Echoes of the Void
A Familiar of Zero/Kara no Kyoukai Story
Disclaimer: In this particular universe, I do not own or in any way shape or form hold a claim to elements of the Zero no Tsukaima franchise, Kara no Kyoukai, the Nasuverse as a whole, or any other modern works that I may reference in this story.
In a society where magic is the proof of nobility, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, has never managed to cast a single spell properly. Scorned by her classmates as "the Zero" for her utter incompetence, the Familiar Summoning Ritual is her last chance to prove herself worthy of a title. But imagine her surprise when she summons someone with a need to prove herself as great as hers.
A week had passed since the murder of Count-Palatine Mott (and four days since the secretive visit of Viscount Jean-Jacques Wardes to the campus), but in that meager span of time, virulent rumors had begun to spread about why the head of the Imperial Guard had come to the Academy, growing with each retelling and taking on a life of their own.
...especially as more victims were claimed each night, until at week's end, on the holy day of Void, all seven of the Counts-Palatine that helped to govern the realm had been slain.
Quite an unsettling turn of events, given that like Mott, each had been a powerful triangle mage who had once led armies into battle and enforced the will of the palace. Even if they had become somewhat corpulent, complacent, and corrupt in their old age, they were still formidable by any standard, as one did not readily forget the rigors of the battlefield.
Their personal abilities aside, each even had a detachment of soldiers protecting them, loyal men who had served under them in their regiments in times of war. While only a fraction of the forces they'd once commanded, these men were not to be trifled with, having experience fighting a variety of foes, maintaining order...
And yet, all of this had proved useless against the mysterious killer, with their defenses - their magic - their utmost efforts proving quite futile in the end, as one by one, they fell to the icy clutches of death, their brutally dismembered corpses discovered by their staff only when it was far too late.
In each case, it seemed no magic had been used, simply metal and sharp precision.
First the eyes were blinded.
A second slash severing the jugular.
A knife sliding up in the gap between ribs, piercing the chambers of the heart.
A sharpness piercing the abdomen and ripping the innards apart.
A slice from behind, separating the 2nd and 3rd cranial vertebrae.
And everywhere - on every surface, blood was splashed like splatter of paint, as if each killing was some avant-garde masterpiece, with limbs severed, sliced open to the bone and tastefully arranged as if to resemble the petals of a flower - a crimson and bone-white flower of Thanatos, with the pièce de résistance the look of absolute terror and surprise frozen on their faces
For before the inevitability of death, the weak and powerful alike were rendered helpless. Even the greatest of magi, normally so confident, so arrogant in the fullness of their strength, when pushed to the edge, unable to fight back, unable to even to understand how they had been so overwhelmed - finally tasted true despair.
If the timing of their deaths weren't quite so unfortunate, it might even have been darkly amusing - but for the high nobles of Tristain (and even for many of the commoners, for whom the absolute strength of the nobles was an unfortunate cornerstone of their beliefs) the current events were no laughing matter.
And in the absence of concrete information about the nature of what they faced, the populace came up with all sorts of odd rumors and speculations as to who - or what - might be wreaking havoc on the kingdom, desperately trying to figure out what was going on.
The most potent and primal of human fears, after all, was that of the unknown, as it was often thought that knowledge was power - not that such knowledge was of much help against an adversary who none had so much as seen. Thus, at night, as people huddled in their rooms, almost afraid to travel outside, hushed whispers flew about the possible identity of the killer.
One of the more popular rumors among the commoners said that the killer was the ghost of a vengeful maiden who had been violated by Mott, a shade who could not pass on until her thirst for blood had been satisfied. That she lingered in the city still, determined to hunt down all those she held responsible for her fall from grace...
Most of the nobles, however, thought the killer might be an elf or one of the dark spirits their ancient magic was said to be able to contract with, a being whose goal was to weaken the nations of man so that humanity would be unable to do God's work and drive the demonspawn from the Holy Lands, wreaking vengeance upon humanity with impunity. It was no secret that the elves thought of humans as mere barbarians, and that every time the nations of man had warred upon the elves, the human armies had been slaughtered without remorse, with elven mages showing utter contempt for man's futile resistance, reveling in the fear they caused as they demonstrated their superiority.
Some, with a broader or more enlightened view on politics and international relations, wondered to themselves if these murders might be related to the unrest in Albion - if the current goings-ons were the doing of foreign spies attempting to weaken Tristain so to make an invasion easier. It wasn't exactly a secret that the primary goal of Reconquista, the organization of rebels in Albion, was the destruction of the Albionian Royal Family - or that the Royal Family of Tristain was closely related to that of Albion, as the two often intermarried.
There were those who thought of this assumption of foreign enemies as silly, given that the Kingdom of Tristain had seen enough internal turmoil in the last few years. And with the growing dissatisfaction with Cardinal Mazarin's iron-fisted rule, it was not inconceivable that a group of the highest nobles of Tristain might have formed a cabal to overthrow the Regent's rule, with their shadowy operatives having infiltrated the deepest reaches of the palace itself.
...and a small but growing number believed that the killer was none other than the self-proclaimed demon hunter who stalked the grounds of the Tristain Academy of Magic in the form of a little girl, luring in her prey with a cheerful aura and innocent gaze-until she viciously ripped out her victims' throats with elf-like speed.
