AN: Again, thanks to LordsFire for doing the beta-ing.


Chapter 24

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It was the fourth day after the beginning of the peace talks between Tristain and Alfheim, with the delegates once again convened in the tent within the Tristain Academy of Magic. Headmaster Osmond was notified by Duke Valliere beforehand to watch out for possible sabotage of the treaty, and kept an eye out on the enchantments within the Academy for any possible early warnings. Likewise, the rest of Tristain's delegates were notified of a possible attack by a powerful mage or other parties, and the Alfheim's delegates were also notified after their arrival; it would be problematic to say the least if attacks was regarded by the Faerie Lords as an attempt to assassinate them, and reacted accordingly. Throughout that day's meeting the atmosphere was tense, as both sides waited for the assailant to act.

In the meantime, Old Osmond observed another exchange between the Faerie Lords and Cardinal Mazarin, that time about the territory officially recognized as part of Alfheim by Tristain. In most cases the boundaries were clear cut, such as the desert surrounding the Salamanders' Capital or the gigantic hole in the ground that was the Gnomes' subterranean city, but that distinction alone was not enough for a conclusion at times. The Cait Sith capital, Freelia, had managed to obtain an additional small district beyond the bridge connecting their island Capital to the mainland, to act as a trading outpost between Tristain and Alfheim, and as a place to store the captured 'Mobs' that came with the faeries' arrival into Halkeginia. That debate about city belonging to the cat-eared faeries however was eclipsed by the heated discussion that was then raging about the neutral Capital, Arrun:

"You wish to claim the area of a fifteen mile radius around the World Tree as part of Alfheim?" General de Poitiers asked disbelievingly.

"If possible, yes," Lord Mortimer of the Salamanders admitted. The Faerie Lord in red have long been seen as the face of conflict and other undesirable notions of Alfheim by Tristain, even as they began to view Lady Sakuya as Alfheim's face for peace. "However, we do understand that is highly unlikely to happen, considering as within this area there is the Tristain Academy of Magic, and very close to the Army garrison attached to Tristain's Capital. Alfheim would settle instead for the immediate area around Arrun and the World Tree, plus building a small fortress at each of the four points labelled here:"

The Salamander Lord pressed a few buttons on a crystal in front of him, showing a map of central Tristain. The 'holographic projectors', as the faeries called the devices that could cast illusions and images into being floating in front of them, had been in use after the second day as a discussion tool for the treaty. Each of the Faerie Lords possessed one in front of them, and whatever information laid within one crystal were accessible from any of the other crystals. On the map, in each of the cardinal directions relative to the World Tree was a large red dot, laying squarely on the circumference of the proposed area.

"And what would be the purpose of these fortresses?" Cardinal Mazarin enquired. "It is unlikely Alfheim requires further military presence in the area, considering the proximity of the World Tree and its Guardians. As supply depots, it seemed a bit far from the city of Arrun even with the faeries' ability of flight, and you have not argued for a similar treatment for other faerie Capitals."

"Your scouts should have reported to you all by now, about our actions in those four points over the last week," Mortimer said plainly. General de Poitiers grunted, visibly sour that the Army's scouts were noticed by the Fae; though Osmond was sure everyone was secretly glad there had been no conflict stemming from that development. "There has been a steady traffic of Alfheim's most elite warriors to and from those points, with their goal being a small cave leading further underground at each of those points. We will be clear with you: these four points are the entrances to the most dangerous area in all of Alfheim as of the time of our unplanned arrival. Below this area of 30 miles in diameter is the Dungeon known as Jotunheim, the land of Giants and other enemies of Alfheim.

"The planned fortresses will be built on top of the entrances, to prevent any residents of the world below from entering Halkeginia. The Giants we call Jotunns, along with other entities such as 'Beast Spirits', outclass any Mob on the surface as easily as your Square mages are above Dot mages – and that is inclusive of any 'Field Bosses' we have encountered. The reason why we ask for the area above Jotunheim as well is to prepare for the possibility of the Jotunns digging a way out from below, something that wouldn't have been possible when everything was only a game in a dream."

