Arche could no longer get any sort of read on the woman she was travelling with. Not since the bandit incident, and the subsequent realization that she was hired by a woman who could likely wipe the floor with the Empire's strongest individuals. She was still at odds with what she'd seen, her common-sense warring with reality, and producing nothing but inconsistencies.
Nero didn't look like an able fighter, rather she was the opposite. Her arms looked scrawny, far from the muscled and toned biceps of other female knights in the Empire hefting heavy steel swords. Her voice was high-pitched, almost child-like and filled with a narcissism that someone suited her rather than sound pretentious. It was like petulant brat, one that you couldn't help but smile at in their sheer enthusiasm. Worst of all, she wore the most controversial armour that it may as well just be a gown with what protection its see-through fabric offered. Nero called it a 'Battle dress.' Ache called it a liability, but who was she to suggest anything about practicality to Nero? Everything about her screamed harmless from a third-party perspective, but perhaps this was the point?
Arche couldn't stare at Nero with the same disinterest she'd regarded her with at the start of her recruitment. When she looked down at her gloved hands from where she was silently riding on the passenger seat of the wagon Nero was controlling, she could feel the sweat of her palms soak into the inner fabric of her gloves.
In her possession was the innate talent known as the All-Seeing Eyes. It allowed her to see the tier and magic power of a magic caster which never failed to aid her against difficult adversaries. It allowed her to predict whether to engage an enemy or call upon a tactical retreat. Magic casters as an adversary were the worst type of enemy to deal with since you never know what sort of spells that they had up their sleeves. By knowing the tier of a magic caster, she could infer what sort of spells they knew. This enabled her to predict the actions and skills of a rival magic caster as she herself was an experienced magic caster.
Now, she generally used her innate talent when she felt threatened or curious, but right now, she didn't dare activate it again. Just looking at Nero had nearly caused her to faint, her insides churning and body growing nauseous.
Who was Nero? What sort of person was she to possess such absurd mana levels but not be classified as a magic caster?
The rolling of the wheels over the gravel road temporarily helped distract her from her thoughts, but it wasn't to last. Her forehead crinkled, and her attention once more began to be drawn towards the obviously shock inducing sight near her.
Her eyes kept shifting towards the pile of semi-unconscious bodies Nero had stacked up onto another wagon trailing behind the one she was in. They were bruised, whimpering, and groaning. Some were fully conscious, and seemed utterly traumatized. The fact that none were tied up, and yet none dared to flee spoke volumes of what they'd been through. Judging from the way Nero would glance in their direction almost hopefully only to deflate when they were behaving had Arche at a loss for words. On one hand, she'd assumed Nero was keeping an eye on them to keep them in line, but Nero always looked too disappointed when no one ever bothered running.
None of the captured bandits were stupid enough not to see Nero was growing impatient for them to act out so that she may take action once more. The fact that they weren't restrained was enough proof of this, yet here they were: grown men and women who made a living of plundering terrified by a girl just over half their size. It would almost be funny, if Arche didn't know just how much of a powerhouse Nero was.
Arche would never believe that Nero had said there were others stronger than her when she 'acted' abashed at Arche's open look of wonder after Nero rounded up all the bandits herself.
What a bold-faced lie.
A good lie was a lie that was believable. Everyone knows this, so why had Nero appeared so serious?
"Umu…." Nero made a sound of disappointment that was difficult for Arche to make out, but she didn't question Nero's eccentricity. Once again, Nero deflated from the front of the wagon when no captured bandits tried to flee, missing the way everyone sagged in relief when she wasn't looking anymore.
Either Nero was a phycological genius, or a child pouting at the loss of entertainment and forced to endure a long road trip. As for why the bandits weren't put to death as any overseeing noble would have done, Nero had her own plans for them.
Death was too easy. With a wisdom born from the experience of a leader, Nero said two words that had Arche mouth quickly drying in her incredulity. She was generally reserved or stoic, but what Nero had said was taking things too far.
"Free labour," were the two words Nero proclaimed.
It was crazy. The mere suggestion had her eyes widening impeccably, before she schooled her features. "Are you serious?" She'd asked, to which Nero nodded.
