Alright everyone...after months of being away...after all the talk about it and hype...I'm finally doing it. Introducing the first chapter of the rewrite of "The Sorceress Cycle".

For the few fans out there of the original...you will notice almost immediately that this appears to be a completely new story, and, in truth, it is for the most part. Expect this story to be probably the longest in the series, even longer than "The Aleron Saga". Expect an almost completely new cast and many more references to FFVIII with FFVII finally being put to rest.

I've put a lot of time and thought into this. I hope it's better received...because I'm sure not going through this a third time.

Without further ado...


THE SERVANT


The Sorceress Cycle


200 Years Later


Dael Levinson eased back into the chair. As soon as she was in a good position, she lifted the headset and fastened it around one ear. The eyepiece monitor was flipped out and placed over one eye. That done, she took only a few moments to compose herself. One inhale and one slow exhale. Her mind cleared, her focus solidified, and her anxiety subsided. Her eyes went to the ceiling of the small, dark control room and stared at nothing.

…I can do this.

Her eyes went back down to the console in front of her, and her hands immediately went to the keyboard. They started typing furiously, bringing up the stats of the people in her current command. Yet not waiting for that alone, her eyes immediately went to the electronic display just above it. Lettering was already there, detailing her briefing for this latest mission. As her hands flawlessly typed, her eyes read over the display.


Situation: Red Critical

A detachment of Fuliet terrorists have used this morning's series of bombings as a diversion to infiltrate the administrative district. They have taken five representatives of the Senate hostage, including the Senate Minority Leader, along with two police officers and eight civilians. It is believed that they are seeking to cause severe political instability by assassinating the Minority Leader. The hostage taking is likely only a ploy to gain more media coverage for a public execution.

The terrorists have made it to the residential district and have taken refuge in the older part of the city. This is likely due to the lack of ease of access as well as the inability to get accurate targets for snipers. They have set a thirty minute ultimatum for a helicopter to take them to an airplane out of the country. Again, they likely know that we have little chance of meeting that ultimatum. They must be neutralized and the hostages rescued within the time window. At the time of your deployment, you have 23 minutes remaining.


Plenty of time…I hope.

Let's get to work.

Dael didn't waste a second. Already, her mind was thinking of what to do…alternatives to consider…options to try… She had to be quick. For an operation like this, and for Esthar's Hawks, 23 minutes might as well have been an eternity. But that was no reason to get cocky. This wouldn't be a Red Critical mission if things were so simple…

She called into the headset a moment later.

"Hawk Team, report in."

"Hawk One here."

"Hawk Two here."

"Hawk Three, ready."

"Hawk Four here."

"Hawk Five, ready to roll."

"Hawk Six, coming on in."

"Right. Hawk One, is the target location in sight yet?"

"Coming up on it now, sir."

"First things first. Deploy around the area in a Trinity pattern. Hawk Three, give me the low down as soon as possible. Hawks Five and Six, see how many targets are on the roof and how good of a shot you can get. Move."

Now came the truly nerve-wracking part…waiting. Dael couldn't do anything at the moment except wait for the time it would take for her units to get into position. This was the residential district…and the older part of it. That likely meant that it wouldn't be easy. Most of the loss of time was going to take place here. Nevertheless, she held and waited, staying patient. She had to depend on the unit to do this right. They were only as good as the weakest member, after all. Time continued to tick by… One minute…two minutes…three minutes…four minutes…five…six…seven…

Finally, around minute eight, with 15 minutes to go, the word came back in.

"Hawk One, in position."

"Hawk Three, in position."

"Hawk Five, in position."

Dael's anxiety subsided somewhat as she applied it to thinking once again. "Alright…get me live."

Another brief pause, but another necessary one. By deploying in the Trinity pattern, the unit was in perfect condition to deploy special sonar sensors around the building in a special triangular pattern. It would key in on all sources of movement throughout the building, giving Dael some live eyes in on the action. Furthermore, each member of her unit would be highlighted, giving her an idea of their position at all times as well. She waiting for a few more moments to pass, but then reacted. Believing them to be done, she began to type on her keyboard again.

Her display soon changed once more. Sure enough, the sensors were already in place. It took a moment, but blue lines against a black background were traced in wave-like patterns across her screen, like being sketched by some sort of strange circulating mechanism. It took a few moments, but soon the outline of a building appeared. Along with it came images of surrounding buildings, each one larger than the central one. Six red blips, in three groups of two, appeared on the buildings, each group on a different one. To Dael's displeasure, few large windows showed up on the central building. Lots of large, old debris, ductwork, and piping showed up on the roof of it as well, and eight figures were there as well. They were already outnumbered…

"Report."

"Not the best situation, sir. We have a four story building with little window access. The construction grade is a cruder type of fallout cement, so we're having a hard time getting specific signals from inside. What I can see is that we've got at least eight targets on the roof. I believe there're seven or eight on the third floor holed up in the center. Based on the spacing of the infrared, I'd say most of the hostages are massed into one room…probably as a shooting gallery or grouped for a bomb. I'd lean toward the latter…I'm detecting enough electrical activity even through the walls to imply one of the older detonators. Based on the sizes of the signatures, I'd say some of the civilians are children, but I can't be sure. Looks like three of them are moving out…probably to make the rounds of the fourth floor."

"Five and Six, how does the roof look?"

"Horrible. There's pipes and ductwork everywhere. The angles aren't that great either. No way we can get more than four or five of them, and that's pushing it. Best we can hope for is dropping some and ambushing the others. But that'll make a ton of noise…"

"Other ways in?"

"Fourth floor has some large windows. Nothing else is accessible unless we can neutralize the roof. This part of town won't allow for large sewer access…not into one of these buildings. Not like we have time, either."

Dael once again took a few precious seconds to think over this. Pretty bad situation, that much was true… It couldn't be solved simply like so many other operations… Of course, that was why Esthar's Hawks were here. They specialized in this…and they were counting on people like Dael to get them out of it. It didn't take long to come up with something, however. Although in an ideal situation, she would call for backup to storm the place en masse in one large maneuver, with thirteen to fourteen minutes left…she needed to do something else. A moment later, she began to speak again.

"Alright…Five and Six, I want you to run a diversion. Let's make it on the south side of the building. Don't make it too bad. I just want enough noise to get the attention of the people on the roof. As for the other two groups, get ready to move in through the windows on the east and west sides. Once there, I want Three and Four to run a 'moleville operation' and One and Two to get into prime position to storm the third floor. Get into position and move on my signal. You've got ninety seconds."

Dael cut the intercom off and waited after that. Slowly, she watched the blips on the monitor move, in particular her own and the three hostiles that were patrolling the fourth floor. She saw them about for a few seconds, checking each of the rooms and moving back in. However, she assumed that they wouldn't be on that floor forever. They'd head back down eventually, hopefully to check the stairs and the second floor. Sure enough, as the ninety-second limit approached, they began to move back down to the stairwell and started to move through the third floor down to the second. This might be perfect…

"Alright teams…go to work."

Although Dael couldn't hear or see it, she knew at that moment that Five and Six created some sort of noise. Not from their position, of course. They would make some sound at a distance. Maybe it would be as simple as throwing a can into a hollow street. Maybe it would be something more sophisticated like using a grenade or knocking some material out. Whatever it was, it would be sure to gain the attention of the sentries on the roof.

Even as some of the blips began to move onto that location while others stayed put, the next part of the phase went into operation. To the observer watching the monitor, they would think that the two other groups had suddenly sprouted wings, for they were abruptly sailing over the street and straight for windows opposite from them. Of course they weren't. They were using a thin, translucent line launcher and grappling across to the opposite side. For any normal troops or officers, the amount of time it would have taken to use such a device and successfully grapple over would have been twelve seconds with lots of noise and visibility. However, Esthar's Hawks could pull it off in three seconds flat. In that time frame, it wouldn't matter if the sentries moved or not. They only had to look away for a moment. Though she couldn't see them, Dael knew that both people grappled together, with just enough time for the first grappler to get out of the way before the second landed. They wouldn't smash the window, but quickly deploy suction to attach to the wall and glass just long enough to pop the window open or break it silently, then enter the building. Sure enough, right on schedule, the two teams entered the building on the readout.

In the next few moments, they went to work. Now inside, they deployed additional sonar scanners. Soon, they were obtaining a readout of the inside of the building as well as the outside. Dael herself soon could make out most of the details that were located within. Indeed, it was an older residential area, what with the confusing, almost maze-like layout of rooms. Signals became even stronger now. Dael could actually identify some of the weapons the people on the third floor were using based on their signature. But she wasn't terribly worried about that. She instead watched Three and Four. They began to move even more quickly than One and Two, moving to each location underneath one of the remaining standing sentries. Once they arrived, small electronic signals lit up on the ceiling beneath them…the sure sign that a "moleville operation" was working. Since the snipers weren't able to neutralize all the people on the roof at once, bombs were being placed underneath the remainder to take them down. It was easy to get placement with the sonar sensors feeding information to the Hawks moving through the building.

While the bombs were still being deployed, One and Two arrived at their location…around a doorway just in front of the stairwell. Right down below were the hostages and the remaining hostiles. Eight on two were normally terrible odds. However, Esthar's Hawks came well equipped. A single high-potency flash grenade would stun everyone in the room for a good fifteen seconds…more than long enough to neutralize them all.

There was only one potential complication… And now that One and Two were in position, Dael planned to address it.

"Hawk One." Dael called out into the headset. "Do you have a positive ID on whoever has the detonator?"

"Still getting a lot of noise, sir…" The voice answered in a whisper. "But based on electrical activity, we think it's the one standing by his lonesome nearest to them. Must be suicidal."

"I'm not putting that above a person from Fuliet. Alright…prepare to launch a 'blast and crash' maneuver. I'll tell you when the three sentries make it back to your…"

Dael suddenly trailed off. Until now, her eyes had been watching the three sentries. Just as expected, two of them did indeed go down to the second floor to begin their new rounds. However…something unexpected was happening with the third…

"Sir, do you see that?"

