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The Echelon

The Scars of Magic (Closed)

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Farius moaned tiredly as he opened his eyes, the bright morning sunlight streaming through the windows. Rubbing his neck, he realized he wasn't sleeping on his bed, instead sitting in a rather plush armchair. No wonder his neck hurt. As a soft snoring sound alerted him, he turned to his right, only to find Saria sleeping innocently in her bed, a thin dribble of drool leaking out from her lips as he began to remember yesterday's events. Apparently, the Empress was having one of her nightmares again, and begged him to "keep the nasty monsters away". He, ever the sucker for her infamous puppy dog eyes which had even gotten her extra treats from the servants, was reluctantly dragged by his hand into her bedroom, where he had to sing her favourite song till she fell asleep which thankfully, didn't take too long. Still, Farius couldn't help but smile at Saria. Despite being the Empress, she was still very much a little girl on the inside, a fact he wished the other officials remembered. Getting up from the chair as quietly as he could, he tip-toed gently across the floor, careful not to wake the Empress. Reaching slowly for the door latch, his fingertips barely touched the handle before he heard a soft voice behind him.




He turned around, only to find the Empress looking at him, her deep blue eyes staring deeply at him. His heart immediately dropped as he knew what she was going to say.


"D-Do you really have to go?" she asked, her voice soft with a very audible hint of disappointment. Farius just smiled as he took a seat on the bed, petting her on the head.


"I'm sorry Saria, but this matter requires my personal investigation. Reports say a particularly powerful witch has been sported around one of the outlying villages around our Empire."


Looking downcast, Saria spoke, her voice heavy. "Please Farius," she begged, "You don't have to do this. There are other knights we can send, like-"


Getting up from the bed, Farius cut her off. "I'm apologize, my Empress," he replied, "But this is something I need to take care off with my own hands." Without another word, he got up and walked towards the door. He hated being this formal with her, especially when they were in private, but he knew he wouldn't hear the end of it if he let her continue. Sometimes, he had to know when to cut her off. The plight of being a father, he mused to himself.


"Wait!" He spun around as Saria got off the bed, letting out a small yelp as her feet touched the cold marble floor.


"What is it, my Empress?"


"...Please, stay safe." she muttered, a small smile on her face.


Farius decided to permit himself a smile back at her as he closed the door.




The Bariurian Skydocks. A marvel to behold in its own right, it housed Bariura's impressive naval fleet, ranging from small interceptor flyers to huge dreadnought airships, which lined the thin pathway which Farius was walking along. Taking note of the airships, to his right he could see the legendary Bismarck, a gigantic aerial carrier bristling with cannons and lined with thick armor. Responsible for many of the Empire's greatest victories, the mere sight of this majestic beast of an airship refilled the morale of the soldiers, while striking dread into its enemies as ran head first into enemy formations, soaking up incoming fire while decimating all around it. 


To his left was the sleek, state-of-the-art Impetus, a long destroyer lined with magitek engines, its large size hiding the fact it could easily outrun most airships of its class. Fast, manoeuvrable and agile, many opponents underestimated it as it easily strafed their larger airship and bombarded them with shell after shell.


And right in front of him was the Gloria, the Empress' personal cruiser. Ornately lined with golden trim and polished to a shine, this massive airship was easily the pride of the Bariuran navy. While not as heavily armed as the Bismarck or quick as the Impetus, there was a reason why no sky pirate or even the Alvia Alliance dared to attack it, even when it travelled alone: the Empress' standard. Mounted at the top of the ship, to attack this ship was to attack the Empress herself, and anyone foolhardy enough to even attempt to try would be hunted down mercilessly, before dying an excruciating death.


Today however, he would not be taking any of these grand vessels. Instead, Farius walked towards a rather innocuous carrier, the size of a small taxi, in front of which stood a rather neat looking gentleman, his uniform neatly pressed and ironed and his boots neatly polished. Running up to Farius, the man gave him a salute.


"Good morning, sir!" the man greeted, pep in his voice, "Lieutenant Karl at your service, sir!"


Farius gave him a quick salute in return. "At ease, lieutenant." he replied, "I take it you got my message?"


"Yes sir! Once again, I can't thank you enough for choosing me for this spec-"


"That's quite enough, lieutenant," chuckled Farius as he stepped into the carrier as Karl got into the pilot seat. "Your records are quite impressive, and from your test scores, you seemed like the right person for this job." To be honest, the main reason why he had chosen Karl to be his pilot for this mission was that he was rather...simple minded. Loyal, over-enthusiastic and eager, Farius was confident he wouldn't spill the beans on this mission, and even if he did, he doubted anyone would have believed him anyway.


"So sir, I take it you're heading to the village of Anorith then?" Karl spoke over the vox unit as the crystal and charter symbols around the ship glowed, transferring their power to the engines as the ship slowly started rising into the air, the engines humming softly as the air magic in the glyphs displaced the air below them.


"Spot on," Farius replied, grabbing the dossier file placed in the seat in front of him, which was conveniently left open, "You've read through the dossier, I assume?"


"H-how did you know sir?"


"Just call it a hunch, lieutenant. Tell me, what do you think of our friend here?" Farius replied, thumbing to a page titled "Neraphis Abaranth". He quickly skimmed through the page; Nicknamed the Reaper of Existence, she seemed to be a particularly dangerous witch, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Empire soldiers.


"Well sir, she sure as heck looks dangerous. I don't know why you would want to go after her, but shouldn't you at least bring some reinforcements with you, sir?"


"That would destroy the element of surprise," he replied without skipping a beat, closing the dossier file. "The most effective tactic against a heretic is surprise, lieutenant. Even the most powerful of spells is useless if they don't know whether you're there."


""I-Impressive!" stuttered Karl, "Just what I would expect the Empress' protector to say!"


"In time lieutenant, in time."


"Hey, since she's such a powerful witch, maybe you'll even meet-"


Farius sighed. "-the Dusk Knight. Yes, how could I forget him slicing off Lord Barius' head in front of the Empress herself. Poor girl couldn't sleep for a week." Looking out of the window at clouds down below, he continued. "Regardless, I supposed he would come in handy in subduing the witch."




"Sir! We've almost reached Anorith. 5 minutes till we land, sir!" Karls voice crackled over the vox unit as Farius grabbed a hooded cloak opposite, putting it on. It wouldn't have been wise to draw attention to himself in such a rural village, especially if he was pursuing a witch such as Neraphis.


"No need, lieutenant," Farius replied, opening the ship's door as the loud roar of air entered the ship, "Pick me up from the village square in 5 hours." 


"But how are you goin to-" As Karl turned around, all he saw was an empty passenger seat and the ship's door wide open. "-aww crap."




Dusting himself off from his landing, Farius surveyed his surroundings, the small village of Anorith a few hundred meters away in the distance. He grunted to himself as he began he hike to the village. If what the dossier said was true, he couldn't let a witch like her be running around.


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Locri was awakened early in the morning by the trilling sounds of birds before the sun light was abound. She had stayed in a quiet little inn on the outskirts of the empire in the village of Anorith. She wouldn't be staying for long as she had business elsewhere regarding her weapons, but the village was kind to her after several of her visits. She rolled over and rubbed her eyes before managing to pry them open to glance around the dimly lit room. Nothing had been disturbed for when she went to sleep. 


