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Hate has a reason for everything: But Love is Unreasonable (MobuSeka/Hamefura)

Compare and Contrast 11-1

drakensis

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Compare and Contrast

But do be glad baby when you've found
That's the power makes the world go 'round
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 1

By taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing over it, he is superior. ~ Francis Bacon​

Leon woke up warm and the scent of Clarice’s shampoo was the second thing he noticed.

His arms were around her, the two of them buried in her bed’s blankets, his face resting against the back of her head. When he craned his head back he saw that there was light streaming through the window, glittering condensation on the glass.

“It’s cold outside,” she told him. “Stay in bed.”

“How long?”

“How about forever?”

“It’s a tempting idea.” He kissed the back of her head. They hadn’t done anything that might lead to conception - they both knew they weren’t ready for that - but there was a part of him that was seriously tempted. “Love you.”

Her hand crept back and gripped his thigh for a moment. “You big romantic.”

“Eh, I ought to be good at something.”

Clarice laughed. “Mr ‘I got into the student council even though I flunked every practical magic class’ is good at something. I’m shocked.”

“Hah. I wouldn’t be on the student council if it was decided after this term. Actually, I might face academic suspension from the council. I’ve been playing truant all term.”

“There’s a special exception for being called away on service of the crown,” she told him drowsily, “Dieke had us file all the paperwork for you and the others. Your grades from last term carry forwards for that sort of purpose. I think yours may actually be boosted because you’re a commodore.”

Leon laughed. “Funny that.”

“Not really.”

“No.”

They lay like that for a while.

“If the worst comes to worst, what will you do?” she asked. “For a given value of worst where we’re both alive?”

“Run away on Dreadnought, with you and anyone else I can get aboard. Assuming that holding onto something in the north isn’t a possibility, probably head for Alzer at first. They’re not fond of foreigners, but that tree of theirs might be enough of a protection against Garrett.”

“Yes, I’d considered going there as an exchange student this year. But Jilk was starting at the academy… And their nobility are a bit…”

The Alzer Commonwealth was one of the nations that more or less bordered the kingdom, off to the south-east. They were a comparatively safe border - their nobility bore seals from the ‘Great Tree’, that shielded them from hostile magic as long as they were within a certain distance of the tree. Thus that demarcation was more or less the border of the Commonwealth. Within that line they were near enough invincible, but beyond it they didn’t do so well. Too used to having that defence.

Leon knew from the books that some of their nobility also used their seals to exploit the non-nobility. And foreign guests were non-nobles. There would be a certain amount of diplomatic protection for exchange students, but without the kingdom behind them…

“I was thinking about that for next year,” he admitted. One of the books’ side-stories had explored what had happened there if the book’s Leon didn’t go there. It wasn’t good. “But that also means not being here with you.” Clarice couldn’t exactly spend her final year as an exchange student - it was only open as an option for your second year at the academy.

“You really want to go there?” she asked. “What’s so great about the Commonwealth?”

“Want would be a strong word. But after duelling Jilk, the idea of a reason to be out of sight for a year had some merits. And then there’s the expectations now that I’m a commodore. But there’s also some reasons to stay here.” Leon lowered his head and kissed her shoulder. “One of them right here…”

Clarice squirmed around and their lips were about to meet when someone pounded their fist against the door.

Her green eyes met Leon’s dark ones in frustration. He leaned in and kissed her lips anyway.

“Mmm.” She sighed when they were done. Whoever was knocking hadn’t gone away.

“Come on!” The source of the shout was a familiar one. “It’s almost lunchtime, how long can you two stay in bed?”

“I dunno, let’s find out?” Leon suggested in a quiet, playful tone.

Clarice’s eyes, narrowing in irritation, began to twinkle. “If you tickle me, I’ll kick,” she warned and then raised her voice. “None of your business, Jilk! Get lost!”

The knocking stopped. “I need to speak to Bartford! Please, Clarice!”

“Am I going to have to send all the children down to the theatre everytime we want some privacy?” Leon wondered. “That could get expensive.” He kissed Clarice again and then slipped out from under the covers, shivering in the cold air. “Hold your water, Marmoria. I’m getting dressed.”

Pulling on his pants and shirt, he stood on a rug while he tied a sash around his waist to keep the pants up. It took him a moment to find his boots and he kicked his feet into them. “Sorry, Clarice.”

“I knew what I was getting into.” She pulled the blankets around him but watched him go. “Come back to me when you can.”

“I will.”

Outside, Jilk was looking harried. He’d tied his hair back and was wearing a sword at his hip. “Shouldn’t you at least get engaged first?”

Leon closed the door. “Clarice has trust issues about engagements. Is that all you got me out of bed for?”

“How can you lounge around in bed at a time like this?”

“It might be the last chance I have for a while. Or ever.” He combed his own hair back from his face.

Jilk shook his head and then looked away. “What happened?”

“You’ll need to be more specific. I’ve had a very busy year.” It hadn’t been that much longer than that since he’d found Luxion, less than a year and a half - although not by much.

“To me, to the others. After we came back from the first battle, how could I have taken Marie out into that?”

Leon rubbed his face. “Do you want the easy answer or the hard one?”

“Which is the truth?”

“Both.”

“Then tell me both,” Jilk demanded. “I need to know it all.”

“The Dieke’s have been meddling with dark magic for years. The student council president used it on you, the same way he did on Sophia earlier. Encouraged you to head off to war again and to take Marie along. Which worked out pretty well for most of us, but I doubt that that was the plan.”

The other boy rubbed his face as they walked. “That easily?”

“You’re not the only one to get affected.”

“So, what’s the easy answer?”

Leon snorted. “That was the easy answer. It puts all the blame on someone else. How much attention do you actually pay to Marie? How much do you listen to what she says… and what she does say?”

“I listen to her all the time!”

He nodded. “So why weren’t you the one to do something about the way her family was exploiting her financially?”

“...” Jilk stopped walking.

“Yeah.” Leon shook his head. “Try talking to her, Jilk. I don’t know how much time you’ll have to do so.”

“But you sent her off somewhere!”

“...okay, that’s fair,” he admitted, looking back. “Shall I let her know you want to talk?”

Jilk trotted to catch up. “Where is she?”

“Can you keep a secret?”

“Because so can you?”

“Exactly!”

-

Leon rode his knight-armour back to the Dreadnought, now anchored in the port once more. Ships were busy loading all across the small island. Some were warships preparing for the battle that was presumed to be inevitable. Hertrude’s squadron was docked alongside those of the Roseblades, Bartfords and other northern houses that had fought with Duke Redgrave.

Others were being packed by nobles moving their valuables and loved ones - sometimes overlapping with their families and sometimes not - back to their domains to ride out the storm. Or perhaps out of the kingdom entirely.

“The new humans claim that they’re not obligated to stay and die for the kingdom,” Luxion informed him. “This does not match my understanding of the feudal contract.”

“Can you honestly tell me that when the new humans arose, that all the old humans rallied to the cause? That not one of them hid away, figuring that they could wait it out?”

“A message was delivered inviting you to a war council at dawn tomorrow,” the AI changed the subject. “Do you intend to attend?”

“I’d better.”

“I could monitor the chamber so you can understand what is said, without exposing yourself. It is probable that the kingdom’s authorities are eager for a scapegoat. As a surviving leader of both battles, you would be a candidate. Particularly given the prior accusations of conspiracy with the princess, who has now returned in your company.”

Leon made a face. “That’s true, but there are strong reasons for them not to do that. It would alienate my father and to an extent, Count Roseblade and Princess Hertrude. Unless they have an absolute certainty that their trump card will be effective it would be stupid for them to alienate the main military supporters. It would be different if the Claes, Stuart and other major feudal nobles could bring their forces to bear… but they can’t afford that on several levels.”

“On what grounds do you believe that the kingdom’s leaders won’t behave stupidly?”

He laughed. “Point. And I will take some precautions. The other issue is that if I’m not there, I won’t have any say in what’s being done. And given what you just said about the kingdom’s leaders…”

“It is undeniably true that if your goal is to avoid a mass death among the new humans, an intelligent old human providing advice could improve their chances. If only we had access to one.”

“Yeah, we might have to settle for an old human. Intelligent could be asking too much.” Leon slumped into a chair. “And speaking of trump cards, what does Cleare have to say?”

“Do we have to ask?”

“Open a channel, Luxion. If I have to, so do you.”

The AI grumbled something that Leon didn’t make out and then Cleare’s voice came from the drone. “Hello, Commodore. Do you wish to be put in contact with Director Smith.”

Leon shook his head. “Not just yet. Firstly, how much progress have you made with the vessel under Holfort castle?”

“The repair drones provided by Luxion were able to force entry easily,” the science AI reported happily. “There is no indication that they have been detected and repairs were completed three days ago.”

“Good work.” The ‘legendary warship’ that had been the Holfort’s ultimate deterrent had been unused for generations. Unsurprisingly, it had deteriorated as a result but there was nothing that the royal family could do: the ship was a literal loveboat and would only open for two people whose mutual affection it judged as strong enough. (As Leon understood it, the married couple who had commissioned it for a honeymoon back in the distant past had divorced after just a few years, leaving the ship abandoned until one of King Roland’s ancestors found and somehow activated it. Presumably not the first king, as his ‘great love’ had run away from him.)

For some mysterious reason, political marriages hadn’t produced such feelings on any reliable basis - and the Holforts were understandably unwilling to bring in outsiders who might reveal that their ‘ultimate weapon’ was a bluff.

Fortunately, Leon didn’t give a damn about the stupid sealing mechanism and he’d told Cleare to have the drones to cut the ship open, fix it up and then hide their presence. “Has anyone tried to access it?”

“Two individuals claiming to be the King and Queen of Holfort attempted to break the seal. Their affection numbers were insufficient. I would characterise their reactions as amusing by human standards, and valuable experimental data for me.”

Leon sighed. It would be too much to hope for that he’d get back before anyone else tried. “Can you override the seal?”

“Of course.”

“I suppose they’re not likely to come back and try with the two of them, but if any more couples try, just fake the numbers to let the next pair in.”

Cleare sounded amused. “Of course, Commodore. It is interesting that you do not find this to be a romantic solution. It would be easy for you to use your chosen reproductive partner to obtain access and then claim political power as a result.”

“You assume that I have time or energy to run this dumpster fire of a kingdom. Besides, putting numbers on feelings doesn’t sound at all romantic to me,” Leon told the AI. “If anything, I’d expect it to be the death knell of any relationship I have with Clarice. Oh, did you leave the note on the command deck?”

“Of course,” the AI said matter-of-factly.

Leon smirked. “That ought to deal with any suspicions. Can you put me in touch with Director Smith now?”

“Of course!”

The image of Director Smith popped up in front of him. She was currently changing her clothes.

Leon covered his face with one hand. “Dammit, Cleare.”

“You never said…”

“Who is that!” Larna snapped, looking around. “Lord Bartford?!”

He sighed. “Cleare, let her know before opening a video channel. My apologies, Director.”

She held her ministry robes up in front of her half-dressed body. “If I were to call for a duel, I would represent myself.”

“That’d be a painful experience for me,” Leon admitted. “Do you want me to contact you again in a couple of minutes?”

“No,” Larna said shortly. “Let’s just get this over with. You want to know what we have on light magic and dark magic?”

“As much as I’d like to be just calling you for some social reason…”

“I’m sorry to tell you, but no matter how much you flirt, my one true love will always be magic. You are at best an interesting conversationalist.”

Leon laughed. “I don’t know why people think I’m always flirting with every woman I meet. Is being nice to someone really that unusual?”

“I keep forgetting how young you are,” the Director noted. “But we have made some breakthroughs now that we have access to the Saintess’ regalia. I still don’t know how Fanoss is managing to cast dark magic on such a scale, but we can at least locally counter it.”

“How locally?”

“Enough to shield a city or an entire fleet - but we may struggle to do so in more than one place. Miss Campbell’s level of magical ability is unusually high. Unless you know someone with a similar talent for light magic…?”

Leon shook his head. “Unfortunately not.”

“I didn’t think it was likely. Offensive use of light magic is another matter.”

“I see. I had a feeling that that would be more difficult. I hope there have been no difficulties with the Saint’s Sceptre?”

Larna smirked. “If you mean the spirit that was hidden within it, no. Between Cleare and Katarina’s mysterious mentor, it stood no chance.”

“Good. I’m sorry I forgot to warn you.”

“Forgot. Of course. Or were you testing me? This is why I detest working for others.”

“A dubious claim,” Cleare cut in. “I have analysed the Director’s productivity and it rises substantially when engaged in projects for members of her social circle, as compared to those for political gain or mandated by instructions from her superiors. In particular, requests from Duke Stuart…”

“Pernicious device!” Larna accused, face flushing - something that hadn’t happened when revealed half-bared to Leon. “I’ll dissect you yet!”

“You are centuries from being capable of comprehending me,” taunted the AI.

“I’ll just let you get along, shall I?” he asked drily. “Oh, and let Marie know that Jilk and the others want to talk to her. I don’t see much harm to it - they might want her help to try activating the Holfort’s hidden lost item.”

“I suppose that that would justify her absence for a while,” the Director conceded. “Do you have anything else to say or can I get my dress on?”

“I’m not stopping you,” Leon pointed out. “Nice dress, by the way?”

She snorted. “I’m making an appearance to persuade some of the court that the Stuarts haven’t abandoned the capital. Now get lost, or I’ll tell Lady Clarice on you.”

Leon chuckled. “Cut the feed, Cleare. And next time you connect me to Larna without checking that she’s ready, I’ll let her dissect your drone.”

“And I won’t build you another,” Luxion threatened his fellow AI.

The scientific AI sniffed. “You gave me repair drones. I have back-ups now!”

-

The war council took place in a room behind the throne room, with a similarly high and vaulted ceiling - though the chamber was vastly smaller. Banners hung from the ceiling, many torn and stained to the point that they weren’t really presentable enough for a more open setting. Hertrude Sera Fanoss had rather pointedly seated herself beneath two banners bearing the arms of her family - trophies from previous wars.

Leon thought that every banner except the one immaculate Holfort arms above the king’s seat was a trophy, even those of houses currently sworn to the kingdom. Conquest, civil war… there were many reasons. The throneroom’s grand array was a boast of solidarity for the kingdom. This room was the Holfort’s statement of their own dominance. It was interesting which they had made public and which they shared with their own allies.

There was no Bartford banner present, and while there was one from the Roseblades, Leon found his father and Estian Fou Roseblade flanking Princess Hertrude. Whether that was to give the appearance of guarding her or of a subtle shift in allegiances, he wasn’t sure. Nonetheless, he took a seat next to Barcus.

“Do you have a clever plan for this occasion?” the older Bartford asked him.

“To solve everything, no. But big things are made up of small things, so I may have the occasional suggestion.”

His father nodded. “Try and be somewhat respectful. Besides it being the king’s council, everyone’s a bit on edge.”

As if on cue, the doors opened to admit King Roland Rafa Holfort, flanked by Count Charles Fia Arclight and Viscount Francis Fia Marmoria. Everyone rose respectfully, even Princess Hertrude, and waited for the king to take his seat.

“My apologies for the wait,” the Viscount offered - the king was unlikely to apologise. “We’ve had a new report from one of the scouting cruisers. The Fanoss fleet - pardon, Count Garrett’s fleet - has been sighted. As expected, they are towing their island after them, which is slowing them down.”

“How much of their fleet?” asked Count Roseblade.

Arclight leant forwards. “Most of it. We assume that Garrett has left very little to protect the Field’s island. He has no need of it as a forward base with their towed island - even if Marquis Hunt was able to push north to retake it, there’s no strategic significance: if we win here, it doesn’t matter to Garrett what happens to the Field domain. And if he wins then he can turn back and retake it.”

“Unless both sides are shattered,” pointed out Viscount Catley nervously. Leon didn’t know the man well but his daughter Marsha was a second-year at the academy. The Viscount had arrived with the scant ships that could be spared by the Bergs and Claes, appointed to lead them simply because neither duchy was quite willing to place their ships under the lead of one of the other’s vassals. The Catleys, neighbouring both, were a compromise.

He’d at least made it here. Marquis Hunt - Mary’s father - was considerably closer but he had pledged that his forces were fully required to contain the Fanoss threat against the western extremes of the kingdom - now flanked by Garrett’s approach towards the continent. That could be true, but it hardly fit in with the all-or-nothing strategy that appeared to have been adopted by the invaders.

“If both sides are shattered, we win,” Count Roseblade informed the viscount. “Perhaps not personally, but the kingdom can rebuild from a pyrrhic victory. Thanks to Princess Hertrude and her sister, Count Garrett has nothing to rebuild from.”

Or so they assumed. There was no news from the principality - but even if Hertrauda failed, a civil war would leave the lords there unable to provide reinforcements to Garrett.

The king looked to Leon. “Commodore, do we have any way to defeat the enemy before they’re close enough to use their ritual on the capital?”

Leon straightened slightly. “The Ministry believes that we can shield a fleet with light magic. Or defend the city. But unless the fleet is over the city, we can’t defend both at once - currently there is only one light mage we know of with that level of power.”

Roland nodded. “So we could gather our remaining ships and strike for the enemy island right away, and engage it directly.”

“To play devil’s advocate, the longer before we fight, the stronger we are,” pointed out Count Arclight. “As I understand it, we’re still looking for more sailors and soldiers. Saving the troops sent with both fleets leaves us reasonably well off with ground troops but many of the ships that returned damaged from Duke Redgrave’s fleet are also understrength in sailors.”

“I do have one suggestion there,” offered Leon cautiously.

“In the short time we have available?” asked Viscount Marmoria sceptically.

“Amnesty the elves that turned bandit,” the boy suggested. “If they fight for the kingdom just this once, they’ll be shipped home to the elves’ island with some sort of payout.”

Count Arclight snorted. “Criminals - and they aren’t even human.”

“It’ll get rid of them,” Leon pointed out. “They either die in the fighting or they’re sent to their home with very little way to leave. Merchants don’t exactly visit them much now that they’re not valuable as servants. And we’d don’t have them running around as bandits.”

“Or this plan would give them arms to be more effective bandits,” objected Viscount Marmoria.

The king raised his hand. “That may be a risk that we have to take, but only if we fight here - over the capital. There is no time otherwise. So, do we fight here?”

