A/N: This story exceeded 10,000 views, so let me say a big THANK YOU to all the people who took their time reading this fanfic. We are approaching the endgame of the first field study, so strap on your seatbelts. This will be a wild ride.
Chapter 12 - Heart to Heart
She tried to remember the steps. Foundation first. She dipped the brush with more force than necessary, leaving small pock marks on the surface of the flesh colored make-up. She directed the brush towards the area around her eyes, still red from crying. Her hand took a life of its own, painting over the telling signs written across her face, concealing herself from the world.
Just like that, it became a physical mask as opposed to the metaphorical one she wore around her classmates at all times.
Curious, how applying make-up felt like doing something honest for once.
Emma closed her eyes, letting the lachrymal fluid gather over her cornea. She felt a burning, stinging pain. It was a good kind of pain. The purifying, healing kind. A sign that her dried up eyes received the moisture they needed.
She used the pain to center herself. She needed to be strong. Another day of harrowing work and potential danger awaited.
Another day full of lies.
Next came the eye-shadow. Emma chose a deep purple, veering on lilac. It was a shade darker than her hair. She followed it up with applying blush to the cheeks, covering the flawed graduation of the make-up around her irritated eyes. Finally the mascara. She dipped the applicator rod into the dark liquid, using delicate movements to sweep over her lashes.
None of the cosmetics she used could be bought in a shop. The black mascara was made using powdered agilataran carapace and crushed Nohval, brewed with aqua vitae inside a silver plated cauldron on top of a septium vein. The blush was Carnelia solution mixed with dedigaga spleen harvested on a new moon. The eyeshadow was a Sapphirl suspension treated with wraith ectoplasm as a sublimating agent.
Witch concoctions to the last. She remembered the Elder's words back then, as she was guided through the exacting art of potion making. When witches seduce, there is no telling where the magic begins and the beauty ends.
"Tutela oculos crepusculi."
Emma evoked a subtle ward. The cosmetics created a lattice of magical energy, an invisible frame of mana centered around her eyes, increasing the potency of her Witch Gaze. It took a few seconds for the spell to settle. She then felt it. Energy pooled inside her eyeballs, a surge that clamored for release. She hastily donned her glasses, sealing away the power.
She was loath to admit it, but the person who looked at her through the mirror was undoubtedly attractive, the mark of tears and sleeplessness hidden away behind magic tinctures.
There are worse ways to go than doing it in the presence of a beautiful angel like you.
One of the things the soldier said to her in his last moments. A man with parents, a brother, a fiance...
And she allowed him to die.
His wounds were deep, his blood loss extensive. She knew from the beginning that healing arts weren't enough. Even low level witch spells weren't sufficient. But a major ritual of the crescent moonlight could've saved his life. A powerful spell she was proficient at. A spell which would've told everybody in the vicinity that she possessed abilities beyond mere orbal arts.
It was the Duty of Witches to help those in need, to use their abilities for good.
It was the Duty of Witches to maintain the balance between the mundane and the hidden world.
It was the Duty of Witches to protect the masquerade, keeping outsiders away from the secrets of Erebonian history - and their roles within.
Even after a whole month, the suspicion surrounding Emma didn't abate. Much of said suspicion came from instructor Neithardt, but she understood enough about the military now to know that he only represented the tip of the spear. She felt like an animal trapped under the spotlight, forces unseen just waiting for her to slip up. The lines of causation felt clear for once: revealing herself would blow everything open, directing the scrutiny of the mighty Imperial Army onto her and her sisters.
No. She was prevaricating. Saving the man's life should've been her highest priority. But caught in a loop of indecisiveness, she let the window of opportunity slip during which her magic could've still made a difference. After that, draining her ARCUS empty with Teara Arts was just an act of childish self-consolation. It didn't change the outcome and when the man's comrades told her 'that she did the best she could', her wretchedness was thrown into her face.
As it should be.
"You coming?" Fie popped her head into the room, her expression placid as always.
Emma forced a smile on her lips. Sweet Fie didn't deserve to watch her wallow in self-recrimination. "Sorry. I still need a moment please."
Her classmate stalked inside until she stood beside her, their gazes meeting through the mirror. She then wrinkled her nose. "Did you cast an art or something?"
"Yes," Emma lied. "I tried to lessen the swelling around my eyes."
"Seems to have worked." Fie tilted her head. "You look really pretty."
No, she didn't.
"Thank you." She watched how Fie stared at her cosmetic set as if she was drilling holes into it. "Are you interested in trying out make-up?"
"I..." Fie looked between Emma and the mirror, her expression almost shy. "Would you show me?"
When she smiled at her younger classmate, it felt somewhat like a genuine smile. "I'd be glad to. You always look out for me, Fie."
"You always help me out with my studies."
"And if you wish, I'll add make-up instructions to the deal."
Fie nodded. "Deal."
Emma raised her hand and stroked Fie's temple, marveling at the silken feel of her hair. Her classmate leaned slightly forward, clearly enjoying the touch. Looking at her cat-like demeanor, Emma almost expected Fie to start purring any second.
Just like Celine.
She felt a pang in her heart, a yearning that ripped into her. Emma knew it was too late for regrets, but she wished more than ever for her familiar to be at her side. Watching over her, scolding her, comforting her in that unique way only a sapient cat could do. She suppressed a sigh. Why did she had to be so stubborn?
"Laura and Alisa are already downstairs." Fie smoothly turned around with Emma's hand touching nothing but empty air. The silver haired girl then turned around and watched her expectantly.
She put her cosmetic tinctures back into the case and sealed them away. "I'm coming."
The dining hall was bustling with activity like an ant hive. Fie led her to one of the corner tables with Rean, Machias and Alisa already seated. Machias had a big cup of piping hot coffee in front of him, while both Rean and Alisa were eating their breakfast with gusto. The Reinford heiress' meal looked normal enough - bread with jam, scrambled eggs and sausage pieces. Rean's meal on the other hand was unconventional. A steaming bowl of brown-coloured soup with something white in the middle that seemed to have the consistency of pudding. Herbs were swimming inside the broth and even from where she was standing, Emma could smell aromatic fragrances wafting around. A piece of grilled salmon with a dollop of melting butter on top laid at the side of the unusual dish.
After a round of good mornings, Fie and her sat down. "You want the usual, Emma?" She asked.
"Yes please. And thank you." Emma watched Fie run to the cantina kitchen, a gentle smile on her face.
"Do you regularly eat together at Thors?" Alisa asked.
"Yes. We hang out often and Fie usually helps me with PE training."
"Or gets tutored by you when she sits in during our study sessions," Machias added, "which is basically always."
"I imagine it's pretty tough on her," Alisa mused. "She is the youngest in our class, right?"
Machias took a sip from his coffee. "I think she even lacks Sunday School education."
Rean set down his spoon. "Really?"
Alisa blinked. "How does she keep up at all then? We already have two years of military academy education over her, but no Sunday School at all?"
Emma twisted the end of her braid. "She's a very fast learner. Besides, there are lessons she doesn't need to study for at all."
"Yeah. Like practical weapon knowledge, squad tactics," Machias counted down with his fingers, "survival, monster lore... did I forget anything?"
"Anti-arts combat," Emma added.
"So everything that has to do with practical warfare," Rean said. He nodded to himself. "Well, it fits her performance during practical classes."
Alisa scowled. "But aren't you all wondering? I mean, what has her childhood been like to have this kind of... incongruent skill profile?"
Emma, Machias and Rean all looked at each other before turning to the blonde. "It should be obvious, shouldn't it?" Rean said.
Fie returned to their table at that moment, serving up two trays of the same breakfast as Alisa's. Fie's portion was notably bigger while Emma's had two additional apples.
"Cat got your tongue?" She said to Alisa, a slight smirk on her lips.
"No, I mean, we were just..."
The silver haired girl rolled her eyes. "At the end of the field trip, I'll tell the whole class about my background, okay?" She paused and a sour expression appeared on her face. "Laura figured it out anyway."
Alisa blinked. "Is that the reason why both of you are behaving so awkward around each other?"
Fie looked away. "Ja."
Emma bit her lip. This was complete news to her. And how could she be so blind? She stewed in her problems, ignorant to what happened around her while little Fie still had the mind to help despite her own struggles. As the elder between them, she proved once again to be an abject failure.
"Are you sure about this?" Rean asked imploringly. "Please, don't feel pressured to talk about this on our behalf."
"It's okay. I want the class to know."
They continued their meal in silence. Emma felt dark thoughts encroaching on her again, so she wracked her brain to revive the conversation. Her gaze fell on Rean's unusual breakfast for the second time. "If I may ask, Rean, what exactly are you eating?"
