I had never been one of those girls who stood out with everything they did. I was not the most beautiful girl in the mansion, and most definitely not the best servant to Lord Niklaus.
At Lady Victoria's order, Claude taught me everything he knew during the months that followed the invasion of the Village of Water. I got a lot better. I never tripped over my own feet anymore, and I did not spill wine on anyone. Luka and I were together for a short while, but after Lady Victoria sliced my hand open, I told him that it would probably be safer for both of us if we did not see each other anymore. He agreed very reluctantly. I cried that night, but I knew it would be safer for both of us.
I did not believe that Lady Victoria was a bad person by nature. If all the rumours about her were true, then I would have turned out the same way. If I had to come across the scene of my entire family's murder, I would have probably committed suicide on the spot. She was my role model. She was strong, in both body and spirit. Even though she hurt the people around her, she did it because she did not have anyone to guide her, and because, on the inside, she carried more hurt than any of us could imagine.
I was busy in the kitchen one morning when Claude arrived with an order directly from Lord Niklaus: locate Lady Victoria. Apparently she had fled the mansion in search of power. We searched for her for weeks, but to no avail. I knew that, when she did not want to be found, she would not be found. She had angels at her command. They probably had powers none of us could ever dream to have.
Lord Niklaus became deranged. The mere look of him numbed my legs. I could see that he cared for her very dearly, and I overheard Claude and Sebastian talk about it one night. They talked about Lord Niklaus's late wife, and how he cared for her corpse to preserve her for hundreds of years. The brothers were not aware that I had been eavesdropping, because I had a talent that no one knew about. I could hide my Ceilos signature so thoroughly that I had managed, more than once, to sneak past Lord Niklaus himself. I could even hide my scent so that not even the vampires in the castle would be able to pinpoint my location. That meant that I knew just about everything that went on in the mansion, and no one knew about it.
I had grown accustomed to the habit of doing anything enhanced with Ceilos so that I have more time to eavesdrop on anything to do with Lady Victoria. She needed to be found. She was not safe out there on her own.
One night, after all my duties were finished, I stayed in my room with some of the other maids. When I was certain that they were asleep, I performed the hand seals to conceal my presence and snuck out of the room. I headed upwards toward Lord Niklaus's room. I had a plan, and I knew that the success rate would be most probably little above zero. But I had to try. For Lady Victoria.
I had overheard that morning that Master Manson would be visiting. They always talked about the most confidential of subjects, so if ever there was a time that I would get some proper answers, it would be tonight.
I tiptoed up to the eleventh floor where I knew Lord Niklaus's room to be, more cautious than I had ever been, trying my best not to disturb so much as a dust particle in the air. I passed both Claude and Sebastian on my way up the stairs, but they were each immersed in their duties and I passed them unnoticed. When I finally reached the top floor of the building, I hurried to the door at the end. I had oiled the hinges just two days before, so it did not creak, and I took several seconds to close it in order to ensure that it did not make a sound.
I neared the door to Lord Niklaus's bedroom, still on tiptoes and, when I reached it, I performed the seals for a Camouflaging Technique, and merged myself with the wall just outside the door. Before merging my hands as well, I performed an Enhanced Hearing Technique.
For a few seconds, I heard nothing. But, as the technique took effect, I began to hear voices inside the room.
"Do you have any - any - idea where she could be?" Lord Niklaus asked, his voice simply dripping with panic. This made even my own heart accelerate: he had never shown any kind of emotion, and hearing his voice fuelled by such a powerful one was unnerving.
"I am afraid not, my lord. I should think she would be back by now. After all, for how long can one shield one's identity, especially without emotions?"
"She - she ..." Lord Niklaus began saying, but his voice failed him.
"If I may, my lord, have you considered the possibility that she is still on the premises?" Manson asked. My heart skipped a beat. "Her angels can protect her from being found, I think."
"Do you not think that we would have found her by now?"
"Not if she did not want to be found, I think. She has very powerful Summonings. I should think they can hide themselves even from those two butlers of yours. But, if I may, I think you should leave her be for the moment. She is training. When she feels she is satisfied, she will come back to you, I think. That is, after all, what you told me, my lord."
"How can you expect me simply to stay here, knowing that she might be in danger?"
"I do not think she is in danger, my lord," Manson said, somewhat heatedly, "You are stripped of rational thought. You know, because I have already told you before, that the Shadows want very dearly for her to join us. If she were anywhere but here - if there were any word of her whatsoever - we would have gotten wind of it, I think."
"If she is still on the premises, then I will search for her myself-"
"Do not act irrationally, my lord! If you provoke her, she may leave. It seems to me that the instability in her body is acting up. She is, if I may be so bold, insane at the moment. Nothing will stop her from training. If I were you, I would focus on creating a cure for the Tampered Mark."
