The sound of feet clacking over a tiled surface echoed within the vaunted walls of one of Melormarc's most iconic religious buildings. Known as the Three Heroes Church, its design left no room for anything less than grand as the prime symbol of the people's faith. Chiseled marble-like walls and architecture created a polystheistic backdrop similar to the way old Greek or Roman Gods from Naofumi and Shirou's world were depicted. Instead of statues of a Greek Pantheon however, sigils, carvings, and motifs of swords, bows, and spears could be seen everywhere. Each was segregated into their own holy chambers where pious religious followers knelt in worship and adoration for their heroes.
Of course, what truly made the building attractive wasn't in its design, but in its purpose. Housed within was an object known as the Dragon Hourglass which not only depicts the time of the next Wave of Calamity, but acts as the only medium for class advancement. Therefore, not only do religious followers pay tribute to the church, but every adventurer, warrior, guard, knight, you name it, too. Various other Dragon Hourglasses exist in different kingdoms, but in Melromarc, the church of Three Heroes had primary vetting privileges.
…And that was the problem.
Eclair tensed, staring at each passing priest or nun with a critical eye. Under his majesty's orders, and her own conviction to not let anything go wrong, she refused to take any chances with these snakes. This was even more so as she was relatively in-adept at discerning the sly machinations of those plotting against her. It was a glaring weakness she had as a knight. She was just too straight forward. She understood this all the more when she witnessed the eldest princess and the pope's conspiracy in the Wave awarding ceremony.
There was a fat chance that she was going to trust anything these church worshipers 'insisted' she do out of proper procedure. Not when the Devil itself in their eyes, the Shield Hero and his party, were the ones seeking class advancement.
The looks Eclair could observe being directed on the Shield Hero's party were less than friendly. Several were openly frowning at Keel and Raphtalia's presence, but not daring to be so open to Naofumi with Eclair standing in front of him.
It wasn't something Eclair was too proud of as it wasn't her own accomplishment, but as her father's daughter, she held considerable political sway. Besides, she couldn't live in her father's shadow forever, and it was going to be up to her now to govern the remnants of Lurolana Village, a community devastated by the first wave. To that end, she had to aspire to keep working hard.
Taking a pose of resolution with a fist pumped in front of her, she raised her vigilance even further, making sure to scrutinize each and every priest and nun the group passed by. Her features were flat, her gaze demanding proper courtesy and respect even while she maintained an air of dignity, back straight and a hand laid over the pommel of her sheathed sword. .
"Do you think she's alright?" Naofumi whispered to Shirou while gesturing to Eclair. "Her expression seems kind of cold, almost robotic and unfeeling."
"It's perfect," Shirou answered softly, smiling reminiscently.
Naofumi blinked while Keel, who was quietly listening in with her acute hearing, startled. The both of them stared at Shirou in silence, demanding some sort of explanation from their gazes, well Keel more than Naofumi's confused one.
"Her actions and expressions remind me of a dear friend and mentor I used to know," he answered; features brightening in a way that Keel, Raphtalia, and Naofumi realized they'd never seen before.
"Seems like someone important if she can get that sort of expression on your face," Naofumi snorted and teased jokingly.
Keel looked like she'd swallowed a fly, her lips pursing as a heavy cloud descended over her while Raphtalia cringed in sympathy.
Naofumi only made it worse. "Maybe we should meet her sometime as fellow party members?"
Shirou shook his head, sighing in a way that made Naofumi quickly feel as if he'd stepped on something that he shouldn't have.
"Her time has passed," was all Shirou said, his tone wistful, but it was enough to stall Naofumi's expression into a visible wince.
"S-Sorry man, not what I had in mind," Naofumi was quick to back out of the topic at the implication, and for her part, Keel felt a little guilty for the feeling of relief budding within her.
"It's fine, just memories is all," Shirou brushed things off, unwilling to bring the party's mood down now that Naofumi was finally getting out of his shell from the matter of the awarding ceremony. However, there was already a subtle effect.
No one ended up speaking again as Eclair continued to lead from the front. If the others noticed Shirou drifting back into reminences again, they chose not to bring it up.
