Strider was the very last person to enter the Great Hall. It, like the rest of the tree-castle, was beautiful. Tables and chairs carved out of yew, oak, fir, redwood, sequoia, and every other kind of tree were arranged throughout the hall, the tableware already set in place. Strider saw slaves of all sorts off to the side, ready to wait on them. Unlike the city slaves, these ones were well taken care of to keep up appearances. Even their collars were ornate and beautiful, showing off the wealth of Bosco. The monarchs all gathered around one table, the 14 champions around another, and any attending retinues filled out the remaining ones.
"Please, Lady Silvan, I hope you'll do me the honor of sitting next to me," Isengrim said graciously. Silvan's smile never seemed to drop, but it was inexplicably unpierceable. She offered no resentment and took a seat, but Yoruichi and Esdeath quickly usurped the ones on either side. Isengrim pursed his lips and took a seat next to Yoruichi instead, satisfied he was sitting next to a Saint. Hisui sat between Luna and Luvia and quickly fell into conversation with them, while Cream began talking to Reynard. Imperatrix, Hancock, and Integra all sat next to each other, but neither seemed interested in conversing with the other. Toma, between Nova and Nobunaga, was deep in conversation with the two of them, while Nobara, Thoth, and Stella were discussing the beauty of the castle.
"That color suits you, young Noctis," Lucifer said.
"Ha. Thanks," Noctis replied, not sure what else to say. "I don't think I've ever seen you before."
"Likely not. I spend my time here and there, hither and thither," he said.
"You know Strider, though?" he wondered. Several conversations ceased as all eyes turned to Lucifer, who smiled.
"Some more wine, my good man," he said to a passing slave, who immediately complied. "I'll have to get a lot more in me before even thinking about touching that subject!"
"So you do know him?" Isengrim inquired.
"Indeed. Striders an old friend," Lucifer said, sipping his drink.
"What's this I hear about him being a king?" Reynard asked, receiving a glare from Hisui.
"Do you doubt that he is?" Lucifer asked.
"If he is, he doesn't act like it," Reynard said. Lucifer just smiled; he began talking to Noctis about the going on in his kingdom, which he seemed well apprised of.
"You know a lot," Noctis said.
"Knowledge is currency, young prince. Keep that in mind," Lucifer said.
"So, Empress…" Reynard said to Hancock, a light smile on his face. The conversations perceptibly ceased as everyone turned their eyes to the two. Only Lucifer seemed to pay it little mind, focused more on his drink as he waited for the food. Hancock ignored Reynard, looking off to the distance. She knew well what he intended to intone and didn't need to hear it. At the other table, Strider heard him. He sat between Toyohisa and Mazikeen; the former was impatient to begin eating, the latter satisfied with the generous amount of wine he poured for her.
"So, you two know each other?" Rin asked, pointing to her and Strider.
"He's an old friend," she said, smiling.
"Indeed. I met her and Lucifer years ago," Strider said.
"Was that before you left your guild for 7 years?" Dyst sneered.
"It was," Strider said.
"That doesn't bother you?"
"What's done is done. No reverting that decision," he said.
"That's pretty cold, man," Zane said.
"Yet unless you're able to turn back time, there is nothing to be done about it. I am a mere man, after all."
"You're a little more than that," Mazikeen said.
"You're too kind, Mazikeen," he said.
"How many times have I told you to call me Maze?" she sighed.
"Forgive my stilted tongue," he said.
"Mmm, you'll have to earn forgiveness with it," she said smirking.
"Excellent. I'll drop by tonight."
"Leave that sort of talk for later, you two," Rin sighed.
"Forgive me, Miss Tohsaka," Strider said.
"Just call me Rin."
"Rin, then. My, you are beautiful," he said.
"And you're pretty forward," she said, blushing a little.
"I lack most shame," Strider answered.
"Care to spar later, Strider?" Toyohisa wondered randomly.
"I do not mind," Strider said.
"Aren't you afraid of shooting your load too early?" Uma asked.
"Not in this case," Strider shrugged.
"You seem pretty relaxed about this fight. I hope that Century Quest didn't make you overconfident," Rin said warningly.
"Not in the slightest. I'm quite curious to see how you all conduct battle. Well, besides Mazikeen. I know her style well," Strider said.
"Don't expect me to go easy on you," she said.
"Not at all, my dear," he answered with a smile. He soon turned his eye on Dyst. "Another telekinetic. This will be interesting. Would you care to spar?"
"I'm good," Dyst said, leaning back.
"As you say," Strider said. His eyes went around the table before he noted: "There are quite a few swordsmen here. I'm curious as to how you fight, though, Alucard."
"Gun Magic," Alucard said, raising up a beautiful chrome handgun. "The Hellsing ARMS Casull. A favorite of mine, and courtesy of Walter Dornez."
"The butler?" Strider wondered.
"Very perceptive of you," Alucard said, his grin never dropping. "I look forward to seeing how you react to it."
"And I, you and yours," Strider said. Alucard was an intriguing person; there was more to him than met the eye. "And how long have you practiced the sword, Saeko?"
"I grew up practicing with it. Are you the same?" she wondered.
"More or less, although I'm not as well versed as others," he answered.
"I'm well acquainted with your swordsmanship. You sell yourself short," she said.
"But it seems like telekinesis is your main power," Rin said.
"Indeed. I'm much more comfortable with it. But I cannot leave Anglachel well enough alone," he said.
"Anglachel?" Saeko asked.
"You gave your sword a name?" Dyst snickered.
"He already had a name before I retrieved Him."
"He?" Saeko asked uncertainly.
"He. He has been my companion through many travails this past decade," Strider said with a small smile.
"And what does the name mean? Is it from your homeland?"