My heart skipped another beat. That would solve everything! If Lady Victoria was herself once more, she would possibly recognise me for always wanting to help her wherever I could. There was even the possibility that we could become friends!
"Do you have any idea how long it took to create the technique?" Lord Niklaus snapped, "When I created it, I did not do it with the intention of ever curing it. It took me nearly six years to perfect it!"
"Then, I think, this precious time we are wasting now would be better spent working, my lord," Manson replied, "You already have the technique itself. Work off it to create the cure. Commit your every second to it, and we might be able to save the lady's life."
I had heard all I needed to, and if I was any expert - which I was - they were using the tone of voices they did when they were about to conclude a conversation.
I headed back to my room, my mind buzzing with activity.
I woke the following morning barely an hour after dawn, and ran toward the kitchen to start with my duties. I washed my share of the dishes, swept and mopped the floor, dusted off the sconces and the paintings in the hallway and the entrance hall, retrieved all the dirty laundry from each room and made sure that Lady Victoria's bedroom was exactly the way she had left it.
Afterwards I ran toward the entrance hall to start searching for Sebastian. He was the person I needed right now, because he was the only one careless enough to answer the questions I had. He - unlike Claude - knew that we would be punished for asking the questions; he would not be punished for answering them. I was one of the few people who could lie fluently to Lord Niklaus, so as long as I kept the information safely to myself, I would be fine.
I knew what the butlers were. I had always had a very curious personality. Soon after I had passed my tests for Lord Niklaus, I began noticing that the butlers were always a little agitated once the sun started setting, and they tiptoed around sunlight whenever they could. I never saw them eating, not even during the servants’ breaks, so I had started to investigate. One evening, weeks after I had joined Lord Niklaus, I had been up after curfew to work on my stealth skills in the library. There was another maid, as well, who was writing some sort of love letter. Sebastian had entered the library and told her that she may not be up after the curfew, and he ‘punished’ her as I watched. He drained her of all her blood and disposed of her corpse as though it was nothing.
I knew I would be safe as long as I abided by the rules, and I had not gotten into trouble once with anyone since I joined.
I found Sebastian serving lunch to the other three elementals in the lunch room.
"Good afternoon, Masters Luka and Arrow. Mistress Aurora," I said, careful not to look any of them directly in the eyes.
"Afternoon," Luka said stiffly, pointedly looking at the table. Arrow smiled and Aurora simply ignored me. I was used to this, because it was her basic nature to be a bitch.
"Master Sebastian, I have a question about the paintings in the entrance hall," I lied, and with a pointed nudge toward the other elementals, "A troublesome question that I do not want to bother my masters with."
Sebastian smirked. "Very well."
I led the way to the library, which was near the lunchroom but rarely ever occupied. I headed into a corner completely hidden from view by the bookshelves before coming to a stop.
"What is it, Sapphire?" Sebastian asked, the smirk still plastered on his face. It was his most distinguished characteristic. "This barely looks like the place one would ask something about the paintings."
"I was just wondering if there was a cure for the Tampered Mark that Master Manson has?" I asked, pretending that I had not heard a word of the previous evening's conversation.
"No," he replied.
"How long would it take to create one?"
"Only the creator of a technique can make a cure to it."
"How long?" I pressed.
"Perhaps two or three years, if sufficient effort is put into it."
I nodded. I had a few months' worth of experience with alchemy, so I might be of use to Lord Niklaus, as soon as the opportune moment arrived.
"With power as unstable as Lady Victoria's, what do you think the after-effects might be?" I asked him.
"This is all academical, of course?" he asked, smirking again.
"Of course," I lied, "You know me."
"I do know you ... I suppose she would get periodical blockages to her Ceilos system. She might start hallucinating and, after time, if she is not controlled, the power might consume her."
"You mean ... she would die?" I asked, a weight pressing on my chest.
"Yes," he replied simply.
"How long before that would happen?"
"A year, give or take a few weeks."
I slapped my hand to my forehead. This could not be happening. But then I got an idea. "If - hypothetically, of course - a cure could not be made to the Tampered Mark before it consumes her, are there other means to save her life?"
"If you were to purify the nature of her sword, perhaps, yes."
"Is that possible?"
"No, not even an angel as legendary as Gabriel is able to purge something of such wickedness. Unfortunately, there is only one person on this planet that is able to, because he is the one who made Dominatio per Malum."
Suddenly a face peered out from behind the aisles. My heart did a somersault, but it was only the librarian, who said, "Lower your voices."
I nodded frantically, not knowing why she wanted lowered voices when there were barely any people in here. I asked Sebastian in a frantic whisper, "Where can he be found?"
