Disclaimer, I own nothing, don't sue me.

Chapter 11: Twisted

"Fuhi?" The lead orc snorted in confusion when they lost sight of their prey. Stamping its feet in frustration, it's empty stomach loudly protested all that wasted effort. The disappointed groans of its compatriots echoed its feelings.

First their sacking of a village for food had failed when the villagers spotted them coming and fled. Then, when their scouts had caught sight of a few children lost in the woods, the hungry pack had come out in force to hunt them only for the children to vanish into thin air.

As the orcs started shoving one another in their rage, the ground collapsed beneath their feet. The thin layer of dirt held together with earth magic gave out and dropped them into a spike pit.

As the cries of the impaled orcs rose to the skies, their rancid bodies were given a cleansing bath of fire that melted the flesh from their bones. Once the crackling of the flames was the only sound left, a gust of wind blew by to remove the unpleasant stench of burnt flesh.

Saito hopped out of the tree he was hiding in and peered over the edge. Ashes, melted bronze and a few scattered bone fragments was all that was left of the orc raiding party. "Well… they're definitely dead now. Guiche, you mind filling in the pit?"

The blond noble waved his wand and a shudder ran through the earth before fountains of dirt erupted out of the pit, rapidly filling in the cavity.

"Okay, now that that's taken care of, the villagers should be able to return." Saito nodded to himself as the other nobles stepped out from where they were hidden.

"Why are we hunting orcs anyway? Isn't this a job for whichever noble is in charge of this land?" Kirche complained once they had assembled.

"The marquis can't be bothered to deploy soldiers to deal with the orc infestation. Too bothersome he said. Once this report reaches her highness, he won't be marquis for very much longer." Louise finished penning down her observations and slipped the notebook back into her pocket.

"That's… a bit harsh isn't it?"

"Not at all. Nobles have a duty to perform, it's what set's them apart from just someone able to do magic. Any noble who refuses to do their job doesn't deserve their title and it ought to be taken away. Her highness agrees on this." Louise sneered at the thought of such gross dereliction of duty. Her mother would have a fit if she knew about this.

"Treasure." Tabitha's quiet voice dragged them back to the task at hand before they could be side tracked again. With her mother safely secured in Louise's manor and being taken care off by Saito's clone garrison, she wasn't plagued with worries for the first time in forever and wanted to make the most of it. Laughing sheepishly, Kirche pulled out the map and unfolded it.

"Okay, let's see… within the abandoned temple the orcs were using as their former hideout, there should be an altar where a priest once stashed a legendary treasure. The Brisingamen, a legendary gold necklace that can protect someone from all disasters…"

-line break

"Well, that was a complete waste of time." Saito chucked the worthless brass necklace back into the box as sighs of disappointment greeted him.

Kirche was filing her nails disinterestedly while trying not to allow the frustration to get to her. Tabitha was reading a book as usual and Guiche had flopped onto his back groaning about how he should have stayed at Montmorency's villa, her atrocious cooking be damned. Louise was the only one pleased since she at least had something to report to Henrietta about.

"That's seven busts out of seven maps… what's the next one? Heck, is there even a single legitimate one inside that pile?" Guiche complained aloud, drawing a look of ire from the maps' owner.

"I did tell you most of them would be fake but there might be a real one in there. You're the one who asked to come along. Anyways, next we have the dragon's raiment, something that allows you to fly without the use of magic once you put it on. It's located near a village called Tarbes."

"Ug, sounds like another hoax."

"Hmmph, if you don't like it, you're free to return to Montmorency, I'm sure she'll love to have you try out her cooking again."

Guiche's face turned green and he changed his tune immediately. "No, no. Hoaxes are good, very good! Let's go find that dragon's raiment! No more food poisoning for me ahahahahah!"

Trailing off into demented laughter at the end, Saito shot him a commiserating look as he too had to deal with Louise's complete inability to cook. Idly poking at a destroyed pot, it should have held their dinners, instead Louise had gotten by him and attempted to make a stew.

How she managed to melt a hole through a pot made out of solid steel using nothing but the contents of a standard GDI ration pack he'd never know.

"Tarbes eh? That's Siesta's hometown unless I'm mistaken. Look on the bright side, once we get there we'll probably have actual food instead of combat rations." Saito commented to a round of cheers.

GDI rations were designed to keep many a soldier on their feet through extended combat deployments. Unfortunately, budget cuts meant severe cutbacks to the taste division. The end result was a nutritious, easy to prepare meal affectionately known by the men as battery acid and wet carboard.

-line break

"It's a fake." Siesta's blunt response dashed the hopes of the aspiring treasure hunters yet again. Despite showing up unannounced, the maid had been kind enough to fix a decent meal for them but when questioned about the raiment, she instantly crushed them all.

"That's disappointing. Still can we take a look at it? Since we're already here and all." Louise requested, causing Siesta's expression to turn troubled.

"I suppose it's fine. The dragon's raiment is a family heirloom of sorts but it doesn't work. Come, I'll show you to it." Dusting off her dress as she stood, she led the way to a cave on the outskirts of the village, the slightly less eager but still curious party following behind.

"It belonged to my grandfather. He just appeared with it one day, said he flew it here from the east. Nobody believed him though, when they tried getting him to fly it he just gave a lot of excuses and said it couldn't fly anymore." Siesta shook her head ruefully as she recalled the strange kindly old man she called grandpa.

"After working hard in the fields managed to save enough money to pay a noble to place a permanence spell on it. Then, well he had it moved to this cave saying something about always having the dragon's raiment face the rising sun."

Once they arrived, Guiche and Kirche sighed in unison, disappointed by what they found. Tabitha was more interested about the origin of such a construct of metal and Louise was just wondering about the similarities between the raiment and the Firehawks Saito had shown her.

As for the familiar himself, a low whistle of appreciation was his only response as he stared at the plane with an appraising eye.

"Is… is this some kind of oversized toy?" Guiche wondered aloud as he rapped his knuckles against the cold steel.

"Of course this thing can't fly, it's wings can't even move. It's larger than a dragon but without flappable wings it won't be flying anywhere. The metalwork is amazing though."

Credit where credit was due, the metal and techniques used to build the raiment was beyond anything Guiche had ever seen. It put the works of some master craftsmen to shame and he privately doubted that his own father would be able to produce anything close to this level of quality even with magic.

