From their departure with the female trio, Kyle made haste for Marlon Castle. It was a long trek, spanning days, and the sky was already a dim orange when he reached the castle doors by the fourth night. On the way, Arkatoir's messengers seem to already have prepared a lavish welcome for the king. They escorted him back with mild fanfare. But this did not assuage the agitation in Kyle's heart. He desperately needed to see his mother.
Greeting him at the doors of Marlon Castle was no other than his half-brother. The two siblings embrace in greeting.
"My king! How glorious you returned unscathed!"
"The formalities are unnecessary, Ark," Kyle cannot help but smile despite the thoughts weighing on his mind, "How do your studies treat you?"
"Well, you didn't come to hear that, now did you?" Arkatoir smiles back, at the informal, friendly address "So! What did bring you back home, Kyle?"
"I need to talk to the dowa- mother."
"Ah," Arkatoir's eyebrows arc up in surprise, "Well, unfortunately, the dowager empress had not been feeling well for these last couple of days I'm afraid."
"What?" Urgency pops up in Kyle's voice. The woman, despite being a suspect, was still his mother.
"Yes, so she retired to Castle Hedgehog for the time being to recuperate just this morning. She was so very saturnine that she could not stay to greet you…"
"Wait, she knew I was coming?"
"Why… Yes. The messenger came barely a night before or so reporting of the sight of your ship at sea…"
She knew he was coming… The suspicion came again. Had she run to flee from him, knowing he had broken free of her influence? But… there remains no proof.
"Kyle, is everything alright?"
"Hm? Why of course, why do you ask…"
"Your countenance is rather… dour, I must say," Arkatoir says with some worry on his features, "Is there something on your mind?"
"No it's… it's nothing."
"Perhaps you should come in and rest. It must have been a long journey," Arkatoir gestures towards the doors, "I can fetch you some refreshment."
Kyle thinks for a second before tiredly nodding. It is fine. Even if she may run, he remains the king. The entire Marlon army would be ready if he so much as said the word. He goes inside and sits in the grand parlor whilst Arkatoir fetches a servant to prepare the tea and snacks.
"So, how goes it in Lucifenia?" Arkatoir sits down across from Kyle before the parlor table, "I hope better than your face tells of."
"…Nay," Kyle chuckles, "I wish it were so myself. But my face is not a lie. I'm afraid I've run into… more than I can handle as a ruler."
"Well surely you will accustom yourself to the role? Your father could have done no better from his earlier days," Arkatoir gives an apologetic smile, "So don't be so hard on yourself."
"… There are some things I wished to ascertain on this visit, Arkatoir. My mother being one of them…" Kyle sighs, "But as she is not here, I wish to find out about the rest… Starting with the court mage, Abyss I.R."
"Abyss?" Arkatoir blinks, "She is deceased."
"What?" Kyle stares in disbelief at him for a few long moments, "Dead?"
"...Are you sure?"
"Only Elluka … could have harbored so much magic power to do that..."
So, it seems Gumilia might be right. With Abyss dead, she couldn't have enchanted the attack from the monster at sea. Elluka arranged for the octopus assault. But... that still didn't prove his mother orchestrating anything.
"It was a recent death. We had only just finished the rites but the body remains yet to be buried. The dowager-"
"Let me see the body."
Arkatoir raises his eyebrows and meekly acquiesces to the sudden request. Nodding, he leads Kyle down to the innards of the castle below, where the somber stones were not unkept, but there was an air of stagnant aura. Deeper still would lie the royal crypt where the kings and their families past were lain to rest. They stop at the level above, in a sort of funerary hall which stretches to the royal embalming cell. There, in one of the recent oiled caskets, lay the decrepit form of an old hag. Kyle never realized how she looked, as she always seemed to negligible in presence.
"… I never truly even gave her a second glance…"
"Nor I," Arkatoir nods.
"…So has mother requested for a new mage yet from the council?"
"Actually, the dowager found a new mage almost immediately after. Former Lucifenia court mage, Elluka. She left with her for Hedgehog Castle…"
Kyle grips the edge of the casket. So it was that witch. It had to be. She was not imprisoned, but working of her own volition. But … did that mean his mother was also implicated then, if she took her services? Could it be the magic of the mage manipulating her maybe? Nonetheless, he needed to tell Gumilia and the others.
