Stepping down from the grand Ptoloios’s gate, strolling southward along the streets of the urban district, one would eventually arrive at the wide and serene Donethal’s Avenue.
There were no breath-taking palaces or mansions here, not too many tall towers or shrines either, no walled-off fortresses, or expansive private estates with an over-abundance of room to spare. The tightly packed, multi-story apartment buildings lining this avenue with their clean and economic front yards were in the upper middle class in quality. The houses were designed, equipped, and furnished to such level that no Baron or Earl had to feel shame over visiting them, even if the residents themselves were not quite as prestigious. The residents in these parts tended to own only one floor each, not the whole place, and were, even if well off, still to be counted among those who had to work for their daily sustenance.
For appearances’ sake, at least.
One of those buildings, a bit past the midway point on the avenue, to the left, was a red-brown, five-story building, white panels lining its numerous windows. The normally inconspicuous entrance stood behind a slim iron gate, across a narrow front yard, the short lawn of which had become dyed yellow by the scorching sun.
The key words to pick from there were “normally inconspicuous”.
Today, this building somewhat stood out in the neighborhood, for among all the other buildings of similar look around, it was the only one to have its entrance guarded.
Simply by the look of the guards, it was impossible for any curious witness to deduce the reason for their presence. What were they guarding, exactly, and against who?
Keeping the answer a secret in this densely populated neighborhood wasn’t possible for long, of course. By climbing to the fourth floor of that building, one would come across two more guards loitering in the hallway. And it was not classified information that the fourth floor in its entirety had been purchased some years back by a certain General Gorius Marafel, as a present for his only daughter, after she had been promoted to the rank of an officer and stationed permanently at the capital.
Said officer could rarely be spied passing behind the windows of her home, however. Work took her time, and more often than not, her home address was the army headquarters on the other side of the city. For this reason, the Colonel’s sudden return with a number of knights in tow was bound to become the topic of various old wives’ gatherings in the neighborhood, where increasingly exotic theories of her possible misdeeds were traded without rest. For the time being, no one was allowed to see the resident, and so these speculations had to go—to everyone’s frustration—unverified.
Now, if one could somehow slip past all the guards unnoticed, avoid being forcefully turned away, and then make their way up to the fourth floor, what would they find?
There was a long hallway piercing through most of the building lengthwise, with a number of white-painted doors on both sides of it. One of the north-side doors would lead the visitor to a spacious study, where the Colonel could deal with whatever paper work she brought home with her in peace.
There was a sturdy office desk beneath a wide window facing the backyard. There were large bookshelves, mostly filled with rather militaristic contents, personal documents, studies, notes, et cetera. A few mythological tomes were included, books on elves and the history of the fallen Dominion, rare books on exotic curses, and some such signs of passing interest. Leftward from the door was a more personal space, a display shelf with glass doors, carrying decorative elements, medals, medallions, diplomas, certificates, gift daggers, and other little rewards of professional success.
On the very opposite side of the room then, by the wall, was a leather couch where the resident could collapse after a day’s hard work, for a few brief hours of troubled sleep.
There were also other rooms on this floor, naturally. A proper bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, a servants’ room, to name just a few—but there was no meaning in describing them; Miragrave Marafel rarely ever set foot in any of them.
This study was where she would come first on those sparse occasions when she happened to visit home, that desk was where she would spend most of her limited free time, absorbed in solitary labor, and that couch was the only bed she required.
The restless fever that ever burned within her allowed the Colonel no peace. Perhaps it was the continuation of the fever lit in the jungles of the old continent? Although, what remained ablaze since that day was not her physical body, but her heart.
Now, she had returned home once more. Not quite the way she had envisioned.
The vengeance she had sought at all costs had boiled down to nothing.
So much was sacrificed.
So many lives were lost.
And what was the outcome all that blood had extracted from the forests of Felorn, the green inferno some called the Darkwood?
Nothing at all.
Instead of paying it off, Miragrave’s heavy debt had only been further increased.
