The harsh, grating calls of a tiny, battered group of black crows was the only birdsong that still rang out across the winter wasteland of the twelfth floor, the trees withered husks that looked like they hadn't spread their leaves in centuries. Snow lay heavy on the branches and on the forest floor, and the sky was a foreboding grey, overcast by dull clouds as though the very color and life had been sucked away from the white fields.
A bit of metal glittered in what light was reflected from the white expanse below, and the hiss of cable being quickly played out joined the crows' cawing. The black birds started and looked in confusion at the tightly wound bunch of steel wire that wrapped a death grip around their branch of choice, then they went airborne, crying loudly with fright and annoyance as blue lightning darted through the air, and with the crack of fabric snapping in the wind a black form shot through the cloud of snow dislodged from the tree above him.
A bush to the left exploded in white, frozen dust as a fur-coated form leaped snarling from its ambush, teeth bared. A snarl turned into a yelp of pain as its teeth met a boot moving at twenty miles per hour, sending the wolf-like creature crashing into a tree trunk. Another hiss of twisting cable, and the creature felt a sharp tug on its neck as the person it was trying to kill skidded to a stop, dragging on the wire in his hands. A sharp crack of breaking bone resounded through the dead forest, and the limp corpse of the wolf fell to the ground with a whimper, twisting as it did so, outline expanding into a hunchbacked, unnatural biped that crashed limply into a mound of snow and lay unmoving.
With a flick of Kurt's wrist and a hiss of metal siding on metal, the priest's wires slipped back beneath his coat as he turned and shoved aside some underbrush, stepping out of the dim light of the trees and onto a crisp, untrodden snowfield. As he looked across the field, his eyes narrowed threateningly and his hand slipped into his shirt pocket to remove a bit of old, yellowed paper. Looming ominously ahead was a huge building of stone, a castle keep amidst a veritable fortress of thick walls and towers. Nodding to himself, as though he had found the place he was looking for, the priest tightened his grip on the paper, sending arcs of lightning along it and shifting its form into a deadly looking knife.
As he walked quickly across the snow, the huge wooden gates loomed before him, but his eyes focused on a small form sitting calmly near their base, surrounded by a field of old weapons jammed haphazardly into the snow. Looking up, the small man, or at least the being with the appearance of a man, sniffed the air quietly, before looking towards the approaching form of Kurt. “Well, well, well. Her majesty wasn't expecting guests today. I sent some of my men to inform the creatures of that, but they are so hopeless they probably missed you, Old Man.”
“They didn't.” Kurt didn't bother to lessen his stride, and the expression on his face told the world that he was ready to dismantle anything that got in his way.
“Oh, so you gave them the slip then? I'll have to discipline them once I finish with my dinner.”
“You can't discipline the dead, monster. But I intend to send you to join them, so you can pass on your displeasure then.” Kurt flipped the knife from a normal grip to a backhanded hold as he stepped forward, lightning arcing along the blade threateningly.
The creature at the gate, on the other hand, let out a snarling noise, like some sort of dog. “Don't get arrogant just because you killed those pups. I'll have you for dinner like every proud warrior that came to these doors before you!” As he spoke, his voice warped into an inhuman growl, and the edges of his form writhed as they expanded, leaving a huge wolf the size of a building towering over the priest, jaws dripping with slobber and teeth gnashing as it snarled.
Kurt became a blur of black as a huge, claw tipped paw crashed to earth where he had just been standing, sending up a wave of snow that vainly chased him as he was yanked to safety by the cable wrapped around an enormous sword. Landing feet first on the flat of the blade, the priest flipped forward and up, soaring over the snapping jaws darting towards him. With a shout of defiance, he slammed the tiny blade in his hands into the top of the wolf’s head, and as the creature howled with rage and whipped its body back and forth, dislodging him, he shouted the trigger for the burial rite carved into the blade. “CREMATION!” With an explosive roar, the crown of the canine creature's head burst into flames, its grey fur consumed by the frenzied dance of orange and red. Even yowling in agony, the wolf-guard did not lose his skill, and the massive creature threw itself sideways, rolling onto its back in the cool snow and then flipping to its feet again, snarling to let its displeasure be known.
The wolf, still smoking slightly, glared at Kurt with fury in its eyes, then clamped its jaws around the hilt of the huge blade beside it and tore it out of the ground, flinging snow everywhere. Kurt barely had time to widen his eyes in surprise before the huge wolf flipped the sword around in its mouth and then snapped its head sideways, swinging the massive sword through the air in an attempt to behead the priest. Flicking his hand out to the side, Kurt sent a wire flying through the winter air, and latching onto a naginata ten feet to his left. With a yank, he sent the polearm spinning towards him. Twisting himself over backwards as though doing the limbo and reaching out his arm, he caught the spinning weapon without slowing down its wild rotation and pulled it over his body. The massive sword passed over him and slid against the whirling naginata. Deflected, the huge blade's angle changed just enough to save the priest, but the force of the collision shattered the old polearm he had just gained and sent it hurtling away in tiny pieces as Kurt himself flipped sideways from his bent over position and skidded to a halt, scooping up a katana lying in his path.
Rolling to the side, Kurt managed to, with a fraction of a second to spare, escape the greatsword as it crashed down where he had just been standing. Flipping through the air, he landed on a spear more firmly pressed into the dirt that most of the weapons, and the old wood bent dangerously, then snapped back into position, flinging him back toward the wolf's weapon. With the clank of metal striking metal, Kurt landed on the edge of the huge sword, still stuck into the ground from a moment before, his metal-soled boots protecting his feet as he dashed straight for the wolf's stunned face, swinging his new weapon before him.
