Zero no Tsukaima is the property of Noboru Yamaguchi and Media Factory.
Fate/Zero is the property of NitroPlus and TYPE-MOON.
I claim no ownership of the characters featured in this story. This is a work of fan-fiction.
Alexandriad: The Song of Fire
News spread through the Tristain Academy of Magic like wildfire once more. Late the previous day, a similar situation had taken place when the second year students had entered the school compound from the fields used for the Spring-Time Familiar Summoning Ritual, talking animatedly about the ceremony and spreading stories as they parted ways to their different destinations. This time the inferno began in the Alviss Dining Hall, with excited students racing through the halls of the school complex and into dormitories and lecture halls to let their friends hear the latest gossip and these, in turn, would rush over to their own friends, the news jumping like tendrils of flame from one fuel source to the next.
This morning, the point of origin may have been different, but the subject of conversation was the same.
The Zero's Familiar.
The summoning of the massive barbarian warlord had been the topic of conversation last night. And this morning, he was once more the subject of everyone's thoughts. Previously this had been because of his sheer physical presence and the utter absurdity of summoning a human being as a familiar. Today, though, it was because the dim brute had actually offended a noble and earned himself the right to a thrashing to be from the youngest son of General Gramont.
At least, so were the thoughts of the vast majority of the student population.
A few students who had actually seen the massive man walking around school with Louise the Zero sitting on one large shoulder were beginning to express their doubts as to the outcome of the so-called duel. After all, Guiche was only a dot mage and the barbarian was a very, very intimidating man. Many wondered what manner of idiocy could have ever possessed Guiche de Gramont to agree to fight someone so ridiculously huge.
Then they realized the question was self-explanatory.
For her part, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière was not sure which side of the increasingly frenzied murmurs she wanted to agree with. On the one hand, her noble upbringing absolutely could not let her even consider the possibility that a magic-less savage might perhaps be a match for a mage in a duel. This line of thinking made her worry about the safety of her familiar and, more importantly, what his likely humiliating loss would reflect on her and her family's reputation. On the other hand, she desperately wanted to believe that her familiar could be as impressive in combat as he was physically. She wanted him to win, to prove that it wasn't impossible and that, by extension, she herself wasn't a 'Zero' to be written off and dismissed. And so, she was of two minds on a subject concerning her familiar and, once again, unable to decide between the two.
Concern or support? Concern or support?
"Familiar! No, that is… um… Rider… well…" Louise started and then hesitated. How to say this? Her feelings on the subject were still a disorderly muddle but she had to say something!
"Out with it, girl. What is it that you want to say?"
Her familiar didn't bother to turn his head to look at her sitting on his shoulder as they moved through the stone hallways of the school and towards the agreed location of the duel. Rider seemed to be in a good mood, completely unconcerned with both the upcoming duel and with the gaping stares he was getting from the students scurrying about the corridors. Louise was unable to decide whether she found his confidence reassuring or annoying.
On that subject, how did he manage to make her so confused every time? Elation and frustration, anger and pity, concern and annoyance and… Wait, she thought as she shook her head, getting sidetracked. Concerned support! Alright, first, how to let him know he shouldn't underestimate Guiche? How to tell him to prepare for something that his tribe might be unfamiliar with? How to...?
"Guiche is not a bear!" Louise hissed urgently.
Louise had the good graces to blush at her hastily spoken words as Rider stopped in his tracks to scrutinize her carefully. She tried again to speak but her words became a jumble upon her tongue and only half-formed babbling stuttered out of her mouth. The young girl blushed harder as the increasingly familiar wide grin started to spread across her familiar's face.
"You're worried!" Rider exclaimed in a rascally tone, like a child who had just caught another misbehaving.
"What? NO!" the blushing girl immediately denied. "How could I possibly be worried about you, you rude, arrogant, loud..." Suddenly, she trailed off, blinked and sighed, "Wait, I mean, yes... Yes, I'm worried."
"Oh?" The huge man intoned, sounding amused, "Why is that?"
Louise sighed again. She was silent in thought for a brief moment before she spoke up in a calm and even tone. Her face was set in serious expression.
"Familiar, put me down."
Rider blinked in momentary confusion at the sudden change in her demeanor and tone.
"This isn't because you have to go to-"
"JUST PUT ME DOWN!"
"Alright, alright," the enormous man mumbled apologetically as he carefully lowered her from her spot at his shoulder to the stone corridor. "I'll say! You little girls can be very confusing sometimes."
Louise chose to ignore the 'little' remark as she stood on the cold stone and looked up at her familiar. She had almost forgotten, getting used to sitting on his shoulder, but he really was HUGE. She had to crane her neck to be able to look him in the eye. Maybe that was the reason why he was always smiling. If everyone had to strain their necks to look up at her she was certain she would have a permanent grin on her face as well. Louise restrained a sigh and pushed her annoyance at having to look up at such a steep angle to the back of her mind. A true noble knows how to focus on what's important and right now she had important things that needed to be said.
"Familiar... Rider, you're undoubtedly very physically strong," she started speaking and stopped when Rider began grinning impudently. She briefly wished he wouldn't smile so damn much before she lowered her gaze and continued speaking, "but all those muscles aren't going to do you any good if you can't even reach Guiche. You shouldn't underestimate mages. You shouldn't underestimate him and-"
She stopped to look up at him and was surprised to find a somber expression on his face.
"Girl," Rider said, his voice as grave as his expression, "you're not saying you agree with those murmuring punks, are you?"
