Dark Citadel, Garan

The throne room of the Dark Citadel was, in Olga's opinion, a perfect reflection of her race's current state: vast, imposing, and empty.

Tall columns of red porphyry stone supported a vast vaulted ceiling that lacked any kind of decor, while the magic torches placed at regular intervals provided just enough light to see while keeping large areas of the room in a state of semi-obscurity. There wasn't a court to discuss the affairs of Garan, no dignitaries and ambassadors from other countries to receive, and no petitioners to listen.

It was just Olga, Chloe, and the silence, but it wouldn't last for long.

At the far side of the throne room was located an elaborate arch made of mithril and obsidian engraved with arcane runes, guarded by a pair of armiger golems. The humanoid stone constructs were roughly the size of an adult man and were armed with enchanted halberds. Their single cyclopic eyes glowed softly in the dimly illuminated room, ready to react at the first sign of danger for the passage to the hidden colony of Nidavellir.

The runes on the stone arch suddenly lit up and a humming portal of swirling bluish energy appeared under the arch, from which emerged three dark elves, one man and two women.

The man was tall, with long black hair that reached his shoulders, and wore traditional dark elf clothes consisting in long dark red robes that almost reached the floor and had a tall rigid collar that extended behind his head like a crest, which identified him as a high ranking noble.

The two women flanking him wore both light armors consisting of purple metal plates over a layer of red cloth and leather, and were equipped with scimitars and small round shields, reflecting the elf doctrine of preferring speed and agility over heavy armor in order to make the most of their superior reflexes.

Lord Ulrich Greystorm barely glanced at his surroundings before walking confidently toward the imposing throne located on the dais on top of a short staircase at the other side of the room. The nobleman and his bodyguards had almost reached the base of the stairs when they finally stopped and bowed to the queen of the dark elves. The queen frowned imperceptibly at what was a clear provocation, but didn't take the bait and simply waited for their next move.

Ulrich raised his head and met her gaze. Olga Discordia was a powerful woman, feared and respected for her acute intellect and her prowess in the field of magic, but she was also incredibly beautiful, so much that he couldn't help but admire her body for a few moments, particularly her large breasts and luscious legs, before shifting his gaze toward the young woman standing beside the queen's throne. She looked young and was also quite attractive, however, there was something off about her. When he finally realized that she was not a pure-blooded dark elf, but a half-breed, he was unable to contain his indignation.

"What is that thing doing here, Olga?" Ulrich demanded, looking at Chloe as if someone had just pissed in his soup. She should have been killed on sight, like any hybrid that foolishly tried to make contact with the dark elves.

"I am the queen's caretaker and knight," Chloe replied, glaring back at him. "And you will address Lady Discordia with the respect she deserves."

Ulrich widened his eyes in shock at the young woman's insolence. "How dare you speak to me like that, filthy half-breed!?" He exclaimed angrily before turning to his bodyguards. "Get rid of that vile abomination immedia-!"

CRACK!

"AH!" Ulrich let out a startled cry when a bolt of electricity flew so close to his face that it singed his clothes. He turned back toward the throne and saw that the queen had her scepter pointed at them, its red crystal glowing ominously with magic power.

"Stay where you are," Olga ordered Ulrich's bodyguards before shifting her icy glare toward him. "Do not insult my servant again, or I will set your body on fire and throw it off this tower," she warned him before slowly lowering her scepter.

"Chloe. Leave us," Olga ordered firmly to Chloe, only to narrow her eyes when the half-elf hesitated to throw a suspicious look at Ulrich and his bodyguards. "Now!"

Chloe winced at the harsh tone of her mistress. "Yes, my queen," she said, bowing deeply before leaving the room using a secret passage in the wall.

"Your little mongrel is rather undisciplined," Ulrich commented while casually adjusting his jacket, trying to appear unfazed by her death threat, even though his hands were shaking.

"Better a loyal mongrel than a treacherous wolf," Olga replied curtly without dropping her stern expression. "Why are you here, Ulrich?"

The nobleman frowned at her hostile tone, but wisely decided to ignore it. "I am here as an official representative of the Council of the Iron Table to discuss a matter of vital importance," he informed her with the most authoritative tone he could muster.

Olga was not impressed in the slightest. "If you're here to collect the food for the winter, then you're too early. The next raid will only take place after the next new moon." Dark elves were a proud race, but the reduction of their territory to a few safe havens had caused a severe food shortage, forcing them to rely more and more on the goods stolen by the Dark Legion from the human kingdoms.

"You really think I came all the way here from Nidavellir for something so trivial?" He asked, sounding almost offended by such insinuation.

"Trivial? We may be powerful, but we still need to eat," Olga deadpanned.

"This is no laughing matter, Olga!" He snapped. "The council is starting to question your commitment to the cause."

The silence that followed those words was deafening and the room grew noticeably colder. "Explain," Olga demanded with a tone completely devoid of any trace of humor.

Ulrich licked nervously his now dry lips. "We- They believe that you're taking too long to perform the ritual," he said with a careful tone.

Olga narrowed her eyes at his choice of words. 'Spineless coward,' Olga thought. 'Always blaming others.'

"Since when has time been an issue for us?" Like their cousin race, dark elves had ridiculously long lifespans and could be effectively considered immortal.

