A/N: Back with another update, only three weeks later—not too shabby, if I do say so myself :p.

It's been a while since we saw her last, so here's a chapter revolving around Neia and her return to the Roble Kingdom. How does she feel about what the Sorcerer did King following her detention and hanging..? Can she forgive him for betraying the trust she worked so hard to cultivate ? More importantly, can the citizens of Mellevtich forgive HER for having inculcated such a tragically backfiring faith..?

Chapter 32

"Under Such Lenient Circumstances, How Could We Not?"

Dithering at the edge of a cliff overlooking the town of Mellevitch, Neia's throat became clogged with a pulpous lump—from this height, the town below was ostensibly as quaint and uneventful as ever.

There was nothing to suggest the horrors she knew had transpired just days prior.

"Please, Miss Baraja…" Sebas had said to her during a late-night walk along the tomb's outer walls, an excursion he had soberly invited her on after she approached him with the express desire to go home: "you must understand… he wasn't himself. Someone very important to him had died, and then another—you, who he found dead on the gallows. You were the feather that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Now, of course, I'm not saying you're to blame for his actions; simply that you mean a lot to him. So I beg of you, don't give up on him".

"..."

Neia raised a hand over her chest and drew in a deep breath, an influx of cool air that certainly did nothing to help quell her racing heart.

Of course, she was shocked and appalled to learn that her idol, the incarnation of true justice, had indiscriminately massacred not only her closest peers and comrades, but also a hundred thousand others, most of whom were innocent.

But that in itself was not what disconcerted her the most—she had, after all, always known that Ainz had the capacity for such violence; she was fully aware of the carnage he had so mercilessly dealt at the Katze Plains.

No, what disturbed her more than the news of slaughter itself was the gross sense of self-satisfaction that had swelled proudly and shamelessly within her upon learning her death was what managed to evoke such unstable and incontestable rage from the Sorcerer King. Knowing that he held her life in higher regard than a hundred thousand others combined... it made her subconscious giddy and drunk.

When had she become so desensitized to the loss of human life, that she could possibly find such a morbid silver lining? Her country was fractured, now at an even more unadaptable lack of manpower than before, collapsing in on itself in every regard, with demihumans growing bolder and bolder each day in response to such vulnerability… and she was happy.

She had already inwardly forgiven the Sorcerer King completely, practically instantly, after hearing Sebas' full explanation.

All the death in the world meant nothing to her, 'Death's Ranger', so long as every drop of blood spilled and every corpse that fell was a profession of Ainz-sama's love for her—and that realization chilled her to her core. How hopeless she was, in the grips of such an unshakeable, platonic infatuation. And yet, despite being consciously aware of her irredeemability…

she wouldn't have it any other way.

And that terrified her. If she dwelled on the burdensome guilt of her own callous nature any longer, she would surely lose what little resolve was currently guiding her legs forward.

"..."

She was halfway down the hillside now, and with each step, Neia Baraja further supplanted Death's Ranger, and she was once again fraught with worry.

How would the townspeople react to her, she who had indoctrinated them into a treacherous faith? Would they curse her name? Would they despise her and demand for her death? Would they come in droves to beat her the second she stepped foot past the gates? Would the guards even let her in..? Perhaps they'd want nothing more to do with her—that would perhaps be worst of all. And what then, if she received a similar reception at the outpost just a few kilometers north of here? Had she already been presumed dead, stripped of all honors and status? Would her ex-subordinates hate her as well? She was certain at least half of them had strong ties—family, friends, and childhood memories—to the capital city. Would they fulfill the citizens of Mellevitch's demand for her death?

She wouldn't blame them if they did.

'Black' of the Nine Colors was now on level ground with the village, less than a half-kilometer away. The trees were thinning, the path had changed from dirt to cobblestone. The air around her, the olfactory equivalent of cold water's taste, was suddenly punctuated by the smell of cooked food—Neia identified the nostalgic scent immediately: it was roasted boar, heavily seasoned with what would probably be for a long time the last importation of spices from the capital city.

It was her lieutenant's, Eltric's, favorite, and the first meal they had shared together on what was undoubtedly a date, though she would never admit it.

What would he think of her now..?

She was at this point so engrossed in her thoughts that she didn't even notice how close she had gotten to the gates.

"Hail, traveler! State your business," a voice suddenly thundered out, startling her back to reality and stopping her in her tracks.

She looked up and beheld a warrior, tense and untrusting, staring her down with hardened eyes she did not recognize. Who was this man, tall and athletic, with an air about him that should've made it impossible for her to have not noticed his presence in this small-town village until now?

