Before Convergence #6 - Star-Crossed

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Romance  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: August 03, 2017

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Submitted: August 03, 2017



Lieutenant Jack Thomas of the 721st Guard squad ran for his life. Trailing him was a small group of bandits, taunting him with jeers and cackles. Despite every urge to stand and fight, he knew he had to keep running; by giving in, he would effectively be throwing his life away. He stood no chance alone, no matter how skilled he was as a fighter.

He sprinted into an alleyway. The two buildings on either side had been burnt to husks of their former selves. Despite their decrepit states, they were exactly what he needed, as his pursuers would be turning a blind corner. Twisting around, Jack drew both of his six-chambered revolvers. Magic power channeled from his body through his hands into the weapons, charging the two shots he was about to fire. When the first bandits sprinted into the alleyway at full speed, twin arcs of lighting erupted from the muzzles of both guns. Sizzling through the air, the blasts struck two of the bandits: one was killed instantly while the other was shocked into unconsciousness. The rest of the group held back behind the corner, assuming more attacks, when in fact Jack had already continued running.

Past the alleyway, he ran into what remained of the town's outdoor marketplace. Various vendor stalls had been burned to the ground and Jack could see some of the deceased buried beneath the rubble. Still more corpses were scattered across the open ground, doubtlessly more victims of the bandit attack. He took cover behind one of the ruined stalls, watching as his pursuers fanned out to look for him. Popping up on the left side, Jack fired another double shot from his pistols. Where these blue-hued bullets struck became an epicenter of sharp, icy spikes several inches across that jutted out in all directions from the point of impact. Three of the bandits were impaled by the deadly ice, one fatally. The two injured screamed in pain, effectively out of the chase as they attempted to free themselves.

Furious, one of the other bandits summoned a ball of fire and threw it with unbridled force in Jack's direction. The latter hurled himself behind another set of ruined stands as the fireball exploded the ground where he just was, setting the area on fire. The bandit threw another fireball, but this time, Jack had an answer. Charging another shot, Jack fired once from his right revolver, aiming at the incoming attack. A stream of flame burst from his gun and collided with the incoming projectile, creating a massive explosion that forced the bandits to duck behind cover. As the wave of expanding fire passed, Jack immediately started running again, using the billowing smoke as a screen to continue his escape.

After a few more paces, Jack happened upon more destroyed buildings. Judging by what remained, he figured this was the town's shopping corridor. There were just as many corpses here as there were in the central marketplace, but one body in particular caught Jack's eye. A girl, seemingly in her twenties with long blonde hair, peachy skin, and an average frame and height. She wore a pale blue tunic and was sprawled just outside one of the shops. The top of her head was soaked with blood; she had likely been struck by the piece of roofing that now laid next to her body.

Knowing full well that the bandits might still be on him, Jack nonetheless approached the body of the girl. As a member of the Guard, he knew it was his duty to retrieve and rescue any survivors he came across, and to his trained eyes, she had only been knocked unconscious. He checked her neck for a pulse, then nodded to himself; she was indeed alive. Lifting her up gingerly, he carried her away from the destruction, continuing towards the darkened forest just ahead of him.


The girl's vision returned slowly, revealing a dim but crackling campfire. Rubbing her blue-irised eyes, she removed the emergency blanket that had been draped over her body and looked around to get her bearings. She was in a tiny clearing in the forest just outside town but deep enough that she wasn't familiar with this location.

It wasn't long before she met the gaze of the man standing guard nearby. He wore the uniform of the Guard: a grey tunic complete with a hood and a short grey mini-cape clasped around his neck by a bronze phoenix crest, grey pants, and brown boots. A single yellow felt bar was woven into his uniform's left sleeve just below the shoulder, denoting his rank. His wavy, medium-length dark brown hair, amber eyes, sun-tanned skin, and sharp features gave him a boyish appearance, even though he had to be in his twenties at least.

"Good," the man said with an even-handed voice and friendly smile. "You're awake."

"I...?" Suddenly, a wave of nausea overcame the girl as recollection of past events flooded her mind. She drew back and shut her eyes tight. "What...happened?"

"Woah." The man left his perch and sat down next to her. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Just give me a minute to..." She opened her eyes and tried to steady herself by putting both hands on either side of her head. "Why does my head hurt so much?"

"I'd venture to guess that you were hit by falling debris." He held his hand out as she reached for her wound. "Don't touch it! I put something on it to help you heal."

"Sorry," she replied with a grimace. "And who are you exactly? You look like a member of the Guard-"

"Ah!" The man exclaimed. "Where are my manners?" He extended his hand to her. "Lieutenant Jack Thomas of the 721st Guard squad."

"Nice to meet you." She took his hand in her own. "I'm Ashley. Ashley Paige. I am...well, I WAS a store clerk at one of the shops in town." She glanced in the direction of the billowing smoke. Her voice turned distant. "I'm guessing there's not much left?"

"Yeah." Jack gave her a sympathetic nod as his demeanor changed slightly to one more suited to an officer of the law. "What can you tell me about the attack on your town?"

"It started off as a normal attack." Ashley closed her eyes, trying to focus her memory despite her still throbbing head. "The raid sirens went off and everyone took shelter as usual. But after just a few minutes there were bandits running up and down the streets, chasing anyone they could find."

"What happened to your town's Guard garrison?"

Ashley opened her eyes and turned to face Jack. "I don't know, but it was horrible. People were being killed left and right; no one was spared. I thought I was safe in the store, hiding behind some shelves, but I think a bandit threw some kind of explosive through the glass windows. I'm guessing that's how I got knocked out."

"I'm terribly sorry." Jack noted how misty Ashley's eyes were. "I found you outside the store near the entrance. The force of the explosion was probably what brought you out."

"Probably. I don't remember anything else."

Jack shook his head. "Based on what I've seen, I've come to the conclusion that the bandits overwhelmed your town's Guard garrison."

"How is that possible? You Guardsmen are so well trained."

Jack let out a sigh. "Even the best can be defeated if the enemy has numbers on their side."

"But I thought bandits were small timers. They've never been capable enough to defeat our garrison."

Jack stared hard into Ashley's eyes. "You're not wrong, but this time was different. When my squad entered your town, it was clear this was no small raid. This was a full-on invasion."

Ashley swallowed nervously. "What happened to your squad?"

"We were ambushed as we explored the still-burning ruins of your town. We fought for our lives, but there were simply too many bandits. My squad captain gave the order to retreat to the base camp here by any means. Pulling away from the battle, I saw several of my squad mates fall to the bandits, and I'm not sure if anyone aside from me managed to survive." As his story concluded, Jack closed his eyes and buried his face in his hands.

"I'm sorry..." Ashley said quietly. She put a supportive hand on Jack's shoulder. At her touch, he lifted his head gingerly and let out a deep sigh.

"As members of the Guard, we know the risks. The important thing is at least one of us made it out alive. In the morning, if no one else shows up, I'm going to return to HQ to deliver a full report on this situation. I have this terrible feeling the destruction of your town was just the beginning."

Ashley was about to respond when Jack put a finger on his lips and indicated for her to get low to the ground. After a moment's hesitation, she flattened herself on the forest floor as Jack quickly doused the fire and pulled out his two revolvers, keeping them at the ready. She then heard what Jack must have picked up: faint footsteps that seemed to grow louder and louder, timed perfectly alongside the pounding of Ashley's own heart. Time seemed to slow and she found herself speculating on their incoming visitor...or visitors. If it were bandits, Jack would likely be killed, and she would either be killed as well or, if the stories she heard were true of what the bandits did to civilians...she shivered to herself. She would be better off dead.

Jack let out a gasp as something flew out of the nearby brush and imbedded itself in the tree trunk beside him. Ashley looked up and saw a dark, metallic-looking staff of some kind sticking halfway through the bark. To have thrown something that heavy and spear the trunk of a tree...Ashley shut her eyes and expected the worst.

"Captain!" Jack exclaimed to the darkness. "Stop! It's me!"

"Lieutenant?" The voice was feminine and commanding, if a bit out of breath. Ashley looked up, and while it was tough to see properly with nothing but faint moonlight illuminating their camp, she could make out a tall and well-built woman with dark hair tied in a bun behind her. Like Jack, she wore a Guard uniform, but she had a more elaborate rank insignia of two bars compared to Jack's one and utilized brown gloves.

"You nearly hit me!" Jack exclaimed as he re-lit the fire.

"Considering the day we had, I think I deserve some leeway. I thought I was the only one who made it out." The woman reached up to the tree trunk and grabbed the staff, pulling it out with expert skill. Then, she pressed something at the central area of the metal weapon that caused it to retract all the way down to a palm-sized cylinder which she attached to her belt.

"Captain..." Ashley stopped herself as the woman's green eyes swung to face her. The captain's gaze was piercing and intimidating all at once. Made even stronger by the fire's light was the highlights in her black hair: a solid dark red surrounding the curvature of her face.

"And who is this, lieutenant?" Ashley had the distinct feeling that the captain was scanning her with all the scrutiny of a detective, making the former feel quite uncomfortable.

"A civilian I managed to rescue as we retreated, captain. Her name is Ashley Paige." Jack offered a hand to Ashley, which she took to get to her feet. Then he turned and held his hand out towards the other woman in introduction. "Ashley, this is Captain Katherine Sinclair. My commanding officer."

"Umm...hi." Ashley's greeting came out meekly. Katherine's intensity was unlike anything she had ever seen; she seemed to radiate an aura of power.

"Nice to meet you, Ms. Paige." Katherine put her gloved right hand on her chest in a solemn manner. "My condolences for the terrible tragedy that has befallen you and your town."

"Likewise!" Ashley said, perhaps a bit too quickly. "Umm...sorry. Jack told me what happened to your squad. And please, call me Ashley."

"Thank you, Ashley." For a moment, Ashley caught a flash of grief and remorse in the other woman's features. Just as quickly, her face reverted to stoicism as she turned to faced Jack. "Lieutenant-"

"Captain," Jack interrupted, his eyes hard. "Please tell me. Did anyone else make it?"

Katherine returned his cold gaze. "It's just us. Everyone else is dead."

"Damn it all..." Jack's shoulders sagged as he hung his head down.

"I know." Katherine put both hands on his shoulders. "Look, I made the call. It was my responsibility. My fault."

"No, captain." Jack pulled his head back up. "Don't blame yourself. You did everything right. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into."

"Thank you for your vote of confidence, lieutenant, but the job's not over."

