Author's Note: This story takes place during the tail end of StrikerS, during the time gap between Jail's defeat and Riot Force 6's disbandment. While yes, there are original characters in this work, the original cast has it's place in here and it's an important role for them. For the few still interested... I hope you enjoy.

It had already been over a day since the fateful and brutal attack on Ailotana, and yet the sun still seemed to struggle to pierce through the ominous, black clouds that drifted overhead. And with evening fast approaching, it was like the sun had given up on this futile battle against the bleak weather, and as it set, the destroyed settlement was painted in orange that glowed against the black. Nearly all of the structures in the settlement were charred and blown apart in the attack, leaving them gutted and broken, with the streets full of debris—clean-up efforts had been hazardous so far. A wind cut through the site, but it offered no coolness or comfort to the beleaguered survivors or the relief crew from the Time-Space Administration Bureau. It was uncomfortably warm and humid, adding to the miserable atmosphere and the terrible conditions the survivors were facing.

Junior Enforcer Teana Lanster sighed and brushed a strand of reddish-orange hair from her face, doing her best to ignore the wind that was blowing through the ruins of Ailotana. Behind her, in the nearby valley, several tents had been erected to help care for the injured survivors that the rescue squad had been able to recover from the destroyed buildings. But for every survivor they had managed to find, there seemed to be three more body bags, which were all laid out a short distance from the tents.

But it was what lay before her that had caught her interest, in the plain that lay just before the entrance to Ailotana. Off in its center, surrounded by mages in protective clothing, stood a massive construct, nearly twice the size of a full-grown man. The sleek armor plating was easily seen from the distance, perhaps because of the eerie, foul glow of magical energy that, even now, still seemed to burn off of it like a funeral pyre. The amount of magic was so dense, and so dangerous, that nearing it without the protection of a barrier jacket and proper shielding spells would grant the unlucky ones something akin to radiation poisoning.

The same radiation poisoning that now afflicted nearly all of the survivors of Ailotana.


The girl turned to see her superior officer walking up the hill to her. She nodded to Fate briefly as she crested the hill and stopped beside her, then turned her gaze back to the armor below.

"Have they discovered anything new?" the older woman asked, also looking down to where the mages worked on purging the harmful magic from the area.

"We've managed to identify the armor's wearer," Teana replied slowly, bringing up the file in a holographic window. "It's him, Fate. I'm sorry."

Fate's expression seemed to fall slightly, disappointed at the knowledge. "I see. Any idea why he'd attack this place? I thought the two of them were friends, of a sort."

"We're still not sure," Teana replied. "His Device wasn't on his person, even though the armor seems to require one to operate. We think it was taken after his death."

The other Enforcer nodded briefly. "Let me know if you discover anything else. Especially anything pertaining to—"

She was quickly interrupted by the yell of another one of the officers on site. "Ma'am, you'd better come and see this!"

Both women turned at the sound of the voice, which came from the direction of the medical campsite. "Stay here and keep an eye on the investigation, Teana," Fate ordered softly.

The younger woman quickly nodded. "Yes ma'am."

Fate proceeded back down the hill and joined the other TSAB official before they made their way towards the camp at a brisk pace. "We've managed to identify one of the survivors, ma'am," the officer informed her as they approached. "He's in recovery right now, but the medics say he's able to talk now."

"Understood," Fate replied, nodding once. "Maybe now we can find out what happened here. Show me where he is."

"Right away, ma'am."

He took her to one of the smaller tents used for patients with more serious injuries, and reported to the guard stationed at its entrance, while Fate proceeded inside. Two medics were watching over a single elderly man resting in the wheeled bed in the center. I.V. lines had been administered to the back of his hands, and the skin around his balding head looked slightly mottled and unnaturally pale. His breath was coming in long rasps, though he didn't seem to look like he was suffering from a breathing problem. His eyes, thankfully, were alert, and despite his fragile condition, he shifted to rise as he spotted Fate enter the tent.

"Please, rest," she said to the man, one Emil Valare, motioning for him to lie back down. Valare considered it for a brief moment and acquiesced.

"I shouldn't be surprised that you were the one who investigated this catastrophe, Ms. Harlaown," he said amiably, settling back down. "Not with everything that's happened lately."

Fate nodded. "You witnessed the fight, didn't you?" She asked, sitting at the corner of the bed. Valare nodded. "You know who's responsible for this tragedy."

"I do. It's a shame, really," Valare said wistfully, looking off to the side. "He showed such promise, only to come to an end like this. At the very least, those two managed to stop him."

"We never really knew everything that happened since we met him," Fate said quietly—they both knew it wasn't the one in the armor that she spoke of. A nurse approached and began writing off a reading on the machine Valare was hooked up to. "He never told us, and she never broke his confidence, even during their time with us."

"That doesn't surprise me. He never was much for other people."

"Perhaps you can tell us, then," suggested the Enforcer. "We need to know, so we can figure out where to go from here. Everything, from the beginning."

Emil glanced at the woman, only to see her patient face. Slowly, he nodded. "I suppose we owe you that much.

"Some time ago, Ailotana lost its greatest scientific mind. It was the death of a legend, and with it, a mass pilfering of his technology," he started, clasping spindly fingers together as he recollected. "The man she saved was an unrivaled mercenary, and we paired him with an Intelligent Device that Research and Development had been using in their experiments. Our settlement fell into a sharp financial crisis after we lost our edge in the technology market. Relying on a mercenary was the inevitable resolution to keep food on the table."

The man suddenly began coughing, and he brought a hand up to cover his mouth while the fit subsided. Fate looked concerned and made to rise, but he quickly waved at her to stay seated. After a moment, he was able to continue. "I used that man… and through him, her. I make no claim of righteousness. He was simply the only one who could have made it happen."

Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha MercenarieS:

A Nonexistent Choice

It had been several months—close to half a year, really—since the death of Professor Avon Leganza, but Ailotana was still feeling the sting of his passing. The man, a scientist known for his prowess at developing and refining cutting-edge Device technology, was the greatest, but unfortunately the only asset the settlement had since the civil war had begun to die down and the Time-Space Administration Bureau reasserted itself on the newly-Administered world of Exavil. Since then, various companies and corporations had begun to move into the resource-rich planet, despite warnings and from the Bureau that hostilities on the planet had yet to come to a complete end.

The various towns and cities that had come out of the battles had to rely on these companies to rebuild their failing economies, but as such, there were still tensions in the air as those who were against the support of the TSAB waited to prey upon those that had. And Ailotana had just become one such viable target—with Leganza's passing, a nightmare of paperwork and procedure had left most of his research and discoveries taken by the corporations that had once worked alongside the man, leaving the settlement with little else. Now, without the help of Leganza's achievements in Device development, Ailotana looked to be on the verge of bankruptcy.

So what to do? That was the question that Emil Valare currently faced.

Valare had worked as both an assistant and an advisor to Avon Leganza, having extensive knowledge on Device creation and repair, but his true talents lay in politics, and he had aided Leganza in making the most favorable contracts with the growing corporations inhabiting Exavil, seeing what schemes might be in the making and guiding him and Ailotana out of harm's way. Now, with Leganza dead, he was the most qualified person to get the settlement out of the mess it was in.

But how? he wondered. Due to the loophole in those first contracts, the corporations have left us with practically nothing to work with!

He shook his head in disgust for the way the companies worked. Before he and Avon had met and begun working together, it seemed Avon had unwittingly made several foolish deals that resulted in certain companies receiving the rights to his advancements due to his untimely demise. Were it not for the thorough investigation into the cause of his death, Valare could almost believe the man had been assassinated by one of the more greedy corporations.

Sighing, Emil returned to his work, soon taking up documents of recent events on Exavil. As he pondered the options he had before him, he thought back to the times of the civil war, when numerous indigenous people suddenly and violently protested the introduction of the Time-Space Administration Bureau. Caught off-guard during the conflict, the Bureau was not able to always extend its protection to far-out allies, and as the war raged on, many were forced to make due by hiring protection elsewhere, in the form of mercenary mages armed with advanced Devices and a plethora of combat spells. The corporations also used such mercenaries in their own private battles.

And as luck would have it, Emil noted as he flipped the stack to one of the more recent reports, We currently have one mercenary staying here right now…

In the past couple of weeks, Ailotana had become the impromptu home of a mercenary that had been fighting on Exavil since the beginning of the civil war. Caught up in the vicious battles that had occurred in growing frequency, his Storage Device had been damaged beyond all repair, and he had been forced to retire. But without the battlefield, he had nowhere else to go, and no way of life, and many would be terrified of such a person roaming about the countryside.

It was much to everyone's surprise that Leganza's only daughter had taken him in and offered him a home in the settlement.

Perhaps there was still a way to keep Ailotana on the map. Emil knew that for all of the things that had been taken after Avon's death, they still had one item of importance, and now with this man, there may be hope for them all.

Emil sat back in his chair, the beginnings of a plan forming in his mind. Yes, perhaps it will work. Mercenaries are hard to come by these days, and the Kaiser knows there's much need for them here.

A single sent message later, Valare looked up from his work when someone briefly knocked at the door. "Come in," he invited, knowing who it was. The door opened to allow a young woman dressed in the same technician uniform worn by most Leganza Tech employees in the facility. The light blue fabric of the uniform contrasted nicely with the woman's short auburn hair, and gray eyes looked at Emil with an expectant expression. "You called for me, Emil?" she asked, cocking her head to the side a bit.

"Ah, Mesia," Valare greeted, smiling at the woman. He motioned for her to take a seat. "How are you doing, my dear?"

"I'm doing fine, Emil, you know that," she returned as she took a seat on the opposite side of his desk. "It's… been a while since my father died. I'm learning to move on."

Leganza's death had hit everyone hard, but Mesia the hardest of all. He had been the only remaining member of her family, and upon his passing, the corporations practically stripped the poor woman of her father's legacy and any inheritance that might've made her life more bearable. Now, she was stuck working as an operator and technician in her father's laboratory facility.

"I'm glad to hear it," Emil said sincerely. "It's been a hard time for us all."

Mesia simply nodded, appreciating Emil's concern but not requiring it—many people in Ailotana had given her their condolences, but now it was time to move on from that chapter in her life. Instead, it was time to focus on what the man before her wanted.

"Was there something you needed, Emil?" she asked, clasping her hands together in her lap.

"Yes. It's about the man you brought to the settlement a few weeks ago," Valare answered, nodding once. "I haven't had much time to really sit down and speak with him at length, and I was curious as to how he was acclimating to Ailotana."

"Roas? Well… he seems to be getting along well enough," Mesia replied, sounding the tiniest bit confused. He'd never hinted that he wasn't satisfied about his new circumstances. "He's a bit quiet, but I haven't heard any complaint from him."

"Well now, that is comforting to know," Valare said, nodding. "I have been speaking to some of the townsfolk about them, and they have been concerned. Understandable, considering who and what he is."

"He's not a bad person, Emil," Mesia countered in defense. "I can tell he's not—"

"Dangerous? Mesia, dear, I know you're vouching for him, but the man isa mercenary, and one who's been fighting on Exavil for a long time now. He's as dangerous as they come, and you mustn't forget that."

The girl's eyes hardened a bit, a sure sign she was going to be stubborn about something. She opened her mouth, meaning to argue back, but Valare lifted up a hand to forestall her. "Now, now, Mesia. For the record, I believe he means us no harm just as much as you do. The people are just concerned, that's all—he's been seen wandering around the settlement, looking restless. He's been rather antisocial about it, rarely responding to any greeting beyond a simple nod."

Mesia's expression softened somewhat, a bit affirmed by what her father's partner said concerning Roas' character. "I try to keep him company when I'm not working," she said. "Whenever I asked him how he's doing, he's always said he's been doing fine. I get the feeling he likes it here, so I don't see why he'd make everyone else think he's a problem."

