Betty knew she had to find Holmes.

After grieving for her ‘dead’ friend, Betty changed back to her redress and flew to Janus on her flying staff. Instead, she met Carolina, who waited in front of Holmes’ store.

“What are you doing here?” Betty demanded from her nemesis in a beret hat. “What happened to Holmes?”

“No time to explain,” said the blob hair brunette, grabbing a black briefcase beside her. “We need to find Hunter!”

Still affected by the revelation of her father’s murder, Betty was in no hurry to help. In fact, she wanted to make Carolina suffer as a proxy.

“You know, I’m pretty busy,” said Betty. “An anonymous letter has arrived, tipping me about a dozen crimes your daddy committed.” Betty was downright venomous. “I believe your family need to be held accountable for allowing Etace—“

Carolina was tired of politics, “I know you are the Dark Witch!”

“Is that an accusation?” Betty whispered in a practiced voice. “You are accusing me, a princess, of vigilantism? Even for a high-ranking officer, that is unacceptable. I suggest—“

Carolina, knowing her nemesis’ ability to compromise, opened her briefcase of evidence, and showed Betty the top-down image of Curtis.

Betty scanned the picture in front of her. The artificer in her was ringing alarms.

“Where did you get this?” Betty demanded, grabbing the print and scanning the annotations and notes written on it. 

“Not important,” Carolina was more worried about the vast modification of Curtis. “You know how bad this is. There are more golems than the entire Curtis military personnel inside Hecate. Betty, we don’t have time to bicker.” She shook Betty. “Our livelihood is at stake! We need to find Hunter now!”

The frenemies team of Betty and Carolina took flight toward their target at top speed. The flight path was easy, Carolina readily relayed the location, and Betty could read the map. It took them less than three minutes to reach their destination.

And what a destination it was.

The Xiahana’s subjugation team was in tatters. Carle rested face-down on the floor. Neptis laid, fuming from her mouth. Robert was unmoving on the ground. The dazed Hunter sat surrounded by the bodies, tied and beaten black and blue, with a giant signboard hung around his neck.

It read 

‘I TOLD YOU SO’

Betty stepped from her flying artifact and surveyed the damage. Grass was uprooted. Charred areas covered the ground like someone was throwing meteors. To finish the touch for the image of devastation, the corpse of a humongous snake laid on the hill.

“What happened here?” Betty yelled.

A few minutes later…

It took a while to wake and get the squad healthy enough to spill the beans, but Betty and Carolina always kept medical supplies in case of emergency. Soon, the four morons were back on their feet, but they weren’t out of the woods yet.

“Robert,” Betty growled at Robert, who refused to meet her furious gaze. “Mind repeating what you told me?”

Robert knew who was in for a hell of a time. “We tried to capture your sister,” Robert explained. “It didn’t go so well.”

“Yeah, she kicked your ass!” Betty glared at the four. “Why don’t you call me? You should have known Xia is nothing like before. We could skip the entire charade and ask for her demand. At least, that will keep her neutral.”

Carle tried to stay silent as possible, but not Neptis.

“Elizabeth, I doubt she will stay neutral,” Neptis, nursing her head with an ice-pack, pointed out. “She pretty much lured us here to start a fight.”

Carolina laughed sarcastically from the side, “And you fell for it, dimwit,” the Deputy Commissioner wasn’t happy either. “Xiahana might be a petulant bitch. But you should have retreated the moment it was clear you were losing, idiot!”

That shut Neptis up, but not Hunter.

“We don’t have a choice,” Hunter said. “That is our best chance to eliminate the greatest threat to Curtis.”

“Hunter,” said Betty, walking up to him and resting her hand on his shoulder. “Look into my eyes.”

Slap!

Betty’s hand mashed into Hunter with all her strength. The enraged Betty growled. The slap numbed her hand, but it left a clean imprint across his face.

“I know what you did two years ago, Hunter,” Elizabeth grabbed the old man by his collar. “You are only alive right now because I need you. I have no idea what Xia is planning, but you should count yourself lucky because she isn’t as merciful as I am. If she knew you killed my dad, the palace would become a burning hellscape tomorrow.” Betty sneered. Mana was boiling around them. “I will tell you for the first and last time. Never. Touch. My. Family. When this is over, Hunter, I guarantee you will guarantee Xia will be the least of your worry.”

Neptis felt Betty was missing some piece.

“Betty, she knew,” squeaked the Green mage. “Xia knew the Commissioner assassinated the former King.”

That one caught Betty by surprise.

“That is impossible,” said Betty, looking at the four like they were zombies. “You would be dead otherwise.” She grabbed Hunter by the neck and forced him to talk. “Tell me, you bastard. What is Xia luring you here for?”

“She wants to share Edmond’s Delusion,” Hunter glared at Betty. “Like your deluded father, Xiahana is convinced that Etaceh is a part of an ancient race that will destroy Curtis.”

Neptis laughed, “Yeah, she’d obviously lost it.”

Then she realized both Carolina and Betty weren’t laughing.

