kunenk: Arc reading (>reading!)
Kunenk ([personal profile] kunenk) wrote in [community profile] hardmode2011-07-31 04:01 pm

"Opening Outside", Seiken Densetsu 3

Title: Opening Outside
Author: [personal profile] kunenk
Media Creator: [personal profile] jack_of_none
Media Link: Embedded in-story and also here
Word Count: ~12 500
Fandom: Seiken Densetsu 3
Characters/Pairing(s): Jessica, Nikita, Isabella/Bigieu, various OCs, Hawk, appearances by the rest of the heroes
Rating: PG
Warnings: None
Summary: AU in which Jessica gets out of the Guild and goes to try to make matters right as best she can, and Nikita accompanies her.



The Sand Fortress had been built long before the Guild had been even the speck of the idea, and for a far more troubled time. Some of the old passages that honeycombed the area had been closed, but not all, and many of the Guild members could open them up again if they were interested in going that way in particular and could spare the time to figure out how to do it.

The passageway Nikita was hurrying along was one of the ones that didn’t need opening, as he used it on a regular basis- mostly to store his goods and personal belongings in a place as secure as he could get in a building filled with people who specialised in getting into things, and to have a little space to himself. The passageway that opened up into the back of his shop split off into other passages, some of which were in common use, and one which lead behind the Guild’s jail cells. That was the one Nikita usually used for peace and quiet- there were few cells, and for the most part the Guild’s members obeyed its laws.

Today, though, there was news, and one of the cells was occupied. Lord Flamekhan and Isabella had retired to Flamekhan’s rooms, ostensibly to discuss the invasion of Rolante, and it had bothered Eagle enough that he’d charged into his father’s quarters, brushing aside the guards set on the door. Nikita couldn’t see a good reason to put guards on the door in the first place- no one would have bothered Flamekhan without reasonable purpose. Besides, it was strange for only Flamekhan and Isabella to be in the discussion- Eagle had as much right as anyone else who commanded in the Guild would have, especially where the matter was concerned with getting troops inside Rolante Castle. Hawk had gone after him- and rumours had spread like wildfire afterwards, sparked from the reports of the guard who’d stayed by the door. She’d said that there’d been a huge fight, with yelling and blades clashing, that Hawk had come close to taking off Flamekhan’s head and that they’d had to wrestle him off Eagle’s body. He’d struggled all the way down to the prison cell, but another of the things Guild members knew best aside from getting past locks and into places was how to keep a hold on someone who didn’t want to be kept, and they’d had numbers on their side. Hawk was getting better every day, but he wasn’t yet good enough to skip out of a room full of ninjas and thieves looking for trouble.

It didn’t make sense, though. Hawk had been one of the first people Nikita had met when he’d come to the Guild, and he’d been as attached to Eagle as anyone who wasn’t Jessica or otherwise related to Flamekhan could be at the time, and for the most part the two of them had maintained that relationship, one in front and the other close behind. They’d argued- but everyone did, as they grew and changed and tried to carve out a pace for themselves, and Hawk and Eagle had never gone into a fight between them that they were sure the other couldn’t walk out of (or that didn’t have someone ready to leap between them and separate them). And Hawk had had a healthy respect for Flamekhan’s position as head of the Guild, even if there was no fondness lost between them. There was nothing that Nikita could see that would have motivated Hawk to try to kill either Flamekhan or Eagle, and thus Nikita had set off to try to get to the truth of the matter from the one person he could be sure was telling the closest thing to the truth he could get.

The tips of his fingers tingled as he reached the jail, and he slowed down, ears pricked for any sound they could pick up as he tried to massage the prickling out. They’d been doing that a lot, lately, and he wasn’t sure why- all accounts seemed to be in agreement that Mana was disappearing from the world, and the Guild didn’t go in for the kind of drastic magics that irritated Nikita’s senses the way the northern lands did.

“…little cursed necklace,” he heard, and the back of his neck prickled with anxiety. “As long as you stay quiet, nothing will happen to her!”

Once the laughter had faded into the distance and the prickling had eased, Nikita crept closer to the wall. “Hawk?” he called.

“Hey, buddy,” Hawk said. He shifted, and Nikita heard his footsteps as he moved to the back of the cell. “Goddess, I’m glad to hear your voice.”

“You doing okay in there?” Nikita asked, putting his hand against the wall.

Hawk laughed, a short sad thing. “Not really,” he said. “Did you hear any of that?”

“Didn’t hear who it was that got the thing,” Nikita admitted. “That’s not important, though-”

“It’s a threat, of course it’s important,” Hawk interrupted. “Jessica. Nikita, if I tell her the truth…”

“It’ll keep. There’s a cracked wall here somewhere,” Nikita said, running his hands over the wall searching for it. “Hawk, we’ve got to get you out, you can’t stay here…”

“I think it’s the next one along,” Hawk said.

Nikita found the cracked wall, and pressed his ear against it, listening hard. Any signs that there was someone in the cells wasn’t coming from inside this cell, and he moved along to the next cell just to confirm to himself that yes, that was the one Hawk was in, and he was going to have to figure another way to get Hawk out. “So what do we do, then?” he murmured, dropping his paws.

“Well, we can’t fall into despair, for one,” Hawk said. It sounded a lot like false bravado, but Nikita didn’t press it. It wouldn’t do any good for Hawk to lose his train of thought, and if Hawk thought it was doing them good Nikita wasn’t about to argue. “I don’t know what I’m going to doing about this situation, but I’m not going to let it get the better of me. Thing is, though… Nikita, I need someone to look after Jessica. If Isabella gets into her life any more than she already is, the Guild’s screwed. It might be screwed anyway, but if Jessica isn’t subject to whatever it is that’s going on, we might have a decent chance of getting this to blow over in some way and rebuild afterwards. I’m asking you…” He hesitated, and Nikita wanted nothing more than to reach out to reassure his friend. “Nikita, please. Make sure that doesn’t happen.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Nikita promised.

Hawk sighed in relief. “Thank you,” he whispered. “Nikita, you take care of yourself too, okay?”

“Same to you, bro,” Nikita said, with a mock salute that made him feel better despite the wall between them. “Don’t make me have to bust you out and nurse you back to health.”

“A fate surely worse than death!” Hawk said, half-laughing, and Nikita let that sustain him all the way back up to his shop.

Once there, though, he slumped into a chair, bumping against the back of the chair and sliding forwards a little. He looked up, to where the sky would be if there wasn’t a roof above him. “Goddess, look after your children, please,” he murmured, and clasped his paws together.

---


It was a mark of just how uncomfortable Jessica was with the current situation that Jessica invited Nikita to her room, and shut the door firmly behind him. There wasn’t much that distinguished it from the other rooms in the corridor, aside from a few extra cushions covered in floral patterns (though slightly faded now), a vase of almost fresh flowers, and a door that locked on the inside and had been made to be as difficult to force open as possible. People close to the leader of anything were valuable, especially if they were children. Jessica had learnt to take care of herself, almost as soon as she’d been able to walk, but physical intimidation wasn’t the only method the Guild used.

Eagle had been good with his words. He’d been able to get people to do things for him just with a smile and a tilt of his head and the implied threat behind that. Nikita had admired that. He wasn’t sure how much of that Jessica had inherited, though he hoped it was enough to get them through this.

She had the stance down, at least. That was a good start. The look on her face wasn’t.

“Jess,” he said, taking a step towards her and opening his arms.

She took a look at him, then turned away and scrubbed her face. “No, I’m fine. I’m all right, see?” She looked at him again, smiling, but it hadn’t settled properly into her face.

“Pull it up a bit here,” Nikita advised, pushing up the corner of his eye with one finger.

Jessica’s expression fell, and she wrapped her arms around herself. “I knew I couldn’t do it,” she muttered, sounding hopeless.

