For a brief moment, Izumi stood frozen, every bit as still as the marble figures of ancient politicians that surrounded the lengthy stairway, and quietly questioned her own hearing. Had she just received a blatant death threat in broad daylight from a girl who looked like a junior high student?
That appeared to be the case.
She stared back at the girl in the black cloak, and tried very hard to guess who she was and what had earned her such glacial reception. She could only tell one thing for certain. Margitte’s look wasn’t that of an ordinary youth, nor sarcastic in the least. It hadn’t been a mere childish taunt the champion had been issued, but a promise with the conviction of a government official behind it.
Since there was no way to deduce the causality of the situation by only looking, the champion decided to request an elaboration.
“Excuse me—?” she began.
At the same time, Margitte knocked the ground with her staff and called out, “Ascrespianos!”
Subsequently, a glowing orb emerged from thin air, and began to float a circle above the girl’s head. The orb emitted mild, yellow-green light, faint under the sunny skies, but looking closer, a tiny, vaguely anthropoid figure with wings could be seen inside, lacking finer features.
“Fire!” Margitte commanded and pointed at Izumi with the tip of her staff. The ball of light grew briefly brighter, crackling like a malfunctioning electronic appliance, and then a flash of something shot out from it, at the woman below.
On guard, Izumi pulled herself aside. The magical bolt flashed past her arm, hot, and landed several yards further below on the hill. BOOM. The stone steps exploded with a dull, deep sound, and cast up a loose cloud of dirt, dust and shrapnel, which sprinkled and clittered unhurriedly over a wider area. The force of the shot was close to a stick of dynamite in potency and undeniably dangerous.
Recognizing this, Izumi turned in shock to yell at the mage,
“What do you think you’re doing!? You could’ve killed someone!”
“That’s the idea!” Margitte yelled back. “It is my duty to protect her majesty from all conceivable threats! No matter who or what they may be! I will suffer no evil like you to enter the palace while there’s life in me! Begone—or perish!”
“Evil!?” Izumi protested. “I’m a hero, though!”
“…Well, not literally, but sort of?” Izumi thought again. “Not all black or white, but somewhere in the gray. I do think I have more Paragon points than Renegade points in total, but I suppose a lot of it depends on who you ask…”
“—Like I care!” Margitte interrupted. “You can’t pass here, get out! Your ilk isn’t wanted! Shoo, shoo!”
“Come on, I look nothing like a monster!” Izumi appealed and took a step forward. “You don’t pass for Gandalf either, not enough beard. I have business with the big boss, and it’s kind of important! I think.”
“Don’t you come any closer!” the mage shrieked and raised her staff again.
The floating orb emitted another flash, but Izumi kept alert. She pulled her sword over her shoulder, ready to deflect the spell, but the aim was off and it hit the pedestal of a statue by the path. A large chunk of the corner was blown off. Part of the 6th century senator’s leg was pulverized too, but the statue miraculously remained standing.
“Stop it!” Izumi cried. “What if you hit some granny downhill by accident, spraying like that!”
“Then stop dodging them and die, you fiend!” Margitte retorted.
“You shouldn’t talk about killing so casually, young lady! You don’t want my life on your conscience! You’re too young to understand the weight of it yet!”
“My age has nothing to do with this!”
“It has everything to do with this! Cute girls exploding people into chunks is ugly business and if you do ugly things, you’ll end up ugly yourself! And that’d be awful waste of your good looks, don’t you think?”
“W-who’re you calling cute!?” Margitte flared. “Are you trying to capture my heart now!? It won’t work! I’ll have you know my magic resistance is off the charts! Die, die, die, you daemon!”
The attempt at negotiating failed miserably.
More shots were fired in a rapid succession, but the caster’s wavering focus and rushed execution hindered both the potency and the accuracy of them. The random nature of the bolts made frontal assault nevertheless too risky to attempt. Izumi dived off the stairs and took cover behind the nearest statue.
“This sure isn’t the happy homecoming I had in mind!” she grumbled, while magical grenades ravaged the landscape around her.
——“What is this commotion about?”
At that moment, rescue arrived.
At least, Izumi was certain any change in this wretched situation could only mean improvement.
