Chapter 1: The Sun hasn’t Died
[A short excerpt from Entry 704 of the Royal Research Archives]
On the Uses of Drachfeurite Ore for Mechanical Warfare and Other Machinery
Captain Alfred F. Jones
Drachen Institute of Technology
4th Division of the Royal Forces
Drachfeurite is more commonly known as Dragon Fire Ore, and it can be found in the mountains of Drachen Province and the Northern Boreal Mountains. It is used as a light source in Drachen province and several key establishments in the capital. However, no study has been done on the uses of energy extracted from within the ore. This study aims to prove the use of Drachfeurite as an alternative energy source for the empire’s weapons and airships…
Alfred shifted uneasily in his seat, tapping his foot incessantly and drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair. The waiting room outside the king’s audience chamber was designed to impress any visitor. The black eagle insignia of the Empire’s divine dynasty decorated the banners around the room. The large picture windows in the room showed off the palace’s most beautiful gardens, and you can even see the airship docks in the distance. Most of the things in the room were trimmed in gold and silver.
It was probably fitting for the dynasty that claimed to have descended from the old gods.
Alfred sighed and shifted in his seat again. He wanted to go back to the workshop or to the barracks. He didn’t belong here, and he certainly didn’t want to deal with the formalities of the court. As the youngest child of a Ducal house, he had never been expected to deal with such things.
But one never refused a request from the Emperor, and King Gilbert had requested an audience with Alfred for the day. Alfred would be lying if he said it didn’t make him uneasy. The last time Alfred had spoken with the king, he had done what no one should ever have.
He refused an offer from the king. He really hoped that this meeting wasn’t about that previous offer.
The double doors to the audience chamber opened, and a man stepped out. The man wore the stiff black uniform of the Royal Scientific Society. He looked unassuming even as he fixed a cold blue gaze at Alfred. Alfred stood, suddenly on guard.
“Alfred Kirkland, yes?” The man smiled, and Alfred tensed. The Royal SS was one of the most powerful organizations in the kingdom. They developed many of the military’s weapons and even some of the technology used in the citizens’ daily life. However, few of them were members of the kingdom’s most prominent noble families. Alfred didn’t know if the man was one of them. He wasn’t quite certain how he was supposed to deal with him. “You never lost a battle, and because of you, we learned of a convenient power source for our weapons. I admire your work.”
“Then you should at least get my name right,” Alfred said, deciding that he didn’t care about formalities, after all. Arthur can scold him later if he has managed to insult a high-ranking noble, but at the moment, it didn’t matter to him. “It’s Alfred F. Jones. I’ve already chosen my name.”
“Of course, my apologies,” the man said, inclining his head. “That was quite rude of me.”
Before Alfred could reply, the doors opened again. The royal guard saluted both of them before speaking. “Captain Jones,” the guard said, addressing Alfred. “The king will see you now.”
Alfred glanced at the other man one last time before entering the room. The guard stayed outside and closed the door, leaving Alfred alone with the king.
King Gilbert was seated behind his desk. He had a scowl on his face as he read over a document and signed it. He didn’t seem to notice Alfred was there, and Alfred wondered if it would be considered rude to interrupt the king when he was so clearly working.
“The southern lords are giving me some trouble. What should we do, Alfred?” Gilbert asked. He put down the document and leaned forward to stare at Alfred.
“I don’t care about politics, your highness.”
“I don’t like you lying to me, Captain.”
Alfred sighed. “My brother would have better advice for you,” he said.
Gilbert chuckled and leaned back on his chair. He looked amused, and he smirked at Alfred. He waved a hand towards one of the chairs in front of the desk. “Take a seat, Alfred.”
“Is this meeting really just about the southern Lords?” Alfred asked as he sat down. The King shook his head, and Alfred frowned in confusion. “What is it about then?”
“Have you thought about my previous offer?”
Alfred hesitated and wondered what to say. He decided that he might as well be honest like last time. “I am not going to marry Ludwig, Gilbert.”
Gilbert placed his chin on the palm of his hand. He grinned at the young military officer. “There you are,” the king said with a laugh. “It’s much better when you’re not being so formal, Al.”
“Your highness—“ At Gilbert’s droll stare, Alfred pursed his lips. “Gilbert. Are you really going to insist on it?”
Alfred had no desires to be consort. Ludwig was a good friend, and he would be a good match, but Alfred had different plans. Becoming one of the Empire’s rulers didn’t fit with those plans. But if the king insisted, then Alfred might not be able to refuse for long. It was frustrating to lack control.
“No,” Gilbert replied with a sigh. “I just think it would be a waste to let you go once you’ve done your family’s duty.”
Alfred relaxed a bit at the king’s reply. “It’s not like I plan on leaving the kingdom entirely. My workshop is here.”
“Right, speaking of those talents, Alfred,” Gilbert regarded him with eyes that were suddenly so serious. It was rare for the king to show such an expression, Alfred thought. It always seemed like the king was determined to remain amused by everything. “Did you get an invitation from the SS?”
Alfred froze, thinking of the man from outside. Alfred has learned to trust his instincts throughout his service for the military, and his instincts were telling him that there was something wrong. “No,” he said. “Why?”
“If you ever receive one, what would be your answer?”
Alfred met the strange red eyes of the king. The Beilschmidt family was said to be demigods, born of the old gods. King Gilbert, especially, was said to bear the mark of the gods’ blessings because of his strange colouring. At least, that was what the legends say. No one actually believed in those stories anymore, but it didn’t make Gilbert look any less unnerving.
“I would refuse,” Alfred answered.
Gilbert nodded like he expected that answer. “Good,” he said.
“Good?” Alfred repeated in confusion. “I thought the royal family supported them?”
“It’s complicated, but I’d rather not let them have you and all your talents.”
“Why do you think?”
Alfred poured. “Gilbert,” he said.
The king chuckled. “That little trick hasn’t worked on me for a long while, Al. It doesn’t matter. They have too much influence. Don’t get involved with them, Alfred.”
“But Ludwig is involved with them,” Alfred pointed out.
At those words, the king’s looks darkened. “That’s right,” he scowled and pressed his fingers on his temple. “And this is why I asked you here.”
Alfred waited and watched as Gilbert shuffled his papers. The king smiled when he found what he was looking for and handed it to Alfred. Alfred read through the report and glanced at the king.
“A Drachfeurite vein?” He asked.
“That’s right,” Gilbert said. “The SS thinks they found one right at the Northern border, where the barbarian tribes are. My brother insists on going to make a deal.”
“Alfred, you’re not stupid. You know what for,” Gilbert said, waving his hand at the direction of the papers in Alfred’s hand. “They want the mines.”
“What? Don’t I want the mines that will fuel another war?” Gilbert drummed his fingers on his desk. “It will be useful, but another war is unnecessary when we already have to deal with the malcontent from provincial lords and commanders.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to go with Ludwig. After all, you’re the one who discovered the use of Drachfeurite for our weapons and airship. Tell Ludwig you got permission from me to go for your research. Watch over him. Make sure those bastards from the SS don’t influence him too much.”
“And what do we do about the mines?” Alfred asked. He leaned forward. “Do you plan on waging war against the northern tribes?”
For a moment, Alfred thought that the king looked tired and resigned. “Only if we have to, Alfred. That is why you’re there. Temper my brother’s ambition.”
Alfred stared at the report in his hands. Ambition, he thought glumly. A long time ago, Alfred had been willing to go to war against his brother for a dukedom. These days, he would just be happy if he could just finish his service to the crown and the army.
And after that, well, Alfred had other plans, one that involved more freedom and adventure than a dukedom can ever give him.
He looked back up at the king to find Gilbert watching him with those blood red eyes. Like Arthur, Gilbert had become the head of his house and of the Empire at a young age. There were times such as this one where Alfred almost forgot how young their older brothers were.
How young he and Ludwig were to have already gone through war. He wasn’t surprised that Gilbert felt tired of the war he built his country on.
“I’ll do my best, your highness,” Alfred said before he grinned to reassure the king. “You can trust me with this one, Gilbert. I’m a hero now, aren’t I?”
Gilbert chucked in wry amusement. “Let’s hope you stay that way.”
The low hum of the airship’s engine was comforting under Alfred’s back. He leaned his head back on the wall, savoring the low thrum and warmth from underneath. He closed his eyes, and he can already imagine the heat in the ship’s engine room. He wanted to be there. He wanted to tinker with something, work on something with his hands.
He could feel the same low thrum of energy that was running through the ship underneath his skin, and it almost felt like he had swallowed some broken pieces of Drachfeurite. His hand gripped his pack tightly in his fist and he hummed low in his throat, trying to match the same beat of energy on his back. The rush of the crew and the murmur of voices around him faded in favor of the engine’s life.
“Alfred.” Just like that, Alfred’s focus was broken. He opened his eyes and grinned at the crown prince in front of him.
“Heya, Ludwig,” Alfred greeted, pushing away from the wall of the ship’s cockpit. He didn’t want to get as lost as he just was. “We ready to take off?”
Ludwig shook his head, and he fell into place beside Alfred. “Not just yet,” he said. “You should take care of your eyes.”
Alfred blinked in confusion. He can still feel the low thrum of energy beneath his skin, and he realized what Ludwig was referring to. His eyes must look like the golden slitted eyes of a dragon. It tended to happen to people from his family when they were too caught up in something. He cursed and covered his eyes with one hand, willing it to return to normal. He thought of the energy running beneath his skin and pressed his other hand on the ship’s wall. He imagined the energy leaving him to return to the ship before opening his eyes at Ludwig. “How is it?” He asked.
“Back to normal,” Ludwig said with a nod.
Alfred groaned and crossed his arms. He rolled his shoulders back and already missed the electric feeling from the ship. It was almost like the magic from Arthur’s stories. But magic was a belief born out of superstition and ignorance.
He should research what was causing the flares of power, but it wasn’t something he can do until the northern mission was over. “Why is it taking so long?”
Alfred laughed. “It’s boring doing nothing.”
“You already look tired, Alfred. I don’t think you should be doing anything.”
“Experiment,” Alfred grinned. “It took a little longer than I thought. Forgot to sleep.”
Ludwig chuckled. “You and your experiments. One day, you might collapse from exhaustion.”
“Nah,” Alfred shook his head. “The hero will do no such thing.”
The two of them were silent for a while. Alfred listened to the bustle of the crew around him. He couldn’t wait to take off, couldn’t wait for the freedom the skies could afford him. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the wall, careful not to get pulled into the ship’s lulling beat.
He only realized that the prince was speaking to him when he saw Ludwig looking at him expectantly.
“I’m sorry?” Alfred frowned.
Ludwig huffed in amusement. “I heard that my brother offered to marry us and that you refused,” the prince repeated.
“Oh, that,” Alfred shifted and glanced at Ludwig. The prince didn’t seem angry or offended. “You know why.” Ludwig was as one of the first people he told of his plan when he formed it after all.
“You plan on leaving after completing your family’s required ten years of service.”
“Well, not leaving,” Alfred said. He waved at the bustling cockpit around them. “I want a life like this. Freedom. Adventure. I’ll be free to tinker with my very own ship if I become a captain or lead engineer in a private or commercial airship. Can you imagine it?”
Ludwig shook his head. “I cannot imagine such things.”
Alfred frowned at his friend. “Can’t or won’t?”
“Does it matter?”
Alfred shrugged. Before he could say anything, the ship’s captain approached them and gave a salute to both of them. “My lords,” he said. “We’ll be departing soon. It might be best to retire to your quarters.”
“May I stay here?” Alfred asked. “I like the view from here.”
The ship captain looked from Alfred to Ludwig. “I would prefer to stay here as well.”
The ship captain nodded. “As you wish, your highnesses.”
“What? I’m not really—“ Alfred spluttered but the man had already moved away, giving commands to the crew members in the cockpit. Alfred grumbled before grabbing his pack from where he dropped it on the ground.
Ludwig chuckled. “Let it be, Alfred,” he said. “You know what people assume.”
“This is your brother’s fault,” Alfred said as ship began its ascent.
“Alfred, I—“ Whatever the prince was about to say was lost as the roar of the engines suddenly grew louder, and Alfred could almost hear the whistling of the steam engines and the crackle of electric Drachfeurite from underneath them. He was careful not to get lost in the energy this time, but it was still quite the heady sensation.
Once the ship was steadier, the roar died down to the same comforting hum Alfred got lost in. “Did you say something, Luddie?”
Ludwig shook his head. “It wasn’t important.”
Alfred let his gaze linger on the prince before shrugging off his worry. He glanced at the windows of the cockpit to the brilliant reds and oranges of a sunset. “Look at that,” Alfred said in a breathless voice. The sight of the skies has never failed to amaze him. “It’s everything I want.”
When he looked back at the prince, Ludwig was looking at him as well. “Yes,” Ludwig agreed. Alfred frowned, but Ludwig did not move his gaze away. “It would take a few hours to reach our destination. You should rest, Alfred.”
“Sure,” Alfred grinned. He felt tired as well, but he wasn’t ready to sleep. Not yet. He felt at peace here. “Just let me enjoy the skies a bit more.”
There was a frown on Ludwig’s face even as he nodded and turned to leave. Alfred turned back to look in the direction of the windows. One day, he promised, one day he’ll be free.
It was cold in the north. Alfred gritted his teeth and rubbed on the lenses of his goggles, hating how it had fogged up as soon as he left the temporary housing assigned to him. He felt tense. Soldiers and researchers bustled around him in their military encampment.
The military encampment that should not be there.
Maybe Gilbert was right. Maybe Ludwig needed someone to intervene against his ambition.
There was a sudden shot of gunfire from afar, and Alfred flinched, already reaching for a gun before he heard the laughter. He was still too tense and guarded when the prince finally approached with the rest of the unit that was going with them to the mountains.
“Alfred?” Ludwig frowned at the young officer who was uncharacteristically still and hunched over. “Is everything alright?”
“Everything’s peachy,” Alfred said as he straightened to a more relaxed stance. He forced his hand to drop at his sides instead of holding on to the gun in his coat. He gave a tense smile that could easily be mistaken as a threat with how wide it was. It really was too early in the day for him to feel so agitated already. “Are we leaving? Is this everyone?”
Alfred glanced at the rest of the party and frowned at the familiar face he found. It was the royal SS officer from when he went to see the king. Just like before, his presence was unnerving.
Ludwig seemed to have noticed where Alfred’s attention had strayed. “This is Dr. Drei Reich, Alfred. He’s the lead researcher for this project.”
“Project? I thought we were just mining Drachfeurite from the northern region?”
“But with this much material, we would never pass up the opportunity to gain knowledge, your highness,” Drei said with a smile. “I’m sure you understand.”
Alfred scowled at him. He didn’t bother correcting him before turning to Ludwig. He didn’t like it around the encampment. There were too many prying eyes, and even now he had the strange feeling that he was being watched. “Are we leaving?”
Ludwig nodded. “Dr. Reich and his people will lead the way.”
The men and women around them moved around before starting their trek. Alfred still felt tense, so he let himself fall back to the back of the group. He was very much aware of the pistol and knife beneath his clothes as well as the other guns that the people in their party carried.
It didn’t bode well, he thought, to bring so many soldiers and weapons in a diplomatic mission.
After an hour into the journey, Alfred had began to relax. The trek was difficult but monotonous. The only things around them were trees, rocks, and the white blanket of snow. The wind whistled around him, too cold and sharp on his skin.
Everyone in their group spoke in whispers that Alfred couldn’t hear. It was as if everyone was afraid of disturbing something or someone that was sleeping within the mountains. Alfred shook his head and almost laughed at the absurdity of those thoughts. He really should stop listening to Arthur’s old stories.
What he really needed to do was to talk to Ludwig, but he still felt too angry for any actual conversation to happen.
The wind seemed to pick up in strength and speed around him. There was some shouting and scrambling in the front of their group. There was a loud crack that signalled the breaking of a large branch. Alfred flinched, thinking it was someone’s misfired fun. He looked up, just in time to watch as the other members of their groups dove out of the way of the falling branch.
Ludwig is there. Alfred thought in a panic as he tried to rush forward. But the wind had gotten stronger that it was actually pushing him back from the group. Flurries of snow and ice seemed to accompany the wind, and Alfred may not have been born of the north, but he felt as if there was something wrong and unnatural about this storm. Alfred stumbled back as the wind continued its assault. The ground was uneven beneath him, and it was difficult to maintain his balance. Even with his goggles over his eyes, he could barely keep his eyes open and see through the tempest.
“Alfred!” Ludwig shouted, and Alfred saw the blurred shadowy figures trying to reach him. It was too dangerous, he thought. They needed to stay back. He promised Gilbert that he’d protect his brother.
“Stay back!” Alfred shouted back and wondered if they can even hear through the roar of the sudden storm around them. He couldn’t see the shadowy figures in front of him anymore, couldn’t see any of the members of his group. He used his arms to shield his face as he tried to move forward once again. The wind whipped at him, pushing Alfred back.
All it takes to die in battle, he thought, was one mistake. All it would take for him to die in these mountains is one misstep.
For the first time in a long while, Alfred prayed to the old gods that his brother still worshiped. He prayed the others would get back safe and sound as the wind sent him stumbling back on the snow, and the ground gave out beneath him.
“Wake up,” a voice demanded, and Alfred groaned in pain. Before he opened his eyes, he tried to learn what he could. The sound of the wind was softer wherever he was, and the cold bite of the wind wasn’t as harsh on his skin. His clothes felt damp from the snow and he didn’t feel the pressure of his goggles around his eyes. He could feel someone’s presence nearby, and the voice that spoke wasn’t one he recognised.
Alfred tried to move his hand to reach for his gun or knife but found that he could not move it.
“Open your eyes,” the voice demanded again. “I know you’re awake.”
Alfred opened his eyes and immediately leaned away when he noticed the gleam of a blade in the stranger’s hand. Violet eyes stared at him, but the man did not move the blade that was too close to Alfred’s throat. Alfred tried to move his hands again and realized that still couldn’t. When he sneaked a glance at one of his hands, he realized that they were somehow shackled at his sides to the wall.
“What the?” He gaped at it in surprise. He turned to look at the stranger in confusion. “How the hell did you do that? Who are you?”
“I have better questions for you, your highness,” the man said. The stranger pressed the knife over Alfred’s exposed throat. Shadows unfurled behind him, and Alfred watched the large white wings spread around them, shielding them both from the winds. Now, that he can see better, he can see that they were both somewhere dark and enclosed. It must have been a cave. That was a thing you can find in the mountains, right? Alfred hated his ignorance in this situation.
“Oh yeah?” He grinned at the other man, feigning his lack of concern. “And what’s that?”
“You’re quite relaxed for a prince who’s about to die,” the man said.
“What?” Alfred frowned. The prince. Did this man think he was the prince? The knife gleamed as the stranger’s wings shifted once again. Perhaps, this mistake was for the best if this man was an assassin against Ludwig. Alfred did promise to protect the prince, after all. Alfred turned his frown into a smirk. “Am I not supposed to be?”
“Where did you take my sister and the others?” The stranger asked, gripping Alfred’s collar tightly with the blade still gleaming sharp and true.
Alfred frowned. His sister? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“What are your plans in my home?”
“Why should I tell you?”
“You do want to live, da?”
“I don’t know,” Alfred chuckled. He hissed as he felt the prick of the knife on his skin, drawing a thin line of blood. “Do I? ‘Sides, how do I know if you’ll spare my life if I tell you anything?” Alfred should have expected the blow from the man’s fist, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The ice held strong, and he couldn’t have moved to dodge. He spat his blood at the stranger and thought of smoke, gunfire, trenches, and mechanical golems on a battlefield. He’s survived war. He wasn’t about to be defeated in a diplomatic mission.
The man had a blank expression as he sheathed his knife and wiped the blood off his cheek with the back of his hand. “You will tell me eventually,” he said as he tucked his wings behind his back. The wind picked up around Alfred, and the dragonborn shivered. “For now, you’ll follow me.”
The ice on his hands crumbled, and Alfred once again frowned at his hands. It didn’t make sense. He’s never heard about any kind of technology that allowed people to control the elements. “How do you do that?”
“Magic,” the man answered.
Alfred turned to him with a scowl. “Don’t patronize me. Magic isn’t real.” He reached beneath his coat, but as he expected, the man had taken his weapons from him. His tinker’s kit was still around his waist, so perhaps, he can make something if he distracts the other man enough.
The stranger turned to him and tilted his head curiously. With the wings and all, he really reminded Alfred of a bird. “You really believe that, do you not?” The stranger shook his head and chuckled. “The empire has really fallen low.”
“I suggest you follow me,” the man said, turning his back towards Alfred. Alfred glared at his back and wondered if the man was underestimating him if he was willing to turn his back to Alfred. Then again, if he could control the ice, then maybe he really had nothing to worry about from Alfred. “Getting lost in the Boreal Mountains is a death sentence.”
Alfred pulled his coat close and zipped it up as he followed the man towards the entrance. “I thought you wanted me dead.”
“Perhaps not just yet,” the man said, giving Alfred an almost childish smile. “You are amusing, da?”
“Ha,” Alfred scoffed. “Entertaining, that’s what I am.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know who you are. Do you have any name, stranger?”
“Oh, come on, you called me the prince,” Alfred grinned when the man glanced at him and winked. “Don’t you already know who I am?”
“The matters of the empire do not concern me,” the stranger replied.
Alfred thought of the way the others treated him in the camp and the title they kept attributing to him. “Oh,” he said, maybe the other really didn’t know anything and only captured Alfred based on wrong assumptions through observation. Alfred wondered if he should consider that fortunate or unfortunate for him. “It’s Alfred. Your turn, then.”
The man stopped at the entrance of the cave and turned bright violet eyes at him. With the background of the white landscape behind him and his strange ability to control the ice, Alfred could almost see him as some kind of guardian of the Boreal mountains. It was a ridiculous thought, and he still itched to learn about what sort of device the man was using to control the elements.
“Ivan,” the man answered. “You can call me Ivan, Alfred.”
“How much longer do we need to walk?” Alfred complained as he followed Ivan through the woods. The snow crunched under him, and it was still far too cold for him. The familiar spark and energy that he usually felt was unusually still and silent.
Just like his guide and captor.
“Are you always this...energetic?”
“I’ve been told it’s charming,” Alfred quipped back automatically. He scanned his surroundings for a path. Did his unit return to the encampment, or were they still looking for him? Should he take the risk of running and getting lost? Can he overpower the stranger? “I bet you’re regretting your choices now.”
“I assure you. I am patient enough to endure you.”
“Ah, well that makes one of us,” Alfred laughed. Oh well, he couldn’t just do nothing. He slipped his hand inside his toolkit and grabbed a screwdriver. “Congratulations.” He moved to attack the avian soldier, aiming to stab him on the throat.
Ivan managed to dodge the attack, letting Alfred stumble forward with his momentum. With gritted teeth, Alfred rolled on the snow and turned to kick Ivan. Except he couldn’t, and he fell to his hands and knees. When he looked back at his feet, they were frozen to the ground, and they wouldn’t budge no matter how he pulled at them.
“Are you quite done?” Ivan asked, tilting his head at him and smiling innocently at him.
Alfred glared at him. “How do you do that?”
“I already told you,” Ivan said. “It’s magic. Perhaps, if you learn it, you’ll stand a chance.”
Alfred cursed at him, but Ivan only gave him an impassive stare. Alfred continued to curse and to pull at his feet. He even threw his improvised weapon at the other, and Ivan only leaned to dodge it. “Let me go!” Alfred demanded, glaring.
“Are you going to try this again?”
Alfred raised his head and set his mouth in a determined line. “Always.”
“Then perhaps I should leave you like that for a while.”
“Damn it! Let me go!” Alfred tried to use another one of his tools to break the ice, but they just slipped or bounced back from it. It was frustrating. He continued cursing at it and at Ivan, but the other one just stood there with his head cocked. Alfred wondered if Ivan was really going to leave him like that, but Ivan wasn’t even looking at him now. He seemed to be staring deeper into the forest, and Alfred squinted his eyes, trying to see what the other was staring at.
