It took me a long time to get to a point where I could go back to writing this chapter, and I made a decision along the way - all scenes with Ben will now be in third-person instead of first-person, since I feel that the first-person viewpoint is limiting my descriptive ability more than it helps.
Book II, Part I: Outbreak - Vector's Gambit
[Ethereal Plane, Upper Court, Fifth Division Barracks]
After spending only a week - or what could have passed for a week, given the inability to truly tell any sense of time in the Ethereal Plane - in the barracks with Etchel Beoulve, Ben couldn't quite decide whether the Grim Angel Captain was a complete genius or a total idiot.
There was, of course, still the possibility of both.
The difference in his teaching style from that of Lady Inihara's was evident to the young Blade Knight almost immediately. Lady Inihara was a practical teacher, teaching things by showing and explaining before requiring him to repeat the skills until there was a good grasp of the concept. Etchel Beoulve's style...was not.
His idea of instruction, Ben thought to himself, was kind of like teaching someone to swim by throwing someone in a lake.
For the first couple of days he had been training, Etchel's instruction essentially amounted to the Captain tossing out whatever dangerous techniques and attacks - at non-fatal levels of power, of course - his way in order to see how the Planeswalker handled it. While he didn't feel truly any stronger yet, he couldn't deny that he'd gained quite valuable experience in utilizing healing magic in even that brief time frame.
Ben noticed Etchel sitting on the barracks steps as he began to exit the building, seemingly not in a mood to do any combat instruction for the time being...he hoped.
"Well, you're looking awfully chipper today," Etchel commented as Ben moved down the steps to join him. "Not dead yet, either, so that's a plus."
"Not like you haven't tried," the Planeswalker grumbled, tilting his neck to try and work out a stubborn kink in it. "I suppose we'll be doing the same things again today?"
"Oh, not quite," he replied, giving Ben a momentary bit of hope as to his chances of making it through the day. "You'll be getting a bit more...practical experience from me today."
The smile on Etchel's face as he stood was enough to give Ben a moment of pause as the Grim Angel moved away from him. "Why, you get to learn how to not be a mortal anymore, of course."
"...Okay, you lost me," Ben admitted, puzzled as to the statement's meaning. "You're gonna have to give me more to go on than that cryptic little sentence."
"Now, where's the fun in that?" Etchel said with a grin, taking an apple out from under his white overcoat. "Maybe if you were to ask nicely..."
"If I needed any more reason to think he's trying to drive me crazy..." Ben thought to himself, resisting the urge to bury his face into his hands in exasperation. "Can you please give me an idea of what you're talking about? Just a little?"
"Yes, please do," Lady Inihara suddenly interrupted, her appearance accompanied by the telltale sound of gusting wind that signaled her use of flash steps. "I, for one, am curious to see how your skills in explanation have improved over the years, Beoulve-taichou."
"You always were a critic," Etchel remarked, taking a bite of his snack. "Of course, it's not without merit, I suppose..."
"...So, explanation?" Ben prompted, trying to bring Etchel back on track.
"Right, right...okay, let's take things from the top. You're a Hume - kinda weak, pretty normal, nothing really noteworthy. You're also a Planeswalker - definitely not normal, very new, tends to involve putting yourself in terribly dangerous situations all the time. Which means, simply put, that 'normal' just won't cut it anymore. Pretty sure you remember what happened when you hung around to fight Fayt, or fought that Daiesthai locked up in your mind now, right?"
"Like I could forget that," he muttered, wondering if Etchel was deliberately trying to make him uncomfortable...then realizing that it could simply be another test of his.
"Right. Well, that's where we come in. Basically, we're going to teach you how to be not just a Hume, but more. We're going to teach you what it means to go beyond all the limits of your race, to transcend the very definition of what it means to be a Hume while still not actually changing anything about you."
"...So, basically, you're going to make me strong enough to be able to handle myself against extraplanar beings?"
Etchel looked at Kari a moment later, frowning.
"Isn't that what I said?"
"In far too many words, yes."
