So the Gowrows had pretty much the desired effect. Seemingly out of the blue and the last thing anyone expected. Well, as was demonstrated by my use of fairy dogs and that random giant evil flower of doom, by now it should be clear that when it suits me I plan to use my own menagerie of "monsters" to spice things up. But to be clear, no I wasn't just putting them in for the sake of randomness. There actually is a reason why they showed up. ...Well, not Gowrows specifically (writer's choice employed there), but for fairy dogs and any type of fairy tale monster to go hand in hand is not an accident.

*Sighs* Now here we have a chapter I almost chickened out of. I was actually afraid of committing to this, and wrote two versions of this chapter as consequence. Both had things I liked and disliked about them, but in the end I nerved up and decided this one was the better choice. Even though I still feel it's kinda flawed. (They all get stuck talking again, araraargh!)

Also, uh, no more promised range of times in which I'll update. I'm not as far into the next chapter as I thought I would be, because I kept getting wrapped up in editing the chapters I had and stuff... Maaan, I really wanna get out of Dahngrest and go get Judith back.

Angelic:

Heheh, that might be just the impression it gave because of the pacing. Chapter 60 was actually longer (the longest I've done), but was also a slow, dialogue focused chapter. 61 was pretty long, but only maybe a page or two over the average my chapters settled into. It was an action packed and fun chapter though! My favorite of these three. Even if trying to stage it around the Mansion of the Wicked was giving me a headache. (Probably would've been easier if I was at that point in the game and could explore it first hand but NOPE, I'm back in Halure right now, giggling as Yuri gets offended by his first wanted poster!)

Making reference pages for the costume and daggers was yet another thing that took me a year to do. Bleh for procrastination and all forms of creative block. :p

Ninuhuju:

Gowrow, yes~ Yep, comparing the Gowrow myth to Big Foot and Nessie is pretty accurate. It just didn't become such a well known story like they did. I tried to keep as loyal to the information I found on them as I could. And whenever something doesn't make logical sense one can always blame the fairies. Or gremlins. Gremlins suck.

x x x

Chapter 62: Heavy Conscience

x x x

"Estelle, wake up! Please!" Rita was desperately pleading with the unconscious princess. Her head was pillowed on my folded gi with her pink hair fanning across the floor, the best I could provide in the shattered mess of the Manor of the Wicked's front hall.

"Damn it!" Yuri punched a fist into the wall. He stood with head bowed and shoulders rigid, refusing to turn and face us. Repede was likewise standing with his back to us, but he'd positioned himself between our group and the reorganizing Leviathan's Claw members we'd been left with. Standing guard, most likely.

I was numbed to everything. I knew that a whole load of terrible things had just happened all at once. Disastrous, and the repercussions would probably be like somebody chucked a moderately sized boulder into a pond. But at the moment I couldn't think what would happen next, not even what had happened. I just knelt by Estelle's prone figure, gently smoothing hair away from her face. Watching her chest stir with her slow breaths.

I'm sorry...I'm sorry...somehow, this is my fault. I know it is. I'm sorry...

Yeager had briskly reordered the Red-eyes, taking stock and giving assignments to the ones in good enough shape to manage. They were divided between caring for their wounded and trying to fix up the place. Each crew was headed by one of the girls; green hair taking over the first aid initiative while her red haired sister got down to business disposing of the giant dragon carcasses. The dogs had vanished, either having smoked away to nothing unnoticed or...something else.

After a short while the boss of the Leviathan's Guild approached us. Repede growled softly and alerted us, but otherwise made no threatening moves.

"Not that I mean to rush you," he drawled in his almost polite tone (one that still felt as if he was enjoying some private joke at your expense), "but I am afraid we cannot be proper hosts to any guests at this time. Once the dear lady is awake I must ask you be on your way. Feel free to not come again."

"Yeah, we got it," Yuri answered coldly. "Trust me, we don't wanna hang around here any longer than we need to."

Yeager made a slight bow, "Of course, I am not without consideration. You will not be disturbed before you are capable of escorting yourselves off the premises. I'll even overlook the manner in which you have trespassed and incapacitated a number of my men. Good bargain, ja?"

"Ugh," Rita looked away from Yeager in disgust. "Get outta here before I fry you!"

He smirked in a fashion that silently reminded us who exactly was in charge of these here parts, but still obligingly started to walk away.

"Wait," I called out to him, my hand stilling upon Estelle's brow. "Why? You invited Whitehorse here," I clarified. "Why would you do that? There was no way he would have taken that news well, especially not from you of all people."

"Good question," Yuri seconded. "You were practically asking for a fight. And this mess between the guilds is as much your fault as anyone else's."

"Why, whatever could you mean. Although, a fight would not have been unexpected, nein," Yeager obliquely agreed with only as much as he cared to admit to. "Which was why I had most of my dear guild sent away on other business, or else this little pest control problem would have been a trifle. So, why indeed?" He shared a moment of eye contact with me and I felt a moment of apprehension. "It was brought to my attention that our most inspiring Don could resort to something quite drastic, what with those stubborn ideas he gets. I simply thought it would be a shame to lose such a great man at this time."

"To 'lose' him?" Rita repeated. "Why, what's he planning to do now?"

"Mmm," Estelle shifted slightly, eyes blinking open slowly. I leaned over to watch with concern, some frantic thought of checking to see if her eyes dilated normally in my head. "Huh? Mother?" She stared up at me in confusion for a moment before seeming to come to a fuller awareness. "Letha?"

I nodded. "Yeah, it's me."

"Estelle!" Rita cried in relief. "Are you okay? Don't worry us like that!"

"I'm sorry," the princess was baffled and taken aback by us crowding around her. I sat back on my heels and stood up to give her a little more space. "But...what happened? Where are we?"

"You don't remember?" Yuri asked with a worried frown.

"That's not too surprising," I pointed out. "She probably has a concussion, and those can come with short term memory loss. What's the last thing you remember?" I directed the last part to her.

"Umm...we were going into the forest to look for the Don, and Alastor was helping us..." she said slowly. "Oh, right! This must be the Manor the Wicked!"

