Hidden behind layers and mirrors of reality, bent within the scope of spacetime, a black-jetted fortress heaved roundly above the Western Continent, hardly leaving its confines. Its towers and spires rose up into the sky, their tips shining like stars superimposed over the black walls beneath. At its bottom, a set of hundreds of arrays repeatedly spun in circles and collided like gears, forming a well-oiled machine that never seemed to cease functioning, no matter the weather around it.
All walls were heavily manned by black-clad guards who, rather than standing, sat cross-legged, meditating. Four gates rested inside the walls, one on each side, ironed out across till the point they seemed impenetrable. Within the wall’s confines, the fortress split into four cross-sections, each cut off from another by a zig-zag wall, all compounding into a circular center where the tallest tower rose up, shadowing over everything else.
On top of the tower, sitting by the ledge, two women and a small boy nibbling at his thumb drank in eased silence, overlooking the eternally-same horizon in front of them. Ella donned her original appearance -- her golden hair fluttered down her back freely, her features defining the meaning of beautiful, her gaze tremendously otherworldly. She seemed almost picturesque, defying proper description.
Sitting by her side, by now accustomed to seeing her features -- from having nearly lost her confidence as a woman in the beginning -- Valkryia would occasionally glance at the boy in Ella’s lap and smile affectionately, poking him with her finger until the boy grumbled and glared at her, which would cause Val to burst out into laughter.
“You think it’s funny now,” Ella said, smiling lightly. “But wait till he grows up and decides he won’t speak with you. At all.”
“Oh, he will,” Val replied. “I doubt he could ever grow up to be as vile and unforgiving as Lino. Aww, look at him. So cute!”
“Ever think about getting one of your own?” Ella asked.
“Oh, sure, pour more salt onto this old woman’s wounds,” Val said, cracking a twisted smile at Ella. “It’s not as though I was aware that there’s not a platoon of wild men staring at me wherever I go.”
“... I told you... it will take me a few years till I’m able to recover my disguise.” Ella groaned. “Besides, it’s not my fault our citizens are so undisciplined.”
“No, it’s precisely your fault. They were fine until you decided it was time to flaunt your... fuck, can’t even say beauty. If you’re beautiful, then what the hell am I? Not-quite-human?”
“’elo ladies,” a familiar voice caused both of them to turn back. “I see you’re still as close as ever.”
“Lucky? What are you doing here?” Ella asked.
“What? I can’t come back to see my nephew?” Lucky said with a grin, walking over and picking up the boy from Ella’s arms, lifting him up. “Boy, aren’t you adorable. I hope to god you take after your mom and not your dad, or even worse... the bastard who shall not be named. Ha ha ha, his laugh always breathes life into me. Look how adorable he is.”
“... no, seriously, what are you doing here?” Ella asked, smiling bitterly.
“That bastard contacted me and said Hannah and he should be returning within half a year,” she said. “Also, apparently, he beat that damn Dragon and now commands him as a pet.”
“... yeah, that sounds like something Lino would do.” Val and Ella commented at the same time as Lucky sat down, still holding the boy closely, avoiding Ella’s gaze.
“Anyway, I’m still unable to root out the little whisper inside these walls,” she said. “Most of those in the known are ironclad fucks, bound with their Souls. Those few that aren’t are more loyal that dogs.”
“... this is worrying.” Ella said, her brows tightening for a moment.
“It is.” Lucky nodded. “Especially now that those two are coming back.”
“How come?” Val quizzed after a short thought. “Only Ella, you and I know of the Fortress’ exact position at any time. The most that can be relayed are just our general movements, especially since we’ve restricted the contact of different departments with one another.”
“Not necessarily,” Ella said. “If someone’s patient enough, it’s actually possible to determine the Fortress’ position.”
“Granted, we’d be in that position only four times in a year for about two hours, but it’s possible,” Ella elaborated. “Whenever we phase by the Sunshift Mountain Range, southern bend of the reality contorts inwardly each time, briefly allowing those inside to gleam at the outside world -- in total for about four seconds. However, if someone is keen enough to spot the pattern, it is entirely possible for them to calculate when we’ll be arriving there based on the last year’s patterns.”
“... even so, that’s not the actual worrying part for me,” Lucky said, surprising both Val and Ella. “Even if our location got disclosed, what of it? This thing is pretty much freakin’ impenetrable, and so long as we could endure for a few minutes, our Formation Mavericks should be able to phase us away and onto a new route.”
