Description: As Katarina makes her preparations for the final assault on the Dragon's dark fortress an unexpected and unwelcome visitor comes bearing even less welcome news and a plea for aid.
A warm golden light paints the sky in pastel colors of orange and yellow as the sun begins its daily descent towards the horizon. What few clouds exist are streched out like thin layers of gauze across the canopy of encroaching evening muting the blazing light of the sun into a pleasant glow. The pale sands of the beach and the dark waves that lap gently at its crescent shores are equally happy to reflect the majesty of the daystar from their surface as if nature itself has come together to revel in its own beauty at the passing of another day.
It is an all too pretty backdrop for the scene that is prepared to play out. Towering over the glowing sands, the Dragon's obsidian fortress gleams like a sinister jewel. Dozens of black-clad mercenaries litter what was once its expansive parking lot, hunkered down within pillboxes and trenches constructed hastily in preparation for this day. Large armored turrets squat like angry gargoyles on the build's tiered rooftop, a single baleful red robotic eye within each sweeping the approach to the casino in search of prey to unleash a hail of hot lead death upon. Up atop the the building's highest pinnacle the eponymous Black Dragon rests in lazy repose, its arrogant smirk and watchful gaze mirroring those of the woman that created it.
On the opposite side of the brewing storm stands the forces of the Librarium. Bold enough to make their presence known but not foolish enough to stand within easy striking distance, the NOL's war camp sits roughly two miles down the highway that leads to the former den of vice. Several large tents have been erected to provide a temporary command center to the young scion in charge of this operation with the majority of her forces arranged in small but cohesive groups around the perimeter. The soldiers of the Imperator look grim and determined but the tension in the air is palpable as they prepare to face off against the deadly tactictian who was able to bring the entire city to its knees in a matter of days. Every attempt to strike at Kira thus far has been a phyrric victory at best. Now they stand at the doorstep to the heart of her lair.
Katarina is taking no chances that her name will be added to the list of fools outwitted by the Dragon's schemes. Roving squads of scouts patrol widely around the camp to provide a physical barrier that any infiltrators will have to penetrate. Magical augery spells keep constant watch on the casino from afar, spying on the mercenary's activities in ways their outdated technology couldn't hope to foil.
It's obvious that the time for action is soon approaching as both sides stare each other down in anticipation of the inevitable climax. But for now, everything is quiet; the calm before the storm.
It would be the Patriarch to risk that climax come prematurely.
The arrival of the Raven Guard to the Librarium was met with the usual reactions when Podiebrads were involved. It's not that it was unusual. They were Mercenaries of the NOL! The House of Podiebrad was one of the Twelve Originators! They were close enough as cousins. And yet, just far enough to exclude from the privileged knowledge of the NOL. The reputation of the house was long rotting even before the rise of the Imperator. Decadent, self-absorbed vampire hunters, more apt to hold orgies and worse in their manor than actually assist in securing the world against magical artifacts. Their withered lord only carried the downward spiral of hedonistic trivialities to self-destruction. They were to have supposed to taken the final knee, the fall of the family was an open rumor across the Twelve Originators. In the ancient age of their Patriarch, none of the countless heirs were capable of succeeding him. No heir, no successor, and then, no more House of Podiebrad. All but expected with the passing of Aurel von Podiebrad that the whole of the family would be absorbed into the NOL. Already, countless potential guardsmen and even commanders simply abandoned the House to join with the NOL. It was the end of an era.
But Bela somehow appeared.
And thus, the Raven Guard keeps the illusion of independence, even in its exclusivity with the NOL. Thus, with the blow of their own fanfare, the Raven Guard arrives. At their helm is their commander; a silver-haired man in his late middle ages. He body is narrow and fit, his shoulders broad, and stands at a clean two meters tall. He is garbed in the commanders garb of the Raven Guard, a teal-blue armored coat covering his whole body, all the way to his heeled boots of gold and steel straps. His arms are peppered in scaled plate, the feathered motif typical of Raven Guardsmen. His legs are similarly armored, though only the faintest hints of this can been seen with the longcoat in place. A singular black tie hangs from his neck, with the white collared shirt giving a formal air to his armor. A massive cloak, studded with gold buttons, carries around him, the exterior silver white, while the interior is rich crimson. His face is lean and narrow, with a long chin, high cheekbones, and cold blue-steel eyes. A silver mustache garbs over his red lips, which never so much as hint a smile. His tone is deep, with a gravelly air of command that rumbles deep in his lungs. The man is always at attention, always at alert, attuned as he is with his surroundings. Every breath he makes is done with the tight-gripped control, every motion is made with deliberate precision. Escorted with a squad of six raven-masked body-suited guardsmen, his arrival came with intel, requesting an audience with Katarina. It wasn't on the Casino itself, no.
But on the enemies outside, running deep within the city of Southtown.
The arrival of the Raven Guard is both unexpected and unwelcome. Very few of the assembled soldiers have anything to offer up to the last remaining scion of the disgraced household besides sneers of disgust and contempt if they bother to acknowledge them at all. The bulk of the Librarium's attention remains focused on the laborious task of engaging in a stare down with the enemy across the way. The distance between them is such that it would be all but impossible for either side to take the other by surprise. However, the Dragon has proven herself an unusually crafty and well-prepared opponent and no one wants to take any chances today.
Despite the lack of activity it takes an unusual amount of time for an answer to their request for audience to return. The dispatched messenger seems to be in no hurry to deliver their news as he stalks up to Bela, offering the man the begrudging salute afforded to him by his tenuous noble title.
"The commander will see you now, sir."
It's fairly likely Katarina left him to linger in the humid afternoon sun on purpose. Out of all of the Duodecim heirs currently serving in the armed forces, she is easily the most tuned into the political theatre of the ancient nobility. That he would darken her doorstep at all with his tarnished reputation could be seen as a blemish upon her good name. There would no doubt be gossip and rumors that spread because of this, insinuations that the house of Shimotsuki would deign to lower itself to deal with such disgraceful company. Perhaps by blatantly insulting him in such a fashion she seeks to perserve a bit of her reputation.
It would be smarter for her to dismiss him out right, particularly with the brewing conflict so close to its culmination. His presence will no doubt upset the soldiers. He is a distraction as the very least, which is something she doesn't have a lot of time for. But, despite her aristocratic sensibilities, Katarina has always prided herself on balancing politics with practicality. There is a reason that someone like Bela has come to call upon her despite the circumstances; at least, there damn well better be.
