A/N: When I outlined and planned this story out Bleu and the elemental siblings had only appeared in the anime a tiny bit and the light novels with them weren't translated. While I think I managed to properly flesh them out with what I had to work with, I had to kinda guess at their abilities and fill in the gaps in their characters. Please bear that in mind should you notice any discrepancies.
Chapter 20: El Cárcel
"And then Bleu here showed up and saved me." Saito surmised to the others around the low fire. Cattleya, Siesta and Kirche each looked to one another before eyeing Bleu with varying looks of approval and apprehension. When he and Bleu had made it to the cave, it had taken some work to calm the three down long enough to explain what happened. Saito was just thankful that Cattleya had managed to get Sylphid to fall asleep before he had arrived. Three worried girls was enough trouble even without an impulsive dragon in the mix.
Bleu sighed and shook his head at Saito, "No, no, no. I didn't just save you. I gallantly appeared to thwart your death before dashingly fending off your would be killers!" Tipping his hat to the ladies, Bleu explained for Saito's benefit, "I am skilled in both sword and story, I'll not have one do an injustice to the other." Bleu's smug grin did not waver in the face of Saito's exasperated look.
Gesturing to the flamboyant man, Saito bluntly said, "Also, he's kind of like that." Nearly the whole walk back through the muddy, wet woods had been full of tales.
Kirche leaned forward and met Bleu's eyes. "Don't mind him," she dismissed Saito, "I'm simply glad that everyone is alright. Without you, we would be in the dark about all of this."
Tending to a simple meal, Siesta interrupted, "I wouldn't go that far." She held her tongue as best she could, but she was worried sick over Miss Louise and the others.
Cattleya offered a soft smile to Siesta, "We know where they are, and we know they're alive. Should something happen to Charlotte, Sylphid would feel it immediately. As she is sleeping peacefully, we can rest easy for the moment." Though she hid her worry well, Cattleya knew Siesta saw through her little facade. Regardless, now was not the time to give into to her strained heart. She not only needed to be strong for the others, but for herself as well. Turning to Saito, Cattleya told their less thrilling story, "We realized something was wrong when you didn't respond to our calls; by the time we made our way to the cathedral, you were all already gone." She grimaced, remembering the confused despair.
Leaning back and stretching out, Kirche continued for Cattleya, "So since Sylphid seemed think everything was fine and there was no commotion, we came back here and waited. Then you showed up." Kirche continued to eye Bleu as a cat views a mouse, though the gentleman did not flinch under her predatory gaze. In a way, she respected that. "So what were you doing so close to El... whatever you called it?"
Nodding to Kirche, Bleu replied, "El Cárcel. It is the secret fortress of Romalia. They keep all sorts of wonderful boons within." Holding up a finger, he counted off the many prizes just beyond his reach, "Ancient artifacts, top secret projects, treasure beyond imagination, and of course," he grinned and tipped his hat to the others, "prisoners best kept hidden." Before anyone could prompt the man to continue, he pulled off his hat and performed a flourishing bow. "As a Gentleman Adventurer it is my sworn duty to liberate Romalia from the burden of caring from those prisoners. I may also line my pockets with whatever of value I can find." Suddenly the man's outrageously expensive looking silks made a little more sense.
Siesta flatly surmised, "So you're a thief."
Bleu sighed and wiped away an imaginary tear, "You wound me, Miss. I am no mere thief! I," He looked right into Siesta's eyes to impress upon her the gravitas of his point, "am a Gentleman Adventurer. Frown upon my financing if you wish, but my chosen profession led to your friend living long enough to see his story finished." Flipping his hat back onto his head, Bleu nodded in satisfaction.
Cattleya dipped her head to the man in thanks before speaking, "We are most gracious for your help." She dipped into what she remembered of noble etiquette, "Though I know you owe us nothing, I would ask something more of you kind sir." Cattleya did not need to look to know Siesta was holding her tongue. The maid obviously disliked thievery, but the handmaiden's mistress had bowed her head to the man. Any further lack of gratitude was beneath a servant of her caliber.
Fiddling with his hat, Bleu did a poor job of hiding his pride. "I would be happy to help. If I am to be the mysterious rogue in my friend's story, I mustn't let such an innocent maiden down." Grinning to Saito, he nudged the boy suggestively. "Unless of course I was secretly the villain. Then I'd just have to steal all these lovely ladies from you."
Saito could only smirk and shake his head at Bleu's antics. "Villains do always end up with a weird following of fangirls. Just look at the Akatsuki." When Bleu tilted his head in confusion, Saito waved his hand dismissively, "Just a story from back home."
Energy swelling, Bleu threw an arm around Saito's shoulders. "A fellow bard eh? I knew we were meant to make a story together. Why..." Bleu trailed off when he caught Cattleya modestly clearing her throat. "Ehem, back to the beautiful maiden's request."
Smiling, Cattleya moved the conversation back on track, "Since you have been watching this fortress, do you know a way inside? I would very much like to rescue my sister." The mention of rescue had the others' full attention.
Rubbing his chin, Bleu thought aloud, "Well, I have indeed been looking for weaknesses in their defenses. Alone, it might have been an impossible task, but with all of you, I might have an idea how to get us inside." Before Cattleya could even finish opening her mouth to object, Bleu tipped his hat to her. "I have mentioned that I planned to raid this fortress, if you want my help, I am coming along. Besides," The hungry gleam in Bleu's eye was unmistakable, "I'll not be deprived of such an interesting tale."
Louise was growing more impatient with each passing hour. Tiffania was a captive as well, Id was under that Windalfr's control, and she had no idea what happened to Saito and the others. She couldn't be sure that a rescue operation was underway, but she also couldn't be sure there wasn't. That was the real problem: if the others weren't coming, she needed to get an escape plan underway as soon as possible. However, if she didn't play nice, she could ruin any rescue attempt before it even began. Fighting the conflict within herself, Louise instinctively tried to push down her emotions only to once again find her attempts rebuffed. The connection to Id was still there; only some kind of resistance was hampering her attempts to dump emotions into it. For a moment she felt the calm of an emotionless mind envelop her. Louise's breathing calmed and her heart slowed. Then fear, confusion, and frustration swarmed her mind from all sides. The surprise of so many negative emotions exploding within her snapped Louise's concentration and the link faltered. Instantly the swelling emotions subsided back to a bearable calm. After a few deep breaths Louise regained control of herself and decided not to press her luck. She could handle this stress without Id's help. Taking one more breath to relax her ever-growing stress, Louise looked about for a partner to vent to.
Colbert had been taken away again, supposedly to research artifacts, so comparing notes with him was out. Charlotte had taken to power-reading through the modest bookshelf, no doubt her own method of stress relief. And Montmorency... Well Montmorency had finally stopped pacing. Instead, the girl had taken to sitting cross legged on her bed. "Montmorency?" Louise questioned.
One blue eye cracked open, "Is it important?" At Louise's hesitation, Montmorency closed her eye, paused for a moment, then sighed dejectedly and lay down on her back. "Sorry, what is it?" She spoke the weak apology, not bothering to get up.
Sitting down on the side of the bed, Louise looked her friend over before asking, "What were you doing?" It was obvious Montmorency was up to something, and if said something didn't involve physical force, it was out of character enough to draw Louise's curiosity.
Montmorency studied Louise with a cautious gaze. After several moments of careful thought, she spoke her carefully chosen words. "I'm trying to see if I can use my soul gem." Raising her arm up, Montmorency studied the back of her hand. "Every time I transform, my body seems to get stronger." Clenching her fist, Montmorency felt her own prodigious strength. "I figured speeding up the process would be our ticket out of here." Releasing her grip, Montmorency lowered her hand to cover her eyes from the light.
After a quick glance to the door and back, Louise scolded, "Careful what you say, Montmorency." Sure, it was she who had started questioning, but the girl could stand to show a little guile at times like this.
Again Montmorency cracked an eye to look upon her friend. "It doesn't matter. Seems I need to be closer to do anything." Placing her hands behind her head, Montmorency gave up and tried to relax, only to perk up at the sound of the outer door opening.
A paladin stepped in to the cell block and stopped when his partner grabbed his armored shoulder. "Reeve," the hesitating guard spoke in a hushed voice, "We're supposed to stand guard out here..." The trepidation in the guard's voice was alarming enough to raise Tabitha's eyes from her book.