"It's not that!" Louise denied hotly. She opened her mouth to continue and the closed it without saying anything. She pursed her lips and then exhaled a breath before speaking up once more, "Well… maybe a little bit. It would be unheard of for someone without magic to win against a noble in a duel but…"
"But...?" he encouraged her softly, interest written on his face.
"I want you to win," she replied in a small voice, her eyes downcast, "I want you to win and to prove that-"
"That's enough then," Rider interrupted her quite suddenly, smiling once more. "The possibility of loss never existed from the start, but if my tiny Master asks me to win, then I shall put on a good show for her. That is my spirit as a Servant."
Louise didn't know how to reply to that, so when her familiar began to stride forward again, she merely followed quietly after him, lost in thought, as they slowly moved through the corridors towards the appointed place for the duel. His confidence was reassuring, but a small voiced in the back of her head nagged insistently at her.
He'd used those words again. She could hear the special inflection in his speech. They weren't just words. They were titles.
Master... Servant... The Holy Grail War.
Was it truly confidence or was it just the madness speaking?
Louise worried her lips and tried to ignore the voice as best she could as she silently followed behind the steps of her familiar.
Uncaring to the young girl's thoughts and doubts, all around her students continued to hurriedly traverse the halls spreading the news of the duel. Their animated chattering flew through the winding corridors and flights of stairs of the various school towers. There was, however, one section of the school that was, for obvious reasons, taboo. The faculty and staff offices were entirely avoided by the excited students. Despite this fact, however, even without the aid of the students, at the very top of these sections, the headmaster's office was also the stage of its own share of exciting news.
The office of Old Osmond was elegant without being ostentatious. Rich, royal blue carpets covered the floor while the walls were lined with overflowing bookcases and the occasional painting. The headmaster's ornate desk dominated the center of the room, with large windows behind it allowing light to stream inside. The desk of his aide and secretary was nearby, though perhaps the lady herself might have wished it to be located a bit further away. The room itself was often witness to the headmaster's harassment of his secretary. It was also witness to the beatings Ms. Longueville retaliated with. This day, one such scene was interrupted by the unexpected intrusion of a very bedraggled Jean Colbert.
"Old Osmond, we need to talk," the balding man said tersely. His robes were disheveled and his face was worn, with dark circles beneath his eyes. In his arms he carried several large and slightly dust covered tomes.
"Oh? What is it?" The headmaster, Old Osmond, was sitting calmly behind his paper laden desk, smoking a pipe, the smoke of which lazily circled his head before wafting upward and disappearing from sight.
The professor opened his mouth to speak, but closed it without saying anything. He seemed to consider what to say for a moment before he spoke up again, saying, "I have strange news, sir."
"Strange news?" the old man intoned as he raised a shaggy eyebrow and stroked his beard. "Do these strange news involve our esteemed patrons paying their tuition fees on time? Because otherwise I'm afraid I'm not interested in more of your noisy research."
Shaking his head ruefully at those words, Colbert stepped forward and placed one of the worn tomes on the mahogany desk. He paged through it quickly and arrived at a particular page. Old Osmond once again raised an eyebrow in curiosity and was about to speak up before he was interrupted by Colbert placing a loose page on the desk beside the open tome. The old man's eyes widened ever so slightly as he rapidly looked over the page and the book. Quickly, his eyes narrowed and his expression turned solemn. Old Osmond lowered his pipe and cleared his throat loudly.
"Miss Longueville, if you could excuse us please?"
The secretary was slightly startled by the suddenly serious tone in the usually joking old man, but she stood up from her desk without protest and silently left the room. The headmaster waited until the door had closed completely before he turned to face the younger man. The old man's eyes were glinting like a hawk's.
"Alright, Mister Colbert, you have my attention," the gray robed headmaster said in a conversational tone as he took a smoke from his pipe, "It's not every day that people barge into my office like this to discuss Brimiric and runic lore, so if you could please explain your sudden interest in the subject?"
Jean Colbert gave a slight sigh, more fatigued than annoyed, as he sat down at the chair in front of the headmaster's desk and began to describe the events of the previous day. How the third Vallière girl had failed her familiar summoning multiple times before she had finally managed to call something forth. How that something had actually been, in fact, a someone: a huge and muscular man who dressed in a strange manner that implied he might belong to one of the various savage tribes that prowled the wild, lawless mountains and forests between nations. How the man had confirmed to be from lands beyond even Rub'al Khali. And, finally, Jean Colbert explained how when the Vallière girl had completed the contract it had resulted in an unusual burning smell and a strange set of runes.
Old Osmond took the story in stride without interrupting other than to make a disbelieving snort here or there. He intently examined both the tome and the sketch of the runes, trying to put his thoughts in order. Red runes? Unheard of. Familiar runes were supposed to always be silver. Something tickled at the back of his memory, but try though he might he couldn't recall anything. Instead he focused on the characters themselves.
"So, when you went to look up the meaning to the runes you found this? That the runes correspond with Founder Brimir's familiar, the Gandálfr?" he asked in an even tone. The whole story sounded preposterous, but the reason why Colbert had been chosen to oversee the summoning ritual was because he had a good eye for rune memorization, a skill essential for writing the annual report on the second year student's familiar summoning. It was highly unlikely that the man could confuse the runes, but still, as headmaster, he had to ask.
Colbert nodded listlessly. He sighed again and seemed, for a moment, almost as old as the headmaster. He removed his glasses from his face and massaged his eyes before replying.
"Yes, that's right. The runes that appeared on the man's left hand are exactly the same as the runes of the Gandálfr. You can see that for yourself," Colbert sounded extremely exhausted as he spoke, "I didn't make a mistake writing down the runes if that's what you're suggesting, Headmaster."
