"Master Clef," Anaximandra Drax called out as she stepped out of the elevator, a neatly-wrapped bundle in her hands, "You skipped lunch again. Mitsuru asked me to bring you something to eat."
The Master Mage didn't seem to hear her - in fact, he seemed quite distracted, peering out of his tower's wide windows for another few moments before he turned, his expression still distantly thoughtful. "Mm? Oh, hello, Anaximandra."
Ana placed the bundle on one of the wide tables that circled the room. "Is something wrong, Master Clef?"
"Yes," the Mage answered, frowning, as he unwrapped a sandwich, a piece of cheese, and sliced fruit. He set them out as if on automatic, but made no move to actually eat. "Something is wrong, but I'm not sure quite what. I sense a... darkness." At Anaximandra's puzzled look - it was a beautiful, sunny day outside, something the Academy's svartelven refugee found simultaneously challenging and inspiring - Clef shook his head and said, "Not literally; metaphorically. There's a shadow moving across Cephiro, almost as if..."
Before Clef could finish his thought, he was interrupted by the sound of a falcon's cry at the window. A fierce-looking bird was alighting on the iron balcony rail outside. It was a much larger example than Ana had seen on the grounds, with frost-white feathers on the breast and face, and beautiful wings that began a rich amber color before turning a deep red at the tips of its wings. What caught her attention, though, was the look in the falcon's eyes as they locked on to her. Even for a raptor, there seemed to be an incredible intelligence in its gaze.
Intelligence... and hatred.
Clef stepped between her and the interloper, his staff coming to his hand, his aspect imposing despite his youthful appearance.
"I am the Master Mage of this realm. I don't know who you are, or why you have come, but you are not welcome in Cephiro."
The falcon turned its gaze to Clef, then began to shimmer, changing and growing until it was no longer a bird, but a woman, tall and regal with hair that matched the color of the falcon's wings. She wore an elaborate golden necklace across her throat, archaic armor that Ana recognized after a moment as being Asgardian, and a cloak of feathers that spilled down her shoulders and nearly brushed the floor.
Drawing a blade, the woman gave a throaty chuckle as she stepped towards the sliding door that lead in from the balcony. "I am Freyja Lightwalker, little mage. Lady of Fólkvangr. Mistress of Sessrúmnir. Queen of the Vanir. I am come to cleanse this realm of the taint that has grown here... beginning with you!"
Suddenly, she lunged towards the door, a nimbus of red and gold light forming around the blade of her sword. It struck the glass with a sizzle and sharp CRACK, the wards set into their frames glowing an incandescent blue as the goddess bore into them with all her might.
"Anaximandra, I need you to get Mitsuru and Kanae," said Clef, sounding strangely calm given what was happening. "I will do my best to hold her here."
Ana was rooted to the floor, stunned by the sight of one of the Æsir Council attacking the tower, too shocked to understand what she was being told. Suddenly, one of the wards burst with a sizzling snap, and she stepped back instinctively at the bright sparks that shot from the walls.
"Master Clef, what-?"
A burst of adrenaline cut through the last of Ana's shock, and she turned to run just as the last of the wards gave way. Freyja's blade shattered the glass door with a sound like a cannon blast, and what had been a relatively orderly study and laboratory a few moments ago was suddenly thrown into chaos as books, beakers, and all manner of paraphernalia were tossed around the room by the wave of force.
Freyja followed the blast like a missile, soaring through the doorframe like the hunting bird she resembled, her blade extended as she aimed herself squarely at Ana's back.
Looking back over her shoulder, Anaximandra saw the enraged goddess bearing down at her, and knew she wouldn't make it to the stairwell in time. Bracing herself for the pain, she tried to push herself just a bit further anyway, when suddenly Clef was there, arms outstretched, sorcerous energy radiating from him as he blocked Freyja's charge.
Ana heard the collision just as she reached the stairs, and she flung herself downward with reckless speed, disappearing down the spiraling steps.
Freyja rebounded from her collision with Clef, growling in fury, then raised her blade again to challenge Clef for interfering. Blood stained the blade crimson, and she smirked darkly. "You cannot stop me, mage, and that wound shall never heal."
Clef drew himself up, pain etched across his face, but his eyes were bright with his own fury. A crimson stain had already begun to spread across the blue and white breast of his robes, but he paid it no mind. Ana would find help - he was sure of it - and in the meantime, he was the only one who might hope to hold the raging goddess here.
Without a word, he sent a blast of energy at the Asgardian, and their sorcerers' duel began.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
and Matt Wagner
with Anne Cross
and Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2015 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Ana threw herself down the winding stairs of the Sorcery Department's tower, and hit the Quad at a run. Her parasol discarded, her eyes welled up with tears at the sting of direct sunlight, but that was the least of her problems.
