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Chime 10 – Abominated Ardor
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Cold, crisp wind trekked through the immense forest, flew over the huddled shrubs, and feathered across the silent fields like a gentle reminder for the approaching daybreak. The last of the night's breeze whispered amongst the leaves that rustled at its gentle passing and carried away their sleepiness. However, the serene fragrance of nature was marred by the faint odor of smoke, its bitter tang clashing with the wholesome feel of the undisturbed countryside.

Shades of grey resided in the sky like vigilant but neutral spectators of the world below them. The monochrome color then became opaque as pale orange glow filtered through the gradient canvas of the waking dawn. A thin film of blazing light crept over the horizon like an unstoppable torrent, immersing the distant silhouettes in its fiery radiance. The intersecting rail tracks glimmered invitingly like pathways to a brilliant wonderland, but they also mimicked treacherous spider webs where the weaver awaited patiently for the unwitting wanderers to trap themselves.

Unfortunately, Eani Station was the travelers' only means of reaching their destination.

Garnet eyes struggled to remain open even as weariness slowly sank in. The darkness that provided their camouflage was no more, so Sakura knew she needed to be extra alert for anything that might prevent them from boarding a train.

Shivering, the Foxroach fought against her fatigue and tried to put up an aloof front to show that she was just as determined as ever, even though she was completely rattled inside. The horrors of Torden's fate still lingered in her mind, much like the pungent smell of blood and smoke stuck to her skin. She already crumbled once so she refused to break again. Each step was heavy and painful, for it brought her further and further away from the places she loved yet failed to protect. The shallow gash on her brow had long numbed and scabbed but she was very aware of the intangible scar beneath its surface.

She growled and held her tail held high. She was not running away like a silly critter surrendering without a fight. She was only taking time away to become stronger so she could return one day to confront her foes. Buzzing in frustration, she focused her thoughts solely on reaching Eani Station and the much needed rest to come if they were to recuperate.

She would not have the spare energy to ponder about her failures this way.

Ears drooping, she anxiously glanced at the golden-haired woman beside her. Rui appeared unaffected by the strain on her still healing wound, but after years of watching her moving fluidly in the Cog Weasel, Sakura could see the barely controlled limps in her gait. While the sight of the older Vulpine in pain unnerved the girl, it also strengthened her resolve.

Hector's legacy will always be on her mind but until the day she gained the capability to truly lead a Rebellion, she must bide and concentrate on what was important in the present.

She would like to believe that she could protect and help her important people at the very least.

When Yutsu, who was scouting ahead of them, sent a warning signal through her antennae, Sakura realized it was her chance to prove that she was not as useless as she thought. Her whiskers twitched nervously as she motioned for Rui to stay close to her. Though seemingly amused, the golden Fox wordlessly followed the instruction. This gesture of trust brought a small smile on the girl's face as they approached the bounty hunter in utmost caution.

"Five to six sentries around the perimeter," the blunette glanced at her companions briefly before returning her sharp gaze to Eani Station, "They don't seem to be part of Tyradum's little campaign on Torden, but they do look jittery."

Sakura squinted hard but she still couldn't see anything beyond the obvious shapes of the buildings because they were still too far. She did not doubt Yutsu's words though, so instead she tried to think of a plan to get rid of the guards.

"They must have noticed the battle," Rui murmured, her crimson eyes narrowing as she tightened her grip on the shotgun.

"Oh they should, otherwise I might have overestimated them foolish kittens," the blunette twittered coldly and pulled out her pistols, "Either way, nervous preys are easier to manipulate away from witnesses to slaughter."

The Foxroach tried to ignore a slight tremor passing through her. Since their escape from Torden, Yutsu seemed to be distant despite her usual giggles and nonchalance. At first, Sakura thought it was because the bounty hunter was still disappointed in her for being so weak but the blunette was quite stiff with Rui too.

A slight flicker of the older Vulpine's ear showed that she also noticed the oddity, but she chose not to voice the issue, which prompted the girl to disregard it as well.

Until the recent events, the Cog Weasel had always been a place the three of them interacted. Anything strange was smoothed out one way or another and they were able to continue treating each other as they usually did. However, now that they were on the run, Sakura felt a chasm disconnecting her from Yutsu. There was also a small but steadily growing gap between her and Rui due to their different opinions in the Rebellion, even now.

It could simply be a figment of her imagination because of stress, but she was afraid that these crevices had always been there and she just chose not to see them back then.

She shook her head stubbornly and felt for the Rebel's crest in her pocket. The crusty texture of the dried blood both sickened and encouraged her to keep going. She must do everything she could to overcome the obstacles in her way.

And then once they settled down and rested, surely any peculiarity would disappear.

"I will draw them away," Yutsu spoke flatly and jolted the girl out of her trance. Immediately, Sakura opened her mouth to protest but she could only squeak when a cool glare silenced her.

"There should be a small alleyway facing that tree over there. Turn right and left at the first two intersections, then for the rest just keep going straight. When you reach the dead end, knock on the wall three times – only three times – and ask for Larry. Just say 'Yutsu sends her regards, and we need to get on a train heading to Middleport.' Is that clear?"