The young soldier leads the small Raven Guard procession through the center of the formation in silence. The ranks of Librarium mages part before them like an azure sea, no one wanting to stand too close as they pass. Their path takes them to the largest of three massive tents that have been erected as temporary facilities. Two soldiers wielding powerful ars in the form of towering polearms stand guard at the entrance. Their gazes harden upon seeing the nature of the visitors but they dutifully stand aside to allow Bela, and only Bela, passage into the command center.
The interior of the tent looks almost as well furnished as a noble's office back in the HQ proper. Elaborately carved wooden tables are neatly arranged around the room to support rows of magi-tek machinery, mostly displays and banks of computing hardware. A dozen or so figures are seated at these stations keeping a watchful eye on information being collected by scout patrols and augury spells scattered around the base's perimeter or coordinating communications between the squad leaders awaiting their orders.
Katarina herself stands at the back of the tent, leaning over a particularly large table. A shimmering representation of Southtown, or the portion of it surrounding the casino at least, takes up the majority of its surface. Every building and street is replicated in precise and intricate detail as a three dimensional model, much like a holographic map only far more accurate as only magic can accomplish.
As always the young woman's presence is far more imposing than her slight stature or soft voice would normally imply - a function of the faint aura of magic that surrounds her at all times. Even those skilled in the art would be hard pressed to notice it unless they concentrated on seeking out the presence of enchantments. The effect is subtle and devious, giving only gentle nudges to the thoughts of those around her, inclining their emotions towards awe, affection, or respect when directed at enchantress.
Katarina combines this magic with a simple bit of theatre for the maximum effect. Upon seeing the approach of her fellow scion she offers him a pleasant smile which would put even the most skilled poker player off their game. The high collar of the heavy black greatcoat she wears, a symbol of her quasi-status between the military and the intelligence division of the Librarium, largely obscures the lower half of her face from view but the expression can be seen just as clearly in her slender crimson eyes.
"Bela," she says, using his first name in a familiar way. While she isn't particularly well aquainted with the heir of such a disgraced family for obvious reasons, it would have been all but impossible for their paths not to cross at least a few times before. "To what do I owe this visit? As you can see, I'm rather in the middle of something so if you've come to indulge in pleasantries, I'm afraid your timing is quite poor."
Though her whispy words are spoken in a convivial manner there is an unmistakable barb hidden in the way she frames the question. The suggestion that the scion of a household known primarily for indulging in their own selfish pursuits of pleasure would be foolish enough to come seeking out mere conversation on the cusp of a great battle is not lost on her subordinates. Several of them openly smirk, not even bothering to hide their pleasure at the skill with which the commander both maintains her class and decorum while delivering a solid backhand to the filth that has besmirched their operation. That is how a true noble acts.
It was quite miserable to wait.
The body suits were capable of breathing, yes. But as they suck through the gas masks, the mercenaries were beginning to sway at their parade rest. It was a humiliation that they would well resent; the building rift between themselves at their professional counterparts having been long brewing. But the steel-eyed commander would not break. He stands fast,returning the salute with the professional courtesy well afforded by nobility like himself, letting the disgust and bile ooze at him in that unyielding heat.. He endures it, as it is his duty to endure. And it was not easy to endure it so well. He was well injured from his encounter before, having only just recovered in time to come to the Lieutenant. He was well used to the eyes of judgement, the old soldier well acquainted with it when he was the favored son of Aurel von Podiebrad, the previous Patriarch. In many ways, he earned that
And yet, when they finally allow him to come, alone, he concedes with dignity.
The only item he would bring was his plain broadsword. A clear cast work, it seems forged in a single piece of steel. The pommel, the handle, the blade, and the hilt all are part the same piece of metal. Bandages are wrapped around the handle, giving a grip for the man's gloved hand. For now, it would sit in the simple strap of a scabbard. When the others step aside, they looks to their commander. The mustached commander lifts his head, and nods firmly. It was his duty to step forward to the Lieutenant.
It was their duty to continue to stand in this heat.
Every humiliation was earned, and deserved against his house. He passes into the tent, past the guards. And it was his duty to endure it. And he did, before the eyes of the NOL. He looks at them, no malice in his steel-grey eyes. Turning his head, he exposes the freshest in insults. The marks on his neck, the filthy scars of the bite. The price of his endeavours to uncover the corruption infesting the city. But he does not recoil at the metaphorical backhand delivered at him. Lingering his gaze briefly on the holographic displays, he looks to Katarina, and inhales deeply. The pulsations of emotional sway wash over him, even as the barbed words impale him like the suffering beast in the bullfight. He is stoic, as he steadies himself. Their paths have passed before; it was inevitable when he served at the right hand of his father in his twilight years. His instinct brings himself to be humbled, or was it the instinct brought upon by Katarina herself? His own presence was as every soldier within the guard: All within the House of Podiebrad shared the same song, the same tune, the same note.
And all were one with the Patriarch.
"I have come on behalf of the House of Podiebrad, as Commander of the Raven Guard." He states, lowering himself to one knee in prostrate deference, a hand off his sword as he brings his elbow upon his knee.. "I am afraid what I must share is not pleasant.. As you well know, we of the Raven Guard have been humbly supporting the Novus Orbis Librarium in these troubled times. Shoulder to shoulder, we have fought against the fierce darkstalkers that plagues this city. And whenever we are faced with a danger we cannot handle alone, duty demands we turn to our brothers and sisters within the Novus Orbis Librarium. In our support, we have uncovered signs of a conspiracy linked to the so-called Vampire Savior," He keeps his head lowered, waiting for the officer and noblewoman to let him rise only when she is satisfied. "I could not wait any longer on the timing. On behalf of our House, and for the greater good of the Twelve , I have come with three requests." He closes his eyes.
"If you will permit them my lady, I will serve myself to share them..,"
Prostrating himself before the commander like some disgraced knight before a feudal lord doesn't seem to earn the man much reprieve from the foul looks he receives. If anything, those disgusted glares only grow more intense as he compares the Raven Guard to other members of the Librarium going so far as to refer to them as siblings. The thought is stomach churning for most present as is made clear by the grimaces his words invoke. If the anything of the sort is true, the Podiebrad family and those cursed to serve under their banner are the sort of relatives that no one wants to talk about or be reminded of.
