Story: [Lady of Blood]
Summary: There's no such thing as happy endings. But there are ends to the nightmares.
Crossover: (Zero no Tsukaima) / (Bloodborne)
Louise coughed as the smoke began to clear. It'd exploded, but at least that meant that something had happened, right? So maybe she'd actually managed to summon something after all.
Ignoring the shouts and cries of her classmates who were mostly just grumbling loudly about her inability to avoid blowing stuff up, Louise strained her eyes to try and see past the smoke. To see if there was something in there.
When she finally did see it, her breath caught in her throat.
A woman, pale as a corpse, her clothes blood-splattered and old-fashioned. She looked peaceful, there on the ground underneath the summer sun, but at the same time it just looked so wrong.
There was a corpse in the middle of the courtyard.
Louise's summoned familiar was a dead person.
Glancing over at the professor, Louise found the man motioning her to complete the contract, a small thoughtful frown on his face.
If it hadn't been for the shock-value, Louise was guessing that her suddenly silenced classmates would've devolved into insults by now. But corpses weren't exactly encountered in their daily life, and to be faced with one completely out of the blue seemed to have at least quieted them down somewhat. Though Louise had no doubt that they'd be back to their usual condescension once the corpse was removed from their immediate sight.
Taking a deep breath and trying to pretend that she couldn't catch the smell of bloodied iron on the soft summer breeze, Louise approached the 'familiar' that she'd summoned. She needed to bind it, but in order to do that she didn't really need to touch it beyond a kiss. Which, admittedly, would be pretty bad in its own right, but at least she wouldn't have to set herself up for humiliating jokes about her 'poking it with a stick'.
There was soap to be found in her room, and sooner or later the taste would wash out, so there was that to look forward to afterwards.
Clearly enunciating the spell, not wanting to be asked to redo it 'properly' in case it failed the first time, Louise leaned forward to brush their lips together. She didn't exactly want a human corpse as a familiar, even if it would somehow work, but tradition was tradition. And as long as she could prove that she'd done everything in her power to follow through on the will of the Founder by trying to bind the familiar that she'd summoned, she'd probably be allowed to try again once the binding-ritual failed.
The dead woman's lips were cold and tasted like blood.
She was definitely going to need that soap, and probably some kind of alcohol as well, to dull the memories of pressing her own lips against those of the unresponsive corpse.
The steps of the binding-ritual finalized and completed to the fullest extent of her abilities, Louise pulled away-...
She choked down a gasp as the grip on her throat forced her to a stop. A hand, a cold hand that was as unmoving as steel, was wrapped around her neck.
The dead woman's eyes opened, even as the smell of something burning registered to Louise, the runes of a familiar appearing on the woman's other hand.
"A corpse... should be left well alone." A rasping voice, hoarse from disuse but still somehow melodic.
There were shouts, Louise's classmates startling at the corpse's sudden movements. And then fire flew through the air, and Louise was thrown backwards as the woman used her as a counterweight in order to push herself away from the fireball and roll to her feet.
Professor Colbert was frowning dangerously, and he was surrounded by flames in a way that Louise couldn't ever recall having seen before. He said something to the corpse, but Louise's ears were ringing and she couldn't really make it out.
Another fireball flew through the air, only for the corpse to suddenly not be there anymore.
A vampire? Had she summoned a vampire? But no, the sun was still high in the sky. Surely a vampire wouldn't be able to fight so smoothly under the light of the sun, even should they've actually been able to move in it at all without being caught alight.
But the woman was definitely a corpse, and yet she was fighting, moving and dodging the professor's fires at a speed that Louise could barely comprehend.
Looking back on it, Louise couldn't quite remember how they'd managed to bring the woman to her knees. It'd taken most of the professors – along with the headmaster himself – working together in order to succeed at doing so, but they'd managed to bring her down without killing her.
Louise wasn't sure if that non-lethal defeat had been done out of respect for Louise herself who'd summoned the woman, or out of curiosity to see what the woman actually was. After all, no vampire should've been able to replicate what Louise's familiar had done, and yet for the life of her Louise could think of no alternative creature that the woman might be.
In her fight against the professors she'd used some unholy mixture of blood and magic to attack those around her. She didn't seem capable of flying, but then she could seemingly transform into mist at will in order to dodge around attacks, and her sword had left gouges in magically enforced rock.
It'd been terrifying to witness the fight, even from a distance – and Louise supposed that she was indeed thankful to Zerbst for dragging her stunned self out of the line of fire when her own legs had turned wobbly in horror. She wasn't sure if the fight had lasted hours or merely a few minutes, and she doubted that anyone else had really kept a close enough eye on a watch to answer that if anyone else had bothered to ask. But the fight was bloody and brutal and somehow nobody had died.
It was a minor miracle, according to the headmaster, and much of the reason for that had been professor Colbert's swift actions. Apparently, the peaceful man had a very non-peaceful past that he would've preferred to have remained buried.
Regardless, Louise's familiar was clad in chains and thrown into a makeshift dungeon underneath the academy. Louise technically had the right to visit the not-corpse, but she was strongly discouraged from doing so without heavy reinforcements, in case her presence provoked the not-corpse into starting the fight anew.
Honestly though, Louise really needed to try and figure out how she could've summoned the corpse-like woman in the first place. What element was that supposed to be? Blood? So 'water' maybe? But how did that relate to explosions?
Also, Louise made a vow to dig through all the records the academy had on the magical abilities of vampires and elves, just to make doubly certain that her familiar truly wasn't either of those things. And she should probably try to find something about magic outside of Brimir's Five Elements as well, whilst she was at it – heretical as the thought might be.
After all, 'water' really made no sense at all as Louise's element, and it wasn't entirely unheard of for a mage to be 'compatible' with magics of other types, however vile most of those magics might be. And it was likely better to know any inclination she might have to those sorts of things in order to prevent herself from falling into their enticing lures.
Louise sighed to herself, staring at the seemingly endless shelves of books.
This was going to take a while.
Considering how the Church had labeled all research into non-Brimir-Founded magic as 'heretical' – and therefore launched a crusade towards libraries of all kinds in an effort to purge the records of such things – the Tristain Academy of Magic had a surprisingly large collection on the subject.
Not all of it was relevant to Louise's particular line of inquiry, and even of the things that were, a lot of it was largely completely useless, or so lacking in details that it might as well have been. In fact, on a great many occasions, Louise was forced to piece things together on her own from the in-between-the-lines references of a variety of different sources.
It was frustrating work, and Louise was infinitely grateful towards one particular professor of water-magic who often wandered the same shelves that she did. He'd been the one to 'clean up the mess' that Louise's blood-wielding familiar had left behind, and had ever since been trying to figure out what exactly said familiar was. Mainly he seemed convinced that she was either some kind of lich or vampire, and was running a lot of personal experiments with samples of the blood that the not-corpse had been swinging around so carelessly.
Louise's gratefulness stemmed not only from his research into her familiar's origin allowing herself to focus on figuring out her own magic without more distractions, but also in that he was just as frustrated about the library's lack of a properly developed archiving-system for these things as Louise was. So whenever she found something which seemed to lean more towards his line of research than her own, she pointed it out to him, and he did much the same in turn. It wasn't perfect, but at least it was something.