Pulling his shoulder free, the man called Reeve bit back, "Just stay there. It'll be done soon." His partner let his hand drop, hesitated for another moment, then turned his back and argued no more. Closing the door behind him, Reeve looked over the three prisoners with restrained distaste. Walking forward, he stopped a few paces from their cell and knelt to the floor.
All three girls watched with worry as Reeve produced a small wooden box and placed it on the floor. Keeping a neutral tone, Charlotte spoke first, "What are you doing?" Setting her book down, she made her way toward the bars.
Reeve just remained silent and unlatched the top of the wooden box. Louise and Montmorency joined Charlotte by the bars. Montmorency peered at the box as Reeve took out two large vials connected by coiled rubber tubing. Montgomery's eyes widened in fear when she recognized the potions. She barely restrained her grip when she grabbed Louise's arm. "Those are firebombs! Enough to incinerate this entire cell block." Charlotte's and Louise's eyes shone with equally restrained fright.
"You know your potions, lich." Reeve spoke to the captives for the first time as he set up a small stand and hooked in the vials. With one twist they would begin to mix, giving him plenty of time to leave the room. "You killed Cardinal Torquemada." Despite his best efforts, a powerful hate tainted his voice.
Mind racing, Louise did her best to stall while she formulated a plan. "Would you believe us if we denied it?" While technically it had been Saito who had slain the man, Louise was not about to name him. Nor was she about to mention that the Cardinal was now some kind of undead thrall. That would just set the clearly unstable man off.
With his gauntlet-clad fist in a creaking grip, Reeve punched the stone floor, "Do not waste your last breaths on lies, lich." Pushing off the ground, Reeve stood up to face his enemies. With cold steel in his eyes, he asked, "Where is the Staff of the First?" When only hesitation answered his question, Reeve pressed, "We know the Cardinal was killed, but the magic to locate his staff is failing. You used some magic to hide the staff, do not deny it."
Montmorency unclenched her jaw and met the paladin's hatred with her own level gaze. "I deny it." Montmorency did not give the riled paladin a chance to interrupt, "Whoever is blocking your magic is probably the woman who raised the cardinal as a zombie. Who still has his staff by the-" Montmorency stopped when Louise grabbed her shoulder.
Louise's serious, restrained eyes tempered Montmorency's obvious temper. "You aren't helping." She cautioned.
Reeve glared at the three. "I should have known you would spin whatever lie you could to save yourselves. Have you liches no shame?" Shaking his head, the paladin repeated himself. "I'll give you one more chance. Tell me the staff's location or you die here."
Adjusting her glasses, Charlotte studied her would be killer. "You'll kill us regardless." The Pope obviously wanted them alive, which meant this man was acting against orders. If Reeve left them alive they could simply inform the other guards or even Julio and Reeve would never be allowed near them again. There would be no chance to punish them if they just lied. That meant this man planned to kill them here and now regardless of what they said.
Only a step behind Charlotte, Louise frantically tried to find some solution. "You'll kill us then? I thought you had sworn your loyalty to the Pope." First, she appealed to the man's sense of honor.
Though he was irritated that his questioning had once again been deflected, Paladin Reeve was more angered at having his honor called into question. "To cleanse evil in all its forms." Reeve spoke the words as a mantra, "The paladin's oath takes precedence." Dropping his pretense, Reeve nodded, "You will die here, but it will be quick. I am offering you a chance to repent. Where is the staff?"
Louise could not produce anything to placate Reeve, so she needed to go on the offensive. Needed to make him doubt his convictions. "So you will be our judge and executioner? What crimes have we committed to deserve such treatment?" She searched the man's eyes for any hint of wavering conviction to capitalize on.
No such glint appeared, instead Reeve's voice rose just shy of a shout, "You broke into the Pope's residence, you murdered countless men at Tarbes, you killed Cardinal Torquemada, and you removed your very souls from your bodies!" His blazing eyes were matched by Louise's own conviction.
Throwing her arms up in exasperation, Louise let loose her rebuttal. "We protected our country from invasion, that man attacked us first, and we became liches by accident trying to help our loved ones." Pointing at the paladin, Louise pressed, "The worst we have done is breaking and entering. Last I checked that does not carry capital punishment." Pausing, Louise could see the man wavering. Had that done it?
Biting his lower lip, Reeve closed his eyes hard, searching his heart for wisdom. "Few believe they are evil, one good act does not erase a wrong, and a crime is still a crime." Reeve recalled his late commander's words. "Accident or not, you became a lich and it is my sworn duty to kill you."
Before Louise could think up some other plan, Montmorency's unceremoniously but in, "Just shut up." The utter disdain in her voice was palpable. Looking upon Reeve as one would rotting food, Montmorency cut into him, "Stop pretending you're doing something righteous. Those paper thin excuses sicken me." Narrowing her eyes, Montmorency stated the truth, "This is revenge, plain and simple." Reeve took a breath in to deny it, but Montmorency's piercing gaze stopped him. "That man you idolized chased two frightened little girls across a continent and cornered them far from home. Then he tried to kill them."
Now Reeve was shouting, "You think it matters that you look like little girls?! My family, my friends, everyone I knew was killed by a lich that had taken the body of my childhood friend." Gripping his fists tight, Reeve bit back tears, "I was four years old. I would have died too if the commander hadn't saved me. Can you imagine what it took to strike down monsters packed within the form of a toddler!? Do you know the burdens that man shouldered?! Do you know how many people are alive right now because of his sacrifices!?" Panting, Reeve trailed off, his eyes not leaving Montmorency's even for a moment.
With unwavering resolve, Montmorency spoke with a solemn temper, "Few believe they are evil, one good act does not erase a wrong, and a crime is still a crime." His own words thrown back at him, Montmorency pierced Reeve's convictions, "No matter the good he did, Cardinal Torquemada was still attempting to kill innocents. He believed he was doing good work, but it was still a crime. One we stopped him from committing." Pressing her face against the bars, Montmorency bared her throat. "If you want revenge then take it, but do not avert your gaze from the deed."
Metal sang as Reeve withdrew his sword and leveled its point at Montmorency. The tension in the air was suffocating. Louise and Charlotte watched on in stunned silence. Any move they might make would simply set the raging paladin off. The point of Reeve's blade rested against the skin of Montmorency's throat threatening to draw blood with but the slightest of movements. "I'll do it." He ground out deeply, not sounding convinced. Montmorency pressed her throat forward, a thin line of red ran down her throat. The time for words was over.
Several moments passed with only the thunderous thumping of hearts to fill the time. Then, slowly, Reeve lowered and sheathed his blade. "I… will defer to the Pope." He fell upon loyalty to calm his conflicted heart. Montmorency's stone gaze did not waver until Reeve had taken his things and left the cell block. With one long, deep breath, Montmorency turned, lay against the iron bars, and slumped to the floor.
Louise was by her friend in moments; checking the shallow cut before moving on to Montmorency herself. "Are you alright? That was dangerous Monmon!" Flustered, Louise looked directly into Montmorency's downcast eyes.
Shaking her head, Montmorency did her best to calm herself. "I'm fine." She rubbed away a bit of blood from her throat. Looking at her hand, she almost wished it was shaking rather than rock solid. Rather than the danger she had just faced, her plan was what scared her the most. "While I'm not sure about being incinerated, I would likely survive getting my throat pierced." What kind of person made a plan like that? What kind of human thought like that?
Saito hooked his finger into the hole in the metal breastplate and pulled anxiously. The armor taken from the slain paladin squad was hardly the best disguise. At least if spoken to, he could respond; the ladies armored in the back just had to hope no one talked to them. Apparently, there weren't many females in the Romalian Paladin Order. "Are we sure this will fool them?" He looked over his shoulder to the covered wagon with disbelief. Their wagon was generic enough, but not exactly convincing as a 'replacement supply wagon.'
Bleu, being the only one out of armor, pointed to the cloak hood he was using to cover his face. "We just have to look enough like their supply wagon so until we get close. Then it's just a matter of taking out all the guards before the alarm is raised." He flicked the reigns and the horse picked up the pace.
From the cover of the wagon interior, Sylphid whined, "When do we get to see big sister?" She resolved to herself that she would only put up with these foolish metal clothes until she found big sister.