"Are these 'Jotunns' really as powerful as you say?" Count Homme asked skeptically; Osmond raised an eyebrow slightly, as the Count had replied with less derision than the Headmaster would have expected from the legal expert's behaviour over the previous days.

In response, Mortimer tapped a few more buttons on his crystal. The map of Tristain vanished, to be replaced by a miniature scene of battle on dull grey stone, although without sound. Scores of faeries, dressed in myriads of colours but mostly black similar to Kirito's coat, attacked a grey-skinned giant easily over ten times their height; however most of their powerful spells did not do much other than scorching the surface of the giant's skin. The giant charged, becoming a blur even as the faeries responded with similar speed. Armoured warriors charged head on, using their shields to deflect the blows, even as the spellcasters at the back quickly moved away from the approaching giant. The armoured Fae was blown back by the charge, and many of them upon collision were reduced into the state that reminded Osmond of swaying candle flames by the force of the attack.

"Even the weakest of Jotunns requires over three dozen of our elite warriors to defeat," Mortimer said as the battle continued. "And not without our people taking heavy losses in the process. Equipment damage aside, being killed is not a pleasant experience in the least, and far too many suffer that fate when fighting Jotunns."

"What about the World Tree Guardians?" Princess Henrietta asked, looking slightly sickened by the carnage wrought by the Jotunn. Even if blood split and mangled corpses only lasted seconds before being turned into droplets of fire, the Princess shuddered at silent screams and expressions of horror on the faces in the doll-like recreation of battles. "Does Her Majesty Titania not send in her troops to fight the giants, as she did to support your people in Gatan and in other patrols against monsters?"

"The giants, as I've said, are on a different level compared to our other opponents," Mortimer reminded Henrietta. "Titania's legion, unfortunately, does not process the raw strength faeries have, or our versatility despite their superior numbers. The 'Fairy Queen' is not omnipotent, nor can she solve all of Alfheim's problems alone, Your Highness. Even with Titania's aid, the people of Alfheim are not completely spared from bloodshed."

"Do you have anything else to support your claims, other than a piece of well-made performance?" Count Homme said distrustfully. "Surely you don't expect concessions to be granted by Tristain after only a bit of song and dance."

"For someone that keeps going on about the 'pride' and 'honour' of nobles, I'm surprised that you'd question those same merits within others," Rufus retorted disparagingly. "Are you suggesting that we are so dishonourable we'd lie about something like this? If the Spriggan's Leader hears about your accusation, she'd probably have your hide for insulting the losses of her subordinates."

"You're all welcome to visit Jotunheim yourself to see with your own two eyes," Mortimer interceded smoothly, cutting off Count Homme's reaction; Osmond noted the Salamander Lord was using the Leprechaun Lord to express any indignation the faeries would have felt, rather than undermine his own reputation of being 'reasonable' by wording his true feelings. The Faeries Lords have took up roles and masks for the treaty, and despite friction within their ranks they were working together well. If Alfheim possessed the same divisive mind-set between different factions as Tristain's nobility were, at least their delegates did not show it.

"The Salamander contingent of the warriors clearing out Jotunheim of the Giants are willing to escort you on their missions," Mortimer continued. "Count Homme does have a point, in that without solid proof it is unrealistic for any concessions to be given. I can guarantee that anyone who wishes to observe will be returned alive and well, even if we're attacked."

"You have demonstrated the faeries are very capable of making bold claims over the past few days, Lord Mortimer," Duke Valliere said stoically. "However, I have to ask: how do you plan on backing up your promise this time? If the faeries have difficulties in just trying to keep themselves alive while trying to destroy these giants, how do you expect us to believe you can protect observers at the same time?"

In response, it was Lady Alicia who replied, opening up a screen and checking through a document:

"I am not sure if the mage-knights of Tristain working with our patrols have reported this back to you all yet, Your Excellency, but Alfheim's patrols have been sending their captured Mobs to Freelia using 'Teleporting Crystals' or 'Corridor Crystals'. We also normally issue such items to anyone entering Jotunheim, so if anyone is in unavoidable danger they can be returned to one of the main strongholds instantly, where healers are on standby to ensure your wellbeing. While Jotunheim is not a place to be taken lightly, merely looking around and running on the first sign of danger is still possible."