“Even a victory here would damage the city,” warned Barcus. “We wouldn’t be out over the ocean or a lake, ships would plunge out of the air directly onto the city. Unless light magic would help with that?”

Leon shook his head. “Not as far as I’m aware. And there’s another risk. What if Garrett brought their island above the city and then destroyed its suspension stone somehow?”

Faces paled around the table. “That’s unthinkable!” Viscount Catley clasped his hands before him. “That would destroy the city, it might even damage the continent itself.”

“We must stop that from happening at all costs,” Arclight agreed.

Hertrude cleared her throat. “Moving the island requires the commitment of most of the fleet to tow it. If they come under attack then they will be forced to cast off the tows - or depend entirely upon the dark magic to defeat the attack. Unfortunately, we cannot expect Count Garrett or Viscount Darian to be so foolish - we must assume that they expect the use of light magic to defend against that.

The king nodded. “However, we lack the ships to both carry every available knight effectively and to carry enough troops to land on the enemy island. If we launch such an attack away from the continent, we will be fighting with less than our full strength.”

“Speaking of our full strength,” Count Roseblade asked. “May I enquire as to the Holfort’s legendary skyship? Surely if it is not used now, there will be no other opportunity.”

Count Arclight didn’t quite manage to hide a wince.

“Activating our royal treasure requires two qualified participants,” King Roland answered smoothly. “The queen and I have tried to unseal it but unfortunately, her highness does not meet its requirements.”

Leon bit back a response. That was technically accurate, after all - it merely omitted the minor detail that nor had the king.

“The queen has taken charge of gathering other candidates,” the king continued. “And it will be fielded if at all possible. However, since we cannot count on that, I will lead the battle from the front.”

“...your highness.” Arclight spoke hesitantly. “Roland. I love you like a brother, but you haven’t used a knight-armour in years. No one here doubts your courage, but please at least command from a flagship.”

“That is where you are wrong, Charles. We can hold nothing back, and so I must share with you one of my closest secrets.” Roland reached into his ermine-trimmed cloak and produced a mask, which he placed triumphantly upon the table. “For I… am the Masked Knight!”

There were gasps around the table. Leon lowered his face and did his best to hide his amusement.

“The one knight to have battled the Black Knight to a standstill… Ah, my apologies, Lord Bartford. One of two…” Marmoria exclaimed.

“The only knight,” Leon corrected him, without looking up. “I’ve… never been knighted.”

“Are you alright, son?” his father asked.

“I’m just… overcome by emotion,” he answered - not technically lying. “To think our wise king is also such a glorious hero.”

The king smiled a little smugly and stood. Everyone pushed their chairs back and did likewise, as Roland circled the table towards Leon, lifting the sword of state. “Well we can take care of your status, at least. I’ll knight you myself. I trust that you will understand that I cannot make a seventeen year old one of my admirals.”

“Sixteen, your highness,” Barcus corrected him.

“Don’t correct me, Bartford,” Roland warned under his breath. “Lord Bartford. Your knee.”

The ritual’s protocol was well known and Leon stepped back a little before dropping to one knee before the king.

“I see before me Leon Fou Bartford, son of Barcus and…”

“Ruth,” Leon’s father prompted.

“Ruth Fou Bartford,” the grey-haired monarch continued. “Who attests to this man’s courage?”

“I attest,” offered Count Roseblade. “In battle against the traitor Olfrey and against our current foe.”

Roland nodded. “I acknowledge his courage. And who now, will attest to this man’s virtue?”

Barcus began to say something but he was interrupted by Princess Hertrude. “I attest,” she declared proudly. “This man has won duels, found treasure as an adventurer and rescued maidens. If he has no virtue, who else here can claim any?”

Leon regretted that he couldn’t look back and see Hertrude’s face - Roland’s eye was twitching slightly, suggesting that the princess wasn’t being entirely respectful. However, the king extended the sword of state and rested it upon Leon’s shoulder - uncomfortably close to his throat. “Your oath, Leon Fou Bartford.”

He swallowed and met the king’s eyes, one liar to another. “I promise on my faith that I will in the future be faithful to the lord king, never cause him harm and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons in good faith and without deceit.”

Roland raised the sword and then patted it lightly upon the other shoulder, before lifting it again. He rested the point of the blade on the carpet and set both his hands upon the quillons. “Rise, Sir Leon.”

The boy obeyed, not entirely unmoved by the ritual. “As you command, my king.”

“Good lad.” Roland released the sword with one hand and patted him on the shoulder.

“Congratulations, son.” Barcus hugged Leon briefly.

No sooner had his father let go, than Hertrude leaned over and also embraced him briefly, kissing him on the cheek. “Merely on behalf of Lady Atlee,” she told him, blushing slightly.

Count Roseblade offered Leon his hand. “I’m not going to hug you, but well deserved.”

“Alright, back to business,” Roland declared as Leon shook hands with the Count. Leon wondered if the king was a bit miffed that he wasn’t the centre of attention.

They all sat down again. “As I said, I will take command, carrying the banner of the admiral of the white. The queen will serve as my vice admiral, aboard my family’s legacy or such other vessel as is fitting. She will also serve as custodian of the succession if I fall.” King Roland steepled his fingers. “Count Roseblade, I ask that you serve as my rear-admiral of the white

The dark-haired count nodded calmly. “It will be my honour.”

“We will fight at the edge of the continent. I recognise the risk to the capital, but the advantages to bringing our full forces to bear are undeniable. Sir Leon, I entrust you with gathering elves and other volunteers to bring our crews to sufficient strength. You will be directly answerable to the queen and her division.” The king smiled grimly. “Try not to offend her again.”

“I accept these duties, your highness.”

Roland nodded in appreciation. “Princess Hertrude, Count Bartford. I ask that you continue to serve under Count Roseblade’s division.”

It was Hertrude’s turn to twitch at being subordinated to a Count. However, it was the only practical solution even if it breached protocol: she was still foreign royalty so she couldn’t be given one of the admiral’s banners, and having her ships operate at her sole discretion would be even worse. “As your ally, I am willing to support Count Roseblade.”

“Your forbearance is noted, your highness,” Viscount Marmoria noted urbanely.

“Breaking with normal tradition, the other warships will be assigned to the queen’s division,” the king continued. “My division will be made up solely of knight-armours - the royal knights, temple knights and such knights and lords that lack skyships of their own. Sir Leon’s account makes clear that the dark magic unleashing monsters aboard our skyships was devastating, but a force made up entirely of knights would provide fewer targets - and if the monsters created cannot fly then bursting out of a knight-armour will leave them falling to their death anyway.”

“That’s… probably correct,” Leon admitted. Some monsters probably could fly, but not all those he’d seen could do so.

“As such, my division will storm their fleet before the island can reach the continent,” Roland explained. “With less to worry about from dark magic, we’ll force them to break off the tow - and they can hardly spend hours getting towlines back to their ships, while we are in position to harass them. Count Garrett will have no choice but to launch a conventional attack - perhaps outside the reach of his dark mage, or at least stretching it. The queen’s division is charged with protecting the capital, Count Roseblade’s division is to hide beneath the continent until Garrett is engaged - and then strike at the enemy island to remove it as a threat and to kill the dark mage or mages in Fanoss’ employ.”

“Garrett’s employ,” Hertrude corrected him.

“Of course,” the king agreed with an insincere smile.
 
Compare and Contrast 11-2

drakensis

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Joined
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Compare and Contrast

But do be glad baby when you've found
That's the power makes the world go 'round
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 2

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves. ~ Confucius​

“What do you mean you won’t let both of us on your ship?!” Jilk protested. “We’re escorting Lady Marie!”

The captain bore a not inconsiderable resemblance to Leon Fou Bartford, which wasn’t that surprising since he was the newly-dubbed knight’s elder brother. He seemed quite unimpressed by that claim. “Lady Lafan is welcome aboard Pelican, but volunteers go to the ships they’re assigned and we’ve space for one dismounted knight on board. I don’t care which of you lads comes with us, but the other will ride on the Revenge.” He pointed across the quay at a second skyship, this one showing the recently applied colours of the Ades duchy.

Greg gave the Revenge a suspicious look. “I thought all the Ades ships were destroyed?”

Marie looked closer and then gasped. “That’s the Lafan’s Pride!” Her family’s one remaining skyship, the bare minimum that they’d maintained as part of their feudal obligations… and mostly disarmed so it could carry goods and generate a little income for her parents. As she watched, a cannon was being lowered onto the deck by a dockyard crane.

“It was,” Nicks Fou Bartford confirmed with a bitter snort. “Your brother sold it for ready cash so he could flee the country. I’m not sure he still owned it, but the Ades weren’t asking too many questions.”

“Can’t you send one of the elves?” Jilks suggested, indicating one of the young-looking and good-looking crewmen being drilled by Nicks’ petty officers. “That way we could split up.”

The Bartford heir sighed. “I don’t have time for this. Look, my brother tells me you’re not bad fellows.”

The two boys brightened but Marie heard a qualification coming to the statement.

“But he also tells me that what wit and common sense you have diminishes markedly when you’re together,” the dark-haired young man finished. “I don’t care which of you comes aboard, but decide now or I’ll leave you both behind with the other children.”

“You wouldn’t dare!”

“Do you know who I’m engaged to?” Nicks asked Greg, rhetorically. “If so, why do you think I’d find you intimidating?”

Marie didn’t know, actually. But Jilks winced so it must be bad. “Who?”

“Lady Dorothea Fou Roseblade.” The green-haired boy shivered. “You should know her little sister from the academy.”

The big-chested sadistic girl from the council? The small blonde did indeed know. “Greg, Jilk, we can’t argue now. What’s important is that we have to do our duty. Even if it’s hard.”

“Alright,” Greg sighed. “Since you say so, Marie. But which of us do you want with you?”

Urk. “I love you both, don’t make me choose.” She clasped her hands before her. “Can’t you decide together?”

The boys mock-glared at each other and then Greg smirked. “Rock-paper-scissors?”

“Fine, meathead.” Jilk extended his hand. “Three, two, one - now!”

“Argh!” Greg cried out as his paper was cut by Jilk’s scissors. “Best out of three?”

Jilk took Marie’s arm. “No time!”

He was right. Even as they said that, bells began to chime and Nicks bounded up the gangway. “All aboard!” he shouted down. “That means we’re casting off.”

“Come back safe,” Marie called to Greg and let Jilk escort her up the gangway.

“Of course I will!” the redhead shouted back. “I’ve got a lot to do!” Then he turned and ran for the Revenge, catching the gangway just as the crew began to retract it. She saw them cursing at the boy as he ran up it, then he turned around and threw his weight into helping the crewmen pull it back aboard the skyship.

“I hope he’ll be alright,” Jilk muttered.

“I hope you’ll all be alright,” she said, clutching the bulwark and watching as the Pelican pulled away from the dock. “You, Greg, Julius and Chris.” The other two still had knight-armours so they’d joined the king’s division for the battle. She’d given them her blessing to do so, though only because they’d looked like lost puppies - and all four were carrying handkerchiefs she’d given them as her ‘favours’.

Where she was going to get another handkerchief, she had no idea. Those were the only ones she had and she was flat broke. Again. She couldn’t even afford a dessert at the academy dining hall.

“I’m trying not to think about the battle,” the viscount’s son admitted. “Brad was…” He broke off and gulped. “I still look around, expecting him to be there. If one of the others… or worse - if I lost you!”

Marie paused and then moved her hand to interlace her fingers with his.

Jilk looked down at their hands, then smiled at her. “Thank you.”

“What for?” She tossed her hair, as if it was nothing. “But if you’re not thinking about the battle, then why did you say that about Greg?”

“Marie, that’s the Ades ship. Where do you think the Ades twins are going to be?”

Her eyes went to the Revenge, itself now pulling away. She could see the deck, where Greg was helping some of the crew to hoist the newest cannon down a hatch to the main gundeck. Two silver-blonde heads could be seen up on the quarterdeck. Duke Ades was dead, his wife and son back at their stronghold far to the north. Which meant that the Ades who’d bought the skyship had to be Violette Rafa Ades or her twin Scarlet - who was Greg’s former fiancee. “Oh my.”

The docks fell behind, and then the Pelican began to descend and turn towards the continent.

Jilk looked around. “I’m… surprised that you chose to come, Marie. After the way we pressured you last time, I would have thought that it was the last thing that you’d have chosen to do.”

“I was useful last time,” she told him. Not as useful as she’d expected - she’d thought her light magic would be more than enough to handle everything but she’d been barely able to shield a part of the fleet. Hitting back had been impossible. “And I don’t blame you for what you did under Dieke’s influence.”

That was a shiver. Dark magic hadn’t even been part of the game - unless Fanoss’ fleet counted for that. Mind-control magic? That was… Marie hunched her shoulders and leaned more heavily on Jilk. It made her think of some of the more rabid speculations on forums discussing the game, reading way too much into a few minor script choices.

Probably reading too much. But what were the saintess’ relics anyway? What had they done to Katarina Rafa Claes?

“How much of that was Dieke?” Jilk asked. “And how much was me? I’m not always a good person when it comes to my methods - you heard how I threatened…” He lowered his voice, perhaps remembering suddenly whose ship they were aboard. “What I said to Sir Leon at the end of our first term. I believed my cause was just, but how I handled that... The legends say that dark magic can only work with the darkness inside us.”

“That’s what the temple says,” Marie agreed. “I don’t know how much they have right. But I did ask Lady Katarina about how you cleanse someone of dark magic.”

That girl was just unfair. Tall, busty, had men all swanning around her without her needing to even do anything! If Marie wasn’t sure that it was Campbell that would have been the protagonist then it would be easy to think it was Claes. But who’d make a game with a brunette duke’s daughter as the main character?

Shaking that thought off, Marie raised her hand and let light magic wash over herself and her escort for a moment. “We’re both unaffected,” she reported. “So I’m not here because anyone’s pushing me, Jilk. I’m here because I choose to be.”

“Island in sight!” a lookout called.

Marie frowned. “There’s an entire continent, of course there’s…” Then she realised what the call meant.

“It’s too soon,” Jilk observed tensely. “We’re supposed to be under the continent.”

Nicks snorted from behind them - Marie hadn’t realised he was so close. “That’s why a couple of dozen merchantmen were held back at the port island.” He snapped open a telescope. “They’ll be released to flee now - the confusion should mask the rest of our division getting under the continent’s shadow. It’ll look like we’re more rats scurrying away from the sinking kingdom.”

The dark-haired young man raised the telescope and scanned the north-west. “Yes, there it is. Might be an hour or so out.”

He passed Marie the telescope and she gazed out, scanning the horizon until she finally spotted the shape she’d seen once before, near the Field island.

It wasn’t a large island, roughly star-shaped with five promentaries emerging from a central mass. Three sloped down, one was more or less level… and one reared up, a fortification erected upon it. What could have been a grassy plain, enough for a small baronet’s holding, was built over with sheds and skyship docks.

And around it, tied by a hundred or more towlines, the fleet of Count Garrett was visible - sails out, not yet close enough for the distinct shapes of the hulls to be distinguished from those of Holfort’s more graceful but less advanced vessels.

“They move that thing?” she asked incredulously.

Nicks shrugged. “I wouldn’t have bothered myself, but let’s not kid ourselves. They’ve been winning so far.”

“Not for much longer,” Jilk declared with barely a tremble of his hand to reveal how thin his confidence was.

“That’s the idea.” The oldest Bartford son patted them both on their shoulders. “Unless the plan changes, we’ll be out of sight soon.” He rubbed his forehead. “I really hope my little brother has some oh-so-clever plan in mind, or this is going to be a very bad day.”

-

The sky around the mobile island was chaos and death.

Knight-armours were flying or falling. Occasionally a skyship did the same - even the durable Fanoss-built ships could be crippled if they were hit in the right place.

It was some reassurance that dark magic hadn’t been used yet - perhaps the dark mage was concerned that any knights who transformed by the magic would attack their own skyships, Alan wondered.

Not that he had much time to think about that sort of thing. He’d mostly been trying to stay alive. He felt guilty from using any of the mental energy he had left for anything except keeping his comrades from getting killed, maybe that sort of focus came with experience.

Julius reached the island first, turning as he landed to fire back with his rifle at the knight-armours chasing them.

That took enough pressure off Gerald that he cut his immediate opponent’s arm off with a flaming sword, forcing the knight to withdraw.

A second knight-armour opened up on Gerald with a rifle as Alan’s brother tried to join their cousin. The first shot missed and then Chris closed with the Fanoss’ knight and cut the rifle in half. Then the Fanoss knight kicked out and sent Chris tumbling.

A shot from Julius punched through the torso of the enemy knight-armour and a spray of metal and blood erupted out of its back.

Keith’s knight-armour crashed down next to Julius and the earth-mage brought a wall of rock up to guard them against a salvo of cannon-fire from the ships above them.

Diving after them, Alan grabbed Chris’ knight armour and dragged it after him and away from the pursuit. A cloud of dust exploded up and away from the crude wall - for a moment he thought that it had been blasted apart but then he realised it was Nicol using his wind-magic to create a smokescreen.

Chris had his knight-armour back under control and the two of them landed, six knight-armours huddled behind the cover of obscurity and a two-feet thick wall of hastily shaped stone.

“We made it,” Alan gasped. “I thought we were goners for sure.”

“A lot of knights didn’t,” Nicol noted quietly. “We may be the only ones to get this far.”

Julius knight-armour nodded its head in accord with the young man’s own head. “Chris, I’m… I’m not sure you saw but…”

The swordsman planted the tip of his sword in the dirt. “My father. Yes. I saw.”

Alan looked at his brother, though inside their knight-armours he couldn’t really see Gerald’s face. No one, he thought, should ever have to see their father die. If Charles Fia Arclight, the man they called the Sword-Saint, had fallen, how was anyone else even alive after the melee?

“We don’t have much time,” Nicol continued. “Some of the ships have cut their lines to fight but others are still dragging the island.”

“Do you want to wait for reinforcements?” Gerald asked, seemingly casually. “The six of us could get over-run pretty quickly.”

Julius rested one hand on the shoulder of Gerald’s knight armour. “That’s going to happen soon anyway. And we might be the only ones to make it this far.”

“The hell with that,” the older of the Stuart twins declared. “I have too much to go back to.”

