A/N: This story has spoilers for all Kiseki games up to CS3. You have been warned. Because this is technically a post CS4 fic, I avoid the spoilers by deliberately going on a different route concerning the status of certain characters than canon does. So using this story to divine the fate/survival of character X isn't going to work, because I'll freely mix things up to suit my tastes. This makes the story an AU by design.
Also, if possible, please avoid discussing CS4 spoilers in the reviews. Otherwise, have fun reading.
Chapter 1 - A Routine Job
The click of boots resounding on steel. She preferred her footfalls to be silent, but with the kind of ground she was running on there was nothing to be done if she didn't want to expend orbment energy on sound manipulation.
What made her wear chunk-heeled boots again? Right, her vanity.
There wasn't much need for stealth anyway. The mission was a simple search and destroy and the only reason she ran was because finishing the job early meant more leisure time to wander around Heimdallr and pester Professor Rean on his free day.
Not that he did much relaxation even when he didn't have to hold history lectures or martial art classes. Just like his days at Thors, the guy remained an incorrigible busybody.
Her progress came to a halt in front of a circular door made of reinforced laser steel with a digital display showing 'STOP, authorized persons only' in red letters.
Fie took out her EXCALIBUR tactical orbment and switched on the holographic screen. A turquoise plane of solidified light manifested. Some simple mind orders later and she was looking at the map of the Heimdallr Geofront, sector B. She pin-pointed her current location and sighed.
"I'm so going to wring Franky's neck."
Figuring out his punishment could come later. The door blocking her way was the only route which led from her current location into sector F where the monster was sighted. And apparently her dear receptionist had forgotten to procure the respective keycard.
She closed her eyes and forged a mental connection, several threads of low energy Mirage woven between the CPU of her orbment and her brain-implant. Fie then went to the side of the massive round door and drew her boot knife. A simple thrust and flick to lever out the plastic casing, revealing glittering net-ports beneath. She dragged out the jack from her EXCALIBUR and plugged in.
The spiritual meta-data residue remained inside the hardware, an ethereal backlog of successful unlocking processes. She scanned the residue and activated a translating algorithm to convert machine language into binary and then hexadecimal. Running the translated signal backlog through a decoder yielded her nine out of twelve numbers that were sure to be part of the key code. That left sixteen to the power of three combinations to comb through. Given the processing power of her orbment's CPU, brute forcing it took the fraction of a second.
The steel door opened with a hiss.
Fie jammed the plastic casing back in, her brows furrowed. She was glad there wasn't any need to make a detour back to the guild or bust up public property. However the cybersecurity here was a joke. If a script kiddie like her managed to break through the digital lock it could as well be considered an open barn door for a dedicated hacker.
She took out her bracer notebook and wrote down her thoughts as well as the door's serial number. Then she continued her journey into the shining steel bowels of Heimdallr.
Sector F differed from the previous areas due to the waterways coursing through. The stench of waste and excrement was wafting through the air now. Just like the Crossbell Geofront, this section served as a canalization complex for collecting the city's entire sewage. There were plans for a purification plant to be built underground, too, but as of now Heimdallr's increasingly putrid waste water was routed directly into the Arnor River.
Even seven years into the project and the converting work was at most half-baked. Granted, the Catacombs were notorious for their vastness, danger and cultural value, although the latter was easily tossed aside in the wake of the infrastructure reforms that swept through the capital in recent time. Construction work was of course spearheaded by Reinford, the 5th Developmental Division in fact, which just like the 4th was under Alisa's control these days.
From the chats she got over the years, Reinford's vice-chairwoman considered the project her pride and bane in equal measure. Integrating Heimdallr into the Orbal Network had always been an uphill battle. There were the various Landscape Acts for preserving the city's cultural landmarks that had to be loosened. Then there was the Catacomb's monster population, another impediment for establishing the underground cable-network necessary for high-speed data bandwidth on a mass scale.
Despite the Geofront having a double layer structure, construction work revealed that Heimdallr's ancient underground tunnels meandered even deeper. There was a third layer of stone corridors just beneath the freshly built steel innards. The area was poorly mapped and according to reports, there were points of entry that led even further underground.