In one swift movement she tossed the covers aside and swung her bare feet to hang off the bed, then she stood and walked over to the cabinet that had a full body mirror inside and she opened the door to look at herself dressed in the thin white nightgown. Her hair was a white mess of long hair from where she'd slept so well. Locri grabbed her brush shaped like a butterfly from the night stand and took the time to carefully tend her hair. Once it was untangled and smoothed out again, she closed the cabinet door and found her clothes. No point risking magic over something like this.


After a short time, she was fully clothed and again in her overly frilly dress and her bangs were pinned back with a silver butterfly pin. "All right. Ready for another day!" she said aloud with a bright smile.


She packed the few things that were brought to the inn with her, then left just as the sun broke over the distant mountains. The air was pleasant and the sound the a reviving town filled that air to mix with the smells of fresh bread and other foods. Locri's stomach growled and she sighed. Picking a local eatery, she ate a meager breakfast alone before a man dressed in rather battle ready clothes joined her at the table. "Locri! How's it goin? Any luck with things?"


She smiled up and said, "you could at least say good morning when you greet me Thane."


Thane chuckled and leaned back in his chair and said, "Ah, no harm done. We know each other enough, it should be fine."


Locri wiped her mouth and replied, "Well, I don't punish you for that of course. As far as things, my regulators have been acting up. I was headed to get them tuned."


She pulled out a magic pistol, custom made and engineered specifically for her. The one she held was a brilliant white color, the magic chamber currently not glowing. She stowed it back where it was hidden inside her dress strapped to her thigh. "Last I heard, Altruis was still living in the same place, so that's where I'm planning to go."


Thane nodded, no surprise on his face. "I'm surprised that the Empire doesn't know what you look like or anything. At most I've only ever heard rumors of powerful wizards and witches roaming around," Thane said quietly.


"The people who know me aren't cruel. They are all kind people who want peace just like me. Besides, it's not like I go around willy-nilly with it all. What do you think I am, just some kid? despite my appearance, I'm the same age as you remember."


Thane recoiled at her statement as he had forgotten for a moment, but Locri continued without noticing. "In any case, I'm sure there are plenty of rumors, but what can you do? They all get found eventually. I've just kept my identity under wraps is all," she said, then continued eating, indicating the conversation was over. 


"Well, I've got some things to take care of, so I'll see you around, and I'll keep my ears open for any more information regarding your quest."


Locri nodded and Thane left her to finish the what little food was left. After she paid for the food, it was to the stables for her horse. Unable to afford an automobile, she relied on horse power to get her from one town to the next, which was all right in the outer regions, but drew more attention closer to the capital. Head north from here for about two days and I'll be able to reach the place, she thought to herself while walking the streets towards the stable, the sun now risen high over head.

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It was an ordinary school day in Alysia. Wide-eyed children looked up from their desks, their little necks aching from the strain of looking intently at the impossibly tall Mr Durban. Some children gave up in the middle of class and let their heads slump on the tables, their eyelids drooping soon after. Mr Durban’s speaking voice was not helping. He read in a persistent monotone from his book, and if he had bothered to look away from it he would have noticed that even the raised heads came with glazed eyes, as students slowly mastered the art of sleeping with their eyes open.

Matty propped his head up with his hands, his puffy cheeks pressed out like a balloon. He tried not to look at Thomas Evans sitting beside him. Matty considered himself quite an even-tempered person, but even he could not quite stand Thomas Evans, who loved to talk about his father. His father worked as a minister in the Bariura Empire, and he was always talking about the horrible fates people using Free magic were subjected to, if they were caught. He insisted their families too were not spared. Matty found the stories frankly horrifying, for they reminded him of how his father must have died, and he would seek to avoid talking to Thomas whenever possible. In fact, all the other children didn’t like him very much, which was why he ended up sitting with him to begin with.

He was doing his best to ignore Thomas, he really was, but Thomas leaned in and whispered in his ear, and he couldn’t really do anything about that.

“I saw,†whispered Thomas cryptically.

“What?†Matty couldn’t help asking, even though he told himself repeatedly not to fall into Thomas’ trap by replying to him.

“I saw your toy move,†Thomas continued. Matty froze. He tried to look natural, but he knew even without looking that Thomas had sensed his tension, and his dark eyes were gleaming.

“What toy?†Matty applied the technique of acting clueless.

“Your plush toy. The one in your knapsack. It poked its head out and looked around. I saw it. Don’t lie to me. I can tell if you’re lying.â€

Matty’s lips went dry. He must deny it at all costs. He knew what would happen to him if he didn’t. He could remember Thomas’ tales all too well.

“You were using Free magic, weren’t you? Your toys can’t move on their own, unless you use Free magic,†Thomas said.

Matty turned to look at him.

“Of course not, you must’ve seen wrongly,†he said. “I moved the toy with my own hands. It didn’t move by itself.â€

“Hey, Strudwick and Evans,†Mr Durban’s voice echoed from the front of the classroom, “stop talking over there and pay attention.â€

Matty stiffened. Was Thomas going to tell on him?

“Yes, sir,†Thomas simply said. He turned back to his seat and glanced at Matty with a self-satisfied grin on his face.


Thomas approached Matty again during break. Matty literally jumped when the bigger boy plopped down on the seat beside him.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell my Dad,†said Thomas. Matty waited. He knew what was coming next.

“… if you do all my homework for the month. And don’t try telling me you moved that toy with your hand. I saw where your hands were the whole time. They were right in front of your face, stupid.â€

That night, a worried Marlene let Matty go to bed without eating dinner. He was ghastly pale and couldn’t eat a single bite of his favourite tuna.

In addition, he professed a bit too much delight when she suggested taking him to the doctor the next day.


Plushie crawled up to Matty and pressed himself on his arm. The boy was sitting on the bed with his face buried in his knees.

“Plush, plush~†said Plushie, trying to get a grip of his arm so he could cuddle. “It’s all my fault, isn’t it? I got Matty into trouble, uguu!â€

Firespine, who was resting against the pillow in her wooden form, cocked a beady wooden eye at him and snorted.

“I must say you’ve messed up this time, Plushie,†she said coldly. “That boy didn’t sound like the friendly sort. He’ll probably bully Matty some more with this knowledge, and Matty can’t even tell Mr Durban about it. It’s been a week already, and he hasn’t asked Matty to stop doing his homework yet.â€

“I shouldn’t have insisted on following Matty to school!†squealed Plushie sadly. “Matty, I’m sorry. Please forgive me. You still love me, don’t you?†He buried his face in Matty’s pyjama sleeve. Oh, he couldn’t bear it if Matty would ignore him, or be miserable forever, and it would undoubtedly all be caused by him. How he wished he could make everything better! This entire week, Matty had been staying up late at night, doing double the amount of homework while trying to hide it from his mother and Marlene. He was careful not to make his answers too similar either, for fear of Mr Durban catching on.

Matty suddenly looked up, causing Plushie to fall off and land on the bed harmlessly with a plop. He had a determined look in his eyes.

“We have to run away,†he said.

“Run?†repeated Plushie uncertainly. Even Firespine raised an eye.

“Thomas Evans wouldn’t keep the secret after one month. He’d tell his father, and then I would be caught and killed, and so would Mama and Marlene. I can’t let that happen!â€

“Uguu no, you can’t die!†Plushie agreed, running up to cling to him once more.

“But when are we going to run away? I suppose we’re all going with you, of course?†said Firespine.

Matty paused. When should they run away indeed? He probably should say goodbye to Mama and Marlene first-

There was a knock on the door. It was an urgent knock – the person was tapping on the door repeatedly. Who would knock on the door so impatiently at this time of night?