At the end of her second-long dissection of the man before her, his posture suddenly relaxed and he lowered his weapon.

"... Neia..?" he suddenly murmured, sounding much softer and familiar in tone.

Neia blinked.

"T-travis, is that you..?"

She could hardly believe her eyes, though there was no denying his identity now. When she had seen him last, three weeks ago—when they had so fortuitously received a donation of runic equipment from Ainz-sama the same day a particularly strong army of demons suddenly appeared and breached the northern outpost's walls—he was little more a village boy, who when clad in armor and weapon seeming little more than a boy playing dress-up.

But that boy was nowhere to be found now; the iron and leather armor he wore fit his lithe frame like a second skin, and the sword in his hand now seemed like a dangerous tool. He stood straighter, chest puffed out and shoulders back, exuding a level of confidence unique to able-bodied men, not boys or teenagers.

He laughed suddenly, a trilling pitch she found no longer suited him—but then again, it would be impossible for his biology to keep up with such a drastic, externally-induced transformation.

"Of course it's me!" he assured without an ounce of self-awareness: "by the Gods Neia, it really is you!" he beamed, sheathing his blade: "we thought you were dead! Hanged at the gallows then swallowed by the dead, they said! It's great to have you back, where the hell have you been?!"

Neia's narrow eyes widened in shock; this was just about the last reaction she expected.

"You're… happy to see me..?"

Travis cocked his head to the side.

"Er, yeah… why wouldn't I be? Now that you're back, defending the wall will be a lot easier again. You're easily worth twenty archers all by yourself, Miss Baraja," he complimented shyly with a slight blush, once again emphasizing the fact that despite his incredible transformation, he was still only eighteen years old. It was becoming hard to reconcile these yet-to-be-kicked boyish mannerisms with his appearance.

What in the world had inspired such a metamorphosis..? She was curious, but to ask would be too awkward, and there were frankly more pressing matters occupying the forefront of her mind right now.

"I just thought, you know… what with the Sorcerer King and what he did…" she trailed off, biting her lower lip.

Travis smiled sympathetically.

"Ah, so you already know what happened then... Neia, you've done a lot for this town; more than you know, and in ways that go far beyond simply protecting us from demihuman threats. You gave us hope in an otherwise hopeless time. And not only did you give us hope, but you also taught us how to FIND hope, and hold onto it for dear life. I mean, I'd be lying if I said there wasn't ANY resentment held towards you initially for what happened... but after a few days passed, and everyone came back, I think everyone realized th—"

"Wait what?" Neia cut him off suddenly, double-taking with a shake of her head: "what do you mean 'everyone came back'..?"

Travis' eager expression went blank for a moment, but then he flashed a crooked grin

"Oh, so you haven't heard the whole story? Yeah, two days after the Sorcerer King killed everyone, right as the whole town was gathered together and we were about to burn all the bodies, some guy nobody had ever seen before came waltzing in and brought everyone back to life, in perfect health! People are calling him our guardian angel, It was amazing Neia, I wish you had been here to witness i—!"

"Wait, two days after the massacre you say?!" Neia cut him off suddenly, stepping forward and reaching up to grab his shoulders: "so that would've been… three days ago, right?!"

Travis' mouth hung open in bewilderment for a moment.

"E-eh..? Y-yeah, that's right, why?"

'That's right around the time that Ainz-sama… could it be..?'

She stared up at him with an intense look that compelled his throat to lurch apprehensively.

"What did he look like? Did he look like a foreigner, as in, not from this continent? Dark brown hair? Narrow eyes? A little shorter than you?" she rattled off passionately, shaking him violently with each question.

He stared down at her for a moment, blushing almost imperceptibly from their proximity before sheepishly scratching at his cheek with a curled index finger.

"T-that description pretty much fits the bill, Neia. How in the world did you know that..?"

Much to his surprise and slight dismay, she suddenly released him and took a step back, dipping her head down to hide her face.

"Baraja-dono..? Are you alright..?" the man asked as the captain of the northern outpost viciously wiped at her eyes with her sleeve.

Her relief was too great for her pride to stanch the flow of unbecoming tears.

Of course it ended up like this—Ainz-sama would never commit such a wanton atrocity and then leave it, unremedied. Of course Ainz-sama wasn't a monster after all!

And thus, neither was she..!

She was getting so emotional that even the voice in her head was getting choked up.

It had just been one horrible thing after another lately; when was the last time she had a happy ending like this? A wrong that was then promptly righted, rather than left to worsen.

