It was the dawn of the fifth day since they had come to the Imperial capital. The sixth day of the week, of which only two more remained. And for the third time now, Yuliana was summoned to have breakfast with the lord of the western continent. Seated at her end of the table was no longer an insecure, nervous girl. She had scored an important point over her mighty opponent, at the most crucial moment, and it showed in the defiant composure she exhibited while cutting through her slice of toast.
Judging by his majesty's continued silence, Yuliana had guessed the course of yesterday's untold events correctly. A mutiny at the execution grounds could only mean that the Colonel's fellow knights had helped her escape death. And seeing as his majesty hadn't attempted to repeat the threat, the army had to have been unable to recapture the escapees. Not that he could play this card again, at any rate. Even while he had assured to Yuliana that he could save Miragrave, she had been well on the way to oblivion. With his cruel deception so bluntly revealed, any image of fairness and faithfulness, the underlying foundation of all agreements, was gone.
The Emperor wouldn’t be able to coerce Yuliana by threatening her friends if he had no hold over them, or couldn’t be trusted to honor his word even if he did. Though this didn’t mean Izumi and Miragrave were yet perfectly safe, it was still a tremendous improvement to the previously bleak situation. Yuliana couldn't recall her shoulders feeling this light in a long, long time.
“The tea is quite excellent,” the princess announced with a look of satisfaction, as she brought the tea cup to her lips. “This aroma is most fit for the season. My regards to the chef.”
The man seated opposite of her had yet to touch his meal. The Emperor sat with a poor posture, leaning on his elbows, fingers crossed, a stressful look on his exhausted face, and wouldn’t speak. Then, after quite some time, he finally found his words.
“It seems we got off to a poor start,” he said.
“Oh, you think? How so?” Yuliana asked in an innocent tone.
“I very much sought an alliance with you, but before I realized, we had become enemies instead.”
“How could that be, I wonder?”
“Perhaps there may yet be a way to redeem this sorry state of affairs?”
“You mean, you are now ready to behave like a civilized person, instead of lying, threatening, intimidating, and manipulating the prisoner at your mercy?”
“I am trying to save the world,” the Emperor argued.
“If so, then are your methods not a little lacking—in humanity, I mean? What is your majesty trying to save, anyway? That is a question I’ve asked of myself countless times up until this very point. I confess my thoughts on the matter have been somewhat unclear as well, but I feel I’ve come across a very important point in these past few days. In part thanks to you.”
“And that is?”
“We cannot save anyone else, if we are too busy trying to save ourselves.”
“Neither may we save anyone, if we are dead,” he retorted.
“You should not presume yourself dead while your heart is still beating,” Yuliana told him. “That may well be the root of all your troubles. You plan by the negative. ‘Unless I do this, I will die’. ‘Unless I do that, my people will die’. ‘Unless I kill, I shall be killed.’ For a moment, I nearly ended up going down that very same path myself. It is very lucrative, yes, being a pragmatist. Makes you feel very ‘grown up’ and wise. But in the end, it won’t change the reality that you’re letting people die, even when you’re not killing them yourself. Does that not make any suggestion of salvation only hypocrisy then?”
“Some would argue that sacrificing the minority to save the majority may still be considered noble, and the only correct course of action in our hopeless situation.”
“And I would argue that you are too quick to give up on both hope and the minority. How about you try and think of things in another way instead. Like, ‘if I do like this, everyone—myself included—may live on in peace’. ‘If I do that, then perhaps she will forgive me, and we may begin to work on this together, as we should have done from the very beginning.’ Are two heads not better than one? Perhaps the situation is not quite as hopeless as you see it? How do you like the sound of that? Take a little leap of faith? Your majesty?”
The Emperor leaned back, sinking deeper in his chair. He seized his tea cup, as if hoping it contained something stronger than the Acalbain blend from Edheral, and thoughtfully shook the cup from side to side.
“Late last night,” he spoke after a long period of silence. “I found an invitation card left at my work desk. A certain Marquess De La Cartá, one of the more reputable aristocrats in the Empire, is hosting a party to commemorate his sixtieth birthday, at the Tenessia Cathedral across the river, tomorrow night. I had planned to decline the invitation at first, but perhaps it comes at an opportune moment, after all?”
Looking up, the man made eye contact with the princess.
“Your highness. What do you say, we start over? Let us set aside these heavy matters for one day, and take that time to get to know one another better? I admit I have indeed made a mistake in thinking that I could force my will onto you. I unwittingly took you for but another flower from a faraway kingdom, the likes of which I’ve seen but too many, and felt that the importance and urgency of our cause justified trampling over your personal feelings. And I do apologize for that. I see now that this is a matter, where building mutual trust and understanding is of the essence. If you would be so kind as to accompany me to Marquess De La Cartá’s celebration, I shall do the utmost in my power to make up for my mistakes, and to find common ground.”
Yuliana listened to him in silence, before answering,
“It is a tall hurdle you have raised for yourself. But are you not only once again dictating your will to me?”
“A proposal,” he stressed. “Which you are fully entitled to decline, if you so wish. Of course.”
The obvious effort it took for him to say that made it hard for Yuliana to hide her smile. At least he was willing to fake courtesy, if nothing else. After the disappointment she had given him yesterday, she had anticipated much colder treatment. If not outright torture and imprisonment. But, seeing his majesty’s clumsy attempts at diplomacy, in spite of everything, Yuliana wondered if he wasn't actually being sincere and good-intending.
Could any evil mastermind be so awkward?
Now that Yuliana thought about it, it was strange. The power the Emperor had tried to gain over her yesterday, he already held, albeit unknowingly. No, wasn’t it a power even greater than the simple contract he had readied for her? In Haywell, Yuliana had sworn nothing but total obedience to the Emperor, to seek his benefit in all matters. Considering this, she shouldn’t have been able to even fake disagreement to whatever he proposed. Yet, his words so far had borne no magical compulsion for her.
How could that be?