“Hush,” Ivan snapped at him. Alfred watched him form a staff made of ice from the snow around them. He couldn’t see if Ivan used any kind of device to build it. Surely, he must have. Magic was not a thing no matter how much Ivan or even Arthur insisted on it.
“What?” Alfred asked in confusion. He could see the sudden tension in Ivan’s stance and his sudden stillness that was unlike his earlier teasing. It was then that Alfred heard it, loud howls that came from the distance and the crack of branches. When the wolves finally appeared, they were larger than Alfred expected and seemed deformed. Alfred frowned, and watched them warily. The wolves looked starved, and their skin seemed to have cracks that glowed golden running underneath them. It wasn’t normal. “What the hell?”
The ice on Alfred’s feet shattered, and he looked to Ivan, who had just flicked a hand at Alfred’s direction. Alfred could run right now and leave the other to fend for himself, but he wasn’t sure what these wolves will do if he did choose to run.
“What the hell are those?” He asked Ivan.
“You should know that better than I do,” Ivan said with a grimace. “Those things only started appearing after your soldiers set up camp in my home.”
Alfred shook his head. “No,” he said in disbelief. “I don’t know anything about this.”
“Here,” Ivan said, and Alfred glanced at him. Ivan was still looking directly at the wolves, but one of his hands held Alfred’s gun out to him. “Take it.”
“I can shoot you,” Alfred stated as he took the weapon and checked it over. It still had all of its bullets, and he knew he still had a few rounds of bullets in one of his pockets. He looked at the wolves that were growling at them and wondered if it would be enough.
“Then I wish you luck in dealing with them,” Ivan said.
“Why aren’t they moving?” Alfred asked.
“They’re waiting,” Ivan whispered. Alfred remembered the people in his unit, remembered the whispered conversations and his own thoughts about waking something in the mountains. He wondered if they’d encountered these wolves too.
“What for?” Alfred breathed out.
Before Ivan could answer, howls broke out from behind the pack. Alfred braced himself, holding his gun ready. When the largest wolf he’s ever seen came running from the back of the pack, it was too fast for Alfred to react. Ivan pushed him away, and an ice column sprouted from the ground to pierce the wolf.
It was all the signal the others needed to attack. Alfred was back in the battlefield, his senses honed as he shot bullet after bullet into the wolves. From the corner of his eye, he could see Ivan fighting in closer range with the beasts, stabbing at them with his staff of ice. When the last wolf almost slammed into Alfred, red eyes gleaming with malice, Ivan pulled Alfred back by his coat and stabbed the wolf right between the eyes. The blood poured warm and thick over Alfred, and he grimaced even as Ivan let him go to survey the situation.
“That’s disgusting,” he muttered, wiping at his face with the sleeve of his coat. Ivan was examining the largest wolf that he had stabbed with an ice pillar. It really was too large, bigger than any automobile in the kingdom.
“They’re getting larger,” Ivan said.
“What?” Alfred said as he tucked the gun into his coat pocket. He didn’t need Ivan to confiscate it from him again. “What are they even?”
“Experiments from your empire,” Ivan said. “At least, those are my assumptions.”
“There’s no way,” Alfred scoffed, crossing his arms to keep himself warm. His instincts told him that the cold feeling in his chest wasn’t from the mountain air. “We would never--”
“Do you have any proof of that?” Ivan asked as he came closer to Alfred. His violet eyes were as cold as the feeling within Alfred’s chest.
Alfred matched his glare with one of his own. “Do you?”
Ivan didn’t answer him, but he did turn away from Alfred. Alfred watched him wave a hand towards the corpses, freezing each one in a block of ice.
“Is that really necessary?” Alfred asked with a frown.
“Some of them might come back if I do not do this,” Ivan said as he finished the largest wolf’s ice coffin last. He turned to Alfred, and the same calm and childish smile was back on the Avian’s face. “Shall we go?”
Alfred frowned at the frozen carnage around him and fell into step after Ivan. None of it made sense. Ice, magic, deformed wolves, and an unknown land around him. In a war, knowledge made all the difference.
And Alfred? Well, he was starting to feel like he knew nothing about what was really happening.
[Excerpt from an article in Cautania Times after the First Mechanical War]
The New Pride of the Empire: A War Hero, A Genius Inventor
...Captain Alfred F. Jones was the center of attention one year ago when he had returned victorious after the Mercan Battle. All citizens of our great empire would remember that the young Alfred’s strategy was what led to Cautania’s decisive victory. He was the center of attention yet again after he had chosen his name, Jones, on his coming-of-age ceremony, effectively renouncing his claim to the Drachen Ducal Territories and the Kirkland name. Still, he continues to surprise us.
On the Fourth of July, Captain Jones officially revealed the results of his research on Drachen’s Dragon Fire Ore. It is this recent discovery that would eventually lead to the Empire’s victory in the Mechanical War...
Chapter 2: We Still are Made of Greed
The two soldiers continue their journey into the Boreal Mountains and encounter mysteries along the way.
As a warning, there may be some gore in this chapter. It is in Alfred's flashback/dream and in one of creatures they face. Personally, they're not very graphic, but just in case, if people are troubled by that, then you should maybe skip those parts.
I managed to incorporate the first vague wish (1. *gun under the chin* does it look like i like you?! ) in this chapter. I hope you enjoy!
[An Excerpt from a letter written by Emperor Gilbert I to the Duke of Drachen]
To one of my dearest friends, Arthur,
I believe that you and your family have always been one of the great foundations of this empire. When your brother enlisted for the army, I promised to look out for him and to protect him in battle on your behalf. I am sorry, Arthur. I failed you. Alfred will be returning home from battle. He was the only survivor from his unit, and the doctors are unsure when or if he will recover.
I will ensure that you have the Empire’s best resources at your disposal for Alfred’s recovery. He is my brother’s best friend and my dearest student. I will continue to pray for his swift recovery…
“Come on, Ivan,” Alfred whined as he followed Ivan and circled around the northern soldier. The young man, Ivan thought, just couldn’t seem to stay still. “You can tell me. I want to know what tech you’re using.”
“I already gave you the answer you want.”
Alfred groaned and rolled his eyes. “Right,” he said sarcastically. “It’s all magic.”
“It is,” Ivan agreed calmly, watching the prince pout. It seemed like Ivan’s knowledge about the empire losing touch with magic weren’t lies at all.
“It’s not real,” Alfred insisted.
“So you say,” Ivan said with a chuckle. He flicked his hand at Alfred’s direction when the younger man turned around and watched as Alfred slipped on a patch of ice before correcting himself. It was impressive, really, how easily the other adapted to a situation.
Alfred looked over his shoulder with a glare. “I know you did that.”
“Well, it seems my ice protests your inability to believe in it.”
“It’s not real,” Alfred insisted, crossing his arms over his chest. “You’re just using some sort of tech we haven’t discovered yet.”
“Why do you refuse to believe in the possibility of magic?” Ivan asked curiously with a tilt of his head. “Is your technology able to answer all the world’s mysteries?”
Alfred seemed to think about it, his lips pressed into a thin line as he adjusted the goggles around his eyes. “It doesn’t,” he finally answers. He bit his lips and buried his hands inside his coat. “But that’s the fun of it, isn’t it? With science and technology, we discover so many things. We can figure out what makes the world work.”
“And all the while, you continue to destroy the world you want to discover,” Ivan said, suddenly remembering his purpose. His plan didn’t involve making friends with the prince of the empire.
“Destroy it?” Alfred turned to him with wide eyes. He seemed genuinely confused about any of the things that Ivan has said. Ivan might have assumed that he was a sheltered royal if he hadn’t also seen Alfred in battle. He was too practiced in battle for someone who had lived in a palace his whole life.
“You’ve seen the creatures of the mountain,” Ivan waved towards the woods around them. “They are but one result of your scientific pursuits.”
Alfred shook his head and pulled his goggles down to hand around his neck. “Not everything is like that,” he said. His voice went low as a whisper. “It shouldn’t be.”
“If you say so,” Ivan replied. For a while, there was a comfortable silence between them. Alfred seemed to have stopped trying to escape after Ivan have prevented it with his ice several times. Still, the younger man circled around, stopping to examine the woods around them now and then.
“What makes you think magic is real?” Alfred said after a while. “I told you why I didn’t, but you still say it’s real. So, why?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” Ivan said. “It’s part of all our lives. Even yours.”
Alfred gave him an unimpressed look. “You have to do better than that to convince them.”
“I never said I was trying to convince you,” Ivan replied with a smile. “Why does it matter to me if you don’t believe in magic?”
“Maybe I’ll be more likely to cooperate if I actually believe what you’re telling me?”
“I don’t need you to cooperate. You do not seem to know anything anyway.” Ivan gave him a grim smile. “I just need you to follow me for now.”
“Follow you?” Alfred sighed. “I don’t even know where we’re going.”
“There’s an oracle in one of our tribes. We’re going there,” Ivan said.
“Wow,” Alfred laughed and fell into step beside Ivan. “You actually told me.”
Ivan looked to from the prince to the darkening sky. It would be night soon, and there was a cave nearby that they can take shelter in. “Tell me,” Ivan said as he veered to the left. Alfred stumbled and scowled at the sudden change in direction. “Are you at least quiet when you sleep?”
Alfred grinned. “Nope, I've been said to snore a lot,” he said in a teasing tone. “Why?”
“It’s the night. We need to take shelter,” Ivan sighed. “If you think those wolves were bad...well, let’s just say that some creatures prefer the dark.”
“That’s not creepy at all,” Alfred said, sarcastically as they finally reached the entrance to the cave. Alfred looked around with wide eyes and frowned as he touched the walls of the cave with one gloved hand. When he turned to Ivan, there was a confused look on his face. “Did you know this was here? Why couldn’t I see it until we were so close?”
“The spirits of the mountain like to play their tricks,” Ivan said. “But we do have a deal, so they do me a favor now and then. Like showing me the secrets in their territory or the snowstorm that blew you away.”
Alfred laughed nervously. “Come on, Ivan, magic is one thing. But ghosts,” Alfred seemed to shudder as Ivan began to start their fire. “Ghosts aren’t real. They can’t be. Uh-uh, there’s no way.”
Ivan’s lips twisted in amusement as he watched Alfred shake his head. “Are you scared?” Alfred didn’t even hesitate during their fight with the creatures in the woods, but ghosts really seemed to unnerve him.
“No!” Alfred snapped, but his cheeks were flushed red in embarrassment. “It’s just... you can’t punch or shoot a ghost.”
Ivan chuckled in amusement.
“Ivan! It’s not funny!” Alfred insisted.
“The spirits are not ghost,” Ivan explained. “Ghosts are dead while the spirits are the very proof that the mountain is still alive and well.”
Alfred sighed and sat cross-legged by the fire. The light of the fire cast strange shadows upon his face, and his pensive expression made him look older. “I don’t get it.”
“Perhaps, if you start believing in magic, they’ll allow you to see them.”
“Uh, no thanks,” Alfred rubbed the back of his neck nervously. “Ghosts or not, can’t shoot spirits either, can I?”
“Does your response to things always have to be through violence?”
Alfred flared and scowled at him. “Says the person who threatened me as an introduction. You’re a hypocrite, Ivan.” He stood up again, and Ivan prepared for another fight. Alfred seemed agitated, pacing the same way he had on their trek here.
When he finally stopped, he had a murderous look on his face that was far too different from the easygoing and curious attitude he took before. Ivan’s wings ruffled in tense anticipation for an attack, but there was nothing. “I’m going to sleep,” Alfred declared. “You do you.”
Ivan was stunned by the lack of an attack that he wasn’t able to say anything for a while as Alfred headed farther away from the fire. “Alfred,” he finally called out when the other had reached the other side, as far away as he could while still remaining close to the fire. Ivan tossed the thick blankets in his pack at the prince and settled on his own place by the fire.
Alfred had caught the blanket and was staring at it in confusion. “What’s this for?”
“Surely there are blankets in the empire?”
“No, why are you giving this to me?”
Their eyes met over the fire and for a moment, Ivan thought that Alfred’s eyes flashed gold. When he blinked, bright blue eyes still looked at him expectantly, and he dismissed the former vision as a trick of the fire. “You seem to get cold more than I do. I don’t want to hear your teeth chattering through the night.”
Alfred snorted, but he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders as he settled on the ground. “Sure, your loss,” he said. There was a short pause before a soft voice came from Alfred’s blanket cocoon. “Good night, Ivan.”
“Good night, Alfred,” Ivan said. “Sleep well.”
Alfred’s ears rang with the sudden sound of an explosion. Someone was screaming at him from afar, and he tried to find the voice. The weight of a gun in his hand was comforting as he made his way around the trenches. It was painful to breathe because of all the smoke around them. There was another explosion farther away in front of him, and it sent him stumbling to the ground.
The ground was damp with mud and blood beneath him, and Alfred panted, curling his fingers around the ground and the gun in his hand. “Alfred,” someone said, and he was pulled to his feet. His pistol was taken from him and replaced by a rifle. “We’re needed farther down the line.”
Alfred raised his head and met the friendly smile of another soldier. “Davie, I--”
A shadow passed above them, and Alfred looked at the sky to see a burning airship pass above them. “It’s gonna fall!” Someone was screaming. He can hear the rattle of gunfire, and the smoke around them seemed thicker and darker.
“Davie, we need to--” When Alfred turned back to the other man, Davie was still smiling but the left side of his face seemed to have been blown apart. Alfred flinched and stumbled away. The world had gone quiet, but his hands were suddenly sticky with not just mud but blood. The rifle clattered to the ground, and he tried to take a deep breath, but he couldn’t seem to do anything but gasp.
“Alfred,” someone was shaking him on his shoulder, and Alfred struck on instinct. He pulled the person to the ground and flipped them over. He pushed his right forearm over someone’s throat as he straddled them. “Alfred,” the voice repeated. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Alfred blinked, and instead of Davie’s blue eyes, it was Ivan’s violet eyes that looked back at him. “Ivan?” Alfred frowned. “What was I--?”
“You looked like you were having trouble breathing,” Ivan said. His wings were spread behind him, and it must have been painful with the way Alfred currently had him pinned. Alfred pulled his hand back and expected retaliation. Ivan reached a hand up, and Alfred flinched away, still thinking of a battlefield and hands covered in red. “I’m sorry. It’s just your eyes. They’re different.”
Alfred cursed, and he hurriedly covered his eyes with his hands. “I can get it back to normal. Wait, I’ll just--” He still sounded breathless. Alfred took the time to calm himself. He looked at Ivan who was still staring curiously at him. His blanket was strewn on the ground, and there was a knife by Ivan’s hand. Closer to the fire, there was a figurine, and Alfred frowned, trying to figure out where that came from. There was a white scarf around Ivan’s neck that wasn’t there before. He wasn’t in the front lines of a battlefield. He was in the mountains for a diplomatic mission.
“Alfred?” Ivan’s voice was soft, as if Alfred was some wild animal he was calming down. Alfred can hear the low crackling of the fire behind him, and further still, he can hear the winds outside. He took another deep breath and got up from his position, focusing on the sound of his boots on the ground as he moved away from Ivan.
“I’m fine,” he said. He pulled his coat close, relishing how it felt around his shoulders. It was different from the uniform he had worn before. He pressed his gloved hands over his eyes, willing it to return to normal. “I’m fine.”
“If you say so,” Ivan said as he stood up, brushing the dirt from his own clothes. Alfred peeked at him from between his fingers. “We should be leaving soon.”
“Ivan,” Alfred called out. He shifted in discomfort. It wasn’t something he wanted anyone to see, especially not someone who was supposed to be his captor. “About what happened--”
“We all have our demons,” Ivan said. “You are brave for facing it.”
“Really?” Alfred said, suddenly caught off-guard. It wasn’t what he expected to hear from the other man. He could smell the woodsmoke inside the cave, different from the smoke of machinery and gunfire, different from the acrid scent of burning metal in a fallen airship, so much different and better than the scent of blood. “Right, of course.” He grinned, pushing away the uneasiness and fear in his mind. “The hero can’t just give up.”
“Indeed,” Ivan agreed, smiling once again. Alfred should find his smile unnerving, but it was comforting compared to the nightmare. He hasn’t had one in a while. He thought he was past that problem. “Follow me outside when you’re done.”
Alfred waited until Ivan had packed his things and left before drawing the gun from his coat. The weight of it was as comforting and familiar as it had been in the dream. He went over the practiced motions of checking it over for any problems. Ivan wasn’t his friend. He should remember that.
Alfred took another deep breath before he tucked the gun back into his coat and followed Ivan out the cave. Ivan was waiting from him right outside. The sky was clearer than it was yesterday after the sudden storm.
“So,” Alfred said with a grin. “How much farther do we have to go?”
“Just follow me,” Ivan said and started away.
“Oh, we’re back to the secrets, then?” Alfred teased. The two of them heard the sound at the same time, and they stopped. Ivan cocked his head, his wings tensing on his back. “What--”
Alfred jerked. He recognized that voice. It was Ludwig. He froze in surprise. He didn’t think that they would look for him. Without thinking about it, he opened his mouth to call back to the other, but before he could, Ivan had placed a hand over his mouth. Alfred tried to speak, but his words came out as muffled sounds on Ivan’s gloved hand.
He resorted to glaring at the other man instead.
“Alfred! Captain Jones!” The calls came again with different voices chiming in. Ivan tensed beside him, and Alfred wondered what he planned to do. He couldn’t possibly face several of the empire’s soldiers on his own. He didn’t think Ivan was that stupid.
Ivan looked back down at him, and his violet eyes were colder, less comforting than they were after Alfred had awoken from his nightmare. “Time to sleep again, your highness,” he said, and Alfred struggled in his grip, trying to remove his hand from his mouth to move away. Ivan whispered something, unfamiliar words in a soft musical tone almost like a lullaby.
Alfred’s lids felt heavy, and he tried to fight off the coming unconsciousness. He didn’t want to sleep, especially not with the recent nightmare. “Sleep,” Ivan whispered. “And dream of home.”
It was the last thing that Alfred heard before he gave up and succumb to whatever trick Ivan had just played.
Alfred blinked blearily as he came to. The memories of summers spent in their estate orchard with his brothers still seemed clear in his mind. He can even still vaguely taste the sweetness of an apple in his mouth. The memory dissipated the moment he caught sight of the man who was watching him.
“Ivan,” Alfred said, flatly.
“Good morning,” Ivan greeted. He looked up at the sky, and Alfred followed his movements. The sky was dark, and the stars glittered like thousands of Drachfeurite ore buried in stone. They were outside in a clearing , and night had fallen. It should worry Alfred especially after all of Ivan’s precautions before, but all he could feel was anger. “Perhaps, good night would be a more accurate greeting.”
“What did you do to them?” Alfred demanded.
“Nothing,” Ivan replied. “I am not so stupid that I would face several people on my own. Perhaps you would.”
“I’m not stupid,” Alfred said as he stood up. He can still remember the warmth of the summer sun on his face and the sound of laughter over the splashing water of a lake. He shook the memories from his mind and turned a glare at Ivan. “Where are we?”
“Away from them,” Ivan said. He had stood up as well, and Alfred felt more trapped. If Ivan could knock him out so easily, what would stop him from doing it again?
He was agitated, and he knew it. Despite the dreams of home, he felt the stinging energy running underneath his skin the same way he felt it within the airships of the empire. Somehow, he knew that if he could see his eyes, they’d be the golden slitted eyes of a dragon.
“Alfred,” Ivan said as he approached. He reached out to place a hand on Alfred’s arm. “I have no plans to hurt you.”
“Stop!” Alfred snarled. He gripped Ivan’s wrist and twisted it away from him. “You’re a liar. Don’t touch me.”
Alfred pulled the gun from his coat and pointed it under Ivan’s chin. “Does it look like I like you!?”
“And there I thought we were actually getting along,” Ivan’s eyes flashed brighter, and the gun started freezing. Alfred hissed as the ice spread and dropped the weapon before the ice could reach his hand.
Before he could move further away, Ivan stopped him by grabbing his wrists. Alfred snarled and tried to pull away, struggling against the strong grip the other had on him. “Let me go!”
“Alfred, stop,” Ivan said, gritting his teeth as he tried to subdue the younger man. He didn’t want to use his magic again. It was unnecessary, and he didn’t want to attract the wrong attention.
The two of them flinched as they heard the sudden screech from deeper in the woods. It was too late to avoid the wrong attention.
Dark shapes rose above the trees, and they heard the flapping of wings above them. When the birds swooped to attack them, Alfred stumbled to avoid them, only to be steadied by Ivan’s hand.
“What the hell?” Alfred stared, stunned, at the black birds around them. The birds’ chests seemed to have been ripped open, and it reminded Alfred of so many soldiers with their bodies ripped apart by bullets and shrapnel. Instead of an actual heart, the birds seemed to have a beating, glowing chunk of Drachfeurite in their chest that was framed by gears and metallic framework.
“Same thing as before,” Ivan said as he dealt with one bird using a summoned blade of ice. “Pick up your gun, Alfred.”
The ice had melted from the gun, and Alfred dove out of the way from another attack from the birds to take the weapon from the ground. By that point, Ivan had managed to stab two of the birds already. Alfred shot at another that tried to dive towards Ivan.
“There’s too many of them,” Alfred called shooting at two more, but their numbers do not seem to be decreasing. “We need to run!”
Several birds dove for Alfred. He shot several of them, but two of them were able to grab him by his coat and arm. Their claws stung as they gripped his arms, and he struggled. He tried to shoot them, but he eventually ran out of bullets.
He cursed, trying to hit them with the gun. Maybe if he managed to hit the birds’ Drachfeurite cores, he could incapacitate them. He tried not to think of what would happen to him if they stopped flying.
“Alfred!” Suddenly, Ivan was there, and one of the Drachfeurite cores froze then shattered. At the same moment, the bird screeched before shattering into several frozen pieces as well.
The other birds turned their attention to Ivan after the attack, and Alfred fell, the air sharp and cold as he quickly went down. Ivan fought viciously with the birds, freezing several while slashing at the others. The moment he was free, he dove after Alfred.
Ivan caught him and held him in his arms, but the birds weren’t done with them yet. They pecked and scratched at Ivan’s wings. Alfred moved on instinct, grabbing at the blade from Ivan’s hand and stabbing at the birds.
Ivan gave a cry of pain as one of the birds grabbed and pulled at his primaries. They were quickly losing altitude, and it was very clear that Ivan was struggling to continue supporting both of them. They were landing fast, and Alfred wasn’t sure what to expect from the ground beneath them.
Ivan suddenly turned them over so he was falling beneath Alfred. He stretched a hand towards the birds, shooting another blast of ice.
“Ivan! What are you doing!?”
They slammed on the ground hard. Something cracked, and beneath them, the ground gave in snow and splintered pieces of wood caving in. Alfred scrambled and held on to Ivan’s shoulders as they kept on falling even though they shouldn’t have.
He kept on cursing, and his eyes kept shifting from blue to gold. He can feel the energy pulsing beneath his skin, more powerful and more alive than ever. He closed his eyes and held on to Ivan tightly. He wanted to turn them over, to save Ivan from the pain when he was so obviously injured but Ivan’s wings made it impossible to move them.
All they can do was to hold on to each other until they fell.
When they finally hit the ground, the crack they heard wasn’t the sound of the ground breaking underneath. “Oh gods, your wings—“ Alfred said, reaching out to touch the bent wings behind the other’s back.
“Alfred, look out!” Ivan said as he pushed Alfred away. Alfred fell on his butt and looked up as a large beam above them fell. Ivan was in its direct path and didn’t look like he could move.
“No!” Without thinking, Alfred moved to stop the beam, catching the large wooden beam in both his hands. It should have been impossible. It should have been too heavy even for him. He could feel the energy beneath his skin. It was as if he was pulling the energy from beneath the ground.
