ARK TRIBE GAME: Story (9)

작년

Hello everyone,
The story is continuing, and Wild Wind 2 is coming out soon. I'm happy to see that a lot of people enjoy them, that really makes one wants to go forward!
NB: this is a bi-weekly release!

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Image: Courtesy of @Syarrf

Story

Authors: @DjennyFloro, @Michaias

Chapter 4

Part I - Cleansed the Hidden Town (Aurora)

In the morning, I awoke to find Fuwama, in cat form, sleeping at the foot of my bed. Miwa-sama’s bed was made, and his clothes and sword were missing. I wasn’t sure why he had let me sleep in again, but I changed quickly and rushed downstairs.

In the lobby, Enkha-sama and Saint Isander-sama were going over the details of the situation and our plan. I spotted Miwa-sama in the corner with Ino-sama, who was performing a cleansing spell on him. Miwa-sama smiled at me and returned his attention to Ino-sama.

“The village should be entirely evacuated now,” Enkha-sama told the rest of the group. “Anyone you see who is not affiliated with us should be considered hostile.”

“Based on Aurora-chan’s information yesterday, we know the locus of the heretics’ illusion,” Saint Isander-sama said. He looked to Enkha-sama.

I couldn’t help but ponder what that look communicated, and I wondered if Saint Isander-sama would have used the diminutive “chan” if not for Miwa-sama’s actions at the dinner table. Now I must have just looked like some young, inexperienced girl who was going to cause strife between guildmates. Miwa-sama appeared at my side, and I started fuming all over again.

“You shouldn’t make such a face,” Miwa-sama whispered to me. I hadn’t realized I was even making a face.

“Aurora,” Enkha-sama said. “We’ll need you to reveal that illusion. You’re the only one among us with such a power.”

Now I understood why I had been sent here, and I wondered how much of this Enkha-sama or Master Kayuki had known ahead of time. This was a critical point in the mission, and if I couldn’t properly perform the Revelation spell or had gotten too injured beforehand, then this whole town would have been doomed.

After some more planning, we had a light breakfast. Miwa-sama took the opportunity to tell me he had already spoken with the others about what happened last night. He said he had let them know he was angry that so many guys had made advances on me in a single day and that the entire scene had been his fault. Apparently, Enkha-sama’s only response was that because I was the junior in the guild, it was everyone’s responsibility to protect me.

“Does that mean you’re apologizing?” I asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“But now Saint Isander-sama is referring to me as chan,” I said. Miwa-sama looked baffled. “He only said that because you made me look like a yes-girl waiting for a man. My reputation is damaged.”

“You’re reading too deeply into this,” Miwa-sama said. “You’ve earned the respect of your guildmates, but they’re all a couple hundred years older than you. So you’ll have to forgive them if the occasional chan slips out, especially if it’s from a guild member who only just met you.”

I didn’t like it, but I also didn’t have much of a response to that. He was right, of course. I was at least thankful that he had clarified the events of last night. I expressed my gratitude, and his contrite look told me he really was upset with himself for causing such a scene.

Enkha-sama interrupted our conversation with the announcement that we would be departing in a few minutes and that we should finish up our meals. I gulped down the rest of my juice and prepared to go outside.

As I neared the exit, Saint Isander-sama abruptly cut off his conversation with his second-in-command and pulled me aside. Saint Inoio-sama looked taken aback, but also drawn into the conversation Saint Isander-sama began with me. “I saw the face you made when I referred to you as chan,” Saint Isander-sama said.

“Oh…” I replied. So Miwa-sama wasn’t the only one who saw it. “I apologize, Saint Isander-sama.” I bowed slightly.

As Saint Inoio-sama lingered for another second, Saint Isander-sama shooed him away. He left the inn begrudgingly.

“No, my apologies, as well,” he replied. “You just seem so...young...to me.” He inspected me as if sizing up my ability. I stood as straight as I could.

