As the sun set in the horizon, the corridors of the Tristain Academy of Magic became tinged with a vivid crimson color, signaling the conclusion of the first day of spring and the sacred ritual indelibly linked to it. As decreed by millennia of tradition, the second year students had all woken up with the first rays of the sun to summon their familiar spirits on the day of new life, a rite of passage that would mark their full initiation into the world of magic and nobility, with all the rights and responsibilities entailed thereof.

For the ability to bind another to one's service, to command and be obeyed - whether by magical or more mundane means, was the fundamental principle of nobility and, therefore, with the exception of those born into royalty, who were already assumed by their descent from the Founder to have an innate mastery of magic, every noble needed to prove themselves worthy of their title.

And so year after year, decade after decade, century after century, young nobles at the various Academies in Halkeginia carved intricate summoning circles into earthy loam and spoke the ancient words of rite, one by one summoning and binding the magical beasts that would serve as their first and most loyal vassal in their careers as full-fledged mages.

This year's ritual had been like that of every other, with surprises, murmurs, and shouts of excitement marking each summoning. But now it was over, with the last rays of the setting sun signaling the end of stripling youth and the beginning of adulthood, with its broad vistas of fathomless possibilities and boundless dreams for all. For them, anything seemed possible - nothing was out of reach.

For they had proven themselves true nobles, blessed by the Lord with the gift of magic, set apart from common men and exalted beyond their ken.

...all except for one, that was.

For her, the youngest daughter of the most powerful and influential nobles in all of Tristain, related by blood to the royal family itself, there was no cause for celebration, no reason for joy. The fading crimson orb of the setting sun certainly marked the end of her childhood, but there were no dreams of glory or opportunities for her to look forward to, only a gaping void that threatened to swallow her whole.

For a particular pink haired girl, the setting sun was the funeral pyre of her future, her hopes and dreams reduced to dust and ashes scattered on the winds. In the end, her wish would not come true, with all the trials and tribulations of her sixteen years of life rendered void and meaningless, as she had proven herself to be nothing more than a complete failure.

Where the rest of the students had summoned any of an assortment of creatures, from those as mundane and common as cats and mice to those as exotic as dragons, reflecting their affinity and strength as magi, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière had instead lived up to the nickname she'd borne all her life: Zero.

'They were right...' she thought to herself, barely choking back sobs as she trudged towards her room, the sound of her feet against stone echoing like nails being driven into a coffin. '...that's all I am...all I've ever been. Just...a failure. Nothing more than a failure...'

The young girl's face was an expressionless mask as she trudged through the winding corridors of the school complex, yet beneath that stoic veneer, her heart was in turmoil, her thoughts a maelstrom of grief and despair as she was forced to confront the undeniable truth that others had shoved in her face since she was but a child: that she was useless, that she would never amount to anything.

That she should have given up.

That she should have known better than to even bother trying.

But Louise had been stubborn. She had angrily denied their taunts, maintained the proper dignity for one of her station, put forth more effort than anyone else had thought possible, and fought the unpleasant words of her accusers with everything she could muster time and time again.

...but in the end, when it mattered most, it hadn't been enough.

It hadn't been nearly enough at all.

The diminutive young woman could feel their gazes on her; cold, accusing and superior, like the eyes of those looked upon someone broken, someone crippled, who didn't belong in the company of her betters. An object of scorn and disgust, whose only purpose for existing was to be ridiculed. A designated victim for their insults, mockery, and various acts of bullying that no true noble would suffer without challenge.

If she simply had power, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière could have confronted her silent tormentors, throwing down the gauntlet as her mother had many years ago, and earning respect through strength and fear. If she simply had the personal puissance to match her family's name, no one would have dared to stand in her way, much less laugh at her and treat her as lower than the dirt they trod upon.

But she did not, and so endured those slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, because at the very least, even if she was worthless, even if she was nothing more than a lowly dog for the rest to sneer at - she was still a noble with a noble's pride.

For what other alternative did she have?

Reporting the actions of her peers to the teachers? A ridiculous notion – having to rely on those in authority would make her seem weak, even if their interventions stopped the bullying (that was, if they bothered to intervene at all—which they probably wouldn't).

Bribing a powerful classmate in exchange for protection, using her family's wealth and political influence as tools? No, because that would hardly be an example of personal strength, and it was almost a certainty that someone who had a hold of her weakness in that manner would be…undependable, increasing his or her demands beyond what Louise could actually deliver. Not to mention that her mother would be furious that Louise had done such a thing instead of relying on her own power – a gross violation of the Rule of Steel.

Perhaps she should quit the Academy of her own free will and simply go through with her arranged marriage to Viscount Wardes in order to hide herself from the constant humiliation? Absurd, as that would mean that she was admitting defeat, her actions showing that her peers had been right all along – that she wasn't a proper noble, that she couldn't do anything on her own. That she was simply a charlatan, a Zero who was worthless on her own, needing to borrow the prestige of someone else's name and power to mingle with her betters.

Or…should she do the unthinkable and run away, choosing to give up her noble title, living among the commoners, using her knowledge of the nobility and the connections her family had cultivated to broker deals and become a wealthy businesswoman?

'No. I'd rather die than do that…'

As if she would give up the blessings of nobility and live as a commoner, without title, magic, or influence, as even the lowest of nobles had more clout than the wealthiest and most influential of commoners. Perhaps if she were a Germanian, Louise might have considered lowering herself to the likes of them, as Germanians were so barbaric as to let those without magic take on the mantle of nobility, but she was a member of one of the Kingdoms founded by Brimir Himself.

No, there was no running away from the events of this day for Louise.

In the same manner that she endured even though she was exhausted, she would not accept any one's help. Louise didn't dare let her facade of strength drop for even a moment - even though it had been revealed through her own actions as being nothing more than bravado. Because if she did, if she acknowledged in any way that she'd been lying to herself for the last sixteen years, she would break fully and irrevocably.

Self-deception had always been a skill of the nobility, and so, though she wanted to run and scream and cry, though a storm raged inside her breast, she didn't allow herself to show the slightest moment of weakness in front of others, didn't allow herself to show them what they wanted to see.

And so she'd tell herself: "I don't want help. I don't need help. I can do everything on my own..."

Even if she knew it to be a lie, and wondered...

'How did things end up like this?'

] | [

Earlier in the day, she had awaited her turn at the summoning circle at which the truth of her existence would be made known, she had been trembling uncontrollably with terror and trepidation at what might come - at what unpleasant truths might be made known - at what she might be forced to accept. Much unlike the others, who chattered with anticipation and excitement over what was about to happen, over being acknowledged at last, the doll-like noble girl had felt only a deep sense of dread that would not be dispelled, no matter what she tried.

For in the sixteen years she'd been alive, the Vallière girl had never managed to cast even the simplest of spells correctly. She'd tried a dizzying array of chants, incantations, and cantrips of every element, yet no matter what she attempted, her efforts had been in vain, either producing spectacular explosions with varying amounts of force depending on the complexity of the spell and the elements involved (to the point of destroying entire classrooms), or worse, nothing at all, which had been happening more often these days.

Each and every time she had struggled harder than anyone else, worked at understanding the theories and principles of magic as few others did, trying to find out what she was doing wrong. She'd spent countless hours in the library, ransacking the shelves for any clues, taking diligent notes as she pored over any tomes she had access to - even seeking alternatives to the usual instinct-based method of spellcasting.

But in the end, all had been for naught.