Success or death—she had ventured out to find either of those. Yet in the end, she could only return completely empty-handed, in disgrace, unfulfilled.
The shadowy figure of the elven Court Wizard examined the dimly lit study with emotionless eyes. Empty bottles of Benegavian wine littered the floor, like the tokens of some frivolous gamble. Among them were torn papers, sketches, plans, notes of past recollections, observations, memoirs of innocent, adventurous youth, dug out on a whim, then discarded as worthless and without purpose.
Among them, left carelessly on the red carpet were the black coat of a military uniform, tall boots, and gloves of fine mangeria leather. Close by one of the boots was a bent and trampled colonel’s insignia, made of brass. And in the back of the room, on the couch, laid the figure of an adult woman, wasted and unconscious.
No. Despite the hefty amount of alcohol consumed over the course of the past two days, a distinct light of sentience remained in the dark. It intensified at the unexpected visitor’s approach.
“Took your time,” Miragrave mumbled without getting up. “Well, isn’t this quaint? I expected a simple dagger. Then again, his majesty always loved his theatrics. There is certain stark irony in my killer being you. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to dirty your hands on such a tasteless setup.”
Paying the misunderstanding no heed, Carmelia walked over to the window and looked at the small birds playing in the hedgerow lining the backyard.
“For once, I see you behave like one of your kind,” the sorceress said. “In a way, it is a relief. Yet, there is also disappointment in it.”
“I’m sorry,” Miragrave said. “I wasted your arrows. The beast was right there, within my arm’s reach. But I ran out of both courage and men. I could not avenge Thalinn, no matter how I tried. Next to this disappointment, nothing else compares.”
“Hatred for the Enemy consumes you,” Carmelia said. “For that, I thought of you as special among humans. Among the many of your people, only you could come close to understanding our fury. But I also have the age to acknowledge that hatred for what it is, a curse on its bearer. For having to endure it with a maturity so brief, wisdom so fleeting, I pity you, child of man. Death could free you from your torment. It may be the only thing that can. But is it what you desire?”
“As if there’s a choice for me,” Miragrave lazily waved her hand.
“There will be no forgiveness from his majesty, of course,” Carmelia replied. “But by bringing that human to the court, you have shown that his majesty’s will is no longer absolute to you.”
“It doesn’t matter what I think of his will. What matters is that without his majesty, there can be no unity. In Tratovia, strength is everything. Evil or righteous, no one cares. The child left somewhere deep in my scarred breast secretly wished for a hero to bring a new, brighter future for us. But our ‘champion’ has failed. Therefore, his majesty’s strength remains the only absolute there is to us. That is all.”
“That may yet change.”
“Forgive me, but I need no motivational speeches, even from you.” The Colonel improved her posture on the sofa, as if to go back to sleep. “I’ve had enough of plots and politics. If you are to kill me, then can I ask you to be swift about it? And if that is not the purpose of your belated visit, then could you ask the guards to bring more wine on your way out? I am in danger of becoming sober.”
“The woman still lives.”
The person on the couch remained silent. No one else but the sorceress could have noticed that the listener had subtly tensed.
“She requested news of your well-being,” Carmelia continued. “Apparently, there is still someone in this city, who holds your life in value. Shall I tell her that you have given up on it?”
Suddenly, Miragrave spun around and sat up. She glared at the sorceress for a moment, the struggle for words apparent on her reddened face. That had to have been the first it happened, Carmelia noted.
“Lies,” the woman finally remarked in a bitter tone. “You toy with me, Caalan.”
“I am not nearly free enough for that.”
“Why? What does it mean?”
“I am being quite plain,” the sorceress extended her hands to her sides. “Will you live? Will you resign? You know there is no hope for us who still draw breath. Yet, we carve our path against odds and adversity, by whatever means at our disposal. Without relying on beautiful illusions to sustain us. Without being shackled by pride or dignity. If you live today, it means one more day to fight despair. Even if we must forsake our pride and smear ourselves in cold ashes to elude our hunters, we live and fight on. Such is our creed.”
