“MP3 Players?!” Dalton gawked, eyebrows well past his bangs. Man, seriously! As cool as Eduardo could be sometimes, he was seriously behind the times. They were ipods, iphones, droids… all that fancy s**t that was so much more than an MP3 player. Laying back and eyeing his mentor, Dalton simply shook his head.

“Man, that’s not even what they’re called! You aren’t helping the ancient argument much,” he teased, smiling just a little bit despite the stress. This was the great part of Lalo- even if he was worried and concerned, you could still joke around with him. It wasn’t all doom, despair and agony around here, like it seemed to be with the other teachers. Much as Dalton liked Adams, she tended to blow things *way* out of proportion. He wasn’t a delinquent, just… had a different sense of humor. Dalton probably wasn’t even marching to a drum, but that was alright too.

“I guess the party’s gonna be good, but, I just don’t wanna ******** go. The Academy’s just full of pompous motherfu—“ Dalton stopped himself mid-insult, biting his lip to keep himself from going off on a tangent. Peace. He needed to practice peace. Drawing a breath to steady himself, he internally counted to five as he exhaled, and continued.

“…This year’s gala is themed around villains. You can’t get in unless you’re dressed up as a villain,” Dalton sighed, leaning back further into the chair. He’d discussed this with Cassandra several times, and while they were of a similar opinion, she wasn’t quite as passionate about the topic as he was.

Dressing as villains was arrogant. On top of that, it was insulting and stupid, just begging for some kind of incident to happen. If any of the active villains got wise, they could just waltz in without a care in the world. And no one would know! Rubbing at his temples in frustration, Dalton sighed to himself.

“Am I the only one who thinks that’s stupid? It’s seriously way too cocky. Like, I’m cocky,” Dalton acknowledged, shifting in his seat from discomfort, “but that’s just ridiculously arrogant. And like, what if some bad guy actually got in? No one would even know!”

Fortunately for Lalo, Dalton’s frustration kept him from hearing the near-slip on names. Flicking his tail in annoyance, he went silent for a moment to gather his thoughts.

The hero-killer scared him. Not quite as badly as certain other things, but it was a frightening concept.

To the public, it had just been a string of serial murders. Innocent people being taken down on the street, torn open and brutalized beyond recognition. It was horrifying and gruesome- whatever it was seemed devoid of sympathy for its prey, leaving carcasses that were nothing short of disgusting.

But to the heroes, it was worse. Those people had been friends- allies on the fighting front who’d gone out for a carton of milk, or had taken a day off of patrol to relax. And they’d all been heroes. How this thing had taken seven heroes by surprise, and bested all of them, Dalton couldn’t even fathom.

They hadn’t even fought back, was what the reports said. Dalton didn’t know if they’d simply chosen not to, to preserve their identities, or if the thing had blind-sighted them so quickly they hadn’t had the chance to fight. It raised the question of what that could even be.

A villain wouldn’t just be picking off supers without a goal. There’d be some kind of threat, or a warning, to get them what they wanted. Or there’d be an obvious vendetta. But this thing had taken down seven active heroes, rookies and champions alike, before they could call for help.

Dalton shuddered.

“No one knows,” he admitted quietly, slumping at the thought. “It’s just… murdering us. The thing’s like ******** Jack the Ripper, but worse. Have you seen the photos?” The kind part of Dalton hoped that Lalo hadn’t, and been spared that horrible image. But at the same time, he could seriously use some comfort on the situation. Level-headed comfort that his mentor was so good at providing.

“There’s been talk that— that it’s Muerte,” Dalton mumbled, letting his head fall into his hands. “But that’s not right. I know The Academy just wants to blame something, but- but it’s not his style. Scary as he was, Muerte didn’t tear people’s faces off. Or rip hearts out.”

He looked up to Eduardo, finally, expression mixed with fear and annoyance.

“What the ******** even *does* that, man? I’ve seen some s**t, but this isn’t even close. I don’t think anyone is ready for this kind of thing. Not even Warhawk or Silver Witch.”

--------------------------------------------


“I don’t know if it’s something worth envying,” Zhong said, still not making eye contact with the king. In all honesty, the kirin- while enjoying his freedom- would have loved the assurance of a safe and peaceful life. His forest had given that, for some time, but… it was clear how long that one had lasted. He would long remember the stench of his own blood, and burning woods. Spirits, he prayed some of the animals had survived.

