J.J.'s eyes shot open, and he sat up suddenly, which he immediately regretted as pain ripped through his abdomen. He let out a strangled cry, clutching his side and rolling over on the narrow cot which he'd been lying on. He closed his eyes again, gritting his teeth and sucking in slow breaths of air until the throbbing spasms finally subsided. When the pounding in his ears stopped, he became aware of footsteps approaching.
"Ah. You have awoken," a deep, familiar voice commented. J.J.'s eyes snapped open again, and he saw Agnar standing in a doorway, untransformed and carrying a cauldron. Adrenaline began rushing through his system as he tensed up, but after a moment's thought, he forced himself to calm down.
"Oh? I had wondered if I would be forced to restrain you when you regained consciousness, yet you seem astonishingly at ease," Agnar commented after watching him for a few moments. "Do you not fear me?"
"No… no, I definitely don't trust you," J.J. replied warily. "But the way I see it, if you were going to kill me, you would have done so when you had the chance."
"An astute observation," Agnar remarked. J.J. thought he heard a note of approval in his voice. The knight walked over and set down the cauldron, and as he dipped a ladle into the pot, J.J. glanced around, wondering where they were.
Judging from the golden walls illuminated by the crystals hanging above them, J.J. suspected that they were in the Aurion-lined vault in the basement of Quintus' mansion. A chill ran over his body as he realized that he was bare from the waist up, his lean torso exposed to the open air now that the wool blanket that had been draped over him had fallen from his body. Looking down, he saw that bandages were wrapped around the lower half of his abdomen. He shivered and turned his attention back to Agnar, who held a bowl out to him.
"Eat," Agnar ordered him. J.J. took the bowl and peered at the contents suspiciously. It was a simple chicken stew, with a few varieties of vegetables floating amongst the chunks of meat. Agnar narrowed his eyes as he noticed J.J.'s hesitation.
"It has not been poisoned," Agnar added. To emphasize his point, he dipped another bowl into the broth and sipped it himself. "Do not slander my honor by questioning my hospitality."
"Sorry, that's not what I meant to imply," J.J. said, quickly taking a sip of the stew as well. It had been seasoned with nothing but salt, and normally he would have found it rather bland, but he felt like he hadn't eaten in days, so he rather enjoyed the simple flavor. "I'm just… very confused."
"If you have questions, be brief," Agnar said gruffly.
"To start with, what happened? How long have I been out?" J.J. asked.
"It has been two days since your battle," Agnar replied, ladling some more soup into another bowl and sitting cross-legged near J.J.'s cot. "I brought you here so that you may recover from your injuries. I paid a healer to see to you, and your wounds have been tended," he added, nodding to the bandages wrapped around J.J.'s abdomen. "You have been suffering from a fever, and the healer feared that the wound might have punctured a vital organ, but fortunately for you, the blade did not penetrate that deeply. Nevertheless, your wound was a grave one, and your recovery has required constant attention."
"Which brings me to my next question," J.J. said, pausing to sip a bit of the broth. "You saved me? Why?"
Agnar scowled at him, lowering his own bowl and tapping his fingers against his knee. "Honor demanded it."
"In what way?" J.J. pressed, keeping his voice carefully curious, rather than accusing or suspicious.
Agnar's frown deepened, and he swept his arm around at the coffins surrounding them. "You once allowed me time to ensure the safety of the last citizens of Almencia. In doing so, you saved their lives. I owed you a debt, one that I am now repaying by seeing to your own recovery. So long as you reside within these walls, it is my duty as your host to see that no harm comes to you. Once you are fit to depart, we shall once again be enemies."
"I… see," J.J. said slowly, taking a moment to bite some chicken. "Thank you, then," he added a few moments later.
"Do not thank me for upholding the code of chivalry," Agnar said shortly. "I am a knight, while you are a lowborn peasant. Your presence still disgusts me."
J.J. chuckled to himself, turning his attention to the ceiling above him. "If you're down here… then what's going on up there?"
Agnar shook his head, swallowing a mouthful of green beans. "From what I've gathered, the situation has become a stalemate. Though you may consider him an enemy, none are actively fighting against the one you refer to as Sir Martin. Despite this, he has not made a move, nor has my lord moved against him. He appears to be awaiting something, though I cannot fathom why he does not take this opportunity to press his advantage when he has no opposition."
"Really? What about Tristan?" J.J. asked, frowning slightly.
"It would appear that the blow that I dealt to Sir Tristan's armor was a mortal one," Agnar answered, a note of regret in his voice. "I cannot imagine him sitting idle otherwise. Which is unfortunate for you as well," Agnar added, inclining his head towards J.J. "With both of you removed from the war, my lord is free to move as he pleases."
"Then why doesn't he? Is Martin that much of a threat?" J.J. asked.
"My lord is… moving cautiously," Agnar replied carefully. "Neither I nor the Fool have received any orders, which is part of the reason why I have been able to oversee your recovery without interference."
"So Martin's that much of a wild card that even your boss is waiting to see how the situation develops," J.J. commented, before frowning at Agnar. "Is he hoping we take him out ourselves?"
"As I said, he is observing the situation," Agnar said. "I am not at liberty to say more."
J.J. nodded grimly, settling back on the cot slightly. "Well, nice to know that I made a move that he didn't expect at least. Though I suppose waking Martin up was the equivalent of flipping the table, mm?"
"You will forgive me if I do not understand the reference," Agnar said brusquely.
"You're no fun," J.J. muttered, though he was chuckling to himself. His laughter quickly became a grunt of pain, however, and he clutched his side.
"Enough questions for now," Agnar said gruffly, snatching the bowl from J.J.'s hands. "You require rest. Even should your condition worsen, I will not fetch another healer."
"It's your unabashed concern for my well-being that really warms my heart," J.J. said drily, but when he saw Agnar glowering, he sighed and laid back on the hard wooden cot, wincing as his wound was stretched by the motion. He still had questions and concerns, but Agnar was right – one thing at a time. His questions could wait; right now, his health couldn't. Reluctantly, he closed his eyes, though it took a long time for him to drift off again.
J.J. ducked under Martin's blade, darting in as he gripped his twin daggers and delivered a pair of quick slashes to his chest. Before the chimera could retaliate, he put his hand on his red D-former and gave it a quick spin, shifting over to Warrior Class and gripping his hammer tightly. He spun his D-former again, initiating a Critical… but by the time he did, Martin had his hand raised, and he was charging a fireball. J.J. grit his teeth and ducked in closer, swinging his weapon in a short, tight circle, but before he could complete the attack, Martin's forked sword jabbed him twice in the side, causing him to drop to one knee. Slowly, J.J. looked up and grit his teeth as the flames of Martin's spell washed over him, a cackling laugh filling the air.
J.J. growled to himself in frustration, shaking his head and refocusing his attention on the book in front of him. The soft glow of the crystals in Quintus' bedroom illuminated the strange Almencian words as he absently rolled his amber D-former between his fingers. Once again, he cursed his limited knowledge of the Almencian language, which was making the process of deciphering the book far slower than it should have been.
"I swear, I'm writing a translation guide when I get the chance," J.J. muttered under his breath.
"You would be better served were an Almencian to read it for you," a gruff voice behind him replied. J.J. jumped in surprise and swung around to see Agnar standing behind him, his left hand clutching a burlap sack while his right gripped the hilt of his claymore, which was presently a few inches from J.J.'s face. J.J. felt his heart stop as he stared down the length of the blade and focused on Agnar's irritated face.
"I shall permit you one sentence to explain why I should not run you through for dishonoring my hospitality and attempting to steal from me," Agnar threatened him in a dangerously low voice.
"I wasn't stealing, I was trying to see if there were any other Drivers!" J.J. explained quickly.
Agnar hesitated, lowering his sword slightly. "You refer to our sets of armor? Is that so? Lord Quintus never crafted any other suits of armor, outside of the three you are already aware of," he replied.
"Then… where would I find information on creating a new one?" J.J. asked, shifting gears.
"To what end?" Agnar asked, lowering his sword completely and resting the point of it on the ground.
