Biggest thanks for Ace-Triad helping me with SPAG edit. Also thanks to Angel Wraith for reading my rough draft and provide important feedbacks.
I would like to express my appreciation for some of the more critical guest reviews. While I'm sure it's not what they wanted, the scene with the Three Heroes Church expedition was influenced by the long, critical guest review on chapter 55. Also, the short exchange between Eclair and Naofumi was inspired by the guest review on chapter 64.
More author note at the end for people who are interested to see me blabber some more.
Their journey continues without much fanfare after leaving Samphor. If her Naofumi noticed her lie, he didn't comment on it. Perhaps he was too busy handing over the Bitch Lord, and asking something else from the count to have asked. It's not like a maid working for the lord is anyone worth noting. The princess in disguise isn't sure if she should feel grateful, or worried. Yet, it's too late to try and probe the issue.
The only thing different was that her Naofumi stopped taking the first watch. Perhaps it's his recent kidnapping, or maybe the stress from everything finally reached its breaking point.
They didn't encounter anything worth noting on the road cutting through Ascart and Reichnott county. Occasionally, they see a group of riders lead by a knight patrolling the road, or hear the sound of rangers souring between trees with grapples and wind magic. The road patrols stop their group and check them over for possible bandit spies. If anyone recognized the Shield Hero, they didn't cause any problem. The real crisis of bandit raids is apparently more important than enforcing whatever religious doctrine, who would have thought of that.
Three days later, they entered the former seat of House Seaetto. The mountain range of Griffin's Spine is now looming over everyone's head like a land leviathan. By the estimation of Éclair, they should arrive at her former home by dusk tomorrow at the latest.
With a loud clunk, Kyubey manages to knock Éclair's sword out of her hand. The rabbit man actually blinks a couple of times, clearly surprised at what a sorry performance his trainer is putting up. "Maybe we should take a rest today, you don't look well."
"Yes, rest is good. Thank you, Kyubey." Éclair turns her head towards the mountain over their heads. She walks over to her dropped sword, mumbling something underneath her helmet before plopping down near the fire.
The princess knows that she should find some word to comfort the last Seatto. Be it either genuine courtesy, or further scheme to tie the heir of Seatto seat to her. But she finds the rare occasion where she is completely at a loss for words.
How would she feel, if she returns to her home only to find it in ruins and everyone she knew dead. She won't shed any tears for her queen mother's passing, but father, uncle Aldrecht and... even her annoying little sister. She would be utterly lost without any purpose, if she isn't with her Naofumi. What does she even say to Éclair to not feel like an empty placation?
Naofumi tosses more herbs into the bubbling cooking pot. He stirs the pot a couple of times and brings the ladle up to his lips for a taste. The Shield looks over at the miserably sulking Seatto heiress. He places some of the spices in his hand back into his shield. "You can stay with us after... this. If you want to, of course. You work well with my party."
"That's something I could do, yes." Éclair nods her head along as if in a daze or dream, but she slowly freezes her movement and shakes her head. "But I'm supposed to be dead. If I show up in the next Wave and someone recognizes me... I'll cause trouble to you and Master Aldrecht both."
"Right, right..." Naofumi looks back down again, he shakes his head and mumbles to himself. "I'm sure the King, and the Church will have a field day with that... The Shield 'Devil', helping a death's row fugitive escape..."
"What if you stay in Ascart, or Reichnott county?"
Chapter 56: A Song of Hate and Prejudice
The others around the fire turn to look at the princess, as her Naofumi is the first one to ask a question. "How would that help Éclair's situation?"
"They are preparing to move into the lost Rabier county to take it back from the bandits." Mein looks at the Seaetto knight, whose helmeted head is clearly facing her direction. She can't see Éclair's face, but she has Éclair's attention. "Everyone will be too busy fighting for their lives to worry about random sellswords. And if you fight alongside them to distinguish your valor, the Queen will surely pardon you for whatever your offense once she comes back."
Putting Mother in a position to snatch Éclair back can be risky, and giving control of the result to someone else's action isn't something she does normally. But after the personal effort she puts into cultivating a relationship with Éclair, the Seaetto heiress would not cut their connection after a mere official pardon. Mother was many things, but personable she was not.
Yes, she will trust in Éclair to not be swayed by Mother's feeble appeasement.
Éclair makes some humming noise as her head slowly pulls to the side. "Yes... I suppose that makes sense. If I were to revive my family's legacy, I need to show I'm someone worth following."
"Do you have to, though?" Naofumi looks over to Éclair, his face looks a bit pinched. "I mean... I'm sure there are good ones. The Ascart looks pleasant enough... but you don't have to be a noble to do good things."
Is Mein's eyes deceiving her, or did Raphtalia's posture just slumped a little?
Éclair's helmet turns to face the Shield Hero, she seems to be at a loss for words. "Sir Naofumi. I AM already a noble by birth. I know most people think of House Seaetto for our own martial abilities and our knights. But our lineage traces back to the royal family of Boletaria. Our family married our share of other noble houses, my grandmother was the aunt of the current Archduke Arc."
"Oh, oh..." Naofumi blinks a couple of times while grunting out some meaningless gibberish. In an effort to shake his hands like crazy, he nearly threw the ladle into the dark wood if not for Gaston's quick catch. "Sorry, I'm SORRY! I didn't think how mean I was to you when I was shit talking nobles left and right."
"It's alright, Sir Naofumi. Believe me, I know how... frustrating my fellow nobles can be. Father knew it too..." The Seaetto heiress looks up into the sky, probably trying to remember a happier time in her life. "We always see, no. Prided ourselves being more like knights who actively protect the weak, than stuffy nobles who sit on their thrones and feast. But now I'm the one making scandalous gossip. I know there are many nobles who disregard their duties, but there are also good ones who fulfill them. Like House Arc, House Chalphy, House Claus and their cousin House Claes, and... I always thought Uncle Reichnott was one of the good ones. Why did he do what he did to those refugees? It doesn't make any sense."
