Hidden 8 mos ago Post by Write
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Write Currently Writing

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Cordelia panted, releasing her portals for a moment and shoving her greatsword into the dirt beneath her to give her something to lean on. Providing fast transportation to so many different areas at once had left her gasping for air, her chest rising and falling on its own as her body desperately tried to catch up to the wear that she had already inflicted on it. She watched as the machine, on its last legs of strength, released an entire silo of missiles. Each one spiraling off to its own target and trajectory, some amining for rooftop agents, some for the ground teams, and others for the other Ars Magi currently in conflict with it.

Cordelia tried to rip open a portal around some of the missiles, but lost her footing, her legs buckling and taking her to the ground. Still panting, she couldn’t speak over the comms. She thought back to her training, not just here, but before becoming an Ars Magi.

“In a moment of crisis, allow yourself three seconds. Breathe, eliminate all doubt, and then act. That is all you can do.”

The words rung clearly through her mind. Cordelia’s hands dropped the greatsword, grabbing a handful of Earth as she breathed, and watched her teammates. Nicole buzzed by the ground team, snagging the missiles attention that were headed in that direction, picking up speed and hurtling forward faster into the air.


Dana unleashed a volley of cosmic rays, puncturing multiple missiles with each shot, and sending off a series of fireworks through the sky releasing bursts of water from the downpour hurtling in all directions. She waved back at Nicole as the two passed by one another for the briefest of moments before readying her weapon once more.


Like a bolt of lightning herself, Penny shot down from the heavens, tumbling back towards the downed machine. Inept and currently unable to move, a brilliant sound of thunder erupted passed Cordelia before a secondary shockwave of lightning lanced upwards from the impact in which she hit the machine. Penny’s war cry mixed with the sound of her attack jolted Cordelia back to her feet.

Cordelia understood which problems had remained to be solved. Nicole was stuck in a cramped space, outrunning missiles with no where safe to blow them up. Cordelia could provide that.

Greatsword in hand once more she placed her spare hand on her communication device. “Nicole, veer upwards we have to make sure the missiles explode far enough away from you and the others. I’ll give you an exit.” Cordelia herself conjured forth her shattered glass mirror above Nicole creating a dry spot in the heavy downpour above her as she peered down at Penny, the mech, Nicole and the Missiles. It was a lot to deal with at once. Before Cordelia’s doubt could creep into her mind, her feet had already done the hardest part. At once she went from charging forward, to plummeting down towards the Earth. Greatsword in one hand other arm outstretched to slow her fall somewhat, she looked down as Nicole began to look up, having reacted to her roommate’s latest communication.

Cordelia shot downwards and sent a bit of a nervous grin to Nicole as the two girls crossed paths in the sky. Cordelia reached out as she passed Nicole, offering a clumsy "hey!" on the way down, and snagging one of the missiles and pulling it with her as her descent continued. The missile's jets struggled against her, but luckily her own strength was bolstered tenfold by the sheer speed and gravity of her descent. She felt her muscles tense as she wound up, pulling the missile behind her like she was winding up for a pitch, and then threw it back down at its origin point. The shoulder of the mech, far enough away from Penny, but close enough to some hopefully important bits to create a problem.

Cordelia didn’t have time to take in her hard work, however, as the Ars Magi closed her eyes, felt her Elementum begin to flow through her as she created a slide of glass, that while cushioning her fall, ricocheted her outwards into the street as she collided with vehicle and concrete alike.
Hidden 8 mos ago Post by Inedible
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Inedible Sanitize 99.9%!

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The blasts from Dana’s gleaming weapon and the additional rays that flash from her stars cut an impressive swath through the swarm of missiles. Gleaming lines of sunlight slice through the metallic cones, detonations following in their wake. The sound is like popping popcorn, but a dozen times louder; pop, pop, pop, a dozen explosions that light the night sky like fireworks.

There are more missiles though, metal darts that careen through the air toward the figures on the streets and rooftops. Several more peel off as Nicole glides by, marking her as a target and acting accordingly. The redheaded Magi is too swift for such simple machines though, and she’s treated to the sound of several more detonations

She doesn’t shake all of them though—but that’s where Cordelia’s doorway comes in. The mirrored doorway forms in front of Nicole, and as she vanishes through it and further into the sky. The missiles detonate in the air behind her, well away from her comrades on the street below.

At the same time, Penny rockets down into the enormous machine’s center with the force of a comet. The gigantic hammer she wields shatters through the thick coating of ice and brittle metal beneath it, piercing through to the machine’s heart in one clean line. The metallic skeleton, the gears and wires that power it, and everything else around them all cave in under the force of GroB Eisen and its diminutive wielder. She leaves a line of smoking air behind, a trail of lightning that burns her afterimage into the night sky.

The force of the blow is enough to drive the frame further into the crater of the building it collapsed into, concrete and steel groaning in protest.

Penny can feel a sudden heat as something cuts a line through the machine just above her. Blair’s flaming claymore carves a wicked line through half of the thing’s center mass, and Penny for a moment feels like the heat of a furnace as the Scottish girl skids to a halt next to her in the gaping cavity that Penny’s created.

“Fuck,” She complains, “Y’took all the fun, ye’—”

The rest of her complaints are cut off by the deafening detonation from off near the machine’s shoulder, Cordelia’s flung projectile blossoming into a ball of flame as it burns across the metal. The last few lights along the metal chases die soon after, flickering and dimming as the mecha powers down. It’s arm, half-raised, falls limply into the crater of the building.

All is silent for a few moments, a pregnant pause filled only by the sound of howling wind.

Then, the crackle of Aiya’s voice in the team’s ear: “Field’s clear. Orders are to hold until exercise is over. We’ll rendezvous shortly.”

Aiya and her officers join the group within the next twenty minutes, meeting the team of Ars Magi at one of the nearby abandoned structures. The first floor of an old office, a reception area that has at least a few small tables and chairs remaining inside. The group is joined by Team 2, the officers and Ars Magi they just rescued. The other group has the same orders: Hold until further notice.

“Penny!” Says Dima, breaking briefly away from the group of officers. “You were awesome. Like—way better than Altea.” It’s unclear if he heard all the swearing. Considering he’s supposed to be handling Blair, he might have gotten used to it. “I’ve got to go set stuff up, but, I’ll talk to you later—soon—hopefully--”

“Hah.” Snorts Blair in passing. “Penny’s got a boyfriend, huh?”

“How cute.” The dry assessment comes from Amanda, the sour looking blonde girl stepping forward toward. Pale blue eyes regard the smaller Ars Magi clinically, and for a moment it seems she might have one of her usual biting comments to share. Until, with reservation, she offers her hand to shake. “Good work, Grenoble.”

“You too, Noel.” Amanda adds, giving a short nod in Dana’s direction. “Good aim.”

Great aim.” Corrects Noah, giving Dana a thumbs-up from his place near the radio. “We got to team up after all, huh?”

Meanwhile hurricane Priya is blowing through, stretching her hand out to fist-bump Nicole and flash a cheery grin at her fellow Magi. “We gotta team up more often,” She says, moving to throw an arm around Cordelia’s shoulder next.

“Nice moves with the mirrors too.” She praises, “I’m making you an honorary member of team sword girls, Cordelia.” Only small swords for normally allowed for official members, apparently. “Foods on me at the next meeting.”

Over the next hour the cadets from the officer’s academy reassemble their equipment, checking in periodically with command via the radio.

Finally, sometime in the dead of night, the radio crackles to life.

“Operation complete. All teams prepare from transport. Repeat—operation complete, return to base.”

A few minutes later the helicopters arrive. Magitech-powered lights glow along their sleek exteriors, the low hum of their engines filling the air as they touch down and load both officers and Magi inside. The vehicles take to the sky soon after, cutting their way over the abandoned district and back to the academies staging area.

There, after a short debrief, farewells are said between Magi and officers before the cadets part ways. The Ars Magi find themselves once again at their dorms, though they’re given no time for idle chatter. Lights go out after about thirty minutes and the halls are quiet soon after.

A more thorough debrief will come in the morning. For now, though, it’s time to rest.
Hidden 8 mos ago 8 mos ago Post by Ponn
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“Thanks, Nicole!” Dana called out with a cheerful wave as her redheaded teammate darted past her. The golden gunslinger barely had time to register Nicole and Cordelia’s flawless and elegant dispatching of the remaining missiles, when the sound of an almighty thunderclap announced that Team 3’s beloved, pint-sized powerhouse had just delivered the killing blow to their robotic adversary (with with some minor assistance from Cordelia and Blair). For a few seconds, all was silent, before Aiya’s voice crackled over their earpieces, informing them that all enemies in the vicinity had been neutralized.

“All right!” Dana cheered, jumping up and punching the air, before holding out her hand in a victory sign. “We did it! Nice work guys!” she added with a dazzling smile, as the various officers and Ars Magi gathered together. “We made a great team!”

A short while later, the group rejoined Vanna, Aiya, and the rest of Team 3’s attached officers in a nearby structure, where the socializing began in earnest. However, while Dima’s praise of Penny and Blair’s subsequent razzing were entirely expected, Dana was more than a little surprised to hear the normally cold and judgmental Amanda commend not only Penny, but herself as well.

“Oh, uh, thanks a lot, Amanda!” the sunny sharpshooter replied after overcoming her initial shock. “You were pretty awesome out there, too!”

Noah then added his own compliments, causing Dana’s cheeks to redden ever so slightly. “Yeah!” she confirmed with a thumbs up of her own when the big cadet noted that despite being in different units, they’d still managed to fight side by side. “And it was just as awesome as I hoped it’d be!”

The playful banter and friendly camaraderie continued for an hour more, before the radio crackled to life, signaling the end of the operation. From there, the weary officers and Ars Magi were airlifted back to their respective academies for a well-earned night’s sleep. For her part, Dana was out like a blown lightbulb as soon as her head hit the pillow, the exertion of the operation, and the boisterous socialization that had followed, obviously having taken quite the toll on the normally irrepressible girl. Still, there was little doubt that, when morning came, Dana Noel would be ready to face it with all her characteristic optimism and energy.
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Hidden 8 mos ago 8 mos ago Post by shadowsaint007
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shadowsaint007 ♪Let's do the time warp agaaaaaiiiinnn....♪

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Penny grits her teeth as her strike lands true, shattering through the giant mecha's armor and right into its chest cavity and right through to the ground, creating a small crater where she landed. She pauses there, catching her breath as she recovers from her newest attack.

Penny can feel a sudden heat as something cuts a line through the machine just above her. Blair’s flaming claymore carves a wicked line through half of the thing’s center mass, and Penny for a moment feels like the heat of a furnace as the Scottish girl skids to a halt next to her in the gaping cavity that Penny’s created.

“Fuck,” She complains, “Y’took all the fun, ye’—”

Before Blaire could finish, the machine erupts into an explosion as Cordelia delivers one last strike to the dying war machine. Soon, all that's left is the sound of bending metal and breaking concrete, and then silence. Penny looks up at the fallen titan, then turns to Blaire.

“Field’s clear. Orders are to hold until exercise is over. We’ll rendezvous shortly.”

"Copy that," Penny replies into the comm. She turns back to Blaire. "I vote we get away from the giant, ammo-filled engine of destruction and get back to the group. We'll argue some more later."

“All right!” Dana cheered, jumping up and punching the air, before holding out her hand in a victory sign. “We did it! Nice work guys!” she added with a dazzling smile, as the various officers and Ars Magi gathered together. “We made a great team!”

"Oh, I don't know," Penny replies with a slight smile. "It got pretty hairy there for a bit, wouldn't call it a milk run. Still, I'd have to agree; that was some great teamwork."

“Penny!” Says Dima, breaking briefly away from the group of officers. “You were awesome. Like—way better than Altea.” It’s unclear if he heard all the swearing. Considering he’s supposed to be handling Blair, he might have gotten used to it. “I’ve got to go set stuff up, but, I’ll talk to you later—soon—hopefully--”

Penny is temporarily embarrassed by Dima effectively flirting with her in the middle of a field debriefing. Though she's surprised he's handling Blaire of all people, but then again, she supposes you get used to her. Sort of.

"Oh come on, you're just buttering me up," she says defensively. "I just did what I was told...

"Oh, okay, yeah, talk to you later..."

“Hah. Penny’s got a boyfriend, huh?”

Penny shoots Blaire an annoyed glare, but feels like she can't let the Scot get the last word in.

"Why? Are you jealous?"

“How cute.”

Penny's attention shifts to the blonde, wondering if she has another snarky remark up her sleeve. Well, that's just fine, Penny thinks, I can just fight fire with f-

“Good work, Grenoble.”

Okay, that genuinely catches her off guard. Amanda seems to be honest about her complement. Maybe she's not bad after all. Penny just takes the hand, and shakes it in a firm but friendly manner.