J.J. sighed, folding his hands behind his back. "Look… you told me things are at a stalemate right now, which is… fine. But I don't know how long it's going to be before Martin snaps and starts killing people, or tries to set up his own city-state and appoint himself king or something. I don't have my diary, and Tristan's Driver is broken. I'm down here in the center of Quintus' old workshop, and I can't just sit around doing nothing. So… while I have the time, I want to try and figure something out." He bit the inside of his cheek, considering something as he looked up at Agnar. "Unless… I don't suppose you'd be willing to fight him?"
Agnar raised an eyebrow. "Tell me. Suppose I were to best him in combat. Would you be satisfied with that outcome?"
"…No," J.J. admitted. "I made this mess, so I should be the one to clean it up. But I suppose borrowing your Driver is out of the question, isn't it?"
"Absolutely not," Agnar snapped. He glanced down, gesturing to J.J.'s injured torso. "I have already warned you that should you inflict further injury upon yourself, I shall not summon another healer. You should be resting."
"I know!" J.J. cried. Agnar's eyes flared warningly, and J.J. winced. "I know," he said in a quieter voice. "But… I can't sit still. Any time I try to relax, I become restless. I keep replaying my fight with Martin in my head, wondering if I could have done something different, something I could use against him in our next fight, if it comes to that."
"Indeed? Even assuming that you somehow managed to retrieve Devon's diary?" Agnar asked, motioning for J.J. to exit the room with him. "Tell me, how do those fights end?"
"Poorly," J.J. admitted, his shoulders slumping as he followed Agnar out of the room. "The problem is that I can't figure out a way to give myself an edge. Until recently, every opponent I've faced has had some Achilles heel that I could exploit. Even Ray, the toughest fighter I'd faced until Martin, was slow enough that I could dance around him or hit him from range, even if the damage didn't last long. With Martin, though, there's no openings. If I try to use one of my strength-based forms, he can rely on his speed. If I were to try using speed, his magic can cover the entire area and do enough damage to wipe me out before I get close enough. If I rely on a ranged form or magic, he can simply walk through it." J.J. sighed and ran his hand down his face. "I can't even beat him in my head."
"Hm. It sounds as though you have learned nothing," Agnar commented as he led the way down the stairs.
J.J. quickly suppressed the flare of anger that rose in his chest. "What do you mean?" he asked coldly.
"Devising a plan before a battle is wise. Only the foolish do not seize every advantage, and attempting to out-think your opponent is an excellent preparation tactic," Agnar replied. "However, you are continuing to commit the same mistakes that my lord graciously explained to you – you have become paralyzed with indecision because you cannot easily exploit a notable weakness in your opponent. As such, you have already decided that you will lose this battle, and in doing so you are consumed by despair-"
"I'm not," J.J. interrupted.
"And you cannot even admit that you are," Agnar continued, but J.J. held up his hand.
"No, really, I'm not despairing. The last time I couldn't transform, it was because I had given up, and my D-former split in half. This time, it's fine." J.J. held up his D-former, which was completely free of cracks or blemishes. "If anything, I'm having the opposite problem. I feel like I'm too eager to get back out there and try to fight him again. And I know that if I go charging in recklessly, I'm going to get beaten down. So… I'm doing the only thing I can think of – coming up with plans on how to beat him while I have the chance. But all I'm doing is going in circles, and it's driving me insane!"
"It sounds as though you simply desire revenge," Agnar shrugged, leading the way into the vault. The crystals lining the room brightened, illuminating the golden room with a soft yellow light. "Such a desire is understandable."
"It's not that simple," J.J. sighed, taking a seat on the cot. "I thought so at first, too. Don't get me wrong, Martin is a bastard, and I'm seething at the thought that he got his greasy paws on my diary. But I realized that even if someone I completely trusted had ahold of my diary and was trying to use it, it still wouldn't sit right with me." He chuckled bitterly to himself. "It's funny. I originally agreed to fight because no one else could do it. Now I'm in basically the same situation, but my feelings have done a complete one-eighty. I'm thrilled that he couldn't transform using my belt. But the question is… why am I so elated?!" He growled to himself, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes until he saw fireworks. "This isn't normal! Not giving up is one thing, but I shouldn't be chomping at the bit to get my teeth kicked in again, especially without a plan! Only an idiot wants to pick a fight with someone so much stronger than him! Which I guess makes me an idiot!" He sighed lightly and lowered his hands, staring at them for a few long moments. "What the hell have I become? Who am I?"
Agnar stared at him silently for a few moments before asking, "Are you certain that it is combat itself that you long for?"
J.J. raised his head slightly, frowning slightly. "Sorry?"
"Few fight simply for the thrill of combat, peasant," Agnar explained. "I fight for my homeland. Tristan fights because he feels it is his duty. What of you? For what reason do you fight?"
J.J. chewed the inside of his cheek, falling silent for a few moments. When Agnar went back to rifling through the sack he had brought with him, J.J. decided to change the subject. "What's in the bag?" he asked conversationally.
"Do not trouble yourself with it," Agnar replied gruffly.
"What's the harm in telling me? It's not like I could do anything about it anyways. You're the only one with a Driver right now," J.J. pointed out.
"My business is my own," Agnar growled, narrowing his eyes at J.J. "I say again: do not trouble yourself with it."
J.J. fell silent as he watched Agnar walk over to one of the sarcophagi lining the walls. He opened the sack and pulled out a spearhead made of the distinctive, blue-tinted metal that he recognized as Azuron. Agnar began fitting it along the top of the sarcophagus, muttering to himself, while J.J. pushed himself up, unable to contain his curiosity. He wandered over to one of the other coffins nearby and leaned in, examining the shimmering film protecting the figure inside. It might have been his imagination, but the crystalline layer on the surface of the coffin appeared more transparent, and the rainbow colors that washed over it seemed dimmer.
A scraping sound caught his attention, and he glanced over in time to see Agnar pointing his claymore at him yet again. "Touch nothing!" he growled.
J.J. slowly raised his hands. "I hadn't planned on it, don't worry." He nodded towards the coffin he had been inspecting. "Is the enchantment wearing off?" A thought struck him suddenly. "Is that why you were in the Marks mansion the other day? Were you researching ways to extend the enchantment? Does Azuron have something to do with fixing it?"
Agnar growled, slowly lowering his sword and turning his attention back to the coffin in front of him. "You are too clever by half, boy," he snapped. "Cease your questions."
"Why not ask Tristan for help with this?" he suggested, ignoring Agnar's command.
"Even assuming he would deign to speak with me? To properly repair these coffins, I require the aid of a proper alchemist, which Sir Tristan is not," Agnar muttered.
"I mean… we could try helping you," J.J. suggested.
"To what end?" Agnar asked suspiciously.
"It's to save lives, right? What other reason do I need to offer my help?" J.J. replied with a shrug.
Agnar stared at him quietly for a few moments, but the silence was broken by a cackling laugh resounding above. J.J. tensed while Agnar narrowed his eyes and unfolded his arms.
"Fear not. As I stated, you are my guest, and no harm shall come to you so long as you remain within these walls. What approaches is merely an annoyance, not a threat. At least for now," Agnar added thoughtfully. Moments later, the Fool bounced into the room, giggling wildly. J.J. recoiled as the harlequin's eyes fixated on his from behind the thin slits of his jovial bronze mask. The clown circled around him slowly, its hands folded behind its back as it giggled wildly.
"Oooh has this actor suffered a nasty fall!" the Fool taunted him, chortling. "What a fun development, too! A surprise character usurping its spot as the lead? What a thrilling twist!" it burst out cackling.
"Can I punch him?" J.J. asked Agnar drily. "Would that be breaking the rules of hospitality, or is that justified in this case?"
"Fool, cease harassing my charge and explain why you have intruded upon my domain," Agnar ordered the clown, who giggled and stepped away from J.J.
"Just a little jape!" the Fool protested. "Besides, we're hoping the next act comes quickly ourselves. Intermissions are so dreadfully boring. In any case, our master is aware of what happened, and he has new instructions. By personal request from someone important to him."
