Hello everybody. Sorry for the long delays between chapters, but I'm having to move slower now due to things in my life such as sickness, attempts to seek employment, and the knowledge that I've been accepted to a law school and will be moving to the other end of my state at the end of July (already have my apartment picked out). I'm also beginning the rough draft of a short story I hoped to get published. If it works out, who knows.

At any rate, thank you once again to everyone who has read this story thus far. Without you, I'd merely be another man with an idea. To those of you who have reviewed, you have my sincerest thanks, and I hope that I answered your questions well (to those of you I could not respond to, is there an e-mail address at which I could reach you?).

Special thanks, as always, to animedragongirl, who went out of her way to assist with this one.

That said, here's chapter seven.

Past of a Cripple

Morning found the group camped near one of the larger springs in the forest. The harsh clanging of blades echoed through the trees, as the crystal springs cast a strange multi-colored light on everything.

Ryu twisted out of the way of a glaive thrust, bringing the flat of his shortsword down on the weapon as it passed. The young Windian recovered quickly, circling around the Brood soldier as he looked for an opening. Behind them, Bran tended to cooking breakfast, while Yua tended to Nina, who was still recovering from her exhaustion. The younger Broodling kept slowly giving her sips of water from the spring.

Gerard had been interested in sparring with the Kaiser, wanting to see if there was some way to hone his skills. The Praetorian had gone red in the face when he'd admitted that the assault yesterday had been his first time in battle. Ryu was opting just to use his gladius, as he was quite certain that the glaive that Gerard carried wouldn't last more than a few swings against the God-forged weapon that he carried.

It was an unusual weapon too. The glaive was double ended, with a large triangular blade, about a foot and a half long, on the front of it. There was also that strange, mace-spear hybrid on the back. Beneath the main blade were two smaller ones, each about two inches long and shaped like a half moon. These served to cover the place where the blades attached to the staff portion of his weapon. Ryu had been watching him carefully in the thirty or so minutes that he had been squaring off with the younger man, and noticed that Gerard seemed to switch between two major means of attack. The first revolved around the use of the weapon in a series of tight slashes, chops, and thrusts, capitalizing on the use of only the bladed portion of the weapon or the other. Ryu suspected this was intended to be for close quarters corridor fighting, or in formation with other soldiers, as in those cases the area in which he'd be able to effectively maneuver the weapon would be decreased. The second was far more like Katt's had been when he'd traveled with her, spinning the pole arm around at high speeds and attempting to overwhelm the opposition with the sheer speed and reach that the glaive offered to him. This was a feat that he could accomplish solely due to the fact that his wings were as deformed as they were. The whole concept made him very curious as to how Gerard could have acquired such a weapon, as the Kaiser didn't expect the Praetorians Guard to have a steady supply of weapons that the mainstay of their members couldn't use without hacking their own wings off.

Gerard brought his weapon down in a powerful chop, aiming for Ryu's chest. The Kaiser was a blur as he sidestepped the attack, and with a swing of his blade, sent the weapon spinning from Gerard's hands. It landed on the forest floor with a dull thump, and Ryu didn't bother to see where it fell. Gerard appeared to be considering drawing his own shortsword, but thought better of it, and held up his hands in mock surrender.

"How did I beat you?" Ryu asked, sheathing his blade and folding his arms over his chest.

"You're faster and stronger than me," Gerard said promptly.

"Somewhat, yes, but correct skill and proper utilization of force can go a long way in making up for those disadvantages," Ryu corrected. He looked the Praetorian in the eyes. "You're too aggressive. You fight as if I am a swarm of soldiers, when I am but one man. Adjust accordingly. Your style is one that uses the speed you can get from that thing to overwhelm an adversary's defenses, but as you just learned, that doesn't work on someone who's faster than you. Adjust accordingly," he repeated. "Also, use precision strikes, and look for gaps in my defenses, the soft spots that you can strike at. Use the reach of your weapon to your advantage and don't let me in close."

"Heavy on that adjust accordingly stuff aren't you?" Gerard moved over and grabbed his weapon, picking it up and strapping it to his back, before removing his helmet. He paused and ran a gauntleted hand through his dark crimson hair.