“I wouldn’t say that,” Nikita said, coming over and taking firm hold of one of her hands. “It’s all just happened, after all. It’s a lot to take in, for everyone, and you’ve got to hold it together. I’m not going to hold it against you if you need to fall apart. And better in front of someone like me than a teacher or one of the trainees, ey?”

Jessica rubbed her other hand over her eyes. “I can’t afford to fall apart at all.”

Nikita tugged Jessica over to her bed, and sat down, patting the space beside him, and waited for her to sit down. “Come on, Jess,” he said, rubbing her shoulder. “You know it’ll be a strain on you, and with your father…”

Jessica sighed, and leant against him. “I know,” she said. “But someone has to hold things together, or someone who… who doesn’t know us as well…” Her hands curled in her lap, and Nikita reached up to begin massaging her scalp. “With things as they are, we can’t really afford weakness.”

Nikita hesitated, eyes caught on her neckline. “He sure seems caught up with that Isabella, though,” he said. His fingers twitched. “She’ll probably take-” his voice caught, and he forced the next words through- “good care. Of him. The Guild.”

Jessica turned away, moving so his fingers only just rested on her head. “She’s still only a recent arrival,” she said. “I’d prefer someone who’s been here for a few years, even if my father wouldn’t.”

“You accepted a gift from her, though,” Nikita pointed out.

“Gifts are one thing,” Jessica said, turning back to him with her arms folded, and Nikita’s ears went back against his skull. “Gifts don’t mean commitment- don’t have to mean commitment. I suppose she’s trying to curry favour, but that’s not all I think about when I think of our future. Who is there to know the Guild better than the members of the Guild? Who is to say that she will become part of the Guild and useful to us?”

“Which is why you need someone you trust beside you. The problem is,” Nikita said, wrapping his arms around each other and staring at nothing in particular, “with the people you trusted most gone, or… not deserving of that trust any more, you can’t be sure that- well, that anyone is telling you the truth. Me, even- I could be lying through my teeth, not that I’d do that outside of trying to-”

“Stop that!” Jessica snapped, and grabbed Nikita’s arm, pulling it tight against her. “I’ve known you since you got here- you wouldn’t!” Her grasp on his arm tightened, and Nikita hissed, trying to pull back. Jessica tugged back, her lips pursed. “Father isn’t listening to me, my brother is dead- Nikita, I need someone with me.”

Nikita breathed, trying to ignore Jessica’s hold on his wrist, and looked up into her eyes. “I want to help you, Jessica. I won’t betray the Guild if I can help it.”

Jessica considered him for a moment, eyes narrowed, then relaxed, letting go. “Good,” she said. “There’s been enough betrayal in the Guild already.”

Nikita’s ears started twitching again, and it reached his face this time, though his eyebrows and forehead stayed down and creased once they’d got there. “Jessica- I don’t think this is the end of it.”

“I know!” Jessica turned away, tucking one am around her body and looking for something she could fuss around with. “I know,” she repeated, unhappy and picking at her bedcover. “Whatever it is that’s taken Father- we can’t afford weak leadership. Not when the world is working against us.”

“I’m sure it’s not deliberate.”

She knew that he had probably meant it as reassurance, but it was no great comfort to know that the land did not, in fact, care about the creatures that walked on it- the more humanoid ones, at least. The desert suited the basilisks and bulettes well enough. “That doesn’t change what’s happening, though. If there’s any weakness, someone else is bound to make an attempt to seize the leadership.”

It must have been the illness that had influenced Flamekhan to move against Rolante so quickly. It would focus everyone’s attention on what they were doing to overcome Rolante, particularly given the reputation of the Rolante mountain range and the winds that protected them. The challenge it presented was engaging the minds of their best strategists, and Jessica was reasonably sure they wouldn’t need to watch for any trouble from that side until they were settled in Rolante Castle. The more soldierly types she had ways around- she’d been friends with some of them, and a few of those were in command of others she didn’t know so well. She’d learnt that loyalty was valuable from her first lessons on, and though it hadn’t come to needing to be tested for anything more serious than who was responsible for forgetting to wake someone else up for guard duty, she could use that.

Nikita nodded, his tail flicking. “I believe the mountain air is said to be good for improving one’s condition,” he said. “A change in scenery might well do Lord Flamekhan some good.” His tail dropped, and he glanced at the door. In a lowered voice, he said, “We… are sure that whatever he’s suffering from is natural, right?”

Jessica stared at him. “What? Nikita, he’s getting older, and more susceptible to illnesses. Where did that come from?”

He scratched at his temple, eyes sliding away to study a corner. “I don’t know, Jess. There’s just something funny about this whole situation.”

She bit her lip. “…I’m going to get this cleared up,” she said, getting to her feet.

“What?” Nikita swung to face her, ears twitching up in alarm.

But with a course of action set ahead of her, Jessica felt more confident in herself, sure that her father would be able to clear up the confusion that had risen in the wake of Eagle’s death. She unlocked the door and set out, ignoring Nikita’s distress, his ears pressed back against his head, his pupils dilated so much there was barely any iris, and the way he was clutching the bedsheets hard enough to poke holes in them.

“Oh, Goddess,” he muttered, and let go to head after her.

---


The guards on the door were no more enthusiastic about letting Jessica through than they would have been for Eagle- and Jessica stowed that away as something else to talk to her father about, when she could get him alone. But she was a daughter in distress, and she’d faked enough sniffles and tears when she was younger to help her brothers out of the trouble they’d got themselves into (or at least to detract from the severity of the punishment), and one of the guards- Hedley, Jessica remembered- put his arm around Jessica while the other- Isaiah- knocked on the door.

“What? What is it?” one of the men inside hissed, and Jessica let enough of a sob out for Hedley to tighten the hug for a moment.

“Wondered if we could borrow his Lordship for a moment,” Isaiah said, and offered Jessica a sad smile, reaching out to rest his hand on her shoulder for a moment.

The person inside grumbled. “His Lordship is busy,” he said, “he needs to focus on the plans for the invasion. Rolante won’t fall simply because we desire it.”

“Can’t you ask him to spare a moment? Please?

“Oh, children,” the other person said, disapproval dropping off every syllable. Jessica scowled and folded her arms. Heather patted her shoulder reassuringly, which was enough for Jessica to have lost most of the scowl by the time the door creaked open and Isabella looked out.

“Oh, Jessica, poor sweet thing,” she cooed, and Jessica was very glad Hedley’s arm kept her from stepping back too far. She’d never liked it when people cooed at her- it was useful, but that was as far as it went- and Isabella was all pink and flittering, like the sweet candy she and Eagle had got at a festival once.

Jessica took a deep breath, and tried to ignore that she was about to sound very much like a petulant child. “I want to talk to my father,” she insisted.

Isabella opened the door a little more, enough for her to step outside and pat Jessica on the head. Jessica drew away, pressing her lips together. She hadn’t been patted on the head in years, and she didn’t appreciate it now.

“We’re in the middle of some tricky business, working out how to deal with Rolante’s defences,” Isabella said, withdrawing her hand and smiling. Her teeth flashed for a moment. “What was it you wished to talk to His Majesty about?”

Jessica tightened her hands, digging her nails into the flesh of her palms. “I just… I need to talk to my father.”

Isabella looked at her for a moment, expression changing to something calculating, and then smiled again. “I’ll see if he can find the time to talk to you once we’re done with these matters,” she said. “But, if you wanted to… I suppose you could see if your friend in the cell would be willing to give you any answers.”

Hedley breathed out in shock, close enough for Jessica to feel it. “Lady?” he asked, and Jessica clenched her hands behind her back. Nikita laid his paw over them, and Jessica relaxed enough to reach out to grip it.