"Thanks. You were pretty good out there too," she replies with a genuine smile.

Priya's offer of paying for lunch doesn't escape Penny's attention.

"Hey, I wouldn't mind that offer - assuming you're not inviting just the sword-wielders of the group," Penny comments.

“Operation complete. All teams prepare from transport. Repeat—operation complete, return to base.”

"And I guess that's our cue to leave," Penny says, hefting her giant warhammer onto her petite shoulders. "Oh, and Blaire, don't sweat it; you'll probably get the killing blow next time."

As the girls head back to base, Penny pipes up.

"Hey, Nichole?" she says. "Remember how you asked if anyone had a good idea for a team name and Dana said she was still trying to think of one? How does the name 'Team Radiant Storm' sound? A little pretentious, but I think it fits us nicely..."

Back at the dorms, Penny is plain tuckered out. The day had been rather exhausting, what with the heavy fighting and the long-ass mission time. Still, there's no denying there's a strong sense of accomplishment, not only in surviving the mission in one piece, but in managing to succeed in accomplishing their goals. Even so, the tired Penny finds it a struggle to get out of her school outfit and into her sleeping clothes, and is almost tempted to just flop onto the bed in her schoolwear.

Somehow, she manages to get to put aside her clothes neatly (guess she owes Mom's discipline a thanks for that one) before dropping onto her bed.

"G'night, Dana," she mutters before she goes to sleep. "Sweet dreams..."
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Hidden 8 mos ago 8 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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Plank Sinatra the reaper won't come when you're ready for him

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Nicole slumped against a small piece of rubble on the ground, graciously accepting Priya's fist bump but otherwise sitting apart from her teammates. She watched each of them proudly accept the adulation of the cadets and other Ars Magi, basking in their accomplishments - Penny, equal parts fearless and discombobulated after her full frontal assault, and Dana, ever the markswoman and optimist. Even Cordy was getting in on a little of the love, and it was for her that Nicole felt the fiercest pride. She could tell her roommate was still focusing on filling the shoes of a girl she'd never known, and Nicole empathized with that. She knew she could do a better job of treating Cordelia as her own person and not a stand-in, and it was something she was working on. But by the same token, she felt a little proud of herself; this was their first op since Astrelle had vanished from the world, and Cordelia was a natural fit for--

"--does the name 'Team Radiant Storm' sound? A little pretentious, but I think it fits us nicely..."

Nicole winked. A natural fit for a Radiant Storm.

"I think it whips ass. Just like you, babes. We'll squeeze it down into something that can fit on a jacket."

Tomorrow, maybe. Or...whenever.

She had finally gotten the hang of this dumb faucet. Warm water cascaded down her shoulders and the small of her back, its smooth passage to the drain occasionally broken by small cuts or the rough texture of wind-chaffed skin. In the morning Nicole would pick up her moisturizing routine again, but right now her body was sore, tired, and ached from old wounds - or, as the ancients called it, nostalgia. A tablet computer, propped up carefully to the right of the bathroom sink at an angle best for audio fidelity, served as her knife, carving the overwrought lines of sci-fi post-cyberpunk pre-apocalyptic tragically-romantic fuckin' goodness into her heart and pulling the familiar words from her lips. She mouthed along lovingly.

"Promethion was designed to be a bargain, and I've always held up my end."

"I don't need you to tell me how Promethion was designed, Commander Shourichi."

"Man-machine interface, isn't that what you insist on calling it? A bargain between man and machine. And you hate it. You designed the greatest weapon in humanity's history, pulled the whole thing out of that big brain of yours, but you just hate that it needs me to run. You hate me. But most of all you hate yourself, Ryouma. Because you and I are meat. No design involved. The way we're made is dumb and messy and physical. And one person never gets all the credit."

The young Nicole Cognoscenti had watched this a hundred times, and then a hundred more, until she wore the screenplay's scars inside her heart. The retro-future stylings of Studio Quada's Giga Assault Hell Smasher Promethion had made it a cultural smash around the time Nicole was born, but it was Ecumenopolis, released when she was only three or four, that had sealed the franchise's spot in the great canon of filmmaking. The two hour movie concluded the tragic saga of hot-blooded, hedonistic, humanist Commander Corinne Shourichi, her brilliant but insular counterpart Dr. Ryoma Kougami, and the other defenders of the planet-spanning city of Vaucanson from the grotesque aliens who sought to wipe them out. Nicole had been way too young to see everything that conclusion entailed when her father smuggled her into the theater, but many of the images - beautiful, tragic, and horrific alike - had imprinted on the blank canvas of Toddlerscenti's brain, and she had sought the movie out when she was a bit more mature to refresh herself on its entirety.

Since then, the movie - especially its first act, the final moments before the apocalypse came calling for the doomed cast, where twenty-six episodes worth of pieces began to finally fit together - had become a comfort food for Nicole, as fulfilling as fresh bedsheets or a good slice of pizza. Nicole had promised Penny and Dana that she would keep going with her Altea binge watch, and even as she had gotten their finnicky shower to Goldilocks temperature she'd meant it. But tonight, as she washed the rain, rubble, and blood from her person, what she craved was something familiar.

"You're right. I built the greatest weapon in human history, and you...you drink all the time, you play arcade games and pachinko so much you basically fight for free, you spend every night with someone new because you think you'll never see tomorrow. Maybe you don't even want to."


"But tomorrow always comes, and Promethion always rises. Without you, and your attitude, and your yelling, the greatest weapon in human history would be scrap. Corinne, I don't hate you. I'm in awe of you."

"You're the most human being I've ever met," Nicole Cognoscenti whispered.

"You're the most human being I've ever met."

Despite the heat of the shower, there were goosebumps along her arms. Nicole hugged her chest, rubbing her hands up and down her shoulders to her elbows and shimmying her shoulder blades. She had tried showing a few of her friends this movie over the years, and even the boy she'd had a thing for, but all he wanted to know is why they just didn't mass-produce Promethion's chest laser at any point.

The whole movie kinda needed context to work.

"You always dreamed humanity would overcome. I always dreamed of the stars. If we survive this--"


"If we survive this, you'll be the one to take us there."

"I burn hotter than any star, Ryoma."

"I burn hotter than any star, Ryoma. Some of them are dead already, and even more are winding down. Even if we left tonight, the party would be over anywhere we go. The stars have had you distracted since the day we met, Ryoma. There are no stars. There's only you, and me, and what happens here tonight."

"...And tomorrow?"

"What about it, doc?"

"What about it, doc? I can burn forever if I've gotta."

"Holy crap, I'm so aloooonnnnnnne!"

That was about all Nicole could take for one night, thank you very much. She turned off the water and hurriedly stepped from the stall, extending an arm to pause the movie before any muffled sounds of passion carried through the door. A few drops of water lingered on the screen, sliding down its smooth surface the same way water slid down Nicole.

Bad enough that Cordy might have even heard that pathetic confession over the twin sounds of shower and sci-fi soap opera, but after this love scene always came the inevitable denouement - the deaths of beloved cast members, the final wave of alien attacks, the layers and layers of betrayals and conspiracies that come home to roost. On nights like this, when she wanted a moment to feel fuzzy, she would always stop the movie here. That was one of the things she loved most about movies. When things were at their best, freeze them there.

And nothing else had to ruin them.

She smiled wistfully and reached for a towel. When she did, she felt her muscles ache.

But even that felt good.
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Hidden 6 mos ago Post by Inedible
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Inedible Sanitize 99.9%!

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The days that follow are busy.

With the exercise completed there’s naturally a mass of debriefs that follow. Each cadet is taken aside and given both a cross-examination and evaluation. Hours are spent pouring over footage captured by both the enemy drones and cameras set up around the military zone, analyzing each decision and combat maneuver in excruciating detail.

The members of Team 3 – Team Radiant Storm – are awarded top marks for their efforts. They were, they find out later, one of the three teams to take out a heavy combat unit—the building-sized mecha that Penny blew a hole through. Team 2—Amanda, Priya, and Blair—get partial credit, but most of the accolades go to Radiant Storm.

With the exercise complete the next month passes uneventfully—the usual drills and classes, but no joint exercises or big excursions. The main focus instead is on preparing for the Field Readiness Examination—a group of written tests and smaller live exercises that will determine if a given Ars Magi is cleared to be sent on real (supervised) missions.

A grueling series of weeks pass by; long nights studying, endless magical exercises and a battery of preliminary tests fill each Ars Magi’s schedule. There’s barely any time left for their own devices, whatever they may be.

Time passes quickly—until, finally, it’s time.

The written portion of the exams have fill up about a half-days worth of work. The real test, however, comes after:

Each cadet is assigned a senior Ars Magi to supervise their test, and each has a challenge crafted for their specific skill set. The exercises are designed not just for the cadets to show off their strengths, but also to determine how well the Academy’s training has hammered out their weaknesses thus far.

And they begin—

Hidden 6 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Ponn
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Bolts of golden and crimson energy filled the air as Dana Noel raced across the rain-soaked rooftops of Palmyra’s Military Exercise Zone. Although a swarm of airborne magitech drones assailed the energetic Norban from every angle, her impressive agility had allowed her to evade the majority of their fire. What few shots should have found their mark had been deflected by the array of glowing stars that orbited the grinning Ars Magi in a protective screen. Indeed, their point defense beams, combined with the more powerful blasts from Shining Zenith, had already blown several of the drones out of the sky, with a new one seemingly plummeting to the ground in a shower of sparks and scorched metal with each passing second.

It was a test designed to push the sunny sharpshooter’s abilities, both magical and physical, to their limits, and while it was certainly a harrowing experience to run through this tailor-made gauntlet, after the mind-numbingly tedious written test had pushed her patience to the limit, Dana was only too happy to finally get to the fun part. For the past few weeks, she and her teammates had been feverishly preparing for their Field Readiness Examinations, and while Dana was eager to improve her abilities and remedy her various deficiencies, she had dreaded the written tests with every fiber of her being. In addition, she soon realized that having Penny as a roommate was both a blessing and a curse in this regard, since the hyper-focused, no-nonsense Siscian refused to allow the carefree Norban to shirk her studies, and would even go so far as to hold impromptu quiz sessions when Dana would least expect them. Like in the middle of the night... To say that these were the most grueling weeks of her life would have been a massive understatement, but, at long last, she’d finished the various prelims, and, thanks in no small part to Penny’s rigorous efforts, even managed to pass the final written exam. Now, she could devote all her characteristic energy to the part that really mattered- the final field exercise, in which Dana could show off the results of everything she’d learned in the weeks of training leading up to this point.

Despite her distaste for the dozen-plus page written tests, practical application was where she excelled. She knew her shortcomings better than anyone, and she had done her very best to overcome each weakness in turn, while simultaneously bolstering her strengths to even higher pinnacles. Here, leaping, dodging, and rolling her way through a veritable laser light show, her shimmering auric bolts dueling the drones’ malevolent blood-red beams, Dana Noel was in her element. However, as she dispatched the final done with a finishing flourish, the golden gunslinger was only too aware that this was merely the first phase of her challenge, the one which accentuated her strengths. Now, she would have to prove that she could overcome her weaknesses as well…

“Nice work, Dana!” her instructor, Shelby Kwan, commended with an approving grin. “You could give a clinic on how to take down aerial opponents attacking en mass.”

“Thanks, Shel!” Dana replied in her typical exuberant manner. “I’ve been training really hard, so I’m glad to see all that work paid off!”

A veteran Ars Magi and Wing of Justice, no less, Shelby had initially seemed quite the imposing figure, but Dana had quickly discovered that the bearer of the Shimmering Silver Spinel Armgaus was actually a very laid-back sort, one who had even gone so far as to allow her boisterous pupil to call her by a friendly nickname. Of course, Dana knew she would be foolish to think Shelby’s relaxed demeanor in any way mitigated her staggering combat ability. Sharing Dana’s affinity for the Light elementum, the silver-haired Wing of Justice used her mystical abilities to augment a melee focused fighting style, often bending light around her to conceal her presence, at least until she was ready to strike. In addition, she employed a pair of energy blades as her gladius, weapons which, for all intents and purposes, might as well be called lightsabers. Unsurprisingly, Dana thought this was incredibly cool, but also more than a little terrifying, especially since she had a sneaking suspicion that she’d have a chance to see the weapons in action firsthand…

“Okay, so, the next phase of your exam is to see how well you can compensate for your various weaknesses,” Shelby explained. “In particular, your lack of any real close combat capabilities. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, since drones are fairly useless as opponents in that regard, and Voids would be a little too dangerous, you’ll be facing the nearest equivalent- another Ars Magi. Namely, me.” she added, activating her energy blades, which glowed with a pale blue radiance. “Ready to start?”

Dana was about to reply, but before she could open her mouth, Shelby had vanished.