"You won't truly know a man, till you sit in his seat for a year or two." Mein reaches over and gives Éclair a pat on her shoulder. "Who knows what really happened. We only heard the whole thing from a bunch of refuge turned bandits, and the young heiress not of age. I would not call either source reliable."
"But can we trust the Queen though? Her track record doesn't look too good." Naofumi props his arms up with his elbows on his thigh, he closes his hands together in front of his mouth. "Count Ascart didn't blame her for what happened, but she still used him as a scapegoat for her own policy failure. Pretty shitty thing to do."
"What were you thrown into the dungeon for, anyway, lass?" Gaston turns around to look at the knight. The hunter's action makes the princess realize for all her effort in trying to win over Éclair's allegiance, she never even asked the reason for her incarceration.
It's a reminder of how in spite of her distaste towards Mother, she herself never strived to be someone better. No, she uses a different method than her mother. Whereas the Red Queen savors her momentum and charges forward like a boar through opposition, she herself hides in the grass pretending to be harmless till she thinks venom dripping fang into her enemies. But at the end of the day, she is just the same as Mother.
"Obstruction of justice... and treason." The last Seaetto looks down into the fire, with the light coating her black iron helmet into a warmer orange color. "I released some demi-human peasants my captain accused of theft. They'd be sold into slavery."
A round of curses rings around the campfire. Mein reaches over to close her hands around Raphtalia's ears.
"Our late Lord Uther was the Queen's most loyal ally, surely she would have done injustice upon his only daughter?" Kyubey's emotionless tone makes it hard to tell if it's a rhetorical, or a genuine question.
The rabbit man is definitely too optimistic and uninformed about politics. In the Game, there isn't everlasting loyalty, only everlasting benefit the players can bring to the table. Sure, the Seaetto has historically been loyal to the crown, and taking care of your most loyal allies will inspire loyalty from others.
But historically, the value of House Seaetto came from their martial excellence, and one of the two living walls protecting central and southern Melromarc from the marauding beastman north of Griffin's Spine. With the destruction, they never fully recovered after the Great War. With their recent collapse from the 1st Wave, there's nothing Éclair will bring to the table in terms of benefitting Mother.
The most likely outcome is that Mother makes a big show of pardoning her in front of everyone... and then quietly marries Éclair off to one of her more powerful allies. Most likely candidate being Keith Claes, the adopted son of Duke Luigi Claes. They are close in age to look like a natural match than a scandal, and the Claes were never an active player in the Game despite the prestige their crusader root and Spear Hero lineage. Lord Keith will most likely follow the direction of the Melromarc royal family without question, just like his adopted father.
"The Queen better not screw over Éclair like she did to the Ascart, or she'll answer to me." Her Naofumi frowns as he crosses his arms in front of his chest. A brave stance, sticking his neck out for a dishonored, and disempowered heiress when he isn't even out of the animal pen yet.
And if the incognito princess knew about her mother, there would be plenty of schemes in store for the heroes. Father summoning all the heroes might be one of the biggest political blunders in recent time, but Mother wouldn't be Mother if she doesn't try to turn the situation around for her own advantage.
One man's stupidity, is another's opportunity.
"Thank you... for all of you." Éclair slowly turns her head around. Her word is said to everyone around the fire, but it's clear that she meant it for the Shield Hero... and Mein herself.
The soup is ready, and they start on their meal. The Shield Hero takes some preserved bread out of his shield, and then starts to scoop up the soup while everyone else passes bowls and utensils. It probably sounds silly, but by this point, it feels less like a simple meal and more like a ritual in their group.
The soup itself has a less pronounced flavor than before. The princess thinks back to how Naofumi forgo some of the spices when he was looking at the mourning Éclair, and realizes it's by design rather than an oversight. It's different from what she's used to, but good nonetheless. They start digging into their meal in relative quiet.
Her Naofumi takes a few sips from his bowl. The young man's eyes keep wandering towards her for some reason. Finally after the tenth time, he slowly put the bowl down on the ground. "I met your mother in Samphor."
"WH-, what do you mean, Master Naofumi? My, my mother?!" It's fortunate she was too busy observing her Naofumi to eat, or else she would have choked on the spot. Doesn't help her heart is nearly beating out of her chest. The only thing stopping her going into a complete breakdown and reveals her true identity is her long practiced court mask, and acting skill.
Her first thought immediately goes to what words of treachery Mother must have whispered to her Naofumi's ears. The question of how Mother managed to slip through her no doubt heavy guards in Cal Mira islands only comes in second. Sure, her little sister has already been smuggled back home, most likely having her place taken over by a body double. And yes, Mother most likely also has more than one body double, but it's very unlikely both of them would manage to slip through everyone's eyes, ears and nose.
To her shame, it's only at this point she realizes that the Shield Hero was most likely talking about the mother of 'Mein of Samphor'. A person she completely made up. "I mean, of course. Mother has always been diligent in her tasks. I don't think the Ascarts would have discharged her. Good to know Mother is in good health... I just... hope Mother didn't say anything too scandalous about me in front of you."
"We didn't talk much. Just asked her if she wanted to see you, she didn't want to disturb your rest." Naofumi dips his head, his eyes cast down into his bowl, lips perched. "I, I should have told her what happened to you. But I was too much of a coward."
The princess only managed to fight back the blush on her face with her experience aided by the breathing exercise taught by Yatsuhashi. She can feel Éclair's eyes on her, but why is the rabbit man also staring?
"No, it's quite alright, Master Naofumi. We are... expected to get hurt fighting against the Wave. Some, most of us don't even expect to be alive on the other side. It's best not to make Mother worry." She is definitely rambling more than usual, but perhaps it helps to sell her distress. Even if the reason is entirely different from what her Naofumi must think. "Better to meet Mother, after this. All of this. The Wave, I mean. It's over."