In stark contrast to her subordinates, Katarina's calm smile remains steadfast in the face of such thoughts. She quietly allows Bela to say his peace, frivilous bragging included, without interrupting him. Though her time would be better spent doing literally anything else, as a noble she has a certain level of decorum to uphold. And even more importantly than that, as the owner of the Music Box she has to do everything in her power to foster the idea that she is calm and collected at all times. No one must ever suspect that she is capable of the dark deeds necessary to slake that cursed artifact's hunger.
The World-Song tells her much about kneeling fool before her even with its notes blackened and warped by corruption. She can sense the pride lurking beneath the surface of his humility, the desire to reclaim that which was lost. The heavy bass melody of one wearied by a constant burden interweaves with a faint chorus of sad strings to paint the man as a tragic figure. Perhaps if not for the folly of his predescessors he would have been a great man in the eyes of his peers. Now he is little more than a mangy dog that refuses to leave, begging for scraps as he seeks to please a master that has little desire of his company.
Yet, despite this, there is little trace of the sour notes of hidden jealousy or the hissing tempo of festering resentment. Perhaps his stoicism stems from a sense of acceptance as to the fate that has been bestowed upon him. That he would continue to serve the interests of the Imperator despite the scorn heaped upon his family name is certainly laudable. Though there is always the possibility that his attitude is one born out of stubbornness rather than duty. And interesting mystery but one for which she has little time.
Crucially, there is one other thing that the Music Box tells her about Bela and his request for an audience, namely that he is not knowingly lying to her. At least, not yet. That is enough to get her attention now that the name of that vile creature camping in her backyard has been brought up.
Katarina motions for the Raven Guard scion to stand even as she straightens to her full height, clasping both hands behind her back in a military stance of ease.
"Well, that certainly sounds dire. If the vaunted Raven Guard are unable to deal with a situation then I have no doubt in my mind that it requires my full attention."
There is no hint of sarcasm in her tone but it doesn't take much to realize the jest behind her words. Literally no one in the Librarium considers the Raven Guard trustworthy of doing anything except perhaps divesting any household foolish enough to allow them as guests of every last drop of wine in their possession.
"Sadly, my efforts must remain focused on the task of rooting out the vile Black Dragon from her lair. You may speak your requests but I offer no guarantee than I can grant you aid of any substance at this time."
It can be said of the commander of the Raven Guard, that he had not lied.
He had come with the banner of the Podiebrad, an envoy with the highest acclamations despite their tarnished reputation. A noble, the son of the last lord. And their disgust was not unwarranted either, though the Podiebrad was more than aware of their every emotion, their every flicker. The glowering disgust, the anger, the hate. Every one was like a wave over the attunement of the commander. And pleasure. That flicker of delight, at the anger. The House of Podiebrad held their own shadows, their own dark powers within their bloodline and their family.
The Shimotsuki were not alone in their secrets.
"The discipline of your troops is unrivaled." He comments, lifting his head. "They must afford a great deal of independence under your leadership." He looks across at the displays a moment as he rises up. Not the soldiers. Not the others. He draws in a heavy breath. He felt alone, more alone than ever without the guard. Katarina's reading of the music was not wrong. The pride, that poisonous pride. The bitterness, the shame.And yet, it was locked down, buried. Turned to stone, like his own heart. Another agony to endure, like the bite on his neck. He takes the jabs again without showing any injury, any insult.
But it was clear underneath how severe each blow to his honor was.
"The first request is straight forward." The commander begins. "Kira Volkov has been found in association with several other individuals with what was called a Shadow Council. We have identified three of the members. The Black Dahlia. Duke Burkoff. Lee Chaolan. Only Duke has been qualified as an enemy." He hesitates for only a moment, before he continues. "Duke Burkoff has been identified as been working with Jedah in undermining Southtown and the authority of the NOL. A second front, biting from behind. We have irrefutable evidence linking the assassination of the mayor to Jedah. And we believe it is sufficient to act on Duke as well-" And there it was.
The flicker of a lie.
Ah, the Shadow Council. While her primary efforts are rarely directed towards the main stay operations of the Intelligence Division, Katarina's close ties to Hazama's little network of spies and assassins allows her access to more secretive information than most. The moment that the Black Dragon had identified herself the scion had investigated all sources of information regarding the woman's background and associates, coming to the conclusion that she was little more than a common criminal, though a very wealthy and successful criminal with ties to some major players in the underworld. Fortunately, whatever reason had compelled several of those crime lords to gather together under a single banner had not lasted long.
Such information is not of particular surprise to the commander, as evident by the lack of reaction she has to the news. At least, there is no visible reaction, though below the concealing collar of her greatcoat the young noble's lips press together into a thin line of annoyance. Such information is the purview of the Intelligence Division and the thought of a bunch of wild dogs digging up buried secrets is not one she holds fondly, particularly when they barge into an unsecured field office and start barking them to everyone who might be listening.
At least she gains a small tidbit of fresh information for the trouble. The knowledge that someone as well connected as Duke Burkhoff is in league with the vampire lord is both troubling and unsurprising. A lot of things make more sense when that fact is considered such as how the monstrous outsider was able to so quickly and easily obtain 'legal' permits for his eyesore of an embassy. More interestingly, if Duke is working with Jedah then it stands to reason that other former members of the Shadow Council may also be in his service. It would explain how the mercenary came upon such a large quantity of dark stalkers. It might also mean that she could have received reinforcements.
Katarina doesn't give a damn about the death of the mayor. If anything, their passing means one less obstruction in the NOL's way. If it's true that Jedah was behind the assassination then they simply got what they deserved for selling out humanity and standing in the Imperator's divine path.
What does pique the mage's interest, however, is the sudden off tune warble that underscores Bela's words. No lie slips past her notice, no matter how subtle or innocent its nature. Normally, she wouldn't really care all that much. That this mangy cur would have the gall to lie to her face is of no surprise but what is curious about this particular lie is that it seems rather pointless. He has no need to convince her that whatever evidence he's scrounged up is meaningful or sufficient to pursue whatever action he has in mind.
For the moment, she pockets that little tidbit. Perhaps it will make more sense after he has explained his requests.