"It is indeed. It means Flaming Iron," he said, gently caressing the hilt.
"Locking swords with you is gonna be fun," Kenpachi said with a grin.
"Indeed. I hope you won't let anything hold you back, though," Strider said, his eyes traveling to his eyepatch.
"I thought you were going into these fights blind? Don't tell me you were lying," Dyst sneered.
"Hardly. As a telekinetic, you ought to be able to feel it palpably. If not, I'm afraid your chances are slim. After all, you've been trying to spill this glass of wine on me for the past few minutes, yet it hasn't budged a centimeter." The others looked at Dyst, who had turned a bright red. Strider smirked mockingly at him. "Sorry, sorry. Go ahead and try now. You should be able to manage it. Maybe."
"You might wanna be careful of him now," Zane whispered to Strider.
"I'll manage," Strider said, not caring to lower his voice. "The invitation to spar remains open, boy."
"Why you–" Dyst began when he heard Cream clear his throat. He sat back down, eliciting subtle laughs.
"I was flattered to hear you wanted to come to see our humble land, Lady Silvan," Meline said to the beautiful Saint. Silvan just smiled and nodded her head slowly in thanks, patiently waiting for her food.
"Don't mind her. Silvan doesn't like to talk a lot. She's the strong, silent type," Yoruichi teased her.
"Yeah. Unless it's Strider," Esdeath sighed.
"Strider?" Isengrim asked, surprised. "He… is acquainted with the Lady?"
"She's like a chatterbox when it comes to him," Esdeath said with a smirk.
"You overstate it," Silvan sighed.
"You barely say two words to the rest of us. But when it was him, we couldn't shut you up," Esdeath said, poking her arm.
"He's an interesting man," Silvan said, smiling.
"Ah. All of you are acquainted with Strider, then?" Meline asked uncomfortably.
"Well, maybe not as much as Yoruichi," Esdeath giggled.
"E," Yoruichi said warningly.
"Right, right," she said smirking. "We went to see Acnologia. It was pretty impressive."
"Yes, I recall. I hear that dragon blood is very potent for many things," Meline said.
"Strider said the same thing," Esdeath said.
"He ought to share it with the kingdoms. The benefits it could bring about for the people are endless! Princess Hisui, perhaps you ought to speak with him about it?"
"He said he didn't keep a drop of it. Destroyed the body, too," God Serena said.
"What?" Isengrim asked, stunned.
"Why?" Cream asked impatiently. He, like the others, had heard about the many uses of dragon blood, and it interested him greatly.
"Lack of trust on his part," Serena said.
"He should've consulted us, though!" Reynard said, shooting Strider a look. Strider turned and gave him a small smile before turning back to his conversation.
"Perhaps if Lucifer had asked…" Serena intoned.
"Which, for the record, I would not have," Lucifer piped in.
"Why not?" Nova wondered, frowning. "I don't think he was wrong, per se, but it would've been fine to consult us."
"I do not recall any of Fiore's neighbors assisting with the search for the dragon or for Fairy Tail's lost island," Lucifer said, picking up his knife & fork when the food appeared. "Consult on what, exactly? None of you have ever seen a dragon, let alone killed one. I'm not sure what you think you'd be able to do. Dragon blood is exceedingly corrosive, for one. You'd sooner kill yourself with it than bring about some benefits you read in a mistranslated scroll." Nova had no response to that; everyone awkwardly dug into their food.
"I heard about the whole dragon killing thing," Rin said, pointing to the conversation at the other table. "That must've been difficult."
"A messy piece of work, indeed. I'd tell you the story, but it's not dinner friendly."
"To bad you didn't kill it before it got your buddies," Dyst said.
"That would've been ideal."
"You should probably stop trying to get a reaction from him," Maze said, hiking her thumb at Strider. "He's detached."
"You make it sound worse than it is," Strider sighed.
"Still true," Maze shrugged.
"I hope you two don't decide to team up against us," Zane said, looking between the two.
"Not at all. No fun in that," Strider said.
"What're you talking about? We've teamed up against plenty of people before," Mazikeen said.
"Ah, those situations were entirely different."
"You've been pretty quiet. Are you a mute or something?" Dyst said to Bishamonten.
"She speaks!" Dyst said sarcastically. "You know, my Kings been checking you out."
"It's not every girl that gets royalty interested in her."
"I will survive."
"Stop bothering her," Rin sighed.
"Don't get pissed because no one is checking you out," Dyst said.
"Pretty sure Strider was," Zane said, hiking his thumb at him. Rin looked at Strider, who returned her gaze. She immediately turned to her food.
"I thought you were quiet – but you've got nothing on that lady," Dyst said, looking at Gentiana. She had hardly even moved a muscle and seemed not to notice him. When Strider looked at her, however, she returned his gaze. There was something impenetrable about her, he thought. She seemed to him more than a woman. Beside her sat Clare, who at least observed who her opponents might be despite not participating in the conversation. Her focus seemed mostly on Kenpachi. The latter's eyes flitted between her face and sword; despite their differences in size, she would be a formidable opponent.
"I understand there's a war between Bellum and the Pergrande Kingdom," Strider said, looking between the two.
"Interested in politics?" Saeko asked.
"In quite a few things. War, however, is infinitely intriguing. What caused it? Why hasn't it been settled? Which sides are fighting? Over what? And then, what's the real reason? Who's doing the fighting? Why are they fighting instead of someone else? So many questions that one could study it for the entirety of their life and come no closer to finding out the real reason. Well, except pride, resources, and territory. Those, I imagine, are omnipresent."
"Some people have a more just motivation," Clare finally said.