As for Louise's actual schooling, she'd been given allowance to take a few weeks off in order to properly explore this line of research in the hopes that it'd keep her from causing any more collateral damage than her familiar and her exploding spells already had. She might've been offended by such an attitude, but she supposed that there was little point in attending lessons when there was a chance that she'd be able to free herself from her magical problems entirely.
Originally, she'd assumed that it would've been a somewhat peaceful break from having to listen to her classmates and their mocking jeers, whilst she sorted out the problem on her own. However, Zerbst wouldn't leave her alone for long enough for Louise to find much peace in the work at all.
Apparently, the girl had decided that Louise was somehow her 'friend' now. And if Louise hadn't already had a conversation with Tabitha on the matter, she would've been very offended to have Zerbst suddenly try to bury the hatchet between their familiar directly after Louise's familiar-summoning had backfired so spectacularly.
After all, without Tabitha's – quietly unspoken – exasperated input on the matter, Louise would've assumed Zerbst to either by pitying her, or have decided that Louise's lack of talent with magic meant that she wouldn't remain a Valliere long enough for there to be any merit in Zerbst having a personal feud with Louise. Instead, what seemed to have happened was that Zerbst had had an epiphany whilst in the middle of dragging the two of them to safety during the rampage of Louise's familiar.
Zerbst kind of enjoyed Louise's sharp tongue, even if she thought her adherence to centuries of tradition to be woefully misguided, and she would've been very upset to see Louise die. Thus far, Louise could perhaps be willing to follow the girl's thought-process into burying the hatchet in order to become distant acquaintances of some fondness.
However, Zerbst being who she was, this obviously meant that Zerbst had taken the extra leap to conclude that they should be the best of friends from now on.
Louise hadn't figured out how to stop Zerbst's decision of their friendship, but then neither had Tabitha, so at least they could commiserate on their opinions of Zerbst's complete lack of common sense.
But there was research to be done, and Louise really needed to figure out the subject of magic outside of Brimir's Five Elements, because this could be the solution to all of her issues around her own explosively misfiring magic.
And in comparison to that wondrously tantalizing knowledge at the edge of her fingertips, her confusion and uncertainties around a newly emerging friendship couldn't possibly compare.
Louise valiantly avoided rolling her eyes as Zerbst relayed some of the current rumors floating around the Academy.
It wasn't just at the way that people still seemed to actually care about who Zerbst invited into her bed – honestly, those rumors ought to have already grown stale from sheer overuse by the girl's second week at the Academy – but also that ghost stories seemed to be trending ever since the rampage of Louise's familiar.
There really ought to be some kind of limit to the amount of rumors of pointlessly frivolous things one could dedicate themselves to spreading. Rumors such as of mouth-less alviss whispering in darkened corridors, and the sound of water dripping or waves washing ashore being heard far away from all water.
Still superstitious nonsense or not, Louise could at least grant them that they were some rather original kinds of ghost stories. Showed that they at least had some creativity, even if they really could've been more productive about their lives and focused that effort on their own academics.
Shifting her pile of books around slightly, Louise handed Tabitha one journal that'd been particularly useless to her research. "It reads more like something out of your collection." She offered to the silent girl.
Zerbst made an amused sound. "Really, Louse. At the rate you're going through these books of yours, have you even left the library at all this week?"
Louise gave the girl and incredulous glance. "I've got one of the maids to deliver food to one of the work-rooms." Zerbst opened her mouth, something like unholy glee in her eyes, but Louise cut her off before she got any ideas. "And if I'd been avoiding a bath, you would've been able to smell it, Zerbst."
Zerbst pouted. But she always did that when Louise refused to address her as 'Kirche', so Louise had long since learned how to completely ignore that expression.
Tabitha made a weird noise, interrupting further banter from the two of them.
Glancing up to see the two of them staring at her, Tabitha shrank behind her new book slightly, but spoke up to explain herself. "Droll."
Louise felt a sudden vicious sense of camaraderie with the girl, and she couldn't help the evil grin spreading on her face. "And more obsessed with his hair than with the monsters he's supposedly fighting."
Zerbst grunted, her face vaguely disgusted. "I know the type." She shuddered. "Wouldn't know the g-spot if it whacked them over the head with a crowbar."
Louise flinched, suddenly very thankful that she hadn't been drinking anything. "Z-Zerbst!"
Zerbst shrugged at her. "I'm just saying it like it is."
Tabitha's shoulders drooped a bit as she fought down a blush at her friend's crudeness, but valiantly attempted to change the subject. "Long?"
Louise glanced back at the book, and shook her head. "Not very... As long as you skim past his attention to the mirror, at least."
Tabitha nodded, and dutifully returned to her reading. Which meant that she'd probably encounter the 'shrieking banshee' that was described to have a rather remarkably fantastic resemblance to Zerbst.
There was something greatly satisfying about how very little the man had had to say about that particular encounter. Almost as if he couldn't remember any parts of it in which he didn't fall over his own feet and get kicked in the face by the 'banshee' in question, and was now attempting to lie about it through some painfully blatant omissions.
It'd been Louise's favorite part about the whole book.
Glancing up from her notes on a ritual intended to turn a person inside-out – Louise still wasn't sure why anyone would thing that kind of thing was necessary, but then most of the journals she read through in her research belonged to some very peculiar individuals – Louise tilted her head.
The girl gave a single nod in greeting, before continuing to move past her and over to a different shelf. That wasn't unusual, seeing as how their tastes in reading differed quite significantly, but it was a bit unusual for the girl to aim for that particular shelf.
Usually, Tabitha tended to stay away from the horror-stories, dully monotone though most of the Academy's collection of them tended to be. Also, there was something else-... Ah, yes. That.
Louise raised an eyebrow at the shape stumbling awkwardly in Tabitha's wake. It looked like an alviss, but it was an awful long way from where it ought to have been during this time of day – if it belonged to the Academy, anyway. Clearly, it was following Tabitha around for some reason, though it didn't look like the girl had leashed the thing to herself in any way Louise could spot.
Shrugging it off as probably unimportant, Louise returned to her research.
Frowning slightly at one of the helpfully illustrated victims of the ritual in question, Louise wondered again why anyone would bother with this complicated ritual when it would be so much easier yo just cut the person open and harvest their organs that way. It wasn't even that the ritual served to leave the skin unharmed, seeing as how the victim's skin was in fact a crucial part of the ritual.
It just didn't make sense.
Sighing in aggravation, Louise glared at the illustration one final time before turning the page-...
Louise blinked. Wait, was that an eye? But the victim's eyes were over there? So that couldn't be it-... but it was. Had they fouled up the ritual by using more than two victims at once? In that case, perhaps the inside-out part wasn't actually the end goal but an accidental side-effect of a miscalculated ritual that the journal-owner hadn't wanted to own up to? That made a little bit more sense, but... in that case... where was the rest of the second person?
However, no matter how hard she looked for it, all that Louise could find was that one extra set of eyes.
Louise hadn't seen the professor in water-magic for a few days. And neither had anyone else, so he'd apparently decided that further research in the library would be pointless, and had instead locked himself in his rooms.
