AN: After reading a comment on FFN about FiF, I've went and read up on Log Horizon LN series. I've found there're many similarities between future FiF plot and LH from Vol3 onwards, though these are unintended on my part - the plans I had for FiF predated my discovery of this series. I'll go back and edit into my Disclaimers that any similarities to LH and other series' plot are not deliberate, despite in-story references to other series like 'Castle in the Sky'.
Additionally, there's been a translation mistake on my part for some ZnT names in the fic earlier. 'Francis' from Karin Side Stories should have been spelled as 'Narcisse' (the guy with the open shirt in the KSS illustrations), and in light of this 'Barkus' will from now on be spelled as 'Bacchus'.
Again, thanks to LordsFire for beta-ing.
It had been several days since the first meeting between Alfheim and Tristain's delegates. As with the first day, the Fae continuously gained the benefits they argued for, though Alfheim didn't always get what they wanted. The most obvious of such cases was the failure of the Faerie Lords to control a monopoly on the possession of the 'Mobs' that appeared with the rest of Alfheim; the reagents from those creatures in general played a significant part on the ability of the faeries to create their items, and Tristain had managed to obtain a share of both the creatures for breeding and any reagents from the Mobs that were hunted down by the patrols. A selection of Alfheim's knowledge on what to do with the reagents had also been grudgingly given to the Tristainians, more than what the Leprechaun Lord was comfortable with at least.
Other resources that came with Alfheim were also divided up, and arguably in favour of Tristain. Apart from the largest depositories of faerie materials, such as the large mines under the Gnomes' Capital, Tristain had free rein to do with those as they pleased. The faeries would take a cut if the Tristain Crown or nobles wanted their expertise to help develop those sites under their control, however. Overall, most issues between Alfheim and Tristain were smoothly being solved in that manner, if not entirely favourably.
Despite that, Duke Valliere ruefully thought that at times life seemed to go out of its way to throw trouble upon you, especially after one trouble have been resolved. Bacchus, along with Daphne and Amethyst, had dropped more bad news onto his lap.
"Undercurrent has been hired to attack the treaty?" Pierre asked tensely.
In the room the Duke was allocated within the Tristain Academy of Magic, some old friends of his had gathered. Narcisse Gramont and Bacchus, the mage-knights that along with Pierre as 'Centurion' were once upon a time was among the best mage-knights in Tristain, were there seated at the table with him. Daphne and Amethyst, vampire sisters that worked for the Country of Water since their encounter with the trio, stood at one side in the room, their usually hooded faces revealed openly. The decades might have taken their toll on the humans, with slightly greying hair and beard upon the men, but the vampires still looked to be young women about twenty years of age.
"Yeah," Bacchus replied in a gravelly voice. The large Fire mage retained his bulk, with just one of his arms being nearly thicker than Louise's body. "We don't have the specifics, but Romalia caught wind of some movements within Gallia, and passed the information to Tristain on the sly. We wouldn't have caught on to this otherwise."
"Why would Romalia pass on this message to us?" Narcisse asked with a raised eyebrow. While the Earth mage's physique was still muscular enough to pull off the 'open shirt' appearance he had decades ago, the colonel opted for the more formal military uniform instead. The lady-killer look wasn't meant to be on someone which was at that point over fifty years old, no matter how in-shape he was. "You'd think with church doctrine there would have been some action from the Pope by now to impede the treaty with Alfheim. I'm surprised there hadn't been more resistance on that front, let alone the support we got under the table. Something doesn't feel right."
"Politics and expediency," Duke Vlliere said cynically. "The Pope may be a fanatic, but he's not a fool. Given Romalia's information network they should already know we have as much chance defeating the Fae as a successful Crusade against the elves in our lifetime. Allowing the treaty between Alfheim and Tristain, even implicitly, will help buy time for Romalia if they want to try anything at all, as they would need time to prepare. Obtain the support of various nobles, acquire resources for an army, and so on."