“Now,†he said. “We’re leaving now. Firespine, please.â€

Firespine nodded, hopped off the bed as best she could in her frozen state, and wobbled gently. A puff of smoke erupted from the wooden figurine and when it dispersed, in its place was a life-size dragon, shaking her head and extending her wings to stretch.

Sammy the toy Soldier flung open the window.

“I’m coming with you too, sir, if I can!†he said with a salute before proceeding to jump into Matty’s pyjama pocket while Plushie positioned himself in his lap.

And with a gust of wind they were off, soaring into the night sky just as the front door opened to reveal Mrs Kitchener, urgently asking for some fever medicine for her sick daughter.


Matty had not considered that it was very dark, and they could not go very far without knowing where they were headed. It was cold, too, up in the sky, and Plushie hid himself under Matty’s shirt for warmth. Firespine, too, was breathless – she hadn’t really flown very often, after all – and so Matty directed her to land at a rural village. No one was about at this time of night, and Matty was too shy to draw attention to himself by rapping on people’s doors, and so he chose a secluded spot behind a bush and settled down to try to sleep.

“Here, come close,†said Firespine, moving to curl her body around his. “You’ll be warm like this.â€

“But what if people see you?†he murmured, but before she could answer he had clung onto her rubbery belly and was snoring faintly.

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Richard Evans was having a very long day.

Some thought the aristocracy of the Bariura Empire were a bunch of lazy good-for-nothings who coasted through life on their hereditary privilege, but Richard would have been the first man to contest that notion -- very vehemently, at that. He was a self-made nobleman, thank you very much; he hadn't gotten to his station by blood, but by the sweat of his brow and his own natural talents at management and entrepreneurship. Of course, this took plenty of effort on his part, as how he'd spent the last twelve hours would have attested -- meetings with the merchant guild in the morning, a luncheon with the Duke at noon, and an afternoon of trying to deal with the scheming of the petty men who thought to undermine his hard-earned prosperity. He'd earned his fortune legitimately, and no amount of disingenuous mud-slinging would change that a bit. He was the very model of an honest, incorruptible minister and servant of the Empress, and no amount of rumor-mongering could change that.

Consequently, he was rather exhausted when he entered his bedroom that evening, and it took him quite long to realize the change in the decor when he returned. Strange... I don't quite recall owning a suit of armor quite like that. Looks antique... where did I get it?

Neither did he recall suits of armor having inexplicable propensities for suddenly moving and pinning their owners against walls.

"W-who are you?!" Richard gasped, struggling against the armored figure's iron grip. No matter how much he thrashed and struggled, however, he remained firmly pinned against the wall, his entire weight held six inches above the ground by a single steel-covered hand. His fine clothes were already becoming damp with sweat; he was getting rather worried that all that moisture would ruin the fabric.

"The Law." The armor intoned in a voice like grinding tombstones. A spark of realization struck him, and he gulped very audibly, the color completely draining from his face. "You're the one... the one who killed Lord Barius!" he blurted in an uncharacteristically squeaky tone. "What do you want with me?!"

"Do not think me a fool. You know exactly what I want with you." The armored figure, the thing otherwise known as the Dusk Knight, rumbled. "You raised your child well. He would make a loyal citizen of the Empire in good time, with his naive but ironclad obedience to Her Majesty's precepts. It would be such a shame if he learnt that his dearest father was heretical filth, a worm who dared to consort with the Ruinous Powers." The grip on his neck tightened, and Richard started finding it harder and harder to breathe. "Did you think that the sudden windfalls your estate reaped would have gone unnoticed? You call yourself a self-made man; all I see is a groveling cur, a craven wretch willing to turn to a Witch to bless your fields with her powers. Subtle enough for any mere village persecutor to miss, but I am the Empress' iron hand, and no crime can escape my watchful eye."

"G-guards!" Richard squeaked, feebly reaching a hand upwards to try and dislodge the unyielding grip on his throat.

"They will not come. They know better than to obstruct the Dusk Knight in the execution of his duty, though the same cannot be said for you." Then, pain exploded through Richard's back, and he looked down numbly, seeing that his shirt had turned red. My best shirt, too. Bugger. A moment later, he noticed the sword emerging from his belly, as though he were a kebab peddled by some southern merchant. The blade twisted, and his vision went white, a strangled scream escaping his lips as agony clawed at his mind.

Then, he felt a pinprick in his shoulder, and turned his head slightly, noting the strange needle attached to a liquid-filled glass vial the Dusk Knight had jabbed into his arm. Abruptly, the darkness eating at his vision faded slightly -- only for the pain to return with agonizing clarity."Standard healing formulation used by the Army. It will mend your wounds provided the dosage is regularly reapplied, preventing even mortal wounds from killing you for good." The Dusk Knight twisted the blade again, and the pain suddenly redoubled, tearing through his mind like a keen blade. "I have plenty more of said potions -- time is on my side. You will tell me everything you know about these Witches you have been contacting for assistance -- their identities, their powers, their strengths and weaknesses, and so on. And only then, when the last of the witches is burning at the stake... You will finally have my permission to die."

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The farmhouse before him looked empty and abandoned, but Merc Vertrevalan was no normal man and the murmur of the gods told him his eyes did not tell him the truth. With a slow pace he inched his way towards the decaying building, circling slightly to his right until he caught sight of an automobile lodged in the building’s side; damaged heavily along the sides and front. Merc stepped up close to the machine and ran his hand down it’s metal.


“This I from the capital…†he mused, stepping around to look into the cab. “What is it doing all the way out here?†he pulled his hood further forward to hide his face in shadow and stepped through the hole the automobile had created and into the building.


It was a rather unimpressive and clearly peasant-class dwelling; littered with rubble from the apparent accident. Merc stepped gingerly into what had once been a kitchen and closed his eyes, straining his ears to pick up any movement of life. Nothing was apparent so he opened them again and lowered his hood, moving to the kitchen cupboards in the hope he could find some proper food. He had been living of hunting and he wasn’t very good at it, leaving him to dine on very little animals.


Unfortunately, someone had clearly had the same idea as the cupboard were completely bare; even the cutlery was gone. Merc sighed and pulled his hood up again before exiting the building by the main door. The thick wood of the door had been reinforced by a bar across its centre but Merc paid it no mind as he pulled the lock free and threw it to the floor. He pushed the door open with his toe and stepped out into some kind of garden patch. The vegetables had long since been acquired by an unknown force and Merc couldn’t resist a sigh as he began walking again.


When he was a few hundred feet away from the house, he reached up and scratched an itch that had suddenly developed on one of the many black welts that covered his body from head to toe. He had scratched absentmindedly but once he had realised what he had done, Merc froze in place and lowered his hands to his side. When the welts on his body began to ache and itch, Merc knew it could only mean one thing for him and anyone nearby.



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Farius sniffed the air as he surveyed the landscape around, taking note of the village's lush field and fruit-filled orchards, a stark contrast to the heavily industrialized scenery in the city. The fields practically sparkled with golden grains of wheat, while he could practically smell the citrus fragrance in the air. While other would have chalked it up to the wide open countryside being better for growing food (which was true to a certain extent), Farius could tell this wasn't the only thing that contributed to it. Even now, he could sense Free magic coursing through the land, enriching the plants with its power. Normally, this sort of thing would have been banned, the farmers killed for witchcraft if they were ever found out. Thanks to Saria's personal pleas however, the ban of "harmless" free magic was relaxed, though Farius himself personally knew that was how Free magic always started out. An innocent use of it to enrich the ground here and there, and the next thing you know, the entire land is overgrown by some magical sentient plant. Still, her actions gained her somewhat more popularity with the common folk, who stood the most to gain from the use of Free magic, though her detractors claimed she was becoming "negligent with her handling of Free magic", a claim none dared to say in front of the Empress, and by extension, Farius. He had his good hearing to thank for that titbit of rumour.