“Alfred,” Ivan stared at him with eyes wide open in awe. Alfred’s eyes glowed in a beautiful bright gold colour, and there were even lined around his eyes that glowed with the same colour like wires that ran underneath his skin.
Alfred screamed at the effort it took to carry the beam, but he was eventually able to toss it aside. He turned to Ivan with a tired grin. “I did it. Ivan, I did it,” he said in a breathless voice. He stumbled forward and with a final breathless laugh, he collapsed in a heap on Ivan’s lap.
Alfred groaned and blinked blearily. He can see gray stones with some intricate carvings from where he was lying down. Someone was stroking his hair and humming softly.
The events that happened before he passed out came back to him, and he sat up immediately. Ivan’s hand stopped mid-air where he had been previously stroking Alfred’s hair when Alfred was lying on his lap.
“I have to stop passing out,” Alfred stated.
“You couldn’t have done anything about the first two times,” Ivan pointed out as if he had nothing to do with those incidents.
“Right,” Alfred drawled. He realized that he was still so close to Ivan, but he didn’t try to move away. He felt oddly safe close to him despite their earlier argument. “Why did you save me?”
“Why does it matter?” Ivan asked. He looked past Alfred, and Alfred followed his gaze towards the fallen beam. “You saved me as well.”
“After you already risked your life saving me,” Alfred said, shaking his head. “I don’t get you.”
“I don’t understand you either,” Ivan replied. “Why does with someone with so much innate magic refuse to believe in it?”
“Magic?” Alfred laughed incredulously. “What makes you think I have it?”
Ivan gestures towards the fallen beam. “Do you think that such a feat can be done without it?”
“Sure,” Alfred smiled, finally rising from his seated position. “It’s just adrenaline. People can do a lot of things when they feel frightened or threatened. It’s a part of our survival instincts.”
“If you say so,” Ivan relented easily.
Alfred looked around the place where they have fallen. The floors were inscribed with ancient symbols, and all around them, there were splintered pieces of wood and glass that once made up the ceiling. Whatever opening they fell from seemed to high up to see. Alfred couldn’t seem to find it, but it did seem to cast enough light to see a few feet around them.
“Do you know where we are?” Alfred asked.
Ivan shook his head. “I did not have enough time to explore.”
Alfred rummaged in his toolkit until he found his penlight. He clicked the bottom of the cylindrical object and sighed in relief as a beam of light shone from the end.
He moved the light around the area, catching sight of broken tapestries hanging on the walls and rubble all around them. Alfred paused as his light fell on a tapestry that was still mostly whole, frowning at the sight of the Beilschmidt family crest on it. The black eagle on the tapestry was both familiar and strange in this new area. Alfred wasn't sure what to make of it.
“That’s the royal insignia,” Alfred said. “What’s that doing here?”
Ivan stood up and limped towards Alfred. Alfred looked towards him and frowned at the sight of the other man. “Ivan, your wings—“
“It’ll heal,” Ivan replied with a grimace. “I am more worried about travelling with a sprain.”
“I believe so,” Ivan frowned. “I’ve had worse. What were you saying?”
Alfred pointed the light at the tapestry again. “That’s the Royal Insignia of Cautania. The emperor still uses that sign.”
“Why would it be here?”
“That’s what I wanna know,” Alfred said. “I’ve never heard of the empire coming here.”
He brought the light around the place until Ivan stopped him, light over a dark shape in the distance. “What’s that?”
Alfred squinted his eyes. “It looks like a tomb,” he said. “We have several of those in the family crypt.”
Alfred helped Ivan as they made their way over there. The other soldier limped slowly beside him, and Alfred made sure that they wouldn’t trip over any piece of rubble.
Alfred climbed the short steps of the dais and knelt beside the rectangular stone case. He ran his hand on top of it. It definitely seemed like the graves in the mausoleums in his family’s crypt. If it was, there should be a name at the side.
Alfred leaned back and let the light shine over the side. The name was almost faded with its age, and it was written in one of the old scripts of the empire. Alfred was suddenly thankful for Arthur’s insistence that he learned their empire’s history and languages. He brushed any dirt that obscured the words and began to read.
“Here lies the first queen of Cautania,” Alfred read. “Julchen Maria Beilschmidt, daughter of Gaea, master of the divine arts of magic.” Alfred frowned. “Gaea? Who’s that?”
“The great goddess,” Ivan answered. “Among our tribes, she is known to be the primordial source of magic. May I?” Alfred place the penlight in Ivan’s outstretched hand and watched as Ivan shone the light high above them. There were statues there that Alfred did not recognise. He’s seen statues of the first empress, and these things weren’t her. The statues were arranged like a line of guards down the hallway behind the empress’ tomb. Some of them seemed to be crumbling already while others still seemed to maintain their intricate designs. Alfred wondered if these status were already like the automaton guards that were found in Gilbert’s palace.
“The old gods,” Ivan explained. Even in the low light, Alfred could see the look of awe in Ivan’s face. It did funny things to his heart, and he had to look away, staring at the age old statues above them instead. “It seems this wasn’t just a tomb but a temple. Even my people rarely worship these gods now.”
“But you do?”
“My magic is different from most people,” Ivan answered. “It comes from making deals with gods and spirits.”
“Magic,” Alfred murmured. “It says she was a master of magic.”
“Are you starting to believe me now that one of your ancestors has been shown to use magic?”
Alfred flinched and looked towards Ivan. Ivan seemed more interested in looking at the statues above them. He had almost forgotten about the lie he told Ivan. He wanted to tell him, felt almost certain that Ivan already knew.
But somehow, Alfred didn’t want another argument. Not with him. He sighed and fiddled with the dog tags underneath his coat. “We should explore,” he suggested. “Find a way out. I think I see a light down the hallway.”
He didn’t tell Ivan that he can also feel the same thrum of energy underneath his feet, like he did before he had passed out, like he did in many of the empire’s new airships.
It felt like it was calling him further into the building.
“We should go,” Ivan agreed. He offered a hand towards Alfred who was still kneeling by the tomb. Without hesitation, Alfred took his hand and didn’t let go as they walked past the statues of the empire’s long-forgotten past.
They didn’t find a way out at the end of the hallway. They found a way deeper into the temple.
Alfred reclaimed his penlight from Ivan as they descended the stairs at the end of the hallway. The walls in the stairwell were decorated with names in the same ancient script as the tomb. They were the names of the territories of Cautania and the families that ruled them.
Alfred lingered at the bottom of the stairs when he reached the last of the names. “Drachen Province - Kirkland.”
“Alfred?” Ivan asked when the younger man had stared too long.
“Yeah?” Alfred came towards Ivan, stopping beside him. His jaw dropped when he saw what Ivan was looking at. “What the—“
“It’s a dragon,” Ivan said, calmly, as if they weren’t staring at a gigantic creature that took up most of the room. Its scales were the dark grey of storm clouds, but its horns and claws were bright gold. Somehow, Alfred felt that if it opened its eyes, it would have the same slitted gold eyes as Alfred.
But it didn’t open its eyes, and Alfred didn’t think it could. He couldn’t feel any life from it, and he tried not to think about the absurdity of that idea. “It’s dead,” Alfred said and knew with absolute certainty that he was right.
“I assume it was a guardian,” Ivan said. “Dragons are known for such things.”
Alfred thought of his brothers back home and how they protected their lands. He thought of Arthur and his overprotective instincts. He couldn’t help but agree with Ivan.
The light they had seen from above came from beneath the dragon. Upon noticing it, Alfred was instantly curious, trying to lean closer to have a look. He almost tumbled forward over a ledge in his curiosity and was only saved by Ivan’s hold on his collar.
“If you are so curious, we can approach it,” Ivan said.
Alfred looked from Ivan to the dragon corpse. It seemed rude to intrude upon its last resting place. “Can we?”
Ivan nodded. “I do not sense any malevolence in this place.”
Only love, Alfred thought, not knowing what made him think that. There was something here, some great thing that was beyond empires and dragons.
The two soldiers were careful as they approached the great thing in front of them. This close, Alfred might have assumed that the dragon was only sleeping or that it was a statue. He closed his penlight and pocketed it. The golden light underneath the dragon burned brighter as they drew closer, and Alfred suddenly recognised though it looked different from what he was used to.
“It’s Drachfeurite,” he whispered in awe, rushing forward and kneeling at the ground where veins of it, like cracks in a mirror, ran from the dragon’s corpse. “But different—“
“We use it for fuel,” Alfred said, excitedly. It was his field of study and one of his greatest achievements of the empire. This, unlike anything in the past few days, was very familiar to him. “They’re found in Drachen usually but some pieces can also be found in other provinces. That’s why we came here. They said there was an abundance of Drachfeurite in the mountains, but this is different. The Drachfeurite in Drachen and anywhere else in the kingdom burns red. This is—“
“Gold,” Ivan said as he came closer to Alfred. When Alfred turned to look at him, Ivan cupped his face and traced his thumb softly underneath Alfred’s right eye. “Like your eyes.”
“Y-yeah,” Alfred said, nervously. He wasn’t used to the way Ivan complimented his eyes. In Drachen, his eyes were considered normal. Everyone in his family had similar slitted eyes though they weren’t always the same colour. In the battlefield and in the capital, they were considered strange and a novelty, but they weren’t something to be admired. People didn’t have time for admiration when there was a war to be fought. “Anyway, this is—I’ve never seen Drachfeurite like this.”
“I thought people from the empire didn’t believe in magic,” Ivan said as he let go of Alfred to observe the golden veins beneath the dragon as well. Alfred didn’t know why but he suddenly missed the other’s warmth.
“We don’t,” Alfred said.
Ivan knelt and placed a hand over the golden light. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his wings spreading wide for a moment and his head tilting like he was listening to something. “But this is thriving with magic,” Ivan said.
“What? No,” Alfred crossed the distance between them and crouched beside Ivan. He was gesturing wildly now. “Drachfeurite has a lot of energy, yes, but it’s not magic. It’s just that it has a lot of particles within it that’s always in motion, or at least I assume it’s particles. Let me show you.”
Alfred rummaged through his toolkit for one of the samples that he kept on him. He always had a small one with him, but it wasn’t like the big thing underneath them. It was barely bigger than his palm. Even then, you can see the constantly shifting red light within it. For years, Drachfeurite had only been used as a light source in Drachen and nothing more. Alfred had made it more.
When he looked up to show Ivan, he found that the other was watching him. “What?” Alfred asked. “Do I have something on my face?”
“Do you know that your eyes constantly change when you’re excited?”
“Yeah, ignore it. Look here,” Alfred shook the piece of ore in front of Ivan. “It looks like there's fire inside. It’s why I called it Drachfeurite when I submitted my research to the kingdom. Dragon Fire.”
Ivan took the ore from Alfred’s hand before turning it over in his hand and examining it. “Ah, this does look like fire,” Ivan said with an amused smile. “But, Alfred, since you are Dragonborn, you should know that there isn’t only one kind of dragon breath. It isn’t just fire. The magic in this vein doesn’t move the same way your dragon fire does.”
“What?” Alfred frowned. His mind was racing. Of course he knew about different kinds of dragons, but it wasn’t like it mattered. Dragon fire or breath didn’t actually exist. No one in their family could control the elements the same way Ivan did. But if Drachfeurite was different based on the kinds of dragon, then what was underneath them.
“Let me see,” Alfred pulled his goggles over his eyes, so he can see better. Ivan moved aside and Alfred placed a hand over the golden Drachfeurite. Before he could lean forward to examine it, it seemed to glow brighter and brighter. He can feel the hum of energy underneath him again, like a song that was welcoming him home, like Arthur’s lullabies for him and Mattie, like Ivan’s humming when he woke up.
There was a surge of energy beneath his hand, and Alfred has been through enough explosions in laboratories and in the battlefield that he knew to anticipate it. “Ivan, move!” Alfred yelled.
Instead of shielding himself, Ivan pulled Alfred from the ore and shielded them both with his broken wings from the resulting explosion. The cavern shook underneath them, but Alfred could still feel the energy in his hands, alive in a way that the dragon wasn’t. He was sprawled on his back, but Ivan’s presence above him was steady and comforting, a calm anchor in contrast to the chaotic energy that Alfred could feel within him and around them.
“Ivan, why did you—” Alfred asked. His goggles were askew on his face, but that didn’t matter in face of the blood dripping from Ivan’s wings. He brought his hands up to help Ivan move and gasped at what he found.
Ivan looked down and gave a pained smile at the sight. Alfred’s hands were glowing with the golden energy. His gloves seemed to have burned away and bright sparks ran through his fingers, jumping from each fingertip to another. “I was right,” Ivan said with a chuckle. “You are magical after all.”
“What’s this? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Ivan said, but he was still staring at Alfred in childlike wonder. Alfred didn’t deserve that gaze, at least, he didn’t think so.
“Then perhaps I can give you your answers.”
The two of them scrambled at the sudden sound of that voice, suddenly on guard. Alfred didn’t have a weapon but the sparks on his hands seemed deadly enough that he balled them into fists, getting into a boxer’s position.
Beside the dragon, the ethereal form of a woman glowed faintly in the darkness. She looked quite familiar with her long white hair and reddish purple eyes. She wore an old military uniform that Alfred had only ever seen in history books and paintings. She looked like Gilbert, Alfred thought faintly. No, she looked exactly like the portraits and statues of the first empress.
Alfred felt ice in his veins and unconsciously stepped closer to Ivan. “A ghost?” He said in trepidation, the sparks on his hands glowing brighter and brighter.
Julchen smirked. “Not quite,” she said. ”I thank you, child of Drachen, Alfred Kirkland, and I welcome you, Sentinel, Ivan Braginsky. We have a lot to talk about.”
[A short excerpt from an ethnography of the Boreal Mountain Tribes]
Running Head: SOCIAL STRUCTURE AMONG THE BOREAL TRIBES
Among the people of the Boreal mountains, there are people who take on the role of Sentinels. Sentinels do not belong to any tribe, but they are respected and welcome in all the different Boreal tribes. They served as messengers, guardians, and law enforcers of the tribes. At the age of ten, boys and girls are able to begin their training for this role. Several years of their lives are spent learning the different practices and laws of the different tribes of the mountain...
Chapter 3: Paying my Dues to the Dirt
After all logical explanations and probabilities have been explored, believing in magic was just the next logical step. Or at least, that was what Alfred told himself as he followed Ivan’s lead.
So, I didn't follow the original plan of uploading every day from the first chapter. There's a lot of visiting and cleaning that happens when the year ends. Hopefully, this chapter makes up for the delay. I'll do my best to write the next one quickly. Hope you enjoy! :D
[An Entry from a Drachen Grimoire]
The Rule of Three
Numbers always mean something, and I have found that Three is a powerful number. Magic increased threefold would always yield better results. This theory can be seen through many accidental situations. Julchen and I have decided to test out this theory in one of the Boreal’s many temples. May the gods watch over us in this endeavor...
“So you’re not a ghost,” Alfred clarified. The glow on his hands seem to dim just as he calmed down. He stayed closer to Ivan just in case. “What are you then?”
“I am what I have always been,” Julchen replied.
Alfred groaned and almost rolled his eyes. “More cryptic stuff, huh.”
Ivan glanced at Alfred before looking back at the ethereal apparition. “Daughter of the goddess.”
Julchen smirked. “That’s right.”
“The gods aren’t real,” Alfred said. “I mean, they’re only explanations for things that we don’t understand.”
“Is that so?” Julchen said. She threw her head back and laughed. She really reminded Alfred of the emperor, down to the arrogant attitude and easygoing mannerisms. “And what do you think of this place, dragonet? Is it not of the gods?”
“It’s an ore deposit,” Alfred said with a scowl. Magic still remained a mystery, and he wasn’t sure how to deal with it at the moment with anything but denial.
Julchen matched his scowl. “An ore deposit?”
“And ruins,” Alfred said with a nod. “Nothing else.”
“And how does your power play into that?” Julchen asked. She hadn’t moved from her place beside the dragon, but she crossed her arms as if daring Alfred to defy her.
Alfred shrugged. “I don’t know yet,” he admitted.
“And what do you think, Sentinel?” Julchen said, turning her red gaze on Ivan. “Do you believe in the gods?”
“No,” Ivan answered with a small smile. “I never believed in them.”
“Oh?” Julchen laughed. “Yet you call me the daughter of the goddess.”
“I’m simply repeating what your tombstone says,” Ivan said with a short laugh. “Nothing else.”
Alfred looked at Ivan at the sudden echo of his own words. He hadn’t expected Ivan’s answer. He had assumed that Ivan’s insistence on magic meant that he believed in the old gods, the ones said to be the source of all magic.
“So what are you?” Alfred asked. “If you’re not a ghost?”
“The sentinel has already answered your question, dragonet,” Julchen answered. “Ask something else.”
“How are you alive? The first reign happened ages ago.” Alfred asked. He really wished for his gun at the moment. Without it, he had no other weapon to defend himself from this unknown threat.
“The demigods live far longer than other races,” Julchen answered with a smirk. She raised one hand which appeared translucent in the golden light of the Drachfeurite. “But it is not a life without its own consequences.”
“What is this place?” Ivan asked. Sensing Alfred’s unease in front of the ghostly empress, he stepped in front of the younger soldier. “Why did you suddenly appear?”
“This is the last Drachen temple,” Julchen answered. She placed a hand on the dragon’s golden claws. “My Tempest built it when he served as my duke and guardian. He was your ancestor, dragonet, and you’ve awakened his power in you. That is why I awoke.”
“His power in me?” Alfred couldn’t have sounded more incredulous. “What the hell does that mean?”
“Dragonborn magic,” Ivan said. He was frowning as he met Alfred’s still golden gaze. The power in his hands may have calmed down, but whatever magic in the temple was still clearly running within Alfred.
“That’s right,” Julchen roller her shoulders. Her red eyes were eerie among the shadows of the dragon’s temple and tomb. “It is a powerful thing.”
“Why are there so many Drachfeurite in here?” Alfred asked. Magic seemed too much to comprehend, but there were other things that he might be able to understand. Until now, the Drachfeurite has only ever appeared in small numbers.
“Drachfeurite?” Julchen tilted her head. For a moment, her eyes flashed brighter. “Oh? You mean the dragon stones? Of course, there’ll be a lot in here. They are made of a dragon’s magic, their very life and blood. Long ago, your ancestor, my Tempest bled and died in his place. These stones are his last vestiges. Are they what you came here for, dragonet?”
“Yeah,” Alfred said in a small voice. Magic still seemed unbelievable, but it was becoming a part of everything. He felt dread and fear like bile rising in his throat. He suddenly felt unsure about Drachfeurite and its origins. He reached for Ivan’s hand and relaxed when he felt the other’s right grip. “Is that wrong?”
“That is not my choice to make, little Tempest,” Julchen replied, smiling as she rested her forehead on the dragon’s side. “But it seems you have a guardian just as I had mine.”
“That’s not—“ Alfred hesitated. He wasn’t sure what to say. He wasn’t sure what Ivan was to him now. Ivan had been his captor and his enemy, but he also felt safe around him. He wasn’t quite sure when things had changed or if this change was any good. “We’re not—“
Julchen had a smug look on her face. “Hmm, is that so?” She seemed to be fading, the edges of her fingertips and body were turning into wisps of golden light. “You’ll figure it out eventually, Alfred of Drachen. Watch yourself, dragonet, and watch over my kingdom and my children. I’m sure you’ll do well. You are my Tempest’s legacy, after all.”
“Wait, I’ve still got questions,” Ivan said.
“You’ll figure it out,” Julchen laughed one last time before disappearing. “It’ll be awesome when you do.”
Alfred took a deep breath as the last of the golden light disappeared. He let go of Ivan’s hand as he bent over, resting his palms on his knees and heaving.
“Are you alright?” Ivan asked, worriedly.
“Ghosts,” Alfred gave one long sigh as he crouched on the ground, covering his head with his arms. “I don’t like them.”
“She was not a ghost,” Ivan said in confusion. He crouched beside Alfred and rubbed comforting circles on his back.
Alfred rested his cheek on his knees so he can look at Ivan. “She disappeared into nothing after appearing from nothing. She’s an empress that’s been dead for several hundred years,” Alfred scowled at the northern soldier. “I think it’s clear that she’s a ghost, Ivan.”
Ivan chuckled as he sat cross-legged on the floor of the temple. “Very well,” he said. “What are our plans, Alfred?”
“Our plans?” Alfred looked at him with a grimace. “I thought I was just supposed to follow you.”
“You are not the prince of Cautania, and you seem to know nothing of their plans.” Ivan waved a hand around them. “We are trapped somewhere with no visible way out at the moment.”
“When did you find out?” Alfred asked suddenly. Ivan didn’t seem angry, only resigned and tired. He had wrapped his scarf tighter around his neck, almost obscuring the bottom half on his face. Alfred decided to sit beside Ivan, so close that their arms almost touched. He had expected the temple floor to be cold even with his layers of clothes to protect him. It wasn’t. Instead, it felt as warm and alive as the energy still racing beneath his skin. “Why didn’t you leave me if you knew?”
“When we encountered your...friends,” Ivan answered. “One of them was the prince, da?”
Alfred rubbed his neck and fiddled with his dog tags nervously. “Yeah,” he replied. “Ludwig. I don’t think he knows anything either, Ivan. He’s not...He’s my friend. He’s not a bad person.” Alfred swallowed. Nothing has made sense since he had been assigned in this mission. He felt like he was restructuring his world again, just as he did when he had gotten home from his first battle. “I thought I knew what I wanted to do.”
“And what is that?”
Alfred laughed. “Is this really the time?”
Ivan shrugged. “We are trapped, and we need to rest,” he said. He looked to Alfred, and his wings, though broken, seemed to spread around them. “I would like to know more about you, Alfred.”
“Me?” Alfred shook his head and gave a self-deprecating laugh, and the sound seemed to echo all around them. “I’m the stupid arrogant kid that everyone made into a hero. You don’t want to know about me.”
“Tell me anyway,” Ivan whispered in the silence.
There was a short pause. Alfred kicked at the stones in front of him. There were some broken pieces of Drachfeurite on the ground, and that was quite the sight wasn’t it. It took a lot of strength to break a piece of Drachfeurite. It was difficult to believe that the explosion he had caused had managed to do it. “In the empire, noble families have an obligation,” Alfred started. He stared at the golden Drachfeurite as he said, not wanting to look at Ivan as he talked about his past. “In every generation of the family, the family must serve in the army for ten years. It doesn’t matter which member of the family’s generation serves it, and the ten years can even be split between several people. But I was arrogant and stupid. I decided that I was all my family needed.”
Alfred leaned back, hands pressed flat on the floor. He closed his eyes before continuing. “I was fifteen, and I think I lied and said I was older. I was the top of my class in the military academy, but the actual war is so much different from any of my lessons.”
“I survived,” Alfred said. He thought of coming home, of Arthur’s worry and Matthew’s anger, so different from their usual selves because of Alfred’s selfishness. “Many didn’t. I almost didn’t. After that, I decided I’ll just finish my family’s obligation then I’ll run away from it all.”
“And where do you plan to go?” Ivan asked.
“Anywhere,” Alfred laughed and leaned his head on Ivan’s shoulder. “Everywhere. What about you? Don’t you want to go somewhere?”
“I swore an oath,” Ivan said. He balled his gloved hand into a fist, and Alfred tensed, feeling the sudden drop in temperature around them before it suddenly eased. “I swore to protect my people, my sisters. I seemed to have failed at both. So, perhaps, we were both stupid and reckless.”
“Your sister,” Alfred turned to Ivan suddenly. “You told me you were looking for her. We should look for her.”
“I don’t know where to begin,” Ivan said.
