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To the New Age

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[A short excerpt from Entry 704 of the Royal Research Archives]

 

On the Uses of Drachfeurite Ore for Mechanical Warfare and Other Machinery

Captain Alfred F. Jones

Drachen Institute of Technology

4th Division of the Royal Forces

 

Abstract

 

Drachfeurite is more commonly known as Dragon Fire Ore, and it can be found in the mountains of Drachen Province and the Northern Boreal Mountains. It is used as a light source in Drachen province and several key establishments in the capital. However, no study has been done on the uses of energy extracted from within the ore. This study aims to prove the use of Drachfeurite as an alternative energy source for the empire’s weapons and airships…

———

Alfred shifted uneasily in his seat, tapping his foot incessantly and drumming his fingers on the arm of the chair. The waiting room outside the king’s audience chamber was designed to impress any visitor. The black eagle insignia of the Empire’s divine dynasty decorated the banners around the room. The large picture windows in the room showed off the palace’s most beautiful gardens, and you can even see the airship docks in the distance. Most of the things in the room were trimmed in gold and silver. 

It was probably fitting for the dynasty that claimed to have descended from the old gods. 

Alfred sighed and shifted in his seat again. He wanted to go back to the workshop or to the barracks. He didn’t belong here, and he certainly didn’t want to deal with the formalities of the court. As the youngest child of a Ducal house, he had never been expected to deal with such things. 

But one never refused a request from the Emperor, and King Gilbert had requested an audience with Alfred for the day. Alfred would be lying if he said it didn’t make him uneasy. The last time Alfred had spoken with the king, he had done what no one should ever have. 

He refused an offer from the king. He really hoped that this meeting wasn’t about that previous offer. 

The double doors to the audience chamber opened, and a man stepped out. The man wore the stiff black uniform of the Royal Scientific Society. He looked unassuming even as he fixed a cold blue gaze at Alfred. Alfred stood, suddenly on guard. 

“Alfred Kirkland, yes?” The man smiled, and Alfred tensed. The Royal SS was one of the most powerful organizations in the kingdom. They developed many of the military’s weapons and even some of the technology used in the citizens’ daily life. However, few of them were members of the kingdom’s most prominent noble families. Alfred didn’t know if the man was one of them. He wasn’t quite certain how he was supposed to deal with him. “You never lost a battle, and because of you, we learned of a convenient power source for our weapons. I admire your work.” 

“Then you should at least get my name right,” Alfred said, deciding that he didn’t care about formalities, after all. Arthur can scold him later if he has managed to insult a high-ranking noble, but at the moment, it didn’t matter to him. “It’s Alfred F. Jones. I’ve already chosen my name.” 

“Of course, my apologies,” the man said, inclining his head. “That was quite rude of me.” 

Before Alfred could reply, the doors opened again. The royal guard saluted both of them before speaking. “Captain Jones,” the guard said, addressing Alfred. “The king will see you now.” 

Alfred glanced at the other man one last time before entering the room. The guard stayed outside and closed the door, leaving Alfred alone with the king. 

King Gilbert was seated behind his desk. He had a scowl on his face as he read over a document and signed it. He didn’t seem to notice Alfred was there, and Alfred wondered if it would be considered rude to interrupt the king when he was so clearly working. 

“The southern lords are giving me some trouble. What should we do, Alfred?” Gilbert asked. He put down the document and leaned forward to stare at Alfred. 

“I don’t care about politics, your highness.” 

“I don’t like you lying to me, Captain.” 

Alfred sighed. “My brother would have better advice for you,” he said. 

Gilbert chuckled and leaned back on his chair. He looked amused, and he smirked at Alfred. He waved a hand towards one of the chairs in front of the desk. “Take a seat, Alfred.” 

“Is this meeting really just about the southern Lords?” Alfred asked as he sat down. The King shook his head, and Alfred frowned in confusion. “What is it about then?” 

“Have you thought about my previous offer?” 

Alfred hesitated and wondered what to say. He decided that he might as well be honest like last time. “I am not going to marry Ludwig, Gilbert.” 

Gilbert placed his chin on the palm of his hand. He grinned at the young military officer. “There you are,” the king said with a laugh. “It’s much better when you’re not being so formal, Al.” 

“Your highness—“ At Gilbert’s droll stare, Alfred pursed his lips. “Gilbert. Are you really going to insist on it?” 