“Hunter,” Betty had a sinking realization. She felt like the world was somersaulting above her. “Did you say my dad knew Etaceh was a national threat? Is that the reason ‌he’s proposing to Yulong.”

Hunter grimly glowered, “Yes, Edmond, in his infinite wisdom, believed Curtis couldn’t control Etaceh. He wanted Yulong to help suppress her.” Hunter glared at Betty. “The madman knew the price, and he accepted it, gambling an entire nation on his nonsensical theory.”

Upon receiving the final piece, everything suddenly clicked. Betty finally realized why Xia behaved in the way she did.

Xia had a good reason to be angry. Betty believed Xia finally understood her decision. However, the consequence of her action, her sin, couldn’t be shelved. To appease the Magic Tower, Betty put a rubber-stamp on the throne. To ensure the rumor was squashed, she cut ties with Yulong and poured Edmond La Louve’s effort down the drain. Those two actions put Etaceh on fast-track with virtually no opposition.

Her oversight had incubated a threat for two years. Finally, tonight, Betty had the chance to experience the magnitude of her arrogance.

Xia was right. ‘I am sorry’ won’t cut it.

Betty had only one sentence to speak.

“What have I done?”

“Okay,” Robert watched the horrified Betty and glanced at Hunter. “What is going on here?”

It was Carolina who gave them the answer.

“You know I have a grudge with Xiahana,” the Deputy Commissioner explained. “So you guys better believe me when I say she, and her father, is correct.” Carolina opened her briefcase. “We have lost control of Etaceh.”

Carolina performed the depressing show-and-tell around the newly lit campfire.

“According to these diagrams, the entire capital is under surveillance by the Magic Tower,” Carolina explained, then showed them the aerial scan for golems. “And each dot on this photograph is a hidden military-grade golem.” Carolina dug out a mind-control chip from the briefcase. “Remember Spade's pitch a year ago? Sorry to break you, but it’s real now. I’m betting my arm and saying Spade is already implanted with one.”

Hunter watched the mountain of analytical evidence in stunned silence. Betty sat by the side, too crestfallen to say anything. Neptis gave the fire a thousand-yard stare. Carle went over the evidence to refute it, but failed. Robert sat on a rock in introspection, waiting for Carolina to give them the ruling.

“Sorry, folks,” Carolina concluded the summary. “There’s no more threat to Curtis because Curtis is already gone for two bloody years.” She turned to Hunter. “You swing your sword at the wrong person.” She said in a biting anger. “Edmond might be over-reacting, but he got the right target. Congratulation, Hunter, you killed him and cleared away Etaceh’s greatest obstacle — good job handing Curtis to her on a silver platter.”

Hunter switched on a communicator to contact Edmond, doing everything he could to avert reality.

The communicator sparked and died, paying for the visit to Ciel’s tech bane cave.

“Trying to contact Edmond?” Carolina said. “I already tried that, and he wouldn’t pick up. Half of our personnel also went silent.” Carolina laughed in sour dispirit. “Hunter, the Military Police is already compromised. It’s over.”

Hunter gloomily said one thing bugging him, “Why did she spare me?”

Neptis knew who they were talking about. “Yeah, Xia probably knew about all of this, but instead of telling us directly, she scattered breadcrumbs for us to find. Why?”

“I don’t think Xia is behind this,” Betty said.

Everyone turned to Elizabeth.

“Someone is manipulating us to do something,” Betty said, glaring at Hunter. “Xia didn’t spare you, Hunter. She wants you as part of her ‘husband’s’ plan. That man has been feeding us breadcrumbs without revealing himself. I bet the cave is another ploy to obscure his identity while revealing information without alerting Etaceh.”

“You think Xia’s mysterious lover is behind this,” Neptis heard about Xia’s mysterious relationship, but she believed it was just rumors.

“I’m positive,” Betty said. “Xia wasn’t smart enough to uncover this on her own. I believe her boyfriend is in a secret war with Etaceh, and he used Xia to steer us like puppets.”

Carolina grimaced, “So we are a piece on a chessboard.”

Hunter gathered his motivation and stood again.

“We need to arrest Etaceh and dethrone Spade,” said the Commissioner. “The plot of this puppet-master is of secondary importance to Curtis.” Hunter turned toward Carolina. “We need two-prong strikes. One team needed to keep Etaceh occupied, while another attack the Magic Tower and stopped them from regathering their forces.”

“Commissioner,  that is too hasty,” Robert said. “We should—”

“We can’t retreat,” a fanatical gleam appeared in Hunter’s eyes. “Our enemy is controlling the capital. Retreat meant giving her a free-reign to cement her grip.” Hunter was determined. “Edmond called her a god. We’ll prove that wrong and strike her down.”

The team stood, and Hunter turned to Elizabeth La Louve.

“Princess Elizabeth,” said Hunter. “After today, I will gladly apologize for my mistake with my head—”

“Save it, Hunter,” Betty said. “I will keep Etaceh distracted, but after this, I will be coming after you.”

Betty summoned her flying artifact and headed to the sky toward the capital.

It was the last time Elizabeth and Hunter met as allies.

Betty would have flown directly to the capital if she didn’t notice the familiar cottage beside the road to the capital. 

