Part I

"A Meeting Between Equals in Name and Spirit"

That woman started smirking again and it annoyed him beyond belief. Didn't she realize how serious her crime had been? He was there to administer justice for the Howling Voice Guild, not to play games. "…Fine then. Let's go. A duel between Gunners." She said abruptly.

"Wrong! You're a criminal and I'm the executioner!" he shouted frantically.

It happened so fast, before he could remove Storm from his belt, he hit the floor, a sharp pain near his chest. Groaning, he looked up and saw that woman standing over his crumbled body, her image blurred around the edges. "See you later…handsome." She whispered, almost affectionately, he remembered. But then again, it had happened so long ago and after that the world had vanished into a sea of darkness.

"Guildmaster Clive?"

His eyelids snapped open at the sound of this unfamiliar voice. No longer was he on the floor of a rural bar, awaiting death. The gunner frantically looked around and found himself in a palace. Crystal lined the entire entranceway, from the walls to elaborate chandeliers on the ceiling, merrily flashing and sparkling to each individual movement in the building. Clive realized that he was leaning against a solid crystal pillar and looked up to see a woman standing over him. She wore a blue beret and sported the traditional blue and white outfit commonly associated with the bodyguards of the Harmonian bishops. "What am I doing here?" he muttered, still in a daze.

"Well last time, I checked, Bishop Sasarai summoned you to a meeting in his private chambers." She replied, appearing slightly annoyed at his question. "It doesn't do you much good to be sleeping on the job, especially someone of your specialty."

Clive snorted, trying to ignore her snide comment, even though he admitted that she had a point. He needed to keep his instincts alert, always be ready for an attack, especially as head of the Howling Voice Gunner Guild. Lately, every minute detail and just life in general distracted him from fulfilling his responsibilities. Clive looked up and met the Temple Guard's eyes, nearly identical in color to his own, light blue. "I'll keep that in mind." the gunner replied through clenched teeth. "Now, where is the bishop's office?"

Before receiving a response, Clive quickly stood up or at least tried to. Between Storm the official guild gun, other assorted guns, ammunition, and his leather armor, Clive almost toppled back into the crystal pillar. Only by extending his hand and balancing himself on it was he not able to fall. The Temple Guard stood over him-a faint smile twitching on the corners of her lips breaking her solemn appearance. "Here, let me help you out." she said, extending a white gloved hand to him.

Surprised, Clive slowly placed his callused gloved hand into her smooth one, pulling himself to his feet. Heat flushed across his cheeks and Clive became extremely grateful that his cloak obscured most of his face. "Follow me, Guildmaster." the Temple Guard said, gesturing towards a mahogany door, conventionally positioned between two nearly crystal pillars. Clive walked behind her, his narrowed eyes shifting from every person in his path, almost anticipating trouble. On the way to the door, the edges of his black cloak flew into the face of a secretary carrying a stack of assorted papers. Several sheets flew across the foyer and the cleric scrambled around the area frantically, while shooting looks of fury at the Guildmaster. Clive strongly resisted the urge to flash a gun or two at the man, but silently remembered that relations between the Guild and the Harmonian religious order were already strained enough without him starting an unnecessary petty fight.

Best not to cause any trouble Clive thought gloomily, as he followed the woman into the side room.

Blue and white tapestries decorated the crystal walls. Cedar bookshelves lined the room, filled with volumes of Harmonian history, trade, and politics. Clive's eyes lingered on the numerous works on the holy powers of the Circle Rune and dissertations of praise directed towards High Priest Hikusaak. As his nose flared in disgust, Clive reflected that all these rituals only masked corrupt power disguised in the guise of faith. Why bother with all that mystical crap and just be up front about advancing your personal agenda? Suddenly Clive longed to go back to the Howling Voice Guild. At least there, no doubt existed there about the evil nature of man. Here, only hypocrites.

Well save one.

"Guildmaster Clive!" a pleasant voice said, echoing through the makeshift office. "So good of you to come on such short notice!"

