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This article, For A Friend, is property of Zicoihno.

"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy."
— Sir Winston Churchill

Courage

A dreary, gray sky stretched over the sea of trees that was Rhynos valley. The sun's shine was locked behind the cloudy gates up above. Perched on the roof of a tower, stood the master of Exia. Xemen wore a calm face in spite of the news he had gotten. Vilmos had fallen in Essos and Ama had deserted the guild. Guilt for the former and mixed feelings for the latter.

He looked down to the forest beneath him. Endless trees, or so it felt. It reminded him in that moment of a different time in a different place. Still, an uneasy feeling shifted in him, that the sky would rain red. Plans always have the chance of failure or at least serious modification, this he knew to be true. Being ready for anything was the preference of a pragmatic strategist.

"Having some alone time, boss?"

Xemen smirked, a familiar voice had just came to his ears. He turned to look at his visitor with a small grin. "It's been a while, Marx, " He said quickly, " I was starting to wonder if you were dead. Thankfully, you seem alright."

Marx slotted his hands into his pocket, a small smile cracking across his face. "You were well aware of where I was, " He replied through a knowing look. "That magic of yours can see whatever it wants." Before him stood a man that could not be fooled. Marx had met a number of shady men in his life, but none like Xemen.

"All magic has limits, " Xemen stepped towards Marx, heading for the stairwell leading from the roof and downwards. "Well, it seems almost everyone has assembled here. About time, no doubt."

Marx arched an eyebrow, "Almost?"

They began down the stone steps to the top floor of the abandoned castle they had come to call home for the time being. "Well, Thelia is off doing something, " Xemen said, "Even with a key fighter gone, I'm not too worried."

"You speak as if a battle is about to take place, " Marx said, his tone taking a more serious shade. At the bottom of the stair case stood Claude much to his surprise. It only begged the question of what was going on. A change of plans?

"We'll be having guests soon enough, friend, " Xemen mused as they came to a halt. "I take it no one is slacking off, eh, Claude-kun?"

The white haired man nodded in agreement. His build and stature were foreboding without a question, yet, he seemed nothing of the sort before Xemen. After all these years, the presence the man had only strengthened. It impressed even Marx, and in a way frightened him.

"When the time comes, we'll be ready, Master, " Claude said sternly.

Marx looked at Xemen, then at Claude, and back again. "I saw Arcam Dilata, looks to be in good shape," Marx said. "But, I could only wonder where this is all heading. You've yet to elaborate."

Xemen looked down, "To Eden".

"Did you say something?" Marx asked with a questionable look.

"Nope! Anyway, I'll be off now, should really learn to not skip breakfast."


"What do you want us to do?"

Under the shadows of the high reaching trees, crouching in a circle, was a fiasco waiting to happen. Sanjo looked around at the faces near him. This was a rash course of action, but the risk of the princess being tortured and only heavens know what could happen to Lana. Fiore's pride had been stepped on, and its' sovereignty infringed upon. He looked towards Erza quickly.

"Richard, Zeo, and I will be the ones to go in alone, " Sanjo said, keeping an eye on Natsu, "It's best that way, considering the circumstances...."

Erza sighed, " If you think it's best, than I'll oblige."

Lucy arched an eyebrow. "Wait, " she said slowly, "Then what's our job? To find them?"

"Exactly, " Richard said, cutting in. "We'll focus on their main forces, you guys can just worry about Lana and her highness." He looked up to the somber sky above them. It was gonna pour down, and hard. Uneasy wasn't a strong enough word to describe it all.

"And how do you know you'll be enough?" Gray asked sternly. "We don't know anything about this Exia, that sounds like a sketchy plan."

Sanjo nodded at Richard for a moment. "I didn't say this before, but, " Sanjo said, rising to his feet, " After their kidnapping, their captor did not erase his presence too well. And both Richard and I knew that magical presence, even if vaguely, from a certain place." Neither of them of them knew exactly who, but it was surely of that team.

Zeo remained silent as he watched on. It seems even he had missed a step to not notice any familiarity from the intruder's magical presence. Regardless, he had a clue as to what they meant.

"Just don't do anything stupid, " Natsu said suddenly, shooting up to his feet. He stretched with a groan, ready for action.

Sanjo arched an eyebrow, "All of people, you're telling me that?"

Natsu narrowed his eyes at the Wizard Saint. "In that castle, there's a smell that bothers me, " He replied. "A person, like no scent I've gotten a whiff of before. It's human but then it's not, I just can't....explain it." Confused looks shot towards the dragon slayer, no one really sure as to what he meant.

"I'll keep that mind, Natsu, " Sanjo said with a nod.

"How should we signal that we've got Lana and the princess?" Erza asked, crossing her arms across her chest. Finding them would be a task, but some organization to the whole effort was paramount as well. Titania did not like to do things without some decent thought in mind, that had gotten them all into very tight spots more than once.