Other than a few people strolling around and a couple of vendors hawking their goods, the village square was currently rather empty at the moment, most of the village residents currently working in the fields after their breakfast. Perfect, he thought to himself as he sat on a nearby bench overlooking the rest of the plaza. Pulling up his hood and concealing his face, he started chanting, his eyepatch starting to glow a faint blue.


"The all-seeing eye knows all, sees all, as sure as the light pierces the dark. Mind Seeker."


In an instant, a dozen voices filled filled his head as he winced, before regaining his composure. The spell he had just cast was Mind Seeker, a powerful yet easily hidden spell that allowed him to scan through the thoughts of those around him, albeit with less detail than if he had just sat a person down and stared straight at them. Still, it was a useful spell, though it wasn't one he would cast in a crowded area, lest his head exploded from all the thoughts. All right, he thought to himself, time to get to business. Closing his eyes, he started to listen to the thoughts around him, reading them one by one as he attempted to locate Neraphis.


"Godamnit, I'm going to have to throw all these apples away if no one buys them."


"Man, that was a good breakfast. Wish I didn't have to pay for the extra bacon."


"Hmm, wonder what I should have for dinner tonight? Lasagne, perhaps..."


"Gotta find transport soon, can't risk spending too much time here, lest they find out about my magic."


Farius opened his eyes, looking at the direction of which the last thought came from. The stables. How obvious, he thought to himself as he got up, if I were a witch, I wouldn't want to stay here too long either. His steps quickening, he arrived at the stables, his fingers running against the handle of his blade.


In front of him was a short girl, neatly dressed, her white hair standing out particularly. She was currently bargaining with the stable master, who seemed adamant on giving her "his finest horse". If anything, she didn't look threatening at all, though Farius knew from his fair share of experiences to never underestimate anyone, especially witches. Still, it was probably a bad idea if he indeed ended up stabbing some innocent girl on the streets. Clearing his throat, he tapped her on the shoulder.


"Excuse me, miss. Do you happen to know a Miss Neraphis?"

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"I told you already sir, I don't have the kind of money to pay for such a fine steed. I'm just headed toward..."


Locri stopped to look at the man who had addressed her. For a moment, she couldn't even register what he'd asked, her mind still in bargain mode, but after collecting her thoughts, she looked up at him and replied, "I can't say I know this person. I'm sure I've heard the name around before, but isn't that just some sort of bed time story or something?"


The look on her face was one of innocence and purity, as if the dark past and present that engulfed the world passed around her, leaving her unscathed. She turned back to the stable master who seemed to have lost all of his fight in the presence of Farius. "Just take any horse and go my dear. Don't worry about the payments. It's all fine," he said hoping that if she left Farius might follow suit and leave their village unharmed.


Locri looked ready to protest as she wouldn't want to be so cruel, but the look on the man's face was one of fear. She selected one and the stable master set her up ready to ride out. "Did you need anything else...Mr.?" she asked politely and with a bright smile that seemed to be enhanced by the sweet scent of the fruits around. 


(I do feel my post is lacking, but I really just can't think of anything else x.x)

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Merc stood as still as a statue for nearly a full five minutes; glancing left and right out of his hood to catch sight of what may be causes his scars to itch. Still, he was surprised that nothing had happened yet; usually when the black welts were irritated, Merc was immediately set upon. Perhaps it is residual aching or a foreboding of things to come. He thought before adjusting the hood around his face again and stepping off in the direction he had been planning to walk to anyway. His destination wasn’t in his mind, however, as he kept a constant vigilance to his sides and back; still somewhat convinced that he would be attacked at any moment.


An hour later, he finally relaxed, the thick night around him hiding him from attacks as much as the opposite was true. So at ease now with the belief of his safety, Merc continued his travels with no further troubles or itches. He came upon a rural town deep in slumber and walked slowly into its presence. This time something caught his attention more intently then the itching of his scars; this was the reaction of the river of Free Magic constantly flowing through him.


A Free Magic practitioner is nearby. He thought and came to a stop to sense in exactly what direction the user was. Merc let his feet guide him, led by Free Magic, until he came to a large collection of thick bushes. Standing at the bush, the sense of Free Magic was strong and it didn’t take Merc long to step around the foliage and come face to face with a dragon.


Merc opened his eyes in shock but something about the beast gave Merc the feeling it wasn't entirely real. Perhaps it was the magically link the creature had with the boy snuggled into its belly and it was from him that Merc felt the flow of Free Magic coming from. He started to step forward but stopped himself, the boy was fast asleep and waking him seemed rude, so Merc sat down cross-legged and rested his hands in his lap. Merc had no evidence why the boy was sleeping behind a bush, but it wouldn’t be a large leap to think Free Magic was the cause. When the boy awoke, Merc wanted to know all about the Free Magic he possessed. But until that point, he would guard him while he slept.

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Farius smiled at Locri and said, "I'm Farius Al-Arfitz and I thank you for the time."


Locri watched him as he walked away and she was thankful that he was too preoccupied with Neraphis than trying to just hunt down free mages. Still, she watched him until he was totally out of sight. Even if he's still around, It's not worth the risk to track him. I'll just take my chances and move on to the city. She thanked the stable master briefly and then left with the horses reins in hand. The only way to travel without the empire was by horse, and she had no problems with that. 


Rather than run out of town, Locri decided to take it slow in case Farius had any suspicions. Even if she had her magic suppressed, there was no certainty. She walked the path out of town with a smile hoping the weather would remain as bright as it was right now. The wind blew gently through her hair white and rustled the foliage around. That's when she felt something different. Not far from the outskirts of the forest was the distinct flow of free magic that pervaded the atmosphere. Locri looked around for anyone watching, then she slipped into the undergrowth unnoticed, lashing her new horse's reins around a low tree branch. 


Quietly she stepped toward the presence, hands close to the regulators hidden beneath her dress. Closer, closer, careful.


She emerged past the final blocking bushes and found the backside of a living dragon. She gasped slightly, surprised by the sight. However, she knew that the magic didn't originate from the beast, but rather from the front of it. Staying her distance, Locri skirted the bushes around the beast, too curious about the unchecked use of magic so close a populated area. She found a man, as well as a boy curled in the arms of the beast. "Umm, what exactly is going on with all of this," she asked, feigning ignorance of the use of magic.


She made sure to make herself to look non-threatening and put on her natural look of curiosity as she came closer to the man, though not to close for fear of attack.

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Matty woke up to something soft and furry tapping on his arm. Plushie had been trying to tap him awake for the past few seconds, and it was only when streaks of bright sunlight bore down on his eyes that he became fully awake. He yawned and sat up to see two different strangers staring at him curiously. Plushie hurriedly jumped into his arms, eyeing them warily. Firespine had turned back to her wooden toy form, and so he suddenly felt surrounded.

“Who’re you?†he mumbled, though aware that he was most probably the outsider here.

“They’ve been here since hours ago,†Plushie explained from his cosy spot, nestled with Sammy the Soldier. “When I woke up, I saw the man come first,†he pointed a stubby arm at the man with a hood over his face that seemed very frightening. The woman came next. She looked like she wasn’t very much older than Matty, and wore a wondering look on her face. Matty found her a lot less scary.