"Yeah, there's no way this thing can fly… maybe it glides? I recall seeing some peasants playing on something similar back in Germania, they would have these great pieces of cloth held together by a metal frame and then they could use it to soar in the air after pushing off from a height. I don't know how it being all metal will affect it though." Kirche commented as she wracked her brain on how something like this could fly without magic.

"This, is an antique. A F14 here of all places? No, wait… that's not quite right, the design is a bit off." Saito commented before placing his hand against the fuselage. His runes glowed dimly as fragmented pieces of information flitted through his head.

"VX14 JT? I am unfamiliar with this model." Pulling away from the jet, curiosity burned within him. The information provided by the runes were incomplete, disjointed and he couldn't make sense of much of it.

"So you do know what it is. It's from your world isn't it?" Louise asked.

"I can neither confirm nor deny that, it's too badly damaged for even the runes to give me all the information on it. I can confirm that it is definitely not native to Halkeginia."

"Eh damaged? But… but grandfather always took care of it! And I know the permanence spell has kept it in the same condition for years!" Siesta protested and tried searching for what defect Saito was referring to. For all her efforts, only smooth unmarred steel met her eyes.

"The damage is on the inside… did your grandfather leave anything else behind?"

"Umm, the only noteworthy things were a strange sword, his diary and the tombstone he crafted. I can fetch the sword and diary now if you'd like, the tombstone is just outside." Siesta offered.

"Please do, in the meantime, do you mind if I get inside it? I want to check out the interior."

"I suppose that's okay. Please be careful." Curtseying, Siesta turned and left to fetch the items. Saito turned his attention back to the jet and ran his hand along the smooth armour plating before hauling himself up and into the cockpit in one smooth motion.

Taking a moment to survey the controls, he found the interior to be surprisingly minimalistic. He wasn't expecting the controls to be exceedingly complex like some of GDI's more exotic aircraft but he wasn't quite expecting it to be so barebones either.

Two hand grips attached to the sides of the cockpit with some degree of motion in place of a joystick, several buttons and screens to the front and foot pedals of all things. "Where the hell is everything? How the heck are you supposed fly this thing and not crash?"

Poking around some more, he found several puncture holes near the underside of the cockpit. Digging inside with a knife, he pulled out several small metal flechettes from where they were embedded.

"How did this end up here? I don't see an entry point." Closing his fist around the projectile, his gandalfr ability activated and fed him some information about it.

"Ammunition for a Vorona Steelshot Flak Cannon, effective against aircraft and vehicles. So… this is from the bad old days of the allies-soviet wars. Still doesn't explain how it got here." Pocketing the flechettes, he got out of the cockpit just as Siesta returned. Guiche and Kirche had gotten bored and left, managing to drag Tabitha along with them, only Louise remained in the cave with them.


"It's complicated."

"Of course it is. Nothing's ever simple with you." Louise sighed and watched as Saito inspected Siesta's grandfather's sword.

"Mass production type beam katana, power supply missing. You know, I'm a little ashamed to admit that I have no idea what my nation's role was during the war but you'd think I'd remember something like this being invented and fielded on the frontlines."

Shaking his head, he took a few practice swings with the blade and found it to be perfectly balanced. An archaic weapon fused with cutting edge technology, a simple concept taken to the logical extreme.

The blade was nothing more than a super sharp oversized heating element. When power was fed into it, it would become white hot and enhance the cutting power by melting through anything the blade itself couldn't cut. And he liked that idea a lot.

"User… I know what you're thinking and if you try to heat me up with a fire spell or something I will never speak to you again." The sword on his back called out just as he was entertaining the very idea.

"You sure? It'd give you even more style…"

"Tempting but no. Oi oi, I mean it user. Don't go modifying me, this sword is au naturel."

"Fine…" Saito said despondently as he shelved his dreams for creating the ultimate sword… temporarily. He'd raise it again when he found something to bribe Derflinger with. Besides, he had other ways of upgrading Derflinger… even if he didn't like those methods very much.

Returning he katana to Siesta, he decided to take a look at the tombstone before checking the diary.

"My grandfather handcrafted it, the words on it are in a foreign language and nobody has ever been able to read them. I don't know what they-"

"I can read them." Saito cut her off and knelt to give the stone a closer inspection. The wind and rain had worn away some of the etching but he could still read the words just fine.

"Navy ensign Sasaki Takeo, eternal warrior of the rising sun, rests in another world."

"What?" Siesta's eyes widened when Saito easily read out the words.

"Should have seen it sooner, Siesta, you take after your grandfather, don't you? Black hair, black eyes, your grandfather would have had the same right?"

"I… yes, how did you know?"

"The words are written in Japanese, your grandfather was from my homeland. How he arrived I do not know it's a shame I can speak to him in person." Saito stood and saluted, observing a moment of silence before stepping back.

'At least he had a long and peaceful life here in Halkeginia in the end, fortune smiled upon him.' Saito shook his head and resisted the urge to laugh at the sheer coincidence of another Japanese man winding up in Halkeginia after cheating death.

If the damage to the jet was anything to go by, he should have been fatally wounded either by being shredded by the shrapnel or in the resulting crash.

Instead, he was transported to another world to live out the rest of his days in peace. Dumb luck or divine providence, Saito supposed it didn't matter in the end.

"Do you want me to try fixing the thing? I need to call in a rig for this but it should work." Saito offered the wonderstruck maid who shook her head in the negative.

"Um it's up to you now. In his will, grandfather left the dragon's raiment to whoever can read the inscription on his tombstone. Since you're the only one who can, that means the raiment is yours now."

Saito raised and eyebrow at that. "Just like that?"

"Yes. It's quite famous and some people worship it I suppose but it's really just sitting here collecting dust. Um, he did request that the raiment be returned to the king if possible but I don't know which king-"

"Emperor. When he came from, it would have been emperor. But, I can't return it, I have no way back and the empire of Japan ceased to exist long ago."

"Oh." They lapsed into silence as Saito dropped bombshell after bombshell, leaving Siesta at a loss for words until Louise broke the spell.

"So partner, will you get it to fly?"

"I'll try, the insides are pretty mangled if the runes are reading it correctly. I don't have the blueprints for this but the rig should be able to work its magic. If it can repair captured biomechanical alien husks, it should work on a fighter jet. Just give me a moment to call it in."

-line break

Active mission day 8:

So bored. No sign of any gaijin for three days now, captain says it's for the best, we keep the element of surprise. I guess he's right, duty comes first. We reach Vladivostok tomorrow, I'll see action then.