"That is-"

"Wait," Osmond forestalled any replies, as he felt the castle's enchantments picking up a small tremor underground. While natural earthquakes was not unheard of, with the abundance of Earth mages in Halkeginia it was far more likely activity below the surface near sensitive locations was the work of a mage. It was unsurprising that the Academy, with its Vault filled of valuable historical artefacts among other items, not to mention the requirement to safeguard its students, would be prepared for any tunnelling attacks from below. Old Osmond frowned as the tremors increased in such a way that to his decades' worth of experiences dashed any hopes that the shaking was a natural earthquake.

"An attack from below!" the Headmaster bellowed. Before Osmond even uttered half of his sentence the faeries acted, faster than the human mages were able to draw their wands. Lord Mortimer's hand glowed as faerie runes circled around him briefly, and fire shot upward from his palm. The tent's roof was scorched away swiftly, and the Faerie Lords shot up skyward from their seats immediately using their wings, with Kirito following shortly behind them and then the rest of the Faerie Lords' aides in quick succession. Throughout the flurry of movements, the Spriggan swordsman's eyes glowed green and darting around to check for further surprises. The World Tree Guardians soon followed after the faeries, rising up from around the tent to form a perimeter around Alfheim's delegation.

More than just their wings glowed, as the faeries' bodies were also soon enveloped in various protective enchantments; with an imminent attack, it would have been foolish to not prepare additional defences. Duke Valliere couldn't blame the faeries for looking out for their own people first, since if the situation was reversed the Tristainans would focus on protecting their own delegates as well, before any attempts to help the other party. The Faerie Lords and Kirito were the only ones that sought to more than just protect themselves, however, with the aides' only task being to secure their own safety.

Lord Mortimer had flames coiled in a loose cylinder around him, writhing and ready to strike. The Leprechaun Lord had a jewel-encrusted baton of solid Enchanted Gold in one hand, while the other hand held some kind of small crystal shield. Lady Sakuya was wreathed inside an armour of flowing wind, her movements hastened beyond the exceptional norm for faeries even as she continued to cast another spell. The last of the Faerie Lords stayed at the back, one hand holding a vial of what the faeries called World Tree Sap; the glyphs around the Cait Sith Leader, then, was presumably set up for some kind of healing spell, with Lady Alicia's role as a support mage for their group. In contrast, Kirito had no glowing scripts around him indicating he was using any spells, and instead of going for his blades at his back he went for the steel darts at his belt.

On the ground, the various mage-knights around the tent had heard Osmond's warning, and had begun to search the ground below using magic to find whoever was hiding below casting their spells. The Headmaster quickly reinforced the stone beneath him, Viscount Wardes and Duke Valliere followed the Headmaster's efforts, having been the first to draw their wands; the former as a guard for the treaty had a greater allowance for his hand to be closer to his wandsword than the delegates, and the latter retained his skill as the fastest 'quick-draw' mage in Tristain from his time in active service to the Crown. For all their casting however, it failed to stop a cloaked figure from smashing through the floor to rise up next to Cardinal Mazarin, a dagger flashing in her hand. The aged Regent was only spared from being stabbed due to the swift action of Professor Colbert, conjuring and detonating a fireball between the two to push the assailant away. Mazarin suffered some minor burns, but it was preferable to coming down with a severe case of dead.

Undeterred by the opposition, the assailant conjured whips of water around her and struck at the mages around her simultaneously like a hydra's many heads. General de Poitiers went down with a head wound, having been too slow to dodge. Colbert tried to repel the whip flying at him with his staff – there wasn't enough time for him to use a spell to do so – but it snapped under the strength of the whip. The powerful blow connected with the Professor's chest, the Fire mage tumbling like he had been struck by a swung mace. The Viscount and Duke Valliere both managed to barely deflect the incoming attack using their own spells, and back-stepped away while chanting furiously. The mage-knights, both the ones surrounding the tent and the ones mounted on Griffons in the sky, then fired spells at the assailant as they no longer had to worry about hitting the Tristain delegates in the process.