"Duriak's first three rules of combat," Ryu said. He held up a single finger. "First: adapt or die." He held up another finger. "Second: in battle you can run, or you can fight. All other tactics and stratagems are variations or combinations of these two ideas." A third finger went up. "Third: Never be afraid to fight dirty. The only unfair fight is the one you don't walk away from."

"A strategy emulated by nearly every successful military on the face of Asparia, whether they were aware of it or not," Bran added with a chuckle and a shake of his head from where he had been watching the two spar.

"Were did you get that weapon, anyway?" Ryu asked, and he gestured towards the pole arm with Dranak'Tal.

"With the introduction of non-Windians to the Guard, a larger variety of weaponry had was issued to the training grounds where we were stationed." He looked down at the weapon with a loving gaze. "It caught my eye, and I realized that due to my deformity, I might just be able to use it." He chuckled in a strange, bitter-sweet manner. "It was something easier said than done."

Ryu nodded, but was distracted when someone groaned. He looked to the source and saw Nina, slowly coming back to full consciousness as the waters of the spring took effect. He tore his helmet from his head, and rushed to her side.

Slowly, ever so slowly, her azure eyes started to open, and he stared into them. They widened at first as they stared up to where his face was above hers, and focused on the pendant that hung around his neck.

"Ryu?" she gasped, her eyes going wide. He nodded, his throat tight.

The Dragon's Tear turning red would be the only warning that he received, had he even seen it. A loud slap echoed through the clearing. The force of the blow was sufficient to knock the Kaiser off his knees and into the air. He crashed onto his back, aware that there were suddenly that everyone's eyes were upon him.

Yikes… note to self, do not anger the black winged one…

"Have I… missed something?" Gerard scratched his head.

"I suppose I deserved that…" Ryu muttered.

"I suppose you did," Nina's face appeared above his. Her face seemed a strange paradox, the Kaiser thought to himself: half her face seemed to be filled with warm relief to see him again, while the rest of it seemed to be filled with a fury only slightly less than what had been on her face the previous day. "What in Myria's name were you thinking, Ryu?" Her fury lessened for a moment, softening with something that looked like sadness. "Don't you know what it was like to just see you like that, just… lying in front of that damned spire?"

He saw a shimmering in her eyes, but she blinked it away, her fists clenching. She opened her mouth, looking furious, but instead her face settled into a frown. "But we can talk about this later," she said, and Ryu didn't know where to be relieved or to gulp.

"We're tracking down the punks who took your family, don't worry," Yua said, while walking over. She placed a hand on Nina's shoulder to try and help ease the tension. "Now that you're awake, we'll be setting out."

"Fair enough, this stuff can be eaten on the move." Bran nodded towards the meat that he was cooking. "What's our mode of transport?"

"Me," Ryu grunted, getting to his feet.

Kaiser Dragons, good for inspiring terror in the hearts of evil doers, rescuing imprisoned innocents, and acting as mobile weapons of mass destruction; will also conveniently haul your bulk freight without complaint.

"Who said that?" Nina looked around, staring at the other four people.

Dranak'Tal began to whistle innocently, and she snapped around to gaze at the sword belted to Ryu's hip.

What? Is there a bloodstain on my hilt? Some piece of flesh caught in my scabbard? Dear Ladon, am I rusting?

"What in the…" she trailed off, shocked.

"Once again, I have the feeling that there's something that I'm not being told." Gerard commented, looking over to Bran, who simply shrugged.

"You can hear the sword speaking?" Ryu's gaze traveled evenly between her and the weapon.

"How?" Yua raised an eyebrow. "I thought only Brood could hear the thing talk."

Give the kid a cookie! She just answered her own question.

"The blade is correct, somewhat," Nina said after a pause, rubbing her hand along her shoulder, causing a slight tinkling sound as the mail links brushed against one another. "It's a closely guarded secret of my family, but one of our ancestors was a Brood."

"You're kidding, right?" Yua snorted in disbelief, shaking her head.

