“M–Miss Akasha!” Ophelia took a step forward, hesitating on how to explain herself. “My deepest apologies! I thought it was…”
Ophelia hadn’t sensed any kind of sign that the door to their room would suddenly be broken through – no footsteps, no knocks, no calls – and had reacted purely on reflex, throwing flying swords in the face of what she believed to be an enemy.
Fortunately enough, Akasha’s reflexes had been fast enough to completely counter her attack.
It was also a humbling thought. Even with a sneak attack like this one, Ophelia was completely incapable of harming the little girl in front of her. Ophelia was nowhere near Lord Finram’s level of strength, but she was still somewhat confident in her own power. And yet, her ‘opponent’ here had completely and sincerely disregarded her attack, as if it wasn’t deserving of any attention.
[…Finram wants you to join him.]
Ophelia didn’t remonstrate Akasha for calling Lord Finram so casually, but she wouldn’t allow herself the same breach of proper conduct. “Lord Finram? Ah, I see. We were preparing to outflank anyone who tried to go through that corridor to attack the communal room, but if Lord Finram has planned otherwise, then we shall obey.”
With a sign to her young colleagues, Ophelia quickly guided everyone out of the room, checking first that no enemies were waiting there – although, if there had been, she had little doubt that Akasha would have taken care of them while coming in.
As Ran, Rin, and Meliand walked toward the door to the communal room with swift steps, Ophelia glanced behind her to check that Akasha was following them – the little girl was almost unnaturally silent, so Ophelia couldn’t tell at once. Instead, however, what she saw was Akasha heading in the opposite direction, toward the other end of the corridor.
“Miss Akasha?” Ophelia called. “Do you intend to check what’s going on in the rest of the train? Would you like one of us to assist you?”
Ophelia nodded decisively. “Understood. Please, be careful.”
Akasha casually turned away and resumed strolling down the corridor. It didn’t look like she was taking Ophelia’s concern seriously at all.
Glancing one last time after Akasha, Ophelia hurried toward the communal room, catching up to the other maids as they went through the doorway. Inside stood the duke and his wife, alongside Lilly and Windsor Fulmist, all gathered together in the center of the room, away from any doors and windows. Lord Finram was standing alertly a few meters away, ready to respond to threats coming from any side.
He glanced at the maids when they entered.
“Corners,” he said.
Without needing Ophelia to relay more explicit orders, the three young women under her charge immediately took their assigned posts, without any fluster. They didn’t have much actual combat experience yet, but they had been expertly trained. They would handle themselves well, no matter what came. Ophelia herself moved toward the last unoccupied corner of the room, glancing through the window as she took her position. She couldn’t see anything amiss, from here.
Was this a demon attack?
Or a bandit raid, maybe?
…No, unlikely. In times of war, the trains were often used as armored military convoys for the transport of troops and equipment. As such, they were almost indestructible, built to weather all kinds of spells and damages. Even now, although those earlier explosions had rocked the train over its tracks – and they must have already been impressively powerful to achieve just that – it still had neither derailed nor even slowed. Even in peacetime, the cars were patrolled by the security teams, all of them crack troops, veteran soldiers, and outstanding mercenaries…
It was common sense that attacking a train was little more than suicide.
Unless those bandits had 8th- or 9th-rank warriors among their numbers, of course.
Ophelia inwardly shook her head. That was an absurd idea. What kind of powerhouse would ever become a common bandit? It wasn’t exactly a glamorous, enviable occupation. Even if, for whatever reason, such a warrior couldn’t find employment in one country, there would always be others willing to welcome him with open arms and luxurious privileges – such experts were that desirable.
In the end, there was no reason for the strong to resort to banditry.
Another possibility was that whoever had attacked expected to receive help from within.
That might be enough to make the assault a success.
But the gains of robbing the train wouldn’t outweigh the costs of bribing the security team.
Not robbery, then.
Ophelia’s gaze sharpened. It might seem like a pretty wide leap in logic, but Duke Solaire’s political opinions concerning preemptive attacks against the majin and the devils were not necessarily popular. Only, he was a very convincing man. His charisma and passion had been enough to change opponents into allies many times over, and his supporters were slowly growing in number.