“I’m sorry,†he said, frantically standing up and dusting his pyjamas down, where they had caught bits of grass and dirt from last night’s sleep. “I didn’t mean to come here. Does this place belong to you? I saw nobody, and I felt so tired, so I went to sleep.â€

He suddenly wished his parents were here, or Marlene. Yes, Marlene would know what to do. But it was daytime now, and his family members would have found him gone, and would likely be searching for him. They would be very worried. Maybe he shouldn’t have left home. He felt incredibly homesick and lost.

“Do not try to attack,†a booming voice said from beside him. Unbeknownst to him, Firespine had activated again, her looming dragon form dwarfing him completely. She stepped forward to obscure him, and glared down at the two people. “I am capable of burning the both of you to a crisp, or stomping you to death. State your purpose, or leave at once.â€

“Hooray!†said Plushie, clapping his arms in a “pa, pa†sound. “Firespine will protect us! She’s the best!â€

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He heard the rustling of the bush before he felt the flow of Free Magic, and for Merc, that was a fairly big deal. His constantly open connection to magic meant that he could feel if anyone in his vicinity could channel Free Magic, but the girl in front of him now was letting out but a trickle. Free Magic was like a raging river, it moved and flowed as it pleased but standing before Merc now was someone who could apparently limit or camouflage their link; it was something Merc had not come across before because most people simply turned their link ‘off’ or ‘on’ when they used it.


The girl edged around the large dragon until her sight settled on the seated Merc. She looked curious and it sounded in her voice when she spoke. “Umm, what exactly is going on with all of this?†her voice faltered ever so slightly as if merely mentioning the obvious magic was taboo.


Merc smiled pleasantly, now sensing the clear connection the girl had to Free Magic. “I’m sure you can guess what’s happening here but I would prefer it if we discuss this later; the boy is sleeping and I do not wish to wake him.†He gestured for the girl to take a seat close to him but she didn’t approach. Instead, she stayed where she was with the same look on her face. “Stand if you wish, but I can guess you’ll get tired eventually.â€


During the hours that the boy slept, the dragon shrunk to the size and make of a wooden toy, and with the movement of a cuddly toy, Merc could hazard a guess at how the boy was manifesting his link to Free Magic. The cuddly toy in question was nudging the boy in the arm in an attempt to wake him up, and just as Merc started to speak to tell him to let the boy rest, his attempts worked and the boy stirred awake.


The boy seemed confused temporarily and jumped to his feet apologising for sleeping there and wondering if the spot belonged to either Merc or the girl. Merc stood up with him but before he could ease his mind, the toy dragon had grown once again to full size and stood behind the boy with a menacing aura. It spoke a warning and Merc spread his arms and showed his palms to indicate he was not a threat.


“I offer no threat to a practitioner of Free Magic as all those that do are my brethren. What I offer instead is my friendship and knowledge. I have been around for a fair few years and the gift from the gods is sometimes mysterious and hard to control. This same offer I extend to you as well, by the way.†He had been speaking to the boy but directed the final statement at the girl. “My name is Merc Vintrevalan and it is my privilege to make your acquaintance.â€

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A rickety carriage trundled along the cobblestone road to the village, its aging axles creaking and groaning in time with the revolutions of its wheels. Aboard the carriage was one rather unusual passenger -- the Dusk Knight, an impassive, faceless figure in all-concealing black armor, seemingly unperturbed by the bumpy, uncomfortable ride. It was certainly a far cry from the multitude of transport options in the capital, from galvanic streetcar to stately zeppelin -- every one of them far faster, more comfortable and not smelling like horse manure, to boot. The Dusk Knight was not one to complain about such matters, however; out here in the countryside, you took what you could get, and uncomfortable or not, this was still somewhat faster than walking. Those heretics weren't about to execute themselves, after all -- and out here in the boondocks, there were certainly heretics aplenty.


The carriage driver, a short, swarthy man of Southern ancestry, cracked his whip, and the team of aging horses pulling his little carriage responded by moving very imperceptibly faster. "Ya don't come from around these parts, do ya, Sire... I never quite caught your name, did I?"


"Smithee-Hopkins The Third." The black-armored figure replied in a completely deadpan monotone.


"Sire... Smithee-Hopkins The Third, huh? Sounds like ya from the capital, then," the driver replied jovially. "How'd ya like it out 'ere in the country? Charmin' lil' villages, splendid scenery, and lovely weather... I heard the air in the countryside is good for the mind."


"Disgusting." The Dusk Knight rumbled dismissively, his helmeted head turning as he surveyed the surrounding fields. 


"Wot? I think it looks wonderful. Bet the grass out here's way greener than what ya get in the city, right Sire?" The driver asked, raising an eyebrow in confusion while batting a fly away with one hand. "I mean, just look at those beautiful orchards. Some farmer's pride and joy, I'd reckon."


"That is precisely my point. This place looks beautiful to you simple folk because it is corrupt, ever so subtly tainted by the Ruinous Powers. Her Holiness still chooses to ignore this rot gnawing at the foundations of the Empire; she is but a child after all, so perhaps it is to be expected." The knight stated. 


"... You sure are a strange fella, Sire Smithee-Hopkins the Third," the driver muttered, and they passed the rest of the trip in silence. Several long minutes later, the carriage finally squeaked to a halt at the village square and the knight alighted, leaving behind a small bag of coins and a driver very relieved to be bidding his new acquaintance adieu. He strode off in the direction of the stables, and before long, he had found the man he'd been looking for, a Southerner that the Empress held in high regard. "Farius Al-Arfitz, I presume. You seem a little lost -- perhaps you really do need my help after all, seeing that you've just let someone with the Ruinous Power walk free."

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“F-Free Magic…â€

The man who said his name was Merc was using a lot of big words that made Plushie scratch his furry head and blink cluelessly, but Matty caught the most important phrase. Free Magic. He was on their side. The boy visibly relaxed and nodded.

“You’re a good person, I know,†he said confidently. Firespine glanced doubtfully at him, but knew enough to trust her owner when it came to judgment of people, and also retreated, though still with hostility in her dark eyes. “I’ve been so scared, and so tired… but it’s good that I’ve met good people now.†He walked hesitantly up to Merc, who had spread his hands out to indicate friendliness, and mistakenly took it as an invitation for a hug. He buried his chubby face into the man’s tummy and wrapped his little arms around his waist. Choked gasps and sniffles could be heard as the man’s shirt gradually dampened. Plushie let out a gasp and went up to hug Matty’s leg in turn.

“I… I want to go home,†came Matty’s muffled voice, “but I can’t now. They’ll find me and kill me like they did to Papa, and kill my whole family too. But I shall be brave. I must.†He extricated himself now, suddenly embarrassed at the realisation of his behaviour, and frantically rubbed his tears away.

“Thank you for finding me,†he told them in a trembling voice. “May I… may I follow you around, whatever you’re doing? I can help! Firespine can do a lot of work – she’s a real dragon. And I can help you do Maths. I’ve been scoring A for Maths for many years-â€

“I would think that my permission should be sought before you commit me away,†said Firespine in a huff, smoky breath escaping her cavernous jaws to exemplify her indignation. “Besides, these people look like they’ve important things to do. Kids can’t help them. You’ll only be a burden. The only thing you can offer is magic, but I’m sure they’ve plenty of that themselves.†She took a long hard stare at the girl, but remained silent.

