Summoning the Sun
"What fanciful tales have you been listening to? A spirit treating with a common born human? What nonsense." - Eleanore Valliere, an overheard conversation.
Shiranui wandered the gardens beneath the early light of her domain as was fast becoming her custom. But no calm came to her as she silently padded across the grounds, her heart troubled by what lay before her.
The white wolf took in the signs of battle from the night before. The earth had been torn asunder, the grass and flowers trampled until nothing remained but mud, broken stalks and the shattered remnants of the wall. Trees that had once stood tall and proud now lay brokenly on their sides, uprooted in the struggle that had taken place. Even the kin of Konohana, once invigorated by her will, had not been spared. The aged tree had not fallen, yet many of its branches had been shorn free, the ones remaining bereft of the colour and life they had once held. Dismay welled within her being as she touched its weathered trunk and felt its weakening call.
Her will trembled upon the borders of the realm, the shadow of her desire held and not yet released. It called within her, to undo what had been wrought with a will that was solely hers. Even drained as she was, it could not impede this wrong from being made right once more.
And yet she did not.
Many others walked the broken grounds as she did. Servants, teachers, those who wielded the spirit arts and those who had but only the strength of their bodies, all were joined in purpose to heal the destruction that had been wrought. In this place, her will was not needed, for the mortal humans would accomplish much on their own what she already wished.
She reached out once more, listening to the fading whisper that resonated within her being.
Letting her will echo upon the world.
Irukukwu liked the morning a lot of times. There was cool air, lots of birds and the promise of yummies when Big Sis came because Big Sis didn't want Irukukwu hunting on her own. She didn't like this morning very much however. She flexed a wing and stretched, warbling as her tummy and sides hurt where the mean mean lady had hit her with stones. But the pain was only kind of stinging so she didn't feel like curling up and kyuuying until the pain went away. Maybe she could even fly today without hurting. Which was good, kyuu! Irukukwu liked flying almost as much as she liked yummies.
And right now, she would like yummies very much, because her tummy was going guruururuu which meant it was time to eat.
But just when she was about to go flying to look for food, she sniffed something in the air that made her tail perk up.
Big Sis had come, and she had brought meat, kyuu! Irukukwu wanted to jump up and run to Big Sis, and maybe push her around so Irukukwu could get at the yummy yummy meat. But Big Sis had her stick up and Irukukwu didn't want to get bopped on the snout for being impatient so she had to sit and wait as Big Sis walked around her and poked at the places the mean lady had hit her.
"Still hurt?" Big Sis asked.
Irukukwu shook her head, but her tummy went gurururuuu which was a different kind of hurt. The hurt that demanded yummies! Irukukwu let Big Sis know by licking her, and then she got the yummies though she got bopped on the snout for knocking Big Sis over in the end. But Irukukwu didn't mind too much because now she had a bucket full of hearts and livers and mmmrmrrmrmrrmmm!
"Enough?" Big Sis asked once the bucket was all empty and had only bits of blood that Irukukwu hadn't licked up yet. Irukukwu trilled in reply and flexed her wings. To her, enough food was a mountain of meat and blood that was bigger than Big Big Sister. So big Irukukwu could roll in it. But since her belly wasn't going gurururu anymore, it was enough for now. Wait. She trilled again with a question. Maybe if she said no, Big Sis would come back with that mountain of yummies?
But Big Sis bopped her when she said that and told her to follow instead of talking about silly things.
Silly things? Kyumph! Yummies were serious things! But Irukukwu didn't say anything anymore because Big Sis had brought up her stick again and Irukukwu didn't want to be bopped on the nose.
Big Sis didn't want to fly there even when Irukukwu said she was fine, so they walked out of the forest and to the big buildings where all the other people were. Irukukwu made a happy sound at that. If Big Sis wanted Irukukwu to wait there, maybe she could find Big Sister then? Then maybe Big Sister could take out her magic food again and there would be yummies for everyone. And maybe some for Big Sis too, because Irukukwu didn't mind sharing when there was lots of food to go around. Big Sis really ate a lot of food for a very small human.
Sometimes Irukukwu thought Big Sis was secretly a rhyme dragon in disguise too.
But thoughts of food and Big Sis being a dragon soon went away when they went into the gardens, because Irukukwu's most favourite person was waiting for them under a tree that smelled like it was Rhyme-touched.
"Kyuuu!" She warbled, pouncing forward and giving Big Sister a lick.
"Irukukwu," Big Sister's voice chimed in Irukukwu's head, the not-puppy pushing her away with a paw. "Are you well?"
"Mmm!" Irukukwu trilled back, making sure to use the familiar language because there were other people around and Big Sis said not to speak in human language when they could listen. "It doesn't hurt anymore, and Big Sis brought me something to eat just now so my tummy doesn't go gurururu any..." she stopped. Wait, Big Sister had said something about yummies too hadn't she?
"But it wasn't a lot," She kyuu'd with her bestest pleading look, "and it's morning now and Irukukwu was thinking maybe Big Sister..."
Big Sister got up and chuffed.
"Are you hungry, Irukukwu?"
"Mmm!" Irukukwu began, but then stopped as she smelled Big Sis coming up behind. Irukukwu didn't know a lot of human scents yet, but Big Sis smelled mad in the nose bopping kind of way because Irukukwu didn't think she was supposed to be doing this. But Big Sis didn't hit Irukukwu on the nose, instead she walked up and looked at Big Sister like she was mad at her. Her face didn't change very much, but she smelled like she really wanted to bop something on the nose. But she also smelled worried, really, really worried, like Big Sister was going to bite her lots. Big Sister looked back at Big Sis too, her ears pricked up. Irukukwu didn't see any teeth, but Big Sister was becoming all serious!
Irukukwu mewled softly. She didn't want Big Sis and Big Sister to bite each other!
But then Big Sister flicked her tail and her ears twitched away.
"Be at ease Irukukwu. Perhaps it is sooner than I had wished, but it cannot be avoided. We will return in time."
Irukukwu made a confused sound at that. What was sooner? What was happening? Where were they going? Big Sister didn't sound very happy. But she didn't sound very sad either... kyurururuuu. But then Big Sister was already walking, going past Big Sis and to the outside. Big Sis turned around too, and Irukukwu began to follow. But then Big Sis stopped and held out a hand and said, "stay."