"You remember?" Rita checked.

Estelle shook her head, but winced and delicately raised one hand to press tenderly against it. "No, but that's where we thought he was going, right? Is the Don alright?"

I sighed. Memory loss after all, and probably the mother of all headaches.

Yeager had taken our distraction as the opportunity to leave, so we wouldn't be able to get any more out of him. And we were short on time.

Feeling reluctant to insist on moving Estelle when she probably could use some good rest, I still felt obliged to keep the group from sticking around any longer. "Guys?" I broke into Rita's fussing and Yuri's more understated concern. "We need to go. Now. We can fill Estelle in on the way, but we should try to get back to Dahngrest as soon as possible."

"Are you kidding?" Rita snapped at me. "We're not going anywhere until we're sure Estelle's alright!"

"The situation back in the city isn't going to wait for us," I argued back.

"I don't see how us being there will make a difference at this point," Yuri commented, "But I'd rather be there anyway. Still, it might be better to wait a bit first."

"No, I'm fine, really!" Estelle tried to convince us. She even got back onto her feet, trying to hide how she wobbled a bit. "See?" Hell, I feel even worse now.

Rita was glaring at me as if this was my fault. Er-it actually was. I rubbed at my own head a bit sheepishly, but couldn't allow myself to weaken in my stance.

"In that case..." Yuri walked over to Estelle and then knelt in front of her. "Hop on."

I gaped. Yuri Lowell...offering a piggyback ride? It-it was something I thought incapable of happening. The game almost went out of its way to have Yuri be excluded from doing that sort of thing!

"Oh! Um..." the princess shared in my bewilderment. Although in her case it was perfectly likely the result of a childhood where piggyback rides weren't considered proper, and extensive bodily contact with a young man outright scandalous!

"Come on, don't leave me hanging here," he coaxed her. "This way we can get going without making you push yourself too hard."

"No, that's alright, you really don't have-" Estelle swayed on her feet and Rita grabbed at her elbow to steady her. "Al-alright, if you really don't mind," she caved.

Estelle was soon situated on Yuri's back, although the poor princess was blushing and didn't seem to know where to put her hands. And the overly concerned mage kept warning him to be careful with her and alternately, "don't you dare pull something like the old pervert!"

"Give it a rest already, Rita! Besides, since I'm going to have my hands a little full here, it'll be up to you two and Repede to take care of anything."

When Yuri pointed that out I nodded grimly. "Nothing will touch you," I promised, pulling my gi back on and tying it shut. My words felt hollow even to me though. The surprise at Yuri's gesture had worn off and taken along with it the preceding numbness.

I was starting to feel angry.

The swordsman gave me a hard look, and there was some doubt in his dark eyes. But he nodded in acceptance anyway.

We were all set to leave out the abused doors still hanging ajar when someone called out. "You, girl in the black! Wait a minute."

Everyone stopped as I looked around. It was a purple dressed Red-eyes. He sounded familiar... "You're the one from before," I said, remembering his expressed wish that I would just die in the fight.

His mouth pulled into a sour grimace. "I don't want your posse listening in."

I glanced around at my friends. "I'm kinda following a policy of hiding as little from these guys as possible. So unless it's real personal you may as well say it now." For some reason that made Rita scowl again. Then again, half the stuff I said had that effect.

The assassin glared at me. "You're the last one who could have seen Jasper. You both fell in Cados, and there's been no sign of him since."

I sucked in a deep breath as my heart skipped a beat. He caught it. "I knew it."

"...You planning to do something about it?" Yuri asked when I failed to respond. God, I hoped he didn't plan to start a fight while Estelle was still on his back.

"Me? No." I blinked in surprise. But the Red-eyes had folded his arms and I got the impression he was rolling his eyes. "Jasper never knew when to call it quits and always bit off more than he could chew. He was going to get himself killed that way sooner or later."

"Then...?" I began tentatively.

"Family's still family. I might not be out for your head, but you damn better know there's those of us who hope you rot!" With a bitter laugh he tossed a white square at me that I had to lurch forward to catch. "And it looks like we might get lucky there." With that the Red-eyes turned and was lost amidst the other near identical guild members.

Rita crossed her arms. "What was that all about? They were the one's who attacked us in the Weasand anyway."

"And she fell down a hole that you made," Yuri reminded her, getting an irritated growl in return.

"What did he give you?" Estelle asked, forgetting her embarrassment and lingering confusion in favor of curiosity. She actually looked pretty cute trying to peer over Yuri's shoulder.

While they'd been talking I had been turning the unmarked envelope over in my hands. Opening it, I withdrew a folded piece of paper. "...A letter from Ludwig."

Rita frowned. "That guy pretending to be your uncle? Why would Leviathan's Claw have a letter from him?"

"Ah damn," Yuri muttered. "I forgot about that old bastard."

His reaction puzzled them both, prompting Estelle to ask, "What do you mean?"

"The dear old uncle has taken a job to kill Letha," he explained with a complete lack of tact. "I overheard him talking with someone about it the first time we were in the Coliseum."

Both girls were shocked although I just calmly refolded the paper, sticking it and the envelope into a gi pocket. "Oh Letha! I'm so-"

"Don't," I interrupted Estelle. "It's old news. I've had plenty of time to think about it." We had no further business in the Manor of the Wicked so I took it upon myself to lead the march away.

After an uncomfortable silence, during which we passed out of the main gate, Estelle tried again. "Then, if you don't mind me asking, what did the letter say?"

"Well," I deliberated, "I sent him a letter first. Not that long ago, actually, so I wasn't expecting a reply so quickly."

"Wait a minute. You sent him a letter?" Rita was incredulous. "Why send a letter to someone who wants to kill you?!"

"Yes," I confirmed. "I want to talk with him in person. And he agreed."

The mage spluttered at my nonchalance. "Are you nuts?! Do you want him to kill you?"

"We'll see what happens when we get to that bridge."

"You fit in with the guild idiots perfectly!"

"I suppose I do," I agreed softly. "Anyway, right now there's a couple more important problems."