“Perhaps there is a happy medium neither of us knows,” he mused aloud, more to himself than to Kailen. He certainly wouldn’t handle being trapped as a pet within these walls, but… it afforded a luxury that Zhong would never know. Not really, anyway. Sure, he was human now, but he was not upon any throne. Nor was he going to be admired, if he had any understanding of society. He was new, strange, and unknown. He was a threat. What human wouldn’t be upset about a foreign entity being so close to their king?

Goodness, the council was going to be fun. As were the servants! It would be a miracle if Zhong didn’t do something unfortunate to one of them. Kailen would likely suspect something if the plants in the palace suddenly grew antagonistic to anyone.

The comment on not knowing of the event, however, shocked Zhong from his contemplative revelry. At once, he turned to Kailen, shock evident on his features- and were one to look closer, a slight bit of anger. Perhaps it was not the best thing in the world that the world so reacted to his emotions; the flower which he’d planted withered at once, drawing in on itself and dying. The kirin frowned immensely, and opened his mouth to snap something on the stupidity of humans.

But then… well. He was trying to be friends with Kailen, wasn’t he? And it wasn’t exactly the boy-king’s fault he didn’t know. His tutors, more likely, were to blame. That Jin fellow he kept mentioning- Zhong would keep an eye carefully trained on that one.

“It was… a great many years ago. Before your time, I suppose,” Zhong murmured, turning his focus outside once more, to keep from reacting any further. It would do him no good to snap at the king and ruin this… whatever it was they were getting themselves into.

“There was a time, ages ago, when man and beast got along. It’s where all your stories and legends come from. Dragons flew the skies without worry, unicorns were still around. Even I spent the occasional moment with men, though I much preferred the sanctuary of my forest. None the less, it was… nice. I believe you might have enjoyed it,” he started, smiling faintly at the memories.

“But it was in the desert nation… Erar, isn’t it? I believe that’s still the name, as far as I know. I never went, but I heard the stories.” He sighed, shoulders drooping slightly.

“There was a king, there. Norios. He was endlessly powerful, and none too kind. His people suffered under his rule. The sun always blazed, and night never came- as you might assume, this meant the people never slept. Particularly the servants. They labored endlessly, to a point of near death. And finally, one day, they could take no more.” And what a day that had been.

“The people revolted. And there was bloodshed, on such a mass scale, that countless cities were lost. It is why Erar is so barren, still to this day.” Here, Zhong had a grim smile- one of a man who had seen too much, and remembered it all.

“The king, it turned out, was a sorcerer. The only son of a Phoenix. And he had been raised in complete knowledge of his power. After that… people feared and hated magic. I don’t think it has ever improved.” And what a tragic thing that was. It was likely still true, even in Phaelc. Zhong was going to have to be careful not to get himself killed.

“Sleep… sounds quite lovely right now,” he finally conceded, now turning back to look at Kailen. It was true that he was, in fact, very tired. Being shot, he assumed, would do that to you. He followed after Kailen with no other comment, his hands folded behind his back while he walked. Rest, in all honesty, sounded lovely. To shut his eyes, and for a moment, stop worrying. It would be absolutely wonderful.

“You are wonderfully hospitable, Kailen. I appreciate it- and you- endlessly.” Zhong strode forward, and set his hand upon the first door they’d been in.

“I’ll take this one. I… will probably be in the library, when you wa—“ Zhong stopped, blinking in surprise at the king’s words. When he flushed with embarrassment, the kirin laughed heartily, grinning from ear to ear.

“Secrets in the bedroom, you say! This castle might be far more interesting than I thought!” And here, he laughed once more, rather amused with the accidental slipup. It took him some time to calm, but when he had, Zhong wiped a tear from his eye.

“At any rate, I bid you good evening. The same offer stands for me- if you need anything at all, do not hesitate to ask. I can be a bit of a boar upon waking, but… I will be more than happy to assist you.” It was true, too. The king had… endeared himself to Zhong, already. Giving the man a half-bow, Zhong retreated into his quarters and shut the door behind him, well ready for a good night’s sleep.