While the seeds of this last rumor had been started by the weak-willed Madam Chevreuse, who had never quite been able to keep her mouth shut, even, no, especially when she had dire news or some morsel of information she was supposed to keep secret, it had only grown as it had thanks to tantalizing scraps of information that had been released concerning the murders - as well as the killing of the de Montmorency girl and how that family had charged the Vallières with heresy.
After all, while the thought of a little girl, demon hunter or no, being able to slay triangle-class mages was absurd - when one considered that she happened to be the familiar of a Vallière, a member of the family that was recognized as the most powerful and independently influential of Tristain's nobles (not to mention an offshoot of the royal family with a claim to the throne), suddenly the thought became much less ridiculous to consider.
For none had chafed under the Cardinal's heavy hand so much as the Vallières...and no other noble family was quite as known for its strict manner and sense of discipline. True, they had been loyal servants of the Crown...but since the passing of the King, the Royal Family no longer truly held power in Tristain, did it?
It was well known that the Princess Henrietta was unfit to rule, that the Queen had no desire to rule, and that the true temporal master of Tristain was the Lord Regent, His Eminence the Cardinal Mazarin. Just as it was common knowledge that by the rule of steel, the personal credo of Karin the Heavy Wind, making her feared during her term as head of the Imperial Mage Guard twenty years ago - those who could not command did not deserve to be obeyed.
Thus, few believed the fact that these killings had begun a week after Karin's "talentless" daughter had summoned a familiar, on the night after Mott visited the campus, to be merely a coincidence. After all, if the child had truly been talentless, then surely she would have already been disowned from the family...and given that the first act of the child's familiar was to eviscerate one of the most powerful magi of her year with contemptuous ease, many were beginning to reconsider how "talentless" the Zero might have been.
For as the Founder Brimir wrote in his holy text: "There is no such thing as a coincidence in this world; there is only the inevitable."
It didn't particularly help matters that Viscount Wardes, Captain of the Griffin Knights and Head of the Imperial Mage Guard-the same position Karin had held two decades ago, who had been put in charge of this investigation (without any official results thus far), was known to be engaged to this youngest daughter of the Vallière family.
Still, Jacques de Wardes, the man called "the Lightning", was said to be a true noble, a gallant incorruptible knight of justice, and most had faith that he would find the killer in the end.
Or so the people hoped, as rumors continued to spread, carried on the lips of messengers and merchants who travelled through the land.
For better or for worse, most of these rumors did not reach the Tristain Academy of Magic, as that prestigious campus was something of an island unto itself. Yet there, the atmosphere was unusually tense, even taking into account the way students had been prickly and on edge following the death of one of their own. Perhaps this was because the rumor of the dread hunter had started here, with a nervous admission from a member of the staff that had found fertile ground in the imaginations of impressionable youths.
Under pressure from her colleagues, Madam Chevreuse had revealed everything she knew about the Mott investigation, crumbling to the will of others, as was her wont (she was called the "Red Clay", after all, and clay was nothing if not pliable). After her harrowing interrogation by Captain Jean-Jacques Wardes, she had been quite shaken, and during dinner with colleagues, her fellow professors had hounded her about where she had disappeared to and why she had been so nervous.
Try as she might, she hadn't been able to keep her mouth shut, and so the staff and students were beginning to hear about the death of the Count-Palatine, with all the grisly details thereof.
How the body had not been simply stabbed, crushed, or decapitated so much as torn apart, how Mott had not been killed as brutally tortured and executed, as if by a vengeful demon - or perhaps one who hunted them.
For as those who had read the ancient legends knew full well: did those who fought monsters not become monsters themselves in time?
After all, there had to have been a reason that demon hunters - those with minds of steel who fought against undying avatars of nightmare - had been so feared in their time, considered the equal of the elves. And given how the students of the Academy had borne witness to how easily one of their own had been cut down by a demon hunter - in the same manner that her ancestors had been said to kill off bloodsucking demons and embodiments of primal chaos, those childhood fears and insecurities, thought long behind them, began to awaken once more.
None would voice their fears except in whispers, afraid that the familiar would hear and take offense, but suspicions and speculation ran rife, nonetheless, and the tension was beginning to manifest in other forms.
People tripping and falling down stairs, normally talented students failing to cast their intended spells, careless mistakes on homework, explosions (not of Louise's making) in the potion-making classes, and one or two even suffering a breakdown at the sight of the edge of a knife carving into slabs of meat at mealtimes.
The sun shone brightly, the illumination of that fiery orb seeming to banish even the traces of nightmare and darkness from the world- yet just beneath the surface of reality, something dark and malignant lingered like a nameless curse, gnawing at the edges of perception.
Naturally, with the relationship of humanity to inescapable truths being what it was, many has turned to the defense mechanism of denial, refusing to admit that the chill they felt was anything tangible, even as they spent most of their time indoors, either in their rooms or in the great halls where they congregated for meals, instinctively preferring the safety of numbers.