Isabella waved off any concern. “He won’t be able to do anything. You could take someone with you if you were really worried.” She turned back and shut the door, leaving Jessica to stare at it with her mouth half-open to protest.

“His Lordship hasn’t done us much favour, taking her in,” Isaiah said, taking his place beside the door again. “We could do with a little more information about what we’re all supposed to be doing here.” He held one hand out, indicating a pinch with his thumb and index finger. “Even this much.”

“Can’t be helped,” Nikita said, spreading out his unoccupied paw. His ears were down, and Jessica realised with some amazement that his head fur seemed to be almost entirely on edge, making him look more like a puffed ball of fur than she’d seen him since that time she and Eagle had managed to dump him in the oasis near Deen. “We’ll know when we know.” He let go of Jessica’s hand, and started trying to tidy his fur, watching her. “Jessica… what do you want to do?”

She looked down for a moment. “I want… I want to know what happened. I’m going to ask him,” she said decisively, turning away and walking.

As she got closer to the Fortress’s cells, her pace slowed, and she came to a complete stop on the stairs. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know, now, but she’d come to this point. She fidgeted with her dress for a few moments, took a deep breath, and took the last few steps, keeping her footsteps even as she walked to the cell Hawk was being kept in.

Hawk picked himself up and approached the bars, mirroring her. “Jessica…”

She hesitated for a moment, looking for the words. “Hawk… you didn’t kill Eagle, did you? You were such good friends! It can’t be true…” She moved forwards, putting a hand on the bars, and said softly, “Who really did this?”

Hawk opened his mouth for a moment, then shut it, expression turned pained before it closed in, and he stepped back, hands behind his back.

Jessica pressed forwards, trying to reach out to him. “What’s wrong? Hawk, it’s safe, it’s just me and Nikita.”

Hawk shook his head, eyes downcast, and Jessica backed away. “No… it can’t be. You couldn’t have!” She tried to meet Hawk’s eyes, but he looked away every time she came close. “No!” She turned away, and ran, eyes burning. Nikita held a paw out, and she grabbed it, pulling him along until they were back at the door to her room.

“Jessica…” Nikita said, rubbing his thumb over her hand and looking worried.

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I… I’ll be fine, I’ll manage,” she said, looking up at him. “But I don’t want to stay.” She turned, and pulled the door open. “Will you come with me?”

Nikita nodded. “Of course! Couldn’t see you off alone,” he said. “Maybe together we’ll find some way out of this. There might be someone in Sultan who can help, even- I think there should be someone I know passing through the area. I’ll see if she’s still around.”

Jessica nodded, and they parted ways to start packing.

---


They got into a few fights on the way to Sultan, but that was mainly due to the increased number of monsters in the area generally. Nikita wouldn’t have minded it so much since it gave him plenty of opportunities to take monsters apart for their various pieces, but disembowelling even a Duck Soldier took time, and it was better for them to get to Sultan as soon as they could. It was regretful, but Jessica made up for it by insisting that he test her ability to spot danger before they ran into it.

She spotted Sultan a good way out, and they both breathed a little more easily. Nikita began trying to comb the sand out of his fur again- a mostly futile effort; he was sure there was still sand somewhere in there from when he’d first come to Navarre.

Jessica stayed wary, but the shadows flickering in the edges of her vision were only the ones caused by flickers in heat, or the edges of people who she could identify moving. She kept herself ready, just on the offchance that there was someone from the Guild here, but Nikita seemed to be unconcerned, and she let his attitude calm her own.

They got through most of the town without incident, and Nikita spotted his friend’s tawny fur against the backdrop of the docks, trying to negotiate with a customer for a good price on a collection of oils. “Gato!” he called, waving.

Gato turned, and waved when she spotted Nikita. “That’s my final price,” she said to the customer, and he grumbled but paid. Gato took the money and tucked it away in her purse, handing over the bag containing the oils. Nikita nudged past the customer, and she smiled at him. “Almost thought I wasn’t going to see you this time round!”

“Haha, yes,” Nikita said, and scratched behind one ear, looking awkward. “The Guild seems to be a bit out of sorts at the moment… we’re going to see if we can wait it out.”

“Not a half bad idea.” Gato rubbed her paws together, and considered the two of them. “So, shall we talk business then? I might have some goods for you if you’re planning on heading anywhere. And I’d like to know a little about that necklace.”

Jessica frowned, putting a hand over it. “I don’t think I could tell you much. It was a gift.”

Gato’s ears swivelled forward, and she leaned in. Jessica took a step back, letting her arms hang loose, and Gato straightened up again. “Didn’t think you were in the habit of handling gear you didn’t know the provenance of,” she said.

“They’re new to the Guild,” Nikita said, rubbing at his ear. “Someone called Isabella… blonde hair, dresses mostly in pink… you wouldn’t have heard anything about someone like that, would you?”

“Doesn’t ring any bells. Odd, someone carrying an artefact like that should have rung bells somewhere…”

“Unless they were trying to keep it out of sight, of course,” Jessica said, tucking her hands against her sides. She looked at them, waiting until she’d caught their eyes. “Gato, since you seem to know what kind of artefact this is… could you tell me?”

Gato’s eyes widened, and she leaned back. “She didn’t tell you about it before she gave it to you? That’s ridiculous, that’s… something like that, you could be in huge trouble!”

“And what is it, exactly?” Jessica asked, letting her exasperation through.

“I’d have to have a closer look to know exactly what, but it smells like magic of some kind,” Gato said. She rocked back and forth on her feet for a few moments, hands behind her back, tail flicking in time with her rocking. “Pretty strong, too- not activated, is it?”

Jessica shook her head, but Nikita said, “And what could we do if it was?”

Gato looked between them, lips drawing back. “Don’t tell me you activated whatever magic it has, Nikita.”

“Of course not,” Nikita said, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I’m not a fool, whatever you might think.”

“It’s active?” Jessica grasped at it, trying to feel out where the clasp was. Isabella had done it up, she remembered, and she had been trying not to show any of her feelings around Isabella to make much note of what, exactly, Isabella had done. Now, she rounded on Nikita. “Nikita. What is it doing?”

He stared at her shoulder rather than meeting her eyes, only the very end of his tail flicking. “It’s… like a bomb, of sorts,” he said, “it’s waiting for the truth, and then…” His hand twitched, and now Jessica looked away, staring at the ground as she tried to understand.

“Isabella,” she said softly.

Nikita squeezed her shoulder. “Yes,” he said, and looked at Gato. “So! Do you know any ways to get a cursed necklace undone?”

“Usually I’d say look at what the person who made the curse did, but I take it that’s not an option.” They shook their heads, and Gato continued on, tapping one foot. “I would have said Wendel, but… there’s rumours something’s afoot on the central continent. I can’t tell you what’s going on for certain- it’s all rumours until something actually happens- but word is the Beastmen are readying out to move into human territory. It may even be true this time- no one’s sticking around Mintos long enough to be able to tell the rest of us, I’m sorry to say.”

“Oh, good,” Nikita said, trying to ignore the way his stomach was trying to acquaint itself with his feet, “more invasions. Just the sort of news I was looking forward to when I got up this morning, thank you, Gato.”

Gato gave him a sharp look. “More?” she asked, and Nikita glanced to the desert for a moment, ears flattening. She sighed, and tapped the case she carried. “Well, the trouble for you two would be they’re most likely headed for Wendel, or so I heard. I suspect getting there’s going to be a lot of trouble for the next however long.”

Jessica frowned and folded her arms. “So what you’re saying is that right now we don’t have a way to fix this, or any way of finding someone who can.”

“I’d say try Altena,” Gato said, turning to face Jessica and getting a full face of Jessica’s glare, “but they’ve gone just as mad.” She glanced at Nikita. “Reports say the Crimson Wizard appeared in Forcena Castle, and killed some of the guards on duty,” she told them. “Forcena’s on high alert, though considering who they’d be facing I’m not about to put money on them.”