Miragrave stared at the floor in silence.
Having said all that she felt like saying, Carmelia turned to leave.
“Tell her,” Miragrave spoke. “Tell her...that for the pain rending my skull right now, I regret ever picking up coffee.”
A magnificent stone dome dominated the street view north-west of the Imperial Palace, roughly two thirds of a mile from the outer walls of Selenoreion.
Surrounded by five sharp minarets, held up at the height of over two hundred feet by hefty stone walls, the dome was roughly two hundred and twenty feet across, patterned by tiny, diamond-shaped openings on the sides. The dome had been plated with copper in the later centuries, still in its original color, undimmed by the weather.
Architectural precautions to preserve the building were unnecessary.
That house could not be undone by any natural forces. No storm could shake its walls. No rain could corrode the stone, no lightning crack the mighty dome. The fiercest days of the hottest of summers couldn’t diminish the quality of its colors, thousands of years since its construction. Because that palace was protected by more than the natural resilience of the earthly elements it was shaped of.
The Grand Temple of the Three—it was the single most important religious construct in the City of Lords.
After all, it was the single religious construct that housed genuine Divine spirits.
It was the very reason Bhastifal was called, “the City of Lords”.
Not a myth, reality.
Proof to a fairy tale.
As all Empire to a degree, this building enjoyed the supernatural benefits of the Divine Lords who had embraced it as their earthly home. The timeless, unwavering will of those beings enabled the land, the buildings, and the people alike to prosper with efficiency mother nature was powerless—or unwilling—to either provide or take.
The wider the blessing’s scale, the lesser the effect.
Any old wizard or a town conjurer could bless a newborn and grant them a lucky charm for the early years of their existence, with varying levels of usefulness.
A skilled mage could bless towns, communities, strongholds, even cities.
But to bless an entire country and all the lives within its boundaries—such a feat could only be possible to a “Lord”.
In Bhastifal, the Lords numbered in three.
No more, no less.
Though hundreds of such spirits were known by name and worshiped all around Bhastifal, the Three suffered no freeloaders in their territory, and neither would their will be challenged.
The ancient Covenant prohibited Divines from favoring any single race above the others or becoming involved in their politics. The power of these magnificent beings was only ever intended to quietly sustain the world, elements, and life as a phenomenon. To prevent another “War of the Gods” from ruining the fragile equilibrium, boundaries were set that shouldn’t be crossed.
Nevertheless, it didn’t take a particularly enlightened mind to see the correlation between the presence of the Three and Tratovia’s continued success at subduing the other human nations of Noertia. It was not a coincidence either that the Empire reigned supreme and flourished, even when the times were trying.
Now, rumor spoke of the Three having granted their favors to a single mortal.
Anyone could tell why such a thing was a crime beyond crimes.
“Well, not like I can afford to complain,” Izumi shrugged, looking at the Temple’s facade. The summoned champion herself had received some minor favors from one such Divine. Although those favors rendered her anything but godly.
To have a fair fighting chance against her strongest opponent, the warrior Waramoti, Izumi had to somehow make the Three undo the blessings they had granted him. She had no idea how she should succeed in this unreal task, but neither was she the type to plan ahead much. Under the cover of a hooded cloak, she crossed the plaza before the Temple and blended with the other pilgrims on their way in.
The Grand Temple had the universal structure of any religious building, Izumi observed.
There was an entrance hall, where people were asked to leave their shoes and wash their hands. After these simple rituals, access was granted to the main hall. It was a simple, tall space, with small, flat pillows instead of chairs, where the believers could kneel in quiet prayer. Directed ceremonies were held twice a day, but the doors were open day and night. Priests and priestesses would consult the populace, read prayers, burn incense, offer fruits and vegetables as sacrifice to the spirits, or deliver people’s gifts to them.