In contrast to the Tristain mages' efforts to attack the assailant, Count Homme spun around and shot a fireball at a World Tree Guardian. The petty noble did so with such inhuman speed his body creaked in protest, and none of the mages fighting there could knock the Count's wand out of his hand in time. Kirito's left arm blurred, throwing a dart with such force the fireball detonated before it even crossed half the distance between the Count and the Fae – but the Count's attack had served its purpose.

The cyclopean eyes of the white alviss lit up, and the archers responded instantly to Count Homme's attack. Four glowing arrows shot into Count Homme within seconds, as the World Tree Guardians saw the aggressor as an enemy to the Faerie Lords. Even as the minor noble crumpled down, his shoulders and knees pierced through, the archers turned their aim towards the other mage-knights in the area; anyone that held a wand and was casting spells was regarded as an enemy by them, and the Guardians responded accordingly. In the time it took for the faeries to react to the attempted attack on them, multiple airborne mage-knights shouted in alarm and pain as they took arrows to the joints in their arms, limiting their ability to aim, and any countering attacks were swept away by the large blades of the alviss swordsmen.

"Stand down!" Kirito roared out desperately to the white constructs. At his orders the World Tree Guardians' eyes dulled, and their arms drifted back to their sides, but as the attacks on the archers continued by one of the Griffon Knights in response to the arrows initiated the alviss' aggression once more.

Snarling, the Spriggan's left hand summoned a hexagonal glowing panel into existence, and then he smashing his fist into a large red labelled button upon it. The World Tree Guardians ceased all action, and they fell to the ground as unresponsive as statues.

"Everyone, please stop!" Kirito shouted, urging the mage-knights to cease their attacks but with no success. Not all of the mage-knights had saw Count Homme's first attack on the World Tree Guardians however, due to their attention focused on the assailant to begin with, thus they considered the alviss' response as unprovoked. Further attacks came towards the Fae, while a few mage-knights were convinced the faeries had finally shown their true colours and attacked Tristain's delegates. Rufus' crystal shield sparked with ethereal energy, which widened and repelled the attacks coming towards him, while Sakuya formed a wind barrier and Mortimer's fire shielded the remainder of the faeries.

"I don't think they're going to listen, Kirito," Rufus said dryly, eyeing their opposition carefully. The Leprechaun Lord looked confident that the faeries' shields would hold against the continued onslaught, although his comrades looked less sanguine about their prospects.

In the meantime, the assailant pushed on ahead toward Cardinal Mazarin. Water whips that surrounded her moved like striking vipers, both intercepting spells and crushing the bodies of the defenders with ease. In addition to her water whips, at the same time the assailant cast other spells to either shield herself or to push her attack, all at a speed faster than any mage except Duke Valliere. Instead of something like what 'The Tempest' would do, overwhelming her opponents with sheer power, it was the assailant's versatility that allowed her to match her opponents easily; she had no difficulty in casting spells from any of the four elements, and the variety of spells she had shown was staggering. Fireballs blasted away approaching Air Hammers, and stone pillars rose up to intercept projectiles that flew at the assailant. Wind blades flew from the assailant between the gaps in her water whips, filling up the holes in her defences.

Even with two Square-class mages, Duke Valliere and Viscount Wardes, and another dozen mage-knights hounding her, the assailant was only marginally inconvenienced; those Triangle-class and above didn't have the time to cast the more powerful techniques of their spell repertoire, due to the swiftness of the assailant's attacks. Old Osmond was at the back, away from the conflict, standing by in reserve as the final line of defence for the Regent and the Princess; though as things stood he would be required to actively participate to help drive the assailant off.

Gleaming golems then rose out of the ground next to the assailant and attempted tackle her, but water whips turned them into scrap metal almost instantly and flung them at the mage-knights around her.

"Sorry we're late, Pierre!" Bacchus yelled over the din of spells and shouted incantations as he, the two vampire sisters in hooded robes, and Colonel Gramont with many more of the gleaming golems approached as part of the reinforcements. "We were on the other side of the Academy patrolling!"

The large Fire mage then shot a curving stream of powerful flames from his wand, evaporating a third of the whips and forcing the assailant to devote more effort into defending herself. The two vampires, each with a thin wand in their hands, pointed at the assailant and powerful Air Hammers the size of a horse drove down at her. Undercurrent evaded the Hammers, but with the mage-knights heartened by what seemed to be four new Square mages entering the fray they attacked with renewed vigour. Even as the assailant cast spells steadily one after another, it was clear she was being pushed onto the defensive.