...all the more so because the Zero and her terrifying familiar had effectively laid claim to the courtyard with their daily ritual of combat training, and interrupting them was considered by the wise to be tantamount to suicide. A familiar reflected her master, and after what had happened to the last person to anger either of the two, none of the students were particularly eager to put their lives on the line, finding discretion to be the better part of valor.
But perhaps they should have been more wary, as terrible premonitions could bring forth a terrible reality
And so it would play out in the week after the Mott incident...
Oddly enough, there was one person at the Academy who hadn't caught wind of any of these rumors, largely because, in the wake of the Montmorency incident, the notorious playboy Guiche de Gramont had gone out of his way to avoid human interaction, becoming something of a recluse.
His nightmares of death had only gotten worse, with anyone he talked to showing up in them as victims, so he withdrew from the company of others unless absolutely necessary, staying awake as long as he could, since the more he tired himself out, the greater the chance that he would not have to see those he knew butchered in his dreams.
'It's no good,' the blond fop thought to himself, as he sat in the section of the Academy's library that he had claimed for himself, surrounded by books and his bronze automata, ruling as a king over a kingdom of self-loathing and escapism. 'Everywhere I go, I see nothing but the dead...and the dying around me.'
He was supposed to be the son of one of Tristain's great captains of war, yet until he had seen someone die before his eyes, he hadn't truly understood what it meant to kill.
...what it meant to face the fact that he, and everyone around him, could be killed.
Like most young nobles, he had once thought himself invincible, reveling in the blessing of elemental magic granted by the Lord through the Founder Brimir. His skill at molding earth into bronze or roses had made him proud, but in the end, his pride was as toxic as the metal he worked (bronze having first been an alloy of copper and arsenic, not tin) - and though bronze was usually resistant to corrosion, as his pride had proved through many years, under certain conditions, it could break down in days.
Such a condition was the realization of the fragility of flesh, the utter frailty of blood and bone and how easily even a mage could die, which made him wonder how humans didn't just fall apart from the stresses and strains of each passing day - especially as they began to die the moment they were born...
'Ack...damnit, why do I keep thinking like this?' Guiche wondered, looking down at the tomes scattered around him in a vain attempt to distract him from thoughts of the macabre, to help him gain a temporary respite from the travails of this ludicrous world. 'Ever since she died...I've been a mess. I mean, I never really loved her, but...'
He supposed it was the fact that her death had marked his final loss of innocence, when he'd finally understood the ephemeral nature of life - and the world. How the ground seemed like it wasn't there, and the sky might fall at any moment...
Fortunately, he was jolted from his thoughts by the touch of cold metal on his shoulder, as one of his bronze constructs handed him a book, having interpreted his pause as discontent with his current selection.
Almost mechanically, the blond absently accepted the tome, only to double-take when he saw the title: "Steel Archontes: Echoes of the Age of Chaos."
'Huh...what's this? A novel?'
He was certain he'd told his automata to only choose textbooks and histories related to earth elemental magecraft, so that while he inundated his mind with an ocean of data to drown out the conflicting feelings inside of him, he might learn something useful as well - but given that they didn't respond well to complex commands, he supposed they'd just picked out anything with a metal or the like in the title.
'Something else to work on, I suppose...'
In the course of his light reading, he'd found that contrary to belief, a mage's power and affinity wasn't all that mattered - that precision of intent in how one used one's power also mattered.
For example, being able to create a golem that could respond to simple commands was good, but if one didn't focus on exactly what one wanted, understanding the composition of the materials in the finished product and the techniques one was replicating with magic, the result would be mediocre at best, the internal structure riddled with flaws that would lead to its phantasmal existence being crushed before long.
Comprehension, Deconstruction, Reconstruction - the three components of effective transmutation, with the proper application of the craft requiring a full understanding of the world, as well as intelligence and aptitude.
Perhaps these differences in precision were why there were differences in power even between those who could combine the same number of elements...
He blinked as he processed these bits of information.
Why...hadn't anyone taught that to him? No, a better question was this: when had he become so complacent, believing that knowledge and ability would simply come to him?
Was it because the teachers treated transmutation as something simple, something that any amateur could do with instinct and will alone? Was it because his father had been a powerful mage and thus he felt a sense of entitlement? Or was it because Guiche himself had let these things get to him, treating the gift of magic lightly?
Sometimes, he wished he were like his golems - a being of bronze which could not feel, given all that it was needed in its moments of creation, not be prone to emotion - a being which could easily be remade if broken. 'Still, maybe a novel wouldn't be a bad change of pace...'
The other person who frequented the library, with her visits so regular one could tell time by them, the powerful triangle-class wind mage named Tabitha, was often seen reading such things, and her abilities hadn't suffered for it...
'Maybe I'll give it a try then...'
Three days after the Mott incident, the rumor of the demon hunter and her master being responsible for the killings had consumed the school. Among the staff, opinions were sharply divided as to whether or not this was true, but most of the students needed no convincing, because from the evidence of their eyes, it was entirely plausible.
Thus the social isolation continued, though this time, it was not due to a desire to bully the Zero, but to stay away from her lest she erupt into one of her famous temper tantrums - especially when she now had the power to make the campus rain blood if she so wished, what with her familiar and the fiery Kirche by her side.
