AN: Much better. With this, I consider my debt with Krahae to be fulfilled.
"It's good to see you again, Louise," Henrietta said with a faint, tired smile, "It really has been far too long."
"Your high-" Louise began, but Henrietta cut her off with a wagging finger, and a smile twitched at the edges of Louise's lips before she started again, "It has, Henrietta," She agreed, "I wish things had been different, these past seven years."
"So do I," Henrietta said sadly, before closing her eyes and seeming to visibly wilt in the plush chair she occupied in Louise's room, "From all I have heard, from the time my father forbade us from seeing each other, in effect, both of our childhoods ended."
"What happened?" Louise asked, concern in her eyes and voice as she studied her soon-to-be monarch and childhood friend, who just a moment before had seemed entirely at ease, "You clearly are not just tired from the journey here."
"You have become more perceptive, Louise," Henrietta said with a faint smirk, "And here, I had been told you were blinded in Foquet's attack."
"Temporarily," Louise said with a nod, "Things are still just a little blurry if they're too far away, but my family's healer expects me to make a full recovery."
"I'm glad to hear it," Henrietta said, "I was hoping you could accompany me on an upcoming diplomatic journey I will be undertaking; if you had still been blind, things would have been rather awkward."
"A diplomatic mission?" Louise said, a spark of excitement entering her eyes and voice, "Where are you going?"
"Germania," Henrietta said with a wince.
"What?" Disbelief killed Louise's spark of excitement.
Henrietta looked away, shame and pain crossing her face.
"You have heard of the Reconquista, within Albion?" Henrietta asked tentatively.
"Three weeks ago, they killed Prince Wales, some sort of inhumanly powerful mage cutting him down," Henrietta said, her voice devoid of all emotion, "Albion will fall soon, the Royalists have little remaining under their control save Newcastle, and we have very good reason to believe that the Reconquista is being funded and supplied by Joseph of Gallia. Given the rhetoric of the Reconquista's leadership, it is a functional certainty that once they control Albion, they will move on Tristain."
Painful silence took up residence in Louise's room for long moments after the Princess stopped speaking.
"Your beloved is dead less than a month since," Louise eventually said, clearly struggling to maintain her composure, "And the Cardinal is sending you to arrange a marriage alliance with the Emperor of Germania?"
Henrietta nodded, still not looking at Louise; Louise turned and looked away herself, torn between empathy for her friend's pain, outrage at the Cardinal's ill-timed machinations, duty to see Tristain preserved, and outrage at the idea of allying (especially so closely) with Germanians.
It was a long time before anybody spoke again, and Henrietta began to fidget nervously after the first few minutes of silence, as she waited for her only friend to respond to her revelation. Siesta, sitting silently on the sidelines, desperately wished she was somewhere else, but every one of her hard-won instincts for dealing with nobility was screaming at her to simply remain unnoticed, so she sat quietly and waited.
The cat had no such compunctions, and growing fed up with the increasingly tense silence, padded quietly across the room, and leapt into Louise's lap. Not content to simply lay or sit there, he rose up and planted his forepaws on Louise's shoulders, and stared meaningfully into the (somewhat) startled pinkette's eyes for a long moment, before leaping back onto the floor. He then proceeded to cross the short distance between Louise' and Henrietta's chairs, before leaping into the Princess' lap, seating himself across her knees, and turning to stare pointedly at Louise again.
As Henrietta jumped slightly, and stared down at the cat that had decided to take up residence in her lap, Louise sighed, and finally spoke up again.
"Meet my familiar," Louise said wryly, "You'll probably see quite a bit of him in the coming weeks, given we'll be traveling through Germania with you."
"What's his name?" Henrietta asked, smiling with relief, and the beginning of tears in her eyes as she tentatively reached down to scratch behind the cat's ears.
Louise said nothing, and began to blush.
"Louise!" Henrietta scolded, "You've had him for months, and you still just call him 'Familiar,' don't you?"
Louise grumbled and looked away, her blush intensifying.
That went better than it could have, but I was going to need to take a nap, and then talk with Louise and Siesta. I didn't want my sapience getting out while Wardes was around, and unlike Karin, they have little idea of operational security or its kindred.