"I do, Hawk Two…"

The third sentry wasn't following the others. He was doubling back to the stairs. Dael tensed slightly on seeing this. This was a fly in the ointment. For a moment, she hoped for the best. Perhaps he was just checking back a little. Maybe he was going off duty. However…no such luck. The figure soon reached the stairs, and then began to ascend them again. The sentry was returning to the fourth floor.

"One and Two, you aren't making any noise in there, are you?"

"Not a sound, sir."

"What course of action, sir?"

Dael hesitated, thinking for a moment.

"Three and Four, are you almost done?"

"Only about halfway done, sir…"

Dael struggled not to swear. The figure was over halfway up the stairs, and still climbing. What to do? She thought for a moment longer.

"…Course of action, sir?"

The young woman hesitated a moment longer, then finally spoke up. "Alright…neutralize him on approach. Three and Four, pick up the pace."

"We're trying, sir, but these two keep moving…"

"Just hurry!"

Even as Dael said this, the figure reached the top of the stairs. Based on the speed, Dael couldn't automatically tell if the figure was just being careful or if he had actually heard them moving around upstairs. Well, whatever the cause, there was no time to find out. The figure began to approach the doorway next. On the other side, One and Two were pressed against the wall. Their own weapons were tightly held against them and they stayed perfectly still. Slowly, the figure began to cross the threshold of the door…when One and Two sprang on him. Only a tiny half-mumble was heard in the headset of the hostile before he was immediately and silently taken down by the two.

Not long after, the radio returned. "Sentry neutralized."

Dael let out a sigh. Alright…I can deal with this… She told herself. Just one slip up. It affected everything, to be sure…but it wasn't the end of the world. It only meant their window of time had shrunk dramatically. Now, they only had however long amount of time they expected their sentry to take… That made things a little less than perfect, but it should still be good, so long as they struck quickly. On that note, Dael was just about to amend the plan. First, they would create another bit of noise to make sure the sentries returned to the room. Then, they would strike as one as planned. While the snipers and bombs took care of the roof, One and Two would move in, making sure to neutralize the detonator first…

"Um…sir, we have a problem."

Dael's train of thought was interrupted. She immediately turned back to the screen below. "Problem? What kind of problem?"

"I'm finally getting a good reading on the device they have downstairs. Based on the signature and size, I'd say there's a great chance it's wired as a dead man's switch."

Dael froze in her chair. Sweat, which had been controlled until now, at last began to well up on her brow. She had to struggle twice as hard not to curse now. Now they were really in trouble. A "dead man's switch" in modern usage meant that if the hostile's pulse failed to register, usually by remote device, the bomb would go off as well. That left two ways to frustrate any attacker. If they came and the bomber saw them coming, they could detonate the switch. If they didn't and they were shot or otherwise struck down silently, then the bomb would go off as well. The only way to stop it for certain was to incapacitate, not kill, the target without them knowing anything was coming. And from his position, that wasn't very possible…

"Orders, sir?"

Dael hesitated…stumped. She honestly didn't know what to do. The situation wasn't nearly so easy anymore… They could take out the people on the roof, throw in the flash grenade, ambush the hostiles…and still be left with the problem of the detonator. So long as the bomb could still go off, the hostages were in danger. Hell…her team might be in danger… There was no telling how powerful the bomb was. This was a problem…a real problem. And if that wasn't enough, time was running out. They didn't have much longer…

"…Sir? Orders?"

Dael struggled to think of something. There had to be a way out of this. There were always alternatives. She couldn't just give up without trying something. But what? What did they have? Flash grenades…sniper rifles…their individual melee and firing weapons…some explosives…a detonator…some combat knives…

Explosives…

A strange idea suddenly popped into Dael's head. Well…strange might have been too light a word for it. Crazy was more appropriate. Nothing in the records indicated that something like this had ever been done. As such, there was no appropriate protocol for it. No standard to follow. It might not work at all or it might work too well…doing more than just what was intended. It would be no good if this move killed the one with the detonator. Yet she knew enough above explosives to give it a rough estimate. It might not be the best in the world, but she was betting it would work. What was the alternative? In a few moments, they'd discover that a sentry was missing, and then the hostages were dead regardless…as well as her team. She had to try it. And she had to do so now while there was still some time left…

"Hawk Three…do you have any explosives left?"

"…Yes sir, but-"

"Alright. Take half of a standard block and plant it over the top of the detonator's location."

As expected, there was a brief pause on the other end.

"Forgive me, sir…but are you crazy?"

"Just do it! We don't have much time and you need to get into position! Hawk Four, get ready to hit that detonator on my mark!"

There was a pause from the blip on the screen momentarily. However, it didn't last. Seeming to follow the orders, Hawk Three began to move to the appropriate location. Seeing as they had started from one end of the building and worked their way to the other, it would take some time. Dael only hoped it wouldn't take too long. Time was against them now, and there was no telling when they'd move on the floor below. Hopefully, it would be a ways yet…

No such luck. Hawk Three wasn't even in position yet when both sentries on floor two halted. After a moment, they turned and began to move back the way they had come. Their speed was quicker than before. Hawk Three realized what was going on. They had to suspect something. Their leader probably was radioing for them to return to the upper floor and look for their companion. Dael suppressed another swear. She clenched her hand into a fist and watched nervously.

Come on…

Finally, as the two sentries reached the bottom stairwell, Hawk Three reached the location. The blip went motionless. It would take time for the explosive to be deployed. During that time, the detonator could move or the sentries could arrive. Either option would ruin things. Dael found herself nervously watching the screen, looking at both the people now climbing the first flight of stairs as well as the detonator. The detonator didn't move, but the people readily ascended. Slowly, Dael's fingers began to drum on the console. Sweat began to roll down the side of her head. She began to whisper "come on" like a mantra as she watched and waited…

The sentries cleared the first flight and started up the second. Dael began to wince. They weren't going to make it. It was taking too long. Even once the charges were set, there would be a moment to get clear. There wasn't enough time. The sentries went up past half…then to the top. They began to move for the doorway. Dael realized there was only one option left. It was a big gamble, but she had to try. She had to hope no one was waiting for them to immediately call down. They would have a few more moments after they vanished, and then that would be it. It wasn't much, but it was all they had.

"Take those two out." She instructed.

Moments later, the two sentries passed through the entryway. Cries were soon heard from the headset as they were pounced on by the two Hawks. They were louder than last time, but Dael wasn't sure if they were loud enough to be heard or if it was her mind playing tricks on her… Either way, it was too late to do anything about it. The two sentries were taken down in moments, and quickly dragged away from the entrance to leave more room for a charge. Still the detonator stayed put. Still Hawk Three worked.

Finally, the worst happened. Dael overheard it on the radio. Voices were calling out in a Fuliet dialect. These weren't whispers or muffles. They were full volume. They were coming from downstairs from people shouting up to the sentries. They expected them to report in immediately. At that…Dael realized it was over. It was too late. They had to strike now…and hope for the best…

"The charge is set! I'm getting clear now!"

Dael's eyes widened on hearing this, her mouth literally freezing right before it could say a word.

Finally…

"Everyone engage, now!"

A chorus of noise went off…a mixture of explosions, gunshots, and general clamor and noise. All at once, the strike was made. The explosives went off on the roof, blowing holes under four of the sentries and dumping them on the ground below. At the same time, the snipers on the roof outside fired twice each, taking out the four remaining sentries with four bullets. The one lone explosive went off on the floor above the detonator, at the same time as One and Two threw a flash grenade downstairs and let it blast, right before charging in themselves with guns blazing. Over the eruptions, the bullets, and the cries, it was impossible to sort anything out. Knowing the scanners would be scrambled, Dael did the only thing she could do. Folding her hands in front of herself and in front of her face, she closed her eyes and refused to look until the chaos died down or until a statement was called back to her. For a few precious seconds, she waited as the noise continued…waiting for a break in it…

And finally, her eyes did open when she heard a voice call, not over the headset, but over a loudspeaker in the room.

"Mission terminated. Open it up."


The side of the control room slowly opened. Not a door, mind you…but the entire side of the control room. Cracking open like puzzle pieces, the various layers peeled apart from one another, revealing the dark interior of the small chamber. There wasn't much to it. Aside from a chair, the headset apparatus, the monitor, and the control panel, there was nothing else to the room except the officer cadet that had been inside. The control room itself, if one took a more distant look at it, was hardly a control room at all. It was mounted on a special armored truck to be deployed at sites. It had been deployed right there in Esthar, right in the old residential district in an abandoned sector. There were no shortages of those in modern times… Only one hundred yards ahead was the point where the team had been dropped off. If you looked carefully in between buildings, you could see the same building where the operation had taken place. What you couldn't see were the various Hawk cadets and actors portraying both hostages and hostiles alike slowly picking themselves up and beginning to make their way back. The only other people in the area were a compliment of technicians, all uniformed tech officers, at the periphery who controlled the various false signals and any elements of chaos that would be needed.

For now, the young cadet in the control room, now beginning to swallow and remove her headset, was only focused on a single man standing outside the entrance.

The individual was well built and highly toned. However, underneath a decorated blue and gold uniform, high collared and cuffed, showing the marks of many operations and individual battles, one would find a different type of "high marks". He was crisscrossed with numerous scars and signs of old injuries, the indications of a true battlefield warrior who had earned his rank through much combat and struggle. His face was roughened from numerous battles…his beard and slightly unshaven face indicating that he cared more for duty and responsibility than keeping up appearances to try and attract or impress "social circles". Hanging from his back was a large sheath with sword combined with a buckler…both made of lightweight, durable, experimental steel. His weapons alone, both in terms of craftsmanship and materials involved, were probably worth a city block. He had a beard and mustache trimmed to be around the mouth, but, like the rest of his chair, seemed bushy and wild. His eyes had a look that was both alert and weary in them…alert from being highly trained…weary from having seen so much in his time. Traces of gray showed his age to be in his 50s, although given his appearance one might have guessed far older. His powerful hands, gnarled from having clenched and grasped and struck and dug so many times, were clasped in front of him around an information data tablet as he assumed a fairly calm posture.