Alfred had no desires to be consort. Ludwig was a good friend, and he would be a good match, but Alfred had different plans. Becoming one of the Empire’s rulers didn’t fit with those plans. But if the king insisted, then Alfred might not be able to refuse for long. It was frustrating to lack control.

“No,” Gilbert replied with a sigh. “I just think it would be a waste to let you go once you’ve done your family’s duty.” 

Alfred relaxed a bit at the king’s reply. “It’s not like I plan on leaving the kingdom entirely. My workshop is here.” 

“Right, speaking of those talents, Alfred,” Gilbert regarded him with eyes that were suddenly so serious. It was rare for the king to show such an expression, Alfred thought. It always seemed like the king was determined to remain amused by everything. “Did you get an invitation from the SS?” 

Alfred froze, thinking of the man from outside. Alfred has learned to trust his instincts throughout his service for the military, and his instincts were telling him that there was something wrong. “No,” he said. “Why?” 

“If you ever receive one, what would be your answer?” 

Alfred met the strange red eyes of the king. The Beilschmidt family was said to be demigods, born of the old gods. King Gilbert, especially, was said to bear the mark of the gods’ blessings because of his strange colouring. At least, that was what the legends say. No one actually believed in those stories anymore, but it didn’t make Gilbert look any less unnerving. 

“I would refuse,” Alfred answered.

Gilbert nodded like he expected that answer. “Good,” he said.

“Good?” Alfred repeated in confusion. “I thought the royal family supported them?” 

“It’s complicated, but I’d rather not let them have you and all your talents.” 

“Why?” 

“Why do you think?” 

Alfred poured. “Gilbert,” he said. 

The king chuckled. “That little trick hasn’t worked on me for a long while, Al. It doesn’t matter. They have too much influence. Don’t get involved with them, Alfred.” 

“But Ludwig is involved with them,” Alfred pointed out. 

At those words, the king’s looks darkened. “That’s right,” he scowled and pressed his fingers on his temple. “And this is why I asked you here.” 

Alfred waited and watched as Gilbert shuffled his papers. The king smiled when he found what he was looking for and handed it to Alfred. Alfred read through the report and glanced at the king. 

“A Drachfeurite vein?” He asked. 

“That’s right,” Gilbert said. “The SS thinks they found one right at the Northern border, where the barbarian tribes are. My brother insists on going to make a deal.” 

“What for?” 

“Alfred, you’re not stupid. You know what for,” Gilbert said, waving his hand at the direction of the papers in Alfred’s hand. “They want the mines.” 

“Don’t you?” 

“What? Don’t I want the mines that will fuel another war?” Gilbert drummed his fingers on his desk. “It will be useful, but another war is unnecessary when we already have to deal with the malcontent from provincial lords and commanders.” 

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to go with Ludwig. After all, you’re the one who discovered the use of Drachfeurite for our weapons and airship. Tell Ludwig you got permission from me to go for your research. Watch over him. Make sure those bastards from the SS don’t influence him too much.” 

“And what do we do about the mines?” Alfred asked. He leaned forward. “Do you plan on waging war against the northern tribes?” 

For a moment, Alfred thought that the king looked tired and resigned. “Only if we have to, Alfred. That is why you’re there. Temper my brother’s ambition.” 

Alfred stared at the report in his hands. Ambition, he thought glumly. A long time ago, Alfred had been willing to go to war against his brother for a dukedom. These days, he would just be happy if he could just finish his service to the crown and the army.

And after that, well, Alfred had other plans, one that involved more freedom and adventure than a dukedom can ever give him. 

He looked back up at the king to find Gilbert watching him with those blood red eyes. Like Arthur, Gilbert had become the head of his house and of the Empire at a young age. There were times such as this one where Alfred almost forgot how young their older brothers were. 

How young he and Ludwig were to have already gone through war. He wasn’t surprised that Gilbert felt tired of the war he built his country on. 

“I’ll do my best, your highness,” Alfred said before he grinned to reassure the king. “You can trust me with this one, Gilbert. I’m a hero now, aren’t I?” 

Gilbert chucked in wry amusement. “Let’s hope you stay that way.” 

 

———

 

The low hum of the airship’s engine was comforting under Alfred’s back. He leaned his head back on the wall, savoring the low thrum and warmth from underneath. He closed his eyes, and he can already imagine the heat in the ship’s engine room. He wanted to be there. He wanted to tinker with something, work on something with his hands. 

