Author's Note: For the first time ever, I experienced a lengthy writer's block. It wasn't a pleasant experience, of course, and it also caused the long delay for this chapter. Really sorry about that.

The Empty Knight and the Burning Princess

Chapter Seven – Miniature Chases

Even in the heat of the chase, Alexis found himself unable to put Zeil Gradis out of his mind.

"It's not that I do not want to trust him. I know as well as anybody else that his aid is indispensable to us right now. In fact, I am sure that we will continue to rely on his strength even in the future. But even so..."

It was simply not part of Alexis' nature to place his faith in a person who did not do the same in return. And Zeil Gradis had clearly chosen not to do so. There were too many things that he had been hiding. As a soldier himself, Alexis was aware that many of the warriors participating on the battlefield had their own personal demons to deal with, and almost all of them would be more than reluctant to disclose such matters. After all, it was rare to find a person who would voluntarily work in the military, risking his life at every turn. More often than not, the reasons could be found in the past. There were those that came from broken families, those that had to escape from their own crimes, those that were born in the gutter, eating only trash to survive...

Ultimately, mercenaries and soldiers were a motley collection of people who had no other place to turn to.

Given Zeil Gradis' martial background, Alexis actually did not find it strange at all that the white-haired swordsman had wanted to keep to himself. But Alexis was equally aware that what Zeil Gradis was hiding from them did not just lie in his past. His foreign heritage, his undeniably unusual appearance, and, more than anything else, his strange powers and abilities...Those were less easily ignored. If not for those, it would not have been impossible for Alexis to place more trust in the swordsman.

And all the while, as Alexis pondered over the matter, the minute figure hopping and darting in front of Alexis continued to elude him.

He found himself grinning ruefully. "Not good. I'm getting distracted again. I would definitely be in for a scolding if Mistress Ena was looking at this."

His worries regarding Zeil Gradis could wait. Right now, the obvious priority was the Flametongue, and the mysterious, small figure that had taken it away. His mistress had always said that his greatest weakness was his tendency to allow his mind to wander, and he was once again proving her right. He needed more discipline.

Still, in spite of that, it had to be said that the sheer speed and agility that the tiny figure was exhibiting was incredible as well. Judging from its stubby legs, it was impossible for it to naturally achieve and maintain such speed which was on par with a normal-sized human. Alexis was thus forced to come to one conclusion - that the figure was using magic in some way. It was a pity that Zeil Gradis had not followed him. Alexis had not been able to properly observe the swordsman's magic absorption ability, but he had heard about it from the princess. Such an ability would have been extremely suitable for subduing the minuscule thief, but Alexis also knew that he had to assume that Zeil Gradis would not be coming to his aid. It was likely that he had been engaged by the assassin again, or was perhaps dealing with the other twin assassin.

He tried to put on some extra speed as he realized, with a jolt, the thief's objective. The chase had begun on the second level of the inn, but he had pursued the thief down the stairs and past the lobby,and they were now racing towards the entrance of the inn. All the while, nobody noticed the commotion. The small figure diverted from its original, straight path, and headed away from the door. That was only logical. The door was closed shut and there was no reason for it to bother with the door. There was a much easier means of escape that was only accessible due to the figure's small size - the figure leapt prodigiously and sailed out of the window.

Of course, no such option existed for Alexis, and he was forced to waste precious time fiddling with the door. He finally rushed out only to be greeted with the darkness of the night sky and the rustling of the trees in the midnight breeze.

This was what the thief had been aiming for. It was fast, but not fast enough to decisively outrun him. The chase would have come down to a battle of endurance, and it seemed as though the thief had no confidence in that. It had thus chosen a different plan - to escape outside the inn and use its size to its advantage by hiding in the darkness.

"What should I do..."

He scanned the area with quick glances, all the while working out the best course of action in his mind. The current situation could not be said to be very advantageous for him, but...

Alexis shook his head and gritted his teeth. He advanced slowly towards the trees. After all, it was much more likely that the thief had concealed itself in that area, rather than remain out in the open. And yet, even as time passed, it seemed as though he could not find the thief. His gaze swept over the woods once more, and he let loose a sigh, trudging over to a tree. He turned around and leaned against it. The tiny figure was nowhere in sight.

In a flash, Alexis ducked downwards, his hand swooping down behind the trunk of the tree.

"Got you."

"You can't escape my eyes," he thought.

He drew his hand back, and raised it up to his face. Squirming and wriggling inside his closed fist was a small, humanoid figure who was still resolutely holding onto a brilliant gem of red fire.

