(A/N) Happy belated Halloween. Wanted to post this on the weekend but sadly I don't write fast enough. Technically this is also a reupload because first attempt at posting had it stuck on an error in the email alert link and didn't show up on mobile. So if anyone did read it, then you probably have read a slightly different version of this chapter. Because staying up late until 2AM to grind out the last paragraphs of the chapter I really wanted to finish might have made my writing a little stilted. Especially with how the chapter ends, it needs a second pass to make sure it's clear in what it needs to communicate without giving away too much.

Going to give the song recommendation up here since the song I chose really only fits the first half of the chapter. The last half of it...well.

(Story Playlist Recommendation: "Hello My Old Heart" by The Oh Hellos)

Warnings: Language, Implied Graphic Violence, Referenced Abuse


Chapter 7: Check Point


Underneath the smaller tent within the tent is a single room structure with walls and furnishings that make it seem like this place in an actual building rather than a traveling slaver's caravan. Any noble who entered would probably feel right at home, which is probably why they would go out of their way to construct this façade of respectability when just outside is the dark and filthy reality of this place. There is even a perfume in the air to keep the odor outside from entering.

The ringleader removed a key from his feathered coat's inner pocket and opened a safe behind the reception desk. A corked vase was removed and unsealed, it's contents poured into an ornate bowl.

"The ritual will require blood for control of the slave crest to transfer to the new owner. Whenever you are ready." He gestures to a sheathed dagger on the counter.

I give Raphtalia's hand a little squeeze before releasing it to walk over to the countertop.

With level headed resolve, I unsheathe the plain silver dagger and hold out my left thumb over the bowl. Carefully, I bring the tip to my skin and cut it open just enough for blood to drip freely.

Self inflicted wounds do not activate the shield's supernatural defensive properties, it appears. I guess that means the shield won't interfere if it's wielder ever chose to...
(No, don't think about that now...)

Quelling my intrusive thoughts, I suck off the excess blood and staunch the cut with my handkerchief as the slave trader takes a brush and mixes the blood and ink together. My eyes flick to Raphtalia who stands nervously a few feet away.

(I won't leave you behind. Not until I know for certain you are someplace safe.)

"Now, let's begin." He carries the bowl and brush carefully to the nervous demi-human girl and crouches. He pauses upon seeing her flinch and looks as if he remembered something. Turning to me he explains, "The process is not a painless one for the slave, but worry not, it will pass quickly."

I cross my arms but nonetheless nod for the man to continue. If for no other reason than to remove his control over her.

With a single stroke he draws a circle in the inside of the stigma and I can hear the ink seer into the magic seal. Raphitalia grits her teeth whines in pain and I try to keep my displeasure from showing too much on my face.

"With this it is now impossible for her to defy you." The squat man stands up and walks behind the counter. "Now this girl is all yours."

{Contract: Acquired Slave A.}

"Slave A." quickly fades out and is replaced with "Raphtalia" on the screen alert.

A new User Interface pops up with new information I'll need to digest during a few minutes of downtime later. The unlocked features that jump out immediately to me are the "Party Member Settings" next to the "Violation Conditions" and the multiple crests listed next to the Contract parameters: {Slave Crest} and {Monster Crest}. The fact that there are two crests makes me wonder if there are more types of magic seals and what their function might be.

If there are crests that act as curses, could there be crests that act as blessings?
(Or do I have to make some blood pact with a dragon god to make that happen like in Fire Emblem?)

I set all the Active Violation conditions to inactive and discreetly deposit 31 silver coins into a small pouch from the Hero's Wallet. The empty bag glows slightly as it fills with coin behind my cloak.

"Here." I place the bag on the counter and start to walk over to Raphtalia as he counts the coins.

"Hm? There's one extra in here."

I pause to look over my shoulder, "That's for your commission. Magic is skilled labor isn't it? And I doubt that ink is cheep..."

"Ho, ho... Nothing gets past you huh?"

A few more steps and I'm standing before the rasping child. My hand reaches up and undoes the clasp around my neck and in one motion I drape the green frayed cloak over her trembling body. She gives a small squeak of surprise as I wrap her tightly in the fabric and lift her up into my arms.
She is very light.
I tuck my arm under he legs an brace her against my body so that her head can rest on my shoulder. I'm a little shocked that I'm able to do this so easily with one arm, goes to show how malnourished she is.

The Yellow Balloon I had latched onto my side is now out in the open for all to see, however, that just gives me an idea. I pull the creature off and hold it out to the slave trader who flinches back in surprise.

"How much to put a crest on this?"

"A balloon?" The mans eyebrows knit in confusion, "They make poor monster pets. Nearly impossible to train as their instinct to bite whoever is near will trigger the disciplinary curse, more often than not killing the things instantly."

"Do I look like someone who has to worry about being bitten?"

"No," the little man laughs, "I suppose not."

I safely pass the orb shaped monster (since they need to be able to bounce off surfaces to move) to the slave trader.