Sasuga, Ainz-sama..!

Before she could reassure the stunned gatekeeper that all was well—no, much better than just 'well'—another voice called out from behind her.

"Well now, what's going on here?"

Travis snapped to attention as Neia whirled around, blinking back the last of her acrid joy.

"C-Claudius-dono, Damian-dono!"

"Osu!" the latter, who Neia did not recognize, replied, flashing a triumphant grin.

The former, who had been the first to speak, raised a hand to put Travis at ease.

"It's good to be back," he said with a weary sigh, exchanging a nod of acknowledgment with Neia: "and what a surprise to see you here, Miss Baraja…" he trailed off for a moment, his brows suddenly furrowing into an expression synonymous with saying 'wait a minute…'

"Miss Baraja, you're actually here..? But I thought you were..?" he trailed off dubiously, to which Neia quickly laughed.

"It's a long story, I'll tell you about it later if you have the time, sir," she offered evasively: "but I'm back, very much alive, and ready to serve again".

Claudius opened his mouth to speak but was cut off as his rowdy superior suddenly pushed him aside and eagerly stepped forward.

"Hmm, I see, I see! so you're Neia Baraja, huh..?" he went on as he started to walk around her in a tight circle, sizing her up with an almost depraved, hungry intensity. She stiffened in place, both in surprise and an instinctive self-induced paralysis: she felt as if she were being circled by a shark in open water, surrounded by razor blades that would slice her open, send her blood gushing, and rile him up if she dared to move a muscle.

A few seconds later he reappeared in front of her again, coming to a sudden stop and leaning in towards her, far enough that if Neia hadn't leaned back herself, their noses might have touched.

"Captain Baraja, Keeper of the North-West wall, 'Black' of the Nine Colors, loyal adjutant to Death himself..!" the colonel prattled on, somehow managing to grow even more intense with each subsequent epithet: "Oi, tell me, are the rumors true? That you can kill an Ironhide bear with a single shot from half a kilometer away in the dead of night?!"

"T-t-that may be a bit of an exaggeration, b-but..." Neia began to stammer, feeling acutely flustered and claustrophobic.

"How 'bout a duel, you and me, right, here, right now?! What say you?! It's not every day two of the nine colors cross paths under such lenient circumstances like this! How could we not?!" Damian challenged eagerly before finally stepping back, giving Neia some much-needed space to breathe.

"You haven't been officially promoted yet, Damian…" Claudius reminded soberly.

Damian waved him off without so much as a glance.

"You're an archer, I'm a swordsman, so a traditional 1-on-1 wouldn't be fair for you… so how about I start over there at the base of that hill, and if you can drop me with your arrows before my sword reaches you, it's your victory!" he proposed, leaning back in suddenly with a fire blazing in his eyes, eliciting an inaudible squeak from the poor markswoman: "But if—GA-HACK~!" he choked suddenly as Claudius yanked him back by the collar, like a fed-up owner jerking on the leash of their rowdy mutt.

"Honestly, we JUST get home after weeks of doing nothing but fighting, practically nonstop, and we can't even make it through the front gate without you starting trouble..." he said with an exasperated sigh, dipping his head towards Neia: "please forgive his impudence Miss Baraja, I'm afraid these last few months of being at the frontlines have completely eradicated what little amount of manners and social skills he had left. Just ignore him".

Neia shook her head.

"It's no problem," she assured: "and I accept the challenge".

"I knew you would understand Miss Baraja, now if you'll excu—" Claudius paused suddenly, stiffening perceptibly: "wait, what?"

"You...do?" Damian asked incredulously, wrenching free from his lieutenant's slackened grip and.

Neia nodded.

"Aha, seriously!? Alright, finally!" the colonel exclaimed, nudging his less-than-enthused advisor giddily.

"You've got to be kidding me…" Claudius whispered, wiping at his face tiredly with both hands:

"Honestly, Neia…" he said with a shake of his head, just two words that managed to express a level of disappointment that would normally take a full-length scolding to be conveyed, sounding very fatherly.

Neia bowed apologetically.

"Forgive me Claudius, but he's right: this is a rare opportunity," she said, pausing for a moment as she lifted her head and locked eyes with her adversary: "I've also gone quite a while without encountering a worthy opponent—I'm eager to test how much I've grown these past few months, to see if I'm still worthy of my title and the artifacts that have been bestowed upon me," she assured, proudly brandishing [Shooting Star Super]: "and just as I am eager to test myself, I also wish to test you, Damian-dono. I firmly believe that strength is what matters most in this world: strength is absolute; strength is justice. Only the truly strong should be allowed to lead. I will see for myself if you are deserving of the title of Grandmaster".