The cadet in the control room, Dael, was a marked contrast. Her own uniform bore no such decorations, although it was definitely of the same style. Her traditional weapons were missing as well…her katana and her "Mage" Gun. That made her feel uncomfortable enough. Often, she did feel as if she was naked without her precious family weapons, but unfortunately she had not been on a combat simulation, but a leadership one. And it would reflect poorly on her, she thought, if she needed her weapons on her to feel "secure". She looked lithe enough, and sure enough she was when it came to feats of agility and speed (all of Esthar's Hawks had to be), but she had enough muscle as well to send most unsuspecting burly men to the floor before they even knew what hit them. Even if she didn't, she had done enough hand-to-hand combat training to know how to exploit weaknesses and multiply her own level of power within blows.

She was a young woman of 19. Her hair was naturally a very earth brown tone. Her eyes were vivid and green. Her face was youthful and fair…almost to a degree which she hated. After all, most people in Esthar's Hawks didn't take her seriously. From as far back as she could remember, which was quite a while since she had been enrolled in Esthar's Hawks since near infancy, the other cadets had frowned upon her for appearing too "soft". They, by comparison, all looked hardened and rough from the intensive training. Dael had hoped she would too with time, but she never did. Any hardness she managed to obtain seemed to wash away not long after, leaving her to stand out in terms of beauty even from the few other female candidates. As cadets had no time for dating and Dael herself was never interested in "fooling around", this led to resentment if solely from the perspective of seeing something that others wanted that they couldn't have. Of course…there were other reasons for resentment too…

With the man, her superior officer, now waiting for her, Dael sighed inwardly and began to walk out to meet him. This was an especially nerve wracking simulation for multiple reasons. She had cleared the final combat training simulations some time ago. However, she was going for officer placement right out of cadet-hood. That meant more simulations like the one she just went through, where she directed other cadets in operations of test cases to test her leadership and thinking ability. They were tense enough…but this had been the final exam. This would determine whether or not she would make it as an officer or be forced into "grunt" work for a few years first. Last of all, however, was the fact that this wasn't just some instructor or regular petty officer… This was the head of Eschar's Hawks himself, Colonel Morrick Regalis. The man could frown a nutkin out of a tree…

However, Dael had barely cleared the entrance to the control room when she saw something else that made her nearly tense out of the corner of her eye…

Warwick…

Gathered near the simulation technicians nearby, it seemed as if Dael had gotten a crowd. Unfortunately, it wasn't one of supporters. Getting observers itself wasn't a common occurrence. There was an unwritten rule among members of the Academy that you didn't go to watch other people's tests…especially not final exams. They didn't need the pressure. Luckily for Dael, she hadn't known about them until now…but that didn't change her being anxious at this point. After all, these simulations often ended up being how peers ranked each other at a personal level within the Academy…and even though she was leaving soon one way or another, she didn't like it…especially if she decided to remain to try for an officer position again. Yet this was especially bad considering who was there…

A smug-looking, lean, and dark-haired cadet named Warwick was standing at the head of the group along with his traditional posse of six or eight additional cadets. Truth be told, he was one of the best cadets in the school. He consistently got high marks on everything. He was very popular with most of the other cadets too. Already a son of a member of the upper class in Esthar as well as having political connections, he too was looking to further his own status and his family's by passing the officer training program. Had this been any other time…he might have been the school's ace by far. However…this was not his term.

It was no secret that Esthar's Hawks had been male biased for generations. They had the government's policies toward wanting to "keep women out of danger" to blame for that. It had led to an undercurrent of sexism in military occupations in Esthar for some time. However, that was changing. Following the big economic turndown in recent years, people were moving out of the homes and into the workforce. This place was no different. But even if it had been, Dael had been "born and bred" in Esthar's Hawks. She hadn't just accepted her fate that her parents had placed her here at an early age. She embraced it with pride, aiming to excel at everything in school as one of the few new female candidates.

It had led to no small animosity. After all, the place had to make some changes to accommodate for female facilities. Some people thought that had led to special treatment. Others thought that meant that she would get it easier than them, or would be able to use the fact that she was a woman to get out of some harder duty than the rest of them had to endure. That was, of course, ridiculous. Colonel Regalis would never stand for that…even if politicians wanted him to. And Dael surely had never felt special privileged. She had simply applied herself more strongly than anyone else. Yet the fact remained that she was excelling in the Academy. She obtained the highest marks in all classes…including the ones she shared with Warwick. Oh, once in a while he would do better, but in the end, the cumulative scores would always put him at second best. And not all of her fellow cadets felt that was due to her efforts alone… Hence, more resentment.

However, lately, Dael hadn't been doing so well. As she had intensified in her late term studies, striving for the officer placement, things had gotten more competitive. Who succeeded here would determine where they would be stationed if they passed, not to mention if they would even get the position of officer. The best position would be assigned to Code IV International Affairs…but they accepted only one new cadet officer a year… The mounting pressure had begun to wear away at her. Her grades and marks had not yet slipped, but they had come close more than once. She had been making clumsy mistakes and nearly stumbling. For officer exams, one bad mark could ruin you. That's how badly they were weighted. And she knew that Warwick knew the same thing. He had already managed to complete his exams a month earlier, and he had been eagerly hanging on her since then, waiting for her to crack and slip up…and even encouraging it. There was still one simulation left…and it would determine which one would be ranked higher.

"Hey Levinson!" She heard Warwick call out even as she struggled to walk up to the colonel. "How'd you like the Dead Man's Chance scenario?"

Without turning his head, the colonel called out. "Cadet, if you can't keep your comments to yourself during another cadet's exam, which, I might add, is not over until the final evaluation is given…I'll be happy to have you redirected toward latrine orderly for the remainder of your time until graduation."

Warwick remained silent after hearing that. However, the comment had only made Dael more tense. So…this was the infamous "Dead Man's Chance" scenario… She had hoped she had already taken it before now, but apparently it wasn't until this point that she had. That made her more fearful than ever. The Dead Man's Chance scenario was supposed to be a classic example of a "no-win" situation…that there was no way for a student to get perfect marks on it because something would always happen. The main purpose was to see how a student decided to respond when they had to make tough decisions… That terrified Dael. The objective wasn't to try and find a way to win but to find a way to minimize damage, as she understood it…something she hadn't done. That thought lay heavily on her mind as she came to a halt in front of Colonel Regalis and saluted.

The colonel returned it, and then brought the tablet up in front of him. Turning it on, he began to look over it. "I see you followed fairly standard procedure…you adapted to the situation well…you exploited what advantages you had…you stayed on schedule…" The colonel paused momentarily after that, then shifted his tone. "You were a bit sloppy on the roof situation, especially with that diversion. You cut it pretty close there, but I think that can be overlooked…" After musing a bit longer, he spoke again. "You felt sending in only two units against eight hostiles was a wise choice?"

"I never commit more resources than necessary." Dael answered calmly. "It frees them up in case of emergency."

"So you felt two were adequate?"

"Given the intel and weapons, yes."

"You thought a moleville operation was best for neutralizing the people on the roof?"

"If there had been more snipers, I wouldn't have. But I wasn't sure what kind of communications they had to contact the people with the hostages. They might have had remote detonators. I couldn't afford to let one escape."

The colonel looked down a bit longer at the tablet. After a few moments more, the fateful moment arrived. He looked up to Dael again as he lowered the tablet and folded his hands again.

"Last question, cadet…what were you thinking with that last explosive?"

Dael, despite all of her focus, drive, and personal will power, couldn't help but flush a shade pale momentarily.

"That was a fairly reckless move. You took an awful gamble. You didn't bother to test for structural soundness, you ordered the detonation almost too quick for your team member to get clear, not to mention that there was a good chance that it could have hurt some of the hostages from that distance. The Firebrand personal charges we dispense to Esthar's Hawks are not to be used indiscriminately. I thought I made that clear back when we first discussed battlefield usage…"

Dael could only sigh. "Yes sir. I know sir… But…"

"No one has ever tried anything like this. It's beyond any standard procedure in the manuals or in training."

Dael paused again, long enough to swallow. "…But it was the only move that made sense at the time, sir. At that point, I knew the chances of stopping the enemy from using the bomb were minimal. We had already incapacitated one sentry. There wasn't the time to get around beneath him. And if we could, we were too low on personnel to try a dual strike. I know I made a gamble, but it was something that I felt confident doing. I've seen the moleville operation performed dozens of times and I know the standard distance to get clear for a Firebrand charge. Based on that, I felt I was qualified enough to make a rough estimate of how effective it would be to do one in reverse, essentially."

"Rough estimate?" Colonel Regalis echoed. "You put the lives of those hostages, some VIPs, on the line for a rough estimate?"

"Sir," Dael continued to insist. "With all due respect, all other options that immediately came to mind involved definite loss of hostage life or the loss of members of my team. Those were losses I wasn't willing to take at this time. I understand I acted in a very unorthodox manner, but it presented the chance of possibly saving all of the hostages as well as my team. I was willing to try that before I would have to be ready to simply take several deaths."

The colonel hesitated after hearing this. He stared at Dael momentarily, as if calculating this response and weighing it mentally. Dael herself stayed as bold as she could under that gaze. To be honest…she didn't know if her decision had been a total flop and failure or not. She hadn't gotten the data back yet. She feared that it had indeed backfired horribly. If so, then she realized she had just totally failed her final exam. That would be enough to make her have to retake the entire course…

"…You do realize," The colonel continued. "That all it takes is one loose piece of debris from the ceiling to strike whatever trigger system that detonator was using. Then it's all for nothing. Correct?"

Dael swallowed again. That wasn't a good word. She had heard shots before, but that was neither here nor there. As soon as the explosion on the "hostages" went off, the simulation would have ended. All of the other shots and explosions wouldn't have counted. And things normally happened so fast that a cadet could indeed fail an entire trial before they even knew what had happened to them. Did this mean that she had indeed failed? That the bomb had been triggered and she had lost both two members of her group and the hostages? That would be a definite failure for certain. However, worrying about it wouldn't help now…

"…Yes sir."

"And yet…as you stated…you felt it was a gamble that was worth taking, correct?

"…Yes sir."