With her ears folded, the black-haired girl struggled to remember all the details while she looked between the two women. Like her, Rui did not like the idea of their group being separated but the bounty hunter was unyielding.

"This is the only way," Yutsu said tersely.

Sakura gulped and held her breath as she glanced from the golden Fox's irate scowl to the blunette's blank expression. As rare as such stifling tension was between the two, the young girl distinctively remembered that, years ago, a similar conflict was not resolved and given time to fester. It was a period of sheer unease she did not want to relive again.

No, the three of them must stay together more than ever. Her antennae wilted as she let out an involuntary whimper.

Her rather pitiful sound distracted the two adults for a moment and, fortunately, it was enough for Rui to sigh wearily and Yutsu to soften her gaze.

"Geez, Sour Fox, so little faith in my ability?" Winking, she lightly pinched the golden-haired woman's cheek and giggled when the playful gesture earned her an irritated growl. "I promise I'll join up with you two by the time you reach the train, mkies? So don't frown those adorable whiskers off, Sa-chan. I'll be leaving Foxy in your care."

Sakura hissed at the remark but only pouted indignantly when the blunette patted her head.

"Damn Rabbit." "Damn Roach." The two Vulpines muttered at the same time, which made them glance at each other and scowl.

Though miffed, the black-haired girl felt better because of the normal interaction and the sight of Yutsu's affectionate smile was enough to placate her ire.

"The chances aren't high but there could be wandering sentries in the alleyways too," she waved casually and dashed out of the foliage, "laters~"

The Foxroach stood a little straighter as she watched the cloak billowing behind the bounty hunter until it blended with the grey backdrop of the distant buildings. After a long period of unsettling silence, a pulse of signal told her that the sentry guards were successfully drawn away from town.

Buzzing resolutely, she tugged at Rui's sleeve and began to lead them towards the tree Yutsu had indicated. Though the older Fox's expression was inscrutable, her lips quirked at the white-tipped black tail swishing spiritedly above the ground. The muffled cracks of gunshots made Sakura tense but she was undeterred at her given task. She shook off the sense of déjà vu when the blunette left their side, firmly telling her worried mind that she will see the annoying Bunnyroach soon enough. Yutsu was always so flippant which tended to make her opponents underestimate her. However, it was really because she giggled in the face of death and delivered death that made her so powerful. She could overcome anything, right?

"She'll be fine," Rui spoke evenly. The girl noticed she was actually trailing behind her guardian, so she nodded and hastened her pace.

Eani Station was a moderate-sized town with networks of buildings and rail tracks sticking out from every direction, some still in construction while some were already in frequent use. Looking at the faded grey walls and grimy alleys, Sakura was reminded of the Lower 2nd District and 3rd District of Kaltrea. She gave in to the nostalgia and allowed herself to spare the direction of the metropolis a glance before checking for the civilians who might hinder their infiltration. Fortunately, it was deserted, as one would expect from a simple relay point at this hour.  

Grinning confidently at the lack of guards barring their way, the Foxroach scuttled into the alleyway with Rui following closely.

"Turn right first," Sakura murmured to herself and held up her arms bravely as she inched towards the intersection. Her fingers felt clammy beneath the metal gauntlets, so she clenched her hands a few times to make sure they were flexible enough to spring into action if needed. After she was confident that there was no one around the corner, she nodded at Rui who flicked her tail approvingly and followed her. The golden-haired woman was checking the perimeter herself but she still gave the Foxroach the chance to complete her task.

Sakura smiled gratefully at her guardian and continued on her way in more assertive steps with her tail held high. However, after they fully entered the musky shades that covered the back alleys, she began to feel queasy from the narrow pathways. She had always found comfort in darkness yet the lack of open space made her quite conscious of her puny self, that the world could easy crush her.

Was this the life of a bounty hunter and a fugitive rebel, to live under constant pressure and disquiet?

Yutsu had always travelled so freely and never gave any indication to difficulties she must have encountered to build her network. Tal and the others always held themselves with dignity and worked hard at their day jobs, so it was easy to forget that any mistake would cost them their lives.

Enemies could be anywhere, waiting for the opportunity to kill them and that would just be it, the end of her story.

Unsettled by the magnitude of this revelation, the black-haired girl moved a little closer to Rui and slightly relaxed when she felt the golden tail pat her head briefly. Her guardian wanted her to have a normal life free of the aforementioned dangers. The older Vulpine was always there for her, ever reliable and kept her in line. While Sakura was reprimanded whenever necessary, she was still given the freedom to explore her individuality. The issue about the rebels was the one thing they could not agree on, otherwise they got along really well. The Foxroach had no doubt that if she asked Rui to sponsor her to attend a good school, she would.

Sakura sometimes entertained the idea of such ordinary and safe life. It would make everything so much easier and she might even have been content to simply learn standardized knowledge with Elaine. Nevertheless, the small rebel leader knew that the ordinary life was not meant for her.