Had Lord Aiwesh’s growing power overcome the bind of the gias?
Or—did the Emperor’s true intent not match the expressed, after all?
Perhaps at heart, the idea of compelling her by force was not what he wanted, and it restrained him. Despite his harsh manner of speech and intimidating appearance, it seemed he was a man of some integrity on the inside, after all.
This idea encouraged Yuliana. Though she wouldn’t be too quick to trust him again, neither did she have any reason to decline such an opportunity. Even after all that had happened, perhaps there was still a way for them to see eye-to-eye? For the common good.
She would pin her hopes on that idea, tomorrow night.
At the age of thirty-eight, Itaka Izumi found herself returned to school. Seated in a spacious room resembling an earthly classroom to a disorienting degree, a genuine blackboard before her eyes, she was to receive lessons that would have made any average teenager from her home world leap in joy.
Lessons in the esoteric arts.
However, Izumi had left teenage behind already a decent while ago, and the poor associations with the classrooms of the past left her rather nervous, even under these dream-like circumstances. The early timing took its toll as well, and she had trouble keeping her aching eyes focused. Somehow, it becoming real had an uncanny tendency to ruin even the sweetest fantasies.
Stepping in front of the blackboard was Izumi’s teacher today—the timeless, black-clad figure of Court Wizard Carmelia, who also had the mystical ability to suck out all childish joy and excitement from her surroundings with her commanding, austere presence. Though Izumi had become more familiar with the sorceress over the course of the week, and knew there was a reasonable personality within, that didn't change the reality that Carmelia's presence was almost violently heavy and inhuman. A far cry from the soft, inviting video game elves.
Despite carrying out such a tasking surgical operation last night, there was no trace of exhaustion visible on the cirelo’s elegant features. Certainly, there were never dark circles under her eyes, wrinkles in the corners, or a creased frown on her brow. After going on living for thousands of years, staying up for a few days was probably not an effort worth mentioning. Did her kind even need sleep to begin with?
Today, the sorceress was to teach Izumi about runes and she took on this mission without delay.
“We do not have the time to educate you from the ground up,” Carmelia told the woman. “The fundamentals of runes, their origins, classifications, degrees, sizes, ranks, tendencies, affinities, seasons, or correct stroke order...Normally, merely mastering the essentials would take several years of diligent study, if not decades. There is a great significance to which rune is used at which time of the day, under which phase of the moons, in association with which element, and so on. Countless variables affect the magnitude of the resulting phenomenon, but delving into such matters right now is naturally not possible to us. So the lesson I am about to give you will be cruelly brief, limited to the point of ambiguity, and frustratingly lacking in detail.”
“Well, I’m not all that sorry to keep it simple,” Izumi answered.
Ignoring her, the Court Wizard continued.
“I have taken the liberty of designing for you a secula sonatea, or ‘an arc of alignment’, a runic tool used by our kind in the past. You will spend this day memorizing the runes I’ve selected for the arc and their combinations, after which we will go on to test the words in practice. If there are any you cannot use, I will replace them, and we will try again. Is everything clear so far?”
“Ah, before we get started, a question, sensei!” Izumi raised her hand, like a school girl.
“What is it?” Carmelia asked.
“I really have to go to the toilet, can I? I know I just went, but my bladder’s like this every morning, I can’t help it.”
“I-I’ll bear with it for a little while longer. What is that arc thing then? Some kind of a weapon? I have to say I didn’t understand a word about that just now.”
Keeping her face masterfully neutral, Carmelia explained,
“Secula Sonatea is, in essence, a personalized collection of runes. They are words of power that are of particular utility in one’s daily life, and are therefore spiritually attuned for heightened ease of access. In the past, the arc was a token by which a true professional was known.”
“Oh, I get it. So, it’s basically like making hotkeys for video game actions?”
“Don’t look at me like that! I was just talking to myself, forget about it!”
“Normally,” the sorceress went on, “runes are selected for the arc based on their affinity with the caster, how well they complement your soul and benefit your day-to-day tasks. A classical secula sonatea brings its holder to a state where they enhance the world around them with every breath they take. Such was the ideal of the emiri of old, in the days now forgotten. Runes of the arc would be implemented one by one, only after the apprentice has thoroughly mastered the uses of each, thus proving herself worthy of taking on a new divine mystery. Never was the arc to be used for war. Never was it to be taught to those uninitiated to craftsmanship, let alone to the lesser races. But the times are trying, and in your case we must forgo tradition. Hardly the worst of my crimes.”
Carmelia paused, with a look of momentary self-reproach, before resuming,
“I have selected the runes for you exclusively based on their usefulness in melee combat. To create a balance of offense and defense, to maximize your innate talents, based on what I have seen of you, and ultimately, to defeat Waramoti with his divine blessings. Whether you have any actual affinity with the chosen words or not, we will have to test them to find out.”
“Are there any setbacks for using runes that don’t suit you?” Izumi asked.
“In case of individual characters, no. They simply will not work or the effect will be diminished. However, when activating multiple words simultaneously, the resulting effects may sometimes interfere with one another and become...unpredictable. Occasionally, they may even be reversed. A spell to reinforce the flesh may wind up rending it instead. But I have analyzed the results of your medical examination, made you ingest numerous affinity-improving concoctions, and designed your arc with particular care. These runes are relatively basic and simple. So long as you learn them properly, only use them the way I tell you to, and do not include any personal additions without consulting me first, there should be no danger of lasting damage.”
“Right. So there is a risk of taking some damage?”
“We will begin by studying grounding runes,” Carmelia yet again ignored the remark, “then move onto nullifying and altering runes, and lastly, executive runes. We’re starting with the list I have here, their forms, meanings, readings, and correct intonation, after which I will test you to see how well you’ve retained them. Based on the results, we will review where necessary.”
“I get quizzed on the first day!?” Izumi gasped.