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Undercurrent scowled as she fought; in hindsight, she underestimated the faeries' reaction speed – and willingness – to get their alviss under control. The backup plan to have the Count spark conflict was necessary for her work after all, in spite of everything. That the base instruction of those puppets was only 'subdue' and not 'destroy' if conflict arose was unexpected; Undercurrent fully expected the alviss to have killed several of Tristain's forces, instead of merely maiming them. The faeries must have genuinely wanted peace to have programmed their puppets so, to the bemusement of the mercenary; it went against what the dagger knew of the Firstborns, given their natural wariness towards interaction with humans.

Then again, having seen the faeries cast spells first-hand Undercurrent ruled out the possibility of faeries being Firstborns. They were channelling magic from mostly outside their body, certainly, but the faeries didn't rely on anything like local Spirits within the general area; sensing magic wasn't Undercurrent's forte, but the dagger could swear she felt something artificial to the faeries' method of spellcasting. Recalling the memories she copied from the Count, Undercurrent thought there might be a bit more truth to the claims that the faeries were human than she had thought…

Lightning flashed, interrupting Undercurrent's thoughts. The mercenary raised a stone wall hastily, barely in time to block the thunder that took less than a second to charge up. With the extra breathing room granted by Tristain's reinforcements, Captain Wardes decided to use the spells that gave him his runic name, further eroding Undercurrent's confidence of victory. As things were, Undercurrent couldn't defend herself against the two vampires – even if they were pretending to be human mages with their wands – in addition to all of the other Square mages fighting against her. 'Centurion' was as fearsome as his reputation 30 years ago made him out to be, and his two ex-comrades – Bacchus and Narcisse – from that time were similarly skilled. Captain Wardes was also a capable fighter, and while the old Headmaster looked like a good-for-nothing lecher he was still a skilled mage; if they didn't have to protect the Regent, Undercurrent wasn't entirely sure she could take all of Tristain's guards in a head-on battle. The rest of the underlings from the Tristain Royal Guards were also a nuisance, even if none of those individuals were stronger than a relatively skilled Triangle mage.

With that in mind, Undercurrent set off several explosions around her, and used the resulting dust cloud to dig a tunnel and retreat below ground. It was time to withdraw, and return to fight on another day; if the misunderstanding between the faeries and humans didn't finish what she started first.

-][-

"She's getting away below ground!" Old Osmond called out, even as Wardes blew away the smokescreen nearly as soon as Undercurrent raised it. With the Headmaster's words, Narcisse shifted the earth and headed underground first in pursuit, followed soon by Daphne and Amethyst. Out of sight beneath the ground, the vampires could forego the charade of human limitations and needing wands, calling upon the full extent of their Spirit magic to hunt down the mercenary; they would likely need to do so, as Undercurrent's name suggested she was no stranger to underground combat and could manipulate the earth surrounding all participants.

With the exception of those three, the mages on the ground were free to focus their attention on the battle between the faeries and the Royal Guards. The Faerie Lords continued to only defend themselves against the attacks using barriers and shields, while Kirito was the only faerie attacking. With conversation unable to defuse the situation, the Spriggan was forced to use other methods to stop the fighting. Kirito's arms blurred as a steel dart in his right hand flew out and snapped the wand of a mage-knight, then with a single word and a flash from faerie scripts around him shadows coalesced into a dart in his free left hand. The projectiles were fired rapidly, with the Spriggan's superhuman reflexes going for a steel dart on his coat when he had to chant for his shadow weapon, and every shot was unerringly aimed at the mages' wands or hands to disarm them of their weapons.

Duke Valliere tensed; with that kind of aim and speed, Kirito could have killed all of the mage-knights instead of merely disarming them, if his targets were the mages' throats instead of their wands. Humans couldn't have cast a spell strong enough in time to defend against the force behind his darts – and not just the mage-knights, but also Tristain's delegates. The Duke in his prime as the fastest caster in Tristain could possibly have matched the Spriggan's speed, but not the force behind his darts at a moment's notice. If Alfheim had wished to assassinate Tristain's delegates, they would have succeeded without question.