"It's fortunate for us that we got this warning though," Daphne said demurely. "Without it, Undercurrent is likely to succeed, and leaving us with no real clue as to who is responsible. It could very easily lead to open war between Tristain and these faeries, given the unstable circumstances between us."
Duke Valliere grimaced. Undercurrent was a mercenary mage well known in the Gallian underworld, who was able to sneak by under everyone's attention as her namesake. Suddenly appearing, and then disappear once again after her mission was completed; a truly troublesome opponent. She was a master of disguise, with her true age unknown and her 'female' status only as her preference, a convenient label. Undercurrent's records was near-flawless, with her goals – whether they be the life of an important noble, an item commissioned to be stolen, or even capturing someone alive – almost always completed by the mercenary.
Undercurrent favoured the Water element, though she had shown herself to be proficient in Wind, Fire and Earth as well. Even when only restricting herself to one element however, Pierre knew Undercurrent was a potent threat; Pierre himself was a Square-class Water mage, and the complex tricks Undercurrent was known for were the darker aspects of the 'healing' element. Controlling the human body and mind, especially the latter, was something Undercurrent specialized in. Combined with her similar skill in other elements, and her staggering Affinity with using them, it would not have been surprising if Undercurrent was a Firstborn of some kind – it was only the fact Undercurrent used spells recognized to be human ones that mostly debunked that theory.
Undercurrent outweighed even the vampires in attacking magic power, but Undercurrent's ability to only be able to cast human spells was crippling when fighting Firstborns. Even if the mercenary could cast advanced spells on the same speed as 'The Tempest' with her Affinity of the four elements – albeit never at that same legendary strength – Spirit Magic had a lower cost to the mage for greater effect, and the vampire sisters were strong enough opponents to drag any battle with them into one of attrition. That was possibly the sole reason why the vampires and Bacchus lived to tell the tale, even after multiple run-ins with the mercenary.
"Unfortunately, we have no idea who is paying Undercurrent to do this," Bacchus scowled. "There's just too many possibilities."
Pierre grimly nodded. It would be easy to point the finger at the higher echelons of Gallian nobles; the Duke could easily see the Gallians' end goal to be weakening both Tristain and Alfheim as the two fought each other, then sweep in to finish off both sides and annex Tristain in the process. However, Undercurrent was a mercenary, and not directly affiliated with Gallia's Northern Parterre Knights for their dirty work. For all they knew, Undercurrent's employer for upending the treaty could be any of the other factions that wished Tristain ill:
One possibility was Reconquista, as the rebels looked beyond their immediate goal of taking the White Isle and sought to facilitate their goals of establishing a foothold on the Halkeginian mainland. Another was a subset of Tristainan nobles, such as the ilk of Count Homme, who intensely disliked their situation and wished to cause a 'death before dishonour' war between humans and faeries. Or, it might even be some of the more short-sighted Germanian lords, seeking to weaken Tristain and force the Country of Water to rely on Germania, to correct how the political marriage between Princess Henrietta and the Germanian Emperor, Albrecht III, had stalled.
However, Duke Valliere was confident that last option was one of the more unlikely ones, in light of the benefits of doing so. Germania was weighing the risks of joining with Tristain at that point, as while they might have been able to obtain great rewards by trading with Alfheim they might also be targeted by Alfheim troops if relations between Tristain and Alfheim went sour. At that moment however the situation was leaning towards the marriage being called off, as any benefits Germania was looking for from the Fae did not require an active alliance, while being joined with Tristain could lead to more potential problems in the future in their eyes.
Then again, Pierre ruminated, the foolishness of some nobles is not to be underestimated. It was all too likely someone could have pushed on with their decision despite it not being the rational one. All too often it was not maliciousness, but stupidity, that had done the most damage to Tristain. Duke Valliere thought – or rather, hoped – that the general situation of Halkeginia was not one that would have every nation seeking to stab the others in the back in some sort of unholy passion for dominance.
