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alfheimwanderer
April 3rd, 2011, 10:52 PM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/1/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

In the golden warmth of a lazy summer afternoon, footsteps echoed through a brilliantly illuminated hallway, climbing the stairs of a nearly abandoned building as a solitary figure headed towards the office on the fourth floor…the only permanent tenant of the building, though there was an empty workshop of sorts on the third that had apparently been left behind by the previous occupant.

Not that even that former user had found the edifice particularly upfront, as it was but a half-built thing, construction having been halted halfway through from lack of funding or some other external factor. Not particularly large, nor particularly small, it was an average building at best, overlooking the smaller bits of construction that had sprung up around it in swarms, but not even reaching the knees of the taller structures in town—those which had been constructed over the last few years to keep up with demand.

Still, to someone who was a fugitive, living a life in hiding so as not be tracked or hunted down by any inconvenient specters from her mottled past, such a building was ideal for her needs, and so she'd made good use out of it, putting up bounded fields, renovating it, and generally making it fit for human habitation and use, which the building's current occupant was quite grateful for.

A heavy sigh sounded as the pacing came to a halt, with the figure knocking on the office door, and receiving no answer, tested the knob, only to find it unlocked as usual. Sighing, she cracked it open and entered, though she took a moment to look around to make sure the investigator/picture book author who nominally used the office wasn't asleep at his desk. To her disappointment, the man was indeed absent, with the relative tidiness of the office suggesting that he had not come in today.

"Feh, gone again, Mitsuru-san? I sneaked away from my lessons just to come here, too," the intruder pouted, mildly displeasure evident in her severe blue eyes as she found no trace of the man's presence. "I even brought you some work in case you were having money troubles again."

Said "intruder" was about ten, with long black hair that flowed like water, and though she had the sweetness characteristic of youth, her blue eyes held the light of maturity. Dressed in her usual (if dated) ensemble of charcoal-grey blouse and pleated skirt, complete with thigh-high stockings, with some kind of case slung from her back, a small rucksack in her hands, and a tear-shaped amulet about her neck, she seemed surrounded by a sense of nobility that was untouched by something as mundane as the vogue.

All in all, not quite the sort one would expect to find in a private investigator's office—though given that she was technically his boss, as the heiress of the criminal syndicate that he worked for (as well as his benefactor, having saved him from quite possibly swimming with the fishes by getting her mother—the head of the "family"—to make him a member of their group), she had every right to frequent the place.

…except if she came by without permission, or on days when she decided to skip school to indulge her penchant for more philosophical writing, usually making the part-time author grouse that she must be trying to get him killed, wondering if she was trying to see how much trouble he could stand by ditching school to come to his office. Pointless nonsense really, since she'd never try to get him in trouble, as she happened to be very fond of him and the stories he wrote—that was the reason she had saved him in the first place.

That small investment of time to persuade her mother had proven a worthwhile one on days such as today, when one lesson or another had proven more tedious than she was prepared to deal with. She knew the material already, as her private tutors had diligently drilled her in the curriculum, so there wasn't really a point in attendance if she didn't feel like it.

'Too bad Mitsuru-san isn't here…he always has something interesting to say…'

A pity indeed, though at least his office boasted a nice library of reading material she could spend a few hours preoccupied with, on the off chance he would come in later—as he had sometimes done in the past. After all, perhaps her mother had him busy with another errand, or he was out in a café trying to write without her distracting him.

A slight sigh escaped her lips as she walked over to the main bookshelf, setting her rucksack at her feet as she browsed its contents.

The girl had just selected a slim volume to peruse, taking it into her hands when a green oval of light flared into existence beneath her feet. She had just enough time to register a flicker of surprise before it absorbed her, clothes, rucksack, case, book and all, and sent her hurtling through an expanse vaster than she had reason to know, a primordial「 」with no light, no air, no color—not even the passage of time—only the sensation of great speed.

A flicker of light.

Something broke the monotony of the darkness—images from the past. Her past? A past she could not know?

Bursting into the office, followed by her mother.

A knife.

Swords flashing through the air.

The taiji in the taiji…

Snow.

A tunnel appeared, formed of infinite light and knowledge overwhelming her mind.

More of the past.

Snow.

A collapsing bridge.

Birth.

A car wreck.

Her father as a young man.

A bamboo grove.

Repetition. Repetition. Repetition.

A voice, empty as a hollow shrine.

The pressure of a knife.

A hunter's moon…

"'I want…to kill you…'"

A sudden, crashing stop, and then all was engulfed in darkness.


] | [

'My…don't tell me I accidentally set off one of Touko-san's traps…'

Among other things, Aunt Azaka had warned her that Touko Aozaki, the former tenant of the building the young girl frequented, had been rather paranoid about discovery, and had in her time taken quite a few precautions to keep her office from being discovered. Granted, the puppetmaster was no longer in residence, with the building having been converted into Mitsuru-san's office, but it wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility that a few traps might have been…forgotten, or that whoever Touko-san had been running from had managed to catch the wrong person in their net.

Neither scenario quite appealed to her, as she found herself hoping that whatever had happened was merely a dream, or the byproduct of staying up far too late most nights. But, this idle hope was quashed by her more pragmatic concerns, such as determining what the current situation was—and how much danger she might currently be in. From her Papa's experience, Mother's training—and Mitsuru's grousing—proper knowledge of a situation was vital in determining a response, with the lack of it usually proving rather painful.

'As would make sense for a Demon Hunter…'

She was outside, from what she could tell, senses other than sight informing her dutifully of the feel of the warm sun upon her skin, the rustle of wind through trees, the murmurs and whispers of a large number of people, the heat of someone hovering entirely too close to her supine form—but most importantly of all, that her belongings were with her, and that there was no hostile intent from the crowd.

As it seemed safe enough, Mana Ryougi gingerly opened her eyes, stifling a groan as best she could at the dizziness found in the white of the sun's rays. She flinched backward from the sudden onslaught of the cruel daystar, but composed herself after a few seconds as her vision adapted itself to unsought brightness, with the girl redirecting her gaze to what was in front of her to see reddish-brown eyes looking into hers.

The owner of the eyes pulled back slightly as the Ryougi heiress stirred, with her field of view focusing on a pale, feminine face framed with strawberry blonde…pink…hair—a foreigner, who was kneeling from the look of it, examining Mana with a perplexed, almost troubled look on her face.

The foreigner seemed close to her age, perhaps a little older, and was dressed rather similarly to her in blouse, pleated skirt, even thigh-high stockings, with the exception of a black cloak with a pentagram clasp worn over the ensemble.

'A pentagram? Is the girl a neo-pagan, then?' she wondered to herself, knowing the most commonly used meanings of the symbol. While it was also used in magic circles for thaumaturgical rituals, with the vertices of the pentagram representing the four elements with the addition of Ether (Spirit or Void) as the fifth, Mana doubted that the girl leaning over her could be a mage, since magi tended to be very secretive about their abilities—they had to be, since more people discovered the existence of magecraft, the more it would be degraded in mystery and power.

Peering behind the other girl, she was forced to reassess her situation when she saw that the crowd (all European in features) was dressed similarly to the girl leaning over her, as if the cape was part of a uniform of sorts—and was carrying some kind of stick, like a wand. Was that one of those Mystic Codes Aunt Azaka had mentioned? More interestingly, each was seemingly paired with a different creature – some as mundane as a common housecat, others…was that a dragon? And in the distance, on an endlessly oblivious grassy field, she saw a huge castle with stone walls much like those in the picture books she enjoyed reading.

Clearly, she wasn't in Japan anymore. And given the scenery, it obviously wasn't the infamous Clock Tower that Touko sometimes spoke about, so…

"Who are you?"

The sudden query from the foreign girl drew Mana's attention back to her primary observer, making a note in her mind that the question seemed to be in uninflected Japanese, though a nagging presence said otherwise.

'Odd…MANA thinks that I've been affected by something, since what he's hearing is much more like French …'

She'd file away that bit of knowledge for now, since it was not yet her other personality's turn to be dominant. And now it was the foreigner's turn to flinch as the Ryougi dusted herself off and got to her feet, taking care not to unseat the wrapped bundle on her back as she drew herself up to her full height of 133 cm, introducing herself with a curtsey.

"Mana. Mana Ryougi, ma'am," she replied, minding her manners even in this odd situation. It wouldn't do to cause offense in an unfamiliar situation, especially as it seemed that magecraft might be involved after all. Equivalent exchange was a fundamental rule of magi, after all, so if she answered, the other might be more willing to reciprocate. "And who might you be?"

"An odd name," the foreigner noted, ignoring her question, as she instead rose to her feet with a grunt, eyeing her with a mix of disdain and disappointment. "And where are you from, commoner?"

"Commoner?" Mana echoed, tilting her head quizzically, though her eyes remained fixed on those of the girl before her, almost challengingly. "Are you a noble of some kind, then?"

The young Ryougi knew that the scions of higher society families in Japan sometimes made a habit of calling those not in their social class commoners, but she had certainly never been called such herself, nor had felt the need to address others as such.

"Am I a…why you…I am Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, third daughter of the noble Vallière family!" the pink-haired girl sputtered, seemingly indignant that anyone would question her. "Have you never heard of the name?"

"I can't say that I have," she answered honestly, only for the other girl to go beet red with annoyance, as those around her began to snicker and laugh.

"Louise, what were you thinking, calling a commoner with 'Summon Servant'?" asked someone in the crowd, just before the group burst into raucous laughter. "And a little girl who doesn't know what a noble is, at that? You're a failure, Vallière!"

"I... I just made a little mistake!" the self-named Louise shouted in a refined voice that carried like a bell, now seeming more panicked instead of angry.

"Mistake? What mistake are you talking about? Nothing unusual happened."

Another spoke from within the crowd, a statement innocent enough save for the subtly malicious tone with which it was said.

"Of course! After all, such is to be expected from… Louise the Zero!" someone else said, as the crowd began to laugh once again.

Mana was by no means unintelligent, and the words 'Summon Servant', combined with her earlier observations, gave her all the clues she needed to deduce what must have happened.

'Heh, I know Mitsuru-san often thinks of me as a black cat who brings him bad luck, but I didn't expect to be summoned by a band of teenage magi…' she thought, the realization fairly chilling since she knew what magi were capable of. And if otherworldly power happened to be coupled with the wanton cruelty of teenagers, as seemed to be the case…things might end up badly. 'I can't run…there are too many of them, and I don't know where I am. My best option is playing along until I get more information…'

Still, at that moment, she was quite thankful she wasn't unarmed.

"Mr. Colbert!" Louise shouted, her voice tinged with urgency and desperation.

The crowd parted behind her to reveal a bald, middle-aged man covered in a black robe typical of mages in novels, and carrying a gnarled wooden staff—apparently an authority figure.

"What is it that you want from me, Miss Vallière?" the man inquired, looking between Mana and the strawberry-blonde who had apparently summoned her. "If you wish to try the summoning once more, I'm afraid I cannot allow that, Miss Vallière."

"Why not?"

"It is strictly forbidden. When you are promoted to a second year student, you must summon a familiar, which is what you just did."

If Mana wasn't sure that these people were magi before, as strangely as they were dressed and without any heed to secrecy as they were, the word "familiar" would have been a dead giveaway.

"But—"

"As you know, your elemental specialty is decided by the familiar that you summon. It enables you to advance to the appropriate courses for that element," the man explained patiently, though with an air of exasperation, as if the one he was addressing was a particularly troublesome student. "Whether you like it or not, you cannot change the familiar once you have summoned it, because the Springtime Familiar Summoning is a sacred rite."

"But... I've never heard of having a commoner as a familiar!" Louise protested, only for the crowd around her to begin howling with hysterical laughter, as if this was the funniest thing they'd seen in a long time.

The strawberry-blonde scowled at them, but the laughter didn't stop.

Mana knew it wouldn't, of course, since bullies loved to see people angry, loved to see them react—and for a mage, the girl before her was far too open with her emotions…worse even than Aunt Azaka.

Maybe it was time to speak up, since they didn't seem violent…for now.

"Excuse me, sir, but what is your definition of a commoner?" the Ryougi asked, wanting to know why they referred to her as a commoner so easily…so dismissively. Save for the cloak, the clothes she wore were not so different from theirs in style, and she thought she had remembered her etiquette lessons well enough not to seem utterly uncouth. "And why are you so sure I am one?"

The girl who called herself Louise de la Vallière just glared at her, as if Mana were the cause of her troubles.

"Can you do magic?" the strawberry blond replied witheringly. When no response was forthcoming except a startled blink, the foreign girl continued. "No? Then you're a commoner! And commoners should stop asking questions of their betters!"

"Heh, by those standards, you should be a commoner too, Louise the Zero!" a heckler shouted from the mob, a blonde with hair in drill-like curls and freckles on her face.

This time, Louise seemed to recognize who it was that had snubbed her.

"Mr. Colbert, Montmorency the Flood just insulted me!" she exclaimed, hoping for some intervention from the professor, but—

"Who are you calling 'the Flood'?" the heckler responded, affronted by the other's choice of title. "I'm Montmorency the Fragrance!"

"I heard that you used to wet the bed like a flood, didn't you?" Louise taunted cruelly, watching as the ever-fickle crowd diverted its attention to a new target. "'The Flood' suits you better!"

The man apparently named Mr. Colbert sighed, pulsing veins at his temples indicating that a headache was impending.

"Quiet down! Nobles ought to show each other the proper respect," the middle-aged mage interjected, giving a stern glare at both Montmorency and Louise. "Miss Vallière, please finish the ceremony. After mistake upon mistake, you have finally managed to summon one, so hurry and form a contract."

"With…her?"

The question was equal parts disdain, horror, revulsion, and despair, all mixed into a great cocktail of self-loathing. As if it wasn't bad enough that she had to kiss a commoner, it had to be another girl? On the lips? But that was…what it was happened to be a token protest at best, as Louise just knew that no matter what she did, no matter how she asked, there would be no reprieve.

"Yes, with her."

As the words settled over the unlikely pair like a death sentence, Mana couldn't help but feel slightly offended at the prickly tone of the pinkette, not to mention how she'd been dismissed as a near non-entity throughout these proceedings, after having been summoned to this most strange place. It would have been one thing had her apparent "summoner" not been so dismissive, but…

At that, Louise closed her eyes with an air of resignation, waving her wand about and chanting: "My name is Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière. Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers; bless this humble being, and make her my familiar."

The pink-haired mage stepped forward, as if to touch the Ryougi's head with her wand, but Mana took a step back and the wand touched only air. They repeated this sequence of events several times, one drawing back as the other came forward, unconsciously adopting a defensive stance, with the crowd shifting as they moved to keep the two in the center of the mass of people.

"Hey, stay still!" Louise complained, her eyes beginning to twitch in frustration. To think that her summon would be making a fool out of her, just like everyone else. It was…it was…

"What exactly are you trying to do?" Mana asked, a reasonable question, she thought.

Reasonable enough that she didn't expect Louise to suddenly lunge forward and knock her to the ground, pushing her down and straddling her.

"Ah, geez! I told you to stay still!" Louise said bitterly, touching her wand to the younger girl's forehead, even as she leaned down and kissed the other girl on the lips.

The Ryougi heiress froze, stiffening at the moment of contact, though it was over before she could even think to resist.

"It is done," Louise intoned, getting off of her newly minted familiar without caring for the other girl's fallen state, who was contemplating what had just happened when—

Pain. Pain pain painpainpainpainpa—

Body burning as if her nerves had become white hot wires, and molten steel ran through her veins, melting, searing her arms, her hand, her fingers as if dissolving them in acid. Mana clutched at her arm as green marks glowed out from the back of her left hand, body curling up into a fetal position at how much agony she was in, with smoke rising from her.

It burned, it burned. It burned so much she wanted to roll around in pain like a worm on damp soil, but she didn't, instead choking back any sound of pain in her throat and simply waiting. The pain was just about unbearable, but after a few more seconds, it faded, with even the memory of it receding.

When it stopped, the Ryougi heiress allowed herself to breathe once more, pulling herself to her knees and then to her feet, wincing uncomfortably as she checked the back of her left hand. There, inscribed like a brand or a tattoo, were the runes of contract.

'Well…at least the requirements for making a human into a familiar don't involve…more intimate acts,' she mused, remembering what Touko had said about familiar contracts the one time she had asked. Still, from what she knew, one normally needed someone's consent to make them into a familiar so…what had just happened? Whatever it was, it was clear that the rules that these students operated under were not quite the rules of magecraft that she knew.

A different society, where mages, beyond not bothering to conceal their status, were nobles. A world where the rules of magecraft worked differently. Architecture reminiscent of the Europe during the Middle Ages. Clothing that made no sense on a typical timeline of fashion. An impossible summoning.

Either she had fallen asleep while reading one of Mitsuru-san's stories and this was all part of a very strange dream or…she'd been sent to another world, as he mother had been many years ago, tossed around between universes seemingly at random, but always to fulfill one particular role or another, with Touko suspecting that a certain "Zelretch" was involved.

'On the bright side, I won't have to kill a hundred heroic spirits, or fight against the White Princess of the True Ancestors to return home…I hope,' Mana thought wryly, shaking her head as old memories of her mother's more unusual trials passed through her mind. 'That would be pointless, since I don't have Mother's eyes. What will I have to do, and what is the significance of the runes I've been marked with?'

If the "meddlesome old man" (as Touko-san called him sometimes) was really involved, then she'd have to do her best to adapt and figure out what her task was without fearing the worst, since a terrible premonition could bring forth a terrible reality.

She came out of her reverie as a sudden pulse of energy washed over her senses, with her gaze snapping up to see the middle-aged mage and all of the younger magi—except her summoner—turning and rising into the air, with some of the departing students(?) jeering about Louise not even managing levitation. Mana turned to see the pink-haired girl quivering, with rage or just about to cry, she didn't know. She sighed. "Well, if I'm to be here, I might as well figure things out," she murmured.

As soon as the others were out of earshot, Louise took a deep breath, turned towards Mana and growled out "Who are you?"

"But I already told you, Miss Vallière…my name is Mana Ryougi," the apparent familiar said, her smile blooming like a flower without a trace of shyness or ill intent. "More importantly, where are we?"

"You are in Tristain, and this is the renowned Tristain Academy of Magic!" Louise uttered emphatically, almost disbelieving that someone might not have heard of it. After all, was the Academy not the most prestigious institution of its kind on the continent of Halkeginia? "I'm a second year student, and your master from now on. Remember that!"

"The Tristain Academy of Magic?" Mana echoed, curious about her surroundings. "The only Academy I know of that teaches thaumaturgy is Atlas, but they specialize in Alchemy."

"I've never heard of… " Louise began, prepared to dismiss what the familiar said as utter nonsense, though as the word 'alchemy' sunk in, her gaze snapped back to the one she had summoned. Definitely a foreigner with foreign customs, no doubt, and so it was possible that this Atlas existed. "Fine, you say your name is Mana…but what are you, exactly?"

Mana's lips quirked up at the corners.

"A human," the raven-haired girl volunteered cheekily, not giving any more information than her summoner already had, though to be fair, she could have been a half-demon hybrid for all Louise knew.

But this answer only served to further aggravate Louise, who was hoping that despite her summon's rather unintimidating shape and stature, she was anything but a normal commoner, as evidenced by the young girl's posture, confidence, and unconscious dignity with which she spoke. Certainly she wasn't from Halkeginia, or she'd be bending over backwards to accede to a noble's demands…but then, she was being more or less polite too—wary, as one might expect of someone summoned into a strange situation.

"Yes, well... what sort of human?" the mage probed, trying to find out more about the familiar. "What can you do? Do you have any special powers?"

"Well, I'm not bad with a sword…" Mana admitted, not wanting to seem completely useless, though not wanting to reveal the full extent of her abilities yet.

"You…a sword?" Louise echoed haltingly, looking at the younger girl askance. Her familiar was a good 20cm shorter than her, and wanted her to believe she could use a sword? Could she even hold a sword? The mage hesitated before coming out with her next question, as if she wasn't sure she really wanted to know. "For that matter, how old are you?"

"Oh, I'm ten years old…" came the reply, with Louise freezing in place, looking almost like she'd been petrified by the stare of a cockatrice.

"…why…why is this happening to me?" the pinkette muttered, rubbing her temples with her fingers. "Why does my familiar have to be so uncool? A commoner girl who's younger than me, who probably doesn't even know what being a familiar means. Why? I wanted to have something wicked like a dragon or a griffin or a manticore. Or at least an eagle or an owl. Why does my familiar have to be so useless?"

Mana censured her self-proclaimed master with a serious look, the intensity of it jolting Louise from her pity parade.

"That's not true at all," the Ryougi said after a moment, leaving the mage confused as what the young girl meant by this. "I know what it means to be a familiar. A familiar serves as the eyes and hands of a magus, helping to retrieve reagents, surveying areas, meet with others on a magus' behalf, or most importantly, to protect a magus."

"You…that's right, but…" Louise fumbled for words, wondering how a mere commoner could know all of this, when only magi had access to this knowledge, but could only manage a lame "…how?"

"Oh, my aunt was a magus," Mana revealed, causing the Vallière to blink, confused at first…then flabbergasted. That wasn't possible, was it? Someone couldn't just become a mage – a family was either noble or it wasn't. There was no way that magic should just die out or spring up in a line, unless…

Louise carefully did not think about what would happen if a nearly talentless mage married another and the magical line thinned over the years, and thus resorted to her usual tactic when faced with inconvenient or confounding information.

"B-but that's impossible, isn't it?" the mage scoffed, looking incredulously at the one she had summoned. "And…" She sighed, disgruntled, not wanting to deal with the logic bomb in her head. "You say you know the duties of a familiar, but how do you expect to carry them out? Especially protecting me from any and all enemies...a powerful magical beast would almost always defeat its enemies, but I don't think you could even beat a raven."

The problem was that her familiar looked so…young, small and helpless, that for Louise to put her life in the other's hands was entirely out of the question.

"Do you have that many enemies to contend with, Miss Vallière?" Mana asked sharply, recalling the spectacle surrounding her summoning, with the vast mob heckling and jeering at her. "Do you have some special power, perhaps, that might draw others to you?"

"N-no, bu—that's not the point!" Louise stammered, rather flustered, as the innocent question had unknowingly struck a sore spot. Once more, she grasped for a safer topic, one that wouldn't wound her pride so much as assuage her curiosity. "Let me ask you this instead: aren't you at all concerned about being summoned?"

"I would be, except that I was warned about the possibility ahead of time," Mana answered, smiling like she was enjoying the conversation from the bottom of her heart. "And I know of someone who was summoned to stranger places and times, yet returned to tell the tale."

"…you do?" Louise asked, blinking as she tried to make sense of this information and reconcile it with the fact that human summons were unheard of. "I've never heard of anyone else summoning a commoner as a familiar. Animal familiars get special abilities or add to the talent of their masters, but you don't even have any magic! How's that supposed to help me?"

"Mages are a threat to the world's common sense, it's true," was all Mana said by way of reply, her words perfectly calm, but all the more disturbing for it. "But there are more things in this world than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The Springtime Familiar Summoning is a sacred rite, yes?"

A hesitant nod.

"Then trust that there was a purpose to it…"

'Just as I have to trust that there is a reason I am here…'

Louise sighed heavily, not really in the mood to continue this discussion.

"Well, I suppose you're not trying to be impolite, so I guess I can tolerate this situation for a while," the pinkette mage said quietly. "Follow me."

That said, Louise turned around sharply and began walking towards the castle, with Mana picking up her bag and following a few steps behind, taking in her surroundings.


] | [

As she tossed and turned on her bed, trying to get to sleep that night, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière found herself dizzy with tumultuous mix of emotions, looking over the ornate room that served as her quarters at the Academy. Opulent surroundings, what she was used to for most of her life—and yet, had she not succeeded in summoning a familiar, there was an even chance she might have been disowned, with all the wealth and power of her family mattering not one iota. In a world where nobility was defined as the capacity to perform magic, being so weak was terrifying, though she'd never admit it to herself, much less to anyone else, and if she had failed here…. She shivered, not wanting to think about it.

In spite of the mistakes that she'd made, in spite of everything, Founder Brimir had apparently smiled upon her, allowing her to perform real, uncontestable magic after years of failure after failure. She'd dreamt for years of getting her own familiar, finding out just what her area of talent was in magic (because Brimir knew she had no idea what it could possibly be – she'd tried all four major elements, but everything had resulted in failure), bringing honor to her family—and if she was honest, to herself. But reality was starkly different from her dreams.

Instead of a dragon, manticore, griffin, or other noble beast, she had summoned a human…a commoner at that, who freely admitted that she had no magic, though her aunt had been a magus, an innocent statement that chilled the third daughter of the Vallière family to the bone. Was that why the familiar acted so much like a noble might, unbowed to anyone? Because her family, too, had been nobility before someone had ended up as…a "Zero", born into a noble house but was cast out for an inability to perform magecraft?

She didn't know if that was the case, but either way, it terrified her because it hit too close to home.

Other things that the familiar had shown her were equally odd, from books with pictures more lifelike than anything she'd known in the past, the knife she carried under her skirt at all times—of exquisite craftsmanship, or the wooden sword in her bag, which gave some credence to the young girl's statement that she was not bad with blades. There were other things as well, such as the "pens" and other such that seemed odd to her, but she knew better than to press after the familiar had turned her words back on her.

The familiar had had the nerve to say that while the floor may have been an adequate place for a dog or a cat to sleep, a human deserved otherwise.

'Especially someone you want to protect you…' the young girl's gaze had seemed to imply, with Louise not wanting to question, lest the familiar embarrass her by knowing more what a familiar relationship was supposed to be than she did. Louise could not countenance that, and so had allowed Mana to explore the grounds, freely, without telling her to wash her clothes for her…the maids took care of laundry in any case, and…she'd think about it more tomorrow. Maybe things would be less confusing when she woke up.


] | [

It was nearly midnight when Mana finished her wanderings about the halls of the magical academy, having come at last to the roof of a high tower to conduct the daily exercises that her mother demanded of her, with the elder Ryougi mentioning that it was important to keep one's skills sharp in case they were needed—and this was now truer than ever before.

Thus, swishes and whirrs rent the silence of the night, as twin moons shone down from above, verdant and crimson light mingling to cast eerie shadows upon the ground below.

While wandering, she had run into a maid by the name of Siesta, who was shocked that someone so young would have become a mage's familiar, clearly wondering if it was ok. Mana supposed she had awakened Siesta's maternal side, since the maid had been willing to show her around and answer questions happily—including a few about her, with the Ryougi learning that the maid was the oldest child of nine…a curious thing, considering that she herself was an only child.

As she went through an intricate kata, a sword dance of sorts, movements speeding up to nearly a blur as she took hold of her shinai, the demon hunter thought about nobles and commoners, magi and different worlds. About her mother and papa, who no doubt were wondering where she was…well, if time flowed the same here as elsewhere; about her mother's previous journeys into other lands, about the images she had seen as she fell through the endless void, about what her purpose might be.

Aristocracy, magic, technology—fantasy become real, writ upon the world, secrets, intentionally kept or otherwise.

Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass…

Her apparent master, who seemed to lack confidence—she was defensive and quick to anger, to be sure, quick to voice an opinion, but could not deal with contradictory information.

The runes on her hands, which glowed if she took hold of a knife.

The basic rules to being tossed into another world (which she fondly called "Mother's Guide to Crossing Dimensions" - 1. Don't Panic, 2. Curse Zelretch and/or the Counter Force since one or both are probably involved, somehow, 3. Figure out where you are and what you have to do, 4. Complete your mission).

And complete it she would, because if her mother could do it…then so could she.

She was a Kokutou, after all, as well as a Ryougi, and it seemed she'd need both as things continued to get curiouser and curiouser.

warellis
April 4th, 2011, 01:19 AM
Cool. At what point did Ryougi Shiki get thrown into another dimension?

Comartemis
April 4th, 2011, 01:31 AM
It's Mana, actually.

ItsaRandomUsername
April 4th, 2011, 01:34 AM
Good to see that this is back up.

Numina
April 4th, 2011, 01:43 AM
I really was wondering if I'll ever see this again. Good to see it's back.

alfheimwanderer
April 4th, 2011, 02:15 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/2/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.


] | [

"Please…give me another chance! Let me try one more time!"

Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière found herself on her hands and knees, head lowered as she groveled, begging the one before her to give her one more chance to prove herself, to show that she was not some failure to be thrown away like trash. Had it been anyone else who was questioning her competence, with the slings and arrows of taunts and insults, she would have railed loudly against them, putting on a show of blustery bravado to preserve what dignity she had…but this opponent was on a completely different level.

"No."

It was the answer she knew she would receive, had dreaded for years – and worse, it came from the legendary figure she had admired since she was a child, the infamous mage knight who she had looked up to, wanted to be like.

Yet in the other's presence…

"W-wh…y?"

…she whimpered, barely able to speak, shaking violently as if she were but a kite being torn to pieces by a terrible storm, her legs unable to hold her weight, forcing her to bow before the crushing weight of authority, the terrible presence that the other commanded before which there was no defense. She was nude, with lacerations, scrapes, cuts covering every inch of her broken body, but it wouldn't have mattered if she was in armor—in the end, all was meaningless before the one who now confronted her, the ominous figure who had her at its mercy.

"Because that is the rule of steel," the living nightmare spoke at last, leveling a wand at her fallen form. "Because failure is unacceptable…Zero."

And then she knew no more, as the figure spoke two words, and a vortex of innumerable blades of wind returned her existence to nothingness.


] | [

"GUUAHHHHHHH!"

With a scream, Louise de la Vallière bolted upright out of bed, hyperventilating, eyes wide with terror as her gaze darted hither and fro frantically, searching for any trace of Karin the Heavy Wind, the feared Manticore Knight who haunted her nightmares—and happened to be her mother. Discovering no sign of the armored figure, the pink-haired mage slowly moved her hands to her arms, her feet, her face, her gut to reassure herself that they were still attached, that she had not been killed.

"Haa…aaah…hhaa…ahh…haaa…"

It took quite a few minutes for her breathing to calm and to suppress her involuntary shaking, her eyes flittering across her surroundings to make sure there was nothing suspicious about. No, nothing is out of the ordinary, except—

A shadowy figure was observing her with cold blue eyes, causing her to shrink back and grab her wand, the wooden stick unsteady in her hands as she pointed it at the intruder.

"Who are you?" Louise yelled in a slurred voice, her expression a rictus of alarm as the black-clad form took a step forward. Then another, then another, coming closer, closer closer still...until with a last step, Mana Ryougi stepped into the light of the crimson moon.

"I informed you of my name when you summoned me, Miss Vallière," intoned the raven-haired girl, whose gaze now seemed nothing out of the ordinary. The terror it had inspired was probably only a trick of the light, coupled with the stress of the nightmares. "More importantly, do you often have nightmares?"

"I…" Louise began, then shut up, fighting the urge to sag as she put down her wand. A moment of silence stretched long as Mana looked at her expectantly, waiting for a reply, only for the pink-haired mage to dismiss her concerns, her voice hardening. "It's nothing, familiar."

While Louise might not have much talent in magic, what she did have in spades was her pride—that much she would not sully by talking about her fears with some commoner, even that commoner happened to be her familiar.

"Then is there anything I can assist with?" the Ryougi asked simply, sensing the residual smell of fear from the pink-haired girl and knowing that it might help to get the mage's mind off of whatever was troubling her.

"Clothes," Louise answered brusquely, grateful for the change in subject, though she'd never admit it. "Get them for me."

Mana looked around a bit, finding the discarded uniform from the previous night draped over a chair. She considered giving that to the mage for a moment, but thought better of it, turning instead to the drawers, where she found several sets of fresh uniforms, one of which she handed to Louise.

'Besides what I'm wearing, I only have a kimono in my bag…'

While the demon hunter knew that she would probably have to put up with wearing the same thing for days on end, given that she had a limited wardrobe (to put things lightly) and that washing clothing too frequently led to garments wearing out, that was no reason not to do the best she could to help Louise's mood. Given that she'd likely be working with the other girl for a while, it only made sense to get along with her, at least as long as no unreasonable demands were made.

Back on the bed, Louise was already starting to slip off her sleeping clothes. She looked over at the outfit chosen by her familiar and nodded, before speaking again. "Underwear, over in the bottom drawer."

Mana dutifully went and opened the indicated drawer. Lo and behold, it was packed full of panties, something that made the Ryougi quirk an eyebrow, not because they were anything she hadn't seen before, but because panties had only been invented in the mid 20th century, so why did a world like this, seemingly still in the Middle Ages, have them? More to the point, why did they wear clothing that wouldn't be out of place back in Japan?

'…unless other things have been summoned from Earth before?'

She resolved to think on it later, knowing it was a question she most likely wouldn't get an answer to for some time—but at least it meant that eventually, she would likely be a way home.

"Dress me," came another order, just as Mana handed Louise the pair of underwear.

"Hm? Do you require assistance for something so simple?" the young Ryougi asked, looking at the pink-haired mage rather critically. "I could understand if it were a complicated dress, but…"

Louise pouted, somewhat displeased.

"Y-you must not know because you're a commoner," she stated, trying to assert some dominance as her familiar's master, "but nobles will not dress themselves if a servant is available."

"Ah, but I am not a servant – I am a familiar," Mana pointed out reproachfully, meeting the mage's gaze unflinchingly. "And something so mundane does not fall within the duties of a familiar, especially when my assistance is neither necessary nor helpful, Miss Vallière."

If Louise had been displeased before, she was all the more so now.

"I will not have a familiar who questions me at every turn," the mage stated, raising a finger in warning. "You may think you know the duties of a familiar, but you are only a commoner and I am your master! To punish you for your disobedience, there will be no breakfast for you."

"I see," came the response, with Louise stiffening as the Ryougi turned cold eyes upon her once more. "Well then, if my presence causes you turmoil, I will leave you alone, Miss Vallière."

With that, Mana turned away, picking up one of her books as she headed out the door, with Louise staring, her mouth working up and down in disbelief.

Her familiar had just walked out on her.

This…this was unheard of! A familiar that willfully disobeyed its master? Who rebuffed any attempt she made to dominate the relationship, who rejected how things should be? This was impossible. This was absurd.

And yet it had just happened.


] | [

When Mana left the room, stepping out into the hallway, she nearly ran into a girl with flaming red hair, about two heads taller than her, whose flirtatious aura reminded her a bit of Touko Aozaki, the magus who had given her some basic pointers on what to look out for in the moonlit world.

"Good morning, miss!" the Ryougi said with a slight bow, believing in the power of first impressions.

The dark-skinned redhead raised an eyebrow, seeing Mana come out of Louise's room, but felt compelled to return the courtesy with a nod, since few were so polite.

"And good morning to you," she said in answer, eyes flicking over every bit of Mana's form as if burning it into her mind. "So you are the familiar of Zero…you really are a human…"

"So it would appear. The name is Mana Ryougi, miss," the demon hunter replied, curtsying as she had been taught. "And you would have business with Miss Vallière?"

"Mana Ryougi, eh? That's a strange name. Mine is Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, and, in a manner of speaking, yes," the redhead said rather vaguely, but before Mana had a chance to ask for details, Louise burst from the room, rather angry at her familiar's disrespect—though she froze in place as she saw her familiar talking to her worst enemy, with Kirche noting this with a broad grin.

"Good morning, Louise," the flame magus greeted, glancing between the pinkette and the raven-haired girl who supposedly served her. "What an interesting familiar you have. A commoner no less, just as I would expect from the Zero."

"Good morning... Kirche."

Louise returned the greeting rather unwillingly, looking almost like she'd bitten into something very foul, or at the very least was holding herself back from spouting an expletive or two.

"I summoned a familiar yesterday, too," the Germanian mage continued, smirking at her diminutive pink-haired counterpart. "Unlike a certain somebody, I was successful on my first try."

"Really."

A flat reply, indicating extreme disinterest.

"Of course…if you're going to have a familiar, it should be a good one, like this. Flame!" Kirche chided, calling to her familiar, as a large, dark-red lizard slithered out of her room with a wave of heat.

Seeing it, Mana tensed momentarily, but relaxed, walking over to the beast and studying it from all angles, finding it about the size of a tiger, its tail tipped with flame, with sparks and embers floating about its mouth.

"Ah, a salamander," the Ryougi said brightly, looking between the reptilian familiar and its master, noting that the flame lizard was watching her intently. "So you must have an affinity to fire, right?"

"…uh…yes, that's right," Kirche said after a moment, looking over at Mana with some surprise. She hadn't expected a commoner to know a magical beast's identity or its connotations about the summoner's elemental affinity. Her mind grasped for something that the other two in the hallway probably wouldn't know, and soon found something. "Just look at the tail. A flame this vivid and large means it's from the Fire Dragon Mountains…collectors can't even put a price on these!"

"That's nice," Louise said bitterly. "Shouldn't you be going around flirting with everyone you see?"

"Ohoho…but there is no need," Kirche replied, cracking a cheshire grin. "After all, I'm Kirche the Ardent. The ardent of gently smoldering passion. Everywhere I go, boys fall for me without me even having to try. Unlike you, no matter how hard you try, right…Zero?"

Kirche puffed her chest out proudly. Not wanting to lose, Louise did the same, but the difference in volume was just too striking.

Smirking at her victory, Kirche decided to take her leave.

"Well then, I'll be off now," she said, stroking her flaming red hair back and dashing off, with the salamander following her with a cute shuffling movement that looked odd with such a large and rather dangerous creature.

As she disappeared, Louise shook a fist in her direction.

"Damn that Kirche…just because she summoned a salamander from the Fire Dragon Mountains, instead of…" The pinkette fumed quietly for a minute, though as her mind replayed the conversation that had just transpired, something odd stuck out to her. "Wait. Familiar…"

"Yes, Miss Vallière?"

"How did you know that her familiar was a Salamander?" Louise asked sharply, bewildered as to how a commoner could be more conversant with magical beasts than she was. "You're just—"

"—my aunt was a magus, remember?" Mana quipped, with the mage seeming to deflate at the reminder of the fact. "She had an affinity for fire herself, and used salamander skin as a reagent to boost the power of her spells."

"Salamander skin? But…, right," the pinkette sputtered in disbelief, though she caught herself before she went too far, shaking her head. At the very least, her familiar had seemed to throw Kirche off balance with her knowledge, so…there was that. Still… "Why did she get a salamander, while I got you? A mere human…"

"Is there something wrong with being a human, Miss Vallière? Aren't you a human too?"

'Or at least, my demon hunter instincts aren't reacting to you…'

"Comparing mages and commoners is like comparing wolves and dogs," Louise replied haughtily. "Even if your relative might have been a mage, you aren't."

"You do know that isn't the best example, since dogs are a subspecies of wolf, right?" Mana questioned, with Louise beginning to shake in place out of frustration. "But I do have a question…"

"…what is it?"

"Out of curiosity, does the summoning ritual need a mage's own power or does it draw from an external source?"

"Obviously it uses the mage's power, since how else could a mage summon a familiar that reflects their elemental affinity? Why you showed up in the summoning circle..." Louise trailed off, sighing and shaking her head. "I don't know what that says about me."

"Maybe your affinity isn't to one of the usual four elements?" Mana speculated, only to receive a harsh glare from Louise.

"…don't even joke about that," the pinkette hissed, storming off in anger, her footsteps echoing loudly down the stone hallway.

Under the circumstances, Mana thought it would probably be wise not to ask Louise about the title of "Zero", given that with the way she had been insulted the day before, and belittled today, it was probably something quite negative.

'Something's wrong…she's being much too defensive, especially for a mage…'


] | [

While Louise was inside the Alviss Dining Hall having her feast, Mana was left outside with the other familiars, watching as the many students of the magical academy trickled towards the dining hall one by one, as the sun rose higher in the sky. The Ryougi didn't really mind, as it gave her more time to look around and continue to take the measure of the situation in which she found herself.

As she suspected from what she had already seen, the students seemed mostly European in features, though here and there, one or another stood out a bit—the great variety of hair colors, for instance, which she found distinctly odd, since there was no dominant color here. Most were cookie cutter copies of one another in terms of speech and posture, moving and walking in ways not unlike the children she knew from school—though lacking the grace of those who were experienced in combat.

The serving staff on the other hand seemed much more timid, going about and doing their jobs, carrying trays of food from the kitchen to the dining hall rather briskly, with an undercurrent of anxiety that she could easily detect. And in a situation where a commoner and a noble got into each other's way, it was always the noble who was given the right of way, with the commoner never doing so much as to politely ask the other to move—no matter the burden he or she carried.

'A society of nobles, every one of them magi…'

Looking at the social dynamic was fascinating, given that she had done much the same in her world as the daughter of the Ryougi family, often getting Mitsuru-san to take her along as he investigated cases or dealt with people on behalf of the syndicate. Still, she thought it was far more interesting to take a look at the other familiars – creatures that had been brought together from the corners of the world.

'…or worlds, if the summoning reaches that far,' she reminded herself, with the many incongruities she'd seen so far sticking in her mind. Outside influences were about the only way she could make sense of the patchwork quilt this society seemed to be made of, given that it deviated from the normal patterns of development in terms of societal mores and fashion.

And so she walked through the courtyard, observing the many creatures milling about her –animals fantastic and mundane all gathered in one place, like an open-air zoo. Many of them were but standard fare for familiars back home, such as owls, birds, dogs, cats…even a snake or two, but others stood out quite a bit more.

Kirche's salamander for one, a great silvery-blue dragon for another, a giant floating eyeball…and a giant mole?

Well, she supposed that a mole was better than nothing at all, and finishing her brief survey of the animals, sat against the wall of the dining hall and opened her favorite book, the independently published, Tears of a Vampire by Mitsuru Kamekura, reading it aloud to while away the time.

"It wasn't as if he longed to be human," she recited, murmuring the words. "Only, the city was so varied, so dazzling. Surely no one would notice one more, even someone that was not one of their own."

Set in a city of Edo blended with fantasy, it was the story of a robot who pretended to be a man, assimilating into the life of the city—but not out of a desire to be human. The robot, who had escaped from a dank laboratory run by a professor, simply yearned for the beauty of the city…the culture and vitality that humans brought to the world. The only reason he wished to be human was so that he could be in the city at all.

Yet after several years, something had changed inside the creature of steel, the routine he lived through wearing a new pattern into his mind, giving birth to a new worry that he could tell no one. His mind had become human, but no matter what, a human body was the one thing he could not obtain. He could disguise himself well enough to pass for human among the crowd, he would never cry, never bleed like others would.

"The spring storm comes, once again," Mana read aloud, fingers brushing the tome she had perused so many times before. "As though it were competing with the dancing and scattering cherry blossoms, it formed large flowers in the night sky."

Not a summer festival though – or an autumn one—but a spring festival, with fireworks…perfect for someone feeling out of place, as she was sure Mitsuru-san did at times, given that she knew his past as the mad bomber Kuramitsu Merca, who had lived…well, like a robot, calculating a certain future and bringing it about, until the day he lost his sight. In a sense, the book was very much his story, simply repackaged, and she liked the refreshing honesty of it.

For in the end, the story concluded with the robot carelessly being pushed by the crowd from bridge into a river, his disguise melting away as his functions failed. Still, even as he short-circuited, he desperately hid his face for the sake of the people in the city.

"'It's finally the awaited Spring. They'll drive me away. What should I do?'" the Ryougi recited, coming towards the end of the tale. "They'll be frightened of me. What should I do?"

Screams came from the people on top of the bridge who saw the robot.

The people next to them were pointing their fingers and shouting.

For the first time in many years, the robot remembered that the life he lived was but a passing dream, one he had meant to go well, but that from the beginning to the end, he had never truly been human. And as he sank into the water, gazing at the crowded bridge with blurring eyesight, he said his last words.

"At last. A tear, from the eyes of a man."

As Mana finished her recitation, closing the book, she was startled by the sound of gentle clapping.

"Oh hello, Miss Siesta! How are you today?" the Ryougi said cheerfully, as she looked up to see the maid she had met last night regarding her curiously. The maid was one of several man-servants flitting about the courtyard, hard at work feeding the newly summoned familiars their morning meal, with the usual process for this being fairly simple: they would lay out a variety of foodstuffs and seeing which ones the familiars would take.

"Good morning, Miss Mana," the maid replied, her attention split between the young girl and the other familiars. "That was quite the interesting story you were reading about a …robot? Is that something from the land you're from?"

"Oh, it's best to think of a robot as something like a golem really…and yes, there are a few I am from," Mana answered, smiling quite warmly, as she did like talking about the book. "More importantly, I don't like being called 'Miss.' It makes me feel like I'm under someone's protection, and it's too formal."

"But… " Siesta wanted to protest, but as the familiar of a noble, especially one known for her ill temper, the maid had no choice but to comply. Louise's authority as a mage rubbed off onto the Ryougi in a sense. "…very well, Mana, then? And you can call me Siesta?"

The girl's expression brightened at this as she stood up, beaming.

"Yep, that sounds fair," Mana said. Her attention was drawn for a moment by several large piles of fruit in the courtyard, where groups of herbivore familiars were already halfway through with eating. Others, like the larger animals that normally were predators, were being fed haunches of what seemed like roast beef or various sorts of fowl, trial and error panning out over time. "It's a wonderful thing to see all of these strange and marvelous creatures together in one place, eating peacefully together."

"Yes, it is something of a miracle, isn't it?" Siesta sighed, looking over at the animals, simply glad that none of the myriad beasts had decided that one of the others would make for good eating. Then she frowned, turning back to Mana. "Did Miss Vallière not bother to feed you?"

"Oh, it's no bother, really," the Ryougi said, attempting to wave away the issue. "I'm sure she had other things on her mind, and I didn't mind the time to look around and read."

Unfortunately, her affable dismissal of her the issue was undercut by her stomach growling, reminding Mana that she hadn't eaten since yesterday.

"That won't do at all…" Siesta murmured, looking affronted that someone would starve a poor little girl. Her face set itself into a pretty frown, and she brought a hand to her face as she contemplated Mana's predicament. Then, she thought of something. "Well, come with me then."

Acting quickly, the maid took Mana by the arm and started walking before the young one could protest, with the Ryougi simply falling into step beside Siesta, curious as to what she had in mind.

Within minutes, Mana was led to the kitchen located at the rear of the dining hall, where the smells of wonderful food being prepared wafted from all around. In one oven, there was beef being cooked on a vertical spit, while another made fresh bread. In another a roast chicken…or was it a turkey? Turned over a wood fire. In a third, a haunch of heavily seasoned ham, herbs and spices quite prepared.

On some of the stoves, pots bubbled away, and pans hissed with oil, with cooks and their assistants busily prepared food for the nobles in the dining hall—pies and cereals and porridge, ham, sausage, bacon, pancakes, a veritable feast for breakfast, quite overwhelming to the senses.

'And the nobles get something this extravagant every day…though it could be healthier, as there's no fish, and not many vegetables to speak of.'

Mana looked fondly at the all the bits and pieces of foodstuff spread through the kitchen, reminded that cooking was a magic all its own, since ingredients didn't turn into fine meals by themselves. Even if her mother made it seem that way sometimes, occasionally "cheating" while cooking by "killing" a fish's stench or "killing" the bitterness of an unripe vegetable.

One other thing she noticed (that may have been due to her mother's influence) was how many knives the kitchen was home to. Knives designed to cut through bone, knives thin enough and sharp enough to be scalpels for delicate decorative work, and knives long enough to almost be considered swords—there was a veritable arsenal here…but knowing she had no need of other weapons now, she just filed the information away for later.

"Please wait one moment, okay?" Siesta said, leading Mana to a chair placed in the corner of the kitchen and disappearing hastily into the back.