"Yeah, you are right." Naofumi goes back to eating his meal afterwards. He didn't finish half of his bowl, and dumped most of the content into the endless maw of his balloon abominations. "I should take the first watch for once..."
The Shield Hero nearly missed a step and fell face first into their bonfire. Only the quick snatch of his sworn shield stopped him putting his insane DEF rating to the test of a literal trial by fire.
"You are still tired and stressed, Master Shield Hero. I'll take the first watch." Kyubey volunteers while he collects all the used bowls and utensils.
"I'll take the watch together with Kyubey." Éclair is about to stand when Mein pulls her wrist and forces the knight down. It speaks volumes to her awful condition, if she's easily overpowered by a pampered princess.
"You aren't any better than Master Naofumi. I'll take your place." Mein's eyes quickly scan through Éclair, to her Naofumi and finally set on the rabbit demi-human. A month ago, taking a half night's watch together with a deformed demi-human slave would have been unthinkable. But aside from Raphtalia, Kyubey is probably the most tolerable demi-human she met. "You need the rest for tomorrow."
At least the rabbit malborn knows to keep his courtesy, and distance. Yet he's also helpful when needed. If not for his malformed arm, he wouldn't look out of place as one of the servants working in the palace.
Well, it's not like she's going to be able to sleep after her Naofumi's latest revelation anyway. She might as well take the time to put her thoughts together.
"Are you sure, Miss Mein?" Yatsuhashi looks up from the corner of his eyes. "No offense, but both you and Mr. Kyubey are on the squishy side."
"Leave it, Huscal. They both wanted the job, questioning their ability is looking down on their honor." Farkas narrows his eyes and growls. "The bunny has the best hearing of us, and the girl can make a loud enough boom to wake up dead or undead. If something goes amiss, we'll wake up soon enough."
"Considering our distance to the undead nest, waking up the undead is what I'm afraid of." The smirk on Gaston's face tells Mein he didn't mean anything serious. Only a light hearted quip to lighten the mood before everyone turns in.
"Will you be alright, big sister Mein?" Raphtalia looks up at the princess while everyone not on night watch duty begins to spread out their sleeping bags. "I... I can stay awake with you. I don't tire as easily, if I use my adult body."
"Don't worry about me, Raphtalia. I'll wake up everyone if we have something we can't handle." Mein runs her hand through the girl's hair. She waves her hand towards the small sleeping bag her Naofumi spread out. "You work hard every day learning how to fight, you need your rest to recharge. Have a good rest now."
"Okay!" Raphtalia gives one last quick glance to the bundle of warm and inviting fur bags. She nods her head, runs over and slips in with the balloons.
Their campsite quickly grows quiet again, only the cracking of burning wood, sound of birds, bugs, and the occasional howl of a beast in the distance accompanies her thoughts. The rabbit demi-human malborn is as reserved as she knows, good.
She looks into the fire and sinks into the breathing exercise once again. It's slowly, but surely becoming easier and easier to follow the rhythm taught by the Miyamoto clan remnant. The princess thinks back to what her Naofumi told her during their meal.
Who would have thought the wildest lie she came up with happened to have a certain truth. It's either total coincidence, or the providence of Chief God himself. But her identity is still safe... for now.
The fact the mother of 'Mein of Samphor' exists means the real person she is unintentionally impersonating also exists... and is probably running around as an adventurer. Maybe she'll get lucky again, and this real Mein of Samphor is currently dead and rotting in a cave, or dungeon. Or more likely, her Naofumi will never come across the real country girl turned adventurer from Samphor. But she's not comfortable leaving her fate entirely to luck, or fate.
Just like the Dragon Hourglass, her own time is slowly running out. She should tell the truth to her Naofumi, before something bad happens that reveals her true identity in the worst way possible. Or maybe she should continue on, hoping for the best while preparing a tear dropping sad excuse when she's eventually found out?
Her Naofumi's distaste towards the nobility is clear enough for even the most blind and ignorant to see. While he did apologize to Éclair earlier, the Seaetto heiress has the advantage of mostly acting as a knight during their acquaintance. It was clear to her Naofumi never thought the last Seaetto was a noble until she brought it up. And his disgust and distrust towards House Melromarc, Father and Mother alike is as clear as his anger towards the most decadent nobles.
Her mind seems to become blank as her breath becomes more and more even. Strange how she can be totally at peace with herself, yet at the same time completely not. She lost her sense of time, as she simply stared into the burning fire in front of her and continued her breathing practice. Until she's shaken out of her meditative state by an emotionless voice.
"You aren't 'Myne of Samphor'."
Mein's breath immediately becomes hitched again as her eye focuses on the blank face of the rabbit man. "Excuse me?!"
"You are a noble. You got better with the down to earth act, but I remember how you behaved before. You expected to be attended by Raphtalia and myself. But you barely made eye contact with Lautrec, and later Farkas when you didn't have to." The malborn doesn't shrink under her glare, he simply continues to list his reasoning with his monotone. "A commoner girl, even if one raised in a noble house and aspired to be a noble lady won't act the same way. You are a noble-born."
Cold sweat runs down her face and back. Her heart pounds inside her chest louder than a rider regiment in full charge, to the point of near bursting. The princess in disguise slowly reaches her hand over towards the handle of her new sword gifted by Count Ascart. The feeling of leather wrapped steel gives her slightly more comfort. Her chest still hurts, and her vision is becoming dimmed, but at least her breath is even enough to speak normally. "I don't know where you are going with this."
She takes everything nice she said about Kyubey back. The little vermin looks like a fluffy bunny, but is a snake in the grass just like her.
The princess turned adventurer wonders why he didn't go straight to the Shield Hero with this information, and puts himself in a better standing with the hero he serves. Perhaps the vermin isn't confident about his ability to convince the Shield Hero when the accusation is leveled at his first companion, who saved him from a trial. So, he's attempting to gain something by blackmailing the offender.