Blood stained the snow, and the wolf stumbled away from the sword, swinging its front paw through the air blindly, blood dripping from a cut across its left eye. Kurt, still flying through the air, managed to swing his katana up to block, but the blade was sent flying away from him as he was sent crashing through the old wood of the ancient gate. Rolling to a stop amidst a snowbank in the courtyard, which was filled with even more weapons, Kurt stumbled to his feet as the gate slammed open with a bang, the huge form of the wolf-guard soaring over his head and landing between the priest and the keep. As the creature pounced again, this time back towards Kurt, he scooped up a spear and twirled it around him, but the wooden shaft was split apart by a mighty paw-swipe that sent Kurt skidding across the snow. Twisting to avoid a follow up attack, Kurt felt the deadly claws of the wolf's paw slip through the air barely an inch away, and with a battle cry, he twisted himself around and slammed the broken shaft of the spear straight through one of the soft pads of the animal's foot.
Stumbling to a halt as the creature howled in pain, Kurt fell to a knee, panting. Just as his enemy turned to focus on him again, Kurt prepared himself to leap to his feet once more, only to be interrupted by a calm, nigh-emotionless female voice, seemingly spoken right into his ear. “Dodge left.” A voice coming from right behind him, would, under normal circumstances, cause him to spin to face the speaker, weapons ready, but the voice in his ear was far too familiar. He knew well exactly who the owner of the voice was, and he acted instantly, the matter requiring no thought at all. He jerked his head to the side, and at the same instant something shiny and metal hurtled past his right ear and stuck into the wolf's already bloodstained left eye.
The enormous creature gave a sound somewhere between a howl of rage and a whimper of agony as it stumbled backward, nearly toppling as it turned its remaining eye towards the broken gate. ”WHERE?!” Its twisted voice cried, resounding throughout the snowy courtyard. But in the same instant as it opened its fanged maw to ask this question, it received its answer in the form of three crimson flashes flaring to life in its newly created blind spot, and a monochromatic blur of silver and raven black streaking between them, bounding from one to the other with incredible speed, carried with increased speed by the arcane lights that the priest immediately recognized as the cuboid familiars of the assassin mage of the thieves’ guild.
Stopping his accelerated flight over the wolf’s head, the Phantom Thief smirked, sweeping his sword from his back as he fell like lightning, wreathed in the fluttering fabric of his distinctive coat. “Try here!” He roared, digging his blade deep into the titanic wolf’s back, staining the creature’s grey fur with a shower of deep crimson as he ripped his sword free, then leaped away as the beast reared up on its hind legs, shaking wildly as it lashed out in vain, unable to catch the thief as he flung himself to the side.
“I will not be shamed by a pretentious PUP!” The wolf bellowed, lowering itself on its haunches, then pouncing with frightful speed towards the airborne thief. But Seire merely smirked, completing a rather theatrical flip and landing softly amidst the snow, staring down the oncoming wolf as, in the next instant, a black and crimson bullet came streaking down from the wall, bounding across the floating crimson cubes that had carried the first thief to the scene of the combat as they aligned themselves like stepping stones. Yet again taking advantage of the wolf’s blinded eye, the Thief King’s sworn brother now joined the fray, closing in before the creature realized he was there and dealing a mighty, two-handed stroke with his towering longsword to the beast’s flank, catching it off balance and sending it stumbling wide of its original target, rolling with its overextended momentum and crashing through several deep drifts of snow before rising once again. With a wordless howl, the beast once again lowered itself to pounce… only to find its legs immobile as a creeping sheet of ice rose up from the show and began to encase them.
“Hold it, furball,” Joined a rough, cocksure voice as a third figure smirked, rising into the air atop a fourth familiar as he leveled his gleaming saber, the ice surrounding the wolf flashing as he brandished the arcane weapon. “See,” Zess continued. “I always wanted ta’ get me a nice winter coat, but that dandy o’er there keeps ‘em all to himself. But ya’ know what? I think a wolf pelt’ll do just as nicely. So why don’t ya make this easy and just die before I have ta’ cut you up and gut you like a fish? Your hide’ll look nicer that way.”
The wolf’s only response was an indignant, furious howl, as, with a mighty effort, it tore its legs from their icy prison, then spun around, sweeping out its front paw in an enraged lunge for the airborne pirate. But Zess merely laughed, and, leaping from the floating magical cube upon which he stood, flipped over the beast’s head and landed alongside his comrades - although not without releasing a small shower of razor sharp icicles from his sword, which embedded themselves in the already furious creature’s back. Rising to his feet alongside Shirou and Seire, the pirate smirked, while the Phantom Thief himself turned back to give a cheery wave to the priest as Kurt rose to his feet, recovering quickly from the blows he’d received.
“Hey, there, Kurt!” Seire called out with a smirk. “Fancy meeting you here! Looks like I showed up right on cue, though. Did you want this one? ‘Cause if so, I’m afraid I’ll have to steal it. You can have a cut of whatever loot he’s guarding if you join my guild permanently, th-” The Thief King’s jest was cut short by a maddened howl as the wolf turned once again to face its nimble opponents, its remaining eye bloodshot and wild. The priest simply sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose at the thief-caused chaos.
“I’ll rip out your hearts, and feast on your bones!” The mighty creature roared, lunging with reckless abandon towards the assembled thieves. But yet again, Seire merely chuckled, seeming completely unphased by the enormous creature bearing down on them.
“Scarlet?” He called casually, snapping his fingers.