"A fascinating bit of information to be sure," Katarina says, her voice remaining soft but authoritative as she cuts his rambling explanation off at the tail end. "But I fail to see how it is relevant to me. Unless you are under the impression that Burkoff plans to intervene directly on behalf of the Dragon in some fashion."
The scion brings one of her arms forward to make an imperiously dismissive gesture, her body language expressing the disdain she feels more openly than her carefully controlled facial expression or tone of voice.
"You've also yet to actually state a request. Need I remind you that time is of the essence? Keep to the pertinent details."
Short and steady, the shamed commander stands his ground, as he makes tidbit by tidbit for his efforts. The weight of the lie is painful, even if Katarina did not see why. But duty demanded it. He casts his gaze once more to the holograms, the maps that showed Katarina the very workings of the city itself, from focused to the Casino, to beyond. And yet, he realizes he speaks too much. The Podiebrad humbles himself once more. "My apologies, Lieutenant." He responds, bowing his head slightly.
"I will be curt with my requests."
He raises his head, and looks to the NOL officer with restrained intensity. "Our first request is that you direct a portion of your army to seize Duke and his assets, and arrest him and his allies." The commander of the Raven Guard points a finger at the holograms. "Geese Tower. Warehouse Hokusai #7, #8, #9. The Southtown Opera Company. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Branch Gedo Street. Can you bring up those locations, focus on them? Those are where we have found his assets are being held." The steel-eyed man points to the holographic map. "He may very well be in league with Kira, and preparing to counter attack." He lowers his head, bringing his hand to the sword. He averts his eyes.
"This ties to the second request."
He doesn't return his gaze just yet. "Our second request is that we need you to allow us safe passage through this siege in order to reach the Casino's administrative buildings, in order to secure financial evidence against Kira Volkov in her connections with Jedah and Duke Burkoff." The root of the lie. There was no more lying within his admittance. But he draws in a heavy breath, and exhales. "We are lacking evidence to tie the two together, but if we can make a connection of a conspiracy between Jedah, Kira, and Duke, then it will justify targeting the true enemy." Finally, he lifts his gaze, his spirit returning to him.
"Jedah and his blasted tower."
Katarina's first instinct upon hearing the first of the Raven Guard's requests is to laugh in his face. She does not but several others in the room show less restraint. A din of angry mutters spreads throughout the tent, a few of the younger and less disciplined soldiers turning in their chairs to glare at Bela with open hostility. For a moment it looks like one or two of them might even hurl themselves at him to deliver a righteous beating for even daring to suggest that their commander would turn away from her Imperator assigned duties to pursue some frivilous side quest.
A swift motion from the young woman cuts all that off before anything unfortunate can happen, her mailed fist lifting in a gesture of absolute authority. The room goes silent again for several moments. Katarina peers back at Bela with her strangely intense gaze, her albino features giving the mage's already enchanted presence an exotic and mysterious edge. She lets no sign of what she might be thinking pierce the mask of misty calm that surrounds her but inside she is even more incensed than her subordinates.
How dare he? How DARE he even ask that of her now? What purpose could he have for diverting some of their only remaining combat ready forces to deal with some lowlife criminal when they are on the cusp of rooting out one of the most dangerous threats to the city. Surely the Syndicate will be quite happy to wait for them to finish their work here. What is so pressing about this assault on what /might/ be a co-conspirator of the Dragon?
There are too many questions she needs answered before venting her wrath. Inhaling softly, Katarina directs her gaze to the shimmering display of the city. A wave of her hand brings forth an ethereal keyboard and she taps her fingers into the hovering symbols in rapid succession. The map alters at her command, zooming out to bring more of the city into view. Several buildings start to flash with a faint yellow glow - the massive Geese Tower, a smaller but still impressive building near the south part of the main town, a large domed theatre, and a handful of large warehouses spread out along the docks.
A rather impressive spread of holdings but none of them are even vaguely close to their current location. Even the warehouses on the waterfront are miles away. If Duke has been mustering support for the entrenched mercenary then he will have a long way to go to bring it to bear and it would be all but impossible for him to do so without being spotted. She is still waiting to be impressed by the pressing need to attend to this supposed threat.
At Bela's second request, she actually does laugh at him. The sound is as pleasant and musical as her voice, filled with genuine amusement at the absurdity of what has been asked of her.
"And how, praytell, do you expect me to do that? Shall I simply knock on the door and ask the Dragon to let you rummage through her file cabinets?"
Finally, her patience growing thin, Katarina shows signs of the exasperation she is feeling. Her eyes close and she shakes her head slowly, letting out a long sigh. If this is the quality of what remains of the house of Podiebrad then it is no wonder that they fell so hard.
"In the first place, I have little manpower to spare. Volkov's defenses are surprisingly well laid out and she has proven herself a capable strategist. I have neither the time nor the inclination to babysit your attempts to force your way into the compound, particularly when you can simply wait until we have occupied it to conduct your investigation."
The scion opens her eyes and skewers Bela with an annoyed stare, no longer bothering to hide the disdain she feels. As expected, he has wasted her time by being a complete idiot.
"Not that I would expect any such search to bear fruit. If she hasn't already destroyed whatever documents you are after, assuming they even exist at all, then she is a fool. And thus far I have seen little evidence to support that theory."
Waving her hand over the console, Katarina dismisses the display and the conversation with a single motion. The map reverts back to the image of the casino and its surrounding territory a moment later. Stalking out from behind the large table, she wanders over to stand in front of Bela and glowers down at the short man with contempt.
"As for Burkhoff. You say he 'may' be preparing to assist the Dragon. He 'may' be in league with Jedah. There 'might' be evidence that links them all together. Yet you offer no solid intel. I have already taken precautions to guard our flanks. This camp is at least a mile away from anything that might be considered potential ambush sites and we have constant surveillence of the area through both magical means and physical patrols. Any attempt to launch a surprise attack like that which took the previous assault group unawares will find that I am far more prepared to deal with it than my predecessor."
It was like tinnitus.