In the meantime, I need to get some rest. It's taxing, maintaining clear, coherent lines of thought, with all of the compulsion magic messing with my mind.
Matilda was... confused. She had long since become disillusioned with the 'nobility of the nobility,' and her time moving amongst the common folk had only reinforced her changed view of the world.
The Vallieres seemed like a slap in the face to everything that she'd come to believe since her family had been destroyed. When she'd learned that she was being brought to the estate of the wealthiest family in Tristain (after the Royal family, of course), she had expected to see that which typified the wealthier Barons and Counts of Albion; harsher taxation, and greater oppression of the common folk to force more wealth out of them. Instead, she had found people who paid only modest taxes, and aside from the household staff, direct family retainers, and armsmen, had little to no interaction with the Valliere family at all. They even allowed their sickly middle daughter, too frail to cast with any real power or speed, to travel into town (on a covered palanquin) with no armed escort!
And then their healer had cured her of paralysis, and no payment had demanded. Matilda knew that regeneration of that level required either the services of a square-class Water Mage of consummate healing skill or a Rhyme Dragon Scale as a reagent to empower the spell, both of which cost more than most peasants would earn in their life-time.
And according to the Duchess Valliere (who for some reason terrified the part of her that was Foquet), it was something that the family had to see to personally as a simple matter of integrity and honor. Matilda didn't know what to make of the Vallieres; on the one hand they had foiled her attempt at stealing the Staff of Destruction and crippled her, but on the other hand...
...Well, their eldest daughter was still a bitch. At least that much was familiar to Matilda.
"You are fortunate that the Princess' visit has come at this time," Karin said, eyeing her eldest daughter flatly over a cup of tea.
"Yes mother," Eleanor said, almost managing to present a sufficiently calm facade to keep Karin from seeing how nervous she was.
"If I find that you have taken it upon yourself to discipline her without the permission of your father or myself again," Karin said after taking another sip of tea, "It will not matter if I find you in the middle of the Royal Audience chamber, your punishment will be both prompt and decisive."
"Yes mother," Eleanor said, carefully setting aside her own teacup before her hands could begin to shake.
"To your room," Karin said calmly, "I expect you to compose a formal letter of apology to your sister, to be delivered before she and the Princess depart the estates."
Once Louise and Henrietta were done chatting for the night, and both had retired to bed, I decided to go pay Count Wardes a visit, and see if I could find any reason to think he was substantially different from 'canon.'
Tracking him by scent was easy enough; he was in charge of the Princess' escort (a most likely terrible position for him to hold), unsurprising given his status as a Square-class mage, and his rank as a Captain of the Gryphon Knights, and as such, he generally wasn't far from the Princess during the day. Once I had his scent, tracking him during the night was easy enough, and of the three nights the Princess planned to stay at the Valliere Estates, it only took two to find him up to no good.
Specifically, meeting with 'Longueville,' in order to deliver a certain ultimatum.
Unlike my own treatment (delivered back when I was still mostly delirious), Longueville got the 'expensive' treatment, meaning she doesn't need to learn how to walk all over again, though she's still been spending a fair bit of her days rebuilding muscle strength in her legs, because a few weeks of not using them at all does cause atrophy. That's her stated excuse, anyways, I think she's actually been casing the place, and getting a feel for what the common folk on the Valliere lands are like. I doubt she's stupid enough to try to rob the Vallieres, especially when the Princess is around, and given what Louise did to her on her last little outing, but I'm not familiar enough with her character to be certain.
Whatever else she may or may not have been planning, once Wardes caught up with her, 'Foquet's' demeanor changed. Primarily, because he initially approached her in a flirtatious manner, and she, playing the part of a commoner, couldn't afford to simply offer direct rejection to a nobleman, especially one of such rank. Once he was within arm's reach, he cast some sort of spell that cut off sound, forcing me to close the distance. His eyes were sharp, but I had more skill in stealth than any other likely alive in Halkeginia, backed by being Tiny cat, rather than a Medium human, and I was able to slip through the edge of his spell undetected.
"-It would be a shame if my friends had to pay her a visit."
Even lacking context, the murder that grew in Longeuville's eyes at the first of Wardes' words that I caught, told me essentially all that I needed to know.