"I'm still thinking Gallia is the most likely option, however," Narcisse said quietly. "It's the explanation that makes the most sense."
"Hmm?" Bacchus raised one eyebrow in response. "What makes you say that?"
"Being stuck in the Army for a long time, you tend to pick up a few things," Narcisse said airily. The old Gramont scion was pushed into the military, due to the circumstances surrounding the then Prime Minister Eustace's permanent removal over thirty years ago. Eustace was not without supporters however, and staying within the Manticore Knights was no longer an entirely safe option for them; 'Centurion' and the others had to retire from the Tristain Royal Guards. General Gramont – Narcisse's brother – had taken in the former Manticore Knight, even as Pierre went back to his home in preparation to inherit the Valliere Dukedom, and Bacchus became something of a wandering Crown agent with Daphne and Amethyst accompanying him. Though Pierre suspected Bacchus didn't mind his 'reassignment' as much as he showed on the surface, considering the relationship between him and his travelling companions.
"What do the rest of you know about the rebellion in Albion?" Narcisse continued.
"Beside the fact they're winning, and it is led by some guy named Cromwell, nothing much," Bacchus admitted. "Well, not much more than anyone else. I'm a bit preoccupied with issues closer to home recently, on the more ambitious Germanians looking to take over Tristain's lands before all the stuff with faeries happened. What has that got to do with this, anyway?"
"Haven't you all wondered just how the Albion rebels have been consistently beating back the royalists?" Narcisse asked. "Especially in the early days? Even if a few nobles rebelled, the Albion Army should have crushed the resistance with superior numbers and resources. When you wage war, logistics is one of the main issues to consider…"
"… and you think Gallia is the one backing Reconquista," the Duke finished Colonel Gramont's sentence.
"There's not enough resources on Albion alone for the civil war to be fought as fiercely as we have been hearing about," Narcisse said. "And it seemed unlikely for the rebels to have survived at the beginning solely by raiding the Albion Crown's military storehouses, barring exceptionally bad calls on the generals' part. But I think Albion's military could at least be given the benefit of the doubt on that, for the time being."
"And for the conflict to drag on for so long, without the rebels even feeling the pinch…" Duke Valliere considered. As part of governing his duchy, Pierre was no stranger to calculating the flow of resources and what they might suggest. "Yes, it does seem highly likely someone is supporting the rebels."
"Wait, are you two saying King Joseph is the one behind Reconquista?" Bacchus asked incredulously. "Sure, the guy could be one insanely good actor – emphasis on the insane part – but I'm not convinced."
"Not necessarily supported from the man at the very top of Gallia," Narcisse shook his head. "It could be some other influential Gallian noble instead. Gallia is a large country, with resources many times that of Tristain or Albion. The entirety of Tristain's air fleet for example would be matched by a small fraction of Gallia's own. Someone else – or multiple 'someone's' – could fund Reconquista, without the drain on resources being noticed.
"Of course, there is also speculation that it was Germania that was backing Reconquista, in order to create a credible threat to Tristain so they can absorb us," Narcisse grunted. "That country is certainly wealthy enough to do so. But I think we can safely discount that one, seeing as the Germanians aren't cohesive enough as a whole to pull off something this delicate; Germania is sufficiently fractured enough that no single faction is wealthy enough to fund Reconquista, and if multiple factions are working together they wouldn't be able to hide it from the parts of Halkeginia that work in the shadows. A conspiracy with many people weren't exactly easy to hide, if people started looking.
"But if the hypothesis of Gallia being behind the Albion rebellion is true, that means any turmoil in Tristain will benefit Gallia the most; and the one benefiting the most in any scenario is always suspect of some transgression, should things go wrong."