With the war heating up again, these past few months, did some warmonger want to silence dissident voices?
But with Lord Finram there, who on earth would be bold enough to try such a thing? The title of 9th-rank warrior wasn’t just for show, after all. It was the very pinnacle of cultivation, power enough to rival an entire army.
Ophelia quietly sighed.
Whatever happened, they would respond to it adequately.
“My Lord Finram,” Windsor Fulmist suddenly said, “are you sure leaving matters to the child who just left will be enough? I do not wish to disparage people behind their backs, but, well, she seems…”
Lord Finram smirked. “I understand your concerns, Sieur Fulmist, but I assure you that they are unnecessary. This girl’s ability is not lower than mine. We can trust her to handle the problem, whatever it is.”
Ophelia’s eyes widened when she heard Lord Finram’s assessment of Akasha’s strength.
…Not below his own?
This ten-year-old girl was a 9th-rank warrior, too?
Lord Finram seemed very sure. He probably wouldn’t make a mistake on such an important matter.
Ophelia felt something stuck in her throat as she recalled giving that 9th-rank warrior a servant’s uniform for her to wear, just yesterday. Akasha hadn’t appeared to have a particularly deep background, and she’d only been wearing a simple, unadorned red cloak, so borrowing one of Ran’s spare uniforms had seemed a suitable and convenient solution, but looking back on it in the light of this new fact, it now seemed remarkably insulting.
…Why hadn’t Akasha said anything, at the time?
If Ophelia had only known, she of course wouldn’t have made such a mistake.
No, she had said something, hadn’t she?
She had explicitly called the uniform ‘satisfactory’.
Surely, there wasn’t a grudge hidden behind those words?
…Perhaps, it would be best to apologize anyway.
Unaware of Ophelia’s concerns, Fulmist nodded unsteadily to Lord Finram’s words and kept silent.
Standing beside him, Lilly smiled mischievously, though her face was paler than usual – the commotion probably had her more scared than she cared to admit, but she put up a good front for the benefit of her family. “Trust her? Uncle, do you trust Akasha, now? You were really suspicious of her, yesterday, though, weren’t you?”
Finram smiled bitterly. “It was that obvious, huh?”
“Well, yes. It really was. Did you guys make peace, then?”
Lord Finram mumbled, “Well, I wouldn’t say we ‘made peace’ or anything like that. We weren’t exactly in conflict to begin with. It’s just that, after talking to her, she doesn’t strike me as the type to act irrationally or harbor ill intentions toward people who don’t deliberately provoke her.”
Lilly’s eyes sparkled with curiosity. “Oh, did you talk to her? What did she say?”
“Um…” Lord Finram hesitated, a strange expression on his face. “Well, first, she called me a brat.”
Despite her shock at Lord Finram’s words, Ophelia almost joined Lilly in her open laughter before she caught herself and schooled her expression.
“And then, what?” Lilly asked, as if begging to hear the punchline to a good joke.
“Well, even though she called me that, she didn’t seem especially offended by anything I did, so I asked her a few questions about her cultivation.” He brought a hand up to stroke his chin, the same strange expression as before reappearing on his face. “It was really hard to keep the dialogue going, though. Whenever I agreed with what she said, she’d just stop talking altogether, like there was no longer any point in continuing the conversation. So I started trying to disagree with her. But even then, she’d just throw a word or three my way before clamming up again.”
“And then, she told me to shut up and leave her alone. So I did.”
“And that allayed your concerns about her?” Duke Solaire asked, the corner of his lips twitching a little as he restrained his own reaction.
Lord Finram only shrugged in response. Even though it wouldn’t be obvious to anyone who didn’t know him well, his gaze at that moment was profound. Ophelia was pretty sure that there was more to his ‘trust’ than the few amusing exchanges he had reported to cheer up his niece. There were definitely some secret facts behind all this.
Duke Solaire and his wife had definitely noticed, as well.
But this wasn’t the kind of thing a mere servant should stick her nose into, and Lord Finram’s judgment was good enough for Ophelia, so she kept her silence.
