Chapter 34: Carry the Weight
"Master, did everything go according to plan on your side?"
Narvas dumbly blinked, trying and failing to meet Hala's enthusiastic attitude as he distractedly replied, "Went about as well as could be expected. Melromarc is down and out while last I checked Fitoria is keeping a close watch on things in order to make sure nobody gets it in their head to kick off another war when we're not looking. How did you all do?"
Nephinae shrugged, the Elf yawning before stating, "There's really not much to tell, the strategy worked perfectly and Siltvelt is currently down their Vassal hero. Kayla and Lenia did well in seeing to that."
"Good, any removal of problems is good removal of problems, especially when you consider that things are no doubt still pretty tense right now."
There was a brief pause, the rest of the Claw hero's party high spirits faltering as Narvas drunkenly walked to the home's sink, eyes distantly gazing through the window at the roiling green hills.
...Tired as they were they immediately picked up that something was deeply wrong with the man, despite the success he had apparently spoken of.
"Master? Is everything all right?"
Attention barely landing on a concerned Lenia he idly nodded, replying, "Yeah, I'm fine. Just worn out from the battle, it wasn't easy."
That only made everyone else more uneasy, seeing as how it couldn't be more obvious he was trying to hide something or avoid speaking of what had really happened during the battle, or at least what was bothering him right now.
Thankfully Julietta came to the rescue, asking, "Narvas, now that the war has entered into a more calm - if not outright ending - phase of action would you like to begin the process of freeing Xephina? It's my belief that you and everyone else present is of sufficient strength to embark on the long and important road to ascending my goddess to her previous level of strength."
Some of the importance of that statement seemed to make it through to Narvas, the Claw hero merely nodding while dully responding, "We'll leave tomorrow morning then. Everyone take the rest of the day off, you did good work."
Without further ado he departed back into the garden of his home, leaving behind a tense and worried party that had quickly lost much of the triumph they'd been basking in previously.
Kayla rubbed her temples, tails drooping as she quietly asked, "What would Sylphy do in situations like this, to get his mind off of things? Or to speak of what clearly ails him?"
Hala and Varsha sat at the table with downcast expressions, Nephinae scooting over to make room for them as the Lucent Empress murmured, "The easy answer is that he would fuck and make love to her, but I sincerely doubt it was ever that simple."
While the Elf blushed at the blunt words it was Julietta who took charge, suggesting, "Why not let him have tonight to himself and take more firm action tomorrow? Zhua will be at his side should anything more serious occur and perhaps a few hours of rest and time to work through his thoughts will be for the better."
The woman's naturally calming and mature aura seemed to set everyone mostly at ease, Nephinae sighing as she remarked, "Maybe going to visit the forest for awhile would be worth my time...they could probably make do with an extra pair of hands on patrol duty for a bit."
Unfortunately she was the only one who seemed to have any sort of real plan, Lenia not feeling like it was a good time to visit her sister when Narvas was so clearly out of it while Kayla was mentally and physically taxed to the limit, what with finally having her overdue revenge on Roran.
Hala and Varsha were even worse off, unsure of what to do with their free time since - despite their maturity and power - they hadn't really had time to discover any true hobbies or diversions outside of action or adventuring within the party.
It was with a great deal of exhaustion and apprehension that the group went to sleep in small groups, hoping that tomorrow would allow them to properly celebrate and revel in the great victory they had won.
Guilt, Narvas decided, was a wound far more potent than any venom or piece of steel.
He couldn't sleep. He couldn't even lay down properly, the guilt a physical thing that wound his stomach up in knots and caused a raging, burning nausea in his gut that had already left him retching or feeling like he was going to shit himself the few times he'd simply tried to ignore it.
"And here I thought I'd come to know every flavor of pain there was to experience...one day I might be lucky enough to stop having my face rubbed in the fact that I'm very, very wrong."
Yellow, bloodshot eyes with serious bags under them stared back into a haggard, drawn face that was getting pretty close to dehydration, what with all the cold sweat and puking he'd been performing the past few hours...he'd finally found a position that didn't leave him on the verge of vomiting, a hunched crouch in front of his bathroom's sink, arms splayed wide for support in a posture that downgraded his nausea into mere queasiness.