That was the other thing that made Saito worry. Cattleya and Kirche had done well so far in keeping Sylphid cooperative, but who knew how the young dragon would react if and when the fighting broke out. If her sense of smell wasn't so imperative, Saito would have insisted that she stay behind.
Beyond all of that, he still grit his teeth at who they were not rescuing. Tiffania wasn't here, she was in the city. He knew exactly where she was and yet he could do nothing. They had to rescue the others first so they would have enough firepower to break into the Pope's estate. He understood the logic. The logic that only existed because of his weakness.
He had to drop that self-deprecating train of thought when the hidden gate came into view. With the sun high in the sky, it was far easier to make out the two pairs of guards standing vigil at the portcullis, one within and one outside. As they drew near, a lax hand was raised to greet their arrival, but no move was made to raise the portcullis. "Something's wrong." Bleu warned the others under his breath before raising a hand in return. "Ho there, gentlemen!" He called out with a friendly smile.
The approaching paladin waited for Bleu to slow to a stop before stepping closer. "You'll have to turn back, friend. Didn't you hear? Whole fort is on lockdown." Sighing, the man raised an armor clad hand to gesture back to the guard house. "Last night's patrol shift went missing." He peered in and offered a light wave to the four armored figures within the supply wagon.
Bleu offered a long but intentionally repressed sigh, "I was told to make this delivery by today. They need these tools for the... new guests." Pointing his thumb back in the direction of the city, he offered, "They probably just ran off to get drunk. Any of them have a birthday last night?" Without dropping the act, Bleu scanned for activity in the nearby guardhouse.
The inspecting paladin furrowed his brow. "I hadn't heard anything about any deliveries today. And rules are rules... You know-" Whatever suspicions the man had growing within his gut were proven true when a figure within the wagon pointed a wand his way.
"Dispel." Cattleya named the spell she had been chanting beneath her breath. Instantly, an invisible wall of void launched toward the guards.
The fright of a pointed wand was followed by the confusion of nothing happening. That hesitation was all it took for the rest to act. Siesta erupted out of the front of the carriage, sailing over the paladin sentry with a dagger in each hand. The Gandalfr runes filled her body with power, her very soul knew exactly how to twist her body as she flipped so that when she released the daggers, they flew with pinpoint accuracy clean through the openings in the portcullis bars and into the gaps in the paladins' armor within. Each reached to their pierced shoulders before the effects of the sleeping draft upon the blades kicked in and dropped them nigh instantly.
Siesta's hand was on her axe before she landed next to the second outer paladin. Her enemy's sword sang as he pulled it out of its sheath and toward her neck in one motion, only to be caught on the long metal haft of her axe. Sliding her axe down the length of the blade, Siesta locked it against the hilt and twisted the blade from the man's grasp. Bending down, she hooked the axe blade under the paladin's ankle and yanked his feet from beneath him. She was atop the man before the breath even left his lungs, pike of her axe at the vulnerable armor gap over his throat. "Don't move." She commanded.
Behind Siesta, the first paladin looked down the barrel of Saito's pistol, who spoke calmly, coldly, even, "How do we open the gate?"
Though he dared not move his head, the guard's eyes glanced to his fallen comrades, then back to the imposters before him. Swallowing, he made up his mind. "Alert." Knowing it was his death, he activated the enchantment within his helmet that would bring the whole fortress down on these criminals. Or at least, he thought he activated the enchantment. No bells rang. No soldiers shouted. The fortress remained deadly quiet. Why was it not working?
A low whistle emanated from Bleu's lips. "You weren't kidding about disabling everything. What kind of spell was that?" Bleu got no answer, not that he expected any. These folk hadn't really told him much specifics the previous night, not that he really blamed them, given what he just witnessed.
Swallowing, the paladin faced the facts before him. Somehow all of the magical alarms had been disabled. Chances are these people could make it through the enchantments on the gate as well. Still, there was one way to get the alarm sounded. Pistols were loud after all.
Grabbing the hilt of his sword, he cried out in holy wrath, "FOR RO-" His battle cry was cut short by a blade stabbing into his throat. The unassuming blonde haired man he had mistaken for a driver pulled his parrying dagger free with the simplest of flourishes. With a muffled gurgle, the paladin fell to the ground.
Cattleya dropped her helm to the ground with a clatter and looked upon the scene aghast. "You didn't need to kill him." She spoke as she knelt and placed the man's hand on his chest. "We used a sleeping draft on the thrown daggers for a reason, any pinprick would have done." Glancing toward the two unconscious guards within the gate, Cattleya trusted Siesta had managed non-lethal blows.
Sighing, Bleu hopped off the bench of the wagon. "He saw my face. If it is to be spread across the kingdoms, I'd prefer it be to announce a play rather than draw the hunters of my bounty." Gesturing to the other fallen men, Bleu placated, "I made sure my hood obstructed their view however; you are free to show mercy upon them. I warn you though, mercy is a weakness that will come back to bite you." His words were hardly soothing to Cattleya.
Kirche could sense the growing tension and stepped in as she finished removing her armor. "Mercy is not a weakness." When the two turned to her Kirche recited an old Zerbst saying. "Mercy is a luxury for the strong. " Keeping her gaze on Cattleya, Kirche tried to impress the meaning of her words upon the woman. Saito had more paladin blood on his hands than Bleu, yet he had been fighting for his life. Mercy was not something the boy could have spared.
Cattleya stifled a retort as she removed the rest of her disguise. Latching the breastplate Eleanor had gifted her for battle on, she drew her sword-wand. Metal rang as she strode toward the man Siesta had pinned. She muttered a cantrip, "Pebble skip," summoning a miniature blast next to the man's head. Instantly he was rendered unconscious, but no worse for the wear. These men were doing what they thought was right – she'd be damned before she killed good men simply because it was easier. "Then stay behind me." She would not condemn Bleu or Saito, but she would not use them as an excuse either. "I am strong." Thumping her great tower shield to the earth before her, Cattleya stared up at the gate that blocked her way. Louise, Montmorency, and Charlotte were within. It was time to save them.
Metal clattered to the floor as the rest removed their armor. Disenchanted as it was; the thin metal would only get in the way in a fight and make it impossible to move with any amount of stealth. Besides, the chances of bluffing their way through the entire base were laughable.
Weapons and wands were drawn as they all fell in beside Cattleya. Saito tossed a small vial over to Siesta, "Remember, Montmorency said as little as possible." When they rescued the trio of captives, he really needed to get more potions from the alchemist of the group. This was twice now they had been the crutch of his plans.
Siesta nodded and dripped the potion onto her axe before taking the dagger from the paladin beside her and doing the same to it. Placing the blade within one of the several sheaths she commandeered from the same men, Siesta turned to Cattleya, "Can you knock it down?" She nodded to the great steel bars.
Though Cattleya nodded, Kirche was the one to step forward, "Before we wake the entire fort, let me try." Disenchanted steel was no match for a triangle class fire mage of her strength. Calling forth her reserves, she folded her willpower into a thin line of heat. "Flame Lance." She purred out the spell. Never once had Kirche failed to relish in the rush of using magic. Other nobles let themselves grow numb to it; but even beyond her vices, she was called Kirche the Ardent for a reason. White hot fire quickly turned the steel before it red and soft. Slowly but surely, Kirche began to cut up and around. Bit by bit she formed a hole in the metal before her. Within minutes, it was done and she waved her wand one more time, "Levitation." She called her second spell and pushed forward on the metal bars. With her magic wrapped around the makeshift door, the steel bars floated back and softly to the stone below. Turning, she bowed to the others, "After you." It was nice to think that her fire magic wasn't completely outclassed by Cattleya's Void.
Bleu used the moment to take out a long bandana, looping it over his face and covering his hair before tying it with experience. Once he was done all that could be seen were his eyes. "Call me Rouge while we are inside if you insist on leaving guards alive." Stepping though, he returned the appreciative nod Cattleya sent him. Then muttered something about nameless grunts and stories to himself.
Turning to Sylphid, Cattleya impressed upon the playful yet agitated dragon in human skin, "Now Sylphid, I need you to find Charlotte's scent." Raising her head, the blue haired dragon-girl gave a few whiffs. Brightening up, she opened her mouth to shout, only to have Cattleya's hand clamp down over it to muffle her. "And remember, we have to stay quiet. If too many people find us, we might not be able to find Charlotte." At the girl's energetic nod, Cattleya released her.
