Chapter 36: Hero's Return

To describe the atmosphere of the cease fire arrangement between the various kingdoms - as they and their entourages coasted to a halt at the border between their various territories - as tense would have been a colossal understatement, the nervousness thick enough to cut with a dull spoon as chairs, thrones, rugs and other implements were arrayed in a circle while soldiers, retainers and even the servants sent each other distrustful and hostile gazes, weapons and other implements of war put on clear display so that all other sides knew to tread lightly.

Aultcray had to hold back a sigh as he watched the proceedings, the blatant frustration and uneasiness the assembled host wore like a brightly colored cloak hardly conducive to what they were trying to achieve...and if they had come all this way then they may as well try to make the most of the chance and opportunity bought, instead of squander it before the dialogue had even truly begun.

"And isn't that a quaint thought to have? Me. Bemoaning that this peace may not be achieved. How the times and circumstances change."

The Cane Hero swept his gaze over the assembled dignitaries, all of them taking up their positions now that it had been established no one was going to be immediately dying.

"All thanks to one single individual and a few of his party members, if hearsay from Siltvelt and Faubley are to be taken at face value. I can't imagine that's endeared much of the current group to the Claw's existence."

Shaking off that thought Aultcray gave his wife a significant look, an equally grave one returned as they took their positions, guards and Shadows all keeping a respectful but wary distance from their charges as the rest of the representatives also sat, eyeing each other with no shortage of enmity and barely concealed distaste.

Something that Aultcray felt just as keenly, glaring at the Siltvelt delegation more than the others. They had the usual representatives from their various demihuman tribes but his eyes were for one man in particular, a towering and dignified White Tiger that he knew to be Tyran and the subject of the Claw Hero's warnings of the future alongside the man named Jaralis.

...One of the people he had originally imagined to be the most responsible for his sister's assumed death, now apparently tied into her survival or good health?

Tearing his gaze away he examined the rest of the present company, only slightly more tolerable and acceptable than that of Siltvelt's four beasts. The King of Faubley, a stern and uncompromising man that was rumored to revel in the slow and gradual torture of young boys and girls of the families that defied him. Thankfully he had yet to sire any heirs because with a father like that the Cane hero doubted they would be of sound mind or judgement.

Schielfrieden had also brought along their representatives in a similar vein to Siltvelt, demihuman leaders of the dominant species present while Zeltoble - not having participated to any extensive amount in the brief war - had merely assigned a wealthy merchant whose name Aultcray didn't know, most likely to act as a witness and nothing else.

For the longest time no one said anything, barely so much as a whisper leaking past unwilling lips until a member of the Four Heroes Church - the closest thing they had to a neutral party and who would be ensuring the dialogue was as on topic and civil as could be - stood up and lightly tapped an aged finger on the simple podium that had been delivered, a genial smile that did nothing to alleviate the sour mood pulling at his face.

"Talks of a peace treaty are now open to those who wish to speak, to make their opening statements. In my capacity as a representative of the Four Heroes church I shall abstain from interruption or advisement unless the course of the meeting is deemed too virulent or unconducive to its stated purpose."

Taking a step back it was clear that the first moves would be the responsibility of whoever wished to take up the proverbial torch, Mirellia being that very person as she calmly announced, "Perhaps this is condescending, perhaps it is redundant...but I would ask that all present within this space remember that we are here to discuss peace, to discuss a way forward and to not point fingers or attempt to assign blame, to bring up wounds both old and new that may once more bring down the wrath of a power that clearly desires a state of non-aggression."

Her peace said the Queen of Melromarc stepped back, the rest of the group not seeming particularly impressed as Tyran stalked forward, rumbling, "And is that what we are to do? Meekly accept the Claw hero's ultimatum and retreat with our tails tucked between our legs? The Claw holds no affiliation, no many kingdoms bow unconditionally to a single individual?"

The King of Faubley growled, taking the floor as Tyran withdrew before posing, "Do we know the Claw holds no allegiance? No aligned purpose?"

His flinty gaze passed over the Schieldfrieden host.

"I see only one territory involved with the war that escaped the wrath of the Vassal hero."

The Aotatsu representative calmly responded to the Faubley accusation, simply stating, "We are no ally of the Claw hero, of that we can assure you. Some time ago the Vassal and his party visited our city, stating that he intended to meet with us and form a more lasting relationship as soon as he made use of the Dragon Hourglass and finished an important task...except he used the Hourglass and never returned, making it abundantly clear he had no intention of actually forming a close partnership with us."