Valare nodded understandingly, having a theory as to why the man would be acting how he was. And if that theory was correct, then he could use it to his advantage. "Perhaps he needs something to do, Mesia," he volunteered. "Without his Storage Device, he has no means of seriously continuing his former occupation, and I haven't heard of him applying for a job anywhere else."

"You think that might be it?" she asked of him. He could almost see the gears turning in her head—he had no idea what it was that made the girl so interested in Roas, she was far beyond the age where her hormones would influence her every interaction with men and she had a good head on her shoulders—but if it'd help Ailotana, then his partner's offspring and her fascination with Roas will have to be as much of a pawn in this as the man she'd welcomed into it.

"Why don't you go talk to him about finding a job here, in the lab?" Valare suggested. "If he's interested, have him join me, and we'll have a talk about it. I'm certain that everyone will warm up to him while he's under our care."

After a moment, Mesia nodded. "All right, Emil. He might like that. Are you interested in him as a Device tester?"

"Something like that, yes," he replied, nodding. There was one Device that he was certain Roas could make use of…

Leganza Tech Enterprises. Such was the name of the four-story facility that stood before Roas Lacetti, according to the polished metal sign on the property lawn. It was the most advanced-looking structure this side of Ailotana's river, and undoubtedly the grandest of the buildings in the entire settlement—it looked distinctly out of place, like something belonging on Mid-Childa, rather than Exavil. Still, it's not like that should concern him too much, especially with Mesia suggesting he find a job there to kill the time. Sighing, he moved past the sign and down the path to the main entryway.

The receptionists at the front desk all looked surprised to see him there. He wasn't too surprised at that; most people in Ailotana tended to give him such looks when he showed up. Roas paid it little mind as he approached them, lifting a hand in greeting. "Mesia said that Valare wanted to see me," he said, hoping they knew about it. After the surprise wore off, one of the receptionists nodded rapidly.

"Yes, he informed us of a possible meeting, Mr. Lacetti," the woman told him. "We'll notify him right away."

Roas nodded once, and waited off to the side as the woman summoned up a holographic window for Emil Valare. He was somewhat tempted to call the man up himself, but he knew that it'd be far more polite to the people who were graciously allowing him to stay in their town—the townsfolk had been upset and angry at the battle that Mesia had found him in had taken place just nearby, a few miles away from the settlement itself. Such occurrences were common on Exavil, and just about all of them were unwelcome. The mercenary knew it wouldn't take much to make them change their minds, and he'd rather not find out just how much it'd take. It was hard enough finding a place to stay on the planet as of late.

He was broken out of his reverie by the receptionist as she closed down the screen. "Mr. Lacetti? Mr. Valare will see you now. Please proceed through those doors and follow the lighted path to his workstation."

The mercenary nodded his thanks and turned towards the referenced doors—two guards, each with pistols strapped to their hips, were standing on either side of it. He paid them no mind as he approached, and one of them unlocked the double doors for him so he could step through. As it closed behind him, he looked about in the hall, finding the path he was supposed to take. Sure enough, the tiled floor beneath his feet had a blue stripe running down the center of it, forking off towards each split and doorway. When he stepped into the hallway, that stripe started lighting up, heading down to the right towards an elevator.

That elevator automatically took Roas up to the third floor of the facility, and he continued the path, past mildly-surprised technicians and scientists to one particular door on the floor. There were no security guards here, so he had to let himself in with the keypad next to the door.

He immediately found Valare inside, alone with the room. He was wearing a technician uniform and a lab coat now, sitting at a chair while looking over a vast wealth of information displayed on a computer screen. Parts were strewn about over a work bench, each one having a separate scanning spell delve through it. Valare quickly noticed Roas' presence, and brightened considerably at seeing him. "Ah, there you are!" he greeted, standing up. "Come in, I was hoping I'd see you soon."

"You wanted to talk to me about something?" asked the mercenary as he walked in, letting the door shut behind him. He shook the hand that Valare offered him out of courtesy. Valare got a good look of him as he did so—like many soldiers, Roas had a hard look about him, which contrasted a bit to the decidedly bland uniform he'd been loaned. The brownish-blond hair and dark blue eyes also marked him as a foreigner; few native people on Exavil had such traits. It was little wonder the man tend to stand out in Ailotana.

"Straight to the point, I see. Yes, it's come to my attention that the people around here think you could use something to do," he said with a nod. "Now there's nothing wrong with that, but even as nice as Ailotana is, I imagine it must get boring for you."

Roas shrugged in response. It wasn't that bad, but he was simply used to fighting. It'd be a long while since he'd gone so long without being assigned a mission by one of the companies residing on the planet. "It hasn't been that bad," he told Valare. "They're just paranoid that I'm going to do something stupid."

"Yes, I can see why you'd think that. Still, there's nothing wrong with having something to do. After all, if you do plan on staying, you'll need to find a job anyway."

"So what've you got in mind?"

"Before we get into that, I wanted you to see something," Valare said, motioning him over as he took his seat once more. He waved at the screen, causing the data to clear and an image for a device in its standby mode to appear in its place. "Tell me, do you know what this Device is?"

Roas joined the man and looked on as snippets of data scrolled across the screen, likely pertaining to the device. The view window displayed the device opening up into its default form, a long staff similar to a battleaxe or pole arm plated in black. He recognized it easily enough.

"It's an Intelligent Device," he said, getting a nod from Valare. "Bardiche, I think it's called. One of the Bureau's top officers wields it."

"Quite right. Bardiche here is the Device used by Captain Fate T. Harlaown of Lost Property Riot Force Six," Valare explained as Roas nodded. "The new force being implemented by the Bureau when it comes to Lost Logia." He spared the mercenary a look. "I take it you've met her before? On the battlefield, perhaps?"

Roas snorted, surprising the man. "Not at all. I may be good, but I don't think I've reached her level yet. No, that woman's an Enforcer, and a damn good one from what I can tell. Any mercenary who wants to have a lasting career knows to keep track of the Enforcers, her in particular. We're not exactly legal, after all, and she's probably the last person we'd want to run afoul of."