"Since the imbalance of the mana fields has become so noticeable that it's starting to affect our lives," he replied. "The quality and quantity of our crops has decreased noticeably in the last few centuries. Casting high-level spells is becoming more and more difficult. And the magic wards that protect our settlements need to be constantly reinforced."

"You almost sound concerned for the future of our species," Olga commented dryly. "I thought you only cared about yourself," she said while crossing one leg over the other, only to frown imperceptibly when she noticed him shift his gaze to follow her movement. 'Pig.'

"Mine is simply a matter of self-preservation," he replied, not even trying to deny her accusation. "We're getting off topic. I'm here to discuss why is it taking you so long to have a child."

"The ritual is extremely complex and delicate," she said dismissively. "It is not a normal procreation spell and even a sorceress of my level would have difficulties-"

"You really expect me to belief that the great Olga Discordia has been failing for three hundred years?" Ulrich asked with irreverence. "How many time windows have you already missed? The last time the stars were lined up favorably was during last spring's equinox and yet, as I can clearly see, you're still not pregnant," he said with a provocative tone, looking pointedly at her flat belly. "What is the problem?"

Olga glared at him, unconsciously bringing up a hand to her bare navel to shield her flat belly from his gaze. "Complications have occurred," she replied curtly, unwilling to share any detail with this man.

"It is the Nightmare Stone, isn't it?" He said as a statement, rather than a question. "There's no point trying to deny it. I can feel its taint in the mana. This whole place reeks of it."

"… that thing has a negative influence on any form of advanced spell," Olga admitted frustrated. "I'm creating a series of wards to contain it, but it's a time-consuming process." What she didn't say was that by the time the wards were completed, her magic would be most likely completely gone. 'How ironic that the very thing I used to boost my powers is also the reason why I'm losing them.'

"You should have destroyed it when you had a chance."

Olga barely resisted the urge of turning him into a living lighting rod. "I remember quite clearly that you agreed with my decision to use it to our advantage."

"Everyone makes mistakes," he said dismissively.

'Oh, so now you're pretending to be humble while shifting all the blame on me, uh?'

"We can't allow something so dangerous to exist. We need to get rid of it," he continued, using the same charismatic tone he used to manipulate the masses.

"You know exactly what happened the last time we tried to destroy that thing," Olga replied darkly, suppressing the awful memory. Gods, she could still hear those screams… "And even if it was possible to destroy it, you seem to forget one crucial detail: that thing is the only reason I'm able to control the demons. Without its influence, those beasts would attack our people instead of the humans."

"At what cost?! The death zone you created to ward off intruders from your fortress has spread to the point that now half of Garan has turned into a desolate wasteland!"

"What other alternatives do we have? I am literally the best our race has to offer. If my powers are not enough to stop the spreading of the corruption, then what hope do any of you have?"

"It's still too dangerous," Ulrich said with a concerned expression. It looked so sincere that Olga was sure he must have spent at least week practicing it in front of the mirror. "The rest of the council agree with me that we can't risk losing you. Therefore, I, Ulrich of the house of Greystorm, have come here to ask your hand in marriage," he announced with a tone that oozed authority and confidence.

"I refuse," Olga Discordia replied without hesitation.

"I knew you would accept, after all- Wait, what?" Ulrich's confident smile shattered and he looked at Olga in utter disbelief. "You can't do that!"

"I just did it," she deadpanned.

"Why?" He demanded.

"For the very same reason I'm in this god-forsaken place: the prophecy." According to the words uttered before dying by the last priestess of the goddess Morava, the goddess of fire and magic worshiped by the dark elves in ancient times, an exceptionally powerful sorceress would give birth to a child carrying the soul of the goddess. There was no doubt that Olga Discordia was the most powerful dark elf sorceress of this era, however, she had not been the first candidate for the ritual of the pond of life.

"The prophecy does not specify how the child is to be conceived," Ulrich pointed out.

"And you really believe that the future avatar of our goddess will be born from our union?" Olga asked condescendingly, not sure whether to be more amused or disgusted by the idea of having sex with him.

Ulrich didn't appreciate her tone. "I don't see why not," he said seriously. "I am one of the most powerful dark elf sorcerers currently alive-"

"No, you're just one of our most powerful male sorcerers," Olga brusquely corrected him. "Which means that your magic level is average at best… and leagues below mine. I have no intention of stooping so low to resort to a man in order to have a child."

The nobleman gritted his teeth in frustration and clenched his fists, digging painfully his nails into his palms.

In this world, women were naturally more attuned to magic compared to men, but this phenomenon was particularly pronounced in dark elves. For this reason and because their population was made up mostly of women, they had developed a matriarchal society. Most men had a marginal role and many dark elf matriarchs even saw them at the same level of bee drones, creatures whose only purpose was to help get pregnant those women who weren't powerful enough to use magic to procreate.

On the other hand, Olga came from a bloodline of powerful sorceresses that had managed to remain 'pure' for countless generations, never having a male in their family since the time of the great founding, thousands of years ago.

"Mine was not a simple request," he continued, forcing himself to remain calm, "The Council of the Iron Table-"

"My answer is still no," she interrupted him firmly. "I'm not going to marry you and let you defile my womb with your seed."

Ulrich glared harshly at the queen and gritted his teeth. "Are you opposing the will of the council?"

"The council's just a glorified assembly of fools that waste their time bickering and bragging about their past achievements while we're slowly fading away!" Olga declared harshly. "I don't care about their decisions… especially if people like you are the ones deciding the fate of our species."