"So, basically," Bacchus summarized. "Gallia is most likely the one funding Reconquista, and after the Albion royalists' defeat they could essentially rule another country by proxy. Then, with the new appearance of faeries and Alfheim someone has decided to throw fuel on the fire to soften us before invading Tristain, something Reconquista would likely be planning on in the long run even without the faeries being around."
Bacchus shook his head in amazement. "Then after that, it'll only be Romalia and Germania left, and while it'll be a protracted campaign I don't see those two winning in that set-up, not with their 'theological' differences hindering any cooperation. Whoever is behind this could end up ruling over all of Halkeginia."
"It's not like this treaty falling apart will not have consequences, even without the greater picture," Pierre stated. "All it will change is when and who brings about the downfall of Tristain. First and foremost, we need to prepare against Undercurrent. Whatever happens, we cannot allow her to succeed here, whatever she is planning."
"I'll go pass on the word to Viscount Wardes," Narcisse said, standing up. "He can deal with the Royal Guards' rearrangement, as the one responsible for the Princess' security. Also get whatever defences and checks against mind control we have initiated."
"We'll be additional guards for the Cardinal and the Princess," Bacchus said, referring to himself and the vampire sisters. "It'll be disastrous if any of those two got mind controlled. Lil' Louise's fiancée is good, I'll grant that, but I don't want to take chances against Undercurrent."
"I'll be notifying Old Osmond of these developments," Pierre added. "The Headmaster should have some tricks for defending this Academy – even if he felt 'Foquet the Crumbling Dirt' being around Tristain was not enough reason to use them, Undercurrent is an entirely different matter. I will be sorely disappointed if he hasn't activated them already with the presence of both Princess Henrietta and Cardinal Mazarin at the Academy."
With that, Duke Valliere's meeting was adjourned.
Count Homme staggered back, as a cloaked figure knocked the breath out of him using the pommel of her dagger; the window in his room was open and unlocked, though Homme was certain the opposite was true the last time he glanced toward it mere minutes ago. As the Count was gasping for breath, the figure pushed her dagger hilt first into one of his loosened hands and forced him into gripping it. Seconds later, the Count was unmoving, and the figure gazed impassively down onto the still form of her victim.
Within Homme's mind, Undercurrent smirked. The Academy's defences were nearly useless to someone of her skills and centuries of experiences, with only the Vault holding the substantial enchantments that would give even her trouble. Then again, the Tristain Academy of Magic was an educational institution, not the heart of a royal palace or an important military outpost, so the mercenary guessed the lack of protection was only to be expected.
Undercurrent's target, likewise, gave no more trouble to her than the Academy's security enchantments did. Only the mentally exceptional could resist her influence, and the petty noble didn't have the steel-like discipline or the raging emotions to counter the intrusion. Her host at that point, the cloaked figure, was already pliant and under influence, allowing her to take the time to work over the Count's minds in preparation for the next day. While the Water spell 'Geas' could have taken control over the Count, Undercurrent preferred to preserve her own willpower for the next day's actions. Even if she had massive reserves, due to centuries of leeching willpower off mages and adding those to her own, it was not worth risking everything upon it.
Bacchus and his girls seem to be here in the Academy as well, Undercurrent mused. I'll need every last scrap of power I have for this job to begin with, even without their interference.
The 'Spirit Weapon', one of many created by the elves throughout the millennia, didn't particularly like fighting Firstborn opponents; they were nearly always too strong to be toyed with like mere prey, as the Firstborns were in general as much predators of humans as she was. The dagger was created to hide among, to steal from, and to harm humans, causing damage from behind the scenes. The idea was that humans too busy fighting each other were humans unable to unite together against their common foe, and so a minority of more aggressive elves released tools such as Undercurrent into human society in an attempt to prevent further Crusades against the Sahara.