"Ark, ready my men."
"Huh? What… What for?"
"I'm going to pay a visit to the Freesis manor shortly. I want my men on standby in case I signal for an assault."
"An assault?" Arkatoir balks, "Whatever for?!"
"Just… do I say, Ark," Kyle sighs. Regardless, he would likely have to charge down Castle Hedgehog. He just hoped to the gods the mage was his true target, and not the one next to her.
A day after he told us the truth (two days before Kyle arrived back in his castle, as I later learned), father was called to attend to some business regarding a fire at one of his personal storehouses. He took Gerda and Shaw with him. Without Gerda, the house was much less fragrant at mealtimes. As for Shaw, well, he is the expected inheritor of father's fortune.
It is a day with moderate forecast, cloudy and damp, yet cool. The sky wants to rain but does so only in small batches of drizzles. A miserable atmosphere. Aile has trouble breathing on such days. The doctors say it is because the moisture interferes. She is in bed upstairs with mother at the moment. I sit in the main study, a bit bored, facing the window against the back of the chesterfield. My eyes lazily follow the movements of the droplets as they race to the bottom on the windowpane.
Gumilia had suggested to me that I read more of Will Jacques' accounts of the sins. He was a historian, but this particular interest in the sins as a driving force of history in Evillious bought him only notoriety as an insane man obsessed with fairy tales his wife had spun. She was the novelist who wrote the book "Vampiress Vanika," Sana Moi. In the end, no one believed Will. The world would be shocked how much he actually is correct, as I match my own experiences with that which he wrote.
I had gotten up to the pages about the undead and the glass of gluttony before I felt I could not possibly stomach one more sentence. I am a bookworm, but my life had recently entered a phase filled with close brushes of death. A return to the mundane was not easy, and I know it is only temporary.
As I was resting my eyes, there is a sudden knock at the door. When I peer out from the midfloor overpass out to the front door, I spot someone in a hooded cloak. Pink hair sticks out from under the drawn hood, and on their shoulder is … that red cat.
Pink hair. That red cat. Pink hair…
I rush back down to open the door, ignoring my apprehension about the cat.
She smiles at me, not wearing any spectacles. But the smile seemed off. Usually she was such a trickster and her face betrayed that amusement with some mystique. But this felt fake… For a moment, I felt the insurmountable fear from the gaze of the cat and I wanted to shut the door.
"Ah, you… Keel's child, correct?"
Odd. Did she not recognize me?
"Y-Yukina… We've met before… Elluka…" I still myself as much as I can despite the mounting suspicion building the fear. Something was wrong and my instincts were picking it up.
"Ah, forgive me… But working for the kingdom has its strains…" That fake smile again, "Is your father here by chance? The dowager was hoping to see him…"
"Uhm… no, he left on important business…"
She looks at me now oddly, almost with disappointment. "Aren't you going to invite me in, dear?"
"O-oh, sorry, I… I was so surprised it was you…"
I freeze. That was Gumilia behind me. But the cat on Elluka hisses with a sultry attitude, and Elluka's face suddenly twists into a more sinister smile.
"… Gumilia. How nice to see you alive and well."
I slowly turn my head and see Gumilia there at the foot of the stairs. Despite her glasses, she has on a fearsome expression of repressed anger. There is a palpable tension in the air between the two of them. Gumilia walks slowly towards us, placing a hand on the door.
"You as well, master…" Gumilia gives a smile of challenge, "Might we talk elsewhere. We have much to discuss of recent events."
"Indeed. You must excuse us, Keel's child," Elluka returns the grin and turns. As she walks out, Gumilia follows. My voice catches in my throat when I go to call after them. With a wave of Elluka's hand, I'm suddenly shunted back a few feet back into the foyer, and the door slams shut. My legs gave for a second and I drop on my rear on the floor, still wondering exactly what had just transpired.
Elluka didn't call me "Keel's child" all the time like that. And what was with that awkward and tense exchange? Something was clearly wrong.
I pick myself up and go to open the door. Outside, I find that they have vanished. Behind me, Germaine comes running down the stairs.
