The Republic of Schwarzwald has proven more than a challenge for the three famous guilds of Rune-Midgarts. From the treacherous caverns of the Nogg Road, which tested the tenacity of the Battle Vixens, to the ancient ruins of Juperos, where White Trinity braved its rogue army of machines, this new country has provided plenty of surprises.
Even their flight towards Hugel, the Garden City, had its own trials. The beautiful and deadly sorceress known as Arkana appeared before them, assailing the three guilds with an army of Gremlins and other aberrations. While they were no true match for the three guilds, their truest goal was to knock them out of the sky, which they had almost succeeded were it not for the timely intervention of White Trinity, armed with their Vesper Cores. But that, too, came with a price, as the mighty wyvern upon which Arkana rode struck them with a fireball, temporarily routing them and destroying their cores in the process. From the Holy Saviors' deductions, this violet-clad sorceress is a servant of Freyja, former consort of Odin, and serves a master who is yet unknown to them.
Though she, too, was routed, Arkana was far from defeated. Though her wyvern had perished, she had survived the fall, emerging from a chasm surrounding a massive tower which pierced the firmament. After looking around for her glasses, she cleaned and then placed them back in their rightful spot. The wyvern she had ridden was far gone, sliding into the dark abyss as she heaved a sigh.
"Well, this is definitely something!" she said to herself as she turned her gaze eastward, noticing the beam of indigo energy calmly shooting into the heavens. "It won't be much longer until our goals are realized! Though I'd best report my findings to Mistress Zenobia…"
Using her powers, Arkana focused the energy around her into a small portal. After a moment or two of waiting, a certain Dark Elf would appear, staring back at the sorceress.
"Mistress Zenobia! My sincerest apologies for my failure!" she said, bowing low. "Those three guilds live up to their reputation quite well, it seems…"
"That they could best even a servant of our Lady Freyja does harbor some cause for concern," Zenobia stated, "but now we have a gauge of their strength. Have you anything else to report?"
"The battle for Hugel has concluded, but what was interesting was the creature in which this spire lured!" the sorceress said. "Atroce, the mighty alpha of the Adhumbla Grasslands, ventured all the way east in search of worthy foes! After the battle was over, he returned home with his pack, and even as we speak, the victors are remaining in the Garden City, while the other two guilds have retreated in different directions."
"The Adhumbla Grasslands…?" Zenobia mused. "That is within the territory of the Arunafeltz States. To think that this silly contest could attract beings of such strength… Nevermind it. Where were the defeated guilds headed?"
Before Arkana could answer, the roaring engines of an airship could be heard. The sorceress directed her gaze upward and noticed the familiar symbol of White Trinity. That was undoubtedly their flagship, the Shining Heart, looming overhead. The temptation to shoot it down was too strong to resist, but she knew that her master would not want to directly intervene just yet, despite being so grand an opportunity to kick a wounded dog.
"White Trinity seems to be heading back west, towards Juno, Mistress," she answered. "As for those Holy Saviors, they appear to be going east, towards the sea."
"The sea…? There's nothing out there; what could they possibly be after?" Zenobia questioned. After a brief pause, she gasped, coming to a realization. "Angrboda…"
"Something is compelling them to visit that shrine. Though what they'll find may be quite the shock!" Arkana stated with a giggle. "It will be a treat to see their faces!"
"Keep an eye on them for now, Arkana. White Trinity is the least of our worries. But the others will indeed be in for a surprise," Zenobia ordered. "Let us see how these events unfold…" Arkana bowed once more as the portal closed, after which she would vanish in a veil of purple smoke.
To the east, in the Garden City of Hugel, the energies surrounding the Emperium Spire had weakened to safe levels, as its victors, the Battle Vixens, hovered over the city. Many of the citizens waved to them and cheered their name after witnessing such an explosive battle. Elua had returned their gesture with a wave of her own. Heal-Do, meanwhile, was keeping an eye on the retreating vessels to the west and east. After the conflict ended, both went their separate ways, though what concerned her more was the Holy Saviors, who made their flight eastward, out to sea…
Among the people of Hugel were members of the Hunters' Guild, who almost immediately recognized the Elven Sniper at a glance.
"Hey! That's Elua! One of the saviors of Payon!" spoke a female Huntress.
"Well, whaddya know? It is her!" chuckled a male Huntress. "Who'd have thought the Emperium Frontier would bring her all the way here?!"
"Looks like some of our fans know you, sister," spoke Heal-Do. "Colleagues, maybe?"
"Yup! Fellow servants of the bow, indeed!" Elua replied. "But I don't see any sign of Cecil anywhere… I'd expect her of all people to be excited to see me again!"
"Maybe she's down there somewhere. Try looking for her; we'll keep an eye on things up here."
Elua nodded and called for Mukuhawk, who flew to her side moments later. As they prepared to disembark the War Star to meet with the people below, Lupi and Aege, who were below decks, were touching up after their recent victory.
"Heights; unstable earth; airsickness... I'm not cut out for this type of crap, sister," Aege grumbled.
"Speak for yourself. I'm finding it difficult just brushing my damn hair with this concussion! Every stroke brings another pang…" the fiery Lady Knight said back, wincing between brushstrokes.
"Ugh… that reminds me, Lupi: I know you may not want to hear it, but…"
The Whitesmith paused to remove the bronze scales which protected the parts of her body not covered by her outfit (which essentially consisted of only 30% of her body that was covered). There were a good number of burn marks from the recent battle, and some of her scales even took some damage as well, but they weren't irreparable. She took a moment to splash a white potion on herself to heal her otherwise marred skin, restoring her body back to its pristine state.
"… I told Heal-Do this as well before the fight ended: I think we've been sleeping on the Holy Saviors."
Lupi gently placed her brush down on the dressing table before her, her head ringing in an even greater pain upon mention of that guild. Remembering her training, she relaxed her muscles and took deep breaths, and within moments, her throbbing headache (along with any other wounds she absorbed) would begin to extenuate until she would eventually feel no pain whatsoever. She stared into the mirror, focusing on Aege's reflection, thinking on her words for a moment. Knowing how stubborn and steadfast her sister was, Lupi definitely took heed of what she stated. Her expression was calm, but a slight air of anger could be felt in the room. But perhaps it was not anger, but realization…
"I can understand the Witch, Tsubaki," Lupi spoke. "I can understand the Paladin, Youmei… but those stupid twins. They're the ones who showed us up today. I had thought them a non-factor since the Emperium Jungle, Aege; all of us did. But that power boost the softer one got before we faced Atroce was enough to make her take on all of us at once."
"But… Sister, most of her fury was focused on you," the Whitesmith pointed out as she began repairs on her scale mail. "I mean, sure, she eliminated Mukuhawk, rendered my cart useless, and knocked Heal-Do and Elua on their asses, but she only got that power boost from you punching out her sister."
Lupi took a moment to inspect her right hand, recalling the moment in time when she performed the Head Crush technique on Botan. Balling it into a fist, it would begin to emit steam as her tension caused the air around her body to heat up. She would then relax once more after a few brief moments, the temperature in the room getting noticeably cooler as a result. Lupi didn't say a word this time, and gazed back at her mirror, her grooming much easier to perform now that her headache had subsided. Once she was satisfied with her hair, she gave her reflection a wink and a grin before stowing away her brush.
"All this time we thought that Youmei and Tsubaki were carrying the guild, but those two – Botan and Momiji – they're something else. Everyone got stronger before we made the journey here, but those twins are definitely doing their God some justice out there, if I'd have to give our rivals praise."
"I can agree with you there, Aege…" Lupi replied with folded arms. "But this means we're gonna have a lot more fun from now on. If they're finally coming close to our level, then that's what's gonna make us stronger."
"Hell yeah to that! Let them come at us!" Aege cheered as she finished repairing her armor, wasting no time to don it once more. "Well, it's a good time to do some exploration; I'm going to touch down to some solid earth before I get airsick again. You coming with, Lu –"
She would be interrupted when she heard the sound of chains hitting the floor. Aege's cheeks went a bright red as she turned the other way.
"You go on ahead if you want. This lady could use a nice bubble bath," Lupi answered. She then rose from her seat and turned her head, immediately taking notice of her sister's flustered expression. The Lady Knight scoffed, rolled her eyes and walked past Aege as she shook her head. "Oh, stop it, Aege; all that lip you give me and this is how you react."
The stunned Whitesmith checked her nose to make sure there was no sudden blood loss before heading back upstairs. Meanwhile, to the east, past the Garden City, the Holy Saviors' airship touched down onto the ocean, converting into a seafaring vessel. Led only by the prospects of Botan, they journeyed through the sea in search of the answers to her vision. Their contest had ended only recently, thus everyone was still recovering from their combat highs and injuries they sustained.
On the bow of the Odin's Will stood Youmei, in her favorite silver nightgown, her eyes shut as she felt the sea breeze upon her smooth face and auburn hair. From below decks was Tsubaki tending to the exhausted twins. She whispered some incantation that enveloped them in a thin veil of green light, seemingly closing and healing their wounds. Once they were stabilized, she gave a curt nod and made her way up to meet Youmei, who greeted the Witch with a smile…
Youmei: How are they?
Tsubaki: Just fine, sister. Momiji's condition is much less severe than her twin, but they will both be lucid by the time this journey ends.