The memory caused her no small amount of brain cells. She thought it prudent to try and reason with her about how it was impossible, yet Nero said it should work out all the same. Could Nero actually not understand the only thing keeping the bandits around was Nero's own presence? As soon as Nero was out of sight, Arche had no doubts the bandits would book it for the hills. There was no way for Nero to enforce the bandits to work for her without direct supervision, and Nero had just been appointed Duchess of the land. There was no time for her to oversee the bandits even if she wanted to. Regardless, Arche gave up trying to reason with Nero from the beginning after Nero insisted. If Nero thought trust and a stern warning was going to be enough to keep the crooks around, then she was in for a rude awakening.
Stupid nobles, for that was what Nero had to be. Nero didn't seem the sort to follow orders, but the sort to 'give out' orders. It was her natural disposition. The disposition of the worst of the ruling class, one that Arche knew all too well from social gatherings she'd once attended before her noble family fell from grace.
Arche huffed, and decided to mind her own business.
The wagons wheeled along the dirt road while she and Nero remained in general silence…. Well, actually, Nero was talking to her, but she'd cast a silencing spell around her, and just nodded along to whatever Nero said while doing maintenance on her staff. This occurred for the entire duration until Nero stopped the wagons just shy of reaching the town.
It was then that Arche felt it, a presence she'd not noticed before.
"Do not fear, child."
She jumped in a startle, hands flying to grasp over the shaft of her staff whose tip shone in a dull magic light. Her eyes had bugged out, and a layer of perspiration matted her brows.
S-Since when was there another person riding across from her in the wagon and when had it happened?
The man was dressed all in black, a curious sight made all the more damning as she didn't notice him approach even under the light of the sun. His garment was loose fitting, layers of cloth over layers of more cloth that obscured what she now understood to be a belt of throwing daggers.
The more she observed, the more panicked she inwardly became. Even knowing that this strange man was in front of her, it felt as if there was no one there. A rogue or an assassin was the first thought in her mind. No other class could be as skilled in the art of stealth, and this man undoubtably stood on another level to sneak up on her in broad daylight. This begged the question of how she'd sensed him in the first place?
She heard a snort of amusement from the man, as she did a poor job of keeping her wariness contained. Then the answer to her previous question became obvious. He'd let her notice.
A-An agent of the Eight Fingers?
Her jumped for a conclusion. Her Worker team had operated in a few operations that infringed upon the underground criminal society lorded by the Eight Fingers. Perhaps a bounty had been placed on her head?
No. This was different.
This assassin wore a peculiar white mask she'd never seen or heard a member of the Eight Fingers possessing. Regardless, the danger was quite real. She was a magic caster and knew the danger of close combat. Right now, she was at the disadvantage.
As Arche slowly contemplated if she should try running or not, she froze completely when the assassin completely disregarded her.
"Lady Nero," the assassin called out gruffly.
"Hundred Face," Nero replied back, her head angled at a curios tilt.
Hundred Face? What an odd name. Arche mused. Then again, she was more taken aback about the fact that someone like Nero was associated with a black-market worker. She watched mutedly as Hundred Faced gave a letter to Nero which prompted a frown from the new Duchess of the Empire's northern dutchy before a giddy smile.
"The Praetor is coming?" Nero asked thrilled.
Hundred Face merely nodded. Thereafter, Hundred Face turned to stare at Arche before grunting.
Arche was not ashamed to say that she flinched, and turned away to cast a protective spell when Hundred Faced abruptly moved towards her. For an instant, her attention glanced towards Nero to see if she'd ordered Hundred Face to kill her as a witness, but far from it.
One moment Hundred Face was in front of her, and in the next he vanished just as quickly as he came, possibly lurking in the shadows.
"Don't worry about him," Nero was giving out a knowing grin. "That guy, out of the hundred was just shy, and didn't know how to speak with you. Look at your hair."
My hair? Arche felt around her bangs and quickly noticed the violet tulip held just above her ear. "…What?" Her reply was as stoic as they came, not because she was calm, but because she was utterly bewildered.