"Tell you what," he speaks while holding the side with the teeth away from him, "I'll do this one for free, as a bonus for my new esteemed patron, and since the cost for the girl's own ceremony was already covered for in the 30 silver."

I blink and narrow my eyes at the ringleader as he chuckles as he pulls out a finer tipped brush pen with an inkwell attachment from his coat pocket.
(Well, It's not for free if your taking a silver from me, regardless.)
Ignoring that, I watch with interest as he draws a sigil similar to the one on Raphtalia.

"So how much does a ceremony cost?"

"Hm. Well it depends..." The slave trader replies as he works, "For a transfer of ownership only a little under three silver, normally. Higher level slaves require more magical energy to keep them subdued, especially ones with a strong magical affinity themselves, so the price scales with the difficulty." He adds the finishing touches and blows lightly to quicken the drying time. "There have been incidents in the past with lesser mages, inexperienced in the art of sealing, who bite off more than they can they can chew and pay the price for it themselves.

He holds his hand and chants a magic verse involving blood and bondage and something that sounded like Latin or Germanic. The markings glow and the balloon hisses in pain.

"To create a seal from scratch also costs a bit more as it requires the castor's own blood to construct, and some colleges in my field tend to believe their blood to be worth more than gold, Ha!" He picks up the brush that had my blood mixed into it and drew a circular mark in the new seal. "I however, possess no such vanity to let it interfere with business."

{Contract: Acquired Monster A.}

I likewise turn off the "Attack Master" restriction on the "Violation Conditions" list before I take the creature back from the slave trader and let it latch onto my side again.

I'll give it a name later.

My eyes settle on the bundled Raphtalia, who has been quietly observing me this whole time. She averts her gaze upon my notice of her. Wordlessly I lift some of the cloth pooling around her neck and pull it over her head as a hood that nearly covers her whole face. Another surprised noise escapes from her and she wiggles a bit. I shift her in my arms to hold her more securely and spare one final look at the man across the desk.

"If anyone asks if I was here and if I purchased anyone..."

"Fret not, all transactions are completely confidential."

"It better be." I grind out before turning on my heel and stalking out of the room. The less people know about this child and her connection to me, the safer she is.

But by how much in this damned country I can't say for sure.

...

As I approach the exit I place my hand on the raccoon girl's trembling shoulders and lean close to her shrouded face to whisper.

"We are going outside now, I need you to tuck in your head and be very still. Think you can do that?"

I can barely see her chewing on the bottom of her lip nervously before she bobs her head up and down. She sinks further into the folds of the cloak and leans her head against my collarbone. I do a bit more adjustments here and there so her legs aren't dangling out in the chilly air and glide into the dark streets with a purpose.

There is no way I'm bringing a child in threadbare clothing out into the wilderness.

With one arm wound tightly around the small body of my new responsibility and another arm free to launch my pet balloon at anyone who dares to even look at me funny, I make my way towards the only safe place I know in this town.

I avoid the night life easily enough, people stumbling out of bars as I hugged the shadows cast by the lantern lit rooms above, a few tramps were laying out their bedding in the corners of alleyways. Anyone that did spot me quickly looked away after catching a glimpse of the expression on my face.

It took a little longer in the darkness, but I found my way back to the rear entrance to Erhard's apartment. From behind the closed window I can faintly see candlelight. I rap my fist sharply against the door. A wooden clattering noise resounds in the kitchen and the blacksmith's voice issuing a low curse before large footsteps striding to the door.

"Oi! Whoever it is you better have a good reason for knocking on my back door at this hour."

At the rough sound of Erhard's voice, Raphtalia quivers in my arms and I gently rub the top of the bundle where her head is.

"...May I please come in?"

I hear the bolts on the door slide and the draft caused by the door swinging open shifts my bangs.

"Kid?" The large man blinks at the sight of me. He leans over to look up and down the alleyway, probably checking for any witnesses on my arrival, before quickly ushering me in and locking the door behind us. "The only time I see any hint of you is when you're heading out into the fields before dark. What's wrong? Are people harassing your campsite, now?" I shake my head as I walk past him into the center of the room. "Hey...what do you have in your cloak?"

Raphtalia makes a frightened sound and I lean down to console her quietly.
"Shh. It's okay, he's a nice man. He only looks and sounds scary." I shoot a silently pleading look over at the blacksmith as his eyes widen before turning my attention back to the bundle in my arms. "I'm going to put you down now, okay?

Slowly I shift my hold and squat to the floor, uncovering her feet so they touch down on the wood. She still clutches the cape around her as the fabric falls off her head, her hair a tangled mess and in bad need of a wash.
She in general needs a wash.
And food.
And new clothes.
And...so many other needs because I'm her caretaker now.

(I'm her caretaker now...)