As the centuries went by however, Undercurrent grew tired of the original goals distilled into her, especially when there were no urgency to her purpose; on average Crusades didn't occur more often than once in every few centuries, and even when they did the elves never had trouble repelling the invasions. Undercurrent's zeal dulled, and instead of actively sowing chaos within human ranks as an infiltrator she turned her efforts to trying to keep herself entertained for her immortal life. Making humans fight each other was by then only a means to Undercurrent, and no longer her end goal. The dagger hadn't done anything close to stirring up troubles on a national scale within the last few decades, let alone the continent-affecting circumstances that could stem from interrupting the peace treaty between the faeries and Tristain.
Despite being created by the elves, Undercurrent had no love for the Firstborns as a whole; the vampire sisters she came across a few times managed to escape through their own desperate efforts to survive their battles, more than any mercy and empathy on Undercurrent's part. The spirit weapon felt she had no obligation toward any of the Firstborns or the Great Purpose, nor any reason to turn away from making their lives difficult. On the flipside, going by all accounts it was not like Halkeginia would be able to do any meaningful damage to the faeries, barring something like the human's Founder reborn. It would be amusing to the dagger to watch the human civilization be slaughtered in the aftermath; after centuries of watching the same betrayals and power plays within the magocracy of Halkeginia, Undercurrent decided it was probably time to break things up a bit and allow a new paradigm to rise. She was bored of the old spectacles, by that point.
The conditioning of the Count finished, Undercurrent's new puppet handed her real body back to the cloaked figure. The mercenary considered to subvert the Princess or the Cardinal next, but decided against it. The vampires, while barely past the younglings stage by Firstborn standards, would undoubtedly be stationed with the most important personage of Tristain, and would just as surely prove to be difficult opponents. It would be unrealistic to expect the security for a lowly Count, merely a pawn of another noble, to be the same as the ones surrounding royalty. The General was not much more competent than the Count personally, but he still had the Dragon Knights with him and detection was not completely out of the question. Better not to risk it, in Undercurrent's view. Conserving her willpower for the main event the next day was the better choice.
Similarly, the Headmaster and the bald Professor of the Academy weren't worth the effort to subdue them; Undercurrent knew a veteran battlemage when she saw one, and their usefulness in pushing the treaty one way or another was outweighed by the exertion needed to mentally control them. The Duke, as influential as he was politically, he was also a Square-class mage with quite a record. Said record was not hard to find for those as deep in the same trade as the dagger was, and additionally Undercurrent had been around long enough that the name 'Centurion' was not an unfamiliar one. Apart from the Headmaster, Undercurrent pegged the Duke to be the one person that would have the strength of mind to repulse her mental control.
The Count would have to do as her attempt to sabotage the treaty from within – though it was not like Undercurrent needed an influential person for that task, or felt that she needed that bit of insurance at all. The next day, Undercurrent would be the hammer that struck the peace treaty, and it was likely the Count didn't need to be controlled in the first place to pour fire onto the wreck the mercenary was planning to leave entire peace treaty in.
AN: Undercurrent's skillset is taken from the more detailed explanation in Tabitha Side Stories Vol1 Ch3, in addition to her canon appearance in ZnT Vol17-18. Her backstory was expanded a bit by me however, as while Undercurrent have similar powers to be something like a 'Book of Darkness'/'Book of the Night Sky' hybrid from Nanoha series (albeit scaled down to fit the ZnT setting's level in comparison), in ZnT canon she wasn't explicitly stated to be a weapon created for the same purpose as such in the LNs.
As for that happened post-KSS Vol2 in terms of FiF continuity, I'm playing it hard and fast with canon as with the ZnT author's death KSS didn't get continued.
Next chapter, (more) fecal matter hits the air ventilator as the treaty scene gets interrupted (Finally; I've done enough set-up scenes for now…). Although I'm in the middle of a overseas trip at the moment, so don't expect any new FFN updates of FiF until 2014. This chapter is the last buffer I have in place, as I usually post story updates for this in Spacebattles' Creative Writing subforum first to look for feedback, before uploading them here on FFN as a alternative archive.