“We’ll figure it out! Like the empress said! Together,” Alfred started pacing around the room. With a clear goal, it was easier to feel motivated to act. He moved quickly around the room, and his mind raced as he considered what they needed to do. From his seat, Ivan can see the sparks of energy flickering around Alfred’s feet as he moved around the floor. He seemed more animated now. Alfred suddenly turned towards him, his long black coat following his movement with a snap. “We should go to that oracle you mentioned.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in magic,” Ivan pointed out. With a grunt, he got to his feet and shifted his wings with a grimace.
Alfred looked down on his hands, and both of them can still see the sparks of energy on them, lighting up with Alfred’s new determination. “I don’t know what to believe anymore,” he admitted. “But we’ll figure it out, right? You’ll come with me?” Alfred offered his hand, and the sparks receded, dimming just as his eyes turned back to their clear blue color. He gave Ivan a small tentative smile. “Truce?”
Ivan took Alfred’s hand and pulled him into an embrace. Alfred spluttered at the sudden impact, and Ivan chuckled. “Truce, Alfred,” he whispered. “And know that you should not blame yourself for surviving.”
Alfred stepped back after Ivan let him go. He stared at Ivan, but the other soldier was already preparing their packs. It was as if he hadn’t said anything at all. Alfred shifted on his feet, looking over his shoulder at the long-dead dragon. “Bless us on our journey,” Alfred murmured, a prayer to his ancestors and the old gods, just as Arthur always have done.
“Alfred? Shall we go?”
Alfred grinned as he turned back to Ivan. He rushed towards the other, stopping only to pick one of the broken pieces of Drachfeurite on the ground. “So, Ivan?” he said. “Do you think you can teach me some magic?”
“What are the tribes like?” Alfred asked as they trekked across the mountain. Ivan had said they were close to their destination, and Alfred was becoming restless again. “Will they hate me?”
“Some might,” Ivan answered with a nod. “The arrival of the empire’s forces are not regarded well among the people here.”
Alfred nodded. He rubbed his hands together just to get rid of his nervous energy. Oddly enough, although his gloves had burnt in the temple, he didn’t feel as cold as he did before. The odd electric energy from the temple still seemed to simmer just beneath his skin. It was comforting as it was strange. “What should I do?”
“You will be fine, Alfred,” Ivan reassured him.
Alfred frowned. “That’s not an answer.”
Ivan sighed. “There is nothing you can do for those who feel anger towards the empire,” Ivan said. “It is not a matter so easily resolved.”
“I don’t want to just give up,” Alfred said, staring glumly at the ground.
Ivan stopped suddenly, and Alfred almost ran into his back because of it. When Ivan turned around, there was a frown on his face. “I am not asking you to,” Ivan said. “But there are still problems to be solved before reparations can be made, da?”
“Oh,” Alfred chuckled. “That’s what you meant.”
“Yes,” Ivan agreed. He placed his hands on Alfred’s shoulder to maneuver him in front. “Now, look. We are here.”
Alfred gaped at the sight in front of him. The tribe’s houses were built on terraces that has been carved on the sloped ground of the mountainside. Most of the houses were made with some kind of white stone, that made it glitter because of the light of the sun that reflected on it. The houses and other buildings all surrounded a longhouse built under a gigantic tree.
“That’s--” Alfed stopped. “How did that tree get so big?”
Ivan chuckled. The smile he gave to Alfred almost seemed to hide a secret in it as he said, “It’s just magic.”
Alfred grinned. “It’s not real,” he said, but this time, unlike all the other times before, his tone said that he was joking. He followed Ivan down the path that ended in stone steps that led down to the longhouse. As they went through the village, people stared at them, and Alfred made sure to stay close to Ivan.
“So how does the whole oracle thing work?” Alfred asked curiously.
“I cannot answer you,” Ivan said. “It’s a different kind of magic compared to mine.”
“No,” Alfred said. “I meant what answer can we expect. Is it like the old stories where there’s a riddle of some sort?”
“It’s different...every time,” Ivan said.
“Magic doesn’t make sense,” Alfred complained. He turned over the piece of Drachfeurite in his toolkit in his hand. “I want to go home and work on stuff I understand.”
“It seems as if you don’t understand as much as you thought you did. You were surprised by Julchen’s answer,” Ivan pointed out.
“Well, that’s why I gotta study it,” Alfred murmured, glaring at Ivan’s back. He raised the ore to the light, and its glow seemed to blend with the sunlight. Inside the ore, the sparks of energy danced around as if they were trying to break free. It was quite different from the red Drachfeurite and the tongues of flame within it. “It seems to involve my family too.” Alfred said with sudden longing. He wondered how things were at home, how his family was faring.
“Alfred--” Ivan began, but he was interrupted by a sudden shout.
“It’s the sentinel!” Someone announced. They had reached the plaza around the longhouse and tree by then. Alfred stared up at the tree before following after Ivan. People started to gather around them.
“Ivan,” a young woman with short pale blond hair approached them. She wore a dark coat over a white and blue dress. Her wings were white and brown in color, and it reminded Alfred of a sparrow. They seemed more delicate compared to Ivan’s great white wings.
Alfred turned to ask Ivan who she was but stopped at the pained look on Ivan’s face.
“Katyusha,” Ivan said as the woman stepped forward to embrace him. Ivan returned her embrace, and Alfred looked away from the sight. “I could not find her,” Ivan said in a voice so soft that Alfred would not have heard it if he wasn’ standing so close.
“Oh, Ivan,” she said, wiping at her eyes. “I’m just glad you’re safe. I cannot lose you too.”
“We’ll find her,” Ivan said. “I promise. That’s why Alfred and I came here, to see the oracle and find answers.”
“Alfred?” Katyusha said, frowning. She only seemed to notice Alfred then. When she turned her gaze on him, Alfred gave her a small wave. “Hello,” she greeted. “Who are you?”
Alfred turned to look at Ivan. He wasn’t sure what to answer. “He’s a friend,” Ivan answered with a small smile.
“He is from the empire,” another voice said. The three of the turned towards the group approaching them. The one who had spoken was a pale man with blond hair that was clipped back from his face with a metal cross. He was followed by several other men and women, some who even have weapons with them. “Alfred Jones,” he said. “It has been a while since I have welcomed a member of the Kirkland family into our village.”
Alfred frowned at the man. “What? Someone from my family?”
“The Tempest Dragons of Drachen have always served as the guardians of this region,” the man answered. “Even now, I keep a correspondence with the current duke.”
“With Arthur?” Alfred said. He brushed his thumb on the Drachfeurite in his toolkit, thinking once again of his family’ same on the temple wall. “Who are you?”
“My name is Lukas,” he said. “I believe you both came to see me.”
Alfred leaned over to whisper to Ivan even though everyone was looking at them. “He’s the oracle?” He said in a voice that wasn’t really a whisper. Everyone around them heard it loud and clear.
“Yes, Alfred,” Ivan said with an exasperated tone. “He’s the oracle.”
“Got it,” Alfred grinned at the oracle. With all the people’s stares, it felt almost like being in charge of his unit. He knew how to be charming. He knew how to get people to like him well enough. He gave a small bow to the oracle. “Nice to meet you, oracle.”
“We have a feast prepared for both of you,” Lukas stated. “We shall talk of your questions later on. Sentinel,” the man said turning to Ivan. “You should see to your injuries. The Transient Home is open for your use as always.”
Ivan nodded. “Thank you,” he replied. “Alfred and I will head there.”
Alfred looked from the oracle to Ivan who was already moving past people. “Go on, dragonet. I’ll answer your questions later,” Lukas said, already waving him away. Alfred frowned, but he turned to follow Ivan.
Before he could move too far, he felt a gentle hand on his arm. “Will you tell Ivan to come see me later?” Katyusha asked.
“Sure thing!” Alfred grinned though he still felt a pang in his chest as he tried to figure out who the woman was to Ivan. “See ya!” He said as a goodbye before running towards Ivan. He managed to reach out to Ivan, touching his coat to stop him before they can leave the plaza entirely. “Is this fine? Aren’t we in a hurry?”
“Unfortunately, this is very much necessary,” Ivan said. “Come with me. I’ll show you where we’re staying for the night.”
“So this is your home?” Alfred asked as they entered the three-storey building at the edge of the village. The house was sparse and quite impersonal. There was nothing in it that told Alfred anything about Ivan. “Cause it’s really boring.”
“It’s not my home. It’s a Transient Home,” Ivan said as he placed a pack on the dinner table. Alfred followed him into the kitchen. “All Sentinels who visit the village live here during their stay.”
“Oh,” Alfred said as he took a seat on one of the kitchen counters. “Why not stay with Katyusha? You seem close, and she wants to talk to you later.”
Ivan chuckled, pulling mugs from their cupboards and preparing a drink for both of them. “I am quite certain that my older sister has enough from me.”
“Your sister?” Alfred turned to look at Ivan in surprise. He wasn’t sure why he felt a sudden sense of relief from that information. Ivan turned and handed one of the mugs to Alfred, and Alfred had to glance away, trying to figure out his own mess of emotions. “Oh.”
“What’s wrong?” Ivan asked. “Would you prefer a different drink?”
Alfred quickly shook his head before grinning at Ivan. He cupped the drink in his hand, relishing in its warmth. “Nah,” he said. “I was just thinking about the feast. Do I need to wear something fancy for it?”
“It is not necessary,” Ivan said. “Besides, it is not as if you have something fancy to wear.”
“We can figure something out,” Alfred said. “Don’t underestimate my creativity.”
Ivan laughed in amusement. “I’m sure you would impress me, but it really is not necessary.”
“Alright,” Alfred shrugged and sipped at his drink. It was quite sweet. The warmth felt comforting, and he blew on the drink to feel the warm air on his face. Despite the comforting warmth, he still felt restless in the new environment. He felt the need to do something, to move and solve things. Maybe he could tinker with something, but the memory of the temple and its Drachfeurite store still seemed too fresh to be able to ignore it in his research. “What do we do now?”
“I can teach you more about magic,” Ivan offered as he finished his own drink and placed it in a basin on one of the kitchen counters. “We do not want you to cause any more explosions.”
Alfred grimaced, remembering the temple and Ivan’s protection. With that particular memory, he also remembered the oracle’s advice to Ivan. “Your wings!” Alfred exclaimed, suddenly standing up from his seat. “We have to take care of your wings.”
“Do you even know how?”
“I’ve done some first aid in the field,” Alfred said. “Maybe you can talk me through it?”
“There’s not enough space here,” Ivan said. He took Alfred’s mug and placed it beside his own. He seemed to think things over before he looked back at Alfred. “Follow me then.”
Alfred nodded and slowly followed Ivan out of a back door. The Transient House’s backyard had a similar central area as the village, with a large tree surrounded by stone tables and benches. Although the tree was not as large as the one in the middle of the village, it still looked quite impressive in the middle of the yard. Ivan sat on the ground with his wings spread wide behind him.
Alfred approached slowly and hesitated. He wasn’t sure if he should touch anything. This close, he could see that Ivan’s wings were not pure white and that it had several black parts on it.
“You can touch them,” Ivan said, and Alfred flinched in surprise at the sudden voice.
“What do I do?” He asked nervously. “Do I just--?”
“Treat it as any kind of broken bone,” Ivan replied.
“That’s not very helpful,” Alfred frowned. He gently touched the edge of one wing, caressing the feathers with his fingers. “I don’t have a splint to support it.”
“It won’t be necessary,” Ivan assured him. “Just straighten it, Alfred.”
“Brace yourself,” Alfred warned as he took hold of the edge of one wing. “Ready?” At Ivan’s nod, Alfred snapped the bone into place. There was a low hiss followed by a grunt of pain from Ivan. Alfred held on to the wing, unsure of what he was supposed to do without any splint or bandages to support it. Before he could ask Ivan about it again, he watched as frost spread over the affected part of the wing. Alfred removed his hand before the frost could reach it but gingerly touched it again once it stopped spreading. “Will this really work?”
“It’s worked before,” Ivan said as he rolled his shoulders back. He spread his unbroken left wing around and examined his feathers. “It’s been a while since I’ve taken care of my wings.”
Alfred leaned over Ivan’s shoulder to get a closer look. “Is that something I can help with too?!”
“Alfred,” Ivan said, turning towards him with his strangely childish smile.
“You’re too close,” Ivan said.
Alfred flushed as he realized the situation. They were close enough that their noses were almost brushing. He stumbled back and rubbed at his arms, looking anywhere but at Ivan’s direction. “Right,” he said nervously. “I was just, well, you know--”
Ivan chuckled and stood up as well. He placed a hand on Alfred’s shoulder as he passed him. “Perhaps, you can help me next time, da?” With another smile, he went back into the house, large wings trailing behind him.
Alfred pouted and stared at Ivan as he disappeared into the house. “That’s just unfair,” he muttered and sighed. He went to one of the seats beneath the tree and buried his head in his folded arms on the table. “What am I doing?”
Alfred stood away from the crowd with a plate filled with grilled meat and vegetables. Ivan had disappeared somewhere to talk with Katyusha, and there was no one else that Alfred could talk to in this village. He wasn’t even sure if anyone wanted to talk to him especially considering the anger that Ivan had against him when they first met.
Alfred sighed and stabbed one of the meat pieces with a little more force than usual. A part of him really wanted to go back to the capital, or better yet, back to Drachen.
“Is the food not to your liking?” Alfred startled at the sudden voice. There was a kind looking man in front of him. He had pale blond hair and violet eyes that reminded him of Ivan, but the man didn’t have any wings like Ivan and the other citizens of the village did. Instead, he seemed to have intricate dark markings on his face. Alfred wondered what race the man belonged to. Now that he thought of it, the oracle had similar markings on his face.
“Oh, no,” Alfred shook his head. “The food’s great. I was just...not used to everything else.”
The man’s eyes softened and he smiled at Alfred. “I understand,” he said. “It is always difficult to find yourself in a new place.”
“Right, yeah,” Alfred grinned. “Everything’s different here.”
“Arthur said the same thing,” the stranger said as he picked at his own plate. Alfred turned to look in surprise at the man who only smiled at him. “Is it so surprising?”
“He never talked about it, I don’t think,” Alfred licked his lips nervously. “I don’t even know who any of you are.”
“Ah, that was rude of me,” the stranger laughed. “I forget sometimes. Many of our visitors are only from the other mountain villages, and we are already familiar with each other.” He offered a hand to Alfred. “I’m Tino.”
“Alfred,” Alfred answered, shaking the hand that was offered to him. “Still don’t think he talked about any of you, sorry.”
“No, I don’t think he would,” Tino said. “You should know me too, actually.”
“What?” Alfred shook his head. “I’ve never been to the Boreal mountains before this.”
“You were really young, and Arthur asked me to take care of you for a while when he was here” Tino said. He sighed and leaned on the tree behind them. Before them, musicians were starting to play an upbeat tune, and people were gathering at the center of the palace to dance. “Your brother was too. He wanted to meet with Lukas.”
“Why?” Alfred asked.
“Why don’t you ask Lukas when you meet with him?” Tino asked.
“Can’t you tell me?” Alfred asked. Tino had been nice, coming to talk to him, and if Arthur had trusted him enough, then Alfred felt safe enough to do it.
Before Tino could reply, the music grew louder. The pounding of the drums startled Alfred, and he flinched, hands fumbling with the plate in his hands. He looked back towards the dancers, but all he could see were shadows and the bright lights behind them.
“Alfred, are you alright?” Tino asked, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.
Alfred flinched at the sudden touch with the name of a long-dead friend on his lips. He stopped himself before he could say Davie’s name and shook his head as he met Tino’s worried eyes. Wrong time, wrong place. Everything was too loud to think, and he needed to get away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I need to, I need to leave.”
He gave Tino his plate of food before leaving. Several feet away from the plaza, he found a flight of stairs down a terrace that overlooked the balcony. It was a small space that was framed by stone railings that overlooked a valley. In the darkness, you can barely see the houses and settlements that would be visible in daylight. On the terrace, there was also a tree that leaned over the edge and a bench. Several bells and glass decorations hung on the branches of the tree.
Alfred blew a breath of relief. The pounding of the drums and the music were fainter here. Alfred collapsed on the chair and leaned back on the tree trunk. The colorful glass hung above him like a child’s mobile. He hadn’t realized it when he had arrived, but the glass pieces were shaped like flowers and little animals. A smile twitched at the corner of his lips, and he reached for one of the small blue glass flowers as he remembered his old friend.
He snatched his hand back and straightened in his seat. Absently, he reached for his toolkit, pulling out a tiny unfinished pocket watch. It was meant to be a gift for his nephew’s birthday, but Alfred hasn’t had time to work on it since he got this assignment from the king. He pressed the button to open it and took up one of his tools to work on it.
The gears and machinery of the clock was a welcome distraction, something to focus all his attention on instead of his insistent memories. It was something that made sense, unlike everything else that happened since he went on the mission. Everything else faded in the background when he worked on something, little pieces falling into places, and the distant drumbeat becomes nothing more than the echo of his own heart.
He wasn’t sure how long he had been working on the pocket watch when he heard the crunch of boots on the ground. He looked up from his work to see Ivan descending from the stairs, the avatar of winter in his white coat and shirt with the great white wings framing him from his back. He carried a small lantern with a flickering flame within it.
Alfred mouthed the other’s name without making a sound. When their eyes met, Ivan smiled, and Alfred’s trembling hands dropped his tools and the pocket watch by accident. He didn’t bother to pick it up even as the other man reached his place.
“How did you find me?” Alfred asked as Ivan took the space beside him on the stone bench. Ivan placed the lantern beside his feet. Somewhere in the distance, Alfred can still hear the sounds of revelry, of drumbeats and singing.
“Tino told me what happened,” Ivan answered.
Alfred stared at the ground, at the unfinished watch and his tools. He scuffed his boots on the ground, still feeling on the edge, but with Ivan’s presence, he was starting to calm down, starting to feel safe again. Funny, how much he trusted Ivan now after the other had saved his life. “You didn’t have to come,” Alfred said. “You were with your sister.” The watch gleamed in warm tones, reflecting the flickering fire within the lantern, something that reminded Alfred so much of the red Drachfeurite from his home. “Family is important.”
“It is,” Ivan agreed. “But so is friendship, da?”
When he looked back at Ivan, the other was wearing the insufferably childish smile again. It made it difficult to read any sort of concrete emotion from him. Maybe that was the purpose of Ivan’s smile. Alfred didn’t say anything in reply, but he did pick up the pieces of his work from the ground to put it back in his toolkit. When he turned back to look at Ivan, the other man was already looking at the hanging glass pieces.
“Do you know what this tree is called?” Ivan asked. When Alfred shook his head, Ivan cupped one of the lower glass pieces, a small dark dragon, and smiled. “We call it the singing tree. It is a tribute to the spirits. When you call out to them, they will sing for you. The hanging pieces are offerings made by people for the old gods. They say when you listen quietly, you can hear the whispers of their prayers.”
Alfred chuckled. “That’s kinda creepy,” he said.
“Perhaps,” Ivan let go of the dragon piece and stood up, extending a hand towards Alfred. “But they do sing quite wonderfully. It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
Alfred frowned, not understanding at all. “What do you mean?”
“Will you dance with me, Alfred?”
Alfred blinked in surprise. “Dance?”
Ivan pointed to the direction of the plaza above them with a smile. The sounds of music from the party were faint, but Ivan closed his eyes and started whistling a soft tune. Before long, the wind softly blew around them, and the little glass pieces, bells, and chimes seemed to pick up the tune that Ivan had sent. Like a magic show, Alfred thought with a fond smile. When Ivan offered his hand towards him again, Alfred didn’t hesitate to take it.
Ivan pulled him suddenly into a spin, and Alfred laughed out loud. “You’re just full of surprises, aren’t you?” Alfred said, pressing a hand over Ivan’s chest.
“I have to keep you guessing, after all,” Ivan said, swaying them both. Alfred hummed, resting his forehead on Ivan’s shoulder. He hummed low in his throat as they swayed rather than danced. He can still hear the pounding of the drums from afar, but now, they were very much a part of the symphony of bells and music that Ivan seemed to have composed.
“Thank you,” Alfred whispered, not knowing whether Ivan had heard it or not. It didn’t matter. At that moment, nothing mattered at all.
“Stop fidgeting, Alfred,” Ivan admonished, and Alfred glared at him.
It was the day after the party, and Lukas had wanted to talk to them both. Alfred kept wondering what it was going to be about. He wanted to ask about his brother’s past visit, but there were also more important things like the Empire’s plan in the mountains and Ivan’s sister. Was there a limit to what they should be asking? He still wasn’t sure how magic worked when it should not even exist.
“He is right,” Lukas said as he entered. “You should stop putting yourself into a panic.”
“What else am I supposed to do?” Alfred said.
“Wait,” Lukas said. “There is value in waiting.”
“Not if there’s monsters coming out everywhere,” Alfred protested. “Aren’t you even worried about yourself?”
“The Vanir and the Sirin are capable of defending themselves,” Lukas said. “You should be more worried about what is happening in your own home.”
Lukas took a seat across them. Alfred watched him move warily. “The empire is on the brink of disaster. It won’t be long before it breaks apart because it’s stretched itself so thin.”
Alfred shook his head. “We’re at a golden age,” he said, a laugh of disbelief bubbling from his lips. “The empire hasn’t been as good as it is now.”
“But you said it yourself,” Lukas said. “Monsters have come out of the woodwork, and it is not only our mountains that they have affected, Alfred. You know it yourself. There are monsters within your realm.”
Alfred groaned and pressed his forehead on the table’s surface. “I hate magic,” he said. “Can’t you just tell us what to do?”
“Alfred,” Ivan said in a warning tone, pressing a gentle hand on Alfred’s back.
“But I am going to tell you,” Lukas said. “The next right step, that is.”
“You are?!” Alfred raised his head, leaning over excitedly.
“Join the Floating City,” Lukas said. “They’ll bring you where you need to be, and give your brother my regards, Alfred.”
“I don’t understand,” Alfred said. “No one knows how to get to the Floating City.”
But Lukas had already turned toward Ivan. “You’ll find her, too, as long as you stay by Alfred. She will be changed, but she is still your sister. Bring them home, Ivan, and you can consider your oath as a Sentinel fulfilled.”
Alfred saw several expressions pass through Ivan’s face before he settled on the strangely childish smile again. “Of course,” he said. “When will the Floating City arrive?”
Lukas cocked his head as if he was listening. “I believe they should already be outside.”
Alfred gaped at the oracle and turned to look at Ivan who was already standing up. He rushed towards the exit, and Ivan followed shortly after him. They both looked towards the big shape over them, casting a shadow over the village. A smaller form seemed to detach from the large shadow of the mechanical sky city and land directly in front of the large tree by the plaza, right next to the building where Alfred met the oracle.
The figure who jumped out grinned at the oracle, showing sharp fangs in his teeth. He wore a blood red coat and seemed to hold a ladder that led to the mechanical thing above them. “Lukas,” he greeted. “I’m here to pick up some people?”
“Vlad,” Lukas greeted back. He placed his hands on Ivan and Alfred’s back, nudging them towards the stranger. “Keep them safe. It will be Arthur you’ll be answering to if you don’t.”
The vampire rolled his eyes and gestured at the ladder. “Come on then,” he said, grinning wide to flash his fangs at them. “All aboard. Next stop, the capital of Cautania.”
[Fragments from a burnt letter in the Emperor’s office]
I am worried just as you are about their growing power. Arthur has promised that he has a plan, but we must also prepare for the worse...your father will be proud...Be safe...take care of Alfred…
With my best wishes and love,
Chapter 4: Afflicted by Fiction
In the floating city, there are revelations and plots to unravel. Alfred finally gets a chance to learn magic, something that he had only ever seen as myth. He can only hope that his new knowledge can help him in the trouble that was coming.
I'm sorry it took me a while to finish this chapter. Now that our city is in quarantine, I have more time to write at home since I do not have to commute to work. I hope that people can enjoy this chapter and stay safe in these trying times.