"Oh this? It's an eastern dish. Fish broth with miso, soy sauce and silken tofu. A very typical breakfast fare found in the Eastern Quarters of Calvard."
As someone who was interested in cooking this was a very welcome topic. "I've heard about soy sauce and miso, but what's tofu?"
Rean scratched his head. "If I remember correctly, it's also a soybean product made by coagulating processed soymilk with minerals. Once coagulated, the water is drained out."
Machias frowned. "Minerals?"
"I've heard that certain Septium types are used for high class tofu. Argem compounds I believe. But the common kind mostly uses gypsum."
"Gypsum? As in the construction material?" Alisa quirked an eyebrow.
Rean shrugged. "It tastes pretty good if well prepared."
"I'm wondering how a chef in Sutherland has access to eastern ingredients," Emma said.
"There's a specialist merchant located in Ordis who offers delivery across Erebonia," Rean answered. "Marlene, the cantina chef, saw my tachi yesterday and we found out that we were both enthusiasts when it comes to eastern culture." He looked down to his bowl. "It's been a few years since I had an authentic eastern breakfast, so when she offered to cook one I took her up on it."
"I guess it's to be expected from the biggest port city in the Empire. Shame though with all the nobles infesting the place," Machias muttered under his breath.
Emma sat right beside him, so she heard his whispered words. Fie apparently did, too, as she rolled her eyes again.
It came as something of a surprise how Machias' antipathy towards nobles reminded her of how the Hexenclan regarded the Gnomes. Sworn enemies that were to be mistrusted. Bogeymen she was warned about since childhood. But now that she saw the world outside her village, she was pressured by forces far more real than faded figures from legend. Machias' object of dislike was something more concrete, manifesting in the person of Jusis Albarea, who was nothing but courteous to her. Personally, she wished the two could get along despite their differences and she often wondered whether Machias' aversion was directed at the person or the social class itself. Emma found it hard to tell.
Soon enough, their group finished breakfast and met with the rest of Class VII. Laura was carrying another leaflet made of high quality paper - the additional tasks Instructor Neithardt promised them. After some discussion, they decided to split into three groups: Laura and Alisa were to handle the request of a local baron about field testing a new brand of bicycle. Elliot and Jusis decided to tackle a missive from Forsetis Military Academy send by an instructor called Mary Altheim. Apparently, this instructor was the daughter of an influential count in Saint-Arkh, who used his considerable wealth to support artists of all kinds. And as it happened, Elliot's mother was a beneficiary of Count Altheim's charity in the past.
That left their group of five to go for the priority request. There weren't any details provided, but it mentioned a venture into Isthmia Great Forest. As such Rean, Gaius and Fie were to provide additional protection as the ones who partook in the scouting mission yesterday.
They went to the furthest part of the east wing, passing their sleeping quarters on the way. The red carpet beneath their feet was replaced with polished white tiles and the hallway they entered lost the paintings and stucco, the walls displaying nothing but a coating of clinical whiteness. The air smelled of antiseptic and bleach. As Emma breathed in through her nose it felt like the inside of her airways became disinfected - and aggressively at that.
It reminded her of Instructor Beatrix' hospital wing which wasn't a surprise really. This was the medical facility of the Aulic Council which served both as a treatment center for war veterans and an autopsy lab. They passed two middle aged men sitting in the waiting area, their faces non-descript. One of them had sandy brown hair while the other was blonde.
Emma didn't see anything wrong with them at first glance, but there was a bleakness to their gazes that made her feel uncomfortable.
The office they entered was more of the same clinical white with countless medical machinery scattered throughout the room. Emma couldn't even guess at their function, though she wondered how these contraptions stacked up to the healing power of Witch Magic.
The physician who asked for them was in the middle of a therapy session. A grizzled man with grey streaking his hair and a crew cut sat in front of a mirror, his eyes fixated on the image of his balled fist within.
He was also missing his left arm.
"Now unclench your left hand, Marcus. Do it slowly and deliberately," commanded a voice as clear as the ring of a bell.
Emma's first thought was that the woman was tall. She wore heels like Laura, which put both on even footing so to speak and her height was on par with Rean. Only Gaius towered over her, but the Nord tribesman was easily one of the tallest people she'd ever met. Her sharp features and pale skin were highlighted by a copious amount of makeup. Blonde hair that veered to platinum was tied in a severe bun and she wore stylish black-rimmed glasses.
As far as looks were concerned, the physician fulfilled all the stereotypes of Remiferian women.
The patient uttered a sigh of contentment. "That hit the spot, doc. Finally! A whole damn week of painful cramping and all that those stupid quacks could do was using their stupid shiny devices."
The woman smiled. "Sometimes, simple is best. Mirage based brain therapy is still in its infancy. Unfortunately, today's interns coming fresh out of medical school mostly learned how to operate machines."
"Say that again, doc. Education going down the damn drain. To think the only thing I needed for the pain was a blasted mirror."
"It's not as easy as that. You need to fool your brain into thinking that what you see inside the mirror really is your missing left arm. Not every person has this kind of mental training to perform self-suggestion on their own."
The man deflated. "So the next time..."
She put a calming hand on his shoulder. "I'll tell my interns to make a special box with a fixed mirror inside. It allows you to reflect your healthy arm while at the same time concealing it, so that only the reflection is visible. This makes the whole process easier."
The grizzled man beamed. "Thank you, doc! You're a lifesaver. I would kiss you right now, if I were ten years younger."
"How about you put that charm of yours to work on your lovely wife." She chuckled. "I appreciate the flattery though."
"Hah! It's well deserved. You're a damn fine woman." He turned to Emma and her classmates. "But it seems like work calls again."
"It does indeed. Have a lovely day, Marcus."
The veteran left the room, though his eyes lingered for a moment on the crest adorning their uniforms. "Thors cadets, huh? Certainly called for some fancy help, doc."
The woman directed them to her work desk with a wave of her hand. "I fear this office doesn't have enough chairs to accommodate you all. I hope you don't mind if I conduct your briefing while sitting. There's a cup of coffee waiting."
"That's as good a reason as any, ma'am," said Machias.
Rean stepped forward. "Thors Officer School Class VII, Rean Schwarzer reporting. These are my fellow cadets Clausell, Worzel, Regnitz and Millstein. You're the one who issued the priority request, ma'am?"
"Yes. But where are my manners? My name is Julia don Gilfaeth, Remiferian medical expert. It's a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Class VII." She took a sip from her coffee, then leaned back in her seat. "You all seem pretty impatient. Your tasks has been stacking up due to yesterday's deviation, no?"
Rean cleared his throat. "That's correct, ma'am. But I'm surprised you know of our schedule to this degree."
"An educated guess, but let's talk business. I need help in procuring some rare herbs that only grow in the Great Forest."
Emma blinked. "If I may ask ma'am, I thought Remiferian medicine specialized in orbally driven medical devices. Using herbs for healing sounds more like the domain of the Church."
"That's correct. However, different than most of my colleagues I don't adhere to our... infatuation with machines. Now that you mention the Church though, there's a collaboration between my clinic and Archbishop Ramsden. Saint-Arkh Cathedral is running short on herbs, too, so please use this opportunity to collect enough samples for us both."
"Do you have a list, ma'am?" Gaius asked.
She opened a drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. "What's written here is merely what I require for my own needs. You'll have to visit the cathedral and ask for the particulars of the church's own herb stock."
Rean took the list. "Is that all you require, ma'am?"
"I think so. Is there someone in your group who can identify the plants?"
Emma suddenly found herself the center of attention. She smiled awkwardly. "Could you show me the list please?"
Lavandula angustifolia, digitalis purpurea, salvia divinorum, hypericum perforatum...
"Yes, I know all of them," she said with confidence.
"Very good. And take care when handling them. Especially the digitalis. After all, the boundary between medicine and poison..."
"Lies in the dosage," Emma finished.
"Someone who studied the classics." Julia smiled warmly. "Seems like the task is in safe hands. I'll eagerly await your return, Class VII."
Next was Saint-Arkh Cathedral, one of the city's landmarks. The boys stood before the building, drinking in the beautiful sight while Fie looked a little bored.
Emma felt hesitation seeping into her bones. Fortunately, her classmates were dawdling in front of the building, buying precious seconds so she could mentally prepare herself.
Grandmother had talked about this, but knowing it in theory was completely unlike perceiving it in person.
An honest to goddess genius loci.