"Perhaps," Strider said, focusing on his food. At the other table, they adjourned earlier, and the monarchs made their way to another room.
"Before I begin, I wanted to thank you all for taking the time to come see me on this most auspicious day. It's not every day that someone turns 50," Isengrim said with a laugh as he took a seat.
"And still remains handsome," Meline added with a giggle.
"To many more such years," Lucifer said, raising a glass.
"Thank you, thank you," Isengrim said. "Before we proceed, though, there is a topic I wanted to bring up. Forgive me, Toma, Hisui – but it concerns your Champion. I have my reservations about him."
"What reservations?" Hisui asked.
"We do not know where his loyalties lie," Isengrim said gravely. "Certainly, he's an interesting man. And in slaying Acnologia, he has rendered Ishgar an unforgettable, immeasurable service for which we will always remain thankful. Indeed, one can hardly doubt his power and strength. No doubt, even my son would be hard-pressed against him! But that doesn't change the fact that he is not Fioran, not Ishgaran! We do not know his reason for coming here; we do not know what he intends to do; we do not even know if he's honest – if he really did come from the northern continent! We all know that no one has yet crossed the Great Sea, yet this wizard claims he did, and we have simply accepted it! He is no diplomat, and this is no political mission. Tell me, dear Hisui, do you know why he's here?"
"He wanted to get away from war. You know what he said," Hisui said coolly.
"Yes, which only frightens me!" Isengrim said with a small smile. "This Strider – and what kind of name is that, exactly? – is more of a monster–"
"You may have had more to drink than I," Lucifer suddenly interjected. Everyone felt the temperature in the room drop precipitously; gone was his seemingly evergreen smile, replaced instead with a cold look that portended danger. Even Isengrim seemed surprised; he felt all his emotional strength drain from him and gulped.
"Please, continue," Lucifer said softly. Isengrim licked his lips and did so: "As I was saying, this Strider is more of a… danger than I think we've all admitted so far. Certainly, I do not have the benefit of his friendship as you might, Lord Morningstar, but as the rightful ruler of a country that borders Fiore, having someone like that is a bit…"
"Uneasy? I agree wholeheartedly, King Isengrim, and I thank you for bringing it up," Cream said, standing up. "My country is small, yes, but it is an uneasy location with someone such as Strider so near us. If he is not who he says he is – if, instead of a peaceful mission, he ever – and forgive me for saying so, Princess Hisui, King Toma – decided to wage war with us, we would be one of the first to bear his brunt! He is powerful – his slaying of the dragon and successful completion of the first Century Quest is evidence of that – but just as much, he is terrifying. I am hesitant to even allow him to compete in these games. Is he even a citizen proper?"
"He is," Hisui said simply; she had seen too that long ago.
"Certainly not through the normal means," Nobara interjected. "How did he prove his country of origin?"
"I take him at his word," Hisui said uneasily. In fact, that was all they had to go on – his word.
"I see. So you have no way to prove that he is who he says he is?" Isengrim asked.
"Strider has proven – beyond any shadow of a doubt – that he is a just man. If you all feel so strongly about this, however, I will ensure that Strider does not operate outside of Fiore. At the very least, I sleep easier knowing that if the Wild Hunt attacks us, we have someone who can fend them off." She said the final sentence with extreme relish. The cherry on top was the fear struck into the faces of the others; most of them had gone white. The Wild Hunt was on the back of their minds for a long time now; the genocide that had taken place in Alvarez was terrifying and put them all on guard.
"C-certainly, we don't want to believe he is a bad person, princess. Merely to ensure that he is and remains a friend," Isengrim said.
"Of course," Hisui said, smiling. Across the way, she saw Lucifer cover up a smile.
"I am with Ise and Cream on this, Toma, Hisui. Recall that Iceberg is bordered by the Great Sea to the north. It is like an exposed nerve should an attack ever come from that way."
"The northern coast of Iceberg is mountains, sweetheart. I don't think you have to worry about that too much. What's there to be afraid of? He just solved one of the biggest problems this place has ever had! Hell, you ought to be thanking him on your hands and knees, you ungrateful bastards," Nobunaga said, laughing. His language did no favors to any of them, which only furthered his glee. "Did I strike a nerve? My, my! If looks could kill!"
"Toma – what is your thought on the matter?" Isengrim asked. Toma, however, just passed it on to Hisui.
"She knows him better than I do, after all," he said cheerfully.
"I think you're too hard on him," Luna said, frowning. "I'm with Hisui on this. Strider rendered Ishgar a tremendous service by slaying Acnologia. His reasoning for being here notwithstanding, we still haven't rewarded him for that. I think we should discuss that, honestly."
"P-perhaps a bit later," Isengrim said. Whatever the reward would be, it wouldn't come cheap. "Lady Imperatrix – what do you think?"
"I urge caution," she said simply. "While he is currently our benefactor, the situation may change. He is an unknown entity. It would be unwise to rush where he is involved. As he has shown no outward signs of rebellion, however, it shall not do to anger him. I believe Princess Hisui is best suited to keeping him in check – that is to say, ensuring that he acts for the best of the continent."
"I agree with Imperatrix," Teresa said, her eyes closed. "The Wizard cannot be so easily trusted. You ought to have informed us of his strength long ago."
"He only came to our attention during the Grand Magic Games," Hisui said coldly.
"Fiore needs stronger restrictions on their guilds. You let your wizards operate too freely. Any of them could pose a threat to our way of life – especially that rambunctious guild."
"Yes, Fairy Tail. I have had my own problem with them," Cream said distastefully.