Agnar frowned, but motioned for J.J. to stay where he was as he walked over to the clown. J.J. watched the pair curiously as the Fool spoke in a low voice in Agnar's ear. The knight's frown deepened, and then he gave the Fool a stern look before glancing at J.J. "Remain here," Agnar said quickly. The Fool nodded vigorously, and the two departed up the stairs, leaving J.J. alone and perplexed in the middle of the room. He didn't have to wait long for answers, however, as when Agnar reappeared, he was followed – to J.J.'s surprise – by Gwen.
Gwen's eyes met his, and she faltered, looking down. Then she suddenly rushed to him and threw her arms around his neck. J.J. let out a short gasp of pain as she clung to him, and she quickly let go, glancing down at his bandaged side.
"I'm sorry!" she whispered, framing his face with her hands. J.J. noticed tears staining her cheeks, and her ice-blue eyes were glistening as she held his gaze. "This… all of this is my fault. You even got hurt-!"
"Yeah, that was my own damn fault," J.J. sighed. Then he gave her a sidelong glance. "What're you doing here anyways, Gwen? How'd you know I was here?"
"I saw Agnar take you away from the battlefield, and I asked my brother if I'd be allowed to see you," Gwen replied. "I-!"
"That is not the only reason you were permitted in my demesne, my lady," Agnar interrupted.
Gwen shot him a glare while J.J. glanced at her curiously. Sighing, she turned back around and looked down at the floor. "I also came to deliver a message," she murmured. "Martin is challenging you to a duel."
What? Why?" J.J. frowned, sitting back on the cot. "He already beat me pretty soundly."
"He intends to finish the job," Gwen replied quietly. "He's of the opinion that he was denied satisfaction when Agnar saved you."
"Yeah, that's the mark of someone who's mentally stable," J.J. said sardonically. "He does realize that fighting me while I'm in this shape wouldn't be a duel, right? It'd be an execution. Where's the honor in that?"
"He doesn't care about honor," Gwen said sharply, narrowing her eyes. "He just wants an excuse to kill you." She sighed lightly, moving to sit on the cot beside J.J., who shifted slightly to make room for her. "He sees you as a usurper who's threatening what he considers his destiny, and he wants to remove you as an obstacle. Which… I suppose is also my fault," she added, looking down again.
"What're you talking about?" J.J. asked, sitting back on his hands.
Gwen ran her fingers through her pale hair, brushing it away from her eyes. "When I first met Martin, I found myself… drawn to him." J.J. bristled beside her, and she must have noticed him tensing, because she held up a hand. "It wasn't as though I was some moon-eyed girl with a crush, mind you. If anything, I had even less of an attachment to him than I do now. At that time, I was only worried about what I was going to do when my brother returned. Relatively speaking, this was shortly after I had been revived, so the loss of Almencia was still fresh on my mind. What's more, I didn't have any particular attachment to humanity either." She smiled grimly, looking up at the ceiling. "In fact, I would even say I was outright disgusted with humans in general. They were always unsatisfied with their lot in life, and their dissatisfaction had brought about their own destruction. I thought of Almencia as a borderline utopia, and yet even their desires led to the ruin of the finest kingdom in the world. Eight hundred years later, they were even worse."
"Hm. I suppose the American Revolution wasn't the finest example of a country being content with the way things were, was it?" J.J. asked rhetorically. Gwen laughed softly, the silvery sound running down the back of his neck.
"Nowadays, I'm much more forgiving of this society, but back then? I was worried that it would be the perfect place for my brother to take over. And clearly, he agreed. A land without a king, where people could – generally – follow any path they wished? My brother was ecstatic, and I was terrified."
"Then why even settle here?" J.J. asked. "Why not somewhere in Europe?"
"Because despite that, the more I learned about the world around me, the more I realized that the people who settled this land could potentially found a second Almencia," Gwen replied. "The leaders were ambitious, yes, but they were also intelligent, compassionate, and willing to surrender power rather than cling to it. They reminded me of the citizens of my homeland, and despite my disdain for humans, I found myself caring for them and wanting to see them succeed. I didn't want my brother to corrupt what I felt could become an adopted homeland. Plus, even though the monarchs in Europe did keep their people in their place, that didn't keep the peasants from wanting to change their lot in life. When the French Revolution broke out, for instance, I was extremely relieved that I'd stayed here, since that powder keg of angry citizens would have been even easier for my brother to exploit."
"Fair enough," J.J. admitted.
"Still, I was worried about what would happen when my brother rose again, since I didn't have a real plan to contest him. But then I met Martin," Gwen continued. "At the time, I thought he was the epitome of humanity's potential. He was a skilled warrior, charismatic, intelligent… and most importantly, he was happy with who he was. I told you before, when I revealed who I was and asked him what he would change about himself, he told me that he wanted to change nothing, just like you did. However, his reasoning was far different from yours. What he meant was that he felt he was perfect, and there was nothing to change. If I had been less naïve about human nature, I would have read that warning sign, but at the time? I was beyond pleased with his response. I thought that I had found the perfect warrior to take down my brother."
J.J. leaned in as her voice became softer. "However, what I failed to take into account was his pride. He came from a prestigious family, and he had both impressive skills and notable accomplishments, so he was already arrogant. I made it worse by feeding his ego. I told him that he was my chosen one, the only hope to defeat my brother and save the world. He began to think of it not as a responsibility, but as his destiny. Then he began to harbor ambitions about what he would do after he defeated my brother. He realized that once Blake was out of the way, he could use his powers to accomplish anything he wished. And why shouldn't he? After all, it was his reward for saving the world, and there was no one on the planet as magnificent as he. In fact, he would be doing the world a favor by using his skills and powers to shape it, since clearly, as the 'chosen one,' he would know best how to guide it."
Gwen paused, and J.J. noticed she was gripping the cot so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. "What's more, while my D-formers have a comparatively low risk of turning someone into a Diemon, it's still possible. Especially if it's what the person using them wants. When the time came to fight my brother, he rejected Devon's diary and instead willingly chose to assume a monstrous form. As you can imagine, I was horrified. What's more, he didn't do it as a reaction to my brother's overwhelming power during their battle – he did it because he felt he could control it, because obviously the 'chosen one' should be able to. What's ironic is that he didn't even realize that by becoming a Diemon, he proved that he couldn't master his own pride, meaning he was imperfect. I think that was when I lost faith in humanity again. The finest example of mankind that I could find, uncorrupted by my brother, and yet even he thought only of abusing the powers given to him. That was when I concocted my plan to seal him away.
"I couldn't kill him, of course, because of my… programming," Gwen explained. "But that didn't mean that I couldn't get him out of the picture. Thankfully, my brother was strong enough to hold off Martin, even in his weakened state, though it was close." Gwen smiled bitterly, looking down again. "Martin thought he had won when he knocked my brother from the roof of the church – the modern library – but though he was unconscious, I could feel that my brother wasn't dead. At that point, I feared Martin more than my brother, so I told him that he had won the battle, but that my brother might rise again, as the 'prophecy' had foretold. I then insisted that he be placed in stasis to await my brother's resurrection. Martin asked why he couldn't just destroy the body to be sure, but I insisted that it didn't work that way, that the 'prophecy' would be fulfilled regardless. Thankfully, Martin still trusted me, and he eventually relented." Gwen's smile turned even more bitter as she murmured, "Not the last time I abused someone's trust."
"So it would seem," J.J. said drily.
Gwen looked up at the ceiling pensively. "With my brother weakened and Martin in stasis, I began researching how to counter Blake if he ever started regaining his power. While I tried to keep the Order of the Shield running as a secret society, it began to get harder to recruit people, and eventually I stopped bothering. In the meantime, I kept an eye out for candidates who might be able to receive a D-former of mine so that I could take control of the Crown of Almencia if Blake reforged it. Between my soured relationship with Martin and the potential necessity of a sacrifice to power the crown, I refused to get close to people. Any friendships I had were superficial at best, and while I did walk amongst the people while my brother locked himself up in his mansion, I now realize that I didn't understand humans much better than he did. From time to time, I would allow my characters to 'age' and 'die,' before creating a new persona some time later that was a distant cousin or long-lost relative. My brother did the same, and in doing so, we were able to keep the Marks line going for centuries."
"So you didn't always have white hair?" J.J. asked her with a wry smirk.