"Hmm, I suppose you're right, that would be a good policy to keep," Valare commented. It was good to know that the man before him wasn't overconfident in his skills.

"Why are you showing me this, anyway?" Roas asked.

"Well, Captain Harlaown's Device is a bit unique as far as Intelligent Devices go. As you know, most of them are primarily used for advanced spellcasting. Bardiche, however, has been designed with melee combat in mind. In fact, it's said that it's on par with most Armed Devices in use these days, possibly even superior to them."

Slowly, the mercenary nodded, agreeing with the assessment. Intelligent Devices never were ideal for close-in combat, especially with their advanced A.I. installed. Never mind the usual stigmas on them, such Devices were simply better suited for long-range bombardment magic or combat support roles on the battlefield.

"This one, from what I've learned, has been like this even before it was used as a prototype for the Bureau's cartridge systems."

"What?" Roas asked. He hadn't heard that particular tidbit before.

"Oh yes," Valare said, nodding, bringing up a control panel. A few commands were entered, and the main screen displayed a close-up of the installed CVK-792 Cartridge System in action. "While it's well known that it is one of a number of Intelligent Devices equipped with the system, not many people know that Bardiche and another well-known Device, Raising Heart, served as prototypes for adjusting the system for safer use. Still, Bardiche was notable for its melee combat capabilities even before it had the system installed. Nothing spectacular compared to your average Armed Device, mind you, but…"

"… still an accomplishment as far as Device making goes," Roas finished for him. He stepped closer to the screen to get a better look at the parts load-out of the Device. "Huh… that's a lot of non-standard equipment. This was custom-built?"

Valare nodded. "From the looks of it, yes. It's not one of the standard models produced by any of the corporations in the Device-making market," he said. "Avon always hoped that he could one day meet the person who constructed Bardiche, but I fear he never got the chance before he passed away."

"You still haven't answered my question," Roas said, turning back to the man. He folded his arms, waiting for an answer.

"Yes, I suppose I haven't. Well, one of the things me and Avon were working on before his untimely death was an Intelligent Device based loosely on Bardiche. It too is nothing standard… you won't find anything like it on Leganza Tech's production lines. And thankfully, those blasted contracts that he made before we met didn't include this, so it's one of the few things we still have under our control."

Once more, Valare cleared the screen and brought up a different Device. Somewhat similar to Bardiche's standby form, this one looked arrow-shaped in appearance, though Roas noted that the assigned dimensions made it narrower and somewhat smaller in appearance; likely convenient for use as a pendant when not in use. A green lens in the shape of a sharp V slashed down the middle of the silver plating, likely as a communication interface for the Device. Beneath the image was an informational bank and parts load-out, as well as the Device's designated name in flowery Mid-Childan script: LANCEL.

"Unfortunately, our current low funds means we can't outfit it with your standard Belkan Cartridge System," Valare said, noting the mercenary's examination. "Have you had any experience using that part?"

"Not really," came the reply. "I was taught using the Mid-Childa style of magic, and the CVK-792 part requires more maintenance than I have the funding for. Wasn't worth trying to get one off the black market, and I figured I'd be better off honing my skills before I upgrade to something more powerful."

Valare nodded, looked appreciative of Roas' wisdom. Now here was a man who took his job, however legally questionable it may be, quite seriously. He had familiarized himself with the intricate workings of different Devices, which means the man paid careful attention to detail—likely needed the know-how when identifying his opponents' capabilities. Surely anyone who lasted this long in Exavil's civil conflict would've faced other skilled mercenaries in combat. It'd make selling this idea to him easier… or possibly harder, if Roas was shrewder than he let on.

"So, what?" asked the man in question. "You want me to test it out or something? I'm sure you have people here who are more qualified in that manner. People who have actual qualifications, in fact."

"Oh, you're right about that," Valare replied. "But I didn't invite you here to invite you as a Device tester, whatever Mesia may have said to you."

One more command locked down the room and shut off the security cameras for the chamber, causing Roas to still and arch an eyebrow at the man.

"I'll be frank with you, Mr. Lacetti. Right now, Ailotana is in a bad place. Avon was our only true source of innovation, and when he died the corporations he had agreements with stripped us of anything we could've used to keep ourselves afloat. If things don't change, Ailotana will lose all of its value and it'll only be a matter of time before the fighting happens here, or one of the corporations decides our land is prime real estate and makes sure we empty out of it."

Roas frowned, and Valare could tell the man could see where this was going. Yes, this man was a smart one, that much was certain. He pressed on, hoping that this offer would be worth it. "It was a stroke of luck that Mesia found you and offered you a place among the settlement. Even more so that you no longer have a Device to continue your missions with," he continued. "With a mercenary, we could offer services to people who need them in exchange for a fee. We start bringing income back into the settlement and keep ourselves useful in the eyes of everyone else. In exchange, you have a role to fulfill, and you aren't forced to adapt to a new line of work. And, as I've just shown, I can provide you with access to a Device that I can assure you is far more advanced than the old Storage Device you were using before it was destroyed."

Okay, this wasn't what he was expecting when he came here. "You can't be serious," Roas said, standing up straighter. "You really think my help alone would be enough to keep this place out of trouble?"

"With the proper choices made, yes. It is risky, I know, but at this point, I honestly don't see what other choice we have," Valare, said, leaning back in his seat and with his hands steepled together. "The people here have nowhere else to go while the fighting is still going on. They have homes here, built their lives here. And I'll be damned if I let those blasted companies take that away from them!"

"And what about the Administration Bureau?" Roas countered, looking even more serious than before. "The only reason they haven't fully come down on the corporations is because they've yet to trace us mercenaries back to them, but you—this place—it won't be so lucky. If the Bureau finds out about you hiring me on for this, you'll have Enforcers crawling down your throat before you can destroy the evidence."