Eventually, the group reached their intended destination cordoned off by the Church of the Three Heroes in a central prayer hall kept closed by two large oaken doors. In front of the door was a priest and two assisting nuns reciting sermons.
"Ah, the Shield Hero and his party…what brings you all here?" The priest acted quite amiable, but it was clear that he was unsettled at Naofumi and the presence of the others. His expression soured even more when his focus landed on Eclair, and understood that things were going to get tricky.
Just as Naofumi was going to speak on the party's behalf, Eclair raised a hand and motioned for him to let her speak first.
"On his majesty's orders, the Shield Hero and his party are here for formal use of the Dragon Hourglass for class advancement," Eclair declared evenly, brooking no room for argument.
The priest before the door startled in shock while the nuns nearest to him paused in the midst of their sermons.
"C-Class advancement? Impossible." The priest swayed, taking a step back in disbelief.
Not even the other heroes have-"
"The Shield Hero has nothing to do with the other heroes," Eclair cut in, knowing that the best way to avoid feeble reasoning was by forcing the matter through with her own political standing and the King's decree in her hands.
"Lady Seaetto," the priest was at a loss for words, clearly trying to find a way to deny the request, but not possessing enough authority to dare say otherwise. In the end, he could only settle on capitulating to the demand, and reluctantly gesturing to the nuns to unlock the door into the church's inner hall.
Just as the oaken doors creaked open, another figure appeared and blocked Eclair's path, much to her annoyance. She knew this was going to happen. She'd had a feeling, and here it was.
"Now now, that's enough Mr. Mathews, allow me to handle things from here."
An amicable-looking old man in a white priest's garb and a square cap over his head interceded.
It was the pope of the church, Biscas T. Balmus.
"Pope Biscas," the priest called out in visible relief, life and confidence returning to his features. "Understood."
The priest and nuns bowed before giving Biscas wide berth and departing the scene.
"What is the meaning of this, pope Biscus?" Eclair demanded, her hands balling into fists, her brows knitting together. Unlike the priest and nuns from earlier, pope Biscas possessed considerable enough sway to impede her if he so wished, and he was doing just that.
"Sorry, but we are but a mere humble church without such means as to grant such a request as 'Class Advancement," pope Biscas said with an utterly straight face.
Eclair would not have it. Failure was not in her dictionary today.
"That's enough." she interrupted, glowering. "On authority of the King, if you refuse to cooperate, I can simply lead Lord Naofumi and Shirou straight to the Dragon Hourglass on my own accord."
Fury flickered across the pope's eyes, but the man's features remained amiable ever still.
"Then, who am I to not receive the King's orders? However, I'm sure you're aware that the church charges a toll for the use of the Dragon Hourglass? Times have been difficult with the increased occurrence of the Waves, and as such, maintenance fees and alms to the poor and unfortunate are only ever rising."
Eclair nodded slowly, the words were reasonable for a religious institute. Part of the reason the Three Heroes Church was so well received in Melromarc were their humanitarian aid projects which targeted poorer citizens and dilapidated old villages.
Be that as it may, Eclair nearly snarled at Biscas's next words.
"Fifty-gold per person," Biscas revealed the price of the toll with a smile.
"That's ridiculous!" Eclair immediately seethed. Fifty gold? That's more than what she could earn as a Knight Captain for a whole year!
"Ms. Knight Captain. This is just how it is. Times are getting harder, and the damage from the Waves are becoming more and more extensive," Biscas repeated the exact same words, but this time he added a warning. "You'd do well to recall that you shouldn't push the partnership between the church and this country too far. It's about boundaries, one's well kept since our founding in Melromarc."
Eclair gnashed her teeth while the others watched on as she slowly got cornered.
"Fifty Gold!" Eclair grimaced in disbelief. "Lord Naofumi is one of the legendary heroes! It should be for free! The same for his party as they're fighting for our sakes!"
"It's because I agree with you that the toll is so high, Ms. Knight Captain."
"What is that even supposed to-"
"They are heroes, capable heroes," Biscas continued his charade, giving out a helpless sigh. "It's because I believe in them so strongly that it shouldn't be a difficult endeavor to accrue ample funds for each party member, yes? Their strength would allow them to hunt stronger monsters, and I'm sure merchants would be willing to buy monster parts at fair prices provided there's an appraiser on scene. In fact, our church offers a similar service at a fair enough price."