Keith straightened his knight armour from where it was kneeling - placing the young man inside closer to the surface. “There are caves inside the island. I can feel them. If we can get inside them…”

“Then we’ll be much harder targets,” Gerald agreed eagerly. “Great. So the rest of us hit as many cables as we can, while you make us an entrance?”

The island being partially hollow would explain how it’s moved, Alan thought. The number of ships didn’t really match the comparative speed of it travelling unless Fanoss had far more powerful engines in their ships, or it weighed less than it seemed to.

“Not here,” the Claes heir told them. “Further up the island - and we’ll have to abandon our knight-armours.”

“If it’s that or death, it’s not a hard decision,” Julius pointed out.

“We don’t have much time before the smoke dissipates,” warned Nicol stoically. Alan wondered if he should tell the older boy that he’d seen Count Ascart’s knight-armour descending rapidly, trying to save another falling knight. Probably best not, he decided. He hadn’t seen what had happened to Nicol’s father - he was probably worried enough already.

Julius pointed inland. “There’s a signal mast further in. Taking that out might hamper their ability to control the skyships towing the island so it’s a viable target. We should operate in pairs. Keith, take someone to destroy it, then make an entrance. Chris and I will go left -”

“Which left?” Gerald asked.

“That left!” their cousin indicated, pointing again. “The other two do the same. Take out as many cables as you can, then regroup with Keith and head into the tunnels. It’ll be like going into a dungeon.”

“I’ll go with Keith,” Nicol volunteered.

Alan had taken a cue from Leon and was carrying an axe as a back-up weapon. He swapped it for his sword, figuring the heavy axe would be better for cutting cables. “I guess that means I’m with you, Gerald.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” his twin agreed. “Let’s go!”

They darted out of the cloud of smoke in the direction opposite to that Julius had indicated, leaving the ships in that direction to their cousin and his friend. Gerald, focused on the tow-cables, drew ahead slightly as Alan assessed the situation.

Knight-armours still fought among the dis-ordered fleet, but there were fewer than there had been only a few moments before.

The focus of the fighting was around a brilliant white knight-armour that duelled a black counterpart. Alan felt a shiver go down his spine - his own knight-armour was black while his twin’s was white. As Gerald reached the first tow-line and slowed to hack at it with his flaming sword, Alan saw a green-trimmed knight-armour open fire on the black duellist with his rifle.

The knight dodged adroitly and broke off from his ivory adversary to pursue this new foe. The white knight-armour tried to also give chase but three Fanoss knights blocked him.

Alan flew past Gerald to the next tow-cable and hacked at it with his axe, devoting only half his attention to it and half to the battle in the sky.

One after another, four knight-armours fell, their knights clearly slain. The white knight of Holfort had cut down all three his foes with clean thrusts of his sword - Alan was stunned to realise that the shield it bore was still recognisably faced the royal crest. It could only be his uncle, the king! But between the first and second kill, his green-trimmed ally fell - the knight-armour severed in two across the line of the cockpit. The upper and lower halves fell away as the black knight turned and waited for his adversary to catch up.

A strand at a time, the cable parted, but he’d also drawn attention from the defenders and a pair of Fanoss knights were diving from where they’d been protecting the skyship on the far end of the towline. Another skyship was turning to bring its cannon to bear.

The thick rope met the end of its ability to withstand the tension and began to unravel - Alan flew onwards, seeing Gerald doing the same. He zig-zagged, avoiding shots from the knights.

“I’ll cover you!” his brother called, “You get the ropes.”

“Who do you think you are? Jeffrey?” But he did as suggested. Usually it was their oldest brother protecting them - Gerald probably felt he should step up in the duke’s absence.

Cannon fire crashed down against them and Alan saw ground troops rushing to try to intercept them - but knight-armours were generally too agile for heavy cannon to hit except by accident and few footmen were armed to take them on. He focused his magic on the next cable, the water soaking the rope strands and making them swell. The added strain made this one easier to cut through, he only needed about two-thirds as many swings of his axe to cut it.

Gerald was trying to take on both the knights at once - Alan looked up and flung tendrils of water to seize one of them. It didn’t slow him for long but Gerald didn’t need very long to cut through both shoulder joints with his flaming blade (it was a cool effect, Alan admitted, almost enough to make him wish he shared his brother’s elemental affinity).

With the odds evened, his brother would be fine. Moving on to the next cable, the silver-haired prince cut through it the same as the last. There were three more anchored to this part of the island but he could see more knight-armours falling back from the battle above.

Hopefully, other knights had made it this far, but he didn’t think the two of them would get much further.

“Just these three!” he shouted, rushing to the next one.

“Got it!” Gerald had taken his own rifle out and fired it into the stern of one of the ships still towing - the shot blasted through the aft-cabin windows and up through the quarterdeck. The younger twin couldn’t see the results, but he imagined they were horrible - splinters of glass and wood were deadly unless you had enough warning to shield yourself somehow.

His brother rushed ahead to try to cut one of the other cables before the next knights arrived to stop them. The flames from the sword caught upon the straining rope and strands began to burn - but it was too slow and Gerald had to finish it with his sword.

Meanwhile, Alan had severed his own and moved on to the last. A shot from above slammed into his knight-armour’s shoulder, throwing him to one side and damaging the joint before he could take the last cut.

“Damn!”

He’d lost his axe and there were five of them, this time. Five on two…

“Finish it and run!” Gerald shouted and sawed his sword against the cable.

Alan gritted his teeth and raised his shield to cover himself, reaching out with his magic.

Tendrils of water reached into the cable and he sawed them back and forth - some of it quenched the flames being started by his brother and some caused the strands to swell and weaken. But the main force of his spell reached into the core of the cable and then he tried something he’d only seen and never tried before: freezing the water.

The young water-mage choked up, for a moment feeling as he had in his sickly childhood when every breath seemed like it was an unbelievable effort. He felt the taste of blood at the back of his throat.

But then shards of white ripped out of the cable, the water expanding as it froze and sharp edges severing strands that his brother hadn’t reached yet.

Another shot hit Alan, this time on the shield, punching a hole through the metal but slowed enough that it didn’t penetrate his knights armour. At the same time, he saw his brother stumble.

The rope parted with a sharp crack, and Alan was about to take off when he saw Gerald’s knight-armour drop to one knee. “What are you doing?”

“They hit the knee joint!” His brother’s voice was terse with self-directed rage. Blaming himself for not being perfect, again!

The enemy knight-armours were almost on them - fortunately their rifles were older muzzle-loaders so they didn’t have much in the way of ranged ability. No time for Gerald to get out.

Alan threw his shield aside and threw the one good arm his knight-armour had left around Gerald’s. “Put everything you have into your thrusters!”

“I’ll be off-balance,” the minutes-older twin said - but it was a warning, not an objection. His knight-armour took off, though it was pulling to one side until Alan fired his own thrusters, carefully balancing the load so that they were somewhat under control.

They weren’t going to be going fast enough. Not with the other knights having the altitude advantage. Alan braced to break away and fight when they had to. Perhaps they’d be close enough to Nicol and Keith to be helped? Four against five was… might be six against five, Julius and Chris were ahead of them he saw.

He looked back and saw the pursuing knights hesitate. What for? Were reinforcements near?

Alan was looking around for other knights when he heard the cheering, coming from scores of ships and at least a hundred knights.

“Oh no.” Gerald’s voice was small.

Looking up, Alan saw a white knight-armour tumbling from the sky. He liked to believe that he was imagining the trail of red that followed it. No human body could contain enough blood to be visible at this distance. But the entire front torso had been cut open.

And above it, the black knight, Vandel Him Zinden, brandished his great sword triumphantly.

Their uncle was dead.

Their king was dead.

Julius’ father was dead.

Shouting a curse, Alan drove them the last distance and flung Gerald’s white knight-armour against the blue-black knight-armour piloted by their cousin. The two crashed to the ground. “Get us underground!” he shouted. “Now! The battle up there is over!”

Julius Rafa Holfort, who could so very easily have just become king were it not for Marie Fou Lafan, struggled upright. “He… he killed my father…”

“Go up there and they’ll kill you too!” Alan used his one good arm to grip the other prince’s knight-armour and slammed the beak-like helm of his own against it’s head. The front caved in, not enough to endanger Julius but pointedly enough to impair it.

Chris’ aqua-painted knight-armour grappled hold of Julius’. “He’s right.”

“My father’s dead!” the prince screamed.

The knee of the light blue knight-armour smashed into the back of its darker counterpart. “So is mine!”

Julius froze. Then, very slowly, he snapped one arm up, dragged his rifle out and fired it over Alan’s shoulder.

Spinning on spot, Alan saw that the enemy knight-armours had stopped cheering for their champion and were charging upon them.

The first of the five caught the rifle shot in the face. The ground reared up under the second as it landed, snaring the feet and causing it to tumble forwards. Before it could stand, Julius put another shot into the cockpit, but his rifle was likely empty before it came down.

Alan was essentially disarmed, but Gerald tossed his sword towards him and he caught in his one remaining hand.

The other three enemies came down together but as they landed, wind swept into them and they crashed against each other. Nicol, adding his magic to Keith’s earth magic, the musician guessed.

He and Chris went in with their swords, the swordsman cutting the headless knight down ruthlessly. Julius joined the fight - three against three. A fair fight that they had no time for.

Chris’s opponent launched two lances through magic, not as many as Brad had managed when he duelled Keith. But Nicol’s winds swept them aside and opened him up to the swordsman.

The knight-armour facing Julius found a golem of equal size rising behind him and pinning him in place for a vicious, disembowelling cut that would have gutted a man and did about the same to the cockpit. Taking out his anger at King Roland’s defeat, perhaps.

But Alan had his own opponent and he - like Gerald - was a fire mage. Flames cascaded along the two-handed flamberge the knight wielded and the young prince had to raise water around his own sword, which steamed away each time their weapons clashed, but at least kept his blade from being warped by the heat.

He parried twice, giving ground and then on the third cut he feinted: backing away only to step close in while the other knight’s sword was out of position. The other knight tried to bash him away with his shield but Alan seized it with tendrils of water and wrenched that just far enough down to thrust over it and down. The tip of his sword caught the ‘throat’ and drove down into the cockpit. The shudder as it hit something soft told him that he’d scored a kill.

“This way!” Keith called. Alan saw the flaxen-haired boy was already out of his knight-armour.

Unceremoniously, he opened his own hatch and abandoned the knight-armour. He had a short-sword in the cockpit, and the team-jacket they’d adopted for the duels against Julius’ friends. Grabbing both, the silver-haired young man scrambled out and ran for his friend.

He’d barely got clear when a cannon-shot from above smashed the remaining arm from his knight-armour and sent it spinning to the ground. Alan winced. Jeffrey probably wouldn’t object to buying him another, but there would be a lot of demand for new knight-armours or repairs. If they survived. He had to survive first.

The others were bailing out too. Keith had opened a tunnel down into the ground and Nicol was still standing over him with his shield up, but his cockpit was open so he could get out quickly.

Down the tunnel they went - Gerald first, then Julius. Chris next, Alan followed him, and heard Nicol’s light footsteps behind him. A moment later the tunnel closed up and they were in darkness for a moment before his twin raised a flame cupped in one hand, showing that they’d entered a stone passageway.

“Keith?” he asked.

“Here.” Katarina’s brother joined them, pulling on his own jacket. “Brace yourselves - I saw shadows.” In the firelight, his face was pale.

“The dark magic,” Julius hissed.

“Keith.” Gerald, despite his fractious relationships at times with his further brother-in-law, was first to reach out to the boy. “Keith, you’ve been through something like this and you survived. For days. You can do it again.”

Chris nodded, jerkily. “What’s your secret?”

The slightly built young man took a long, shaky breath. “Focus on… focus on someone you love.”

“Makes sense. If dark magic draws on dark emotions then love should protect us,” declared Julius. “Marie will see Chris and I through.”

The swordsman adjusted his glasses. “As always.”

Gerald grinned. “Whatever works for you.” He was evidently thinking of Katarina.

Nicol gestured down the passageway. “We should move, sooner or later they’ll come after her.”

Alan nodded. “Let’s go.”

His brother took the lead, Nicol at his side. “So, Alan and I are engaged, and Keith has a sister complex, but…” He almost stumbled as the shadows grew deeper.

There was a shocking cold, a grimness that hit Alan like a wave.

“...but who will you think of, Nicol?” Gerald continued, voice less confident than usual as he too felt the dark magic for the first time.

“Also Katarina.”

Alan focused on the girl in his mind. Keith was right, it did help a little. Someone to go back to, he thought. Someone to live for. Maybe with her, someday, if I can make it work. One thing I know, nothing will come of my feelings unless I act on them.

“Not Sophia?” his brother joked.

“I love my sister. I’m not in love with her,” the former-lord president of the student council told them.

Keith stumbled. “...wait, what!?”

“She isn’t my sister.”

“I’m adopted!”

“But she’s my fiancee,” protested Gerald.

The black-haired man smiled quietly. “The mind knows, but the heart does not care.”

“Dammit, I can’t even argue with that. At least I don’t have to worry about you turning on me like that, do I Alan?”

He looked at his brother and then shook his head. “I love Katarina like a sister, Gerald.”

“Fitting, because once we marry she’ll be your sister.” The older of the brothers gave Keith a slightly challenging look.

“Although,” Alan added, “That’s also how I feel about Mary, so I obviously know nothing about love.”

It was absolutely worth it to see Gerald almost trip over his feet.

“Would you put your mutual fixation on Lady Claes on hold until we deal with the mildly important matter of surviving?” asked Julius irritably.

Keith gave him a joking push and opened a wall up to let them through and into another chamber that didn’t open off the passageway. “I don’t think we have to hear that from you, of all people!”

I should probably tell Violette first that I’m thinking of her like this, Alan thought. Preferably without acting like I expect her to return my feelings. She’s not exactly had great luck with fiances so far…

-

The mood aboard the royal skyship was sombre. Everyone in the control cabin (the way it was built into the nose of the ship reminded Katarina of a Flash Gordon rocket-ship or maybe a B-29 bomber like the ones from history classes in her old life, but no one would understand that if she said so) had friends, family or both outside and fighting in the battle.

Trying to think of a good name for the white skyship wasn’t keeping her from worrying about Keith. Or Gerald. Or Alan. Or (looking at Sophia, who was clinging to a shotgun) Nicol and his father.

Only Sirius… Rafael… looked more or less calm. More when Sophia wasn’t looking at him, less when she did. Probably because she appeared to be quite tempted to use the shotgun on him. Katarina was worried about that too - at least there were three other guards around the boy to stop him using dark magic or anything else. Clarice, Deirdre and Mary would keep Sophia from doing anything she’d regret later.

‘Or not regret later,’ Maid-Ann suggested in the background and was promptly ignored like most of her (to be nice) insane ranting about Katarina marrying Lia (aka Leon) and becoming queen.

Honestly, if it wasn’t for the shotgun, Katarina would suspect Sophia’s looks of suggesting that her friend had a crush on Rafael. He was, after all, both nice and good looking - together with his tragic backstory he was practically a romantic novel’s male lead already. She didn’t think it was actually very likely, and Nicol would probably take it badly if that did happen, but the other three girls would also ensure nothing like that happened.

Nicol… Katarina resisted the urge to join Queen Mylene at the front of the control cabin and watch the battle through a spyglass. Right, she needed another distraction.

Sweeping her gaze around the cabin, she noticed that Selena Rafa Stuart was holding a letter. Aha! That might do! “What’s that, Selena?” she asked.

The older girl (or was that woman now that she was married?) blinked and looked up from Ian Rafa Stuart, who was sitting beside her in one of the twin command chairs of the skyship. “What’s… oh?” She flushed and raised the letter. “This?”

Katarina nodded. It was kind of odd for the princess - Ian was still a prince, so that made Selena a princess now - to bring mail with her into a battle.

“We found it on the console,” Ian explained quietly and indicated the panel before the pair of them.

Selena held up the letter. “Would you like to read it?”

“Sure!” Katarina scrambled to her feet and went over to stand by them, seeing everyone watch her. Perhaps they also wanted a distraction?

The young woman handed over the letter, which was unsealed. Unfolding it, Katarina read out loud: “To whom it may concern: I am gravely disappointed in the poor care and security of this vessel. I can only presume that the Holfort household is too impoverished to maintain a satisfactory cleaning or security force…”

The brunette girl broke off as Clarice began to giggle. The redhead waved for her to go on.

“In order to enjoy the depredations of a quality gentleman thief such as myself, proper standards must be maintained. I shall investigate other treasures to avail myself of, but I shall return and if I do not find your affairs in better order, I will make off with greater treasures than this tawdry vessel and its frankly pathetic seal. The queen’s booty comes to mind.”

There was a quiet snort from Mary, but the queen didn’t move from the front of the command deck. Perhaps she wasn’t worried about her booty.

“Yours disrespectfully, Carmine Sandiego.” Katarina looked past the signature and saw a small addendum at the bottom of the page. “P.S. I swept the seats clean. No thanks required, all part of the service.”

Deirdre shook her head slightly. “Really? You’re not making it up?”

“Swear to god and hope to stick a needle in my eye,” Katarina promised, and handed off the letter.

“Well! The man has some style!” Deirdre admitted, confirming the contents. “But who in the world is Carmine Sandiego?”

“Where on earth could she be?” Katarina asked. Then she paused. “Or he.”

The blonde rolled her eyes. “It does say gentleman thief.”

“Yes, but that’s a career choice, it’s not gender specific!” Sophia corrected. “It could be a woman - perhaps an illegitimate daughter of the Ades? They have colour-themed names! This could be the start of a convoluted scheme!”

“The Principality has a price on his or her head for theft, or so I am told,” Larna informed them. “So the thief part would be correct. Perhaps Princess Hertrude would know.”

“I still think we’re dealing with a man. Only a man would be interested in the queen’s booty,” argued Dierdre.

Mary produced a fan and covered her mouth. “That’s not necessarily the case, Lady Roseblade.”

The queen’s spyglass met the glass windows at the front of the control room. “No…” she whispered.

“I’m…” Katarina was about to reassure Queen Mylene that she was sure she had very nice booty, but the woman fell to her knees, dropping the spyglass. The lenses cracked, clearly audible. “Your highness?”

“No…” The queen repeated, looking back with a pale face.

Angelica stepped forwards and put her arms around Mylene’s shoulders. “Your highness. Are you alright?” She looked up and out of the windows. “Is it Julius?”