A soft, subtle ringing that was beginning to rise. A note of discord. An itch. It was distant, far away... and close, a rattling within the man before her. It wasn't a lie, but it was another sort of discord. When she dismisses the display, returning back to the casino. It catches the Podiebrad's attention for a moment, as he stares at it. And then, he snaps his focus back to Katarina. In spite of the contempt swirling around him, a contempt that radiates like a sun, he bows his head again. "That is a rational analysis, my lady." The commander admits as she reaches the end of her response. "But as long as there is a glimmer of hope, we must act. When the final assault takes place, those documents -will -be destroyed if any are left. The window of opportunity to search, for the faintest chance, is now. We can get through the shield now!" He raises a hand to the officer. "And the minimal assistance we request is being allowed to pass through the cordon. If you create an opening on our side of the cordon, we can sneak past, and reach the administrative buildings away from the heart of the casino. We can remain there until you commit your assault, and we will settle our own extraction." The commander reasons. "A distraction at the very least, to allow a sleight of hand for us to bypass, and we will handle the rest. We need that evidence, in order to justify the truth. As for the Syndicate situation, we need your soldiers because..."
And a halt.
The din was growing. A snapping, seething sound, piercing unseen, unheard to the others. But it was building. And more so around this Podiebrad, this commander. He was halting, as if he knows the words he is going to speak are absolutely the worst to say. But honor compels his, duty compels him. He must say it. Only he courage steels him in place, as he continues to speak. "Illryian forces are operating within the city, and are assisting us in these operations. We have been coordinating with them through the Volkov occupation, and been letting them operation in our bases of operations. It would prove to be a opportunity for unity to legitimatize their efforts in lawbringing to help them, and us, as they have been helping us." He states calmly, the steel-eyed commander's posture erect. The room felt hot. And the hollow cacophony was rising. "If manpower is limited, then I only request a token number of troops to prove Novus Orbis Librarium presence." The Podiebrad had come to the camp, asking for a presence of Lt. Katarina Shimotsuki, to ask her how much she would help the Illyrians now in this city, who were fostered by this man. The commander's expression is steady, even as his heart aches in fear.
"Would those token favors be acceptable?"
Katarina's expression remains dismissive as the disgraced noble pleads for her to reconsider. That he acknowledges her very obvious and rational arguments against such reckless action yet presses on anyway further cements Bela as a fool in her mind. There is no good reason to take risky action to recover whatever documents he seeks. Even if they discover lingering evidence of collusion between the Dragon and Jedah, what of it? Whatever officials that the vampire lord has bribed to shield him with legal authority will simply refute the evidence as untrustworthy or launch an 'investigation' that drags on for years without any tangible results. She knows all too well the methods by which bureaucrats wage their wars.
For a few moments, she is tempted to give in and allow his foolish quest. If the Raven Guard's leader were to get himself killed acting on a personal initiative then the Librarium might well be rid of their misbegotten kind for good. Of course, were it to come to light that she was acting in consort with his final charge into the maws of death that could reflect poorly upon her own household. No, simply allowing him to speak to her at all has done enough damage to her reputation already. As disgusting and embarrassing as they are, the Podiebrads are still allies of the Imperator and she is loathe to waste such resources pointlessly.
The rising tempo of discord within the World-Song does little to make her more amenable to the idiotic requests. She can feel the unease building up within his soul, an erratic and harsh screech of chaotic noise like someone violently striking the strings of an over tuned harp. Even if he had never spoken another word in her presence the mage would know that something is amiss. Combined with his hesitation and the blatant reluctance oozing out of his demeanor, he might as well be screaming a warning that he was about to say something incredibly unwise.
The very first sentence has hardly left Bela's mouth when the atmosphere in the command tent changes. Every single person turns to stare in open-mouthed disbelief at the small man as if he has just admitted to being in open collusion with their worst enemy. Katarina's expression shifts very slowly from a disdainful sneer to a terrifying glower. Her eyes open wide, the pupils within those crimson jewels shrinking to a predatory dot of black hatred as faint light begins to build within. The air around her begins to stir with invisible power, fluttering the massive curtain of snow-white hair into a gently billowing cape in the ethereal breeze. The aura of awe and majesty that she has been projecting inverts itself with a sudden gut-wrenching chill as all color and warmth seems to drain out of the room. The miserable heat of the humid afternoon vanishes in an instant becoming an equally oppressive chill that soaks down to the bone, a pale queen of ice and wrath at its center.
"You did... what?"
When she speaks, Katarina's voice remains soft and whispy. Yet, where before her gentle demeanor was an extension of the enchanting presence that the young woman gave off, now her quiet query comes across as frigid and grating, like a chisel slowly being drawn across a block of ice. She takes a step forward, seeming to grow in stature and presence as she closes the gap between herself and Bela. Though her lower face is hidden behind the high collar, her eyes reflect the emotion raging through her with crystal clarity as she skewers the flea-ridden dog before her with a wild almost manic stare.
The Podiebrad commander does not retreat.
The moment he drops the word, that bitter cold cuts to his very bones. To say the least of the invisible, psychic impression. He could taste the emotions pouring out of Katarina now. He had no taste for them. The rush is like diving into the Arctic Ocean in the nude. The shock nearly stops his heart. If he collapsed from the strain, then there might still be some mercy. But his duty was not in mercy. It was to bring about the righteous justice to the city. The Podiebrad Justice.
But he had to keep pushing forward.
So he continues to make his stalwart advance.
He stands there skewered by her gaze, unflinching as he is keep his heart secure at the promise of his duty. He doesn't look directly at her now; he keeps his eyes on the holographic displays. If he looked at her directly, it would almost certainly break his spirit now, shatter his nerve. "I encountered an Illyrian airship at the border cordon at the city early in the Darkstalker attack. Both King Leo Whitefang and Ky Kiske were with the envoy. Our orders were to apprehend them. We did not. We agreed to settle his arrival with a duel. I lost. And the Illyrians have been under the protection of the House of Podiebrad since, spreading their humanitarian aid and assisting in securing the city since." There is a moment of hesitation, as that awful discord becomes louder and louder.
"I acted correctly."
The commander insists, inspite of the evidence of the room showing contrary. "Leo Whitefang is an honorable man, and is moving to deal with the enemies of humanity. He has proven a valuable ally in working with the NOL in protecting this city." The cacophony was building more and more. The awful discord rattling through. The Podiebrad makes his case. But he wouldn't look at Katarina. He couldn't look at her. He only looks at the static images of the holographic display. Using everything in his mind, body, and soul to not crack. He keeps his head high, as he gives his last words. "As it stands, he is moving to secure Duke's assets at the Harbor. At worst, a mob boss will be exposed."
"It would serve to legitimatize both the NOL and Illyria to be seen working together."