"It's how we lost our ability to transform in the first place," the battle mage responded with a shrug, and Ryu noticed a sea of memories that seemed to pass before her eyes.

"As entertaining as this is," Ryu said, "we need to break camp and get a move on. Even at my best speed, it'll take us a day and a half to get to Capitan." Ryu put his helmet back onto his head and secured it.

"Agreed." Nina said nothing more, but the Kaiser could see that he had successfully diverted her to a more successful mood: the flames that were leaping and dancing in her eyes at the mention of her sister's kidnapping. He felt a brief moment of pity for King McNeil.

It took them only moments to pack camp and mount up, and then they were on their way.

It was along the way the group took the time to get to know each other, trading stories of their origins and their journeys.

Bran, as it turned out, was an old veteran from the Highlander campaigns, and bore a few scars from his battles with the wily, simian troopers. He'd started off as an ordinary soldier, but soon became involved in the Windian Empire's latest battlefield addition: the spell-sword. These were soldiers who combined heavy armor, swordplay, and magic blasts together into a single unit; and they were most notorious for their spell-channeling abilities, which enabled them to conduct their spells through their weapons. Though not as skilled in the ways of the arcane as a battle mage, and certainly nowhere near Nina's power, Bran represented a considerable threat on the battlefield, due to his sheer versatility.

Gerard was a tad more straightforward, admitting with a rather sheepish blush, that he'd never been able to get the hang of magic and had thus been regulated to standard infantry. Gerard's admission to the Praetorian Guard was a combination of skill, raw determination, and favors called in by both Bran, who was apparently his mentor in addition to being his superior, and his father, who had distinguished himself enough during his service with the army that he had a small amount of clout within the circles of his superiors.

It had not, however, been an easy climb for the young man. The training had been harsh enough, as it was a carefully monitored program designed to take recruits at a young age and mold them into the Empire's best soldiers, where they would then serve either as the Emperor's bodyguards, or as elite infantry forces. Weapon drills, squad and company level tactics, combined arms doctrines; all were drilled into the recruits. The end result was a fighting force that was second to none on the surface world.

In theory, any clan or race could join the guard, provided that they met the physical and mental prerequisites. Indeed, since the expansion of the Empire, Humans, Worrens, and Grass Runners, and many other Clans had been welcomed into the ranks for the versatility they brought. This enabled the Guard to be more flexible on the battlefield. However, in Gerard's case, there were some who sought to remind themselves of who the Windians were, and where they had come from.

"Call it patriotism gone just a tad too far." Gerard commented sourly. The instigators saw Gerard's deformed wings as a sign of things to come. It was not something that the young man looked back on favorably, and there was no disguising the bitterness that filled his tone when he spoke of his past.

"Alright, maggots, time to rise and shine!"

Gerard bolted awake as the voice boomed in his ears. The young man barely remembered that there was a bunk over his head, and only just managed to avoid braining himself with it. He carefully rolled out of his bunk, he hurriedly laced up his boots, and headed down towards the mess hall.

He got a few shoves as he made his way down the hallway from Zaneth's followers. The man himself stood off to the side, glaring at the deformed Windian. Zaneth was from a long line of nobility, and his father served as a Duke-Governor of one of the southeastern provinces of the Empire. As was the case of all militantly minded upper class individuals, the Praetorian Guard was his one desire.

Gerard returned the glare, understanding the challenge that was being issued to him from the noble. They would square off again in the arena today, during individual weapons practice. Deep down, it was something he both looked forward to and dreaded.

While his father had pulled strings to get him into the position of an officer in training, when it came to weapons, Zaneth's skill was all his own. This had shown itself time and again when he had bested Gerard in their training. With swords, maces, or spears, Zaneth had virtually no equal. For months, now, it had been Gerard's hope to surpass the noble on the practice field, to best him in weapons handling.

It had taken quite some time for him to master the weapon, applying a mix of what he knew of sword play and spear work together, as well as what he'd garnered from watching various staff fighters when he could get a glimpse of them. The fact that Bran was a drill instructor when he was not out on tours of duty also helped him immensely. Even so, it had been difficult, learning to hold his wings uncomfortably close to his body had not been easy, and more than once, he had nearly shorn one of them off, which would have raised the eyebrow of more than one cleric.