"Haha!" Nero threw her head back in a laugh before proceeding to move the wagons towards the town. For her part, Arche just blankly sat back down and tried to understand when her life had gotten so weird. She narrowed her eyes once at Nero, and then knew her answer. Still, the traitorous jingle of the pouches of gold tied around her waist made certain that she'd put with anything unless it crossed a personal line. Capturing bandits and having an assassin for an associate had not passed that line yet.
By the time Nero rolled the wagons to a stop by a local penitentiary, Nero merely pointed a finger at the bandits for them to enter the building one by one.
"Duchess Nero?" Arche asked for clarification of what they were to do now.
"A day's hard work isn't to go unrewarded!" She nodded her head sagely. "I will have my rewards later, but for now I must instil loyalty to my new men."
"Uhm, sure." Arche was beginning to feel out of her depth. "But wasn't the agreement to guide you towards the manor Lord Jircniv assigned you in the area?"
Nero nodded before giving another pouch of gold. "Meet back up with me in three hours."
Arche was all too willing to agree with this suggestion. The town they'd stopped by was actually near her home, and she'd be damned if she kept walking around with all the gold she had on hand. Already, she could see a few eyes marking her as a target of robbery. She'd go home first, stow away her gold in her secret stash, and then make her way back to Nero.
"Bye," was all she said to Nero before walking away.
Her stomach growled on her way back to her family manor, but this time, rather than ignore it, she glanced down at all the gold she was carrying, and then to the nearby food stalls. Her stomach growled again as the scent of fried food caused her to drift over. Some extra food really wouldn't hurt. Most of all, she could probably buy some of the more expensive cuisine for her little sisters to try. They'd been living off of bread and porridge for most of their lives and had never tasted the quality food she'd enjoyed when their family was still better off.
Ureirika and Kuuderika were the names of her two little sisters. They were mirror images of each other with blond hair, wide blue eyes, frilled dresses, and thigh-high white stockings leading to leather strapped shoes.
With the gold she had, she bought her own food, ate it, then moved on to buy her sisters something special to eat before making her way back home.
The new 'guards' her parents had hired didn't even bother trying to inspect her to be a member of the household and lazily ignored her. She glared behind their backs, but that was as far as she could go before opening her manor's door.
She sucked in a breath when her parents were the first people she saw, and from there, everything was a blur. The food she'd been carrying in her hands was instantly shoved into a single bag as she concealed her pouches of gold by pulling her cloak over them. It didn't take more than a second or two, but something about the way her mother's eyes narrowed on her that unnerved her.
"Mother, father," she said stone faced.
"Arche, dear. Welcome home," her parents toasted and drank a cup of wine Arche knew they didn't have the money to pay for. Everything about her parents were just appearances. Their status of nobility had long since fallen, but they remained deluded in the glories of the past.
Arche didn't respond other than nod, and briskly run down the hall, anywhere to get out of her parents' sight. She bumped into a side table and the vase over top fell and shattered.
There goes a hundred gold.
She inwardly mused in morbid fascination. In the past, she would have winced and calculated how many missions it would take to reimburse the loss, but now, now she didn't care. It was invigorating. She didn't stop moving even as the glass shards of the vase scattered over the floor. She wasn't going to stay in this house with her siblings and allow their parents to abuse her as a forced bread winner any longer. In her haste, she didn't notice a single gold coin rattle from one of her pouches and land on the floor where it rolled beneath her mother's foot.
For the first time in a long time, she was beaming as she entered her room in the manor. A smile graced her lips, and She had another two hours before she had to meet back up with Nero. She had all the time to relax for a bit, but first, she took out her patches of gold and moved towards her cabinet. When she tried to open it, thick magic light impeded her representing the magic locks she'd set in place to prevent thievery. One by one, she disarmed them until she got access to the cabinet stuffed full of gold she'd saved for years. It was both sad and cathartic that the pouches of gold she'd earned in a day far surpassed the amount of gold she'd saved up in her entire career as a Worker.
This was it. Soon. Soon she'd and her little sisters would be out of this hell hole.
A knock echoed from her door as she contemplated how much more gold she'd need to save up. Hurriedly, she closed her cabinet, and pressed her back against it when she heard her room's door open. Her eyes were set into a frigid glare thinking her parents were coming to demand money from her, but her expression quickly softened.
"Big sis?" A tiny head was peaking through with shoulder-length blond hair.