A hologram? But then…!

The golden gunslinger barely had time to roll out of the way, before Shelby reappeared behind where she’d been standing split second earlier, the instructor’s twin lightsabers slicing apart a few of her stars that hadn’t moved fast enough.

Yikes… I was almost a goner there… Dana thought as she tried to calm her racing heart.

“Lesson one: don’t let your enemy set the pace,” Shelby told her pupil, who was even now backflipping her way across the rooftop in an effort to put as much distance between herself and her instructor as possible. “You always need to seize the initiative. If an enemy seizes it first, make regaining it your top priority. I know most Voids aren’t really the talkative type,” she continued, while effortlessly batting away the various energy bolts Dana was firing at her. “But you can never tell what kinds of powers high-classes of Voids might have. They could distract you with taunts, or disguise themselves completely. They could even pretend to be someone you know. Anything to get you to let your guard down.”

Dana’s eyes widened as Shelby disappeared again.

“Feeling paranoid yet?” an amused voice whispered in her ear.

Dana had barely whirled around, when she felt a powerful kick being driven into her stomach. The Norban gasped in pain as the force of the blow sent her flying into an old air conditioning unit, which crumpled behind her.

Crap! Crap! Crap…! Dana swore as she clutched her aching stomach and struggled to stand on her shaking legs.

Even now, Shelby was racing toward her, leaping up to deliver a finishing blow. It took all of Dana’s rapidly dwindling strength to dodge to the side at the last moment, but when she tried to fire a shot at her instructor, the Wing of Justice delivered a swift strike to the Norban’s hand. Although the strength of Shelby’s energy blades had been significantly reduced for this exercise, they still hurt like hell. Crying out in pain, Dana dropped her gladius and fell backwards onto the rooftop.

That was pretty sloppy,” Shelby chided as she strode closer. “If I was a Void, you’d be missing a hand right now. I gotta say,” she added with a disappointed frown. “I was expecting better from you, Dana.”

Stopping in front of the fallen girl, Shelby raised one of her energy blades for a final strike. However, before she could bring it crashing down, Dana opened a clenched fist, from which emerged a blinding flash. When it faded, the Norban was gone.

“Well done…” Shelby noted with an approving smirk. “Maybe there’s hope for you yet.”

In a darkened alleyway, tucked between two bulky dumpsters, a battered and bruised Dana Noel tried to compose herself. Her small body still shuddered with each ragged breath, but the irrepressible Norban knew that whatever momentary reprieve she had found would be short-lived. Shelby was bound to find her again soon enough, and when that happened, Dana needed to be ready, or else everything she’d accomplished thus far would have been for nothing.

Come on, Dana, she told herself, hugging her knees close to her chest as rain dripped off the brim of her hat. Get it together! You can do this!

The golden gunslinger was intimately familiar with the fact that her ability to engage foes in melee was utterly laughable compared to that of her teammates, but she had devoted countless long hours, and more than one sleepless night, to finding ways of overcoming this deficiency. Thus far, however, those efforts hadn’t amounted to very much…

But that changes now

A moment later, the sound of approaching footsteps caught her attention.

“So, hide and seek, huh?” the amused voice of Shelby Kwan called out. “Y’know, that was actually an impressive little trick you pulled back on the rooftop,” she added. “Keep that up, and you might even have a shot at beating me!”

Okay, this is it…

Taking a deep breath, Dana grit her teeth and prepared for round two.

Although she had recovered her gladius before making her escape and the pain in her hand had subsided to a dull ache, the young Ars Magi was doubtful that she’d be able to hit a target of Shelby’s agility and defensive prowess, even in an ambush situation. Thus, she would focus on a different target, a roughly cylindrical piece of machinery attached to one of the alley walls. Dana had no idea what function it might have served, but, with luck, it would now play the role of obstruction and distraction. Snapping off two quick shots to free her target from the wall, Dana didn’t waste time watching its impact on the ground below. Instead, she darted out of the alley, vaulting over a wrecked car, before coming to a stop in the center of the street. Turning to face the alley she’d just emerged from, the golden gunslinger dropped to one knee and, holding her gladius with both hands, took careful aim with Shining Zenith.

She was just quick enough to observe the blur of motion that was Shelby Kwan leap out of the alley. Behind her, the mangled form of the cylindrical piece of machinery, which Dana had hoped would at least slow the Wing of Justice down, still glowed molten red from where the veteran Ars Magi had sliced her way through it. Dana fired shot after shot as her foe barreled towards her with all the force of a runaway bullet train.

That’s it… Just a little closer… Dana thought as her golden eyes narrowed with fierce intensity. I’m done running away…

As fast as Shelby batted Dana’s auric bolts right back at her, the sharpshooter conjured an array of glowing stars to absorb them, until the Wing of Justice finally came within striking range. Leaping above her target, Shelby prepared to bring both her energy blades down with stupendous force, but Dana was ready for this. In the blink of an eye, her myriad stars had coalesced into a single brilliant barrier.

I’m gonna end this right now!

For the briefest moment, Shelby hung suspended in midair as her blades crashed against the star-shaped shield, before a blinding blast of auric energy shot forth, the starburst’s stunning power sending the Wing of Justice flying across the street to impact against the side of a building with a loud crash. All was quiet for several seconds, until Dana slowly rose to her feet and cautiously walked over to where Shelby lay atop a pile of rubble.

“How was that? the sunny sharpshooter asked with one of her trademark grins, while pointing her gladius at the center of the Wing of Justice’s head.

“Not bad,” a weary-sounding Shelby replied with a chuckle. “Not bad at all…” she added as Dana offered a hand to help the veteran Ars Magi to her feet.

“Thanks!” Dana replied, fully back to her cheerful self, despite her clear exhaustion. “Ya really had me on the ropes for a bit there,” she explained. “I was startin’ to get scared that I might not be able to beat ya, but then I realized I had to stop worrying and just let my heart light my way!”

“Guardian Gunslinger Alexis…” Shelby noted with a grin.

“Yeah!” Dana replied, her eyes gleaming with delight. “Are you a fan of her’s too?!” she asked eagerly.

“You better believe it!” the Wing of Justice confirmed. “I’ve watched every episode and movie at least three times,” she added. “Alexis was a big inspiration for me growing up, but I’ve always had a special appreciation for her partner, Izumi. Her skill with dual wielding was what led to my desire to master fighting with twin blades myself.”

“Really?! That’s awesome!” Dana gushed. “Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be just like Alexis! Although, I guess that’s pretty obvious with my fighting style and all…” she added sheepishly.

“After we get cleaned up and the debriefings are all finished, what do you say we hang out for a bit and watch some of our favorite episodes?” Shelby inquired. “Snacks and pizza are my treat.”

“That sounds great!” Dana cheered, her exhaustion seemingly swept away by a flood of exuberance. “Thanks so much!”

“You earned it,” Shelby replied warmly as she put an arm around her pupil's shoulder. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”

As the pair departed, the clouds above them began to disperse, allowing shafts of warm sunlight to reveal the prismatic glory of a rainbow. It was a sight that promised a bright and hopeful future for not only Dana Noel, but with luck, the entirety of Team Radiant Storm, and the world they had all vowed to defend.
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Hidden 5 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Plank Sinatra
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Plank Sinatra the reaper won't come when you're ready for him

Member Seen 11 days ago

"Hey, how about this - have you ever seen an Ars Magi hit a moonwalk?"

"Is that including myself? I was a master moonwalker, back when I still had young knees." The self-deprecating joke was served with a wink and a playful smile, but there was something darker beneath her instructor's good humor; one of Ciara's canines had a glint that made the tooth appear wolfish, and her scarlet eyes were deep and gave nothing away. She scared the hell out of Nicole. It wasn't that she believed the veteran Ars Magi would do her harm - just that she was clearly capable of it. Enjoyed it, maybe, beneath the ditzy attitude. Those were just hunches, though, vibes beneath her vibes, married with whispers of Ciara Gallagher's reputation.

When Nicole had heard who would be handling her exams, she had been sure there was a mix up in the paperwork somewhere. Ciara Gallagher was one of the school's legends - the charismatic godhead of Team 00, the Valkyries, five of the most gifted students in Nova Lux's history assembled under one team banner. Each of them had gone on to be a Wing of Justice in their own right, working security for one Duodecim family or another or doing morale pieces for some Imperium cause celebre, but Ciara was undoubtedly the one who got the lion's share of the important missions. Most of what she had done was still classified; the rumors of what she got up to, from assassinations of the Imperium's enemies, fights against Voids the size of airships, to secret missions that rivalled some of the best spy movies, were all that abounded. Why would someone like her be assigned to work with a goof like Nicole? And why would she care about Nicole's dancing? Moonwalking had to be one of the least of Ciara's talents. It was stupid to want to show hers off like she was really doing something.

Or, you know, it was like a bonding moment. Showing off didn't have to be stupid. The two of them had been drilling the usual physical exams, sparring, testing the limits of her endurance and her aerial control for the better part of six and a half hours. Ciara had promised a ride back on a spacious military craft that bordered on being one of the smaller airships she'd ever seen, floating languidly back over the MEZ, to a fancy dinner at one of the better Hastan restaurants in the city she knew. It was a little unorthodox, flying such a craft directly over the Zone, but it seemed like Void activity had gone down since their mission with Aiya and the other cadets, and there was probably no one Nicole was safer with than Ciara. That went for matters of combat or matters of dance.

Nicole laughed and stood up, giving her legs a little wiggle and splaying them out slightly, feet slipping across the floor of the craft's hull as she tested its friction, and then pivoted ninety degrees to her right and began to glllllide on back, stepping through the air, seeming to slip parallel along a gravity-less surface. Ciara's eyes widened a little, then her lips curled in a huge grin, coupled with excited applause. Part of that was just the buoyant personality she'd been putting on since their exam had begun, but Nicole could tell; she'd actually impressed a legend. She beamed, spun again, glided on back towards her seat. The four soldiers escorting them seemed less impressed. There were two mounted on each side of the uncomfortable wall-mounted benches that lined the cabin's walls, but none of the quartet sat. Or, you know, had even moved, really...

Imperium discipline, maybe. Pretty creepy. She wondered if some of the bright-eyed, talkative cadets that had befriended Dana and Penny would end up that ramrod someday.

"What about you guys? Any special requests? Wanna see me hit a dance?" she asked one, trying to see if she could make them move a muscle. Ciara's shoulders shook, a knowing Cheshire grin along her face.

"I'll give it to you, Nicole. That's certainly a better moonwalk than mine is. Hmmmm..." she made a slight show of pursing her lips in thought, one finger to her cheek. "Here's good." She banged twice upon the side of the transport, hard. Hard enough that it seemed like the craft had shaken with the force of her blow, and Nicole had to shift her feet to steady herself, but after a moment she realized the cause of her leftward lurch. The craft had stopped.


Ciara Gallagher stood.

"Just one more test before we celebrate, Nicole," the veteran Wing of Justice instructed as she swung an arm behind her head, cracked it, rubbed her shoulder, repeated. A preparatory movement disguised as lazy ambulation. "I've been instructed to oversee your field leadership exam."

Nicole couldn't have been more floored if she was told she was the secret love child of Demonetta. She blinked at Ciara - this ridiculously hot, legendary Ars Magi, the kind of superstar that girls around the world aspired to be - and laughed in her face.

"Ummm, field leadership...okay." Nicole laughed. It was hollow even to her own ears, bemused and a little anxious. "Do all the girls get that? No one mentioned it to me..."

"Mmm, no." The catlike amusement hadn't left Ciara's scarlet eyes, empty but for her unsettling sense of humor at this whole situation, but her full lips had tightened up into a stern line, only barely curled at an edge. "How many leaders do most things normally get?" She raised that same single finger and laid it against her cheek again. "This one is allllll about you. Congratulations."

"Ummm, thanks, but--"

"Why? Because you're such a regular girl?" Ciara seemed to have anticipated this hesitation, and her own tone brooked no room for it. "I'm a very busy woman, Nicole. I don't always have time to come back to Nova Lux and help oversee these exams. But the faculty and administration seem to think they have something very special on their hands with you, Nicole, and in the time we've spent together this evening I can understand why. Not every girl who comes through this academy has the head for the power they wield, but you certainly do. You're charismatic, resourceful, talented, fun. You definitely do have a killer moonwalk. But if you're going to be the kind of Ars Magi they want you to be, you're going to need to embrace who you are inside. Not the 'regular girl.'"

Nicole blinked. And who is that? she wanted to ask. It was the question Ciara was daring her to ask. But if she admitted she didn't know, it would only lead to a real reprimand - and the truth was, she did know. She'd known it from the first moment her power had turned on.

"But..." she hesitated again. "Vanna is--"

"--a talented Ars Magi and a young woman from a helluva bloodline. In battle, do you follow her? Do they? Does she use her name to overrule your orders?"