The colonel went silent again. He looked over Dael a bit longer. After that, however, he pulled up the data tablet once again. He looked down to it, and this time pulled out a stylus from the side. He began to make marks on it. Dael suppressed another swallow and struggled not to tremble. There was silence between the two for a few moments that seemed like an eternity, broken only by occasional beeps.

Finally, the colonel looked back up to Dael. His look was hard and stern.

"As Cadet Warwick pointed out…this indeed was the Red Critical VIP Abduction Scenario, Setting Esthar Urban…more colloquially known among your peers as the Dead Man's Chance scenario or, among us instructors, as the 'No-S Scenario'…aptly named because no candidate has ever obtained an S-ranking on it. Although the highest rank ever recorded on it is B, it is designed specifically so that no candidate can get an S-ranking on it, and I assure you here and now that you will not go down in history as the first."

Dael's palms clenched, suddenly feeling sweaty.

"You've been reckless in protocol in the past, Cadet Levinson. I thought you had improved but this scenario proved me wrong. If you ever plan to make it as a high officer, you will have to show more discipline and regard for caution, for your sake as well as that of civilians. Twelve points off for conduct."

Dael swallowed. That was already a B. She struggled hard not to quiver.

"With that out of the way…" Colonel Regalis continued, suddenly trailing off and pausing momentarily. He let out a sudden exhale. "…It appears you know your explosives. And it seems you can think on your feet when a crisis arises. Not to mention that you did something that no other candidate has ever attempted before on this scenario. Original thinking, especially in regards to situations that many people handle 'by the book', is worth a little extra." Another exhale. "And since your 'gamble' apparently paid off…with your team totally neutralizing all hostiles without setting off the bomb and only minor injuries to the hostages from your extra explosive…in addition to the five extra credit points I'm awarding you for your originality…I have no choice but to give you the grade you deserve: a ninety-three."

Dael's tension evaporated. Instead, her eyes began to widen. She nearly dropped out of her official stance. Her jaw began to loosen as her mouth opened. Picking up on this, the colonel gave her a smile.

"Congratulations, cadet. You're the first person ever to score an A on this scenario."

Dael nearly collapsed to the ground. Her face began to show a glow over it. She struggled hard not to simply spread her face into a smile. She couldn't believe it. She had an A. The first A ever on the impossible scenario. Combined with her cumulative score…that easily catapulted her to the top of the class. The position in Code IV International Affairs was as good as hers. Not only that…but she had proven herself to be one of the best students in the history of the Academy. She was one step closer to being the best of the best in Esthar's Hawks. Only the fact that she had been trained in self-discipline for so long kept her from showing an overflow of joy. Instead, in the strongest voice she could muster, which was still almost breathless, she stayed still with a normal face and responded.

"Thank you, sir."

The colonel let out a small chuckle. "No need to thank me, cadet. I've always said you get what you earn in this Academy, no more and no less. And to be honest, I was never in any doubt about you. Your performance over the past five years has spoken for itself on numerous occasions. Now…I'll put off officially welcoming you into Esthar's Hawks until graduation in a week, but for right now, I'm glad to tell you that I'm certain your contribution to our branch's success will be of great benefit to the future of Esthar."

Dael felt her head beginning to swell, but managed to keep it restrained. "Thank you, sir."

The colonel nodded in response. He made a few more adjustments to the tablet, and then lowered it again. His own smile disappearing, he straightened again and became totally official once more.

"Cadet, as of this moment, your duties at the Academy are complete. Since you have met the requirements for graduation and inclusion as an officer, you will be immediately relocated in one week's time. Until then, you have the week before graduation effectively on leave. Enjoy it. You are dismissed."

The colonel gave Dael a salute, which the young woman immediately returned.

"Thank you, sir."

Dael turned and immediately began to walk off site. As she did, she couldn't help but notice again in her peripheral vision Warwick and his company. They looked as if someone had cancelled the winter festival. They stared blankly at Dael as she walked off. They had kept track of her grades even better than she had. They knew full well what this latest score meant…how she was ranked now…how she would go down as not only being the best in the class but one of the best students ever to graduate from the Academy for Esthar's Hawks. Dael didn't really care. She was out for personal betterment and achievement, not to outdo anyone else. As a result, she tried hard not to look at them. She knew even a glance would be perceived as being smug, and it didn't pay to make bad blood with one's comrades. Besides, they weren't on her mind right now.

As she reached the periphery and began to move to the walled off area of the testing field, she thought only of one thing. She had been stressed for months with these exams. Now she wanted to unwind.


Gaia had changed again.

Following a global, universal ban on the use of mako power two hundred long years ago and the arrival of the mysterious entities called the Guardian Forces, things had changed in the world. For the first real time in many centuries, technology and magic developed together. Advances continued to be made in both realms as people were born with the gift of magic or learned how to use it through other means. The advent of using oil had given birth to new systems of boats, airships, trains, cars, and industry. More and more of the world, once wild and savage, became paved and populated by the human race. Much of the mystery was chronicled, categorized, and scrutinized by the scientists of the human race. Much of what was once considered myth or fabrication was now understood and accepted…a contradiction not seen since the War of the Magi. Now, there was a world where mages were as commonplace as airplanes, and magic was as commonplace as electrical power. It was an odd yet tenuous assembly that had grown through the ages.

Although magic and technology were highly mixed in the modern world, it still was not a perfect assembly. Some things were still solidly in the realm of one sphere or the other. Nations, for example, thrived or declined based on their grasp of technology. Those who possessed the best know-how, capital, and technology prospered. Those that refused to adopt the new ways faded and failed, much as their predecessors had done two hundred years earlier. Only no takeovers or wars were needed for that. The nations simply faded into obscurity, lagging in a primitive state as the rest of the world moved on and left them behind. They were considered the "backwater" nations of the world now, ridiculed and mocked roundly by the greater nations for decades as they continued to prosper and leave them behind.

However, many nations did use technology, and the innovators were soon the greatest of these. In the lead, dominating the entire southern half of the Eastern Continent with the largest infrastructure ever built by mankind, was Esthar. A engineering and communications giant, the country was easily the most prosperous in the world and boasted the largest population to show for it. It represented many ideas of a utopia for generations, with great glowing skyscrapers rising into the sky as far as the eye could see, magnetic monorails sending trails and transports throughout the region day and night, clean-burning factories sending out hundreds of tons of goods a day, vast computer communication networks linking the highest CEO to the lowest child in kindergarten, water and heat for everyone, and economic and political stability. For many years, it was the dream all other nations aspired to be, and even today more countries wished they were like it than not…for all the warts it had now developed…

In the magical realm, however, there was a difference. Although magic was now rather commonplace, it was only that way inasmuch as those who wielded it were commonplace. Everyone, with proper training, could use magic to an extent…but such work took years of refinement and fierce dedication, and even then would have little results in many cases. For those who it came more naturally, they were joined into one world-wide order…a branch separate from any government or political party that held themselves apart as being neutral, almost like a world-wide organization or religion of sorts that simply sojourned wherever its members landed. For many years, they had affiliated themselves with their founder, and had called themselves the Order of Aerith. However, their founder had resented that title, and after a few generations, they instead aligned themselves with an ancient myth from the culture they had descended from that had long since died out, ascribing their origin to the maker of the first "Cetra". Now, they called themselves the Order of Hyne.

Within this order were two branches. Most fell under the first one, the Children of Hyne. Almost everyone on Gaia who could use magic to a reasonably strong capacity was in this order. From early ages, they were brought into the group, where their talents were refined and shaped…especially through alliances with the greatest of allies of the Order of Hyne: the Guardian Forces themselves. The highest members of their order were blessed with even greater powers than before as a result, ones that they obtained by proving themselves worthy to the great magical creatures through ancient arts and techniques that the average citizen neither fully understood nor appreciated. Yet even they, with all their powers and crafts, were nothing compared to their leaders…

The heads of the Order of Hyne called themselves the Sorceresses. They were descended from the original Sorceress herself, and all possessed overwhelming powers…ones that made even the mightiest among the order look insignificant in response. No one, whether they be government, military head, or even Child of Hyne, fully understood the depth of their amazing abilities. All that was known was that these special individuals were children of Gaia just as the Guardian Forces were, and as such were something far above and beyond what mortal men could expect.

For all their powers, however, the Order of Hyne was not only peaceful but respected. Never seeking violence or taking sides in an armed conflict, the Order devoted itself to quiet reflection on nature and the pursuit of knowledge. They strove for personal betterment and the advancement of the human race as a whole to a sustainable future. Because of that, they were admired by many throughout the world. They were sought for advice and council in times of trouble and conflict. They were recruited as mediators and moderators in tense discussions, and consulted in matters of sustainability and protection of life. It was considered by many to be a boon to have a Child of Hyne in one's neighborhood or working for one's company. And so, magic was allowed to thrive alongside industry. And for many, many years…the two flourished together.

Unfortunately…as often happens in Gaia, things did not last. Yet whereas the world had endured foes of supernatural, military, and extraterrestrial origin before and had survived, the greatest threat that would impact the whole of the human race in this latest generation was unlike anything that had ever been encountered before.

Economic.

For years, oil had been considered the world's primary energy source. There was some fission nuclear, coal, and natural gas as well, but oil had been in the lead. New technologies had made it more efficient and cleaner than it had ever been before. There were even ways to capture the harmful emissions that were put out and recycle them into better usage. The world had been booming on it, especially in the industrial portions. The entire industry had been considered to be a good investment for thousands of wealthy business owners, not only in the oil itself but in the refineries, the emissions' capturers, the engine builders…everything.

Unfortunately, it wouldn't last forever. The supplies suddenly started to decrease one day, and from that point on, output continued to go down every year. More and more capital was required just to keep harvesting the same amount of oil, and the world's demand was only increasing. Price increases were allowed for a while…but that wasn't to last. As prices began to rise 50% and even 100%, people began to complain. As a result, the world's governments tried to curb this by freezing oil prices while printing more money to try and raise world's prices the same amount. It was a dual disaster. The frozen prices caused more shortages and failure to distribute what existing supplies were to be had in an good fashion, ruining the industry even more. Not only that, but inflation was now soaring all over the world from the attempt to make oil "affordable" at the expense of making it hard to buy anything else.