Several minutes passed, but she soon returned with a large bowl full of hot and hearty soup in her hands. "This is made from the leftovers of the nobles' meals. If you don't mind, please eat this. It's only the staff meal though...so it may not be as good as you're used to…"

The first impression that Mana had was that the dish was fragrant, with aromatic scents of basil, lime and a hint of pepper rising from a piping hot bowl of rich beef stock made by simmering beef bones, oxtails, flank steak, charred onion, and spices for hours. And in the soup was a more than generous portion of slices of tender beef, thin noodles, cilantro, lettuce, and cucumbers, with some crushed peanuts for extra flavor.

The second was that her mouth was watering. Quite a bit in fact.

"May I?" she asked, seeking permission. "And won't you join me? Or have you already eaten?"

"You may," Siesta answered, reminded of one of her little sisters, though she hesitated at the next part. "But I'm afraid I have to make sure the other familiars finish eating. I'll check on you in a few minutes…oh, and there's plenty if you want seconds, so take your time."

"See you then!" Mana all but chirped, scooping up a spoonful of the soup and bringing it to her mouth.

It was utterly delicious, and before she knew it, the bowl was empty and Siesta had returned.

"That was wonderful…thank you, and my compliments to the chef," the Ryougi said upon seeing the maid. It wouldn't do to forget her manners, after all.

"I'm glad you liked it," Siesta beamed. "Feel free to visit whenever you're hungry. If you don't mind having whatever we're having, I'd be happy to share."

Mana was rather touched by the offer.

"Is there anything I can do to help you out, since you took time to help me yesterday and today?" she asked.

"Oh, you really don't have to…" Siesta began, "it's all part of my…"

"But I want to, so may I?"

The maid sighed.

"All right. In that case, please help me serve the desserts."


] | [

The Alviss Dining Hall was an interesting building, unsurprising designed as the tallest and central facility on the premises of the Academy of Magic. Food was power in a sense, Mana noted as she walked into the facility, getting a look at the interior at last, taking in the details of the place in which every single mage on the school grounds, students and teachers alike, gathered for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Two levels existed, the lower level for students, while the upper level was reserved for the teaching staff. In the lower section, there were three extremely long tables arranged parallel to each other, each capable of seating over a hundred people. It seemed that the second years—those in black cloaks—were seated at the central table, with the third-years (wearing purple) at the left-hand table, and the first-years wearing brown.

All the tables were magnificently decorated, with numerous candles, bunches of flowers, baskets full of fruit and other adornments that screamed of wealth and luxury.

Amidst these, Mana and Siesta made their way about the hall, bearing with them many dessert cakes on a large silver tray. Siesta carried the tray, while Mana picked up the cakes with tongs and served them one by one to the nobles, an odd arrangement, but not one any of them took a second glance at.

One noble in particular stood out to her as a boorish oaf…or perhaps a self-absorbed fop? In either case, this noble was a second year student with curly blonde hair and a frill-trimmed shirt, who looked rather self-important, with a rose in his chest pocket which he idly fondled now and then.

"So, Guiche! Who're you going out with now?" asked those gathered around the blonde…presumably his friends, though one could never quite be sure. "Who's your lover, Guiche?"

This "Guiche" simply raised a finger to his lips.

"'Go out', you say?" he said to the crowd. "I hold no one woman in such special regard. After all, a rose blooms for the pleasure of many."

Mana wrinkled her nose on hearing the man compare himself to a rose, shaking her head, while Siesta simply ignored it. The maid had come to expect such vanity from nobility, and what they did during their free time wasn't her concern anyway. The duo were just passing by when Guiche twirled about, letting his cape flap around as he pulled the rose from his chest pocket.

Unfortunately, as he did so, something else he had neglected to adequately secure followed, a small glass vial falling from the pocket and kicked away, rolling across Mana's shoe.

Curious as to what it was, she bent down to pick it up, only to see that it was apparently perfume. Looking at it and then to the group of young nobles in the direction it had originated, she thought it was fairly obvious who it belonged to, so she decided to return it.

"Excuse me, sirs," she said, walking up the group with the vial in her hands.

Guiche turned at the sound of an unfamiliar female voice, eyes lighting up at the sight of a new target – someone who wasn't part of the help staff, at least, though he thought he'd seen her before as…

"Ah, you must be Zero's familiar," the blonde noted with his most charming smile. "It's a pleasure to meet a lovely wildflower such as yourself."

"I can't say the same," Mana said drily, as some of Guiche's friends laughed at him. "I simply came to ask if you dropped something?"

At her question, he noticed the phial of perfume in her hands and his look tightened, seeing an opportunity to offload the scent before people started asking questions.

"That vial, is it? I have no need of it," the fop crooned melodramatically. "Take that perfume as a sign of my esteem, mi'lady…consider it a gift."

"Oh, I don't really like—"

"Then it will be a gift for your master…for her first successful cast of a spell," he said winningly, racking his brain for a way to get her to just take the vial away. "Such an occasion deserves something in commemoration, right?"

That Mana could not argue with, so she simply thanked him and walked back to Siesta, intending to head to Louise, so that she might decide what to do with it.

One of Guiche's friends snickered. "Putting the moves on Zero and her familiar, Guiche? Have you no standards at all?"

"Hmph," the blonde sniffed imperiously. "The rose whose beauty brightens the world does not discriminate whose lives it makes more wondrous. It does make a choice who gets to pick and keep it."


] | [

On seeing her familiar walking about the dining hall in the company of a maid, Louise was outraged, intending to barge over and demand to know what she was doing—except that Mana suddenly turned about and walked over to her with an interesting story.

As the pinkette held the perfume vial, looking at how it glinted in the light, she seemed suspicious of the tale. Guiche wouldn't simply give something like this away if he had a choice, not when it was probably…

"If this is meant to be a celebration gift, it's a rather poor one," Louise noted, removing the stopper and taking a sniff, as recognition showed in her eyes. "I don't really like the scent, but why don't you wear it?"

Mana blinked.

"Hm?"

"I don't know what Guiche is up to, but it would be rude for me to simply refuse it, right?" Louise huffed, bent on observing the proprieties of it all. "I could sell it, but that would be rude. I could wear it, but it doesn't suit me…so why not you?"

She held the vial insistently out to the Ryougi, and reluctantly, Mana took it, splashing some of the liquid onto her palm and rubbing onto the pulsepoint of her wrist to test it.

"Hmm…it's not bad, but it doesn't quite fit me, so you keep it for now, Miss Vallière," she noted, stopping up the vial and handing it back to Louise. "Anyway, I'm going to finish helping out and then I will wait for you outside."

"Good…you will join me in class afterwards," Louise intoned, in what was clearly meant to be an order.

Mana just nodded.


] | [

As she was leaving the dining hall after a filling breakfast, a certain second-year student with long blonde hair styled in long drill curls suddenly paused, catching a familiar scent. She stopped in her tracks, turning to the small girl who sat on the steps, reading an oversized book of some kind.

"That can't be…" she whispered, stalking over to Mana and wrenched her by the arm, pulling the familiar of Zero to her feet, with the book falling from her lap to the ground below. The blonde noblewoman jerked the Ryougi's arm up to her nose, sniffing the wrist, her face contorting into a fierce snarl as she confirmed her suspicions.

"I was right…," she said, shoving Mana away from her, causing the smaller girl to stumble backwards onto the open book and slip, landing hard on her rear on the grass. "You! How dare a filthy commoner like you defile my scent, the scent reserved only for me, for Montmorency the Fragrance?"

The temperature seemed to chill as the Ryougi picked herself, looking with dismay at the damaged book, one of the few things she had from home, and then back to the noblewoman—the Montmorency who had pushed her, coming at her accusingly.

"What do you mean, Montmorency the Flood?" Mana inquired, feeling a sharp surge of anger begin to well up from within.

"You know perfectly well what I mean, commoner…or should I say, you filthy thief," the noblewoman accused, glaring at the Ryougi with a hateful look. "Do you know why I'm called Montmorency the Fragrance? It is because I create my own perfumes…and I recognize my own scents."

"Thief?" Mana repeated, her voice growing quieter as she spoke, bending down to pick up her book, "I am no thief, and I would thank you not to make false accusations. It was freely given to Miss Vallière, who wished for me to try the scent."

Montmorency laughed at this, a snippy arrogant sound that the demon hunter found rather annoying, her instincts telling her to silence the foolish mage before her.

""You-you lie! My beloved Guiche would never...not to Zero, and much less to a commoner! …you need to learn respect for your betters, little girl. Perhaps losing something you treasure will teach you not to lie," the blonde noble ranted, pulling out her wand and levitating away the book in Mana's hands, ripping it out of her grasp and sending it into a nearby fountain. "You and your master, since a mage is ultimately responsible for the actions of her familiar…I should have expected nothing less of a talentless Zero—to summon a lying thief."

Mana stiffened at this insult to her, her voice growing deadly quieter as the temperature around the two seemed to plummet.

"Tell me Montmorency 'the Flood,'" the Ryougi whispered, voice barely audible in the morning din. "…does Tristain allow duels?"

"Such a barbaric thing has been outlawed between nobl—"

"—but only between nobles, right? There would be no problem with you fighting a 'commoner', right?" Mana continued, a terrible smile coming over her as she laughed a small laugh. "Then I challenge you to a duel of honor…"

"…what?"

Montmorency could hardly believe the nerve of this little upstart…first to deny her crime when she was obviously guilty, then to challenge her to a duel as if she were the injured party.

"Are you deaf as well as an ignorant fool?" Mana asked in a perfectly reasonable tone of voice. ""I, Mana Ryougi, the heir of the Ryougi Clan, and familiar to Miss Vallière challenge you to a duel…"

Montmorency looked around nervously, seeing that an audience had gathered about the two of them. With everything at stake, the noblewoman had only one option.

"I, Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency, User of water, member of the lineage of old oath, accept your challenge. Come in fifteen minutes to Vestri Court."


] | [

Vestri Court, the central garden between the Wind and Fire elemental towers of the Academy. Being located to the west, the Court didn't receive much sunshine, even in the middle of the day, and so it was the perfect place for a duel, as no one could claim an advantage by making the opponent stand with the sun in their eyes.

In the center of the garden, two people stood opposed to one another, a line-class water mage and the sweet little girl who was called the familiar of Zero, surrounded by those who had heard the rumors that a commoner had challenged a mage—those who wanted to see blood, who wanted to see a commoner put in place.

"So you didn't lose your nerve, little thief…" Montmorency intoned, a puddle of water spread at her feet.

Thirty paces away, Mana stood perfectly still, hands at her sides.

"Did you come to talk…or to fight?" the Ryougi asked, her voice once more barely audible above the murmurs of the crowd. Her expression was disturbingly serene, her body relaxed, as she answered by pulling her skirt aside to reveal the handle of a knife.

Seeing this, Montmorency's expression grew ugly and she drew her wand.

"A weapon…if you wish to die that badly, then so be it."

There were no more words, only action.

In that moment, two things happened: 1) the water in the puddle floated into the air, forming a razor sharp liquid that shot out at Mana like a spear; 2) Mana drew her knife.

A blur of motion, as the watery lance struck for the Ryougi's heart, closing the gap nigh instantly—

Fsh!

—only to shoot past her as Mana ducked low, knife hand trailing behind her as she darted forward with the speed of a meteor, so fast it was a blur, the runes on her left hand glowing.

'Impossible!'

Seeing this, Montmorency backpedaled furiously, attempting to use the whip of water to keep her charging foe at bay, coupled with two icy orbs racing for her with the speed of bullets—

Thud! Thunk!

—but these flashy techniques, while impressive to see, were evaded with the speed of the wind, rendered as nothing before the quick, efficient violence of a Ryougi, as in two steps, the battle was decided.

With a violent elbow to the gut, the water mage doubled over, leaving her vulnerable to a brutal kick sweeping her legs out from under her, a sharp pain registering in her mind as the edge of a knife slashed her wrist open to the bone, her wand falling from her hand as it convulsed in pain, leaving her defenseless.

'What…no no…'

The enemy was upon her, knife pressing against her throat, terrible blue eyes glaring at her, as if seeing into her soul and judging her, finding her wanting. This close, there was no denying the powerful killing intent the younger girl emitted like a harbinger of death. She could feel it, the pain as the knife bit into her skin…just a little more and it would sever her jugular.

"Yield!" she croaked desperately, moments away from death, her bowels and bladder emptying as she lived up to her nickname of 'the flood.'

If there had been any movement, any sound in the courtyard at all, there was none now. The spectators who had come had expected only a spectacle, never believing that any would die, as the age of the coup de grace had passed. They had expected to see a commoner with no common sense be beaten down, exposed for the liar that she was. And then they would see Zero humiliated as well, since the master was responsible for the familiar, after all.

But this…

"Did you say something?" Mana asked sweetly, her voice a gentle caress like a violation, evoking all the wrong things in Montmorency's mind, the knife digging in to the helpless noblewoman's flesh just a hint more.

"Please, I yield!" came a frantic whisper, with the water mage begging, pleading for mercy. "I yield! I yield! I was wrong. I don't want to want to die, please, I don't want to—"

The knife flashed up and down again, slicing through its target as the pleading was brought an end.

Dead silence filled the courtyard now.

A noble had fallen to a commoner. Mercy had been denied.

Many of the students gaped, many more were pale, on the verge of passing out. But none could tear their eyes away, for Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency moved no more, her body resting in a pool of crimson tinged liquid, her broken wand nearby.

They watched as the familiar of Zero rose slowly from the immobile form of her downed enemy, flicked her knife with terrible speed as blood fell from it in a mist, and sheathed her blade, the glow fading from her hand as a thin, cruel smile tugged at the edges of her lips.

"...who are you?" Guiche de Gramont whispered, the question sounding loud as thunder in the deafening silence. "No…what are you?"

The victorious one looked over the watching mob, regarding each of them in turn, but paying particular attention to the fop whose misdirection had caused all this, with each of those she stared at shrinking back in terror from her eerie gaze as she answered, voice clear as a bell.

"Demon Hunter. Mana Ryougi."

RanmaBushiko
April 4th, 2011, 02:42 AM
Hm. I'm not familiar with Kara no Kyoukai, but it's rather well written. Should be interesting to keep an eye on.

alfheimwanderer
April 4th, 2011, 02:45 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/3/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

In the aftermath of the duel between Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency and the 'commoner' named Mana Ryougi, the mob of students stood frozen, rooted in place by shock, terror and disbelief, unable to comprehend what had just happened. A commoner could not have just beaten a mage – that was impossible. That belief was ingrained in the minds of everyone watching – noble or commoner alike – as mastery of magecraft was what set the two apart, with mages having the power to easily crush any commoner who dared oppose them.

To their way of thinking, none of their number (particularly a line-class mage, who was one of the more powerful of them) could be hurt by one without magic, certainly not by a little girl who didn't know her place. Not that a failure to respect her betters was unexpected from the familiar of 'Louise the Zero', a noble who was no proper noble, who was a disgrace to her rank, her family, to the very idea of nobility because she couldn't cast a spell properly if her life depended on it.

They had expected the petulant child to be all bluster and no bite, like her master who reached beyond her station.

And when the familiar had revealed that was armed, they had expected her to die, as it would not do to let a commoner believe she could raise a hand against a noble.

But their expectations were betrayed.

Arrogance had been met not with cowardice but a state of utter calm, as a lethal spell was evaded with ridiculous speed.

Retreat had not been allowed – cut off by the pursuer—and the mage had been disarmed, whimpering in fear on the ground, begging for her life.

A desperate plea for mercy had been answered by a coup de grâce.

The killer rose to her feet with a cruel smile, stating in a deathly whisper that she was a demon hunter, intently regarding those who had expected her to die here with an eerie, hungry gaze as if considering whether or not to end their lives in retribution. In that moment, none of them could move, unable to draw their wands, run away, or even breathe, paralyzed like mice before a snake. And then Mana Ryougi turned on her heel and walked away, with the observers ringing the battlefield falling over each other to get out of her way, scattering in response to a primal fear, unable to suppress nature's impulse to flee from certain death.

One of their own had been struck down by a commoner. Worse, the familiar of Zero, wielding nothing more than a knife, had defeated a line-class mage with contemptuous ease, forcing the other to beg for her life—and then had blithely ignored the cries of surrender as she killed the other in cold blood, shivering with pleasure as she took her opponent's life.

In the numbness that followed, it was understandable that few if any spared a thought for the defeated one, whose bloody body lay unmoving upon the ground. Not that it would have mattered had been shaken from their state of paralysis long enough to try and save her, as none of those who had witnessed the duel were water mages powerful enough to stabilize a patient in critical condition. And even if one had miraculously been in attendance, none would have been carrying the reagents necessary for an advanced healing spell.

Ironically, the only one who might have had a chance would have been Montmorency herself, but given that she was currently unconscious and hemorrhaging out her last drops of lifeblood, she wasn't exactly in a position to do so.

Precious seconds ticked away, like the few remaining beats of the blonde girl's heart, and by the time several teachers arrived at Vestri Court, following up on the rumors of a duel, it was already too late. The duel was long over and students were scattered about in various states of disarray: some simply stood in place, looking at the place where the battle had taken place with thousand-meter stares; some were crying hysterically, tears streaming down faces as bodies trembled, swaying back and forth as if the slightest breeze would topple them; some were hunched over on hands and knees, retching, throwing up of the contents of their breakfast; and three were rocking back and forth, seeing nothing, still in shock, a certain part of their uniforms rather wet.

One of them, Chevreuse the Red Clay, a plump, middle-aged woman in charge of the second years, wearing a purple robe and hat, looked at the tableau of trauma before her with utter disbelief. These were nobles, mages…what could have scared them so badly? Curious, she approached one of the rocking ones, her usually friendly expression hardening as she came close enough to make out the muttering.

"…don't want to die…don't want to die…"

"…no…demon…please, no, don't…no…."

"…Montmorency was…Montmorency was…"

The instructor's eyes widened at what she was hearing, a shudder running down her spine as her students' words began to sink in, particularly the name "Montmorency", the one rumored to be dueling the familiar of the Vallière child. Had something gone wrong? A fatality in student duels these days was all but unheard of, though perhaps if the commoner had been foolish enough to draw a weapon…

"Madam Chevereuse, over here!"

But she didn't have time to wonder for long, as she was summoned by a shout from the other instructors who had come with her to investigate what was going on. The mage rose to her feet, giving a last pitying look at the broken students as she brushed past them—and stopped cold at the sight that awaited her in the middle of the Vestri Court.

A large pool of crimson surrounding a corpse.

Blonde curls, clothing soaked in blood.

Glazed over, sightless eyes that would never see again.

Absolute terror frozen on a pale and youthful face.

One arm splayed out from the body at an unnatural angle, with smooth skin marred by an angry red line from elbow to wrist, flesh carved open to the bone, sleeves matted down in crimson fluid.

A pale neck, with muscles, arteries, veins savagely slashed open – like a permanent second smile.

Even the spinal cord had been severed with chilling precision, and even had she been alive, healing would have been impossible.

But she wasn't.

Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency, user of water, member of the lineage of old oath, heiress of the de Montmorency family, and second year student of the Tristain Academy of Magic, was dead.

'What kind of monster could have done this…?'


] | [

Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière thought that she had seen some rather terrible things in her life, both in the waking world (the taunts and jeers of her classmates, classrooms destroyed by the explosions caused by her failed attempts at spellcasting, animal carcasses hanging on hooks for future roasting) and the dreaming (nightmares of eldritch abominations from beyond the stars, of being killed by her mother because of her incompetence, of terrible, indescribable things vaster than any creature of legend, shapeless congeries of protoplasmic bubbles and pustules of greenish light with thousands of eyes forming and un-forming as they bore down on her, screaming "tekeli-li! tekeli-li! tekeli-li!"), but none of these horrors real and imagined prepared her for the events that had transpired—including her first true glimpse of violence and death.

Earlier, she had been quite angry at her familiar for disobeying her, for daring to question her rights as her master. How dare someone talk back to a noble? More to the point, how dare a simple familiar violate the bounds of propriety by presuming to speak to her as if they were equals, when clearly they were not? Such gall was something that she could not abide, so punishment was in order.

The fact that the young girl she had summoned seemed have a grasp of magical theory only made things worse, since, with all of Louise's failings up to now, knowledge of magical theory was the only thing that she could take any pride in, something that set her apart from any commoner.

That separation was now threatened, and with it her pride – the only thing she was truly hers, as everything else was derived or given to her from her status as the third daughter of the Duke de La Vallière, one of the highest ranking nobles in all of Tristain. But while that status had protected her through all her years of failure as a mage, allowing her to remain at the Academy of Magic long after most would have been dismissed for lack of talent, it did not stop her peers from insulting her, from seeing her as someone who was barely a noble at all, calling her a "Zero."

If the pinkette had been even a dot mage, with what little magic they were capable of, the others would not have picked on her so, because she would have able to defend her honor in a duel, but as it was, she couldn't. In a society where magic was the proof of nobility, she was truly a "zero", helpless as a commoner – and thus was seen only as a victim by everyone around her. Her family's wealth and power couldn't help with that, especially as she feared she would soon be disowned: she had managed to botch the Springtime Familiar Summoning by calling forth a human child with no magic at all.

The only skills this Mana Ryougi had possessed were, by in her own words, being "not bad" with a sword and possessing some knowledge of magecraft.

So what?

Louise had told the insolent girl that she didn't know why Mana been brought forth by 'Summon Servant', but that was a lie. She knew all too well what it meant – the familiar reflected the mage, so the only way the ritual would have called forth a being with no ability to use magic and no elemental affiliation was if the summoner was the same.

Then, just as the pinkette was already feeling bad, her familiar had had the temerity to joke that perhaps Louise's affinity might be to the legendary element: the Void (well, not in so many words, but as there were but five elements, saying that her affinity wasn't to one of the four usual elements could only mean one thing.)

Enraged by the seeming taunt from even her familiar, Louise had stormed off, wishing she could redo the summoning, and perhaps get one more chance…only to know she wouldn't. The most she would be allowed was some time away from the servant.

Things had quieted for a while as the pink haired mage vented her spleen on breakfast, attacking her food with the ferocity of a hungry bear until she was rudely interrupted by the sight of her familiar, who she had explicitly barred from having breakfast. Louise was only slightly mollified by the fact that the Ryougi child was helping out the serving staff, apparently deeming them more worthy of her attention than her own master! And then, just to rub things in, Guiche de Gramont, the notorious skirt-chaser, had mocked her with a "gift" to "celebrate a first successful spell" when he knew damn well that her spell hadn't been successful at all. Recognizing the "gift" as instead a vial of perfume belonging to Montmorency (meaning that the playboy no doubt was hiding the fact that he was dating her for his own reasons), the pinkette would have liked to refuse it, but feared that if things went wrong, Guiche would take her actions as a personal slight and demand satisfaction.

Thus, Louise had tried to give the perfume to her familiar, as a way of belittling the gift that the fop could not readily protest, since a familiar was supposed to be treated as an extension of the master.

She hadn't thought that events would spiral out of control, with Montmorency 'the Flood' accusing Mana of theft, refusing to believe that the perfume was freely given…and Mana in her turn challenging Montmorency 'the Flood' to a duel.

Such a thing…such a thing was outrageous, absurd. There was no way a commoner could win against a mage, and if Mana tried, Louise just knew for a fact that the familiar would die, and that her pride as a Vallière would be broken forever, as that was the compensation Montmorency would force from her: a false admission that she had been jealous and had stolen the perfume.

She would have intervened but for two things: first, she was still incensed at her familiar's earlier action; second, her familiar's icy tone reminded her of how her mother spoke when the former Knight was furious beyond measure, growing quiet and quieter as the intent to kill rose.

Even if she had wanted to, the mob, eager for blood, wouldn't have let her through to beg for mercy, and so Louise de La Vallière was forced to wait on the fringes for the fight's inevitable end, unable to even see what was happening, only to hear the crowd's commotion—replaced by utter silence a moment later, silence in which the sickening sound of flesh being slashed, and a death rattle, resonated all too clearly.

"Oh…dear God…" someone had whispered, throwing up from whatever he had seen.

Then the temperature seemed to plummet at a query from Guiche, with the response consisting of four simple words that none present would ever forget: "Demon Hunter. Mana Ryougi."

Silence fell once again, broken only by light footsteps.

For nearly a minute after that pronouncement, no one moved – no one save Louise, that was, who wove past the frozen bodies of the gathered multitude. To her amazement, no one made a move to stop her, something she didn't understand until she broke through the front row of watcher—and halted, transfixed by the sight of Montmorency's cooling corpse, left behind like trash.

'…what in the world did I summon?'


] | [

In addition to housing the Alviss dining hall spoken of highly by hungry students, the central tower of the Academy also boasted facilities that the student body was much less enthusiastic about, either because they would never be allowed into them (like the treasure vault), because the place was associated with the tedium of schoolwork (the library), or because one was only summoned to them when one was in serious trouble (the teacher's offices, including that of the headmaster, taking up the entirety of the topmost floor of the tower).

Within that highest of offices, Mister Colbert was attempting to explain to Sir Osmond, the current Headmaster of Tristain Magic Academy, his concerns regarding Louise's newly summoned familiar, citing as evidence the runes that had appeared on the young girl's hand…runes of contract identical to those of the legendary familiar Gandálfr, who had served no less a personage than the Founder Brimir.

"The Gandálfr, you say?"

So Osmond echoed, sitting with his elbows propped on his sequoia desk as he intently examined Colbert's sketch of the runes on Mana's left hand, comparing it to the runes recorded in the ancient text titled "The Familiars of the Founder Brimir."

"Yes!" Colbert exclaimed, the scholar hardly able to hide his excitement at the discovery. "The runes that appeared on the girl's left hand are exactly the same as the runes that were inscribed on the legendary familiar!"

"And your conclusion is that because the runes are identical, this girl must be the Gandálfr?" the headmaster intently, stroking his pure white beard and hair.

"The runes of contract are unique to each familiar, so the fact that the runes are identical in this case confirms it, does it not, Old Osmond?"

Colbert wiped his balding head with a handkerchief, as the old man's scrutiny made him uncomfortable. The Headmaster of the Academy was not someone to be trifled with, and little was known about the specifics of his life, only that he had lived for a very long time, and that he was a very powerful mage who did not fear the palace at all. People guessed him to be a hundred years old, even three hundred, but no one knew his true age – not even he, for he was said to have forgotten.

"Mister Colbert, Gandálfr was no ordinary familiar," Sir Osmond noted sternly. "As you may recall, it was created by the Founder for the specific purpose of protecting him during his spell incantations."

"Yes, just so," Colbert agreed, nodding emphatically, fire in his eyes. "Founder Brimir's spells were powerful, but his incantations were especially long, and as you know, mages are most vulnerable while spell casting. Hence the Gandálfr was needed, a familiar capable of annihilating an army of one thousand all by itself – ordinary mages were said to be no match for it!"

The headmaster stood, taking hold of his staff and turning to look out the window at the open sky.

"A question, Mister Colbert."

"Yes, Old Osmond?" the scholar replied, snapping to something much like attention.

"That girl who was summoned, she is just an average commoner, right?" the headmaster asked, shaking his head.

"Yes…," Colbert allowed, a trace of uncertainty crossing his face for the first time since he had entered the office. "No matter how I looked, she was just an average commoner. I even confirmed it with a Detect Magic spell when Miss Vallière initially summoned her…"

"And this commoner is supposed to have the power to defeat an army of a thousand?"

"Well…"

"Miss Vallière must be a very talented mage for you to be so convinced, I take it?" Sir Osmond inquired solicitously, as Colbert winced, as this was a part of his conclusion he admitted was somewhat problematic.

"Actually, one might say she's rather…un-talented..." the flame mage uneasily admitted, frowning now.

"Hrmm…a puzzling duo to be sure," came the response. "So how did an average commoner contracted by an untalented mage become Gandálfr? What an utter paradox. I just can't see where the ends meet."

But before either of them could continue the conversation, there was a knock on the door.

"Who is it?" grumbled the headmaster, disliking interruptions.

From behind the door came the voice of Miss Longueville, the headmaster's personal secretary who had been shooed from the room when the two professors had begun their talk.

"It's me, Old Osmond."

"What is it?"

"Sir, there's…" Miss Longueville hesitated, trying to find the appropriate words. "There's been a situation – a student was found dead in Vestri Court, with a large number of others milling about in shock. It seems as if a duel ended badly."

"Dead?" Mister Colbert inhaled sharply, jerking to his feet in shock. "Who?"

Another pause, distinctly uncomfortable this time.

"The victim is Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency."

"The potions-maker?" the headmaster murmured, mulling over the name. "A prideful little hellion, but talented for her age. Why she would have…do we know who her opponent was?"

"Ah…well…" the secretary trailed off, with Colbert getting the impression that she was biting her lip as she pondered how to word her response.

"Miss Longueville, an answer please."

"From what some of the students have said, it wasn't a mage," she said uneasily, sighing. "The killer was Miss Vallière's familiar, sir. She called herself a demon hunter."

Osmond and Colbert exchanged a look of something like startled surprise, as much at the fact that a line-class mage had been defeated by a commoner as at the title she had claimed for herself, one that had not been uttered seriously since far reaches of history.

Demon hunters were spoken of only in the darkest of legends, men and women from the age of chaos that fought against physical avatars of human nightmares greater and more deadly than any that existed in Halkeginia today, with nothing but courage, wits and cold steel. Terrifying assassins who moved like the wind itself, it was said that they were as death to the supernatural…though any truth held by these ancient yarns had been lost in the six millennia since Founder Brimir brought peace to the continent with the creation of the five elemental magics in use today.

Thus, it would be quite tempting to dismiss the claim as a lie, but considering the circumstances, that was clearly not an option. A student has been killed by a commoner in a duel of honor in front of dozens of witnesses – a full investigation would be necessary, and moreover, the incident would need to be reported to the palace, not something the old man was looking forward to.

"…thank you, Miss Longueville," Old Osmond replied after some moments, clearly troubled. "Please coordinate with the teacher on scene—"

"—Chevreuse the Red Clay—" the secretary helpfully supplied.

To his credit, the headmaster continued without missing a beat.

"—to collect witness statements from the observers," he finished, shoulders sagging as the aging headmaster looked out at the courtyard, shaking his head. "We will need a clear report of what happened, so that we may inform the palace and families of those involved. Cancel all classes for the day."

"And what will you be doing, Old Osmond?"

Osmond turned around, eyeing Colbert speculatively. The younger man met his eye and nodded, as the headmaster grunted, letting out a disgruntled sigh.

"Mr. Colbert and I will question the other…involved party," the man said at last.

'And then we can begin to figure out how to respond to this…there hasn't been a fatality on campus in decades…'


] | [

After being treated to the ghastly sight of the water mage's mangled body, Louise had gone all around the school, looking for her errant familiar, but had been unable to find any trace of the familiar on the grounds. She hadn't returned to the kitchens, wasn't wandering the hallways, hadn't visited the stables to make a getaway, and certainly wasn't in the courtyard—it was as if Mana Ryougi had simply disappeared off the face of the earth (something that Louise was beginning to consider as a possibility, as her familiar obviously had more skill than she had let on). Frustrated, annoyed, and hoping that her familiar hadn't just taken advantage of the chaos caused by Montmorency's death to just leave, she returned to her dorm room to think—only to come to a dead stop in the doorway.

"Oh, Miss Vallière, you're back," a quiet voice came from within the room, with the pinkette blinking as she saw that her familiar was not only in the room, but was had her back to her, with the younger girl rather preoccupied and distinctly unhappy. "And here I thought you were gone for the day."

There was no triumph in the Ryougi's posture, and where she had stood against her enemies like a drawn sword, there was no sense of danger from the younger girl now, only an air of gloom as Mana fiddled with a soaked book sitting in a small basin of water, being very gentle with it as she looked over the damage. Several pages had been torn during the initial altercation with Montmorency, more had been dirtied, scuffed or distorted, some had been ripped off by the water gushing up through the fountain, and even surviving pages of Tears of a Vampire were quite waterlogged.

For most books, this wouldn't have been irrecoverable, but picture books were another story entirely, given that they, much like art books, relied on clay-impregnated paper to print the sharp, clean colors of the pictures within, and when this paper got wet, the clay within leeched to the surface of the paper. Thus, it couldn't be allowed to simply dry, or the clay on each page would bond and turn the book into a solid irrecoverable block.

"Feh, this is disappointing," Mana sighed, disgruntled, turning to look at her master, a certain solemnity in her eyes. "You watched, didn't you?"

Louise swallowed, once more reminded of the corpse laying out in the sun, of the blonde girl who had once been her enemy now dead, never to speak, to smile, to breathe, and all for offending her familiar.

"T-that…out there…" Louise sputtered, finding the contrast in attitude from cold-blooded killer and polite girl-child rather disconcerting. "Just what…"

"Tell me, Miss Vallière," Mana broke in, cutting off the pink-haired mage with a serious look. "Why are you called Louise 'the Zero'?"

"W-what? Y-you don't need to know," the pink-haired mage answered just a little too quickly. "Y-you're just a commoner!"

"And a commoner cannot beat a noble, right? Because 'comparing mages and commoners is like comparing wolves and dogs'?" Mana asked in a not-so-innocent manner, quoting that her master had said hours earlier. "Yet the other nobles don't seem to respect you, as Montmorency referred to you as a talentless Zero…"

Louise stiffened, only by a little, but the Ryougi caught the motion.

"…and you know it, don't you, Miss Vallière?"

"I—what about you!" Louise spat, unnerved and with her back figuratively up against the wall. "You've been lying to me, haven't you, familiar?"

"Hmm? Oh, no, I would never do anything so pointless," Mana dismissed calmly, though she wore the faintest hint of a pout. "More importantly, Miss Vallière, I don't like being called 'familiar.' It makes me feel as if I am only a servant, and it's too formal."

"Y-you…that's what I mean!" Louise said, moving from the door way to enter the room at last, gesticulating wildly. "You don't act anything like what a commoner should, and you…you…"

She broke off, not wanting to make the reality concrete in her mind by saying it out loud.

"Killed?" Mana supplied helpfully, with Louise flinching back at the ease the younger girl spoke the word.

A tense silence descended, as Louise took another step backwards, gathering herself.

"You made me believe you were nothing special, but what happened during that duel?" the pink-haired mage said at last, her words cold and precise. "I know you're not a normal commoner, since a commoner wouldn't have had the nerve to challenge a mage, or the ability to defeat one, much less…much less…"

"Kill one," Mana filled in, seeing that her master was apparently having difficulty confronting what had happened. Not that she was particularly surprised. Most people her age or even a little older would have been – though given how willing her opponent had been to kill, she didn't think that they would be that easily shocked. Had they not learned that the only ones who should kill are those who are willing to be killed?

She was something of an exception, as the heiress of the Ryougi, as like any who qualified to be a future family head, she possessed dual personalities: one male, one female, Mana and MANA – the former used for going through everyday life, while the other was a combat personality, one that was utterly ruthless and lacking in mercy, designed to eliminate one's enemies.

"Y-y-you killed…how can you admit it so easily?" Louise whispered in horror. "…what are you?"

"As I said in the courtyard, I am a demon hunter," the Ryougi answered with finality, eyes flicking to the doorway as the stern figure of Mr. Colbert appeared there. "Ah, I was wondering if someone would show up to question me." She said this rather manner-of-factly, though to his credit, Colbert didn't visibly react, except with a slight nod which served the dual purpose of assessing her as a possible threat.

"Miss Vallière," the man said simply. "Please follow me to the headmaster's office, along with your familiar. As your servant pointed out, we do have some questions regarding the incident this morning, for the both of you."

Seeing no alternative, both complied, one rather more anxious than the other.


] | [

Louise's anxiety wasn't helped by the fact that when the small group entered the office, the stones surrounding the door grew together behind her, sealing the exit. Mana and Louise were led to two chairs in the center of the room, with Mr. Colbert moving quietly behind them with his staff in hand, his posture alert and professional in case action was necessary—or possibly he was there to detect any changes in body language or body temperature indicative of lying.

Obviously, the headmaster was taking things very seriously and wanted to be sure that what had happened in the courtyard would not be repeated in his office. All this made Louise think that there were more than simply questions in mind, given that her familiar had killed a student, and she was the familiar's master, and thereby held responsible for the familiar's actions.

"Miss Vallière, let us begin with you," Old Osmond began, pleasantly enough, if gruffly. "To the best of your recollection, please describe the events leading up to the duel itself."

"It began in the dining hall, sir, when my familiar found a vial of perfume belonging to Guiche de Gramont, who claimed that it was a gift to me—this vial," Louise began, producing the vial of perfume from a pocket in her uniform and placing it on the headmaster's desk, keeping her face from twisting in distaste at the mention of the playboy with great effort. "When I smelled it, I recognized it as belonging to Montmorency the Fragrance, but said nothing, not wanting to provoke an incident."

Mana frowned at this from the seat next to her, eyes hardening slightly, and Louise seemed to shrink in her chair, wondering to herself exactly how firmly the restriction on a familiar being unable to hurt its master was.

"Can you speculate why he would have done such a thing?"

Another question. Innocent enough, but what were they looking for? Or…

"Miss Vallière," Mr. Colbert spoke from behind her, not unkindly. "Please answer the question."

"He claimed it was as a gift for my being able to cast my first…successful spell," the pinkette responded, her voice getting smaller and smaller as she approached the end of the sentence. Failing so often was the great disgrace she bore as "the Zero", and she didn't want to admit it, but at the same time, she couldn't lie either. "But I think it was probably just to get the vial away from the area he was in, since people were likely asking about who he was dating…?"

She looked over to Mana, who nodded, confirming this.

"As I was walking back to Miss Vallière," the Ryougi chimed in. "One of his friends asked if he were 'putting the moves on Zero and her familiar' and further asked if he had no standards at all. We were used."

"Why did you accept it then?" Old Osmond inquired of Louise, his eyes boring into her like those of a hawk watching its prey.

"I…" Louise swallowed, very uncomfortable, beginning to tremble, but not in anger. "I took it because…I took it because I…" Her voice dropped to a very quiet whisper as forced herself to speak. "…because I didn't have a choice."

"Ah…your…lack of practical success in spellcasting," the headmaster stated, as Louise simply nodded, closing her eyes for a moment. "I can see how that would complicate things. And then?"

"I'm not sure what else happened to lead up to the duel," the pinkette answered weakly, opening her eyes once again to look directly at the headmaster. "I simply know that my familiar challenged Montmorency and she accepted."

"I see…then for the record, you didn't order your familiar to kill Miss Montmorency?"

Louise all but fell out of the chair, at the question, horrified that the headmaster would even suggest such a thing.

"No!" The pinkette answered quickly as if stung, rejecting the possibility out of hand, fighting, and not terribly succeeding at steadying herself.

"So you do not have control over your familiar then?"

The pinkette looked frantic, as if she were an animal backed into a corner. On the one hand, admitting that her familiar acted on her own was disgraceful. On the other, if she claimed to have control, then that was tantamount to an admission that she had m-m-murdered Montmorency, someone she was known to be at odds with.

"She is more independent than the usual familiar," Louise allowed, as a compromise between saying one of those unpleasant statements, and saying nothing at all.

"Let us move on then," Old Osmond noted, looking over to the young girl in the other seat – the only human familiar of record. "According to some of the eyewitnesses, your name is Mana Ryougi, correct?"

"Yes, this is so," the demon hunter acknowledged with a slight nod.

"And you were the one who instigated the duel with Miss Montmorency?"

"That is correct."

"Why?"

"While reading outside the Alviss Dining Hall, I was assaulted by Miss Montmorency who accused me of stealing her scent and defiling it," Mana recited, listing what had happened from her point of view, as if reading a textbook. "I was shoved, hit, accused of theft, accused of being a liar when I asked what she meant, not knowing the circumstances. Following that, she destroyed something valuable to me and proceeded to taunt me, calling me a lying thief, and saying that that made me quite appropriate as a familiar of a talentless Zero. Such slights to my honor could not be ignored – so I challenged her."

"Were you aware that duels were prohibited?"

"When I inquired if Tristain allowed duels, Miss Montmorency informed me that this was only between nobles," the Ryougi heiress answered calmly, looking the headmaster in the eyes. "And regardless, she accepted my challenge, specifying a time and location."

"What happened then, from your point of view?"

"I arrived at Vestri Court, where Miss Montmorency was waiting, and showed her that I was armed," Mana recited, though her tone grew much colder as she recalled the next action from MANA's memory. "She immediately tried to kill me, without even announcing the start of the duel, launching a spear of high-pressure water to pierce my heart."

Headmaster Osmond looked quite grave at hearing this, since using lethal spells in a duel was rather out of fashion, to put it lightly. Of course, it was expected that a young noble would have no mercy to an armed commoner, but…

"Go on," he said solemnly, wanting to hear more.

"I dodged the blow, closed the distance, disarmed my enemy and ended her life," Mana said, in a voice so chilling that it was a wonder that the air around her did not freeze.

There was a moment of silence as what she said sank in.

"Some witnesses say that your opponent yielded and was begging for mercy," Osmond noted sharply, gaze sharpening yet again to see how the young girl would do under scrutiny. "And, even so, you still killed her?"

"Yes."

The Ryougi heiress met Old Osmond's gaze unflinchingly, as she had seen a far more terrible stare – one that could see the very death of things. Compared to that, what was an old man's glare?

A silent war of wills was waged…with one demanding more information, and the other refusing to give it until the question was asked. It wasn't a matter of sharing knowledge – since both knew that she would have to share it eventually – it was more of a question of strength and whether or not one would bow to intimidation.

"Why?" Osmond asked, once the familiar proved that she could stay silent as long as he, not caring if it was awkward, or tense.

"She attacked me with a killing blow before officially starting the duel, simply because I was armed," Mana noted dispassionately, leaning forward in her chair. "She did not respect the conventions of a duel, nor did she respect me as an opponent, seeing me only as someone to kill. Why then, should I accept a plea for mercy when it may well be false, when she might arm herself and kill me, after the duel was supposedly over?"

"…you made an example of her," the headmaster breathed, his throat dry at cold-bloodedness involved in the decision to kill.

"The only ones who should be willing to kill, are those who understand death," the demon hunter explained, wanting things to be clear. "She tried to kill me without using the protocol to protect her. She should have been ready for the consequences."

"How did you come to have such a mindset at such a young age?" Osmond inquired, narrowing his eyes. "You can't be more than…"

"10 years old, Headmaster Osmond," Mana quipped, smiling a bit bitterly. "As for how, I'm sure that some mentioned my declaration: I am the heiress to one of the four great Demon Hunter clans in the land I am from, a role I have been trained for since I could walk."

"So you claim, but…"

"I do not claim anything, headmaster," the Ryougi corrected. "I merely am. Believe it or not, I care not."

Another long, drawn-out silence, until—

"Very well, that will be all for now, Miss Vallière, and Miss…Ryougi," the headmaster intoned, leaning back as the tension broke. "I have no further questions at this time, but more may be forthcoming in the future, and I would appreciate your cooperation. Until then, please return to your room and do not leave the Academy without permission."

"Um, Headmaster…what happens now?" Louise found herself asking, rather nervous still.

"Once we finish gathering information, the de Montmorencys, the de Vallières, and the palace will be notified of the incident," Osmond explained simply. "From there it depends on what they will choose to do. You may go."

A short gesture with the headmaster's staff later and the stones that had blocked the entryway reconfigured themselves to their original size, shape and position.

Taking this as her cue, Louise rose to her feet, pale as bone, and bowed shakily to the headmaster. Mana rose with considerably less intimidation, and walked to the door, opening it for the pink-haired mage. Both left the room, though the headmaster waited before their footsteps could no longer be heard in the hallway before closing the door and turning to Colbert, who had stood to the side like a silent sentinel.

"Mr. Colbert, your thoughts?"

"I don't think they're lying. That said, the familiar did kill a student, no matter how she rationalized it," the flame mage answered. "If she is indeed a demon hunter and Gandálfr, that could explain why she was able to defeat a mage so easily but…"

"Let us not report the rebirth of a Gandálfr to the fools at the palace quite yet," Old Osmond cautioned. "If they learn of this incident, they'll cause another unnecessary war. For now, I will assume responsibility of the case – do not discuss the details of the familiar with anyone else. But do spread the word to the instructors to keep an eye on that familiar – her reputation from this duel should be enough to prevent a repeat, but in case..."

"Y-yes! I understand!"

Sir Osmond took hold of his staff and turned to look out the window. He immersed his thoughts in the turmoil that would undoubtedly result from this.

"Mr. Colbert, with all the letters that will undoubtedly be sent out about this incident, we will need to make a public statement, holding someone accountable so the school is not blamed and it would be in poor taste to blame the victim, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, sir."

"Any suggestions? No, in that case… I suppose we will need to take the statement of the idiot son of Gramont before we go any further."

"He's still catatonic, sir."

"When he wakes up then. Miss Montmorency isn't going anywhere."

alfheimwanderer
April 4th, 2011, 04:20 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/4/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

A cool breeze sighed through the courtyard of the Tristain Academy of Magic as if to mark the arrival of the witching hour, when students and staff alike had long gone to bed, trying their best to escape the myriad stresses and pressures of the day within the realm of dreams to varying degrees of success.

For those few who had mastered the art of lucid dreaming, the mental world one could create was like a poor man's marble phantasm, where any possibility, no matter how unlikely, could be realized – where one could be anyone, do anything, go anywhere without restriction or restraint. Most others were not as fortunate, as they were as subject to the whims of chaotic fortune as they were in life, or sometimes were forced to endure much worse, given that unspeakable horrors could arise from one's mind.

Guiche de Gramont, son of General Gramont, and heir to a long tradition of ancestors who had distinguished themselves in combat, was decidedly not one of the lucky ones, for when he collapsed after watching the fateful duel, his mind had been trapped in a loop as he watched Montmorency be killed over and over again, with the demon hunter who killed her doing so in a twisted and crueler manner, while he could do nothing.

Sometimes it would be a merciful death - her throat would be cut or she would be decapitated entirely, losing consciousness almost immediately and not allowed to suffer; sometimes it was worse, with Zero's familiar crushing Montmorency's windpipe and laughing as she suffocated to death, or slicing through Montmorency's chest, cracking open the rib cage and ripping out the still-beating heart, holding it up as an offering to the sun above before she crushed it in her hands, baptizing the ground below with blood; sometimes…those horrors did not bear thinking about.

But each and every time, two things remained constant: The familiar of Zero was smirking with cruel delight as she ended the life of the girl he loved, while Guiche himself could not interfere, could not cry out, could not even weep, paralyzed by horror, shame, nausea—and no small amount of crushing guilt.

Horror because even though he was the heir to a longstanding military tradition, he had never before been exposed to death, and recoiled from it with every fiber of his being, as it sank in that he was not invincible as he liked to believe, that he was merely mortal, like anyone else.

Shame because, as a noble who had had his lover slain by a commoner, he was within his rights to challenge her killer for vengeance – but as a coward, he wouldn't have accepted even had the demon hunter offered battle. Not now, not after seeing what the demon hunter had done to Montmorency, for he knew if he chose to fight there would be no mercy.

Nausea and guilt because Guiche knew that this was his fault, since what provoked the duel in the first place was Montmorency's belief that Zero's familiar had stolen her perfume, when instead, he had given it to the familiar to keep others from finding out who he was dating. As a playboy involved in multiple affairs at once, others discovering physical evidence of his involvement with any one person could lead to disaster, so he had found a convenient way of disposing of it while building his Casanova reputation by honoring Zero and her familiar with the perfume, knowing full well that if they were discovered with it, no one would think he gave it to them.

He had stayed silent when Montmorency confronted the familiar, not correcting her assertion that Mana must have stolen it – and like most, had been amused when the familiar had issued a challenge, since a commoner could not win against a noble. That was a lesson taught to all children since the time they could walk – the lesson of how Founder Brimir had created elemental magic and then set those who could use it above mere commoners.