She's starring at me with unease, as if expecting me to stop being so careful with her and start yelling or hitting as she is probably used to that type of behavior from adult humans. (If I ever run into her previous owner...) Contrary to her expectations, I fix the green cloth to cover her exposed shoulders and try to pinch my normally grim face into a comforting smile.

"You did such a good job being so quiet all the way here. Thank you."

My praise and thanks stuns her to the point her mouth opens in shock. I can't help but take some advantage of her lowered guard and lightly poke her cheek while my hands are still near. She hurriedly ducks her face behind the makeshift hem of the cloak and shifts in place. I slowly stand up and prepare myself mentally for the explanation I'm obviously going to have to give for why I brought a child demi-human slave (that I bought with most of my funds) to the blacksmith's apartment who is standing a few feet away with his own slack jaw.

To be honest I really don't know where to even start.
We both stare at each other in silence for about a minute.

"Okay," Erhard rubs circles above his eyes, "Why is there a demi kid with you at this time of night? Where did you even... did you go to the slave market?" His voice raises with frustration and I gesture for him to lower his volume as Raftalia hides behind my legs.

"For your information... I was invited to the slave market." I place a hand on top of the tangle of russet cowlicks to ease the quivering demi-human behind me. "Apparently I have a face fit to do business with those sort of people..."

He covers his eyes in disbelief "...What were you thinking?"

"That kids shouldn't be in cages." I reply with a half truth. My actual thoughts and fears were something I did not need to bring up while little fuzzy ears are in the room.

"That's...not what I meant, Kid." Earhard walks over to lean against the kitchen counter arms folded. "Your practically living in the fringes just barely getting by on your own. How are you going to take care of a little girl when you've got all that other shit on your plate?"

"I'll manage. Unless you're suggesting I bring her back there?" I hate myself for even bringing it up in order to twist a knife of guilt into the man who has been only helping me through this whole ordeal, and hate myself a little more as Raptalia gasps and clings even harder to my legs. She must have been looking at Erhard with her big rosy eyes because he glances quickly downwards before holding up his hands in surrender.

"No, I'd never."

"Good, because that's not happening." I bend down to scoop the half raccoon girl in my arms again. This time she boldly reaches her scarred arms around my neck to clutch a fist full of the back of my shirt. "Now can I borrow your spare room for the night or do you have more comments to make on my short sighted decisions?"

Erhard waves me off with a defeated look, "Upstairs. Door's unlocked. I kept the room clean incase you ever needed to drop in anyways."

"...Thank you."

I exit the kitchen and climb the stairs, a lantern hanging above illuminates the corridor in a faint glow.

I miss electricity.

...

There is an unlit candle by the nightstand and, after I untangle myself from the child's grip and set her down, I strike a match from my pack to ignite the wick.

Raphtalia is sitting on the bed a small coughing fit passing over her from the dust in the air agitating her condition. I take a seat next to her, my canteen is empty but I do have that spare glass bottle of well water I offer to her when she's finished. After drinking she turns the glass container in her hands watching as it catches the candle light on its glazed edge before handing it back to me.

We wordlessly stare at one another for a moment. In the dim light she looks like a child whose age is just barely getting into the double digits. She's scrawny but her cheeks are still round and not sunken in, so at least they fed her something. Her bare feet curl and she bashfully looks down, I probably made her uncomfortable with the silent attention.

"...How are you feeling?" I ask, finally finding words to speak.

She twists the hem of her oversized shirt.

"...w..y..." She mumbles something but she's so quiet it's hard to make out.

"...? Do you need more water?" I hope she doesn't have a fever from exposure, sitting in that cold metal cell. I reach a hand to check her temperature but she flinches away shaking her head.

"...Why?" She looks close to crying as she speaks up. "Why are you being so nice to me?"

("Why?")
It's not an unfair question.
But it still causes me to open and close my mouth, lost for a proper answer.

Because there are so many reasons why that can't simply be boiled down to: "Because I want to." or "It's the right thing to do."
Because there is so much untouched baggage that comes with it, feelings that I have shoved aside while just trying to survive.

I...I don't fully understand it myself.
The reason feels deeper than just wanting to prevent her death.

"Why shouldn't I be nice to you?"

I reverse the question. To avoid bringing up any discussion of visions or alternate futures where we are hunted down, yes. But also to nip whatever doubts she has of her own worth in the bud.

"B-because..." She releases her shirt to run her hands up her arms over her old scars, "y-you're a human and I'm a demi-h-human and... and a slave." She has a far off and defeated look in her eyes, probably remembering all the times this kingdom has mistreated her and her people.
(I'm so sorry... I only added more to your pain.)
The shadow of that possible future looms like an executioners axe over me.
But I can not let it stop me now from doing whatever I can to make things right this time.

"...That doesn't matter."

My words make Raphtalia's mouth fall open again in shock as she stares at me in confusion.

"It shouldn't matter." I reiterate, gripping my knees, "Human, demi-human? Free, slave? You are a person and a child. People should be treated fairly and children cared for and protected." I drive my point while looking into her rose-tea eyes. "And I will never deny you any kindness, ever."