Finally, something happened to ruin everything. A major earthquake in the "Medieval Ocean", the body of water between the two main continents, suddenly occurred, ruining the entire compliment of major drilling operations on one of the world's largest remaining reserves of oil…likely for ten years. Supply dropped by 40% in one day. Prices needed to shoot dramatically to make up both the loss as well as to invest in new capital to try and make use of what supply was to be had. They were unable due to freezes…and the entire oil industry collapsed practically overnight as capital became incapable of meeting the industry's current needs.

The world's infrastructure collapsed like a house of cards. With oil now the domain of the superrich and oil companies shutting down left and right from being unable to get supplies, the rest of the associated industries soon went under as well, leaving the world with hundreds of thousands of jobless people. Companies, especially smaller ones, that needed the precious substance to run failed overnight, leading to even more joblessness. Industry in entire regions ground to a halt. Desperate to get money to keep companies afloat, there were mass withdrawals from banks. Many failed, and the few that remained open had no finances to invest in any capital. The final nail in the coffin was the inflated prices. No one could afford even basic necessities now. Within just a few months, the world was in the midst of a very severe depression.

Even Esthar was not spared this wrath for all its former glory…a fact which Dael witnessed firsthand today as she had every day for some time.

The young cadet could see it as she rode the magnetic rail through the lower streets of the city. She sat at one of the windows and watched the world of lights and noise race by, but her eyes were turned below to see what had happened there. Back in her youth, she had remembered that the streets had once been clean everywhere, and there had been far more lights from far more trains and cars moving about. Now there was garbage all over the streets as she passed. The homeless and jobless were propped against walls everywhere. Some of them looked more poverty stricken than others…with a mixture of once promising industrial heads as well as less talented workers filling the roads. Not as many trains ran now, and not enough people could afford cars either. The city itself was dimmer…not due to power, mind you. That problem had been fixed. It was due to people not being able to keep their businesses afloat. All in all…it made Dael grateful that she had been made a ward of the military at an early age, even if it was likely due to the economic downturn that she had been one in the first place. At least it meant a warm place to sleep and plenty to eat every day.

Esthar itself had provided the solution to the original crisis. Not one year after the onset of the global depression, it had perfected miniaturized, safe, sustainable fusion power…the next great epoch in human society. It would change the world and provide almost free, everlasting energy for everyone, from the smallest appliances to the common cars to the magnetic rails to the largest industries. But it wasn't cheap…not in its current form. It needed investment to proliferate and become truly available to everyone. And, unfortunately, the economy was in no position to provide that. No bank had enough money to invest in the technology. The world governments had gone to the opposite extreme at this point, tightening the money supply in such a way after their mistake with inflation that there was now nothing available to invest anywhere. A technology that should have changed the world practically overnight didn't get first used in a test case setting for another eight years.

Through very slow legal changes, countless failed programs, and an almost infinitesimally incremental loosening of the money supply, the world inched its way out of the depression. But it still left hundreds of thousands in its wake unemployed, and had left many industries and banks dead. In some cases, entire national governments had collapsed, lapsing into chaos and disarray. In others, only their life blood was choked out of them. Nowhere was that more evident than in the nation of Sybenia on the Western Continent. It had been hit the worst, its entire economy, once second only to Esthar's, all but destroyed due to its reliance on oil investments. Once a proud and upright nation, it had gone to being one of the poorest in the world…poorer even than its agricultural neighbors and, at one point, even having a GDP less than that of its city-state neighbors.

Oh, things had improved since then…but at a terrible price… A dictatorship led by a man named Roz Heireich had come into power within that country. Through a series of very strict, very strong, and, often, very severe movements, they had managed to generate enough government spending to reverse the trend and start pulling their economy out of the mire and back to its former glory. The only catch was how it was going about doing so. Roz Heireich was one of the older families in Sybenia that was chronicled not only for its madness but for its fanatically belief that their race was descended from the legendary "World Kingdom" of centuries ago led by King Odin the Great. In numerous televised speeches he had made…speeches in which he had highlighted exactly what all of the government spending was for…he had proclaimed it the destiny of Sybenia to rise from the ashes and take its place as the "Guiding Hand" of Gaia. These were accompanied by people cheering and rejoicing, all prosperous and well off despite the hardship they had endured…and usually with scores of military men in uniform showing off the latest battalion of tanks or aircraft they had perfected…

It made Dael nervous to think about it as the magnetic rail passed out from the heart of the city and into the outskirts, the major buildings and skyscrapers in Esthar giving way to smaller buildings and residential areas…many of them abandoned just as the previous ones had been. Sybenia was becoming a problem. It kept making bold statements like that and increasing its military power. They hadn't made a move yet…but it was obvious to anyone watching that Roz had ambitions beyond that of his home nation. The only good note to his recent boasts was that he was in poor health. Currently, many world leaders were banking on the hope that he would die before he had the chance to carry out his vision to any potentially disastrous conclusions…

If not…that would be where Dael and the Esthar's Hawks came in.

Esthar did not have a major standing military. That was both a good and a bad thing. One might try to argue it was something great, the result of a peaceable nation with economy prosperity that had little need to worry about defending itself from insurgency or danger. However, the fact of the matter was that was only part of the reason…if any of the reason at all. The main reason was because, after years of peace, prosperity, and contentment, the elected officials had grown "lax" in their duties. Where at one point, in its earlier, tumultuous history, the people of Esthar had elected upstanding representatives and individuals to speak for them in the Senate…a lack of true crisis and general apathy from the populace had eroded such moral fiber, character, and strength of will. Most of the representatives now were lazy, incompetent, incumbent, interested only in sustaining their own positions, and devoting what small craft they did have at persuading others to stabbing each other in the back. The Senate was filled with bickering and squabbling over minor, unimportant issues, and a general air that no one cared for the common good or the betterment of the economy or society had been expressed as of late. Even during the depression, no major leadership had emerged. After all, the representatives had changed the system to ensure that their jobs would be secure, and that was all they ultimately cared for. What few people did arise to try and make major, necessary changes were demonized, shut down, and tore apart by older politicians desperate to make sure no one made them look back by comparison. Now, many years later, an incompetent, slow government was still in place…with no indications of moving anytime soon. And, as a result, there was also no major standing military.

However, Esthar was not without any armed forces. While its general standing military was far inferior to forces from Sybenia and likely even places like Fuliet, it was not totally helpless. In fact, it could be quite effective if need be. Esthar boasted the most potent special forces group in the world: Esthar's Hawks. As Dael was living proof of, candidates were trained from infancy or early childhood to be the best special operatives in the world, often pushing the limits on what was humanly possible in combat, espionage, and counter-terrorism operations. Excelling in ranged, melee, and hand-to-hand combat, mastering all of the major technologies in the world, equipped with the latest combat technology, fluent in most of the major languages, knowledgeable about all major customs, sciences, weapons and vehicles…they were clearly the best of the best. In independent assessments time and time again, there wasn't a single standard special force unit in the world that could go toe-to-toe with an Esthar Hawk and hope to succeed. This was the "real" military of Esthar…the "preventative cure". Rather than dispense with major military operations, Esthar's Hawks were applied to nip situations in the bud. They would be sent in to neutralize threats or conduct necessary operations with the specific aim of restricting full blown war. As a result, the role they served toward the peace and prosperity of Esthar could not be underestimated. They performed all the major functions of a major military on a fraction of the scale.

Nationalism and loyalty to Esthar's Hawks was a major tenet of being in the organization, and Dael was no exception in that regard. She felt more pride for the group than anyone or anything else in the world. Yet it was never enough for her to just be a member. She wanted to be one of the most upstanding and outstanding members of the military branch. And now, it seemed as if she had gotten her wish.

The magnetic rail finally reached the end of the line…right on the outskirts of the main city of Esthar. There was a stark contrast to the city here. The track itself looped up around just up ahead before going back to the main city, which even now still shone and filled the horizon in the distance to the east. However, this was where Dael wanted to get off. Readily, she left her seat and walked out the side door to the platform. As she descended it and walked away down the platform to the nearest staircase leading to the ground, the train shut its doors again…her being the only passenger who had ended up leaving…before shooting off once again to begin its round trip back.

As for Dael, she looked up to the sky. Even with the lack of pollution in modern times, it was still a cleaner view out here. The sky seemed to be brighter and more open, not crowded out by skyscrapers or airships. Being late in the day, the sun was beginning to set, casting a somewhat paler blue glow on everything. However, Dael knew better. She had plenty of time before it was all the way down. Turning her head lower, she could see the edges of the suburbs of Esthar fading…the last row of houses to the east sitting there before a great street that rounded the entire city formed an effective barrier to further civilization. To the west, at about a distance of three hundred yards past the tracks, were a large set of towers with hundreds of cables stretching as far as the eye could see in series around the entire perimeter of Esthar's main city. To a more primitive eye, they might have mistaken them for power cables of some sort. However, they were a bit more than that. This formed an electronic barrier around the whole of the city of Esthar, protecting it from all encroaching monsters and beasts in the surrounding area. Its construction was made possible with the advent of fusion generators, but it was somewhat superfluous now. Most of the savage monsters in the surrounding countryside had been hunted to extinction years earlier. Dael herself had encountered only one in all her times out here called a Lesser Wolf, and it had run off the moment it spotted her. She was not afraid of anything outside the barrier, even unarmed as she was.

Quite readily, Dael began to walk out to the barrier. She crossed the tracks (via bridge, of course), and made her way along the grassy fields straight to the electronic towers. It took a little while, but eventually she reached the edge. At that point, one could see a faint blue rippling field moving between the towers in a single plane, stretching into the air for over a hundred feet. Numerous caution signs were in place here warning people against the dangers of passing into the barrier or even brushing it with their hands. On the ground level, however, there was a frame placed inside the barriers that was just man-sized. It came complete with a small control panel on the side of it. Dael walked up to this and pressed a single button on this panel. As a result, the blue field within the small frame suddenly disappated. Dael was left to calmly walk through it to the area beyond. In the past, a worker or serviceman would occasionally be there to yell at her for doing this. However, there was no law against it. And there were no real dangers out there anymore. She could handle herself.