It was a thaumaturgical spell of the highest order. She couldn't discern whether the intellectus was a spirit summoned from the higher planes or in fact artificially created through magical means. In both cases however, the principle remained the same; a spirit of intellect was weaved into the very foundation of a building to serve as the basis of protective spells layered on top. This resulted in a fusion of spirit, magic and stone - a place with an intelligent mind of its own, its capabilities and presence transcending the boundary of the physical.
Emma let her inner eye wander, committing the intricacies of the spell construct to memory. As expected of Church Thaumaturgists, they used a sanctum invocatio to further bolster the wards. Each time the cathedral fulfilled its role as a place of shelter, the concept of 'sanctuary' was strengthened with mana flowing from the septium veins into the wards in a positive feedback loop.
It was one of the most powerful and sophisticated rituals she ever encountered. But due to Saint-Arkh Cathedral having a mind of its own, it knew to only exert its power when necessary. With spellmasters like this, was it any surprise that the Septian Church was a major power player even today? Be it the mundane or the hidden side of the world, their influence was impossible to ignore.
She stepped forward slowly, her hand outstretched until it was mere rege away from the perimeter. Suddenly, the boundary expanded, engulfing her hand. A warm presence brushed over her spiritual senses. A polite, almost playful greeting. Then it retreated as quickly as it expanded, but Emma felt an inviting trail of mana lingering in the air.
The relation between the Septian Church and the Hexenclan was murky and Grandmother's cryptic responses didn't help either. But it seemed that the protective spirits weren't told to keep out witches on principle. She let out a sigh of relief.
Once again, Fie was the one to bring her mind back to reality. Their group entered the building and when Emma felt the church spirit settle around her, the burden inside her heart lessened. It was as if the millstone bound around her neck was lightened to a mere boulder.
The inside of the building was as impressive as the outside - stucco and colored glass, chasing plated with silver. There were only a few visitors during this time of day. Mainly some elderly, one of whom performed an ablution in front of a priest. The atmosphere was solemn and the mana circling around gave Emma the impression of being... dignified? She didn't know magical energy could feel like that. But then again, this was her first real encounter with a genius loci.
"Would you like to pray for a moment, Emma?" Gaius asked.
"I don't want to impose, but I think you could use a little contemplation. Especially after what happened yesterday."
The others stopped in their tracks. Their gazes were filled with understanding and just like always, Emma felt ugly feelings rising within. She didn't deserve her classmates' compassion, but for once her self-recrimination lacked its usual bite.
"Yes. That's a lovely idea, Gaius."
The Nord tribesman turned to the others. "Seeing that the archbishop is neither at the pulpit nor the altar, he should be found inside his office. In a cathedral, the archbishop office is usually located in the left wing."
"Someone is well informed," Fie quibbed.
"I did some... communal service for the Roer Cathedral during my time at Baldurs. It's natural to pick up things."
Machias nodded. "In that case we'll leave you two to your prayers." They left.
"Would you like to perform an ablution, Emma?"
"It's okay really. I simply want to sit down for a bit."
"Then that's what we'll do."
They sat down at one of the pews. Gaius was quick to clasp his hands and Emma just followed along, the motion unfamiliar to her.
To her surprise praying or her mimicry thereof felt good. It was most likely a short reprieve from everything happening, a sanctuary for the mind. Emma glanced to the side. She had held some polite conversations with Gaius up to this point, but they didn't interact much otherwise. Watching his features while praying allowed her to glimpse a side about him that she didn't know yet.
As she followed the contour of his nose, she had to admit that the Nord tribesman being so handsome made watching him quite pleasant. And despite all the way her mission was going wrong, being in close contact with young men her own age was certainly a novel and dare she say... spicy experience?
Most men living in her village were residents of the mundane world after all, until they were snatched away by an attractive witch. Or so her sisters used to tell her when they were feeling playful. For a moment she wondered whether Vita, despite all the transgressions she was accused of, found herself a partner.
Emma felt her cheeks heating up and violently suppressed her thoughts, lest the church spirit smote her down. What was she even doing? Letting her mind wander towards these kind of indecent things while being sheltered inside consecrated ground.
"Seems like you're finished," Gaius said.
"I..." Emma felt lost for words, but now that her classmate was staring straight at her, she was sure that any chance for serious contemplation was gone. And had his shoulders always been this broad?
"You already look better. The fetters around you seem looser now."
Emma's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach. "What do you mean?"
"You're burdening yourself with the death of that soldier." He closed his eyes. "In fact, you treat it as if you were personally responsible for how things ended up."
Again, the whispers of self-hatred reared their heads, baying at her conscience. "And will you tell me that I did my best and that there's nothing to be guilty for?"
"No, I won't. You have shown yourself to be an exceedingly prudent person. In fact, I feel you're wise beyond your years, Emma. And my tribe taught me that the words and actions of wise women must be heeded." He paused. "There's clearly a good reason for you to believe yourself guilty. Even with the Wind of Faith here caressing your wounded spirit, you continue to carry your guilt with purpose."
Just how much did he know? History lessons about the War of the Lions should've told her that Nord people were highly spiritual and perceived things hidden from most people. Nevertheless, she was once again confronted with her ineptitude of using book knowledge to inform her actions in the real world. And the 'Winds of Faith' inside the cathedral? Was he aware of the genius loci?
"I'm no wise woman, Gaius. Far from it. There's so little I truly understand."
"It seems then, that what little separates the wise from the foolish is that the wise do not know and don't think they know either."
"Saphrato's colloquium stellare?" Emma couldn't help but quirk an eyebrow.
Gaius chuckled. "It's the favorite quote of my teacher."
"He sounds like a very... unique person."
"That he certainly is. He would love talking with you."
Emma smiled weakly. "Perhaps."
A pleasant silence settled between them. Emma waited for Gaius to ask more. Considering that a church also served as a confessional, it felt strangely appropriate. But the questions never came. Gaius seemed content to let her know that he was aware of things she was hiding, but respected her decision to keep those secrets close to her chest.
Just like Fie.
The rest of their group joined them shortly after and they were also carrying baskets for herb collection. Rean asked Emma to check another list with medical plants. She skimmed through the page and as she thought the items overlapped for the most part with what doctor Gilfaeth asked of them. The few that didn't were still herbs she could identify. After that they left the church and made for Isthmia Great Forest.
Her true home.
The mana that pulsed through the vegetation was like a warm, welcoming embrace.
While everyone else had their weapons ready, Emma couldn't bring herself to match her classmates' level of alertness.
Where they saw untamed nature, she saw familiar landmarks. The bigger trees had been cultivated by generations of witches with their roots reaching and even intertwining with the septium veins that criss-crossed through the entire area of Isthmia. Using these trees as conduits, the entire space inside the forest had been subtly twisted, turning it into a maze of trees and folded expanse.
Emma grew up navigating said maze. In fact, she had to hold herself back from displaying too much familiarity with the forest trails. She didn't hold herself back though when it came to guiding her classmates to places where the medical herbs could be collected in abundance.
They were on a schedule after all.
"You sure, that's where we should be going, Emma?" Fie didn't sound enthused at all.
"The common foxglove grows on soil that is rich in humus," she recited. "They also prefer well lit places."
There was a forest clearing in front of them where the sunlight broke through. The soil was dark and smelled a little damp. The perfect place to search for foxglove.
"This is going to be such a pain."
Machias looked skeptical. "Are you sure there's a monster underground?"
Fie glared at him. "Look, there are particular vibrations coming from below. I had enough encounters with beasties trying to amputate my legs to be wary. Something's moving beneath our feet just waiting for a snack."
Emma decided to chime in. "Underground monsters can fulfill an important ecological function by loosening the soil which in turn makes it easier for an earthworm population to settle in."
Machias pushed up his glasses. "Right. Humus is basically earthworm dung."
"So what do we do now?" Rean asked. "Throwing stones at the ground to bait the monster didn't exactly work."
"Earth arts?" Gaius suggested.
Emma shook her head. "We could end up destroying the vegetation including the foxglove."
All eyes went to their youngest member who sighed.
"Sometimes it sucks to be fast."
"Believe me, your sacrifice is much appreciated."
"Put a sock in it, Machias."
Fie sneaked slowly towards the clearing. Emma recognized the tension across her body.
The monster appeared as sudden as an inverted lightning bolt, but the silver haired girl proved her worth by being even faster than that. The moment Emma registered the nature of the creature, a giant centipede, a flash of crimson went through its neck, separating head from body in an instant.
"Thanks for the assist, Rean."
Emma looked beside her. The swordsman had his blade drawn with residue of bounded mana clinging to the metal. A ranged attack with a sword? She didn't perceive him unsheathing his weapon at all.