Regardless of her effort, regardless of her knowledge, regardless of how desperately she wished to succeed, the outcome was always the same: failure. Sometimes it came with a bang, as an attempt resulted in one of the explosions that she'd become for producing (like her temper, overcompensating for her failure), but even that was preferable to failing to produce even that much.

After all, explosions meant she had some kind of magical ability...that she had least started to shape the elements of the world before losing focus or hitting some kind of mental block - meaning that there was some hope that she could find and correct the problem.

Not so when there was no reaction at all.

If one thought of a spell as something like a song, one's magical capacity as the air in one's lungs, and magical talent as one's control of pitch and volume, then an explosion was something akin to an unbridled scream or squawk, proving that one at least had some capacity, if not talent.

Which meant of course that there was still some hope, no matter how small, no matter how faint (hope being easy to cling to, as it was the worst of all evils, prolonging the sufferings of man). A tiny sliver of a chance at redemption, something so small that no one in their right mind would accept it, but which someone who had not other option but defeat would latch onto all the more desperately.

People knew this, which was why those in such a state were laughed at, jeered at, spat upon - because they dared to hope, because they dared to strive in vain for a goal they would never reach, as opposed to accepting the truth that what they desired was impossible to achieve.

For they saw those scraps of attention as better, saw humiliation and ridicule as a twisted form of acknowledgement that their peers saw fit to even take notice of them - not that any of them would admit it. For more than simply failing to control a spell, what was worse was to not even be able to attempt one, rendering a noble no more than a peasant - a crippled, diseased worm who was utterly deaf and mute and blind, who others ignored, lest the very air and ground become tainted by their unnatural existence.

So nobles believed - as they were special, more complete than commoners, they told themselves, biology aside. But then, it was said that the main quality that separated humans from the beasts they'd evolved from was the ability to deceive, and of all the lies one told in life, the most important were told to the self.

The lie that one was not responsible for one's actions, that one was merely acting out the will of some imaginary being, who dispensed blessings or punishments as He saw fit, elevating one people over another on a whim.

The lie that an individual was important, when each human was merely an insignificant speck, all but invisible against the backdrop of the pale blue dot of the world.

And most of all, the lie that anything was possible, if one simply believed strongly enough and tried with all one's might - though this was an illusion only the nobles of Halkeginia clung to, with the commoners having long learned the futility of hope, resigning themselves to their lot in life. Perhaps they were the smart ones, as those who did not dare to dream, keeping themselves grounded in the harsh realities of the world, rarely tasted disappointment.

No, such things as wishes and desires were better left to mages, those who could compel the elements of the world upon a whim - except when they couldn't, with those sad few ridiculed for their failures, even if they had reached great heights of political power.

King Joseph of Gallia, for instance, who was regarded as talentless, an utter failure at magic in comparison to his brother Charles (who in life had been an elemental master who could wield earth, fire, wind, and water with aplomb), was called "Joseph the Fool" in secret, thought to be a simple-minded man incapable of ruling, as he was incapable of using magic, holding the throne only due to the nobles' grudging respect for the right of blood.

And if he, who was a direct descendant of one of the bloodlines of the Founder, could be so hated and reviled for his deficiency, how much worse would a mere noble be treated, if incapable of using magic?

Such a thought had been at the forefront of the mind of Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière for many weeks now, as the final trial was upon her, in which she would either succeed and prove herself worthy of her noble title - or fail, and be cast out into ranks of the frenzied, starving masses, which would surely tear her to shreds.

A thousand times before she'd failed, earning detentions, laughs, and the contempt of her peers, but this time, the price was infinitely higher. This time, if she failed - it would be her end.

Were she anyone else, she would have already been dismissed from the Academy, sent home in disgrace, where she would either be disowned or married off at her young age - and she knew it.

She'd only been given so many chances as it was because of her pedigree, as a daughter of the highest ranking noble in the Kingdom of Tristain, but even the fullness of the power of a Duke, or any temporal power, for that matter, could not overturn the edicts of God, could not trump the doctrine passed down by the Holy Church for over six thousand years.

And so, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière walked towards the circle like a condemned woman to the gallows, with her gathered peers already jeering or placing bets on how spectacularly she would fail. She did not meet their eyes, simply focusing upon what she wanted to summon - no, upon the fact that she had to succeed - with all of her might.

Her feet moved mechanically, carrying her to the spot in which so many had stood before her, her wand held tightly between bloodless fingers as she took a deep, shuddering breath, preparing to cast the ritual spell of summoning.

This was it.

At long last, she would be judged by God and the Founder, with her future hanging in the balance.

"Proceed, Miss Vallière."

Three words spoken by the usually supportive Professor Colbert, the bumbling man who was the chief instructor of the second year students.

Three words that to her seemed as ominous as the thud of an invisible executioner's axe.

Now that the moment of truth had arrived, there was no avoiding it - what she'd dreaded, hoped, and feared for years was finally here. She had prepared for the ritual as best she could, practicing the wand motions, memorizing the ritual chant, even visiting the cathedral in the capital and praying to the Lord, stressing out about what might come to pass - but there was nothing to be done now.

Nothing but to cast the spell.

And so, without regret or hesitation, her eyes clear and defiant, she spoke the words of rite, feeling the magic rise from within her at her will.

"I beg of you..." the strawberry blonde intoned, straining as she reached out with willpower she had, every nerve alive as her power pulsed from her core, as she fought to contain it, direct it, weave it into the patterns it was meant to follow. "My slave who lives somewhere in the universe...oh sacred, beautiful and strong familiar spirit!" she continued, beads of sweat gathering on her brow as she fought her magic natural tendency to go berserk, to refuse to submit - for if there was ever a time she needed a victory, it was now. "I desire and I plead from my heart...answer to my guidance..."

All at once, the circle began to glow as power welled, a scorching wind bursting forth from Louise's form as pure magical energy arose, converging and spinning like a second sun.


Ashudder ran through the Vallière girl as her nerves, muscles, and blood rioted in her body, every bit dancing as if mad, possessed by the storm of magical energy exploding from every pore like a blaze.

Despite the pain, the white-hot agony so great she felt as if she would lose her mind (or maybe because of it), a single word was hissed out in desperation, rising to a scream to ward off the pinkette's fear of losing herself.


KABOOM! power, glorious in its magnitude, burst forth in the form of a shockwave that shook the Academy itself, with Louise's peers literally bowled over by sudden onslaught of magical might. Impossible amounts of energy spiraled from the girl, as she threw everything she had into the summoning, with the world disappearing into a haze of light and smoke and noise.

An explosion.

One that knocked her arse over teakettle, going literally head over heels to do a faceplant in the sod. She lay there for several long seconds, feeling every bit of her body seeming to cry out in muddy humiliation, but forced herself to her feet despite how much she wanted to just crawl into the ground and die.

But she would not.

She was a Vallière, after all, and would not, could not, admit to failure.

Thus, as the wind blew away the dust and smoke of the earlier explosion, the pinkette struggled to her feet, coughing as she tried to clear her lungs of the smoke lingering within, her body utterly numb.

Around her, there was much irate muttering and people outright cursing her name, but Louise did not care at this point. Slowly, the smoke was clearing, and perhaps this once she would succeed. A flicker of motion caught her eye, and she whirled, looking intently towards whatever it had been, hoping to see the strong, beautiful, and noble…

"...heh, hey, look at that. Zero summoned nothing!" a heckler called, causing Louise to pale as if confronted with death as her eyes confirmed the sight.


That was what she had summoned, what her magic had called forth.

No creature, magical or mundane. No living thing, great or small. Just dust and echoes, lingering over a circular patch of earth fused into glass, with stray wisps of smoke rising into the air.