“Do your best to memorize them all by noon. I want to conduct the first practical tests as soon as possible, so that there is time left to make adjustments. This is the first time I have made the arc for a human, and one from another world at that, so there is no way to predict how well it will serve.”
“You’re working me like a dog here!” Izumi wailed. “It’s been twenty years since I last went to class! I’m already old and daft even by human standards, so go easy on me!”
Carmelia showed her no mercy.
“As much as I’d like to, have you already forgotten about the time limit?” the sorceress asked. “The day after tomorrow is the last of the week, and we still do not have a concrete plan to reach his majesty. Dally now, and we will be out of time before you realize it.”
“Is the deadline really so tight?” Izumi wondered. “If your master class will make me stronger, strong enough to beat the blue guy, then can’t I slice and dice the rest of them the same way? I mean, he’s supposed to be the toughest of them all, isn’t he?”
“Try not to count your winnings, for you have not slain Waramoti yet,” the sorceress reminded her. “Yesterday, you faced two members of the Guild, two against two, and it was only through a stroke of pure luck that you escaped with your lives. Two champions remain at the capital, and more are on their way. Heaven’s Hand being the strongest of them doesn’t mean that the rest are weak, by any means. The ranking is rather arbitrary, and more based on popularity than absolute strength. And the powers that lifted those individuals to fame will reach new heights when combined. Even if you are able to protect yourself, can you say that you have what it takes to protect all those dear to you while on the run from the whole of the Empire?”
“I get it, I get it,” Izumi gave up. “I’m going to have to work hard today, huh?”
“I am glad you understand your position. I shall look forward to seeing your progress.”
“Alright! Leave it to me, Lia-sensei! But before we get down to business...”
“What is it?” the sorceress asked.
“Ladies’ room. I really, really have to go now.”
Izumi didn’t learn the required runes by noon. It was closer to the end of the fifth period in the afternoon when her merciless instructor finally gave her a passing grade, with a drastically shortened list.
Writing was not the champion’s problem. Compared to the alphabet of her native land, the runes were exceedingly simple in form, and thanks to Aiwesh’s blessing, their meaning was swiftly opened to her. However, Izumi’s gift at memorization was nothing short of abysmal. The correct spelling and sound of the foreign words kept slipping from her mind and took a great deal of repeating to hold. Her brain, accustomed to looking up information online without the need to commit anything to long-term memory, struggled to preserve even these vital tidbits of knowledge.
Worse yet, pronunciation was not Izumi’s forte. No matter how she tried, she had great troubles at intoning the words correctly. Due to their origins in the language of the Gods, the sounds of the runes didn’t match their spellings in the common tongue, and learning all the appropriate nuances became a source of endless frustration.
Nevertheless, Carmelia wouldn’t go easy on her.
“Though they are called ‘language of the Gods’, runes were never used to record speech, that of people or Divines, but only information.”
“There’s a difference?” Izumi asked.
“The difference is the same as when saying, ‘I will reduce you to ashes’, and actually doing the deed. Whereas common writing systems are used to describe actions and events through the use of symbols, runes are actions themselves.”
“That was an example? It was just an example, right?”
“Each rune represents a real world phenomenon,” Carmelia continued uninterrupted. "The name of the rune is half of the effect. The written form is, simply put, merely a catalyst. It is the naming of the word that executes the effect, your voice what completes the ritual. Should the spoken word not match the symbol and the information encrypted within it precisely, a great deal of potency will be lost. That’s why, you must get it right.”
“What about those arrows?” Izumi asked. “Mira-rin’s knights had arrows with runes that would activate when they hit the target. I don’t remember them chanting anything when they were firing away. So how does that work?”
“I was the one who designed the formula behind those arrows,” the Court Wizard answered her. “To make brief of the complex matter, there is an additional schema in effect, which substitutes the ritual of naming the rune. Basically, it is a combination of the rune and a conventional enchantment, charged with mana to fuel the effect. Using this technique, it is possible to activate the phenomenon independently of the caster. It was a crude, experimental solution, which has never seen success before. Thankfully, in collaboration with the other Court Wizards, we were able to produce somewhat adequate results. Hopefully, as the technique is further honed, it will become a worthwhile asset against the Enemy.”
“Would I be able to do something like that?” Izumi asked. “Substitute the name-calling with something else? Then I wouldn’t have to bother with these tongue-twisters.”
“Study magic for a thousand years and then ask me again,” the sorceress dryly responded. “As you have seen, even with six millennia of experience behind them, those arrows were unable to execute the full power of Yodith; the flame that should consume all still leaves identifiable corpses behind. It is doubtful the output is yet at the level where it would kill a daemon in one hit.”
“Well, worked just fine on humans...” Izumi sullenly remarked.
“The arrows’ effectiveness on my own kind would be no lesser,” Carmelia heard her. “But this should show you that I am neither infallible nor almighty. Though you are learning certain defensive measures today, it would be better not to depend on them too heavily. You are up against a holder of godly fragments and other formidable foes. And far from invincible.”
Late in the afternoon, when Izumi was finally done with the theory class, Carmelia took her outside, to the quiet little courtyard by the outer wall of the keep. Surrounded by tall bulwarks of stone all around, with only a few small embrasures high up, it was a suitably secluded place to test the learned techniques in practice. To be sure, Carmelia drew warding runes on the walls with chalk to create a temporary bounded field, and mitigate the noise perceptible from outside.
Short-trimmed grass grew in the yard, with a few light-deprived fruit trees. By the perimeter wall, a number of wooden, vaguely humanoid practice targets were set up. Perhaps this was a place where, from time to time, the Court Wizard instructed her human colleagues and apprentices?
It was around this time that Benjamin made an appearance. The past American from planet Earth stepped out of the main building, carrying a stack of papers under his arm.
“Hello, hello...How goes the training?” he greeted the two with a wide yawn. “Dear me, could I take a day off? Can’t remember the last I felt this under the weathe—whooooa!?”
As he stopped, the young man’s black trousers suddenly dropped down to his ankles, revealing blue-striped boxers underneath.