Louise wished the man luck. Considering how frustrated and ragged he'd been growing as of late, he could definitely need it.
Classes would start again for Louise in a few days, and she wasn't looking forward to it.
Nearly three weeks of independent study, and she'd made no noticeable progress. Oh, she was far more educated in the subject of her research – and had advanced leaps and bounds in reading between the lines of unhelpfully vague academical literature – but she'd yet to make any progress in determining the source of her own problems with magic.
In the end, there was simply no way to prove or disprove any of her theories without practical experiments, and she couldn't exactly make any of those. Ignoring the potential charges of blasphemy that might be leveled on her by the Church, and the ethical dilemmas inherent in what mostly amounted to sacrificial magic, Louise had no interest in having any of her non-Founder spells backfire on her.
It was one thing to end up with a face full of concussive ashes, and another thing entirely to be turned inside-out and have your skeleton melt.
Louise wasn't desperate enough to try something so blatantly suicidal without a much higher likelihood of success. And none of her research seemed to be of any help on that count.
On a more satisfying note, Zerbst had finally explained to Louise why an alviss had been following around Tabitha for the last several days, along with why said girl had also experienced a sudden change in her taste of literature. Apparently, the alviss had bumped into the girl and decided to follow her around, and Tabitha had been too unnerved by it to argue.
Which had resulted in Tabitha accepting it 'with open arms' on behalf of how in most horror-stories about dolls, it was the discarded dolls who turned into murderous stalkers. Louise supposed that she could approve of the logic behind that decision, even if she was still confused about why the alviss might've decided to follow Tabitha around in the first place.
Zerbst seemed to perhaps have some idea to it, and would bluntly change the subject whenever it came up, so either she didn't like thinking about it herself, or it might resonate too closely with some of the things that Tabitha never spoke of. The girl's past was a large blank spot, which could mean that she was simply a recently acknowledged bastard child, or a partially-disowned noble. And, in either case, Louise wasn't going to push the issue unless Tabitha brought it up herself.
She did wish that Tabitha could tie a gag on the doll though, simply to keep it from asking 'why' about everything, not to mention its seeming fascination with the concept of 'love'. The latter of which very much disturbed Louise.
Likely, the problem was one of association, considering how it'd first been brought up when Louise had been in the middle of trying to puzzle out a particularly gruesome illustration. Said illustration having been of the results of a ritual in which an 'emotional connection to the victim' was considered of vital importance.
After all, if the doll could feel 'love' towards someone, what was to stop it from carving out their intestines underneath a new moon and eating them for the sake of 'health'? Not that Louise was entirely sure how a concept such as 'health' might translate for an alviss, or if it even had enough magic inside of it for such a ritual to be viable.
Regardless, Louise always made sure to keep an eye on the little doll.
Four weeks since the incident during the familiar summoning, and Louise was back to her regularly scheduled classes.
Her first class was to be with the professor in earth-magic, but once she reached the classroom she found the other students milling about aimlessly in front of the door.
The blatantly barred and magically sealed door.
Raising an eyebrow and wondering what exactly the woman might be doing in there to believe that it was in any way necessary to go to such lengths for the sake of security, Louise looked around to see if she could find Zerbst or Tabitha anywhere.
She was interrupted in her silent search when Guiche appeared with a bronze golem flanking him, rolled his eyes at the magical seal on the door, and then order the golem to bust it down.
Gaping at the insolence of her the fop of a classmate, Louise was stunned to realize that she was the only one who was surprised.
From the inside there was a cry of protest, quickly followed by some rather spectacularly vulgar curses.
"Professor!" Guiche interrupted. "You've still got classes to teach!"
"I'm on the verge of a discovery that may forever change how we perceive Brimir's magical system! Don't talk to me about classes, you insolent little brat!" The professor answered with surprising vitriol.
Louise had heard from previous students that the woman was supposed to be fairly calm, if at times somewhat strict. And she hadn't heard anything about the woman locking herself in her classroom in order to experiment with something like the foundation of magic.
Glancing around and hoping for an explanation, Zerbst finally appeared at Louise's side as Guiche and the professor continued to argue.
"Professor Chevreuse is a Triangle mage, so she's not supposed to be able to transmute gold. But she's trying to figure out a way around that." Zerbst helpfully explained, grinning cheerfully at Louise's expression, before dragging her into the classroom proper along with the rest of their classmates.
They were barely part the first mention of alchemical magic before the professor pulled out a mathematical explanation to the importance of the chemical make-up of the object being transmuted and the material that it was being transmuted into.
Half the class groaned, and the other half vocally objected to the woman's rants about her current field of research, insisting instead that she actually teach them how to use magic like a sensible person – with wand-movements and chanting, like everyone else did.
Louise however was distracted. "But-... But that's wrong." She pointed towards the calculations with a frown. "You haven't accounted for the positions of the astral bodies, or even the lingering traces of previous magical transmutations."
The professor – who'd been halfway into yelling both at her and the rest of the class to shut up and let her continue explaining the intricacies of her research – stared at her in confusion for a long moment. "Why would astral bodies have anything to do with transmutations, girl?"
Deciding to ignore the rather rude form of address, Louise carefully resisted the urge to roll her eyes at the ludicrously fundamental mistake for anyone with any knowledge whatsoever of rituals. "Because the astral bodies have influence in the shapes and patterns that magical energy follows. Not accounting for astral bodies would be like not accounting for gravity. It translates somewhat similarly as far as the mathematical formulas are concerned, but there are variations depending on various factors."
The professor narrowed her eyes at Louise for another long moment, before glancing back to her board of calculations. Then she started to look very thoughtful, before her head snapped back to stare at Louise. "And what of the lingering magical traces, girl?"
Louise was a little bit disturbed at the intensity of that stare, as well as the realization that perhaps this wasn't quite as fundamental in the eyes of the professor as she'd originally assumed. "A recently transmuted object can be returned to its original form with very little expenditure of willpower. This is because of the inherent instability that magic enforces on the object in question. An instability that becomes exponentially worse if you attempt to force a second magical transmutation on it after the first one."
The professor snapped her head back around to stare at her board of calculations, and then she started to grin. A wild, manic kind of grin that could only really stem from encountering an epiphany in the midst of something immensely frustrating. Than she started to cackle.
Louise stared at the woman who was attacking her previous calculations with a frenzy.
"Huh. What do you know. Libraries are good for something." Zerbst commented absently, causing Tabitha to send a brief glare her way.
The class was dismissed shortly after that, when professor Chevreuse once against noticed that they were there, and near-bodily threw them out of her classroom in order to continue working with her breakthrough.
Still, even after that, Louise's classmates wouldn't stop staring at her in disbelief all the way to the dining hall. Which was rude, because Louise had always been on top of her class when it came to magical theory.
It was the practical part that she was useless at.
"Miss Valliere, when was the last time you saw him?" The headmaster asked.
Louise frowned to herself, trying to remember. "A bit over a week ago, I think. His library-visits were always somewhat erratically timed, so I didn't think much of it until a few days later."
"And then you thought...?" The headmaster prompted.
Louise sighed. "The library is very extensive, but it's also very lacking in the specifics concerning the subjects that we were studying. I assumed that he'd given up on finding a solution in the books, and didn't think more of it."