She had failed.

The ensuing laughter was nearly deafening in its intensity.

Louise turned her head angrily towards the crowd, only to see that quite a few of the gathered students were actually clutching their sides, unable to hold in their raucous mirth, as they watched her, their familiars at their sides, as if casting judgement on her. Of note were the reactions of three individuals.

Guiche de Gramont, blond fop of a playboy, most popular boy in her year for reasons she could not comprehend, was chuckling loudly at her misfortune. Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency, the blonde potions maker who was his on-again, off-again lover, was joining in the merriment, her annoying cackle distinctly recognizable above the titters and jeers of others.

And worst of all was her self-proclaimed rival, Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, the Germanian bimbo (and fire mage), who was actually crying, wiping tears of mirth from her eyes from laughing too hard. She didn't even pretend to be embarrassed, being as wanton and loose about her emotions as always.

About the only one that wasn't laughing was the Gallian girl, Tabitha, and that was probably only because the blunette was so engrossed by her book that she ignored her surroundings utterly. To be honest, it would have surprised Louise had the wind mage joined in heckling her, as no one had seen so much as a trace of emotion from the diminutive girl - she was really more of an emotionless doll than a proper human being, with Louise finding her presence rather disturbing with the way she simply looked intently at scenes - much as the gaze of Tabitha's dragon was also quite unsettling, as the reptilian beast looked intently at the place where the explosion had erupted for a moment, before shaking itself, and returning to passivity.

Seeing these reactions, Louise fumed with impotent anger and stomped her feet on the ground, feeling her wand rise unbidden once more as she considered - momentarily - blasting the entire crowd with an explosion.

(It wasn't as if she could use a silence spell to quiet them, since she had shown a disturbing lack of ability with such basic cantrips as those).

She forced her arm back down, however, and settled for leveling a furious glare at them as fierce as that of a basilisk. If nothing else, she'd inherited that much from her legendary mother, Karin the Heavy Wind, the raw ire in her gaze jarring a number of the others from their merriment - though the majority continued laughing regardless.

Continued, that was, until Professor Colbert took it upon himself to calm the rest of the crowd with sharp words and an authoritative look.

"Settle down, everyone, settle down," the balding man said in a kindly yet commanding tone as he looked over the gathered crowd of students, looking vaguely disapproving of their lack of respect during the holy rite. "I'm sure Miss Vallière just made a small mistake, and since she obviously has some kind of power, she will be permitted to try again."

Had she managed to summon anything, this wouldn't be the case, as there were no second chances after ones magic chose a familiar spirit.

Second chances at all were unprecedented, but then, no one had ever failed to summon a familiar, to Colbert's knowledge, and he was willing to allow the poor girl another attempt, since she was of a distinguished noble lineage (the daughter of Tristain's last great war hero, no less, whose family had all displayed remarkable aptitude in the thaumaturgical arts).

Hearing the professor's judgement, Louise grit her teeth, not knowing whether to cry in relief or scream in frustration.

For despite her instructor's natural assumption, she hadn't made a mistake.

She'd done everything perfectly, from the chant, to the wand motions, to controlling the energies of magic - but nothing had appeared.

'And now I have to try again...'

She didn't want to have to try again - to start from scratch, repeating the summoning by inscribing the summoning circle from memory and reciting the words of rite. To beg and plead for her wish to be answered, with the hope that something would appear being weighted against the pit of dread certainty that result would be the same, no matter what she did.

The certainty that everyone would be shown the truth - that she had not simply made a mistake - that her very existence was a mistake.

But she didn't have a choice, as her pride would not allow her to accept defeat.

All she wanted - all she needed - was one success. Just this once - and then her trials would be at an end, even if she never used magic again for the rest of her life. Even if she never succeeded again, even if the others continued to jeer and laugh at her failures, this moment was all that mattered.

One miracle in a lifetime - was that truly too much to ask?

The young woman could feel her face turning red from mingled embarrassment and anger, as she waited for the chuckling and giggling to abate, for the cruel thorns and barbs of hateful words to fade from immediacy, forcing herself to maintain a semblance of control as she breathed in and out rhythmically.

'I can do this. I'll show them...I can do this...'

So she told herself as she walked to a patch of unmarred ground and knelt, her body moving nigh instinctively as she etched the sigils and runes of the summoning circle into the soil, invoking the four natural elements and the blessing of the Void with a reverent murmur.

And then she stood, raising her wand once more as she chanted, the crowd falling silent out of respect for the holy ritual.

"I beg of you..." the strawberry blonde spoke again, clearing her mind of everything unnecessary, trying to purge herself of weakness. For in the moment, all that mattered was being a vessel for the ceremony's use, becoming a blank to let the ancient spell devised by the Founder work in her, through her, around her.

This time, as once again, magic surged and her body trembled, she spoke the solemn words of rite, but added another line, words that cut to the quick of the matter, as for this ceremony, the pattern of runes mattered not as much as one's intent.

"In the name of of the Pentagon of the Five Elemental Powers, I, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière..." She paused for a moment, her brow furrowing as an uncontrolled spike of magical energy nearly brought her to her knees. "I, following my fate...summon a familiar. Cross time, cross land, cross wind and sea - my slave that lives somewhere in the universe...oh sacred, beautiful and strong familiar spirit. Come! Come to me!"

As if to punctuate her final words, the strawberry blonde stabbed the air with her wand, as if plunging a knife into a target-and before her eyes, a mirror-shaped gate formed from her inner magic channeled through the circle, in every way like those that her classmates had called forth, shining with a brilliant inner light.

Hypnotized by the beauty of it - by the wild hope that she might have at last succeeded, Louise squinted her eyes, peering through the looking glass at what lay beyond - only to find it utterly beyond her comprehension, as jumbled scenes and images flickered across a mirror-smooth surface, with nothing coherent except for a vague feeling of utter nothingness and despair screaming from the expanse of darkness.

Then the image clouded over, the faint light of the gate eroded away before her eyes as the surface dulled and grew dark, like a gem that had lost its inner fire, collapsing in upon itself with an anguished shriek and a sound not unlike the cracking of glass...


...and of course, the customary explosion that was the end result of most of the Vallière girl's spells gone awry, with her bearing the brunt of the blast as she was unceremoniously flung to the ground once again, her face, blouse and cloak stained with mud, grass, and dust, as if she was but a common laborer who slaved away in the fields.

"Heh, now how you look on the outside truly reflects how you are on the inside, Louise the Zero!" sneered the blonde with curly drill-like hair and freckles on her face, rather amused at the pinkette's disheveled state.

" don't have any right to insult me, Montmorency the Flood!" Louise bit back, the fires of anger banishing the disappointment brewing in her breast as she forced herself to her feet, the courtyard ringing with hateful laughter once more.

At this, the blonde started, her laughter trailing off as she almost seemed to snarl, her eyes twitching.

"Who are you calling 'the Flood', you miserable failure?" the other replied haughtily. "I am Montmorency the Fragrance, an elegant water mage and mistress of potions! Besides, I'm not insulting you - I'm just saying what everyone already knows, Zero."

Louise flinched as if struck, balling her fists by her side as her body went rigid. Her mind went blank on hearing the hurtful words the blonde spoke, and instinctively, she lashed out, wanting to make her attacker think twice before hurling more insults at her.

"Oh?" Louise asked, glaring venomously at the water mage. "But didn't everyone know you still wet the bed like a flood? That's why you're Montmorency 'the Flood'!"