Old Osmond nodded at the words and said, "Well? So, what do you make of all of this?"
"The man is the Gandálfr, obviously, but..." Colbert hesitated and stopped speaking. He stood up and began to pace around in front of the desk and perspiration began to dot his forehead as he resumed speaking. "I ransacked the library, Old Osmond. Spent all night looking from top to bottom. Finding the corresponding runes was actually the easy part! But no amount of searching could explain..."
"The color?" the elderly man interrupted him in mid-rant, "Hrm... Well, certainly, the runes are identical and the coloration is definitely odd, but for some random barbarian to actually be the Gandálfr just from having the same runes... Have you considered that it might simply be coincidence?"
Colbert stopped his nervous pacing and could only stare incredulously at the headmaster.
Old Osmond just snorted at the tone and tucked the sketch page inside the book as he closed it and edged it away from himself and towards Colbert.
"Mister Colbert, it's been six thousand years," the older man said in a very reasonable voice, "Have you considered that the records might be inaccurate? Transcribing the same text over and over again across the centuries... Errors are bound to show up eventually. It could very well be that the runes," and here his voice gave a distasteful twist as he continued, "on the savages hand are simply an uncommon combination and not necessarily those of the legendary Gandálfr."
Colbert could only gape in amazement. The work of a frustrating sleepless night scurrying through dark, dusty libraries and it was simply being waved off as coincidence? Because the old man didn't want to contemplate the possibility of a 'savage' being the Gandálfr? Because the old man didn't want to consider possibilities outside of his current comfortable status?
"B-but...the color! What about the color?"
The ancient man drummed his bony fingers on the desk and looked contemplative for the briefest of moments before responding.
"I've heard say that the youngest Vallière girl is actually something of a lost case," the old man said in a voice that was somewhere between reassuring and dismissing, "One year of failures. Unheard of in the history of this institution. It's likely that the strange coloration of the runes is probably another sign of inadequacy on her part. The result of an improper 'Contract Servant' spell."
Before Colbert could stop gaping and formulate a response there was a knock on the door.
"What is it, Miss Longueville?" Old Osmond asked, completely dismissing the slack jawed man in front of him.
"Headmaster, it seems there is a large number of students congregating at Vestri Court to witness a duel," the secretary said as she cracked open the door just enough to poke her head into the room. "It's causing quite a commotion and disturbing classes. A few teachers have gone there to try and stop it, but their attempts to restore order are being hampered by the sheer number of students."
The elderly man grumbled a few choice words under his breath and threw his hands into the air in exasperation.
"Founder's name, there's really nothing worse than children with too much free time on their hands," he said as he tugged at his beard in frustration. "So, who's involved?"
"One of them is Guiche de Gramont."
"Ah, Gramont's idiot. Quite tragic that after two promising sons taking after their sensible mother, the third would decide to take after the father. Skirt-chasing must run in the blood, considering his father's an even worse womanizer. And his opponent is? Some girl's jealous boyfriend? A spurned former girlfriend?"
"...Well, it's not a student, sir," and here she sounded somewhat nervous. "I've been told it's Miss Vallière's familiar. The teachers are requesting you to use the 'Bell of Sleep' to calm down the students."
Old Osmond gave only the briefest glance to Professor Colbert before responding.
"That is absolutely preposterous. There's no need to use such an important artifact just to stop a fool from beating on another fool. Leave them alone to release some pent up energy. They'll grow bored of it soon enough."
Miss Longueville gave a curt nod and departed rapidly down the hallway leaving Colbert and Osmond alone once more. All traces of exhaustion had gone out of Jean Colbert and he could only glare at the much older man with a silent fury at having his work so thoroughly ignored and summarily dismissed.
"You've got a rather mean glare, Colbert," Old Osmond said non-chalantly as he waved his staff and a big mirror on the wall changed it's reflection to an image of the gathering of students. He peered at it and waved Colbert to come watch as well. "This is the perfect opportunity to test out your theory so stop glaring and come over here, will you? We might actually get some insight into the strange color of the runes as well. Come now; let's see if Vallière's savage really is more than just another brute."
The gathering of students was immense, consisting of almost the entire student body. Brown, dark purple and black capes were all present. The throng formed a wide circle around the solitary figures standing near the middle of it. Those at the back, near the outer edges of the circle, pushed relentlessly against those on the inside, trying to get a better look at the action, while those on the inside pushed back, unwilling to lose their spot. Their excited murmuring was a constant thrumming buzz that hung over the green fields of Vestri Court.
Standing alone near the middle of the circle, Guiche de Gramont's face held an arrogant sneer. Inside, however, he was actually beginning to feel somewhat anxious and nervous, though he would die before he admitted it to anyone. It hadn't taken long after issuing his ill-considered challenge that he started to have his own share of doubts about the impromptu duel. Quite certainly, a savage swordsman could never be any sort of challenge to a mage, but what if the oaf got lucky? With those bulging muscles of his, the hulking brute might actually harm his face, and what a tragedy that would be! Guiche had actually hoped that Louise the Zero would realize the hopelessness of her familiar's situation and force the tall brute to apologize, thereby avoiding a possible spectacle from staining the reputations of both their houses, but instead it seemed like the tiny hellion actually approved of the sordid affair! Was she crazy?