The Church representative added, "This did indeed occur, there is no lie in this man's words."

Aultcray sent his wife a narrowed look, Mirellia sharing his concern as they realized what was occurring. While they may not be directing their anger at each other they were instead focusing ire and frustration on the hero responsible for their predicament in the first place...a state of affairs that they didn't seem to realize was going to bring down the Claw's wrath once again. And Aultcray could not have that happen, at least not until he ensured his sister was indeed alive and safe.

To his relief his wife once more stepped forward, stating, "As much as we may despise and find his existence unwelcome or downright offensive I believe that the current reality is we have no real means of turning away or denying the Claw hero's demands. He and just a few party members defeated my husband, killed the Axe hero and wiped out significant amounts of soldiers with little difficulty. Or should I be more specific and say he defeated my husband and the several hundred trained and armed warriors that offered him support?"

While the statement rankled and stung his pride Aultcray knew the example would drive home the seriousness of the issue and just how unprepared they were to potentially fight the man. And while it was childish and even morbid he took solace in the fact the rest of the kingdoms had suffered just as much if not more than Melromarc did...he wasn't the sole case of defeat and disgrace during this whole debacle.

"What we lack is knowledge. Knowledge of what this mystery Claw hero's motives and ideals are, of what specific strengths and weaknesses he and his party possess that we may make use of to negotiate and debate from a position of influence and power."

The rest seemed amicable enough to such an idea and proposal, Aultcray feeling frustration begin to well in his gut at the stubbornness displayed, of how all seemed so obsessed with bringing low the Claw hero. What did it matter what the man had or had not done? That could be divined later, after they had ratified the damn peace accords so that he would stop breathing down their necks.

Resigning himself to a frustrating and drawn out process - that they weren't even a few minutes into - the Cane hero squeezed his knuckles tight-

-and the meeting briefly came to a halt as the distant noise of Filolials approached their position, growing in volume and number as the guards nervously fingered their weapons, unsure if this was some kind of scheme or ambush by their competitors or an unknown party.

Those thoughts came to an abrupt end as the source of the noise rose above a dip in the nearby terrain, the head of a majestic Filolial cresting the horizon...and then it's smaller brethren began appearing as well, the tallest of them barely rising past where the monster's talons met its plumage.

" that…"

"My Queen?"

His wife's breathy gasp was answer enough, the rest of the delegation warily watching as none other than the Queen of Filolial's approached their meeting grounds, dozens of the finest and most wild Filolials Aultcray could ever recall seeing flanking their matriarch as she came to a stop barely a stone's throw away, gazing at all of them with imperial disinterest as the Cane hero hurriedly copied his wife and subordinate's bow, a show of reverence for their patron deity.

Now the only question remained what the Queen was doing here.

They weren't kept waiting for very long, powerful yet somehow dainty strides from the monster bringing her close before the flawless head dipped low, depositing an object clasped in her beak into the center of the circle as all present nervously examined the treasure for whatever significance it may carry...and in unison felt their skin crawl.

While it was crudely carved and hacked at what lay before them was - without a shadow of a doubt - a wooden claw.

Aultcray gazed upwards alongside everyone else, the Filolial Queen's eyes narrowing in warning as her plumage ruffled, creating a gust of icy wind before she returned to her flock, crouching down where she unblinkingly watched the proceedings, the rest of the birds either dozing, cleaning themselves or also observing them with unnerving intensity.

The message was received loud and clear. One of the strongest beings in their world was in the Claw hero's camp and what had already appeared to be an uphill battle suddenly became an unscalable cliff.

A chuckle escaped the Cane hero's lips, shaking his head in defeated bemusement.

"At least I can say that I lost to one who had earned the approval of what could only be described as a god...that lessens the sting just that much more."

It was with a resigned air that the rest of the attendees began discussing actual peace terms rather than plots to bring low the one that had defeated and humiliated them, Aultcray content with the shift in conversation as he settled in to wait.

Home had never felt as welcoming as it did now, Narvas releasing a quiet breath of satisfaction as he pushed open the main door, the windows thrown wide as the cool air of the roiling fields kept the interior comfortable and natural, a roll of his neck producing a satisfying pop as he announced, 'I'm back! And no longer deranged, so that's a plus!"