“As you command.” The emotionless, ethereal voice that had resounded in the priest’s ears before did so once again. Although there was no visible speaker, the reply was heard by all as, in an instant, the three crimson cubes that had appeared initially floated down in front of the thieves, each flaring to life as the fourth, upon which Black Zess had ridden briefly, rose high above them into the air, its light flickering to punctuate the telepathic speech of its owner. Then, as the wolf came on, the familiars’ brilliance surged to a fever pitch, as from the heart of each flashed a radiant crimson circle, all marked with simple, identical runes. The barrier spell that Scarlet had cast through her constructs was as basic as the familiars themselves, but that by no means meant it was ineffective. Rather, cast in triplicate, it served to create a three-layered wall that the already weakened wolf could not penetrate. Ramming into it, the creature howled with pain, and stumbled back as the barrier once more flickered into nothingness, the runic circles of light that had formed it now rearranging themselves into a different shape. Another flash, brighter than the last, illuminated the courtyard as from each familiar, a basic elemental lightning bolt surged forth, striking the wolf head on in the burnt patch where Kurt had embedded his personal weapon. The beast howled, and then fell, toppling to the side and kicking up a blinding cloud of snow and dust. In the same instant, the fourth familiar descended from the air - only now, it was occupied. Gingerly, the elegant black-clad form of Scarlet stepped down, while Shirou quickly planted his sword and offered his hand to help her, as though aiding an ordinary lady in dismounting a carriage. Seire chuckled at his companion’s leftover knight-like mannerisms, but nevertheless seemed largely focused on the large cloud in front of them.
“Great work, Scarlet,” Shirou said, grinning to his stoic companion, who merely nodded calmly - albeit in a distinctly happy manner, for one as unemotive as herself - as he turned to reclaim his blade. “It’s lucky she found this place, or we’d never have been able to show up and bail you out, Kurt,” He turned his attention now to the priest, giving him a respectful nod.
“I don’t require your help in the slightest.” The priest cast an annoyed glance in Seire’s direction as he pulled a falchion from the snow beside him. “I had the situation perfectly under control before you managed to enrage him beyond all sensibility. I did manage to get the gate open, did I not?”
“Says the one who poked him in the eye and lit his head on fire,” Seire replied pointedly.
“Well obviously I had to give him some impetus, or he would never have opened the doors for me by way of his giant face.”
“Oh, so getting flung headlong through a wooden gate was all part of your plan, was it?”
“No, but I’m good at improvising. It’s something I picked up from dealing with you for so long. You couldn’t hold together a coherent plan for five minutes if your life depended on it.”
“Not my fault you can’t grasp my strategies. How long are you gonna stay on my back for lighting the mansion on fire that one time, anyway? I told you that was what I’d meant to do all along, didn’t I?”
“That’s funny, Kaitou, because as I recall, you just remembered the information that I got you had pinpointed a secret stash of coin behind the cutlery drawer and you just decided the best plan would be to tear it out of the wall and hurl it across the room, knocking our only lantern into the silk curtains!”
“Hey, it got the guards off our back, didn’t it?”
“And it got us labeled as dangerous terrorists, blew my cover, and got us run out of town just ahead of an angry mob!”
“Eh, that Landgrave had it coming, anyway. He insulted my coat.”
“Did you seriously repair that thing again even after the state it was in a few months ago?”
“Don’t be silly! This is my spare… Or, one of them, anyway,” The thief replied matter-of-factly. “Speaking of which, you really need to see a tailor about replacing that cape of yours. It looks like it’s-”
“Pardon my interruption,” Scarlet said gravely. “But it appears our adversary is not yet dead.”
“No shit,” The former pirate said, nodding his head towards the enormous gray form of the wolf as it rose, giving a mighty howl the sheer force of which was enough to scatter the dust lingering around its body like chaff on the winds of a hurricane.
“Well,” Kurt dusted the light coating of snow from his coat as he sneered sarcastically at the PTA members. “You were the ones so excited about killing it. Break a leg.”
“Which one? It has four,” Seire replied cheerfully.
“Yeah, but I stabbed one, so breaking that wouldn’t make much of a difference, now would it?” Picking up his stolen falchion once more, Kurt stepped back and off to one side.
“I’ll just take that as all three of the others, then,” Shirou interjected, grinning as he raised his heavy blade and leveled it with practiced - not to mention rather deceptive, considering the weapon’s tremendous weight - ease. “Scarlet? Would you set the stage?”
“Understood. Analyzing battlefield… activating ritual space… commencing battle.” As she recited this mechanical mantra, Scarlet raised her fragile hand, sending the four crimson cubes around her scattering outward in all directions. Forming four corners of a large square, they encompassed the entire courtyard between them. In an instant, their radiant glow expanded once again, this time not in the shape of a circle, but rather, in the form of countless lines running outward from each familiar. First, large lines joined them all together, then diverged into several smaller ones, expanding until they had formed a precise, even grid across the ground throughout the courtyard, dividing it into several dozen large squares of equal size. Then, in the next instant, six flashes of light appeared in the air above - one over each square within the grid where a combatant was standing. Between these, another series of lines took shape, linking the familiars to the fighters beneath them, and each familiar to each other.
“Ritual space complete. I am prepared, sir,” The quiet magus said, nodding to the thief at the head of the group, who grinned, raising his own blade.
“Alright, then,” Seire said with a smirk. “Let’s get this started, brother!”
“You don’t have to tell me twice!” Shirou replied, leaping forward alongside his comrade, his fiery mane of hair trailing in his wake.
“I’ll send you to hell!” The wolf roared, raising both front paws and bringing them down in unison, aimed to crush the pair of thieves, only to give a growl of surprise as, unexpectedly, both men accelerated, darting nimbly to each side as the familiars over their heads flashed with light, illuminating the grid squares beneath them momentarily with a single rune: a speed enchantment. Reshaping her ritual space to lend the needed advantage to her comrades, Scarlet lowered each of the two forwards’ familiars to their sides.