Said tiny hellion was standing beside her familiar and trying her hardest not to fidget nervously. Louise had not been expecting such a large crowd to show up and it was beginning to make her increasingly tense. Idly she wished she could feel and look quite as confident as Rider did. He looked completely unconcerned with the large crowd, standing tall and confident despite the teeming gathering. In fact, she thought, he seemed somehow more imposing than usual now that he had an audience. That strange sense of power that surrounded him felt practically tangible. How did he manage that? Before she could consider this further, Louise's thoughts were interrupted by someone shouting.
"I hope your hired thug gets killed, Vallière!" Kirche yelled hotly, eliciting chuckles from her mindless sycophants and various other members of the crowd. Louise stuck her tongue out at her. Tabitha stood near her friend and her attention seemed split between Rider and her book. She would study the tall man aloofly for brief moments and then, seemingly bored, would return to her reading, which she pursued with her usual detached interest.
Rider, for his part, was extremely pleased with the apparent poise displayed by his petite Master. Though she was of a volatile temper, she knew enough self control to be able project absolute confidence in herself when needed. He was also pleased by the fact that the frilly shirt punk had not run away. He grinned widely at the thought.
"Good job showing up, frilly shirt," he said by way of greeting. "I had you pegged as gutless after that stunt with the two girls, but it seems like there is hope for you after all."
Guiche sniffed disdainfully, his doubts and anxiety dispelled by Rider's barbed words. That no good brute was relying on insults now? Trying to be patronizing? Truly he was all bark and no bite. Guiche rested his rose on his chin and struck a dramatic pose with a theatrical sigh.
"Aah, Vallière, you really should keep your gorilla on a tighter leash," Guiche lamented dramatically, "His brutish features and senseless bellowing are fit to frighten a young maiden's heart."
"Like yourself?" Louise found herself asking without thinking. She raised her small hands to her lips but, too late, the words had already left. Why had she said that?
Guiche bristled as a rumbling chuckle started to go through the crowd, echoed pointedly by the barbarian's booming laughter. Both the master and the familiar were incorrigible, he decided. Why had he even thought of giving them the chance to surrender and walk away? They deserved the humiliation and the thrashing they were about to get!
"You'll regret that, Zero!" he called out, though his retort was mostly ignored by the laughing crowd.
It was only a brief moment before Rider got his laughter under control and he gave a hearty pat on Louise's back which very nearly toppled the tiny girl over. She let out a startled squawk that was part surprise and part pain, and then proceeded to glare up at him. He grinned in response before turning his attention to the fuming young man in front of them.
"Boy, the fact that you showed up at all is commendable. If you surrender and swear to fight by my side I promise I'll only beat some common sense into you and not, well, you know…" His rumbling voice trailed off and he made an exaggerated cutting gesture across his own neck. Louise sighed at her familiar's antics and restrained herself from kicking him in the shins.
Guiche merely answered with a snort and then said, "You've said enough, savage. Introduce yourself. It's time for your lesson."
The tall and muscular man shrugged his shoulders in a manner which said 'suit yourself' and then crossed his arms over his massive chest. Simply standing in such a fashion, he was imposing and, much to Louise's surprise, majestic. The crowd was once again abuzz with murmurs.
"I am the Rider, Alexander the Third of Macedon, The King of Conquerors," he boomed loudly, his tone a reflection of his total confidence. The entirety of the murmuring crowd fell silent at his proclamation. His simple introduction was enough to quiet the excited students.
Guiche, seeing that his opponent was winning the crowd, wasted no time in replying.
"Just as the mountains of savages are as molehills to the children of Brimir, so too are their kings no better than the lowest of rabble," the young man said with a sneer painted on his handsome features.
With an exaggerated and theatrical wave of his wand, three crimson petals loosened themselves from the rose and fell gently to the ground. A brilliant flash of light signaled their place of contact with the earth and, when the light cleared, where the petal had touched stood a feminine armored figure armed with a heavy looking staff.
"My runic name is 'The Bronze' and so, accordingly, my bronze 'Valkyries' shall be your opponents," the blond young man said in airy and confident tones. Surely, against three golems, the savage brute stood no chance at all, even with his enormous size and muscles. Just looking at the barbarian's confused and uncomprehending features made Guiche's confidence soar.
The splendor of his creations had surely addled the so-called "king's" scant wits!
And then the muscle-bound brute lost his mind and started laughing!
"That's it?" the red-maned man asked in between pangs of raucous laughter, clutching at his stomach and slapping his knee. "After all that posturing and bluster, that's it? HAHAHAHAHA!"
Guiche trembled in barely repressed fury. He was being mocked! Mocked by an idiotic savage with pretensions far above his station! And the crowd was eating it up! Chuckles and giggles were coursing through the gathered students again. They were laughing! At him! Unacceptable! Utterly unacceptable!
"I am Guiche de Gramont, he who is called 'The Bronze'! I am the third son of General Gramont!" he snarled between clenched teeth as he pointed and waved his rose wand dramatically to emphasize each word. "I will teach you manners, barbarian. Valkyries! Strike!"
As the final word left his lips, the Valkyries immediately shot forward like arrows loosened from a bow, their advance fast, implacable, and completely silent.
As silent, in fact, as Rider had suddenly become.
Without laughter, without words, and without wasted motion he easily sidestepped the headlong charge of the trio of bronze Valkyries as he pushed a startled Louise out of the way. His eyes had narrowed and were locked on the young man before him. The large man's dark reddish brown eyes were cold and his face was set, a somber stone mask. The sudden change in demeanor somehow made Louise feel very nervous and she rapidly crawled away from his side and towards the inner circle of the crowd, not even bothering to berate him for the shove. Rider paid her no mind. He was focused entirely on Guiche.