"Y-You're crazy." Eclair muttered, shoulders shaking before slumping.
Was it easy to accrue monster parts? In the early stages with weaker monsters, of course it was. However, the value of such monster parts paled in comparison to the worth of those of stronger monsters. Said higher level monsters were almost always difficult to kill in bulk let alone be lucky enough to obtain any rare drops.
Contrary to Eclair's reaction, Shirou, Naofumi, Keel, and Raphtalia who were listening in, reacted differently.
"Monster parts?" Naofumi and Shirou suddenly glanced at each other before Naofumi abruptly raised his shield up and allowed a blinding flash of light to shine over everyone.
Startled, Biscus and Eclair raised their arms up to cover their eyes, and when the light died down, all that was left was a staggering amount of monster parts. It piled into a huge mound beneath Naofumi's feet, practically lifting him up a good ten feet from where he'd originally been standing.
"Will this be enough?" Naofumi asked while jumping down from the pile and landing next to Shirou and the others.
Biscus stiffened while Eclair could barely suppress her lips from tugging up into a grin. Justice. This was justice! The expression on Biscus's face was just too refreshing.
Even without the need for an appraiser, the sheer bulk and rare types in the monster pile would have more than made up enough for the entire party's toll.
Eclair haughtily craned her chin up, momentarily breaking her demeanor as a knight from the sheer satisfaction of it all. Biscas couldn't even respond when she gingerly patted him on the shoulder, and then pushed him away; the pope stumbling for words she didn't want to give him the chance to say.
"If that will be all, Pope, then I and the Shield Hero's party will be on our way."
This time there was no response.
The entire group left Biscas to scowl and nearly snap the staff he was holding into two in rage.
In any case, once the group managed to make their way into the church's inner hall, the Dragon Hourglass stood before them.
It was bigger than what Shirou and Naofumi expected for sure. The maws of two dragons made up the top and base of the hourglass, while golden metal encased the sides of the glass tubing. Within the glass, finely ground sand could be seen sifting through the small opening from one concave holder to the next.
Floating in front of the hourglass were digits resembling those of an electrical clock, counting down like a timer. When the time hit zero, the next wave would start, and the Heroes transported to the scene of the wave.
"Lord Naofumi, if I'm correct, then absorbing the sand of the dragon hourglass grants a teleport skill." Eclair advised dutifully.
"Uh, right. Do I just crack it open then?" Naofumi mumbled at Eclair's advice.
"Nope, part of the sand should have already been removed for the use of the Heroes. You see that urn next to the hourglass? You can take some sand from there," Eclair instructed.
"Oh, ok neat," Naofumi did as instructed, and it wasn't long when his shield took on a new appearance after absorbing the sand. It became sleeker, almost translucent on the edges.
The Portal Shield series had been unlocked.
If one was to witness the scene from a third-person's perspective, it would seem like Eclair practically knew everything necessary for this class advancement. However, most if not all the credit actually goes to King Aultcray who provided her his own accounts of the class advancement procedures. Eclair's role had only been to memorize everything said to her by heart.
"Now then, class advancement," Eclair cleared her throat and gestured for Naofumi and the others to line up before the hourglass. "Uhm, it says just place your hand on the hourglass's surface. A prompt or something should appear."
"Thank you for helping things go so smoothly," Raphtalia bowed to Eclair, showing no qualms with having good feelings for Eclair while Keel remained guarded. Granted, it wasn't as if Raphtalia couldn't relate.
"It is my duty as a Knight," was Eclair's curt reply.
Hearing the words, the look in Shiruo's eyes towards Eclair grew ever softer, irking Keel to no end. Pettily, she intentionally stepped between Shirou's view of Eclair and put on an innocent expression.
"Can we hurry with this?" Keel asked before pushing Naofumi to get this over with.
Shirou nodded, but still ended up deciding to trail last in the class advancement.
Naofumi had gone first, followed by an impatient Keel, and a soft-spoken Raphtalia. Each and every one of them shone with a faint halo that encompassed their body starting from their feet, but Shirou's case was a tad different.