Youmei: That is good news. Do you even know where we are headed?
Tsubaki, shaking her head: Your guess is as good as anyone's. But Botan has been showing strange behavior since we embarked on our flight to Juno.
Youmei: Indeed… her sudden spark during the Emperium Spire, while commendable, was definitely unorthodox. Did she say anything during your time talking with her?
Tsubaki, pointing towards the lower decks: Oh, you mean you didn't hear it from all the way over there when you were eavesdropping?
Youmei: In my defense we'd have been undetected were it not for Momiji's clumsiness.
Tsubaki: Indeed… But I'll indulge you since you asked.
The Witch moved toward the starboard bow of the ship, hands folded below her chest.
Tsubaki: She did not say much. However, Botan was stating that she kept seeing visions not unlike that of spirits. They were even talking to her.
Youmei: Speaking with spirits…? Could this possibly be the catalyst behind her actions?
Tsubaki, turning to Youmei: It may. During our confrontation with the Battle Vixens, I picked up Botan's spiritual energy.
Youmei: But you are a Witch, are you not? You are able to detect such auras.
Tsubaki: That is precisely it, Youmei. Normally you and the twins have auras of holy power about you. The excitement of the battle did not allow me to register it fully, but when Botan stood her ground, it was clear as day that she had a different aura surrounding her.
Youmei: What could this mean, do you think? Is something happening to her?
Tsubaki: There must be some sort of spiritual awakening stirring within her. But whatever the case may be, I believe that she is losing her Priestess powers.
Youmei: Then these are truly dire times for our order.
Tsubaki: I would not be so sure, sister. This may actually be a good omen. Though this will mean that Momiji will be carrying a heavy burden.
Youmei: You mean the Divine Cross.
Tsubaki: Yes. They wielded two halves of a single weapon for quite some time now. If Botan does indeed embrace a different calling by the end of all this, she may not be able to wield the Divine Cross proficiently.
Youmei: So it will be up to Momiji to control its strength… They have more than proven themselves after the Emperium Spire. I am confident that she will harness it well.
Momiji: Thank you, Sister Youmei…
The convalescing Priestess slowly ascended the steps to the main deck with her sister in tow. Youmei turned in shock while Tsubaki gasped as she hurried to their side.
Tsubaki: Why are you here? You two should be resting! The incantation's effects lessen if you are moving.
Youmei, thinking: Such a mother figure if I've ever seen one…
Momiji: I understand, Lady – Sister Tsubaki, but we're fine. I couldn't help but overhear your conversation, and wanted to give you both some assurance.
After a brief pause, Botan, who had been leaning on her sister for support, stood upright, gaining her bearings before greeting the two with a smile.
Botan: Before we went to Juno, Momiji and I trained at the Prontera Fields in secret. I would give her my half of the Divine Cross and my Spiritual Ring and she conditioned herself to control the immense power of both items. When the time came to where she was able to wield the complete Divine Cross for longer periods, we ventured deeper into more dangerous areas like Mt. Mjolnir, practicing our powers on hostile monsters. It was there that we encountered the Mistress, and drove off her and her swarm of insects. When she was exhausted, I would heal her, and she would insist on continuing. And so we did, night after night, until right before the Emperium Frontier's return.
Tsubaki's eyes were wide with awe over this revelation. Youmei's as well, though not as much. She was more amused by this level of dedication. She then gave the two a smile and a nod of approval.
Momiji: Seeing my sister fall in battle stirred my heart, and in my fury, gave my all just to make the Battle Vixens pay for their act. My body gave out from the surge, and I couldn't invoke Odin's wrath any longer…
Tsubaki: You two were amazing out there. Do not despair, understand?
Botan: Thank you, Sister Tsubaki… Truly.
Youmei: Of course. The two of you kept our spirits high during the battle. We may have stood a better chance were you two still present. We knew the two of you bettered yourselves before the Frontier continued, but we did not expect you to train that arduously. Perhaps it is we who should practice more now.
Tsubaki: Don't sell yourself so short, Youmei. Who was it that dropped a giant cross on Lupi's head? I'd say we all sent those Vixens a message today.
The girls laughed for a moment as they joined each other on the main deck. After a while of sailing, they would see an island on the horizon...
Botan: There! That is where my vision led us!
Youmei: What is it? Do you know?
Botan: …Odin's Temple.
Youmei, gasping: What…?
The Saviors gazed upon the island in silent awe as they approached. Atop the mainmast of the Odin's Will sat Arkana, who had been watching them since they touched down onto the water. Tsubaki, sensing a presence, turned her head to gaze upward. No one was there save for her companions. Staying alert, she squinted her eyes and turned back around to gaze upon the shrine with her sisters.
To the west was the Shining Heart, finally reaching the City of Sages after White Trinity's battle in Hugel. As they were cleared to dock their vessel, Kafra Nora and Kafra Scarlett were patiently waiting for the bridge to extend, and they would then make their way onboard the ship to greet the boys.
White Trinity had fully recovered from the fight (in no small part thanks to the Yggdrasil Berries they received) and looked no worse for wear. They made their way to the main deck to greet them…
Scarlett: Good day, boys. Sorry for your loss.
Ray: Are you really, though?
Lee: Oh, don't be like that, Ray. She said there's a reason behind her words, right?
Raien: Well, feel free to tell us, because I'm still skeptical.
Nora: Before I get to that, we should probably tell y'all what was goin' on behind the scenes!
Ray, still in disbelief: Okay, then; go on…
Scarlett: The meeting Kafra Nora told you about took place in Lighthalzen. I was competing with our good friend Maximillian of Zonda, who had been giving the Kafra Corporation fierce competition in the past. You guys' efforts helped shift things in our favor as we got through to the other representatives to extend our hold on the Dungeon Election.
Nora: Because of this, we're able to maintain our teleportation privileges until the end of the month! Of course, Maxie's not too happy about that, but that's just we wanted!
Thiji: And I take it this chain of events coincide with our recent defeat at the hands of the Battle Vixens?
Scarlett: Indeed so. While I have no doubt in my mind that you boys fought valiantly up there –
Nora: Now, now, Scar. Don't spoil the surprise for 'em just yet!
Ray: While that does lessen the blow somewhat, that still leaves our question unanswered.
Before they could speak further, Kafra Scarlett received a call, which she silently answered by placing a finger to her ear. After a brief moment, she nodded and whispered something to Nora, who then smiled.
Nora: You'll get your answers soon, gentlemen! Just give us an hour while we set up!
Lee: Wait, what? But you were just about to tell us!
Thiji: I'm sure all will be revealed in due time. Go right ahead, ladies.
Ray: Hey, since when were you the spokesperson for the guild?!
Raien: And how are you so calm about all this?
Thiji: I'm always calm, brother.
Nora: And well-deserved, I must say! Just stay put and we'll contact you when we're ready! We promise you'll get your answers!
Scarlett: And thank you for choosing the Kafra Corporation for all your daily needs!
The Gun-Knight groaned as he stomped his way toward the bridge, still heated over his question still left in the air. Lee and Raien followed suit, though the Champion stayed on the main deck, shadowboxing to stay in top form. Before they walked away, Scarlett whispered to the High Wizard…
"Thanks for keeping cool about all this. Miss Nora was right about you," she said before sending a wink his way. He only responded with a nod before he made his way below decks to rest. Once they cleared the docks, the bridge connecting the Shining Heart to the mainland retracted, leaving White Trinity to their own devices once more.
Back in Hugel, Elua had finished preparing and began her descent, using her pet falcon to safely touch down. Heal-Do fastened a rope to the bow of the War Star and slid down, jumping off when she was several meters from touching the ground. Aege followed immediately after, practically ecstatic to touch solid ground again. Viewing the city from the ground was a lot different than in the air, with the majestic mountains and the Emperium Spire towering over them. The citizenry flocked to them with cheers and applause, almost as if they had saved Hugel from a most dire fate.
"Thanks, everyone! Truly!" Elua tittered. "It was nothing! I couldn't lose the battle; my fellow bowmen would've been ashamed!"
"And yet they aren't; that last bit was all you!" Aege urged. "That training does pay off, you know!"
"That was more than training, though, Aege… Elua tapped into an even greater power," Heal-Do explained, hinting at a certain accessory dangling from their left ear.
"Details, details, sisters! I need to see the guildmaster already!" Elua said impatiently.
"We'll be happy to take you, Hero of Payon!" spoke a Norman Huntress, eagerly showing the way. "The guild is on the northeast end of the city, by the shore! Bring your sisters as well! They will be more than pleased to see you!"
How could they refuse? Heal-Do and Aege broke through the crowd and followed after them, saving the sightseeing for later. Eventually they would come to a great lodge tucked away at the end of a long path. Another Huntress stood outside, sporting brown eyes and a blonde bowl cut. Immediately recognizing Elua, she jumped in response and waved them over.
"Hey! Elua! Welcome to Hugel!" greeted the Huntress.
"Sharon!" the Sniper exclaimed, rushing over to greet her colleague with a hug. Heal-Do had her gaze fixed on the ocean as Aege continued making her way towards the guildhouse.
"If I was told in the past that you'd be a Sniper of such renown, I'd have thought they were crazy!" laughed Sharon. "But I'm so honored to have been your associate! You're doing your sisters and your guild proud!"
