Author's Note: The fic is set between Trails of Cold Steel 2 and 4, so there will be spoilers for everything up to that point. Also, the fic contains graphic violence and disturbing imagery. Reader discretion is advised.
"Stick close to me, Joshua!"
"Estelle, grab the artifact! I'll cut us a way out of here!"
"There's too many of them!"
Estelle Bright shot up, gasping for air. She threw off the blanket and saw that she was wearing pajamas made from particularly coarse cotton threads instead of the outfit she usually wore for Bracer work, which was folded in a neat pile on a chair beside the bed. Her trusty Bo staff and backpack full of various supplies were resting against one of the walls. The room was small and spartan, with the only furniture present being the bed she was in, the chair, a dresser, and a simple wooden desk.
Where am I? Last thing I remember, I was in those weird ruins, Estelle wondered as she changed back into her regular outfit of thigh-high hiking boots, compression shorts and tank top, finger-less gloves, and a white-and-orange dress. I was fighting a huge horde of devils with…oh no…
"Joshua?" Estelle screamed at the top of her lungs as she shoulder-checked the door to her room and ran into the hallway. "Joshua! Where are you?"
"Excuse me, young lady, but you are making a racket," a nun said as she walked towards Estelle. "Please stop disturbing the patients and make your way back to your quarters. You'll heal much better if you rest."
"Heal? But I'm perfectly fine!" Estelle objected. "Anyway, have you seen a young man around? He's got a head full of dark hair, amber eyes, and usually wears a white jacket and dark pants."
"You were found unconscious near the Hamlet's entrance, so we still need to give you a formal diagnosis before you can sign yourself out," the nun said. "And I'm afraid no one with that description has ever passed through the sanitarium."
"All right, just get it over with," Estelle said impatiently as she followed the nun towards an examination room. As expected, Estelle was given a clean bill of health and was allowed to go free. She pushed open the sanitarium's heavy wooden doors and found herself in a small village covered by what seemed like an eternal twilight, haunted by a foreboding sense of impending doom. Unlike the inhabitants of her home town of Rolent, the citizens seemed to be suffering from some kind of perpetual lethargy and melancholy. Save for a select few structures that seemed to serve as public spaces or military barracks, most buildings were in varying stages of disrepair.
Okay, this village doesn't seem that big, Estelle thought as she looked around for a good place to start searching. Hey, that building kind of looks like a Guild Branch!
Estelle immediately took off towards the Guild, noticing that the symbol above the door was two crossed swords behind a shield rather than the Bracer Guild's supporting gauntlet. She flung the door open and looked around inside. Instead of the intimately familiar set up of a receptionist's desk and notice boards full of requests, the main floor was simply a wide-open space filled with sweating warriors of various calibres battling an army of training dummies. The entire setup reminded Estelle of those dojos Zin always talked about. Estelle decided to talk to the nearest person, a heavy-set one-eyed man wearing full plate mail and wielding a heavy mace and shield.
"Excuse me, is there a receptionist or someone I can talk to?" Estelle asked him, raising her voice to be heard above the din. "I'd like to register with the Guild here."
"New meat for the grinder, huh? Not sure what you mean by 'register'. We simply come and go as we wish," he replied. Resting his mace on his shoulder, he peered at her with his single eye. "And we don't have a receptionist here either, just instructors volunteering their time to impart some sorely needed wisdom for some extra pieces of gold."
"You didn't have to phrase it that way, you know. But yes, I'm pretty new here, and by 'pretty new' I mean 'woke up here 10 minutes ago without a clue how I got here'," Estelle said. "Anyway, this place isn't actually part of the Bracer Guild, is it? Have you seen a young man named Joshua by any chance? He's about as tall as me, thin muscly build, dark hair, and amber eyes."
"A Bracer Guild? That sounds more like a blacksmith to me," the one-eyed man said. "And I can't help you with this Joshua fellow either. A lot of people train here, and if someone like him came here before, I would have known already."
Feeling frustrated, Estelle thanked him before turning on her heel and leaving. After exiting the Guild, she took out what seemed like an oversized metal amulet out of a holster on her waist. It was her trusty ARCUS battle orbment which allowed her to cast magic-like abilities known as Arts as well as communicate with other ARCUS users. She dialled Joshua's number but got nothing except static. Feeling frustrated, she then asked around several homes and a couple of other public venues before deciding to stop at the Tavern. It was somewhat run down, with scaffolding in various places on the exterior. As she entered, Estelle saw that the place was dimly lit with only a handful of patrons. A far cry from the livelier inns and taverns she had been to.