There was no trace of the Divines themselves to be seen in the ceremonial hall, however. Not even a single portrait or a statue. Strict, ancient laws prohibited depicting the spirits by any means, and so not even the simplest of symbols were there to remind people of their presence.
Not many knew, it was for practical purposes. After all, if people were to aim their reverence to the pictures, the beings themselves would not reap the benefits of their feelings.
“How can I talk to them?” Izumi had asked Carmelia before departing.
If the Lords were spirits and she couldn’t even see them, it was going to pose a bit of a problem for the negotiations. In response, the sorceress had given the woman a ring. A simple silver ring with some kind of an elaborate symbol against a black background.
“Is this some kind of a magic ring that lets me see spirits?” Izumi had wondered.
“It’s not for the Lords that you wear it,” Carmelia had answered. “Show this to a priest to have them let you into the inner sanctum. The rest you will discover once there. But do not let anyone else see you have the ring.”
Fiddling with the quest item in her pocket, scared of losing it, Izumi walked across the hall and approached one of the priests lighting candles in the far back.
“Sorry to trouble you, but do you know what this is?”
The aged priest gave the ring a look, then another to Izumi herself, and continued to light the candles without a word, as if nothing had happened. Izumi was beginning to wonder if she had done something wrong, when the priest quietly spoke,
“Our Lords are...not in a favorable mood today.”
“Are they ever?” Izumi shook her head. “I met a pretty cranky one a while back. Though he didn’t have a house this cool.”
“A priestess was badly burned earlier in the morning. Even so, do you wish to go?”
“Not like I have a choice, geez.”
“Does your family know? You may not come back.”
“I have enough butterflies in the stomach without the hype. Can you just show me the way, okay?”
Lighting the remaining candles in no hurry, the priest then turned and walked to a little green door in the far back of the hall, behind silky, blue veils hanging form the ceiling. Izumi hoped that the priest’s hands were trembling only for age-related reasons, as he dug out a set of keys from under his cape and unlocked the door.
Opening it only a little, he nodded to the woman.
Izumi stepped in and turned to look at the priest, who remained behind at the door.
“Not coming with?” she asked.
“No way in Hel.”
The priest slammed the door shut. The sound of the lock echoed ominously in the tight space.
Izumi found herself in a narrow, low corridor of stone, maybe twenty feet long. In the other end were stairs, with light coming from the room above. Throwing unnecessary thoughts from her mind, steeling herself, Izumi went on, climbed the stairs, and came out in a hall even larger than the previous one.
This was the inner sanctum of the Grand Temple.
It had to have been directly under the great dome.
The walls curved without corners, thin pillars running along them. Spiky patterns painted with black pointed away from the center of the smooth stone floor. There were no pillows to sit on. No chairs or furniture of any kind, for that matter. A shallow little channel circled around the hall, close to the walls, where crystal-clear water ran nonstop. The only light sources were the rectangular windows high up in the bare dome. The light shifting through the windows bounced off the pale walls, filling every corner of the space, not very brightly but sufficiently, so that nothing could remain hidden.
A mysterious, unsettling peace filled the sanctum.
Rather than a temple, it felt like a mausoleum.
As if time itself had no passage here, everything was perfectly silent and still. The noise and rumble of human life outside failed to penetrate to this space. It was not the natural sort of peace, resulting from the lack of disturbing factors, but rather, the forced kind, where an inexplicable power suppressed all motion and friction. Izumi noted that even her tinnitus had ceased. If not for the sound of her own footsteps, she would have thought she had gone deaf.
The air was so still, Izumi initially assumed the hall was empty. She couldn’t sense anything. Looking around, she had seen no one either. As said, there were no places to hide. However, when she turned and looked again, she suddenly saw another person standing directly ahead, across the hall.
A woman. Where had she appeared from?
There was no natural explanation available.
The woman had her back turned, and so Izumi couldn't see her face, only her long, vividly blue hair that spread like a cape and veiled most of the figure clad in an elegant azure dress.
