The searchers have reached the Arctosi plains, only two hundred scant leagues from the last known position of Edward Rose. Behind them the Inquisition, ever on their trail for wrongs they have not committed; ahead, the Arctosi civil war between the king and his youngest son.
And there is more to worry about. The other Paladins have not sat idly by while rumor of Rose's absence flies around; Cain is only the first. Our story continues not three kilometers from the base of the mountain on which the searchers fought the hydra...
'I've trained the greatest mages you have heard of and a lot that you haven't, but in all of my years walking this earth, you by far are the youngest.' Crowley remarks to Alice. The little girl and her older sister are both attempting to balance on a wooden log held aloft by their magical energy. Elise rocks back and forth before re-asserting her balance, and Crowley shakes his head. 'No, no, you've got to stand on the log naturally.'
'And how do I do that?' she asks through clenched teeth. The ancient mage sighs. 'This is one of the lessons I teach to remind my pupils why magecraft can't get you out of everything. Alternatively, it's for a rare few to display multitasking, but that's another story. Your center of balance is as much a part of you as your hands and eyes, so use it.'
Elise screws her eyes shut and tries again, murmuring about how Azarias and the others would pay for leaving her behind.
'A charming young lady who was accompanying us,' Azarias says distractedly, peering ahead through the broken terrain. 'I think I may have left her in the dastardly clutches of my old master. I probably miscounted when I activated the spatial transference circle.'
Faenor of the Silver Laurel wrote: 'A charming young lady who was accompanying us,' Azarias says distractedly, peering ahead through the broken terrain. 'I think I may have left her in the dastardly clutches of my old master. I probably miscounted when I activated the spatial transference circle.'
"So... she may not survive? Considering you said dastardly..."
Azarias opens his mouth as if to respond, then closes it without a word.
'To preserve what dignity I have, I will not divulge the majority of that information,' he says after a moment. 'Suffice to say, the first task he ever made me do was build a wall. "It will build character", he said. It took me four months. At the very end, he blew it up with a single word. I was so angry... "Remember this," I recall him saying. "Nothing exists in this world which cannot be taken away. Your task as a person is to accept that; as a mage, it is to refute it with all your heart." I only got what he was saying at the time an unfortunate length of years later.'
'I wasn't allowed, and I think you saw Crowley's magecraft, correct? He primarily uses three types: imaginary magecraft, his trump card; extortion magecraft, which steals Flow from others; and counter-magecraft.'
'No, that sounds like-' Azarias begins, before another shriek resonates, followed by the sound of thunder. The acrid scent of discharged lightning wafts towards them, around a curve in the road and hidden by a grouping of rocks. More shrieks accompany it, before a freezing wind blows through and speeds it away.
'If I know my magecraft- and I'm fairly certain I do -that isn't...' he murmurs, before he half-smiles and starts walking again. 'Come on, then. We're off to see a couple of witches.'
'None of that, now.' Azarias says. 'Besides, I think you may be mistaking sounds.'
They round the corner and find themselves confronted with a massive beaked head, as the roc gives one final death-screech before another bolt of lightning and hail of ice-shards puts it out of its misery. Azarias and the group quickly take stock of the situation: one dead giant bird, one group of scared merchantmen, two mages, both female and neither breathing hard despite the strenuous activity. One is familiar to Artoria, Manteau, and Dolenus, and it clinches a second later when Azarias calls out.
'Well, hello there.' he says, striding forward. Both women whirl around, and one sighs while the other adopts a puzzled expression. 'Greetings from the ends of the earth, Kurenai.'
'Hello, master Azarias.' the black-haired Crimson Witch replies, and quickly scanning their party. 'And the rest of you are?...'
'I remember you two,' she replies, nodding to Dolenus and Manteau. 'I believe I taught you several remedial courses on combat magecraft.' she notes while looking at Manteau, evoking a short burst of laughter from the other woman. This one, in stark contrast to the black-haired Crimson Witch, has her long silver-blonde hair braided and tossed over a shoulder. Also in contrast, her eyes are pale blue, not red, and her features are definitely not Solarian.
'Ah, where are my manners?' Kurenai says. 'This is-'
'Emilia Arfonia, Paladin of the North Pole.' Azarias finishes. His hands are thrust into his pockets, but anyone can tell that they are tightly clenched into fists. 'What brings the White Witch of the Storm so far south?'
'As anyone might have guessed, for the same reason the Demon Saint- a nice contradiction, that name -would leave his precious academy.' she replies, sighing as if the conversation were dull. 'I am seeking Edward. I wouldn't normally care, but I could smell that the others were up to something, so I decided to come south and had a run-in with the Minstrel of Calamities. I have been recovering ever since.'
'Well.' says Kurenai, clapping to get the attention of the two Paladins. 'I'm sure you two would love to catch up, so why don't we walk and talk, hm?' she continues, pushing the Paladins towards the front of the now-moving merchants, while she herself walks with the rest of the group.
'So, please, tell me about your little adventure.' the Sin of Acedia says, looking expectantly at them.
"Hmm." Dolenus thinks for a second, recalling recent memories. "Let's see... we started on this adventure, we got pretty far, Azarias and Cain exchanged words and a few spells, we took a trip in a locomotive, we got attacked by an Inquisitor with Haunted, we wound up at Crowley's place and then left when unexpected visitors showed up, and then we went though some mountains and Azarias decided to start training us in the middle of a hydra attack."
Kurenai looks at Astron, her red eyes boring deep into him. There is a glint of barely repressed savagery, there, as well as madness and intelligence. The Dragon Hunter gains the feeling that, were they on a battlefield, the Crimson Witch might be the one you ought to fear most.
'I doubt that.' she says lightly. 'Crowley doesn't like to kill people; a habit he picked up after fighting wars of incomprehensible losses on both sides.'