The whole time she spoke, she never broke eye contact with the colonel: never even blinked.

Her cold and judicious glare sent a chill down Damian's spine, the likes of which he hadn't felt in a long time—not since he, as an overzealous rookie fresh out of the training academy, challenged Remedios to a duel. He had suffered an exquisite loss that day, and he felt he might again, today.

when was the last time someone had had the guts to not only match his mettle and accept a duel, but openly express doubt towards his capabilities, right to his face?

This was… unprecedented! Glorious!

He turned to his lieutenant, a wide grin cracking his face from ear to ear:

"Oi, Claudius…" he began, wagging a finger towards Neia: "why the hell didn't you introduce me to Miss Baraja before today? Do you just hate seeing me happy?"

The middle-aged man's shoulders slumped.

"Believe me, I had no idea captain Baraja was your kindred spirit… if I had, I would've made sure she was out of town before bringing you here today," he assured shamelessly, his gaze drifting longingly past the town's gate in the direction of home.

"Well, let's get this over with. Take your positions, I'll count you off," Claudius explained as he shuffled off to the side, about ten meters away.

"Osu~!"

"Very well".

...

Both fighters were now in position, stretching and limbering up after a cursory inspection of their own equipment.

Claudius, watching the two of them from the sidelines, was suddenly reminded of something as the young gatekeeper shuffled up beside him:

"Oh right, Travis, while I have the chance: thanks for keeping an eye on things while we were gone. We stopped by the outpost on the way here to check on things and they said you and a couple of the other village guards have been lending some much-needed support at the wall during the nights. Well done, b—" he began to say but caught himself off, shaking his head once: "no, forgive me, you're not a boy anymore".

Travis blushed, scratching the back of his head.

"Ah, t-thank you sir! I'm just doing what little I can: really though, I should be the one thanking you! We just received word this morning of your overwhelming victory the other day. Not a single casualty: as expected of you two," he commended emphatically.

Claudius nodded, feeling somewhat guilty over receiving such lavish praise for an accomplishment that had been single-handedly facilitated by a nameless stranger's efforts. But he and Damian, along with their men, had all decided that it would be in everyone's best interest, so long as this mysterious vagabond refused to reveal himself, for the paladins to claim full credit for the reclamation of the capital city.

The lieutenant pursed his lips peculiarly as he then remembered something else from that day, a troubling tidbit one of his soldiers had mentioned once the matter of familial life had been brought up in passing conversation.

'Girls can get into all sorts of trouble when their fathers aren't around'.

"Travis…"

"Yes sir?"

"..."

"Claudius-dono..?"

"I… er… don't suppose you've taken note of what my daughters—particularly my oldest—have been up to while I've been away..?" he asked embarrassedly, mumbling with poor enunciation.

Travis stared back at him vacuously, compelling Claudius to cough into his hand and look up at the sky.

"You know, have they been… s-staying out of trouble, and... stuff…" he elaborated with uncharacteristic ineloquence

Travis nodded understandingly.

"Hai. You've got nothing to worry about, Claudius-dono: I can assure you they haven't been getting into any sort of trouble. While standing guard here during the day, I see both of them almost every day since they've been frequenting the mountaintops to pray for your safety on a daily basis. The last couple weeks especially, the little one's been keeping me company for sometimes hours at a time before dinner, no doubt hoping and waiting for your return. She's a real chatterbox, that one, and insatiably curious".

Claudius chuckled, a hearty laugh tinged with nostalgic warmth, though still sounding distinctly apprehensive.

"As for Sarah," Travis continued, sensing that he had yet to completely allay the first lieutenant's concern: "she's been makin' me lunches to take to the outpost for my night shifts. As I'm sure you know, It's sometimes hard to find the time to eat properly with such a busy schedule, so her food's been a real lifesaver some days. Quite good, too. They're both good kids, and just about the last people I'd expect to get involved in any kind of sordid dealings," he summarized knowingly.

Claudius' expression had by now softened completely, and he suddenly felt extremely silly for having doubted their integrity in the first place.

"Thank you, Travis".

The young man nodded, and both men directed their gazes back to the two fighters—perfect timing, it seemed, as both swordsman and markswoman looked towards him expectantly and nodded.

"Oiiiiiiiii!" Damian suddenly bellowed, cupping both hands over his mouth: "you'd best not let me down, Miss Baraja!"