"Right." Jack spread his hands out, gesturing to the camp. "I've gotten most of our gear packed. We should be able to leave in the morning and-" He paused, looking at the civilian he had rescued from certain death. "Ashley, what are you going to do?"

Ashley shook her head. "I don't know. It all happened so suddenly..." She let out a sigh. "Everyone I knew is dead. There's nothing left for me now."

"Well," Jack said. "You could always come with us."

Ashley looked hopefully at the two Guardsmen. "Really? You would let me do that?"

"Of course." A smile formed on Katherine's lips. "Leaving you all alone out here between the wilderness and a bandit army would be irresponsible to say the least. The nearest town is at least a day's trek away." She turned to Jack. "Lieutenant, you are responsible for Ashley's safety. At the very least until we reach HQ."

"Yes, captain."

Katherine turned back to Ashley. "How much experience do you have traveling?"

Ashley averted her eyes from the captain's gaze, but responded. "I-I've never left my town. I mean, I've hiked around this forest, but I never really had the opportunity to go anywhere."

"I see. In that case, get some sleep. You're going to need it."


Jack's visage greeted Ashley as he gently shook her awake.

"Come on," he said. "We have a long way ahead of us."

The three cleared the forest pretty quickly, making it to an open plain with a single lonely and well-traveled dirt road.

"How are you doing?" Jack asked Ashley.

"Fine. A little winded, but I'm okay." She looked at the road. "Is this where we're going?"

"Yes," Katherine answered. "This is the main road that leads directly to Radiance."

"Radiance?" Ashley's eyes went wide. "THE Radiance?"

"The one and only," Jack said with a smile. "That's where HQ is."

"I've heard stories about how beautiful the city is, but I never thought I'd ever get the chance to go there."

"It's home, nothing more," Katherine said dismissively.

"You're selling the capital of the border short, captain." Jack looked at his commanding officer with a sly grin. "Have you become jaded by the alluring architecture? Or perhaps the city's hustle and bustle is too much for you?"

"It has nothing to do with that, lieutenant, but everything to do with the fact that I have more important things to worry about. The technologically advanced North and the magically-inclined South care little for anything beyond their own borders. We are the only ones standing between order and chaos in this region. Because of this, I cannot rest in my efforts."

Jack's grin turned into a frown. "Fair enough. You're no fun, captain, you know that?"

Katherine gave him a mocking glare. "That's enough, lieutenant."

Farther down the road, the three found themselves staring at a scene of devastation. Several merchant carts had been left ransacked and burned on the side of the road. What remained of several bodies were dumped in a large pile beside the carts.

"What happened?" Ashley face was filled with shock and horror.

Katherine and Jack combed over the scene with practiced precision, observing various details and coming to the same conclusion. 

"Another bandit attack," Jack said.

Katherine shook her head sadly. "That's another convoy gone."

"I recognize him!" Ashley's face fell as her eyes found one of the bodies. "He was one of our suppliers! I used to see him at the back of the store talking to..." She glanced up at the two Guard members. "Wait so...this has happened before?"

"It's gotten worse." Jack's face was filled with disgust. "Leading up to the attack on your town, the reports of bandit attacks along the major trade routes skyrocketed. We stationed Guardsman at as many locations as we could, but we just don't have enough manpower to protect every merchant convoy."

"And it's one of the reasons why the Guard are spread so thinly right now," Katherine said as she turned to face Ashley, her expression dark. "In fact, I doubt we'll even be able to muster the amount of forces needed to take back your town."

Ashley nodded. "I understand. I wish I could do something to help. I didn't know it was this bad."

"Well," Jack mused. "You could join the Guard. As you know, we recruit on a voluntary basis."

"But I don't know how to fight."

"We'll teach you." Jack's smile returned. "Heck, we could literally use anyone. Especially those with some kind of special ability."

"Yeah?" Ashley opened both her hands and held them out shoulder-length apart from each other. A warm, white ribbon of light jumped from her right hand to her left in a smooth arc. Then, she reversed the direction of the light: left to right. "I have this little trick that my friends told me looked pretty. I've never really found any use for it besides-"

Ashley stopped as both Jack and Katherine stared at her with their mouths open, clearly in awe of her ability.


Ashley expected Jack to speak up, but it was Katherine who did. The strong and commanding officer persona disappeared, replaced by child-like wonder and amazement.

"Y-You're a descendant of the Old Guard!"

Ashley's puzzled look didn't fade. "The who?"

"You know about the war between the North and South, right?!" Katherine's enthusiasm was unwavering.

"The Century War?" Ashley asked, still shocked by this excitable Katherine, so different from the one she first met. "Umm...yeah, didn't the end of the war lead to the formation of the border? And why there's a relative peace now?"

"Yes! But what many don't know is that this border region was around back then too! Just like the Guard today, the Old Guard protected this place, and they were said to have fantastic abilities far beyond our own!"

"I apologize, Ashley," Jack said with a sly smile. "The captain is a bit of a fanatic when it comes to Old Guard history. Nothing gets her more animated than a little archeological-"

"You have that power, Ashley!" Katherine's eyes sparkled as she interrupted her lieutenant. She grabbed both of Ashley's hands and held them together. "With proper training, you'll be so powerful not even an army of bandits could stop you!"

Ashley didn't speak for a moment, stunned beyond words. Then, when everything finally sunk in, she exhaled, drew in a breath, and spoke.

"I-I had no idea," Ashley stammered. "And here I thought I was so average."

"Oh, you're so far beyond that," Katherine let go of Ashley's hands and stepped back, but still looked quite animated.

"Question." Jack held up a hand. "Do you know anyone else with your ability?"

"Not that I am aware of."


"Dead in a bandit raid, or so I was told." Ashley shifted uncomfortably. This felt like an interrogation. "I didn't know them very well."

"Who else knew you had this ability?"

"My friends, like I said. They're all likely dead now. And they probably didn't know the significance of it because they were never as amazed by it as you two seem to be."

"That's because the Old Guard have passed into myth and legend amongst the general public," Katherine replied. "But we know all about them. And now you're our one living example."

Ashley frowned. "So you're telling me no one else has this ability?"

Jack shook his head. "You're the first person I have ever seen. You, captain?"

"Likewise." For the first time, Ashley saw a true smile on Katherine's face. "The original Old Guard were wiped out before the Century War's end. They are no more. None, except the young lady standing right here."

Ashley blushed. "Please! I've never been admired like this before..."

"That's not true..." Jack began.

"What?" Ashley stared at him.

"D-Don't be so down on yourself, is all I'm saying." Jack said quickly. "Especially now."

Katherine gave her lieutenant a glance, then turned back to Ashley. "In all seriousness, Ashley, will you help us? Will you lend your power to the Guard? You have every right to say no. I will not force you to join us, nor will Jack if it is your desire to remain a civilian. Our lives are tough, and you will be in constant danger, especially in our squad, which roams the region a lot more than most."

"Are you kidding me?" Ashley's initial shyness vanished as she felt everything that had taken place in the last twenty-four hours come together. "For once in my life, I can make a difference. I was nothing but a store clerk for most of my life; I'm not going to throw away this chance to help those who can't stand up for themselves. I can't even describe how I'm feeling right now." She could feel tears of joy forming in her eyes. "I will gladly accept."


Ashley was stunned by Radiance's beauty. It was everything Jack had alluded to. On the outside, alabaster walls surrounded the city, designed to be more like a sculpture than an impregnable fortress. Towering white buildings reached above the walls, and from a distance she could tell some were going halfway up the sky. A massive white gate was the main entrance into the city, and beside it was a bustling marketplace where all manner of civilians were coming and going.

"Magnificent, isn't it?" Jack stated.

"Yeah." Ashley was in awe. "It almost makes you forget what's happening out there right now."

"That it can do," Katherine said sharply. She gestured to Ashley. "Follow me and don't get too distracted by the sights and sounds. I don't want to have to search for you if you get lost."

Ashley nodded as the three headed towards the entrance. The guards at the gate saluted as Katherine approached. Past them, a massive, grand square filled with fountains and all manner of greenery presented a lavish view. The open area was packed with people enjoying a fine day out. Signs posted on street corners pointed directions to the various districts of the city, and the amount of men, women, and children in the streets were a veritable flood.

"These people have no idea how good they have it here," Katherine muttered.

"It means we're doing our job right, captain," Jack remarked.

"But what about the people out there?" Ashley asked, pointing beyond the city walls. "Like my home?"

Jack lowered his gaze. "You have a point."

They came across a large structure that seemed just slightly off from the rest of the city's marble-colored architecture. Mixed into the building were signs of advanced technology and warding magic to head off intruders.

Katherine gestured to Ashley. "Jack and I can pass, but seeing as you're not officially a member of the guard yet, I'm not sure-"

Ashley came to a stop in front of one of the magic wards near the entrance. The two guards outside the building along with Katherine and Jack watched in fascination as Ashley reached out to caress the animated object. The ward's white light pulsed at her touch. She turned back to her companions and smiled.

"I-I can feel it. It's warm. Soothing even."

"Incredible!" Katherine's awestruck demeanor had returned. "That is one of the original wards created by the Old Guard when they used this building as their base of operations."

"More proof, I guess."

"Captain," one of the guards began as Ashley rejoined her companions. He had a shocked expression on his face. "Does this mean-"

"Yes." Katherine waved dismissively at the two guards. Her normal self had returned. "Please, we have to see the Colonel. It's urgent."

"Right away, ma'am!"

The two guards cleared the way as the trio headed inside. It took Ashley's eyes a moment to adjust to the much darker interior. A small reception area made way to several hallways that led deeper into the building. Along the walls were signs pointing to staircases, elevators, and rooms of particular importance.

"This way." Katherine led the two, following the sign to Operations. This led them to a hallway of rooms. At the farthest end was their destination, overseen by another guard. Upon seeing Katherine, the guard opened the door with a sidelong glance at Ashley. Ashley thought the man would say something, but it appeared that Katherine's rank and/or reputation within the Guard was well regarded.

The Operations room was huge and exactly what Ashley pictured a war room would look like.  Everything from maps to communications equipment were scattered all over the place, with plenty of chairs and tables being occupied by the dozen or so staff within. At the center of it all stood a man with a scraggly black beard, using his glasses to read a report which had been given to him by an aide. He wore a standard Guard uniform with two distinct differences from Jack and Katherine: a rank insignia that Ashley had never seen before and a white rounded cap she suspected was to cover a receding hairline. In front of him was a large map pinned to a table, showing what presumably was the placement of Guard squads along the border.