Unfortunately he still had to look into his own face, see what the consequences of his decisions were doing to him.
Because every time he closed his eyes he was back on the battlefield, the crying, puking and shitting screams of dying men and women filling his ears and making his head ache as the reality of what he'd done set in like an inescapable sword of damocles poised over his neck.
Yet again he thought he knew what he was getting into, thought he'd seen every flavor of death and could toughen his heart to the necessity of his actions. After all, the nightmare that had been what happened to the Elves was just about the worst thing that could occur right?
God...just how wrong he had been. At least the Primeval Hooter's actions had absolved him of any guilt when slaughtering them wholesale, the knowledge that he wasn't the one responsible doing much to ease the hell that had been stumbling across the defiled bodies of people whose deaths hadn't been calm or peaceful.
This? He'd been the one holding the metaphorical gun. He'd caused a conscripted farm boy's face to break out into bloody sores and leaking pustules that would permanently scar even if he got the antidote in time. He'd been the one to cause a veteran of many battles with a long and storied past to ignobly choke and drown in his own saliva, drooling uncontrollably due to a chemical reaction he had no defense against.
It had been him who'd caused an entire platoon to start screaming and crying in existential panic as a waking nightmare played out before their eyes, elevated body temperature frying their brains and forcing hallucinations of an all too vivid hell before them.
It was him. He'd done all of that and for what? His fucking ambition? To make the world a better place?
Look into the eyes of the dead and dying and tell them their agony and horrific ends were for the fucking greater good.
"What the fuck was I thinking...what the fuck am I doing?"
How laughably arrogant he was. How hilariously confident that he could carry out a massacre and act like it was no big deal. As if killing a bunch of monsters or snuffing out some idiots looking for a fight could ever compare to a one-sided massacre of men and women who had just been following orders.
For the first time in a long time - ever since he'd first arrived in this world - he felt like he was well and truly out of his depth, stuck in an untenable and completely irrevocable kaleidoscope of failure and overarching entrapment that was eating him alive.
Sure, Zhua tried to comfort him. He was distantly aware of the Vassal consciousness desperately attempting to break through his ever decreasing state of awareness with little success, even the occasional moments of lucidity and peace as Sylphy's soul tried to draw him out of his despair merely ensuring that he felt that much worse when the calm and compassion from his Fairy companion inevitably faded away, reminding him of just how alone and isolated he really was within his own mind, stuck with the ghosts and ghouls of his latest crime.
Shakily wiping the back of his hand across a mouth crusted over with puke and dried blood from cracked lips Narvas stumbled downstairs, barely coherent of his actions and hoping that he wasn't waking up his companions. He'd had the presence of mind to cast a few silencing spells around the area but honestly had no idea if it was even working or not.
Grabbing a glass and a random jar of spirits - he couldn't care less which it was, only that it might numb the bullshit nightmare he was stuck in - the male made to knock back the drink in one go-
"It's a rare day indeed when you see one of the chosen heroes of the world so aggrieved over the actions they must take. Most are either cruel or foolish and have no concept of the chaos or strife they perpetuate or falter and retreat within the confines of their minds, unable to deal with the reality of the situation outside of madness."
Narvas blinked, surprised to find Julietta seated at the kitchen table with her hands folded in her lap, the picture perfect definition of grace and stoicism.
He scoffed, tossing back the burning liquid in one go and harshly coughing at the acidic flavor of bile and booze.
"Yeah, I bet I come across as real fucking sane right now. Picture perfect white knight with no damn defects whatsoever."
A swell of bitterness caused his grip to tighten, glass shattering in short order as its fragments merely scraped his skin rather than pierced it, thanks to his body's enhanced durability.
"You misunderstand. I would wager you understand what you've done perfectly well and are acting quite normal."