There was a mad scramble of bare feet on polished wood as his party came rushing to the entryway, expressions both relieved, worried and apprehensive as he raised his hands in reassurance, both Hala and Varsha predictably the first to collide with his torso as the humanoid monsters frantically - well mostly it was just Varsha that was frantic, Hala had a more elegant air of anxiety around her - asked after his well being.

"Master, are you quite certain there remains no ailments that plague you?"

"Y-you didn't look very healthy before you disappeared, master."

Smiling in reassurance as he gently stroked their scalps the Vassal hero replied, "Yeah, I know I'm pulling an UNO reverse card here but I really am in a better state of mind."

Kayla released a tired sigh of fond exasperation, eyes bagged but tail's nonetheless swaying happily as she remarked, "References already, master? You truly must be in your proper state of mind."

Zhua manifested amidst the pile of bodies, small smile tilting her lips as she commented, "Master truly is better than he was before, you may be at ease in taking his word on this matter."

A second-party assurance seemed to be the final bit of consoling everyone needed, Lenia sagging as she chastised him with, "Master, do you understand how worried we were when you simply vanished with only a note left behind? Especially considering your state of mind at the time!"

Nephinae was quick to hammer home the demihuman's point, elven ears twitching with distaste as she added, "Fighting a brutal and fast-paced war, only to disappear after showing clear signs of guilt and unease? Try looking at such a scenario from our point of view, oh wise and brave hero."

That particular point caused Narvas to wince, knowing the Elf spoke from bitter experience with the Primeval Hooters.

"Point taken and ideally learned from."

The man's gaze softened, gently leaning away from the pair of monster girls as he stared at Kayla and Lenia, his first party members never having gotten the recognition they deserved.

"I'm proud of the two of you."

Both demihumans blinked, the Vassal hero's hand landing atop their scalps and between their ears.

"It's not something I've said before and really should have prior to all this...but you two have come a long way from the pair of young ladies who had been left in a slaver's camp, one to no doubt serve as a courtesan and the other as damaged goods. And now?"

He smiled, gently massaging their scalps as the pair stood rooted in place, shocked into silence by the genuine praise.

"You exceeded every expectation either I or anyone else could have placed upon you, flourishing and growing until this, your crowning moment. Fighting and defeating a Vassal hero all on your own, putting an end to a war that would have caused untold suffering and tragedy."

He allowed a warm smile to tilt his lips.

"I'll say it again. I'm proud of you, Kayla, Lenia."

The rabbit-eared demihuman just nodded in contritement, softly responding, "Thank you, master. That...means a lot, especially after everything you've allowed me to do for my sister."

"It sounds kind of fucked up when you say I 'allowed' you to care and reconnect with your sibling, Lenia."

"Which speaks more for the quality of your character than anything else, doesn't it? Considering most would have not bothered to accommodate even that small mercy."

She gave the man a brief but powerful hug.

"Thank you for being the one who took me from that place, master."

Narvas nodded, turning towards Kayla-

-and blinked, shocked at finding a single, glistening tear trailing down her cheek.

"Not the reaction I was expecting, I'll admit."

A full-body shudder raced throughout the fox girl's body, voice tight as she whispered, "I...I never thought that I - some weak little girl doomed to a life of pitiful servitude - would one day have the power to fight. To take down the nightmare that would have haunted me for the rest of my days."

She leaned forward, head bumping into his chest and ears tickling his face.

"Thank you, Narvas...for providing that chance."

"If you want to thank someone thank Xephina and Zhua. I mean if it wasn't for them I wouldn't be here in the first place."

Nephinae sighed, dryly commenting, "If you wish to start a chain of 'they allowed me to exist' causality we shall be here for a long time."

Kayla nodded, forehead providing a brief pressure on the Vassal hero.

"It was you who helped me, master...and that is a fact. One that won't change."

Accepting her words the duo simply stood motionless for a time, Narvas eventually asking, "So since you have this great and wonderful newfound respect for me will you stop with the unending sass and backtalk?"

"Will you stop fondling my tail?"

The Claw hero chuckled, enjoying the way his hand got to experience the fluffy bliss that was one of his companion's fox appendages.

"Hell no. Guess I'll have to just deal with your cruel comments for all of eternity."

The woman chuckled, hugging Narvas tightly before stepping back and pulling her tails with her, smirking - despite teary eyes - at his crestfallen expression.