Considering all the metaphysical crap she and her friends had roused during their trips into the Catacombs - vampires, undead dragons, the good stuff - Fie wouldn't be surprised to learn that Heimdallr ended up being as expansive on the vertical plane as it already was horizontally. That Infernal Castle from twelve years ago had to be hidden somewhere, right? Or was it more pocket dimension shenanigans?
Perhaps she should ask Rean about this. Or would Emma be the better go-to person?
The rhythmical sound of an industrial pounding machine broke her out of her thoughts. She turned around the corner and came face to face with the objective: A Magic Knight that prowled through the tunnel like he owned it. It was the version with four legs, created to the likeness of this mishmash of human and horse. What did Emma call it again? A centaur?
Whatever. Her Bestiary entry named it Azura-Lucier and the corresponding notes about characteristics and weaknesses was all she needed to know.
The golem from the Middle Ages uttered a battle cry, brandishing his lance instead of simply attacking her.
Fie gathered Nohval energy from her EXCALIBUR and cast a routine Anti-Orbal debilitation art. The black-blue tendrils of time caressed the constructs massive frame, corroding its magical based protection. Her foe went to the offensive, but his attack was too straightforward. The thrust of the lance was strong enough to punch through tank armor, but all it penetrated was her afterimage.
Fie activated the integrated Goldia circuit inside her long-coat and accessed her subspace pocket mid-dash, taking out a panzerfaust. Reinford model MXP-32, single shot with a standard HEAT-warhead. It was a somewhat outdated model, but she wasn't made of money.
Besides, despite all the prowess of Middle Age alchemists they didn't possess an understanding of reactive or composite armor.
She opened the distance while the Magic Knight was still turning its body to face her. Fie then fired the weapon and watched the projectile's pondering flight until it detonated, the shaped charge creating a stream of high-velocity metal slurry to utterly wreck her opponent's armor.
The centaur collapsed as the heated spall from the armor breach ravaged it's insides, but she knew that these golems possessed limited self-regenerating abilities.
The solution? Kick them while they were down.
She threw the firing tube away and crouched, her left leg extended back, drawing further energy from her orbment to summon a wind barrier around herself. Additional Nohval energy poured out in fits of miasma, staining the green tinged air around her into non-reflective black. She drew her gunblades.
Her dash easily broke the sound barrier, her form a blur of monochrome as she passed each of the Knight's leg in a zigzag, slicing into the steel like butter. The decaying effect of time stuck on the cut sections like atramentous grease. It ate into the metallic legs even when she was already past her foe, while doing her best to bleed out the momentum of her Craft.
The centaur collapsed again.
Fie jumped on the back of the monstrosity, right in the middle of where a saddle would be fastened, ramming her gunblades into the armor. She switched her weapon from shooting into hammer mode and pulled the trigger, again and again. The recoil of the dual firearms was transferred into forward motion of the blades, turning both her weapons into improvised jackhammers.
Her weapons dug deeper and deeper. The centaur's body rumbled and vibrated, energy returning to its limbs until it suddenly froze. Then like a puppet with its strings severed, it collapsed a third time with the alchemist circle carved on the inside of the armor disturbed. It didn't rise again.
Fie pulled out the weapons that were plunged to the base of the blade. Metal as dark as the black of her time incarnation stared back at her. She inspected the edges for any damage but didn't find any despite the punishment they were subjected to.
Kurdalegon alloy II. After the dissolution of Ouroboros, a big part of their technological know-how was absorbed by the Zemurian scientific community. Among the research data was the Society's infamous special alloy, which made a mockery of even the most advanced steel composition that existed until then. The black casings of the Imitation Gospels used during the Aureole incident. The armor plating of the Gordias series, followed by the Aions. This metal was the backbone of the Snake's former technological superiority.
Currently, the material was used for special forces weapons and the armor of some prototype soldats and aircrafts. It wasn't quite as fancy as Zemurian Ore, but then again, her connections weren't quite as extensive as those of a certain Erebonian Hero.
Some people got all the best toys.
She walked to the front of the downed construct and accessed her subspace pocket again, drawing out a bottle and her trusty Deus Pistol. The 0.72 rege caliber of her gunblades were nice for soft fleshy targets and suppressive fire, but if a girl really wanted to blow a hole into something, the gravitational gun firing 1.27 rege Cronos rounds was the way to go.
