Biggest thanks for Ace-Triad helping me with SPAG edit. Also thanks to Angel Wraith for reading my rough draft and provide important feedbacks.
Special mention and thanks goes to my reviewer Argus456, whose private message to me helped inspired some of this chapter.
More author note at the end for people who are interested to see me blabber some more.
After some basic healing, rags are shoved into the Bitch Lord's mouth to stop her from making further upsetting comments. She's currently being watched over by a sneering Farkas. The giant werewolf looks ready to serve a new round of painful stomp if she starts to make a fuss.
The others are divided between felling trees for Gaston to make some makeshift sleds, and harvesting parts out of the dead thunder lizard. Naofumi and Raphtalia hover right over Mein herself. Even without looking at them, the princess can feel them twitching from time to time. They are clearly torn between wanting to comfort her, yet also fearful of doing something to further provoke her health situation.
The gesture is... appreciated by the princess in disguise, even if they aren't doing anything. It's always nice to know she has someone who worries and cares for her regardless of her social position. But it also makes her more ashamed.
"Thanks." Naofumi's voice makes Mein look back. The young hero nods his head as a thanks while absorbing all the materials his bodyguard brings to him. The Shield Hero looks back at the dead thunder lizard not too far away. Even as the sun climb higher and higher, the massive carcass still look like a small hill, not the body of a monster. "Should we not... I don't know... doing something about the rotting dino the size of a small mountain? I mean, the church even buried all the dead bandits. I'm assuming they don't want to cause a plague?"
"On principle? Yes... Grr!" Gaston ties some wooden boards together with vines. The hunter pulls with all his might as he holds it with both his boot and hands. "A monster grown to this size doesn't drop dead naturally. Not that often, at least. Local fauna will have a hard time eating it up before it starts rotting. But we can't stay here for a day or two just to cut it up."
"Why not? I mean. The church's probably already way ahead of us. We might as well clean up after ourselves before we chase after them." The Shield Hero is clearly trying to be responsible, despite the implication of giving House Seatto's artifact to the Three Heroes' Church. Sadly, the Shield Hero still isn't aware of all the danger of the world.
"It's not about getting ahead, or catching up with the church expedition, my thane." The bodyguard's eyes dart around even as he wipes lizard blood off his armor with a rag. Not far away, Kyubey's ears are also standing at their full height while twitching left and right. "We aren't safe yet."
Chapter 55: End of a Reign
Naofumi blinks a couple of times. His eyes narrowed a little, face pinched. "Explain."
"The Rabier County, or Stolen Land's biggest band of bandits are the Bitch Lord's group. The ones we killed and scattered last night, yes." Yatsuhashi hands the rag back to Naofumi, who puts the dirty cloth back into his shield. "But there are many more groups who have joined her over the years. And they don't all congregate in the ruined Rabier Keep..."
"...and now the Bitch Lord is gone, it's everyone for themselves. Pillaging, killing, and... raping." Naofumi's face fully scrunches up at the realization of what'll happen when the alpha bitch of the rabid dogs is now in custody. "Crap."
"Exactly." The Sworn Shield nods his head. "I don't mind sending more bandits to where they belong. But we are all tired fighting the ancient thunder lizard. We'll be in danger if a few dozen bandits find us in the open like this."
"Is there anything we can do?" Naofumi looks back towards the ruined castle in the distance. It's barely visible atop all the trees after they chased the thunder lizard down. "We didn't have much choice after we got ambushed, but I hate to leave two messes for others to deal with for me."
"As we are? Nothing. We are too few and there's only so much we can do. There's a reason why a hero needs to have his personal retinue, in addition to his party." Farkas snorts out his disapproval. "The first Shield Hero, he always had his 'Five Hundred Companions' following him. Even after he became king."
The Shield Hero's slowly sits down on the dirt. His hands cup together on top of his knees, thumbs drumming as his eyes twitch. "I doubt the king will let me lead a small army."
"Not if the church declares you a sanctified hero, Sir Shield Hero." Éclair walks over after hearing their conversation. "Your official noble title, and land is granted by the nation's royalty. But once your status of a hero is sanctioned by one of the official church branches, no royalty of any nation will be able to dispute your status. King Aultcray probably won't support you with resources... but he will have no right to disperse a hero's retinue without risking a crusade declared on his head."
"Sanctioned by the church, huh?" Naofumi looks up and stares at the knight in her face, the silence drawn long enough for her to look away. "That's not any easier."
"The Three Heroes' Church isn't the only official branch, Master Shield Hero." Kyubey breaks his concentration and puts his thoughts into the ongoing conversation. "Melromarc's state religion is still the original Four Heroes' faith. Remember we talked about it when Lady Mein was injured in the cave? The Three Heroes' faith gained a lot of prestige after the Great War, but the Four Heroes' Church still has an impenetrable foothold south in Romalia. They weren't harmed by the war thanks to Prince Joseph."
That's... actually a very good suggestion from the rabbit man. Considering the Four Heroes' faith was the original one, if the Three Heroes' Church tried to dispute their legitimacy, they would undermine the very foundation of their own existence. Effectively keeping her Naofumi safe from any possible fanatics.
Naofumi blinks a couple of times, probably refreshing his memory before nodding along. "Oh, yeah. We talked about it briefly. Think they'll be more reasonable? One of their inquisitors did try to kill everyone in Lute..."
"High Inquisitor Emon was a Faubley Four Heroes' Church member. They... aren't the most agreeable when it comes to our nation and our people." Éclair has to look away again when mentioning the fanatic. "But our local sect should be more eager."