But then the unthinkable had happened and everything he knew as truth was thrown into question, as Montmorency was killed.

No.

Guiche couldn't believe it at first. He kept expecting Montmorency to just get up, with the familiar having enough humanity in her to offer mercy to someone helpless and begging for her life. But as precious seconds passed, he had felt a shiver of dread as nothing happened.

No.

Then…maybe she had just passed out from fear, or maybe Zero's familiar had just left her barely alive, right? In the case of the latter, surely someone would help her, right? Someone would at least try to save her? But there was no one.

No.

"…who are you?" he found a voice asking, only vaguely aware that it was his own. "No…what are you?"

And then the familiar's lips twisted into something that was only technically a smile, reminding him that when any other animal showed its teeth, it was usually meant as a threat.

Paralyzed, he couldn't move as she blurred into motion, knocking him over, the knife slashing out to—

"AHHHHHH!"

Guiche awakened with a bloodcurdling shriek, hands immediately reaching for his neck to make sure his head had not filed for divorce from his body, breath coming in ragged pants as he fought off a wave of unbridled terror, his body shaking like a leaf in the wind.

Demon Hunter.

It wasn't possible. Demon Hunters weren't real. They couldn't be. Sure there were legends of them, but there just couldn't be any truth to them – they were just imaginary figures used to scare noble children into behaving, right? Because if a child didn't listen, if a child acted like a monster…then they would be killed like one, by evil-shaped foes whose very presence brought a shadow to the world.

For just as mages defied common sense and their abilities elevated them above powerless commoners, demon hunters were death to the supernatural, or so the legends went.

But they didn't really exist…

…right?

…right?

'Wrong. Dead wrong.'


] | [

It was once said that mankind feared the darkness and so lit fires to keep it at bay, and the statement held a great deal of truth in any world, largely because darkness signified the unknown, and nearly all human fears could be traced back to fear of that unknown. This was as true in ancient times as it was today, though most of the dangers one had to contend with in the now posed far less risk of physical harm than those of the past, when much of nature had been beyond human understanding, and instead night was feared as the hour when one's inner demons came to the surface.

During the day, that fleeting span of hours when the sun loomed high in the sky above, humans tended to keep busy in one occupation or another, exhausting themselves so that they would not have to be awake long into the night, left alone with their thoughts. They dared not keep their hands or feet idle, lest they be forced to confront unpleasant realities or brood about past failings, and so shunted these concerns aside to deal with the current situation, with the now, rather than the later, and when that wasn't possible, sought the cold comfort of what dreams might come when one shuffles off the coil of consciousness.

So it was for most at the Tristain Academy of Magic, though not for a silent figure kneeling by a fountain in the corner of the courtyard, head bowed, eyes closed as if in deep thought, two pale hands rubbing themselves together in the flow of water issuing from a carved lion's mouth as if to wash them clean.

'I killed someone…' Mana thought to herself, her long black hair rippling slightly as she shook her head, biting her lower lip as she recalled the events of the morning. Being who she was, the demon hunter was prepared to end a life, though even she hadn't thought that things would end up in this manner. 'And worse, I was angry and off-balance enough to let MANA take control…'

In hindsight, it was an action that might have been avoided, and the girl knew it, though at the time, caught up in the moment…

"Feh…" she sighed, shaking her head slowly, looking at the reflection of two moons on the water, the ruddier of the two shining down, tinting the clear fluid red. "It's a shame that it all turned out like this, isn't it?"

No one answered because no one was around to listen, exactly as she had wished when the young girl had left the room of her "master", ostensibly for training, with the evidence of that being the shinai at her feet. On seeing her enter the courtyard, those who normally used the hours to woo innocent schoolgirls, think, or just make mischief had retreated to safety of their dorms, apparently afraid that if Mana came across them and took offense to their presence, they would die as certainly and messily as Montmorency had. It was almost as if they thought she was some kind of predator who derived joy and pleasure from death – and they'd be half right, since Mana wasn't the sort to do so…but MANA was.

One usually considered the term "inner demon" to be a figurative thing, but it wasn't so in the case of the Ryougi clan, given that within each of them was a second personality, one which trained and honed specifically in the art of killing, a combat mindset that one could switch to if necessary. Normally, this second personality was kept in check by the primary, with both experiencing the same things, interpreting them, and firmly under control, but the shock of being summoned to a new world, on top of everything else, had thrown the balance off kilter.

After discovering that she was to serve as a mage's familiar (which she found quite unusual, given how rare it was for humans to be made familiars due to a number of issues), the Ryougi heiress had been doing her best to adapt, exploring the boundaries of her role and trying to gather information as best she could. The knowledge that her mother had been sent to other worlds in the past, and had come back unscathed, helped her to deal with anxiety as she interacted with others, observed others as they went about their tasks, and even helped out a little bit, in order to repay a favor.

She hadn't expected someone to just walk up to her, jerk her to her feet, slap her around and offer her much abuse. No one would have dared to do such a thing in the world she came from, where it was usually considered polite to at least give people the benefit of the doubt, especially when there was no evidence to the contrary…especially when it involved the daughter of a terrifying mob boss. Mana had simply been sitting on the steps of the Alviss Dining Hall, reading her book and waiting for Miss Vallière to show up when she had suddenly been attacked by a rude blonde noble. She had not been allowed to defend herself as the other continued her unprovoked assault, verbal and otherwise, culminating in the destruction of her favorite book – one of the last things she had from her home world. This Montmorency had accused her of being a thief, and yet in the process had stolen and destroyed Mana's property, as if the noble had any right to do such a thing.

From her lessons, Mana saw nobility as very much like the Mob, in how it had started (with a powerful thug or pack of thugs extorting money from defenseless peasants so that they didn't have to toil themselves), how it had evolved into patchworks of territories and hierarchies (to "protect" their interests from those of other "nobles"), and in the importance individuals belonging to the organization put in personal honor.

There was also the minor quibble that as the daughter of the boss of Mifune, someone presuming to just question her integrity like that was something that the Ryougi heiress just wouldn't put up with – even if she was in a different world where she was a familiar, there were still limits to what one could endure. So, seeing as "nobles" made up a large proportion of society, and that dueling was fairly common in the times when nobles dominated in history, she had inquired if the country allowed duels, and when the other mentioned that it was technically not disallowed between anything other than two nobles currently, she had issued a challenge.

When the other had tried to kill her, MANA took over as part of the Ryougi's self-preservation instinct, and the combat personality's already ruthless tendencies had been bolstered by the runes inscribed on her, leading to the death of the other by MANA's hands. Mana would most likely have been satisfied with the surrender and the public admission that Montmorency had been wrong and just knocked her out, but with MANA's influence heightened by the runes on her hand…the surrender was rejected.

Mana had regained control sometime between the duel and her encounter with Miss Vallière, but by then, the killing was a fait accompli, and there was nothing to be done but project an air of strength—giving the impression that she had known exactly what she was doing when she killed the water mage, not allowing others to witness any regrets she might have, any remorse, any guilt at all.

Not the authorities, who were no doubt on their way to question her, nor Miss Vallière, who needed to know that the one she had summoned was not a simple commoner, nor anyone else who might threaten her. That would be seen as weakness, and in a society where only strength and ability were respected, an admission of weakness could be quite lethal.

As Machiavelli had once written in The Prince, it was "far safer to be feared than loved" if one could not be both – and Mana had no illusions that others would love her for killing one of their own. So instead, she would stay strong, justifying what MANA had done and using it as a tool. She would not bend, she would not bow…

…until she was alone, and no one could see her cry, away from the prying eyes of others.


] | [

Quiet footsteps marred the silence of the night as a cloaked figure walked the ramparts of the castle that comprised the Academy, smirking as she ruminated on the cruelty of nobles and the irony of how fearful they could be when someone took away what was precious to them, whether it be their lives, as the self-styled demon hunter Mana Ryougi had done, or their possessions, as the notorious mage thief named Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt was known to do.

A low, throaty chuckle escaped her lips as the woman recalled the uproar left in the wake of her previous burglaries, to her, most nobles were complacent fools who didn't expect anything untoward to happen to them, yet found it fair to deal cruelty onto others, even those who served them.

Fouquet was not blind to their abuses, after all, and even amongst the students of this magical academy of, she could already see their petty natures playing out, one generation after another. Not that she really cared about the pampered youth of Halkeginia when she knew what would happen to them, what their attitudes would be like, how this utterly corrupt society would shape them over time, until they became as vile as those that had preceded them.

Her long green hair swayed in the midnight wind, and she moved along, continuing her surveillance of the school, openly showing the figure that struck fear in all the nobles of Tristain. Not that any knew her as anything other than Miss Longueville, secretary to Old Osmond.

'Nobles…so easy to manipulate once you touch upon their weaknesses,' the mage thief thought to herself, remembering the scene that had played out when she had convinced the headmaster of the Academy to hire her. 'The old man's is lechery, specifically, caressing the bodies of young women. Learning this, I became a waitress in a tavern he frequented and simply waited for him to approach like a spider luring a fly. A little wine, a little touching, a little flattery, and as he hired me as his secretary, giving me a wonderful cover identity.'

It was hardly the first time that she had infiltrated a place, since she had stolen from the national bank, the treasure vaults of powerful nobles, powerful businesses and other such that believed that they were invulnerable either due to heavy security or simply the fact that no one had broken in before. One of her few pleasures in life was proving them wrong, either sneaking in and using alchemy to turn walls into the "crumbling dirt" from which she received her runic name, or simply using brute force to break in, with a giant golem smashing aside mage guards and shattering castle walls, letting her seize her prizes in broad daylight – usually treasures and artifacts of great magical power.

'Fools really…they don't expect to be attacked, and so they leave themselves vulnerable. Thinking that they have any right at all, when it is people like them who everything away from me…'

A decade ago, even five years ago, she would not have believed as she did, but things had been far different then, when she had gone by a different name and life was happier. As Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha, the daughter of a duke loyally serving the Grand Duke of Albion, the man who was the royal treasurer, life had been pleasant enough for her until the day the King turned on the Grand Duchy, sending the royal army to annex the lands and kill the nobles within.

Her family had mobilized its forces to resist the invasion, each of the duchy's soldiers fighting with desperation, but it had been no use, as the King of Albion's army had simply rolled over them, crushing the defenders and proceeding to kill off every man, woman and child they could find, indulging themselves in excesses of butchery, rapine, and rape.

If she closed her eyes, Fouquet could still remember the screams, could still smell smoke and fear on the wind as the savages had their way. Fortunes that had taken lifetimes to accrue were carried off, homes and villages put to the torch, and women—even young girls no older than 8, were raped to death in the streets by the so-called "noble" soldiers, who took pleasure in destroying the lives that so many had labored to build up, the lives of those who had just wanted to be left alone.

Her father and the Grand Duke had both been more than fair to those within their territories, respecting the laws equally for noble and commoner—and then the King's army had destroyed everything. Anyone who could not hide died that day – and some of those who hid were discovered by soldiers looking for a bit of fun, and they suffered even worse fates, humiliated and used as playthings over and over and over again until they collapsed from exhaustion…and then they were killed.

Hundreds died, with some decapitated, some pierced through the gut, some burned to death, some buried alive, some impaled with great prejudice as they sought only to survive. And to survive, she had had to kill as well, using one of her golems to smash men to a plup, splattering them against walls, or in one case, choke the life out of a man with her bare hands after reducing his armor and weapons to dust with her alchemy.

In the end, she escaped with her life as a few others did, fleeing with some of the other orphans of Saxe-Gotha into the woods, where the royal army dared not follow, because they were at a disadvantage when their enemy could lay traps. Instead, the army took possession of everything else that remained – including her family's estate, wealth, and title, with the King charging her family with treason ex post facto to justify murdering them in cold blood.

Generations of faithful service to the royal family had been repaid by betrayal.

That day, Mathilda had died in everything but name, her former self left behind. She was no longer a noble, no longer a loyal servitor of the Crown, but a free agent, one who take her revenge in another way, by stealing away what the hateful, corrupt nobles valued most.

Still, she wasn't completely heartless, as the money from her thefts funded the operation of the village of Westwood, an orphanage set up in those woods where she and the other survivors had hidden, a small village for those who had lost their families in war, watched over by the bastard half-elf child of the Grand Duke and his mistress, a young one who also lost her family on that day. A child who saw the mage-thief as an older sister, while she in her turn saw the half-elf as a daughter.

'And every time I think of them, I am reminded of how cruel nobles can be…and why I would like nothing more than to see the downfall of the monarchies of Halkeginia…'

In her opinion, the heiress of the de Montmorencys, a vain and spiteful young noble, had gotten exactly what she deserved at the hands of the alleged demon hunter. Frankly, the girl who killed her was far more interesting to Fouquet, since it was unheard of for a human to be summoned as a familiar.

'Black hair and strange features…she's not from this land, is she?'

That was why Fouquet, as Miss Longueville, had volunteered to take watch tonight – something that Mr. Colbert appreciated a great deal…though not yet enough to tell her the secret of the treasure vault. The thief wanted to know more about this girl who had not only killed a noble, but had done so in such a way that had left the rest of the students in fear of their lives.

And yet, from looking at this Mana Ryougi, all Fouquet could see was a little girl kneeling by the edge of a fountain, listless, quiet, shaking her head and she rubbing her hands under the water. The demon hunter really didn't seem to be the murderous sort, and really, reminded her of…well, her, the first time she had killed someone.

"Well, I suppose a closer look couldn't hurt..."


] | [

Mana stiffened in place as an indiscernible something hummed in the air, with the Ryougi heiress rising to her feet and turning about to see a black-robed figure float down from the rampart to touch down on the ground nearby—a woman in her early to mid-twenties from the look of it, with long green hair fluttering in the wind and amber eyes that caught the light of the moon. With a glance she could tell that this woman was dangerous, as she gave off an air similar to that of the Ryougi heiress' "Aunt Fujino" (at least her "aunt" in that that she was Azaka's companion), an air of sharp elegance masking a restrained power, all mixed with the scent of rain on dry earth.

"Ah, stand down, child," the mysterious woman greeted in a rich velvety voice, her wand by her side. "Were I your enemy, you would already be dead."

"Somehow I doubt that," Mana stated baldly, calculating how quickly she could close the distance between them if necessary. Forty paces…only a second or two with the enhancement of the runes. "I am not as helpless as you might believe."

"Heh, how very serious you are," the mysterious woman greeted in a rich velvety voice, an odd expression on her face that could best be described as mingled amusement and curiosity. "So you are the demon hunter that has frightened so many…a rather small girl for such a large uproar…"

"You have me at a disadvantage, it seems," the Ryougi said evenly, meeting the other's gaze, her body tensing subtly just in case action was required. "Though you don't seem like a student."

A chuckle as the woman eyed the demon hunter, and then sheathed her wand, showing her empty hands.

"I suppose that is a polite way of noting my age," Fouquet said nonchalantly, looking between the fountain and the young girl as she took a step forward. "But you are correct – I'm not a student. What's more, even though I'm a magician, I'm not a noble."

"Oh?" Mana asked, curious, not quite letting down her guard, and not stepping back, either. "Then what are you?"

"Hm…a wary one, I like that," Fouquet noted, seemingly pleased. "As for me, child, I am but a wanderer. A long time ago, I lost my place to return to."

"I see," Mana said after a moment, nodding. Then her eyes narrowed as she looked at this other woman. "And what is your interest in me?"

The woman chuckled softly, a serene smile stealing its way across her lips.

"Such a curious child – you've been trained in how to fight, haven't you?" Fouquet voiced off-handedly, though her voice grew more somber a moment later. "Tell me then, are you really a demon hunter?"

"What of it?" Mana asked simply.

"Then this was your first time taking a human life, wasn't it?"

The Ryougi's eyes widened momentarily at this question that cut to the quick, a fleeting tell, but enough of one for the mage-thief to confirm the truth of her words.

"Don't be surprised, dear child," the other said in somewhat more sympathetic tones. "I know the signs, as I what I looked like after my first time, when I too had to defend myself from terrible foes, long before I started down this path."

"Oh? And what path might that be?" Mana inquired, wondering why this mage was here at all, though Fouquet didn't answer immediately, instead looking up at the moon. "A thief in the night?"

'Heh…she's a little too perceptive for her own good…'

The green-haired mage's laughter was full of genuine mirth this time, as she hadn't expected to be called out on her occupation. Even so…

"The path of a traveler doing odd jobs, earning money to support a village of orphans," the other spoke, bowing slightly to the younger girl. "But then, I am hardly the only one a long way from home, am I, dear demon hunter? The name is Mathilda. Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha."

It was the name of a life she no longer used, but it was still her name, nonetheless.

In response, Mana stepped forward and curtsied elegantly.

"Mine is Mana. Mana Ryougi, ma'am," the demon hunter replied, though her lips took on a more crooked smile. "And while you may be right, you never did say what your interest in me was."

The wind blew about the two, rustling their dark garments as they stood under twin moons.

"You remind me of someone, that's all," the self-named Mathilda said, gesturing to the bench by the fountain. "May I join you then, Miss Ryougi?"

"I suppose I can't stop you if you wish," the Ryougi stated simply, turning to pick up her shinai and lean it against the wall. "But I will ask why."

A sigh.

"…I simply thought that two travelers in a strange land might have a talk away from prying eyes," Fouquet voiced simply, half-shrugging. "I admit I am curious about you, as you are probably curious about this land, are you not? And no one should have to sit at a fountain, washing away their guilt alone…such sorrows are best shared."

Mana raised an eyebrow, as…

Another chuckle.

"No need to worry – no one else will ever hear of this – my word on it," Mathilda promised, "Certainly not from me, and not from any other, if I can help it."

Slowly, in a non-threatening fashion, she touched her wand and cast a spell of silence around the area to prevent eavesdroppers from hearing anything.

"…I suppose can agree to that much," Mana whispered, a brittle smile gracing her features for just a moment at the kind and generous offer. She couldn't quite understand why, but she supposed she could work it out eventually. "…and thank you."

High above, in the cold night air, a rhyme dragon and its rider flew, surveying the world below.


] | [

As had been the case on the night after summoning her familiar, Louise de La Vallière found herself one more unable to fall asleep, just as confused as before about what she'd gotten herself into by summoning a familiar like this – only this time, she wasn't worried about being disowned by her family, regarded as a failure by her peers, or the fact that her familiar seemed to understand magecraft as well as she.

In the very beginning, when she had called forth this strange commoner from a distant land, the pinkette had despaired, believing that yet another of her spells had gone awry, resulting in her snatching up a child of all things – a human child without any ability to use magic at all. Seeing this, her classmates had laughed uproariously, jeered, insulted her – and Mr. Colbert had done nothing to stop them at first, only intervening when Louise replied to the verbal abuse with some of harsh words of her own.

Louise wasn't sure if the teachers were aware of how they acted, but in only saying that nobles should be better mannered towards one another after she tried to defend herself, they were essentially giving the others carte blanche to push her around, restricting even her right to defend herself from her classmates' slanders and accusations, forcing her to endure their taunts, their abuses, their laughter every moment she was awake, as her classmates walked by, giving her derisive looks, taking every opportunity to put her down for their own amusement.

'Well…they most certainly aren't laughing now, are they?' a dark part of her mind gloated, recalling how all of those who had come across her after the incident went out of their way to avoid her, apparently fearing that if the 'Zero' took offense, she would sic her familiar on them, cackling with dark delight as her enemies were cut down one after another, and blood ran in rivers, until the third daughter of the Vallière family stood atop a mountain of corpses, looking down at the world that had mocked her for so long, laughing all the while.

Louise quickly quashed that line of thought before it could bear too much fruit, given that in truth, she didn't want to kill her classmates. While it was true that she hadn't much liked Montmorency, and had in her darker moments, wished that the annoying blond would die a horrible death, she had never expected that it would actually happen, much less by a commoner's hand.

Not that her familiar acted anything like a commoner should, much less a servant summoned by a sacred rite. Commoners obeyed the whims of nobles because they were afraid of the magic even a noble child could wield. Their only possible defense against this fearsome power was to keep their heads down and not draw attention to themselves, for most nobles did not deign the lower born worthy of their notice. Familiars as well were supposed to be obedient, with only limited amounts of free will allowed to them—though Louise grudgingly admitted that since no one had ever summoned a human as a familiar, it was impossible know exactly what to expect.

Dragons, griffins, and manticores all had acted with much more autonomy than frogs or cats or moles after all, but where did a human lie on that scale, a commoner who refused to be cowed by a noble, whose actions and attitude demanded respect on her own terms. A commoner who was unlike any other she knew, for where others feared the magic that nobles could command, Mana had simply faced down her attacker without fear – and then had proved this to be more than just bravado when she simply forced her opponent to begged for her life much as Louise imagined that a commoner might when confronted by a noble's wrath, before striking her down without a trace of remorse.

Small wonder, then, that most of the student population was now quite terrified of Louise, or more so, her familiar, an existence that, not fitting into the standard framework, they could not comprehend or reason with – for no one could reason with death.

The pinkette shivered, pulling her sheets into a protective cocoon around her to ward off a sudden chill as she remembered how her familiar had spoken of the deed with great ease, casually rebuffing Louise's attempts to retake control of the situation, much less Headmaster Osmond's, explaining exactly why she had chosen to kill her enemy rather than accepting her surrender. Because it was quickly apparent that in Mana's eyes, Montmorency had not been a helpless girl, but an enemy that had shown herself capable of striking a killing blow—and thus she had been killed, decisively ending any present or future threat from the blonde.

Having had some time to think Louise understood why Montmorency had acted as she did, given that the blonde had already been highly agitated from Mana's attempts to defend herself verbally even before the familiar had thrown down the gauntlet, offering a challenge that Montmorency could not refuse without the stain of cowardice and dishonor, even if she thought of dueling as a barbaric custom. The water mage had not had a choice in the matter, as by custom, to refuse a duel meant offering a public apology, admitting that she had been wrong. Her pride and vanity had not allowed it, as it would have led to her losing a great deal of the student body's respect. And then on top of everything else, when Mana had revealed that she was armed, daring to bring a weapon into a noble's presence, that had been the last straw for Montmorency, who had lashed out with a killing blow in a moment of anger.

Alas, when the initial exchange was finished, it was not Louise's familiar, but the water mage who was laid low and then executed – something frowned on in this day and age, but still legally acceptable for a duelist, as those who entered duels tacitly agreed to risk of loss to life and limb. Legally, there was no fault with her familiar's actions, as ruthless as they were.

Louise had the quite cynical thought that this was why the Academy had chosen not to get involved beyond gather information and issuing reports to the appropriate parties, since when there wasn't someone clearly in the wrong from a legal point of view, it was generally wise for a party as neutral to noble politics as the Academy claimed to be to stay out of politically delicate situations.

And a delicate one it was, given that in Mana's role as a familiar, longstanding tradition regarded the younger girl as an extension of Louise in the eyes of the law. As such, since Montmorency had been the sole heiress to the de Montmorency family, this was a conflict that could well pit the Vallière family - one of the wealthiest and most influential families in all of Tristain – against the de Montmorencys, a noble house that had fallen from its peak of glory, a family whose financial and political failings has lost it most of the influence it had held – including the sole right to negotiate with the Water Spirit of Ragdorian Lake, that which had first given it power, as controlling access to a rare resource generally did.

Simply put, it wasn't a clear cut case at all, and what happened later would depend on what both families – and the palace—chose to do…a prospect that made Louise curl up in fear, as she didn't know how her mother was going to react to all this.

Even so…

'…a demon hunter?'

Louise wondered now how and why such a being had appeared in her summoning circle, a young girl who had seemed sweet and innocent until she demonstrated the utter ruthlessness that her kind was remembered for in legends passed down in whispers, legends of beings more terrifying any magical beasts that existed today – even dragons, griffins, or manticores, because those were the least of what demon hunters had fought in times long forgotten.

Frankly, it was something impossible – as ludicrous as if she'd managed to summon an elf, one of those who commanded Ancient Magic of power and divine mystery far exceeding the more recent Elemental Magics used by nobles. For an idea of how ludicrous this was, common Halkeginian military doctrine regarding elves was rather simple: if one was in command of an army and had evidence that one might be facing an elf, there were standing orders in place that called for immediate withdrawal.

For her, a 'Zero', to have been able to bring forth such a being was not only impossible, but as far beyond the bounds of possibility as one could imagine. Someone with no magical talent, who in a society that valued strength might as well have been a powerless corpse pretending to be alive, just couldn't have accomplished something on that scale, something that not even her rival Kirche, a fearsome Triangle-class mage, had not been able to do.

She was not strong. She knew it because everyone told her that – from the lowest dot-mage to her own mother, who sometimes looked at her as if she were trash playing at being a noble. She knew it because she had lived and breathed as a failure every day of her life

Yet she had done the impossible, and by sacred tradition, a familiar reflected the affinity and ability of the mage who summoned it, which amidst all the violence and shock gave her an irrational glimmer of hope.

Louise gritted her teeth, knowing that as a Vallière, she was made of sterner stuff than this. For her to be scared of her familiar…well, there was some justification for it, but what kind of mage would she be if she couldn't face down these fears?

She would talk to her familia—to Mana tomorrow, and find out more about the girl, seeing as they hadn't gotten off to the best start. And maybe—just maybe, she would be able to get some answers before she had to face her family.

In the end, just before she drifted off, a tiny smile curved its way across her lips.

'Maybe I'm not just a "Zero" after all…'

Kieran
April 4th, 2011, 07:58 PM
I regret having never gotten around to this on the old board - but wow! Am I appreciating it now! :)

Zeranion
April 4th, 2011, 08:02 PM
It is a good story. Though I've already talked to Alfheim via Fanfiction.net reviews. The story just keeps getting more and more interesting. *grins*

alfheimwanderer
April 4th, 2011, 11:24 PM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/5/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

A new day came all too soon to the Tristain Academy of Magic, the errant rays of the sun streaming through open windows and corridors to provide illumination for those who rose to meet it, preparing themselves for their manifold tasks of the day. Most of these were servants, commoners who were accustomed to waking with the dawn to preserve the hours of light in which they might perform their duties, though there was at least one faculty member who stirred with them.

To his students, Professor Jean Colbert was a very strange man – the very picture of a bumbling academic who did not understand the true power that magic afforded, a noble who did not believe in war, as if refuting the point of fire magic, rejecting its purpose. Instead, the balding middle-aged man would often be seen bumbling in his laboratory, tinkering with one mechanical contraption or another, inventions that no one else understood or believed in, marking him as—at the least—an eccentric.

This was part of why Colbert was such a lonely man, and indeed, had been alone for the last twenty years, with no one bothering to approach the odd one at all, for as in most societies, those who stood out tended to be ostracized in public life.

'Another morning,' the fire mage observed, letting out a heavy sigh as he opened his eyes. 'Once more the sky burns…'

The balding man gritted his teeth, jaw tightening as memories of twenty years ago flooded once more into his mind, memories of walking out of a hell wrought by human hands, a village blazing with sheets of flame, fire glowing a grotesque red-orange that reminded him of the many who had pled for mercy, who had looked at him wishing to be saved—pleas he ignored as their bodies burned to ash, the constant sizzling of fat and flesh punctuated now and then by cries of indescribable agony from those who could not escape.

There was no coherence in those garbled screams, no real value, and so at the time he had discarded them as meaningless, as he could not pay attention to such things if he wished to complete his mission.

Twenty years ago, Jean Colbert had not been a professor of magic, entrusted with instructing noble children in thaumaturgy – nor would he have been someone anyone would have entrusted with handling the instruction of children. Indeed, his former subordinates would have been shocked to find him in his current role, for at that time, the man had not entertained any inklings of pacifism, believing that fire magic's purpose was death and destruction—a purpose he had embraced as his own like the flames he wielded.

Ironically for a flame mage, he was not known as a passionate man, but a cold killer, a man without feelings, a reptile who cared not for something as trivial as a single life – hence he had been given the runic name of Flame Snake, and feared by those who knew of him as a ruthless assassin, capable of doing whatever was necessary to serve the greater good. For in those years, Jean Colbert had been a weapon for the Kingdom of Tristain, and weapons did not regret the purpose for which they were forged. Deaths were necessary to preserve the greater good, and so he killed his emotions, putting aside human feeling to become the merciless assassin that his kingdom needed, a machine who killed one to save ten, killed ten to save a hundred, killed a hundred to save a thousand.

For his ability and dedication to the path of 'justice', he had been given command of the innocuously named "Magical Research Experimental Group," which was in reality a black operations team composed of low-class nobles of great power and ability, tasked with carrying out objectives too…unsavory for the involvement of the government to be publicly known.

Executing criminals too dangerous to be brought to trial – using them as subjects in experiments on how attack magic affected the bodies of its victims, helping mages to learn how spells might be "tuned" for greater efficiency in killing or disabling a foe; researching how much damage was done (both to structures and human beings) when area magic was used; assassination of politically troublesome nobles, extermination of rioting gangs, the wholesale destruction of villages to contain plagues.

All these he did and more in the service of his country, in the process refining his abilities beyond that of most mages. When given a mission, he fulfilled it, never questioning his orders, simply obeying as he was trained to. One followed orders – this was the rule of steel, the rule of discipline to which he had been trained.

It did not matter who the target was, what his orders were. Whether he was told to capture or kill, to lay waste or save, he never failed to complete his objectives, appearing on the site of potential disasters in order to eliminate threats to those he served, not bounded by moral values such as good and evil.

Whether women or children, noble or commoner, he eradicated them all without a care, manipulating a flame like a tornado to return all in his path to the dust from which they were formed, commanding a sea of flames with utter ease.

And to him, these flames were beautiful, flickering tongues of destruction that he alone could bend to his will, especially when his objectives were near the sea and in the night, the ocean reflected the firelight, turning the sky itself red before morning.

The mage swung his legs out of bed and rose to his feet with practiced efficiency, walking over to the window and looking at the sun.

'A sight I do not deserve to see…'

For on his last operation, he learned of just how thoroughly he and his troops had been used, of how flawed his ideal of justice was. The Magical Research Experimental Group had been tasked with destroying a settlement called D'Angleterre, a lonely and poor village that had been granted autonomy from the rest of Tristain—a village that he had been told harbored a deadly plague, with the situation having gone out of control.

Captain Jean Colbert had taken it upon himself to execute this order, setting the entire village aflame with one powerful spell that he knew none would survive. The needs of the many outweighed the needs of the few after all, and a plague could not be allowed to spread unchecked across Tristain, lest his nation be ravaged.

He had congratulated himself on a job well done until, after having set the village aflame, some of his subordinates reported that there was no sign of the plague at all…that a town of people who had simply been living out their lives had been wiped out for no reason. Wiped out by his hand, no less, by a flame he had enhanced and refined through experiments to be lethal to all who it touched.

So that cold man, the Flame Snake himself, had charged into the inferno of his own making, unheeding of his own safety as he desperately sought someone, anyone that he could save from death to in some way make up for this mistake. For the extermination of this village hadn't been justice – it had been murder of the coldest sort. At last he found someone – a little girl who was on the verge of dying from her burns—and he saved her, carrying her to safety, paying for her treatments—and promising himself that he would find out why this terrible mistake had been made.

Later, Colbert had gone through the royal archives, looking over the records of his unit's operations, and there he discovered the truth: the plague had merely been an excuse – D'Angleterre had been destroyed because it had protected a refugee from the Holy Empire of Romalia, a woman who had escaped the "New Religion Hunt" ordered by the Pope of the Holy Church. In this it was justified, as the settlement built by poor immigrants from Albion had been granted the right of self-government by the Kings of Tristain, so they could not simply be ordered to turn over the refugee.

Instead, Tristain had taken the opportunity to rid itself of an eyesore and gain favor from the Romalian government by killing every last man, woman, and child there, making an example of them so that the meddlesome region with had plagued them for so long would be no more—and no others would dare try to emulate it.

D'Angleterre, a village which had only wanted to be left alone, had been marked for destruction—and he had been the instrument.

He had been tempted to vomit there and then, as the scent of burning flesh, the sickly sweet stench of death that he remembered from that day rose unbidden in his nostrils, but having discovered one great lie, Colbert forced himself instead to look further into the classified records he was studying to ferret out if any of the other justifications he had been given were lies—or if in fact, all of them were lies.

Page after page, scroll after scroll he examined, freezing down to his very marrow as he read the details and analyses of his unit's activities, the words recounting murder after murder, atrocity upon atrocity – nobles murdered for the gains of others, commoner mobs massacred for no reason that they wished relief from crop failures, criminals used in experiments that were not truly criminals at all – merely those who had displeased the ruling powers, and then on top of that, the elimination of religious "heretics" to please the Church and the palace nobles that governed Tristain.

'A lie', he had thought. 'It has to be a lie…'

But it wasn't, and realizing this, the power had gone out of him, strength fleeing his hands, staff clattering to the floor, slipping from nerveless fingers as he who had been mighty looked upon his works and despaired.

For he was a greater criminal than any he had killed, deserved torments far worse than any they had received. Innocent men, women, children – the Flame Snake had burned them all, ending their lives as coldly and casually as most ended sentences. True, he had only been following orders, but…

'…that is no true defense.'

And so he had vomited.

To his credit, he tried to stop, but his stomach twisted violently inside his body, refusing any resistance, retching as bile, acid, and fragments of half-digested food spilled from his lips, the smell of it thick, pungent, and disgusting.

Throughout his time of service, Colbert had been so assured of the rightness of his cause that the man had never questioned his superiors at all, believing that knew what was best for Tristain, until the day he learned of the magnitude of the sins he bore. Now he knew. Ignorance truly had been bliss…

When he had collected himself, the fire mage had simply removed any mention of him from the list of commanders of the Magical Research Experimental Group and resigned his commission, leaving the army for good. On that day, he swore an oath not to use Fire for destruction ever again, becoming a teacher that he might protect the youth of Tristain from going down that dark road, dissuade those foolish enough to follow in his footsteps, any who might unwittingly become war criminals, guilty of things that most could not even begin to imagine.

'And now a student of mine is dead…'

Another life on his conscience, another splash of blood on an already stained soul. It was his fault in the end, for his student had not learned not to strike out in anger, not to attempt to kill. And true, he was saddened, even disappointed by what Miss Vallière's familiar had done, but he could not blame the young girl for it, not when her logic was perfectly sound. It was a tragedy, sure enough, but perhaps it was one he should have anticipated.

A familiar reflected its master, after all, and though he himself did not understand human emotions too well as someone who was fundamentally broken, it stood to reason that Miss Vallière might have a great deal of pent up anger and frustration from the teasing and mocking she had endured. He himself had not been able to help the one they called 'Zero', who had been treated as worthless, but now had summoned the Gandalfr—the familiar charged with defending Brimir.

'Under the circumstances, could she be a void mage?'

It was admittedly something he had never considered prior to the pinkette having summoned the Gandalfr, as Colbert had simply thought her a hard working, but untalented mage. And why not? There had been no record of a Void Mage existing since the time of the Founder himself, the one who had brought peace to Halkeginia, and in six millennia, who knew what facts had been distorted. Even a millennia was long enough for fact to become distorted beyond any measure, truth turning to legend, legend into myths, myths into the dust of ages.

Either way, his duty now was to protect what students remained—what had happened had happened, there could be no denying that. And perhaps the death of one of their own would remind his students that arrogance had a price of its own in a way far more effective than he had ever been able to manage in his lessons.

The professor grimaced at this, his eyes drawn for a moment to the ring on his finger, a simple silver band set with a crimson ruby like a flame…a ring that had been in the possession of the dying girl from D'Angleterre when he had found her, a ring that served as a reminder of his sins.

'In the past, I committed many crimes, crimes that can never be forgiven,' he ruminated, gaze fixed on the gem as sunlight danced across its facets. 'To redeem myself I swore myself to a life of peace, devoting myself to research into peaceful applications of fire magic. But after twenty years, I know I have not truly changed, and that trying to wash the blood from my hands would just the multitudinous seas incarnadine. Even if my inventions eventually prove useful to others…it won't erase the crimes I committed.'

For was a broken man, a being who had killed off his inner self through his actions – it was already too late for him. He had accepted death as a natural consequence of things, and seeing the echoes of this in someone much younger than even his students shook him to the core.

All he could do now was to continue to atone, to try and live each day counseling others away from the path of war, away from arrogance or rash judgments. He did not want others to become like him, after all, and so he tried as best he could to warn them, to show them other paths, even though he knew it was futile in the end.

The world would not change, and he would not be forgiven, not be freed from the shackles of guilt and despair. The only freedom for him would be in death.


] | [

Louise de La Vallière first opened her eyes in the morning, she was paralyzed by the sight of a gleaming blade, the edge of which had nearly decapitated someone she knew only a day or so prior, face paling at the thought that perhaps her familiar had decided she would be better off dead, though the pinkette fought down a surge of terror as she realized that the Ryougi was merely sitting at the table, apparently polishing her blade with an oiling cloth to prevent any chance of it rusting, her left hand faintly glowing in the dawn.

A bottle of oil, paper of some kind, a powder ball, and a brass awl and hammer rested on the table in front of the raven-haired girl, along with a peculiar curved blade laid out on the table – a metal analogue to the wooden sword that the demon hunter used for practice. At the moment though, the young girl was intent on maintaining her blades, seeming quite comfortable, as if she was completely at home with weapons and implements of death…which considering how she had described herself, she might well be.

The mage shivered then, and somehow, Louise didn't think it was just the chill of the morning.

"Good morning, Miss Vallière," Mana murmured gently, her focus not shifting from her blades one whit. "No nightmares last night, I see. That's good – most people don't react well to seeing someone die, especially someone they know."

Louise swallowed at the casual reminder of yesterday's happenings, steeling herself against the voices in her head which advised her not to bother her familiar. She needed answers, and it would not behoove her to shy away from the one she had summoned, when the younger girl was the only one who could supply these answers.

"Fa—Mana," the mage said, wincing as she corrected herself, swinging her legs off the bed and onto the floor as she padded over to her closet and quickly pulled on some garments, turning to look at her familiar. The Ryougi had already made it quite clear that she didn't like being called "familiar", and starting a discussion on the wrong foot would be unwise. "I have some questions for you."

"Ask and I will answer—if you will answer mine," came the even reply, more charitable than Louise had expected after the other's show of dominance the day before.

"…in your land, would you be considered a noble?" the pinkette inquired, wanting to get the question that weighed most on her mind out of the way. To her knowledge, commoners did not wear that style of dress, nor exude such quiet confidence – that was the domain of the nobility alone, those who were secure in their power.

"Except for those of the immediate Imperial family, my land does not use noble titles – and those are purely ceremonial," Mana related, setting down the knife and taking up the sword, her fingers stroking the oil cloth along the length of the blade. "But in a less literal sense, I suppose that would be the case, since nobility is something of the spirit, not simply a title."

Her family did possess a great deal of wealth, in addition to controlling the area around Mifune in fact if not in law—and the Ryougi heiress knew very well that for all intents and purpose, she could be thought of as nobility.

Louise's eyes widened, her suspicions seemingly confirmed, leading to her next question.

'I thought so, since only someone who was familiar with noble traditions would dare to challenge another to a duel.'

"…is this because your aunt was a mage?" the Vallière asked, moving along that line of thought.

"No," was the swift reply, an answer so quick and sudden that it took Louise a few seconds to process it. "Any nobility I might have is through my demon hunter lineage, as talent at magecraft has no bearing on whether one is a noble in the land I am from."

These words rocked Louise back on her heels, as it was a concept that she was unfamiliar with. Except in lands like Germania, where one could buy a noble title with enough money, the distinction between noble and commoner had always been magical ability. She opened her mouth to counter that this wasn't possible, that the claim was absurd, but a flat "…what?" was all that came out.

"How long has the system of nobles and commoners been in place in Halkeginia?" the Ryougi questioned, taking advantage of Louise's moment of astonishment to get in a question of her own.

"Nobles have existed for six thousand years, ever since the Founder Brimir created the Elemental Magecraft, dividing his power into four elements: Fire, Water, Wind, and Earth," Louise said slowly, as if disbelieving that anyone who claimed to know about magecraft could be ignorant of such a thing. This was a simple lesson that was taught by no less than the Church itself. "They were set above commoners because they were given the power to affect the world in ways normal people couldn't."

"Hm, but if the Founder created the Elemental Magics, what power did he wield?" Mana asked curiously, since from what she had been taught, there was a fifth element, Void/Ether – associated with composition, dissolution, modification, and separation—one that combined itself with the other four element to actualize the mysteries of Thaumaturgy.

"…you don't know about the legendary power of the Void? The holy power that the Founder used to create the others?" the pinkette blinked, looking at the demon hunter in disbelief. "And you claim to be related to a mage?"

"Oh, I know of the Void," the Ryougi said calmly, setting down her blades and putting her hands in her lap. Slowly, she turned her head to peer at Miss Vallière with an intense expression, studying the mage for truth. She certainly knew of the Void full well, given that her mother's origin was Void, and that that particular personality, as an embodiment of Akasha, possessed the power to recreate reality at a whim. "But to my understanding, the Fifth Element, more usually named as Ether, didn't possess such power – nor is there only one system of magic."

'Though a "void" element would make a disturbing amount of sense in explaining why I was summoned, since as my mother's daughter I do have a connection to it…and it would explain why Miss Vallière seems to have no talent for other spells, since those without an affinity for an element cannot manipulate spells of that element.'

"The Void is the Void, and I don't know what kind of magic is used in your land, but in Halkeginia, this is how it has been since the time of the Founder," the pinkette stated flatly, leaving no room for challenge. This was simply how things had been – she knew nothing else.

"I see," Mana said simply, merely raising an eyebrow. "Tell me then – is a wand required in the use of elemental magic? And are there no other magic systems?"

In her world after all, there were several Thumaturgical systems at work, with each "school" engraving their system onto a world egg, using the rules of that system to operate their spells. The efficiency and efficacy of a system was then dependent on how widely used it was, with the most commonly known systems being the holy words of the Church and the general system of magecraft used by the Association, though Houjutsu was also a fairly strong one in the East.

Up to a limit of course, since ultimately, the amount of power that Thaumaturgy could draw from Akasha was fixed, so the more people there were who could draw from it at the same time, the weaker their individual power would be.

'Given a feudal system, the population is likely much lower than back on Earth…'

"O-of course – do you know about magic or don't you? It is impossible to use magic without a wand!" the pink-haired magus asked with exasperation, though here she paused, her expression twisting into a scowl. "...except for the elves."

She shuddered at the thought of those powerful beings, as even one was said to be able to take out an army.

'So these mages need a Mystic Code to operate their magecraft? While many magi—like Aunt Azaka—can use a Mystic Code to amplify the effects of their spells, it isn't strictly necessary, since most—except those using formalcraft or an innate psychic ability—use magic circuits to channel prana. Hm, I suppose MANA and I both overestimated Montmorency as a threat then, since we weren't sure the wand was necessary. Though that reminds me…'

Mana paused then, her expression hardening as she recalled something that Touko had mentioned some time ago, about a period up to 2000 years ago when humanity was closer to its origin and the power of Alaya was more concentrated, when Phantasm Races like dragons and salamanders existed in greater proliferation – the age of heroes and mythology, when rules of mankind and the world were different – in short, the Age of Gods. Magic Circuits had not been used then, as magi like Medea simply commanded the elements to do their will, as words had a power all of their own.

'Magecraft has existed in this world under a different system, unchanging for 6000 years – no wonder that it would be different than in my world…'

"It is clear that there are some subtle differences in our knowledge," the Ryougi heiress intoned quietly, but no less authoritatively for it. "Please remember that I am from a different land, and that the magical tradition you are a part of, while similar, is not identical to mine. We did not have a Founder Brimir, nor has magic in my land been unchanging for six millennia."

"…what? But—"

"Tell me about the Elves, please."

As polite as it was, it was not a request, and Louise shuddered again, thinking of that powerful race of magic users which was the bane of humanity.

"Elves…use powerful Ancient Magic…and can even overcome square mages," Louise said after several moments of tense silence. "Square meaning they can combine four elements together – or one element with itself four times. Dot, Line, Triangle, Square is the progression."

"Oh, but aren't there five elements?" Mana asked, curious about the seeming discrepancy. "So what about a pentagram or pentagonal mage?"

"…those are only myths," Louise stated with utter certainty. "There is no such thing as a mage able to use all five elements."

"Hm, I see – so humans have fought elves quite a bit on this continent?"

"Aren't they the enemies of humanity in your land?" the Vallière countered incredulously.

"Things are rather different where I am from, and creatures like them have long perished," Mana said flatly, looking directly at Louise with a serious look.

'…did the demon hunters kill them off then?' the pinkette thought, rather disturbed by the thought. 'Just how different is the land this familiar is from? I know it is able to create books with lifelike pictures…'

"They hold the Holy Land, the place where the Founder once lived," Louise related then, given that she had agreed to equivalent exchange in question and answer. "The Halkeginian armies have tried to reclaim it many times, but…only the Founder's magic could match that of an elf."

A helpless shrug, though even this little bit of information gave Mana much to think about.

'Interesting. In this culture, the Void Mage who created the world egg of elemental magic is seen as a holy figure. But if Void magic predated the magic of the other four elements—and can match Ancient Magic, while the other elements cannot, could it not be a remnant of an older system? Perhaps Void Magic and Ancient Magic were one a long time ago? Or are part of the same system at least, perhaps as opposites? Either way, it seems that the Holy Land is probably the home of the World Egg for this magic…and the Church is what compels belief in this thaumaturgical theory, which would go a far way to making it a universal one in this land. Touko-san would be quite fascinated…'

"In a battle between two magi of different systems, victory is not decided by power, but by who possess the system whose rules has the fewer tears, as high-level battles are concepts," the Ryougi heiress voiced aloud. "Battles of concepts—and if Elemental magic is much newer, then it makes sense that Ancient Magic would consistently beat it, as the structure of the spells would be inferior in such a match."

"…what are you talking about?" Louise blinked, confused at the terms that her familiar was rattling off, since she had never heard of a battle of magecraft being one of concepts. It was simply a contest in power and skill, since all humans used the same system…didn't they?

"Ah, that's probably not relevant," Mana said, dismissing the topic. "I take it that magecraft is widely used in your society though…maybe with up to one in ten or one in twenty people as nobles?"

Focusing again, the mage looked at her familiar as if she'd grown a second head – or perhaps a third eye, watching as the demon hunter sheathed her knife, and finished her work on her sword.

"…it isn't in yours?" Such a notion strained the bounds of credulity, as everyone knew that one needed water mages to heal, earth mages to shape metal and houses, wind mages to keep airships aloft, and so forth. "Mages make up about 10% of the population."

"A much higher percentage than in my land," Mana noted seriously, comparing it with medieval models where 10% was on the high side, a tiny smile tugging at the edges of her lips. "Very few in my land are magi – less than one in a thousand, most likely."

"That's impossible. How do you heal without water mages? How do you build or grow crops without earth mages? How…"

"Because of how few magi existed at a time, we never relied on them completely," the Ryougi heiress noted simply. "With time and effort, we have managed to find ways to replicate the miracles of magecraft in mundane ways. But you don't have to believe me if you don't want to, since it must be something hard to accept."

That much was something Louise could agree with, though one thing puzzled her.

"…then why are there still demon hunters, beings as deadly as the Elves?"

If there were so few mages, then…

"Because there are still demons that walk among us, and potent threats that even magi cannot easily defeat. As demon hunters, we are those who fight monsters…but often the worst monsters are those wearing human shape," Mana intoned in a hushed voice. "Thus we exist – demon hunters who eliminate the inverted, enemies without compassion or mercy. We fight monstrosities the likes of which most could not even imagine, knowing that in such battles, either we killed or we would be. By day we play our roles – by night, we are the sentinels of the moonlit world, protecting humanity from threats that have existed since mankind was young. That is our purpose – that is our goal."

