A/N: Sorry for the wait, but here's the next chapter. This one is the last deep breath before we go for the finishing sprint of this field study. I also want to thank everybody for reviewing, following and favoring this fic. I can't thank every reader enough for taking their time to read this story. And special thanks to bissek from spacebattles forum for his invaluable insight and his unceasing attempts to poke holes into the logic of my story. There are several lines in this chapter that wouldn't have been possible without his help.
Chapter 15 - City of Parallel Justice Saint-Arkh III
Dusk was approaching but the tasks continued to pile up. For a moment, she imagined herself inside a dinky bar, Calvardian jazz playing in the background and a glass of chilled vermouth in her hand. Ice cubes swiveled around while condensation formed on the edge of the rim.
She opened her eyes and raised the mug towards her lips. No ice, no condensation, no brilliant colors. Just a murky, ugly brown. When the coffee entered her mouth, the hot bitterness destroyed the last vestiges of the daydream, forcing her mind to face cold, cruel reality.
The embassy murder was proving to be one of the most contrived cases in her bracer career until now. There were past requests of similar complexity, but Sara's gut told her that despite their current breakthrough, Class VII had merely taken the first step into the rabbit hole.
Well, the kids found the entrance at least, so yay to progress.
She heard someone knocking. For a moment, Sara pondered whether she should tell the visitor to bug off. This was her sacred break time and if things went the way she anticipated, she had to prepare for an all-nighter. But then again, the embassy was still a building full of easily offended VIPs.
"Come in please."
The man who entered was powerfully built, his green hair shorn to a buzz cut. The suit and tie combination he wore was bulging with muscle. Sara watched him walk a few steps which was enough to tell her that he wasn't comfortable in his clothes. His movements were stiff and hesitant, as if the man was constantly restricting himself. Considering that the suit was one or two sizes too small, he had to take care not to rip up the expensive attire he wore.
She didn't mind the sight. Most career politicians tended to fill in their suits with pot-bellies instead of sculpted pectorals, though Sara didn't consider the man in front of her a typical politician. She cast a casual glance at his shoes. They were polished and well cared for, but it wasn't lost on her that the hydra leather looked scuffed.
"Greetings, Sara Valestein." The man went into parade rest and for a moment Sara pictured him performing a salute.
"Good day to you, too, Second Secretary Kurtz. Has my apprentice finally let you off the hook?"
He grunted. "Apprentice? You mean to say your cadet."
"I see. Rumors about little old me flying around back home?"
"Of course. The inheritor of the Valestein name going from A-rank Bracer to officer school instructor makes people talk. Should be obvious."
Obvious indeed. For better or worse, Sara had been something of a celebrity during her jaeger days. A country tethering on the brink of famine each year had little to spend on education or culture. And with the former prince kicked out, the North Ambrian populace had ripped out their sociopolitical roots. Was it any surprise then that the people were faced with an utter lack of role models to look up to?
"Sit down then, Kurtz. You standing on ceremony makes my skin crawl."
A brief smile hushed over his harsh features. "Excuse me then." When he sat down, his muscular frame made the chair creak.
"So, what do you want?"
"Just a little chat. And a favor." He stared at her.
"Really? Is the North Ambrian Embassy issuing a bracer request?"
"Not quite," he harrumphed. "This is a personal favor."
Sara crossed her legs and leaned forward. "Oh? I'm all ears."
"It's about that bronze brooch your cadets found in the archive. It has been recorded as evidence right? Could I have it back?"
She narrowed her eyes. "This is against procedure."
"I know. But Cadet Regnitz already got my testimony on the object. Both finger printing and orbal scanning has been done on it. The findings have been documented. What more is there to do?"
"Any reason you want it back so badly?"
"Sentimentality. It's a present from my former battalion commander."
Sara sighed. "You served under Major Jaspis, right?"
Kurtz nodded. Silence descended on them and both ex-members of the Norther Jaegers spent said silence to honor the deceased.
"I promise to return the brooch once the case against Prosecutor Freising is over and done with."
"Court cases can drag on for month or years," Kurtz remarked.
"It's the best I can offer."
The man furrowed his brows. "I see. You're truly walking the straight and narrow now, aren't you, Sara Valestein?"
"I like to think that this is what got me my A-Rank promotion."
He grunted. "Don't kid yourself. You'd never have come as far as you did without the strength you acquired on the battlefield."
"Perhaps. But being a bracer is about more than combat prowess."
"Is that so?" He shrugged his massive shoulders. "No matter. I'll take what I can get. Let's hope that the case against the prosecutor is resolved quickly."
"Why were you inside the archives anyway?"
"Your cadet interrogated me quite thoroughly on the topic."
Sara leaned back in her chair. "And I'm too lazy to read the affidavits. Besides, didn't you want to chat?"
Kurtz chuckled. "You have a point." He straightened himself. "I was looking for treatises about nutritional science."
She closed her eyes. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same. When it came to North Ambria, food remained the one topic that everything revolved around.
"Is there danger of another famine?"
"Not quite." The man folded his arms. "For more than a decade now, the government was successful in feeding our people. We did this by mostly importing the kind of food with the best trade-off between price and caloric value. But in recent years, we're starting to see the repercussion for this kind of policy."
"How so?" Sara got a bad feeling about what was to come next.
"Malnutrition, Valestein. Our people aren't getting enough vitamins and trace minerals. Diseases and deficiencies caused by lack of nutritional balance are becoming widespread. Babies are increasingly born with deformities. Even with their bellies full and sufficient caloric intake, North Ambria's current diet is killing the population by reges."
"But then we need to..."
"Import more fresh vegetables and fruit? High quality meat?" He scoffed. "Where is the money supposed to come from? Right now, the yearly average made by the Northern Jaegers is only enough to provide a healthy diet for 54% of our population. Are we supposed to sacrifice the rest?"
Sara put a hand in front of her face. These were the kind of decisions that no one should have to make. "So you were scouring the archives for the most optimal solution then? A way to provide our people with enough calories and vitamins while paying as little as possible?"
Kurtz nodded gravely.
"Have you found what you were looking for?"
"Well, at least there's a lucky break here." Sara sighed.
There was another knock and shortly after, Fie entered the room without preamble. She stopped at the entrance and tilted her head.
Second Secretary Kurtz stood up. "Not at all, Sylphid. I've idled long enough. The work that awaits me at the embassy isn't going to get done on its own." He turned towards Sara. "It's been a pleasure, Sara Valestein. Hopefully the next time we meet will be under better circumstances."
"Likewise." Sara watched him leave the room with the same suppressed gait. Fie stared after the man with slightly narrowed eyes.
"What's up with him?"
"He's wearing clothes that aren't tailored to his physique."
Her charge tilted her head again. "Weird."
"Not really. The suit he wears is most likely a hand-me-down. High quality clothing fit for national politics cost around 20,000 Mira." Sara furrowed her brows. "Enough money to feed a dozen children for a whole year."
Fie stepped in front of her. "Former Northern Jaeger?"
"Yes." Sara massaged her eyebrows. "Are you here to brief me on your findings, Fie?"
"Good. Lay it on me."
"Local broker is a bust. Mostly sold Carnelia solution in the last few months, but no Sapphirl."
"Carnelia solution? Did you ask about the customer?"
"Red Constellation. According to her, shipments go straight to Raquel."