"Such a discussion can be tabled for later. We are discussing Strider for the moment," Thoth said in a surprisingly gentle voice. "Hisui, you can surely understand why it makes so many of us uneasy for Strider to be as unrestrained as he is. Rather, he appears unrestrainable. Which is not necessarily a problem if we knew his intentions. But currently, we do not. While Ise might know, please tell us a little about him – so we are all on the same page, at least."
Hisui sighed; there was no getting out of this. Her eyes went around the room before settling on Lucifer – who, to her surprise, gave her an imperceptible nod. That gave her the courage she needed to stand up and begin telling everyone what she knew about Strider. She told them everything she knew – where he came from, what he did, his role in the war, how he traveled to Fiore & Ishgar, some of the quests he had taken, the Century Quest, his slaying of Acnologia, and more. Isengrim filled in what Strider had told him about how many he slew; some were set uneasy by such callous disregard for the burning of corpses. When she sat down, she felt drained.
"A violent, vicious, dangerous, and cruel man," Teresa said coldly.
"Indeed. This changes things," Cream added darkly.
"Changes what, exactly?" Hisui asked.
"They're afraid of him," Luvia summed up. Her face betrayed some of her own fear.
"As we have a right to be!" Meline exclaimed. "I, for one, do not want my son fighting against such a bloodthirsty barb–"
"You appear to have had too much to drink as well, my dear," Lucifer said coldly. Meline pursed her lips.
"And what is your thought on this, Lord Morningstar?" Imperatrix wondered.
"Indeed. You seem to be the only one here who knows more about Strider than the rest of us do. Please, enlighten us!" Cream said.
"Neither Strider nor I have the years required for such an arduous, indeed impossible task. But I shall not try, either. Father knows he'd not forgive me if I did that. Suffice it to say that Strider is not merely an old friend, but is akin to my brother. Far closer than any of my blood brothers, certainly. Your differences with him, you must settle on your own. Sin, however, will side with him irrespective of your decision."
The others went quiet as they considered his words. Sin was a peninsular country bordered to the east by the Pergrande Kingdom. It traded with virtually every other country, its main export being entertainment. Despite its position, surrounded by large countries on every side, it had never been at war with anyone – even the Pergrande Kingdom was loathe to try to annex it; the one time they had tried, they had failed miserably. Now that he had thrown his weight behind Strider, the situation had changed.
"C-certainly, if Lord Morningstar vouches for Strider, we can rest easier," Isengrim finally added. Across the way, Nobunaga rolled his eyes and leaned back.
"What about you, kiddo?" he said to Noctis.
"Hey, if Luna and Hisui trust him, no problem on my end. Seems like a good guy," Noctis answered.
"Your country is an island. You'd be an easy target for Strider," Integra said, smirking as she smoked a cigar.
"Yeah, but we'd see him coming a mile away. Most of our northern islands are about the same geographical position as Fiore – and some even further north than that – so if he were to invade, we'd probably hear about it before most of you," Noctis said, smiling.
"Have you nothing to add, Witch?" Teresa asked Retsu in a cold tone.
"Not a word, Teresa," Retsu said with a calm smile that left many shaken.
"And what about you, Empress Hancock?" Isengrim asked.
"Let us get to the meat of this get-together. This talk bores me," Hancock said.
"Certainly. We shall table it for later, then. After all, this is my birthday celebration – I can't spend all of it talking about someone else! My friends, I thank you once again for coming. I received your gifts, and I thank you for each and every one of them. But it is improper for a king to receive so much, despite the occasion. On days such as this, I want to be the one to give. So please, tell me your wishes – and if it is within my meager power, I shall make them a reality! Hisui, Toma – my dear, my friend – what would you ask of me?" Isengrim asked in a grandiose voice.
Toma and Hisui stood up; she gave him a stiff curtsey while Toma smiled wide.
"Ise, we've known each other for a long time. I remember when we were young boys and used to play here, and in Mercurius," Toma said. Isengrim smiled and closed his eyes, thinking back to simpler days. He had an idea of what was coming. "Hisui and I want the same thing, my old friend. I think it's gone long enough – it's time to end this institution of slavery. You inherited it from your great-great-great-grandfather, and we both know how much your father hated the responsibility of it. Let it go, old friend. Fiore – and I'm sure everyone else – will help you transition."
"Toma. You are the most steadfast man I know," Isengrim said in a grave voice. "You have always stood fast to your ideals! But you ask for something greater than I can give, my friend. Just because I'm the sovereign doesn't mean that I can just snap my fingers and make a change. But I will give what I can – I will not just consider it, but I will ask the people what they think!"
Toma and Hisui could only smile; they immediately knew what that meant – he'd ask all slaveowners what they think; slaves were not considered people under Bosconian law, but mere beasts of burden. They could do little but ask; with an unfelt thank-you, they took their seats.
Cream was next. He stood up and waxed poetic on Isengrim's greatness, Meline's beauty, and Reynard's intelligence – something which satisfied them greatly. In the end, he asked for an archaeological artifact that was recently found in Bosco – an unassuming half of a blue-stone with what appeared to be a bird imprinted on it. "You know how I love archaeology," he added. Isengrim immediately sent a slave to retrieve it. When he returned, he presented it to Cream with both hands and a smile, which Cream graciously accepted with a deferent bow of his head.
Luvia, Noctis, and Luna – the youngest and most idealistic – along with Nova & Stella and Hathor & Thoth and Retsu, made the same bid for an end to slavery. Each of them received a variation of the same answer. The four young prince's and princesses gave each other a dejected look, while the elder statesmen did their moral duty and satisfied their conscience with such.
Nobunaga had, to their surprise, an odd request. He could've asked for anything, yet the only thing he did ask for was a teapot, a teacup, and some of the best (and most expensive) tea that Isengrim had. More than a little amused, Isengrim immediacy acquiesced and handed over what he wanted. They watched in amusement as Nobunaga grinned at a beautiful teapot. It was round and white with an intricate willow-tree pattern etched into it.