He could feel the same low thrum of energy that was running through the ship underneath his skin, and it almost felt like he had swallowed some broken pieces of Drachfeurite. His hand gripped his pack tightly in his fist and he hummed low in his throat, trying to match the same beat of energy on his back. The rush of the crew and the murmur of voices around him faded in favor of the engine’s life. 

“Alfred.” Just like that, Alfred’s focus was broken. He opened his eyes and grinned at the crown prince in front of him. 

“Heya, Ludwig,” Alfred greeted, pushing away from the wall of the ship’s cockpit. He didn’t want to get as lost as he just was. “We ready to take off?” 

Ludwig shook his head, and he fell into place beside Alfred. “Not just yet,” he said. “You should take care of your eyes.” 

Alfred blinked in confusion. He can still feel the low thrum of energy beneath his skin, and he realized what Ludwig was referring to. His eyes must look like the golden slitted eyes of a dragon. It tended to happen to people from his family when they were too caught up in something. He cursed and covered his eyes with one hand, willing it to return to normal. He thought of the energy running beneath his skin and pressed his other hand on the ship’s wall. He imagined the energy leaving him to return to the ship before opening his eyes at Ludwig. “How is it?” He asked. 

“Back to normal,” Ludwig said with a nod. 

Alfred groaned and crossed his arms. He rolled his shoulders back and already missed the electric feeling from the ship. It was almost like the magic from Arthur’s stories. But magic was a belief born out of superstition and ignorance. 

He should research what was causing the flares of power, but it wasn’t something he can do until the northern mission was over. “Why is it taking so long?” 

“Impatient?” 

Alfred laughed. “It’s boring doing nothing.” 

“You already look tired, Alfred. I don’t think you should be doing anything.” 

“Experiment,” Alfred grinned. “It took a little longer than I thought. Forgot to sleep.” 

Ludwig chuckled. “You and your experiments. One day, you might collapse from exhaustion.” 

“Nah,” Alfred shook his head. “The hero will do no such thing.” 

The two of them were silent for a while. Alfred listened to the bustle of the crew around him. He couldn’t wait to take off, couldn’t  wait for the freedom the skies could afford him. He drummed his fingers impatiently on the wall, careful not to get pulled into the ship’s lulling beat. 

He only realized that the prince was speaking to him when he saw Ludwig looking at him expectantly.

“I’m sorry?” Alfred frowned.

Ludwig huffed in amusement. “I heard that my brother offered to marry us and that you refused,” the prince repeated. 

“Oh, that,” Alfred shifted and glanced at Ludwig. The prince didn’t seem angry or offended. “You know why.” Ludwig was as one of the first people he told of his plan when he formed it after all.

“You plan on leaving after completing your family’s required ten years of service.” 

“Well, not leaving,” Alfred said. He waved at the bustling cockpit around them. “I want a life like this. Freedom. Adventure. I’ll be free to tinker with my very own ship if I become a captain or lead engineer in a private or commercial airship. Can you imagine it?” 

Ludwig shook his head. “I cannot imagine such things.” 

Alfred frowned at his friend. “Can’t or won’t?” 

“Does it matter?” 

Alfred shrugged. Before he could say anything, the ship’s captain approached them and gave a salute to both of them. “My lords,” he said. “We’ll be departing soon. It might be best to retire to your quarters.” 

“May I stay here?” Alfred asked. “I like the view from here.”

The ship captain looked from Alfred to Ludwig. “I would prefer to stay here as well.” 

The ship captain nodded. “As you wish, your highnesses.” 

“What? I’m not really—“ Alfred spluttered but the man had already moved away, giving commands to the crew members in the cockpit. Alfred grumbled before grabbing his pack from where he dropped it on the ground. 

Ludwig chuckled. “Let it be, Alfred,” he said. “You know what people assume.” 

“This is your brother’s fault,” Alfred said as ship began its ascent. 

“Alfred, I—“ Whatever the prince was about to say was lost as the roar of the engines suddenly grew louder, and Alfred could almost hear the whistling of the steam engines and the crackle of electric Drachfeurite from underneath them. He was careful not to get lost in the energy this time, but it was still quite the heady sensation. 

Once the ship was steadier, the roar died down to the same comforting hum Alfred got lost in. “Did you say something, Luddie?” 