Fury, as frigid and biting as an arctic wind, roars to life in Katarina's chest. With every word the Bela speaks it grows in intensity swirling around and around into a steadily building typhoon. The raw emotion wraps itself about her like a snake, constricting her lungs, pinning her arms to her side. She doesn't breathe, doesn't move an inch, frozen like an alabaster statue at the center of the room.
What little restraint she has left shatters at that final sentence. Katarina lets out a bellow of pure rage, her soft gentle voice amplified by the enchanting magics into a banshee's howl. Her fist swings out in a wild punch that cuts off the final word, the heavy metal gauntlet covering her dainty hand offering a far more weighty impact to the strike than would be expected. The blow crashes down against Bela's undefended temple, hammering into the face that refuses to look at her while it spouts such vile words like an anvil.
For several seconds no one dares to move. They don't even breath, eyes wide with shock. Not that anyone cares about the idiot who just got blasted, he's been asking for it the moment he set foot inside the tent. Their surprise is instead directed at the young commander as she looms over the traitorous disgrace of a noble.
Katarina takes a single stride forward, eyes aglow with power and hair whipping out behind her like furious white tendrils. Few have ever seen the young mage cut loose before even among her inner circle. The full extent of her magical prowess is something that she prefers to keep hidden, an ace in the hole to unleash during moments of dire need. Yet almost as if he had intentionally crafted his words to push every single one of her buttons, the fool at her feet has managed to overwhelm the masterful control she has developed over the course of the past decade. The presence of the corrupted artifact within her soul requires absolute discipline, unwavering dedication to the mastery of her mind. But, for just those brief couple of seconds, that mask slips away to reveal the demon underneath.
Seeming to realize what has happened, Katarina closes her eyes and takes in a long slow breath. The World-Song screeches and warbles at her, its melody frantic and full of anticipation for fresh violence. It caresses her spirit with longing sickly sweet notes offering faint glimmers of the promised esctasy that comes with the clarity provided by suffering and strife. Reluctantly, she forces it down, pushing that temptingly pleasurable melody to the back of her mind. As much as she would love to tear Bela apart piece by piece there would be no saving her reputation after such a display.
Flicking her wrist with a practiced motion, the mage conjures a shimmering orb of brilliant light into her hand. The arcane power quickly shifts and elongates, coalescing into the form of an elegant silver saber. She lowers the weapon towards the Raven Guard, hovering it just above the point where his neck connects to the shoulder. A soft melodic hum warbles from the sword as sonic energies course down its magical blade, pleasantly threatening him with even greater harm than merely being cut.
"Give me a good reason not to execute you on the spot, traitor."
Though her voice is once more calm and collected, there is no mistaking the disgust in her tone as she hisses the final word at him. The nerve of this fool. The temerity! To think that a worthless dog such as he holds the power to take action in contrary to the orders given him!
"Her Majesty's commands were exceedingly clear. The Sacred Order is our enemy! We allow them to operate ONLY out of political necessity and ONLY if they remain OUTSIDE of our jurisdiction! Who are you to countermand this?!"
He does not defend himself.
It's not that his instinct tell him otherwise. His hand almost immediately goes to the sword. The hesitation is what likely saves his life: He merely takes the moment to brace as the full force collides with his jaw. His face swells like a cauliflour, a new injury in his line of service. Something was cracked underneath, and the purple swelling spreads. For a moment, he is dazed. As the silver sword manifests at his neck, he doesn't recoil. No, he lifts his head up, exposing it as a dog exposes his stomach submissively. If she were to execute the Podiebrad commander now, there would be no resistence from him. Honor demanded it.
As the cacophony builds louder.
As if amongst an orchestra, a single horn player broke from his ranks. Dancing and flouncing amongst his peers, his terrible trombone honking and shrieking in its own key. Out of step. Out of order. Out of the tent. Something was stirring within and without now, with the commander being the loudest focal point of the discord. Of chaos. Of defiance. And yet, even now, he was acting sincerely in submitting his own life on the line.
Something was wrong.
"It was a political necessity." The commander says flatly, even unsure of his own words. He breaks his gaze from Katarina, back to the static images of the holographic display. That seems to give him just enough second wind to keep his composure, as he continues. "A-and as you said, these locations are far away from your base camp. It was within the jurisdictions allocated to the Raven Guard in securing this city. This alliance only lasts as long as this attack against humanity continues. And it is almost complete." The commander shuts his eyes, keeping his neck exposed. He dare not even breath, as his nerves finally come to fray.
"Will you grant the requests to assist, then? Or will you deny it, my lady?"
The sense of uncertainty and fear wafting out of the man makes her want to retch in disgust. That he would dare to defy the Imperator is bad enough but now he doesn't even have faith in his own reasons?! The very idea of betraying her divine leader is anathema to the young mage. The raw hubris that would be required to think oneself above the judgement and wisdom of a god is beyond her comprehension.
Yet, she has to remind herself that not everyone is privy to the knowledge of the true nature of their great commander. For all she knows only a handful of people have been allowed into the inner circle, vetted by Hazama's true self as worthy of such an honor. Obviously a pathetic wretch like the one whimpering at her feet would not be allowed to know the truth which makes his ridiculous choices slightly more tolerable as the actions of an insufferable fool.
No doubt he had good intentions but those are not sufficient enough to justify action. While it is indeed their duty to protect the citizens of Southtown they must foremost consider the implications of the methods used in doing so. Giving legitimacy to the bumbling idealists in the Sacred Order serves no one in the long run. If anything, every foothold those arrogant bleeding hearts managed to grab hold of was yet another obstacle that would stand in the Librarium's way when hard choices have to be made.
Unfortunately, while he was a complete idiot, Bela was also technically correct. Thanks to the massive losses inflicted upon their ranks by the cowardly surprise attack, his house had been given jurisdiction over a section of the town. Most likely the military brass had assumed the Raven Guard would get themselves killed like the inept clowns they are. Instead, fate seems to have intervened on their behalf by granting them the support of their enemies. Sadly, she has little authority to override his decisions regarding what happened there, no matter how stupid.
Glowering in frustration at the wounded noble, Katarina lets out a hiss of annoyance and withdraws the blade from his neck. The magical weapon dissipates into tiny motes of tinkling light that fade away into nothing as they float off in random directions leaving her fist free to clench tightly as she mulls over how to proceed.