"Lana will be expecting you, if anything, " Sanjo shrugged. "Securing the princess' safety is the most important as she cannot defend herself. Lana will adapt, I'd imagine."

"What the hell are you on?" Natsu asked quickly. "Expecting us?"

Sanjo walked past the group towards the castle, and suddenly came to a halt. Then, in that moment, there was a shift in the air. Lucy felt a shiver go down her spine and a cold drop of sweat down her slender neck followed in suit. Erza's eyes widened as she felt a rumble in her soul, a fierce one. The rocks around him began to float clumsily as a brilliant blue aura swirled like a tornado.

"Just watch."

Break Out

Within the darkness of their prison, Lana and Victoria's only source of light was a small barred window at the opposite side of the brick wall behind them. That single beam of light got them through the day, but the night had been rough. The magic restricted cuffs had only added to the irritable conditions, at every waking moment, Lana felt herself in a daze. Suddenly, there was a shake in her bones.

"What the?" She muttered, dragging herself up against the wall. This feeling, it was so familiar. It had to be him. She looked over to see Victoria stir from her sleep, rubbing her tired eyes in surprise.

The princess stared at Lana, "What's wrong? And what's with the smile, that's not like you."

"Your highness, " Lana replied quickly, taking a glance at the doorway before them, "Did you know that magic is connected to a mage's feeling and their very being? It's why we can discern different magical auras given practice. When I was with the Rune Knights, it was very important to learn this."

Victoria sat up straight on the dusty floor. She tilted her head in question, this was a random turn of conversation. "Why are you telling me this?" She asked through a confused look.

"It's time to make our move, that's why," Lana whispered. "Guards! I could use some help, my chains are a little too tight for little ol' me."

The jet black door creaked open as a figure entered the room. Lana quickly spread her legs. A small, seductive smirk played on her face as the guard neared her. "Your chains? Shit, well, the boss told us to keep you guys in decent condition, " He said as he lowered himself into a crouch.

His hands glided over to her ankles to adjust the shackles, yet, his eyes could not focus. In the corner of his eyes, the rough looking man could not ignore his prisoner licking her lips. The woman hadn't said much this entire time, but even with such little light in the, he was sure Mugen had kidnapped a gorgeous woman.

Victoria watched on in stunned silence. Lana was the last woman she expected to use her body like this, something so shameful. Did she have a plan? The princess shook her head, of course she did, there was no way Lana would try this without a plan.

"Ahem, well, things look fine already. Are you sure--"

Lana suddenly swiped her right leg into his neck. A small yelp left his mouth as he fell to the ground unconscious, the keys sliding towards Lana. She slowly reached for the keys and began to fiddle with the lock of her shackles. "And this is where, " Lana huffed, testing the lock, one key after another, "We start our little escape from this dump."

The shackles hit the ground as Lana quickly proceeded towards her ankles. "Feel free to say anything on your mind, your highness," She said, "I can't promise you this break out won't be risky." As she removed the restraints from around her ankles, Lana felt her strength come back to her. Such cuffs were torture for a mage like herself.

Victoria sighed, "Again, you really can skip the titles."


"Ripley and Nayno haven't reported back in a while."

A handful of men were seated around an old, oak round table across from an iron door. To their backs was a dark corridor that lead straight to the western terrace of the rustic castle that Exia had called their temporary base. Their looks were diverse, but all rough at first glance. Cards, poker chips, and half empty beer glasses spread about the table, guard duty was no stimulating affair.

One of the men set down his card hand, face down, letting out of puff of cigarette smoke. "Another concern from good old Edric, fellas, just like that tingling feeling he had a while ago. They're probably bored out of their minds, the princess and the Kaen girl ain't going anywhere, " the man said with a nod, picking up his cards again. "In the mean time, focus on the game. I'm down bloody 20,000 jewels."

"Ha," another man scoffed, running a hand through his dirty blonde hair. "Then your ass won't be happy about his one, mate. Royal flus--" A stir behind the door caught their ears, the smiles on their faces dying. They all shot to their feet.

The door slowly creaked open, their eyes following the situation inch by inch. One of them, a black haired young man threw his hand on the hilt of his sword. Suddenly a body fell through into the light with loud pop as it hit the ground.

"Ripley!"

A figure shot towards them, gliding over the table. A foot lodged into the swordsman's neck as he felt himself shoot backwards into a solid, stone wall. "It's the Kaen girl, you idiots," Edric shouted, charging at Lana. She ducked under his right hook, sending her own firmly into his stomach. Blood gushed from his mouth as he hit the ground in agony.

"It'd be best if you all gave up now and chose how you want to be chained up," Lana said coldly, watching her few remaining opponents step around her carefully.