"Nope, though I did tend towards shades of blonde most of the time," Gwen replied with a rueful grin. "I was actually glad when dyed hair became popular, since I always preferred white, and having hair that color was no longer seen as something out of the ordinary. The forties and fifties were brutal for me, I can tell you that."
The pair laughed for a few moments, before Gwen grew serious again. "Things changed when my brother gained enough power to start making D-formers again. When I heard about Ryan, I nearly had a heart attack. On a relative scale, my brother had only regained his power a little early, but it was still before I thought he would, and I was caught off-guard. I didn't have a replacement for Martin, and the Order of the Shield had been dormant for decades. Worse, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to get to Tristan in time. But then… you found Devon's diary and revived Tristan, all in one fell swoop. Suddenly, the board had changed."
Gwen smiled softly at him, looking down at the floor. "I was always pretty fond of you, you know. Despite what your mother thinks, you do have a talent for fantasy, your stories were entertaining – if a bit stock at first – and your games were always fun. But… I never thought of you as a viable candidate for a D-former. Sure, you were clever, but I thought you were too laid-back to ever be a good fighter. Plus, you also had that wish to see your book published, which I thought would mean you'd jump at the chance to use one of my brother's D-formers to further your career. I suppose that's what I get for not getting to know people past their surface, though," she added with a look of regret. "If I had learned your past, I would have known that you hated being rewarded for something you didn't earn. I only approached you when you were injured by Ryan because I was desperate, and I didn't want to see you die if there was a chance that I could prevent it. I figured that while it was a long shot that you could use one of my D-formers, it was still worth that shot. When you gave me the correct answer when I asked what you wanted, I was pleasantly shocked. And that was just the first of several times you'd surprise me."
Gwen's smile broadened as she gazed into his eyes again. "Even though you'd never held a sword before, you learned to fence astonishingly quickly. You used your wits to compensate for your lack of skill, which I came to admire more than if you were naturally talented. You went out of your way to try and help people through their problems, instead of simply suiting up and beating them down whenever they became monsters. You acquired new skills in a way I had never dreamed of. When you were at your lowest after Kelsie's death, rather than letting it break you, you acknowledged your failings and came back even stronger. Yet even when you became stronger, you didn't let your power go to your head; you continued to use it to help people rather than to fulfill personal ambitions. And, perhaps most impressive of all… after two hundred years of doubting, you restored my faith in humanity," she added shyly.
J.J. frowned at her deeply. "But you still intended to use me as a sacrifice," he pointed out in a grim tone.
"At first… yes, that's all I saw you as," Gwen said. "I won't deny that. While I was astonished and pleased by how quickly you were learning and growing, I still just saw you as another pawn, to be used and discarded as necessary. Because you were such a novice, though, I wanted to keep a closer eye on you, to make sure that your D-former matured properly and that you didn't get yourself killed in the meantime. That's why I insisted on dating you. Honestly, though, I didn't expect to end up… falling for you," she admitted, her cheeks flaring red.
J.J. felt his own face burning. He was still wary of being tricked, but her words were so candid, so genuine, that he couldn't help but find himself at least wanting to believe her. Gwen exhaled slowly, looking back up at him. "Beneath your sarcasm, J.J., you're a very kind person. You seem to genuinely worry about others, and you go out of your way to help them. Of course, I knew people who were kind and selfless before you, but I'd never gotten close to them, never really experienced it firsthand. Even less familiar was having someone care for me, for who I was, rather than my lineage and status, or worse, as a thing, an artificial construct meant to provide power and grant wishes, nothing more." Tears welled up in her eyes again. "When you told Martin that I wasn't a prize to be won… I had never been happier. That was something I'd always wanted to hear."
J.J. coughed, his ears burning red, and he looked away as Gwen folded her hands on her lap, gazing down at them. "As time went on, I became more attached to you, which scared me. I feared that I wouldn't be able to sacrifice you if I needed to, and that would doom the world. I also began to worry that, if you found out what I really was, you would reject me, which I knew would hurt just as much. I… I was a coward," she added, her voice tightening up. "The more time that passed, the more drawn to you I became, and the less I wanted to tell you, even though I knew that waiting longer would make the truth that much more painful when it was finally revealed."
Gwen took a shuddering breath before continuing, "That's not the whole story, though. Even when my brother revealed what my original plans were, I realized that I couldn't sacrifice your D-former if it meant hurting you. You've done so much for the people of this city… for me… I could no longer even imagine using you as a sacrifice."
"Why didn't you say that, then?" J.J. asked quietly. "Why did you let me believe that was your intention all along?"
"If I had told you at that moment, you would have assumed that I was making excuses, that I was lying to you even more," Gwen explained. "What my brother said was true. You deserved to have everything laid bare. What I intended to do… it was disgraceful, detestable, and I deserved every bit of disgust and anger you threw at me. I have no excuse, and you have every right to be upset with me. But it's also no longer true. You can choose to believe me, you might even see this as more manipulation, but now… I could never sacrifice you." She smiled at him bleakly as she added, "You may not have been my chosen one… but now, I would never choose anyone else."
J.J. looked away, his knee jittering as he turned her words over in his mind. Could he trust her? Was she being sincere, or was she just making more excuses? What did she have to gain from all this, especially since he'd been completely disarmed? He was useless to her now, right? So why was she going out of her way…?
"My lady," Agnar said from the doorway, interrupting them. "My apologies, but I must insist that you complete your mission so that I may escort you back."
"Of course," Gwen said quietly. J.J. frowned at her.
"What's he talking about?" he asked.
"Right now… I'm essentially Martin's hostage," Gwen explained. "He allowed me to deliver the terms of his challenge, but he's basically got me by the throat." J.J. opened his mouth in outrage, but Gwen held up her hand. "Let me finish. His terms are as follows: You have until noon tomorrow to answer his challenge for a duel. He will face you outside of Gary's tavern – he wants to make an example out of you in front of everyone you care about. If you do not show up at the appointed time, he will assume you have forfeited."
"Seriously? You know, I thought people like that tried to at least pretend they're decent human beings before they reveal themselves as psychopaths," J.J. remarked.
"Martin's of the opinion that he's strong enough that he needn't bother. After all, even if someone objects, who's going to stop him?" Gwen sighed. "I think that's why he revealed his true colors to you so early, too. He figured you weren't enough of a threat to warrant hiding his real self."
"Hm… is he going to return my diary to me?" J.J. asked.
"He's claimed it as his spoils for defeating you the first time," Gwen said, an icy look settling over her face, underlining what she thought of that line of reasoning. "However, he also says that you can bring any other weapon you wish."
"Sweet. I'll see if the surplus store is selling bazookas," J.J. quipped. Gwen let out a snort of laughter despite herself. "What if I don't show up, though?"
"In that case… he'll assume that you've forfeited, and I'll be forced to surrender my heart to him," Gwen replied quietly.
J.J. raised an eyebrow at her skeptically. "There's no way you agreed to that."
"Of course not," Gwen replied quietly. "But Martin threatened the lives of our friends if I didn't comply."
"So… for them you're willing to…?" J.J. asked softly.
"Even if it's just for a short while, I want to protect them," Gwen said, resolve settling over her pale features. "They aren't just pawns, and I don't want anyone else to get hurt because of me. If that means giving up my heart… if it's for them, then I'm willing to do that."
J.J.'s mouth fell open slightly. Of course, if Gwen agreed and her heart did have as much power as she suggested, Martin could eventually kill them at his leisure anyways. But the fact that she was trying to save them brought a slight smile to his face. "I'm proud of you, Gwen," J.J. praised her.
Gwen nodded once, smiling faintly, then met his eyes again. "Part of me really wants me to tell you to run, J.J. You've suffered so much because of me, and you deserve a chance to leave all of this behind while you have the chance. But we both know that's not really an option, right?" she chuckled grimly. Then her expression turned dangerously serious. "And… I realize that this is also selfish of me, but… I want you to save me. To save all of us." Tears began to run down her cheeks, but she smiled helplessly up at him. "Please… you've always been good at figuring ways out of hopeless situations. Even if it's just one more time… please…."