"Then why were you called forth by me?" the mage whispered hoarsely, shaking off the momentary trance of the demon hunter's hypnotic voice. "Unless…"

She carefully did not think about the Ryougi's words as thinking that mages needed to be purged or killed, even if some nobles had been prone to excesses.

"Perhaps so that I could offer a different point of view," Mana quipped, then when Louise stiffened, beginning to glower, smoothed out her expression. "In all seriousness, I meant what I said about your affinity being a different element than one of the four."

'If it wasn't Zelretch playing around, I have a very good idea why…especially since a simple summoning spell wouldn't be able to summon Mother, who is the Void itself.'

"But—!"

"By your own admission, there is more than one system of magic at work here," the Ryougi heiress interrupted, censuring the pink-haired girl. "And while you may not have an affinity for any of the common elemental magics, maybe you are better aligned with an older system, the one from which both Ancient Magic and the Void seem to originate."

"But no one knows anything about Ancien—"

"Exactly."

The word hung in the air for a minute as it clicked in Louise's mind that no one knew anything about Ancient Magic. Except perhaps someone whose lineage had existed long before that of any mage, who knew of the Age of Chaos.

"…you really think so?" Louise asked, shaking her head bitterly. "Even though your magical traditions are different from mine? Even though all I can do is cause explosions with my magic? I've never accomplished anything except…"

"…I don't know whether I should be offended that summoning me is not considered accomplishing something," Mana noted sardonically, looking back to her work and sheathing her sword, putting it back in her bag. "What I know of your system is close enough for most purposes, and knowing of several systems, I know enough to say that if you didn't have any power to channel, you wouldn't be causing explosions…and you would not have summoned me from a distant land."

'I won't say just how distant for now…'

Then Mana quirked a small smile.

"It is possible that explosions are just the easiest way for you to express magical energy, a low-level spell that you can release almost on instinct," the demon hunter said with a half smile, thinking back to a certain psychic who was able to bend things to a disturbing extent. "And besides, explosions can be quite useful sometimes, even if they are…a little destructive."

"How?"

"Oh, just as an example, you can see fireballs coming at you, sense cutting blades of wind, spikes of ice, or golems," the demon hunter noted, tilting her head. "It would be much harder for a mage to dodge invisible blasts of sheer concussive force, right?"

Louise's brow knit together for a few moment before her mouth dropped open into an "O" of delight as she came to the conclusion that the demon hunter had a point. Maybe her explosions could be good for something instead of leaving her as a failure.

"Will you help me to find out what my magic is?" the pink-haired mage said quietly, asking for the other's aid humbly. "I—"

She didn't want to say that she would do almost anything, but she would because she didn't want to be failure anymore.

"On two conditions," the Ryougi replied as she rose to her feet, eying her "master" speculatively.

"Name them."

"One – be as patient with me as I will be with you, since we are both dealing with something new."

"Agreed...and the second?"

"Teach me to read the language of your country," Mana said a bit sheepishly, holding up one of Louise's textbooks and pointing to the unfamiliar runic language there. "I'm ashamed to say that I can't read your land's script."

'Could she only want something that simple? Well, aside from respect, that is...'

"Heh…done."

Agreement completed for now, both smiled slightly and nodded at one another, as the day began anew.

Theocrass
April 4th, 2011, 11:47 PM
Ah, this story ... How I adore this story ... It's so much more than "Oh look! A guy way more powerful than Saito has appeared! And he can actually get the girls into bed! And he won't put up with Louise's bullshit! Aren't I a genius?!"

Unfortunately, GB's work has given birth to a host of the above type of story. It's so much more interesting to see a diversion from the norm. I'm a little put off by Monmon's death, it even kept me from reading this for awhile, but I've gotten over it. An excellent read, as always Alfheim-sama.

alfheimwanderer
April 5th, 2011, 12:34 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/6/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

Several days later, the Academy received a visit from the Count-Palatine known as Mott the Wave, a pompous clotheshorse with a reputation for lechery and manipulation of those beneath him, abusing his power to coerce those lower in rank into becoming his mistresses—though this rather unsavory man (who was far from atypical among Halkeginian nobility) was nevertheless a Triangle-class water mage and a representative of the palace whose authority was derived from that of the Royal Family, as Count-Palatines were charged with enforcing the decrees of the palace, with enough power even to keep the power of the great Duchies in check.

Today though, his stated purpose for visiting the Tristain Academy of Magic was not to leer at young flesh, but to warn Headmaster Osmond about a notorious criminal in the area: a certain mage thief known as Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt, who had every noble in the country cowering in fear of losing their possessions—particularly any magical artifacts they happened to possess.

Defenses—whether magical or mundane—were of no use, as the thief's magic was far too strong and Foquet's alchemy could nullify even the greatest of wards, were those employed in an attempt to prevent entry. Guards, whether commoner or mage, were likewise useless, as the mage-thief had a penchant for using golems of immense size to smash them aside without pity or hesitation, crashing through the vaults they protected even in broad daylight.

No treasure was safe – and worse, no one had ever seen Fouquet up close, so no one knew what the thief looked like, or even if the thief was a man or a woman. All they knew was that Fouquet was an earth mage of at least Triangle class who preferred stealing treasures and artifacts of great magical power – items of great wealth.

In the past few weeks, there had been a rash of thefts across Tristain – and the palace wanted to make sure that the Academy's treasure vault was secure, given that said vault housed a great many items of interest to the palace. Granted, it was a formidable thing designed and reinforced by the efforts of many square-class Earth mages to be nigh-impenetrable, and from what the Count-Palatine had seen, the faculty and staff were already alert and on edge, as if expecting trouble.

"I confess myself pleasantly surprised by the precautions you have taken, Headmaster," the Count intoned condescendingly, twirling one of his wispy mustachios. "I had not expected a group of academics to be so…vigilant."

By which he meant to say that he had been expecting a lazy, bumbling educational staff which was so complacent, so trusting that no one would dare attack them that they would miss an army storming the castle, much less a single thief.

"We act as the circumstances require us," Old Osmond replied, a quill dancing in the air as it scrawled out an acknowledgement to the orders he had received. "And in the wake of a fatality in a duel…"

The old man trailed off, shrugging eloquently.

It wasn't the first time such a thing had happened in his career, nor did he think it would be the last, given the impulsive nature of young people and how badly out of proportion they could escalate even the smallest offenses, intentional or otherwise.

"Heh!" Mott barked snidely, a flicker of dark amusement flitting across his lips as he quirked his eyebrows. "Yes, there have been rumors concerning that among the commoners, with some saying that two nobles settled a long feud with blood, some that a commoner fought in the duel when such is patently absurd, or most preposterous of all, that this commoner was a demon hunter child who executed her opponent in cold blood. Absurd – such beings are fairytales meant to frighten children, not those who have ever existed, for one who is not a mage cannot match one that is – so are the teachings of the Founder."

Osmond for his part said nothing, just levitating a signed and sealed roll of parchment to the palace messenger, who took it, unfurling the document to read it and—

"What is this, Headmaster?" he asked, squinting at the text as his voice lost its knowing flippancy, the lips of his drawn equine face pursing as he perused what was written.

"The official statement of record concerning the duel between the de Montmorency heiress and the Vallière familiar," the old mage answered slowly, traces of a frown on his lips. "Such is required by the palace in the event of permanent injury or death."

A muttered "hmm" as Mott read through the account of the short but tragic encounter.

"Ah, so the foolish child of Gramont was involved—what foolishness to be involved in so many entangled affairs. And with a de Montmorency, no less," the Count scoffed contemptuously, knowing the names—and how far they'd fallen from their height of power—full well from his involvement in the royal court. Indeed, some of this disgrace he had actually had a hand in arranging, as revenge for a de Montmorency having slighted him in the past. "I have heard…interesting things about the practices of that family, and how their expertise in potions lends itself to snaring…those above their station."

Mott himself was far from innocent of engaging in coercion to acquire playthings to slake his varied lusts, but he made sure to use means that were perfectly legal. He just took care that those he chose to warm his bed were not in a position to complain or resist, making judicious use of his wealth and power to ensure this. After all, there were few, whether commoner or poorer noble, who would not give in when a large enough incentive was offered, be it money to improve a family's financial situation, political influence to help a business secure a contract or oust its rivals, or perhaps the necessity of keeping a loved one from going to prison – whether on trumped up charges or otherwise.

No one was incorruptible – everyone had a price, and thus getting one of those beneath him on the social ladder into bed was certain enough. It was simply a matter of patience and negotiation of the terms—or if the other party proved more difficult, engineering a situation where continuing to refuse him would be…unwise.

"That is quite the rumor, Count," Osmond noted evenly, waiting for the man to get on with it. He had never particularly liked Mott, but if the palace saw fit to send him as their messenger, the Headmaster was not in a position to complain too loudly about the man's reputation.

"No more outrageous than what you have written here, Osmond, which would strain a sensible man's credulity," Mott declared, his disbelieving gaze moving from the parchment to the seated form of the Headmaster of the Academy. "You mean to say that a commoner girl-child, never mind that she calls herself a demon hunter, not even fully grown and without the use of magic, disarmed a line mage and killed her in a duel?"

"This is so," the old man acknowledged, his expression stony as he weathered the attention of the palace noble. "The familiar of the Vallière child defeated the de Montmorency heiress and took her life, as is…." He paused for a moment, lips quirking distastefully. "…allowed by the dueling code."

"Such a thing only applies to disputes between nobles and I fail to see how you could claim that the girl can be counted as a familiar, as you know full well that there have been no human familiars in the recorded history of Halkeginia," the Count-Palatine said, nearly scowling now, glaring at Osmond. "Thus, for you to pronounce that this travesty is acceptable is most rank – a commoner killing a noble and being allowed to get away with it? Such is a threat to the very fabric of our society!"

"Be that as it may, the young girl was summoned and contracted during the Springtime Familiar Summoning, which as you know is a sacred rite passed down from the time of the Founder," the Headmaster rebuked reproachfully. "And as affirmed by six thousand years of tradition, legal and otherwise, the familiar is considered an extension of the mage."

"This much is true. A noble's familiar is considered an extension of the noble in law," Count Mott replied diplomatically, since this was true, but this only mattered if the mage in question was a noble. Someone who had summoned a commoner, a normal human without any magic at all, after many failures was clearly not a true mage at all, as this was assuredly the magic telling the summoner that she had no talent. The summoning ritual selected the most suitable familiar for the summoner, and given the commoner status of the Vallière child's familiar, Mott could probably make a good case that she should not be considered as a noble—or a mage at all if he were inclined to do so.

'In fact, I may well do so, as the Vallières are too independent for the palace's comfort. As the most powerful nobles in Tristain, descended from an illegitimate child of the royal line, they see fit to wear their obedience lightly. But how far they would fall if one of their children could be proven to be nothing more than a commoner in noble clothing, the only marriageable heir, given that the eldest daughter's engagements have always been broken off and the second daughter is quite ill.'

"Will there be anything else, Count Mott?" a voice broke through his musings, bringing the red-cloaked man back to reality. "Or have you anything else to inquire?"

Morbid curiosity compelled him to ask one further thing.

"Show me this…demon hunter," the Count-Palatine said after a moment, his voice dripping with sarcasm as he pronounced the last two words. "Given what you say, I am curious as to the nature of one who would challenge a noble."

Osmond muttered a few words and waved his staff slightly, casting a scrying spell as the mirror on the wall revealed a raven-haired young girl with piercing blue eyes, her features elegant and exotic. Dressed in a charcoal-grey blouse and pleated skirt, complete with thigh-high stockings, she seemed almost like a noble—save that she lacked the mantle that denoted noble status—and she was moving in an odd rhythm as if to unseen music, flowing from one movement into the next like water.

'An odd pattern of movement, showing off a very supple, lithe body. I don't think I have ever indulged myself with a girl on the barest cusp of womanhood before, especially one with hair as black as night, which is certainly uncommon in these parts. And in a few years she will certainly be quite a nubile one…'

Already, the demon hunter's form sported teasing hints of curves, young budding breasts, slim hips, toned stocking-clad legs…

'To dare show so much in public as a commoner is to invite attention…such a lewd girl should be taught a lesson.'

The Count noted the young girl's grace and stamina as he studied her, imagining how her innocence might be corrupted and broken, how he would like to violate such a creature and bend her to his will, watching defiant fire sputter in the eyes of such a girl, before inevitably dying out when she gave in.

Such a one was most likely a virgin – and if she were, then all the more pleasing it would be when she was forced to service him. He could imagine it now - the whimpers as an innocent was violated for the first time, the way such a girl would gag as he forcibly took her mouth, the cries of pain as she was rendered senseless by a tide of sensation, a shaft ripping open her tender flesh, until all intelligence was gone and a resisting commoner became merely an animal either mewling in pleasure or moaning in pain.

He didn't care which.

Such was a delicious thought: that such a one who would dare to raise a weapon against a noble be given over to him for punishment. Yes, she would no doubt resist, no doubt beg, but resistance would be futile – she would adapt to service him, with her physical and mental distinctiveness to be added to his own as she gave herself over to resignation, helplessness and despair.

'It will be quite a treat to tame this little one…the possibilities are quite limitless…'

After all – did not commoners live at—and for—the pleasure of nobility?

He nearly leered at the young girl, but forced his face to remain impassive, since he did not want his perversions to be quite publicly known. His attention paid off though as Mana Ryougi finished the last steps in her kata and seemed to look right at him, censuring him with a critical look, before turning away, as if finding him beneath her notice.

It wasn't until the scrying spell was ended that it hit Mott—the girl should not have been able to sense a scrying, and so couldn't have been looking at him.

"I trust that will be sufficient, Count Mott?"

"Indeed. I am grateful for the Academy's forthrightness and attention to detail with regards to recent events," the Count-Palatine answered smoothly, nodding his head to the Headmaster as he received a second scroll from the old man. "I trust letters have already been sent to the families of the parties involved?"

"That has already taken care of," Osmond said with finality, looking from Mott to the door, not too subtly asking the man to leave. "We know our duty."

"As I know mine," the Count replied, taking the hint. He didn't want to overstay his welcome, after all, not if he wanted to possibly ask for something later in the day. With a flourish of his walking stick and cape, the richly dressed noble took his leave, though he paused outside the door to converse with Osmond's secretary momentarily before vanishing.

After he left, Miss Longueville entered, frowning as she watched the receding back of the palace messenger.

"The palace had to send him as a messenger?" the green-haired woman commented idly as she turned towards a row of bookshelves, beginning to reshelve tomes that Osmond had carelessly left out. "I didn't think someone that high ranking was necessary to pick up a report, even if it involved a duel."

Miss Longueville chose not to mention how the palace messenger had openly leered at her figure as if she was a piece of meat while asking her out to dinner, though it was clear what he really wanted from her. She knew full well what kind of man Count Mott was…but then she also knew that he had a great many magical items, given his connections as an envoy of the royal family.

"Ah, that was secondary actually, though he was most curious about the young demon hunter," Osmond sighed, shaking his head as the other matter that had been brought to his attention came to mind. "He came to give us a warning that Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt was suspected to be in the area."

There was a momentary pause as the secretary lapsed in her concentration, turning around at the sound of the all-too-familiar name.

"What about Fouquet?" she asked, though she smiled to see that the headmaster had turned his chair about to look out the window.

"The Academy, as you should already know, shelters some old and valuable artifacts," Sir Osmond explained, with more than a hint of pride. "There's this thief going around causing trouble, and the palace is concerned about our level of security. Better to be safe than sorry, as they say."

"Well, with the staff on alert after the duel and way the vault was designed, I'm sure the Academy is secure," the secretary replied evenly. "With all the precautions and how troublesome it would be to break in, we probably don't need to worry."

'And given the circumstances, it may not be worth it to steal from the Academy at the moment, as maintaining a cover identity would be fairly useful. On the other hand, it's not as if there aren't other targets near the capital that are worthy of being broken into…especially any estates nominally belonging to the royal family.'

Save for perhaps one individual, the one she considered a daughter, Longueville despised the royals of Halkeginia with a passion – and since the royal families of Gallia, Tristania, and Albion were all related, she had no reason to believe that any of them were different. That the Tristainian royals chose Mott as their emissary only confirmed her suspicions of them as corrupt abusers of power.

Familiars weren't the only things said to reflect the natures of their masters, after all; those the state chose as its cronies and subordinates also reflected the nature of its rulers, to her way of thinking, especially when someone so base and foul as Mott was promoted…and someone as good as her father was murdered by servants the Crown after years of loyal service.

"The world has become quite a dangerous place, hasn't it, Miss Longueville?" Sir Osmond sighed tiredly. "It almost makes me long for the days when one could be secure that one's hard-earned wealth wouldn't be taken in his sleep…"

The secretary returned to her task, taking care not to let the bitter hatred in her soul creep into her voice, keeping her tone mildly disinterested, in fact.

"The world has always been dangerous, Old Osmond," she replied after a rather pregnant pause. "Perhaps you have just begun to forget that in your senile old age…and no, that is not an excuse to feel me up."

A rueful chuckle.

"…that may be true, Miss Longueville. That may indeed be true."


] | [

Tabitha blinked in response to a letter she had received from home after sending a report on the situation, since she knew that her superiors would not appreciate it if they had to learn about such an interesting development from a secondhand source. For now she was simply ordered to find out more about the so-called demon hunter by any means necessary, as her uncle was quite curious about other pieces in the great game. Not that such a task would be difficult or anything unexpected for the blue-haired girl by any means, as she had already been keeping an eye on the Vallière from the night after the duel.

Upon further study, there were several things that disturbed the diminutive chevalier about the incident: the fact that the familiar had been the one to challenge Montmorency to the ill-fated duel (implying either a certain familiarity with Halkeginian tradition or that Mana Ryougi was not quite the commoner that most thought her to be); the unnatural speed with which the demon hunter had moved in battle, using quick, efficient movements to disarm the foe with a minimum of effort before killing her; and the odd tome that the girl had been reading—the destruction of which had prompted the challenge.

Tabitha had kept watch over the human familiar when possible, assigning Sylphid to watch her when the chevalier could not, though both were careful to keep their distance, lest the demon hunter note the observation and alter her behavior accordingly, or worse, perceive her as a threat. Part of this was because the blue-haired girl did not know the full extent of the Ryougi's combat capabilities, and while she herself had faced many powerful foes in her time and was herself a triangle-class mage, she deemed it imprudent to test the demon hunter's skills personally, especially if they were anything like those described in the books she possessed.

Being who and what she was, Her Highness the Duchess Charlotte Hélène d'Orléans, princess of Gallia and knight of the North Parterre, the blunette had some books in her personal library not readily available to most students. Some of these were restricted books on magical theory and tactics, as befit her rank, but most were stories of the past, tales involving dragon slayers, demon hunters, and other denizens of the Age of Chaos.

She did not know how much of what was written was true and how much was simply fantasy, but the mere fact that the title of demon hunter lingered in memory to this day, when none had existed for thousands of years, was enough to give her pause. Not because she was afraid of the death she knew would one day come for her, but because she did not want to have to reveal her full repertoire of abilities unless absolutely necessary, in case she would one day meet those who were currently her classmates on the field of battle, should she be ordered to kill them.

In a sense, she was a weapon, an assassin…and she recognized the demon hunter as one very much like herself, a being who could be exceedingly dangerous if the situation demanded it.

Her status as a weapon was why she had enrolled in the Academy as a "dot" mage, desiring to be underestimated, though any plans in that regard had gone out the window after she had been tricked into fighting against Kirche, the loud red-headed girl who had eventually become her best friend, by a group of jealous students who had destroyed her books and Kirche's dress, wishing each of them to blame the other. And indeed, they had clashed, with time for one attack and one defense each, only to discover that they had been tricked, that the other had not been responsible for whatever slights had been done to their honor. The reason was simple – both of them were Triangle-class mages, though neither had originally admitted it on the enrollment paperwork, and had either truly attacked the other with intent to destroy, the result would have been far worse than simply a burned book or a torn dress.

She had no sympathy for one who would destroy the 'most treasured items of others' because to do so was to create a situation where one had to risk one's life when it was unnecessary. Hence Tabitha had thought of Montmorency's death as nothing remarkable except in the skill that had been shown in its execution, since she had seen death before, and given her own personal fondness for books, could understand where the other was coming from.

The chevalier remembered the day when someone had grievously wronged her, after all, when she had returned to her room to find it in a sorry state. The room had been filled with a burnt smell, with her books and the bookshelf which had housed them – her only companions since her mother had gone mad and her father died, something that she had built by hand, burnt to ruins, with all of the pages of her texts reduced to ash, crumbling at the touch. That had been her impetus to challenge the one she had perceived a wronging her to a duel in the Vestri Court…a duel where neither had one, where two friendless people had emerged with as friends.

The chevalier's continued observations had gleaned her only a little more information, as she had been forced to increase the distance from the demon hunter after the other had spotted her as she rode her dragon across the sky, waving very slightly.

"Alone…"

"Yes, the one named Mana is very much alone, isn't she?" Kirche remarked, as the door to Tabitha's door swung open, with the dusky redhead framed in the opening. "You needed me for something, Tabitha?"

In response, the blunette held up a frozen book.

"Oh, a new book? But why is it…" Kirche trailed off as her eyes caught the odd lettering on the spine of the tome, her voice going flat as she recalled where she had last seen it. "…that the demon hunter's book, isn't it? The one that was thrown into the water?"

A crisp nod.

"And why do you have it?" the redhead inquired of her Gallian friend.

"Sylphid," was the succinct response, as the blunette was not one for many words. Fortunately, Kirche had learned to decipher her friend's statements and puzzle out what had not been said from there.

"Your dragon found it?"

A nod.

"Abandoned."

Abandoned after one of the demon hunter's meetings with the mysterious mage at night, though Tabitha had been unable to hear what they talked about, given that a spell of silence had been cast over the area, as if eavesdropping were expected.

"So what do you need my help for?" the redhead asked, looking around her friend's rather spartan room, noting, not for the first time, the contrast between their two senses of style.

"Drying."

"You couldn't…" Kirche broke off at a look from Tabitha that she thought meant exasperation. "You can't just remove the water then?"

"Pages stick," she said softly, showing the redhead what had happened to some of the later pages as a result of her attempt to dry it too quickly. Those pages had bonded together into a solid block, irrecoverable, so Tabitha was taking no chances with the rest of the tome, freezing it to prevent further damage. "Help?"

"What do you need?"

"Hot wind," a simple answer, as the blunette gently pried the tome open with a blade, revealing the first page. With the two of them working together, Kirche using a flame to provide heat, a Tabitha using minor wind magic to circulate the heat over each page individually as she unfroze and dried them one by one, keeping them from sticking, they managed to recover a few pages.

And in the end…

"Heirloom?"

"The characters do resemble those of my family's heirloom," Kirche noted, eying the drawings in the picture book and the incredible smoothness of each page, not to mention the printing and the layout. There were, she thought, some similarities between this picture book and the heirloom that was said to be able to arouse any man, since both bespoke a certain level of ability with crafting that Halkeginia had not been able to reach. "You think there's a connection between this 'demon hunter' and the place the heirloom was from?"

A slight nod, imperceptible except to those that knew Tabitha well.

'A strange book from an odd girl…'

Seeing this, Kirche reflected that the other's claim of being a demon hunter didn't seem too odd, since she had showed combat skill, hadn't used magic, but had also casually carried around what would be a priceless artifact in Halkeginia. Only those who were powerful could afford such things here, so it stood to reason that Mana must have be of high rank herself…

'A demon hunter would certainly count as high ranking, and as one, she would have every reason to know about magical beasts…'

Kirche remembered meeting the young girl in the hallway outside of Louise de la Vallière's room, after all, and how Mana had instantly identified her summon as a salamander, making a note of its elemental affinity and what that implied about the Germanian magus. She had been rather disconcerted at this, but had managed to regroup in time that the Vallière child had not noticed—or at least she thought so.

"Be careful."

Tabitha spoke quietly, but her words were solemn as she looked at Kirche oddly.

"Oh I will," the redhead said, smirking. "You know me, I don't like to risk my life unnecessarily."


] | [

Out in empty expanse of Vestri Court, an area that the other students avoided like the plague whenever Mana and Louise were present, the Ryougi heiress was assisting her "master" with her magic, having scratched some "X" marks on the ground for Louise to aim at, with a goal of obliterating them with as little power as necessary. Given that they were still experimenting on what worked for her, they had decided that it was safer to aim low than aim high, after all, particularly when high meant the possibility of hitting walls, trees, unwary bystanders or so forth.

Given that the school was already terrified of the two of them for perfectly understandable reasons, with students going out of their way to avoid the Zero and the Demon Hunter, Mana thought it a wise idea not to accidentally hurt anyone else, particularly since she was certain that the teachers were watching to make sure she was not murderously inclined.

'As I would be watching me in their shoes…and I'm sure there are other interested parties.'

The midnight visits of "Mathilda" had all but confirmed that much, as had the presence of a dragon in the sky while she was outside, something that Mana didn't think was coincidence, though she was necessarily more careful about how she held herself and what she revealed.

'The dragon's master Tabitha treasures her books though, so she can't be a bad person…'

It seemed a rather whimsical way to judge people, but Mana had learned that if someone took good care of their items, especially things like books or such, they usually couldn't be too bad, even if they were rough around the edges. Even Mitsuru-san, who she had come to know after saving him from…financial trouble with her mother's syndicate, valued books and writing, and though he sometimes claimed to be nothing more than a half-hearted thug (and she teased him for it, calling him someone she was good at using), was really a good person, if a bit gruff. People who didn't care about things usually couldn't care about people at all, and someone with no anchors at all could be exceedingly dangerous.

'Though I wonder if that's how people see me, since I don't have any attachments except to my nominal master,' she thought to herself, as she moved about the practice area, working on her unarmed combat skills. She could not always expect to be armed, after all, even if she was beginning to discover that the runes in her hand would activate if she had the intent to use something as a weapon, even if it was simply her bokken, a bucket, or even a show, showing her exactly how she might use it to best effect to incapacitate an enemy. The qualm was the she had to think of it as a weapon first, not as what it usually was, and unless she was pressed into a situation where she had no other choice, that moment or two of hesitation wasn't something she could afford.

Thus she practiced her sword arts and knife fighting by night, while unarmed combat and dodging was done by day, following the philosophy of moving as if one had a sword to work on her mental stances and remain flexible and relaxed, for in the unity of armed and unarmed combat, movement and rest, yin and yang, one was able to best tap the strengths of the Ryougi discipline.

And Mana did have to admit that dodging small explosions was helping her agility and reaction time—something she suspected might help her if she ever had to fight against a wind mage.

'At least I was taught how to read Halkeginian, so that will make it easier for me to do research on Miss Vallière's ability—and on the magic of this world.'

She suspected such research would be necessary, given that in order to defeat one's enemies, one had to understand how they operated. And while the demon hunter didn't particularly want to have to hurt many people, she would if it proved necessary. She was not a Ryougi for nothing, even if she was a girl far away from home.

Louise had taught her familiar to read in an odd way, showing her the characters of Halkeginia, teaching her the pronunciation, and then the meanings of various words, and oddly enough, the words on the page of a certain book, The Hero of Ivaldi, mysteriously seemed to turn into Japanese, random masses of characters gaining meaning before her eyes as if being translated inside her head.

'As if whatever magic is binding me is doing the translating, since MANA still sees the odd French-like runes…'

It did mildly annoy her however, how idioms were apparently just summarized into their equivalent, though at the very least, it was context-based and not simply literal translation, which would have irked her to no end.

"Hah…guh…hah..guh…"

At the moment, Louise was on her hands and knees, exhausted by the strain of having to concentrate on controlling her output for so long. So far the two hadn't been able to find anything about Void or Ancient Magic (or any other alternate systems of magic in use), so instead they were working on another exercise from one of the more interesting books they had found, noting the necessity of both power and control for successful spellcrafting, and while Mana was certain that Louise had a great amount of power, control, both in channeling this power and in aiming was not something the strawberry blonde excelled at.

Yet.

Admittedly, she was improving over time, as practice tended to help matters.

"…are…you sure this…is going to help?" Louise panted, trying to catch her breath as she half-glared at her familiar, who didn't even seem winded.

Mana walked over to one of the small "X" marks she had carved into the grass, noting that her master had managed to hit two out of fifteen targets, erasing them completely.

Truly, a notable improvement, given that up until now, Louise's all-time best had been one out of fifteen targets, after at least 10 trials a day.

The range was only about 20 meters for now, the approximate maximum range one could expect in a duel, and the Ryougi heiress considered it imperative that Louise learn to focus her explosions at that range.

"If you are challenged to a duel, you want to be able to defend yourself in your own right," the demon hunter had chirped cheerfully, though her smile slipped for a moment as she thought of her own duel. "You don't want people to think you rely on me."

"Mm…good progress, Miss Vallière," Mana praised the weary pinkette. "Your accuracy is improving, and your control isn't too bad – though you seem to have trouble combining the two." She paused for a moment, tilting her head. "I don't want to say this, but are you used to simply trying hard and pushing as much energy outwards as you can?"

"…what about it?" Louise replied defensively, muttering as she straightened, surveying her handiwork. "I've never been able to cast a spell, so it's only reasonable that I put effort into it."

"Hmm, I think you're making yourself too tense, which is throwing off your aim," the Ryougi noted, her eyes taking in the rigidity of Louise's stance and the stiffness of her posture. "You should try to relax and let the power simply flow."

"Simply…flow?" Louise repeated, as if tasting the words. "How would that work?"

Mana just looked at Louise, with the other backing up instinctively at the sudden surge of killing intent, putting her wand up instinctively to defend herself.

Then the demon hunter's expression softened, and she backed off a pace or two.

"Like that – your body instinctively flowed into a defensive posture in reaction to what it saw as a threat," she commented, circling Louise and observing her new stance. "Often the body knows better than the mind, and certainly reacts more quickly. You just have to find your rhythm, just as the spell books say, to act on instinct."

"Is that how you can react so quickly?" the Vallière mage asked as she began to relax, though Mana stopped her from putting her wand away with a shake of her head.

"This is so," Mana acknowledged, as she moved off and redrew the X marks that had been obliterated, before moving back to behind Louise – the only really safe place when the pinkette began casting. "Take a deep breath, relax your shoulders, and try one more time."

Louise closed her eyes and took a breath, tensing all the muscles in her body as she inhaled, relaxing on the exhale, her wand swinging up as she cast a small volley of explosions.

The dust settled, as the demon hunter went to check on the targets, finding that the Vallière had managed to obliterate four of the fifteen.

"Four out of fifteen this time, good job, Miss Vallière!"

This time Louise did feel something of a sense of accomplishment, as a small smile made its way onto her lips. There was still a lot of work to do, but for now, she was happy to have managed to get this far, laying the groundwork for her future endeavors.

A bell tolled in the central tower, and the pinkette frowned.

"Time to go to class," Louise said, shaking her head as she put away her wand. "Come along."

In the distance, Count Mott watched the odd duo as they walked off towards their classes, noting how the other students were careful to give the two a wide berth, almost recoiling from the raven-haired girl as if she was a walking avatar of destruction.

'Did she perhaps do more than get lucky—I cannot imagine that the de Montmorency would have lost easily, unless she was too careless…'

And then he took a step backwards, his jaw setting involuntarily as the Ryougi turned and met the Count's eyes unflinchingly, having noticed his regard. Twenty meters away, and she looked at him coldly, as if appraising him as a possible threat, before very deliberately turning away, dismissing him as beneath her notice –a way that no commoner should ever look at a noble, a way that he found utterly unacceptable.

'What…? A mere commoner dares…'

That was absurd – could it be that no one had taught the commoner whelp manners? He was first among his equals, after all, as a Count-Palatine was a Palace Noble, sometimes considered the near equal of a Duke, or at least a Marquis. And yet a commoner had the gall to look down on him, turning her back to him after taking note of his presence?

'Maybe the de Montmorency girl was naïve –students these days are not accustomed to fighting, and so she would have been easy to kill. I, on the other hand, am a triangle mage, and if I can bait that so-called demon hunter into drawing her weapon against me, I can then defeat her and demand compensation as a noble, as is my due right. And instead of execution, perhaps I should be merciful, convincing the Vallière child that I can spare her Servant's life if she is given over to me for…punishment.'

The Count was not unaware of how inconvenient it would be if the Vallière family were to make a fuss, and thus he had to provoke the girl into attacking so that he could respond, making a grand show of "mercy" to gaining him favor from the Duke's family (before undermining it) and possibly the gratitude of the de Montmorency family as well, for what he once tore down he could build up once again.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mott noted movement and he turned about to see a maid cleaning the hall nearby—a commoner sharing the killer's raven hair, but considerably better developed, one who was polishing and cleaning a knob for a stairwell very vigorously, carefully not looking at him.

'Ah, how wonderful, a commoner girl with such stamina and enthusiasm for… polishing knobs, is it?' the man thought to himself as he tugged on his whiplike moustache. 'And she has more than a passing resemblance to the other…this maid will do nicely to tide me over until I can break the Vallière and her familiar who dared to mock me.'

He clapped in cruel delight then, his leering gaze sweeping up and down the maid as she gasped, putting her hands over her breasts.

"Hello, little one," the nobleman said in a suave timbre, a twisted smile crossing his lips. "Do you know who I am?"

Siesta shook her head and started to back away.

'Ah, fear and suspicion of what I could want…a work of art, really,' the Count-Palatine thought to himself, savoring this one's unique blend of that would soon be tainted with despair. He could imagine it now, this shapely young woman bound up in his bed, tied with a few strategically-placed ropes that accentuated her curves, unable to resist as he ravaged her. 'Yes, it has been a while since I have had a commoner to play with, tight, firm, supple – and so pure that it would be wonderful to corrupt it. They do so much work and keep their bodies toned…'

Such endless possibilities that he could take out on this young woman, who was after all but a maid that no one would miss. And he knew that with his experience he could easily break her, force her to love him eventually by tiny little acts of seeming kindness after brutalities. Such a pretty face was wasted cleaning up after children…she would be his personal maid, he decided.

"Well, that doesn't matter now does it," he intoned darkly, the leer never leaving his expression as he undressed her with his eyes, his grin widening even more. "You see, I'm here to make your life better in ways you couldn't possibly imagine! What is your name, girl?"

"S-siesta, sir," the maid said timidly. The only defense for her against a noble was not to catch the attention of one in the first place, and now it seemed too late for that. She wasn't a noble, a townswoman, or even—she shuddered, as the memory of how the mask of a small girl had hidden the reality of a terrible killer—a demon hunter who could kill with contemptuous ease. She was only a maid, and here, she was helpless.


] | [

On the way to class, the Ryougi asked Louise about the richly dressed man that she had seen in the window, with the pinkette mage scowling as Mana described the ruffles, brocaded fabrics, walking stick and curly mustachios of the man.

"Mott," Louise said as if the very name was a curse. "Count Mott, an envoy of the palace. There are…rumors, about him."

"Rumors?" Mana asked innocently.

"About…" But the Vallière clammed up, shaking her head. "I don't want to talk about it. That man is just bad news – he is probably here because of…"

She trailed off, looking pointedly at Mana, who made a little "Ah" of recognition.

For a few minutes, they walked in silence, the crowd making way for them as one would either for royalty or very dangerous individuals (which were not necessarily mutually exclusive), until Louise thought of something.

"I know you have a sword, since I've seen you clean yours, and that you practice with a wooden sword," Louise noted slowly, as Mana nodded in acknowledgement. "So why don't you carry it around, instead of just using a knife?"

The demon hunter's expression chilled then, with an odd smile on her face that reminded the Vallière child much more of a predatory animal for some odd reason

"That's because a knife is more concealable and easier to use up close," Mana noted simply. "And as one can do other things with a knife, someone carrying one isn't immediately thought of as a threat. Since I prefer it when people underestimate me, and not think of me as a warrior, I carry just the knife. It is enough for most things."

"Well…yes, admittedly you didn't need the knife to…ah…win your duel," Louise supplied diplomatically, still not comfortable with saying the word 'kill.' "But why practice something you won't ever use?"

"Oh, did I say I wouldn't use it?" the demon hunter asked quietly. "I just prefer the knife for most things, and I will only use the sword if I encounter a very dangerous situation where killing may be required, since if I draw that weapon, my training will not let me grant mercy."

With a knife, there was still a chance to spare the opponent's life. With a sword, however, one drew upon the full extent of the Ryougi abilities, extending range, power, and agility as one moved into a mental state of Zen, where there was no anger, no raw emotion, just a cold determination to eliminate those who stand against the wielder of the blade.

Termination Mode, she called it, and her weapon, the Kotegiri Masamune ("metal cutter"), an old weapon named for its role in tearing through enemy armor or other defenses as if they weren't there only reinforced this. Such a thing, a venerable blade with a degree of mystery, like her mother's Kuji Kanesada, was a trump card, not to be used lightly.

"…no mercy, huh?"

Louise managed to hold her tongue to keep from saying more, tactfully not mentioning that Mana had not showed any mercy even with the knife. Their relationship was still a fragile one, and she had promised to be patient – the familiar was the only one who really believed in her, or thought she possibly had some degree of power. So she would accept it- for now.


] | [

Class itself proved…interesting, since Professor Colbert was trying unsuccessfully to demonstrate the principles of a steam engine to a classroom of nobles, most of which were crowding to one side of the room, trying to get away from Louise and her familiar, their body language tinged with fear as they leaned away from the duo that some of them probably thought were about to snap and kill them all.

'I just have to reinforce the value of peaceful applications of magic,' Colbert thought to himself, feeling incredibly old as he looked out over the group of students. 'I never thought the day would come when I would see young ones so afraid.'

The only ones who weren't were Tabitha, Kirche, Louise, and Louise's familiar the demon hunter, with the former two rather neutral and alert as usual, while the latter two simply seemed alert, even if Miss Vallière did show some small signs of fatigue – likely from the training she had been doing.

Still, they were paying attention to the equipment at the front of the table, a long metallic tube with a metallic pipe stretching out of it, with a pair of bellows were connected to the pipe. Further, there was a crank connected to a wheel on the side of the cylinder and gears attached to the wheel and box, making the contraption into some sort of primitive engine.

'No one is curious…that is disappointing.'

"Can anyone tell me the characteristics of fire magic?" Colbert asked, lobbing out a question to get the student's attention.

"Passion and destruction," Kirche answered simply, with the students nodding as she spoke. Fire was the specialty of Germanian nobles, after all, with the Zerbsts one of the foremost among them. She noted a scribbling sound and turned to see that Louise's familiar was jotting something down with a strange looking pen that did not require a quill or inkpot.

"That's right," Colbert agreed encouragingly, as he was himself a triangular fire mage…as well as having an Earth affinity that made him a Square mage in total. "However, passion aside, don't you think only being able to destroy is lonely? Just like fire can be useful in battle, it can also heat up buildings on a cold night or light up homes. Like anything else, it depends how you use it."

"Hm?" Kirche questioned, seeming a bit dubious. "Well, I suppose that may be true…but what is the strange thing on your desk?"

"Hehe, so you noticed, did you?" the academic said excitedly, a broad smile crossing his face as he thought of time in the lab. "This is something I invented, a mechanism that works using oil and fire magic."

Most of the students looked oddly at this, wondering what it would do. Perhaps it was an engine of war that would be demonstrated. Perhaps it would move itself about, or—

But the professor was explaining, walking them through the process of vaporizing the oil in the bellows, shunting it into the cylindrical tube, and igniting it, as the piston cranked up and down, cranking the wheel attached to the cylinder and opening the door on the box, revealing a snake puppet.

"So you see, power is transferred down the driveshaft to the crank, spinning the wheel, with the snake coming out to greet us!" Colbert enthused, though his face fell as he saw how most of the students were uninterested. They were doing everything with magic, after all, and had no need for mechanical devices. Oddly enough, the only one who was still watching it intently was the demon hunter, who was nodding as if she found this quite interesting.

"And then?" one of the others spoke up. "What's so special about that?"

Mr. Colbert sighed, shaking his head. His students just didn't seem to understand what a significant thing this was, how it would get rid of the need for magic in some applications, moving a carriage or a boat without exterior transport.

'A very mixed era, though with the ruling class set in the ways of magic, I don't think they'll embrace an industrial revolution,' Mana concluded, pursing her lips. 'Though…steam power was known long ago wasn't it? I don't remember clearly, but could an engine have been made in the time of the Greeks?'

That much was true, though their society had never seen the need to develop it. From the attitudes she had been witness to, the demon hunter was could begin to understand how a society could stay stagnant for 6000 years.

'Between strict adherence to religion and an overreliance on magic, it really isn't a wonder why they wouldn't use devices like this, since…'

"This could be used without magic," Mana murmured, not aware that she had spoke aloud until Colbert took notice.

"Yes! Absolutely right!" Colbert said, pouncing on the familiar's statement. "Even though I used fire magic to ignite this, if someone could use flint to create a spark every so often, maybe by powering it with the shaft itself…"

"But why would someone when we could just use magic?" Kirche asked, honestly puzzled about why the professor was trying to talk about ways to avoid using magic in a class dedicated to teaching the peculiarities of fire magic.

"Willpower. Limits," Louise said, looking at a note her familiar had passed to her and piecing things together in her own mind. Say what one might, but the pinkette knew the theory backward and forwards – it was her point of pride. "Mages only have so much willpower available, and if you need to use magic to run everything, like the wind-stones used in ships, then you are limited by the supply that wind-mages are willing to give when they have to store magic for other things."

Dead silence.

"…that's…an excellent point, Miss Vallière. How much willpower a mage has at any one time is limited, but with engines like these we might be able to do much more by more efficiently using magic," Colbert stated, surprised that a student would have thought of that, with the magic they tossed around so casually. Or had it been a student? Sure enough, when he looked, the demon hunter was still watching him, jotting things down in one of her notebooks. "Did you have something to say?"

"Oh, just that it is probably a bad idea to rely too much on magecraft," Mana commented, looking over at the others. "My aunt is a fire mage, and while she knows that magecraft is a useful tool, she can't use it for everything, nor does it make her untouchable. Just something to keep in mind…"

The classroom froze, collectively flinching as the murderess spoke, with what was to their minds a cold smile on her face like an icy razor. So far, she had kept to the rules – she had only killed during a duel, but now they knew what she was capable of and didn't want to cross her, for fear of being next. Some of the more faint-hearted were just glad that she didn't have a visible blade with her (though they knew she likely had her knife), as a reminder, like a sword, might well have caused some bowels or bladders to vacate themselves.

None of them knew of course, that she was from a far-away land where mages were a tiny fraction of the population, not the 10% they were here, a land where commoners had gained power over time, having to wrest privileges from a corrupt ruling class with blood and steel—often their blood against the noble steel, but in the end blood won, because if nothing else, it rusted steel, wore it down.

And that was good, for such a thought, of a world where they were unnecessary, where magi were not rulers, but those who clung to the shadows, keeping their existences secret from the world, would have terrified them beyond anything else they knew.


] | [

He stumbled backwards, his one functioning arm going immediately to sightless eyes. The attack had come too suddenly, a silver line of light that had knocked him over and blinded him with a terrible sharpness that put out his eyes.

A cold, chilling laugh as soft footsteps crossed the marble floor, each step sounding loud as thunder in the silence.

Where was the enemy? Who had dared to strike him? To enter his home and raise a hand against—

CRACK!

What seemed to be a gust of wind blew next to him, wrenching the wand from his still good hand and snapping it in two, with a sharp object slammed into his stomach and out through the other side of his body, tearing through blood vessels, muscles, organs, bone…he lost his breath in an instant, the pain so strong that he could not cry out, almost blacked out immediately.

He hit the floor with a thud, one kneecap broken—and then the next with a sickening crunch of bone.

He couldn't see, since his eyes had been cut, but if he could open them at all, there would be terror in them, pleading, begging to be spared as so many of his victims had begged him not to violate them in the way he knew best. Now it was his turn…and he was afraid.

"No," he croaked out, desperately. "You can't! You, you don't know who you're dealing with. I am a Palace Noble—you are…"

"Die."

An unearthly scream pierced the night as a man who had lived like an animal was killed like one.


] | [

The next day, Siesta arrived at the Mott estate on a carriage only to find entry to the mansion barred. With her contract transferred to the Count-Palatine from the Academy, she had had no choice but to obey, even knowing what would likely lie in store for her, since Mott was not easy on commoners as Osmond was. She had prayed for a miracle, for something, someone to save her from her fate, knowing nothing would happen, that no one would respond, since Brimir and God both favored the nobles, having set them above the commoners.

But her prayers were answered, when a sentry turned her away, telling her to return to whence she came, as the area was currently under the jurisdiction of the Griffin Knights and no one besides them were being allowed in or out.

Not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Siesta had complied, going back to the Academy while wondering what had happened that the Griffin Knights, one of the orders of the Imperial Guards that served the palace directly, would need to be there, their majestic beasts with the heads of eagles and bodies of lions circling overhead, wings of beautiful white feathers gleaming in the morning light.

Heading the investigation was a rather stout looking noble, a suave, sharply dressed man whose courtly clothing was immaculate beneath his noble's cloak. He had a wide brimmed hat on, with a long white feather stuck in it, and carried a sword at his side. With refined features, almost delicate looking, and a neatly trimmed moustache and well-cared for hair, it would be easy to say that he was but a dandy, until of course one noted that his body was well muscled, his eyes sharp, and his movements spoke of combat experience.

This was the captain of the Griffin Knights, the square-class mage named Viscount Wardes, and he strode with a posture used to command into the estate, only to stop cold in the entry way at the sight he saw. Though he had once headed the "Magical Research Experimental Group" as well, some things still sat ill with him…

"Report," he ordered, bidding the two knights already on the scene to brief him.

"Sir…it is as you see – Count Mott was murdered last night," his vice-captain related, face set in a grim mask. "None of his guards reported anything out of the ordinary until they heard a scream, but by the time they came to investigate, it was all over."

A gruesome scene of carnage it was, with the Count-Palatine's body lying in pieces, with the parlor covered in a fresh coat of blood, walls and floor dripping with what had seemed at first to be crimson paint, with the scents of musk and terror usually present masked by an ever more overwhelming stench, as a sea of blood roils. In the midst of it all is a man's corpse, whose expression is frozen in a rictus of terror and horror, his eyes obviously stabbed and slashed to uselessness.

His abdomen was torn open as if by an animal, his still steaming entrails spilling across the marble floor of his mansion, splashing in the pool of roiling blood that poured from long gashes down legs splayed at unnatural angles, as well as an arm that was simply snapped, with his other arm pinned to what had been a desk by the two broken pieces of his wand, holding in its hand…

Wardes was barely able to keep his expression steady, as he took in the last detail.

…holding in its hand the crushed remnants of Mott's genitals, which had seemingly been ripped from his body, as evidenced by the tears of the tissue and the gaping hole between the Count-Palatine's legs where his manhood had once been.

'Oh dear Founder…'

Theocrass
April 5th, 2011, 12:35 AM
Ay-ay-ay! I remember this part well. *Shudders*

I would pity the man were it not for his intentions towards Mana and Siesta.

ringlhach
April 5th, 2011, 02:18 AM
I'm still trying to figure out who killed him. I think my money's on Fouquet for now, though.

alfheimwanderer
April 5th, 2011, 02:46 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/7/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

An empty throne dominated the presence chamber of the Royal Palace of Tristain, standing vacant as it had for the many months since the passing of the late King. Like most of its ilk, it was large and ornate, and had served the function of adding to the aura of power of its former occupant, helping him to seem more imposing and dignified even in his old age. However, comfort had not been one of the design considerations for those who had first crafted and upholstered the throne, which was the reason that the man who currently held the reins of power in Tristain did not deign to sit in it, choosing instead a small but comfortable chair to the right of the throne to settle his weary bones.