“Of course,” Nikita said, putting one hand over his face with a sigh. “Can’t have just one nation invading another, can we.”

“Maybe it’s just a phase,” said Gato, her tail flicking. She reached up to scratch behind one ear, turning it into a salute as she spoke. “A natural stage in the progression of any nation-group, when the people in charge decide that there simply isn’t enough for them to control in their current boundaries, and so they must force themselves upon another, the better to show off their dick size.”

That’s not what it is,” Jessica said, sounding strangled. “The Guild… that’s not what we stand for.” She glanced over her shoulder, towards the direction of the Fortress, and Nikita reached out for her wrist.

“No,” he agreed, and his ears flattened back against his skull, with his tail twitching. “Not as it usually is, at least.” He looked at Gato, ears twitching, uncertain as to whether he wanted to keep them back or point them forwards. “Do you know anything of those who can control and influence others’ minds?”

“Not a magic many humans go in for,” Gato said. “There’s beauty spells, of course, and illusion, but that’s all perception, that’s not what you’re talking about, is it?” Nikita shook his head, and Gato hummed to herself, losing herself in thought. “They’d be creatures of the night, I should say,” she said, lowering her hand and looking at them with curiosity in her eyes. “They’re the ones that appear most in the stories you hear involving that sort of thing. But they’re not the desert type- worse than us, really, we can just manage the sand in our fur.” She nodded at Nikita. “I can’t imagine why they’d want to come around this way- it’s everything they can’t stand, surely.”

“We work in the night,” Jessica said, voice becoming strangled again. “And within the walls- they wouldn’t have to see daylight if they didn’t want to. But my father… he said he found Isabella in the desert.”

“Half-starved, and in pain,” Nikita mused, and shook his head. “The very image of a damsel in despair… and you know Lord Flamekhan’s predilections better than I would, Jessica.”

“We’ve been invaded already, then,” Jessica said, and took a deep breath to steady herself. “How can we get rid of them?” she asked.

“Wouldn’t advise going head on with them,” Gato said. “Not when they have everyone else in the building ready to listen to them and only them, and fight for them when they ask. I’d say Wendel, but, well.”

“We need back up,” Nikita said. “Something to keep everyone from falling under Isabella’s spell, to start with, though.”

“I might be able to help you with that,” Gato said, looking through the cases of wares she carried. “Don’t have much, but it’ll do for you two at least.” She found two pairs of earrings, and held them out to Nikita. “Ten thousand.”

Nikita held a hand up. “Six.”

“We could try Rolante,” Jessica said, frowning at the ground, one hand covering the gem of the necklace.

“Bad investment,” Gato said, and with a glance at Jessica, said, “I’ll throw in a jacket, for cooler weather. Nine.”

“Eight, twenty scales, and ten basilisk fangs.”

“Fine.” Nikita swung his own pack off, digging out the scales and fangs, and Gato turned to find the jacket, handing the earrings to Jessica. “I don’t think Rolante’s such a good idea either, Jess.”

She selected the pair of earrings she wanted, and waited until Nikita’s hands were free to give him the other. “I know. But on the other hand- if it’s not my father in control of the Guild, then what kind of reputation are we going to end up with in Rolante?”

Nikita’s ears twitched as he considered it. “I don’t know that they’ll be pleased to see us,” he said after a few moments. “It strikes me that Isabella would be likely to want to capture you, Flamekhan’s daughter, at least,” he added, tucking his hands into his sleeves and staring out at the boats docked in the port. “Me…” He shrugged. “Plenty of others where I came from,” he said, and didn’t look at Jessica, not from the edge of his peripheral vision.

Gato snorted, packing up again. “None as foolish to leave the rest of the group behind and hightail it out this way,” she said, clipping everything into place.

Nikita chuckled, his throat catching the sounds and making each one distinct. “To her,” he corrected himself, and reached up to feel for his ear piercings, sliding the earrings into place. “Jess, what I’m saying is- we’ll need to take care. The Guild won’t be on our side, and we’ll have a hell of a time convincing anyone from Rolante we’re not under anyone’s control and trying to do something about Isabella’s deal.”

Jessica took her old earrings out and replaced them, dropping the old ones into a pocket. “We’ll work that out when we get there,” she said, taking the jacket and tying it around her waist. “The others… since they’re being controlled, they’re bound to be acting a certain way. Or, well, if I think about it…” She hesitated, but shook her head swiftly. “Isabella wouldn’t make them do things that were- silly,” she said.

Nikita stared at her, and his tail flicked out into a line. “You mean we should do silly dances, that sort of thing?” he asked. He snorted. “Well, if they need convincing, I suppose we could! Isabella doesn’t seem like she’d put a foot out of place.”

“And she’d have to take control to get anyone to dance,” Jessica agreed, her eyes taking on some little spark. “We never did have proper dancing lessons after Eagle and Hawk took down most of the room,” she sighed.

Nikita leaned against her. “I always thought they messed that up at the time, but maybe not so much now.”

She turned and rested her head against his neck, closing her eyes against the sun and the gazes of passersby. “To Palo, then.”

“I’ll wish you all the best, then,” Gato said, pulling her pack onto her shoulders. She patted them on the shoulders. “Not that I don’t still think you’re crazy for doing this, but better than leaving that thing alone. Don’t let her get the better of you.”

Nikita wrapped an arm around Jessica as they watched Gato stalk off, presumably to terrify another captain into giving her a discount on her ticket, and tugged her to find out which ship was going to Palo.

---


It was the first time Jessica had been to Palo, and she was more alert here than she’d been anywhere else, one hand touching the other wrist and ready to reach into the concealed pocket in the sleeve. Most of the houses here were built closely against the rock face, some even chiselled into the rock, and they were shuttered against the wind coming in from the sea. The walls showed discolouration after years of exposure, and some well-meaning soul had put out some flowers on their windowsill. They were still faring better there than they would have in Sultan, and overall Jessica felt that there was just so much more colour, even on a day like this when it was quiet and those people who were out were only going about their daily business.

Nikita held a paw out to her, curling his fingers around her hand when she reached out to him. “Don’t look like you’re looking for trouble too much,” he advised, voice soft. “Someone might take it as an invitation.” Their eyes flicked to the nearest person- one of the soldiers of the Guild, and Jessica nodded, letting her hands hang as they would.

There seemed to be more soldiers than citizens of the city about, in fact, and Nikita drew closer to Jessica. His ears wanted to twitch away every time they came within a few feet of the soldiers, but her presence reminded him of the need to stay in control of his instincts. Running would only make him look more like prey.

Jessica pulled him forwards, leading the way through the town and looking about at the building, which also did her the favour of being able to avoid looking into the faces of any of the soldiers they passed. She couldn’t be sure whether they’d recognise the soldiers, or whether the soldiers would recognise them, but neither of those would help her or Nikita. It might be a quick way to spotting some of the people who might be involved in a revolution in Rolante, but they’d be vastly outnumbered. Palo supported itself through fishing, and relied on Rolante’s army to defend it against the monsters in the mountains, and it looked as though the soldiers had confiscated anything that could be used against them, regardless of actual use. Better to try to find the army, if they could.

They were going to have to look further than Palo if they wanted to find them, though. Basing the resistance somewhere where the soldiers were concentrated asked for trouble, between the Amazons who were undoubtedly on edge after losing the castle and looking for any way to retaliate and the ninja running on the thrill of accomplishment and perhaps expecting some form of retaliation. If the remains of the Amazon army had any sense, they’d be somewhere where they could forestall as many attempts to find them as possible- and that had to be somewhere in the mountains, perhaps between Palo and the Castle.