"Well, that was anticlimatic," Machias quibbed.
Their group swarmed over the clearing and soon enough, they found a patch with sheaves of foxglove. Emma and Gaius started to collect them, while Rean went over the list and crossed out another item.
"That's the second last. The only one left is lavandula angustifolia. Is that perhaps lavender?"
"Yes it is," Emma answered. "They prefer alkaline soils. We should be on the lookout for limestone formations. Lavender can usually be found near them."
"We're really lucky to have you Emma," Machias said. "I don't want to imagine how much time we would've wasted without your guidance."
Gaius smiled. "What he said. Your herbology knowledge is most impressive."
She smiled awkwardly. "It's nothing really. I learned a lot from our local herb woman, who was responsible for medical care at our village."
"Must be a very small village, if the Church didn't even erect a little chapel there," Gaius said.
"That and our place is very remote."
After they secured the baskets, their group went deeper into the forest. Emma led the way towards a little valley, claiming that she previously saw a glimpse of limestone from an elevated position. Another lie of course. Emma knew of the place because it was Vita's favorite location for collecting the base ingredient of her signature perfume.
And soon enough, Emma and her classmates arrived at another clearing. It was a shaded place with pixie lights floating around, their illumination highlighting the shadows instead of chasing them away. It was a place suffused in memories of better times. More innocent times.
While her classmates went to collect the last herb for their task, Emma gazed at the blossoms, breathing in the fragrance of lavender.
The fragrance of her beloved sister.
The lurch in space-time happened without warning. Emma recognized it as a rearrangement of the warding scheme that kept Eryn Village separated from the mundane plane of existence. It was just a little tap against the network of mana which spanned across Isthmia Forest. But that little tap cascaded across the land to create a localized barrier field, isolating her classmates from the flow of time, their movements frozen as if encased in invisible ice.
It was the rare touch of a master, something that was beyond her meager capabilities.
Emma only knew of three witches capable of such a feat, but when the Voice called out to her, the surge of surprise nearly drowned out the emotions erupting within her.
"My my, what a naughty little sister you are, raiding my personal stash of lavender. I expected better from you, Emma."
She had grown. That was the predominant thought on Vita's mind as she stepped up to the girl who was her baby sister in all but blood. Emma was but a child when she became a wandering witch, but now Vita stood in front of a woman. A camo-cloak was draped around her shoulders, which partly obscured the elegant red jacket she wore underneath. Wide, dark trousers tucked into jackboots finished the ensemble. It was military through and through. Clothing for practical use and mundane tasks, not seduction or mesmerisation.
This enclosed space didn't allow for fancy casting, for they were in a pocket dimension cut off from the regular flow of environmental mana. No astral projection through Grianos. No fancy teleportation spectacle. A simple face to face with no barriers between them, no pretense.
Or as her dear Chevalier liked to put it, no bullshit.
Emma's lower lip was trembling. Her hands gripped that excuse of a magical staff with such force that her knuckles were turning white.
"In the flesh."
Her little sister tried to blink the tears away, but they still flowed down in small rivulets.
Vita stretched out her hand and wiped away the tears, watching in fascination as the fluid stained the black of her gloves even blacker.
"Still the same crybaby," she murmured fondly.
"Why are you here?" Emma choked out.
She turned away, weaving through the still forms of Emma's classmates, admiring the jawline of the Nordian and the lustrous black hair of another young man. Her baby sister certainly hit the jackpot. Vita stretched out her hand as if to touch them. There was resistance, but also something that could best described as 'anti-sensation'. No wonder really, as time flowed completely different in this frozen moment.
Tempus fugit was such an useful spell. It was also horribly draining without proper preparation - or preconditions in this particular case.
"Didn't you hear me the first time, Emma? I came for the lavender. My favorite perfume is running out, so I made a little detour to my backyard." She winked coquettishly. "Imagine my surprise seeing you and your classmates looting these precious things. It's a special breed, you know? Very high Septium content."
Emma closed her eyes. "Don't you fear for Grandmother to come?"
Vita felt the tentative connection of a magical familiar, but it was weak, practically non-existent. The distance between Celine and Emma was gigantic.
And her sources told her that where Celine was, the Elder wasn't far.
"Don't get cute with me, Emma. We both know she's at least a province away, meddling in the affairs of the human world despite her repeated insistence of keeping us out of the loop. Crimson Roselia is hypocritical like that."
"And what about..."
"The crone? As powerful as she is, she would never leave Eryn lest she was dragged out by her hair. Stop trying to invoke the authority of the coven. This..." she swept around her arm, "is between you and me."
Slowly, so very slowly, Emma calmed down and discarded her glasses. Mystic Eye Killers. She then looked her directly in the eyes, pupils shining like liquid gold.
"Then answer me, sister. Why did you break off all contact seven years ago? Why did you steal Kerykeion? Why have you activated the Azure? And why have you joined an organization like Ouroboros?"
Power was pouring out of Emma's gaze, suffusing space with golden illumination. Her magic swept away the mana lattice Vita had woven with her Voice. The Witch of the Abyss suppressed a smirk. Whether she did it on purpose or not, this impressive output of mana was partly a result of Emma's separation with Celine. Bond straining. Something she practiced on a daily basis with Grianos, for a bird had the habit of moving far from their caster.
But even taking this into account, such an increase in power was noteworthy. Then again, as someone who was deemed worthy by Crimson Roselia, as the daughter of that woman, Emma was bound to have unfathomable potential. Vita still didn't expect the little girl clinging to her coattails to have grown so much so fast.
She hummed the first stanza of a fairy tale lullaby. Threads of mirage mana sprouted from the ground, merging into countless swirls and then merging to become a whirlwind of ethereal quicksilver.
As quickly as Emma gained dominion over the enclosed space, said dominion was disrupted, moving into an uneasy balance of gold and silver.
A face-off between true witches, their innate abilities and powers bared. If she used Kerykeion, Emma would be swatted away like a cub being brushed off by a grown lion. But that would hardly teach her sister anything, would it?
"Good, Emma. You're a proud member of the Hexenclan. When you deserve answers, demand them."
"And will you acquiesce in my demand?"
"With such a show of force, how could I not?" She winked again. "To your first question - I learned the truth hidden behind our roles as Witches. I realized that the way our coven trains and prepares us is flawed, but even that is just a reflection of our conceit. This ties directly to your last question. I joined Ouroboros because they can provide me with adequate resources and means to fulfill our clan's hidden mission. Our true purpose."
The glow in Emma's eyes weakened. "Our true purpose? But..." She shook her head. "And what about Ouroboros? Grandmother told me they are criminals."
"If you mean that the snakes are free from the fetters of national law, then yes, you can as well consider me a criminal, Emma. But by that measure, the members of our coven are also criminals." She sighed theatrically. "Instead of taking others fully by their word, you should really start to think for yourself."
She flinched at her words, but still kept her cool. "And the Azure Knight? Why have you activated it?"
"My, that's the wrong question to ask. I hardly activated anything. That would be the role of my Awakener. I was a mere guide, an azure bird flapping its wings in front of my chosen Chevalier, inspiring him to fulfill his destiny."
Emma shook her head. "You don't have to do this, Vita. Stop this before you can't take it back anymore. Eryn Village is just a stone's throw away. Our home is just a spell activation away. Please! Return with me. You may have to face the judgment of the coven, but we are all united as sisters. Let's take back the life we once had."
Vita closed her eyes. "Just like old times?"
"Yes! Just like old times."
Seven years ago and her plea would've swayed her. Five years ago, her plea would've moved her. Two years ago, her plea would've elicited a bitter laugh. But now...
"You, Emma, understand nothing."
She recoiled and her eyes lost the last of their glow, returning to the natural baby blue. Vita hummed from deep within her breast. Her Voice was her weapon, her medium, her magical focus. And didn't she even turn herself into a being of pure Voice? Shorn off any corporeality, existing only as vibration and orbal waves, propagating through the ether.
Power welled inside her. Silver overwhelmed gold. The enclosed space became a maw into the abyss.
"It's my turn for questions now, Emma." She stepped towards her until their noses almost touched.
"If you're so eager to return to Eryn with me, what about your current mission, your Duty?"
"Let me guess: you volunteered to infiltrate the most prestigious teaching institution in the Empire to get to the Ashen, in hopes of finding a fitting pilot." Her Voice became velvet. Cruel, cruel velvet. "Because even you're aware of the legends about the Deus Excellions and their destiny to fight each other. Therefore, as long as you guided an Awakener to the Ashen you were destined to meet little, old me."