Active mission day 10:

The emperor will be pleased, our strike on the on the oil derricks went perfectly. Idiot soviet barbarians didn't know what hit them, once we bypassed their tesla towers through the air, their flak cannons were useless when we hit them from the sea.

Active mission day 16:

This is it, today we break their grip on the pacific. Their communications are gone, their supply lines cut, all that's left is the send the fleet to a watery grave. Captain says we're just waiting on the shinobi to disable what's left of their air defences before we go in. Won't be long now.

Active mission day 17:

Captain got hit. Those barbarians were hiding flak troopers inside the hospitals. Soviet reinforcements are on the way, the fleet needs to be sunk now or this mission is a failure. The commander has ordered the remaining squad members to sortie against the enemy lines. We need to draw out whatever infantry they still have hidden so the shinobi can go to work. The solar eclipse is in a few hours, we move then. I do not think I will survive this. Ten thousand years of glory to the emperor. Long live the empire.

Active mission day 18?

Am I dead? I don't have an answer for that. Flak trooper hit me on the way out. Controls jammed, flew straight into the eclipse and then managed a landing in a field of flowers. The people here are strange, I do not speak their language and they dress funny. Is this heaven? It's too nice to be hell but so strange at the same time.

There are two moons.

Day ?

I've lost track of the years. Dug out the diary after so long. I'm an old man now. I don't think I'll ever see Japan again. That's okay, I've found my peace in this world. I only regret that I couldn't do more for the emperor. Perhaps one day, one of my countrymen will arrive here much like I did, I think I shall leave the raiment to them.

-line break

Saito snapped the diary shut and returned it to his pocket, there'd be time to look through it again later. Night had fallen and Agnes was due to show in a few minutes with more information about the mission.

It was three days after discovery of the dragon's raiment and Saito and Louise were back at the mansion. They had split from the rest when a message had come from the palace requesting their immediate return.

Details were sparse but there was no mistaking the urgency in the radio message. They were to return to the mansion post haste and pack for a trip.

While they returned with the APC, Kirche and Tabitha had elected to continue on with the treasure hunt. Guiche had chosen to remain in Tarbes to sample the local delicacies and Saito had tasked him with directing the rig when it arrived.

Perking up when one of the shadows moved, Saito moved to greet the hooded figure as she slipped through the open gate. "Good evening chevalier."

"Good evening to you too, where's the Valliere?" Agnes replied as she pulled down the hood of her travelling cloak.

"Right here. What's the situation?" Louise called out from where she was stuffing more objects into an already oversized pack.

"Are you aware of what's been happening in Albion?"

"Not really, we've been off the grid for a bit but I heard there was heavy action at Midgand." Saito mentally went through all the rumours he'd come by. Nothing concrete, just some talk about Reconquista being hit with miracle weapons of some sort.

"Your information is out of date, Midgand fell four days ago."

"So the royalists are finally winning? It's about time. Her highne-Henrietta should be pleased with this."

"It's not that simple Count. The royalists are still holed up in Newcastle, Midgand fell to a peasant uprising." Agnes spoke grimly as confusion spread across both Saito and Louise's faces.

"Our intelligence is spotty at best but we can confirm that this uprising is being backed by an unknown party supplying never before seen weapons. They've declared their intention to depose both Reconquista and the crown to form a new state."

"That's disturbing." Louise vocalised the thought running through their minds.

"It gets worse. Prince Wales is the leader of this revolt and the royalists are split down the middle between those loyal to his father and those who believe in him. And… I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not but some of Reconquista's officers have defected to fight under Wales if it means removing the old king from power."

"That's impossible. Wales would never betray Albion, there must be some kind of mistake." Louise vehemently denied.

"Unfortunately there isn't, Wales said as much when he met the princess in person a few days ago. He finds his father unfit to lead and intends to replace him for the sake of Albion." Agnes shook her head in slight exasperation at the massive security breach that happened on her watch.

"I don't know how he did it but he made it to the royal palace, bypassed every one of our guards, spoke to the princess and then returned to Albion in one night. He's convinced the princess of the justness of his cause and that his new allies are trustworthy. Me? I don't buy it at all." Handing over a scroll of parchment, Saito unfurled it to reveal a royal decree naming them as Tristainian ambassadors.

"We need you to head to Albion to ascertain the situation. The prince should still be in Midgand but our agents report that he might be headed for Newcastle soon. Reconquista's forces are massing for a final assault on the royalist keep and whatever issues he has with his father I suppose he'd want to settle it in person." Agnes retrieved a finely crafted ring and handed it to Louise.

"This is the water ruby, her highness has entrusted it to you. Show it to the prince as proof of your identity. Keep it safe and on you at all times."

Louise accepted the ring with slight trembling, her eyes were wide as saucers after being handed a national treasure so casually. "O-of course. I'll protect it with my life."

"I would have preferred to send our resident trouble shooters but they have their hands full with the local rat infestation. You two are the only other asset we have right now."


Her expression soured and distaste was written all over her features as she answered Saito's question. "Yes… other… the captain of the griffin knights has completed his bandit subjugation in the north and volunteered to personally investigate Albion."

"Eh!? Viscount Wardes is there!?"

"Yes." Agnes curt reply held no small amount of disdain for the viscount.

"So I take it he isn't clean then."

"We don't know yet. His record is spotless… too much so if anything. No red flags but I'd watch my back all the same. He's gone to the Newcastle for his investigations and isn't aware of you being sent so chances of you running into him aren't that high... as long as you make it to the prince before he leaves the fortress."

Saito nodded and filed that information away for future reference. "I'll keep that in mind. Do we have any support on this mission?"

"None I'm afraid. Most of our agents in Albion evacuated when the civil war started turning in Reconquista's favour. You're on your own."

"Understood. We'll deploy in a Firehawk once launch preparations are complete."

-line break

The Firehawk levelled out after a near vertical descent before gently setting down on a grassy plain. As the canopy opened, Saito hopped out and helped a dizzy Louise to the ground. Both were dressed in plain garb having ditched their regular attire for the sake of blending in.

Saito took a moment to rearrange Louise's hair and made sure the facial prosthesis was secure before stepping back and admiring his handiwork. After a quick makeover, she was completely unrecognizable, his only gripe was that she had refused to allow him to install several contacts to mask her eye colour.