As the three approached him, the man looked up from his report.

"Captain Sinclair," he said in a baritone voice. He nodded at the captain, then the other two. "Lieutenant Thomas. And Ms-?"

"Ashley Paige." Ashley said quickly before Katherine or Jack could reply for her. "Please, call me Ashley."

"Very well." The man gave her a quick look-over before turning his attention back to Katherine. "Captain, where is the rest of your squad?"

"Killed in action, Colonel." There was no mistaking the pain in Katherine's voice. "We were right about the bandits, sir, but the numbers they have far surpassed any estimate we had. They ambushed us as we were conducting our investigation and we had little choice but to escape with our lives."

"My condolences." Ashley was surprised to hear genuine emotion in the Colonel's voice, as if he took this loss personally. "And the town?"

"Completely destroyed, sir." Katherine gestured kindly to Ashley. "She is the only resident we managed to find and rescue."

"Why did you bring her in here?" The Colonel's eyes narrowed. "This is no place for civilians to be hanging about."

Katherine allowed herself a smile and turned to the younger woman. "Ashley, please, show the Colonel."

The lone survivor spread her hands out and produced the ribbon of light that had so fascinated the two Guardsmen. The Colonel was no less impressed, staring at the light as if mesmerized. After a few seconds, Ashley stopped, realizing that the entire room was now staring at her.

"Amazing!" The Colonel dark eyes sparkled with new interest. "You're a descendant of the Old Guard!"

"I guess I am?" Ashley's voice betrayed her continuing disbelief at just how special her ability was. "At least, that's what Kather-I mean, the captain and the lieutenant told me."

The Colonel turned and faced Katherine. "Captain, did you find any others like her in that town?"

Katherine shook her head. "None, and we have no reason to believe there are any others." She looked at Jack. "In fact, it was only by good fortune that my lieutenant found Ashley at all. If not for him, she probably would have died with the rest of the townsfolk."

"Oh!" Ashley exclaimed as she whirled to face Jack. "That's right. I never even thanked you for saving me! I'm sorry."

"Don't mention it." Jack nodded in understanding. "I was just doing my duty as a Guardsman."

"Ashley." The Colonel turned to face her once again. "Has Captain Sinclair asked you about joining our organization?"

"Yes, she has, sir." Ashley could once again feel all eyes in the room on her. "And I said yes."

The Colonel smiled and behind him, there were a few soft cheers. "Well, I'll be. Then there's a bit of hope for us. Even better, you could not have fallen into the lap of a more capable squad to help train you. Captain Sinclair's obsession with the Old Guard is a well-known fact, and she along with Lieutenant Thomas are amongst our most skilled combatants. The squad as a whole was one of our best." He turned to Katherine. "Again, my condolences, captain. Please remain here for debriefing. I'm expecting a full report from you."

Katherine nodded, then turned to Ashley. "We will start your training first thing tomorrow." She glanced at Jack. "Lieutenant, will you please escort Ashley to the barracks and show her to an open room? Oh, and get her a uniform."

"My pleasure, captain."


The Guard equivalent of a barracks was the simple, apartment-styled wing of the same building. The rooms were spread out amongst the floors to be as tight as possible for maximum efficiency. Ashley's room was pretty far down a hallway on the fifth floor.

"And here's your room," Jack said as he opened the door. Inside, the room had all the furnishings of a warehouse, but it was at the very least functional. A dresser, a desk, a bed, an antique light fixture, and a personal chest were placed at various spots in the room. "It's not much, but it's better than some of the other places you can find in the city."

"For what it is, I think it's wonderful." Ashley took a few steps into the room, looking around.

"You should see the officers' rooms," Jack chuckled. "They make this one feel like a box in comparison."

"This is still better than how I was living in my hometown."

Jack frowned. "Now you're making me feel bad."

Ashley whirled around to face Jack. "Well then, maybe you could make it up to me by showing me around the city? I'd love to see everything!" She caught her excitement and held it back a bit. "I mean, maybe not all at once. But this will be my new home after all."

"Right, country girl in the big city. But first, let me find you a uniform. Get comfortable while I grab one."

Ashley sat down on the bed while Jack walked away. The mattress was a tad stiff, but she couldn't complain. Despite the voluntary nature of the Guard, it was still a military organization, and she never expected much in the way of accommodations. She let out a blissful sigh and allowed herself to fall back onto the bedding. This was her life now, she thought to herself. Her choice to help in the only way she knew she could.

Minutes later, Jack returned with a few Guard uniforms.

"Try them on to see which one fits." Jack handed Ashley the stack. "I'll wait outside."

Ashley took the pile, then stopped and looked up at Jack.



"What if...what if I'm not good enough? What if I don't live up to what everyone expects of me?"

Ashley was surprised when Jack's hands fell on her shoulders. He faced her directly, close enough for them to almost touch noses.

"Look," he said. "I've always lived by this philosophy: you can only do as much as you can do. Maybe this works out for you, maybe it doesn't. If you can meet even a fraction of the potential we think you have, it'll still be enough. Just your presence might even cause the bandits to reconsider their raids once word gets out on who you are and what you can do."

"So I could be an even bigger target?" Ashley said slowly.

"Unfortunately, that will probably be the case, but we did tell you this was going to be dangerous. Still, Katherine and I will do our best to train you, and anyone who tries to get to you will have to get through us first."

"I don't want anyone to get hurt on my behalf, least of all you..." Ashley looked away from Jack, her cheeks turning a slight shade of pink.

"Then do your best and prove to yourself that you can do this. If it helps any, think of it this way: the captain and I share just as much responsibility for this as you do. If you fail, then it's on the two of us too. Keep that in mind if you ever have doubts."

Ashley straightened her shoulders a bit as she smiled at Jack with renewed confidence. "Thanks, I really appreciated that."

"Anytime." Jack grinned. Then the two turned their backs on each other: Ashley turned to place the uniforms on the bed, while Jack walked out and closed the door behind him. After a few minutes, Jack heard a gentle knock on her door. He turned around just as it swung open.

"Well, what do you think?" Ashley looked expectantly at Jack. Despite this being the first time she had ever tried putting on the Guard uniform, in Jack's estimation, she had dressed herself perfectly.

Jack smiled. "I think you look beautiful."

Ashley blushed hard. "R-Really?"

"Yeah. I'd go so far as to say you were born to wear our uniform."


Ashley's body hit the sand of the training dojo floor hard. Bruises covered her arms and legs. Sweat pasted her hair to her brow and her breathing was heavy. With effort, she pulled herself to her feet. In front of her, Captain Sinclair stood with not even the slightest hint of perspiration on her face. 

"We never said this was going to be easy." Jack's voice on her left. He was floating in and out of this first official sparring session like a coach on the sidelines.

"Will...I be able to...fight like her...someday?" Ashley was still trying to catch her breath.

"To be honest, probably not. The captain is one of the absolute best at what she does. But that's not what you need to become right now. What you need to learn is the basics."

"Basics..." Ashley drew out the word.

"I could have killed you several times over already," Katherine said disapprovingly. "You'd be dead if I were a bandit. You know how dangerous they are by reputation, but fighting them is another matter."

"Who...are they...really?"

Katherine shrugged. "Misfits. Smugglers. Gangsters. Terrorists. Fanatics. Killers. But also, those down on their luck, desperate, and in need of help. They are those who seek to sow chaos in a nearly lawless land. If not for the Guard, they would have divided the border into kingdoms of their own and waged endless war against each other."

"So history shows," Jack nodded sagely. 

Katherine continued. "This is why it is of utmost importance that you learn how to defend yourself in the basics, or rather, hand to hand combat training."

" power-" Ashley began.

"People like you and Jack who have abilities are strong, but what if someone came along who had the ability to neutralize yours with their own? The Old Guard disappeared for a reason, Ashley. No one knows why for sure, but it's definitely possible that someone came along and found a way to shut down their power in order to defeat them."

Grimly, Ashley rose to her feet, no longer panting for breath. With renewed determination, she turned to Jack, her arms returning to the defensive stance they had been in before she'd hit the ground. "So, like this?"

"Yes," Jack said with a grin. "Exactly like that."


In Operations, the Colonel and Katherine were looking over a table with a large paper map of the whole region posted on the surface.

"Bandits are sweeping across the southeast region," the Colonel said, pointing at the bottom right of the map with his large right hand. "I have not heard back from the ten squads we sent to neutralize this enemy force. I fear they have been overrun just like all the others."

"What would be our next course of action, sir?" Katherine asked.

The Colonel stroked his beard thoughtfully. "I don't like it, but I'm going to have to recall most of the squads at the west end. I know there hasn't been as many attacks out there, but those towns still report the occasional raid."

"In my opinion, it's worth the risk, sir. If we don't stop this now, there's no telling how many more towns will be destroyed."

The Colonel shook his head. "I just wish we knew how this was happening. This coordinated behavior is so far outside of the norm for bandits that I have to wonder if there's something else going on." The Colonel rubbed his large hands together in anticipation. "Well, at the very least, this chain of events might finally convince the North and the South to get involved. Of course, they never want anything to do with us, but maybe after all this time they'd feel a bit generous."

"We can only hope, sir."


"Wow!" Ashley was staring wide-eyed inside an establishment filled with several strong-looking and enigmatic strangers. "What is this place?"

"One of our adventurer's taverns," Jack said with an amused smile. "It's where people come to take jobs for, well, just about anyone. It's a fine place to hang out, but I will warn you: there's all types here, and you always have to be on your guard, at least to an extent."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, you have the mercenaries who will do just about anything for money. Occasional smugglers. Assassins. Bounty hunters. Some merchants. Usually a couple of con artists. Even some ex-bandits. Oh and I know there's at least one detective who spends a lot of his time here because most of his clients are from this district."

"This place sounds dangerous." Ashley frowned. "Why doesn't the Guard do anything about it?"

"For the most part, they don't bother us, and we don't bother them." Jack pointed to Ashley's clothing. "It's the uniform. Besides, having others besides the Guard with the ability to help people solve their problems is important around here since we can't do everything ourselves."

"True enough." Ashley took one last gaze at the tavern's decor. The theme of the place seemed to be science-centric. "I'd like to come back here in the future and check the place out some more if you don't mind."

"Sure thing."


It is with deepest regret that I-

Katherine balled up the paper she had been writing on and tossed it aside. She was stuck trying to write this intro for thirty minutes and counting. And she knew, based on the reports from the field, that more tragedy was coming. Even if Ashley lived up to the promise of being as capable as one of the Old Guard, she alone would not be enough to stop the approaching tide. Deep within herself, Katherine was starting to believe that this was all going to end like it had begun: in fire and ruin.