Julietta paused, Narvas dully glaring at her features that were absent the usual blindfold, glazed and unseeing eyes of blue focused on nothing as she stated, "During the last onset of the Waves the Bow Hero was summoned by Melromarc and - in true otherworlder fashion - immediately set about trying to do away with the demihuman slavery that is quite common within the kingdom's borders. He was promptly made aware just how futile an endeavor was when his juvenile attempts only made things worse, freeing slaves only for them to fall back into slavery with no other recourse for a livelihood or having them simply be turned away from resources and starving to death, or being set upon by monsters."
Narvas distantly listened, hardly surprised by the information. If the previous iterations of the Legendary heroes were anything like Motoyasu, Itsuki and Ren then they were no doubt a few dozen brain cells short of a pair.
"The royalty merely directed his inquiries and complaint to the nobles that did support demihumans, inundating and overwhelming their ability to support so many. This caused friction between those that should have been on the same side and when the Waves inevitably hit? Many of those sympathetic houses lived far away from the capital, they became easy prey for monsters and marauders as their resources were stretched to the breaking point. And when the Bow hero returned to these places, finding the brutalized and sometimes cannibalistic survivors…"
"Let me guess, he-"
Narvas suddenly stumbled over to the sink, retching up the barely digested alcohol before spitting out the rest, running the water and splashing it across his face, the runoff muddy and pale-brown.
"Let me guess, lost his shit?"
"Put succinctly, yes. Reality became too much to bear and in his madness at leaving so many to die he collected every demihuman woman of all ages he could find, made them his wives - willing or not - and set about to 'repopulate the demihuman race'. And then subsequently attempted to burn Melromarc to the ground, blaming it for all of the tragedy that had ensued. It took the Shield and Spear temporarily joining forces to put an end to his deranged actions, the Guardian Beasts subsequently having to take matters into their own hands."
Narvas scoffed, grumbling, "Sorry, but I see a lot of parallels. I just wiped out a whole bunch of people from Melromarc for my own selfish ambitions and am now in the process of losing my shit because my head fucking hurts, I keep seeing all the people I murdered and quite frankly I rather like the idea of insanity. It'd be a whole lot easier than this."
"Come now, I empathize with the struggle you are undergoing but ignoring common sense and base motivation merely to exacerbate your self-guilt is the height of foolishness. Your ambition was to avert a war all knew was coming and by all rights you succeeded. Your ultimate goal remains to become a god so that you may alay and resolve the constant strife and tragedy that plagues this land."
Her sightless eyes narrowed as they unnervingly looked directly at him.
"You have not enslaved and violated thousands upon thousands due to a faulty character and inability to properly comprehend the consequences of your actions."
He snorted, thinking back to Little Sister and the rest in Zeltoble.
"No, just a few of them."
"And now here you are, shivering and sick to your very stomach at the enormity of the death and destruction you caused, despite the best of intentions you hold. Do you believe Medea would feel remorse had she carried out your plan?"
Narvas let loose a bleak round of laughter, dryly retorting, "Comparing me to a goddess of malice made incarnate? Might as well embed the fucking bar in the ground if that's the standard of low we're using."
"Yet you insist on believing that you have somehow done worse than she, the deity you and my goddess seek to throw down and from the ashes build a world anew."
The Vassal hero sighed, letting the conversation die as it wasn't really helping. He appreciated what Julietta was trying to do and even agreed with her outlook on it...but it didn't matter how much he logically knew and understood that he was a damn sight better for this world than Medea was. The faces and screams of the dead didn't care why they had died, only that they did.
"...I'm sorry, my words were insensitive-"
"It's fine, Julietta. This is just something that I'm going to have to live with and logically trying to work through it won't work."
He forced a small, wry smile.
"Appreciate the effort, though."
The woman's own smile was far more remorseful although her words were as strong and decisive as ever, inquiring, "If logic will not help perhaps action will? If sleep eludes you perhaps going to release my goddess and discover the truth of your unconventional summoning is the medicine your mind craves."
Narvas huffed out a sigh, running a clammy hand through his hair while grousing, "You know, under any circumstance I would have been really excited to learn about that...barely even registers now."