The silver-blonde queen rested her face against Angelica’s shoulder. “No, no I can’t see my son. But the Black Knight has just killed the king.”

Katarina gasped. The king? She didn’t know him very well - her mother kept her away from court, given how bad she was at formal etiquette - but she still knew who he was. And he’d secretly been the Masked Knight, so he was automatically cool! She had a book about the Masked Knight’s exploits over the years!

And the Black Knight had killed him?! Inconceivable!

“I should have been there.” Katarina went to hug the queen too.

“No!” Mary exclaimed loudly. She was obviously horrified at the king’s death too.

Ian also leapt down from the command seats and for a moment Katarina thought he was going to hug his aunt as well. But he picked up the cracked spyglass and stared through it, out at the battle. “The island is slowing,” he reported. “I see… more of their ships aren’t towing it anymore. I don’t know if they’re cutting their cables or if knights got through but his majesty succeeded. It looks as if it’ll stop by the port island.”

“Can you see if anyone else is hurt?” Olivia asked nervously.

“No one specific,” Gerald and Alan’s brother said seriously. Which probably meant that someone else was. He just didn’t know who.

“The twins are very skilled,” Selena reassured her husband. “And so is Katarina’s brother and their other friends.”

“So was Roland,” Mylene reminded them, her voice bitter.

Then Ian turned calmly. “Ladies, I see shadows forming. Fanoss is using their dark magic.”

“Alright girls, time to go.” Larna Smith had been so quiet that Katarina had almost forgotten she was there. But now she moved up to stand beside Ian’s empty seat and clapped her hands sharply. “Angelica, Olivia, Katarina - you have the Saint’s Regalia. Follow me out on deck.”

Katarina swallowed and obeyed. Olivia took her hand and joined her at the foot of the stairs upwards.

Looking back as she climbed, she saw Angelica hesitate and then the other duke’s daughter squeezed Mylene once more and followed. Ian helped Mylene up and ushered her in a gentlemanly fashion towards one of the other seats, where Clarice took her in hand.

Angelica was on the stair now, behind Larna, and then Katarina and Olivia were out on the upper deck of the white skyship. The sky was thick with dark grey clouds, threatening rain.

The Director produced a pair of opera-glasses and stared through them. “Prince Ian is right. The shadows are reaching past their fleet. God help the boys now.” She sounded unaccountably worried and Katarina went to the forward rail, looking out for a sign of hope.

As if summoned, a long sleek shape swept up to one side of the royal flagship - as long as half the capital, commodore’s pennant flying from its signal mast and the twin turrets already tracking. The hangar opened and a familiar crimson and black knight-armour took to the air.

“Big Charznable!” Katarina shouted.

“Sir Leon,” Angelica confirmed. “But he’s not alone.”

Skyship after skyship was leaving the city’s own docks, as well as private estates. A few peeled away, racing ahead of the invasion, but most formed up into squadrons alongside the Dreadnought and the white ship - the Unicorn, Katarina decided. This would be the Unicorn!

(Just as soon as she convinced Selena, Ian and the queen of that).

“The relics!” Larna called out. “Just like we practised, but this time it’s for real.”

The darkness was coming at them like a wall now, dark magic like an onrushing tide.

Katarina looked down for a moment at the Saintess’ Bracelet on her wrist. Then Angelica was next to her, taking that hand. The blonde’s other hand clutched the Saintess’ Sceptre. On Katarina’s other side, she was already holding Olivia - and the studious girl had the Saintess’ Necklace on her neck - incongruous over the adventurer’s armour that all three of them wore. “We’re fully equipped!” the brunette called.

“On three,” Angelica warned. “One.”

Olivia’s lips moved, as if in prayer.

“Two.”

Katarina licked her lips. Thinking of her parents. Her brother, out there. Their friends, around her and around him.

“Three!” Angelica shouted and pale flames licked around her, before rushing up their arms towards Katarina.

It hit her like a tingling storm, pins-and-needles. Ann had shown her what to do, and it flowed through her, filtered and shaped, until it reached Olivia.

The sceptre was glowing, the bracelet lit up.

“I’m not alone!” Olivia screamed and a vast magical circle - so large it dwarfed even the Dreadnought - formed before them. Light streamed forth from it, so bright that Katarina was almost blinded.

She didn’t need to see it though, only to feel it.

Light smashed against darkness and hurled it backwards towards the island.

For a moment it seemed as if it would be enough to vanquish the dark mage’s ritual entirely, but the darkness rallied and the shadows gathered, surging around and past the light.

“Olivia, we need a wider wall!” Angelica called.

“I don’t…”

“I have it!” Katarina declared confidently. She was an earth-mage, not just a light-mage. She’d seen Keith do this before with the ground.

Seizing hold of the light she broadened it, shaping it until it was a castle wall, marked in places with towers and flags.

“Nnnggg,” she gasped as the strain caught her.

But Angelica was on one side of her, Olivia on the other. Their magic was also part of this and they caught on quickly, following Katarina’s lead and carrying part of the effort. Most of the effort. This was hard!

The darkness clawed forward, the light pushed back.

After endless moments, an equilibrium was reached - the wall of light cutting across the city. The port island was lost in the darkness. Shadows claimed the docks. Mansions along the edge of the continent vanished from sight and Katarina was shamefully glad that she would not see what was happening there.

But most of the capital was behind the wall.

And as Count Garrett’s ships plunged in, trying to reform and strike into the city, Big Charznable rose to meet them, followed by dozens of ships and scores of knights.

“For the light!” Leon shouted, his voice booming impossibly loud. “For a brighter day!”

And a thousand cannon fired…
 
Compare and Contrast 11-3

drakensis

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Compare and Contrast

But do be glad baby when you've found
That's the power makes the world go 'round
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 3

Ambition and revenge are always hungry. ~ Danish Proverb​

“Where are we?” Alan asked, completely lost.

They’d been jogging through the passageways for what felt like hours but was probably still only a matter of minutes. The Fanossian island wasn’t that huge - unless they were going in circles they should be getting somewhere.

“Under their citadel at the highest point,” Keith told him.

Chris frowned. “Isn’t that dangerous?”

“It’s the last place they’re likely to look,” Katarina’s brother replied. “And the best place to accomplish something more. Leon said he couldn’t tell exactly where the dark mage was, but there’s a good chance that someone important is using the keep up there.” He pointed upwards.

Nicol nodded in agreement. “We could hide down here for days and not be found, but who knows who will win? If we can do more then we should.”

Alan shivered. The dark magic was still around them, he could feel it faintly. And Violette was out with the fleet. “Even if there’s nothing useful up there, if we can trick them into sending soldiers after us then those soldiers aren’t fighting the rest of the kingdom.”

“I was thinking more about capturing one of their leaders, or stealing uniforms to get off the island,” Keith admitted, “But that’s good too.”

Gerald nodded, the flames in his hands flickering. “We’ll do what we can with the opportunities we’re presented with. When you say we’re under the citadel, do you mean directly?”

“More or less. There are some galleries up ahead that look out the side of the island - I think they’re intended as a supplemental dock. The citadel itself has some cellars beneath it, but the stairs down to the gallery don’t connect to them and there’s some sort of substantial chamber that also connects to the stairs.” Keith indicated the wall he was standing next to. “The stairs between that chamber and the citadel are right on the other side of this.”

Alan frowned and tried to sketch out the image that Keith’s description brought to mind on the wall (which was damp rock, giving him an obvious tool). “Something like this?”

The earth-mage winced as he looked at it. “No… like… um…” He fiddled around and then a miniature stone gallery flowed up out of the floor, stairs climbing steadily up, a chamber coming off the side as the stairs doubled back and up further into a small stone keep with additional blocks - cellars, presumably - below it. “Like so.”

Earth magic, Alan thought, was unreasonably good for this sort of thing - at least in the hands of someone like Keith. Katarina would probably have trouble drawing a duck in the dirt with her magic. But to be fair, she’d have trouble doing the same with a stick - and have fun either way.

“Looks like a chimney,” he pointed out. “If those are flammable stores in the chamber, then smoke could go right up into the citadel, drawing air up from below.”

“Aha.” His twin grinned. “Smoke them out?”

“They’ll have their own mages,” Nicol pointed out. “But it would get their attention.”

Julius nodded. “Could be non-flammables, but between us we can probably work out something. And there’s no way to tell what’s in there without looking.”

“Is it guarded?” Chris asked, practically.

Keith shrugged. “I can’t tell that. If so, well, there are six of us.”

Numbers didn’t mean that much in close quarters, Alan thought. But unless the Fanossians had a better earth-mage with them than Keith, close quarters were only going to be the case if they wanted them.

With Gerald extinguishing his illuminating flame, there was a moment of darkness that made Alan shudder before the Claes heir opened the wall for Chris and Julius to lead the way through. There was no immediate clash of arms, so Nicol and Gerald went next - then Alan and Keith followed them through, the latter closing the wall up neatly again after him. The stairwell was shadowy and while the dark magic didn’t help, Alan suspected that this would have been the case even without it. Not many lanterns hung to light it.

Still, it was better than the pitch-blackness a moment ago. Alan had never considered himself claustrophobic, but fighting underground was for moles and earth-mages.

They were wearing boots, so going down their fairly steep stairs silently really wasn’t going to happen. Hopefully anyone on guard would expect the occasional visitor or passer-by - and the lack of light would make their identities unclear. Pilot suits were fairly standard across all various nations, and three of them were wearing jackets that further confused their identities.

As it happened, there were four soldiers guarding the landing and the door that opened off it. That spoke well of whatever was inside being important.

Of course, it also should have made it easy for them to respond - or at least for one of them to call for help before they were taken out.

That didn’t account for having a wind-mage and earth-mage of the calibre of Nicol and Keith. Before the men even realised that they were under attack, the floor beneath their feet jerked upwards and flung them down the stairs - or rather the slope where the stairs had been. A tornado of wind pushed them down so fast that even once the stairs were unaffected, they kept going - probably doing as much damage to each other as the fall was doing.

Julius and Gerald rushed after them, sliding down in a rather more controlled fashion until they reached the stairs. Once they caught up, the guards were taken out quickly and efficiently.

Even so, there was enough noise - including a shout of alarm - that someone on the other side of the door shouted a muffled question. He sounded angry - and as if he expected others to defer to him.

Alan put on his best Fanoss accent. “Bloody idiot dropped his lantern.”

He had to hide a smirk at the “I’m surrounded by idiots!” that came back. “Is he hurt?”

“Looks like it,” he confirmed. “There’s oil down the steps too.”

“Well get it cleaned up!” The order was shouted.

“Right away, sir.”

Nicol patted Alan approvingly on the shoulder.

While his twin and his cousins gathered weapons and armour, Alan pressed his ear to the door. If there was a knight or lord in there, then it probably wasn’t just a storeroom.

“How are they doing this?” the man complained. “Last time they could barely cover a few ships, even if one of them was that compensatory speed-boat!”

Alan covered his mouth and fought back a laugh. He wondered how Leon would take such an unflattering description of the Dreadnought.

“Perhaps it is some relic of the saintess.” A woman’s voice, younger than the man, Alan thought. “It’s interesting, don’t you think?”

“It’s infuriating!” The sound of something clattering, as if it had been kicked over. “Can’t you do something about it? Their king is dead, but the bulk of their fleet is holding their ground behind the light magic!”

“They should be despairing,” the girl agreed. “But, my lord count, if I focus on breaking down their barrier then…”

“Yes, yes, do that!” The man laughed. “Push this trick aside and show them the monsters inside of them!”

The woman sounded delighted. “I would be happy to. I simply can’t also exclude your own forces, so some of them…”

“I don’t care. I don’t care! There’s an entire city of commoners that must hate their lords, not to mention all those men shackled to the degenerate scum the Holforts force them to marry. It will be a thousand times worse for them than for us!”

There was an excited giggle. “What an interesting theory!”

Alan drew his short-sword. “It’s the dark magic,” he reported, feeling that same thing touching him still. God, it was going to get worse? This was what it was like when he wasn’t even being targeted? “It’s coming from in here.”

“Brilliant!” Gerald was holding a sword, while Julius was shrugging on a slightly-too-large brigandine. “Let’s stop that.”

“We’d better.” He tried the latch and found the room locked - and no key. “I think the Ministry got light magic to protect the city - and they’re about to try to break through it!”

Chris weighed his own sword. “Get us in there!”

“Cast at the door together,” Nicol ordered, backing up. “Three, two, one…”

A good two inches thick, iron-bound oak… the door didn’t stand a chance as earth, wind, fire and water ripped into it. As the four friends took deep breaths after the effort, Chris and Julius took point storming through the door.

“Who the devil are you?!” a finely dressed noble man exclaimed, drawing his own sword.

The room was choked by shadows, a circle of darkness somehow glowing on the floor - as if illuminated by the light was fleeing it so fiercely. And it flowed around dead bodies too: scores of them, Alan realised as he followed the other two.

“Ah!” A slight, dark-haired woman in a plain black woollen dress waved at them with incongruous happiness. “My experiment came back!”

“You!” Keith shouted.

And the darkness pulsed like a heart-beating.

Faster, deeper, stronger.

Alan clutched the sound of Violette’s violin, the sight of Katarina’s smile and of silver hair, the feel of Mary’s hand in his own, sad blue eyes and the warmth of his brother’s presence.

And they plunged into night.

-

“It’s lucky it was Ian and Selena that were first to try the skyship,” Leon thought out loud as he ducked back from the fighting for a moment to gather his breath, hiding behind one of the Holfort ships.

“The male new human is at least capable of leadership.” That was more of a compliment than Luxion would normally extend. “And his spouse’s magic is comparatively trivial… so long as she does not obtain light magic as the other one did.”

Leon smirked. Luxion had engineered Katarina becoming a light mage, but he still found her having it offensive. “I was thinking that no one would be surprised that those lovebirds could unseal the ship, but that’s also true.”

Queen Mylene was in no fit state to provide leadership right now. However dysfunctional her marriage had been, she’d still spent more than half her life wed to King Roland and losing him had hurt her more than Leon had expected. Fortunately, Ian had taken up the leadership role upon the royal skyship and was ‘relaying’ orders from the incapacitated vice admiral of the white.

“How much did Cleare have to up their ratings?” he asked and then chided himself for doing so. He didn’t want to go through that thing himself with Clarice, given one of them would almost certainly feel more for the other - however small the difference. It was none of his business ‘how much’ the security seals thought the married couple loved each other.

Luxion answered before he could tell the AI not to bother. “It did not have to.”

“...huh.” Well, that was better than hearing numbers. And good for the happy couple. “Nice not to be needed, I guess.”

“Speaking of being needed, master, that enemy has taken the field.”

Leon cursed and looked around. “Where?! No, I see him!”

Vandel Him Zenden was at the peak of a wedge of knights moving up to reinforce the frontlines. He hadn’t been seen since King Roland’s fall - most likely catching his breath and having repairs made to his knight-armour. The knight was no longer a young man, after all.

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean he was any less likely to cause utter havoc given the chance.

“Do you wish to fight him alone?” asked Luxion.

“Hell no!” But Leon was already flying towards the older knight. “But that sword of his will go through just about anyone else’s knight-armour like it was butter. Take out his back-up if you can.”

The sad fact was that even Luxion’s targeting skills just weren’t good enough to hit a knight-armour if the pilot was good enough - and the Black Knight was definitely good enough. The mecha were just too agile.

That wasn’t the case for all of the knights backing him up though. Dreadnought’s guns spoke, very loudly, and three of the four knights targeted accepted the irresistible argument that they should die now.

Leon picked off the last of them with his rifle before Sir Vandel caught up with him, the two of them meeting right on the boundary between the light magic and the dark magic.

“So, Sir Leon Fou Bartford.” Vandel didn’t halt in mid-air, staying evasive in case of more fire from the Dreadnought. He didn’t attack yet though - and he was close enough that Leon would rather that Luxion not take a shot. “I have cleansed my honour of one Holfort knight that escaped me before. Now for you.”

“You have a weird sense of honour,” admitted Leon. “I mean, you betrayed your prince, you’re literally serving the powers of darkness -” He gestured with his axe to indicate the dark magic. “- and on top of that, you’re kind of a jerk…”

The longer he’s talking, the longer he’s not fighting, Leon thought. Stalling for time works for me - Count Roseblade’s on the move and once his force hits Garrett’s flank they can roll it up. And I’m really not sure I can beat Vandel.

The old man was past his prime, but he’d been killing knights for longer than Leon had been alive. Maybe even twice as long. There was a reason he was still alive and it wasn’t his sword.

“Do you think I need one of Holfort’s dog’s to tell me about honour?”

Leon laughed. “A dog? Neither of us is a dog, Vandel Him Zenden. Dogs are loyal to their masters. We’re wolves. We care about our packs and damn everyone else.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” Vandel agreed and then pointed his sword at Leon. “But rejoice. When you’re in hell, your pack will be joining you quickly.”

“I kind of doubt that.” There was something happening behind Vandel, but Leon wasn’t sure what - the dark magic was making the already dim sunlight even less able to illuminate the flying island behind them. Was something else launching to join the attack? Was it raining and…

No, it wasn’t weather. Nor was it another attack. Or rather, not a conventional attack.

The shadowy extent of the dark magic behind Sir Vandel was rippling like water. As if a wave was forming.

“I don’t suppose you’d accept an invitation to look behind you?” he asked the older man.

“What sort of fool do you take me for?!”

“I don’t think we have that sort of time,” Leon warned. “Luxion, put me on speakers. This is Commodore Bartford! Pull back and consolidate around the flagship!”

Keeping half an eye upon Vandel, who seemed startled, Leon obeyed his own orders, moving his knight-armour back from the divide between the two fleets. Other knight-armours and ships did the same.

It was a dreadful risk - it would be too easy for that to become a rout or for Garrett’s fleet to take advantage.

But discipline held. Perhaps because the flagship was a visible sign that their cause wasn’t lost, or because there was nowhere for most of them to run to.

And their adversaries were caught entirely off guard. It would take critical moments for their leaders to signal what to do and individual captains and knights hesitated. Some advanced, only to find that they were singled out by fire from the withdrawing fleet.

And before any coherent response could arrive, the wave of darkness did.

Leon saw the same thing he’d seen before - ships falling out of line as their crews suddenly had new and immediate concerns, knight-armours exploding as their occupants were transformed. But this time it was Fanoss’ ships and knights that were caught.