...that, too, had become something the majority wondered about as well.
Why had the triangle-class fire mage Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, longtime rival (and harasser) of Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière (as was only right, given the enmity between the von Zerbst and the de La Vallière family) chosen to fight the familiar...almost as if to test her abilities? And why had she been spared, when the last person to challenge her had been so ruthlessly cut down?
It couldn't have been mercy granted on a whim, given the longstanding grudge Louise held for Kirche, so there was only one possible conclusion: that some kind of accommodation had been reached by their families.
Something sinister was afoot, with this sea-change in the status of these bitter enemies heralding the arrival of something dark and ominous. For besides their reputation for love affairs and scandal, the von Zerbst family also had a reputation for being elegant hyenas of the battlefield, their martial strength checked only by the might of the Vallière. If these two houses had banded together in truth, putting their age-old conflict aside, the political landscape of the continent might well be rewritten.
Or so the rumors went, not that Kirche had ever paid much attention to them, as people usually said one thing (such as calling Germanians barbaric and brutal) while their actions told a different tale (as with the number of young men clamoring to be her lover). Of course, in the wake of her new association with Louise, many of the male students had ceased to grace her with their attentions - a fact that Kirche noted, might be related to the fact that many of their Tristanian lovers had decided to sleep with them, affirming that they were alive by partaking in the ultimate act of life.
'Taking sides, are we...?' Kirche thought to herself, shaking her head. 'Well, it's nothing I haven't seen before...and aren't they just scared that their acts might come back to haunt them?'
The same had been true in Germania, where Kirche had been expelled from Academy after Academy for behavioral infractions, due to the fact that others couldn't bear the fact that their actions had consequences. They did as they wished when they were in a position of power - but then whined and screamed when something went wrong, unable to take what they dished out.
Such arrogance was utterly unbefitting of a noble, especially when one put one's life on the line. Which was why she was more comfortable around Tabitha and the "dread demon hunter", as both of them knew what it meant to fight in the full knowledge of their mortality.
...this sense of camaraderie, unfortunately, did not extend to the pinkette that Mana called her master - the one that Kirche was currently "sparring" with, at the young girl's request.
'Though I do wonder where Mana disappeared to...something about a surprise.'
"Heh, nearly got me that time, Zero..." Kirche commented, as a blast of concussive force barely missed her side. "Maybe you should call it a day - since you're not going to hit me today."
" Hah…guh…hah..guh…why, you?" her training partner commented, brows knitting in anger as a wand was slashed down at full force-
-with the resulting explosion missing Kirche by a fair margin this time, angled too low and to the right.
Just as planned, really.
"You're letting your anger get the best of you, Louise," the redhead chided, launching a small fireball at the smaller girl's feet. Surprisingly, the pinkette managed to dodge while leveling her wand, though her breath was ragged from her earlier exertions.
Another blast erupted, this one aimed squarely at Kirche's feet, to knock the other woman over - but as the Germanian was a much more experienced duelist, she was able to dodge as soon as she saw the wand being leveled.
Even if one could not see the spell itself being released, one could at least follow the position of the wand, just as an experienced combatant could "dodge a bullet" by avoiding where a gun was pointing, even if one could not see a bullet.
"What you're doing is foolish, Zero," Kirche said as she moved about, smirkingin the way she knew would most infuriate the pinkette. "Don't try to suppress your anger...use it. Your frustration, your sadness, your despair, your fear - use it!"
A triple volley of explosions was Louise's answer, as the La Vallière simply tensed all the muscles in her body as she inhaled, relaxing on the exhale, her wand swinging up as energy was released.
"I'm...I'm not like you...!" the Tristanian growled, breathing hard, her muscles sore from trying to trying to land a single blow of Kirche, who was obviously on a completely different level than she.
"...which is why you can stand to improve," the redhead clucked, launching two more fireballs - one aimed at Louise - and the other in the direction Louise usually dodged, forcing the pinkette to desperately evade. A dangerous smile. "Now, stop trying to hit me and hit me."
Things were rather less violent in the Academy kitchens, where Mana Ryougi demonstrating her mastery of blades in a slightly different manner - by helping with a bit of the cooking and working on a small project of her own, with mixed reactions from the staff.
Marteau, the gruff, middle-aged but good natured head chef of the Academy and master of the kitchens, had taken a liking to the young girl because she had dared to stand up to the nobility - and moreover had beaten one in their own game, showing that they were not the invincible masters of the earth they thought themselves to be.
The fact that the girl with a refined air had good manners, showed an interest in the culinary arts (acknowledging it as something like a magic of its own), and had volunteered to share some recipes from her homeland was merely icing on the cake.
Thus today, he was humoring her with preparing food suitable for something Mana called a "picnic" (pique-nique), a term the Chef had never heard of before. The Ryougi heiress had explained that it was a tradition of preparing a meal to be eaten outdoors (en plein air), adding that since the students of the Academy seemed...uncomfortable with her presence, she didn't want to go out of her way to antagonize them.
"I could never do something so pointless," Mana had said, as if she were enjoying the casual conversation from the bottom of her heart, her hands a blur as she carved thin cuts of meat off from a slab of roast beef, placing them within several freshly toasted baguettes which had already been lined with slices of cheese. "Besides, I don't want them to end up suspicious of my disposition."