Kurenai's eyes glint for a moment, but before she says anything they stop. She frowns.
'So soon?' she asks, as Emilia and Azarias walk back towards them. 'They need to take a break,' the Paladins explain. 'They haven't been this way before, so they need a breather after that. I'm amazed they moved at all.' Azarias finishes. Kurenai snaps her fan shut. 'Well, it could have been worse. We could have had to bury one of them.'
Emilia looks them over. 'Azarias has been singing your praises, and- not that I don't believe the esteemed professor -I think I will have to see it for myself. While we're resting here, you can show me what you can do.'
"I usually only save if for emergencies, but I guess I'll use a degraded form now."
'Desiring with ardor, I will strike down all Demon-Kind. I call forth flame."
A pale silvery, almost flickering magic circle, different then Artoria's normally golden ones, spins into being, casting a bolt of pale fire. Not especially powerful, she is trying to test her defenses.
'As I said to our dear Demon Saint, I'm here to look for Paladin Rose.' Emilia says, ignoring Astron. 'He was... Uncorrupted, I suppose, by the normal animosity between mages. Familiar and friendly with everyone. It was refreshing. I intend to keep him around; he makes the world a little brighter just by being there.'
Astron follows Artoria but with a gap between them, as they walk, he keeps throwing a ball of fire between his hands, though it's just an illusion that he's actually using physical contact to bounce the fire off.
"Sounds like you think rather highly of yourself, or rather you think your state above the security of him. Though it is likely he's not lost but rather involved in affairs we have yet to discover, and as such his path will likely intersect with your own for good or evil."
'Mostly the progression of the war. Too many people have lost their lives, and the other Archlords are so wrapped up in their own affairs that they can't be bothered to think of the people here. It's just Azarias and I who come here, really. I want to bring back a report to make the other five take notice.'
'Things only look better because there aren't any people around.' Kurenai continues, ignoring Astron's provocations. 'They're in a stalemate because they haven't got enough population left to throw soldiers and mages at one another.'
Kurenai looks at them, a glint of barely suppressed violence in her eyes, and the more astute might notice the crackle and fizz of red electricity (from whence her title, the Crimson Witch, is taken) occasionally flickering up and down her right hand.
She breathes deeply before responding. 'Young man... Dragon Hunter, whatever your name is. Don't push me.'
Astron promptly has the wind forced out of him, Slade appears utterly confused at the new level of stupidity he has witnessed. "Is your arrogance such that you think you can attempt to harm a warrior in close combat?"
Wagons begin moving again, and Azarias and Emilia appear from behind one. They appear to have just been in the middle of an discussion or argument, as the female Paladin's face is flushed red and Azarias looks surprised and confused.
'...I'm certain you'll come to see it my way,' they heard her saying, and Azarias was nodding to understand when he looked over and saw them. He motions for them to come over.
'There's not much to be had for us there, but we can have some relative safety within the mage's lodging, in the eastern quarter. Prospective thieves and vagabonds won't be keen on stealing from us if they know we're workers of magecraft.'
Slade enters a bar, fully clad as the Deadspawn persona. "Clear out."
Half the bar complies, close to the other half follow soon after. Five patrons remain, an old eastern-man looking drunk out of his mind, two novice looking inquisitors, their mentor, and Seanic Willard. Veteran chaser on paper, absolute disgrace in reality.
"To what do I owe the pleasure of the legendary Deadspawn's presence?"
"Just happen to be in town. Be sure not to flatter yourself as to believe you're worth the travel. Now, why don't you have the kids and the respectable inquisitor take their leave. They don't have stake in this."
"Kid?" One of the novices gives a savage grin as he gouts the room in flame.
"Stop, you're only obscuring our vis-" the master inquisitor is cut off by the the crack of his apprentice's splitting collarbone as an axe cleaves it on its way to the wall behind him.
As the room clears up, Slade is not in sight. Seanic however, is not fooled, a bolt of light though charred table, 'mysteriously' tipped over. Slade grunts and clutches his leg as the chaser walks over. "I must admit, I'm impressed. You certainly have skill when it comes to marketing your name. Almost thought I'd really have to fight when you walked in."
Slade flips up and stabs with a hidden dagger, which is promptly caught and tossed to the side. The chaser then lifts him like a rag doll as he struggles, then throws him through a window. "Don't think you're going to be an escape artist this time spawn." He tears open the door to rush out, only to be pushed back and feel a sharp pain as a grid pattern appears on his face. He clutches his eye as he strains to see the tiny strands spanning the doorway like a web. "Find him!" He shrieks.
Before the other two inquisitors make a solid movement, slades signature sword splinters through the wall in the exact place to push through into the second novice's femur. Their master mumbles something before the entire section of wall shoots out to the exterior, only Slade's not there to receive the shower of splinters and his own blade. Seanic at this time, now has a blindside on his left. His brow bleeding faster than he can clear his eye. Between his fury and blindness, there is little challenge in a man like Slade getting the drop and claiming his head. The issue, rather, is that the master inquisitor bound him in constructed chains before his prey's head hit the floor.
"Deadpawn, in the name of the inquisition. For the assault of inquisitors, the murder of a chaser, and countless prior crimes, I sentence you to unending imp-"
"Scarlet mountains, heed mine word. I summon the hollow winds"
"What are you off about?" The inquisitor is the only one to hear his spell, just before Slade exhales fatal breeze of chilled aether. The apprentices would later go on to tell that Slade was able to fail a master's heart through word of threat alone.
After leaving considerable compensation money on the bar counter, Slade removes his armor and finds his way back to the group. With no sign of his excursion save the appearance of a strong fever.