Sara nodded along. "Fits their MO. Sutherland isn't part of their stomping grounds anyway. I think we can rule them out."
Fie paused for a moment. She then stepped right in front of Sara until their faces were mere rege away. "What about your former comrades?" She whispered.
"There isn't any evidence pointing to their involvement," she said curtly.
"But nothing rules them out either." Fie's gaze became more intense. "Only few corps perform on the level we've seen with the ostriches." She paused for effect. "Like the Northern Jaegers."
Sara furrowed her brows. "I haven't asked, but you've become very insistent about this whole case. Did something happen?"
Her little charge looked at her in a way that made it clear she didn't appreciate the deflection at all. Sara was once again reminded that Fie might not be a great conversationalist, but she was far from stupid or inept at navigating the intricacies of the spoken word.
"I met the daughter of the victim. She cried. She asked for justice. I intend to give it to her." Her eyes turned hard. "A girl grieving for her murdered father... sounds familiar?"
Sara felt as if her breath was knocked out of her. Memories of old started to resurface, flashes of a battlefield forever seared into her brain. She looked away. "I believe my countrymen have a little more sense than that," she pressed out.
Fie raised her eyebrows, her gaze exuding skepticism. "There is little jaegers wouldn't do for coin."
"And I like to believe that the Northern Jaegers are among the more benign corps. A group that conforms to a code of honor. Just like Zephyr used to."
Fie pulled back, her gaze icy. "Don't give me that crap, Sara. I've no clue whether our jaeger experience is admissible for court or stuff. Or whether I'm stepping over some of your bracer rules. But we both understand what our gut's telling us. Wherever we turn, trails are being erased. You think we're going to hunt down anybody with this kind of half-assed attitude? By playing to the rules?"
Sara closed her eyes and swallowed down the rage billowing inside her. She wouldn't lash out at the girl in front of her. She wouldn't.
"Playing by the rules is exactly what we must do. Or why do you think Machias and Emma are working themselves to the bone preparing all the paperwork? Part of a proper investigation is to not throw out random accusations that aren't backed by solid evidence."
The Thors instructor looked down at the little ex-jaeger. "Hunches, as convincing as they might be, are not enough."
Fie remained unimpressed. "What? I'm not even allowed to suspect them?"
Sara sighed deeply. "I can't force your mind, but you'd do well to keep the suspicions to yourself. It could prove disastrous if somebody heard you talking like that."
The white haired girl narrowed her eyes. She then turned her gaze to the exit door. "How many?"
"How many what?"
"How many of the embassy staff are former Northern Jaegers?"
"Practically all of them." Sara closed her eyes. "And believe me, you don't want to direct unfounded accusations at people with diplomatic immunity."
"More political bullcrap." Fie paused for a moment. "So even if they're guilty, they can simply tell us to scram the moment we come knocking at their doors."
"There are ways to revoke diplomatic immunity, but it requires an extremely high burden of proof. And let's not even talk about the political fallout if they're indeed involved. But enough." Sara folded her arms. "Anything else you found out?"
Fie took out a transparent bag. There was a single blue pill, shining with unearthly light. "According to the broker, this stuff is being sold in black market circles. A powerful combat drug."
Sara snatched the bag and looked closer. She felt her mind being sucked in by the mesmerizing glow. Something stirred in her memory. A high resolution photograph of this very same pill. Meetings and seminars she participated in at Bracer HQ in Leman. She tried to focus...yes, last year. The annual meeting of all A-Rank Bracers. And one of the topics being discussed was...
Gnosis, the infuriatingly obstinate parting gift of the D∴G cult, once again emerging after years of silence.
"You know about this stuff?"
"Yes. It's a long and sordid story and right now, we don't have time to dwell on it." Sara put the pill away. "I'm confiscating this. It's a very dangerous substance."
"That's the least troublesome aspect according to what I heard." Sara looked at the remains of her cup. The coffee was cold now and probably unfit for consumption. She breathed out gustily. "And now that I'm thinking about it, when did you meet the daughter of the murder victim? I haven't seen this mentioned anywhere in the reports."
Fie shifted her body slightly, a tic of hers that signalled nervousness. "Slipped up," Sara heard her whispering.
The ex-jaeger turned bracer folded her arms and speared the white haired girl with a half-lidded stare. "Talk. Now."
"Thank you for all your hard work." Machias shook the slightly clammy hand of the old lady and for a moment, the atmosphere felt awkward. Nevertheless, his gratitude was real so he put some pressure into the grip, hoping to convey the emotion he felt.
"It was a pleasure working with you, too," the stenotype operator replied. Her voice was as clipped and professional as ever, but her smile carried warmth. "Dinner is soon to be served. Care to join me and my colleagues?"
He sighed. "As much as I'd like to, I still have to write my after-action report. Our officer school is very insistent about this."
Mrs Erikkson tipped her index finger against her cheek. "Young man, we just went through nineteen witness statements turned into proper affidavits. There's a point when enough is enough. You need a break." Her tone carried a slightly exasperated tone. "You military types should know that you can't fight a war on an empty stomach."
"You're right of course, ma'am. I'll look for some food in a moment. Just need a few minutes to myself."
She eyed him sceptically over the rim of her glasses. "I see. Afterwards then, young man."
Machias exhaled loudly once the stenotype operator left. His stomach felt heavy, as if he had swallowed rocks which weighed him down. He looked out the window, watched how the sunset dyed the sky a beautiful orange. But even this idyllic sight failed to quell his anxiety.
The analysis of the rifling marks on the warehouse bullet had arrived, proving Rean's fantastical hypothesis beyond the shadow of a doubt. Machias was torn between admiration and frustration. How could anybody even come up with a theory like that? He often heard their instructors praising thinking out of the box and until now, he considered himself a fair hand when it came to critical thinking. But once again, this field study rubbed his own inadequacy to his face.
What did he have to offer for Class VII at this point? Stubbornly hard work? His talent for passing exams?
What frustrated him even more was that as of now, Prosecutor Freising was inextricably tied to the murder. The bullet belonged to her gun and preliminary testing indicated that the blood residue found in the warehouse belonged to the victim. It was a testament to just how far forensic science had come for such small traces to be successfully analyzed, though Machias couldn't bring himself to feel the appropriate enthusiasm.
The only way for Prosecutor Freising to avoid a guilty verdict was an insanity plea. And Machias knew enough about court proceedings that proving such an insanity plea was going to be difficult as all gehenna. Without the potential witness from the report he saw absolutely no chance.
There was a metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel though. With the site of the murder being outside the Remiferian Embassy, the Aulic Council had a legitimate claim to try Prosecutor Freising under their jurisdiction. There was still the charge of arson inside the embassy archives, but that only lend more precedence to Chancellor Linquist's offer of judicial assistance as stipulated by the Ardent Winter Treaty of 1174 between Remiferia and Erebonia.
Then he thought of Hibelle's dilemma. His friend's unspoken hypothesis that there was a saboteur hiding among the members of the Aulic Council. Who else would Prosecutor Freising trust to meet during a tense situation like that? Who else would choose that particular empty building as a meeting place? Or was this just another measure of the true culprit to lead them down a faulty path? Another measure to drag the reputation of the Aulic Council through the mud? The Imperial State Attorney was the uncontested rising star of the judicial world. In the same breath her fall from grace would make for a big, juicy scandal. The perfect fodder for the mass media.