"I knew you were an arrogant woman, Olga Discordia, but it seems that spending time among the lesser races has clouded your mind. You may be our queen, but we are the reason why you sit on that throne!" Ulrich exclaimed angrily. "And if you don't do as we say, then we-"

Without warning, Olga released a powerful shockwave from her scepter, throwing Ulrich and his guards on the ground and extinguishing the flames of most of the magic torches in the room.

Lord Greystorm rose back on his feet with a groan of pain, but when looked up at Olga, he froze with fear.

"You dare to come unannounced into my domain, question my dedication to a cause on which the future of our entire species depends, and have the audacity of giving me orders?" Olga hissed coldly while glaring down at Ulrich. The dark queen of Garan stood up from her throne and walked toward lord Greystorm with deliberate slowness, the clacking sound of her heels echoing menacingly across the vast throne room.

Ulrich stepped back in fear, bumping against one of his bodyguards, who were also terrified by the aura of power coming from the queen.

"I do not sit on that throne because you decided it, but because I am the only reason our race still exists," Olga said, glaring at Lord Greystorm. "I'm the one that stood up against the humans when they started enslaving our kind. I'm the one that stopped the attacks of the demons on our settlements. I'm the one providing food to our people while all you do is reminisce about our former glory in the safety of our capital instead of working on a solution. I'm the one that had to throw away her life to become the most hated woman of this continent!" Olga was now right in front of him and was pointing her scepter crackling with electricity at his face. "All because you failed to protect Mistiora," she hissed with cold fury.

Ulrich babbled something, trying to argue against her words, but the queen had already run out of patience.

"Silence!" She ordered imperiously. "I didn't sacrifice three centuries of my life just to throw away all my efforts and become your trophy whore. If you think I will spread my legs, let you fill my womb with your seed and bear your child just to increase the prestige of your miserable, pathetic bloodline, then you are sorely mistaken." The woman finally dispelled her magic and walked back to her throne. "I will finish what I started and bring a new era of prosperity to all dark elves," Olga said sternly.

"Is this really your final decision?"

"Yes."

"… then I will return to the council and let them know what you said. But be aware that there will be consequences," he sternly said, pointing an accusatory finger at the sorceress queen.

Olga almost scoffed at his not-so subtle threat. "Every single action has consequences, Ulrich," she said, staring at him intensively with her golden eyes. "Every. Single. Action. The only question is, are you willing to face them?"

Ulrich trembled with impotent rage and, without uttering another word, he turned on his heels and quickly left the room.


'Arrogant short-sighted fool,' Olga thought, watching the insufferable man and his escort vanish through the warp portal. As soon as the portal disappeared, she finally dropped her regal façade and slumped into her seat. Using so much magic had left her exhausted and her head was starting to hurt.

"I thought I ordered you to leave this room," Olga said aloud with a note of disappointment in her voice. A few moments later, Chloe stepped out from behind one of the columns with a guilty expression that reminded Olga of a child caught stealing candies.

"I beg forgiveness for disobeying your orders, my queen," the half-elf apologized, bowing deeply. "I was just worried for your safety."

The older woman raised an eyebrow. "Are you implying I'm unable to protect myself, Chloe?"

Chloe quickly looked up at her mistress with a panicked expression. "W-what?! No!" She exclaimed. "Nobody can match your power, your highness! You're the most powerful sorceress in the world!" The half-elf declared with a mix of adoration and fear.

Olga kept her serious expression for a few moments before letting out a soft chuckle. "Calm down, Chloe. I was merely jesting," she said, causing the girl to visibly relax in relief. While blind loyalty was never a good thing, it was oddly reassuring to know that there was someone in this bleak, harsh world that cared so much for her. Also, she personally thought that the girl's reactions were adorable. "However, while I am grateful that you care so much for my well-being, it would be wise if in the future you were to exercise more restrain whenever you speak with those above your rank. Many dark elves have already a poor opinion of your kind and your actions reflect negatively on me."

Chloe lowered her gaze to the ground, not because she was offended by Olga's words, but because she felt ashamed of her own actions. "I'm sorry to have caused you trouble, my queen. But I cannot tolerate those who address you disrespectfully."

Olga narrowed her eyes, feeling there was more behind Chloe's behavior. "And?" She inquired gently yet firmly.

"… that arrogant prick was looking at your body… with impure intentions," Chloe whispered through gritted teeth, clenching her fists with anger.

Olga's gaze instantly softened as realization dawned upon her. 'Of course. How couldn't I think about that?' Due to Chloe's past as a sex slave, it was no wonder she was so protective toward her.

"It's just the nature of men, my young friend," Olga said calmly. "Show them something they like and they will lose all sense of reason."

Chloe frowned a bit at Olga's dismissive tone, but decided to simply trust her mistress's judgment and change the subject of their conversation. "Do you think he suspects anything?"

"I don't think so. That little show of power was probably enough to convince him I still have my magic and I doubt he was able to properly ready my actual level of mana. After all, it took me years to get used to the miasma."

Chloe nodded. She may have never set foot in Nidavellir, but over the years Olga had taught her many things about dark elf society, including their language, their costumes, and most importantly, their politics. If her people were to find out that she was losing her powers, then Olga would most likely be forced to abdicate or worse, turned into a pawn by some ambitious noble.

"I'm tired. I'm going to rest in my room," Olga announced.