Sylphid readied a shout, caught herself, and then whispered. "Big sis is this way." She bobbed on her feet, itching to rush off to follow the scent.
Cattleya spared a glance at everyone. Saito and Siesta had reclaimed the daggers from the fallen guards and hastily patched their wounds. Good, if they could just stay quiet, no more needed to die. "Let's go." Order given, Cattleya led the way just behind Sylphid; leaving the sun behind as she charged into the darkness before her.
The halls wound this way and that. Again and again, they found staircases to ascend, only to have to traverse much of a floor before Sylphid got the scent again. Several times they reached an intersection and had to wait for Sylphid to sniff before continuing. Rounding a corner, they came face to face with a pair of paladins standing before a door. "Siesta." Cattleya hissed just as the two guards turned in surprise. Twin daggers flew with perfect accuracy and two paladins fell, only to be caught mid fall by Kirche's levitation magic and set softly upon the stone floor.
Twice more, the group encountered patrols and twice more they were silenced before the alarm could be raised. Saito waited impatiently for Siesta to reapply the sleeping salve to her daggers. "Sooner or later, someone is going to find these guys." He could move as quiet as a mouse for all it mattered, they had no time to hide the bodies and they were going to get found if they took too long.
Cattleya kept her eyes peeled. "We have no choice in the matter." Just how big was this fortress? She had assumed it to be relatively small as it was built into the earth, but with each floor they stumbled upon massive rooms and empty barracks after empty barracks. This place seemed less a hidden prison and more a fortress big enough to house the majority of the holy city's citizens!
Amidst the silence, Sylphid perked up and looked around. "It's the nice man!" She clamped her hands on her mouth, realizing she had spoken loudly. At the other's inquisitive looked, she half removed her hands. "The man with the shiny head from the academy. I hope he has more steak."
It took Siesta half a second to put the pieces together. A bald nice man from the academy could only be one person. "Do you mean Professor Colbert?" She hesitantly asked. Sylphid, clamping her hands back on her mouth nodded vehemently. Instantly Siesta's mind went into overdrive. "Where?!" She barely kept her voice down. "Is he close?"
Sylphid cocked her head in thought and sniffed a bit more. "Closer than big sis... But I don't smell any steak with him..." She didn't quite get why Siesta was so eager. The fur lacking man only gave food to familiars. Oh, right! Sylphid nearly slapped herself. Siesta was also a familiar so it made sense she wanted steak too.
Looking to Siesta's pleading eyes, Cattleya rubbed her chin. "He might know where they are." It would certainly be faster, and if Siesta wanted to find the man so badly, he was likely trustworthy. Deciding to bet on Siesta, Cattleya nodded, "Take us to the nice man, Sylphid."
With a stronger scent to follow, Sylphid did not need to stop at intersections, she just followed the lingering familiar scent and tried to think of how best to comfort Siesta when they arrived and there was no steak to be had.
Coming to a halt by a corner, Cattleya peeked around to see a pair of paladin guards. Nodding, Siesta prepared two throwing daggers and coiled for a jump. With one great push of strength, Siesta dived around the corner. Yet just as she made to throw, the sound of ringing bells came from everywhere at once. In her surprise, she halted her throw and tucked into a roll. The two paladins saw her and their voices called out alarm in unison with the echo of their unsheathing swords. She let loose her daggers but a second later. One found its mark, but the second was deflected by the man's armor when he turned to face her.
Drawing another dagger and her favored axe, Siesta darted forward like lightning, runes driving her forward inhumanly fast. She felt the wind coiled around her target and let her axe meet his magically-sped sword. Using the superior strength her runes gifted her with, Siesta pushed the man backward and knocked him off balance. Yet just before her dagger could be brought to bear, the door next to her slammed open and knocked her to the side. Two more armed men charged out of the room, their blades bearing down on the tumbling Siesta. Abandoning her dagger, Siesta flung out her axe to deflect a blade as her free hand braced on the ground and pushed off. She flipped back toward Cattleya only to see a wall of razor wind racing toward her.
Siesta was shadowed in darkness when Cattleya's form appeared before her. Stone crunched beneath metal as the void mage slammed her tower shield down in front of her. The magic wind screamed against the enchanted steel, its futile fury rebuffed.
Red light shone from behind them and an instant later a figure raced by the master-familiar duo. Clad in her armored scales, the transformed Kirche kept her closed fists behind her, blasting a small but concentrated thrust of flames to force her onward. Soaring through the air, Kirche released her flames and brought one fist forward. Tightening her clawed fist, she unleashed another thrust to throw herself into a spin. Her foot collided with the stone wall as she kicked off and away from the intercepting spells.
Kirche landed low to the floor between the paladin group, coiled close to the stone like some kind of serpent. Still in a spin, her outstretched leg clipped their feet from beneath them and spun them like tangled puppets. Her claws grabbed the steel breastplates of two and crushed them like so much gelatin. Discarding the fallen two behind her, Kirche's foot lanced up to deflect the incoming sword strike. With one hand, she intercepted the blade and snapped it clean in half and with the other, she tore the man's helmet free to reveal a terrified face.
Caught in the rush of power she had never actually used before, the redhead grabbed the paladin and passionately kissed him, leaving the man baffled, terrified, and somewhat excited. Looking into the confused yet blushing face, Kirche purred. "They didn't tell me how wonderful this was." If using the magic of her heritage was a rush, this magic was a drug. All her life she had forced her flames through a tiny wand like a river through a gutter. This, though, now she was the flame and there was nothing to hold her back.
The paladin's face slowly distorted to one of distaste as his mind caught up with his baser instincts. Not keen on such a useless expression, Kirche tossed him behind her as well. He tumbled across the stone floor for several meters before Siesta was upon him with her dagger.
Once the man was out of the fight, she raced to the still-open door and slid to a stop in front of the opening. Inside was a great room as large as the hanger back at the hidden valley. Rows of tools lined the walls and several work tables laden with alchemic contraptions were dotted the room. In the center sat the Dragon's Raiment just as she remembered it. Yet the sight of her family heirloom was ignored in favor of the man standing before it. "Professor!" Standing with his back to the Raiment, Professor Colbert blinked his eyes in surprise. Out of all the possible people involved in this commotion, never had he suspected Siesta. A young man in robes stepped in front of the professor, staff at the ready and words of power on his lips. He found Siesta's dagger embedded in his forearm before he even realized what happened.
The boy collapsed like a load of bricks. Colbert leaned down in concern before removing the dagger, noting the scent of a very potent sleeping draft on its edge. "Miss Siesta..." He trailed off. "I am afraid I do not know what to say. Except perhaps, it is very good to see you." Smiling warmly, he flipped the dagger around and caught it on the blade before holding the weapon out to the young girl.
Siesta disregarded the weapon and caught the older man in a great hug. "It is good to see you as well professor! I thought you were back at the academy." Her mind was still catching up with what it was seeing.
Looking over the varied folk entering his enforced workplace, Colbert could see that they had far from enough time to trade stories. "Well, Romalia forcibly invited me here to work on this." He gestured to the Dragon's Raiment behind him. "But for now, I suspect we are to rescue Miss Louise and the others, yes?" With wink he nodded to the intruders, "It would be my pleasure to show you to them."
Cattleya was about agree that time was of the essence, only to hesitate when Saito walked forward, his face pale. "That's… a Zero fighter!" He looked upon the fighter plane with confusion. What..? How..? God damn fantasy settings needed to adhere to conventions.
Colbert's understanding of their rush was crushed by the man's curiosity. "You know what the Dragon's Raiment is?!" He had worked out most of it, but new knowledge was right in front of him! He couldn't pass up this opportunity to learn!
Saito shook his head, trying to come to grips. "It's a vehicle from my land. It flies through the air and shoots down other planes." It wasn't the most articulate explanation, but he was far too entranced by a piece of his country, his world, right before him.
Turning back to his worktable, Colbert sighed and rubbed his eyes, "Another weapon. All they do is give me advanced muskets and the like to piece together. Are none of these artifacts suited to something greater than violence?" Looking once more upon the Raiment, Proffessor Colbert tried to come to grips with it as a weapon. There were so many better things technology like this could achieve. Why did it always come back to war?
Though their location wasn't known yet, the alarms were still blaring and Cattleya knew they had no more time to spare. "Professor, we need to move. Now." Looking to the others, she nodded her head to the door.