Nobara had just an intriguing of a request. She requested the whereabouts of someone. She described a beautiful woman with pale white skin, dark black hair, and wearing an intricately designed long robe. She had heard rumors of such a woman in Bosco recently and wanted the help of the king in tracking her. He immediately had some people on it and ensured her she'd get results as soon as they were available.
The odd asks didn't stop coming. Integra requested different types of wood that came from trees only found in Bosco. Isengrim was interested and pressed her, but she deflected all of them. Figuring that a few tons of wood couldn't do much harm, he promised that everything on her list would be prepared by the end of their stay.
Imperatrix was much more moderated than the others. She spoke about the inlet that fed into the Great Sea and originated at the eastern coast of Joya. She proposed – to Isengrim, Nova & Stella, Luna, and Hisui & Toma – that they join in developing it further so trade could be more easily conducted in the interior countries. Isengrim and Nova & Stella were intrigued by the idea; their geographical location gave significant power to Fiore, Minstrel, and Caelum, which could act as choke points to prevent imports & exports from getting or leaving there – but also as a protective barrier preventing others from interfering as well. The five countries agreed to discuss it further, and Isengrim immediately gave the plan his blessing.
Teresa had long stared at Retsu, her finger tapping on her right thigh the while. She was bold in her asking – requesting military assistance from Isengrim right in front of Retsu. She took it in and stride, and if the request shocked her, she didn't show it. Retsu closed her eyes for a long while, and when she opened them, Isengrim gulped. There was a marked change. Gone was the kindness in her eyes, replaced with a terrifying glare. Teresa matched it, and between the two, there was an unspoken, expletive-laden conversation.
"I-I'll have to confer with my advisers on that, Teresa. B-but I'll let you know," Isengrim said lamely.
When it was Lucifer's turn, he demanded to know where the alcohol was stored in the castle. Isengrim told him immediately.
Last was Boa Hancock. Everyone turned to her, some of them looking uneasy. Everyone remembered the help they had provided – none.
"My request is simple. Return my step-sister to me – at once!" she barked. Reynard smirked at her; he had been virtually silent this whole time.
"I'm not sure what you mean, my lady. Robin came her of her own volition. She could leave whenever she wants. But if she wants to stay, I can't–"
"Do not speak to me, you diminutive fox," she said coldly. "The adults are speaking." Reynard's smile fell for a flash before it turned into a cruel smirk.
"Alas, I cannot control the whims of another, Empress. Please, ask for something else – I shall be too glad–" Isengrim began before Hancock interrupted her.
"I have your answer," she said softly.
"Before we move on, it appears we're forgetting someone, father. Strider is a king, isn't he? Perhaps we should bring him here as well?" Reynard wondered with a smirk.
"How foolish of me. I ought not to be so strict on my birthday," Isengrim said, laughing. He sent a slave to fetch Strider, who was still mingling with the other champions. As he entered, he stood next to Lucifer, a curious look on his face.
"Strider…," Isengrim said, continuing his explanation in a grandiloquent manner. Strider politely nodded along before pausing to think of what he wanted. His eyes went around the room before landing on Hancock, who returned his look with an icy one of her own.
"I see. I believe I have my request, then," he said.
"Let me hear it, then," he said.
"I would like you to request your son to request Robin to sail to Enca with the Lady Boa Hancock," he said, carefully choosing his words. More than anyone, Hancock looked shocked at the ask. Isengrim, Meline, and Reynard seemed no less surprised than her.
"I certainly thought you'd ask me to abolish slavery or something similar," Isengrim admitted. Strider just shrugged. Isengrim looked at Reynard at nodded. The latter sent for Robin, who appeared wearing a green dress. When she looked at Hancock, she respectfully bowed her head before standing next to Reynard. Strider saw Hancock's hands form into fists; it seemed to take all her power to not jump up and bring Robin over to her side.
"What is your interest in Robin?" Reynard asked, running a finger down her side.
"Now that I get a closer look, she is quite beautiful," Strider said, approaching her. This surprised everyone, Reynard, more so. He immediately shot up, eliciting a curious look from Strider. "What is the matter? She is not a slave, is she? She does not wear a collar, at least."
"Perhaps it's not around her neck," Lucifer suggested.
"Ah, I had not considered that," Strider said softly. "Where is it, my dear?"
"You may answer," Strider cut him off. "Certainly, no one here may stop you from doing so."
"You overstep yo–" Isengrim began Strider cut him off as well.
"Ah, I am but a warrior who found himself king, not the other way around. Such matters escape me. I humbly beg your forgiveness," he said with a mocking bow. "But the Lady has not answered my question."
"And she won't. She's not a slave, but she is a self-respecting woman and will not dignify you with an answer," Reynard snarled. Strider looked at Robin and suddenly noticed a movement in her eyes. She pointed at her right side, away from Reynard. An odd gust of wind suddenly blew through the chamber. Robin closed her eyes as she felt a pinch but quickly straightened her dress. Her eyes immediately locked with Hancock, who just looked surprised. She looked between Robin and Strider but decided not to say anything for the moment.
"I suppose you've trained her well," Strider said, giving Reynard a cold glare. "Very well. Might I consider this oath unfulfilled, King Isengrim?"
"What?" he asked.
"Might I consider this oath – to fulfill some wish of mine – unfulfilled?"
Isengrim had no response. He suddenly felt smaller under the cold gaze from Strider.
"So be it," Strider said softly before standing behind Hisui, a hand on her shoulder. "And how are you, princess? Well, I hope?"