Neia smirked and she raised her bow.

"Likewise, Damian-dono. I'll be very disappointed if you don't live up to your reputation," she shot back, and the colonel drew his sword eagerly.

Claudius sighed heavily, now even more eager than before to get home, and lifted one hand high above his head, poised to begin the duel.

"What a waste of time…" he murmured, to which Travis cocked his head curiously, though his eyes stayed glued to Neia, her tense and concentrated expression.

"What do you mean? Aren't you at least a little bit curious to see who will win?"

Claudius snorted.

"Of course not. I just hope that Miss Baraja will be able to put up a modicum of resistance, otherwise Damian will be rangy and lachrymose for the rest of the weekend".

Travis shook his head.

"You won't have to worry about that, sir. Neia's the best archer in the whole kingdom; she may even be able to win".

Claudius blinked in surprise.

"I-is that so..? You actually think she has a chance to win?" he asked dubiously, following the gatekeeper's admiring gaze back to Death's Ranger; as one of the Nine Colors, her proficiency as a warrior was unquestionable, but... this petite, impish, and narrow-eyed little thing, defeating the putative best sword fighter in the kingdom..?

The lieutenant couldn't even humor the thought.

"Well, I guess there's only one way to find out, isn't there?" he asked a moment later with a half-hearted and almost pitying smile, to which Travis nodded.

Claudius looked to Neia, exchanged a nod, and then did the same with Damian.

He looked up at his own hand and drew in a deep breath.

...

Neia let out a rattling exhale, the only physiological expression of her nerves—she was otherwise completely calm, her muscles relaxed and loose but ready to be activated and tautened at a moment's notice, much like the string of her bow.

Ninety-four metres separated her from her opponent; winds were negligible. Assuming he was as fast as Remedios, his sword could theoretically be at her throat within five seconds. In that time Neia was sure she would be able to fire four shots; maybe a desperate fifth could be squeezed in at the end, but it would be sloppy and rushed. For better or for worse, she was positive that he would reach her in the end: she didn't have the stopping power to drop him before that happened. How could she win, then? To begin with, the only reason she had any chance of winning was the fact he was equipped with a much lighter set of mostly-leather armour as opposed to the thick-plated armour he normally wore on the battlefield. This meant that she could target pretty much any part of his body and inflict damage.

And that would be her only goal for now: to inflict as much damage as she could and slow him down enough so she could at least avoid his first strike.

She looked across the field at her opponent, staring back at her with a grin that matched the voracity reflected in his eyes. She watched him bend at the knees, an almost jeering display of preparedness. She responded in kind by drawing an arrow from her quiver and nocking it in her lowered bow.

He smiled approvingly; something she was, embarrassingly enough, not lax enough to properly reciprocate.

She felt the weight of Claudis' gaze, turned, and nodded, allowing one last shaky breath to dribble out as she watched Damian do the same.

Her eyes glued forward whilst keeping an eye on Claudius' signaling hand in her peripheral, her hands and fingers growing tense with a proactive looseness, and her acute vision could easily detect the colonel's body going through the same process.

And then it came—the lieutenant's hand karate-chopped its way towards the ground.

"Begin!"

!

Neia raised her bow in the same instant Damian took his first pounding step forward, taking one tenth of a second to aim before releasing the string with a sharp exhale.

The arrow whistled forward, a lethal bolt of white light streaking with pinpoint precision towards the least protected part of the warrior's leading stride, just above the knee.

It was fast, blindingly so—Travis had blinked when he heard the snap of Neia's bow, and when his eyes opened mere milliseconds later, the arrow had been narrowly cleaved in twain, its head knocked away and separated cleanly from the shaft with a lightning-quick twirl of Damian's blade.

'He's fast..!' Neia noted to herself as she prepared another shot;

'But just as I suspected, he didn't dodge—he doesn't want to redirect his momentum, even for a second!'

It meant he would be upon her as quickly as possible, and even faster than she expected—but this was good.

She took a quick, shallow breath, and fired again—ostensibly the exact same shot, but aimed at the other leg this time.

Just as before, but this time with a grin, Damian swung his blade to intercept the streak of light aimed so predictably at his leg. He felt his blade cleave through it with ease, separating the guiding head from the now innocuous wooden shaft.

"Ha!" he grunted, a single note of a triumphant laugh that seemed to ask 'is that really the best you can do?!' as the two pieces of the arrow scattered on either side behind his thundering footfalls.