Irukukwu looked at Big Sis and mewled. Big Sis said stay so she was supposed to stay like a good dragon. But she was confused and worried too and maybe she shouldn't have told Big Sis about Big Sister because she had gotten all quiet after that and now it sounded like they were going to do something that might make them mad and and and... she didn't want to do nothing!
"I want to come Big Sister." She trilled at Big Sister, ignoring the bop on her nose so she could rub it against Big Sis's face. "I want to come. I want to, I want to, I want to."
She flapped her wings and warbled at both her Big Sis's. The other humans were looking and pointing at Irukukwu but Irukukwu didn't care. This was important, kyuu!
Big Sis looked at her and Irukukwu thought she would bop her on the nose again but she breathed out and lowered her bopping stick. Then she bobbed her head which was human for ok so Irukukwu trilled and licked Big Sis. She still didn't know what Big Sis and Big Sister were going to do, but she was going to make sure that they were going to be like real sisters afterwards.
Irukukwu was going to help!
Louise was dreaming. And she knew it was a dream because being honored in a grand audience chamber by the princess for great deeds that would be remembered in the histories, and all her classmates were there and applauding. Even Kirche was cheering her on, hugging her warmly between those oversized tracts of land that she somehow didn't mind all that much. There was so much joy and adulation, so many congratulations and happy faces, that Louise felt tears forming.
And there was Mother, serenely walking down the hall with her sisters in tow. Louise was doubly sure that it was a dream because Mother was looking at her with not just an approvingly raised eyebrow, but an actual smile that was every bit as warm and comforting as Cattleya's. Mother came to a halt in front of her, bending slightly to place hands on her shoulders as she opened her mouth and say-
"Wakey wakey dearie!"
The chamber broke in a dozen spinning shards with a thunderous slam, leaving her staring blearily at the canopy of her bed. Bits of memory and observation flitted through Louise's mind at that point. She was in her bed. It was early in the morning. She still had her warm, snuggly blankets. There might have been someone calling for her. She made the only logical choice and turned over to burrow deeper into her bed, trying to recapture that wonderful dream.
"Oh no you don't Louise." The annoying voice persisted.
"Meeeurgh," Louise eloquently countered, and buried her head under her pillow.
A gust of hot air answered, tearing away her blankets and, in the resulting tumult of limbs and bedding, deposited her rump on the floor with a thump. It did however, let her see who the culprit was.
Outline framed by the open doorway, hands on hips, Kirche sported a wide grin.
"You can't hide in bed forever sleepyhead." She smirked. "You know we've got a lot to do."
Cobwebs in her head, sleep crusted sight giving everything a blurry edge and more than a little annoyed, Louise took as good a look as she could at the Germanian and reluctantly agreed.
By throwing a pillow at her nemesis.
Several minutes and three impromptu missiles later, Louise was finally dressed and washed. "I don't see why you had to wake me at such an ungodly hour," she threw an accusing look at her rival with more than a touch of heat in it.
"Oh, I but did have to Louise." Kirche purred with disgusting cheer from the wall she was leaning against. "Us Germanians have a reputation for sin and debauchery to uphold you know. Unholy hours are the mere tip of what we can get up to. Besides, all the other students are already talking about what happened. You should have heard what they had to say."
Louise blanched in mid-brush. "You didn't-" She warned.
"Tch Louise, you may certainly disparage my upbringing," The redhead drew herself up with a blatantly feigned expression of hurt, fingers splayed across her chest, "but to think you had such poor regard for your fellow Tristainians ability to find answers on their own." She tutted. "People do talk you know, and not all the teachers are as discreet as I am."
Louise frowned. They hadn't told the teachers very much about what had happened against their fight with Foquet. Only Osmond and Professor Colbert had heard the full story, as much of it as she had been willing to say.
"Of course they mostly got it wrong," Kirche added with a smirk a moment later. "Some even seem to think all that damage wasn't because of Foquet at all, but another one of your attempts at magic. I certainly could believe that."
There was a peal of laughter as Kirche dodged another fluffy missile of goose down stuffing.
"Where is your charming wolf anyway? Has our shining light of the hour gone for a walk again?" The Germanian asked as Louise answered with a jaundiced eye. Kirche shrugged. "Oh that's a pity, but I believe we can start without her. " With those words, she turned to the door and swung it open.
"You can come in now."
Louise had to blink as a serving maid nervously shuffled in, herded by Kirche's salamander. What was this about? She had expected perhaps Tabitha, but not this. She opened her mouth to say as much when a memory clicked into place.
"You... you were the maid from earlier, the day I was going to name my familiar," She said, more pieces falling into place, "you had that village myth about-" she cut off, turning to Kirche with an incredulous look on her face.
"You must be joking." Surely the Germanian couldn't be considering her to be a good place to start their investigation? She shook her head. "Even if there's some similarities between what she told us and what my familiar can do, it's far too much of a coincidence. If there was any truth to it, surely someone would have discovered them by now. They would be as renowned as rhyme dragons."
Her jovial expression slipped a bit as the redhead raised an eyebrow. "Oh? Do you have a better suggestion?"
Louise shot back with an affronted look. Of course she had! There was... there was... well the library bestiary was out. Her first year electives course had covered that thoroughly and there was no mention of magical wolves in it. There were elemental creatures who bore physical resemblance to mundane animals of course, Kirche's fire salamander being a prime example. But Shiranui's form when she had first arrived, that of stone, conflicted with her magic the night before. Elementals couldn't have more than one aspect. They just didn't...
Which meant Xander's treatise on arcanobiology couldn't be used to look for clues either. But what about... no, that didn't fit with what she knew.
Several long seconds later, she gave Kirche's triumphant smirk a glare.
"Told you," she sing songed, "there's always a little bit of truth in every myth."
"Oh just get on with it," Louise grumbled.
Still smirking, Kirche turned back to the maid, who had begun fidgeting during their exchange. "Now then, you've already told us that charming folk story of yours, but there's more to it that we'd like to know miss..." she trailed off questioningly.
"Siesta," the maid replied slowly, "but I've already told you the entire story of Shiranui and Orochi. There's nothing left about it to say."
"Oh, I wouldn't say that," Kirche murmured, "even if the story is over, there's always something else about it to learn. For example, where this story of yours came from."