The moment he laid his hand on the smooth glass of the hourglass, he tensed, feeling as if he was being stared at. Subtly, the timer counting down in the air flickered into static, a presence appearing at the far reaches of Shirou's senses.
What was that?
There was something there, Shirou was sure of it. It was staring, watching, and practically disappeared almost as soon as it had appeared.
The timer floating before the hourglass resumed as normal, and the same glow then encompassed Shirou. Notifications were things Shirou couldn't really see like Naofumi outside of battle, but the light likely signaled his successful class advancement.
"Lord Shirou, is there a problem?" Eclair called out to him, the rest of his party members waiting on him. .
"No," Shirou said, looking back and forth between his hand and the Dragon Hourglass in confusion.
He shook his head, not wanting the others to get involved if it was really something that could harm them if even he didn't know what he was dealing with.
Unseen, but a notification had popped up in Shirou's status page.
[World Eater's intrigue]
To be honest, class advancement seemed to have gone off better than anyone could have expected. Moreover, it even came with an unexpected boon that saved the group the trouble of finding a mount before leaving Melromarc's capital.
The issue of the carriage without its horse was taken care of by Naofumi's newest Portal Shield. This also meant that the monster egg that Naofumi and Raphtalia had bought from a less than reputable source didn't become breakfast the next morning.
The Portal Shield series obtained by Naofumi allowed him and those he designated in his party the ability to teleport to any destination regardless of distance. The function did have its limitations however. Naofumi could only teleport himself and his party to locations that he'd been to before.
In this case, it was Lute Village, the location where they'd fought their most recent Wave, and a location with moderate leveled Monsters that Keel and Raphtalia could train against. It hadn't been long since they'd sprouted out into grown women from their racial trait, and they'd need time and experience to safely adjust.
Well, that aspect was all reasonable and good, but Keel among others was grumpy, almost crabby in the way that she kept her tail standing on end like a territorial hound.
"Why is she here," Keel frowned, crossing her arms, eyes narrowed on Eclair who Naofumi had transported with them.
If you asked anyone else, Keel looked more like she was pouting than actually angry. The fact that Eclair had moved to stand up for them had thawed some of Keel's hostility, but not all of it when she could still catch Eclair glancing at Shirou in secret time after time. No, what irked her more was the way Shirou was quickly warming to Eclair in her role as a knight.
What was so good about her anyway? Keel rolled her eyes. So what if Eclair was a knight, Keel figured she could do that too if she tried…
"Yeah, about that…I needed to head to Lute village anyway, and Lord Shirou and Naofumi agreed to accommodate me," Eclair explained succulently, at least to Keel's ears, this vixen.
Worse, Eclair was still glancing at Shirou as if there was chemistry between them.
"I meant with us? You could have gone on your own," Keel muttered more to herself than everyone else.
"Lord Naofumi offered though, and Lord Shirou also agreed?" Eclair justified back, clueless of Keel feeling threatened by Eclair's beauty and presence.
Keel opened and closed her mouth, knowing that she had no way to refute that, but wanting to do so anyway. In the end, she could hardly say anything reasonable and was quietly consoled by Raphtalia on the side. Eclair then shifted her attention back to Shirou and Naofumi.
"Speaking of which, what business did you have here?" Naofumi inquired, causing Eclair to knit her brows before responding.
"Something troublesome," she deadpanned.
"Do you need help?" Shirou's response was predictable, and after Shirou's prior display, it wouldn't be a lie to say that Eclair was moved to share his company, but no.
Not this time. She had to prove that she wasn't just some helpless woman, but someone reliable.
"Hmph. I'll have you know, but I am a Knight Captain. I'm plenty capable and can handle this on my own. So thanks, but it should be fine," Eclair said with confidence, a hand resting over her chest in salute. "You'll all see, so please believe in me. I do have quite a bit of pride in myself, you know. I'm one of the few that worked up to my station rather than use a back door approach."
"How reliable," Shirou ended up smiling.
"She's a th-!" Raphtalia muffled Keel's petty attempt to deny Eclair by covering Keel's mouth with her hand and pulling her back. Raphtalia had made sure that not a sound escaped Keel's mouth from there. Eclair deserved that much appreciation for standing up for them and Lord Naofumi in Raphtalia's opinion. Keel's actions were just uncalled for.
