The crimson sky became darkened with black smoke, billowing heavily from the bleeding, burning city. A splash of blood burned against white feathers as the angel stood over another fallen serpent, his shoulders slumped and his wings sagging with exhaustion.

"…Shit…" Aimhlaide leaned back against a wall, muttering an incantation to regain his strength. The sword in his hand felt like a lead weight hanging at his side, and a sharp pain lanced throughout his body whenever he took a breath. His mana reserves were starting to burn out, and yet there seemed to be no end to the serpents. They weren't particularly difficult to slay, but their numbers were making him weary, too weary to have any chance of defeating the Silver Dragon…

The serpent nearby suddenly lashed its tail, giving a violent, gurgling hiss, but could not lift itself off the ground. It was not quite dead, but it soon would be. Aimhlaide looked over at it and considered his options.

…If I want to survive…to see him again…

He stretched out his hand toward the dying serpent, plundering its soul for mana. It made him ill to think of it, but he really had no other choice. Gradually the pain in his arms lessened, and the stars that crossed his vision ceased to be.

…All right. Time to go.

Aimhlaide set off, walking carefully to conserve his energy. The flames had consumed most of the city by now, and the number of serpents that criss-crossed the sky became fewer and fewer. The signs of life he encountered were also becoming fewer, and he failed to see even any human remains as he walked through the city. He grew annoyed. Orion's commander had assured him that there would be other agents in the area, all working to fulfill the mission, but he hadn't seen any trace of them so far.

For some inexplicable reason, he thought back to the waitress he had left in the rubble of the café. He wondered if he had made the right decision, and why he was so concerned about her.

A roar came from above. He looked up to see three serpents diving straight towards him. He cursed under his breath and readied his sword, prepared to attack—

A black blur flashed across his line of sight, and the serpents fell to pieces on the ground. Aimhlaide's eyes widened, and he barely brought up his sword in time to block the deadly blow aimed at his head.

"You should've known better than to show yourself here, angel."

Aimhlaide grunted and flared his aura, managing to knock back the other man long enough to fall into a defensive stance. He could not afford to move slowly, but to lose his energy in the presence of such a foe would mean certain death. He tightened his grip on his sword. "…It was you, after all… I was hoping I wouldn't have to fight you here, Julian."

Julian's black wings stretched to their full extent, one pair reaching beyond nine feet and the other, tucked neatly below the first, having a much smaller span. The armor that adorned him was vastly different from the simple sorcerer's robe that Aimhlaide remembered him wearing, save the diamond-patterned obi that still hung at his waist, and his black hair was carefully arranged in a plait over his shoulder. He looked carelessly at the serpentine blood that covered his left hand, and pointed his own sword at Aimhlaide with the other. "It was to be expected, as you raised your sword in defiance of the Silver Dragon. Your petty desire for vengeance has led you here, and my duty has led me to the Silver Dragon's cause."

Aimhlaide's eyes narrowed. "It is not the desire for vengeance that has brought me here, Sage Julian, but the desire to protect innocent lives from wanton genocide."

"Says he who once slaughtered hundreds at the Queen's merest whim, First Angel Aimhlaide," Julian said coldly. "And yet… You and I both know that is not why we have crossed blades today."

Aimhlaide hesitated. "…Of course. I suppose it would be too much for me to think that you could have forgiven me."

"Forgiven?" Julian scoffed. "For me to forgive such a cardinal sin would be a blasphemy unto itself." His aura grew visible, and the air crackled with energy as black crystals formed on the ground. "You have denied me of my one purpose, and for that you shall certainly pay… But, even greater, you have profaned a Sage who was once destined for glory, and befouled an aura that once had unlimited potential. You cannot hope for forgiveness—and I, Black Scion, earthly agent of Lysander Himself, shall be the one to punish you."

Aimhlaide wasn't foolish enough to make the first move, but he knew Julian's style well enough to sidestep the first lightning-speed blow and block the second with his sword. He leapt back to higher ground, but Julian, using his mighty wings, managed to go even higher; Aimhlaide avoided a boot to the face by quickly shielding himself with his blade, and deflected Julian's fist with his own arm. Before long their swords were locked again.