The group, meanwhile, has reached the city: and Slade's excursion has already informed him to the fact that it is a dark, dismal place, built of wood and poor stone, lit by fitful yellow lanterns. The roads are dusty tracks in winter, frozen mud in winter: since the autumn is drawing on, it is simply mud at this point. Noise, raucous laughter, and drunken carousing spill out on the streets from open tavern doors despite the time of day.
After they separate from the merchants, Azarias turns up his collar and motions for them to stick close to him. 'I would advise those of you who are young to stay with myself or Slade, for now. We'll be heading for the mage's lodgings in the northern quarter, and I'd appreciate it if we didn't get into trouble on the way there.'
Azarias continues to lead the group (as well as Emilia and Kurenai) through the dirty and stinking streets till they reach a large manor, almost a castle, on the northern edge of the city; built close to the ramshackle and crumbling stone walls. He speaks quietly for a moment with a man dressed in brown at the door, and he quickly opens the door and lets them enter.
Inside is a large open courtyard with doors and rooms build around it, evidently a common green. The garden is overgrown slightly, reflecting the state of disrepair the city is in, but not nearly as shabby as it could have been.
A woman in a blue overcoat approaches them, dark hair fluttering in the wind. 'To whom do we owe the pleasure?'
'Alize Berthier, formerly of Servais, now of Arctos.' she replies, a distinct accent in her voice, looking carefully over at Slade. She immediately appears overworked and underpaid to them, a sudden insight. 'We do not normally allow those who do not have an affinity for magecraft into our walls...'
'You will in this instance, however.' Azarias says, thrusting his hands into his pockets, and she nods hastily. 'Of course, of course. Anything you say, Saint Azarias.'
The Half-elf sighs before briefly conversing in a different language, and she nods. 'If you wish, professor.' Azarias turns to them. 'Keeper Berthier will take you to the library; I need to speak to a few people in private. Try not to disturb the peace, hm? These mages aren't of your calibre, so you must be especially respectful of their efforts.'
Azarias then promptly walks away, and Alize shows them to the library, keeping up a running commentary as she walks. 'So, you've come with the most powerful mage, Demon Saint Azarias- excuse me, Professor Snow. Quel génie, what I wouldn't give to study under him. I hope you will pardon my use of my own tongue. We have many natives of Servais in northern Arctos; many of us came as families with the mercenaries fighting here.'
They round a corner, and she continues to speak. 'I myself came to study Arctosi magecraft as part of my research into nature interference. Quelle folie! That was three years ago. I cannot leave because the fighting has grown fiercer in the southern plains; many chimaeras were set loose there last spring. Normal people and mages cannot hope to contend with such monstrous creatures. You are lucky to have the professor; he is quite powerful. The most powerful mage of them all, though one day I shall hope to see Arlen Crowley with my own eyes and be able to speak to him.'
She shows them a door, allowing them to enter into another building. The inside is dark, and when their eyes adjust they are greeted with stacks upon stacks of books and loose papers, shelves packed to bursting- and yet it isn't even a thousandth of the mess Crowley's castle was. Several mages are inside, men and women, overcoats folded over their chairs and vests holding random odds and ends. Several are writing feverishly, some are reading, while one, a girl around Artoria's age, is reading from a page and apparently attempting to emulate a casting, as her magic circle opens and sparks of Flow fizzle in the air. Berthier waves her hands.
'Quel imbécile! I told you before, no casting in the library!' she shouts, earning herself the stares of everyone in the room. 'You are not the one that has to repair this library and her contents every time someone is foolish enough to hazard a spell they do not know!'
The girl quietly folds her hands. 'I apologize, Adept Berthier.' Berthier sighs. 'Come here, cher. Magecraft is not an art to be practiced haphazardly. It should be researched and applied when it is necessary to do so. There is nothing wrong with practice, but can you not use the grounds for such a purpose? We set them up so that you could.'
While the girl walks off to collect her things, Berthier sighs and turns to them. 'That was one of our newer mages, Lisette Arpin- she does not yet know the proper time and place in which to use magecraft. The formal schools in Solaria are all closed, you see, so she must make do with learning magecraft on her own until someone with a master's license is willing to take her on.' She gestures around. 'Please, feel free to use our library. Professor Snow wished for you to have some reading and time to study and prepare yourselves before you, ah, "dive into the pits of hell" as he put it.'
While Manteau studies and Severin peruses through the stacks on Arctosi history, Dolenus comes across all sorts of books; magecraft, astronomy, medicine, history, strategy, even culinary books are found in this disheveled library. A few names he might recognize: Ryner Lute, Eloise de Harlincourt, even his own principal, Zelda Werelight.
'As the man pointed out, that is a quite dangerous path you wish to walk, Cher.' Berthier says slowly. 'I advise you choose a different course. But, if you insist... There is a section in the back. Masters only, you understand; you will need to find one in the library to open it for you. That place might help.'
'Dragon Hunters?...' she ponders for a moment. 'You speak of the Stigma, yes? We do not have many such books; the Stigma is not well-understood, you see. The dangers of such people is too great, understand. They are unpredictable in action and deed. Many go mad even without their power's influence. The strain of such a burden... it takes a great toll on the mind. That being said...'
She hums for a moment before disappearing into the stacks, returning a few moments later with a large black leather-bound book with silver scrollwork and clasps. 'This is a catalogue of all the known Stigmas in the world that have been documented and recorded. It is not every power, for many do not understand their own abilities and therefore do not use them, but it might have what you seek.'
Berthier inclines her head. 'You are free to use the open sections of the library, but you will need the magic circle of one of the registered masters here in order to unlock the shelves that might hold the information you are looking for. I believe Master Fan is currently in the library; he is an Eastern mage, you should not have difficulty finding him. He came to study western magecraft and was unable to leave because of the war.'