The two locked eyes, and for a few tense moments, the others around them were afraid that magical violence would break out on the day of this sacred ceremony. And on any other day, they might well have had reason to worry, as lives had been lost over insults far less grave.

Such was why the Academy now frowned upon the old practice of duels to the death, having officially replaced them with "spars" using spells of low lethality, with bouts decided at the first blood - or when one party was disarmed, whichever came first. Not that duels didn't still occur, regardless, with the deaths or injuries that resulted overlooked by most, for in Halkeginian society, strength was everything, so it would be unreasonable to punish the strong for crushing those who would dare challenge them.

For Montmorency Margarita La Fère de Montmorency, the thought of teaching the Zero a true lesson was tempting...very, very, tempting, and were it any other day, any other time besides the Springtime Familiar Summoning, she would probably have given in to the urge to utterly crush the Vallière girl.

But as it was...

"I hadn't expected better manners from Louise the Zero," the blonde ground out, grudgingly forcing herself to stand down. "After all, someone who can't properly use magic obviously can't be held to the standards of a proper noble."

Louise grit her teeth at this, her wand flashing out in anger as the barb struck home, but she barely managed to restrain herself from blowing the water mage up with the knowledge that the other was trying to bait her into resorting to violence.

'Calm down. The Flood isn't worth it...she's just a stupid girl who wets the bed...' she told herself, lowering her wand, only to see a rather perturbed-looking Professor Colbert observing the standoff. 'She just picks on me because her family lost most of their power in a scandal - because I remind her of what happened to them. Someone with something to prove...'

Or so she told herself, so that she would not have to admit that the blonde probably just picked on Louise because she was a convenient victim.

"Students. Nobles ought to show each other the proper respect," the balding flame mage admonished, rather disapproving of how quick to anger his students were. But then, they were young and foolish, prone to outbursts of emotion and believing everything could be solved with the application of force - making them the same as most nobles who had not been plunged into despair, who had not been betrayed by those they once trusted, forced to confront the fact that everything they had had been taught, everything they had placed their faith in, was a lie. "Again, if you please, Miss Vallière..."

Louise simply nodded, scratching the summoning circle into the dirt once more and chanting the words of rite, desperately pleading with all her heart for something to heed her call, to answer her.

"Please..." she whispered to herself, swallowing as she endured the pain of terrible quantities of magical energies tearing through her for the third time that day. "If there's anyone… anything… out there… please… hear me. Please...grant me my wish! Answer me!"

The well of power roared, winds bidding defiance to the binds of logic as a maelstrom erupted from her body and tore through everything in its path. Air, ground, water-the fabric of worlds-time and space itself - the surge ripped through all of these with a song of grief and despair, reaching, reaching, reaching out for the familiar that would best suit her.

But this attempt too, was a failure, as her magic betrayed her. In her body's ravaged state, and with her emotions as they were, she was unable to maintain control, and so the great storm simply...died, sputtering out as if it had never been there, with the pinkette forced to her knees by the incredible pain.


The stench of burnt flesh and dirt clung to her clothes and skin, and as the crowd jeered at her failure as they might at the execution of some criminal, she desperately clutched her wand and chanted again, again, again!

Several attempts passed, explosions echoing one after the next, each more anemic than the last as Louise slowly began to run out of willpower, her mind slowly becoming resigned to the fact that she would have to endure a fate worse than death: living on, knowing she was a failure.

By now, no one was laughing, with jeers and heckling replaced by hushed whispers and queries, wondering why she wouldn't she just give up, why she couldn't see it was hopeless, that all her effort was in vain.

Amusement turned to anger and antagonism, over why the little Vallière wouldn't learn her place, given that after so many tries, it was obvious that for all her pretensions of nobility, she was really nothing but a trumped-up commoner.

And as any true noble knew, commoners had no place living among nobles except to serve them, with any who dared to claim contained and removed from the herd, lest their heretical ideas spread like a disease through the population. Those who dared to raise a weapon against them were killed on the spot, with those who defied them in other ways taken away for tortures breaking body and spirit.

This was common practice in every civilized country save Germania (which was known to be backwards and barbaric), which allowed commoners to buy noble titles, with the precious gift of magic bestowed by God and the Founder considered a distance second to material wealth.

Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst, a Germanian woman noted for her passions and forthrightness wasn't laughing - but she wasn't angry either - her features taking a pitying, almost horrified cast.

Could her longtime rival truly be unable to use magic at all, to the point that she couldn't summon even the frailest of beasts?

...was such a thing even possible for someone of noble lineage?

A final attempt, with a barely audible voice hoarsely whispering the original words of rite.

"I beg of you..." the pinkette implored, unable even to raise her head, unshed tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. "...answer to my guidance..."

A long moment passed as she finished the chant, with the students gathered in the courtyard awaiting the latest eruption of sound and fury from the Zero, a release of power signifying nothing - but such a thing never came. This time, there was no explosion, no storm of force, none of the traditional hallmarks that indicated Louise had cast a spell and simply lost control.

This time, there was nothing at all...

The only evidence of her efforts was that the summoning circle she had so painstakingly etched into the ground time and time again simply vanished, fading into nothingness, along with her hopes and dreams.

' can't be...' the Vallière thought, her heart and mind in turmoil as she was confronted at last by the harsh reality that the one thing she'd believed for her entire life - that she was truly a noble, despite her issues with magic - was a lie. ' can't be...'

Her willpower was gone, and with it, every drop of magical potential inherited from her blood, leaving her feeling utterly naked before the stares of the crowd as they judged her and found her wanting, the hateful pressure of their accusing eyes more revealing of their beliefs than their words had ever been.

'GET OUT.' They seemed to say. 'You don't belong here, Zero.'

She bowed her head, powerless to refute their claims in the face of the damning evidence she herself had shown them, the incontrovertible proof of her failure wrought by her own hands.

The atmosphere was heavy and oppressive, the air so thick that Louise felt as if she could not breathe - her lungs burning for breath, desperate for something - anything - to wake her from this waking nightmare. This...this was surely just a dream, right?

A very bad dream, no doubt caused by her stress and anxiety over the summoning.

And any moment now, she would wake up to find herself in bed, on the morning of the first day of spring, with the vast future still ahead of her.


She pinched herself, tweaking her left nipple hard, hoping the sudden jolt of pain would startle her from this horrific vision of what might come to pass - but nothing of that sort happened, with the world before her eyes remaining, and the intense pain shooting through her body causing her to cry out, nearly driving her to tears.

Tears she would not shed, tears she would not let anyone see, for even if she was stripped of everything else - of wealth, power, title, life - at the very least she had the tattered vestiges of her pride, the only thing that had kept her going over these sixteen years of grief.

"Students, all of you but Miss Vallière are dismissed for the day. I am sure you are all exhausted from your summonings, so please return to the castle and head to dinner," an older voice spoke, seeming muffled and distant to Louise's ears. It was Professor Colbert, enjoining his charges in a voice that would brook no protest. "As for you, Miss Vallière, please remain behind. We have some matters of importance to discuss."

The students looked at Colbert, then to the fallen Louise, frowns creeping across their faces as they muttered to themselves, never having expected this to be the result. It was an uncomfortable thought that anyone born as a noble could simply be denied one's birthright, that it could have - might well have - been one of them.

'But it wasn't...' they told themselves, secretly relieved that their initial judgement of her had been correct - that she who had obviously been scorned by God and the Founder should be insulted and victimized, shown her place in the scheme of things. And since their good sense had been rewarded, one by one, they turned their back on the miserable failure and walked away, as someone like her had no place in their world.