[An entry from a book in the Royal Library]
The Floating City
The floating city was founded by Romulus Vargas, and it serves as a sanctuary for many people. The city is considered an independent nation, but there have been many times in the past where trade has occurred between the city and the empire. Many scholars have studied the mysteries of the city’s workings, yet answers have yet to be found…
The roar of the winds was loud when they finally emerged on the deck. Ivan kept his wings close to himself, afraid that he’ll lose control if he doesn’t. No matter how talented a flyer a Sirin was, he didn’t think they’d be able to navigate in these winds. Ivan watched as Alfred pulled his goggles over his eyes to protect himself from the wind. For a dragon, Ivan thought, Alfred was really severely lacking any natural defences against the forces of nature.
“Hold tight!” The vampire in front of Alfred, Vlad, shouted at them. “Just follow me!”
They held on tightly to the railings that surrounded the deck and followed the vampire towards the door, deeper into the ship. Once the vampire managed to get the door open, they all stumbled inside, pushed by the strong winds behind them. Alfred buckled to his knees, and Ivan was barely able to balance on his feet with the help of his wings before the door slammed shut.
“We don’t have a barrier around that deck cause we’re using the wind as another source of energy, so it’s always difficult to get through. But it’s better here. Look,” Vlad said, grinning widely at them.
Ivan looked. The entire left wall of the area they were in was wide open, but they didn’t feel or hear any of the strong winds outside. The open wall allowed them to see the wisps of clouds floating outside and the foggy mountains and valleys beneath them.
Ivan heard Alfred gasp before the younger man scrambled and ran towards the opening. Ivan, afraid that he would fall through, reached out to grab at the back of Alfred’s coat, only to miss it because of Alfred’s speed. He didn’t fall, but Ivan watched in awe as Alfred fearlessly pressed his hands closely at the invisible wall between him and the air around them. Alfred had removed his goggles, pushing it over his hair so that he could look at the skies better. It made the joy in his eyes all the more clearer to Ivan.
It was breathtaking, and Ivan wasn’t entirely sure he was only referring to the mountains and not the wide eyed look of excitement on Alfred’s face.
“This is awesome!” Alfred exclaimed, turning quickly towards Vlad. “How do you do it? Some kind of magnetic force field?”
Vlad shook his head. “It’s simple air magic. Ask your Sentinel there. Most of the Sirin can perform these kinds of magic when they’re flying. At least, they used to.”
“Magic?” Alfred frowned, and Ivan almost expected his previous adamant denials. “But you use steam too? I saw it when we were down below.”
“Why does that confuse you?” Vlad laughed. “Does it have to be one or the other? Magic and science have always existed side by side. It is only Cautania who has chosen to forsake magic, and the tribes have always preferred their lands over industrialisation. We, on the other hand, have no preference, which makes things all the better, yeah? Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Ivan asked as he took Alfred by the arm to follow behind the vampire. Alfred was still staring all around them, and he was very much likely to run into things if he wasn’t careful.
“There are some people here who would be happy to see the Kirkland boy,” Vlad answered them as he swung up on a staircase.
Alfred turned towards the vampire with a scowl. “I’m not a boy,” he said, indignantly. “And I’m not a Kirkland. Not anymore.”
“You have the blood of Drachen in your veins,” Vlad pointed out. His steps rang out on the metal staircase as he ascended rapidly, with Ivan and Alfred following at a more leisurely pace. Although, Ivan was quite sure that Alfred was quite ready to just run up the stairs. “You’re a Kirkland to me.”
“Blood isn’t everything,” Alfred said as he crossed his arms and pouted.
Vlad stopped at the top of the stairs and turned towards them, red coat swirling at the sudden movement. When he grinned, his fangs flashed clearly, almost like a threat. “I’m a vampire,” he said. “Blood is everything to me.”
Alfred didn’t seem to have anything to say to that, going quiet and fiddling with the metal tags he wore around his neck. Ivan released the hold he had on Alfred’s arm and chose to take his hand in his own instead. Alfred turned a bright smile towards him and squeezed his hand tightly. Ivan thought of the dance the night before, of Alfred’s hand clasped tightly in his as they swayed under the singing tree. It would have been nice if it could have lasted forever.
“Here we are,” Vlad said, stopping in front of a wide set of double doors. “A little warning. You are guests, but if you ever do anything that will harm our city and its citizens, you will be thrown out. We’ll see how you brave the skies then.”
“Right,” Alfred said as he edged closer to Ivan. “We won’t do anything. I promise.”
Vlad nodded and turned his back towards them. “Well then, let’s go in.”
As the door opened, the two of them immediately followed after Vlad. The room has a similarly large window as the hallway they were in before, and there was already a group of people sitting around a large round table.
Ivan tensed as he recognised the familiar faces of the Cautania unit he had stolen Alfred from. There was a soft noise of surprise from Alfred as he let go of Ivan’s hand, stepping forward with hesitation clear in the set of his shoulders. The group hasn’t noticed them yet, and Ivan couldn’t help but think that he could take Alfred now and run, just brave the skies and never look back.
Still, Ivan didn’t move, and he simply watched as Alfred took another step forward. “Ludwig?” Alfred said.
The prince looked up at the sound of his name. As soon as he saw Alfred, he was immediately running towards them, pulling Alfred into a tight embrace.
“Alfred,” Ludwig said, gripping the back of Alfred’s coat. “You’re safe.”
Alfred laughed, returning the prince’s embrace. Ivan felt a pang in his chest at the sight even as Alfred buried his face in Ludwig’s shoulder. “I should be saying that, idiot,” he said. “I’m your knight. I’m supposed to protect you.”
Ludwig stepped back but still held on to Alfred’s shoulder. “How can you do that when you get lost?”
“Hey!” Alfred cried, indignant. Ivan thought of Alfred’s similar protests while he had been trapped in the ice and covered in snow. “Anyone can get lost in a snowstorm. Except maybe Ivan but that’s just because Ivan might be insane.”
“I am still here, Alfred,” Ivan said, stepping in at the opening provided by the other soldier. Alfred looked over at him and pouted, so Ivan just smiled at him.
“What?” Alfred said with a smirk. “It’s true.”
“Alfred, who is this?”
“Oh, this is—“ Alfred started excitedly but suddenly stopped, looking at him with a frown. “Ivan.”
“Why is he here?”
“He just—“ Alfred stopped again. He looked towards Ivan, and their eyes met. Alfred’s expression was unreadable, and for a moment, it seemed like his eyes had flashed gold. Ivan thought of Alfred in the temple, of golden eyes and a tired grin. Ivan wondered if he was about to be killed or arrested for kidnapping and almost killing a member of Cautania’s nobility. “He saved my life. He’s my friend.”
Ludwig looked at Ivan and nodded. “Thank you,” the prince said.
“Your highness,” another man said, standing up from his seat to stand by the prince’s side. “I would be careful. He is from the tribes, it looks like.”
Alfred tensed. “You’re—Drei, was it? The leader of the Boreal Project.”
Ivan also tensed when he heard the words from Alfred. Although Afred wasn’t looking at him, the way he leaned closer to Ivan made Ivan think that those words were meant for him. The leader of the project. The one person who might know why people from the tribes have been disappearing.
“What’s the problem with people from the tribes?” Alfred asked with a scowl.
Some looks passed between the people from Cautania’s unit. This time, Ivan was sure that he didn’t imagine the flash of gold in Alfred’s eyes or the sudden spark of energy. He took hold of Alfred’s hand, flinching at the surge of energy, but he needed to make sure that Alfred wouldn’t accidentally hurt himself or the others in the room.
Ivan glared at the soldiers and researchers from Cautania. He took note of the look of suspicion and curiosity from the so-called leader of the project after Alfred’s sudden outburst of magic.
Ivan wasn’t quite sure about the position they were suddenly in.
“Tell me,” Alfred demanded. Like this, he was no longer the playful and charismatic hero who Ivan had spent time with. Instead, Ivan can see the soldier, the captain who had survived through war.
The prince nodded, looking like he’s made a decision. “It will be good for you to know this as well, Alfred.” When he turned his gaze towards Ivan, it was filled with suspicion instead of gratitude from before.
“I’m not sure this would be wise, your highness,” Drei said.
“Stop,” Ludwig said. “This is Alfred. He’s a hero of our empire. I trust him.”
“What is this about, Ludwig?”
“After you disappeared,” Ludwig said, glaring at Ivan openly. “Cautania’s settlement was attacked by people from the Boreal tribes. The people in this room are the only ones who were able to escape.”
Ivan found Alfred in their shared cabin. After meeting with his old unit, Alfred had insisted that he should stay with Ivan despite everyone’s protests. Even Ivan didn’t understand why Alfred wanted to stay with him despite how obviously upset he was about what he was just told.
Alfred sat cross-legged on the bed with his back pressed against the wall. He was hunched over and tinkering with the same watch that Ivan had found him with beneath the singing tree. He was surrounded with small gears and screws, and the small golden Drachfeurite ore was balanced on Alfred’s knee, the light pulsing regularly like a heartbeat. At the sound of the door, Alfred looked up, and his eyes were strikingly gold.
“Alfred,” Ivan said, shutting the door softly behind him. The empire did not believe in magic, and any idea similar to it at the moment was regarded with suspicion. It wasn’t safe for Alfred to keep losing control like that.
“Where’d you go?” Alfred asked, his hands stilling above his work. The different gears around him glinted under the light of the ore, and the same light cast his usually friendly face in shadows as he scowled at Ivan. His cold demeanour reminded Ivan of how Alfred was when he had first captured him.
“I was exploring,” he answered evenly, ignoring the hostility in Alfred’s voice. It would not do for both of them to lose their temper.
Ivan took his coat off and folded it neatly on his bed before facing Alfred. “Does it matter why?”
Alfred set his jaw stubbornly. His work had been forgotten though his long calloused fingers were still poised above the dark metal of the watch. “I just want to know.”
Ivan sat on his own bed and stared at Alfred who was so still on his own bed across the room. “What else do you want from me, Alfred?”
Alfred winced like a child who’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t have. He still didn’t seem to realise how he looked at that moment. With his eyes bright and still form, he could have been a predator getting ready to lunge at Ivan. Ivan lightly touched his own scarf, taking comfort in his older sister’s protection magic before he stood to cross the room. “Tell me,” he demanded even as Alfred jerked, the pocket watch, gears, and ore falling from his lap onto the bed.
Alfred bared his teeth at him like a threat. “You don’t get to threaten me.”
Ivan sighed and chose to crouch in front of the bed so he wasn’t looming so threateningly over Alfred. He let his wings relax so that it didn’t cage Alfred, taking care not to repeat their first meeting. But it was something similar, he thought, with him questioning and Alfred on the defensive.
“I wasn’t,” Ivan said.
“I don’t believe you,” Alfred said.
“Because of what they told you,” Ivan stated. It wasn’t a question. There was tension between them that hasn’t been there since they fell into the old temple.
“Is it...true?” Alfred gripped one of his tools tightly in his hand, tight enough that it turned his knuckles white. “Did you attack us?”
“I don’t know anything about it,” Ivan said. “Even if it’s true.”
There was a long beat of silence between them. For a moment, Ivan almost thought that he saw a crackle of lightning on Alfred’s hand as he opened it, letting his tool fall gently on the bed. The golden glow of Drachfeurite seemed to cast sinister shadows around them as Alfred’s shoulders slumped, and the ore finally dimmed. “I don’t know what to believe,” Alfred whispered like a confession. “You did kidnap me.”
Ivan smiled. He still hasn’t moved from his position by Alfred’s bed, didn’t want to spook the other when he was so obviously stressed. “Why didn’t you tell them then?” Ivan asked, genuinely curious about the other’s answer.
“You tell me,” Alfred grinned. “Maybe I’m just being stupid again.”
Ivan kept a close eye on Alfred as he reached out, ready to take his hand back if it was unwelcome. Alfred didn’t do anything as Ivan clasped his hand in his. “I should teach you magic,” Ivan said, feeling the sparks of energy that stung him as he held on to Alfred’s hand. “Magic is dangerous if left uncontrolled.”
Alfred frowned. “I don’t have magic.”
“You didn’t,” Ivan corrected. “But whatever happened at the temple changed you.”
Alfred took his hand from Ivan, and Ivan frowned at the sudden separation. Alfred carefully flexed his fingers, seemingly entranced by the play of lights and sparks around them. “Ivan,” he said. “Will you teach me?”
“Of course,” Ivan replied, smiling. He stood up, and this time, Alfred no longer seemed afraid or unsure of himself as he looked up at Ivan. Ivan offered a hand for Alfred to take and pulled Alfred up from the bed. “Shall we go somewhere else?”
“A dragon’s magic in an enclosed space?” Ivan chuckled. “We shall be lucky if we only end up destroying this room.”
“Where are we going then?”
“It would be nice to look around the city, da?” Ivan looked over his shoulder at Alfred. “You were quite excited after all.”
Alfred grinned, and Ivan felt the tension between them ease. It was much better, after all, to see Alfred in such good spirits. “We should get something to eat,” Alfred said as they prepared to go out. “I’m starving. Then, you can teach me what you know.”
“As long as you can keep up with the lessons, Alfred.”
Alfred pouted and shoved at Ivan playfully as they left the room. “Watch it,” he said, grinning playfully. “I’ll become even better than you.”
Alfred dodged several ice arrows from Ivan, and he used the momentum of his last roll to kick at Ivan. Ivan dodged the sudden attack and summoned his ice to freeze Alfred in place once again. Unlike their time in the mountains, this time, Alfred grinned and easily broke free. Ivan could see the sparks of golden energy around him, like Alfred himself was electrified. When the soldiers from Cautania talked about Alfred as some kind of genius, Ivan thought they had been exaggerating. Teaching Alfred about magic for a few days had changed Ivan’s mind entirely.
A genius, he thought and scoffed as he sent another flurry of ice arrows at the younger man, which was destroyed this time with an electrified barrier in front of Alfred. The title of genius seemed like an understatement for Alfred.
Alfred pressed his palms together, concentrating his magic in his hands before putting them into fists and charging at Ivan. Ivan smiled and easily blocked Alfred’s first punch with an ice shield. Alfred’s next strike broke through the ice, shattering it and sending Ivan back with the force. Ivan used his wings to regain his balance, but Alfred wasn’t done with his relentless assault.
Alfred threw another punch, and Ivan encased his arms in ice to block it. He could feel his hair rise at the pulse of electric energy from Alfred. Alfred grinned and tried for an uppercut. Instead of blocking it, Ivan chose to dodge by taking to the air.
Alfred lost his balance with the wind from Ivan’s wings. When Alfred looked up at Ivan, there was excitement in his golden dragon’s eyes. Ivan called on the wind and prepared for whatever Alfred thought up next. Alfred was forever coming up with unusual ideas for his magic. Unlike Ivan who grew up learning his magic as a part of himself, Alfred seemed to use his magic as another one of his tools for creation and tinkering.
The younger soldier adjusted his stance, and Ivan watched the spark of energy around the other man’s feet. Alfred directed the force of his magic at the ground to launch himself into the air. With a cry, he tried to land another punch at Ivan. Ivan chuckled and easily moved out of the way. Compared to Alfred, the air was a battlefield that he was very much used to. Alfred landed, his boots skidding on the ground and leaving a shallow ditch with the force of his landing and magic. Alfred pressed his palms to the ground and looked like he was getting ready to launch himself into the air once again. Ivan braced himself for the attack and built a shield made of ice, holding it in both his hands.
Alfred launched himself from the ground. His fists were covered by electric charges. When Alfred hit the shield, a thin crack appeared on it. Ivan glared at the grinning Alfred as he repaired the shield. Alfred flipped in the air and landed back on the ground. He didn’t take as much time this time to launch himself into the air. When he hit Ivan’s shield this time, it shattered into several pieces.
Ivan felt a sharp pain in his wings. It wasn’t entirely healed yet , he realized, as they both fell towards the ground. Alfred’s eyes widened, and he turned them both so that he took the impact. Alfred groaned when they hit the ground. His eyes had turned back to blue, and he was grimacing.
“That’s awful,” Alfred groaned as he sat up. “Why did you do that before?”
“Why did you do it now?” Ivan replied, watching as Alfred rubbed his neck and rolled his shoulders.
“Can’t have you breaking your wings again,” Alfred said. He was still wincing and grimacing in pain. His hair stuck out wildly as if he had been electrocuted by his own magic. Although his eyes no longer shined with his magic, Ivan could still feel the powerful draw of it. “Especially not cause of me. I can take the fall.”
“But you didn’t have to,” Ivan said, as he took one of Alfred’s hand in his own. He brushed a thumb over the bruised knuckles and urged both their magic to aid in his healing. “I would have been fine.”
Alfred blinked and stared at Ivan as if he couldn’t understand what he was saying. There was still a hint of the manic energy of his magic in his eyes when he finally grinned. “I’m a hero,” he said. “Of course, I’ll save you.”
Ivan shook his head in exasperation. “You’re incorrigible.”
“But you like me anyway, right?”
Ivan froze, quite unsure about what Alfred was saying. But Alfred was looking at him seriously now, his earlier grin disappearing to be replaced by hesitation. Alfred bit his lip, refusing to look at Ivan’s eyes. There was a storm behind his eyes, something wild, dangerous, and beautiful at the same time. Magic had been a part of Ivan’s life since he had been a child, but he has never seen magic like Alfred’s. Alfred shook his head, chuckling, reining in the Wild and the Storm from his eyes as if he could hide it and pretend to be someone else. In the days since they’ve met, every time he thinks he’s figured Alfred out, he would always throw him off.
“I’m starving,” Alfred said, brushing his clothes with his hands as he stood up. “Do you think--”
Whatever he was going to say was forgotten as Ivan pulled him by his wrist, letting him tumble over Ivan again. Ivan made sure to cushion his fall. Alfred gave him a look of confusion and shock, and Ivan brushed a thumb over the knot on his brow, trying to smooth it out.
Ivan cupped the other’s face in his hands and pressed their lips together to silence Alfred’s protests. Alfred tensed under his hands, and for a terrifying moment, Ivan thought that he might have made a mistake, might have read the signs wrong. He was almost prepared for Alfred to shock him with his lightning.
But he didn’t have to worry. Alfred was already melting into the kiss, surging forward and curling his hands around the scarf around Ivan’s neck. When they broke off, Alfred’s face was flushed, and his golden eyes bright once again. “That was--I didn’t think--”
Alfred was biting his lips once again, and Ivan couldn’t help himself as he pressed a more gentle kiss at the corner of Alfred’s lips this time. “Then don’t,” he said. Alfred chuckled before letting himself be kissed again, and it was everything and nothing like either of them expected. Ivan could feel the magic underneath both their skin, as if their magic were singing to each other.
An old symphony, an old dance. There was something quite wonderful about it.
Alfred groaned and bit softly at Ivan’s lips the same way he had to his own several moments ago. The Dragonborn shifted his weight, straddling Ivan’s lap and grinding down. Ivan gripped tightly at Alfred’s shoulders and trailed kisses down the other’s jaw and his neck. There was a certain thrill at hearing Alfred gasp and feeling the way his fingers scrambled for purchase on Ivan’s clothes. There was something thrilling at feeling Alfred’s magic around them, literal sparks that flew between them.
“Alfred,” Ivan whispered the name like a prayer and a warning all at once as he kissed and tried to mark the hollow of Alfred’s throat. “Control yourself.”
“What?” Alfred’s voice was breathless and confused, and he looked quite offended.
Ivan chuckled and pressed a soft kiss on Alfred’s cheek. “Your magic, solnyshko moyo.”
Alfred blinked, fingers tracing at the edges of Ivan’s scarf and trailing on his neck. He smirked and rolled his hips, eliciting a low moan from Ivan. “Why don’t you try then?”
It was Ivan’s turn to be confused. “Try what?”
“Control the storm, Ivan,” Alfred grinned before kissing Ivan again. He had only just pressed his lips on Ivan when the ground beneath them shook.
They separated in a panic, both of them scrambling to their feet. When the ship rocked again, Ivan had to place a hand on Alfred’s shoulder to keep the other from losing his balance. Alfred was scowling now, and Ivan watched the gold in his eyes turn brighter as he scowled. “What’s happening?” Alfred said.
The ship was rocked once again, but Alfred managed to keep his balance this time. He pulled a pistol from his coat and glared at the ceiling above them. “Explosions,” Alfred said. The set of his shoulder and his stance shifted into the soldier that he was. “The city is under attack.”
The open deck with all its shops and the barrier that prevented the winds from destroying it was empty of civilians. It was a strange sight especially since Alfred and Ivan had always gone around the shops at night, when they were all alight with lamps powered by magic and electricity. There was another explosion, and this time, they can see the flames hitting the barrier, spreading like another layer on the barrier.
Alfred still couldn’t see where the attacks were coming from, but he could hear the sound of fighting from further down the deck. He looked back to see Ivan following close behind him, holding tight on a staff made of ice. “I can hear them,” Alfred said. “They should be at the plaza.”
Ivan nodded and followed closely behind Alfred. They raced through the floating city’s empty streets, and Alfred gritted his teeth as he gripped his gun tightly. He was trying to make sure to keep his magic in check.
It seemed he was right to keep his magic in check as the soldiers from Cautania were gathered in the plaza. They seemed to be fighting with a few people. From where he was, Alfred could see the smaller ships hovering around the city.
“Pirates,” Ivan said, placing a hand on Alfred’s shoulder to stop him from rushing towards the enemies.
“Are you serious?” Alfred said, turning towards the other. He’s only heard of pirates from stories, and he thought that they were things in the past. He was certainly not expecting to encounter some of them in the floating city. “Why are they here? Wait, that doesn’t matter. We need to help them. Ivan?”
Ivan had a frown on his face, but when he saw the worried look on Alfred’s face, he immediately replaced the frown with a smile. He sighed and removed his hand from Alfred’s shoulder. “Very well. Be careful.”
Alfred grinned at Ivan. “You don’t have to worry about me,” he said as he rushed into the fight without hesitation.
Alfred wondered if Ivan believed his words. Besides his brothers, Ivan was probably the only one who knew of Alfred’s nightmares, of the things that still haunted him from the battlefield. Most people only saw the genius hero who managed to win the war when others had only died. Alfred, though, knew that he probably survived many of his earlier battles on luck rather than skill.
Alfred was immediately attacked as he joined the fight. He ducked from a sword swing and countered with his pistol. It probably wasn’t a good idea to rush into close combat with only a pistol for a weapon, but he had gotten too used to using his magic to augment his own abilities when practicing with Ivan.
He looked around him and at the Cautanian soldiers and knew that there was no way to use magic without arousing suspicion. After all, Ludwig himself seemed to hate magic after the tribes had supposedly attacked Cautania’s settlement with it. It rankled at Alfred, that suspicion of magic, especially since he knew that few people actually believed in magic in Cautania. Hell, Alfred refused to believe it even when Ivan had shown him several times during their first days together.
Alfred turned at the sound of his name and caught the staff that Ivan threw at him. It was just in time for him to use it to deflect a blow from one of the pirates. He kicked the man in the stomach before using the pistol to shoot him in the head. He dodged another blow and incapacitated his attacker with a heavy blow of the staff to the back of the pirate’s head.
“Alfred!” Alfred almost turned to attack the person who had called out to him, but managed to stop himself when he saw Ludwig.
“Ludwig,” Alfred said, startled. He didn’t expect the prince himself to be fighting. Alfred cursed as he saw another assailant approaching from behind Ludwig. Without warning, he pushed Ludwig aside and shot at the rushing attacker. “Not the time to talk, huh?”
Ludwig grimaced and took Alfred’s lead, turning his back towards Alfred so they could watch each other’s backs. Alfred managed to take down two other attackers, and he made sure to watch Ludwig’s own fights, getting ready to step in if needed. He wouldn’t be able to face the emperor if he somehow managed to let the prince die.
