Chapter 11 - For Weichsel, Not You
Prefect Gelasius lowered his composite bow as he stood up from the shadows of the far side battlements. Projectile weapons may be disdained by most mages, but it also had no aura flare to allow for an early detection. Combined with the Stonemeld spell that merged his body into the keep itself, it kept his presence completely hidden until the last moment.
The stupid familiar girl never stood a chance.
Two minutes later, six vaguely humanoid clouds blew onto the rooftop. They solidified into people within seconds. Their outfits were all dark gray, each hidden beneath a hooded cloak.
"Didn't you promise that maid Marina that our informant would remain safe?"
"Did I?" Gelasius spoke casually over their linked telepathic channel as he stowed the bow away into a belt pouch. "I believe the words were 'I'll try to bring her out alive if the operation succeeds'. She's still alive, isn't she? I don't need a dumb girl getting in the way until we're ready to leave."
"And if she dies of her wounds?"
"Then sadly, the familiar didn't survive her master's death." The prefect's stern voice then stamped the discussion with finality: "Enough. Sebastian, take your section down and eliminate the target. Gallien, go with them in case they need help, but keep some distance and an eye on their back. Me, Placidia, and Cassio will stay here to maintain situational control and await your return."
"Yes sir," Sebastian replied as he led two other assassins into the keep, their steps silent and their silhouettes blending into the shadows. They were soon followed by one more figure as the wardbreaker Gallien, who allowed them undetected entry onto the academy grounds, also melded into the darkness of the spiral stairway. Meanwhile, the Spellsniper Placidia and Spellstorm Cassio camouflaged themselves, maintaining a vigilant watch on opposing corners of the keep.
Gelasius missed the days when he personally lead the hunt as the strike section leader. Being the prefect of the entire operation squad meant that not only did he have to remain on reserve, he also had to wait anxiously while Sebastian took the thrill of the kill.
He ignored the faintly wheezy breathing that came from the unmoving familiar. After all, her role in this entire operation was already over.
----- * * * -----
Two other hoods nodded as their owners each drew twin kukri blades beneath their protective cloaks.
Sebastian then turned the dispelled door handle before all three stepped inside. Nearly blinded by the glare from hundreds of magical auras that saturated the room, he dismissed his Aura Sight spell before advancing.
Their target sat in a chair on the far side; his head lay motionless across a book on the work desk, knocked unconscious by the antimagic poison.
The two other assassins took guard positions on each side as Sebastian advanced forward for the kill. By organizational tradition, they strove to rely on the most certain method of elimination whenever possible -- death by decapitation.
Then, just as he crossed the middle of the room, a deafening thunderclap erupted from behind, and the hallway furnishings ignited into flames under the raw power of a lightning blast.
"Company! No, intervention!" yelled Gallien over the telepathic communication channel.
With his attention distracted for a split second, Sebastian barely noticed the 'unconscious' figure's slight arm movement that brought a turquoise spell-focus ring into clear view.
"Cyclone blast," muttered Pascal even as he lifted and turned his eyes. Both of the assassins in the rear unleashed cutting hexes with a wave of their blades, only to watch their magic splash against glimmering turquoise shields as eight runic pebbles expended themselves between Pascal's fingers, layering on his entire defensive spell set.
The strike leader Sebastian spun aside to dodge the gush of hurricane-force winds, but the impact itself had never been Pascal's aim. The blast of air acted as a contingency trigger, pulling dozens of runic pebbles that Kaede scattered around the room into the air. They hurled about the enclosed room like a whirlwind of destruction. The glyphic stones bounced harmlessly off walls and furniture, but each time one of them met a living entity that did not carry the ether of their creator, they exploded. The more potent runes even carried disintegration spells, turning any creature they came in contact with into dust.
Detonations rocked the room as the air was instantly filled by flying shrapnel -- cutting shards of rock and jagged splinters of wood blown off the nearby furniture and walls. But while Pascal lay safe behind his Barrier Armor and Spellshield Fortress, the same could not be said for his would-be killers. The layers of defensive magic that enhanced their protective cloaks would have easily repulsed such conventional projectiles, had they not been riddled with holes from absorbing powerful explosions and negating killing spells.
The strike section of three assassins had walked straight into a trap.
With all three of them bloodied by the ambush, Marcellius, who stood closest to the entrance, spun back around the doorframe and into the hallway. He arrived just in time to see another bolt of lightning streak by, realizing a second too late as two materialized blades chopped off his head and turned his torso into a fountain of blood.