"What do you want of me?" She hissed at him, clearly wanting to claw his eyes out, and when he smirked, I wanted to too.
"You," Wardes said with a smirk, "Are going to ensure that the Princess' little attempt to ally with Germania falls through. You're a thief; I'd tend to think that someone stealing the Princess' best friend right in the middle of the Emperor's Palace should do the job. You don't even need to hurt anyone," Wardes paused for a moment, and his voice became harsh, "And you will not hurt my Louise. You'll simply make sure that the 'Germanian agents' who have taken her do her no harm, until the gallant young hero," Wardes' voice regained its jovial tone as he leaned in towards her and smiled, "That's me, by the way, comes in to save the day, and recover proof of involvement that will make an alliance between Tristain and Germania impossible."
"I will need finds to hire the mercenaries for the job," Foquet said flatly, "My own resources are still tied up at the Academy."
"I'll provide the mercenaries myself," Wardes said dismissively, stepping back from the woman gracefully, before dropping his anti-listening spell, "I bid you good night, young miss. Do consider the offer, the Knights can always use competent clerks, and I know that some of my subordinates are looking for wives. I'm sure they'd appreciate a displaced person of such talents as your own."
And then he left. I watched Longueville until she left as well, but though conflict showed in hints on her face and through her posture, she was enough of an actor that even with my prodigious skill at observing people, I couldn't tell if she'd tentatively decided something she was unhappy about, or was yet unhappy about the decision she had to make.
"He was flirting?" Louise interjected, an anger that had not been seen from her for more than a month beginning to flare within her voice and on her face, "With the headmaster's secretary?"
Siesta cringed slightly, and hastened about collecting her mistress's discarded clothing of the day, as the youngest Valliere stared down at the cat on her bed.
'...Yes,' The familiar wrote out slowly, before its pace accelerated rapidly, paw moving at speeds difficult to track for an untrained eye, 'Though it seemed not to be a serious thing to him, and at the end, he spoke of the Knights taking Longueville on as a clerk, specifically mentioning that some of his subordinates were looking for wives.'
Louise blinked, started (mostly) out of her anger by the unexpected turn of conversation.
"Marriage?" Louise said, a hint of disbelief in her voice, "From what I have seen, Longueville is an efficient woman, but the nobles serving in the Griffon Knights are usually well-positioned to marry up in rank, rather than down. Certainly she is an attractive woman," Louise's scowl returned in full force, "But I would think it far more likely that a young nobleman looking for a mistress-"
'I believe Wardes is under the impression that Longueville is secretly a noble from Albion,' the cat wrote out hastily, 'having gone into hiding as a result of the unrest therein.'
"He'd better be right," Louise growled, near-violence in her voice, "He's not allowed to have a mistress!"
So much for getting Louise on board with this; it's pretty clear that however much calmer she may be, she's not exactly in a fully stable frame of mind yet.
"You know," Louise said with a faint smile, "You don't really appreciate the sights during a journey, until you've taken one while blind."
Henrietta glanced out the window of their carriage, before turning back to the other girl, a delicate eyebrow raised.
"Every once and a while," Louise continued, looking out at the forest flanking the road they were moving along, "The desire takes you to look out, and see what you are passing by. Now, both of us can see clearly, and that idle curiosity is satisfied just as quickly as it arises. Perhaps a particularly beautiful river or mountain will catch your interest for a time, but one thinks little of it, all told. When that idle curiosity can't be fulfilled however..."
Louise glanced over at Henrietta, her smile taking on a wry flavor.
"The curiosity simply builds," Louise said, some amusement in her tone, "I'm grateful I am of a more academic bent myself. Having Siesta read to me kept the curiosity from becoming too burdensome."
"Hm," Henrietta said, studying Siesta curiously, "Literate, and with that unusual shape to your eyes; you're from Tarbes, aren't you?"
"Yes, your highness," Siesta said, bowing from within her seat, "I am honored that you think so well of my home."
"It is one of relatively few freehold towns within Tristain," Henrietta said with a gracious smile, "The captain of my Musketeers, Chevalier Agnes, hails from one such town, and after seeing a commoner give such fine service, it has sparked my interest in learning more about such places. Tell me, Siesta, have you been to many other towns aside from your own?"