A tall, young man in sparkling, knightly armor came up the stairs from the plaza’s direction. Deep blue cape fluttered over his left shoulder, and he had a large sword sheathed on hip. The armor design and the color scheme weren’t typical for the Imperial army, but the man seemed every bit a valorous defender of justice, as depicted in so many works of fiction across the universe.
A helmet he didn’t wear, fully baring his handsome head, where short-cut blond hair stood sportily upright. The look of his steely eyes reflected formidable inner strength and confidence. By his clean complexion, the knight had to have been in his early twenties at most, but he bore his weighty outfit with no discernible trouble, showing the necessary sturdiness of constitution. He didn’t seem particularly shocked or frightened to see the supernatural devastation unfolding before him, but viewed it with lordly nonchalance.
“You are…” Margitte frowned and lowered her staff, stopping the rain of fire.
The knight paused close to Izumi’s hiding spot and gave the two of them a look.
“I am Arnwahl,” he then announced, “the eighth hero of her majesty’s Guild of Champions. Would you mind explaining the situation?”
Before Margitte could say anything to complicate things further, Izumi got up and stepped back to the path, brushing her coat.
“Finally someone with an ounce of common sense appears!” she told the knight with a sigh, and leaned on her sword. “I was on my way to see her majesty when this Slytherin dropout started throwing small bombs at me! Could you tell her to stop being a public safety hazard and let me through? And call the janitor while you’re at it.”
The man turned to her. “And you are…?”
“I’m Izumi! Itaka Izumi. I was also made a member in that Guild of yours, or so I heard. I suppose that makes us colleagues, or close enough. I don’t know which one is the senior member, but I’m really too old to call anybody senpai, so pardon my manners.”
“Izumi…?” Arnwahl repeated, slightly raising a brow.
“Yes?” she said and tilted her head.
She watched the man’s lips curve into a faint, odd smile. Then he gripped the handle of his sword, drew out the blade in a swift, fluid arc, and cut down at her. If Izumi hadn’t had her sword already in her hand, she would’ve been hopelessly too late with her response. She crouched in a hurry, covered her head, and locked swords with the knight called Arnwahl.
“Sorry,” he told her as he pressed on, the smile persisting on his lips. “Never heard of you.”
“Why, you—!” Groaning, Izumi stepped to the side to get away from under his weight, and lashed back, forcing him to take distance. Before Arnwahl could attack again, she turned and sprinted up the stairs at Margitte, determined to break past the mage to the safety of the inner district.
“Oh no, you won’t!” Margitte cried, raising her staff once more. Having regained her composure, she had more time to aim and wasn’t going to miss again. With an electric rattle, another bolt was fired.
Izumi made no effort to dodge. She turned her sword in front of her as a shield, and kept running. The clump of magic hit the Amygla’s surface and ricocheted off the spotless metal with a low whistle, to the mage’s astonishment.
Izumi kept running and quickly closed the gap. Deprived of the time to think, Margitte began to panic. She was a scholar, not a combatant, nor accustomed to such situations. Losing her nerve, the girl shut her eyes and raised her staff to cover her head, even while fully aware how useless such a shield was against bladed instruments. But the deathblow she anticipated never fell.
Izumi slipped behind Margitte’s back and caught the girl’s head, hand under chin, and held her close.
“Hold right there!” she called down to Arnwahl instead. “Drop your weapon, if you care about this delicious, flat-chested damsel’s future…!”
The knight paid the vile threat no heed. Chasing after Izumi, he caught up with the two in no time and cut sideways at the woman’s neck, even while she had the mage in her hold.
Izumi ducked and took cover behind Margitte’s small frame, while the girl stood stiff with terror, the knight’s blade flashing by bare inches over her curls. Izumi fixed her hold, pulled the girl out of the way, and stabbed past her at the knight. He parried with ease, then turned his sword into an overhead strike, aiming to mow down both of them at once. Izumi moved her free arm lower, picked Margitte up by the waist, and retreated away from the sword’s path.
“What are you thinking, trying to cut your own ally!” she yelled and drew back, carrying the petite Court Wizard under her arm. “That’s friendly fire!”