Spells flew through the hall as the wardbreaker Gallien laid down covering fire from behind conjured stone battlements. But the other assassin, Valeria, took no chances as she hurled one kukri outside. The curved blade ricocheted off the walls with perfect bounces, multiplying into three each time. Within mere seconds, a roaming cloud of whirling steel swept down the hall, dicing through anything softer than rock with impunity.
Meanwhile, Sebastian charged at Pascal without hesitation. Even with one arm shattered by the runic assault, his other was still armed and ready to rend the flesh from his foes. With a single thought, he activated the Negation spell imbued into his kukri. His first hack cleaved down one of Pascal's spellshields as though meeting mere leather, but its delay allowed his target to spin away against the desk's edge.
Renewing his penetration aid with a flourish of the blade, Sebastian's second slash struck closer to the horizontal axis and sliced through two more spellshields. Sharpened steel then pierced the translucent turquoise armor before entering Pascal's left forearm, but too much momentum had been lost to cut through the bone.
Teeth gritting against the burning pain, Pascal twisted his own arm against the blade, using his Barrier Armor and reinforced flesh to overextend the weapon before it could be withdrawn. He followed with a right hook, and his turquoise ring met cheekbones under the tattered hood with a resounding crack. Surging anger poured through his spell-focus in the form of volatile ether, and the spontaneous burst of raw magic blew Sebastian's head apart in a shower of blood and gore.
The rest of the strike leader's body promptly disintegrated into dust -- a contingency spell with deadman's trigger was common among assassins.
But Pascal was now down to one arm and two spellshields as he faced off against the last assassin, who had already sealed the entrance with a wall of metal.
Should he replenish his outer defenses, or should he attempt to draw the courtblade stored in the glove of his limp left arm?
His own room had been turned into a battlefield. Here, there were no fancy combos or youthful extravagance. Here, lives would flicker and drown in the blink of an eye.
----- * * * -----
Reynald almost snorted as he burst across the stone battlements and cut the mage down. To a spellsword who charged by transforming into lightning, cover made from non-conductive materials was inconsequential.
However, the vortex of blades advancing towards him was a different matter.
A blast of wind, a barrage of rocks, a burst of antimagic... not a single spell could knock off more than a mere handful of blades. The cloud of whirling steel continued its inevitable advance, as slow and unstoppable as a glacier.
It was easy to evade, but Reynald could not afford to run away. He was the promised cavalry; he had to rush inside that room.
"Dispelling Screen!" Parzifal shouted from the other side of the hall. But nothing happened; the advanced spell combination simply wasn't a type that he had any affinity with.
But its inspiration was sufficient.
"Dispelling Aura," Reynald announced as he held up his right hand, fingers outstretched. Waves of antimagic poured off his shining glove as he marched into the steel storm. His burning-red aura surrounded him like a globe of protection, and every blade that touched its edge vanished from existence.
Except one: the original, which sliced right through the unarmored underside of his wrist.
"GAHHHH!" Reynald let out as he dropped his other weapon to grip the bleeding stump. Should of freaking added a Repulsion effect.
"Sorry," Parzifal grimaced as he rushed up to collect his friend's severed right hand. "We need to reconnect this asap."
"N-no time," came the response between Reynald's gritting teeth as his feet shuffled forward. "You'll have to take front."
"You know I can't use attack spells worth anything!" the healer responded as he took up Reynald's wrist stump and cast a localized Sensory Blackout spell over it to suppress the pain.
"Yeah and you just cast a potent attack curse if you applied it without restraint. I know you lack the intent to harm with what happened to your parents, but sometimes you have to kill to save someone!" Reynald soon reached the entrance to Pascal's room, now sealed by a curtain of iron. "I'll disintegrate this on three. Remember what I told you before: you're a bio-transmuter. If there's no foliage in the fight, then conjure some ferocious man-eating plants or something to your advantage. Unless you hate Pascal enough to see a father crying over a son's mangled corpse and his cute little familiar girl dead as well."
Motivation came instantly even if clarity did not. Parzifal's eyes were still uncertain of action, but he nodded back to Reynald with determination as his glove stretched out against the iron wall.
"Void Disintegration!" Reynald's remaining fist slammed against the barrier, opening a man-sized hole through layers of metal.
"Flourishing Brambles, Animate Entangling Assault!"
A single sprout came forth from Parzifal's conjuration, but the transmutation magic he poured in immediately grew it into a mass of thorny vines. Spreading out across the room, the spiked tendrils leaped towards the last assassin like an unstoppable torrent. Valeria had been caught off-guard by the attack from her rear. Her remaining blade slashed and cut on impulse, but there was simply far too many. The veritable horde of vines soon squeezed around her body without mercy, spiked tendrils moving to push between every gap -- even a mouth opened to emit a painful cry.