"What would that be?" Yuri invited me to elaborate.

I stopped and looked around the dark forest. It must've been sometime past midnight and the moon was out, lighting up the ground wherever it managed to work through the tree branches. But everything looked the same without the light of day. "Our guide left without us, and I for one don't remember the way we came..."

An exasperated breath behind me wasn't a reassuring reaction. "Oh great. It's not just me."

x x x

Better Kept Private

Rita: "Hiding as little as possible," huh?

Letha: Don't tell me you actually have a problem with that.

Rita: It means you're still hiding something!

Letha: *Sighs* Oh come on! Do you want to hear every little sordid detail about my life? If that's the case, I'm sure I could start providing you with regular reports about my bowel movements.

Rita: Ew, no! You're disgusting!

Yuri: No one under sixty should be sharing that information. No one over it either.

Letha: Then let's never speak of this again. Just saying it made me feel like an old man...

Refresher

Estelle: I can't believe all of that really happened. Judith is in trouble, and the Don...

Yuri: Unfortunately it's the truth. You really don't remember any of it?

Estelle: Not at all. If only I hadn't fallen unconscious! I might've been able to help.

Rita: I wouldn't be so sure about that. The Don looked pretty bad...

Yuri: We'll just have to hurry back and see. That old man's tough, maybe he'll pull through.

Letha: I'm afraid of what we'll see either way...

x x x

Repede's nose was vital for finding our way back in the dark. He was able to sniff out the traces of our first trip through the forest. Unfortunately this meant we had to replicate Alastor's detours as well, which weren't so beneficial when doing so didn't actively prevent us from running across monsters like the first time around.

Part of me welcomed encounters with aggressive monsters. Freely going all out with daggers and aer allowed me to physically vent the frustration piling up inside. In all honesty I was also clinging to every little delay that put off our return to the city. Even though I knew that was the last thing to be hoped for, I just deeply dreaded what we would find and what would happen. Horrible feelings that gave me an even greater need to lash out with my body and feel something break.

I'd never been able to indulge in such destructive urges on Earth. Working on a homework assignment I hated and would just love to tear to little pieces? No, couldn't dare. Frustrated about people I couldn't stand? Could never lift a finger against them, never mind whether I would even be able to take them in a fight. And days when all you wish you could do was to smash something against a wall? Well, breaking your own stuff was counter productive, and breaking someone else's stuff would give you more problems. Pummel a wall? Ow, no. For so long, I had no physical outlet.

Here, monster blood flowed red. And thought needn't follow.

But I was realizing that I didn't like this freedom either. It felt good, but that in itself made me feel wretched.

"You're not going to name this one?"

Yuri's question made me pause in consideration. Rita and I had beaten one of the giant turtle monsters in record time. The swordsman had been about to lower Estelle to the ground, ready to join in the fight, when Rita had immobilized the big reptile with an ivy tangle coaxed out of the forest undergrowth with a spell. I had quickly dispatched it before the vines could break, needing only a couple of quick swipes of my daggers (with Pierce added to give them extra edge) across the neck. Quick and clean, and we were free to move along again.

Except that I had almost forgotten my previous habit.

I looked back at the turtle, the pool of blood under its head just a patch of darkness in the night. But the sky was getting lighter the way we were going. Dawn wasn't far away. "Not really in the mood for that game," I said quietly.

"Don't let it get you down."

Blinking at Yuri in confusion, I cast a glance in the direction of the giant turtle again. "...Did I look like I was beating myself up over killing that thing or something?"

Yuri walked past me, Estelle's head resting on his shoulder. The princess must have fallen asleep. "I meant about Ludwig. You've been out of it since getting his letter."

"Oh." Well that made a lot more sense.

He perceptively caught my lukewarm reaction to the name. "Was that not it either?"

I shrugged even though he wouldn't be able to see me, following along about five steps behind him. "As I said, I'll worry about that when the time comes. The problem at hand is still the Don and what to do about Palestralle."

"What do you have to worry about that for?" Rita chimed in from ahead of us, stopping in order to turn around and fix me with an accusatory glare. "Good or bad, you know what'll happen anyway. Unlike the rest of us."

I groaned and rubbed at my forehead with a hand. Before I could stress yet again that my knowledge wasn't infallible, Yuri beat me to the punch. "Something else changed again, didn't it?"

Startled, all I could manage was a little, "Uh, yes. But..."

"You've been antsy since the Don went missing. And not cracking as many jokes as usual," Yuri gave a little roll of the shoulder Estelle's head wasn't propped on. "Could be a lot of reasons for that, you've certainly been up to enough trouble. But the way you've been brooding ever since leaving the Manor of the Wicked? If it's not over that letter, it's because of something that happened there."

"Well who wouldn't be upset over seeing a man lose his arm?" I asked drily. "Not a common occurrence back home unless you live in a war zone or join the army-neither of which apply to me-and even here it's not something you expect to see all the time."

My reference to "back home" came out awkwardly. I hadn't outright said I meant Earth, but it hung unspoken in the air. It put distance between them and me.

The awkwardness lasted until the swordsman gave an acknowledging grunt. "Well, I can't speak for the others, but in the knights you see stuff like that at times. Or you may have to do something drastic yourself. And it's probably the same when you've been in the guilds long enough." Repede whined as if in agreement.

Rita gained a troubled look. "There are stories about some bad accidents that happen in the labs sometimes. Most of the time nobody gets hurt unless they were doing something stupid-some idiots shouldn't be allowed in the same room as unidentified blastia. But Estelle must not have seen anything like that before either... Being sheltered in the castle for so long and all." She watched the sleeping girl with some concern. "Maybe it's better if she doesn't remember."

"Maybe," I agreed halfheartedly. "But having holes in your memory isn't that great."

The awkward silence returned. Yuri and Rita exchanged a silent look, one that I didn't miss with the predawn sky getting even lighter. Early rising birds had begun chirping in some of the trees.

"Let's keep moving," Yuri urged us on again.