“Wh—wai, what? What happened?” Various documents escaping from his hold, he struggled to pull up his pants, unable to comprehend how such a thing could have happened. The embarrassing accident was not due to his personal negligence, though.
Benjamin’s eyes soon found the answer too.
“He-hee!” Standing a short distance away, Izumi proudly spun a silver-buckled belt in her fingers. “How do you like that? I’m Flash now! Fast enough to play tag with Superman! One attosecond magic trick, coming right up!”
“D-do you think that’s very mature!?” Benjamin hollered at her.
“Successful activation of Sifl...confirmed,” Carmelia noted, standing further away in the shade by the wall, barely able to hide her smile. That humored expression soon faded, however. “Strange. The strength of the effect greatly exceeds predictions. By past reference, the rune should have increased your movement speed between one point five up to one point eight times the reference value. Yet, I would say your speed just now was approximately twenty-one times your natural ability. How do you feel?”
“Now that you mention it,” Izumi said, appearing next to the sorceress. “Is this kind of speed safe? Can’t say I feel too different from the usual, but shouldn’t such sudden twists and turns break my bones?”
“Your concerns are insightful, but as I explained to you before, Sifl is not simply a spell of ‘accelerated motion’ as human scholars often misunderstand it. It is a Rune of Displacement. While in effect, the magic offsets the caster entirely from the linear continuum of time and space.”
“Oh, I get it. So, basically, it's innate time control,” Izumi nodded. “It’s not like I’ve become any faster from my own point of view, other people just look slow to me and I look fast to everybody else. It’s all about relativity. Which is why I don’t feel any Gs.”
“You grasped it unusually quickly,” Carmelia remarked, a bit surprised. “I took you for a simple idi—a mercenary, but were you perhaps a scholar in your past life, after all?”
“Wait, was there a terrible insult stashed between the lines!?” Izumi reacted. “I’ll have you know I’m definitely a genius! A hidden genius!”
“Is that so?”
“And, well, you see this kind of thing in anime a lot...”
“Can I have my belt back now?” Benjamin requested.
Izumi jumped here and there around the courtyard, innocently enjoying her newly gained ability to the fullest. But the sorceress and the man watching her failed to relate to her excitement.
“Stop it,” Carmelia commanded with sudden alarm in her tone. “Deactivate the rune. Quickly now.”
“Hm?” Izumi stopped, alarmed by the sorceress’s commanding tone. “What’s wrong?”
“No matter how I look at it, the amplitude is unnatural.”
“Yes. Output of that level should drain you in an instant.”
“Er, drain me?” Izumi’s expression turned startled. “But, I thought runes were all self-sustained? Why would it drain me?”
“Wherever did you hear such an absurd thing?” the Court Wizard shook her head with a look of disbelief. “No power may come out of nowhere, the Law of the Conservation of Energy forbids that. To create and sustain magical phenomena, energy must always be drawn from an existing source. This is an inescapable rule of nature.”
“Whaaat?” Izumi was stunned by the news. “B-but, I thought they’re called words of power because they have power of their own? How else could I use them, when I can’t cast any other spells?”
“Were you completely asleep during the lecture in the morning?” Carmelia exhaled a heavy sigh. “I have heard of this unfortunately widespread misconception before. Most likely, it stems from the nature of common runes like Brandt, which are sustained by consuming the material they are cast on—which creates an illusion of self-sufficiency. But this doesn’t mean no energy whatsoever is required from the caster. No, it will still require mana on the caster’s part to ignite.”
“Oh, so that’s why I couldn’t make it work at first...”
“Ah, it’s nothing!”
Furrowing her thin brows, Carmelia resumed her explanation,
“Passive runes like Sifl are an entirely different matter. What else would support them but the caster in person? Adept magicians can draw power from the environment at will, but it is primarily the energy available within yourself, that the rune consumes to work. Either your mana—or your vitality.”
“Ah...” Izumi’s jaw dropped. “Does that mean I could die if I use it too much?”
“No, or so I should normally say,” Carmelia answered. “All living beings have a natural limiter to them, which makes them subconsciously close down the mana supply, when the consumption reaches dangerous levels. The same way you couldn’t keeping running to the point of dying without realizing, no one should be able to use power that exceeds their capacity by accident.”
“However, even I would feel exhausted with output of that level. An average human should have fainted, or died. It is possible that your body does not know how to limit the effect, since you are not accustomed to using magic, but uses the channel’s full capacity at all times. You could burn your life away in a heartbeat and only feel it when it's too late.”
“...Though I say that, I do not perceive any notable decrease in your vitality.”
A puzzled frown clouding her features, the sorceress walked closer and put her hand on Izumi’s chest without a hint of shame. The woman stiffened like a tin soldier, her face inadvertently turning bright red. Apparently seeing nothing weird in molesting a person, Carmelia closed her eyes and concentrated, continuing to feel the woman with the callousness of a doctor.
“This is strange,” the Court Wizard said after a while. “I perceive no mana in you. Your neural network is abnormally thin and frail. There is no indication that magical energy has ever passed through your flesh. But...there are no signs of your soul being depleted either. In fact, it is much too small and faint to support magecraft of any intensity.”
How can this be possible?
Compared to Carmelia’s own kind, compared even to the humans of this world, the summoned woman’s spirit was degenerate and bare. Like that of a small animal. It was evident that spirituality played no role in her world of origin.
Then where did that apparent abundance of power come from?
Izumi using magic was like a bird flying without wings.
Yet, it was undeniably happening and with downright unnatural ease. Which could only mean one thing. If Izumi herself wasn’t able to support the magical effects she exhibited—then the true source had to be elsewhere.
The sorceress’s curiosity was provoked by this seemingly paradoxical discovery, and she peered deeper. Using her mind’s eye, separating her consciousness from her physical form, Carmelia observed the condition of Izumi’s soul, seeking the anomalous source of energy. The centuries of practice made her quite efficient at the task, and she soon found that she had been correct with her hypothesis.