“Aim for its back legs,” She directed psychically. Shirou and Seire, their reactions instinctive after years of working as a team, didn’t need to be told twice. Leaping outward, they each rebounded off of the familiars linked to them, launching themselves with even greater speed beneath the rearing wolf, each man dealing a mighty blow to one of the beast’s back legs. Emerging on either side of it as it fell, they moved with perfect synchronization, bounding once again off of the other’s familiar and launching into the air, moving out of the way just in time to clear the playing field for the next combatant. “Now, cripple the target,” Scarlet directed, continuing to press the assault. With a raucous laugh, Zess lowered himself to the ground as yet another rune took shape beneath him, giving a single flash and launching him high into the air. Rebounding off of his familiar, he directed all of his momentum forward, slashing his enchanted saber across the guardian’s shoulder, freezing its remaining unwounded limb as he passed. The beast howled with pain, and toppled once more towards the ground. The former pirate landed behind it, only to cry out with surprise as he found himself standing right beneath the collapsing beast.
“Father Schweinorg, break the beast’s fall and move it back into the air. I will provide the necessary strength.” Following this order without a second thought, the priest leaped once more into action, launching forward as a rune like that which had propelled Zess now hurled him into the air in a similar manner. Leaping off of the familiar above his own head, he found himself flung forward as though shot from a cannon, only for the familiar linked to Zess to appear in his path, allowing him to hook it with a wire, swinging around the falling guardian and pulling the cable taut behind the beast’s neck. In an instant, the grid space beneath him flared bright crimson, a new rune appearing in the space below his feet. As the light rose up from this emblem, it encircled his arm, running down the extended wire as, against all apparent possibility, the wire held firm, snapping back into place like a slingshot at the same time as the ground beneath the wolf formed a basic propulsion rune, the force of the rune of strength allowing Kurt to launch the creature, while the rune of propulsion guided its motion… right into the path of the two airborne warriors who now descended, blades in hand and ready to finish their attack.
“Aim for all of its vitals simultaneously. One strike at least is sure to get through and finish it off.” With this final command, Scarlet moved each fighter’s linked familiar into place behind them, and yet again launched them at their target. With a mighty roar, Shirou leveled his blade, slamming the two handed sword directly into the wolf’s exposed underbelly. “You’re MINE!” He bellowed triumphantly. Unexpectedly, however, a flash of blue pierced the nape of the beast’s neck as, bounding off of his own familiar, Zess flew past from behind, dealing an icy cut at the beast’s throat. “No,” He shouted. “It’s MINE!”
“Think again!” Seire finished, whirling his blade above his head as he descended. “It’s MINE!” With this resounding cry, he plunged his black and silver sword directly into the wolf’s heart. The defeated guardian gave a pathetic cry as it crashed to the ground. The victorious trio landed, grinning competitively as they sheathed their blades and turned to walk away… Only to be interrupted by a rasping snarl as the wolf struggled to rise once again.
“I will not be bested here… My fangs have rent the bodies of countless warriors. My claws have torn asunder the flesh of all who challenge me. Nothing can sate my endless hunger. I will not die to the likes of you! I will not-”
With a flash of light, a pathetic whimper, and the wet thud of a blade embedding itself in the flesh of its target, the falchion of the priest dug deep into the thrice-wounded scalp of the guardian, silencing it for good.
“Actually, as you’ll find I was here first, it’s mine.”
The three warriors gazed on in disappointment, and gave a mutual sigh.
“Killstealer,” Seire pouted.
“I’d just like to point out the blatant irony of a thief accusing me of his favorite crime.” Kurt flicked the falchion and sent blood splattering across the snow. “Besides, as I just established, it was mine in the first place. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to know exactly what you think you are doing here.” It wasn’t a question.
“Sightseeing,” Seire replied without missing a beat, his voice deadpan and practically dripping with sarcasm. He might have continued, but to his surprise, he was interrupted by the most unlikely of individuals.
“Our objectives are to survey the higher levels of the castle, discover any alchemical reagents we might be able to acquire, and establish a base of operations far from the civilization on the lower levels,” Scarlet stated matter of factly, her voice sounding a bit strained as the grid of crimson light and the ten familiars comprising it faded away from view. Shirou gave a wry, slightly anxious smile. Although she was certainly capable of creating more than that number, supporting so many familiars and a combat grid was nonetheless hard on the young magus, and it showed.
“Yeah, pretty much,” Seire confirmed, shrugging his shoulders resignedly as he adjusted the black scabbard slung over his back. “Speaking of which, since we’ve taken out this flea-ridden carpet, can we head in and steal everything that isn’t tied down already? This place is pretty boring, and I’d like to get a move on.”
“How did you even get up here? Last time I checked, the portal wasn’t working and I left a horde of angry worms down on floor eleven when I came here.” Looking around in vain for some way to store his new weapon, Kurt finally let out a sigh of defeat and accepted the fact that he would just have to carry it around unprotected for the moment.
“Oh, so you’re the one who pissed those things off?” Zess asked pointedly, shooting a glare in the monk’s direction. “I hope you’re happy. They nearly ate us the moment we entered the floor.”
“Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad,” Shirou said cheerily. “They were pretty weak.”
“Easy for you to say. You didn’t have one burst up under your feet and have to crawl out of it from the inside,” Zess retorted.
“Yeah, and that huge one was kind of a pain,” Seire chimed in. “I cut it up plenty, but it just wouldn’t stay down. I gave it some scars for its trouble to match the set you made, though. Seriously, though. I thought I’d never get that sand out of my coat.”
“Uh… you didn’t, brother,” Shirou replied lamely. “You just switched coats.”
