Of Heroes and Royals
It was around 500 years ago when the term "technology" was first used. And with it, came the birth of the Stratus Empire. Up until that point, the Eastern continent was mostly divided into native tribes and small villages. Similar to the Northern Territories, which was also occupied primarily by tribes, they had no presence on the world stage. But technology changed everything. Until that point, in the continents of Trabal, what is now known as Juzuha, and finally Lumière, magic had been considered a sacred art. One that enriched life in many ways, as well as a way to strengthen body and mind, but not yet something that was an integral part of daily life.
But the man who would become the first Emperor of Stratus - he saw things differently. From one of those small villages, he developed ways to revolutionise every aspect of life using magic. Or rather, technology. Just decades after beginning his research, he transformed his village into the first modern city. He developed infrastructure, greatly advanced medical science, created the first motor vehicles, and more.
It didn't take long for the empire to grow. The forceful seizure of the rest of the land on the continent didn't take long, for the peaceful tribes and villages had little experience in warfare - the world's first firearms and armoured vehicles making quick work of anyone who tried to resist. And thus, the new Stratus Empire forced its way onto the world stage.
He didn't stop there, and neither did his descendants. Over the next 100 years, Stratus would continue to revolutionise its "technology". As other countries took notice, they attempted to copy the work that Stratus had done - but always seemed to be ten or twenty steps behind. After claiming the land of an entire continent, the Empire's growth would temporarily halt for many more years.
No, instead they turned their sights elsewhere...
...the gradual extermination of the Old Gods.
The God of Air.
The God of Lightning.
The God of Fire.
The God of Water.
The God of Space.
The God of Time.
The God of Earth, Terra.
And one other.
Over the course of one hundred years, and several dozens of operations, the Stratus Empire built up its military might to unparalleled levels - and the beings that had once been worshipped as deities were slain one by one by mere humans. In the end, it was assumed by most that these protectors of the land had simply disappeared... before they faded into legend entirely.
With the Old Gods gone and no longer fearing the power of the Kings and Queens of the world - particularly that of Lumière's Royal Family - Stratus then began the rest of its forceful invasion and growth into what it is today.
First came Trabal - a Kingdom of working men with magic-users few and far between, it fell easily.
Next, as the rest of the South-Eastern continent fell, the country of Juzuha conceded defeat, with the royal family permitted to stay in power under Stratus rule and rewarded with control over its neighbouring countries.
And finally, only 100 years ago, with the death of the last King of Lumière, the long-fought wars finally came to an end - Stratus' invasion of the world was complete.
All that remained was the Northern Territories, which were inhospitable for all but its nomadic tribes, and the Badlands, which were impossible to occupy due to complicating circumstance.
The Stratus Empire's talent for developing technology is the reason for all of these events.
And that was still true today -- for it was the reason why Operation Terra had commenced, little over an hour ago, and why the God of Earth had been able to return and wreak havoc under the Empire's command.
All the while, Alice and Ciela were wandering the streets of Fiorir, trying to get back to La Riviere and the resistance base, but continued to find themselves lost as they were forced to deviate from their original path to avoid being noticed by Stratus soldiers. It seemed as though the more time that passed, the more horrific the sights that awaited them as they emerged from alleyways back onto the previously busy streets were.
Bodies piled the road as the stench of blood hung thick in the air. No matter where they went, they couldn't escape the sound of gunfire in the distance, as well as the screams of the many civilians still trying to escape. Boulders were scattered around as far as they could see, both on the ground and in the river that divided the town. Buildings lay in ruins, the resulting debris that had been catapulted through the air due to their sudden demolition was the cause of many deaths. And if the people in the area had been spared that fate, the soldiers on clean-up duty would likely find them soon after.
One thing seemed abundantly clear.
Despite the resistance's efforts, despite the fighting continuing to ensue in the streets, and even despite the evacuation order now in effect - Fiorir was being overwhelmed by this attack.
Such was how quickly the might Terra's power had been able to dismantle a whole town - all while Azazel watched from high in the sky, sipping his tea.
The Stratus Empire's technology caused all of this.
"This is... too terrible, Ciela...!" Alice cried as they continued on. The two girls had no real idea where they were headed, but were generally trying to head in a northerly direction - since they knew the resistance base was somewhere toward that end of town, further up the river.
"Y-Yeah... this is all kinds of messed up..." As she responded, Ciela sounded as though she was on the verge of throwing up. She could try to keep her eyes away from the blood and dead bodies as much as possible, but there was nothing she could do to avoid the smell.
Suddenly, they heard a voice from across the river.
"Lieutenant! Over there, two women! One of them has purple hair, and it's possible they could be the ones responsible for singlehandedly wiping out Squadron C!" a soldier called out. "Do we engage?!"
"Ah, crap!" Ciela muttered, quickly turning to run down the nearest street as usual in an attempt to escape another combat situation.
Alice went to follow...
However, the usually agile girl was soon stopped short.