"And here I thought you wanted me to be elaborate for a change."
"I take it this is part of the reason you've been trying to beat me senseless for the better part of a week?" Ben asked, finally taking a seat on the steps. Etchel's succinct nod was the only confirmation that he received in response, and he nodded silently to himself. In hindsight, he thought, he should have seen this sort of thing coming given all the television shows he'd watched and games he'd played over the years.
"It just wouldn't do for us to start training you and realize you're not cut out for it," Etchel explained. "You have to not only be capable, but willing. Fortunately for you, it seems like you've gotten your pride wounded enough by extraplanar entities where you'd want this sort of thing."
"I don't think I'm the only one here who could stand to have a little bit of wounded pride..." Ben muttered, casting a sideways glance at the Grim Angel.
"Yes, well, anyway..." Etchel began, "enough talk about me. Time to show you something without having you be on the receiving end of it for a change."
Ben stood up as Etchel spoke, stepping out towards Etchel's position on the front portion of the barracks grounds as the Grim Angel drew his blade. He rested it easily on his shoulder as he watched Ben approach, taking another bite from his apple.
"What I'm going to start teaching you today is an entirely new style of fighting - the arts of the Blademaster."
[July 12, 2152 | Galbadia City, Galbadia City Police Department | 10:21 AM]
The quiet 'ting' of a door chime sounded through the lobby of the police station as Silvia walked in, followed closely by Naoki and Sumiko. Silvia's mind was working furiously even as they entered, trying to see if she remembered hearing anything about the three names Darius had sent her in his message. A quick search of the extranet for public records and news articles had brought up a handful of articles and bits of information on the former two names he had mentioned, mostly reports of crimes they had committed and arrests for said endeavors, but Silvia found it exceptionally strange that she could find no information at all on Fiona Carmichael.
Perhaps, she reasoned, the woman was simply that good, enough so to hide her activities in such a way that she had not yet been caught or managed to frame others for her actions...but then, Silvia, realized, it was more complex than that. She had connected back to the OSIRIS Network, the backbone of SeeD's information infrastructure, and started to run searches through national databases that would list limited citizen information - things like address and phone number.
When she returned no results for every major nation on two continents, she started to wonder a bit more about what was going on. Brady and Mercer had been simple enough to find, each one of their records showing a half dozen previous addresses, phone numbers, aliases, and the like...but Carmichael returned nothing, a blank slate in every sense of the phrase.
'What is this woman hiding...?' she wondered to herself as she approached the front desk of the station to speak with the receptionist.
"May I help you three?" the woman behind the desk asked, looking up from the computer screen she was watching.
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Silvia Conrad, and these are my two associates, Naoki Ishida and Sumiko Remiere. We're members of SeeD, and we're currently investigating an incident from a few years prior that your station may have some public records available regarding," she explained, handing the woman her SeeD ID card for verification. Naoki and Sumiko stepped forward after a moment, doing the same.
The woman's face morphed to a look of surprise briefly before she reined her shock back in - she'd seen many reports on SeeD, knowing well how skilled the members of the organization were, but the three individuals in front of her couldn't have been more than twenty at the most if she had to guess. Still, she managed to keep her composure well after the initial moment of shock, looking over the three ID badges for a few moments before returning them to the SeeD officers.
"And what might that be, Lieutenant Conrad?"
"At the moment, we are investigating the murder of a girl named Lindsey Geneave, who was killed here in Galbadia City a few years ago. We've obtained some new information that may lead us to the person or group responsible, and we wished to do some additional research before proceeding any further."
"I see..." the woman said, at a loss for words. She wasn't entirely sure how to handle the request, but reasoned that she could call her superiors if she ran into any issues. "What information were you looking for, in particular?"
"We wanted to see if you had any public record information available on these three people - Joseph Brady, William Mercer, and Fiona Carmichael. I ran through some searches of my own that came up with information on the former two, but so far we haven't been able to find any substantial information on miss Carmichael."
The receptionist paused for a moment, thinking carefully. Interdepartmental requests were fairly common, even ones between stations and other jurisdictions, but she had absolutely no idea what rights were given to requests by Garden Network officials.