“Did I? Huh. I don’t even remember.” Shrugging, the thief turned towards the looming tower the wolf had been standing guard over. “Well, whatever!” He declared cheerfully. “Since that oversized guard dog’s out of the way, there’s no sense loitering around here. Let’s head on up to the next-”
“Not so fast!” The booming voice resounded throughout the courtyard, punctuated, fittingly enough, by a high pitched, distinctive laugh - the sort of jeering, overly drawn out sort of laugh that made you want to suffocate the overly pompous, doubtlessly aristocratic woman responsible with a teaspoon, or perhaps a live hamster. Seire winced at the high pitched, keening cackle, immediately turning his eyes up to glare at the speaker - a figure standing atop a balcony above the courtyard, and who, more importantly, didn’t seem particularly inclined to stop her shrill laughter any time soon. Just when Seire had managed to find his scissors lying next to the body of the wolf and was preparing to try to shut her up that way, however, she seemed to decide it was high time to mock them with words instead of just meaningless syllables. Well, it was either that, or she was finally out of breath, but the thief didn’t particularly care, because he’d just noticed something else.
“Wait a minute,” He asked aloud, his eyes widening with disbelief. “Is she wearing a dress made out of DIAMONDS?”
“...I think so,” Shirou confirmed, nodding somewhat numbly at the realization. The Thief, however, only seemed horrified.
“Curses! Such riches, right before my very eyes, and yet as they are being used as clothing by a woman, it goes against my manly pride to steal them!”
“I think yer being way too melodramatic about this, boss,” Zess chimed in, raising an eyebrow. His words, however, seemed to be completely ignored.
“And you!” Seire continued, pointing in a rather over the top manner up at the noblewoman on the balcony. “How dare you make such an entrance? Come down here and speak to us face to face, or else silence yourself and get out of our way!”
“Are you really the one to talk about other people making entrances?” Shirou asked pointedly.
“But of course!” Seire declared boisterously, rounding on his sworn brother. “In this castle, there is only one man allowed to mount the stage of conflict so majestically! And that man… is me!” He cried, pointing to himself. “Of course,” He added as an afterthought. “When I do it, it’s actually cool. She’s just being annoying, what with that laughing and whatnot.”
“Er… I seem to recall-” Zess began, only to be cut off by a sudden loud crash and splintering of wood as a spear was sent flying upward towards the balcony above, embedding itself in the stone of the wall behind where the woman had stood, whilst she herself vanished in a flash of light only moments before the javelin struck home, appearing once again atop the stairs leading into the tower at the opposite end of the courtyard.
“All of you shut your mouths. That witch’s screeching gave me a headache and you’re only making it worse.” Kurt snatched his falchion from where he had stuck it into the ground and started marching towards the staircase. “I’m just going to crush her and her castle and get on with things. If you want to stand here in the snow and keep arguing about nonsense, be my guests, but don’t you dare start until I’m out of earshot.
“Well, you’re certainly as cheerful as ever,” Seire said, sighing as he slipped his scissors back into the sleeve of his coat, reaching instead for his sword and drawing it once again. “So, basically, this broad’s some sort of magic user, and she doesn’t want us going through this way?”
“Such seems to be the circumstances,” Scarlet confirmed, nodding dutifully.
“Don’t equate me with a mere magic user like your fellows, knave,” The aristocratic lady said scornfully. “I am the Silver Witch, queen of this land. Before my absolute power, even the seasons themselves bow!”
“...So let me get this straight,” Zess said skeptically. “You’re saying you have the power to warp nature to the point that you can even change seasons… And the only thing you used it for was to make it snow? What, didja want to go skiing or something?” The pirate laughed derisively.
“Silence!” Roared the queen. “I have had enough of your foolishness. You have come far, to be sure, but the likes of you can never defeat me. My reign is eternal, and my power infinite! Kneel before me, and beg for my forgiveness, and I ma-” The witch was abruptly silenced by a gleaming sword blade sweeping upward almost casually towards her face, forcing her to jump back to avoid having her brains rearranged via falchion - an evasion which she executed with surprising alacrity, considering the substance and the complexity of her garments. “Why, you insolent-” The Witch began, only to be cut off by a scornful, icy reprimand from her attacker.
“Is everyone in this place a braggart? I believe I told you to be silent and get on with this battle. Now either step out of my way or defend yourself, or I will make you.”
A cry of outrage from the Witch was swiftly punctuated by a downpour of bizarre, frigid light, seeming to wash over the priest in an instant, leaving only ice in its wake. But, just as the queen was about to - evidently - indulge in another ear-piercing laugh, she found herself silenced by a sudden cut from above that came very close to decapitating her, forcing her to backpedal once again as Kurt, trailing snow from his gleaming, magic-resistant scarf, fell back down to earth, sword in hand as he finished evading the large part of the arcane assault.
The thieves, meanwhile, scattered to escape the deluge of ice and magic, Scarlet summoning a familiar and rising into the air along with Shirou, whilst Zess countered the tidal wave of ice and snow for a moment with his own sword, then cut an exit route for himself and Seire before the freezing spell could engulf them.
Another slash sent the queen stumbling backward, and this time, she only escaped by teleporting once again, vanishing from sight, only to be revealed once again as the persistent monk slashed open the doors to the tower just in time to dodge a series of razor sharp icicles that came streaking forth to greet him. Rushing through the doors, the thieves followed close on his heels.
Giving an angry cry, the Witch appeared once more atop a large staircase at the opposite end of what was evidently a great hall. Clapping her hands, she swept them out, causing a chill wind to spread throughout the chamber. Then, before her, an enormous shape began to rise from the floor - a knight made of ice at least three times Kurt’s size, an enormous, double-edged sword in its hand as it swept the blade down towards the monk from the side.
Dashing as he was toward the witch before him, Kurt only caught the movement out of the corner of his eye, and bending over backwards, he threw himself into a handspring, clearing the blade by a fraction of an inch. Catching his fall by slapping his left palm onto the stone below him, he flipped himself backwards and skidded across the entrance hall as he regained his feet, right arm still extended, no longer gripping his sword, which clattered to the floor where he had been standing, but gripping his cable, which, now wrapped around the sword of ice, yanked him from the floor.