“At any rate,” he said, “Kenten tells me you fought admirably in the forest, despite having a soul-injury.”

“I’m thankful to hear Enkha-sama approves of my work,” I said, blushing.

“Indeed. I look forward to seeing you in combat today.”

“Thank you, Saint Ankha-sama,” I said.

“Oh, please, call me Isander,” he replied.

“Yes, sir, Saint Isander-sama.”

He sighed. “I am concerned about that soul injury, however.”

“It’s from my broken soul-accessory, Luxina, my tiara,” I said, quickly adding, “but I won’t let it slow me down.”

“Hm,” he grunted. “On that note, I do have a message for you, as well.”

“For me? From King Asami’s court?”

“No. From your High Priest. The message traveled through a few different people, but it seems your god sent your High Priest to one of our guild members, insisting that you would be in dire trouble if all your soul-weapons weren’t accessible today.”

“I see. That sounds... ominous,” I said. The last time I had absolutely needed my soul-weapons for a mission was when I went to slay an abyssal, and that was how Luxina had been damaged.

I didn’t like the prospect of facing another such enemy, but tried not to fret too much over that concern. I would just have to do my best to manifest Luxina, should the need arise.

“Perhaps you should attempt to summon your soul-accessory now?” Saint Isander-sama suggested.

I nodded and told him I would prefer to try this alone so that I could concentrate. He agreed and followed the rest of the Saint and Holy Guards, which had already filed out the door. I began reciting the soul-binding spell.

“Crown forged in Heaven, in the name of thy creator Huujuei, I call upon thee. May thou reveal the mysteries of the universe. Calling upon the shard within me, I, Aurora, who was entitled to obfuscate the truths that should remain unseen, pledge myself to the God of Mysteries, and through thee unravel the truths beyond the lies. Awaken, Luxina, and reign over all that is known!”

An ethereal tiara appeared on my head and, to my surprise, lingered that way for a moment. It shimmered, and I couldn’t quite make it materialize. After a minute or so, I gave up, realizing it was simply going to take time. If my God’s message was right, and there was no reason to doubt it, I would need my soul-accessory before the day was done. Just to reassure myself, I also recited the soul-binding spell for my weapon.

“Ten Shapes for Ten Commands. Embodiment of the Ten Laws of Heaven and Hell, Will of the sky, thou that impose the divine wrath and prophesy the apocalypse, revealing all the mysteries, arise and in thy wake leave naught but the end of time!”

A large two-handed sword materialized in my grip. Due to its magical gravity capacities, the sword felt quite light despite its size, so I could easily wield it with a single hand.

I studied the sword’s familiar, intricate, winged black guard centered by a ruby. The blade was also pitch black but embellished with crimson lines that made it seem like blood was dripping from it. The handle was also black, and a few black ribbons with white runes written on them trailed from its end.

I could keep the blade summoned, of course, and feeling its weight in my hand did offer a kind of reassurance. I felt more at ease knowing the weapon was at my side. I dematerialized Ten Commands and proceeded out of the inn.

Once out the door, I joined the Saint and Holy Guards, and we marched as a unit to the place where Kintama had found the sentinels the previous day. I could see clearly through the illusion. The sentinels were still there, but looking much more nervous now that we had brought reinforcements.

As I raised a hand to begin the Revelation spell, the sentinels disappeared deeper into their illusory town, presumably to gather their own reinforcements.

I began to sing the Revelation spell. The illusion wavered, but not much else happened. Saint Isander-sama and Enkha-sama stared straight ahead, patiently waiting. I tried again, but only produced the same effect.

“Is something wrong?” Miwa-sama whispered in my ear. I shook my head and tried again. And failed again.

“I’m missing something…” I mumbled. Enkha-sama looked calmly my way and gave me a slight nod and smile.

As I used my True Sight, I realized I couldn’t see very far into the hidden town. The more I studied it, the more I realized something was off about it. My attempts to materialize Luxina to help me unravel the mystery were futile. Rather than summoning my crown, I was met with an excruciating pain that encircled my entire head. For a moment, I panicked.