Putting his woes behind him, Professor Colbert bent down and took his assistants staff. Taking one last look at the Raiment, the professor turned and left it behind.
At Cattleya's insistence, the group filed back into the hall and followed after Colbert as the man hurried along the route he knew well. Bleu leaned over to Siesta as he jogged, "So he is allowed to steal but not me?" He jested at the irate girl.
The sound of metal boots on stone echoed all throughout the halls as the fortress sprang to life. Up ahead, several paladins charged toward them, calling out alarm as they spotted the intruders. Quick as lighting, Kirche and Siesta lanced into them, knocking the men about like dolls before dashing forward and out before they could be ganged up on.
Cattleya finished her chant just as the group regained themselves. "Fissure!" She called the earth spell to life among them. Instantly the void magic rejected the earthen form Cattleya projected and exploded, slamming the guards against the walls and knocking them out cold. Without losing their stride, the group raced through the unconscious men.
"Here!" Colbert called out in front of a heavy metal door. "It is enchanted, though, so I will need time to melt through it." He called forth the fire within himself only to stop when Kirche's clawed hand embedded into the metal and began to melt it like butter. Those odd powers and being associated with Miss Louise, Colbert connected the dots and worried even more for his students. Things seemed to have only become worse since he was brought here.
Kirche kicked the great metal door off its hinges. Inside she spied what she sought within a gilded cage. Montmorency, Louise, and Charlotte stood with surprise, fading fear, and growing joy at the sight of their friends. "This makes two times I've rescued you, Louise the Zero." Winking at the mention of Louise's old nickname she stepped aside for the rest to pile into the cell block.
Swallowing, Louise tried and failed to suppress her joyous relief, cracking an enormous grin. She had not the will to remain calm and collected. "You played second fiddle the first and I'd bet this time as well, Zerbst." Her eyes fell over the others, widening only slightly when she spied an unknown masked man and even Professor Colbert with them. "It seems we missed some things." Her gaze stopped at Saito. Though the boy tried to hide it, he was impatient. Not just to leave the alarm ridden base, but for something else. There was still one member of their band missing. "Where is Tiffania?" Louise asked despite having a good guess.
As Kirche cut through the bars of the cell, Cattleya nodded to Siesta. "Keep watch." The handmaiden was out the door immediately. "We think she is being held at the Pope's estate." Louise nodded, it made sense. The entire city was a prison to a half elf like Tiffania and the Pope likely needed to win her over to gain her help. Luxuries and daily talks did far more than a cell. Cattleya looked around, "With this alarm, going back out the front door might be difficult."
Louise's mind was already working on a plan. "That won't be a problem." When the last of the bars clattered to the floor, Louise stepped though and accepted the spare wand her sister offered. "We need to find our soul gems first, though. They should be within one hundred meters of this cell." Of course, that could be up or down as easily as north or south. Louise rubbed her chin in thought.
Such pondering was hardly necessary as Siesta cut in from the doorway. "Trouble." She hissed and readied her axe before her.
Knowing they had to keep moving, Louise led the others out into the hallway. Waiting for them several meters down was none other than Julio the Windalfr holding a placid Id in his arms. "This stops here." He said calmly as a pair of paladins ran up behind him. One tapped his helmet and said something under his breath. More footsteps echoed as paladins began to converge. Louise noted he was stalling, but held her hand up to stop the others all the same. If she was right, then their soul gems were right in front of them. She briefly eyed Id with worry, and Julio instantly picked up on it. "Correct, your soul gems are within the incubator." Nodding in recognition of Louise's careful thinking, he continued, "With a single thought, I can command it to destroy them." Letting his eyes pass over the ragtag group, he stated plainly. "None of you will be harmed if you all surrender now. Otherwise this will become a bloodbath. I am ready to give my life for my master, can you all say the same?"
Louise mind raced. She needed to think of something, some way to move faster than that man could think. It was pointless, obviously. There was no way for her to survive if she didn't surrender, there was too much distance for a physical action and not enough time for a magical one. Julio obviously meant what he said. As Louise thought, more and more armed paladins filed in behind the Windalfr. With each passing moment, there was less and less hope. Still, doing that, giving up and becoming a tool to be used and discarded, abandoning Tiffania and the rest of her friends - she couldn't stand it! Her chest seized with grief, there was no solution, no escape from this despair. No... Push it down, become calm as water. She took a breath and forced her despair away.
Id's tail flicked in the arms of the man before her. The hairs on the back of Louise rose in realization. It was a vain, probably hopeless idea; but it was something. She thought back to everything she had been through.
Back to being on the run, jumping at every shadow and fearing for her life.
Back to realizing she was a lich and the revulsion she felt towards her body.
Back to being kidnapped by that thief, loathing her helplessness.
Back to being mocked at school, angry at her lack of results and frustration toward her peers.
Back to failing her parents again and again, desperate for any recognition.
Everything in her life that dragged at her heart, she remembered the pain, the despair, the darkness. Then, just when her heart was overwhelmed, she pushed it all down.
She forced it all past the resistance in her familiar bond. When the link couldn't take any more emotion, she pushed harder. The emotions overflowed, spiraling and mixing both within her heart and that of the being before her. When it finally reached the bursting point, she spoke with a downcast face, "It makes sense, what you say. In a coldly logical way, you are trying for the best outcome." Smirking, Louise raised her face meet Julio's gaze, "But I'll have you know, I used to be known for my explosive temper. After all, emotions can make us do crazy things."
Id twisted in Julio's grasp, its little paw arcing up to cut the man's face. Utter surprise loosened Julio's grip, and Id pushed off the man and sailed through the air toward Louise. I am free. Please engage.
Fire, wind, water, and earth lanced out from the assembled paladins in a torrent of raw power. Twenty strong bolts of various elements raced toward Id and the group beyond it. Yet not one reached as a particular sword flew forward, screaming back toward his partner's outstretched hand, "I'm not a projectile you asshole!" Derflinger hit the magic of twenty warriors head-on, elements of all types were devoured by the hungry sword. Landing point-down into the stone between the groups, Derflinger measured the stunned warriors and made the sound of smacking lips. "I'd say about two of you are line class. Mages these days..." He pined for the good old days when triangles were common - now there were some good eats.
With their numerical advantage countered, the assembled paladins hesitated, and that was more than enough for Cattleya to finish her chant. Planting her shield in front of where Louise clutched Id, Cattleya pointed her sword wand and called forth the true form of her power. "Explosion!" Even hastily chanted, the spell tossed the paladins aside like so many flies. Willing her magic not to kill, she paid special attention to leave Julio unscathed, if a bit ruffled.
With no hostages and no backup, Julio knew he had already lost. There was no possible way for him to triumph against four spiritkin, and a user of the Void with her legendary familiar. Still, he could not merely surrender. Drawing his sword, he readied himself for what would be his last stand. "You are all making a mistake. The elves will not help you. You are dooming everyone." He fell into a practiced stance as Cattleya strode forward to meet him.
With her eyes never leaving Julio's own, Cattleya sheathed her sword and left herself open, walking until her breastplate touched the outstretched sword. Reaching her free hand up, she grabbed the blade hard enough to draw blood and spoke with a hard tone, "Where is Tiffania? She is my friend, and I need to go to her." Staring deep into Julio's eyes, Cattleya hid nothing. Human, elf, half-elf, that didn't matter to her, there were only friends and possible friends. She was living proof that cooperation was possible, and she would not be deterred.
In the face of such conviction, Julio wavered. Was it... was it really possible? Shaking his head, he fought with his conflicted heart before dropping his sword and sighing, "Top floor, northeastern room of the estate." If they would go there next, he may as well limit the possibility they would harm the Pope.
Montmorency knelt to where Id was carefully retching on the ground. Recognizing the yellow gem, she muttered, "This is the second time you've spit me out. So gross..." Missing Louise's alarmed look, Montmorency placed her soul gem back on her finger and strode forward toward Julio. "Where is Robin?" At his furrowed brow she elaborated, "The frog in the bag you took from me."
Julio thought back to remember an amphibian and the possessions they confiscated when Montmorency had reverted out of her transformation. "The bag and frog were disposed of." When Montmorency grabbed his collar and slammed him into the stone wall he realized his mistake. When she pulled back a fist that could bend steel, he closed his eyes for the end. Yet no killing blow came.