"Give me just a moment," she stated before picking up the phone at her desk and quickly dialing an extension. "Sir?" she said after a moment of silence, "I have a group of SeeD officers here at the front desk looking for information." She paused, listening to the voice on the end for a moment. "Public records on three individuals. I'm not sure what the rules are on giving that kind of information to SeeD members." She paused again before looking up at Silvia. "Lieutenant, what Garden do you represent?"
"Trabia Garden," Silvia answered, which the receptionist repeated to the person on the line. The woman listened for a few seconds more before nodding to herself and hanging up the phone a moment later.
"The chief is going to confirm that you three are on a mission here in Galbadian territory with your Headmaster, and then we'll get you the information if it all checks out. You're welcome to have a seat here while you wait."
"Thank you," Silvia said, looking between her squadmates before heading towards one of the chairs in the lobby, the pair following her to their own seats.
"I'll be honest - I wasn't sure how this was going to play out," Sumiko said, shrugging. "It makes sense that even SeeD can't just get whatever information they want at will, though."
"Gathering information is still one of the most time-consuming parts of our job," Silvia explained. "We probably spend more time trying to get intel than we do on the actual mission."
"Which makes sense," Naoki said with a nod. "Information is often paid for with the lives of people, especially in our line of work."
"Speaking of which, it may not have been necessary to flash our credentials right away," Silvia started.
"Lieutenant Conrad," the receptionist suddenly called out, prompting the three SeeD to stand up and return to the desk. "Your access has been cleared, please follow the hallway to my left until you reach Case Room #3. Also, your Headmaster asked me to give you this message."
At the trio's puzzled expression, she handed Silvia a folded note, which the team leader quickly opened.
'Since when do I need to be contacted for a public record? Try to act like you're highly trained, overpaid officers.' - Headmaster DeValle
"Well, I suppose you were right about the credentials after all," Naoki noted playfully, earning a leveled look from Silvia. She thanked the receptionist as they began to head down the indicated hallway, and it was only a brief walk until they found the room they were looking for. Silvia opened the door and stepped in, closely followed by her two comrades, to find a fairly barebones room awaiting them - little more than a trashcan, table, and some chairs, with a uniformed officer seated at the table and several manila folders resting atop it.
"Lieutenant," the officer began, nodding to the trio as they entered the room. "The files you're looking for are here on the table. I'll be waiting outside while your group works, so please let me know if you need anything."
"Thank you," Silvia said, smiling to the uniformed officer as the man got up and headed for the door. Silvia quietly sat down in one of the chairs seated around the table and reached for one of the folders while Naoki and Sumiko did much the same, each taking a folder to examine. Silvia's folder revealed a small stack of papers as she opened it, topped with a file photo of one of the two male suspects they were researching - William Mercer. The man looked like a composed businessman even in a mugshot, his clothes neat and orderly and not one short blond hair out of place above his boyish face. She flipped over to the next sheet and began to scan down the information there, listing things like height and weight, fingerprints, and list of charges and convictions. Most of the charges were financial in nature - embezzlement, fraud, and the like - but there was a clear first-degree murder charge on the sheet which stood out like a sore thumb, although it looked as if Mercer had been acquitted of that charge.
"Well, Mercer has a murder charge on his record," Silvia stated, looking up at her team, "but it looks like he beat it in court."
Naoki, who had been intently reading his own file, looked up and nodded. "Brady appears to have a second-degree murder charge, as well as a number of robbery and burglary charges. He served twenty years for the murder in Galbadian prison, according to this," he explained.
Silvia brought out her GLD, pulling up a browser window and searching the term 'Joseph Brady murder 2126' before waiting as the device's extranet connection retrieved the search information. After a few seconds, she started to scan down the various news articles cataloguing the court case before selecting one from the Deling City Times and beginning to peruse the contents.
"Says here that he killed Matthew Harrison during a robbery that went bad," she began. "He was initially charged with first-degree murder, but he wound up taking a plea deal for second-degree instead."