That should be an understatement, come to think of it. With how much the influence of Four Heroes' Church's Melromarc sect has shrunk after The Great War, they'll be more than eager to have a sanctified hero to carry their banner. Her Naofumi's sanctification should be a guarantee as long as he doesn't cause something catastrophic, or completely turn against Melromarc.
Hell, those in charge of the Romalia branch might be willing to throw themselves onto a sword even if it does cause a disaster, so long as it can be resolved in the end. Churches are good at covering up facts and swinging public opinions of the uneducated commoners, after all.
"We still have a couple of weeks till the next Wave... it's going to cut it too tight. Guess that'll be my goal after the next Wave?" Naofumi stands up from his knees and looks over at his companions.
"Lord Balgruuf will surely support your claim. Lord Ascart might as well, after we hand the Bitch Lord in." Yatsuhashi gives a sideway glare to the downed bandit.
"Especially if Master Naofumi fares well in the coming Wave." Mein slowly stands up after repeating her breathing exercise to get her heart, and emotion under control.
"Sounds like a plan. We'll go east to meet this Lord Ascart and bring in the Bitch Lord first, and see if we can still help with the undead after." Naofumi looks over at the Lute hunter. "Are the slides ready, Gaston?"
"They aren't pretty, but they shouldn't fall apart. So long as our birdies don't fully sprint through a rock field." Gaston fastened one of his makeshift wooden slid around onto his black feathered bird. Wolfgang nibs at the hunter's hair, and Gaston scratches his chin with a smile. "I know Wolfy is a good boy. Can't say the same for yours."
Firo glares at Gaston and snorts back.
"Throw the Bitch onto her slid, and have Shield Hero's sweetheart rest on your bird. If the Bitch gets pulled apart, no big loss." Comment from Farkas makes the Shield Hero's face light up red, and lets out a few unintelligent gibberish sounds.
"OKAY! We are READY!" Naofumi screams out loud to hide his embarrassment. Probably not smart if there's anyone left to ambush them. But the other bandit groups obviously haven't made their way over to the rampage monster yet, and thankfully Towair also didn't stay around. The Shield Hero swings his head left and right. "Where are my Yuzu? We have to get going now."
"Master Naofumi, look!" Raphtalia points her finger at the dead thunder lizard.
From the gaping wound on its stomach, three blood stained orange rubber balls squeeze themselves out. Bits of gore still hang here and there around their maw. They bounce their way over to Naofumi, squint their eyes, grits their mouth shut and start to... shake. That's not a good sign.
"Think they overate? Gaston?" Naofumi squats down once again, his finger lightly taps one of his pet abominations. The Shield Hero then looks over at the best hunter of Lute.
"Why are you asking me, Shield boy?"
"Well, you are the hunter. I assume you know about monsters more than anyone else."
"Ones we hunt for food, sure. I don't go around killing balloons so some rich city kid gets to play with a rubber ball." Gaston frowns and crosses his thick arms over his chest. It's hard to tell if he is genuinely offended at Naofumi's suggestion. "I doubt the royal battle mage knows anything more about these annoying pests other than they are the easiest monsters to kill. And he does research for a living."
"Oh." Naofumi looks back at his twitching monsters with concern on his face. "Hope they are okay."
Ripples begin to form on the balloons' rubber body. Slowly but surely, the shifting begins to become more and more noticeable as bumps and craters begin to randomly dots on their body. And finally, something seems to poke out of their undersides.
It looks like a pair of reptilian legs, just like ones underneath a knight's dragon... or more specifically, like the thunder lizard they just killed. There's also a tail on the opposite sides of their mouth.
The not so spherical anymore elements of pain open their eyes and look at each other, their new tails wagging around. With a few happy screeches, they begin to chase after each, biting at their new tails. They fall down, or roll over from time to time, probably not used to their new legs.
"Huh, never seen that before." Gaston blinks a couple of times before he pushes Naofumi on the shoulder. "Check their status, Shield boy."
"R, right!" Naofumi hops on his feet. He switches his shield into his [Smartphone Shield] and uses it to project the screen in front of them.
Species: [Mimic Balloon].
Racial Trait: [Consumption Mimicry].
Grant Mimic Balloons the ability to transform into forms with traits from other monster families they consumed enough essence of.
"Guess they evolved." After two nights of hardship, that carefree and somewhat goofy smile finally returns back on Naofumi's face. Mein can't help but wonder if there's some context she's missing.
By Mein's estimation, they are already a day to two behind the Three Heroes' Church expedition. Even worse, they are being left behind more and more, since they are backtracking towards Ascart county to turn Bitch Lord in custody. Yet, the princess can feel everyone's steps being much lighter now the Shield Hero is back with them. Especially Raphtalia, who seems to have a spring in her legs.
Speaking of the lost princess of Q'ten Lo, she is casting the basic level spell [Mage Light] over and over while they make their way towards the border between Rabier and Ascart county. The already grown up girl seems to have discovered a new reason to grow stronger. Mein wonders if it's due to yet another few near death encounters, or coming clean with her past and her abilities.
Sadly, the first princess of Melromarc can't follow Raphtalia's example.
Raphtalia throws another floating orb of light above her head. It might be mana drain caused fatigue, or having a small sun shining over her head. But the raccoon dog princess lost her foot over some roots. She nearly faced the plant right into the dirt, if Naofumi didn't quickly catch her. "Th, thanks, Master Naofumi."