While most shelves have books that would seem interesting to a mage, none of them are on the Hollow World, the topic Artoria wishes to delve into. After several minutes of fruitless searching, she finds herself in the back of the library, where books are arranged not on shelves but on stands. More importantly, they appear to be lashed into place with magecraft-enhanced chains and locks. Several are rare volumes, some Artoria hasn't even heard of; but one of them, a crimson book with golden embellishments on the cover and the title On The Hollow and Its Denizens would appear to be helpful. However, when she moves to pick it up, a magic circle flashes over the lock and lightly shocks her hand, an invisible barrier preventing her from reaching it.
Meanwhile, Astron has found a part on Dragon Hunters; it appears the book does not actually have that much information in it, as might be expected for a volume about a taboo power.
Stigma: Dragon Hunt
Bearers: Extremely Dangerous
The Dragon Hunt, it's bearers collectively known as "Dragon Hunters", is a mutation of the Stigma in that it is not an actual Stigma in and of itself, as it never appears without a "host" Stigma. However, bearers may be unable to access their actual ability due to Dragon Hunt's influences, and may take the Stigma as their only skill.
As an ability, Dragon Hunt is extremely feared, even among the Cursed Eyes themselves, as a dangerous ability that needs constant curtailment and checking in order to rein it in. The power is nominally described by modern sources to simply be the "ability to outmatch and slay dragons", but ancient magi call it the "foul curse"; whether these are the same, or if the Dragon Hunt's abilities are largely forgotten, is unknown.
Currently, Dragon Hunt is ranked as one of the rarest Cursed Eyes, with a single individual emerging once or twice every six or seven generations. This is not as rare as the most dangerous Stigma, "Demon's Eye" (see p. 381), but it is still very much so. Bearers should be avoided at all costs. Under no circumstances must they be angered: Dragon Hunt has been known to induce aggressiveness and anger issues with prolonged usage. The only known counters to the ability are other Hunter Eyes, anti-magecraft fields, or simply not allowing the ability to be used in the first place.
Astron's flipping of pages rewards him with the information.
Bearers: Extremely dangerous
Unravel, also called "the Demon's Eye" and "Deconstruction" is the rarest and most dangerous Stigma on record and in all likelihood the most destructive Cursed Eye to exist. It's single bearer, magus Azarias Snow, has been declared an outlaw by the majority of nations for possession of the ability and the Inquisition as well as other magecraft enforcement orders and agencies have ordered his arrest and execution.
By itself, the Demon's Eye can destroy areas, objects, or obliterate spells. The bearer can identify the design of anything that exists, including magecraft, then use the Stigma to break down that design or structure, entirely. For directives of Flow, such as spells, they can disassemble the design, breaking down the energy into a loose form that disperses into nothing. For physical objects, they can break them down into their constituent molecules, or even further into simple atoms. If used on a person, the parts that form the human body are decomposed at a molecular level, leaving what appears to be nothing but dust.
Demon's Eye is currently rated as the rarest Stigma with only one known case in recorded history. The bearer, Azarias Snow, should be treated with extreme caution and avoided if at all possible. Under no circumstances must the bearer be aggravated: records would indicate that the Cursed Eye has a point of insanity similar to most Stigmas. There is no known counter to this ability.
While some books catch the eye, there is nothing that particularly appeals to Artoria's interests other than the ones locked by magecraft.
Blaze Art, or the "Dragon's Eye" is a rare and dangerous Stigma associated with fire. Currently, the ability attributed to the Cursed Eye are control of flames: however, no other Stigma is recorded to have any such similar ability and past bearers have attested that the ability is not the use of fire (however, they did not divulge the actual ability), though the misinformation remains largely spread.
Blaze Art is currently rated as one of the more dangerous Stigmas and should be treated with caution. If one is encountered, do not make them angry; it appears their Cursed Eye has a much lower tolerance and can spiral out of control if subjected to strong emotion. Known counters to this ability are extremely powerful vibration and oscillation magecraft that can create cold, ice, or water.
'Well, Cher... wait, tons of misinformation?' she asks, suspicious, before her eyes widen in horror, a magic circle opens, and she shouts a single word.
Artoria finds several books on interesting topics and had just settled down to read when a single, magically-enhanced word reverberated through the compound if not the whole city: Stigma. The nightmares of child and adult alike, the insane murderers, the bearers of the Cursed Eyes that slaughtered everything and everyone in their path, leaving only ashes and dust in their wake.
As soon as the cry goes out, every Mage begins running, some collecting books, others casting spells to return and seal them in their place. The elderly gentleman who had helped her before shakes one bony finger at her, and the books fly back to their chains.
'You... You were with that foul creature!' he cries, spittle flying. 'I won't have it. I won't have the secrets of the ancient masters betrayed to a Devil's Eye!'
'Ma'am, a Stigma has been reported. A magically enhanced shout was received from the Mages' Quarters.'
'We've detected several, but the mages in the vicinity make it difficult to track specific Flow trails.'
“For as idiotic as I find you hermit, I think you’ve been bested in that category. Did they not knowingly allow the demon saint in? And if they have confidence in his self control I imagine they’d have confidence in his ability to reign you in. Hell, even I could reign you in”
'We allowed the Saint in because he has proven himself over many years that he can control himself. But a Stigma is never to be taken lightly!' Berthier says, before erecting defensive bounded fields to close them in. 'You have not seen what they are capable of; I have. You have not seen an entire continent still beating the scars of their insanity upon her face. You have not need whole cities turned to ash and dust in less than a day.'