There was a path between Palo and Rolante Castle. It was too clear to be of use in finding the Amazons, but it was far easier than trying to make their way up the cliffs and past Rolante’s driving winds. The winds grew stronger the further they went up, and Jessica tightened the scarf around her head, keeping her hair from flying away too much, and tightened her grip on her dagger.

On the bright side, the Navarre patrols seemed to be almost as unwilling to go out in the windy weather as anyone from Rolante. Strong winds in Navarre often meant sandstorms, and the usual response to that was to head for cover whenever the weather seemed to be turning that way- less advantageous for the patrols, even if there wasn’t sand pelting down on them here, but Jessica was glad that they had yet to see any of them.

She had barely heard anything other than the winds and monsters native to the Rolante mountains. She was beginning to suspect that the patrols were relying as much on the viciousness of the beasts as their skills and reputation, though being beset by groups of needlebirds wasn’t conducive to much thought about their situation.

“Try and get their wings!” Nikita called, slashing at the wings of a chibi-devil. It screeched, and jabbed at him with its short trident, but it had poor reach, particularly with its wings cut, and Nikita had an easy shot at its heart. The chibi-devil dissolved, leaving behind only a little grass and a brief moment of a foul smell, which was soon blown away.

Jessica darted in to stab the needlebird’s wings, and got out of way just before it could peck her. With its wing wounded, it floundered through the air, and the wounded wing was an easy target for Nikita, who sliced it off. The needlebird fell to the ground, screeching its displeasure, and Jessica silenced it before it could bring more down on them.

“Well done!” Nikita went over and squatted, searching through the needlebird’s feathers for its scales. They kept a lot easier than any other parts of the beast, and were far easier to carry around than eyes, and they might be useful. There were one or two that looked good enough to use, and he pulled them off before straightening up and turning around to her. “Here you go!”

Jessica took the scales, considering them for a moment. “I’m surprised they carry things like this,” she said, and slipped them into her pocket.

“Wouldn’t think it to look at something like a drake, would you?” Nikita kicked the beast apart, and dusted off his hands. “But that’s the trick of it, knowing what carries something you mightn’t expect-” His ears twitched, and Jessica held a hand out, forestalling further conversation. He listened, and indicated the direction opposite to the sounds- faint clicking, and footsteps, and the two of them hurried, finding a place to let themselves down quietly and let the patrol pass.

She looked at their eyes this time, and felt a pang of shock- the three soldiers barely turned their heads, and their eyes stayed focused ahead of them, for a given degree of focused.

She waited until they’d gone far enough ahead that she thought they could follow without too much trouble, and gestured to Nikita. He boosted her and she pulled herself up the rest of the way, and he came after her. They hurried after the three soldiers, attention on keeping their footsteps as quiet as could be, ready to draw back if the soldiers turned around. But the closest the soldiers came to seeing them was when a group of needlebirds attacked them, and Jessica and Nikita stayed well out of the way, letting the soldiers take care of the matter, and then they went on.

The trickiest part was the bridge- it was weathered, made of wood and rope and it creaked as the soldiers went across. Jessica stayed back until they were well across and had passed into the rock formation on the other side, then stepped out, testing it. There was no helping the creaking of the rope, no matter where she put her weight, and she made herself walk at an even pace, half-expecting the soldiers to have heard them and turned back to find them. But their luck held, and they followed the twists and turns of the rocks until it widened out, leading towards an area that was almost flat.

Jessica stopped again, and Nikita peered out, shading his eyes with one hand. “Think we’re still good,” he said softly, and they continued on, both of them scanning the area for signs of Navarre or Rolante soldiers. Nikita spotted the Navarre soldiers first, and pointed them out to Jessica, who frowned.

“What in the world are they doing?” she breathed, and started towards where the soldiers were lying amidst a field of flowers. Nikita came behind more cautiously, and stood at the edge of the flowers, frowning down at them as Jessica picked her way across to reach for their wrists. “There’s nothing wrong with them,” she said, dropping one wrist and reaching for the next.

“You know, these flowers are kind of familiar, Jess,” Nikita said, picking one and sniffing it. “I used to deal with some like this, back in the day…” Jessica yawned, and Nikita nodded without looking up. “Yeah, just like that- they put people to sleep. Useful for parents of children with fevers, and the Guild…”

It struck him then, and he looked up. “Jess!” he called, moving towards her- but his feet didn’t stay under him, and he toppled face-first into the flowers, sending up a cloud of petals and pollen.

---


The ground was cold under her fingers. Jessica pushed herself up as soon as she felt able to, and looked around. She was in a small area carved out of the rock, and the way out was barred. Some kind of cell, she guessed, and from the way the three soldiers they’d been following were slumped one the other side of the room drew the assumption that Rolante forces had captured them. She’d hoped to be conscious to meet them, but under the circumstances she was willing to take any opportunity she could.

One of Rolante’s Amazons was watching them now, arms folded. “Don’t try anything stupid,” she said.

Jessica blinked. “Of course not,” she said, glancing around for Nikita. His ears were twitching, indicating he was beginning to wake up, and she turned back to the Amazon. “What’s your name?”

The Amazon tilted her head. “What do you care, thief?”

Jessica straightened up, put her shoulders back and looked the Amazon in the eye. “If we’re going to have any kind of conversation, it’s only polite,” she said, maintaining an even tone. “My name is Jessica. What may I call you?”

The Amazon considered Jessica for a moment, head still tilted to the side, and then she straightened up. “You’re genuine, aren’t you?” she asked, and then gestured with one hand, eyebrows drawing in- “I mean. That’s not something someone’s told you to say, is it?”

“Not unless you’d want to count my teachers,” Jessica said. “They’d be glad to know I’m actually making use of my lessons, though, I’m sure.”

“Genuine conversation,” the Amazon said, eyebrows raised.

“You don’t have to sound so surprised.” Jessica folded her arms, and stared back.

The Amazon shook herself, and smiled. “No, no. It’s just… well, we’ve picked up a few other soldiers. None of them have been anything near coherent- definitely no good conversationalists in the bunch.” She came over to the bars, and held out a hand. “It’s good to know Navarre hasn’t gone completely insane,” she said. “I’m Phyllis. Nice to meet you, Jessica.”

“The same here.” She let herself smile back, and gestured at the lock. “I don’t suppose we could have this conversation in more comfort?”

Phyllis shook her head. “Afraid not,” she said. “Maybe if you can help us figure out a way to get the Castle back, though.”

Jessica was willing to go along with that- the Castle didn’t belong to the Guild, and keeping it was only going to result in bad blood. Not all of the Amazons were easily convinced, and Jessica didn’t know anything of Isabella’s plans regarding Rolante. With Nikita’s help, she told them about the Guild’s usual defensive manoeuvres- evasion and trapping the foe, aided by their familiarity with the territory. It would be better if they could strike before Isabella and Navarre were used to the area, both groups agreed. They were working on trying to work out a way to work around the castle’s natural defences when one of the other Amazons rushed in and murmured something into the elder’s ear. His eyes sharpened, and he waved Jessica and Nikita off, getting up with a creaking of bones and leaving for another part of the hideout.

“She’s back,” Phyllis said later that day, when she came down to see Jessica. She was smiling more than Jessica had seen before, and seemed energised with fresh hope. “Our leader… she’s alive, she’s going to help! We feared the worst…”

“The princess…?” Jessica asked. Phyllis nodded, and Jessica offered a smile of her own. “I’m glad for you.”

“With her supporting us and Jinn’s powers… we should have a good chance of getting back into the castle.” Phyllis reached out to take Jessica’s hand. “Once she’s back with Jinn, I’ll ask her to meet you.”

---


Lise, princess of Rolante, looked exceedingly hassled and worried when she came down to the hideout’s cells. “I really don’t think I should involve you,” she said. “It’s not your fight.”