"Actually… There's something that requires your attention, lady Olga," Chloe informed her with an apologetic tone. Olga often showed signs of fatigue, especially when she used her magic, and her recent display of power must have exhausted her. "It's about Harriet."

Olga sighed softly and massaged her temples, trying to alleviate her headache. "What does she want?" She asked with resignation.

"She keeps asking to be the one to lead the next raid. She's been rather… insistent," Chloe said, putting particular emphasis on the word.

"… I see." Olga remained silent for a while. "Alright," she said after thinking about it for a few minutes. "Inform Harriet that she will be the designed demon tamer that will lead the next raid."

Chloe bit her lower lip. "My queen, is it truly a wise decision?" She cautiously asked.

"No, but unfortunately, it's the only option we have." Olga stood from her throne and walked toward the doors, followed by Chloe. "The demons are growing restless again and we can't just trick them into fighting against each other indefinitely. However, if we leave a horde of that size rampage without control, the consequences would be unpredictable," she said as they left the throne room.

"Harriet won't stop to a few frontier settlements," Chloe pointed out, easily keeping Olga's pace despite being several inches shorter.

"I know, but even if I order her to not push too deep into Alliance territory, I seriously doubt she would listen to me anyway. We both know the reason why people like her joined us."

While Olga and Chloe were not the only dark elves living in the Dark Fortress, only a small number of them had followed their queen from Nidavellir in order to serve and protect her. The rest were refugees from destroyed settlements or runaway slaves that had come to her fortress for one single reason: revenge. These dark elves had suffered at the hands of humans and were therefore eager to use their pain and anger against those who had wronged them, often leading the Dark Legion as demon tamers.

"Tell me, Chloe, have you ever considered following Harriet's steps and becoming a demon tamer?" Olga asked suddenly as they reached the huge spiraling staircase that ran from the bottom of the tower all the way to its top. Demons were forbidden from venturing into the higher levels of the tower where the dark elves lived, but their savage instincts often overwhelmed their fear of Olga's wrath, forcing her to take opportune precautions in order to ensure her safety, as well as that of the other elves. Along with the various wards, defense spells and magic traps she had cast over the years, there were also several golems, ranging from small units as tall as a human to massive behemoths easily twice the size of an ogre, all built by Olga's ancestors using knowledge that has been lost for millennia. Over the years, many of the ancient magical constructs had been destroyed by the demons and now only a handful remained, located in the most important areas of her citadel.

"I live to serve you, my queen. My place is and always will be by your side," the young half-breed answered devotedly and without hesitation while they walked up the stairs to reach Olga's room.

Olga pursed her lips, unsatisfied by the answer. "But what would you do, if you weren't bound by your oath? Would you take revenge on the humans if you had the chance?"

Chloe didn't answer immediately, but remained silent for a while, collecting her thoughts.

"I… I don't know," Chloe admitted after a while. "I hate humans and I would not shed a single tear if their wretched species suddenly disappeared. But… I have no desire to be the one to bring them down."

"I see," Olga hummed quietly. 'You've made great progress since our first meeting, my young friend,' she thought with a hint of pride.

Chloe's path to recovery was still long and Olga doubted the girl's scars would completely heal; however, her mind was not poisoned by hatred and violence. If it was empathy or simply the desire to be better than her tormentors, Olga wasn't sure, but it was something she could only approve of.

A short while later they finally reached the floor where Olga's apartment was located. Chloe opened the door to Olga and bowed with deference.

"Thank you, Chloe," the older woman said, walking inside.

"Rest well, my queen," Chloe said before closing the door, leaving Olga alone in her bedroom.

The sorceress queen removed her silver crown and stared quietly at it for a moment before putting it down on her makeup cabinet. The crown was a beautiful and delicate piece of art, made by the best dark elf artisans, but the responsibilities associated with it made it feel heavier than a mountain.

'Why did I accept to become queen?' she mentally lamented, momentarily lamenting her pride and stubbornness. Not for the first time she was tempted by the idea of simply running away from everyone and everything, find a quiet place and live the rest of her long life in peace… only to remember the reason why she was here. 'If I had not taken her place, they would have killed her,' she thought as the memory of a beautiful young girl with hair the color of moonlight, purple eyes full of curiosity, and a smile brighter than the stars, brought a pang of pain to her chest. 'Wherever you are, I hope you're safe now, Mistiora…'


Elutura, capital of the Holy Aurelian Empire

With a total population of over a million people, the imperial capital of Elutura was the biggest city of Serenus. Founded several centuries ago in the place where the first reincarnation of the goddess Laurentia revealed herself, the city was a testament to human ingenuity and power. Magnificent temples, government buildings, and monuments dedicated to the heroes of the Aurelian Empire adorned the imperial capital, while an advanced system of aqueducts, sewers and thermal baths ensured levels of hygiene and public health that most countries couldn't even dream to achieve.

Among the many wonders of Elutura, one of the most impressive in terms of size and magnificence was undoubtedly the Circus Magnus. The building was one of the largest structures of the modern era, over half a mile long and able to hold more than two-hundred thousand people at once. A low platform ran in the middle of the stadium, in the center of the oval track, and was decorated with bronze statues made by the best artists of the empire, with the most spectacular being the life-size statue of an elephant. The pachyderm was not a mere décor, but was actually a rudimentary automaton whose trunk functioned as a trumpet, used to announce the start and the end of the races, as well as the remaining laps.