"It's a risk we'll have to take," Valare said immediately. "And not something you have to worry about—you leave dealing with the Bureau to me, Mr. Lacetti, and I promise you it'll all work out. And even if it doesn't… well, I doubt anyone here has the capability to stop you from escaping, with or without a Device at your command. Really, my boy, you have nothing to lose from such an arrangement, and everything to gain."

Roas broke his gaze from the scheming technician, weighing the options in his head. He did somewhat believe that the man could pull off keeping such an operation a secret from the Administration Bureau; Emil Valare was well-known for being a shrewd negotiator in business politics. Still, that wouldn't be enough to completely remove all the risk of such a deal.

Still… this kind of thing was really the only thing he'd ever been good at, and the Bureau was never something he was too keen on working for. Not as one of their soldiers. His defeat still stung, and this man was now offering him a chance at returning to his old life, with even more power than before. It'd help him return the kindness Mesia and many in Ailotana had shown him already. It would do little his reputation in the long run, as well… Roas seriously doubted he was in the TSAB's good graces at the moment, and even if he was an unknown to them currently, if they found out he'd be in a remarkably unfavorable position anyway.

He spared a glance at the screen, examining the Intelligent Device displayed on it one more time.

Let's hope I don't regret this, he thought, making his decision.

"Don't you look thrilled."

Mesia looked up from the park bench she sat on, only to scramble and catch the canned drink tossed to her. She gave Roas an unamused look as he walked over to the bench to sit, and cracked open the tab on the can. "Today's been weird," she said before taking a sip. "Emil wanted me to drop the project I'm working on and drag out our Intelligent Device from storage. I can't understand why."

Roas merely gave the woman a sidelong glance and took a swig from his own drink. He knew this was going to happen; it had only been a matter of time. The woman continued, leaning back into the bench. "There's been rumors flying about too, it's ridiculous," she revealed. "Some crazy story about the lab hiring a mercenary. Some of them are even saying that you're the one they're hiring!"

The technician shook her head in exasperation, clearly finding the idea ridiculous. Roas, however, simply looked on, knowing better than to assuage his friend's fears with falsities. Lowering the can from his lips, he asked, "Would my hiring for such a role be that much of a problem?"

The woman looked over at him for a moment before realization dawned. "Oh, Roas, you can't be serious," she cried, dismayed.

His response was to look off and take a quick swig of his drink. "Valare wanted me to come in later today to pick up the Device," he said after lowering the can.

Mesia uttered a soft curse, looking confused. "Why in the world are you being hired on as a mercenary?" she demanded.

"Because if Valare's to be believed, Ailotana doesn't really have any other choice," responded her companion. He went on to explain the information that the businessman had revealed to him concerning the settlement's state. By the time he was done, the woman had grown quiet.

"He never mentioned…" she started, looking distraught. "Never even hinted that…"

Abruptly, the woman stood up, causing Roas to blink in surprise. "Where are you going?"

"To the lab," she said, sounding firm. "I need to talk to Emil about this."

He sighed. Well, he might as well go pick up Lancel… "Alright, let's go then," he said as he stood up to follow her. "I have business there anyway."

Roas had expected something like this to happen, seeing Valare and Mesia engage in a heated discussion in front of the lab room's monitor. The technician that had been aiding the man preparing the Intelligent Device was beside him, looking anxiously between his two colleagues.

"Think about what you're doing!" the redhead exclaimed, almost throwing her arms up in the air. "If the Administration Bureau finds out, this lab would be history!"

"A risk that needs to be taken," Emil replied calmly. "I assure you, every precaution will be taken regarding the Bureau, and any of the corporations who hire our services will want to keep it on the down-low from them anyway."

"Oh? And what about Roas?" demanded the redhead. "You've read the report, you know how badly the other mercenaries wanted him dead! There's no way he can do this alone!"

Roas lifted an eyebrow that that—though he supposed it was true enough. That last mission had nearly seen his death due to the unexpected amount of resistance from the mercenary, or rather, the mercenaries that had been hired by his target for their protection. Still, it was a risk in this kind of industry. He knew that well enough.

"Relax, dear girl," Emil waved her down. "I'm not so foolish enough to send the man out alone. I know for certain that you'll be able to provide him the best support possible."

Mesia blinked, caught off guard. "… excuse me?"

"Well, you have all the qualifications necessary for such a task," Valare explained, smiling. "You're intelligent and a quick thinker, you're familiar with all of Lancel's components and technical capabilities, and you're quite skilled with barrier and teleportation spells… you'd be perfect as Mr. Lacetti's operator."

"That'd be useful," the aforementioned mercenary spoke up, drawing their attention before Mesia could formulate a response. "All the good operators are usually snapped up by the Bureau."

Mesia sputtered, still surprised by the sudden turn in the argument. "W-well it's true that the Bureau offered me a position, but—"

"That only goes to show how well-suited you'd be for this position," Valare butted in, causing the woman to blush slightly. Roas was only nodding approval, and it came to Mesia's attention that she'd walked right into that little trap. Her face colored in irritation, but before she could continue her argument, Emil placed a hand on her shoulder.

"This isn't a decision that I made lightly, Mesia, but it's the only option we have now," he said soothingly. "We need him to make sure this settlement stays safe, and to do that I need you to make sure he stays safe."

Mesia released a breath. "I just don't understand why this needs to be done," she admitted. "Ailotana can't really be that bad off, could it?"

"If we don't prove the settlement worthy in some way, it's only a matter of time before we lose it entirely to corporate politics," Emil said gravely. "I'll explain it to you in detail later. For now, it's time for us to give Mr. Lacetti his new Device. Jerome, if you please?"

The assistant standing beside started, then nodded quickly. He turned to the wall, which showed uniform rows of small metal storage containers. He brought up a holographic screen and inputted a few commands, and one particular container slid out of the wall with a hiss, allowing him to take the Device out from storage and present it to Roas, who accepted it into his open hands. Stepping back, the mercenary looked down at the arrow-shaped Lancel. It was bigger than he thought it would be. The green lens set into it blinked brightly for a moment.

"So you're to be my new Device, huh?" Roas commented.