Ugh…that fight sure took a lot out of me. She went up to the bar and found herself an empty stool, which happened to be next to a well-dressed man in his early thirties casually sipping a glass of wine.
"What can I get for you, miss?" asked the owner of the Tavern, a muscular, bald man with a moustache that reached all the way down to his chin. "Food? Drink? Or do you prefer the company of some…choice ladies?"
"Just some roast beef and potatoes plus a pint of beer, please," Estelle replied as her stomach rumbled again. "While you're at it, has a young man with black hair and amber eyes stopped here by any chance?"
"Hmm…can't say I ever saw anyone like that coming here." The owner scribbled down Estelle's order and passed it through a small window connecting to the kitchen before casting a glance at the rich-looking man sitting next to Estelle. "I doubt his lordship here has hired anyone matching the description either. You lost him or something?"
"Yeah, we were surrounded by these devils…erm…strange monsters while exploring some ruins," Estelle replied, causing the well-off man to glance her way. "The next thing I know, I was in the sanatorium and Joshua was nowhere in sight."
"Sounds like a bad run, then," the owner said with a hint of pity in his voice. "I hate to break it to you, girlie, but your boyfriend is probably dead."
"That's not possible! There's no way Joshua would go down that easily!" Estelle yelled. "When I find him, I'll drag him in here so you can apologize in person!"
"Whatever, it's not my fight anyway," the owner shrugged as he set down a pint of beer in front of Estelle. "The day he comes in here is the day I'll eat my words."
Estelle fumed as she downed a couple of gulps from the large mug. Although her dad had a decent collection of expensive brandy, and Schera never shied from exposing Estelle to her and Aina's drinking habits, Estelle still preferred a simple mug of beer to help take the edge off and knew her limits well. There was nothing like a pitcher of icy cold beer shared with Joshua over dinner to unwind after a hard day's work.
"You're not wrong, you know, about his death not being possible. I'm responsible for hiring people to go into the dungeons that plague this hamlet, and I don't ever recall you nor an amber-eyed raven-haired young man on my roster," the rich man spoke up while the owner was busy serving another patron. "Although the part about fighting monsters in some ruins does sound quite intriguing. Do tell me more."
Seeing her chance, Estelle took a deep breath and told him the full story. How she and Joshua were working for the Bracer Guild in Calvard, how they were responding to a request to search some newly-excavated ruins for an artifact, how they found themselves fighting for their lives against a horde of monsters they have never seen before, and all the way up to Estelle passing out when she touched the artifact, waking up in the sanitarium afterwards. Throughout her recounting, the rich man had a finger on his chin as if deep in thought.
"Hmm, I don't believe I have ever heard of this land called 'Calvard' before, nor am I familiar with this 'Bracer Guild'," the rich man said. "I suppose this does confirm your foreign nature. That term you use, 'Bracer', what exactly does it mean?"
"A Bracer like myself is an investigative and combat specialist whose mission is to protect the civilian population and maintain the stability of the land. We can take on any request, from helping retrieve lost objects to hunting dangerous monsters, as long as it doesn't violate the principle of keeping civilians out of harm's way," Estelle explained, reciting from her trusty Bracer handbook by memory. "And the Bracer Guild is simply the organization that coordinates our activities. I'm surprised you and that eyepatch-wearing guy never heard of it before. We're pretty famous all over Zemuria."
"And therein lies the problem. 'Zemuria' is another term I am unfamiliar with. If such a place exists, which I don't doubt it does, it is probably very far from this Hamlet," the rich man said. "That being said, I don't particularly care where you are from nor how you got here, but rather who you are and what you can do. Do you have any experience going into long-abandoned places not knowing what may lurk there?"
"Are you kidding me? That's pretty much what I do every week as a Bracer!" Estelle grinned. "And I've been to some pretty freaky places, like an ancient floating city crawling with things no human has seen for over a thousand years."
"I see, and what kind of skillset do you have?"
"Well, I like to hit things really hard with my staff," Estelle said, pointing at her weapon. "Joshua is more a speed and stealth kind of guy. I can also use Arts."
"Yup, Arts. I can cast all kinds of spells with this bad boy here," Estelle said as she pulled out her ARCUS once more. "It's called the All-Round Communication and Unison System, or ARCUS for short. I can't explain the details that well, so I might as well show you when I get the chance."
