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Prologue

Day Unknown - 16:42:33

Marksman, Laura Schwarzerfeld

Althern Border

I take a deep breath, and close my left eye, zooming in on my targets at the same time. The wind was picking up, a storm brewing nearby. I scanned the perimiter, a small compound consisting of a small, abandoned supply hangar in the heart of the snowy woodlands, near a clearing between the dense pine trees. I hear my radio buzz, and some creeking chatter sounds from the device. My teammates were coördinating their positioning around the valley.

Accompanying me here were three other marksmen. They were experienced snipers, all of them possesing almost maximum lethality with their rifles. I peered around the valley through my scope, trying to locate them. Through the snowfall, I could spot the first of the bunch on my right, a few hundred meters lower then myself. He wore his own custom camouflage ghillie suit, and he was lying prone amidst the snow and tall grass.

I swept my weapon left across the valley, and settled my sight on the two remaining marksmen. They too were blending in, but no ghillie suits. They hid behind a few boulders, looming far above the valley below. One of them was holding a rangefinder binocular, the other was peering through his rifle.

"My my..." I sighed deeply, and reared my weapon back to my targets.

I used a custom-designed sniper rifle, called the 'Valkyrie'. The name was fancy, but that was purely because I liked the sound. And if you think about it, it has a deeper meaning, something that seems lost to most players these days.

I checked my magazine, and wiggled myself through the grass, creeping forwards. I was concealed enough, to my satisfaction, with the tall grass covering my entire body and the majority of my rifle. The snow and blizzard like winds felt harsh, the cold biting through my dense clothing.

"...Laura!..." My radio buzzed once more. "We're all clear, waiting for you to take the opening shot."

"Got it." I replied as I stuffed the device away in my bag.

I took one final breath, and zoomed in. The distance was easily within effective range, and my crosshairs lined up perfectly with the first player's head. They were in a group of five, watching over the compound, all equiped with top-notch gear and guns. One of their vehicles, a simple pick-up truck, was badly covered with green mesh, sticking out in the open against the pure white of the snow, like a sore blister.

Who I killed first did not matter to my team. I owed them a favor, and this was the last piece of payment I had to fulfill. All I had to do, was lay these few suckers to waste.

I exhale. Five shots leave the barrel of the Valkyrie in a mere second, too fast for my team to react to. The bodies of the players are launched backwards by the impact of the shots, and they remain on the ground, motionless.

I quickly adjust my scope towards the hangar's opening, trying to spot any movement behind the broken glass and the rusted iron plating. The snowfall was gentle enough that it didn't hinder my sight too much.

I panted heavily, the recoil from the shots slowly sinking away.

I pick up my radio, and switch it back on.

"...Targets down..."

Chapter 1

16th March, 2045

"Cheers, to Laura!"

I rolled my eyes, and simply nodded at the three scotsmen. They insisted that I came along for a final drink after the mission, to celebrate our time together. To be honest, they practically forced me to, saying they had a surprise for me or something. I forgot again, wasn't all that important to me.

If there's one thing I learned in my time among these scottish lads, then it would be the fact that they were excellent drinkers. Like really good. Every mission they completed they went out for a drink, and they would continue till deep in the night. Wasn't my cup of tea, and I was content with the fact that they weren't too stupid to drink prior to missions.

I didn't drink that often in-game, so I took a glass of water and sat down. Sniping down squadrons does leave one thirsty for a drink though. Water was good enough for now. Maybe something else when I logged out, I think I left some soda in the fridge back in the real world, along with some leftovers from yesterday's meal.

"So." The leader of the bunch said. His name was McKilligan, jolly lad. I noticed his cheeks were flourished, a side effect of drinking too much. "With your assistance, we've finally completed our long campaign against our rivals, 'The Black Bullets!"

They all roared again. I simply sighed and sipped my glass of water.

Sniping for them was a piece of cake. I've done it a million times before, and could do so again. I guess sniping was like a natural born talent for me, not that I was this good all the time. I practised a lot, spent a lot of time doing field work throughout Eden, working small-time jobs and contracts for quite the quality players. Like that time I almost crossed into Heaven.

Nope, wasn't attempting that again. That mission was pure suicide. I remembered dozens of Angels descending on our party within minutes of reaching the borders of Heaven. The little guys just kept coming, with bright, shining light at their backs.

Too many to handle, even for my taste.

Still, I got out alive and well. Even honed my skills nicely, I guess they were just practise fodder for my Valkyrie anyways.

Anyway, yeah. These scottish lads. I looked at the clock in my interface. It was getting pretty late, and honestly I wanted nothing more then to finish my drink and get the hell out of here.

"You said something about a surprise, remember?" I gave McKilligan a sharp look. "That being...?"

"Ah, yeah." McKilligan said, opening his menu and typing in something.

My screen popped up, with a large sum of cash being displayed. Like, a really large sum of cash. Bigger then I ever hauled in from a mission.

"Ah, thanks I guess?" I said, gladly accepting the money. That would be put to good use. Perhaps a new scope or something, or I could finally upgrade my Black Rogue with that new ironsight I so desperately craved for.

"No problem!" McKilligan said gleefully, spilling some of his booze onto the floor in the process. "That hangar seemed to be one big hoard of loot after all, all the useless crap the Black Bullets had stuffed away."

"And you sold it all."

"Yep! This was just a little extra, for your services."

"Well." I said, standing up. "I guess we're done then?"

"You're leaving already?" McKilligan laughed. "Oh come on, toughy! Lighten up, drink with us!"

"No thank you. You've had one too much anyway." I said coldly, packing up my gear and buttoning my jacket. It was cold in Althern, plus it was snowing. I didn't mind the cold, or the snow, but still. I get cold so easily. Fingers just freeze to death.

"Just one sec." McKilligan said, as he took me aside to a corner of the room, a quiet place.

"What?" I asked, sighing.

"Well, we do really like you." McKilligan admitted. "Are you sure you want to leave us?"

"Mind is set, lad." I shook off his hand, which he was trying to wrap around me. Bloody pervert. "We've learned enough from one another, and I don't owe you any favors any longer."

"But-"

"No buts, McKilly." I interrupted him. "Black Bullet campaign is over. Finito. I've played my part."

"Where will you go then?" He continued to ask. Damn, he was being stubborn again. Damn scotsmen and their stubbornness.

"I don't know, somewhere. Heard there's a mission available in southern Osia, something about assasinating a few noobs for a few coins."

"That's it?" He said, folding his arms.

"I guess." I said. "Might pay ol' Hell a visit, see how my Demon buddies are holding up. Heard something about a new Collosus being released."

McKilligan chuckled. "And you think they'd let a Hybrid casually stroll back into Hell? Like 'Hell' they will!"

He literally fell on the floor, laughing. Guess the second thing I learned about scotsmen is that even though they drink way too much, they can't hold their booze properly.

I rolled my eyes, and sighed deeply. "We'll see. I think they'll make an exception for me though."

"Good luck with that!" McKilligan continued to laugh his ass off. It was starting to piss me off big time, so I took off without saying goodbye properly. Found a nice, cozy corner on the street and opened my menu, logging out.

"Seriously. Scotsmen. Guh."

---

Ugh. My eyes always hurt when I wake up back in the real world. I start blinking madly to try and stop the pain, but it is inevitable. I take off my RiftGear, and roll over, almost falling off my bed.

"Guh... The time... is..." I slowly mutter to myself as I peer up at the clock on the wall.

02:23

"Hmn, not as bad as yesterday." I yawn as I walk towards my wardrobe.

I don't really clean up often, I just pile all my clothes in a certain corner of the room and organise them there. I don't know, it's a silly habit, I know. I dig up a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt, and I quickly change into them.

I sneak down the stairs, careful not to wake up my parents. I've done it a million times, so I didn't have any trouble with that. Hell, I even knew which parts of the staircase creaked and which didn't, leaping over them as I rush downstairs. Yeah, being a creature of the nighttime learnt me a buckload of tips and tricks on how to be silent.

I stop in the middle of the staircase this time around though, losing my balance in the process. I wanted to leap down the last few steps, but my muscles didn't exactly coöperate. Thank you oh so much, gaming, now my legs are numb. Which usually doesn't make a difference. Today was an exception.

I curse to myself, and leap down the last few steps in a dtich effort not to fall down. My feet find the safety of the floor, and I roll forward instinctively. Years of Aikido do come in handy in times like this.

I come to a halt, panting softly, and trembling to keep still. I listen carefully to hear if my parents woke up or not.

Snoring. Fantastic, thanks Dad for sleeping through that.

"...Close enough..." I sigh with relief, and open the slidedoor to the kitchen.

I tiptoe to the fridge, and grab a carton of my own brew. I called it brew because I liked calling it brew. Truth be told it was simply lemonade with some extras added to it. So delicious, I practically drank a carton every day. Used to drink milk, but I quit that. I also drink coffee a lot, but not when it's this late. A girl's gotta sleep too, you know.

I seat myself in the living room, putting on my headphone, and playing a random song from my long list of music. I hear a soft melody of piano fill my ears, a familiar tune I've heard numerous times over and over again.

My dad plays the piano, hence why I recognised the song. He's pretty shy about playing his piano though, even Mom isn't allowed in his studyroom when he plays. He likes being secluded, left alone while he plays his music. Didn't count for me, I guess. He used to let me sit next to him when I was a kid, and he still allows me to sit near him when he plays his music. I always like when he plays the Russian composer's preludes, so beautiful.

I lie back on the sofa which I was sitting on, and sipped my carton of brew. End War Online took up a great deal of time in my life, to the point where I thought I was addicted. I knew I wasn't, but I did like the game very much. It was alluring for me, like a scented candle. Sniping became my life I guess, I sniped every day all day.

Course, being so good at it had its downsides. Guilds begged me to join them, players practically proposed to me day by day. It gets worse, trust me, but I won't go into that. The upside of being a sniper was that I could make myself disappear if I wanted to, leaving only my friends being able to find me.

I did do some odd contracts here and there, but mostly I roamed Eden, as the Human world in End War Online was called, tracking down high tier players and collecting the kill. That had been my life in End War Online for a long time.

That thing with the scottish marksmen was a one-time thing. I got to know them roughly a month ago when I inflitrated the base of 'The Black Bullets', trying to steal a ISD. It's an abbreviation for 'Intelligence Storage Device', which was like a small laptop containing data about a player or a guild. Quite neat feature, and every guild is bound to have one. It's like a huge combat log, detailing every move they make, every mission they've executed and more. Every guild has one, the game implements that by default. And even better, players can steal them and acces them by cracking them open, which is tough, but certainly possible.

Anyway, yeah. I met them after I stole the ISD. They were on the hunt for The Black Bullets, and managed to help me escape the compound once I retrieved my ISD. Afterwards, I promised to help them, since they helped me. SImple enough, I don't like being indebted.

That had come to an end finally. A freaking month later. All the content I missed, all the mission I could have planned. Time wasted, and what did I have to show for it? A couple of extra notches on my rifle, and a load of cash.

I rolled my eyes, before having them close shut. The music took over, and I felt tired. The carton of brew fell out of my hands, and I didn't care. All that I wanted was sleep. And so I did, the piano's gentle notes carrying me away to my slumber.

---

"Miss Sugimura.... Miss Sugimura!"

"...Wha'... Guh... Sorry, sorry..." I yawned sleepily as my teacher bent over my desk and stared me right between the eyes.

"Honestly, Laura... Like I told you before, no sleeping in class. If you need sleep, you should go to bed earlier."

"...Yeah..." I yawned again, this time stretching out aswell.

I was in the middle of math class. I had fallen asleep for the third time I think, didn't recall every time though. I was far too tired to notice. My math notes were far from organised. Random nubmers were scribbled across my notebook, with parenthesis, square roots and my latest work: antiderivatives. Math was hard these days. I used to be really good at math, until I decided to go higher up and try to handle the advanced theories.

The advanced theory hit me like a goddamn firetruck. Math had returned to being a living hell.

"...So, if we look at our function..." My teacher was rambling on about numerical values and other stuff, but I just kept yawning. I leaned back in my chair, and flipped through my notebook. In the front pages, I made my assignments and my calculations for school. In the back of it... Now that's a totally different story.