"Thanks, Sharon! Truly! I couldn't afford to fail with all my fellow bowmen watching!" Elua replied.
"Seems like everyone with a bow in this town knows Elua…" Aege thought to herself.
"Elua? Did I hear that right?" spoke another female voice coming from inside the lodge. "The Elf who graced Payon with her presence – here in Hugel?"
A figure exited the lodge. It was a young woman in her twenties wearing a simple brown linen robe with matching brown hair that stopped past her shoulders. She wore black fingerless gloves with red studded armguards – most likely for perching her pet falcon. She greeted Elua with a warm smile, descending the stairs to get a closer look at her…
Aege: Wait a minute, I thought the guildmaster was a man?
Sharon: That is correct, but he's back in Payon to oversee the growth and development of aspiring Archers! She is head of the Hunter's guild in his stead!
Aege, murmuring: Oh, yeah… Elua did say that...
Guildmaster: I was watching the entire battle unfold from outside the lodge. You not only showed the fruits of your training, but you tapped into an even deeper power – an uncanny mastery over the wind!
Sharon: Who knew such power could be obtained as a Sniper?! Unbelievable!
Elua: Come on, you girls! You're embarrassing me in front of my sisters!
Heal-Do: Oh! That reminds me: weren't we supposed to be looking for your friend?
Elua: Right! Thanks, Heal-Do! (To the Guildmaster) I know everyone in Hugel was watching the fight, but I know that Cecil had to have seen it! Do you know where she is? I've been itching to meet her for so many years now!
The guildmaster and Sharon exchanged looks for a moment, and without another word, she quietly made her way back into the lodge. Sharon beckoned them inside, which could only bring cause for worry to Elua. Once they had all entered the guild hall, Sharon closed the entrance door as Aege and Heal-Do relaxed on a couch. The interior of the guild hall was rife with equipment, trophies, and portraits of guild members – the ideal atmosphere akin to that of a hunter's lodge. Atop the fireplace was a large portrait of a young woman with flowing blonde hair and golden yellow eyes, standing tall and proud within a forest clearing that backdropped the scene; a shiny red bow in hand. Her outfit was that of a Hunter's, just like Elua's colleagues. This was undoubtedly the likeness of Cecil Damon, a famed adventurer who was among the brave bowmen who saved Payon from an undead incursion. The guildmaster and Sharon prepared some tea while Elua and her sisters sat quietly.
As for the Holy Saviors, they had just arrived within the outskirts of Odin's Temple, using an abandoned dock on the shore to make port. The dilapidated structures and ruined frescos were among the first sights that caught their attention. This place was ancient, but it still held many secrets that they were determined to unearth.
A winding ramp of white marble started at the docks and led further inland. Strewn about were small orbs of lightning, flickering wildly as they moved. They were all in various colors, but exhibited the same behavior. While not sentient, they seemed hostile, and would strike should they get too close.
"So… this is Odin's Temple," Tsubaki mused. "A shadow of its former glory, but it is still… beautiful." Whispering an order to her shikigami, it quietly slithered off the boat and zoomed off into the island, using the tall grass to keep its movements concealed.
"To be compelled here by Sister Botan's vision could only be an act of divine providence," Youmei stated as she left the vessel. She drew her holy sword and pointed it towards the inner sanctum of the temple, connecting the islands by a long bridge. "Whatever answers lie within this sacred island will be ours this day; nothing or no one must stop us." The Paladin then turned to Momiji, who was still carrying her convalescing twin. "Can you two stand?"
"I'm with you, Sister Youmei!" Momiji replied as she followed Tsubaki off the ship.
"My powers are waning, but I can still be of use until we reach our goal!" Botan followed with confidence. Trusting in their ability, Youmei gave a nod as she took point, with Tsubaki already setting up the field with defensive enchantments and buffs as they effortlessly fought off the Plasmas converging on them. The winds were against them as well; small gusts swirled about them in an attempt to impede their progress, but even these creatures could be subjugated. Using the power of darkness, Tsubaki was able to smother these living Breezes, destroying their form and scattering them. As they ventured further into the island, something felt… off. Tsubaki felt this most of all, but would keep quiet until her familiar returned.
All that stood between them and the bridge to the inner shrine was a hill with a small plateau at its summit. The Holy Saviors hid behind a ruined building as they would soon come across some new creatures, which undoubtedly looked fiercer than what they've already faced thus far.
The first set of creatures were masked demons with black, lanky bodies, grey coats, and reddish-orange claws. Another set of claws protruded from their right palm, forming the shape of a cross – perhaps as a means of trapping their prey. On their backs were black, wiry protrusions which completed their demonic form. The other creatures had the same lanky bodies as the former, but were females with pale, white skin and piercing red eyes that was hidden behind their eerily long, black hair. Protruding from their backs were black wiry frames with blades dangling from them, resembling wings. Blood also dripped from their left hands, staining the ground with small puddles.
"What manner of demons are these…?" Momiji gasped.
"They desecrate this holy place with their presence…!" Botan followed. Before they could come up with a suitable answer, a loud hum resonated throughout the island, which alerted the demons patrolling the plateau. Turning in the direction of the bridge, they roared and laughed maniacally as they rushed towards the inner sanctum. Botan, Momiji, and Youmei wondered what could have caused them to leave, while Tsubaki came out of hiding. Moments later, her shikigami came back to her side, coiling itself around her left arm and hissing into her ear…
Tsubaki: It is as I thought…
Youmei: What is it, Tsubaki?
Tsubaki: This shrine has been abandoned, and with its abandonment, corruption has run rampant.
Botan: It has to be those accursed fiends' doing!
Tsubaki: They may simply be a byproduct of this. A barrier has formed around the innermost reaches of the shrine. My beloved pet must have bumped into it before retreating here.
Youmei: What else did your familiar find out? Does it know what those creatures were?
Tsubaki: Not much, but the ones with the masks are known as Skogul; the others are called Frus. As for the barrier…
Momiji: Will we be able to get through it?
Tsubaki: It is one of shadow energy. While faint, I can sense it from here. It's not as powerful as the one that Atroce character put up back in Hugel, so it should not take much effort to bring it down. Whatever is causing the corruption lies on the other side of that barrier.
Youmei: We've a great mission on our hands, sisters. Should we succeed here, and confirm Sister Botan's visions, it will be an incredible morale boost for us and our guild.
Botan: I can still fight. Do not count me out yet!
Tsubaki: We wouldn't think of it, Botan. Come – let's clear a path.
Momiji: Wait! Sister! Here.
Momiji detached a half of the Divine Cross and gave it to Botan with a smile.
Momiji: I know your strength may be fading, but for what good it can still do you, please lead the charge with Sister Youmei. I'll keep you in fighting shape for as long as your body can handle!
Botan: Sister, I… I couldn't –
Momiji: You were the one Odin blessed with resolve to face the shadows head-on; I was blessed with the power to protect those I hold dear! Let's prove to everyone today just how much we've gained from our training and studies!
Botan was nearly brought to tears by Momiji's words. Bowing her head, she took her half of the Divine Cross in hand once more, her body enveloped in holy power as she held it tightly in her hand. Tsubaki gave a most gentle grin at the sight.
Botan: I won't fail you, Momiji! Sister Youmei… permission to lead the charge by your side!
The Paladin silently approached the hill, steel-gazed as ever. The courage burning within the twins' hearts was made clear to her, so who was she to deny them?
Youmei: Granted, Sister Botan. To my side.
Botan: Yes, ma'am!
Answering their call, winged angels descended upon the Holy Saviors as a soft ring filled the air, followed by the faint chanting of a choir, bolstering their defense and natural recovery with the power of the light. Youmei then charged up the hill, striking down the straggling Skogul on the plateau, while Botan, strengthened by her companions, held her own against the Frus on Youmei's blindside. Her improved Demon Bane would shine here as she was able to overpower the demons on her own. Without any doubt left in their mind, Youmei rushed down the bridge, shield raised.
As the other sisters followed their leader, a figure emerged from the shadows. A certain violet-clad sorceress was tailing them…
"Let's see if they are ready for what lies beyond the shield…" Arkana thought to herself with a sly smirk before vanishing again in a pillar of black smoke.
Back in Juno, Thiji was talking over matters with Ray on the bridge, who was still upset over the news given by Nora. Lee and Raien, meanwhile, were engaged in a sparring match aboard the deck of the Shining Heart. Using his Illusionary Double technique, Raien surrounded the Champion, but Lee kept his cool. A brief faceoff later, one of the clones would charge at Lee, who would respond with a powerful Raging Palm Strike, taking it out of the picture. The real Raien advanced on Lee's blindside, only to be met with a roundhouse kick from Lee. While his attack seemed to have made a clean hit, the Ninja's body shimmered and faded out of existence. The other clones vanished as a result, with Thunderhorse appearing atop the Champion to pounce on him. Lee rolled away from danger and scanned for his foe, who had made himself visible on the bow, readying his Huuma Shuriken. Thunderhorse, meanwhile, leapt away from the Champion, landing beside her master with a small explosion of electricity. Lee readied himself for the incoming attack, and once the weapon was thrown, Lee would focus on the throwing star, jumping in the air to dodge, until finally grabbing the handle in the center and sending it back to Raien. In a flash, the Ninja unsheathed his blade and sliced the Huuma Shuriken in two, causing the broken pieces to fly past him and off the ship, falling into the heavens below.