She wonders if she can kill the fork tongued slave before he manages to wake up anyone else. But how will she be able to hide the wound of the body afterwards?
"Why do you have so little faith in the Shield Hero... and yourself?" Instead of threats or terms to keep his mouth sewn, Kyubey's question catches Mein completely off guard.
The princess blinks her eyes, her usually exquisite vocabulary and razor sharp wit both fail her. "What did you say?"
"If you believe in the Shield Hero and yourself, you would have told him the truth just now. You know you can't keep this act up forever, especially after we visited Samphor." The former slave continues, still no threat or conditions parting his lips. Despite the lack of emotion, it almost sounds like Kyubey is only concerned for her.
It feels more like a slap to her face than actual extortion.
"I don't know what you are talking about." Mein's cheek heats up, she abruptly looks away from the rabbit man. "You shouldn't have said what you just said, if I'm who you think I am. A servant knowing too much and tattles his mouth disappears inside a noble's dungeon."
"You are right, it's really not my business. But the Shield Hero isn't blind, or stupid. He would have surely noticed something wrong by now." It almost sounds like Kyubey managed to emote for a moment. The silence hang between the two of them for a few breaths before the malborn former slave speaks one last time. "You should have more faith in the Shield Hero, and yourself. You aren't a Seaetto, but you're not a Consevatie either."
Mein internally scoffs at Kyubey's words. Faith... faith is the most useless thing when playing the Game with honor. It only gets one killed, like Éclair's ever faithful and honorable late father. If she had faith to begin with, she'd have already locked herself inside one of the chapel to escape her distant uncle, and her mother by now.
She thought the damn bunny was going to blackmail her, which she can deal with. A blackmail she can negotiate, and cheat herself out of.
No, this is something much, much worse. What Kyubey just showed her was pity. What's worst about the situation is who she is getting pity from: A malborn demi-human (former) slave, the lowest of the low.
Just how low has she truly sunk now?
Éclair's estimation is slightly off, perhaps it's the scourge of time making her memory unreliable. But they are already approaching the ruined Seaetto keep before the sun reaches the highest point in the sky. She can already see the tip of the structure above the tree line as their wagon climbs the mountain.
They might have already arrived at the fort, if the condition of the mountainous road was better. Alas, it's in rough shape. It's less a road, and more like a trail of dirt stomped out by wagon wheels, claws of the beast of burden, or human feet. Now the inhabitants of the ancient castle are all dead or undead, no one is fixing the cracks in earth, or weed growing back in.
"Éclair. Did your family have problems with money like Reichnott?" Naofumi's random question makes Éclair jerks up.
"I don't think so, no... maybe?" Éclair's response does nothing to clarify the situation regarding her family's vault. "After the Great War, we had to spend a lot of coins to rebuild our destroyed army. As House Seaetto, we are expected to defend western Griffin's Spine. And there was a lot of rebuilding for Port Harp after it was sacked by Siltvelt invaders. But that was twenty years ago, and I remembered our port brought in a lot of trading money when I was a child."
"This road, it's supposed to connect your home to your big trading port city, right?" Naofumi points down at the dirt trail Firo and Wolfgang trots on. "The condition looks terrible compared to the highway we were traveling on. A month or two after the 1st Wave can't be the only cause."
"Well, it's more of a castle than simply a home. Wait! That's not what you were asking." Éclair quickly shakes her head, either trying to clear her head or showing her embarrassment. "I mean, Father was a great knight and army commander, but a statesman he is not. He left running of our realm to Lord Steward Reichnott, and let the merchants, the Schnees and the Hirata being the most important... do whatever they want as long as they pay their taxes."
"And we knew how well Lord Steward Reichnott ran his own finances from Porter's group. Wonderful." Naofumi slaps his face at the mention of the second most important lord of Silver Pass... and Mother's loyal stooge.
Now the princess is reminded of Reichnott, she briefly wonders about the possibility of Mother marrying Éclair to her father's treasurer. It won't be as fitting a match as Katarina's adopted brother, since Reichnott already had a wife who passed away, and a daughter around Melty's age from his first marriage. But marrying the last Seaetto heiress would give Reichnott the legitimacy to take over the entire Pass under his thumb.
Lord Uther was loyal to House Melromarc, but as a chivalrous knight and fierce army commander he also had the accompanying rigidity. He will object to Mother's policies and decisions, if he truly disagrees with them. By contrast, Reichnott is just a footstool who blindly follow Mother's wishes. It would put one more province under Mother's complete control. A bit of a marriage scandal to let the nobles gossip over tea parties might very well be worth it.
"Do not travel any further, stranger." A deep, yet feminine contralto booms from the side of the road. Their wagon stops with a loud chirp from Firo. "The famed fortress of light is lost. Its valiant lord slain and steadfast knights slaughtered. Only undead creatures roam on its once proud walls and grand hallways, mocking everything the order of the Silver Hand once stood for. Turn back, before the madness consumes you too."
Naofumi opens the flap in front of his wagon, and everyone looks out. On the side of the dirt road, a raptor with cracked scales on its head growls at their filorial rides. But beside the knight's dragon sits a long figure, possibly its master.
The figure wears a top hat with a tricorn shaped rim, and a feather on top that's almost as long as one's arm. But the eye-catching hat still pales when compared to the mask over the figure's face. It's a well crafted silver mask showing the intricate face of an old man with a mustache and goatee.
"Lucatiel? Lucatiel, Chief God's mercy, you are alive!" Éclair suddenly tore off her black iron pot helmet and tossed it back in the cart. She jumps down and rushes over to the sitting figure. The raptor blinks and recoils its long neck, it reaches over to sniff the last Seatto, and starts to let out a noise that sounds like a whistle. "It's me! Éclair!"
"My lady..." The figure slowly looks up from the ground, she completely freezes as if caught inside [Time Freeze], the highest level water spell. She throws away her hat and mask too, revealing a face that's in her late twenties... and a pair of mouse-like ears over her red hair.