The maidservant blinked. "Tarbes, it's a small village near the border with Gallia," she elaborated after a moment's hesitation, "we don't have any written books on the tale of Shiranui, the story is passed down by the village elders. I myself was told the tale by my grandfather but..." her eyes widened, "does this have something to do with last night?"
"I think I know of that place. Tarbes you said?" Louise interjected, ignoring the question though Kirche did give a short nod. She had heard that name before, hadn't she? A thoughtful frown on her face as past lessons of the peerage and estates bubbled to the forefront.
"It's a vassalage of Lord Vallois near the Gallian border," she recited from memory, "mostly known for their wines and obs-" she trailed off, cheeks flushing as she remembered the other thing that village was known for. That particular book had not stayed in the family library very long shortly after. "Odd harvest customs," she finished lamely.
The two other listeners had distinctly different reactions. Kirche raised an eyebrow at the maid, leaning forward with an amused look whereas Siesta flushed and tried to make herself seem smaller. "It's- it's not that odd," she stammered, "it's just different, that's all."
"If you're trying to make us less curious Siesta," the Germanian chuckled, "you're not doing a very good job of it. Do tell, is it something wanton and salacious? An act of passionate exuberance after a long season of sweaty, dirty work?"
"It's... it's not like that!"
Louise was torn between wanting to put a stop to Kirche's scandalous behaviour and condemning the maid. Eleanore had written a thesis on it once, claiming that they were actually pagan rituals. She didn't think the commoners would be so foolish to do such a thing, but still... she made a frustrated noise.
"Urgh, enough," she waved her hands at Kirche in disgust. "This has nothing to do with what we want to find out." Turning her attention back to the maid, going over the myth Siesta had told them in greater detail. "You've already told us about the legend with Shiranui and that hydra, but it didn't say where the wolf came from, or where it went after this... Orochi was defeated."
"Ah, well, there are other stories about her, but I'm afraid I don't know them very well. My grandfather and some of the elders might be able to tell you more, but the only one I really remember is the one I told you." The maid turned down her eyes, "I'm very sorry."
"Well that wasn't as much of a clue as I had hoped." Kirche let out a disappointed huff, but she recovered quickly, a light grin on her face. "But it seems we do have a lead to follow. What do you say to a little excursion?"
Louise would have stared, if she wasn't overwhelmed by the desire to pinch her forehead. "You can't be serious. It's the middle of the week. Even if I were inclined to take all of this as true, we can't just skip out on our lessons."
"Oh you won't have to worry about classes," the Germanian waved off the objection, "they've been cancelled until the repairs to the Academy have been finished." She explained, a slow grin working it's way up her face, "besides, if the thought of their harvest celebrations can make you flush like that, it'd certainly be worth a look!"
"Uhm, excuse my presumption but," Siesta interrupted hastily, nervously glancing at the storm building in Louise's face. "I think your familiar, Shiranui, she may really be the same kind of wolf as the one from the stories. I don't remember very much other than the tale of Orochi, but there is this one other thing."
Louise blinked, her ire not quite forgotten, but pushed aside for now, "and what's that?"
"Uhm, I'm afraid it may sound silly," the maid hesitated, but then continued at the insistent looks from both Louise and Kirche, "it's about flowers..."
Tabitha read books. Not of academic works, philosophies or histories. Not outside of her studies. She read stories instead. Of heroes and saviours. Of good, however tainted it could become, triumphing against adversity. Of fantastical creatures and steadfast companions. In the tiny slice of the world that she permitted herself, it was the only refuge she had, something she took to at any and every opportunity.
But that did not mean she did not observe.
It wasn't enough to be aware of her surroundings, to know precisely where and what things lay at the corners of her vision. She had learned to read faces and postures, to know them before they knew her. Whether in the body language of people or those of animals magical and mundane, she had honed the ability to accurately read others intent to a razors edge. Words were duplicitous, easily bent to lies and deception. It was why she so rarely spoke, when the truth could be gained with some attention.
It was rare that she found herself being observed by someone equally perceptive.
Shiranui had read her intent almost as soon as she had approached, then answered in turn by following her here to the forest where no one would disturb them. Now Louise's familiar sat on its haunches, looking back at her, dark eyes patient, watchful. A single question in the air between them. What now?
Tabitha was not entirely certain. Another unwelcome rarity.
She had known the wolf was no ordinary creature at the very start. Even when the others had dismissed it as some kind of trick, she did not doubt for a moment that there was a significance behind its initial stony incarnation. She had heard professor Colbert's speculative words. He was wrong. Creatures with strong earth affinities behaved in certain ways. Steady, deliberate, implacable. Ways the fleet footed wolf did not match. Then came the stories, servant gossip that bore too much truth to dismiss entirely. Things that might have been earth magic at work, but far too complex, if not very willpower intensive, to a human mage. The resulting battle with Foquet only confirmed her suspicions.
Even then, she would have preferred to observe in silence and from a distance. Until Sylphid had revealed what she had discovered, and what she had let slip in turn.
"What are you?" She asked.
Sylphid looked at her, then warbled in confusion, wings flaring slightly for emphasis. Even under her stricture not to speak, Tabitha could see what the rhyme dragon was trying to say. She lifted her staff slightly in acknowledgement, but she would not be deterred. Sylphid would not lie to her, but she still needed to make sure.
The wolf huffed. Briefly, the forest stirred beneath a sudden gust of wind. But there was no reply, no unspoken voice Sylphid had made mention of.
Instead, the dragon cocked her head as if listening to something. The motion was gone before she could focus on it, replaced by a low trill as Sylphid brought her head down to Tabitha's level. She warbled several more times, her tail lashing about impatiently in a way that Tabitha had no trouble identifying.
For a moment, she considered her familiar's request. In the end, she nodded.
"Kyuuii," Sylphid trilled happily at the lifting of Tabitha's restrictions, but instead of speaking right away, cocked her head left, then right. Her wings subsided after a moment. The wolf remained standing and alert, attention never wavering from Tabitha.
"Big Sister says Big Sis already knows her." Sylphid's whistling voice held a note of confusion, "but Big Sister also says you don't really see her."
Ah, that sort of answer. Tabitha did not raise an eyebrow. She did not voice the obvious question even though she was as confused as her familiar, if not as much. But she did look at the wolf with slightly more intensity, thoughts gently turning over in her mind. It was not what she had asked, but it held a few answers even as it raised more questions.