Ray and Thiji, after finishing their own conversation, had spectated the entire from outside the bridge…
Ray: Not a bad opener, you two!
Lee: Oh, you were watching all that? Hehe, thanks!
Raien: Feeling better?
Ray: Much! After talking with our Master Strategist here, I remembered that it wasn't our first loss – and it may not even be our last! But all we can do is learn from it and train to get better!
Thiji: Spoken like a true leader, Ray. And besides, what Kafra Nora may have in store for us may make our defeat in Hugel a nonissue.
Raien: We got some time to kill before they contact us. Should we get some more shopping in, maybe?
Lee: We could use some more supplies and ammunition. We don't want to have to rely on our Yggdrasil Berries too much.
Ray: Good call! Let's head into the city and restock! Thiji, you hold down the fort for us!
Thiji: Will do, sir.
Ray: Hey, hey! None of that formal "sir" stuff – it makes me feel old!
The boys of White Trinity laughed for a moment. Lee, Raien, and Thunderhorse – led by the Gun-Knight – made their way to town afterward, leaving Thiji to his own devices yet again. Once the coast was clear, he returned to the bridge and closed the door, sitting on the helmsman's seat as he recalled the Battle of the Emperium Spire…
Meanwhile, Elua and Heal-Do were discussing matters regarding Cecil Damon…
Elua: "Not here"?! What do you mean? She came here after the Hunter Guild moved from Payon, didn't she?!
Sharon: Yes, and she told us that she was off on a scouting mission somewhere. That is all we know, Elua.
Heal-Do: How long ago was this, if I may ask?
Guildmaster: Months. Not even our best Hunters know of her whereabouts. We fear she may have been –
Elua: Don't say it! Apologies, Guildmaster, but I refuse to believe that Cecil would have gotten hurt… or worse.
Aege: I don't know, Elua. If she didn't make it back home to Hugel…
Elua: Not you, too, Aege! Heal-Do, do you think Cecil may have gotten harmed?
The Assassin was hesitant, but she shook her head in response.
Heal-Do: No, Elua. If she is as good a bowman as you say, then I see no reason why she would have been gone for so long. Maybe she's trying to find a lead on something?
Elua, sighing: Glad you're on my side, at least…
Aege: I wasn't taking the Guildmaster's side, Elua; I was just being logical. If she's been away for months, something else may have her preoccupied.
Sharon: We sent Hunter squads on a frequent basis to search for any traces of Cecil's location. Unfortunately they return not being able to find much; Cecil was very good at covering her tracks.
Elua: Glad she's still got it! But where would I even start looking…?
Guildmaster: You are going out to seek her?
Elua: Yes! She's one of my closest friends outside my sisters!
Guildmaster: Then you have my blessings, old friend. When you return, perhaps you could demonstrate some Sniper abilities for us?
Elua: It would be my honor, Guildmaster. If I find out anything, I'll return here to report. It's the least I can do for all the Archer's Association has done for me.
Sharon: We are grateful to have you in the fold, Elua. Congratulations again on your victory, and best of luck to you in the Frontier!
The three bowed in respect before making their way out of the guild hall. While the Emperium Frontier still took precedence, Elua was determined as ever to seek out her wayward friend. On board the War Star, Lupi was still enjoying her relaxation until a knock was heard. She parted the hair blocking her eyes and gazed at the door with an arched brow.
"Miss Lupi?" spoke one of the crewmen. "Pardon the intrusion, but there is a call waiting for you on the bridge."
"Who's it from?" she calmly asked.
"We are not entirely sure. However, the signal is very strong, so it must be nearby," the young woman replied. Lupi sighed and reached for a towel.
"I will be there in a minute," she said as she got out of the tub to dry herself off. Once she was sufficiently cleaned up, she wrapped the towel around her hair to dry her scarlet tresses while putting on some smallclothes and a red silk bathrobe.
Once she made it above decks, she cast the towel aside as one of the crew members was able to catch it, letting the breeze do the drying for her. As she made it to the bridge, the response to the hailing frequency was already being sent, and once Lupi had sat down, the War Star helmsman bowed her head and left the area, closing the door as she exited. The Lady Knight's eyes went wide for a moment as she saw who it was who hailed her. Then she crossed her legs and reclined in her chair.
"Well, isn't this a surprise," she said slyly. "Just couldn't resist after our first talk, could you… Thiji Higuri?"
"Lady Lupi," greeted the High Wizard, "I am honored that you decided to respond. Though clearly I have disturbed your personal time, judging by your attire."
"Hardly, Thiji," she said back. "Just freshening up after our hard-earned victory. After all, a woman should be proud of her body, but not so much as to make it seem… promiscuous."
"Indeed," he replied. "However, I come to you for inquisitive purposes."
"Are you alone?"
"Yes. The others are out shopping."
The Lady Knight grinned and straightened her posture, staring straight at Thiji with great eagerness. "Good. I may not get such an opportunity to see what's in that ever-turning head of yours."
"Firstly, congratulations on winning the Emperium Spire. Your sister Elua truly showed out today," he praised.
"Thank you," Lupi genuinely replied. "But surely you're not giving kudos to the Battle Vixens without some sort of catch?"
"You know me well, my lady," Thiji commented before a pause. Lupi could only arch a brow in response. "It never bothered me until now, but when Elua began to soar through the air like the graceful spirit that she is, I knew that there was more to you and your sisters than meets the eye. And though it was brief, we looked at each other. You knew I detected something strange – unusual, even, for a Sniper."
He was clearly referring to the point in time where Elua, who – on the brink of being eliminated from the battle – harnessed the power of the wind to wrest herself from the jaws of defeat and delivered a deadly blow to the Hydrolancer that guarded one of the rings of the Spire. The entire event replayed from Lupi's perspective, and she did indeed turn away from Thiji as their gazes met.
Coming back to reality, Lupi reopened her eyes and nodded, acknowledging Thiji's claim. Seeing that he was getting somewhere, he pressed the matter further…
"I had my hunches at first, but I did not bother going too in-depth because of all the excitement this Emperium Frontier has given. Thus, Lady Lupi, I have but one simple request."
"Name it," she said after a brief pause.
"I wish to see your ears."
Lupi arched a brow again, fighting back a chuckle as she did.
"It is a good thing you're the only one talking to me, Thiji…" she said before slightly leaning forward. Thiji, being the gentleman that he is, averted his gaze from the screen, which Lupi took note of. "… Because if the other boys were with you, I would have quickly turned you down. But you've been our rivals longer than anyone else has – even the Holy Saviors. And at this point, we respect your guild; you most of all, Thiji. No mere Wizard would be as bold as you to stand toe-to-toe against us, let alone outsmart us in every battle we've been in so far, win or lose. And… because I like you, which is lucky, in your case."
Leaning back in her seat, Lupi parted her scarlet locks and revealed an ear to the High Wizard, as requested. Turning his gaze back towards the screen, he immediately noticed that it was no bigger than that of a Norman's, but had a slight point at the top. At a glance it would hardly be noticeable, but closer inspection would make this malformation more apparent. Thiji's eyes widened in response to this, which only presented further questions – ones that Lupi would soon oblige.
After Thiji would get a good look of her ear, Lupi would let her hair fall and return to its natural place, concealing it once more. "It may be a surprise to you that no one bothered questioning this until now. Maybe they knew, and never spoke a word of it. But now it's my turn to ask you something."
"'Tis only fair," Thiji replied. After a pause, Lupi would give her inquiry.
"I was unable to see how it all ended thanks to a certain Paladin, but I noticed Elua blushing when she returned from the fight. What exactly did you do to my sister up there before she eliminated you?"
"Simple. I kissed her on the cheek and told her it was for the Elves," the High Wizard coolly answered. From his quick response, Lupi could easily see that Thiji was confident in his actions, which probably led to this whole inquiry. The slightest red on her face could be seen as Lupi's eyes went shut. Thiji would lean back in his seat with a simper, seeming to have gotten a rise out of Lupi. "This could only lead to this: how is it that Elua and Heal-Do appear more Elvish, whereas you and Aege seem more Norman?"
The High Wizard figured it out. Lupi could do nothing else but smile. Perhaps it was out of respect for him, or maybe because of his daring. Whatever the case may have been, she opened her eyes and stared back at Thiji to give her response.
"That's right, Thiji. We're Half-Elves," Lupi replied. Tightening her robe, she stood upright and folded her arms beneath her bosom, her long scarlet tresses falling gracefully over her shoulder. Thiji sat up in his chair, his folded hands resting on his lap, sensing a story coming.
"My sisters and I are the daughters of an Elven warrior and a Norman Magician. We originate from the world known as Alfheim. Our race pitied the Normans because they were so primitive compared to our advanced culture. We wanted to help them, and so we did. We taught them the ways of our people, and helped advance their race. Somewhere down the line, our mother fell in love with one of them – a Norman who was just getting his feet wet on how to use magic. He proved himself to her as he went on to become a Wizard, and eventually they would marry and give birth to the four of us. But as time went on, the Normans began to take our gifts for granted. They began to rise up against us, and one of the greatest sages of our kind – Vanar – tried to stop this from happening. In an attempt to save us, he created an orb to protect the kingdom of Geffenia from all threats. Unfortunately, it came too late, and the Normans, who also allied with the Dwarves, fully rebelled. They overthrew the Elves and took over Geffenia, since it was made on Midgard. The result of this not only caused the Elves to scatter across all corners of Midgard, but a great magic locked Alfheim away from the Normans. There are few of us now, and we face extinction. We all spent our childhood together, but after the rebellion, our father tried to stop the Normans, and perished as a result. Our mother defended our home from the traitors, but not before sending us to Training Grounds in Midgard to become Novices."