One by one, they quietly left the scene of tragedy, slinking off into the shadows and retreating to the safety of the great castle in the distance, the crowd of onlookers hemorrhaging individuals, until in the end, only Professor Colbert remained, regarding the pitiful figure of Louise de La Vallière with a heavy heart.

Silence filled the empty air, now that they had gone, and yet his mind was not at rest, for questions lingered on.

"Can you stand, Miss Vallière?" he asked gently, if only to break the uneasy stillness. He offered her his hand with a kindly smile that did not reach his eyes. "Or do you need help?"

Louise said nothing as her mind processed what had just transpired, and then with a slow, painful nod, she proceeded to brush his hand away and forced herself unsteadily to her feet.

It took nearly every scrap of strength she had left in her frail form, but the pinkette wasn't about to complain or ask for help from anyone, not even the kindly Professor Colbert. Somehow, more from sheer resolve than any true strength of limb, she managed to stand up, even if her diminutive frame swayed wildly for a moment and she felt as if the slightest breeze would topple her over and leave her prone on the ground once more.

The balding, middle-aged flame mage quietly studied his wayward, prideful student, wondering whether or not to aid her as she put forth all her effort into simply standing, unwilling to seek assistance. Perhaps there was pity, even empathy in his shadowed eyes, but if there was, it was well-hidden, at least to Louise.

She couldn't quite tell if the academic felt anything, nor did she much care at this point, as she was convinced that he, like everyone else, had lost faith in her, and humans had a fascinating tendency to see only what they believed was there. So she looked up at the older man impassively, meeting his gaze without a word, without a sound.

The silent connection of wills stretched on for what seemed a small eternity, before Colbert nodded slightly, turning to walk towards the main tower of the school complex.

"Come along, Miss Vallière," he called to her without looking back, trusting her to follow. "The headmaster is waiting."

True to expectation, she did, after only a slight hesitation, raising her head in a show of haughtiness, taking slow, unhurried paces towards the place that would be her doom. Oh, the professor had not explicitly stated this, had in fact seemed almost...kind in how he had told the other students to leave, while asking if she needed help, but then he didn't need to.

Better than anyone else, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière knew that actions had consequences, as her mother had drilled the Rule of Steel into her from a very young age, teaching her that in making decisions, one accepted-and took responsibility for-the repercussions that stemmed from them.

Those words came back to haunt her now, as she recalled a letter that had come for her at the end of her first year at the Tristain Academy of Magic. In that missive, her family had given her a chance to end her schooling of her own free will, to leave the Academy without a mark on her record and begin marriage training, given her lack of success with spellcasting.

She had refused, standing fast in the face of the wrath of her sister Eleanor Albertine le Blanc de la Blois de la Vallière, a genius researcher at the Oriz Institute of Magic, as well as her mother Karin, in her desire to remain at the Academy - to test herself and prove herself as worthy of being a noble on her own merits.

They'd agreed, but had warned her that if she took this course and failed to achieve her objective (that is, if she disgraced the Vallière name), then there would be no second chance. At the least, she would be disowned and made to live as a commoner. At the most...

Louise shivered, though the day was yet warm, as she had an idea of what her mother might do to her, and it wasn't anything as simple - or as painless - as being disowned...

Such thoughts filled her mind as she trailed after her instructor, twisting the sound of their footsteps on damp earth into what seemed like sounded like blades stabbing into, pulled out of, or otherwise ripping through delicate flesh.

'...I'm going to die...'

Or if not, she might as well, for there was nothing left for her now. Even if her powerful family had lent her their support (and they wouldn't here) there could only be one outcome the Academy could give her: expulsion.

Now and then, she could feel Professor Colbert looking at her out of the corner of his eyes, but for the life of her, she could not figure out why he even bothered to make sure she was following. Was it worry or pity since he knew she was exhausted? Was it regret or disappointment that he had not properly guided her in the ways of magic? Or was it mere self-interest, since the Academy and its staff would surely suffer if someone who was still a student took her own life?

'...watching over me so I can be delivered to the headmaster's office, where the school will wash its hands of me.'

After all, once she was no longer a student, the staff of the Academy no longer had an obligation to watch over her, and whatever happened from there would be her own affair.

Out of morbid curiosity, she almost asked the balding fire mage if the last were the truth, but held her tongue, remembering that a proper noble lady should not ask unseemly questions, should act with poise and decorum no matter what dishonor she faced, what indignity she was presented with.

So she continued on in silence, with neither she, nor the professor, uttering a single word as they made their way into central tower and climbed many flights of steps, until at last they reached the topmost floor of the tower, with the solid oak door that marked the entrance to the office of Sir Osmond, the headmaster of the Tristain Academy of Magic, looming before them.

It was a place few students visited, as they were only called there either to be awarded an accolade for services to the Crown above and beyond the call of duty, or to receive punishment for some transgression under the Headmaster's right of middle and low justice (as long as a matter was not reserved for a higher court).

...somehow, Louise had the feeling she wasn't about to be commended, but condemned.

"Wait here please, Miss Vallière," Colbert instructed his pupil, squaring his shoulders, assuming the gravity of his role as head instructor of the second years in demeanor and stance. Like this, he didn't seem much like the bumbling academic most thought him to be, but someone much more competent, someone used to the burden of command.

'...almost like Mother...'

So Louise thought as her professor pulled open the wide, wooden double doors of the headmaster's office with practiced ease, stepping inside with such confidence that he might have been entering his own. He paused briefly to confer with a bespectacled green-haired woman, one she thought she recognized as the Headmaster's personal secretary, before he disappeared from view entirely, the secretary coming out to watch her in his place.

'For this woman to be Headmaster Osmond's secretary - just who is she?'

Like most of those at the Academy, the pinkette was privy to little information about the woman who managed the majority of the Academy's day to day affairs in the Headmaster's stead, leaving only the most grievous matters for the old man's personal attention. All Louise knew was that with her duties (and her strict management of the old man), Miss Longueville was one of the most influential members of the school staff in fact, if not in name.

(Though the title of "secretary" in itself was rather prestigious, as the name was derived from an ancient word meaning "to set apart", and those in such positions were often charged with overseeing personal and political affairs as the proxies of those whose secrets they kept.)

Where was she from? What had she done before? How had she come to know Headmaster Osmond and earn such a position of trust?

No one knew, and in the absence of information, rumors ran rife...

The two women watched each other for some time, though with different ends in mind. Miss Longueville simply did as Colbert had requested, keeping an eye on the Vallière girl to ensure the young pinkette didn't do something rash like jump out the nearby window. Louise, however, regarded the secretary blankly, all the while wondering why this strange woman, this unknown had been raised to such a position of power, while she, the third daughter of the Duke de La Vallière, the single most powerful and influential noble in the Kingdom, had fallen in disgrace.

'...I don't understand, God...why...why is this happening?'

There was no answer, not that the young girl had expected one.

For if He did not speak to the royals in whose veins ran the Founder's blood, nor to the nobles who carried the Founder's blessing, choosing only to speak through the Founder's teachings and the Pope of the Holy Church, His vicar in the world, there was no reason that He would deign to address a mere commoner, as Louise had proven herself to be through her failed rite of passage. The place of commoners, after all, was to obey their betters as they would the Lord, as the holy texts commanded...


But the pinkette's troubled thoughts were interrupted as the door opened, with Professor Colbert motioning for her to enter. Nodding in acknowledgement, she proceeded to do so, falling into step beside her instructor as they approached the Headmaster's desk and bowed, a sign of respect to the man whose word was law in the school, who had been a powerful square-class earth mage, granted (on top of who knew what other titles) the rank of chevalier for services the country.