"What about you, Sumiko? You've got Carmichael, I take it?"
She nodded, then looked up. "You won't believe this unless I show you."
She lifted up a page of the record file, spinning it around to show the other two as they leaned in. Two sets of eyes scanned the information for a few seconds, and the same two sets of eyes widened almost in concert as they digested what it said.
"You're kidding..." Silvia said, looking up at Sumiko again.
"That's right. One single count of unlawful discharge of a firearm, which she was convicted for."
"What was the sentence?"
"She was fined one hundred thousand Gil and released," Sumiko remarked.
"That's ridiculous," Silvia said quickly. "Don't you usually get jail time for that?"
"Usually. But if she got away with a slap on the wrist like this, then either there really were some extenuating circumstances behind the action..."
"...Or she's very good at getting herself out of trouble," Naoki finished, seeing what Sumiko was alluding to. "Either way, it's much too clean."
"I agree," Sumiko said. "If she's as well known in the criminal underworld as Darius' contact makes her out to be, then her record of charges is much too clean compared to the other two. She could possibly be framing them somehow for her own crimes, or have someone on the inside of the police or such. I would say that she's easily the most suspicious just from this fact alone."
"Let Darius know, then," Silvia stated, standing up from her chair. "I'm going to ask the officer outside for copies of this information, and see if they have anything else on Carmichael while I'm at it."
Sumiko nodded as Silvia stood up and headed for the door, reaching for her GLD and tapping a number on the device.
"It's Sumiko," she said as she heard Darius pick up. "We're at the station, and we think we've narrowed it down to Carmichael. We think her record's too clean for being as dangerous as your informant says she is - it's the picture of suspicion."
"Picture of suspicion?" he replied. "I suppose all that's left is for her...to be framed."
There was a sound from the other end of the phone that resembled a dull 'thunk,' and Sumiko heard Darius mutter in pain for a moment before he cleared his throat.
"Yeah. Good work - we'll head back over to Lassiter's, see if he knows anything about Carmichael, or if he's sold any weapons to her in the past. Tell Silvia to meet us there when you get done."
"Got it," Sumiko said with a nod before ending the call.
"What's our next move?" Naoki asked.
"We're to meet them back at Lassiter's shop once we're done here. Darius is going to check for any information he may have on Carmichael," Sumiko explained, looking to the side again as Silvia reentered the room.
"These are already copies - we're free to take them," Silvia said as she walked in. "And they don't have anything else on Carmichael beyond a court transcript and some miscellaneous booking information that likely won't help us. We could check out the fingerprints and the rest of the information here through OSIRIS, I suppose, just to see if anything else turns up."
"Good idea," Sumiko said, beginning to gather up the files on the table and place them back in their folders. "Darius says to meet him back at Lassiter's - he's going to question him about Carmichael."
"Okay," Silvia said, moving to gather up some of the files she had been looking at as well. "Looks like we've gotten all we can from here for now. Not much, but at least it's a start."
[July 12, 2152 | Galbadia City, Jakob's Armory | 11:03 AM]
Darius' vehicle pulled up to the curb outside Lassiter's shop a short time after his conversation with Silvia's team, shutting off a few seconds later and letting the trio of SeeD officers out onto the sidewalk once again. The streets were still quiet, as expected of the city's reversed nature, and Darius stayed sharp as he approached the front door with his teammates close behind. Galbadia City was still a dangerous place for his family to be in, regardless of how much control they had been exerting over affairs as of recently.
He paused as he approached, noting that there appeared to be a hole in the glass window to the right of the door, cracks spreading out from the small break in the glass. Maybe just a rock or piece of asphalt kicked up from the street by an errant car, he reasoned...but it didn't seem right. One hand went to the pistol at his side as he reached for the door handle in front of him, and he shot a quick glance to the pair behind him that told them to be ready for trouble.