"Oh? The son of a general, are you?" his jovial voice was so at odds with his expression and perfectly audible even over the din of the metallic Valkyries clumsily crashing into each other. "A very poor general he must be, if his son cannot even think to flank his enemy when having superior numbers."
Guiche's face flushed an angry scarlet color and he spluttered wordlessly. Despite this, however, once the Valkyries regained their footing, they swiftly spread out around the huge man, one proceeding to stand in front of him and two behind him to each side. Rider had crossed his massive arms over his chest and was nodding appreciatively at the sight.
"Good, good. Not bad at all," he said admiringly, though his features were still stony, "But surely you can do better than that? Only three constructs? You must summon more, boy! Is that really all you can muster?"
"No! That is all you're worth!" Guiche corrected with a snarl and a theatrical flourish of his wand. The crowd cheered at his words and he grinned widely. This, he thought, is how it should be! The Valkyries, now positioned around their quarry, held their heavy looking staves at the ready and advanced steadily, barring any possible routes of escape. The huge savage, however, seemed entirely unimpressed.
"Punk, are you belittling my majestic worth?"
Without another word, Rider unsheathed the sword belted at his waist from its scabbard and the strange red runes on the back of his left hand exploded into a bright crimson glow. With a single sweeping movement, too fast for the eye to follow, its motion only heralded by the whistling sound of the blade cleaving through the air, he slashed at the bronze golems that had walked into his reach.
The clatter of bronze soldiers being forcibly disassembled, their pieces thudding to the ground below, echoed over the suddenly silent crowd, each of them frozen in shock and no small amount of fear.
"I don't think you understood, brat," Rider said in a gentle tone at odds with his crude words and terrible expression. "I wasn't asking you to summon more. I was ordering you to do so, so that I don't get bored."
Guiche was stunned speechless. His eyes were wide and unbelieving, and his rose wand suddenly slipped from his slack grip and fell to the ground. Gasps and murmurs were rapidly making their way through the unbelieving crowd. Louise gulped. Her throat suddenly felt very dry. She hadn't even seen her familiar move at all! Rider, his blade still in hand, runes glowing brightly, snorted disdainfully.
"Pick up your weapon, Son of General Gramont," he said in a rumbling voice as he pointed his sword towards the utterly shocked blond. "Our duel isn't over yet. Don't sully the beauty of the battlefield."
A fluke. It had to be a fluke, Guiche thought desperately as he picked up his discarded wand from the ground. Sweat was beading on his forehead and his grin was somewhat strained as he flourished his wand once more to summon a total of seven bronze golems. There is no way an uncivilized barbarian could possibly match a mage in combat. There is absolutely no way such a huge man could possibly move so fast. It had to be a fluke. It had to be!
Rider once more nodded appreciatively at the newly summoned bronze constructs. The gathered students gasped at the sight.
Guiche was actually going all out!
"Twice as many this time?" he said approvingly, "That's good, boy. Now, command your soldiers, Son of General Gramont. Show us what you can do."
Rider's confidence was absolute, unnerving Guiche greatly. The crowd murmured uneasily seeing that the barbarian, who should have by all rights been cowed by the sight of so many golems, was standing proudly without the slightest hint of fear. Louise gulped and her eyes grew wide as they jumped from her familiar to Guiche. Her familiar was a mountain of confidence while Guiche was beginning to look stressed. Sweat poured down the young man's forehead as five of his metallic soldiers flanked and closed in around their quarry, while the other two remained at his side to guard him.
An uneasy silence descended over the crowd for a moment as the Valkyries assumed ready positions but did not strike as Guiche warily regarded his opponent. The observing students crowded together nervously, but did not dare speak as they watched the two combatants. Louise tittered anxiously on the edge of the crowd unsure of what to do. Everything was happening so fast!
The scene lasted only for one eternal instant before being interrupted.
"My, it's too bad. You took too long and now I'm bored. I guess there really wasn't any hope for you after all. This is the end, boy."
The last syllable of his words was still hanging in the air when the muscular man leapt into action. A crimson whirlwind signaled by his billowing cape and the glowing runes at his hands was all that the startled gathering could see. The sound of his cape, crimson and gold, tearing through the air after him like a tongue of flame in the wind was all that they could hear. This was soon followed by the deafening sound of crumbling metal and a pained moan from Guiche.
A splash of scarlet stained the soil as someone screamed.
Guiche de Gramont tumbled to the ground, groaning. His eyes were wide and fearful. His legs had been slashed and blood dribbled forth from various wounds. His rose wand had been cut in half, the flower's petals scattered across the grass like so many crimson drops. When had that happened? When had it all gone wrong? This wasn't how it was supposed to go. The Zero's familiar wasn't supposed to be that fast, that strong. Barbarians weren't supposed to be able to stand up to mages, let alone injure them. But injured he was, and the pain drove him into panic. Terrified, he turned around and tried to crawl away. A nightmare, he decided, this had to be a nightmare. If he ran away long enough it would surely end, like every other nightmare had before. Sobbing pitifully, he crawled away.
"Don't crawl," the huge man said. He somehow seemed to loom even taller as he spoke, his voice arresting the panicking crowd and forcing them to remain in their spots. His face was an expressionless mask as he continued in a cold tone, so unlike the usual jovial tone that he favored that it made Louise shudder at hearing it. Impassively, he continued, "It's unsightly. You've got two legs. Use them."
Guiche froze and trembled helplessly, too stunned to do anything but to turn around and stare at the looming barbarian as blood slowly seeped from his many cuts. The nightmare wasn't ending. He was running away, so why wasn't it ending?
