Chapter 95: An Unexpected Guest

“I say, are you okay? Your expression is a bit pale.” Briar asked, noting the now pale color of Lyra’s cheeks.

“I’m fine.” Lyra managed to say. “It’s my loss. As agreed, the one who finished the test first wins.” And, with the sting of her wounded pride, Lyra stepped down from the stage.

Of course, the ancient language in question was, quite simply, the English language. While there were other ancient languages, like Latin and Japanese, the one chosen for the test was only the English language.

As someone who was proficient with even several dialects of African languages, how could Briar not know how to read and write her first language? However, upon encountering it, she couldn’t help but feel a bit conflicted, and therefore asked Lyra if she wouldn’t change it to a different test.

But Lyra had locked onto that particular test.

While Briar couldn’t help but feel she had an unfair advantage over someone who had not the privilege of reincarnation, she wouldn’t let her pity get in the way of her path to first place. Indeed, only someone who was proficient in the ancient languages could hope to discover the mysteries shrouded in the past.

Council-mage Syrel acknowledged the end of the match. “Briar Rose, student of Madam Rothema, has won this match!” He announced, before leaving the announcer’s stage to capitalize upon the remaining half-hour of the lunch hour.

————

Of course, by that time, Kael had arrived at Madam Rothema’s viewing platform room with the food. Serving Madam Rothema first, he then served Helen, as well as himself. Afterwards, Briar entered the room and also partook of one.

Unlike Kael, who unceremoniously ate with the burger in his hands, Madam Rothema, Helen, and Briar used cutlery. Briar glanced enviously at Kael for a bit. As a noblewoman, she had a reputation to keep up. Therefore, she couldn’t use her hands to eat.

As Kael had suspected, Princess Claire arrived as soon as she could, greeting Briar joyfully. After a brief inquiry, and a moment of thought, she also happily partook of the foreign cuisine.

But after that, someone whom Kael did not expect to arrive had come.

A knock resounded upon the closed door.

Kael stood up and opened a small wooden compartment in the door that allowed him to see and hear who was outside.

“Please identify yourself.” He asked blandly.

“Council-mage Syrel requests permission to enter.” Came the reply. After glancing at Rothema, and receiving her nod of approval, he opened the door to admit Council-mage Syrel.

Upon seeing who opened the door, Syrel’s eyes lit up in recognition. “Ah, you must be Briar! I’ve seen a few of your previous matches.”

“Thank you, Council-mage Syrel. But there’s still far too much room for improvement to suit my tastes.” Kael nodded his head in acknowledgement. “There’s more than one Briar in here, so to prevent any confusion, by all means, please call me Kael.”

“Kale? You mean like the leafy vegetable known for its bitter taste?” Syrel asked.

Kael shook his head. “No no, it’s Kael, which is short for Mikael. I take after my Mother’s side of the family.”

“Sounds like your mother was one of the Ruchts-landers.”

“Ah, you could say that. There’s not much left of their heritage except for the name, though.” Kael shrugged, and began introductions.

“It is my honor to introduce Council-mage Syrel.” Kael announced to the others formally. Then he introduced Madam Rothema, Claire, Helen and Briar, making especially sure to mention that Briar was his little sister.

“Your sister? But you both have the same first name?” Council-mage Syrel asked, confused.

“It’s a bit of an odd tale, but we both ended up with the same first name.” Kael agreed. “That’s why I took my last name from my mother’s side of the family.”

Kael then tilted his head quizzically. “But, what order of business does the great Council-mage have with our company? Perhaps is there something you wish to discuss with ‘The Bookkeeper’, Madam Rothema?”

“Indeed, it must be something important for our dear council-mage to visit us during the luncheon hour.” Madam Rothema agreed. “But, as you should recall, I never speak business during meals. So do sit down, and have a bite to eat, Council-mage Syrel, I insist.”

Syrel winced. “By all means, please stop calling me council-mage. I only took that office so that I could stop having people breathing down my neck every time I performed a simple test.”

“And look where it’s got you. Stuck doing the annoying errands that nobody else on the council wishes to do. On a bright note, it has made your face more well known, which has done wonders to your popularity.” Rothema pointed out.

Syrel sat down at the table. “And it’s only brought me more and more work, leaving me less and less time for my own pursuits. Whoever said that being on the magic council was a breeze should choke on his desert.”

In a separate room, Magi Faerwind, a.k.a. ‘The Tornado’, descended into a coughing fit when he accidentally inhaled his pastry.

“Well, you can only say that I warned you. None of those old foggies would even consider letting any of the younger generation in on their cozy little group for anything but an errand boy. I’m surprised that you’ve lasted this long without flipping a few research tables at them.” Rothema sighed as she wryly looked at Syrel.

“Believe me, I’ve been tempted to do just that upon more than one occasion.” Syrel chuckled. “If it wouldn’t put me in a quaranteen void prison cell, of course. Sometimes I think that maybe I should do it anyways so that I can finally have a quiet room to myself to do my research.”

“If I know anything about those beak-nosed, big-headed buffoons, they’d confiscate your research and then claim it as their own a few dozen years down the line.” Rothema hmphed as she flicked a finger at the pitcher of iced tea. The pitcher then rose and poured Syrel and Rothema each a glass before returning to its spot on the table.

Helen looked enviously at the display. While Helen could also lift things with her magic, the heavier items were still quite difficult to handle skillfully. Kael just shrugged and grabbed the pitcher by hand to pour his own glass of iced tea, since he had long since finished his own hamburger. Then he served Council-mage Syrel the last remaining hamburger.

“What is this? It doesn’t seem to be a cuisine that I am familiar with?” Syrel asked, looking at the hamburger with a growing interest.

“That, my friend, is an invention of the young master Briar Mikael.” Rothema said, nodding towards Kael in acknowledgement. Kael nodded back, acknowledging the praise.

“It’s called a Hamburger.” Kael said.

“Ohoh? So it’s made with pork, then?” Syrel asked, surprised.

“That isn’t the case at all, in fact.” Rothema shook her head.

“You mean to tell me that it’s not made of pork, yet you insist upon calling it a HAM burger? Whatever for?” Syrel asked, curious.

“Kael thought fast, then an old joke popped out of his mouth. “That’s because the place that I thought up the recipe for it was a small town called ‘Hamburg’ that had a sizable selection of cattle at the time.”

“So it’s made of beef, I take it?” Syrel asked.

“Indeed, you are quite quick on the uptake.” Kael laughed politely. “There is also a blend of several spices, as well as a personal sauce recipe passed down through my mother’s side of the family attached.”

“From the way you talk, it’s as if your family got ahold of their noble title through cooking.” Syrel harrumphed. “Let the food do it’s own talking, please.” Kael inclined his head in agreement and kept his words to himself for the remainder of the meal.

After lunch was finished, Syrel sat back with a sigh. “It’s passable for noble repast.”

“Oh hush, Syrel! Even the king doesn’t get food this good sometimes.” Madam Rothema scolded. “You’re just trying to find another excuse to grumble again!”

“Ah well. It’s not like I only came here to grumble.” Syrel shook his head as he began to change the subject.

“Really? Because you seem to do that every time you come to visit.” Rothema smiled wryly. “But, very well. What else have you come to talk to me about?”

“This young master’s recent performance against the swordsman, Brom…” Syrel glanced over at Kael. The hair on the back of Kael’s neck started to rise, as he had a sudden feeling that the conversation was steering into dangerous waters.

“Yes? What about it?” Kael asked, feeling his mouth suddenly become dry.

“It’s puzzling. Now, I’m no expert of martial practitioners, mind you. But that speed isn’t something which just anyone can match. For someone to have that amount of skill, shouldn’t we have seen more of it in earlier matches? Or have you been playing the pig to eat the tiger this whole time?”

Kael inwardly relaxed. He wasn’t asking about the change in eye color. “Oh, that? Unfortunately, that speed was somewhat of a fluke. Even I’m not too sure how I was able to reach that high of a speed. In the end, it tore the muscles in my arm badly, and Madam Rothema wouldn’t allow it to be healed for the rest of the day as punishment for doing something stupid.”

Syrel examined Kael’s face for a bit. “All right. I believe it.”

“Why the sudden vote of confidence?” Rothema asked.

“First off, that punishment is completely something that you would enforce.” Syrel pointed out. “Second, it is apparent in the clip that even Young Master Kael was surprised at the sudden burst of speed. It’s possible that he possesses a rare ability to raise his speed at the expense of his health.”

“Oh?” Madam Rothema asked.

“They’ve discovered another ancients ruin.” Syrel told Madam Rothema. “This one seems to document mysterious and strange abilities in the ancient days, so a lot of researchers are heading there, hoping to find some new knowledge that could change the world.”

He paused and took a sip from his glass. “Others are simply hoping to find something valuable and strike it rich, the fools. Ancient writing is best decoded in the ruins it is found in, otherwise we risk loss of context.”

“Indeed-” Madam Rothema began, but her words were cut off by the rolling toll of the bell warning that there was five minutes left until the end of the lunch hour.

Syrel sighed. “And here I was hoping to talk to you for a while yet…oh very well. Once this blasted tournament is over, I hope we can finally find some time to have us a good chat.” Syrel got up and was escorted to the door by Kael.