But then suddenly his smile faded as his left knee buckled slightly with a tingle, nearly causing him to lose his balance, pulling his trajectory slightly to the right as he subconsciously compensated for this inexplicable lull.

His eyes darted down for an instant in confusion, for there was, thoroughly embedded just beneath his kneecap, an arrow, one that had lurked so perfectly in the first one's wake that it had gone completely undetected, even as it had initially pierced him.

!

By pure instinct alone, his heart having skipped a telltale warning beat, Damian suddenly cocked his head to the side just in time for another bolt to whiz by, grazing and splitting open his cheek which had yet to leave its trajectory.

He looked to Neia through the side of his eye, her bow held peculiarly skyward, but before he could consider the implications of its position, it was promptly lowered, loaded with five glowing arrowheads.

The colonel gritted his teeth; only about twenty meters separated them now, which meant that if he could clear this next volley, victory was all but assured.

A multitude of martial arts collected on the tip of his tongue, but he held back their invocation; he would not resort to using them before his opponent, no matter what. To do so would be to admit that his base power could not match her own, and that was tantamount to defeat as far as he was concerned.

"Come!" he roared goadingly, sweeping his blade down to slice away most of the arrow in his leg.

Neia leaped back in the air, pulling the string back as far as it would go.

"[Shooting Star Super]!" she cried just as gravity began to pull her back down, evoking the bow's namesake ultimate technique. She had only recently unlocked this ability, the culmination of all her skills as an archer, and as far as Neia could tell, proof that the bow recognized her as a worthy master.

Fw~oosh!

All five arrows were loosed simultaneously, instantly multiplying into a barrage of an incalculable number of arrows—a veritable wall of projectiles that cascaded upon Damian like a torrent of rain.

The colonel grinned as the blinding barrage streaked towards him.

So, she had been the first to use a skill after all. Then everything was fair-game now, no holds barred..!

"[Limit Break: Speed]. [Limit Break: Reflex]!" he chanted, and a light blue light washed over and through his entire body just as the opaque storm of arrows seemed to swallow him whole, so dense and plentiful that it was impossible to see what was happening within.

Claudius' jaw dropped and he inadvertently took a step forward.

'Is it possible… that it's over..? Could Damian actually be..?'

Neia gracefully tapped back down on the ground, levying her bow with bated breath in preparation to loose another, more focused shot as soon as the bombardment ended and the dust cleared.

Finally, the last wave of projectiles blanketed the ground to reveal a still graveyard of arrows, hundreds of bodies, none more than an inch apart from another, embedded deep into the ground, leaving not a single patch of soil within an eight-meter diameter unscathed or unlittered, not even where the colonel had been standing,

?

Neia's bow dipped down falteringly. Where did—

"That was close," a voice, sounding almost like a wheezing laugh in its breathlessness, came from behind.

!

Death's ranger whirled around towards the direction of the sound and fired a shot without a moment's hesitation, with accuracy delivered more by instinct than eyes.

Fwip!

Captain Baraja's eyes widened in disbelief as Damian caught the arrow with inhuman quickness a few inches from the center of his chest.

"How..?" Neia gaped, meaning to ask how he had evaded [Shooting Star Super]'s special technique, but her throat constricted uneasily as she suddenly took note of the colonel's sword arm, riddled with nearly a dozen arrows at various points as if he had undergone some sort of hardcore acupuncture. It should've been completely inoperable at this point, its entire length the epicenter of a body-numbing, excruciating pain, yet the colonel seemed completely unfazed.

Either he possessed the constitution of a frenzied troll or a fortitude that surpassed even the Re-Estize's late warrior captain's—or perhaps both.

"That was a doozy, miss Baraja!" Damian commended, snapping the arrow (and with it, Neia's train of thought), within his closed fist and letting its halves fall to the ground: "even with my limit-broken speed, I couldn't get out of the way in time, not entirely at least," he said, lifting up his arrow-skewered arm for emphasis: "If I had been any closer when you used that technique, I might've been done for!" he said with a single, poignant clap.

"Now, let's continue!" he demanded ecstatically, the pitch of his voice never wavering even as he unflinchingly wrenched each arrow out of what should be an utterly destroyed arm with a ruthless yank, one by one.

"I want to experience the full brunt of Neia Baraja's power, everything she has to offer and then some! If you have any more tricks up your sleeves, now's the time to use them! I'm dying to see—!"

Schlok!

The ride side of his body suddenly jerked downwards as an arrow, the one Neia had inconspicuously fired into the sky between volleys earlier, deeply embedded itself into his shoulder after a patient and calculated three-hundred-foot rise and fall with the force of a lightning bolt sent straight from the heavens.