Through the unattuned, disorderly haze of natural energies surrounding the woman’s inmost being, Carmelia soon caught sight of the startling out-of-place element she had been looking for. There was a foreign channel, a thin, elusive, intangible thread, bound to the core of Izumi’s being, trailing from there off into the depths of the aetherium.
The woman’s spirit was, as predicted, connected elsewhere, and it could only be through this strange link, that the power to fuel the runic effects was provided.
By no means could that power belong to a simple human from a world that knew not the secrets of the soul. Even now, against observed reality, Izumi should have lacked the ability to use magic of any kind; the potential had only been lent to her from elsewhere, and there was no question that some unknown intelligence was behind the anomalous arrangement.
Though she had anticipated it, the sorceress tensed with alarm over the discovery.
It appeared that she had stumbled upon something huge.
Where and how had this linkage been created? Was it intentional or not? Was Izumi herself even aware of its existence? The ability to draw energy from the primordial sources of the world was an advanced technique only the most skilled of arcanists had ever mastered, after long and onerous study. The ability to send that power elsewhere in such an elaborate, subtle fashion was a mystery even greater, far beyond human casters.
Izumi shouldn’t have known about such methods. Not any mage of the Empire either, not even those rewarded for their talents with the title of Court Wizard.
Then who was responsible for providing the summoned woman with this power? Had Izumi become the conduit of an unknown, malicious being? Was that being using Izumi as its agent, to manipulate things from behind the stage for their own purposes?
What was this unknown actor after and why?
Carmelia had to find the answer.
She followed the faint spiritual trail deeper and deeper, her mind diving through the sea of unconsciousness. Carefully, gently, discreetly, she felt the way forward along the channel, trying to discern its nature and point of origin. Where was the source? As subtle as the bond was, its stability implied close proximity.
Every magician’s subconscious thoughts and feelings were imbued in their spells, creating a distinct pattern, a “scent”, that was like a fingerprint, unique to each, and therefore possible to be identified. The mightier the sorcerer, the greater and clearer that pattern, and so also easier to identify. There was no way a bond this deep and intimate, between two souls, could be perfectly devoid of such characteristics. If only she got close enough, Carmelia would be able to tell who was on the other end of the line, and give them a name.
Or so the sorceress assumed.
So her extensive experience predicted.
And yet, no matter how deep Carmelia reached, she could pick up no hint of the unknown caster’s identity or personality. She sensed no malice, no fear, no pride, no glee, no memory noise, nothing that could be expected of the master of this elaborate, skilled ruse. Rather, the further along she pursued the thread, the more ambiguous and impersonal it got, the scale and detail of the magic growing beyond the venues of mortal sentience.
In principle, the behavior of all living organisms followed a certain pulse, a rhythm. But not this. The information structure was too systematic, too concise to be the work of mindful effort. It was clean of biases, miscalculations and corrections, too full and regular even for the elder emiri arcaenerians to produce. It was like a crystal shaped by the unhurried, eons-old forces of nature—an effort much too bloated for the goal of puppeteering an ordinary mortal, who hadn’t even existed in this world until two months ago.
What awaited at the other end of Carmelia’s perplexed search was only a sense of boundless, all-embracing serenity. Dignity. Authority.
Unquestionable, undiluted air of supremacy.
And there, the channel and all else along with it began to fade and blend into limitless, pure white light…
Letting out a sharp gasp, Carmelia drew back her hand. She withdrew a step, unable to conceal the terror on her face.
“Hm?” Izumi looked back at the cirelo, startled by the reaction. “W-what’s wrong?”
The Court Wizard didn’t answer.
She barely even heard the woman. Her thoughts were in the colorless void she had sensed, and whatever lurked in it. Although in was a poor choice of words. Indeed, what she had thought of only as mere background ambiance, too monumental to be considered a living, distinct identity—had been the very thing she had pursued.
Carmelia cradled her trembling hand, then glanced cautiously back at Izumi. Had she reached too far? Had the thing at the other end noticed her intrusion? Or was it watching her even now, through the human’s innocent, oblivious eyes, prepared to retaliate if she made a mistake, took but one step too far—?
The champions were summoned to Ortho from another world. According to ancient lore, only spirits of the highest natural order had that ability.
Exactly who had summoned this woman?
Who or what?
The question seemed too dangerous to even be voiced.
“Er, is everything all right?” Benjamin’s voice from further back brought Carmelia back to her senses.
“It’s nothing,” the sorceress said with forceful aloofness, straightening her posture. “...Based on the results, I will impose limiters on Sifl before we make the final arc. Quadrupled acceleration should more than suffice to give you an edge over your adversaries, without becoming an immediate threat to your life.”
“Won’t you install a limit break, while you’re at it?” Izumi suggested. “Even if it’s a tad risky, I should be able to pick up the pace, if the situation calls for it, right?”
“No,” the sorceress denied. “The risk is simply too great. If you are, for whatever reason, cut off from your source of energy while the runes are active, your soul will burn out and you will die instantaneously. Do not depend on a power greater than yourself—such is the first law of magic each aspiring mage must learn.”
“Booo...” Izumi pouted.
“On that note, I am also imposing another limit,” Carmelia continued, unrelenting. “Under no circumstances must you activate more than four runes simultaneously.”
“That is to say, while Gefir, the root rune is required for each activation, this leaves you the maximum of three others that you may use at any given moment. I shall leave it up to your personal discretion which combination to use.”
“Are you nerfing me on purpose now?” Izumi asked. “I haven’t even gone competitive yet.”
“Beyond the immediate danger to your life, there can also be various other side effects to the excessive use of runes. For example, have you perhaps forgotten your fear of old age?”
“Think of how Sifl works. While the rune is active, time passes for you a great deal faster than it does for the rest of the world. The more you use it, the stronger the effect, and the greater the strain on your physique.”
“Faster!?” the woman shrieked. “Not slower?”