As soon as Dael passed through, she broke into a run. At first, she ran only through more grassy fields. They were wilder here, full of more vines and wildflowers. But it didn't bother her much. She charged right through regardless. Yet this didn't last for too long. Soon, the vegetation began to die back and retreat, revealing smaller bits of grass and rougher, rockier ground. Even that began to subside a little as Dael charged on to the next part…a forest looming just ahead. Without any hesitation, she continued to cut across the ground and rushed right into the forest, and soon ran deep into it.

One might say she was doing this just for the sake of exercise. Sure enough, the first day she had come out here back when she was eleven, that was the reason why. It was good cross-country training and she was trying to build up her stamina for an upcoming physical exam, especially when the simulators were clogged with similar candidates. However, that wasn't why she was out here today. She was here for a moment of clarity…of peace…to reflect and relax and unwind after all that had happened during the finals. Oh, there were places to do this in Esthar…but the mere thought of them disgusted Dael. The simulators were hardly the same thing. The city parks were full of stunted, poorly-growing trees. The grass was all uniform. Most of all, it was void of a single living creature. Even the birds had long since been eliminated from Esthar when the last remaining species, common urban doves, were considered a pest species. The natural setting was much better to Dael.

However, if one was to ask her why she liked the natural setting in the first place…she couldn't answer. She might give a vague answer about how she liked trees and animals and clear skies and the sounds of forests and grasslands…but other than that, she wouldn't really be able to say. To Dael, it was more than the traditional answers that a person who was a naturalist or an outdoor enthusiast would give. She wouldn't be able to describe it at all. The closest she could say was that for some reason…she felt more "at home" there. That, of course, made little sense. She had spent most of her life in a totally urban setting, as attested to simply from her time in the Academy. Yet there was a connection that she couldn't deny…almost as if she was going into a different consciousness…

At any rate, Dael wasn't worried about answering that question at the moment. She was trying to reach her favorite spot. And so she continued to dart and dash over the rocks and roots of the forest understory as she made her way on a path she had traveled dozens of times. Along the way, she occasionally crossed over some trails. Some were merely footpaths, but one was actually large enough for two lanes of motorized traffic. That was proof enough that this area wasn't entirely devoid of human life. The people of Esthar hadn't yet reached the point where they dwelt entirely in the city without even venturing outside. However, it was mostly for small services in this part of the country. There was no development out here due to the ground being so rocky. Even these trees had to work their way into the ground for hundreds of years. She knew she wouldn't run into anyone out here, and frankly she preferred it that way.

It took Dael quite a while to reach her destination. She ended up running for a good thirty minutes, easily going over two miles from the barrier. It was quite relaxing to her. It really helped ease up the stress and tension from that test. And as she began to relax, and the reality of her situation came upon her, it helped burn off her growing enthusiasm. She couldn't believe it. She had really done that great on the exam. In a week's time, she would be reassigned to the major assignments in Esthar…the matters that really made or broke the nation. It was quite overwhelming when she thought about it…almost dizzying. She'd be responsible for putting a stop to anything that could destabilize the country. Whenever there was a major issue, her group would be the first to be called in. Although politicians and officers would probably be the ones to get the credit, she would be the actual "working power" within the unit that helped hold Esthar together. It was quite a task…and quite an honor. It was still taking Dael some time to get her head around it. For almost the entirety of her life she had lived in the Academy and been subjected to stern discipline and a regimented life. True, she had slowly been given more freedom as time had gone on. The Academy didn't want its students to be totally unable to adjust to society, after all, and that was the reason she had been able to be out here so many times. However…this was still a major shock. From cadet to officer in one of the most crucial and prestigious branches of Esthar's Hawks…

Dael was starting to dwell on this quite a bit when she finally broke the tree line. As she did, a familiar roar and crashing sound became audible to her. Just up ahead was the source. She continued running at that point, crossing another field that was mostly a mixture of grass and boulders of varying sizes. She skipped right over a four-wheeler trail and continued to run forward about another fifty yards, dodging through the wildflowers, grasses, and some of the sharper, larger, and more ominous looking rocks until she finally came to a halt. Once she did, she froze where she was and looked straight out.

Here she was…at the very edge of the Eastern Continent. Just a few feet ahead of her, the grass faded all together and gave way to nothing but sharp, jagged rocks and boulders, before suddenly dropping off. From her location, she could see the drop off rather well too. It was a rough, vertical, unclimbable wall of jagged rock, stretching up high from the ocean level a good two hundred and fifty feet before reaching Dael's position. It was quite an effective barrier to any invasion, and almost all of the continent was surrounded with it. Only the positions to the south were low enough for anyone to have access, which was why the ports were located there. However, it was a breathtaking site right here. The ocean loudly crashed against the rocks below, making them more jagged and sharp with time. Although Dael wasn't at the edge at the moment, she had looked down many times and had seen them. If someone was to jump, they would sail down for hundreds of feet before crashing into a series of jagged spires, rather like a floor of spikes in one of those old comics that the villain would have stationed for anyone who opposed him. Yet even from this distance, the crashing was so turbulent that she could feel just a few flecks of spray. The noise was soothing and relaxing…and helped Dael's thoughts already begin to calm and level out…

She was moments from closing her eyes and shutting everything else out but that sound…when another sound went out. Her ringtone. Immediately, her eyes opened again as she gave a slight frown. Letting out a bit of a sigh, she reached into her pocket and pulled out her cellular. She looked at the front of it momentarily, and then let out a half-smile on seeing who it was. After a moment, she flipped it open, pushed the answer button, and put it to her head.

"Hello, Quaren."

"Hey Dael!" An excitable voice answered. "Congratulations! I can't believe you actually did it! I mean…I knew you were a great cadet and all…but still…!"

Dael kept her half smile as she let out a snort. "Oh, thanks for the vote of confidence. So you didn't think I was going to do that great on the final?"

There was a pause on the other end. Dael suppressed a chuckle as she knew Quaren was squirming where he stood. "I…I didn't say that!" He protested a moment later. "I just…well…uh…you know… I had a feeling, you know…about the final…"

"I'm just teasing you, Quaren." Dael reassured a moment later. "I know that the final has a tendency to break cadet grades. Especially this one. Why else do you think I was sweating so much for the past month?"

There was another pause on the other end as Quaren no doubt calmed down slightly. "Well…alright then…" Quickly, he shifted tone as he tried to change subjects. "But an A! You're the first A ever on the Dead Man's Chance scenario! It's already spreading through the whole Academy! It's going to be on the front of the Academy newspaper, did you know that? Everyone wants to know how you did it! Speaking of that…where are you, anyway?"

"Where else would I be? Away from all that racket and taking some time to myself."

"Well come on back! We've got to celebrate! Give me three hours and we'll throw a huge party! We'll shake the dorm until dawn! We'll-"

"I appreciate the offer, Quaren…" Dael calmly cut off. "But isn't your own final tomorrow morning?"

Another pause of silence, and once again Dael had to struggle to suppress a chuckle. Quaren wasn't quite as advanced as Dael. He wasn't going for an officer position straight out of school. His specialty was gunnery. As such, his own final would be a combat mission in which he was part of a group on a difficult challenge, somewhat akin to what Dael had gone through that afternoon. However, that wouldn't make it any easier on him. He'd have to truly work to be able to get through it, just as hard as Dael had worked…if not harder, as these things didn't seem to come as naturally to him.

"Oh yeah…almost forgot about that…" A sheepish-sounding Quaren finally spoke. "Um…er…I think I need to get going, Dael. I'll see you tomorrow…I mean, tonight…but just for a moment. I'm having a hard time remembering the difference between the Firebird and the Thunderbird formations… I…uh…need to get back to work. Bye!"

Now Dael really did let out a short laugh as she pushed the receiver button on her phone and lowered it, returning it to her pocket once again. Same old Quaren…always so worried about someone else that he didn't have time to worry for himself. She only hoped it didn't get him into trouble on his exams. Honestly, she thought he had the material to be a great member of Eschar's Hawks himself. Maybe if he was only a bit more sure of himself…

Dael had scarcely begun to think of Quaren, however, when something got her attention. There was the sound of a motor running and coming closer. In fact, it sounded like more than one. She immediately turned her head back to the only logical place it could have come from, the trail. She didn't have to wait long to see the source of the noise. Engines were much quieter than they had been in the past, especially since internal combustion had been replaced with fusion-backed electricity in most vehicles. All she heard was a light humming noise for a few moments before the source of the noise came out from the forest and then rounded a bend, headed for the trail that was right in front of her.

The moment the first vehicle cleared the bend, Dael immediately recognized it. It was a silver Colvett motorcycle…and a fairly new one at that, it appeared. These things were a far cry from the motorcycles of the past. They were far more aerodynamic and sleek. They came with enclosed hatches now to enhance the aerodynamics further rather than expose the rider to external pressures and buffeting. Now, a sleek rounded shape traversed over them and secured them inside their vehicles. It also had the side effect of hiding whoever was in the motorcycle. Or rather…it would in most other situations. However, Dael recognized this particular vehicle… And if there was any indication that it was a coincidence, the next couple of vehicles that rounded the corner matched the colors, makes, and models of similar motorcycles she usually saw in the company of the first. There was no denying who it was.

It was Warwick's motorcycle.

Not only that, but he appeared to have brought his normal entourage with him. She counted an additional eight bikes in addition to his…but then realized that she wasn't done. Seven more bikes in addition to those rounded the corner as well, all riding in a motorcade. They kept fairly tight formation, and the trail wasn't far from where Dael was to begin with. As a result, Dael had hardly seen the last one pass when Warwick's own motorcycle began to approach the closest spot to Dael.

When it did…it began to slow.

Although it was fairly common knowledge among the residents in her dorm at the Academy that she went out to this point when she had free time (after all, they wanted to know why she spent so much time out of the dorm and what she was doing), she knew full well that Warwick did not make a habit of going on rides outside of the city. Neither did anyone in his usual assembly of friends. It didn't take long for Warwick's motorcycle to stop. The others behind it did not proceed, but instead pulled up either in front of it or behind it and began to stop as well.