After we walked for roughly half an hour in silence, Rita and I had fallen into pace more or less beside each other. The mage was shooting glances at me, perhaps thinking I didn't notice. "What is it, Rita?" I wearily tried to spur her into whatever question she had.

But-"N-nothing! I wasn't planning on talking with you at all!"-she stubbornly snapped her eyes forward and forged ahead of me again. I had to sigh. Back to the cold treatment. Rita...you're kinda tsundere.

x x x

At last the city lay ahead of us. We were exhausted, Estelle being the only one to have gotten any sleep. In my case I'd been up ever since Jeanne had rolled me out of bed the morning before.

"Well," Yuri shielded his eyes against the dawning sunlight, "I don't see anything burning or people at each others' throats. Pretty safe to say the war didn't start without us." But there were some menacing looking machines on the city outskirts that hadn't been there before, attended by a crowd of people. And a few more of the machines (presumably blastia) in the streets themselves, although facing outwards towards the offending trespassers. They looked like...war machines, siege engines and stuff.

"Whitehorse," I breathed, and ran at full tilt for the city's western entrance.

"Hey, wait up!" Yuri called from behind me. I only slowed once I had to gasp for air, and by then I was right outside.

The others caught up with me soon enough. And we could see another small, brown haired figure running out to meet us.

"Y-Yuri!" Karol sobbed. "Guys!" He skidded to a halt right in front of us. His eyes were red rimmed and it looked like he hadn't gotten any sleep overnight.

His distraught state made our princess gasp with concerned alarm. "Karol! What's wrong?"

"The-the Don," the boy's voice had begun to choke up as he blinked rapidly. He was actually fighting back tears. "He came back, no one saw where he and Alastor came from, but he-!"

"Calm down, Karol," Yuri ordered him firmly. "Take a deep breath. How is Whitehorse holding up?"

His head lowered as the boy rubbed his forearm across his face, sniffling into a sleeve. ""He lost an arm, Yuri! And a lot of blood! The healers were locked in a room with him all night, and no one knows if he's gonna make it! He-he only said he had some trouble with monsters before passing out. And..." the boy's head fell.

"And? Spit it out already!" Rita demanded, on edge.

"H-Harry, he's..." Karol fell silent, reluctant to finish the thought even with the threat of facing Rita's wrath.

I had a horrible feeling, a premonition I would almost call it. I didn't need any clairvoyance or Fairy Magic to tell me that something had gone badly.

Karol was too shocked to speak any further, and I couldn't bear waiting for him to snap out of it. Again I broke out into a run, hardly even seeing the people I dodged around or nearly shoved over in my blind rush.

Part of my mind whispered reason, directing me where the crowds were thickest. Surely they would be gathered where events were coming to a head; I would find out what was happening if I cut to the heart.

I forced my way to the central square of Dahngrest. It was packed there with both Nordopolica members clustered under a banner and the city's own residents. That should have been a recipe for chaos and hot tempers. But it was abnormally quiet. The Palestralle people didn't even seem to have much fight in them anymore. If anything, it looked more like they were preparing to pull out, most of them already gathered into a group at the head of a street that would take them out of the city.

Come to think of it, the whole run had been quiet, the people I'd almost run down dispirited.

Chase was there on the edge of the crowd, back turned and head hung low like Karol's. Heavy with defeat.

I craned my neck, trying to see past the mass of people, see what was at the very center.

...Through the crowd I caught a glimpse of Raven kneeling next to something on the ground. A body of a man...with blond hair and a red stripe across the bridge of his nose. The old archer was closing the eyes with an unsteady hand.

My steps faltered and I stood in place. My vision was cut off again as someone else blocked my view while shifting in place, but I had seen enough.

"Harry? But..." my voice failed me. He's not supposed to die...

Suddenly I felt suffocated. All those people pressing in from all sides. Knowing that if something had changed it must have had something to do with my presence. My fault. Any second they'd all realize I was there, they'd turn on me and asked why I'd done this, why was this my fault why had it changed why did someone still have to die?

I nearly tripped on my own feet as I lurched to the side and stumbled to another street. It didn't matter where, just away was all I wanted. I needed to get away.

Had someone noticed me? Were they all watching me trying to escape? Did they know there was something wrong with me being there, that everything was wrong, I was wrong-

"You!" An unexpected interruption to my thoughts grabbed my attention and yanked me out of my despair. I looked around in time to see thunderous fury in blue eyes framed by red hair.

That was really all that I had the time to consciously register as my brain was trying to establish whether I was looking at "Alastor" or "Not-Alastor" before I became painfully aware that he was throwing a fist at me.

My head snapped to the side with the blow and my brain felt rattled in my skull. Fu-fucking ASS! What had just happened didn't really sink in yet, but I already knew I was pissed. In my fragile state of mind I reverted to the destructive mode I'd been in through most of the night.

It was rather too late to properly execute any correct aikido response to an uppercut (the "correct" version would have kept it from landing in the first place) but in my anger I reacted quick enough that I grabbed his wrist before it had withdrawn.

With not so much grace but damned plenty ruthlessness, I extended down with the arm that had grabbed the offending fist and took the broad steps needed for a tenkan. Upset his center of control, force him into leaning over to follow his own hand, tenkan had brought me to stand back to back with him, then keep moving-!

"What the hell?!" he squawked while face planting into the ground. Ah, it's Clifton. I was kneeling with one knee pushed up against his rib cage and my outstretched arms pinning his flat out across the ground. With ease I kept the sprawled man down even once he recollected himself and tried to force his way back up.

"Why...?" I tried to ask him.

"Why?" He repeated in angry disbelief. "You fucking ask why?! This is all your fault!"

I tried again. "Why is he... What happened here...?"

"Oh that's rich!" he spat out, still squirming and trying to fight me off. "How do you have the gall to pretend you don't know? It's your 'story' isn't it? Don't you already fucking know that Harry killed himself?!"

That hit harder than Clifton's fist. I rocked back on my heels, the words echoing in my head.

Harry killed himself-Harry killed himself-Harry killed himself

Harry killed himself!