Despite his dismissive words the Vassal hero pulled a bit of paper from his inventory before scribbling out a note on it, informing everyone else that he would be out and about for the foreseeable future with Julietta.
"Alright, ready whenever you are."
"Then let us be off."
Pausing only to reapply her blindfold Narvas activated his teleportation ability, took Julietta's hand as he sent them on their way-
-and reappeared in front of Xephina's sealing tomb within an eyeblink, the goddess's attention immediately being turned their way as her voice sounded out with,
[Has the time finally arrived? No, may I first inquire how the war is progressing, has it ended?]
Julietta calmly explained, "The day has indeed finally arrived, my goddess. And the war has all but ended within but a few weeks after Narvas and his companions alongside myself quickly stamped out the brewings of conflict and strife."
Rather than continue to exult in the good news Xephina was oddly quiet, slowly inquiring,
[Narvas? Are you alright? Or did the worst come to pass and you had to carry out your slaughter of Melromarc's soldiery?]
"...Yeah, I did exactly what I thought I was going to have to do and then had my face rubbed in the fact that I'm not as tough as I thought I was. It's fine, the sooner we get this scheme underway the sooner I can get my mind off of this shit. What do I need to do?"
Even though she wasn't physically present the goddess's unease with his distant and noncommittal response was evident, both women nonetheless electing not to push the issue as Julietta explained, "You will need to place Zhua's gem against the main sealing point, the rest will be handled by myself and my goddess."
An expression of grave seriousness adorned the blind woman's features.
"Bear in mind, Narvas...when this action is carried out the goddess will be weak and vulnerable beyond compare. Until the day comes when we may unseal and gather her old level of strength she will never be able to grow as others do and will be reliant upon our guardianship. And we always run the risk of Medea noticing our plot and taking more direct action to hamper or hinder us."
[It's irksome and demeaning but that is the reality we shall be stuck with for the immediate future. Are you sure you wish to proceed with this, my hero?]
"Yeah, I am. Anything to get my mind off of what just went down."
Doing as instructed without further ado her placed the Claw's gem atop the center of the various designs hidden in the stone, letting his eyes drift closed as Julietta placed the butt of her staff upon the floor, lines of fiery light racing up and across the tomb as the Claw hero felt the air hum and vibrate with some kind of unknown force, skin tingling and crawling as if with static-
-and it was over with little fanfare, the illumination fading as quickly as it formed as drifting motes of dust coalesced into an open coffin-like structure, a reclined and sleeping body located within as it stirred to life, Narvas slowly approaching as he got a good look at the deity he was to cooperate and coexist with.
It was a shame he was in such a despondent and distracted state of mind because Xephina was without a doubt one of the most stunning women he'd ever laid eyes upon, stiff arms and legs carefully heaving herself out of the sarcophagus.
Long, violet-pink hair that flowed past her waist while eyes of a similar shade stared at him with undeniable wisdom and confidence, hourglass form exotically adorned in billowing silks of pure white while a veil halfway resembling a bride's held aloft a softly glowing halo of purple light.
"You, my hero, have no idea just how long I've waited for this day to come."
"Just wish it was under better circumstances-"
Soft, warm and wet lips crashed into his own with heated passion, a blissful sigh escaping the goddess's nostrils as the Claw hero dumbly stood in place, shocked into silence as he belatedly realized the kiss probably tasted terrible for Xephina, considering his state of general unkemptness.
Pulling back with a sharp pop the goddess sighed in pure rapture, Narvas tiredly stating, "If I knew you were going to do that I would have brushed my teeth or something. Sorry, there's-"
"Blood, bile and exertion. Not to mention you smell of sweat and iron."
A salacious smile appeared on the woman's face, leaping forward to possessively run her tongue across his cheek.
"Considering that I have not tasted anything for millennia this may as well be a feast."
Tiredly huffing out a breath even as his mouth twitched in something resembling a smile Narvas responded, "Just imagine how you'll feel actually getting to eat real food."
Instead of responding the stunning woman merely frowned, carefully reaching forward before tenderly cupping his cheek.