“Lady Berthier, I too have seen the devastation. But I can’t see reason for alarm at this moment. Even if he snapped and went berserk, there are about three people, give or take a couple, who could stop him before he did anything terrible”
Artoria deploys her magic circles quickly, seven golden gates of ethereal light opening behind her, ready to cast in a split second. Despite her dislike for Astron, she speaks to Berthier. "Lady Berthier." She says, an edge to her voice. "If you truly fear the devastation a Stigma can unleash, it would perhaps be best not to threaten us, hm?"
She turns to the elderly librarian. "And if you do not mind, I will take custody of these, they will be quite useful in my studies. I have every intention of returning them, I am no thief." She says as she casts a spatial interference spell that summons the books into her bag.
Berthier narrows her eyes. 'Mages and the people of this world may fear Stigmas, but I for one shall not submit to threats, Cursed Eye or no. Quelle sottise! As if I would simply let you leave with our property in your bag, young one. Not only are you Stigma, but a thief as well, no matter what your words may claim.'
The elderly master snaps his fingers, and Artoria finds herself deprived of the books once more, and the seals on them strengthened. 'You won't steal anything from this library while strength is in these old bones; you have much left to learn about magecraft if you think you can walk away so easily.'
Meanwhile, Slade has found his page.
Known Magecraft: Ira Archive, unregistered Thema
Morrigan Ní'Cathasaigh, or "Crow" as she is more widely known, is an Arctosi Stigma of unknown years and little information. Extreme caution should be excercised if encountered. Her Noble Art is officially undocumented but non-Magus eyewitnesses have reported sightings that would coincide with the heretical magecraft of Causality Distortion to rewrite fate, something only two mages were thought to be capable of: the Stigma Anastasia Ivanovna Serebryakova (widely known as "Scathách") with her Gáe Bolg and Arlen Crowley with his Fragarach. If these reports are true, this would be the third mage in the last hundred years able to safely and repeatedly use this magecraft without repercussions.
Before Slade can read more, the door flies open and Azarias marches in, flanked by Kurenai and Emilia. 'Que se passe-t-il?!' he snaps to the Servaisian, and he and Berthier begin to have an immediate and tense discussion. It ends only a few moments after it begun with Berthier emphatically shaking her head and Azarias sighing. He casts a baleful eye at both Artoria and Astron.
'We will be having words later.' he promises, and the threat of something a tad more serious than a slap on the wrist for attempted robbery and resisting arrest hangs in the air for a moment before the door flies open again from where it had closed itself.
Several black-garbed individuals storm into the room, their clothes and the small silver star-and-sun pendants at the base of their necks instantly marking them as Inquisitors.
'Hold it!' one shouts. 'You're all being detained by the authority of the Inquisition. If you don't know your rights under Arctosi law, we will inform you of them, but resistance will be met with force.'
Despite reading on, Severin has been paying attention to the conversation. As soon as the mage shouts out, he springs up and a magic circle flickers into existence in front of him. He takes up a strategic position on a table that happened to be beside him. When the Inquisition (which nobody expected) bursts in, he summons a second circle, prepared to engage.
Unfortunately, every time Slade tries to read further, something happens which it might be prudent for him to pay attention to; he might ask one of the Stigmas in their party later if they know more than the rather uninformative book.
'You have the right to remain silent, and the right to a defendant in the common courts of law. However, any statement or action may be used as evidence against you in the courts of law. You have the right to appeal your case to the Assizes of the Royal Courts for the overturn of the verdict. You have the right to livable quarters during your detention and the right to call upon the inspector-general of Arctosi confinement facilities to ensure such.' one Inquisitor immediately rattles off, his youthful face and innocent demeanor suggesting he's new. Another, evidently his superior, lightly taps him. 'Robin, you're rambling. We have a job to do.'
The young Inquisitor nods and as one their magic circles deploy. 'Will you come quietly?' the eldest one asks.
Sightings of the Crow have been reported almost continuously since she became active on the Inquisition's radar nearly ten years ago. However, she continues to evade capture, arrest, and execution.
Beyond this last section there are only a few reference notes for the author's sources on the subject, mostly Inquisitors and civilians.
Meanwhile, Azarias looks to be seriously contemplating handing the others over to the Inquisition, with a "it would serve them right" look on his face. One of them looks nervously at the senior. 'Sir, she'll be here soon.'
Azarias finally sighs and motions. 'Kurenai. If you would.' Looking over at the others, his voice takes a sterner tone. ‘I want you all to get out, and do it now. I’ll be right behind you.’
‘Go on. I’ll follow you as soon as I’ve taught these pansies a lesson in manners.' Kurenai calls from over her shoulder, but the blood-red eye looking back at them tells a different story as to what she will be doing to the poor Inquisitors.
Severin flashbangs an inquisitor in his way with a spell, trips him over with a leg and proceeds to trod on his chest and hand on his way out. Beside the exit he casts a small protective shield and guards the way for the others.
As they were speaking, another Inquisitor entered the room, this one small, female, and pale-haired; her lifeless maroon eyes roved to and fro, quickly understanding the situation, and she broke into a slight smile.
‘Crimson Witch,’ she spoke warmly, as if greeting an old friend. ‘We meet again, at last! It’s been years.’
Kurenai smiled savagely, distorting her beautiful features into an otherwise cruel expression. ‘Catherine Aylesworth- or should I call you the Black Witch now?’
‘Catherine will do.’ she replied, before covering her mouth as if to conceal a smile or frown. ‘My, my, you seem to have done a number on my poor Inquisitors. Quaking in their boots, to be sure. And I thought I had taught them...’ as she spoke, she made a slashing gesture with her hand, and the other Inquisitors fell dead, their throats cut, ‘...that the only person they needed to fear was me.’
Kurenai shook her head, smiling despite the horror of what the Inquisitor had just done to her own kind. ‘Don’t be so hard on them, Catherine. They can’t understand someone like me.’