"Kyuuuyuuu... Big Sister says Big Sis shouldn't ask things like that because Big Sis doesn't like being asked them." Her familiar cooed suddenly, but then quickly added, "But Big Sister isn't mad even though you asked something that you shouldn't because she thinks you're nice."
She blinked. She had not expected that sort of response, if second hand through her familiar. But unless she was mistaken, she had what she had come for. Louise's familiar would not be spreading what she had learned.
If she took the words as they were. From everything she had seen, the wolf was capricious, far more independently minded than most familiars were supposed to be. And Sylphid had called her a spirit...
The wolf continued to focus its attention her, stance alert but patient. Nothing else seemed to radiate from the wolf. By comparison, Shiranui had read her intentions like a book. She pushed down the sudden flare of concern before it could show anywhere, down where things could never be allowed. No, not all things could be read.
Shiranui huffed, flicking her tail archly.
"Why through her," she asked, after a moment, letting her curiosity get the better of her as she briefly nodded in Sylphid's direction, "not directly."
This time the wolf cocked its head to the side, making a muffled whine as dark eyes stared at her.
From the corner of her eyes, Sylphid mirrored the action, trilling questioningly as she swayed her head left and right. She cooed again, but if the wolf responded in whatever mysterious fashion, Tabitha didn't see it. A moment later, the dragon warbled, then again with more insistence, stamping lightly on the ground with a clawed foot. The wolf reacted this time, flicking an ear as she got up and walked over to Sylphid. The dragon lowered her head as the wolf approached, keening softly.
What happened next brought another blink to Tabitha's eyes. As Sylphid's head levelled with Louise's familiar, the wolf raised a forepaw, and in a very human-like fashion, began to pat her snout. A shiver ran through the dragon's body at the touch, her wings drooping slightly. A flash of worry ran through Tabitha. Louise's familiar had never shown any signs of hostility so far but... the gesture was so familiar, so full of warmth... she hesitated. The wolf broke contact after a few seconds, and Sylphid turned back to her with her head dipped low.
"Kyuuyuuyuuu... Irukukwu is sorry Big Sis." She warbled, "Irukukwu tried to ask Big Sister to talk to Big Sis properly because Irukukwu wanted Big Sister to be friends with Big Sis." Her head drooped down dejectedly, "But Big Sister won't do it."
Tabitha felt her eyes widen slightly at the revelation. Even though she never voiced the question, it hung in the air and Sylphid answered without further prompting.
"Irukukwu doesn't understand it. Big Sister says she can, but Big Sis isn't ready yet."
The blue haired Gallian brooded at this. Not ready yet? What did that mean? Was Louise's familiar planning something? She pushed the question aside. If there was, she doubted that the secretive wolf would divulge it like this. More concerning was the implications. As intelligent as any person, powerful in magic, and very independently minded, to the point of disregarding her mistress's orders at times. Poor qualities in a willing familiar. So...
Irukukwu trilled at this, speaking again for the wolf.
"Kyuuyuuiii... because she asked nicely."
What choice will you make, child?
The child stood in silence, gazing upon her form with silent intent and uncertainty.
Shiranui looked back, watchful and patient. The child had learned much in a very short time, she reflected. In part, words born from what Irukukwu had learned, and those that she had given freely, spoken again in the human tongue by the dragon who called her sister. Perhaps more than the white wolf wished for others to know so soon. Once there had been those who had feared her, unable or perhaps, unwilling, to understand what they had learned. It was not a time she wished repeated.
But the past was barred to her, the Moon Tribe no longer able to provide their creations in her aid.
And this child, her ears twitched in consideration, this child had seen more than most, her thoughts and actions tempered by the trials she surely must have faced. She was not fearful nor wondrous of what she did not know, pondering the choices before her in silence until at last she spoke.
"Does Louise know?"
Irukukwu turned towards her, trilling softly as she waited for an answer.
Oh child. All the world would know if she did. She is proud, that one. Shiranui chuffed, flicking her tail in bemusement, "she seeks answers as you do."
"Big sister says little sister Louise doesn't know because she's still looking." Irukukwu warbled, bobbing her head quickly as she spoke, "Just like Big sis. Kyu!"
The white wolf flicked her tail in amusement as the dragon elaborated, familiar thoughts of a time long past passing by her now. How long had it been, since another had spoken for her? To speak her intent through the veil of their perception and mannerisms? Even to one such as her, it had been a very long time. Too long perhaps.
Though Issun had not been quite so large.
The child nodded as the dragons words ended. In understanding, and in acceptance, the emotions of her spirit clear to Shiranui's eyes though the child strived to contain them. She would hold this answer she had been given and refrain from speaking further, her choice made. But though her eyes remained silent, her poise still, it was not difficult for the white wolf to sense the seed of curiosity that had taken root within her.
As it had with the child she had bonded with.
Shiranui chuffed, holding this child's gaze as a familiar presence tingled upon her awareness. Her child. Seeking much as the one before her. She could see the path before them, created by the choices they had made. Tied by threads of fate and discovery in the days that would surely come.
And as both children faced a choice, so too did she. A choice she had known would come when she had been called to walk amongst mortals once more. In part, this child was not ready. But only in part. Was it the same when taken as a whole? If their curiosity was sated now by her actions alone with their eyes still unopened, would they accept her? Or would she keep her silence, content to allow them to make their way upon their convictions alone? To grow in spirit with the discoveries that were truly theirs?
She chuffed once more, quiet and wry amusement as she reflected upon the reticent thought.
Of course not.
She would not ignore the needs and hopes of those who walked beneath her light, more so the child she was guardian over, their paths twined. Perhaps, as had been done so often before, she would smoothen this path they walked. For all of them.
"If you wish to learn more child, you must follow."
"Kyui?" The dragon cooed, cocking her head in confusion. "Irukukwu doesn't understand Big Sister."
"Speak my words as they are Irukukwu," she said, rising on all fours as she turned to leave, "she will understand."
Stories were not real. Tabitha knew that very well. And yet sometimes there were precautionary tales within a story that was no less valid in the real world.
Not following strange but powerful beings who made cryptic promises was one of them.
She was not Ivaldi, nor would there be a hero for her when things turned for the worse.
