Chapter 56.1 – Int III

“Damn it! I order you to go and find out what they are up to!” Maxwell lashed out angrily with his riding crop again, angry at the fact that his current Party was useless.

“No. We may be assigned to the same Party, but we do not have to obey your every command.” The girl watched apathetically as the man in front of her finished venting his anger. “And you should know that there are allegations against you already. I caution that you should control your urges a little more, though I doubt you have the capacity to do so.”

His raised hand stopped as he thought about the allegations he was already being accused of. “Tch. What have you figured out then? And it better be worth the money I’ve spent, Mina.”

“You mean the money that should’ve been used to restore the defensive lines? Five years later, and not a single castle has been completed!” The mage shook in fury. “The whole reason your Party has been replaced is because of your gross negligence! Had we not been notified by the Imperial Healer Hall of all the mistakes you have done, the Emperor wouldn’t have deemed it necessary for us to be in this backwater country!”

Maxwell sneered back and angrily lashed his arm down, taking great joy as the stinging sound of the impact caused Mina expression to slightly falter.

“You are getting dangerously close to disrespecting your superior. Even your sponsor can’t save you here, not with you in my Party.”

She stopped and focused, going back over the information she had about Maxwell.

Maxwell Maffei

Son of Imperial Consort Julia Maffei. Assumed age – upper thousand. Hard to work with. Conceited, though smart in his actions. Toes the line between success and failure. Though often described as a failure of a Scion, Internal Guild reports have assumed to be ranking one hundred fifty. All Parties have been known to be placed under an [Oath of Silence] at party formation. Most unassociated Servants hesitant to cross him.

His age aside, she knew that Maxwell had a significant backer. Consort Maffei. Mina mentally grimaced as she thought about his backer. She was well known to place her family above all others, even the Empire should it come to that. Plus, she was rich enough to pay for the defensive lines thousand times over. It was no wonder Maxwell had no sense of money, though he liked to spend and hoard it.

And it broke her heart seeing someone tortured in front of her. But she knew Maxwell was intentionally baiting her.

“No one will save you should the Empire’s borders fall, even for a single minute. Even a fool should recognize that much,” Mina whispered quietly above the sobs.

“Healers! Get in here, right now! Or I swear there will be hell to pay!” Mina shouted out, turning to face the closed doors behind her.

“Stop moving. You still haven’t informed me of what you found out.”

Mina halted, though she was glad that a few Healers came in to heal the poor girl, and visibly sighed in relief as their Protectors walked in close behind them. Even Maxwell wouldn’t cross the Healer Hall without sufficient reason.

“Unknown Imperial Party. Peter has been seen walking in those woods before. Combining it with the records we have, it is believed to be a full Party dedicated to watching the movements around the borders, as well as keeping you accountable for your actions.”

“Don’t tell me what I know. Even I know Peter always operated alone. And his stone was returned upon his death. So who is their backer?” Maxwell practically growled as his grip tightened around his riding crop, though he relaxed as he saw the Protectors drawing their blades in response. “They have to have left some trace of who it is. Which Scion has not been seen wearing their Wardstone? I refuse to believe she is just a Servant. Who is her lover?”

“Per your last instructions, we asked your contacts. They just responded that all Scions and their personal wardstones have been accounted for.”

“THEN BRIBE NEW CONTACTS! Someone must be a double agent and selling me bad news, hoping that I mess this up.” Maxwell paced angrily, as Mina backed away and tightened her hand on her wand. Even though she knew a Scion couldn’t attack his own Party, it gave her a sense of security having a weapon close by.

He stopped walking. “It has to be Consort Maskal. She already opposes everything I do. I wouldn’t put it past her to seduce another Scion into letting her borrow their Wardstone. It was a smart move, hiding the name on the Wardstone. But no matter,” He turned and grinned. “Imperial Servant Mina Caeli, I order you to infiltrate that forest and find out who it is.”

“No.” Mina shook her head. Even the Healers behind Maxwell looked at her in shock. “Even you can’t order me to my death, not if it doesn’t benefit the Empire.”

“You think infiltrating a forest will cause your death?” Maxwell sneered contemptuously.