I sneak my hand into my pocket, and hide my mobile phone behind my notebook, pretending that I'm knee-deep into my work. I open up my notes that I managed to type earlier this morning, when I left for school. Most of it was valuable information that I wanted to process today, information I obtained from ISD's I recovered during the 'Black Bullet' campaign.

The first set of information I wrote down concerned the compounds that were sealed off by the 'Black Bullets' long ago. Most of them were similar to the hangar I took down alongside McKilligan's boys, but none of them actually belonged to the Black Bullets. They were former target locations they took down as part of their mission list.

The second stream of information was simple logistics. I started crunching numbers in my head, accounting for how much money I would have to spend to keep my stocks supplied, what expenses I was going to make for my rifles and clothing, and so on.

I was about to close my phone when I noticed the last part of information I wrote down. I remembered I had to work through my mails in End War Online. Something I rarely did. Most of my mails were either spam from fans or requests for duels and that kind of crap. Yeah, wasn't planning on going into detail on that. Trust me, it's god awful to read it all.

"...Later... Yeah..." I mutter to myself.

"Ah, miss Sugimura! I take it you have worked out the answer?" My teacher spotted me putting away my phone. The bastard always did this. Not that it bothered me though, I was smart enough to talk my way out of it if I needed to.

"Let's see... I started with..." I peer at the question, quickly solving most of the problem and working on. "...remembering 5... working away... those... ehrm... Oh, yeah. X is definitely the square root of 25, which is 5. Happy?"

'Well done... Moving on..." The teacher grumbled, flipping through his book, trying to find more impossible questions to solve. Poor guy. His life must be amazingly boring.

I lean back in my chair, and my eyelids started falling back down. I was more focused on finishing school as quick as possible, so I could get back to End War Online. Couldn't wait to get back into the field and to fire a few rounds. Plus, I wanted to check out some town in Renskr. An old buddy of mine informed me that there were some contracts lying around. Perhaps this time I could find a player to work with who wasn't a pervert or a bunch of morons.

My head started falling forward, and luckily it thumped into my arms.

"...5... 5... more minutes..."

"Miss Sugimura! Oh, come on!"

"....Guuuuuuh..."

---

"I'm hooooooome!"

I kick my shoes into a rack casually, and stroll into the kitchen, closing the slidedoor behind me. Throwing my school rugsack in the corner, near the refridgerator, I walk past the kitchen counter, spotting a note on it. I pick it up, and read it.

"Laura. I'm taking your dad to the physician. We'll be going out for a walk after that. Behave.

~Mom"

"Huh." I shrug as I place back the note on the counter, and grab a sandwich. As I slowly munched on my sandwich, I pondered my next move. I was very tempted to check out the spot in Renskr. A bunch of gamers were speculating about the contract, but no one knew the full image of it.

Maybe I could figure it out. Not like it would be too hard. One can only guess that it takes one of the best to complete the job, and I didn't exactly know who else in the game was even near my standards with sniping.

I put away my empty plate in the kitchen, and ran upstairs, where I lied down and grabbed my RiftGear.

"Here's nothing." I slowly exhale, and close my eyes.

---

[Inbox]

[127 Messages]

"Goddamnit." I curse as I swipe up my inbox, briefly going through who had sent this pile of crap to me. I was sitting inside, in cozy place similar to the one from yesterday with McKilligan's lads. It was snowing outside, very gently. I wouldn't say it snowed in all of Renskr, but in some parts it had similar weather climates to that of Althern. I didn't mind anyway. I liked snow, I liked sunshine, I liked rain. Didn't matter to me.

I kept thinking about the weather as I deleted the useless mail with a boring grin beset on my face. I couldn't stand people who were afraid to get wet. I mean, come on people. It's just water. Are you afraid it'll melt away your face or something? I don't. I'd be such an idiot if I believed that crap. Plus, how hard is it to buy an umbrella or something? Seriously, it takes a few minutes and you're protected, just like that. I didn't use umbrellas though. Weirdly enough I liked the feeling of rain on my skin, it just felt great. It was cold, yeah. I got a few colds, that too. But it was nice.

My line of thought stopped after that though, since I stumbled on a mail that I didn't randomly delete. I almost did, as my finger automatically moves towards the delete button, but luckily I was quick enough to pull away.

"Who the..." I ask myself as I open the mail.

["Greetings, miss Schwarzerfeld."]

["It's come to our attention that you could be a valuable asset to our cause, and we officially extend our invitation to you. Your skills as a Marksman are of great potential, potential that the Renskr Military would see blossom and put to good use. If you are genuinely interested in our offer, please meet us at the following coördinates, which are found in the attachment."]

["Sincerely, Lieutenant-General Cromnik"]

"Lieutenant?" My eyes read through the mail a few times over till it sunk into me. The Military? What in hell's name would they want with me? Don't they have their own little squad of lackeys which they can train to be marksmen? Or isn't their human faction strong enough to handle the sniper rifle?

"Hah. Begging a Hybrid for help. Fan-tastic." I chuckled softly as I opened the attachment. Simple coördinates, and I put them in my map, locating the place. I guess I was interested after all. I mean, what else would I be doing? Roaming Hell? Visiting Heaven? Drinking in Eden?

Like hell I would. Though going rogue and sniping for fun seemed like a relaxing idea, I wanted something to work towards. Ambition. A common goal.

I packed up my stuff, and payed the bill. In-game coffee tasted so bad in comparison to the real world. If only they could improve that, they would be making so much more damn money.

I stepped outside, and pulled up my cowl. It'd probably take me an hour on foot to reach my destination.

"Off we go, then."

Chapter 2

"Welcome, miss Schwarzerfeld."

I didn't reply, as I closed the door behind me. I had just entered the building set to the coördinates on my map. The building was part of a major complex, with a fence surrounding it completely. As I had walked up the path to the doors, I noticed a few interesting things along the way. For example, I could hear a muffled sound of rifle fire in the distance, plus I vaguely heard the spinning of chopper's blades.

Yeah. This had to be a military base, no doubt. Surprise to see Renskr military giving away their locations so easily to a Hybrid player. I knew something had to be off, but what... I couldn't quite place it.

The last whim of cold air snuck into the room after I closed the door and walked up to the guy who greeted me. I found myself standing in one of the largest hangers I had seen in the last few months, not since I did that snatch-and-grab run in Marath Minor.

The guy who adressed me was clothed in what I could only described as a beautiful uniform of black, red and yellow, with a few honourary medals pinned to his chest and a fancy tie around his neck, and to finish it all off he was wearing a standard issue beret sideways.

God, I loved uniforms. You should have seen me on my first few days of school. I practically fainted at the sight of everybody in uniform. So neat and tidy, so full of charisma. Atleast, to me it looked like that. Anyway...

I finally replied to him after a minute of staring at the contents of the hangar. "Hmn."

He grinned, and extended his hand. "Lieutenant-General Cromnik. At your service."

"...Pleasure..." I replied, not looking him in the eye. I just kept staring at the hangar.

Inside the hangar was a toy I've always wanted: The Skyfire. It was a small gunship, or more specifically speaking a heavily armed ground-attack aircraft. It was well-known for possesing one of the biggest array of weaponry in the selection of gunships, bearing ground-attack, anti-material and anti-aircraft oriented weapons. Ontop of that, the Skyfire carried some high-tech sensoric systems which controlled navigation and piloting in general, but it was also capable of taking control of the firing systems.

All in all, Skyfires were bad-ass gunships. Remember that time when you asked for a pony for Christmas? Well, this was that pony.

"Impressed, Miss Schwarzerfeld?" Cromnik asked as he lead me closer to the aircraft.

"Certainly, Lieutenant-General." I replied as I inspected the aircraft. I noticed most of the aircraft was battered, with dents scattered along the outside plating, and most notably the weapons were removed, leaving open blocks in the hull of the aircraft.

"This one just returned from its final mission, perhaps." Cromnik said as he glanced at the Skyfire before them. "To think it almost became legendary..." He looked at me, expecting me to ask what had happened to the Skyfire.

I remained silent, and walked off, reluctantly. I sure did want that gunship.

Cromnik shrugged and walked after me. "Miss Schwarzerfeld, I take it you'd rather get to business right away, am I right?"

"Mhm." I nodded. "Let's discuss your offer, and be done with it."

"Follow me then, if you would."

I followed Cromnik as he lead me out of the hangar, and into a more confined building. Seemed like an officer lodging to me, but hell did I know. I had never been to a military base before, I was already more then excited to see that I was invited to one.

Cromnik opened the final door, which lead to a conference room. Inside, three other players sat in their respective chairs.

The first was a guy, with yellow piercing eyes and short black hair. He was leaning back into his chair, and even gave me a half a nod of acknowledgement. More then I had expected. I didn't react, as I walked over to my nearest chair in which I seated myself.

The second guy didn't react at all to my entrance, being too busy with his laptop. His eyes flashed white behind his screen, but he didn't look up to me. So I didn't react to him either.

The last guy, who sat relatively close to the computer geek looked kind of rugged and beaten, quite coarse if you ask me. He gave me a toothy grin as he swept back his red hair, removing his boots from the table in the process.

"We're all here. Well then... Miss Schwarzerfeld, Mister Scordato, Mister Kennedy, Mister Jäger..." He gave each of us a nod. So the red-haired guy was called Jäger, the yellow-eyed one was Scordato and the one with the laptop was Kennedy.

"Da. Shall we?" Jäger said as he leaned forward, folding his hands together.

"Certainly." Cromnik said as he sat down with a drink. I leaned back in my chair, and simply observed the group. I wasn't planning on saying anything till I heard the end of this story.

"Ladies, gentlemen, you've all been invited here on my account, as you all know..." Cromnik started, looking at us one by one. "You have been carefully selected from a long, long list of excellent players. Each of you is unique. Each of you is specialised, more then any marksmen in this game can hope to be."

"Renskr needs you." Jäger finally said.

"And why is that." The Scordato guy said as he skeptically glanced at Jäger.

"Because we four might be the only four marksmen in this game suitable to execute the most dangerous missions mankind has to offer." Jäger said nonchalantly as he too grabbed for his drink. I could smell from a distance that his drink wasn't just coffee or apple juice. It was alcohol alright.

"What Jäger is trying to say is that we believe you four are the only ones who could possibly aid us in our efforts for mankind's progression." Cromnik continued. "The Angels and Demons are powerful factions, respectively. While we hold our superiority in several areas, they still pose a significant threat on certain levels-"

"Such vague language... Care to elaborate?" Scordato interrupted as he glared at the Lieutenant. Guess he wasn't around for the games. He was for real.

"Hmn." Cromnik chuckled. "Straight to the point. I see. The Renskr Military needs you for a mission on the frontlines- no, behind those even. We need you four for the difficult tasks. You would be our arrow in the shadows, the thorn in their sides."

I kept quiet. I wanted to ask why he invited a Hybrid to the table, but I didn't want to expose myself too much. So I kept my mouth shut tightly.

"All of mankind needs your help." Cromnik folded his own hands, and gave us the pathetic 'serious look'. I saw right through it. All this emotional bullcrap. Sure, maybe humanity did, but I sure knew for a fact that Renskr just wanted to have the power in their arsenal of End War Online's deadliest sniper squad.

"And what is mankind willing to do for us in return?" Kennedy asked, not looking away from his laptop.

"Aye. What's in it for us." Scordato nodded.

I didn't react, glancing at the Lieutenant-General. My eyes locked with his for a moment, as he grinned. I couldn't help but wonder why he grinned...

"It is prepared to give you whatever you want. Of course you'll all be paid a lofty salary. Money is no obstacle. Moreso, money is trivial. You may ask whatever you want from us, and we'll give it to you."

Scordato glanced towards Kennedy and Jäger briefly. "I'll let you two go first..." He looked at me, but I shook my head before he could open his mouth. I wasn't planning on saying anything yet.

"I've already asked for what I want, and I got it comrades." Jäger said, nodding at us. "Rest assured; You will recieve what you wish for."

Kennedy, for the first time since I walked in, glanced up at Cromnik. "I'll send you a list of technical equipment that I want. I'm sure the Renskr Military can provide me with what I require."

"Double my salary- No, triple it, and I'm good." Scordato said with a grimass. I guess he really was debating whether he should've taken the job or not, and by the looks of it he needed the money badly.

