“Well that was something,” Julius muttered as he walked across the ramparts with Claire and Valon, his face still a little red. Though if anyone asked, he’d say it was from exertion–…no, it was probably better to say something else…
At least he had clothes on now. Actual clothes, instead of just a robe, consisting of a long-sleeved red shirt and black pants, albeit loose ones. Still no shoes though.
Well, whatever. If there was one thing metal and blood magic were both useful for, it was strengthening his body.
“Th-That…That it was,” Claire agreed, her face still a bright red. He was starting to get used to seeing her like that…
[Indeed, the previous experience was indeed an occurrence. Why are you both remarking on that fact?] And then there was Valon.
“Because people do things, Val, and sometimes you just need to confirm that something happened.” Claire paused for a second, then grinned, her blush finally subsiding. “For instance, Julius here can now confirm that Leok has a burn scar on her lef-”
“And we’re changing the subject.”
“Very well~. Next up is the black tower.”
“Huh. You mind giving me some heads up on who’s there?”
“How about some hints instead?” She grinned. “Up next will be my historian, my groundskeeper, and my admiral.”
Julius blinked as they reached the black door leading into the equally black tower, a small frown on his face as he thought it over. “…Historian would be Hans because he’s the educator of the group and clearly knows his stuff on demons, Autumn’s gotta be the groundskeeper because dryad, duh, and…Jonathan’s the admiral.”
“Huh. Did you guess that last one?”
“It’s more like I deduced it, to use one of Douglas’s dumb phrases.” Julius shrugged, walking forward and opening up the door. “He’s the only one we met on an island, so he probably has some kinda sailing experience to get there, and I honestly can’t see the remaining three having much interest in ships.”
“Oh what a fascinating deduction!” And the vamp in question was right on the other side of the door, smiling like the lunatic that he was. “Though it does make a great deal of assumptions regarding the characters of my fellow generals. You never know, there could be the heart of a sailor deep in my dear Ariel’s white-blooded heart~!”
“Yes, a term of endearment! Not one that she would really appreciate though, no, certainly not, largely due to her supreme distaste for those of a non-female nature in general! And even worse in a romantic context-”
“Jon, no gossiping about Ariel’s nonexistent-” Ouch. “-love life,” Claire chided, stepping right past him into the tower’s…admittedly cozy interior. Lots of indigos and violets in the decorating style; literally, he could see both flowers on display in flower pots around the room.
Nice carpet too, felt good against his feet. “So I noticed you didn’t mention Fergus or Seth there. They can’t ever be sailors?”
“Oh they certainly could, but I doubt it for either,” Jonathan replied, strolling through the room and taking seat–one where he was sitting sideways and letting his legs dangle over an armrest–in a fancy blue chair set in front of a table with an ocean chart on it, “My winged compatriot eschews the land and sea in favor of ruling the skies as our semi-official ‘air force’ general-”
“We’re trying to come up with a better title,” Claire chimed in, idly examining some of the paintings of ships on the walls.
“-and Fergus is Fergus.” …Oh yeah, that explained a lot.
“And that means?” Julius decided to ask anyway.
“Simply put, he prefers land-based combat, which is certainly a shame as his bestial people do have a number of sailing traditions on their northern coast. Though I suppose no one ever accused the dear Son of Marcus of exploring outside his limited boundaries.”
“Uh…well, apparently he slept with my friend Cyrus from the Light Lands. So…”
“…” Jonathan leaned back in his seat. “…Huh. Well, consider my esteemed self very wrong for once and also incredibly baffled at Fergus’s apparent taste in men.”
“Really? I thought you’d be into the whole ‘over-dramatic’ thing.”
“Oh please, there can only be one king here, that’s me.”
“Ahem.” Wow, that was a very annoyed glare Claire had.
“Ah, not literally, my glorious lady. I meant that in the dramatic sense, not the-Anyhow! Ships, admiralling, all that business!”