But none of that mattered to the thousands of men and women of all ages and social background that crowded the stadium, as they watched with euphoria the ten chariots racing on the dirt track. The bright colors of the chariots helped the spectators identify their respective champions through the thick dust cloud they left behind in their wake as they raced on the dirt track. It wasn't just the last race of the summer season, but also the last one of the legendary champion Felix Sagitta, arguably the best charioteer of the century, so there were obviously great expectations from his fans.

Among the people observing the race there was a young woman comfortably lying on a triclinium in the imperial box. She had red long hair kept in a simple yet elegant braid, bright emerald eyes shining with intelligence and wore a white long sleeveless tunic with a scarlet shawl and military leather sandals.

Her name was Iris Arcadia and she was the imperial princess of the Holy Aurelian Empire. Despite her young age, the woman was a great warrior and strategist, as well as a talented politician whose authority was respected all across Serenus. 'Being the leader of the most powerful country in the world also helps,' she thought in a rare moment of self-indulgence. While abusing her power was not part of her character, Iris wasn't shy from enjoying the perks provided by her status in her rare moments of free time. After all, a healthy mind was as important as a healthy body.

The princess was not alone in the imperial box. To her left sat Julius, her most trusted knight and friend. He was clad in his usual anatomical armor, save for the crested helmet, which he only wore in combat. He was a warrior with an impressive stature and physique, but his Iris knew that he was also a kind man ready to die for his people.

Sitting composedly to her right was a beautiful kitsune woman wearing an elegant kimono with the colors of autumn that matched nicely her golden hair and tail.

Lady Kohaku, current leader of the principality of Fuchswald, radiated an aura of maturity and wisdom despite being just a few years older than Iris herself. Many Aurelian nobles and high-ranking officers had been captivated by her exotic beauty during her diplomatic visit to the imperial capital, something which had greatly worried Iris. Kohaku was not just a foreign leader, but also an accomplished spymaster, and while their countries had been allies for centuries, Iris still made sure to keep a close eye on her, something which the fox-woman was undoubtedly aware of. If she wanted, Kohaku could have easily used her beauty and charm to have men tell her all kinds of secrets, but luckily, she didn't seem interested and any attempt of courting her had been politely yet firmly rejected by the kitsune, leaving dozens of men with a broken heart.

Currently, the fox woman was dividing her attention between observing the race and the person sitting beside her. He was another kitsune, a ten-years old boy wearing a simple yet elegant blue tunic with sandals.

"Are you having fun, Menou?" Iris asked.

The young kitsune nodded and wagged his tail enthusiastically. "Ahi! I mean, yes, princess!" he exclaimed, looking at Iris with eyes full of childish wonder. "This place is amazing! Just like the rest of your city!"

Iris chuckled in amusement and couldn't help but smile at his adorable reaction. He had been a bit scared by the size of the stadium and its immense crowd at first, but as soon as the first race started, he quickly started cheering and laughing like any child of his age would do.

"Thank you for bringing me here with you, Onee-chan!" He said to his sister with a smile brighter than the sun.

"I'm glad you're enjoying this experience, Menou," she replied with a warm smile. While on the outside the fox-woman looked like the perfect incarnation of composure and elegance, on the inside…

'Kyyyyyaaaaaah! My little brother is soooooooo cute!' she mentally gushed. In moments like this, it took all her willpower and discipline to resist the temptation of hugging him tightly and smothering him with kisses.

The trumped of the mechanical elephant sounded once again and the crowd grew even more excited.

"What's happening?" Menou asked with curiosity.

"It's the final lap, boy. Whoever arrives first to the finish line will win the most important race of the season," Julius explained.

"Come on, Felix!" Iris shouted at the man on the chariot painted red and green. The man had opted to keep a steady pace and remain in the middle for most of the race, but now, while the horses of his opponents were showing clear signs of fatigue, his own still had some energy left. Spurring his horses to run faster and using his experience to deftly overtake the other chariots, Felix quickly moved in front of them, until he was right behind the blue-white charioteer in the lead.

The other charioteer noticed Felix getting closer and urged his horses

Menou quickly joined her and the rest of the stadium, so caught up in the race he didn't even realize he had switched back to his native tongue.

The man on the blue-white chariot made a mistake and took the last turn too tight and too fast, almost overturning his chariot. While the man fought desperately with his reins to regain control, Felix took advantage of his distraction to get in front of him. When the other charioteer realized what had just happened, it was already too late. Felix was now two lengths in front of him and shortly after his red and green chariot crossed the finish line, eliciting a thunderous cheer from the crowd that could be easily heard all across the city. "SAGITTA! SAGITTA! SAGITTA!"

Iris clapped politely and glanced at Kohaku and her brother, only to notice the way their big fox ears flinched at the noise.

"I apologize if the noise is making you uncomfortable."

Kohaku waved her fan dismissively. "It can't be helped, with so many people in the same place," she politely reassured Iris. "I still can't believe how big this place is."

"I assume you don't have anything like this in the principality," Iris commented casually. While it was intended as mere curiosity, she couldn't resist bragging a bit about the achievements of her country.

"That would be correct. We're more interested in art and theater," Kohaku replied with an equally casual tone, somehow managing to make the Aurelian look like a bunch of unacculturated barbarians without openly insulting them. "However, we also hold athletic competitions during special events."

Iris couldn't help but smile at the witty reply of the kitsune and took the jab in stride. "Oh, really? That's interesting. Maybe we should organize a competition between our respective athletes."