——“Why are you here, mortal?” a voice rang across the hall, clear and strong.
“You're not much for chit-chat either, are you?” Izumi asked.
“Oh no. I am a Lord of action,” the blue-haired woman replied and turned around, an almost mischievous smile on her lips.
Izumi wasn’t disappointed.
This Divine was a different kind of beauty from Aiwesh, but a beauty nonetheless. Describing her as “more human” would’ve been a bit off, perhaps “more down to earth” might have been fitting. Or better yet, “down to sea”.
Like her hair, the woman’s appearance was predominantly blue.
Deep blue were her eyes, her clothes, her nails and brows, and even her pale skin seemed to hold a faintly blue hue. Other than the odd color, she looked convincingly human. More human than Aiwesh with her magnificent wings and lengthy animal ears, and certainly more human than Matheus in his guise of a woodland elk.
“Was that not what you expected me to say?” the blue lady asked with a humorous look. “'Who doth disturb our slumber?' Oh, no need to worry about that, human. I already know who you are and why you are here. Shall I answer my own question instead?——You are here to ruin us.”
—“Are you here to ruin us?”
Suddenly, another person appeared out of nothing to stand right next to Izumi, on her right. Another woman, or a girl more like, slender and agile, in a short dress the color of gerberae, and short hair akin to vibrant flame. Flame also danced in her bright eyes, filled with accusation.
—“Will you be the one to ruin us?”
Immediately after, a third girl emerged from nothing on Izumi’s left. This one had a strictly earthly color scheme, being dressed in a beige, baggy-sleeved kimono. Her hair as well ran long and straight as sand poured in an hourglass. Of the three, she was the shortest and youngest-looking, yet she also gave off a more stable, balanced vibe.
Of course, any mention of age was without meaning when discussing such beings.
They were as old as the earth itself.
As old as the first flame.
As old as the sea.
“Yes, not spooked at all,” Izumi said, trying not to look at the girls staring at her from an awkwardly close distance.
“You are the herald of the White Death, yes?” the blue spirit spoke. “It is meaningless to deny it. I can see you have been touched by her light. You are not a human but a pawn she has called from another world, to lay waste to all of Ortho, our fathers’ creation. I know she is here. This is our land, has been for so long, and nothing treads it without our knowing. Even now I sense her accursed radiance, which she does not even bother to try and hide from us. Gone is our brother’s soothing aura from the Darkwood, whereas the blaze of Brann’s monster has only grown bolder. And we are to be the next, no? What is your intrusion here then, if not a declaration of war, you flagbearer of evil?”
“We’re sure off to a great start,” Izumi made a troubled frown. “Are you talking about Ai-chan now, by chance?”
Turning away, the blue Divine waved her hand to dismiss the visitor.
“Return to your master. Tell that forsaken abomination that we will not submit! If she wants our heads, then may she come claim them with her own hands, if she dares.”
“I’ll do that if I happen to see her again, but that’s not really what I’m here for...”
“It matters not,” the spirit continued. “Your schemes do not matter. We are already ruined. Humans. Divines. All the rest. As is our world. It is only a matter of days now before we are swept off into the unknown abyss that awaits. Enjoy life while it lasts, mortal. That is all you can.”
“Because of the prophecy?” Izumi asked.
“Don’t speak of prophecies to us, mortal!” the red spirit snapped, stepping even closer.
“What is only song and legend to you beings of flesh is an astronomic certainty to us, faithless one,” the brown spirit said.
“My, you’re a depressing lot,” Izumi sighed, leaning to avoid the red spirit’s fiery glare. “Don’t tell me you’ve given up on life without even trying? Not that I can afford to lecture, being an ex-NEET and all, but it’s never as bad as it looks.”