"Miss Vallière," Sir Osmond spoke solemnly, his voice deathly quiet as he set down his quill, next to a parchment on which an official looking missive had been written.

He scrutinized her carefully, as if burning her face into his mind, his gaze so somber and filled with grief that it made her feel decidedly uncomfortable.

"Yes, Headmaster?" the pinkette replied, quite reluctantly. She knew what he would say, knew what the only result of her failure could be, long as the words had not been said, there was still the chance that perhaps fate would not run its ordained course.

The old man sighed, every line and crag of his weathered face evident as he did so, touching the parchment before him as if to draw strength from it.

"I regret that things have come at last to this, Miss Vallière," he said at last, looking every bit as ancient as the rumors claimed he was (somewhere between 100 and 300, though no one knew for sure, as he himself had forgotten, and records were not easy to come by). "When you first enrolled in the Tristain Academy of Magic, I had high hopes for you, knowing the strength of your lineage. I...did not expect to be so disappointed."

His words cut sharper than any knife, flaying her heart...

"Seeing as you have failed to summon a familiar, I have no choice but to expel you from the Tristain Academy of Magic," the headmaster intoned gravely. "Due to the practicalities involved in preparing for your departure, I will allow you to remain in the dorms for up to one week. I will personally notify your noble parents, the Duke and the Duchess, of this tragedy, and give them notice to come and retrieve you at that time."

"I..." Louise began to say, but her voice trailed off, the words dying in her throat as if the wind had been knocked out of her, her body rocking back and forth as if she would faint in the next moment.

"I know this will be scant comfort for you but, for what it's worth, I truly am sorry," Osmond spoke with dreadful finality, and with that, her audience with the headmaster, just like her life as a noble - was at an end.

Colbert reached out to steady the girl, seeing that he'd possibly need to escort her to her quarters in her distraught state, but she slapped his hand away, refusing his pity, looking at him with dull, lifeless eyes.

He started to speak, to ask her if she needed help, but by the time the flame mage opened his mouth, it was too late.

She brushed past him, dead to the world as her feet moved mechanically, carrying her out the door and into the cold of a world utterly without illusion.

A world where the lies called dreams and goals no longer existed, where hope had long been drained away. A world where nothing remained except for a grave colossal wreck, the shattered mask of a noble's stern visage crumbling into the dust of ages, adrift in a timeless void.

] | [

When she became aware of herself again, Louise didn't know how quite long she'd been walking, nor where her feet had taken her after leaving the headmaster's office, only that she was standing in front of window in an out of way corridor of the school complex, with not a trace of another living soul nearby.

The flames of the magical torches that provided illumination for the castle's many inhabitants had just flickered into existence, their faint ruddy light providing a subtle contrast with the fading glow of the blood-stained sky spilling through the windows. And in the distance, the twin moons of Halkeginia were already beginning to rise, tinging the long shadows creeping over the land with accents of crimson and bone white.

'Twilight again, with the world soon swallowed up by fire and shade,' she mused, recalling words from the journal of the commanding general of the Halkeginian Expeditionary Force during the first campaign to recapture the Holy Land from the elves. Specifically, the last words of the journal, written on the eve of the man's final battle - a massacre when the combined forces of humanity had been slaughtered - reputedly to the last man. 'Blood runs. Hope fades. The night is near. The end is nigh.'

For all that its existence and general observations was rather well-known (given that its observations on the power of the elves and how they outmatched even the greatest of human mages in battle had led to the development of current military doctrine regarding those wielders of terrible ancient magics), it was not widely-read.

Part of this could be attributed to it being one of the few texts the Church placed on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Prohibited Books), with harsh fines imposed on any discovered to possess a copy, but mostly, this could simply be chalked up to most nobles having no interest in reading the personal notes of a man who been trusted with the leadership of the most powerful collection of forces in history - and yet had failed to reclaim the Holy Land, no interest in learning how the greatest general of the age had been forced to confront his mortality, and had, in doing so, fallen into despair.

Karin the Heavy Wind however, the Duchess de La Vallière, was not "most nobles," given her power and reputation. Like that general long ago, she had been considered the one of the greatest mages of her time, a knight with no equal in strength of arms or character - a figure who was savior to her allies and certain death to her enemies. Indeed, during the time she served as commander of the Imperial Mage Guard (the name being a remnant from the time the nations of man had functioned as one, under the Founder), the mere rumor that she had arrived on a battlefield had been enough break the morale of enemy forces ten times the size of those she commanded, making their defeat a foregone conclusion.

It was in the course of her duties that she had come to acquire a copy of the text, as it had been given to her by a Germanian general who had chosen to fight her in single combat, knowing that he was going to his death, rather than meaninglessly spill the blood of those who had fought under him to delay the inevitable, or sacrifice their futures for his life.

"Why do you choose this course, von Anhalt-Dessau?" the commander of the Manticore Knights had inquired. "While you are yourself a square-mage, with talent exceeding most of your peers - you are already wounded, and must know that this is a duel you will not survive - much less win. Or do you not acknowledge me as an worthy opponent, believing that your infirmity will not matter against a woman, that the rumors of my deeds are...exaggerated?"

Count Leopold II Maximilian von Anhalt-Dessau regarded his much younger opponent, his eyes hard and unwavering as he met the woman's gaze.

"No, Heavy Wind, it is because I know that whether I do this or not, the end will be the same for me. Whether by your hand or at the hands of your army, I will fall in defeat, but in facing you in single combat, at least my men will be spared an untimely death," the Count had replied, withdrawing a tome from his robes and handing it to his longtime enemy. "I would hope that your reputation for honor and discipline holds true, and that you would grant these men their parole, as they have but followed my orders. You have my word that they will fight no more against Tristain in this conflict."

"Then why not surrender...?" inquired Karin the Heavy Wind, accepting the book, but genuinely curious about the man's motivations. For if someone would be willing to accept death, why not dishonor? "Would that not also protect the lives of your men?"

"Perhaps. But not their futures, for they and those remain behind in the lands I manage, would be tarred with the dishonor of any surrender I make," he said with a heavy sigh, as he looked into the distance towards the setting sun. "That is the curse of reputations such as ours. We who are heroes of the people, miracle-makers, we who have never known defeat. If I surrendered, no doubt the Emperor would believe that I betrayed Germania, and my vassals would suffer for my weakness."

"I see. The Rule of Steel, is it?"

"Yes - as you say, the Rule of Steel," the Count intoned, taking a deep breath as he saluted the greatest mage of Tristain with his sword-wand. "As a commander, one must have the discipline to take responsibility for one's acts - in life and in death. And while, you are yet unmatched, Heavy Wind, the day may come when it proves otherwise. Better to retire before then and disappear, than make the choice I must now face - but should things come before then, I suppose you may find my gift interesting..."

"And the tome is?" Karin asked evenly, as she returned the salute and both moved to guard position.

"The journal of a commander, not unlike you and I, unmatched in his prime," the Count said after a few moments of silence. "A general who led the armies of the Kingdoms of Man against foes that could not be beaten, and so learned the meaning of despair."

"You mean to say..."

"Yes. But enough talk," Count Leopold II Maximilian von Anhalt-Dessau interjected with a wan smile. "It is time to die."

In the end, as the Germanian commander had predicted, Karin had prevailed. She had kept her word, granting the enemy army their parole, and had read over the tome she'd been given - wanting to know just why the man had chosen so easily, had offered the price of his life when so many would have run away.