“Right.” Julius glanced at the chart, which seemed to be of the Orisalic Ocean. “Hm. So you have enough ships for an invasion by sea?”
“Oh certainly! Such a force could come from both directions if we sufficiently coordinated with our northern territories, but there is something of an issue of crossing into Frost Land territories in that regard, and they have a tendency to involve themselves in Light-Dark conflicts in ways that the Sun Lands, historically, do not.”
“Huh. So you’ve thought a lot about this?” Julius asked as he glanced over at Claire. Kinda made him wonder why she hadn’t gone forward with any of those plans yet…
“Of course I have! After all, I have a cultural legacy to uphold! I cannot allow myself to fall into complacent mediocrity by assuming all problems are handled before I even begin! All factors must be considered, which is why my wondrous liege thought it best we abstain from such invasions until our overwhelming forces and numbers were fully established!”
Ah, so that was it. “Huh. And what was that about ‘legacy’?”
“Oh fantastic!” Jonathan grinned as he interrupted Claire, showing off his sharp teeth. “It has been quite some time since I met someone with such an interest in my people’s accomplishments!”
…He might’ve made a really dumb mistake.
If nothing else, it was interesting how Jonathan told the very, very long story. Though that was probably because he was most likely exaggerating everything.
The short of it was that he came from a long line of vampires that were known far and wide within the Dark Lands and they apparently had something to do with “overcoming the curses of their people”. Something about vampires needing charms to cross running water without getting sick.
“Does that help anyone with seasickness, or is it just for vampires?” Julius asked as the story wound down. At some point, he’d taken a seat at the table too, if just so he didn’t have to stand during the tale.
“The charm, along with many others, was made specifically for vampires,” Jonathan explained, still smiling wide, “Some of my kind has gifted them to companions of theirs who suffer from such sea-bound illnesses, but it had no effect on their unfortunately plagued forms.”
“Is that so…” Well that was a shame. Could’ve been handy for some people back home. “What was that about other charms, by the way?”
“Simply put-” Oh, so he could put things simply. “-my noble kind has been plagued by a myriad of curses from the dusk of our inception, with the most infamous being our deadly aversion to the accursed light of the daystar.” …Did he mean the sun? “As such, we’ve spent several millennia trying to discover methods with which we could protect ourselves from those accursed afflictions! And we’ve quite thankfully succeeded in making a counteractive charm for nearly all of them!”
“They’re obsessive-compulsive,” Claire said in a dull tone, slumping in her own seat. Apparently she didn’t like sitting through lectures. Julius could understand that, sure, but this was all new to him, so it actually was a little interesting.
[Given that those who are turned do not seem to display such traits prior to their conversion, it is possible that it is simply a mental disorder that solely afflicts vampires,] Valon added, still standing at attention near the table.
“Nonsense! Us vampires are perfect beings who were cursed by the gods for our perfection!” Jonathan declared as he gestured to the skies. “For us to be afflicted by anything must be the malicious results of a dastardly curse!”
[Your fixation on perfection adds more evidence that you are indeed afflicted by this compulsion,] they countered, still in an even tone.
“Val, stop with the therapist stuff,” Claire complained, rubbing her temples.
[I am merely stating my thoughts.]
“So, hey, you said vampires were cursed by ‘the gods’, right?” Julius asked in an attempt to steer the conversation back on track, “Did you mean the Ouza or-”
“NO!” Julius blinked at the sudden, immediate panic in Jonathan’s voice, before the vampire cleared his throat, regaining his composure. “My apologies, that was unseemly of me. I was merely being dramatic there in my declaration. Any and all curses afflicted upon my people most definitely came from those of the Rakuli, who so oppose my kind for our undying support of our benevolent benefactors.”
“…You seem really agitated for someone with ‘benevolent benefactors’.”
Jonathan frowned slightly, then sighed and cleared his throat again. “Ahem. Yes, my reaction was…unnecessarily loud. Merely…declaring such things is blasphemous, and I would not want to hurt my standing with our deities. I must consider matters of my immortal soul, you understand.”