"Anyways, if you need it, we'll still be in town." Shirou nodded, followed by Naofumi who agreed.
"Your words are reassuring Lord Shirou, Lord Naofumi," Eclair curtseyed, the action almost regal in her knight's armor. "Then, I'll see you all around."
Eclair saluted then left, her expression growing somber and determined once she was out of sight.
"She's gone," Raphatial whispered to Keel, whom she was holding down.
"She's gone?" Keel perked up, her tail wagging.
"She's gone," Raphtalia verified.
"Good riddance," Keel's spirits abruptly lifted by a large margin at Eclair's departure, a grin stretching over her lips and flashing her canines. She would have yelled 'never come back!' if no one else was around.
"Keel!" Raphtalia chided, elbowing Keel on her side, and glancing at Shirou and Naofumi to make sure that they didn't hear or were listening in.
"What? It's true." Keel defended herself, her arms crossing stubbornly and sending the metaphorical ball back on Raphtalia. "How would you feel if some other hussy saddled up to Lord Naofumi?"
"Good riddance." The words left Rapthalia's mouth before she could even help herself.
Raphtalia deadpanned before she realized it and blushed a second later, no longer finding herself able to fault Keel. W-Was she turning into a bad girl? She inwardly warred with herself before Noafumi's voice broke her from her stupor. .
"Keel, Raphtalia, are you both coming or do you want to explore the village on your own for a bit?"
"We're coming!" Was the unanimous answer.
This moment of peace earned after the successful rebuffing of the Wave wouldn't last for long. Soon everyone would once more begin frantically trying to level up and gain EXP points for the next wave. Rather than enjoy the time to themselves, both Keel and raphtalia were more than eager to spend it alone with Shirou and Naofumi.
Unaware of the thoughts of the two demi-humans, Shirou and Naofumi were treating this moment like a mere outing. They visited parts of the town still in the process of rebuilding and lent a hand. They were then awarded with free meals and told to enjoy local festivities at the village center where celebrations were still ongoing.
The inhabitants were quite friendly after the events of the most recent Wave, and were quick on the uptake. They guided them through folk dances, cheered them on for the various stalls set up, and insisted that they try the specialty dried syrup Lute was known for. However, Shirou called it quits for Keel and Raphtalia when something called a Rucolo fruit renowned for its liquor content ended up in front of them. Naofumi loved the fruit, but Shirou refused to let Keel and Raphtalia take a sample when he himself was nearly knocked out and was forced to detoxify himself with a certain sheath stored in his armory.
Oddly enough though, they never ran back into Eclair despite her saying that her task had something to do with the village? Surely, at the rate Shirou and the others were being given a tour, they would have stumbled into her eventually, but no. They didn't happen to at all.
Regardless, Lute village was quite a pleasant experience, Noafumi and the others finding themselves tuckered out and resting on a bench overlooking the main market place.
"Hey, what do you think about using Lute Village as a new starting hub?" Naofumi suggested out of the blue. "It's in a good location in the middle area, and the roads allow for a lot of those merchant caravans to set up shop here. Still, we'll eventually outlevel this place and have to find our own central hub eventually, but I really could settle with this place," he continued, muttering more to himself than anyone else.
Shirou mulled over the suggestion, while no one bothered asking Raphtalia's opinion. She'd just agree with Naofumi anyway.
"You know, that sounds like a good idea," Shirou placed a hand under his chin in thought.
He reasoned that if he were to complete his dealing with Aultcray, he'd need somewhere safe to act as a shelter for Naofumi and the others if he flew solo for a time. A safe place like Lute was certainly appealing.
Naofumi clapped, rubbing his hands together. "It's settled then, but more importantly now that everything's over and our plans are currently free…"
"What?" Shirou immediately noticed Naofumi staring at him far too intently.
"Didn't you have something to show me?" Naofumi asked eagerly.
Oh, oh yeah, that.
Shirou quickly realized what had made Naofumi so eager.
"Alright, fine. What sort of shield are you looking for?"
A promise was a promise.
A young woman trudged through the forest on her way to Lute village on her own. If her information from her mother's informants was correct, the Shield Hero and his party should have transported themselves there earlier in the day. It just so happened that the woman in question was near the area, and was instructed to facilitate a meeting of sorts.