The headmaster echoed her sigh, but nodded. "Thank you for your time, Miss Valliere."
Louise nodded politely in turn, and retreated from the headmaster's office.
The professor for water-magic had been found missing. Or rather, after a monster of some sort attacked a servant tasked with cleaning the man's rooms, an investigation had been launched. And nobody had managed to find any trace of the man in question.
The leading theory seemed to be that the monster had eaten the man whole. As for where the monster had come from-... Well, that was a bit more complicated.
The professor had been working on uncovering the nature of Louise's familiar, apparently by doing experiments with the not-corpse's blood. And there were signs that some of those experiments had been with a few rats. Rats that had gone violently feral, and grown to be the size of large dogs.
Honestly, if it hadn't been for the larger monster, the professor's missing body would've likely been blamed on those rats.
Professor Colbert had stepped in to exterminate the creatures, and had gone the extra mile to burn everything within the office to ashes, in case there was something infectious involved. Which unfortunately meant that nobody had any idea about the details of what the missing professor had actually been working on at the time.
But – despite the official story – from the rumors of what the larger monster had looked like, Louise would've bet good money that the missing professor had already been found.
After all, the man would've had a hard time smuggling up anything larger than a rat into his office for his experiments, and – considering what they'd seen with the rats – the monster must've had some base to grow from. And really, why would he have bothered dressing up an animal in his own lab coat?
"'The origins of vampires'? Really?" Zerbst frowned curiously at her. "I thought that you already gave up on the idea that your familiar was a vampire?"
"I did." Louise admitted bluntly, because whatever else she might be, Louise's familiar definitely wasn't any creature as easy to explain as that.
Zerbst's frown turned a bit more pronounced in a mixture of suspicion and confusion. "Than why are you looking into the origins of it?"
Louise considered explaining the somewhat gruesome details of her line of thought, before dismissing it. Whilst she could be vague about it, the Academy's official stance was that there was some kind of mutagen in the Blood and that when the professor had experimented with it on various animals, one of the animals had become large enough to devour him whole.
And undermining that official statement with her own theories wouldn't help anyone, since there wasn't any immediate threat for a similar incident unless someone else started playing around with the Blood, and Louise's theories were far more likely to cause an irrational panic than anything useful.
Still, there were very few creatures out there capable of turning a human into a monster. Nobles especially, considering how their magic would naturally try to counteract any such transformations. And vampires were one of those creatures.
So, considering the situation, Louise was researching the details of how vampires had first appeared in Halkeginia. After all, even if vampires created more of themselves, at some point in history there should've been something else that had created the first vampire. And if she could figure out exactly what that had been, then maybe Louise could conclude that her familiar was some kind of failed experiment into vampirism done by a heretical mage.
Not that Louise was encountering a sudden increase in the level of detail available to her. In fact, if anything, the texts seemed to be getting even vaguer than usual, even when they mentioned the rituals used.
This reference to a 'bone and heart' for example. What kind of bone was it implying? Was it a femur or a spine or a rib or a jaw? These things were important because they determined different magical build-ups and different magical affinities, and it frustrated her to no end that she seemed to be the only one capable of understanding that the different bones would interact wildly differently with a heart in any kind of magical ritual.
Not that she could really showcase how differently, considering how nobody seemed to have been willing to record even the basic mathematical formulas involved adequately – let alone the surrounding weather-patterns or any kind of detail in the movement of the astral bodies, beyond 'full moon' or 'new moon' – meaning that she'd have to do a practical experiment for each variation of the ritual on her own.
And even if she hadn't been morally opposed to the idea of ripping the heart out of an animal and cutting open a human on a sacrificial altar, it'd be the project of decades of study in order to time the movement of the astral bodies in a manner that allowed the differencing bones to be the only big difference in the rituals.
She really didn't have time for that. She needed to have an answer to what her familiar was and her own faulty magic before she graduated, and she was already in her second year.
There was the possibility that she could dodge around some of the time-constraints by using humans closely related to each other. But it wasn't like Louise even knew any triplets in the area, let alone thought that nobody would miss them if they happened to get turned into horrific abominations of the Church.
Louise sighed as Zerbst leaned in closer, clearly waiting for an answer. "It might be that someone tried to manually create a vampire, and screwed up the process somehow. So I'm trying to figure out what the process even is."
Zerbst leaned back, briefly thoughtful before she dismissed the subject entirely.
Instead, Louise was forced to surrender her increasingly precious research-time – being stuck in classes interfered with her progress something fiercely – in order to listen to Zerbst's latest gossip. In which she somehow managed to complement professor Colbert on his physique a total of sixteen times.
The man really should've been much more careful about burning away his own shirt when fighting the old professor in water-magic. Now the poor man was another unfortunate future victim to Zerbst's interests.
That poor, poor man.
Louise sighed and pushed away her notes, rubbing her temples and trying to ignore the annoying sound of rain and dripping water that somehow managed to reach her no matter how deeply into the Academy's walls she retreated.
She could partially reconstruct the math surrounding the original creation of vampires. And that was almost entirely because the author had mentioned a full eclipse whilst also demanding fresh reagents of things that could only be found in the summer months. Meaning that there was only a limited amount of combinations for the unspoken of constellations.
It wasn't perfect, because eclipses moved differently from year to year, so it was entirely possible that the particular eclipse spoken of wasn't an eclipse that Louise would even see in her lifetime. But it was still better than nothing, and it gave her a rough outline a least.
Beyond that, the margin for error was so ridiculously large that she couldn't prove or disprove that a non-vampire vampire could be created through the process. In other words, the mystery behind Louise's familiar remained unsolved, and after all the work Louise had poured into this line of inquiry, she wasn't very happy about the results.
But it wasn't like she could really do anything about it. Her only option would be to attempt the ritual on her own, on a few different summer-eclipses, in order to get some idea of how that could affect things. Then she'd have to start mixing and replacing the various reagents for a bit, to see how those affected the outcome, and then she could maybe make a theoretical assumption as to whether or not her familiar was actually a failed attempt at creating a vampire.
Not only would the process be time-consuming and enormously expensive, it'd also mean that she'd need something like a dozen different disposable humans to use those experimental rituals on. And even if Louise would've been willing to take that step for the sake of the advancement of science, the Church would've tracked her down and executed her for heretical magic before she even got around to her second attempt at the ritual.
Not to mention the knowledge that even a crippled vampire created in such a manner would likely turn on her at the moment of its creation and immediately kill her for the pain she'd caused it.
A practical experiment was out of the question, and further theoretical exploration into the subject was useless. So Louise continued to rub at her temples in annoyance, desperately wishing for something stronger than tea for her headache.
Making a noise of disgust, and shaking the thought out of her head, Louise climbed to her feet and gathered her notes. She hadn't seen Zerbst today, but she was pretty sure that Tabitha was still in her bedroom. The quiet girl hadn't left it much this last week or so, as she'd apparently decided to read her ridiculously idealistic adventure-stories out loud to the alviss that always followed her around.
It was actually pretty cute, even if Louise was still convinced that it was useless.
Whilst she supposed that she could understand Tabitha's hesitance to 'discard' the small automaton in regards to her superstitious nature, treating it like a smaller person over whom she was somehow responsible was laughable.