‘No, I don’t think they can. Only I could understand someone like you.’ Catherine giggled. ‘Isn’t that why we always end up like this?’
‘Oh, the part where we try to kill one another?’
Catherine didn’t respond, but rather gained the same insane look in her eyes as Kurenai as shadows began to swirl and eddy around her like a living thing. Azarias waved Slade and Severin off silently, shaking his head, and motioned for them to get out, himself following. Behind them, the two witches faced off; one scarlet, one black.
Lightning flashed and shadows recoiled as Crimson Witch fought Black Witch, the mistress of lightning unleashing crackling torrents of it at Catherine, red flames licking and curling around her and her electricity. Magic circles opened and closed faster than the eye could follow on both sides.
‘Rend!’ Kurenai yelled joyously, raking her hand through the air and letting several bolts of scarlet electricity form and fire.
‘Yod!’ Catherine countered, forming shields of shadow and letting the lightning rip through; the Black Witch had avoided the deadly blow yet again.
‘Well, Catherine, it seems you’re up to all your old tricks.’ Kurenai remarked before throwing another barrage at her.
‘Even as you’re simply bullying through your old ones.’ Catherine replied, both verbally and magically. ‘Perhaps are you not taking this seriously?’ Her eyes narrowed and she swept her hand to one side, shadows coalescing into vaguely human shapes. Kurenai gasped in shock.
‘You really are a hypocrite. Echoes are heretical magecraft!’ she said in anger. Catherine simply shrugged.
‘What? They’re already dead; they won’t be harmed. Anything to kill a Stigma!’ she said, eyes dilated, fierce in expression, joyful in tone.
‘If it’s a Stigma you’re after…’ Kurenai replied slowly, before her eyes burned with her red phoenix-and-flame crest. ‘It’s a Stigma you’ll get.’
‘I’d expect nothing less.’ the Inquisitor snapped back, smiling.
Meanwhile, the party has found itself surrounded by eight Inquisitors. Their magic circles open without a word exchanged and Azarias sighs.
'Looks like we're in for it.' he calls to the others, and each Inquisitor moves to combat a member of the group: the two veterans moving to fight the Paladins, with their six subordinates flanking to fight the others. Words fill the air and spells begin to fly as they launch their first assault, and only timely shields of hardened air from Azarias and Emilia turn the first blasts of magical energy from all sides.
'You're on your own!' the Demon Saint shouts before having to devote his attention to the Inquisitor before him, a mark of his opponent's tenacity and skill.
Dolenus's Inquisitor starts, jerking back to avoid the blow, obviously uncomfortable facing a Beam. His first act is to open his magic circles, then draw his sword, fumbling a bit with his scabbard.
Manteau's Inquisitor is somewhat less easy to intimidate, fighting on more familiar ground: his magic circles deploy quickly, and the Inquistor mumbles through some words before freezing air sweeps through, snuffing out the flames.
Astron's Inquisitor, rather than attacking directly, slams one Flow-enhanced palm into the ground to dispel the flames using brute magical force, before one of his magic circles deploys above his head to unleash something at the Dragon Hunter.
Severin's Inquisitor drops to a knee to avoid the fire spell, then clutches her head in pain while futilely attempting to fend him off using magecraft.
Slade’s Inquisitor’s eyes widen fractionally, then they duck, swearing, and come up with a magic circle to throw beams of crackling energy at him.
Artoria's Inquisitor is different: this one is wearing red stoles in addition to their cassock, and it's obvious that he's more powerful than the others: it becomes even more so when he snaps his fingers and her magecraft is instantly dispelled. He flashes a cocky smirk before five or six magic circles open around him and bolts of golden energy lance out, striking at her.
Dolenus takes note of both the magic circles and his seemingly unskilled opponent. Still wary but deciding to press his advantage, he slashes in a way to target both the magic circle and his opponent, trusting in his reflexes and skill to give him the advantage.
Astron raises a shield of flame above his head to block the incoming attack, he summons his flare, a longsword, the pommel is the shape of a dragon's head with its mouth open, the crossguard is sharp and deadly, it's all colored ash black with cracks of volcanic red, the blade its self is a firey red.
'From the direction of the west, the empty, the formation, the yang; I bring forth radiant light!' She says as six shields of materialized light form around her, stopping the lances of golden energy.
'Connect to Acedia Archive. Activate Thema: Aer'
Instead of her usual bright golden magic circles, the ones that spin into existence are now a bright, almost blinding silver.
'From the direction of the west, the empty, the formation, the yang; I bring forth thunder!'
Silver bolts of lightning, far more powerful than anything Artoria should be able to cast under normal circumstances, shoot at the Inquisitor. This leaves Artoria weakened, but gives her enough time to ready some jewel magic using the Amicita Thema, to prepare for the Inquisitor's counter-attack and her response.
A storm. A perfect maelstrom of shadows and wind, lit from within by garish orange and red flashes. That was what formed the skies over the Arctosi city of Vyngard, and a swirling tornado of it was roaring over the Mages’ Quarters. Within raged the power of a Stigma and the most heretical of magecraft, Echoes, the use of the lingering memories of the dead to create shadows of their former selves. Catherine used them quickly and recklessly, burning through their last recollections of life and eradicating their remaining existence in the world to sustain her own power and using them as shields against Kurenai’s lightning, heedless of their pain.
The Crimson Witch, however, was the main event. Lightning pealed and thunder rumbled around her as she whipped up a storm of her own, a storm formed entirely of wind and red lightning. Her Cursed Eye, the Witch’s Hand, blazed as she burned through contract after contract, the Crimson Witch trading her life away to the World in exchange for power.
No words were spoken: their expressions were enough to tell each other what they wanted to know. Both were contorted by rage and insane laughter, their only goal the utter destruction of the other.