"Kayla reverting back to her mean and abusive persona aside, everyone take two days off to rest and relax, Xephina will have a bunch of things for us to do now that she's back."

"What? The goddess is back? Actually, what happened once you and Julietta left?"

Nephinae's rapid-fire questions caused the hero to blink, contemplatively muttering, "Oh yeah, I never really explained that part. Okay, so get this…"

"Master, you seem to be enjoying this."

Zhua's idle comment caused Narvas to chuckle, the group staring at him with a variety of dull expressions that were the perfect mix of disbelieving and resigned.

Except for Hala and Varsha, of course. Both monster girls seemed to take his tale in stride as Hala clapped her hands, chirping, "Well that just explains my purpose to have been born at your side all the better, master~! As a Lucent Empress I exist to stabilize and balance your soul. A fusion of such differing minds and ethereal matter would naturally require an outlet for its varying difficulties and trials."

Narvas chuckled, musing, "I think that's pushing it, Hala. But I like having you with me so we'll go with that."

Varsha shyly nodded, stating, "If you have the best of all three of you that means I was born to the correct master, one who would be capable of controlling and containing the shard within me if it ever became too dangerous to remain."

"Or it's because you're adorable and I like having someone to spoil."

Narvas gave the draconic woman's forehead a quick kiss as she blushed scarlet, a sudden thump causing them to look over and find Nephinae with her forehead pressed to the table, grumbling out, "I give up. You're the most infuriating human I've ever met."

"Technically I'm the three most infuriating humans you've ever met. Get it right, would you?"

A long, suffering groan was his only response as Narvas chuckled merrily, Lenia and Kayla merely sighing in resignation as the fox demihuman complained, "Why do I even find myself surprised? Why do I even try to convince myself that I've seen anything and everything that you can do or are involved in?"

"Good question, maybe one day you'll arrive at a satisfying answer?"

"I highly doubt that."

Lenia briefly smiled at the interplay before musing, "So this world's true goddess has returned, then?"

"Yup. We're heading into the endgame now, people. After a short break we're going to start getting Xephina back to her full strength and then take the fight to Medea, best be prepared for a long and difficult camping trip."

The Elf groaned, miserably grunting, "Then I think I'll take you up on that offer and return to the forest. It's high time I ensured its safety in my absence and I think a brief reprieve from insanity will be good for my health."

"It's cute that you pretend not to enjoy our uniqueness, Nephinae. Take care."

Offering a brief smile that belied her true feelings the Elf departed in order to teleport back to her home, Kayla and Lenia also rising as the rabbit demihuman stated, "We'll go and visit my sister, then. It's been some time since I visited and she's no doubt going to be in better spirits, now that the war is apparently going to end before it truly began."

"No arguments here. And let me know if she ever feels comfortable with guys, I'd like to meet her at some point."

"To add her to your steadily growing harem?"

Kayla's teasing words caused Narvas to snort, wryly commenting, "Rude. And the day I go for Lenia's sister is the day Nephinae spreads her legs for me with a brilliant smile and hungry gaze."

The rabbit demihuman rolled her eyes, nonetheless embracing him before they too departed, leaving him alone with Varsha and Hala but before he could ask what their plans were Zhua tugged on his sleeve, stating, "Master, we seem to have achieved something quite interesting."

"We have?"

Glancing at the popups that flashed across his vision Narvas blinked, caught off guard by what he saw.

[Affection with party members Kayla and Lenia maxed! Kyuubi and Blitz Bunny forms unlocked! Do you wish to assume them?]

"Oh fuck I forgot about that."

Pulling up his stats Narvas noted that aside from the unlocked forms he'd also received two pretty significant boosts to magic and agility, at least twenty percent for each one.

"The Kyuubi is pretty self-explanatory but what the heck is up with the Blitz Bunny? That sounds both hilarious and awesome."

Snapping out of his thoughts he turned to Hala and Varsha, asking, "So what are you two going to be up to in the meantime?"

"We shall stay by your side, naturally. It is not as if we have outside connections with others like our fellows, master."

Frowning at Hala's excellent point he mused, "That makes sense and is also incredibly unfortunate. We'll have to work on that at some point provided we don't die."

Shaking his head to clear it he smiled at Zhua, the manifestation returning to her gem as he stated, "How do you feel about helping me train with some new powers I just unlocked? Interested?"