Cattleya's arm held Montmorency's back. "Pointless revenge will not bring Robin back, it will only bring despair in the end." Montmorency looked at the naive woman and huffed, shaking the older woman's arm off. She had suspected this when she stopped feeling Robin's empathic bond, but it still hurt to admit. Montmorency turned her gaze on Louise, who was still fine. Louise was safe - she just had to focus on that.
Louise looked to Montmorency, knowing what the girl was going through. Still, their time was short and there was a great list of things that needed sorting. Right now, she just had to trust in Montmorency's bullheaded nature to power though as she always did. "We should get moving. This alarm will have reached the capital by now. Our best bet is to hit fast and hard before they can prepare a significant defense."
Cattleya nodded in acceptance before looking to Julio. "My apologies." He looked up from his position slumped against the wall, closing his eyes in resignation. Aiming her sword-wand, she let loose a fragment of power. "Pebble skip." Julio was safely unconscious in an instant.
Stepping forward, Louise looked to Professor Colbert, "You mentioned that you believed this fortress was built into the cliffs." At his nod, Louise asked, "Can you get us as close to the outer edge?"
Thinking for a moment, the man nodded, "I can, but they will have aerial defenses in place, Louise." He cautioned, knowing the girl's plan.
Taking the advice in stride, Louise still knew it was a better option than charging down through the winding halls of this place. Following the professor, Louise and the others made short work of any paladins they found. As long as they didn't allow the guards to hem them in they weren't a truly dangerous threat with both Derflinger and Cattleya's dispel preventing their spells from connecting.
They followed the professor into what looked like a dead end, the sound of steel boots on stone was getting louder behind them. On the far end of the hallway, more and more paladins began converging. Still, despite the growing numbers in pursuit, Louise was not worried. "Here?" She pointed to the wall. Colbert nodded. "Cattleya, here." Louise pointed the big gun of the party at an unmissable target.
Void mixed with enchanted stone. Eating it as fuel, the power exploded outward at Cattleya's command. Fresh air and sunlight bombarded them as freedom was finally found. Shielding his eyes, Colbert nearly cried at the sight of his long lost sky.
Blue, pink, and yellow flared to life as the remaining magical girls joined Kirche in their transformation. Louise looked out over the sea and toward the holy city. "Charlotte and I will cover the skies. Cattleya, you take everyone else into the estate. We need Tiffania and the Pope's hat, make sure to get it or we won't last long. If you find it, retrieve the journal and mirror as well, but only if you can. Id will keep everyone connected; once Tiffania is retrieved, we head for the same rendezvous cave we used last time. Charlotte and I will cover your escape." With her orders given, Louise looked to Sylphid, "Can you carry all of them?" Straddling her staff, Louise could carry two, maybe three others, not including the familiar latched onto her shoulder, of course.
Charlotte opened her book and spoke up. "She won't need to." Tearing a group of pages from her book, she cast them out the improvised window. "Chapter Five: From Rub' al Khali!" The pages swirled around, forming a long and wide rectangle before peeling away to reveal a great icy rug floating in the air. Ivaldi's boon would be more than enough to bear them for the journey. Nodding to Kirche, Charlotte said, "Just think to steer."
Kirche smirked, "Remember to elaborate, my dear Charlotte, but that will suffice for now." Hopping onto the rug, Kirche found it strangely soft for something made of ice. It felt like a real rug.
Sylphid had been waiting for this for far, far too long. When her big sister turned and nodded to her, Sylphid leapt into the air, calling the spirits around her to return her true form to her. Great wings unfurled and scales crawled over her body. Finally, her big sister was once again atop her and all was right with the world.
Eyeing the rather convenient rug, Louise nodded. This was better, as Charlotte and herself could stay mobile and fight back until the others landed. "Alright then," looking over her shoulder, she guessed they had less than a minute before they were found. "Time to save Tiffania." Louise summoned the energy of her staff behind her and felt the orbs lift her into the air. Coasting on the wind with a mission firmly held in her heart Louise took the lead. Behind her, Sylphid took to the skies with Tabitha and curled around to protect the wide rug carrying the rest of the group.
Just as Colbert had predicted, mounted knights dotted the skies and were quick to notice their escape. Dragons, manticores and griffins laden with paladins converged. Louise turned her staff on the apporching enemies and called forth her power. Bolts of dark energy danced though the air, swatting fliers aside like insects.
Pages flew from Charlotte's book. Chapters were called out to the wind, great winged lions, fairies, even a giant eye sprung to icy life. Charlotte's summons flew forth to meet their pursuers and suddenly the battle in the sky was many against many.
Though the sky raged with battle, Kirche urged the rug forward. Faster, lower, she poured on all the speed it would muster. Every minute counted now that they had been seen. By foot the fortress was an hour away from the city, but by air it was less than a quarter of that. "We're going in through the front!" She called out as they came upon the city. Numerous spells lanced up from the city below, each intent on swatting them from the sky. Kirche swerved back and forth, weaving between and around them. A bolt of lightning pierced through the rug just to Kirche's right. Shards of ice flung free into the air and the rug began to tilt out of control. "Hold on, we're going to crash!" All she could do to keep the falling rug on course and hope it would make it to the mansion.
Montmorency doubted that most of the others could withstand the impact. Bracing herself at the edge of the icy kite, she made ready, "Trust me." She spoke over her shoulder before launching herself at the ground. Just before Montmorency crashed into the Pope's front lawn, she released a massive plume of thick white steam. The taffy-like cushion slowed her to a stop, but she poured more from her hammer. The dense cloud had a second impact moment later when the falling carpet slammed into it.
Her target caught, Montmorency waved her hammer to dispel the thick fog, revealing a stunned but safe gaggle of passengers. Knowing Louise had left Cattleya in charge, Montmorency looked to her.
Cattleya regained her bearings and glared at the great mansion ahead of them. "Siesta, you're the fastest - Find the Pope, get his hat." Cattleya's eyes panned over the rest, "Kirche, hold the front. We need to keep more paladins from getting in until we find them." Clawed fist met palm in eager acceptance. "The rest of you are with me." Turning to the building, Cattleya thought out to Tiffania, "Tiffania can you hear me?" There was no response. Looking up to the havoc in the skies, Cattleya spotted a pink and white dancing figure about. "Tiffania is not responding." She hesitated, not sure what to do next.
An explosion resounded and another rider spiraled down from the sky. Louise's full attention was on not getting burnt alive in dragon fire, so she allowed Id to take the lead with communication. Something is blocking my telepathy in that vicinity. If you get too close you will lose contact. Whatever the field was, it bothered Id. The Pope had already shown to have counters to incubator biotechnology, so this shouldn't be surprising. Yet...
Looking over the massive estate, Cattleya noted the pure steel covering every window and bars extending over the main gate. "We're going in." Reciting her spell, Cattleya pointed her sword-wand forward, "Dispel." The bars fell from the door before her as the magic within was consumed. "Montmorency!" Not needing to be told twice, Montmorency pulled her hammer back and slammed it into the great door. Wood and steel splintered as the door flew off its hinges and imbedded into the wall beyond.
Kirche gave the group a smile as she watched them disappear into the mansion. Looking back to the outer gate, she wondered how long she'd have to hold the line. Five paladins ran out of a side street and began charging her. Hopefully a bit longer, she was still excited about trying out this new power.
Though Siesta had more ground to cover, she was done with the first floor before the others even reached the top of the staircase. She had almost reached said staircase when she stopped, looking at a blank wall with interest. In her mind, she had mapped the first floor out. Relying on years of cleaning, she knew she had missed a big space right behind this wall - a room that should be right in front of her. Readying her axe, she smirked to herself, she was one hell of a maid after all.
Twisting her grip, Siesta felt all the weight of the axe slide to the top. With a mighty swing, she crunched through both wood and stone. Again and again she crushed through. Speed and strength flooded from her runes, empowering her to cut through this barrier. The wall fell before her in under a minute, revealing a set of elite paladin guards within brandishing their swords in defense of the Pope sitting calmly behind them. The group of armed men in front of her did not make a move, likely stunned by the sheer strength shown by the young girl in tearing down a stone wall with an axe. The air was tense and she felt the situation ready to snap like a bowstring. Holding out her hand, Siesta asked politely, "Would you mind giving me your hat?" She wasn't here to converse, that was her master's field.