"D-don't do that again… I think I'm going to be sick." Louise started to berate Saito before dashing towards a nearby bush to empty her stomach.

"Sorry about that partner, Firehawks aren't equipped with stealth, the only way to avoid detection is to use the stratofighter boosters. We're here at least." Saito shrugged and began pulling the camouflage netting over the fighter. Not quite a stealth generator but it'd work… hopefully.

"Why can't we take an airship like normal people?" Louise complained as she straightened up and glared at Saito.

"They're too slow and everyone will see us coming. This way we can investigate quietly first just in case the prince isn't himself. You have the ring secure?"

"Yes of course I- why are you looking at me like that? I don't like that look. That's the I've got an insane plan look." Louise started backing away hesitantly as a devious glow came to her familiar's eyes.

"According to the map, Midgand would normally be a full day's walk from here. That is unacceptable." Closing the distance between them in an instant, he picked up the tiny girl tossed her over his shoulders and began to sprint.

"PUT ME DOWN! PUT ME DOWN NOW! SAITOOO!" Louise screamed frantically and beat her tfists against Saito's back as her deranged familiar continued his mad dash in the direction of the fortress.

"What!? I can't hear you over the sound of the wind. You want me to go faster? Okay!" Laughing maniacally, Saito fitted one of his knuckledusters onto his free hand and felt the gandalfr boost kick in, further increasing his pace.

"SAITO!" Louise's screaming echoed across the empty countryside alongside Saito's mad cackling.

-line break

"I hate you. I hate you so much."

"Aw… I love you too little sister." Saito gleefully patted the irate Louise on her head, safe in the knowledge that she couldn't start exploding him while they were in the centre of the uprising's stronghold.

Gaining entry to Midgand was simple enough, the fort had its doors opened to anyone seeking refuge from the civil war or intending to join the rebel cause, not that there was much of the fort available.

Large portions of the fortress still lay in ruins and construction zones were everywhere. Several barracks had been converted to temporary housing for the homeless and a makeshift clinic and food district had been set up.

Getting into the off-limit zones was an issue, there weren't any guards around but there were a few strange stone statues posted as sentinels everywhere. And the command centre happened to be one of those areas.

The feeling that he was being watched never left and Saito theorised the statues were some sort of golem responsible for surveillance and security. There was the nagging sensation that he should recognise the golems but he couldn't place them.

Without a way to bypass them quietly, the duo whiled their time away speaking to the various people to get an idea of the situation. Posing as a pair of siblings from the north, most were willing to shed some light on the situation.

Their efforts had borne fruit in abundance, already the report would be several pages long and they hadn't even met the prince yet. There were a few interesting tidbits here and there that reeked of the fantastic.

The prince recently gaining a magic sword that granted invincibility in battle.

A hero appearing to halt an unjust execution and sparking the uprising after crushing the Reconquista party singlehandedly.

The militia being equipped with automatic muskets among other fancy new weapons.

That last one worried Saito a lot.

He could excuse automatic weapons as the result of wartime engineering but some of the other things sounded disturbingly like rocket launchers and tanks.

Thus far he hadn't seen anything to confirm or deny those whispers but without getting into the restricted sections of the fortress, he didn't think he'd be able to conclusively prove it one way or another.

"Now what? We've done all we can and the prince has gone to Newcastle for negotiations." Louise muttered as she stared at the overcast sky. With the sun setting and storm clouds blowing in, any further scouting would have to be put on hold.

"Now, we head for Newcastle. With any luck we'll make it there before the rain starts." Shrugging as he replied, he was slightly miffed that they had managed to miss the prince by a full day and he wouldn't be back any time soon.

"…I refuse to be a sack of potatoes again." Folding her arms and declaring her intention to never participate in that form of transportation again, Louise glared defiantly.

"Hmm? How's your flight magic?"


"Yeah, thought so. It's potato or stratofighter, your choice."

"…I hate you." Louise sighed as her shoulders drooped, accepting the inevitable.

"So you've said."

-line break

"He won't see reason. Damn it, is there no other recourse but to fight?" Wales slammed his fist into the wall of his quarters while the inquisitor fiddled with a small gadget.

"There's still time to avert it."

"I will not have my own father assassinated."

"If you insist. There are other ways to deal with it I suppose. The royalists are split about fifty-fifty, have those that support you make for Midgand now. Whoever remains will be hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned by Reconquista when they make their final push. Your father will either escape and lose his power or stay and die fighting." Saito paused his tinkering to regard the prince.

"That's one possibility anyway. We could also drug him with a sleeping potion and kidnap him. By the time anyone notices what's going on it'll be too late. We can always blame it on Reconquista."

"That… could work. Can we trick the ambassador though? Wardes of the lightning has the reputation of being damned near impossible to fool."

"I don't see why not. The Reconquista fleet is already massing nearby, all we need to do is spirit the old king away and bomb the palace. He 'dies' and this infernal doom and gloom gets replaced with righteous anger at the vile rebels who dared to commit regicide. If you play it right, you might be able to get the few holdouts to join your cause."

"Such deception doesn't sit right with me."

"All warfare is deception." Saito tossed the finished gadget to Wales and instructed him to put it on.

"It's a prototype neural interface I made. It'll translate your actions over to one of the cyborg decoys while you get to see and hear everything it does. Take some time to get used to it, it'll be needed for tomorrow's meeting with the Tristainian ambassador."

"I understand using a decoy for meeting with my father or some of the more suspect nobles, but Wardes? Is that really necessary?"

"Just to be on the safe side. I think I told you already that I used to be fate squad, assassinating targets during one to one meetings is pretty standard play and I'll be damned if you go out like that." The inquisitor closed his eyes as he recalled some of his more daring assassinations of corrupt GDI officials.

"Besides, there's always the chance Reconquista might take the chance to drop a few cannon shells on our position. I'd prefer you not taking unnecessary risks, especially since I won't be there, the evacuation routes need to be secured in person."

"If you insist. I'm more worried about my father though, there's something off about him. I'm not sure if he'll go quietly even after we've kidnapped him and keeping him drugged for the rest of his life isn't a viable solution."

"It's the eyes isn't it? They seem dead for lack of a better term, it doesn't jive with the rest of his actions." Furrowing his brows as he played back the meeting earlier, the king had gone on a long tirade about how the heart of the void would be the salvation of Albion. It was a truly impassioned speech except his eyes held no life to them.

