1-46: Puzzles in Puzzles

Completed episodes of the Azalea Company. Coming to a webcomic near you! https://www.su-comic.com
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Kim
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1-46: Puzzles in Puzzles

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Lucarin, Lorani Province
After Events of "The Creature and the Sun"


Once, Lorani Province was a bustling center of activity, with people coming to settle and make new lives for themselves on the frontiers of Piyapon. To feed this influx of immigrants, many businesses had cropped up to fill their every need and want, ranging from all manners of fast food, car dealerships, supermarkets and even malls. With the coming of The Black Army however, everything seemed to wilt and die; the remains of life were all around Lukina as she strode into the provincial capitol's deadened zones. Dealerships ruined, the cars stolen. Food joints smashed open, their contents absconded. And in front of her, a mall, now a shell of its former self.

Of the many attractions once inside however, one held her interest - Blips N' Chitz Funtimes.

The front of the entertainment center had been vandalized like the other buildings surrounding it. A smash large pane window; the double doors that led into the front lobby were similarly broken. There were spent shell casings and broken glass across the cheap linoleum as the half-elf progressed forward. It stank of rot and urine. The cheap wallpaper was smeared with ruddy streaks that she knew to be dried blood.

Her eyes swept the area around her, and she could track where the fighting had occurred inside this building. Where the bodies had fallen and had been dragged away. Her rifle felt heavy in her hands as she pulled the buttstock tighter against the reinforced shoulder armor of her Shadowmail. Despite her skill at walking silently, her boots still lightly crunched against the broken glass. The sound did not carry like it should have, which meant that these front rooms were sound proofed.

She moved beyond the ruined arcade games, turned over on their sides, the glass smashed and the metal dented and pock marked with bullet holes. She saw overturned tables and smashed chairs but she moved forward until she found a half torn building map. She ran an armored hand across the paper hanging down and smoothed it to get a better understanding of where she was supposed to go.

The restored map revealed the location that she sought - the funhouse. Uncle Bizzy's House of Fun and mirrors, more specifically. The decay and ruination of the building bothered her. This had been a place for families to come and enjoy each others company. She never experienced this sort of life in her own childhood. And she imagined from the destruction and the stench, that the Black Army had attacked this building during the Blips N' Chitz' peak business hours. Her hand fell down as she moved away from the map towards the far back of the building.

Her goggles and her HUD scanned the area for life readings and thermal signatures. She found small mammals and the faint glow of plant life- likely some form of bioluminescent mold or other sort of invasive species. She saw nothing further that interested her, the persistent stench of death clung to everything but her body adjusted to it so that she stopped noticing it. Lukina came to a stop at the entrance to the funhouse. This is where he wants to meet me.

A hollow red ball came bouncing out of the hall of mirrors before coming to a slow roll which ended at her feet.

"You wished to speak," a baritone voice observed, pausing. "Hmph. They found this fun," Bresal remarked from the dark interior. Even in all the chaos of the past, people instinctively stayed away from a place like the hall of mirrors. Almost as evidence, though much of the place lay in ruins, the entrance remained untouched, its cheery images and arrows inviting the young elf in. From deep inside, she could hear the faint, heavy footsteps of something large and heavy.

Lukina's gaze scanned the shadows and she stepped carefully away from the ball. "I suppose they did. I have never been to one of these places before." She stepped into the darkness and moved forward, comfortable to find herself similarly cloaked. "I did wish to speak to you, in the flesh rather than through harsh distortions." Her reflection was all around her as she entered the hall. Her ruby hair was concealed by the dark hood of her shadowmail, the armor still bore dings from stopped rounds but she knew she was increasingly small in the wake of the larger being as the mirrors started to distort her appearance into strange configuration. She followed Bresal's voice and let the silence grow heavy between them until he showed.

Surrounded by a crowd of nobody but herself, Lukina watched as black shifted over black. Like an apparition, the hooded form of the alien came into view as she spun about. It wasn't even looking at her though. Reaching out from under its robed sleeve with black, armored claws, the myriad of reflections gently touched unseen glass. The tap came from her side, just a few meters away. Its back entirely turned from the elf, the faceless alien stared into the mirror before itself, seemingly transfixed.