J.J. was caught off-guard when Gwen suddenly leaned in and kissed his cheek. As she pulled back, she added quietly, "And regardless of what happens next… thank you for everything you've done." She then pushed herself up, squaring her shoulders and marching towards Agnar, who nodded and held his arm out to guide her up the stairs. J.J. watched her for as long as he could until her pale hair disappeared around the corner and her footsteps faded. Then he slumped back on the cot and sighed to himself, pillowing his hands behind his head.
His next move was obvious, he thought wryly. It wasn't as though he had a choice. He was being coerced from all sides, ushered down a single path with a clear destination at its end. And yet, he realized… he would have willingly stepped onto that path anyways. Even if there was no one pushing him down it, he wanted to walk it. He chose to walk it. And that thought brought him some measure of comfort, of satisfaction.
J.J. closed his eyes for a moment, seeing nothing but the darkness behind his own eyelids, hearing nothing but the very faint humming of the glassy enchantments protecting the coffins around him. Then he suddenly realized that he was no longer being tormented by visions of the upcoming battle. His mind was clear, and with it came a blessed sense of peace. Smiling faintly to himself, he exhaled slowly and enjoyed the fact that he was finally able to relax, if only for a short while.
"You have made your decision, then?" Agnar asked, watching J.J. pull his brown leather jacket over his shirt and roll his shoulders, gingerly testing his range of motion.
"Yep," J.J. replied nonchalantly, tentatively stretching his arm above his head. He was pleased to find that while it still hurt, it didn't make him want to scream in pain.
"You intend to face this foe?" Agnar asked.
"Yep," J.J. said again.
"You are not fully healed."
"You are outmatched."
"Do you have a plan?"
"And yet you still march off to battle," Agnar commented, folding his arms over his chest. "For what purpose?"
J.J. paused in the middle of pulling his boots on to smile faintly over his shoulder. "Someone in trouble asked me for help. That's all the reason I need."
Agnar gazed at J.J. silently as he finished getting dressed, then stood up. Before he could head out, however, Agnar touched his Driver, summoning his greatsword. J.J. tensed as Agnar pointed his greatsword at him, but then his expression turned curious when Agnar commanded, "Kneel."
"I… what?" J.J. asked, blinking.
"Do not make me repeat myself, peasant," Agnar growled. "Kneel, before I change my mind."
Still baffled, J.J. slowly sank to one knee as Agnar approached him. "Remind me of your name," Agnar ordered him.
"J.J. Wells…." he replied slowly. Agnar stared at him blankly.
"Hardly a name befitting… but no matter," Agnar remarked, raising his sword. J.J. felt the flat of the heavy blade touch each of his shoulders as Agnar said, "By my authority as Knight-Commander of the Kingdom of Almencia, I name thee, J.J. Wells, Knight of Almencia. Rise, and serve thy kingdom with honor."
J.J.'s realized that his mouth was gaping open, and as he picked himself up, he gave Agnar a dazed look. "I… what was that about?" he asked, his throat dry.
"Make no mistake – you are still my enemy," Agnar replied curtly. "However, even if you serve the enemy in this civil war, I cannot allow a mere peasant to fight a duel for the sake of the royal line of Almencia."
"I… see…." J.J. murmured, still at a loss for words. He once again glanced around at the coffins surrounding the room, then looked back at Agnar. "Look, if-!"
"If you tarry, you shall forfeit the duel," Agnar interrupted him. He pointed to the door of the vault, scowling. "I have afforded you as much respite as possible, but you cannot delay any longer. You shall find your mount awaiting you outside. Take it and make haste."
"…Right. And thank you," J.J. added, turning and running for the door.
"Fortune favor you… page," Agnar replied. J.J. hesitated for a half step, but kept running. He took the stairs three at a time and burst into the bright light of the midafternoon sun. J.J. checked his phone quickly and saw that he had only twenty minutes to head to the tavern. He sprinted to his bike and hopped on, taking only a moment to clip his helmet in place before turning the engine over and gunning the engine, driving as fast as he could to Gary's place.
Thankfully, traffic was mild that day, and while he did speed past one police car, he wasn't stopped. He figured that by now, the police had learned not to interfere when he was speeding down the road. His heart began pounding as he neared the center of the city, and even now he felt his resolve wavering as fear crept over him, but he forced himself to take a long, slow breath to steady his nerves. Gritting his teeth, he turned down the last road leading to Gary's tavern. He brought his bike to a halt when he noticed two figures standing in the middle of the street outside the bar, and he immediately recognized one of them by the sound of his voice. Then he realized that Martin was in his chimeric form, staring down at Tristan contemptuously.
"Enough of this farce!" Tristan yelled. "If you wish to duel the page, then so be it, but you dare to hold these innocents hostage…!"
"Come, Sir Tristan, you must understand that the White Seraph has no honor," Martin's oily voice replied. "I don't wish to harm anyone, but if this is what's required to ensure that she abides by the terms of the duel, then I'm afraid I must employ such harsh measures. Besides, my friend… we are knights. Nobility. Don't fret so much over the lives of a couple of commoners."
"Do not speak to me of knighthood, cur!" Tristan snapped. J.J. dismounted from his bike and began making his way towards the pair. Neither man noticed him yet, as they were wholly engrossed in their argument. "A knight protects the lives of the innocent! He does not toy with their lives to fulfill his whims!"
"I don't recall swearing any oath to protect that rabble," Martin replied coldly, pointing towards the tavern. "I hold you in high regard, Sir Tristan, so I am willing to overlook this outburst. Do not test my patience, however."
"You shall not touch them!" Tristan hissed.
"Oh? Do you wish to duel me in Wells' stead?" Martin asked sardonically. "Without your armor?"
"I have no need of it to dispatch a villain such as yourself! Have at you!" Tristan snarled. Then came the sound of metal scraping across the ground while Martin burst out laughing.
J.J. quietly began to make his way towards the two combatants, passing the windows of the tavern as he did. Glancing at them, he saw the faces of about a dozen patrons peering outside – among them, Ryan, Abby, Agni, Gary, Susumu, and – in a separate window, watching the fight before her with an expression of petrified terror – Gwen. When he came into view, all eyes turned on him, and he could hear the gleeful shouting of his companions from inside the bar. He smiled at them gently and quietly held his finger up to his lips, before turning his attention back to the two knights. He was just in time to see Martin swing his sword roughly down at Tristan, who was defending himself with nothing but a metal pipe and a sewer lid. Martin's blade struck the lid with a heavy blow that knocked Tristan off his feet and sent him skidding across the ground. The crowd let out a collective gasp of concern as Tristan came to a halt, groaning in pain. Martin shook his head, gazing languidly at his blade as he approached the fallen knight, who grunted and struggled to push himself up.
"A pity it had to come to this, Sir Tristan," Martin sighed. "But if you dare stand against me-!"
"Come on, Tristan, that's not fair!" J.J. called out. The fight stopped immediately as both men turned to stare at J.J., who calmly strode towards them with his hands behind his back. "You're not even going to give me the chance to help before you start beating him down?"
Tristan's face broke out into a wide smile while Martin scowled with displeasure. "Forgive me, page, but I decided that this filth was not worth your time," Tristan replied, pushing himself to his feet.
"Always looking out for me," J.J laughed. "I appreciate it, but he called me out, and I'm not gonna let that slide. If you don't mind me taking over?"
"If you truly wish to face him, I suppose I cannot interfere," Tristan sighed, walking over to J.J. and clapping him on the shoulder. His jovial expression faded, turning more serious as he added in a low voice, "Are you certain you wish to…?"
"I've got this one, Tristan, don't worry," J.J. replied calmly. "Thanks for holding things down here."
"Of course. Also…forgive my zeal in insisting that you to recruit him," Tristan murmured. "I was… overeager to meet another knight, and my nostalgia for a time long passed clouded my judgment, blinding me to Sir Martin's glaring flaws."
"It's fine," J.J. replied, glaring past him towards Martin. "This time, we all screwed up."
"J.J.!" Gwen exclaimed, suddenly rushing out the door towards him, but stopping short to look him up and down. "How're you feeling?"
"Still hurting," J.J. admitted, gingerly lifting his arm. "But that's kind of a moot point right now, isn't it?"
"Unfortunately. Do you… have a plan for taking him down?" Gwen asked hopefully.
"Not yet," J.J. sighed. "Has anything changed?"