So this is one of the famous, or rather, infamous demi-human knights serving under Lord Uther's banner. Mein briefly wonders in pure malice if this Lucatiel's survival was thanks to desertion. Much like raccoons, rat demi-human aren't exactly known for the courage to stand their ground.
The two knights of Seaetto wrap their arms around each other as their heads rest on each other's shoulders. "My lady, it is you! I thought you were dead!"
"I was put on death's row. But master Aldrecht, the king's royal battle mage, faked my death and smuggled me out of the dungeon. I enlisted help from the Shield Hero and his companions." Éclair pulls back from Lucatiel's embrace and holds her arm up towards everyone coming out of the wagon. "Is there anyone else?"
"I'm sorry, my lady. I'm the only Silver Hand left." The rat knight looks down in shame. "No one else made it."
"Not even... your brother?" Éclair's eyes start to water, she looks down at her feet too. "Asla taught me how to fence when I was six."
"Aslatiel of House Seaetto fell defending Lord Uther to his last breath. It was a good death for my brother." Lucatiel schools her features. She quickly turns around, picking up her mask and hat and putting them back on. "Lord Uther instructed me to leave for the capital to find and protect you, my lady. I made it to the border of Whiterun County when I heard the news of your incarceration from some traveling adventurers. I... returned after, and found the place crawling with undead creatures. I decided to stay, and stop travelers, pilgrims and scavengers from getting them killed."
Her mount barks, as if in affirmation.
"I thank you, for your sense of duty, Sir Lucatiel." Éclair places her right hand over her heart, but she has her fingers extended out and closed together into a palm instead of a fist. Not the regular salute, but the gesture of the Silver Hand. "But we traveled here with the Shield Hero to retrieve my family heirloom... and to hopefully clear the undead infestation."
"Undead infestation, huh. An expedition force of Three Heroes' Church arrived at dawn this morning. I heard the sound of avalanche-like rumbling from the castle earlier... but now it's all quiet."
Mein quickly exchanged a look with her Naofumi. They expected the church to arrive before them, since they didn't manage to catch up. But it sounds like they are close behind. It sounds like there was a huge battle, and the expedition either cleared the undead at the outer field and walls and moved inside or are now dead.
"We better move in and investigate. Maybe we can still help with the undead." Naofumi concluded, and everyone ready their weapons of choice. Raphtalia changed into her adult body. "Don't hurt yourself, Raphtalia. Turn into a child... or a raccoon and hide if the fighting is too much for you."
The lost princess gives the Shield Hero a smile.
They found the expedition force long before they set their feet onto the battlefield. Or rather, what's left of it. When they met in Balafon the first time, Mein roughly counted a full lance - six parties of six - that can activate a compounded Battle Formation.
Only ten are left out of the initial thirty six strong, sitting around the ground or leaning on their weapons. That's not even enough bodies to fill two parties. Unless Mein counts their raptors, but it actually begs the question if their raptors are trained to act as individual members in a party.
And looking at the ten left over men, they clearly went through a very tough battle. Many of their armor are dented, or even cracked at places. Their white robes tattered, and tainted by mud, grass, dark blood... and a foul smelling black ichors. Mein doesn't want to know what the last thing was.
A mop of blonde hair looks up, and tries to smile at the approaching party. "Shield Hero, we meet again. I wish it could have been under better circumstances, but..."
"What are you here for, Shield Demon!?" A priestess nocks an arrow and pulls back her bow string, aiming the weapon at the Shield Hero. Her face looks kind of familiar... has Mein seen her before?
"Was in the area after we visited Port Harp." Naofumi points his thumb behind him, down from the mountain at the beach, one can see the ruin of the once bustling trading port. "Decided to pop in and see if you guys needed help."
"We don't need any." One of the knights spit on the ground, Mein can see the red in the puddle.
"Really? It doesn't look like you are doing too hot to me." Naofumi crosses his arms in front of his chest. "There's a reason why 'pride' is considered one of the seven greatest sins... at least where I'm from."
"Let me make this clear to you, Shield Demon." Consevatie looks up and smirks at the Shield Hero. It's a wonder how the pompous little shit can look smug even when his armor is all... actually, he's the only one of the ten whose armor and cloak look as immaculate as before. "We don't need any help from you."
Mein's active mind begins to wander again, and she wonders if the Consevatie heir hid behind everyone during the battle to come out smelling like a rose.
"Thanks for making me feel welcome. Maybe I should leave all the undead to you, in that case."
"Don't be like that, Sieg. We can use all the help we can get now." Jaune rises up and holds his hands between both sides. "The Shield Hero has access to his hero abilities, and some of his companions look strong. We have our miracles against undead, and we have experience of what those undead can do. If we pool our efforts together, we may still clear this undead nest."
Angry barking from a madhouse immediately erupts from half of the church members.
"HERESY!" The priestess screeches in a higher pitch than Raphtalia ever did as a child. Actually, she makes the gluttonous devil bird's tantrum look and sound tame by comparison. "You dare suggest we work together with the Shield Demon, ARC?!"
"I agree with Jaune. Shield Hero hasn't shown any sign of being our enemy yet. And the undead is a real and active threat." The red headed girl stands up to support her possible courting partner. "They are enemies of all living things."
"Shut up! Zeltoble merc!" The screeching priestess turns her ire towards the other female in their group. "Don't act all high and mighty just because you won some arena bouts! You shouldn't even have the right to call us brothers and sisters!"
Mein blinks her eyes a couple of times and thinks back to the memory crystal couch Zellus watched with Captain Lothringen. The ones about the filorial races and coliseum bouts. She didn't pay much attention to those brutal blood sports, but now she thinks about it... yeah, the young woman does look like the grand champion of last year's melee.
"She only wants to get into Arc's pants." Consevatie smirks with some of the others on their camp, the smug heir slaps his own lap. "If you want a noble heir, you are welcome anytime, Nikos."