“Not really,” Julius admitted, a little confused, “Why would a vampire be worried about their ‘immortal soul’? You people are immortal, right? You don’t die?”
“Ha! Ah, yes, in some regards, Sir Goldforge. However, immortality is vastly overblown amongst many. While age will not claim me, my kind has a number of weaknesses, and all undeath truly guarantees is a violent death.”
[‘No peaceful demise awaits those who flee the gentle hands’,] Valon intoned in agreement, apparently quoting something.
“Jeeeeeeeez, why are you all so damn morbid?” Claire complained, finally pushing herself up off her chair, “Jon, no more ruining my mood or future plans with potential downsides.”
“Oh, of course, my glorious lady!” Jonathan immediately replied, standing and bowing to her.
“Good. Julius, Val, you’re with me. Let’s go see what Hans is up to. And hope it’s not another damn lecture,” she muttered, turning and heading right for the stairs, clearly expecting both of them to follow her. And Valon definitely did, immediately falling in step behind their ‘mistress’.
“Hm. Well, hey, thanks for the talk, Jonathan. It was interesting,” Julius said as he got up too. He smiled and held out his hand. “Definitely better than the last time I had to deal with you.”
“Oh most certainly! I quite like having all my teeth!” Jonathan said as he shook his hand.
“Ah, yeah, sorry about that.”
“Worry not! We were enemies at the time, so I do not hold it against you. Although I can’t say the same for my companions in the white tower. Ariel in particular may hold quite the grudge.”
“Yeah yeah, Ariel’s still pissy that you and your brats captured her, it’s really not a big deal,” Claire said as she stood by the door, frowning impatiently and tapping her foot against the floor.
“…Are you sure?”
“What? Is there some other reason she’d be upset with you?” He could think of a couple. Jealousy, mostly. “I suppose she could blame you for Kiyoshi’s stupid prank, but whatever, she’ll get over it.”
Jonathan just chuckled. “Well, I’m sure you can settle matters later once you encounter her once again. For now, I hope you give me some privacy so I can begin to ponder over how best to tease Fergus for his tastes in men.”
“…Right.” Waving goodbye, Julius walked with Claire out of the room and into the curving halls of the tower.
“Now then, next up should be Hans if he’s at his place. The stairs up should be over here,” she explained as she began to lead the way.
“…Claire, can I ask you something?”
“Are you sure those were the only reasons why Ariel wouldn’t like me?”
“Yeah of course. Why else would she be unhappy with you? Did you do something?” Her tone got a little suspicious at the end there, so nice to hear she was still protective. Still.
“Do…Do you not know?”
“Ariel likes you.”
“Yes? We’re friends.” Resist the urge to facepalm…
“No. I mean she’s in love with you.”
“Pft, no she’s not, silly. We’re just really close friends. Sure, she adores me, but that’s only right considering how amazing I am-”
“Claire, she said I was her rival for ‘her beloved’s affections’.”
And that got her to pause. “…What?”
[He is speaking the truth, mistress,] Valon spoke up, [Lady Leicester has romantic affections for you.]
“W-Wait! Val, why are you saying that as if you knew!?”
[Everyone did. We assumed you did not hold the same feelings for her, and, as such, did not press the issue.]
“Th-That…no, there’s no way she…” Her eyes widened like she was suddenly putting a whole lot of conversations and interactions in a new context. “…O-Oh.”
Julius couldn’t help it. He grinned and ruffled her hair, earning an embarrassed yelp from his flustered fiancee. “So does this mean she’s joining your ‘harem’?”
“H-Hey-………” Wow, he didn’t realize she could get that red. “…Sh…Sh-Shut up. G-Go.”
She gestured at the door nearby. “S-Staircase. Go. U-Up.”
“Ahh.” Julius smiled, wrapping an arm around Claire’s waist, which got her to squeak again. “Sure, let’s~.”