Emma lowered her gaze, staring at her feet. "The coven decided that someone must awaken another Deus Excellion to counter any of your potential moves. I thought it could as well be me."
Vita put a hand on her cheek in mock surprise. "My, I didn't expect such shallow reasoning from the collective wisdom of our sisters. But judging from the emotional mess you're in, this infiltration isn't working out, is it?"
Now she was visibly squirming. "I did everything they taught me. I took every precaution they mentioned. However, the moment I set foot at Thors, I was under suspicion. As if they knew beforehand to look out for me." She balled her fist. "I still don't understand why."
"Do you really not understand, Emma? Or do you simply refuse to face the truth?"
"What are you talking about?"
"About the undeniable fact that you were set up to fail."
Her reaction was just what she expected. Shock, horror, the feeling as if the ground under her was swept away. And lastly, the true and tried emotion of denial.
Ah, called it.
Vita was lying.
Emma's hands were sweaty, her legs shaking. Her heart beat against her chest like a jackhammer, causing vibrations that made her teeth clatter.
"You already have an inkling about why you're suspected by the army, don't you?"
The Voice seeped into her mind, forcing it down avenues she never dared breach.
Vita was lying.
"They're hardly blessed with precognition, but they still sniffed you out from the beginning. Your fake credentials are what most likely tipped them off."
Stop talking. Please.
"And who prepared those? Our fellow wandering witches. The experienced ones, who've learned the common sense of the mundane world."
She was lying. Please, Aidios, she had to be lying.
"Or do you still think it was an honest mistake?"
It took all her willpower to face Vita, clad in an azure dress that flowed around her like water, terrible and beautiful in equal measure.
"Why would our sisters do this then?"
The Azure Abyss smiled. It was at once the most cruel and most dazzling thing she ever saw.
"Because they've become cowards. Because they've become complacent, corrupt. Most just want to keep the status quo. Others have entirely forsaken their Duty. Instead of following the Creed of our coven, they've chosen new masters."
Somewhere from deep within, Emma managed to call forth a smidgen of indignation. "Just like you?"
"Unlike me. Yes, I choose a new master, but as I already mentioned, this is to further the hidden mission of the Hexenclan."
She gritted her teeth. "And why should I trust your claim? You caution me not to take everything at face value, Vita. Then why should I take you at your word?"
Pearly Laughter. "You're learning. Yes, yes, that's the way. Question everything, doubt everything. Read between the lines. Look at action and consequences, not words and justifications."
Emma shook her head. "This sounds like a horrible way to live."
Violet eyes were directed at her. It felt as if her whole body was gripped by a vice.
"Then return home. As you said, Eryn is just a spell activation away. If you feel it's too much, go back to the safety of the village. Go back to clinging to the gospel of the written word, the convenient trust in the thought of others." Vita raised her hand and a blue rip in space-time appeared.
"Step through and everything will be over." Vita narrowed her eyes. "And perhaps it's for the better. The way you're now, Emma, the real world will eat you alive."
She made the first step back home without realizing it. She glared at Vita. Was she being puppeteered? The enclosed space was suffused with her sister's authority, making Emma question her body's reactions.
No. This was mere self-delusion. She bit her lip and stomped down on the ground, jolting her shaking legs awake. No justifications. Her weakness was hers alone. The rift leading to Eryn beckoned her like a siren's call, for she felt exhausted and beaten. Even witch training that fortified the mind couldn't stave off the consequences of sleep deprivation and constant paranoia forever.
Or the strain of pretending to be someone she wasn't. The mounting guilt of lying to her classmates, her... friends.
"What will happen to my classmates? They'll..."
"Don't worry your pretty little head over that." Vita smiled like a shark. "A memory editing spell here, a self-spreader amplification there. A few days later and it will be as if you've never set foot at Thors at all. This is, after all, how we witches deal with things."
The words shook her to the core. Emma realized with a start that the notion of being forgotten by her classmates was something she absolutely abhorred.
Sweet, blunt Fie, a kind-hearted girl with a bloodsoaked past.
Friendly, inscrutable Gaius, who went out of his way to console her during one of her lowest points.
Amicable Rean, always eager to help, always eager to lend a friendly ear. A genuine front that hid something dark beneath.
And stubborn Machias, who challenged her intellect despite the unfair advantages she had. Someone whose dedication was dazzling, who refused to back down from an uphill battle or a seemingly insurmountable barrier.
Warmth filled her heart, driving away the despair over her own powerlessness. A gentle, blue light washed over the space. Emma looked down to the source of this new power; it came from her ARCUS pouch. She whipped her head around to the frozen forms of her classmates and indeed, they were also glowing in the same unearthly light originating from their tactical orbments.
"Well, well. Isn't this interesting?" The transportation gate to Eryn shut down with a blink. "So you've made your choice, Emma."
"Yes, I have." She still felt like a wrung out dishcloth, but the sustenance she received from the mysterious ARCUS illumination kept her going. "This enclosed space is going to disintegrate soon."
Vita nodded. "And we'll both go our separate ways." She tilted her head. "Consider our meeting here an ephemeral dream then, Emma."
That was one way of thinking about it. She understood now just how wide the chasm had grown between the kind sister of her memories and the hardened figure in front of her. No matter her words or beguiling gestures, it was clear Vita had led a life far removed from the sheltered existence she was used to. And if Emma wanted answers from her, real answers, she had to catch up to the person she always admired.
"You're not going to ask me about the hidden purpose of the Hexenclan?"
Emma shook her head. "I couldn't verify it anyway. Even being aware that we have a hidden mission is enough of a hint. But tell me Vita: if my Thors credentials were set up to fail, why was I accepted in the first place?"
The Azure Abyss chuckled. "Now you're asking the right questions. My best guess is that they're intrigued by your potential. Potent arts users are a rarity in the military. As for someone with witch training? I'm sure the tests you've no doubt undergone set some very disturbing records."
In other words, the diffuse figures observing her had clear interests. It might be small, but Emma finally saw a small way forward. A way to pursue the activation of the Ashen. In a way her cover had been blown from the very beginning, but it was time to finish that uneasy dance between her true identity and the institution she attended. After all, there was something she could bring to the negotiating table.
The all-encompassing power of time asserted it's dominance, gnawing at the borders of this eternal moment, forcing it back into the flow of causality.
"You've become harsh, Vita. but it's still good to see you again."
Vita summoned Kerykeion into her hands with the magic staff glowing in the same shade of azure as her sister's moniker. Seconds later, a teleportation circle formed beneath her feet. "It was a pleasure to talk to you, too, Emma. Just let me give you a last bit of sisterly advice: for us witches, ignorance is sin."
"And have I sinned in your eyes?"
"Oh yes, but we all fall short on the ideal of the perfect guide. In your case Emma, keep your eyes and mind open to what happens around you." She smirked. "And let's not forget about the truth of your heart. Ignorance comes in many, many forms."
Her body became a flash of white lightning. At the same time that the enclosed space lost the last of it's integrity, Vita Clotilde once again escaped from her life like a whimsical robin searching for more exciting sights. The gentle, blue illumination of her ARCUS died down and time finally resumed its flow again.
"What's with you always spacing out, Emma."
The wandering witch looked to the first friend she made at Thors. Her hand went to the ARCUS, caressing the vestige of warmth clinging to her soul. It felt like a distant memory, but she nonetheless broke into a genuine, heartfelt smile.
It took all her concentration to keep her balance. The children playing in the park jumped out of her way with big smiles on their faces only to chase her afterwards. Their rambunctiousness was infectious and Alisa would have liked nothing more but watch their exuberance. However, she had yet to get the hang of the contraption she was riding, so she couldn't allow herself any overt distractions.
Alisa looked over to Laura who was cruising through Saint Quirinus Park like a pro, her face aglow with delight as she continuously raised the speed. Her legs were a blur as they stepped down on the pedals, the whir of chain on cogs increasing in their frequency.
Martial artists and their body control. She might be quite athletic, but she had long since resigned herself to the fact that there was an insurmountable gap between flesh and blood mortals like her and physical prodigies like Laura and Rean.
And she didn't even know where to begin to classify someone like Fie.
Alisa pushed the brakes and stepped down from the pedals to let her feet touch the ground. The sequence of motion felt stiff and unfamiliar, though she still felt satisfied with her progress.
"Hey, pretty miss. That your first time on a bicycle?"
She turned to the group of three. Two boys and one girl who couldn't be older than ten, grinning at her from ear to ear. "Yeah, it's my first time. It's not as easy as it looks."
"Just keep at it, miss." "You'll be okay in no time." "Will I become as pretty as you?"
She chuckled as the kids talked over each other. Alisa then patted them on the head which elicited further squeals of happiness.