"That leaves you, miss Schwarzerfeld." Cromnik looked at me, expectantly. "What do you want."

"I'm not interested. Goodbye."

With those words, I stood up and walked out the room, much to the players' surprise.

I didn't need the job.

---

As I left the officer lodging along with Cromnik and the rest behind me, I started wondering whether I made the right choice or not. I tried to shrug it off me, pulling up my cowl to shield me from the cold wind that howled through the base.

I was about to pass the Skyfire hangar when I heard a muffled voice cry out at me. I turned around to face the guy who was calling at me.

"...Cooooomraaaaade!" Jäger cried out again. I could see him sprinting over to me from across the base. So Cromnik couldn't do his own dirty work. See? This is a side of the military that I didn't like.

I rolled my eyes, and stepped towards the panting Jäger, eyeing him up and down. "What."

He coughed, casually, and grinned. "Want to grab a drink?"

"No thank you."

"C'mon, it's on me!" He said, still throwing me that awful grin.

I stared at him blankly for a few seconds, not sure what to say. Keeping quiet wasn't going to get rid of him.

"...Silnce means a da?" He looked at me.

I shook my head. "No means no. Bye."

I started turning around, but Jäger grabbed me by my wrist. Oh boy. He shouldn't have done that.

Caught off guard. Just how I like it, they fall so much easier when they're not expecting it. I twist my arm while I spin to face him, stepping forwards to close the gap. My left hand shot towards his jacket, grasping it firmly as I step back, pulling him towards me. He tried to shake off my grasp, but I think we both knew he was just too late with reacting. I hold out my right leg, allowing him to trip over it as I draw him past me.

Lucky for him, I gave him enough space to work with. Jäger agily broke his fall by rolling over the ground, spinning around to face me again. He was a tough one I guess. I kept staring at him again as he dusted himself off and threw me that grin again. That bloody grin. It was starting to annoy me so badly.

"So!" He asked again. "Sure you don't want that drink."

I started to walk past him, not looking at him anymore. "No."

"Alright, hold up." Jäger said as he ran up to me, walking alongside me. I think he learned not to grab any part of me ever again. "What about... We make it a game."

I stopped in my tracks. A game huh? Should I really be getting into this mess? I could just walk away, forget about him, Cromnik, Renskr and all the crap of today.

On the other hand, it was just a game. I could atleast hear him out, right?

I sighed, and turned towards him. "What do you have in mind?"

Jäger chuckled, and opened his menu. A few seconds later, a gigantic rifle materialized in his hands. Like, it was huge. Had to be past 2 meters long I reckoned. No wonder this guy was so huge and ripped, seeing he chose to shoot this beast of a sniper rifle.

"This here is Surkov." He said, filled with pride. "How about you and I take a few shots?"

"I'm not shooting that." I said, shaking my head. "Do I look like I want to rip off my shoulder?"

"Oh, don't worry. Something like that happened once, it was worse then it looked." He chuckled, motioning me to follow him. "All it took was a good push and your shoulder pops back in!"

He let out another boisterous laugh. He sure was that type of guy, alright. Must've been him sipping the alcohol. Who knows.

He lead me past the officer lodgings and down a small dirt road. We passed a pair of old barrier gates, which we jumped over, and we continued walking through a closed off section of the base. Iron fencing surrounded this entire part, which had to be a good few kilometers of space to work with. I already knew where he was taking me. The firing range.

We finally stopped once we reached a suitable spot to shoot from. It was a small overlook, with a few pine trees and bushes surrounding it, and from this point we were able to aim down at the targets, which were the simplest of targets. A few thick, plexwood humanoid shapes, covered in black canvas with white scoring rings lied scattered over the field. The furthest target had to be around 1800 meters. Atleast, that's how far I thought it would be. Intuition helps alot.

A few harder targets were also present. Two targets were partially covered by simple obstacles, like a sandbag wall, or a treestump. The hardest target had to be at roughly 1650 meters, hiding behind what seemed to be a wrecked tank, with only the tip of its head sticking out. Even for me, that had to be a tricky shot to make. Accomplishable, but tricky.

I looked at Jäger. "So what's the game?"

"It's more of a bet." Jäger said, looking back at me. He had placed Surkov on the ground, ready to fire. "Look. Cromnik sent me over, you know that much. I won't drag you back to the office. All I want is a fair chance to talk."

"What is there to talk about..." I said. Jäger gave me a confused look. Not that I didn't expect it. Who would understand that?

To my surprise, Jäger grinned once more. "Loads, trust me. Look... If I can shoot every target within... say..." He gazed at the field. I glanced over at the field aswell. Nine targets, all at different ranges. Judging from my own standards, I could probably take those targets down in less than seven seconds, give or take. He might take a little more time to accomplish that, but I wanted to test his limits.

"Twelve seconds." I nodded at him. "You get exactly twelve seconds. If you miss one, you're out and I'm off. If you manage to shoot them all down-"

"You'll go out on that drink with me!" Jäger cheered. I rolled my eyes, but nodded. I think he deserved a fair chance.

"Fine. Shoot when you're ready."

Jäger fell flat to the ground, and tucked Surkov against his shoulder. He checked the magazine, and prepared his second magazine for a fast reload. Before he started shooting, he glanced up at me. "You might want to cover your ears."

I didn't react, and simply stared down the firing range. Jäger shrugged, and aimed down his sights. "Don't say I didn't warn you..."

He took a deep breath, and pulled his trigger. A deafening blast echoed throughout the base, and my hands shot towards my ears. I knew such a beastly gun was loud, but this loud?! Hell, I'm surprised that his hearing is still intact!

Jäger was a formidable marksman. His first few shots were all headshots, leaving the target dummies decapitated... Well, more like torn into thousands of shreds. The ammunition of Surkov had to be pretty heavy. After those first few shots, his aim swayed a little. I figured it was because he was busy on reloading his weapon more then finishing the shots. Time pressure and all, didn't matter greatly The shots were still amazing shots.

The last few came up. Jäger grunted as his aim quickly swooped to the sandbag wall, and his bullet ripped apart the wall, taking the target down with it. The second target dummy was completely wrecked as the bullet shredded the plexwood into a million splinters.

Then came the last target, behind the tank. I grinned. By my count, he had a second to spare. Then he would complete the challenge. But it was the trickiest shot to be pulled off. I wouldn't be surprised if he missed it. Still, he would have been the greatest sniper I've encountered, on par with myself. One of my most skilled rivals.

Somehow, Jäger just grunted even louder as he shot one final time. I peered at the tank, and I was amazed. The bullet ripped through the tank effortlessly, leaving a major hole where it had pierced the metal plating. The target behind the tank had been hit aswell.

This guy. He sure was unique, just like Cromnik said.

Jäger stood up, opening his menu and storing Surkov away again. He then looked up at me as I blankly stared back at him, like I had done before. "...You still want to go for that drink, don't you Jäger?" I huffed angrily.

"Da!"

I rolled my eyes. For the love of... Oh well. One drink. Can't be that bad, can it?

---

I was so, so wrong.

Jäger was sitting next to me, at our lonely table in a not-so-bustling tavern, with his... like, what, eight or ninth drink of the evening, babbling on in some foreign language. If I had to guess, he was Russian. I knew a few words he had uttered, but these sentences were beyond me. I think he was cheering and toasting to random stuff. Russians. Twice the drinkers Scotsmen are. My god...

I rolled my eyes, and stared at the drink Jäger bought me. It smelled like alcohol, heavily, and I had taken a few small sips of it. Luckily it wasn't the heavy crap he was chugging. It was much sweeter, and tasted like pears. Still was a heavy drink, since after a minute or two you could feel the alcohol taking its toll on you.

"So!" Jäger cheered as he sat back down next to me. His cheeks were flourished, but he seemed to still be very concious. I bet years of drinking conditioned his liver to the point where no drink could make him drunk enough.

"So?" I said, taking another sip of my drink. I felt the alcohol burn in the back of my throat. Damn you, End War Online. You make perfect alcoholic drinks, but not one single good batch of coffee? Damnit!

"I think I might aswell introduce myself. The name's Dimitri Jäger." He said, nodding at me.

I huffed. "Schwarzerfeld... Laura..." I said with much hesitation. Normally I wouldn't have told anybody my actual name. I did that with people I knew well, or with those I made contracts with. Not with random Russian guys. That was far from my style.

"Laura, eh?" He said, his eyes glistening as he took another chug from his drink.

"Let's stick with Schwarzerfeld." I said, giving him the cold stare. I noticed him grinning, again, and he shook his head.

"Fine. Schwarzerfeld it is." He said. "Don't need to relive that trick when I grabbed your wrist, eh?"

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Yeah... Suppose so."

"Schwarzerfeld." Suddenly, Dimitri's voice went a lot lower, and became a hell of a lot more serious. He shove away his drink, which was empty, and folded his hands. "We need you."

I folded my own arms, and leaned back in my chair. "How's that so?"

"We have your records at Renskr." Dimitri started. "Cromnik is well-informed, we know how good you truely are. Your potential is far higher then any of us possibly have, which is your strongest side. Room for development. And to think you can still grow, while you're this skilled already!" He said, raising his voice slightly.

"Why won't you look into the countless recruits you have at your base?" I said. I was flattered, honestly, but I still didn't see why I had to join.

"They're far from our level, you know that."

"Then train them."

"You could, Schwarzerfeld."

"Maybe I don't want to."

"Then what -do- you want?" Jäger suddenly said, staring at me. "Cromnik promised all of us whatever we desired, an offer fit for Gods. And you turn him down so easily." He shrugged. "Why?"

I remained silent. I didn't know exactly why I turned Cromnik down. Maybe I didn't feel like being chained to the military. Maybe I didn't want to be part of a team, being responsible for another's life. It surely wasn't the lack of payment... Then what was holding me back?

I tried to open my mouth, but I couldn't say anything. I just kept staring at Dimitri.

"Look... Why not give it a shot?" Dimitri proposed as he raised his hand, ordering another drink. "Try it out for a week. See if you like it. I know you won't get a better contract then this for months to come, Schwarzerfeld."

I pondered the offer again for a moment.

"Think about it." Dimitri said. "A giant sum of money along with whatever you desire, sniping unlimited, not having to pay for equipment or weapon upkeep costs... All free! And for what? Shooting a single suka in the middle of nowhere?"

Dimitri grinned, and laughed, grabbing his new drink. "Doesn't it sound good?"

"I guess it sounds like my average mission, but better..." I said, nodding. Jäger was right. Maybe I could gain something from this job.

"Come on, Schwarzerfeld. Take the job!" He said, poking my arm playfully. I rammed by own elbow into the side of his chest, which didn't even move him. He just kept on laughing. God, he could get on my nerves.

"I'll... I'll do it, fine..." I said with a hum. "I'll talk with Cromnik as soon as we get back to the base."

"That's more like it!" Dimitri chuckled, and raised his drink. "Here's to you, Laura-!"

"Don't." I glared at him, clicking my fingers and rolled up my sleeves.

"Sorry, sorry." He said with a grin. He was teasing me, clearly. I sniffed angrily, and took my drink with two hands.

"Here's to drinking partners then!" He said, and I couldn't interrupt him this time before he set his lips against the glass.

"More like 'colleagues' or 'co-workers', Jäger." I said, taking a sip from my drink, to which Dimitri laughed. I guess I would have to endure that stupid grin for the rest of my time in Renskr.

---

"What?!"

"You heard me, Cromnik. You want me, or not?" I said, tapping my foot while Jäger, Kennedy and Scordato stood behind me.

"Well... Miss... I don't-... Uuuuhm..." Cromnik was searching for words, which he clearly lacked in this moment.

"I'll repeat myself once more time, Cromnik." I said, stepping forward. "I want that Skyfire from the other day, double salary, a tailored Renskr uniform and the rank of Captain."

"Well, it's not like we can promote you like that!" Cromnik muttered. "Besides, why would you want that rank? Your company won't even be lead by any of you four!"

"Nonetheless." I said, folding my arms. "Captain rank, or bust. Your choice."

"Come on comrade. If she wants it that badly, just give her the rank." Dimitri's voice grumbled behind me.

"Yeah. Give her the requirements. You had no trouble giving Kennedy here his list of equipment, now did you?" Scordato remarked aswell.