Swinging wildly from the blade, he flipped over the golem’s head and planted his boots on either side of its spine, tugging with all his might on the wire, which crackled brilliantly with blue bolts of magic. Constricting on the sword blade, the ice began to crack as the coils of steel wound ever tighter, before with a loud echo that filled the hall, the sword split in two, sheared apart by the cable. Now held up by nothing and standing sideways on the back of the golem, Kurt began to drop, but a flick of his left hand sent a second wire wrapping tightly around the golem’s left arm, and his fall was turned into a swing as he spun out and up, landing atop the golem’s helmeted head, throwing out his first cable once more and latching onto the golem’s other arm, as it stared in confusion at its broken weapon.
Shouting with exertion, Kurt dug his heels into the helmet and pulled, wires once again coming to life with magic lighting, and with another resounding crack, the cables sheared off both of the golem’s arms. Hands still gripping his cables, Kurt let himself tilt back and fall gracefully from the golem’s helmet, flipping over as he fell to land on his feet. However, the flip only served to disguise the motion of his arms as he cast the cables out once more, and as he slid to a halt with his arms crossed in front of him and cable wrapped tightly around his wrists, he smirked calmly. Then he yanked with both hands, and with a final bang, the golem’s head was severed from its torso in an instant and rolled across the hall as Kurt caught his retracting wires once again.
The Witch cried out with anger, and raised her hands to cast another spell, only to be cut off yet again: this time, from behind, as a sudden blitz of crimson lightning came streaking down from the ceiling and struck the queen dead on, sending her stumbling forward and quite nearly falling down the stairs before she balanced herself, rounding on the source of the weak spell that had unexpectedly interrupted her, finding herself face to face with Scarlet. The pale-haired magus floated down from above atop her familiar, readying herself to cast another spell. However, the Witch was quite obviously her superior when it came to the arcane arts, and it showed. In an instant, before Scarlet could finish preparing her own magic, the queen had already cast another spell, sending an enormous spear of ice shooting towards the tired magus.
This projectile, however, had been fired without taking a very important thing into account. That thing was, specifically, the red-headed knight with a zweihander who, being rather violently protective of his stoic spouse, was currently dropping from the ceiling with his sword raised high overhead, cleaving through the projectile and very nearly bisecting the queen also with a single mighty stroke, missing only because the Witch yet again managed to backpedal with uncanny speed. Raising her hands, she once again began to create a spear of ice, aiming this time for the knight, only to be yet again interrupted by the entrance of another figure as Seire landed atop his sworn brother’s sword, raising his own smaller blade in front of him, as, to the queen’s surprise, Shirou hefted both his blade and the man standing atop it with a roar of exertion, and then, sweeping it downward, catapulted the thief straight towards the elegantly clad magician.
With a loud crash, the spear she had been creating quickly reformed itself into a shield of ice, but, half-formed as this defense was, it crumbled beneath the mighty attack, revealing a fourth figure in the Thief King’s place: Zess, who with a single slash through the rubble assumed control of the shards of the Witch’s shattered shield, launching them straight for her. Sweeping up her hand, the queen caught this barrage, and once more took control of the ice, forming it into a long, thin blade just in time to catch the pirate’s saber as he closed in, hoping to land a blow while she was preoccupied. Turning his weapon aside with practiced ease, she pivoted, spinning to deflect a blow from Seire as he once again joined the fray. To her surprise, however, the instant before the monochrome saber of the Thief King met her own icy blade, he suddenly sidestepped, cutting off his attack and spinning through without striking, revealing, to the Witch’s surprise, Shirou, who, leaping off of Scarlet’s familiar to gain momentum, launched himself like a rocket towards her, shattering her overextended weapon with a single blow.
Before she could create another, or even turn to face to incoming thief, Seire had already raised his sword to finish her off. The blade closed in, its glinting edge rushing towards the spellcaster’s throat… Only to stop yet again, this time involuntarily, as, giving a cry of surprise, the thief found himself yanked back by a cable that had suddenly wrapped itself around his waist, skidding back before righting himself alongside the monk, just in time to see a chandelier collapsing from the ceiling upon the spot he’d just occupied.
“What the hell?” Seire asked as the thieves hastily retreated, moving to a distance to avoid the queen’s retaliation now that their attack had failed. “Where did that come from?”
“If I had to venture a guess, the ceiling.” The priest’s tone was still in its usual sarcastic drawl as he snapped up his wire once more and let it slip beneath his cloak. “It probably got dislodged by a part of that golem I broke.”
“Lucky her,” The thief said irritably, leveling his sword and preparing to attack once again, his readiness to strike the woman at the center of the group only increasing when she began to laugh once again.
“It’s no use!” She cried mockingly. “Try all you like, but there’s no way you peasants can dethrone me. My reign is eternal!”
Kurt’s eyes narrowed as he stared at the woman while she cackled to herself. “Something isn’t right. We need to start moving for the exit. Get Scarlet to take over coordination and see if we can’t break past her and get further in.” The priest bent down without taking his eyes off their opponent and grabbed his sword from the ground.
“Err… right,” Shirou replied, nodding as he turned to the floating magus by his side. “You got enough power left to get us out of here?” The white-haired spellcaster merely nodded.
“Where to?” She asked quietly.
“That pillar rising from the back of the castle. It’s the gate to the next floor.” The priest shifted into a combat ready stance, testing the weight of the unfamiliar weapon.
“Understood,” The magus said calmly. Closing her eyes for a moment, she balanced herself atop her familiar as he let out a faint pulse of light. Then, opening her blood colored pupils, she turned towards a side door leading out of the chamber.
“Like I’d let you run!” The queen cackled, releasing a blast of ice straight for the young woman atop the gleaming cube, only for this to be turned aside instantly by an identical projectile as Zess raised his hand, firing as a command resounded throughout the ears of all of the allied combatants.