As I collected my thoughts, I realized that my soul-accessory still wasn’t in sync with my own soul. I had materialized it momentarily before, so it was reintegrated with my soul, but too recently. I was suffering from soul dissonance, which made it impossible to manifest Luxina. Any more attempts would result in that same kind of pain. It wasn’t doing any real damage, but the pain was enough of a deterrent.

I would need to wait before trying to materialize Luxina again, and to solve this particular mystery without my tiara’s help, I needed to be clear-headed. I counted my breaths up to five or six before looking at the illusion again.

This time, I saw the truth. This was not merely an illusion. Of course! Beyond the illusion, the hidden town was more than just obscured: it was physically separated from our space altogether.

I understood the Truth of Separation long ago, and focused on its implications. The rest of the hidden town came into view. The obscured space became populated with buildings, roads, and heretics. Now I could reveal these mysteries for my guildmates.

I chanted the Unison spell, and the hidden town took form for my companions. The enormous number of heretics had been transformed by my previous Revelation spell into their real, hideous physical forms. The Saint and Holy Guard members reached for their weapons.

A group of the heretics studied their own distorted limbs in dismay. One of them brushed his hands against his body, as if he could wipe the miasma away, but it was a part of him now. They were all too far gone. That heretic raised his head and fixed his eyes, full of fury, right on me. He charged.

Before he reached me, Miwa-sama nocked an arrow and let it fly in one swift movement, striking the heretic down. He leaned forward as if daring more to charge, and they did. A growing number of them poured out of the previously hidden buildings and ran straight for us.

My guildmates met them in combat. A few charged through their defenses, and made it to me. He collided with my body.

“Gods’ dog!” the heretic screamed as he swung his clasped fists downward toward me. I dodged out of the way. “What have you done to us? Change us back!”

He threw a wild punch in my direction. I dodged it again. This time, I had time to summon my soul-orb, and with a sweep of my hand, a ring of fire encircled me, separating me from the heretic. He was enraged and glowered at me through the flame.

“Heresy isn’t a matter of disobeying the gods, or even acting against them. Those are sins, and they don’t condemn you in the afterlife,” I said. “Heresy is when you or your fallen god damage reality so much the gods can’t even fix it. Your miasma-infested abomination of a body is just the start. You’ll never be reincarnated. You’ll just be obliterated. You did this to yourself.”

“Liar!”

“Think what you want,” I sighed, knowing he would not believe me. “At least you will die knowing the truth about yourself.”

I made a broad move and a wind blast of purification hit him. Not the most pleasant sight, but the miasma that composed his body instantly purified, and he disappeared in a mist of greyish energy. I dissolved my wall of flame and jumped backward to avoid the miasmatic mist. Two more heretics jumped at me from behind, but Fuwama and Kintama’s sharpened claws killed them. I purified Miwa-sama’s familiars and thanked them. A pat and scratch behind the ears, and we were good to go.

While I dealt with those few enemies, the Saint and Holy Guards had cleansed the nearby areas. There was no trace of the heretics’ bodies left besides the dried fluids of the miasma that had overtaken them. I knew that the Saint Guard was a raw brute force. That much was apparent from our forest fights, but seeing them work at full force was totally different. As I examined the surrounding, the reality sunk in slowly for me... Chiki-sama had been right: they were powerful enough to rid a town of half its population.

Something got my attention, and I asked Fuwama and Kintama to follow me. They didn’t, of course, but I knew they would send a telepathic message to their master. I didn’t have time to retrieve him myself.

I drew my sword while I slowly approached a house. As I looked at it with my True Sight, it seemed just like the house it was, but something was off about it and I couldn’t tell what. The mixture of illusions and separations was certainly new for me, and the combination made it difficult to keep track of what was really there or not.

A series of telepathic images blasted into my head and distracted me. It had to be Fuwama trying to help, but it only confused reality for me more. I tried asking him to stop, but the images just became more frantic and panicked.