Arnwahl turned back to her, his smile unfazed. “I’m afraid Master Beuhler is entirely expendable, if it means eliminating a threat on her majesty’s life.”
“Expendable? What the heck?” Izumi frowned. “Champion my butt—you’re a straight-up villain, aren’t you?”
“The Imperial Law would disagree with you there,” he retorted. “I could lose my head if I acted any other way.”
“A guy who only thinks about his own good at the expense of others is a villain, no matter how you slice it!”
“You think so? I should say it is only natural human behavior.”
“Eh, is it?” Izumi asked Margitte.
“Obviously!” Margitte replied. “Let me down, you beast!”
“Um, I really do think you should aspire to be better,” Izumi advised the two of them, still carrying the mage like a cat on her hip. “Little girls were made to be cherished and protected. Even if I don’t always practice what I preach, and...Ow!”
The knight rudely seized the opening while she was still talking and charged again. Izumi hurried to throw Margitte away and rolled the other way herself, evading the descending cut. Arnwahl continued his pursuit without stopping, and they soon crossed blades again on the edge of the stairs. The intensity of his assault forced her to retreat back downhill.
“Knock it off already!” Izumi told the man while fending off his strikes. “I’m not a threat to anybody at present! But this really might turn dangerous if you keep it up!”
“Oh? So you wouldn’t normally consider an exchange of this level as ‘dangerous’?” he mused. “In that case, shall we step up the pace a notch?”
“That’s the opposite of what I’m telling you to do!”
“On your guard. This is no time to be talking.”
Being on the lower ground, she was at a disadvantage. There was a slightly wider platform in the stairs some twenty feet from the gate. Izumi sought a position there, steadied her footing and took her sword with both hands. Sensing the shift in her air, Arnwahl came to stand on the same platform but kept out of range, his guard up and ready.
Both stood and waited and sought for a weakness. She let the tip of her blade drop a few inches. The knight seized the chance at once and surged forward in a murderous stab, quick as an arrow. But she was ready for it. Instead of dodging or retreating, she responded to stab with a stab. Their blades briefly aligned, connected, scraped past one another with a sound like an out of tune violin. She forced his sword aside with her own, and Arnwahl recognized his disadvantage in range. He interrupted his move to retreat.
The second Arnwahl stilled, Izumi took a short sidestep, drew the Amygla away and brought her knee high up. Momentarily pulling her mass high up, she then stepped back and smote the knight’s suspended weapon with all her weight and strength combined.
An explosive sound rang out as the metals collided. The force of the hit was monstrous. Margitte winced, feeling the impact in her ears several yards away.
Arnwahl’s balance was broken, his sword arm knocked far back and he reeled. It was a wonder he could keep hold of the handle at all.
Still in a good position herself, Izumi could have followed through with the deathblow then and there, but abstained. She closed her guard and restored her proper stance.
“Now isn’t that funny?” she observed. “I meant to break your sword. But the fact that it’s still in one piece must mean it’s made of something stronger than steel. No, that smell is definitely iron. So there must be some kind of spell on it?”
“No, you’ve nicked it,” Arnwahl replied as he recovered and examined the edge of his weapon. But his smile only widened. “Ha, what a marvel! I didn’t think it could be broken. It seems we are both wielders of magic swords then?”
“Nope,” Izumi replied. “Mine’s just that hard.”
“I see.” The knight turned back to her. “That’s a relief for me. It means there is nothing else I need to be wary of, beside your strange technique. To return the favor of sharing, would you like me to show you—what my sword can really do? The magic in it...?”
Though he still smiled, there was an ominous, dark gleam in his eyes.
Counter to his words, Arnwahl made no move to attack but held his distance. And then raised his blade high above his head with one hand, as if merely to display it.
Izumi watched him with unease. What did that pose signify? Had going easy on him been a mistake, after all? It had seemed like he was only fooling around before, but did he really intend to keep going until one of them was dead? What a mess it had become. What would Yuliana think if she went and cut down another champion as soon as she came back? Weren’t the new heroes meant to be decent people?
No, there was a real chance she wouldn’t get away unscathed either.