"Don't you understand what I'm telling you, boy?" Rider continued his voice cold and terrible, "I'm telling you to STAND UP!"
The young mage groaned piteously but, nevertheless, he struggled to his feet, eliciting gasps of surprise from the crowd. He was shaking all over and his handsome features were stuck in a frightful grimace. His elaborately frilled shirt was a mess of sweat and dirt while his pants were as bloody rags in tatters. The boy looked as if he had lost an argument with a manticore. He was thoroughly wretched.
"You're a fool, boy, to turn your back on an enemy that has drawn a sword on you," Rider lectured in a stern voice. "Don't you know that if you retreat in a panic like that you'll only get yourself cut down?"
"So… so… if I retreat, the sword will fall?" the young blond man asked in a stuttering, high pitched voice. His legs trembled and his various nicks and cuts oozed blood freely. He was pale, almost as white as his shirt had once been. Looking at him in this state, Louise felt a pang of guilt and pity.
"Yes. A disorderly retreat invites only death. Better to advance and face your enemy head on rather than baring your back to them."
"B-but, I am unarmed... Even if I advance, the sword will fall…" Guiche's voice was now resigned, bitter, and with a growing hint of anger. His legs were now rigid, and only his balled up fists and shoulders shook. The entire crowd of spectators, so scared only moments prior, were frozen in place with baited breath. No one else dared speak.
"Yes, underestimating an opponent you know nothing about is the gravest sin one can commit in war. Attacking blindly invites only death as well."
"So, I'm about to die..." the young man said and his voice was flat, filled with resignation. Tears began to well in the mage's eyes, his face becoming downcast. A low buzzing murmur began to cross the gathered students and some girls were hiccupping and crying.
"Yes, you are about to die. These are your final moments, Guiche, son of General Gramont. Consider wisely how you want to be remembered."
And Guiche considered. As the third son, his inheritance was nothing short of meager. His older brothers, so talented and brilliant, had already secured the family's estates and riches to their own names and the names of their own young sons. They had their own magnificent accomplishments and the fame to go with them. What did he have that could possibly compare? Nothing at all. As the youngest, the path had already been walked for him and he had sadly fallen short of those lofty expectations time and time again. Never talented enough, never smart enough, never good enough. How was he going to be remembered? Was he really nothing more than Gramont's idiot son? The laughing stock of the entire house? Weak, worthless and cowardly? He resented them all, he realized. He wanted to spit in their eyes and to prove them all wrong. But what did he have left now, beaten and bleeding, on the verge of the abyss?
Nothing but this moment and the memory it would leave behind.
Well, he thought as he looked at the faces frozen in trepidation of the people gathered before him, lets make it a memory worth holding on to.
With a shuddering breath, Guiche de Gramont steeled himself and spoke.
"Barbarian… if… if I'm about to die... the manner of my death will be of my own choosing!" Guiche snarled as tears streaked freely down his face, "You will strike me down, here and now, as I stand! Guiche de Gramont will die on his feet!"
No sooner had Guiche finished his declaration that the enormous man swung without warning and with blinding speed.
The sword fell, a silver arc, whistling shrilly as it cleaved through the air.
The sword fell and the crowd gasped and some, like Louise, shut their eyes.
The sword fell while Guiche flinched, having time to regret but not to escape.
The sword fell and the blade was stained by crimson.
"If you'd tried to run away again, that swing would've taken your head, boy."
The sword fell and while it broke the skin, it did not sever the head.
Guiche de Gramont fell flat on his rump, his legs giving out on him. He was still crying freely, but now amazement and surprise were mingled in with the terror of his expression. The crowd was stunned speechless, but soon cries and murmurs of relief began to course through the wide eyed young men and women.
"That you didn't dodge shows that you've got the guts to see your convictions through, boy," Rider said in a voice that was once again jovial as he sheathed his sword. "That's pretty courageous, but accepting death is easy. It just means you stop fighting. The harder choice is always to keep on fighting, regardless of whether you've lost your weapons. Even if the sword falls, so long as you're alive and fighting for your dream, you'll be able to go out with a smile on your face, rather than tears."
"W-why?" Guiche croaked in a hoarse voice. He had been ready. He had accepted his own end. Why had he been spared?
"Do you have a dream, brat? Something you want to accomplish more than anything else? Something you'd dedicate your life to and struggle to achieve, no matter how hopeless it might seem?"
Guiche was stunned silent again by the strange and unexpected question. He closed his gaping mouth and considered the savage's words. Did he have anything he'd gamble his life on? Just now, he had determined that he would die for his pride, but what would he live for? He stared at his trembling hands, but found that he had no answer to the question.
The young man shook his head and the muscular giant snorted at him.
"That's pathetic. Even a puny dream is better than no dream at all," Rider spat derisively. He plowed on, unheeding of the flinch his words caused in Guiche and some of those gathered in the crowd, "Punk, I spared you on a whim. You're only alive because I felt like it."
Guiche's eyes hardened at these words. Those steely and stoic eyes made an incongruous sight on his dirt smeared and tear streaked face. However, despite the wretchedness of his clothes, despite the blood and the dirt, he looked more mature than he ever had in his life.
"Good. Those are good eyes, boy," Rider said as he nodded appreciatively. "Let me know when you find an ambition worthy of those eyes. I can't wait to hear it."