Ludwig shook his head. “It wasn’t important.” 

Alfred let his gaze linger on the prince before shrugging off his worry. He glanced at the windows of the cockpit to the brilliant reds and oranges of a sunset. “Look at that,” Alfred said in a breathless voice. The sight of the skies has never failed to amaze him. “It’s everything I want.” 

When he looked back at the prince, Ludwig was looking at him as well. “Yes,” Ludwig agreed. Alfred frowned, but Ludwig did not move his gaze away. “It would take a few hours to reach our destination. You should rest, Alfred.” 

“Sure,” Alfred grinned. He felt tired as well, but he wasn’t ready to sleep. Not yet. He felt at peace here. “Just let me enjoy the skies a bit more.” 

There was a frown on Ludwig’s face even as he nodded and turned to leave. Alfred turned back to look in the direction of the windows. One day, he promised, one day he’ll be free. 

 

———

 

It was cold in the north. Alfred gritted his teeth and rubbed on the lenses of his goggles, hating how it had fogged up as soon as he left the temporary housing assigned to him. He felt tense. Soldiers and researchers bustled around him in their military encampment. 

The military encampment that should not be there. 

Maybe Gilbert was right. Maybe Ludwig needed someone to intervene against his ambition. 

There was a sudden shot of gunfire from afar, and Alfred flinched, already reaching for a gun before he heard the laughter. He was still too tense and guarded when the prince finally approached with the rest of the unit that was going with them to the mountains. 

“Alfred?” Ludwig frowned at the young officer who was uncharacteristically still and hunched over. “Is everything alright?” 

“Everything’s peachy,” Alfred said as he straightened to a more relaxed stance. He forced his hand to drop at his sides instead of holding on to the gun in his coat.  He gave a tense smile that could easily be mistaken as a threat with how wide it was. It really was too early in the day for him to feel so agitated already. “Are we leaving? Is this everyone?” 

Alfred glanced at the rest of the party and frowned at the familiar face he found. It was the royal SS officer from when he went to see the king. Just like before, his presence was unnerving.

Ludwig seemed to have noticed where Alfred’s attention had strayed. “This is Dr. Drei Reich, Alfred. He’s the lead researcher for this project.” 

“Project? I thought we were just mining Drachfeurite from the northern region?” 

“But with this much material, we would never pass up the opportunity to gain knowledge, your highness,” Drei said with a smile. “I’m sure you understand.” 

Alfred scowled at him. He didn’t bother correcting him before turning to Ludwig. He didn’t like it around the encampment. There were too many prying eyes, and even now he had the strange feeling that he was being watched. “Are we leaving?” 

Ludwig nodded. “Dr. Reich and his people will lead the way.” 

The men and women around them moved around before starting their trek. Alfred still felt tense, so he let himself fall back to the back of the group. He was very much aware of the pistol and knife beneath his clothes as well as the other guns that the people in their party carried. 

It didn’t bode well, he thought, to bring so many soldiers and weapons in a diplomatic mission. 

After an hour into the journey, Alfred had began to relax. The trek was difficult but monotonous. The only things around them were trees, rocks, and the white blanket of snow. The wind whistled around him, too cold and sharp on his skin. 

Everyone in their group spoke in whispers that Alfred couldn’t hear. It was as if everyone was afraid of disturbing something or someone that was sleeping within the mountains. Alfred shook his head and almost laughed at the absurdity of those thoughts. He really should stop listening to Arthur’s old stories. 

What he really needed to do was to talk to Ludwig, but he still felt too angry for any actual conversation to happen. 

The wind seemed to pick up in strength and speed around him. There was some shouting and scrambling in the front of their group. There was a loud crack that signalled the breaking of a large branch. Alfred flinched, thinking it was someone’s misfired fun. He looked up, just in time to watch as the other members of their groups dove out of the way of the falling branch. 

Ludwig is there. Alfred thought in a panic as he tried to rush forward. But the wind had gotten stronger that it was actually pushing him back from the group. Flurries of snow and ice seemed to accompany the wind, and Alfred may not have been born of the north, but he felt as if there was something wrong and unnatural about this storm. Alfred stumbled back as the wind continued its assault. The ground was uneven beneath him, and it was difficult to maintain his balance. Even with his goggles over his eyes, he could barely keep his eyes open and see through the tempest. 