And off they went! At least until they reached the…classroom? Yeah, the top room looked a lot like a classroom. Desks, chairs, spaced out, with a blackboard at the end where a familiar face was busy…giving a math lesson?
“Now, say it with me, please. One, two, three,” Hans recited, smiling as he tapped the board with a pointer stick.
“Eins, zwei, drei,” his student said in a weird, cheerful tone, their body covered by a dark cloak.
“No, close, but not quite! Listen close and match mine intonation, Lady Lightning.”
“Well, at least she’s sort of understanding you. Even if she does seem to be speaking a different language,” Mira said as she lounged in a separate chair, her feet up on the desk in front of her.
“And it’s better than how she initially was,” Claire added as she pulled away from Julius and walked toward the cloaked figure, smiling kindly as she leaned towards them, “How are you doing Lightning?”
“Claire! Gut!” Lightning exclaimed as she jumped out of her chair and hugged her.
“Glad to hear that.”
“Sorry for interrupting your class,” Julius said as he walked closer.
“Breaks are always good for the mind, and it was about time for one! And hello once again, Sir Goldforge! I hope your tour has been a good o-” And before Hans could finish, Julius felt himself suddenly tackled onto the floor as Lightning rushed him.
“W-Woah, wh-” Julius nearly shoved her off, but then her hood fell off and wow that completely threw off his thought process. Lightning’s bared head was a bright yellow, and she was completely featureless except for six startlingly vibrant green eyes–and then he felt her hands on his shoulders, saw sparks coming off of her body, and that was about when a surge of electricity hit him–
A little while later, Julius blinked awake. So he was on his back, and there was something comfy and soft under him, and something…okay, that was a hand, so that was someone rubbing his head–Okay good, it was Claire. He was laying down on the floor, his head in her lap, and she was petting his hair.
“…How long was I out?” he asked, staring straight up at her.
“An hour, but that’s less than what most people stay out for after Lightning shocks them. So congrats.”
“…Why’d she knock me out?”
“She does that quite often. Were not entirely sure why, but we’ve managed to teach her not to do that to anyone in the castle. Well, anymore. But since you were new, I assume she thought you were free game.”
“…Right.” As he sat up–eliciting a vaguely disappointed noise from Claire–it quickly came to Julius that he was still in the classroom. Hans was still nearby, apparently writing something down at a desk, and Mira and Lightning weren’t there.
“Mira took Lightning down to get something to eat, and I sent Val back to the library. They seemed bored.” Oh, he completely forgot about them…welp.
“Ah, well that explains that…” Julius muttered, then glanced at Claire. Who seemed to be pouting for some reason. “So. ‘Lightning’?”
“…Yeeeeeaaaaaah, alright, this question was probably going to come up at some point…So, uh…did you happen to notice that Jonathan took the Lightning Core with him from the temple?”
“…” Julius took a slow breath, trying to get his thoughts in order. “Claire, did you summon some kind of demon thing out of the core?”
“Not exactly. See…remember how I said we had some problems with it?”
“…Claire, what happened?”
“Hey, don’t act like I’m some kid who screwed up-”
“Claire,” Julius interrupted, intentionally making his tone a whole lot flatter and less sympathetic, “C’mon.”
“…Ugh, alright, fine! We broke the stupid thing-” What. “-and got her out of it.”
Claire rolled her eyes, huffing and crossing her arms over her chest. “Look, it’s not that big a deal-”
“I’m pretty sure it is.” How the fuck was this place still intact.
“-and it hasn’t gone too badly either!” she continued, scowling, “Sure, I didn’t get the army I wanted, and barely managed to wring a regiment out of the stupid thing before it fell apart, apparently because demonic magic cancels out divine magic or whatever, but hey! At least I got an all-powerful elemental out of it with all the mental faculties of a newborn puppy!”
“I wouldn’t say her mind is that reduced, mine noble lady,” Hans contradicted, still writing with a smile on his face, “Mine current theory is that the Lady Lightning has been rendered into a sort of…not quite childlike state, as her impulses and instincts show a more mature mentality at times, but more a particularly sheltered or foreign mindset. She’s begun to learn at a decent pace past her more animalistic phase, but a majority of concepts seem simply unfamiliar to her.