Almost like he was a puppet dancing on a string. It wasn't the same as the scrin's mind control he'd seen back on Earth but some of the signs were there. The more he thought about it, the more convinced he was that the king wasn't in full control of his actions.

"You think he's being controlled?"

"I don't know what to think. First he's content with allowing the revolt to reach this level without doing anything then I find out he's been dedicating all his resources to finding the heart, which may not even exist." Wales spat out the words and smiled bitterly.

"Let's assume for a second he is being controlled. How would things change." The inquisitor shuffled the pieces around in his mind, trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with missing and overlapping pieces.

Wales snorted before replying. "Well then there's someone out there with enough power to subvert a nation, but willing to let it tear itself apart over a legend."

"And if the legend is true?" Saito's question left them both in silence as the prince quietly contemplated the ramifications of the heart existing in the hands of a hostile power.

"Well if my father is telling the truth, the heart grants any mage the ability to wield the void like the founder and control over wind stones… all of them. Supposedly my ancestors used it to float the island by forcing the wind stones buried in the earth to discharge simultaneously and liberate Albion from gravity, then void magic kept the island from disintegrating. Ah damn, there are wind stones buried all over Halkeginia."

"So whoever holds the heart could reshape the entire world at their whim… that's a little disturbing."

"You have a knack for understatements."

"It's just speculation for now until we have more proof. Reconquista is the pressing concern, their forces are approaching critical mass, they won't wait much longer."

-line break

"Why are you in such a hurry?" Louise asked as Saito practically dragged them to the meeting. It wasn't due to start for awhile but the former GDI general was uncharacteristically jittery.

"I am not in a… sorry. It's the atmosphere of this place. I don't like it at all." Saito snapped before quieting and taking a deep breath to rein in his emotions.

"The royalists are preparing for a last stand, it reminds me too much of my final battle before you summoned me. I just want to meet the prince, get the truth and leave." Schooling his features into a blank face, Saito was grateful that he was still wearing his facial prosthesis when Louise had ditched her own. It made hiding his actual expressions much easier.

"We're not going to help?"

"With evacuation efforts maybe, not with the battle unless we get pulled into it. We're here as observers and the princess hasn't given us any orders on which side to support."

"But the enemy is Reconquista!"

"Maybe, but helping royalists puts the prince at a disadvantage since that would leave his father's supporters with more power. This, is why I hate politics, things get messy real fast." Saito exhaled explosively and glanced at the sky.

The storm clouds still hadn't cleared up and rain was falling intermittently. Visibility was poor and the gunpowder wet, the ball was in Reconquista's court and it felt like the entirety of Newcastle was holding their breath, waiting for the hammer to fall.

It was sickening.

The one bright side was that the captured royalist super battleship was nowhere in sight. Newcastle's walls would hold for a time against the standard ship mounted guns fielded by Cromwell but they would crumble in an instant before the Lexington's onslaught.

Saito suspected that was what they were waiting for. Once it arrived the slaughter would begin. Although that raised the question of where the hell it was, odd that the fleet was just waiting around while the flagship was missing.

Uncomfortably adjusting Derflinger's sheath, he resisted the urge to quicken his pace again in consideration for Louise. The sooner they met the prince and left the better, and if that meant they wouldn't need to deal with Wardes any longer all the better.

They had the misfortune of running into the viscount the night before right after entering Newcastle. He had graciously offered to share his accommodations out of consideration for his fiancé and her guard.

The general was conflicted on how the heck he should feel about it all. On the one hand, Louise was a noble and arranged marriages were commonplace. But on the other, she was still just a child, societal norms be damned, the viscount was at least ten years her senior.

Then there was the look in Wardes eye's when he glanced at Louise. There was hunger there, not love, not lust… just hunger. That set off all sorts of warning bells despite his seemingly benign actions.

"Let's just hurry to the chapel. With any luck the prince will already be there. Why are we even meeting in a chapel anyway?"

"It's neutral ground of course. It's blasphemy to even think about violence on holy ground. Even if Cromwell himself shows up in person, there will be no bloodshed. Didn't your world have something similar?"

"Well at one time that was the theory. Somewhere along our history that went out the window and churches and the like became valid targets. If you're willing to destroy entire hospitals just to deny your enemies access to medical facilities, suddenly there isn't a whole lot you won't shoot at."

"How barbaric."

"It's pragmatism… but yes, it is barbaric. Hmm, is that the prince?" Saito nodded towards a figure dressed in white entering the chapel. Receiving a non-committal grunt from Louise, they hastened their pace to the meeting point.

Leaving their wet coats by the door, they entered the almost deserted chapel and found the figure kneeling down in prayer by the altar. Patiently waiting for him to finish, Saito took a look around the place. Most of the furnishings had been stripped away to protect them from the war, practically everything that wasn't nailed down had been removed.

Two alabaster statues stood on both sides of the altar. Larger than most humans, instead of faces they had smooth faceplates. Much like the golems at Midgand, a sense of déjà vu hit Saito and again he couldn't place it. They were dangerous, how he didn't know, only that his gut insisted on it.

Keeping one eye on them at all times and fingering his knuckles just in case they sprang to life, he kept himself between them and Louise as the man in white rose.

"Good morning, have you come seeking peace or are you waiting for someone?"

"I am Countess Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Valliere and this is my guard, we're Tristainian ambassadors here to meet prince Wales." Louise puffed out her chest and presented the water ruby, drawing a nod from the man.

"Well, that would be me." Wales held out his own wind ruby and a rainbow formed, proving his identity.

"I was of the opinion that Viscount Wardes would be meeting me. Has something changed?"

"No, he's investigating the situation in general. We're here on behalf of her highness Henrietta, your visit left more than a few questions that we were hoping to get answers for."

"Ah, I see. I understand, I didn't have as much time as I'd like back then to clear up everything. Ask away, I'll do my best to answer." Wales nodded understandingly and gestured for them to continue.

"Alright, eh, these new allies of yours, where did they come from?"

"That's actually a good question. I don't know myself, they just appeared one day with the intention of ridding Albion of tyranny. As to how I came to work with them… I was in a bad situation and their leader helped me out of it. Our interests aligned and so we became allies."

'Lie.' Saito allowed nothing to show on his face as he watched for more signs of deception. A small twitch of the eyes gave away the fact that the prince knew more about their origins than he claimed.