Or at least, it was a reason, as Cardinal Mazarin, Lord Regent of Tristain, who ruled over Tristain with an iron grip, was also a man who was scrupulously careful of appearances. Prince of the Church and most powerful man in the kingdom he might be, but he was not the king, and did not want to give the impression that he had any wish to claim the throne for himself. With tensions high from the nobles of Albion rebelling against the Royal Family, the last thing the Regent needed was for something to provoke the Tristainian nobility, lest the instability of Albion spill over onto the Continent proper and the rule of yet another of Founder Brimir's bestowed royalties be imperiled.

Though even without provocation, it was quite likely that the troubles wrought by Albionian nobles, after extinguishing their branch of the Royal Family, would turn on Tristain, given that they had expressed the desire to unite all of Halkeginia as one – and that the Tristainian Royal Family was quite closely related to the Albionian, with the heirs to the respective thrones being first cousins.

'The political situation is balanced on a razor's edge, and unfortunately, Princess Henrietta has no head for politics or the great game in general, as she is unable to put duty to her country before personal desire.'

He repressed the urge to sigh as the young princess always seemed to do, shaking his head at the memory of the young girl's folly. His charge had many fanciful notions of what it meant to be a ruler of a country, but didn't seem to realize the harsh realities of being a sitting monarch, especially in these turbulent times, knowing not the members of the Imperial Guard, the Knights, or anything else necessary for running a country. So while she was a useful figurehead for maintaining the veneer of legitimacy, the Cardinal worried what would happen once he passed away and the reins of power passed to Henrietta de Tristain.

'There have been only three instances in all of Halkeginian history where a princess has been enthroned – one in Gallia, two in Tristain, and in each case, the royal was more ready. Here, the queen refuses the throne and the princess is simply not up to the task, as I doubt she will be able to maintain the balance of power in affairs foreign and domestic.'

That principle was all that had kept Tristain from being swallowed up by its more territorially ambitious neighbors or from falling into the same trap as Albion.

The massive Empire of Germania, the largest and strongest of the powers of Halkeginia in terms of military might, lay to the northeast; the Kingdom of Gallia to the south; the Kingdom of Albion floated to the west; and the Holy Empire of Romalia was always a powerful influence on the affairs of the Continent, given that it was the seat of power of the Holy Church, at the whim of which each ruler retained—or lost—his or her throne.

Since much of his authority was derived from his ecclesiastical rank as a Cardinal, a Prince of the Church, Mazarin should have been pleased by this last part, but he found that he was not, since frankly, the rulers of the Church were no more infallible than any other set of mortal men, and they guarded their privileges jealously, wielding political influence that belied the Holy Empire's size.

'It does not help matters that the leader of the rebellion in Albion, Oliver Cromwell, was himself a former archbishop who turned against the Crown. Given my own position as Regent of Tristain and the rebellion's stated claims, there have been some grumblings among the nobility of a Church-sponsored conspiracy to unify Halkeginia…'

Indeed, some believed that he would simply welcome his fellow prelate with open arms, and that Tristain and Albion, together with the Holy Empire of Romalia, would then march upon Gallia so that all the treasures and rings of Brimir might be bought together that the Void might once again be born unto the world, that at last, the Holy Land might be retaken from the Elves.

A preposterous notion to anyone who knew the Cardinal, for he was something of a Tristainian patriot, but many didn't, or if they did, didn't care, putting reason aside in a bid to undermine his secular power—and through eroding the effectiveness of his rule, wearing away the power of the Palace.

Some of the higher ranking nobles, for example, were known to resist or declaim his policies. They accused him of rank incompetence due to the inability of his forces to apprehend the notorious mage thief Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt; maligned his name by saying that he merely toyed with the Royal Family and the nobility like chess pieces, not caring for human life; claimed that he had no respect for the blood of the Founder since he had arranged a marriage alliance with "barbaric" Germania for in order to allow Tristain to survive the oncoming storm.

Most of the…instability between the Royal Court and part of the nobility stemmed from this last, with some threatening to intervene in the Princess' marriage and destroy the alliance with Germania with "evidence" of a youthful dalliance with the Crown Prince of Albion. A love letter, recording an oath sworn before the Water Spirit of Ragdorian Lake, couched in the ancient language of wedding vows.

'Short-sighted fools, they, who cannot look past their pride to dire necessity…'

In truth, he had no love for Albrecht III, Emperor of Germania, a man who had won a struggle for power against 40 others to attain the throne, and if circumstances were different, he would not have promised Princess Henrietta to that nation in exchange for an alliance, but things were not. Duty trumped personal feelings – that was how things had to be for a ruler, much less a monarch. Emotions like love, hate, joy, grief, or anger did not—could not—enter into calculations of state, lest the road be paved to disaster.

Such worries and cares had aged Mazarin before his time, and at the age of forty, his hair and beard had already grown bone white, a stark contrast to the grey ecclesiastical cap and formal suit he wore. Not that his image was helped by how he seemed to be little more than skin and bones, frail and infirm. Even the commoners commented on this, referring to him in rumors as bird bones wearing a grey hat, holding the scepter of power in the place of the Royal Family, a burden weighing heavily on his shoulders.

'…and with such pressing matters, I have no time to deal with the intrigues and rash actions of mere schoolchildren,' the regent thought to himself, frowning as he glanced over the first of two reports from the Tristain Academy of Magic. 'While the fact that the one who did the killing was a familiar—and moreover, claimed to be a demon hunter—is somewhat irregular, killing in a duel is certainly within the bounds of law. And given the fact that the familiar is related to the powerful Vallière family, one of the greatest of Tristain's noble families, while the victim is of a disgraced clan…' He shook his head, eyes narrowing. 'The current political situation is unstable enough as it is.'

The second was merely a confirmation from Headmaster Osmond that the Academy would be on alert for any sign of the mage-thief Fouquet—a parchment that served as a token that Mazarin had done something to curb the threat of the thief, but was likely meaningless in practical effect, since the Cardinal doubted that the 'Crumbling Dirt' would strike at such a such a heavily fortified area without concrete information as to the contents of the vault.

Truth, the Cardinal had learned, was a foolish thing to cling to, as it ultimately didn't matter when it came to issues of politics or governing a country. Whether one told the truth or told bald-faced lies, all that mattered were what people believed.

This was and had always been, the first axiom of politics and influence, no matter if one was royalty, noble, commoner, or clergy. It was why he was so scrupulously careful to act the humble first minister, deferring in public to the princess even if it was he who effectively controlled the affairs of the kingdom, since the nobles could save face in claiming to be governed by a member of royalty, rather than by a Cardinal who was not of that exalted rank.

"Your Eminence," a respectful voice spoke, causing Mazarin to look up from the paperwork.

Kneeling at the entrance of the presence chamber was a young, sharp-looking noble, a member of the Imperial Mage Guard sporting a feather-hat and long beard, with his black cape fastened by a medal of a griffin. Not just any member, however, as the regent quickly recognized the young man as Viscount Wardes, the head of the Griffin Knights, the Tristainian symbol of fear and pride.

"Rise, Captain Wardes the Lightning," Mazarin intoned in a voice that belied his frail appearance, intelligent eyes noting traces of crimson staining the darkness of the cape as the Viscount rose to his feet. "I understand you have a report on the happenings at Count Mott's estate, following the reported disturbance?"

"Yes, Your Eminence," Wardes acknowledged, nodding his head slightly. "I bear grave news."

He paused until the Cardinal waved for him to continue.

"Proceed."

"Your Eminence, as my Knights discovered this morning after following the Count's panicked majordomo to his estate, Count-Palatine Mott was murdered last night," the Captain of the Griffin Knights related, his face uncharacteristically grim.

To his credit, the Lord Regent kept his expression perfectly blank at the mention of such shocking news. A Count-Palatine, murdered? Since the authority of Count-Palatines derived from the Palace, such could be construed as an attack on the Royal Family itself.

"Murdered, you say?" he asked after a moment, considering his words carefully. "You are certain of this? It was not an accident or a duel?"

"It was murder, Your Eminence, or else the oddest accident to which I have ever borne witness," the Viscount acknowledged with a solemn nod, relating the evidence with clinical precision. "His body was all but torn apart with animal-like savagery, stabbed, slashed, and mutilated, with blood coating every one of the walls of the killing chamber. It was exceptionally brutal, and done without the use of magic, as far as I have been able to determine…but more to the point, the killer apparently infiltrated and left the Mott estate without being spotted by his guards."

"I see," Cardinal Mazarin said, blinking at the revelation that the killing had been performed without the use of magic. It seemed odd to think that the man could have been killed so easily, since Count Mott had had military training in the past, serving with distinction in the last war. 'Unless…' His mind flashed for a moment to the report he'd read earlier about the purported demon hunter, though he dismissed that, since as a prince of the Church, he knew the ultimate fate that had befallen those in Halkeginia. "Have the backgrounds of the Count's guards been investigated? And had the Count made any recent additions to his staff?"

"The backgrounds were closely examined at the time they were hired, Your Eminence, and while there was to be one new member of the staff, she did not arrive until the morning," Viscount Wardes related professionally, a touch of regret in his voice that he had not uncovered the killer so quickly. "I gathered you would wish to be briefed on the situation before further action was taken."

"You assumed correctly, Captain," Mazarin agreed, old but intelligent eyes studying the knight-captain. "You understand the gravity of the situation, I presume? Especially in times such as these?"

"Indeed," the Mage Guard inclined his head in acknowledgement. "With your permission we will begin a full investigation into the matter and reinforce the guard around the other Count-Palatines with drafts from the Imperial Guard, as any further deaths of palace envoys would be quite detrimental to the kingdom's stability."

"You know your duty, it seems," the Cardinal murmured approvingly. "If only there were more as capable and loyal as you, Viscount. See to it then."

"I am merely a lowly servant for Your Eminence," the Knight-Captain intoned formally, bowing deeply to the regent of Tristain before turning to leave in accordance with the dismissal, though as he turned from the Cardinal, the edges of his lips curved ever so slightly.


] | [

Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, second year student at the Tristain Academy of Magic, had been called many things in her time, most of them derogatory in nature, as her lack of ability with magic made her quite a tempting target. Some of these were potentially dangerous to her political and legal standing ("A failed noble that might as well be a commoner for all the magical ability she had"), some of these rather embarrassing to a teenager anxious to be accepted by a crowd ("a flat-chested shrimp of a girl who couldn't attract a man if she tried"), and some of these simply true ("not a morning person").

It was the last one that counted at the moment, since the pink-haired mage had staggered into bed and simply collapsed after another brutal training session following her class with Professor Colbert. True, by all respects Louise's training with accuracy and control should have been relatively simple, since the amount of power called for was minimal—but that was the problem.

Throughout her years of failure, Louise had become accustomed to attempting to get past any blocks in her spellcasting ability with sheer overwhelming force. Unfortunately for her, this had not worked, as no matter what element she tried to channel, her attempts had ended in one explosion after another, eventually resulting in some large enough to devastate classrooms.

Either way, the result had been an extremely concentrated onslaught of concussive force, which, while perhaps useful in anti-army or anti-fortress applications, was not practical for day to day use, especially in duels. Hence, Mana had asked Lousie to try channeling and releasing as little power as possible as quick bursts, as opposed to building up great amounts of power and releasing it in one great burst—which had exposed some bad habits that Louise had developed over the years.

For one, the pinkette's body tended to be too tense and rigid when spellcasting, almost as if forcing power down her nerves and into her wand—which, to be fair, she had been up till now. For another, when she fired off an explosion, Louise tended to instinctively overcorrect for the recoil of an expected larger blast, throwing off her aim considerably.

To her credit, Mana had taken this into account after Louise explained and demonstrated how she normally cast a spell—and to some extent she sympathized, since the main reason that children of the Ryougi clan were trained in combat from the time they were young was that they had not yet had the chance to develop any bad habits to unlearn.

For unlearning bad habits was the hardest part of acquiring a new set of physical and mental skills, especially if those habits had already been burned into muscle memory, because one has to consciously think about what one has gotten used to doing and choose not to do it, repeating an altered action enough that a different pattern was engraved, as Louise learned by firing volley after volley, drilling herself in the basics until she nearly collapsed from exhaustion.

And she had improved with practice, though Louise had never realized just how fatiguing a daily training regimen could be—which didn't help her when she needed to wake up in the morning, as most of her body insist that she remain in bed and rest, while her stomach growled at her, demanding rich foods to fuel her new lifestyle, a struggle between two equal and opposite forces that threatened to remain unresolved.

Unresolved without outside intervention, that was, as the balance was broken by the rhythmic sound of cloth on sharp metal, coupled with an odd flashing that roused a somewhat annoyed Louise de La Vallière from her dreams at last. Odd things they were, jumbled scenes and images that she couldn't quite piece together, with nothing really standing out except for the vaguest memory of darkness, an infinite expanse of utter nothingness stretched as far as she could see where there was no light, no air, no color—not even the passage of time.

'A void…' she thought with a chill, shivering as the mage wondered why she had dreamed of such a thing, and what it might mean. While Louise knew that sometimes a mage had dreams that helped her to discover her element, she didn't have any inkling what this dream might mean. The dream certainly wasn't about fire, wind, water, or earth, since none of those had been present. And as much as what Mana said about alternate systems of magic was logical and made sense when Louise thought about it, she still had her doubts, since from the time she was little, she had absorbed the teachings of the Holy Church, which taught of the four elements of magic that Founder Brimir had created as a gift to his disciples.

Never had Void been mentioned as an option, for by the teachings of the Church which so dominated Halkeginian society, it was a holy power that the Founder alone had wielded.

'But his familiar, the Gandalfr, was capable of using any weapon, and my familiar is a demon hunter who can use blades very well, one related to a mage but drawing from a power greater and more terrible. Does that mean that I…'

Louise clamped down on that line of thought before it could develop any further, since the direction it was taking was more than a little heretical.

A self-deprecating chuckle left the pinkette's lips as she sat up and shook her head, ruffling her hair as she did so. Yes, she could cast explosions. That didn't –couldn't—mean that she possessed a power that could overturn anything, bringing forth salvation or destruction at the user's whim.

And nothing the demon hunter had said contradicted that, as Mana had only suggested that Louise might be better aligned with the system older than the Elemental magics, a system from which both Ancient Magic and the Void seemed to originate. She had in no way argued that the Vallière child was a Void mage.

'Ha. Haha. The stress must be getting to me. Just because I managed to better control my explosions, my mind thinks I'm a Void user. As if that were possible for a "zero". Ha. Haha…'

"Is something wrong, Miss Vallière?" a quiet voice spoke from the corner of the room, interrupting her train of thought. Louise looked in the direction from which the query had come to see a figure dressed in robes of midnight blue, cleaning her knife, with many tomes scattered around her, the glowing runes on her left hand providing an eerie illumination in the dimness of the room. Louise blinked for a moment at the sight before her still fuzzy mind identified the other as her familiar, albeit dressed in a somewhat more foreign outfit than usual.

"What is that…dress?" the pinkette mumbled, still not entirely awake.

For Mana was not wearing the charcoal-grey blouse and pleated skirt that Louise had come to associate with her, but something that seemed like a cross between a robe and a dress in the dark blue of the midnight sky, with hints of silvery embroidery that resembled…hemlock?

"Oh, this?" the demon hunter asked, not looking away from the books and knife-cleaning in which she was immersed. "Just something to wear."

Louise stifled the urge to say something unkind under her breath. She was not a morning person, and being roused for breakfast or before usually made her more than a little grumpy.

"…I understand that much, fa—Mana," the mage reasoned, heaving herself out of bed so that she wouldn't be tempted to just sink back into warm cocoon of sheets she hid herself in nightly. "What is it called and why are you wearing it?"

"It's a dress from my homeland called a kimono, which literally means something to wear," the Ryougi heiress replied quite manner-of-factly. "My other clothes are a bit soiled after training in them for so many days. You understand, right?"

And Louise did understand, because while she wasn't unwilling to wear her uniform for a couple days in a row, more than that was pushing things. Come to think of it, she hadn't made use of the school's wonderful bathing facilities for a while…and she had the feeling that a hot soak was just what she needed to work the soreness out of her muscles.

Though…

"Yes, I suppose," the mage groused, as she padded past her familiar and pulled on her garments for the day, eyeing the gleaming blade in her familiar's hands. "Do you really need to clean your knife so early in the morning?"

"Take care of your tools and they will take care of you," Mana recited from memory, turning to her nominal master with a carefully neutral expression. For a familiar, she wore her servitude lightly, but then, this had been earned, given that the demon hunter was the reason that Louise had managed to not only keep her status as a mage, but had finally begun to develop her abilities after so many years of failure. "If I oil and clean my knife regularly after using it, I won't have to worry about rusting. The same applies to taking care of your body, Miss Vallière."

Louise locked eyes with the younger girl, but looked away, biting back the urge to say something sharp in return, since the demon hunter was right…and if she could move as quickly as the rumors said, then she probably had a point. Her advice had been helpful so far, so she'd grit her teeth and bear it.

"Right. I am going to bathe before breakfast," she said at last, turning to the door. "You will join me for class with Madam Chevreuse?"

It wasn't really a question, since both of them knew that Mana would do just that, just as Mana knew that Louise would come to training after class. Nevertheless, the demon hunter simply nodded as Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière left the room, ready to face a new day.


] | [

In contrast to Louise, whose indolence was an understandable side-effect of starting a training regimen after a year without too-strenuous exertion, the rest of the Vallière family had no trouble waking up in the morning. The Duke de la Vallière had once been a general, after all, and the Duchess was none other than Karin the Heavy Wind, the former commander of the Manticore Knights, whose name, thirty years into retirement, could still strike terror into any who had had the misfortune to stand against her on the battlefield.

Aside from Louise, their daughters, Eleanor Albertine le Blanc de la Blois de la Vallière, who worked as an instructor at the Oriz Institute of Magic, and Cattleya Yvette La Baume Le Blanc De La Fontaine, who stayed home due to a chronic condition, were likewise early risers, as Karin had instilled an iron sense of discipline in them, enforcing the "Rule of Steel" as firmly in her family as she had in the unit.

Hence, all of them were quite awake and eating breakfast when a messenger arrived from the capital, bearing an urgent message from the Tristain Academy of Magic.

"Oh, what has that girl done now?" Eleanor grumbled as several scrolls were handed over. "Don't tell me she's finally managed to get herself expelled."

'It would be just like her if she did, that Zero. It would be better for her if she just came home and continued bridal training, since that's all she'll ever be good for,' the blonde thought to herself, since everything that she had seen indicated that Louise was on the road to failure. And as a well-respected "genius" researcher at the Oriz Institute of Magic, the tall, statuesque blonde had seen many attempts by overambitious individuals to reach beyond their capabilities, leading usually to injury or disaster in their research. This slowed or distracted everyone else from research that actually had meaning, as opposed to the gold-plated projects that appealed to idiotic investors but had no real value. No surprise that this, coupled with how she had been raised, helped shape her into the person she was today – a confident, aggressive woman who had no tolerance for failure or stupidity.

"You shouldn't say such things about Louise!" Cattleya chided softly but firmly, which by her standards was about the same as yelling. She was a bit shorter than the blonde, and was dressed in more elaborate looking outfit consisting of a blouse of exceptionally pale pink, a darker pink corset, and an even darker pink skirt beneath it. In her condition, straining herself by raising her voice or being too active was hazardous to her health, which was why she rarely left the castle or used the powerful Earth magic she was capable of wielding, instead remaining at home and tending to a menagerie of wild beasts, helping to keep them healthy and hale that they might live out better lives than she. "That little girl tries as hard as she can."

"Trying is meaningless. One succeeds or one fails – how much effort is put into something doesn't matter," Eleanor returned, eyes flashing as she shook her head, thinking about the disappointment that was the youngest of the Vallières, who had proven unable to cast a single spell properly no matter what element she tried. "Some people are just more naturally talented than others. One has to accept one's place in society and the gifts—or lack thereof—one has been given."

'Why, Louise? Why do you do it, do you try so hard?' Eleanor wondered, looking between the parchment and her mother's grim visage. 'You don't need magic to survive – you already are promised to Viscount Wardes in marriage, and such a Knight could more than support you. So why push yourself so hard, why keep fighting something you can't? What is it that you want? Can you tell me? Do you even know? Freedom from us? Power? Satisfaction? None of these matter because they are but illusions, Louise, vagaries of perception. You know it is pointless, that no matter what you try, what you do, you cannot and will not succeed. So why, Louise, tell me why. Why do you persist?'

Cattelya did not enjoy this line of argument, since she herself was incapable of long periods of activity or using too much magic due to her condition. She saw Louise almost as a younger version of herself that had not been stricken with illness and so still had a full life ahead of her, with boundless potential—and why not? And while she wouldn't have put it in so many words, she wouldn't—couldn't—accept there was no hope for Louise because that meant accepting that there was no hope for her.

Seeing Louise put so much effort into things and trying her handicaps, Cattelya found herself inspired, hoping against all hope that she might be able to do so as well one day, that she might be able to live freely.

"Without trying, how can someone know if they will succeed or fail?" the pink-haired women said softly, looking at Eleanor with a stony gaze. "Even you don't succeed all the time…"

Eleanor was about to retort, but swallowed the intended remark when the duchess raised a hand for silence.

No one in their right mind (and very few were not) crossed Karin the Heavy Wind lightly, since the ensuing retribution would be anything but worth it. When one had to on the field of battle or politics, then it was a matter of necessity, but to deny a simple demand for quiet would be…unwise, to put it lightly.

The Duchess perused the contents of the scrolls in silence, handing them down the line to her husband and her two daughters as she finished reading the letter and moved onto the official incident report from the Academy, her eyes narrowing as she glanced over the accounts of how a noble had been killed, and the rate of speed at which the killer had moved.

After several minutes of uneasy quiet, she looked away from the parchment as if to signal the resumption of the usual conversation, just as Eleanor spoke up, unable to believe the evidence of her eyes.

"So Louise actually summoned a familiar?" the magical researcher voiced incredulously, blinking at the parchment as if the words written on it were an illusion, particularly "summoned", "familiar", "defeated line-mage" and "duel". "And more than that, she actually beat a line-class mage in a duel?"

Given the youngest sister's track record at using magic, perhaps it was understandable that the eldest was somewhat skeptical about this turn of events. Thus, it was up to Cattelya to clear things up with a closer reading of the original material, as the pink-haired women scanned the text thoroughly.

"Oh my, it says that her familiar…killed a line mage…in a duel," she read, her voice trailing off as she related the information on the scroll. As a rule, the second daughter of the Vallière family hated violence, but she did cheer on Louise, and that her familiar had done…that was a bit of a bind for her.

"What? Let me see that," Eleanor replied, leaning over and re-reading the parts of the letter that summarized the events. "Well, then…"

'A death in a duel? If Louise's familiar was powerful enough to best a mage, does that mean that Louise has that level of power? That a familiar reflects the potential of a mage is absolute, after all.'

Eleanor shook her head. For something like this to have occurred was absurd, and yet the evidence that Louise's perfect record of failure had been broken was staring her in the face, cutting against the grain of everything she'd ever read or known, but—

"And what elemental affinity does a commoner signify?" the researcher asked at last, looking to her mother, who no doubt understood more about magic than even she. "Aside from the note that the familiar claims to be a demon hunter, which is clearly not possible, as those no longer exist in Halkeginia, and the Familiar Summoning Ritual should only draw from the continent itself, there has never been a record of a human familiar."

Left unspoken was the fact that those descended from the Royal family (as opposed to due to one of the others blessed with the miracle of magic), due to their more direct connection with the Founder, tended to break those rules if they ever summoned familiars, just as their magic could be combined with those of others in ways that could make even the most powerful mage tremble in fear.

It was the only way known to get above square-mage levels of power, after all, combining more than four elements.

Karin the Heavy Wind, however, didn't care about that, as her mind was more focused on the practicalities of the situation and what had resulted from it.

"I am unaware of the elemental affinity of a non-mage, nor is it particularly relevant," she murmured, her voice like the rumble of thunder on the horizon. "The matter at hand is that a knife-wielder defeated a line mage, which I find most…interesting."

"You are not…troubled by this?" the Duke probed, wondering if a disaster was in the making, given Karin's tone. While her power and sense of presence was what had attracted him to her many years ago like a moth to a flame, he knew better than most how dangerous that edge could be.

"No, for I believe in the rule of steel," Karin intoned softly, though there was no mistaking the finality in her tone. "In discipline – accepting the consequences of one's actions, and as such the de Montmorency heiress brought this upon herself. I would be interested in meeting this…familiar, however, and seeing how she reflects upon Louise."

"Ah, do you mean to visit the Academy personally then?" Eleanor asked, with more than a hint of trepidation, more for Louise and the students around her should the familiar fail to meet Karin's standards of judgment. "Perhaps I should visit in your stead?"

While she'd never admit it to anyone, Eleanor did care about her youngest sister, which was why she was so harsh on her, because she knew the world would be far harsher on a failure. Thus, she thought it better for Louise to accept what she could not do before she ended up killing herself or being taken advantage of by those who were less than scrupulous. Until now, she had thought that her youngest sister could not succeed, so why…?

"You may visit her if you wish if it is within the week," Karin mentioned brusquely, overriding her daughter's attempt to side-step her. "But I fully intend to see for myself what my youngest has accomplished."

Nothing more was said – nothing more needed to be said, and in the wake of that statement, silence settled over the dining table once more.


] | [

The reaction of the de Montmorencys to this same news was rather less restrained, as the Baron and Baroness de Montmorency were certainly not dukes, counts, or viscounts, their clan having fallen into disgrace over the last few decades. Once, long ago, they had matched the Vallière family in power and prestige, given that the de Montmorencys had controlled the right to negotiate with the Water Spirit of Ragdorian Lake. But fortune had turned against them, as they had made too many enemies whilst involving themselves with a number of bad investments, with too little political skill to win the factional disputes they found themselves in.

The longest running feud had been with the Vallière family, as that family had been in ascendance when the de Montmorencys were declining, and the King at the time had had the gall to strip the de Montmorencys of their high title, bestowing it to the Vallière for "services rendered", as if everyone hadn't known that it was because the new Duke was the King's bastard son, and not because of anything else. Matters continued to get worse, until the machinations of Count-Palatine Mott served as the final nail in the coffin, leaving them nearly destitute in a barony much reduced from their once exalted rank—with only an heiress and not an heir.

Still, they had endured this indignity, hatching the plan of marrying her off to a higher ranked noble for a merger of families. Hence, when they heard of their daughter's romance with the child of Count Gramont, the Baron and his wife were ecstatic, taking great pains to encourage any relations or entanglements between the two, even beyond the bounds of common propriety.

Indiscretions would only play upon the Gramont child's sense of honor, after all, and force him to ask for their daughter's hand in marriage, cementing the ties between their families – something that the Baron greatly wished, since the Count was a well known military commander, and while not the wealthiest, had some measure of political power and prestige from military campaigns—on top of being known as a steadfast opponent of Mott.

But these hopes were shattered at the news of Montmorency Margarita la Fère de Montmorency's death in a duel – and with it all hope of their family fortunes rising once again. There was no other possible heir or successor, as they had tried for many years to have another child, but all attempts had been unsuccessful.

Thus, it was trivial to understand why they were so upset about the loss of their heiress –as the duel had not only been instigated by a daughter of the Vallière family, but by the familiar of the talentless daughter whose nickname was "Zero." A commoner familiar no less, who, in a travesty of a duel, had slit Montmorency's throat as if she was but a common animal.

How was it that the murderer had not been brought to justice, since clearly the rules did not protect a commoner who murdered a noble…did not protect a commoner who took arms against a noble, for that matter? What the Vallière had done in allowing this execution (for there was no indication that the familiar had been ordered to stop), it went too far, making a mockery of the very laws of Halkeginian society.

"The familiar claimed to be a demon hunter," the baron mused as he looked out at his once proud estate, now fallen into poverty, every line of his body tight and tense as anger radiated from his form. "And the report from the Academy indicates that the familiar did not have magic at all, correct?"

"Yes, this is so," the baroness replied, her lips twisted into a frown that might as well be a snarl. If looks could destroy, the parchment before her would be nothing but ashes…no, dust itself. "I take it you wish to strike back at the Vallières?"

A snort.

"Of course…at long last they have ruined us," the baron, a triangle-class water-mage himself spoke, shaking his head. "And while we cannot match them on the field of battle, thanks to Karin the Heavy Wind, there are other avenues in which we might maneuver. We have nothing to lose, and as they will find, there is nothing more dangerous than someone who is desperate."

"What did you have in mind?"

"This so-called 'Demon Hunter' was confirmed to be non-magical, correct?" the blond man asked sardonically, hard brown eyes fixing on the scenery outside."Then obviously she is simply a commoner who pretends above her station, just as the third daughter of the Vallière family must be. For if the familiar summoning called forth a commoner utterly without magic, that must mean the master was talentless, for does the familiar not reflect the mage's ability?"

"Then you mean to get the High Court to strip her of her noble title and have the familiar executed?"

A truly sinister smile crossed the lips of the Baron de Montmorency at that moment.

"Oh, but there is more," he said, his face setting into a grimly determined mask. "If they insist that the familiar is indeed a Demon Hunter and that the daughter must be a mage, then wouldn't that make the Vallière and her familiar heretics? The Church teaches that nobles can only use one of four elements, after all, and if she claims to use Ancient Magic or the holy power of the Void, then…"

Then the Church itself would pressure Tristain to execute the two of them, to make an example of the high noble who thought herself above the law and the teachings of the Church.

One way or another, the Vallière family would be disgraced – either by the fraud that they had perpetrated, or through their daughter's execution. And with rumors already beginning to fly about the death of a Count-Palatine…

'We can use this to our advantage, especially if the Vallières act as expected and their noble pride forces them to admit to base heresy…'

After all, what mattered truth in the great game of politics? All that mattered was what people could be made to believe.


] | [

Taking a small detour before rejoining his men at the Mott Estate, Viscount Wardes, Captain of the Griffin Knights, happened to come across Richmon, a Royal Palace Judge of the High Court of Justice. The two walked in silence together for a few minutes, something that wasn't too uncommon, as the High Court was the organization that ruled over the administration of justice in the kingdom. Whenever the privileged class disagreed, they were brought in to settle the dispute.

On this day, however, the conversation was not about literature, plays, or land disputes, but something else entirely, given their other allegiances, as Wardes passed Richmon a single sheet of paper, which the judge read, his eyes widening ever so slightly as a thin smile crossed his face.

"Interesting, is it not, Viscount?" the portly justice spoke at last, after making sure no one else was within earshot. "How a single death can be the start of so much turmoil and instability?"

"Indeed, the panic is sure to be interesting – I must needs make a full investigation," the Viscount spoke in a voice almost entirely free of irony. "You will preside over the matter, I presume?"

"Of course…for the greater glory of Reconquista."

Kieran
April 5th, 2011, 07:05 AM
Picked up the latest on your FF.net page - and now I'm not sure which KnK cross I want to see more of . . . Well, more.

alfheimwanderer
April 5th, 2011, 07:18 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/8/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.

] | [

Chevreuse the Red Clay, a skilled Triangle-class Earth mage and one of the professors at the Tristain Academy of Magic, was decidedly on edge as she stood in the Headmaster's Office, with a rather stout looking, sharply dressed noble who identified himself as Knight-Captain Wardes, Commander of the Griffin Knights, circling about her like a vulture over an animal that would soon die.

This was decidedly an unusual state of affairs, as Chevreuse prided herself on being calm and level-headed, but then, that was easy in her chosen career, where her daily tasks essentially consisted of demonstrating her abilities to wide-eyed students and explaining to them how earth magic worked. As she was tended to be far above them in power and experience, the young mages-in-training listened to her without question, as they wished to learn what she knew so they might reach her level of ability one day-that, and it seemed to be an unwritten rule that young people were entranced by shiny things.

Her years behind a lectern made her skilled in knowing how to work a room, learning how to best grab attention, to encourage participation and interest, to seemingly read their mind by deciphering something as simple as a shift of the eyes or a change in posture, for people inadvertently betrayed more than they wished-often enough without speaking so much as a single word.

She had grown comfortable in her role as an instructor, used to being the voice of authority that others deferred to (except the headmaster of course, but she knew him to be an old, if well-meaning soul, and he could be easily enough manipulated most of the time by tears).

"Very well then, Madam Chevreuse," a query rang out, with Viscount Wardes speaking slowly, his silky voice disturbingly hypnotic as he moved about the room, circling the hapless woman like a shark scenting blood. "Now...you were on watch duty for the Academy last night, were you not?"

Unfortunately the same could not be said of the unfamiliar battle-hardened square mage regarding her intently, for he was far more experienced in the arts of intimidation and information gathering than she, which meant she could glean nothing from his expressions, forcing her to rely on words alone...an altogether unreliable means of communication.

"Y-yes, Viscount Wardes," the mage called the Red Clay replied, unable to keep her voice from quavering at the implications of the presence of a square mage-one who commanded one of the three orders of Mage Knights that made up the Imperial Guard, no less. "This is the case."

As a general rule, individuals of that level of ability were rare and powerful enough to be considered strategic assets to a kingdom, and were deployed sparingly to where they were needed-or when the Crown wanted to make a point about how important something was. This was why Old Osmond had been given the post of headmaster of the Tristain Academy of Magic, for though he bore only the title of chevalier and his powers had waned with time, his reputation as the oldest and most experienced square mage in all of Halkeginia was more than enough to offset these comparatively minor liabilities.

Out of respect for the duties Osmond had done for them in the past, the Crown had always been careful to show him respect, giving him a measure of autonomy in how he ran the Academy, essentially treating it as the old man's personal fiefdom. Staffing decisions, security, enrollment, and more they left to him, only "advising" or "suggesting" that certain measures be implemented when they wanted something done, unless there was something urgent that overrode these formalities.

The fact that a Knight-Captain who took his orders directly from the Palace was questioning her directly about what she had seen made the mood unusually grave, as it was an indication that something was afoot with potentially dire repercussions.

"In that case, Madam Chevreuse, what did you see?" the Viscount probed, the irregular rhythm of his boots against the hewn stones of the castle proving quite unnerving to the earth mage.

She hesitated, her jaw setting a little too firmly.

"I didn't see anything that night," she said meekly, the words escaping in a controlled rush as she tried - unsuccessfully - to mask the anxiety building up within her. "Anything out of the ordinary, that is."

"...yes, I imagine you didn't see much, did you, Madam Chevreuse?" the nobleman's silky voice repeated as he continued to circle her, coming to a pause in front of the nerve-wracked earth mage. "After all, no one tends to see much when one is sound asleep."

The frazzled teacher swallowed as her sin was brought full into the light. Indeed, Chevreuse the Red Clay had not seen anything amiss -because she had been soundly asleep in her bed, ensconced within a cocoon of blankets instead of braving the night on sentry duty, much as she did every night she was supposed to be on watch these days.

Habits forged during years of peace had caused her to grow lax, for there was never anything exciting to be seen, no rebellious commoners attempting to storm the castle with torches and pitchforks, no hired brigands seeking to plunder the Academy's famed vaults, no mercenaries seeking to kidnap students or take revenge upon long lost rivals-nothing save wayward students meeting for a clandestine rendezvous or a duel for some juvenile reason or another.

'...a duel...'

And then she felt her stomach sink, her spine seeming to freeze solid as she remembered why she had been assigned an extra watch, why security had been tighter - why she tried to pass off the watches to someone else when she remembered to.

Because when she was out on the battlements, she could feel a proven killer watching her every move, observing her with uncanny blue eyes that sought out any weakness, any fear, any frailty, seeming to whisper that the moment Chevreuse's ceased to be amusing, she would be cut down without mercy.

"I...I..."

Part of her mind told her that this was simply nonsense, that there was no way a ten-year old girl should be able to sense her, much less be in a position to threaten a powerful triangle mage. And for a short while, such words did work to calm her...until the memory of a mangled corpse discarded like trash in Vestri Court rose unbidden to her mind.

Blonde curls matted with blood.

Sightless eyes frozen wide with terror.

A pale neck, with muscles, arteries, veins savagely slashed open – like a permanent second smile, as if asking: "why so serious?"

The sight and sound and smell of death in the air, a poisonous fog inspiring fear and terror.

It was a terrible sight, a memory that made her strength falter and her legs threaten to give out, evoked within her a primal terror of death, one intimately familiar to any animal whose ancestors had once been prey; the certainty that whatever strength one had, whatever cunning, whatever skill, it would not be enough to stave off an inevitable end.

"You what, Madam Chevreuse?" the words came again, silky tendrils that lingered in the air and impinged upon the defenses of her mind. And then the quality of the voice changed, becoming harsher, more brutal, as if each word were a stone hurtling through the air to smashing into her unguarded flesh. "It would not behoove you to lie to us, unless you wish to incur the displeasure of the Crown for interfering with an investigation into a Count-Palatine's murder."

The earth mage reeled, stricken, stumbling and falling to her knees as the final word registered in her mind, terror and disbelief writ large upon her plain features.

"...a Count-Palatine's murder?" she repeated, the words escaping her lips almost of their own accord.

'No...was it...my fault? For not watching...?'

"That is correct. Three nights ago, Mott the Wave was murdered, with the Tristain Academy of Magic being the last place he visited before his death," Viscount Wardes related, sharp eyes exerting an invisible pressure on the mage being interrogated. He seemed to shiver slightly, as if recalling something that could disturb even a veteran of many battlefields. "Truly it was a grisly scene of death, with a body savagely torn apart and blood coating the walls of a mansion like fresh paint, steaming entrails spilling across a marble floor..."

A greenish pallor, the Viscount noted, was not the most complimentary of colors on a plump, middle-aged woman who tended to wear a great deal of purple. Then again, it wouldn't be exactly flattering even on one of those young commoners or low ranking noblewomen Mott was so fond of breaking to his will and using as receptacles for his twisted lusts, abusing them as often as he wished, in whatever manner he wished, without a care for if they lived or died.

Wardes had never truly liked the man, since such unsavory excesses were a sign of weakness, and moreover, spelled the death knell for further ambitions. Indeed, if Mott had been a commoner or a lesser noble, as his actions were considered by most to be not only reprehensible but actionable, as they nagged the conscience and demeaned the value of nobility. However, as a Count-Palatine, a representative of the Palace, he was considered above the law so long as he remained effective at his job in ruthlessly enforcing the edicts of the Crown.

To be sure, his employers had sometimes considered replacing him, but thought better of it, as Mott was bound to those he served by more than simply honor-his loyalties were beyond question, given that all that kept him from falling into disgrace was the tolerance of the Crown itself. Similarly, in the troubled times following the death of the king, getting rid of this longtime servant of the Palace would have been seen as a sign of weakness and instability that the Palace could not afford.

'But then weakness is troublesome in any being...'

The helplessly gibbering wreck of a woman collapsed on the floor was an unsightly example of this, so Wardes decided to help Chevreuse to her feet and ease her down into a nearby chair. It took a few minutes, but eventually, the earth mage regained a little of her composure, though she was still visibly shaking.

"But what..." she began, only to be cut off.

"Ah, but that is my question for you, Madam," Captain Jacques de Wardes said evenly, "Are there any at the Academy who would have the means or motive to kill the Count-Palatine?"

To her credit, Chevreuse tried to calm her mind and consider other possibilities for who might have done it. Osmond would have the power, but not the motivation, and besides, he rarely left campus except to go drinking now and then. Colbert...that was absurd, as everyone knew the man was a socially awkward, diehard pacifist who was terrified of conflict. Gimli Quito, perhaps, the sarcastic wind mage who taught first years? No, but he had never come in contact with the Count, so...

"What kind of magic was used in the killing?" she asked, seeking yet more clues as to the identity of the perpetrator.

"None at all," Wardes related, carefully watching the interrogation subject to see what her reaction would be to this piece of information. "But more to the point, the killer apparently infiltrated and left the Mott estate without being spotted by his guards. By the time he screamed, he was already dead. Does this help?"

'No magic at all...'

A terrible certainty filled the earth mage as she swallowed, her mouth going bone dry.

"No...it can't be..."

She shook her head, trying to deny what she thought must be true, that someone who looked like a small girl was capable of this. That her paranoia had been right all along - the familiar summoned by Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière was a killer, a monster in human shape just waiting for the slightest opportunity or provocation to end the life of an unsuspecting mage.

"Madam Chevreuse, do recall that the Tristain Academy of Magic operates at the pleasure of the Crown, and that you are already guilty of dereliction of duty," the Viscount intoned sternly, his voice like unyielding steel as he bade her to speak. "Usually, such a thing could be overlooked, but under the circumstances, it could be construed as criminal negligence, which would mean having your pay docked for three months, at the very least."

"No...please...don't," the teacher all but begged, prostrating herself before the Viscount and throwing herself on her mercy. "I just paid off my house...if you dock my pay-"

"At worst, you could possibly be stripped of your noble title of your life," he continued, heedless of the woman's pleas. "At the moment, such things are completely at my discretion as a representative of the Crown, so withholding information would be...unwise."

"She calls herself...Mana..."

The whisper slipped numbly from her lips as she recalled the visage of a terrible killer in the guise of a young girl.

Another nervous swallow, then words poured forth as if a dam had been broken.

"The Vallière girl's familiar...she's the one...she must have been," Chevreuse the Red Clay babbled, not seeming at all like the dignified triangle mage most knew her to be. It was the only explanation, for in a school filled with children, where none should have learned the first thing about killing, and their ideas of force should be crude and shapeless at best, the girl named Mana Ryougi had killed without mercy. "She...she killed a student the first day she was summoned. Challenged her to a duel and tore out her throat like an animal, smiling all the while..."

"I see," Wardes observed noncommittally, raising an eyebrow as the demon hunter was mentioned. "Yes, I am well aware of the record of my fiancée's familiar. You would presume to tell me that you believe she is responsible for this?"

The Knight-Captain let the question linger for a small eternity, an eternity during which a damp spot on the teacher's garments grew larger with alarming speed, and the smell of spilled urine hung ripe in the air. But apparently, his subject knew nothing else, or could be compelled to reveal nothing else without the use of abilities he did not need to resort to at this point.

"Thank you...you have been most cooperative," he said dismissively, waving her off. "You may go."

There was a pause as those three words sank into Chevreuse's mind, and then the woman scrambled for the exit with speed born of fear and humiliation, nearly moving on all fours in her haste to escape from the chamber of horrors.

Viscount Jacques de Wardes, Captain of the Griffin Knights and one of the country's few square-class mages, just shook his head as he watched her go. She had given him little actual information, but...it would be enough for the moment, as he didn't really care who others thought was the guilty party, so long it was plausible.

He thought it quite amusing how in order to ensure that information was kept out of the hands of any who were less than loyal to the Crown, the Cardinal had left everything in his Knight's hands, trusting in his power and ability to get results. Unfortunately, while Wardes was indeed the head of the Griffin Knights, he was also one of the highest members of Reconquista, the movement aiming to overthrow the monarchies and unify the continent under one banner.

On paper, he was the ideal candidate to run such an independent investigation, possessing power beyond most, training in unorthodox tactics and skills due to his history, and even the ability to be in multiple places at once, due to Ubiquitous Dell Wind (allowing him to create doppelgangers, multiple bodies that he could coordinate and use for various objectives).

And indeed, he would produce results.

The results that would be of most benefit to him, of course.

In his years of service, the ambitious noble had learned one thing: the truth did not matter. The only things that did were what people perceived as truth...and what he could gain from it.

This was especially so in the time of troubles in which Halkeginia was now embroiled, which an opportunistic man might well take advantage of for self-advancement. All he needed was to find someone with both means and motive to end the Count's life, ignoring the fact that he was a representative of the crown - or perhaps deliberately eliminating him because of it.

After all, there were quite a few individuals who disliked him, some with motive and some with means, but only one great family that could truly be said to have both without fear of reprisal.

The Vallière family, the highest-ranking nobles in Tristain, second only to the royal family.

Indeed, the Duke de la Vallière possessed royal blood, with a claim to the throne stemming from his grandmother...and was known to be resentful of nonsensical instructions from the palace. And while Karin the Heavy Wind, the current Duchess de la Vallière was loyal to the royal family of Tristain, the royal family was not currently in power, as following the death of the King, neither Princess Henrietta nor the Queen had any intention of taking the reins of power, leaving Cardinal Mazarin as Lord Regent. Her loyalty did not quite extend to the Cardinal, nor to those who broke the iron rules of discipline, such as Count Mott and other cronies of the Palace.

So, would it not be plausible that the Vallières were making a bid for power? With their daughter as an agent of subversion, given instructions to fail at magic on purpose until the familiar summoning ritual so that none might suspect her of being a truly powerful mage?

After all, no one would believe that a child of Karin the Heavy Wind and the Duke de la Vallière could truly be a failure (which she was not, as his fiancée, as a Void Mage, likely had the most raw power of any mage in Halkeginia - and would be invaluable to have by his side to facilitate his conquests), and in these tumultuous times, it was all too easy to see enemies around every corner.

All he had to do was tap into the people's suspicions and fears, using them for his own advantage.

A soft, but distinctly audible laugh.

For the moment, the man named Jacques de Wardes was merely a Viscount, having reached the upper limit he could attain through hard work and political games. To advance, he would need to become something greater.

Say, a hero.

For such a one who uncovered evidence of a grand conspiracy of against the Crown, say with the Duke working hand in hand with Reconquista, who knew what rewards awaited him? Land, no doubt, influence, a higher title, and of course, the consummation of arrange marriage to the young Louise, so as to preserve the chain of succession.

He would need to gather a bit more evidence before he could act, assessing the threat level of the familiar in question, talking to the related individuals, and perhaps even seeing his fiancée to further build her trust in him, so when things came crashing down, she would turn to him.

'But for now, everything is proceeding as I have foreseen...'


] | [

In the warm air of late afternoon, the sharp crack-booms of rhythmic explosions rent the air as a pink-haired figure worked on improving her skills with magic - or at least her accuracy with the high-energy releases of power she called magic, with her dutiful familiar watching while working on skills with her shinai, her kata seemingly like a flowing dance. As usual, other students were nowhere near the area, though they were not as terrified by the continuous explosions conjured by Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière as much as by the familiar she had summoned, the terrifying one who most saw as the daughter of death, a beautiful grim reaper who had cut down one of their own without pity or remorse.

It was...wrong how quickly it had happened, how the child had smiled as her knife flashed down with contemptuous ease, in a show of violence that stained the red the morning dew. That the instructors had seemingly not punished her for it, deciding that Mana's actions had been within her rights as a familiar defending her master's honor, simply made most of the students more on edge, as they feared that a cold-blooded assassin now walked among them, able to kill without reprisal.

Granted, the Ryougi heiress hadn't actually sought out any victims that they knew of, but the students were not about to give her any excuse, and so went out of their way to avoid the demon hunter, obeying the impulse of nature to run away, run away and life in an unsightly fashion.

'And then there are those watching from the shadows. I wonder who is watching today...'

There had been any number of watchers recently, some of them observing with their eyes, but most with magic from afar, as if afraid that Mana would alter her behavior or take offense if she knew they were there.

"Remember to keep your body relaxed, Miss Vallière," the demon hunter reminded the pink-haired mage, smiling slightly as the girl known as the Zero just shot her a weary look.

"I'm trying..." Louise ground out from between gritted teeth, huffing and puffing from the accuracy and movement drills she had been doing over and over again. "Not that it's doing any good...even if this is magic to begin with. I don't even have to speak to cast these explosions..."