"What?" The question honestly made Nicole a little defensive. Vanna would never do that. "No. Never."

Ciara shrugged her other shoulder languidly. The four guards were doing an incredible job of acting like there was no conversation going on at all. Their muted armor, black ceramic with none of the Imperium's neomilitarist flair, didn't even move with their breathing. What was their deal?

"I can understand the thought making you nervous. Four other girls put their lives in your hands, every day. And from what I've read of your training exercises thus far, in the field, you take that responsibility very seriously. But as soon as the fighting is done and the school uniforms go back on, there you are again - 'just a regular girl.' Do you think I stopped commanding my girls just because there weren't Void trying to kill us?" Ciara grinned ruefully. "If that were the case, none of us would have survived Nova Lux - and not because of any monsters other than the ones who shared our dorms. My team was nowhere near the group of friends yours was, Nicole. There were always fights. Fights over missions, fights over boys, fights over girls. Fights over nothing at all. One of my girls took a member of the Duodecim as her lover before she'd even graduated. Another descended from a crime family in Hasta, probably not far from where you grew up. My best friend was a light elemental who honestly believed she was a lizard. That was the secret of the famous Nova Lux Valkyries. We were fucking delusional. A group of wrecks and morons. And every day it was something new, some new test. Some of them went well. Some of them went horribly. You know the one outcome we never, ever had?"

Nicole had been stuck on the 'one of the girls thought she was a lizard' thing for a few seconds, but enough of what followed had filtered in that she gave a numb, assenting head movement. Her brain wouldn't have processed the answer. Her single word response came from her soul.


"Regular," Ciara Gallagher purred softly. "Because no Ars Magi is regular. Not just because they're a lizard girl or a Mafia princess, not because she's a girl who thinks she's in an anime, and not even the slut next door. And especially not me. Because I was the girl who was born to lead them. You are, too. Let me prove it to you."

Behind her, the cargo bay door hissed open. The wind began to roar through the cabin; normally its bellows and howls were a source of comfort to Nicole, even during the storms that seemed to rock Palmyra endlessly, but now the weather made her apprehensive. Its very presence in the cabin seemed to be darkening it, nibbling at the edges of her vision like hungry rats, swarming her healthy eyes with cataracts, parasites--

In the growing darkness, Ciara's smile cut like a knife, and Nicole had a feeling she knew what her field leadership exam was about to entail. The next feeling she had was of a hand, patting her on her ass, and two fingers moonwalking up the skin of her back. She was almost completely blind now. Nicole felt her hairs stand on end, from the feeling of blindness, from the Ars Magi's touch, from the far-too-suggestive way that Ciara Gallagher's command slithered into her ear.

Those two fingers shoved Nicole from the aircraft with the force of shotgun barrels. She felt a lurch in her stomach as the wind ripped the darkness from her eyes, giving her a panoramic view of the buildings of Palmyra, a city that resembled a lumpy mattress, haphazardly made with blankets and sheets of rain and wind. A regular girl would have become a stain on that mattress fast. Nicole's eyes, stinging from velocity and rain, fixed on a safe point on the ground.

The wind is on my back.

May my sword cut like my smile.

"Vi faccio vedere come lotte un Hastano."

The words, and the feeling of transformation, had always given her comfort before. Now they were an air raid siren in her head, screaming of danger beyond a simple fall. There was evil at her back. As she decelerated and began sustaining herself in flight, Nicole rolled over in the air, staring up in the direction of the airship--

--and watched as one, two, three, four suicidal escorts whizzed past her in formation. She very much doubted they would be transforming on her mark.

What the fuck--

Then came a violet flash, a wicked star in Palmyra's clear night sky, as Ciara Gallagher transformed too. Nicole watched as the Ars Magi grew from a dot to a silhouette; her flight was controlled, as Nicole's was, with two pitch black wings of Darkness elementum sprung from her back. If she danced as well as she was gliding through the storm, Nicole could believe that she really did have a killer moonwalk. An inane thought to have as four guys below her were falling to their fucking deaths. What was her problem?

How many of them are like this by the time they graduate? She thought for a second of Astrelle. It doesn't matter. It won't happen to me. Me, or my girls. We didn't sign up so dudes could jump out of planes to prove some point about responsibility. We signed up to kiss dudes. Kiss dudes, babes, and save the world. And everyone in it.

Ciara remained at a distance from Nicole, who served as a barrier between her and her quartet of bodyguards. She was just observing, not interfering. The redheaded Hastan spun back around in disgust and kicked her feet through the air once, like a swimmer, to close some distance between herself and the falling soldiers. She outstretched a hand and harnessed the wind to keep them in a makeshift diamond formation, controlled, and clear of the imminent high-rises they were bound to drift into and smear against without her help. For five, ten seconds, everything seemed normal enough.

Then the first shadow bolt flew over her shoulder. What the fuck?

What was she playing at? They had sparred and run through elementa training for six hours, what was she playing at sparking another duel now? It was taking everything she had to keep her team in one piece, let alone focus on--


--the mission.

It was a cruel way to hammer the point home, but suddenly, Nicole got it. This was no different from plucking Astrelle from the air, or helping Penny topple a mech. There was nothing special about this circumstance from a hundred others she would face in her life. There would always be a Ciara. An obstacle. And there would always be a team. She had to take it all in, accept the unfairness, the strain...

...and do the damn thing regardless.

The second shadow bolt flew over her shoulder, six seconds after the first. At the very least, Ciara wasn't attempting to outright paste any of her own men, so bare minimum for human decency there, Nicole mused. What she was trying to do instead was break the diamond formation, make one stray away from the pack, and force Nicole to chase after him at the expense of the others. She hoped that meant she wouldn't have to concentrate on outright dodging, although she had a feeling Ciara's shots would start lancing closer and closer towards her as they neared the ground. She needed a way to relieve the pressure until that happened.

The third shadow bolt flew over her shoulder, four seconds after the second. The fourth came three seconds after the third. Out of frustration, the wind lashed out at Ciara Gallagher, causing her wing constructs to beat a little harder to remain steady.

The fifth shadow bolt came seven seconds after the fourth, and Nicole knew what she could do to win.

She tried to call out a head's up to the soldiers, but the wind ripped the words from her throat. She had no idea if it would carry them for her or not. They probably wouldn't give a crap if they did. They fell like bricks from a crumbling building, one among hundreds in the MEZ, hands still linked in military precision. There was something, something that wasn't clicking in the clusterfuck of sudden variables...

All she knew for certain was that she could do it.

The sixth shadow bolt came five seconds after the fifth. Ciara was recovering. I can fix that.

Nicole changed direction, shooting towards the legendary Wing of Justice like a bullet. Despite her speed, the world felt slowed to a crawl by her adrenal gland - slow enough that she could see Ciara blink in confusion, see the bemused laugh come to her lips. Then Nicole shot past her, and the Valkyrie's face was gone. Ciara turned, and saw Vedfolnir shimmer in Nicole's outstretched hand. It swung downwards, a tool of righteousness, cleaving through the twin shadows and shaving against Ciara's shoulder blades. Small pinpricks of pale and scarlet appeared in the rips Nicole had made in her top's fabric. Ciara's descent, momentarily, became uncontrolled. Nicole shot past her again, to the freefalling soldiers.

The seventh shadow bolt, and the last, was erratic. Ciara had to focus her elementa into a new pair of wings, to avoid becoming the paste she'd almost made out of her escorts. By then, Nicole had reached them again, scooping them up in a forceful wind and ramping them to the ground. It wouldn't be the same gentle landing she would try to secure for Dana or Cordy, maybe, but all four were on the ground by the time Ciara Gallagher touched down. Nicole touched down last; Ciara had already stepped over to inspect the unmoving tangle of ceramic-clad limbs. It was then that Nicole realized the trick, a second before Ciara, giggling to herself, scooped a helmet away from a 'soldier's' body and tossed it into Nicole's arms. It bounced from her chest into her hands, and she stared through its murdered-out visor - to stare deep into the empty, painted eyes of the mannequin within.

Of course. Victoria hadn't needed an escort during their initial trip on the Laurus. Why would Ciara?

"No one was in any danger," Nicole said, in a tone both relieved and uncharacteristically irritated. In the weeks to come, when she looked back on this exam day, she would be able to acknowledge that all the work she had put into preparing for exams had been harder than the day itself. But right now she felt like she could sleep for a week. And like she would never fantasize about an older woman again.

"Well, I was, for a second there," Ciara winked. "Neat thinking. I wouldn't have expected that from you, with your file. No wonder the Mars family wants to draft you right out of school."

Nicole wasn't in the mood to take that as praise, and she definitely wasn't about to discuss Aiya with a woman who thought this kind of thing was what made for constructive life lessons. "That's not the kind of Ars Magi I want to be. I want to be--"

"Alexis? Altea?" Ciara asked softly. For the first time, there was no putting on a sultry act or playing up her ditzines. She was acting her age - late twenties, with the lived experience of twice that and more than her share of horrors. "We did too."

There was silence after that for a moment. Nicole, Ciara, and four mannequins all slumped with equal lifelessness.

"You still want dinner?" Ciara finally asked.

No, Nicole wanted to grumble, before her stomach grumbled for her.


But the meal was more of a blur than a celebration, and that night Nicole took her shower with no fuss, no tablet playing retro anime for her to recite to, and no platonic cuddling with Cordelia. And though the rumors of her successful (with commendation for dynamic thinking, in Ciara Gallagher's own words) field leadership exam flew through the school, growing more embellished with each cadet's retelling over the next few days, Nicole spent those days mostly keeping to herself, wandering around the common room with a cup of coffee and her earbuds in to deter small talk.

And despite the constant presence of music in her ears, it was days before any of Nicole's friends would see her start moonwalking again.
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Hidden 4 mos ago 4 mos ago Post by shadowsaint007
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shadowsaint007 ♪Let's do the time warp agaaaaaiiiinnn....♪

Member Seen 34 min ago

Time flew at Nova Lux for the young Siscian, spent through training, classes, and time with her teammates/friends, even a couple of times club-hopping with Nichole (the red-haired beauty somehow knew where to find all the best rock clubs). Penny had always wanted to go clubbing, but back home, between school, work, homework, and a busy home life, she never had the time. It’s as fun as she imagined it to be, but maybe that’s just being with her friends. It also made her feel guilty thinking about her home life, and wonders how they’re doing these days. One recent letter made her worry about Vanessa; the poor girl never was in the best of health, now she had a bad coughing fit again.

However, all she could do here was try her best and pass her exams. And Penny aims to do just that, and prove she fully deserves to be here, and that her potential isn’t wasted.

Of course, given her own incredibly studious nature and almost single-minded focus, she notices that Dana needs help with some of her own work. The latter wasn’t negligent or lazy, she just lacks Penny’s almost one-track mind regarding schoolwork, and it irked Penny’s almost disciplinarian nature, especially when Dana would try to take a break or go do something else. Pop quizzes, ambush study sessions, and having a pint-sized tyrant breathing down her neck became the new and unpleasant norm for Dana. The pop quizzes were the worst; any time Penny even felt that Dana was slacking in something, or needed to refresh her knowledge, she’d (metaphorically) hit the poor girl with a pop quiz. One time, Dana stumbled to her bed after a long and exhausting day, turned off the lights and went to sleep - only for Penny to turn the lights back on, several books under one arm, and the dreaded words on her lips:

“Pop. Quiz.”

The resulting despairing wail brought the other students banging on their door in protest, saying angrily they were trying to sleep, but Penny yelled back at them through the door.

“Oh knock it off! It’s a matter of passing or death!”

Then the written exams finally arrived. For her part, Penny felt like she did her best, and was pretty confident about her results. The answers basically seemed to flow from her hand, writing sentences, filling the blanks, and writing essays with almost manic energy. Dana seemed… less enthusiastic, but then again, so were 90% of the other students.

Still, It’s safe to say that the results were worth it, though Penny had to admit, given the bags under Dana’s eyes and the lack of her usual cheerful demeanor that she might have taken things too far. Even Penny herself felt a little tired from all the late night study sessions, even though she consumed enough coffee to supply a company for a week. Still, the most tedious parts of the test were over, and she was sure Dana would be looking forward to something simple and fun. Penny guiltily wonders if Dana would request all the targets have Penny’s face on them.

After a good night’s sleep and a chance to recover from the exhaustion of the study sessions and the tedium of the writing part, the first set of physical exams began. This, Penny knew, was the easy part; the first set of physical tests were always geared to testing what an Ars Magi was good at. And for Penny, as an Assault-class Ars Magi, was really good at mixing it up close and personal, as several unfortunate combat drones found out the hard way.