The imposing man turned to walk away, his cape flourishing majestically behind him, but stopped. A sudden thought came to him and he turned around, a strange expression on his face. Louise suddenly felt very nervous. Had he changed his mind? Had the flight of fancy that had made him spare Guiche in the first place left him? Did the madness have its grip on him again? While she didn't particularly care for the young men and women who had scorned her and insulted her for a year of her life she didn't think she had the stomach to see anyone executed in cold blood before her eyes. In a small and hesitant voice, she spoke.
And was ignored.
"One final thing, boy."
Before anyone could react, Rider unsheathed his sword once more and swung. Guiche screamed in pain, and a new scarlet arc stained the ground a final time.
Louise had flinched, closing her eyes, and when she opened them again, she saw.
Across the middle of his face, over the bridge of his nose, the young man had been slashed and blood poured freely from his new wound, mixing with the tracks his tears had left on his countenance. He hissed in pain and raised his hands to his face, but his eyes... his eyes remained stoic.
"So that you will remember what courage feels like."
The cut was not deep. It didn't have to be. The scar was indelibly marked upon his heart and upon his very soul now. The wound on his face was just a pale reflection of it. Even if someday it faded and could no longer be seen in the mirror, he would always recall that momentary blinding pain and the intense feelings that accompanied receiving it.
He would always remember the feelings of anger, feelings of shame, feelings of awe, and, most of all, growing feelings of admiration.
With a nod of satisfaction, the enormous man sheathed his blade and walked away. Louise hesitated for a moment. Should she check up on Guiche or follow her familiar? The decision was made for her as the young Gramont was mobbed by the majority of the crowd. She silently slipped away and started chase after the retreating back of her familiar. Rider had stopped when he saw her moving and waited for her to catch up. Turning his face towards her, he lifted her to his shoulder wordlessly. Walking away once more, he called over his shoulder one last time at the young man they were leaving behind.
"You know, kid, the name 'The Bronze' does not suit you," Rider said warmly as Louise saw the beginnings of a smile tugging at his lips. "Instead I think you should be called 'The Brave'."
They walked quietly for only a few steps, the rumbling murmur of the crowd behind them. There was so much Louise wanted to say, wanted to ask, but she had no idea where to begin. Again her familiar had left her a confused muddle. The irritating man was good at that. Still, she had to say something, anything, so she once again took a plunge and said the first thing that came to mind.
"Thank you," the tiny noble girl said honestly. She blinked. Thank you for what? The words flowed from her mouth, unbidden. "Thank you for winning and thank you for not killing Guiche. He might be stupid and a pervert, but that's no reason to kill him over a childish duel."
Whether or not Rider heard her words, he gave no sign. He kept walking back towards the castle proper at a moderate pace, apparently oblivious to her attempts at conversation. Louise, however, was not deterred. There still were things that she wanted to say, and now her mind was clearer.
"Rider," she said hesitantly, "Why didn't you kill him? A flight of fancy? I don't believe that…Why did you put on that... that... that humiliating spectacle?"
He stopped and turned to look at her and she found that once again she could not read his expression. That inscrutable mask made her words catch in her throat and she kept her silence.
"Does he look humiliated to you?"
What? Louise twisted on his shoulder and turned to see the spot where they had left Guiche and the crowd behind. She hadn't noticed but the rumbling murmurs had becoming cheering while she hadn't been paying attention. The mob of young men and women that had been watching the 'duel' had lifted the young Gramont on their arms and shoulders, without the aid of magic, and they were animatedly throwing him and catching, cheering wildly and smiling all the while.
"Victory without ruin, domination without disgrace. That is true conquest!" Rider said somberly, in a matter of fact tone, as if that explained everything.
Louise couldn't explain it, but for some reason those words made her tremble.
It came as no surprise to Louise that classes for the rest of the day were canceled or that what remained of the day had passed by in a blur. That she had been called upon to visit the headmaster's office first thing tomorrow to give her account of the day's occurrences did not come as any surprise to the young girl either. While the school's rules did not expressly forbid duels between nobles and familiars, she was, none the less, the master of a familiar who had incited a small riot. It was the duty of a noble to be responsible for their familiar's actions and this was a duty she would not shirk.
In fact, she rather relished it. Her familiar really was amazing! He had defeated a noble with ease and his actions, his mercy, would reflect positively on her own reputation. Though there was still a long way to go before she forever banished the loathsome title of 'Zero', the first step on this long road had been a decisive and impressive one. She fought hard to restrain her glee at this thought. If her familiar had proved that it wasn't impossible for a magicless person to match a noble with sheer skill, no matter how improbable, then surely it meant that it was only a matter of time before her own determination allowed her to finally achieve the mastery of magic that was her own by rights, no matter the history of failures that she carried upon her back.
A proper mage with a strong and deadly familiar to act as her shield!
Aaah, what a happy vision that was!
The joyful reverie which had her rolling in her bed in delight was interrupted by a loud slamming noise which neatly derailed her thoughts. It had come from her desk and, curiously, she lifted her gaze to see what had caused it.
Rider was once again sitting at her desk, attempting to read and, from the looks of it, failing miserably. He was, apparently, right on the verge of losing his patience and she felt a growing fear for the library's property. This fear was soon joined by a sense of shame. Last time he had attempted to read she had simply ignored him. It had been a petty and spiteful thing to do, something she might have expected from her classmates but not from herself.
This time, there was no hesitation.
"You like books, don't you?" she asked tentatively from her spot on the bed, "Do you want me to teach you?"
Rider reacted as if a man waking up from a nightmare. It was almost comical to see the tall man so startled. Collecting himself quickly, he turned to face Louise and blinked blearily in recognition. It seemed that for a moment he had been so concentrated on the books that he had forgotten all about her presence. He stared at her blankly for the briefest of moments and then, like he had before in the fields leading up to the school, he gave her that familiar wide grin that nearly split his face. She carefully padded over as he stood up from the chair, freeing up the spot at the desk for her and this time, this time, she gave him a small smile in return. The muscular man's grin grew wider somehow at the sight of it.