Matty had been listening, but his next words suggested that he had dismissed every advice of his dragon.

“What are you doing here?†he asked both Merc and the girl. “You’re here to do something, right? Please let me help. I can… I’ll try to do anything you ask me.â€

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Locri bent down to pat the boys head, adding comforting words like an older sister would do to her worried younger brother. "There there. It's all right. I wouldn't leave you alone out here to fend for yourself," she said with a smile.


Still though, she could feel the intense gaze of the dragon on her and she kept her magic suppressed with ease. She looked around for a moment to check for anyone, then pulled away from her comforting. Despite her almost child-like voice, when she spoke to Merc it held almost a commanding power to it. "I was stopped by an imperial by the name of Farius. He was searching for someone named Neraphis, but he didn't seem interested much with anyone else. Still, it'd be safer to put distance between us an this village," she said, though knowing very well that this man wasn't associated with her at all.


"What's your name before we continue? I can't very well make friends if we don't know each others names," she asked the boy, then directed her next statement at both of them, "I'm Locri Steel. I welcome your trust as well Merc."


Locri ran her hands through her silvery-white hair and pulled it over her left shoulder and smiled to them both.

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Merc let the boy approach but was surprised when he buried his face into his stomach and sobs escaping from him told Merc that he had begun to cry. On the way into the hug, the boy snagged some of Merc’s cloak and the fabric caught between the boy’s tears and the metal of his armour. When he pulled away, after having vented, Merc smiled in an attempt to comfort him. The boy was lost now he had run away from home and didn’t know what to do. Merc briefly thought about how the rebellion would sweep him up in an instant; especially with his strong link to Free Magic. Before Merc could answer any of the boy’s questions, the girl stepped forward and patted the boy on his head.


Keeping his eye on the dragon, he didn’t trust it completely not to attack, Merc listened as the girl comforted the boy before turning her attention to him.


“Farius Al-Arfitz. It is probably best we do not run into him at the moment. I’m not occupied with anything important as it stands, so I would say the best bet is as you say; we should put distance between us and him.†Merc adjusted the hood that hid his scarred face and the leather belt that fastened his sword to his waist. “It is nice to meet you Locri Steel. Unless you have somewhere specific you are travelling, I know of a village that would happily take you and the boy in and look after you. They value Free Magic nearly as much as me and you would be safe.â€


Merc stepped away from the two of them and glanced around the area, a feeling of unease settling on him. “But regardless, we’ll need to move swiftly to avoid Farius; shall we proceed?

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Matty had not heard of Farius Al-Arfitz himself. It sounded foreign, though, like one of the men in the bedtime stories he heard, and such men were always bad and scary. He nodded in agreement at moving out to the friendly-sounding village. This place seemed a bit too quiet and spooky, and he wanted a warm place where cheerful people would cook for him and welcome him into their homes. He shivered suddenly and let out a sneeze, rubbing his nose against his pyjama sleeve. Staying out in the open at night was indeed chilling. Plushie cuddled closer to him, hoping to pass him some warmth.

“How far is this village you speak of?†Firespine asked, standing away from the group to spread her thin wings out. “I can perhaps give all of you a ride. It may be faster to travel by air.â€

“Won’t we be seen then, by the Farius man?†mused Matty. It did not seem very logical to him to be flying about in the sky on a huge dragon in broad daylight, when they were running away from some evil man who was possibly a powerful demon like in the tales he heard.

“Well, it’s not as if I particularly like people riding me,†said Firespine, a tone of annoyance in her voice, “but if our journey is to be expedient, I believe a mere Imperial cannot outrun me in flight.â€

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Locri pondered a moment. She wasn't sure what village Merc was referring to, but it was likely to be a detour from the city of Tormag, her original destination. However, she didn't want to leave the child behind on his own. If he'd fled from his home town because of his free magic, it was likely someone knew about it already, and it would be impossible to return him. Such a young child already on his own in this world. This is what the Bariura do to us. 


She clenched her fists and finally said, "Either way we need to get moving quickly. I'll help out where I can for now, but I do have goals. I can’t stay in this village you mentioned for long, but if it’s for him, I’ll at least accompany you.â€


She looked at Firespine. “Do you think flying would be the best option here?â€

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Locri seemed to care for the boy somewhat, perhaps a natural instinct towards children, and Merc was glad; he wasn’t particularly good looking after children. She also seemed to have an intelligent head on her shoulders which would come in handy, Merc guessed. He stepped away from the two to glance around, but saw nothing of any concern and no one approach. He stepped back to his two new compatriots and glanced up at the dragon.


“Firespine was it? I should think that taking flight right now would probably be inadvisable. If Farius Al-Arfitz is nearby, he’ll notice straightaway, its best we stick to the ground at the moment. As for the village I speak of Locri, it’s probably more accurate to describe it as a temporary settlement. But it’ll keep you warm and dry, and keep you fed.†He paused and turned to the boy. “By the sounds of it you’re not averse to walking, so it’s time we moved off. Stick close to me please, Locri to. If someone adverse finds us, feel free to run and leave them to me.â€


With that said, Merc stepped off and headed off in the direction of his temporary settlement.

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Farius sighed as he turned around, the Dusk Knight's menacing figure blotting out the light behind him, casting a looming shadow. "The Dusk Knight," he muttered, "I really didn't know who else I would have explected. I'm fully aware that girl was a user of Free Magic, but considering I'm after a certain infamous witch, I would prefer if I didn't have to get into unnecessary fights."


The Dusk Knight snorted derisively. "Sounds like cowardice and heresy to me."


"I'm sorry I don't have a tireless body made out of enchanted metal. Sure would be helpful if I could kill a hundred heretics without feeling tired, hm?


“Useless banter will not help us exterminate the enemies of the empire,†the Dusk Knight spoke up, his voice a flat monotone, “Let us deal with these heretics first, be they minor annoyances or power-crazed witches, then we can talk about replacing your body with living metal.â€


Farius rolled his eyes as he surveyed the stables. As much as he disliked the Dusk Knight, there was no greater ally than him when it came down to hunting the enemies of the empire. It was rumoured that he had slain over a hundred heretics himself, and not a single one was wrongly accused of witchcraft, almost as if he could smell and verify each one of them personally, which earned him the nickname of the Hound of the Empire, a name which struck fear into both heretics and sanctioned mages alike, for even they weren’t exempt from his judgment. If this Neraphis for as powerful as the reports said, then he would be a fool to reject his aid, no matter how brutal it was.


“You there!†Farius asked, pointing to the terrified stable master, who was currently standing with his mouth agape at the gigantic suit of armor who pranced into his shop, “A couple of your finest horses, and 2 saddles.â€


“Y-yes sir,†replied the stable master as he fetched two black stallions, one of them a large beast easily twice the Farius himself, obviously meant for the Dusk Knight to use. As he reached into his pouch for his coin pouch, the stable master waved his hands desperately. “N-no need, s-sir, on the house, j-just for you.â€


Farius smiled as he mounted his horse, the Dusk Knight doing the same, his horse neighing under the the weight of his armor. “The empire thanks you for your valuable contribution,†he replied as both of them galloped forth, his companion leading the way like a bloodhound.