Before Syrel left, he turned and whispered something to Kael, who’s eyes shuddered for a bit before going back to normal. Letting out a small breath, he closed the door.

“Did he say something to you, Kael?” Helen asked.

“Yes…” Kael said ponderously.

“What was it?” Helen asked, curiously.

Kael looked up at Madam Rothema and took in a large breath.

“It seems we’ll know about it soon enough.” And he said no more as he made his way towards the stage.

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Chapter 94: The Least Challenging Subject

Upon the stage, both Briar and her opponent Lyra Harple were standing still as statues with their eyes closed, several magical seals glowing around them like a prison.

“What’s this?” He asked, curiously.

“Dunno. They’ve been like that since the start of the match.” Hannah said. “It’s very dull watching.”

“It’s a spell construct: Mind Prison.” Rothema explained. “This spell locks you in place until you’ve solved all of the problems. No penalty on getting a wrong answer except for a loss of time.

Both Briar and Lyra agreed to the terms that whoever finished answering the questions first would be the winner of this duel. While duels aren’t usually done in this manner, for those close to the top, it would be a shame for them to be accidentally killed, so this is an alternative method that the magicians came up with to preserve their numbers.”

Kael nodded in acknowledgement. So that’s what it was. And, since it was a spell construct, it couldn’t be stopped or deactivated until the objective was achieved. So, even though the bell had been rung, this single match could not help but continue until it was finished.

“Well, I’m going to grab lunch. If Little Rose finishes before I get back, please let her know I’ll be back soon.” Kael had taken to calling Briar, ‘Little Rose’, since he was her older brother.

Indeed, as the ‘older brother’ what kind of brother would he be if he didn’t have a pet name for his younger sister? But, only he was allowed to call her that. If anyone else were to take such liberties, they would soon bear the brunt of an almost vicious lesson from Kael. Knowing Briar’s personality, should she come to hear of it, they would probably also bear the brunt of a second vicious lesson soon afterwards.

Behind him, Laura moaned. “Lunch? After eating that huge mountain of food already?” Laura shook her head. Kael is just as much of a monster as Briar is! She realized.

Kael just smiled lopsidedly. The food wasn’t for him, but for Briar. Moreover, he wasn’t going to be buying it from a stall. Instead, he was going to cook it himself. Glancing up at the sun’s position, he calculated that it wouldn’t be over for at least another half an hour.

“Here, lad. I’ll be going with you, as well. I could use some food myself.”  Grandpa Thur said as he hauled himself up out of his very comfortable chair. Kael nodded.

“Me too! Me too!” Rien echoed raising her hand enthusiastically as she scurried over to Kael. She had learned early on that any food Briar made tasted unusually good.

“I’d like to come as well!” Karu leapt out of his seat and dashed over, also in it for the food.

Kael smiled wryly at the three who stood around him.

“Really, though. Don’t blame me if you get bored.” He said with a sigh.

““We Won’t!”” the two young children said with expectant gleams in their eyes.

—————–

Briar stared at the space in front of her, a transparent wall filled with glowing blue glyphs, a look of utter astonishment on her face. This wasn’t a pocket dimension, but a specialized mental construct. Although they appeared as they looked usually, only the minds of the two magicians were present in this space.

Briar’s eyebrow twitched as she stared hard at the glyphs that filled the entire wall from top to bottom. For a test of knowledge, it sure appeared intimidating. And the challenger was the one who was allowed to chose the subject matter.

But, what surprised Briar the most, was that…out of all the subjects that could be picked, it had to be this specific one.

Her opponent, on the other side of the wall smiled in deep satisfaction upon seeing Briar’s dumbfounded look. It seemed that her gamble had worked out after all. Instead of magic combat, a duel of brains was more up her alley anyways, as Lyra aspired to become the greatest researcher magi of her time.

Briar glanced at Lyra, an odd expression on her face.

“You’re sure this is the subject matter that you wish to challenge me on?” Briar asked one more time, doubtfully.

“I am absolutely certain! There’s no way either of us can cheat our way through this!” Lyra nodded with certainty.

“It’s a race! Whoever can finish the test first wins! No take backs. No best two out of three.” She smirked. “So don’t even think about trying to scramfy[1] your way out of this one!”

Briar’s face seemed to have a convulsion as she finally managed to eke out a reply.

“It seems I have no choice but to agree.”

Then Briar lifted her hand, beginning to answer the questions one by one. Her opponent, not to be outdone, also lifted up her hands and began answering questions.

—————-

After finding a relatively empty place, Kael washed his hands, and pulled out several things from his magic bag, including a table, cooking knives, several ingredients, and a griddle. This wasn’t an electric griddle, but a magic griddle which Briar and Madam Rothema had worked together on.

Able to be powered by martial spirit, it was a prototype model that had been completed a while ago. Since Briar had made a 2.0 version, she had passed this griddle to Kael for him to use instead. In fact, she had tweaked it to make sure that Kael could use his martial spirit, instead of the mana powered version that Briar kept.

Today, he had decided to make egg-topped hamburgers with stir-fried potato wedges. Mincing and mixing the meat and the fat with various spices, Kael started to form patties quickly. Rien and Karu watched with delight as Kael placed a wad of butter on the griddle, sizzling as it began to melt into a bubbly pool.

After adjusting the heat to a slightly lower temperature, Kael then quickly laid out the meat patties on the griddle, taking up half the space. On the other half of the space, Kael cracked eggs directly onto the griddle, letting them bubble a bit as he grabbed a knife in one hand, and a potato in the other.

Tossing up the potato, Kael’s knife blade swiftly blurred into a single shining arc, before it was returned to the table. The potato landed on the table, too, collapsing into ten segments ready for frying. Grabbing several perfectly-sized dinner rolls and bisecting them, he then turned to the griddle and grabbed a spatula.

Both the eggs and the patties were flipped over to cook on the other side before Kael tossed up a block of cheese, his knife a singular blur. The block fell to the counter, and thin slices peeled away from the block. Karu placed a slice of cheese on each burger patty to slowly melt.

Rien and Karu clapped at the demonstration, clearly impressed. But, Kael was not quite finished yet. Watching the burgers carefully, he then swiftly tossed them into the air with a flip of the spatula, followed by eggs. And, without even looking at them, the burgers and eggs fell each onto its already plated hamburger bun substitute.

Grandpa Thur also clapped along this time with Rien and Karu. It was an impressive display of swiftness, accuracy, balance, and control of the items in the surrounding space. The old man understood from this display that Kael’s close combat abilities were probably 10x more dangerous when a sharp pointy object was added into the mix.

Kael presented the children and the old man with some of the burgers he had made. The old man got one large hamburger, while the two kids got two small hamburgers each.

“Hey, how come they get two” the old man grumbled.

“Both of theirs combined is less than even 2/3rds of yours, so stop complaining, old man.” Kael scolded with a ‘no nonsense’ expression.

“I’m also expecting Teacher and Master Thales will want some-Helen, Briar, Me, Princess Claire, also Me…” Kael ticked off the people he was expecting to pester him for one.

“Hey, you were in there twice!” The old man objected.

“Personal food tax for having to cook all of yours. The worker is worth his wages, after all. Not to mention the fact that you’re eating my food for free, so stop complaining.” Kael scoffed.

“Hmmph! I suppose I shall allow it then. But, why Princess Claire?” The old man asked.

“Do you honestly think that she won’t come see Little Rose after her match? After they had just become friends yesterday?” Kael raised an eyebrow and shook his head.

“How can I expect for Little Rose to bear having her friend do nothing but watch her eat her food? While we are nobles, we certainly aren’t ranked so high that we can slight royalty in front of their faces.” Then Kael eyed the old man critically.

“As someone who was once a king, you sure are someone who doesn’t care about etiquette very much.” At those words, Grandpa Thur could only sputter and mutter into his beard about ambitious and overbearing youngsters.

At that point, a cheer rose up from the magician’s arena.

“Oh!? That should mean they’ve about wrapped it up by now.” Kael noted as he quickly wrapped the burgers and placed them, and the cooking instruments away in his bag. Because he had wrapped the instruments in martial spirit, they hadn’t got a spot of dirt or food on them, even after all that mincing. Therefore, it was fine to just put them into the bag, as is.

As he set off towards Rothema’s room, he wondered who had finished first.

—————————-

Briar stood before Lyra, who had an odd expression on her face.

“How!?” She finally asked. “How were you able to finish answering everything so quickly!? Even answering the dozen bonus questions at the end!? Just how competent in the ancient languages are you!? Is your father a researcher!?”

Briar didn’t answer her question, instead asking “Do you know how old I was when I was accepted by Madam Rothema as her apprentice?”

Lyra shook her head. “I don’t know. How old?”

“Seven years old.” Briar replied. At her answer there was a general intake of breath.

Usually, a Magi only took on a student once their mana capacity, talent, and character were determined to be exceptional. For there were many with large capacities who became lazy in their pursuit of knowledge. Even more became complacent after reaching a certain comfortable goal. For Briar to be accepted at the age of seven, either her talent, or her mana capacity had to be exceptionally large.