The levity Lord Finram’s recounting had brought to the room’s atmosphere was abruptly dispelled when another explosion resounded and the train shook once more, this time actually, noticeably slowing down.
“What on earth is going on?!” Fulmist said in a frantic voice, clearly teetering on the edge of panic.
“Please, calm down, Sieur Fulmist,” Solaire said. “With my brother here, few things could threaten us.”
“T–That is true.” Fulmist shook his head and let out a shaky laugh. “Ha… Haha… I really apologize for this unsightly behavior, your Grace. I’m afraid I’m not quite used to… such things…”
The duke nodded to the young man, a kind smile on his lips. “It’s perfectly fine. When I was young myself, I –”
Duke Solaire’s words were interrupted when the hollow sound of a weight dropping onto the roof of the car suddenly rang out. Everyone glanced up, frowning at the anomaly. When Ophelia lowered her head and was about to order Ran and Rin to go and take a look outside, her eyes were instead drawn to the window in front of her.
It had stopped raining some hours ago, already, but it seemed to have started up again.
Only, the rain was now red.
An instant later, more sounds of something pattering down onto the roof resounded, along with what could only be fragments of human bodies, all clearly sliced apart into countless pieces by something very sharp, dropping like hail beyond the window.
Lady Rieshia clapped her hand over her daughter’s eyes before she could see the grisly spectacle, but everyone else’s gaze was locked onto it in morbid fascination.
What on earth had happened, up there?
Mixed in among the fragments of bodies, tattered scraps of dark blue cloth and broken pieces of silver armor could also be seen. The uniform of the train’s security team.
Were they under attack?
Before any explanation could come forth, however, Windsor Fulmist, who had been staring at the scene with eyes full of horror and a face even paler than before, suddenly stumbled, his legs apparently unable to even hold up his own weight. He almost crashed into Duke Solaire, but at the moment of contact, as the duke raised his hands to catch the young man before he could fall, Fulmist’s gaze abruptly sharpened, and his features, previously slack with fear, turned grim and murderous, though his complexion didn’t get any better and his brow still streamed with sweat.
A powerful qi fluctuation exploded from within his body, and his limbs blurred, only leaving after-images in their wake as they moved. Ophelia could barely catch a small dagger appearing in Fulmist’s right hand and aiming straight for the duke’s throat, while the man’s other hand threw something toward the floor at Lady Rieshia’s feet.
Instead of hitting the floor and shattering, however, what turned out to be a small, smooth glass bead landed upon a spongy cluster of moss, which spontaneously grew over the carpet, and sank into it, disappearing from sight.
Simultaneously, green and brown vines exploded out of the pendant hanging around the duke’s neck and intercepted the incoming dagger, slapping it out of the way and slamming into Fulmist like a battering ram, so violently that he was flung against the opposite wall. Immediately, other, thicker vines grew out around Fulmist and tightly wrapped around his body to immobilize him.
Lord Finram breathed out slowly and said, “Meliand, plea–”
No qi fluctuation accompanied Fulmist’s shout. Yet, at his words, the cluster of moss near Lady Rieshia’s feet suddenly exploded – or rather, the sphere trapped inside it did – and a visible sphere of concussive force spread outward from it in a radius wide enough to catch both her and Lilly and send them flying across the room.
More vines, softer and more leafy than those covering Fulmist, caught both of them in midair before they could collide against the walls, but nonetheless, the two of them were already unconscious.
Lord Finram’s eyes blazed with anger, and with a flick of his wrist, the vines tying up Fulmist also moved, twisting all his limbs in random directions, heedless of the limits of human joints. Fulmist tried to grit his teeth against the pain, but, in the end, he couldn’t resist the pain and cried out as his limbs shattered.
In her corner, Meliand was already leaning against the wall behind her, ready for the sign she was sure would come. Her eyes glowed once, their green irises becoming bright and striking – too bright and too striking to be natural – and she slowly slid down the wall to sit on the floor, as if her body had suddenly become too heavy to stand. Windsor Fulmist’s own eyes took on the same green hue, and his entire body froze, his screams cutting off, and the qi pressure his body exuded since earlier disappearing.