“All bow for her Excellency, the Empress!†The entire court, which was filled with numerous officials and nobles gave a deep bow as Saria gave a meek wave, before sitting upon the throne, an oversized (at least compared to her) chair gleaming with solid gold and countless jewels embedded in it, a testament to the empire’s wealth and power. As she glanced across the room, an elderly man stepped in behind her, his monocle gleaming in the darkness, a person who she recognized as the royal vizier, Louiseux. She couldn’t help but feel uneasy whenever he was around, especially today when Farius wasn’t around. He gave her a wry smile as the rest of the court rose, before the doors were flung wide open, a rather beaten looking man shackled in chains tossed through the door, before the guards picked him and prodded him with their spears, urging him to walk forwards before he knelt before Saria, his face filled with dirt and tears. She couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him as Louiseux read out the man’s crimes before the court.


“This man, James Stilkwater of Eonia, is accused of theft, resisting arrest, and heresy for the usage of Free Magic for personal gains.†A few nobles scoffed when they heard the last charge being read, some booing him, the others turning away in disgust as he tried to hide his head in shame. “The crimes of theft and resisting arrest carry a sentence of 5 and 8 years respectively,†Louiseux continued, a slight hint of contempt in his voice, “But the act of heresy and consorting with the Ruinous Powers are crimes so great, even death is but the lightest punishment we can give you. Pray her Excellency grants you her divine mercy, lest you be hung at the gallows till death.†As he finished his speech, James began sobbing uncontrollably as the rest of the crowd jeered in approval, some calling for a harsher sentence as Saria bit her lips. She never liked giving the verdict in court, and without Farius around to advise her, this was a difficult judgment to make. Standing up, she slowly walked down the steps from the throne, the crowd quieting down as they stared at the scene unfolding before them. As she knelt before James, she gently lifted his head, his tears reflecting her emerald eyes as he blinked in confusion. “Y-yer Majesty,†he stammered, “P-please, what I did was out of d-d-desperation. Eonia was just h-hit by a hurricane, the f-fields have been r-ravaged, and e-even with the aid money, t-there’s just not enough f-food for all of us.â€


Saria gave a soft nod, “So, what did you do to be caught?â€


James gave a hard swallow before continuing. “At first, some of us tried stealing from the neighboring villages or from travelling merchants, but even that wasn’t enough to supply us with enough to eat.â€


“And that’s when you decided to use Free Magic?â€


He nodded as he faced away from Saria, too embarrassed to face her. “Aye. There was a lady who visited us. She told use about the ways of Free Magic, and how it could save us from this plight. Being a good citizen, we all were suspicious of her, but we were all starving, and some of the older folks had just keeled over and died. Desperate, I tried casting a simple spell she taught us and, miracles be damned, that old fruit tree which was uprooted in the storm? It started sprouting fruits like it was summer! I figured that I could help the rest of the village, I could grow enough food for everyone!†He sighed as he continued. “That’s when the inquisitors came. I was overzealous in my application of the magic and was caught. I promise, yer Majesty, we only did so because we had no choice.â€


She nodded as she got up, facing a rather voluptuous lady dressed in the finest silks and fabrics, a person she recognized as Treasurer Erith. “Treasurer,†she asked, her voice soft yet firm, “How much did we supply to aid Eonia after the hurricane?â€


Erith yawned boredly, her numerous gold bangles jangling noisily, “Your Majesty, I assure you, we were very generous with our donation.â€


“And how much exactly did we donate?â€


“Like I said, more than enough of what a simple peasant deserves,†replied Erith, “500 gil for their entire village. They should be thankful for this donation.â€


Nodding, she turned down to face James. “And how big is the population of Eonia?â€


“Used to be a couple of hundred, ma’am. Now we’re down to just barely a hundred.â€


Saria looked horrified. “That’s barely 5 gil per person! Treasurer, what’s happening here?â€


Rolling her eyes, Erith replied, her eyes boredly dismissing the situation. “These are peasants, your Majesty, not elites and nobles like us. They are resourceful folk, 5 gil should be more than enough for them.†Saria grit her teeth. Deep down, she knew that was hardly enough to feed the mouths of a hundred villagers, let alone afford repairs. “Tell me,†she asked, “How much have we allocated for Memorial Day next month?â€

“50,000 gil. We’ve hired the finest performers, imported Narubian lilies, your mother’s favourite might I add, 300 doves to be released, and…â€


“Halve it, and donate the remainder to Eonia.â€


Erith’s eyes widened. “Your Majesty, Memorial Day is the day where we pay respect to the late Empress Maria. To use anything else besides the best would be an insult to her fair name!†Saria was unshakened. She would not see her mother’s name be used to justify leaving her citizens to suffer. “That was not a request, that was an order,†she replied, “I do not think my mother would want to see her own citizens starving and suffering while thousands of gil are used to celebrate her.â€


“But…but…†Erith silently cursed as she bowed before Saria. It was useless to argue with her in the court, especially with the rest of the room watching. “As you wish your Majesty, 25,000 gil will be given in aid of Eonia.†James himself gave a big cheer as knelt before Saria, bowing repeatedly. “Thank you, your Majesty,†he wept, “I, no, Eonia thanks you for this aid.â€


“Ahem.†A loud voice came from the back as a rather portly man elbowed his way to the front, a man whom she recognized as Grand Magus Oddum, the head of all sanctioned mages in the Bariura Empire. “There is still a matter of his heresy of using Free Magic. We all know about what Free Magic leads to, and to use it is to invite the Ruinous Powers.â€


“They had no other choice, Grand Magus, they were starving to death, without any form of magic to help them.â€


Oddum scoffed. “That is no excuse. Our own sanctioned mages are capable of enhancing the land, like we do with the farms around the capital. They should have asked for our help, and we would have gladly helped them.â€


This time James interjected, anger growing in his voice. “Aye, we asked, but there was no reply. We were ignored, left to die while you mages float an orb or somethin’.â€


“Please, enough, both of you,†Saria spoke, before turning back to Oddum. “Why couldn’t our mages help Eonia?†she asked, “It’s only barely a day’s trip away by carriage.â€


“Well…I…uh…†Oddum racked his mind for a suitable excuse, “We…were short on manpower. With the Alvia Alliance attacking from the south, almost all our mages were sent to the frontlines to aid our brave troops in battle.â€


Saria paused. “If that’s the case, why don’t we teach simple Charter Magic to the people? That way they are able to help themselves if needed to.â€

Oddum almost choked. “Your Excellency, they are but mere peasants. Are you really considering granting them the ability to use Charter Magic? They could plan a revolt, or even-â€


“The ‘peasants’ are the ones who need it the most, Grand Magus,†she cut him off, her voice firm with authority, “I say we should at least teach them basic Charter Magic, magic that could help them with their lives.†Oddum, just like Erith, silently cursed as he bowed. “As you wish, Your Excellency.â€


A clapping sound came from behind them as Louiseux descended the steps. “I’m happy we all came to an agreement,†he said, his voice almost jovial, “But there is still a matter of his punishment. No matter how you view it, your Excellency, he still committed crimes against the Empire. Now, what is your verdict for this poor soul?â€


Saria gazed down towards James, who once again started shaking in fear. “James Stilkwater,†she began, her voice firm and strong, “Your crimes against the Empire are grave, and with just that, I would have you sentenced to death for your sins.†Pausing she resumed, this time her much more gentle. “However, in light of your situation, I am willing to offer you a lighter sentence.†There was an almost audible gasp in the audience as she continued. “We are currently at war with the Alvia Alliance, and we are ever seeking new recruits for our army. With the power vested in me as Empress, I sentence you to 50 years of service with the Bariurian penal company.†A big smile broke out on James’ face as he had to restrain himself from hugging his merciful Empress. “T-Thank you, your Majesty,†he answered as the guards came over to fetch him, “I promise, I will serve as a faithful soldier of the Empire! Sieg Bariura!â€