Louise's familiar craned its head behind, looking back at her. The wolf was on the verge of disappearing, having ghosted far enough along the forest path that the trees all but obscured her before coming to a halt. Her tail swished once in an unhurried fashion. The being's message clear to the Gallian who had yet to move, as if Sylphid's words were not enough.
In one of the very few times of her life, Tabitha was unsure. For a variety of reasons.
At least human level intellect, potent magic and her own familiar's insistence of Shiranui's true nature. Willing to be bound simply because she had been asked politely? Tabitha did not think she had been lied to. Simpler to continue the charade of an unassuming creature if deception was the aim. And if it was the truth...
Put together, it was a matter that required attention. But more concerning was the wolf's admission that Louise did not know, and had no intention of informing her until some unspecified condition had been fulfilled. It spoke of a long term plan, one that being bound as familiar played a part in. There was more to Shiranui than a simple magical beast. Much more. But how much of what she had gleaned so far had been things she had allowed to learn? She wasn't sure.
That... frustrated her. Frustrated and warned. Human or monster, firstborn or demihuman, familiar or not, half veiled agendas often boded ill regardless of who or what their author was.
She could refuse. Being swept along with Kirche's initial impulse had told her much already. Enough to know that something bigger was at hand than a simple mystery, maybe more than she wanted to be involved with. She could drop the matter and quietly vanish beyond whatever plan Shiranui had. It did not involve her and she had little reason to suspect that the wolf would force the issue if she abstained.
There was a faint huff in the distance, the first noise the wolf had made since their... discussion. The wolf held her stare, ears flicking once. And then Shiranui was gone, ghosting past the trees so quickly as to vanish near instantly.
A moment later Sylphid nudged at her side with her snout.
"Kyuuyuuruu," The dragon warbled softly, nudging at her mistress again and flapping her wings with easily discerned intent.
Tabitha placed a hand on the dragon's snout, calming her down as she looked to where the wolf had gone. No sign of passage, no rustling foliage to give away that Shiranui had been there. For several long seconds, Tabitha thought over their exchange, uncertain. A choice had been handed to her, not small, not inconsequential.
Not if her suspicions were right.
She patted Sylphid on the snout. Understanding lit the dragon's eyes as Sylphid lowered herself to the ground. In one swift motion, Tabitha vaulted onto the saddle, holding on tightly as she spoke only two words.
Perhaps hers would be a precautionary tale to come.
But somehow, that tiny voice inside, that small seed of emotion that she had thought long beyond her since that dark night, whispered otherwise.
Louise had told herself that she would keep an open mind, that she would not dismiss out of hand what she had been told until she'd thought it through. Yes, myths were nine parts exaggeration, one part fact if at all, but Siesta's village legends had born enough similarities to the truth by association that they might at least possess a few clues if she thought about it.
Except when she thought about it...
Very slowly, she rubbed at her temples.
"You are saying," She enunciated, not quite looking up as she emphasized each word, "that this wolf in your legend. Shiranui. Could make flowers blossom. Wherever she was."
"Wherever the wolf walked," Siesta hesitantly corrected, the maid fidgeting under her scrutiny, "the stories said flowers would burst forth from the ground wherever her feet touched."
"That... that's..." Louise paused, face scrunching in frustration as she tried to find a word to encompass her feelings. It wasn't impossible to make flowers grow like that with magic. Transmutation, manipulating their inner workings to accelerate growth, there were a variety of options for the appropriately skilled mage. Her instruction in the applications of magical theory at least was not lacking. But the same instruction were also quite clear that it was the field of earth and water magic. And more than that, it was a draining exercise, certainly not something a dot or line of their respective element could manage on the scale the maid was describing if she was to be believed.
She had known Shiranui possessed a command of wind magic any mage would kill for. But now this? Magically powerful or not, there had to be limits!
"Adorable? Useful? Something a fairy would do? Now there's a thought." Kirche interjected with a chuckle as she leaned against the wall of her room. "A wolf with ties to the fae, what would the bards make of that? Ah-ha!" She tapped her fingers against her lips, "Maybe she's actually a changeling faerie in disguise."
Louise momentarily put aside her frustrated thoughts to balefully look Kirche in the eye.
"You. Are not helping." She hissed between gritted teeth. The Germanian only waggled her fingers mockingly in reply. Louise scowled. Fairies... as if she didn't have enough myths to sort through without the Germanian cow adding on childrens tales on top of that.
"In any case, I don't see what that has to do with anything." She declared with a huff, "I've never seen any flowers blooming in my familiar's footsteps."
"But flowers aren't the only thing," Kirche countered, before directing her attention at Siesta, "are they? Like a certain tree?"
"Uhm," Siesta interrupted nervously, lifting her hand to get their attention. When neither of the nobles said anything, she continued. "It's about one of the trees in the Academy gardens, a Serrulata. Shiranui, the wolf in the stories, was said to have favored them. And well..." the maid trailed off at the Valliere's stare, letting silence fill in the blanks.
Louise blinked, putting two and two together. That was the first time she'd heard about that fairy tale wolf having a preference for anything. But still... "Are you sure you're not simply mistaken?" She ventured. "It's not that I don't want to believe you, but if it's flowering now, surely that's because it's spring. When else would it bloom?"
"Not when it's already in the process of withering," Kirche remarked dryly, directing a knowing look in Siesta's direction. "But that was only the beginning wasn't it?"
The maid hesitated, "you knew?"
"I do have two pairs of ears between me and my darling Flame," the Germanian replied with a lazy smirk, letting the ambiguous silence fill in the rest before adding "though I dare say Louise hasn't been using hers very much if she's missed this much."
Glares should have magical power, the girl in question angrily thought. Magical, terrible power, the likes of which could burn annoying, shameless harlots to ash in an instant...
But Kirche continued to defy her will by not spontaneously combusting. Instead, the bronze skinned student lifted her hand, ticking off fingers as she spoke.
How the tree was only the first of inexplicable events. Worn down tools mended overnight, plants and flowers made healthy when they were dead or dying. A wrecked classroom, Louise flushed slightly when she realized which classroom, made pristine without human hands intervening. And each retelling had a single common thread. No one saw or knew who was responsible. At least, she amended the thought, not for certain.
The only exception was the tree Siesta had first mentioned, the maid piping up during Kirche's retelling to add that her familiar had been last in the area prior to it's revival. But beyond that tenuous link, everything else was speculation and coincidence. Even if it were all true, it could have been anyone, no common link between any of the events. She said as much.