All three men in the room watched with horror as the writhing, muffled figure vanished beneath the green biomass before the entire cocoon collapsed, presumably as her disintegration triggered.
"Holy Father have mercy. You just raped her to death," Pascal blurted out through a face of stunned shock.
"Remind me never to piss you off," Reynald spoke through likewise expression.
Parzifal's trembling eyes looked the most horrified of all. But after working in forensics and surgeon's labs, there wasn't a ton that could truly freeze the healer trainee. He quickly returned to work on reconnecting and healing Reynald's severed hand. Meanwhile, the mass of vines that crushed Pascal's bed soon shriveled down to little more than a small pile of dried stems before vanishing entirely. Even when the caster wills it, most conjuration magic rarely lasted more than a few minutes; the exception was when it summoned something real from elsewhere.
"Thank you. I did not--" Pascal began as he stowed away his sword and pulled his mangled left arm back into some semblance of normality.
"Stuff a sock in it, Runelord," Reynald shot back with a disinterested gaze. "This is for Weichsel, not you. Let's just fix some quick patches and see if the girls need help... even if that's not darn likely with Ariadne."
Meanwhile, Parzifal was muttering to himself even as he concentrated on closing the wounds:
"I just killed somebody..."
----- * * * -----
"Comp... No, int...!"
Gallien's telepathic shout came garbled. The Konigfeld Academy was simply too heavily saturated with magic for any ungrounded telepathic link to function properly at extended ranges.
But the thunderous noise and tremor that came from below made the situation apparent, even without Placidia's follow-up:
"Rider in the air!"
The hit squad's Spellsniper was already taking aim through an outstretched arm. Three translucent black rings of magical energy formed the firing barrel for her Void Disintegration beam. But her first shot missed as the pegasus corkscrewed across the air in a display of unparalleled horsemanship.
Prefect Gelasius cursed as he recognized the dark, shadowy barding that cloaked the pegasus, not to mention the black-on-burning-red armor and uniform of its rider. They were both signs of a Knight Phantom, the elite order of marauding equestrians that struck fear into every participant of the last war.
The squad's Spellstorm hardly needed orders. Dozens of topaz bolts surrounded him like a cloud of daggers, each spinning within a ring of magical energy. With one wave of his hand, the entire volley hurled out to meet the rider in a single coordinated barrage.
Meanwhile, eleven defensive homing bullets -- Ether Seeker spells -- shot out from the knight with a slash of her sword. Streaking across the open air, the two volleys met each other with explosive fury. But Cassio's weight of numbers easily emerged victorious as they zoomed towards the airborne cavalier.
His target weaved and dodged, soaring through the air on evasive maneuvers as Cassio's shots chased after her. A second wave of Ether Seekers reduced the numbers further, but the Spellstorm was already conjuring bolts for another barrage while maintaining control of the first.
The pegasus knight suddenly broke into seven copies, each streaking across the air on a different path towards the keep. A moment of confusion was enough for Cassio to lose control of his first volley, and they shot wide even as he tried to discern whom the foe was for his second attack wave.
"Third from the east," Gelasius ordered as his eyes swept the targets. His refined control over the Aura Sight spell was one of his specialties. It allowed him to apply the handy utility on small portions of his vision coverage, even in a battle zone where the magical glare would quickly blind most conventional users.
With the prefect's guidance, Cassio unleashed his second volley. But the pegasus soon dived towards the ground, and the Spellstorm's view became blocked by the stony roof. A resounding detonation shook the main keep as the explosive bombardment crashed into its side.
"Go to the corner for clearance! Northwest!" ordered Perfect Gelasius while he and Placidia sniped off the guards on the surrounding towers. The defenders were now taking shots against them with lightning bolts and arbalest crossbows. A professor firing from the residence keep soon crumbled to dust as her black disintegration beam blasted through his window and wards alike...
----- * * * -----
"Drop down! Out of his sight! Use the buildings for cover!" Ariadne heard Kaede's voice resound through her mind. She followed them instinctively, weaving and dodging between the stone construction even as she pondered the small girl's fate. Last she saw, the familiar girl was lying still in a corner with an arrow through her back, presumably either unconscious or dead.
...Apparently not, she smiled, realizing that the small girl was quietly biding her time.
Now using the terrain to her advantage, Ariadne swerved through the gaps between buildings with precise horsemanship. She neared the dormitory keep before rising back into the air to level with the rooftop. As her mount climbed over the battlements from but ten paces away, she came face to face with a hooded figure surrounded by yet another wave of magical projectiles.
Time came to a standstill as Ariadne locked gaze with topaz eyes determined to kill her. Blasphemy coursed through her frantic mind, but she knew it was already too late to evade...