He gritted his teeth as he blocked another attack with the staff from Ivan. He could feel Ivan’s magic in the staff and could feel his own magic stirring underneath his skin. If it had just been him and Ivan, he would have already launched himself to the air to try and destroy their attackers at the source. He hated the limitation, especially knowing what was now available to him.
Alfred was never really one for limits and control. He wouldn’t have become a soldier if he had let his brother limit his movements after all.
It only took a few more minutes before they were able to take care of all their attackers. Above the city, the ships also seemed to be retreating. Alfred turned and grinned at Ludwig, already putting on the mask of the confident hero.
“Is everyone alright?” Alfred asked, looking around at their group. Ivan was standing apart from the rest of the group, and Alfred gave him a small smile before letting his gaze wander around the rest, checking for any serious injury. As he was looking around, he noticed the movement from the ground as one of the pirates raised a pistol. Time seemed to slow for Alfred as he pushed Ludwig out of the way of the line of fire, knowing he was putting himself in danger instead. Alfred raised his own pistol and took a shot.
The two shots seemed deafening in the calm silence after the fight. Alfred stumbled as the bullet grazed his left arm instead of hitting him on the chest. His own shot seemed to have missed in his haste, but Alfred could see how the pirate had missed him as well. The man’s arm had been pushed to the side and encased in ice.
Alfred’s heart was pounding in his chest, and he looked towards Ivan, and Ivan stared at him with wide worried eyes. He looked pale, and his hands were outstretched towards the pirate. Alfred opened his mouth to thank Ivan or perhaps to reassure him, but before he could, some of the Cautanian soldiers disarmed and restrained Ivan. Ivan still seemed shocked, and he didn’t even try to fight the soldiers when they did, still staring wordlessly at Alfred.
“What?” Alfred said in confusion at the sudden movement around him. Everyone was on guard again, and Alfred felt as lost as he did during his first battle. He glanced towards Ludwig to ascertain the prince was fine before turning back to the other soldiers. “What are you doing?”
“I asked them to arrest the man who had attacked you and the prince, Captain Kirkland.”
Alfred scowled and turned towards the man who approached him with a snarl. He didn't even bother to correct the name that was used to address him. “Attacked us!? What the hell do you mean by that, Director Drei?”
Drei waved a hand towards the now unconscious pirate with his hand still encased in ice. “Is it not clear that he used his control over the elements to get that man to attack you and the prince?”
“What proof do you have!?” Alfred demanded, grabbing viciously at the project director’s collar. The director only looked at him impassively, as if he was humoring a child. Alfred could feel the call of his own magic underneath his skin, felt the need to let it out. He wanted to burn the man in front of him.
“Alfred,” Ludwig placed a hand on him to calm him down, breaking the magic’s hold on Alfred. He took a deep breath to calm down, to calm the storm within him. The prince was frowning when Alfred finally deigned to look at him. The other soldiers have disappeared and taken Ivan somewhere, and Alfred gritted his teeth.
“What? I’m right, aren’t I?”
“He’s from the Boreal Tribes, Alfred,” the prince said.
“So?” Alfred laughed humorlessly. “Does that make one a criminal these days?”
Director Drei cleared his throat and smiled at the two men. “They did attack us, captain, yes? This could just be another part of their plans.”
Alfred wiped the expression on his face and stared at the other’s cold blue eyes. He didn’t know what to do about the situation, but it wouldn’t do to make an enemy of one of the empire’s most prominent organizations. Not if he wanted to free Ivan. “What are you going to do with him?”
The man smiled placidly, as if he was finally pleased at Alfred’s attitude. “We shall be at the capital in a day, your highness. If it is proof that you want, then I’m sure a trial would be good enough for you, yes?”
The capital. Alfred gripped at the pistol in his hand. It had felt like ages since they left the capital event though it hasn’t even been a month since then. He’s lost the staff Ivan made somewhere. Perhaps, it had been lost when Ivan was taken since there was no magic to sustain it. He took a deep breath and restrained the storm inside him. “Alright,” he said, looking from the prince to the director. “The capital and a trial then.”
Alfred’s expression was grim as he stepped off the platform in the capital. He could see Ivan surrounded by soldiers a few feet away from him, but Ivan seemed determined not to look at him. It was frustrating, and he had to fight the urge to rush towards them. He didn’t expect that anyone would be welcoming them to the city, so it was surprising to see his brother standing at the bottom of the platform, already giving orders for people to prepare their carriage.
Somehow, Alfred thought, it was a relief to see Arthur acting the same as always. The moment Arthur stopped ordering the people around him, Alfred approached him. “Artie,” he said.
“Ah, Alfred, you--” Arthur’s voice trailed off as Alfred suddenly engulfed him in a hug. He hesitantly gave the younger man a pat on the back. “Are you alright, lad?”
Alfred froze, suddenly feeling the call of another person’s magic in Arthur. Arthur also seemed to realize it because he had stopped patting Alfred’s back. “Arthur, you--”
“Not here,” Arthur said in a low voice as he stepped away from Alfred. “I’m glad to see you back, Alfred.” He looked over Alfred’s shoulder at the rest of the party that was led by Ludwig. Arthur gave a small bow towards the prince. “Welcome back, your highness. The emperor awaits your report.”
“Duke,” Ludwig greeted, looking from Arthur to Alfred. “Are you coming back with us to the palace?”
“If you don’t mind, your highness, I would prefer to speak with my brother at our residence. We have heard about the trouble you’ve faced, after all.”
Ludwig nodded and placed a hand on Alfred’s shoulder. “I shall see you later then, Alfred.”
Alfred gave a small tired smile at the prince. He did need to speak with his brother, but he also knew that he needed to see Ivan soon. They would have taken him in the palace, and the trial would surely be held there as well. “Yes,” he said. “Later then, Ludwig.”
The Duke of Drachen’s carriage was waiting for them outside the Airships’ port. Alfred touched the crest on the door of the carriage, remembering the same crest that decorated the walls of the temple he and Ivan fell into. He wondered if Arthur could tell him something about that. With a sigh, he boarded the carriage and waited for Arthur to follow. Alfred glanced outside the carriage, at the bustling crowds that always gathered outside the ports. He should be happy to be home, happy to be where he was most comfortable, but the storm inside him would not stop. He leaned his head on the glass and let his eyes slip close.
He was just beginning to doze off when Arthur finally entered the carriage. Startled awake, Alfred tensed and fought to control the lightning at his fingertips. Arthur glanced at Alfred’s hands before lightly touching his shoulder. “Relax, you’re safe,” Arthur said before sitting across Alfred.
The moment the door closed, Alfred clenched his hands into fists and leaned forward. “You have magic,” he stated. He had the same single-minded focus in his eyes that he had when he was working on his own projects. It would have been intense for anyone, but Arthur was long used to his brother’s curious obsession with things that interest him.
Arthur looked at him calmly. “I do,” he replied with a chuckle.
“You never told me,” Alfred said as he sat back. The lightning in his fingertips had disappeared, and he was starting to relax in the presence of his older brother. “I thought magic wasn’t real.”
“And I was hoping you would continue to think that way,” Arthur said.
“But why?” Alfred frowned. “Magic seems so useful.”
“Useful but very dangerous.”
Alfred snorted. “So are weapons,” he said. “And that’s everywhere in the kingdom right now. I literally helped to build ships and other machines that could kill people. Magic doesn’t seem that much different.”
“Magic is much more destructive than you think, Alfred,” Arthur sighed. “Many people are afraid of it.”
“But that’s not all, isn’t it?” Alfred scowled at his brother and he crossed his arms over his chest. He thought of Ivan teaching him magic, of the magic that he can feel inside him. He couldn’t believe that people will just pretend such a power doesn’t exist. People were too greedy to ignore such a thing. “What are you hiding, Arthur?”
Arthur sighed. “One day, that curiosity will get you into trouble.”
Alfred laughed and grinned at Arthur. “Hasn’t it already?”
“More than it already has,” Arthur said with another sigh. “You always worry me, Alfred.”
“And you’re dodging my question,” Alfred said with a scowl. “I want to know the truth.”
“Very well,” Arthur said, and he folded his hands over his lap. “Magic used to rule this empire. The first empress was a demigod after all, and through the use of her magic, he won control of this land.”
The first empress, Alfred thought. He remembered Julchen in the temple and the names of the Empire’s founding families on the wall. He remembers the name Drachen and Kirkland, and he could still see the dragon corpse itself inside the temple. “Empress Julchen, huh?” Alfred murmured. He looked to Arthur to question him. “That’s the emperor’s ancestor, right?”
“That’s right, so you do listen to your lessons,” Arthur said with an amused smile.
“Artie, I feel like you just insulted me,” Alfred joked. Then, as if flipping a switch, his easygoing expression turned serious once again. “Then? If the royal family’s magic is so strong, why is magic practically nonexistent in the empire now?”
“You’re not going to turn this into another research project, are you?” Arthur shook his head. “It weakened. As the years went by, magic seemed to decline. It wasn’t enough to keep the empire safe and to continue developing it.”
“So they decided to hide magic? Why?”
“Why do you think?”
Alfred groaned. “We’re not having a lesson, Artie.”
“Aren’t we?” Arthur countered with a grim smile. “This is a serious matter, Alfred.”
“I know that,” Alfred scowled at the streets outside. He wondered where Ivan was, if Ivan thought that Alfred had abandoned him. He can no longer feel the call of Arthur’s magic, but he could still feel the comforting hum of electric magic from the Drachfeurite in his coat pocket. It was almost like being in one of his airships again. “Do you think I’m not taking this seriously?”
“Perhaps,” Arthur conceded with a grimace. “You’ve always been a reckless child.” There was silence between the brothers after that. Alfred pressed his forehead to the glass window of the carriage, watching the familiar streets pass by as he thought.
“Power,” Alfred finally said. “If Julchen ruled through magic, people would not accept a ruler that didn’t have it. Not unless they did something to remedy the situation. So did they suppress magic then? The royal family?”
Arthur looked pleased that Alfred chose to answer. “Something like that,” Arthur agreed. “It is why the RSS exists and why we continue to be the most technologically advanced empire.”
Alfred snorts, “And so we forget and fear magic instead?” He grimaced. “I don’t like it.”
“It seems you have some things to tell me too, lad.” Arthur said. The carriage had stopped, and Alfred stared at the familiar facade of their family’s home in the capital. Its imposing columns reminded him of the temple, of a history long buried in secrets and politics, of magic and wonder hidden behind the guise of advancement. “Alfred?” Arthur asked in a worried tone.
Alfred remembered going home after the war, remembered the same worried tone in Arthur’s voice. He remembered feeling lost and clinging to his older brother. He felt lost now, and he wondered if Arthur could sense it. He wondered if Arthur’s magic felt the call of Alfred’s lightning, volatile and bright like its master.
“Arthur,” Alfred said, turning from the window to look at his brother. Their eyes met, and Alfred could only think of all the trouble he’s caused in the past. He thought of all the things he's learned during this mission, of what it meant for him and the empire. He thought of Ivan, who came all this way for him. He thought of a dance under a singing tree and kisses that made storms rage inside him. There were things that Alfred needed to do and learn, but he didn't think he could succeed on his own. He wasn't the same reckless child that thought of war as a game. “I think I need your help.”
[Fragment from a Classified File in the Royal Archives]
...The crown prince shows great development in his magic. During the experiment, he was able to destroy several cannons and an airship with only his magic. It is a kind of power that has not been seen in the empire for decades. Emperor Klaus continues to reject the proposal to keep the prince in isolation until this power is under control...
Chapter 5: Through Miles of Clouded Hell
It is not easy for Alfred to deal with the politics in the Empire. It was even more difficult when he’s no longer sure who to trust. The Empire has always been his home, but he had always planned to leave it one day. He just didn’t expect it would be like this.
It's been a while. I really don't know what's happened to me. I just couldn't write for a while. I'm so sorry for the late update. This was a secret santa gift, and it's now the middle of the year.
This chapter became longer than I expected, so I divided it into half. The next chapter should be the last chapter then there'll be an epilogue after.
[A Record from the Royal Library about the Drachen Duchy]
The Kirklands have long held the position of Duke or Duchess of Drachen. Known as the Warden of the West, the Kirkland Dragons have always been loyal to the empire and have protected the land from both external and internal conflict. It was said that the first Duchess of Drachen was considered the dearest friend of the first Empress of Cautania. Until now, the relationship between the Duchy and the Crown remain a close one...
Alfred picked at the cuffs of his uniform as he waited for his brother. They’ll finally have the trial today, and he couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s already been a week since they’ve arrived, and in all that time, Arthur had advised Alfred not to go see Ivan. It was frustrating, but the capital’s politics was beyond him, and he didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize the trial. He wondered how Ivan was doing. He wondered if he even had a right to worry when he couldn’t do anything at all to help him.
Alfred was startled by the sudden shout and easily caught the boy who barrelled into him. “Jack,” Alfred ruffled the boy’s brown hair and chuckled at the pout he was given. “What’s up, kiddo?”
“Tell dad I don’t want to go!”
“The party,” Jack said with a long suffering sigh, looking at Alfred like he was an idiot. He had a strip of plaster over the bridge of his nose, and Alfred wondered what sort of trouble his nephew had gotten into again. “They’re having a party tomorrow night because of you and the prince. Dad says I should go.”
“Well you are the heir to the dukedom,” Alfred said as he crouched in front of his nephew.
Jack gave him an affronted and betrayed look. “So you want me to go too? But it’ll be boring.”
“You’re a dragon,” Alfred said, lightly poking the tip of the child’s nose. “I’m sure you’ll find something interesting. We always do.”
“But I already have things that I like!” Jack exclaimed, scowling at Alfred. “Mum says you didn’t like going to parties either when you were younger.”
“Ah, to think that Marianne would betray me like this,” Alfred joked.
“It wasn’t really betrayal if she was telling the truth, was it?” Arthur said as he descended from the grand staircase in their front hall. Alfred stood up to face his brother. Just like Alfred, Arthur seemed to be in his military uniform. He hasn’t seen his brother in the black and white of the Empire since he had been recovering after his first war, and it was strange to see him in the uniform now.
“Are we leaving now?”
“Yes, just a moment,” Arthur said before crouching in front of Jack the same way that Alfred did a moment ago. “Do you truly not want to go?”
“It’s boring,” Jack complained again, voicing his earlier complaints.
“Then, would you like to go somewhere else?” Arthur asked.
“Your mother and your brothers will be going back to Drachen tomorrow morning. Would you like to go with them instead?” Arthur asked, brushing aside a stray lock of hair from his son’s face.
“Really? You won’t ask me to go to the party?” Jack asked, his grin wide and excited. “I can go back home?”
“Of course, I’m sure your Uncle Matthew would be happy to see you as well,” Arthur chuckled as Jack suddenly hugged him. After the boy had stepped away, Arthur stood and placed a hand over his head. There was a small sad smile on his face that Alfred could see before Arthur had suddenly wiped it away and replaced it with a smile. “Why don’t you tell your mother about the change of plans?”
“Yeah!” Jack agreed. “Bye, dad! Bye, Uncle Al! Tell the king I said hi!” Without saying anything else, the boy ran past Arthur, hurriedly taking the stairs two steps at a time. By the time the boy had reached the top, he was already shouting for his mother.
“A change of plans?” Alfred frowned. “That’s not like you.”
Arthur waved a dismissive hand. “We’ll be busy,” he said. “I don’t have the time to watch him.”
And just like that, Alfred was reminded of the trial. “Right,” he said with a grimace. “Do you think we can win?”
“We’re dragons,” Arthur said, echoing Alfred’s earlier reassurances for Jack. “If there’s no other way, then we only need to make one, yes?”
His brother’s confident tone startled a laugh out of Alfred. He placed a hand over his chest and took a deep breath. He could feel his magic like a storm waiting to be unleashed. Arthur’s magic itself seemed to be heightened, his green eyes flashing gold like Alfred’s for a moment. Looking like that, Alfred could understand why his brother was one called the Tempest of Drachen.
Alfred curled his hands into fists and tried to calm himself. Arthur was right. They were dragons, and he was never one to give up.
“It’s time to surprise people again, huh?” Alfred grinned.
Arthur seemed to stare at Alfred for a long time, and Alfred shifted in worry. Before he could ask about the strange look on his brother’s face, Arthur had already moved past Alfred, touching Alfred lightly on the shoulder on his way out. “Shall we go?”
The court was already bustling with people by the time they arrived. They paused by the entrance, and Alfred could feel people’s stares turning towards them. He ignored the people and started heading for their seats only to look back when he realized his brother wasn’t following him. “Arthur?”
“Go ahead, lad,” Arthur said, waving him away. “I need to go see the Emperor.”
Arthur didn’t answer, and Alfred hesitated before he decided to take his seat. Arthur and Gilbert must have some business to discuss.
At his seat, he started fidgeting. He hated it. It wasn’t like how he usually was at all. He could hear the whispers around him, but that was always the case at court, wasn’t it? He couldn’t help but feel that they were all still at the calm before the storm. The Kirklands were storm dragons, and they could always weather the storm. But he still couldn’t help but feel apprehensive about what was to come.
He was too lost in thought that he almost jumped out of his seat when he felt the touch on his shoulder. Arthur gave him a worried look before taking the seat beside him.
“What did you talk about?” Alfred asked to distract himself.
“Hm?” Arthur seemed uncharacteristically absentminded. The duke was scanning the room like he was waiting for enemies to attack them.
“With the emperor.”
Arthur leaned back on his seat and stretched his legs in front of him. “Not much,” he replied. “The party tomorrow, I suppose.”
Alfred groaned as he remembered the party that Jack was complaining about. “Am I supposed to go?”
“You’re one of the guests of honour,” Arthur said, fingers drumming a distracting tune on his armrest. “Of course you’re supposed to be there.”
Before Alfred could reply, the doors by the throne opened and Gilbert strode inside. Everyone stood as soon as the emperor entered the room and bowed. “Long live the emperor, and Glory be to Cautania,” everyone chorused as Gilbert finally took his seat.
The emperor’s red eyes scanned the room, and Alfred shuddered, remembering similar red eyes in the ghost from the temple. When the emperor raised his hand, everyone took their seat.
“Shall we begin?” Gilbert said. He looked to the seats opposite of Alfred’s. Alfred pressed his lips together as he saw Ludwig sitting with the rest of the RSS. “Director Reich?”
The man met Alfred’s eyes and smiled as he stood. Those cold blue eyes never failed to unnerve Alfred. It was ridiculous really, but Alfred hated people who never seemed to show their true face.
The project director and scientist gave a deep bow to the emperor as he reached the clear space in front of the throne. “The Royal Scientific Society pleads the Divine Emperor for a declaration of war.”
The court erupted in whispers at the request. Silence only returned once Gilbert raised his hand. “A declaration of war? Against what country?”
“The Boreal Tribes of the North, Your Majesty,” Drei answered smoothly. He turned toward the rest of the court. “As you’ve all heard by now, our peaceful expedition to the North was interrupted by an attack from the barbarians of the North. It was quite fortunate that Prince Ludwig was able to safely return with us. Furthermore, Captain Jones was able to return to us from the clutches of one of the northern soldiers.” As he ended his explanation, he turned to face the Drachen seats with a friendly smile.
Alfred gritted his teeth and almost rose to his feet, only to stop when he felt Arthur’s hand on his arm. “Your eyes, Alfred,” Arthur warned.
Alfred blinked and breathed deeply, trying to calm himself enough to turn his eyes back to normal.
Gilbert laughed, startling everyone in the court and making them wonder if the King has gone mad. “That’s funny,” Gilbert grinned. “Are you saying our war hero was defeated by a barbarian and became his captive, Reich?”
Although Gilbert’s words were meant to be taken as praise, Alfred couldn’t help but feel that he was being reproached.
“No, Your Majesty,” Drei said, bowing his head in deference to the emperor. “They would not win against Captain Jones, not without trickery, that is.”
“This is ridiculous,” Alfred muttered, glaring at the man in front of the Emperor. “Ivan didn’t use any tricks. Magic is—“
“Nonexistent,” Arthur said, giving Alfred a serious look. “We’ve talked about this, Alfred.”
Right, Alfred thought as he gritted his teeth. He bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut. To the empire, magic was nothing more than myths and legends. Alfred hadn’t believed in it either, not until it was too difficult to deny it any longer. He could feel his own magic coursing through him, and he was quite sure that his eyes would betray his emotions if he showed them right now.
“—have brought the criminal here to be judged.”
Alfred suddenly looked up as the doors opened to admit Ivan who was currently surrounded by guards. The guards didn’t wear the black and white uniform of the imperial guards. Instead, they wore the black and red of the RSS that Alfred was starting to hate. He leaned forward, not knowing whether he was hoping for Ivan to turn towards him or to ignore him entirely. “Ivan,” he whispered and curled his hands into fists on his lap.
“And what judgment do you actually want, director?” Gilbert asked with a twist of his mouth. Alfred always saw Gilbert as another older brother, but at that moment, he felt terrified of the cold eyes of the emperor.
And Ivan wouldn’t even look at him. He slumped on his chair and felt Arthur’s hand squeeze his shoulder.
“Execution, your majesty,” Drei said.
“No!” Alfred shouted as he scrambled to his feet. Everyone’s eyes were on him, and he ignored them all to look at Ivan. The other man looked calm as if he wasn’t about to be sentenced to death. Alfred wanted to rush towards him, to use his magic to push anyone who would stop him.
But Arthur’s grip on his wrist reminded him that he couldn’t just exactly do what he wanted.
“Captain Jones,” Gilbert said, his blood red eyes staring straight at Alfred. “Perhaps, it would be better if you were not present for this case.”
“I apologize, Your Majesty” Alfred said, still feeling his magic, the lightning, stinging beneath his skin. He curled his hand into fists, nails digging into his palms as he forced himself to calm down. “I will not interrupt the proceedings again. I’m sorry.”
“So am I, Alfred. That was not a request,” Gilbert said with his mouth pressed in a displeased line. “Leave the court, Captain.”
“Do what he says, Alfred,” Arthur said, voice low beside him. He seemed tense, the grip on Alfred’s wrist tightening before it was gone. “I’ll come see you later.”
Alfred looked from his brother to Ivan, suddenly feeling uneasy. Ivan gave him a small nod, the first acknowledgement the Sirin has given him since he had walked into the court, and Alfred bit his lip. He sighed and took a deep breath. When he faced the King, his face was blank and devoid of emotions. “As you wish, Your Majesty.”
Alfred could feel everyone’s eyes on him as he left. In the empty hall outside, he slid into a crouch and buried his head between his knees. He had never felt so trapped until now, not when he was in the trenches, not when he was Ivan’s prisoner. It might have been his magic, sharp and piercing and so eager to be free. It might have been the court and the RSS and all the things that have changed since he took the mission from Gilbert.
“What am I supposed to do now?” He muttered and slowly breathed out, feeling the spark beneath his skin slowly calm until it was almost silent. Just like how it was before. He wasn’t sure what he liked better.
“You promised!” Alfred shouted, turning to Arthur in the middle of his pacing. He couldn’t keep his hand still. He wanted to work on something, maybe punch something to get rid of the anger in him at the moment. “You said you’ll help us.”
“There was nothing I can do, Alfred,” Arthur said calmly. He sat behind his desk, looking over some letters and documents.
Alfred felt like he was fifteen again and trying to convince his brother that he was old enough to go to war, that he was old enough to fulfill their family’s duty. He wasn’t, he hadn’t been. Arthur had been right about that, but Alfred had been stubborn and prideful and angry. He always had been. He felt the same anger now and the same stubborn pride, except he was fighting for something other than his own birthright.
It was ridiculous how much he and Arthur had argued since the end of the trial. It was ridiculous how much he could still feel like a child with no power to change anything. It was ridiculous that his brother and the emperor still expected him to attend the party that night.
“Couldn’t you have at least reduced his sentence?” Alfred hissed at his brother as he pulled at his hair. He could feel the lightning in him, but he could also feel his brother’s own magic, a resistance that was strange and familiar at the same time. He continued pacing around the room to get rid of his restless energy. “To something other than an execution?”