She'd found it a sobering study of hubris and resolution, of hope and faith - and of despair. And she'd made sure that her daughters read it, that they would understand what it meant to fight - what it meant to face the consequences of one's deeds, accepting them completely as the burden of a noble.

Louise remembered the words of that tome well, finding the arc that commander's life had taken to be not dissimilar to her own in a way, as she plunged into a situation, not accepting her state and cutting her losses, in the end losing everything.

'...becoming nothing more than the Zero I was always claimed to be...'

She lingered by the window, watching as the fiery orb of the sun sank beneath the horizon, taking in the last few moments of the dying day. Then, taking a deep breath, she turned away from that sight, squaring her shoulders and walking towards the dorms with more poise and dignitas than any had ever seen before.

Her steps carried her through the common areas, where some of her classmates lingered, accompanied by their familiars, their eyes watching her as she passed them. They seemed to pull away, recoiling as she entered a room or area - almost as if she were a leper, or didn't deserve to walk in their company.

She wouldn't give them the satisfaction of reacting, keeping her face a mask of utter serenity, betraying not a flicker of emotion as the sound of her footsteps echoed behind her. To her amusement, this left them staring after her, as if wondering what had happened, why she wasn't breaking down from her failure and her inevitable expulsion.

It wouldn't last - they'd know the truth by morning, but for now, she would take what small blessings she could, since she'd had few enough in life.

With her facade of strength concealing her inner turmoil, she passed by the many onlookers, managing to reach the hallway where the entrance to her room was located without incident, without anyone accosting her or harassing her.

Alas, her string of luck ended the moment she unlocked her door, with the door of the room next to hers swinging open to reveal a rather busty girl with bronzed skin, flaming hair, and sharp amber eyes, a reptilian beast the size of a tiger shuffling out next to her, tail tipped with flame, with sparks and embers floating about its mouth this time.

Kirche Augusta Frederica von Anhalt Zerbst - Louise's self-proclaimed rival and most bitter enemy, just as their families had feuded for the last two hundred years, over stolen lovers, stolen lands, and stolen glory.

From Kirche, who constantly slandered her, Louise expected - and was ready for - more of the same now that her failure had been confirmed. She expected insults, sharp words, or even for the other to show off her familiar, for the lowly, uncouth von Zerbst to rub salt in the Vallière girl's wounds.

Such was not to be, and her impassive mask nearly faltered as the Germanian simply gave her a pitying look, saying only a whispered "I'm sorry," rocking Louise back on her proverbial heels.

But Louise quickly rallied, pretending she had not heard the other at all, though she wished with all her heart to just glare at the barbaric flame mage, to yell and scream and howl her frustrations at her enemy. Perhaps it was a pointless gesture, one final act of defiance, since she had proven herself unworthy of a noble title, and thus was not held to noble standards - but she was yet a Vallière, and as long she still bore that name, she would not sully it before the likes of a von Zerbst.

Especially when the name - and her pride - was all she had left in this world.

And so, with a frigid air of haughtiness, head held high, Louise unlatched her door, entered her room, and closed the solid oak portal behind her, locking it as a final symbolic isolation from the rest of the school she was no longer a part of.

At long last, she was very much alone.

] | [

She stood alone in the darkness, in the middle of a room that had served as home and prison for the last year of her life, a year in which she'd worked long into the night, seeking answers that would not come, struggling to achieve even the slightest bit of progress in her use of magic. By now, she knew this place, this chamber, this cell by heart, and even without the flickering light of a candle, or the pale moonlight which streamed through her window, she could easily find the position of her bed, her desk, her wardrobe and all the other worthless trappings of a noble life she no longer had any use for.

She sniffed, her composure quickly breaking down at the sight of such familiar surroundings - a place in which she'd spent her time, slaving away.


It wasn't as if she'd accomplished anything of significance here, as if her time in this room, looking at the world and all those in it had meant anything to her. Whether it was looking at herself in the mirror after dressing in the Academy uniform for the first time, standing up to Kirche's barbs in their first year and seeing the redhead seem almost appreciative of her anger, writing letters at the desk in her room, telling them she'd make them proud, or sleeping curled under the sheets of her bed, dreaming of success - none of these mattered, right?

None of them meant anything, really.

Objectively, any importance she assigned these objects were mere illusions. Vagaries of perception imprinted through familiarity and operant conditioning, constructs of the mind that in the end had no meaning or purpose except to make things more convenient, as material things had no inherent special value, no matter how long one used them.

She knew this, knew this full well, since her sister Eleanor had written a paper on the topic several years ago, after performing some experiments where various items were replaced with replicas to see if test subjects could tell the difference. why was she crying, alone, in a room full of memories, collapsing to her knees as her legs gave out from under her, a low keening issuing from her lips as she rocked back and forth?

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Small droplets of moisture fell upon the stone flooring of her room, shining in the moonlight, the sounds of dripping all too audible in the eerie silence as pent up emotions were released at last. Her tears flowed in rivulets from the corners of her eyes, rapidly and uncontrollably, streaming down and dripping from her chin and cheeks to fall upon her uniform and the floor in equal measure as her frail frame was wracked with sobs.

She was almost curled into a ball, her elbows resting on her knees as her cradled her brow in her small hands, just wishing the pain would stop - that someone would comfort her.

Even if she knew that it was pointless to wish for such a thing.

For she was unworthy.

And on the road she walked in life, she was utterly alone.

In the privacy of her room, with only the twin moons to watch over her, the young girl sobbed inconsolably, crying, wailing, screaming, as grief beyond all measure broke through the mental walls she'd built to contain them. She was a condemned soul, without a friend in the world, and overwhelmed by the enormity of just how insignificant she had become, how worthless she truly was, she broke down.

Soon her eyes were red and her face was wet and haggard, with her nails digging so tightly into her palms that hints of crimson joining the tears streaking down her face, so from a certain angle, it almost seemed her eyes wept blood as her body grew still and cold.

' more...'

How many times had she cried over the last sixteen years?

' more...'

How many nights had she labored away, shedding blood, sweat, and tears as she'd struggled to grasp even the basics of her craft, things which everyone else had learned as a child?

" more, more..." she whispered, her voice quiet and hollow, more distant and more solemn than any fading star.

She didn't want to remember what had been, what she'd lost. She didn't want to admit that her days as a student were over.

That those desperate struggles, those long nights of studying, those torturous hours of classes were she could do no more than humiliate herself over and over again were no more, for while they had gone on, she had at least had a purpose, a goal to strive for, however impossible it might be.

But today the world had ended, not with a bang (as she'd always suspected it would), but a whimper, leaving her empty inside, devoid of anything to look forward to, to run towards, to wish for.

Everything had slipped from her hands, becoming shape without form, shade without color, paralyzed force, gesture without motion.

Her life as a noble was over.

Everything was over.

Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière was officially dead.

Oh, to be sure, she was still breathing and her heart continued to beat, but that didn't matter. Without magic, she was but a powerless corpse pretending to be alive, a piece of meat biding the time until she passed into death's twilight kingdom, the only mercy granted to those so cursed, to those so common.

And while there were still a week, a long torturous week, until her parents came to take her away and strip her of her noble title, that mattered not at all. For all intents and purposes, her life as a noble had ended the moment her first summoning had failed, with the others simply the last desperate gasps of someone too stupid to know she was already dead.

Under the red, red moon, she wept for an unfathomable length of time, mourning what had been, and would never be, until eventually, her eyes - and her heart - ran dry.

Some moments later, she raised her head, lowered her hands and stood, her burning, aching eyes taking in the details of the room which only brought her pain, her gaze falling first on the fine mahogany desk and chair set in the corner, which had been brought to her from her room at the Vallière estate.