“Alfred!” Ludwig shouted, and Alfred saw the blurred shadowy figures trying to reach him. It was too dangerous, he thought. They needed to stay back. He promised Gilbert that he’d protect his brother. 

“Stay back!” Alfred shouted back and wondered if they can even hear through the roar of the sudden storm around them. He couldn’t see the shadowy figures in front of him anymore, couldn’t see any of the members of his group. He used his arms to shield his face as he tried to move forward once again. The wind whipped at him, pushing Alfred back. 

All it takes to die in battle, he thought, was one mistake. All it would take for him to die in these mountains is one misstep. 

For the first time in a long while, Alfred prayed to the old gods that his brother still worshiped. He prayed the others would get back safe and sound as the wind sent him stumbling back on the snow, and the ground gave out beneath him.

 

———

 

“Wake up,” a voice demanded, and Alfred groaned in pain. Before he opened his eyes, he tried to learn what he could. The sound of the wind was softer wherever he was, and the cold bite of the wind wasn’t as harsh on his skin. His clothes felt damp from the snow and he didn’t feel the pressure of his goggles around his eyes. He could feel someone’s presence nearby, and the voice that spoke wasn’t one he recognised. 

Alfred tried to move his hand to reach for his gun or knife but found that he could not move it. 

“Open your eyes,” the voice demanded again. “I know you’re awake.” 

Alfred opened his eyes and immediately leaned away when he noticed the gleam of a blade in the stranger’s hand. Violet eyes stared at him, but the man did not move the blade that was too close to Alfred’s throat. Alfred tried to move his hands again and realized that still couldn’t. When he sneaked a glance at one of his hands, he realized that they were somehow shackled at his sides to the wall. 

“What the?” He gaped at it in surprise. He turned to look at the stranger in confusion. “How the hell did you do that? Who are you?” 

“I have better questions for you, your highness,” the man said. The stranger pressed the knife over Alfred’s exposed throat. Shadows unfurled behind him, and Alfred watched the large white wings spread around them, shielding them both from the winds. Now, that he can see better, he can see that they were both somewhere dark and enclosed. It must have been a cave. That was a thing you can find in the mountains, right? Alfred hated his ignorance in this situation. 

“Oh yeah?” He grinned at the other man, feigning his lack of concern. “And what’s that?” 

“You’re quite relaxed for a prince who’s about to die,” the man said. 

“What?” Alfred frowned. The prince. Did this man think he was the prince? The knife gleamed as the stranger’s wings shifted once again. Perhaps, this mistake was for the best if this man was an assassin against Ludwig. Alfred did promise to protect the prince, after all. Alfred turned his frown into a smirk. “Am I not supposed to be?” 

“Where did you take my sister and the others?” The stranger asked, gripping Alfred’s collar tightly with the blade still gleaming sharp and true. 

Alfred frowned. His sister? “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“What are your plans in my home?” 

“Why should I tell you?” 

“You do want to live, da?” 

“I don’t know,” Alfred chuckled. He hissed as he felt the prick of the knife on his skin, drawing a thin line of blood. “Do I? ‘Sides, how do I know if you’ll spare my life if I tell you anything?” Alfred should have expected the blow from the man’s fist, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. The ice held strong, and he couldn’t have moved to dodge. He spat his blood at the stranger and thought of smoke, gunfire, trenches, and mechanical golems on a battlefield. He’s survived war. He wasn’t about to be defeated in a diplomatic mission. 

The man had a blank expression as he sheathed his knife and wiped the blood off his cheek with the back of his hand. “You will tell me eventually,” he said as he tucked his wings behind his back. The wind picked up around Alfred, and the dragonborn shivered. “For now, you’ll follow me.” 

The ice on his hands crumbled, and Alfred once again frowned at his hands. It didn’t make sense. He’s never heard about any kind of technology that allowed people to control the elements. “How do you do that?” 

“Magic,” the man answered. 

Alfred turned to him with a scowl. “Don’t patronize me. Magic isn’t real.” He reached beneath his coat, but as he expected, the man had taken his weapons from him. His tinker’s kit was still around his waist, so perhaps, he can make something if he distracts the other man enough. 

The stranger turned to him and tilted his head curiously. With the wings and all, he really reminded Alfred of a bird. “You really believe that, do you not?” The stranger shook his head and chuckled. “The empire has really fallen low.” 

“Hey!” 