Cromnik sighed. "That's all of it?"

I grinned. "Final chance. Do we have a deal?" I extend my hand to Cromnik.

Cromnik glanced at the three guys behind me. All of them chuckled, and nodded at Cromnik as the Lieutenant-General took my hand and shook it.

"Welcome, Captain Schwarzerfeld. Welcome to Renskr Military, and to November Company."

November Company huh? Sweet name.

I think I might just start liking this a lot more.

Chapter 3

A few weeks later.

I step inside our lodging. Us four, of November Company as we were called nowadays, shared a house in which we lived and relaxed in between work. I took the first room upstairs, next to the bathroom. Vincent Kennedy, as I finally got to know his new name, oddly chose for the basement, opting for the biggest space to work in. Guess he needed to store that much equipment after all. Dimitri Jäger got the room far across mine, looking out on the base. Ridley Scordato, whose name I knew finally aswell, got the room between mine and Jäger's. We had a simple kitchen, and a suitable living room with the necessary accomodations. A large cough, a big screen to watch online streams of EWO footage, and more.

I was sitting on the couch when Ridley walked in. He must've just finished training class 1-B.

"Scordato." I say without looking at him. I was too focused on the livestream on the big screen. It was a popular Angel player who was fighting in the Heaven Purgatory. If you didn't know what Purgatory is, it's basically the transition from Eden to Hell or Heaven, with the necessary touches to it. The human race was gaining a foothold in Purgatory, on both sides, but it was difficult to maintain their positions.

"Ridley. C'mon, Laura, you know it pisses me off when people pronounce 'Scordato' that way." Ridley grumbled as he kicked his shoes off and hung up his coat. He grabbed a drink from the kitchen and sat down near me, on the couch next to mine.

I roll my eyes, and grumble. "Any luck with the recruits?" I asked him.

Ridley shook his head. "One of them actually managed to point the barrel at his face at one point. Good thing I stopped him from pulling that trigger, his face would've looked far worse then it already did."

'"For real." I said, grumbling. "Do any of these military soldiers know how to fight?"

"I'm sure Ridley exaggerated, didn't you tovarich?" Jäger's voice sounded as he came down the stairs.

"Well he was at one point. Then he claimed he was only inspecting the barrel." Ridley grumbled as he quietly sipped his drink. Jäger pulled out his personal bottle of Vodka from the fridge, and sat down next to me. I shuffled away, creating a gap between the two of us.

Jäger chuckled. "C'mon, I don't bite."

"Sure you don't."

"Want to go out for another drink then?" Jäger teased me, whirling around his vodka before downing it.

"No thank you..." I said, shaking my head. "I don't want to taste one more of those drinks you bought that night."

"Well..." Scordato said. "We could go with all of the Company, right?" He stood up, walking towards the basement stairs. "Oi, Kennedy! Wanna go out for a drink after work?"

"Sure." Vincent's voice sounded from the basement.

"See?" Ridley grinned as he sat back down, spreading his arms over the back of the couch. "Just go with us. We've known eachother for some time now, you should be fine with just one friendly drink."

"He's right, you know." Jäger nodded.

I huffed, and folded my arms. "You know what I think of alcohol. Especially when you're involved, Dimitri."

Dimitri laughed, almost spilling his vodka over the couch. "Hey, I don't drink prior to missions any longer."

"Because I told you to."

"No, I did that way before then aswell."

"Ridley, you can handle him for now." I say, standing up and walking upstairs. "And about tonight... I'll tag along. Okay?"

Ridley laughed, and waved me off. "We'll call when we go. Take your time."

"Mhm. Thanks."

I could hear Dimitri's muffled voice rattling on about his drinks as he talked with Ridley. Though Scordato was a far better suited drinking partner, he always chose me to drink with him. I know we drank together before, but I never thought that would imply he was going to ask me on a regular basis. I never rolled that way.

I lie on my bed in my room, glancing over at the table near the window. The Valkyrie sat on it, with some empty magazines next to it. Cartridges lied scattered around the table, the chair and on the floor even.

"I need to clean up, and soon." I sigh as I swipe up my menu. This place was looking as bad as my wardrobe did back in the real world. I would just take a short break and then I'd have a drink or two with the lads.

"I'm logging out, see you tonight." I say, loud enough for either Ridley or Dimitri to hear.

I closed my eyes, and logged out.

---

A few hours later.

"Baaaack." I roll off my bed, and walk over to my table. I selected Valkyrie, and store it into my inventory safely, along with the rest of my accessoires. I nod, pleased, and straighten my uniform, before walking downstairs.

As I walked downstairs, I noticed Jäger, Kennedy and Scordato sitting in the living room, with Lieutenan-General Cromnik standing infront of them.

I peer at them as I seat myself on one of the empty couches. "Lieutenant-General."

"Captain." Cromnik says, nodding at me. I give him a stiff salute, before leaning back. "I've got information for you and Scordato."

"Oh?" Ridley says as his eyes flash. "Do I hear a mission coming up?"

"Mhm." Cromnik confirms, looking at us both. "Jäger is tasked with assisting us in the Academy. Kennedy has prepared the necessary data, which he has transferred to your Skyrfire."

"So, it's ready to fly?" I ask. Renskr had been working on our Skyfire ever since I requested the gunship. I wondered if it was modified to November Company's needs.

"Certainly, Captain Schwarzerfeld." Cromnik assured me. "Our technicians have worked around the clock to prepare the gunship. It will serve as your main transport within November Company henceforth."

"Awesome." Ridley grinned, clenching his fist. "Wait... Who is piloting it?"

We all stare at eachother. I wasn't a pilot, neither was Ridley by the looks of it. Jäger was out of the bloody question, no way I would even consider boarding the Skyfire with him behind the steering wheel.

My eyes locked with those of Kennedy. "You?" I ask.

Kennedy taps his chin. "I could easily learn it, but I think untill I do Renskr will have to provide us with the necessary pilots."

"That won't be a problem, will it Lieutenant-General?" Jäger grinned.

"Not at all." Cromnik said, as he motioned me and Ridley to follow. "Come, I'll debrief you two."

Ridley shrugs at me, and gets up, as do I. We nod at Vincent and Dimitri before walking out of the house, following Cromnik to the hangar. He was going to show us the Skyfire, no doubt.

We entered the hangar, and there it was. Our own gunship. The labeling from Renskr was still partially visible beneath the new paint, but they obviously removed the old name from the hull. Where once large gaps sat for the guns had now been refilled with the weaponry I requested. The biggest and baddest feature had to be the PS-175, a giant 175mm piece of artillery fire that was capable of slicing through almost any vehicle the enemy would offer, save for Collosi. Next to that, I had the two remaining gaps filled with twin-linked HFTA-45 heavy artilery cannons, 45mm. This gunship would wreak havoc alright.

Ridley walked around the Skyfire as I eyed it from a distance alongside Cromnik. "Marvelous job, Lieutenant-General. Thank you."

Cromnik smiled and nodded at me.

"So, where are we shipped off to then?" Ridley asked when he returned to Cromnik.

"I'm sending you to Purgatory, Heaven side to be precise."

"Not the far side, I hope?" I asked, trying not to sound nervous. I'd been close to Heaven once. Yeah, it wasn't pretty. It was really, really dangerous. Do you have any idea what freaks roam that place? They actively hunted me down for being part Demon, and they even tracked down my human companions at the time only for knowing me.

Yeah, there are more lunatics in Heaven then in Hell I think.

"Somewhere in between, Schwarzerfeld." Cromnik said, as he folded his hands behind his back and did his little walking to and fro. "Our main area, Vanguard Point, has been under heavy fire for some time now. It has become apparent on many occasions that not all Angel forces follow Michael's divine notion of peace between our two factions, and for once the human race will respond adequately to these heretics."

I looked at Ridley. He was gritting his teeth, for some reason. I didn't know why. Maybe he had some history with the Angels?

"To counter these recent deadly incursions, we're sending a small, covert squad in to 'thin out' their defenses. I came to the conclusion that you two were the perfect candidates to carry out this task."

"Who are we going for?" Ridley asked.

"At first, you'll only focus on causing disaray in their ranks. The more they fear you, the more divided they will be. So don't be afraid to take down as many as you can." Cromnik started. He jerked around, spinning on his heels, and faced us. "Then comes the hard part."

I sighed. "Oh boy."

"The one you are taking down will be their commander, 'Nathaniel'. He is very powerful, and he'll be heavily guarded by his personal guard at all times."

"Tough takedown." Ridley rubbed his chin. "Residence?"

Cromnik opened up a 3d holographical map, detailing the area in Purgatory. "Here." His finger slid down a few settlements, not far from Vanguard Point. "These few abandoned and ruined towns is where he has garrisoned his troops. it will be in one of these towns that he will reside, though intel has it that he relocates every now and then."

"Has Kennedy uploaded his player statistics to the Skyfire?" I ask.

"He has. We've got his record files in the database, all that we could get from Angel ISD's."

"Good." I hum.

"Once you take down Nathaniel, you will have to make your way to an extraction point, which we will notify you of. It will be quite the distance from the towns, so prepare for a long hike back."

"Understood." Ridley and I salute in unison.

Cromnik saluted, and turned around to leave. "You'll depart in two days time, so prepare yourselves. Dismissed."

I walked over to the Skyfire, and inspected the PS-175, rubbing the cold steel. "First co-op mission."

Ridley chuckled. "It'll be a piece of cake. Eliminating these Angels will be easier then you think. Trust me, I know." He said before waving me over. "Come on. Kennedy must be done by now, and I think Jäger is dying for a good drink."

"Mhm." I nod, following Ridley. Working with this guy would be straightforward and easy. There was no beating around the bush with him, or atleast that's how I think he is. Scordato may yet prove to be the most suitable partner in Novermber Company so far.

---

"You feeling good?"

"Yeah."

We could hardly hear eachother over the sound of the engine inside the Skyfire. We were sitting opposite of eachother, close to the System Command Centre. Although the systems for both navigation and flight as for weapon controls were pretty much close to automatic piloting, it still needed an operator for the tough technical stuff. Plus, someone needed to keep checking the system for flaws, since it only just finished its renovation. We couldn't see the pilot up front, for a thing sheet of metal seperated the cockpit from the rest of the interior.

Ridley had been staring at the guns that were linked to the System Command. "Hey, Laura..."

I looked at him. I didn't grumble this time for being called by my name. It was a mission, and during missions it was more important to be effective and simple, so I allowed Ridley to call me Laura. "What?" I say.

"Tell me about the guns." He pointed at them. "I've never heard of these before."

"To be honest, I had them developed for me. Personal taste." I explained. "The far one, which we can't see fully is called the 'Panzerschredder'. It's the 175mm one, it'll rip a hole in anything except for a Collosus."

"You named the guns?" Ridley asked. "Nothing wrong with the name though. It's to the point."

"Well, I might have gone over the top." I reply, biting my lip. "Maybe... But it does sound good..."

I proceed to point at the pair of twin-linked guns. "Those, the doubles, are the 'Höllenfeuer' Tandem Fire. They're 45mm, so not as impactful and devastating like one shot from the PS-175, but they sure do wreak havoc. They fire, like the name suggests, in tandem, increasing the chance of hitting. Plus the feed is quite extensive, so you can just rain down on the target area for quite a while, to the point where the guns might overheat. Not likely, but they could."

"Hellfire..." Ridley taps his chin. "Should've made the shells Incendiary ammunition. Suits the name."

"Yeah, kinda." I say.

Ridley pats his gun next to him. "See this? S112 Velociten. I can feed Incendiary into it, but it doesn't stop there."

I lift an eyebrow. "So you've got more then one type of ammo?"

"Yeap!" Ridley says with a smile. Seems he gets pretty excited when talking about his gun. Then again, which of us snipers don't get excited when we talk about snipers? Well, maybe a few of our kind, but anyway. Not the point. I stare at Velociten, and eye it carefully.

"Like?"

"Like... I purchased the Breaker 5 rounds, armour piercing... And those tracking rounds, called Huntsman Mk. 3." He says. "And this here..." He taps an extension on his barrel, odd looking device. "This here is the Sparkplug. I built it myself to suit my needs."

"Sparkplug?" I continue to ask, folding my arms.