The blond bundle of innocence that was one of her little sisters all but preened at the sight of her. She was the sister in the pink dress, the other generally wore blue.
"Father says he want to spend time with us."
Arche's mood quickly fell at Ureirika's words.
"Can I refuse?" She skirted around the issue, clearly uncomfortable.
"Kuuderika's already there," Ureirika replied unsurely.
Arche promptly shut her mouth. "Alright, fine. I'll go."
She closed the cabinet with her secret stash of gold and made to enchant it with magical locks. The process would take ten or twenty minutes to make it secure, but she grew distracted when Ureirika noticed the food she'd bought for them.
"C-Can I eat this?" The little girl asked, her tone wonderstruck at the pastries and cuisine in the bag. The scent from the food alone was causing her to salivate. The problem was, Ureirika didn't quite know where to start, or was just unsure with how to proceed.
Arche looked from her unfinished magic casting, then back to Ureirika who's wide eyes were practically glowing in excitement.
Arche smiled wryly, closed the cabinet with her stash of gold and used her old rudimentary lock to keep it shut instead. It was the same lock she'd used to store away her gold before she was adept enough in magic. On a more bitter note, it was the same lock her parents had given her after all but telling her to pay off the family's debts. Bastards. She gritted her teeth, but soon took in a few deep breaths to calm down. This was a happy occasion, and she was particularly excited to see her siblings eat a good meal rather than constant porridge.
"Here, let me help with that, but lets jus meet up with your sister first." Arche approached Ureirika and took the food.
"And dad?" Ureirika asked. "He's calling for us right now with Kuuderika."
Arche made a face of disgust. Somehow the thought of her father hogging the lion's share of the food appalled her. Still, she grinned deviously. "Let's make a quick trip to you and Kuuderika's room." She'd leave a majority of the food there for them to eat later.
Ureirika seemed to understand what she meant and nodded vigorously. "You're the best!"
Arche let Ureirika drag her out of her room by the hand, a small smile playing on her lips. She detested her parents, but her siblings were the only reason she was still around.
After making a quick detour to Ureirika and Kuuderika's room, Arche spent the better part of an hour trying to put up with her father boast about bringing the family back to its hay day. All the while, the man would idly partake of large chunks of the food she'd brought.
Her father's actions were almost enough to cause her to growl, but she was satisfied that she'd at least thought better of bringing all the food she'd brought to her father. Speaking of which, where was her mother?
"Where's mom?" She asked out of curtesy. This was apparently a 'family bonding' moment which would make no sense with a member missing.
Suddenly, her father grew evasive.
Huh? Arche was too experienced not to noticed the change. She sat up from where she'd been lounging on a chair, and paranoia began to set in.
"Do not fret daughter," her father wet his lips. "Your mother said she was feeling quite ill."
"She looked fine an hour ago," Arche pressed. The feeling of foreboding within her only continued to grow and grow, reaching its zenith when her father tried to stop her from leaving.
"S-Stay," the man stuttered. "It's been forever since the four of us have been in one room."
Arche was having none of it. She glared and left, only hesitating briefly after she saw the nervousness in her siblings. She gave them a muted apology, but she couldn't shake her unease especially when she considered the only thing that could agitate her parents and her to this level.
As soon as the thought entered her mind, she was running faster than she'd ever ran before. She neared her room, and once she the door hanging slightly ajar as opposed to closed, her heart dropped to her stomach.
She pushed straight into the room, and balked. It was a complete mess. Articles of clothing were scattered over the ground, drawers and objects upturned, but worst of all, her cabinet had been cut open and emptied. The lock she'd placed was nowhere to be seen, but she could hardly care.
"…No," her voice came out in barely above a whisper, her feet shakily carrying forward as reality hit her in full. "NOOO!"
She screamed hoarsely, slumping to her knees where she openly wept. Everything she'd ever worked for was gone. She was trembling, the neutrality of her facial features breaking into a pained cringe.
Rage set in soon after, but what was she supposed to do? She could vent and obliterate her parents sure, but under the Baharuth Empire's law, she'd be charged as a criminal and killed, leaving her sisters orphaned and without a caring guardian. Any chance of her sisters leading a normal life would be gone. This was why she'd been saving money to run away to begin with.