She wanted to change the world for the better. While she had experienced hardships in her young life, Rui and the others must have endured more. Sakura did not want the future generation to grow up under suppression like her cherished ones went through. Therefore, even if it meant giving up on a simple life and damaging her bond to the golden Fox because of her choice, she must fulfill her legacy.  

With her ears folded, Sakura apologized inwardly to her guardian and stepped away from the reassuring warmth to approach the end of the alleyway. Rui did not comment on her abrupt movement and merely leaned against the wall as she stood guard. The black-haired girl tried to clear her thoughts and took a deep breath before rapping her knuckles on the dirty wall. The noise sliced through the silence like a siren, even though she measured the force she applied to keep the taps as quiet as possible. Cringing, she scanned her surroundings frantically and hoped for a door to magically appear.  

After awhile though, Sakura fervently wished that some sort of sound would break this disconcerting silence. She only knocked thrice and evenly timed each interval so the repetition was clear. She glanced at Rui, who shifted but did not avert her gaze from the way they came from. The fact that the two Vulpines were at a dead end meant they were no better than trapped critters. They flicked their ears to check for any approaching entities but there was nothing.

Finally, sluggish stomps were heard from the other side of the filthy wall, which slowly slid aside to reveal a hidden entrance. The sleepy face of a middle-aged Possum came into view as bleary eyes observed his two visitors.

Seeing that the stranger was waiting for something, Sakura quickly sputtered, "W-we're looking for Larry!"

He only raised his eyebrow and took a swig from the bottle of booze he was swirling.

Though scowling, Rui spoke rather calmly. "Yutsu sends her regards. We need to board a train heading to Middleport."

The formerly intoxicated man snapped to attention at the message. "Awight, git in."

He stepped back to give them room to climb through the narrow opening and quickly closed the camouflaged door, almost catching the tip of Sakura's tail. The girl suppressed her indignant yowl in favor of appraising her surrounding.  It looked like a storage room for there were stacks of crates and boxes that were filled with assorted items, such as bolts, tools, linen and even firearm parts. Buzzing warily, the Foxroach turned towards the front of the shop and saw a high stall where a large shape was dozing on the stool with his head resting on the counter top. Judging from the appearance, she deduced they must be inside the booth of the central station and namesake of this town.

The two Vulpines tensed when three shadows approached the slumped figure and irritably tapped the bell. The loud chime, however, did nothing to the sleeping man, which caused the Tyradum officials to hiss impatiently.

"Lar is o'er there," the Possum mumbled as he shuffled towards the Felines. "Gent'emen, come wit me, I'll take you to de train."

"Sarge will be displeased. How dare the stationmaster sleep on his job?"

"Drinking at dawn already? As expected of your kind…"

"Eeh 'pologies sirs…"

As the lazy drawls and peeved insults drifted out of earshot, Sakura hurried towards the hulking Wombat and poked his side but to no avail. The old man was quite muscular for his age, possibly because of decades of managing a town where all types of people pass by everyday, so her prodding probably didn't even register in his senses. Frowning, she glanced at Rui helplessly, but the latter was still checking the surroundings for any officers. Hissing, she hopped up and clawed at the high counter so she could reach the large man's rather small ear.

"Larry!"

The Wombat finally stirred at her incensed yowl and turned to look at her with a stern expression. "Who might chu be?"

Feeling small and vulnerable, Sakura tried her best to keep the stammer out of her voice as she repeated the message Yutsu had instructed. She dropped from the counter but she accidentally knocked over the small bell. Wincing, she hastily used her furry tail to catch it before it hit the ground and make a jarring crash.

"Oh, her. Fine," Larry grumbled and rotated his shoulders, his bones creaking as he stretched and yawned. Any vestiges of sleep disappeared when he leaned down to take a closer look at her. She bared her fangs and tried her best not to scurry behind Rui, like a little kid who was frightened by a menacing stranger.

"A Roach too huh," he swatted her antennae dismissively and turned away, apparently having lost interest. Since the Wombat only sounded exasperated for an unknown reason, instead of belittlement, she decided to let it go and just settled for a glare at his broad back.

"Don't worry, Miss," Larry gestured for the two Vulpines to follow him, "Eric will keep those soldiers busy. In the meantime, I'll get you both on the cargo train that's scheduled to depart in fifteen minutes."

Though still wary, Rui must have decided they have no choice but to trust the stranger, so she nodded curtly and walked after him with Sakura nearby.

"How will you get us aboard?" The golden Fox asked, her ears obviously scanning the vicinity every now and then for any approaching soldiers.

"Timing," the Wombat grunted, "When I see the opportunity, I'll signal you to climb into one of the cargo compartments. It's just a freight train headin' to Middleport to pick up more stuff before goin' to Ladar Clearing."

The black-haired girl tensed at the mention of the construction site under the military's control. What could the locomotive be possibly transporting?

As if hearing her silent question, Larry elaborated, "See, cuz of what happened in Kaltrea weeks ago and, I guess Torden yesterday, no train was allowed to head to the capital unless it's been thoroughly searched and accompanied by a full platoon of soldiers. The only trains to escape the heavy security check are those headin' west, just cuz they couldn't afford to spare soldiers to board the frequent cargo trains."