It seems despite his incompetence, or perhaps because of it, Bela has forced her into a corner. If she turns away his official request for aid and it comes to light that his investigation somehow managed to prove fruitful she would be the laughingstock of the entire Librarium. 'Even this pathetic mongrel could see the threat', they would say, 'yet the mighty scion of Shimotsuki could not?'. Even worse, if Bela was telling the truth her lack of support could rob the Librarium of an opportunity to rid the city of a powerful criminal element and a potential ally of the vile vampire lord.
Whirling around on her heel, the lieutenant stalks over to stand before the holographic table. She leans against it for support, flowing lockes of shimmering white hair draping down around her face as she lowers her head. Several seconds pass in silence, no one willing to speak even as their attention turns back to their displays to keep track of the activities outside.
Pushing herself upright, the enchantress turns to face Bela once more. Her expression is neutral once more, her tone diplomatic as she wanders back over to stand before him.
"You wish assistance in the capture of the crime lord Duke Burkhoff. I can spare few of my men but you shall have it. You wish the assistance of my forces in infiltrating the casino during the invasion to search for evidence tying the Dragon to Jedah. A fool's errand but let it not be said that I allowed the opportunity to be certain slip through our fingers."
She closes her eyes and inhales a long drawn-out breath through her dainty nose letting it out equally slowly as if preparing herself to brace for further bad news.
"And your third request?"
What, indeed, was the crux of the uncertainty.
As the request is made, there is a presence of resignation around the commander. The Podiebrad looked defeated. His absolution of will was surrendered. He had accepted his fate. Already, his hand was on his sword, as he keeps his head held high. As the sword is pulled away, he doesn't drop it. He keeps his composure. He finally breathes, however. The cacophony, the din endures. He waits. He was going to be forced to give his final request. And everything would fall into place.
But then Katarina agrees to their requests.
When she says very well, the man's face goes pale. He stammers, lips babbling. "I..." Is all he could muster. Was the shock of her actually cooperating too much for him? He draws his sword. Was he going to attack? No, he throws the cast-iron blade at her feet, relinquishing it. Contempt spreads across the man's face, a sneer of rage boiling deep within. "..." There was a terror now, a building horror past what was before. The stoicism was collapsed, replaced by a deepening, seething hatred, of cyncism. But for what? Because she choose to cooperate. He raises his head again, neck exposed. His tone was dripping with a caustic venom, a bile of utter disgust as his duty compels him to say it. He glares at the holographic displays, at the scout patrols moving, at the positions of the boundary.
And like that, the anguish is gone.
The shock is still there, the commanders eyes wide in confusion. The cacophony fades. And his jaw is slack. Order returns. And yet, he looks away from the hologram, looking practically senile. "The third... third request. Yes." The steel-eyed old man staggers backwards a bit. He looks down at the sword. "I have cast down my sword to you, my lady." He states the obvious. "My final request is as such." The older man falls to one knee, and holds up his hand, extending it up towards the standing Katarina. "Would you attend the Podiebrad Estely with me on the next full moon?" His face was crimson red in embarrassment. The Podiebrad Estely had a well-earned reputation for being the prime events of decadence for the Podiebrads, rivaling even the Orgies of Rome. The last one was significantly more well behaved... but right now, the Commander hoped her impression of them was the new one, and not the old one. Honor demanded, and duty demanded as he quickly adds.
"Your presence at the last one was sorely missed."
The sounds of choked disbelief fill the tent as nearly a dozen people recoil in unison. Katarina's voice is not among them but that is only because her teeth are too tightly clenched together for anything other than dull grinding noises to escape her mouth. A stripe of bright cherry red color rises to the surface across her cheeks and nose as embarassment and blinding fury wage a swift war for dominance across her pale features.
The paralysis of surprise holds her wrath in check for only a few seconds. Stepping forward, the young scion grabs hold of the front of Bela's uniform and hauls him half to his feet with surprising strength, the other hand balling into a steel-clad fist as she draws it back to strike him again.
"You vile piece of...!"
Fate intervenes just in the knick of time. Before the furious young woman can rearrange his teeth, one of the aides calls out in alarm. Katarina pauses, fist raised in the air, to give a side-long glance at the individual in question with a look that says she's going to smash their face in next if this interruption isn't of vital importantance. As it turns out, it is.
"There's movement on the roof, lieutenant."
The commander hesitates briefly, blinking at her subordinate as if only just now remembering that they are here for a reason. Growling with contempt, she pushes Bela back down to the floor and stomps over to the man's side to take a look at the display and the soldier offers her a data slate for convenience. A quick glance at the screen shows that it has been keyed into the long-range augury spells keeping watch over the casino.
A wide angle view shows the entirety of the massive building. Dozens of concrete barricades had been strewn out in front of the make-shift fortress creating a patchwork of obstacles meant to slow down the progress of any frontal assault. Trenches and pillboxes filled what had once been a massive parking lot offering defensible angles of deadly crossfire to the mercenaries garrisoned within. A dozen small turrets equipped with twin auto-cannons and heavy machine guns were scattered throughout the killing field, automated defenses that would lay down withering fields of fire on anything foolish enough to blunder into their view.
Formiddible defenses, to be sure, but none of that interested the young commander at the moment. Instead, her attention was drawn to the rooftop where several figures were moving about carrying heavy objects covered in thick tarp. Katarina's brows furrow as she notices that one person in particular is quite familiar. Running her finger over the surface of the tablet, she zooms in to find the face of the Dragon herself staring back at her.
"We can't identify what it is they're doing at the moment, ma'am. Tactical suggests they may be preparing some new weapon."
Katarina wrinkles her nose at that suggestion. It doesn't make any sense. If they want to surprise her with some hidden attack why would they go out of their way to make it obvious what they are doing? No, this is something else.
Waving the aide off with a dismissive gesture, the noble stalks over to the large cushy chair at the back of the war table and plops down into it. Setting the tablet on her lap, she watches with idle curiosity as several more lumpy tarp-covered objects are hauled onto the roof over the course of the next minute. Someone breaks out a bunch of ropes and the figures kneel down, presumably to wind them into the objects hidden below the lip of the roof. Once that is done each object is hoisted up over the lip and lowered down on the ropes leaving them hanging like Christmas ornaments in a long row across the upper story of the casino.