"Electricity. Amazing utility." He smiles proudly. "Great for taking out power sources by causing an overload on the circuits."

"That's... amazing!" I say, holding in most of my excitement. Scordato had an innovative side to sniping. I always kept to my main goal, which was to take out the opponent. Ridley gave sniping a whole new level to explore and work with. With his versatile ammo, you could say he was far more specialized then any of us was. Multi-purpose built.

"Mhm." He nods, as he leans back in his seat.

I look to the ramp at the very back of the Skyfire. We would be exiting the gunship from that very ramp in but a few minutes. It wouldn't take long untill we reached our designated drop zone, not a few kilometers outside the settlements near Vanguard Point. The Skyfire would be stationed at Vanguard Point, to refuel and restock and wait for us untill we round off our mission.

"Scared of heights?" Ridley asked as he looked at me. I shook my head.

"I've seen my fair share of drops, Ridley" I said. "I'm no paratrooper, but let's say I've done a dive or two in End War Online."

Ridley kept his eyes on me for a moment before speaking. "You're a Hybrid, aren't you?"

I lock eyes with him, as he gave me a sheepish smile of innocence. "You've been peeking at our files, haven't you?" I grumble, upset.

He holds his hands up. "Hey. I just accidently saw them the other day, and they happened to be opened, and I really couldn't help myself."

I roll my eyes as he chuckles softly. "Don't worry, don't let it get to you. I'll still treat you the same way." He said. "Being a Hybrid, whether it's Demon or Angel, shouldn't matter. Atleast, to me it shouldn't."

We both immediatly stand up as we get the signal to prepare. "I guess you'll be the only one using a parachute then!" I roar as the ramp opens slowly. I clamp myself to the nets on the ceiling above us, making my way to the ramp.

Ridley deselected Velociten into his inventory, and joined me at the ramp. I frown at him, and he just grins at me.

"What?!" I shout at him atop of the winds.

"You're not the only Hybrid!" He yells as he dives out the back into the air, rapidly plummiting towards the ground. I watch him descend for a good few seconds, and in the distance I see a pair of golden wings flap out from his back, tucked backwards to keep his speed optimal.

I shrug. Who would've known. Ridley Scordato, you secretive badass.

I jump after him, and quickly all that I hear is the sound of air rushing past me. I keep my eyes closed for a few seconds, focusing on my Anima solely, before I spur them wide open and activate my own Soulcraft. Slowly, my body is whirling with black smoke, and a pair of shadowy, misty wings open up from my back. I keep my speed up, untill I'm but a few hundred meters above the ground, at which I force my wings to spread open and slow down tremendously. I surge forward, and hit the ground with a big impact, causing a small crater to form where I land. I see dirt fly around, and the soundwave of the impact slowly dies down as it disappears in the distant surroundings.

I drop to one knee, panting. "Why do I always overdo my shit..." I blurt out between my rabid breathing. My Anima was drained a bit after that little stunt. Yeah, if you didn't know already, players can use what is called Soulcraft in End War Online. It was a form of magic which we could use to enhance our abilities and combat. It was super neat, but you actually needed to train a shitload before you could skillfully and effectively use it.

I considered myself past being an Apprentice user... More like, semi-skilled. I still needed a buttload of training. Using two or three spells simultaneously, or using a long, exhausting spell like I just did, or even recasting a spell a few times would leave me drained quite fast. Anima, the pool of power which Soulcraft users needed to tap into, was limited. It grows bigger when you train, but it takes some time to expand.

I select my UIP, which stood for Universal Information Processors. It was my communication device, basically radio.

"Ridley?"

"Yeah." I hear him respond through my UIP.

"I'm 1,5 kilometers away from you. Moving to your position, gear up in the meantime."

"Gotcha. Out."

Chapter 4

I pick up my pace, and accelerate. I felt pretty fatigued from that stunt leap. Why oh why couldn't I just strap on that parachute. Nevermind, not the point.

You're probably wondering why I'm this drained. Well, to start things off, this is Heavenside Purgatory. Purgatory, as you might know, is the world that seperates Heaven or Hell from Eden. Like a plane between the two which allows you to fade between the realms. There's a difference though. Heavenside is worse for Demons like me, while Hellside is worse for Angels like Ridley. The closer to our respective realms, the stronger we grow. And the closer we get to the opposite, the weaker we are. Right now, Ridley must be twice as strong as I am. Imagine what happens when he steps into Heaven? Yeah, Hybrid on steroids for you right there.

While I keep up my pace, I glance around at my surroundings. Purgatory resembles Eden, but... different. Altered. Since these planes between Heaven or Hell were commonly considered the frontline warzones between the factions, most of the landscape was battered. Dead trees, scorched soil, ruined buildings. Yeah, warzone. Figures.

In the distance, I can spot the Skyfire disappearing in the thick smog. Luckily it didn't get attacked, so there was no need to arm the new weaponry just yet. Though, worst case scenario the guns would wreck anything the Angels might use on the gunship.

I hear my UIP buzz, and I quickly respond.

"Laura?"

"Mhm. Half a kilometer. You can spot me with Soul Vision likely." I say as I grab my blindfold from my bag. This blindfold I carry with me is what we call a Catalyst. Basically it means the item reacts with your Anima, resulting in less straining use of a spell. I tie it around my eyes as I run forward, temporarily blinded, though I quickly fuel my blindfold with Anima and regain my sight.

All I percieve are thick, blurred shadows around me. I can sense the sillhouettes of the dead trees around me, the dry grass, the scorched dirt. In the distance, I spot a small outline of a figure, coloured bright yellow. It had to be Ridley. His Anima Aura was exceedingly high, even for an Angel so close to Heaven. I guess he was really powerful to begin with.

I run for another half a minute or so before I catch up to Ridley. I still feel quite drained, but overal I would be fine. Anima regained slower aswell, another fun fact for Demon Hybrids in Heavenside Limbo. Woop, fun times.

"You're all set?" I ask him as I swing Valkyrie alongside me, locked and loaded for action.

Ridley selected Velociten, and pulled up his skull-patterned scarf up till his nose. "Let's move."

We move eastwards, closing in on the compound. In the distance, we could spot the outlines of the ruined buildings, though it would take another hour or so to completely move in, set up our vantage point and read the entire settlement. Plus, in the meantime we'd be dealing with patrols and other hostile units in the perimiter.

We eventually reach a longstretched open field, which seemed to have been a grain field a long time ago. The fencework surrounding the entire field was old and rotten, but still served their purpose. A winding dirt road roughly lined the fencework on our far righthand side, while we were sneaking past the fencework on the bottom lefthand side.

"Ridley." I say as I take aim, removing my blindfold in the process and scouting ahead. "Contact, 2 o'clock. Group of 6, one light machine gunner."

"Copy." Ridley says as he goes into prone, crawling himself under the fencework. I decide to mirror his decision, and lie down a few meters away from him.

I switch on my UIP again, and start scoping in on my targets. "Which one do you want to take out?"

"Really?" He asks, genuinely surprised. "You're worried about these 6 guys?"

"Yeah, I am." I say, also surprised. "Unlike most, I stay 100% serious the entire length of my carreer."

"I like that." I hear Ridley chuckle. "I'll take the machine gunner and his buddy at the back. Can you handle the front four?"

"Sure can." I say as I adjust my optics. My crosshairs line up with the first guy's chest, still keeping the remaining three in my visual at all times. I let my breathing drop to a suitable aiming pace.

"Ready?" I hear Ridley over my UIP. He sounded impatient.

"Patience, kiddo." I reply as I keep my target in sight. "I like taking my time with my shots."

"Hmn. On your mark." He says as he takes aim aswell.

I breath in, and exhale one final time before tightening my trigger.

"Go."

In what seemed all but three seconds time, I manage to sweep my crosshairs over the men four times, with each shot dead accurate. It takes a second for them to fall back, robbed from their life and out cold.

I sweep Valkyrie to the left slightly, to check in on Ridley's targets. "All down." I hear his voice sound over my UIP as I spot the dead bodies.

"Let's move in on them and check their gear and such." Ridley says as he rises from the dirt and jumps over the fence. I double check the road, up and down, and I check my back aswell for good measure before trailing Ridley to their corpses.

I see Ridley dragging the bodies into the side of the road, in between a few bushes to conceal them. Neat thinking, he was a step ahead already.

"Anything useful about these guys?" I ask as I drag one of their bodies over to the bushes.

Ridley peers at the corpse I bring in. "This guy does." He says as he rolls the corpse over, exposing him chest. "See?"

His finger was pointed at an emblem on their uniform. It was a sign of the Angelic forces, commonly seen on Angel military uniforms.

"Well not all that useful. We knew from the start that we'd encounter Angel military." I say as I walk over to the final corpse alongside Ridley.

"Conformation is always handy." He shrugs as he lifts the final corpse and starts moving it over. The corpse he was holding was the light machine gunner from the back of the patrol. I frowned, and tapped my chin. The gun itself didn't bother me, but the marks on the guy's hands did. I could spot the burns on his palms, weirdly enough, though I knew he had been shot in the head, by the looks of things.

I look at Velociten. "You used the Sparkplug on the guy, didn't you?" I say as Ridley rubbed his neck.

"If I'm gonna kill someone, the least I can do is make his death worth the trouble." He admitted as he picked up Velociten after dumping the gunner next to his deceased pals. "I've always wanted to test this theory. Seems it can't kill the player immediatly, but it does leave the player stunned."

"Hmn." I hum as I scan up ahead. Seemed Scordato was really experimentive with his methods. He actually managed to headshot the fellow after bringing down his first target and overloading his gun with an electric shockcharge. Huh. Nice feat.

I lower Valkyrie as I realise nothing was coming our way for now. I motion Ridley to follow as I strap my blindfold back on and leap back into the field, blending in with our enviroment again.

"First pack of trouble. More to come soon."

"I bet."

---

We moved around for another two hours, closing in on the vicinity of the town. I was still amazed everytime we crossed paths with abanoned farms and the like. The eerie feeling it gave me was indescribable.

Our path crossed with a few more squadrons of angels, of course. The bastards littered the entire front, but I expected nothing less. Most of them were standard equipped, nothing special. An oddity here and there, like that machine gunner. I think Ridley even managed to drop an Animage along the way. I remember the girl, all wrapped in holy vestments. Revolting. I didn't like religion and all, so the sight of those robes made me shiver uneasily.

Don't get me wrong. I think it's great people have a religion. It's just not for me. Plus, this is a bloody game. Are we really gonna drag real life religion into EWO? Seriously? They could just drop the whole holy theme for all I care.

We both kneel down in the ashes of a fallen tree, with the barrels of both our rifles resting on the remains of the log. The sky had darkened with black and orange, creating this almost perfect warzone atmosphere. The dry, hot wind blew through my hair as I removed my blindfold.

"First up is that large building." Ridley said as he swooped over the town. I was checking the streets for troop locations, and quickly summarized an order of execution.

"What's in it?" I ask as I rear my optic sight towards the northern end of the town. The town itself was divided into areas. The most rural parts, like the eastern side on which we closed in, was wrecked and torn to pieces, leaving most buildings ruined. The south side was mostly made up out of what seemed to be the leveled remains of the town's military district. Might've been an old site which got bombarded when the human faction still owned the place.

"Stuffed with Animages. They're radiating like hell." Ridley says. I see his eyes flash with a golden hue, an indication he was using Soul Vision to penetrate the building's walls.

"How many?"

"About ten or so."

"C'mon... A definitive number?" I grumble.

"Twelve." Ridley sighed. I feared he took this whole ordeal too lightly sometimes. That, or he just liked to move with pace. Every step of the way he's been trying to get ahead of business, as if we were in a hurry. It was pleasant, in a way. Knowing that he was a step ahead all the time was great and it reassured me, but it also meant that he was sometimes missing stuff in the here and now. All he wanted was to move quickly.

"Patience." I say firmly as I eye the northern side. The north side was where Nathaniel was residing, for sure. It was the most intact of the entire town, with reinforcements brought up on every side. They turned the north side into the new military district. I easily spotted full squadrons, and not the fainter ones like those we encountered before. Oh no. These were properly geared and all. Fit for fucking Michael himself. If you didn't know who Michael is, he's the commander of the Angels. Guy's a freaking living legend. I hope I never run into him, ever.