As an archer, Alexis relied more on his vision more than anything else, and in fact it was due to his great vision that he chose to become an archer in the first place. It had not been easy at all, but he had managed to make out the tiny outline of the thief hiding behind the tree, even in the darkness. It would have been a simple matter for him to continue chasing after the thief, but that would also have alerted the thief and the chase would once again resume.

Approaching the matter from the opposite perspective, however, this also served as an opportunity for him. The thief's idea was to make Alexis lose sight of itself, and escape after that. This plan had not succeeded, but there was no way thatthe thief knew that. It had to judge based on Alexis' actions. And so, the archer decided to bet on that possibility, pretending that he had not noticed the location of the thief. He next moved near it, and kept up his facade. At that point, the thief could have chosen to escape, but it had already been fooled by Alexis' act and thought itself safe, which allowed Alexis to capture it easily.

"Very interesting little guy."

Zeil tapped on his chin as he leaned closer to observe the tiny thief.

Following that, Alexis had returned to the inn, meeting Zeil shortly after. The duo then ran into Ena and Alisa, who were looking for the Flametongue, after that. It seemed as though the two females had not noticed the loss of Flametongue during the actual event itself, and had only realized the fact a little while after.

From there, they decided to head back to one of their rooms to interrogate the unknown thief. Now that they were able to get a good, proper look at the little person, it was clear that Zeil's comment had been slightly incorrect. The thief was not a 'guy' - she was female. Her brown hair was neat and cut to shorter length than was usual, reaching only to her shoulders. It was difficult to tell, but her eyes were large, granting her an innocent, waifish expression. Looking closely, it could be seen that she resembled a normal human female in every way except for her size.

"There's nothing interesting about this, Gradis. This person is surely using magic. If possible, I would like you to use your ability to remove the effect so that we can take note of her proper appearance," Alexis said.

Zeil closed his eyes and nodded. "Sure, sure. That's no problem at all for me."

He placed a hand over the thief's small outline. "Steal The Soul," he breathed.

As the tell-tale grey light of the magic absorption ability washed over her, Alexis turned to talk to his mistress. "Pardon me for asking, Mistress Ena, but I just want to be sure of our current situation. Did you kill the assassin that was sent after you?"

Ena broke into a grin and shook her head, causing her long, black ponytail to sway behind her. "Nope. She got away. She ran like hell once she realized she couldn't kill me."

Alexis groaned. Zeil had told him that he had allowed the other assassin to escape as well, which meant only one thing - "So that makes two assassins that got away."

It was great that nobody had been killed or even injured by the assassins, but it also meant that they had to continue keeping a look out from here on out. Their location had already been discovered, and it was not wrong at all to say that they were in quite a precarious position at the moment. One false move could result in everyone's demise.

"Don't worry about it. Assassins who have failed don't return. Not this soon. I'd know."

The speaker was Zeil. Next to him, the thief gradually expanded and returned back to a normal size as the shrinking magic got absorbed.

It was a wild proclamation that he had just made, but before anyone could speak and clarify the matter, Zeil next said, "By the way, now that I've absorbed her magic, I'm gonna just go ahead and release it right now. It'd be pretty bad if I had to release it later if we ran into any enemies. So, good luck talking to her, guys. I'm gonna take a smaller view of the world in the meanwhile."

And with that said, he immediately began shrinking. It was a rather surreal experience observing him and the girl, and their juxtaposition of size. It did not take long at all for the process to end for the both of them - one shrunken male and one female, returned to her original size.

Zeil bent his knees - not that anyone could have noticed it with his minute stature - and rocketed up into the air. His powerful jump was calculated quite perfectly and he landed in a smooth arc on Alisa's shoulder. The flame-haired princess raised an eyebrow subtly and cocked her ear, listening to his whispers. It seemed that while the shrinking magic did not affect a person's physical capabilities in any way, it did reduce the volume of sound that one could make.

Alisa nodded once to show that she understood everything that Zeil had told her. "Well, this certainly is very interesting."

She strode over to the thief. The brunette was still conscious, but she had yet to say a single word. Her breathing was hard and fast, and was the only sound that could be heard in the room.

"Alexis, Ena. Do the two of you recognize the person?"

The two bodyguards exchanged glances for a few moments. It was clear from their reactions that they did not.

Alisa did not need them to express their opinions verbally. "Up till now, I had thought that this thief here had been sent by the Kingdom, just like the other two assassin," she said smoothly, "but Zeil had seen this person before. In fact, all four of us have. I suppose this is one of my failings. I have never been very interested in commoners."

She pointed a finger at the thief.

"Her identity is actually quite simple. She was the girl who was manning the counter in this inn. I suppose I should not be surprised that we did not remember her face."