It was at this moment that Laura stopped beside them with a brake and swerve, raising up a wave of dirt in the process. In an instant, the kids' attention switched to this new source of excitement.
"Woooow, so cool!" They chorused.
Laura smiled and dismounted her bicycle. She then subjected the kids to another round of headpats.
"Is that a sword miss?" "Are girls allowed to fight with swords?" "Can you show us some moves?"
Laura folded her arms. "That's acceptable, but only under one condition."
The kids watched her eagerly. "Yeees?"
"You need to step back and keep a safe distance. As long as I my blade is drawn, NO ONE comes near." She looked each child in the eye until they all gave her a nod.
Laura then went to the center of the lawn and drew her oversized sword from that strange partial sheath. Even now, Alisa couldn't wrap her head around the sight of another girl her age wielding a sword as big as herself.
The sequence of motion that Laura performed was unlike anything she had ever seen from her. Her swings flowed into each other like a dance, graceful and nimble. Her whole body, powerful limbs and flowing hair was like a piece of moving art. The children cried out in excitement and Alisa could only stare aghast. If there existed a god of swordsmanship, Laura would be the temple maiden, her dance a pure expression of worship and veneration.
For a moment, it seemed as if water formed around Laura out of thin air. Alisa blinked and just like that it was gone.
The performance ended as quick as a mirage. Once again, the kids swarmed around the bluenette and there was even some applause from random park visitors.
Laura was once again patting their heads. "Now that I've fulfilled my part of the bargain, it's time for you to return home."
"But we still want to play!" "Can you teach me the sword?" "Can I become cool like you once I grow up?"
"As future knights in training, it wouldn't behoove you to make your parents worry. I'm also sure that lunch awaits. Therefore, any tardiness would be an insult to the toil of your parents."
The children blinked, but kept still.
"Mark, Gregor, I expect you to escort Etta to her home safely. Can I entrust you with this mission?"
The boys straightened themselves. "Yes, ma'am!"
"Very good. And Etta?" The girl looked at Laura with glowing eyes.
"If you remain passionate about the sword once you grow up, remember that a training hall of the Vander School is located in Parm. They are always looking for dedicated students."
"And they can teach me to move like you?"
"Okay." She nodded shyly. "And thanks a lot, cool swordlady!" The two boys and one girl winked her goodbye and left.
Alisa stepped beside Laura. "You're surprisingly good with children."
"A group of youngsters in Legram have established an order called the Junior Eisenritter. They patrol the town looking for errands to run, tasks to solve and wrongs to right." She smiled fondly. "All in moderation of course, for they're still children. But I sometimes partake in their activities to provide them suggestions or a little challenge to focus on."
"That's really nice. But isn't calling them an order a little much? It sounds more like play acting."
Laura arched an eyebrow. "They might not be an officially recognized order, but their chivalric spirit shines brighter than a multitude of formal knight orders I'm acquainted with. They are held back by ossified rituals, empty boasts and meaningless dominance plays. How can that even compare to the Junior Eisenritter's pure desire to help the needy?"
Alisa could think of quite some other Erebonian organizations that were steeped in ossified rituals and stupid dominance plays. "Laura, has someone ever told you that you are like an ideal knight who popped right out of a story book?"
"You might be the first person to say that to my face. However, I'll take it as a compliment." The bluenette flipped a strand of her hair. "Shall we?"
They went to the bicycles and started to push them out of the park. While Alisa felt reasonably sure that Laura was already good enough to weave her way through the busy streets of Saint-Arkh proper, she still had ways to go.
"So, about your little sword performance, I've never seen you move that way in combat before."
"That's hardly surprising. The moveset I used belong to the Vander School of swordsmanship."
She blinked. "What? You're also a Vander School practitioner?"
Laura looked her in the eye, her voice clipped. "I'm far, far, from calling myself a Vander School practitioner. I did some cross-training which is par of the course once a student approaches mastery of her own sword style. I choose to show the children the Vander movements because their techniques are more pleasing to the eye compared to the Arseid techniques. There's also no need to hold back, for my skills in the Vander forms are indeed only that meager."
"But the techniques looked absolutely brilliant," Alisa said.
Laura smiled in an apologetic way. "Exactly. My movements looked dazzling to you because your eyes could follow them. True mastery of sword techniques stresses the utter eradication of telegraphing motions and bodily tells, which in turn makes them impractical for any kind of exhibitional performance. A slash that no one sees coming, an attack whose beginning motion can't be perceived is almost impossible to defend against."
Alisa felt a little sting in her chest. "In other words, I enjoyed your performance because I'm a complete dilettante when it comes to swordsmanship."
"That's an overly harsh way of putting it."
She sighed. "No need to spare my feelings. I've already accepted the fact that swordnuts like you and Rean live in a world of their own. You Laura, I can at least somewhat follow. When Rean starts to talk about his Eastern swordstyle he could as well be speaking in code."
Laura cleared her throat. "Well, I admit that the Eastern philosophy underpinning the Eight Leaves One Blade are difficult to parse even for me."
"At least there's something we have in common." Alisa chuckled.
They soon entered Saint-Arkh's Residential District. After crossing the central plaza, they turned left until they reached an orbal store called Chambers. After entering an alleyway from there, they finally arrived at Drais' Bicycle Shop.
Baron Karl von Drais was a heavyset man with glossy cheeks and an ever-present smile. In Alisa's opinion, he gave off the impression of the jolly uncle next door who couldn't help but spoil the neighborhood kids. But this friendly disposition hid an impressive mind that could compare to the best engineers Reinford had to offer. As Laura and her pushed their bikes into the modest shop, Alisa considered how to broach negotiations with the man.
But before that they had a Field Study Task to finish.
"I've waited for you, Alisa, Laura," the man called jovially. "How was the test run?"
Laura parked the bicycle and strode to the shop counter. "It went reasonably well. Furthermore, this is a truly splendid machine, Baron Drais. Consider this off record in regards to the field study, but how much does it cost to purchase one of these?"
"Well, for such an earnest, beautiful woman like you I can certainly offer a proper discount. Let's say twenty per cent off, which comes down to 3,800 Mira."
Alisa had to suppress a frown. This kind of price was way too cheap for the kind of value a bicycle offered. It was a quick way to travel that didn't rely on orbal energy but instead a person's own power, while at the same time being minimally taxing due to a clever adaptation of a gear train. Then there was the economical usage of material, which was tailored for mass-production. The compact frame made it a perfect vehicle for urban areas and then there was the allure of independent mobility.
It was a marketing smash hit just waiting to happen. The exact kind of product to offer much needed relief for the hopeless traffic situation in Heimdallr. The business woman within her could only cry out in anguish at seeing such an ingenious invention squander it's potential in a small enterprise like this.
Deep breaths, Alisa. Field Study task first. Business negotiation later.
"So, ladies, what are your impressions while riding my newest iteration? Ease of learning? Riding speed? Comfort? Every little bit of feedback helps."
Alisa and Laura gave their reports, while Baron Drais examined every nook and cranny of the bicycles.
"Hm, hm, I see. This is very helpful. Very helpful indeed." He gestured to Laura's vehicle. "The scuffs and wear on this one are much more prominent. I guess you did your best to put it through its paces?"
Laura blushed slightly. "Well, I might have become a little enthusiastic with increasing the speed once I figured out my balance."
The man laughed. "No need to be embarrassed. I did tell you that subjecting them to a stress test would be more than welcome. And what about the... well, how to put it delicately... the strain on the rear area?"
Both women blinked. "What do you mean, Sir?"
The baron palmed his face. "Okay, let's explain from the beginning. On my right are the older models and as you see, neither the tires nor the saddle have any cushioning. It's been one of the main design problems that prevented people from traveling long distances with the previous iteration. The physical abrasion to the... rear became unbearable very fast."
Now Alisa understood. "There wasn't any painful shaking on my part. What about you Laura?"
"I found the saddle quite comfortable to sit on, especially compared to a horse saddle."
"Hah, so all the work with experimenting on the tire has paid off. Excellent!"
"This inflatable rubber tire is similar to what's used on orbal cars, right?" Alisa asked.
"Correct. Though both diameter and tire width had to be customized."
She narrowed her eyes. "The rubber thickness as well I think. It should be a good deal thinner than a car tire which in turn limits air pressure and therefore tire stiffness. Taken together, a bicycle is far more vulnerable to puncturing compared to a car."
The baron raised his bushy eyebrows. "Very astute, Lady Alisa. You don't perchance have a background in engineering?"