The candle light flickers and the bottom of her lip is quivering as she processes what I just said. Just looking at her reaction is making my heart ache terribly (and it all just feels so, so hauntingly familiar.)

Hesitantly, she reaches out to grab the hem of my sleeve.

"Do...do you really mean that?"

Before I can answer her something hot rolls down my cheek past my glasses rim and a brief flash of light glints off the escaped tear as it lands on her hand. She lets go in shock and nervously looks from her hand up to my face.

"I-I'm sorry!" She wrongfully assumes fault and tries to scoot away. She doesn't go far before I get an arm looped around her and pull her into a desperate embrace. Cradled across my lap, I curl around her protectively to where the crown of her head in tucked into the crook of my neck and my arms are secure around her.

I cry.
I cry and I rock back and forth on edge of the mattress.
A mantra of my own apologies whispered under my shuddering breath.

I couldn't protect her then.
I may still not be able to protect her now.
But selfishly I cling to her still.
Unable to do the smart thing and remain emotionally distant, for both our sakes.
So that I can help her in whatever way I can and eventually part ways when sure of her safety.

But I can not help it. I can not help but mourn, weep, and cling to this child like she is a lifeline while I'm floundering between the mental state of what could have been and what is now.

Guilt rolls in my stomach when I feel her arms wind around me in a return hug and the collar of my shirt become wet where she has her face buried.

If I was more the praying sort (if this world even had a benevolent god to pray to) I'd be praying that I don't drag this child into another hell made by that lying bitch and those heartless nobles.

A cold clammy feeling washes over me as the guilt hardens into a grim resolve that sits like a stone in my gut.

Whatever it takes.
If I have to over turn over every rock and log and pull apart every monster's bone and sinew to find and take whatever I need to get stronger.
I'll do it.

My face starts to dry as I rub circles between Raphtalia's shoulders. Her breathing has evened out and her grip has gone slack. She must have fallen asleep while crying.
Poor thing.

I pull the covers of the bed open and tuck her in. My knuckles brush against her cheek and I gently part her bangs so they are not caught on her eyelashes.

"Goodnight Raphtalia" I whisper before I lean over the nightstand and lift the candle by it's holder. Carefully, I walk out of the room, closing the door behind me.

I need to talk to Erhard before I lay my bedroll down for the night.

A grunt and a gnawing in my side reminds me that I still have an ornery balloon I have to figure out how to train. I peel the Yellow Balloon off my side and hold it's scowling face in front of me. It's status screen pops up and lists its information.

{Monster A: (Lv. 1}
Exp: 0/32
Max HP: 25; Max MP: 1
Attk: 8; Def: 9

I narrow my eyes at the much larger amount of experience needed by the small monster to level up compared to the 8 point requirement Raphtalia was listed as having. (Guess these really are harder to train.) It also has it's attack and defense listed right away while that info wasn't available for the demi-human child. Perhaps as un unarmed and barely clothed non-combatant, the system doesn't bother to register that info if it's negligible.

There is even an option to expand the status screen. Focusing on it, the party and slave crest settings minimize to make space for more data on the creature's physical abilities.

{Species: Balloon (Yellow)}
{Type: Inorganic (Demon, Minor)}
Attack Class: F; Attack Type: Natural (Bite)
Armor Class: E; Armor Type: Natural (Hide*)

{*Special Properties}
(Elastic Flesh): Bludgeoning resistance (middling)
(Rubber-made): Resistance to Elec. (small) Resistance to Aqua (great)
(Thin Skinned): Weakness to Slashing and Piercing (great)

"Ohh..." I quietly vocalize my surprise at the expanded resistances I now know about this type of creature. It's stats are low now, but there is definitely some potential for utility if its growths are good. And maybe if it levels up it can loose that "Thin Skinned" debuf like how the Red Balloon was able to resist my bites.

Movement Class: C; Movement Type: Kinetic (Roll, Bounce*)

{*Special Properties}
(Change Trajectory): Creature can change direction of movement mid arc.
(Orbit): Creature can move freely within three dimensional space around target.

I'm glad that all those times I've thrown the balloons as impromptu weapons they didn't change course and come bite me in return. Perhaps that means there is a limit biased on how much control they have of their motion, or maybe they just don't care so long as they get to bite somebody in the end?

There is more information to be reviewed, but I can't put off talking with Erhard any longer. I hold the little orb monster to my side for it to latch on, it makes a grumbling noise as it chews.

"I'll give you a name and something proper to chew on later."
Do these things even need food? Again, these things have no organs unless they eat like Venus fly traps and just digest whatever lands in their mouth overtime.

Maybe there is a Bestiary in one of the Shield's help libraries I can try to find.

I walk downstairs and see the Erhard's back as he is stirring a pot on the cooking range. I idle for a moment at the doorway before taking a seat at the kitchen table.
How familiar.