"Nothing," Gwen admitted. "He still can't access your Driver, he still wants to murder you, and he still intends to steal my D-former after he's done," she murmured, her voice quivering.
J.J. raised an eyebrow at what she'd said, and slowly the gears in his mind began turning. "You know… I think I can work with that," he said, a mischievous smile starting to spread across his face.
"You… I know that look," Gwen said warily. "Do you have something in mind?"
"Maybe. It's borderline suicidal, and it has to work perfectly, but… we'll see," J.J replied cryptically.
"What're you… J.J.?!" Gwen asked, alarmed, but J.J simply squeezed her shoulder and winked. He then stepped past her and calmly began to walk towards Martin, who had been waiting impatiently.
"Said your farewells?" Martin asked pompously, resting the points of his sword on the ground. "I suppose I must at least commend you for your reckless courage. I defeated you once when you had every weapon in your arsenal at your disposal, and now you dare approach me without even a blade? Brave. Very foolish, but brave."
"Yeah, too bad the same can't be said about you," J.J. shot back. "Takes real guts to call someone out, hold his friends hostage, and refuse to even give him a weapon."
"You had your chance to use your weapon, and you failed," Martin shrugged. "To the victor go the spoils."
"Do they?" J.J. asked, folding his arms over his chest and raising an eyebrow. "Way I hear it, you can't even get it to obey you. That's gotta suck, knowing you can't even use something that's supposedly… how did you put it? 'Yours by right?'"
Martin's smug look vanished, anger contorting his expression. He reached to his side and pulled out J.J.'s diary, holding it up in front of him.
"I could bend this accursed book to my will if I so desired," he growled in a dangerously soft voice.
"Prove it," J.J. taunted him, holding his hands out. "Show me."
Martin's lip curled back in a snarl. He reached into the book and forcibly yanked the metallic quill from between the pages, roughly clicking it against his hip to extend it out into its sword form. He advanced slowly on J.J., diary in one hand and blade in the other, until he was standing inches from him, gripping the sword so tightly that his hand was shaking.
"You wish for me to prove myself? Then let's slay you with your own weapon," Martin hissed. "Perhaps with you gone, it'll recognize who its true master is. Farewell, fool."
"No!" J.J. heard several voices behind him scream as Martin raised the blade above his head and let out a triumphant cry as he swung it down towards J.J.'s head. J.J., however, stood there calmly as the blade descended towards him. Then, at the last second, the sword stopped, an inch from his face. Martin's eyes widened, and he tried to push the sword forward, but it wouldn't budge. J.J. smirked, and with Martin surprised and distracted, he reached out and pried his fingers from the hilt, his grip having loosened due to his shock. J.J. twirled the weapon around in his hand, and before Martin could react, he stepped in and slashed him horizontally across the chest. A shower of sparks erupted from the point of impact, and Martin cried out and staggered backwards. As he did, J.J. leaped in and grabbed the diary out of the Diemon's left hand, then sprang backwards before Martin could swing at him in retaliation.
Enraged, Martin raised his hand and began gathering flames in his palm, but he stopped when J.J. pointed the tip of his blade at Martin's clear D-former, still lodged in the center of the diary. Martin hesitated, then slowly lowered his hand as J.J. backed away. "How?!" he snarled.
"This diary and I have been fighting together for months now," J.J. replied, continuing to back away. "We've saved each other several times. I've literally worked myself raw taking care of it. I don't consider it a tool; I consider it a partner. Do you really think it'd turn against me?"
"Hmph. To the last, you still rely to trickery," Martin taunted him.
"And? What's wrong with that?" J.J. replied with a shrug. "I'm not as strong as you, Agnar, or Tristan, so I fight in my own way. What matters isn't the style that I use. What matters is that I have the resolve to fight. With that said…."
J.J. lowered his blade, then pressed down on Martin's D-former, which popped out of his diary. He rolled it between his fingers for a moment, pondering it. Behind him, he heard Ryan yell out the window, "Now's your chance, J.J.! Destroy it!"
J.J. smiled faintly to himself, then cocked his arm back and threw the jewel to Martin, who snatched it out of midair with a surprised look on his face. "…What're you playing at?" the chimera asked warily.
"Whether you intended to or not, you spared my D-former when you beat me last time," J.J. pointed out. "Now we're even. This time… no holding back."
Martin stared at him in disbelief, then began chuckling as he shook his head. "Foolish. But very well…."
"J.J.!" someone cried from behind him. He turned to glance over his shoulder as Gwen and Tristan hurried towards him. The latter clapped him on the shoulder, smiling at him with approval.
"Well done," Tristan said quietly.
"J.J…. thank you for doing this," Gwen murmured.
"You don't have to thank me. Of course, I'm not going to let him threaten any of my friends," J.J. added with a wry smirk. "And that includes you."
"Even… after everything I've done?" Gwen asked, her voice breaking slightly.
"Even then. You're still someone who needs my help," J.J. replied, smiling down at her sincerely. "And that's the reason why I fight." He took a slow breath, then turned to face Martin. "Now then…."
"Wait a second," Gwen said, catching J.J. by his sleeve. He glanced down at her and saw a determined look settle over her pale face. "I… I want to help you. At least in my own way. You're right – I can't expect others to fight for me and not do everything I can to help them in return. So… this time… let me fight with you."
J.J. gave her an astonished look, and Tristan folded his arms over his chest, his expression indicating that he didn't know what to make of her request. However, J.J. eventually smiled down at her and nodded. "If you're really ready for this."
"I am," Gwen said firmly. She put her hand to her chest, but then paused. J.J. tilted his head at her curiously as she suddenly looked up at him. "Just… one thing. Who are you?"
J.J. blinked down at her, giving her a puzzled look. "I'm sorry? You know my name-"
"I don't mean your name, idiot," Gwen said with a scowl. "You've spent this entire war refusing to accept a title until you earned it, right? Look around you," she entreated him, sweeping her arm around at the tavern. "Everyone here has acknowledged you. In fact, everyone in this city has. Tristan has, Susumu has, Agnar has – or he wouldn't have saved you – hell, even an ancient, sentient artifact acknowledges it. There's only one person who hasn't accepted it, and I'm looking at them. Before I agree to fight with you, I want to know the name of my champion. So look me in the eyes, J.J. Wells… and tell me who you are!"
J.J. opened his mouth, then slowly closed it and smiled down at her. Straightening his shoulders, he gazed into her eyes and replied in a clear voice, "I am… Kamen Rider Page!"
Gwen's face split into a wide grin, and she placed her hand against her chest, closing her eyes. A flash of white light momentarily blinded J.J., and when his vision cleared, Gwen was holding a pure white D-former in the palm of her hand. She offered her hand to J.J., and he gingerly took the jewel from her, matching her smile with one of his own. His diary vibrated, and he glanced down at the book. After examining it for a moment, he noticed that the back cover had opened to allow him to place Gwen's D-former in a new slot in its center, directly opposite from his own amber D-former.
J.J. slipped the jewel into the new opening, and as he did, Gwen offered him a slip of paper as well – her own stat sheet. J.J. placed the sheet behind the last page of his diary, and his sword nudged against his leg. He clicked it down to its quill form, and the pen flew up, pushing Gwen's sheet aside to start writing on the back. J.J. watched, fascinated, his quill quickly outlined a new form for him to use, one which made him grin wider and wider the more he read. When it finished, it flicked its feather up at him, almost as if asking, "Is this acceptable?"
"It's perfect. Let's try it," J.J. nodded, finally looking up from his book to fix his gaze on Martin, who had been resting on the pommel of his sword, waiting patiently.
"Are you finally prepared?" Martin taunted him, straightening up and readying himself by dropping into a fencing stance. "Then let's finally put this to rest. I'm eager to take that jewel from you."
J.J. flipped his diary to the last page, holding his diary up to his left cheek as he did so. He took a deep breath, then shouted, "Henshin!" His Driver appeared around his waist, and he snapped his diary shut, slotting it into his belt buckle with Gwen's white D-former showing. He then put his hand on the jewel and gave it a spin.