"Hey, where'd that mage go?!"
"G-Gumilia? She left with Elluka just now…"
"What?!" Germaine sighs exasperatedly, "Damn… any idea where they could have gone?"
"Uhm… no…" I say at first, then I recall having seen Gumilia head into the woods…. "Column Forest is nearby… they may have gone there! Are you-"
She runs out past me, "Which way?"
"I-I'm coming too!" I close the door behind me and go after her, guiding towards the forest, "This way! I-Is something amiss?"
"I just…" She says between gripped teeth, "…have a bad feeling…"
"… I share that sentiment," I say pensively, "Elluka did not appear to be herself…"
"… Just before she left the room, she told me t' stay inside. Not in her usual smartass way either."
We run into the forest, where a path has been carved for leisure walking. But inside, I could see flashes of unnatural light within. They were hues no one ever beholds in nature, and I knew it had to be magic. We wasted no time going forth and eventually witnessed the path turn to scorched earth. But not only were there burns on the forest's nature, there were also icicles of frost, odd piles of sand, shattered rocks, and a myriad of other effects, no doubt the aftermath of the battle ahead. But my heart sinks when I realize I don't understand why they are fighting at all, and how would I stop them then?
Just then, I was surprised to see Elluka be the one blasted into a tree by a bolt of purple lightning. Gumilia strides forth, her hand sparking with power. She does not look surprised to see us at all. But she makes little notice of us all the same as Elluka retaliates with a fiery whip, which she deflects with a defensive gesture.
"Hey, what're you doing?!" Germaine speaks first, "Aintcha student an' teacher? We got bigger fish than some inner squabble!"
I can only watch as now the two mages duel in closer quarters, spewing spells left and right, sending their effects all over with abandon. Their lips barely move in incantation and they ignore Germaine entirely. The cat on Elluka hisses and this time, nearly scratches Gumilia's eye out, if not for her spectacles.
"You may have my body Irina," Gumilia says suddenly, "But remember that I was the one recognized in the academy!"
With that, she nearly impales Elluka with a spear of earth, but the other dodges, sustaining a mere scratch. Wait, who is Irina…?
"Gumilia!" I call out at last, "What's going on?"
"Ah… so you'd been keeping this from them?" Elluka smirks uncharacteristically, "Elluka?"
What? Elluka? But she's…
"It doesn't matter. You're going to give me back my body today, Irina!" Gumilia, or, I'm not too sure anymore, hurls a mote of sickly green color at Elluka. When the other mage raises a barrier, the mote splits into rays which flurry about like live birds before divebombing Elluka behind the barrier's reach.
"Give up Irina! I could have killed you then, and that hasn't changed!" Gumilia relentlessly sends an orb hurtling at Elluka. The sphere slams the pink-haired mage in the stomach and sends he reeling back several feet.
Me and Germaine stood, almost a little powerless. But I saw Germaine tensed next to me. I was the only one powerless. And Germaine had to protect me, no matter how much she may want to join in the fray.
"Feh…!" Elluka spits out a bit of blood from the hit, "You don't care about if you destroy this body?!"
"I'm already half contemplating throwing it out after you were in it!"
A single strike from the heavens pierces the canopy like an arrow and seems to electrocute Elluka. As she gives a bloodcurdling scream from the shock, Gumilia runs up to her and grabs her face with an angered cry. The two screams merge into one and their eyes and mouths began glowing like flames. The sound of their voices rises to a cacophony, splitting into tritonal. In the bright light which follows, I could scarcely glimpse multicolored looking globules amid the blinding radiance. I saw one green reenter Gumilia, and a pink one slip out and jump into Elluka. A red one then left the latter and seemed to be swallowed by the light.
When the light cleared, I had to blink several times to readjust. Gumilia and Elluka were lying on the ground. Germaine snaps into action first and runs over to them. I follow in haste.
She goes to check on Gumilia so I attend to Elluka. Despite her overall damaged form, with smoking clothes and such, she seemed relatively ok. I had not even examined her before her eyes opened and she suddenly had that familiar amused smile.
"Well, hello Yukina."
"E-Ell…uka…?" I could not help but hesitate after that fight. Who was Irina? Why was Gumilia Elluka? The whole thing was still boggling my mind. Even more surprising was how seemingly unhurt Elluka was as she sat up with only a slight wince.