She paused for a moment, inhaling deeply to gather herself. Thiji was beginning to see Lupi in a different light, but remained silent out of respect for her. He also did not want to point out the more obvious fact that, as being Half-Elves, their life expectancy surpasses that of Normans, which would imply that they are much older than they seem. After exhaling, she continued.
"The Training Grounds would be the last time we would see each other, but we promised we'd reunite and form a guild and carry on our family's legacy. Heal-Do, the youngest of us, was sent to Morroc to train in the ways of the Thief. Elua went to Payon and became an Archer, and apparently she made a name for herself there fighting off the undead. As for Aege, she and I had a small argument over who would be a Swordsman, but we came to the agreement that she could wield a huge axe as a Merchant in Alberta, and later went to Geffen to train as a Blacksmith."
"Which leaves you, the eldest, who made her mark on Prontera," Thiji deduced. "Considering Britoniah, you spent a great amount of time mastering mounted combat."
"That's right," she confirmed. "I was Mother's favorite. And once we all met back up, we made our own home in Amatsu, where we formed the Battle Vixens. We became one of the toughest guilds in Midgard – so tough that others had to join forces to beat us."
Lupi slowly swaggered towards the screen, her smiling countenance belying one of slight annoyance. Once she reached the console, she slammed her hands down on the console before leaning forward again, her crimson orbs practically piercing Thiji's soul. He swore he could feel the temperature in the room rising as a result.
"Until one day," she began with some sass thrown in, "The Emperium Frontier happened, and what do we find but four little boys who took down not one, but ten Clock Tower Managers in Comodo Beach? And those same boys became the thorn in our side that we could not get rid of for months. Your reputation even brought those Holy Saviors on us in Beacon Island. A Wizard somehow bent an Ice Titan and a Garm brood to his will?"
"You slayed them with little effort," Thiji spoke in defense.
"Even so, Thiji, it's not every day a Norman Wizard can be so powerful to tame such strong Water property monsters," she retorted. "There are secrets you're not telling me, and when the Battle Vixens claim ultimate victory in the Emperium Frontier, you will share them – with all of us."
The tensions rose as Lupi gave the Wizard a smirk, staring him down as she did. Before too long, however, Lupi moved her eyes toward the door, hearing some faint chatter nearby – no doubt her sisters had returned.
"This contest is far from over, Lady Lupi," said Thiji, breaking the tension somewhat.
"Good thing it isn't. I'm hoping you all can still show us ladies a good time," the Lady Knight said back before blowing a kiss to Thiji. Her gaze and expressions became more seductive and enticing, easing away from the console before giving him a sexy wink. "Don't miss me too much, Thiji…"
The transmission ended, and Thiji was once again left to his own devices. The information he had received was a lot to take in, even for him. He never imagined the Battle Vixens guild being more than just a name, nor did he expect its formation would be the result of an entire race's near-extinction. He relaxed in his chair, arms folded and eyes shut, contemplating over the matter while their contact with the Kafra Corporation drew nearer.
For the Saviors in Angrboda Island, they had begun their charge down the bridge in earnest. Youmei and Botan, with their combined Divine Protection auras, formed the van, pushing through the demonic forces which barred their path. Momiji and Tsubaki were close behind, ensuring the former two were in peak condition while providing support fire when necessary. Botan, showing an impressive display of martial skill thanks to the augmentation of the Divine Cross, was able to keep up with the Paladin. The Frus and the Skoguls found themselves hard-pressed to stop them, utilizing their own dark magic to slow them down. Youmei, however, would easily deflect or absorb their attacks, brandishing Excalibur all the while.
Once they had gained some ground, they would be halted by a line of Poring-like creatures. Their gelatinous bodies were an inky, black color, and hexagonal in appearance. A small pair of angel wings were also attached to them, and small, arrow-shaped tails protruded from their backs.
Botan attempted to break through the line with a Holy Light spell, but she would find it ineffective. In fact, the creatures seemed to have been healed from the spell.
"What manner of demons are these?!" gasped Momiji. "They are unaffected by Holy magic!"
"These may not be minions of darkness, sisters, but Angels," thought Youmei aloud. They would then begin firing back blasts of holy magic of their own, with the Paladin and Botan taking the brunt of their assault.
"Skeggiolds? Here?" questioned Tsubaki. "Stand aside! This one is mine!"
With quick thinking, she took the Book of the Apocalypse from its holster and opened it, chanting an incantation to herself as she turned the pages. The grimoire began to glow a deep red as Youmei and Botan parted the way for Tsubaki to unleash her spell, sending bolts of darkness at the Skeggiolds. They had begun to sustain heavy damage until finally bursting into many pieces in a manner not unlike that of a Poring's.
"That even angelic beings can be twisted by this evil further strengthens our resolve to cleanse it!" said Youmei as she reformed the line with Botan. Once the Skeggiolds had been routed they would be met with a large host of Skoguls and Frus, ready to charge at them full force. Tsubaki closed her book, holstered it, and readied her Nemesis Mace, pointing it at the demonic horde.
"And cleanse it we shall, Youmei!" the Witch followed. "Sister Momiji! I need you!"
"Right!" the Priestess cried before a ring of light shot outward from Momiji's body, ancient letters dancing about for a brief moment before vanishing. The Suffragium spell had been used, and Tsubaki's weapon – now quickened – began to glow white with holy power.
"Magnus Exorcismus!" echoed the Witch before a ray of light shot from the Nemesis Mace and into the center of the demonic horde. The latter half of the bridge was then illuminated with holy light, incinerating the horde which stood upon it. The air filled with their anguished cries as their bodies slowly dissipated, leaving behind smoldering remains. Not taking the time to celebrate their victory just yet, Tsubaki noticed several purplish orbs scattered among the remains. On them were strange markings engraved on it. With her knowledge of the occult, she distinguished these as Runes of Darkness, gathered a few of them, and continued down the bridge.
With her companions in tow, Tsubaki had approached the barrier that barred their path to the inner sanctum. She laid the runes in a circle while her Shikigami stood guard. The circle would glow a deep violet, signaling the commencement of her ritual to disperse the barrier. Youmei, Momiji, and Botan took this time to relax…
Youmei: An exemplary display of skill, Sister Botan. Sister Momiji.
Botan: You have my thanks, Sister Youmei. I would not be by your side without my sister, though.
Momiji: Do not say that! You held the line with our leader!
Botan: But it was thanks to you that I was able to do so. If I wielded only one half of the Divine Cross, I would not have been as powerful! However…
Botan would begin to feel the strain becoming too great as she barely had the strength to stand. Momiji hurried to her side as the Divine Cross fell to the ground, catching her before she fully collapsed.
Youmei & Momiji: Sister!
Botan: Thank you, Momiji… but I think this is all I can do for now...
Momiji: I'll carry you, Botan. It's okay! The hard part is over. You've earned your rest.
Youmei: Tsubaki. Is there any way we can hasten this ritual for you?
Tsubaki: Just a few more moments, sister…
The Witch would direct her Shikigami to devour one of the runes to augment its powers, but suddenly, the souls of the dearly departed gathered before Tsubaki, focusing their phantasmal energies on the barrier to speed up the process.
Momiji: Whoa! What are they…?!
Youmei: Is… Is this your doing, Tsubaki…?
Tsubaki: This ritual did not call these spirits... I know not why they came!"
Botan: They're showing their gratitude… They're the spirits of the demons we vanquished. Now freed from their prison, they're lending their strength to scatter the barrier.
Momiji: Truly we've done Odin's will this day! Our arrival was fated!
With their help, the barrier was sufficiently weakened, its flickering in and out of existence being a clear indicator. Tsubaki gave Youmei the signal as she maintained the spell, and the Paladin was more than happy to oblige. Raising her shield, she kicked off on her right foot, charging towards the barrier until her shield met it head on with a loud clang. Cracks formed from the point of impact, and Youmei pressed the attack with a Shield Chain, striking hard against the barrier five times consecutively. On the fifth hit, the barrier shattered like glass, breaking into millions of shards that fell around them before dissipating into the air.
Once done, the spirits gave a bow to the Holy Saviors in thanks before vanishing back into the ethereal realm. With Botan in tow, Momiji bravely went ahead as Youmei and Tsubaki fell behind. Once they had finally reached the other side of the bridge, they would be welcomed by a massive and majestic courtyard of alabaster stone, with statues of the mighty Vanir lining the walkways. Though they bore some damage and dilapidation, these edifices still carried with them the same beauty and indelibility as they did in their prime. Everyone was enraptured at the sight of this sacred place that they wanted nothing more than to drop their weapons and kowtow.
Past the courtyard was the inner sanctum, which stood an imposing statue of the Allfather, pristine and uncorrupted. He was astride his steed, Sleipnir brandishing His divine Gungnir.