I didn’t make it inside the house. As I approached, the front door swung open, and something...monstrous...charged me. I didn’t get much of a chance to avoid it. It rushed at me, a flurry of arms. The creature struck me, knocking me to the ground, and then rushed past. It leaned back and howled to the sky as I scrambled to get back on my feet.

The creature made a second pass, and the last I remember of it was its barrage of fists raining down on me. Its miasmatic blood spilled on my body, and I was practically paralyzed.

I had been close enough to death so many times at that point in the mission that I think I had made peace with the idea. My thoughts drifted to Miwa-sama’s familiars, not in their tiger forms, but their cuter cat forms.

Shouts and the sounds of battle echoed around me. I heard Fuwama and Kintama roar, and I struggled to hold onto their meowing forms, instead. An arrow whistled over me, and a vicious howl pierced the air.

Moments later, I felt hands on me and tried to shield myself. But they didn’t belong to the monster. They were Chiki-sama’s. “She is alive,” he said, “but her heartbeat is fading.”

I knew I wouldn’t likely survive another of Ino-sama’s purifications. I had simply been through too many of them recently, and I knew how bad this injury was. But I also realized I didn’t have a lot of other options. No one would stop him if he tried again. I leaned my head back on the ground and prayed.

“Get that away!” Chiki-sama shouted. He lifted and carried me into a house, where he laid me down on a mattress, and I heard Miwa-sama arguing with him.

“I don’t know exactly why, Chiki! But my God told me to do it!”

I felt Fuwama press his mouth against my stomach, and there was something small and furry held in his jaws. It was a rat, and it was still alive. Fuwama sent me an image of me holding the rat. I didn’t understand, and it didn’t seem like Fuwama did either, but he was confidently obeying Miwa-sama’s orders.

I fumbled my fingers around the rat, hoping it didn’t bite me. Nothing happened at first, but Fuwama was insistent about me not letting the rat go. I resumed my prayer to my God, preparing for the end. To my surprise, the rat began to glow and to grow larger. It grew big, to about the size of a cat, and my body felt some relief.

“Her condition... is getting better,” Chiki-sama said.

It seemed that the rat was taking on the miasma that had afflicted me, but it was small and wouldn’t be able to absorb much.

“It’s odd,” Miwa-sama said. “The God of Nature sent me a vision again.”

“Of…?” Chiki-sama said.

“Of...this,” Miwa-sama replied, distracted, as he performed a purification spell.

“Not that any of this makes sense, but you’re going to kill the rat like that,” Chiki-sama said.

Amazingly, the rat didn’t die, but it shrank. Again, I felt the miasma leaving my body, and again, the rat grew. Each time it did, Miwa-sama purified it, and each time he purified it, it grew impure again.

“She’s stabilizing,” Chiki-sama said. “Why are the gods intervening so much? Mine sent me a vision to clear the Bringers around her just as Kintama called you to save her. And what the hell are we doing with this rat?”

“I don’t know what we’re doing either,” Miwa-sama answered. “But it damn sure feels like the gods are making sure she doesn’t die… which for your god is very unusual.”

In that moment, the rat, of all things, sent me a telepathic image like Fuwama had done before. “I think, it’s...my familiar for now,” I said.

“I didn’t know you could even have a familiar,” Miwa-sama said. “Hell and heaven be my witness, I would have found any animal at hand but a rat!”

After a few more rounds of purification, I was well enough to sit. My hair was a mess, and I tried fixing it, mostly to no avail. After messing my hair up in different ways, I stood as best I could and began to chant a spell. I had a hunch that if the rat could survive those purifications, then it could probably do a bit more.

As those thoughts drifted in, energy suddenly rose around me to a greater degree than I had ever personally experienced before. I thought it was his doing at first, but then I realized that I had this sensation before. In my state, I hadn’t seen or sensed it, but the ethereal finger of my God had touched me.