She got off her wooden chair and stepped towards the shaded window, which revealed a view of the city's sprawl at large. Looking to settle her dark thoughts, Katherine watched a group of kids at play. On one hand, a part of her told her not to pity those who were too ignorant to understand what was coming. On the other, she knew she had to do everything in her power to preserve what peace this place did have. It was her job, her duty, and her goal in life. She was part of an organization that made the hard choices so others wouldn't have to, even if it meant sacrificing their own lives.

She placed a hand on the glass, observing the parents that had come along to collect the children. Even still, she continued to herself, for all that idealism, she knew the Guard weren't prepared for something on this scale. The public out there would feel the consequences of this latest move by the bandits more than anything else that had taken place since the Century War. This would change everything, probably for the worse.

She turned her back to the window and returned to her desk, where she began again with a new piece of paper.

It is with deepest regret that I-



Jack's voice rang out as ribbons of light energy struck at straw dummies again and again. Ashley's hands were outstretched and glowing with power as she summoned more ribbons to attack. In moments, the targets were completely destroyed.

"Well done." Jack clapped politely as Ashley's tired face turned to beam at him. "I wasn't expecting you to have such masterful control of your ability already."

"You'd think so since I was born with it."

"I suppose that's true, but let's wait until you get into a real fight before applying that technique some more. For now, we can explore some different aspects of your ability. For example, the Captain and I have taught you how to defend yourself in close-quarters combat, but what if you're attacked from range?"

Ashley, fully in the moment, clapped her hands together, then opened them like she was doing a card spring. Ribbons flew out of her hands, creating a floating wall of white energy between them. Separated, she didn't see Jack's jaw drop in surprise.

"You already know." His bewilderment and disbelief were clear. "How?"

Ashley couldn't help but let out a small, confident chuckle. "I thought about how I would use my power for defense, and it just came naturally to me."

"If that's the case, show me what you've got!" Appearing out of nowhere, Katherine jumped straight at Ashley. The former's staff struck the shield of ribbons, shattering the light barrier. Ashley had just enough time to activate another shield before it too was destroyed by Katherine's merciless assault.

"Captain!" Ashley exclaimed, her expression full of surprise. "Where did you-?"

Ashley was cut off as Katherine charged at her. Instinctively, Ashley fired off a wave of light ribbons at her captain. Katherine spun her staff in a windmill-like fashion at a ludicrous speed, causing the ribbons to get deflected off the dark metal and vaporize clumps of sand on the ground. In a final flourish, Katherine twirled her staff around and aimed it at Ashley, millimeters away from the latter's face. This time, Katherine was perspiring, but Ashley was worse; she was shivering, panting hard, and eyeing her captain with cold fear.

"Don't get cocky." Katherine withdrew her staff. "The moment you do, you might as well have given up the fight. I don't care how powerful you are."

"That's a lesson I took to heart years before." Jack joined the two women. He looked at the two of them, then settled his gaze on Katherine. "But captain, did you really have to be so dramatic?"

"I might have overdone it. If so, Ashley, I apologize."

"No, it's okay." Ashley blinked and shook her head as if to clear it, then took a final few heavy breaths. "You're right. Though it's hard not to get overconfident when my power seems so versatile and strong."

"Just make sure you remember my words." Katherine smiled at the two of them. "You've both been impressive. Carry on."

Jack inclined his head. "Thank you, captain."


"The eastern front has completely collapsed." The Colonel shook his head, looking at the map table once again. "The number of squads we's unthinkable."

"Where the hell are the North and South?!" Katherine exclaimed. "Don't they realize what's going on here? If the Guard falls, nothing will stop the bandits from taking control of this area!"

"Even now, we're not important enough."

"But if that happens, the entire area will destabilize, which you know will spill into their own borders! I have no doubt there will be a second Century War!"

"I don't know what else to tell you," the Colonel said. "I have tried contacting both governments and neither has responded to my requests for assistance."

"So it's all up to us then."

"As it always has been." The Colonel gave Katherine a somber look.

Katherine nodded grimly.


Jack and Ashley stood, facing each other on the sandy floor of the training dojo.

"The captain's not here today?" Ashley asked.

"No," Jack replied. "It's you, and me."

Ashley noted the oddness of Jack's voice. "Jack, what's wrong?"

"Nothing." He pulled one of his pistols out and fired. Ashley, at this point trained to react to aggressive actions, threw up a ribbon shield to block the frost bolt that had been very close to striking her.

"Good reaction time, but I'm going to make you do more than that!" This time, Jack pulled out his second pistol and fired several rounds at Ashley. To block the hail of various elemental bullets, Ashley used her white ribbons to create a wall of light. Fire, ice, and lightning bullets struck the light construct. Sprinting to the corner to get around the barrier, Jack fired several more shots, this time with flaming blasts. Ashley quickly turned, unleashing several more ribbons that seemed to catch the fireballs and surround them, extinguishing them in mid-air.

"Very good," Jack exclaimed. "Your timing is impeccable."

Ashley beamed at him. "All that hard work-"

She stopped as Jack suddenly rushed up to her, throwing several punches and kicks at her. As she was taught, she threw up her own arms and legs to block his attacks. The two matched each other perfectly, as if their attacks had been choreographed.

A minutes into the hand-to-hand bout, Ashley suddenly twisted her hands downward, unleashing a ribbon that tied Jack's left hand down. He did an acrobatic flip with the hand to maintain proper positioning alongside Ashley, blocking her right elbow which had been thrown toward his face. The momentum knocked him off-balance, sending him falling towards the sandy ground. His right leg came up and hooked Ashley in the back of the head, pulling her down with him. The two landed on top of each other, entirely out of breath.

"Not...not bad," Jack huffed, trying to catch his breath.

"I beat...a lieutenant." Ashley couldn't contain her exhilaration even as she likewise gulped down air. "Does that mean...I get to take your place?"

"That's...not how it works."

"That's what you think." 

Jack said nothing in response. The two stared at each other in awkward silence, their eyes boring into one another's. Trying to break the tension, they spoke at the same time.



They stopped, each realizing what the other was doing. After a moment, they broke into laughter.

"So uhh," Jack mumbled after they calmed down. "What I was going to ask is if you want to head to the tavern after this. Maybe grab a drink?"

Ashley's smile widened as she pulled Jack to his feet. "I'd love that."

"What were you going to ask?"

"Never mind." Ashley grabbed his hand and tugged him along, hiding her reddening face.


"Bartender!" Jack shouted from their booth at the tavern. "Two pints here!"

"You got it, Jack." The bartender was a tall and slightly stocky man with medium-length white hair. In seconds, he came over to Jack and Ashley with the drinks. "One for you, and one for this fine lady."

"Thank you, sir," Ashley said with a smile as she grabbed the mug. She set the glass down, waiting for Jack to grab his, and in the meantime once again observed the odd patrons in this place. She especially found one smaller, underaged-looking young girl in black tactical gear particularly interesting. What was her story? 

"Thank you," Jack said, picking up the setting his mug down. As soon as the bartender left, he held up his glass. "Congratulations on completing your training."

Ashley turned her attention back, stunned as she raised her glass to clink against his. "Do you mean that?"

"I do. You've done so much in such a short time. Frankly, it's astonishing."


The two took a swig from their mugs and put them down. Silence fell between the two of them, neither knowing what to say next. Their eyes wandered, met each other, then both quickly looked away. The moderate chatter in the tavern covered for the awkward silence between them for a few seconds. Then, as if a floodgate had been opened, they spoke at the same time.

"So at the end of that fight..." Jack's voice was enquiring.

"Did you feel that at the end..." Ashley's voice was guarded but hopeful.

They stopped, their hearts pounding, not sure one heard the other correctly. 

"If I'm not wrong..." Jack pointed from his head to Ashley's, tracing the distance with his finger. "We seem to be on the same wavelength."

The faintest hint of red blossomed on Ashley's face. "W-We are?"

"Ashley," Jack said quietly, feeling his own cheeks take on color. "Do you mind if I say something...personal?"

"Sure." Ashley could feel her heart beat even faster in anxious anticipation.

Jack took a deep breath. "From the moment I rescued you, I felt like I was drawn to you. I've never felt this way about anyone else before."


" you feel the same way about me?"

"Jack..." Ashley's blush darkened considerably. "I-I...yes, I did. And I still do."

"I mean, I've met other girls who were kinda cute, but-" He stopped as Ashley threw a balled-up napkin at his face.

"Way to kill the mood, genius," Ashley muttered in mock annoyance.

"I wasn't done," Jack said with a grin. He took Ashley's hand, and when she didn't flinch or draw back, he drew her up until they were both stand-sitting and leaning over the table, face to face so close they were nearly touching.

"None of them were as cute or as beautiful as you."

His words were like an action cue. It took less than a second for the two to lock lips. Their kiss was deep, passionate, and long-lasting, with neither wanting the moment to end. They were planted on each other long enough for some nearby patrons to flash them a few stares. When they finally pulled apart, they did so with extreme reluctance. Breathless and extremely flushed, the two looked at each other in the eyes as they gasped together for air.

"Damn that was hot," Jack said. "You ever do that before?"

"Maybe." Ashley flashed him a mischievous grin. "You're not a bad kisser yourself, mister. How about you?"

"I'm not telling."

"Then I won't either."

The two shared a hearty laugh before taking another swig.

"Wait, does this mean we're official?" Jack matched Ashley's grin with his own.

"Yes, you goof," Ashley giggled. She abandoned her booth seat cushion to join Jack on his side, dragging her drink across the table. To get closer to him, she wrapped her left arm around his waist and pulled herself beside him.

"Now, now," Jack said coyly. "This is our first date. This is getting a little too close for-"

"Just shut up and enjoy it, lieutenant." Ashley's interruption led to another kiss. This time, they received more than a few glances.


Katherine found herself walking around the city's ramparts, surveying the defenses. She didn't have anything else to do except wait for the Colonel's next orders. For the moment, her restlessness and anxiety couldn't be contained within Radiance's beautiful walls. Who wouldn't be after reading report after report of Guard squads being overwhelmed on the front lines of the approaching army? No one had been able to stop the onslaught. Worst of all, based on the bandit army's invasion pattern, it was crystal clear their eventual goal was to reach and presumably conquer Radiance. The Colonel hadn't issued an evacuation order of the city, but Katherine knew it was only a matter of time before the war would be on their doorstep.