Ophelia no longer bothered with him – there was nothing more he could do, now – and rushed toward Lilly and Lady Rieshia, the duke just a step behind her as his protective vines retracted inside his pendant. She examined the two of them, taking care not to move them too much, in case the damage was worse than it appeared, until she could be sure that they were safe enough. Duke Solaire just kept silent behind her so as not to disturb her work.
Eventually, she looked up at the duke’s worried face. “They’re both fine, your Grace. Slight concussion. Your wife stepped in front of the young lady at the moment of the blast, so she took the worst of it, but they should both wake up in a few minutes.”
Duke Solaire breathed out slowly. “Thank goodness.” He gestured at Ophelia. “Could you make sure?”
“Of course, your Grace.”
Ophelia turned back to the two unconscious women as the soft vines that carried them gently laid them down on the floor in front of her. She extended her hands to rest upon the two’s foreheads, and while nothing visible happened beyond the usual signs of a spell’s activation, Ophelia felt that her healing was taking effect. It wasn’t her specialty, but the damage was so trivial that they would both soon wake up, even without her help, so simply hastening that process was well within her means.
While she worked, Lord Finram approached his brother, his gaze sweeping over the two supine forms on the ground. “I’m sorry, Solaire. I didn’t expect his grenade to be so powerful.”
“Didn’t you use such things, when you were in the military?” the duke asked, though his tone wasn’t accusatory.
“I did. But while Fulmist’s grenade looked exactly the same as the ones I’m used to, it was much more powerful. Otherwise, the moss I used to catch it would have been enough to perfectly contain the blast.” He shook his head. “I shouldn’t have been so confident. Sorry.”
Duke Solaire smiled gently and shook his head. “It’s fine. Things didn’t end too badly.”
Lord Finram glanced at Fulmist, still imprisoned within the vines. “As your bodyguard, I have to disagree with you on that point. It’s not fine at all. Leaving someone I knew nothing about right next to you was incredibly stupid of me. I should have thrown him out of the room as soon as this incident started.” He smiled bitterly. “I really am slipping. Civilian life is making me softer. I’m losing the old reflexes.”
“Don’t blame yourself. You couldn’t have known he was a part of… whatever is happening.” Duke Solaire frowned. “Is all this commotion aimed at me, then? I doubt this man is operating independently and the rest of it is only a coincidence.”
“Let’s ask him.” Lord Finram glanced at Meliand, still sitting over in her corner of the room, beads of sweat rolling down her brow. “Meliand, please?”
“…Yes.” Melian’s mellifluous voice came after a small delay, her eyebrows lowered in concentration.
Lord Finram’s vines slithered, retracting from Fulmist’s face. The young man’s eyes were still that vibrant green, but his body was no longer as if frozen, and his lips twisted in a disdainful smirk. “Mind control… Heh. The great Springfield family, not only harboring, but actually employing a criminal as their personal servant. Where is your self-righteousness, now, your Grace?”
“Meliand’s magic is truth-telling,” Lord Finram answered instead of the duke. “Anyone who cares to investigate would know that.”
Fulmist’s smile grew even more bitter. “That’s what I was told, yes, but what kind of truth-telling could paralyze someone and shackle their magic? The great Springfield family, falsifying official census documents. It’s getting better and better. I’m starting to think your household is a den of shameless villains, your Grace.”
“Enough of that,” the duke said flatly. “Tell us about what’s going on on this train. Who are you, what do you intend to do, and how do you intend to do it?”
“You… We… W–We…”
Fulmist – or whatever his real name was – tried to resist Meliand’s power, but in the end, Ophelia knew it would be pointless. Her young colleague’s rank might be vastly inferior to this assassin’s, and her magic mostly useless in direct combat, but in its own way, it was incredibly powerful. More than that, it was insidious. It was almost undetectable – it caused only very minute, easily missed fluctuations in the ambient flow of qi when cast – and while it was still easy enough to rout if one could somehow detect it early on, once it actually got hold of someone’s mind, rooting it out was near impossible.
It was precisely because this magic’s danger and potency were recognized that practicing it was considered a crime in and of itself. It was precisely for this reason, too, that the Springfield household had very carefully erased all possible traces and proofs of what Meliand’s true magic was, and employed her as a hidden trump card for just this sort of situation.