Machias shook his head. There was nothing gained by second guessing everything. He opened his notebook to again go through the evidence from his side.
The significance of Prosecutor Freising's tactical orbment was still unclear. Alisa's readings backed by Instructor Swift proved that at least one fire art was used and the Quartz configuration fit. There wasn't much else to be assessed though. The EP capacity of the orbment was already at maximum the moment anybody thought of looking for an energy deficit. As nice at it was that orbal power was self-renewable, Machias had wished for once that conservation of energy was a thing with orbments.
The bronze brooch they discovered in the archives had been identified. A keepsake belonging to Second Secretary Kurtz from the North Ambrian Embassy. Nothing suspicious found. Neither orbal readings nor finger printing revealed anything worthwhile. He even had Fie, Rean and Gaius go over the object with their frankly superhuman senses, but they didn't perceive anything either.
And then there was the mysterious page written in code. Emma was the one to find it. A cheap, flimsy notebook page that stood out like a sore thumb among the expensive documents of the archive. Unfortunately no one from Team A knew anything about cryptography. He had also asked Elliot, Gaius and Fie from Team B with similar results.
No matter. Once this piece of evidence was transferred to the Aulic Council, there was bound to be someone who knew how to break the code. Though thinking about it, he could ask Instructor Neithardt beforehand. As a communication officer he of course knew about encryption schemes.
Machias added the reminder to his notebook.
He continued to ponder the issue only for the office door to open. Instructor Sara was the first to stalk in, her face furious, her whole posture exuding menace. The rest of Class VII followed her with most of his classmates either being leery or straight up intimidated.
"Elliot, use your ability to make this room soundproof," she ordered, her crisp manner and authoritative air being reminiscent of a proper officer of the army.
"Y-yes, ma'am." The redhead raised his orbal staff and cast some kind of art. A ripple pulsed throughout the air, but otherwise Machias didn't feel any changes.
Instructor Sara then turned towards Alisa. "This room has been swept for bugs?"
"Yes. Both Instructor Swift and I went through every corner."
"Good." The fuchsia haired woman went into parade rest, her facial expression still on the warpath. Her steel gaze swept across the group, her eyes brimming with restrained emotions. This was the first time Machias had seen their instructor this serious.
No. It was the second time. The first time was inside the Old Schoolhouse when Sara Valestein browbeat their class in fighting her nine against one. And considering what followed afterwards...
whatever pissed her off, Machias hoped he could get out of the way before he ended up as collateral damage.
"It came to my attention," she started, "that some of you conducted a witness interview with the family members of the murder victim. An unsanctioned interview, I might add." She very pointedly looked each member of Group B in the eyes.
Machias shook his head to get rid of the mental cobwebs. Group B did what?
"I understand that Thors gives you a lot of leeway to act independently. As Instructor Neithardt stated, this is part of the concept. It's what I want to cultivate for this class. I also understand that Hel... Prosecutor Freising's reticence isn't doing the investigation any favors. Nevertheless..."
She slammed her hand down the table, the crack loud enough to make Machias jump. He saw hairline fractures forming when the instructor removed her hand from the polished surface. He swallowed.
"Right now, Class VII acts on behest of the Aulic Council. They are our superiors. They dictate the scope of what we are and aren't allowed to learn. It's nothing you shouldn't already be aware of. It's the same idea as classified information in the military that we don't possess the clearance for. And just like with proper chain of command, when the Aulic Council tells you to back off, it's meant as an order. AND ORDERS ARE ABSOLUTE."
"If I may, Instructor..." Laura began.
"Did I give you permission to speak, cadet?" She bellowed.
"I... no ma'am."
"Then be silent and listen: I hereby order you as field instructor of Class VII and your direct superior to cease all investigation pertaining to topics the Aulic Council deems classified. No matter how unreasonable it may seem. I also order you to stay far away from any inquiry pertaining to possible connections between this case and the Hundred Days War."
What in Aidios' name? Machias' head was swimming. Just what did the others unearth to invoke this kind of reaction?
"Understood, cadets?" She roared, her terrifying gaze daring them to contradict her.
"Yes, ma'am." They all cried in unison.
"Furthermore, this insubordination will affect your collective score for this field study. And once we return to Thors, every member of Class VII is going to serve detention."
To Machias' surprise, his Lordship stepped forward. "Instructor, with all due respect, I was the one who came up with the idea and instigated the other members of Group B to follow my lead. I should be the only one receiving punishment."
Instructor Valestein nearly pounced on the Albarea heir like an unleashed carnivore, her face stopping mere reges from his as she glowered at him. "It seems that even after a full month, you still don't understand your place in this class, Cadet Albarea. What makes you think you are the only one fit to receive punishment? What makes you think you stand somewhere beyond your fellow classmates?"
"I didn't mean..."
"You are part of a team. Part of a military unit that has no distinction between the social classes." She stabbed her finger against the red jacket he wore. "Your fuckup is Class VII's fuckup. There is no place here for your noble sacrificial grandstanding. So yes, I'm going to punish all of you. Even the ones who have no idea what this is about, so that it gets into your thick skull that the actions of the individual are the actions of the collective."
Instructor Valestein looked each of them in the eyes. "You succeed together and you fail together." She exhaled loudly. "At ease, cadets."
The tension in the room was still thick enough to be cut with a knife.
"Now there is one final point: erase every mention of the Hundred Days War from your reports and notes. Make absolutely sure nobody outside this room even get an inkling that you are aware of any connection between this case and the HDW, no matter how tentative."
Jusis Albarea's voice cut into the atmosphere like an icy blade. "Is this also an order, instructor?"
"Obviously not as I'm telling you to break protocol. But if you know what's good for you, I suggest you listen. This kind of knowledge can easily wreck your careers. While some of you have more than enough political clout to survive the repercussions," she looked pointedly at his Lordship and Alisa Reinford, "some of you don't." And here she rested her gaze on Rean who flinched. "And some of you lack any political clout whatsoever." She looked at Fie, Emma and Gaius. After that, her gaze returned to the Albarea heir.
"Your family name might protect you, but don't think for a moment that this protection extends to your classmates. Let this be a lesson for you." She turned on her heel and left the room.
Their entire class breathed a collective sigh of relief.
"I've forgotten how scary she can be," Elliot said.
Machias stepped into the middle of the room. "Never mind the instructor. What in gehenna was this all about?"
Laura put a hand on her forehead. "As you've heard, we members of Group B conducted an interview with the wife and daughter of the deceased. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but... well."
"I wonder how the instructor came to knew about our actions in the first place," Jusis said with crossed arms.
"That was me," Fie said contritely. To his surprise, she gave his Lordship an apologetic look which he accepted with a nod. "Didn't think it'd have to be treated as top secret or anything." She furrowed her brows. "And never thought Sara would flip out like this."
"Considering how our instructor normally behaves," Gaius added, "I believe whatever she warned us about is dead serious."
"Still, what was this about the Hundred Days War?" Rean asked.
"Didn't she just forbade us to inquire about the topic?" Machias retorted.
The black haired swordsman stroked his chin. "As long as our discussion stays within this room, we should be okay. Instructor Sara left us alone here. I consider this tacit approval that we are allowed to talk among us so we're on the same page at least. She did stress that we are all members of Class VII. A team."
The rest of the class paused for a few seconds to ponder over Rean's conclusion. Machias found it reasonable and considering the silence, the others seemed to be in agreement.