The darkness hammered against the protective light around the defenders, pushing it back across the city.

Hopefully the districts beneath had evacuated - a battle above them was bad enough. Few of the defenders were caught though - and even some of those emerged unscathed.

“BART-FORD!” a roar drew Leon’s view back towards his foe.

Vandel Him Zenden had pursued him - but he had not entered the shrinking zone of light.

It might have been better if he had. Armour and systems fell away, the knight-armour bursting away from a great, winged knight that emerged from within it - flesh like iron, head like a helm, feet taloned like an eagle’s… and still clutching that dreadful black sword in one hand.

“...”

“Interesting! He appears to be somewhat still in possession of his faculties,” Cleare declared.

“Not the time!” Leon’s axe barely intercepted the flat of the sword and he found himself fighting right at the boundary between light and shadow.

The monster that had lurked within Vandel was now released, a monstrous reflection of the knight he’d been. And still recognising Leon as his enemy.

They clashed, Leon retreating with every exchange as the darkness drove deeper.

And then, with a glorious chiming sound, the barrier of light brought the advance of the dark magic to a sudden halt. It ground forwards, clawing… but it failed to break it.

“Sir Leon! Duck!”

Cutting his thrusters, Leon dropped himself several yards.

Cannonfire smashed through the air above him, smashing Vandel backwards.

The ship that had been its source was a comparatively modest one - Lloyd’s ship. The young baronet - confirmed in his father’s title during the whirlwind of preparations before the battle - stood at the rail, a speaking trumpet raised. Leon saw the gun crews racing to reload.

“BART-FORD!” the black knight roared again, still alive somehow, and dove towards the ship.

Bringing his thrusters up to full power, Leon ascended and tackled the monster before it could reach the vessel, hurling both his knight-armour and his foe upwards into the sky.

Flames of blue-white were streaming from Vandel’s body and Leon thought back to the monster that had been formed from Lloyd’s father back in the second battle. It too had burned, while within the reach of Marie’s light magic.

Vandel’s form roared and wrestled, but Leon was too close for it to use the black sword and scratches to his armour plating weren’t an issue he was worried about. “Burn!” he shouted, “burn!”

The pale flames were inside the fiendish knight as well as outside it. The boy saw them blazing inside the open throat, saw the dark eyes incinerate.

He threw the bestial remains of Vandel Him Zenden back at last, let it swing the sword at him and avoided the enfeebled limb - its muscles half-consumed already by the fires - before lashing out and severing the wrist. With his spare hand, he snatched the sword before it could fall.

“So much for your revenge,” Leon told Vandel and watched the monstrous remains of Fanoss’ greatest knight tumble away as the wings finally gave up.

The howls of rage gave way to despair as the beast fell. Leon followed it with his gaze until, halfway to the ground, the shape collapsed back into that of a charred man, white-haired and lacking one hand. Then he closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath and returned to take advantage of their momentary breathing space.

-

The enemy fleet was spilling through the magical separation between the dark magic and light magic, or rather the ships and knights were doing so as they each individually realised that doing so was a way to protect themselves from the dark magic that they were suddenly not proof against.

This was forcing them into a point-blank battle with the queen’s fleet before they could get back into any sort of fighting order - the barrier wasn’t as far from the flagship as it had been, and the white skyship was reaping a harvest almost equalling that of the Dreadnought.

Violette had an excellent view of this as the Revenge followed the leading elements of Count Roseblade’s little fleet as they crashed into the flank of the disorganised enemy fleet.

They were fighting in three columns, each led the largest and sturdiest ships available to the three principal levies involved - Princess Hertrude’s, Count Roseblade’s and Count Bartford’s. Smaller ships and retinues had been divided up between them to keep the numbers more or less equal. The Revenge wasn’t large enough to join the spearhead, but that also spared it the battering some of the leading ships took.

One Fanoss battleship in particular seemed to have taken a pounding from the inoffensively named Pelican, caught nose on where only a few cannon could fire back it had lost prow rigging and a number of shots seemed to have punched in through the bow and presumably crashed along the length of the ship.

“It’s trying to hoist signals on the mizzen mast,” Scarlet observed, pointing at the rearmost mast of the damaged skyship. “It must be one of their leaders.”

“It could be repeating a signal,” Violette told her twin, “But it’s as good a reason as any. Captain! Bring us across their bow and prepare a boarding party.” She reflexively checked her pistols were loaded and ready.

The captain didn’t question the orders and soon the deck of the Revenge was crowded with soldiers aboard for this very purpose - including many of the elves, who mostly hadn’t had a chance to really learn the roles required of a skyship crew. Greg also took position among them, holding up a sturdy spear that Violette wouldn’t have thought was practical.

“Prepare grapples!” the captain called out as they closed in. The enemy ship tried to turn to bring its side and the cannon facing that way to face the Revenge, but it was half-crippled by the loss of masts and turned too slowly.

The two ships crashed against each other, bow against bow, the Revenge’s forward rigging tangling with the larger ship’s broken ropes and timbers. The battleship slewed further around as it absorbed the forward momentum of Violette’s ship, but then there was no time for her to take that in. The two skyships were locked together and Greg led their crew scrambling over the side to hack through the rigging and the boarding nets intended to keep them from getting onto the other deck.

And Violette found herself swept up by her twin sister and dragged through the air as Scarlet leapt up into their own rigging and then across the gulf between the mid-ships sections of the two skyships.

The enemy deck was a mess, the Pelican’s raking having swept it initially clear of living sailors and gunners. But doors and hatches opened, survivors coming out to give battle.

Scarlet tossed Violette up into one of the boarding nets where she could land smoothly and dived into one of the hatches, kicking one sailor back down the ladder and sweeping his mates down beneath him.

Yanking her pistols free of the cords that had kept them in their holsters, Violette drew the hammers back with her thumbs and opened up on the sailors emerging from the shattered gun-house. Each wrist-wrenching shot from one of the heavy revolvers yanked the gun up and out of line, but she alternated firing as she fought the recoil.

Ten shots hammered out before she was dry, only two sailors had fallen to her fire but others were going for cover rather than advancing on the twins.

And then, with a triumphant cry, Greg led the crew through the wreckage to join them. “Seberg!” the boy roared, driving his spear into the nearest foe man. He levered the luckless sailor upwards on it before wrenching the spearhead free. “Holfort!” The Fanoss sailor fell over the side with a despairing scream that Violette could barely hear.

“Ades!” she cried, discarding the pistols and drawing her sword. Still caught alone, she cut loose one of the few lines still connected to the main mast of the battleship and swung on it, sweeping across half the deck before she lost her one-handed grip on the rope and fell feet-first upon a petty officer who was trying to push up one gangway at the head of a half-dozen Fanoss sailors. “Revenge! To me!”

Her sword clashed against a cutlass and she drove it aside before hammering the basket-hilt of her sword into the sailor’s face.

The petty officer beneath her feet groaned and she stamped her booted feet down, regretting the brutality but not willing to lower her blade’s guard.

Violette parried another sailor and then a spear flew past her to skewer a second sailor.

It was Greg’s spear and he joined her a moment later, flinging a soldier in the colours of a Fanoss noble into the mob of sailors before crouching to recover his spear. “Man, I wouldn’t have minded having Brad with us. …or Nicol or Keith for that matter. A good mage makes up for a lot.”

Violette thrust the tip of her blade between the ribs of one of the fallen sailors before he could stand, then twisted it and withdrew it before it could get caught. “There are a lot of people I’d like to have with us.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

There was a cry of alarm and Violette looked up in time to see a volley of gunfire from the quarterdeck blast into the mixed squad pushing their way up the other side of the warship. A squad of enemy sailors had managed to form up on the quarterdeck rail, led by a nobleman wearing the same colours she’d seen before.

“Reload!” the man shouted and waved his sword to indicate Violette, Greg and the sailors and elves behind them. “Aim!”

Scarlet leapt up from where she’d been fighting the sailors trying to get out from under the quarterdeck and ripped the entire rail free. “Disembark?” she suggested sweetly and then swept the yards-long length of wood back in a savage horizontal arc that scattered the sailors across the deck with two of them quite genuinely going over the side.

“You Holfort witch!” the noble crowded and hurled a bolt of flame at Scarlet as she recovered her balance.

For a moment, Violette’s little sister disappeared in the flames… and then they faded, together with the magic circles that had shielded her. “Ades, actually.”

“W-what?” the man asked.

“I’m an Ades witch,” Scarlet said and tossed the rail up in the air to curtsey. “Lady Scarlet Rafa Ades.” And then she extended her hand to catch the rail. “Very much not at your service.”

The man backed against the side of the ship. “To me!” he called frantically. “To me!”

“Revenge!” Violette called out, her voice cutting through the clamour. She pointed her sword towards the stern and the boarding party followed her surging along the deck.

“No!” the man protested. “I’m a viscount! Ransom! Ransom!”

Scarlet paused, visibly about to swing the rail down upon him. “Violette, I’m conflicted.”

“You need to set Vermilion a good example!” Violette called out, reaching the foot of the quarterdeck.

Her twin pouted -

Then the viscount drew a pistol suddenly and pointed it directly at Scarlet’s head. “Change of plan! Surrender or she dies!”

“You coward!” Greg shouted furiously.

“Better a live coward than a dead hero!”

“And to whom,” Violette asked the man, still pointing her sword up at him, “Would we be surrendering?”

“To Viscount Vidal Vor Darian!”

She nodded. “When you get to hell, tell them that the Ades do not accept false surrenders.”

There was just enough time for Viscount Darian’s eyes to widen in realisation before Scarlet slammed the rail down on him. The pistol went unfired as the hand, arm and brain required to pull the trigger were driven down through the deck by the crushing blow.

“Clear the below decks!” Violette ordered.

Warnings were called down, but no one offered a surrender, so her boarders followed the demands with grenades before they went down.

Greg whistled slowly, pulling the pistol free of the dead man’s crushed hand. The weapon had survived better than the flesh and bone. The boy slammed the butt down on what was left of the side rail and the gun discharged. “Best not to leave it lying around unfired,” he explained. “Accidents, you know.”

Violette nodded in understanding and looked for a speaking tube or some other method for the ship’s commander to communicate with the engine room below.

“You know, I don’t regret breaking things off with your sister,” Greg told her. “Maybe how I did it, but I still don’t think it was ever going to work out.”

“Is this really the moment for this conversation?”

He shrugged. “There’s almost never a good moment for a conversation. Anyway, where I was going with that was: don’t take it the wrong way when I say that we make a pretty good team.”

“Don’t worry.” Violette thought of another young man, one with silver hair and long musician’s fingers. Then she chided herself for thinking of someone engaged - and to one of her friends, at that! “I’m unlikely to fall in love with you, Seberg. But I can work with you.”

“Great.” The redhead scrambled up onto the quarter-deck and looked around. “You talking about Vermilion - that’s your half-brother, right?”

“Our younger brother, yes. The new duke.”

“I guess I should try to set a good example for my own brother, him being the new count and all.” Greg shrugged. “Not sure I’m even welcome.”

Violette decided not to ask him if he found Marie worth it. She’d found the end of a speaking tube but it wasn’t connected to anything, broken off by a cannon shot at some point. That might explain why this ship was so sluggish earlier.

“...Lady Ades?” Greg sounded puzzled. “Is it just me, or is the dark magic… moving?”

Moments ago, they’d watched in horror as the darkness seemed about to blast through the light magic barrier protecting the capital. But now, as Violette looked up, it was retreating. “I think you’re right.”

“Then have we won?”

Violette found a spyglass that had somehow survived the carnage and opened it. Through it she could see the tendrils and whorls of shadow pulling back towards the flying island - but they weren’t fading. No, they were coalescing. Forming into something new. Something vast and - she was sure - deadly dangerous.

“No,” she whispered. “No, we’ve not won yet…”
 
Compare and Contrast 11-4

drakensis

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Compare and Contrast

But do be glad baby when you've found
That's the power makes the world go 'round
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 4

No revenge is so heroic than that which torments envy by doing good. ~ Author Unknown​

Night.

Darkness.

Alan felt water on his face, like the rain on the day his mother was buried. What sort of mage hates his own element?

The room they had charged into was awash with tendrils of darkness, the same that he’d seen ensnaring Keith.

There were guards inside, but they were rather distracted by the rat-like creature in their midst - from the way clothes and armour had been torn apart, Alan suspected that it had once been a guard.

Moving through the magic was like wading through a river, if the water was up past your head and you somehow had no buoyancy. Tendrils of dark magic tried to snare at his limbs and Alan slashed at them with his sword, which cut through them without any effect.

“Stop them!” a nobleman called, his tricorn hat almost falling off as he grabbed the nearest guard.

Distracted, the guardsman took his eye off the monster, a critical mistake. It turned, faster than Alan would have expected, and gored the man with its tusks.

The chamber was long and dark, the extent impossible to tell in the darkness. But Alan could see the circle that was the source of the dark magic. A circle, several yards across, from which the darkness radiated like a spider’s web or perhaps an octopus’ tentacles.

Within the shadows, the woman danced. Her feet were bare, her face ecstatic.

Alan stumbled as one leg was caught in the magic. His sword was too short to reach and likely useless anyway. He lashed out with his magic, a dart of frozen water tearing through it. The tendril wasn’t destroyed, but it was loosened enough for him to push further.

Another guard fell, caught by the rat-monster’s tail and dragged around for the beast to chew upon him.

“Must I do everything myself?” The nobleman drew his light fencing sword and frost formed along it, extending the blade until it was a heavier, jagged rapier of ice.

Gerald met the man, his own blade surrounded by flames.

Leaving the duel to his brother, Alan saw one of the guards swept off his feet as he buried the head of a glaive in the monster, trying to hold it in place. Lunging, the young musician grabbed the man and pulled him clear before one clawed foot could pin him to the ground.

“Th-thanks,” the man exclaimed, and then his eyes widened as he saw who had saved him.

“One thing at a time!” Alan shouted, lunging in and trying to stab the monster. It yanked its way back, but as it twisted away he was able to grab the shaft of the glaive.

Lashing out with water, forming a web of strands linking himself, the weapon and the floor, the silver-haired boy barely managed to restrain the much larger monster. It wrenched away again, but right as he found his strength reaching its limit, the man with him grabbed hold as well.

Razor winds tore through the monster’s fur, spraying blood from superficial wounds. But it was Chris who took the final step, lunging in while the monster was still pinned in place. His sword cut through its throat, spraying the floor with its blood.

The glaive was forced out of the corpse as it shrunk back into the shape of a man.

“You fools!” the nobleman called. “Kill them, that’s an order!”

Alan turned to the man next to him, the pair of them both holding the same glaive. “Are you really going to die for this scumbag?”

The guard’s face twisted in disdain. “I’m oathsworn to Count Garrett,” he said reluctantly and tried to pull the glaive away from Alan.

So his brother was fighting the leader of the entire invasion? Better and better! “He’s a traitor to your crown,” the boy pointed out, wrenching the glaive back and wishing he hadn’t dropped his sword.

Garrett jumped back to avoid a cut from Gerald’s flaming sword. “Liar!”

“We know you are,” Nicol confirmed, moving like a shadow through the dark magic. “We heard it from Princess Hertrude!”

“The princess is a captive?!” Alan’s opponent exclaimed in horror.

“No… she’s our ally. Better Holfort than a dark mage,” he replied, wrestling the glaive away from the distracted man, just in time to deflect an attack from one of the other guards.

The disarmed guard looked disgusted. “Allying with the kingdom? After they killed her father?!”

“No, allying with the kingdom against the man who killed her father.” Alan swept the glaive around and disarmed the guard who’d attacked him, and then kicked him in the groin. He didn’t take any pride in that, but when you’re fighting for your life, you do what you must.

“Lies! All lies!” shouted Garrett, barely holding off both Nicol and Gerald - and only doing so by frantic retreating.

“We just heard you condemn your own sailors to be turned into monsters,” Julius pointed out and then his arm flashed forwards and Alan’s lost shortsword flashed across the distance between himself and the Count.

The throw was good and several inches of steel embedded themselves point-first in Garrett’s throat.

The man fell to the floor, spine likely severed. He tried to choke out words, but blood was gushing from both his mouth and the rent in his neck. Dark tendrils rushed into him eagerly, muscle bulging and bones twisting obscenely beneath.

And then Gerald’s blade drove into the man’s chest, flames engulfing him, brought to a near white-heat that cast Alan’s brother in a brilliant light as Nicol fed air frantically into them.

The blackened husk of a dead body died, human once more. And Gerald discarded the sword, blowing on his hand as it had apparently been too hot for even him to hold onto.

Alan stared at the disarmed soldier in front of him. “Are you going to die for a dead man, a man who betrayed you along with everyone else?”

“...no.”

Keith picked up an axe. “You,” he demanded, pointing it at the still dancing woman. “Stop. Now.”

She obeyed, swaying to a halt facing him. “My experiment.” The woman caught hold of her skirts and curtseyed as she crooned to Keith. “It’s as if you never left.”

The boy shivered visibly. “My sister would want to give you a second chance. End this spell now. Because I think even she’d forgive me for not offering you a third.”

Her eyes peered back at them. “Oh? Oh well. Alright then.”

“Really?” asked Alan sceptically.

“It’s not perfect,” she admitted, not sounding particularly bothered. “But it’ll do.”

She raised her hands and the tendrils of darkness began to pulse and swell, drawing themselves slowly back to her.

Alan swallowed. “What are you doing?”

Mad eyes gleamed with absurd innocence. “I’ll do as I’m bid. I’ll end it. I’ll end it all!”

“Stop! Kill her!” Gerald shouted.

A hurricane of wind crashed into the girl - or rather, into the swelling darkness around her. It did about as much as the water that Alan wasted in the same way a moment later.

“Always be yourself,” the dark mage declared in a sing-song voice. The darkness was swallowing her, Alan couldn’t see her bare feet any more.

Then he saw a glimpse of the stone floor and realised with horror that her feet weren’t there at all.

“Unless,” she added, “you can be the dragon.”

Keith swore and raised a two metre-lance of stone from the floor, driving it into the cocoon of darkness. It broke apart under the expanding whirl of near-liquid malice.

“In that case, become the dragon.”

-

“What in god’s name is that?” someone shrieked.