Without a word in reply, those still standing lunged towards her like wild dogs. And like wild dogs, Lana ripped through them. Victoria watched as her companion side stepped past their strikes one after another, knocking each unconscious. They could not touch her. Her moves were straightforward and strong, no flair, just simply crushing their enemies.

Victoria snapped out of it as one of the men landed flat on the table, crushing the piece of furniture into the cold, hard floor. "They decided to make things hard, " Lana said as she walked back towards the princess. "Let's go, Victoria. We're going to meet up with Sanjo and the others."

The princess' eyes widened. "What, here? Sanjo is, " She asked, shocked, "How do you know?"

Lana smiled, "I was always expecting him and the others to show up. Things simply turned into a game of waiting, your highness. Not exactly a perfect plan, but it worked out."

A smile crossed the young girl's face, things had truly turned around for the better. She could trust Lana, that much was clear since the capital had been under siege. Suddenly, she felt a shake in her bones as a drop of cold sweat slid down her brow. Victoria blinked rapidly, unsure if she had lost her bearings. The shadows around them began to almost....dance.

"Lana, what--"

Her companion hushed her with a quick wave of her hand as she stepped back closer towards the princess. They were not alone. She peered down the darkened corridor only to see a lone figured walking slowly towards them. Her senses had been off their game, those hand cuffs must have had side effects. Lana gritted her teeth, "I need to ends this as quickly as possible."

"Requip: Glacier Edge," Lana muttered, not taking her eyes off their incoming guest. Light swirled around her forearms as a pair of ferocious weapons appeared in her grip. Victoria was unsure of what they were, they were bladed weapons, no doubt. But the massive blades were shaped like a crescent, and their style of design almost like a strange variant of the tonfa one of her guards wielded.

Lana narrowed her eyes as her opponent came into view. He looked no older than her self, no, younger than her. His face showed a calm spirit, but more bordering on arrogance than experience. She could be wrong, of course. "Victoria" She said quickly, "Keep heading for the door down the hall. He won't attack, he's here for me."

Victoria gave a nervous nod and shot off towards the door. As she passed the young man by, she glanced towards his face. He paid the princess no mind to her surprise, not even a peek—nothing. She could only feel her heart beating as she ran towards the door. This where things would get difficult.

"You don't know me, but I know you. Allow me to remedy that," the young man said calmly as he took a bow towards her. "I am Nicholai Utsu and you've made enough of a mess."

She raised her arms to guard herself. A user of Shadow Magic was her opponent, this could be problematic. Any magic in the right hands could be deadly, and this man was clearly no push over. A quick victory is what she needed. This was enemy territory and the last thing she could afford is to be critically injured and find herself in the presence of that man again, that Xemen, the puppet master of everything. "A quick kill. Ugh, these are the times I wish I delved more into that sort of skill, I'll have a talk with Richard after all this is set and done."

Nicholai raised his hands slowly, his eyes catching an odd fire to them. "I'm going to enjoy this, " He said through a smile. "I must warn you, mercy isn't something I know very well--"

As the words rolled off his tongue, Lana shot towards him like a bullet. There was no room for failure, for defeat, or for pity. Only to win. The blood would fly today. "Shut up," Lana shouted, leaping into the air.

"What fun," Nicholai shouted as he launched himself towards her.

The Hunter Becomes the Hunted

"One last time, where are the new captives that came in yesterday?"

Richard's grip tightened ever so slightly on the neck of his newest friend. Though, friend was not the right word, however, he and the others scattered across the stone floor had given him a flashy welcome.

"Nothing you'll do to me can touch what they'd do to me if I talked, " the young guard said roughly, gasping for any air he could manage. "You've got morals, most of them don't. I'll take my chanc--"

A knee drove into his stomach, sending him into a deep, unpleasant sleep—courtesy of Richard Aria. It was a useless effort at this point for the rune knight. The place was guarded by slews of cheap thugs with a poor grasp on their own magic, much less defending against someone like himself. Yet, none of them were saying a word about Lana and Victoria's location, and he didn't want to know what would happen to them if they did. Exia were dangerous enough, but to ensure this sort of fear-oriented loyalty is even more dangerous. Fear was a powerful motivator.

The young rune knight stepped over the fallen bodies towards the end of the corridor. The castle was old and ill maintained, no doubt an abandoned structure. Dust and cob webs abounded across the palatial building. After he finished scanning the first floor, the stairways would become his best friend for the rest of the search. There had been a spike in magical power, but that easily could have been those clowns from Fairy Tail that had come along.

He narrowed his eyes at the sight up ahead, seemed to be the exit into the gardens or something of that sort. It was castle, after all. Richard calmed himself, hiding his presence gradually as he stepped closer and closer towards the door. Over the years, life had taught him that arrogance could get you killed. He would much rather get the jump on anyone waiting to set a trap on him.