"Is the kid asleep?" Erhard asks as he ladles some thick opaque mush into a bowl.

"Hm." I hum an affirmative while I wipe away the wet tracks left behind by tears with the heel of my hand, "Today has been an... ordeal... for her." (And for me)

"I'll bet." He glances over his shoulder, "I have enough left for one more bowl if you haven't eaten yet."

"..." I distract myself from answering by picking at the dead skin forming calluses in my palm. Whatever appetite I had left over from abandoning my meal half way through disappeared after my visitation to the slave market. Not like eating wasn't already a struggle with my impaired sense of taste. Yet if I don't force down food I'll be denying my body the needed nutrients to, at the very least, stay healthy and not become anemic. I flex the tendons in my hands as I contemplate what kind of diet I would be able to have while in the wilderness to support more intense training regimens.

Because I am eventually going to need to build more muscle, since my whole shtick is going to be me putting myself in the front line of danger. Even if the Legendary Shield does most of the work via BS defense buffs I need the stamina to be able to out maneuver large groups of enemies and avoid getting driven into a corner.

"Here," Erhard interrupts my train of thought by placing a bowl of what looks like a potato and sausage soup, bits of green floating in the pottage. "If you want it, eat it. If not just scrape it back into the pot and I'll put a lid on it. Should keep till morning."

I sir the bowls contents, suspicious of that statement and of this world's knowledge of bacterial growth rates. "You didn't use cream did you?"

"What do you think this is, some frilly noble's kitchen? That ice box is for eggs and only eggs, maybe cheese if I've got some official from the guild stopping by for a visit."

"Shouldn't magic make food preservation easier for everyone?"

"Easier? Sure it does. But enchanted items can cost a lot of coin, even a frozen jar of fruit can cost one gold piece depending on where you get it from, not to mention to regulations set by the Magician's Guild."

"So there's a Magician's and a Merchant's Guild?" I lean on the table, trying to make sense of this worlds bureaucratic system.

"There's tons of guilds kid, It's not just the nobility who call the shots. And they don't always play well with each other. Hell, there are even factions within guilds you have to dance around to avoid setting off. And those factions will more likely than not have connections with factions in other guilds and it just causes a whole mess..." Erhard ends his explanation with a spoonful of soup. "Don't get me wrong I take pride in my work, but the posturing you gotta do for these people to operate in their city is exhausting."

I scoop my own helping into my mouth and chew, thankful that Erhard isn't going straight into grilling me about Raphtallia. Hopefully that means he's not going to berate me more about how ill timed my decision to foster a child in the wake of another Wave in a few more weeks.

"So..." I pick up the conversation again after swallowing more bland (but not as bad as the pub food) spoonfuls, "like how when you couldn't say which hero sold you the zipper bag because of their dislike for the "Shield Hero," those would be a faction in the guild?"

The blacksmith grimaces before sighing and propping his head up with a fist and side leaning on the table. (Uh-oh looks like I've touched a complicated topic.)

"Let me finish this kid," he points to the remainder of food in his bowl with his spoon, "then I'll tell you all about the church."

Oh...so it's connected to that.
Honestly, I probably should have expected something like that with how superstitious people have been around me. At this point I wouldn't be surprised if...

...

"They think I'm the literal Devil?!" I raise my voice, incredulous to the actual confirmation to what I was jokingly proposing in my head a few minutes before while we were still eating. I slap a hand over my mouth and try to control my volume from getting any higher.

So far Erhard has explained that Melromarc's official state religion is the "Church of the Three Heroes." A fragmented sect from a "Four Saints Faith" that apparently had a large influence in founding this very country. Apparently, long ago Melromarc and this other country called Siltvelt were part of one territory, though the name of that former nation has been lost for some time (or more likely erased from history.) There was a civil war that happened and split the country and the religion of that country into two opposing denominations. So while there is a country out there that sees me as some kind of patron saint and embodiment of goodness and virtue, I am currently stranded in the one that thinks the exact opposite and has done so for over half a millennia.

Erhard tries to smooth over the situation before I have another outburst.

"Take it easy now, most reasonable folks don't really think you're some monster in human skin."

"Oh really?" I narrow my eyes at that, "Because from what I can hear whispered under everyone's breath is that I'm a red eyed boogieman that can put people under a spell if I look at them wrong." So far the only "reasonable folks" I have meet are Erhard and the Pharmacist (maybe the Ringleader, but that's debatable.)

"Yeah...well... That's definitely something that doesn't help your case, on top of the whole..." he rubs the back of his neck just as he nearly brings up the false accusation that hangs over my head every time I walk into town. I scoff and look away.

"Just say it, It's not like refusing to talk about it makes it disappear."

Erhard sighs exasperated by my flippant words.
"You know having a slave isn't going to help with your public image."