Of course, since Briar was disguised as a 15 years-old, they assumed that Briar had studied under Madam Rothema for 8 years, instead of the actual 5 years. Additionally, no one related Briar to the rumored ‘genius of geniuses’ in Grayelle kingdom, due to her external age difference of three years.

Moreover, with such a teacher as Madam Rothema, it was perfectly reasonable for Briar to learn a language within eight years. Even other Magi had to ask to borrow her books after the fire burned down the Grand Library of Aldengur. Thus, Rothema was placed among the highest of the more knowledgeable Magi.

What they didn’t know was that Briar wasn’t fifteen. Moreover…

———-

“Whoah! Teacher, you taught Briar how to read the ancient language, too?” Helen asked, her admiration for Rothema at an all-time high.

Rothema made a somewhat troubled face. “Actually, in this case, I haven’t even breached the subject to her. It looks like she somehow managed to study it on her own free time outside of my lessons.” But, where on earth did she get her hands on that much ancient writing? Could she have discovered an ancient’s diary? Rothema thought to herself. Whatever else she thought about it was not shown on her face at all as she watched the exchange.

————

On the stage, Briar shrugged.

“I did ask you whether you didn’t want to try a more challenging subject, but you insisted upon choosing the easiest test on the list. You really shouldn’t have given up academics in favor of cheap benefits like boosting your speed with easy subjects.”

At that, Lyra almost vomited a mouthful of blood. What easy subject!? It is the universal agreement of magicians that the ancient language is one of the most difficult subjects of study in out of all the subjects a magician can pursue! Your grasp of the language is almost godly compared to mine! It’s almost as if you studied under an ancient being, yourself!

[1] Scramfy: a weasel-like animal that is known for its speed.

Chapter 93: Fatal Feast

At that point, Helen and Madam Rothema had arrived in Rothema’s viewing platform and were viewing the magic duel with Rien on one side, while Grandpa Thur and Karu were watching the martial duels on the other, with Kael resting up on the couch behind them.

Now, something needs to be said about this viewing platform. By all appearances, this viewing platform is a single room, only broken in half by a long red velvet curtain. The only exception is a doorway in the middle of the curtain, which leads into the hallway.

From the hallway, the doorway across from that doorway would lead to the other side. However, this is a secret among Magi: if one did not wish to use the hallway door, they could simply sweep push aside the curtain and rush to the other side that way, bypassing the hallway completely.

This was one of the magical marvels of the coliseum: to combine two rooms separated by a hallway into one large room, separated by a mere curtain. This was the brimming accomplishment of one of the other Magi, Distar, who was the expert on space and dimensional magic.

In fact, the entire building was not a mere structure of stone, but a joint marvel creation between Martial Practitioners and Magicians. It had already withstood the test of hundreds of thousands of years’ time. It even had a self-repairing function operated by magic gems. So, in theory, with an infinite supply of magic gems, it could continue to exist infinitely.

At that point, Helen was giving the others an account of what was happening on the magic side.

“They’ve started the second round! It looks like Briar is up first this time, against Lyra Harple, another Magi’s student!” Helen said past the curtain. That was another thing about the room: unless the curtain was opened, one side couldn’t hear the conversation on the other side.

In an earlier chapter, Briar had escaped to the other side of the curtain. But, what she hadn’t noticed was that the bottom corner had caught on her boot, folding open a foot-sized space at the bottom of the curtain, thus allowing her to hear into the other room.

Now, Kael sighed to himself. Things had been a bit too good to be true. He supposed it was a good thing that Briar had learned her doppler technique when she could. Otherwise, it would have been simply impossible for her to attend every match from this point on.

It was a good thing that he had economized upon his MS in the first round. Otherwise, he would be hard pressed to win the next one.

The martial duels first round was also almost over. Kael, Laura, and The Minstrel had already won their prospective duels. The current duel was between the eldest of the five Dragon Twins, and the second eldest. Laura had returned to the viewing platform by that time. Kael glanced up at her, then blinked as he noticed the food trolley packed to bursting with all different kinds of dishes.

“You are seriously going to try and eat all that?” Kael asked. Laura still hadn’t gotten the trick of transforming food into energy down. Rien looked at Laura wide-eyed. Even a child would know that they could not eat so much food. Karu looked over, interested. Not that he enjoyed watching people suffer, but there was some bit of satisfaction watching troublemakers cause their own pains.

“Hmmph! What I DON’T eat, I’m going to stuff down your scruffy throat!” Laura huffed at Kael in pretend anger.

Kael only sighed. “You’re going to be very disappointed.”

Laura ignored him and tucked into several tasty-looking dishes. But even she had to give up when her stomach was filled to capacity. The food trolley was still way more than half-filled. Laura picked up a plate and shoved it against Kael’s cheek.

“Here~ Let’s see you finish all of these for me, hmm?” Laura said, grinning wickedly. “Or will you let your sister win over you as having the swiftest digestion?”

Kael didn’t say much. He picked up a fork and speared a mouthful of meat, quickly chewing and swallowing it. Then he sat there, with his eyes closed for a minute. With a snap, his eyes opened again, the irises shrunk to near pinpoints as he practically inhaled the food. Ignoring the utensils, he simply tipped the contents of each plate down his throat in a near endless stream until he finally swept the last plate clean of any semblance of food. All that was left on the trolley was a pile of completely empty dishes.

Kael then took out a large empty glass vial, and heavily struck his stomach, spitting a dark liquid into it. He even cleansed his mouth out with water before spitting that too into the vial, several times-finally once more with a strong liquor. Then he corked the vial tightly shut and placed it away.

“What was that stuff?” Laura asked.

“Aside from various poisons, toxins, and substances that would most certainly guarantee fatal out on the stage? I do wonder where you picked this up from. Did you steal it from the food investigators on your way here?” He snorted.

Somehow, after being generated, Kael could now more easily tell poisons apart from the foods he had eaten than Briar could. It was almost as if the poisons themselves carried a negative martial spirit. At any rate, that made it easier for him to discover before it was absorbed into his body, allowing him to eject it from his mouth. He even suspected that he could eject it through his pores, if ever he really was too late in preventing himself from absorbing the malicious substances.

Laura looked sheepish as she glanced away. She hadn’t thought a bit about poison when she brought the trolley of food up.

“Wait, was it all poisoned? Was I POISONED!?” Laura’s face turned pale.

“Should we check it out then? Here. Give me your hand.” Kael said reaching out to Laura. “And don’t resist.”

“Resist what?” Laura asked as she placed her hand in Kael’s.

But Kael wasn’t listening to her. Instead, he was injecting his Martial Spirit inside to take a look around. Not being able to use mana, he couldn’t use the Mana sight that Briar could. Instead, he had to supplement by using his MS to examine the scene.

Almost instantly, he was met by a wall of Laura’s own martial spirit. But Laura quickly realized what he was doing and put down her defenses. Kael didn’t loiter and went straight to the stomach area. After observing the strands emerging from the food, he withdrew his Martial Spirit and shook his head.

“Am I poisoned?” Laura asked.

“You’re rather lucky. The poison that you ingested was the least dangerous to you.” Kael said.

“So I was poisoned!?” Laura asked, shocked.

“This particular poison is meant to make a Magician unable to contact or use his own mana for a limited time.” Kael shrugged. “Since you’re not a magician, you’ll be unaffected by it aside form a mild headache.”

“How could you tell all of that?” Laura asked.

Kael frowned. “I just know, okay? Having just ingested more than enough of it earlier, I’m sure that I would at least be able to recognize it by now. It’s not something that you can’t understand until you have sensed it.”

“Wow! Briar-nii is like a doctor!” Karu exclaimed. Kael grinned and ruffled Karu’s head with a chuckle.

“Keeping the body healthy is the first step to martial arts, Karu. By the time you reach the top, I’d be surprised if you also didn’t pick up a few things pertaining to health.” Kael replied.

Eating all that food had luckily replaced the lost MS that he had used in his match earlier, but after using it to check Laura’s situation, the amount gained was cut by half. Even so, Kael still felt confident that he could at least win one more duel, if not two.

“Whew! Well, that’s a relief!” Laura sighed. “If it ends well, then all is well, right?”

Kael Frowned and turned to Laura, somewhat annoyed at her naivete. He then promptly flicked her on the forehead, hard.

“Let that be a lesson to you!” Kael spoke in a stern voice. “Never eat food of questionable origin!”

“Ouch! Hey! You ate it too!” Laura retorted, as she clasped her hands over her forehead.

“And I was also able to deal with what came with it.” Kael pointed out. “Something you would be helpless against if a more insidious poison had been ingested earlier.”

Laura sulked off to the side silently as Kael once more turned his attention back to the stage. It seemed like the battle between twins was finally coming to a close. Kael focused on the battle. Come to think of it, this was one of the first sword demonstrations that seemed reasonably well polished. Not that Kael was an expert on using swords. Of course, when it came to telling a person’s skill with a weapon, that was different.

Both twins seemed to bet fighting at an even pace, but the younger one had a sheen of sweat clinging to his brow, while the older one fought effortlessly. Suddenly, the older one started forcing the other twin back towards the edge of the stage.