This time of day, Mitsuru Tsuwabuki was likely to be in the White Tower, meeting with the rest of the council. She aimed herself in that direction, long skirt billowing behind her as she rounded a stand of trees, pulling up hard as she nearly plowed straight into Kardon Felz.
"Whoa, there!" Kardon grinned, putting a hand on her shoulder. "Where are you off to in such a hurry, my lady of shade?"
Ana took a deep gulp of breath, then tried to explain. "Master Clef... is being attacked." Her eyes locked on Kardon, and his usual joking mein disappeared instantly at the fear in her eyes. "He told me... to get Mitsuru, and Kanae. I was running to find them."
"Attacked? By whom?"
"An Asgardian - one of the Vanir. She called herself Freyja." Anaximandra reached up to grab Kardon's hand. "Kardon - can you get them? I think... I might be able to help buy Master Clef some more time while you do."
Kardon looked like he might want to switch roles in that plan, but his attention (and that of almost the entire Tenjou Academy campus) was seized by a sudden sound like thunder, and the sight of a beam of brilliant blue light blasting through the roof of the Master Mage's tower, sending debris flying in all directions.
Ana turned back to the tower, her face hardening. "I need you to go, Kardon. I can help Master Clef, but I don't think there's any time to waste."
Felz nodded, turned, and headed for the center of the campus at top speed, and Anaximandra started to head back the way she had come.
Clef knew he was losing this fight - even at his peak, a battle against a being like Freyja would be a serious challenge, and he'd been caught badly flat-footed.
The wound in his side was a constant ache, and blood had turned his robes a deep crimson shade that stuck wetly to his skin, while Freyja, though a bit scuffed from the blasts of magical force and chains of enchantment he'd used against her, was still going strong.
Worse, the goddess's fury had reached the point where she no longer seemed to care what kind of force she was using, unleashing magic so destructive that Clef had needed to channel what strength he had left in deflecting or redirecting them in a way that wouldn't damage the academy - or for that matter, the surrounding city of Saitō.
Her eyes burning with rage, Freyja stalked towards him as he attempted to gather himself. "Still you protect the night elf? Still you would defend the Svartelven witch who has tainted Odin's bloodline?" She raised her sword again, the power channeling through it so intense that the air rippled all around it. "STILL YOU WOULD DEFY ME?"
Suddenly, Freyja's attention was seized by a totally unexpected voice from the stairwell.
Anaximandra stood there, looking about how you would expect a girl who had been fleeing across the quad to appear, but her silver eyes were filled with defiance.
She didn't expect to be able to distract the goddess for long, perhaps not even until Kardon and the others arrived; but it was obvious that the Asgardian was determined to attack her more than anything or anyone else, and perhaps that would be enough.
Anaximandra Drax had looked into the face of her doom once before, and survived to find herself in this place. She was not afraid of dying... but as Freyja hurled herself towards her with a wordless scream, she would prefer not to die today if she could avoid it.
Tumbling out of the way of Freyja's blind charge, she dove behind one of the overturned tables for cover, rolling to a stop next to the master mage as the goddess flew through the stairwell door with a crash of armor on stone.
Her eyes widened with shock as she took in his condition. "Master Clef, hang on! Kardon and the others are coming!"
Clef smiled wanly. "I may not have a choice in the matter."
Before Ana could reply, Freyja returned from the stairwell, swinging her sword in a crackling arc. "I won't fall for any more of your tricks, you tainted cow! You die, NOW!"
Another blast of power launched from the point of the blade, but Ana dove out of the way once again, leaving it to punch another hole in the walls of the tower. Some small part of her wondered if Freyja might end up bringing the roof down on all of them, but that was the least of her worries at the moment.
She prepared to dodge whatever Freyja did next, hoping that the others would arrive soon, when she suddenly felt a buzzing crackle of energy encompassing her. Ropes of red and gold light bit painfully into her arms and legs, pinning them to her body, and she found herself suspended in midair as the goddess smirked with triumph.
"No more hiding, darkling!"
Ana tensed, bracing herself, when she saw Master Clef stand, shakily, out of the corner of her eye. Bracing himself against his staff, the Master Mage locked eyes with her, and channeled all the arcane power he had left into one last spell.
Strongest stone, withstanding all time,
Core of iron, unbending, unyielding,
Heart of the oak, defiant of lightning,
By these signs of my steadfast resolve,
Defiant even of death,
Willpower manifest as LUCK!
Freyja whirled, confusion on her face, then laughed as Clef slumped, falling back behind the desk.
Ana opened her mouth to cry out, but what poured from her lips was not an expression of disbelief, or a scream of defiance, but words in Old Norse - a language she had never spoken, but suddenly understood.