The longer the questioning went on, the more frustrated Saito became at the multitude of half truths being fed to them. Time was short as it was and this charade was going nowhere, they needed answers and they needed them now. Giving Louise a small nudge to hurry her along, he received an imperceptible nod in return.

"You say they have the people's interest at heart but you suddenly allied with them against your own people, against your own father. There is the worry that you might be under their sway."

"Well… I suppose it could come off that way since I have been supporting my father until recently. I assure you though that my will is my own. They defer to my decisions, not the other way around. My father… is unfit to lead. He failed to act when Reconquista was still a fledgling movement and now he insists on wasting what resources we have left on meaningless pursuits, just waiting for the end."

Wales laughed mirthlessly and forced out a painful smile. "He's grown old. For Albion's future he must be removed from power. I've thrown my lot in with the peasant uprising for a brighter tomorrow. A new Albion will rise from the ashes of the old, one where all are equal, one where injustice will not stand because of a person's station."

"I see, but there's still the question of who's backing these new allies of yours." Louise was slightly taken aback by the bitterness in his tone but pressed forward with the questioning.

"You fear me being installed as a puppet ruler? Understandable given the situation. Fear not, they have no intent to rule and answer only to one other individual aside from myself. I'm afraid I am not at liberty to explain it all now, once Reconquista has been dealt with, I will give a full account to Henrietta. Rest assured, I will never be Henrietta's enemy."

Any further questioning was cut off when the doors opened and Wardes stepped through, flanked by several heavily armed guards bearing royalist colours.

"Your grace. Louise." Wardes nodded to both of them and ignored Saito as he approached. As the nobles exchanged pleasantries, Saito was paying more attention to the guards.

Completely decked out in battle armour and faces obscured with their helms, enough of their body language showed through to start raising red flags. Several were shuffling about nervously while a few nervously fingered their weapons.

'Tense. They're worried about the imminent Reconquista assault? No. That doesn't fit, they don't have that despair surrounding them like every other royalist soldier… anticipation? Oh hell.' Saito's eyes widened as he buried his hands in his pockets, ready to grab his knuckles or sonic grenades at a moment's notice.

Surreptitiously taking a step to the side to keep them all in view while still being able to see Wardes, he blinked when he thought he saw the viscount's hand phase through Wales' own during a handshake.

'What the hell? That looks like… no… it can't be.' Rubbing his eyes to ensure they weren't playing tricks on them, he squinted and stared hard at the prince. Behind his almost shut eyelids, his pupils glowed green for a brief instant as he amplified his own vision.

'Oh. Fuck.' Before his enhanced vision, the illusion of the prince fell away to reveal the cyborg decoy beneath.

A hologram.

A bloody NOD hologram.

Saito didn't know what the hell was going on, he didn't know if the prince was still alive and willingly working with NOD or if he had been murdered and replaced and frankly he didn't care. The NOD sonofabitch standing in front of him was going to die.

Slowly edging towards Louise, he prepared to grab her and run, a grenade to the Reconquista agents would take care of the enemies in their path and a second grenade for the 'prince' would deal with that abomination.

That plan flew out the window when a courier burst through the front doors in a panic. "My liege! It's a trick! The Reconquista ships outside Newcastle are dummies! The fleet has begun their invasion of Tristain!"

"""WHAT!?""" Three simultaneous shouts of surprise came from Saito, Louise and Wales.

"It's true! The Lexington is already at Tarbes! We need to-" The courier's words were cut off as three feet of steel burst out of his chest when one of the Reconquista assassins took the opportunity to stab him in the back.

"Lord Cromwell has ordered your deaths. For the founder!" Drawing their swords and rushing forwards like zealots, Saito cursed as they closed the distance too quickly for him to throw his grenades for fear of catching Louise in the blast.

"Ambush! Defend yourselves!" Drawing Derflinger and pushing Louise behind him, he started parrying their blows. After creating an opening, Saito switched his grip on his sword and grabbed Derflinger by the blade and used the hilt as a club to bash in the helm of one unfortunate individual.

Kicking the flailing body into his comrades, he backhanded the next closest guard and knocked off his helm. Switching to holding Derflinger by the hilt, Saito reared back and stabbed forward in a single thrust, punching through the plate mail and burying the blade in the man's sternum.

Refusing to go quietly, the guard grabbed hold of his arm and tried to pull him in closer, locking him in place for his comrades to finish off.

Demented giggling came from the doomed assassin and when Saito stared into his eyes, they were glazed over and looking right through him.

"Tch." Fending off the other swords with his free arm and feeling steel cut into his flesh, Saito dragged the sack of flesh still hanging on to his arm and used him as a shield.

Their blows never ceased even with their ally in the way and the man was rapidly pounded to a bloody pulp as his armour caved inwards. "F-for the holy lands!"

Pushing forwards with a bloody grin, the assassin attempted to crush Saito under his weight before he expired.

"Buzz off." Undaunted, Saito dug his heels in and shoved him back with his superior strength and ripped his arm free. As the assassin sprawled on the floor, he was treated to the disconcerting sight of the man trying to stand again even after being mortally wounded. The demented giggling continued until his chest rose no more.

'The hell is wrong with these people? Not even the black hand were this fanatical.' Saito bit back a curse as he rammed his fist into a man's throat, crushing it and sending him to the ground in convulsions.

Behind him, Louise contributed as best she could, blowing up any assassin that tried to bypass Saito's guard. Wardes and the Wales cyborg fended of the rest.

"They keep coming, we need to leave now! I'll open a path." Wales raised his sword and prepared to charge through the enemy lines as the viscount made to cover his advance… only to halt when Wardes reversed his grip on the sword wand and planted it in Wales' heart.

"PRINCE WALES! Viscount what are you doing!?" Louise shouted as the prince's body fell to the ground.

"Curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal." Saito blithely commented after seeing the treacherous viscount deal with the cyborg for him. Pretending to nurse his injured arm, he quietly keyed a few commands into a hidden remote, calling the Firehawk to his position for a hot extract.

"Fate is on my side it seems. Put down your wand Louise, I don't want to hurt you. Reconquista could use your talents." Wardes casually swiped the blade clean on the prince's robes and rose to his full height. A wave of his hand and the surviving assassins backed off.

"You? You're with Reconquista? How could you!? We trusted you!" Pointing an accusatory finger at her fiancé, Louise desperately wanted this to be a lie.