"Reroll! Prestige Class: Loremaster!" his diary announced. As J.J. was surrounded by a shining white die, an angelic chorus sang a few wordless notes. The jewel spun around him rapidly, and J.J. closed his eyes for a moment as he felt his body being encased in armor. Once the spinning stopped, he opened his eyes again and slowly raised his head. Then he took a moment to look down at his new form.
The first thing he noticed was the loose, open robe he was wearing. It was made of a shimmering white cloth, and hung from his body like a heavy coat, covering from his shoulders down to his wrists, and extending down to his knees. The sleeves were loose, but not so loose as to hinder his movements or risk being caught on anything. The edges of the robe were trimmed with silver, and amber Almencian runes were embroidered along the silver lining.
Beneath the robe, he wore an assortment of half-plate armor. His chest was protected by a white, metallic breastplate, and his shoulders were capped over the robe with ivory pauldrons. Under the sleeves of his robe were white bracers protecting his wrists and forearms, and the backs of his hands were backed by molded plate armor as well, though his fingers' only defense was his black bodysuit. His thighs were likewise only protected by his form-fitting black under-armor, but he could tell that the material was as protective as the leather armor of his base form. White greaves guarded his kneecaps and shins, and similarly colored armored boots enveloped his feet.
Like the rest of his armor, his helmet had turned white, while the trapezoidal eye-plates now had a shimmering diamond-like appearance. A silver circlet ringed his head, with multi-colored hexagonal gems set in place around it. A large amber gem rested in the center of his brow, while the other gems consisted of a ruby, black opal, sapphire, diamond, emerald, and amethyst.
J.J. glanced down at his hand and noticed that his quill had changed shape as well. He was gripping an elegant, lightly curved saber, shaped like an elongated feather, similar to the weapon he used in his base form. However, whereas his normal sword was a shortsword, this blade had the length of a bastard sword, with the hilt extending out far enough for him to use it with two hands if he so chose. An additional silver feather extended down to form a handguard, protecting his fingers as well. Despite its length, the sword felt very light in his hand, and he could easily manipulate it as he pleased. The blade was delicately curved, making slashing attacks more effective, but the tip was pointed to allow for thrusting attacks as well. A small smile crossed his lips as he realized that he finally had an ideal weapon that allowed him to take full advantage of his height and lean build.
J.J. looked up from his new armor to fix his gaze on Martin, who was clearly astonished by J.J.'s new appearance. J.J. began to slowly walk towards him, which snapped Martin out of his surprise.
"A new outfit won't help you!" Martin bellowed. He then opened his mouth and let out a deafening roar, which bent the soundwaves around it and broke the windows of the cars behind him. J.J., however, continued to walk stoically through the roar, completely undeterred by the winds billowing around him. Martin closed his mouth a moment later when he saw his attack was completely ineffective, and he snarled and lashed out with his whip-like arm to slash at J.J. with his blade instead. J.J. disappeared for a split second as he stepped out of the way, moving so quickly that Martin ended up slicing the air where he had been standing. The chimera blinked and tried to strike at him again, but J.J. simply vanished again and stepped back to his original spot, continuing to slowly closing the distance between them without breaking stride. Martin hesitated, then held up his left hand and began gathering fire in the palm of his hand. As he did, the blade of J.J.'s sword began to shimmer with white flames as well. As soon as Martin released the spell, J.J. slashed upwards, and a white fireball erupted from the tip of his blade. The two fiery orbs met in midair and exploded, and a wall of flames erupted, blocking J.J.'s path. J.J., however, walked slowly through the blaze, ignoring it completely, and as he stepped out of the inferno, unscathed, he saw Martin flinch for the first time. He was unable to keep a pleased smirk off his lips.
J.J. stopped a few feet from his opponent and raised his blade, pointing it at the Diemon. In a low voice, said to himself, "Alea iacta est." Then he broke into a run. Martin growled, bringing his blade up to meet J.J.'s charge, and the two men locked blades for a moment, staring into each other's eyes, before breaking apart. Martin slashed at J.J. horizontally, which J.J. responded to by swaying backwards, using the edge of his blade to guide Martin's blow the rest of the way past him. He then stepped in and jabbed Martin in the left shoulder with the tip of his blade. Sparks erupted from the point of penetration, and Martin grunted in pain. Intending to retaliate, he brought his sword around again and thrusted at J.J., who deflected the blade deftly off to one side, where it narrowly but cleanly missed his shoulder. He then slashed Martin across the stomach, sending him staggering backwards and clutching his torso.
"Damn you," he coughed as J.J. twirled his sword once. Martin raised his left hand, gathering flames again, but before he could release them, J.J. vanished for a split second. Martin hesitated, then let out a gasp as J.J. appeared in front of him and slashed him across the wrist. The flames withered as he let out a cry of pain, clutching his hand. In the meantime, a swirling, icy mist surrounded J.J.'s blade as he calmed his thoughts, and then he slashed diagonally. A wave of ice and freezing water collided with Martin's left arm, freezing it solid. Martin grunted and began gathering flames in that hand, trying to melt the ice and free it, but before he managed to do so, J.J. stepped in again and gripped his sword with both hands. The edge of the blade burned white, turning red towards the edge of the luminous glow. He brought his sword up over his shoulder, and Martin, seeing this, brought his own sword up with his free hand to block the attack. J.J., however, let out a short yell and slashed downwards anyways. The force of his blow completely broke Martin's guard, and he was knocked off his feet and sent rolling for a few meters before coming to a halt. Martin grunted, slowly pushing himself up with a snarl.
"This… is the power of Gwendolyn's jewel?!" he gasped. "How? How did it make you so strong?!"
Strong? J.J. thought to himself, smiling and shaking his head. In truth, while his stats were significantly improved over his base form, they were still only at about eighty percent of his maximum in all areas. Warrior Class was still stronger, Thief Class faster, and Mage Class had more energy reserves. However, he also no longer had any one area where he was weak. What's more, with all his stats improved in conjunction, he could use them to augment each other – for instance, using his improved speed to add even more power behind his blows, or adding a little magic to his strikes for additional damage.
Perhaps the most important advantage Loremaster Class provided him with, however, was the ability to use lesser versions of his other Class' abilities at will. Warrior Class' powerful attacks, Thief Class' ability to disappear, Mage Class' spells… and he knew he could use any other class as well. It was fitting, he mused. After all, his strength had never been in raw power, but in versatility. Thus, having every option available to him at a moment's notice was his ideal apex… his personal Apotheosis.
"It's not a matter of strength, but experience," J.J. explained, unable to keep from smirking smugly behind his helmet. "Tell me, how many times have you been in that form of yours? A half-dozen or so, maybe? And every time, you relied on 'natural talent,' right? Be honest… do you really think you have a chance against someone who's been working for months to master his abilities? I just couldn't use them freely before. I hope you enjoyed that handicap."
Martin growled as his arm lashed out again, extending thirty feet from his body, but before it touched him, J.J. slipped out of the way and disappeared again. As he did, he left an after-image behind, which was struck by Martin's blade and tumbled away in a shower of sparks. Martin sneered just as J.J. reappeared behind him and tapped him on the shoulder. When Martin swung around, J.J. punched him viciously across the face before slashing him with a rising diagonal blow. The chimera let out a cry of pain as J.J. gripped his sword with both hands again, and it once more began to glow whitish-red, tough this time the glow was concentrated at the tip. He struck Martin with five heavy attacks, each one slashing at him from a different angle, before finishing the attack with a powerful thrust that could have punched a hole in solid steel. Martin was knocked backwards again, but this time managed to remain on his feet, clutching his torso.
The Diemon roared again, but as it did, the reverse edge of J.J.'s sword began to glow as he focused on his Paladin Class' darkness nullification abilities. He turned his blade around and slashed upwards, a single streak of brilliant light cutting through the visible sound waves and with a crescent of light which struck the chimera in the chest, silencing him. J.J. then focused on Ranger Class, and his saber split in half lengthwise, unfolding so that it resembled a feathery longbow, with a gossamer string connecting the two points. J.J. focused for a moment, and a small pinpoint of light appeared in his left hand, which grew into an ivory arrow. He nocked the arrow and sighted down the shaft towards Martin, who was still hunched over and panting. His weapon steadied itself and guided his hands, at which point J.J. released the arrow, which streaked through the air and slammed into Martin's face in an explosion of white fractals, knocking him on his back again. The chimera groaned and slowly tried to pick himself up as J.J. flicked his weapon upwards, reconnecting the two halves of his sword.