For a split second, the sound of something cutting through the air at rapid speed filled Alice's ears. And in the next moment, that something cut into the bottom of her right leg.
The silver-haired girl let out a scream as she fell to her knees. A sharp pain filled her leg as some kind of pure white, pointy object now stuck out of it. After a moment, the object disappeared, allowing blood to freely pour forth from the cut.
"Alice!!" Ciela yelled upon hearing her friend scream, her voice filled with shock and concern. She leapt over to the girl, who was still crying out in pain, dropping to her knees to examine her wound.
But through the pain, Alice pushed her away before she could get a good look.
"N-No, Ciela... I'm alright..." she spoke while gritting her teeth as tightly as possible. "Don't think about my leg... just focus... on the enemy...!"
Before Ciela could respond, the same voice from earlier interrupted.
"You should listen to your friend, you know. Not that it'll make a difference," it called out, from somewhere in the distance.
Neither girl could place where the voice came from. It was only as a woman with long, green hair leapt rather gracefully from a roof on the other side of the river over to where they were stood that the voice's origin was discovered.
The woman introduced herself. "Hello! My name is Vidalia Zappa, I'm uh... a first lieutenant of the Stratus Imperial Army. And I'll be your opponent, like, starting now."
Vidalia was a rather average woman. She was the last thing Alice or Ciela expected a lieutenant of Status to be like. She looked like your average twenty-something - a somewhat pretty woman they would find shopping at the mall, going to nightclubs on the weekend, and starting each day with an iced latte. Essentially, the kind of woman who never stopped being a teenager. That was the kind of person she seemed like. Not exactly lieutenant material.
Vidalia wore not armour, but rather a cream-coloured dress with a floral pattern and black tights. The only protective gear the woman had on, from what the girls could tell, was a pair of gauntlet gloves with a small, light-armour plate on each.
Despite her appearance, Ciela knew the woman was not to be trifled with, considering the power she had just demonstrated.
"You're a lieutenant. Really?" said Ciela, still rather sceptical.
"That's right. Lieutenant Vidalia Zappa, but you may call me the Maiden of the Wi-" the woman began, before being cut off.
"Uh, yeah, no." interrupted her purple-haired opponent.
"W-What?" Vidalia stuttered, completely taken aback. She wasn't used to being interrupted during her introduction.
"What do you mean, no?"
"Bitch, I don't care what your stupid nickname is. You hurt Alice, so I'm gonna kick your ass!" Ciela exclaimed, jumping to her feet. The red aura of the Guardian appeared around her in an instant.
"Ugh, you're so rude!" Vidalia hissed in response. "Like, at least give me a second to give my men orders."
The green-haired woman turned around for some privacy and quietly spoke into an earpiece - instructing her men to continue sweeping the town. Begrudgingly, Ciela let out a grunt and waited for her to finish, allowing Alice enough time to bandage her wound with a small piece of her dress that she tore off.
The green-haired woman let out a sigh, before turning back to face the girls. "Alright, done."
"Before we do this, I want to make a deal with you. Is that alright?" Ciela asked.
Vidalia tilted her head. She was a little perplexed by the purple-haired woman's proposition. "Uhm, you're hardly in a place to negotiate, you know. But fine, go on, Purple."
"You said you were going to be my opponent, right? I want that to mean just me. This is gonna be a one-on-one fight. Don't touch Alice until after... not that there's going to be an after for you." she explained.
"Well, I don't really mind. I'm not doing this for efficiency. I just have to defeat strong opponents by the time this mission is over. But let me get this straight..." Vidalia began, as a sly smirk suddenly appeared on her face. "Say if I did... something like this?"
As Vidalia moved her hand in a swift throwing motion, another Wind Shuriken was sent at Alice - this time cutting directly into the girl's left shoulder. She cried out in pain once more, thrashing wildly as she sat on the ground. The girl's mind wandered back to fight with Capri, and how similar that situation was to her current one.
Ciela's eyes widened, and she looked ready to burst a blood vessel. "Then the deal would be off!"
Shaking with rage, it took all she had not to charge at the green-haired woman before her. Waiting would pay off though, just a few moments later.
Vidalia shrugged her shoulders. "Alright, then. It's a deal. I'll just, like, take care of her once I'm done with you."
"Yeah, sure. In your dreams." Ciela thought to herself, a cocky smile growing on her face. "Alright... Alice is out of harm's way, so all I need to do is beat this weirdo and we're free again. That said, what if there are even more lieutenants around or soldiers of even higher rank...?"
As she turned to look at Alice, who was still on the ground, clutching her shoulder, the purple-haired woman remembered the promise she had made the night before.
"Nah, it doesn't matter. Even if there are ten more like her, I'm still gonna protect Alice! We're going to see Apollo again, and then we're going to figure this mess out!"
And with the utmost faith in her promise, Ciela charged forward, and her battle with Vidalia Zappa - the self-proclaimed Maiden of the Winds - began.