And now, to keep that secret a secret – and for daring to attack the duke’s family – Fulmist would not see tomorrow’s dawn.
After he finished spilling everything he knew, of course.
“Say it. Who are you?”
Lord Finram titled his head and frowned in thought. “Hobbes? Captain Edgard Hobbes? Didn’t we fight together, during the war?”
“We did,” Hobbes replied with a sigh. “We were part of the same outfit for six years. Good times.”
“No. No, they weren’t… It’s strange, though. The Edgard Hobbes I remember was a good man. I wouldn’t have believed he’d be the kind to try his hand at assassination.”
Hobbes scowled – Meliand’s spell couldn’t go so far as to control his emotions; the difference in ranks still amounted to something. “Well, the Finram Springfield I remember wasn’t a traitor to his own species,” he said through gritted teeth. “He was a hero who killed more majin than anyone else. He protected humanity against its enemies.”
Lord Finram looked at Hobbes in silence for a long time. Hearing those words probably hurt him all the more knowing that, under the effect of Meliand’s magic, Hobbes could only tell the truth – the truth as he saw it, at any rate.
“You didn’t look this young, in the past,” Lord Finram said finally, changing the subject. “Actually, you didn’t look like this at all. Are you carrying an artifact?”
Lord Finram whistled quietly. “Unbelievable. Where on earth did you find such a thing? Who gave it to you?”
Hobbes glowered and clenched his jaws, but the words came unbidden. “G–General Foss.”
Duke Solaire stiffened upon hearing Hobbes’s answer, then his shoulders slumped, and he let out a long sigh. “Well, it’s not like it’s all that unexpected, but I really wish you were lying, Captain Hobbes.”
Ophelia understood the duke’s scruples. General Foss was the overall military commander for all standing troops within the Thread. If any war was to be fought against the majin, he would be the one to lead it. In the face of more and more insistent signs of a resurgence in the war, the very purpose of the Springfield family’s current trip had been for Duke Solaire to visit the general and convince him to veto any kind of military action – at least, any unprovoked one – against the majin. While the meeting between the two had been perfectly cordial and polite, it had ended in failure.
But to think this old man would send assassins…
And this plot had definitely demanded more than a few days of planning. The duke’s visit had only provided an opportunity to set it in motion; the intent had been there for a long time.
“So you paid off the train’s security team to look the other way while you attacked the train? Or even to help you do it?”
“N–Not paid off. Bribery would have greatly increased the risks of a leak. Our people were hired as train guards a long time ago, in anticipation for this sort of mission. When we knew you’d be coming, we arranged for some of them to be assigned to the train you would board.”
Lord Finram sighed. “Really… How much time and effort did you put into this?” He glanced at the window, and at the conspicuous trails of blood all over it that the train’s speed was doing its best to spread and thin. “I’m sorry to say that your fake security team seems to have run into a few hiccups along the way, Hobbes.”
“Lord Finram…” Melian’s strained voice rose unsteadily from her corner. The young woman was slumped against the wall, her face pale and drawn, her eyes shut tight.
“My apologies, Meliand. I’ll hurry it up.” Lord Finram took a step toward Hobbes and pressed in. “Then? What was the plan, exactly? You couldn’t have snuck a 9th-rank warrior into the security team without alerting me, but without someone like that, you should have known you wouldn’t be able to get past me. So how did you expect this assassination to pan out?”
“Draw… Draw you out of the first-class car with increasingly violent acts against the other passengers. Then, once you come to stop us, take the duke if you left him there. Otherwise, take everyone left here hostage and exchange them for the duke. Otherwise, eliminate him while some of our people keep the rest of you too busy to protect him. Otherwise, improvise according to the situation.”
Lord Finram frowned. “Improvise? Hobbes, you’re a very good soldier, but a poor assassin, and improvising was never your strong suit. Why were you selected to spearhead this operation? Because you knew me best? Then you should have known that your pathetic surprise attack wouldn’t be enough to get past my watch. You should have waited for a better opportunity, instead of panicking and rushing through it hastily just because you saw a few of your allies get killed when you didn’t expect it. I’ve always told you…”
“Finram,” Duke Solaire called suddenly. “Why are you giving advice to the assassin?”