"Oh dear, ow, that stings… Haha, Irina has no taste in clothes…" She examines her charred garments of the Marlon fashion.
"Oi! Wake up!" Germaine loudly slaps Gumilia a bit. The latter coughs and seems to awaken. I breathe a sigh of relief.
"Thank goodness you're both alright… But…" I look firmly at Elluka as she stands, "What was that just now? What happened? That bright light, who Irina is…?!"
"I suppose the cat's out of the bag. I will tell once we get back inside a safe quarter. I'm starving."
When we returned to the manor, Elluka was hasty to have me fetch any food in the pantry, preferably something left by Gerda. There was only some stale shortbread, meant for the birds, and this made Elluka absolutely cross.
"How are you going to receive guests this way?"
"Shh!" I hiss, "Aile is resting upstairs…!"
She settles for the shortbread, tea, and some roast Bruno had made. Then it struck me odd suddenly, and I had to go upstairs to see if mother was there. Aile was in bed… but mother was nowhere to be seen…
I go back downstairs. Having eaten, Elluka was now about to regale us with her long tale of how she lost her body while investigating the sins. As she spoke, I could tell Germaine found parts as incredulous as I did. Gumilia sat nearby and nodded the whole time.
"… So in a nutshell, I was simply a little careless. Normally I could trounce Irina without a problem."
"But wait, who is Irina? You keep saying her name but…"
"Ah right, she-"
We all turn to see my mother holding that red cat in her arms. She smiles at me.
"Meet the newest addition to the house! Ah, hello Elluka…"
Elluka looked about ready to explode.
Kyle and his men finally arrive to the Freesis manor after about a day of travel from the castle. Arriving at the doors, he was greeted by Bruno. Inside, he was ushered to wait for an audience with Keel. The host eventually finally arrives to meet him in his own private parlor, just the two of them.
"You've kept me awaiting your visit, your highness," Keel smiles.
"I don't intend too waylay any further then," Kyle sighs, "You probably already guessed… What I want to discuss with you about. Gumilia told me on the way here… and I poked around the castle… you have been a trusted confidant of the royal family for a long time now. I need to know…"
Keel sits back, "Yes… I suppose, like Yukina, you deserve the truth… no matter how painful. And for you, it will be even worse…"
Kyle looks to him with resolution. With a sigh, the merchant begins and tells him about the entire orchestrated conflict. The use of demons to poison people's minds and drive nations to war. And at the apex of it, dowager Prim.
"She and her magician are powerful people who have been the masterminds since the beginning. Once your father died, she saw you as a viable vessel for the sins too… and you were possessed, correct?"
Kyle does not respond.
"Anyway, your mother has effectively maneuvered the countries to war against one another. She had her magician pit Lucifenia against Elphegort by manipulating your love… And I admit I was part of it… As I had allowed Lust to take you when Michaela was still here. Then, you waged war on Lucifenia and annexed it. Elphegort no longer is a threat and is effectively also at Marlon's mercy. All a very well-played game, ending with you, the loyal and obedient son riding the throne of the new empire… Next, for the rest of Evillious, she had you wage wars on the remaining neighbors and even put out bounties for former allies, calling them witches, to further isolate you from the truth. It might have gone her way... had there not been interference... and here we are."
"This is all also just conjecture," Kyle says a bit hesitantly, "You don't have concrete proof of any of this."
"True. She threatened my family to keep this all a secret. She is a careful woman, and the magician in her employ is just as crafty."
"You mean Elluka."
"Hm?" Keel raises an eyebrow, "Elluka isn't the magician."
"I confirmed with Arkatoir. The old magician had died and mother found a new court mage…"
"Elluka is downstairs with the others."
"I suspect she will want to talk with you after," Keel breathes on his glasses and cleans them, "But before I let you go, there is one more thing.
He re-affixes his glasses on his face and goes to fetch something big and flat from the closet behind his seat. It is wrapped in parchment, which he begins to unfold.
"A fire broke out at the storehouse where I was keeping this… and after all the trouble I went through to get it, I wasn't going to let it burn. After all, you need to see it."