He'd also made a note to watch Zaneth at every opportunity, to observe the man's flaws and strengths. The other solder was good, great, even… but he wasn't perfect. There were a few holes in his defenses that could be exploited, if one was fast enough.

He sighed as he got his food, a mix of vegetable laden porridge with a cut of fish on the side. He downed the food hurriedly, making no conversation with the others at the table. Having been long isolated by his fellow Windians, Gerard had become something of a pariah, speaking with no one beyond what was necessary for squadron and group formations.

Once finished, he headed back to his bunk to grab his armor, and quickly suited up. After that, he headed straight for the training arena. Today was going to be the day when he unveiled his little secret. For better or for worse, things would come to a head today.

Bran was already out in the dust filled pit, reading from the large, gilded spellbook that hung on the side of his belt. Though a number of military ranks and a full century of life separated the two from each other, he smiled warmly, and rose to shake the young man's hand. This was followed by a salute.

"So, today's the day, isn't it?" Bran asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes sir," Gerard nodded, assuming a parade rest formation.

"Bah, we're practically blood relatives, boy, you can keep the sir part to yourself when it's just the two of us here," Bran said with a chuckle, glancing over to the many weapon racks that dotted the edge of the arena. The young man said nothing else, but headed over to where the polearm lay.

He picked it up out of its holster, palming it expertly. The handle was a stout oak pole, about four and a half feet long, covered in a thin sheet of metal and wrapped in leather and silk to aid gripping. When the ends added on, the weapon was nearly half again his size. However, its balance was good enough that it could be swung quickly and efficiently. He also remembered to grab a shortsword, and then made his way towards the center of the arena.

Gerard quickly began to go through his warm up routines. He opened by using it like a spear, focusing on the use of a single head, stabbing and thrusting at imaginary foes. After a few routines and combos, Bran marched in and drew his greatsword. The mighty blade was an ancient heirloom of his family, covered in arcane runes that shone with a bright crimson light in the early morning.

"Fighting a real adversary is always better than fighting shadows, is it not?" he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Gerard nodded, and tightened his grip, setting his feet to a combat stance. He slowly circled the spell-sword, looking for an opening. Bran matched him, movement for movement, holding his large blade at an angle, the blade towards the earth, and the hilt about even with his head. It was a classic defensive formation. He was waiting for Gerard to make the first move.

The young man waited a few more seconds, and then decided to oblige his superior. He thrust the blade towards Bran's chest, but the older man parried the blow with ease. Gerard followed through by using his superior's sword as a brace, angling the rear half of his weapon towards his head. Bran shifted, and managed to lock it up on the crossguard of his sword, countering with a knee to Gerard's gut. The younger man felt his breath blasted form his lungs and stumbled backwards.

"Careful, watch for that," Bran said as he allowed Gerard to recover. "Next time, try to do that on your own. Remember, any part of your body can potentially be a weapon." He gestured to the studs on the end of their gauntlets.

Gerard nodded, and then shifted his grip on his polearm, moving them slightly apart. Then he charged towards Bran, spinning the weapon over his head, altering his grip and his footwork as he closed the distance, trying to keep the elder combatant guessing. Bran's eyes narrowed and he placed his left foot back. Gerard's first move was a vicious underhand swipe, which against a real opponent, would have been aimed to cleave him in half at an angle.

Bran leapt backwards out of the way of the strike, and then had to quickly jump to avoid a kick aimed at his ankles. Gerard didn't finish the sweep kick, however. As soon as he saw that it wasn't going to work, he yanked his leg back, and back-flipped out of the way of the retaliatory strike. It was simple enough to dodge, but the next series of attacks that his instructor sent at him were lightning fast, and seemed to cut the air itself.

Gerard parried and deflected the blows as best he could, being certain this time to keep and eye on his instructor's feet. The elder Windian, however, decided to take advantage of his heritage a moment later, and took to the sky. There was little that could be done to stop him, as Gerard was incapable of following. The young soldier immediately adopted a defensive stance, shifting around and keeping his eye on the flying instructor.

