Disclaimer: WHAT IS A DISCLAIMER?! A MISERABLE LITTLE PILE OF LEGALITIES! BUT ENOUGH TALK! HAVE AT YOU!
The scenery passing by in a blur, Louise managed to convince herself that it was safe to finally loosen her white-knuckled grip on the saddle beneath her.
“How did I let you talk me into this, again...?” She grimaced.
Seated behind her, arms folded as he steered the horse with his legs, the man in the blank steel mask simply blinked his visors whimsically in response. Sure enough, after they had successfully purchased the old sword now resting at Von Talon's hip, they'd beat a hasty retreat from the city via another exit and successfully avoided any further notice.
Due to A) being highly noticeable, and B) having recently been involved in the unscheduled demolition of part of the city wall, and a few buildings inside.
In an improbably pyrokinetic display to boot.
She STILL wasn't quite sure how Von Talon had managed that. At any rate, in an amazing stroke of luck, they'd found their original horse wandering around, mufflers and all, and after a few silly hijinks involving some local horse thieves, (and some further property damage) they'd begun the ride back to the Academy, Dras Von Talon having managed to somehow put himself charge of the driving again.
So with not much else to do, and a shaky reassurance that despite appearances, they were likely to survive the rest of the trip, the diminutive mage had found herself reflecting on the past few days, and her peculiar summon.
...it was thanks to this time for contemplation, in fact, that enabled Louise to come to the startling conclusion that, despite knowing him better than any other student on the campus...she actually knew next to nothing about the enigma known as Dras Von Talon.
Certainly, she had a general idea of his personality, and a vague grasp of the truly peculiar way his mind worked...but beyond that, he was just as much a mystery as he had been on the day he first appeared before her. Not a human...and not any creature recorded in any bestiary in the world, he was simply...there.
Ordinarily, she realized, it probably wouldn't have bothered her this much, as a summon was simply that, a summoned creature bound to its' master. But this...
Dras Von Talon was no 'mere' anything. And not just that, but with the peculiar linkage he seemed to have formed between them, and the glimpses that had sometimes flickered across her mind when he wasn't paying attention...
There was something disturbingly 'human' in that mind, or at least, an intelligence that was far too great to be classified as that of a beast or an animal.
That, coupled with the surprisingly strong link between them, was probably the main factor contributing to her behavior towards him, something that would no doubt be unheard of for a noble. His imposing presence, the silent force that he exuded wherever he went...treating him like a normal summon was something that just felt...wrong, somehow.
But Louise understood all that, and more surprisingly, she realized that even those glimpses were enough to put her ahead of her classmates in understanding the mystery of the Matchless Avarice.
Strange, towering castles of metal and stone, haunting, corroded cities, strange and wonderful vistas stretching out to the horizon...Her familiar had seen things, she knew, things which were as alien and strange to her as he himself.
Not for the first time, she found herself wondering just how the Familiar Summoning Ritual worked. Did it simply create a familiar from nothingness? Or, as she was becoming more inclined to believe, did it simply reach through space and time to summon a particular creature as the familiar?
Tabitha's dragon, as far as anyone else knew, was incredible, as no one else had seen a proper dragon in decades, leaving only the wyverns used by some airborne forces as the closest surviving thing. Some creatures, like bugbears and griffons, though outlandish in nature and appearance, were still nonetheless fairly well known to exist in various parts of the world.
...but even knowing all of that, or rather, because of knowing that, Louise had also come to the unnerving realization that never before had there been a recorded instance of a completely unknown being becoming a familiar. There were occasionally instances of intelligent familiars, even sentient ones, but never anything as...'complex' as Von Talon seemed to be.
Neither human nor beast nor myth, he was something different.
Despite herself, Louise Françoise Le Blanc de La Vallière shivered, as she remembered the rust-stained sky, the sprawling city of strange design reaching almost to the horizon, the silent, monolithic castle that towered in the center of it all.
What strange land could birth such an alien city, could give rise to something like...whatever her familiar was?
Because one thing Louise knew for certain: Regardless of how the summoning ritual worked, her familiar had come to her from somewhere far, FAR beyond the borders of Tristain. She had never heard of any such land that matched the images from her memory, and she wondered:
Just how far did one have to travel through the world of Halkeginia to find such a place?
Von Talon's armored head tilted, looking down at her.