“Perhaps, this was for the best,” Arthur said, staring at the desk in front of him.
Alfred turned to his brother in anger once again. “So that’s the truth,” he snarled, slamming his fist on the desk in front of his brother. The scorch mark on wood showed just how little control Alfred currently had on his magic. His brother only gave him an impassive stare, as if there was no need to fear the storm inside the younger dragon.
Perhaps, there wasn’t, Alfred thought. After all, didn’t his recent experiences show that he seemed to have known nothing about his brother at all?
“What exactly do you mean, lad?” Arthur asked, green eyes flashing gold for a moment like Alfred’s own eyes.
“You never planned to help us,” Alfred accused. There was a long pause, and Alfred felt the sting of betrayal from seeing the calm look on his old brother’s face. He clenched his fists on top of the desk, drawing his magic deep inside the way Ivan had taught him. He took a deep breath before looking straight at his brother once again. “Tell me I’m wrong, Arthur.”
Arthur frowned at him. “I wish I could tell you everything,” he said as he stood up. Arthur looked tired, his magic becoming faint around Alfred. “You should get ready for tonight. Perhaps, you can say your goodbyes after the party.”
“Stop fucking patronizing me!” Alfred snarled and whirled, lightning building in his fist as he aimed a punch at his brother. His fist stopped several inches away from Arthur’s face. It felt as if the air in front of him had turned into a solid wall. He gritted his teeth and tried to move away only to realize that he couldn’t, the pressure of the wind around him had become shackles that kept him from moving.
“Then you should stop acting like a child,” Arthur sighed, golden eyes staring at Alfred as the air became heavier around him. “I am not your enemy, Alfred. There is another way to get what you want. You should realize that once you’ve calmed down.”
Alfred only glared at his brother as Arthur left the room. The moment the doors shut behind the duke, the wind released Alfred from its hold. Alfred felt the fight leave him as his brother’s magic released him. He leaned backwards on his brother’s desk, hands curling over the edge of it. “Another way,” he murmured as he closed his eyes and calmed down.
He visualized the palace where the party would be later and the citadel and dungeons nearby. He thought of the airships that he could see when he waited to see the emperor, airships that he had helped to develop throughout his career. He thought of the Drachfeurite that was still in his pocket, responding to every whisper of his magic. Everyone would be busy during the party, and Alfred had more than enough tools for the plan that was slowly forming in his mind.
Alfred opened his eyes and smirked. There was another way. He wasn’t sure if it was what his brother had meant, but it was Alfred’s way. And he had always been stubborn, hasn’t he? He took the Drachfeaurite from his pocket and turned it over in his hand. “Ivan’s going to be surprised,” he told the empty room before shrugging.
Arthur was right. He had to get ready for a party.
The glittering lights of the ballroom were a familiar sight, a beautiful and impressive show of the country’s scientific progress. Alfred used to be impressed by them. He used to think that they were one of the best things he’s ever seen. But ever since his exposure to magic, they seem lacklustre in comparison. In the same way, Alfred had been to many of the Royal family’s balls and gatherings. Some of them have also been held for him in the past just as it was now. He used to enjoy the attention, used to believe that he would be a better duke than his brother because he knew how to influence people and command their attention.
Now, he felt nothing but dread and uneasiness as he felt everyone’s gazes on him. They were the same gazes that had turned on him when he made a scene in the Emperor’s court.
He sighed and picked up a glass of wine from a passing server. There were too many eyes on him, and it frustrated him. He’d lost his brother for a while, but he still had to deal with the rest of the nobles in the party. He found a place by a pillar, near one of the empty balconies, and scanned the rest of the room. Alfred tensed as he realized just how many of the RSS were current in the room. Neither the king nor the prince were in the room, and his brother had disappeared somewhere. If he was going to act tonight, it should be now when the people closest to him were not there to pay attention.
He drained his glass of wine and started towards the exit. He didn’t even care about the gazes on him anymore. Whether his plan succeeded tonight or not, those stares would mean nothing to him after this night. Still, he needed to get rid of everyone’s attention if he was to succeed with his plan. Before Alfred could do anything to get people’s gazes away from him, the arrival of prince Ludwig was announced. Everyone glanced towards the great double doors at the top of the grand staircase.
Alfred grinned. Well, there couldn’t be a better distraction now, could there?
He turned to leave the ballroom through one of the smaller side entrances. Everyone had already turned towards Ludwig and had started to approach him as he descended into the room. Alfred was prepared to run the moment he was clear of the ballroom. He was prepared to throw everything away that night.
It was stupid. It was reckless. It was the only thing he could think to do.
The door handle was in his hands when he felt the hand on his shoulder. Alfred flinched and whirled around, hand going to the hilt of the small knife he’s hidden in his coat. He glared at the stranger who had stopped him. “Can I help you?”
The stranger’s eyes flicked towards Alfred’s hidden hand. The man looked quite unassuming with his dark hair and dark eyes, someone who people would never notice twice. Alfred realized that he really didn’t know him. It was quite suspicious in a banquet hall filled with the familiar faces of the empire’s most prominent noble families.
“Can we chat for a moment, Captain?” The stranger asked. Although he had phrased his question as a request, he was already leading Alfred outside with the tight grip he had on Alfred’s shoulders. It was a short walk to a small reception area, and Alfred was too stunned at the man’s actions that he allowed himself to be pushed in.
Alfred finally responded as he stumbled in, whirling around and pulling his knife out. The lock clicked behind the stranger, and he grinned at Alfred. “Come on, Alfred,” he said. “We both know the dagger is not your best weapon.”
“Who the hell--”
The man’s dark hair slowly turned white and the Emperor’s bright red eyes looked from Alfred’s face to the knife in his hand. “Do you plan to use that?”
“Your majesty?” Alfred stared, uncomprehending for a moment, at the emperor. He tried to understand how Gilbert had just changed how he looked. Was it magic? Can the Emperor use magic?
Gilbert chuckled and clapped a hand over Alfred’s shoulder as he walked past Alfred and sat on one of the couches in the room. “Alfred,” Gilbert called out. He crossed his legs and leaned back as Alfred turned to look at him. One gloved hand gestured to the other couch. “Take a seat. As I said, let’s chat for a moment.”
Alfred hesitated, hand gripping the knife tighter, before he moved to take the seat that Gilbert pointed at. “Shouldn’t you be at the party?” He asked the emperor in front of him.
“Shouldn’t you?” Gilbert shot back with a grin. He rolled his shoulders back and settled back on the couch. “I plan to show myself after our chat. It should be interesting. But between the two of us, you’re the one who has no plans of going back there, yes?”
Alfred stilled, carefully watching the emperor’s expression. Gilbert’s face gave nothing away. He looked amused yet cold as always. Alfred felt a chill on his back as the emperor’s red eyes continued to watch him. He wondered if he should be ready to get executed with Ivan. He wondered just how much of his plans Gilbert has guessed. “Are you trying to persuade me to go back?”
Gilbert threw his head back and laughed loudly. “Hell no!” He exclaimed.
“What?” Alfred asked with a frown.
“Say, Alfred,” Gilbert said. “Did Arthur tell you anything about tonight?”
“Tonight?” Alfred repeated. He felt lost. He couldn’t understand what the emperor wanted from him. He couldn’t understand why the whole meeting was happening in the first place. “About the party?”
Gilbert sighed. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, waving his hand in front of him. “Let’s talk about your plan instead. How exactly do you plan on rescuing that Sirin?”
Gilbert chuckled at the look of suspicion then confusion on Alfred’s face. “Did I break you, Alfred?”
Alfred shook his head. “I don’t understand what’s happening.”
Gilbert laced his fingers together over his knee. “I’m trying to help you,” he said. “Arthur asked me to, and I did promise to protect you.”
Alfred blinked. “But--” He scowled at the blade in his hands. “You sentenced him to death.”
“Stop asking questions,” Gilbert ordered. He then sighed and shook his head. “Then again, it’s you. You’ve always asked questions,” he muttered. “You dragons have always been curious creatures.”
“Gilbert,” Alfred said, dropping all formalities. It didn’t seem like the emperor or his brother were doing things in any official capacity right now anyway. “What’s happening?”
“We’re making plans for the future,” Gilbert said in a soft voice. He snapped his fingers and the empty table between them suddenly had a pack of supplies and a gun on it. Gilbert reached into his coat and pulled out an envelope, which he placed on top of the pack. “Take it. It’s from your brother.”
“From Arthur?” Alfred placed his knife on the table before he took the envelope in his hands and turned it over. He thumbed his brother’s familiar handwriting on it before looking back at the emperor. “You want me to escape with Ivan?”
Gilbert smiled. “Ah, that’s right, Antonio should be back by now.” Gilbert tapped his fingers on the table in front of him. “There’s an airship in his fleet. It has a white dragon for its masthead. It should be quite fitting, yes? What’s wrong? Didn’t you always want to leave the empire?”
Alfred shook his head. “Not like this,” he murmured.
“Well,” Gilbert chuckled. “It’s the best we can give you. You have an hour. Will you take it?”
Alfred nodded. He made a choice at that point, and he grinned at Gilbert. Alfred had always planned to be free of his duties in the empire. As Gilbert had said, he had always planned to go on an adventure. This was not his original plan, but he can make it work. “You better not change your mind, your Maj--no, Gilbert.”
Alfred took the things Gilbert offered and headed towards the door. As he touched the lock, he hesitated and turned toward Gilbert who was still sitting on the couch without a care. “Gilbert?” At the emperor’s questioning look, Alfred smiled. “Thank you.”
Gilbert snorted and raised his hand in goodbye. Alfred nodded and immediately left the room. Once the younger man had left, Gilbert turned towards the corner of the room where another person appeared. “What do you think, Eli? Do you think they’ll make it?”
Elizabeta rolled her eyes as she took the seat beside Gilbert. “Should you really be thinking about other people tonight?”
Gilbert ignored her question and took the knife Alfred left in his hands. He leaned his head on the back of the couch and twirled the knife between his fingers. The light of the lamps in the room seem glinted brightly on the silver blade. “Tonight should be interesting.”
Elizabeta shook her head and gave a long suffering sigh. “You’re insane,” she said. “Shall we go?”
Alfred ran. He ran like the devil was after him. He didn’t know who was on his side. He still wasn’t sure if Gilbert was lying and setting a trap for him. Even if the emperor wasn’t lying, there were bound to be people against this whole plan.
There were less guards around the palace and Alfred would question it more if it wasn’t for the hints his brother and Gilbert have already dropped about some plan besides his own happening tonight.
He wondered what they were planning and if he should be worried for his brother. He wondered if he should stay as his heart continued to beat wildly with every gilded hallway that he passed. This was his home, the country he’s served for several years of his short life. He grew visiting the palace, playing with Ludwig and learning from Gilbert. They were as much his family as the Kirklands of Drachen were.
And he was planning on throwing all that away tonight.
You can always make a new home, a new start. But once someone was dead, there was nothing you could do, no prayer to the gods that can make them come back. Whether it was science or magic, Alfred knew there was no going back from the dead. He’d learned that all before.
He’d learned to hate it.
Alfred called on his magic, lightning sparking underneath the soles of his shoes as he boosted his speed. He ignored his surroundings now. He didn’t need any distraction to make him hesitate right now.
When he was near the entrance to the palace dungeons, he skidded to a stop before he appeared before the guards. It would be better not to fight for now. Alfred checked the gun Gilbert had given him just to be sure before he placed it back in his coat. He fixed his clothes and his hair that had become messy from his run before turning the corner and walking towards the large iron doors to the dungeon.
There were two guards in front of the iron doors who immediately stood to attention when Alfred appeared.
“Captain Jones?” One of the guards said in a confused tone.
Alfred gave them a friendly smile. “At ease, men,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m not here for an inspection.”
“I’m sure you’ve all heard, but the barbarian in the dungeons owes me for what he did.” Alfred shrugged. “I just thought I’d pay him back, hm?”
“Oh, of course,” The guards nodded and were already quickly moving to open the doors.
Alfred smiled at the sight and handed each guard some money. “The two of you should probably take a break,” he suggested as the guards received his bribe. “I’ll take care of things here, alright? Leave the keys with me.”
“Yes, captain!” One of the guards handed Alfred the keys he asked for. With a salute, the two guards quickly left down the hallway. Alfred watched them go before turning back towards the open iron doors. He took a deep breath and clutched at the strap of the pack he was carrying before walking forwards. His steps echoed on stone as he walked down.
The path to the dungeon was lit by lamps powered by Red Drachfeurite, and the light flickered as Alfred passed them, reacting to the young dragon’s magic. Alfred could feel his heart beating faster and faster like the drums before battle. It was colder underground, and it reminded him of the Boreal mountains, of the man who could control the ice as easy as breathing, of the temple underneath the snow that had been forgotten and left behind time. It reminded him of a dance under a singing tree and the hesitant touch of a Sentinel Sirin.
Alfred stopped in front of the only occupied cell in the dungeons. Ivan sat on the ground, with his wings drooping behind him. They didn’t seem to be broken, but there were chains that kept him from moving too much. His head hung low, and he didn’t look up even when Alfred had stopped.
“Ivan?” Alfred asked, hesitantly touching the bars of the cell.
Ivan raised his head, violet eyes widening in surprise. The chains rattled as he tried to move forward towards Alfred. He stopped, shoulders slumping, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion towards Alfred. There were some bruises on him, and he looked exhausted. “What are you doing here?”
Alfred gripped the keys in his hands tight enough for his knuckles to whiten as he examined Ivan. They should be fine. He didn’t look very injured. Anything else, they can just fix later. “What are you talking about?” Alfred grinned at the other. “The hero’s here to save you. Let’s get out of here!”
[An Excerpt from an article about the airships of Cautania]
...Cautania remains one of the best developers of airships in the entire continent. Many believe that the Empire’s continued victory in its wars can be attributed to the strength of its Aerial Force. Of course, one of the best developments for the Empire’s airships happened after Captain Alfred F. Jone’s discovery of the use of Drachfeurite...
Chapter 6: This House Doesn’t Burn Down Slowly
Alfred escapes the Imperial Palace with Ivan. However, things aren’t as easy as it seems even with the Emperor’s support. There are many forces moving this night, and the empire is changing. They just need to survive such a change.
This took so long to write, and it all became much longer than I expected. I haven't really edited this because I was too excited to post it. I might fix errors and stuff later. I hope everyone likes it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
[A Record from the Royal Library about the Royal Scientific Society]
The Royal Scientific Society, also known as the RSS, was established during the reign of Emperor Heinz I. The organization is currently known to have developed many of the empire’s best weapons and ships. During the reign of Empress Monika, the RSS continued to gain influence until they earned a seat in the imperial council.
Alfred fumbled with the keys, nervous energy thrilling in his veins. He flinched at the sudden sound of Ivan’s voice, and he looked up to check on the other, only to freeze at the glare he received in return.
“What?” Alfred asked with a frown as he finally managed to unlock the gate, the gate swung open with a gentle push from his hand.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Ivan still looked at Alfred in disbelief, violet eyes wide in shock and fear. Ivan looked over Alfred’s shoulder as if he was still checking for any guards, as if Alfred would be so stupid. “Why are you--”
Alfred huffed. “I told you,” he said as he reached for Ivan’s shackles. He frowned as Ivan jerked from his touch, the shackles moving from Alfred’s grasp. “I’m trying to save you. Why are you trying to stop me?”
“They’re going to kill you,” Ivan said in a cold voice as he tried to block Alfred from unlocking the chains.
“If they find me,” Alfred said, glaring at Ivan. “And if you don’t stop fighting me, then they will.”
Ivan still did not move, but Alfred could feel the other man’s magic, like a ghost, no, like a dragon waking from its slumber. The air around them cooled until Alfred’s breath was visible in the air. He thought of ice beneath his feet and the heavy snow that kept him from running in the mountains. He thought of Ivan’s magic, so different from his own and yet so familiar.
“You don’t have to do this,” Ivan said, staring Alfred down like he expected him to leave at that moment and never look back. Perhaps, he should have. He knew that he would have done it if it was him before all of this had happened.
He would not have chosen to leave his family and his homeland.
But things were not the same anymore. Alfred realized that more than anyone, realized that there were things that even he did not know about the world anymore. A soldier. A genius. A noble. He was all of that and none of that. Things have become different because of the man in front of him, and that man dared to tell him that he didn’t have to do this.
Alfred scoffed and shook his head. He placed his palm on Ivan’s chest and pushed. “I’m a dragon,” he said, baring his teeth in something that was not quite a grin but something more primal, more threatening. “I only do what I want.”
Alfred reached for the chains again, and Ivan did not stop him this time. Alfred unlocked the shackles on Ivan’s wrists and the collar around his neck. The chains rattled as they clattered on the ground, the sound echoing around the empty cells of the dungeon.
Ivan grimaced in pain as he rubbed at his wrists. They looked bruised and raw and Alfred found himself clenching his fists in anger again. Ivan noticed as he glanced at him and shook his head. “Alfred,” he said as he reached out, ignoring the static that hung around Alfred like an aura. “Your magic shows your temper as always.”
Alfred took a deep breath to calm himself. When he opened his eyes again, they were back to the deep blue of the skies instead of old. “Are you going to come with me?”
Ivan’s lips quirked into a small smile. “Always,” he said and Alfred blinked at the echo of a similar conversation from when they first met. “What am I to do otherwise?”
Alfred laughed, the worries and anger falling from his face for a moment. “Can I kiss you?” He asked.
Ivan gave him a look of disbelief. “Right now?”
“Right,” Alfred said as he stepped back from the other. He tilted his head and smirked at Ivan. “Later?”
“If we survive the night,” Ivan agreed.
Alfred gathered lightning around his feet. It was amazing to feel his magic answer his call, and it made him wonder just how much he’s missed not learning to use it for most of his life. He kicked at the prison gate, the iron bars blowing to clatter on the opposite wall.
“Was that necessary?” Ivan asked, looking at the keys in Alfred’s hand.
“Nope,” Alfred rolled his shoulders back. “But it did feel good.”
Ivan shook his head, his wings fluttering for a bit on his back. He reached for one of the iron bars of the prison, freezing it with his magic before forcefully tearing it from its place. He tested the iron bar on his palm before swinging it once. “This should do.”
Alfred nodded and grinned. “Let’s go,” he said.
Gilbert adjusted his cuffs as he waited for Elizabeta to return. Alfred’s knife was tucked under one of his sleeves, and he wanted to ensure it would stay there. The hallway was currently empty, the dim lights of the red Drachfeurite lamps cast the Emperor’s face in shadows. Gilbert closed his eyes and leaned back on the wall and tried to listen to the soft sounds of music from the ballroom that somehow managed to reach him.
He heaved a soft sigh. He wondered if Alfred had gotten to the Sirin without any problems, if he had found his Sentinel mostly unharmed.
“Are you sleeping?”
Gilbert huffed and opened his eyes. Elizabeta had changed from her dress earlier into men’s formal clothing--dark trousers tucked into leather boots and a crisp white shirt underneath the black military coat of the empire. Her long hair had been tied by a ribbon and left over one shoulder. She was pulling on some leather gloves as she came to stand by him.
He smirked at her, hiding any anxiousness about the night in a careless smile. He turned his gaze back at the window. The gardens were quiet, but the stars were dim. If there would still be fireworks later that night, everyone would be sure to see it in the dark sky. “Why shouldn’t I?”
She shook her head and sighed. “I talked with the Duke. He said Lady Marianne left the city a few hours ago. They should be in Drachen before anything else can reach them.”
Gilbert only hummed in response. He felt the same thrill in him that he felt in battle, the same kind of battle fury that made him think of dying and killing in turn. Oddly enough, his magic currently felt too still and calm as if it wasn’t aware of anything that was going to happen tonight.
“Are you worried about Alfred?” Elizabeta asked as he remained unusually quiet.
“No,” Gilbert lied. “That boy is a dragon. He’s always been stubborn and unusually resilient.”
“Liar,” Elizabeta said, punching him softly in the shoulder. “Shouldn’t you be in the ballroom by now? Your brother should be waiting for you.”
“I was waiting for you,” Gilbert whispered. He once again looked at her, his red eyes meeting her green ones. “It might be awhile before we see each other again after tonight.”
“You’re being too dramatic,” she said, her voice stern and resolute. “I’ll come for you.”
Gilbert snickered. “I’ve heard that one before,” he said as he straightened from his stance. “Keep Arthur and Marianne safe. Wait for Antonio. Watch over Ludwig. Protect them for me, Eli.”
“I know,” she said. Her hand gripped the sword strapped on her waist, and Gilbert looked at it with a fond smile, thinking of the cold iron pan from their childhood. He stepped towards her and reached to cup her face, but he changed his mind at the last moment, choosing to tuck a stray strand of hair behind her ear instead.
“Stay alive, Eli,” Gilbert ordered and remembered how he gave her the same order when they were in the battlefield all those years ago.
“I should be telling you that,” she said, finally giving him a soft smile.
Gilbert had already turned away from his best friend. He wasn’t about to look back at her, didn’t want to falter. Not when he already had so many things that made him hesitate. As he headed to the ballroom, the music got louder. He smiled as he thought about how Alfred could easily take advantage of how distracted everyone would be by the party tonight. Ludwig would be upset that Alfred had chosen to leave the empire, but then again, Gilbert wasn’t ever sure where he stood with his brother anymore.
The guards by the entrance of the ballroom suddenly stood at attention when they saw the emperor approaching. It was probably a strange sight. Usually, Gilbert would have attended these parties escorted by guards and other courtiers.
It was a night for something new, a night for new beginnings and great upheavals.
“Give the announcement,” Gilbert ordered one of the guards. The startled guard announced his arrival as he opened the double doors into the ballroom. Gilbert walked onto the landing of the great staircase into the ballroom. His eyes scanned the room, noting his brother’s position, the dragons’ absences, and the numerous guards from the RSS.
He felt everyone’s stares on him just as he stared back at them, cold red eyes unshaken by their attention. He saw Elizabeta slip in once all the attention was focused on the emperor’s arrival and he smiled. It was a comfort to know that she would be there, just as reliable as his hidden blade.
His brother and one of the high-ranking officers of the RSS met him at the bottom of the staircase. It wasn’t Reich, not that bastard who was constantly around his brother, who led the many researches of the RSS, and the one who cornered Alfred and his Sentinel during the trail. Gilbert wondered if he should be relieved that the Director was missing. The two were surrounded by soldiers that wore the uniform of the RSS instead of the imperial soldiers’ uniform. Gilbert greeted them all with a wide grin. “Brother!” He said, laughing loudly as he clapped both hands on Ludwig’s shoulders. “Such a serious look on your face on such a joyous occasion! Did I miss something?”
“Brother,” Ludwig greeted as he took Gilbert’s hands away from his shoulders and stepped away. “You’re late.”
Gilbert grinned, something manic and dangerous all at once. “The King is never late.”
“A King should never show weakness,” Ludwig countered.
If they didn’t have everyone’s attention before, they did now. The different nobles and officials of the empire carefully watched the two brothers who faced off against each other. Gilbert scanned the expressions on their faces and noted which ones had bloodthirst and greed in their eyes.
“What exactly are you trying to say, Ludwig?” Gilbert said, eyes turning back to his brother.
His brother looked angry and sad at the same time. It was the same way Gilbert felt, but he knew better than to show anyone. The two of them really were more similar than he thought at times. Gilbert wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not.
Probably not, he thought, with the way things were going right now.
“This is necessary for the good of the empire, brother,” Ludwig said. He nodded at the soldiers around him, who started to surround Gilbert. “Let us do this peacefully. Please stand down.”
Gilbert laughed. “And let you kill me peacefully?”
Ludwig shook his head. “No one needs to get killed, Gilbert.”