“Zess. Disrupt her magic with your own. Everyone else, move for the door on the left. I will bring up the rear and provide shielding to allow for your escape.”
For a moment, the icy shot was slowed by the pirate’s attack. In the next, however, the witch struck with renewed force, only for the white haired spellcaster to dart nimbly to the side atop her familiar, streaking down in front of the other four as they turned for the door and, after Shirou burst it open with a strike of his two-handed sword, rushed through it. Yet again, the Witch opened fire with her magic, only for it to be turned aside as Scarlet hastily erected a barrier, then launched herself backward, tearing through the open door. The Witch gave an angry growl, and vanished once again in a flash of light, re-appearing at the end of the hallway just in time to receive yet another burst of crimson lightning directly to the torso, sending her staggering as, in the next instant, Kurt lunged forward, blade raised to attack.
“Kurt, aim for the rafters above. Bring them down with your cables to cut her off. Shirou, the wall is weak to the right. Break it down. Zess and Seire, clear the area beyond.”
His sword deflected to one side by the smug witch, Kurt pretended to stumble, hiding the flick of his wrist that sent cables soaring through the air. Turning his faked moment of weakness into a handspring, Kurt cleared the Witch’s follow up and vanished into the cloud of dust and debris that filled the air as the wall was blasted apart. Before the witch could finish shouting, lightning darted across the rafters and cables clamped down and sliced through rotten wood. With a roaring crash, fragments of roof began to rain from the sky, but the party had already vanished into the next hallway over.
“Zess, lock her in place! Shirou, bring that statue down on her. Seire, feint an attack and catch her counterspell, and Kurt, finish her while she’s open!”
“As expected. Kurt, fall back while Shirou moves in to draw her attention. Zess, prepare a powerful spell, I’ll give you support with my lightning. Seire, wait for a wide range attack, then rush in to stab her with your scissors to serve as a target for our magic. Wait for her to deflect the attack, then fake using the fallout as cover to try to land a killing blow. Break off your attack at the last moment, while Kurt drops in from above to take her by surprise.”
“Use the end table as a shield, dodge magically enhanced cutlery. Evade enchanted ovens, then retaliate with anything on hand. Yes, there. Now, throw the cheese.”
“Kurt, dodge up, then use the support pillars to vault forward after waiting precisely one second. Zess, shoot down any attacks that get close to Kurt. Once he’s interrupted her spell, Shirou, launch from my familiar to attack from the front. Kurt and Zess will loop around from both sides. Expect a large scale defense. She’ll attempt to push you back. Give no ground. Seire, wait for me to summon two more familiars, then once I’ve disrupted her defenses, use them to launch in and attack. Dodge the ritual trap that will be located directly in front of her, then close in, feint a high cut, and strike at her legs. She’ll be expecting a kill shot. When she retaliates in close quarters, block with your sheath, then shatter her weapon with your sword. Most likely, she’ll employ a polearm, so aim for the haft just below the blade. Once she’s disarmed, Zess will keep her from repairing her weapon, Shirou will cut off her rear, and Kurt will move in to push her into Shirou’s blade. Aim to bisect her with a single swing. Also, watch out. There may be more traps in this corridor. If you feel a chill below you, then warn the others and pull back.”
Stumbling as the Thief’s blade grazed her ankle, the Witch hastily raised her hands, creating a long spear from ice, only to be taken aback as Seire cut through it with ease before it had even finished forming. The usually emotionless magus gave a satisfied smirk as the Witch found herself unable to create another weapon as Zess rested control of her ice, just as she’d expected. With no means of defense available to her, the Witch began to backpedal as the priest hounded her every step, dealing several cuts, many of which hit their mark. And then, just as the spellcaster had planned, Shirou cut off the queen’s final escape, raising his sword with both hands and lashing out. With a mighty roar, his blade swept up, cleaving the Witch in two at the waist…
Or rather, cleaving through where she’d been. Even Scarlet’s eyes widened in disbelief at the spectacle. It was impossible for her to have readied a teleport spell in the time between when Shirou struck and when she moved, and yet somehow, in the blink of an eye - almost as though she’d been there all along - the Witch was suddenly standing several feet to the left, just beyond the reach of the knight’s formidable sword. There had been no signs of movement, or any evidence of magic. Rather, between one moment and the next, she’d simply ceased to be in the path of the swing, as though the world itself had simply deemed it so, and bent to accommodate that reality.
“Again?!” Zess roared, leaping back along with his fellows as ice erupted beneath where they’d been standing, forcing them to retreat yet again. “What the hell is she? No matter how much we kill her, she doesn’t even get hurt! We’ve been at this for twenty minutes and she’s barely even broken a sweat!”
“This isn’t normal at all,” Seire said grimly. “Scarlet!” He called. “Is she using some sort of illusion?”
“Negative,” The coordinator replied, floating gently to the ground as the familiar she’d been riding ran out of power and blinked out, along with one of the other two she’d summoned. It seemed she was reaching her limit, no matter how expertly she’d commanded the course of the battle up until this point.
“But there’s no way for somebody to just instantly move without teleporting, right?” Shirou asked, seeming skeptical. “Are you sure this isn’t all just some kind of trick?”
“It’s a trick, all right.” Kurt’s tone was dark as he glared at their opponent. “But it isn’t her trick. I saw this happen before, down on floor nine. Something about this place doesn’t want her to die, and it is willing to break reality to do it.” He tossed his badly mangled falchion over his shoulder and listened to it clatter down a set of stone stairs. “When I first found this floor, I ran into a bunch of strange animals that started talking. They insisted I turn back, since ‘only a group of four chosen heroes could fulfill the prophecy and free this land.’ I wasn’t taking them seriously, but I’m reconsidering. Apparently, if they are to be believed, then the floor is just going to keep doing this to us until it gets its group of four, and unfortunately, we came here as a group of five. I’m pretty certain this fight is impossible to win.”