“...what was your home like?”
Later, the explosive mageling reflected, she hadn't known it was possible to roll a horse in mid ride, demolishing part of a hedge, and still somehow manage to bring it back under control.
When she had finished picking bits of shrubbery out of her clothing, and Von Talon himself had finished looking apologetic, the iron-masked tyrant simply averted his gaze, as though unwilling to answer.
While Louise puzzled over his sudden reluctance, inside the darkness of his mind, the Matchless Avarice's thoughts raced, contemplating the situation before him now.
It was to be expected, really. Considering his occasional comments about his home battlefield, references to places as familiar to him as breathing, and to the remarkable individuals that walked it, it was only a matter of time before his diminutive summoner began to grow curious about him. Given the uncanny familiarity for dealing with seedy storeclerks and so forth he had probably displayed back in the weapon shop, it was unsurprising that she would choose now to finally bring it up.
It would be a lie to say that he hadn't been expecting this question at some point...though the abrupt, blunt way in which she had finally done so had not been nearly as anticipated.
He had long since decided to say nothing of travel between worlds, and had prepared to hide the secrets of Eternity's End instead behind the illusion that it was merely some distant land, far beyond the seas of this world, undiscovered by all.
It was a fairly simple idea, one which he could readily apply to just about any world with a setting similar to this one.
After all, there were always missing spots on the maps of old, all marked with a personal favorite statement of Von Talon's:
'Here There Be Dragons.'
The Matchless Avarice looked at the horizon, the land racing past as their horse rode on. He remembered watching the sunsets from his office windows, dull, molten orange glow of the sun burning through the rust-hued sky.
...due to the bizarre nature of the world known as Eternity's End, in that it existed in a strange, overlapping nexus between dimensions, day and night cycles could sometimes be affected, as the star that provided it's light and heat would also be somewhat affected by the shifting dimensional tides. Some days were longer, and some days were shorter, though the cycle seemed to repeat on a weekly basis. Not only that, but not even the distribution of that light and heat remained the same, the North constantly locked in raging blizzards and gentle snowfalls, depending on the season.
...though Von Talon had his own theories regarding that, particularly ones that featured the rumors regarding another power hiding in the frozen wastes.
Shaking his head to clear it, he looked up at the blue sky overhead, simply remembering.
As he did so, he carefully lowered the restraints on the bridge between the himself and his summoner, making up for his lack of a voice, with images worth any number of words.
Louise gasped as the strange city sprawled out beneath her once more, strange in it's eerie honesty, gleaming bronze and silver colors beneath the rusted sky. Unfamiliar, cylindrical towers, chimneys of some kind, she belatedly realized, reached up to claw at the brilliant clouds, belching dark smoke from their tips.
Von Talon's visor dimmed faintly in remembrance of his capital, before moving on. It would not do well for his summoner to take TOO much of a close look at them, after all...
That aside, he continued on, images and brief sensations acting in place of his voice.
His home...a land divided into four major powers, separated only by the various stretches of no-man's-land between them. A weird, wonderful natural environment, impossible ecosystems existing side by side with ease.
It was a bizarre land, he admitted to Louise, but it was otherwise no different from that of a normal one.
“...there must be a much higher level of magic present to allow something like this...” The young noble wondered aloud, looking in disbelief at where arctic ice met desert sands. “What kind of a place is this...?”
To her surprise, Von Talon only shrugged. Eternity's End was a riddle even unto him on his best day, so who was he to try to explain it?
Then her eyes narrowed, as something he had said caught up to her.
“Four powers...? Like countries, you mean?”
The tyrant's first impulse was to harshly deny her claim. The CARDINALs, de facto masters of Eternity's End, were nothing as pedestrian as that. All immersed in pursuit of their own goals, the running of their individual corporate empires was simply a side effect of that, unintentionally forming and becoming part of the very system that kept day to day life running across the world.
Trading, politics, economics...before any of them had realized it, they had all become an inextricable part of the world, building cities and arguing over border disputes with each other, not to mention the deep seated conflicts always brewing between opposing CARDINALs...
Von Talon considered that for a moment.
...okay, so, exactly like countries then, he conceded.
Admittedly, in a far more personal way.