"I'm surprised," Mateau had said to this, as he sautéed some onions and wild mushrooms in a shallow pan over a central cooking pit with a chimney, the smell of it wafting through the kitchens. "I didn't think you'd care about they thought, Little Reaper."
"I don't, really, but it would make Miss Vallière upset to go in there and face their stares," the Ryougi heiress said frankly, pouting in slight displeasure. "Feh, they're all magi, so I'd have thought they'd understand what it means to put their lives on the line and walk with death. After all, Montmorency wouldn't have felt any remorse if she killed me."
"Ah...that's because of the noble sense of entitlement," the Head Chef snorted, shaking his head as he glanced over towards one of his helpers, who was getting an assortment of stuff buns out of the oven. "They think they're better than us just because they can use magic. Sure, maybe they can make pots and pans and castles from dirt, conjure up unbelievable gems, even control dragons - but so what! Magic doesn't raise crops, magic can't make art, and magic certainly can't make exquisite dishes."
"This is so," Mana agreed quietly, her sweet voice carrying through the kitchen. "Anything magecraft can do can be also done with the work of humble hands. It isn't a miracle..."
Somewhere behind her, a clang marked a pan dropping to the ground, as someone heard her words and was stunned, since everyone knew that magic was a miracle given to the nobles by God, and for all those who were skeptical about the Church, there were always one or two true believers.
"...maybe, but you still have a very callous attitude toward death, Little Reaper," the Chef remarked, eying the girl critically. "Who knows, maybe you are one of those ancient demon hunters come to life. Would explain your mindset about things, and why you dress like a noble even if you can't use magic."
"Are you calling me old, Mister Marteau?" Mana questioned sharply, truly pouting this time.
But the chef only laughed, a jolly sound that echoed deeply.
"The Little Reaper, old? Oh, perish the thought," Marteau responded wryly. "Even I, an uncouth commoner, know better than to call a young woman old. Especially one who knows how to use a knife as well as you." He paused, regarding her oddly. "Now that I think about it though, where did you learn to cook? That doesn't seem like a skill that a noble family - or a demon hunting clan - would treasure."
"Oh, that. Mother taught me how," Mana said simply, recalling more of her mother's mentions of travel to other worlds and other times, courtesy of Zelretch. "I still need to beat her one day."
"Heh. Well, at least one great house respects the value of the culinary arts," Marteau noted, rather pleased to hear that someone who was the heiress of what was essentially a noble clan was taught how to work in the kitchens. "Though..."
"You wouldn't have expected me to know how to cook?"
"...well, no, or at least nothing more than how to make pastries and soufflés as some nobles find popular," the Chef replied, tilting his head as he thought of something. "But you know how to make main dishes too, with one or two of them oddly like what Siesta has mentioned before."
"I see," Mana said simply, making a note to look into this, as Siesta was the only other person she'd seen in this land with black hair and vaguely Asiatic features. "That's certainly interesting, but could you have the baked buns brought over, please? The steamed buns should be about done as well. And the sautéed onions and mushrooms, if you're ready - they're to be put onto the bread."
An oddity for Marteau, half of these were baked dumpling-like buns filled with tender, sweet, slow-roasted pork tenderloin that had been diced and mixed with concoction of sauces and spices.
In another land, they would have been called Charsiu bau or Manapua, with both yeast and baking powder as used leavening for the dough, giving rise to the texture of a slightly dense, but fine soft bread, surrounding the sweet and savory filling.
The other half were fish-shaped pastries filled with custard or cheese and leek, in the form of the recognizable taiyaki of other lands.
As for the onions, mushrooms and fresh peppers, whey were put between the half of the sliced open baguettes, fragrant oils mingling together with the beef and cheese for an interesting aroma.
Just one of a number of different sandwiches being prepared in Halkeginia for the first time, as they'd never before been seen on the face of the continent, whether it was a baguette with grilled meat, cilantro, hot peppers, pickled carrots, a simple egg sandwich, or so forth...
"So...you simply hold the whole thing in your hands and bite into it?" Marteau asked dubiously, trying to get a sense of how this dish could be eaten after the preparations were done. "And you would wrap it in cloth of some sort until it was ready?"
"In my land they would use paper, but it seems paper is rarer and more valuable here. Even so, it makes it portable dish someone can eat while working," Mana noted, as she picked up one of the dessert taiyaki and bit into it, enjoying the way the custard and cream melted in her mouth. "Mm...this is good."
"...interesting," Marteau murmured. Meals in Halkeginian culture were usually sit-down affairs, since one couldn't exactly carry a plate around wherever one went. Slices of bread, on the other hand, or a bun...that had possibilities. "But what would you call them?"
"...well, in my homeland, we would call the open-faced ones sandwiches, while the others were various buns, but here, this is the first time these things are being made, and you've helped to put a unique twist on it," the Ryougi heiress said with charming smile, blooming like a flower without a trace of shyness or ill intent. "Perhaps the fish-shaped pastries could be called Marteau breads, perhaps, and these others Marteau Sandwiches? You were kind enough to let me the one who helped put this together for me..."