"What's in your sights?" Ridley asks me as he taps Velociten's stock.

"Military district. Guard Squadrons, you'd recognise them." I reply. "These guys aren't the slackers we've encountered before, Ridley."

"Oh no, noooo." Ridley whistled through his teeth as he too reared Velociten towards the northern district. "Those are some capable players, Laura. On par with Michael's personal guards. See? They've got the mantle, the swords, even the emblem matches."

"Holy Swords?"

"Can't tell directly, but there's a good chance that they are infact Holy Swords." Ridley said as he strapped Velociten to his back, shuffling back. "You're not nervous, are you?"

"Do I look nervous?!" I huff as I swing Valkyrie onto my back. "A Demon Hybrid. In Heavenside Limbo. Going up against one of, if not the best possible guard units the Angels have to provide, equipped with the most effective counterweaponry they have acces to. And you ask if I'm NERVOUS?!"

Ridley grins, and motions me over. "Rifles won't cut it here, from this point on."

"You say that, but I'm not going toe to toe with Nathaniel." I retort. "Neither are you."

"Well what is your plan then, Laura?" Ridley folds his arms.

I point at the skyscraper near the centre of the town. It wasn't really a skyscraper, more like the remains of it. It was the highest vantage point in town, by a good 50 meters, judging by its size.

"Oh. That." Ridley nodded. "You want to snipe him from above?"

"Course I want to."

"Works either way for me. Let's move." Ridley said as he hopped over the tree and slid down the slope, taking cover behind the first wall of rubble he could find. I sighed, and jumped after him.

We moved past the rubble, and dashed down this broken street, following it up till the first building. Luckily, the squadrons didn't notice us, and on the other hand the only one that really could notice us were already moving down the blocks to the southern district.

I sprint forwards, crossing the street diagonally in a split second till I reach one of the remaining houses in the eastern district, near the residence of the Animages. I Quickly activated my Soul Vision, without my blindfold this time, I scanned the end of the street. The squadron was far out of our sight, though their yellow souls still lighted up for me. On the other side of the street, I could see into the next building. I was happy to see they weren't implementing guards outside of the building. A sign most of these buggers were relying on the squadrons outside to properly patrol. Which they were, to be honest. We were just far more stealthy then they could ever imagine.

I suddenly realise I'm channeling my Soul Vision for far too long, and immediatly release the spell, dropping to one knee. I was panting so damn hard, it was insane. This cost of Anima was insane, more like it.

"You alright?" Ridley helped me back up to my feet.

"Yeah. Stupid mistake."

"Well don't make it twice, Laura." He said as he shook his head. "If you drop out of Anima, you're on your own. I can't transfer my anima to you, since I'm-"

"An Angel Hybrid instead of a Demon Hybrid. Yeah, yeah. I got it." I nod as I swoop past him across the street, forming up just around the corner of the building. I hear Ridley close behind me, following my steps. I quickdraw my Black Rogue from its holster, and nod at Ridley as I sneak past the building. I could hear the Animages talk inside, their muffles voices barely hearable through the walls.

I swoop round the corner, and sprint into an alleyway. I keep my ears open to check if Ridley is keeping up the pace from time to time as we dashed our way through the alleyways. Sometimes we had the advantage of cover, with some reasonably intact buildings to give us cover. Sometimes we had to improvise.

I raise my hand as we both come to a grinding halt, near the corner of an alleyway. I knew we had to be close to some kind of square, or meet-up point. I poke my head around the corner to make contact with atleast one of the Angelic patrols.

"Patrol, dead ahead. Coming in hot." I curse as I wave Ridley to back up. We shuffle back a few feet when Ridley suddenly stops.

"Stop. Come here for a sec." He says as I peer at him.

"Look, we can't mess this up, let's move damnit."

"Just do it!" He hissed at me as he threw me a sketchy wink. I sighed, and ran over to him. I hated this. Trusting someone blindly. Considering I've known the lad for not all that long, I was really skeptical about his plans. From my point of view, my approach was the way to go.

"Aaaand- Off we go!" He whispered as a yellow glow whirled around us. Out of nowhere, he clamps onto me, holding me against him as we ascend a proper story, dropping ourselves onto a balcony. I was about to slap him on the back of his head as we landed, but he quickly moved in and silenced me with his hand. I complied, and pushed his head down as I ducked out of sight.

We waited a fair fifteen seconds before peeping over the edge of the balcony. I dusted myself as Ridley jumped down, landing back in the alleyway, his uniform scraping against the stone wall as he slid past it. I followed his example, hopping over the balcony's edge and using the wall as a slide to work myself back down to the ground.

"Quick one... But far too close." I grumbled as I strode past him. I was angry with him, but at the same time relieved we got away with his stunt. Though I had to admit, it was cool. I didn't even consider hiding anywhere above us. Seems he was more aware of our surroundings than I was, plus he seemed to live up to his innovative thinking once more.

We continued onwards, passing the square and moving in on the skyscraper near the centre of town. We took out a lonely look-out along the way, hiding his body in one of the ruins beneath a pile of rubble before continuing.

"100 meters." I say as I form up on the end of the alleyway, my face turned towards the skyscraper across the street. It was to our south, so we had to move down the street to get there. Down the street we spotted a patrol moving towards the southern district, while three guards were stationed near the entrance of the skyscraper. Whether it was coincidence or not, it unnerved Laura. Maybe forces were already stationed inside the building?

"We gotta take them out anyway. If there are indeed forces inside the skyscraper, they'll certainly spot us if we decide to move in on Nathaniel." Ridley mentioned.

"You've got the silencer for Velociten, plus he's faster." I say as I motion Ridley to take my spot. "Take them out as quickly as possible."

"Got it." He says as he materializes Velociten and takes aim. A second later, he exhales, and releases three shots. I look past his shoulder to see the guards fall back, robbed from their life. I grin, and spur across the streets. With Ridley hot on my heels, we both enter the skyscraper. We quickly dragged the bodies inside, and disposed of them in a few empty boxes that sat near the bottom of the stairs.

"Five stories up, the sixth is ruined. That's where we'll take up position." I whisper to Ridley as I take up my Black Rogue again. I wasn't taking out my VMAR96 anytime soon, which was a modified assault form of my sniper rifle I fiddled with from time to time. It was still clunky and difficult to operate, not to mention the recoil and the bloody noise emition. No, my handgun would suffice.

We moved up the first set of stairs as Ridley pulled out his own handgun, Grilletto Cranio, along with a Sword Bayonet. I held guard as Ridley opened the first door. Same when we opened the second, and third, and so on. Nothing. The building, luckily, was empty. Not a shred remained of its former content.

We arrived at the sixth floor, the rushing, dry wind hitting us as I set myself up at the railing. Ridley took up aim a few feet behind me, deploying his bipod instead of depending on the stability of the railing. I shrugged, and turned my Valkyrie north, scouting for any sign of Nathaniel.

"Give me a poke if you have eyes on Nathaniel." Ridley said as he took out a pletora of magazines, all fed with different ammunition. I continued to scry the north end for our target. I noticed a higher amount of guards than patrols that we encountered. Seems Nathaniel was pretty concerned for his safety. I wondered if he knew he was getting chased around Heavenside Purgatory?

It didn't matter. Soon enough, he'd be a dead Angel.

"Found him." I say after twenty seconds of nothing but the sound of Ridley's mags clicking into Velociten.

"Position?"

"Near the chapel. Looks a lot like the one where the Animages resided in. 340 degrees." I zoom in on Nathaniel. He was pretty heavily armoured, with golden greaves and gauntlets. His white hair was tied back into a long ponytail, falling over his ivory longcoat. A Holy Sword rested at his plated belt, sharp and shining brightly.

Ridley whistled. "He's got some good gear, I tell you."

"Aye. Exactly what Cromnik described him to be." I said as my finger tightened on my trigger. "That, plus Vincent is a god for getting his player stats for us on such short notice."

"Vinny seems like a geek to me." Ridley shrugged. "Not that I don't mind. He's nice, plus exceedingly good at what he does."

"I heard he outstealths all of us?"

"Same. Jäger made the notion. Whether Jäger was intoxicated or not isn't the point. Not only Jäger said it. Cromnik slid me the notion aswell the other day." Ridely said.

I keep quiet as my crosshairs follow Nathaniel around. A few moments later, he stops, and turns around to face a few guards. "Now's the time. Wind's down, he's not moving." I say as I prepare my shot.

"Lined up. Let's go. On 3."

We both wait exactly three seconds, our breath held in, before both releasing shots. I shoot thrice, Ridley manages to squeeze out two in the same amount of time. All shots connected with Nathaniel, who fell to the ground shortly after the bullets ripped through his tincan armour. I kept him in sight as Ridley started to hastly pack up his gear.

"Good." I say as I remove Valkyrie from the railing. I double-checked to see if he actually was dying. Nothing speaks louder than a man gurgling and drowning in his own blood.

I stop as I noticed my UIP is buzzing. I hear Ridley stopping as he too grabs his UIP.

"Schwarzerfeld, calling in."

"Scordato, calling in."

"Is Nathaniel cleared?" We both hear Cromnik's familiar voice over the UIP.

"He's down. You called just in time, we took the shots not a minute ago." I reply as Ridley gives me a thumbs up.

"Argh, knew we should've made contact with you earlier. Listen, we need you to stay put and recover a stolen ISD."

A moment of silence drops as both Ridley and me stare at our UIP, baffled.

"C-Come again?"

---

"Uhm, wait what?" Ridley blurts over the UIP, clearly as befuddled as I was. What was he thinking?! Couldn't he have given us a heads-up -prior- to the fucking mission? Now we worked ourselves into a living shithole of mad Angels! I mean, not that we couldn't handle the situation, but these Angels were capable of feats I could not hope to match. Heavenside Limbo and all, really fires them up you know.

"You heard me. I need you to get that ISD and get the hell out of there, before you are swarmed." Cromnik stated once more. "The ISD is located at your west, coördinates are-"

"Hold up, hold up- You're insane!" Ridley shouts. "Don't you get it? We -are- swarmed. Getting out of here within five was something we were able to pull off. Asking us to sneak through a frenzied mass of soldiers is something out of our repetoir, Cromnik!"

"Nevertheless. I need either one of you to try and reclaim that ISD. The Renskr Military will be extremely vunerable if we lost this to the Angels." Cromnik's stern voice sounded. "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, but we only just discovered the location of the device. You have no clue how important that ISD is to us."

"Well, considering we're already late to departing this mess, you've got time to tell us right?" I asked.

"No can do, Captain Schwarzerfeld. Renskr will be bombing this place soon. This entire town will be covered in a rain of bombs. Which we wouldn't have told you, but seeing the current situation I feel it is right to tell you."

"Right to tell us?!- You're mad. Mad as a hatter!" Ridley cried out. "I'm not going in- Come on, Laura. Let's pack and get out of here. We're sorry, Cromnik, we'll go after that damn ISD another day."

"I'll do it."

I pick up Valkyrie, swinging it over my shoulder as I walk up to Ridley.

"Wh-What?" Ridley coughs as he looks at me. "Laura, surely-"

'I'm doing it." I point at his UIP as I nod at him to switch it off, which he does.

"Look, I don't trust this mess. We're already knee deep into this, so why not." I explain to him. "Cromnik is lying to us. I don't believe they only just found this ISD's location. No, they must've known long before we even started this mission."

"Why not just reclaim it another day?" Ridley asks as he shrugs at me.

"Given the chance, Cromnik will make sure others will reclaim it for him, so we won't have to. But in the current light of events, I'm feeling nosy." I say. "I want to know -why- this particular ISD is so important to him."

"Hrm..." Ridley rubs his chin, still covered by his scarf. "How much time do you need?"

I bring up my UIP once more, switching it on. "General? How far is the ISD located from here?"

"Ah, Captain. Thank you. I've had Vincent put the coördinates directly into your map. You have approximately half an hour to complete the mission. I'm counting on you two. Cromnik out."

With those last words said, Cromnik left the channel, leaving me and Ridley all alone again atop of this ruined skyscraper.

"I need you to take up position on the western end of this roof... well, technically- Nevermind." I say as I walk past him. "Keep me posted as I work my way towards the ISD."