Izumi considered invoking runes. Should she prioritize offense or defense? But then, before things could escalate any further, a light voice that belonged to none of the combatants spoke from uphill and interrupted them.
“What are you doing?”
Izumi looked up. On top of the stairs next to Margitte, under the gate of Selenoreion, stood Millanueve.
Izumi’s heart skipped a beat. It was not only a figure of speech. The organ took a pause at least two beats long and she nearly dropped her sword out of shock. Had she finally crossed the border to full-blown lunacy and begun to hallucinate things in broad daylight? Her delusions had never been so lucid before.
No, judging by the faces of the other two, they could see and hear the girl as well.
The face, the build, the clothes, the riding coat of the Barony’s Guard…Was it really her? But how? How could the vision be explained? Why here, of all the places in the world? Why now? Why on this very day? It was all too sudden to comprehend!
No, if the Millanueve De Guillon before her eyes was real, then weren’t there things many, many times more important to do than questioning sanity or reality?
Izumi had fantasized about such a scenario virtually every day of her long journey, though she had considered it no less unlikely than being summoned into another world. But both had now come true and she found herself hopelessly underprepared. Every dialogue option she had devised beforehand began to seem incredibly silly and juvenile in the moment, even the ones she had previously thought were clever and endearing. One look into those clear blue eyes made her plans and intentions seem only banal and awkward to the point of unsightliness; the inept, self-serving ramblings of a moron, which was what Izumi surely was.
Yes, a moron. The arch deity of fools.
What on earth was she doing, posing like an idiot with her sword—an overgrown kid toting her toy? It was no less embarrassing than being caught in a public toilet after forgetting to lock the door. Was this the way she would demonstrate her growth as a person? Where had all the character development from the past half a year gone? It was as if none of it ever happened! Months of defying death and fantastic creatures, for no use at all!
No, it was surely better to cut the losses and just die right now.
Izumi’s gaze shifted to Margitte, silently praying the mage would take the opportunity to shoot her into bits so small not even a modern crime lab could find them all. The mage did nothing but stood back, weirded out by the mood. Arnwahl likewise lowered his blade, instead of following through with his earlier threat.
No, she could still cut herself. It was the least she could do to make up for this humiliation. But committing seppuku without any prior explanation was going to look rather random. Explanation? Was there anything she could say that wouldn’t sound only like cringeworthy excuses? No, she had surely used enough words for a lifetime or two, and had only succeeded in proving the sad ineffectiveness of language as a tool of communication.
But before Izumi could actually do or say anything at all, the spell was broken.
“Well?” Millanueve told her with a slight frown. “How long are you going to keep standing and staring? Hurry up. She’s waiting for you.”
There was no judgment in her voice.
No loathing in her gaze. No accusation or spite.
How? As if nothing at all had happened. As if no time had passed since the early summer, and the past long months were truly only a dream, as if the two of them meeting here today were the most natural thing in the world.
“Ah...Sure,” Izumi mumbled in answer. She forgot about the knight and the mage, put her sword away, and went climbing meekly up the stairs, from there to follow after Millanueve through the narrow, perpetually shaded streets of Selenoreion.
So dramatic was the change in her air that Margitte had to wonder if she was even the same person anymore. The mage saw off the two, unsure of what to do, and in the end failed to do anything, despite her proud resolution of never letting the woman pass.
“What is going on…?” she mumbled, inexplicably vexed.
“Well then,” Arnwahl meanwhile remarked with a nonchalant smile and sheathed his sword. “This is as far as we go, it seems.”
“You’re going to let her go?” Margitte asked him.
“Indeed, I do. That woman is the first-ranked champion of the Guild, after all. The one who defeated Heaven’s Hand. I fear taking things any further than this wouldn’t pass as a mere greeting anymore.”
“Huh—?” Margitte’s jaw dropped. “What? She’s…? You knew who she was all along? Then why did you draw your sword on her?”
“How could I not?” the knight replied with a shrug. “It’s not every day you get to test your mettle against the best. Then, farewell, Master Beuhler.”
With a wave of his hand, the knight departed down the stairs, the way he’d come.
“Unbelievable,” she muttered with a shudder as she watched him go. “You really are a villain, aren’t you?”