"Don't overwork yourself, Raphtalia." Naofumi's arm reaches over towards Raphtalia's head, but he stops himself midway. Seeing this, Raphtalia grabs his wrist and places his hand on top of her head. Naofumi smiles, and runs through her hair. "It's not worth getting hurt."
"But I'm behind everyone, because I was afraid to use my adult body..." The Q'ten Lo princess bites her lower lips, her cheeks puffs up a little. "I have to work extra hard, if I want to learn how to fight."
"You don't have to-" Unlike before, Raphtalia interrupts Naofumi's words midway. After revealing her secret, the lost princess is more willing to contradict the Shield Hero.
"I want to learn to fight. I was helpless when my parents died, I was helpless when my friend Rifana died..." Raphtalia looks down at her feet once again. "When I was in the dungeon, I saw a human boy. He died just like Rifana..."
Naofumi opens his mouth trying to say something, but no words come out.
"It doesn't matter if it's demi-human, or human. Bad people will hurt those weaker." Raphtalia balls up her fist in an unusual show of aggression. "I want to become stronger, because I want to protect others just like you. That's the least thing I can do after you saved me. And that's the least I can do for my parents, and my friends."
"That's good." Naofumi's hand slides off Raphtalia's head, he gives her shoulder a firm shake. Raphtalia smiles back at him. "Good goal to work for. But don't hurt yourself trying to be stronger. You'll have us all helping you."
"Yeah, you won't help anyone if you get hurt." Gaston looks over. His words are chastising but his tone is light, and he has a smile on his face. "Here's an idea. Start practicing your magic when we get another wagon."
"Won't be a problem." Farkas snorts back. "If she gets hurt, have her shrunk down and sit on one of the birds."
Did the foul tempered werewolf just make a joke?
"So, sorry." A blush creeps up Raphtalia's face, the raccoon dog princess jumps away from the Shield Hero and starts to jog along with everyone with a more exaggerated movement. "I'll just work on my stamina!"
And speaking of working on their stamina... that's exactly what the Shield Hero is doing now. He went back to his 'turtle school training' nonsense, with that ridiculous looking monster fur bag filled with heavy things on his back. Mein suppose she can't fault Naofumi for his thoughts, as he does need to keep building his stamina.
The newfound monstrous attack power he gains with 'Unstoppable Force' is no good, he falls over after one swing, and dies from over exhaustion after a second.
"I've been wanting to ask." Kyubey looks over to Raphtalia. "You being the daughter of Mr. Takeru. Sadeena of Kagura isn't just an older girl you are friendly with, is she?"
"Where did that come from?" Naofumi looks over at the usually quiet rabbit man.
"I remembered it from last year's harvest festival... It's not important to us trading town folks for Liberation Day, but there's still a huge feast and all the important people attended... except Mr. Takeru's daughter." Kyubey scratches his lower lob with his good hand and looks at Raphtalia. "Although now I think about it... Raphtalia was there. She's just been running around with the other kids."
"Yeah... Father let me attend all the festivals with my friends. I like spending time with them more than stuck in a fancy dress and sitting still through the whole thing... ACK!" Raphtalia furiously nodded her head, her eyes glazed over at the memory and nearly caused her to trip over again. But this time, the raccoon dog girl manages to catch herself.
"Anyways, there was a group of rowdy human sellswords. After a few cups... they started being more and more unsavory, bad mouthing Mr. Takeru's family. Lady Sadeena didn't like that one bit." Kyubey makes some strange clicking noise with his mouth. The princess in disguise wonders if he is trying to chuckle. "She challenged all twenty of them to a drinking contest, and sent them all under the table."
"Big sister Sadeena... She was my Yojimbo. Bodyguard. Like Mr. Yatsuhashi is to Master Naofumi." The curve of Raphtalia's reminiscent smile falls down a little. "I don't know what happened to her. The last time I saw her was the night before the wave hit us, she was having a drink... I hope she survived, she's strong, really strong! She's one of the few in Harp who had class-up already. But being my Yojimbo, she's supposed to protect me with her life..."
It sounds like Raphtalia's sworn shield was dead before her parents, or she betrayed her oath and ran. The lost princess of Q'ten Lo is clearly aware of it, judging by her voice slowly growing silent.
"We'll find her as long as she's still alive." Naofumi walks closer to Raphtalia and wraps his arms around her shoulders. "There's still hope yet. Maybe she was only injured, or trapped in a cave-in. For all we know, she's doing her best looking for you."
Raphtalia doesn't say anything back, she simply shows a forced smile towards Naofumi.
"She was from the Kagura family?" Farkas snorts again, but it doesn't sound dismissive this time. In fact, judging by how the wolf man squinted his eyes and clicked his tongue, he looks rather thoughtful. "Strange."
"Not the best time, Farkas!" Naofumi leads Raphtalia over to Gaston's bird and helps her up.
"It's okay, Master Naofumi." Raphtalia shakes her head and looks over at Farkas. "What's strange about big sister Sadeena?"
"Shouldn't you already know, true princess of mighty Kutenrou?" The former Five Hundred captain scoffs back at the raccoon dog girl. It's clear the Siltvelt renegade has no love for the prideful island nation.
"Farkas! Behave!" Naofumi chastises the former slave.
"Scolded, like a trained dog." The werewolf rolls his eyes at the Shield Hero. "How low have I sunk."
Raphtalia, for her parts, doesn't cower like she used to. She sits up straighter, probably channeling what little Q'ten Lo equivalent of etiquette training she had. "Father didn't tell me everything. There's a lot I don't know about my home nation. I want to learn."