“And who says we ever sought salvation?” the blue Divine asked. “For thirty-three cycles, we have done our part and preserved the Covenant. And despaired for it. War, peace, war, peace, war, peace, war, peace, war and peace, times thirty thousand and more. Empty, childish bouts of hope and valor, followed by waves of indiscriminate death and destruction, all due to mortal stupidity and forgetfulness. Nothing more. Nothing new. Only gradual, unavoidable stagnation. No matter how the world changes, you humans remain enslaved by your nature, unable to rise above it. And emiri...so high they reached once, only to fall. Many were the stars once, but now the night spreads bleak and dark. Enough is enough. It is time for this failed creation to end.”
“Hold your horses,” Izumi interjected. “I only just came to this world! There’s still a lot of content left to explore and I don’t like games with strict time limits very much. So why don't we work together to extend it a little?”
“Do whatever you please,” the Divine Lord shook her head. “We neither hinder you nor assist you. Such is not our role. Besides, aided or not, nothing you do matters, you spec of dust in the cosmic flow.”
“Everything is permitted then? Well, if that’s your take on it.”
Izumi proceeded to grope the butts of the two girls next to her, squeezing them closer.
“You’re pretty shapely for spirits,” she observed. “Whatever happened to the rule about possessing sentient beings? You say nothing matters, but aren’t you plenty involved as you are?”
“Ha—how dare you!” the red Divine leaped back, her face now bright red as well. She raised her hand to strike, her fist becoming veiled in intense flames. But the blue Lord further ahead stopped her sibling with a gesture.
“We let go of the rules, because it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Whether we obey the Convenant or reject it, whether the system is sustained or broken, whether we lose our powers or not, it will not stop the inevitable or even slightly delay it. Therefore, what harm is there in us briefly savoring the joys of corporeal existence, before we return to nothingness once again? What would you do, were you in our position?”
“—Oi, get your hands off Gwanlyn!” the red spirit interjected.
“Well, I'm not judging, really,” Izumi shrugged, reluctantly releasing the bottom of the kimono girl, who continued to stand still like a statue. “But right now, your whims pose a bit of a problem for me.”
“Whatever do you mean?” the blue Divine asked.
“The guy you’re sponsoring, Barracuda or whatever—I was asked to off him, but you apparently went and gave him straight up God Mode. Cheating in multiplayer mode sucks big time, so could you lower the difficulty a little? I mean, by a lot. At least give me a fighting chance, okay?”
“What? You would slay Waramoti?” the blue spirit suddenly gasped with a shocked look.
The other two added their shocked protests.
“Why not?” Izumi frowned. “He who takes the sword should die by one, right?”
“Labeling him a common brawler shows you know nothing of the man,” the Divine further back shook her head. “Waramoti’s services are invaluable to us. He will not be killed, by your hand or any other’s. We absolutely refuse.”
“That is none of your concern. It is clear to me by just a glance that you are a foreigner to romance, your being untouched by love. And Waramoti’s achievements in the craft go beyond your unattuned understanding.”
“Well, I felt a lot of romance just now, with both hands,” Izumi grumpily replied, offended for having her inexperience brought up.
“Why you, savage—!” the Divine in red was about to explode again.
“Please leave,” the blue spirit up ahead told the woman, her tone leaving no room for arguments. “Our communion is over.”
“Fine, fine,” Izumi turned to head back the way she’d come. “Thanks for nothing. All this means is that I’ll have to beat him without your help.”
Her parting remark was followed by a stunned silence.
Then, all three spirits burst into bright, spontaneous laughter that echoed all around the dome.
“You, who are nothing but shadows and dust?” the blue one giggled. “Overcome our blessings? Defeat Waramoti, whom they call Heaven's Hand? Ahahaha!”
“Hahahahahaha!” the brown spirit held her sides as she cackled. “You might as well throw yourself down from the palace wall on your way home!”
“Do you know nothing at all, you fool of a human!?” the red Divine sneered. “Hahahahaahaha!”
“We’ll see who gets the last laugh,” Izumi defiantly retorted. “Don’t think I’m some kind of a casual, I cleared all the chalice dungeons in Bl*****rne. I like challenge as much as the next person.”