"Yeah? Well unless you can tell me where there is any place that would be the safest for her to stay and is far away from the reach of slavers, nobles, and the church, I'd love to know because that's where I'd also like to be for the remainder of my time in this world." I grind my teeth as I weigh my shrinking list of options. At face value the most obvious choice would be to sneak into the Demi-human pro-Shield country Siltvelt, but something in the back of my mind tells me that the moment the people in charge catch wind of my escape to that place it's "game over."

(And I'm not confident on getting another second chance at this.)

I shake my head and rub my temples to ease growing headache that comes with any premonition. I haven't had any "visions" like what happened on the day of the trail lately while awake, but certain stressful events have caused minor auditory and olfactory hallucinations.

"Do you have any gear for someone her size? Preferably something that a would look like something a young boy would wear."

Erhard looked startled by my request.
"You going to have the kid cross-dress with you now?"

"As if I was ever cross dressing to begin with!" I spit out. It's not my fault for dressing neutrally and for coming from a society that (at least on a surface level) has eased up on strictly enforced gender rolls. "And are you really going to tell me that this county's protection of females extends to demi-human's and slaves?" People already assume they can get away with harassing me while on my own and that's as an exiled man, I don't need creeps and thugs to think they can target the kid; not like dressing her as a boy would offer any more protection against such lowlife anyways, but the less vulnerable she looks the better.

From what I gleaned from the talk in the tavern: a society of browbeaten men under the thumb of the women of higher society has cultivated some unsavory complexes that are vented by taking it out on said vulnerable people in their system. The fact that I now know that Raphtalia has been tortured before by her previous owner and that those castle goons would do worse if given the chance already boils my blood.

The nightmares I've had so far never gave me a clear picture of what exactly they did to her. From what I could parse together from the hazy fragments is that every time they would have me watch or listen to what they would do, it would lead to me somehow breaking my bonds and siccing myself onto whoever was nearest the child. Whatever arbitrary limitations that were normally placed onto me by the shield were apparently made moot because I have woken up, ears ringing with the sound of a man's neck being snapped or flesh being torn into and the phantom taste of blood in my mouth. Although it's hard to discern if what I dreamed in the end was actual or just dark wishful imaginings of vengeance. I'm not sure how much difference an adrenaline felled rage would even matter with the Shields strict enforcement of keeping me at a base attack of 1, unless there is some "special action" loophole I don't know about.

Why they would go through the trouble of keeping us locked up and not just killing us outright is still a mystery to me. Other than for pure sadism it seemed like they were trying to see what my exact limits were before deciding enough was enough.

Erhard places a cup of some kind of malt brown liquid on the table to snap me out of it. I must have had an intense look on my face. He himself is holding a flask of what looks like cognac and a cup for himself.

"You look like you're about ready to set the table on fire."

I roll my eyes and half heartedly take the cup in my hands, swirling its contents around. Just as he takes his seat I tip my head back and down the whole thing in one go like a shot and set the empty container down with a resounding -thunk- on the wood. The warm burn of alcohol travels down my throat but whatever buzz is supposed to accompany it will likely not come with it no mater how much I imbibe, as it has never had the past times I've went out drinking with my first year roommate and her friends.

I think it's a hereditary trait from my father's side of the family.

Erhard looks stunned at my nonchalant attitude as I scoot the cup over to him and he refills it without fully registering what just happened.

...

Erhard informs me that he'll have gear for Raphtalia in the morning and I ask if I can borrow his washroom to give her a bath and a haircut before breakfast. He agrees and we argue a bit on me paying for my impromptu stay here, he willing to let us stay free of charge and me insisting that I pay him the normal rate an inn would take for food and a room. We compromise on the condition that, instead of giving him coin, I help him with prepping the forge and doing some housework out of sight from the storefront.

I warn him that Raphtallia might have night terrors though and he jokingly remarks that my stay here wasn't a completely peaceful one so he's used to it.

Hmm.
I must have been really out of it to not remember.

After rolling out my bed on the storage room floor I pull a bag of Usapil jerky and feed the Yellow Balloon who chews on the tough bits contently (although still with that ever present scowl on its face.) I hold the creature at arms length and think about what to call it.
("Bal?" no that's dumb "Louie?" no that's even dumber.)
I glare back into the face as it chews the bits of meat with quiet grunts. What are you going to even be useful for...?

"Bait."

I christen the monster with a title befitting it's function since it will likely be punted at larger monsters and as a distraction and then lure them into traps I've set.
Yeah, I think that fits.

I put the newly named Bait in my backpack and latch it shut so it doesn't get any ideas and try nibbling on Raphtalia during the night while I'm asleep.

The green cape I've been using as a blanket is still curled around the demi-human child and I'm not willing to disturb what looks like the first restful sleep she has had in a long time. I fold and tuck my glasses into a pocket on my pack, blow out the candle, roll over and close my eyes. Sleep will come if it chooses to.

...

I dream again, but this time it begins not in a dark hostile prison...
But in my room back in Japan.

My body feels like lead as I crane my neck to look around
Sensing a presence, I spot a familiar male profile dressed in a grey business suit.