Louise was actually fairly sure that Tabitha had given the doll a name at some point, though for the life of her she couldn't remember what it was.
Frowning to herself, Louise wondered over which friend she ought to be seeking out. Tabitha was a very private person and wouldn't really be all that happy to have her reading-time with the doll disturbed. But on the other hand, Louise wasn't entirely sure if she wanted to try tracking down Zerbst.
Why, if the girl had managed to succeed at her most recent goal, Louise in fact had good reason to avoid her as well.
She really didn't need to stumble across one of her own professors in such a potentially compromising position. It was bad enough that Zerbst wouldn't stop waxing poetically about the way sweat gleamed across the man's muscled back, without Louise actually having to face a visual representation of it.
Sighing again, Louise decided to simply drop off her notes in her bedroom and see where things went from there.
Louise pushed her way through the crowd, and finally came close enough to catch a glimpse of it.
Professor Chevreuse was dead.
The hallways was in ruins, there was blood everywhere, and the professor herself was in pieces.
Glancing around, Louise spotted Guiche who seemed to be comforting Montmorency, or perhaps it was the other way around? Regardless, Guiche didn't look anywhere nearly as 'polished' as he usually did, and there was a haunted glint in his eyes.
There'd been a fight, and professor Chevreuse had been killed. That much was obvious, though Louise wasn't quite sure of the circumstances that had led to those events.
Considering the last time that a professor had died, Louise wondered if there were any signs of the woman turning into a monster, but she couldn't-... No, wait. There was something there. Her head had been cracked open and something inside of it looked different than regular brain-matter.
Frowning thoughtfully, Louise craned her neck to get a better view of it.
It almost looked like an eye? So maybe it'd just been caved in during the impact that had cracked her head open? Except-... No, one of her eyes had indeed been struck by the impact, but it looked as if the eyeball had been completely crushed in the process, rather than that it'd been dislodged.
An extra eye? Why did that feel so familiar?
Straightening as she let her focus slide away from investigating the professor's head, Louise tried to remember where she might've read something about extra eyes. She really couldn't remember anything like that, but it definitely sounded familiar.
Maybe one of the earlier journals she'd looked through? She'd been a bit squeamish back then, so it was possible that she simply didn't remember it properly.
Nodding to herself, Louise slipped back into the crowd and set off to investigate. If she couldn't remember because of her squeamishness, then it stood to reason that she ought to begin her search in the more graphical journals.
It was Zerbst who told her the full story behind the professor's death.
Apparently, Guiche had tried talking to the woman about something, only to have her go hysterical about him 'stealing her research' or 'touching her gold with his filthy paws'. And there was indeed gold inside of her rooms. Recently transmuted gold.
It looked like the woman had been successful in her endeavors, and Louise was a little bit disappointed to hear that the headmaster had seized the woman's research notes. It would've been interesting to see how Chevreuse had finally managed to incorporate the movement of the astral bodies, and whatever else her formulas had likely been missing.
Either way, the woman's body had been burned rather than buried, and it was sure to cause some kind of scandal from the woman's family. However, considering that it was possible that her mental instability was a result of her having been in contact with the 'missing' professor of water-magic, it was likely that – at least unofficially – nobody wanted to have her blood come in contact with much of anything at all.
In the end though, that didn't really matter one way or the other. Not in comparison to Louise's most recent breakthrough.
The extra eye wasn't something that she'd read about. It was one of the graphically depicted results of a particular ritual. A ritual that she'd originally assumed had something to do with harvesting a person's organs by turning them inside-out.
Now she wasn't so sure. The math seemed to imply something else, and it was so long-lasting that it was just absurd.
It was almost like it was designed to strap down the subject and 'peel things away'. But it was still... faulty. There didn't seem to be any kind of limit for what was being peeled away, and though it was blatantly obvious that it was some kind of torture-device more so than any significant kind of ritual, Louise was intrigued.
If there weren't any limits for what was being peeled away, was it possible that some kind of 'limit' was in itself in fact being peeled away? A limit that might've been keeping the subject from mutating?
But why eyes? Why did there always seem to be extra eyes in the corpses left behind? Why eyes? Why not kidneys or ribs or something else entirely? Why eyes?
Did it perhaps have something to with what exactly it was that was being peeled away? And-... Louise frowned as she came across that confusing recount once again.
The ritual could last for nearly a day-and-a-half before the subject finally succumbed, but there was rarely much intelligible sound by the end of it. Generally though, the journal's author commented that towards the end of their survival – despite what they might've been screaming about previously – they started to mention strange things. As if they began to see something at the edge of their vision, and that this – rather than their tremendous injuries from being slowly turned inside-out – was generally what led to their demises.
The author stipulated that such a thing might possible be proof of an afterlife, or have something to do with how human beings handled such lethal levels of stimuli. The author continued to muse that it was a terrible shame that they'd been unable to test the ritual on an elf, for the sake of comparison.
Louise wondered what in the world would've happened to professor Chevreuse for the woman to develop the same symptoms. The only thing Louise knew was that she'd been working on ritualistic magic in regards to the transmutation of gold.
Honestly, if the woman had some kind of metal-poisoning, then Louise wouldn't have been surprised at all. But extra eyes? As if she'd been exposed to a ritual that 'peeled away' things from the victim without limits? It didn't make any sense.
Unless-... Unless perhaps the woman's understanding of the ritual she'd developed had in fact been something akin to 'peeling away her lack of understanding'? But if that was the reason for the subjects growing extra eyes in the first place, then what in the world could they possibly be understanding on the cusp of death?
Still, even if that was the case, to what lengths would someone have to go before comprehension alone could be seen as 'peeling away' their own lack of understanding? Why wasn't extra eyes a common feature in academics worldwide? No, there had to be something extra, something that had only happened here-...
Louise began to pale. Was it possible that her own familiar was the cause behind this death as well? That somehow the fact that the woman had understood things, whilst in the distant presence of the not-corpse which Louise had summoned, had been the cause of her instability and death?
Was it possible that there was some kind of airborne mutagen to coincide with the mutagen inside of the creature's blood?
She needed to know. She needed to know, and she needed to learn about it and deal with it before anyone else managed to retrace her own line of reasoning. She had absolutely no interest in being executed for whatever blasphemous plague that the creature she'd accidentally summoned as a familiar had been carrying with it on its arrival.
She wasn't allowed to be here.
Louise had summoned the creature that had started this whole mess, and so it would've been within her rights to demand to see it. But because of the danger that it'd posed, she wasn't allowed to do so without an escort.
Which she didn't have.
So, she wasn't allowed to be here, but Louise needed to know, and she was quite certain that if the creature was truly willing to share with her what it'd done to cause this, then Louise probably didn't want anyone else around to hear about it and start pointing fingers at Louise.
Two people were dead because of what Louise had summoned, and it wasn't unlikely that she'd be blamed for it, should anyone ever find out. So Louise had decided to be discreet in her investigation.
She was alone, and the only thing that'd stand between herself and whatever the violent creature might attempt to do to her were the shackles chaining it to the wall.
It hadn't moved since Louise had entered, and it probably hadn't moved since before that either, but it wasn't dead. Louise was certain that it wasn't dead, though she couldn't quite grasp why she was so certain of it.