"Stand down, men!" Wardes's magically augmented voice called out over the din of spellfire, once that the immediate threat of Undercurrent was past. "Search for the mage responsible for the attack from below, and leave the faeries!"

"But, Sir-" One of the mage-knights protested, but quailed under the Griffin Knight Captain's glare. Before the assault ceased however, Sakuya's barrier faded away to the surprise of everyone. Sakuya with her enhanced speed barely flew out of the way of an Air Needle that got through, but a few of the aides weren't as fortunate and were struck. The shock of the attack made a few of the faeries panic and nearly losing control of their flight, but did nothing more due to the various protective enchantments the faeries were enveloped in.

"Right, screw this," Rufus scowled in the midst of the furore, as things threatened to spiral out of control. Several pieces of jewellery on the Leprechaun Lord glowed bright electric yellow. "Our spells reached their time limits and cooldowns. We have to take everyone down now."

"Wait, Rufus-!"

"Thunder Wave."

Sakuya's words was cut off as the air around the faeries discharged fierce energy, for a terrifying moment submerging fully half of the Academy's space between the main tower and castle walls with enough webs of electricity to resemble a giant spider's lair. Every mage within line of sight to the Leprechaun Lord within the Academy grounds, save for those in a small area around the Tristain delegates, was near-instantly Paralyzed and various mage-knights dropped out of the sky or crumpled down onto the ground.

Wardes gripped his wandsword tightly, even though the only ones still capable of moving were the Tristain and Alfheim's delegation. Duke Valliere sympathized with his future son-in-law's tension; more than just the Fae's demonstrated ability to defeat mages en masse without effort, they wielded the Griffon Knight Captain's favoured technique on a scale far larger than Wardes could. The level of fine control needed for that kind of magic was likely beyond human limits, even if the magical strength needed was not – and Rufus didn't even look winded after casting a spell of that magnitude.

The faeries began to descend, all of them clutching at their ears; even without the harmful effects of being hit directly by the attacks, the sound of localized thunder crackling deafened everyone present. Healing spells were cast by both sides' delegation to remedy that, with no-one still standing concerned enough to make a fuss about further magic being used.

In the meantime Wardes began to command the still-arriving guards, the ones stationed on the outer perimeter of the Academy that approached upon signs of conflict, to heal the mage-knights, with his tone allowing no disobedience. Many of the arrivals had guessed correctly that the faeries were responsible for the majority of the damage done to the mage-knights, and every mage went about their task with one suspicious eye kept on Alfheim's delegates. Ultimately, there were no deaths among the Royal Guards – though there were several close cases from bad falls as mages were shot down by Rufus, and many serious injuries from Undercurrent's attack. It was a testament to the capability of Tristain's finest mages that even after facing Undercurrent they suffered no losses.

The Salamander Lord and the rest of the faeries had lowered the rest of his combat spells as an attempt to calm things down, though they kept their weapons out but lowered. Kirito remained wary and ready to strike at the first sign of danger.

"… I trust there will be no more misunderstanding between our two sides, for today at least?" Mortimer finally spoke, after the delegates' ears were healed.

"There was no misunderstandings," Count Homme hissed from where he lay on the ground; while his limbs was effectively disabled, due to the delicate nature of healing bone joints it would take more than a field medic to completely cure the wounds, but his mouth was still free to speak. "The faeries sent a Firstborn assassin for the Regent, and almost succeeded! No human could have fought off eight Square mages at once unscathed, in addition to the rest of the Royal Guards stationed here – Alfheim is colluding with the elves!"

"Now, now; Count Homme's mind seems to be clouded by the pain and violence just now," Old Osmond mused, before the Faerie Lords could undoubtedly respond in a negative manner. "It is not entirely his fault to have spoken so rashly. It'll be best to let him sleep for the time being."