"Not at all," The Germanian evenly replied before cocking her head briefly. The grin returned to her face, "but if you have a hard time believing second hand accounts-"
She gestured at the open balcony door of her room, directing the attention of the other two.
"Why not get it first hand?"
Louise frowned at the empty landing, only to realize a faint skittering sound coming outside, steadily growing closer. A moment later, the source of the noise revealed itself, the maid gasping as streak of white flashed up the ledge and onto the balcony walls.
"Speak of the white wolf," Kirche clapped happily, "and lo she does appear."
"But... how?" Siesta stared in confusion, "this is the fifth floor."
"She's a very nimble wolf," The Germanian replied with an amused smirk and a wagging finger, "very nimble"
Putting her hands on her hips, Louise couldn't quite share her classmates sentiment. "Where have you been?" She sniffed, too used to the wolf's inexplicable ability to scale walls to be surprised. "You're supposed to stay by your masters side you know."
Shiranui cocked her head to the side, flicking her tail in silent reply, eliciting a humph from Louise. She didn't need words to interpret just what her wolf thought of proper familiar behavior. But before she could begin to be annoyed, there was a gust of wind, the balcony suddenly shrouded in shadow. Another figure dropped down then, landing lightly on the balcony as shadow and wind receded, the mop of close crop blue hair identifying the newcomer before her face rose.
"There you are Blue," Kirche cheered as the diminutive Gallian nodded in greeting, "on the trail of the white wolf?"
Louise sighed, eyebrow twitching in annoyance as Kirche snickered. "I know Shiranui likes to come and go as she please, but why are you here? Don't tell me you just saw my familiar and decided to follow her into someone else's room."
Tabitha cocked her head to the side in a fashion reminiscent of Shiranui. "Was invited," she answered simply after a brief pause, nodding in the wolf's direction.
All eyes went to the wolf at those words, most of them curious though Louise's was skeptical. "Really."
Shiranui held their looks for a moment before leaping off the balcony wall and onto the floor, she craned her head back for a moment, only long enough to send a look at Tabitha. Her ears flicked once, and then she was padding noiselessly into the room.
"Well I think that answers the question," chuckled Kirche, sending an amused grin at the wolf as she settled down on her haunches, "wanted to complete the circle did you Shiranui? Ready to reveal your true form to those looking to unravel the mystery?"
The wolf cocked her head, letting out an inquisitive whine.
"Kirche's just indulging in her stupid fantasies," Louise snapped with a sour expression, "but she has a point. Why did you bring Tabitha? I certainly didn't ask you to do that."
Shiranui turned to look at her, returning the frown with the patient stare only a wolf could manage. For a second, Louise couldn't shake the feeling that the wolf was giving her an arch reply. But the moment passed, the wolf breaking away with a huff and padding over to Siesta. She barked twice at the maid, ears twitching as Siesta started, and then once more.
"ShiranuI!" Louise exclaimed, more annoyed at being ignored than the wolf's behavior. "What's the matter with you?"
"I think…" the maid answered unexpectedly, blinking at Shiranui, "she knows what we were talking about earlier?"
A flat "what," escaped from the Valliere's mouth.
"It...well…" Siesta answered tentatively under their gathered stares, "it just seems like she's interested in what we were saying just now."
The wolf happily barked again at Siesta's explanation, flicking her tail in the air for emphasis.
Silence stretched out for several long seconds as the gathered nobles alternated sending bewildered looks between maidservant and familiar. It was broken in the end by Kirche, who chuckled as the light of realization dawned on her face.
"Well. Well well well." She grinned, directing a triumphant look at Louise, "Whose fantasies are stupid now hmm, Zero?" The easy smile as she said it made the familiar insult less mocking than usual. Somewhat.
"Sh-shut up Kirche." Louise shot back, drawing the same conclusions Kirche likely had, "I'm not convinced it proves anything. You're just guessing." She flung out an accusatory finger, "the maid's guessing too!"
She would have said more, but Tabitha interrupted her by stepping forward, a raised eyebrow encompassing the gathered nobles.
"Talking about Shiranui?" The blue haired girl asked
"The one from Siesta's village stories," Kirche piped in, "flowers blossoming in her footsteps, withered trees being restored to life, does that sound familiar?" she sent an arch smile at the wolf, "I bet it does to you."
The familiar in question cocked her head to the side, briefly curling her tail in the air. There was a softly inquisitive whine.
"Zerbst seems to think that you were the one responsible for all the going ons Siesta's been telling us about," Louise explained, "repairing things in the Academy on the sly, healing plants and the like."
The wolf cocked her head to the side, flicking her tail curiously as she let out an inquisitive whine. But not at her, Louise realized. Instead the wolf was looking towards Siesta now.
"Well…," the maid hesitantly began, only going ahead once Louise nodded for her to continue, "aren't you the one Shiranui? There have been so many strange things happening since you arrived. Things which only you could have done. And that time with the Serrulata tree, it fits with your… I mean the other Shiranui's legend."
"Which is all well and good," Louise interjected skeptically, "but even if the tree was restored like you say it was, there's still no proof my familiar was behind it."
"Is that denial I hear?" The Germanian tutted as she leaned against the dresser, wagging an admonishing finger, "with all we've seen it's far too late for that now wouldn't you say?"
"Hardly Zerbst," Louise shot back dryly, "I don't deny Shiranui possesses potent wind magic to say the least, but there's a difference between being a magical creature and some kind of grand mystical being from some sleepy village myth. Do you even see flowers blooming in her every footstep?" She challenged, "I don't."
"Honestly Zero," Kirche chided, the easy smile dropping off her face to be replaced with a frown, "Do you have to be so stubborn about everything?"
Folding her arms, she set her jaw angrily. "I'm not the one making ridiculous claims without equally ridiculous evidence, and frankly you-"
There was a chuff. It was not particularly loud nor forceful. It normally wouldn't have registered on her awareness. But Louise found her words trailing off, her train of thought disrupted as her eyes were drawn to the source. They went very wide.
What seemed like a lifetime ago, before the summoning ceremony, she had prepared a bed of straw for her familiar. As far as she knew, the pile had gone undisturbed from the very day she had summoned Shiranui. The wolf was hardly around when she went to sleep, and when she was around, ended up sharing her mistress's bed. Not that she minded very much, in retrospect. The bed was large enough and her familiar was… well, fluffy.