Fie aimed her firearm at the spherical core of the golem and pulled the trigger. The shot blew the iridescent ball apart like it was made of porcelain. A sticky fluid poured out which seemed to glow with its own light. She squatted down and filled the bottle to the brim. The 4th Developmental Division was working on some project to produce a special liquid that was conducive for orbal energy. According to Alisa, the Liber Ark contained something like this and due to some joint project between Reinford and ZCF, the engineers from her classmate's workforce got their eyes on the Liberlian reports.
She didn't know much beyond this, but after her overworked friend did some comparative analysis between Magic Knight blueprints pilfered from the Black Workshop and the research on the Liber Ark, Alisa came to the conclusion that the Middle Age golems also utilized some kind of energy conducive fluid. As such, it came to Fie to collect the stuff whenever the opportunity arose.
All hail science and progress.
The things she had to do as a bracer.
"I'm so sorry ma'am!"
She cocked her hip to the side, her arms folded and her expression deadpan.
"Ma'am?", the Guild Receptionist whimpered.
Fie didn't speak a word, letting the silence stretch way beyond the point of awkwardness.
"You know how it is with the Geofront Project." Franky started to blab. "The left hand doesn't know what the right hand does and so on. All these outsourced companies doing their own thing. I guarantee - this morning all doors to Sector F were clear. I swear!"
She arched an eyebrow, but still kept quiet.
"Please, say something! Are you mad at me, ma'am? Yes, you are, aren't you?"
She rolled her eyes. "Don't let it happen again."
The receptionist bowed to the waist. Repeatedly. "Yes, ma'am! thank you, ma'am!"
For someone who had been doing the gig for five years, he sure seemed green behind the ears. The guy was another one of the people helped by Rean. In fact, he was the son of the Leeves mayor who did clerk work for several years at the Thors Branch Campus until he finally made it to the Bracer Guild. She hadn't worked with him for long, but out of some reason he seemed intimidated by her. The brown haired dude had been assigned to Heimdallr's Eastern Guild house for only one week, but Fie was already missing Francesca, the former receptionist. Nice woman. Capable, reliable, charming. A shame she was shuffled to the Crossbell branch.
"I've send you my mission reports through orbmail." She took out the bottle with the mysterious fluid. "Send this one to Alisa Reinford. Express mail. Capua Delivery service only."
"Is that the sample for the Reinford project?"
"Wow, Ms Clausell. Doing errands for such an important person. I guess that's an A-Rank Bracer for you." He took the bottle with reverence written on his face.
Fie shrugged. "Just take care that it arrives. Unbroken."
"Y-yes, of course. Can I still do something for you, ma'am?"
She tilted her head. "How about payment?"
He blinked. "I was going to transfer the money to your net account at the end of the day."
She suppressed her urge to groan. "I want my payment in cash."
He looked at her as if she had grown a second head. "This is pretty unconventional these days. Is there a reason?"
"There was an update to Guild procedures two days ago." She glared at him. "Look it up. Now!"
Franky winced, but he didn't continue to ask stupid questions at least. He instead went to the orbal terminal and after some key strokes, she heard him gasp. "Wait, what? For the foreseeable future all mission payments are going to be handed out in cash? But we don't have any reserves here at the Guild house."
Fie could already feel the beginning of a headache. "I guess you need to pay the Heimdallr Bank a visit." She leaned over the counter until their noses almost touched. "Take one of the Junior Bracers with you. Running through the city with a suitcase full of money isn't safe these days."
He gulped and took a step back, his face burning. "Yes, ma'am. Will do. But is there a reason for this change in procedure? This will make bookkeeping more time-consuming."
She pinched the bridge of her nose. For the last few month, she had discussed this topic to death with the Guild's higher-ups. Not even mentioning the fact that she belonged to these higher-ups now. Gone were the days when military organizations across the continent praised the Bracers for their operational flexibility and supreme adaptivity. The ranks of the organization had swelled in recent years to meet the demands of the time, but this in turn caused the Guild to become sluggish in its reactions.
And right now it was dragging its feet while failing to keep pace with the second Orbal Revolution.