Manteau's Inquisitor crumbles, a dazed look in their eyes, as his staff makes a very satisfying smack against his skull.
Dolenus's slash works like a charm: cutting effortlessly through the magic circle and biting deep into the Inquisitor, who sinks to the ground, energy spent.
Instantly, pain races like fire up Slade's leg, and the Inquisitor presses his advantage, launching more bolts of energy.
The magic circle does nothing as Astron's Inquisitor coats one fist in Flow, leaps forward, and buries it in the Stigma's gut, causing him to skate backwards. More magic circles form, and Astron realizes: the Inquisitor is using them as a distraction, forcing the Stigma to choose to focus his attention on the circles, which could launch attacks at any time, or the Inquisitor, who is evidently adept at close-quarters engagements.
Severin finds the magecraft of the Inquisitor easy to control, a simple, dispersion-style magecraft designed to erect a barrier around the girl as she struggles to regain control of her faculties and her magic. The mage is finding it somewhat more of a challenge to maintain a hold of both, though.
Artoria's Inquisitor swears under his breath and throws himself to one side as her lightning passes through the space where he was, his magic circles re-forming.
‘I offer up this contract, to unleash the magic beast that dances through the sky!’ he shouts, revealing his Archive: Gula. Wolves of red light pour out of his magic circles and lunge for Artoria, jaws snapping.
Artoria throws what appears to be red gems, glowing with power, into the air above her. 'Analyze form.' She mutters under her breath as she quickly scans the magecraft constructs the Inquisitor has created. Calling upon the power of the gems, they shine for a moment with power, and neutralize the ravenous red wolves, the Flow losing form and dissipating.
She reaches into her pocket, searching for a second, as she finds the stone she's looking for, pocketing it for now. Her magic circles open, ready to react to anything the Inquisitor throws at her
Slade moves lethargically through the fight, taking hits that to an outsider, would appear only luck is diverting their lethality. He’s only putting in enough effort to not have the older inquisitors see he’s not trying.
Manteau inspects the inquisitor to make sure he's knocked out (but not necessarily dead) and then goes to whack another inquisitor, the closest one to him that is occupied with something. Hopefully not the one fighting Astron, though, if he's the closest he's gonna get hit by Ignis Theorem.
As they are locked in mental combat, Severin suddenly takes a good part of his concentration off of this and jumps to the Inquisitor, his fist in an arc to her jaw to hopefully knock her unconscious or make her disoriented enough to lose their mental battle.
Artoria's Inquisitor sweeps a hand out to one side. 'I offer up this contract, to bear the spirit beast of light that dances through the air!' he shouts, and his magic circles launch bolts of gold-white Flow like so many scorching rays of the sun.
Slade's Inquisitor is apparently eager, thinking Slade is weak or powerless, and advances, taking a few steps forward and intensifying his assault.
Dolenus's Inquisitor raises his arms to fend off the blow, and gets rewarded with a dagger's pommel to his forehead, knocking him out cold.
Manteau's Inquisitor is certainly not dead, and both Slade and Astron's Inquisitors take this opportunity to use a few of their magic circles to keep him busy dodging bolts of fire.
Astron's Inquisitor stumbles back and comes back swinging, sending one Flow-charged hand into the Flare to knock it aside and the other as a quick jab at the Stigma's throat.
Severin's fist connects, and the Inquisitor crumples silently, unconscious.
Manteau leaps into the air, opens multiple magic circles to blast superheated flames at Slade's inquisitor, and follows up with a strike from his staff, making sure not to set himself on fire by accident.
Artoria quickly takes a clear gemstone, and raises it in the air. The bolts of Flow hit her shield, and diffract in several different directions. Then, she uses her deployed magic circuits, which again glow with that ethereal silver light, which, instead of shining silver light, appears to darken and cast shadows on all that surrounds it.
Connect to Acedia Archive: Execute Thema: Lux.
Artoria's magic circles form in front of one another, much like lenses magnifying each other. She casts a beam of powerful, burning light, magnified and focused by each of her magic circles and aimed for the Inquisitor's heart.
Slade cuts himself off from the rest of the party by escaping into the rows of books, drawing his inquisitor with him. His throwing weapons are spent, and he stands in a loose guard with his broadsword.
"Activate thema: Liber!" Magical ropes of shining silver light restrain the unconscious mage and Severin moves on to help the others. "Sleep tight, little one."
"Oi, you little bastard, picking on a girl!" he shouts at Artoria's inquisitor while throwing one of his flares, and subsequently running over to help Astron. "Activate thema: Imperium!" He locks onto the inquisitor destroying Astron and launches an all-out mental assault.
Faced with assault from three directions, his magic circles shattered, and his mind under assault, Astron's Inquisitor decides to call it quits and surrender while he still has the mental ability to do so, raising his hands above his head.
Slade's Inquisitor follows Slade away from the main fight, only for Manteau's spell and staff to catch him by surprise, crumpling to the ground silently after the young spellcaster generously applied heavy metal stick to back of head.
Artoria's Inquisitor raises a hand and forms a shield, barely deflecting the ray- only for Severin's Flare to sail through the air and pass neatly through him, draining him of energy and causing him to collapse, unable to stand or summon the energy to continue the fight.
The party has apparently finished their battles just in time, as the two veteran Inquisitors decide that being outnumbered is not to their taste and cast spells to drag their juniors out of the fray while retreating themselves. The two Paladins let them go, and Azarias turns.
‘I think it’s time this ended.’ Catherine finally shouted, before throwing her arms out to her sides. ‘Desiring with supreme ardor…’ As she spoke, magic circles formed in front of her palms, and the grips of weapons appeared. ‘Bring down the hammer against witches!’ She grasped the weapons and pulled them through, revealing a long flintlock musket and a short pistol, also a flintlock. Behind her, a third magic circle had been concealed; this one disgorged a clock with no face, only spinning gears and the ever-ticking hands. She leveled the musket at Kurenai. ‘Zaphkiel! Aleph Bet!’