"Your visions… led us here?" Youmei spoke in astonishment, mouth agape. "What this place could do for the Saviors' morale alone…"
As they approached the inner sanctum, Youmei sensed a presence that was swiftly approaching. She jumped in front of her sisters with her shield raised and cried, "Stand fast – we are not alone!"
Tsubaki readied her mace while Momiji nodded to her twin, gently placing her against a wall while she unsheathed her Divine Cross. The room went silent and the air became still as everyone scanned the area. The presence grew stronger and closer until it was right on top of them. The Paladin then cried, "Behind us!" as she quickly turned on the heel of her foot, causing the others to follow suit.
From on high, the Holy Saviors would then be greeted by a ray of divine light. A blonde-haired woman bearing two pairs of angelic wings and white, armored garments descended. A laurel wreath was worn around her head, and her eyes were heterochromatic – the left eye was of a crimson color, and the right eye was as blue as the ocean. Upon her right hand she wielded a golden staff with three triangular points extending from the head.
The Holy Saviors were left speechless at the sight of this. Even Botan, whose body was still recovering from the strain of the Divine Cross, had found strength to stand before this being.
"As I live and breathe…" whispered Momiji. "Am I dreaming, sisters…?"
"This… This is no dream, Momiji," Botan answered. "This moment we are all witnessing with our own minds and bodies!"
"To meet one here is…" Tsubaki said, losing the words in her choked gasps.
"We stand before the presence of a Valkyrie, sisters!" Youmei spoke. Lowering her shield, she placed the tip of Excalibur on the ground, holding the sword by the pommel before dropping to a knee. Tsubaki, Botan, and Momiji did the same, kneeling in respect of the Valkyrie.
"Chosen of Odin," spoke the Valkyrie, her voice echoing throughout the shrine. "You have done a great deed this day, for long has this sacred site been corrupted by the darkness since its abandonment. With the barrier shattered from without, I have been freed from my prison, and have been charged by our lord to aid you."
Suddenly overtaken by joy and excitement, Momiji rose from her kneeling position and reached her arms out in supplication to the Valkyrie, tears falling from her eyes.
"O maiden blessed," she cried, "We unworthy servants of the Allfather are truly honored to be in your presence! Your words are our bread, for they are the words of our lord and savior!"
"Momiji…! Have some restraint, girl…!" Youmei quietly scolded. After getting a hold of herself, she cleared her throat, dried her tears, and went back to kneeling, which made the Valkyrie chuckle.
"You are all more than worthy," the battlemaiden spoke. "I am Sandra, steward of Valhalla. Rise, and make yourselves known."
"Youmei, Commander of the Holy Saviors!" the Paladin announced proudly.
"Tsubaki, Witch – wielder of light and shadow."
"Momiji, Priestess of Odin, and sister of Botan!"
"Botan, Priestess of Odin, and sister of Momiji."
"Holy Saviors – ye chosen of Odin," Sandra began, "the road before you is wrought with peril, and formidable alone you may be, only together will you conquer the shadow and wrest this realm from its damnation. Though we Valkyries are the battlemaidens of our lord Odin, not all have been of like mind."
The Holy Saviors exchanged looks, trying to decipher what Sandra meant before focusing back on her. "The ones who have rejected Odin's ways have instead casted their lot with the former Goddess of Life, Freyja. Twelve times was Odin betrayed, and those who did now serve the fallen goddess, working from the shadows to destroy what the Allfather created - the Day of Despair. Untold destruction awaits Midgard should this day come to pass. But through the aid of stalwart heroes and those gifted with Odin's blessing can this catastrophe be curtailed."
As the Valkyrie gave her premonitions, the spirits of the fallen gathered around the Holy Saviors. They were not only visible to just Botan, but to the rest of her comrades as well, undoubtedly from the influence of Sandra's power. All but Botan were startled from seeing so many souls, but Botan, still trusting in her visions, stood and watched with anticipation.
Sandra then lowered her staff and pointed it at Botan, silently commanding her to step forward. As she did, the souls of Angrboda Island gathered around her, obscuring her from view. "You are strong of will and spirit, young Botan. And it is this same strength that shall help serve you and your allies in the coming days. Through my imprisonment was I able to reach out to the most fervent of Odin's servants, hoping that one would answer the call. Now all have gathered for this grand occasion, for the visions you have gained were but scintillas of a unique power."
"I am ready, O maiden blessed," Botan replied. Momiji wanted to try and intervene, but she trusted in her twin, watching with quivering breaths. Tsubaki reassured her with a gentle hand to her head as Youmei looked on.
"Very well. Then I command you: gaze deeply into the light, and unlock your true potential!" decreed Sandra as she rose her staff. The clouds parted before a beam of light shot down and enveloped Botan in its radiance. One by one, the souls that surrounded her flew into the Priestess's body. Botan felt the warming sensation of the holy light, combined with the stinging cold of the spirits merging with her being. Her companions could only watch for so long before the light was too blinding, shielding themselves from the luminescence. "From this day forth, you will be a Priestess no longer, but something greater. This is the gift our lord has chosen for you!"
When the last of the spirits had merged with Botan's form, the entire shrine illuminated with white light. Its radiance was sufficient enough to be seen from Hugel, which caused several of its people to gaze at this phenomenon. Even the Battle Vixens took notice, the sisters exchanging looks with each other as its radiance shone.
The light had eventually dimmed and all they beheld was Botan was on her knees, collecting herself. The normal Priestess attire she wore was replaced with a more ornate kimono of blue and brown with gold trim. While her lower extremities were more exposed, this was alleviated by a pair of blue tights which provided her some decency. On her head sat an Ayam, a silken hat worn primarily by women, and lying at her feet were her would-be weapons: a dagger with a snake-like blade and a unique hilt with ends that pointed in opposing directions, and a staff with numerous golden bells attached to the head, with bluish-green strips of cloth hanging from them.
"The spiritual energy surrounding Botan has intensified now…" Tsubaki pointed out. "The holy aura that she gave off has all but vanished."
"Rise, Botan," ordered Sandra, "and accept your new role. You have entered Angrboda Island as a Priestess, and shall leave this shrine… as a harbinger of spirits - a Soul Linker!"
"Soul Linker…!" gasped the Holy Saviors.
"I am honored to receive His blessing, great Valkyrie," Botan responded, bowing in thanks.
"I see now… the visions Botan saw were actually spirits guiding her to her true path!" Tsubaki deducted. Sandra then turned her body, pointing her stave towards the bridge.
"Your contest is not all as it seems," Sandra began, "for dark forces are being marshalled to quicken the Day of Despair. Your first trial awaits you beyond this bridge. Heed well my words, chosen of Odin. Only together will you beat back the coming darkness…"
The Holy Saviors bowed their heads once more as Sandra took to the heavens. Momiji hurried over to her sister to gauge her health…
Momiji: How are you feeling?
Botan: Renewed… reborn, even!
Youmei: A Soul Linker… I have seldom encountered such a brand of warrior. I would be honored to have you beside me, Sister Botan.
Botan: I won't let you down!
Tsubaki: Mistress Sandra said that our first trial awaited us beyond this bridge... however, I sense something else. Something familiar.
Youmei: Do you know what it is?
Tsubaki: I do, but I hope I am wrong.
Botan: Lead the way, Sister Tsubaki! We're with you!
They all nodded to each other and ran down the bridge, weapons drawn. As they would make their way out of the inner sanctum, they would begin to hear the flapping of wings. They did not get far until small, monocular creatures rose from below to surround the Holy Saviors.
"Beholders! Like the ones from before!" gasped Tsubaki.
"What are such fiends doing here? Did we not cleanse this shrine as Mistress Sandra stated?" Youmei asked.
"They could only have been summoned to this place by someone else," Tsubaki explained, "and I think their conjurer is nearby…"
"The 'conjurer' is closer than you think, old friend!" shouted a voice. Tsubaki's Shikigami hissed in the voice's direction, looking through the Beholder swarm to find none other than Arkana, grinning devilishly while she adjusted her glasses. The Witch balled up a fist and stepped forward, but could only advance about two or three paces before a few Beholders swooped in front of her, threatening her with glares. "You all are beginning to prove quite the nuisance! Just how much did you learn from your journey to the shrine, I wonder?"
"We've learned enough, Arkana!" Tsubaki replied, swatting the Beholders away, showing zero fear as she stared down her former colleague. One of the surrounding Beholders' eyes began to glow, preparing to strike, but the Witch sensed this attack, responding with a blast of light from her Nemesis Mace while still maintaining eye contact with Arkana. This gave the others the cue to start attacking as well, with Youmei deflecting blasts with her shield and Momiji smacking them senseless with the Divine Cross. Botan, using this as an opportunity to get a feel of her newfound powers, focused herself as her body began to radiate a dim brownish color, and the symbol for Earth appeared over her head. This was the bread-and-butter technique for the TaeKwon job branch, known as Mild Wind. Thus imbued with this property, Botan struck at a Beholder with her stave, the resulting force sending the creature skidding across the waters until finally sinking. They would continue this foe-tossing charge, keeping Tsubaki protect as they closed the distance between them and Arkana. The Shikigami also contributed by biting into any Beholder foolish enough to get too close. "To think that I was almost seduced by your ways… what, in all your bravado and intellect, made it seem like a good idea to join those who would see this world destroyed?"