“Your eyes,” Chiki-sama said. “They’re completely silver.”

“Aurora… you just became an adept,” said Miwa-sama.

I smiled, realizing Miwa-sama must be right, but I had to focus all my energy to harness this new power. When I was finished, the rat suddenly took a semi-human form. It looked at me for a moment, put its hand on me, and sent me a telepathic image of itself protecting me. Then it returned to its normal animal form.

“What... was that?” Miwa-sama asked.

“A countermeasure,” I said looking at my feet. “A lesser abyssal has appeared, from the Abyssal of Deceit… One of the heretics turned into a…” I hesitated to use the word crestfallen “...into a creature I have no words to describe.”

“Our eyes saw,” he said. “So the abyssal’s influence, huh? That’s why it had such a shape...”

“Yes,” I said. For a moment, I entertained the hope that the crestfallen had been alone, but I knew it wasn’t likely. “There is one more hidden place. We’d better hurry to its entrance. Now I can reveal it.”

Strengthened by my god, and completely purified by his touch, I felt capable of walking. We left the house Chiki-sama had carried me into. Enkha-sama and the others arrived and said that the town was clear, but Chiki-sama told them we weren’t done yet. Another illusion had been cast.

I began to chant the Unison spell again. As I did, my hair became darker, and the magic gathered smoothly in the area. When the Unison spell completed, the scenery changed entirely around us. There was a whole other town, and nestled inside it were even more abyssal-touched people.

“I need to keep my energy for the spell that hides the last part of the town...” I said, frowning.

“Follow behind Miwa,” said Enkha-sama. “We’re taking you there.”

I looked at Miwa-sama, who seemed concerned, and positioned myself by his side. He continued to watch me. “How are you holding up?” He asked. “This mission is becoming rather dangerous and involved.”

“I really find myself pathetic,” I confessed, looking away at Ijil-sama. “I know I’m not a saint, but I can’t hold even a candle to you all. Those are all abyssal-touched, but it doesn’t even seem like it tires you.”

I watched as Ijil-sama and Enkha-sama moved as one to the left.

“It’s not like it’s our first time doing such a job,” Miwa-sama said. “And you may not have the firepower of a Saint, but you’ve proved yourself to have some effective skills. That and you’re an exalted now!”

I gave him a small smile, but I think he could tell it was nothing more than politeness. I didn’t feel terribly critical to the mission’s success. Sure, I had kept them from getting injured and maybe, maybe, even saved their lives, but I had also nearly died three times in the last few days. At any rate, I had to try to live up to what Miwa-sama claimed I was capable of doing.

“Miwa-sama, I sense a crestfallen here,” I said, pointing at a house. My hopes of the last one being isolated were dashed, my fears confirmed.

“Bring me the crestfallen,” Miwa-sama ordered his familiars. Once they had charged toward the house, Miwa-sama leaned over to me and whispered, “What the hell is a crestfallen?”

This time, I gave him a genuine smile. I wasn’t sure if he was joking or not. If he hadn’t figured it out from the last creature, then he’d find out soon enough. Barely in sight, the creature teleported me to it, and I found myself encircled by a magical barrier.

I needed to save my energy, so I called on my new familiar. My rat appeared beside me and took on its half-human form. It extended one hand out, and I gave it my sword. It immediately went to work.

The crestfallen kept trying to attack me, but I dodged out of the way of each attack, and my new familiar focused on attacking. Eventually, the crestfallen had to ignore me and focus on my companion. My guildmates came rushing to the battle and paused right outside the crestfallen’s barrier. I crept to the interior edge of the barrier and waited near my allies as we watched the sword fight.

“That swordsmanship is incredible,” said Enkha-sama.

I stared in awe, too. Finally, I knew what it was like to have a familiar go to any length to protect me. Fortunately, the crestfallen was no match for my familiar. I never even had to participate in the fight and could preserve my strength.