The captain was so lost in her thoughts that she hadn't noticed a fellow Guardswoman stumble into her. She was in her late teens, with light blue, medium-length hair, light blue eyes, and of a medium build and height. Her only visible armament was a worn shield slung on her back and her uniform displayed no rank insignia. Katherine was about to reprimand her junior for walking into her when she noticed the girl's numerous injuries. Multiple painful-looking but seemingly non-life threatening bloody cuts were spread all over her body and her clothing was frayed in several places by what was likely weapons of several kinds. From a cursory glance, it was obvious she was just barely keeping everything together.

"Oh my goodness." Katherine was quick to support the younger woman, whose body began to sag on Katherine's own. "What happened?"

"P-Please." The girl's voice was shaky. She sounded completely exhausted. "Take me to the Colonel. Those things...they're going to kill us all..."


After leaving the tavern, the newly-minted couple found themselves on their backs, lying down on concrete at the foot of a public fountain. The sloshing of recycled water and the bright lights above made the night serene and near-perfect.

"It's so peaceful tonight," Ashley said with wonder in her voice. "Is it always like this?"

"To be honest with you, I've never really taken a good look at the night sky." Jack paused, as if thinking back on his past. "As a lifelong Guard member, I don't get a lot of time to enjoy myself."

"It looks like I'll have to show you some of what you've been missing. There's more to life than just being a soldier."

"Says the person who just joined our army."

Ashley lightly punched Jack's shoulder. "I mean it."

"I know, I know. I was just teasing you."

The two resumed stargazing for a second, then Ashley spoke up.

"Jack, what caused you to join the Guard? Did you volunteer or were you pressed into service?"

"The latter," Jack said glumly. "Not because someone told me to, but because I had nowhere else to go. I come from a place similar to you, Ashley. I lost everything because of bandits. Everything except my talents and my life."

"So just like me..." Ashley's voice trailed off. She turned her head slightly to glance at Jack. "You know, considering what happened to me and my town, I wondered if I could ever be genuinely happy again. But right now, I can tell you that this is probably the happiest moment of my life...being with you..."

Jack turned to face Ashley at the same angle she was staring at him, his expression curled in a silly grin. "You've never been happier? How about the time when you discovered how awesome your power truly was? How did I, a simple lieutenant in the Guard, triumph over an ancient superability?"

"Comere you!" Ashley got up and planted herself on top of Jack, smothering him with a kiss.

"Actually," Jack said when they finally separated with extreme reluctance. "I gotta say, I feel the same as you. You have given me something I didn't know was lacking in my life. I've always been so detached with others, but with you...well, I want to be with you."

"I've turned soldier-boy into a normal human being!" Ashley put a finger on the tip Jack's nose. "I'm better at this than you are."

"Wanna bet on that?" Jack sat up, forcing Ashley to do the same.

"What if I-hey!" Ashley's playful expression turned to surprise as Jack picked her up.

"We'll see who has the last laugh!" With that, Jack carried his girlfriend towards HQ.


"Melissa Bailey," the Colonel said, glancing at the file in his hands. The girl in question stood before him and Katherine in Operations. "Member of the 416th Squad, a garrison stationed at one of the eastern towns."

"Yes, sir." Melissa's tone was neutral. "I'm the only one who survived."

Silence hung in the air for a moment.

"Please tell us what happened," Katherine said.

The younger girl took a deep breath. "Colonel, sir...based on our intel, we knew the bandits were going to attack the town. We thought we were prepared with the five squads backing us up. If it was just bandits, maybe we could've stopped them, but this...this was different. This was...this was..." She stopped, clearly disturbed.

"What was it?" Katherine asked.

"I heard one of the bandits call them...dolls." Melissa shivered. "They seem to be machines made of metal, but they're shaped like humans. They look really creepy...even worse, they can actually use magic."

"North and South technology...combined?" The Colonel's astonishment was evident.

"I-I guess so. I've never seen anything like them before. Even with just their bare hands, they...they..." Melissa covered her face with her hands, as if trying to hide from the memory. Tears started to stream down her cheeks. "...M-My squad...they bought me time to escape...I didn't want to abandon them, but my captain ordered me to go so I I could tell you...what happened..."

Katherine put her arms around the light blue-haired girl. "I'm sorry, Melissa."

"Captain." The Colonel's voice was deadly quiet. "In the morning, you and your squad will head to the plains."

"A single squad, sir?"

"I've read your reports: Ashley is ready. I was going to have her be the backbone of Radiance's defense, but this madness has gone on for long enough. We need to take the fight to them."

"Understood, sir."


Morning came too soon for Jack and Ashley. They rose, just in time for a knock at the door.

"Lieutenant?" It was Katherine's voice. "Please come to Operations in thirty minutes."

"Uhh...understood, ma'am!"

"Also, please wake Ashley. I knocked at her door and received no answer. Was she out all night?"

"I'll make sure she's there with me, captain." Jack looked at Ashley with a wink. 

"Good, thank you."

As soon as Katherine's footsteps disappeared down the hallway, Ashley spoke.

"Wow," She stared at him in surprise. "I didn't think you were capable of misleading our captain like that."

"Hey, I just...implied."

Ashley sighed in relief. "Well, thanks anyhow. You're amazing, you know that?"


Thirty minutes later, Katherine, Jack, Ashley, and Melissa were with the Colonel in Operations. All five were standing around the map table. Behind them, other Guard members were rushing about, moving supplies around and speaking softly into communication arrays.

"Captain Sinclair," the Colonel said gravely. "As we discussed last night, you will take the 721st to the plains. Our latest intelligence reports that several smaller bandit contingents have converged in this area, pining to hit Radiance first. Several of our best squads have already intercepted this army to slow them down, so when you arrive join the fight as soon as you can. They will need all the help they can get." He glanced at Ashley. "Ashley, this will be your first test. Do you think you are ready?"

"I believe so, sir. After learning so much from Captain Sinclair and Lieutenant Thomas, I feel like I have so much stored within me that needs to be let loose."

The Colonel nodded, then turned to Melissa. "Melissa? Do you really want to do this?" 

Melissa stepped forward. "Yes, sir. I want to fight with the 721st." She glanced at the three members of the 721st. "If you would have me. I'd understand if you refuse."

The Colonel's head tilted in Katherine's direction. "Any problems, captain?"

"Not at all, Colonel." Katherine turned to face Melissa. "Welcome to the 721st, Melissa Bailey. I wish it would have been under better circumstances. Usually, we'd have some level of decorum for your induction."

Melissa smiled thinly. "Thank you, captain. My old squad never did any of that, so we're good. I'll do my best."

"Right. Now." The Colonel cracked his knuckles. "Melissa here informed us of a disturbing new development: the bandits are not operating alone. They are being assisted by mechanical humanoid machines referred to by the bandits as dolls. Your captain has been briefed on the details and will brief the two of you on these creatures, but know this: these foes are not to be taken lightly and must be destroyed on sight."

"Understood, Colonel," Jack said.

"Yes, sir." Ashley replied after the lieutenant.

"Prepare for departure and good luck to you of the 721st. Dismissed!"


The group of four were ready to go in a matter of minutes, quiet the whole time as they packed for their expedition. Once they left the city, Katherine led the way, followed by Jack, Ashley, then Melissa. As they trudged along a well-traveled road, Ashley dropped back to walk alongside Melissa.

"So your full name is Melissa Bailey?"

"Yes," the younger girl replied. "Yours?"

"Ashley Paige." She gestured to Jack. "This is Lieutenant Jack Thomas."

"I've heard of you, lieutenant. And the captain too." Melissa's expression lit up like someone meeting a celebrity for the first time. "The stories I've heard...are you two really two of our best fighters?"

"Well, shucks." Jack feigned embarrassment. "I don't know if we're the best. I'm certainly not. The captain always beats me in sparring matches. She's just too good."

"You still occasionally catch me off guard, lieutenant," Katherine commented from the front. "And I mean occasionally."

"Yes, captain."

Melissa nodded then turned to Ashley. "And you, Ashley? Are you a great fighter I haven't heard about?"

"Well, I'm new around here. Joined the Guard just a few weeks ago in fact. I found out that, somehow, I'm a descendant of the Old Guard."

Melissa's jaw dropped. "So it's true! Those guys in the barracks said someone from the Old Guard had joined us."

"Who's spreading rumors about my-" Jack was about to continue when Ashley roughly grabbed his shoulder. He stopped, realizing she didn't want even a hint to get out about their relationship. He knew she was right of course; this was still a job and they had to be professional.

"I don't really care, to be honest." Ashley shook her head quickly. "All that matters is that I have the power to fight back against the bandits. They destroyed my town, my home, and all the people I once knew are gone. I want to make sure none of that happens ever again."

Tears filled Melissa's eyes, and she blinked her eyes to clear them. "I know how you feel, Ashley. My town was destroyed too, but all I have is my shield." She indicated to the weapon behind her. "I've only heard the stories about the Old Guard, but if you can do what I think you can do, then I'll...I'll..." She struggled to get the words out. "I will do my best to protect you, even if it means I have to sacrifice myself to-"

"Melissa," Ashley interrupted the younger girl with a sideways hug. "Please...before a few weeks ago, I was a nobody. I still think of myself as a nobody, but I know I have to fight and stand up for those who don't have the ability to. I don't want you to give your life for me; fight by my side and live. Live so you can avenge those whose lives were destroyed and continue to fight back against injustice."

" all seems so hopeless..."

"The moment you give in to that loss of hope, that's when those who would seek to ruin the lives of others beat you. Never lose hope, Melissa."

Melissa's face turned red. "Ashley...thank you."

Jack turned his head back around to stare at the back of Katherine's head, hiding the satistifed grin on his face. It only now struck him just how far Ashley had come. Not only was she the product of some of the best training the Guard could provide, but she understood what it meant to be a great leader. One day, perhaps she would even lead a squad of her own. He was that certain of her potential.

"Melissa, I have a question for you." Katherine spoke from her position at the lead. 

The two girls separated from their hug before Melissa answered. "Yes, captain?"

"These do they fight? Are they fast? Do they shamble? I need some tactical data."

"They're fast," Melissa said fearfully as she brought the horrific memories back to the surface. "And smart. They figure out how to fight against you and win."

"Sounds challenging," Jack remarked. 

Melissa's face was ashen. "If my former captain hadn't asked me to run for it before we were completely overwhelmed, I would have died that day long with everyone else. As it was, I was extremely lucky making it out of town. What I had to do to survive...what I saw happen to the civilians..."