My father (or at least I think it's him)

He stands with his back towards me, his arms are crossed
His gaze is focused on something shown on my laptop screen.
(No wait, the screen is bigger. But I've never had a personal desktop computer before?)

The only sound in the room is coming from the computer speakers. A compressed audio file of simulated fire plays on loop.

I force myself to sit up feeling a pit of anxiety in my stomach, because he's probably going to grill me for playing video games again even though my grades are clearly unaffected by it.

With great effort, I shift my bare feet to rest on the carpet and feel something wet.
(Did I spill my water bottle?)
Looking down I see a dark purple and sticky stain on the blue flooring. Lifting my foot to inspect my soles reveals a red smear, the anxiety spikes and I look to my dad for answers but he continues to ignore me and keeps starring at the screen. I open my mouth to call to him but no sound comes out.

I stand, in spite of the squelching noise and sticky texture of the carpet saturated with blood. I walk to his side to investigate what was holding his attention so much. A window was open, running a game I don't recognize- But wait... I do because the game UI is the same as the Shield's.

It is a third person perspective on the player character, dressed in rags and chains with a sack covering their head, slumped against a wall in a dungeon with fire blazing around them. Piles of what looks like corpses strewn around act as fuel for the fire. There is a tall shield on their arm with an ominous glow.

My mouth goes dry and my throat feels raw as I turn to try to talk to my father again but am shocked still by his sudden change in appearance. His suit is an emerald green now, for some reason, and his face looks years younger than the old weathered face of a forty-something year old man. In his arms is the bloodied corpse of Raphtalia that continues to drip blood onto the floor.

A wave of nausea rolls over me as I hurry to cover my mouth and subdue the urge to vomit. I brace my trembling body against the desk as I stare helplessly at the man who looks like he stepped out of the pictures I've seen of him when he was mine and my brother's age.

"How could you let this happen?" He berates me with a familiar looking scowl on his face. His voice sounds like my old man's but there is another voice layered on top that sounds younger, angrier. "I should have never expected someone like you to be able to protect anyone. How could you not see the warning signs? How could you let things get this bad?"

My jaw drops, the feeling of sickened shock steadily replaced by a mounting seething feeling of resentment and rage.

Where the HELL does this guy have the right to blame what happened on me?
I was outnumbered!
I couldn't do anything to stop it!

"You were too slow to act, you were too cautious in your decisions, you relied too much on others!" He closes his eyes and grits his teeth like he swallowed something unpleasant, "You had the potential, but in the end it didn't matter because you were too weak willed to tap into it!"

He opened his eyes to stare down at the half lidded and marred face of Raptalia, he looks at her with more heartbroken affection than I have ever seen directed at me. "To think that changing one small thing would lead to something like this. This was a mistake." He turns once more to level a harsh glare at me, "You were a mistake."

...What the FUCK are you even talking about?!

YOU are the asshole who helped make me!
If I'm such a disappointment, take some responsibility in the mess YOU took part in creating!

I'm confused, angry.
I want to scream at him and tear Raphtalia's body out of his arms, but it's like something is lodged in my throat and my limbs no longer want to respond to my commands.

Why of all times my psyche has decided now to combine my personal issues with my father and the second hand guilt I feel from the other doomed timeline in this bizarre and frustrating dream I have no clue.
I barely have any lucidity to properly process it all.

The young specter of my father looked at my non reply with disgust and condemnation clearly written on his face. He turns and walks out of the bedroom taking Raphtalia with him. Suddenly I am able to move and speak on my own again, In a rush I stumble as I chase and yell after him. Just as he crosses over the threshold of the door it slams shut behind him.

"You can't do this!" I twist the knob but it won't yield, "You can't just blame me and then take her away!" I beat against the door, the sound of fire from the speakers growing louder and more clearer the more I struggle.

It's the smell of smoke and burning flesh that makes me stop.

I turn around to see the other half of my room broken up and merging into a dungeon. That's when I realize that the ceiling above me is completely gone, and instead it is replaced by a yawning black void.

A feeling of dread sinks into my skin, giving me chills as I look across the now expanded room, chains and hooks hang from the walls and dangle down from the inky blackness hovering over me. The piles of bodies depicted on the computer screen are now clearly those of knights, as their armor lay in the heap as charred husks. The roaring fires depicted on the screen have died down to be as small bonfires lighting up the dark recesses of the prison.

Sitting against the wall on the far side of the chamber is the prisoner.

The chill turns into an ice cold terror as I stare at the only other living figure in the room.

They don't move, or acknowledge me.
But even though their head is completely covered in the same kind of hood they would put on someone slated for execution, It feels like they can see me.
See through me.

I take a hesitant step forward, then another, then another.
Not that I want to get closer.
But something tells me this nightmare won't end until I approach them.

Approach...her.