"This has been quite an insightful conversation. In fact, I am in need of an 'investigative and combat specialist' such as yourself for a few…errands." Cogs turned behind the rich man's eyes as he stared at Estelle. She recognised the look; it was the expression many rich, powerful people got when wondering how best to make use of someone. "But first things first, I would like to see a demonstration of your abilities. Follow me after you finish your meal, I have a place in mind."
"Whoa there, aren't we forgetting something?" Estelle said. "We need to introduce ourselves first. I'm Estelle, Estelle Bright. It's nice to meet you."
"My apologies, where are my manners?" the rich man said. "I am the last among a line of nobles who rule this land, entrusted to me by a particularly unsavvy Ancestor whose depravity I have only begun to uncover. Until I can redeem this land from his crimes, I shall simply be known as The Heir."
Leiston Fortress, Zeiss Province, Liberl
Lieutenant-General Cassius Bright, chief of staff of the Liberlian military, tried and failed to hide the worried look on his face as he stared at the screen of the state-of-the-art orbal video conference equipment. The green-haired man on the other side was a reliable ally, which was why his report worried Cassius even more.
"It seems like Estelle and Joshua were somehow sucked into the artifact. We've brought it back to Arteria, and our people are working on reactivating it to get them out," Kevin Graham said. "It's like the Phantasma Incident all over again, except it's just the two of them as far as I know. I'm sorry, Cassius, I should have told them to wait until my squires and I could join them."
"Come on, Father Graham, don't beat yourself up too hard over this," Cassius said reassuringly. "Estelle and Joshua have grown a lot since the last time you saw them in Crossbell. They'll be able to handle themselves while your people work on the artifact."
"I swear by Aidios's name I'll get them out," Kevin said. "Anyway, I gotta go back to work for now. I'll keep you updated."
After the screen went dead, Cassius let out a long sigh he'd been holding in ever since Kevin called him about Estelle and Joshua's disappearance. Although hearing about it was the last thing he wanted, especially with the crisis brewing in post-civil war Erebonia, Cassius appreciated the fact Kevin called him as soon as possible instead of trying to cover up the fact.
Oh Aidios, please look over Estelle and Joshua while they are trapped in whatever realm this artifact banished them to, Cassius prayed. Please…don't let me lose them like I lost Lena.
With the worried prayer completed, Cassius sat at his desk and debated whether to make a call or not. His adopted daughter Renne, who had been brought back by Estelle from Crossbell a couple of years ago, had recently begun her studies at Jenis Royal Academy as well as working a part-time job as the receptionist of the Bracer Guild's Ruan branch. There were also rumors about her volunteering with some special project that involved both the Epstein Foundation and the Zeiss Central Factory. Whether the rumors were true or not, Renne had a lot on her plate, and the last thing she needed was some distressing news about how her older adopted siblings went missing.
On the other hand, her being a receptionist means she would probably find out anyway, Cassius thought. I doubt she'd look that kindly upon her adopted papa hiding stuff from her, especially with her experience with her birth parents.
His mind made up, Cassius walked over to the orbal phone.
"Brace Guild, Ruan Branch," a cheerful voice said over the headset. "How may Renne help you today?"
"Renne, it's me," he said. "There's something you need to hear."
"Dad? It's about Estelle and Joshua, isn't it?" Her voice took on a more worried tone. "The guild in Calvard…they called a few minutes ago. Estelle and Joshua…they disappeared."
"I'm so sorry, Renne. I wish..."
"It's okay, dad. Estelle and Joshua are strong, just like Renne should be too." Renne's voice grew shakier. "Renne won't cry while she's working, Renne has to be strong for those who need the Guild's help."
"I know how you feel. Please make sure not to bottle it up inside you. You've got Carna with you at the Guild, plus your classmates at Jenis. Feel free to talk to them, and me, anytime you want," Cassius said, trying his best to offer advice. "I'll make sure to call you when they're found, all right?"
"Thanks, dad." Renne's voice dropped to a hush. "I…I love you."
"I love you too," Cassius said as he hung up. When the call ended, he sighed.
Might as well let the others know too. Cassius picked up the headset again and dialled Grancel Castle.
"Colonel Schwarz? It's General Bright," he said. "I need to speak with Princess Klaudia. It's a very urgent matter…"
After her meal, the Heir had led her to the other side of the Hamlet, a weed-strewn field behind the blacksmith's workshop. There the curious 'Bracer', as she referred to her profession as, gave him a display of her skill with the staff as well as a most intriguing demonstration of her 'Arts'. Who knew something that resembled an enlarged version of a humble pocket watch could project fireballs or launch razor-sharp icicles?