So yes, exactly like countries, the North, East, South...and West. Each a region unto itself, separated from one another, constantly vying against each other. He considered what he had learned of Halkeginia thus far, and had to admit that in that regard, it probably wasn't too different from the way countries like Tristain and Germania operated.
“So...where is this place, then?” Louise looked around again, the two of them riding onward across the rusted sky, the vast, sprawling city spreading out beneath them in every direction. “Or better still, 'what' is this place...?”
The West, came back the answer, a land of unparalleled economic strength, that owned over half of almost every natural resource in the world. Lumber, mining, harvesting...it was a city of commerce, that relied on it's unparalleled wealth and resources for success, controlling supply to benefit from demand.
And more than that...the pink-haired mage felt a strange sensation from her mute familiar, a mixture of pride and shame.
More than that, it was home.
Louise's eyes widened, and she turned to look back at him.
“This is where you are from, this 'West' of your homeland?”
Von Talon was still for a moment, before the great steel head slowly gave a reluctant nod.
“I see...” Looking around at the city, a place that blended a sense of ancient ruins with modern civilization...well, perhaps modern wasn't quite the right word to use, Louise admitted, as there were some things that she just couldn't understand about it...Perhaps it was simply that her familiar's people came from a different culture to her own, and therefore might have had a different approach to the way the built their towns and cities?
In the distance, she could see towering walls on the horizon, marking the limits of this vast cityscape, shorter walls branching inwards from it and criss-crossing through the realm beneath her. It was as she followed the passage of the walls, seeing the various gates and passages that ran through them to connect different districts, that she saw it.
A massive, dark shadow lay across the city, stretching out beneath her. The shape was hard to discern, broken up as it was by the various buildings interrupting it, but the shadow was there nonetheless.
“What IS that...?” She murmured, her eyes tracing it back, towards the setting sun behind them...
And that's when she saw it.
All this time, Dras Von Talon had continued riding onward, the barrier between the real world and the images in their shared link blurring as she continued to look at the images of his homeland. The sun setting at their back in a blaze of glory, it hadn't even occurred to her to look around to see what was at their rear. And that oversight sent a chill down her spine as the Zero looked back at the colossal edifice that rose from the center of the city.
The dark, brooding monolith of a castle she had seen only once before, in a brief flicker of her familiar's mind, a construct of stone, glass, and metal. Something about the blurred image she had seen previously had always bothered her, though it was difficult to put her finger on it, considering the brevity of it's appearance. Now though, as the ominous construct loomed behind them, silhouetted against the dying sun, she knew the source of her unease.
It was the sheer scale of the thing, less of a castle as she had first thought, and more like an artificial mountain. A fortress that looked as though it had been sculpted from a single, mountain of metal and rock, it tore at the racing clouds overhead, glass panes shining like molten gold against the dark onyx stones that made up the majority of the fortress. Not only that but...Louise leaned out, eyes widening in disbelief.
Sections of that tower were...moving?
Metal and onyx slid past each other, huge sections of the building slowly rotating in opposing sections, cliff-sized regions of steel and stone moving with the slow, inexorable force of tectonic motion, grinding past each other with an eerie silence.
Only the three peaks at the apex of the tower remained stable, the central one like the tip of a swordblade, stabbing at the sky.
To either side, long, triangular sections jutted out and down, as though the very top of the tower was like a cross between a greatsword, with swept back triangular axe blades to either side of it.
Despite herself, Louise shuddered. That strange, monolithic tower filled her with wariness, the entire thing radiating an ominous presence that was both awe-inspiring and fearsome at once.
...and yet, strangely enough, there was also a flicker of...familiarity from it, as though it were a place long forgotten, but still well known. Though perhaps that was simply her familiar again, his perceptions coloring her own.
“Rex Tower...” The words fell unbidden from her lips, but instinctively, she knew that to be the name of that strange construction, the center of this city of rust and steam.
“Is...is that where your king lives?”
The draconian CEO looked down at her oddly for a moment, before he understood her question. After a while, he shook his head morosely, staring ahead of them.
No king lived in that tower...but it was still home to the one who ruled this part of the land.
“No king...” Louise frowned, considering that. “A queen, then, like Tristain?”
Another shake of the head left her no closer to an answer, the pink-haired mage finding herself with more questions than answers as the world began to fade, Von Talon slowly withdrawing from their link.