And if visions of his forest burning greeted him? Well. At least they could be forgotten when he woke.

------------

Lovely, fair, and steadfast. She had a tongue worked by a silversmith, and skin as soft as an unblemished doe. The princess was wise beyond her years, with a smile that held a touch of romance and mystique to her person. Her personality was enough to be interesting without a hint of insubordination. All in all, she would be the perfect candidate for a marriage, and would be honored to serve your king as his bride.

…Oh, how dreadfully well that description had worked. Gwendolyn could have sworn by the goddesses she had heard the quill etching a response, and was entirely unsurprised to discover a resounding yes awaiting her. How lucky the kingdom Qaem was to receive her! The people were just beside themselves to finally have a princess, etc. etc.

If only she had been born a man! Then she might have a say in her suits, and not be thrown out as an offering to this great, barbaric oaf!

By her kingdom’s standards, Gwendolyn was quite the fitting princess. While she would not match herself to the portrait painted in her father’s letter, she was quite fair and quite lovely. (For all the effort she put into her appearance, she had better be, anyway!)

Like their goddess of old, Gwendolyn’s eyes were a soft pink. It had been the first thing her parents had noted about her, and with pride, bragged that it made her true heir to the throne. After all, if their dear Gwendolyn recalled the Lunar Goddess, how poor of a queen could she be? Her hair was long and thick, often tied up to keep out of the way from stumbling or getting caught on things. Be it braided or simply hoisted into a pony tail, the princess had been disallowed from wearing it young- or, heaven forbid, cutting it!- at a very young age.

Years of denial from the sun had left her skin soft and pale. There were times, during her youth, when she well and truly thought the artists painting her had left her skin the color of the canvas itself. Her shoulders were dashed with a smattering of freckles, from her mother’s side, though it wasn’t as if anyone saw them. Gwendolyn was so swaddled in her fine dresses, corsetry, and makeup, it almost felt as if there was no princess underneath. So long as she stayed pretty and fair, the courts wouldn’t care what she was underneath.

What a depressing thought that was. Drawing a slight breath, Gwendolyn closed her eyes and turned her gaze out the window. She had oft dreamed of a husband who might understand her, allow her some freedoms… but that dream just wasn’t meant to be.

This trip was likely the last freedom she’d be afforded- the gentle breeze caressing her face as the carriage rolled onward. The company was not the finest- her knights seemed to know little more than “yes my lady” or “of course, your highness.” It was all well and good, their formality, but it made the travel… well, uneventful. Dull. She’d at least liked to have learned of the kingdom where she was heading! More of their people than their lizard-like appearances, and if they truly feasted on beasts of the wilds…

She had turned slightly with lips parted, to speak her mind to her knight (her most loyal and dear companion!) when the carriage had given a violent lurch. Not the best of omens, but it could certainly be the fault of the road. Gwendolyn had grabbed for the door’s handle, steadying herself upon it. The cursed corset! Oh, if only she were rid of the thing, she might travel safely and comfortably! She stretched upwards a bit when the carriage had eased, thinking it was safe to let go of her hold.

Oh, how wrong she had been! As soon as her hand had left the safety of the bar, the carriage had taken off- Gwendolyn’s ears perked, and to her, it sounded as if the horse had simply run free. On top of that, the guards… well! They seemed to be considerably far behind them! Thoughts of her too-soon death came flooding to Gwendolyn, and she wondered what the kingdom of Qaem would do upon learning of her demise. Mourn? Mourn and go to war? Oh, the possibilities were horrendous!

But in all honesty, the young princess was far too occupied with screaming in terror for such thoughts to occupy her mind for long.

It seemed like forever that the horses ran free. When they finally stopped, Gwendolyn wasn’t certain what had calmed them- or even if they had calmed at all. But such a thing was not a risk she was willing to take. As quickly as her senses returned to her, she had kicked open the carriage door and hopped down from its ledge, dusting her gown and muttering to herself.

Awful! Simply awful!

“What a ride that turned out to be…” she mumbled to herself, clearly perturbed by the turn of events. Resting one gloved hand upon the carriage’s side, Gwendolyn looked about the area, a sense of alarm overtaking her.

“…Knight? Are you still with me, my darling?”