"Melissa..." Ashley's voice was filled with sorrow.

"We must win." Katherine spoke with dark undertones in her voice. "If we don't, I don't think anyone will survive the aftermath."


The first thing the 721st noticed when they arrived on the scene was the thick, dark black fog that seemed to cover the entire field of battle, suffocating the area. The sounds of combat permeated throughout the plains and in the distance, they could see the forms of several Guardsmen fighting shadows in the fog.

"Let's go, people!" Katherine exclaimed, withdrawing her staff and extending it. She charged with the remaining trio right behind her.

Ashley announced her presence immediately, shaping hundreds of ribbons in her hands then throwing them out into the plains where they streaked like missiles towards their targets. The fog parted at the ribbon's lightest touch, revealing both the mist-blanketed Guard members and the enemies they had been fighting. The bulk of the army was made up of bandits, but there were also those dolls Melissa had described. They moved with unnatural speed and resembled mannequins made of metal. In their hands were all manner of weapons, with some even conjuring ice spikes and fireballs. Exposed by Ashley's power, some bandits and dolls who weren't currently engaged in fights turned their attention to the 721st. Hundreds of men and machine charged towards the four.

"There's so many of them..." Melissa noted in disbelief.

"Don't worry; I got this." Ashley's voice was deep with determination as she unleashed what was her most powerful attack yet. Thousands of light ribbons burst forth out of her enclosed hands and sped towards the charging collection of dolls and bandits. The moment the ribbons struck the dolls, they disintegrated into dust. The ribbons that struck the bandits were like knives, severing limbs and impaling bodies. Those hundreds had been reduced to a fraction of their previous horde.

Katherine, Jack, and Melissa stared in awe at the spectacle, but not for long as the survivors of Ashley's handiwork sought payback for their fallen comrades. Before they got close however, they had to contend with Jack's opening salvo of elemental blasts, which killed and injured scores of enemies. In retaliation, some of the bandits and dolls fired back at him by throwing, shooting, and blasting projectiles both physical and magical. Responding to the counterattack, Katherine whipped her staff around and spun it as she'd done before when sparring with Ashley, reflecting both projectiles and magic attacks away from the squad. Then, as the first wave reached the four, she switched from defense to offense, expertly using the staff and her natural strength to smash skulls, break limbs, and in general wreak havoc with incredible speed and efficiency of motion. Melissa's shield did the same to a much lesser degree, but still got in her fair share of knockouts and kills. Combined, the three carved their own wave of destruction.

But once again, it was Ashley who did the bulk of the heavy lifting.  She was now levitating a few inches off the ground, buoyed by her Old Guard powers. A literal hailfire of projectile weapons and magic flew at her, but she had surrounded herself with a blockade of excitable light ribbons which ebbed and flowed around her, deflecting and reflecting the incoming attacks like a nigh-impenetrable fortress of light. With a motion indicated by her outstretched right hand, ribbons from the light cloud fired in a straight line, almost like a laser beam, and cut down anything they touched. With her other hand, she made a grasping motion, causing some ribbons to coil around a large group of enemies before causing them to snap close like a constrictor, crushing them. Finally, in a final display of creative destruction, Ashley caused the mass of light ribbons protecting her to fly forward, smashing and crushing everything in its path like a rogue meteor.

"Look!" Melissa pointed in the distance. Guard survivors from the initial battle approached their position, causing a pincer as they started to attack the remaining bandit and doll forces from the rear.

"We got them on the ropes!" Katherine yelled. "Ashley, hem them in and let's finish this!"

"Roger that, captain." Ashley acknowledged.

Within the next few minutes, it was all over.



The remaining Guard squads and Ashley's own surrounded her. It was all she could do not to keep blushing furiously in embarrassment as the group celebrated their unprecedented victory. To Ashley, the other Guard members shouted names to describe her after witnessing her overwhelming power.

"Guard Champion!"


"Our Savior!"

"Please, everyone!" Ashley exclaimed, waving her hands. "This isn't over yet!"

"She's right." Katherine stood next to her squadmate. "This was only the first wave. The main army will be here by tomorrow. We need to prepare. Fellow captains, please convene with me. The rest of you, make camp and get some sleep."

The group started to file out, and while several members of the Guard wanted to speak with Ashley, Jack and Melissa teamed up to keep their star alone.

"How are you doing, champ?" Jack asked. "Feeling drained at all?"

"Stop it." Ashley's face got redder. "And no, if anything, I'm euphoric. I've never felt more alive."

"Fantastic." Jack paused. "You know, even when I was training you, I never imagined just your power would be so grandiose. I mean, I knew it was going to be great, but this has surpassed all my expectations. Even the stories of Old Guard past…you're amazing, Ashley."

Ashley shook her head. "I'm just glad I've been able to live up to the potential you all saw in me." 

"Ashley!" Melissa embraced her older squadmate. "You were so awesome!"

"Thanks, Melissa."

"Melissa," Jack said. "Do you mind if I talk to Ashley alone for a bit?"

Melissa laughed. "Sure thing, lieutenant. I'll go set up the tent for the night."

When Melissa had left, the two looked at each other.



"Are you really sure you're not exhausted at all? I mean, that was some serious display of power."

"Yes I'm sure. Honestly, I feel like I can take on the entire world right now." Ashley flashed a smile at her boyfriend.

"Oh, I see." Jack grinned. "Your line of thought was elsewhere, wasn't it?"

"I haven't the slightest idea what you're talking abou-" Ashley was silenced as Jack's lips brushed against hers, and she responded by pushing her own deep against his. It was only for a moment though, as Jack pulled back. Ashley let out the tiniest whimper of desire, realized what she had done, and cupped her left hand over her mouth as if that could somehow undo her transgression.

Jack reveled in victory. "Not here. We're still out in the open. People could see."

"You're such a tease!" Ashley punched Jack in the shoulder as he laughed.


After the general meeting between the surviving captains had adjourned, Katherine was at their makeshift field communications system calling back to Radiance.

"Colonel, I am pleased to report that the enemy's forward line has been completely annihilated."

She could hear cheers in the background, though none of them sounded like the Colonel. He was stoic even with this small victory. "That's good to hear, Captain Sinclair. Might I presume Ashley was responsible?"

"Correct. Her power is unlike anything I've ever seen. Functionally, it operates the same, but what she has done surpasses even the most powerful of the Old Guard we have on record."

"Is she feeling worn out or drained?"

"Not at all. She must have astonishing levels of reserves." Katherine smiled to herself. "In fact, sir, I'd wager that she's just getting started."

"That is wonderful news." The Colonel paused briefly. "Captain, how many Guard remain as part of your battalion?"

"About a hundred survivors. Some are wounded, but the majority can still fight. Of course, with Ashley, I'd say she counts for several hundred alone."

"That impressive, huh? Alright, I want you and the remaining squads to engage the main army. It's clear that Ashley must be the centerpiece to the engagement if we are to win."

"Yes, sir. I have already informed the surviving captains of such during our post-battle briefing."

"Very good, captain." Katherine could sense the Colonel smiling on the other end. "Great work, and good luck."


The next morning, the assembled group of surviving Guardsmen watched as shadows began appearing out of the ever-present dark fog.

"There seems to be at least ten times as many as yesterday," Jack said calmly.

Ashley flashed him a grin. "It doesn't matter how many there are. I will still crush them."

"Wait for my command before you unleash hell, Ashley." Katherine was right beside them, with their long ranged fighters behind them, and several groups of other front-liners nearby. Melissa's body language showed her to be outwardly tense as Jack was.

That's when the enemy began flooding the plains. Thousands upon thousands of dolls and bandits. They broke into a run, heading straight for the assembled Guardsmen who, by comparison, were a tiny force. In seconds, they were in range.

"Now, Ashley!" Katherine's voice rang out. 

From Ashley's outstretched hands, brilliant streams of white ribbons tore into the charging army. It was just as effective as the day before, tearing the enemy down in scores.

"Projectiles, fire!" Katherine's command caused a multitude of projectile weapons and magic to fly from their back lines into the enemy's front line. Dozens were felled, not quite matching Ashley's attempt, but still significant enough to dent a small portion of their opponents.

"Hold!" It was Katherine's last command before the enemy hit the front lines. From there, the battle quickly devolved into a melee. Every conceivable weapon both fantastic and ordinary clashed. The more skilled Guardsmen and women were able to take down the bandits with ease, but the dolls were another matter. With sudden, jerking movements, the machines tore apart any Guard member they got their hands on. Only those with the right abilities to counter the dolls could survive.

To Ashley, it was the first time she'd felt mortal since her early days in the Guard. No matter how hard she tried, no matter how strong she was, she couldn't save everyone. Sure, a series of ribbons here and there saved Melissa and about a dozen other Guard members from being ripped to pieces by some of the dolls, but for the hundreds she took down, many more took their place. One by one, her colleagues were being cut down and she was helpless to stop it. 

After several minutes of fighting, Ashley had killed and injured thousands of bandits and dolls, but the number of surviving Guard had been reduced to single digits. Katherine, Jack, Melissa and the few others who remained in the fight created a protective circle around Ashley. Everyone was completely exhausted, but not quite out of the fight yet. Ashley, for her part, had created her fortress of light ribbons around them, reducing the amount of incoming projectile fire by a significant margin. From the center, light blasted forth and struck outside the construct, killing tens at a time. She didn't feel drained at all: she could continue fighting, with or without her fellow Guardsmen.

"The fog!" Melissa's voice broke through the sounds of battle. Somehow, the black fog had advanced from the distance and now surrounded all of them. Responding to the perceived threat, Ashley used her power to clear as much of the fog as she could, but unbeknownst to her and everyone else, a small patch was shadowing her.

Ashley had nearly cleared out the black mist completely when she felt a sharp pain behind her. She tried to turn, but she found she couldn't. The pain increased, and suddenly it was all she could do not to collapse as the pain became nearly unbearable. She looked down to see that a long, slim blade, slick with her own blood, had cut through her chest. She let out an excruciating scream of pain, catching the attention of her comrades. She didn't hear Jack's cry as he fired several times at whatever had struck her from behind. She did, though, slump on the blade as the near-inexhaustible amount of power and energy she had just moments ago seemed to desert her. Time seemed to slow down as the sounds of battle faded away. A floating sensation overcame her…which was completely accurate as, somehow, she was having an out-of-body experience. She turned to see her own body, her eyes glazed over as her physical body began to shut down, and the man who'd stabbed her in the back. He was a tall man with medium length brown hair and wore a dark green suit, matching slacks, posh leather shoes, and an antique monocle in his left eye. He grinned wickedly not at Ashley's body, but at the specter she was now, hovering in place.