“Huh? Oh. You’re right. Sorry. He was my subordinate for quite a long time, so…” Lord Finram shook his head and let out a tired sigh. “In any case, your plan probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. Even discounting Akasha’s presence, it’s obvious that I wouldn’t leave my family behind unprotected for you to slaughter or take hostage. Even if your fake security team appeared at that time and guaranteed their safety while I went out to stop your atrocities against the rest of the passengers, it’s doubtful I would agree to it.” His eyes narrowed as he stared at Hobbes. “What’s next? There is something else, isn’t there? We both know this is how General Foss operates. None of his plans are sure to work, but he always runs several of them at the same time, so at least one ends up hitting the mark. So what is it? Speak up.”
“Keep your attention centered on us… Slow down the… train. And then… And then…”
“And then, what? Meliand, don’t hesitate to destroy his mind if that’s…”
Before he could finish his words, Lord Finram’s eyes suddenly widened, and without even giving a word of warning, he shoved his brother to the side, just in time for a bright beam of light to bore through the reinforced wall of the train, the thick layer of vines, and Lord Finram’s own arm, passing through the space Duke Solaire had occupied a moment ago.
Lord Finram groaned in pain, his left hand clenching around the wound on his right arm. It wasn’t bleeding at all, having been cauterized shut by the incredible heat of that light beam at the same time as it had passed through.
“Down!” he screamed then.
Everybody obeyed unquestioningly, and barely an instant later, more beams riddled the walls with holes. Fortunately, thanks to Lord Finram’s timely warning, no one reacted late, and the beams passed harmlessly overhead. The only one who couldn’t obey was Hobbes, still imprisoned within the vines. Several beams passed through his body, and another right through his head, burning a hole in his skull and killing him instantly.
When he died, Meliand, already near the end of her rope, sighed in relief as she retracted her magic from his mind. Ophelia couldn’t help but let out a wry smile as her young colleague closed her eyes on the spot, as she laid there on the floor and immediately fell asleep, despite the clear danger of the surrounding situation. This was the expected backlash to her exerting her powers beyond what she was used to – controlling the mind of someone several full ranks above her must have been incredibly taxing. Still, even if it was understandable, it was a bit jarring to see somebody seemingly decide to take a nap while the room was being magically bombarded by an unknown assailant.
Although, perhaps Ophelia herself couldn’t really throw stones on this one, considering she didn’t feel particularly flurried, either, even in this situation. Even as she had ducked, her hands never ceased to output her healing magic, dedicating every drop of her qi to the task so as to wake up Lady Rieshia and her daughter even one second earlier.
Although, thinking about it…
Glancing at Hobbes’s dead body, Ophelia resolved to keep Lilly sleeping until she could clean it up. It wouldn’t do for the young lady to be traumatized by the sight when she regained consciousness, after all.
Once the rain of light beams stopped, Lord Finram shot up to his feet, and vines climbed up his legs and wrapped around him like armor. He then took a few steps forward and kicked open the door at the end of the room.
The first-class car was the last of the train, so there was nothing to impede Ophelia’s view beyond the door.
In the distance, following the same tracks as theirs, another train was approaching swiftly, noticeably closing the distance with every second as it rushed at breakneck speed after them.
And on the nose of that pursuing train, a sun seemed to be standing. Only by squinting her eyes against its bright glare could Ophelia barely make out the human silhouette in the middle of that sun.
“Keller… This would be the real killing stroke.”
Lord Finram’s voice was only a whisper, but Ophelia caught it, despite the roar of the wind rushing into the room through the open door. She recognized the name.
A very famous man, reputed for his enormous power as a user of some variant of light magic, which he employed to devastating effect in long-distance attacks. As someone whose main magic was also light – although it was a completely different branch – Ophelia had always greatly admired the heights Keller had reached in his cultivation.
Indeed, he was a 9th-rank warrior, reputedly even superior to Lord Finram himself.
Perhaps it was time to feel flurried…