"Such vulgar language does not befit a knight templar of the Three, Brother Siegmar." The priest who gave out motion sickness charm shakes his head at the display more fit to a shady tavern.
"Please, let's not fight among ourselves. More is at the stake when facing an undead infestation. We don't want it to turn into a scourge." Jaune turns to look around his fellow church knights and priests. "I know everyone has reservations about working with the Shield Hero, the one we are to keep vigil against. But surely, an undead infestation that could turn into a scourge any time is the bigger problem?"
"Are we sure this might turn into a scourge?" A knight with black hair leaning against his halberd looks over at the Arc. "The undead have been here for about a month now, not hurting anyone. A scourge usually begins to move and begin assimilating the living into their ranks in half the time."
"Remember the three boss monster level undead we lost Brother Captain Leroy, and the rest of our brothers against? Brother Richard?" The blonde knight turns to face his dark haired compatriot. "You don't see not one, not two, but THREE boss monsters strong enough to command a Wave on the outskirts of a mere infestation. I don't know why it's still inactive, but this IS a scourge, I'm sure."
Richard hums a little as his head tilts to the side, he finally nods. "I concur. But if this is a scourge, it might not be enough even if we accept the Shield Hero's help. Maybe we should immediately send someone and request aids from local lords? They are obligated to help, when it comes to a forming undead scourge."
"Yeah, bad news about that. All the lords are gathering together to fight the bandits of Rabies Country. The help you see here is all you are getting." Naofumi's words make Mein slap her face this time.
"Sir Shield Hero, it's Rabier County, not Rabies Country." Éclair moves closer and corrects the Shield Hero. Good thing the last Seaetto has her helmet back on again, someone recognizes her is the kind of complication they don't need now.
"Oh, right." Naofumi unhooks his arms to point at Éclair. "What she said."
A few curses leave the lips of the expedition remnants. Jaune turns his head towards their group and tries again. "Everyone heard what the Shield Hero said, we need to push towards the dungeon heart as soon as possible with everything we have. If we destroy the dungeon heart, we could dissolve the scourge before it fully forms."
"Only a HERETIC listens to the words of a DEMON!" The priestess looks like she's about to blow some more spittle into everyone's face, but Consevatie stops her with a gesture.
Some might think the other noble scion is finally convinced, but the princess knows the pompous fool all too well. The little shit is about to make a power play.
The man smirks more like a cruel wolf than Farkas. "You and I are the highest ranking members left, Arc. But we don't out rank each other. So I have a proposal."
Actually, Consevatie should have default to Jaune's command when they both have the same military rank. Their fathers are the Lord Paramount of their respective provinces, yes. But Arc's father was the archduke of House Arc, the closest blood relation to the died out Albion royal house. Consevatie, on the other hand, is a marquis without even a Cardinal Hero bloodline. Some vassal heroes, and minor crusaders who married into their family is all they have to their names.
But the ass is the heir to his family, while Jaune will only inherit the title of Viscount, or Count at most if his eldest sister Artoria feels generous towards him. That should only come into play when they officially inherited their noble titles though, and not acting as knights of a younger generation representing their families.
"We settle this man on man. If I win, you shut up like the good little limp dick demon lover you are!" The smirk on Consevatie's face grows predatory as he brings his axe into his hands.
"This is foolishness, Sieg. We shouldn't fight- wow!" Jaune jumps back from an overhead swing that would have taken half of his face. "Are you trying to kill me, Sieg?"
"This IS a trial by combat." The Consevatie charges towards the completely unarmed Arc boy.
"Jaune, CATCH!" The redhead picks up the sword and shield of the blonde knight and tosses them into the ring. The Arc manages to catch his shield, but the sword is knocked away by Consevatie. The former gladiator makes a dive for the sword, but she has to roll away the last second when a white bolt shoots into the ground. The Zeltbole looks up at the priestess nock another arrow onto her bow, a thin line of blood runs down her chin. "What's the meaning of this, Sister Amelia?"
Oh, right. That's who the screaming mad priestess was. Who knows how many times removed cousin Iris, back in the Cathedral.
"Don't call me sister, merc." Priestess Amelia narrows her eyes behind her spectacles. "The trial by combat has already started. The next one won't be a warning shot, if you interfere again."
Filorial dung! That was a killing shot Nikos only just avoided by dodging out of the way!
"How can you declare a trial by combat started! Jaune doesn't even have his weapons when Consevatie attacked him!" The red head glares murder back at the priestess, look ready to start a second fight among the faithful.
"Those shield loving heretics are the ones who preach about vigilance. Maybe they should have taken their own lessons." Priestess Amelia gives Nikos a cold smirk in return.
The red head looks ready to throw herself against the other female when her shoulder is caught in a vice grip. The man has light brown curly hair, and some of the longest sideburn running down his face. He wears a grey cloak instead of usual white.
Someone who is either currently in, or 'redeemed' from the church's Penance Legion. Mein's quick glance at the giant round shield lying on the ground with the size of a millstone, or double reinforced wagon wheel confirms it.
"Are you taking her side, Brother Alfred?" Nikos screams back at the older man. She calls this Alfred a 'brother', so a Redeemer it is.
"Have faith in Brother Jaune, Sister Pyrrha. He is holding up fine." Alfred's voice is deep, yet perfectly calm. He guilds the red head former gladiator away as they sit down and watch the bout.
Mein turns around to look at the ongoing battle like the rest. True to Alfred's words, Jaune is faring surprisingly well despite only having a heater shield against an enchanted axe. Consevatie waves Heartseeker forward, hitting the Crocea Mors like tidal waves. Yet the blonde knight does not falter even a single time when the two collide.
Even with Mein's admittedly not very professional opinion, it's clear Jaune is easily matching Consevatie beat for beat while still holding back. And when the petulant Consevatie heir runs out of momentum, Jaune will easily beat him.
"It's fitting you only have a shield when you are the shield lover, Arc." Consevatie on the other hand is either too prideful to admit he's slowly forcing onto the back foot, or too stupid to realize it.