Dael suddenly felt her anxiety begin to rise. For the moment, however, she told herself to stay calm…not to jump to conclusions. Yet even as she said this, Warwick's cockpit opened up on his motorcycle. The others had all but stopped at that point. After that, he readily dismounted on Dael's side. He almost immediately looked up to her on doing so. His face was not friendly. It wasn't even mocking. It was dark and grim…and hateful. Dael felt her tension rise a bit more on seeing it. She quickly looked out to the others briefly that had stopped. They too were opening their cockpits and dismounting…and they had the exact same look as they all faced her.

Now…Dael's heart began to beat faster. A bead of sweat began to form on her brow. She suddenly realized she didn't want to be there any longer. She tried to remain calm, however…tried not to think of the fact that she was in the middle of nowhere with no one around for miles…and turned away from them. Keeping her head down, she began to walk along the side of the cliff, but also back toward the forest…trying to get away from the barrier of the cliff and the sea and back to where she had a clean shot for the woods. She tried to act natural, as if, in somehow doing so, she could change what was happening…what she began to slowly realize was the real reason the group of people came there…what indeed could be the only reason.

Yet even as she walked, she saw the group advance on her. Warwick, at the head, moved in slowly. But the people on the edges of the line that had formed moved much faster…pinching off into a semi-circle. Dael kept her head bowed and tried to move faster…but it was of no use. Before she had gotten more than twenty feet, she saw a rather burly cadet step in front of her path. She froze where she stood on seeing that. She said nothing, and tried her best to express nothing. After that, however, she turned and began to walk the opposite way. She didn't even get five feet that way before she saw she was blocked in that direction as well.

Now beginning to sweat freely, Dael looked up and forward again. The sixteen people had her surrounded now, backed up against the cliffs. What more…they were closing in on her. All of them had dark looks and wouldn't say a word. Dael also noticed that they were all male…

Dael struggled to contain her fear. She couldn't show fear. She was one of Esthar's Hawks. They didn't get scared no matter what the odds. And above all else, she would show that she was Esthar's Hawk material. As bold as she could be, she formed a stern expression. She bit back her fear, and then looked up to Warwick, even as the others continued to close in on her.

Out of the corner of one of her eyes…she saw one beginning to pull out a bat from behind him…

"What's the meaning of this, Warwick?"

The cadet sneered. "Look at you… You've only finished your final less than two hours ago and you're already talking to me like I'm you're subordinate. You knew this was coming, you cheating bitch. I told you the day you got here that women aren't wanted here. Now you had to go and get that score…shift the curve so that half of us will fail this term…have to repeat the combat tests all over again next year… You owe us. We're here to collect."

Again, Dael suppressed her fear. She didn't dare show fear, although she had more than good reason to at this point. If she showed fear, she was as good as dead. What more…she knew that was what they wanted at the moment. That last statement said it all. They wanted her to quiver into a ball and cry. Well, she wasn't going to do that. She quickly assessed her situation. Even if she was a senior member of Esthar's Hawks, she would have a hard time taking sixteen people at once. And these were all highly trained cadets like her. She hadn't a prayer in fighting them off and they knew it. That left one other option…the forest. She had to get away from them and run in there. She only had a chance if she could make it that far. However, the group was tightening fast. She couldn't break running straight ahead. That meant right or left… And since the one on the right had a bat…

Abruptly, Dael took off to the left. The effect was instantaneous. Where before, everyone had been moving in slowly, now they all charged at once. But they weren't quite fast enough to stop Dael before she reached the person to the left. He was at least twice as big as her…but that didn't stop her. She charged straight for him. He, in turn, flexed his own body out and prepared to stop her cold. No doubt, he was priming himself for an attack from her. Well, she had one in mind for him…but hopefully it was something he didn't expect. As soon as she reached him, she swung her body around, brought one leg up, and aimed a kick for his face. As expected, he swung his own opposite arm up in a block, catching her foot. However, that gave her all the pause she needed to yank her foot back and swing it forward again, slamming it into his throat. The cadet's face went red as his eyes bulged, and he began to gag. She quickly pulled her foot back one more time and swung it forward to slam under his jaw. This gave enough power, giving his early disorientation, to knock him back and flat on the ground. Now with an opening, Dael struggled to run free while she still could. Dropping him had taken time, and she was afraid it had gone on too long… She dashed forward past his fallen body and tried to break the line…

But she was a moment too slow. The cadet nearby reached out and managed to latch onto her arm. A moment later, he felt a tremendous force exerted on that arm. She knew what it was. He was trying to use a flip move to throw her back into the group. However, she was ready for this too. She used the force he exerted on her to throw her back along with some force of her own to bring her opposite elbow up and around to crack against his nose…breaking it immediately. He cried out and staggered back, just enough for Dael to send him into further pain by giving an iron palm to his already bleeding, broken proboscis. The added agony was enough to get him to release her and stagger back. She spun back forward and tried running again even as the mob clamored up behind her. Before she could go another foot, however, the one she had dropped on the ground managed to ignore his own pain enough to grab one of her legs. Gritting her teeth and struggling to break out, she swung her free leg back and stomped on the side of his fallen head. This immediately caused a loosening, and she was free again. She charged forward once more, and this time, even as the mob continued to press in behind her, got a single steps. Her speed began to build, and in another second she would have been taking off…

Unfortunately, that second didn't come.

A heavy, solid, blunt pain was felt flashing across her back. It was so intense that she couldn't help but cry out in agony. The blow was not only strong, but sufficiently powerful to knock her off balance, and soon, given her own unsteady footing, she spilled forward and began to head for the ground. On the way down, she realized it had to have been the bat that struck her. Yet that thought was soon pushed free as she realized in horror that she would soon be in a very bad position. However, the pain stunned her and kept her from moving as she collapsed to the ground face first. She landed hard with a rock smashing up against one of her sides, digging into one of her ribs and likely bruising it. Yet in spite of all that pain, she struggled to move…struggled to rise…struggled to scramble away…struggled to overcome the stunning effect of the pain and break for it…

No such luck.

Dael was soon crying out much louder and more intensely as the mob descended on her. Punches, kicks, and the occasional blow from the bat soon rained down on her. She lost all awareness of what was going on and swam into a sea of pain as the group beat her. One solid blow from the bat landed on her head, and in addition to a sickening crack her senses were soon knocked for a loop. Her world swirled black, and all she could think about were more and more blows raining down on her. Soon, they vanished into a haze and oblivion of pain as she felt her body being sprained and even broken in some cases. Her lip was split by a kick to the face, and she felt a rib crack from another kick to the side. Still they continued to beat on her…until she could cry no longer and wasn't even able to writhe…

Only then was there a reprieve. Her head swam. She was dizzy and sick, and her entire body felt hot and burning. She could feel herself throbbing all over. She did move slightly, but it was mostly just squirming in place, faintly flexing her fingers and toes and moving stiffly and jerking. Her awareness of what was going on was disconnected. Everything felt hazy and unreal… However, she slowly became aware of more of what was happening around her. Abruptly, she heard a deep throated snorting…before a spitting sound went out. Something wet and slimy hit her in the back of the head on a fresh wound. It was soon joined by other similar snorts followed by slimy feelings…and in her addled, shaken mind she realized she was being spat on. The spitting had hardly ceased before another blow hit her hard in the back and side again from the bat…breaking another rib. This was enough to make her arch her back wildly and crane her head to the heavens, her face tight with agony. She let out another groan of pain.

The most disgusting part was when she heard the mob cheer and whistle from her moaning, as if it was turning them on. However, that didn't disturb her nearly as much as when she heard Warwick call out again.

"Alright…the bitch has been softened up enough. Let's get busy."

Before she could even lower her head again from the latest blow, she felt something heavy and strong land on her back…obviously one of the burly cadets getting on her and pinning her down. That was confirmed a moment later when she felt her hair seized roughly and was yanked on, keeping her in her arched position. As she scalp felt like it would tear, she cried out in agony. But still…that wasn't the worst of it. Soon, she felt the other cadets grab onto her uniform and begin to pull on it. Soon it began to tear, and pull free from her body. Even as this was going on, she heard Warwick call out again.

"Tie her arms and legs behind her! And I'm going first! I've wanted to do this for a long time…"

At that moment, Dael, despite her shaken brain and senses, knew exactly what was going on. They weren't going to just beat her and leave her for dead. They weren't even going to just kill her painfully… They were stripping her…restraining her… That could only mean one thing. That horror was worse than anything else. Torture and death she could have taken…but this… She began to realize the inevitability of it as she heard the cadets around her begin to snicker and sneer with dirty undertones. She saw Warwick himself slowly step in front of her, into her field of vision. As the other cadets continued to strip her…she saw him bend down right in front of her, until he was on his knees right in front of her face. Only then did he begin to undo his own pants…

When Dael saw that, realized what was happening, and knew what her fate would be…something snapped inside of her. At this point, she was beaten, broken, and weakened. She should have been easy prey. Had she been anyone else, she might have been. But she wasn't just one of Esthar's Hawks by name only. And even if she was…something almost inhuman seemed to surge inside her. A sudden rush of determination and will to live and avoid this horrible fate no matter the cost…

No…

I won't let you do this to me…

I WON'T!

Despite her pain…despite her position…despite the fact that it should have been over for her…Dael suddenly sprung to life. Abruptly, her right hand shot out…straight for Warwick's grinning, devilish face. Before he even had time to register surprise, she had seized him by the hair of his own scalp. He tried to react, but it was too late. With a surge of strength that surpassed that of will to survive to be matched with will to avoid being dishonored, Dael yanked down with all of her might…and thrust Warwick's forehead onto a rather solid rock protruding from the ground. A crack even more sickening than the one before went out as his scalp was split and (hopefully, to Dael) his skull cracked. Whatever happened, she released him only for him to yank his head back weakly, already fountaining out blood, before he collapsed to the ground.