"You… filthy… commoner!" Martin roared.
"A disgraced knight has no right to pull rank," J.J. replied calmly, lowering his sword. "Especially when addressing another knight." Martin's yellow eyes bulged with fury as J.J. sighed. "I should apologize. I revived you for the wrong reasons. When the Black Seraph trounced me… I got scared and tried to find an easy way to beat him, particularly one that let me avoid facing him myself. In doing so, I was also trying to pass that responsibility off to someone else, which meant I was unfairly putting it on your shoulders. For that, I apologize – to you, and to Gwen as well, for putting her through this." He glanced over his shoulder to see her smile at him faintly. Then he turned back around. "However… after you woke up, your actions were your own. You could have been a valuable ally, but you chose to try and use your power to dominate this city instead of protecting it. Even so, I should also thank you for reminding me of my responsibility as a Kamen Rider – to face anything threatening the people I've sworn to protect, no matter how difficult or dangerous it is. So… I'm going to give you one chance, Martin. Surrender your D-former and stand down."
Martin snarled, picking himself up and gripping his sword tightly in both hands. With a savage roar, he charged towards J.J., who dropped his hand to the white D-former and gave it a spin. "Critical!" his Driver shouted, and just as Martin was about to strike him, a holographic white crystal appeared around him. Martin slammed into the translucent surface of the crystal as it began to spin rapidly around J.J., who was surprised to feel his feet suddenly leave the ground. He came to hover twenty feet in the air as Martin stared up at him, futilely throwing fireballs at him, which harmlessly dissolved against his shield. J.J.'s sword vibrated lightly, and he glanced down to see that it was glowing. Gripping it tightly, he slashed three times through the shield, twice diagonally and once horizontally. The three crescents of snow-white light slammed into Martin, cutting into his skin, and pinning him in place as he screamed in impotent rage. J.J. then began descending, rotating his body as he did, while his die coalesced around his leg, bathing it in ivory light. J.J. let out a short cry as he swung his leg around in a flying roundhouse kick, the blow landing in the center of the asterisk of light. The attack seemed to push the beams of light through Martin's body, and glowing white cracks began spreading across his monstrous form. Martin stared down at himself in shock as his Diemon form dissolved in a shower of shimmering, rainbow-colored fractals, at which point he fell to his knees, exhausted, while his D-former and stat sheet fluttered off to the side.
J.J. landed lightly on the ground a few feet away, letting out a long, slow breath before walking over and gathering up the jewel and stat sheet. It was then that raucous sounds behind him caught his attention, and he turned around to see his friends cheering and beaming at him. He smiled softly behind his mask before turning towards Martin, who was still staring at the ground, stunned into silence. He only looked up when J.J.'s blade entered his vision.
"So… it would seem you are the victor," Martin said softly, glaring defiantly up at J.J. "Is this how it ends, then? It's your right to slay me after all. But if you expect me to beg-"
"You don't get it, do you?" J.J. interrupted him. "Times have changed. The person who's 'supposed' to be the hero doesn't always win anymore, nor are they the hero simply because of who they are. And every fight doesn't have to end in death." He sighed lightly, looking away. "But… you haven't had the chance to learn that lesson yet, and that's partially my fault. So… here are my terms as the victor. Leave this town. Forever. Go out into the world. Learn how the 'commoners' you hate so much live, and learn to what the modern age has to offer. Make a life for yourself, and try to find happiness." He then turned back, narrowing his eyes behind his mask. "And never let me hear that you're causing trouble. Now go."
Martin smirked, pushing himself up and dusting his pants off. "You're quite cruel, aren't you? Forcing me to live with this humiliation…." His smirk faded, his expression briefly turning venomous. "Mark my words – your mercy will cost you one day."
J.J. narrowed his eyes as Martin marched past him towards the walls surrounding Marville, his head held high. Only when he was out of sight did J.J. finally relax, letting out a long, slow breath of air. He pulled his diary out of his belt and removed his amber D-former, his transformation shattering in a shower of fractals. Before he could compose himself, a white blur charged at him. He grunted as Gwen threw herself into his arms, beaming up at him with tears shining in her eyes.
"Thank you!" she whispered.
"Feeling better, then?" he asked her with a slight smile. When she nodded, he put a hand on her head. "No more secrets from now on, alright?"
"I promise! Not that I could afford to keep them anyways. My life is yours, J.J.," she murmured, burying her face in his chest.
J.J. felt heat rise to his face as he looked down at her. He coughed and glanced down at the gem and stat sheet still in his hand. "What do you want to do with these?"
Gwen followed his gaze, then grabbed the jewel and stat sheet. She tore the paper in half, then grabbed the jewel and squeezed it between her fingers. The gem shattered into thousands of tiny shards that evaporated into the air.
"Now never bring that up again," she warned him sternly as Tristan approached them, smiling brightly.
"Well fought, page," Tristan commented. "You handled yourself as a true knight would."
"Well… I kind of had to, since Agnar gave me the title to go with it," J.J. admitted.
"Truly?" Tristan asked, his eyebrows rising in surprise.
"Yep. Which… speaking of, why didn't you ever knight me?" J.J. chided him playfully, grinning as he did.
"It would not be my place to do so. Only the Knight-Commander had the authority in Almencia to bestow new titles," Tristan replied.
"I suppose I'll forgive you then," J.J. chuckled. "For now-!"
A shrill cackle above them interrupted J.J., and the trio looked up to see the Fool sitting on top of one of the skyscrapers, giggling wildly, while the Black Seraph stood beside him, robes billowing in the wind and his black wings extended. J.J. frowned and dropped his hand to his diary, but the clown snorted derisively.
"Well now, what fun! We haven't seen a performance that thrilling in quite some time!" the Fool chortled. "And our favorite actor even got a new costume!"
"Feel free to come down if you want," J.J. called back up. "I'd be happy to sign an autograph. I'm short on paper, though, so I hope leaving my mark on your face will work."
The Fool cackled merrily, doubling over with laughter. "And its tongue is as sharp as ever! Ah… well, it would seem this play is entering its final act! We so look forward to the denouement," the clown added, chuckling sinisterly.
The Black Seraph ignored them, turning his golden masked face towards Gwen. "This is the path you've chosen to follow, then, sister?" he asked her mildly.
"It is," Gwen nodded, glaring up at him. "Not that you could understand."
"Perhaps," the Seraph replied absently. "Very well. An interesting promotion for your pawn, but a pawn he remains. It shall be interesting to see how he moves from now on." He bowed towards them, chuckling faintly to himself. "Until then… good luck." He motioned to the Fool, who giggled and pushed himself up, bouncing away as the Seraph disappeared over the lip of the building.
J.J. glowered after them until Gwen lightly touched his chest, frowning up at him. "Don't them him get in your head."
"No… he's right, this isn't over yet," J.J. murmured. "We still don't have a way to beat him, and we're still not at full strength." He glanced over at Tristan's broken belt, the knight frowning down at it as well. Then J.J. shook his head, smiled faintly, and put his hand on top of her head again. "But let's not worry about that for now."
"Indeed. The victor of the duel is due a reward," Tristan agreed. "What do you desire?"
"Honestly? I'd like to go lay down, pull up my laptop, and finish up my novel," J.J. admitted with a chuckle. "But… it looks like that's not gonna happen, huh?" he added, nodding to the tavern patrons flooding out of the door to offer their thanks, congratulations, and admonishments for not telling them about his identity.
"Such is the burden of a hero, page," Tristan said with a chuckle. "You wished to protect them. Now you must face the consequences of that decision. Brace yourself."
J.J. groaned playfully, but he found himself beaming nonetheless as he was swiftly enveloped by the chattering, laughing throng. In short order, he was shaking hands and receiving slaps on the back, with Gwen clinging to his side and Tristan at his left arm. And while it wasn't the peace and quiet he claimed that he wanted, he found he didn't mind. For the first time in quite a while, J.J. realized that he was finally happy once again. For now, that was enough for him.