"Marteau breads..." the head chef repeated, as a slow smile came over his face at the thought. "I like it - and since foods are remembered longer than people, 'Marteaus' and 'Sandwiches' could become well known, especially if they do catch on with the working class." He looked at the girl appraisingly, giving her a gruff nod. "And what about you? Shouldn't you, as the one who came up with it, have a say?"
"Oh, it wasn't my idea originally anyway," the demon hunter demurred. "So I can't claim credit, not when it was in your kitchen, and largely at the hands of your staff that I had a chance to make these at all. Besides, the stuffed buns are already called manapua in my homeland...and no, not named after me. Just a coincidence."
"...cheeky. It isn't as if anyone will know the difference in this land, where these dishes are all new and exotic," Marteau said, chuckling. "But I suppose that will do. Let me get a basket and some cloth for your 'picnic' then, shall I?"
"Yes please, thank you, Mister Marteau."
"Anytime, Little Reaper."
Most of the buns and sandwiches were packed away, but a few were left behind for the staff to try as Mana departed for the courtyard, where no doubt her master and her friend Kirche were hard at work training.
Siesta had just come on shift when she noticed one of the sliced-opened buns, and froze, staring at the contents.
'A pork bun? But that's...'
It was like one of her great-grandfather's recipes...but where had it come from?
Listening, she heard whispers about the demon hunter girl and how Mana had made special arrangements with the head chef to make these.
'But how...would she...?'
The maid didn't know what to make of the young girl, as she had first thought the familiar had seemed kind and helpful, but then had become afraid of the girl after seeing the ruthlessness her sweet exterior hid, after seeing how she had taken a noble's life with seemingly callous disregard.
For more than anything else, Siesta hated violence.
It reminded her of the wont of nobles, as they belittled commoners, harassed them, abused them all their lives - even though it was commoners who kept food on the tables, who cleaned, who made and mended clothing keeping society intact - allowing the nobles to live a lifestyle they were accustomed to.
That the little girl had just killed one, showing that the blessing of the Founder, the prophet of God, was not absolute, shook her to the core. And for all that she was thankful about her prayer being answered - that she had not been taken away by Mott - the rumors of his grisly death were very frightening.
After all, if one simply acted as an executioner, using one's power to crush those who were weaker, how was that one any different than a noble?
She knew the fairy tales, the old stories, the whispered legends - and demon hunters in those myths had not been heroes, but men and women who became monsters in order to fight them, staring too long into the abyss to remain entirely sane.
Should she be thankful - or should she be terrified?
Siesta found that she didn't know.
In the courtyard, poor Louise had finally collapsed from her exertions, laying splayed on the ground with her wand having dropped from nerveless fingers as she could fight - could move - no more.
She hurt all over.
Her arms, her legs, her stomach, her chest, heck, even her hair hurt—
—and to add insult to injury, her stomach was growling, loud enough for her opponent to hear and chuckle about.
"Better than I expected, Vallière," someone said, as a red-headed shadow blocked out the sun.
"...going to gloat?" Louise croaked out, utterly defeated. If her rival was going to mock her now, well, there would be nothing she could do about it, since her familiar had disappeared and she herself was out of energy.
"...not really. You just started training last week, so for me to gloat would be in bad taste..." Kirche answered, amused at the pinkette's last stutters of defiance.
"...when does...ack...a damn Germanian slut...ever worry...about taste...?"
In response, a rich laugh, husky and throaty and resonant echoed in the courtyard.
"You've got spirit, Vallière, I'll give you that," the redhead said, plunking herself down next to Louise as her Salamander crept up now that the area was no longer being filled with violent explosions and blasts of fire. "That was your first actual duel, right?"
A long pause.
"Well, you weren't horrible," Kirche replied, smirking. "Maybe not up to von Zerbst standards, but since you're a Vallière, I can't complain too much..."
"...go to hell..."
Once again, Kirche laughed, giving her old rival a pat on the shoulder, which Louise withdrew from with a painful whimper.
And then they both stopped, perking up at the smell of something...edible. Neither had had the time to grab breakfast before this morning training, and so the smell of anything at all seemed delicious.
...though both wondered what Mana was doing as she spread a great bedsheet on the grass and started taking out loaves of bread with slices of meat, cheese and other such wedged between them, as well as some...buns? And a bottle of some clear substance? Glass, maybe?
"...what is this?" Louise asked, blinking at the absurdity of eating without plates or such. And without cups or such...
"...I knew Tristainian foods were different from what we eat in Germania," Kirche began, "But...I'm not recognizing any of these..."
"Oh, these are from my homeland," Mana cheerfully cut in. "Foods convenient for eating on the go, not requiring much effort to make or clean up. Fast, portable, and inexpensive meals essential to the life of a busy individual. Just grab and eat...oh, and if you wish, I have a bottle of iced tea."
"...iced...tea?" Louise echoed, not sure what to make of it.
"...this is probably not the first time you've heard this, but you are a very strange girl, even for a familiar," Kirche said bluntly, only for Mana to smile.
"You're right. It's not the first time," the Ryougi heiress noted, as she helped a groaning Louise to sit up and gave her a sip of tea. "Come on, let's eat...there's plenty for everyone." She paused, looking up with an odd expression. "Even for the girl on dragonback watching us in the sky."