"This is foolish, Sieg. I don't want to fight you!" Jaune knocks away another strike from Consevatie, as he once again tries to defuse their battle. "We trained together under Master Logarius, we should be fighting against the undead!"
"HA! I don't want to fight myself either! Idiot!" Consevatie laughs as he brings his axe towards Jaune again with an over head swing. No doubt, in the fool's own eyes he is bringing enough force to bring down the Griffin's Spine mountain range itself.
Too bad for Consevatie. Mein, and Jaune both disagree. With a perfectly timed parry, Jaune sends Consevatie's entire body coils back. With a shoulder tackle, the blonde knight sends his opponent landing on his butt with four limbs pointing skyward.
Mein doesn't like using the uneducated vocabulary of the savage Siltvelt beasts... but Consevatie just did a perfect demonstration of a maneuver Siltvelt would call 'Ass Backwards, Falling Geese Style'. Her giggle slowly turns into a belly aching laughter.
She needs to thank Jaune... and Consevatie. She hasn't had such a good laugh in a long time.
"Now this is over, let's talk like a trained knight. Not some random brawling hooligans, Sieg. WH-" Jaune reaches a hand over to Consevatie, obviously trying to help his fellow trainee up. He's tripped onto the ground instead.
Consevatie quickly springs up and brings his axe down towards Jaune's head. Nikos screams on top of her lung, thankfully the foolish heir of House Consevatie only landed his axe beside Jaune's head. Either he knows Grima won't be able to save him from the wrath of Archduke Wales and Jaune's sisters, or he missed.
The fool, with his hair full of dirt, smirks down at the opponent at his mercy. "You are right, stupid Arc. NOW it's over."
"Are you okay, Mein?" Naofumi's concerned voice makes Mein belatedly realize she screamed just like Nikos. He moves his hand up and down her back. "Guess you liked them blonde, huh?"
"Yea, yeah. Lord Arc was who I pictured when I imagined myself inside a romance novel as a girl." Mein looks over at her Naofumi, there's no sign of jealousy on his face. His eyes are fixated on her, and his lips are trying but failing to show a playful smile. He looks more worried for her wellbeing, then her concern towards the young Arc boy.
"I can see why. He seems pleasant and reasonable." Naofumi nods his head along and looks back at the remnant of Three Heroes' Church expedition. They are about to enter an all out brawl with each other.
"Consevatie, you BASTARD! CHEAT!" Nikos looks ready to claw Consevatie's face off with her raw hands. Only the effort of Alfred stops the situation from becoming even more chaotic. "Jaune handily beaten your sorry ass, and you dared to cheat!"
"Did someone else help me? Did I hit Arc with some poison? No, I beat him fair and square. It's the pretty boy's fault for letting his guard down." Consevatie looks back at Jaune slowly sitting back up, the look is one you give to things peeled down the bottom of their boots. "You'd never survive an encounter with the animals, Arc."
"You bastard! Coward! I challenge you to a trial by combat! Do you even dare to face a ready opponent!?" Nikos struggles inside Alfred's arms. Mein can even see small arcs of lightning running alongside her form. "Let me go, Brother Alfred!"
"You hear that, stupid Arc? You are so useless, a girl is offering to fight for you." Consevatie doesn't reply back to the grand champion who is slowly turning into a human shaped thunder strike. He smirks back at the Arc boy, and berate the other scion some more.
It occurs to Mein, that Consevatie probably has a severe sense of inadequacy. That's why he tries to hide it behind his bravado of putting down the son of a noble house with higher standing. It's a good thing Arc is so forgiving. Chief God and Heroes of Old knows, feud between great houses has started for less slight.
"This conflict was pointless from the start, Sieg." Jaune gets back to his feet and puts his shield behind his back. At least the knight learned not to let go of his equipment. "We know there's an undead problem right under our eyes, and we can't stop it ourselves. We can only rely on the legendary hero, one is right in front of u-AH!"
Jaune stops his preaching when another Three Heroes' Church knight runs into him, and slams the back of his head against a tree trunk. To Mein's surprise, it's not Consevatie.
"Legendary Hero this, Legendary Hero that... SHUT UP! Why do we even need these useless summoned idiots! They demand money from us, butt into our lives, make a mess of things, and you know who pays for them, ARC?" The young man slamming Jaune into the tree also has blonde hair, but much dirtier. His skin is also much more tanned and coarse. "US! The common folks break our backs in the fields, mines, lumberyard, workshops or out on the ocean everyday! When we are already working our hands raw, so you rich noble boy and your family can munch on brioche!"
"We don't eat brioche, Brother Jackson." Jaune manages to force a short reply back through his gritted teeth. "We eat wicker bread, like everyone."
"SHUT UP! You think your family is someone better, Arc? You are not! You are just more blood sucking parasites, sucking yourself fat on our honest working common folks like that interloping thief! " The face of the commoner turned templar leans close into Jaune, to the point one could mistaken them for a pair of kissing lovers. If not for all the angry shouting. "When was the last time you picked up a hoe and tilted the field growing your own food?!"
"I'm sorry for your hardship, Jackson. But we are facing the Wave of Catastrophe. The power, and potential for the heroes are needed..." Jaune's eyes cast down. Despite his noble birth, the boy always had a compassionate heart. "But we all have a role to play in such great crisis..."
"Our roles, you say?" Jackson narrows his eyes as he practically spits into Jaune's face. Despite the difference of their birth, both young man have blonde hair and blue eyes. They can almost pass for brothers if not for Jackson's rougher skin with deeper complex. "Answer me this, Arc. Why were you born never know cold or hunger, and has all your time to training with your weapons. When I had to help my father in the field day after day, paying tithe to your family first and then have something to eat after? What right does your family have, living off the hard labor of mine?"