"Affirmative, master," came Lancel's reply in a smooth male voice. Roas frowned a bit at the title.

"When you're ready, we'll upload your information into Lancel's database," Emil said, stepping up to Roas. "Then you can begin getting acclimated with the Device. And we'll need to get that done soon."

"Why?" Roas asked, turning to him. "What's the rush?"

"Because I've already got your first mission lined up, and we can begin when you're ready."

Days later, Roas found himself aboard Avon Leganza's personal cruiser, one of the few things the scientist's daughter managed to keep after his death, as it hovered high above one of Exavil's former cities. He was leaning against the wall inside the storage hanger the dimensional cruiser had, waiting for the orders Emil was to issue for the mission. Lancel hung from a cord tied around his wrist, so it was always close at hand and ready whenever it was time to battle—mercenaries couldn't take chances.

Thinking back to when Mesia found out about his hiring, Roas closed his eyes and telepathically contacted Mesia, who was piloting the ship.

Hey. You alright with this, Mesia? he asked.

It's fine, came her resigned-sounding reply. Emil explained to me why things are the way they are, and why we have to do this. I just wish there was another way.

Things will work out for the best, Roas reassured her, despite knowing that any number of things could cause this scheme to explode in their faces with disastrous results for Ailotana. But hell, this was better than doing nothing and letting some corporation run them off the land.

Before either mage could continue their conversation, a holographic screen generated from the ship blinked into life in front of Roas, causing the mercenary to stand up straighter—the mission was about to begin, and Valare was going to brief him one last time on his mission. A world map opened up on the screen , and a placement marker started blinking over one bit of land as Valare spoke.

"Eliminate the armed forces occupying the independent city of Newdam," the businessman briefed him as the screen zoomed in on the designated location. It soon changed to old footage captured during the initial occupation. "Newdam was abandoned after losing its central infrastructure to large-scale terrorist attacks. These groups just let themselves in and set up shop."

Roas noted that the aforementioned terrorist groups looked to one of the more well-financed groups inhabiting Exavil. He noted a few tanks and helicopters in the forces; he should probably on guard to make sure there weren't any rogue mages in their ranks, or worse, drones left over from the JS Incident back on Mid-Childa—the fallout of that incident was still being felt everywhere.

"This mission is a little show for the corporations, and as Ailotana's mercenary, you're our star," Valare continued. "Mishima Heavy Industries, the largest company of the lot, is especially eager to see Newdam rebuilt—we won't get another chance like this to impress them."

Roas nodded. "Anything else I should be aware of, or does that cover it?"

"That's everything. The stage is set," came the reply. "The rest is up to you—good luck."

The mercenary nodded as the screen disappeared, and the cargo hold shuddered as the locks disengaged. The floor split open, and light spilled into the chamber. Roas smirked as the wind began whipping at his hair and uniform. He was back in the game. He launched himself over the railing, and out of the cruiser to the city below.

The roar of the wind threatened to drown out his hearing. Roas could see the city of Newdam rushing up to meet him, and he could make out the armor the occupying forces were using to hold the city—easy targets now that he knew where they were. As he plummeted, the raised his right hand into the air, clutching the Device wrapped around his wrist.

"Here we go! Lancel, set up!"

"Drive ignition!"

Green light erupted from Roas, encompassing him completely as his Barrier Jacket was constituted around him. Bands of light wrapped around his body, forming a black bodysuit lined in silver, and a gray coat slashed with blue materialized atop it, forming a tabard below its belt. Plated boots and a bracer over his left wrist followed, as well as armor over his right entire arm, plates joining together to form pauldron and gauntlet, connected through a pair of cables between them.

Lancel followed suit, the arrowhead disappearing from his wrist and reconstructed into its full form around the gauntlet. A trio of black prongs plated in silver joined together with a pistol grip and an arm brace, forming a large blaster. An oval plate with a green crystal attached to its side, and a rack holding a long, silver blade underneath it formed under the grip.

"Now commencing the mission," Mesia's voice spoke to him, her image appearing on a holographic screen beside him. "We believe golem units to be the enemy's primary force—eliminate them."

"Golems? How in the world did they get that kind of hardware?" he questioned back, his face crinkled in confusion. And here I thought the worst I could run into were Gadget Drones…

"We're unsure at the time," replied his operator. "Probably a black market purchase though. Be careful down there."

"Got it," Roas said, nodding once. It would be a few more seconds before he was in the city proper, and he could already see the first targets. "I can see the preliminary force. Commencing mission."

"Roger that," was Mesia's reply, before the screen disappeared. Lancel's crystal gleamed and elicited a chime, indicating it was ready to start.

Roas' eyes narrowed, wondering how things will change from here. He heard the hushed whispers some people had made ever since he arrived in Ailotana. His arrival had leveled a portion of the nearby countryside, bringing the civil war dangerously close to their homesteads. Their fear wasn't without precedent.

And now, he wondered if Mesia would take their side when she witnessed just what made people afraid of him, and afraid of all the other mercenaries.

The first target came within sight, and his eyes locked onto it, narrowing. His arm shot up, aiming Lancel straight down as his magic flared up through him and focused into spheres of light.

"Napalm Shot!" Lancel announced as he pulled the trigger.

The bullets tore through the air, leaving pale green afterimages as they hurtled down at a group of terrorists on patrol. One of them heard a whine in the air and looked up just in time to see the lead Napalm Shot smash into his face and explode. The blast triggered the others, causing a chain reaction of explosions that engulfed the patrol. Pained screams erupted through the air as concrete shrapnel and twisted shards from broken rifles rocketed through them, slicing through clothing and flesh in equal measure. There was no mercy for them.

Shouts rose up as the sudden attack became apparent, and life sprang up into the city. The tanks became active, and men quickly spotted the incoming assailant in the sky.

Roas noted flashes of light down below, and he quickly banked off, rolling away just in the nick of time—bullets could be felt glancing off his barrier jacket, the autobarrier quickly deflecting them away. He wasted no time—there would be no mercy.