>Balder, sun-god, I beseech you,
bring the sun to this dark place!
Shine forth your power that illuminates!
LET THERE BE LIGHT!<
Freyja turned back with a hiss, blade rising, preparing to kill Ana for that act of blasphemy - when the space between them was suddenly filled with shining golden light. Its gleam was bright as the sun, but Anaximandra, seventh daughter of Drax, third clan of the House of Wethrin'goroth, was not even slightly harmed by it.
When it cleared, there was a quiet tink noise. Ana felt the magical bonds around her slacken as her sight returned, blinking in surprise at what she saw: a tall, rugged, shockingly handsome man had blocked Freya's sword with his bare hand, and was, apparently, utterly unhurt by it.
The man looked around, taking in the situation quickly. "Freyja," he said, softly, sadly, "what have you done?"
The rage that had transformed the goddess's face seemed to melt away in the glow of the Sun God's aura. For just a second, what that melting revealed was shock and incomprehension; then, like a blast shutter closing, that was concealed by an icy, disdainful glare. Freyja's blade fell to the ground with a clatter, her hands going completely slack as she discarded any thought of standing against Balder. Beaten but coldly unrepentant, she folded her arms, cast a dismissive glance at the fallen mage, then replied unfeelingly,
"What I came to do."
Before Balder could respond to that, Mitsuru, Kanae, and Kardon came running through the stairwell, with the latter almost knocking Kanae over as she stopped, gobsmacked, at the scene in front of them.
Mitsuru surveyed the wreckage, then gave a wordless exclamation as he saw where his master had fallen. Rushing over, he went to his knees to try and examine the wound in Clef's side. Within moments, his head bowed with grief - it was clear there was nothing that could be done.
Suddenly, a glowing hand came to rest gently on his shoulder.
"Mitsuru," the ghost of the fallen mage intoned, his form seeming to age as moments passed. "You are now the Master Mage."
"I'm not ready, Master. I'm nowhere near. You said yourself it would be decades -"
"I was wrong," Clef's spirit interrupted, not unkindly. "You are ready - rather, you must be ready. Your time has come, and you are needed. The Order must beware - all Cephiro must beware! The Fallen Prince rises to descend again, and if his downward journey succeeds..."
As he spoke, Clef's aspect changed from his boyish form, to that of a grown man, and finally to an old, wizened figure, the lines of age drawn across his face. "The Order of the Rose must support the Trinity in their moments of trial and pain or all the realms will suffer!" As the last words of his prophecy hung in the air, Master Clef's aged form slowly faded away.
Kanae crossed the room, placing a hand on Mitsuru's arm. At his nod, the duelists began the work of putting Master Clef's body in order.
As they began, Mitsuru suddenly frowned, his look of grief overlaid with one of puzzlement, as something Clef had said finished sinking into his mind.
"What trial?" he wondered.
"Huh?" Kardon asked, pausing to glance at him.
"He said the Order must support the Trinity in their moment of trial. I don't..." Mitsuru trailed off, lost for a moment in thought, then turned to Kanae with a question on his face.
"Go," she said, nodding. "I'll take care of things here."
Without another word, the Seneschal of the Order turned and hurried from the room. On his way out, he passed Lantar ibn-Zaleh and Keiko Sonoda as they were coming in, consternation on their faces. Before they could try to interrogate him, Kanae had crossed and begun quietly explaining what had just transpired.
Off to the side, still standing where she had been released from Freyja's spell, Ana found herself unsure what to do. She wasn't technically a member of the Order of the Rose, even if she belonged there more than anywhere else at this point. She found her answer as the bemused-looking Sun God unexpectedly turned to her, and she instinctively dropped to her knees, bowing her head.
"Lord Balder! Please, forgive me my impertinence and my arrogance and my rudeness and-" She cut herself off as she felt him touch her shoulder, then go to one knee in front of her.
"I've never had a svartelf call on me like that before, and with such fervor, such strength. If you think you summoned me, no, you didn't. But you called on my power, and I wanted to know what was going on, so..." He gave a little shrug, and favored her with a smile, and she felt her heart skip a beat. "Thankfully." He reached into the satchel he carried, and pulled out two bottles, offering one to her. She didn't recognize the writing at all, as she accepted it.
"Sit, don't kneel. You didn't offend me at all, young lady. Have a drink. You appear to have had quite a day, and I want to hear your story." Then he paused, and his smile widened. "We haven't even been formally introduced." Balder held out his hand. "I'm Balder Goldenlight, Æs of the Sun. A pleasure to meet you."
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
The Order of the Rose: A Duelist Opera
in order of appearance
Benjamin D. Hutchins
Philip Jeremy Moyer
The Order of the Rose will return
E P U (colour) 2015