Hertrude Sera Fanoss didn’t have to ask what the question was about. The black mass of dark magic had shrunk away, leaving only the natural clouds to obscure the light of the sun and that reflected from the barrier of light that the three light mages atop the royal skyship continued to project.

But the dark magic hadn’t vanished. No, it had taken a new form. One that might be more deadly yet.

She needed no spyglass to see that the mass it had formed around the citadel topping the mountain-sized island Garrett had ordered towed with her fleet was almost the size of the entire island. Whatever it contained was going to be vast, almost beyond imagining.

The monsters that had broken loose amongst Garrett’s fleet were mostly gone and the rest had been drawn back towards the source of the darkness. As a result, the battle had slowed to a near-halt as all eyes went to the cocoon of magic. The warring fleets had become intermixed and scattered: some skyships were entangled with each other so their crews could fight each other, others descending to the city below as a result of their damage. One unlucky battleship was on fire and Hertrude could see at least three wrecks where ships had crashed down out of the sky without heed for what was beneath them.

Knights had also fallen, but others remained - some fallen and others had taken their battles down into the streets. Hunting down those maniacs had drawn off a considerable number of the knights assigned to Count Roseblade’s division and when a red and black knight flew up alongside her flagship, Hertrude at first thought it was one of her escort of loyalist Principality knights returning. A moment later she recognised it as Leon’s - the Big Charznable battered but clutching a familiar sword in one hand.

“Sir Vandel,” she murmured.

The knight-armour reversed the great black sword and carefully placed it on the deck next to Hertrude. “I can hardly pledge you my own sword,” Leon’s voice called. “But this one is a legacy of your household, I believe. Or perhaps there’s a Zenden heir?”

“My grandfather granted it to him for his lifetime,” she replied absently. “Sir Leon, do you have any idea what that is over the island?”

“A million petty hatreds all piled into one place,” the young knight replied grimly. “As… here it comes!”

The blackness expanded, contracted and then burst open like an egg hatching. The outer layers dissolved as they fell away, leaving behind them a black dragon that was easily the size of the Dreadnought - perhaps longer.

Spreading its wings wide, the great beast roared… and Hertrude shivered. She could feel the malice of that scream.

“You may need the sword!” she called out to Leon.

“...I don’t know if that’ll be enough, but I appreciate the loan.” His knight-armour reached out and lifted the weapon again. “Do you think you can convince your countrymen to change sides now? Because we might all have a larger problem.”

Hertrude looked around. “I can try. I think their flagship’s been captured - Viscount Darian’s ship looked like it was being boarded. That might help.”

Leon landed his knight-armour on the deck and opened the hatch. “Here, I’ve got a device here that’ll let you address all the ships.”

Hertrude ran to it and a sailor cupped his hands to give her a foothold. When she stood facing the bottom of the hatch, Leon tossed her a small device around the size of a pen. “Twist the top, push the ends towards each other and then speak into the top,” he instructed her. “It’ll shut down automatically if you don’t say anything for a while.”

The princess lowered herself back to the deck and thanked the sailor. “Isn’t this much like what Katarina used to summon a knight-armour?”

“Same basic principle,” the boy confirmed. He closed the hatch. “Now if you’ll excuse me…”

Her hair was whipped around by the wind generated as the knight-armour took off and she clutched the device. “I hope this works,” the dark-haired girl murmured and twisted the top. Before she could finish the activation programme, there was another roar from the dragon, this one perhaps as much frustrated as angered.

Staring over the side of the ship, Hertrude saw that the flying island itself was changing shape, great hands of stone reaching up to seize hold of the dragon. Arms followed the hands, unthinkable amounts of earth and stone shifting to reveal a head and shoulders…

An earth golem in the form of a young woman almost half the size of the dragon tackled the dark magic construct, which flapped ferociously as it tried to get free. Both the monster, the golem and the island - which was tearing itself apart as the golem formed from its substance - lurched towards Holfort’s port island.

“I’ve never seen earth magic on that scale!” someone exclaimed.

Hertrude saw the face of the golem and her jaw dropped. She could only think of one earth-mage who would give his golem the face of Katarina Rafa Claes - and she’d not imagined Keith Rafa Claes was so strong. It was a terrifying thought.

She jabbed the top of the lost item down and heard a click. “Warriors of Fanoss!”

Her voice boomed out from the Dreadnought, behind and above her as the flagship and its deceptively sleek escort ascended.

“And all who fight today:” she continued. “ I am Princess Hertrude of Fanoss. I stand today with Holfort! I stand for the light and against the darkness that we see before us! See how the saintess fights for us!” Katarina would probably whine a great deal about being called the Saintess, but that golem was too good a rallying point to ignore. “Stand with us, stand for the light and against the darkness!”

Lowering the device, Hertrude stopped speaking and wondered how long it would be before she could speak again without the words being repeated to everyone within miles.

Over in the distance, the dragon finally tore itself away from the golem only to crash directly into the port island, flattening the docks along one side of it almost instantly. Warehouses collapsed, quays broke off and tumbled to the water below. Houses and shops shattered, supplies and goods disintegrated under the impact.

For a moment, Hertrude thought that that might be the extent of the destruction, but the dragon clambered up upon the ruined side of the island, feet stamping deeper into the ruins, wings furling as it turned, head raised to face the golem.

What remained of the flying island broke apart and the entire golem - Katarina Rafa Claes, hundreds of feet tall, carved of stone and earth - stepped onto the port, which tipped entirely over and spilled the dragon back into the giant work of earth-magic.

Both fell, the golem’s hands closing around the dragon, and they crashed into the ocean below. Water fountained up to obscure them and waves began to spread from their location as the port island swung wildly back upright, over-correcting and causing more damage before rolling back and splitting in two under the colossal forces applied.

Finally, the fountaining water settled enough to reveal the head of Katarina still above the water. The golem wasn’t moving, but its arms were still holding onto the dragon, keeping it from ascending again.

“All ships!” Hertrude cried out. Her words weren’t repeated. She worked the device again, reactivating it. “All ships! Go after that dragon. Don’t let it go up!”

There was a sharp crack and shots ranged down, the Dreadnought lowering its nose to bring its guns to bear.

The royal skyship followed the larger ship, its own weapons firing at the dragon.

Hertrude’s flagship began to descend and she looked around. For a moment there were just the three of them, before another of the kingdom’s ships followed - a small cruiser with its hull so battered it was hard to believe it could still fight - there were visible vines holding it together!

Leon’s knight-armour skimmed past the little ship and Hertrude fumbled for a spyglass. There was a small boy gesticulating violently at the knight from the quarterdeck, a green-haired woman knelt behind him, her hands on the wooden boards, which were coming to life again.

Then more ships began to dive, their forward guns opening up.

Temple-ships, Holfort royal ships. Levies of the Redgraves, Roseblades, Bartfords… She recognised the Ades’ banner, now flying not only from the little Revenge but also the larger and half-wrecked battleship that had been Viscount Darian’s.

And finally, Fanossian warships joined the attack, the blunt ugly gunhouses spitting fire at the dragon. Not just those that had followed her earlier. Ship after ship that had served Count Garrett were streaming behind their princess and their ancient enemies, for once joining a common cause.

With a scream of hatred, the black dragon broke free of the earthen limbs and managed through frantic beating of its wings to take off, rising to meet them.

-

A fusillade of fire hammered relentlessly at the dragon from every direction as the ships circled it, firing their cannon as fast as they could reload. Not a moment went by that cannonballs weren’t hammering it…

The sound and sight of the fury of over a hundred warships’ full might unleashed at once would have been awe-inspiring - if it had seemed to do more than pain the black behemoth. Shot after shot hit it, but there were no visible wounds and to Katarina’s eye, it seemed as if the cannonballs simply vanished into the shadowy mass rather than piercing any flesh.

And the black dragon was hitting back. Its wings swatted knight-armours from the sky, its claws had smashed open two skyships that she’d seen. And its breath was dark magic. No one wanted to be touched by those streamers of darkness, so it was fortunate that the light magic barrier that Olivia was maintaining with Angelica and Katarina’s help had thus far kept it from hitting any ships.

“This isn’t working,” Angelic worried between shots from the Unicorn’s guns. Like before, the cannon had sent the dragon shrieking away from the skyship it had been trying to seize hold of, but the respite was brief for it recovered from the pain almost immediately.

“It’s not exactly a monster is it?” Katarina agreed, still gripping the hands of the other two girls. “Maybe it’s an illusion… no, in that case it couldn’t hit anything.”

“I think it’s mostly dark magic.” Olivia was pale-faced. “But the barrier isn’t doing anything to it - I don’t think I’m even touching it with light magic.”

That was a problem, thought Katarina. She wasn’t dumb, she knew light magic was the best thing against dark magic. It had shielded the city… well, mostly. But…

Oh wait. She was being silly. You don’t hit people with a shield… well, except under certain particular circumstances and only if they really deserved it… Where was she going with that? Oh, okay, so think of it as a monster. Hitting a monster, you didn’t want to use a shield - they were heavy and blocked your line of sight. IT was better to use a pick or a sword.

Ha, this must be how Gerald felt, figuring something out!

Thinking of her technical fiance, Katarina turned to Angelica. “We need to use a blazing sword!”

“A what?”

“We need to use light magic like it’s a sword, not a shield.”

The red-eyed blonde frowned in thought. “We tried doing that at the ministry, but it didn’t work.”

Olivia made an apologetic noise.

‘That’s actually brilliant,’ Ann declared in Katarina’s head, apparently realising what she had in mind. Was she reading Katarina’s mind? ‘How else would I communicate with you?’ the saintess (still wearing a maid’s outfit in Katarina’s imagination) asked perplexedly.

“But I think I know what we did wrong!” the brunette exclaimed to the others.

Larna cleared her throat. “Normally I wouldn’t say that this is a good time for experimentation,” the researcher observed. “But we need some options. Even the black knight’s sword didn’t hurt the dragon.”

“Oh, is he fighting for us too?”

“No, Katarina. Leon has that sword now,” Angelica explained.

She nodded. “Well we need to use our own.”

“What sword do you mean, Lady Katarina?”

“Angie is our sword,” she explained to Olivia. “Do you remember what Larna told her to do to help us focus the shield?”

“Ah!” Larna exclaimed. “I see. That could work.” She pursed her lips. “Or possibly set you on fire.”

“I’m sure I’ll be fine, right Ann?”

‘Probably,’ the Saintess declared calmly. ‘I admit I’ve not tried this myself.’

Well, they had to do something! “Drop the barrier,” she directed.

Olivia obeyed and Angelica stopped directing her own magic through Katarina to support it.

Katarina tried to envisage the magic flowing through her the other way, and then gave up and let go of the other girls, turning around and then grabbing their hands again so that now her right hand was holding Angelica’s right hand, and her left holding Olivia’s left hand. It also meant that Katarina didn’t have to look at the giant stone golem with her own face that was under the battle, which was a relief. That was so embarrassing!

This admittedly left her looking away from the dragon and towards Larna Smith, who looked amused. “Alright, Katarina. Are you ready?” the Director asked.

“Uh huh!”

Olivia began to glow with her magic and then focused it into the hand linking her to Katarina. The brunette could feel the hairs on the back of her hand and arm prickle as her friend’s light flowed into her, the Saint’s Bracelet visibly glowing as the power surged into her.

Then it wasn’t just the hair on her arm, she felt her mane of silky brown hair rising up and a warm, strong, comforting light flowed through her.

(Unknown to Katarina, her eyes were visibly glowing.)

With a gasp, the girl repeated what she’d been doing before, taking the magic - so much magic, far more than what she’d felt when Angelica was helping to empower the barrier - and channelling it through to the braided girl.

Angelica swallowed audibly as the tide of magic reached her. She clutched at the Saintess’ Sceptre and an aura of white flames began to form around her.

“Amazing,” murmured Larna, eyes fixed upon the three of them as the flames around Angelica rose higher and higher, so intense that Katarina thought she could almost feel them. Pressure was building within the brunette, as if the magic was backed up and flowing into her faster than Angelica could accept it.

“Oh god,” the daughter of the Duke Redgrave murmured. “It’s too much. I can’t take it!”

“Let it go!” Katarina shouted, craning her head around to look at the other girl. “Don’t hold it in, use it!”

Angelica Rafa adjusted her grip upon the sceptre, holding it like a sword’s hilt, and then she pointed it out over the edge of the sword. “HOLY SWORD!” the girl cried out, and swung the relic as if she was cutting at something.

There was a flash of white light.

A sound so fierce that it was as if thunder was rolling right upon them.

Katarina felt the pressure ebb to something sustainable. Olivia sidestepped around, helping her to turn and see what they were doing, her left hand still in the taller girl’s, her right arm half-embracing her.

A line of silver-white fire blazed down from the Unicorn’s deck, from the Saintess’ Sceptre, a foot across as it left the relic, a haloed by a scattershot of flames almost like a sword’s hilt. When it reached the dragon it seemed barely needle-thick - though Katarina wasn’t sure if it was diminishing in width or simply so far away that it looked like that.

For a moment she thought that it was doing nothing more than the cannonfire. Angelica was trembling and if she’d had a free hand, Katarina would have given her a hug. The dragon wasn’t moving though - or rather, it was struggling as if the beam had skewered it and pinned in place - it wasn’t moving around, was what she meant!

“It’s not enough,” Olivia gasped.

“It’s doing something,” Larna disagreed. “Girls, I hate to say this… but you need to give it more oomf.”

“I’m trying!” Angelica protested. “I can’t handle more.”

“You’re stronger than you think,” Katarina told her. “We can do this.”

“Lady Katarina, I’m not sure you can,” warned Olivia. “You’re glowing.”

“I can do this all day! At this point I practically have.”

‘You can’t,” Ann corrected her quietly. “But the director is correct. I think a little more will be enough. Focus on happy memories. Positive emotions will help.”

“We need to think happy thoughts,” she told the others. “Just a little more should do it.”

Olivia leant against Katarina, perhaps strained by the impact, the taller girl thought worriedly. But then with a surge of joyous energy, more magic flowed through the bond between them. Unfortunately, there was the same pressure as before.

“I… I can’t…” Angelica cried out.

“Think of something happy, Angie!” Katarina demanded again, leaning forwards to speak into Angelica’s ear and whispering as discreetly as she could: “Is there someone you like?”

The other duke’s daughter eeped slightly and the line of silver fire wobbled slightly… And then the pressure faded and the beam of light magic widened visibly.

The black dragon threw back its head once more and roared, almost like Gojira.

And then it exploded, wisps of blackness hurled across the sky and fading out. The clouds above parted, sunlight streaming down upon the golem and the massed skyships.

For a moment, Katarina thought she saw a girl in a dark dress falling out of the midst of that but then she was unable to watch as she, Angelica and Olivia all fell over in a heap. It was hard to say which was on top and who was on the bottom, with how tangled they were. Angelica even dropped the Saint’s Sceptre and only quick action by Larna stopped the ancient relic from rolling off the deck and falling off the Unicorn.

“Did it work?” Katarina asked, not even trying to stand. Her limbs all felt tingly.

“It worked,” Larna assured them, resting the sceptre against her shoulder. “The dragon’s gone and I don’t see anything left of it. Or anything else appearing.”

Olivia managed to work a hand free. “I should be able to heal any injury you took.”

“No!” exclaimed the older woman, taking Olivia’s hand and then helping her to work free. “If there was any injury due to overuse of light magic then more light magic is the last thing to do.”

The scholarship student gulped. “Oh no, I’m sorry!”

“It’s okay.”

‘You’ll be alright with some rest,’ Ann told her. ‘I can’t tell about the other two, but my many-times-removed niece may find she’s developed some small ability with light magic the way you did. Or maybe not. I’ve never tried this before so it’s unexplored territory.’

Katarina relayed this as she and Angelica untangled themselves slowly, staying flat on the deck.

“Don’t experiment,” Larna warned Angelica. “Not now, anyway. Take time to recover and then we can try a few tests at the Ministry.”

“I’ll be careful.” The girl reached over and put her hand around Katarina’s. “How bad are the casualties?”

“That’ll be a while working out. Quite a few ships made it to the water and are still afloat, so not as bad as it could be.” Larna looked out over the side, then raised her spyglass. “Well… I’ll be deuced.” Her shoulders lost some of their tension. “Look who’s clinging to the side of that giant statue of you.”

Katarina tried to sit up but her limbs still felt more like limps. “I’m not sure I can get up.”

“Ah, well the good news is that unless my eyes deceive me, your brother is alive, not that I had much doubt. Only a very powerful earth mage could have created a golem that size. He must have exhausted himself, but… yes, it’s got to be him - he’s with my twin brothers-in-law.”

“Your brothers-in-law?” asked Olivia.

Larna unpinned her hair and combed it loose with her fingers. “I’m married to Gerald and Alan’s older brother. I prefer to keep it a secret because duchesses aren’t supposed to have jobs, and people start thinking that I got my job due to influence rather than being good at it.”

“They’re alright then,” Angelica sighed. “That’s a relief. Where are they?”

“Clinging to the statue,” Larna told her. “I see your former fiancee with them - I think I see Lord Ascart and Lord Arclight as well but I can’t tell. There’s a skyship headed down to recover them, so they should all be fine.”

Katarina “That’s a relief.”

Angelica giggled from next to Katarina. “I just realised, the temple will be completely convinced you’re the Saintess’ reborn now. You’ve got a giant statue of you right in view of the capital. Everyone will take that as a sign.”

“Oh no!”

Larna also chuckled. “Well, you two won’t get off scot free. What was it that you said Katarina. Sword and shield? So you’ll be the Saintess’ sword and shield or something like that, when the temple writes down their account of this.”

Olivia cringed slightly, kneeling next to Katarina. She’d taken hold of one of her hands and was holding it on her lap.

“Perhaps we could destroy the statue?” asked Katarina hopefully. “Not another fiery sword attack, but we could ask Ian to shoot at it with the Unicorn.”

“No, Katarina.”

“Or Leon could use the Dreadnought!”

Angelica squeezed her hand lightly. “It would just get him into trouble for defacing it.”

She would have hung her head, if it wasn’t already resting on the deck. “What was Keith thinking?!” Her villainous face wasn’t just going to be in the history books, it was going to be on view to everyone forever!

“Probably about you?” Larna suggested. “He is in love with you, after all.”