The digitization of society.
"Have you read about the revisions to the Banking Secrecy Act that were adopted three weeks ago?"
Frankie actually lost his clueless demeanor for once. "I think I read about it in the newspaper. Wasn't law enforcement empowered to lift the banking secret on an organization if they had due cause?"
"Yes. But there's a loophole. In Erebonia, Intelligence Organizations count as law enforcement. It's stupid, but that's the way things are. And here lies the rub: "Due cause" can be interpreted as being dependent on the mission statement of the respective law enforcement agency. For the Heimdallr Police, it's investigating and stopping crime. They could only revoke the Guild's banking secrecy if they raise sufficient suspicion of us committing a crime. The Imperial Intelligence Agency has a mission statement that is applicable to practically anything: Collecting information to protect national interests and maintain national security. Spooks are also harder to be held accountable for their actions, so..."
Fie saw his eyes glazing over. "Erebonian Intelligence can spy on our transactional data and we wouldn't even be aware of it."
"Correct." And because the sum of mira paid out correspond to the difficulty and importance of missions, a bunch of analysts could easily compile an activity profile of entire Bracer Guild branches plus members.
"But this cash thing is only a stop-gap measure, right?"
She shrugged. "I think the guild is trying to move their financial assets to a bank in Ored state."
"Why not the IBC? Oh, dumb question. Crossbell's political situation."
"That too." She felt her lips quirking to form a bitter smile. Even after the SSS wrestled their home's independence back, everything just regressed to the old geopolitical mess a few years later. "There's also the fact that the IBC is part of the Western Zemurian Banking Union. Happened during the annexation 12 years ago and hasn't been revoked yet."
"And that's a problem why?"
Fie tilted her head again. At least the guy was willing to listen and learn. "Banking unions exist so that if one bank goes bust, the others can pick up the slack. But this only works if account data is shared between them."
Franky blinked again. "Oh." He then slumped down. "This is all so complicated, Ms Clausell. As a Guild receptionist, I should be the one on top of such information." He sighed deeply. "Just shows how far I still have to go."
"I'm not that knowledgeable about politics myself." He looked at her skeptically. "Just have a good friend who I can pester about this kind of stuff."
The receptionist scratched his head. "You think he could spare some time to coach me, ma'am?"
She put a finger to her lips. "Hmmm, he's quite busy, you know? Part of the Government Accountability Inspectorate."
Watching him choke on his own spit was quite funny. "Y-you have a friend in such a high place? Please, forget everything I said. A lowly receptionist like me would never presume to take up the time of such an important person."
Seems like she made the correct choice not to tell him that she was also buddy-buddy with Erebonia's Empress. He would probably faint on the spot.
"Is there anything else? I have an appointment."
"No, ma'am. I'll deal with the cash issue posthaste. Please drop by tomorrow to collect your money."
"Got it." She decided to throw him a bone. "And keep at it Franky. You are doing good."
He blushed again. How cute. "Thank you very much, ma'am!"
Well, his performance was middling at best, but stroking his ego might help him overcome his skittishness. Keeping up morale and stuff. "See you then."
Making her way from Alto street to Mater Park took her a mere thirty minutes on foot. She would usually make a detour to Elliot's home, but her favorite redhead was on his first international tour, sweeping the Calvardian populace off their feet. And his teddy bear dad was probably intimidating the new recruits at Dreknor Fortress. Sweet Fiona was of course always worth a visit, for she could whip up some of the best pancakes and sandwiches this side of the Zemurian Continent. However, the last time Fie checked her social media status, she was still visiting her husband's family at the countryside.
A shame. She was feeling a little peckish. Then again, she could always ask Rean to treat her.
His resistance against her puppy dog eyes was pretty much non-existent. She opened her orbment and send a quick mail.
Despite all the changes in Heimdallr, the distinct red brick houses being successively replaced by highrise buildings for one, Mater Park and the Crystal Garden pretty much remained the same over the years. It continued to be a favorite meeting spot for couples as well as academy students, the meadow, flowers and hedges preserved lovingly.
It was one of her favorite places to simply relax and stretch out her limbs after work. Watching the gardeners was also a joy and sometimes she even gave a helping hand. It wouldn't do to throw away the skills Edel taught her.