"Only in passing, your highness," Siesta answered, starting to get a bit twitchy at the sustained attention from royalty, "A night's rest in a couple of towns when I was traveling to the Academy, and a day's visit to the nearest town on the Valliere estates."
"Within your limited experience," Henrietta asked, leaning a little towards the nervous maid, "Which of these towns would you say was most like your home?"
"Oh, certainly the Valliere town your highness," Siesta replied promptly, "The other towns were somewhat unkempt."
"I'm glad to hear it," Henrietta said with a gentle smile, "All the other freehold towns I have either visited or had firsthand accounts of, were either abject messes, or amongst the most prosperous in Tristain, much as those on the Valliere estates. Could you tell me more of your home?"
The Princess was able to keep Siesta talking through most of their first day's travels.
It was on our second week across the border that we ran into trouble. Or perhaps I should say, 'I' ran into trouble.' Or maybe I should say 'I became trouble for someone else and ran into them.' Whatever. There was trouble, and there was running.
Also, fire. Lots and lots of fire.
Once we finished passing through the Zerbst estates (and Louise's posture stopped being stiffer than cast iron), we started moving into wilder, less-settled terrain. Unlike Germany's territory in the dimension I originated from, Germania in Halkeginia was a far more massive nation, covering terrain a bit like the Ukraine did on an old Risk board, spanning essentially the entire connection between Europe and Asia.
That much territory is hard to control, and thus, bandits. No mere band of brigands was foolish enough to tangle with the Princess' traveling party, of course. A dozen Gryphon Knights, sixty Musketeers, and that was just the explicit military. Louise would be hell on anyone who tried to lay hand on the Princess, who was no slouch herself. And of course there was me, even if my base damage was down to 1d4+3.
Given that I found the brigands, rather than them finding our little convoy, it was really just going to be me against whatever they had, but I was confident that I would be more than a match for them. Even if my Wizard spells, Druid spells, Psionic Powers, Spell-like Abilities, and some of my Supernatural Abilities (such as Hide in Plain Sight) were all blocked. I still had +42 Stealth, an AC of 42, and five Desert Wind Maneuvers with which to dish out the Fire Damage.
"I am Zerbst," Kirche said, her tone a mixture of confidence and derision as she stared the bandit leader (a disgraced noble judging by his wand), "Do you really wish to cause trouble with my family so close to our land?"
"I'm thinking that you're Kirche of the Zerbst," The brigand replied cockily, leering pointedly for a moment at the low neckline of Kirche's blouse, "And that if you were to go missing, your family would be more happy than sad, if you get what I mean."
"If you know who I am," Kirche said, leaning back (and sticking out her chest slightly to demonstrate that his filthy gaze in no way intimidated her) and raising an eyebrow, "You should also know that I'm a Triangle Mage, something I have in common with my friend Tabitha here."
Tabitha glanced up from her book towards Kirche, then the bandit leader, nodded briefly, then returned her attention to the tome in hand.
"Which would make attempting to challenge us, and our familiars," Kirche nodded towards Flame to her right, and the far more imposing Sylphid who was looming behind her and Tabitha, "Would be the height of foolishness, unless you are some sort of legendary Square I haven' heard of before."
"Oh," The rogue mage said cockily, "I may not be, and I'll admit, the plan was to catch you two sleeping, but I'm not exactly the only mage amongst my band of friends here."
Kirche, slightly more wary at the man's confidence in his claim, eyed the edges of the clearing she and Tabitha had been camping in. Thirty men with bows lined the trees, and she had seen hints of others slipping through the surrounding forest. Arrows were easy enough to protect against for a Wind Mage, especially one as acocmplished as Tabitha, but three or four mages could either penetrate such shields, or pick them apart with counter-magics.
On the whole, a much more dangerous proposition than a single foe for Kirche to 'play' with, while Tabitha educated the commoner thugs following the rogue noble's lead.
I had no words. Must be narrative convention, methinks. Whether or not that was the reason behind Tabitha and Kirche being less than a dozen miles from the Princess' convoy, chatter amongst the bandits (unaware of the presence of a sentient cat in their midst) about what would happen to Kirche once they got their hands on her was fairly disgusting.