The barrier fell immediately after and my familiar returned my sword, transformed back into its original form, and then crawled onto my shoulder. We resumed our advance. Enkha-sama glared at Miwa-sama, and I didn’t need telepathy to see he was reprimanding Miwa-sama for not protecting me better.

“Sorry, I’ll be more careful from here on,” Miwa-sama said.

“But I’m a fighter, too, you know...” I said, feeling somewhat guilty about Miwa-sama being reprimanded because of me. I didn’t feel like I was pulling my own weight. Miwa-sama seemed chagrined, but I didn’t know how to reassure him.

We continued toward the end of the road, and I sensed many enemies ahead. “Wait,” I said. “There are at least a hundred crestfallen ahead... but high-level ones.”

“Let's get them then,” Chiki-sama said. “I want to finish this mission today.”

“Sure...” I said, letting out a sigh. “I know how important it is for you not to miss dinner.”

I chanted another spell, and for a short while, all of my guildmates were granted the ability to “see” the unseen.

“My eyes hurt,” said Chiki-sama.

“Oh, did I cast too much magic on you?” I asked apologetically.

“No, it’s just that my eyes haven’t seen something this ugly before.” He grimaced.

“Not even Lady Maria?” Miwa-sama said, smirking. “I find a certain similarity...”

“Hey now!” said Ijil-sama. “I slept with Lady Maria, and I wouldn’t bed something remotely similar to...whatever these things are.”

My guildmates had already begun to fight, but I was laughing almost to tears at that remark. I had to dodge a few enemies, their blows nearly landing, as my familiar dodged on my shoulder, too.

Stabilizing on my feet, I made a few fluid gestures and froze the air before me. I plucked an ice spear from the frozen air, then created a wind blast to help me launch the spear into an enemy. With another gesture, I sent the remaining ice shards ahead like daggers to clear the way.

Ijil-sama eyed me.

“Sorry, sorry,” I said. “I would have thought that it would take at least Master’s command to make you bed such a woman as Lady Maria.” I shrugged, trying not to laugh again.

He nodded and answered, “It does. My job was to get information from her.”

“I know the feeling. I had such a mission—” I said, stopping an instant to parry a blade, “where my brother was supposed to seduce a woman, get some documents, and make a run for it. I was merely supposed to be the backup in case the guards caught him.”

I had to stop again, but for longer, as there were two enemies on me. Enkha-sama managed to finish some of his, and to take out the ones in close-quarters combat with me.

“He was doing well,” I continued, “when the father, a human with easily four to five decades behind him, arrived. He found me standing before the door of his daughter, and I looked for an excuse. All I could find was that I was so amazed at his accomplishments that I stayed there because I thought it was his office. My aim was to chat up the father, but suddenly he took me to his room. I was shocked enough to kill him, but I had a mission to accomplish. So I accepted, but I used my divine sight at our first kiss, so he fell fast asleep on his bed.”

“That’s not the worst of outcomes,” Ijil-sama said.

“At the time, I didn’t think there was anything worse for a fifteen-year-old girl than to have her first kiss with a sloppy old man who almost constantly drooled and repeatedly scratched his crotch while hitting on little girls. But now that I look back on it, I guess it’s not the worst thing in the world.”

I created a bastard sword with an earth spell and sharpened its blade with an ice spell. I widened my stance and made one arcing swing that cut several of the nearby creatures in two. As soon as the swing was over, I jumped backward and raised a hand to prepare another spell.

“In light of that, I guess it was easier for me to bed Lady Maria than for you to kiss that man,” Ijil-sama said.

I nodded, but didn’t respond directly. He looked genuine in his response. “There’s not many more left,” I said, feeling relieved.

“If you are tiring, you can back off,” said Enka-sama. “We’ll finish the rest.”

“I can fit in a few more before I have to spare my energy for the next spell,” I answered.

“Then rest now,” said Chiki-sama. “Better safe than sorry.”

“Hum... okay...” I pouted.