Farkas narrows his eyes and stares at Raphtalia. The lost princess simply looks back at him. After a while, the werewolf blinks and looks away first. "Back in the days of Kutenrou, House Kagura was known as one of the 'Three Pillars'. The three top families of their priestly cast. Uzumaki of the Earth Style, in charge of ensuring bountiful harvest and prosperity of the nation. Okami of the Heaven Style, in charge of leading their warrior cast to defense of their nation and pass judgment over unworthy 'heroes'. And Kagura of the Celestial Style, in charge of reading the stars to decipher prophecies and fates to advise their celestial emperor."
"Okami... big sister Sadeena mentioned that name a few times." Raphtalia's head tips down, probably trying to search through her memories. "I think she trained herself in their ways to master her lightning magic and use it with her spear techniques."
"Is that so? She can probably teach Motoyasu a thing or two." Naofumi looks back and forth between Raphtalia and Farkas, he is probably trying his best to break up the solemn mood. "He could use some training. I completely dominated our duel, and I only had a week practicing my parry with Kyubey."
"Don't think too much about it. Kagura probably took themselves over as protectors of the last celestial emperor bloodline. It's not like the Okami were still around after King Mikage thoroughly obliterated Kutenrou's force." After a while, Farkas adds one more line as if an afterthought. "My father's father supposedly fought in that war."
"I, I didn't know any of this..." Raphtalia's eyes cast down, her voice slowly trails off once again.
"Really? I mean, I understand your father didn't want you to grow up into a spoiled princess." Her Naofumi obviously doesn't mean it, but the first princess felt like someone slapped her on the face. "But it's strange he told you about your origin, but didn't teach you about the culture and history. Sounds a little self-defeating to me."
"No, father didn't want me to know. Maybe he'll tell me when I grow older? Not like we knew the Wave would hit us..." Raphtalia bites her lips, making the Shield Hero recoil back at the pain he unintentionally caused. "But he didn't have much choice. Big sister Sadeena... she slipped after she drank too much. Father had no choice, he had to tell me enough so I don't go around blubbering our secret to everyone. Great granduncle Isshin's men are still looking for us, and we'll all die if they find us."
"Why won't this Isshin just leave you alone? Isn't it enough that he's already the king?" Naofumi frowns, his voice starts to rise again.
"Not a king, Kutenrou people have no king after the last celestial emperor Kajirou. Kutenrou people are scattered all over Medea after the emperor unleashed all the mana stored within the Holy Cherry tree in his last effort to drive away the invaders. Isshin and his men rescued one of the largest groups of Kutenrou refugees, and King Mikage gave them a mountain range he named Shikoku and allowed them the right to self-govern to reward Isshin's service to him. That's how he became the Shogun of Shikoku. But it doesn't make Isshin the king, or celestial emperor of Kutenrou people."
"Really?" Naofumi crosses his arms in front of his chest and stares back at Farkas. "Sounds like he's a king to me. Even if he doesn't call himself one and he only rules over a mountain."
"Only if there's no direct descendant of Emperor Kajirou." Farkas glares right back at the young hero. "Isshin was the first born, and first in-line to succeed their father. But he wanted to dedicate himself to a life of martial arts, and passed the throne to his younger brother Kajirou. And to ensure there's no succession dispute, he made an unbreakable vow that neither he himself, nor any of his descendants will take the throne of Kutenrou."
Naofumi blinks a couple of times, probably not expecting this. "So, if there's no succession dispute, how did the war happen? Wait, don't tell me. It's all my predecessor's fault again, isn't it? He tried to take over this Kutenrou through his companion Isshin."
"Who knows, I wasn't alive back then and that might as well have been what happened. Read everything in our history record when I was training as a captain of the Five Hundred guards. And who knows who accurate those dusty tomes and scrolls are. History is written by the victors, and they are only interested to make themselves look good." Farkas snorts once again, showing his contempt this time. "But according to our history, emperor Kajirou became paranoid after Lord Isshin and his daughter Lady Poko became King Mikage's most valued companions. Thinking they are trying to take Kutenrou away from him, the emperor sent assassins after assassins after them, eventually caused King Mikage to invade Kutenrou as a retaliation."
The Shield Hero slowly rises his left hand over his head, and falls on his face with a cracking slap. "Great, just great! I thought it was the last Shield Hero, but this is even better! Everyone in power acts as assholes, and a lot of innocent people lose their lives, and homes. Well, Isshin better not make the same mistake, or else I might have to actually take Siltvelt crown and tell him to shove it."
"I can make an unbreakable vow too. I don't want to become a queen, or a princess." Raphtalia tips over on the bird, and reaches a hand to rest on Naofumi's head. "I want to fight alongside you and big sister Mein to stop the Wave. And after... maybe I'll go around, travel and see the world, save children from slavers."
"That's a good way to live your life, you are too good for a noble." Mein's head drops down at Naofumi's compliment at Raphtalia. "I'll make sure you don't have to worry about assassins... at least from this Isshin guy."
"Look alive, I can see Flute again." Gaston's voice comes from ahead of them. The hunter crouches down and starts to examine the largely overgrown road. "Someone went inside recently...I'd say twenty or so. Didn't bother to cover their track. Might be simple bandits... but who knows what other things."
"Maybe we should go around? Avoid troubles till we have a good rest?" Naofumi looks over his party. While no one is badly injured, everyone except those resting on the slid or the birds look a little worn out after their long track.