Laura stepped forward. "In that case, let me enlighten Group A."
The bluenette recounted the interview by reading the documented witness statements. She also repeated the main points of Group B's discussion afterwards.
Once she finished, Machias was the first to interject. "The issue about the different versions of the Hundred Days War notwithstanding, Joseph Sagitarus' behavior and circumstances strike me as... weird. The daughter stated that he was a Lieutenant Colonel, right?" Laura nodded. "And Elliot, you heard from your dad that a lot of the officers from the 13th Armored Division were dishonorably discharged." The redhead nodded, too.
"Now that you mention it," his Lordship followed up on his train of thought, "A Lieutenant Colonel is pretty high up. The lesser ranked Armored Divisions are led by either brigadier generals or colonels. That puts the victim near the top of the command chain which makes it very likely he was among the officers cashiered."
Elliot sighed. "When an entire division is made an example of like that, it's usually the top officers who get the axe."
Rean and Laura's faces lit up at the same time. "I understand the contradiction now," the black haired swordsman said.
"Care to clarify?" Fie quipped.
Machias was the one to answer. "It's simple. A soldier who was dishonorably discharged isn't entitled to any benefits from Veteran Affairs. Despite that, the victim's wife received regular treatment."
"I think it's very likely that Doctor Gilfaeth was the one to treat her," Rean added. "When she saw the victim, one of the first things she said was that he leaves behind a wife and daughter."
Alisa nodded. "I remember that, too."
"In addition he was hired to protect someone as high ranked as the Imperial State Attorney," Jusis added. "A man with such a flawed career shouldn't even pass the security screening, let alone an interview."
"Can this whole case get any shadier?" Fie deadpanned.
Laura folded her arms. "Now that we are all on the same page, I suggest we follow Instructor Sara's order and cease any further inquiry. We have accomplished plenty given our lack of experience. Now that there is a high chance for the Aulic Council to directly take over the investigation, I consider it prudent to leave the rest to the professionals." She paused for a moment and then inclined her head respectfully towards Emma and Machias. "Though I'd be remiss not to mention the excellent legal work both of you have done."
Machias met Emma's gaze who gave him an encouraging smile. He turned back to the group and scratched his head. "We were pretty much beginners, but that's still better than nothing I guess."
"I apologize, but I still see one troubling aspect," Rean interjected.
"Right, Mr History Geek," Fie quipped. "Do you know another version of how the Hundred Days War came to be?"
He chuckled. "I'm afraid not. I have only hearsay and my version is pretty similar to Laura's. No, I'm still wondering about Instructor Sara's strong reaction."
Machias pinched the bridge of his nose. "I doubt there's anyone in this room who wasn't surprised at how the woman put down her foot." He stole a glance at the Albarea heir. While he couldn't deny a certain measure of schadenfreude to see the pompous ass brought down a few pegs, watching a fellow cadet getting chewed out like this still left a bad taste in his mouth. "But is there something particular you are driving at, Rean?"
"There is." He looked at the members of Group B. "You've heard the bit about Prince Olivert Reise Arnor being the political backer of Class VII, right?"
Elliot laughed weakly at that. "Yeah, that certainly came from left field. As if the pressure isn't already high enough."
"I had my suspicions about this class," Jusis began, "but this exceeds my expectations by a wide margin."
Rean nodded. "Right. Now think about it. Instructor Sara told us to feign ignorance to any connection between this case and the Hundred Days War. She also spelled out that if the higher ups in the military were aware of our knowledge, it could destroy our careers. Or at least the careers of those who don't possess amazing political clout."
Laura furrowed her brows. "What's your point, Rean?"
"Class VII already has a high level of political backing in the form of a member of the Imperial Family. But the background of this murder case is apparently classified to such a degree that even the protection of an Imperial Prince cannot prevent the powers that be to come after us. I mean, what kind of secret needs to be safeguarded like this?"
Jusis Albarea scoffed. "The kind that threatens national security if disseminated."
An oppressive silence settled on their group.
"We are way over our heads, aren't we?" Elliot said.
Gaius nodded. "It puts Instructor Sara's behavior into perspective at least. Sometimes it's smarter to avoid a storm instead of braving it."
Machias shook his head. "This still doesn't make sense. If there really is such a dark, dangerous secret hidden within this embassy case - one that threatens Erebonian national security," he put extra effort to say the words as sarcastically as possible, "how come Instructor Sara knows about this? She's just a first lieutenant. Well, technically not even that."
"She's an A-Rank Bracer," Fie said.
"I don't know much about their ranks," Alisa began, "but a bracer is just a bracer, right? They do community service and monster exterminations. The kind of odd jobs nobody else wants to do." She glanced meaningfully at Rean. "But I don't see how accomplishing such odd jobs makes her privy to high level information like what we are allegedly dealing with."
Laura put a hand on Alisa's shoulder. "I fear you're underestimating the responsibilities of high ranked Bracers." She cleared her throat. "There are only about 20 A-Rank Bracers across the entire Zemurian continent. And each of them earned their merits by resolving an incident on the level of a national crisis. As such it's not that surprising for them to know about highly classified secrets. In fact, what our discussion revealed leads me towards a disturbing conclusion myself."
Alisa raised a single eyebrow. "Which is?"
The bluenette took a deep breath. "My father, the Viscount Arseid, has been working with Prince Olivert on a secret project for some time. Now that his Imperial Highness has been revealed as our political sponsor, at least part of father's secret dealings are clear to me. But the important part is how father and Prince Olivert came to cooperate with each other." She paused.
"Two years ago, the imperial government locked down the guild branches across the empire. The impetus was given by a bill issued through the Imperial Diet and father was one of the few who rose in protest against it."
"I read about it in the newspaper," Machias said. "Prince Olivert is a staunch supporter of the bracers and his condemnation of the guild lockdown was widely publicized. Not that it helped much, but I guess his Imperial Highness at least found himself a reliable ally."
Laura smiled sweetly. "You could say that. But back on topic: the justification of the imperial government to curtail bracer activity was due to the guild bombing incident which happened earlier that year. It's a matter I discussed with father at length. The Bracer Guild suffered all the damage and were kicked out by the government while they were down. Furthermore, there was never any concrete evidence levied against the guild to substantiate the implied accusation that they had even the slightest hand in being responsible for the... jaeger's bombing attacks."
"Jaegers were responsible for the bombing?" Elliot cried out. He then scratched his head. "Sorry for the outburst, but the building was just across the street from where I live."
The other classmates looked at him sympathetically.
"Yes, the guild branches were destroyed by jaegers." Laura spat out the word. "And despite the bracers catching the culprits, dismantling their operation and cleaning up after themselves the government simply shut them down with the only explanation being that the existence of the guild 'destabilizes the Empire'." She put her fist on the table. "But what if this was just an excuse because the bracers were touching on national secrets?"
"Hmmm," Jusis leaned back slightly in his seat. "This is quite a leap in logic. But I concede that the justification put out by the central government and the provinces were severely lacking."
Emma raised her hand. "Sorry, but were the Reformists and Noble Faction acting in unison when they drove out the bracers?"
The Albarea heir nodded. "That is correct."
"Which makes this even more suspicious, if we think about it," Machias grumbled.
"I have to wonder though," Rean said. "Jaegers are always hired hands. Mere executioners of a client's will. Who paid them to bomb guild branches of all things and how would the clients benefit from that?"