Jessica looked at her, and then pointedly at her hands. Her skin had paled after the time spent in the hideout, but she would never be as pale as Lise. “Yes, it is.”

“I really, really can’t allow this.” To her credit, Lise looked appropriately apologetic.

Jessica was not going to have any of it. “I understand that you’re completely capable of taking the castle back,” she said. “But another pair of hands-” Nikita tapped her on the shoulder, and she amended, “two pairs of hands won’t hurt you any. If there’s any surprises, we’ll help you through them, and if you think we’re going to be trouble, well…” She spread her hands out. “Send someone with us to make sure we won’t be.”

Not that she had any intention of being trouble, but she’d half-anticipated there to be some control magic on Isabella’s part which they’d need to deal with. Either she was wrong, or their earrings were working well enough to be worth the price Gato had asked for them- and when they got far enough into the castle, there were monsters. Jessica set her teeth and glanced at Nikita, whose fur was standing on edge.

“It’s going to get worse the further up we go, isn’t it?” Lise said, putting a spear through an armoured monster. She pulled it free, and looked at Jessica and Nikita as the other four tore through the rest of the monsters. “Does the Guild use anything like this?”

Jessica shook her head, and Nikita said, “It’s the same kind of feeling I got off Isabella…” He shook himself, and his fur settled a little. “It’s not any power the Goddess grants,” he said positively.

“So she’s calling up monsters?” Angela asked, turning back to them.

“That seems to be the case,” Lise agreed, and took the lead again. “If we take care of her, the ones we miss should fall.”

“And everyone should be okay again,” Jessica murmured.

That thought sustained her, even once they’d got past Gorva (an enchanted fireplace? Whose idea was that, and how had they got it up there?) and found Bill and Ben, ready to fight the group. If they knocked them out and defeated Isabella, Bill and Ben would be fine, and she launched herself into the fight whole-heartedly. Nikita stayed back, with items for healing, and the rest of them tried to knock Bill and Ben down badly enough that they stayed done.

At length, Lise knocked Bill unconscious, and Nikita was ready with rope, binding Bill’s hands and feet and tying him to the railing before frisking him for anything that could be used to escape. Jessica had already got Ben secured, and they took a moment to breathe.

“I can feel a power up there,” Angela said, gesturing up the steps with her staff. “It’s completely foreign- it must be that Isabella character.” She scowled, folding her arms over her chest. “Really! Who thinks that taking over other people’s minds is the way to get power?”

Jessica glanced at Angela’s chest, then up at her face and raised her eyebrows. Angela returned her gaze steadily. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t use what you can!” she said, gesturing to one side. “But to not even give them a choice is wrong. Don’t you think so, Guild leader?”

“Don’t get distracted,” Lise said, stepping between them. She glanced around the room, catching everyone’s eye, and gestured for them all to follow her.

Isabella was seated in a throne there, at the top level of the next room, red carpet rolled out from the throne’s base. “How kind of you all to come,” she said.

She smiled too much for someone who was about to be thrown out, Jessica thought, and felt Lise readying her spear beside her.

“How dare you come here and think that you can take over my kingdom!” she said.

Jessica reached into her sleeve pockets for her daggers, and stood up beside Lise. “This is for disgracing the Guild,” she said, and pushed herself forwards, aiming for Isabella’s neck. “There is no escape for the law of the Gui-”

Something hit her wrist and she cried out, jerking back. A moment later, Lise and Angela gasped out, Lise dropping her spear.

“Bastard!” Duran yelled, and swung at their enemy- but he was faster, and Jessica only caught sight of a blur when she swung around to help him.

It was enough to put a sinking feeling in her chest, as she turned to trace the path of purple and brown. It settled there firmly when she saw him standing there, next to the person who had begun the demise of the Guild as they’d known it.

“Hawk!” Nikita called, sounding desperate. “What are you doing?”

“You know him?” Lise asked, and hissed, holding her wrist. She was bleeding, Jessica realised, and tried to ignore the blood on Hawk’s daggers. She’s not dead and it’s just a cut, really, part of her noted, but the rest was busy dreading whatever was to come next.

Duran stormed in front of them, and pointed his sword at Isabella. “Give it up! You’re outnumbered. Your speed and spells won’t do you any good.”

Isabella rose to her feet, a smirk covering her face. “You say that, but you’ve been weakened by those fights, have you not?” She gathered her silk scarf about her, and reached out to touch Hawk’s face. Jessica breathed in sharply, and willed Hawk to show some sign of resistance- anything, even a moment- but he turned into the touch, and Jessica couldn’t tell whether the twitch in his hands was appreciation or distaste. “In the meantime, this servant and I have been waiting, with strength and speed to spare. So, then, why should I let you free?”

Duran snarled, and Angela raised her staff again, chanting something under her breath. Hawk turned sharply, dagger held out towards them, but Isabella laughed and laid a hand on his shoulder, and he lowered the knife, though his eyes followed every movement they made. “No, we can let them go for a little while longer,” she said, and Jessica saw the others shiver at the same time she did. “There’s a long way to go in this game- it won’t be fun to remove so many of the pieces at this point.”

She smiled at them, amusement flickering in her eyes and eyeteeth showing.

“Hawk!” Nikita called again, and he began to move forwards. “You can’t be serious, working with her- what did you do to him, you foul creature!?” he accused Isabella.

Isabella’s smile widened to a great cat’s grin, and she pulled lightly on Hawk’s arm. “I gave him a choice,” she said, “and he chose to come with me.” Her gaze travelled over the group, and came to rest on Jessica. “Don’t think everyone is so bound to your Guild as you like to dream.”

“You’re using that as your base!” Jessica accused, tightening her hands into fists, “you’re betraying everything we stand for!”

For a moment, she thought she saw Hawk’s eyes flicker, something- understanding?- showing in his amber eyes, but Isabella grasped him tightly and drew him up into the air with her until they vanished. Angela’s spell crashed into the curtains a moment later, and she hissed disappointment and rage.

“I can’t believe we let them get away!”

“It’s more important that we got them to leave,” Lise said, touching her arm. “The Castle is ours again. And we got out of that situation without any major damage… he could have done a lot worse. Carlie, some healing, please?” The small girl nodded, and skipped over, taking Lise’s hand in her own and beginning a chant. Lise looked up at Jessica and Nikita. “Are all of the Guild trained to be so fast?”

“It’s an advantage,” Jessica said. “Not everyone can reach that kind of speed, but if they’re good enough-” She glanced at Nikita. “He wasn’t that fast before. Something must have happened.”

“She said she gave him a choice,” Nikita said. His ears had gone flat again, and he was trembling. “Jessica, you don’t think… he couldn’t have…”

“He couldn’t have!” Jessica said, shaking her head. “He’s not that kind of person- he’d know better than that.”

For a moment, she thought he would argue, but Kevin spoke first. “Hawk… Nikita and Jessica’s friend. Should trust friends.”

“That’s right!” Angela agreed, linking her arm with Jessica’s. “Whatever’s happened, if he’s truly gone mad in that way, you’ll just have to smack it out of him.”

“All done!” Carlie announced, and hopped back as Lise straightened up and began testing her wrist again.

Satisfied that it was working to her satisfaction, she picked her spear up and turned to face the group. “We’re done here,” she said. “Come on, let’s make sure that all of the ninja aren’t going to cause any more trouble.”

---


Jessica was there when Bill and Ben woke up, waiting until they began to stir. Phyllis stood with her, spear close to hand, watching closely. “Rise and shine,” Jessica said brightly, and splashed water across their faces. They shrieked and jerked awake, spitting out the water that had got into their mouths and she snickered, managing to suppress it a little when the twins got enough of their act together to glare at her.

“Jessica!” Bill growled. He tried to get to his feet, but found himself hampered by the rope around his ankles and wrists, and the same for his brother.