"And the one you deem safe enough for us is…?"

"Only accompanied by the conductor and a few assistants who will be in the front carts. Stay low when you're still in Eani. Once you've left the station, the coast will be clear."

Rui did not seem convinced of the locomotive's apparent safety, but she nodded politely while glancing at the crates around them. Many of the spare parts, unmanned freights and cargo proved to be great cover for the fugitives.   

"What's the cargo?" Sakura yipped, unable to suppress her curiosity any longer.

Larry quirked an eyebrow and shrugged. "This one arrived just yesterday, apparently supposed to be headin' to Corkel Gates but when some Tyradum men inspected the contents, they decided to send it back to Middleport first. I'm sure it's just some Fenrisyr produce goods. The businessmen probably don't want to pay the inflated tax in the capital right now."

The Foxroach tilted her head quizzically but asked no more. She deduced that the locomotive could really be innocent, or Tyradum was trying to hide something. Either way, she will scour the carts for useful supplies and maybe discover something unexpected like explosive chemicals. She was bitterly reminded of the operation where she failed to knock the conductor unconscious and thus led to her search warrant, which escalated into the irreversible mess they were in now.

She was too indecisive and naïve. She will not make the same mistake again.

Sighing, she turned to gaze at the endless stretch of railroad heading towards the shorelines, to Middleport, and to the beginning of her story. There was no going back now that she was forced to build a new path from her starting point. Once they board the train, she might never set foot on this part of the land again. She thought of her small form wandering in the vast unknown all by herself and was suddenly struck by terror.

Feeling homesick, she gripped the hem of Rui's sleeve. "You'll stay with me right? Y-Yutsu too."

The golden Fox looked at her calmly, her tone neither patronizing nor affable. "I can't speak for Yutsu, but I promise I will never leave you by yourself."

Her honest answer was enough to reassure the frightened girl. The growing gap between them, as unsettling as it's been, was filled by the warmth from the gentle hand caressing her hand.

Sakura happily indulged herself in the rare affectionate gesture and wilted when the moment was interrupted by Larry's urgent grunt.

"Git on the train, now. Eric won't be able to distract those officials any longer. They might head this way."

Rui growled quietly while Sakura hissed defiantly. "Yutsu's not here yet! She swore she would meet up with us around here!"

The Wombat only rolled his eyes. "Just hurry up. That damn Roach won't keel so easily."

The black-haired girl flicked her ears anxiously at the usage of the blunette's nickname. Crimson eyes narrowed as the golden Fox remained immovable in spite of his exasperated stare.

"You're all troublesome, just like her."

"Me, troublesome? Certainly not~"

Sakura's whiskers automatically frizzled at the familiar twitter. The bounty hunter was already sitting on top of a crate inside the open cart, waving nonchalantly at the fuming man.

Though extremely relieved to see Yutsu safe and sound, she managed to hide her real feelings by growling snappishly. "You're late!"

Rui did not look impressed by the blunette's frivolous demeanor either. Unaffected by their various annoyed reactions, the Bunnyroach hopped off from her perch and loosely hugged the two Vulpines with one arm each.

"My adorable Foxes~"

The golden-haired woman huffily shrugged off the offending appendage while the buzzing girl struggled half-heartedly. In spite of everything that happened, this almost silly bond still existed between them all.

"Thanks for the help, old man." Yutsu waved cheekily with her now free hand.

"Cheh, git out of my hair already," Larry grumbled and ushered them aboard before slamming the sliding door shut with an impressive pull.

However, while Sakura was getting used to the enclosed space and the dim lighting provided by a narrow hole on the side, she heard a string of mutters from the Wombat. "If Joe were to see you now, what would he say? He didn't give you knives to kill fer seein' blood…now it's comin' to haunt you now, all those poor souls you tore just cuz you were told to… when will you ever stop, damn blue pest?"

She swished her tail incomprehensively and glanced at Yutsu, whose viridian eyes appeared uncharacteristically morose.  After the Foxroach blinked though, the blunette's usual nonchalance was back. Did she imagine the whole thing? And what was Larry talking about anyway?

Sakura was snapped out of her musings when the engine roared to life. Deep rumblings could be felt through the tremors on the floor while a whistle blew sharply.

With her heart pounding rather painfully against her ribs, the young rebel leader looked out of the opening just in time to see the train departing from the station. Both Larry and Eric's expressions were solemn, as if they knew what dream the black-haired girl carried even though they only exchanged a few lines. It could just be her optimistic imagination, but she saw hope and prayer in the strangers' weary eyes.

She frowned sadly as she watched the distant silhouette of the metropolis and the smoke columns drifting from Torden became distant and far out of her reach.

"Goodbye…"

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Rui cringed as the cargo car jerked for the umpteenth time since their departure. The sudden jolt aggravated the dull throbbing on her side, sending a wave of pain that radiated up to her chest and spread to her back. She inhaled deeply to dull the sensation, trying to keep her mind away from the aches. Earlier she had other things in mind but now that they were in this closed space with nothing else to do but wait, her attention inevitably returned to her current dilemma.