Clifton rose up in front of me, hands lifting up and grabbing the collar of my gi. He dragged me up to my feet. He probably would've liked to have picked me up entirely to throw around, but he was a shorter than average man. Hardly two inches taller than me.

With my guilt I couldn't meet his flint hard stare, my own eyes drifting to look past his ear. We'd drawn some attention, people were watching the drama. Some looked downright pissed at us for acting up under the circumstances. Others looked numbly curious. Hungry for any distraction from their own worries. The crowd stirred in a few places as some people tried to push their way out front.

"Don't look away from me!" he shouted. "What are you going to do about this? You knew, didn't you? You knew this would happen, that Harry would kill himself to appease Nordopolica! Didn't you?! Why didn't you stop it?!"

Panic set in full force.

Everyone was listening. Everyone knew. They knew it was my fault.

I couldn't think anymore. All I wanted was to get away, and hide from all the staring eyes.

There was a move for escaping a grab like Clifton had on me. Him using both hands even made it easier in a way. Starting with raising my own arms up and crossing them over his forearms-

Clifton rose up in front of my eyes again. Baffled, my mouth fell open as I watched Chase grab the smaller man by the back of his neck and lift him fully off the ground. I actually got jerked forward a step as Cliff's fists were still clenched around my collar, but thankfully he couldn't keep hold of me.

Not the least bit bothered by the weight of the full grown adult, Chase actually turned Clifton around in the air and...smiled at him. "Hey there, plant food. Before you go roughing up someone, maybe you should take a minute to remind yourself that you owe her your life, worthless as it is."

The redhead was trying to pry Chase's hands from his own neck, and couldn't get out any more than a gurgle. The Earthling continued to smile anyway. "Oh, and if you're going to blame her for something she had no power over? Remember that I knew what was supposed to go down here too and did just as lousy a job trying to fix it. So next time, you'll come to me with your complaints first, got it?" Finally he released the other and Cliff dropped to the ground, knees buckling and collapsing him to the street. He gasped and started coughing.

"Alright, I'm thinkin' you've made yer point. Both of ya." Unnoticed with the crowd and drama, Raven had managed to work his way across the square to our position. He broke up the confrontation by bodily placing himself between the two men before the recovering Clifton could try to retaliate. "Now, I know all the rest of you have better things ta do than stand around with yer jaws dustin' the ground all day. Movin' Harry outta the street for starters."

That got people moving again, listless as many of them still were. Palestralle was gone. Harry was covered respectfully with a sheet a woman who apparently lived near at hand provided, and arrangements were under way to transport him to Union Headquarters.

A bright spot of white shadowed by a black figure caught my eye. Estelle and Yuri had arrived with the others and were surveying the scene. The princess' gloved hands covered her mouth as her eyes fixed on the sheet covered form. Rita kicked at something on the ground with a scowl. Karol was a lifeless zombie trailing behind them. Yuri didn't linger overlong on the body before looking around and spotting us. He frowned upon seeing Clifton with us.

For a minute Raven watched as Dahngrest's gears got to grinding again. When Clifton succeeded in standing again the archer gave him an exaggeratedly surprised look. "Yer still here? Hey, it's totally your choice if ya wanna stick around. But if this guy here gets it in his head to shake you up some more, I sure hope yer not countin' on this old man to bail you out." Chase smiled again. He was getting positively feral looking the way he kept flashing his teeth at the guy.

Cliff glared daggers at them both before taking his leave. He purposefully passed the rest of the group, banging his shoulder against Yuri on the way. The swordsman ignored him, causing the disgruntled man to shoot another dirty look after the group from behind.

Raven shook his head with a sigh. Then glancing my way he asked, "Y'okay down there, Letha darlin'?"

It was only then I realized that I had sunk down and was sitting on the cobbled street. When had my legs gone weak on me? In response I nodded mutely.

The old man eyed me dubiously. "Right, that's convincin'." He squatted down in front of me and started pulling on one of my cheeks so that my mouth stretched. "C'mon, let's get a smile!"

I smacked his hand away and frowned at him. "Are you serious? This is the worst time for cracking jokes! I'd think you'd be the last person who'd want to right now. How could you let Harry-?!" I choked up on that thought.

"We didn't want to let him!" Chase protested. His hands clenched at his side and he scowled downwards. "Dammit, if I'd known he'd been planning this I would've locked him up in a broom closet..."

Raven didn't say anything. His mouth drew a grim line and his eyes... Well, it was the first time I had ever honestly thought he looked old, beyond my picking up the habit of calling him such from the others. He just looked so tired and run down.

Shit. My head fell, slumping down between my shoulders. Why'd I go and say that? I'm the one who changed things here, it's not Raven's or even Chase's fault!

It was a relief when the others regrouped with us, Yuri making an attempt at breaking the brooding atmosphere. "Another run in with our favorite asshole?" He indicated the way Clifton had gone.

"Nothin worth repeatin', just a load of hot air," Raven said brusquely, standing up and brushing off his baggy pants. I winced, since I had essentially turned around and thrown Cliff's accusation right at him.

...Harry's covered body had been transferred onto a makeshift stretcher of sorts. With two men to lift it and an escort of dour faced guild members, he was carried off towards the Headquarters.

Raven was the first to follow after them, it being his duty as a member of Altosk. Chase was next, but he paused after only a few steps to beckon the rest of us. There was some serious talk we needed to have, and not out in the streets.

x x x

"What happened?"

It was the question we were asking about how everything had gone to shit in Dahngrest, and likewise what Chase wanted to know about how we'd managed to send the Don back minus one arm.

Speaking of which, Whitehorse was still alive. There was a lot of conflicting information flying around inside the Headquarters about his current state of welfare, but the simple fact that healers were still going in and out of his room or sending for hot water and towels and gels and even life bottles (Good God, they existed, I had been sure they were a gaming construct) was a damn good indication he wasn't dead yet. But in no shape to be giving orders.

Or else I'd bet we'd be hearing him bellowing at people even through closed doors.

And Harry wouldn't be lying dead in another room, left there until arrangements for a proper burial could be made.

Didn't feel like much of a victory against predestination.