"Not exactly. Well, partially." She flipped her hair and exhaled. "Okay, let me introduce myself properly, Baron Karl von Drais. My full name is Alisa Reinford and I have a business proposal for you."
The man's demeanor reversed in a flash. Gone was his friendly smile, replaced by a heavy frown. Even Alisa could tell how his body language started to radiate cautiousness.
She wasn't sure what to make of that.
"Well, well." He took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his balding forehead. "I didn't expect the Reinford heiress to run around as a Thors cadet. By the goddess, you sure have grown." He folded his arms. "So how's Gwyn doing, the old goat?"
Alisa's eyes widened to saucers. "You-you know grandpa?"
"Sure do, Lady Reinford. I was part of the R&D department. That was, before your mother turned it into Reinford's 4th Developmental Division."
A former Reinford researcher. Common sense told her that making him agree to a marketing deal should be a cinch. As easy as taking candy from little children. But she felt dread forming in the pit of her stomach. Even now, Reinford's standards didn't drop that far that they would neglect to retain the kind of talent this man obviously possessed.
In other words, Baron Drais left of his own volition. Because the company did something he could never accept - or forgive.
"If I may ask, baron, what project were you involved in before you left Reinford?"
He sighed deeply. "This isn't a topic suited for light conversation. Francis!"
The man's apprentice popped his head out of the workshop. "Yes, Sir?"
"Cease what you're doing for the moment and man the counter in my stead. I have guests to entertain."
The young man blinked owlishly at Alisa and Laura. However, he then went to the counter without any protest. Baron Drais led them to the upper floor of his shop and started to prepare tea. Some minutes later all three of them were seated around a cozy table, steaming beverages in hand.
"You have to forgive the lack of... creature comfort in my house. This tea is the only thing I could scare up on short notice."
Laura held out her hand, palm facing forward. "What you're offering is quite adequate, Baron Drais. It is us who should apologize for imposing on your hospitality." She took a little sip and put down her cup. "Now, I believe you want to broach a most serious topic?"
The former Reinford researcher looked at Alisa, his demeanor still downcast. "Lady Reinford, you still haven't answered my question about Gwyn."
"I... haven't seen nor heard from him in over five years. And please call me Alisa, baron."
He shook his head. "I apologize, but this is a request I cannot fulfill. Your family name isn't something I can ignore." His face softened for a moment. "Five years, huh? I heard the rumors, but it seems like Gwyn's conscience also caught up with him due to that project back then."
Alisa gripped her hands until her knuckles turned white. "So you were involved with the Railway Guns?"
Laura turned her head sharply. "The artillery pieces stationed at Garrelia Fortress?"
"The very same," Baron Drais said in a voice that sounded decades older. "I was responsible for developing the equations for ballistic flight. Think about it. 91 rege caliber that can rain down either heavy explosive or armor piercing shells with a weight in the torim range. Using pure orbal energy as a propellant was unfeasible because the capacitors back then were incapable of transferring the needed energy spike. As such we used two-stage acceleration instead, combining orbokinetic and electromagnetic force."
"Is 'electromagnetic force' related to electricity?" Laura asked.
"It is indeed, though I guess it's still an exotic topic in general education." He sighed. "Well, I'm not here to give you a physics lecture. The point was that this two-stage acceleration made a mess out of trajectory calculations, so they recruited me into the team."
Alisa folded her arms. "I heard that Professor Schmidt was also involved in the project. Wasn't he able to solve this problem?"
"I'll be the first person to tell anybody that Schmidt is a bloody genius. Also an asshole. Pardon this rough parlance which shouldn't be said aloud in the presence of ladies, but words suited for polite company simply fail to describe the man's... obnoxiousness. But to get back to the point, even a genius is only human. Five years ago, Schmidt was responsible for material stress calculations, barrel design and recoil compensation. His foray into material science even led to the creation of three entire new steel alloys, among them type NCX34, which serves as the material basis for the Achtzehn tanks. Nevertheless, a single person simply can't solve everything."
Alisa blinked. "You know about the capabilities of the Achtzehn?"
"I still keep in touch with some of my old colleagues who've remained at Reinford. They talk."
"I heard about those from father," Laura said. "They are supposed to be the next generation of the Imperial Army's mainline battle tanks."
"Sounds like your father is highly placed in the military."
"He's a Supreme Martial-Arts Instructor of the Imperial Army."
Baron Drais blinked. "Excuse me, but there are only two people in Erebonia who hold that title. Thunder God Matteus Vander and the Radiant..."
"Yes, my father is Viscount Victor S. Arseid."
The baron drank deeply from his cup followed by wiping the sweat from his head again. "Well, serves me right not to ask you ladies about your family names. But considering you're both from Thors, I really shouldn't be that shocked."
Alisa shook her head. Watching the man's behavior now, she wished to have remained anonymous. To leave this jolly engineer in the belief that she was just another ordinary cadet from a mundane military school.
"So what was your reason for participating, Baron Drais?" Alisa asked.
"I wanted to prove my theories right." His mouth became a line. "The thing is, the higher ups at Reinford lied to me back then. They told me that my calculations were to be used for a catapult system to propel small sized aircrafts. Schmidt was in the know, because his overall contribution to the project was too big to obfuscate its true purpose. But a lot of other R&D employees were in a similar position like me. We were given a single specific task and it ended up like that fable of the seven blind men being told to describe a rhinocider. We all focused on a single anatomical part and completely missed the whole picture."
"I see." Alisa lowered her head. "I knew that the Railway Guns drove a wedge between grandfather and mother. How she used the opportunity to oust him from his position as chairman. But to think that so many outstanding Reinford workers were..." She balled her fists. "This is wrong."
"Yes. A lot of wrongs happened back then. But you shouldn't blame everything on your mother, Lady Reinford. There were a lot of different interests that collided back then."
She groaned. "I know about the board of directors and how they pushed the project, but I simply can't forgive mother for this. She put usurping the chairman position ahead of what remained of our family."
Baron Drais sighed. "Are you aware of the pressure exerted by the central government back then?"
"I, well, heard the rumors."
"Irina Reinford wasn't the only person who used the Railway Gun project to elevate her position. Ingrid Rorschach, former director of Reinford's 2nd Factory Division, earned her current ministry post by being the other main instigator of your mother's takeover."
Alisa opened her mouth. Then closed it again. "I-I didn't know that. Are you telling me that she had a hand in turning Reinford's major shareholders against grandfather?"
"Yes. It's something I learned when this whole fiasco was already a done deal. According to my old friends, Ingrid had a direct line of communication to High Chancellor Osborne. It was a crucial part of the man's political agenda. A high-tech deterrent to completely stifle any ambition Calvard might have in occupying Crossbell."
The baron poured himself another cup of tea, then sighed. "I hope you understand, Lady Reinford, but considering what happened back then I cannot trust the Reinford Group ever again."
She tried to say something, anything, but all the platitudes and conversation strategies she learned in business & sales seemed so shallow.
"Baron Drais," Laura said. "I empathize with your experience, but isn't it unfair to condemn Alisa solely due to her affiliation? The Reinford Group counts people among them who hail from all walks of life. Surely, not every single one of them is undeserving of trust?"
"You misunderstand me, Lady Arseid. I don't mistrust individuals. It's the Reinford Group as a whole that I mistrust."
Laura leaned forward. "But even the biggest corporation is nothing without its people."
"Technically correct. But frankly, you were never part of Reinford. This company has grown to the point of absurdity. It has become a twisted, corrupted thing. A mechanical monster that sweeps up everything in its wake. And the individuals standing under its banner are reduced to mere cogs; intricate parts in a highly complicated orbment."
Alisa blinked. These words sounded awfully familiar. "Do you know Minister Rorschach on a personal level?"
"Is it that obvious?"The baron chuckled weakly. "We grew up in the same neighborhood here in Saint-Arkh. I would like to call us childhood friends, but we were more like rivals. Ingrid was always the more driven one. More ambitious. And her career has only served to increase that ambition."
An uncomfortable silence fell upon the table. For a couple of seconds none of them wanted to bring the conversation to a close. Finally, Laura stood up from her chair and bowed. "I thank you for your hospitality, Baron Drais. You are a splendid host."
The man looked at her, his expression flabbergasted. Moments later he caught himself. "And I thank you ladies for listening to the ramblings of an old man. Please, let me escort you out of my humble shop."
They left the upper floor. Alisa was walking in a daze, barely aware where she was stepping. Once they were about to go through the exit, the baron called them to stop. "I imagine it was hard for you. Listening to my story and all, Lady Rei...I mean, Lady Alisa." She raised her head. While the man's cautiousness was still palpable he looked apologetic. His eyes had also regained some of their previous warmth. "Both of you helped me a great deal. As such, I owe you some compensation. He took out a third generation tactical orbment and removed a piece of Quartz. "Please, take this."