And then there was that precious memory tied to this place. Fie sat down on a park bench and looked to the side. Just across the winding road was that half-hidden corner where Laura and her came to a true understanding all these years ago, followed by a duel she lost.
How silly their conflict was back then. But it was something both of them could look back on in fondness.
"Hi, Fie. Am I late?"
She heard him coming of course. He knew better than trying to sneak up on her, though he was probably one of the few people who could legitimately pull it off. He was wearing his usual suit and tie combination as well as his teaching glasses, his bluish black hair the usual stylish mess.
Her lips quirked up into a smile that showed teeth and her heartbeat became a tad faster.
"A little", she teased. "But if what you are carrying in those cardboard boxes is the food I requested, I'll forgive you."
Rean Schwarzer, Erebonia's Ashen Chevalier and current professor of history at the Imperial Academy sat down beside her and chuckled. He put the boxes between them and took out two bottles with a beautiful violet liquid.
"Well, you didn't specify what you wanted, so I went with my gut feeling. Shrimp curry rice from the Foresta Tavern as well as my personal mix, the Yuzu honey soda."
Her smile became even wider. "You certainly know how to spoil a girl." She folded open the cardboard box, revealing piping hot rice that was golden in color. The familiar smell of curry wafted across the air, stimulating her appetite.
She reached out with her hand and as if he read her mind, he was already presenting her a set of disposable chopsticks.
Fie broke the wooden implement apart at the top. Rean did the same with his own set.
As an internationally active Bracer she was of course proficient in the usage of chopsticks. And the Eight Leaves One Blade swordsman beside her always had a passion for Eastern culture. It was one of these small things shared between only the two of them. None of the other Class VII members except Juna and perhaps Gaius knew how to properly eat with mere wooden sticks.
And Sara of course. But as the big, noisy sister she didn't count.
They dined the next few minutes in companionable silence. The shrimp rice was just as good as the aroma suggested with exactly the right amount of acerbic tomato and spiciness to give a mundane dish that mix of nostalgia and novelty. The honey soda was the perfect beverage to complement the curry.
"So Rean, how was your day?", she asked between mouthfuls.
"Pretty slow all things considered." He scratched his head. "Except Ambassador Newgate ambushed me again when I was doing my rounds on campus."
Fie raised a single eyebrow. "She hasn't given up yet? Persistent woman. If I didn't know better, I would suspect her to have a major crush on you."
He gave her a playful stare. "Don't even joke about it." He then sighed. "I can understand where she comes from, but I already met her halfway when I introduced courses for Eastern etiquette in my sword dojo."
She shrugged. "She's a political negotiator. Give her a finger and she will try to take your hand."
"But offering me her own position in the Erebonian Embassy located in Tyrell?"
"Me and the rest of Class VII would hate to see you move to Calvard on a semi-permanent basis, but it does make sense. You would do a phenomenal job keeping things peaceful between the resident two superpowers."
Rean chewed thoughtfully. "I'm not sure about that."
Fie rolled her eyes. "I was there as neutral observer, you know? The trilateral conference of trade and technology two years back. Alfin and Musse disarmed the president, but you pretty much pacified the entire Calvardian Cabinet. The hardnosed Minister of Defense was reciprocating your strange eastern swordsmen greetings when the conference was over. The Minister of science lauded you in front of the press and as for the Minister of Trade? You charmed off her socks. You could have asked her to sleep with you after the two days and she would have agreed."
Still so easy to rile up. "Just saying things the way I see it."
"That's not respectful towards Cyn... I mean Ms Langley."
"Still on a first name basis?" She smiled like a sharkodil who smelled blood. "How are you so sure she's still single?"
He cleared his throat. "The wonders of modern communication I guess."
"That's a non-answer."
"Aaanyway, how was your day?"
She folded her arms. "Real smooth, Rean", her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Well, I don't want to talk this out of proportion."
"Then you should adjust your behavior." She waggled her fingers. "Being so defensive would make any woman curious."
"You are relentless, you know?"
Fie giggled and stroked his cheek with her index finger. "Sometimes, a girl has to make her own fun.
"You are hardly a girl anymore."