Laura shook her head. "I'm not aware on what kind of rules these miscreants operate."
"And the other jaeger corps didn't know either," a cool voice spoke out, the tone measured and calm as if it was proclaiming a simple fact of the universe. Machias looked at the speaker, his mind failing to apply the words to the person who uttered them.
"Fie?" Emma breathed out, her voice shaky.
"The jaegers who did the bombing? Jester was their name. Appeared in the underground scene from nothing, just six month before they conducted their bombing operation. No prior reputation, no history. And none of the established jaeger corps knew any of their members. Estimated to be 3,200 men strong and every one of them carried class A weapons and wore top of the shelf armor. Equipment cost alone required them to have yearly funds in the ballpark of 200,000,000 Mira." The white haired girl swept her gaze across her classmates, her sharp eyes finally resting on Laura.
"But nobody found out where the money came from. Who their clients were. They didn't behave like jaegers in fact. More like a paramilitary force inextricably tied to a large scale organization."
Machias could do nothing but blink. Alisa and Emma alternately looked between Fie and Laura while the tension once again rose to oppressive levels. Rean didn't seem surprised and Gaius was as inscrutable as ever.
"I see." It was the Albarea heir who spoke up. "Which Jaeger corps did you belong to?"
Machias couldn't claim to have heard the name before.
His Lordship on the other hand smiled thinly. "Interesting."
"Ehm, are they famous?" Elliot asked while scratching his cheek.
"In certain circles they are," Laura answered, her voice clipped. "For the longest time, they shared the title of strongest jaeger corps in Western Zemuria alongside the Red Constellation. Then, about half a year ago both outfits decided to settle the matter through a duel between leaders. It ended in a mutual kill."
Fie chuckled darkly. "You did your research."
The bluenette huffed. "I'm just applying what we were taught in class. Know thy enemy."
Machias gulped. This was slowly getting out of hand.
"I have so many questions right now, but Laura, is this really necessary?" It was Alisa who spoke up and her expression looked like she swallowed something sour.
"I wonder," Fie said, her voice carrying a dangerous edge, "did your research also turn up what my corps did during the guild bombing incident? Like how Bracer Cassius Bright cooperated with Zephyr to smoke out the Jester Corps in Sutherland?"
It took a few seconds for the words to sink in, but when they did, Laura looked shaken. "Am I to believe that jaegers helped out a famous bracer to eliminate their own?"
The white haired girl bent forward. "Only members of our own corps deserve loyalty. Nobody else. And my boss hated terrorist bombings. But if you don't believe me, ask Sara. She was almost as neck-deep into the incident as Bright."
"Both of you, time out!" Rean clapped his hands in an attempt to dispel the tension. "Fie, I thank you for telling us your background. Though now that we're aware, it doesn't take much to figure out that yours and Laura's pasts is a source of contention." He paused and looked imploringly at both girls. "But instead of snapping at each other, I suggest we end the entire discussion and take some time to digest everything we've learned. And the best place to do so is over a hot meal."
Fie was the first to relent the staredown. "Fine."
"Yes, I believe it's high time to look for sustenance, " Laura said while exhaling loudly. She looked around, her expression contrite. "I apologize for the unsightly display. There is still ways to go until the end of the field study. I promise that this... difference in opinion won't affect my performance."
"Same," Fie said flatly.
With these declarations the tension finally sank to a bearable level. But as their class prepared to leave the room, his Lordship turned around to address everybody. "It shouldn't bear repeating but I'll do so nonetheless: everything we discussed about that topic stays in this room. While I don't agree with our esteemed combat instructor often, there is a time for secrets. In the future I suggest we only talk about this topic when all of us are present and after counter-surveillance measures were taken."
After some silent communication, every member of Class VII nodded as one. The sight felt uplifting to Machias. Despite the tensions in class, which were in no small part due to him, he had the impression that their group spirit came out of this discussion stronger. As if they were all sitting in the same boat. Machias wasn't sure whether this was a result of a shared secret, but he prayed to Aidios that their current unity would allow them to brave the challenges ahead.
"Bracer Valestein," one of the guards greeted. "Visiting the prosecutor again?"
"Yeah. The usual?"
Sara took out her Gram Pistol and her sword, which she gave the guards. After that she also left the three hidden knifes that were strapped to her thigh. Both guys looked politely away while she unsheathed them, a clear sign these young men were still wet behind their ears. This brief moment of distraction was all somebody of her capabilities would need to plunge the blades into their necks. They shouldn't be this trusting just because she was a bracer.
No. Sara didn't have it in her to reprimand them. She needed to focus on what lay ahead.
They also didn't ask for her ARCUS, but that was to be expected. Combat orbments were adjusted to the individual's aptitude. For anybody not the owner it was just a glorified communicator.
Entering Helena's holding room felt like preparing herself for a confrontation, a fight. As Sara came face to face with one of the first friends she made in Erebonia, she wondered how to approach the conversation.
Technically, Helena did nothing wrong. Her continued reticence was probably for the same reason Sara ordered down the kids. While she believed in giving cadets a long leash and allowing them to make mistakes, it was also the job of a proper instructor to steer them away from falling down to their deaths. A scraped knee was fine. A broken neck wasn't.
Even if she had to play the bad guy in front of the cadets. Or bad gal in her case.
"Hello again, Sara. To what do I owe the honor?"
She looked at the redhead and couldn't help but feel irritated. It was irrational, but it was through Helena's work that her kids were nearly sucked into something way over their heads.
"The same as always, Helena. Questions."
Her friend raised a single eyebrow. Her lips formed a mocking smile. "This seems to be the order of the day."
Sara took out her ARCUS and slotted in a special piece of septium given to her by Toval. A compound argem-esmelas quartz that made a tactical orbment produce white noise as well as disruptive orbal waves to cancel out most kinds of signal broadcasts. The range was only about 12 arge and her EP capacity was going to be in the dumps once the conversation was over, but she couldn't rely on Elliot's sound manipulation or Alisa's orbal scanning here. She wanted her students to be as far away from this talk as possible.
"You know Sara, I always wonder about these little gadgets you have. The ARCUS is still in the prototype stage. An orbment that is Reinford's proprietary technology. But despite that, you whip out modifications that shouldn't have yet been developed. A very distressing habit of yours, even when you were using 4th generation orbments back then."
"What can I say? I have a very good orbment tuner."
"This kind of work looks way beyond that of an average orbment tuner. One of your bracer friends? Perhaps that handsome blonde?"
Sara sighed. "Why are you asking questions you already know the answer for? And keep your hands to yourself. That handsome blonde is taken and his girlfriend is the jealous type."
"The best kind of questions to ask in court are the ones you already know the answer for. But he already has a girlfriend? Shame. And probably not just the jealous type, but also very protective."
"Oh yes. She likes to invoke the wrath of the heavens."
"Does she now? Sounds like a fascinating woman."
"You can always learn more by reading Carnelia."
Helena laughed. "Oh that novel is just too cute. Especially when contrasted with the files the Aulic Council has on little 'Toby'.
Sara massaged her eyelids. "So you actually made the connection."
"Wasn't that difficult, though I wasn't the lead prosecutor on his case. Multiple charges of Artifact smuggling, what a naughty boy he was. But it was never followed through, what with him having friends - and a girlfriend - in high places."
"You have this habit of sticking your nose way too deep into other people's business."