Julian pressed forward, ever so slightly, and spoke through gritted teeth. "…You've grown agile since I last defeated you."

Aimhlaide's blade shook under Julian's increasing pressure. "…I'm not dead yet, am I?"

A dark light flashed in the Sage's eye. "…We shall see."

Suddenly, Julian beat his wings and thrust forward, knocking Aimhlaide back; he was barely able to dodge Julian's lunging attack, and angled his fall so that he landed feet-first on the lower ground. He flared his wings and kept moving backwards, careful to keep the black blur within his sight. Julian caught up with him quickly enough and slashed at him with his sword, only to have Aimhlaide meet the blow with greater force. Before Julian could decide on an appropriate reaction, his sword was thrown back and the angel darted past him, striking him square in the back.

Julian fell to his knees, coughing sharply; when he regained his breath, he stood and turned to glare at Aimhlaide. "…You chose not to cut me down. That show of mercy will only lead to your death."

The battle was draining the last of Aimhlaide's energy, but he couldn't let it show, not when Julian hadn't even begun to tap into his own power. He stood rigid and erect, and his arms trembled with the effort to lessen the heaving of his chest and shoulders. "…I won't kill you—I could never kill you. It's… It's not something he would want."

Julian made no effort to reclaim his sword, but the black crystals formed once more. "Who are you to say what he would want?" he said bitterly. "You, who corrupted him in mind, body, and soul… What gives you the right?!"

Aimhlaide knew well that Julian was just as dangerous unarmed as he was with a blade, and so reacted accordingly when Julian lunged at him barehanded by raising a magick shield to knock him back. Julian was undeterred, however, and continued to swipe at him with newly-formed claws. Aimhlaide had never excelled at hand-to-hand combat, and the speed and force with which Julian was attacking forced him to use his sword to parry the blows. To an outsider, it may have seemed an uneven match, and, to an extent, it was—Aimhlaide was rapidly losing strength and being pushed farther and farther back…

Julian caught the blade of Aimhlaide's sword in his hand and gripped it tightly, tightly enough to slice through the fabric of his glove and to keep Aimhlaide from pulling away. A dark smile came to the Sage's face, as he ignored the blood that was seeping down his wrist. "Hiding behind weapons of man will get you nowhere, angel."

Aimhlaide grunted as he tried to figure out what to do; pulling away yielded no results, and while pushing forward might injure Julian further, he could be falling into a trap. "…I seem to remember you using one yourself, Sage."

"A frivolity. I thought to put myself on more…even ground."

A plan began to form in his mind. It was a risky move, but he had no choice. "…Showing mercy will lead to your death."

"Mercy? Oh, no…" He tightened his grip on the blade even more, causing it to crack. "I'd rather say pity."

Julian pulled on the blade as Aimhlaide pressed forward and discarded it to the side. However, he did not anticipate Aimhlaide having let go of the hilt so soon, and couldn't turn back in time to see him cock his arm. As a result, he was taken completely by surprise when he received a hard right to the face.

Julian staggered back, stunned, but he did not fall. He touched a hand to his face, making sure nothing had been broken, and licked blood from his lip. He straightened his posture and regarded Aimhlaide with a cold glare. "You're getting desperate. You know you have not even the slightest hope of besting me without a weapon."

Aimhlaide had fallen into a fighting stance, and tried fruitlessly to quiet the nervous pounding of his heart as he awaited Julian's next move. "I may not have hope," he said shakily, straining to keep his voice level, "but I must still try."

Julian's eyes narrowed, and he prepared to attack. "…A fool's last words."

He came at Aimhlaide with unbelievable speed, attacking with a flurry of punches that the angel was barely able to dodge. Julian was still much faster than Aimhlaide, and dodging eventually gave way to blocking. Aimhlaide struggled to keep up, but Julian's fists were far too swift, and exhaustion was getting the best of him. He moved to block one of Julian's blows, but discovered too late that it was a feint—he was struck first in the abdomen, then received an uppercut to the jaw, and was sent flying back by a spinning kick to the chest.