“I suggest you follow me,” the man said, turning his back towards Alfred. Alfred glared at his back and wondered if the man was underestimating him if he was willing to turn his back to Alfred. Then again, if he could control the ice, then maybe he really had nothing to worry about from Alfred. “Getting lost in the Boreal Mountains is a death sentence.” 

Alfred pulled his coat close and zipped it up as he followed the man towards the entrance. “I thought you wanted me dead.” 

“Perhaps not just yet,” the man said, giving Alfred an almost childish smile. “You are amusing, da?” 

“Ha,” Alfred scoffed. “Entertaining, that’s what I am.” He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I don’t even know who you are. Do you have any name, stranger?” 

“Do you?” 

“Oh, come on, you called me the prince,” Alfred grinned when the man glanced at him and winked. “Don’t you already know who I am?” 

“The matters of the empire do not concern me,” the stranger replied. 

Alfred thought of the way the others treated him in the camp and the title they kept attributing to him. “Oh,” he said, maybe the other really didn’t know anything and only captured Alfred based on wrong assumptions through observation. Alfred wondered if he should consider that fortunate or unfortunate for him. “It’s Alfred. Your turn, then.” 

The man stopped at the entrance of the cave and turned bright violet eyes at him. With the background of the white landscape behind him and his strange ability to control the ice, Alfred could almost see him as some kind of guardian of the Boreal mountains. It was a ridiculous thought, and he still itched to learn about what sort of device the man was using to control the elements. 

“Ivan,” the man answered. “You can call me Ivan, Alfred.” 

 

------

 

“How much longer do we need to walk?” Alfred complained as he followed Ivan through the woods. The snow crunched under him, and it was still far too cold for him. The familiar spark and energy that he usually felt was unusually still and silent. 

Just like his guide and captor. 

“Are you always this...energetic?” 

“I’ve been told it’s charming,” Alfred quipped back automatically. He scanned his surroundings for a path. Did his unit return to the encampment, or were they still looking for him? Should he take the risk of running and getting lost? Can he overpower the stranger? “I bet you’re regretting your choices now.” 

“I assure you. I am patient enough to endure you.” 

“Ah, well that makes one of us,” Alfred laughed. Oh well, he couldn’t just do nothing. He slipped his hand inside his toolkit and grabbed a screwdriver.  “Congratulations.” He moved to attack the avian soldier, aiming to stab him on the throat.

Ivan managed to dodge the attack, letting Alfred stumble forward with his momentum. With gritted teeth, Alfred rolled on the snow and turned to kick Ivan. Except he couldn’t, and he fell to his hands and knees. When he looked back at his feet, they were frozen to the ground, and they wouldn’t budge no matter how he pulled at them. 

“Are you quite done?” Ivan asked, tilting his head at him and smiling innocently at him. 

Alfred glared at him. “How do you do that?”

“I already told you,” Ivan said. “It’s magic. Perhaps, if you learn it, you’ll stand a chance.” 

Alfred cursed at him, but Ivan only gave him an impassive stare. Alfred continued to curse and to pull at his feet. He even threw his improvised weapon at the other, and Ivan only leaned to dodge it. “Let me go!” Alfred demanded, glaring. 

“Are you going to try this again?” 

Alfred raised his head and set his mouth in a determined line. “Always.”

“Then perhaps I should leave you like that for a while.” 

“Damn it! Let me go!” Alfred tried to use another one of his tools to break the ice, but they just slipped or bounced back from it. It was frustrating. He continued cursing at it and at Ivan, but the other one just stood there with his head cocked. Alfred wondered if Ivan was really going to leave him like that, but Ivan wasn’t even looking at him now. He seemed to be staring deeper into the forest, and Alfred squinted his eyes, trying to see what the other was staring at. 

“Ivan!” 

“Hush,” Ivan snapped at him. Alfred watched him form a staff made of ice from the snow around them. He couldn’t see if Ivan used any kind of device to build it. Surely, he must have. Magic was not a thing no matter how much Ivan or even Arthur insisted on it. 

“What?” Alfred asked in confusion. He could see the sudden tension in Ivan’s stance and his sudden stillness that was unlike his earlier teasing. It was then that Alfred heard it, loud howls that came from the distance and the crack of branches. When the wolves finally appeared, they were larger than Alfred expected and seemed deformed. Alfred frowned, and watched them warily. The wolves looked starved, and their skin seemed to have cracks that glowed golden running underneath them. It wasn’t normal. “What the hell?” 