He was only playing with his brother. He had never even taken his sibling seriously in this match. Kael realized.

One other thing that he realized was that this swordsman was bad news for someone like Laura. As someone who specialized in hand-to-hand combat, sure, there were ways for Laura to disarm an ordinary swordsman. But a specialized style like this didn’t seem to have any loopholes that resulted from a lack of effort. Even Kael couldn’t tell who would win in such an encounter.

If it were Kael, he could somehow deal with it using his fast speed and porcu-plant needles. All he would need to do was to strike a few acupuncture spots accurately and he could definitely incapacitate the irksome lad-er…young man. Kael had forgotten that in this world, boys are considered men once they turn 13.

Then Kael had a somewhat boggling thought.

How old am I? As this seemed somewhat important, he considered his own personal dilemma.

How old could he be considered? He could honestly consider himself ‘just born’ yesterday, as it had not even been a day since he had come into existence. But, he also had a body that looked like it was 15, crafted by someone who was only 12-moreover by someone whose mental age had passed 30 years. And, on top of that, he retained all the memories of that person.

Truly a quandary. Kael frowned in thought. Then he decided not to think too much about it. Yesterday was my birthday, that much is certain. He confirmed. So, for now, I’ll just assume that I’m 15? Otherwise things would be difficult to explain…

Finally, he was brought back to reality by the thud of the younger brother landing on the ground outside the stage. The crowds cheered, and the Eldest Twin smirked as he raised a fist in triumph. The twin who had lost kept a passive expression on his face as he withdrew.

Looking at the diagram, there was only Kael, Laura, the minstrel, and the last Dragon twin left. By this time, the matches had been set: Kael against the Minstrel, and Laura against the final Dragon twin. Whichever two won in this round would be facing against each other in the next for first place!

But, at that moment, a gong rang out. Apparently, that meant that there was an hour-long break for lunch. While the martial practitioners were quite hot-blooded, this was a time-honored tradition that couldn’t be broken. Incidentally, if the bell had rung out during the middle of a match, the match would be halted until the end of the break.

I wonder if he timed it that way? Kael though as he observed the proud Dragon Twin dressed in black. But, questions like that could wait until after lunch.

Kael strode over to the curtain and poked his head over to the other side to check on Briar, his ‘younger’ sister. He could have simply checked using the image crystal that was on his side of the room-but appearing in person felt more sincere to him.

“Did she win? Or has the match been delayed?” he asked Helen.

Helen glanced back at Kael, still somewhat weirded out by the fact that there were now two Briars. Then she pointed out towards the stage.

“See for yourself.” She replied.

Chapter 92: Magic Timing

Author’s note: Apologies for the late chapter- I was encountering writers block.


Briar’s opponent was a rather nervous-looking young man with blonde hair and round spectacles: the very image of a magician’s apprentice… or a computer intern from the 1980s. Briar still observed him with an apparent leisure that showed nothing of her thoughts. No matter how wimpy he looked, he was a magician. And, for him to become one of the last sixteen contestants, he was either lucky, or skilled.

Although Briar knew his previous attack patterns, she did not allow herself to be complacent. Even in this duel’s case, Briar would rather err on the side of believing the kid[1] was skilled rather than lucky. At least, she wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled out a spell he hadn’t used in the previous rounds.

Generally, the more innocent a person looked, the more suspicious they were: especially if they were over seven years of age. Kids had this mischievous urge to try being ‘clever’ by squirrelling away trump cards for a rainy day. At least, Briar had always found it so.

Blackmail, history, key information, techniques, skills, sayings, witty expressions: kids loved to save these trump cards for times when it would benefit them the most-especially if it benefits them in the form of good food.

Briar learned that lesson at the orphanage she used to visit in her first life. Therefore, to see a rather gullible looking rookie up on the stage, while most would be celebrating their good luck, Briar felt compelled to pay more attention and be extra cautious of any sneaky tricks.

Yukikage thrashed her tail in annoyance at the fact that Briar didn’t take her along. Yesterday, she had even won a delicious fish from Briar for doing well in the game. But today, it seemed like Briar didn’t want to play with her again.

Is it perhaps that Briar doesn’t have any fish left? She licked her lips and wondered as she watched the two magicians stare at each other, waiting for the start of the match to be announced.

Oddly enough, the announcer hadn’t appeared for this round, which was rather strange. People in the audience were beginning to murmur, wondering what was going on. But, then a figure emerged onto the announcer’s platform. It wasn’t the announcer.

“Ahem! Greetings! Unfortunately, due to an unexpected circumstance, the announcer was found passed out at the bottom of the hallway stairs. While physically, he’s fine aside from a mild concussion, he is still unconscious from the fall. Therefore, as a proxy, I’ll be the announcer for the rest of the contest. My apologies to those who are fans of him.” The man said, using a magic voice amplifier instead of an amplification spell.

“It’s Council-mage Syrel!” Someone exclaimed as they recognized him. There were quite a few in the audience that clapped in applause once they recognized him.

“Thank you, but I’m afraid now’s not the time for applause.” Syrel said. “For now, we should commence with the duel!” He said in a more formal tone, as he waved his staff to begin the duel. The audience cheered even louder as the duel was finally begun.

Briar observed the opponent as she silently set up an air barrier in front of her, compressing the air to an almost solid state, in preparation.

Her opponent immediately gathered his mana and called out several spells. But when he thrust his staff forward, nothing came out. The whole arena was silent. Had the spells failed to activate? What kind of a finalist is this? Then laughter erupted as the audience found the situation humorous.

But Briar didn’t think so. Watching her opponent carefully, she noticed that he was not upset or embarrassed at all. In fact, he stood up straight, with a calm expression on his face as if he were waiting for something.

Briar’s green eyes glowed slightly as she slyly used her mana vision.

Oh Carp!

Her eyes grew wide and she hurriedly leaped away from her original spot. While she was still in midair, a large explosion took place behind her. Her air shield took the brunt of the blow, but Briar was still knocked back quite a few steps before she landed on her feet.

Note to self: Melding Fireballs and Lightning spells creates Thunder-fire bombs!

Briar quickly noticed. But, by the time she had finished dodging, the apprentice was already spouting off more spells. Briar got ready to dodge again, but once more, there was a long awkward pause in between the spell being cast, and the magic activation. But, this time, no one felt like laughing at that short period. Everyone could already see that the silence was dangerous.

Wanna play dirty, huh?

Briar raised an eyebrow as her green eyes focused on the balls of mana shooting out towards her. Briar pretended to use a buffer spell called ‘Swift foot’ as she broke out her [Thunder Cat Lightning Steps].

Unlike the skills which Master Thales had taught her, Briar’s [Thunder Cat Lightning Steps] did not use martial spirit. Instead of a skill, it would rather be something closer to a technique. That is why, when evading the cluster of invisible spells shooting towards her in the air, Briar had no qualms in using it. Dodging just around the spells, she nimbly sprinted toward her opponent.

He grinned and Briar’s eyebrow twitched as she immediately threw up a barrier behind her. The spells which where headed towards her location had detonated in midair behind her, causing her to lose her balance.

He can flippin’ control the detonation time!? What kind of freak is this? Briar felt an anticipatory shiver run down her spine. This one had certainly been keeping his trump cards hidden away. Just the thought that the activation times of the spells could be changed and controlled in such a way! Briar decided to play-er…observe this one a bit more in order to figure out just how he was changing the activation timing.

—————————————————-

Council-mage Syrel watched the battle silently. Unlike the announcer, he didn’t offer any commentary on the duel. Indeed, he didn’t need to. Everyone was too busy watching this unexpectedly interesting duel.

But, when Briar broke out with her [Thunder Cat Lightning Steps], his eyebrows went up.

“A skill?” He muttered, looking carefully for the telltale red aura of martial spirit. But, surprisingly, there was not even a hint of aura. Indeed, there wasn’t any mana behind it either.

“Not a skill…or a spell?” He muttered once again in surprise. For a magician to study something which was neither a skill nor a spell was something quite surprising. Only rarely now could you find magicians that also new a few martial skills, but those were usually just acquired for reasons of keeping up health in old age.

Looking closer, Briar was completely comfortable while using it, so she should be quite proficient in its use. Right now, she was accomplishing something somewhat foreign to the younger generation of magicians. The younger generations only concentrated upon striking their opponent with spells, and guarding against their opponent’s spells. Seldom did any of them think about dodging.

Spells took a lot of concentration to use, not to mention an uninterrupted segment of time to chant, unless they were polished to the ‘No Chant’ effect. Usually being the type to stay inside and read, most magicians weren’t the agile sort of person. Nor, indeed, were their bodies fit enough to take running about on a stage well for very long.

But this young magician was now pulling off such a ludicrous endeavor. Indeed, if one was able to accurately dodge the spells, they would be able to save their mana as well as wear out their opponent’s mana first. But one would need the stamina to last through the entire bombardment of their opponent, first.

Moreover, this young magician girl was somehow able to sense the spells’ locations even as they approached, dodging them with a kind of pinpoint accuracy. And she was matched against a magician lad whose spell timings were erratic.