"Entirely," she said, smiling as she put her hand on his. "Although I think some of the others may have some questions for you later."
"Mhm. Some of them aren't happy about how you handled Acnologia," Hisui said with relish. Everyone that had earlier spoken against him gulped.
"I see," Strider said, a dark look in his eye. "Forgive me, then. I will not interfere so callously in the future. Certainly, you likely have institutions in place that can deftly deal with such a crisis. I will leave them to you in the future, then." Across the way, Lucifer snickered.
"C-certainly, we owe you a great debt for settling Acnologia, Strider. We shall all see to that immediately," Isengrim said.
"Take your time. I am in no rush, after all," Strider said. "If that will be all, I ought to take my leave." He made to go but stopped before Robin. He figured now was the best time, in front of everyone else.
"What is her status, I wonder," he said aloud.
"Well, before you came, Reynard said she came of her own volition and can leave whenever she wants. Perhaps those rumors were untrue? Perhaps she is not a slave?" Lucifer said.
"Indeed, she is not. She just–"
"I want to leave!" Robin suddenly shouted. Isengrim, Meline, and Reynard sat stupefied as she yelled those four words. Most everyone else seemed surprised, save Lucifer and Strider. The latter smiled.
"Ah! So she can speak," he said cheerfully. "I believe I have my answer then." Robin jutted past him and on her knees to Hancock, who seemed just as surprised as everyone else. If there had been a plan, she was not in on it. She hugged Robin close, tears overflowing on both sides.
"Well, I surmise you have no problem with this, young prince. She is no slave, as you said, and can leave whenever she wants. Apparently, those rumors were untrue," Strider said coldly. Reynard's surprise turned into fury as he shot up and glared at Strider. As he remembered where he was, though, all he could do was grit his teeth.
"F-f-forgive me, everyone; I am feeling a little tired. Let us adjourn for now," Isengrim said. He whisked Meline and Reynard away, while the others began talking about the new development.
"Did you do something?" Luna asked Strider point-blank.
"I am but a simple man who views all problems as nails to hammer," Strider said.
"That doesn't even make sense in this situation!"
"Perhaps not, but I shall speak on the matter no more. Or, at the very least, later. Forgive me, Luna, but now I must return to mingling with my peers," Strider said. He stopped by Lucifer before leaving. They whispered something to each other before he left.
"Oh, he definitely did something," Hisui said, satisfied.
"Don't I know it. Still, I'm happy with how it turned out," Luna sighed. One more free slave was better than none. They looked to Robin and Hancock, who had not let go of each other yet. Luna, Hisui, and Luvia looked between each other and nodded. Carefully, they approached Hancock. She gave them a warning look, but to her surprise, Robin shook her head. Biting her lip, Hancock let them approach.
"Time for us to leave, old-timers," Lucifer said the rest of the assembly. No doubt, some of them were thinking the same thing. With a few uneasy looks, they agreed.
"I'll see you later," Noctis whispered to Luna.
"Yeah. See you in a bit," she said, smiling. Lucifer was about to be the last to leave when Luvia stopped him.
"Lord Morningstar – did Strider do something?" she asked. Their heads turned to Lucifer, who pulled out his own cigar.
"I'm not drunk enough to consider that," he said cheerfully before following Isengrim's instructions to the cellar.
"This Strider," Hancock said slowly, looking at Hisui. "Tell me what you know of him?"
"R-right," Hisui said, faltering under her gaze. Up close, she could see the rumors were true; Hancock was the most beautiful woman in Ishgar. She began divulging everything, hoping Strider wouldn't take offense to it later.
As Strider made his way through the dimly lit hall back to where everyone else was, he heard his power being mentioned.
"Did you hear about what happened with the telekinetic?"
Strider made himself as invisible as possible; he retreated into the shadows and masked his presence with his powers while he listened to two guards.
"What happened? Which one?"
"The Fioran. The prince and king hired someone to attack some guild member that the telekinetic is interested in."
"I just heard it myself! Apparently, it was her husband or lover or something. They tried to take his Century Quest reward."
"Did he find out?"
"No way! It was supposed to be a clean job, too. But apparently, the son of a bitch tried to run away with all the jewel! He was supposed to bring it to the prince. So the mom killed him. The telekinetic caught them, though."
"Has anyone found out?"
"If they did, you think everyone would be here? If the telekinetic found out…"
Strider had heard enough. As soon as he was able, he Dominated both guards and began rifling through their minds with a hitherto unknown fury. When he was done, he gave them their final command. Anglachel rattled at his side; he had heard just as well. Strider turned and left down the hall, his mind ablaze.
"You seem a bit off, old friend," Lucifer said as he came across Strider in the hallway, a couple of bottles in hand.
"I'm sure you have an inkling as to why," Strider said, unusually unsmiling.
"Indeed," Lucifer said, seeing the disheveled guards in the distance. "What will you do?"
"That is the question."
"I imagine you have the answer. Alas, you are entirely imperceptible to me. It's why we get along so well," Lucifer said, smiling.
"I have an inkling of a possibility of an answer," Strider answered. "You love your surprises, so I imagine you'll enjoy this one as well."
"I look forward to it," Lucifer chuckled before shaking the bottles "Care to join me for a drink?"
"A single one. Alas, I've many meetings ahead," Strider sighed. They made their way to the door of another room where all the champions were gathered. They sat outside instead while Strider pulled a couple of intricately designed goblets out a parallel dimension. He undid the corks and poured both of them a generous amount while the bottles levitated between them.
"To health," Lucifer toasted.
"To friendship," Strider replied. Clinking, they both took a sip and let out a satisfied ah.
"When will you come to Lux?" Lucifer wondered.