"Got it." I hear in my UIP as I start descending the stairs.

It takes me less than a minute to get down to floor level as I pass by the bodies we hid from sight. I slowly open the doors of the skyscraper as I peek outside. Luckily only the northern side was mobilized, awakened by Nathaniel's death. I smirked as I dashed outside, making a break for the west.

I open up my map while I ready my Black Rogue for combat, spying the western district of the town for the location. It seemed the ISD was being kept in a large factory, not far from the centre of town. Wouldn't take more than a few minutes to reach it, if I managed to go undetected.

I suddenly halt as a large pile of debris stands between my side of the alleyway and the other side. I grunt, and peer around. Time was precious. I had to think of something. Then I thought back at Ridley's little stunt, and I peered up around me. Took me a split second to clearly picture the way past this mess.

I take a few steps back, and close my eyes. I feel my body surge with power as I charge up my Anima pool, before releasing the spell Rush. It would grant me a few seconds to act within before the spell would end.

I sprint forwards, and leap up towards the wall on my left, performing what professionals would call a 'wall run'. Basically, people who do parkour would use the wall as a vertical platform to work themselves up onto ledges or over obstacles. I feel myself descend a little, so I use my leftover Anima to launch myself to the right side of the alley, narrowly passing over the top of the debris pile. My feet find the hard stone wall, and I quickly work my way down the wall, breaking my fall onto the floor by rolling forward. Just like at home. Brilliant.

Keeping my pose as I gaze forward, I let myself rest for a minute. I felt damn drained already. My rabid panting slowly turned into controlled breathing once more as I hear my UIP buzz.

"Hey. Neat trick."

"Shut it. I made a choice, it seemed like a good one."

"Only complementing... Anyway, you've still got some way to go. Keep your UIP clear as you go, I'm marking these sods right now."

"Copy." I say as I groan and start running again.

"The guards seem to have been alerted a few minutes ago. They've headed inside, likely they're grabbing their equipment." Ridley said. "I don't know if they are aware if you're coming, or if they're aware Cromnik's getting this place leveled."

"Doesn't matter." I say. "All I need to know is where the opening lies."

"Ooouch. Tough one." I hear Ridley sighs. "I can make you an opening by taking out a few guards though, but it will only attract the others."

"That's a good thing. The more they are focussed on a killed teammate, the easier it will be for me to infiltrate and snatch that ISD." I say as I take a sharp right, dashing out of sight of a patrol before they noticed me.

"They will be alarmed. I don't think it's a good plan." Ridley disagrees. "Wouldn't be wise to spook them even more. If we kill a guard, security will be extra hightened, thus the more chance they'll find you and execute you on the spot."

I curse softly, and roll my eyes. "What about creating a distraction outside?"

"Hrm... Seems plausible."

"Any ideas? You know what you're working with more than I am." I say as I hold up at a corner of the alley, double checking ahead. I wasn't too far off anymore, just a bit more.

"Let's see... Sparkplug... no...tracker won't work...- Aha!"

I suddenly hear a bouldering explosion not far from me as I almost loose my balance from the shockwave. My hands shoot towards my ears as I look up into the sky. I see a huge cloud of smoke rise up into the air, and I hear the loud yells of the guards moving out to it.

"...Ridley...?" I smirk as I continue my way, passing through the final stretch of the alleyway network.

"Seems like a good distraction... You know, taking them out right now wouldn't even matter. It would only let them know a sniper is in town, if Nathaniel's death didn't prove that already." He says as I form up at the intersection of the alleyway's ending and the street. I peer around the corner, spotting the wrecked vehicle. Ridley managed to blow up what seemed to be a fuel truck. How conveniently placed.

The factory stood alone, in a field of slipperly mud and puddles of murky water. The road split off the housing from the centre of the city and the factory, leaving an equally muddy dirt road for vehicles to travel on. The factory itself seemed to have been an eight story facility once, yet the middle of the building had collapsed inwards, removing six of the eight layers instantaneously. Two blackenend, cilinder-like chimneys rose up into the sky, though they were long out of use. Furthermore, there were five square holes where once lock gates used to sit. The perfect way in. From those holes, the guards emerged.

"Nice one." I admit as I spot the guards running up to the truck, trying to douse the fire by use of water and Anima. Odd combination. Guess it works for them. "I found my way in... though those guards are too close by."

"Don't worry, I'm taking them with me." Ridley said as I heard shots being fired both over the UIP as close to where I was, followed by a few painful cries. They weren't dead though, only their hand was pierced. Non-lethal ammo. Ridley was full of surprises, but was he really that smart?

"Wait- Ridley, damnit... what are... you..." I slowly mumble as the guards surprisingly take off towards the south after emerging from cover.

"They know where I'll head next. Just cut down the bastard who told them my position." Ridley chuckled. "You're on your own from here on out. Don't go towards the southern extraction point, head further west. You've got exactly 10 minutes and 47 seconds to get out of this place alive before Cromnik is bombing your ass." I hear Ridley's voice cut off from the UIP as he switches his off.

I sigh, and dash forward, slipping through the mud as I head for the factory. I quickly head for the nearest lock gate, passing through the hole as I look up. Dimmed light entered the hall through cracks in the ceiling, revealing the set-up they left behind.

"Shit." I curse as I look around. Every scrap of equipment was already shipped off, from military vehicle to a single bullet. I take a quick yet futile glance around the emptied crates around me, not finding any traces of the former contents.

I sprint towards the southern side of the building, trying to find a shred of information. Any signs or tracks of what was stored here.

Then, my eyes fall on a box with a smirched, black imprint. I rub off the dried dirt patches to make it visible. Sadly, the old lettering of the short imprint was faded already, so I couldn't identify what it was. I cursed once more as I kicked over the box, and looked around. There was no clue left to what occured in this factory, nor what was stored here. I check my clock, and gaps as I realise I've got but a few minutes to evacuate.

"Fuck this ISD... I'll retrieve it another day." I say as I head towards the west, leaving the factory and the town behind me.

---

"Schwarzerfeld, reporting." I say as I hear the bombing take place far behind me. I had created quite the distance between myself and the town before I even dared to take a rest.

"Cromnik here. You got the ISD?"

"Negative. The place was cleared, General." I sighed. "Guess you lost that one."

"Not entirely... I have something new in mind for you."

"What's that."

Cromnik chuckled. "Come back to base. I'll have you paired up with Vincent for this one. Great work with Scordato by the way, smooth take down. Cromnik out."

I switched off my UIP as I kept heading southwest, circling around towards Ridley's position.

Guess I was going to work with Vincent next.

Chapter 5

“So.”Cromnik seats himself as I wearily toss my gear next to the table. We were in the comfort of his office once more, back at base. Ridley parted ways with me as soon as the Skyfire landed, he was muttering on about telling the others about the mission. I was sure Vincent had kept an eye on our progress, wasn’t sure about Dimitri though. I, however, went straight to Cromnik in the hopes of continuing where I left off in Heavenside Limbo.

“Hmn.” I grunted softly as I leaned back in my chair. “That was… mostly alright.”

“Seems so.”Cromnik said. “You did a fine job thining out the armed forces. Excellent fieldwork. Not to mention you set them back quite a few steps. They’ll have to recover from Nathaniel’s death, and their positional loss.”

He stoodup, and poured himself a glass of what seemed to be scotch. Hell if I knew. I was tired, that’s all I knew. Before I could continue he shoved the glass to my end of the table.

I stared at it for a moment as he nodded at me. “Drink. For the best work you’ve delivered so far.” He said to me as I took the glass, frowning as I held it. It felt cold at first touch. I closed my eyes, sighed, and swung back the glass in one go. I clenched my eyes harder, and groaned as I carefully slid the glass back to Cromnik. God, that stuff was awful. Burns your throat out and rips it into a thousand pieces. Not to mention, you feel it in your stomach for quite some time. It was heavy liquor, damn it alright.

“Urgh.” I groan as my fingers pinch the bridge of my nose.

“But, Captain…” Cromnik said as he put his own glass aside. “We at Renskr have to ask even more of you.” He gave me a stern look as his hands folded.

“Grah… Of course.” I puffed as I leaned forward.  “You’re pairing me with Vincent for a new mission, am I right?”

“Yes.” Cromnik said.

“First.” I stated, holding his briefing off. “I want to know some things.”

Cromnik’s eyes flashed as he shifted in his chair. “Go on. Ask.”

“First of all, don’t ever go behind our backs and plan out assignments without proper briefing.” I said with a monotome voice. I wasn’t going to get too involved, and emotions would probably give him an edge on how to answer my thoughts on the matter. “It puts us to risk, even if your actions is for our own benefit.”

“I assure you, nothing like the bombings will happen again.” Cromnik started. “The orders came from higher up. I obey command, Schwarzerfeld. Nothing more.”

“Then tell command to update us, or grow a pair and update us yourself next time.” I said.  “Secondly, tell me why Nathaniel needed to be taken out.”

“Of course.” Cromnik said. “Nathaniel’s branch was recently promoted, and he posed a major threat in a semi-secure position. Taking him out was the first step in driving back the incursion.”

“There’s more.” I continued, insisting on the full story. “The factory I searched didn’t show signs of any common military storage. This was an operational facility during their stay.”

Cromnik eyed me carefully, not even blinking . He gave me his most eerie deathstare, with eyes that could pierce an average soldier’s soul. I didn’t move an inch, and returned the gaze.

“There’s more.” I repeat, this time louder.

“I confirmed Nathaniel’s ties to a criminal syndicate.” Cromnik finally caved. “A more radical movement, one he would see fully supported and funded.”

“So the ISD Nathaniel held?” I continued. “Does this have ties to this syndicate aswell?”

“It was once in Renskr’s possession. Even though it is heavily secured through coded programming, it is only a matter of time before they crack the code.” Cromnik stood up, walking back and forth behind his chair. My eyes followed him around carefully.

“They took it from us a few months ago, before we formed November Company. Do not assume we formed November Company solely to recapture the ISD. Your role in Renskr covers more than just that.” He said slowly, turning to face me. “We located the ISD a few days before we briefed you. We did not confirm its definitive location, we only ascertained that it was within the town. We expected it to be long gone by the time you and Scordato performed your mission, but as it turned out we got a hold of the internal signal.”

“Hmn…” I hummed. I was right, I guess. Of course Cromnik knew they possessed the ISD. It was no coincidence after all. My mind was starting to race, speculating on the shreds of information he was feeding to me. After all, he had no choice. I would either learn the truth of the matters slowly or Renskr would be a sniper down, if not more.

“What information did you lock away in the ISD?” I ask curiously as my eyes pierce him with a sharp look. He kept calm, and shook his head, much to my disappointment.

“Some things are left classified, Schwarzerfeld. Even you understand that.” He said as he seated himself once more. Seems that when he gets nervous he tends to walk around, but when he’s back in a good position he’ll relax once more and seat himself. Good to know. It’s the little things you need to see, and later use to your advantage.

“Are you sure?” I try again. “I think your elite sniper squadron could use some more information about this classified stuff.”

“Take it up with someone else. I’m not the one to decide whether you’re qualified for this information, Schwarzerfeld.” Cromnik said, the tips of his mouth curling upwards ever so slightly. “And that’s final.”

I roll my eyes, and shrug. “Tell me more about this syndicate then.”

“Now that I can elaborate on.” Cromnik said as he leaned back. He was back in his element, alright.

“The syndicate is known as the ‘Darkwing’, or ‘Darkwing Cartel’. First and foremost known as a corrupt organization that offers a place for anyone and everyone with a gun and a price for their services.”

“I take it they’re strictly Angels?” I ask. “Seeing as Nathaniel so generously supported their cause.”

“Moreso that they served a cause Nathaniel set out for them.” Cromnik stated. “They were mutual to one another. The one does the dirty work while the other funds their needs and supports them every step of the way. Taking one out would cripple the other. I would have the syndicate taken out first, but that would prove harder in practice than in theory.”

“How so?”

“They are like rats. Ever so cunning. We need to force them out into battle directly, otherwise we’ll never wipe out their roots. Cutting them off from Nathaniel was the first step in the plan.” Cromnik changed his tone. “That’s where you lot come in.”

“Huh?” I frown.

“Who else would be better to crawl into the minds of the most notorious stealthed syndicate around than the master of stealth itself?”