And so, one had the ridiculous display of one person yelling out spells, while the other one dodged left and right in a kind of dance, with sleeves and skirts fluttering in the wind. And only after she had left the area did the spells explode out, making it seem as if with every leap, she produced a conflagration.

The man’s hazel eyes deepened in thought, as he rubbed his clean-shaved chin. Judging by how good that girl was, she could have easily beaten the lad. But, why hadn’t she?

“Ah!” His eyes lit up and he chuckled gleefully. Of course! She was trying to steal his technique for delayed-time spells. He sighed, and looked away from the battle. At this point, the winner was already determined. The only question was, when the duel would end.

————————————-

Briar watched carefully as her opponent yelled out another string of spells, watching as the mana once more formed into circular globes and invisibly thrust out towards her. He only said the spell name, but the amount of time it took in between the shout and the activation seemed quite familiar.

Briar focused on the spell she was most familiar with: [Fireball]. The time from the name to the activation seemed to be the same for each one. In fact, Briar was starting to have an idea as to why that space of time was there. She waited until he shouted ‘Fireball!’ again, then began chanting the spell formula under her breath, jumping just before the end of the chant.

A thunder-fire burst exploded right where she had been standing. With that, a light went on in Briar’s head.

So that’s what it was!

She finally she all pretense of dodging the incoming attacks, as her eyes glinted mischievously. She pointed imperiously at the youngster before her and cried out “Air Bullet!” Interestingly to note, this was one of the first times that Briar had actually spoken her spells out loud in a long time, being a monster that practiced all the basic spells to ‘No Chant’ a long time ago.

Her opponent quickly brought up a shoddy shield of earth to block the blow. But, when nothing happened, he paused, and stuck his face out to look. It was in that moment, that a blunt air bullet struck him right in the face, blowing him off balance, so that he flew off the stage.

Briar smiled. The little prick had tried to attain ‘No Chant’ by saying the chant inside his head-but this only caused an awkward pause in between the spell title, and the activation. He wasn’t truly at No Chant level.

The difference between his silent chant and No Chant was the difference between drawing a picture by hand to copy it, or swiftly creating a whole stack with a copy machine. Obviously, No Chant was faster, and more powerful-the pinnacle of practiced ease.

And now Briar had cheekily returned it all to him right on his nose, with his own technique, no less! The crowds exclaimed in both admiration and amusement at the sight. Briar had even mentally said her air bullet chant much slower than she usually did to max out the time until he couldn’t wait anymore.

He was more used to be the one giving out those time-bomb attacks, instead of being the one on the receiving end. This was the reason why he was defeated-because he didn’t expect someone else to be able to copy his technique so well. And so, for this battle, it wasn’t spell against spell, but technique against technique.

The crowds were now cheering as Briar looked up at Council-mage Syrel expectantly, waving at him. This jerked Syrel out of his musings to recall himself and where he was.

“Ah, ahem! Yes! The opponent is out of bounds, therefore, according to the rules, Briar has win!” Syrel announced, waving his staff with finality, and thus closing the duel.

Briar, feigning tiredness was about to leave the stage when she was held back by Syrel’s next words.

“And now, let us begin the second round! The first duel is…between ‘Tornado’ Faerwind’s apprentice, Lyra Harple, and Madam Rothema’s apprentice Briar Rose. It’s a showdown between two Magi apprentices!”

The crowds began to cheer excitedly as chanting for both names began. Briar looked towards Rothema’s viewing platform. Sorry, Kael. It looks like you’re on your own for the next round. Briar thought bitterly as she remained standing on the stage.

[1] Briar almost always thinks of those younger than her mental age as ‘kids’.

TAOSAT- Chapter 18 Part 2

Tseng had walked away before Feng had left to get some food for Sora. Therefore, he had no idea what the two brothers were discussing.

Instead, he headed back to what he now knew was the guest tree house, to get some sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day: a trial, a conclusion, and then he’d finally leave, and perhaps find out who it was that he had been looking for out there.

It only now dawned on Tseng how far away he was from home…yet even now, he couldn’t remember why he’d even left at all. It was like grasping at an arrow for the perfect shot to kill a pigum for supper, but everytime, the noise would only scare the beast away, leaving him no closer to a full stomach, or an answer for that matter.

Tseng tried to forget his anxiety and worry, as he tossed and turned, wondering to himself who it was that he had bee looking for, until he finally drifted off to sleep.

———————-

That night, Sora was awakened by Feng, who came into the cell with a tray of food, after sending his brothers off to go eat some food.

“It’s not much, but it’s better than nothing.” He finally said.

“Why do you care? Aren’t you just like your friends over there?” Sora asked.

“Even if we’re friends, there’s some things that should and shouldn’t be done. This I believe.” Feng said. “Sometimes going hungry is good, but starving a child is something I can’t live with.”

“But, then, why capture me at all, then?” Sora asked.

“Eat.” Feng poked a spoon of porridge at her. “If you don’t eat then I’ll leave.”

Sora looked at the bowl. “What makes you think I’ll believe it isn’t poisoned?”

Feng upended the spoon over his mouth, swallowing the whole mouthful down. Then he spooned some more porridge.

“Eat.”

Sora ate.

When she finished, Feng picked up the tray and stood up.

“One thing I don’t understand.” Sora said. “I’m well aware that you know what will happen if you’re right about me…But…what if you’re wrong?” Feng paused a moment, and then left, locking the jail behind him. While it didn’t show, Sora’s words had shaken him.

“Furlin Feloris!” He breathed. What if they were wrong? What if the child was innocent?

————————————————–

The next day, Sora was awakened to the door opening, and sunlight streaming across her face.

Tao and Dong came in with nasty grins on their faces. Sora let her annoyance show on her face.

But she didn’t listen to what they were saying. She was concentrating on how to win the trial. they grabbed her, chair and all, and dragged her out of the room into the sunlight. So bright, but it had a calming effect. Looking at the sky through the filtered leaves made her smile, just a little bit.

It’s a good day to live…as well as…Sora thought to herself.

And then they were once more in a tree room, away from the sunlight. But it wasn’t just any room. This room was auditorium sized! Large enough to hold the entire village, which had come. As soon as she had entered the room, she was greeted with a large crying of boos and hisses and jeers. Then, she was dragged over to one side of the stage that they were on, where Tseng stood, looking very uncomfortable.

[Ready to win?] she asked Tseng, keeping her face impassive.

[Uh…I’m not sure. Should I wait for the chief to tell me to speak or something? What should I start with? I’m sorry, I have no idea. Should I call him “Your honour”?] Tseng was obviously flustered, watching the villagers file inside this huge, giant tree hall. The chief hadn’t arrived yet, but one of the men he’d seen guarding Sora was now the prosecution, looking smug as he brushed his goatee.

[Wait for the judge to arrive. When he asks if the defense is prepared, say ‘The defense is prepared, your honor.”] Sora told Tseng patiently.

Surprisingly, she had been listening to Dong’s tirade about their laws, and had a solid grasp of the basics. But she was very much surprised when, instead of there being just one judge, fifteen more people filed into the jury box. ‘Oh great.‘ She thought to herself. ‘As if adding MORE people will produce an unbiased result!’ The chief sat in the judge’s seat. The addition of a white curled wig had done nothing to flatter or flatten his rounded figure.

He banged the gavel on his desk. “ORDER! ORDER!” The people quieted down, but the fierceness of their eyes wasn’t lessened.

“Now,” The chief said, “Is the Prosecution ready?”

The Prosecutor nodded his head. “the prosecution is ready, Your Honor.” The chief nodded in acknowledgement. Then he turned to Tseng and Sora’s side.

“And is the Defense ready?”

“T-The defence is…uh…It’s prepared. Your honour.” Tseng gripped my hands tightly, not used to the jeering faces aimed at his side of the courtroom. Their burning gazes were already making him feel hot under the collar.

[Calm down.] Sora’s voice came through. [We’ve got nothing to hide. If you really believe that I’m telling you the truth, then try to show that you have faith in me.]

The chief nodded.

“And is the Jury ready?”

The jurymen all amiably replied in the affirmative, but their glares still pierced towards the defense like Sora had been caught murdering their grandparents red-handed. The chief then nodded to the Prosecutor to begin the prosecution.

The prosecutor listed incidents numbering in the hundreds, where food or clothing was stolen, and a red-headed girl was spotted leaving the scene.

“Yet it is not the theft of food or clothing, that has caused us all the most injury, But the destructive practice that followed each of these thefts.”

The Prosecutor listed destroyed family heirlooms, collapsed roofs, shattered windows, and finally the destruction brought to the jury hall itself.

“In this very hall,” He asserted,”The priceless statue of justice, the symbol of our village customs, was destroyed in the middle of the night. shattered upon this stage that you see here. We only just finished cleaning the stage yesterday, or else we’d have held a trial the moment we had caught the perpetrator!” He then pointed at Sora.

Sora’s answer came through Tseng’s mouth: [Where is your proof?] The Prosecutor raised an eyebrow. “Each theft and destruction has a clear account of a girl with red hair fleeing the scene. Surely you do not doubt the records?”