"Once I have mostly settled my affairs here, I promise I'll take you up on that offer," Strider laughed.
"Fine, fine. Try to settle them quick, though. You need a broader worldview before you do anything drastic," Lucifer said.
"I know," Strider sighed, resting his head against a barrel. "Within a few years. A year, if I can manage."
"Are you willing to take up an oath?"
"Not a single word of it," Strider said with a smile. "But I will try my best."
"Good enough. For now," Lucifer said. "How are things back home?"
"Healing. I made some progress in the past seven years. It'll take decades for the physical pains to heal. The mental and emotional will take a millennia or so."
"That's a bit pessimistic," Lucifer said.
"I've carefully read the books I've asked you to bring me. In fact, I am too lenient," Strider said.
"Speaking of which, I've got a few more. I'll stop by Fairy Tail sometime and drop them off."
"I moved recently, actually. Well, in the process of doing so."
"No fucking shit?" Lucifer asked, surprised. "This is a shocking surprise to me!"
"Indeed. Elostirion. In the mountains near Magnolia."
"Oooh, that is perfect. Now I have a home away from home away from home," Lucifer said cheerfully.
"You are welcome anytime," Strider said. He exhaled peacefully. "This is good."
"That it is," Lucifer said, clinking his glass. Untrue to his word, Strider took another glass. When they had drained both bottles, Lucifer went back to the cellar to get more while Strider reentered.
"What'd they want?" Rin wondered.
"Some of this, some of that, a little bit of the other thing," Strider said offhandedly.
"Ugh. That's not an answer," she complained.
"Something about him fulfilling a request. If I'm honest, the old man kept going on for so long that I'm not even sure I understood the situation," Strider sighed.
"Which old man? King Isengrim?"
"That's the one. Now that I think about it, besides Noctis, Luna, Luvia–"
"Gah! Don't mention her name to me," Rin said, a vein throbbing in her head.
"You two must be close friends," Strider said. Rin veritably growled at the suggestion before launching into her complaints about Luvia, which Strider listened to with rapt attention.
"Talking about me, Miss Gorilla?" Luvia said, entering.
"Oh, just how wonderful you are," Rin said with a poisonous smile.
"Hmph. Anyways, come with me. It's important," she said. Rin looked at Strider, who shrugged.
"I hope to see you sooner rather than later, Rin," Strider said, kissing her hand. She blushed again but nodded and quickly took her leave. Luvia looked flabbergasted but opted not to say anything.
"You plan to seduce the competition?" Uma wondered.
"I hadn't considered that until now, honestly. Alas, methinks you and I are destined to fight it out," Strider said.
"Got that right," Uma said with an oddly wild grin.
"Hold on, Strider. I need to borrow Uma for a second," Mazikeen said. Before she knew it, Maze took her hand and led her out and down a hallway. Not long after, Luna appeared and whisked away Gentiana. Strider sat down with another drink in hand and observed those who remained. Toyohisa and Kenpachi were discussing their past battles with delight, while Saeko and Bishamonten had struck up a conversation with each other. Zane, Dyst, and Clare seemed to be hanging out on their own, enjoying the food.
"Living in the desert must be difficult," Strider said, approaching Zane.
"Its got its highs and lows," Zane shrugged. "No paradise, that's damn sure. But I live in the capital, Gnamma. It sits on the edge of a massive lake."
"I believe I've seen it. Joya, Bellum, and Iceberg border the same lake, no?"
"Yup. Makes trade with them a helluva lot easier."
"I'm surprised the capital isn't closer to the south, near the Great Sea. I believe half of your country's borders are at the edge of the Great Sea."
"That's where the old capital and winter home is. We get a lot of floods down south. Plus, honestly, smells like shit in the heat," Zane sighed. "You know something about my country, huh?"
"A bit here and there. A guildmate was kind enough to suggest some books on the countries, so I certainly did my due research before accompanying the princess."
"You like Fiore?"
"I do. I am curious to see Caelum and Sin sometime, though. Their architecture intrigues me greatly."
"Yeah, you and Lucifer know each other, huh?"
"Indeed. Old friends. Perhaps akin to brothers," Strider said.
"Don't worry, I won't pry," he said.
"You are a better man than most, then," he said, clinking his glass. "So how go the fights? I read your country has an especial problem with spawns of evil."
"No kidding," Zane sighed, rubbing his chin. "We had to travel east to Minstrel, then north and across the inlet to get to this place. The mountains are notorious for demons and monsters but didn't have much choice. Think I killed a hundred or so on the way here. Probably gonna have to do just as much to get back."
"They must be a consistent problem," Strider said.
"Yeah. That's why being a guild mage is so lucrative. No shortage of jobs or quests. No Century Quests in Desierto, but plenty of Decade Quests," Zane said with a smirk.
"You say that as though you think I'm considering coming down there and taking one on," Strider laughed.
"Hey man, if you ever do find yourself there, I'm game to take something on with you," Zane said.
"I look forward to it, then," Strider said, extending his hand. Zane shook it before piling up his plate and bidding him goodnight. Strider tried to strike up a conversation with Clare, but she ignored him. As the crowd began to thin out, he took his leave as well. When he returned to his room, Hisui was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a note on her bed in her handwriting.
'Hey – I'm going to be with Hancock, Luvia, and Luna for the night, so please don't worry about me. Rin and Gentiana are with us as well. I left a calling card for you, just in case. I hope you don't mind, but I told them more about you. I think everyone suspects you did something. They're probably right–' "I resent that," Strider grumbled. 'You probably resent that, but it's still true. Anyways, please be careful. I don't know what Reynard is thinking right now, but it can't be good. The rest of the continent left Hancock alone when she needed us most last time. We're not gonna let that happen this time.'