She scanned the surroundings but the darkness only allowed a fraction of the space to be distinguished from the shadows. Around her, large wooden crates sealed by thick nails were neatly packed against the car's walls. Sacks of what seemed to be flour or grain were also stacked in even columns, shifting ever so slightly according to the train's movements. These goods were no different than they were, tossed in this moving platform to be shipped to the next destination, unaware of what was in store. It was like a distorted notion of going with the flow, in which refusing to follow the stream meant capture or death.

Rui sighed as she tucked one of her tails under her leg in order to spare the limb from the tingling numbness that came with sitting down on the hard iron floor. The last thing she needed was for her leg to fall asleep as she was already having some trouble ignoring the discomfort of her still healing injuries.

She lifted her gaze to look at Sakura, who was sitting near the humongous sliding door that served as the car's entrance, her eyes vacant as they looked through the narrow portal where she could view the outside world.  The scenery was probably a collage of blurry images passing by so quickly that it would be impossible to distinguish a single blade of grass or a twiggy shrub from the mess of colors and shadows. Only the bold lines of the railroad itself or the intertwined cables running alongside it would stand out, clearly defining the path that the locomotive was forced to take every time it made its journey.

Was that concept similar to how the black-haired girl viewed the world? Was there only a fixed road that she must take? Rui had always wondered why her charge was adamant about carrying such a great burden, but in this state of helplessness and uncertainty, she could not find the energy to fault anything any longer.

Sakura flicked her white-tipped tail, hopped off the crate she had been sitting on, and announced, "Foxy, I'm gonna check the cargo."

"Why…?"

The clipped response sounded antagonistic and made the younger girl blink uncertainly then attempt to explain her objectives, "I just wanted see if there are things that are useful…"

"Wouldn't that be the same as stealing?" Rui was not sure why where the cynicism came from, but she was certain that her mood was not the best at that moment. She did not like the unsteadiness of this train and how painfully different it was to being able to simply live her life quietly on firm ground. She thought that she was prepared for this undertaking since she mulled over her new life in Torden, but apparently that was easier said than done.

When the black-haired girl averted her eyes, the golden Fox flicked her ear and dismissed her rhetorical question. "Righteousness… can be blinding," she said instead, "never lose hindsight. What is right now can be wrong in retrospect and only thinking of the greater good can mean a greater fault later."

Her crimson gaze scrutinized the black Kit meaningfully, "never forget that."

On one hand, the girl only wanted to make sure that the cargo did not contain anything that would prove detrimental to future operations and that the Empire was not transporting dangerous equipment to and from the mainland. On the other hand, snooping around and taking supplies from this train was no different from being petty thieves.

It was always a question of mores, was it not?

It was always the shades of grey.

Rui shook her head when Sakura was unable to provide her with a proper answer, "forget what I said. Go on patrol and inform us if you find anything."

It was not as if she was perfectly sinless when it came to observing righteous principles.

"Foxy…?"

Truly, sometimes she could not stand the look of honesty, virtue, and resolve in the girl's eyes, especially when it seemed so unreal, because in many ways, all she saw was a stubborn front that refused to let go of a dying ideal.

"I said forget it," she told the black-haired girl as she laid her shotgun down on the floor, "and don't go too far."  Then as if to show the younger Vulpine that she had dropped the topic and opted to get as much rest she could in this dark box, she leaned back against the wall and closed her crimson eyes.

Fortunately, Sakura was considerate enough to respect her subtle wish.

The golden Fox relaxed her taut shoulder muscles when the Foxroach quietly left in pursuit of her self-appointed mission. She was being hard on the girl, was she not? There was always this desire to set Sakura straight, a need that Rui could never shake off. Perhaps it was a natural reaction to having a literal rebel for a family member, no matter how indirect their relationship was.

Or maybe she was simply being unfair.

Chuckling to herself, she shifted her weight to accommodate the stiffness of her back, partially relieving her torso of unnecessary discomfort. She then unbuttoned her black shirt so she could check how her injuries were, and as she expected, a large black bruise was present just under her left ribs. Where and how did she get hit? Rui decided that that was a stupid question since she did just get out of a battle zone that involved explosions. Regardless of the cause, she could only hope that the aggravation was only superficial.

She did not want to know if she had more severe complications.

Aside from the trauma, another cause of her worry was her rising temperature. She hid the distress from her companions to spare them of the worry, but as the clock ticked by the more cold sweats dripped from her brow and crawled down her spine. And despite the near burning sensation underneath her skin, her hands felt like ice whenever she tried to check her own temperature.

The train car's roof hatch opened before she could delve further into assessing her physical status, and from it, Yutsu jumped down from her post on the rooftop. The bounty hunter dusted her arms and her scarf before flicking her long blue hair behind her shoulder. She then smiled at Rui even though her viridian eyes explicitly showed aloofness that demystified her usual charm.

Was she smiling at her to ease her worry?

How pathetic…

"Where did Sa-chan disappear off to now?" The blunette held her hands akimbo as her antennae twitched, perhaps trying to locate the tiny Foxroach. "Ah policing the place now, hmm?"