The defense: “I do not doubt the records. I simply ask what proof do you have that my client is this red-haired girl.”

The prosecution: “She has red hair! She is a girl! She fits the descriptions perfectly! There are too many coincidences between crimes for her not to be involved!” By this time, he had begun to frown.

The defense: “yes, red hair is indeed rare in this situation, but what’s to stop there from being two red-haired girls? For all you know, she has a twin somewhere, and that’s the person who’s been bothering you.”

The prosecutor laughed. “Surely you don’t expect us to believe in the old ‘twin’ argument?”

The defense: “It was a mere possible explanation. It does not account for the connection between my client and this case which you have put before us. Look at her! You think that someone her age can cause such collosal damage to your community? On her own?”

the Prosecution was speechless for a moment. “No, it does not appear that someone so small could affect so much damage.” He admitted.

The chief frowned. It appeared that the boy he had brought back was not as stupid as he had seemed. He actually was managing to defend the thief girl that they were trying to prosecute! He looked over at the prosecutor, who was turning red-faced as he struggled to come up with an argument.

Then the prosecutor smiled. “You say that there is no proof that your client is the thief. But, there is also no proof that she isn’t the thief either.” Sora remained silent this time. How could she present proof? She had been to none of the crime scenes. The only thing that she could present was logic based upon the data.

[Darn it. What do we do now?] Tseng asked. As the silence was beginning to be noticed and every second dragged on, Tseng stepped up to the task. I’ll have to improvise…

“I OBJECT!” Tseng shouted.

The chief gave Tseng a surprised look. “On what grounds?” he sighed.

Darn it all…I haven’t thought of anything…wait! When in doubt, use the longest words you know to sound like you know what you’re talking about!  Tseng sent Sora a thought. [Hey, I think I can do this!]

Sora looked at him, absolutely certain that he was about to say something stupid.

“Well…I, um, he can’t say that! Because we’re at a standstill…if we go down this route, no one can be certain of anything! So yeah, if it is impossible to validate if something is not true, then, um, because there is no substantial evidence for it being false, then it is impossible to validate something being authentic as there is also no substantial evidence for it being true!

You can’t use a lack of proof as proof, because, that very lack opens up the possibility of there being a separate culprit! What if the person who did these things wore a wig, or a fox-tail cap? Moreover, just because the girl was seen fleeing the scene, although it is suspicious, is not enough to prove her to be the culprit!” Tseng slapped his hand down upon the table to emphasize his point.

Having exhausted his repertoire of long words. He wondered where he had heard them from…he recalled a snatch of memory of someone telling me them not long ago…but he couldn’t remember who…

All of the villagers were puzzled, the jury and the chief especially. Tseng felt that maybe explaining it in a way that was difficult to understand wasn’t a good idea. To be honest, even he didn’t really understand anything he had said at the beginning, either. Something to do with lack of proof not being proof? He thought if he at least sounded smart, maybe they’d just believe him and accept it.

(author’s note: watch out everyone! We’ve got ourselves a modern politician here~)

The Prosecutor rolled his eyes and said, “Your honor, I have nothing left to add, and I’m sure the defense has made his case. Isn’t it time for the jury to make a decision on the matter?”

The chief, still trying to untangle what Tseng had actually said, looked up. “Yes? Um-oh yes! If the defense is finished, then the jury should cast their votes. yes.”

It took ten minutes for all fifteen jury members to place their votes. The chief was given the box and he read each piece of paper. When he was finished, there were seven who had voted guilty, and seven who had voted not guilty. One had abstained from voting.

The chef frowned. “It has been many a year since we have come to a vote of indecision. But we now know what needs to be done. The defendant will be given the test of fire. Take her away!”

Tao sniggered where he was in the crowd.

Finally, some justice was to be served! And what a spectacle it would make! And it was all thanks to him: Tao. Tao had rid the village of the thief that had plagued it these past years. Tao would be a hero! He was daydreaming about his rewards as the people readied the test.

They went to the village clearing where they had bonfires on festival nights. But this time, they quickly put together a structure of sticks and stacked straw around and on top of it. In the hollow center, they put Sora, still tied to her chair.

Tseng couldn’t believe it. Even with the girl’s help, he’d failed, and she had been one smart young lady.

She wasn’t guilty. He knew it. He believed it. He couldn’t just stand there and watch her burn!  But… he looked helplessly about him. The crowd had packed him in tighter than a sardine. Even if he tried to move, he wouldn’t be able to.

Dong was to light the fire…Tseng  looked at the beastman, only to feel disgusted. Dong was laughing! Tseng looked around, many of the beastmen were smiling. Didn’t they see the young defenseless girl about to be burnt to death? A trial by fire was ridiculous!

No matter who this girl was or whether she’d done it or not: she didn’t deserve to die, not in such an inhuman way! Tseng tried to move through the crowds, but it was a solid mass of people.

He didn’t want to see it! He didn’t want to see another person subjected to flames, burnt to death as if scorched by dragon fire. Strength surged out of him, and somehow, the solid mass began to move. He didn’t know how it happened, but he somehow reached her chair, trying to save her.

The crowds were alarmed. He heard shouts of “What is he doing? Stupid boy!” Dong scowled and dived on top of his legs, holding him down as he scrabbled to reach her, to set her free.

“Quick! Pile on! Hold him down!” The villagers held him down underneath a great pile of them, dragging him away.

But Tseng didn’t see them. His eyes were only on Sora. There was something too familiar about her, something…He knew her from somewhere but no matter what, he felt he’d never find out why he was here, or who she really was, if he let her die. He reached out an arm towards her, only to succumb under the weight of over fifty beastmen.

Tao walked over and picked up the dropped torch, grinning wickedly at Tseng, who could no longer move.

“Idiot!” Tao mocked, before turning to the straw house. Tseng felt a suffocating feeling of dread at this scene. It was over. She’d never make it.

Tao was grinning sadistically. “You wanted to save this wretched thing? Ha! No one can escape in the face of justice! Now we can watch your little thieving friend burn.” Tseng watched, horrified as the torch was raised high, cheers erupting from the crowd. Then it was thrown onto the bonfire.

It all happened in the space of a moment, but to Tseng, it felt like several minutes had slowly crept by. The leaping flames, the red hair, the attitude, the voice…

His eyes widened in horror.

…No.

…NO!

…NO!!!

He had finally remembered. He subconsciously opened his mouth and shouted a single word.

“SORA!!!”

TAOSAT- Chapter 18 Part 1

The Chief led Tseng through the forest village to his house, which was richer in furniture and decorations. On the table was a whole roasted Pjum. The chief grinned, “Help yourself! We can’t have our important defense keeling over of starvation during the trial, now can we?”

While Tseng was eating, the Chief filled him in about the red-haired thief which had long plagued the village of Telk. They had finally caught her, and were going to put her on trial, but no one had decided to take up her defense.

“The fools!” The chief growled. ” If one of them had just decided to take the stands, I wouldn’t have had to go through the trouble of requesting your services.” He said this in a way that indicated that he was completely fine with what he had done.

Tseng nearly couldn’t keep himself from rolling his eyes at the chief, irritated that he’d thought it was fine to snatch up and use just anyone to further his plans. Tseng’s thoughts soon strayed towards the red-headed thief. Red hair…it was such a very rare colour, and near non-existant in the southern lands.

Hmm? Where had I seen red hair before? And recently too… Tseng’s brow furrowed slightly.

“So, what specifically did she do?” Tseng asked.

Tseng tried to make polite conversation whilst he was there, for no other purpose but to fill the long, empty, awkward silences that arose far too often.

The chief smiled darkly. “You really want to know? The thief has plagued our place for three years now, stealing food and clothes, creating grand-scale disasters every time she visits. The last time she stole, the grand jury hall was half demolished! She may seem innocent, but she’s a huge menacing tornado packed into a small package.”

“You know, eventually I’ll have to meet with this living tornado. Is she a person or a natural disaster?” Tseng asked, confused.

“Even worse. She’s BOTH.” The mayor said as he looked out the window, wearing his smile like a mask. “Whenever you feel you’re ready, I’ll have one of my men escort you to the jail. Just make sure you don’t get too close. It would be a terrible thing if she were to escape and cause yet another disaster.”

After dinner, the chief called for Feng, “Feng! The defense will now see his case. Please escort him to the jail.” taking Feng aside, the chief whispered, “Watch him and make sure she doesn’t do anything suspicious.”

Feng nodded and led Tseng to the jail.

“Oy, lookee here~ Heh heh!” Dong sneered. “You’re defense lawyer has arrived. Not that it’ll be of any help.” Tao glanced over and saw Feng. “There you are! Do us both a favor and keep watch on the prisoner so we can go get some grub! Do your best, Mr. Person-who’s-not-aiming-to-be-chief.” Tao patted Feng on the shoulder as he walked out the door with Dong behind him.

Sora sighed, her eyes closed. No matter who it was, her defense was just going to be a farce of an act. A paper tiger, unable to stand up to real flames.

Tseng looked around. So this is what a jail looks like, huh? It seems rather shabby. I’d have thought it’d look..stronger. Indeed, everything was made out of wood.