"Harry, he..." Chase shook his head, leaning back against a wall and thumping the back of his head against it. The sound was muffled by a colorful tapestry hung there. Taking a deep breath first, the greatswordsman began to relate everything to us. "Before we all split up yesterday, Letha and I were talking, right?"

Yuri inclined his head. "You were the last ones out, after the old man." Raven had only stuck around long enough to hear our end of the story before he had to go back to dealing with the guilds. So he wasn't there to add his two cents. That's right, Raven looked like he had something he wanted to say before leaving yesterday...I wonder what.

"Well," Chase continued, "Probably not a shocker that we were talking about what was, uh, supposed to happen."

Rita crossed her arms. "So what? Is this mess all 'according to plan' or not?"

"Rita, they don't mean it like that," Estelle said softly. "They're trying not to let people get hurt..."

"Maybe they should just tell us what's going to go wrong then! That'll sure save us some time!"

"Harry was listening," I spoke up dully. "The only way to appease Palestralle for their loss was for someone to pay the price. Whitehorse is a hell of a leader; he would have taken responsibility."

"'Taken responsibility'," Yuri repeated, eyes narrowing. "You're saying he would've given them his own life."

"What?!" Karol's head shot up. He'd been sitting in a corner, seemingly dead to the world. "No! He wouldn't do that! He can't!"

Chase sighed. "Too late for that anyway. Harry overheard us, and I guess it must have been the first time it occurred to him how much he could lose. So...when Palestralle arrived, he was already volunteering his life to make amends.

"Raven shot him down immediately of course... Although some of the other guild heads weren't all that opposed. One life to avoid a war after all."

"That's awful," Estelle eyes dimmed. "I'm sure if everyone had talked it over, they could have found another way that didn't involve someone dying..."

"We tried to get them to do that, but..." Chase couldn't meet our eyes. "Then there was a whole commotion out in the halls. Somebody ran into Al trying to carry the Don in, and with all the blood they were covered in all hell broke loose. The Don wasn't conscious for very long after that, and Al took off for the hills the first chance he got."

Rita's brow scrunched up. "Why'd he do that?"

With a little snort Chase explained, "See, the whole teleporting thing is harder than they make it look, and they try to avoid appearing inside a town or city if they can help it. Just suddenly throwing themselves into the middle of a place with iron and stuff everywhere is like some kind of magical whiplash. So in short, Al feels like shit and went off to hide somewhere until he feels less vulnerable. Probably."

"Gee, how helpful," the mage remarked sarcastically.

The Earthling man sighed. "Strange as it sounds, for awhile we thought it was a lucky break. It seemed like Palestralle might back off given how close we were to losing him. But..."

Given the situation we'd come back to, it wasn't hard to guess. Yuri turned away from us, hiding his expression. "They didn't want to go home empty handed, huh. Even if the Don doesn't recover, him dying from plain bad timing wouldn't mean the same to them as an intentional sacrifice."

"So Harry..." Estelle couldn't finish the thought.

Chase nodded wearily. "He got his way in the end. 'I can't let other people keep taking responsibility for my mistakes,' he told Raven and me. Even though Raven told him he was just diving in headfirst without thinking, just like with Belius. Still didn't change his mind."

The silence in the room was heavy. Everyone was absorbed in their own thoughts, studying their hands or specks on the floor or walls for all I could tell, and none of them really seeing any of it. Yuri still had his back to us all, but from my angle I could see the tight clench of his jaw.

"No!" Karol leaped up with unexpected energy, startling us with his outburst. With hands raised to grab at his brown hair, he shook his head hard before running out of the room entirely.

"What's with him?" Rita eyed the door as if expecting the boy to come running back in waving his arms and yelling gibberish.

Estelle was more sympathetic. "Karol looks up to the Don, and he was getting along well with Harry on the Fiertia. This must be hard for him..."

I stared sullenly where the boy had been sitting just moments before. He'd been so worked up, he didn't even realize he'd left his bag behind. I had never seen that kid without his bag before. Even in sleep he kept it nearby as a rather lumpy pillow.

Chase rubbed his neck awkwardly. "Maybe someone should go after him? I'm not all that close to the kid, but since you're his friends..."

"Give the Captain some space," Yuri advised instead. "He just needs some time alone to get his head straight. We all do." He faced us all again, looking casual and unperturbed. "Why don't we take the day off? We'll leave early tomorrow."

Estelle looked up quickly. "But we still need to help Judith! If we don't hurry, something could happen to her!"

The swordsman frowned and thought it over for a minute. "It's already been more than a week, and getting to Mount Temza won't exactly be short trip. One day shouldn't make a difference, and we won't do any good if we're beaten by small fry on the way to the ship just 'cause some of us are tired." Acting very casual about it, he picked Karol's bag off the floor and slung it over his shoulder.

That action won a small smile out of the princess, "Yes, I guess you're right."

Chase sighed to himself. "Guess I'll be trying to figure out where Al went in the mean time."

I collected my own bag and excused myself quietly. On my way out I heard Estelle suggesting she help the Don's healers if she could, and Rita trying to shoot her down on the grounds that she still needed to rest after that concussion. I had a fair guess who would win that disagreement.

If we had the day to ourselves, I had two goals. Firstly, find a place where I could get some sleep. Secondly, try to earn a little more gald before we were on the move again. Since Jeanne's place was out of the question, I hoped I could accomplish both in one place.

x x x

I sought sanctuary at the Sagittarius, curled up on a small sofa kept in the back room, trying to catch a little nap. Sally's father, the tavern owner, was initially reluctant to let me crash there but ended up giving the okay. He was in the next room over and the sounds of him working in the kitchen were both distracting and comfortingly normal. Plus I didn't have to pay money.

It was a tiny room used as employee lounge and storage, with a large closet hidden behind a curtain for changing. With the lights out and window blinds pulled, the cramped room was pretty dark. So it was pointless to pull out the white envelope the Red-eyes had given me earlier. Still I had withdrawn it from my gi, turning it over and feeling it.

I had told the others that it was a letter from Ludwig, which was true. But it also contained a missive from Alexei.