"My apologies, hero. I forgot that you are doubtless holding little patience for irreverence and such things right now."
"No, this is a big moment for you. If anything I'm the one at fault here for bringing down the mood."
"And you were the one who allowed aforementioned moment to occur in the first place. We will depart momentarily, my hero."
Xephina turned to face Julietta, the woman having patiently waited to the side as the goddess wasted no time in cupping her cheeks, pulling her low before planting a soft kiss on her brow.
"You have always been loyal and faithful to a fault, Julietta...know that your diligence has paid off and will be rewarded."
"I was merely doing as our order has done for centuries, there is no need for such gratitude when it was performed by my own free will."
"Then my thanks will just be icing on the proverbial cake, now won't it?"
Clapping her hands the goddess announced, "Come, let us be off to your resting place, Narvas...it's high time you learn the truth of your summoning to this world."
Furrowing his brow the man carefully asked, "Resting place?"
His inquiry was left unanswered as Xephina turned to her loyal retainer, requesting, "Take us to the order's home, if you please?"
Unfurling a large scroll from within her robes Julietta laid it out onto the floor, Xephina stepping onto it as she announced, "All in good time, my hero. Come, the sooner we depart the sooner your questions will be satisfied."
Internally shrugging Narvas stepped onto what was no doubt a teleporting array, a brief flare of light surrounding them as Julietta activated the artifact-
-and he blinked away the slight disorientation caused by the jump from one place to the next...or maybe that was just his previous indigestion acting up again. Either way he recognized the architecture as the building Xephina's order used as their main headquarters, albeit in a room he didn't recognize.
"We're here. Julietta? Can you kindly inform those that are stationed here to convene within the meeting hall? I wish to greet my faithful after all this time once I see to Narvas."
"Of course. Best of luck, Claw hero...I pray that we will meet shortly in far better circumstances than the current ones."
Unsure of what to make of that statement but appreciating the sentiment all the same Narvas nodded, the woman departing and leaving him alone with Xephina as she gently took his hand in her own, leading him to a door of solid stone who's only decoration was three lines forming the rough approximation of an upside down triangle.
"In here lie the secrets and truth of your summoning to this world, of how you were created and the lie myself and my order have perpetuated and hid from you for so long."
Narvas frowned, meeting Xephina's resolute but regretful expression as he tried to muster up anything more than a dull sense of unease and anticipation about the whole deal.
"It's rude to take advantage of a boy's vulnerable state like this."
As usual, snark had his back. Unfortunately snark quickly met its worst enemy - genuine emotion - as Xephina affectionately lowered his head so she could place a kiss on his brow, gently stating, "It is. But perhaps you may find some solace in your actions if you knew the truth of your circumstances, of the past and future you now face. And should you desire it retribution and compensation on our part will be your right, after all we have done."
Even in his dulled state Narvas couldn't help but find that comment somewhat disconcerting, Xephina releasing him for a moment to acquire some kind of basket that quickly revealed itself to be full of preserved water and dried rations set off to the side of the chamber.
"How long am I going to be inside of there?"
"Ideally not any more than a day but better safe than sorry."
Leaving things at that as she handed off the container the goddess softly brought Zhua up to eye level, asking, "Will you watch over your master? He may need an anchoring presence when learning of the truth."
[Of course. Master can always rely on me.]
Offering a final nod the ethereal woman squeezed Narvas' hands one last time, placing a palm on the stone door as it slowly swung open of its own accord, the interior dark and unlit.
"I eagerly await your return, Narvas. Regardless if you return in fury or stoicism."
Completely at a loss of what to say or do the Vassal hero just decided to get things over with, striding inside the mystery tomb and found himself swallowed up by darkness, only Zhua's reassuring presence at his side.
"Let's uncover this mystery, why don't we?"
"The last remaining details have just been ironed out and ratified. The peace treaty will be completed and ideally signed in Zeltoble, as it is the closest thing we possess to a neutral ground. If such a swift decision hadn't come about through the blood of our soldiers I would be ecstatic."