"What do you wish to speak of?" Bresal asked.

"You have been holding back pertinent information that I have needed to act fully on and it has almost cost us everything," Lukina responded softly, moving her goggles from her eyes to the top of her head. She watched Bresal curiously, tilting her head as she did so. "This is your first time too?" The young elf watched as its armored claws reached around the mirror, holding it, feeling it from the other side. Gently pulling at the wall, its durandium groaned like the pained wail of the wounded. It let go.

"I gave information. You made assumptions. Twice. The fault was yours, as was mine." Turning to face her, the figure rose to tower over her as her feet felt its heavy steps. Drawing close, it bent at the waist ever so slightly so that their 'faces' neared. "I will not make that mistake again; you will receive additional information in the future." Slowly rising to its full height again, the alien began walking across from her, vanishing from view as its myriad of reflections continued to slowly stride all around her. Its images paused, all turning to face the elf. "This is my first time in such a place."

Reaching out with its claw again, it flicked, the house screeching as bright yellow sparks flew across the entire room, the image repeated again and again. The snout of its helm dipping, it stared at the tip of its digit.

"I am a soldier. I act on information that is given to me, however little and I deal with the consequences. I have committed to this in ways I would have never imagined. What is your stake in all of this?" She continued to watch, her ears twitching at the metal's screech. "We are both children playing in someone else's yard. Why do you conceal yourself?" The half-elf slung her rifle around her shoulder, her expression grew more thoughtful. "Is your mother somehow casting her shadow over you as well with everything you do for the Lady Arleigh?"

Looking up from its sullied claw, the faceless helm stared at her.

"I had thought you like the felines," it remarked. Stepping to the side again, the crowd of black hooded figures all parted, going their separate ways until only one remained. "We chomp at the bit. We are tasked with espionage. Subtlety. Stealth." Reaching up to its chest with one hand, it pulled, the black cloth giving way into a storm of silken threads. Twisting, furling, the robes became a cape which billowed behind the alien as it stomped forward to stand before her. "But do I Look like a spy?" it growled, voice low. Covered from head to toe in thick black plates, its swirls and whorls of silver gilding faintly glinted in the dim light.

"I see a being caged. Anyone can be a spy, skill goes beyond appearance," Lukina moved closer to Bresal and looked up at him. "Is this armor really you?" She raised her hand to touch his arm, and the shapes on the armor. "I have encountered many species since I have some to Piyapon, I am uncertain of what you actually are, so forgive my ignorance. I am still learning the names of them all, I wouldn't mind if I could learn more about you as we are supposed to be working in tandem on this."

It snorted at her from unseen nostrils.

"Knights, most dedicated, bond their armor to their flesh," Bresal spoke, looking down at her from its helmed snout. "Where you, your dame's footsteps, I, my sire's," it went on to explain. "I was made for a purpose, and yet, am not tasked with it." Bending at the waist, the hulking alien's form came to look at her, 'face to face'. "Would you be grateful, to have honed your assassin's blade for years on end, only to dance at those poles, night in, night out? Shaking that elvish arse of yours?" the alien's voice rose with angry heat.

"My sire died before I took my first breath. He walked this path too." Her evergreen eyes stared at the angular plate, looking for his eyes but found no such weakness in the helmet. Her hand remained on his arm. Her voice was still soft and calm. "I was trained to shake my elvish arse on those poles. There is no certainty where the next mission will take me, who I will have to be." Her other hand reached up to the mask. "But I understand your anger. You have imprisoned yourself to be a warrior, not this. Have you sacrificed everything for this purpose?"

A low, clicking, croaking growl came from it, but the alien did not move as she touched its hardened helmet.

"You do not understand," it spoke, the faint thrum of its voice tingling her finger. "I was born for this," Bresal's voice ominously replied. Rising up to its full height, its faceplate slipped out of Lukina's reach. "Tell me, elf. How old do you think I am?" the alien asked.