Bran wasted little time in renewing his assault, diving down with the speed and ferocity of an eagle. His large blade was held straight out like a lance, and Gerard had little time to watch. He jumped to the side as his instructor came past, anticipating where the blow would be, and swatting it aside. The older combatant streaked past and back up into the air, before turning around and landing again. He held out a hand and motioned for an end to the sparring match.

"That's enough for now. I don't want you wasting all your energy. You'll be hard pressed enough to keep Zaneth at bay at your peak." He sheathed the massive blade between his wings, and crossed his arms.

"I understand, Sir," the soldier said, bowing low before the instructor, and placing the polearm into a specially designed holster slung along his back.

He didn't have to wait very long for the rest of the recruits to start coming out. Before long, the yard was filled, and a few minutes after that, the day officially began. Warm up exercises were the initial routine, followed by calisthenics in their battle gear, and several hours worth of group combat formations. Gerard drew a few stares from his choice of weaponry, but he was moved in with the halberd carriers nonetheless.

Once the morning began to pass into afternoon, a break was given for the cadets to eat lunch and rest up. After that, came the moment that Gerard had been waiting for: individual combat practice.

While the Praetorian Guard were primarily meant to operate in battle formations, from small, squad level body guard units, up to mighty, multi-hundred man regiments and battalions, they were also taught how to operate well on the individual level. This helped them to be prepared for those instances where they would not have the luxury of having a comrade to their left and right. Different moves would be used, and a greater emphasis was placed upon being swift and strong, rather than the highly coordinated and synchronized efforts necessary for combat formations.

Volunteers went first, squaring off against each other in battle circles about twenty feet wide. If none were forthcoming, the instructors would pair people up at random. This was something they also reserved the right to do if they suspected that cadets were taking it easy on one another. There was never truly a need to hold back in the arena, as it was an ancient structure, as old as the palace itself. As for the building, it had been directly blessed by Myria with spells and wards of protection. Bloodshed of the lethal variety was guarded against, and any blow that could potentially become fatal would find itself stopped by the ancient magicks.

This also allowed it to double as a handy spot for gladiatorial battles, which was a prime source of entertainment in the Empire. Gerard knew that his father had occasionally participated in the more tame matches up in the northern regions, where weapons were often dulled, or simply made of graphite, since the arcane power required to enchant an arena like the one in Windia was typically beyond mortal capabilities, and those who could had better things to do with their talents.

Zaneth and Gerard exchanged looks again, and both readied their weapons. Zaneth favored the greatsword, and Gerard knew that the amount of time that he'd spent in practice against Bran would be of invaluable aid here. The crippled Windian took out his polearm once again, and gripped it tightly, before heading over to one of the battle circles.

His antagonist joined him momentarily, and it did not taken long for the two of them to be shooting daggers at each other once again.

"I see you've decided to try yet another toy against me, half-breed," Zaneth sneered. Gerard merely growled, and his crippled wings twitched reflexively, as if they were able to hear the insult being made against them. "When are you going to learn that you're nothing compared to us? You're merely a malformed freak, and you have no place in this unit." He chuckled softly. "If I didn't know any better, I'd swear that your mother had been unfaithful to her dear husband when she had you. After all, tours of duty can last a long time..."

A pulse of white hot anger raced through Gerard's mind, and for a moment, he saw red. He fought the urge to simply lash out though. Zaneth was trying to get a rise out of him, trying to get him so worked up that he would make a mistake and that would be the end of it. It had worked before, but the deformed soldier knew better than to let it get to him this time. This was the time that he was going to be the one to emerge on top, the one who would sneer into his fallen opponent's face. And by the goddess, it was going to feel good when he did it.

He gripped the double bladed polearm tightly in his hands, and waited for his foe to make the first move. He watched every movement that Zaneth was making, watching for the tell tale signs of an impending attack: a tensing of the legs or arms, a deep inhalation, a slight widening of the eyes. Finally, the last option revealed itself, and the other cadet rushed him, screaming a battle cry and cocking his sword back for a powerful, two handed strike.