BOOM!

Several of the "X" marks Mana had scratched into the ground were obliterated all at once, without so much as a word of an incantation from Louise, the sod ripped up to reveal bare dirt beneath.

"...see?"

Mana, still dressed in the odd garment that reminded Louise of a cross between a dress and a mage's robes (which she had called a kimono), walked over and examined the damage to the ground critically.

"If it's not magic then what is?" the Demon Hunter asked quite reasonably, noting that Louise's control had apparently slipped in her annoyance. "Not all spells need a verbal component, Miss Vallière, especially if you've practiced them for a long time. Words were merely a focus to help the mind shape what one wanted, rather than being necessary for magecraft."

"But even people who don't use them anymore had words to begin with..." the pinkette muttered, shaking her head. For Louise, in some ways it had been easier when she had simply been considered a failure in elemental magic, as with her grasp of the theory, she knew the capabilities of each known element (fire, earth, wind, water) and how she could learn to improve as a mage of one of those elements, what her spells would be capable of. She knew what to do, step by step. Comparatively, working on these exercises was difficult in that she didn't have any idea of how she could grow or develop, or how she would move beyond causing explosions to something she might actually be able to use. "I want to be able to do something cool that isn't just blowing something up..."

'Or maybe even master some of the non-elemental spells, like a ward of silence or basic levitation...'

She had still had no progress on learning these abilities, and while explosions were useful enough in their own way, particularly in combat, they weren't nearly as versatile as what others were capable of.

"Mm...I understand your frustration, Miss Vallière," Mana noted encouragingly, giving her nominal master a small smile. "But if you really are aligned with an older system instead of the common elemental magics, then it will take time to learn how it all works. I know, it's not fair that everyone else has six thousand years of tried and true spellcrafting to draw on and that they can learn advanced spells while you're still working on the basics, but that's the way it is. You have to start somewhere, right?"

A heavy sigh.

"I guess so, but still..."

Explosions were all Louise had been able to do since she had first tried to practice magic, had been all she produced every time she tried a spell, and so they reminded her of failure. Sure, she was learning how to use the explosions to her benefit, but still...

"Think of it this way - at least you'll be better at dueling than anyone else," Mana said cheerfully, eliciting a grim smile from the pinkette despite Louise's attempts to stay grumpy. "No one will ever see your explosions coming, after all."

"Heh...you might have a point," the mage conceded, bowing her head slightly. It was only thanks to her familiar that she had begun to improve at all, no matter how frustrating it could be sometimes, with so much work for so little gain.

With that, the Vallière scion went back to her practice, taking anger, bitterness, frustration, envy – taking all those things and using them to boost her willpower, determined to drill proper technique into her body and unlearn everything she had done wrong over the years, repeating her actions over and over so they would become a matter of instinct, not thought.

From a distance in the castle, Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst watched these proceedings with a frown, with her familiar by her side, wondering just who was the master of who in the odd duo. Ordinarily, in a master/familiar relationship, such a thing wouldn't be in question, as even in the case of the more powerful familiars (like Tabitha's dragon or her own salamander), the familiar was bound to the master's will - but in the case of the Vallière and the Ryougi, the flame mage found that she was not quite sure.

'The Zero has been working herself to exhaustion day after day, with a discipline that is almost disturbing. And she's getting more proficient with those explosions.'

Not that she truly had any room to comment, given that the tanned redhead had had military training in her past, so she knew the rigors of discipline...and how bad she personally was at it. It was part of the reason she had been sent from academy to academy in Germania, until she had been expelled from even the prestigious Vindobona Magical Academy in the capital, since she had so little self control-and it was certainly the reason she had come to Tristain, requesting asylum.

She was Kirche "the Ardent", a triangle-class mage whose fire was all consuming, and she chose her own path, no matter what others would say, living by instinct over reason every time.

...she chose that path despite the fact that it was a lonely one, because it was all she knew, and all she had ever known.

As an especially assertive Germanian who went after what she desired without holding anything back, she had often looked down on by others who thought she did not know her place, both in her homeland, but especially in Tristain, where reserve and caution were seen as virtues, and excess as something to be avoided at all costs. That, in addition to her certain wild attractiveness and generous bust, tended to make at least half those around her avert their eyes in disdain or envy.

Many of the male half, of course, had the opposite reaction, lusting after her. And she accepted their attentions, one by one, or three by three, mostly out of boredom, or for some kind of temporary connection even though she knew it didn't mean anything. She'd slept with most of the good-looking boys at the Academy already, but nothing held her interest for long, and so she had simply continued to seek something fulfilling, doing whatever it took to get what she wanted from moment to moment.

For her element was "Fire", the force of destruction and passion, and wanted something different, something fiery enough to make everything else pale in comparison, so that she would not mind if all life was reduced to dust and to ash. Something taboo, perhaps, something that would shake the foundations of the world.

Alas, she'd never found such a thing, no matter how she searched, and so remained unfulfilled.

Indeed, Kirche had no friends in Tristain, save for the soft-spoken Tabitha, who was likewise alone, and who she had only befriended through exceptional circumstances involving a duel, a conspiracy of their mutual enemies, and their revenge on said enemies.

'Vallière is looking for something too, I can tell that much - she's actually a lot like me. As for her familiar...'

The fire magus frowned, as Mana Ryougi was much more of a puzzle to the redheaded Germanian than her nominal master. She knew the theory behind magic to a degree that a commoner certainly wouldn't, could identify magical creatures without pause, stating to have an aunt who was a fire mage - yet not claiming to be a noble herself.

Instead, the raven-haired girl claimed to be something more ridiculous: a demon hunter, a child of Age of Chaos, from before the time Brimir created Elemental Magic.

Ordinarily, it would be a claim to scoff at, but the young girl had backed up her words with a skill and speed that no ten-year old should have in combat, defeating Montmorency with pathetic ease, almost as if she had trained all her life for battle-and ending the water mage's life casually, without even seeming to flinch at all.

That, Kirche would admit, had been rather disturbing, since she would not have thought someone that young capable of such easy violence, but she supposed that when someone destroyed a person's most precious possession, one could resort to violence. Tabitha, she remembered, had once challenged her with intent to kill because one of the ice mage's books had been destroyed, with Kirche framed as the perpetrator. It was possible that the normally cheerful Mana was like her friend in her love of books...

...though why any child would be carrying around a tome that anyone in Halkeginia would have considered a priceless artifact raised any number of questions.

Now, Kirche was impulsive, but she wasn't stupid. She had concluded that either the girl was of extremely high rank and thus was able to afford such a thing, the society she lived in was quite different if items like those were common enough for children to have, or both.

'Maybe there is something like this to the east, somewhere beyond Rub' al Khali?'

It would make sense, given that black hair was almost unheard of in Halkeginia, where reds, blondes, and light browns tended to dominate.

'A land where the demon hunters were never killed because demons and magical beasts continue to roam the world, despite the presence of mages?'

She didn't know, and there was only so much she could learn from afar, so the fire mage made up her mind, relying on her instincts, as always.

"Flame," she intoned, turning to the salamander next to her and handing it a letter to carry in its mouth. "Take this to the demon hunter."

She pointed in the direction of the explosions, as the large, dark-red lizard with tail tipped with flame looked at his master askance, wondering why she wanted him to go there. Surely she could realize that approaching any place ringing with the sound of what seemed like ongoing combat was a very bad idea?

"Urrugo?" it said, in salamander terms meaning "are you out of your mind?"

"...please," Kirche sighed, bowing to the familiar a little bit, which huffed and took the letter from her hand, plodding down the stairs towards the nearest castle exit with a wave of heat.

A few minutes later, long enough for it to get a decent headstart, the fire mage followed, her wand at the ready.

BOOM followed BOOM, the rolling thunder of explosions crashing against the walls of the Academy's courtyard and echoing all about as Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière continued her exercises, pointing and blasting, pointing and blasting, pointing and-

"Feh!"

-diverting her blast away from the oncoming reptilian beast, which she recognized as the Salamander from the Fire Dragon Mountains belonging to that stupid Kirche, breathing a sigh of relief as she missed hitting the creature. As much as it was tempting, it wouldn't do to just pulp her rival's familiar without provocation, even if she could claim that it was an accident. She liked animals, after all, and big sister Cattelya would never forgive her if she hurt an animal without it being in self defense.

When it came to a halt in front of her, Louise could see that it was still intimidating as ever, being the size of a tiger, its tail tipped with flame, but it lacked sparks and embers floating about its mouth this time, with...a letter there instead?

Puzzled for why this might be there, Louise made to take the letter from the other girl's familiar, only for it to shake its head, gesturing to Mana instead.

The demon hunter, who had just finished one of her kata when she noticed the lull in the usual cacophony, walked over to where Louise was standing in front of the flame lizard.

"It seems to have a letter for you," the Vallière girl said sheepishly, as if explaining why she had stopped casting.

"Mm, is that so?" Mana murmured, curtsying to the noble beast as it in turn bent its head to her and opened its mouth, allowing her to take the slightly singed envelope. "Thank you."

Curious as to what was inside, the Ryougi heiress wasted no time in opening the envelope with her ever-handy knife, though her eyebrows shot up as she took in what was written.

"What does it say?" Louise asked, curious as to what Kirche of all people had to say in a letter of all things.

"She wants to meet me for a spar in a few minutes," Mana paraphrased, blinking in surprise.

That was...unexpected. Most had gone out of the way to avoid her, utterly terrified of her and perceiving everything she said as death threats and challenges.

"...a spar?" Louise repeated hollowly, the blood draining from her face as she remembered how Mana's last encounter with another mage had gone. It was easy to let that slip her mind, given how helpful the familiar had been, but...Kirche was even more arrogant and self-assured of her abilities than Montmorency, and she couldn't help but fear that if both went at it seriously, the result would be yet another tragedy.

Somehow, she didn't think anyone would be very happy about that.

"Don't worry, there won't be any lethal blows," the demon hunter said, trying to reassure the strawberry blonde. "She specified that the terms were to first blood or until disarmed."

"And when is this to be?" Louise asked, wondering exactly what Kirche had in mind. A grand spectacle, perhaps, or-

"In just a few minutes, I think - I can see her in the distance," Mana noted, her eyes sharp as she tracked the progress of the redhead from the castle, though she waited

The two waited with the salamander as the flame mage arrived in Vestri Court, drawing her wand and giving a salute to both Louise and Mana.

"Mana Ryougi, self-proclaimed Demon Hunter," the Germanian intoned, looking at the young girl in question, taking in her odd garments from up close. Fine fabrics those, dark blues with delicate embroidery, she seemed much more a person of high-rank than before. "You said your aunt was a fire mage, correct?"

"That is so, Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst," Mana replied, nodding to the older girl and saluting with her shinai, a small smile tugging at the edges of her lips. "Which means that I am quite used to facing those who use the element of fire."

"Oh? How curious..."

"Yes," the Ryougi heiress agreed. "Much like your friend the dragon-rider is, it seems."

This time, it was the fire mage whose eyebrows shot up, as no one normally noticed Tabitha when she was watching them, or the ice mage's dragon for that matter.

"So you noticed," Kirche said simply.

"I am not as unaware of prying eyes as one might think, Miss Zerbst," came the response, as Mana eyed her opponent speculatively.

"...apparently not."

There was a touch of wariness and respect in those words, as the fire mage wondered how much else the demon hunter noticed, and Louise wondered who was watching.

"You offered a spar, with no lethal blows, correct?" Mana asked in confirmation.

"Of course. As a noble, the risk of death is always been in the not so distant future, but there's no point in risking my life unnecessarily, after all!" the von Zerbst proclaimed heartily, but then looked to where Louise was standing with a weary but determined look on her face. "Are you fine with this, La Vallière?"

It was the first time in nearly a year that Kirche had addressed the pinkette by name, instead of simply as Zero. Faced with that acceptance, Louise just looked between the two of them and backed away, hoping they both knew what they were doing.

"Do as you like then," the strawberry blonde said, looking over at the Ryougi heiress.

"Before we begin, I have one question," the demon hunter interjected, meeting the flame mage's eyes. "Why?"

"Because I am curious about you," Kirche admitted, not flinching from the gaze. "And as the Ardent, I learn about others best in the heat of passion, whether in battle or in bed. Now...shall we dance?"

A nod.

In response, the Germanian hefted her wand, taking three steps back, with Mana mirroring her with her shinai.

"Begin on the count of three. One-two-three!"

With the rapidfire muttering of spells, and the muffled sound of footsteps on grass, as both combatants moved.

Neither charged straight at the other, nor retreated, both simply advancing at an angle, with the end result being something of an inward spiralling as they kept the other in their sights.

For Mana, this was because she did not want to remain in the other's line of fire/sight, having experience in sparring with fire mages before; for Kirche, she wanted to maintain distance, since controlling the field of battle was easily as important as power or ability in a fight. The Germanian knew she would have no chance if the distance closed to nothing, as the demon hunter had shown herself to be quite masterful in melee.

A blaze of heat, as a fiery cat o'nine tails sprang from the end of the wand, flaming tendrils crackling as they rent the air, slicing towards the demon hunter's legs, but Mana, who had gotten in a great deal of practice evading such attacks, didn't bother retreating, as that would only invite pursuit. Instead, she sprang forward and to the right, her lithe form passing over the molten whips, kimono fluttering in the wind, before Kirche could react. Still, flames were not as easily ignored as water, as with sibilant hisses, the tendrils tore black gouges into the ground, dampness flashing instantly to steam under the extreme heat.

Wsh!

Recognizing she wouldn't be able to pull back in time, the whips were jerked back, replaced with a spread of five fireballs meant to restrict Mana's movement, aiming in front, behind, at the ground and to the sides, superheated plasma blazing through the air in a cage of heat and light.

Still, Mana had options, as battles were not fought in two dimensions, but three, meaning that she had one additional vector: up.

In the moments before the fireballs hit, the raven-haired girl slammed her shinai on the ground, joining the force of her Gandalfr rune-empowered thrust with the full power of her legs to launch herself into a high jump, clearing the approaching projectiles, which slammed into another with a blast of sound and fury.

...but that was exactly what Kirche had wanted her to do, as closing every escape route but one to herd an opponent into an unfavorable position was standard military doctrine.

If the petite raven-haired girl were a wind mage, Kirche wouldn't have bothered, since flight was one of the basic spells of that element, and skilled users could turn on a coin, changing vector in mid-air, but as far as she knew, the demon hunter was not. In fact, she lacked even a basic levitation spell, meaning that once launched, she had no easy way of altering her trajectory...and thus was easily predictable. All the speed in the world wouldn't save her from a (low powered) center-of-mass shot if she had nothing to push against to alter her direction.

A last fireball shot from Kirche's wand, tearing through the air to secure her victory-but missed by scant centimeters, as the girl somehow managed to avoid the shot, somehow launching herself backwards, the runes on her left hand glowing bright as something blurred towards her.

Instantly reacting, the fire mage's chanted a spell, hand springing up to track the demon hunter's motion as she saw the other touch down on the ground...but nothing happened.

She blinked, and then pain registered in her left hand, with the flame mage looking down to confirm what she suspected: she had been disarmed, her wand laying on the ground next to her opponent's wooden sword.

In what Kirche had thought would be her moment of victory, she had instead been defeated.

'...with no other way to avoid my strike, she threw her sword to change her path, gambling on being able to disarm me,' the Germanian realized, her expression betraying no small amount of incredulity. She'd never lost a duel before, not in Germania and certainly not in Tristain, as every time before this, her skill and raw power had been enough to decide things in her favor. But not this time, even when she should have had every possible advantage. 'I underestimated Vallière 's familiar...badly, it seems.'

"Clever," the redhead voiced aloud, looking at the younger girl appraisingly, brown eyes looking into blue . "I wouldn't have expected you to throw something as unwieldy as a wooden sword."

"We all have a few tricks people don't expect, right Miss Zerbst?"Mana reminded her opponent, her tone perfectly even. "As I said, I'm used to sparring against a fire mage."

"So we do," the fire mage allowed, nodding to herself. After that display, the von Zerbst thought she could believe that. She looked down at the sword, however, noting how unaerodynamic it was, and then at her hand, reddening from the blow. 'I might need Tabitha to put some ice on that or it might start swelling.' "Even so, you held back. Instead of coming at me with the speed you used against Montmorency, you hung back." She glanced up at the raven-haired girl shrewdly. "...you were testing me, weren't you? Seeing what I could do, what tactics I liked?"

"Of course I was," Mana acknowledged cheerfully, her expression neutral. " Knowledge is power, after all, and while you are a fire mage, you aren't Aunt Azaka. Your battle styles are different, since she has no problem with fighting up close or at range - she can cast without a wand, due to her salmander skin gloves."

Kirche blinked, her gaze shifting over to her reptilian familiar, which somehow seemed a little uncomfortable if slowly shuffling to the side was any indication.

"If those truly work...that would be...useful," the Germanian said slowly, blinking as she took in the concept of being able to fight without a wand. The glaring weakness of most spellcasters was the inability to deal with any opponents who managed to get close, especially since most never trained in physical combat, relying on their spells to end things at a distance. "...just how much do you know about the world of magic? And how skilled are you?"

And how was she so skilled at her age, Kirche wanted to ask, but didn't.

Mana only smiled.

"Oh, I don't think I'll answer those," she quipped, her face quite serene. "A girl has to keep some secrets, right?

"That may be true, but would you still hold back in a life or death battle?" Kirche asked softly, eyes drifting to her hand, which only now was reddening from the blow, as she bent down to pick up her wand...and the Ryougi heiress' shinai, proffering it to the younger girl.

Louise, for her part, just looked on silently, having watched the ongoing proceedings with great interest.

"...I think we both know the answer to that," the demon hunter murmured archly, accepting her weapon with a nod.

"So we do, demon hunter," the fire mage acknowledged, accepting the rank as truth this time, not simply a claim. "So we do."

alfheimwanderer
April 6th, 2011, 03:38 AM
Ah, this story ... How I adore this story ... It's so much more than "Oh look! A guy way more powerful than Saito has appeared! And he can actually get the girls into bed! And he won't put up with Louise's bullshit! Aren't I a genius?!"

Unfortunately, GB's work has given birth to a host of the above type of story. It's so much more interesting to see a diversion from the norm. I'm a little put off by Monmon's death, it even kept me from reading this for awhile, but I've gotten over it. An excellent read, as always Alfheim-sama.

Thanks. I'm not going to bash another writer's story, given that GB's Hill of Swords, while flawed in some ways, is what drew many people to the ZnT fandom, without which I would probably not have quite the reader base I do for Echoes (with the exception of those who have stuck around since my earlier stories, of course. :) ) Still, its nice to know that people appreciate the story, especially when one sees some of the comments on SpaceBattles sometimes.


I'm still trying to figure out who killed him. I think my money's on Fouquet for now, though.

Oh, you'll find out soon enough, methinks.


Picked up the latest on your FF.net page - and now I'm not sure which KnK cross I want to see more of . . . Well, more.

Well, I'll hopefully have updates for both quite soon then. :)

Kieran
April 6th, 2011, 07:03 AM
Cool! And judging by them, and Evangel Notes (which I went through last night, allowing "Fletching" to make far more sense), you're a fan of Aura, too. I note one of her lines used repeatedly. As a fan of both her and running themes, I approve. :D

alfheimwanderer
April 6th, 2011, 07:32 AM
Heh, have you read hack//EVA: Catharsis then?

Kieran
April 6th, 2011, 08:41 AM
On my "to do" list - and I think I'll do it now. But if it's all the same to you, I'll skip the Geass ones. I know nothing about the series at all, other than that it's complicated.

alfheimwanderer
April 6th, 2011, 06:19 PM
My implementation of it is more of the Code Geass story rewritten to fit within the Nasuverse setting, but sure.

hbomb
April 7th, 2011, 09:11 PM
Wow, you never cease to amaze me.

Theocrass
April 7th, 2011, 09:20 PM
Thanks. I'm not going to bash another writer's story, given that GB's Hill of Swords, while flawed in some ways, is what drew many people to the ZnT fandom, without which I would probably not have quite the reader base I do for Echoes (with the exception of those who have stuck around since my earlier stories, of course. :) ) Still, its nice to know that people appreciate the story, especially when one sees some of the comments on SpaceBattles sometimes.


Oh, I don't hate Gb's fic. In fact, I must admit I sort of enjoy it. I'm just bashing all the lame ones that tried and failed to do the same thing he did.

Also, don't feel too bad about SB. Most people there are misanthropic bastards/nihilistic assholes/idiots/insane fan boys. Though I have to admit, there are many exceptions.

alfheimwanderer
August 1st, 2011, 05:37 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/9/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as much as hers.


] | [

A week had passed since the murder of Count-Palatine Mott (and four days since the secretive visit of Viscount Jean-Jacques Wardes to the campus), but in that meager span of time, virulent rumors had begun to spread about why the head of the Imperial Guard had come to the Academy, growing with each retelling and taking on a life of their own.

...especially as more victims were claimed each night, until at week's end, on the holy day of Void, all seven of the Counts-Palatine that helped to govern the realm had been slain.

Quite an unsettling turn of events, given that like Mott, each had been a powerful triangle mage who had once led armies into battle and enforced the will of the palace. Even if they had become somewhat corpulent, complacent, and corrupt in their old age, they were still formidable by any standard, as one did not readily forget the rigors of the battlefield.

Their personal abilities aside, each even had a detachment of soldiers protecting them, loyal men who had served under them in their regiments in times of war. While only a fraction of the forces they'd once commanded, these men were not to be trifled with, having experience fighting a variety of foes, maintaining order...

And yet, all of this had proved useless against the mysterious killer, with their defenses - their magic - their utmost efforts proving quite futile in the end, as one by one, they fell to the icy clutches of death, their brutally dismembered corpses discovered by their staff only when it was far too late.

In each case, it seemed no magic had been used, simply metal and sharp precision.

First the eyes were blinded.

A second slash severing the jugular.

A knife sliding up in the gap between ribs, piercing the chambers of the heart.

A sharpness piercing the abdomen and ripping the innards apart.

A slice from behind, separating the 2nd and 3rd cranial vertebrae.

And everywhere - on every surface, blood was splashed like splatter of paint, as if each killing was some avant-garde masterpiece, with limbs severed, sliced open to the bone and tastefully arranged as if to resemble the petals of a flower - a crimson and bone-white flower of Thanatos, with the pièce de résistance the look of absolute terror and surprise frozen on their faces

For before the inevitability of death, the weak and powerful alike were rendered helpless. Even the greatest of magi, normally so confident, so arrogant in the fullness of their strength, when pushed to the edge, unable to fight back, unable to even to understand how they had been so overwhelmed - finally tasted true despair.

If the timing of their deaths weren't quite so unfortunate, it might even have been darkly amusing - but for the high nobles of Tristain (and even for many of the commoners, for whom the absolute strength of the nobles was an unfortunate cornerstone of their beliefs) the current events were no laughing matter.

And in the absence of concrete information about the nature of what they faced, the populace came up with all sorts of odd rumors and speculations as to who - or what - might be wreaking havoc on the kingdom, desperately trying to figure out what was going on.

The most potent and primal of human fears, after all, was that of the unknown, as it was often thought that knowledge was power - not that such knowledge was of much help against an adversary who none had so much as seen. Thus, at night, as people huddled in their rooms, almost afraid to travel outside, hushed whispers flew about the possible identity of the killer.

One of the more popular rumors among the commoners said that the killer was the ghost of a vengeful maiden who had been violated by Mott, a shade who could not pass on until her thirst for blood had been satisfied. That she lingered in the city still, determined to hunt down all those she held responsible for her fall from grace...

Most of the nobles, however, thought the killer might be an elf or one of the dark spirits their ancient magic was said to be able to contract with, a being whose goal was to weaken the nations of man so that humanity would be unable to do God's work and drive the demonspawn from the Holy Lands, wreaking vengeance upon humanity with impunity. It was no secret that the elves thought of humans as mere barbarians, and that every time the nations of man had warred upon the elves, the human armies had been slaughtered without remorse, with elven mages showing utter contempt for man's futile resistance, reveling in the fear they caused as they demonstrated their superiority.

Some, with a broader or more enlightened view on politics and international relations, wondered to themselves if these murders might be related to the unrest in Albion - if the current goings-ons were the doing of foreign spies attempting to weaken Tristain so to make an invasion easier. It wasn't exactly a secret that the primary goal of Reconquista, the organization of rebels in Albion, was the destruction of the Albionian Royal Family - or that the Royal Family of Tristain was closely related to that of Albion, as the two often intermarried.

There were those who thought of this assumption of foreign enemies as silly, given that the Kingdom of Tristain had seen enough internal turmoil in the last few years. And with the growing dissatisfaction with Cardinal Mazarin's iron-fisted rule, it was not inconceivable that a group of the highest nobles of Tristain might have formed a cabal to overthrow the Regent's rule, with their shadowy operatives having infiltrated the deepest reaches of the palace itself.

...and a small but growing number believed that the killer was none other than the self-proclaimed demon hunter who stalked the grounds of the Tristain Academy of Magic in the form of a little girl, luring in her prey with a cheerful aura and innocent gaze-until she viciously ripped out her victims' throats with elf-like speed.

While the seeds of this last rumor had been started by the weak-willed Madam Chevreuse, who had never quite been able to keep her mouth shut, even, no, especially when she had dire news or some morsel of information she was supposed to keep secret, it had only grown as it had thanks to tantalizing scraps of information that had been released concerning the murders - as well as the killing of the de Montmorency girl and how that family had charged the Vallières with heresy.

After all, while the thought of a little girl, demon hunter or no, being able to slay triangle-class mages was absurd - when one considered that she happened to be the familiar of a Vallière, a member of the family that was recognized as the most powerful and independently influential of Tristain's nobles (not to mention an offshoot of the royal family with a claim to the throne), suddenly the thought became much less ridiculous to consider.

For none had chafed under the Cardinal's heavy hand so much as the Vallières...and no other noble family was quite as known for its strict manner and sense of discipline. True, they had been loyal servants of the Crown...but since the passing of the King, the Royal Family no longer truly held power in Tristain, did it?

It was well known that the Princess Henrietta was unfit to rule, that the Queen had no desire to rule, and that the true temporal master of Tristain was the Lord Regent, His Eminence the Cardinal Mazarin. Just as it was common knowledge that by the rule of steel, the personal credo of Karin the Heavy Wind, making her feared during her term as head of the Imperial Mage Guard twenty years ago - those who could not command did not deserve to be obeyed.

Thus, few believed the fact that these killings had begun a week after Karin's "talentless" daughter had summoned a familiar, on the night after Mott visited the campus, to be merely a coincidence. After all, if the child had truly been talentless, then surely she would have already been disowned from the family...and given that the first act of the child's familiar was to eviscerate one of the most powerful magi of her year with contemptuous ease, many were beginning to reconsider how "talentless" the Zero might have been.

For as the Founder Brimir wrote in his holy text: "There is no such thing as a coincidence in this world; there is only the inevitable."

It didn't particularly help matters that Viscount Wardes, Captain of the Griffin Knights and Head of the Imperial Mage Guard-the same position Karin had held two decades ago, who had been put in charge of this investigation (without any official results thus far), was known to be engaged to this youngest daughter of the Vallière family.

Still, Jacques de Wardes, the man called "the Lightning", was said to be a true noble, a gallant incorruptible knight of justice, and most had faith that he would find the killer in the end.

Or so the people hoped, as rumors continued to spread, carried on the lips of messengers and merchants who travelled through the land.


] | [

For better or for worse, most of these rumors did not reach the Tristain Academy of Magic, as that prestigious campus was something of an island unto itself. Yet there, the atmosphere was unusually tense, even taking into account the way students had been prickly and on edge following the death of one of their own. Perhaps this was because the rumor of the dread hunter had started here, with a nervous admission from a member of the staff that had found fertile ground in the imaginations of impressionable youths.

Under pressure from her colleagues, Madam Chevreuse had revealed everything she knew about the Mott investigation, crumbling to the will of others, as was her wont (she was called the "Red Clay", after all, and clay was nothing if not pliable). After her harrowing interrogation by Captain Jean-Jacques Wardes, she had been quite shaken, and during dinner with colleagues, her fellow professors had hounded her about where she had disappeared to and why she had been so nervous.

Try as she might, she hadn't been able to keep her mouth shut, and so the staff and students were beginning to hear about the death of the Count-Palatine, with all the grisly details thereof.

How the body had not been simply stabbed, crushed, or decapitated so much as torn apart, how Mott had not been killed as brutally tortured and executed, as if by a vengeful demon - or perhaps one who hunted them.

For as those who had read the ancient legends knew full well: did those who fought monsters not become monsters themselves in time?

After all, there had to have been a reason that demon hunters - those with minds of steel who fought against undying avatars of nightmare - had been so feared in their time, considered the equal of the elves. And given how the students of the Academy had borne witness to how easily one of their own had been cut down by a demon hunter - in the same manner that her ancestors had been said to kill off bloodsucking demons and embodiments of primal chaos, those childhood fears and insecurities, thought long behind them, began to awaken once more.

None would voice their fears except in whispers, afraid that the familiar would hear and take offense, but suspicions and speculation ran rife, nonetheless, and the tension was beginning to manifest in other forms.

Accidents, mostly.

People tripping and falling down stairs, normally talented students failing to cast their intended spells, careless mistakes on homework, explosions (not of Louise's making) in the potion-making classes, and one or two even suffering a breakdown at the sight of the edge of a knife carving into slabs of meat at mealtimes.

The sun shone brightly, the illumination of that fiery orb seeming to banish even the traces of nightmare and darkness from the world- yet just beneath the surface of reality, something dark and malignant lingered like a nameless curse, gnawing at the edges of perception.

Naturally, with the relationship of humanity to inescapable truths being what it was, many has turned to the defense mechanism of denial, refusing to admit that the chill they felt was anything tangible, even as they spent most of their time indoors, either in their rooms or in the great halls where they congregated for meals, instinctively preferring the safety of numbers.

...all the more so because the Zero and her terrifying familiar had effectively laid claim to the courtyard with their daily ritual of combat training, and interrupting them was considered by the wise to be tantamount to suicide. A familiar reflected her master, and after what had happened to the last person to anger either of the two, none of the students were particularly eager to put their lives on the line, finding discretion to be the better part of valor.

But perhaps they should have been more wary, as terrible premonitions could bring forth a terrible reality

And so it would play out in the week after the Mott incident...


] | [

Oddly enough, there was one person at the Academy who hadn't caught wind of any of these rumors, largely because, in the wake of the Montmorency incident, the notorious playboy Guiche de Gramont had gone out of his way to avoid human interaction, becoming something of a recluse.

His nightmares of death had only gotten worse, with anyone he talked to showing up in them as victims, so he withdrew from the company of others unless absolutely necessary, staying awake as long as he could, since the more he tired himself out, the greater the chance that he would not have to see those he knew butchered in his dreams.

'It's no good,' the blond fop thought to himself, as he sat in the section of the Academy's library that he had claimed for himself, surrounded by books and his bronze automata, ruling as a king over a kingdom of self-loathing and escapism. 'Everywhere I go, I see nothing but the dead--and the dying--around me.'

He was supposed to be the son of one of Tristain's great captains of war, yet until he had seen someone die before his eyes, he hadn't truly understood what it meant to kill.

...what it meant to face the fact that he, and everyone around him, could be killed.

Like most young nobles, he had once thought himself invincible, reveling in the blessing of elemental magic granted by the Lord through the Founder Brimir. His skill at molding earth into bronze or roses had made him proud, but in the end, his pride was as toxic as the metal he worked (bronze having first been an alloy of copper and arsenic, not tin) - and though bronze was usually resistant to corrosion, as his pride had proved through many years, under certain conditions, it could break down in days.

Such a condition was the realization of the fragility of flesh, the utter frailty of blood and bone and how easily even a mage could die, which made him wonder how humans didn't just fall apart from the stresses and strains of each passing day - especially as they began to die the moment they were born...

'Ack...damnit, why do I keep thinking like this?' Guiche wondered, looking down at the tomes scattered around him in a vain attempt to distract him from thoughts of the macabre, to help him gain a temporary respite from the travails of this ludicrous world. 'Ever since she died...I've been a mess. I mean, I never really loved her, but...'

He supposed it was the fact that her death had marked his final loss of innocence, when he'd finally understood the ephemeral nature of life - and the world. How the ground seemed like it wasn't there, and the sky might fall at any moment...

Fortunately, he was jolted from his thoughts by the touch of cold metal on his shoulder, as one of his bronze constructs handed him a book, having interpreted his pause as discontent with his current selection.

Almost mechanically, the blond absently accepted the tome, only to double-take when he saw the title: "Steel Archontes: Echoes of the Age of Chaos."

'Huh...what's this? A novel?'

He was certain he'd told his automata to only choose textbooks and histories related to earth elemental magecraft, so that while he inundated his mind with an ocean of data to drown out the conflicting feelings inside of him, he might learn something useful as well - but given that they didn't respond well to complex commands, he supposed they'd just picked out anything with a metal or the like in the title.

'Something else to work on, I suppose...'

In the course of his light reading, he'd found that contrary to belief, a mage's power and affinity wasn't all that mattered - that precision of intent in how one used one's power also mattered.

For example, being able to create a golem that could respond to simple commands was good, but if one didn't focus on exactly what one wanted, understanding the composition of the materials in the finished product and the techniques one was replicating with magic, the result would be mediocre at best, the internal structure riddled with flaws that would lead to its phantasmal existence being crushed before long.

Comprehension, Deconstruction, Reconstruction - the three components of effective transmutation, with the proper application of the craft requiring a full understanding of the world, as well as intelligence and aptitude.

Perhaps these differences in precision were why there were differences in power even between those who could combine the same number of elements...

He blinked as he processed these bits of information.

Why...hadn't anyone taught that to him? No, a better question was this: when had he become so complacent, believing that knowledge and ability would simply come to him?

Was it because the teachers treated transmutation as something simple, something that any amateur could do with instinct and will alone? Was it because his father had been a powerful mage and thus he felt a sense of entitlement? Or was it because Guiche himself had let these things get to him, treating the gift of magic lightly?

Sometimes, he wished he were like his golems - a being of bronze which could not feel, given all that it was needed in its moments of creation, not be prone to emotion - a being which could easily be remade if broken. 'Still, maybe a novel wouldn't be a bad change of pace...'

The other person who frequented the library, with her visits so regular one could tell time by them, the powerful triangle-class wind mage named Tabitha, was often seen reading such things, and her abilities hadn't suffered for it...

'Maybe I'll give it a try then...'


] | [

Three days after the Mott incident, the rumor of the demon hunter and her master being responsible for the killings had consumed the school. Among the staff, opinions were sharply divided as to whether or not this was true, but most of the students needed no convincing, because from the evidence of their eyes, it was entirely plausible.

Thus the social isolation continued, though this time, it was not due to a desire to bully the Zero, but to stay away from her lest she erupt into one of her famous temper tantrums - especially when she now had the power to make the campus rain blood if she so wished, what with her familiar and the fiery Kirche by her side.

...that, too, had become something the majority wondered about as well.

Why, exactly, had the triangle-class fire mage Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, longtime rival (and harasser) of Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière (as was only right, given the enmity between the von Zerbst and the de La Vallière family) chosen to fight the familiar...almost as if to test her abilities? And why had she been spared, when the last person to challenge her had been so ruthlessly cut down?

It couldn't have been mercy granted on a whim, given the longstanding grudge Louise held for Kirche, so there was only one possible conclusion: that some kind of accommodation had been reached by their families.

Something sinister was afoot, with this sea-change in the status of these bitter enemies heralding the arrival of something dark and ominous. For besides their reputation for love affairs and scandal, the von Zerbst family also had a reputation for being elegant hyenas of the battlefield, their martial strength checked only by the might of the Vallière. If these two houses had banded together in truth, putting their age-old conflict aside, the political landscape of the continent might well be rewritten.

Or so the rumors went, not that Kirche had ever paid much attention to them, as people usually said one thing (such as calling Germanians barbaric and brutal) while their actions told a different tale (as with the number of young men clamoring to be her lover). Of course, in the wake of her new association with Louise, many of the male students had ceased to grace her with their attentions - a fact that Kirche noted, might be related to the fact that many of their Tristanian lovers had decided to sleep with them, affirming that they were alive by partaking in the ultimate act of life.

'Taking sides, are we...?' Kirche thought to herself, shaking her head. 'Well, it's nothing I haven't seen before...and aren't they just scared that their acts might come back to haunt them?'

The same had been true in Germania, where Kirche had been expelled from Academy after Academy for behavioral infractions, due to the fact that others couldn't bear the fact that their actions had consequences. They did as they wished when they were in a position of power - but then whined and screamed when something went wrong, unable to take what they dished out.

Such arrogance was utterly unbefitting of a noble, especially when one put one's life on the line. Which was why she was more comfortable around Tabitha and the "dread demon hunter", as both of them knew what it meant to fight in the full knowledge of their mortality.

...this sense of camaraderie, unfortunately, did not extend to the pinkette that Mana called her master - the one that Kirche was currently "sparring" with, at the young girl's request.

'Though I do wonder where Mana disappeared to...something about a surprise.'

BOOM!

"Heh, nearly got me that time, Zero..." Kirche commented, as a blast of concussive force barely missed her side. "Maybe you should call it a day - since you're not going to hit me today."

" Hah…guh…hah..guh…why, you?" her training partner commented, brows knitting in anger as a wand was slashed down at full force-

BOOM!

-with the resulting explosion missing Kirche by a fair margin this time, angled too low and to the right.

Just as planned, really.

"You're letting your anger get the best of you, Louise," the redhead chided, launching a small fireball at the smaller girl's feet. Surprisingly, the pinkette managed to dodge while leveling her wand, though her breath was ragged from her earlier exertions.

Another blast erupted, this one aimed squarely at Kirche's feet, to knock the other woman over - but as the Germanian was a much more experienced duelist, she was able to dodge as soon as she saw the wand being leveled.

Even if one could not see the spell itself being released, one could at least follow the position of the wand, just as an experienced combatant could "dodge a bullet" by avoiding where a gun was pointing, even if one could not see a bullet.

"What you're doing is foolish, Zero," Kirche said as she moved about, smirkingin the way she knew would most infuriate the pinkette. "Don't try to suppress your anger...use it. Your frustration, your sadness, your despair, your fear - use it!"

A triple volley of explosions was Louise's answer, as the La Vallière simply tensed all the muscles in her body as she inhaled, relaxing on the exhale, her wand swinging up as energy was released.

"I'm...I'm not like you...!" the Tristanian growled, breathing hard, her muscles sore from trying to trying to land a single blow of Kirche, who was obviously on a completely different level than she.

"...which is why you can't beat me," the redhead clucked, launching two more fireballs - one aimed at Louise - and the other in the direction Louise usually dodged, forcing the pinkette to desperately evade. A dangerous smile. "Now, stop trying to hit me and hit me already!"

BOOM!

Things were rather less violent in the Academy kitchens, where Mana Ryougi demonstrating her mastery of blades in a slightly different manner - by helping with a bit of the cooking and working on a small project of her own, with mixed reactions from the staff.

Marteau, the gruff, middle-aged but good natured head chef of the Academy and master of the kitchens, had taken a liking to the young girl because she had dared to stand up to the nobility - and moreover had beaten one in their own game, showing that they were not the invincible masters of the earth they thought themselves to be.

The fact that the girl with a refined aie had good manners, showed an interest in the culinary arts (acknowledging it as something like a magic of its own), and had volunteered to share some recipes from her homeland was merely icing on the cake.

Thus today, he was humoring her with preparing food suitable for something Mana called a "picnic" (pique-nique), a term the Chef had never heard of before. The Ryougi heiress had explained that it was a tradition of preparing a meal to be eaten outdoors (en plein air), adding that since the students of the Academy seemed...uncomfortable with her presence, she didn't want to go out of her way to antagonize them.

"I could never do something so pointless," Mana had said, as if she were enjoying the casual conversation from the bottom of her heart, her hands a blur as she carved thin cuts of meat off from a slab of roast beef, placing them within several freshly toasted baguettes which had already been lined with slices of cheese. "Besides, I don't want them to end up suspicious of my disposition."

"I'm surprised," Mateau had said to this, as he sautéed some onions and wild mushrooms in a shallow pan over a central cooking pit with a chimney, the smell of it wafting through the kitchens. "I didn't think you'd care about they thought, Little Reaper."

"I don't, really, but it would make Miss Vallière upset to go in there and face their stares," the Ryougi heiress said frankly, pouting in slight displeasure. "Feh, they're all magi, so I'd have thought they'd understand what it means to put their lives on the line and walk with death. After all, Montmorency wouldn't have felt any remorse if she killed me."

"Ah...that's because of the noble sense of entitlement," the Head Chef snorted, shaking his head as he glanced over towards one of his helpers, who was getting an assortment of stuff buns out of the oven. "They think they're better than us just because they can use magic. Sure, maybe they can make pots and pans and castles from dirt, conjure up unbelievable gems, even control dragons - but so what! Magic doesn't raise crops, magic can't make art, and magic certainly can't make exquisite dishes."

"This is so," Mana agreed quietly, her sweet voice carrying through the kitchen. "Anything magecraft can do can be also done with the work of humble hands. It isn't a miracle..."

Somewhere behind her, a clang marked a pan dropping to the ground, as someone heard her words and was stunned, since everyone knew that magic was a miracle given to the nobles by God, and for all those who were skeptical about the Church, there were always one or two true believers.

"...maybe, but you still have a very callous attitude toward death, Little Reaper," the Chef remarked, eying the girl critically. "Who knows, maybe you are one of those ancient demon hunters come to life. Would explain your mindset about things, and why you dress like a noble even if you can't use magic."

"Are you calling me old, Mister Marteau?" Mana questioned sharply, truly pouting this time.

But the chef only laughed, a jolly sound that echoed deeply.

"The Little Reaper, old? Oh, perish the thought," Marteau responded wryly. "Even I, an uncouth commoner, know better than to call a young woman old. Especially one who knows how to use a knife as well as you." He paused, regarding her oddly. "Now that I think about it though, where did you learn to cook? That doesn't seem like a skill that a noble family - or a demon hunting clan - would treasure."

"Oh, that. Mother taught me how," Mana said simply, recalling more of her mother's mentions of travel to other worlds and other times, courtesy of Zelretch. "I still need to beat her one day."

"Heh. Well, at least one great house respects the value of the culinary arts," Marteau noted, rather pleased to hear that someone who was the heiress of what was essentially a noble clan was taught how to work in the kitchens. "Though..."

"You wouldn't have expected me to know how to cook?"

"...well, no, or at least nothing more than how to make pastries and soufflés as some nobles find popular," the Chef replied, tilting his head as he thought of something. "But you know how to make main dishes too, with one or two of them oddly like what Siesta has mentioned before."

"I see," Mana said simply, making a note to look into this, as Siesta was the only other person she'd seen in this land with black hair and vaguely Asiatic features. "That's certainly interesting, but could you have the baked buns brought over, please? The steamed buns should be about done as well. And the sautéed onions and mushrooms, if you're ready - they're to be put onto the bread."

An oddity for Marteau, half of these were baked dumpling-like buns filled with tender, sweet, slow-roasted pork tenderloin that had been diced and mixed with concoction of sauces and spices.

In another land, they would have been called Charsiu bau or Manapua, with both yeast and baking powder as used leavening for the dough, giving rise to the texture of a slightly dense, but fine soft bread, surrounding the sweet and savory filling.

The other half were fish-shaped pastries filled with custard or cheese and leek, in the form of the recognizable taiyaki of other lands.

As for the onions, mushrooms and fresh peppers, whey were put between the half of the sliced open baguettes, fragrant oils mingling together with the beef and cheese for an interesting aroma.

Just one of a number of different sandwiches being prepared in Halkeginia for the first time, as they'd never before been seen on the face of the continent, whether it was a baguette with grilled meat, cilantro, hot peppers, pickled carrots, a simple egg sandwich, or so forth...

"So...you simply hold the whole thing in your hands and bite into it?" Marteau asked dubiously, trying to get a sense of how this dish could be eaten after the preparations were done. "And you would wrap it in cloth of some sort until it was ready?"

"In my land they would use paper, but it seems paper is rarer and more valuable here. Even so, it makes it portable dish someone can eat while working," Mana noted, as she picked up one of the dessert taiyaki and bit into it, enjoying the way the custard and cream melted in her mouth. "Mm...this is good."

"...interesting," Marteau murmured. Meals in Halkeginian culture were usually sit-down affairs, since one couldn't exactly carry a plate around wherever one went. Slices of bread, on the other hand, or a bun...that had possibilities. "But what would you call them?"

"...well, in my homeland, we would call the open-faced ones sandwiches, while the others were various buns, but here, this is the first time these things are being made, and you've helped to put a unique twist on it," the Ryougi heiress said with charming smile, blooming like a flower without a trace of shyness or ill intent. "Perhaps the fish-shaped pastries could be called Marteau breads, perhaps, and these others Marteau Sandwiches? You were kind enough to let me the one who helped put this together for me..."

"Marteau breads..." the head chef repeated, as a slow smile came over his face at the thought. "I like it - and since foods are remembered longer than people, 'Marteaus' and 'Sandwiches' could become well known, especially if they do catch on with the working class." He looked at the girl appraisingly, giving her a gruff nod. "And what about you? Shouldn't you, as the one who came up with it, have a say?"

"Oh, it wasn't my idea originally anyway," the demon hunter demurred. "So I can't claim credit, not when it was in your kitchen, and largely at the hands of your staff that I had a chance to make these at all. Besides, the stuffed buns are already called manapua in my homeland...and no, not named after me. Just a coincidence."

"...cheeky. It isn't as if anyone will know the difference in this land, where these dishes are all new and exotic," Marteau said, chuckling. "But I suppose that will do. Let me get a basket and some cloth for your 'picnic' then, shall I?"

"Yes please, thank you, Mister Marteau."

"Anytime, Little Reaper."

Most of the buns and sandwiches were packed away, but a few were left behind for the staff to try as Mana departed for the courtyard, where no doubt her master and her friend Kirche were hard at work training.

Siesta had just come on shift when she noticed one of the sliced-opened buns, and froze, staring at the contents.

'A pork bun? But that's...'

It was like one of her great-grandfather's recipes...but where had it come from?

Listening, she heard whispers about the demon hunter girl and how Mana had made special arrangements with the head chef to make these.

'But how...would she...?'

The maid didn't know what to make of the young girl, as she had first thought the familiar had seemed kind and helpful, but then had become afraid of the girl after seeing the ruthlessness her sweet exterior hid, after seeing how she had taken a noble's life with seemingly callous disregard.

For more than anything else, Siesta hated violence.

It reminded her of the wont of nobles, as they belittled commoners, harassed them, abused them all their lives - even though it was commoners who kept food on the tables, who cleaned, who made and mended clothing keeping society intact - allowing the nobles to live a lifestyle they were accustomed to.

That the little girl had just killed one, showing that the blessing of the Founder, the prophet of God, was not absolute, shook her to the core. And for all that she was thankful about her prayer being answered - that she had not been taken away by Mott - the rumors of his grisly death were very frightening.

After all, if one simply acted as an executioner, using one's power to crush those who were weaker, how was that one any different than a noble?

She knew the fairy tales, the old stories, the whispered legends - and demon hunters in those myths had not been heroes, but men and women who became monsters in order to fight them, staring too long into the abyss to remain entirely sane.

Should she be thankful - or should she be terrified?

Siesta found that she didn't know.

In the courtyard, poor Louise had finally collapsed from her exertions, laying splayed on the ground with her wand having dropped from nerveless fingers as she could fight - could move - no more.

She hurt all over.