Alisa moved the piece of Septium between her fingers. The color was red, but the reflected light carried a hue of blue and black. "This is a multi-elemental Quartz Compound."
"Yes. It's something I've been optimizing for a long time. The name may be a little pretentious, but it's called 'Ingenuity'."
"And what does it do?"
"It transforms kinetic energy into orbal energy. By using this Quartz, the motion energy of the tires can in turn power up lighting for example. The original version of this Quartz only worked in conjunction with tactical orbments, but I've since configured it to the point that it can be used as an independent unit." He paused. "By using its Septium Matrix as a basis, this piece of 'Ingenuity' is also scalable."
She froze. Her right hand began to shake. "This..." Alisa wanted to shout at the man. Wanted to press him on whether he understood the incredible implications of his work. But once again, words failed her. The baron was a former top researcher. Of course he understood the implications.
"Why? You told us that you don't trust the Reinford Group anymore."
Baron Drais closed his eyes. "But perhaps I can put some trust in Alisa Reinford the individual. As for your business proposal concerning the bicycle, I did you the disservice of not hearing you out. What would be your plans for my invention, if I agreed to the deal?"
"I think your bicycles would be the perfect vehicle for the citizens of Heimdallr. Even with the Imperial Transportation Act, traffic congestion becomes worse by the day. Bicycles could offer Heimdallr's people true mobility for a low price."
"I see. I need to sleep on this. With the correct stipulations, I might be amenable to a business deal."
Alisa had to fight down her confusion, but faced with this lucky turn in fortune she presented the man her best smile. To her surprise, the way her lips moved felt completely natural. "That would be a great honor, Baron Drais."
"No guarantees, young lady. But if you're still around Saint-Arkh during the next two days, feel free to visit my humble shop again. We can then begin a proper round of negotiation."
Laura and Alisa returned to the Aulic Council after this harrowing task. Well, perhaps it was only harrowing for her. The swordswoman still looked fresh as daisies. But then again, she didn't need to endure the tale of an embittered former employee unearthing her company's dirty laundry.
To Alisa's surprise Laura asked to escort her for the second meeting with the baron. The bluenette even hinted at wanting to become a co-investor though she deflected any further questions. Apparently, she wasn't ready to commit or elaborate before receiving approval from her father.
Not that she didn't understand the sentiment.
Her emotions were still a mess and her mind swirled with all the new information dunked on her in short order. She was vaguely aware of the rapport between mother and Mrs Rorschach. Her grandmother passed away early when mother was still a child. She didn't know how grandfather raised her exactly, but from the bits she learned over the years Alisa was sure that mother's overwhelming intensity and managing style wasn't something she picked up from Reinford's founder.
No. Mother's true role model was Erebonia's current Minister of Defense. But it took Alisa until today to realize just how deep the influence ran.
She closed her eyes and tried to gather her willpower. Their whole class decided to meet for lunch break in the cantina to discuss further task allocations. The day was still long and she couldn't afford to lose her steam just yet.
"I'm looking forward to lunch," Laura said. "What about you?"
"Sorry, I don't feel hungry at all after all the bombshells the baron dropped on me." Laura looked at her with concern. "It's okay. I know that I must eat. You don't need to shove it down my throat like Fie."
"I didn't plan on it." Her voice was clipped.
"Yo, isn't that Alisa?"
She turned to the voice which belonged to a young man wearing a knitted cap. Instead of the Baldurs uniform she was familiar with, his attire consisted of a checkered shirt, dark vest and denim trousers. But the one universal constant about him was the orbal camera nesting between his hands.
"Rex. What are you doing here?"
"Woohoo, the prez glare. This deserves a photograph."
"You don't have my permission to take any photographs for your cute girl collection."
Laura watched both of them with an arched eyebrow. "Someone you know, Alisa?"
"Unfortunately yes. Laura, this sorry excuse of a human is Rex. Rex, this is Laura. And no, you aren't allowed to photograph her either."
"Oh come on, prez. Are you seriously going to stop me? I mean, this friend of yours is a total knockout." Rex turned to the bluenette and formed a frame with the thumb and index finger of both his hands. "Hmm, very well trained even. You're either a professional athlete or a hardcore martial artist, right?"
The swordswoman blinked. "The latter. You have good observational skills."
"A necessity for any competent photographer. Of course prez here just loves to be a killjoy."
"Why are you calling Alisa prez?"
She sighed. "I was student council president during my second year at Baldurs. Now stop stalling, Rex. Why are you here?"
"Weeell, my buddy Rean got me an interesting job opportunity. Originally, I wanted to apply to the Imperial Chronicle, but there's a newspaper gig freshly established by some Thors cadets and apparently, there's some serious Mira behind it. Oh, and some VIPs doing the backing." He grinned. "So instead of competing against crusty old timers who give me shit just because they've been longer at their job, why not be part of newspaper start-up where I hold a crucial position from the start?"
Alisa threw him a half-lidded stare. "I'm already fearing for the future of this newspaper."
Laura clapped her hands together. "I've overheard Rean talk about this topic with that communication officer, Claire Sterling."
"Oh, that's the chief editor and my superior. I'm supposed to meet her here."
"Didn't she say repeatedly that she quit that tabloid?" Alisa asked.
Rex furrowed his brows. "I'm pretty sure this newspaper is supposed to be a reputable publication. And technically, it's so new that it doesn't exist yet."
This sounded pretty suspicious. In addition to that, Rean was involved. Alisa shook her head to clear it. They were going to meet each other at lunch anyway. She could simply ask him then.
Suddenly, Machias and one of Prosecutor Freising's legal assistants ran into the foyer. Emma and Gaius were close on their heels.
Laura became alert immediately. "Is something the matter?"
Machias was gasping for air. "Y-you need to come with us. There's a fire at the Remiferian Embassy."
All members of Class VII and their two instructors were gathered some distance away from the embassy. The fire had already died down, but the situation in front of the building was pure pandemonium. Members of the Provincial and Imperial Army were swarming around. They erected barriers and cordons while doing their best to get into each others way. The Remiferian soldiers at the front entrance watched the chaos with barely concealed contempt, their fingers close to the trigger of their guns.
The smell of burnt paper and wood hung heavy in the air. A smell that awakened memories deeply buried. Memories from eight years ago. The day of that accident. Alisa couldn't help her sardonic mood, but she wondered what the fire at the embassy would end up being.
Accident or arson?
What happened in front of them was way above the responsibility of their field study tasks. It didn't change the fact though that Class VII was tangentially involved.
Prosecutor Freising, the person responsible for verifying their after-action reports, was inside the Remiferian Embassy. According to her legal assistant, she was staying in the building when the fire broke out. But since then there was only radio silence.
Her grandfather had taught her a lot about international politics and Alisa recognized a powder keg when she saw one.
"Well, this is a mess," Instructor Valestein murmured.
Rex was busy shooting pictures, but everybody else simply watched in a stupor, unsure about the next step.
"Is there any way for someone from the Erebonian side to do an investigation?" Machias asked. "Or at least establish a line of communication?"
Jusis put a hand on his right hip. "Everything beyond that front door is technically Remiferian soil."
"And you think I don't know that?"
"Then what are you flapping your mouth for, Regnitz? Any overt action could be perceived as aggressive border crossing, which constitutes a cause for war. Everybody knows about the friendship between the Emperor and Prince Bartholomeus. Any official who sparks a conflict between Erebonia and Remiferia by mishandling this situation commits political suicide."
"So what?" Fie deadpanned. "Everybody is too afraid to do anything because it could blow up in their faces?"
"That's one way of putting it," Alisa said.
"Hey, isn't that Claire?" Rean waved her over.
Alisa watched with a mix of curiosity and suspicion as Class VII's temporary communication officer arrived at their side. Her hair was slightly mussed and there was a hint of soot on her cheeks. But in contrast to everybody else she carried a knowing glint in her eyes.
"It's good to see you all, Class VII. I have some bad news."
Instructor Neithardt folded his arms. "And how did you procure these bad news in the first place, Cadet Sterling?"
"I have my ways," she responded airily. "Now, do you want to know or not?"
Machias stepped forward. "I, for one, am curious." Alisa and the others soon agreed.
"Then listen well. There are a lot of contradicting claims flying around, but one piece of information stays the same no matter whether it's voiced by the Remiferian or the Erebonian side: there was a murder inside the embassy and Prosecutor Freising is the main suspect."