The blade came in from the side, but Gerard's polearm was there to stop it, swatting it harmlessly aside and countering with the other end of the staff. The crescent moon shaped blades and the primary one both rebounded of the mithril plate armor with a resounding, metallic 'bong' that caused his foe to stagger slightly.

Undeterred, and likely chalking it up to beginner's luck, Zaneth attacked again, bringing his weapon down in an overhand chop that would have split an unwary opponent in half down the middle. Gerard brought his weapon up and blocked, pushing the sword up high and shifting it off to one side. He followed through with a knee to the gut, making his foe double over and gasp for breath. Once more, he brought his weapon home, and only the magic of the arena stopped Zaneth's head from being severed from his shoulders.

Then Gerard went on the offensive. He started to let his innate aggressiveness take over. He was swinging his weapon left and right, back and forth. Zaneth was good, but while he was able to block most of the blows, he was never truly able to get the offensive back. Holes that Gerard left in his defenses were certainly present, but he never got the chance to exploit them. The crippled Windian was simply moving too quickly.

Gerard feinted twice in a row, throwing his opponent off balance just slightly, and then hammered him three times in less than two seconds. The first two blows hit along Zaneth's ribs, and the last one was stopped just a fraction of an inch short of his helmet.

The noble roared in wounded pride and spread his wings wide. Then he raced in, slashing to and fro with his blade, determined to bury his foe and claim such a strike that there would be no doubt as to who was the better one here.

Gerard blocked the initial thrust, and followed through with a kick. Zaneth twisted out of the way and countered with a downward slash, angled just slightly. The power behind the blow nearly forced Gerard to his knees, but the other cadet merely growled and pushed back. He snarled, and tried to shift Zaneth's weight off to one side. His foe broke the blade lock, however, and the two of them were back where they had started.

However, Gerard had started to get his offensive momentum back up, and he was just as determined as his opponent that this would be the final round of their bout. His polearm became a blur, switching between rapid slashes and a series of blindly fast thrusts, all of them geared towards getting his foe off guard. Zaneth managed to lock them up again for just a second, but Gerard shoved hard, trapping the greatsword between the two of them. It was a simple matter then, for him to head-butt his rival. Caught off guard, Zaneth stumbled backwards.

The blows rained in. Gerard hit the noble's sides, brought the mace portion down over his head, thrust at his heart, and a slash that was stopped a hairsbreadth short of Zaneth's throat. It ended with the noble taking the mace portion of the staff to the kneecap, and a loud crunch echoed through the arena and brought a healer scrambling over to them. The Windian glared up at Gerard, his pupils dilated in pain, but no sound escaped the man's lips. There was hatred there as well, a vow of vengeance and a promise of humiliation. Gerard said nothing in return, but merely left the circle to find a new sparring partner.

He caught a quick glance of Bran, who winked and smiled at him.

That didn't help things very much, though. The young man's victory over his adversary had not increased his respect, or won him any friends. Indeed, it seemed to have made things worse. Zaneth's followers seemed to redouble their efforts to force the crippled soldier from the academy. Gerard truly hadn't expected much of anything else, and he bore it silently, the rage seething beneath his skin, causing his aggression in single combat to become something of an in-joke among the other cadets.

He didn't care. While they socialized, he focused on becoming the best. When they enjoyed their leisure time, he dedicated himself to mastering his weapon, seeking out any who he thought might have been able to help him.

Things had changed one day, almost a year after he had first bested Zaneth in the arena. He was squaring off against two other cadets, with each individual taking turns at being the one being attacked. Gerard looked over to his current partner, a Worren whose name he could not remember. The two said nothing, but nodded their heads and flanked out about their mutual foe. The other man licked his lips and nervously scooted backwards, careful not to keep too much of his weight on any one foot for too long.