“Then what’s the worrying part?” Ella asked.
“That we have a traitor to begin with,” Lucky said, looking down at the boy in her arms who’d fallen asleep. “That’s what’s worrying me.”
“How c--oh...” Ella seemingly realized something, her gaze turning dark for a moment.
“What’s so strange about it? It’s not as though we screened everyone we took aboard.” Val asked.
“No, it’s not that,” Ella shook her head. “But, for a moment, think about Lino. Sure, those who do not know him hate him and want him butchered, but who aboard this Fortress who’s met him could possibly fester such thoughts?”
“Lino’s personality is already rather bright,” Ella explained further. “Making it very difficult for people to reject his light. Usually, people like him tend to become leaders without ever even realizing they were creating something. Now, take that trait of his and adjoin it with Chaos.”
“... oh.” Val also seemed to have realized the crux of the issue, frowning. “You’re saying someone snuck in after Lino left?”
“Most-likely,” Lucky said. “The question is... how and who?”
“How isn’t the difficult part to answer,” Ella said. “I could have easily snuck into this place without anyone noticing me. Rather, any master of bending reality, space and time could have done it without much trouble, especially before we did our first rotation and reinforced our arrays. The difficult question is... who. It could be anyone as we only did our first headcount about three months into our phaseout.”
“Litha or Vyrove?” Val asked.
“Unlikely,” Lucky said. “I’ve paid special attention to them ever since we brought them in, and they were mostly slumped battling their own demons.”
“... do not distribute the news of Lino’s return,” Ella said after the three fell into momentary silence. “It stays between us for the time being. Once he returns, he should be able to spot who is the one bending Laws around here.”
“If you can’t, are you sure he can?” Val asked.
“Reality, Time, Space, all that is his specialty, especially so considering he’s the Empyrean,” Ella said, shrugging her shoulders. “If you need someone to turn every piece of inhabitable land into a scorching wasteland, I’m your girl. That’s sort of my thing. Now give me back my son.”
“No.” Lucky replied hastily.
“What do you mean no?”
“I’ve grown attached to him. How much?”
“... how much what?” Ella asked.
“How much money do you want from him?”
“... I see. You’re the rebellious lot like Lino. Perhaps I should train my parenting skills on you before Criador grows up proper.”
“... tsk. Cheap.” Lucky clicked her tongue, returning the boy to Ella who got up, followed shortly after by the other two. “For the time being, I’ll return to the Holy Continent and keep monitoring the situation. Ty had successfully managed to disciple himself under some old fart, most of the logistic relay points have been finished, and two of our shops are beginning to earn a steadfast reputation. In a few months we should have enough funds to start an Auction House.”
“I’ll relocate some of the funds to it,” Val said. “So make ti happen within a month. We’re still mostly tinkering on the edges of the Holy Continent; we need a way to pierce deeper quickly.”
“I’ll also hasten the Talisman Department,” Ella said. “Last I heard, there’s quite a bit of a shortage of high-end talismans due to the intense recent skirmishes between the Devils and the Grounds. We could pick their pockets there a bit.”
“Oh, could you have Eggor craft something for our first auction?” Lucky asked. “We want to enter the stage with a bang, after all, and the creative one isn’t here.”
“... you do realize Eggor is still my husband, right?” Ella questioned with a dubious gaze.
“And Lino’s your son.” Lucky replied in kind.
“... yeah, fair point. I’ll sweeten him into it.”
“Just be careful,” Lucky said as she turned around and began leaving. “The last time you sweetened him into something, you popped out a twenty-pounder.”
“Yeah, whatever. You still got wrecked. So, you know, sweeten it more meekly.”
“... one day I’m gonna rip her tits and feed them to dogs.” Ella mumbled under her breath, glancing at the bitterly-smiling Val on the side.
“She’s practically the same as Lino; how come she bothers you and he isn’t?” Val asked.
“Because he’s my son and she’s a vermin.” Ella replied in a matter-of-fact tone, leaving stumped Val behind on the tower’s top alone.
“... ah. They should change ‘Chaos creates madness’ into ‘crazies orbit Chaos’. Wait, I orbit Chaos.”
“... ah, whatever.” she gave up, leaving as well. “I’m too old to be dealing with that rabbit hole...”