I nodded to myself. Of course that would be Vincent.

“Kennedy outskills each of you when it comes to stealth. “ Cromnik praised as he smiled. “The boy is a natural. Everything about him is based on stealth. Some claim he is invisible during his missions, others claim you can never prove he was even there when he takes out an opponent.”

“Sounds… wow…” I say as I mull over Cromnik’s words in my head. So Vincent wasn’t just a basement dweller for no reason.

“He’ll know exactly where to look. He’s tracking down potential locations as we speak, working through Eden’s continents. Scanning each and every goddamn crag and chasm he can trace.”

"I'll check up with him once I get back." I said. "Or atleast, I'll try."

"Try?"

"Well, the point is... I've... never really had an actual conversation with him. He barely speaks at all." I mention, biting my lip. "Weird guy."

"Just make sure you get up to date with his findings. I'll take care of the rest." Cromnik said. "Like tending to the Skyfire and maintaining it. Might even get an upgrade or two."

"Oh, good." I say plainly before getting up.

"Oh, and tell Jäger he'll have to come in later with Ridley. I might have a job for the two."

"Will do." I say as I salute.

Cromnik simply salutes back, and grabs the bottle of scotch as I quietly leave.

Atleast I got some answers. Now to inform the rest I guess...

---

I made my way back to the house as quickly as I could. I was eager to grab a bite to eat, plus I just wanted to lie down on the couch or something. Just to relax for a moment. I figured Jäger would be busy instructing one of the recruit classes, by the sound of it. I could hear the distinctive blast of Surkov echo throughout the damn base. Crazy Russian.

"I'm baaaack." I say as I walk to the kitchen, grabbing a can of soda. I wlak over to the couch, kick off my boots and throw my jacket over the back of the couch. With a soft moan, I snuggle myself into position, opening the can at the same time.

"Hmmm." I take another sip before putting it aside me.

I take a peek at the door below the staircase; The one towards Vincent's abode. I thought to myself that I hardly saw him since the initial talk, when Cromnik recruited us all.

The moment I was about to take my eyes off the door, I see it opening. I hold my breath as I keep gazing at the door.

"Vincent?" I ask carefully. "You there?"

The door stops halfway.

"Come on out, we're working together you know..." I start off as I look at the ceiling. "Not my choice, but it has to be done. Now come out."

A minute passes by. I remain silent. I wasn't going to budge. Hell no. Why should I?

"Seriously, dude. Come out." I say, now slightly annoyed. I didn't get what his problem was. Why would he even be this shy? I've known a guy or two at my school who were shy, but none were at Kennedy's level.

Another minute passes by. I groan, chug the remainder of my can down as I get to my feet, grumbling softly.

"...Bloody-Hgn..." I roll my eyes as I walk to the door, and entering the basement.

Closing the door behind me, I started to look around as I descended the stairs. The room was dark, aside from the lights of the cables and screens littering the basement. In the corner, at a long desk with multiple computers connected into a series of screens, sat Vincent. He had his hoodie up, with a few locks of hair sticking out from under it. In the other corner sat a few of his weapons, spread out in parts on a table. Seems he was reassembling them after performing maintenance or something. Atleast, I expected that. He seemed to be pretty crafty.

"Ehr... Vincent?" I say after a minute of silence. He was just clicking away at programs, and mostly coding data. The screens flashed seperately, maps opening, downloads initiated, clips of soundwaves mixed, radio signals incoming. So much as once. I've never seen anyone multitask like that.

I carefully approached his desk, waving my hand at him as I leaned forward.

Initially, he jumped, apparently he wasn't aware of my presence. Then, he shook his head, seated himself, and removed a set of headphones. Those headphones were unique, not some standard crap you'd buy at an equipment store. They were custom built. Thin, yet remarkably strong by the looks of it.

"Schwarzerfeld." He nodded at me as he continued to work. "Came for briefing, right?"

"Mhm." I hum as I grab a chair from the back of the room, seating myself next to him. "What are you working on?"

He didn't reply, he just kept working. Wow. So much for interaction.

"Not the type for small talk. It has plussides." I say, trying to lighten the mood.

He looked at me for a second, just a split second. Then, he returned to typing. He didn't even change his expression or anything. He just kept silent. God, he was worse than me. Somehow I both found it good as bad.

"Alright. Brief me. What did you find." I sigh as I peer up at the screens.

His eyes flash. "Darkwing Syndicate is a tough association to locate. It wouldn't be surprising it they were hiding under our very noses."

"Checked the cities?" I asked.

"No result."

"Then I guess it won't be the average hideout." I tap my chin, lost in thought. "Countryside hideout..."

"Recon supports that notion, yet nothing has popped up." He said as he opened a few maps, enlarging them. Red circles were drawn in the prominent areas, marking the potential hideout.

"You checked these spots yet?" I ask.

Vincent shakes his head. "Not all of them."

"Which ones are left?"

He quickly hits a command button, and two circles turn from red to blue, highlighting the area even better.

"Cromnik is sending Scordato and Jäger onto the Skyfire. Bombardment mission." He says as he selects the first location. "If anything is hiding in that nest, it won't survive the Skyfire's wrath."

"And the other one?" I eye the second location.

Vincent selects the second one too, but in 3D this time. "It seems to be an innocent piece of land. It used to be a logging facility near this lake, accesible by water or plane. After a polution incident, the facility was abandoned and partially salvaged. It turned into a ground war for neighbouring criminal factions."

"And you think Darkwing is holed up there?" I ask.

"No conformation." Vincent says as he enlarges the facility. "This is the main building. I believe that they might be holed up beneath the compound."

"And why's that?" I continue to question him, folding my arms as I peer at him.

"The few unidentified suspects that did frequent the site were last seen entering the facility, before disappearing from the radar entirely. They even went missing from the building itself." Vincent turned towards me. "Think about it."

I pinch the bridge of my nose. "So we're going into the lion's den then?"

"Yes."

"And you can get us in and out in one piece?"

"Yes."

I lean forward. "Kennedy. This is madness. Do we even know what we will find in that hellhole?"

"No." He stays one hundred percent calm as he stares back at me, right between my eyes. I didn't know if I felt reassured, or really scared. This guy was... weird, least to say. Unnaturally calm. Even a bit cold, but it seems that his brains were in the right place. His heart... I wasn't sure of that, but I'd find out sometime soon I guess.

"What's the plan?" I slouch back into my chair.

"Planting explosives. Retrieve the ISD if we locate it. Sneak past the lookouts." Vincent states as if it was a simple chore for him. "Probably enter under the guise of darkness."

"I'll change up my equipment list for this then." I nod as I get up. I would have to give my Iron Stars another look. They were claymores, if you wondered. Neat little buggers. Could probably send them over to Scordato or something and get them inspected. I knew he had a variety of explosives lying around, he'd know what to do with my Iron Stars.

"Bring something close quarters too." Vincent mentioned as I went up the stairs. "Not just the Valkyrie."

"Hmn. Will do." I say as I close the door behind me, leaving him to his work.

I find my cozy spot on the couch once more, snuggling back into the groove marks I left. I swiped up my menu, and logged out.

---

The smell of chlorine in the morning. Can't decide whether I like it or not. All I know is that I need at least an hour worth of showering to wash all that chemical crap off me.

I quietly shuffle myself out of the girl's changing room and make my way to my traditional spot near the far end of the school's pool. It's a wooden bench which nobody ever used. Untill I sat there. Then people fucking noticed a bench was actually there.

I picked up my pace as I notice some of the student's flashing their eyes towards me. My gut feeling said it was mainly guys, though I swear those girls are just as fucking relentless. I roll my eyes and throw my towel over my head as I take my seat.

No swimming for now. That pool was infested with hormones. No way I was going in. That was more suicide than Cromnik's missions.

I just sit there, like usual. Waiting for people to have their fun before I use the pool. I wait till the end mostly, till nobody is around, before hopping in. Swimming is fine, I've got nothing against it. I'm not brilliant with swimming, but I'm good enough at it.

What I really can't stand is the whole hype around the fabled 'swimsuit'. The one fucking piece of clothing every guy will drool over. And all the girls just cater to their desires. I've seen them. Oh boy have I. Hogging over one single magazine to pick out the best swimsuit for the summer break. Thank fuck school enforces a standard swimsuit. Really bland, but just the way I like it. But even then the girls manage to 'touch' up their swimsuit.

"Hmnn." I grumble softly as I peer over to the pool. I decided to let the entire rant about the swimsuit drop. Weirdly enough it made me slightly insecure as I stared down at my own chest. In comparison with others, I did feel a little jealous... If only a little.

Back to the mission. I ran through the stuff Vincent had left behind for me. Least to say, he dropped a fucking bombshell of information, which I slowly processed at home. I remember Dad passing by, frowning at me weirdly as I was studying the information.

Dad was fun. One of the few guys in my life that actually was fun. Sure, he was a level-headed idiot at his age, but I liked him. Kinda like a typical Dad, but with an odd twist. I always felt a better connection to him than Mom. Didn't mean I hated Mom. Mom was awesome aswell. Sometimes a bit too smothering with her love and care, which originally spiked some arguements between us, but she was a good Mom aswell.

It was funny to see that my parents even allowed me to game. I remember my Dad having a hell of an arguement with my Mom when I stated I wanted to go play EWO. Took an entire day before my Dad managed to settle the feud. The day after, I got hours and hours of stories flung at my head. Never knew my parents both were survivors of this SAO incident. Hell, my Dad even grabbed an old newspaper which featured him in an article about the game. Guess I did understand their concern when I brought up a VRMMO, but I'm glad my parents supported me. Like always.

Shame that I'm seeing my Dad less and less. He's gone into therapy and medicine. All that Mom said was that Dad ahd some traumatic stuff to plow through and his body was reacting to his memories. I simply shrugged and hugged Dad. I felt sorry for him. Who would want such a horrific game haunt them years after it had all finished?

Anyway, the mission. I was thrilled to go with Vincent. All that I heard was that he was an unimaginable genius when it came to stealth. Jäger even commented that he was practically invisible. That coming from him means a great deal, plus I reckon the two had a little 'competition' or even a 'bet' when Ridley and I were off doing wet work. Something comparable to what Jäger pulled off with me. I could only pity poor Vincent. Drinking with Jäger, you knew you were heading for a dark and intoxicated place.

Vincent did comment the Darkwing were just as stealthy as us. It didn't scare him away of rob him of his self-confidence. It did rob mine. I felt quite scared. I've never really handled a situation like this. Well, to be fair, I did. Just split in multiple missions. I can plant explosives. I can be stealthy. I can snatch an ISD. But all in one? That's a brain-breaking planning for you right there. And to think we have no clue what the catacombs of the damn facility looks like?

I sighed deeply, burrying my face into my towel. It was madness, but it had to be done.

I toss away my towel. Seems that I was rambling in my mind for at least a quarter of an hour.

The pool was emptier than before. Still a few guys messing around in the middle, near the shallows, with a group of girls toe-dipping on the side opposite of mine.

I shuffled to the edge, and slipped into the deeper waters.

I heard the muffled gasps and gossip right before my head slipped underwater. I let myself sink to the bottom of the pool, holding my breath as I curl up into a foetus position. My butt bounces off the bottom of the pool, the signal for my eyes to burst open.

My feet quickly find the firm bottom of the pool, and with a powerful boost I surge back to the surface. Water splashes all around me as I flick my hair backwards, right before locating the ladder out of the pool. Didn't think I was up for more really.

"Oooowh, daaaamn."

"Ask her out, c'mon dude..."

"...no way, she rejected me already, I don't want to..."

I payed no attention to their supposed whispers. I got this from time to time. I take no pride in having their affection. It happens in spikes. The guys know very well to stay away from me, because all that is waiting for them is a rather unpleasant rejection. But sometimes, someone gets cocky, and tries it anyways, which opens the fucking flood gates.

I really wasn't in for a relationship. Some of them were... well, slightly alright. Qualified. Yeah, that's it. But overall they weren't special, plus I just wasn't up for all the 'lovey-dovey' nonsense. Not my thing.

I pick up my towel, and make for the showers, away from the hushed comments.

God, I couldn't wait to get back to EWO. The quicker I could start delving into Cromnik and the mystery ISD, the better.

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