As one, they struck, the Worren bringing his greatsword in from the right, while Gerard chopped downwards with his glaive from the left. Their foe made an attempt to parry both with his own greatsword, swatting the Worren's strike aside with the blade and turning the glaive away with the crossguard. Gerard was stronger than his foe, though, and before the man could follow through with the counter riposte he pulled backwards, yanking the Windian off balance. He smashed an armored gauntlet into the side of the man's head, sending him staggering. As he was tumbling backwards, the Worren came back in, thrusting the greatsword directly 'into' his opponent's spine.

Were it not for the magic of the arena, the Windian's last sight would have been of the massive, four and a half foot long blade sticking out of his chest.

They helped the defeated soldier up to his feat, and then Gerard backed away, ready to begin his turn as the lone defender. However, it never came to blows, as before he could do anything, a loud, booming voice echoed through the arena.


It was the voice of none other than War Marshal Decart. Gerard looked over at the leader of the army as the other two cadets filed past him. The crippled Windian made a quick dash for the water barrel, scooping out some of the cool liquid and quenching his thirst. Then he went right back to work, spinning his way through various katas and combat routines, occasionally blending his work with some of the martial arts that his father and Bran had taught him in their free time.

What he hadn't seen, in his rush to get back to work, was that the War Marshall had not been alone. There was a young lady with him, dressed in the purple and white robes of the Imperial family, and with a platinum pendant around her neck. Her blue hair was the most dead on give away of who she was though.

Princess Meina de Windia was taking a tour of the troops, observing who was going to be making up the defenders of her and her family in the future. She acknowledged and addressed those she knew from the meetings at the palace and the senate, while being as polite as she could to those that she did not.

Gerard continued on in his training, blissfully unaware of his superior's approach to his position.

A stab forward, parried to the right by his invisible foe. Slide the pole up to keep the waraxe from hitting home, and if possible, catching it underneath the curve between the axe head and the shaft. Then he pulled backwards, yanking the weapon away and leaving his shadow opponent unarmed. A stab to the heart ended the bout.

He moved on, imagining someone with a warhammer. He dodged backwards as the blow came in, swinging out and wide to try and put the man off balance, before slicing in the with the glaive's sharp cutting end. He anticipated a parry and counter from the large weapon, and again used the shaft of his polearm to keep the weapon from hitting him.

He heard someone approaching him and broke of his routine in mid strike. The young man then cursed himself an idiot and assumed attention as he realized that it was the War Marshall. It took every ounce of willpower he had not to stare at Miena as he realized who she was.

"At ease, cadet," Decart said, cross his arms over his chest and covering up the beautifully etched armor of his office.

Gerard spread his legs slightly and loosened his grip upon his polearm just a bit. His free hand opened up, the fingers curled slightly for the greatest comfort.

"You practice while the others rest. You must be quite driven," Miena said as she cocked her head to one side, her blue eyes looking like they were trying to stare past the facemask that he was wearing on his helmet. "What is your name?"

"Gerard Nerazine, your majesty," he said with a slight bow.

"You fight aggressively," The War Marshal said, tapping an armored finger to his chin. "It almost borders on recklessness. Do you do this while in formation?"

"With all due respect, Sir," Gerard said, going ramrod straight again, "I am due to graduate in a few months. I would not have lasted this long if I did not battle in proper formations with my fellows."

"Then why so eager to strike out?" the Princess asked him, sounding genuinely curious to him.

Gerard opened his mouth to say something, but then he noticed Zaneth and his ilk a little ways off, laughing raucously. He heard the word "half-breed" in there somewhere, and his stumpy wings reflexively twitched, rising just a little bit above his shoulders before he quickly clamped them back against his armor. He would have to see about getting the things covered. They were nothing but trouble.

Neither War Marshall Decart nor Princess Miena said a word, but he could see it in their eyes. They understood his drive now. He caught a glimpse of what appeared to be pity in the striking azure eyes of the heir to the throne, but all it did was send a flash of anger through him. Pity was not something he needed. He didn't want to be seen as some malformed reject trying desperately to fit in with the "true" Windians.

He was grateful that the helmet and the face plate that he wore kept his visage hidden. It would not have been a good thing for that flash of rage to be seen by his superiors, including the one person who, in a few years, would literally decide his fate.