Aultcray continued to sit in his chair within the private rooms of the noble's estate provided by their most gracious host, mind far and away from what his newly wed wife was telling him. It was rude and inconsiderate, but the past day had truly drained him of practically everything that had so driven him before.
Anger, grief, rage, vengeance...what had been a raging fire was now little else but shimmering embers doused by heavy rainfall.
"...Lüge, what's wrong?"
Mirellia's soft yet authoritative fingers - just one of the reasons he hadn't objected to their marriage of supposed convenience in the slightest - cupped his chin, forcing him to meet her eyes in a gesture that was more affectionate and concerned than it was domineering.
It also forced him to give voice to his worries and concerns.
"The Claw hero. Several times during our battle-"
The Cane hero paused, eventually releasing a self-deprecating snort.
"Battle...as if it could be called that. Regardless, both before and after he...he told me that my sister was still alive. That she still lived and was happy. Within Siltvelt."
Mirellia paused, eyes widening for the briefest of moments as her incredible mind began to sift through possibilities and scenarios.
"You don't believe he was lying to you? Trying to divert the war before it truly got underway?"
"I thought the exact thing when he first confronted us. But he held true to his story even when it was clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that he held our lives in his hands. He, he named me. Lüge, that is. And he named others too. A man named Jaralis that we should be wary of, for one."
The Queen took note of the name, mentally adding it to the long list of people they should be cautious of as she returned to the matter at hand, namely that of her husband listlessly staring at nothing, the drive and presence he once possessed now a mere shade of its former self.
A sudden chuckle from aforementioned man broke the silence.
"You must be disappointed. The Vassal hero you wed, who held such strength and force of will that none could match him...felled, humbled and beaten after one battle that crippled and killed some of Melromarc's best. Your influence and power will suffer for my failure."
Mirellia was silent for a time, considering the man's words and the truth they held...before gently wrapping him within her arms, comfortingly whispering, "Yes, this is a setback I would have wished to have never happened. And you and I will be mocked by a great many nobles for falling so quickly to hubris...but that is the short term."
Her fingers brushed through the man's hair, comforting in their motion.
"The Claw single-handedly beat you and hundreds of our best. His party killed the Axe hero and cowed two armies far larger than our advance force. They will shout and they will complain...but all know the truth. That none can currently stand against the Claw hero and that you lived where the other Vassal hero didn't."
"Only by his design."
"And there is no reason whatsoever that we need to reveal that."
Something that might have been a smile appeared on the man's features for a moment before fading, his wife holding him tight.
"I still see value in you, still see the core of the man that I willingly wed without the slightest reservation. So what if you are not the great and unbeatable warrior king? None of the other kingdoms have anyone of that caliber either."
Mirellia yet again forced Aultcray to look at her, teasing smile dancing around her lips.
"And I find the prospect of a man that has the wits and humility to set aside previous deeply ingrained habits and beliefs in order to care for his family far more attractive than that of a brute unable to let go of old grudges."
The Cane hero bitterly snorted.
"And all it took was a massacre. If I had just listened to the Claw-"
"Yes, if you had just listened then many would still be alive. Some of those Shadows have been with me since I was a young girl."
Aultcray flinched, the harsh words such a shift from the previous that he was caught off guard.
"...But we all make mistakes. And the measure of us is whether we learn from them. And I believe that you, Lüge, are a wise enough man to do so."
The Vassal hero was quiet for quite some time, eventually releasing a bitter chuckle as he grumbled, "I don't deserve you."
A playful flick on his nose preceded Mirellia teasing him with, "In Melromarc we have a saying that no man deserves the woman he's wed to."
Snorting at the crass joke Aultcray nonetheless rose to his feet, squaring his shoulders as his wife did the same.
"Come along, undeserving husband of mine. Even if the bastard Claw hero killed so many of our own his actions have afforded us an opportunity, one I have no intention of missing."
"Agreed. Let us depart."
United once more, the king and queen departed to wage war of an entirely different flavor.
And now we get down to the mystery of Narvas' background!
Check out danbooru and use ID:2642436 for best interpretation of what Xephina would look like, see y'all next chapter.