited, and a huge grin had spread across her face.

 

"And go shopping... and uh, talk about boys?"

 

"Not to forget razing buildings! And killing Contenders!"

 

A silence fell across the picnic table. Well, that took a turn for the macabre quickly.

 

"Okaaaaaay." Elaine said tentatively. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. I mustn't run away. 

 

Maya did a little dance, and sing-songed, "Oh boy, oh boy! I didn't know having a friend would be so exciting!" The air seemed to be sparkling again. Eww. I sure hope that's some kind of illusion and not a nefarious method of sabotaging my alchemy.

 

"Ma'am," Frank interrupted. "We really have to get going now."

 

"Awww~" Maya pouted. " I guess I have to be going now! It's been so nice to talk to you, Elaine-chan! Byeeee!!" Then, she stepped to the same spot in the room where she'd supposedly came, and simply winked out of existence, along with Frank, the picnic table and all the food,  as if she'd been some anthropomorphized Cheshire Cat.

 

Like a zombie, Elaine stumbled towards her work desk. Wordlessly, she pulled open the drawer marked 'Emergency', and removed its contents -- a bottle of fine Scotch she'd gotten from Leon the Christmas before. Without hesitation, she popped it open and started gulping it down like it had been water. Suicide for even the hardiest of men, but Elaine's liver was augmented. She could afford to replace the liver even if it had given way, and right now, she really, really wanted to forget. The only consolation was that Maya seemingly hadn't noticed Plan B, but she could be back any time... for her sleepovers, or plotting Contender murders, or whatever she was really up to.

 

Elaine put down the drained bottle, and buried her face in her hands. What have I gotten myself into?

 

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