Arguably, she was nervous, not knowing what to think or how to really act in these informal settings.
A bow was slung over her back, the sight of it, oddly jarring due to her tiny stature and frail-looking physique. After all, the woman in question was well versed in magic, not physical exertion.
She wore a purple corset dress with frills on the ends of her skirt that resembled flower petals. Her eyes, a deep blue contrasted with her blue hair tied into pigtails held up with similarly coloured ribbons. White stockings were pulled up over her legs, and her feet fitted into child-like strap-on shoes.
Her name was Melty S. Melromarc, the younger sister of Bitc- Malty S. Melromarc.
She was at the age of transition between child-like adolescence, and the beginning of maturity- more of a young girl than a grown woman, and yet she holds more responsibility than her elder sister by far.
It was because of such duties that she found herself alone on her way to a designated location on behalf of her mother.
The political nightmare of her father's decision to summon all four legendary heroes in Melromarc had huge repercussions in the response of the other neighboring kingdoms. This was the primary reason that held the Queen down from returning to her country. Therefore, she arbitrarily instated Melty as a proxy delegation with the Shield Hero's party to foster better relations. This was in accordance with the kingdom of Siltvelt demanding that their Hero remain unharmed and well cared for.
Hence, Melty was on an important political mission between two large neighboring countries.
So then…why was she on her own? Where was her escort, her guides?
Embarrassingly enough, she'd gotten side-tracked from her delegative contingency due to her fascination for a group of wild Filolials she'd spotted on the way. Perhaps due to having always followed her mother from a young age, Melty hardly had the time or ability to participate in the activities a child of her age should have experienced. Instead, she grew up learning politics, relation skills, and in-depth problem solving skills. The only flaw about her was her childish interest in all things Filolial with their cute wings and chubby feathered bodies.
It was her bane, her downfall.
Picking out twigs from her hair and brushing off the bramble that stuck to her clothes, Melty felt misery trekking through this forest on her own. If she were being honest, a part of her was already doubtful that she was even going the right direction anymore.
Her feet ached, and beads of sweat were forming over her brow either from the humidity or her exertion. It could even be both.
"...it's hot," Melty complained, wiping the sweat off her forehead with the back of her hand. "Why does this always happen to me?"
"Maybe if you reigned in that hobby of yours, your highness, you wouldn't be in this mess," a voice called out to her.
Melty perked up before one of her mother's shadows dressed in black ninja attire hopped down from an overhead tree.
Oh thank goodness, she was found!
Relief flooded through Melty, followed overwhelmingly by embarrassment at the shadow's silence and long stare.
"S-Sorry," Melty tucked her neck in, gaze focusing on her feet and shifting her weight from side to side.
"Just this once." The shadow pinched the bridge of her nose. "Just this once, I won't report this incident to your mother, but you better take this seriously. You're on an official delegation, not an outing."
"Yes." Melty was quick to reply, head shooting up and posture straightening before she asked the key questions. "D-Did I miss anything important?" She inquired.
The shadow scowled at this, more to herself than at Melty. "From what the Queen thinks, nothing too much really, but I and many others disagree."
"What do you mean?" Melty perked a brow, brushing off the dirt and twigs on her before staring back at one of her mother's shadows with a tilted head.
"The Queen insists that the King seems to have turned a new leaf, and is the most capable man to be trusted with the kingdom, but I digress." The woman scoffed, not believing the opinion, but those were the Queen's words, and she didn't dare refute. "In any case, he's sent the Knight Captain to handle a situation regarding Princess Malty and a dealing she had with a local noble over Lute Village's ownership for the Spear Hero. That's the news you've missed."
Melty blanked, shuddering. She focused on only a single point and practically disregarded all the rest.
"My sister's what?" The voice came out weak, panicked. "Nono- my sister's where?"
"Your sister's in Lute village," came the answer Melty wished to hear the least knowing how much time she must have wasted in her little venture.
Nononono, Malty will ruin everything!
Melty's eyes bugged out before pulling on the hem of the shadow's attire.
"Just carry me to Lute. I-I don't have a lot of stamina, alright!"
"Understood, your highness."
Hurry. She had to hurry!
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