"To right the wrongs, of course!" Arkana simply replied. "And it's still not too late, Tsubaki! You can still serve with me and grasp true power!"
"Not in a hundred lifetimes!" Tsubaki declined. "I will not be tricked by such false promises! The path you tread is an insult to your pride as a Witch, and to your Freyja!"
Upon hearing her goddess's name being used in vain, Arkana's smiling expression instantly changed into one of frustration, and in the blink of an eye, a large wave of dark energy would be sent down the bridge. With the others preoccupied to deal with the incoming wave, Tsubaki was left to tend to the matter alone. Any advancing Beholders would become consumed by Arkana's reckless attack, showing little care for her minions. Using a spare Rune of Darkness, Tsubaki pointed it toward the wave, and absorbed it in a manner similar to Kirkena's techniques. With the swarm gone, and the rune brimming with abundant shadow energy, the Saviors stared down the enraged Arkana…
Tsubaki: Sisters. Get back to the ship.
Botan: No, Sister Tsubaki! We will take her on with you!
Momiji: We have to conquer the darkness together, just as Mistress Sandra said!
Tsubaki: I will be behind you. Do not worry.
Youmei: She's right. We have learned all we can from this pilgrimage. Let us return to the mainland and continue the Frontier! Botan! Momiji! With me!
The twins nodded and followed Youmei, Arkana preparing for another attack. Just as she unleashed her deadly wave, the clouds parted again, and divine light shone from the heavens, dazing Arkana and casting away the shadows...
Botan: Mistress Sandra is with us!
Youmei: Now's our chance! Momiji!
Momiji: Agility Up!
With the speed boost, they were able to rush past Arkana with ease, pushing aside any straggling creatures in their way. Tsubaki ran down the bridge as well, taking advantage of the situation, but Arkana snapped out of her stupor fast enough to send chains of shadow to bind the Witch and her familiar, suspending them several meters in midair. Botan and Momiji fought the urge to look back, putting their faith in Tsubaki's words...
"What did I tell you all about saying the name of our goddess in vain like that?" Arkana seethed. "Those who do not give Her the proper respect she deserves will receive divine punishment!"
"And you… would not give the same to Odin?!" Tsubaki grunted as she struggled. Arkana only made the restraints tighter – so much so that the rune she had held slipped free from her loosened grip, rolling along the ground and stopping about a meter beside the rogue Witch.
"That cur you call the Allfather betrayed Mistress Freyja," Arkana countered, "and as a result, She fell from grace and embraced a new calling – one where She shepherds the sweet chill of death! I had hoped to make you see this, Tsubaki, when you failed your rite of passage so many years ago! But instead you casted your lot in with the very servants of that betrayer, leading some silly double life as a Priestess! A Witch is what you always were, yet you squander your true potential! At least with me, we could have been true masters of Witchcraft!"
Tsubaki squirmed around some more with little results; the bindings were too strong, and the only way she would win free would be to break Arkana's focus. She had planned for this, however, luring her wayward colleague into thinking she had the upper hand.
"You're wrong, Arkana!" she said back. "Though I may have failed initially, I went back thanks to Kirkena's guidance. I completed the ritual, and have been given powers needed to overcome whatever this world would throw at us. I am a Witch first, Arkana, but I am also a Dark Priestess! And during my time spent in this contest, I have learned to become quite resourceful – as you will soon see."
"I have you at my mercy! Don't be so dumb!" Arkana chuckled.
"And yet for all your bravado calling yourself a 'Genius Beauty Sorceress', you underestimate your foes – even more so your fellow Witches," Tsubaki retorted. As best she could, she stretched her arm out and her Shikigami came out from hiding, springing forth with bared fangs. Her familiar would bite into the rune resting beside Arkana, causing cracks to form along its surface, shadowy smoke billowing out as a result.
Arkana only had enough time to gasp before the rune finally shattered, causing dark clouds to erupt. Arkana shielded her face, coughing from the smoke filling her lungs, thus breaking her hold on Tsubaki long enough for her to get back on her feet and hurriedly ran past her while she was still preoccupied.
After the smoke had cleared, Arkana could only watch as Tsubaki ran far out of range for her to do anything, and a chase would prove fruitless due to the protection of the Valkyrie they freed. With no other options remaining, she enveloped herself in shadow energy while readjusting her glasses…
"This changes nothing, 'sister'," she spoke before vanishing in a veil of darkness, her presence slowly fading from the shrine. Youmei, Botan, and Momiji had successfully made it back to the Odin's Will, and just as they were about to board it, Momiji turned around and pointed back towards the island, seeing Tsubaki catching up. Behind her, however, was a large group of Plasmas with varying colors bearing down towards her, shooting off elemental sparks as they drew closer.
"Helmsman! Take us to the skies!" ordered Youmei. The ship had begun to activate, and was slowly rising from the waters. Tsubaki jumped off a hill and landed into the sands, rolling to soften the impact of the fall. As Youmei reached out her arm, she then ran at full speeds towards the docks, jumping as high as she could to grab on. Once she was safely on board, the Odin's Will had successfully gone airborne, escaping the Plasma horde…
Tsubaki: My thanks, sisters. I hope I didn't worry you all too much.
Youmei: Not at all. We knew you'd stop Arkana.
Momiji: Promise me we'll take her on together! She will return!
Tsubaki: I can't guarantee anything, Momiji, but when the time comes, we will face her as one. In the meantime, we should make for Juno. We've a lot to report back to our people in Rune-Midgarts.
Youmei: My thoughts exactly. And it will give Botan ample time to get accustomed to her Soul Linker abilities.
Momiji: I'll help her train!
Botan: Thank you, sister. But for now, we should meditate on what has happened. I don't want all this excitement to go over our heads!
The Holy Saviors shared some laughter as they made the journey back towards the mainland. With the shrine purified and Valkyrie Sandra freed, this was surely a victory for them, making their defeat at the hands of the Battle Vixens in Hugel an afterthought.
Returning to Juno, Ray, Lee, Raien, and Thunderhorse had returned from their supply run, meeting up with Thiji who was still in the bridge…
Thiji: Welcome back, gentlemen.
Raien: Hey, brother. We're still on time for the call, it seems.
Ray: Did you find out anything new while we were gone?
Thiji: Nope; not since the Battle Vixens stayed put in Hugel.
Lee: Well, the city is technically theirs now, so they can use it as a base.
Thiji: True, but these vessels are just as good of a base as any.
Raien: At any rate, we may as well get comfy and wait for them.
The four would take the short time they had to properly store their supplies. Once they had finished, one of the crewmembers would inform them that a call was waiting for them on the bridge. Wasting no time, they hurried back and took their appropriate seats while the crewmember responded to the hailing frequency before taking his leave.
The screen was still blank, however, as the boys awaited some sort of response.
"Hello," said a female voice. It sounded like someone from the Kafra Krew – most likely Curly Sue, but they couldn't say for sure as the screen was still blank. "You have been tuned in to a secure channel. Please state your identities."
They exchanged looks with each other for a moment before doing as the voice requested.
"Lee of Saint Capitolina."
"Very good," the voice replied. "Your identities have been verified, White Trinity. I will transfer you over now."
The screen would turn to static before another image slowly faded into view, revealing a resplendent oval office with pictures and portraits of various locales within the Schwarzwald Republic. In the center stood a man with brown hair that was slicked back and spiked at the ends. His hair extended all the way around his upper lip, forming a beard, as well as his eyebrows, as though his hair was all one big part of his face.
He wore a white shirt with a cravat underneath his navy blue coat that was trimmed with gold, with matching pants and white gloves. "This man definitely seems important," Thiji thought, as he stood up in his seat.
"Greetings, White Trinity," said the man. "It is an honor to finally meet the famed heroes from beyond our southern borders. Do you gentlemen know who I am, by any chance?"
Ray, Lee, and Raien exchanged looks again while Thiji pondered for a moment. Recalling a previous conversation with Kafra Nora, he nodded and gave his answer.
"Karl Theodore Weierstrass, President of the Schwarzwald Republic," he chimed. The President smiled and nodded.
"No way! You're the President? The President?!" Ray gasped. "Where did all my anger go?!"
"It's an honor, Mr. President," Lee greeted. Raien simply gave a bow.
"No, White Trinity," President Weierstrass replied, "the honor is mine. When the Kafra Corporation told me of your deeds, I had increasingly high hopes that you would succeed in the Emperium Frontier. And after you cemented the Kafra Corporation's victory in the Dungeon Election, there was no doubt in my mind left. Which is why we are contacting you today."
"Uh, Mr. President, sir?" Raien said. "I only see you. Who is 'we'?"
The President simply grinned in response. He nodded again to a couple individuals off-screen, and they would make their way to him, flanking the President on both sides. To his left and right were Kafra Scarlett and Kafra Nora, respectively. But their uniforms were different this time – even Nora's. They maintained the same look, but their color was a jet black. This alarmed White Trinity so much that they rose from their seats in surprise.
"I am certain you are familiar with these two?" President Weierstrass questioned.
"Thanks for waiting, White Trinity," greeted Kafra Scarlett.
"I knew it!" Raien exclaimed. "She was way too sexy to not be a spy!"
"You flatter me, Mister Raien," Kafra Scarlett chuckled. "But allow the good President to explain."