"Oh yes. I believe that's what makes me a successful prosecutor."
Sara leaned forward. "Until the day when you bite off more than you can chew."
"Seeing the situation I'm in, you are certainly right." She closed her eyes.
"I found out about Joseph Sagitarus' background."
"Hmm, have you now?" Helena paused for a moment, obviously deep in thought. "Or did your cadets go behind everybody's back and investigated on their own?"
"How did you..."
The redhead smiled like the canary that ate the cream. "You just told me."
Sara froze. She then exhaled. "You are as insufferable as ever."
"These cadets are taught by you. I wouldn't expect anything less. So, what did you do once you found out?"
"I ordered them to back down. Has been some time since I had to act like a proper commanding officer."
"In other words, you knew where the inquiry would ultimately lead to."
Sara folded her arms. "Yes."
Helena stood up and carried over a crystal pitcher with an amber liquid as well as two glasses. "Whiskey from the Steinrose distillery. The people here have good taste." She opened the stopper and poured a finger-width for each of them.
"Shouldn't whiskey be on the rocks?"
"I'm technically a prisoner here and this isn't quite a luxury suite." Helena carried over another pitcher filled with water and gestured at the ARCUS. "You can always make your own ice of course."
"You know what? This is a good idea." Sara took out a modular Frost Edge Quartz and slotted it in. "No way I'm drinking high class stuff like this while it's lukewarm."
One arts invocation later and there were two chunks of ice floating in the pitcher. Helena scooped them up with a tea spoon and soon enough their drinks were as it should be. They clinked their glasses.
The taste was heavenly. The alcohol felt smooth and the smoky aroma reminded her of the tobacco brand widely enjoyed in her former corps. Subtle flavors were also mixed in. She could taste walnut, starberry and a hint of apple. High quality stuff. Nevertheless, the drink left a bitter aftertaste in her mouth as she let the warmth spread through her body.
"Hamel is untouchable." Helena steepled her fingers. "And as far as I can see, it will stay untouchable."
"But you did try to crack this case open?" Sara asked.
"In a manner of speaking. There was an angle we could've used. Just like the Bracer Guild had an angle of their own, no?"
Sara closed her eyes. She thought back to the two youths she met over a year ago. The girl with twintails whose smile and energy was as radiant as the sun and the boy with raven black hair, amber eyes and a solemn disposition. Joshua Bright, formerly Astray. The last survivor of Hamel. After the whole affair with the Liber Ark was resolved, Leman HQ was eager to use Joshua as a rallying point. A taskforce of senior bracers were assembled to find out more about the incident that spelled the beginning of the Hundred Days War. Too many questions were unanswered, too many players still hiding beyond the veil of secrecy.
Getting the operation off the ground was difficult, for the Erebonian guilds were still reeling from Ouroboros' bombing attacks. It was then that the Imperial Diet became active. The Imperial Chronicle conducted a smear campaign, spinning the Jester bombings in a way as if the guild were somehow responsible, severely weakening the trust the populace had in them. Goodwill accumulated over decades vanished overnight. The Heimdallr Military Police then began to harass them and the Provincial Armies soon followed. Another parliamentary bill was passed shortly after, forcing the recently repaired guild houses to shut their doors.
The timing was simply too perfect and Sara had long ago stopped to believe in coincidences.
"In other words, Helena, you've already lost the chance to drag the Hamel incident into the open?"
"Yes. Despite your cadet's work, I don't see how the ultimate outcome can be changed." The redhead sighed. "The window of opportunity was minuscule in the first place and the case we wanted to push is nearing its statute of limitations. There are simply too many factors that need to be aligned just right for us to stand a chance." She bowed her head.
"And now that I find myself the prime suspect of a murder case, a couple of these factors that need to be aligned just right are probably fucked beyond repair."
Sara poured herself another finger-width of whiskey. "Things getting fucked up. Story of my life. And apparently yours."
"Spare me your self-pity, Sara. And why aren't you pouring me some?"
Another round of alcohol was downed and the mood became solemn.
"What do we do now?" The bracer asked her friend.
Helena shrugged. "Let things fall where they will. I'm sure you will continue to keep your cadets from getting burned. As for me, I can only wait."
"You could've told me, you know?" Sara was surprised by the hurt she felt when she spoke out these words.
"Hamel isn't something you simply tell others. I had an inkling that the Bracer Guild might know something, but alliances like these can't be formed on mere hunches, especially when Erebonian intelligence is breathing down our necks."
Sara drank the last bit of her whiskey, savoring the bitter taste. "Yeah. That's just how things are I guess."
The redhead looked at the grandfather clock standing in a corner of the room. "Shouldn't you get a move on?"
"How do you know that Arios is about to arrive?"
"At the risk of repeating myself, the guards talk. They are practically giddy that the Divine Blade of Wind is going to grace the embassy with his presence." Helena's lips formed into a cheshire grin. "Don't forget to introduce us. Can't have you hogging all these hot bracers to yourself."
Sara stood up from her seat. "You are incorrigible."
Night time was Jaeger time. Or so the saying went. Personally, Sara detested the night and the actions associated with it. Nightly ambushes, nightly raids. There was something about the cover of darkness that lowered inhibitions. Attacks tended to end up more vicious. Soldiers were more likely to resort to brutal and underhanded measures. Things that were too gruesome to perform in broad daylight.
But the sun inevitably rose, its blinding light exposing the bloody aftermath for the whole world to see.
Saint-Arkh's streets were silent. The clock struck 10:30 pm with the respectable citizens enjoying their well earned sleep. It was one of the things she liked about Erebonia. Different than Crossbell or the Calvardian capital Edith, metropolises that never slept, the citizens of the Empire followed a proper day night cycle. Even Heimdallr didn't have a real nightlife to speak of.
Sara wasn't sure whether there was anything deeper to this difference between countries. Perhaps it was the Empire's more conservative culture or the proverbial Erebonian discipline?
No matter. She entered the Saint-Arkh airport and walked through its mostly empty halls. There was one female receptionist and a tired looking clerk in the main hall. Sara continued her walk and made her way to Terminal 3. Some well dressed people passed along while dragging their luggage behind them. Judging by their clothes probably nobles or rich merchants. Finally, she reached customs where a tall man with long dark blue hair was being held up.
Some things never changed.
"Sir, I have to insist that you give up your weapon," the customs guard said.
"And as I already stated, good man, I have an international permit to carry this blade into any nation." Despite Arios towering over the guard, his presence was surprisingly unassuming as if he was suppressing his spirit. His eyes were closed as if in meditation, his demeanor as calm as a serene lake. Sara was sure that the exchange she heard had been going on in circles for quite some time, but only the guard was showing signs of impatience.
Well, there was no need to draw out this spectacle. Sara stepped towards the counter and greeted both men with a cheery wave. "Good evening, folks. If you don't mind..." she sneaked a peek at the guard's nameplate, "Mr Wolf, but this man belongs to me."
It felt really good to say this out loud.
"And who are you supposed to be?"
Sara pulled out a waxed document with the seal of the Aulic Council as well as her badge. "Sara Valestein, Bracer A-Rank and on a special investigative mission ordered by Marquis Rodias Linquist as this document proves. My colleague here is a crucial part of the ongoing investigation and has been called here as a neutral mediator between the Empire and the Principality of Remiferia." She put her weight on her right leg and cocked her hip.