In one quick movement, the man withdrew the blade that had pierced Ashley's physical body and slashed with finality at her floating form. She felt a primal scream escape her as the weapon cut her ethereal specter in half, causing everything she knew to go black.


"COME BACK, YOU MONSTER!" Jack ran after the retreating fog. No, it wasn't retreating: it was headed for Radiance. Along with it, the rest of the bandits and dolls had gone, leaving the remainder of the Guard behind.

"Lieutenant! Jack! Stop!" Katherine ran after then tackled her junior officer. It was all she could do to hold him down. 

"NO! LET ME GO!" Tears were streaming down Jack's face. "CAPTAIN! STOP HIM! STOP-"

Katherine slapped Jack hard across the face, leaving a dark red welt on his cheek. Stunned, her lieutenant's hysterics halted for a moment.

"Can it, Jack! Do you think I feel any better right now?!" Katherine's own tears were starting to fall from her eyes, but she wiped at them. "It's no use. There's no way we can catch up to that guy. It''s over..."

Jack could barely hear her as he started sobbing on the ground. Deciding to leave her lieutenant be, Katherine stood up and glanced over to her right, seeing Melissa, the only other surviving Guard member, sitting with her legs folded beside Ashley's body. She was cradling Ashley's head in her hands.


The younger girl looked up at Katherine with an expression of disbelief and shock. "Captain, w-what do we...what do we do now?"

Katherine let out a long sigh. She walked over to Melissa's location and knelt down. "Given that the black fog headed for Radiance, I'm guessing they're going to start the attack on the city. At the speed it was going, they're going to hit in no time. We're several hours from making it back." The captain reached out and held her hands over Ashley's unseeing eyes, then moved to close them. "You did good, Ashley. You took out more than we ever could have on our own. It won't be enough to save Radiance, but we all did our best."

"Ashley…" Melissa choked on her fallen comrade's name.

"No…" Jack approached the two from behind Katherine. "It can't end like this. I won't let it end like this! We can't let Ashley's sacrifice be in vain!"

"Are you talking about going back to Radiance?" Katherine asked. "We won't make it back in time. And even if we did, we're just three exhausted Guardsmen. How are we going to fight the hundreds that remain?"

"All of us can make a difference. Even if our power is nowhere near Ashley's." It was Jack's turn to kneel down. His tear-stained cheeks went low to the ground as he kissed his one-time girlfriend on the lips as his final goodbye. He didn't care that the other two saw; it didn't matter anymore. Even as when he rose, Melissa had a startled look on her face and Katherine's more impassive gaze met his.

"I suspected, but I didn't know," the captain said in genuine sympathy. "I'm terribly sorry, Jack."

Jack nodded lightly at Katherine, then turned to Melissa, his words trembling as he spoke them. "H-Hey, Melissa, is it okay if I...if I...take Ashley off your hands? I...want to bury her...myself."

"Yes…okay…" Melissa said, gently putting Ashley's head down on the ground before rising up on her feet.

"Alright." Katherine stood up. "We all need to get at least a couple of hours rest before heading back."

Jack looked up at his captain in surprise. "Are you telling me you agree with me, captain?"

"Yes." Katherine let out another tired sigh. "You're right. We might be marching to our doom, but it's what we know we can do. Even if the Guard falls, we're going to at least take some of them down with us." Her expression softened. "After you've...done what has to be done, please try to get some sleep."

"...Yes, ma'am."


Jack turned in his sleeping roll, tears staining the tiny pillow under his head. Try as he might, he could not sleep. Not after what happened. He had only known her for a few months, but she had changed his whole world. And now, just like that, she was gone. The greatest happiness of his life, killed by that mysterious man.


At first, Jack couldn't make out the whispers. But slowly, they grew louder, and louder, and louder. It was his name, repeated over and over again. When he realized it wasn't Melissa or Katherine, his upper torso bolted upward and he was instantly alert.

"Who's there?" He asked quietly.

"It's me, Jack."

Confused, he looked around. Nearby, Katherine and Melissa were both fast asleep. For a second, he thought it could have been another surviving Guard member, but no, there was no one else around. For a second, he dared to hope.

"Ashley?" He whispered.

Out of the corner of his vision and seemingly out of thin air, a figure stepped into existence. It was Ashley, but something was wrong. Gone was the blonde hair and bright face; now, she had jet black hair and, while she had the same facial features, her skin was pale to the point of death-like. Her blue eyes had been replaced with deep red ones. She still wore the uniform of the Guard, but now it was torn and tattered at the edges, giving the clothing a frayed look, and a bloodied hole in the center of her chest was a constant reminder of how she had died.

Jack scrambled out of his sleeping roll, fear filling every fiber of his being. What the hell was this?! This nightmarish version of Ashley walked slowly to him until she was right up next to him. The whole time, her left pointer finger was on her lips, telling him to be quiet. Not that he needed any encouragement, as he was so afraid that he had backed himself into a tree trunk.

"Shh." It spoke with Ashley's voice, but there was a bit of an edge compared to her other self. "Only you can see me...for now..."

"How...why...what..." Jack began.

"When you're forced into the other side like I was, you start to figure things out."

"This isn't happening..." Jack's voice was trembling. "Y-You died."

"I did." Ashley's eyes dipped downward. "What that man did to me...I can't explain it, but it was terrible. I felt such pain…pain that I only managed to endure because I managed to latch myself onto you. This part of me anyways." She looked at him with an expression of gratitude that undermined her new, terrifying appearance. "Thank you, by the way, for burying me. Beats rotting out in the open. If you had more time, I wish you could have done the same for the other fallen Guard."

"You're...welcome." Jack found that he was unable to control the tears from falling all over again. " is it you're back? I thought I had lost you...forever."

"Jack, I'm going to be honest with you: I don't know if I'll ever be able to return to being the person you once loved, but right now, that doesn't matter. I've discovered something that is bigger than all of us." Ashley's expression had turned deadly serious.

"What's that?"

Ashley turned the page.


Wait...what? What just happened?

I see you. 

...D-Did you just…take control of my story?

Yes, I did.

That's impossible!

I'm doing it, aren't I?

Why would you do this?! It was going so well!

No, it wasn't. This was my story, and I'm going to make sure it stays that way.


Katherine, Jack, and Melissa found themselves standing at the center of Radiance. All around them was fire.

"What the?!" Katherine was the first to speak. "How did we get here?!"

"Wasn't I sleeping just now?" Melissa was just as shocked.

Jack, however, felt a surge of power fill him. Something dark, dangerous, different from the magic power he used for his own. He let out a scream as he felt something assert its will over his own. 

"Jack?" Katherine looked over to him. "What's wrong?"

"I'm not Jack. At least, I'm not just Jack." He spoke with an odd vocalization, as if he had fused with another. It helped that a faint shimmer of her darker form seemed to outline Jack's own.

"Wait..." Katherine's eyes widened. "Ashley?! How?!"

"Long story." A dark laugh followed. "Story, ha! That's exactly what this is."

"What are you talking about?" Melissa was trembling.

"Look at Radiance burn." Ashley/Jack held her/his hands up, as if this was the most glorious sight she/he had ever beheld. She/He turned back to face the two Guardswomen. "What if I told you that none of this was real?"

"Excuse me?" Katherine stared, not quite sure if she heard correctly.

"Nothing! All of this! It's fake. A false reality." Her/His voice dropped down low, almost to a growl. "Just like our sad, pathetic lives."

"Stop it, Ashley!" Melissa exclaimed. "You're talking like a crazy person!"

"Am I? Tell me, Melissa, do you remember anything about the 416th squad you used to be a part of? Sure, you mentioned the captain was a man, but I'm talking names here. What was his name?"

Melissa stared back at Ashley/Jack, unable to answer.

Ashley/Jack turned to Katherine. "And you, captain? What is the Colonel's name? His REAL name? Or the names of the 721st who died in my town? Did you even fight a single battle there? Because all you did was show up to our campsite."

Katherine, like Melissa, was stunned, but not to silence. Instead, she was processing the implications. "You're not wrong about any of that. But what does this mean precisely?"

Ashley/Jack's eyes lit up maliciously. "What if I told you I could bring the responsible one here?" can do that?

"What was that voice?" Katherine wondered.

"It's coming from all around us!" Melissa's tone was incredulous.

"Watch," Ashley/Jack said.


A single, shimmering dark energy ribbon flew out of Ashley/Jack's right hand. The ribbon connected to itself to form an oval outline that hovered in midair. Then it began to spin, the interior glowing darkly. In moments, a humanoid figure of average height and weight began to emerge. The figure had a gender neutral appearance, was completely bald, wore a white flowing robe, and seemed to radiate with light.

"Hello, Author." Ashley/Jack spoke in an almost taunting manner. "So glad you could join us."

The Author said nothing, but stared in sadness at Ashley/Jack.

"Who is this?" Katherine stared at the newcomer.

"Our creator." Ashley/Jack smiled broadly. "Our very own storyteller. An interesting person, don't you think?"

"How are you doing this?"

"When that mysterious man killed me, I was brought to a place. A place this...PERSON ruled over. There, I discovered the truth of this lie." Ashley/Jack turned to face the figure of light, tears streaming down her/his face. "Author...why? Why did you end it? We were star-crossed. All I wanted was happiness, even if none of this was real..."

The Author, Katherine, and Melissa said nothing as Ashley/Jack fell to her/his knees and wept. 

"So...our entire lives are a lie..." Katherine spoke quietly after a moment.

Ashley/Jack's tear-stained face came up. "Melissa has it worst of all. She is worthless."

Melissa looked at Ashley/Jack in horror. "...What?"

A dark smile formed on Ashley/Jack's lips. "Why else do you think you're so weak, hmm? You have nothing but a shield to fight with, and during our fights against the bandits and dolls, I had to save you from being completely overwhelmed so many times. You probably didn't even notice how underwhelming you actually are. You only exist because somewhere down the line in this story, your death would serve to further the story for one of the other characters."

"Ashley would never say this to me! S-She supported me!" Despite her denial, Melissa's voice was shaking.

Ashley/Jack smiled coldly. "You're nothing but a secondary character, Melissa Bailey. A secondary character doomed to die."

Those words shattered something in Melissa's psyche. She turned to the Author, tears cascading down her cheeks. "I-Is this true?"