"Eh?" he gasped incredulously, stumbling off balance from the unexpected impact as a spurt of his own blood splashed against the side of his face and neck.

'Now!'

Neia lifted her bow to fire another shot, what would surely be the deciding blow.

!

But she was somehow too slow—her trained eyes informed her of this they competently tracked his movement, relaying to her brain exactly what needed to be done to respond, but her body couldn't keep up. She abandoned the shot mid-nocking and desperately tried to lean back whilst simultaneously raising her bow to deflect the impossibly quick attack she keenly perceived arcing towards her.

It should've been impossible. How could someone traverse ten meters and swing their sword faster than it takes an able-bodied, experienced recipient to raise their own weapon a single foot to block?

That was the question racing through young Baraja's mind as she stared up into the colonel's amused eyes and felt the cold edge of his blade press against her throat, forcing her to acknowledge that the pre-described scenario was far from impossible. And that's not even mentioning the fact he had been caught off guard and imbalanced at the start.

He was fast, VERY fast. Much faster than Remedios, that's for sure; faster even than any of the most notorious demihuman speedsters she had witnessed that existed in the Abelion hills.

With a devilish grin, he retracted his sword and promptly stashed it in its sheathe.

He extended a hand which, after a moment of consideration, Neia accepted and righted herself.

"It's your victory then, Damian-dono," she capitulated with a polite bow.

The colonel grinned, taking a moment to wipe one eye clear of his own blood.

"Aha, please! Don't ruin such an intense battle with such formality, Miss Baraja, it's unbecoming!" he asserted, firmly clasping her hand in his own and giving it a firm shake, startling the ranger with his enthusiasm. With so much of his own blood caking half his expression, he seemed even more manic than usual

"You're amazing Neia, really amazing! I haven't been pushed that far in a long time; you've got prodigal talent, no doubt about! Our next duel might have an entirely different outcome," he commended with a laugh.

Neai nodded awkwardly, holding back the urge to bow.

He sounded sincere, and she didn't take him for the condescending type, but it was nonetheless difficult for her to accept praise given the circumstance.

He had ended it almost instantly after getting serious, despite her best efforts, and Neia couldn't imagine herself ever being able to match such quickness.

"N-next time, yes, perhaps…" she trailed off bashfully, eyeing his shoulder warily. What would've been a mortal wound to most seemed to have already stopped bleeding, miraculously.

There was something suspicious about this man, she realized—though perhaps that was just her wounded pride talking.

...

On the sidelines, Claudius chuckled relievedly.

"See, what did I tell you Travis?"

The gatekeeper nodded indifferently.

"Mm, Damian-dono is extremely impressive. It was a really great match," he concurred unbiasedly, making his senior shrink with embarrassment for his petty and immature remark.

"I-indeed. Miss Baraja's prowess far exceeded my expectations, frankly. I'll have to personally apologize later for underestimating her," he admitted.

"Oiiiii!" Damian suddenly hollered, garnering the two spectators' attention as he jogged towards them.

"What did you think of that? Pretty intense, huh?" he beamed triumphantly without a shred of arrogance.

Claudius flashed a thumbs up on both their behalfs and opened his mouth to speak but—

"Daddy?!" A childish voice, unbelieving and shrill, pierced the air.

Claudius barely had time to turn around before a small body crashed into his legs.

"Sophie!?" he exclaimed, teetering off-balance. The small girl unburied her face from between his knees and looked up at him with an impossibly wide smile, the corners of her eyes shining wetly.

"Daddy daddy daddy, you're home! Hoo-ray!" she cheered, jumping up and down against him.

The lieutenant laughed and in one fell swoop knelt down and scooped her up, eliciting a bubbly giggle that racked her entire body—a sound, he realized, he had sorely missed these past few months. He squished the side of his face against her own and closed his eyes, relishing in a warmth that the sun itself could never hope to offer.

But the wholesome moment was painfully short-lived as she began to squirm ferociously, as if fighting for her life despite continuously giggling, pushing away from his face with all the might her tiny arms could muster.

"S-stop daddy, that tickles too much! Your face is all bristly and gross, just like gran'pa!" she squealed indignantly. Neia and Travis pursed their lips to stifle a laugh, but Damian did not possess such tactful consideration.

Claudius felt his heart splinter in two as he raised a hand self-consciously to touch his face.

"J-just like grandpa you say…"

His superior clapped him on the back consolingly.