The guard read the document carefully, though his eyes started to dart around nervously the longer he followed the text. "I... I need to speak with my superior."
Sara and Arios looked at each other, she in exasperation and he with a stoic gaze. There was an almost imperceptible movement of his lips that looked like the flash of a smile.
A very slight one.
"Good man, are you sure you want to wake your superior at this kind of hour?" The Crossbellian Bracer said, his voice as calm as a morning breeze.
Sara bend forward on the counter, which proffered up her bust. "As this document states, Bracer Arios MacLaine is granted special dispensation to move freely within Saint-Arkh while carrying his tools of trade." She pointed at the tachi he carried on his side. "And this signature belongs to the Chancellor of the Aulic Council, the second highest official in the whole Sutherland province." Sara moved her index finger and laid it to rest at a specific text passage. "And the investigation is time-sensitive. Are you sure it's smart to defy the will of a marquis?"
The guard's eyes were now darting between the piece of paper, Arios and Sara's chest. Sweat was forming on his palms and forehead. "Fine. I understand." He nervously fiddled with his uniform cap, then turned towards her colleague. "Your travel permit, please."
The tall Bracer handed the man his passport. After stamps were applied, he was finally waved through.
"Quite an underhanded attack, Sara," Arios stated once they were out of earshot.
She shrugged. "I didn't summon you from the ass end of nowhere to have your way barred by a stubborn customs official."
"He was just doing his job. And the capital of Remiferia is hardly a backwater place."
"Everything that far north counts as the 'ass end of nowhere'. I should know, given where I was born."
"Your penchant for levity hasn't changed much since we last met."
"And you're as boringly straight-laced as ever," she said with a smile.
Arios paused his walk and turned to her. "Fair enough." He then smiled back and stretched out his arm. "Albeit short, I'm glad to work together with you, Sara Valestein."
Sara took his offered hand while trying to calm her heartbeat. There was just something about the maturity of widowers that made them irresistible. "Likewise, Arios MacLaine." She squeezed, unsure whether to apply her true strength or instead go for a dainty handshake as expected from a lady. But before she could come to a decision, the moment was already over and they were once again walking side by side and out of the airport.
By Aidios, she prayed she wasn't blushing. Her cheeks felt warm enough for it to be the case.
Their walk through the residential district was one of the most pleasant experiences Sara had in quite some time. Conversation flowed easily as they caught up on guild business or compared notes on the young promising people under their tutelage.
"So Estelle and Joshua are already becoming celebrities?"
Arios nodded. "The Crossbell Times is always eager to feature Bracers in their articles. Luckily, both of them know how to handle the media responsibly. Estelle tends to get a little too enthusiastic about all the attention, but Joshua is always there to bring her back down to earth. The young man has a good head on his shoulders."
"Praise from you is hard earned, Divine Blade of Wind. But from what I gathered about the two, they pretty much cover each others weaknesses. While Joshua is indeed the calm and composed type with a sharp mind, just like a certain someone walking beside me," she threw him a coquettish look, "young men like him tend to have emotional vulnerabilities. And that's where the strength of someone like Estelle comes in."
The tall Bracer pondered her words. "True. You're very wise, Sara."
"Flattery will get you everywhere." She was blushing now, wasn't she? Good thing it was dark outside.
Sara felt Arios' arm touch her own. They had been walking close to each other the whole time, but not that close. She then saw him glance at her, his gaze intense. "Take my arm, please," he whispered, though she perceived a cold heat beneath his voice.
Was she dreaming? She was totally dreaming right? Sara gazed back into his dark eyes like a deer caught in the headlights. "Sara, take my arm." He repeated imploringly, confidently, but this time she also felt slight alertness from him.
Oh might as well enjoy it. She wrapped both her arms around his, marveling at the corded muscles underneath.
"Lean closer," he whispered again.
She happily obliged, feeling his long hair tickling her cheek. She breathed in his scent, the typical sharp stench of men's sweat. A smell she was familiar with from her childhood in the barracks. Arios' smell was less aggressive though, somewhat more subdued, almost elegant. There were also eastern spices mixed in, but she knew too little about cooking to identify them.
"We are being followed."
Of course they were. So much about her romantic road to happiness. "Mr MacLaine, toying with the heart of an innocent maiden is hardly proper behavior."
"I''ll endeavor to bear this sin," he said dryly but not unfriendly.
"How many? Everything I sense is slight discomfort as if the darkness is hostile." It was something Sara had felt since she left the embassy, but until now she simply downplayed it as nerves what with all the nasty surprises today.
He turned to her, close enough that each time he spoke she felt his breath tickling her ear. "I sense five. At nine o'clock. About 275 to 300 arge away. They constantly reposition themselves. Probably moving atop the roofs. I'd categorize their intent as hostile curiosity."
Really? Sara knew about the capabilities of Eight Leaves One Blade practitioners, their uncanny ability to perceive their surrounding with the inner eye. Rean displayed this skill regularly. However, she never thought it could be pushed to this extent.
So that was the level of a master.
"It's nothing too impressive," he said as if he read her mind. "I doubt I could pick them out from this distance if the city was bustling with activity."
"Yeah, it's still utterly superhuman, just saying. So what do we do?"
"These are your stomping grounds, Senior Bracer Valestein. I defer to your judgment."
She didn't think for long. "Let's drop by for a visit and ask them what they want. Politely of course. Are they still at nine o'clock?"
"And in case things turn hostile, have your combat orbment ready. You use an ENIGMA, right?"
"Yes. Wind elemental Master Quartz."
She almost snorted. "What a surprise. At least during practice fights, my lightning and your wind mixed pretty well. Then, on the count of three..."
Sara leaned her head to his side. "Two."
His body tensed for a moment only to fall back into a completely relaxed state. "One."
She closed her eyes and drew a tiny amount of arts lightning from her ARCUS. Nothing but the initial spark to light her inner pool of energy on fire. Sara focused on every single muscle inside her body. She had done it countless times, but a smidgen of hesitation always remained. It was a good attitude to have. All she did was borrowing a power not hers, so it behooved her to treat it with respect, reverence and most important of all, caution.
The effect was instantaneous. Her entire body tingled like myriad of ants crawling beneath her skin while her muscles started to ache from microspasms. Sara felt the limiters inside her break away, limiters set by the human body to prevent overexertion. To prevent her muscles from tearing themselves by their own power. Adrenaline shot into her brain, her mind awash in the thrill of courting death through her lightning charge craft.
They exploded into action, both bracers leaping atop a residency with a single bound. It took them a mere moment to stabilize their footing.
That's when the hunt was truly on.
Arios body was wrapped in black vortices that made the surrounding darkness seem gray. Angry winds howled in his wake as he shot forward like a bullet. Sara didn't even try to match his godlike speed, but she still cast a chrono drive on herself to combine the time distortion of nohval quartz with the acceleration of unbridled lightning. Nearly 300 arge were crossed in little more than three seconds with Sara using her innate wind control to brake her charge.
Five persons in black were turning around nervously, alternating between looking at her and Arios who stood opposite of her, keeping this cluster of suspicious people between them.
Sara tilted her head. Balaclavas, night vision googles, infrared binoculars, black clothing that concealed their figures and sex. The body armor was state of the art though she couldn't tell whether there was septium weaved in.