Five days after the Mott incident, the girl Tabitha received a letter from Versailles, delivered via an Alviss in the form of a raven, with a glowing rune on its forehead, indicating that this particular automaton was a construct that was linked directly to her uncle's familiar, the Myozthirirn.
She had of course, reported the deaths of the Counts-Palatine as well as what information she had on the demon hunter to her superiors, given that her masters in the Order of Knights of the North Parterre would be unhappy if she did not fulfill her function, but she had not expected orders to come so soon.
Orders, at that, for an endeavor that was unsurprisingly suicidal.
Even for a knight of her stature, a disgraced member of the royal family who had fought against a great variety of enemies in her time, what was being asked of her was next to impossible under the circumstances.
However...it was not her role to question, merely to obey, as long as her mother's mind was lost and the body kept captive by King Joseph.
Thus, the blunette bowed low to the raven alviss, saying only two words: "...I understand."
The seventh day came without much ado - the Day of Void, when the two moons that hung in the sky overlapped, and no classes were scheduled at the Academy. It was a holy day, after all, the one the Founder had set aside as a day of rest to be honored by all magi.
Now, one would think that those who had been trapped within the walled compound of the Academy would take advantage of this opportunity to slip the surly bonds of academia, to get away from the presence of the one they saw as death, but one would be mistaken. The campus seemed deserted, certainly, with very few walking about, but the students remained.
They were simply inside, not wanting to go out, as they were gravely worried about what might await them in these times of trouble.
As for Louise and her familiar, they'd been restricted from leaving the campus, due to certain circumstances, and so had nothing better to do than continue their training - Mana practicing her evasion, while the pinkette practiced shaping and focusing her releases of energy, swearing under her breath that the next time she faced the Germanian bimbo in battle, the outcome would be different.
She was getting faster and more accurate too, as the sharp crack-booms of rhythmic explosions rent the morning air, striking 8 out of fifteen targets.
These were not the pre-marked targets of before, either, but targets that Mana scratched on the fly as she leapt about the courtyard, using her shinai to scratch an "X" into the ground and jumping away as Louise unleashed her attacks one after another.
"You're doing better, Miss Vallière," the Ryougi heiress chirped approvingly, surveying the results of the last few trials when they paused for a break. "You're managing to hit more than half the time now!"
"...not good enough," Louise said, her hands on her knees as she wheezed for breath. "I need to do better if I'm going to beat Kirche."
"...I like your resolve, Miss Vallière, but you really shouldn't overwork yourself," Mana replied with a smile, though an instant later her expression turned grim as she pushed the pinkette away, towards the wall, the runes on her hand glowing as she drew her combat knife.
"...uh...wha..." Louise stammered, confused by the turn of events and not exactly reassured by the knife. "Wha-wha-wha-"
Mana simply pointed to the sky, where an odd shape was getting bigger by the second - a massive beast of shadow and sinew, surrounded by a shell of arctic winds, with something shaped like a human on its back.
A familiar that could fly, large enough to carry a human - that meant that whatever was fast approaching was an ancient beast of myth - one of the most potent of familiars any mage could summon.
A dragon, perhaps? A griffin? Or maybe...
The blood froze in Louise's veins as the last possibility occurred to her: the cruelest of the beasts of the land, with limbs like those a lion, tail like that of an oversized scorpion (if a scorpion could launch wickedly sharp, armor-piercing barbs the size of one's arm from its tail), scales and bristles all over, and a roar like an orchestra gone awry.
'...no...why? Why is...'
A large cloud of dust rose as the fell beast touched down in the castle courtyard, with a knight in black and silver armor dismounting from it, wearing a pitch-black mantle that seemed to draw in all light. And from that figure emanated an aura of power and killing intent so frightful that, so that any who would dare to challenge it would first know true despair...
'...the armor of a Manticore Corps Knight-Commander...' Louise thought frantically, nearly crumpling to the ground at the sight. 'Then...that means...'
To her credit, she wasn't alone, as any who looked upon the scene froze before the overwhelming presence as the manticore touched down in the clearing - and she didn't fall over, steadied as she was by a suddenly sharp, focused presence that offset the other's aura by just enough so she could go on standing.
Indeed, her familiar seemed almost to be mirroring the mysterious knight in appearance, as Mana Ryougi was not wearing the charcoal-grey blouse and pleated skirt that Louise had come to associate with her, but something that seemed like a cross between a robe and a dress in the dark blue of the midnight sky, with hints of silvery embroidery that resembled the pattern of hemlock.
Blue eyes stared into steely grey unflinchingly as the demon hunter child faced down a vastly experienced and powerful captain of war, every muscle tensed in case she needed to draw her sword and defend the pinkette.
Seeing this rather unexpected display, the Knight removed her helm, revealing the stern visage of a living legend, an unforgiving woman with long pinkish hair herself, piled on top of her head in a severe manner, though the bottom half of her face hidden by an iron mask.
The legendary past commander of the Manticore Corps, Karin the Heavy Wind.
She who had single-handedly suppressed rebellions, caused armies to flee at the mention of her name, served the Kingdom as a faithful servant of the Crown.