Coming to a halt before the grand, white doors before him, he took a slow breath. Richard pushed the doors open to a peculiar yet enlightening sight. Seated on a stone bench, book in hand, legs crossed elegantly, was an all too familiar face. The dots began to connect in Richard's head.

"You've got to be kidding me."

A smile crossed the man's face as he rose to locked glances with Richard. "I can't say you ever caught my name, " he said through a smirk. The young man touched the book to his head in contemplation. "We never got to meet in battle back at that archaic tournament, but I can remedy that now. Of Exia's main powers, I am Mugen Oren."

"Even gave himself a proper introduction," Richard said, shaking his head. "If you're here, then that big guy is here as well, right?"

"Don't worry yourself with Claude, Aria-dono, " Mugen replied candidly, laying his arms to his side. His glance took to a murderous shade, "You've got enough problems as it stand stands."

Richard sighed, "Looks like Sanjo will have his hands full and then there's the leader. We came into this a tad unprepared."

"Claude's magic shakes the very earth and echoes throughout the heavens, " Mugen said quickly, " Your friend, the Golden Lion, will have to give everything he's got to just survive much less win. Again, worry for yourself, though I'm surprised to see the council doing something useful."

"And what of your master' strength?" Richard asked with a curious look.

Mugen grinned, "The Golden Lion cannot compete with the Boss, not now and not anytime soon."

"That's fine, " Richard said, cutting in. "There are more ways to kill someone than by raw power. Any mage worth a damn should know that." The statement earned a raised eyebrow from confident opponent.

"Enough talk," Mugen said, whipping his book to the side. "I'm looking forward to your famous Crystal-Make. It will be a great addition to my collection." The dust across the ground whipped up into the air as Mugen's grin grew wider. He was strong, Richard thought, truly dangerous.

"What's this about a collection?"

Suddenly, Mugen's eyes glowed crimson red. Richard's eyes widened as he felt himself step back off balance. His heart skipped a beat as a torrent of red enveloped the blazing trail towards him.

"Shit."

It Shall Rain Red

Sanjo looked up to the dreary, gray sky. It was going to rain, no, pour without a doubt. Torrential downfalls, Mother Nature always had such impeccable timing. He had chosen to scour the the woods and lay in weight of someone to find him. Richard had taken to the castle with Zeo and the others, so that was covered. Yet, he found the nagging to feeling to weave his ways through the endless sea of trees that surrounding this old castle.

Exia, such a dangerous enemy that came out of nowhere. Then again, it seemed the most dangerous enemies of human decency throughout history had ramped up their power relatively in the shadows in some way or another. History had a funny way of repeating itself.

Droplets of rain began to descend from the heavens above him as he continued through the damp forest. His forecast had been right, Sanjo smiled to himself, a child could have called that.

A torrent of rain began to blanket the entire valley, pounding the trees and wildlife within them. Sanjo came to a halt as the rain washed over him like the waves crashing against the shores of Sole. In that moment, he peered over his shoulder to find a guest laying in wait.

He turned to see a tall, broad shouldered figure in the midst of the rain in a clearing through the trees. Sanjo stepped towards the figure as a familiar face came into sight. A stern frown crossed his face as he passed through the bushes to stand before the one known as Claude of Team Destroyer. An unwelcome surprise, to say the least.

"If you plan to live, much less save the princess and the other woman," he said sternly with a glare that spoke songs of death and suffering, " Then you will need to pray fate smile upon you, Golden Lion."

"So, you're one of Exia's front-men?" Sanjo asked with an arched eyebrow. "This is interesting." Though, in his mind, Sanjo was incredibly uneasy at this revelation. This man had been the centerpiece of power at the tournament in Pergrande, this wouldn't be easy.

Claude narrowed his eyes, "Do you think of yourself as some sort of hero in this very act?" The difference in stature between the two men was quite noticeable, and it wasn't as if Sanjo wasn't decently tall by conventional standards.

The wizard saint smiled weakly, "I think any mage of note has been called such a thing. However, I'm here to set things straight and get the princess back. You clowns have caused something of an international incident with her kidnapping, she's more important than any of us. That's the main objective here."

"It speaks volumes of your nation that we could so easily sack your capital," Claude shot back calmly. His eyes were fixed upon the intruder before him, awaiting a response.

Sanjo shook his head, "Sacked isn't the right word, but I'm not here for arguments."

"And what of your friend's worth, the one known as Lana Kaen?" Claude asked plainly.

"For that," Sanjo said slowly, "Your life will even out the scales."

A small smirk crossed Claude's face. "I like the look in your eyes, may fate have mercy upon you because I will not."

"Wouldn't have it any other way."

End.

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