Making her mind, Betty descends to the little caramel cottage with red-tiled roof. A simple lamp lit the small house with the same old beach umbrella, teatime chairs and folding table. The lonely night skies gave this place a new, ominous feeling.

Xia was there, dressed in her summer clothes, but with a bandaged hand.

“Xia,” Betty greeted her sister.

“Hello, Betty,” Xia offered Betty a cup of coffee. “Want some? Depressing day, isn’t it?”

It was then Betty exploded. The simple prodded finally burst the bubble of guilt and loss.

“I am not in a mood for coffee!” Betty screamed. “Are you here to gloat? Go on! Say it! I am the idiot who sold dad out for this. You are right. You and Ciel are right! That bitch led me around like a donkey. I put Spade on the throne and an Etaceh played him like a violin. All this time, I believe I can control her. I even learned from her and this is the result. I got Ciel killed, and the Continent is on the brink of a war. You are right about everything! Are you happy now?”

“Betty,” said Xia calmly. “Take a seat and drink the coffee. Ciel made it out alive. No need to worry about him.”

The exhausted Betty followed the command, relieved at one good news.

“Feeling Better,” Xia gave her sister a minute to cool.

“I don’t understand this,” Betty said. “You should hate me. I fuck everything up.”

“You are my little sister,” Xia replied. “I’m angry, but I couldn’t hate you.”

Betty looked at the concern on Xia’s face.

“What is your game?” Betty asked Xia about the endgame. “You and your boyfriend knew about her from the start. You must know how to beat her.”

“We know she is unbeatable,” Xia answered.

“Stop with the riddle!” Betty exclaimed. “Just tell me exactly how to beat her!”

“Betty,” Xia said. “Etaceh was beatable two years ago, but no one has a chance of defeating her when this late in the game. That’s how her kind operates.”

“Her kind?” Betty groaned. “I know dad is right about her intention, but I still think he exaggerated about the fact she is this ancient god.”

“He isn’t,” said Xia. “Father is spot-on about what she is. Dearest is so impressed with father, he called him the wisest of all humanity for a reason.”

“Then what is your grand plan?” Betty asked, trying to deal with the revelation. “Okay, let’s say dad is right. Etaceh is a god, then why do you bother lining the breadcrumbs.”

“The breadcrumbs are there because she isn’t the only god around,” Xia revealed. “Those clues were delivered the way they did to manipulate Hunter Westerna without bringing more ‘gods’ on our head.”

Betty suddenly realized the fact, “You spare Hunter to use him as a pawn.”

Xia huffed, “Hunter is too emotional about Curtis. Present with the sense of failure, guilt and desperation, he will strike recklessly like the way he killed dad two years ago.” Xia came clean. “When my husband made that dungeon, there were two ‌paths forward. The best case is Hunter believing us and negotiating in good faith. Another is hostility.” Xia snorted. “Then he revealed he killed father, and I made a judgment call to switch to the hostility route. I can’t let him meet my dearest.”

Betty blinked, “You can’t trust Hunter near your boyfriend? Why?”

Xia were incredulous, “Because the moment Hunter understood what my dearest is, he will murder him like he did to father.” Xia clenched her fist. “If the plan doesn’t already guarantee his death, I would have killed him right there.” Xia’s voice softened. “And there’s another thing I want to ask from you. Don’t follow Hunter to attack the Etaceh. That is a death sentence.”

Betty looked at the somber Xia. “You know I can’t do that,” she said. “I need to take responsibility.”

“Dying isn’t taking responsibility, sis,” Xia tried to convince her little sister. “We’re manipulating Hunter and Carolina to reveal Etaceh’s hand. You are too important for that, Betty.”

“What is the worst Etaceh could do, Xia?” Betty asked. “You call her a god, but what can she do?”

“Would you believe me if I told you she holds more power than you could ‌ imagine and is functionally immortal?” Xia said honestly.

“Are you joking?” Betty refused to comprehend such an outlandish notion.

“Yeah, I know you won’t believe me until you experience a Lord’s power,” Xia sighed and handed Betty a vial of red-liquid. “At least take this with you.”

Betty took the vial. It was a cylindrical glass filled with red liquid and painted with runes.

“What is this?” Betty asked.

“A good luck charm,” Xia said. “The moment you finally understood Etaceh’s true power, take out that vial and crush it. Don’t keep it in your storage artifacts, it will ruin the effect.”

“Thanks, sis,” Betty took the vial and stood. “You aren’t coming?”

“I have another plan, Betty,” Xia said, fading away with the cottage. “Call it redundancy.”

At daybreak, the mission to defeat Etaceh had begun.

All the teams were in position, the Military Strike team of Hunter, Carolina, Robert, Carle and Neptis emerged into Hecate from the manhole on the road, using the classified secret entrance in the sewer.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth La Louve, in her red dress, walked up into the Central area, greeted the guards like she did every day. She knew Etaceh still wanted to meet her and played into it. Instead of sneaking him like a strike team, Betty walked to the palace like she had a business — a lethal ‌business.

It was the day Curtis was forever changed.