A gauntlet of drones, both light and heavy combat units, were arrayed against the Ars Magi, all trying to use a combination of tactics and firepower to take down the young girl. Penny, however, was prepared. Using a combination of her literal lightning speed, Lightning Elementum strikes, and even a newly mastered combination of swift combo attacks and her new Pulse ability, she basically dances between her opponents, a swift, adrenaline-fueled frenzy as she switches from dodging, attacking, blasting and skating in a a manic trance. She even manages to tie in a couple of mixed martial arts into her combat, jumping into the air, grabbing one dron between her thighs, kicking it at another, then smashing them both with a single hammer blow. She manages to evade close calls, near misses, and even manages to turn potentially dangerous strikes into glancing blows, in one case grabbing a robot’s attack arm after it smacked her in the chest, and promptly using the robot’s momentum to sweep it off its feet, then suplex it into the pavement so hard she shatters the circuitry inside.

Her ranged attacks are still weaker than Dana’s, but then again Penny’s a tank, not artillery, and Dana’s ranged abilities were, quite frankly, phenomenal. Still, Penny likes to think she got better at her ranged lightning attacks; more focused, more accurate, and even a bit more range than before, allowing her to take the battlefield by literal storm.

With a mighty swing, she smashes in the head of the last robot, compacting it into half its height, and watches with satisfaction as it falls backwards, smoking.

“Whew,” she grunts in relief as she stretches her arms. “That was quite the workout.”

She’s interrupted by the sound of clapping hands behind her. Turning to see who it was, she sees her instructor for the test, Serene Crimson Garnet, AKA Yagami Tsukino, a former student turned Wing of Justice with a distinguished service record. While her achievements weren’t as lauded as others, that was because she generally operated as part of the more secretive Shadow Ops sections of the Wings of Justice, meaning you only found out about them if someone screwed up. Her serene appearance and calm smile was friendly, but given the reputation she’s heard about Yagami and the Shadow Ops, that calm expression rubbed her the wrong way somehow.

“Well done, Miss Grenoble,” she says. “A bit of a close call here and there, but overall an energetic performance as always.”

“Well, I’m a close quarters kind of gal,” Penny replies, hefting GroB Eisen onto her shoulders one-handed. “Gotta expect a few knocks here and there.”

“Indeed,” Yagami replies with a soft smile. “For the next part of the test, though, it’s less a fight and more… hide and seek. You have one hour to find me.”

Penny looks around, confused.

“I’m… guessing there’s more to this than one would think?” she asks, uncertain. To her surprise, Yagami starts dissolving into cherry blossom petals right before her eyes, all with that same mysterious smile on her face.

“You guess correctly,” Yagami replies casually, as though disappearing into petals was an ordinary thing for her. She leaves Penny looking around in bewilderment.

“I’ll be in Test Site 37C,” came the disembodied voice of the senior Ars Magi. “You have one hour to find me - starting… now.”

With that, she was gone, leaving Penny cursing under her breath as she fired up her rocket hammer and blazes off to her next test.

“Well, that’s one way to make an impression, I guess,” she mutters under her breath, skating as fast as she can.

Getting to the designated zone takes little time, though the size of the test site is a bit daunting. Penny knows she has to find Yagami in an hour, but she isn’t sure what to expect. The experienced Ars Magi could be hiding anywhere…

As Penny looks around, skating slowly to gain her bearings, she hears something rustle in an alleyway. She looks at the alleyway, hammer in hand, ready to fight back, when she suddenly sees something to her right!

Out of a nearby window, a ghoulish-looking woman sprung out, giggling eerily as she slashes with her claws. Penny’s reaction was to slam her hammer into the woman’s face, causing her to collapse on the floor. Initially, Penny is horrified to see herself having hit or even killed a civilian trying to do a Halloween impression, but then she sees the creature’s long, snakelike torso even as it’s disintegrating in death.

“Wait, a projection?” Penny muses. “No, it felt real enough when I hit it. Must be something like a pawn or a summon…”

She didn’t have time to ponder this any longer, as more things started popping out everywhere; from the windows, the alleyways, and even the trash cans! Some were like the one that just attacked her, others were snakes with the heads of women, and one attacking her with a long pair of rusty scissors looked like a normal woman in a trenchcoat had it not been for the horrifying Glasgow grin across her face. Penny counters with her hammer’s long shaft, spins it around to throw the carved-face woman’s strike off, then smacks her into a nearby wall with a counterattack. But even as she starts beating down her adversaries, she notices that even more of them pop out; gremlin-like things with long claws, small deformed human-like things with only one large eye and no nose on their faces.

“Christ, how many of you bastards are there?!” Penny shouts in frustration. She realizes that if she tries to continue fighting here, she’d either be overwhelmed or run out of time.

“FUCK!” she cries out, and then, as much as it irks her, she runs off in another direction, firing her rocket hammer to move on quickly.

Just as she thought she lost them, she barely dodges a spear aimed at her head, and turns to see a trio of large bipedal frogs with spears, rainbow mists coming out of their mouths with every breath. One of them launched its tongue at her, barely missing her, only for the other to grab Penny with its tongue, spin her around and then slam her into a wall with considerable force. Growling with anger, Penny, not wanting to wait for the thing to toss her around, grabs the thing’s slimy tongue, and launches herself at the giant toad, caving its head in and forcing it to disintegrate into nothing. The other two, trying to take her down quickly, launch their tongues in unison at Penny. Acrobatically dodging both, she grabs one tongue and attaches it to the other, causing both giant toads to struggle as they try to disentangle their tongues. Penny, seeing the opportunity, grabs the stuck tongues, give a loud war cry, and then spins the toads around by their tongues like a giant pair of bolas, before slamming them into a wall on top of each other, then killing both at once with one powerful blow of GroB Eisen. Breathing hard, she notices a trio of what looks like Japanese prayer strips, which soon burn up into dust before her.

Skating away, she tries to find a way to a different block, but comes across a dead end. Looking around, Penny is surprised by several prayer strips falling to the ground, but is strangely relieved when they ‘pop’ to reveal several small and spherical little mice, allowing looking up at her, noses twitching.

“Hey, you guys are kinda cute,” she begins, but then realizes that they’re quickly swelling like balloons, cute faces becoming grotesque, and small bodies stretching horribly. She even sees a couple of them begin to glow ominously.

“OH YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME!!” she cries out, before a combined large explosion rocks the street, leveling a couple of buildings.

Penny, fortunately, manages to dodge out of the blast at the last second, causing her to be launched into a pile of rubble. Getting up and dusting herself, Penny grumbles under her breath. This is getting her nowhere fast, and she needs to hurry. And yet no sooner does she get going when she suddenly has to dodge several gouts of fire from a nearby alleyway. She sees several paper lanterns with faces spitting fireballs at her, while what looked like umbrellas with one leg hop quickly towards her, then opened up, using their shapes as obstacles and weapons, trying to slash her with their edges or smack her with their bodies.

As she manages to dodge and weave between the attacks, she notices several more flying creatures, looking like flying eels with bug legs, and braces for more. However, she realizes.the things aren’t attacking, they’re just… there. Watching.

She gets a reminder of her current predicament when one umbrella-monster opens up in her face, smacking her into a wall. Recovering quickly, Penny lands on her feet then charges her opponents. For all their cunning and skill, these particular ones seem weak, easily falling to strong sweeps or electric shocks. Once done with those, she turns up to look at the flying things, only to notice most of them are gone, with only a couple remaining to keep an eye on her.

She then realizes what the whole test is.

“Oh fucking hell,” she groans. “Shit. This whole place is a goddamn maze. Booby traps everywhere. And I’m here trying to find a fucking needle in a haystack.”

Penny once more resumes her search, but this time her search is more cautious and paranoid. She constantly looks over her shoulder and peeks into alleyways to discern if something is chasing her. Most importantly, she keeps looking for more of those flying eels, figuring out that they’re basically messengers or control extension agents, there to transmit Yagami’s will to her puppets over a large distance, and quite possibly to keep an eye out for Penny herself. In fact, any time she was spotted by one of them, ambushes and attacks were sure to follow.

Carefully tracing the movements of the flying eels, she manages to track them to a nearby apartment building, long since abandoned. She takes a deep breath, but before she could take a step forwards she hears something to her right and reflexively jump back. This allows her to avoid the jabbing bone-arm of a giant, ugly ogre. It shambles towards her, licking its chops with its long tongue.

“Yoooouuuu loook taaasteeeee….” it slobbers, before raising its arm to slash her.

Penny dodges the strike, spins around her opponent’s bulk, before smashing it in the other arm it was using to prop itself up, causing it to buckle. She then crushes the knee with another blow, forcing the creature down on the ground with a surprised yelp, causing the earth to shudder under its massive bulk. She then finishes it off by crushing its skull with an electrified power strike.

“Tsch, I’ve wasted enough time as it were,” Penny grunts, noting she’s spent more than twenty minutes just on this wild chase. “Let’s wrap this up…”

Powering up her rocket, she smashes through the front door, dodging several skinny ghouls wielding clubs, before using the guardrails as a skating rail as she quickly shoots up the stairs, jumping over gaps and avoiding any traps or obstacles Yagami left behind. She quickly finds herself in front of the top floor apartment. Taking a deep breath, she opens the door, and finds Yagami in the center of the room, seated in deep meditation. Penny approaches hesitantly, unsure of what other traps to expect. It seems a little underhanded to sneak up on the instructor like this, but she’s also unsure if announcing her presence is a wise idea. She’s gotten rather paranoid from the traps all around the place.

“Oh no need to sneak around like a thief in the night, Penelope,” Yagami teases. “Why don’t you come closer?”

Penny hesitates, takes a few steps, then stops again, this time a strong sense of discomfort telling her something was off about the whole thing. Before she could react, the door slams shut behind her, and her attempt to smash it open stopped as a magic circle seems to trap her in. She turns to face Yagami, who stirs unnaturally.

“Oh why the mistrust?” says ‘Yagami’, her voice having an unnatural echo. “You found me, you won!”

‘Yagami’ started growing unnaturally pale, her clothes becoming ratty and torn, as the raven-haired girl’s appearance turned from a cool ivory skintone to a ghastly grey as she faced Penny. Her delicate, manicured hands became long and gnarled, the fingernails turning into monstrous talons to shred apart living flesh.

“TIME FOR YOUR REWARD!” the ghostly being shrieks, lunging at Penny.

The Siscian girl barely dodges out of the way, and tries landing a blow, only for the strike to pass through the incorporeal fiend, allowing the ghost to slash back, causing a cut in Penny’s side. Penny, grunting in pain and frustration, waits until the thing comes back for another go.

”EINSCHLAGEN!” Penny cries out, slamming GroB Eisen into the ground and sending a powerful electrical shockwave around her that stuns the yuurei long enough that Penny Slams it with another electrified hammer blow, smashing its head open. Yet despite the grotesque display of ghostly brains on display, the ghost just grins ghoulishly as she melts into a black smoky mist that envelops Penny.

“Hey, what the hell is this?!” Penny says as she tries to shake off the smoky mass. It doesn’t dissipate no matter how hard she tries, and gathers around her ankles and GroB Eisen’s head. Any attempt to dispel the mist with her Elementum only makes it grow faster Then suddenly, a loud rumbling occurs behind the bewildered Ars Magi, and a giant red oni smashes through the wall behind her, giving a loud roar in challenge. Penny reacts immediately, turning on the rocket thruster on GroB Eisen, only to discover that it sputters and struggles to get a good thrust going.

”What the hell is it now?!” Penny groans, being jerked around by the stop-start action of the seemingly failing rockets. Then she realizes that whatever the ghost ‘Yagami’ had inflicted her with was interfering with her Gladius’ powers and her own.

The oni, taking advantage of the Siscian’s surprise, slams his giant club right into his much smaller opponent, slamming her into a wall. Penny initially falls to her knees after the blow, but catches herself, and gets up again, a look of burning determination in her eyes. She charges the oni, this time sticking to her own skating abilities and agility to avoid the blows. While she still isn’t as fast without the rocket thrust, her own augmented abilities and agility allow her to avoid the beast’s blows, though she still gets peppered with the shrapnel. Then, as the oni slams his club into the ground, just missing Penny again, she sees her chance, and jumps onto the club before the thing can react. Skating up its arm quickly, she dodges a couple of swipes by the oni before getting on its back, right between the shoulderblades.

”Alright, ya big fucker, ya like smashing stuff?!” Penny growls menacingly, winding up for a blow. ”HERE, HAVE SOME BACK!”

Penny’s blow strikes the back of the oni’s with brutal force, stunning the giant. But she doesn’t relent. She keeps swinging and swinging, slamming brutal blow after brutal blow to the back of the thing’s head. Soon, it’s spitting up ichor, stumbling as it’s dazed and weak. Trying to stop the attacks, it slams its back into the nearby walls, catching the scrappy little bruiser in between. Penny grunts as she weathers the attacks, and responds by hammering the back of the oni’s skull even harder, even as she’s being slammed repeatedly herself. Soon, the oni’s struggles become sluggish and slow, and Penny jumps off its back and gives a loud cry as she delivers one final blow to the monster’s head, knocking it off its shoulders and causing the decapitated colossus to collapse to the ground before it starts dissipating into mist.