Gaston pauses and thinks it over. "That's probably smart. But we did leave our iron wood wagon in Flute. I hid it with some branches, it might still be here. Be a big waste if we let the bandits grab it and pawn it off for coins, or smash it up. Having it back will also make our travel to Ascart County easier."
"I'll sneak in by myself and check for ambushes." Naofumi's bodyguard stepped up again like the last time.
"No, I'll go. I'll look around with my animal form." Raphtalia jumps off the filorial. "They won't know Master Naofumi is around, if they only see a raccoon wandering in."
"What if the Raven Lord is hiding in there with another group? They'd be expecting you after last night." Raphtalia opens her mouth at Yatsuhashi's question, but she clearly has no rebuke. "Your skill is too unique and valuable to this group, Lady Raphtalia. I'm expendable."
"Then we won't approach the village at all, or we'll all go. If that raven bastard is still skulking around, we'll finish the job on him." Naofumi steps in to stop his bodyguard, and the Q'ten Lo princess from their self-sacrifice competition. Not really a smart move, considering they didn't hurt Towair in any way other than killing his subordinate. If the Raven Lord still has assets around, and is laying an ambush for them in Flute... it might be Towair who finished the job this time.
Then again, he might be eager to cut his losses and run after the Shiltfreeden Shivs forced his retreat. For all the Raven Lord knows, the Shield Hero is now in the hand of the Shiv, or maybe the Shivs are still with her Naofumi.
Gaston unties his makeshift slid off the birds and throws the body of Bitch Lord over Firo's back. Yatsuhashi sets up the nuzzle clamp and the steel great sword on Farkas. Mein takes a look at her broken sword. Through all the chaos, panicking over the released ancient thunder lizard, and her injury, she never bothered to grab a somewhat working sword from Bitch Lord's bandits.
Oh well, it's not like they have anything good on them anyway. She'll have to rely on her backup dagger, and her magic.
Their group slowly makes their way towards the abandoned village. As they creep closer towards where Gaston left the wagon, they can hear the sound of conversation behind some still standing walls. "Do we want to take apart this nice carriage, boss? It'll be worth some pretty coins."
"And how do you plan to sell them to a rich buyer, hmm?" A high pitched and scratchy sneer, like the noise from some rodent fires back. "These iron woods are more valuable to us. Break them apart, and line them up on your clothes. They'll make decent armor. Better than what other groups have."
"That voice, I remember her." Raphtalia gasps under her breath. "That's Mouse."
"Abby was an arrogant fool to take orders from those Siltvelt inbreds. She made herself an easy target taking over Rabier Keep. If it wasn't those meddling Shivs, or the blasted Shield Hero, it'd be someone else. We'll stay mobile, play hide and seek with anyone here to stick us. Reign of the Bitch Lord is over, it's time for the Mouse Lord."
Mouse' voice breaks into an even more ear grating giggle. Raphtalia's face looks cold as she walks around the corner, Naofumi was a blink away from grabbing her and keeping her back.
Mein quickly follows after everyone, facing down at a group of two dozen or so bandits dressed in monster fur, copper to iron weapons in their hands. Amongst them stand a woman in a loose, simple and dirty tunic. She has some straps with vials and throwing knives over her shoulders and waist. Her body is as mousy as her name suggested underneath her curly and bushy hair. "And speaking of the Shield Devil... You really don't know how to keep your nose out of other people's business, do you?"
"Uh, boss. Is it a good idea to trash talk? They look tough." One of the bandits looked at the size of Yatsuhashi and Farkas. He looks back at Mouse. "I don't think we can take them. Let's just give them their carriage back."
"Shut it, FOOL!" Mouse fires right back at her rather smart subordinate. "You think the Shield Hero is going to let us go after last night?"
That's... admittedly a good question too.
Naofumi opens his mouth, but Raphtalia speaks first. Her voice is colder than the ice magic of mother's wyvern corps captain Sir Tabitha. "You. I remember your voice. You fed a dead boy to the Bitch Lord's pet bone dog."
"Which one?" Mouse takes a knife off her strap and spins it in her hand. "I lost count after a dozen or so. All the little vermin blend together."
"YOU ANIMAL!" Raphtalia lets out a beastly screech, as she throws herself towards the bandits. More screams from both sides follow, as the bandits try to use their number advantage.
Two large demi-human charges at Mein together, one with a woodsman's axe, another with an iron sword. The blade cracked at multiple points, but still sharp enough to cut one's neck.
The princess quickly throws her useless broken sword at the one with the woodsman's axe to slow him down. She steps forward to meet the other man, ready to finish him off first so they can't gang up on her. No chant casting is too dangerous with her heart condition, and while she has a well maintained steel dagger, the chipped iron sword has better reach. Even if she can duck into the bandit's range, he might be able to take her down if she doesn't kill him with one dagger strike to the heart, or neck.
Time to take some lessons from their gluttonous devil bird.
Mein dodges under an untrained swing and hits the bandit in the crotch. While he screeches like a dying pig, she catches the iron sword dropped from his hand and swings up. She feels the sensation of a blade going through flesh in her hand as the scream abruptly stops. The princess turned adventurer pushes the body aside, and faces the axe wielder.
The iron sword's quality may be awful, but it's still a proper sword. And considering the second bandit's equally wild swings, she almost feels degraded fighting a scum like him. Three strikes is all she needs to knock the weapon out of his hand, and remove his head from his shoulders. She gives a quick glance back to the first guy, and sees his head is only loosely hanging on with half a neck still attached. Yeah, he's also dead, and she doesn't have to worry about him creeping back.