"Hmm, a tempting idea. I'm really curious what the results would be."

"So am I," the princess replied as they looked at each other with friendly competitiveness.

Julius shifted his gaze between the two leaders and wisely decided to keep quiet. 'Women are scary.'

"Hey, he's coming this way!" Menou exclaimed, unknowingly breaking the tension.

Felix noticed the young kitsune in the royal box and waved back at him with a goodhearted smile before sending a flying kiss to Iris, causing an uproar in the crowd.

Iris was momentarily stunned by the audacity of his gesture, but instead of getting angry or flustered, she was actually amused and decided to play along, so she pretended to catch the kiss with her hand and shook her head. "Sorry, but it takes more than winning a race to steal my heart!" she humorously declared.

Felix brought a hand over his heart and made an exaggerated hurt face before shrugging and waving playfully at Iris. The entire stadium laughed in amusement at the scene… except for a single person.

"Impudent bastard," Julius grunted while glaring at the charioteer. The champion was still waving at the crowd as he led his chariot to the podium, where the judges awaited him with a laurel crown and a big silver cup full of golden coins.

"Calm down, Julius. He just did it for show," Iris chuckled. "The unbeatable champion that tried to woo the imperial princess during his last race? People will definitely talk about it for months."

"How can you be so sure?" Julius asked skeptically. It was a fairly common practice for noblewomen to sleep with their favorite charioteer, so it wouldn't surprise him if Felix wanted to add the princess to his list of conquests.

"Let's just say that his door doesn't swing that way," she said with a knowing smile.

Julius frowned in confusion. "What do you- Oh. Ooooooh! I see." He exclaimed, suddenly understanding what she meant. "I still think his attitude is unacceptable, though."

"I really doubt he cares about what you or anyone else thinks about his actions, as long as they help him be popular."

"Are all charioteers like him?" Kohaku asked curiously.

"Basically? Yes." Julius crossed his arms over his anatomical breastplate. "But it's kind of expected from a bunch of daredevils that live in the moment. It's not a sport for the faint of heart."

"Are chariot races dangerous?" Menou was surprised. How could it be? They were so awesome!

"Accidents are quite common and many charioteers often die before retirement. To be honest, I'm surprised nobody got hurt today," Princess Iris admitted.

"A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one," Kohaku commented stoically, glad that her little brother didn't have to witness the gruesome sight of a chariot crashing on the racetrack. While she could not protect him from the horrors of the world indefinitely, she was still determined to protect his innocence for as long as possible. "Why would people pursue such a dangerous career?"

"Well, money and glory are great motivators. If you're good at this sport and also talented and lucky enough to survive until retirement," he said, gesturing at Felix, "then you can live the rest of your life in comfort and luxury… as long as you're careful with the way you spend your money." Race champions could become wealthy enough to buy plots of land and villas, but it wasn't uncommon for them to squander their assets in a short time. "There's a very lucrative business behind these races and that's without even considering the bets."

"You Aurelians must really love this kind of competition," Kohaku said pensively, looking at the huge crowd.

Iris smirked. "You have no idea." In the past, the people of the empire would watch gladiatorial games, but such barbaric and violent sport was banished centuries ago when slavery became illegal in the empire. In order to keep the people entertained, Iris' ancestors had thus decided to replace it with chariot races and non-violent sport competitions.

The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of a servant carrying a small sealed scroll in his hand.

"Princess Iris, an urgent message has just arrived from one of our border patrols," the soldier informed her, offering her the message.

The young woman grabbed the scroll and broke the wax seal using a knife she always carried around. As soon as she read the message, any trace of amusement instantly vanished from her face and was instead replaced by a serious frown.

"What is it?" Julius had seen that face enough times to know it usually meant troubles.

"She has been found," Iris said, crumpling the message in her clenched fist.

Julius instantly tensed up. "Where?"

"A scout saw her near a village on the western border. One of our patrols is currently trailing her." Iris stood up and looked at Julius with determination. "We're leaving immediately," she announced before looking at the kitsune siblings. "I apologize, lady Kohaku, but I'm afraid I'll be unable to guide you through the rest of your visit."

The fox woman shook her head gently. "There's no need to apologize, princess," she said with an understanding tone. "We're really grateful that you took time from your busy schedule to show us the wonders of your capital."

"Are you leaving, Princess Iris?" Menou asked with a tone of adorable distress.

Iris met his disappointed gaze and grimaced a bit. "I'm afraid so." The woman had grown close to the boy in the last few days and she felt sorry to have to say goodbye so soon.

The boy flattened his big ears against his head. "B-but you said we would visit the imperial zoo together," he protested with an adorable pout.

"Menou, don't be selfish," the eldest kitsune scolded him sternly. She loved her brother dearly, but she had sworn her parents to not spoil him too much.

"It's alright. I was also looking forward to spending more time together, but alas, my duties as protector of the empire take precedence over my personal desires," Iris said, gently ruffling Menou's hair. "But who knows? Maybe I'll be able to visit the principality in the future. I've heard that it's a beautiful place."

"Really?" He asked hopefully.

"Of course! And I expect you to return my hospitality."

The boy's eyes instantly lit up with excitement. "I'll show you all my favorite places!"

"I'm counting on it," she said with a chuckle.

"By Laurentia, that boy will become a lady killer when he grows up," Julius joked a short while later as they made their way to the stables, followed by the six soldiers forming her escort.