Penny lands on her feet, bruised all over and breathing hard. She notices that the black smoky bands on her ankles and gladius were still there.

”Shit, here I thought this was a temporary thing,” she groans. ”I swear, if I have to deal with any more bullshit…”

She’s suddenly startled as prayer strips fall from the ceiling, all popping into more kodama nezumi. True to form, they all started to swell and glow ominously.

”Oh you MOTHERFU-!! Penny cries out, before they all explode. The resulting blast takes out the top three floors.

Elsewhere, the real Yagami Tsukino watches the explosion through a mirror, surrounded by floating shinidamachu, her usual mysterious smile on her face.

“Perhaps I might have taken that a bit too far,” she muses. “Still, if one’s to achieve their full potential, they need to be properly challenged. Besides, this is a test, not a birthday party.”

She looks at her watch. A bit over twenty minutes left. She better hurry up if she wants to pass the test.

Penny finds herself skating the streets quickly, trying to dodge the fireballs of fire-breathing lanterns and swooping tengu with spears. She growls as she parries a spear thrust with her hammer’s handle, then counters by spinning the hammer’s shaft to throw her opponent off balance, and then brings around her hammer in a strong sweeping blow before they can react.

“FUCK! OFF!” she shouts, smashing the tengu into the pavement, the summoned creature poofing into vapor. “I’VE WASTED ENOUGH FUCKING TIME WITH YOU THINGS!!”

She dodges another fireball, and then skates her way between several attackers, using a couple of strategic powerslides to get under a bunch of chouchin obake and up against a wall. The yokai were surprised by the move, and before they could react, she takes her hammer and swings it against a nearby wall.

“KAISERSCHLAGEN!” she roars, smashing the load-bearing wall and bringing the building on top of her enemies and raising a massive plume of dust. Before the shinidamachu could see through the dust, she opens a nearby manhole cover and dives right in, being sure to close it behind her before she’s spotted.

There, in the old abandoned sewers, she pauses to take a breath. She’s bruised, battered, and annoyed as hell. She’s been on a wild goose chase, and still has to finish this exam to pass.

I’ll give Yagami this; she certainly knows how to push a person to their limits, she thinks, looking at the smoky black curse bands fade away. She also knows how to piss people off. I really got to hurry up and finish this damn thing; I can’t face Dana and the others if I mess up here.

At least I can feel the curse go away; it was annoying as hell to try to power through when it feels like someone’s pressing the brakes on my powers.

She looks up at the roof of the sewer.

At least those things can’t see or sense me through this. Should buy me some time to lose them.

She skates away, trying not to breathe in the musty, foul smell of the sewers.

Elsewhere, Yagami switches between several vistas on her seeing-eye orb, but Penny isn’t showing up anywhere.

“Seems like she’s managed to give me the slip,” Yagami sighs before looking at her watch Just about 20 minutes remaining. “Not bad. Still, there’s not much time left; let’s see if she can still make it in time.

“In the meantime, I think I should pull out the red carpet for her. Prepare for the big finale; assuming she still has her determination to win.”

She gets up, stretches, and dismisses her seeing eye orb, before walking out into the open, followed by floating shinidamachu.

Penny tosses the manhole aside as she emerges from the sewers again, gagging.

“Next time, I’m bringing a mask,” she grumbles. She then sniffs herself and makes another face. “And taking a shower afterwards.”

Taking cover behind a wall, she notices something; the shinidamachu seem to have changed their flight patterns and movement; no longer were they patrolling the skies in search of her, instead, they seem to be more limited in the directions of their moment. They seem to be keeping in a general pattern between seven tall buildings, all roughly equidistant from a stadium in the center. The circle, she realizes with a start, would be completed by an eighth building; the one she had just fought the fake Yagami in.

Well, fuck me,, Penny thinks. The whole thing’s been a setup. Eight fake targets set up all around town, just to confuse the hell out of me. And in the center…

Looking at the stadium did not set her mind at ease; There was a growing cacophony of laughter and giggling, presumably from the hordes of yokai Yagami was holding back. If she’s at the stadium, it’s going to be one hell of a fight trying to reach her, especially as the yokai will be heavily clumped together the closer she gets to her goal.

She leans against the wall and sighs, looking upwards.

“Just great,” she mutters, “How am I supposed to solve this? Which one’s the real one? This is so-”

Something catches her eye, and she looks up at the sky. There were several more shinidamachu… but they were in the wrong direction from the stadium. Also, unlike the others, they didn’t seem to be patrolling, but moving randomly - or so it seemed. She follows their movement with their eyes, and sees them moving between one of the buildings in the circle, and a smaller building just a bit further, well out of the circle and away from the stadium.

“Wait, why would they travel to a random building-”

Then it hits her. The whole thing was a shell game. Eight fakes, and even the stadium is an obvious trap. While it was blatantly unfair for a test to just set up traps everywhere with no real solution, it makes sense; in a shell game, the shell is never in any of the cups after the dealer shows it off. They always palm the shell before or during the final shuffle. So the real Yagami was never in any of the buildings, or even in the stadium. And if she spreads her minions so far and wide, she needs a system of control to keep them handled. While the range these things can keep active in is impressive, there still has to be some way to keep them organized. Every time she was ambushed, there were shinidamachu nearby, either to guide them, or to extend control. And if she can control her puppets through shinidamachu, she might be able to extend her control through puppets of puppets.

The whole thing’s like a network; each part can transport information to any other part, and there’s a central server handling the whole thing, Penny thinks. It was just a question of where the real server was being kept.

Of course, it can’t be that easy, can it?
she muses bitterly, already spotting quite a few yokai patrolling the route to the real Yagami’s hiding spot. Probably an ace in the hole should anyone figure out her little ploy. So how do I get to her in time…?

She looks around, trying to find another route to the building when she spots a couple of stores nearby. One of them was a hardware and electronics store, long since abandoned, but it causes something to click in her mind. She rushes inside, and looks around. A lot of forgotten, abandoned electrical equipment, possibly unsafe to use, but hopefully they’ll last long enough for the plan to work. Electronics, cables, even a car battery or two.

”Yeah, I think this might work,” Penny says confidently. She looks over at the other store, where several mannequins covered in old, moldy clothes were still posing in the window.

Yagami was getting a little impatient by now. She looks at her watch - eight minutes left. Did Penny get lost somewhere, or did she give up? Either way, it seems like such a disappointment for the test to end this way.

Suddenly, she sees a burst of lightning erupt in the distance. She summons her seeing orb by sacrificing a prayer strip, but by the time she gets a visual, Penny is obviously long gone, leaving a large smoking crater and a few scattered yokai parts that soon dissipate into nothing. What had happened here?!

Before she has time to think it through, she’s interrupted by a sudden plume of lightning and fire erupting even closer and charging on her position.

“So you’ve finally decided to show up, Penny?” Tsukino says with a smile. “Good, I was thinking you might have given up on- eh…?!”

Her smile faded into an expression of confusion as several streaks of lightning and fire promptly appeared and made mad dashes on her position, all outside the circle she set up. She switches her viewing orb to see who it was, and each mystery attacker was a short brown-haired girl wearing a visor, hunched over as they rode the power of a rocket hammer while skating forwards at full thrust. They were going too fast for her to get a good look at them, but it seems like there were five Penny’s racing towards her.

This doesn’t make any sense! she thinks. Penny doesn’t have illusion powers, nor is she capable of creating dopplegangers! How is she doing this?!

She commands her yokai to stop the attackers. Internally, she’s amused to see Penny having seen through her trick with the fakes, but she’s still a mite sore about being outsmarted, and either way she isn’t going to make it easy for Penny. Besides, the rookie’s shown resilience and stubbornness, and she’s curious to see what Penny has up her sleeves.

To her surprise, once the yokai catch up to the targets, the ‘Pennys’ seem utterly reckless, charging forwards regardless of dangers or attacking enemies. One runs into a bunch of gaki, one of which lashes out with its long arms, and hits her legs, causing her to tumble. With her speed, she hits the ground rather hard, and starts rolling in a quite frankly hazardous manner. To Tsukino’s shock, ‘Penny’ actually breaks apart, limbs flying off, one still attached to the hammer, and the head rolls to a yurei’s feet. The ghost yokai picks up the head, and looking through her familiar’s eyes, Tsukino realizes the head is that of a mannequin, with a silly face crudely drawn on it and a rotting wig attached by old glue. The hammer, arm still attached, hits a wall, has a visible electric short-circuit, then bursts into flame.

||Music: Music Stops||

Rapidly switching between different targets, Yagami finds the same thing happening with the other ‘Pennys’. One trips on a rock, causing her hammer to drag her along, causing her lower torso to break off before the power runs out, catching fire and lighting the unfortunate mannequin as well. Another runs into a wall, scattering mannequin pieces all over the place while the hammer shorts out and catches fire. Yet another suddenly has the hammer malfunction, taking out the mannequin (and quite a few yokai who were trying to intercept it), leaving a lower torso and legs squeaking by on half-melted skates. The last one crawls to a halt as the rocket sputters, before coming to a halt. Then it abruptlycaught fire.

“Where is she?” Yagami wonders. “I’ll give her credit for turning my own tricks against me, but right now I need to find out where she’s gone.”

She commands her familiars to search the area, high and low, but then discovers one of her minions is missing, a shibugarasu. What had happened?

Five minutes earlier, the three-eyed crow was flying high above the ruins, trying to see what had happened when that first bolt of lightning struck. As it scanned the area, suddenly it caught sight of not one but five consecutive bursts of lightning as the fake mannequins started their suicide runs. It turned to take a closer look, but before it could get closer, it noticed something in the corner of its eyes. It turned around to look, only to receive a deadly hammer blow that rattled it, leaving it dazed and floundering, about to fall. Then a pair of powerful legs wrapped around its neck, and before it could realize what was happening, there was a sickening crunch as Ars Magi Bright Emerald Spark broke its neck with a mighty twist, before grabbing a wing, hopping onto the dying thing’s back, and then jumping off with a mighty kick as the thing disintegrated below her.

I got lucky there, no lie, Penny thinks. The spare parts, the dummies, and now the distractions needed to keep Yagami off my tail. If I time this just right…

With that, she uses momentary bursts from GroB Eisen to manage multiple high double-jumps, rising higher and higher into the air with each one until she hides in the dark clouds above. There, she stops using her power, and just lets the momentum take her until she’s almost above Yagami’s hideout. With a bit of squinting, she can see the senior Ars Magi there, commanding her familiars, unaware of her true location as she hunted down disposable copies.

I’ve wasted enough time; let’s finish this, she thinks. Then, as she prepares to bring this chase to an end, a thought comes to her mind. A battlecry. A catchphrase.

“Time to call down the thunder… heh, so that’s how Nichole felt when she came up with her catchphrase…”

Below, Yagami was still trying to make sense of this when she gets a call from HQ.

“Yagami, what’s going on?” came the tinny voice over radio. “Where’d Grenoble go?”

“It seems she’s taken a page from my own book and used dopplegangers to throw me off her track. I’m sure she’s making her move, and I’ll find her soon. She’s almost out of time now; just a few minutes left. It’ll be over soon either way.”

“It better. This test is excessive, if you ask me, and you already took a fair bit of resources.”

“A good test is one that pushes the candidate to their limits,” Tsukino replied dryly. “You called me in to test her, I will not apologize for my methods. I’m actually pulling my punches here and not actively trying to maim her.”

“Could hav.. ooled… report… nse…”

“I’m sorry, HQ, you seem to be breaking up. Could you repeat that.”

“...not cl… answ-... static on your…”

Yagami removes the earpiece in annoyance and studies it. Must be electrical interference, she thinks. Then her eyes widen in shock

Electrical interference-!!

She looks skywards, and sure enough, the dark clouds seem to be extry stormy all of a sudden, with lightning flashing in the sky with increasing intensity. The power focused on one spot, before the clouds parted, and reveal Penny, wreathed in lightning, coming down on her position like a meteor. If she could see Penny’s face, she’d see a manic grin frozen on the smaller girl as she brought down her hammer full-blast, ready to smash with maximum force.

Without a moment to lose, Yagami immediately commands all her minions either to her or straight at Penny, trying to buy time to create a tough enough barrier to withstand the force of the incoming blow. Flying monsters head straight for Penny, trying to form a cushion to either blunt the blow or block it entirely, while the ground-bound ones form a protective dome around Yagami, even as the Shadow Ops Ars Magi is raising a shield as quickly as she can to protect herself from the incoming strike.