"She always has energy to play hero…" Rui muttered as she buttoned her shirt yet leaving it loose because it was too painful to try and tuck it under her belt properly.

"At least that keeps her distracted, yes?" The golden Fox watched as her lover place her massive sniper rifle against a crate. Then, after sheathing one of her infamous butterfly swords, Yutsu sat next her and leaned against the metal wall.

"How are you?" The blunette asked with a deep sigh and a soft smile.

"Hurting, but I'll live." For now… "There is something I want to ask though," the older woman glanced at the long-eared bounty hunter, "what did he mean when he said that?"

"Hmm?"

"The Wombat, Larry…"

That encounter was truly the first time that Rui had ever met someone who knew Yutsu outside of Kaltrea. She expected that the blunette's reputation would influence how she was treated, and at best, she would be regarded as a pest that was to be shunned yet feared. However, Larry's glare earlier was that of a person whose hate was deeply rooted. Yet, in spite of that abhorrence, there was also a cruel form of pity, although Rui was not sure whether that pity was directed at the bounty hunter or someone else.

Nonetheless, Yutsu seemed affected by the Wombat's disapproval and off-handed comment. It was not often that the blunette showed that she cared for opinions about her and her occupation, so when the shroud of shame showed itself, even for a split second, it spoke volumes.

"…Larry was Joseph's relative and Madame's friend," the Rabbit sat next to her with ears slightly bent in recollection. But the nostalgic smile expected of a person remembering fond memories was absent from her face. Only a guarded blankness was there.

Why?

Rui continued to watch the bounty hunter, waiting for her to elaborate, and more importantly, return her gaze. Living in a world full of deceit, eye contact had been their way of showing truth in words that would otherwise be meaningless to their jaded ears. It took courage, but that was one of the reasons why they were still together after all these years.

Yutsu noticed her stare and stroked the black and red scarf around her neck, a subtle form of fidgeting she tended to make. "No matter. He's an eccentric man, always has been. He just doesn't think my profession is suitable for a lil' Herbivore like me, that's all."

The bounty hunter never lifted her eyes from the ground.

"I see…" the golden Fox removed the heavy pressure of her gaze from the Rabbit. She did not like how the topic was brushed off so easily but she was too exhausted to care at that moment. Moreover, she was certain that underneath all the confidence and sass, a part of Yutsu was not completely proud of her accomplishments. That was the bane of being human, she supposed, no one was ever content of being who they were.

"Little Herbivore, huh…?" Rui idly stroked her own tail in thought, recalling a very different side of her lover back when they still lived in Kaltrea.

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"Foxy~ when is that guy going to show up?" Impatience was quite rare from the blunette but after ingesting quite a bit of sugar and being on an impromptu trip, she was quite energetic.

They were currently in Corkel Gate's main hub, a town that was originally built to house the river port's engineers and their families. Like any colony, it had grown into an important station where goods and people transfer ferries in order to enter or exit Tyradum and, more specifically, the outskirts of its capital, Artexercos. It was as busy as Kaltrea, if not more so due to the number of ships both great and small that docked here. Not only that, the Tyradum military was also at large here since Corkel Gate was a key defensive point for the Empire. Men in army uniforms and engineering suits mingled here, as well as exotically dressed ones that came from the far reaches of the Razreal and the Nadira rivers to trade.

She and Yutsu were here for the same purpose.

Rui glanced at the large clock that was installed in the town center and saw that it was almost noon. "He should be here any minute now."

She rarely ventured outside of Kaltrea and whenever she did, it was solely for the purpose of securing supplies for the Cog Weasel. This occasion was no different. According to the newspapers, there had been numerous train robberies in the Tricity area, one of Tyradum's most important train stations that was similar to the Eani station of Riphaeus. These disturbances have unsurprisingly hindered the shipment of wine that Rui had ordered from the southeastern part of the continent. A contact then sent her a letter to meet up with him in Corkel Gate because the company decided to ship their goods via boat up the Nadira River instead of shipping it via rail.

It was not a trip she wanted to make since it meant that she must close the bar for the day but she was left with no choice if she desired her order to arrive before she completely ran out of supply. Just so happened that Yutsu just got back from a mission a few days prior, and since she was not too keen on leaving the Rabbit by herself in the bar and risk having it set on fire, she took the blunette with her.

Truly the image of the kitchen half-scorched by what seemed to be ham, eggs and pancakes would haunt her for a while still.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" The Rabbit crossed her arms and indignantly chewed on her gummy carrots. Who would have thought that they actually sold those in the train station?

"Nothing…" Rui quirked an eyebrow at the indignantly pointed look the younger woman was giving her. Chuckling, she noted the blunette's rather casual—and she even dare say, lovely—get-up. It consisted of a pair of soft jeans that fitted her hips and legs perfectly, a white sleeveless shirt that had a decal of a cartoonish black cat, and a denim jacket that hung over her shoulders just right. She still wore her iconic black and red scarf though, as well as her usual fingerless gloves and boots.

"Then why do I sense that haughty amusement, hmm?"

"You're imagining things, I assure you."