"What could you possibly be doing...?"
The answer to that question becomes horrifically clear within a few moments. In unison, each of the soldiers tug up on a small line attached to the tarps, yanking them away from the objects that had previously been hidden beneath. Katarina's eyes widen in shock as she takes in the twisted sight displayed on the screen.
Almost a dozen human bodies dangle in the open, suspended like macabre puppets from the ropes tied to their wrists and waists. All of them are naked, save for the unmistakable blue beret of the NOL's army uniform affixed to their heads. A small piece of metal gleams upon each person's chest, reflecting the morning sunlight from a rank insignia fastened directly into the skin. Obvious signs of abuse marr every individual's skin, whip marks and bruises covering them from head to toe.
But the most disturbing aspect of the grim display is the message. Carved into the stomach of each captured soldier is a single large letter. The cuts are not deep enough to be life-threatening but ugly scabbing still weeps faint trickles of pale red down to drip from their dangling legs. Together they all spell out two simple words:
W E L C O M E N O L
Strangled gasps erupt from almost everyone in the room as the horrific imagery is replicated across dozens of screens. The tablet in the mage's hand clatters noisily as it slips from insensate fingers. Katarina stares in silent disbelief, her mind momentarily reeling at the unexpected shock. She was not prepared for this.
He expected no less.
It was quick thinking, and as the Podiebrad is lifted up, he does nothing to resist. Waiting for the beating, it does not come. No, something worse comes. An aide, reporting in. The commander's blood runs cold as he is dropped to the floor. Pushed down, he sits up, looking first to his blade, and then, to the display that Katarina was looking upon as he rises up. He peers over, as he might, and only then begins to feel a little warmth. It wasn't a sneak attack, his fear. The positions of the defenses being as they are. He watches, studies. The face of the woman, of Kira. One that was familiar to him long ago, as it would be within the Hunter's Guild. But it was different now. So different. As she leaves, however, placing it on her lap, he looks up in silence.
Until, that is, the reveal. R
The Podiebrad looks at the results, swallowing hard. How long was that there? When did they begin? What if it was an assault. When the soldiers pull the line, the corpses are revealed. In some regards, the message was worse than he imagined. In others? A complete burst of relief cannot be concealed completely. The steel-eyed Podiebrad exhales, as he shakes his head in disgust. "Barbaric." The commander of the Raven Guard states, as he looks upon the display. "Absolutely barbaric. When the House of Podiebrads prepared to launch into the foothills of the Translyvanian Mountains centuries ago, we had encountered the impalement of men, women, children. Fear is the pleasure of monsters." It was clear that the Dragoon's capabilities of atrocity was unlimited. If any of the Raven Guard would be captured... no. He would not be worried about that. He would not be the one to make the infiltration. He brings his sword back, and tucks it away in the strap. "Time is of the essence it seems. I apologize for wasting so much of it. If there is nothing else, then I will report to the Patriarch. He was eager to begin his operation... as soon as possible." The commander looks at the murderous display once more. He focuses upon it.
"And I do not think that has changed yet."
"By... by the Imperator! That's Captain Storm up there!"
Katarina blinks as the voice of another subordinate cuts through the tension filling the tent. Her gaze shifts to the display again, eyes scanning the bodies one by one. Her blood runs cold as they settle upon a familiar face.
Naomi Storm had never been a particularly gifted officer, competent enough to earn her commission despite being a commoner but little else. But outside of her woefully mediocre soldering skills the woman was pleasant company, gifted with a clever sense of humor and a knack for knowing the right thing to say at the right time. She was a caring, if strict, sister to her siblings and always willing to give those under her command the opportunity to excel. She also had the rare privilege of being one of Katarina's friends.
The scion stares helplessly at the screen as she tries to think of a response the absurd reality it forces upon her. Her chest starts to hurt, a tightness clutching at her heart in both the physical and metaphorical sense. A steadily growing buzz of white noise flares to life in the back of her mind, scrambling her thoughts into a hazy jumble of disconnected ideas and sentiments.
Outside, angry shouts and cries of disbelief rise up in a vast chorus of terrible fury as the gathered Librarium soldiers take notice of the vile spectacle. Calls for vengeance and retribution fill the air in a wild cacophony of hate that drowns out the more controlled reaction of her fellow noble. The roaring tide of emotion hammers at her mind, threatening to overwhelm the already strained walls of control that have been eroded by the Raven Guard's ridiculous requests.
But, while Katarina struggles desperately to hold back the swell of anguished fury building up inside of her the World-Song has no such reservations. Bellowing against the walls of her mind like the blast of a war horn, the ancient twisted magic siphons power from that maelstrom of loathing and rage. As powerful and disciplined as she is, the young mage cannot stop the tide from overwhelming her. Her mental defenses battered and broken, she sinks into the whirlpool of malice and hunger and a long hidden darkness rises up to take her place.
"Lieutenant?! W-what... what do we...?!"
Katarina smiles as she rises to her feet, her eyes narrowing with dark uncharacteristic glee. A gesture of her hand brings forth the silvery steel sword once again as she marches towards the exit of the tent, the blade humming softly with deadly eagerness. Her aides part before her as she strides out of the small bubble of relative calm and into the open. It is like walking into a solid wall of noise. Hundreds of soldiers turn to shout at her, screaming for her to unleash them upon the Dragon, to let them tear down that vile fortress with their bare hands if they have to.
The young woman closes her eyes as she allows the raw ragged emotion to wrap her up in its embrace and soak into her soul. Such beautiful music this Dragon composed. She had expected there to be the usual pain and suffering that accompanied any large conflict but this was something else entirely, nothing less than a master-stroke of despair and wrath that strummed out the most hauntingly enrapturing melody she has ever experienced.
Slowly, Katarina lifts her hand, pointing the shimmering song-blade towards the sky. All around her the shouting begins to die down, raging voices falling silent as she masterfully taps into the churning emotions with her enchanting presence and quells them until only a soft muted chord of anticipation is held thrall by her aura of power.
"Destroy them," she whispers, her voice as quiet and serene as an angel of death. A strangely beatific smile plays across her pale features as she slowly opens her eyes, baleful crimson light shimmering vibrantly behind her pupils.
"Destroy them all."
Log created on 14:32:28 07/17/2020 by Kira Volkov, and last modified on 13:49:27 01/20/2021.