Giving a quick glance over, she sees it's much the same for the others in her Naofumi's party. The bandits didn't outnumber them by that much, and the hardened fighters following the Shield Hero make quick work of them. Nobody bothered to incapacitate either, as those who worked for the Bitch Lord are true scum of the earth, robbing, killing and raping anyone they can get their hands on, including their fellow demi-human.
As for Raphtalia... she sadly didn't fare as well. The bandits' leader, Mouse, was probably the only one who knows what she is doing, while Raphtalia is still arguably their weakest member in close combat. Right now, the rogue is holding the lost princess of Q'ten Lo in a death grip in one hand, and a dagger pressed against her neck in the other.
"No funny business! Throw away your weapons, give me all your valuables and let me go, or SHE gets it!" Even with all her men dead and herself surrounded by the Shield Hero's group, Mouse is still trying to make a wild bargain. But before she can make good on her threat, Raphtalia suddenly poops within her grip. A fluffy raccoon slides down Mouse's hand and flips behind her while she looks down with confusion.
With a loud puff, Raphtalia comes back to existence. But this time, it's adult Raphtalia who stands a good head taller than Mouse, and her face is twisted by anger. Instead of simply making a threat, Raphtalia's dagger instantly digs into the neck of Mouse.
Over, and over again.
"You worthless TRASH!" Raphtalia cries on top of her lung even as Mouse gurgles her last wet breath. The girl who was afraid of the mere sight of blood isn't even aware how much blood is spilling over her clothes, hair, and skin. "You fed a dead boy to a dog, like it's nothing. Like he is NOTHING! I hate you, I hate you, I HATE YOU! YOU FILTHY ANIMAL!"
She should go and comfort poor Raphtalia, especially as the Q'ten Lo princess' mental breakdown seems to mimic Mein's own. Yet, the feet of the Melromarc princess in disguise are rooted on its spot.
How can she comfort the other woman, when she herself isn't telling anyone what she is really like? Especially when her true self is exactly the kind of person the Bitch Lord, or this Mouse is.
"Raphtalia, it's ENOUGH! She's already dead!" Naofumi quickly runs forward and grabs Raphtalia's hands In Mein's hesitation. The dead body of Mouse falls over without anyone propping it up.
The rapid and heavy breath of the Q'ten Lo princess slowly returns to normal. She stares at her reddened hands for a few beats and throws away her blood drenched dagger, falling backwards. Naofumi gently lowers herself onto the floor as tears begin to fall. "I... I do ... don't want this..."
"It's okay, Raphtalia. It's okay... it's okay to feel very angry about a bad person." Naofumi runs a hand up and down Raphtalia's back. "You didn't do anything wrong... I grabbed you because I didn't want you to hurt yourself."
"I Don't want to be THIS!" Raphtalia's voice breaks again as she points at the dead body of Mouse. "I, I want to be like you, or big sister Mein. I don't want to be someone like this, this animal. But I can't change who I am."
Did - did Raphtalia just assume her own kind are evil, just because of what some cutthroat bandits did? A month again, she would very well have agreed with the raccoon dog girl. But now... it's clear Raphtalia isn't like the Bitch Lord, or her outlaws at all.
And if anything, the one person Raphtalia shouldn't want to be is Mein herself. Between the two of them, she is the one more like the Bitch Lord.
"You aren't, Raphtalia. You aren't like those criminals at all. That's just your hormones making you emotional and confused." Naofumi embraces Raphtalia tighter while running his band through her hair. His head freezes for a brief second, before the Shield Hero presses his lips down on Raphtalia's forehead, not minding the blood getting on his own face. "You are nothing like these bandits. You are kind, generous, eager to help others when you have little. You smile for other people's happiness, and cry for their misfortune, giving your help either way. That's the mark of a good person."
"Don't try to be me, Raphtalia. You don't want to be me, because you are already better than me." Mein walks over and kneels down in front of the shivering and sobbing raccoon dog girl. Raphtalia looks back at the princess in disguise with confusion through her tear stained eyes. "Remember how I ran away and left you for the Wave hound in Lute's abandoned mine because I was a coward? You are brave. You jump into danger again and again to save my life. You don't have to be anyone else, just to be yourself. You are much better than me, or these lowlifes. Don't degrade yourself thinking you are one of them."
"Thank you, thank you!" Raphtalia grabs Naofumi with one hand, and Mein with the other. She pulls them closer to her, like they are her whole world. "Thank you..."
Mein has some new practice of her newly learned water magic helping everyone wash away the blood from their armors and bodies. The clothes on the other hand only get some basic level cleaning before Naofumi brings some extras from his shield storage. The dirty ones are promptly stuffed back, till they reach Samphor where they can purchase the employ of some wash women.
Samphor... that's the town she pretends to come from, isn't it? Damnations. There may not be a way for her to hide the truth from her Naofumi, once he learns there isn't a 'Mein of Samphor' around. It's not like they can turn around and make their way north into Reichnott County, after they all but reached the border between Rabier and Ascart County.
At least she's resting inside their carriage once again. And it's saddled with Wolfgang, considering he is much gentle with his pulling, and she still needs rest from the battle with Lord Towair, and the ancient thunder lizard. Firo isn't happy about it, considering a petty kick she gives to the side of their carriage, but the dumb bird only has herself to blame.
Maybe she can simply stay inside the carriage, and hope her Naofumi doesn't dig too deep and try to find her made up parents under Lord Ascart's service. Yes! That's exactly what she'll do! Until it's finally time to face the music. It's not like ladies and lords usually pay much attention to their servants anyway, unless it's one of their personal ones. There's a good chance Lord Ascart won't know who her Naofumi is asking for, and he'll have no way to prove her lying.