"No, I'm not."

"I just like what I'm seeing, that's all." The golden Fox smirked and, just to irk her companion a little further, added, "You look pretty in less revealing clothes."

She did not even need to look from the corner of her eyes to see the faint blush on the blunette's cheeks, which the latter tried to hide by lowering her long ears. Granted the pink tint only lasted for a few moments before Yutsu thumped the asphalt and gnawed irately on a gummy carrot. Quiet mumbles also escaped her lips, although unfortunately the murmured protests were inaudible to the golden Fox.

The rather adorable reaction made Rui chuckle in mirth despite her efforts at keeping her expression even, which only prompted the Rabbit to be more incensed. But before the blunette could chirp further displeasure at her, the Vulpine noted thoughtfully, "you like wearing scarves, don't you?"

Yutsu tilted her head and bent her ears at the outlandish question that had nothing to do with their original topic, "yeah, why do you ask?"

"You're always wearing that scarf." The fact struck Rui as odd since the blunette certainly had more than one scarf in the house. Yet she almost always used the red and black one in spite of how old it was. "It's also the only one you ever hand-wash, along with those gloves."

Yutsu's emerald eyes shifted from left to right, obviously unwilling to narrate more about the garments, but since the golden Fox continued to stare at her, she replied in uncharacteristically bashful mumbles, "these are special. Madame gave them to me years ago."

"Madame…?" Rui crossed her legs as she sat on one of the street benches, a sign that her attention was completely focused on the blunette's story. She even pocketed the piece of paper that contained directions in her black blazer and perked her large golden ears.

Suddenly being put on the spot made Yutsu's ears flop down on the sides of her head, mildly embarrassed at the undivided interest. "Madame Shrew, as she's known, takes care of homeless kids and she never forced them to work, which was almost unheard of in Vertalis since most of the orphanages there were just masks for slave trading operations. Those who chose to work all did it because they wanted to. You can say that she was my guardian before I became a bounty hunter. She took me in for a few years and, well, the scarf and the gloves were like farewell gifts from her."

The short story instantly reminded the Vulpine of her own maternal figure, Lana, and so her features softened into an understanding smile, especially when the blunette sat next to her and fiddled with the edges of the fingerless gloves she was wearing. The Rabbit must be remembering some fond memories before she immersed herself in the life of a killer, a vampire, and it was these small moments of sentimentality that Rui treasured.

"Did you learn how to fight from her?" She had always been curious where the Rabbit learned the ways of combat.

The blunette shook her head and chuckled softly, "I... I learned how to use switchblades from Joseph, Madame's bodyguard and friend… for self-defense, you know? Life was hard there too."

Rui nodded sympathetically. From what she knew, the Herbivore continent of Vertalis remained underdeveloped and under barrage of Tyradum's attempts at colonization. Her lover had a rough childhood, perhaps even more hellish than hers, so she could only imagine how she must have lived without her family. Undoubtedly, the expression of utter loneliness she was wearing at this moment was testament to her ordeal.

Yutsu tried to hide it but the veil of melancholy remained visible to the Fox's eyes.

She was an avid wearer of it too after all.

"W-will you stop looking at me like that?" Uncomfortable, the usually feisty bounty hunter glared at her hands with a small, almost invisible, pout in her features. "I don't know if you're making fun of me or undressing me with that stare."

Crimson eyes blinked bemusedly, "I'm not doing any of those. Besides," she casually brushed some lint off her perfectly ironed beige trousers, "you're the more perverted one between us."

Yutsu gaped and thumped the ground again with her boot, "that is a lie! You're the more e-experienced one!"

This made Rui frown due to extreme bewilderment, "what's that supposed to mean?"

"You just are. Hnnf!" The Rabbit then began another volley of incoherent mumblings under her breath while irritably flicking her antennae. The golden Fox even heard a very short sentence that included the words 'molester' and 'pervert'.

She really should figure out how to turn on this adorable switch at will. It was not every day that Yutsu showed her this rather childish side, one that mostly resembled the teenage girl she was supposed to be.

The blunette was just nineteen years old after all.

Rui continued to watch her fidget and nibble the gummy carrots in mock anger. Then, as her resistance diminished, the bartender leaned towards the unsuspecting Rabbit and stole the tiny candy still protruding from her lips. Stunned, Yutsu could only stare at her and blink rapidly as her face regained a shade of red.

The Fox chewed thoughtfully and was surprised that the treat did not even taste anything like the carrots that they were supposed to be. Instead, they were flavored with something far more familiar to her.


Strawberries…

"The people who made this candy don't know how carrots taste like…" Rui mumbled before swallowing the treat, "I'm surprised you didn't say anything."

The Rabbit snapped out of her brief trance and stammered, "I didn't mind… besides it's not like I don't like that flavor." She then stubbornly looked at anywhere but the golden Fox.

The older woman smirked but before she could tease the Rabbit further, the trader they were supposed to meet finally arrived, "Miss Rui Brewfort?"


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"We should be almost there, just hang on for a bit longer. We'll get a doctor to check up on you the moment we arrive, mkay?"