She's sitting in a rather at ease position considering the carnage around her and the state that she's in. One leg is extended fully across the floor while the other is bent at the knee propping up one of her arms (which are soaked in blood) as she leans forward. The rags she is wearing barely cover the countless scars across her body, some of her toes and fingers are gone with only scarred over flesh remaining, the hand not being obscured by the tall tapered hexagonal shield is missing the ring and pinkie fingers. It seems that while under certain circumstances the Shield has its limitations on how much damage it can deter from it's wielder.

She still doesn't move from her spot as I stand barely a few feet away.

I take the opportunity look at the unfamiliar shield form half draped across her body. The only way I can describe it is, literally, a coffin shield. A large black lacquered shield with a silver trim and silver skull and crossbones decal at the top, below it engravings of roses growing between a weave of thorns decorate the wooden surface. The skull's eyes and mouth where hollow and a ominous pair of red lights glowed from the sockets. It was almost comically over the top like a Halloween decoration, if it wasn't for the genuine grim aura it emanated.

I stare, and stare, and wait for her to say something or move.
Unable to take the suspense anymore, my hand reaches out to remove the hood and get confirmation on who exactly this is before me.

The prisoner's mutilated hand shoots out and grasps my wrist before I can touch the fabric.

"Some things remain hidden for a reason." I hear my own voice chide but instead of coming from behind the mask it feels like it is echoing from the room itself. Despite missing fingers the grip is strong and she uses me as leverage as she stands up.

"Y-you are-" I start but am quickly cut off.

"Unimportant." The prisoner insists, her hold on me persisting "After all, I'm not the hero anymore. That title, for what its worth, now belongs to you. This place is a part of my story, not yours." She releases my hand with a laugh and waves me off. "So just worry about the you that you are right now. No need to re-open old wounds that don't belong to you... for now." She chuckles as she tauntingly flexes the remaining digits on her hand like a veiled threat. "So just do what comes naturally, follow your instincts, after all you've been doing great so far!" She pumps her marred fist into the air and flashes a thumbs up, her demeanor a complete shift from a few seconds ago. Which makes it feel all the more fake and condescending. "You were even able to get Raphtalia a full three days ahead of schedule, good for you! A full three days of extra prep time for the next Wave and all the nonsense that comes after it. So go on, get out of here, finish your REM cycle and go capitalize on the extra time you've earned instead of slumming out in this musty old dungeon."

She makes a shooing motion to me and I stand dumbfounded at her attitude.

(Wait a minute...)

"H-how would you know what comes after the Wave? Didn't I- ...Didn't you die before it happened?"

The prisoner stops her gesturing and tilts their head, "Oh? Did I?" She asks in return before closing the distance between us and brushing the tip of her pointer finger against my forehead. "How would I have sent you your gift had my story just ended here?"

"My...gift?" Is she talking about the...

"I think it's time for you to wake up. Oh and..." She chuckles while lowering her hand to consolingly stroke my clenched jaw. "You won't remember this conversation, just like how you don't remember the last one. Ha, Maybe try talking to me while you're awake next time? But honestly..." The room starts to fragment into pieces revealing more of that yawning void behind it. "It's better that you forget. Enjoy the bliss of ignorance for as long as you can, because the pain that comes with the truth..." The shape of the prisoner flickers for a moment and black fragments start replacing her limbs slowly eating away her body until she is nothing more than a black silhouette.

"...is near unbearable."

A glowing green eye the same size as the Small Shield's orb opens on the completely darkened face and stares into me.

I tear myself away and scream in terror but it is quickly cut off by the floor beneath me disappearing.

I fall,
and fall, and fall.

Then with a jolt I wake up in a cold sweat on Erhard's storage room floor.
The details of the dream become muddled and I am only left with a strong impression of dread and a faint lingering feeling of resentment.


(A/N) Ha-ha. What a weird dream.

But really I've been struggling to decide where to put and how to frame more implications that the doomed timeline retcon wasn't just a one off thing but is actually an important story hook. Because honestly I was considering waiting up until after the First Wave and the Duel to put any interactions with Doomed Timeline Naofumi via dream visions. Because no way am I going to insert a new mechanic like "saved data" into the story without a reason for it, but I couldn't say or show it without ruining the surprise. Because If I did tell the story from a strict chronology and followed Doomed Naofumi a lot more details would have been revealed to the reader before our Narrator Naofumi would learn about it, and I don't think people would want to learn an important plot detail before the narrator does.

Mirror Shield isn't just about how a female Naofumi would be different or similar to canon Naofumi, but also there are mirroring Naofumis from mirroring timelines. (And perhaps even more things are going to be "mirrored" that I'm not yet willing to reveal just yet.)

Sadly however I need to announce that due to the Holiday Season I will not be posting regularly until probably next spring. So yes, HAITUS. I'm sorry but it must be done.
But I will still be writing! So chapters might show up once in a while still.

Thank you everyone who has shown interest in following this fic and have bothered to leave a review.

Everyone Stay Safe, Stay Sane, and Stay Healthy!