It was Ludwig's letter I was after. The larger of the sheets of paper, folded in thirds, with one ragged side showing it had been torn from a book. Thick paper that was probably intended for sketching purposes. It had said:

Letha,

If I believed I was deserving, I would still wish to call you niece. I had hoped that we could remain in such roles. That I would not be called on to face you as an enemy.

There is a history behind my choices, but I shall not offer it in my defense. There is no excuse that would validate my honor.

When we meet, we shall talk. I can make no further promises.

False Samaritan, Ludwig

That last part though. Fucking stabbed in the heart, seeing him sign it like that. Those three words were an entire letter's worth of meaning all on their own. Ludwig only knew about what being a Samaritan meant through what I had told him; the help others moral of the "Good Samaritan" story. If he was "false" then...from the very start...

There was still the other note, from Alexei. I felt dirty just thinking about exchanging letters with him behind the others' backs. I should probably dispose of it so there'd be no disaster like someone finding it in my bag, but not quite yet. It was written on a very smooth feeling sheet of paper, folded crisply just once. The terse message read:

Regroup with the target at earliest opportunity. Debrief with Schwann when convenient. Await further instruction; Schwann is familiar with delivery protocol. Refrain from the use of vulgarities and illegible nonsense in future reports.

That had at least given me a brief surge of triumphant satisfaction. "Refrain from," ha ha... And there wasn't even any mention of how I'd left out the title "Commandant" when I had addressed simply to "Alexei." He must have realized trying to reprimand me into showing him respect was a losing battle. And I found myself wishing I could send back another note right away full of profanity just to stick it to him.

How had I sent messages to both of them?

By taking advantage of my run in with Yeager a few days back.

When I had offered to pay him for his services, he had taken me to a bar in order to discuss business. Not to the Sagitarrius but to a smaller, less popular place called Spica.

Yeager even ordered drinks once we picked one of the alcoves. I declined anything but water.

As I picked the lemon slice from the rim of my glass and squeezed some of the juice into the water the blue haired man across from me finally decided to stop playing around. "So, meine fraulein who was so recently attempting to shame me for my line of profession, what has changed your mind?" A predatory smile curled across his lips. "Is there perhaps someone after all? One whom you wish killed?"

Maybe he was hoping to shake me with his bluntness and throwing my own "hypocrisy" back at me. Didn't work. "If that was the case I wouldn't hire an assassin to do the deed," I said flatly. "I don't believe using a third party like that would keep my hands clean-as if I hadn't already dirtied them."

His eyebrows both arched up. "I suppose such an attitude is...refreshing. Although it does not make for good business, and does not answer why you seek to hire my guild."

"Not necessarily your guild," I mulled aloud, stirring my glass of water and lemon idly, "If you personally could help. Since primarily, I want advice?"

"Advice?" He was curious now, or so I thought.

"You specialize in causing war and having people killed. So maybe you'll have some insight to the reverse, and can tell me how to keep someone from being killed?"

That won a short laugh from him. "Ah, fraulein, I am thinking you have gone to the wrong guild! There are many others that brag of their skill in protecting the weak."

I shook my head. "That won't be any good. The one I hope to save isn't weak, and normal means of protection aren't going to cut it. Because, I'm afraid, it won't stop him if there isn't some other way..."

"Perhaps," Yeager watched me intently, "you should explain to me clearly, ja? Who's life is this we are discussing?"

I tilted my head, wondering what reaction I'd get. "Don Whitehorse."

No transforming moment of surprise or shock crossed his face. All I caught was a minute widening of his eyes that I could have imagined. Well, I'm no expert at reading people. But perhaps the fact that he's not making an over the top reaction means I actually surprised him? Yeager seemed the type, to me, who would fake a surprised reaction when he wanted to fool the gullible or mess with the shrewd. But it was fact that he was far more experienced at this sort of exchange than I, so he could very well be playing me.

Giving up on trying to figure out if I was right or wrong (I didn't need to start playing mind games with myself!) I outlined an explanation of the events in Nordopolica. How the Duce had been killed over a "misunderstanding" between guilds and the Don's grandson Harry was right in the thick of it. "Of course, I'm just repeating what you know already. It's not like you weren't involved behind the scenes here." No beating around the figurative bush, I hacked it to pieces with a verbal machete.

The slippery man only smiled at me, "I am afraid I don't know what you could be talking about. But in any case, why do you believe only the Don's life needs to be considered? This is precisely the fuel for the flames of war."

"Fine fine, I know already, that's your job..." trying to argue him into admitting his role was just a waste of energy. "But then don't you realize? You won't be getting a war out of this anyway."

He had a "please enlighten me" kind of look, so I didn't bother waiting for him to say anything. "For something like this, do you think the Don will allow a fight to happen? He went along with the Fake Letter Fiasco in order to root out the rats behind it, but his intention was always to keep it from coming to war with the Empire. Although from what I heard, there was a little fighting anyway..."

"Ah, but that was with the Empire, and this is between us guilds. It can not be thought of as the same situation."

"Exactly," I actually agreed with him. "It's even more important that there be no fighting, so that the guilds present a unified front that the Empire won't see a weakness in. A fight between the Union and Palestralle will weaken everyone and leave them sitting ducks."

"And losses on both sides would surely be high," Yeager calculated.

Back and forth we had laid out all the reasons for why the war would be disastrous, although from Yeager's standpoint the "disaster" was clearly more of an exercise in hypothetical for my benefit. To him it would be lucrative business. In the end his opinion was that resolving the mess without anyone's life being sacrificed would be impossible without more time for preparation. Or a psychic to summon Belius for a séance.

I slumped across the table, face buried in my folded arms. "So it's really hopeless. Everyone's gonna play the blame game and it'll end in someone or several someone getting killed."

"There there," he said patronizingly, and it was made even worse when the bastard patted the top of my head. "You can try the talking approach still, if you feel you must do something. Now will that be all?"

"Right, you want me to pay you so you can leave."

"Me oh my, you make my simple question out to sound so boorish."