Sora looked up as he stood before the door to the jail cell. It was Tseng! Had he gotten caught too?

[Tseng!…!?] She inadvertently called out with her telepathy. He turned and looked straight at her. He wasn’t bound by ropes. And there was something about his face that made Sora stop right after saying his name.

[Who are you? And how do you know my name?] He asked. She stared. He didn’t recognize her. In her shock, she said nothing.

Feng, noticing the two weren’t saying anything, finally spoke. “Would you like some privacy? I’ll stand outside, just don’t get too close to the cell door, for your own safety.” He sighed to himself as he left to stand outside the door.

Though, if I’m honest, just between you and me…she doesn’t seem like the criminal type. Feng thought to himself. He had a friendlier manner than most of the villagers. That’s why it was hard for him to see a little girl like that in a negative light. The boy looked somewhat familiar, but he couldn’t quite place where he’d seen him…of course, all humans in these parts looked similar to Tseng, so he just shrugged it off.

Then, there was silence. Tseng stared at her, with measuring eyes. She couldn’t have been very old, 8, 9-somewhere along those lines. Her bright red hair was her main feature. She had a strange expression on her face. He didn’t know really where to start, so He dragged a chair close to the cell door and sat down.

[You really don’t remember anything?] Sora asked, making sure he wasn’t just acting in order to break her out of there.

[Remember what? What are you talking about? Isn’t this the first time we’ve met?] Tseng asked. [Ah, that’s right! Introductions! Let’s introduce ourselves!]

He cleared his throat.”H-hello. My name is Tseng, and it seems like I’ve been appointed your defence.”

Sora looked away with a deprecating, lopsided smile. “If you’re like this, then my name isn’t really that important now, is it? You’re my lawyer? Do you even know law? This is such a bad joke.”

“Hey, I’m just trying to help you! You could try by being more co-operative at least, like telling me how you know my name!” Tseng felt flustered.

Sora tilted her head. “It bugs you that much, huh?” She leaned back in her chair, thinking for a moment. “I’ll tell you what. If you can figure out what my name is, then I’ll let you know what you want to know.” [And how I know your name.] She added telepathically.

Tseng stared at her. “So, all I need to do is figure out your name? And you’ll tell me?”

“Yep. I promise.” Sora said. Well, if he really remembered my name, then of course he’d know why I knew his. Hopefully his lost memories will return soon. If not…I may be in trouble this time. She mused.

“..Fine! Deal!” Tseng said. It didn’t seem like there were any catches to this deal, unlike with the chief. He suddenly felt how ironic it was that the chief seemed more suspicious than the villain.

“Camilla!”

“Nope.”

“Rose”

“Try again.”

“Maringa”

“Not even close.”

After running through a long list of incorrect names, Tseng felt he had gone off topic long enough and tried to steer the conversation back.

“Ahem! I’m sorry, I don’t know much about the case, so perhaps you could fill me in on your side? Uh, I, I guess we should start with…well, just tell me why you think you are innocent.”

He hadn’t expected such a young girl. He remembered what the chief said about her seeming more innocent than she was, but this was ridiculous. This girl wasn’t criminal material at all.

Sora looked up at Tseng’s nervous face and laughed, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Well, obviously because I didn’t do it, but nobody would believe me if I said that.” She sighed. “You’d think the people would remember the villain’s face better. I was just passing through on my journey home, and then this has to happen. And you-”

She broke off. The answer was apparent. “You got kidnapped by these hooligans too, didn’t you? I bet they hit you on the head or something.”

Tseng thought to himself. I wouldn’t put it past that old badger bear, but I can’t tell her that.

Sora sighed. “I’d be much better off defending myself, but nobody would seriously listen to what I have to say. Instead of ‘innocent until proven guilty’, these people have it ‘guilty until proven innocent’.”

Just then, her stomach growled. Sora sighed, turning away. “Drat. I always get depressed when I’m hungry.”

“But lunch just finished?” Tseng asked. “Didn’t you eat enough?”

“How could I eat when I haven’t even had breakfast first?” Sora asked.

Tseng was surprised. Even the kingdom’s prisoners were given something to eat. How hated was this innocent girl to be treated like this?

“I’ll try to say something to them about getting you some food.” Tseng said. “But, no promises. I’m not the one in charge, after all.” He stood up.

“Tomorrow…please, do your best.” Sora finally said. But, really. Did you actually forget about me so easily, Tseng? You huge baka!

She had been struggling to remain calm. It hurt, Tseng not remembering her. The idiot probably had walked right into the whole mess. And where was Kenmei? As things were, she might actually die! She shakily drew a breath in. There might be a way…

Sora sent a telepathic message to Tseng, [Hey, you. Can you hear me?]

Tseng was surprised. It was unmistakable. This girl was more than she appeared. She seemed to be very intelligent, guessing everything that had happened so far. For now, he had to answer.

[Hello? I-I can hear you. I just didn’t expect it.] He sat down again.

[What’s wrong? I’m sorry I’m the best they could come up with. I’m not here by choice. You guessed correctly. Do you have a plan? I believe…I believe you’re innocent, so, how are we going to prove it?]

He began to lay out his scheme.

[I thought we could play on your age factor. You’re young and look innocent, that’ll work well for you. But, now it seems that won’t work. It’s likely that the villagers are looking for a scapegoat. Don’t you have any witnesses to prove you weren’t there? An alibi?]

Sora’s eyes lost their focus. [well, there was one witness, but I doubt you’d be able to find him in time. He’s gone and lost himself, you see. But if they’re so darned certain that I’m the thief, how come all they’ve got on me is my red hair?]

Her face took on a determined look. [I’ll do it! I’ll wipe that smug look off of their faces, those people who are so easily taken with blaming innocent people!]

Sora looked at Tseng, [Listen: I do have a plan. Tomorrow, at the trial, I’ll give you all the arguments, but you’ll have to do the talking, ok? We’ll beat them back into studying law all over again!]

Tseng sighed in relief. Thank the sky dwellers and all above! While he didn’t like being a mouthpiece in honesty, but what choice did he have? He wasn’t exactly good at law. At that point, perhaps it was simply best to represent the girl’s side as best he could.

[Thanks, maybe we CAN beat this. They have little to no evidence after all. I’ll let you rest now, goodnight.]

He didn’t know where he got so much confidence. She was obviously younger than he was, but he felt somehow that she could do it.

He stood up again, placed the chair back, and took one last look at her. He felt a weird nostalgic feeling…then his head throbbed in pain again, and he shook his head, trying to be rid of it. When he left, he shut the door behind him and nodded to Feng politely.

“If it’s possible, can you somehow contrive to get the girl something to eat? I just don’t think it’s right to starve someone, even if they are a prisoner.”

Feng’s eyes widened as he realized what had been neglected.

“Of course! I’m sure that someone simply forgot to bring her food to her cell. I’ll go grab something immediately.”

He gave a weak smile.

Tseng saw another, slightly older man storming over to Feng as Tseng left. Glancing back, they seemed to be arguing about something.

Tao had returned, with some vials in his hands. “Here. I snagged these from the potion brewer. If you use these, you’ll probably be able to get some good material out of her for the prosecution tomorrow. All you have to do is stab her with an arrow coated with it, and she’ll spill everything she knows, back to the day she was born! Then the chief would surely double-no, triple our rewards!”

Feng looked at the potion bottles. “I don’t know, Tao. The Chemister said these were highly dangerous if you don’t use the right amount. This one over here is even toxic, and induces hallucinations.” He pointed to one.

“It doesn’t matter, since she’s going down anyways! Here, just take them!” Tao shoved them into Feng’s hands and ran back over to the food house. Feng looked long and hard at the two vials before shaking his head and placing them into a side pocket.

Then, before his two brothers came back, he oversaw getting Sora some food. Since he couldn’t untie her, he fed her himself, keeping silent the whole time. Sora was not bothered by his silence. She was just grateful for the food.

At least I won’t die of starvation now. She sighed to herself.

By the time Sora’s meal was finished, and he was taking the food tray out, Tao and Dong returned. When Tao saw the food tray, his eyes lit up and he winked at Feng.

“Good job! Hiding it in the food so that she doesn’t suspect a thing!”

Feng kept silent and watched the two return to their guarding spots, then he shook his head as he walked away.

TAOSAT- Chapter 17 Part 2

The both of them dragged her out of the room and into the open air. The jeers started from the waiting crowds of half-animal people. The chief stood by a campfire, and his bear-like face had an orange glow from the nearby flickering flames. The setting was rather eerie, although it was just early evening.

Couldn’t we just skip the trial and burn her now? If only! Then I’d finally be rich! Tao thought as he threw her into the middle of a circle formed by all of the villagers, with the chief at the head. The warriors pointed their bows and arrows at her. If she so much as shrugged, she’d be dead in an instant.

“Ahem.” The chief cleared his throat before he began. “Villagers, see here, the red-haired thief that has plagued our village for so long! You have demanded that justice be done to her, and so I present her to you and ask who among you is willing to defend her in the court of law?”

The villagers all became silent.

“Anyone? Anyone at all?”

The silence persisted.

“You do realize that justice cannot be served without a just trial. A defense of the accused is required!”