“For the good of the empire, huh,” Gilbert muttered. He knew what was going to happen tonight. He even planned for it, but it still did not feel good to have it happen. He raised his younger brother, after all. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. It was one thing to speculate and plan for this situation and another thing entirely to have your brother actually go through a coup against you. “You’re betraying me for the crown,” he sighed.
“It’s for the best,” Ludwig answered. “Gilbert Beilschmidt, you will be relieved of your power as emperor and imprisoned for your own safety.” He looked like he actually believed it. Gilbert wondered if he should be relieved that his brother wasn’t actually being threatened to do something he didn’t want to do by the RSS. He wondered if that was better than the alternative.
“That’s right,” Gilbert grinned, already reaching for the blade he’s hidden. The music has long stopped, and it was clear that no one was on his side in the room, no one but Elizabeta. And even that circumstance, that was something Gilbert had planned with his most trusted allies. Gilbert dropped the blade as several soldiers took his arms to bind them behind his back, and the metal clattered on the marble floor. The sound drew everyone’s gaze, and Gilbert cackled, loud, proud, and defiant.
Ludwig frowned as he crouched to take the knife. He didn’t look like he was happy that his brother had fumbled his own weapon. “You really have been making too many mistakes.”
“That’s right,” Gilbert agreed with his brother with a resigned smile. This time, he borrowed Arthur’s tempest instead of Marianne’s illusions. He felt the air around the knife in Ludwig’s hand and took hold of it. He gave his brother a proud smile just like he did when they were children and Ludwig had given him the right answer in one of their lessons. “I’ve always made mistakes.” He flicked his finger behind his back, his wrists chafing at the bonds they’d put them in as he pulled at them. He felt the rush of magic as he borrowed Arthur’s attribute, and the knife flew from Ludwig’s hands to stab at the RSS officer’s throat.
Several people shrieked as the officer grabbed at his throat, blood spilling from his mouth as life slowly left his eyes. Gilbert stared at the body as it collapsed without remorse even as everyone in the ballroom seemed to freeze in fear. They all looked at the blade buried in the man’s throat as if it is a bomb about to go off. Even the guards that were supposed to escort Gilbert away seemed stunned, releasing their tight hold on his arms. He didn’t run, he wasn’t supposed to, after all. Later, Gilbert plans to tell Arthur about this scene, to tell him just exactly how forgotten magic has become, to tell him how people have lost sight of the possibilities.
Still, it wasn’t the knife that they should expect to explode, Gilbert thought. Elizabeta has long disappeared from the crowd, always his unseen shadow. Ludwig was the only one not staring at the corpse but was looking intently at its brother. Gilbert hated that Ludwig looked at him as if he did not know him, as if Gilbert was the one who had betrayed him.
Gilbert wanted to laugh. How different this meeting was to his previous meeting with Alfred. He smiled at his little brother. “You should brace yourself,” he mouthed at Ludwig.
Ludwig frowned at him, but he was unable to answer before the world outside flashed so brightly that it was if morning had already come, and the room around them shook with explosions from afar. Gilbert squeezed his eyes shut as soon as he saw the flash from outside and knew that the others must have already succeeded with their plan tonight. How poetic that the ones who had been called the pillars of the empire would be the ones to bring it down.
Gilbert hated it all so much, and he had to keep telling himself how necessary it all was. As Ludwig recovered from the shock, he grabbed at Gilbert’s collar and shook him. “What did you do!?” The crown prince, no, the new emperor demanded from the former emperor.
Gilbert didn’t laugh or smile this time. He only looked resolutely at his brother. “I’m so sorry, brother, but this empire needs to fall.”
Alfred stumbled to his knees while running as he felt the tremors that seemed to rock the entire empire. He thought of the bombs exploding in the battlefield as his ears rang with the sound of explosions from afar. His breath hitched as he stumbled back to his feet. He should be moving, he thought. He should get to a shelter and find his commanding officer. He should be--
“Alfred!” Alfred jerked from the hands on his shoulder. He blinked, and he was no longer back in the battlefield and was instead staring at the worried purple eyes of his Sirin.
“Ivan,” he breathed out in relief, almost collapsing at the feeling of it into Ivan’s arms. Ivan had pulled them both into an alcove at the edge of the courtyard. Alfred was leaning on the walls, with Ivan and his wings shielding him from the rest of the world. “What’s happening?”
Ivan shook his head, and he looked over his shoulder with a frown. Alfred followed his gaze. The courtyard they were crossing was still empty, but from where they were, Alfred could see the smoke rising from different buildings in the Imperial Palace complex. The alarms that he had been so careful about were now blaring around them, the loud ringing making everything feel so much more real and so much worse.
“It must have been an attack,” Ivan told him, his wings twitching on his back, as if he was trying to keep himself from covering both of them further. Or, perhaps, Alfred thought with a grim smile, he was keeping himself from taking Alfred and just flying out of there. It was definitely one of his suggestions once they’ve left the dungeons. Alfred had thought it was too dangerous even though a part of him had really longed to try it.
“At the heart of the empire!?” Alfred exclaimed in disbelief.
“The empire isn’t infallible,” Ivan said, hand steady on Alfred’s arm even as Alfred still felt like collapsing.
Alfred swallowed nervously. He knew that, of course. He’d seen the worst parts of the empire. There was a reason he wanted to leave as soon as he finished his military service for his family. There was a reason Arthur had discouraged him from trying to become duke when he had been younger. But there was a part of him that still loved this empire, a part of him that still called it home and still felt anger at the sight of it burning. There was still a part of him that believed in the empire’s might and the impossibility of someone challenging that might.
“Who would do such a thing?” Alfred said, feeling a little breathless at the thought. He was aware that he and Ivan should be using the distraction these explosions were causing to their advantage. It was the best time to leave. No one would be worried about the airships at the docks when the palace was burning. But, he still couldn’t get himself to leave, and Ivan only looked like he was worried about Alfred instead of himself. He shook his head to try and clear it. “We need to move, we need to go, Ivan, we--”
“You need to breathe, Alfred,” Ivan said, gently touching his cheek. “I’ll protect you while you recover.”
“I don’t need to,” Alfred insisted, pushing at Ivan’s chest. “I’m fine.”
“Your eyes are more honest than you are,” Ivan said. He raised his hand and pressed at Alfred’s shoulder so he would lean back on the wall again. As he did, his hand seemed to meet some resistance, sparks flickering in the air between them. Ivan grimaced at him. “Your magic as well.”
Alfred cursed under his breath. “I’m sorry, Ivan,” he said and took a deep breath. He closed his eyes and tried to take back control of his magic. Alfred felt Ivan’s hands, steady and gentle, on his cheek and shoulder, and he used it to ground himself, to calm himself.
“Better?” Ivan asked once Alfred stopped panicking so much.
Alfred opened his eyes. They were still quite gold, but his magic was now contained and under his control. Like this, it was easy to understand why dragons were once considered companions to the gods. “Yes,” Alfred said. “Let’s go.”
“I believe that won’t be possible for you,” a familiar voice said. Ivan whirled around, his wings spreading wide to protect Alfred and to hide him from view. Alfred felt a sense of unease as he pushed past Ivan despite the other’s attempts to protect him to see Director Reich staring at them with a sneer.
Alfred fought the urge to reach for his gun right away. “Did the Emperor send you?”
There was a flash of confusion then anger in the other’s eyes. Alfred felt strangely comforted by the fact that Gilbert didn’t betray him after all. The director seemed intrigued at the idea though, and Alfred wondered if he had said something he shouldn’t. “The Emperor?” Reich muttered. “I see. That’s why you were able to go farther than I expected.” The director stepped forward only to stop when he saw the frost that was slowly spreading on the ground between them. He chuckled as he stepped on the frost, the ice cracking underneath his boots. “Sirin’s magic. One of the last remnants of the age of magic.”
Alfred stilled. As far as he knew, magic was treated as a myth by the empire. He certainly wouldn’t expect such belief from the so-called scientific society. Arthur had even told him that such things were considered secret. Then again, the Emperor himself had some magic, didn’t he?
Still, the denial came automatically for Alfred. “Magic doesn’t exist.”
Reich laughed, and Alfred flinched at the sound. He remembered Ivan’s trial, remembered how he had let the director get under his skin then as well. Ivan’s wings curled around him, protectively and possessively, and Alfred relaxed.
“Doesn’t it?” The director took a silver whistle from his coat. Its sound, when he used it, was loud and piercing even with all the alarms blaring all around them. Alfred winced at it, creeping closer to Ivan’s side.
“What do you want?” Alfred asked.
“Only to put the prisoner back where he belongs,” he answered. “Trust me, Captain, there doesn’t have to be a fight between the two of us. Your talents would be much better used elsewhere.”
Ivan looked like he was about to say something, but Alfred stopped him with a soft touch on his arm. “What are you talking about, director?” Alfred said with an easy smile. “I was only doing as the Emperor commanded. I’m transporting the prisoner. I’m sure he’ll give you the message if you ask of him.”
“Do you mean Gilbert Beilschmidt, Captain?” Reich laughed again. “You’re quite mistaken about something. The emperor has no authority over me. By the end of this night, I doubt he’d have much authority over the empire.”
Alfred stilled. He thought of Gilbert who had acted so mysterious even as he helped Alfred to save Ivan. He thought of his brother, who let Jack refuse attendance to tonight’s party and who hurried his family out of the city earlier. He didn’t like the picture that was starting to form in his mind, especially not when he could still see the smoke from the explosions that occurred earlier.
Alfred felt his own magic respond to his anger. “What did you do?”
“Nothing you would understand,” Reich replied.
Before Alfred could do anything with the magic that’s gathered around him, he heard the familiar sound of beating wings. For a moment, he thought that Ivan had left to the skies, but his partner’s wings still hovered protectively around him. Alfred looked up and froze at the sight of the descending Sirin. “Ivan,” he said. “Ivan, this--”
But, Ivan was also staring at the young woman who had landed behind the director. She was in the dark military uniform of the RSS. Her long pale blonde hair was tied back in a severe ponytail. However, her eyes were covered with a dark metal band that wrapped around her head. The same metal band was lined with glowing white lines that reminded Alfred of Drachfeurite and the creatures, no, the monsters that he and Ivan had encountered in the Boreal mountains.
Ivan had called those creatures the failed experiments of the empire. With horror, Alfred looked at the thin white veins of glowing Drachfeurite through the metal band over the girl’s eyes and her wings, and he thought that Ivan might have been right after all.
“Ivan,” Alfred repeated, glancing towards the other to ask him about the creatures of the mountain, but he stopped at the look on the older man’s face.
Ivan seemed to have frozen on the spot. His eyes were wide with surprise and horror. Alfred suddenly understood what other people meant when they pointed out how his magic got out of control. The air around them grew colder, the frost continuing to spread over the grass beneath them and even over their clothes. “Ivan!” Alfred called out, trying to shake the other out from whatever trance he seemed to be in.
Ivan blinked and stumbled a few steps back. He seemed to reach for his scarf that was no longer there, something he and Alfred couldn’t afford to search for, no matter its importance. “Natalia,” he said in a soft, shaking voice.
“Now, isn’t this a good reunion?” Reich said, grinning like he was watching some fun play.
Alfred glared as he realized the situation. He didn’t realize just how much you could hate someone until that moment.
Ivan was frozen in place.
He stared at his sister and thought of all the creatures that he’s had to kill in the mountains. Alfred was still shouting something, looking quite angry and indignant, which reminded Ivan of how they were in the beginning. It only made him remember the wolves they had to fight then and the glowing lines of dragon fire on their bodies, the same kind of fire that he could now see running through Natalia’s wings.
Alfred’s magic was causing sparks to fly around him although it was now more control. Ivan could see how it gathered around Alfred’s fist as Alfred tried to attack the director only to be blocked by Natalia.
Alfred stumbled backward with a hiss, and he weaved away from Natalia’s continuous attack. “Ivan!” Alfred was still calling out to him. “Ivan, you have to get away now! I’ll take care of this, I promise!”
Ivan jerked at the sound of Alfred’s voice. He gritted his teeth at the sight of his sister and Alfred fighting. He was warned about it, he now thought. The oracle did say that his sister would be changed when they met again. He just did not expect this kind of change.
But it was no reason to leave Alfred to fend for himself.
Ivan summoned a staff of ice and blocked one of Natalia’s wings before its bladed edge sliced Alfred’s throat open. Alfred looked stunned, and he stared at the wing that almost killed him. “Ivan?”
“I’ll take care of Natalia,” Ivan said, summoning his magic to try and freeze his sister’s legs, but Natalia simply flew back away from his reach. She wasn’t speaking, and really, that was one of the worst things about it. He almost missed her obsession over him in the past over this silence. Their older sister would be more upset. She would cry again, and Ivan was tired of seeing his sisters cry. He turned his icy glare towards the director who continued to stand a few feet away from the fight. “Take care of him instead.”
“I’ll be fine,” Ivan cut him off. “Natalia and I are stronger than you think.” When Natalia moved to attack again, Ivan pushed Alfred out of the way. He tried to stop Natalia with several ice spikes rising from the ground. “I know her better,” he said as he stopped her wings with his staff. “Now, do your part.”
Alfred only hesitated for a beat before he nodded and whirled to face the director. Ivan ignored them for a moment and focused on trying to restrain his sister. He didn’t wish for her death, only wished to return her to normal, but that might not be possible in their current situation. Instead, they should probably find a way to knock her out.
Ivan blocked another blow from Natalia. He grimaced. As always, his sister’s bladed wings were terrifying. She had always been one of the best warriors among the Sirin. “Natalia,” Ivan tried to speak to her while still dodging her blows and trying to trip her up as well. “You must listen. I will bring you back home. I will find the others who have disappeared as well. If you can hear me, please trust in me. Come back to us.”
Ivan spread his wings wide and took to the skies. He can see Alfred, surrounded by golden sparks, as he fought with the director. Even now, Alfred still seemed hesitant to use any lethal force. Ivan certainly didn’t plan to force him, not in this. Alfred’s loyalty to the empire was just as important as Ivan’s loyalty to his family.
It was something that the young soldier needed to resolve on his own. It was something that only he could figure out.
Natalia finally reached him, blocking Ivan’s view of Alfred’s fight below. “I--van,” Natalia rasped as her blade met his staff. Ivan froze in surprise before quickly summoning a shield of ice, thicker than any he’s made before as he remembered Alfred’s own stunt during their spar in the floating city.
“Natalia,” he said as the ice held under the onslaught of Natalia’s fist. “Can you hear me?”
Her lips twisted into a snarl, and she lunged at him, blades held tight in her hands. Ivan frowned and dodged from another of her attacks.
He could still see the sparks of magic from Alfred's fight below. Natalia’s own magic sparked, glinting at the edge of her blade as she continued her onslaught. She didn’t speak anymore but her grunts and snarls of annoyance only made Ivan angrier at the empire, at the people who have decided to see the people and creatures of the mountains as nothing more than experiments.
When the oracle had told him that Natalia would be changed when he found her, he had not expected this. He never would have expected this.
He swore as one of Natalia’s feather blades sliced at his arm. He winced and tried to get away only to feel the sharp pain in his wing. He really hasn’t had the time to let his injury heal properly. He needed to finish this quick even if he had to hurt Natalia for now. He would make it up to her, but right now, the alarms were still blaring and Ivan wasn’t completely sure Alfred could stand against his former allies. Not easily. Not alone.
“Forgive me, sister,” Ivan said, wishing that some part of Natalia that wasn’t being held in thrall with the power from the Drachfeurite would hear him.
He lunged at her, reaching past her shoulder to her wings, his ice spreading from where he had grabbed her to the rest of her wings. She tried to stab at his neck as he did and he stopped her with one hand. He was aware that they were crashing, the wind whistling around them as they fell. He was reminded of falling with Alfred into that temple, reminded of the same experimental birds that they faced then.
Before they crashed, he spread his wings to slow down their fall. As they landed, they stumbled on shaky footing.
“Ivan!” Alfred called out in surprise. Ivan glanced at him to see that he was keeping his distance from Reich, who now held a sword. He was surrounded by the golden sparks of his magic, and Ivan guessed that he was using it to defend himself. He had used the same tactics when he had sparred with Ivan in the past.
Ivan grabbed his sister’s wrist as she attacked him again. She seemed unstable because of her frozen wings, and even Ivan could feel the strange pressure of Alfred’s energy around him, like the buildup to a storm, which would have affected her as well. He twisted her arm and kicked at her feet until he could pin her to the ground and knock her out.
He looked up for a moment to check on Alfred and saw him waver at Ivan’s sudden appearance. The sparks of magic around him were flickering because of his momentary distraction. Ivan saw the director pull a gun from his coat, and Alfred was not looking, just as he hadn’t been on the floating city.
Ivan felt his blood run cold at the idea of Alfred being hit, of Alfred lying dead and cold. He shouted and called for his ice, knowing that it would not be fast enough, not this time.
Something flickered in Alfred’s eyes, some sort of grim determination that was lost in a moment. The gunshot was deafening, but Alfred still stood there though he had turned away from Ivan to look at Reich. Ivan stared in disbelief at the bullet that was stopped in the air in front of Alfred. Right, he thought, Alfred was the genius captain of the empire. To him, combat always seemed like some kind of ancient draconian instinct, a legacy of Drachen and its ancient guardians.
“I’m not an idiot, director,” Alfred said as he stood straighter, staring straight at the man across him. Like this, Ivan didn’t feel like he'd made such a mistake when he had thought Alfred was a prince in the past.
“Of course not, Captain Kirkland,” Reich taunted with a sneer. “You must stand down.”
Alfred tilted his head, and he reached for his own gun, which he turned towards the director. “It’s Jones,” he said, calmly. “I’m no longer a child. I’ve chosen my own name, and I’ve chosen my allies.”
“And you’ve chosen poorly!” The director snarled, his usually cold and calm demeanour breaking under the threat of death. the bright sparks of Alfred’s magic gathered around his gun. “You will be a traitor to the Cautanian Empire! Your family—“
Alfred shot, his bullet guided surrounded by a beam of magic and electricity. The director stopped, staring unseeing as he fell. Alfred’s hand shook as he let it fall to his side. “You do not have the right to speak about family.” He muttered, the last sparks of his magic disappearing from around him. When he turned back to Ivan, he had a determined look on his face. “We need to go. There will be more people here soon,” Alfred said, and his eyes flicked towards Natalia’s prone form. “Can you fly and carry her to the port?”
“And what will you do?” Ivan asked. He was worried about the dark look on Alfred’s face, and the director’s last words reminded him that there were many ties keeping Alfred here.
Alfred grinned at him, but Ivan couldn’t help but notice the strain behind that grin or even the way that Alfred still glanced in worry at the burning buildings of the palace complex. Alfred called on his magic again, this time focusing on his feet. “I’ll run,” he said.
“Will you?” Ivan said, doubtfully.
Alfred grimaced. “Don’t you believe me?” Alfred stepped closer until he was close enough to touch, close enough to feel the slight sting of his magic. It didn’t really hurt, and it was never unwelcome. Alfred took his hand and placed the golden drachfeurite on it. When they had just been from the temple, the drachfeurite had felt like ancient magic, something too powerful and too distant to think about. Now, the stone felt like an extension of Alfred’s magic, an extension of himself, and Alfred was giving it to him. “I’ve made my choice, Ivan. I’ll follow where you go.”
Ivan chuckled, closing his hand over the dragon fire stone, holding it just as he would have with his sister’s scarf. “Alright,” he said, meeting Alfred’s bright blue eyes that were staring to shift into gold. “I believe you.”
“Your Majesty, it’s over here,” the soldier said.
Ludwig followed the soldier into the courtyard, noting the ice that cracked underneath their feet when they moved. There were already several soldiers and officers in attendance. At the center of the courtyard, frozen in ice, Director Reich laid in death, cleanly pierced by a bullet in the head.
“Our other soldiers reported that Captain Jones took the Sirin out of the dungeons. This was probably their doing.” One of his aides reported. “Should we send someone in pursuit?”
Ludwig shook his head. He thought of his brother, grinning and defiant even as he was betrayed. He thought of Alfred in the ship and how he talked of freedom. Everything felt so far away now. He knew it was his own fault, but he still believed that it was necessary. “No,” he said. “We still need to deal with the destruction caused by my brother. Just send a warning throughout the empire about our two fugitives.”
He grimaced as he looked at the corpse of the director again. Reich had been one of his primary connections to the RSS. He turned away from the sight and started walking away. “Contact the RSS, and tell them about this,” he ordered.
“What will you do now, Your Majesty?”
“I should talk to my brother,” Ludwig said. “It’s about time he tells me what exactly he’s done.”
“We shall arrange it immediately,” the aide said, bowing as Ludwig passed by. Ludwig looked once again at the chaos around him. He wondered if Alfred had successfully gotten the freedom he wished for.
Alfred found Ivan watching the sun rise from the deck of the ship after he had successfully launched the airship. The ship Gilbert had told him about wasn’t too large, and they should be able to work with it even with just the two of them. Still, it would be good to find something better soon. He was already wondering where they should go, what course he should chart, what other things they would need.
“You’re thinking too much,” Ivan said.
Alfred blinked to see that the other had turned towards him. He chuckled and shook his head. “Someone has to between the two of us,” he teased.
Ivan chuckled. “Indeed,” he said. “It is very different to fly on a ship like this instead of flying with my wings.”
Alfred frowned. “You were on the floating city,” he pointed out.
“The floating city was a city that still felt alive with magic,” he said. “Your ships feel cold, devoid of magic.”
“I used magic and drachfeurite to get this ship started!” Alfred argued. He shook his head as he thought of his own research into drachfeurite. He thought of the creatures in the forest and of Ivan’s sister. He thought of how much the director had praised his research and how they must have used it as a foundation for their own experiments. “I’m sorry, Ivan.”
“Natalia,” Alfred said. “The creatures in Boreal. It was my research into Drachfeurite that probably gave them their idea. It was my fault.”
Ivan sighed and cupped Alfred’s face in his hand. “You did not ask them to do anything,” he said.
“Alfred,” he said. “The blame does not fall on you.”
“But we still need to do something,” Alfred said. “It wasn’t just your sister. There must be others. I know where some of the research facilities in the empire are. We can do something. We can help them. We can find a solution for your sister’s situation as well.”
Ivan nodded. “We can,” he agreed. “Together.”
Alfred grinned, feeling better with a goal in mind. There were still a lot of things they needed to do. He needed to check on his family as well. He needed to check what he remembered of all the research facilities in the empire, but at that moment, it was just good to know that he now had his own path to follow. “Hey,” he said, nudging Ivan. “Can I get that kiss now?”
Ivan laughed at the reminder. “Of course,” he said, and he pressed their lips together. Alfred smiled into the kiss as it deepened, curling his arms around Ivan’s in a hug. Ivan’s hands on his cheeks moved his shoulder, a steady comforting presence.
Alfred was a little breathless when they parted, grinning wide at the other. He looked out at the window, at the still rising sun, before looking back at Ivan. “You know, when I left for Boreal, the sun was setting,” he said.
“Was it?” Ivan asked, and they both turned to look out the windows of the deck.
Alfred nodded and reached for Ivan’s hand, lacing their fingers together. “The skies will always be beautiful,” he said and pulled Ivan into another kiss. “But I’m glad the sun isn’t setting now.”
[An Excerpt from the Public Announcements]
A REWARD OF 250000
Will be offered for the capture and detention of Captain Alfred F. Jones and Ivan Braginsky. Both are considered armed and dangerous. Both fugitives were involved in the bombing of the Imperial palace, the theft of an Imperial airship, and the murder of a respected officer...
This is technically the end of this story. Chapter 7 would only contain snippets and scenes in the aftermath of all this. It's going to be an epilogue, I guess. Really, a lot of things are happening in the Empire that Alfred doesn't know because he hasn't bothered with politics and such in a while, and you can sort of see it here. Gilbert and the others have their own story in the background, but we don't focus on that because well, this isn't their story. It's Alfred's and Ivan's.
Hope everyone likes this chapter!