Aimhlaide lay stunned on the ground, struggling to regain his breath. He managed a single wheeze before Julian roughly yanked him up by the collar and held him suspended in midair. "…Pitiful," he muttered. "Absolutely pitiful. I had expected to gain much more satisfaction from toying with you…" Crystals started to form on his arm, creeping dangerously close to Aimhlaide's neck. "…But, then, is that really my place? After all, I am merely the executioner… It is only my duty to punish sinners like yourself."

Aimhlaide's entire body was wracked with pain. His muscles were stiff and burned like they were on fire, his mana reserves were completely drained, and he couldn't even lift a finger to resist. He was completely, utterly defeated—he had no chance of surviving.

…And yet…

"…I have not sinned," he said weakly, his voice hoarse. "…I…don't need your forgiveness… And neither…does Ivan…"

Aimhlaide felt the Sage's arm tense. "…Do not speak of him so casually. You have no right."

"Then kill me," he growled in response. His body was beaten, but his resolve was as strong as ever. "…I would rather be slain…than to be born and die…a creature…incapable of knowing love…"

Julian's aura suddenly flared, and Aimhlaide was thrown to the ground. "Do not speak of such tripe!" the Sage spat. His aura was rapidly fluctuating as he gathered magick energy in his hands, and there was a look in his eyes that was more dangerous than ever before. Aimhlaide realized with growing dread that he had triggered Julian's berserk state. "If you would like so much to be killed, then I will grant that wish, by the power granted unto me by Lysander… I hope you enjoy your fall to Hell, angel—!"

Aimhlaide heard a noise like a small explosion, and the aura suddenly faded. Julian's eyes slid out of focus; he sank to his knees, then slumped face-first to the ground. Aimhlaide could only stare. …What the…?

"Hey, are you all right?"

Aimhlaide looked up at the voice, and was surprised—shocked, more like it—to see the waitress from earlier standing over him. Her outfit was torn and a bit bloodied, and there was a gun in her hand; at first, he wondered what she could possibly be doing, until he noticed the communicator dangling from her ear. "…You… Orion…?"

"My job was to keep an eye on you, but I kind of lost you after you ran off." She extended her arm to him. "But it looks like I got here just in time. You really got a beating…"

He gratefully took her hand, flinching and ignoring the immense pain in his arms; he felt dizzy upon getting to his feet, but managed not to stagger. "You… You saved my life…"

"You saved mine," she said with a shrug. "Fair's fair, I guess. Here, drink this. It'll help you recover your strength."

She tossed him a small bottle, filled with a blue, translucent liquid, and he did as told; almost immediately afterward, the pain in his arms began to lessen, and his voice didn't shake as much. He looked back at Julian's still form. "…He's not dead, is he?"

"I don't think so," the Orion agent said, unloading the emptied clip from her gun. "I shot him with a tranq; I used up all my real bullets on those damn dragons, and now this thing is pretty much useless…"



"Serpents, not dragons. If they were dragons…" Aimhlaide stopped himself, wondering why he even cared. "…Never mind. We need to get out of here."

"No, you don't look so hot," she said, her brow crinkling with worry. "You should rest some more. There are still some dragons—serpents, whatever, they're still flying around, and if they decide to attack us in this state, we're done for. Besides, with the strength of that tranq, that guy shouldn't be getting up any time soon…"

"Then you obviously don't know Julian," Aimhlaide said grimly. He doubted that Julian was even fully unconscious. "Look, we have to leave before he wakes up. He's already tried to kill me, and after what you just did, I don't think he'll be too happy with you, either."

"And where are we supposed to go?" she said expectantly. "Neither of us are any good in a fight right now, and even if we were, the Silver Dragon is gone—not like we'd stand a chance against him by ourselves, anyway. Behro has been totally evacuated, and the fires are pretty much out by now. What is there left for us to do?"

Aimhlaide looked at Julian, still lying peacefully on the ground, and then back to the city. The smoke was dying away, and the sky was deepening into purple hues. His body, although slightly renewed, ached like nothing else. He would've loved nothing more than to take a long rest—away from Behro, away from the Silver Dragon, away from Julian…

…Ivan… I should see him again.

He turned back to the agent, smiling weakly. "…Retreat sounds like a good idea. For now."

She returned the smile. "Yeah. For now."

The sun had completely sunk below the horizon. The flames had died, and night fell over the empty city.