"What are you? What have you brought with you? What is in your blood?" She demanded again of the unmoving figure.
Louise wasn't sure how long it'd been since she'd entered. It felt like hours, and her nerves were scraped raw from every minute that had ticked by, just waiting to be discovered and punished accordingly.
Louise gritted her teeth, wishing she could just pry the creature's skull open and rip the knowledge she was after from its head, along with what would likely be a not inconsiderable amount of brain-matter. There was no point in feeling guilty about lobotomizing a creature that only moved when it fought people. Such an abomination should feel grateful to contribute to the wisdom of civilized beings.
The iron bars were rough underneath her fingers as she leaned in further towards the creature, growling between her teeth. "Tell me. I need to know!" Her voice nearly broke, a manic desperation clinging to her words that she might've felt embarrassed about if she hadn't been so on edge.
Pale eyes opened to stare at her. "Oh, I know very well... How the secrets of beckon so sweetly." The creature's hoarse voice was almost melodic, and even if it was understandable, its accent sounded strange to Louise's ears. "Only an honest death will cure you now..." A cruel smile that was barely a twitch of her lips. "Liberate you, from your wild curiosity."
As the creature's piercingly pale eyes closed once more, Louise stared uncomprehendingly at its once-again unmoving form.
A moment later, her face still pressed up against the rough iron bars between them, Louise felt something shift.
An honest death. That was the only cure. The only cure for the... ' understanding' that was driving them into madness.
Louise flinched as the words and their meaning finally settled in her head, and she jolted away from the iron bars as if they burned. No. No, that couldn't be true. There had to be some kind of cure. There had to be something they could do.
This wasn't some kind of plague! It was just... 'understanding'! They just needed to stop trying to understand things, to stop trying to learn things, to seal away their curiosity from dragging them deeper.
Louise shook her head, glaring at the creature that had returned to its previous position as if it'd never moved at all. There had to be another way. This creature obviously just didn't understand the path to the cure.
This creature was some kind of violent blood-wielding barbarian after all, not a civilized noble.
No, there was a way to stop these violent deaths, and Louise was going to find it.
"Tabitha?" Louise stared at the girl, silently pleading for some kind of reaction this time.
Zerbst and Louise hadn't seen their friend for days outside of classes, and then she'd started skipping those too, so they'd decided to brave the girl's potential fury at being interrupted in her reading and visit her in her room.
Except Tabitha wasn't reading.
She was just sitting there, cradling a now-silent alviss in her lap, along with a somewhat worn-out book. She wasn't moving, she wasn't making a sound, her eyes were open but unfocused, and for all intents and purposes she looked dead.
Finally reaching out to try and shake the girl's shoulder, Louise was relieved to find that her body hadn't grown cold. There was even a pulse, though it was oddly erratic. But even so, there was no reaction.
Louise shifted to see it the girls' eyes reacted to light as they ought to, not entirely sure what was trying to diagnose as Zerbst ran off to find a water-mage who could help them.
There was definitely something weird with Tabitha's eyes, Louise noted as she turned the girl's head to get a better view.
Oh-... Yes. Definitely something wrong with her eyes.
Better light streaming in from the window, Louise stared into two eyes and four pupils.
There was no plague. Only two people who grew eyes on the inside after experimenting recklessly with the laws of magic. Nothing that couldn't be stopped by greater vigilance.
Louise nearly sobbed, her own eyes wide.
Tabitha's eyes had mutated. Tabitha, who only wanted to read stories, who spent most of her spoken words reading out loud to an alviss that always followed her around. Tabitha's eyes had mutated.
Tearing her gaze away, Louise again glanced down at the unmoving alviss in her friend's lap. The alviss that kept asking 'why' in a way that'd nearly tempted Zerbst into kicking it across a hallway. The alviss that didn't have a mouth.
But-... But hadn't Louise heard it speak? She could remember it speaking, couldn't she? But it wasn't even moving so-...
Voices there weren't there, the sounds of dripping water during sunny summer days, mysteries unseen, secrets unraveled, the dream of reality peeled away to reveal something different-... Ah. It wasn't Louise's curiosity, or Chevreuse's, this was-... this was beyond the curiosity of humans. This was the curiosity of something else infecting them with curiosity that wasn't their own.
They were all infected. It'd already spread to all of them.
'Only an honest death will cure you now'. Wasn't that what it'd said? What the creature who'd brought the plague in its wake had said? That the secrets would beckon them and that their rampant curiosity would doom them.
Louise slumped to the floor as her knees buckled, staring at one of her only two friends. Staring at the third victim of the plague that already infected them all.
Tabitha wasn't going to wake up. She wasn't going to get better.
Zerbst would be like this too, soon enough. Just like Louise.
Louise felt a sob break through her throat.
It was the first of many.
"Miss Valliere." The headmaster sighed. "I understand that you were close to young Miss Tabitha, and it is indeed a tragedy. But there's no proof of any kind of plague. These 'three victims' that you're referring to are completely unrelated to each other." He tapped a bunch of paperwork in front of him. "There are water-mages in this school, other than the late professor, and they are trained to catch all manner of diseases early on."
Louise gritted her teeth.
He was wrong, but her arguments weren't something that he wanted to hear. He truly believed that they late professor in water-magic had been eaten alive by his experiments, and that professor Chevreuse had simply been pushed too hard by stress and a sudden onslaught of greed.
Nobody had reported extra eyes to be present in the bodies, because the idea of any such things were so bizarre as to be ignored outright as a mistake on their own behalf. So Tabitha's own mutated eyes couldn't be used as proof of a connection.
That Tabitha had been wandering around the Academy followed by an alviss for a long time, was also ignored. Few people had really been paying attention to the girl, and even if there'd been an alviss there at that time, there was not evidence that the motionless doll that she'd been found with hadn't simply run out of magical energy, rather than anything more dire.
Any records of the alviss having spoken were dismissed outright, because the doll hadn't even been designed with a mouth, let alone functional vocal-chords.
A plague was loose, they were all infected, but water-mages couldn't catch it so nobody was willing to believe her. There was 'no pattern', and the deaths were 'unconnected'.
Louise bent her head, knowing better than to try and argue the point any further. All that would result from such an action would be that they'd have her confined to her room on behalf of trying to stir up a panic in her own emotional distress.
No, there was no point in arguing about it any further. So, was there a point in informing the other students? To let everyone know that they were infected by an incurable plague of madness? Was there any point in bypassing the reasoning of the headmaster in order to convince the students that she was correct?
Louise tried to imagine what would happen, but she doubted that she'd even be believed. She was Louise the Zero, the useless noble who couldn't do magic. Nobody would take her seriously. And-... And even if they did, all that would happen would be that they'd panic.
Panicking children, trying to escape from the plague, ignoring how they were already infected with it. They'd either turn on each other, or they'd flee the Academy altogether.
No, there wasn't any point in that either. Bypassing the headmaster in order to spread the word to the rest of the students body would simply result in the plague spreading even quicker to the rest of Halkeginia.
Allowing herself to be quietly dismissed by the man, Louise found herself in the hallway, staring out through a window and out at the courtyard below her.