The emotion of the mud blood is clearly running too high for him to think clearly. For the knight of humble birth is now treading dangerous territory with his accusation. With some choice word to his superior by Arc or Consevatie, being kicked out of the Knight Templar order would be his least worry.
"As a noble, it's our duty to protect those of humbler birth..." Jaune's eyes suddenly grows wider, he seems to have some sudden epiphany unrelated to how he could, and should put Jackson in his place.
"If it's your duty to protect me, why do we still need the heroes? And if we needed the heroes, what do we need you for?" Jackson turns around, and glares at Naofumi with hate in his eyes. "As for you, nice looking iron wood wagon, hero. How many of us common folks have you cheated out of all their savings paid for you?"
The absolute insolence of this peasant! He dares to attack the son of a lord, and accuse the Shield Hero? How dare he insult his betters! She should have put him in his place, which, being a very deep ditch with her sword sticking out behind his neck!
She would have done exactly that... if her standing with the Shield Hero isn't on such shaky ground right now. The princess in disguise turns around to look at the Shield Hero.
"The people of Lute built it for me, after I helped defend them in the last Wave... but if Count Winchester and his men didn't show up in the end, we'd all be dead..." A look of realization slowly dawns on the Shield Hero's face.
"Don't let the word of this envious fool get to you, shield boy. We built your wagon out of our free will." The best hunter of Lute scoffs back at Jackson. "Sure, you didn't really save us from the Wave in the end. But none of us would have survived long enough for Count Winchester's rescue, if you weren't there helping us prepare, and fighting among us."
"Traitor!" Jackson snarls at Gaston. "You think kissing that interloper's behind will help you? You'll get yours!"
"Already got mine, boy. Where do you think I got this dashing eye patch from?" Gaston smirks and points at his face accessory. "But you know something, you sheltered fool? Without the Shield Hero rising my levels before the Wave, I would just be dead. And if you don't believe it... come at me! I'll knock you all on your asses with my bare fists!"
"If the problem is with the support money from the King, I'll decline it. I don't think he's going to pay me a cent more anyway." Sensing a brawl about to break again, now it's Naofumi's turn to play peacemaker similar to Jaune beforehand. Hopefully with a better result. "I'll make my own money, off all those big traders. I'll make items, and sell them for my funds."
"Where do you think the big merchant, and nobles get their money from, Shield HERO?" Jackson glares back at the Shield Hero. "You ask for money to fight the Waves, and the nobles' excuse to force more and more from us till we can't even go to bed with a full belly anymore! As long as the likes of you exist, us honest common folks will always be exploited!"
Naofumi blinks his eyes, the little gears in his head clearly turning at Jackson's accusation. "...oh."
"I won the bout with limp dick Arc, that means I get to make the call." Consevatie's punch-able voice reminds everyone he still existed. He lazily turns his eyes around everyone. "I say we go now."
"You can't, Sieg! What happens to the Undead Scourge?" Jaune tries to take a step forward and nearly falls face down. Alfred finally releases Nikos, and the girl runs to her lover's side to support him.
"The Shield Demon wanted to give it a go. Let him handle it. We'll go bring back up." Consevatie smirks towards Jaune once again. "You can stay, if you want to."
"Run with your tails between your legs, you coward! I'm staying with Jaune!"
"Stay if you want to get yourself killed together with the idiot. I don't care." Consevatie tries to make his shrug look casual but fails. He walks over towards where their raptors are lying around, but stops in front of the Shield Hero. The insecure fool turns around and smirks at Naofumi. "You aren't the smartest, Shield Hero."
"I don't have to be." Naofumi looks right back with a stern face. 'I'm smarter than you' is left unsaid.
"Enjoy your life with your slut while you can, idiot." Consevatie narrows his eyes and sneers back at Naofumi. He walks over to the raptors with Priestess Amelia, Jackson and two more knights, mount and disappears down the road.
I honestly didn't even intended this chapter to be one of my longest at inception stage.
Malty finally shares a scene with Kyubey together, and after Benhart I turned Lucatiel from Dark Souls 2 into a demi-human too. I just think the idea of Éclair's father knights demi-human into his own order would really drive the point home on how he is the most pro-demi-human lord in this country... and why he is hated or shunned by others.
Jackson's outburst at Jaune and Naofumi is inspired after I read the long critical guest mentioned at the beginning of my chapter. Although the idea of some natives actually develop hatred towards all summoned heroes was a concept I shown all the way since chapter 2... and I have to confess, I completely forgot about that idea till I read the guest review.
That plot point was a vestigial plot point I came up with back when this story was still supposed to be 'everyone keep their canon alignment but hopefully I'll make the event flow a bit more natural with proper setups and payoffs. Oh, and also turn Malty from a plot device into an actual character'. And it was going to be used to explain how easy 3HC turned its follower from supposedly worshiping the three weapon heroes, to 'kill them all, let god sort them out' murder mob. Obviously, if there is already anti-summoned hero sentiment, it'll be easy for their leader to fan said hatred and turn it into murder intent.
But after review made me thinking about how to humanize the 3HC members more, it occurred to me I can still salvage this plot point for my current direction. Which of course, turned into Jackson's anger on how he feels like commoner like him are being double dipped by both the noble, and summoned heroes.
Guest review time.
Glad I didn't disappoint you!
Well, as DJman248 graciously pointed out, Itsuki kind of need Mald in his party now. Because he himself is a squishy glass canon. At least until he unlock some mechanic similar to Bayonetta's [Witch Time].
Ren better enjoy his doggo while he still can, because as Gaelion already implied, he's going to share his bloodline with Wyndia and turn her from a shibe demi-human into a dragon demi-human.
Technically Sir Crepe is an OC. I just decided to have her backstory linked to some FoZ element when I randomly sewn things together.
Saying Iris won't face any consequence is completely right. Considering basically nobody got hurt by Iris' scheme (Sir Crepe and Maroon are both happier now... and Motoyasu is pretty happy with his current party), by Motoyasu's logic she didn't do anything wrong.