Her arms, her legs, her stomach, her chest, heck, even her hair hurt—

Gurgle!

—and to add insult to injury, her stomach was growling, loud enough for her opponent to hear and chuckle about.

"Better than I expected, Vallière," someone said, as a red-headed shadow blocked out the sun.

"...going to gloat?" Louise croaked out, utterly defeated. If her rival was going to mock her now, well, there would be nothing she could do about it, since her familiar had disappeared and she herself was out of energy.

"...not really. You just started training last week, so for me to gloat would be in bad taste..." Kirche answered, amused at the pinkette's last stutters of defiance.

"...when does...ack...a damn Germanian slut...ever worry...about taste...?"

In response, a rich laugh, husky and throaty and resonant echoed in the courtyard.

"You've got spirit, Vallière, I'll give you that," the redhead said, plunking herself down next to Louise as her Salamander crept up now that the area was no longer being filled with violent explosions and blasts of fire. "That was your first actual duel, right?"

A long pause.

"...so?"

"Well, you weren't horrible," Kirche replied, smirking. "Maybe not up to von Zerbst standards, but since you're a Vallière, I can't complain too much..."

"...go to hell..."

Once again, Kirche laughed, giving her old rival a pat on the shoulder, which Louise withdrew from with a painful whimper.

And then they both stopped, perking up at the smell of something...edible. Neither had had the time to grab breakfast before this morning training, and so the smell of anything at all seemed delicious.

...though both wondered what Mana was doing as she spread a great bedsheet on the grass and started taking out loaves of bread with slices of meat, cheese and other such wedged between them, as well as some...buns? And a bottle of some clear substance? Glass, maybe?

"...what is this?" Louise asked, blinking at the absurdity of eating without plates or such. And without cups or such...

"...I knew Tristainian foods were different from what we eat in Germania," Kirche began, "But...I'm not recognizing any of these..."

"Oh, these are from my homeland," Mana cheerfully cut in. "Foods convenient for eating on the go, not requiring much effort to make or clean up. Fast, portable, and inexpensive meals essential to the life of a busy individual. Just grab and eat...oh, and if you wish, I have a bottle of iced tea."

"...iced...tea?" Louise echoed, not sure what to make of it.

"...this is probably not the first time you've heard this, but you are a very strange girl, even for a familiar," Kirche said bluntly, only for Mana to smile.

"You're right. It's not the first time," the Ryougi heiress noted, as she helped a groaning Louise to sit up and gave her a sip of tea. "Come on, let's eat...there's plenty for everyone." She paused, looking up with an odd expression. "Even for the girl on dragonback watching us in the sky."


] | [

Five days after the Mott incident, the girl Tabitha received a letter from Versailles, delivered via an Alviss in the form of a raven, with a glowing rune on its forehead, indicating that this particular automaton was a construct that was linked directly to her uncle's familiar, the Myozthirirn.

She had of course, reported the deaths of the Counts-Palatine as well as what information she had on the demon hunter to her superiors, given that her masters in the Order of Knights of the North Parterre would be unhappy if she did not fulfill her function, but she had not expected orders to come so soon.

Orders, at that, for an endeavor that was unsurprisingly suicidal.

Even for a knight of her stature, a disgraced member of the royal family who had fought against a great variety of enemies in her time, what was being asked of her was next to impossible under the circumstances.

However...it was not her role to question, merely to obey, as long as her mother's mind was lost and the body kept captive by King Joseph.

Thus, the blunette bowed low to the raven alviss, saying only two words: "...I understand."


] | [

The seventh day came without much ado - the Day of Void, when the two moons that hung in the sky overlapped, and no classes were scheduled at the Academy. It was a holy day, after all, the one the Founder had set aside as a day of rest to be honored by all magi.

Now, one would think that those who had been trapped within the walled compound of the Academy would take advantage of this opportunity to slip the surly bonds of academia, to get away from the presence of the one they saw as death, but one would be mistaken. The campus seemed deserted, certainly, with very few walking about, but the students remained.

They were simply inside, not wanting to go out, as they were gravely worried about what might await them in these times of trouble.

As for Louise and her familiar, they'd been restricted from leaving the campus, due to certain circumstances, and so had nothing better to do than continue their training - Mana practicing her evasion, while the pinkette practiced shaping and focusing her releases of energy, swearing under her breath that the next time she faced the Germanian bimbo in battle, the outcome would be different.

She was getting faster and more accurate too, as the sharp crack-booms of rhythmic explosions rent the morning air, striking 8 out of fifteen targets.

These were not the pre-marked targets of before, either, but targets that Mana scratched on the fly as she leapt about the courtyard, using her shinai to scratch an "X" into the ground and jumping away as Louise unleashed her attacks one after another.

"You're doing better, Miss Vallière," the Ryougi heiress chirped approvingly, surveying the results of the last few trials when they paused for a break. "You're managing to hit more than half the time now!"

"...not good enough," Louise said, her hands on her knees as she wheezed for breath. "I need to do better if I'm going to beat Kirche."

"...I like your resolve, Miss Vallière, but you really shouldn't overwork yourself," Mana replied with a smile, though an instant later her expression turned grim as she pushed the pinkette away, towards the wall, the runes on her hand glowing as she drew her combat knife.

"...uh...wha..." Louise stammered, confused by the turn of events and not exactly reassured by the knife. "Wha-wha-wha-"

Mana simply pointed to the sky, where an odd shape was getting bigger by the second - a massive beast of shadow and sinew, surrounded by a shell of arctic winds, with something shaped like a human on its back.

'That...that is...'

A familiar that could fly, large enough to carry a human - that meant that whatever was fast approaching was an ancient beast of myth - one of the most potent of familiars any mage could summon.

A dragon, perhaps? A griffin? Or maybe...

The blood froze in Louise's veins as the last possibility occurred to her: the cruelest of the beasts of the land, with limbs like those a lion, tail like that of an oversized scorpion (if a scorpion could launch wickedly sharp, armor-piercing barbs the size of one's arm from its tail), scales and bristles all over, and a roar like an orchestra gone awry.

A manticore.

'...no...why? Why is...'

A large cloud of dust rose as the fell beast touched down in the castle courtyard, with a knight in black and silver armor dismounting from it, wearing a pitch-black mantle that seemed to draw in all light. And from that figure emanated an aura of power and killing intent so frightful that, so that any who would dare to challenge it would first know true despair...

'...the armor of a Manticore Corps Knight-Commander...' Louise thought frantically, nearly crumpling to the ground at the sight. 'Then...that means...'

To her credit, she wasn't alone in this reaction, as any who looked upon the scene froze before the overwhelming presence as the manticore touched down in the clearing - and she didn't fall over, steadied as she was by a suddenly sharp, focused presence that offset the other's aura by just enough so she could go on standing.

Indeed, her familiar seemed almost to be mirroring the mysterious knight in appearance, as Mana Ryougi was not wearing the charcoal-grey blouse and pleated skirt that Louise had come to associate with her, but something that seemed like a cross between a robe and a dress in the dark blue of the midnight sky, with hints of silvery embroidery that resembled the pattern of hemlock.

Blue eyes stared into steely grey unflinchingly as the demon hunter child faced down a vastly experienced and powerful captain of war, every muscle tensed in case she needed to draw her sword and defend the pinkette.

Seeing this rather unexpected display, the Knight removed her helm, revealing the stern visage of a living legend, an unforgiving woman with long pinkish hair herself, piled on top of her head in a severe manner, though the bottom half of her face hidden by an iron mask.

The legendary past commander of the Manticore Corps, Karin the Heavy Wind.

She who had single-handedly suppressed rebellions, caused armies to flee at the mention of her name, served the Kingdom as a faithful servant of the Crown.

...and rather importantly, the current Duchess de La Vallière.

Louise's mother.

She towered over both Louise and Mana, with her sense of presence making her seem even taller, as she moved with poise so exact and perfect that it made steel itself weep at its imperfections.

"M-mother..." Louise managed to squeak out, not having expected to see her mother in her full battle gear.

"Louise," the Duchess intoned, glancing at her daughter and then at the young girl who had interposed herself them. "And you must be the infamous familiar the de Montmorencys complain of."

The level of killing intent spiked, but the demon hunter stood fast, knowing that in any case, retreat was not an option.

"Indeed, Duchess de la Vallière," the Ryougi heiress acknowledged formally, her eyes not leaving those of the older woman, her guard not lowering for a second. "My name is Mana. Mana Ryougi, heiress of the Ryougi Clan."

"You are the one who ended the life of the de Montmorency girl," the Duchess stated. It wasn't a question, merely a test to see if she would acknowledge it, and if so, how she would do so.

"I am," Mana noted stoically.

"In a duel, and after she had surrendered, no less," the Knight's voice rumbled, the pressure of her gaze focusing entirely on the young girl.

"Yes."

"Why?"

"I was attacked with lethal intent before I even drew my weapon," the Ryougi heiress stated coldly, giving the same answer she had previously. "And in keeping with the rule that the only ones who should kill are those who are willing to be killed, I ended her life. If she would attack me when I had no weapon in hand, disrespecting even the fundamental principle of a duel, then why should she be spared?"

"You admit to it then?" the Duchess inquired, her voice quiet and dangerous as both sized the other up, with a silent acknowledgment between them that both were deadly individuals, their lethal skills trained and honed by practice, though one was vastly more experienced than the other.

For they knew, unlike most in a frivolous world, what it meant to kill or be killed, what it meant to live by the rules of blood and steel.

"I do," Mana answered, her form and voice unwavering even under the pressure of that much power. She had done what she had done - there was no point in denying that - and she would accept the consequences, as then and there she had not been wrong. In hindsight, yes, but in that moment, that was the only real choice she had had.

A long, tense moment of silence, in which Louise began to grow increasingly nervous.

Had her mother come to render judgment for what she saw as a crime? Was she about to die or be disowned, even after summoning a familiar? Even after everything?

The silence lingered on, taut and heavy.

And then...

"Good," Karin the Heavy Wind responded at last, looking at the Ryougi heiress with a touch of something resembling approval - or perhaps a mutual understanding between killers. "Then I leave the training of my daughter to you...Demon Hunter." She turned to Louise. "As for you, Louise..."

The full pressure of gaze fixed upon her youngest daughter, noting how despite Louise's fears and insecurities, she remained standing, and had not looked away.

"...do you yet know your awakened element?" the Knight questioned, as gently as a thunderstorm might.

"...not yet," Louise admitted, unable to hide the truth from her mother. "But-"

"I will hear no excuses," the Duchess intoned heavily, causing Louise nearly to faint with fear. But before she could... "Still, I admit I expected worse. If this is truly the familiar you summoned, perhaps there is hope for you yet. I am returning to the estate, but will be in the capital again soon enough to take care of certain matters. You will update me then."

"Y-yes, mother."

With that, the Knight replaced her helmet and mounted her Manticore, as with a flap of its huge wings, the mythical beast vanished into the sky.


] | [

That night, the Royal Palace itself was besieged, as two assassins slipped past the mage-knights of the Manticore Corps, which had been left to patrol the perimeter of the castle, and entered the royal chambers. The Griffin Knights had been away, locking down the mansions where the Counts-Palatine had been slaughtered, trying to keep order and keep the news of the deaths from spreading so far. They didn't know who the next victims would be, so they had posted guard around some of the most powerful individuals in the land, such High Court Justice Richmon and others whose authority derived from the Palace.

No one had expected the final attack to strike at the heart of Tristain itself - for a murderer to enter the Royal Palace, slay the guards on patrol, and assassinate the Lord Regent...and the Queen Mother.

Even the dashing Viscount Wardes, who had been in the castle itself, guarding Princess Henrietta, had apparently not detected the killers until it was too late.

To his credit, the Captain of the Imperial Mage Guard and a detachment of his troops had confronted his enemies over the corpse of the Lord Regent, but they had been unable to detain the killers, one of which appeared to be a powerful wind user...

Interestingly enough, according to the records, the only Wind Mage capable of matching or beating Wardes had been in the capital that day: the Square-class Karin the Heavy Wind, the Duchess de La Vallière.

...mother to Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, whose familiar was the demon hunter Ryougi.

'Enough evidence for people to believe what I wish them to,' Wardes mused, darkly amused by the way this had all ended up. 'A pity that they do not know the full extent of my abilities...'

Not that he let this show on his face as the traumatized Princess Henrietta, unable to cope with a disaster of this scale, relinquished her authority to him, entrusting the Head of the Imperial Guards to restore order and protect the nation as a true Knight. A state of emergency now existed in Tristain, and as the temporary head of government, the Knight-Captain promptly proceeded to impose martial law upon the kingdom, mobilizing the Knight divisions to deal with the leading "suspects" of what was thought to be an attempted coup d'état.

The Vallières.

ItsaRandomUsername
August 1st, 2011, 05:38 AM
IT LIVES

...noice~

deviatesfish
August 1st, 2011, 05:52 AM
This is most gLorious and awesome! And what a twist at the end!

alfheimwanderer
August 1st, 2011, 05:56 AM
Ah, glad you're enjoying it. Apologies for the long delay.

Kieran
August 1st, 2011, 06:58 AM
Wow - on several fronts.

Plots abound, Mana looks cute in my mind when she cooks, and it looks like Guiche is on his way to eventually unlocking Unlimited Blade Works . . . Just - wow.

I admit, my own story seems slow by comparison, now. And if enough of "Recollections of Pain" is done to give me a sense of it, I'm tempted to do an omake where the Louises of both stories (or maybe the full ZnT cast?) meet to compare notes and gripe over their respective familiars. :)

DreamsRequiem
August 1st, 2011, 07:18 AM
...UBW or FMA style alchemy? Because those three steps sound way more like FMA alchemy than UBW to me...

SeiKeo
August 1st, 2011, 08:24 AM
YES!

Techlet
August 1st, 2011, 09:05 AM
An amazing turn of events. I do wonder if Tabitha was really one of the assassins, that just seems to be a bit too convenient and straight-forward for your plot.

The Louise/Kirche interactions were great. It's rare to see them develop in a "realistic" manner.

Loving all the intrigue, very much looking forward to what will unfold into even more mysteries next.

Alulim
August 1st, 2011, 12:14 PM
...Al is happy, indeed.

mangafreak7793
August 1st, 2011, 12:26 PM
I almost forgot that you write stories due to the interesting RPs that you make and not to mention its nice to see your fanfics again. I do hope once you have the time that we see more of this and your other works like EGM and Notes.

alfheimwanderer
August 1st, 2011, 12:36 PM
Wow - on several fronts.

Plots abound, Mana looks cute in my mind when she cooks, and it looks like Guiche is on his way to eventually unlocking Unlimited Blade Works . . . Just - wow.

Wouldn't quite call it UBW, but certainly he'll become a more competent mage, especially when it comes to transmutation.

The thing about understanding the theory and the material one is working with does have a basis in canon, incidentally, given some of Tabitha's more advanced reading material ('Wind's Power's Influence on Atmospherics and Consequences', to mention just one title) and proficiency.


I admit, my own story seems slow by comparison, now. And if enough of "Recollections of Pain" is done to give me a sense of it, I'm tempted to do an [I]omake where the Louises of both stories (or maybe the full ZnT cast?) meet to compare notes and gripe over their respective familiars. :)

Well, "Recollections of Pain" is next on my list of things to work on, so you'll have more of a basis for comparision soon enough.


An amazing turn of events. I do wonder if Tabitha was really one of the assassins, that just seems to be a bit too convenient and straight-forward for your plot.

Fufufu...were those her orders? Or has she been given something more difficult to do in the future?


The Louise/Kirche interactions were great. It's rare to see them develop in a "realistic" manner.

Glad to see you liked them. On a purely practical side, it does help Louise to have an idea of how her skills stack up against one of her peers - and gives her a concrete goal to surpass. But yeah, their relationship isn't going to be free of vitriol overnight. One might say that's a feature...

alfheimwanderer
February 20th, 2013, 11:08 PM
So I am planning on updating this fic this weekend. Would anyone still be interested in reading?

ItsaRandomUsername
February 20th, 2013, 11:16 PM
Alf updating any of his fics is slightly more likely than me updating any of mine.

That being said, do fish swim? :V

Leftovers
February 20th, 2013, 11:16 PM
Any Alfheim update is a gift from the heavens.

Alulim
February 20th, 2013, 11:25 PM
...Verily.

EnigmaticFellow
February 20th, 2013, 11:38 PM
I was always interested in how Wardes would proceed after having pretty much the whole kingdom under his thumb. Needless to say, the train has severely gone off the rails, and it is looking rather interesting.

Leftovers
February 20th, 2013, 11:43 PM
Oh hey, I just remembe-
...
...Eternal Geass Moon T.T

mangafreak7793
February 20th, 2013, 11:58 PM
So I am planning on updating this fic this weekend. Would anyone still be interested in reading?


You know, I'm always looking forward to your stories!

Kieran
February 21st, 2013, 09:30 AM
So I am planning on updating this fic this weekend. Would anyone still be interested in reading?

Yay! I was worried something had happened to you!

And please, update!

kinlyki
February 21st, 2013, 10:02 AM
Who WOULDN'T want it to be updated?

Belthasar
February 21st, 2013, 10:18 AM
Of course.

mike21
February 21st, 2013, 02:03 PM
I kinda prefer you update the one where Fujino was summoned. This one was okay but it never sat right with me when the killing started.

SeiKeo
February 21st, 2013, 02:47 PM
Wouldn't say the killing turns me off, but I would agree that Fujino was a more interesting subject.

mangafreak7793
February 21st, 2013, 03:23 PM
Out of curiosity once this updates does that mean you will eventually update your other works or will just solely focus on this one?

EnigmaticFellow
February 21st, 2013, 07:01 PM
I kinda prefer you update the one where Fujino was summoned. This one was okay but it never sat right with me when the killing started.

I don't think it's fair to make a comparison between Echoes of the Void and Recollections of Pain just yet since the latter fic has yet to be fleshed out to the levels of the former. What I like so far about this fic is the political intrigue that is currently being played out. On the other hand, the breakdown of Louise has been interesting to read through so far. The various ways characters are interpreting Fujino are also been fun to read through.

Techlet
February 21st, 2013, 07:14 PM
I kinda prefer you update the one where Fujino was summoned.

I share this sentiment, but not because of the killing, simply because Fujino held my attention better.

ItsaRandomUsername
February 21st, 2013, 07:57 PM
Eternal Geass Moon when?

Kelnish
February 21st, 2013, 08:05 PM
Eternal Geass Moon when?

Didn't C.C. just buy the farm in that one while Lelouch was in hyperbolic time chamber trainin' with mana who is really just shiki with a palette swap? And suddenly EMILYA Ilya? And Milly broke her magic crest to stop Rolo Emiya after Shirley and table-rapist got eaten? Because that was such an amazing cluster fuck that I couldn't get enough of!

alfheimwanderer
February 22nd, 2013, 05:11 AM
Echoes of the Void
(http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/10/Echoes_of_the_Void)A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as “the Zero” for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as great as hers.

] | [

It was a rare, moonless night in Halkeginia. The wind had ceased, and a heavy silence hung in the air, as if something dark and ominous was about to stir - though none could be sure of what. The rumors that the Vallières, Tristain's ranking nobles, had allegedly attempted to murder the princess and seize the throne in a bloody coup had not yet spread too far - but anyone in the capital knew that the Imperial Mage Knights had been deployed to suppress some enemy of the throne - and that with the death of the Lord Regent His Eminence the Cardinal Mazarin, one Jean-Jacques de Wardes had taken the throne in all but name.

Certainly, there were more than a few high-ranking nobles who chafed at being given orders by a mere Viscount, a man who did not even rank as a full Count, believing that they had more claim to the regency than he, but whatever they might think, they held their tongues.

Were things otherwise, they might have grumbled about rebellion as they played political games to try and unseat him, but with the declaration of martial law, such would be seen as disloyalty - and disloyalty met with the steel and spells of the grim Knights whose only loyalty was to the Crown.

For though every young noble aspired to become a Knight, a romantic, dashing figure of chivalry, those who had lived long enough to dispel the illusions of youth knew what knights truly were: cold men (and women) who were instruments of battle before anything else.

Blades, which, for all their beauty, were quite, quite lethal.

'As every ruler has known, fear has its uses now and then,' the Knight-Captain thought to himself, a thin, bloodless smile crossing his lips as he looked out into the darkness. 'As well as deception, though one must be mindful that once unleashed, neither can be easily contained - only directed.'

It was perhaps something of a pity that the greatest hero Tristain had ever known - and her family - would be cast as the villains in this tragic play, but would anyone else do? To seize and hold power, he needed a threat that would give him justification for committing almost any sin, an enemy that could not quickly be defeated - and was not some foreign power which could utterly crush the Kingdom.

Even had he wanted to pin the assassination of the regent (and the other assorted murders) on some foreign power to rally the people, his options would have been limited. The Emperor of Germania - the "barbarians" who were Tristain's traditional enemies- was engaged to marry Princess Henrietta, so they had no reason to engage in this bloodyhanded business. The agents of Albion's rebel faction...well, he could hardly malign the faction he secretly worked for - not if he ever wanted Tristain to make peace with them. The Kingdom of Gallia...that way lay suicide, given the strength of the Gallian military.

Indeed, such was part of the reason that he had joined Reconquista was that he agreed with one part of its program: unifying the human Kingdoms of Halkeginia. For too long, inept, parochial royals had dominated the landscape of the continent, their so-called right to rule descending from naught more than the "blood of the Founder." It was certainly true that in battle, certain warrior-kings in Halkeginia's past had displayed abilities even a square mage could not match - but that could well be attributed to techniques they jealously horded in order to suppress the ambitions of the masses.

He certainly had discovered the keys to a few of these techniques himself - finding that his wind clones could help amplify his own innate power for a time, so that his spellcasting abilities now transcended that of a simple "Square" mage.

Knowing that the royals had hidden the secrets of such power, and had, in collusion with the Church of the Founder (who he knew to be corrupt beyond all reason, seeking dominion over all spiritual and temporal dominion over Halkeginia), suppressed any innovation or social change under the guise of religion (and why not, since they had positions of privilege to maintain), infuriated him.

D'Angleterre had been proof of that.

D'Angleterre, the incident in which Tristain's "Magical Research Experimental Group" had been called up like a band of common footpads and murderers and ordered to destroy a village on the whim of the pope, burning every last man, woman, and child therein to cinders.

His jaw set tightly as he remembered that incident, the cold, gnawing rage inside of him threatening to rise to the surface before he ruthlessly forced it back down.

No wonder the Church had been so outwardly insistent on the sanctity of each of the royal lines of Brimir, while being ever so careful to play one against the other, ensuring that like fools, kings and nobles squabbled over nothing more than little patches of ground in the vastness of the entire world, throwing away the lives of countless men in petty wars that had earned all of what?

The expansion of the border by a meter of land? A new, paltry village added to one side or the other?

So these "chosen kingdoms" had fought, had withered, had shriveled under the Church's care, while the barbarians of Germania, whose Emperor was chosen not by lineage, but by a trial of arms, had become the most powerful human polity on the face of Halkeginia.

'So much for the blessing of the Founder...'

Yet they too now bought into the lie of the Church of Brimir, with the zeal only found in converts. Indeed, the Emperor of Germania sought the hand of Princess Henrietta in marriage to give him the fig leaf of legitimacy, threatening to absorb all of Tristain in the process, for all that the two polities would remain separate in name.

Most damning of all, the late Regent His Eminence the Cardinal Mazarin had been content to allow this to happen - had even helped to arrange this match, convincing an unhappy Henrietta that it was necessary for security should Reconquista defeat the royal family in Albion.

As if Reconquista had not been perfectly justified in its aims! Given the mad abuses of power of the King James I of Albion, whose army had been an instrument of terror for the nobility of the White Country, it could be hardly be otherwise. Aside from his numerous other crimes, he had loosed that pack of curs upon the Archduke of Albion, allegedly for the crime of treason, when everyone knew that it was simply because the King had desired his mistress - and the Archduke had refused to give her up.

Was that right? Should a king have the freedom to murder, pillage, and rape as he pleased just because of the office he held by "the will of the Founder"?

To Viscount Wardes, the answer was no.

Notably, he did not believe in the myth of the Founder. Oh, he rather suspected the man had existed, but didn't think that he had been anything more than an extraordinarily powerful mage, albeit one who wielded an element not seen in thousands of years, although it would likely have been passed down in the blood.

He had once wondered how, if the Kings really were descended from the Founder, why there had been no more Void mages in recorded history, but then he remembered how the Church controlled the education of nobles, how the curriculum taught in every magical academy had been approved and, in large part, crafted by the Church.

And the Church had a vested interest in making sure another Void mage did not rise to power - for a person wielding the "holy element" might be seen as a prophet, a direct challenge to their authority, thus they were careful to keep the royals fighting, separated, ignorant.

The Viscount was determined not to fall victim to their lies, or to see Tristain suffer more than it already had, languishing in complacency for millennia of weakness. He would use the current political crisis to eliminate those who were the tools of orthodoxy, to purge the corrupt nobility who indulged in venal lusts to the detriment of the kingdom, to drive innovation, advancement - all the things the Church had once suppressed.

To do this, he needed an enemy - a powerful, even legendary opponent who could be worn down in the end, but the terror of which would stiffen the spines of those who stood with him; a ruthless enemy who would take no quarter from those who had "betrayed" her; an enemy who might even have plausible reason to seize the throne.

That left only the Vallières.

The fact that he had personal ties to them due to his engagement to their youngest daughter was even better, as how better to cement his reputation as a loyal servant of the Crown than to turn against these "traitors" for "the good of Tristain."

'One way or another, the Heavy Wind shall be driven into rebellion by fortnight's end, and adding to her "guilt" will be a confession from dear, little Louise.'

He had dispatched the Imperial Guard to capture her for that very purpose, as he was reasonably certain that once in custody, the girl could be made to "confess" to her family's alleged "crimes" in light of the evidence of her treason, which any resistance on the part of her dangerous familiar would certainly indicate.

Certainly those in power would demand her execution - something which he would not be able to block unless she was willing to throw herself upon the mercy of the Crown, to testify to her family's dark designs upon Tristain. And as the pièce de résistance, should Louise refuse, her childhood friend, Her Highness the Princess Henrietta, might very well beg her to reconsider...and Wardes knew full well that his little fiancée had a soft spot for the inept princess.

'I have no great wish to stain my hands in the blood of innocents, but I will do what I must to ensure the safety of the realm - of all our realms - from the Church. Here I stand, I can do no other.'

] | [

The quiet thrumming of the wings of griffons cut through the night a squad belonging to the Griffin Knights, the most memorable division among the Mage Guards (and Wardes' command), flew from the capital towards the Tristain Academy of Magic. Their orders, which came jointly from the High Court and Knight-Captain Wardes, were to apprehend Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière and her familiar, the purported "demon hunter" under cover of darkness, thus minimizing the possibility of outside interference - and ensuring that neither of those two could take a potentially valuable hostage.

They would be split into two teams: one team to secure the Vallière heiress in her chambers, the other to capture the familiar, who would likely be on her nightly walk, if their intelligence was correct. Given their overwhelming numbers, they could effectively isolate the targets and prevent them from combining their forces, as a mage and an assassin together would be far more dangerous than either alone.

Granted, they were fairly certain that neither youth would be a match for any of them, and that sending forty Griffin Knights was gratuitous, even borderline insulting to their abilities - but then, they also realized the difficulties involved in subduing a person without killing him or her, especially if he or she intended to resist.

And resist both master and familiar likely would, especially if there was any hint of truth to the rumors.

Before setting off on their mission, they had read the reports of the ill-fated duel where the Montmorency heiress had met her end, a duel reportedly instigated by the familiar, as well as the information on the Vallière heiress' disturbing propensity to cause explosions, deciding that the more dangerous of the two was the mage.

Why? It was simple.

Given the choice between facing a blade - no matter how quick - and facing invisible explosions that could not be tracked, could not be defended against, any rational individual would fear the explosions.

True, the familiar may have overcome a line mage in her own right, but her victim had been a schoolgirl, untrained in the art of war, and the killing had taken place during a duel, when it had been obvious to all that the Montmorency heiress would attack. A skilled duelist the familiar might be, with excellent reflexes, but skill at murder was a far cry from being a credible threat on the battlefield.

Someone who was essentially walking artillery, however, was far more dangerous, particularly in a confined space, and so she had to be subdued first. Following that, they could strike at the familiar from the air, using an area of effect spell to incapacitate her before she even realized what was happening.

Though even if she did realize it, so what?

Without the support of a mage, this "demon hunter" had no way of attacking a mounted troop of griffin knights.

Nothing could possibly go wrong.

] | [

Minutes later, as they arrived over the Tristain Academy of Magic, overflying the courtyard, the Griffin Knights confirmed that their intelligence was correct: one of their targets, the young Mana Ryougi, was indeed up and about, sitting by the fountain and chatting with a woman who matched the description of the headmaster's secretary, Miss Longueville. This was rather fortuitous, as Longueville was but a mere commoner, and not someone whose injury or death would cause undue trouble in case something should go wrong.

Indeed, if they were fortunate, they could neutralize the target in one blow, with little collateral damage.

There was a quiet murmur of activity, as the relevant orders were given, with a small detachment of Knights moving to seize Louise while slept, with the others drawing their darkly gleaming sword wands and beginning to incant a number of spells.

One could almost feel the spirits of the air begin to dance, swirling about their wands as power built, each Knight targeting a different area of ground...

First, the silence spell, to cloak them from the ears of others, and then---

"Air Hammer," the Knights intoned as one, releasing their spells.

Whiii-shhhhh!

Unchained, the wind howled groundwards, creating an invisible first that slammed down with sheer concussive force, a downburst powerful enough to topple a mighty tree - to say nothing of a mere human.

...that is, if a half-dome of stone had not risen from the ground, warding those under it from the worst of the aerial bombardment, with a pale, ominous light just perceptible behind it.

"...fuck."

] | [


'Damnit, how did they know I was here?' Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha asked herself, wand steady as she chanted a spell. 'Did my identity somehow become exposed? Did the would-be buyer of the Staff of Destruction betray me after I failed to steal the relic? Or are these...agents of Albion who discovered my survival and seek to eliminate me for my possible claim to the throne?'

But as howling masses of air powerful enough smash a person into the ground and break their bones crashed down upon the barrier she had hastily erected, the notorious thief known as Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt, terror to the nobles of Halkeginia, knew it was too late to wonder what might have happened.

She was certain, however, that that whoever the enemy was, they were here for her, and she didn't think surrendering was going to work. The thought never crossed her mind that they might be after Mana, as who would dispatch what had to be Knights to capture a little girl.

'So, that's it. After three years, my sins have caught up with me. All I can do now is to fight my way out, killing every last one of them....'

...or of course, to die trying, taking as many of her assailants to the grave as she could.

No quarter had been asked; no quarter would be given.

She didn't think her chances were particularly good, not alone against an unknown number of airborne enemies, but she didn't have a choice.

'Though...I'm not alone, am I...?'

Fouquet turned to the girl she had been conversing with, but finding that the demon hunter's blade was already in her hand, as the runes on her hand glowed with an eerily cold light, the familiar's face seeming oddly...serene.

'Odd...is she expecting...? Would she...?'

For a moment, the thief was tempted, so very tempted to ask the little girl to join her in battle, but with the ruthlessness that only someone who has been betrayed by everything she has ever known could muster, she quashed the impulse. From what she had seen, even if Mana stood with her, it was quite likely that the demon hunter would die, whereas if she left now...

"You can run if you'd like," Fouquet heard herself say all too calmly, as the baying of griffins echoed in the air like the screams of oversized birds of prey. "I'm fairly certain they're here for me, and I can hold them off...at least, for a time."

How long, she didn't know. And if these were truly Knights, then they might well impress the other staff of the Academy to subdue her.

"And what will become of you if I go?" the demon hunter asked, meeting her gaze with her unnervingly blue eyes, as the silver embroidery of her midnight blue kimono flashed in the darkness.

Fouquet didn't answer, merely gritting her teeth as spears of wind and coruscating tendrils of lightning surged at the dome, licking at it, seeking to reduce the bit of shelter she had to nothingness. She could hear it crumbling, despite her best efforts, as the scent of ozone began to leak in, and sweat beaded on her brow.

"...you think they're here to kill you, don't you?" Mana said solemnly, a question that wasn't really a question. The slightest of tremors coursed along her spine as she thought of Mathilda dying, and of how suddenly the attack had begun.

Once again, Fouquet didn't answer, concentrating on holding the barrier together, knowing it would only last a few moments longer.

'...she's doing this to protect me,' the Ryougi heiress realized. 'Not fighting back yet, asking me to go, even though she doesn't know the details of who I am, only how dangerous I can be.'

It was something of a humbling thought, and Mana felt strangely...touched.

"If you're going to go--"

"No," Mana said, voice as sharp and firm as forged steel, as her grip tightened on her knife. "I'm not leaving you behind. Do what you have to - I'll fight by your side."

CR-AAACK!

Fouquet said nothing, stepping back as the barrier finally crumbled under the onslaught - and the remains transformed themselves into an outreached hand that pluck an unwary griffin ride from the air, that of the subcommander of this small detachment, whose rider had decided to come in low to designate a weak point in the barrier and--

Squelch!

--now would never again command anything, for one could not do so easily when one was crushed to a bloody pulp.

But that was just the beginning of Fouquet's counterattack, for the arm rose further skill, as shoulder, head and legs emerged, a deafening roar erupting in the courtyard, as a golem half as tall as the greatest tower of the Academy bellow defiance at its master's foes.


] | [


Hearing this roar, the force of eight which had been detached to capture the Vallière scion knew something had gone terribly wrong, with the squad commander himself turning in horror to see the golem that had risen up against his fellows.

'A golem of that size? That...it has to be at least Triangle-class...no, maybe Square-class? There are no powerful Earth mages at the Academy, except for Headmaster Osmond, and he was never a golem user. The only mage of that level who was said to be in the vicinity was...'

A chill went down this squad commander's spine as he recalled the stories of Fouquet the Crumbling Earth, the rogue mage and master alchemist, whose hate for nobility was notorious. That one had never before been captured by any who gave pursuit, never caught in the act, identity unknown even to his day...

'Until now, apparently. That woman who was with the familiar...don't tell me...'

The secretary of the Academy, she who was effectively in charge of the day to day running of the school was Fouquet? Were the Vallières working with the thief, using her as an instrument against the rest of Tristain?

'No, there's no time for such thoughts. This is a matter for Justice Richmon and Lord Wardes. We can still grab the Vallière, at least...and then reinforce our allies.'

He shook his head, clearing it of how things had just gone so very wrong.

Arriving at the window of the pinkette's room, he could see she was still asleep, and to his relief (if his embarrassment), dressed in naught but a shirt and panties, without her wand anywhere on a nightstand nearby.

'Thank the Founder that something is going as planned...'

Breathing a sigh of relief, he proceeded to go for the simple expedient of levitating her out the window, his magic grabbing hold of her body and pulling her slowly towards him.

"Munya..." Louise moaned in her sleep, tossing uneasily - and coming wide awake as she realized that there was nothing beneath her.

'Levitated, I'm being levitated...'

She had experienced this before, given that she had never been able to levitate herself, and thus one of the professors had had to assist her when she needed to get higher level books in the library - but never before had she been lifted from her bed in the middle of the night, by some figure that by starlight seemed to be in some dark colored armor.

'Kidnapping...?!'

She didn't think twice about what to do next. In fact, she didn't really think at all, as her constant practice Mana had drilled a bit of muscle memory into her, as she drew her wand from the waistband of her panties, and--

BOOM!

--obliterated the head of her assailant in one swift motion, causing the levitation spell to cease, dropping her unceremoniously on the stone floor of her room.

"Oww..."

But that exclamation was more a reflex than an actual admission of pain, as right now, pain wouldn't register. Her aim was off, and so too her control, as she had just woke up to find herself in this unexpected situation, adrenaline flooding her veins.

She didn't even realize quite what she had done or really what was going on - though she knew enough to level her wand and attack as the door burst open.

BOOM!


] | [

Above the courtyard, things weren't going much better for the Knights, as they fought desperately to subdue the two below - and by now, thoughts of capturing the pair without casualties had died a cold and painful death. Against a simple commoner and a rogue familiar, that would have been child's play, but against a skilled mage who was willing to fight to the death, the equation changed drastically.

Even now, a giant golem of sorts was ripping any who came too close from their mounts and crushing their bodies like over-ripe grapes, with the very walls and ground becoming Fouquet's weapons. That was the one of the great dangers of fighting an Earth mage, as one could not land without coming into range of their influence.

"Men, on me! Attack the earth mage! For Tristain! Ho-ah!"

With a cry, three mounted knights dove towards Fouquet, weaving below arms of the golem and hurling three Air Spears at her in quick succession, hoping to end her life - but the spells had no effect.

"Auug--c--!"

Fouquet's retaliation proved more effective, with a field of wickedly sharp spikes rising from the ground to the right, left, and center of their flight path. Two managed to pull up in time, but the last found his griffin skewered by a spike rising from the ground, as he went tumbling to the ground - and a sinkhole opened beneath his feet, halting his movement as a knife was slammed into his throat.

One of the others was decapitated by a hunk of the fountain hurled at high speed, blood spraying from the stump of his neck as the now-panicked griffin continued its flight path - and was smacked out of the air by the rampaging golem.

Even for those who had fought golems before, this one possessed greater speed than they had been led to expect, and could reconfigure its limbs into needles of earth or things more deadly still.

"Hmm, troublesome," Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha muttered as she looked at a lighter-colored blotch on her arm that was beginning to shed dirt. She spoke a protective incantation once more, as dirt patched the area that was beginning to shed. "They're beginning to wear away my Basilisk Skin."

Named for the King of Serpents, Basilisk Skin was her special incantation of last resort - a spell that surrounded her body with a thin, compressed layer of earth that reduced the effect of most wind spells and ground out any fire spells hurled at her.

It was not so helpful against water, but those who fought her did not tend to be water mages.

More enemies assailed her, coming in another quick run - this time with ice spells at the ready, but Fouquet rattled off a quick incantation, and the wand-swords of several enemies crumbled into dust, deconstructed by her power.

'How foolish to assault an Earth mage directly, when first and foremost, I am an alchemist!'

Alchemy was indeed the greatest ability of those who wielded the Earth element, though it was an ability that many tended to forget about in the heat of battle.
True, using golems to multiply one's effective force and turning the landscape into a forest of chaotic death via spikes, sinkholes, and other such were effective, but transmutation was so much more useful in the long run.

...not that she could sustain it for long.

Not in a prolonged battle against this many foes.

She had felled perhaps eight so far, mostly due to them underestimating her, but that wouldn't last. She'd already pulled out many of the tricks in her arsenal, and the number of the enemy was far larger now, as black wings thummed-flapped-snarled through the skies above.

And like the elites they were, they were wising up, pulling back out of range.

She didn't know what they had in mind, but it couldn't be good.

'If this doesn't end soon, I'm going to run out of Willpower, and if they use another area effect spell...'

Out of the corner of her eye, Fouquet saw the familiar continue to gamely dodge spells aimed at her, as well as take down any single enemy who had been dismounted and the misfortune to touch the ground.

'Well, if they do, I don't think I'll be able to protect her...'

A child who had been touched by the scourge of war too soon - a child who had lost her innocence to a cruel world.

A child much like her, and the sister she had left behind.


] | [


In the sky above, out of range of the golem - though not quite its anti-griffin projectiles, greased lightning arced from wand to wand, as the remaining griffin knights indeed prepared a siege-level spell. The very air shimmered with power, with a sound reminiscent of a thousand birds wailing tearing through the sky as magical energy built.


The Griffin Knights were a proud order.

They were the foremost among Halkeginia's Imperial Mage Guards, and they did not like to lose. They were confident, and had every reason for being so, as their order had never truly been defeated.

And so as they took casualties, they were not demoralized - they were infuriated.

Before this, they had tried their best to carry out their orders to simply capture the demon hunter (while neutralizing Fouquet), but they were done trying to keep their hands clean. They had acted with restraint and honor, and what had that earned them?

A fifth of their number lay dead at the hands of Fouquet of the Crumbling Dirt, if not more. And worse, the Earth Mage showed no sign of stopping, her face - and many were surprised to find that Fouquet was indeed a beautiful woman - set into a grim mask of determination.

They knew that look well.

That was someone who would never surrender, never admit defeat, for she wasn't truly fighting them.

She was fighting her inner demons, exorcising them through their deaths.

Understanding that meant that the battle too had changed.

Now all that mattered was victory - victory at any cost. The Knight-Captain would understand, for he had faced worse in his time.

And so they resorted to Lightning Cloud, a spell that many nobles reviled precisely because it was not a standard combat spell: it was an assassin's technique, with great penetrating ability.
In general, Earth was the strongest defensive element, but certain lightning based techniques could disrupt Earth Magic, to say nothing of conventional armor. Lightning, with its speed, could not evaded, could not be truly blocked - but it was difficult to mold, as it nigh required lethal intent, and a certain finesse that most wind users lacked.

There were very few who mastered these techniques (Viscount Wardes among them), who had gained the accuracy to hit a quickly moving target - or a small human, but for this battle, they would not need mastery. All they needed was enough raw power to destroy the golem, as when destroyed, it would provide all the shrapnel and force they needed to end the fight.

The spirit energy built to its zenith, as the highest remaining officer called out the signal.

"Lightning Cloud!"

Coruscating ribbons of light and heat rippled outward from the many wands, joining together in a pillar that surged downwards with the power of meteor, impacting the titanic golem - and blowing it to smithereens with a tremendous roar that seemed to shake the foundations of the world!

BOOM!

The awesome power of the blast was powerful enough to stun both Mana and Mathilda, with the latter not only dazed from being thrown through the air like a ragdoll by the blast, half-buried by rubble, but was knocked out of the fight from the feedback of having her golem destroyed. In the wake of that terrible blast, a cloud of dust and rubble blanketed the area.

No surprise that, as it had not only destroyed the golem, but much of the nearest wall of the Academy.

"Hoo-rah!"

The fight was done, they thought, and now they could swoop down and take the demon hunter into custody, with much to report to Lord Wardes about the treachery of the Vallières.
Unfortunately for them, they were quite mistaken, as rider on a winged serpent, who had only been an observer up to now, dove upon the mass of griffins, unleashing a deadly hail of ice spears that pierced armor, tore through griffin skin and bone and sinew, ripping apart some who concentrated too intently upon the work they had wrought on the ground below.

Three, no, four riders plummeted from the sky, then, their armored forms crashing with resounding clang on the rubble from the golem's demise.

'A dragon-rider? Here? Don't tell me...Reconquista?!'

It was quite well-known that Albion produced the finest dragons - and the finest dragonriders - in the world

"Three of you, take down that dragon by whatever means necessary," the ranking officer said with determination. "We are the Griffin Knights, the supreme force of Tristain. We cannot lose aerial superiority this easily. Signal the attack, squad formation Iruz."

Until the enemy rider was taken down, the air was no longer safe, so they would have to dismount and handle the murderous child on the ground. With her felonious ally out of commission and the child still seemingly stunned, this would hopefully be an easy enough task.

All the same, they would take eighteen of their number, for even if she retained some odd ability and managed to surprise one or two of them - or more likely, if Fouquet had one last gasp of willpower to throw at them - there was no way a child - even if she were one of these legendary demon-hunters of old - could possibly be a threat to them all.

As the eighteen moved off, three intrepid griffin-riders formed a defensive screen between the dragonrider (the true threat!) and their allies on the ground, with a fierce dogfight erupting.

Wind magic was hurled against wind as the three hunted the one.

This was the kind of match they lived for - the aerial duels that tested skill, power, determination - the true fights to the death where nothing was held back, where nothing could be held back.

Kill or be killed - that was the only rule.

For the Griffin Knights of Tristain, who fought in defense of their country, and for the Gallian Knight of the North Parterre, who fought due to orders - and in defense of one of the few she called friend.

It was a deadly, dangerous dance, with Air Spears were warded off by a shield of ice, Windy Icicles deflected by razor wind, and if the intrepid Tabitha was outnumbered, her mount was faster - and more, could call on Ancient Magic for protection.

Down below, the remaining members of this squadron of the Griffin Knights - those few who had not perished, been committed to the capture of the Vallière, or detailed to stop the dragon rider - had dismounted, their sword-wands at the ready as they sought to finish their mission at long last.

And finish it they were sure they would, as the child clawed herself from the rubble about 20 meters ahead of them, seemingly dazed and confused, her garments shredded and her limbs bloody with cuts.

Their opponent was an injured little girl, and the Imperial Guard were elite soldiers chosen via a thorough selection process that involved tests of competence, evaluations of loyalty and skill, and through experience in battle.

Each and every one of them were hard-bitten, battle hardened, capable and dangerous as they were loyal to the Crown, and the Griffin Knights stood head and shoulders above the rest in this day and age.

Yes, they had heard the wild rumors about a purported demon hunter - or a demon - having been summoned to the modern day in the shape of a child, and about how she had slain a mage in a duel, on top of possibly having murdered the Count Palatine Mott.

They’d listened to all the tall tales, the gossip, the inevitable, improbable whispers about the child that was their target, and of course, and dismissed them as the sort of absurdity to be expected when ignorant commoners and callow youths who had not been exposed to the realities of war got together to discuss the details of anything involving the business of violence. As Knights, they had seen too much, done too much themselves, to be taken in by such preposterous things.

Only a mage could defeat a mage.

A commoner had no chance, except if the mage were incompetent or suffered an extremely improbable string of bad long—this was a truth that had been instilled in each of them since they were but children, going through the Academy themselves. And in the years since, it had only been reinforced, since none of the Griffin Knights had survived this long, had risen to their current ranks, by a lack of luck or skill.

So naturally they were not worried.

...which proved unfortunate for their life expectancies, because it meant that despite all the warnings they'd been given, all the complications they'd already faced, and all their accumulated battle experience, none of them had any idea what they faced in that moment.

And so they had no reason to think that a target confronted by overwhelming odds would choose to attack.

Determinedly, they moved towards her, seeking to surround her - but the demon hunter was ready, the supreme speed of the Gandalfr coupled with the efficient ruthlessness of a Ryougi as she charged, a knife in one hand, a broken bokken in the other, and a yet to be drawn sword slung across her back.

Whoosh!

An eerie light shone as sword-wands were batted aside and shadow danced inside their reach to smash a man aside with an almost casual ease.

Whirr!

One man tried a wind-spell to bind her, but the spell was dodged, with the demon hunter moving faster than was humanly possible, faster than even a wind mage could.

Bz---t!

A second man cast a lightning spell--or tried but failed, a sharp pain registering in his mind--and when he looked down, his arm was simply missing.

A sickening crack sounded as another doubled over in pain, unable to continue chanting after his ribs were smashed and his throat ripped open, as if by a savage beast, with his soon to be dead body writhing on the ground below.

A fourth man collapsed, with his skull caved in, unseeing eyes looking up at the heavens after his face had been smashed open by a powerful blow of wooden sword.

A fifth...well, he fancied himself a swordsman, and so projected where his enemy was headed and swung his swordwand as the quickly oncoming figure of death, Air Needle making his blade shine with a fierce light as vacuum blades surrounded the weapon, letting it objects that it contacted.

Mana, sensing the danger, locked her bokken against it.

Cr--bzzt!

As expected, it shattered on impact--but the wand was slowed just enough for Mana to dart in and jam her knife into the weak neck of the noble’s armor with tremendous speed, the blade piercing the mail there and ripping open his carotid artery.

Gurgling, he staggered back, dropping his wand as he clutched his throat, trying to stem the flow of blood - knowing that it would be too late.

Bzt! Bzt!