"I must say, Bracer, I am quite impressed with your marvellous demonstration." The Heir smiled, knowing he had drafted one more foot soldier into his quest. "These 'Arts' will be a great asset in the days to come."
"Does that mean I'm on board?" Estelle broke into a smile that was far more genuine than anything the Heir had seen in a long time. "When's my first job?"
"Your enthusiasm is quite refreshing, Bracer. Report to the tavern at the break of dawn tomorrow. A hearty breakfast will be provided to you, paid from my own coffers. Provisions will be distributed to the party, and you shall receive further instructions then," the Heir told her. "You may spend the reminder of today as you wish, but I do suggest checking over your equipment and getting a good night's rest. This job will by no means be easy. Do not worry about room and board; I have already arranged a room at the Tavern for you tonight until more permanent quarters become available."
"All right! Thanks...uhhh...my lord. I'll see you tomorrow!" Estelle stammered. "One more thing: You'll keep up your end of the deal, right? About Joshua?"
"Of course. If there is even a sliver of information about your lover, I will make sure to pass it on to you," the Heir said, giving her a solemn nod. "Do have a yourself good night."
As Estelle walked back to the tavern, a shimmering blue ghostly figure appeared beside the Heir. He had long ago accepted the phantom's "visits" as part and parcel of his duty to cleanse the corruption that had befell his ancestral home. For reasons unknown, the phantom could only be seen by the Heir and no one else. A matter of blood relations, perhaps?
"Ambrosius." The Heir nodded at his ancestor in greeting. "Here to offer more sage advice and general commentary? Or do you have something to say about our new…'employee'?"
"She is different from the others. She may have been the recipient of several tragedies in the past, but her heart remains undarkened," Ambrosius said. "Make no mistake, underneath her cheery youthful exterior is a skilled warrior with a burning will as hot as the sun itself."
"What of it?" the Heir said, before casting a sorrowful gaze downwards. "I'm sure her enthusiasm will be snuffed out, just like the others."
"I have mentioned this some time ago, but long gone are the days when the sun shone and laughter was heard in the tavern. However, seeing her here brought me back to those happier times. None of your other hires has ever had that effect on me." Ambrosius paused as if deep in thought before continuing. "I do not say this often nor lightly, but I am quite pleased you decided to enlist her services. I look forward to seeing how this mystery girl will handle the horrors that will inevitably come her way."
Tavern, Following Morning
Estelle found herself sharing a table with The Heir, a man in a suit of armor that was less bulky than the one worn by the eyepatch guy from the day before, a brooding man wearing a long coat, and a young woman with chin-length brown hair and wild eyes wearing a full-body cloak that covered everything except her face. Several loaves of bread, five bowls of porridge, a large pot of piping hot tea, and a plate full of smoked meat sat on the table. Before everyone started eating or speaking, the armored man said a quick prayer of thanks to The Light.
I really need to ask about The Light later, Estelle thought as she dug in. He's wearing the same symbol on his chest as those nuns at the sanatorium too.
"Everyone, this is the 'Bracer' I was telling you about," the Heir said. "I have decided to have her take Junia's place for this week's excursion. The Bracer's quarters at the barracks should be ready by her return. If she does return, that is."
"Pleasured to make your acquaintance, o stalwart maiden." The armored man extended a hand to shake Estelle's. "I am Reynauld, and I am but a humble Crusader and a servant of the Light."
"I would hardly call someone who led an entire army against 'heathens' humble. Anyway, the name's Dismas," the brooding man said in a gravelly voice. "I'm a Highwayman, good with dagger and pistol. If you need a trap gotten rid of, I'm your man too."
"Doctor Paracelsus, at your service. As my title implies, I am a Plague Doctor with a strong interest in…field work," the strange woman said. "My, my. What a healthy specimen you are, and a foreigner too! I would love to study your humors when I have the chance."
"Uh…right. This is a weird bunch you got here, Mr. Heir…I mean…my lord," Estelle said, wondering how exactly can Kloe keep track of all those titles. "Anyway, I'm Estelle, and I'll be working with you guys starting today. Now, what's our request?"
"Ah, yes. The reason we are all gathered here today." The Heir grinned. "Listen closely…"