More projectiles formed and he hammered away, sending each Napalm Shot streaking towards the terrorists as he raced down to meet them. The street was rent apart in the blasts, throwing each of the men away as he cleared a path to the nearest tank. A roosting bird with black feathers squawked in fear as the attacks disturbed the building it had roosted in, but Roas shot past unmindful, arching his path as the tank centered its turret on him. Again, he rolled away, and the tank fired.

A skyscraper wall disintegrated away in the blast as the high-explosive shell missed its target. The mercenary grimaced and stepped it up, accelerating as he held his Device out to his side.

"Slasher Form!"

The lower prongs opened up to the sides as the center prong's fin swung forward. Beneath Lancel, the large blade swung up and locked into place within the three prongs. Roas concentrated, calculating the spell as pale green light condensed around the blade, and he raced straight towards the tank and swung.

The tank's crew felt a jolt as the barrel was separated from the turret. Lancel's blade had sliced through it neatly, sweeping down and leaving a deep gash in the vehicle's armor beneath it as well. Roas' gaze was indifferent as it met the terrified look of the driver, then forced his hand forward at him and channeled.

The magic bolt he fired punched through the armor with enough force to shatter the pavement below it as it ruptured out the lower deck, but Roas had already flown off, landing amidst the strewn bodies. His eyes darted about as he took in the situation.

Three tanks moving in from the front, one from the right, he noted methodically as a magic circle formed beneath his feet. Approximately eight gunmen in the general vicinity. Four on the rooftops, three more approaching from within.

He lifted up Lancel as it reverted back into its Cannon Form. The hum of energy surrounded him as more projectiles formed, and he squeezed the trigger several times, sending each group of blasts hurtling about around him and into his surroundings.

Up above, Mesia leaned away from her terminal, blanching at the scene of her friend ruthlessly eliminated each hidden target as it came into view, then darted away as the tanks cleared the obstacles and fired. The ground where he had previously stood was obliterated, only for more green projectiles to sweep through the air around the explosion. Grimacing, Mesia moved back forward and returned to monitoring the area.

Roas sent a trio of Napalm Shots hurtling into the building above the nearest tank, letting the explosion rain debris down into its armor and smash apart its turret. Two tanks down, three more left on this side of the river, he calculated, turning about just as Lancel raised a proximity warning as it received a message from Mesia's cruiser. "Danger, master!" it called, raising a screen showing a terrorist hefting up an automatic rifle from a nearby window.

Roas quickly turned and lifted up his free hand, conjuring up a Round Shield before him. Bullets pinged off of it, and he snapped off a retaliatory shot that blew apart the window and floor that the gunman had been stationed in. He paid no mind to the screaming man that was flung out of it, his clothing smoking.

Another screen appeared, and Mesia's face quickly appeared within it. "I've detected an attack chopper approaching your position from the northeast," she informed him, bringing up another screen to show the machine. "There's a few more around the bridge across from the target. Be careful."

"Got it," he said, hearing the rotors of the aforementioned chopper carry through the air. "Moving to intercept."

The chopper swung around the corner of the building, angling around sharply to face him. Grunting, Roas flung himself to the side, accelerating away as it opened up with machine cannons that tore through the side of the building and the street below. As he darted away, he saw that the helicopter was turning back, ready to give chase.

"Master!" Lancel called out, and the mercenary looked back, just in time to see the chopper launch a missile straight after him. Cursing, he picked up the pace, banking through the air and twisting about to throw off its lock, but it was no use. He twisted himself about and generated a defensive field, throwing himself aside at the last minute as the missile came within range and detonated. Gunmen below yelled and ducked out of the way as shrapnel came raining down, and Roas raced away, landing on top of a low building some distance away from the machine.

Swearing under his breath, Roas hefted Lancel and channeled, generating another green magic circle beneath him. Rings of light formed around the barrel of the Device, gathering up his magic power and condensing it into a sphere. His vision turned green as the targeting interface appeared.

He disliked attacking from long range, he never got the needed practice thanks to the life-and-death situations his missions put him in—Bureau officers tended to be better at that field of combat. But no matter—he'd make this work.

The chopper shot out from the street, quickly spotting him and turning in his direction. Inside the cockpit, the pilot and gunner's eyes widened as the saw the spell being aimed in their direction, but it was too late. "Aura Strafe," Lancel announced, the spell designation flashing over the interface lens on the side of the Device.

"Fire!" Roas shouted, squeezing the trigger. A bright lance of energy burst from the firing ring and cut through the air at high speeds. The chopper tried to bank right, but the beam punched through the fuselage and gas tank, causing a shower of sparks that quickly ignited the fuel. The machine was quickly gutted from the inside out, fire bursting through the engines. With a tortured whine, the chopper lost altitude and collapsed, striking into the side of a building and blowing apart in a massive fire flower, killing both of its crew. Lancel's steam ports opened up and jettisoned the built up heat with a hiss, and Roas took off, ignoring the deaths he had caused so far. Rising up above the rooftops, he spotted the bridge up ahead. Two more attack choppers hovered near the bridge, as well as a tank that was rolling across to reinforce the terrorists as they regrouped.

"Mesia, have you located the golem units yet?" he asked, causing a window to appear.

"All three units are on the other side of the river," she told him, sending him the intercepted radio chatter. "They've already begun activating them."

"Let's make this quick then," he said, dismissing the window as he took off. His aura quickly gave away his position to the choppers as he sped right at them. Six magic bullets formed as he thrust Lancel forward, sending them shooting out at the first chopper. The machine swerved away, and the second chopper came into range, firing. Roas blocked the shots with a Round Shield, mentally commanding the stray Napalm Shots to angle around and crush it from the side. All six blasts impacted against the far machine, obliterating it in a cloud of magic and smoke and fire. The mercenary darted away as the wreckage fell into the river, twisting back to face the first chopper as it lined up its guns.

"Slasher Form!"

The Device reformed into its melee mode once more, generating another sheath of energy around its blade. A pair of missiles launched out from the chopper, but before Roas could mode, Lancel generated a pair of Napalm Shots and quickly neutralized both in a violent explosion.