But the mound of straw was vanishing. No, not vanished she corrected, spotting the distinctive stalks of yellow at the bottom. But rising above them was an explosion of plants. Tiny saplings, green shoots sprouting out of the straw like uncurling fingers. A forest of plant life quickly stretching over the confines of the makeshift bed. Growing at speeds she couldn't believe. Springy stems brushed against the wall of her room as they grew, leafy branches twining around the edges of her dresser. Leaves stretched out from their stems, flaring out to their full length in an eyeblink. Flowers unfolded as their colors turned and ripened, blossoming into lilies, iris, sunflowers and more.
Seated in the center of it all, nearly hidden by the flowery growth, was Shiranui.
And though she never moved, the wolf's gaze seemed to encompass them all. Watchful, patient. Her tail flicked.
No one said anything, unable to say anything. Questions practically bounded about within her mind, yet she couldn't find the will to speak them aloud. Siesta had covered her mouth with both hands, eyes staring in awe. Even Kirche seemed impressed, the Germanian's usual smirk fallen away to reveal unconcealed wonder.
It was Tabitha who moved first, stepping up to the wolf. Shiranui responded by pressing lightly at one of the stalks with a forepaw, pushing it towards the Gallian. Reaching out, she tapped experimentally at the flower stem with the tip of her staff. The stalk swayed, puffs of pollen escaping from the flower bud to float in the air. Shiranui chuffed, a light airy sound unlike before. Emboldened, the Gallian reached out, plucking the sunflower from the profusion.
She craned her head towards Louise then, holding out the flower.
Hesitantly, Louise accepted the flower, half expecting it to pass through her hand. It didn't, the texture of its stem and petals firm against her fingers, as real as any other flower. Her eyes drifted sideways, towards Tabitha, towards Siesta, finally resting on her familiar. The wolf met her gaze back, framed by the garden of flowers. There was a question in those eyes, somehow. And an answer. The wolf had known, though the means were a mystery, and had provided the final impetus to remove what doubts there were. All that was left was her part. Her choice.
She nodded, finding her voice at last.
"I suppose I will be going to Tarbes after all."
"You disappoint, thief."
The rattle of chains accompanied the rude gesture, the only sign of defiance she would bother with. She had known it would have happened, sooner or later. Killed in the act, or caught only to be executed just the same after a farce of a trial. The possibility was always there in the back of her mind, from the time of her very first heist and even after the day she had taken the title of the Crumbling Earth. It hadn't stopped her from planning bigger and better heists, thwarting whatever defenses her marks tried to put between their treasures and her.
But now possibility had become reality, with her hands bound in a dingy, chilly and dimly lit cell.
"Three striplings who think themselves warriors, one of whom cannot even call upon whole magic," the visitor said, voice devoid of malice or actual disappointment. It was delivered simply as… a statement of fact. "besting one who has evaded or defeated much cannier foes."
"A strange outcome, would you not say?" A hint of motion, the first sign of animation from the speaker since appearing.
She didn't say anything, though her attention caught on that one word. Whole magic? It must have been referring to that Valliere brat, nobody in the Academy was ignorant of her failures. But why call it that? She filed that oddity away for future reference. Assuming of course that she had a future…
'No, don't think like that. That's the sort of thinking that kills people.'
"What can I say," she allowed, paying close attention at her guest for reactions, "it's been a strange week."
There was a short exhalation, like a laugh. But it carried a jarring alien duality within that set her teeth on edge. "Strange indeed," the visitor allowed. "Was it that strangeness that made you careless?"
She didn't react, though it took an effort of will not to twitch.
'You're trying to spook me. But fishing for information won't help you.'
"Things have not been following their proper course," her guest said, "and neither have you."
"Is that so?" She replied dryly, making another gesture with her chained hands, "and here I was thinking these cuffs were merely decoration."
"You are not without wit, thief." The visitor said, the jibe apparently ignored, "cunning is your hallmark. From your first move until your vanishment, you have always carried out your actions with utter meticulousness, escaping even a single sighting. Until now."
"One could think you had become overconfident, to make your move so early when there would be other opportunities," there was a pause, that same breathy exhalation again, "and one would be wrong to do so."
She quirked an eyebrow.
"A sun that does not follow its eons old pattern is a portent, an ill omen, some would believe." The visitor said. "Some are more sensitive to the signs than others."
Now both eyebrows rose, but in derisive skepticism rather than curiosity. "Oh sure," she sarcastically drawled, rolling her eyes, "the stars said I would be beaten by a trio of brats, a dragon and a blasted white wolf."
The earlier retort might have gone unsaid for all the reaction it gained, but now she had the dubious pleasure of watching the visitor twitch, if only slightly. But she couldn't have predicted what would come next.
The visitor laughed. Not loudly, and not a laugh like she would expect from a purely human throat. Not a sound of joy or sorrow. But something else. More primal, squeezing at her chest until she could almost hear the bones creak. There was a raspy, echoing quality to it that had nothing to do with the close confines of the cell walls. Had the dungeon been less damp, her hair would have stood on end hearing it.
"Do not dismiss the portents of things in motion, thief," the visitor said when the laughter had died down, "for within them there is a role for you greater than you have ever imagined."
"And you're going to let me out of here if I promise to work for you in whatever role that is," she deadpanned, once the goosebumps on her skin had died down. It wasn't exactly the smartest thing to say, but that laugh had unnerved her more than she would have liked to admit. "Well sorry, but I don't do destiny or fate."
"Of course you do not," the visitor admonished, an edge of sternness entering the voice for the first time, "and I would make you no such offer. Fate is what we are given, not offered by another. But it should be said," a gloved hand was held up, palm open. There was a shimmer in the air, and suddenly there was a wand. And not just any wand. Though she had never seen it before, the sliver of gleaming metal practically radiated power, her earth attuned senses easily sensing the latent enchantments that must have been woven into it. "That destiny is not immutable."
The hand withdrew, leaving behind the wand. Floating in the air. Just in arms reach. Maybe. If she really stretched.
She didn't. She wasn't stupid enough to make an obvious move like that. But it did confirm something for her.