The Headmaster conjured a 'Cloud of Sleep' around the Count's head, and the belligerent noble nodded off quickly. Nonetheless, the guards didn't dismiss Homme's claims offhand; the Fae did nothing to help when the assailant attacked the treaty, and Rufus did incapacitate the majority of Tristain's forces gathered at the Academy – and in a painful manner at that. Getting struck by lightning to the point a person could no longer feel their limbs did not encourage a peaceful outlook on things, unfortunately.

"Really now, if we wanted to harm Tristain we didn't need to ally with anyone," Rufus snorted derisively; the Leprechaun Lord's reaction not helping calm the situation down. "I can take on every mage here at this Academy single-handedly – you all probably have seen, or felt personally what I did to stop everyone from attacking us. If I have to floor everyone again to prove my point, I'm more than happy to do that."

Lightning cackled, and a golden force-field instantly swathed around Rufus' body.

"There's another five hundred mages at my level in the Leprechaun Faction alone," Rufus continued. "Not to mention thousands of others altogether in the rest of Alfheim. And instead of settling for Paralysis I could easily have turned up the power of my attack to turn every non-faerie here into charcoal. With this kind of power at our disposal, there's no need for deception on our side – and I suggest you all to remember that before trying to pick a fight with us."

The mage-knights tensed, but the Leprechaun Lord didn't intend on demonstrating his abilities again at that moment. No one present were foolish enough to challenge that fact, though there were no shortage of bitter looks from the Tristainians directed at Rufus for his action. Never had the disparity of power between the two sides been so obvious – the report of the defeat of 'The Tempest' by the Salamanders was heard, true, but it was a different matter to witness for themselves the absurd ease for one faerie to take down entire squads of the Royal Guard without difficulty. The gulf between the abilities of the Firstborns and humans was once again emphasized, and given the near-hopelessness of winning such a conflict the will to fight was greatly diminished from Tristain's side. If fighting was not the only solution, avoiding conflict was vastly more preferable; not all of the nobles shared the viewpoint of Count Comme.

"In response to the first question from Lord Mortimer," Cardinal Mazarin spoke up, "We do not wish for any more conflict between Tristain and Alfheim, unless there is a clear necessity for such."

The Faerie Lords visibly relaxed at Cardinal Mazarin's words.

"However," the Regent continued, raising the tension once more. "There is one matter I would like to clear up – and Alfheim's response would determine whether there is enough trust between our two sides for the possibility of a peaceful coexistence."

"And the matter is?" Sakuya inquired hesitantly, forcing a calm exterior in the situation.

"The World Tree Guardians are the personal troops of Fairy Queen Titania, correct?" Mazarin asked. At the nods from the Faerie Lords, he continued: "Inferring from that fact, then, it means whoever has command over them would have to be an individual trusted by the Fairy Queen – especially if that person has the ability to force the shutdown of those alviss in the heat of combat. No monarch would risk bestowing an untrustworthy vassal the ability to disable their soldiers in a situation that demanded the Guardians' presence.

"If it was one of the Faerie Lords that had the ability to do so, I would not be too surprised. However, consider who it was that performed the deed… Sir Kirito, am I correct to conclude that you are an agent of Queen Titania?"

Sakuya exchanged a worried glance with Alicia, while a more enigmatic one was conducted between Mortimer and Rufus. Then, all four of the Faerie Lords rested their gaze upon the Spriggan present – who grimaced at the attention he was getting.

"Lord Rufus had said there was 'no need' for deception," Mazarin noted. "But he did not outright confirm that there was no trickery involved in this treaty. Similarly, there have been no statements of any kind by Alfheim that Sir Kirito was only a bodyguard for the Faerie Lords. If the basis of this complication means the Faerie Lords have been negotiating in bad faith, that ultimately they do not have the authority to ensure the treaty between our two sides is binding… or worse, the discussions thus far was only a ploy by Her Majesty Titania for reasons such as building up resources to conquer the entirety of Halkeginia… then forgive me for bringing a close to this charade. If the Lords and Queen of Alfheim truly wish us harm, then I prefer if we remove the pretence of civility at this point; allowing the treaty to continue under false circumstances would likely benefit Alfheim more than it would Tristain."