He paused, tapping his pen against his chin. “I would not go so far as to call her infantile…perhaps amnesiatic?”
“Yeah yeah, it’s great and all but I can’t exactly use her for combat, now can I?”
“Oh not in the slightest, mine noble lady. She has no mind for tactics in the slightest. We’ve only barely managed to aid her in understanding that she shouldn’t shock those providing her food.”
“You see? You see what I deal with?” Claire demanded, frowning like this was somehow a problem other people were causing her instead of one that could’ve easily wiped out everyone in the damn city.
“Isn’t this completely your fault?”
She blinked at Julius, then immediately scowled. “Hey! You should be backing me up on this!”
“Claire, you broke a temple core. How the fuck is this place not a crater?!”
“Because I know how to set up containment wards! I’m not an idiot!”
“Ah-No, no, you’re right, you’re not.” Julius took another breath, this time to try to calm his nerves. She didn’t accidentally blow up the country, everything was fine and already happened, so he really shouldn’t get worried here… “So, what? Did she come out after the core exploded?”
“Oh. Ohhhh, that’s why you’d be worried, right.” …Why was it that every smart person he knew was a complete moron? “It didn’t explode.”
“Yeah, I know, I expected a problem like that to be worse-” Then why do it!? “-and don’t get like that, the containment field had like twenty wards layered over it to cover all sorts of divine and lightning-based magics going loose. And, everyone was wearing lightning protection charms and rubber armor. We were as good as we could get.”
“…Okay. So what happened?”
She sighed, annoyed. “The core just broke. The surface started cracking, fell apart, and just crumbled completely, leaving behind a ball of lightning that suddenly uncurled and it turned out to be a sapient made out of electricity, which we named Lightning.”
Julius nodded. “Because you’re bad with names.”
“Yeah I-…What? No I’m not.”
“…So yeah, interesting how that turned out.”
“Hey no, what was that about me being bad with names?”
“…I mean. Maybe not really…bad, so much as…” He glanced at Hans for help. The old bastard just shook his head and went back to writing. The prick. “…Straightforward?”
“Well…Valon is clearly named after ‘Valondrac’, you named your capital Capitalia, a lightning elemental is Lightning…”
“…Hmph.” Yup, definitely getting poutier. “Well what would you name her then, Mister Genius Guy?”
“…” Okay, it was trickier than he thought… “So hey, let’s go see Autumn.”
“Heeeeey! No ducking out of it!”
“Sorry, can’t hear you, leaving now.” And up he went and out he went, dimly hearing a mock-offended gasp from Claire and some chuckling from Hans.
He made it about halfway down the stairs before Claire caught up. And by caught, he meant nearly knocking him down said stairs when she suddenly leapt on his back. “Gah! C-Claire?! The hell?!”
“No running from me!” She glared at him, only a couple inches from his face and barely able to hide a smile. “You’d only get lost!”
“…So your idea of keeping me from getting lost is to knock me down the stairs?”
“Oh please, I would’ve caught you. And besides, you lost that argument by running so now you’ve gotta carry me.”
“Perfect logic. You can’t run away if I’m on top of you, right-Eep!”
“Yep, can’t argue with that,” Julius replied with a grin as he hoisted her up on his back, his hands on her thighs.
“Nope, following your logic here, gotta carry you now.”
“Gh-Hmph…you’re no fun when you turn things on me.”
“Really? You weren’t complaining last night~.”
“Shhhhhhh. No talky, only carrying like a good boy.”
“Heh. Yes ‘mistress’~.”
“…W-Well great, now you made it weird.” Claire huffed again, crossing her arms over her chest and resting them on top of his head, but he didn’t mind. He could hear the amusement in her voice, and that was plenty good enough for him.
And at least nothing else at the castle should surprise him anymore.