"You're no servant of the crown," she confidently remarked. Just as she wasn't stupid enough to reach out for it, no guard or royal quester would be so stupid as to give her the means of escape. Which narrowed down the list of possible suspects considerably. "Gallia? Or Reconquisita?"
There was a silence where the visitor stared at her, a wide predatory smile easily imagined despite the concealing darkness.
"Shackled visionaries of small ambitions do not concern one such as I." Came the level answer, though she noticed that there was neither denial nor confirmation in it. "In the course of time they will become as irrelevant as the morning mist." There was a pause, "as might still be your fate."
She was suddenly acutely aware of the cold and unyielding stone against her back, but she didn't let it show on her face. "Work for you or die? So much for immutable destiny."
That exhalation came again, the amusement clear in that short laugh. "You see but you do not know," the visitor said. "But it does not matter, for you will understand when the time is right."
"We are our choices, thief. I will not constrain you to a single path. But whichever you choose," cloth rustled as the visitor shifted, a movement that might have been a half bow.
"I will be waiting."
And then the visitor was gone, fading into a blurred outline before vanishing as suddenly as she had arrived.
Leaving behind the wand, still hanging in the air.
Foquet of the Crumbling Dirt, otherwise known as Matilda of Saxe Gotha, looked at the magical focus and weighed her options. It didn't take very long. There weren't a lot of them to weigh in the first place. Not counting what would happen to her sister if she didn't ever go back, dying had never really appealed to her.
But whatever happened, she resolved to never let her guard down if she ever met that… woman again.
The one behind the fox mask.
Irukukwu is writing again! Yay! Not writing like Big Sis does because Irukukwu's claws are all the wrong shape and Big Sis says Irukukwu shouldn't waste anymore parchment with claws because it's not cheap and Big Sis doesn't like wasting and says if Irukukwu does it anymore then Big Sis will feed Irukukwu less. So Irukukwu is talking instead into this magic stone so Irukukwu's words come out properly and people will understand properly too. Kyuu!
Talking to Familiars
Talking to other familiars is super easy, kyuui! Irukukwu only needs to talk like normal, not normal normal for humans, but normal for Irukukwu. Like when Irukukwu wants to talk to Big Big Sister, or Mother or other Rhyme Dragons. Irukukwu thinks it's because of Big Sis's magic and all the other ones who got called up by their Big Brothers and Big Sisters. But it only works when talking to other familiars like Flame, kyuruuru.
If Irukukwu tries to talk to other animals, the ones that Irukukwu doesn't want to eat of course, they don't understand Irukukwu. And Irukukwu doesn't understand them back. It was lots of annoying when Irukukwu wanted to try it out at first with the forest animals and find out where the nice places were to sleep. But they all ran away and made lots of noises that didn't make any words to Irukukwu. Not at all like talking to other familiars.
But Irukukwu doesn't mind too much, because it's like when Irukukwu was with Big Big Sister and Mother and all the others. Just without Big Sis and Big Sister. So Irukukwu is used to it. Also, Irukukwu got lots of yummies that day, so that was alright.
Kyui? Big Sis doesn't know about it. But Big Sis is lots of smarts? Irukukwu thinks Big Sis knows about it, and doesn't need to tell Big Sis. Well, Irukukwu told Big Sis about Big Sister, so Big Sis sort of knows anyway.
Talking to Spirits
Irukukwu doesn't talk to spirits much, because that's the Rhyme and Irukukwu only knows a few things to ask from the Spirits. Spirits don't talk very much to Irukukwu either. Except Big Sister of course, but Big Sister is special because she has a real body and doesn't need to be angry to have one like other Spirits, Kyu! Irukukwu can't talk to Spirits like Irukukwu talks to the other familiars because they can't hear Irukukwu like that.
When Irukukwu wants to talk to spirits, Irukukwu needs to listen very carefully. Because Spirits don't talk like humans or other animals or other Rhyme dragons. When Spirits say something, it's like a smell but not really a smell and it can be very easy to miss. But if Irukukwu hears them, then it becomes very easy to understand because words are sometimes confusing and smells are really easy to know.
But then Irukukwu needs to think really hard about what Irukukwu wants to say too. Because Spirits don't really understand Irukukwu if Irukukwu says things improperly, and Big Big Sister said that sometimes bad things can happen if a lazy dragon doesn't say them properly. Like instead of becoming human shaped, Irukukwu could become yummies instead and because Irukukwu became yummies, Irukukwu wouldn't be able to talk to the Spirits and ask to be turned back to normal so that's a bad thing.
But Irukukwu needs to think really hard too because that's how Irukukwu talks to Spirits. With words and the Rhyme, mmm! They need to be said and thought together too, or the Spirits won't hear it or hear improperly then Irukukwu would become yummies.
Or worse kyuuruuruu~!
Talking to Big Sister
Talking to Big Sister is different. Not like talking to spirits or familiars at all. Actually, Irukukwu thinks talking to Big Sister is like talking to other familiars, or other Rhyme Dragons. Big Sister understands Irukukwu and all the other humans really easily, even when they speak all sorts of different words and ways that even Irukukuwu doesn't understand. Big Sister is really smart kyui!
But it's really really different when Big Sister talks to Irukukwu. Because Big Sister can say lots and lots of things without speaking. Big Sister doesn't need to use her tail or ears when she says anything. Not like Big Sis who sometimes hits Irukukwu on the nose and gives her that look when she's really mad, but really without speaking.
When Big Sister speaks, even when Big Sister is just sitting and doing nothing, it's like Irukukwu just knows what Big Sister is saying. Even when Big Sister uses big words that Irukukwu doesn't really get if Irukukwu thinks about each word really hard. Sometimes Irukukwu doesn't get what Big Sister means, but Irukukwu thinks that's because Big Sister is asking Irukukwu to tell Big Sis things so it's not really meant for Irukukwu to understand?
Kyuuu… sometimes Irukukwu thinks maybe it's like Big Sister is using the Rhyme to talk to Irukukwu somehow.
Irukukwu doesn't know if that's a good thing or bad thing. But since Big Sister always has yummies for Irukukwu, Irukukwu thinks it doesn't matter too much.
A/N: Well it's been a long time in coming, but I hope this chapter makes up for the delay. Had gotten halfway through it before I ran out of steam and ended up writing something else to clear the mind. And after that one ran into a block I came back here. Lot of back and forth, which required a few rewrites before it finally got to something I was satisfied with.