Cardinal Mazarin stood straight with a resigned expression. Duke Valliere grimaced, but he could understand the Regent's choice of choosing to confront the Fae at that moment – if the faeries did have a dark plot to be revealed, choosing to eliminate them all, at least out in the open there was a higher chance that someone would be able to escape and pass on the news. Not that it would help in the long run should the worst come to pass, given that Tristain had realistically no chance of victory or survival should it come to war, but damn them if they wouldn't do their best in their attempts. Ironic that despite Count Homme's pig-headedness and hostility, ultimately the petty noble's warnings and enmity towards the Fae may not be ill-founded.

"… Our most sincere apology for the deception on this matter," Sakuya finally said. "But I assure you and all of Tristain, so far we have negotiated in the treaty in good faith – any conclusions we have come to, Alfheim would adhere to them-"

"The collective entity of 'Alfheim', using the definition given at the beginning of the peace treaty was, I quote, 'The Faerie Lords, their administrations, the Capitals which the Lords are responsible for and the immediate territory surrounding their Capitals'," Mazarin stated cynically. "Strictly speaking, then, Fairy Queen Titania and any assets she possess in the World Tree has no obligation to follow the clauses agreed upon in the treaty. That is the crux of the issue here, Lady Sakuya – whether the Fairy Queen has the authority to renege the Faerie Lords' decisions, and how likely it is for Her Majesty to exercise that authority. I think this is a most pertinent issue, given the presence of an agent of the Fairy Queen at this treaty, one who is trusted with an ability equal with, if not superior to that of a Faerie Lord's."

The Sylph Faction Leader swallowed her words and averted her gaze, proving the Cardinal's suspicions. As much as the Faerie Lords wished to downplay the importance of their Queen, she held power over them that could not be ignored.

"Unless there's a strong reason to distrust the Faction Leaders' choices, Titania won't interfere with the outcomes of this treaty or disobey the limits outlined," Kirito spoke up. "That much, I can guarantee."

"And on what grounds can you make that claim?" Osmond inquired. "How can you be so sure of that, Sir Kirito?"

"By virtue of Kirito's rank and closeness to Titania," Mortimer replied. "Allow me to do a more formal introduction here:

"Her Majesty, Fairy Queen Titania, the 'Shaper of Realms', 'Keeper of Magicks', and 'Mistress of Eternal Flight', sends her regards and her observer here for the peace treaty; Kirito, her Royal Protector, the Black Swordsman, and Dual-Wielding Hero of Aincrad."


AN: The abrupt end to this chapter was more due to me not knowing how to close this particular scene, than any real intent on trying to leave a cliffhanger – not that this is a good one in my opinion. There was a bit more writing after this, but I can't seem to get it right so I just removed it wholesale from this chapter.

Undercurrent prescribes to the mind-set '(Halk) humans are bastards' and 'Firstborns have no qualms harming humans', and most of the time it works for her; the 'pacifist' Firstborns like the Winged People are the minority amongst non-humans in ZnT setting. The ALO players being out of context humans threw a wrench into her plans, however. Not even being a kickass mage prevents bad planning.

When I said 'hax' skills earlier on such as Rufus gaming his items, I also had in mind the combo of weak conjured weapons – single-word incantation level of weak – with a nearly-mastered 'Thrown Weapons' skill (Kirito had 967/1000 as of Floor 75 in Aincrad, and I'm considering having him maxed the skill out in Jotunheim sometime before the treaty) giving the user 'improbably' good aiming skills. In a world where all you need is one good hit at a critical area to incapacitate someone, I'd think that combination is very deadly.

Incidentally, Rufus' fighting style and equipment, when it's not nuking things from afar, is based on Harry Dresden's; a magical shield with blasting rod. As for his 'crowd control' spell, I didn't feel it is necessary to spell out exactly in-story how it worked beyond it involved multiple items – it seemed a bit out of place to go on a info-dump in the middle of a battle. For anyone interested though it was basically a short range paralysis spell, with multiple range-increasing effects stacked on it and the 'real world' setting making getting hit by thunder more painful than it would be in VR.

The next chapter, Chapter 25 is already posted on SpaceBattles forum, in its Creative Writing subforum. The search function on SB is down, but the story thread should be somewhere in the first few pages of the subforum as of the time of this chapter being posted. Feel free to drop by to read it and comment.