There was no way to convince them to set up a quarantine, not without the immediate support of the headmaster. But there was also no way to cure what they were infected with, or to banish the plague back to wherever it'd come from.
A quarantine was the rest of Tristain's only hope.
Louise allowed her gaze to sweep over the stable.
They were a few hours ride from the capital of Tristain, but by foot it would be a journey of nearly two days. Well, unless the person was very determined to get there, then they might shorten it to 'from dawn to midnight', which was still a significant delay.
Not enough, obviously, but still significant.
They'd need to be forcefully trapped within the Academy, rather than simply try to cut off travel to other places.
"What are you thinking about, Louise?" Zerbst stared at her, dark bags under her bloodshot eyes betraying her attempts at a jovially curious tone.
Louise turned to her friend with a frown. "Zerbst-..." She paused, thinking it through. "I'm going to need a sack of charcoal, a dozen empty wine-bottles, and a good axe." She shook her head at the confused expression on her friend's face, a hollow smile twitching at her lips. "There are worse things than heresy."
Louise hadn't expected the horses to bleed quite as much as they actually did.
It was good that they did, considering that she'd really needed their life-blood in order to seal the entrances shut, and to make the walls surrounding the Academy even more resistant to earth-magic than they were already designed to be. There was, after all, no point in sealing the entrances if someone could simply travel around them.
But there'd been a lot more blood than she'd been expecting, and even if she'd been very careful to set up an area of muted sound around the stable to keep the stable-hands from investigating and interfering, she hadn't really thought to bring a spare change of clothes. So it became blatantly obvious who was responsible for the horse-massacre the moment that said horses had been discovered.
Not that Louise had really allowed anyone to catch her, even when they'd spotted her.
Zerbst hadn't been comfortable with the process of performing the actual rituals, and they hadn't really been designed for the purpose of multiple people helping out with them, so Louise had instead sent her friend away to create a distraction big enough to keep people from thinking about going for an afternoon ride.
Which meant that now she was on her own, covered in blood, carrying a bag filled with reagents that were really far too gruesome for most people to stomach – it didn't really matter who or what the femur belonged to in this case, as long as there were enough of them to go around – and running away from members of the staff.
There was no way she wouldn't be the one blamed for this. Though hopefully, they'd just assume that she'd gone as mad as professor Chevreuse after Tabitha's inexplicable illness, and spend a couple of hours scolding her about her actions before placing her under house-arrest. A series of events which would hopefully keep everyone in the dark about what she'd actually done for long enough that it wouldn't matter.
The seals should hold against mages, but it wouldn't hold against them indefinitely, so every moment they didn't spend on trying to break the seals was another moment that the plague wasn't given a chance to spread further into the world.
Zerbst's distraction should still be going strong, and Louise supposed that she herself was a distraction now as well. A distraction covered in blood and gore. A distraction who'd be likely to evoke memories of the late professor in water-magic, and the 'monster' that everyone assumed that he'd created rather than become.
Louise dodged around a corner, nearly barreling over a maid with her arms full of laundry, before adjusting and continuing to run. A distant part of her wondered if the laundry had been dirty, or if she'd ended up severely prolonging the maid's duty. Either way, it probably wouldn't matter for much longer. At least not for herself.
After all, she was clearly a crazy person, and she was covered in blood and running around among children. After the dangers of the first two victims of the plague, they'd likely be targeting her with lethal intent from the very start.
Which was fine. Louise didn't want to turn into a monster. She didn't want to grow eyes on the inside, she didn't want to turn into a slobbering bast ruled by instincts and a desire for blood. She didn't want to watch it happening to other people, either, no matter how academically interesting the pattern of the transformation would've likely been to observe.
If someone killed her today, she wouldn't have to watch her classmates turn into monsters tomorrow. Though Louise was uncertain over whether the transformation would be that quick. After all, out of several hundred students, only a single one had truly suffered detrimental health-effects from the exposure.
Likely, it could take them months to fully transform. But that didn't wasn't accounting for external factors, and Louise was pretty sure that stress would have a high chance to speed up that process. Possibly to the point where the population might not remain human beyond the first hour upon realizing that there truly was a plague of madness among them.
It wasn't as if anyone had ever run experiments on these kinds of things. Or at least, nobody had survived running those experiments for long enough to get word out of the horrors that was currently awaiting Tristain's Academy of Magic.
Honestly, Louise was hoping that the transformation would spread quickly and violently, seeing as how that'd reduce the risk of mages collaborating to break free from the seals that she'd placed around the Academy.
As cruel as it was to wish a quick death upon someone, Louise hoped that it wouldn't be dragged out. They couldn't afford to let something this potent and this insidious spread to the rest of Halkeginia. Not if they had any desire to keep the civilization of the Founder from collapsing.
So Louise ran, and she ignored the horrified faces of those she passed by, and she dodged out of the way of grasping arms and the deliberate wand-movements aimed her way.
Every moment she could give the plague to express itself more fully, to reveal itself in its entirety, was a chance that everything she loved wouldn't tear itself apart in an orgy of blood and madness.
She recognized Guiche, she recognized Montmorency, she caught a glimpse of Sylphid's corpse where a servant had opened a door that Louise was certain that she'd barred shut.
Dragons could fly. In comparison to mere horses, Sylphid had been twice the threat.
Which had been the main reason why Louise had sent Zerbst off to be a distraction. After all, her friend was very passionate about friendships, and Louise could ill afford the risk for disagreements in what needed to be done.
That the dragon had trusted her, sad and whining as it'd been without Tabitha, had been very helpful. And that right there, was why Louise was so convinced that the plague was in all of them.
She'd killed a helpless creature that'd trusted her, because it was necessary. Her mother's Rule of Steel might've spoken of similar sacrifices, but they'd spoken of them in the sense of 'grit your teeth and endure it'. Louise hadn't needed to endure anything at all.
Even as she changed direction again, Sylphid's corpse disappearing behind her, Louise felt nothing but fond satisfaction for a plan well-executed in regards to the part she'd played in the precious creature's demise.
She might've gone insane all on her own, surely, but the timing clearly implied that there was something deeper at work than Louise stumbling across the edge of madness all on her own.
So she ran, for her country and for her family and for the words of the Church that she'd so casually violated in the defense of all of it.
"YoU dId tHiS tO Us!"
That was false. Louise hadn't really done much of anything to anyone. Though she supposed that she was technically the one who'd summoned the creature that'd brought with it the plague. Then again, this wasn't really the time to argue semantics.
Louise dodged around the sweeping swing of the monster's claws. It looked vaguely familiar to her, but she couldn't quite place who-... Ah, no, that ribbon. That'd be Montmorency.
Considering how much the girl was leaking everywhere, blood dripping freely from the weeping sores on her fur-covered skin, she certainly lived up to being called 'Flood'. Not that Louise could really afford to be distracted by humor at this point.
She supposed that she ought to be feeling triumphant, having successfully pushed the plague into open view through stress, and having that stress tear through the student populace until at least half of them had become hulking monstrosities. The chance for an orderly attempt to break through her magically enforced quarantine was effectively nonexistent.
But at the same time, she didn't really feel triumphant. Darkly satisfied, yes. Determined, yes. Terrified, a little bit.