Then, a corner of her sight picked up movement near the rooftop floor. Kaede's slumped body lay right besides the cloaked caster. With a painful yell of her small voice, the familiar girl pulled out the arrow lodged in her upper chest and, in the same motion, stabbed it straight into the mage's left leg.
The caster's balance faltered, and most of his shots flew wide. Nevertheless, three of them grazed Edelweiss' wings, exploding on contact. The pegasus' phantom barding thinned as they focused on the points of impact to absorb the damage. Edelweiss would suffer no worse than three nasty bruises, but Ariadne doubted the shadowy 'armor' could withstand another similar hit.
Cursing audibly, the hooded mage waved his hand while his injured foot kicked out at Kaede, striking her in the face and leaving a bloody nose. Meanwhile, the arcane bolts that he managed to maintain control over -- a swarm of two dozen -- turned around to chase after Ariadne's rising mount.
But the sorely underestimated familiar girl wasn't finished.
Kaede's right hand grasped at her left. In a single swing, she drew a thin shortsword from the glove and slashed at the mage's calves, slicing into one leg just above the leather boots and cutting through the bone. Withdrawing the blade, Kaede leaped off the floor and tackled him in the waist. Her attempted backstab failed to pierce the enchanted cloak, but her impact sent the swaying mage over the battlements' low firing gap and into a plummet.
Unfortunately, the momentum also sent the small girl tumbling over, and Ariadne watched in horror as the familiar's left hand struggled to hold onto the fortifications. Before she could finish casting an Air Glide spell to protect Kaede, the hand slipped off the stone and vanished from sight.
Ariadne reined Edelweiss into a sharp bank. Perhaps she could still regain sight in time to save the girl. Perhaps...
The distraction allowed another hooded assassin to catch the pegasus with a beam harnessing the sun's energy. With his entire right wing torn by scorching heat and his eyes blinded by intense light, Edelweiss crashed towards the keep from twenty paces above.
"Air Cushion!" Ariadne cast upon her familiar mount before her enraged eyes returned to her foe. Reaching her right hand out, a wooden grenade zoomed from a belt pouch into her palm before she hurled it towards the keep, followed closely by a shouted "Ignition Dispel!"
The spell caught the 'grenade' mid-flight, tearing away the shrinking spell to reveal a massive chest-high barrel which promptly ignited. The opposing mage dove aside to evade the crushing object, only to have the keg strike the stone rooftop and burst apart, covering the his surroundings with a conflagration of flaming pitch and tar.
As the burning assassin-mage busied himself putting out the grease fire with a blast of intense cold, Ariadne called upon another trick the Knights were known for: "Phantom Charge!"
Just before her mount crash landed, the last remnants of Edelweiss' shadowy barding tore away, forming a spectral steed that caught ablaze as it charged across the roof. It then rammed the offending mage head-on before detonating into a blazing inferno.
----- * * * -----
The fortifications were still slippery from the melted daytime snow, and Kaede had hardly three fingers' grasp on them. She had already activated the four rune-stored buffs that didn't visually reveal her consciousness, including the Elemental Body of Earth spell which heightened her strength, as well as Shift Impulse which had accelerated her tackle beyond expectations. But even with Mind Clarity reducing the debilitating fog of pain, she was barely able to hold onto her consciousness.
Pulling out an entire arrow shaft, including the accursed tail fletching, through a puncture wound already closed by Samaran fast-healing was far more excruciating than anything she ever experienced.
With her last reservoir of strength depleted and her injuries draining away any remaining energy, she held on for hardly more than a few seconds before plummeting six stories towards the ground below.
Looks like I don't belong here after all... she thought.
At least she heard the horrified scream of the assassin-mage she sent falling first, right before his yell was muffled as though by a thick blanket.
Kaede glanced down just before a giant mass of soft whiteness cushioned her fall. Its very sight was enough to trigger the most incredulous memory of her life.
It was Parzifal's giant tofu, shifting up and down as though munching on something... no, someone: the previously fallen mage.
"Kaede are you alright? I just felt something go wrong," Pascal's worried voice chimed in.
She finally let go of her breath:
"Barely. Saved by Parzifal's giant tofu."
"What is that?" came the incredulous reply.
"I meant his familiar."
After finishing whatever it was doing, the giant tofu bounced up to the wall and somehow, began to climb using its silken white skin. Most of its amorphous body shifted as close to the wall as possible. Yet somehow, it maintained a 'platform' large enough to hold her, while two tendrils wrapped tightly across her bent legs to keep her from falling off.
"We just eliminated the threat below and are heading up to the roof to help," announced Pascal.