Kyle's body goes rigid seeing the reveal. It is a painting. But it wasn't one he remembered. All he remembered of painting even was how bad he was at it, and everyone told him so. The painting was of a young girl with yellow hair…
"Do you recognize her, Kyle?"
"N-no…" He denied himself that nagging voice in the back of his head. Something buried a long time ago was fighting to resurface…
"This is Ney Futapie… You drew this of her when you both were young… and she is your illegitimate sister."
I wasn't expecting Kyle in the house. I saw him come out of my father's study, looking rather ill. But I held back and did not approach as he made his way downstairs. He was looking for Elluka and the others it seemed, and he found them outside. Upon seeing each other, they suddenly were nigh up in arms about the wrongs done to the other. Elluka was mad about the witch hunt on her head, and Kyle was … well he had no good defense really. He mentioned something about the octopus attack at sea, and Elluka explained the whole body swap incident to him. He also seemed too drained to spar verbally, to be honest.
Germaine then had her fun, exchanging burrs with Kyle over the annexation of Lucifenia and their time together within the rebellion. I was impressed he remained there instead of going to his guest room and giving up. The next parts of the conversation I heard, however, were shocking.
"I'm going to mount a front against Castle Hedgehog."
There is some surprise in the room on their faces, but no one says anything.
"I believe that my mother has run there to hide from me… I do not know… what for… but she and Ney are there. And I… need to confront this devil in my family…" He says with some difficulty, "I can no longer be ignorant. You all have had your share in this battle, and your expertise and aid would improve the success greatly. So I am asking-"
Kyle is temporarily stunned by the swift refusal from the woman in the room. It was almost comedic.
"Elluka! Surely you feel a grudge against the one who stole your body?"
"Make no mistake," She clicks her teeth and eyes him flatly, "I have my own agenda. It does involve your mother… but I will not mount such a frontal display of brute strength."
Kyle scoffs and looks to Gumilia and Germaine. Gumilia shakes her head. Germaine merely folds her arms and scoffs in turn.
"What?" Kyle demands.
"I can't think of fightin' alongside ya again after ya betrayed what we stood for in the Revolution," She states simply.
"Lucifenia was on the verge of anarchy after the queen's death! And did you really expect a group of ragtag soldiers to properly handle reconstruction after such a loss?" Kyle sighs, "Be realistic."
"Well maybe… but I ain't sayin' ya did right by stayin' so long an' annexin'…" She says with obvious irritation, "Y' ain't makin' things any better! The war in the Blood Pool region and all with?!"
"Ah quite I almost forgot to say!" Elluka exclaims.
Kyle shakes his head with exasperation, "Ok look I can't say everything was done in good faith on my behalf. Maybe it was the demon or whatever-"
The women all silence him with a glare on that matter. He sighs with some resignation.
"Ok, ok, what if I withdraw Marlon from Lucifenia and turn the rule over to the revolutionaries?"
"… Go on," Germaine says with interest, "That'd be nice."
"Once this is over, I'll put that on my list of priorities."
Germaine rolls her eyes.
Elluka sighs, "… If you want a deal, red knight, you should take it. This dense prince here is not much of a negotiator."
"… Fine. I'll see what I can do. Some revs are around here after all," Germaine walks up to Kyle until she faces him with a demanding expression, "But you better uphold your end of the deal."
"Of course," Kyle nods, "As King of Marlon, I-"
"Not as a king, you ass. As the one who fought alongside us all! What was that goofy name again…"
"That was the name of my ancestor!"
Elluka sighs after chuckling a bit, "So, are you ready to go then?"
"You definitely are not getting involved?" Kyle looks to the mage and her apprentice.
"We have other plans," Gumilia says.
"Well, yes. And I do have some advice for you, Kyle," Elluka fixes the spectacles across the bridge of her nose, "You must attack about two nights from now."
"What? We're already ready here, why wait?"
"Because two nights from now is the new moon, when magic is at its weakest," Elluka sighs, "The mage your mother has employed isn't anyone to laugh at. Even now, her spy of a cat is trying to spy on us. Best to take her unawares."
"I see," Kyle nods, "Thank you for your advice."
"I'm coming too!" I burst in now, to the horror of all of them.