“Damnit,” Zess cursed. “See, Seire? This is what happens when you invite other people in on your jobs without thinking first.”
“...You fail to meet the overly specific requirements of some obscure prophecy and are thus doomed to inescapable failure?”
“Well, not always, but still, bad things usually happen.”
“Because we could have totally seen this coming,” Shirou interjected. “So, what, then? If we can’t win, what are we supposed to do?”
“Retreat is the most favorable course of action,” Scarlet advised quietly.
“Me? Retreat?” Seire asked incredulously. “Never! I’m the man who makes the impossible possible! Who cares if we can’t win? I’ll find a way to anyway, and laugh in the face of destiny! I, Seire Valefar, never run from a fight!”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, we're running out of weapons and ways to kill her, and we have far too many floors left to cover. Staying here and fighting to help sooth your pride is a waste of our time.” Suddenly Kurt’s eyes narrowed and gleamed with a rather devious light. “Although… maybe all we need to do to win is change the conditions a little.” He glanced quickly around the long hall they stood in. “I need a weapon.”
“Oh, fine, we’ll retreat,” Seire sighed disappointedly. “We’d have won ages ago in an actual fight, anyway. Not my problem if she’s just a cheater, nor is it worth my time. But what exactly are you planning to do? And where will you-”
“Excuse me,” Scarlet interjected, calling her remaining familiar down to herself. “I apologize for the interruption. However, Father Schweinorg, I believe you may have some use for this." Extending her hand, she placed it on the side of the remaining cube, closing her eyes as she quietly recited a mantra to herself, a small magic circle forming on each face of the cube. “Accessing stored records. Commencing replication.” With those words, the familiar floated once more into the air… and then shattered into light, which spread out overhead, and then flickered out, revealing several small objects that evidently had come from within the familiar. They were tiny slips of parchment, each cut precisely to an identical size, and each marked painstakingly with an identical arcane sigil and line after line of indecipherable text, stored and replicated perfectly within her familiars from a time long ago on the faraway mainland.
Papers fell gently from the heavens like snow, and the Silver Witch looked around her in confusion. However, Kurt simply let his expression slip into a smug grin. Swiping his hands through the air with blinding speed, he held up his fists, papers slipping between every knuckle of both hands. Glancing over at the rest of the party, he smirked again. “The exit should be down that direction. I’m sure Scarlet will be able to find it. I’ll handle things here.”
“Like I said before,” Seire sighed, sheathing his sword. “You’re a freakin’ killstealer. Keh. Whatever. Just don’t take too long. We’ll be waiting for you on the other side.”
“We’re seriously retreating?” Shirou asked, although whether his incredulousness was due to concern for Kurt or because Seire simply issued the order to fall back so rarely that its occurrence now seemed almost miraculous to him.
“Yeah. You know Kurt,” Seire replied. “He’ll probably be done here with enough time left to grab some tea and still not keep us waiting. Now, then, if he’s gonna buy us time, let’s not waste it, huh?”
“Alright. Scarlet, care to lead the way?” Shirou asked. The magus once more nodded, and turned to head down the hallway, the others following quickly in her wake.
Kurt watched their backs vanish in the distance, but as the witch raised her hand to fire off another spell, opening her mouth to sneer at him, his hand blurred through the air faster that she could blink, and suddenly she found herself motionless. Struggling with all her might, she couldn’t even twitch in place, only able to turn her eyes slightly, vision landing on her shadow, impaled with five sinister black knives. A chill of fear suddenly ran through her as he looked back at the priest, already holding a new set of knives in his hand as he grinned ominously. “I’m going to have to ask you to stay right there for a little while. We have a lot to discuss.”
The roof shuddered as several large shards of rubble crumbled, their pillars toppling with a loud crash as the marble ceiling of the hallway came tumbling down. The Witch stared upward blankly, musing that it was quite fortunate that none of the shards happened to be falling upon her, as she’d have been quite unable to escape them if they had happened to. With one leg’s muscles maimed by a series of impalements, and the other incinerated beyond all hope of use, she wouldn’t have been able to walk, even if her petrified left arm hadn’t been affixed to the floor by a knife, preventing her from rising at all. Blood pooled slowly around her as she watched, motionless, trying to restore the various parts of her body that had been turned to stone.
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too worried. I’m sure your magic can manage to fix all of that, given enough time. Otherwise, none of those wounds would have happened.” The amused, mocking voice of Kurt rang throughout the hall, along with the shuffle of paper as he sorted out the haphazardly fallen sheets. “Prophecies are such funny things, aren’t they? Always so obsessed with exact wording. Almost like a con-man who doesn’t like to tell lies.” He smirked at some in-joke beyond the witch’s comprehension. “It was pretty simple, once I figured it out. All your boasting about your reign being eternal and the prophecy nonsense those animals spewed. I can’t kill you no matter how hard I try, but it’s more than that. Whatever I do, I can’t end your control over this floor. Since Seire and his cronies would have liked nothing more than to take over this castle and loot it for all it was worth, nothing we did before would hurt you. But me? I’m just here buying time for some allies to escape, that’s all. Not trying to de-throne you, not trying to kill you. Nothing like that.” He picked up the last sheet of paper and carefully wrapped it up with the rest in a black leather cover, using a bit of string to bind it together into a book. “Speaking of which, I’ve got places to be, so I had better head off and catch up with Seire and the rest. Have a nice recovery.”
Waving casually over his shoulder, sardonic voice still ringing through the hall, the priest vanished into the corridor toward the exit and escaped.
Normal people are the easiest to manipulate. Too smart and they have an annoying tendency to catch wind of your plans, too dumb and, in the words of a certain pirate, "You can never tell when they are about to do something incredibly...stupid."