The next problem was even more noticeable than the window. The door itself was shut, but it opened without the knob even turning as Darius moved to open it. He stopped again, looking down at the door lock on the inside of the door itself, and noticed that it had been broken off. The broken piece sat on the floor to the left of the door, he noticed as he looked around, and he drew the pistol from its holster as he moved inside, his mind fully in combat mode now.
"Stay close," he whispered, moving inside and immediately sweeping the room with his gun as Revolver and Andréa readied magic. Their weapons would be unwieldy to use in such an area; magic would be much faster and easier to use in tight quarters. Nothing jumped out at them as they moved around inside the main area of the store, and they didn't see any sign of Lassiter or anyone else as they approached the counter. Revolver fanned out to the side to cover Darius, while Andréa watched the door behind them to cover their backs. Satisfied that no one was inside the main portion of the shop, Darius slowly made his way towards the back with his pistol clearing the space in front of him as he advanced, ready to fire at a moment's notice. The curtain leading into the back was brushed aside, and Darius immediately stopped as he saw what lay behind it.
Lying on the floor in a partially-dried pool of his own blood, two clearly-visible gunshot wounds in his chest, was Quintin Lassiter, his eyes stuck open and staring at the ceiling in a final pained expression.
Darius' single expletive seemed to sum up the situation nicely as he moved to Lassiter's side, careful not to disturb anything else as he did.
"Well, this is a problem," he stated, kneeling down to look over Lassiter's body.
"What do you think happened?" Andréa asked, moving into the back but still keeping an eye out on the front area.
"I bet I know. Three guesses, and the first two don't count."
"Carmichael," Revolver said, looking down at his brother. "You believe she took him out, knowing that he had been talking to us."
"Which means that she knows we're on to her, and she's getting scared," Darius affirmed with a nod.
Revolver's eyes suddenly snapped back to the door beside them that led to the back alleyway behind the shop, causing Darius and Andréa to look that direction as well.
"I heard something."
"I didn't hear anything," Darius said, frowning but still training his pistol on the door, just in case.
"If Revolver says he heard something, there was something there...or is," Andréa said firmly, reaching into a pocket and retrieving the cloth she kept over her eyes. She threw it around the top of her head in a smooth motion, knotting it at the back to keep it in place even as Revolver made his way towards the door. His hand reached for the doorknob, and the faint sound of splashing water and crunching rock came from behind it, the sound brief but noticeable this time to the other two members of the group. Without wasting any more time, Revolver threw open the door as he grabbed his battle hammer, breaching the door into the alley beyond and quickly glancing to his sides. He was rewarded with the sight of a rapidly departing figure with blond hair, bolting away as quickly as they could from the back alley and towards the main street again.
"Darius, let's move!" Revolver barked, taking off in pursuit of the figure - running, in his mind, was a clear admission of guilt in this case. For a brief moment, Darius started to complain about his brother usurping his leadership before he shook the idea away. His brother was right, and just as skilled a SeeD as he. They needed to move, lest they lose the chance they had. Quickly, he threw up a Hastega spell over himself and his allies, with Andréa also casting Protect magic over Revolver to shield him from any retaliation as they followed. Despite the head start their suspect had on them, they made good time out of the alleyway and back to the main street, only to see the figure - clearly female, now that they could get a better look - leaping into the seat of a high-performance red convertible and cranking the engine.
"Back to the car! Don't let her get away!" Darius exclaimed, spinning around from his pursuit along with Andréa and heading back towards their own vehicle. "Revolver, call Silvia and let her know what's going on!"
His brother reached for his GLD as they ran, with Darius skidding to a stop on the driver's side of his vehicle and leaping into the seat, followed closely by Andréa taking the front passenger's seat. Revolver made it a few seconds later, pulling himself into the backseat even as he contacted Silvia, beginning to explain the situation as Darius took off in pursuit of the red sportscar.
"You do not get to run a second time..." Darius muttered to himself, gunning the engine in determination as he tore down the Galbadian street after his quarry.
This chapter was tough for me to write, simply because of trying to get exposition out of the way in a way that didn't feel entirely forced. I think I did an adequate job of it, but I'm sure there's still room for improvement down the line.