Penny sees the black mass of flying creepy-crawlies rushing at her, trying to stop her wild downwards charge. Instead of pausing, or maybe try to avoid the wave and dodge the attack, she instead goes full-bore, supercharging GroB Eisen as she gives a loud roar.

With the pure power of her Elementum, Penny smashes through the forming first barrier, and continues to hurtle downwards full-tilt towards Yagami’s glowing shield, supported by numerous yokai and beasts. Lightning and Spiritual Elementum hit each other, immovable object and unstoppable force clashing once again. The sheer force of the impact causes a massive explosion of energy, one that levels the building itself and even knocking over nearby debris.

As the smoke clears, there’s nothing left but a giant crater and a considerable pile of rubble, several figures standing in it in defiance of the sheer destructive force unleashed. Penny stood, battered and bruised but unbowed, breathing hard but with her hammer in hands, and ready to throw down if need be. Opposite her, Yagami was also battered and dusty, shaken by the strike but not defeated yet. In her hands she holds prayer strips, and she is flanked by several large yokai, all of which had been mauled by the strike but still ready to throw themselves at Penny to protect their mistress. The two Ars Magi stared each other down for a bit before Yagami composed herself.

“You know, some would take that last attack as a sign that you’re quite mental,” she says in a disapproving tone.

“Yeah, well, sue me; I got a little cranky the second time you blew me up with those mice,” Penny snaps back.

“Fair enough, I suppose I did go a bit too far there,” Yagami concedes with a sigh. “So, I gather we’re done here?”

“Unless you got any more tricks up your sleeves,” Penny retorts, but she lowers her hammer.

“Well, not for the sake of this exam,” Yagami replies, straightening herself and dismissing her remaining familiars. “Congratulations on succeeding, Ms. Grenoble. That was quite the show there, start to finish. I admit I may have gone a little overboard, but you must understand that as an Ars Magi, the enemy will not fight in a way that best suits your fighting style.

“You show unusual strength, speed, and toughness, and yes, I am aware of your moniker as ‘Panzer’ Grenoble. However, not all the foes you will face will be straightforward to fight; many will use tricks, misdirection, and yes, even curses and dark abilities to weaken you. Above strength and speed, Ars Magi’s most important weapon is situational awareness; the ability to spot enemy attacks before they happen, or to find a way out should they be caught in an ambush anyways. Barging in blindly helps no one. Improvisation is also important; one must adapt to the enemy’s plans to survive before they can figure out a way to regain initiative. And as they say, ‘discretion is the better part of valor’; one must pick their fights carefully. You will not always have the luxury of just bringing down a power attack full-force on an enemy’s head; sometimes they will be stronger, so you must seek their weak points, and sometimes they will be too numerous to take down quickly and thus must be avoided as you complete your intended objective.

“Overall, I’ll say you’ve handled yourself very well there. Outnumbered, surrounded, and harassed from almost all sides, you’ve found a way to overcome and reach your target, even if you cut it a little close.

“I will say this, however. Be careful in future; this isn’t one of your little shows you like so much. Altea, wasn’t it?”

“I’m aware,” Penny replies brusquely. Yagami chuckles.

“Well, I suppose it can feel like Altea at times. Sort of like episode 15, played on an infinite loop. Have you seen that one?” There’s a hint of teasing in Yagami’s voice.

“Once or twice,” Penny admits, a little more sharply than she likes.

“And yet, you’ve seen the rest of the show several times over, at least. That’s rather telling, isn’t it?” Yagami chuckles again. “Anyways, Penny, dismissed. Once again, congratulations on passing, even if it was a little more rough than would be advised.

“Also? Get a shower,”
Yagami concludes with a wrinkled face. “You smell like shit.”

After a long, hot shower, Penny was only too glad the whole thing was done. While the exam was a little over an hour, it felt like weeks to her, and she wanted a long break from it. She’s too tired and bruised to even do her usual ‘get free drinks from the vending machine trick’, her arm too exhausted to pull off the combination of finesse and strength to pull it off.

She notices Nichole also oddly grumpy, or at least quiet and brooding, so very unlike her. What exactly happened with the usually vibing Hastan to make her so tense? Then again, if it was anything like Penny’s test, she can sympathize. Penny herself was more annoyed than anything afterwards, and for a while afterwards she was oddly tense and hostile to small rodents, something Dana would discover when she had to save a fellow student’s hamster from getting yeeted across campus by a suddenly agitated Penny.
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“...Imperium is continuing to monitor the front of Nox approaching from the north. No warnings have been issued yet, but experts are watching closely. You can see the heavy gathering of Nox in these images from Juno’s new satellite, Eclipse One, as the storm moves down the coast. Eclipse One, since its launch two months ago, has continued to provide invaluable data on...”

The TV in Nova Lux’s common room is left on, but mostly ignored. There’s a general feeling of relief that permeates premises, here at the end of the exams. A sense of accomplishment too—while the girls here are still a ways from becoming full-fledged Ars Magi, they’ve all just taken one huge step forward on that journey.

For the past few days the common room has been a place to gather and swap stories of how each cadet fared in her examination. Most stories are those of success, and most are wildly different from one another despite some shared mentors.

Priya tells the story of how she was disarmed and forced to make her way through an obstacle course of traps and snipers. Her lesson seems to have been the inverse of Dana’s: Priya is a close-range fighter and learning to deal with foes at range seems to have been a large part of her test. She’s quite proud of her performance and happy to tell anyone about her mentor, the sharpshooter Amara Volkov (notable for a cameo in Gunslinger Alexis).

Nicole isn’t the only one who got a teamwork exercise either, though it’s unclear if Amanda’s indicates a future leadership role. The bow wielding cadet begrudgingly describes her test as something more of a logistics exercise, taking control of a team and putting them to their best uses.

Blair’s greatest trial, of course, was a test of adaptation. Not unlike Penny. The hot-headed cadet faced down Erika Yun, The Shield of Calcaria, a foe that could easily deflect any attack no matter how devastating. Blair describes, profanely, that the way she eventually won out was by putting a halt on her relentless offense and accepting a grievous blow in exchange for the opening she needed.

For the next few days common room is full of other Ars Magi looking to swap stories and gossip. It's crowded there lately, due to one very important factor: It’s break time.

After the grueling tests and exercises, Nova Lux’s cadets have been given a two week rest period. They’re still allowed to use the facility and there are remedial classes still being taught, but for the most part the future Ars Magi are taking a well-deserved break.

This means different things for different cadets, of course. Priya’s set up an exercise group for more self-directed Ars Magi, along with Vanna’s roommate Nora. Both Penny and Dana are invited. Amanda is spending most of her time in the academy library, while others are following in Nicole’s footsteps and taking the opportunity to enjoy Palmyra and what it has to offer.

Nicole herself, as the end the two-week break approaches, receives a very important series of text messages:


𝙸 𝚑𝚊𝚟𝚎 𝚊 𝚋𝚘𝚊𝚝.
𝙿𝚊𝚛𝚝𝚢 𝚝𝚘𝚖𝚘𝚛𝚛𝚘𝚠 𝚒𝚗 𝚝𝚑𝚎 𝚋𝚊𝚢.
𝙱𝚛𝚒𝚗𝚐 𝚢𝚘𝚞𝚛 𝚐𝚒𝚛𝚕𝚜.

Aiya, it seems, is using her time off wisely.
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Apparently, the second test had left many of the students weary and exhausted. They clearly weren't kidding about being serious on these exams - but then again, being an Ars Magi, the main line of defense against the Void, is no light matter. You either had to be up to snuff or there's no point in having potential if you can't realize it. Penny notes that 'most' of the girls succeeded; she was wondering about those who didn't succeed, and whether they were taking remedial courses to make up for it.

As for Team 2, Penny listens with a sympathetic ear. She could actually relate to Priya's test, given how she was similarly a close-range specialist with some ranged options. Amanda's trial seemed to be more about leading and command ability than actual combat. Blair's trial was new, though Penny finds it oddly amusing to imagine Blair, the aggressive go-getter, being forced into a more passive or reactive role in order to pass.

And then, of course, there's the tests her own teammates faced. Penny figures she could have done pretty well had she been given Dana's test, but it would obviously not have been a good test; Penny's a close combat specialist, so a melee fight wouldn't really be a good test of her shortfalls.

"...and I shit you not, explosive mice! Twice!" Penny says, explaining her own test. "Didn't even get a chance to dodge the second time, just dropped down from the ceiling! Then again, Garnet may have had a point; if I were paying attention, I would have noticed those prayer strips sooner when they started to fall from the ceiling. Still, it's incredibly stressful to get blown up by kamikaze rodents.

"So that's why I tried to toss Aoi's hamster across the yard yesterday,"
she sighs. "I can understand why she's still mad, but I was still stressed out."

She doesn't mention the bit at the end where Yagami teases her about Altea. The idea is a little too depressing to contemplate right now, and just a little bit ominous.

Then again, we've been to St. Joan's, right? Penny thinks to herself.

The exercise group sounds tempting, and Penny takes Priya up on her offer. She has a few things to work through right now; the test was one, but more recently she got a letter from home about Nessa's condition; the poor girl seems to be stable right now, but currently under watch at the hospital. Penny crumples the paper and buries it in her drawer, not bringing it up to the others; she doesn't want them to worry about her. If nothing else, the exercise offers Penny a chase to work out her fears.

The letter from Aiya manages to snap Penny out of her funk.

"Ooh, got something interesting from your girlfriend?" she teases.

"So I take it we're going to see what Aiya's cooking up?" she asks, sincerely this time.
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Over the next few days following her field test, Nova Lux’s common room had almost become Dana’s home away from home. Everyone was telling stories about how their exams had gone, with questions, answers, and a particularly unfortunate hamster flying left and right, along with no small amount of boasting and, occasionally, grumbling…. Indeed, it seemed that an unlucky few cadets had actually failed their exams, and as the school’s resident living ray of sunshine, Dana found herself working overtime to brighten their spirits with friendly hugs and optimistic words of encouragement. Still, it was the tales of victory that really filled the cheerful Norban with eager excitement…

“Really?! The Amara Volkov?!” Dana exclaimed when Priya had revealed the identity of her instructor, the sunny sharpshooter’s golden eyes seeming to gleam even brighter than usual. “That’s so freakin’ cool! Y’know, Shel and I just watched the episode of Guardian Gunslinger Alexis she cameoed in a few days ago! The part at the end where Alexis and Amara team up to take down that swarm of cyber-bugs has gotta be one of my favorite moments of the entire series! Check it out!” she added, turning to face some of the poor souls who had yet to see the episode in question. “So, Doctor Xylannis unleashes this army of Cybugs to wipe out the military research base on Delta Primus, right? And Alexis and her team jump into action to stop ‘em, but they can’t take out the queen’s control node, ‘cause even though Alexis can make the shot, her pistols don’t have the range, which is when Amara makes this super dramatic entrance and is all ‘Leave that to me’! It was just so freakin’ badass! So, like, anyway, she lines up to take the shot,” Dana continued, excitedly acting out the scene by holding up an imaginary sniper rifle. “And Alexis is using every trick shot she knows in order to keep the Cybugs from swarming her, and then finally, Amara fires, and the camera follows the shot all the way to the queen’s control node, until… BLAM!!! It takes the thing out, causing the mother of all shockwaves to race through the Cybug army and make all their heads explode! Doesn’t that sound absolutely AWESOME?!! she asked, her gleeful visage looking over each of the gathered cadets in turn, most of whom were too stunned to answer.

Or were desperately trying to keep from laughing their heads off…

Once Dana had calmed down from her little “performance”, she listened with rapt interest as Penny gave a synopsis of her own exam.

“Wow, Penny,” the cheerful Norban said with a giggle. “Your test sounds like somethin’ straight outta a horror movie! Y’know, once Halloween rolls around, we should totally get Yagami to set up a haunted house!” she added. “Anyways, at least now I know where your recent hatred for rodents came from!”

The end of exams also heralded the start of a two-week break, during which Dana found herself spending much of her time alongside Penny, while attending Priya’s exercise group. Vanna’s roommate, Cara Kelly, was also present, and Dana wasted no time in getting to know the redhead better, both in and out of combat. As it turned out, her first name was actually Nora, but she preferred to go by her middle name to preserve the “sweet alliteration”, something Dana wholeheartedly approved of.

However, it was just as the break period was starting to wind down that the biggest surprise came…

“A party?” Dana asked, as she took a closer look at the text Nicole had received. “On a boat? And we’re invited?! Count me in!”
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“...Doesn’t that sound absolutely AWESOME?!! she asked, her gleeful visage looking over each of the gathered cadets in turn, most of whom were too stunned to answer.