The imperial princess smiled. "Don't let lady Kohaku hear you. That woman is very protective toward him," she said before her face returned serious. "How many men can we mobilize for the mission?"

"The Second and Fifth cohorts of the Imperial Guards are ready for deployment and just waiting for your command, while the Seventh should return tomorrow from-"

"We can't wait for them. We're leaving today. Send a messenger to the temple and tell them we'll need five high-ranking priests and two healers."

"It shall be done, princess. However, the senators will probably disapprove of your sudden departure from the capital," Julius commented calmly, not sounding particularly concerned.

"Those people will always find a reason to be unsatisfied with the way I run this country," Iris said, deftly jumping on her horse. "If you're concerned, you're free to stay here and entertain them with your fine rhetoric arts, my friend," she teased him.

"Ah! No offense, your highness, but I'd rather jump from the Great Lighthouse of Tethys," Julius declared.

Iris laughed. "Let's go, Julius," she said with determination. "We have a succubus to catch."


Fortress city of Ansur, Eostia

"Man, I'm beat!" Maia exclaimed after kicking open the door of her office. The room was a chaotic landscape that perfectly reflected her personality, with weapon racks, an old yet comfy-looking sofa, a big embalmed bear standing on its hindlegs in a corner of the room, and two large desks. The first one was almost completely covered by piles of reports, bottles of liquor and an assortment of random items, while the other was remarkably clean and was currently occupied by two women.

Sitting behind a desk was Gwen, a short woman with a curvaceous body wearing green mage robes, with a cowl that obscured the upper half of her heart-shaped face, which was almost always frozen in a blank expression. She was the leader of the Red Roses mage unit and also acted as Maia's secretary.

Meanwhile, sitting on a corner of the same desk was a fit woman with silver hair wearing leather armor and with an eyepatch covering her left eye. Milena was the one tasked with leading Ansur's defenses whenever Maia was not available, an easygoing woman that could be tougher than a nail when necessary. She was currently engraving the stock of a disassembled crossbow with simple yet elegant geometric patterns.

Letting out a loud yawn, Maia removed her jacket and threw it unceremoniously at the embalmed bear, where it landed haphazardly on its head and left arm, then kicked off her boots and dropped face-first onto the couch.

"Hi, girls. I'm back," came her muffled voice through the pillow.

"Hi, boss," Milena causally saluted her.

"Would it kill you to act with a minimum of decorum for once?" Gwen deadpanned from her desk.

"Fine." With an annoyed grunt, Maia slowly rolled on her back and assumed a more dignified pose… right before she put her right leg on the sofa's backrest and dropped her right arm on the floor. "Better? Hey, peanuts!" she exclaimed, finding a small sack with a few unopened peanuts under the sofa.

"Remind me again, why am I putting up with this bullshit?" Gwen asked rhetorically.

"Because I pay you handsomely for doing the boring part of my job," Maia replied without missing a beat before throwing a peanut in her mouth, dropping the shells of the worn wooden floor.

"You mean all those things that are essential to prevent the city from becoming a den of anarchy?"

"Exactly," the redhead casually replied, earning a short laugh from the third woman in the room.

"It's good to have you back, boss," Milena said, putting aside her carving tools as she stood from her spot, brushing some sawdust off her pants. "Things were getting boring without you."

"Yet you lazy bitches didn't even bother to welcome me at the city gates," Maia replied with a pout.

Milena rolled her eyes. "Well, we would, if only you had bothered to inform us of your return."

"Hmm, point taken. So, what did I miss while I was away?" Maia asked while opening another peanut.

"Oh, not much. You know, just the usual stuff," Milena said with a nonchalant tone that instantly set off alarm bells in Maia's head. "And because we love you soooo much, we took the liberty of organizing your agenda," Milena announced with a bright smile while Gwen pulled out a comically long list.

Maia's eyes shrunk to the size of pinpricks and missed her next throw. "Fuck," she swore while the peanut bounced off her forehead.

Gwen cleared her voice and started reading the list. "Let's see, first of all, the city council wants to re-discuss our defense budget."

"What!? Not fair! It took me a week to convince them."

"Then you need to mediate a dispute between the adventurer guild and the mercenary recruitment office."

"Seriously? Again?" Maia groaned.

"Lord Pantielle informed us that he's planning to hold a party to welcome you back-"

"Which is probably just an excuse to once again declare his undying love for you," Milena cringed, looking at Maia with sympathy.

"Urgh!" Maia gagged while shuddering in disgust at the mere idea of meeting her creepy suitor.

"- so, I took the liberty of organizing an inspection of our coastal defenses," Gwen continued. Maia instantly perked up. "Which doesn't include a tour of the local rum distilleries," she quickly added, with great disappointment of the redhead. 'No rum? That sucks. Oh, well, it's always better than spending time with that disgusting pig, I guess.'

"And lady Viviane's father requires your services to escort his daughter at the upcoming Autumn Festival-"

Maia covered her ears and closed her eyes. "Lalalalalalalalala! I can't hear you!" The last thing she wanted to do was escorting that arrogant, envious, unsufferable brat at one of those stupid parties full of boring stuck-up nobles with slow sleep-inducing music and distressingly small portions of unappalling fancy food. Seriously, why use a big ass plate the size of a shield if all it contains is a single ravioli?!

"My lady, do I need to remind you that you need to perform your duties as Shield of Ansur?"