The ice on Alfred’s feet shattered, and he looked to Ivan, who had just flicked a hand at Alfred’s direction. Alfred could run right now and leave the other to fend for himself, but he wasn’t sure what these wolves will do if he did choose to run. 

“What the hell are those?” He asked Ivan. 

“You should know that better than I do,” Ivan said with a grimace. “Those things only started appearing after your soldiers set up camp in my home.” 

Alfred shook his head. “No,” he said in disbelief. “I don’t know anything about this.” 

“Here,” Ivan said, and Alfred glanced at him. Ivan was still looking directly at the wolves, but one of his hands held Alfred’s gun out to him. “Take it.” 

“I can shoot you,” Alfred stated as he took the weapon and checked it over. It still had all of its bullets, and he knew he still had a few rounds of bullets in one of his pockets. He looked at the wolves that were growling at them and wondered if it would be enough. 

“Then I wish you luck in dealing with them,” Ivan said. 

“Why aren’t they moving?” Alfred asked. 

“They’re waiting,” Ivan whispered. Alfred remembered the people in his unit, remembered the whispered conversations and his own thoughts about waking something in the mountains. He wondered if they’d encountered these wolves too. 

“What for?” Alfred breathed out. 

Before Ivan could answer, howls broke out from behind the pack. Alfred braced himself, holding his gun ready. When the largest wolf he’s ever seen came running from the back of the pack, it was too fast for Alfred to react. Ivan pushed him away, and an ice column sprouted from the ground to pierce the wolf.

It was all the signal the others needed to attack. Alfred was back in the battlefield, his senses honed as he shot bullet after bullet into the wolves. From the corner of his eye, he could see Ivan fighting in closer range with the beasts, stabbing at them with his staff of ice. When the last wolf almost slammed into Alfred, red eyes gleaming with malice, Ivan pulled Alfred back by his coat and stabbed the wolf right between the eyes. The blood poured warm and thick over Alfred, and he grimaced even as Ivan let him go to survey the situation. 

“That’s disgusting,” he muttered, wiping at his face with the sleeve of his coat. Ivan was examining the largest wolf that he had stabbed with an ice pillar. It really was too large, bigger than any automobile in the kingdom. 

“They’re getting larger,” Ivan said. 

“What?” Alfred said as he tucked the gun into his coat pocket. He didn’t need Ivan to confiscate it from him again. “What are they even?” 

“Experiments from your empire,” Ivan said. “At least, those are my assumptions.” 

“There’s no way,” Alfred scoffed, crossing his arms to keep himself warm. His instincts told him that the cold feeling in his chest wasn’t from the mountain air. “We would never--” 

“Do you have any proof of that?” Ivan asked as he came closer to Alfred. His violet eyes were as cold as the feeling within Alfred’s chest. 

Alfred matched his glare with one of his own. “Do you?” 

Ivan didn’t answer him, but he did turn away from Alfred. Alfred watched him wave a hand towards the corpses, freezing each one in a block of ice. 

“Is that really necessary?” Alfred asked with a frown. 

“Some of them might come back if I do not do this,” Ivan said as he finished the largest wolf’s ice coffin last. He turned to Alfred, and the same calm and childish smile was back on the Avian’s face. “Shall we go?” 

Alfred frowned at the frozen carnage around him and fell into step after Ivan. None of it made sense. Ice, magic, deformed wolves, and an unknown land around him. In a war, knowledge made all the difference. 

And Alfred? Well, he was starting to feel like he knew nothing about what was really happening. 

 

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[Excerpt from an article in Cautania Times after the First Mechanical War]

 

The New Pride of the Empire: A War Hero, A Genius Inventor

...Captain Alfred F. Jones was the center of attention one year ago when he had returned victorious after the Mercan Battle. All citizens of our great empire would remember that the young Alfred’s strategy was what led to Cautania’s decisive victory. He was the center of attention yet again after he had chosen his name, Jones, on his coming-of-age ceremony, effectively renouncing his claim to the Drachen Ducal Territories and the Kirkland name. Still, he continues to surprise us. 

On the Fourth of July, Captain Jones officially revealed the results of his research on Drachen’s Dragon Fire Ore. It is this recent discovery that would eventually lead to the Empire’s victory in the Mechanical War...

 

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