Outside, Kirche slid along the stone, nimbly dodging yet another blast of fire by merely a hair. Reaching out a single hand, she trailed her claws through the magical heat. It felt soothingly warm, but it was still good practice to dodge. Releasing her own flame, she launched herself across the courtyard and slammed a foot into a paladin stupid enough to make a dash for the open door. The poor man rebounded twice against the ground before sliding to halt against a fountain. "I'll give you credit for bravery." Nodding to the defeated man, she looked to the crowd of paladins jointly chanting. "Unlike you lot."
She recognized the joint chanting; it was similar enough to the hexagon magic Charlotte had taught her. However, Kirche didn't worry. These men kept trying to hit her with ranged spells, but with such an open area to dance around in, they had no chance. All she had to do was hold out her hand, release the force within and...
Kirche's body reversed directions under the force of the thrust emanating from her hand. Again and again she released her inner fire as spells collided all around her. What little that did hit her broke upon her scales. She had the sneaking suspicion that she had been given the least fun job. Where were the true warriors? The ones for which her blood boiled? Were they all within? Mildly, Kirche looked over her shoulder at the mansion, just the least bit envious.
Cattleya placed her hand on the door before her - this was it. Giving the others a quick look, she evaluated them. Colbert was an unknown, but handled everything with surprising skill. Bleu hung back, his eyes darting about suspiciously. Though Cattleya spotted the glitter of gold within his notably full sack, she did not begrudge him for it as long as he continued to pull his weight. Montmorency waited for a command, obviously the girl was still locked down emotionally in the wake of the news about Robin. Lastly, Saito looked to her with barely restrained anxiety, his pistol held at the ready. Knowing they were ready for whatever was blocking Id's telepathy, Cattleya kicked the door open.
Whatever they had expected, it certainly wasn't Sheffield standing over a bound Tiffania. The woman stood with a large tanned man, a purple haired girl in a frilled black dress, Viscount Wardes, and the walking corpse of Cardinal Torquemada. Sneering at their surprise, Sheffield asked, "You could not delay them just a minute longer?"
Montmorency had just a moment to figure out the meaning behind the woman's words and it was not enough. Pain flared in her chest as Bleu's long saber slid through her heart. Looking down at the red soaked blade sprouting from her torso, she grit her teeth and spun; swinging her free hand out to crush the traitor. Yet the rogue was already ducking when she spun. Sidestepping around her, his main gauche flashed and sliced into Cattleya's exposed calf before he grabbed the hilt of his blade still protruding from Montmorency's back, placed a foot on her spine and pushed off the girl. Both reclaiming his blade and launching himself toward his true allies. "Sorry, but I did mention I was secretly a villain, didn't I?" He spoke with a pointed wink toward Saito.
Sheffield opened her mouth to speak, only for the Cardinal to roar out, "And the Founder dictated all undead must be cleansed!" Charging forward, he collided with the ailing Montmorency and drove her backward, crashing clean through the opposite wall and continuing onward.
Colbert supported Cattleya on his shoulder as the woman tried to stay awake against the sleeping salve flowing through her veins. The professor readied his staff, calling upon spells he'd left long behind him. They needed a plan, they needed-
Any thoughts of a plan were cut off when Saito saw Bleu lift Tiffania onto his shoulder. Seething in hatred, he charged forward. "BLEUUUU!" He raged from the depths of his soul.
The large, tanned man stepped in to block Saito's way. Bleu called out, "No, he's mine!" Yet the tanned man ignored it as rock crawled over his skin like armor. Saito's pistol flashed up and fired. The metal shot soared across the room and impacted the man's brow, shattering through the armor as if it were tissue paper. Blank surprise filled the man's face for just an instant before he died.
Derflinger sang from his sheath, absorbing the green fire and cutting wind launched at him from Sheffield and Wardes. Saito paid no mind to the girl worriedly catching the tanned man and passed straight on to Bleu. "AAAAAUUUGHHH!" Saito's rage-fueled soul lashed out against the world as he brought down his blade. Though he caught the blow upon his own blade, the sheer force of the impact sent the encumbered Bleu stumbling into the window. Knowing better than to fight in such an enclosed space, Bleu kicked the window open behind him and hopped out, summoning wind to catch him as he jumped down to the lawn below. This was three stories up, there was no way that kid would- "BLEEEEEUUUUU!" Saito screamed as he dived out the open window.
Eyes widening, Bleu jumped back just in time to avoid the falling boy's crushing plunge attack. "Now I kept my magic hidden for my reveal as a villain. Did you as well?" Bleu smiled as he looked upon the slowly standing boy. "Because that would be a problem, every villain needs a hero."
Though his legs screamed in agony, Saito ignored them. "Hold me together, Derf." He ordered the silent blade. Pushing his fractured legs harder, Saito charged with a blood-curdling yell.
Hopping backward, Bleu called forth his magic to cloak him in wind and lift him high to the fence. "No witty banter? Please work on that!" Planting a foot, he pushed off again and soared to the rooftops beyond.
Saito followed without so much as a doubt. Derf's magic pushed his body harder and harder, far beyond its limits. He landed atop the roofs and began his chase.
Opposite Saito's mad chase, on the other side of the Pope's estate, two figures exploded out of the top floor, tumbling to the grass below. Montmorency counted herself lucky when she landed atop the cardinal and bounced off him. Red colored her clothing and her hand vainly tried to cover the open wound. "Beat," she commanded the punctured organ. Steam and magic flooded into her chest, patching the hole and forcing her body to function. She could manage this, this puppet could be powered as long as she had the magic.
Faint steam emanated from the undead cardinal's wounds as he rose to his feet. Willing her feet beneath her, Montmorency leveled her hammer at her enemy. "First time you had a dragon, now I'm down a heart, will you ever fight me on fair terms?" Shuddering, she looked for a way to avoid the onslaught she knew as coming.
The cardinal's head twisted to the side. An unsteady, thunderous step carried him forward. "As it was, as it will be." The misquoted scripture fell upon Montmorency's ears like gravel. Water coiled around the Cardinal's staff and formed the head of an axe.
Montmorency met the Cardinal's brutal swing with her own, but her weakened body buckled beneath the strike and was launched into the iron fence behind her. "I... I could use some help." Montmorency's vision started to fade, and a dark shape fell over her.
Inside the mansion, Sheffield looked after her creation. Still this uncontrollable... damn that man for making his body so willful. "I'll need to retrieve him." She looked to Wardes and smirked, "Can you handle this?" She gestured to the old man and the half asleep girl.
Smirking, Wardes met her disdain with perfectly fake joviality. "Why, of course." With a flick of his sword-wand he launched a razor of thrice folded wind at Colbert's neck.
Yet rather than the red of blood appearing, a deep red flame ate Wardes' attack like it was nothing. Letting Cattleya stand on her own, Colbert's fire coiled around him like a serpent. He called forth the spell of his runic namesake - the spell he had sworn never to use again. "Flame Snake." Fire folded four times over met Wardes' hastily conjured wind and Sheffield's unnatural fire. Together, the two just barely held off the blast, and when the attack was over, Colbert still stood with that snake of heat coiled about him.
Looking to the surprisingly deadly mage and then back to Wardes, Sheffield smirked. "Well, good luck." Dancing away, she pressed a ring to the wall and melded through the stone to the room beyond.
This man was no pushover, Wardes realized. Another square class like himself; and Flame Snake... where had he heard that before? "I'll need your help." He commanded the girl still cradling the dead man.
Angry eyes looked up to meet his. "Of course."
Up in the skies above, Louise dodged another blast of fire and whirled to strike down the dragon. Montmorency's weak voice filled her head, "I... I could use some help." Louise barely had a chance to look down to the estate below before she dodged another strike.
Twice again, Louise had to roll away from attacks, each time she tried and failed to get a good look below. "Montmorency? Monmon?!" Yet there was no disengaging lest she bring the twenty assorted fliers down with her. Turning her attention to Charlotte, Louise worked on a plan to end this.
Another blast of wind disappeared into Derflinger without Saito so much as breaking his stride. Saito didn't know how far he had chased Bleu through the rooftops of the Holy City and he didn't care, he was not leaving Tiffania. When Bleu slid to a stop, Saito did the same and readied himself. As long as he had Derf, this traitor's magic was useless. "Give her back, Bleu." Saito gave the man one chance.