Katarina groaned. And she still had no idea what to do about that! Would rejecting him be a death flag? She might as well discard all her notes about the game because right now, her life had nothing in common with it.
 

Simonbob

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Katarina groaned. And she still had no idea what to do about that! Would rejecting him be a death flag? She might as well discard all her notes about the game because right now, her life had nothing in common with it.
"I had a plan!"
Reality Spoke.
"I have altered the Plan. Pray I do not alter it any further."
 

Speaker4thesilent

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I have a sneaking suspicion that the ‘disinherited’ young men that survived are going to find that being war heroes opens a few doors. Casualties certainly seem to have been bad enough that there should be some lands in need of new nobles to govern them. And who knows what happened to the Fields’ lands given the display of human sacrifice used to fuel the Dark Magic ritual.

It also seems like we’ve got proof that the Dark Mage was an Isekai if that comment about being the Dragon is right. So we had a Chaotic Evil Isekai, a Chaotic Neutral(Lafan), and a Chaotic Good(Bartford) dropped in to the setting. Why no love for the Lawful side of the equation, Drakensis?
 

Blasterbot

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I have a sneaking suspicion that the ‘disinherited’ young men that survived are going to find that being war heroes opens a few doors. Casualties certainly seem to have been bad enough that there should be some lands in need of new nobles to govern them. And who knows what happened to the Fields’ lands given the display of human sacrifice used to fuel the Dark Magic ritual.

It also seems like we’ve got proof that the Dark Mage was an Isekai if that comment about being the Dragon is right. So we had a Chaotic Evil Isekai, a Chaotic Neutral(Lafan), and a Chaotic Good(Bartford) dropped in to the setting. Why no love for the Lawful side of the equation, Drakensis?
where does Katarina fall? NG perhaps. otherwise if cake is an alignment probably there.
 

Bear Ribs

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Not sure if it's going to become public knowledge at this point, but at least a few important people seem to have figured out that an unhappy, loveless marriage leaves you open to Dark Magic. That's going to utterly upend their social order regarding how marriage works, and probably lead to a curbstomping of the whole widow's pension fraud scheme people have been running.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the ‘disinherited’ young men that survived are going to find that being war heroes opens a few doors. Casualties certainly seem to have been bad enough that there should be some lands in need of new nobles to govern them. And who knows what happened to the Fields’ lands given the display of human sacrifice used to fuel the Dark Magic ritual.

It also seems like we’ve got proof that the Dark Mage was an Isekai if that comment about being the Dragon is right. So we had a Chaotic Evil Isekai, a Chaotic Neutral(Lafan), and a Chaotic Good(Bartford) dropped in to the setting. Why no love for the Lawful side of the equation, Drakensis?
There are something like six total reincarnates in Mobuseka so far. Sophia Ascart is one in Hamefura canon (Actually Katarina's RL BFF who came into the game too) though she hasn't shown it off in this story that I noticed.

Of the ones in Mobuseku Finn is probably in Lawful Good territory even if his intro is trying to kill Leon (To be sure, canon Leon has such a terrible reputation due to his constant Shitlording that it's understandable Finn thought Leon was basically The Joker). Lelia Zel Lespinasse fits lawful neutral, shading towards lawful evil.
 
Compare and Contrast 11-5

drakensis

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Compare and Contrast

But do be glad baby when you've found
That's the power makes the world go 'round
~ Huey Lewis​

Chapter 5

Living well is the best revenge. ~ George Herbert​

The day after the battle, the city of Holfort was still marked by the damage done. But the fires were out, the wounded recovered and so too were most of the dead. Those who had survived would have a great deal to do… but today, with the most immediate actions taken, had been declared a day of celebration.

The city’s great square, between the palace and the temple, had been cleared of market stalls to serve as a landing place for skyships during the battle. Now it was crammed with thousands upon thousands of citizens, with many more aboard skyships that hovered in ceremonial ranks low above the city.

A hasty but heartfelt service giving thanks for the victory had brought almost every surviving knight and noble into the temple - the citizenry had shared in it from outside, the prayers and preaching relayed by loud-voiced priests. They were occasionally drowned out by cheers as someone caught a glimpse of Katarina, Angelica or Olivia - or thought that they had.

Leon didn’t get cheers like that, and he was quite happy with that. Ultimately, the three of them had saved the day, while he was - at best - one of the many other people that had contributed.

Marshals had kept the temple’s stairs clear as much as they could and now the nobility filtered out to stand to the left and right of the broad front of the building, wearing whatever finery they had been able to obtain - borrow in several cases, where their homes had been among those destroyed. Leon had been sitting with his family inside but as the family left, he broke off and joined Clarice in helping Count Atlee.

Bernard Fia Atlee was missing most of one leg. Even some care from one of the few adult light mages available, he probably shouldn’t be out of his bed, but he was stubbornly intent on not missing this event. The older man was leaning heavily on his daughter and Leon, the two of them carrying him as much as they were supporting him.

He wasn’t the only wounded person and Leon would have preferred to just carry the man in a chair, but there wasn’t enough room with the nobles crammed onto the stairs. Knights and other gentry had to actually watch from inside the temple, which didn’t give them a very good view.

“People of Holfort,” Queen Mylene declared, her voice carried across the square by Count Ascart’s wind magic. “Together with allies we never expected, we have triumphed over Christophe Vor Garrett and the dark magic that he unleashed upon our kingdom. Many are the heroes who have played a part in this victory -”

She had to pause as cheers rose up, along with chants of “the Saintess!” “the Saint’s Sword” and “the Saint’s Shield.”

After a moment, Mylene raised her hand for silence. “Many are the heroes,” she repeated once she had something close to quiet. “And not all of them are with us today. Too many to name, too many to ever forget. One loss is personal to me, and significant to all of you. King Roland Rafa Holfort is among the many who fell in battle, opening the way for the brave knights who slew Count Garrett. It may be only one loss among many… but it leaves our kingdom without a king.”

The queen lowered her head for a moment, then squared her shoulders. “Before the battle, his highness told me his wishes in terms of the succession.”

For many of the crowd, this would be the first they heard about the succession. It was less than a year since Prince Julius had been removed as Crown Prince and many probably assumed that he would still become the new king, both because no one else had specifically been named and because he had been among those who found and killed Garrett.

Taking out a scroll, Mylene held it up for all to see - not that anyone would be able to read it. “This is the last decree of King Roland, in which he formally adopts our nephew Ian Rafa Stuart as his son and the new crown prince of Holfort. Prince Ian, please join us.”

Wearing the same white suit he’d worn for their marriage, Ian walked forwards with Selena on his arm. Fortunately she had something to wear other than her wedding dress - unlike the Stuart mansion, the Berg estate had suffered only minor damage.

“Is that true?” Clarice asked very quietly. “I know Ian and Selena activated the royal ship, but…”

Leon smiled. Luxion had worked the document up for him to give to Mylene. It should look genuine. This was hardly the place to admit the falsehood though. On the other hand, lying to Clarice would be an unfortunate step. “Truth, justice and love are all human creations,” he told her instead. “It’s true if we all accept it as so. And look out there.”

He pointed out at the crowd, where cheering was rising up at the sight of a young, handsome prince and a beautiful princess being presented to them.

“They’re off to a good start,” Count Atlee murmured. “The royal ship is good, but a real king has to have support as well as fear.”

Leon nodded.

“Tell me, Leon,” the man asked. “Did you ever consider trying to unseal the ship along with my daughter?”

The boy glanced at the man. “I suppose that if no one else managed to open it, we could have tried. But I have to say, I don’t think it would have done us any favours as a couple. Can you think of anything less romantic than putting numbers on love? What if one of us scored less than the other by whatever the standard the seal measures by?”

Clarice made a face. “It doesn’t seem to have worried the happy couple.”

“By sheer chance, they both scored exactly the same,” he told her. “Perhaps it wouldn’t have harmed their relationship, but… it makes me nervous. I’m not going to blame you if you disagree with me.”

The girl looked thoughtful. “I’m not sure. I guess if I’d gone through it with Jilk thinking that we loved each other and found the truth out like that…” She shook her head. “Although, I don’t think your feelings are fake.”

“Fake or not, do you think we love each other as much as they do?” Leon asked, pointing at the pair now standing before Mylene.

“Perhaps not,” she admitted, reaching up and touching the choker she was wearing. “Before we…” Then she frowned. “Who’s that?”

Leon followed her gaze up to the stairs, where a hooded figure was carrying a crown on a cushion. “Hard to say, I presume that the hood is to keep us from knowing?”

“It’s traditional at a coronation for the daughter of a high noble household to carry the crown to the king,” Count Roseblade told them.

“But who?” asked Clarice. “It’s not one of the Ades twins, or Angelica - I can see them. But they’re too small to be Mary or Katarina.”

“They’re not that short,” Leon pointed out. The long blue hooded robe hid features but not so much height or - “...oh.”

“You’re slow today,” the girl said with a little laugh. “But seriously, I think I know every viable candidate in the capital.”

“Be patient,” her father told her with a slight smile. “She’ll lower her hood once he’s crowned.”

Queen Mylene accepted the state crown from the cushion and raised it high. “Ian Rafa Holfort, do you swear to defend and govern the kingdom of your ancestor in the light of the Saintess?”

“With god’s help, I shall,” the young man pledged solemnly.

“Will you rule in accordance with the laws and customs of our land, exercising the justice that is the marriage of law and mercy?”

Ian glanced sideways at Selena, a very slight smile touching his lips, before replying: “With the help of the lords and ladies of this kingdom, I shall do so.”

The queen - or rather, the queen dowager now, Leon thought - lowered the crown until it was just above the golden hair of the prince. “People of Holfort, do you accept this prince as your king?”

It was a formulaic question, there was no constitutional right of the people to object, but the stage management had more or less ensured that the crowd cheered enthusiastically at the notion.

With what appeared to be relief, Mylene placed the crown upon Ian’s head. Count Roseblade and Leon’s father stepped out, holding an ermine cloak that they quickly secured around the young man’s shoulders. It didn’t take two of them to carry it, but securing the heavy garment quickly went much easier with four hands working. Leon thought that Barcus looked quite bemused to be part of the hastily organised coronation.

Mylene turned Ian around before moving to stand at his side, mirroring Selena. “People of the kingdom, I present your new king. And then she reached up and removed her own tiara, letting her silver-blonde hair fall loose around her shoulders, handing it to him.

Ian accepted the tiara, but before turning to Selena, he leant over and murmured something to the dowager (who looked of an age that she could as easily have been the woman married to him). Leaving her blinking slightly, the new king held the tiara before him. “My people, it is our custom that no man should be without a wife to stand beside him. And I am blessed to have at my side the wise, kind and beautiful lady you see before you.” He settled the tiara on Selena’s bowed head, then gently pushed her straight so he could kiss her cheek. Both of the royal couple were flushed as Ian proclaimed. “My people, your new queen!”

The cheering hid Clarice’s gasp as the girl who’d brought out the crown finally threw back her heavy hood, freeing long dark hair. “Hertude?!”

“Indeed,” her father told her. “You’ll understand shortly.”

“Fanoss is rejoining the kingdom?”

“Or immediately, I suppose,” he admitted.

Clarice smiled him brightly and then glanced at Leon. “Did you know?”

“It was mentioned during the war council, but I didn’t know she’d be carrying the crown,” he admitted. “I wasn’t involved in planning today’s ceremonies.”

“Better to keep a low profile,” the count agreed as Mylene moved around to kneel to Ian in homage - just the first of the many who would do so. The newly crowned king raised her back to his feet and insistently drew her back to stand at his side when she tried to retreat. Clearly he had not the slightest intention of letting Roland’s queen depart court - at least until his reign was well-established “Speaking of which,” Bernard added. “I believe you should be aware of the academy’s upcoming exchange programme with its counterpart in the Alzer Commonwealth?”

“I am.” And Leon was planning to sign up for it, however much it risked hurting his relationship with Clarice. The prospects of what would happen if matters were left to follow their natural path were clear in the books. He could hope that - as here - there would be other unexpected factors that could save the day. But trusting to hope alone when millions of lives were at risk was not something Leon liked the idea of.

The count sighed. “I’m going to ask you a large favour, Leon.”

He gave the man leaning on his shoulder a curious look as Julius led his half-siblings up to swear to their adopted brother. Both Layne and Erika seemed rather bemused at the events, wearing mourning colours for their father - although Leon saw the boy give Violette Rafa Ades a long look as he went up the steps. “I’m listening.”

“It would be a great reassurance to me if you were one of next year’s exchange students,” the one-legged man admitted.

“Daddy! Are you trying to get rid of Leon?” asked Clarice, barely keeping her voice down.

“No, dear. I’m going to Alzer. I’m the kingdom’s treasurer, and we paid a very heavy price to win this war. Keeping our finances stable will require large loans and the Commonwealth is our best shot at that. The pension reforms Leon suggested to me will be necessary just to keep the costs of what we must pay to the widows left by two major defeats under control and that’s only one part of the financial burden.”

“And you want me there too?”

“Not officially, but the Commonwealth’s nobles can be difficult.” The count looked regretful. “Their great tree provides them immense defence advantages so they’re often arrogant. Out of the original seven noble families who rule Alzer, we previously had close ties with the Lespinasse household, the leading house. It was an advantageous relationship but after their downfall we’ve lacked access to the six remaining families. If things go poorly, I may need to leave quickly and if any skyship can get out of the Commonwealth then I believe it would be the Dreadnought.”

Clarice’s face grew stern. “Are you serious?”

“It is a huge favour,” her father admitted. “I’m not trying to keep you away from Clarice, Leon. Or to use that relationship as leverage… But I would feel much better about this if you were available as a hidden asset.”

“You just lost your leg! You shouldn’t even be here! Much like going to Alzer!” Her voice was rising, drawing attention as Hertrude joined the other ducal representatives to wear allegiance to Ian. The princess was the only one representing herself - the new Duke Ades was a child, Duke Berg, Claes and Stuart were guarding the borders and Duke Redgrave was still recovering from his own wounds. It was likely the five dukes didn’t even know what the outcome of the war was.

“Clarice,” the count said quietly, “The kingdom’s survived, but only just. And between the travel times and leaving my regular duties behind, this is the closest thing I can take in terms of light duties.”

Duchess Suzanna Rafa Stuart knelt to her brother-in-law on behalf of Duke Jeffrey. She looked immaculate and Leon couldn’t tell just by looking how frustrated she was that she had to attend this instead of ‘doing something useful’, even though he knew via Cleare that she was eager to go back to examining Angelica for the after-effects of her use of light magic against the black dragon.

Leon’s lover bit her lip. “Alright, but I’m going with you.”

“It’s dangerous. And besides, it’s your final year.”

She raised her chin. “I’m sure an exception can be made. And if it’s so dangerous, then you need someone to to look after you, father.”

“That’s what Leon’s…”

“Leon can’t make sure you eat and rest.”

Hertrude pledged her own fidelity to Ian, ending without much fuss the long rift between Fanoss and Holfort. Once her oaths had been given, she made way for Keith Rafa Claes and moved over to stand near Leon and the two Atlees.

Bernard gave Leon a hopeful look as Keith not only swore allegiance but was knighted for his part in the

“I’ll go,” the boy said. “But if you’re arguing with Clarice, I’m sorry - you’re on your own. I’ll disagree with her often enough, I think.” He really wasn’t happy about her going to Alzer, given the entitlement that their nobles felt to anything and anyone that caught their eye. But he also had precisely zero authority to forbid her. “However, I’d be really grateful if you promised me one thing, Clarice.”

“I’m listening.”

“If I say we’re leaving the Commonwealth, help me drag your father aboard the Dreadnought.”

She nodded decisively. “Deal.”

“You’re not supposed to gang up on me until you’re married,” complained the count.

Hertrude reached them and then took Leon’s other arm. “Sir Leon, I trust that you’ve recovered from yesterday’s exertions?”

Leon looked over at Bernard and mouthed ‘help?’

The count smiled. “I’m sorry, you’re on your own.”

-

After swearing her little brother’s allegiance to the new king, Violette found herself standing next to Alan and Mary. She gave the other girl an apologetic look and was about to move on, but the brunette caught her arm. “Do keep Alan company while I represent father,” she requested.

Before Violette could respond, she was left behind with the prince. They stared at each other for a moment.

“Is she alright?” the girl asked, indicating her companion’s fiancee.

Alan shrugged. “I thought so, but she’s not exactly happy with the sudden idea that she’ll be the next Marchioness Hunt.”

“Not that there will be many Marchionesses.” Of the six marquis households, only the Randalls and Hunts seemed to have much future. The Field family had been essentially eradicated, while most potential successors to the Dieke and Frampton titles had been with the Blue fleet when it was destroyed by Garrett. That left the disgraced Mason household, which seemed likely to be demoted to ‘mere’ Counts in the near future.

Lord Isak Randall pledged his brother’s allegiance to the new king and Mary followed suit on behalf of her father. As the two of them withdrew, Alan’s elder brother addressed the gaping lack of two-thirds of the marquis households directly.

“In the absence of clear heirs to the Frampton and Field marquisates, and the continued absence of Marquis Dieke; I will be appointing royal governors to administer their domains for the next two years,” Ian announced. “These officials will exercise all the responsibilities of the marquis and in two cases will investigate irregularities such as the whereabouts of Marquis Dieke and allegations of Marquis Frampton conspiring with Count Garrett. Anyone who wishes to make a claim that they are the rightful heir to the three marquisates may present their case to my court for consideration.”

Violette smiled slightly. “That’s shrewd of your brother. If no convincing claims are made then he can potentially bestow those islands on whoever he chooses.”

The silver-haired young man nodded. “Yeah. God, I’m glad I’m not in his shoes. Hopefully he and Selena will give me lots of nephews to spoil.”

“And to stand between you and the succession.”

She saw him smile. “And that, yeah.”

Somehow they’d moved closer together and Mary, rather than returning to Alan, had vanished into the temple. “Do you see Mary?”

“I suspect she’d gone looking for Katarina.”

Violette nodded. Her cousin was trying desperately not to be dragged into the spotlight, despite the best efforts of the temple to win her over.

While Ian announced the new governors and their royal governors - the one surprising name to Violette was that Lord Nicol Fia Ascart was named as vice governor of the Field domain to assist Baron Wulfenbach in re-organising the ravaged lands - she found someone on her other side, someone she wasn’t entirely eager to see.