The villagers remained silent.

The chief motioned one of the guards to take Sora back to her cell.

“Very well! If no one among you will defend her, then I will simply have to find one for her, as is the custom in our village based upon justice and law!” The chief yelled, rebuking the villagers with his words.

The villagers remained a group of still people shrouded in stony silence.

The chief sighed, annoyed that none of the villagers would take the job. Now he had to go out into the forest to look for the thief’s defense.

He left the circle and headed towards the edge of the village, fuming with impatience to get the trial over and finished with. He muttered expletives under his breath out of earshot.

——–

Tseng was a nervous wreck. He had lost sight of the tracks, being unfamiliar with the forest, too, he was now hopelessly lost. Alone in an unfamiliar forest, it was already evening. he sat down on the nearest rock to take a small rest and sighed. he looked into the vast, dense forest. There was probably nowhere in this forest that had anything notable for miles.

Either that, or the tree shadows were blocking his vision.

He looked to the ground, noticing his shadow. It started moving, becoming bigger? NO, this was the shadow of something moving behind him! It was too huge! Tseng began to turn around…And then felt a pain in the back of his head. The last thing he saw was a huge figure looming over him.

“A…bear?” He muttered before blacking out completely.

——

The chief stood over Tseng, now unconscious on the ground. What luck to find a person wandering around in the forest so soon! He would do nicely. The chief picked up Tseng and carried him back to the village.

The chief carried Tseng back to the village, where he took him to the medicine man’s hut.

“Take care of him.” He ordered the medicine man. “He’s the defense lawyer that we’ve been looking for.” The medicine man nodded and began mixing a poultice for the huge bump on Tseng’s head.

——-

“Ouch…” Tseng’s eyes weren’t open, but his head throbbed in pain. What had happened? …He couldn’t remember…every time he tried to, his head throbbed more painfully. Tseng forced an eyelid open. The room was mostly dark, but it had a familiar scent of…blufir trees? The walls were entirely brown with unique carvings all around. The room seemed to be, literally, decorated like a tree, and even the shape was tree-like. Why was he in a room, when he’d been…actually what had he been doing?

Tseng moaned as it became more painful. He had been…looking for…someone? Who? He struggled to remember.

I must have fell and bumped my head on the way. But…how did I get here? Tseng tried to grab his head, but his hands were caught on something. When he tried to sit up to look around, he discovered his hands were tied to the bedposts.

Seriously. What is going on? Tseng started to get nervous.

“Lie down please.” An elderly man gently pushed him back down into the bed, holding a wooden spoon in one hand. He didn’t look threatening, but Tseng was still wary.

His hat was made out of twigs, and he was chewing on some sort of root whilst lifting up a wooden bottle from beside the bed, and pouring a small amount of the contents into the spoon. He moved towards Tseng’s mouth. It smelled nasty. Tseng ducked his head out of the way. Who knew what the man could be trying to force down his throat?

“Why am I-” Tseng started, but was cut off quickly. “Please, just lie down and drink this. It’ll help with the pain.” Tseng was quite annoyed the man had dodged his question. But Tseng couldn’t move very far, stuck in this bed, hands tied.

“I said take it!” The man shoved the spoon into Tseng’s mouth. Whatever it was, it tasted foul. Worse than even Tseng’s ‘cooking.’ Tseng readily admitted his lack of talent in culinary pursuits.

“Good. Now try to sit up.” He tried to get Tseng to sit up again, but now Tseng was lying down, gagging from the aftertaste. Tseng glared at him, many questions running through his head. The man sighed, and pulled up a chair by the end of the bed. Then he placed the bottle and spoon on a small table nearby.

“Before I start satisfying your curiosity, perhaps you would like me to remove your bonds first?”

Tseng nodded and winced, annoyed at the pain in his head, and annoyed by how he’d seemed to become the one in need of rescuing again whilst attempting to…Ouch! There it was again! Exactly what had he been attempting to do?

The ropes were swiftly unbound, and only then did Tseng realize the cords were made from strong edval vines. Everything in the room seemed to connect to nature and the forest: the man’s rugged clothing, his furniture, even the shape of the hut. It seemed familiar, like Tseng’d seen something like this before…but, once again, he couldn’t remember a thing.

The chief came in. “You sent for me? Ah! Our guest is awake! Brilliant!”

Tseng was astonished. A bear? A talking bear? He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, then stared again. Yep. It was a bear…Why was there a talking bear in front of him. He looked around the room and then began to lay back down in bed.

“I must be still dreaming.”

“IT’S NOT A DREAM!” The Chief yelled at him. Tseng jumped, surprised at the sudden loud noise, then held his head, moaning at the sudden pain.

The chief cleared his throat.

“Ahem! It’s not a dream.” He said again. “In order to get closer to nature, we have willingly undergone a rite of passage which includes a totemic transformation spell, so that we become more like our totem animal. In my case, my totem’s influence was so strong, that it gave me an almost full transformation, hence why I appear as a bear right now. Do not worry, it’s completely safe, I assure you.”

Tseng just stared at him, unconvinced.

“Are you going to turn me into one of you?” Tseng asked.

“No. That ritual is strictly for those inside our village. Even then, it only applies to those who have done a great deed and specifically request for it. Moreover, the shaman must approve before they are allowed to undergo it.”

“Then, is it a kidnapping?” Tseng asked.

The chief sniffed. “Not at all.”

“Then…why am I here?” Tseng finally asked.

“Can you not remember? I found you out in the woods with a lump on your head this morning, and brought you back here to treat your wounds. You could say that I saved you from a horrid death.” Outwardly, the chief was concerned. Inwardly, he was relieved that Tseng didn’t recognize him as his assaulter.

Tseng stared at the chief long and hard.

The chief started to feel sweat accumulate under his fur.

“Well, there is one other thing that I had in mind, bringing you back here…” he said. Earlier, the chief had beamed proudly when he spoke of his rite of passage. But now, he bowed apologetically at Tseng.

“I am truly sorry for the inconvenience, but really, we were in a bind until I found you out there. Will you hear me out?”

Tseng narrowed his eyes, and thought for a moment, then nodded. After all, it was just hearing about it, right? He could always choose not to by the time he was done talking, right? The bear-I mean the chief told him all about his dilemma.

—-

“…But there is one thing that we, as a village, are most proud of: our legal system. We make it a point of honor to finish all trials within a single day. Only, this time, we ran into a problem. Nobody wants to defend the accused person this time. Not a single person! So, seeing as you haven’t been unduly influenced, I took it upon myself, as mayor, to ask you to stand in the place of a regular defense for this criminal.”

Tseng was rather irritated by then. For starters, they were super suspicious! He had been found unconscious outside the village? Whether the blame lay with them or with Tseng himself, didn’t matter. Tseng was being herded into a bizarre situation to stand up for some stranger he didn’t even know, who may or may not have committed a crime!

And also, this was slowing him down from finding…finding…The pain came back again, and Tseng winced. I can’t remember who I was looking for, but I’m certain that this would slow me down even further!

“Do you ‘ask’ all of your regular defenders for trials after feeding them some unknown medicine and binding them?” Tseng asked, clearly unhappy about the situation.

“No, we were just concerned about you waking up and getting violent before we could explain the situation.” The chief said. “Sometimes people mistake us for kidnappers after all. But if you don’t want to be a defender, then that’s all right. You’re free to leave if you want.”

Tseng blinked, not expecting this reply. “I’m free to leave?”

“Yep. Completely no strings attached. We’ll even drop you off at the exact same spot that we found you. So, if you want to leave, then by all means!”

A hidden menace crept into his voice then.

“But, I wouldn’t risk it. There are dangerous animals outside of the safety of the village. It’s quite possible that we’d have to have another funeral for travelers that were torn apart by wild beasts.” He pulled out a handkerchief. “So very sad…”

Tseng thought about it. Even if he went back to the place they found him, it was uncertain whether he’d be able to rediscover his memories. Moreover, the surroundings seemed a bit dangerous…Perhaps he should wait in the village for a while after all, at least until the pain in his head cleared up.

But, still… that sounds COMPLETELY fair, forcing me to have no choice but to say yes. Tseng inwardly rolled his eyes. I know, I know. Completely and utterly disrespectful to a chief, a village chief with high respect, but he’s way too shameless!

He narrowed his eyes in annoyance. It wasn’t quite blackmail, but the chief had certainly pulled Tseng into a difficult position, the sly fox-er bear. Tseng felt that he probably had no choice but to go along with it…However, whoever the accused is, they were most certainly going to lose. Because, Tseng had no experience as a defence for an accused in any kind of trial. He hadn’t even been to a trial before…

Glaring, Tseng stood up to face him. “Fine, I’ll do it. But I have one condition.”

“Condition? What is it?” The Chief’s fuzzy ears seemed to get larger as he leaned closer.

“I wish to meet with the person who is to be placed upon trial.” Tseng said.

The chief clapped his hands together. “Of course! That is only natural! Brilliant! I’ll have you briefed about the case over lunch. Then you can meet with the prisoner this afternoon. If all goes well, we can be finished rebuilding the grand jury hall by tonight, and you can be on your way before noon tomorrow!”