No. The thief can't have gone far, but does it matter?
The thieves were her own mother and father. She could confront her parents, but she feared if she so much as saw them right now, her self-control would break. She'd blast them with magic and scar her little sisters for life with the understanding that their older sibling practiced patricide.
Suddenly, she could hear little footsteps rushing towards her room. Undoubtedly, it was her little sister, and if there was one thing she knew, she didn't want them to see her in despair and scornful. She bolted to her room's window, opened it, then jumped out.
"Fly," Arche incanted, a sheen of mana surrounding her and floating her through the sky.
She was running away from the problem. She knew this as she forcibly killed her emotions. Right now, she just wanted to be alone.
She landed at an area close to the city, and within walking distance from her rendezvous point with Nero. Alone, she finally let it all out and sobbed, using a tree to support herself as her body was racked with bitterness and resentment. Any happiness she may have had earlier was gone.
"Ignorance knows not of the heart. Trapped you may feel, but trapped you are not."
Arche stilled, gradually turning around to see the assassin known as Hundred Face, and remembering how this very same assassin had placed a tulip in her hair.
He's just shy, she recalled Nero saying.
As soon as the two made eye contact, Hundred Face shuffled uneasily and disappeared into the trees. "I will ask Nero for a favour."
With Hundred Face gone, only awkward silence remained, but at the very least, it served as a distraction. Maybe this was exactly what Hundred Face intended? Of course, she heard what the assassin had said, but nothing was sinking into her head right now. She was too emotionally impaired.
Wiping away her tears, she composed herself after ten more minutes lamenting her misfortune. Still, with a job to do, she went back to meet up with Nero, yet faltered when the first thing Nero did after greeting her was nod.
"I require an aide for the duchy," Nero said as if that would answer everything. The fact that Arche understood that the assassin really had followed through with what he'd said caused a warmth to bubble within her. What a dork. Nero continued. "Will you accept after your task as a guide. I will pay you well!"
"Uhm, I, ugh, yes-yes!" Arche suppressed the agitation within her and forcibly brought her voice under control when she considered just how much Nero paid for being just a guide. "I accept the offer, Duchess Nero."
She accepted the position, all but clinging to the generosity of a strong-willed woman she had no idea about on the favour of an assassin. If this set up didn't already scream 'bad idea,' then she didn't know what did. Nero may as well be a stranger for all the time they'd spent together, but did it matter? As far as she was concerned, Nero could manipulate her, extort her, or even treat her as a disposable pawn, but she'd still come slinking back.
She just seen her siblings grinning from ear to ear in a manner she'd not seen in years just because she brought food. They were happy and could finally be away from the influence of their parents with this job. Suspicious or not about Nero, she forewent her caution. Fool was she to doubt the hand that would aid her regardless of what secrets or revelations it held.
…and in the end, could you blame her?
Sorry for smaller update! As many probably know already but university's back up, and in-person classes are closed. The entire semester is being taught online by professors using a teaching tool called Brightspace. Anyways, the first week was finnicky and hard to communicate with older professors, some of which have admitted to have not taught an online class before and struggle with technology. This is all fine, but after a few zoom lectures yesterday, I opened up Brightspace today and found four assignments I had to do. Some of them were progress checks, others graded quizzes. Now it could just be I didn't see them earlier, but I had to do those first and here I am now. If I made a couple errors while writing, it's because I've been staring at math problems, probability, and an excel spreadsheet for too long that when I close my eyes I see numbers…
Thanks for reading!
Next update: TBA
P a treon. com (slash) Parcasious
Fiction Press: Survivor's Log: Reflections (New novel coming out near December)
Book link: Fatedlegacydark. ca
Summary of book:
Death. Grief. Ruin. Nothing was left unchanged after an unexplained tragedy led to the loss of millions across the world in key locations. Cities were reduced to wastelands of steel and concrete, and many were forced into migration. When events leading to the prior tragedy occur once more, Kevin Black was going to have to learn that sometimes mysteries were better left unsolved. Trapped with his friends in the world of a ruined city filled with monsters, the journey out would be far more perilous than the journey in.