"Reconquista will win. The old king isn't long for the world and the prince's little rebellion is over. I intend to be on the winning side that's all." Wardes shrugged and gestured to the ruined chapel around them.

"Look around you, it's over. Today, the last resistance to Reconquista in Albion dies and with the fleet already in Tristain, that miserable nation won't last much longer. Soon, all will be united under one banner. If you are wise you will join me."

"Never!" Louise shouted defiantly.

"I will never join a traitor!" Pointing her wand at Wardes, she tried to unleash her most powerful explosion spell when the viscount just sighed and waved his hand again. She found herself unable to move and her magic deserted her as she fell to her knees.

"You seem to think you have a choice. Behold the ring of Andvari, with this I can bend the minds of others to my will, even the loyal guards of the king are not exempt. Tis a shame I have to return this to her, now come with me Louise, Reconquista has need of your abilities." Wardes proudly displayed the ring and ordered Louise to follow.

His smug expression morphed into one of confusion when he noticed Saito wasn't kneeling. "You, guard, I order you to kneel."

The commando let out a small chuckle as the traitor waved his hands about like a fool to no effect. "How convenient. That ring, I'll be taking it from your dead body."

"What? How are you still standing?"

Saito refused to deign him with an answer and began counting down the seconds as the assassins began to move towards him again. 'Come on you NOD scum, do it. Avenge your fallen brethren.'

"Fine. If you won't answer then die- what the!?" As Wardes gave the order to attack, the two statues burst into action. White plaster fell away to reveal grey armour beneath.

"Liquid death online."

Saito struck the instant the tiberium troopers revealed themselves. His eyes flashed green again as he put on a burst of speed beyond anything Louise had ever seen. As the cyborgs raised their weapons against Wardes, the general was already bringing Derflinger down on his arm.

Cleanly disarming the traitor, Saito plucked the ring off the severed hand mid-flight and was by Louise's side again in a flash. Grabbing the stunned girl and tossing her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes once more, he dashed past the directionless assassins and out the door.

"Argh! Damn AHHHHHARHGGHH!" Cursing in shock from the loss of his arm, it turned into full blown screaming rapidly as the tiberium troopers unleashed a flood of fire into his face.

Casting a desperate wind spell to turn the fire back and keep it from ravaging the rest of his body, Wardes stumbled in the direction of the door as the troopers continued hosing everything down with fire.

Half blind and in terrible agony, he collapsed inches away from the door of the burning chapel and fell unconscious. The last thing that filled his vision was the armoured demons marching through the flames with their red faceplates glowing in the firelight.

-line break

"What the heck was that?" Louise shouted as Saito continued sprinting even after leaving the inferno behind.

"That, is a problem. We're getting off this god forsaken island."

"What do we do now? Reconquista is attacking our home, Wardes is a traitor and the prince is dead." Louise spoke after a moment of silence, too distraught over the events that transpired to even complain about being carried.

"That wasn't the prince, just a decoy. Now, we return and destroy those invaders. Then, I return here to crush the peasant uprising."

"How do you know… wait what do you mean crush the peasants!?"

"Those mysterious new supporters? They're the freaking brotherhood of NOD. I don't know how they followed me here and I don't care. The only thing that matters is grinding them to dust." Saito spat out the words as hate suffused his being.

"But the peasants?"

"NOD corrupts everything they touch. They damned near destroyed my world on too many occasions, millions are dead because of them and billions more would have perished if they had their way. For the sake of peace, everything they've influenced must be scourged!"

A small beeping sound from the remote in his jacket indicated the Firehawk was just seconds away. Moments later there was screaming from the people around them as the roar of the engines reached them and the Firehawk dropped out of the clouds.

Holding position a few feet above the ground, the cockpit opened up and Saito clambered onto the jet. Depositing Louise in the co-pilot seat, he strapped himself in and jammed the helmet onto his head, as soon as the neural link was established, the jet fired its afterburners and shot off into the distance headed for Tristain.

"Stratofighter boosters warming up. Hang tight, we're going up." Allowing the onboard AI to handle the calculations, he flipped several switches and prepared to make the jump.

Warning klaxons sounded as several contacts appeared on the radar and Saito cursed. "Stealth tanks! Shit! They've got a bead on us."

Several green streaks lanced towards them from the ground and he abandoned the jump procedures to focus on evasive manoeuvres.

Saito forced the Firehawk into a series of tight corkscrew spins trying to lose the missile lock. Several green streaks soared past them as he successfully evaded them.

"There's too many of them! Ah damnit damnit damnit!"

The stealth tanks fired off a second volley and Saito did his best to evade again. "Come on, come on. I can see the edge of Albion."

This time, he was less successful as two found their mark. The Firehawk shuddered violently and sparks flew inside the cockpit. "We're hit!"

Saito looked out the canopy and cursed when he saw one of the engines on fire and spewing black smoke. Fire suppression systems were offline and the damage was spreading to other areas. Connected as he was to the Firehawk AI, he could feel each affected system shut down one after another.

"We're heating up… I'm losing control! Ehhh! A managed crash is the best I can do!"

"THEN MANAGE IT!" Louise's loud voice penetrated into his skull and the suppressed panic inside it gave him pause. If she could keep from panicking and at least maintain some semblance of calm, how could he do any less?

Swallowing hard and taking a deep breath, he ran through the systems still operational and did a quick check on their estimated distance to Tarbes. At the rate they were failing it'd be a close thing.

"Damn, damn, damn… okay… Partner, the ejectors are damaged and the air brakes are gone, I can't slow us down. If we hit at this speed we're dead no questions about it."

"S-so what do we do." There was a slight tremble in her voice but otherwise it held firm as she put her faith in her familiar.

"Once we're closer, I'll need you to blast the canopy off. Then we jump."

"What!? Saito… I still can't fly or even cast a wind spell to slow us down."

"Never mind that, I'll handle the landing, you just make sure to blast it off when I give the signal." Saito fought the controls as the craft threatened to spiral out of control as he lost the engines.

The next few minutes passed in tense silence as Saito did his best to keep the Firehawk level as shudders constantly rocked the jet, each one threatening to be the big one that shook the fighter apart.

"I think I see Tarbes, get ready to blow it." Saito tersely commanded as the ground came into view. Several columns of smoke were visible in the distance and he was damned sure that was from civilisation and not more smoke filling the cockpit.

His controls were shot to hell and practically gone at this point, the Firehawk remaining intact and heading towards their destination was as much a testament to his skills as it was the heavens favouring them with the luck of the devil.