The Crimson Witch flinched as the Inquisitor fired a lethal shard of magical energy at her, but Kurenai quickly recovered and dodged.
‘A Relic.’ she spat. ‘You really will stoop to anything.’
‘Of course. Wouldn’t you, Tsui Ling, Bloodstained Witch? The Inquisition knows what happened to the city of Izumo, and even if the Demon Sin can forgive, we won’t.’
‘I don’t expect you to. But… I still have a card up my sleeve.’ she replied, and Catherine actually paled at the implication and wondered if she hadn’t pushed the Witch straight to the ace that all mages carried; it might leave the Falcon Sin defenseless and weak after, but that was the price one paid for the ability to flatten any opposition. Kurenai’s next words had the Black Witch of the Inquisition scrambling to erect wards and defensive boundaries.
‘Dance, dance, God of Thunder.
Come thunder, come lightning.
Nothing lives forever.’
Catherine swore softly as she continued to build up barriers between her and Kurenai, knowing it wouldn’t be enough; she had pushed too far, too quickly, fatally miscalculating the fine line between anger enough to make a mistake and anger enough to use a Noble Art.
‘An instant, a flash, indulge in pleasure.’
Catherine gave up on barriers and began summoning as many Echoes as she could, feeding on thousands to increase her strength– that was the reason she had taken the position as the chief Inquisitor of this city, this deplorable place where so many died and so many were still remembered. As her orange-red Flow began to illuminate her from within for the sheer quantities of power she was taking in, she began casting her own Noble Art, hoping she still could find a way to make it work.
‘Abandon all in the blink of an eye.
Do not despair– tonight the banquet is held in honor of Death.’ Kurenai continued.
‘I sang in the morning when the world turned young,
I danced among the stars when the moon died out,’
Catherine began, not knowing if she would finish.
‘Perish, perish, perish, perish. Purge all life, enlightenment comes easily.’ Kurenai chanted, picking up her pace slightly.
‘I played in the fields of a distant land,
And watched the sunlight fade away.’
Catherine stumbled through the words for her haste, knowing she wasn’t in the proper mind to cast, hoping the spell would not backfire.
‘Share with all this uplift, this joy, the freedom of oblivion!’
‘Daughter of Oaths!’ Catherine finished, orange-red Flow crackling and freezing the air around her for its potency. But despite that, she knew it wouldn’t be enough.
‘Curse of the Storm King: Dance of Lightning!’ Kurenai chanted a half-second later, and Catherine was subjected to the worst pain she had ever felt as bolts of red lightning, a tornado of crackling scarlet electricity, struck the ground where she stood and leveled the Mages’ Quarters, the city walls, and everything else for a quarter-mile.
Azarias's eyes widened a fraction, and he threw up a massive shield in the form of his magic circle as a massive torrent of red lightning and fire comes to earth behind them, throwing the group several dozen meters: only Azarias's shield protected them from the worst of it, as houses catch fire and begin to burn fiercely.
'We need to go, now, while they're still recovering!' Azarias shouts, before throwing one hand in the air. 'I seek the raging tempest!'
While his incantation has no noticeable effect, the Paladin drags Astron to his feet and gives him a push. 'Go, now!'
Dolenus rolls to his feet, moving quickly, seizing the Argentscale Staff and using it to pull Manteau (who still has a hold of it) to his feet and forcing him to start moving before turning and dragging him along.
Catherine cradled her now-useless left arm in her lap, staring up at the Crimson Witch in a mix of amusement, horror, and awe.
‘I wonder how you came to possess a Divinity-class Noble Art, Tsui Ling.’ she asked, trying to maintain her façade and not give away the amount of pain she was in. ‘It doesn’t seem like the good professor would teach you, since his commitment is for everything that could destroy the world to die out with him.’
‘I’m self-taught on that part.’ Kurenai laughed. ‘With the help of an Eastern mage.’
Catherine’s eyes narrowed a fraction. ‘Hmph. You have plenty of friends, but we’ll get you.’
‘But not today.’
Catherine closed her eyes and smiled, tilting her head up to feel the rain that was beginning to pour down on the burning wreckage around them.
‘But not today, yes.’
Thunder booms and rain begins to pour on them as Azarias's spell begins to take effect, dousing the fires and making it difficult for the Inquisitors to keep pace.
'Kurenai will find us.' Azarias says just before he throws forward one hand, and the gate in front of them explodes, shattering into thousands of fragments which blow outward and away from the group. Beyond are some stables and the open plains.
Azarias dumps a leather pouch (one wonders where he gets the money for all this) into the hands of a stunned groom, and, before the man can protest, swings into a saddle.
Once everyone has mounted, Azarias whistles and all the horses break into a trot, then a gallop. Behind them, smoke rises in great billowing clouds from Vyngard.
'Well,' Azarias shouts. 'That didn't go as planned!'
Seven hours later, night is on them and the horses are tired from the journey, so Azarias calls for them to halt in a copse of trees to spend the night in an abandoned farmhouse. It appears to have been occupied by troops at some point, and the owners are either dead or have yet to return. About two hours later, another horse rides in, and Kurenai stumbles into the doorway, pale and trembling. Azarias gently sets her by the fireplace, where he had gotten a fire going.
'Idiot, using your Noble Art like that without anyone to back you up.' he murmurs, and she smiles weakly.
'At least I can actually stand after using mine.' she whispers, and he sighs before turning to the rest of the group. 'You had better get some rest; we push on in the morning. We aren't out of it yet, not by a long shot.'