It was their comparison to past offenses of a like nature they'd committed, however, that sealed their death warrants. Considering the danger of precipitating an attack upon the two teenage girls the brigands had surrounded, I decided to use stealth as my opening means of offense, which unfortunately removed most of my damage-boosting abilities, as they were all dependent upon Desert Wind flame maneuvers.
Still, stealth enabled me to close with my first target, one of the bandits without a bow that was simply waiting in the background, undetected, and getting eight attacks in a round cures many of 'low damage output's' ills. I waited until I was directly beneath him, checking to ensure that he was out of direct line of sight of his 'friends,' then lunged upwards, and shredded the front half of his neck in a bloody flurry of claws.
Kirche, while fairly observant, had nothing on the lethally-honed acuity of perception that Tabitha possessed. It took only three of the bandits falling silently, their throats cut before they could make a sound, for her to notice that someone else was depopulating their foes; it took the bandits themselves a full dozen. Sudden panic ripped through the right flank of their foes as the archers abruptly realized that half of their melee support had been killed before they even knew they were under attack.
Fortunately, this caused them to fall into confusion. Unfortunately, it pushed the rest of the bandits to attack.
Kirche was quick, and conjured a blast of fire, directing it at the man who had been trying to talk them into surrendering for the past few minutes the instant that the arrows began to fly. The bandit mage was swift, diving backwards and attempting to raise a shield to save his own life. Sylphid's responded with haste as well, rearing back and inhaling to breath ice upon their foes. Tabitha was swiftest of them all, raising a barrier of air that would shield Kirche, Flame, Sylphid's head, and herself from arrows.
Unfortunately, though the mages concealed amongst the bandits in the trees were slowest to respond, but also had known what they were doing, and did not target Sylphid's head (the only place dot or line mages could hope to mortally wound a dragon), but instead her wings, shredding the folds of flesh that made up their primary flight surfaces. The option of tactical area retreat had been removed.
The bandits had made a mistake, however, they had hurt someone that Tabitha cared about; more, they had hurt someone that Tabitha felt responsible for. Tabitha closed her book, and slipped it into a pocket, and focused the entirety of her attention on the world around her.
Then, things got ugly.
Once the archers loosed, I stopped with the 'subtle,' and pulled out Burning Blade. An extra d6+18 damage on top of the paltry 1d4+3 I did at base; taking a bandit down changed from 'a full assault to the throat,' to 'two swipes and they're toast.'
Literally. Fire damage and all.
I leapt between them as I went, taking advantage of Spring Attack and Bounding Assault to take them down as I moved, hitting whatever appendage or torso came within (the admittedly short) range of my claws, leaving smoking corpses in my wake as I sought to thin them down before the girls could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers.
I looked up from where I'd taken cover behind a tree.
Which was now the stump of a tree.
Shivering momentarily in place, I leapt atop the trunk, twisting my head around as far as it could go, and rapidly attempting to take count of all the trees that had just been severed just over a foot above ground level. After less than a second, I gave up and mentally labeled 'all of them' as an accurate count, and prepared myself to make an Acrobatics check to end all Acrobatics checks.
Around me, ever tree within fifty feet began to tumble slowly down towards the forest floor.
Kirche had fought Tabitha before; their fight had, in fact, been the formative encounter for their friendship a year prior.
Seventeen seconds after Sylphid had been injured, Kirche came to the inescapable conclusion that while she had fought Tabitha before, Tabitha had not fought her with intent to kill. And Tabitha, when she wanted to kill, was terrifying. The first spell that the tiny bluenette had cast was a wind-barrier to ward off arrows and lesser spells; the second she cast (much more forcefully) was a flat disc of wind blades, that cut off the surrounding trees roughly a foot above the ground, and severed the legs of most of the surrounding bandits at the same height.
Four brigands managed to avoid dismemberment, four who stood out very distinctly (and literally as the only hostiles still standing) when their assorted shields flared, absorbing the damage.
"Shit!" Their leader shouted, and Kirche decided to clean his filthy mouth out.
The survivors fled into the surrounding forest, a dangerous decision as the trees began to tumble down all around them.
Fortunately, or unfortunately depending upon your perspective, I spent some time in my home dimension playing the Tohou games; I never managed to beat one, but I did get to the last level on one or two of them.