“Yes. Whoever it is has completed a fortified stronghold, one powerful enough that the secondary mana waves could be felt here, almost six hundred miles away. There is no way I will go there, even with a full Party backing me up.”

“Tch, I read your report. The spies reported that there was a harvest festival going on at the time. And I’ve reviewed the spell that is typically cast along with this festival. And while unique, it is nothing to be afraid of. Don’t tell me you are scared of a little growing spell?”

“No Farmer or spell is that powerful. I believe it was a cover to hide the fact that they completed their stronghold. How about you go and assault a fortified stronghold, one that has an Imperial Magi powering it.” She narrowed her eyes. “I’ve read the report from the Healer Hall. The Mage in question was powerful enough to withstand a Protector’s enchanted blade with her bare clothes! Let me see you do that, and then we’ll talk about assaulting a Magi in a stronghold.”

“Capture her Apprentice.”

“No.” A man said quietly. Maxwell and Mina turned as they identified the speaker. An old man stood there and frowned, looking down at the person Maxwell had been torturing. Mina inhaled sharply as she identified the person’s rank. High Protector. The Imperial Healer Hall had actually sent someone here to this backwater country?

“Imperial Scion Maxwell. You are ordered to stay away from the Nespe and the surrounding provinces. You are not permitted to interfere with the plans that have been set in motion,” he said as he assessed Maxwell, his eyes narrowing in displeasure. “We have received a formal complaint from both the Alcudian Healer Hall and the Alcudian Queen. You are hereby ordered to stop interfering with the politics of Alcudia.”

“You have no proof that I have not done my duty to the letter,” Maxwell said quietly.

Mina knew that was partially true. All the money he had collected was pure donations from the nobles of Alcudia, and she was positive they would back up his claim.

“A majority of the old royal court has been killed or replaced. That is enough to cast suspicion over you, even should it be mere coincidence. Worse still is the rumor that over sixty High-Class individuals have been assassinated within the past five years since Peter has died. In the last five years you’ve been stationed here, no less. Should that rumor be substantiated by the rest of the Empire-“

“The Demons are crafty. If I had my way, they’d all be transferred back to Evidia, but they’ve poisoned the mind of the Queen. She still hasn’t officially stripped them of their citizenship! I have been working to-“

“Your orders were to oversee the repairs of the defensive line and investigate the country of Trent, not regressing the laws set down by the royal family stationed here. By the order of the Emperor,” the High Protector turned and revealed a small seal, to which Maxwell begrudgingly kneeled to. “Do the job you were assigned. And nothing more.”

He turned and started walking toward the open door, though he spared a glance at the broken girl lying on the floor. “Get this girl out of here. It’s useless to heal her body at the moment. The damage is in her mind, not just her body.”

Maxwell looked up. “You have no-“

“You’ve tortured this girl long enough. Send her over to the nearest Imperial Healer Hall branch. We expect results, Scion Maxwell. Results that should have been apparent by now.”

Mina sighed in relief as the girl was taken away by the rest of the Healers, though she feared that Maxwell would fine someone else in her place instead. “You have your orders, Scion Maxwell. How shall your Party assist?”

She watched as Maxwell took a deep breath and focused. “Kill all Trent Scouts that have infiltrated the country. They’ve served their purpose. I want them all dead.”

Mina’s anger rose as she thought about that. His former Party and current one knew that Maxwell had been watching the Demon Scouts movements, but he had made no attempts to stop them from assassinating those against his policies. It was an open secret amongst the royalty by now that Maxwell wanted to place the First Prince as his puppet. With a whole country in his corner, Mina knew that he would be able to siphon resources into his own pocket; but more importantly, he would have the manpower to search for Princesses. But now with other Scions interfering, the most he could do was warn the nobles of what was to come should they cross him.

‘[Oath of Silence]. Tch, I knew something was wrong when I saw him apply that spell to our Party.’

“…consider it done. Any other orders?”

“…get me all the information on the Queen and Peter’s actions while he was here. He spent the last sixty years here. I want to know what he wanted from the Queen. Since the High Protector took her daughter just now, she’s going to be insufferable.”