Bleu sat the struggling half elf upon the roof. Gagged and bound, she couldn't so much as crawl away. Stepping forward, he leveled his blade at Saito. "This should be far enough so no one important will interfere." Narrowing his eyes, he watched Saito's stance. "Originally, I just wanted to have the fun of ending your story, but now you've gone and killed my brother." Sighing, Bleu restrained his emotions, "I don't know how you managed to shoot through Jack's armor, but you did. I've been testing the range of that sword, so I know that he was beyond that." Whatever ability had allowed Saito to shoot through Jack's rock armor, it wasn't related to Derflinger. That unknown disturbed the Bleu the Swordmage, but excited Bleu the Bard.
Saito shifted his stance and Bleu tensed before moving to counter a sudden upper strike from Saito. The boy was definitely quicker than he looked. The two slowly shuffled their feet, trying to find an opening. "So now you made it my story, and I'll tell you how it's going to end. I'm going to kill you, then deliver your woman for pay."
Though Saito knew Bleu wanted it he still let his rage take over. Charging, he slashed at the man only to be easily parried. Twice more Saito desperately swung to fend off the dancing Bleu, only for each strike to be perfectly parried. The back of Bleu's blade slammed into Saito's wrist, knocking Derflinger from his grasp.
The blond man used the opening to kick Saito in the chest, making him slide backward and tumble to the floor. Without Derf's magic to move him, Saito's broken body crumpled like a puppet with its strings cut. Desperately, he tried to rise, and through a Herculean effort, he just barely managed to roll onto his back. Getting up was impossible. Wind coiled around the end of Bleu's saber. "Now, to show those nameless mooks how it's done." Winking, Bleu finished his spell. "Say hello to my brother for me when you get to hell." The spear of wind lanced directly into Saito's chest.
Colbert's fire countered blade of wind after blade of wind. Yet before he could build up any power to strike back, the girl in the black dress would launch several potion vials directly at him. Thick fire-eating steam erupted from them, chewing through his flames and stealing away the air his flame needed. Two daggers darted through the smoke toward Colbert's neck. Ducking, he barely avoided them only to come face to face with another pair of thrown daggers. Unable to dodge, Colbert rotated so that the blow wouldn't down him.
Only, the blow never landed. Cattleya's thick steel shield batted them away, the panting girl forced her feet to move. "I told him..." She panted, staying awake by sheer will. "I am strong." Her head swam and her vision blurred. Still, she took aim. "Pebble skip."
The explosion cracked the air where the purple haired girl had just been. Mid-flip, the girl chuckled, "I always dodge when mages point their wands," She landed and danced forward, closing the gap between them and using Cattleya as cover from Colbert's fire. "But I've never seen a truly invisible spell." Cattleya swung her shield out, only to be throw off balance when the girl easily sidestepped.
A dagger cut into Cattleya's vulnerable side and the void mage once more felt the effects of a sleeping draft. No.. She needed to stay awake...
Darkness overcame Cattleya and her weapons clattered to the floor. Holding Cattleya as a shield, the purple haired girl hopped backwards and away. "Tata Wardes, I have a mission to complete." Inhuman strength filled her body as she downed a strange potion. Then, turning, she jumped out the window, taking care to keep Cattleya in the way of that pesky fire.
Colbert's pursuing fire was intercepted twice by wind before he realized he had failed. Turning his attention to Wardes, Colbert ground out. "Who are they?" Fire burned within his heart.
Tilting his head, Wardes surmised that he had nothing to gain by fighting this man. "Who, Jeanette? I've been told they are mercenaries." At Colbert's look, Wardes tipped his hat. "I'm going to leave now, I suggest you pursue the blonde girl. While the void mages will be kept alive, I am not so sure about the others." For an instant it looked like Colbert meant to fight anyway, but then his fires calmed. Good then. Wardes leaped from the window and made his escape.
Louise knew something was wrong. Charlotte, clear the skies. Louise ordered and summoned up a vast amount of power. The two magical girls released their attacks as one.
"Chapter 18: God's Prism!" A great sphere of ice three times Sylphid's size formed above Charlotte.
Pulling her staff around, Louise let loose a massive beam of pink and black at the prism. Instantly it was split into countless lesser attacks, scattering power across the sky and wiping out over half of the riders. What was left of them fled in fear, readying for another attack of that power.
Yet their opponents were not preparing, instead they dived below. It was time to retreat. Charlotte dived for Kirche, and Louise dived to Tiffania's room. Inside, she found a gaping tunnel of holes leading out back. She was through to the other side in an instant. There on the lawn, she spied Colbert looking around. "Professor?! Where is everyone?! Where is Montmorency?!"
The hopeless, confused eyes of the man said it all. Montmorency was nowhere to be found.
Each breath pained him, but Saito kept breathing all the same. His shirt was torn to shreds, but his chest was free of damage; bare save for the unscathed omamori. How? "Tiffania's charm...?" He wondered beneath his weak breath.
Bleu looked on with interest. "You're telling me your woman's amulet saved you from my attack?" He paused and chewed it over for a moment. Sure he could just stab the kid but... "That is gold!" He smiled excitedly. "We definitely can't let this be our final duel." Hefting Tiffania onto his shoulder, Bleu saluted the broken boy. "Come and find me, oh nemesis of mine, so we can have a final battle for the ages."
"I'll kill you."
Saito's shuddering breath halted Bleu. Though all Saito could do was glare, he poured all of his hatred into it. "If you leave her there, I'll forgive everything, Bleu. But if you go, this won't be some story. I'll follow you, and keep following you until you are dead. Nothing will stop me Bleu. Nothing."
Meeting Saito's eyes, Bleu just smiled all the wider. "I'll be waiting for that glorious battle." Then the man was gone.
Suddenly alone on the roof, Saito tried to move, but even raising an arm was far beyond him now. How many bones had be broken pushing himself like this?
Just as the boy's vision began to blacken, he caught sight of a dragon landing, and of worried voices around him. Pink hair, and questions too blurred to hear, even if he had the strength to answer. Then Saito saw only black.
Louise stood against a tree, her eyes having glazed over as she watched Saito's chest rise and fall. It had taken more magic than she cared to think about to heal him. If she hadn't found him, the boy would have likely died from those injuries. According to Kirche, they were likely self-inflicted. That last bit worried her. When he woke, she was going to need to get a promise not to use that technique again, she might not always be there to patch him back together.
At the thought of Kirche, Louise was pleased to see the woman return with Charlotte. The blue haired princess coaxed Sylphid while Kirche walked through the camp to Louise. "You were right, the cave is crawling with paladins." Of course. Bleu was a traitor and Saito had brought him right to the rendezvous point.
Shaking her head, Louise asked, "Any sign of Montmorency or Siesta?" The two were still missing, and now there was no place to meet. Sure, they could defeat the paladins if they needed to, but more would just come and it was important to conserve their magic and energy.
Kirche leaned against a nearby tree and let her transformation drop. "Nothing, and from what we overheard, the paladins didn't either. We could keep watch, but they're starting search patterns."
Louise slumped to the ground and leaned her head back against the tree. Sylphid could still track Cattleya and Tiffania by scent, but that wouldn't be an option forever. "We'll keep watch tonight in shifts and let Saito recover." At least first step was obvious, they wouldn't help anyone if they charged off exhausted.
Kirche nodded and turned back to Charlotte. As the two conversed over how to best keep an eye on the cave, Louise's attention turned to where Id hopped into her lap. The small familiar curled up and lay down. "Montmorency's body can withstand such a wound long enough for her to heal it with her own magic." Though the thought bothered Louise, she still took it as some good news. "Tomorrow, it would be best pursue those captured. Montmorency's low self-worth will lead to her assuming you will pursue Cattleya."
Mouth pursing in distaste, Louise looked down to Id. Holding her tongue, Louise swallowed her words of rebuttal. In its own way, Id was just trying to help. "Thank you, Id." She spoke her measured words softly.
Id's tail twitched, and the familiar replied, "Gratitude. I think I understand it now." Louise furrowed her brow, trying to piece the enigmatic Id together. "Thank you for rescuing me, Louise. Having control of this form taken from me was distressing." Baffled by the genuine gratitude, all Louise could do was lay a hand on Id in acceptance and try to get some sleep.
A/N: How many people were knocked unconscious this chapter? So many! I might have a problem.