"Gentlemen, you have been speaking with two of my most prominent members of Secret Wing," the President immediately stated. "This organization has banded together with myself and several devotees with a singular goal in mind: to bring the travesties of the Rekenber Corporation to light, and bring Schwarzwald under a true Republic!"
"Wait, hold on," Ray interjected. "You said 'Rekenber', right? The same Rekenber that backs up Zonda Corp.?"
"The very same!" Nora answered. "Because o' their massive financial backin', it was difficult fightin' back as their influence grew bigger 'n' bigger over the years!"
"Competition has been fierce, to say the least," Scarlett followed, "and the Emperium Frontier was our only shot at finally gaining some ground against them. We were all relieved that you rejected their request for an interview when that time came."
"It was only fair that the greatest corporation in Midgard – who has been nothing short of helpful over the past year – be the ones to interview White Trinity," Thiji said.
"Heck, yeah!" Ray cheered. "I knew those Zonda Corp guys weren't all they seemed to be!"
"What's all this about, though?" Raien inquired. "I know a thing or two about secret organizations, and usually that means something big is going down."
Nora, Scarlett, and President Weierstrass nodded before turning back towards the boys.
"White Trinity, do you know anything about the Heart of Ymir?" the President asked.
"Uh… vaguely," Lee answered. "I learned that during the time where Gods warred, Odin slew the giant Ymir, and his body created the land we now call Midgard."
"Good, good," President Weierstrass remarked, "But that is only half true, Master Lee. The realm of Midgard was formed from fragments of Ymir's own heart, period!"
"His heart was that big?" Raien gasped. "How huge was he?!"
"Well, He was a Jotunn, so put that into consideration," Nora answered. "But these fragments of Ymir's Heart nurture the land and maintain its growth and integrity."
"The frightening thing is this, however: each fragment – or shard - has the potential of becoming a full Heart of Ymir," Scarlett informed.
"What's this got to do with Rekenber, though?" Ray pondered. Thiji already knew the answer.
"The mysteries of life."
"Huh?" the others said, looking down at the High Wizard.
"The Rekenber Corporation tapped into the mysteries of life, creating the first artificial life forms – the Guardians."
"The same Guardians we made back in Pharos Island?" Raien spoke.
"The very same. Kafra Nora and I spoke about this during our journey to Juno, before the blockade. Rekenber Corp. has unofficial control over Schwarzwald, which has earned them the ire of many of its citizens."
"What the heck - I missed all that?! Wow!" groaned Ray with a palm to his face. "So putting two and two together, I can only wager that Rekenber is using these shards to do some weird experiments!"
"You have the gist of it, Master Ray," President Weierstrass said. "Additionally, every year, beams of light emit from the heart, linking the shards together to form a whole. Thanks to the Emperium Frontier, however, we have managed to prevent that from happening – with some degree of success."
"Instead of linking the shards together," Scarlett began, "the beams of light have been shooting up into the heavens, and that energy has been pouring back into the land, causing monster activity to rise in quantity, which explains the appearance of several power creatures not unlike the ones you and the other guilds have thus far faced."
"So there was something else lying beneath the surface of the Emperium Frontier…" Thiji thought. "All this time, this contest was just a means of preventing the Heart of Ymir from becoming whole…"
"If these facilities have been causing all this trouble," Raien began, "then that can only mean that –"
"Each installation houses a shard of Ymir's Heart which feeds into the Emperuim Stones, causing their color to change," Thiji finished.
"Impressive, Master Thiji," President Weierstrass commented. "Your intellect lives up well to the rumors I have heard!"
"I am humbled to receive your praise, Mr. President," he replied. "So, from what we have learned thus far, the shards of Ymir's Heart lies dormant within each installment within the Emperium Frontier. The stones have been redirecting the energy of those shards into the atmosphere, which has caused an increase in monster activity."
"You have the right of it, Master Thiji," President Weirstrass acknowledged. "Though I feel there is more on your mind."
"Yes, Mr. President," he stated. "Prior to our departure for Hugel, we were besieged by a Witch who called herself Arkana. During the attack, she commented that ships don't belong in the sky. That struck me as odd, considering this invention has been around for some time, I'd imagine."
"I've never heard of a Witch called Arkana," Nora said, "But she's not wrong in her claim. You see, your airship – along with the Vixens' and the Saviors' – are also seafaring vessels, and are powered by an artifact known as a Rune Stone."
"This simple stone can power an entire ship?" Ray thought aloud.
"It's what makes them able to fly," Scarlett replied. "These Rune Stones are another result of Rekenber's handiwork – facsimiles of fragments of the Heart of Ymir. These items are also responsible for powering the Guardians."
"This Rekenber sounds more and more nefarious by the minute," Raien commented.
"All the more reason that Secret Wing would like to enlist the aid of White Trinity," the President said with folded hands. "With your cooperation, we may have a chance at undermining their operations and bring Schwarzwald closer to becoming a true Republic."
"That's tempting, Mr. President," Ray said as he got out of his seat, "but there's still the elephant in the room we haven't addressed yet: why were the Secret Agent Women happy we lost Hugel? If I'd have to guess, Rekenber's reach isn't that far, so that place without be outside their jurisdiction!"
"Normally you'd be right, Mister Ray," Scarlett said, "but the reason why we wanted your focus to shift away from Hugel is that Lighthalzen is our target. That is where Rekenber Corp. is based."
"Oh!" Ray exclaimed. "I knew that…"
"With Hugel out of the picture, that leaves only two remaining areas: Lighthalzen, and Einbroch, the City of Steel," Nora pointed out. "While winnin' both would be preferred, we're focusin' our efforts where it'll hurt Rekenber the hardest – in the Regenschirm Laboratory!"
"More commonly known as the Somatology Laboratory, or better known as the Bio Labs," Scarlett followed. "The 3rd Secret Team within Secret Wing consists of Kafra agents dressed in black – like Kafra Nora and myself. With Lighthalzen secured under White Trinity's banner, our team can recover data from the site and gather all the incriminating data we need to bring Rekenber Corp. down once and for all!"
"Wow… this is a lot to digest, guys," Lee sighed. "I never imagined this whole contest actually having hidden depths."
"Seems nothing in this realm is as they appear on the surface…" Thiji replied. "But if it will bring us one step closer towards completing our mission here, I will assist them."
"We got this far already, haven't we?" Raien chimed. "They don't trust the Saviors enough, and they damn sure don't trust the Vixens enough, so it's gotta fall to us to help Secret Wing!"
"We are honored that you've accepted our offer, White Trinity," President Weierstrass said with a bow. "While we will keep this conversation hidden, we ask that you refrain from disclosing this information to anyone else. Rekenber has eyes and ears everywhere, and this element of surprise is the best – and only – chance that we have at beating them."
"Then it looks like the verdict is reached: White Trinity's got your back, Mr. President!" Ray declared with a thumbs up. Nora and Scarlett bowed in response, followed by the President, again.
"Right now, we ask that you maintain a low profile until the next battle arrives," the President stated. "When the time comes, the 3rd Secret Team will lend you their aid. Together, we can succeed."
"Yes, Mr. President!" acknowledged White Trinity.
"Oh, and you're welcome for us choosing the Kafra Corporation for all our daily needs," Thiji interjected. Nora and Scarlett chuckled before they ended the transmission, leaving White Trinity to their thoughts, and there was indeed a lot on their minds…
Ray: I knew we were famous, but now we're famous secret agents! White Trinity: Rune-Midgarts ambassadors working together with Schwarzwald's leadership!
Lee: As cool as that sounds, we can't let everyone else know about this. Speaking of – would the other guilds consider helping us?
Raien: Yeah, right; the Battle Vixens would think we're clowns if we told them all about this. As for the Saviors… It's a maybe, but I still have my doubts.
Thiji: We do have a bargaining chip.
Raien: Wait, we do?
Ray: That witch again?
Thiji: She was very perturbed when the Holy Saviors mentioned the name Freyja. This must be the goddess that she serves.
Lee: Freyja… the consort of Odin. Yes, it makes sense.
Thiji: And piggybacking on her comment regarding airships - combined with the knowledge we've gained today – she, as well as the powers she serves, must also be after the Heart of Ymir.
Raien: Yeah, but for what purpose?
Thiji: I'm unsure, but it is surely to some nefarious end.
Ray: Well, now I don't feel so bad about Hugel; the Vixens can keep it if a bigger win lies ahead of us! How did you put it, Thiji? "A defeat can open the gateway to many wins"?
Ray: Same thing!
Lee: Then I guess it's back to the waiting game for us until the Emperium Frontier opens the next gateway.
Ray: Think we can ask for more Yggdrasil Berries while we're waiting?
Lee: Putting our secret agent status to use already, brother?
The four boys laughed and exited the bridge. Thiji stood on the deck of the Shining Heart as his companions left the ship to explore Juno some more. On the horizon was the Odin's Will, making its way back from Hugel. Thiji gazed upon it as he thought to himself…
"After all this time, searching for a solid lead on our mission, it's finally been revealed to us; it was right in front of our faces all along, and it lies with that Witch, whomever she serves, and the Heart of Ymir. And Freyja… what connections does She have to it all?"
A rare smile crept onto his face as he nodded to himself in acknowledgement.
"One thing is certain: this mission is finally getting interesting. And if it is a Master Strategist they want, then they shall have him."