“I’m glad to see you recognise me.” She knelt beside Bill, and pushed his head back enough for her to get a good look in his eyes.

He squirmed away, and stared at her as she did the same with Ben, who was equally bewildered about the matter. “Jessica? What’s all this about?”

Jessica straightened up, and took a step back. “What do you remember of the last couple of weeks?”

Bill and Ben’s eyebrows drew together, and they traded a look. “Well, we went on that raid,” Bill said, raising his hands to scratch his forehead, “took a little longer than we were anticipating, but that was pretty much all preparation, the actual execution was fine.”

“Went off without a hitch,” Ben agreed. “And then we got back, and everyone was preparing for a fight, which gave us the opportunity to raid the kitchen, even if they hadn’t bothered to leave anything from the party for us. Bastards.”

Jessica snorted, and she thought Phyllis smiled- Bill and Ben seemed to perk up, either way.

“And then…” Bill lost the smile again, staring at nothing. “Isabella yelled something about Lord Flamekhan and being attacked, and we rushed in, and Eagle was… he was…” He stopped, covering his eyes.

“And then I think we stopped thinking about things a little,” Ben took up the conversational stream. “There were training drills, and then Isabella held a, um, it would have been an audience I suppose. All a bit of a blur, really.” He looked around the room, and at Phyllis, and a grin began to spread across his face. “We’re in Rolante, now, aren’t we? Things seem to have worked out! I mean, apart from this.” He held his hands out in front of him. “And. Well.”

“We’re sorry about your brother,” Bill said, and made a face and flicked one hand. “With everything happening, we didn’t get to say…”

Jessica nodded, curling her hands together. “Thank you,” she murmured, and turned to Phyllis, skirt flaring out a little. “I think they’re good,” she said.

“The fine art of conversation,” Phyllis agreed, and took up her spear.

“Ah, Jessica?” Bill said, trying to edge away as Phyllis approached.

“Just hold still,” Phyllis advised, and Jessica nodded, backing her up. She slipped the spear between Bill’s hands and he went almost still enough to have been petrified, relaxing only when she slit the ropes. The rest of the ropes came off without incident, though Ben swore he hadn’t whimpered one bit and the rest were certain he had, and the two of them started checking for feeling in their hands and toes.

Jessica waited until they were sure their hands and feet weren’t about to fall off before taking hold of Ben’s arm and hauling him to his feet. “Come on,” she said, “Nikita’s trying to get everyone kitted out for the trip home, and I could do with some friends backing me.” She took Bill’s wrist as well, and lead the way up to the central room of the castle, where Lise and the senior Amazons were waiting.

“Jessica,” Lise said, nodding.

Jessica made a curtsey, and did her best to kick Bill and Ben subtly in the shins so that they bowed. She was fairly sure a couple of the other Amazons noticed, but they said nothing. “As effective leader of the Navarre Thieves Guild, I would like to apologise for the trouble we’ve caused you. We hope you can find it in yourselves to forgive us, and we will do our best to make any amends you request of us.”

“Rolante accepts your apology,” Lise said, her voice ringing out in the hall. She hesitated, and said, “I’m not sure I could accept a rebuilding effort from the Guild at the moment, but… if there’s anything I find that I can ask of you, I’ll be sure to send a message.”

Jessica nodded. “We’ll be returning to the Fortress,” she said, taking Ben’s shoulder and shaking it. “So please, be sure to send any messages there, and I’ll honour it as soon as I can.”

Lise tilted her head, considering, then nodded. “I’ll accept that promise,” she said. “You understand your duties as leader of the guild, don’t you?”

Jessica straightened into attention. “Of course.”

“Then know that Rolante holds you to your duty,” Lise said, reaching out to touch Jessica’s forehead.

One of the senior Amazons, Eliza, made an uncertain noise in her throat, and Lise turned to look at her. “Yes?”

“…Just like that?” Eliza asked, frowning a little.

“Whatever was going on with the Navarre soldiers seems to have mostly dissipated with that Isabella’s disappearance,” Lise said, raising one hand. “I can’t forgive her, but… those who were just being controlled shouldn’t be blamed for what they couldn’t help. Rolante will enough to deal with trying to recover from this attack. And I…” She hesitated, holding her hand close to her heart, and Eliza nodded.

“Of course,” she said, eyes softening. “We can look after Rolante while you’re looking for Eliott. Just be sure to take care of yourself, Lise.”

“Thank you,” Lise said, and wiped at her face. “Actually, Jessica- if you should happen to find Eliott in your travels…”

“Of course,” Jessica nodded. Bill and Ben saluted beside her, and she turned to them. “Come on. We should join Nikita and the others and prepare to head back.”

---


It was a hard trek back to Navarre. There hadn’t been as many people willing to sell to Guild members as Jessica had hoped, and it was with great relief that they reached Sultan. The Guild had a mixed reputation even on home territory, but for the majority of people the Guild was a part of Navarre, a network that would be there if they fell too badly into trouble, and a number of Guild members had people they knew and could rely on in Sultan. Jessica didn’t, but between Nikita, Bill and Ben, and her own skills, she talked the innkeeper into giving them some stew for a little less than it would usually have cost them. Other Guild members wandered in and out through the day, some also for food, some with extras they wanted to share, and all of them looking to Jessica to know when they would leave for the Fortress.

Jessica told them that after the journey, she was sure everyone needed a breather, and they would meet outside the town tomorrow morning before heading back. They filled up the inn, and might well have defeated the point of trying to fit in- but on the whole, everyone was too glad of the opportunity for a soft bed and some sleep without things whispering in their ears.

The desert was easier going, with everyone reasonably used to the territory, and encouraged by being close to home. They got past the doors with relative ease, and a sense of general triumph at returning home, which was somewhat soured when they ran into the first group of Dark Priests, which took one look at them and started summoning Unicorn Heads. It was nothing they couldn’t handle, of course, but it was an irritation, and several of the ninja scowled at the walls once they were done.

“We’re going to have to clean the place out,” Jessica said, and tapped Bill and Ben. “Where would they have put Lord Flamekhan?”

Bill and Ben looked at each other, and nodded. “The dungeons,” Bill said, “they can keep him there however long they’d like.”

“The bars will keep the demons out, besides,” Ben said, his expression unusually serious. “Unless they decide he’s of no use, and who knows-”

Bill rapped his knuckles on Bill’s head, and looked at Jessica. “You want us to go and look for him?” he asked.

Jessica nodded.

“Should keep us out of trouble,” Ben agreed. “All right, come on, you lot, we’ve got a leader to rescue.”

“I expect he’ll be anticipating a big feast after all this,” Bill murmured.

“He’d better give us one, after all this shit!” one of the other ninjas exclaimed, and they began to separate, Bill and Ben and their group headed towards the dungeons, and Jessica and Nikita and the rest towards the main hall.

Besides the monsters, there were still controlled ninja in the Fortress, and they did their best to knock them out when they could. Jessica gritted her teeth for every one who fought to the death, and kept on- there wouldn’t be any point to their deaths if she didn’t make something of it.

In the central hall, they found a man, his back turned to them. “If you want Isabella, you’re too late,” he said. “She’s left for the day, and I’m guarding the territory while she’s out.” He turned, and Jessica realised with a start that he was paler, paler than anyone in the mountains and Angela.

Beside her, Nikita hissed, fur puffing up. “Underworld filth!” he spat. “You have no idea how long it will take to clean out your stink from our home!”

“Oh, it can’t be half as bad as you’re painting it,” Jagan said, stepping towards them. “It certainly didn’t take that long to eradicate your scent and make it ours, after all.”