“Of course? It is your own innate time you are accelerating. Did you not say so yourself? If your own time were slowed instead, then the day would fly by before you realized.”
Her brow twitching, Izumi paled.
“I...think I got it backwards in my mind, somehow. Then...J-just now, when I was playing around, how many years were shaved off my life expectancy?”
“Who knows?” Carmelia responded without care. “Then again, your lifespan has already been greatly extended by the cithardia sap and the Red Serum. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”
“Well, I’m worrying!” Izumi retorted. “I’m not even forty yet and I’d like to stay that way for a while longer! I’m still young! Young, you hear me! No matter how I look on the outside, I don’t want anyone to describe me as ‘mature’! My nightmare is having kids out in the street start calling me, ‘that auntie’, instead of, ‘that girl’!? Aaaaa...!”
“Let us continue,” Carmelia ignored the wailing woman. “At any rate, the state of your vitality does not appear to be an immediate concern. We shall go on to test Ocíl next.”
“You know no mercy, do you? Bully.”
“Less conversation, more action, please.”
With only sparse breaks, Izumi’s magic training continued.
There was no need for any changes.
Sifl. The Rune of Displacement.
Ocíl. The Rune of Perception.
Gram. The Rune of Power.
Mito. The Rune of Annulling.
Any word of power Carmelia asked her to test, Izumi was able to cast without noteworthy trouble or signs of depletion. There was no need to worry about the output or efficiency of consumption. After all, Izumi’s personal ability played no part in the matter at all. Even though heavy limits were placed on most of the runes, in place of Izumi's inability to control the potency, there was no denying that her combat prowess was steadily, dramatically growing. To a disconcerting level, in fact.
Even though Izumi had wished to become stronger herself, the ease by which it happened unnerved even herself. Was it really okay to get powerful with so little effort? Having a genuine master of magic teach her—wasn’t it basically cheating already? Then again, nothing forced her to use the runes, if she wanted a challenge.
While Izumi continued to try out the various effects, Benjamin, tired of only standing and watching, let out another loud yawn and turned to return indoors.
“I suppose I’ll save my business for tomorrow,” he told the Court Wizard.
“If it isn’t urgent,” Carmelia halfheartedly responded while writing down snotes.
Taking another step to leave, the young man suddenly paused and glanced back over his shoulder. Bringing his voice down, so that Izumi couldn’t overhear them, he ended up voicing a question of his own,
“...What exactly are you building that monster for?”
Closing her eyes, the elven sorceress answered in her assuring tone,
“To defeat Heaven’s Hand and slay the Emperor? Is that not what we agreed?”
“If that’s all...”
“There is no need for concern. My control over her is now absolute.”
“I certainly hope you know what you’re doing. Tomorrow is a big day. We can’t afford another disaster like before.”
“Sooner than any of us, the outcome will depend on her highness, no?”
Looking sullen, the young man left the yard without another word.
At the same time as Izumi was living out her personal dream of becoming a genuine magic knight, a dream of a more earthly variety spread before princess Yuliana’s eyes. In her tower chamber, various colorful costumes had been brought in tall racks, for her to try out. Fluffy ball gowns, elegant dresses, cute petticoats, fabulous skirts, corsets, bodices, shoes, scarves, veils, hats, gloves, and so on, in all rainbow colors, so much of them, each more elaborate and extravagant than the last, that the sight got hard on the eyes after a while.
The princess, however, wasn’t a stranger to such views, and neither did the samples of the Imperial wardrobe impress her all that much. She tried out a number of outfits, more to the pleasure of the excited handmaids than herself, all the while lost in apathetic contemplation.
What frivolity, when the world is about to end...
From among these clothes, she was to choose herself a presentable attire to wear to tomorrow’s party, as the Emperor’s companion.
The occasion wasn’t particularly appealing to Yuliana. The optimism she had felt in the morning had become all but replaced by doubt over the long idle hours of the seemingly endless day. She couldn’t bring herself to believe that the Emperor had had a sudden change of heart. Most likely, this was only another scheme, another contrived technique to deceive her. After blackmail had failed through the loss of the hostages, he would most likely resort to bribes and flattery next.
Before his goals, the main question was, for how long would the ruler of the Empire continue to play his game under the guise of diplomacy, seeking her willing co-operation, before deeming it altogether fruitless, tiring of her resistance, and resorting to the application of direct force? Could any better be expected of him? She didn’t dare to. But in this case, why did he even bother? It's not like he had any diplomatic repercussions to expect. No one from her homeland even knew where Yuliana was.
Nevertheless, giving up was not an option for Yuliana. Whether anyone would ever learn of her efforts or not, she had to protect her kingdom to the end, whatever the cost. It was her friends and family, her people, that she treasured; the thought of their pain was unbearable for her. But when it came to her own self, she was confident she could face any agony and even death without fear. From the beginning, her quest had been one where she didn’t expect to return home.
Therefore, all the princess could do was try and feign interest in the coming party. She had to endure whatever sweet words and beautiful visions the Emperor would try to woo her with, to find a way to turn things to her advantage. Or, at least to keep him from turning his mind to war for as long as possible. To achieve this, perhaps she ought to refine her own performance in this farcical game a little?
Yuliana glanced at a nearby dress. The deep V-cut front would provide more than a generous view of the wearer, from the neck all the way down to below the navel. The mere thought of putting such a garb on in public made Yuliana’s cheeks heat up in embarrassment.
The princess sighed for the hundredth time.
“Could you please lift your arms, your highness?” A maid timidly requested and Yuliana did as asked, to allow a shirt made of costly Phoyvean white silk to be fitted on her.
“Ah,” the maid let out a sound of open admiration. “I hope you won’t mind me voicing my opinion, but I believe this looks absolutely charming on you. What do you think, your highness? Would you like to wear this to the party? It is guaranteed to turn heads.”