"He is with the Shadows."
My eyes widened. "Is it Mordax Black?"
"What?" I hissed. "Who, then?"
"His name is Morrow Obsidian, as far as I can remember," he replied. Suddenly, his expression turned more serious than I have ever seen it, "Do not seek him out on your own, Sapphire. He is beyond reasoning. Do you understand me?"
I nodded automatically.
"I mean it," he pressed, "I do not know why you seek all this information. I am aware that you care for our Lady Victoria, but the Shadows are not our answer."
"Ok," I told him, "Thank you for telling me all this. I will carry the information with caution."
"As you always do," he said, smirking again before turning on his heel and walking away.
It was time to find out all I could about this Morrow Obsidian.
* * *
Months had passed. I was not sure how many, but enough for me to have mended the relationships between us and both the Country of East and of North. The Country of West was still stubbornly trying to stay out of anything concerning either Niklaus or the Shadows. I did not push them, but in time they would have to see that our side is the better option. The additional help of the other countries would grant extra search parties for my beloved Victoria. That was my priority. I could not count on a spy's word.
Demetri had been training every able man and woman, twice a week, for two hours. Never again would we be broken like we were on the day of Klaus's invasion. I would never again allow such hurt to plague my village. I also attended the sessions of training. It motivated my people to see me with them, training with them. I had made bonds to heal that of my broken heart.
Victoria's friends were working so hard. I admired their efforts. They were not only training along with the rest of the Village, but also in their own time. Everyone was determined to become stronger, even if it was not for the same reasons as me.
One morning, Demetri had come with news. He burst in through the door without knocking. This was the first time that had happened, which had left me stunned with shock.
"Your Majesty," he panted, clearly out of breath and carrying a large book in one hand.
He walked forward and threw the book onto my desk, nearly causing the legs to give way. A large column of dust rose and fell.
"I have just realised something," he continued, "I did research on that Mark of Victoria's. My temple's high priest had done experiments on himself to determine what kind of power it contained, and drew roughly accurate conclusions on the data concerning the Dark side. It turns out that, should the victim have any other abilities - such as water control, or a very powerful, very ancient, very evil sword - then the power of the Mark would see those powers as a threat, and attack them from within the person."
"Victoria's life is in danger?" I demanded. That was the only important statement that I had drawn from what he said.
"Yes, sire," he replied, "I fear she may not have long. Perhaps a year. It could be even less."
"Is there any way to stop it?"
"Only three, sire, and unfortunately all of them are out of our reach," he said solemnly, "Either strip her of her elementalism with the use of an ancient ritual that only Lady Winter possesses, purify the sword, or remove the Tampered Mark."
"The third is not a possible option," I said, "Only the creator of a technique has the cure, and I doubt Klaus would cure her of the thing that makes her the easiest to control ... Lady Winter has refused any audiences since Niklaus's invasion," I ran my fingers through my hair dejectedly, "How would one purify the sword?"
"The technique is in here, sire," Demetri said, flipping through the ancient, cracked pages of the large book.
I recognised the writing as that which was around Victoria's Mark, but I could not read it. Finally Demetri stopped flipping the pages and ran his forefinger down the lines of unfamiliar letters.
"Oh ..." he said, barely above a whisper.
"What is it?" I urged.
"I'm afraid this option is very far out of reach, sire," he said solemnly, "It is a ritual, and the ingredients we need are mostly things that have been extinct for hundreds of years."
"A petal of the Vervia flower, a tear of a Sea Cat, a drop of blood of an Efreeti, the eye of a Stone Golem, the breath of an Osus and the heart of the wielder's nearest kin," he replied.
I rubbed my forehead, "Demetri, it has been quite a long time since I attended the Academy."
"Of course, sire," he said, understanding, "Vervia is the only flower of a true black colour, and the last was burned months after the forging of Lumen Vesper. A Sea Cat is a water creature that lives in the deepest coves of the ocean, and the only times they surface is to feed, which is once every two months, and it is very, very difficult to get a tear from them. An Efreeti is a fire spirit that can dematerialise and materialise elsewhere at will, so getting its blood will be very near impossible. A Stone Golem does not possess eyes, but the way around that flaw is to retrieve the eye of its Summoner. An Osus does not breathe frequently, so one has to weaken it enough so that it does not have the will to move anymore, then one has to force it to take a breath with brute physical force.
"And then we need the heart of Mordax Black," Demetri finished, "Sire, if I may be so bold, this is a quest that is not well-advised to undertake. We will try, and we will fail. These things will take months, perhaps years, to obtain."
"In other words," I say, bowing my head, "We cannot save Victoria."
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