“Challenge? What you speak of is impossible!”
“Nothing is. It's just a question of methods.”
“Very well then!” the blue lady exclaimed, amused. “Show us the impossible then, if you are so certain! Struggle and struggle, 'o Champion of White! Entertain us to your last breath! The least we can do is let you know what you are up against. So that you may see the extent of your foolishness and despair!”
A haughty smile on her face, the Divine introduced herself.
“I am Cinithlea, the Lord of Blue, created by Numénn, the departed Goddess of Seas. My Authority is ‘Blue’! All that is blue in this world is mine to use as I please. My blessing allows one’s spirit to flow free and unhindered, as the boundless sea.”
“I am Gwanlyn, the Lord of Marble,” the pale kimono girl spoke in turn. “Made by Genostro, the passed God of Stone. My authority is ‘Marble’, the house of body, the body of art. My blessing grants people fortitude beyond their frame, to retain their resolve even under the fiercest of storms.”
“I am Yubilea, the Lord of Scarlet Flame!” the third one announced. “The Authority the God of Fire gave me is ‘Scarlet Flame’! A fire that is mild, lights up the night and invites one to dance! My blessing allows the spirit of culture to blaze against the cruelty of nature, ensuring flawless performance heedless of conditions!”
“Thanks for the tips,” Izumi said. “I hope you won’t regret sharing.”
“No,” Cinithlea shook her head. “For as long as our power stands, there will be no victory for you.”
The summoned champion exited the inner sanctum of the Temple with the spirits’ jeers and incessant giggling in her ears.
Their message wasn’t lost on Izumi, in spite of her carefree act. Even separately those blessings sounded like trouble—and Izumi’s foe held all three, on top of his innate talents as a warrior, a hero.
What did Izumi herself have?
Nevertheless, there was no choice.
One way or the other, she had to succeed. Too much depended on her.
Unfortunately, things were only going to get worse for her.
Izumi wandered around the city for a good long while, lost in thought, as well as lost for real. The reddening sun was already beginning to set by the time she finally found her way to the backdoor in the palace wall, which took her directly to Carmelia’s keep.
The Court Wizard herself wasn’t at home. Only young master Benjamin Watts could be found in the library, his usual hideout, absorbed in reading.
“Oh, there you are,” the young man greeted Izumi. “You made it back in one piece! Congratulations! Not that I ever doubted you would, but the spirits can be a bit...unpredictable. Or so I’ve heard. Temper, temper. We mortals can’t imagine what goes through their minds, can we? Anyway, how did it go?”
“No cake,” Izumi shook her head. “They really like the guy, it seems.”
“Ah, I was afraid of that,” the young man grimaced. “Well, it was fifty-fifty, either we succeed or we fail. Still worth a try, no? For now, I suppose we just have to focus on taking down the other champions while avoiding Waramoti the best we can. No matter how powerful he is, he’s only one man. If we can separate him from the Emperor, we can snatch victory from his hands like a toy from a baby...which would not be a very heroic thing to do. The gist is, we can deal with Heaven’s Hand after the rest is taken care of.”
“Right,” Izumi nodded. “Then, I guess it’s time I worked for my upkeep.”
“Good. Keep positive, Izumi. If you really are as able as Lady Carmelia seems to think, you’ll be fine. I have faith in you. Since, well, my own well-being happens to depend on your success as well. Ah, forced to sit still, while women hold swords—at times like this, I really hate my own weakness...”
“Feel free to give it a try, anytime,” Izumi suggested.
“I wasn't built for violence!” Benjamin gasped in response. “Oh, but I have some good news too. We got in contact with your friends. Both are doing fine, for the time being. The princess sure is a looker. Any chance you could put in the good word for me? I’m not entirely sure if I made a favorable first impression...”
“No!” Benjamin’s posture collapsed. He was also quick to recover again. “Well, she hasn’t said, ‘I do’ yet, has she? I could still have a shot, don’t you think? I mean, weddings have been called off before. Maybe my good looks will win her over?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever. What about plan B?” Izumi asked, not very pleased with the topic and determined to change it.