“Whatever pleases you,” Yuliana absentmindedly replied. She didn’t care if she wore a potato sack, if only it meant freedom from being treated as a mannequin. After the years she had served as a knight, after the weeks spend on the road, in the wilderness, such fanciful outfits felt awkward and alien on her. What her body missed was the weight of armor, and her muscles were begging to be used after all these idle days.
“Oh, but I see it is a little too tight around the chest,” the maid noted. “The Divines have been most merciful on your highness. Rest assured, our tailor should be able to adjust it in no time. Isolé, please take the measurements and deliver the dress for fixing, so that we may try it on again.”
“Very well.” Another maid stepped forward, measured the princess’s form, and left to take the shirt to the tailor. Yuliana pitied the girl, thinking of all the stairs she had to run along the way.
Hearing the sound of the door closing behind her, the other maid turned back to Yuliana—and immediately dropped down on a knee before her, head bowed deep.
“Your highness,” the maid quickly spoke, her previously composed voice suddenly full of emotion. “Please, you need to help him!”
“What...?” Confused by the sudden request, Yuliana looked down at the maid and frowned. Had the servant used the shirt only as an excuse to send her companion away? As if what she asked was something downright criminal.
“You’re the only one who can,” the maid pleaded. “I know no one else I could ask! He’s all alone, his life hanging by a thread each day. I fear he’ll be killed when it’s over, if not before. Surely he will! But I—it breaks my heart to watch it happen. Just to watch, unable to do anything! I can’t bear it any longer! What can I do? I am powerless, a nobody! But someone has to help him, by the Divines…! It’s not right!”
“Calm down,” Yuliana crouched before the maid and held her shoulders, as if hoping that human contact would restore some sense in the maid’s panicking mind. “Who are you talking about? I don’t understand...”
“I cannot say,” the woman replied. “I’m not allowed, we were all made to—AaAgh!”
As if struck by a sudden fit of pain, the maid winced and clutched her head.
“Hey! What’s wrong?” the princess asked.
“Don’t...mind me. I’m not important. But he...Please, you have to save him. He’s a kind man, he did nothing to deserve this. All the things they’ve done to him...Even now, they’re making—AAAAAAHH!”
As if the pain had intensified, the maid fell on the floor, writhing in agony. Yuliana tried to hold her still, with growing unease. That pain couldn’t be a simple migraine. It was as if some unnatural force was keeping the maid from talking.
“A gias…?” Yuliana guessed. “But why…?”
“I don’t care...what happens to me...” the maid muttered in between ragged breaths. “Just don’t let them...kill him...Please...Please...Please...”
“Don’t say anything else,” the princess interrupted the struggling maid. “I understand. I will do everything in my power, I promise you. So please, you have to stop speaking. Your life is in danger!”
“I’m sorry...” the maid kept repeating, her mind clouded by the paranormal pain. “I’m so sorry...I’m sorry...”
The door of the chamber suddenly opened and a guard peeked in.
“I heard noises.” A suspicious look on his harsh face, the guard looked at the princess with the hurting maid in her arms. “What’s wrong with her?”
“She...started to feel unwell all of a sudden,” Yuliana nervously forced an answer. “I—I think she’s getting better now. Must’ve been exhaustion, from overworking, no doubt...She’ll be okay, I’m sure. Just a moment, and...”
The guard didn’t look convinced. He had to have inferred the cause to the servant’s abrupt collapse. He glanced at someone else outside in the hallway and nodded towards the women. Then, he entered the chamber with a second guard in tow. Without a word, they strode across the floor, picked up the dazed maid by the arms, and half carried, half dragged her out, ignoring the princess altogether.
In shock over the sudden turn of events, Yuliana could only watch them go. In no time, the door was slammed back shut again, as if nothing had ever happened.
What had the maid wanted her to do, exactly?
Who was she talking about, who was “he”? Why was his life in danger? By who?
What did it all mean?
Would she ever find out?
As the princess sat there, in shock over the mysterious incident, the other maid eventually returned from her trip to the tailor.
“I have it fixed now,” the girl said, stepping in. Then, she saw the princess in her strange position, still kneeling on the floor, and that her colleague was missing. “Huh? Where’s Miria?”
“She...started to feel unwell,” was all Yuliana managed to answer her. “The—the guards took her...”
As harmless as she had tried to make it sound, the maid inferred too much from her tone and spontaneously dropped the dress in her hands.
“No,” she gasped. Covering her mouth, the maid turned around and ran out with a pitiful wail. “Nooo!”
And by her reaction, Yuliana knew that she wouldn’t see the maid called Miria again.
Exactly what manner of a deadly game was played at the Imperial Palace of Bhastifal, and by whose will? Only one thing was for certain—Yuliana would not find the answer while locked up in her chamber. Perhaps she had a personal reason to attend the coming party, after all.
By the time the sun was about to set and the Court Wizard’s seclusive keep became overshadowed by the steep shadows cast by the surrounding walls, Izumi’s crash course into magic reached its conclusion.
The final rune, Tauhirn.
Rather than a singular rune, it was a compound effect of two unique words of power. The elven arcaenarians of old had come up with this particular spell in their search for quick and efficient personal protection, that would also free the user from carrying additional shielding.
Its name localized as “Iron Hide” by the few informed human scholars, this rune combination generated a protective energy coating around the caster, tightly conforming to their forms, like an additional layer of skin. Powerful enough to deflect indirect arrow hits, Tauhirn could even withstand weaker blows and slashes from melee weaponry. It offered excellent base defense against the unpredictable perils of conventional warfare, but also came with certain downsides that kept it from popularity. The energy field impeded mobility too much to be used in tandem with other armor, yet was inadequate on its own against the raw strength of the many-faced daemons. Additionally, it was consuming to maintain and often conflicted with traditional magecraft.
But Izumi had no more trouble with output than she did with spell conflicts, and Carmelia was eager to include Tauhirn in her arc. For Izumi, who normally wore no armor and carried no shields, this magic would undoubtedly become an invaluable asset, especially with the deft archers of the Imperial Guard in mind. However, the spell’s activation left the instructor in a state of open dismay once more.