"Okay… here we go. 5… 4… 3… 2… 1… NOW!"

On cue, Louise released her spell and several mini explosions blossomed along the canopy, shearing it off and exposing them to the cold air.

Ripping off the helmet and releasing the seatbelts, Saito dragged himself off the chair and caught Louise's hand as the Firehawk started an out of control descent.

Pulling her into his arms, Saito pushed away from the doomed jet and braced his partner against himself as he aimed for the trees.

'This is gonna hurt.' He was dimly aware of Louise screaming but her words were lost to the wind as the ground rapidly approached. Curling into as much of a ball as he could to protect Louise, his back struck the tree tops first.

Smashing straight through the conifer like a canon ball, he split the tree in half on the way down and tasted blood in his mouth as the makeshift brake was comparable to eating a full clip from an assault rifle to the back.

Bouncing off the tree near to the ground, he landed feet first and two sickening cracks greeted him when his legs snapped instantly. Hugging Louise close during the tumble, he only released the girl once they weren't in danger of smashing into anything else.

Louise crawled away, dazed and bruised but otherwise alright. As she stood, the burning wreckage of the Firehawk sailed overhead and arrived at is final destination, a rocky outcrop, and burst into a ball of flames.

"I… I'm alive? SAITO!" The shock of surviving was replaced by worry for her familiar still lying on the ground. Dashing over to him, she tried to help him up but upon seeing lying in a pool of blood with his eyes closed and limbs bent at odd angles, she fell to her knees.

"No. No nononono you can't be dead. Saito… wake up. Please. WAKE UP!"

A small groan filled her with elation as Saito's eyes slowly opened. "Would you quiet down? Some people are trying to sleep here."

"Saito!" Forgetting his condition for a brief moment at her elation of seeing him alive, she hugged him tight and was rewarded by a grunt of pain. Yelping, she let him go and apologised repeated as the gandalfr started pulling himself back together.

"Ow. Ah, damn I'm going to feel that in the morning." Pushing himself into a sitting position, he stared dumbly at his mangled legs and broken arm.

"I'll… I'll go get help. Tarbes is nearby right? Maybe Guiche and Siesta can help us." Stopping Louise before she could dash off, Saito shook his head firmly.

"Relax. It'll take a lot more than this to kill me. Just… just give me a moment, I'll be better in a sec, then we can go deal with Reconquista."

"What are you talking about!? You're in no condition to be going anywhere!"

"I've been through worse. You… might want to close your eyes for a bit. This is going to be ugly."

Once Louise complied even though she had no idea what Saito was up to, the commando dug deep and reached for the detestable power within and snapped his broken arm back into place. Holding it steady for a few seconds, it was good as new.

Next he worked on the legs, they were shattered in so many different places it wasn't even funny. Doing his best to set them straight, the crunch of bone was audible as the bone fragments shuffled around and fused back together.

Using a nearby boulder as a crutch, he pulled himself up and began placing weight on them to see if they healed right. When nothing gave and he remained standing even after pulling away from the boulder, he grunted in satisfaction and jumped a few times just to make sure.

Ripping free a few splinters that had become lodged in him, there was the itching sensation as the flesh knitted over the wound, erasing it completely.

After a few moments more he was near full capacity and allowed the power to fade away, back to whatever dark pit it usually resided in. The soreness would be there for days but he cared not for it, only how unclean he felt after tapping into that unholy gift.

"Alright, you can open your eyes now, I'm good."

"Wha- how!?" She stumbled for words when she opened her eyes to find a bloodstained Saito standing at attention without a scratch on him.

"I'm with pinkie, that was some freaky business user and I've seen quite a lot in my time." Derflinger piped up when Louise was at a loss for words.

"It's a curse placed on me long ago by a madman. Ah ah ah, don't touch me partner. My flesh is for lack of a better word toxic right now. In fact, it's best if you stay a few feet away from me, I don't want to hurt you by accident."

"A-are you sure you're alright?" She asked dubiously as she couldn't figure out how Saito was fully operational again after sustaining critical injuries. Not even the greatest water mages could heal such devastating wounds that quickly.

"Yes, yes I'm sure. You can ask your questions later, for now, we need to get to Tarbes. Unless I'm mistaken it should be just beyond this forest." Saito forestalled and further questions over the uncomfortable subject and elected to focus on the pressing matter at hand, getting to Tarbes and seeing the true extent of the Reconquista incursion.

"O-okay. Don't push yourself alright?"

"Relax, I know my own limits."

Their hike through the forest was in silence as each stewed in their own thoughts. Finally, they could make out familiar scenery through gaps in the trees.

But when they arrived, it was anything but a welcoming sight.

The idyllic countryside and peaceful village was awash in orange as fire consumed everything. Through the thick blanket of smoke, silhouettes of Reconquista's airships were visible and flashes occasionally lit up the darkness as their guns fired volley after volley.

"No rest for the weary indeed."

Author's notes: Personal commitments and writer's block make for a terrible combination. University is starting soon and I may have to stop writing this fic, good news is that I've already planned out the end so if that happens I'll post a summary of events.

No Sheffield is not scrin, I don't think the scrin even have genders. The answer lies with the dragon's raiment.

On the topic of culture, I mean no offence to anyone and if seeing the Chinese man ask for help from a Japanese is contrary to what culture dictates then I apologise. I'm Chinese myself but my family is less traditional than others in some aspects, I was raised to put the wellbeing of my family above my own pride. Begging for help may be demeaning but if it works and my family is saved, I'd do it in a heartbeat. My grasp of Chinese culture isn't the strongest and I can only base my work around what I personally know and have experienced. Once again, I mean no offence and I apologise if I did offend anyone with the way I write.

And maybe some context would have helped. For those unfamiliar with the CNC tiberium universe, tiberium is an alien mineral that consumes and corrupts practically everything it touches. It landed in 1995 and this story takes place around the year 2050. In those 50 odd years, half the world is either uninhabitable or about to be.

Nations as we know them have effectively ceased to exist and the world has been re-divided into blue zones, (the almost tiberium free), yellow zones (the partially consumed) and the red zones (completely uninhabitable except for mutants and tiberium based lifeform).

The way I view it, culture and societal norms would change drastically after the world has been altered to such a degree and survival becomes paramount especially in places where facilities aren't up to par with dealing with the scourge.