I lifted my head part way from my arms. "...The price for an opinion that just confirms what I'm thinking should be cheap, right? So I can still afford to hire you for something with the gald I have left."

"Another request outside my expertise?"

I rubbed the top of my head myself, annoyed that he'd touched me there earlier. "It's not like it's a big deal, it won't even be dangerous for you. Though it's kind of a two part request. If you could find out information about any former members of The Protectors guild for me, I'd appreciate it. I'd like to meet them and talk about something..."

"Meaning you wish me to provide you with an intelligence network, ja? And the second part of your request?"

Pulling up my bag into my lap, I rummaged around inside it until I found a few scraps of paper I had stuffed in there and a pen. "There's...a couple of letters I've been trying to figure out how to send. If you could help with that..."

That seemed to irritate him slightly, or maybe not, but in either case it prompted a dead(ish)pan, "Leviathan's Claw is not a courier service."

"You took a job to kidnap and deliver me, so you're half way to being delivery boys," I shrugged, scribbling out the first note and frowning as I tried to decide how to sign it. "By the way, I hope you'll tell your men that Verte doesn't need them chasing me down on sight anymore."

"Hmm? Ah, nein, we are no longer employed by the lady," he waggled a few fingers dismissively. "We have already done adequate service in earning the gold she paid. Although I can not guarantee that certain rash subordinates of mine will not hold a grudge."

And ugly memories of Jasper Birdman... "Gold?" I repeated, "Not gald?"

"Ja, gold coins of a make I am unfamiliar with. But gold remains gold, whatever form it takes."

"If it's actually gold," I remarked. This was a fairy we were talking about. "Verte's people are known for using fake substitutes for gold that seem real at the time, only to turn out to be dross and garbage later. I'd double check that payment if I were you."

It was a bit comforting that while I was struggling to find the right words for the second letter, Yeager was looking a bit sour. He didn't even reject me a second time when I finally presented him with the finished letters, labelled "Alexei" and "Ludwig Vitae."

The letters inside read as:

Ludwig,

Can I still call you "uncle"?

I wish I could. You're the closest to any family I even have anymore. You and Sophia, and I never even met her. The help you gave me really meant a lot to me.

But that's why I have to ask. I have to know, why did you help me?

Are you really planning to kill me?

We need to talk this over in person. I probably sound stupid, wanting to meet someone who may be trying to kill me, but if it's you

Anyway. I'll be in Dahngrest for a few days. If you miss me, well, if I'm right about things you'll still find me sooner or later.

Just, please, talk to me first? Please.

Letha

There were parts crossed out and some words completely blocked out with ink. Between "planning to kill me" and "We need to talk" there was an inch worth of scribbled out lines. What was it I was trying to say to Ludwig? Too much for a letter, I needed to see him in person.

The other letter was easier to write even though it pained me just as much for different reasons. Then I couldn't figure out what name to sign it with, crossing each one out in turn. Frustrated, I indulged in a childish fit of temper at the end, concluding with a post script in my own Earth's writing.

Alexei

I'm in Dahngrest waiting for the others to arrive. Because I know they will. That's it for a report.

Letha Aria Vitae Fuck It

[P.S. And you're still a total Asshat.] *

Yeager hadn't been at all amused either to find out one of my letters was going to the Commandant of the Imperial Knights, although that explained for itself why I was having trouble figuring out how to send it. And I had just given him a knowing smirk when he questioned why I thought he'd be able to. I think that I may have unnerved him. I, uh, had allowed my eyes to flicker down towards his chest for less than a second, but long enough for him to notice.

But I'd never expected he could send it to Alexei and receive a response in such a short frame of time! Not to mention finding Ludwig, wherever he was, and bringing back his reply.

Draping my arm across my eyes to further block myself off in darkness, I tried to empty my mind and calm down.

There'd been one part of my conversation with Yeager...

"Honestly?" I confessed with some weariness, "The thought has crossed my mind to ask you to try and draw the Don out of Dahngrest before he can receive news about what happened. Lure him away and then when Palestralle arrives try to reason with them until they change their minds. But if the Don caught on to what you were doing, it'd cause trouble for you guys. I doubt I have enough gald to make that worth your while."

"If it were the case that you could pay most handsomely for the trouble," Yeager remarked, "such a strategy would make averting the war more difficult. If you believe they could be dissuaded from their purpose, surely the Don would be more than capable."

"True..."

Back then, had I given him the idea to call the Don out? But why would he? It wasn't at all productive in dissuading Palestralle.

Had he been trying to keep the Don from being involved and out of danger, at the risk of the people back in the city? Or did he have some other reason for talking with Whitehorse at that time? It hadn't seemed like they talked about anything else.

He could just have been trying to make sure a war would happen after all. I made a face into the crook of my arm. Possible, but I would like to hope for the first explanation. The man had his decent side, buried way down under layers of bullshit. But I probably shouldn't count on that side when dealing with him.

My eyelids were dragging. I rolled over and shoved the letters deep inside my recovered bag. Putting them inside the hidden interior pocket was useless as the others knew it existed now, so I just hoped for them to be lost among the jumble of stuff for the time being.

So the plan is to get some shut eye and then earn some extra gald for the "Buy an Iron Based Weapon" fund. The thought was morbidly pleasing as I was drifting off, mentally adding items to the shopping list such as iron nails and salt.

x x x

...Uh huh.

I stuck in the original letters Letha had written and sent off with Yeager. I'm immensely frustrated with fanfic net for not allowing strike out formating so I could show which lines Letha crossed out when trying to talk to Ludwig. I think showing what she was about to say and then decided against tells a whole lot about her struggle there. * To be clear, the post script sent to Alexei was written in the Roman alphabet, which was why I stuck it in brackets. By which, I mean the regular "Earth Alphabet/Writing System" as Letha tends to refer to it as. Also called the Latin alphabet, and it was derived from Greek. English is a language, not an alphabet, and only one of the Romance Languages of the European countries. Been developing a minor pet peeve to see people call it "English Writing" because no, English speaking countries do not have a monopoly on it and it predates us.

Why the hell do my Author's Notes get so long and/or technical?