"Aw don't worry about it, Claudius; with a clean shave, you won't look a day over fifty!"

"... You know I'm only forty-two, right?"

Blink blink.

Damian retracted his hand and took a large step back.

"Weeeeeeell I won't keep you any longer, you'd best get home! I think I'll tag along with Neia to the outpost and treat her and her soldiers to a drink, not only to celebrate her return, but also to thank her for indulging me with a well-fought duel! Er… if that's okay with you, Neia," he quickly added shamelessly.

Neia shook her head.

"It's all good with me; and it was my pleasure. I certainly know my men won't object to a free drink, either".

"Great, it's settled then! Let's be off then!" he turned with a confident swivel, but was promptly stopped in his tracks.

"Unc'a Daman!" Sophie pouted, butchering the words shamelessly: "you're not gonna come play..?" she asked sadly.

Claudius bounced her in his arms.

"Of course uncle Damian will come and play with you tomorrow, pumpkin," he said in a honey-sweet voice while glaring daggers at his superior—in this situation, however, rank held no precedence.

The colonel scratched the back of his head.

"R-right, of course, I'll come and visit tomorrow, l-like I was planning to all along," he offered with a quivering smile.

Claudius nodded, conveying less of a 'thanks' and more of a 'I'll hold you to your word'.

"Mmm'kay!" the girl hummed giddily, and with that, father and daughter were off.

Neia smiled as she heard the little one begin to ramble excitedly, about this and that, everything and nothing, Claudius nodding and humming with humouring exaggeration, appearing to hang on her every word.

"And then daddy, and then—me and Sarah met a shushpisic person, and he—!" was the last thing she heard before they were out of earshot.

"Ah—!" Travis suddenly gasped as if he just remembered that he had left the stove on at home.

"I completely forgot..! Claudius-dono!" he shouted, cupping his hands over his mouth, but it was too late. He began to give chase, but Damian thrust an arm out over his chest to block him.

"Hold on there, you're still on duty; I'll relay your message".

"R-right," the gatekeeper shook his head self-beratingly before looking past the gate in the direction Claudius had veered out of view.

"No, well, never mind… it's too late now, there's no point," he muttered quietly.

Damian blinked at him.

"Oi, the hell is wrong with you..?"

"N-nothing sir! I mean only that he'll find out as soon as he gets home anyway—that his wife is all better, that is—so there's no use in running after him at this point," he explained.

The colonel's eyes widened into saucers before promptly narrowing into admonishing slits.

"And here I thought you seemed like a nice kid… that's some twisted sense of humour you've got; you were seriously gonna tease him like after he just got back? You'd never be able to eat solid food again if you did," he warned, suddenly reaching out to clasp the paling gatekeeper by the collar and wrench him in close: "In fact, on his behalf, I think I oughtta—"

"N-no wait, I know it sounds crazy, but it's the truth!" Travis vowed, squirming feverishly: "I saw her, just the other day—walked right by me with the two girls in tow, looking right as rain, I swear! I can't explain it either, but it's the truth!"

"Er, what's going on..?" Neia interjected awkwardly.

"Claudius' wife, Livia, has been chronically bedridden from an incurable illness for six years now," he explained, releasing Travis with a firm shove: "The poor man has tried everything: even consulted priests and doctors from the Slane Theocracy, but nobody could come up with anything. So if you expect me to believe for a second that she could just magically—!" he began to seethe, once again lunging for Travis' throat, who could only yelp haplessly.

But this time, Neia thrust her bow out between them and nudged them apart.

"I think I know what happened," she explained with a knowing smile.

"Yeah, 'what happened' is this kid's a God damn sociopath and thought it'd be funny to—"

"No, Damian-dono, I mean I think his wife actually IS in perfect health now".

"And how do you fancy that? You think some, some benevolent God just happened to waltz through here, all hum-dee-dum-dum, waved a magic stick and made her all better? Oh, and then maybe he invited the demihumans over the wall and into the village, and everyone was merry and sang kumbaya while holding hands and claws?!" he whispered in a whimsically sardonic tone.

"More or less, yes," Neia assured without missing a beat: "to the first part of that scenario, at least".

To the expectant, unbelieving silence, Neia smiled.

"You see, Damian-dono, Livia received the most potent cure known to man; a be-all end-all, able to instantly remedy any illness or affliction one may have," she claimed theatrically, her chest swelling with pride for her God, whose almighty and absolute power is eclipsed only by the kindness of his heart.

"The cure I'm speaking of, of course, is death!"