Parzifal must be controlling it then, Kaede concluded.
She felt as though sitting on a pillow atop a climbing mattress -- one made from cold putty and jiggled as it moved. Its speed was shockingly fast for one without legs. Within a minute, it reached over the battlements and poured onto the roof.
Still mounting the giant tofu, Kaede took a moment to absorb the situation: a one-winged pegasus lay bleeding and maimed on the stone roof, while Ariadne spun her double-bladed sword but ten paces away. The lady knight danced across the floor with swift footwork, exchanging lightning-fast blows against the assassin's dual-kukris. They clashed with one another like two bladed gales, while another mage stood on the far corner, shooting at targets unseen on the other side of the keep.
The giant tofu began to leap again, bounding towards the far-side caster in the pudding equivalent of a charge.
The Spellsniper took notice and turned around to take aim. Yet before she could unleash even one beam, a storm of forest-green rays arced in from behind her like a rocket barrage. Most of the magic struck harmlessly against stone fortifications, but two shots connected with the caster, petrifying her head and shoulder into granite for a split second before she disintegrated into the winds.
Now only one foe remained.
----- * * * -----
Although Kaede couldn't tell due to the sheer speed of the sword fight, Ariadne knew perfectly well that she was being pressed. Even slowed by burns, the superior experience and prowess of her opponent showed through the precision of his strikes. She had lost the initiative almost as soon as the match began, forced onto the defensive to parry and block. Her armor, both magical and real, were the only reason why he hasn't drawn blood after three grazing hits.
Unfortunately, she knew that the returning Kaede was in no position to help. This was a deathmatch between two accomplished swordsmen, and any amateur interference was as dangerous to one as the other.
Then, for the slightest fragment of a second, the assassin leader -- she was certain of it -- slowed his assault as his Spellsniper vanished from this world.
The Holy Father has graced her one opportunity, and she seized it without hesitation for an all-out attack.
Spinning her Manteuffel blade around, Ariadne parried the closer kukri upwards while bringing her sword up overhead into a full-aggression stance to pull his attention. With a double-tap of the trigger that toggled her sword's two forms, she launched the shorter rear-blade at a downward angle. Her opponent had already lost his outer barriers and protective cloak to her flame assaults, allowing the cable-anchored steel edge to pierce his right boot and dig into the roof.
The other kukri swung forward, cutting through Ariadne's cuirass and into her ribs. But it hardly affected the outcome as the lady knight brought her bastard-sized sword down with a mighty two-handed swing. Pinned down by his foot, the last assassin was cleaved from shoulder to waist before bursting into ashes.
Panting hard with exertion and pain, Ariadne propped herself up using the sword while her left hand unbuckled the breastplate to clutch the wound underneath. Then, as if on cue, the wooden door into the keep burst open, spilling forth three men with weapons drawn.
Ariadne swept her eyes across all three before she chuckled -- which soon turning into a bloody, hacking cough, prompting Parzifal to rush over.
"Parzifal... you should go take a look at Kaede first," she waved him towards the smaller girl, whose body now slumped unconsciously atop the white pudding familiar. "I bet her wounds are healing the wrong way after she left an arrow in for that long."
Parzifal paused for a moment, clearly torn between caring for his girl's injuries and listening to her wishes. But as Ariadne wiped the blood from her lips and sent him a reassuring smile, he nodded and headed off to meet her request.
"W-well... would you look at us?" she commented. "Other than Parzifal, we've sure been taught a bloody lesson."
"I doubt these were run-of-the-mill assassins," Reynald replied, still warming up to his reconnected right wrist by rotating it in circles. "I don't suppose you picked up any clues? Seeing as they all disintegrated."
"Actually..." Ariadne hesitated before continuing: "the leader fought like you; same dual-kukri flurry style."
"I agree," Pascal nodded.
Reynald's brows rose. He then turned towards Pascal with contemptuous eyes:
"Great. You've got Imperial Mantis Blades on your ass now." Then, as both of them looked at him with agape expressions: "What? Did you forget my mama was one? Where do you think my martial skills come from? Papa the retired Artillery General? Ha! He'd rather hold onto her coat while she beat up street thugs with bare hands."
Reynald then puffed up his chest:
"Be proud, ladies and gentlemen! Few could boast of surviving an assassination attempt by an entire Mantis Blade hit squad!"
Silence filled the air as everyone else absorbed this discomforting fact.
"Well..." Pascal cleared his throat sheepishly. "I am profoundly grateful--"
"Oh, shut up for a moment you self-centered prick," Ariadne spat out bits of blood alongside her words. "We did this for Weichsel, and maybe some for your familiar, but certainly not you!"