Nikita yowled, and leapt for Jagan, claws out to attack his face and neck. Jessica pulled her daggers, and called on her training and ability- flames to damage the foe but not her friends. The ninja around her did the same, some with similar jutsu, others with darts and shuriken. Jagan called ghosts in reply, that rushed at the ninja and tried to knock them down. Several of the ninja staggered, but regained their balance just before Jagan raised his hands and used his power to send everyone backwards. But he couldn’t maintain that forever, and there were a few ninja who were able to slip into the shadows just as easily as Jagan seemed to be able to utilise shadow magic. They got behind him and distracted him long enough for Jessica to get in close, pressing a dagger against his neck.

“Where are Hawk and Isabella!?” she demanded.

Jagan tilted his head and smiled, exposing fangs. “She has business in the Valley of Flames, but what does it matter now, and who cares for a dead man?” he asked. “I’ve delayed you enough, little children.”

Even these creatures of the underworld needed to breathe, Jessica discovered as she pressed down on the knife and he choked, wheezing as blood welled out of the cut.

She straightened up, and turned to Nikita, covering up the way she felt sick. “He must be with that Isabella,” she said. “Whatever it is they’re doing in the Valley of Flames… if we move fast enough, we might be able to stop it.”

---


She left for the valley as soon as she was sure that the rest of the Guild could take care of the Fortress- Isaiah was already in the kitchens, bullying some of the youngest members into helping him clean the stoves and search the cupboards for anything usable. A few people tried to stop her, but she brushed them off- she wasn’t going alone, and there was no time to lose. Isabella had had long enough to get ahead of them already, and Jessica wanted to know the truth of what had happened in the Guild- she had that right, by blood and trial.

And she wanted Hawk to look her in the eye, to tell her what he had done. They might never be the same again- they probably weren’t, even if she hoped for it, and she was going to have to find some way around the problem with the necklace first, but she wanted to know.

There were a few bulettes on the way, but nothing she and Nikita couldn’t take down- not after the experiences they’d had, not with Jessica’s desire driving her. She caught a glimpse of silky pink dress, and ignored the next round of foes in favour of chasing it down. The heat in the Valley made her stop for a moment, gasping for breath, but she kept on- more slowly than she would have liked, but still going forwards.

The path through the Valley twisted and turned, and Jessica saw Isabella’s dress fluttering a few more times before catching up to her, at the bridge leading between two outcroppings of rock. “You!” she snarled, pulling her daggers and pointing them at Isabella. “Stop right there!”

“Ah?” Isabella glanced at Jessica for a moment, then kicked Hawk’s leg out from under him when he tried to pull away. He collapsed, and she pulled him flush against her. “My. Isn’t this a turn of fate?” She shook Hawk, unbalancing him again. “To find your friend, only to… well. What do you think you can do?”

Nikita arrived behind Jessica, a little out of puff, eyes roving over the scene. “Get them onto rocks, at least,” he breathed.

Jessica nodded, and advanced, calling power to her again.

Isabella pulled her arm around Hawk’s neck, and he choked. Jessica slipped her dagger back into its pocket, reached out, and Isabella pulled tighter. “Come one step closer,” she murmured, eyes bright, “just one step, and I throw him over. Understand?”



“Ah,” Hawk gasped out, “and with such moves! To think that I’m not the one- it quite unfairly breaks my hea-”

Isabella pulled again, and he made a strangled sound. “Don’t think you’ve fooled me so well,” she whispered. “You took the power to serve your own interests. You’d lose your soul as well as any other man, and twice the fool- who should seek it out for you?”

Hawk gasped for air, and Isabella sighed. “It’s a shame we didn’t get along more fully,” she mourned, easing her grip. “You sang so sweetly, once you’d learned.”

“Hawk!” Nikita called, and it was enough to cover up footsteps behind them- “Dart!” a voice yelled, and Isabella was startled enough to almost entirely let go of Hawk. Hawk tore himself out the rest of the way, and made for Jessica, power gathering around his left hand. “Hawk!” Nikita screamed, in counterpoint to Jessica’s own scream- but Hawk’s hand closed around the gem of the necklace, and Jessica heard the snap of the clasp come undone.

“Haah,” Hawk gasped, and fell, letting go on the necklace. It clinked against the wooden bridge, and fell again, into the lava.

“I see,” Isabella said, and Jessica looked up to face a glare that shouldn’t have been able to survive in the Valley of Flames, not with the lava below them so agitated. “So that was your plan.”

“Not exactly,” Hawk rasped, the beginnings of a smile pulling at his mouth.

“I suppose you think that was clever.” Isabella drew herself up to her full height and turned. “But in the end, you’ll find it was all for nothing,” she said, and swept off.

“We’ll take it from here,” Angela said, pushing Nikita to one side. “Get him somewhere safe. We’ll talk later!”

Jessica found herself jostled off the bridge as Kevin, Carlie, Lise and Duran made after Angela, holding on tight to Hawk. She adjusted her grip, with Hawk providing no help whatsoever. “You know, I’m not sure I want to,” she said.

Nikita shrugged. “They seem pretty busy,” he said. “Might not be for a while. Come on, bro.” He took Hawk and hoisted up onto his back, draping Hawk’s arms over his own shoulders and tucking his arms under Hawk’s knees. Hawk made a small sound of complaint, but clung on, even as his eyes slipped shut. Jessica came alongside them, ready to steady Hawk if he looked like slipping off or to ward off anything that came close, and they walked to Deen.

Nikita helped Hawk sit down when they reached the inn there, and kept him awake while Jessica negotiated with the innkeeper for dinner. She set the plates down and sat down. “All right,” she said, and put a hand over Hawk’s before he picked up his cutlery. “What did you think you were doing?”

Hawk looked at the stew longingly, but Nikita poked him and he sat up and looked Jessica in the eye. “I rather hoped I was going to be saving you from death by curse,” he said, and made an attempt at a smile. “It… well, it turned out it wasn’t just the truth that would kill you, if Bigieu died it would kill you too.”

“Bigieu?” Nikita frowned. “More enemies?”

Hawk shook his head. “She was using Isabella as a cover name,” he explained. “It didn’t seem that connected to the Dark Prince she serves, but maybe it’s clearer to someone who’s not me.”

“That man who was in the Fortress?” Jessica asked, expression mirroring Nikita’s.

“White hair, red eyes, ridiculous cape?” They nodded, and he shook his head. “Another servant. You ran into him?” He leant forward, watching their faces.

“He’s dead,” Jessica said, and Nikita nodded.

Hawk whistled, leaning back, and smiled. “I guess I didn’t need to worry as much about you as I thought I did!”

“No, you just made me worry about you instead,” Jessica said, letting go of his hands. “…will you be okay? That magic you used to unseal the necklace…”

Hawk held out his hands, and Jessica took one, running her fingers over it. Nikita was less delicate with the other one, but Hawk didn’t protest the treatment, and neither of them found anything that was out of the way for a pair of hands belonging to a Guild member. “I’ll be fine,” he said, tangling his fingers with hers and Nikita’s. “I didn’t sign a contract or make a vow to them. There’s nothing they can hold over me.” He started to pull away, but Jessica tugged back.

She took a deep breath, and looked him in the eyes. “…Hawk, what happened with Eagle?”

His grip tightened, and he breathed out slowly, sorrow passing across his face. “When they were having that meeting, after we got back… Eagle and I, we confronted Bigieu. She killed him.” He looked up, watching Jessica as she stood up and came around the table. He stiffened again when she hugged him, but slowly relaxed and reached out to wrap one arm around her a little awkwardly. “I’m sorry,” he murmured into her shoulder.

“It was her doing, not yours,” Jessica said firmly, and shook him. “We’re going to come back from this, Hawk, and you’re going to be there with me.”

“Some people might object to that,” Hawk said, finally getting to pick up his cutlery when she let go.

Jessica shrugged, and sat back down. “I’ll work around it,” she said with confidence. “After all, I have people I trust around me.”



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