Behind a large wooden desk sat his Reverence, the Bishop Sasarai. Even though Clive had personally met with him several times over the past year- he had to admit that the Bishop's appearance deceived only the most wary. In a leather chair, a young man sat, who appeared to have barely left his childhood days. His mousy brown hair framed a boyish friendly looking face, complete with open green eyes staring out with seemly innocence. However, at a closer look, one could see a brown rune embedded in his right hand-the True Earth Rune, barely visible underneath a white satin sleeve. The bishop bore so much magical power, and yet at the same time appeared so nonchalant. If Sasarai had dressed in civilian clothes and mingled within the crowds of Crystal Valley, no one would have been the wiser. Clive wouldn't go as far as to like the man, but he could at least discuss important political matters with him far more tolerantly than with the other bishops. At least, Sasarai lacked the holy arrogance and blatant false piety, which prevailed amongst the other clergy. Clive had to give him some credit for that.

The bishop stood upon the entry of Clive and the Temple Guard member and walked in front of Clive. Then Sasarai extended his right hand and Clive knelt on one knee and hastily kissed the bishop's magic ring, feeling the warmth of the rune channeling through it. As Clive stood back up, Sasarai motioned towards the Temple guard standing silently by the doorway. "Lena, please make sure that no one disturbs us." He said mildly.

Lena nodded politely, her blue beret threatening to fall off her straight blond hair. "As you wish, your Reverence." She replied, leaving the room and gently shutting the door behind her.

For a moment, silence infiltrated the office, as the young bishop moved back behind his desk. Then, Sasarai adjusted his chair to face Clive and smiled cordially. "So, Guildmaster, I trust you had a safe journey to Crystal Valley, no?" he asked pleasantly.

Clive shrugged, a motion barely visible from underneath his thick cloak. "It was okay." he answered awkwardly.

Another uncomfortable silence ensued and faint noises of other clergy filtered into the room. Clive looked over Sasarai's shoulder through the small oval shaped window out to the azure sky. Already he tired of the formalities and being forced to be polite. "Would you sit down please?" the bishop said, cutting through Clive's thoughts.

The Guildmaster quickly sat down in the nearest chair. However, he instantly regretted his choice-for Clive had picked one of those chairs while at first glance appeared comfortable, in reality it ended up wrecking your back. So for a few agonizing seconds, the Guildmaster shifted around in his seat, trying not to wince every time a gun/weapon dug into his skin. Sensing his guest's discomfort, Sasarai cleared his throat. "If you like, I can make some tea. I recently received some delicious herb tea from the Grasslands…"

"No thank you." Clive replied through clenched teeth. He had just thought that he had finally settled into a comfortable position, but then the side of the chair painfully dug into his hip.

"…or I could send for some biscuits." Sasarai continued, hospitably "You know a little honey goes a long way to make…"

"No!"

Clive suddenly stood up, pushing the blasted chair to the wooden floor, one of the few rooms in the palace not to be made out of crystal. "Enough of the formalities, bishop. Just tell me the latest orders. Who needs to be subdued, assassinated, or just plain put out of commission." he hissed impatiently.

The young bishop frowned slightly, leaning back in his cushioned chair. (A much more comfortable one than the one he had just offered, Clive ruefully noted.) "Well I had hoped to break the news gently to you…however, if you insist on cutting to the chase…" Sasarai trailed off, his pleasant expression almost instantly shifting to a neutral one.

Clive quickly remembered that he was standing in the office of one of the most powerful men in Harmonia. "Forgive me, bishop." he said, hastily "But I don't see any point of the formalities, when we both know why you called me here."

Sasarai observed the older man for a moment, his emerald eyes searching into Clive's pale blue ones. "And why do you think I summoned you to Crystal Valley, Guildmaster?" he asked quietly.

With his leather boot, Clive shoved the overturned chair to the wall and leaned forward onto the desk, using his gloved hands to support himself. Not breaking their eye contact, Clive answered with forced calmness. "You want me to give the order to take someone out. Noble, peasant, it doesn't matter. Just tell me who it is….please." he finished, adding the pleasantry as a quick afterthought.

The bishop cocked his head slightly to the right, almost casually and continued to gaze calmly at Clive. "A good assumption yes." Sasarai said, his voice becoming so low that Clive had to lean over almost to the bishop's face to understand him. "But I'm afraid that's not the case here."

"Then…What. Is. The. Case." the Guildmaster hissed, punctuating each word by pounding the desk as they came forth from his mouth.

"Well…" Sasarai said, almost in a whisper. "It seems that you are the one to be assassinated, this time Guildmaster Clive."