There was, however, a noticeable tightening of his hand upon the shaft of his weapon. Gerard forced himself to let go of his grip, to ease up just a bit before he got himself in trouble.

"Sometimes, you have to be the best, simply to prove that you're an equal," he said quietly.

There was another moment or two of awkward silence between the War Marshall, the Princess, and the young cadet. Then Decart nodded, and Gerard resumed his combat routines. The young cadet frowned behind his helmet, certain that he had made a very negative impression upon both of his superiors. Still, there was nothing to be done about it now.

He tried his best to put it out of his mind by losing himself in his combat routines once again.

"So what happened after that?" Ryu asked, his voice audible even over the roaring wind.

"That is where I came in," Bran said.

Bran saluted his superiors as they approached the spell-sword training area. Some moments were spent discussing the progress of the next generation of shock troops, before Bran found a chance to inquire about what he'd seen a few minutes earlier.

"I see you met Cadet Nerazin over there," he nodded to where the young man was once again attacking the shadows.

"A regular piece of work, but he seems to have anger issues," Decart said, frowning.

"He's something of an outcast from the Windian cadets, sir," Bran remarked, assuming an at rest position with his hands clasped behind his back. "I'm sure you noticed his wings?" he waited until he got a nod. "Well, I'm afraid he's become somewhat bitter about it."

"You know him personally, then?" Miena asked, his eyebrows rising up sin surprise.

"Served with his father for several years. The boy's got a sharp mind and strong sword arm… a good heart too, but you've just got to crack that shell he puts up around himself."

"I see," Decart muttered, pursing his lips. "You are confident in this cadet's ability to control his anger. That it will not become a detriment? As serious as the role of the guard is in the protection of the capital and the Imperial family, we cannot risk a loose cannon."

"Sir, I have worked with Cadet Nerazin since before he was accepted into the academy. He's not a very social individual, but if you tell him to jump, he'll ask how high, for how long, and how far."

"I'll hold you to that, Sergeant Major," the War Marshal said, before beckoning his young charge further on.

"Miena was curious about me," Gerard said, sitting as comfortably as he could, nestled among the spiny ridges of Ryu's back. "She wanted to know who I was, where I had come from, all of that sort of stuff. What started as a simple question and answer session or two eventually became a friendship." Gerard's eyes grew distant as he spoke. "She looked past my deformities. Tried to get to know me for what I was." He chuckled and shook his head. "Guess I should have expected that, given that she never held your wings against you, ma'am?" he said, looking over at Nina.

The raven winged sorceress nodded, and smiled faintly. "Miena always was blessed with the foresight and wisdom to look beyond the surface of people. She'll be good for the Empire."

"That's if we can get her back alive." Bran muttered. "I still can't believe that we let that son of a banshee get away with them."

"There was little you could have done," Ryu growled. "His power was beyond you. Beyond almost any mage I've seen. And I've seen quite a few."

"Can you think of a strategy to defeat him?" Gerard asked.

"You'd be better off asking Nina, that's more her area of expertise." He rumbled. "However, I can say this. The wizard turned my Dragon's Tear black."

"Black… a demon." Nina said. She frowned, and bowed her head. "I'll need to prepare for this one carefully," she remarked, rubbing her chin.

"How hard can it be for you to overcome?" Gerard seemed puzzled. "Miena told me everything she could about your victory over Deathevan. Surely this fiend cannot be stronger than the very God that created it?"

"With Deathevan we got lucky," Ryu remarked. "And further, here we'll have to be careful. I won't be able to just spray my breath weapon around indiscriminately. Too much can go wrong."

"I see," Gerard said.

The group remained silent for some time, thinking of how they might accomplish their coming mission. The stakes were high, and the consequences of failure would be most unpleasant.


Okay, well, got that done. Hope it's not so bad. Next chapter's going to be a tad longer, as I've decided to break the rescue mission up into a three parter.

As always, my thanks to those of you who have read this far, and if you've any ideas, comments, criticisms, or the like, please do not hesitate to shout. Until next time, stay safe.