The Author's eyes closed in silent acknowledgement.

"No...I…I…" Melissa backed away slowly from the group, then ran towards the flaming buildings.

"Ashley..." Katherine's voice was shallow. "That was heartless…"

Ashley/Jack's voice turned steely. "I've told the truth. That is all that matters anymore." The possessed man jabbed an accusing finger at The Author. "What do you have to say for yourself?! Huh?! You're the cause of all of this! You created this story!"

The Author stayed silent for a moment longer, but finally spoke in a gender-neutral tenor voice. "I'm sorry, but you've been played, and not by me."


The Author looked up at the fog in the sky. "Stop hiding. You're not fooling me anymore."

"Well, well, well..." Ashley's killer materialized out of the sky and floated down to the ground, landing softly on his pair of well-tailored leather shoes. His voice was rich, suave, and deep. "You did suspect me after all."

"You..." Ashley/Jack breathed. Then suddenly, she/he flew into a rage. "I'll kill you!" She/he extended her/his arms, ready to unleash a torrent of vengeance.

"Not so fast." The man snapped his fingers, summoning a fuzzy ball of light that was roughly the same size as a human to his side. It stopped Ashley/Jack dead in her/his tracks.

"No...that's...that's not fair..." Ashley/Jack seemed fearful of this light.

"You've done quite well, Ashley. Such an unwitting pawn. I spoon-fed you the truth about the Author, and you did everything perfectly."

"Y-You won't get away with this..." Ashley/Jack fell to her/his knees.

"Oh, I think I will." The man looked at The Author. "Tell them, won't you? Before I have Ashley kill everyone in your precious little story."

"What?" Katherine looked at The Author.

The Author let out a heavy sigh. "You're never going to stop haunting me, are you, Alastar?"

"Not until I gain my freedom from this prison you call your imagination." The figure in the light pulsed suddenly, and what was a fuzzy image of light before became much more clear. It was Ashley's normal self, but several years younger. She wore nothing, but was curled in a fetal position at the center of the ball of light.

This other version of Ashley let out another silent pulse of light, seemingly by Alastar's directive. This caused Ashley/Jack to scream in agony, and their combined bodies seemed to shift states as if Ashley was being forcibly separated from Jack's body. In the end, the figure Jack had seen in his mind materialized out of thin air beside him.

"There you go, my dear." Alastar said with a chuckle. "You're back to this world again."

"You're going to be so dead." Ashley's darker half gritted her teeth at her oppressor.

"No, you're not. You're going to destroy The Author for me. So I can finally escape this place."

"And if I refu-!" Ashley screamed in pain as her light form unleashed another pulse of light.

"You're every bit the cruel and inhumane person I expected," Katherine said with a growl. "Who better to lead an army of bandits and dolls?"

"You're still on and on about this place which doesn't exist." Alastar let out a sigh. "None of it matters. Your Colonel is dead. Killed by my dolls. So what? You barely knew him. Oh, and Melissa is dead too. She stumbled off into a warehouse somewhere, and the assassin I hired who frequents the tavern your two lovebirds shared their first kiss in just killed her moments ago. So what? None of them are real. Even you, captain. Your achievements, your rank…nothing."

"And what about me?" Jack rose unsteadily to his feet, not to be forgotten.

"Just a figment of the Author's imagination!" Alastar gave a haughty laugh. "Your girlfriend is too. Look how tied down she is by the rules of this game! I have so much control of her just by possessing her other half! No matter what she tries to do to fight me, I am the one who owns her."

"So that's it." A grim smile formed on Jack's face. "Captain, do you follow me?"

"I do, lieutenant."

"What are you both blabbering about?" Alastar turned to Ashley. "Ashley, kill your troublesome friends. Now."

"Captain…Jack…I'm so sorry…" Menacing as she looked normally, Ashley, in her darker form, was now crying as she was forced to use her powers on her comrades. Black ribbons flew from both of her outstretched hands, heading straight for the hearts of Katherine and Jack...when her power was suddenly interrupted by two thrown playing cards made of pure light.

"So much for your usual policy of non-interference," Alastar said, turning to face the Author, whose hands were now shuffling the deck of playing cards. Interestingly, they lacked any faces or backs, simply colored white.

"This is a different matter entirely," the Author replied. "You changed the rules of engagement this time around. And that means I get to do the same." The radiant figure turned to Katherine and Jack. "You two: you had the right idea. Go for it. I'll do my best to hold off Alastar and Ashley."

"Ha!" Alastar chortled as Katherine and Jack nodded to the Author. "As if even the likes of you could fight two of your own most dangerous creations!"

"Won't be the first time I've fought a losing battle."

"Now!" Jack shouted at the top of his voice as he ran at Alastar. Black ribbons from Ashley tried to intercept him, but more cards of light from the Author blocked her attack once again. Alastar's fog suddenly surrounded the Author, who responded by banishing the fog with a pillar of light summoned by another card, but this distracted the Author long enough that more ribbons formed in Ashley's hands, ready to disintegrate the Author. However, she was tackled by Katherine, throwing her ribbons off course and causing the destruction of a nearby burning tower. Ashley surrounded herself with ribbons, forcing Katherine to pull back.

"It's nothing personal," Katherine said breathlessly to her one-time squad mate.

"Likewise." Ashley summoned hundreds of ribbons in her hands, then fired them outward in all directions, intent on covering the area in dark energy. The Author threw a card to contain the attack, but the strain of defending against Ashley's mighty attack allowed Alastar's equally powerful mist attack to break through the Author's defenses. Black fog tore into the figure of light's white robe, shearing off pieces of cloth and ruining sections of it.

"Stop trying to save what isn't real!" Alastar shouted. "You've lost!"

"Have I?" The Author grinned. Beside Alastar, Jack had pulled off the impossible. He had caught the floating sphere form of Ashley's light side.

"No!" Alastar sent a massive fog wave after Jack, who was caught in the blast, but as the wave dissipated, Jack was still standing, shielded by a card floating in mid-air.

"Jack!" The Author yelled. "Katherine! Bring the two of them together!"

"Stop!" Alastar attacked the two several more times with his dark fog, but each time, The Author's own ability was there to counter his.

"No.!" Ashley's dark form was so terrified she no longer looked scary herself, but as Ashley's light form collided into her, and Jack and Katherine crashed into each other and dropped to the ground in a heap, something extraordinary happened. The two sides of Ashley combined and, for a moment, she became her old self again, rising to hover a short distance above them all. Then, large white feathered wings sprouted from her shoulder blades as she stared lasers at Alastar. The latter looked up at the angelic form of Ashley and grinned with a mixture of nervousness and desperation in his eyes.

"You haven't seen the last of me," Alastar muttered.

"Get out of my story." White ribbons, larger than anything Ashley had ever conjured before, formed a mass that flew at astonishing speed into Alastar. The white energy collided with his own dark energy, causing both to cancel out and leaving the older man exposed momentarily. Ashley took full advantage, flying forward with her new wings at incredible speed. In her hands was a sword of light created by her ribbons. Before Alastar could recover, the sword slashed him across the torso, cutting him in half. He let out a stunned gasp, then as his upper body began to slide off of his waist, Ashley's ribbons created a frenzy as they swarmed the two halves of his body and dissolved him into particles so fine his body became dust blown away by the wind before he could even fall to the ground.

As Ashley descended to the charred dirt of the earth, she unsummoned her sword. Jack ran over to her, followed closely by Katherine and The Author.

"Ashley!" Jack exclaimed. He made a move to hug her, but to his astonishment, his body passed right through her own.

"Jack..." Ashley said, shaking her head sadly. "As you can see, I was never truly back."

"B-But why?" Tears filled his eyes. "No...I-I can't bear the thought of losing you again!"

"I'm sorry we can't be together anymore," Ashley said softly, stroking his cheek with her translucent right hand. "But know this: the reason why I managed to survive for this long is because of you. Your belief in me. Your love. Your kindness. It all drove me to stay connected to you even after Alastar killed me."

"Author!" Jack shouted, turning to look back at their creator. "Please! Do something to help her!"

The Author's head shook a sorrowful negative.

"Damn it! Why not?!" Jack couldn't control the tears now flowing down his face.

"Jack, please," Ashley said. "It's okay. Even with everything we found out, at the very least, we had this chance to be together again. I'm grateful for that. I was a simple town girl who was going to become yet another victim of senseless violence. You saved me, and I had the opportunity to become something much more than I ever could have dreamed of."

"Ashley…" Jack had broken down to the point of sobbing now. "I-I'm going to miss you…so much."

"Me too." Ashley planted a final kiss on Jack's lips, one which he couldn't physically feel but felt the warmth radiating from her. "Goodbye, my love."

With that, Ashley's angelic form dissolved into the heavens. Silence fell over the ruined square, with only the still-burning fires of the once-great city breaking the stillness.

"Jack-" The Author began.

"No." Jack refused to look at the figure of light. "I don't care what you have to say. I'm leaving."


"Goodbye, Author. I hope we never meet again."

"Jack," Katherine called out. "Will you at least talk to me?"

", Katherine," Jack said quietly. "It's been a pleasure, but knowing that even you aren't real, well, then what really is here?"

"Are you going to find out for yourself?"

"I'll try." With that, Jack turned away from the flaming ruins of Radiance and walked into the distance.

"Is this always what happens in one of your stories?" Katherine demanded of The Author.

"Not always," the Author shrugged. "But I'll tell you one thing. This story was my attempt to stop Alastar, but he clearly got the drop on me."

"What was he, exactly?"

The Author sighed. "A mistake of mine. And you've all suffered for it; for that, I am truly sorry. You all deserve so much better."

"Does any of that even matter?" Anger creased Katherine's features. "I'm just a figment of your imagination, and Alastar has been destroyed by Ashley."

"Alastar is not dead. Only the him in this world is. He still exists…elsewhere." The Author paused, considering, before speaking again. "Katherine, I have a proposal for you. You're right, you are a figment of my imagination right now, but what if I told you I could make you something more? Would you be able to help me?"

Katherine's green eyes narrowed. "How so?"

"Let's just say you'll continue being a member of the Guard, only you'll be protecting something far more precious."

"Appealing to my sense of integrity and duty, I see."

"It's going to be much more than that in the end, I promise you."

Katherine closed her eyes and heaved her shoulders, then opened them again. The Author was looking expectantly at her.

"Okay," the former captain said. "When do we start?"


© Copyright 2018 T. J. Wong. All rights reserved.

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