Silently turning to the task at hand, Louise went over the books that her familiar had picked out the previous night. They were, as she had thought, a random selection of tomes covering the most diverse and completely unrelated topics. Quite likely he had not been able to read the titles so he had just grabbed whichever cover had seemed interesting at the time while ignoring the runic script. Louise sighed slightly in exasperation and picked out something simple, a children's book detailing the adventures of a heroic young prince.
"See this character here? It's pronounced as 'A'," she began as he pointed out a rune and enunciated its pronunciation, "and this one here is 'B'." Quickly, she had spelled out the title to him: 'A Brave Young Prince'. Rider, looming over her from behind the chair, nodded in appreciation and gave her a wide grin in response. Louise worked swiftly and efficiently, teaching the alphabet and the different pronunciation rules of the diverse runes as she made her way through the story. The young noble girl noted idly to herself that, despite his brutish appearance and fearsome muscles, her familiar was as bright as his keen gaze seemed to indicate. She only had to explain things once before he grasped and understood the simple lesson. The thought that her familiar was both strong and smart somehow made her feel a growing measure of pride once more.
"It really is much easier with you explaining, Louise," her familiar said with a note of approval in his voice, "Almost as if a veil were lifted from my eyes. Quickly, turn the page! What does it say here?"
I take that back, she thought angrily, he's an idiot after all. Louise bristled at his words and reddened slightly in annoyance. Things had been going so well! Here she was trying to be nice and he had to ruin things by giving her orders? Using her first name so casually? The nerve of him!
"Don't presume to order me, familiar!" she snapped irritably, "Your master is being kind enough to teach you and you don't get to-" whatever else she was going to say was interrupted as a yawn somehow escaped her lips in mid diatribe.
Exhaustion had caught up to her.
She tried to ignore it and continue her spiel once more and only managed to yawn again as soon as she opened her mouth. Rider laughed at her, loudly and without restraint, as if it were the best joke he had ever been told.
"You talk big for a little girl past her bedtime, brat!" Rider said as he grinned irreverently at her. Louise fumed and glared at him but didn't speak up for fear of yawning one more time and worsening his thunderous laughter. Rider laughed harder anyway prompting Louise to throw the book at him. It sailed past his head to slam against the far wall causing his laughter to diminish ever so slightly. Still chuckling, her familiar gave her a gentle smile as he lumbered over to pick up the launched tome and said, "Now, now, it's not the book's fault that you're so small! You should get all the sleep you can, girl, or you'll never stop being a runt!"
Louise let out a yawning sigh and felt herself almost physically deflate. The words were crude, yes, but they held neither malice nor cruelty, two things she had become intimately familiar with in her first year of school. In fact, the tone had been kind and it had reminded her of how her father and big sister Cattleya would fret over her when she was younger, wondering if she was eating well, sleeping enough or whether she had skinned her knees after playing in the gardens. It was... nostalgic and not altogether unpleasant. Before she got a chance to muse on this strange discovery any further she found herself once again lifted by her familiar. Louise tried to shriek in displeasure at being manhandled but instead found herself yawning once more.
"Nnng... I'll punish... you tomorrow," she finally managed to say, her words a drawl in between yawns. The short girl was nodding off as her familiar carried her the short distance from the desk towards her bed. "Sleep now."
"As my Master orders," the red-headed man said in a mock serious tone as he gently placed her on her bed. The short girl quickly latched unto her pillow and felt herself rapidly begin to drift towards dreams. Between half lidded eyes, she watched Rider move away towards the desk, his massive back and shoulders dominating the entirety of her vision, and thought back to the amazing events of the day.
Only one day and all she could recall was frantic haze of activity, like some half remembered fever dream.
She'd been like a leaf caught in a gale wind.
Her familiar changed things, Louise realized as she felt herself sinking into her bed. She would never have expected such a show of courage from the frivolous playboy Guiche in his entire life, but here he had been goaded into growing a back-bone in a matter of minutes. A whim of her familiar had changed him. Tears and blood had changed him. Spiraling rapidly into unconsciousness, she wondered if her familiar would change her as well and if there would be any tears and blood in store for her in the future.
The thought excited and terrified her.
That night, the young noble girl's dreams were overwhelmed by the deafening roar of waves lapping against a foreign shore.
There was nothing else.
The right spark can cause anything to burn.
Author's notes: Three weeks again. Disappointed with myself. I expected this to be out much faster. Oh well. As some of you might know, a full preview was out since last week in certain venues. Here's the final version with some further edits by alfheimwanderer and myself. Thanks to alfheimwanderer, DreamsRequiem, and Leopardbear for pre-reading. Thanks to alfheimwanderer and Leopardbear for pulling editing duties as well. I'm sorry that I make so many grammatical mistakes! Any atrocious grammar that remains is entirely my own. Thanks to the folks at SB for pointing out some simple ways to improve the Colbert and Osmond scene. Truth be told, that scene irritated me horribly while writing it. It was a necessary evil that I was none too enthusiastic to write.
Is it my imagination or are my chapters getting longer without my noticing? So much for aiming for a five thousand words per chapter mark... At any rate, next chapter should feature Siesta and Derflinger and, if time allows, Henrietta. I'm aiming to finish introducing the main cast of ZnT before I take an axe to the setting and throw it to the flames.