Izumi herself didn’t feel that different from the usual.
Only, somewhat “firmer” than before, and perhaps a bit heavier. Like dressed in a well-fitting costume with light weights attached. It was a comforting, secure feeling, all in all, and it looked like the rune worked as advertised.
But, seeing the sorceress’s astounded look, Izumi’s confidence soon faltered.
“Um, what’s wrong?” Izumi asked, nervously examining herself.
Carmelia didn’t reply.
As Izumi looked down at her open palms, she saw that an unsettling change had indeed taken place. Her hands had changed color, a great deal darker. She hadn’t turned brown or brown-black, as if she had taken on a good tan, but more like, dark gray. Gunmetal gray. She soon discovered that it was not only her hands either. Her upper arms, feet—she pulled down her collar and saw that the effect even reached her chest—probably her face too.
In other words, Izumi’s skin all around now resembled unpolished iron. Her natural color scheme in its entirety had been altered in an instant.
“Iron Hide” was only supposed to be a name, a metaphor, not a description of the spell’s effect. The energy field itself should not have been visible to the naked eye; knowing this by the prior explanation, Izumi could understand her teacher’s reaction.
True, the same unpleasant association had occurred to herself as well, the moment she had seen her darkened fingers. Didn’t that lifeless, morbid hue bear an uncanny resemblance to—Izumi had to feel her face, to confirm that she still had her nose, eyes, and hair, that her head hadn’t—sighing in relief, Izumi noted that the change of skin tone appeared to be the only difference to the usual.
“...I’m still me, so can you stop looking like I’m going to eat you, okay?” she told the sorceress.
Carmelia slowly recovered and examined the woman closer with a deep frown.
“How could such a thing be…?”
“Well, you tell me, doc.”
Even without being asked, the sorceress’s mind was at work. But the theories that came to her offered no relief. On the contrary.
No physical ailment explained the corruption of the magical effect. Perhaps the cause was silen devehra. Perhaps the curse had managed to infect the woman’s spirit to such an extent, that it even hindered the information structures projected through the woman? Or perhaps the cause was her alien origin in another universe? Or the anomalous mana source? Perhaps it was the mixed result of all these various, aberrant variables together?
Was there any way to tell for certain?
It couldn’t be that the curse is still in effect, that the serum simply hid the symptoms? And that any day soon, she might still be converted—
Perhaps the woman should have been killed, after all? Had the sorceress made a tragic mistake in trying to save her? Had Carmelia’s pity, a momentary emotion, a lapse in judgment, doomed centuries’ work? No, the more likely culprit was her own greed and ambition, in thinking she could shape this stranger from another world into a tool of her vengeance.
Was there still time to correct this miscalculation? Killing Izumi would have been simple, but how would it affect the plan? Was there any time to come up with an alternative method? No, wasn’t it already much too late? She would not have taken this path to begin with, if there was any other.
Then is this our fate?
Staring at the woman’s darkened features, a sudden epiphany hit Carmelia.
For over six thousand years, the sorceress had eluded death. But that didn’t mean her life was free of fear either. For as long as she could remember, she had feared the unseen future ahead of her in its unfathomable extent. She had feared both reaching said future, as well as losing it, through an untimely, violent death.
When the daemons took Amarno, and death sieged her world from every direction, Carmelia had given her all to resist it, to push her demise back by any number of days. She had allowed people to die, sacrificed even those closest to her, in the frantic, desperate race to survive.
For eight hundred years since, that race had continued uninterrupted. Standing up to defy the daemons, she had stared death in the eyes numerous times, yet the terror she felt for it had never grown lesser.
Here, on this day, Carmelia saw in Izumi the culmination of the forces of destiny that so easily overwhelmed even her greatly expanded awareness. Had she, in her attempt to strike back at the darkness, only succeeded in bringing it to her house?
Was there even any meaning in her battle? Yet, in the following sense of helplessness, the sorceress also found mysterious solace.
In the all-encompassing play of cosmic powers, even the precious life she had struggled centuries to preserve, her legacy, values, and memories, were surely too meager to even mention. The resistance she had been so proud of only looked like the aimless stumbling of a child now.
What were her ambition, her creed, all her people and their history, in the grand scheme of the universe, but akin to strands of oat swayed by a breeze? No greater was the gravity of her best efforts. And there, among everything else, she saw the size of her hatred, the burning grudge that had burdened her for so long, reduced as no more fierce than a lonely spark in the night.
What use was there, in holding onto such a petty thing, cradling it as if it were precious? Was she made any stronger or wiser for it?
No. For no reason had she looked down on humans. As they stood side by side in this sun-bathed land, who could tell the difference between the two? Who was there to measure specks of dust, to tell one was superior to the other?
Lost in reflection, Carmelia reached forward and held Izumi’s face. Through the woman, she felt like embracing her enemy, the destiny she had resisted, for which she had lost so much.
This woman whom she had taken for a mere fool—perhaps she was blessed, after all?
The line one human drew through life was short and simple, but with a distinct course. There was beauty in its unrepenting candor. Next to it, the extensive path Carmelia had traveled across the cycles looked only shamefully long-winded, accidental, and without direction. What awaited at the end of it, she still dreaded to think. After all was said and done, hers was a path too long to be turned away from. An oath she had sworn, to travel it to the bitter end.
She is an outsider to this destiny, so why drag her down with me?
“W-what is it?” Izumi asked, canceling the rune. Caressed so, unable to see anything that went through the Court Wizard’s mind, she was getting rather flustered. “Call me socially inept, but whether you’re going to kiss me or pluck my head off, I seriously can’t tell anymore!”
Carmelia ended up doing neither.
Slowing retracting her hands, she turned away from the woman.
“I will not prohibit you from using Tauhirn, nor limit it in any way,” she said. “But, do keep it only as the last resort. Or you might make all the world your enemy.”