Being stuck in the body of a cat, and trying to navigate an entire forest's worth of falling trunks and branches, was every bit as bad. The experience even shared 'being a small hit box' with the Tohou bullet-hell games. Not that the trees, crashing into each other, branches snapping as they fell, was anywhere near as bad as the real experience had been.
Low mass worked in my favor as I leapt, tumbled, and dove over falling trunks, clawing my way up one, only to leap free of another, nearly be crushed by a third, and whipsaw myself beneath a fourth up onto another. The fifth tree crashed into another falling trunk on its way down, slowing its fall, and I took advantage of the opportunity to run up the trunk, dodging two swinging branches as I did so. The branches would probably have scratched me and left a welt if I was in my original human form, but with my drastically reduced mass, they would have likely sent me flying instead, had I allowed them to strike me.
An immensely thick Oak, far larger than any of the other trunks I had seen falling as yet, smashed down on my improvised ladder, and I deployed Sudden Leap to clear the obstacle. I met with only partial success, as I ended up tangling myself in the Oak's dense branches, their more chaotic arrangement than the ordered evergreens I had mostly been moving through proving a far sterner barrier to my movement. Taking a gamble, I chose to ascend to the 'highest' branch on the 'top' of the falling Oak, which paid off as by that point, none of the surrounding trunks long enough to collide with the Oak still stood taller than it.
Then the Oak began to roll, as it came to rest on the chaotic pile of untrimmed logs beneath it, and lever motion combined with centripetal force swiftly hurled me away into the air.
Directly towards one of the surviving bandits; a fleeing mage, judging by the spells he was using to safeguard his retreat.
I activated Searing Charge.
Experienced combat mages, both Kirche's and Tabitha's attention was seized as what had first been subconsciously categorized as 'loose flying debris' abruptly erupted into flame, and rocketed downward onto one of the fleeing bandit-magi, just beyond the line of felled trees. A pained cry erupted, the sound unmistakeably emerging from a human throat, even if it was barely audible over the thunder of the last tree trunks settling.
"Will you be alright here with Sylphid?" Kirche asked, glancing at her smaller friend.
Tabitha nodded, and the fire-mage swept up into the air, levitating to pursue the remaining bandits.
The bastard was tougher than I expected; I'll give him that, but that only meant it took a second strike after my Searing Charge for him to die. That left his 'friends' to bring down, and for the first time since I'd been forcibly Polymorphed, the thing I cursed most was my lost speed. I was still faster than them, but I wanted the bastards down now.
Eighteen seconds of furious pursuit later, I bore down on the slowest of my quarry, and lunged up onto the back of his neck, my pathetically short claws empowered with Castigating Strike, the Devoted Spirit maneuver erupting through his body and smashing outwards in a shockwave of retributive energy. None of them were outright slain, but the brigand I 'rested' on and one of the three others took the sixty-foot blast of energy hard, leaving them disoriented enough that I was able to hamstring them as I pressed onward in pursuit of their 'comrades.'
Comrades who left them to die without a second thought. Apparently wind magi by the local system, they cast some form of spell which hastened their movements, allowing them to surpass my speed, and begin pulling away from me.
Anger, already present within me, swelled furiously, and I screamed in anger as my preybegan to escape, thrashing against the curse-wrought restraints holding me back from my own magic, my shape-shifting, my Psionics.
Although Kirche was powerful enough to cast an off-affinity spell such as Flight, she was by no means experienced with such a thing, and thus, her flight speed through the forest wasn't as high as she would prefer, though she did eventually catch up with the fleeing mages and their pursuer.
Which, apparently, was a screaming cat.
One that was evading the spells the brigand mages had started hurling back at it with an effortless grace. Kirche was rather impressed, not only by the animal's agility, but the fact that the mages felt need to run from it in the first place. In fact, as she focused on the cat, she realized it looked somewhat familiar, perhaps-
Her thoughts were cut off as one of the mages, apparently a Wind/Fire Line mage, hurled a bead of glowing energy at the cat, which exploded into what every Fire or combat mage worth their salt recognized as the ubiquitous Fireball spell. The spell struck dead-on, as they almost always did, drowning the cat and everything within twenty feet of it in flame; Kirche winced, she'd hate to have to tell the-
The cat emerged from the miniature firestorm, utterly unscathed; Kirche was so shocked, she ran into a tree.