“Fine. And the defensive lines? Peter made those for a reason. Anyone can tell that much. It’s well known that he was apprehensive of Demons in general.”

“Send my order out to all nobles. I want those castles finished within the year.”

“There’s no way the defensive magic circles can be applied that fast. It takes time.”

“Focus on the fifth defensive line and higher. The other four close to Evidia will be used as a stopgap and early warning system. Send the rest of the Queen’s current allies out to the fourth and below. That’ll get them away from the Queen’s influence in Nespe and out of my way.”

Mina bowed and headed out the door. She could only pray that the war wouldn’t start soon.

“Scion Maxwell better not interfere with our plans. Inform me with all haste should he or his Party come within the vicinity of Nespe.”

High Protector Glenn Fellis ordered his subordinates as he strode back into Nespe Academy. He walked with purpose though the halls of Nespe Academy, though none of the students or teachers noticed him walking. He sighed as he strode through the school. There were distinct differences between High Classes, though most never reached his level to experience it. He had been watching Maxwell for the past six months since the formal complaint had arrived, along with two mysterious items that instantly aroused the suspicions of the Imperial Healer Hall.

When formal complaint was first presented to the Imperial Healer Hall, it was almost outright denied, as the ramifications of the Healer Hall being pressured by a Scion would certainly shake their foundation. Trust was a currency that would take years to amass and a single moment to ruin. But it was the items that got everyone’s attention.

The Imperial Healer Cross. Or rather, an exact replica of the one the Grand Healer was currently wearing. As well as the Grand Healer’s personal journal.

The transcripts of the meeting were verified, and by all accounts, the Mage had told the truth when she said the items were indeed found on a corpse, which was impossible in their case. The Grand Healer was isolated almost entirely after the last attempt on her life. But the comparisons of the two otherwise identical journals were startling once it was deciphered.

Same Healer. Different lives.

Either it was a very convincing fraud, or there was something far, far more intriguing going on. Coupled with Scion Peter’s unnatural interest in Alcudia painted a mysterious picture, especially for the black sheep that he was.

Still, something to investigate quietly.

*Ding, Ding*

Stopping at the hallway, Glenn waited for the bell to start ringing, waiting for a moment as the last students rushed past to make it to class.

He turned and took a step through the wall, the illusion falling apart as he strode forward through the hall. He peered at the magic circles as he passed them. [[Concealment]] wards, and a lot of them. It was apparent that Peter had invested heavily in Alcudia for whatever reason only he knew.

Peter may have been a black sheep, but his knowledge of magic circles was enough to grant him special privileges, even amongst Scions. Magic circles to conceal, status checkers, even defensive and offensive magic; Peter had an uncanny eye at making specialized circles, and had saved several Mages from making fatal mistakes. Thus, even being a solitary soul, he had enough backing within the Imperial Family to stay neutral amongst the various factions.

In fact, one of the reasons the Imperial Family was so invested in Alcudia still was that Peter’s heritage was supposedly being stored in Alduit Academy, under one of the last magic circles he personally designed. It was high on the Imperial Family’s desires to break the lock, though everyone feared the cost that would be involved.

‘What were you doing here, Peter? And why here?’ Glenn stopped, taking his jacket and cape off. “Store. Retrieve.” he said aloud as he tapped the ring on his finger. A bright light enveloped the hallway as his jacket and cape was replaced by a slightly inferior copy, the markings on the cape and jacket changed to a slightly modified Protector rank, though any Protector would be able to realize who he actually was.

Opening the door, he smiled slightly as he heard the sound of a story finishing within the classroom.

“-and then Tyler and I dove through the brambles and captured the elusive Thistle Rabbit! Though he wasn’t as tasty as the rumors said it would be. Thus, Cidala’s Heroes finished our fifth quest, ‘Catch and eat a Tier 1 stealth monster’!” Lily stood there proudly as she talked up her accomplishments to their young prodigy.

Glenn raised an eyebrow. That was rather good for two Apprentices. They couldn’t have been more than ten at the time and they could find a tiered stealth monster? That was close to a scions record as an apprentice.