A warm hand held hers as she slowly opened her crimson eyes after her cognizance was torn away from the happy days of yesterday. Was she beginning to get delusional? She hoped not. It was not like her mind was swimming in any aches or drowsiness brought forth by her injuries. She merely wanted to rest a bit and engross herself in the near-perfect life she had built for herself and Yutsu.

"Don't worry," she told the bounty hunter after giving the latter's hand a reassuring squeeze. "Heh, you should have checked Eani if they also sold gummy carrots, damn Rabbit. A bit of cheer from you would be nice right now, no matter how irritating it might be."

"Gummy carr—you still remember that?"

"Of course."

"Oh, Foxy~ I should have expected that you treasured the times you took way too much advantage of my innocence."

"Innocence? Pff…"

"Tsk tsk, just bear in mind that you took it away. All of it~"

"I don't know what you're talk—"

The deafening screech of the train's brakes roared in Rui's ears, making her snarl at the sharp pain that bolted up her body. Many loosely organized cargos slid towards the front of the car, even her own shotgun almost slipped out of reach. Alarmed, Yutsu hopped to her feet and grabbed her rifle before helping the Fox up. They stayed completely still to gauge the situation outside, but they both knew of what might have happened.

Then as if to confirm their suspicion, Sakura busted into the room they stayed in and yipped, "the train came to a full stop! I-I was just checking the car in front of us and it just happened. What's going on?"

"Damn those persistent Flies," Yutsu hissed as she readied herself for battle. But before she went up through the roof's hatch, she told the Vulpines, "Rui, Sa-chan, get this train running as soon as possible. Go to the engine room and fire it again. We must keep moving."

"You said Flies," the golden Fox knew of only one Fly that would trouble her lover, "Is it Dieter?"

Dieter Hendrich was one of Kazan's top bounty hunters and also one of Yutsu's acquaintances. However, from the blunette's tone and the stories she had heard about the man, Dieter was strictly professional so if he was hired to pursue them he would do so in spite of the Rabbit being in their party.

"No, it's not Dieter. If so I wouldn't be able to handle him on my own." Just then footsteps from the rooftop pattered over their heads. "No, these are just his fanboys and fangirls, hoping to garner his attention by bringing our heads."

Sakura went to Rui's side to support her as she listened, "bounty hunters? After us?"

A cool smirk appeared on Yutsu's lips, partly to reassure the younger girl but the Fox knew that that smirk was not at all different from the one the blunette wore when she killed the Marjays that intruded the Cog Weasel weeks ago.

She twirled a butterfly knife in her fingers, "They can try."

And like a shadow, the bounty hunter disappeared through the roof, leaving her with Sakura. She gazed meaningfully at the girl, who, despite the tension they had earlier, bobbed her head and readied her metal claws for another battle.

Rui's pulse drummed in her temple as she tightened her hold on her shotgun. She knew her limitations and she was quickly nearing it. She only had a handful of rounds remaining, and if those Flies persisted, they would be in a very bad situation.

Nonetheless, their objective was the same.

Survive.

She cocked her shotgun, aimed, and fired at the first body that barged in the train car.
Edit: Sorry if this sent an unnecessary message in readers' inboxes. We accidentally deleted this chapter from the group page. We just resubmitted it.

Prologue - Blood of the Conquered: [link]

Arc1:
Chime1 - Meandering Trails: [link]

Arc 2:
Chime6 - Rippling Clamors: [link]

Arc 3:
Chime10 - Abominated Ardor: Here/ FP: [link]

Chapter Illustration: [link]

of :iconthe-bell-keeper:, collaborated by :iconghikij::iconadrenaveris::iconathyra:
:iconsalemxyz:
SalemXYZ Featured By Owner Jun 13, 2012
Finally the much anticipated arc3. Kura's inner conflict was well done - the childish side who still wanted to be babied and protected, and the mature side who wanted to shoulder the burden and legacy Hector left behind. I find her admirable though, because any lesser person would have given up already, especially after what happened in Torden.

There seems to be a foreshadowing about the growing rift between the three main characters. While their bond is repeatedly healed, there's only so much hasty patchworks can do to maintain their relationship. Rui never wanted to be involved with this rebel business, Yutsu has her own agenda, and Kura will stick to her goals no matter what. It'll be interesting to see what really happens in the future because of the spiderweb image of the rail tracks, which also alluded to chime 1's opening as well.

I think I understand why you three are so excited, because we get to see more of Yutsu's mysterious past which seems to be laced with mines. As a reader, I can relate to Rui's curiosity as well. As a well-traveled bounty hunter, Yutsu is bound to know quite the amount of people, who will perceive her differently than our two main characters.

The flashback is cute, but it's also like the calm before the storm. It's always fun to read the different Yutsus around Rui. Perhaps it's the tender topic of her former caretakers that brought out the softer demeanor in the bounty hunter.

This chapter really speaks for itself, so I don't have much to say but eagerly await for the fight scene next chapter.

Notable things: Vertalis is continent of Herbivores, seems to resemble Third World countries. Madame Shrew, Joseph, Larry, Eric, the Tricity Area
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