"HALT!" A shout with the sense of authority stops their carriage. Even lying inside, Mein can still hear the shuffling sound of countless armored boots. They probably just encountered the Ascart county's border patrol. "By the decree of Count Ascart, all travelers from the overrun Rabier County are to go through armed inspection."
"I'm the Shield Hero." Naofumi crawls through the drape to exit their wagon's front. "We have taken down the Bitch Lord, and we are taking her to Lord Ascart to give her a proper trial."
To prove Naofumi's claim, his bodyguards drag the bound and gagged body of the Bitch Lord out of their carriage. With a loud thump, Yatsuhashi tossed down the vermin onto the ground.
Exclamation, shouting, and general chattering erupts outside. The capture of the Bitch Lord, boogeyman of Silver Pass is clearly worth breaking discipline among Ascart's sworn swords and turning them into gossiping young ladies during tea parties.
"QUIET! You call yourselves Ascart men?" A cold, crisp voice cut through the ruckus, instantly stopping all the conversations. Mein flips over, and slowly creeps to the edge of the drape and peek out. The speaker is a slim man with black, short bowl cut hair. His back is to the carriage so Mein can't see his face, but probably in his early 30s judging by his voice. He wears no armor, but a clean dress uniform, with a short cape bearing the design of a pair of black, and white wings over a stylized cyclone. The emblem of House Ascart.
The man's equipment on the other hand is clearly visible. A pair of long, slender blades, and grappling hooks hanging on both sides of his waist. The load out is enough for Mein to determine the man's role, if his lack of armor wasn't enough. The man is a Forseti Ranger, largely employed by the lords of the two northern provinces as their surveyors and scouts.
Named after the dragon blood exalt weapon of Ced the Wind Master, the Forseti Rangers truly live up to their name. Each a master of wind magic, and Ataru style swordsmanship. With a pair of grappling hooks and their wind blast propelling them through the air, they fly through the forests and mountains of northern Melromarc faster than most people can run through central and southern Melromarc plain.
"You meddlesome heroes are all the same. Causing troubles for us because you want personal glory." The man turns around, showing a face fit for a gaunt noble. High cheekbones, sculptured chins, and a tall yet not overly large nose. But any sense of nobility of his face is undone by what can only be described as a pair of dead fish-like eyes. "That Bow Hero? He kicked three bandits' nests before he even fought his first wave. My men ran themselves ragged for two whole weeks making sure the vermin didn't get into Samphor and harm the common folks. And now this... every group in Stolen Land is going to run rampant without the Bitch keeping them in line."
As if to emphasize his point, the man with dead eyes kicked the face of Bitch Lord with an equally loud thud.
"Oh..." Comes Naofumi's eloquent reply. He pulls at his collar. "Yeah... There's also a dead, and rotting T-Rex the size of a small hill rotting about a day west of here."
"...Damn it." The Forseti Ranger remains silent for a few blinks while all the spearmen and archers behind him struggle to hold their breath and stay quiet. The man walks up to the Shield Hero... and knocks Naofumi flat on his ass with a straight punch to the face. Weapons are immediately drawn between both parties.
"STOP!" Naofumi forces himself up again, one hand over his own face and the other hold over his head. "I deserved that."
"At least you know that, unlike the Bow Hero." The man with dead fish eyes scoff at the Shield Hero.
"Don't be too harsh on the Shield Hero, Captain Ackerman." Comes the voice as the Ascart men part ways. A man wearing a hooded traveling cloak walks to them. Unlike the now named Captain Ackerman, the newcomer walks slowly, yet purposefully. He also doesn't carry himself straight all the time like a well trained fighter. Someone who works for administration, probably. "While there will be trouble in the short term, the end of Bitch Lord's reign will only be a good thing in the long term. Especially with us having to content ourselves with the Wave of Catastrophe.
"I know." The man with dead eyes gives one last sideway glare to Naofumi before turning to face the administrator. "The heroes can at least be considerate and give us a head up. You'll go with them to discuss this with the Count?"
"Yes, I shall leave overseeing all border duties in your capable hands in the meantime." The administrator... scribe? Nods back at Captain Ackerman. "Lord Ascart will likely have to send some letters to his fellow lords to contain the volatile situation in Rabier County. By couriers, as ravens can be intercepted. I would like to request a squad of your best rangers."
"I'll notify Squad Eren." The ranger captain turns on his heel and leaves the gathered army. Presumably to summon the aforementioned Squad Eren.
"I thank you for your service rendered to Ascart County, and north western Melromarc, Sir Shield Hero." The presumed administrator gives a half bow to Naofumi. Two spearmen walk forward, pick up the Bitch Lord and toss her back onto the wagon again. "If you excuse us for a few moments, we will assemble a proper escort and take you to Samphor, where you'll receive your just reward."
Naofumi's balloon have evolved into... squigs.
Jokes aside, giving balloon raised by heroes the ability to transform into other forms when they eat enough dead monsters is an idea I had for a while. It's actually taken from the idea from certain Chinese JRPG fantasy web novels, where slime has the ability to transform into stronger forms when they consume stronger monster. And considering Balloon are basically RotSH's equivalent to slime, I think it's fitting.
And from the monster to the master... Naofumi making the same mistake as the three weapon heroes in my story is intentional. Because I want to show how bad decisions can (and sometimes is forced to be made like him leaving the corpse of Zilla) be made even with best of intention.