Or were desperately trying to keep from laughing their heads off…

Penny just gave a little sigh at how energetic friend went off into a massive gushing description of the episode. She was right the first time; Dana was a seven year old in a teenager's body. Still, it's nice to listen to her She just gives a soft smile as Dana finishes her story.

“Wow, Penny,” the cheerful Norban said with a giggle. “Your test sounds like somethin’ straight outta a horror movie! Y’know, once Halloween rolls around, we should totally get Yagami to set up a haunted house!” she added. “Anyways, at least now I know where your recent hatred for rodents came from!”

Penny makes a face at the idea of Yagami hosting a haunted house.

"Yeeeaaaaaahhhhh.... I don't think that's such a good idea..." she says. "Two reasons.

"One, as I understand it, Yagami is pretty busy, like some other instructors who were brought in. And thank God, because, two, I ran into Instructor Baozhai after my exam, because she wanted to congratulate me on my success. I told her what happened, and joked that Yagami would run a pretty good haunted house. Immediately, Baozhai gives this... thousand yard stare and tells me to never, ever bring it up, especially in front of Yagami. Apparently, she had been in Yagami's year, and Yagami did run a haunted house - once. Except she ran it as a horror movie and traumatized more than a few students, Baozhai included. Nobody got physically hurt, mind, but they never let her run a haunted house again. Personally, I think she's a sadist."
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Ooooh shit a boat...?

The haptic feedback on Nicole's touchscreen was giving Nicole's thumbprint the massage of a lifetime right now. The redhead's eyes were half-lidded, one leg languidly slung over the armrest of a common room sofa; two fingers on her left hand were idly playing with the untied shoelaces of a modern-looking pair of white sneakers, zebra-striped with the stark, bold-fonted words BISEXUAL SPACE PROGRAM horizontally, vertically and diagonally, black scars across the shoes' pale surfaces. Nicole's digits stroked the obsidian laces like locks of hair. Her eyes traced the text chain from Aiya for the twentieth time that morning, and yet the words still felt new to her. Not out of shock that the sensuous Duodecim royalty owned a boat. No.

She was tweakin'. And geekin'. And tweakin'. And geekin'.

She blinked with all the alacrity of a particularly sleepy lizard, and read the texts for the twenty-first time.


Ooooh shit, a boat...

Let's rewind. Two weeks prior, Nicole Cognoscenti's vibrations has been knocked askew by a grueling, Machiavellian test of her leadership qualities that had toppled a legendary Ars Magi from the heavens of hero worship and had done as much to solidify Nicole's position as the center of their group of friends as it had to make her question her place among them. In the opening days of their two week break, the Hastan girl had been spaced out and distracted, preoccupied with thoughts of her time at Nova Lux so far and the stresses of encroaching leadership to join in on the binges or breathless stories about her exams. Most of what had been whispered about Nicole's exam had come from hearsay; she said little on the subject personally. But she listened to the stories of some of the others, the feats of strength, speed, and ingenuity, and felt a little twinge of envy at how cool they all sounded. How...normal.

Nicole had always thought of herself as just a normal girl.

Enter the blessed angel Cordelia, butler to the stars, Nicole's current roommate and another potential candidate for the BISEXUAL SPACE PROGRAM. Cordy had intimate knowledge of the faces and attitudes that girls their age adopted when depressed, and had taken it upon herself to go out into some of Palmyra's more adventurous street food vendors or semi-reputable dive bars and seek out a cure for Nicole's ails. Some of the coffees she brought back were tasty and invigorating. Once she'd brought back a pizza from a small chain called Mirror World, whose claim to fame was that the pizza they served was not pizza at all, but cheese-wrapped breadsticks stuffed with sauce and toppings, which triggered Nicole's fight-or-flight instinct and for a time brought her back to her old self. But nothing quite touched the sketchy edibles that poor, faithful Cordy had brought back the other night from one of the nightclubs she'd seen Nicole return from with pamphlets. No doubt her old, wealthy patrons had partaken frequently, and Nicole wasn't about to act like a total saint herself. But if the victory of life was knowing oneself, Nicole liked to think she had won before she even left her teenage years - and one thing she knew about herself is that she did not play off being high super well. But she didn't want to be rude, and to be honest, they were kind of fun. Even when she had finally cajoled Cordy into taking one herself earlier that morning, and hadn't...seen her...since...

Hmmm. Uh oh! ...Uh oh.

Thankfully, the other girls didn't know her as well as she knew herself. So they probably thought she was still just tired. Yeaaaaaah.

"Mm? Oh. Yeaaaaaah." Nicole lifted her chin up and murmured absently at Penny and Dana, though it could have just as easily been a verbal acknowledgement of their stories as it was a response to Penny's questions. "Hey, did either of you two actually pack a swimsuit? And I mean like...a swimsuit. We gotta impress here, girls. I saw you two at the gala, I'm not the only one with something to lose on this love boat. So if you're not sure if what you brought is gonna be cute enough to be hit on, you gotta let me know right now while we have time to fix it."


"I'm not gonna look cute enough to be hit on. Oh God. God, I gotta go." Nicole moved her thumb away from the touchscreen, gasped a little at the sudden halt to the haptic sensation of her phone, and then moved it back. She eased herself to her feet and exhaled deeply, before realization struck her that oh God, she had to be careful doing that, or she may tear the common room apart with a hurricane gale. "I gotta go now."
Hidden 21 days ago Post by shadowsaint007
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"Wait, what?" is Penny's only response to being told to get a swimsuit. It takes her a second to realize her team leader is actually being serious about it.

"Wait, what do you mean get a swimsuit?! Is it swimsuit-only?!" Penny asks in confusion. "Do I look like the sort to pack a swimsuit? Or even wear a swimsuit?"

Penny's inquiries go unanswered as the Hastan girl blitzes so quickly out of the room she generates a gale even without her Elementum.

"And where would I even get a swimsuit at this time?!" Penny calls out, even though Nichole has clearly gone out of earshot.
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Dana listened as Penny explained why her haunted house suggestion probably wasn’t the best idea, her eyes growing wider as the bespectacled girl went on.

“Wow…” a stunned Dana said once her roommate had finished. “That must have really been somethin’, huh? I mean, it totally sucks that people actually got traumatized and all,” she added with a frown, before her smile returned with full force. “But now I almost wanna see it even more, y’know?!”

“Swimsuit?” Dana echoed in slight confusion when Nicole inquired if she and Penny had packed swimwear. “Uh, yeah, I’ve got my usual one,” she added. “But I don’t really know how cute it is…” After all, Dana had never really been one for fashion, instead, simply wearing what felt comfortable. However, further discussion on the subject would have to wait, as Nicole proceeded to have something of a minor freak out before bolting out the door, leaving a not-so-small gust of wind in her wake.

“Uh, do ya think we should go after her?” Dana asked her roommate. “She looked kinda upset…”
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“Wow…” a stunned Dana said once her roommate had finished. “That must have really been somethin’, huh? I mean, it totally sucks that people actually got traumatized and all,” she added with a frown, before her smile returned with full force. “But now I almost wanna see it even more, y’know?!”

Penny looks at her roommate in disbelief before giving a sigh.

"Your funeral, Dana," she replies. "Don't say I didn't warn you, though..."

“Uh, do ya think we should go after her?” Dana asked her roommate. “She looked kinda upset…”

"I don't think 'upset' seems the right word here," Penny comments. "More like 'excited', somehow.

"But yeah, we probably should check on her...."
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Inedible Sanitize 99.9%!

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𝚃𝚑𝚎 𝙰𝚜𝚜𝚞𝚛𝚊𝚗𝚌𝚎
𝙿𝚊𝚕𝚖𝚢𝚛𝚊 𝙱𝚊𝚢
𝙹𝚞𝚕𝚢 𝟸𝟷𝚜𝚝, 𝟷𝟷𝟽 𝙰𝚅
𝟸:𝟶𝟶 𝙿𝙼

Dana Noel, Penny Grenoble, Nicole Cognoscenti

| Music: Sunday |

Palmyra’s bay is a crescent-shaped swath of shimmering blue water, a small zone at the edge of the city reserved for naval affairs. It is, in many ways, a relic of the past. No ships sail the great oceans these days, no frigates ply through the Earth’s polluted waterways to ferry goods back and forth between ruined cities. Watercraft are more symbols than anything; ceremonial and nostalgic vessels that belong to a bygone age.

They are still a great place for a party.

This particular vessel is a sleek motor yacht, a gleaming silver vehicle large enough to hold around twenty passengers. A central cabin holds the helm and a small lounge with couches, chairs, and table, plus small stairways that leads to miniature bathrooms and sleeping quarters. The deck outside is made of polished wood, the rear of the watercraft hosting another seating area. The deck folds outward, providing ample space for its passengers.

Said passengers come in two types: The first are the cadets from the Officers Academy, exemplified by one Aiya de Mars. They are made up of both men and women, but almost all of them have one thing in common: status. Nearly every one of them can claim some connection to the Duodecim families, and most bear the name of one of those twelve clans.

The second type of passenger are, of course, the Ars Magi. The future saviors of humanity, the Duodecim’s sword and shield. There are several familiar faces amongst them; Cara and Priya, a few others commonly spotted among the common room, and the members of team Radiant Storm themselves.

It’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that the future of humanity is contained within this single vessel. Yet here, drifting on the glittering water, there is a mutual and unspoken agreement to cast off the burdens of both leadership and responsibility and do what the young do best: party hard.

And it is, so far, going well. It’s been about two hours since the vessel cast off and the festivities are in full swing. Swimsuit clad cadets dot the decks, either moving to the thrumming music pumping from the cabin’s interior or lounging amidst the furnishings. Some bob in the water at the boat’s sides, while others are engaged in increasingly raucous drinking games near at the rear of the vessel.

Aiya is presiding over all of this, a consummate hostess. Dressed in a black two-piece and oversized sunglasses, Mars’ golden-skinned heir moves along the deck with a regal grace, ensuring everyone has a place and thing to do. This includes the members of Radiant Storm, whom she greeted personally upon boarding.

The scene is festive, and there’s not a care in the world.

It’s a beautiful Sunday.
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Upon finally catching up to Nicole, Dana had helped Penny calm the panicking redhead down a bit, before agreeing to follow the fashion-conscious Hastan to a local clothing shop. No sooner had they walked through the door, then her team leader had begun searching for the perfect swimsuit with an intensity that was both comical and more than a little concerning… After all, Dana herself was certainly no fashionista and she had never really understood why so many girls were so obsessed with how they looked. The cheerful Norban felt perfectly comfortable with herself just the way she was and didn’t see the point in pretending to be something she wasn’t just to fit in, or impress a member of the “popular crowd” so much that they’d want to include her in their circle of friends. If people didn’t like her for who she was, then they really weren’t the sort of people she’d want to be friends with in the first place.

Then there was price tag to consider. Although she had grown up in a fairly wealthy household, Dana had never let her prosperity go to her head. Instead, she had used the resources she’d been blessed with to help those who were less fortunate. Knowing that she had spent a small fortune on a designer dress, handbag, or swimsuit when so many people were struggling just to eat was something the kind-hearted girl could never be okay with. Besides, while her clothing choices might have been cheap, they were comfortable and looked nice, at least in her opinion, and that was the important thing, wasn’t it?

Thus, when she boarded the Assurance the following day, Dana was garbed in a simple, bright yellow bikini and jean shorts combo that perfectly mirrored her sunny demeanor. Placing her hands on her hips, the cheerful Norban surveyed the various goings on, a brilliant grin quickly spreading from ear to ear. Although she’d never been to a party quite like this, and especially not one on a luxury yacht, the bundle of excited energy that was Dana Noel knew one thing for certain- this was gonna be fun.

“Wow, Aiya! This is really some boat!” Dana noted when their host welcomed them aboard. “I know ya just wanted to see Nicole again, so thanks for lettin’ us tag along!” she added with a playful wink, while putting her arm around Penny. “I’m sure we’re gonna have a great time!”

The two hours that followed saw the bubbly Norban bounce from group to group as she took a self-guided tour of the opulent ship. She knew some of the other guests, Cara and Priya, of course, and Noah, too, but the majority of the cadets were new to her, and the ever-friendly Dana wasted no time in getting acquainted. Yet, even between making new friends and making sure Penny wasn’t totally freaking out, she’d still managed to find time for a harmless prank. Having retrieved a chocolate bar from the travel bag slung over her shoulder, the mischievous Ars Magi had removed the wrapper and nonchalantly thrown it backwards over the side of the boat and right into the middle of some unsuspecting swimmers. Still, even with all the dancing, games, and overall wild revelry, Dana couldn’t help but feel that something was missing, and once she’d realized what it was, she wasted no time in seeking out Aiya to address the matter.

“Hey, Aiya!” the grinning Norban called with a wave as she made her way over. “Where are ya hidin’ the water guns?!”
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