One hand left her head at that…and Dael immediately realized what that meant despite her addled brain. The one on her back was the one with the bat, and he was going for it to subdue her again. But she wouldn't give him the chance this time. Her hand, now covered with blood from Warwick, reached back and seized the thumb of the remaining hand gripping her skull. She paused only a moment, then suddenly put all the effort forward she could into yanking the thumb the way it was never intended to go. Sure enough, her combat training for escaping situations like this paid off…as the thumb snapped off within the hand. Before the cadet even had a chance to cry out, however, she made it worse by, while still gripping the thumb, twisting it to aim to the outward skin and then driving it forward…sending the spike of broken bone into and through the flesh and producing a compound fracture. Grabbing his hand in agony, the cadet immediately got off of her and clambored back, screaming like a baby all the way.

Dael, beaten and dazed as she was, knew she only had a few moments to act. She didn't even have time to look around for a better escape route. She knew she was probably surrounded by the cadets at this point, so any other way out would probably not be so good. That left one option. Summoning all the strength she had left that hadn't been beaten out of her, she lunged forward, half-staggering on all fours, half-trying to get to her feet. Her path took her right over Warwick, who was already pushing himself up even as blood poured down his face. After all, he was an Esthar Hawk as well. It would take more than that to stop him. Soon, Dael was nearly tackling him. But she didn't stop there. She paused only to let her knee come up and strike him in the face, ripping his head further up into the air. After that, she charged forward, ripped around him, and then spun back around.

Running was useless. She already felt dizzy and weak. If she tried to get to the woods, she wouldn't even make it to the trail before they'd be on her, beating her again. That left only an unorthodox strategy. Now facing Warwick…as well as the crowd of cadets glaring at her angrily and beginning to advance on her, she suddenly lashed out and wrapped one of her arms around his neck. She tightened it into a choke hold immediately, and put her other arm on top of his chin and grasped hard. Too dazzled to know what was going on, Warwick was helpless to resist as he was put into the hold. Once there, through two beaten, swollen eyes, Dael grit her bloody teeth and glared at the cadets.

"You take one more step to me, I'll break his neck! I swear to god!"

Immediately, the cadets froze. This was unexpected. They had intended for her to be helpless and weak, and to easily be in control of the situation. But this was much the reversal. It was due to a strange twist of fate that the easiest target to grab had been Warwick. It was a good thing, because the people here respected him and didn't want him to get hurt. Soon, Warwick began to sputter and gag around the hold…which was good. The last thing she wanted was to let him get enough air to yell at them to charge her, which is what she would have done had the roles been reversed. In her state, she wasn't sure she could pull off a neck break. And if she did…then she'd have nothing and be easy prey for the others… As it was, she earned a reprieve.

Dizzy, weak, and losing what little strength she had left, Dael committed what was left of her stamina into falling back, dragging Warwick with her. He was still dazed but getting his bearings back. He scrambled on the ground with his legs, pushing himself along to keep Dael from choking him further. His hands went up and seized her arm, struggling to pull it off. For now, she held firm…but she knew as he got more of his senses back she wouldn't be able to. Not in her weakened state. Yet she was able to get some distance on the cadets, for what it was worth. Also, with a moment to think, she saw her position. Much to her dismay, she found herself backing up to the cliffs. The cadets were all in front of her, blocking her escape route. She was making herself more of a prisoner in her own movements at the moment…and yet she didn't stop backing up. She couldn't.

Desperately, her dazzled mind tried to think of a way out of this. She still had her phone… After all, her pants had managed to somehow stay on thus far… But she doubted she could hold this group off long enough to call for help, let alone hold out until help arrived. Fighting them off was no longer an option. Although the ones she had struck earlier didn't look to be standing too easily, they were still on their feet. She couldn't run either. She couldn't even manage a running pace even now, let alone one strong enough to outpace the others. She thought she might be able to work her way to one of the motorcycles. Then she would have a fighting chance of escape… But no… She felt Warwick getting stronger and stronger in her grasp. Soon, he'd be able to overpower her. She didn't have the time to make her way to a motorcycle.

What more…she felt the ground beginning to turn to rock under her feet. Risking the briefest glance, she looked behind her. To her fear, she was only two feet from the edge already. She stopped moving immediately, but realized now there was no escape.

She looked back to the cadets…hoping to see some sense of honor or discipline that people like Colonel Regalis had worked hard to instill in them. Something that would cause them to respect her for "fighting the good fight" and letting her go. However…she saw none. Those sorts of things apparently didn't go across genders. All she saw was burning anger, restrained only due to Warwick being held. They were waiting like a pack of wild dogs…ready to tear her apart the moment she lost the power to fight back. Reasoning with them would be useless. They had come for one thing and they were going to get it…

Dael's heart began to pound. No matter where she looked, there was nothing. No escape. No opportunity to call for help. Nothing. There was no way out of this. She had only bought herself a few more moments of life. And even if they weren't going to kill her…she didn't want to live with what would happen to her. As sweat began to mix with the blood on her brow, she suddenly had a realization.

That final wasn't a no-win scenario… This is. This is a real life Dead Man's Chance…

Dael swallowed at the thought. So what could she do? A little thinking outside the box wouldn't save her this time. She had no assets with her. Nothing to use. What more, it was getting harder and harder to think of something. She kept remembering a few moments earlier, when they had her on the ground…when they were violently stripping her…when they began to make lewd gestures and comments. She knew she'd be back in that position soon…and she thought about what would happen next. It did worse than terrify her. It filled her with revulsion. She couldn't take that. No matter what, she wouldn't endure that. Not on her life… Not on…

Then, all at once, Dael knew the answer…dark as it was.

Swallowing again, she cast another glance behind her, longer this time. To her attackers, it seemed to be another sign of desperation…knowing she was caught like a rat in a trap and was helpless to escape or save herself. But Dael was thinking something much different. She wouldn't let herself be violated like this. She wouldn't let these cadets treat her like a piece of meat and then kill her when they were finished with her. There was no other way out. She was going to die any way she looked at it. And even if she didn't, she'd wish she was dead once they were done with her. But she had too much pride for that. Too much self-respect. She wouldn't let them treat her that way…never…

And if she couldn't fight them off…if she couldn't escape…then that left only one other option available to her.

Some fear held her back for a few moments more. However, she was too highly disciplined to let it dominate her. If she would die…she would die with dignity. As such, despite her situation, she seemed to become firmer and more resolute than ever before. Warwick was nearly strong enough to cause her some serious trouble at that point. However, she didn't delay it any longer. Abruptly, she released her arm around his neck and put her arms behind him, giving him a hard shove with most of her remaining strength to send him stumbling back into his cronies. For a moment…she thought she shouldn't have let him go. She should have taken him with her. However…she wasn't like that. Where he might have none, she did have loyalty to fellow members of Esthar's Hawks. Maybe this last act would let these people know what a truly honorable person was like…and let them know exactly why they had fallen short of the standard she set.

As soon as Warwick was free, he got to his feet. His face now covered with blood and gasping for air, he turned and looked back to her. His face was full of hate…but also a bit of puzzlement. He didn't know why she had released him. No doubt, he had to have realized that the only way Dael could have made his victory a costly one was by killing him then and there. And because he paused, the other members of his group paused with him.

That was all the pause Dael needed. She had more than enough time for one final action.

Looking Warwick straight in the eye with a hard, unflinching, unafraid glare…she stepped backward two more feet and stepped over the edge of the cliff.

She kept gazes locked with him for as long as possible, just beginning to see genuine surprise on his face before he vanished against a blur of a rock face. After that, the world rushed all around her as the waves frothed below and the wind swept upward…before all turned to oblivion.


He remembered nothing when the first bit of sense came back to him.

All that had happened before now was blackness…a very long, empty blackness. He didn't know where he was or who he was as senses slowly flowed into him like a trickle of water slowly filling a bucket. The first thing he did become aware of was a sense of weakness…a feeling of deep tired all over him. He couldn't remember the last time he had felt so tired or drained…or even if he had been so weak in the whole of his lifespan. Then again, his memory was so foggy that he couldn't think of much else anyway.

The world around him was cold and dark. He had a feeling of being wet…and as time went on, he realized he was soaked. He was wearing some sort of set of clothing, and it was drenched, weighing down heavily on his body. There was the feeling of various soft and lumpy things around him. As he slowly began to twitch and move, some of them crumpled and shifted…the tell-tale sign that he was lying on junk or garbage of some sort. Some of his weakness did fade with time, albeit precious little. And as it faded, he gained enough strength to crack his eyes open and look around.

He didn't recognize the area at all. It was dark and made of metal and concrete…and it was outdoors. The source of the wetness came from above. It was pouring rain. Large puddles of it were forming ahead of him in the area. As he looked upward, he saw a thick grating over his head…large enough for people to walk on and maybe even for some construction. Traces of his memory began to come back on seeing it… These were strange things to him, where to the rest of the world they were commonplace. But he had seen them before…in the traces of his last memory… Was he back in that Dome? No…it couldn't be that. The sky above was cloudy and murky with smoke, and lined with buildings and construction…but it was the sky. It was dark, indicating night. Only what dim lights came from the buildings above provided any illumination below.

His gaze went down again, and looked again at the area before him. Now that he looked on, he saw that it was an alley of some sort. Dark, dank, and lined with garbage up and down the sides…it was a rather bleak place to be. There were others there…the homeless. They were crammed into large boxes or having spread pieces of scrap plastic over themselves in an attempt to stay dry. The place itself had all the trappings of being a place for the unwanted of the world…the lower parts of a city. Finally, he looked to himself. His memory was only very slowly returning…but he had enough to be surprised at what he saw. This wasn't his body…not any of them. And he had no memory of being dressed like this, in rags and tattered, old clothing. Confusion was all that greeted him as he tried to concentrate.

In the end, he grunted. Slowly, his limbs, still very weak, began to push up against the garbage around him. He didn't want to stay there any longer. He had to try and find some answers…try to find out what he was doing there and who he was exactly. The latter part, fortunately, he could feel coming back to him quickly. However, the former was a total loss… Already, he could remember that there was supposed to be a sense of finality to what had happened to him…that everything should have been over and done with. The fact that it wasn't was wrong. He was here…and where was here? Gaia? Heaven? Hell?

Having no answers, but desperate to find them, he began to slowly inch his way out of the garbage, hardly giving a thought to the homeless people who spotted him as he did so. As such, he failed to see them exclaim in shock on witnessing him, with some of them shrinking away and one even running off screaming.


To be continued...