The chopper backed out, scanning for its target when Roas shot up above the smoke cloud, aiming down with Lancel's blade.

"Riser Sword!" Roas shouted, squeezing the trigger. The energy blade launched off of the blade, tearing through the sky and into the rotor joint of the chopper. The Riser Sword continued through and sheared off the tail of the machine, and it too collapsed into the waters. Spinning about, Lancel quickly reverted to its Cannon Form and readied another spell.

Down below, the tank on the bridge suddenly halted as an Aura Strafe pierced through both the tank and the bridge. The blast cut right through its ammunition, setting off the stores and destroying the entire tank in the resulting explosion. Overhead, Roas flew off, headed straight for the other side of the river.

"Enemy Golem confirmed," Mesia spoke up as he approached. "There's your target—take it out."

Roas could see the machine—a towering construct of metal, vaguely in the shape of a knight with pointed limb, hovering over the street on a rounded, legless platform. Roas cursed, recognizing it as one of the newer models produced recently. "Who the hell are supplying these guys?" he muttered to himself.

The machine looked up, and its visor glowed brightly. With an unearthly groan, the Golem unit charged, gathering blue-white magic and focusing it into homing blasts. The mercenary dove and swerved as it fired, speeding around the nearest building as the blasts chewed through it and obliterated several of its floors. Zipping back around, he fired another volley of Napalm Shots, smashing them into the second volley as they zeroed in on them. The explosion quickly blanketed the street and the air above it, and the mercenary was quick to use it escape the Golem unit's sensor net.

He paused by a building, out of sight, to catch his breath. "Any ideas, Lancel?" he asked, glancing down at the Device.

Before it could answer, the sound of crushed concrete and tortured metal met his ears as the building behind him exploded, a second Golem unit tearing through the wall—an older model, the smaller machine was forced to rely on melee prowess to attack, and it hefted a large cleaver overhead.

"Dammit!" Roas swore, spinning about. Lancel swung up, already configuring into Slasher Mode and bringing up a Round Shield to block. There was a crashing sound as the shield took the blow, deflecting it away, and Roas charged forward, stabbing Lancel's blade through the central core unit of the golem.

"Riser Slash," came the voice of the Device. Energy coalesced around the blade, shearing through the remaining armor and frying the circuitry within. Grunting with the exertion, Roas twisted about, dragging the blade out the side of the machine and flying away, letting it explode harmlessly.

"Thanks," he breathed to the Device. "That's one down. Let's go find the third one."

"Affirmative, Master."

It didn't take long—the third one was identical to the one they destroyed, armed with another large sword. It quickly spotted him as he flew at it, strafing it with a series of magic bullets that tore through the ground and the gunmen trying to reinforce it. Thrusters mounted on its back enabled it to fly after it, quickly giving him chase—which quickly alerted the large unit and signaling it to ready another volley of cannon blasts.

That's right, you go ahead and target me, he thought, glancing back. Let's see if you're as stupid as I hope you are.

Seeing crushed building up ahead, Roas thrust his free hand out at it, channeling—a magic circle formed on its roof just as the lead Golem unit opened fire. He sprinted the rest of the way, shooting past the building and the circle, and as the pursuing golem gave chase, his trap was sprung—tendrils of magic shot out from the magic circle, quickly snagging the Golem's legs and halting its advance. It struggled, using its blade to slash off the binds, but not quick enough—the other unit's cannon fire quickly swallowed it, destroying it completely.

Roas dropped under the blast and halted over the street, taking aim with Lancel. The firing array opened up and he charged, carefully targeting the large Golem unit and the nearby gunmen in the interface.

"Aura Strafe with Napalm Shot," Lancel announced, generating a dozen magic bullets around the charging attack.

"Fire!" Roas shouted, holding down the trigger.

The blasts fired out in sequence, twelve Napalm Shots launching forward like a chain-gun, ending with the Aura Strafe blasting forward at the Golem Unit. Explosions scoured the ground as each shot detonated into a gunman, and the beam shredded through the right cannon arm of the golem. As the weapon fell uselessly to the ground, the machine redirected its charge, taking aim with the left.

"Not gonna happen! Again, fire!"

Roas pulled the trigger, sending another Aura Strafe hurtling down the street—this time, his aim was dead on, piercing the core of the Golem unit. After a few seconds, the core went critical, tearing the mechanoid apart in a series of explosions. The wreckage collapsed into the street as Roas landed.

Lancel jettisoned the built-up steam, briefly clouding him from view.

The sound of shifting rubble and blazing fire was all that could be heard for the first few moments. Roas stared out at the destruction, noting each terrified gaze the remaining enemies were giving the mercenary. Roas let out a breath and hefted Lancel back up, taking aim.

That was all that was needed—after seeing his rampage, the will of the terrorists broke, and they fled. Lancel remained aimed for a brief moment before Roas lowered it, deciding it wasn't worth expending the energy—Newdam had been liberated.

"All enemy Golems destroyed—mission accomplished," Mesia announced, appearing on a holographic window with a smile. "Come on home."

Roas nodded. "Roger that."

As the screen closed, Lancel spoke up. "We work well together, Master," it said.

Roas frowned, glancing at the Device on his arm. "Don't call me that, Lancel," he ordered.

The Device chimed, but said nothing. Still, Roas could feel that it was confused.

"We're going to be in this together," he explained. "That makes us partners. Not master and servant."

"Affirmative, comrade," came Lancel's response. Satisfied, Roas nodded, and took to the air, returning to the Leganza Tech cruiser.

"You did brilliantly," Mesia said as he returned to the hold—she had been waiting for him there. "Emil is ecstatic."

Roas smiled as he released his Barrier Jacket, with Lancel returning to its storage form. "Guess this makes it official, doesn't it?"

Mesia nodded, though she didn't feel particularly enthused about it. "I'm sure he'll do his part," she said. "Then you'll be sent back into the fray."

Roas nodded back. He knew that after this, everything was going to change.