Flashes of lightning flickered above as the aerial duel continued, lighting up the battlefield with sweeping, stroking intensity, revealing the small figure of a child before them, an apparition of blood and shadow who looked at them and smiled from the bottom of her heart.

In that strobing illumination, they saw her drop the remnant of her bokken...and draw her sword, spelling their doom.

When Mana wielded a knife, there was still a chance that the opponent might live if the demon hunter was feeling particularly merciful.

With a sword, however, drawing upon the full extent of the Ryougi abilities, emotion no longer affected her. Concepts like mercy, justice, good, evil - all of these faded before a cold determination to eliminate all those who stood against her as she became the blade itself.

It was almost a state of Zen.

Termination Mode, she called it.

By itself, that was bad enough, but then there was her weapon, the Kotegiri Masamune, an old, old weapon that had become infamous in its country for how it sliced through enemy armor or other defenses as if they weren't there. Unlike her mother's Kuji Kanesada, it wasn't made to cut away the souls of man, but then it didn't have to be.

For what was a soul without a body?

“Spread out!” came a desperate order, as the survivors moved forward, fanning out to envelop her, to stop her with some spell, some weapon, some technique.

But it was useless.

Implacable, the Ryougi's sword was a blur of motion, moving too quickly for the eye to follow, armor meaning nothing before its impossible sharpness as remains of apeaceful courtyard became a slaughterhouse.

Men screamed and cursed and died, as bodies and bits of bodies flew from where they made contact with the enemy - or rather the enemy made contact with them - as Ryougi Mana moved through the chaos untouched, dealing death like some unstoppable wraith born of primal terror.

Each time lightning flashed from above, the glare tearing apart the darkness of the night, another man was dead.

Any attempts to intercept, to stop the shadow were futile, as she moved oddly, unpredictably, whittling down their numbers as they tried to defend themselves with whatever techniques they knew, only to find resistance futile.

Worse than futile, really, as those who resisted died faster.

There was something profoundly disturbing, utterly terrifying about a child being this competent at the art of war, something that screamed of utter wrongness in their souls to run away, as if something inside of them knew they were confronted with a predator they had no hope of opposing, a being that was death to the unnatural.

The few who remained felt an icy wave of fear as their ranks were savaged as if by one of the demons of old legend, some screaming in agony, most dead before they hit the floor--for they knew they had been wrong.

The ridiculous rumor that the odd familiar was one of those grim demon hunters of old was true after all--and all the preposterous tales, the nightmares and black legends about demon hunters and their sheer lethality weren't preposterous at all.

It had been only a matter of seconds, but these Knights, these elite soldiers were no longer advancing to envelop Mana, to surround and entrap her, but were instead falling back, huddling together in a defensive configuration.

None of the Griffin Knights had ever lacked courage, but this slaughter was too much, something beyond their experience or comprehension.

To their credit, they hadn't truly panicked, even now, but then, there hadn't really been time for that. Still, the sense of just how outclassed they were, how armor meant nothing before the blows of the enemy and how numbers were meaningless were beginning to sink in.

The more who surrounded her, the more she would cut down.

Twelve of them had been slain without pause or hesitation, as the girl danced, shadow in the night wearing a mantle of blood and darkness, tearing them apart like...

'...like an elf.'

A being that looked human, but almost assuredly was not—at least not in the ways that mattered.

'Demon.'

Slash.

'Demon!'

Slash.

'DEM--'

But the thought was cut off as the battle ended with the flash of a silver sword.



] | [


In the aftermath, Mana made her way over to the fallen form of Mathilda, kneeling by her side and looking for a pulse, finding one, however weak it might have been. Still, the green haired woman was breathing, which the girl had hoped for, but hadn't been at all sure she'd find, not after the powerful Earth mage had raised a barrier of stone around her in the last moment before the blast wave and the shrapnel from the golem washed over them.

There was a quiet flapping, as a silver dragon touched down on the clearing beside the two, carrying on its back a lightly wounded Tabitha, an exhausted Kirche, and an unconscious Louise. Only the first dismounted, walking over to where Mana stood, with her sword still in her hand.

Her orders had been to observe, only intervening if absolutely necessary to keep the Gandalfr from falling into the hands of the Imperial Guard, as King Joseph rather preferred such an agent of chaos at large, and knew that with the rumors flying about, there was a decent chance the Crown would be act - either on their own initiative or at the behest of the Church.

Granted, she hadn't quite expected quite a response of this magnitude, but as the Knight of the North Parterre, she was often thrown into unexpected situations and forced to adapt.
The blunette was probably one of the few in her time who had faced demi-humans, to say nothing of the other royal knights. From the time she first got Sylphid, she had been sent on suicide mission after suicide mission, and so felt some shred of kinship with the dangerous girl beside here.

"Why...?" Mana spoke as Tabitha drew near, though whether it was 'why had they attacked?' or 'why did you help me?' even the demon hunter herself did not know for sure.

"Do not know," the diminutive blue-haired girl seemed to whisper.

The Ryougi heiress looked up then, blinking as she noted how Louise was also on the back of the dragon, along with a few bags - one of which she recognized as hers - with Kirche watching over the scene warily, alert for any sign of danger.

"What...?" Mana asked, feeling none quite eloquent after the strain of the battle she had just gone through. The fierce power that had surged through her as she swung her blade, the exultation as she had ended the lives of so many - in the aftermath it was more than slightly disconcerting.

"Griffin Knights," Tabitha responded, looking over at the many, many corpses that littered the blood-soaked earth...and then to the fallen form of Fouquet. "This is...?"

"...a friend," Mana responded with a sigh.

The rush of battle was beginning to fade, and she didn't know if it had been worth the price. At least Mathilda, her closest friend in this strange world, was alive, but more than that?

"But I don't understand," Kirche's voice joined the conversation. "Why would Louise have been fighting these Knights? Why would you?"

Mana only looked at her, her expression so perfectly blank that one could have seen anything on it - or nothing at all if one was not imaginative.

"I woke up in the middle of the night at the sound of one of Louise's explosions," Kirche explained, still somewhat tense. "I would have dismissed it as nothing, but then it came again - and again, along with sounds of battle. Naturally, as Kirche the Ardent, I was not going to stand by while a battle raged around me!"

The busty redhead sighed, her eyes narrowing as she looked down at the sea of blood around them.

"It was only afterwards after I helped Louise to kill them all that I recognized them as Griffin Knights," Kirche continued, her voice pitched just high enough to be heard. "She passed out from the shock."

Mana shook her head then, very slowly, as she muttered under her breath: "Something is rotten in the land of Denmark."

"Hm?"

That was Tabitha, whose mastery of wind allowed her to hear more clearly than others might.

"Just something from a book," Mana said ruefully, her gaze sliding back towards Mathilda. She hadn't expected anyone to come to her aid, much less at the cost of self-injury. "Tabitha, can you...?"

"Ride," Tabitha answered, levitating the unconscious, badly battered form of the woman variously known as Miss Longueville, Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt, and Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha over to the back of her dragon, Sylphid. "Safety."

She seemed about to say more, but then broke off, stiffening as footsteps crunched across the field of rubble, and a robed figure - a teacher! - could be seen crossing the field, a serpent of fire wrapped around his form.

It was Professor Jean Colbert, the bespectacled man who normally seemed the very picture of a bumbling academic. But there was nothing bumbling about him as he walked across the sea of blood, having eyes only for the living party in its midst, his expression as blank as Mana's, and his eyes even grimmer.

"Give me a reason," the flame mage said quietly, pausing a good twenty meters from them. He asked this with a heavy heart, as he truly did not want to harm his students, but with sickly sweet scent of death all around him, he didn't know if he had a choice. "Just one good reason not to stop you."

His eyes brooked no deception, as he looked at the one he knew to be a killer - the one who he had seen take a life, and who had taken the lives of so many this night.

"They attacked without warning," Mana answered solemnly, her sword held loosely in her hand. She didn't intend to attack, but if she were attacked... "They tried to kill my friend." She met Colbert's eyes them, blue boring into blue. "I didn't have a choice."

The Flame Snake's gaze flicked over to the woman on the dragon, his eyes narrowing as he identified who it was.

"...Miss Longueville? She was the one who summoned the golem?" Jean Colbert murmured appraisingly, a few puzzle pieces clicking into place. "I thought she was a commoner, but that had to have been at least Triangle..."

"She went by a different name, but yes," the demon hunter answered, confirming the man's suspicions. "She also protected me when it was destroyed. That's how she was hurt."

And though she did not want to lift her sword against this professor who had been fair to her, Mana knew she would if he threatened to harm the unconscious Mathilda - or any of those who stood with her.

Not being young or naive, Colbert could see this quite clearly - just as he knew he would win, but not at what cost. The only spell he had that would guarantee a victory would also mean death for all the others here, and that would be what he would have to use, as he had no illusions about how easy Mana would be to defeat - especially not when surrounded by his precious students, each of which would stand against him if it came down to it.

A soft laugh.

"And they say there is no honor among thieves," the professor chuckled ruefully, stepping back and calling the serpent of flame back to his staff, as the group relaxed, with Mana sheathing her sword once more. "Well, in that case, I would advise leaving the country, as the Crown is unlikely to forgive the killing of its Knights, but I think you already had that in mind, Miss Tabitha."

The diminutive blue-haired girl merely nodded.

"You will have to knock me out, you know," the man said conversationally. "It would look bad if I simply let you run, you see. And this way, I won't be questioned about your intentions - or where you went."

Kirche blinked at this, not having expected the academic to be so...formidable...or so understanding.

"Professor....Jean..."

"Yes, Miss Zerbst?"

"A favor, if I may?"

"Yes?"

"Could you...could you make sure Flame is taken care of?" the redhead inquired soberly, eyes darting towards the section of the castle where her room was. The room she would likely not see again for a very long time. "I fear I will not be in a position to..."

"You have my word," the man answered firmly, before glancing over to Tabitha. "Quickly now, Miss Tabitha."

One Air Hammer later, Professor Colbert lay unconscious on the ground, and with the party on board, Sylphid took wing, heading for a new land where they might be hidden by the chaos of war - where one had even been commanded to go.

Albion, by way of Gallia.

Kieran
February 22nd, 2013, 07:56 AM
Totally worth the wait. And you actually made me feel sympathetic (to a point) towards Wardes, which I didn't think was possible - kudos. :)

SVNB Backup
February 22nd, 2013, 08:38 PM
So D'Angleterre was Wardes's motive. Interesting. I wonder what he thinks of Colbert and Agnes.

Chaos
February 22nd, 2013, 09:18 PM
This is the first time I meet a (somewhat) likeable Wardes and Fourqet - Excellent work!

Belthasar
February 23rd, 2013, 12:22 AM
Definitely worth the wait not that I'd want to wait that long again. I also like how likeable you've made Wardes seem.

EnigmaticFellow
February 23rd, 2013, 12:26 AM
This ride isn't nearly finished yet, a retinue of soldiers have yet to meet with the rest of the Vallières.

Still, this seems to be an interesting update, and I now crave for more.

ratstsrub
February 23rd, 2013, 02:52 AM
Wait, Wardes is likable?

I'm not sure what's stranger, you guys for thinking that, or me for not.

ItsaRandomUsername
February 23rd, 2013, 04:29 AM
Had a good time seeing the Alfheim Trademark Demon Hunter Carnage in action once more.

Belthasar
February 23rd, 2013, 11:36 AM
Wait, Wardes is likable?

I'm not sure what's stranger, you guys for thinking that, or me for not.

Hmm, maybe not likeable, sympathetic is probably closer to what I'm thinking.

Riven
February 23rd, 2013, 12:35 PM
For all that Wardes is still being a complete bastard, at least this time he has a decent motivation and some sense of efficiency.

Also, Mana slaughtering pompous noble knights with a katana. Magnificent~

kay4today
February 23rd, 2013, 10:07 PM
I felt sorry for Montmorency (I don't think I remember her being that bitchy in the novels) and I'm interested in how Guiche will develop.

You've made Louise pretty likeable and a somewhat sympathetic Wardes is also nice to read.

I like your writing style a lot and the battle scenes were pretty enjoyable to read, too. This is an amazing fic, I'll definitely keep an eye on it.

mangafreak7793
February 24th, 2013, 02:04 AM
it's great to see you writing again Alf. Though I consider myself a fast reader when I'm eager in reading something interesting, this made me take my time in order to take the story in word by word.

Though the uncertain fate of Louise and Mana, I feel brings about an ominous feeling that something bad will happen really soon, or in this case will only worsen the situation.

warellis
February 24th, 2013, 04:09 PM
Have there been any greater repurcussions from Mana killing Montmorency? Somehow I don't think what she did will reflect well on Louise.

Leftovers
February 24th, 2013, 04:10 PM
Delicious Alfheim gore was delicious.

EnigmaticFellow
February 24th, 2013, 04:12 PM
Have there been any greater repurcussions from Mana killing Montmorency? Somehow I don't think what she did will reflect well on Louise.

From what I recall, her parents were less than pleased with her death and have been plotting the downfall of Louise's family as a result of this.

Belthasar
February 25th, 2013, 01:11 PM
I had forgotten about that, I guess they won't have to try too hard with what's happened in this chapter.

EnigmaticFellow
February 25th, 2013, 01:48 PM
I had forgotten about that, I guess they won't have to try too hard with what's happened in this chapter.

Indeed. Wardes is doing that for them.

alfheimwanderer
April 6th, 2013, 12:07 AM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/11/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as “the Zero” for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as great as hers.

] | [

"...let them tremble at our might! For brave soldiers of Albion, victory is ours, today - and tomorrow!"

In the grand courtyard of the Palace of White Hall, voices of jubilation answered a distant figure on the balcony of the apartments once reserved for the Royal Family alone - apartments, which like the Palace and Londonium itself, had been captured by the valiant forces of Reconquista, their general's boldness driving the royal family from their ancestral stronghold.

Though he certainly carried an air of authority with him, he was not a particularly handsome man, nor what most would think of as figure of martial valor, yet it didn't matter. Who he was, where he came from, what he looked like - all these things were irrelevant. All that mattered was that this man, Oliver Cromwell, First General of Reconquista, had led them to victory.

For that alone, they would follow wherever he might lead.

"For too long, our people have been ground under the heel of the royals, those simpering wretches who bow before the Pope of Romalia! For too long, we have been forced to bow to self-serving tyrants who have nothing to recommend them than flimsy claims of descent from the Founder, petty men with His vision or power! For too long, we have been subject to their unjust decrees, obeying because we were told that our obedience was the Will of both God and the Founder Brimir."

Silence fell over the crowd as he paused, piercing blue eyes sweeping the gathered crowd who had gathered to hear him. Some of the stillness would be at his words. Some, of course, would be his choice in clothing - he had deliberately chosen to wear the simple vestments of a priest to remind them of his dedication to the Founder, forsaking the ring and mantle of his former office to distance himself from the Holy Church.

"Well I tell you the truth - the truth that their claims were lies."

The last word was hissed as much as spoken, and this time, when he spoke, his voice rumbling like the thunder itself, he had the unwavering attention of every last person in that courtyard.

"The Church of Romalia speaks of the will of the Founder, but was it the will of the Founder that the lands of Saxe-Gotha burned, with every last resident slain? The Church of Romalia speaks of the wisdom of the Founder, and how those who carry His blood are blessed with insight - yet was James the Incompetent wise when he crushed loyal sons of Albion for no reason than because he could? The Church of Romalia speaks of the blood of the Founder, of how those descended from the Holy Brimir are protected by His Might, but did God protect the royalists when we routed them like dogs, along with their King?"

"No!" the crowd chanted in reply to each question, their eyes looking to the ex-prelate for approval, as Cromwell waved his hands for silence.

"No indeed, my children," he spoke, in a soft, terrible voice that carried to the corners of the courtyard. "For did the Founder himself not speak of how power was a gift - a gift both to ruler and ruled - to be used for the benefit of humanity, not to abuse our fellow men for selfish gains? For did the Founder himself not live among his people - not as a King, not as a Pope, but simply as a man free of fear? A man who was willing to stand alone against his foes, strong in the knowledge of his righteousness, strong in the knowledge that God would protect his own."

He laughed then, a harsh sound that echoed off the smooth white stones that gave the palace its name.

"He would not have run as our so-called King did, before the blades and staves of his foes - for Brimir fought on the side of justice, as do we! Justice, I say! Justice!"

"Justice!" echoed back at him, the voices of thousand resounding as one in common cause. "Justice! Justice! Justice!"

Looking at the assembled masses, far larger than any who had come to any sermon he had ever given in his life, Oliver Cromwell felt a wave of exultation run through him. As a man who could not wield even a scrap of magic, he would never have dreamed that such a moment would come to pass when the fate of a kingdom rested on his shoulders, when a vast multitude looked to him for guidance on matters spiritual and temporal.

It was a heady brew, and there was a part of him that wanted to revel in the acclaim of the masses, to become the person his soldiers thought him to be - the great hero who had overthrown the tyrant King and ousted the royals from their capital.

But only a part.

The rest of him remembered that he was but a man living out an impossible dream, a player in a farce who yet had a role to play.

He motioned for silence, and when it came, the former prelate continued.

"My children, there is more yet to be done - in Albion, and in the whole of Halkeginia," he directed, taking in the many faces, the many figures below. They seemed as ants, teeming as they were, as toy soldiers lined up for battle, but he knew them for what they were.

His people.

Men and women pushed beyond what they could bear by the depredations of those above them. Men and women who had trusted him when he had told them victory was not just a possibility, but their right. Men and women who had followed him into battle...and against all the expectations built up in their heads, had won an overwhelming victory.

Some of them were nobles, but most of them were not - those that made up the rank and file never were.

It was for them that he had worn the vestments of a priest, that they might see him as one of them, not one of the high-ranking prelates who were no better than the worst of nobles in their eyes. For where nobles might take advantage of them, it was the prelates of Romalia whose empty tales gave them legitimacy.

"We have evicted James the Worthless, yet the man still lives - and his heir as well - and as long as either remains among the living, our victory is not complete. We must purge the White Isle of their taint!" Cromwell proclaimed, noting the many angry nods from below, the whispers and mutters of agreement. "Yet even then, our greatest enemy still awaits..."

A thin, tight-lipped smile came to his face then as he schooled his features to neutrality.

"Some of you no doubt believe that I speak of the Elves, those who the Church of Romalia calls the spawn of darkness, the enemies of all mankind," he said evenly, "...but I do not."

The silence that fell this time was profound and total, as if he did not speak of the Elves, then the ones he labeled as foe must be...

"No, my children, it is the Church of Romalia I indict for their crimes, for the blood of hundreds of thousands spilled, for millennia upon millennia of lies. They speak of sacrifice and service, yet it is always our sacrifice, our sons and daughters sent to war - our strongest mages sent on Crusade to die futile deaths. They speak of humility, of knowing our places in the world while they deign even to about order about Kings, as if each and every one of them is the Founder's spirit made flesh once more. They speak of the futility of challenging them, that to disobey is to be destroyed...but here we stand, alive and victorious."

His words now faded to a hush, yet there was single person who did not hear what he had to say.

"My children, my peerless champions who took this city from the wicked, I tell you the truth. The truth that our enemies are afraid, for they know what rottenness lies in their hearts, that our cause is just and righteous. The truth that we are the greatest realm in all of Halkeginia, a proud realm that has never truly known defeat. The truth that in the end, victory will be ours! Long live the revolution!"

With that, the First General of Reconquista saluted those who had fought under his command, as a chant began and slowly built till a roar resounded to the heavens.

"Cromwell!" they chanted. "Cromwell! Cromwell! Cromwell! Cromwell!"

The name of the humble priest and commander who had showed them they could defy a King - and win; the name of the man who had promised them victory.


] | [



After the oration, an exhausted Cromwell sat slouched on a couch in what was once the King's bedroom, his body shaking uncontrollably. Was it out of fear? Excitement? Ecstasy? In that moment, he couldn't possibly have said.

What he'd just done - what he'd just said - there could be no going back on his words, and he knew it. If he was caught by the enemy now, he would be lucky if they gave him a clean death, instead of torturing him to an inch of his life, healing him, torturing him, healing him and so forth until he recanted.

And even then, they would continue, for the Church brooked no defiance, and would surely make an example of him.

He'd promised the people victory, but-?

"Fufufu...that was a quite a speech, Lord Cromwell."

His secretary stood before him, clad in something between a coat and a robe, her lips curved into the odd half-smile she always seemed to wear as she looked down at him with the disquieting golden eyes that had so startled him when they first met, so long ago.

Who startled him even still, so silently had she appeared - though he supposed he shouldn't be surprised, as he had given explicit orders that she was to be allowed into his quarters if she requested it.

"Miss Amber! Miss Amber!" the man said, kneeling before her as if she were a goddess, the proud, dignified mask he'd worn earlier crumbling to nothingness as he sought reassurance. "...is it really true? Is the Church of Romalia nothing more than a band of heretics who have drifted from the true faith...? That they have corrupted the Founder's gift of magic into a mere shadow of itself?"

Anyone who saw this peculiar scene would no doubt have raised an eyebrow, as those who knew her thought of her only as his secretary and aide (with a few grumbling that she was probably his mistress as well), but he knew better than to question the one responsible for his rise to prominence.

"Of course, magic was stronger six thousand years ago," the redhead said cheerfully, her expression never changing. "Before the crusades, before the useless wars and the establishment of the Church...right, but you can tell me about that, right, Derflinger?"

"Right you are, partner! Humans used to be able to use all four elements once..."

Cromwell blinked as a metallic, masculine voice joined the conversation. Curious as to who or what had spoken, he lifted his head...and found his gaze drifting to the sword strapped to her back. The sword, which he had seen devour several spells during the battle for Londonium.

"What are...?"

"Oh, don't be so surprised, Lord Cromwell," the redhead said, her exotic features highlighted in the odd moonlight. He remembered that she had posed as a beggar when they met, and after giving her a drink, she had asked him what he wanted. All he had said, rather whimsically, was for people to look at him, to change the world - but he hadn't expected this. "Derflinger here is a magical sword...forged by Brimir's Gandalfr."

It was the ex-prelate's turn to freeze in shock, his jaw working open and shut soundlessly for nearly a minute before it closed with an audible click.

"Ohoho, a man on his knees? I didn't know you were into this kind of thing, part-"

"Fu. Please be quiet, Derflinger," the mysterious Amber intoned, her forehead glowing softly in the dimness as her fingers lightly touched the hilt.

"Ah, ok. Shutting up now. Lips are sealed."

"You don't have lips, Derflinger."

"...I'll just be quiet then," the sword all but sulked, almost like a child that had been reprimanded.

'...that...was an odd exchange...'

The sudden appearance - and disappearance - of what had to have been a rune on the woman's forehead shook Oliver Cromwell to the core. He liked to think of himself as a rather pious man, strong in his faith (although he knew that he had sinned his share and more), but confronted with a talking sword which claimed to have been made by the Gandalfr - and one who could control the sword so easily...even he could not deceive himself.

'The Four Familiars...'

Every priest knew the stories of Brimir, and how he had once had Four Familiars, three of which were remembered today: Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Myozunitonirun. One who was a master of all weapons known to man, one who was a master of beasts and of course one who was a master of magical artifacts.

Magical artifacts like talking swords...

'But that means...she...void...'

Cromwell swallowed, unwilling to meet his "secretary's" eyes, as tears began to stream down his face for doubting. He had known for some time that she was powerful in her own way, and highly placed in Gallia, but this. None would dare challenge a servant of the Void, least of all him, a priest who had no power of which to speak.

Smiling, the redhead squatted down in front of Cromwell and lifted up his chin so he couldn't avoid her gaze.

"Mou...stop acting spoiled," the woman said quietly. "Did you not say you wanted to change the world?"

"...yes. Yes, of course," the man answered, forcing some semblance of composure to his face. "A thousand pardons, my lady."

His secretary's forehead glowed once more with a soft, azure light, and as he looked into her amber eyes, peace came over Cromwell, the turbulence of troubled soul stilling itself more quickly than he would have thought possible.

"Fufu, better," she intoned quietly as she got up, regarding the now much-calmer man. "You know your duty, go and do it."

With that, Lady Amber vanished, leaving the First General of Reconquista in an empty room to ponder what he had just seen.

"...your will be done," he whispered, but there was none to hear him.

He wondered what disturbed him more - the silence of the room or the acclaim of the crowds, and he found he didn't know.




]|[


'I dislike being used for healing and soothing - it's so boring. Can we please kill someone soon?'

Not for the first time, the familiar known as the Mind of God mused that legendary weapons in this world were certainly more inconvenient than those found in the RPGs she used to play. This one, an ancient dagger she had obtained from Gallia possessed of powerful water magic, tended to have a mind of its own.

"You and your bloodthirsty mind, Undercurrent. Its kill this, stab that, make someone lose their innocence while you wet yourself over their disgust at you being plunged into a gaping-"

Of course, that wouldn't have been so bad, but she had obtained a second sentient blade in the course of her adventure, and the two really didn't get along.

'Oh there you go putting on airs again, you perverted oldtimer. Just because you're an old fashioned sword who can't get the time of day from-'

"From what, Undercurrent?"

She spoke without expression, without tone - and the dagger, murderous though it was, was smart enough to shut up. Unlike others it had been acquainted with, the redhead was not susceptible to possession, so she couldn't be forced to kill. And that was not just due to her powers as a familiar - there was something off about her soul - an ineffable emptiness that yawned open like the void itself.

...an emptiness like the dagger had last encountered in a certain diminutive Knight of the North Paterre.

At least the familiar always got into...interesting situations though. On its own, the dagger would have been satisfied with forcing a person to kill; forcing someone to destroy what they most dear, to betray all that they knew...that was foreign to it.

Almost...artistic in a way.

The redhead herself put up with the crude vagaries of the weapon as it was a rather useful tool, not only being a source of magic and willpower, but having the ability to turn anyone into a doll, a puppet who could be used for missions where she could not be seen. The blade did so enjoy possessing new hosts every once in a while, but oddly enough for a murderous rogue, could always be counted upon to return to her side.

She supposed it was due to the fact that she always had interesting tasks for it, or that the blade didn't want to think itself intimidated by her.

It mattered not.


After all, one could never have too many pawns.

As for Derflinger, a blade which could consume magic had its uses too, and those who saw her with it tended to underestimate her dearly, thinking of her as a swordswoman of some kind. Which...while somewhat correct, as she had received some training in a style from her homeland, was not her main skillset.

Besides, it had an enviable store of knowledge, and even if it was rather crude, it was no worse than some of those she had called Master, and for all its lusty talk, it was rather harmless.

A blade which cast powerful magic all on its own - a blade that could drink it - and the woman who commanded them both and more, who could bend any magical artifact to her will, though she preferred using words instead of raw power when necessary, a holdover from her past life. In that one, just as this, her most valuable asset was the ability to misdirect, letting others see what they wanted to see - not what they needed, or might have found useful.

People were always so quick to label others, to define them by a role, and as long as she did nothing to overtly contradict what people expected to see, the human mind was capable of overlooking quite a few inconsistencies. Thus, instead of seeing a cunning and dangerous foe, they looked upon her - and dismissed her as a threat, seeing only a familiar.

A secretary.

A commoner.

A maid.

Most attached their own stereotypes and prejudices to those labels...and in her case, that proved to be a mistake, sometimes a fatal one. At the very least, it was a convenient thing, since she could weave her machinations in plain sight, her identity protected until she chose to reveal what bits of it she would for her purposes, timed for the proper dramatic impact.

It was odd, really.

Years ago, she had been called to a strange land not her own, with strange magic and strange customs, but people were still the same, so easy to manipulate, regardless of magical potency, station, or such.

All one had to do was find the levers of the soul, things like rivalries, hate, love, ambition, faith, and use those as one would.

"You are really odd sometimes, partner."

Even swords were not exempt from that.

"Fu, haven't you seen stranger?"

"...well, Undercurrent here..."

'Are you jealous that I get more attention than you, old-timer? Perhaps she simply appreciates weapons that enjoy what they do.'

"No. I mean that partner is strange in how she doesn't feel pain. She's more of an Alviss than the things she crafts."'

"Mm...that's because I never liked pain," the woman whispered softly, her voice distant, as if recalling lines from long ago. "So I thought it would be better to become a doll. And gradually, my body stopped generating a pulse; blood vessels turned into tubes one by one; blood vanished like vapor; my heart, everything, just crafted parts."


'...yeah, ok, she's a strange one alright.' Empty of purpose, without any levels to control, barely human at all. 'Strange...and even more terrifying than me, K-'

"Fufu...that's not my name, Undercurrent."

'...Myozunitonirun,' the dagger corrected hastily, not wanting to be subjected to a vision of emptiness once again, a void where not even time, space, or light existed.

"Better."

Mattias
April 6th, 2013, 03:10 AM
Kohaku got reverse Pinocchio-ed? I assume this means all the Void Familiars are going to be from TM, but are each going to be from a different series as well?

Too bad we haven't yet seen the aftermath of Wardes' ill-fated surprise attack on a pair of children. I can't wait for him to hear that report. Assuming anyone survived Mana.

Archetype EMIYA
April 6th, 2013, 04:43 AM
An interesting chapter. Though I don't recall where she could have received her training in swordsmanship... she was just a maid in the original VN unless you're talking about Kagetsu Tohya or Melty Blood, in which case she was being modified by Wallachia.

This is of course assuming that we're talking about Kohaku.

alfheimwanderer
April 6th, 2013, 05:35 AM
An interesting chapter. Though I don't recall where she could have received her training in swordsmanship... she was just a maid in the original VN unless you're talking about Kagetsu Tohya or Melty Blood, in which case she was being modified by Wallachia.

This is of course assuming that we're talking about Kohaku.Kohaku was never just a maid, per se, given that she is also trained in the medical arts and has some groundings in defense, due to Jinan Sougen. She may have picked some additional bits up following the main series as well - and there may or may not be certain bits of modification.


Kohaku got reverse Pinocchio-ed? I assume this means all the Void Familiars are going to be from TM, but are each going to be from a different series as well?

Too bad we haven't yet seen the aftermath of Wardes' ill-fated surprise attack on a pair of children. I can't wait for him to hear that report. Assuming anyone survived Mana.

Soon enough. This is categorized as an interlude for me.

Kieran
April 6th, 2013, 07:23 AM
. . . I am now officially terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

EnigmaticFellow
April 6th, 2013, 11:50 AM
Can't say I'm too surprised about Kohaku being the Mind of God due to a certain RP that is dead. Still, the interactions between a man who feels no emotions and a woman that feels no pain should be interesting to say the least.

Olive
April 6th, 2013, 08:58 PM
*Speculation*
Sakura is the Windalfr, having had some experience with creatures of a disturbingly magical nature.

kojiro kakita
April 6th, 2013, 09:43 PM
*Speculation*
Sakura is the Windalfr, having had some experience with creatures of a disturbingly magical nature.


ehh I am probably going with the theory that the void familiars will all be from demon hunting clans. While I don't think we will see nanaya shiki we would see his father

Archetype EMIYA
April 7th, 2013, 01:13 AM
In that case, Fujou, Asakami/Asagami, Ryougi, and Nanaya...

Most interesting. Personally I'd like to see Nanaya Shiki the most, but do as you will, author, you have the right to do so anyways.

Mattias
April 7th, 2013, 02:47 AM
I was actually thinking Apocrypha Jeanne would fit as Windalfr just becuase she's already be so used to hanging around churches and clergy, so working for a Pope wouldn't be such a stretch.

EnigmaticFellow
April 7th, 2013, 02:55 PM
I was actually thinking Apocrypha Jeanne would fit as Windalfr just becuase she's already be so used to hanging around churches and clergy, so working for a Pope wouldn't be such a stretch.

The likelihood of that happening is rather unlikely considering that Apocrypha does not occur during the standard time lines. In addition, the chances of the portal picking up a Servant is unlikely since it would have to be done during the Holy Grail War.

Mattias
April 7th, 2013, 03:44 PM
Last I checked KnK and Tsukihime were diffeernt timelines as well.

EnigmaticFellow
April 7th, 2013, 05:29 PM
Last I checked KnK and Tsukihime were diffeernt timelines as well.

In actuality, it all depends on which Shiki got the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception. Since Ryougi Shiki got the eyes, that means that Tsukihime as we have seen it does not happen. Keep in mind that the characters (at least the ones that aren't Dead Apostles or True Ancestors) themselves would still exist.

SeiKeo
April 7th, 2013, 05:31 PM
It doesn't have anything to do with that at all as stated, it's just two different continuities and that's how it is.

alfheimwanderer
August 2nd, 2017, 08:24 PM
Echoes of the Void (http://www.fanfiction.net/s/6442829/11/Echoes_of_the_Void)
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story

In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as “the Zero” for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as great as hers.

100%

In the brief time she had been in Halkeginia, Mana Ryougi had experienced many things that anyone used to the contexts and conveniences of 21st Century Earth (in a reasonably developed country) would no doubt consider strange.

Magic being openly used without a care for secrecy, as if the weakening of mystery was not something to worry about.

Dragons and gryffins being used as mounts, something that few members of the phantasmal species would allow in the world she knew.

The existence of a six millennia old magistocracy, with little apparent social change between the founding of the Kingdoms and the modern day.

And most immediately, the fact that the harbor of the port city of La Rochelle was a great tree on a hill, with ships that sailed through the sky nestled in its branches – something that was just as majestic by night as it was by day, given that much magic – or fuel – went into illuminating it at all hours, ensuring that no wayward flier crashed into it by accident.

It gleamed against the ebon sky, its golden light all the more notable due to the absence of the green and ruddy glow of Halkeginia’s twin moons.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before,” Mana murmured, her attention drawn, for a moment, away from her shell-shocked master (who seemed convinced that the Tristainian authorities would soon catch up to her and arrest her for treason), the still-unconscious Mathilda of Saxe Gotha, who was being attended to by the red-haired Kirche, or the wounded, but still capable Tabitha, who was directing the silver dragon towards a dark, angular hull moored to the tree in the distance.

“Like what, exactly?” Kirche inquired, looking over at the demon hunter with a bit of confusion. “A treeport? A ship? The lights of a city gleaming below you?”

For indeed, their flight path was carrying them over the port city, a small town built within a deep and narrow gorge, with a population of barely three hundred permanent residents – mostly support staff for the treeport and the businesses that had sprung up around it to support the nearly ten-times that many travelers who were passing through La Rochelle at any given time.

The gorge was so narrow, in fact, that every building in the city had been carved from the boulders lining it, a feat made possible by the labors of Square ranked earth mages.

Not for the first time, Kirche mused that this rather solid construction, in addition to the narrowness of the single, easily blocked off accessway to the Treeport, made La Rochelle quite a defensible location against ground assault.

‘Or even against bombardment, unlike most cities on the continent…’

“Oh, a treeport,” the Ryougi heiress clarified, her mind having some difficulty grasping the immense size of the tree in front of her, given that she had nothing familiar to compare it against. “My country has many ports, being an island nation, but our ships all travel across the water.”

“And what about a view like the lights of the city below?” the Germanian voiced thoughtfully. “If you have no airships and have never flown on the back of a dragon or the like, then…”

“We do have craft that travel through the sky in my land,” Mana interjected with a sigh. “Though we wouldn’t call airplanes.”

“Air…planes?” Kirche echoed, her brows furrowing together.

“Yes. The word originally just meant a vessel’s wing – a plane that passes through the air.”

“I can see that,” the fire mage noted, though she didn’t find Mana’s answer to be particularly satisfying. “But why would you name a flying vehicle after a wing?”

“Because it is the wings that let them fly,” the demon hunter supplied.

“…not windstones?” Kirche asked, since in Halkeginia, flight – if you weren’t a wind mage – was only made possible through the use of stones that stored wind magic.

“Wind stones?” the Ryougi heiress echoed. The term was quite clearly, unfamiliar.

“Crystallized wind magic,” Kirche explained. “Germania is the source of most of Halkeginia’s wind stones, which is one of the reasons the Empire became so rich and powerful.”

“Huh. So the other realms don’t have nearly as many wind stones?”

“Albion is probably our biggest rival in terms of what they produce, but they keep most what they mine,” the fire mage admitted. “They need it to outfit their navy and merchantmen.”

“Oh?”

“The White Country floats in the air, drifting around the world. It only passes over the Halkeginian continent a few times every month,” Kirche elaborated. “So to actually trade with any of our realms, or to make on them, they need ships. And a lot of them”

“That makes sense, but why is it called ‘The White Country’?”

It couldn’t be for the same reason that it was on Earth after all.

“It’s because water from the rivers flows off the island into the air, and in falling off the edge of the island, becomes a dense fog that covers the bottom part of the island. Because of that, we call it the White Country.”

“That’s really interesting,” Mana noted, tilting her head. “But you were mentioning that the other realms didn’t produce as many wind stones?”
Kirche chuckled, shaking her head.

“Wind stones – and other elemental stones – need to be mined without the help of magic,” the fire mage disclosed freely, thinking perhaps the young demon hunter hadn’t learned of this yet. “It is hard, backbreaking work that only commoners can do.” Her smile grew bitter as she looked away. “The nobility of the Brimirian Kingdoms doesn’t like admitting that there is something they cannot do, so instead of empowering commoners to mine their own, they turn to us, even as they label us barbarians for rewarding those which made our country wealthy and strong with titles of nobility.”

“…aside from Albion, which needs wind stones badly,” the Ryougi heiress realized.

“Exactly,” the fire mage acknowledged, by now not surprised by her conversation partner’s intelligence. “A good place for fugitives to hide from angry authorities as well, provided you can afford passage.” She shrugged then. “Well, under normal circumstances, I’d say Germania would also make a good place, given that my family would no doubt shelter us if we were common criminals, but the situation now is…complicated.”

From what Tabitha had said, the Vallière family had been accused of assassinating the Lord Regent and conspiring to seize the throne, and no doubt the slaughter of the Griffin Knights at the Academy, coupled with their flight soon after, lent these allegations some weight.

Why resist – and then run away – if one wasn’t guilty of something, after all?

In that case, going east – towards Germania or the Vallière holdings on Tristain’s border – was no doubt what any pursuers might expect. Entering the former and seeking sanctuary would no doubt result in the Emperor turning them over to Tristain, given that he was betrothed to Princess Henrietta and thus had an incentive to ensure the Kingdom he would soon absorb into the Germanic Empire did not see him as a conqueror, but a close ally. Going to the latter would bring the wrath of Tristain down on Louise’s family, if its army was not already enroute to suppress rebellion and restore order. Going west, towards Gallia, where none of them were known to have much in the way of family or support (thanks to Tabitha having enrolled in the Academy under a false name), and taking ship to Albion, beyond the reach of any government which could be expected to extradite them back to Tristain, was the better option.

Especially since, in the time it would take for the palace to investigate the disappearance of the Griffin Knights and determine where their killers had fled, they would already be at La Rochelle, as riding on Slyphid turned what would be a two day journey on horseback into one that took only two hours.

Indeed, there was much to recommend their current course…

‘Except for the ongoing civil war in Albion, but then, we can’t have everything, can we?’ she asked herself sardonically.

She expected the demon hunter to ask all sorts of follow-up questions, perhaps related to the political situation or how it was they’d been in a position to intervene in the first place, but Mana Ryougi only had one thing she wanted to know.

“I see,” the young girl noted, her eyes grave. “So we have arranged passage on a ship, then?”

Kirche glanced over at her blue-haired friend, the one who had first brought up fleeing to Albion, wondering if the wind mage’s plan had been influenced by...her superiors, and if this all had been one of their missions.

“…well, Tabitha?”

“Yes” came the quiet girl’s response.

After just a few minutes more, they arrived at their destination, with Tabitha’s dragon familiar touching down soundlessly upon a branch near an immense black hulled vessel, tethered to the tree by a number of ropes.

“Wait here,” the Gallian mage instructed her companions, as she slid off the dragon and made for the warship.

“Tabitha…?” Kirche questioned, eyes narrowed as she looked upon the sleek warship, from the staff of which fluttered a flag with two crossed wands – the heraldry of the Royal Gallian Navy. “Is this about…?”

“Yes,” the blue-haired girl noted, making her way towards the frigate’s lowered gangplank, with the two soldiers on sentry duty bowing as she approached.

“Should we…?” Mana asked, but the fire mage shook her head.

“If Tabitha says to wait, we should wait,” she said with a troubled expression. “And don’t bother asking what this is about. I don't entirely know, and it’s not my place to explain.”

100%

As Tabitha ascended the gangplank of the ship, the two soldiers straightened from their bow.
"Welcome back, Lady Charlotte," one of them greeted enthusiastically.

The other seemed less pleased to see her, and merely grunted: “The commander awaits you."

Tabitha nodded, gesturing with her staff for one of them to lead her onwards, so she could receive instructions for the next part of her mission. Under normal circumstances, this meeting would be occurring at the palace complex at Versailles, but it seemed that with the current going-ons, her superior had wanted to avoid the party of fugitives being linked to Gallia.

The soldier led her to the captain’s quarters, gesturing for her to enter.

Inside, lounging on a stuffed recliner in a fashion most unbecoming of a Knight-Commander – mostly because she was no knight herself – was a seventeen-year-old girl, with shoulder-length hair of a pale blue shade matching the color of her eyes.

This was none other than Princess Isabella of Gallia – the Commander of the Knights of the North Parterre.

“Leave us,” the princess intoned, with the soldier bowing and closing the door, leaving Tabitha – or rather, Charlotte Hélène d'Orléans – alone with her royal cousin. Said cousin regarded the wounded knight critically, taking note of the dried blood staining the torn shoulder of her garment. “Such filthy attire. You think that it is fitting to speak with a princess in such a state?!”

Tabitha, being used to her cousin’s rants, simply looked at her and said nothing – which only infuriated Isabella all the more.

"You are not part of the imperial family anymore, do you understand?” the crown princess asked in a withering tone, biting her lip. “Just because you have a little bit of talent at magic, don’t think you can just do as you please.”

It was agonizing to the princess that Charlotte, who had been stripped of her titles and birthright, nevertheless was more respected by the nobles of Gallia than she, and for what? Having enough talent with magic that she had been made a Chevelier, while Isabella herself – like her father – had little to speak of whatsoever?

For some moments, she simply glared at her cousin, willing the doll-like girl to react, to show anger, to mutter, to do something – to acknowledge the fact that she existed.

But no response came, with Isabella finding herself becoming more and more unnerved with each passing moment. Dealing with this girl was like a working with a magical gargoyle, save that there was something unnatural about seeing a human act like this.

“You are ready for the next part of the operation, then?” she asked, slipping into the more business-like persona she adopted as the Commander of the Knights of the North Parterre. Honestly, she didn’t know why her father had given her command of this…particular squadron of knights when she’d asked for a title, forcing her to work with supremely dangerous individuals who had little respect for her, due to her lack of ability, with her cousin showing the least respect of all.

And why would they?

Of the four great knight-squadrons of Gallia, the Knights of the North Parterre was the one which took care of all the dirty work of the Kingdom, domestic or foreign, carrying out missions in the shadows with no hope of glory and no need for things such as honor. They, unlike the others, would do the jobs none of the others squadrons would deign to touch, whether they involved thievery, espionage, or even…assassination.

Indeed, the girl before her had just completed one such mission, and was due to undertake another.

Picking up a letter from a table by the recliner, she threw it at her cousin.

"The details of your next mission,” Isabella declared. “Complete it quickly, and don’t bother reporting to me when you are finished.”

The Knight of the North Parterre nodded expressionlessly.

No…was that a reaction she saw? The slightest lifting of an eyebrow? A bit of tension in her lips? Or had she just imagined it?

Either way, it was gone when she looked again.

“Even if you wanted to, the Mistral and I will be out on patrol,” Isabella continued, stating the official reason the frigate had been posted to La Rochelle. “Pirates have been attacking our shipping, so I thought something should be done about it.”

This time, although she looked closely, the princess could see no reaction at all from her cousin.

“Dismissed.”

Without so much as a bow, her subordinate departed, leaving Isabella quietly enraged – much as she was every time she interacted with her once royal cousin.

100%

Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha, or Fouquet the Crumbling Dirt, as she had come to be called, wasn’t sure what she had expected to occur after she’d been incapacitated following the destruction of her golem, but waking up in a soft bed, mostly free of pain, certainly wasn’t it. With that incongruity worrying at her thoughts, she opened her eyes a hair, just enough to see what was going on around her, and found herself alone in a fairly spartan cabin.

Well, alone, save for a worried looking Mana Ryougi, asleep in a chair beside her, dressed in the charcoal-gray blouse and skirt combination that she usually wore when out of her kimono, with a knife strapped to her outer thigh.

‘Well, one thing is certain. The Mage Guards didn’t capture us.’

If they had, her young friend would not have been allowed to change her clothing, nor permitted to keep any of her weapons. Nor would they have troubled themselves with healing her of her injuries, not after how many of them she’d killed.

‘Most likely, both of us would have been killed, attempting to escape during capture…’ she mused, as she propped herself up to a sitting position. ‘Failing that, we would have been imprisoned separately from each other in the most secure dungeon available to the Kingdom of Tristain had, instead of being left to our own devices on a stateroom on a ship.’

And that she was on a ship, the earth mage knew for a fact, as she recognized the distinctive sway of a ship in motion.

But if so, then how had she come to be here? There were no ports nearby, save perhaps Tristain’s naval base, and somehow, the woman who had become known as Fouquet doubted that they were on board a military vessel. Or at least, there were no soldiers in her immediate vicinity, or stationed outside the door – she would have been able to sense their armor and weapons if there had been.

‘Did we go to La Rochelle then and take passage…somewhere?’

That was probably the most likely option, but who…

Before the green-haired woman could come to any conclusions, the door opened, admitting a petite blue-haired girl – Tabitha, she thought the name was, from the Academy.

‘A triangle-class wind mage, whose familiar is a dragon.’

“You saved us?” Mathilda asked, though it wasn’t truly a question.

“Yes, Mathilda of Saxe-Gotha,” the blunette responded, with the earth mage wincing as someone else spoke her name.

“You know.”

The other nodded.

“Why did you…?”

“Orders,” came the response, an answer that prompted the fallen noble to raise an eyebrow.
“From?” Fouquet prompted.

“Gallia.”

‘How very Interesting…’ the thief mused. It meant that someone in the Kingdom of Gallia both knew who she was and had a use for her, otherwise, she would not have been saved. It also indicated that the girl was an agent of the Crown – which quite possibly meant that she had been attending the academy under false pretenses, much like herself. And that of course, intervening to protect her life had been worth compromising an available asset in Tristain.

“Where is this ship heading, if I may ask?”

“Albion,” Tabitha replied expressionlessly, a pair of ice blue eyes boring into her as if trying to elicit a response.

“Albion,” Mathilda repeated.

A country she knew well, as it had once been hers, when she’d been a member of the high nobility, with her father serving as the viceroy to the Archduke himself.

“You have a need for me, then?” she asked, glancing over at Mana to make sure the other girl was still asleep.

“Mm.” The Knight of the North Parterre nodded.

“Well, then, name your price,” Fouquet stated bluntly. “What does Gallia want in exchange for rescuing me?”

‘Or…us, really,’ she thought to herself, as she looked over at Mana, thinking that she had a bad habit of picking up strays, and doing rather terrible things to support them.

Tabitha – if that was truly her name – handed over a letter, with Mathilda’s eyebrows rising higher and higher as she scanned the contents. So Gallia was behind…

She shook her head, her lips curving into a grim smile as she contemplated the task she had been assigned.

“The life of a prince in return for mine, then?” she commented. “Very well, chevalier. I find that to be more than fair. His father took everything from me. It’s only fitting I return the favor.”

Kieran
August 2nd, 2017, 09:53 PM
. . . And now, I need to re-read everything.