As most such things were, the brigand's somewhat-concealed encampment was a disorganized mess; it had been constructed right in the middle of the forest, so as to hide it from aerial patrols (the only effective way to patrol a nation the sheer size of Germania), but no real effort had been made to conceal it from someone coming in from below the treeline.
When two of the ten mages who were part of the band of thieves ran screaming into the camp, sans the four other mages and hundred other brigands they'd left behind, there was no disciplined response, no contingency plan for dealing with their 'hideout' being found, no coherent reaction of any form. Even if the half of the band still at the camp had simply scattered into the forest to flee, some of them might have survived what came next.
Three full minutes passed after the two mages made their way into the camp, nothing else had been spotted moving out of the surrounding forest, and none of the other brigands had been able to get anything from the two except hysterical shouting about Square-class Wind Mages, and flaming cats.
Then a yowling scream emerged from what had been dubbed the 'whore pit.'
I'd seen women who'd been molested, assaulted, and all-out raped before, but none of them had I ever seen with dead eyes like those I saw within that hole.
Unsurprising, considering that some of the bandits also seemed to use it as a toilet.
Kirche arrived at the edge of the camp, moving more cautiously through the trees, just in time to hear the cat scream/yowl again, its voice, far more powerful than an animal of its size should have carried, echoing up out of what looked like a midden-hole. For a moment, Kirche was worried that the brigands had somehow trapped the creature, but then it leapt up out of the hole, slamming down onto the earth directly alongside the pit. Somehow, that instigated a collapse; apparently there was a hollow alongside the shit-hole, part of which had just been caved in, though Kirche was unsure as to why.
Then the cat breathed in, its form visibly inflating even from the treeline where Kirche hovered, half concealed amongst the branches. It breathed out, and a glowing yellow haze streamed out of its mouth and nostrils; one of the brigands was approaching it with a sword, but recoiled as a blast of hot air suddenly washed outward from the cat.
Then its single visible eye began to glow, and Kirche knew it was Louise's familiar.
The grass began to wither.
Bands of flame flickered into existence, twisting in a wild, forceful pattern around the cat, as it breathedagain, more flames pouring forth from its mouth.
The eyepatch covering its empty eye socket ignited, burning away in an instant, revealing a hellish pit of volcanic fury, a heat that went beyond merely physical, Kirche could feel the hatred and anger glowing from the maimed pit in the cat's face, and her instincts screamed DANGER at her.
Kirche ducked behind the nearest tree trunk, but she couldn't bring herself to stop watching, and cast the best fire-shield she could over the tree and her exposed head, as she watched the whirling flames completely envelop the cat.
Then the cat screamed again, and the world exploded into fire.
The roar of a not-so-distant explosion washed over Tabitha and Sylphid, but the bluenette paid it no attention, far too occupied with tending to her familiar's wounds.
A dull rumble echoed across the road, and almost every head, soldier, servant, noble, and royal alike turned to stare in that direction. Some, such as Henrietta and Siesta, were confused. Others, such as Wardes and the other guards, set about sending a scout group to investigate.
Louise Francoise de la Valliere was shivering in her seat, as she suddenly felt an anger like nothing she had ever experienced before in her life.
Kirche felt a shiver run down her spine; partially caused by realizing how close she had just come to death, partially caused by excitement, and partially plain old-fashioned fear, as she clung to the heavily-battered tree she had been sheltering behind, and peaked around to look at the camp again. It took her some seconds to discern what she as seeing through having been partially flash-blinded, but her nose already told her much of the story.
The camp had been leveled. Not a single tree, not a single tent, not a single human or animal, stood in the place the brigands had once called 'home.' Half-incinerated ashen corpses, some torn apart by the force of the blast, littered the newly-made clearing, and as Kirche's hearing cleared, the sound of shattered bits of wood clattering to the ground, all that remained of the trees, reached her.
And seated in the crater at the epicenter of the ashen clearing, sat the source of the flames; a 'common' cat, hissing as it bared its fangs and studied the destruction it had wrought, tail thrashing violently behind it.
AN: Two, maybe three more chapters of this arc planned out. We'll see what happens from there.