Oh, and the daggers and shortswords. Sara didn't saw any guns and she suppressed her instinct to draw her own pistol. As far as she knew, it was no crime to wear tasteless, identity concealing clothes or night vision googles. And carrying weapons for self defense was perfectly legit. Besides, it wasn't as if bracers had any policing power in Erebonia.
"Good evening, folks," she said with false cheer. "Nice time for a walk on the roofs, right? Me and my friend here thought we'd find us a better vantage point for stargazing. Are you people doing the same?"
They drew their blades in answer, but before Sara could roll her eyes at how stereotypical the situation was, a violet light flickered over their bodies. She squinted her eyes. This was neither the typical coloration of one of the seven elements nor the light of Epstein-Kowalski radiation.
Their start of motion was almost impossible to perceive, their bodies blending into the darkness. Three of them went for Arios and two dashed at her, their forms stretching like an amorphous mass of blackness as they attacked her in a pincer movement.
Sara closed her eyes. Vision wasn't going to be much use anyway. She then began to release pulses of electricity to her immediate surrounding, charging the air while at the same time becoming one with it in her mind. Her two assailants dived into her bubble of electrified particles like the proverbial rhinocider through the china shop, alerting her lightning sense to their precise movement. Sara sidestepped into their blind spot, avoiding the stab of a dagger towards her jugular and a thrust aimed at her liver. The second enemy immediately followed up, lunging at her with a needle thin sword.
This should be enough to justify self-defense, right?
She drew her sword, hooking the needle blade into the indentation of the swordguard. A powerful flick from her wrist to manipulate the trapped weapon of the opponent, breaking posture as the enemy desperately clung to their blade. Her right hand shot forward to grab the other arm on the wrist, her charged muscles easily overpowering the person in front of her as Sara wrestled the enemy right into the path of the second assailant.
They collided painfully but she wasn't about to let up, directing a stream of lightning from her own sword into the blade of her opponent, flowing from their arm through their upper body and then back into Sara's other hand which was still clamped over the opponent's wrist.
Electricity only moved in a closed circle.
The enemy shook violently, but suddenly the body relaxed under her grip and then pain exploded on her forehead.
Instincts honed on countless battlefields made her increase the distance without any conscious thought forming, narrowly evading an attack that went straight for her eye. As Sara tried to blink the stars away, fuming at the headbutt she just received, her free hand had already drawn her Gram pistol. The opponents circled her again from both sides, apparently hoping to confuse her with their strange optical trick, their silhouettes once again merging into the darkness to become an amorphous form.
But none could escape her lightning sense.
Sara shot them in quick succession, the rounds unloading their energy in a brilliant display of purple plasma, but as expected they simply powered through the electricity despite their suffering.
So they were somehow resistant to her lightning, which wasn't arts based. This severely hampered options to take them down non-lethally.
Life was full of little challenges, wasn't it?
She crouched down, avoiding a swipe at her throat. Then a body twist to built up momentum while invading the range of the other enemy, ending in a bodycheck to catapult them back a dozen arges. Sara then turned back to the remaining opponent. The attempts at stabbing her face were getting old now, so she deflected the attack upwards with her sword using a rising guard. Then a half-turn of her blade to change the grip from forehand to backhand, hooking the protrusion of her swordguard into the ornate hilt of her opponents weapon. As she dragged down the trapped blade, her enemy was violently pulled towards her and right into her rising elbow as she performed a deep step-in to increase striking power.
The tip of her elbow broke through the armor and dug into the breast cavity, the sheer force of the attack cracking two ribs. A little shove with her pistol hand to open distance, followed by a knee strike aimed at exactly the same location she struck previously.
The ribs broke with Sara using enough power to drive the loosened pieces of bone into her opponents lung. This time, the pain caused the enemy to freeze in their movement and cry out in anguish, revealing the person to be male.
Well, after so many close combat strikes, she pretty much figured.
Sara pistol whipped the guy for good measure, which made him collapse on the roof floor. She then stepped aside from another dagger attack aimed at her kidney, positioning herself to face the remaining assailant who hadn't yet recovered the footing from their failed lunge.
The battlefield wasn't a place to forgive such careless mistakes.
She kicked up, burying her leg right into the crotch area. The person let out a pained grunt, but managed to power through the agony.
Clearly female, but though Sara's attack wasn't quite as effective as it could be it still caused her opponent to stumble. She kicked out again, this time aiming at the kneecap which ended in the woman toppling towards her...
right into the pommel of her sword which dug deep into her enemy's throat.
Payback was a bitch.
The black-clad assailant sank to the floor, her hands clutching her neck in impotent agony, her concealed mouth giving off almost soundless cries.
Sara sheathed the sword but drew her pistol again. After that, she kicked the enemy blades down the roof. Arios was also finished with his opponents. Unlike hers, they lay completely motionless and were it not for the lack of blood, Sara might have feared for their life.
She stepped towards him slowly with her pistol constantly trained on her share of assailants who were writhing on the roof floor. It was only then that she released her body from her self-inflicted electrocution.
"Bracer Arios MacLaine, I have a request for you."
"Oh? Let's hear it."
"I want you to deliver a present to Rin."
He eyed her questioningly.
"A thank you present I've yet to buy. Her Taito lessons saved my ass right now. Out of some reason, these guys are resistant to attunement based lightning."
"Consider your request done. And I noticed the same. They were distressingly unaffected by wind."
She scoffed. "They clearly came prepared, though their fighting skills suck. Well, they have suspicious written aaall over them, so let me call up Council Chancellor Linquist. I want these guys interrogated."
"Given Erebonia's draconian approach to law enforcement, I can picture them suffering rough treatment," Arios said. "Please, take care they are treated humanely."
Sara glanced at her fellow bracer. "Erebonian law enforcement isn't that bad. And I didn't treat them very gently either."
"A fight to the death is a profoundly different situation than having them at your mercy as prisoners. But before that..." He inhaled loudly and from one second to the next, Sara felt his spirit energy spiking. She heard a clink, the sound of an eastern blade loosened from its sheath, a sound she became familiar with by training Rean. And with only a hint of steel peeking out of the scabbard, a whirlwind of black and green spilled forth as if it had been trapped inside the sheath the whole time.
As Arios slashed out, the displaced air buffeted Sara's hair and longcoat. A massive blade of condensed wind shot out, trailing black tendrils of entropy on their way.
There was a crack reverberating inside her. A sound that permeated the depth of her soul as her perceived reality broke like a house of mirrors. Sara blinked because where she formerly saw empty roof floor, there was now a sixth person standing only ten arge away. It was a woman in a fancy dress and highly stylized hair though Sara could neither make out her facial features nor the color of the clothing due to the darkness.
But what she could sense was the sheer amount of fear she exuded. She pointed her Gram pistol at the mysterious woman who started to visibly shiver.
"Who have we here?" Sara purred.
"Ad eum locus."
A circle of light formed beneath them, a sensation similar but different from arts activation. Then, from one moment to the next, the mysterious woman and the five downed assailants all vanished in a flash of sudden illumination.
Sara lowered her pistol and turned to Arios whose unflappable demeanor was for once not quite unflappable, with clear surprise written over his face.
"Can we follow after them?"
Her fellow bracer shook his head. "They are outside my detection range."
She did a short calculation, but this was just making concrete what her gut was already telling her: the spatial translocation she just saw was impossible, at least when constrained by mundane means.
"What in gehenna's name was that?"