“Shouldn’t you be waiting to be knighted?” she asked Chris Fia Arclight drily.

He nodded ruefully. “I’m not really sure I deserve it - I didn’t do much.”

“I think you have a skewed sense of scale there,” Alan told him, looking past Violette. “I’m not turning it down and you did about as much as I did.”

Chris shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right. But I do have a question for you, Violette. If you don’t mind, that is. It’s just, you’re going back to Ades after the coronation, aren’t you?”

“I’m going there.” Though not back, as such. Violette had no recollection of the duchy - she might have seen it as a baby but she wasn’t sure she’d ever actually been there. Her entire life, home had been the Ades mansion here in the capital. But Scarlet wanted to show it to her, and her stepmother - thankfully, without her father she no longer had to force herself to think of the woman as her mother at all times - would need some help taking up the reins as regent for Vermilion. “A chance to get to know my brother and stepmother without father getting in the way.” That had sounded less harsh in her head, but she didn’t take the words back either. “What do you want to know?”

“I realise it may be too personal,” her former-fiance admitted. “But looking back, while we were at the academy you did stop following me and pe… ah, and seeking my attention.”

“Pestering,” she said flatly.

The swordsman pinked. “My apologies.”

Alan pulled her slightly closer, almost protectively. Wait, when had she put her hand on his arm? She didn’t remember doing that. “It’s not an unfair description of my behaviour,” Violette admitted. “Your question?”

“I’m not saying you didn’t have reason to stop, but… I’d like to know why - because,” he added quickly, “I can make guesses but I’ve misconstrued your actions before. As Prince Alan once pointed out, and for which I apologise. It seemed… simplest to ask.”

Violette exhaled slowly. “Alright.” She sought words for her feelings, and found some that sounded right to her. “I was behaving much like Marie did.”

Chris frowned slightly but declined to protest, letting her continue.

“At first I resented that you responded to her rather than me,” she admitted. “But I was also curious as to why she acted as she did. And when I investigated, I concluded - perhaps wrongly, we’ve never discussed it - that she saw the five of you as a way to escape her family. Who are awful.”

“Yes,” the boy admitted. “There is probably something to that. I do think that there’s more to it than that, but that probably was part of her motive.”

“And then I looked in a mirror, and realised that whether that’s true or not, it’s why I was chasing you. As an escape from my family.”

“I thought you had a happy family?” Chris asked. “Was I really missing that much?”

“I hated them,” Violette told him simply. “I was supposed to treat Lady Elfa like my mother - or what my father considered to be proper treatment of a mother, which was nothing like the only mother I’d ever known. A brother and sister - don’t ask me how a sister is supposed to treat siblings because until then I’d never known I had any. And a father who decreed we would all be one big happy family but never shared how that was supposed to work, just punished me for not meeting his unstated standards.” She met Chris’ eyes and he flinched back. “You missed one hell of a lot.”

“I… see. I’m sorry.”

She smiled slightly. “Perhaps it’s for the best that we’re not engaged any more, Lord Arclight. I don’t think you’re a bad person overall, but we’re not suited to each other. I hope that you find happiness with Marie, and I will seek my own happiness.”

Chris nodded. “I hope you succeed, Lady Ades.”

“Why are you asking about Violette’s feelings?” asked Alan. “Is it really your business now?”

“Perhaps not,” the aqua-haired boy admitted, adjusting his glasses. “But since I failed so miserably in my previous relationship, I should at least try to learn from it. I suppose I can’t really blame Marie if one of her reasons for looking at me was as an escape from her family, when I turned to her as a less literal escape from my own. It’s one reason that I agree that we’re ill-matched, Lady Ades.”

“Because I wanted your family instead of my own? Yes, I see that.”

“Thank you,” Chris agreed. “I’ll see you at the academy I suppose. Perhaps next year will be a little less adventurous.”

“I hope so. I don’t think the kingdom can handle much more.”

Violette watched him move away. Counts and their families were still offering their submissions. Perhaps Chris had also wanted to distract himself from the fact that his father wasn’t leading the line for that. Count Atlee had to be half-carried, which also slowed things down a little - but his wound was honourably received and Count Ascart, who was next after him, had brought his fellow court lord back from the battlefield and didn’t seem to mind.

“If you don’t mind another question on that topic?” Alan asked her cautiously.

She gave him a smile. “You can ask, I may not answer.”

He nodded. “If you felt such… resentment for Scarlet, what changed there?”

“Talking to you.”

“To me?”

Violette smiled. “You used to resent how you were compared to Gerald, isn’t that what you told me?”

“When I was younger, yes. Mind you, I resented everyone back then. I even resented Katarina for being Mary’s friend, if you can believe it?”

“You resented Katarina?” That was hard to believe.

He gave her a wry look. “I hadn’t met her back then.”

“That would explain it, yes. But yes. Your reconciliation with Gerald persuaded me that perhaps I was blaming Scarlet when she had no more say in our parents’ behaviour than I did.”

Alan nodded in understanding and fell silent. He didn’t move away and Violette continued to hold his hand. It was… nice. Mary was lucky to be marrying him. But at least Violette was free to try and find someone now. It wasn’t as if her father would be forcing someone else on her.

-

It was the same room that Queen Mylene had castigated them in before the treasure hunting expedition they’d gone on over the winter, and mostly the same people were present. To Marie’s mind, it might as well have been all of them. By unspoken agreement, Brad’s seat had been left empty.

“His highness, King Ian, has agreed that I can deal with the five of you in any way I please,” the now-dowager queen told them in a subdued voice. “His only requirement is that you are to avoid further scandals, to the extent that you can.”

Greg bristled. “It’s not like we’re trying to cause scandals.”

“The fact that you’ve managed it without trying doesn’t say much for your ability to avoid them,” the silver-haired woman pointed out. Her voice was quiet and matter-of-fact. Marie didn’t think she was really even being critical of them. “But you’ve earned a second chance.”

It wouldn’t have surprised Marie if that had led to exclamations of triumph from the boys, but what it elicited was actually a thoughtful “A second chance for what?” from Jilk.

Mylene smiled slightly. “There you have some choices. A limited number, but choices. Be aware though, whatever you decide, you will have to live with it. As will I.”

Marie leant forwards. “Could I ask what those choices are?”

The woman met her gaze evenly and then, to Marie’s surprise, she smiled slightly. “Firstly, you can continue at the academy as you are. In the special class, with all the expectations of that. Expressly, that means that you will be expected to be married within a year or so of graduating. As many concerns as there are about that custom, it isn’t something to change over time.”

“I don’t have a problem with that!” Julius told his mother and then beamed at Marie.

“Even though only one of you can marry Lady Lafan?” Mylene asked gently.

“Well … yes…” Julius looked at the others. “Ah…”

Chris adjusted his glasses. “It also means that three of us would have to marry other people.”

“Those who attend the special class, yes.” The woman shrugged lightly. “You don’t have to all choose the same option. But the special class is too high profile for you to continue without conforming to some social expectations.”

The prince’s face was pink with embarrassment. “But - !”

“Julius.” Marie looked at him steadily. “Let’s hear the other options before we jump into anything.”

With an approving look, Mylene continued: “You could also transfer to the general class. As knights without any expectation of inheriting anything, that is where the four of you technically belong. Lady Lafan’s status would normally require that she stay in the special class as a noblewoman but I believe an exception can be made if she wants. I can’t definitively promise that you wouldn’t have to make marriages when you’re older, but it would be considerably easier to look the other way about such customs if you’re simply knights. It certainly allows any decisions to be pushed off for a few years and the situation may be better then.”

“So no promises,” challenged Jilk. “Just…”

“Time and space to see how things develop,” the dowager confirmed mildly. “I’m not trying to get rid of Lady Lafan, or of telling you that you must marry someone else. But so long as you remain part of Holfort’s society, that pressure and expectation will exist.”

“What else are you suggesting?” asked Chris.

“The last option I’ve discussed with the new king is that you simply drop out of the academy. We can arrange for a small island to be divided between you as baronets. There would be very few expectations of how you behave there, but other than some supplies you would need to support yourselves for a few years. No purchases, very few luxuries, and you would have to remain there for at least the next two years.” Mylene rubbed her forehead. “Any finances would have to be in the hands of someone responsible, since your conduct over the last year means I have very little faith in your ability to not waste money frivolously. Lady Lafan would be acceptable, boys, but none of you would. After you’ve reached the point that you’d have graduated, the restrictions could be eased.”

“It sounds like we’d practically be prisoners there,” Greg explained.

Mylene nodded serenely, “That’s right.”

“That can’t be right!”

“We are all prisoners of our station, Greg,” the woman told him. “At least you have a choice in your cell. And, if it helps, with the last option there would really be no limits on your relationship. In fact, the five of you would be stuck with each other. How that turns out would be entirely up to you.”

“How are you trapped?”

“Ian insists that I serve as one of his royal counsellors.” Mylene looked very weary and Marie remembered suddenly that she had essentially lost everything over the last year. Her husband’s death left her no defined role, and Julius’s rebellion against his old life meant that she now had little place with it. “It’s not a role I ever sought. But he was insistent.”

“He couldn’t exactly force you.”

“Jilk, why do you think she can offer us options?” Marie asked him sharply.

Julius looked up at her sharply and then over at his mother. “Is that true?”

“I don’t know what options might be offered if I declined,” she told him. “But if you would rather have had the conversation with… well, Klaus is off to look after the Field marquisate, but one of the other heralds…”

“You didn’t… you shouldn’t have to do that!” the young man protested.

“Julius, I’m your mother. If I don’t look out for you, who will?”

“Thank you,” Marie told Mylene, sincerely. The woman looked surprised at the response.

“...yeah,” Greg conceded. “You’re right. Thank you, your highness. And… I don’t regret what I’ve done, but I’m sorry it hurt you.”

“What’s done is done,” she told him. “If you need some time to think about your options, I’ll give you as much time as I can. But it’s only a few weeks before the academy starts again and we’ll need to know before then.”

Julius frowned. “You want us out of sight and out of mind?” he asked, his tone curious rather than confrontational.

“...uh, essentially, yes?”

The prince drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair. “Mother, I’ve heard a rumour that Princess Hertrude will be going to the Alzer Commonwealth for a year rather than returning to Fanoss.”

“That is correct. If she remained here and attended the academy then it would smack of her being a hostage, but at the same time, if she returned home then too many people would suspect that she was simply going to secede again. Unlikely in the extreme, as things stand but politics are a matter of perspective. A year with her away on the far side of the kingdom will hopefully smooth matters over.”

“I’d think you’d be worried about her sister stealing the throne away from her,” Marie pointed out. “Isn’t Hertrauda being left ruling in her place?” She’d never met the girl, of course, but she was the main threat in the third game.

“She’s younger than you are and apparently devoted to her sister,” the former-queen informed her. “Count Barra has also pledged himself to the reconciliation process, and he’s agreed to swear himself directly to Ian. Ultimately, we’re confident that we can hold onto Fanoss for the next generation. If need be, the princess has suggested that she’ll even stand aside for her sister - although in that case we’d probably grant her Garrett’s domain as her own county.”

That could be bad, Marie thought.

“In that case,” Julius suggested, “Why don’t we go to Alzer as exchange students. It would keep us out of sight for a year and no one there will care about our relationships.”

Mylene considered that for a moment. “I hadn’t considered that. I don’t see a problem with it, though. Yes, if you want to become exchange students for a year I’ll accept that - we can look at what happens next year when you return.”

Marie gritted her teeth and thought frantically. On the one hand, it meant plunging right into another game’s events, because the second game in the series took place at about the same time as the first one, spinning into high gear next year. Assuming, of course, that there hadn’t been another spanner in the works. But…

But the second game had a cash-shop too. And if she could find that…

“I think the temple would rather I was out of the country for a while,” she admitted. “If that’s alright?”

The queen nodded. “Yes, Lady Lafan. I’m not trying to separate you.”

Chris adjusted his glasses. “I’m not convinced that it’s the best idea. From what I’ve heard, the knights of Alzer are less skilled than those of other realms. They rely heavily upon their great tree and its seals. I don’t think that their academy will be as good as our own.”

“What are you saying?” laughed Greg. “You’re giving up on Marie?”

“Never,” the swordsman declared. “But I want to be worthy of her, and I don’t think going to Alzer will help with that.”

Jilk steepled his fingers. “I think you’re right, Chris.”

“Jilk?!” Julius exclaimed looking at his foster-brother.

“I’m not asking you to choose, Marie,” the green-haired boy said seriously. “And I’m not going to tell anyone else what to do, but I believe our love can endure separation. If I take anything away from the last year, it’ll be that I have a lot to learn.”

“Hell, I’m going!” Greg declared, putting one arm around Marie. “You think I want to be separated from our princess? Come on guys, we should stick together.”

Chris looked torn for a moment and then shook his head. “No. I’ll write to you, Marie, and if you’re in trouble then just send word. But I can’t just follow you around and neglect everything else. You deserve my best, and the only way I can be the man who deserves you is to stay here. Your highness, I’ll take your offer to join the general class. Let’s face it, my father was as much a sword instructor as he was anything else. I can do that as a knight.”

Julius looked stricken. “Jilk, Chris…”

“Julius.” Marie looked him in the eye. “I trust all of you.” She looked for something fitting to say, corny enough to be one of the heroine’s lines. “And this doesn’t mean that we aren’t together. We just won’t be in the same place for a while.”

-

“Jilk, is this why you aren’t signing up for the exchange programme?”

Leon sighed as he looked across the student council offices. The sign-ups had to take place here and be witnessed by multiple members of the student council, just to ensure no one was being sent off to Alzer. And having skipped much of this term to take care of non-academic chores, Leon had been charged with being available for sign-ups by the new Lord President. After all, he wouldn’t be available all of the next year so they wanted to get some work out of him.

“What are you talking about, Julius?” the green-haired boy asked. He’d apparently come along to be one of the witnesses for Julius, Greg and Marie signing up, but wasn’t going along. That surprised Leon, but it might be a good thing. Perhaps with only two of Marie’s harem around, their collective intelligence wouldn’t be so impaired.

He could hope, anyway.

Julius pointed at the list of students who’d signed up to go to Alzer. “Clarice is going.”

“...are you kidding? The exchange is for second year students.”

“Maybe she got held back,” Greg suggested.

“Unlike you, she’s not a moron,” Jilk told the muscular boy. “But if she’s going, that’s… huh, Bartford is going as well. I bet she pulled strings to go with him.”

“I’m flattered that you think I’m so appealing to the fairer sex,” Leon drawled, walking over. “So which if you will I be stuck looking after for the trip to Alzer?”

“We can look after ourselves! We did fine during the war!”

Julius covered his face for a moment. “Greg, I don’t think Bartford’s going to be impressed with that. He’s a commodore, remember.”

“I had to give the pennant back now that the war’s over,” he admitted, checking the signatures. “Lafan, Holfort, Seberg… okay… none of you are being coerced? Lafan has checked the two of you for dark magic?”

“Hey!”

Marie’s hands glowed slightly where she was holding hands with Julius and Greg. “There’s no dark magic,” she assured Leon. “Can you just witness their signatures? We’ll have to spend enough time together in Alzer, I’m sure you’d rather we didn’t spend the rest of the afternoon here.”

“You make a surprisingly good point.” Leon signed next to Jilk’s signature, confirming that two different council members had authorised their inclusion. “You and Chris aren’t going, Jilk.”

“We have our reasons. And I imagine Clarice will be happier without me along.”

The dark-haired boy nodded in agreement. “You’re probably right. You’re probably not her favourite person either, Lafan. For some reason she’s paranoid about flat-chested girls trying get close to me.”

“Hah! And Princess Hertrude is going!” Greg gloated. “You’re doomed, Bartford.”

“...I’m pretty sure her presence is political and nothing to do with me.” He was mostly convinced of that… but if she suspected him of being Carmine Sandiego and was hunting for evidence… Leon shuddered. “Anyway, do try to stay out of duels while you’re in Alzer. We’ll be at a profound disadvantage against the local lords given their little magic tree cheat.”

“How bad can it be?”

Leon pinched the brow of his nose and counted to ten. “Lafan, just keep them from wagering anything they don’t actually own. They’ll be magically bound to hand it over anyway if they lose, which is a really good way for them to get killed.”

“Why are you telling her this, we’d be duelling anyone who starts anything with Marie!”

“Because she’s the only one of you with a fully functional brain?” He sighed. “Look, try to keep these two out of trouble, will you? It’s a whole new game out there.”

Marie stared at him and then her lips moved. “...’whole new game’…?”

Leon winked at her. He’d suspected that she suspected, and with the prospect of being in confined quarters with her for the trip to Alzer and the stay there, it was better to let the revelation come out now than later when it might cause havoc at a sensitive moment.

“Whole. New. Game.” She was literally shaking.

“What’s wrong?” Jilk enquired, trying to put an arm around her shoulders.

The enraged girl shrugged him off and jabbed her finger in Leon’s direction. “Bartford! You’re… you’re the worst!”

“You really are, master,” Luxion commented as the three of Marie’s lovers tried their best to work out what had just set her off.

Leon grinned, caught the inkwell that Marie flung at him, and let the AI have the last word.

-

A/N: And that's the whole story, folks. No final decision yet on whether I'll rewrite the last few arcs, I have some ideas but I'll give them time to develop and see how I feel. Also, golf clap to the fine folks on SB who got the thread there for this story locked. I don't think I've ever had that happen before.
 

Simonbob

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"I am being mature and ending this conversation, as soon as I have the last word!"
"No, I am being mature and ending this conversation, as soon as I have the last word!"
...etc.
........ Thanks for the great story!
 

LordSunhawk

Das BOOT (literally)
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I really enjoyed it, even though it's not the sort of thing I normally read. You managed to make it interesting at every turn, and I enjoyed how you handled the entire plotline. The characters were engaging and interesting, and it was nice to see even the 'idiots' turn out to be fundamentally 'alright' people at the end. Some of the twists were unexpected, since I have zero familiarity with any of the source material, which made them more interesting.

All in all, an excellent story!
 

WolfknightX10

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Checked here after the ban on SB wasn’t lifted in time for the author to post pleased to see new chapter. While I admit the war could have been handled better, this was still a great story. I will keep an eye out for your next story as you’ve proven you’re not limited by fandom or genre with your stories.
 
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