At the last moment, though, she looked back at the solitary tower for a final glimpse, as if hoping for some last clue to all of this...
And that's when she saw piece of the tower move.
Something she had taken as being just a part of the building's design came to life, four glowing yellow eyes arranged in a horizontal pattern stabbing through the fading memories, a swept back, bony crest that split into two long, triangular fins on it's head. Scaly sinews tensed, claws digging into the corroded stone surface. Distinctly feminine in body shape, the creature lifted it's head, a long, powerful tailing rippling out behind it, three lethal blades glinting at the end.
The dragon with a woman's shape threw its' head back and roared at the sky, the horrible, ominous sound staying with Louise long after the rolling green plains of Tristain had reappeared around her, and the familiar shape of the Academy Towers were visible once more.
Almost immediately, she rounded on her familiar, shaken.
“V-Von...what was...was that a...?!”
Her question broke off in a yelp as Dras Von Talon suddenly lunged forward, seizing the metal handlebars and yanking the horse sideways, the diminutive noble giving a yelp as she struggled to keep her balance.
The reason for the sudden sharp turn became apparent a second later, as a large, blue blur surged past them in a blast of air.
Von Talon's head snapped in surprise at the familiar cry. The yellow glow of his visors tracked the blue figure as it swept up and around again, finally drawing level with them and revealing itself to be none other than Silpheed, Tabitha's blue dragon, grinning mischievously in the way only a dragon could. On her back, however, the two figures riding her seemed significantly less pleased with Silpheed's enthusiastic means of greeting.
“T-Tabitha, what just happened?” Kirche stammered, clutching one hand to her tousled hair. “The world's still spinning...”
“...Barrel roll.” Tabitha replied, the blue-haired mage leaning forward to stare at her familiar. “Silpheed wanted to play.”
“Ah...um...okay...” Kirche shook her head, recovering her senses. “Not that I mind but...maybe a little more warning next time...? Ah, my clothes are all wrinkled now...!”
“Not with us.” Tabitha replied, looking across at the horse trotting next to them. “Von Talon.”
“What?! My beloved is here?!” The fiery Germanian bolted upright, her disheveled state forgotten as she looked around frantically for the tall, dark and brooding man in the metal mask. “Ah, there he is! Daaaaaaarling, yoo-hoo~!”
Von Talon raised one hand sheepishly in reply as Louise finally managed to extricate herself from the tangle of her cloak again, growling as she caught sight of her arch-rival's cheerful waving.
“I should have known...” She muttered, glaring daggers at the other woman. “What do you want, Kirche?!”
“Ara, is that you, Louise~?” Kirche made a play as though she had only just now noticed the other mage, grinning mockingly. “Sorry, I almost couldn't see you there with your big, strong and handsome familiar in the way~!”
Despite herself, Louise felt Von Talon stir uncomfortably, and unbidden, a few brief memories of the result of Kirche's last encounter with him crossed her mind, Louise temporarily speechless with embarrassment.
“W-Well, who's to say it's his fault you can't see straight?!” She shot back, flustered. “Maybe it'd be a lot easier if you didn't just have those uselessly huge things blocking your view!”
Kirche looked down at where Louise's finger was pointing, and grinned.
Von Talon decided at that point that he did not like that grin.
“Oh~? Is that jealousy I hear in your tone, Valliere?” Kirche leaned back in her seat, making sure to push her chest out deliberately. “ Or does 'Zero' also apply to your-”
It was at that point that Tabitha interrupted, for better or for worse.
The other two girls stopped immediately, surprised at the quiet mage's interruption, Von Talon blinking and looking up at her.
The blue-haired girl patted Silpheed's back.
“Race to Academy.”
The Matchless Avarice stared at her for a moment, and then looked forward to meet Silpheed's painfully eager gaze.
“Uh, race, Tabitha...?” Kirche began, sounding worried. “You...don't usually do stuff like that...”
Tabitha shook her head, and pointed at Silpheed.
“Oh, you mean Silpheed wants to race!” The redhead's face lit up in understanding, before a touch of nervousness crossed her expression. “Er, wait, hang on, define 'race'...”
Louise looked equally unhappy at the prospect.
“...please don't tell me you're serious.”
Von Talon looked down at her for a moment.
Then he looked up at Silpheed.
“Oh Founder.” Louise swallowed, and hastily reached for the helmet again.