"True. I'm about as old as Sara when she started teaching us." She paused. "That's a scary thought."
"Now that you mention our dear instructor, how was her last date?"
Fie retracted her hand. "Guess."
Rean slowly palmed his face. "Another bust?"
"I keep telling her each year to buy a couple of cats and settle down. She refuses to listen."
"That's not very nice, Fie."
She rolled her eyes. "I warned her for some time that she shouldn't shoot for the stars. I mean come on, guys like Estelle's dad? That was her daydreaming. It seems she toned down her expectations to something approaching realistic, but well... what was it that Instructor Thomas loved to say?
He became pensive. "Tempus fugit. Time waits for no one."
She nodded. "Ja."
They finished the rest of their meal in silence with both of them lost in thought. Rean was the first to speak again.
"You know...", he fumbled his words, which was very uncharacteristic. Fie knew him as the guy who always found the correct things to say. "Technically, I still have one errand to run."
"Didn't you mail me that you were finished for the day?"
He scratched his cheek. "This is an older errand to be honest. Something I've put off for some time. And the recipient is sitting right beside me."
Fie needed a few seconds to process his words. Then she felt her pulse quicken. The way the conversation was going. Was he...
Her eyes were glued to his every motion as his hand wandered to the inner pocket of his suit. It was like she saw everything in slow motion.
What he took out was an envelope with the crimson wax seal of the Imperial Family.
Stupid of her. Badmouthing Sara because of her daydreaming when she was doing it herself. As if Mr Oblivious was suddenly going to propose to her.
"This is an invitation from the Empress. She entrusted this to me two months ago. While the issue is serious she emphasized that I should only give it to you when I felt you were ready."
Fie breathed out to calm her emotions. When they were among friends, Rean only called Alfin by her title if it was highly official business.
She needed to calm down. This was no place for teenage fantasies.
"What's this all about?" She took the envelope.
"A job offer. From the Imperial Government."
She quirked her eyebrow. "I might complain about the Guild now and then, but I'm still needed you know? Given my rank and all."
He chuckled. "I'm aware and the Empress, too. The Bracers aren't going to be happy that the government tries to poach one of their S-Rank Bracers. But as I stated, the issue is serious and highly classified. Technically, I shouldn't even know about it. However, what I can tell you is that this job will pique your interest."
Rean sounded confident and he was very good at gauging other people's aptitudes. Probably came with the territory. "Alfin asked you for help because you know everybody."
"Eh, that's an exaggeration."
"Right, Mr Legendary Class VII Instructor. Leading six generations of Erebonia's brightest and becoming the favorite teacher of the Branch Campus five years in a row." She folded her arms and gave him a half-lidded stare. "You are on a first name basis with most of the young movers and shakers of the Empire, which makes you an ideal recruiter."
"I guess that's pretty much the way the Empress explained her reasoning." He smiled at her fondly. "She was less blunt though."
"Who else have you scouted for this top secret job offer? Do I know them?"
He sighed. "As a matter of fact you do. One major reason I decided to hand you the invitation was due to the other two wrestling with their future job prospects, too. The Empress will grant all three of you an audience to discuss the details, once a date has been set."
"I'm not wrestling with my Bracer job."
Rean looked straight at her with that open and earnest gaze that seemed to peer directly into her heart. She swallowed. "Aren't you worried that the Bracers have grown too much too fast? That the standard of entry for Junior Bracers have deteriorated? That the Guild has become too slow to react to the challenges of a digitized society? The lack of proper doctrines to deal with cybercrime?" He stroked his chin. "Should I go on?"
Did she really complain that much? Ugh. Now she felt almost bad for unloading all her frustrations on him for the past few months.
It was all Rean's fault for being such a stupidly good-looking, attentive listener. Ash put it best - a clueless woman-magnet was the worst kind of player.
"Okay, you win." She mock glared at him. "Now spit it out. Who are the other two?"
"Altina and Crow."
Fie looked at the fancy envelope again. This whole job gig suddenly became a lot more interesting. Her instincts warned her that the moment she broke the wax seal, something would be unleashed. Something that couldn't be retracted. It was the same feeling as a leap into the unknown.
And as always, her spirit cried out in excitement.