"Oh, for fuck's sake, I just got back here from Ken!" Maia whined. "Can't I have some fun before getting back to work?"

"Well, considering we've been doing your job while you were basically on a paid vacation-"

"Hey! Guarding Celestine was not easy! It may not seem, but that woman is a handful!" The two women stared blankly at her. "For real! She's like a curious kid, always wandering around whenever we go outside." One time she almost got a stroke when the high elf disappeared from her side while they were visiting the market place in incognito… only to find her shortly after, sitting on the ground to watch a puppet show while surrounded by a bunch of kids. 'Hmm, that was fucking adorable.'

"So, what news do you bring from Feoh?" Milena asked, deciding they had teased Maia enough.

"Claudia and Klaus have returned from their expedition on the Dragon Spine and it was a success. They've discovered the ruins of an ancient city and-" Maia halted abruptly before she could mention the Sentinel.

Milena raised an eyebrow. "And?"

"Nothing!"

"You were definitely about to say something."

"Uh, no, I wasn't," Maia replied unconvincingly, darting her gaze around.

"You were."

"I wasn't."

"You were."

"I wasn't!"

"She was," Gwen deadpanned.

"Traitor!" Maia gasped dramatically, looking at Gwen with a betrayed face.

"Come on, Maia. Just tell us," Milena said exasperated.

"Oh, hell no! I promised Claudia I would keep my mouth shut until she or Celestine say otherwise. If she knew I'd spilled the beans, she'd kick my ass all the way to Eldonia." Maia liked to consider herself one of the best warriors in Eostia, but she wasn't crazy enough to incur in the wrath of Geofu's Valkyrie.

"We can keep a secret," Milena protested.

"Look, I'd trust you two with my life, but you become a chatterbox whenever you get drunk, while Gwen talks in her sleep."

"Alright, fine," Milena huffed, finally giving up. She may be stubborn, but Maia was even more so. "So, an ancient city, uh? Likely full of treasures, relics and lost knowledge?"

"Yup. And guess who gets the honor of providing security?"

Milena grinned excitedly. "Are we getting paid?"

"Of course."

"Yay!"

"That's the first thing you're asking?" Gwen muttered under her breath. "So, when do we leave?"

"Actually, I've already ordered Tanya to take the rest of the girls to Feoh and join Luu-Luu once she's ready."

"I don't think she'll be very enthusiastic about your decision, especially after spending most of the summer hunting bandits in the forest," Milena commented.

"Nah, a change of scenery is exactly what she needs after being dumped by that idiot of her boyfriend."

Milena raised a brow. "And you would know that becauuuuse…?"

"Well, it's common sense."

"According to whom?"

Maia frowned and crossed her arms under her generous bust. "What are you implying?"

"You're not exactly an expert in love matters."

"Okay, first, that's rude. Second, that's rich coming from you," Maia scoffed.

"Well, none of us has ever been in a stable relationship.

"Speak for yourselves," Gwen deadpanned, butting in the conversation.

"Right. What was the name of the guy you're dating? Oliver?"

"Nah, I think it was Steven."

"Actually, you're both right."

"Uh, what?"

"They're twins. I'm dating both of them," Gwen explained with her usual flat tone.

The two mercenaries stared at her in disbelief.

"Woah, woah, woah! Are you crazy?! What if they find out?" Maia exclaimed.

"They already know," the mage calmly replied. "They were the ones to propose this arrangement."

"Excuse me?"

"Say what?" Milena exclaimed, caught off guard. "And you're fine with that?"

"Yes. It's working great so far. We even have a threesome at least once a month."

Maia and Milena blinked. Then they looked at each other. Then they blinked again.

"…well, damn."

"It's always the quiet one, uh?"


Another interlude chapter, but I hope it was still interesting. Kuroinu has many interesting characters and I'm trying to give them some screentime in order to expand the plot. In particular, I want to expand more the role of Olga Discordia before she meets a certain Sentinel. Speaking of which, in the next chapter we'll return to Geofu and see Clay adapting to his new life with the Dawn Templars.

A few notes about this chapter:

- The design of the clothes worn by Ulrich Greystorm is loosely based on the costumes of the Time Lords from Doctor Who. I don't know exactly why, I thought they looked bizarre and original, perfect to make dark elf culture a bit more alien compared to the humans and their allies;

- The Circus Magnus is inspired by the Circus Maximus, whose ruins can still be seen today in the city of Rome, while the Great Lighthouse of Tethys is a reference to the Pharos of Alexandria; the surname of Felix the charioteer, Sagitta, literally means "arrow" in Latin;

- Julius is not exactly an OC, he's based on the knight that in the anime adaptation (urgh!) offers Iris a cape to shield herself from the wind (I mean, it's not like she or any other girl would wear normal clothes to stay warm, right? Damn hentai logic…).

The new Kuroinu Gaiden was recently released, with new characters and info about what happened six months after the Fall of Eostia and the creation of Negramstia (you know, the Cuntry… what a stupid name). I'm really intrigued and I can't wait to add the new characters to this story, even if the new lore will probably throw a wrench in my plans (on the other hand, I'm already messing with the timeline, so…)

P.S. Being a lore freak, I've discovered that Prim and Alicia have a maid in canon and that her name is Tris, so I've decided to change Vera's name (and hair color) in chapter 4. It's not a big deal, but I wanted to avoid confusion in the future.