"Please explain it to me then, so that I can understand you. I do not have context of your culture or you beyond the cloak and the sound of your voice," Lukina replied as she looked up at him, her hand lingered in the air. "The manner in which you speak sounds... young. Younger than me. But that means little in a society of beings that change bodies like clothing or that were manufactured for war."

"Precisely," Bresal plainly answered her. Standing tall, it reached up to its head as claws picked under the lip of its helm. With a hiss, the heavy faceplate was peeled away to reveal the creature underneath. Brown feathered and fluffy, the plumage of young birds yet to leave their nest, Bresal's blue eyes stared down at her with a face that did not move. Mouth opening, lips rigid, the voice of a young boy, palate soft, began to speak. "I am, to this date, one year and a month in age, and trained without relent. That I am tasked with espionage, and espionage that must not interfere with my elders' amusement, is infuriating."

"I feel for you." Lukina's eyes met his. His true name and face revealed at last. It pained her. "Why are you forbidden from the field?" She wanted to touch the feathers as rude as it might have been when encountering a new species. "Are you forbidden from training with the company as well or just our battlefields, wherever they might be? We children have ways of bending the limitations placed on us by our parents."

"Did you not understand? Did you not hear?" the young boy's voice spoke again, the towering creature berating the redheaded elf. Drawing down close to Lukina again, its cross-shaped pupils pinned, growing and shrinking as it stared. "They look upon this for entertainment, and wish for me to gently shepherd you along. A stage-hand in black. But, worse still, we are not alone." A translucent membrane flicked across the alien's eyes. "You heard. Strange aliens, dabbling in this world's affairs," it pointed out for her, the words spilling out of its sharp toothed jaws. "Do you not think it strange, that the perfect people for the Black Army-to-be came to live here? That such a foul ideology so easily took hold?"

The half-elf reached out to touch the alien's snout as he drew close again. "Onishi. Ogre and death. Remnants of the Hēisè guided by strange aliens to their purpose to destabilize Kowloon? I do not understand your culture, your elders or even known what you call yourselves. I do know that while I am called a knight, I am a pawn in this play. I have always known that but... even my species is alien to this sector." She offered him a sad smile. "We are amusements then?"

As Lukina reached out to touch its face, the alien's maw opened wide, revealing rows of small, razor sharp teeth.

"Children rebel," the child's voice sounded from the gaping maw. "Finish the story so I may leave." Snapping its jaws shut just short of her hand, it rose to its full height again, donning its helm with a hiss and click. "The pieces of the puzzle are there, nudged so to fall into place on their own. You need only find them, and tug their threads to unravel it all," Bresal spoke again, its voice deep and intimidating again. "Pray we were not caught."

"Stories like this do not end," the half-elf replied as she turned the fragments of information that she had, what few pieces they were, in her mind. "They will be finding her soon. They are making ready from the sound of it. Will you be staying behind with me or going with them?" Lukina lowered her hand to her side again, her eyes still watching Bresal. There was that threat again, the implication that he was violating something by meeting her here and saying all of that. "Songs of war and change."

"Stories like this catch a fire. Light it all on fire so I may take to the stage," it ominously replied. Walking past the elf, the edge of its cape brushed against her. Cold. Wet. "Until you do, I will nudge the pieces as I have. As you detest," it urged her, warned her.

Threatened her.

"Unless I have enough tinder, I cannot set the fires that will free you of the ropes that bind you to me," Lukina wondered why his cape was cold. Was it snowing outside? "Bound in shadows until I can find the path back towards the light," she considered something. "Are you forbidden from companionship as well? You don't have to be alone until you can fly away."

"Do not press your fortune," the alien rebuked her. "And no, I have no interest in your growing harem," Bresal added. With a derisive flick of its plated tail, the cape raveled itself around the alien as it made to leave, weaving itself into the black, monk-like robes it wore just moments ago.

The half-elf softly laughed. "Thank you for the interest, but no, I just figured we could be friends and I wouldn't have to keep calling you 'asshole'." She smiled after him.

"Ask Wolf what the name 'Bresal' means." With that, it stepped into the shadows, vanishing from sight.
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