“Wow! Is that the kind of quest you applied for? A fetch quest? Monster quest?” Isabella stare was full of praise as she jumped excitedly.

“Hm hm, I got a good one. Tyler saved it for us. It’s a slaughter quest, ‘Slay Fifteen wolves!’” Lily waved the flyer in her hand. “We even get paid for this, and we can even keep whatever monster parts we can process!”

“Not so fast.” Glenn plucked the flyer from her hand and raised ignored the protests from the two young girls. “…It says the requirements are a Guild ranking of thirty.”

“Which my Party has. Me and Tyler passed that requirement before we joined the school. Hm? You’re different than the other one? You look…older?” Lily looked at him and stared, suspicion clear in her eyes.

“You replaced sixteen Clerics so far with your scathing remarks. It’s only fair to rotate their protectors along with them.” Glenn eyed the girl critically. A guild rank of thirty at the age of twelve? “Who verified that?”

“…and you actually talk. Are you sure you’re a Protector?”

“Who verified your rank?”

“My Mentor did. She said I was about rank thirty three. Me and Tyler together is about rank thirty nine.” Lily raised her head in challenge. “And with Isabella here, we should be rank forty or so. High enough to challenge a pack of wolves alone.”

“And you think you are bringing Isabella because…”

“…she’s my Party member and we need to have an adventure.”

“…”

“…and because the practical tests are coming up. Our scores are highly dependent on how we do. Don’t give me that look! Isabella needs practice as much as we do.” Lily pointed over to Isabella, who was shrinking under their combined gazes. “It’s been two years now, and she still can’t heal adequately enough! I think some real practice will help her. Magic is fueled by intent, and a safe school is no place for a Healer to hone their craft.”

Glenn knew that was true, but the casualty rate was too high for Clerics, even if it was not well known throughout the empire as a whole. Most were killed before their prime on the main battlefield, which is why it was so important to keep Clerics safe, at least until their mana cores were fully developed and had a large repertoire of spells.

“I’ve read reports about your party and your Mentor. I’ll verify and i’ll even allow it, assuming you can pass my requirements.”

“…Are you sure your a Protector?”

“Do you want to go on an adventure, or do you want to stay here and listen to lectures?”

“I’ll go get Tyler, Isabella! You make sure he doesn’t change his mind!” Lily rushed out of the room, leaving Isabella and Glenn in the room.

“A Clerics sole responsibility is to ensure the party survives. Isabella Platz. Do you think you have the skills to do that?”

“…I think so?” Isabella whispered.

“Do you? Will you hide behind your Party? Or will you watch them all die before you instead. Being in a Party is not something a Cleric takes lightly.” Glenn whispered, though the question echoed in the silent room.

“I, I can heal them. I know I can. I will heal them.”

“Tell me then, Apprentice Cleric Isabella Platz, will you protect your Party?”

“I will!”

Glenn could tell the young girl was serious. “Fine. Apprentice Vanguard Tyler Madson will continue receiving advanced training by the protectors stationed here. This test,” Glenn waved the paper in his hand, “will determine whether or not your Party will be allowed to go on future adventures. Remember that.”

“Umm…who are you?”

“Someone who is very interested in your Party. And how far it can go.”

Glenn looked out the window suddenly. “Tell your family that the school grounds are off limits. We will be able to protect you adequately here. Should she come again in my presence, I will assume she is a spy and act accordingly.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t play games with me. I know your whole family has an affinity to darkness. Greater affinity, in fact. You too. While rare for a human to have, it’s not exactly unheard of to have an affinity mutate or pass down.

Regardless, tell your family to stop using [Shadow Walking]. I grow tired of guarding against it.”

“Ummm… okay?”

“What is the girl’s goal for the party?”

Isabella bit her lip. “…it’s a secret.”

“Do I look like I’m satisfied by that answer?”

“She, uh, she, wants to get into another school. A very special school. But we need really good scores to get in as a party.”

Glenn stilled. This might be even better than he could hope for. And quite a goal for their little group. But if their Party went… then would their Mentors follow? Could it be they were after Peter’s heritage as well? “You’ll need to do more missions than this to get in as a Party. Work hard.”

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