“Plan B?” the man raised his brows. “Well, I suppose, if I can gather enough coin, I could hire somebody to shank the fiancé, and then show up at an opportune moment to console her highness in her grief...”
“...The plan to kill the Emperor.”
“Ah! Right. Certainly. W-we’ve prepared an alternative target, just in case things went awry with the spirits.” Benjamin turned back to the table and picked up one of the documents, which he then handed to Izumi. Drawn on it with great skill was a hulking, crude man wearing next to nothing but a black sack to hide his head, and a stained leather apron. He looked more like a monster from an RPG than a human being.
“Raleigh, the Executioner.”
“Why always...” Izumi looked at the paper and groaned.
“He’s supposed to be a mercenary, not an executioner, really,” Benjamin explained, “but if he’s away from the battlefield for too long, he goes chopping necks at the block, so as to 'not lose his touch'. So the report from the Circle says. He’s also known to habitually wreck pubs at the slums for sport. Doesn’t treat women too kindly. His 'lovers' tend to wind up dead and in pieces after a night with him, but his rank in the Guild keeps him above the law. He’s no conventional hero, obviously, but the military still considers the man an asset to the Empire. Because he really is rather unnervingly strong and only too eager to fight anything that moves, human or not.”
Benjamin went on to bring out a map of the city and rolled it out across the table, while Izumi forced herself to pay attention. She kept spacing out.
“This is his usual strike zone,” the man explained. “Following his moves for months, the Circle has learned to predict his behavior to a degree. Raleigh hasn’t crashed a pub yet this week and he always goes drinking after a day of executions, so he is likely to do so tonight as well. We anticipate that he will hit either one of the two places here. He won’t venture near the western half of the Gralia district, because that’s where Waramoti frequents. I heard they got into an argument some time ago, over Raleigh killing a prostitute Waramoti was acquainted with. After the trashing he got, Raleigh knows to keep his distance. Oh, but that’s not important, is it? The point of it is, so long as you can keep the fight here, you don’t have to worry about them joining forces. Locate the target, stalk him, and catch him off-guard when he’s suitably distracted with his business. That’d be my suggestion.”
Benjamin tapped the location marked with a red circle on the map.
“Okay then,” Izumi sighed. “No two ways about it. I did give my word and all. I’m going to need a weapon.”
“Right, what can I get you?” the man asked, wiping his hands. “We have access to the Imperial armory, so I can arrange you practically anything. Swords, spears, daggers, bows, the kitchen sink, take your pick. Lady Carmelia has quite the selection of poisons as well, if you want to opt for a more discreet approach. Although, I’ve heard the Executioner’s abnormal appetite has rendered him near immune to most common toxins, so it might not be too effective, after all...”
Izumi shook her head. “I only want my own sword, thanks.”
“Your sword…?” Benjamin repeated. “You mean, the one you were arrested with...”
“Yup, that's the one. I’ve been using it for a good while now and got used to how it feels. If I suddenly switch for another weapon, I might mess up at the critical moment. Yeah, it wouldn't feel right without that one. Nothing else is gonna cut it.”
The young man looked troubled for a bit.
“Well...if that’s how you put it, we might have a bit of a problem.”
“See, after you were caught, the sword was confiscated and sent to the armory...”
“...And you said you have access to the armory, didn't you?”
“Yes, yes, I did, but...so do a lot of other people too, you know? Knights come and go there every day and...well, someone noticed the sword. Earlier this morning.”
“And they took it?” Izumi guessed.
“Yes, they checked out with it,” he admitted. “What’s worse, it was a hero of the Guild. He took a liking to the weapon and, you know—that man has it now.”
“That man? Who?”
Making a pained face, Benjamin appeared reluctant to answer her.
In the end, however, under Izumi’s expectant stare, he finally drew breath and named the thief.