Miwa-sama picked on a last group of Crestfallen and had his familiar isolate one near me. Then he said, “For you,” and my mood lit up like a Family Day Tree. Chiki eyed Miwa-sama, but he only shrugged in response, as if saying, What can you do?

I froze the heretic solid and summoned Ten Commands. I swung the blade, and the enemy fell to the ground with a satisfying smack.

“Oh, thinking of Lady Maria reminds me...” said Ijil-sama as he finished off a few enemies, “your boyfriend seems quite the promising warrior.”

“My... boyfriend?” I asked, feeling lost.

“The guy from the Faith of Nature you’re always with,” said Enkha-sama.

“Miwa-sama?” I asked. “He’s right here, you know?”

Miwa-sama looked at me, seeming just as confused. “Ijil,” he said, “we’re hardly dating—”

“No, not Miwa! That other guy,” Ijil-sama said, struggling to find the right words to describe him. “Tall, kind of skinny, been on a few missions... Giga? Ginger? Gaga...something like that.”

I racked my brain. “Genji?” Surely, he couldn’t mean Genji...

“Yes, that one!” Ijil-sama said, snapping his fingers and pointing at me.

“No,” I said, shuddering. “No, no, no. He’s not my boyfriend. He’s fine as a friend and work partner, but....I wouldn’t date him under threat of arms...”

Enkha-sama and Ijil-sama looked at each other. Ijil-sama silently mouthed, Yikes, while looking from Enkha-sama to Miwa-sama, who was grinning but not saying a word.

I decided against saying anything else. We had reached the next place, the last place, I would have to reveal. I raised my hand to begin the Unison spell, followed by the Revelation spell again, but this time the effect lasted much longer. I channeled more energy than I had ever felt before, and my guildmates gasped when a giant castle appeared.

I felt immediately drained, like my aura had activated briefly and then been dulled. I felt weakened, hindered, like I was no longer an exalted, but back to being an adept. I looked around the area, trying to determine if something was suppressing my new powers. Ultimately, I decided that it was probably just difficult to manage all that new power.

“Some of us will need to stand guard here,” Enkha-sama said. “We don’t want any heretics to escape as we siege this castle.”

“I’ll give the order to the Holy Guard,” Saint Isander-sama said. He turned to deliver the orders to his men. As he did so, Ijil-sama came closer to me.

“While he’s busy, how about telling us more about Genji?” asked Ijil-sama. He was grinning, clearly enjoying teasing me.

“There’s nothing much to say. Even when he has a woman in bed, he likes to have his familiars as close as possible, and to play with them, too. I heard that from him in person,” I replied.

“Let me clearly say that is by no means a standard amongst us,” Miwa-sama said, seeming appalled by the idea of being that friendly with one’s familiars. “I can prove it anytime.”

“Maybe I can take you up on the offer when we’re back,” I said with a wink.

“Uh, I mean, I meant to say—” he began, but Enkha-sama and Saint Isander-sama interrupted him. I gave him another wink. Apparently, I had caught him off guard because he looked away a bit nervously. He was always so confident. It was fun to watch him squirm a little.

“I think this is the part where you’ll need all of your soul-weapons,” Saint Isander-sama said to me. “Can you manifest them reliably now?”

He was right, of course, but he didn’t yet know the half of it. “I’ll try,” I said, focusing all my energy. I could feel my tiara appear on my head and flicker in and out. It was no good, though. The pain didn’t come back, but I still couldn’t keep it materialized.

To my surprise, my new familiar scurried to my side, took his anthropomorphized form, and touched the crown. It became solid at once, and I thanked him. He nodded. I was beginning to suspect this creature may have had a few secrets to reveal about himself. He transformed back into his rat form and then dematerialized for the moment.

“Are we ready to proceed then?” Enkha-sama asked.

“Let’s not give the enemy more time than necessary to prepare,” I said, sizing up the castle. It wasn’t the first one of these I had seen, and I knew if we lived to tell the tale, it wouldn’t be the last.

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