...and rather importantly, the current Duchess de La Vallière.
She towered over both Louise and Mana, with her sense of presence making her seem even taller, as she moved with poise so exact and perfect that it made steel itself weep at its imperfections.
"M-mother..." Louise managed to squeak out, not having expected to see her mother in her full battle gear.
"Louise," the Duchess intoned, glancing at her daughter and then at the young girl who had interposed herself them. "And you must be the infamous familiar the de Montmorencys complain of."
The level of killing intent spiked, but the demon hunter stood fast, knowing that in any case, retreat was not an option.
"Indeed, Duchess de la Vallière," the Ryougi heiress acknowledged formally, her eyes not leaving those of the older woman, her guard not lowering for a second. "My name is Mana. Mana Ryougi, heiress of the Ryougi Clan."
"You are the one who ended the life of the de Montmorency girl," the Duchess stated. It wasn't a question, merely a test to see if she would acknowledge it, and if so, how she would do so.
"I am," Mana noted stoically.
"In a duel, and after she had surrendered, no less," the Knight's voice rumbled, the pressure of her gaze focusing entirely on the young girl.
"I was attacked with lethal intent before I even drew my weapon," the Ryougi heiress stated coldly, giving the same answer she had previously. "And in keeping with the rule that the only ones who should kill are those who are willing to be killed, I ended her life. If she would attack me when I had no weapon in hand, disrespecting even the fundamental principle of a duel, then why should she be spared?"
"You admit to it then?" the Duchess inquired, her voice quiet and dangerous as both sized the other up, with a silent acknowledgment between them that both were deadly individuals, their lethal skills trained and honed by practice, though one was vastly more experienced than the other.
For they knew, unlike most in a frivolous world, what it meant to kill or be killed, what it meant to live by the rules of blood and steel.
"I do," Mana answered, her form and voice unwavering even under the pressure of that much power. She had done what she had done - there was no point in denying that - and she would accept the consequences, as then and there she had not been wrong. In hindsight, yes, but in that moment, that was the only real choice she had had.
A long, tense moment of silence, in which Louise began to grow increasingly nervous.
Had her mother come to render judgment for what she saw as a crime? Was she about to die or be disowned, even after summoning a familiar? Even after everything?
The silence lingered on, taut and heavy.
"Good," Karin the Heavy Wind responded at last, looking at the Ryougi heiress with a touch of something resembling approval - or perhaps a mutual understanding between killers. "Then I leave the training of my daughter to you...Demon Hunter." She turned to Louise. "As for you, Louise..."
The full pressure of gaze fixed upon her youngest daughter, noting how despite Louise's fears and insecurities, she remained standing, and had not looked away.
"...do you yet know your awakened element?" the Knight questioned, as gently as a thunderstorm might.
"...not yet," Louise admitted, unable to hide the truth from her mother. "But-"
"I will hear no excuses," the Duchess intoned heavily, causing Louise nearly to faint with fear. But before she could... "Still, I admit I expected worse. If this is truly the familiar you summoned, perhaps there is hope for you yet. I am returning to the estate, but will be in the capital again soon enough to take care of certain matters. You will update me then."
With that, the Knight replaced her helmet and mounted her Manticore, as with a flap of its huge wings, the mythical beast vanished into the sky.
That night, the Royal Palace itself was besieged, as two assassins slipped past the mage-knights of the Manticore Corps, which had been left to patrol the perimeter of the castle, and entered the royal chambers. The Griffin Knights had been away, locking down the mansions where the Counts-Palatine had been slaughtered, trying to keep order and keep the news of the deaths from spreading so far. They didn't know who the next victims would be, so they had posted guard around some of the most powerful individuals in the land, such High Court Justice Richmon and others whose authority derived from the Palace.
No one had expected the final attack to strike at the heart of Tristain itself - for a murderer to enter the Royal Palace, slay the guards on patrol, and assassinate the Lord Regent...and the Queen Mother.
Even the dashing Viscount Wardes, who had been in the castle itself, guarding Princess Henrietta, had apparently not detected the killers until it was too late.
To his credit, the Captain of the Imperial Mage Guard and a detachment of his troops had confronted his enemies over the corpse of the Lord Regent, but they had been unable to detain the killers, one of which appeared to be a powerful wind user...
Interestingly enough, according to the records, the only Wind Mage capable of matching or beating Wardes had been in the capital that day: the Square-class Karin the Heavy Wind, the Duchess de La Vallière.
...mother to Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière, whose familiar was the demon hunter Ryougi.
'Enough evidence for people to believe what I wish them to,' Wardes mused, darkly amused by the way this had all ended up. 'A pity that they do not know the full extent of my abilities...'
Not that he let this show on his face as the traumatized Princess Henrietta, unable to cope with a disaster of this scale, relinquished her authority to him, entrusting the Head of the Imperial Guards to restore order and protect the nation as a true Knight. A state of emergency now existed in Tristain, and as the temporary head of government, the Knight-Captain promptly proceeded to impose martial law upon the kingdom, mobilizing the Knight divisions to deal with the leading "suspects" of what was thought to be an attempted coup d'état.