In a flash, the gunner pushed back from the desk, whipped out Storm and pointed it directly at the bishop. "So you want me dead eh. I should have known that all this was an act. Summoning me here in secret, without even notification from the elders…should've seen this coming. The whole thing was a set up, but I'm not falling for it any longer…."Clive said, almost calmly, his finger drifting towards the trigger.

Looking back on that afternoon, Clive had to admit that the bishop handled the immediate threat of death, remarkably well. Sasarai merely raised an eyebrow, while pushing the barrel of Storm aside as though it was a child's plaything. Sighing, he only appeared to be mildly annoyed at Clive's sudden outburst. "No, no." Sasarai smoothly replied, waving a hand in a futile attempt to dispel the tension in the room. "I have no desire to kill you, in fact I brought you here to try and save your life."

Cursing himself for acting so rashly, Clive stashed Storm back underneath his cloak. "What do you know?" he asked with a sense of quiet urgency.

At first, Sasarai didn't reply, but instead stood up and walked over to the window on the far wall. Cautiously, Clive followed and gazed out over the city of Crystal Valley with the bishop. In his mind, it was a strange scene; the bishop didn't even seem to mind a filthy gunner looking out over the world with him. Finally, after a moment, Sasarai began to speak again. "Information has passed my way that a large portion of the guild is conspiring to "take care" of the problem of your leadership. Apparently, your popularity or lack of it has forced the elders to reconsider your role within the guild."

The guildmaster felt the energy slowly drain from his body. Although the news didn't surprise him very much, it still unnerved him to think that his closest associates wanted to snuff him out. He couldn't find the words to express his conflicting emotions, so the bishop continued talking. "Killing you would eliminate a huge obstacle in their paths." Sasarai said, matter of factly. "After all, you follow orders to the letter, refuse to compromise your standards to that of the elders, swiftly administer justice, never let your guard down, never let your emotions interfere with accomplishing the job, in short being everything that personifies a good gunner." He finished wryly, absently tapping his tapered fingernails against his desk.

Clive slowly chewed on this statement, his body still numb. "You're making sense, but where's the proof of a possible hit on me?" he replied, trying to objectively weigh his options.

The bishop nodded solemnly, continuing to stare out into the bustling streets below. "What I have heard is rumors, fragments of conversations, secret agreements between bishops and gunners, and the like. A very reliable informant had leaked information to me. I can't say for sure the exact timing or day when the elders plan to carry this out, but I do know it will happen very soon."

Clive turned away from the window and started walking back towards the door. Sasarai watched him in mild surprise. "What are you doing?"

"I'm leaving." The Guildmaster said, sarcastically. "What else does it look like I'm doing?"

Ignoring the sardonic remark, the bishop hurried in front of Clive, holding up his right hand. "No, no wait. I have some plans to help you hide from the elders. I was thinking that perhaps you could join the Harmonian Southern Frontier Defense Force, or some other organization that could utilize your skills. Then, after some time, you could live as a free man…I know it would be hard..." Sasarai trailed off.

"Why are you helping me?" Clive interrupted side stepping the younger man and placing his hand on the golden door handle.

Behind him Sasarai shrugged. "I just believe that your life is worth saving."

"Oh, so you can use me like everyone else does?" Clive replied, refusing to make eye contact.

"No….just because I feel you could use a second chance. You know little of anything except that horrid guild and this could be an excellent opportunity for you to escape . I really do think it would be in your best interests." The bishop said reassuringly.

Whirling around, Clive eyed the bishop suspiciously. "Since when did a Harmonian bishop give a damn about a gunner?"

"Since today. I respect your ability and want to help you. Don't question this second chance, just accept it." Sasarai calmly replied.

It was almost too good to be true, Clive thought, so why should he accept this help? "Can I think about it?" he finally relented

"Oh yes by all means! Think about it and come back to my office tomorrow." The bishop said, clasping his hands together.

Clive turned the doorknob. "Okay I'll be back, if something doesn't kill me first." He muttered.

With those parting words, he hurried into the main foyer, his cloak bellowing around him. Sasarai watched him stalk away, the blackness of his clothing contrasting sharply with the glittering display of crystal around him. He stood there silently, until Clive disappeared out of the main door, the bright sunshine engulfing him. The bishop stood there for a moment, almost waiting for the gunner to turn around and take him up on his offer. However, when he saw Clive vanish from sight into the city, Sasarai just sighed sadly and shut the elaborately carved door behind him.