Argus456 was actually the one who pointed out to me how Naofumi's party taking down the Bitch Lord is kind of similar to how Itsuki took down the (not) king (Varian) of the small nation in canon. As he unintentionally destabilized a bad, but somewhat stable situation and light up a powder keg for others to fix because he doesn't have enough manpower or resources on hand. So once again, thanks for pointing that out!
Last but not the least, Raphtalia gets put into emotional ringer after Malty in this chapter. I have to admit, unlike Bitch Lord Abby who I created all the way back since after 2nd wave, Mouse was a character I randomly thrown into the story when I was writting Raphtalia's Interlude, and I certainlly didn't write her with the intention of making her a personal demon kind of mini-boss character for Raphtalia. But I think it worked well with Raphtalia ends up slaying her in a brutal display of unstable anger.
As for Raphtalia's emotional meltdown afterwards... obviously this is my personal read of Raphtalia's character. But she comes off as someone who tend to look at things only at the surface, and won't really think over deeper meaning unless someone point it out to her. That's my head canon justification on how she can turn around and justify the use of slavery simply because canon Rising Naofumi took cared of her, even after going through enslavement and already lost a friend from the utterly abusive system. So with her already setup as emotionally unstable due to her physical growth, I think it makes sense for her to do the opposite, and assumes being a demi-human make her bad after a group of bad demi-human bandits mercilessly fed a dead captive child to a dog.
For the next chapter, I actually planned to do something different. I'm going to write this story's first multi-POV interlude. I don't know if I'll break it into two back to back interlude, or manage to do it in one (I tend to underestimate how much I can write a scene), but we'll get to see the perspective of ALL four heroes so far before we fast track to the ruin of Seatto castle.
Guest review time.
I don't want to reveal too much about Malty's future, especially in a guest review response since it would let everyone see it. And Malty's personal journey is obviously one of the major plot of this story. But I hope what I planned in the end is satisfying, and still somewhat fit Malty's personality even if I basically turned her into an OC.
Since Raphtalia is canonically the lost princess of this world's Japan... the Easter egg reference kind of found itself.
And yes, while I haven't made my final decision yet, more Sekiro characters are definitely on the table. Uncle Sheogorath knows I stolen enough elements from Fromsoft-Miyazakiverse for my story.
Glad you liked Malty's character development! As my response to Night, hope you'll enjoy the direction I'm taking with Malty.
Glad you enjoyed my story's direction so far!
On Malty's personal feeling... I think one of the key personal traits (I mean real character trait, not her forced by the author to be the villain who attracts reader's hatred) is her stubbornness. Honestly, with how easy she can manipulate other man which implies she's at least smart enough to figure out other people, she should know the best way for her to go forward after the fall of her father and the church is to grovel and possibly blame church for her part in Naofumi's framing. But she still antagonize Naofumi at every turn in spite of how it'll hurt herself in the end simply because she doesn't like him.
I mean, the obvious reason is because the author wanted her to be the story's hate sink. But if I treat her as a real person and not a cheap plot device it speaks of her own stubbornness/resolve. So yeah, I don't think she would realize how she could have simply turned around when sitting on the throne after her mother had been her personal goal since she overheard her parents' conversation.
Next chapter will show Naofumi's perspective, hopefully it'll help answer some of your questions regarding him.
Yeah... eastern culture tend to be more collectivist & authoritarian than western culture by default. I don't know if it's still like this in China, but I still remember when I was a child in grade school in the 90s, we were basically taught to look up to people who end up killing themselves for the 'greater good' of our race, nation, company... etc.
One particular example that's hard to forget involve a child who ran into a forest fire and tried to put it out with a branch, with predictable result. We are taught to look up to him.
My western history is pretty atrocious since it comes from Chinese comic books (one of them had Catholic church took Charles Darwin to court in an attempt to label him a heretic, I was told it never happened after coming to Canada) or short novels. But yeah, I was at least somewhat aware alchemy is basically the predecessor to chemistry.
To be honest, I have no intention for Naofumi to be tutored alchemy by either someone from FMA, or Harry Potter. As FMA's version of alchemy is more fantasy physics reaction than chemistry, and I just don't think too highly of Harry Potter in general. Zylden kind of already taught him more about alchemy, although Zylden he himself is more of a generalist with a slight specialization towards enchantment. But yeah, there WILL be a character who will later join Naofumi's retinue as their healer, and he's actually already been mentioned in this story. I'll leave you to find out who.
To be honest, I haven't even thought about what happened to Bellatrix in my story, since I changed a LOT about how the Faubley secret war (aka this story's equivalent to 1st Wizarding War) went. She might simply be one of the many casualties already, or maybe she's just living with her husband Rudophilus, raving about her Lord Voldemort after she gets kicked out of House Black by Sirius Senior. She definitely won't be in prison like HP canon, as without spoiling everything (probably not important since it's not the main plot of my story), 1st Wizarding War ended rather differently here where James obviously didn't die and forced into marrying Cersei after the death of Lily to mend the gap between the progressive faction and traditionalist faction.
So yeah, nothing is off the table for now. I can definitely see king Piggard tried to take Bellatrix as a mistress or concubine... probably got his balls hexed off him for the attempt.
I actually don't know anything about Ouran High School Host Club at all, so Motoyasu is more based on his WN and manga Reprisal of the Spear Hero portrayal.
To PRESIDENT power:
Thank you for the compliment! Glad you enjoyed this story so far, and hope you'll continue to have a good time.