“Accursed girl!†Erith’s voice rang throughout the room as a teacup was hurled, smashing against the wall and shattering. “That little brat must thinking money grows on trees,†she fumed, “Wasting our hard earned money on commoners? Bah, they know barely anything more than eating, sleeping, farming and fucking!â€


“Watch your language, Erith,†came Oddum's voice from the other end of the room, who was currently seated a table, his hand clasped together. “You think I like any of this either? Giving Charter Magic to the common folk? What if they organize a rebellion? What if they attempt to take the law into their own hands?â€


“Calm down, the both of you.†A third voice entered the room as Louiseux entered the room. “Our plan is almost complete. Farius fell for that little piece of information I left him.â€


“Hmph, I should hope so,†pouted Erith as she poured three glasses of sherry, “I swear, that man’s been a horrible influence to the Empress. She’s been getting more and more decisive lately, not to mention getting filled with all those silly notions of equality. Why, I miss the days when the girl was too scared to even use the washroom alone.â€


“So, when do we make our move then?†Oddum asked, tapping impatiently on the table.


“Tomorrow, at the stroke of midnight. My men have all been briefed, and all has planned out.†Raising his glass, he toasted as Erith and Oddum joined him. “Soon, Bariura will have a new leader, and a new future. Sieg Bariura!â€

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Horses were useful, to be sure, even if the Dusk Knight did not see much use for them. After all, even the best of thoroughbreds still had to stop to rest, an activity the Dusk Knight saw as a necessary evil at best. The work of the Ruinous Powers was all around them; there was no time to be lost on travelling across the Empire, much less affording the luxury of stopping. Still, for the time that he was burdened with the Emperor's bodyguard, there was no reason not to have a steed. Just because one could use Charter Magic to run as fast as a horse didn't mean one had to use the Empress' gifts in such a wanton fashion. 


They made good progress across the countryside, with the Dusk Knight following the presence of untamed Free Magic he sensed moving southwards like a blip on a radar screen. They weren't exactly hard to lose sight of -- while the entire countryside hummed with the background noise of magical energy, the blip was leaking power like a broken faucet -- probably an inexperienced one, unable to control their manifestations of their abominable witchcraft. They didn't seem to be moving terribly fast, either -- they were probably proceeding on foot. As the day wore on, the Dusk Knight sensed they were getting closer -- and soon enough, their target was almost in sight by sundown.


They'd caught up in the nick of time -- their mark was just a mile away from a settlement, a mere ten minutes away if they decided to move in a hurry. If they had reached the settlement by nightfall, it would have been harder to distinguish their targets among the crowd; in addition, heretics frequently used townsfolk as human shields, either playing on their resentment against the Empire's rule or just straight-up brainwashing them. If they managed to blend in, it would probably have become necessary to raze the town. The loss of tithes would probably have been minor and easily made up for, and any pockets of rebellion spawned by the crackdown easily put down, but the heretics would likely escape in the chaos. They had to strike now. The Dusk Knight curtly gestured to Farius to advance at full speed, and spurred his horse, throwing up a cloud of dust as the thoroughbred thundered down the road, bearing down on their unwitting adversaries.


Soon, they came within sight -- they were a motley crew, consisting of a girl -- her stench seemed familiar, for whatever reason --, a young-looking man with a sword and a mere brat. To the unenlightened, they might have looked like easy prey, but the Hound of the Empire was more than aware that the Ruinous Powers came in all shapes and sizes. They might have looked weak, but it would be folly to underestimate them. "Flank them," he said to Farius, before drawing his blades, his horse whinnying as he spurred it to full speed.


"I AM YOUR DOOM." The Dusk Knight declared, the six shields on his back detaching and taking flight in formation behind him as he rushed the most vulnerable-looking target -- the pathetic, snot-nosed little boy whose magic had drawn his notice.

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It had been a mostly silent walk with Locri and the boy, Mat. Seeing as Merc was the one who had suggested the destination, he had taken the lead while the boy had hung back with his toys, thankfully Firespine had returned to her toy form when they had decided to walk. Locri stayed at the side of Mat and Merc wasn’t about to complain, she was better with the boy then he was. Which came as no surprise, Merc rarely travelled with companions, let alone children.


Merc turned his head to tell the two to keep up, the settlement was not far, and as he did so he caught sight of two horseman closing in on them. He didn’t immediately think they were dangerous but as he was pondering what action to take, a thunderous voice filled the area. “I AM YOUR DOOM!†Without hesitation, Merc dashed backwards, dodging between Mat and Locri, until he was between them and the oncoming threat. As six hexagonal objects started floating behind the man, Merc realised who it was.


The Dusk Knight; not an ideal opponent to bump into at this time. That probably means the second horseman is Farius. Merc thought as the Dusk Knight approached with weapons drawn. “Time to go, children.†He said over his shoulder. “Run in this direction for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach the destination. Once inside the settlement, you will be safe. Leave this one to me and watch out for the second horseman.†He didn’t wait to see if Locri and Mat would heed his instructions, instead he ran forward towards the mounted Dusk Knight.


Normally, he would use his cloak as a distraction against weaker opponents, but Merc guessed it would be useless against the Dusk Knight. So as he ran, he unclipped it from around his neck and let it fall away; revealing his armoured body and scarred skin. Merc would also usually stick with using his Free Magic abilities in combat, whenever he fought, but considering the Dusk Knight had two swords and six shields, Merc decided using his sword would be a good idea; he drew it in one swift movement and spun it in his right hand and tightened his hold in a reverse grip, the blade pointing to the air.


With an opponent like the Dusk Knight, I would like to run away; but I can’t leave the him with the other two, he would likely kill them. All I need to do is keep him distracted for 10 minutes while they get into the village.  Merc had seconds before the Dusk Knight’s horse trampled him but he raised his hand, one of the Knight’s shields moving to protect against an attack that didn’t come, and an oval of swirling energy appeared on the floor in front of the horse. It was in a gallop and even if the Knight had noticed, there would not have been time to stop as the horse’s front legs disappeared into the created hole.


It was not big enough for the horse to pass through completely, but that wasn’t Merc’s goal as he shut the gate and the horse’s legs were severed at the knee. It toppled forward with a scream but the Dusk Knight was more nimble then he looked as he landed on his feet and continued forward to the charging Merc. He’s bigger than me and probably stronger, a direct clash would be inadvisable. Merc thought as he spun with a tester attack to the Knight’s legs. However, one of the shields appeared in his way and blocked his blow. Merc didn’t stop his momentum however, and rolled over the top of the shield, sliding between it and another shield that had come in to defend the Knight.


He aimed a blow at the Knight’s neck but a long sword blocked his attack as a second one aimed to slice him across the belly. Merc dodged the blow with a quick sidestep and pulled his sword with him to attack the Knight’s knees. Once again his blow was deflected by one sword as the second one came in to strike. But as before, Merc was fast enough to dodge around the blow. He’s stronger, but I’m definitely faster…for now. He thought as the two clashed a number of times in quick succession. Merc noticed that the Dusk Knight’s shields were staying out of the fight; he didn’t know why, but he was glad.


After the Knight deflected six more blows aimed at various parts of his body, Merc rolled over an attack and disappeared into a hole he had created, reappearing a couple of feet away in front of the Knight. “You are every bit the swordsman the rumours say, Dusk Knight.†He said as the Knight levelled his hidden gaze on him from behind his helmet.

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