It wasn't like Louise knew much of anything at all about fighting, after all, and with the courtyard having transformed into an active war-zone between monsters and panicking mages, fighting was really quite high on her list of priorities.
Louise glanced around and noted grimly that Montmorency's distorted howl had not gone unheard, not unanswered. Monsters from all around them were turning to stare at Louise, and there was an awful lot of malice in those eyes.
Scrambling away from one of the monster, who seemed to be almost more fat than actual flesh, as it leapt for her throat, Louise wondered if this one might not be Malicorne.
"ZeRo!" Yes, though the voice had distorted rather dramatically since his transformation, it could still be recognized as belonging to the wind-mage.
Louise decided to be proactive, and hit him in the back of the head with her axe.
However, though the weapon sunk deeply into his cranium, it didn't to much more than stagger the monster that he'd become.
Dodging away from another sweeping swing from Montmorency, Louise couldn't help but wonder how long she'd be able to survive this.
She was surrounded on all sides, nothing she could do would hurt the monsters attacking her, and – from the blatantly obvious lethality of their claws – they'd really only need to get lucky once.
"LoUisE!" A third monster barreled over Malicorne before he could stand back up, ripping out pieces of him, even as the fire it breathed began the frustratingly slow process of turning him into charcoal.
But Louise wasn't really able to keep an eye on Zerbst, because Montmorency chose that moment to try to bite Louise's head off with her distorted jaws.
Teeth snapping together with the sound of a musket going off, Louise rolled to the side from where she'd thrown herself to the ground in order to avoid the beheading.
That Zerbst was trying to help at all was both bizarre and a relief. Considering how far the girl had fallen into her own transformation, Louise would've expected her friend to be attacking her along with the rest of their classmates, but instead she seemed to be trying to defend her.
Perhaps it was the lingering personalities involved, the humanity shining through their monstrous forms in a mockery of what they'd once been.
In the end, it didn't matter overly much.
There were two of them, and for every moment that passed, there were more monsters trying to rip them to shreds.
Zerbst went down in what looked like a tornado mixed with a small armory of bronze weapons. And then Louise was knocked to the ground-...
There was fire everywhere.
The monsters were shrieking, pain and anger both.
There was a man-...? Yes, Louise recognized him. Professor Colbert was standing in the middle of the fire, walking towards her.
He opened his mouth, but Louise couldn't hear his voice. She wasn't sure if he'd spoken at all, or if she'd been deafened somehow. Regardless, she could see the question in his eyes, the accusation.
"Only-..." Louise coughed, forcing the words past broken lips. "Only an honest death can cure us now."
Colbert stared at her for a long moment, then he nodded and turned away. And as he left, the world was consumed entirely in fire.
It should hurt, Louise realized, staring at her burning limbs. But it didn't. Perhaps she couldn't feel pain anymore?
Ignoring the clouds churning above her in the dark-gray sky, and glancing over to where Zerbst had fallen, Louise found her best friend staring at her. A single eye with two pupils, and a mouth filled with jagged teeth mouthing a name she'd heard spoken so many times before.
She smiled, lifting her burning arm to reach for her friend, before thinking better of it and allowing it to drop to the ground once more.
They'd done it. The plague wasn't going to spread onwards. And all it'd cost them was their lives.
Zerbst's mouth curled into something like a smile, and Louise's eyes started to darken even as her face grew hotter.
Ah, her eyes were being burned away.
That was a shame.
She'd wanted to-...
Agnes winced as the princess called out once more, her voice breaking under the force of it.
The day had been one of excitement, Henrietta had been looking forward to her appearance as a judge at the Academy for 'the best familiar'. And if that excitement had stemmed more from being able to finally meet an old friend with whom she'd fallen out of touch over the years, Agnes and the rest of her advisors had been more than willing to let it slide.
Henrietta didn't have a lot of friends, after all.
But by the time they'd arrived, there'd only been fire. The entire Academy burning in a scene so reminiscent of what had happened to Agnes' childhood home that the woman was getting shivers.
They'd originally attempted to rush forward in order to quench the fires, but there'd been a clear signal from inside the walls. The kind of signal that wasn't defied lightly. 'Plague' it'd said, in the stilted language of the army, and that wasn't something anyone wanted to risk the princess being exposed to.
Which was why Agnes had taken command as Henrietta was almost physically dragged away by the rest of her entourage.
Except... there weren't really a lot of things for her to do.
She could order people to keep the fires from spreading, and she could have someone attempt to signal messages back to whoever was behind the plague-signal in the first place, but it'd be up to chance to see if they answered. Or were even able to answer.
Plagues that were so bad that someone would convince themselves to burn themselves along with the rest of the infected tended to be quite lethal. And if the signaler was the same person as the one keeping the Academy burning, then the willpower-drain alone would be likely to hasten that lethality.
Henrietta was still visibly distraught at the thought that her friend was caught up in that blaze, but she wasn't actively fighting the people holding her back anymore. Just screaming her friend's name in the hopes that she'd answer.
Agnes gritted her teeth.
She hated fire-magic. Both because of her personal experiences with the corruption most mages fell into – but in which fire-mages caused untold more collateral-damage than most – but also because fire-mages were always so quick to resort to their destructive tendencies. Who was to say that this 'plague' had truly warranted this scale of destruction?
Which was why Agnes hoped that the mage would at least answer. Even if she doubted that they'd learn much of anything from another stilted message of fire-signals.
Then, after the third time they sent a message asking for identification, a man climbed on top of the wall.
He was balding and covered in ash, and his clothes looked like they'd been either ripped to shreds or charred off. But even inf the midst of the hellish blaze, the man appeared disturbingly steady for someone fueling this kind of willpower-expenditure. To not wobble in place from exhaustion, he'd have to be at least a Triangle-mage, and more like a Square one.
Despite that, the thing that made Agnes' eyes widen was the visible scar stretching across his back as he climbed into position. A scar that she was all too familiar with after the dreams and nightmares that had haunted her ever since the night that her village was burned to the ground on the orders of a noble. The scar of the man who'd saved her.
And around that savior curled a writhing chord of fire, like a great serpent of flames.
Her savior was the same person as the one ultimately responsible for burning her home and all that she'd loved, all those years ago.
His voice was almost a whisper, more a chant or a desperate prayer than any true shout. And yet, despite the distance, they could all hear his voice cracking under the strain.
"Fear the old blood."
Then the man turned his wands on himself, and the snake of fire devoured him whole.
He didn't move, he didn't cry out, he just stood there, burning. Skin boiling away, exposed bones charring.
It felt like an eternity before the man collapsed, falling backwards into the burning courtyard behind him and disappearing from sight.
Agnes stared at the empty spot where he'd been standing for a long moment, the stench of burning flesh linger all too clearly in the air, before speaking. "Contain the fires. Nothing enters, nothing leaves." She swallowed. "Let it burn to the last."
A/n: This was exposed to a full-rewrite, which I spent something like six hours straight of constant typing to do. There's a reason the editing-part of story-writing is the one I hate the most (no matter how important it is).
And yeah, UnwelcomeStorm and her "Hunter" is pretty much entirely responsible for this fic getting written, so if you haven't read it, go check that one out.