Slowly, shakily, she walked towards it, running her hand over the smooth wood of the furnishings, remembering how she had chosen them because they were a little uncomfortable, so she'd be able to concentrate on her studies without the risk of falling asleep.

Years, she'd spent toiling at this desk, sitting in this very chair, working tirelessly to try and figure out what was wrong with her magical talent, poring over tome after tome of arcane lore with a diligence that none of her peers could ever hope to match. She'd embraced discomfort, thinking it would goad her towards inspiration, since no one had ever had any moments of inspiration while relaxing in luxury.

Necessity, after all, not sloth or comfort, was the mother of invention.

Not that even that had amounted to much in the end, and after the humiliations she'd suffered, she began to think that maybe she should just have let herself languish, sleeping in, resting, and otherwise recognizing the futility of effort. For either she succeeded or failed - effort had no place in judging one's worth.

Thus, this desk...this chair...

They had been her nightly companions for nearly a decade now. They'd witnessed her trials and tribulations as she'd grown, in a manner more intimate than any living person. She'd spent more time with them than with anyone - anything - else. Her silent companions and comrades in her struggles.

This desk...this chair...

They'd watched her, been by her side...and in the end, betrayed her.

'This chair is an eyesore.'

At that thought, Louise's hands seized on the chair, and with strength born of inchoate rage, she roughly yanked the chair out from its usual spot, raising it high over her head. Her slim arms trembled from the exertion, but she would not be denied, as with a scream like a banshee, she smashed the wooden seat against the table.







For there was something visceral, something utterly satisfying about how the only witnesses to her struggles, her only companions, were crushed, stove in with her own hands.

Books scattered, the surface of the desk began to buckle under the furious assault, chair legs went flying to the corners of the room, and with a tinkling of glass, the fancy lamps by whose illumination she had read into the long hours of night were smashed to bits. She thrashed about, like a whirlwind in miniature as she brought the chair down upon the desk time and time again, until a piece came loose and hit her in the face, causing her to reel back in shock.

Breathing heavily, the pinkette took stock of her handiwork, noting that despite the destruction that her attack had wrought, despite the exertion that was pushing her body past the point where she should be fainting from exhaustion, she was still unsatisfied.

Dragging the broken chair behind her, Louise approached her wardrobe with brisk and rapid steps and proceeded to vent her anger upon it as well. Swinging her makeshift weapon, and shrieking like a demonic spirit, she battered the heavy, wooden piece of furniture until what was left of the chair could not take it anymore, shattering completely under her blows.

The wardrobe, however, remained unscathed, save for some minor scratches here and there, elevating her anger to new heights.

Before she could think to stop herself, the distraught young woman had pulled her wand out, that odious wand which had brought her into the very depths of hell and chained her to despair. With a shout that was half-way between incantation and scream, she chanted the runes of the "Fireball" spell, hoping to obliterate the offending piece of furniture into a storm of wooden splinters and saw dust.

Nothing happened.

Not the firestorm she hoped for. Not the explosion she half-expected.

Nothing at all - not even the slightest spark of magic.

As the crimson haze of her anger subsided and she stared in dumbstruck confusion at the wand, Louise's mind latched unto this new failure, as once more the black taint of utter hopelessness took root, strangling her heart again.

'No magic... just like a wasn't just a fluke...'

Her knees gave out and she tumbled to the floor like a puppet with its strings cut.

She could feel her eyes burning again but no tears would come this time. Her mouth opened and closed but not a word, not a sound escaped. She did not even have the strength to cry anymore, her throat ravaged raw from her previous bout of frantic crying and screaming, her body exhausted from her berserk fit. Her small frame began to shake and she wrapped her arms around herself, suddenly feeling very cold, very small and utterly alone.

She was being expelled.

Stripped of her illusions, of anything she could do to avoid thinking about it, the harsh reality of her situation finally began to settle in, with the overwhelming feelings of worthlessness and inferiority others had instilled in her over the years rising to the forefront, blowing past her empty bluster and the lies she'd told herself to arrive at the long and the short of the truth.

What would her mother think of her youngest daughter being expelled from the Academy, proven nothing more than a commoner aspiring to a position that was not hers to begin with? What would she think, given that her mother had told her that actions had consequences, and that if she attempted the summoning...

She shuddered.

No...if she met her mother, she would truly lose her noble title, or worse.

Casting her gaze about the room, her eyes fell upon a particularly large piece of glass from what used to be her desk lamp. She did not have the strength left anymore to stand on her own so she crawled towards it instead, dragging herself forward using her forearms. Soon, far too soon, she had grasped the shard in her trembling hands. The sharp edges of the piece of glass cut into the palms of her hand and blood dribbled lazily unto her forearms.

She looked at it oddly for a moment, as she lifted it, considering what would be the quickest way to bring everything to an end - to choose death on her own terms, as this was the only choice she had left if she wanted to retain any shred of honor.

'The throat... or the heart?'

Heroines in novels killed themselves with a dagger to the heart - but Louise was no heroine and her life was no novel.

Those intense feelings of worthlessness that hung over her like a burial shroud would not let her delude herself about that even in her final moments. No, she would not kill herself like a heroine. She was not worthy of such a grandiose death.

Besides, she didn't like pain - at heart, she was a coward.

And so she raised her makeshift shiv to her neck with trembling hands, the drops from her slashed palms dripping over it and onto her alabaster skin as the point touched upon the hollow of her throat, barely drawing blood.

'Take a deep breath. S-stop s-shaking. J-just one deep b-breath. The Rule of Steel...better to die as a Vallière than t-to live as a nameless c-commoner...'

Try though she might, she could not ease her breathing, her hands, her arms, her whole body refusing to obey her, to let her do her final duty as a woman of high birth who had fallen into disgrace.

'Just one deep breath!'

For a timeless moment, everything was frozen, before the shard slipped from between nerveless fingers to shatter on the floor, fragments of glass flying through the air like diamond tears, like miniature stars illuminated by the pale moonlight streaming in from her windowsill.

Her body heaved but she could not bring herself to vomit. Her eyes burned but there were no more tears left to cry.

'No... please, no more...'

Her vision was darkening. She could feel her consciousness slipping away, the heavy burden of exhaustion and the stress of the day finally becoming too much for her mind to bear. She sprawled forward, leaving bloody handprints on the floor of her room.

And then a flicker of movement caught her eye. A shadow where there should have been none. Weakly, with great effort, she raised her head to see.

There, on her windowsill, was a strange creature, bathed in moonlight, glowing like a fairy from dreams. It was small, perhaps no larger than a house cat, but with a bushy tail that wafted lazily back and forth, crimson eyes, and floppy ears bound by golden rings.

It seemed to nod its head and then… it spoke, words that proved too much for the mind of Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière.

"Ah, so you're the one who summoned me here?" the fairy-like feline said in a cheerful tone, not at all concerned with her miserable, bloody and wholly bedraggled state, its expression frozen in a perpetual smile. "Say, would you like to form a contract with me and become a magical girl?"

Velle Anima




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Arc I

Je Dois Rêver

Chapter 1

A Zero no Tsukaima and Puella Magi Madoka Magica crossover.

Zero no Tsukaima is the property of Noboru Yamaguchi and Media Factory.

Puella Magi Madoka Magica is the property of Shaft.

We claim no ownership to the characters or any other elements of the anime franchises featured in this story. Similarly, we make no claims of ownership to any other properties, literary or otherwise, that may be referenced in this story.

This is a work of fanfiction.