"Indeed," Strider said quietly. "What is the fox planning, I wonder?"
'Let them come,' Anglachel whispered to him. 'Let them plan and plot. Let them simmer in their rage. Let them attack. The sooner, the better. For the sake of the country, of course.'
"That is the princess's, in case you were wondering. I saw her enter earlier," Mithrellas said. Strider smiled and pulled out some food & drink for her, which she enjoyed.
"Shall we be on our way?"
"In a moment. Twilight has not yet fallen. We shall go to the highest point of this castle," she said.
"As you say," Strider agreed. "Were you able to see Silvan?"
"A glimpse, but it was all we needed," she said. Strider nodded and picked up a book – Bosconian Flora & Fauna – while he waited. When it was dark enough, Strider followed Mithrellas. She seemed to know the castle inside and out; all of its nooks and crannies. She led him up what seemed an endless flight of stairs, deftly avoiding all guards in their way. When they finally reached the top, he saw that Silvan was already there. Strider felt his breath catch; she was the embodiment of beauty. The stars reflected themselves in her eyes and illuminated her stunning white skin. When she heard them, she smiled the most beautiful smile he had seen in the last seven years. Her hands were held out in front of her, while her blonde hair fell just below her waist.
"You look well," she said to Mithrellas.
"As do you, Nimrodel," Mithrellas responded, approaching her. The two stared at each other for a long time before smiling wide and embracing.
"Long did I think I was alone in this land," she said.
"As did I. How came you here?"
"That, perhaps, was an age ago, when the world was closer together, and a trek across the Sea was easier. At least, for me," she said. When Mithrellas revealed how she came here, Nimrodel could offer no solution.
"It is intriguing, certainly. What other wonders exist, I wonder?" she mused. Her eyes fell again on Strider, who just seemed to be soaking in their beauty and radiance.
"You have but to say the word, my lady, and I will whisk you home," he said with a bow – the first real one he had offered to anyone in Ishgar. Nimrodel and Mithrellas smiled at each other before she asked him to stand back up.
"I have some more work to do in this land before I return, Strider. I hope you may be able to help," she said.
"What would you ask of me?" Strider asked.
"The Wild Hunt troubles me greatly. Invaders from a foreign land as likely as not. Upon your return to Fiore, fly to Alvarez and learn what you can. I trust Yoruichi, certainly, but I believe you may have more success without secrecy than she has had with it. This is not a request from Silvan of the Wizard Saints, however; rather, it is from Nimrodel, Elf-maid of Lothlórien," she said.
"Either way, I will do as you ask. Perhaps you might be able to suggest a starting point?"
"Go to Vistarion, the capital. In the palace, you may find the rulers & guards of the country. Their situation has deteriorated significantly; they have lost most of their power and are focused on humanitarian efforts now. You may be able to assist them as well as learn something," she said.
"I will do so," Strider agreed. He looked between the two and smiled. "Two Elf-maidens in this land and I meet them so quickly. I am not sure what force is at work here, but I am intrigued by what end it sees."
"I believe we are just as surprised," Mithrellas said with a little laugh.
"I believe I will retire for now," Strider said, bowing once more before taking his leave.
"Strider?" Nimrodel said.
"Thank you," she said, nodding at Mithrellas.
"It was my pleasure."
"And be careful. I believe that in freeing Robin, you may have set Isengrim, Meline, and Reynard against you."
"I can only hope to be so lucky," Strider said in a barely audible voice. "That, however, I shall handle alone. I hope I can ask for your help in protecting Empress Hancock and her retinue. I know not what designs they had for her."
"I have already asked Yoruichi, Esdeath, and Reiko to do so. Rest easy that everyone will be able to leave this country without a problem."
"Thank you," Strider said graciously before descending the dark steps.
"He is greatly trusted," Nimrodel mused.
"Yes. He is a good and just man. His disposition, lordly and great. His methods, however… its efficacy remains to be seen," Mithrellas said. She told Nimrodel everything she knew about him and everything he had told her about Middle-earth. The latter listened patiently, alternating between joy and grief as she learned all that happened. When Mithrellas finished, Nimrodel let out a sigh of relief.
"One ends, another begins," she said. "I am fading."
"As am I. I fear that we may have to make the journey soon, despite our wishes."
"Over a millennium has passed, yet now I have no time," Nimrodel sighed. "I am glad you are here, Mithrellas."
"As am I," she said. The two turned to the stars and began to pass the long night with their adventures in the new land, laughing and merrymaking as they used to long ago.
Finally, Strider was left alone with his thought. They were of a kind he thought he had long abandoned, but at the first crack, they came rushing back in. When Anairë died, when Osonia was killed in front of him, when Acnologia had destroyed Tenrou Island, when Bisca was raped, and Asuka was hurt – it all came rushing to him. Anglachel rattled excitedly at his side, expectant.
'Well?' the sword asked.
"So be it," Strider said softly. It wasn't long until he felt something in the other room – where Hisui would've been otherwise. Gone was the caution he felt; all he could remember was the discussion between the two guards. He threw the door open and surprised the people that entered. He saw they wore dark green clothes and uniforms, which told him all he needed to know. A moment later, their bodies fell to the ground, put upon by an unseen pressure. Strider sat down and observed them, wondering how best to proceed. Finally, he decided on a course of action.
'I have no head for politics,' Strider thought to himself. 'I cannot strategize, and I will not compromise. So be it. The king has had his chance. I will not suffer such fools to live.'
"Ah, but I promised Master Makarov," Strider mused aloud to himself, enough so the intruders could hear him. "But I suppose it's fine. I don't think they'll let me go unmolested, anyway. Besides, I won't be doing any killing."