The two went along with Faith to her camp; it wasn’t particularly because Daniel trusted her, nor was it because he was bothered by the corpses littered around the forest floor. It was because he was hungry.
And while he did not trust the princess one bit, he was more than aware of the kind of person she was. She used people, but she did not kill them. No cloaks and daggers, no poisons and assassins. So, the young man’s hunger impelled him to her camp, just so he could finally have some good fucking food.
The fact that Helen, Jaakko, and Zack were with her instilled some confidence in his belief that they were safe too.
Salvos trippingly walked alongside the three Gold Ranks— each of them several levels higher than they had been when they had last seen each other but still lower than Daniel and Salvos’ levels.
“You’ve grown quite a bit, Salvos. You’re now almost Level 70, aren’t you? Going to hit Platinum even before us, huh?”
The girl excitedly agreed, not realizing how tone-deaf that kind of a response could be. Their chatter went on— apparently, none of the Gold Ranks bothered by the Demon’s lack of social skills. They were already acclimated to her, so it was not like they would be surprised by the way she acted.
“You mean to tell me you went to the Motharis Mountain Range all by yourself?”
“Not by myself. With Daniel! And then we entered the Brilsum Ruins and fought some Mindreapers!”
Helen stared at Salvos as Zack rubbed a finger on his finger.
“Mindreapers… and you said they were being controlled?”
“They were controlling monsters! And [Cultists] too! Some Archdemon named Belzu was leading them.”
“If what you say is true, then this is something we’ll have to report to every Adventurers Guild and country surrounding the Motharis. Such a threat is a danger to us all.”
“That’s what we were going to do! Then those Harrowed Vindicators showed up and stopped our progress…”
Daniel didn’t join in on the conversation himself; he had only known these Gold Ranks for about a week. And even then, he had some friction with one of their members— Zack. But mostly because the other man was rightfully suspicious of how secretive Daniel was.
But while Daniel could understand the reason for Zack’s prying, he certainly had not appreciated it.
So instead, the [Hero] trudged alone, like a pariah from the group. The only person he knew well here was Salvos. And… Faith.
Her carriage rolled alongside them as they arrived at their destination. A rather large camp had been set up. However, to Daniel’s surprise, it was not the kind of luxury one would have expected from a noble, let alone a princess.
Daniel narrowed his eyes as he looked through the camp. A few tents had been set up, but they were fairly ordinary. The eating situation was rather crude as well. It was not what he had been looking forward to, at all.
Faith stepped out of her carriage and peered at him curiously.
“Is something the matter, [Her— Daniel?”
He scowled and turned away from her.
She shrugged and walked over to a fireplace that had already been set up. A boiling pot was bubbling over the flames, and she scooped up a spoonful of the soup and took a sip from it. Faith nodded to herself and called over one of her bodyguards.
“Elisha, the food is ready. Please prepare it for our guests.”
The bodyguard who had exchanged words with Salvos hurriedly did as he was instructed. Faith smiled his way, wiping her mouth with a delicately crafted handkerchief. The embroidery on it was lined with transparent crystal, their lattice surface reflecting twinklings of the fire’s light to resemble the stars above.
“It’s delicious. Come, sit.”
Faith gestured Salvos and Daniel over. The former happily listened while the latter took a moment longer to follow. He had known Faith. And what he had learned about her was that she was a shrewd person. One with a very good poker face.
And he was certain that the poker face broke when she took a sip from the soup. Poison? A worrying thought crossed his mind. No, that wasn’t it. Faith had… grimaced?
So, it just tasted bad, then?
Daniel wasn’t sure. But when he took a seat around the campfire and accepted the bowl of steaming soup. He realized the truth.
It was indeed very foul.
That word coming from Salvos had not been unusual. But the fact that she stretched it out as she made a face of utter disgust and contempt when she only pretended to drink it made Daniel aware that he wasn’t just being a picky eater right then.
Faith quickly downed the entire bowl and smiled the Demon’s way.
“What’s wrong? It tastes just— fine.”
“No, it’s not! It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever tried! And I’ve tried many things!”
Daniel was pretty sure Salvos was referring to Human meat by that. However, the discussion— and the fact that everyone else was also apprehensive about consuming the foul soup— was a testament to the fact that it was terrible.
Slowly placing down his bowl on the grass, Daniel turned to Faith.
“Alright, that’s enough fooling around. Why are you serving us bad food, Faith? It’s clearly not poisoned, so why this act?”
The princess blinked, then she sighed.
“This isn’t an act, Daniel. These are the rations we’ve been living off for the past few months, searching for you.”
“Well, it’s the truth.”
Faith straightened, adopting a more princess-like posture. Her legs were crossed, and her back formed a ninety-degree angle with the ground. She held the bowl in her hand by its base, the other lightly touching its side as if it were a teacup. Right, tea was promised too, wasn’t it?
“For the last half a year, I’ve been trying to track you down, Daniel. I took my personal bodyguards— those that were loyal only to me— and left the palace. I left Elutra to find you.”
“Just so you could drag me back and lift up your own name as the princess who returned their runaway [Hero].”
“No. I’ve dragged my name through the dirt just to find you. Or have you not been paying attention to the news?”
Daniel raised a brow, and Salvos learned forward. She curiously asked.
“What news? Is it the news about the saviors of Silvergrove?”
“I heard about that. But no— that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m referring to the war between Elutra and Inoria. How it is said to be more than decided by now. How the Elutra Kingdom is going to fall to its enemy, and its princess fled the country, shirking her duties to save her own life.”
Nodding slowly, Salvos tapped a finger on her chin. Her confusion was evident. But Daniel could tell she was trying to pretend she understood what was being said.
“And this princess that ran away was…”
Faith’s entire body sagged as she said the word. Admitting that she had been the one to flee seemed to have caused the aura of nobility to disappear from her. Or was it the fact that her reputation was now tarnished— her future ruined?
“I’ve given up my wealth. My fortune. My everything. Just to come here. To find you, Daniel.”
The young man scowled, annoyed that the topic shifted back to this.
“And why do I have to care? Why should I trust you?”
“Because the truth is out there in the world. If you go look in the right places, you’ll find it. In fact, you can find it right here. Look around you. You see it yourself. This is not something befitting a princess, no?”
He wanted to disagree. He really didn’t trust her. Her words were like honey, but he knew it was truly poison underneath. But he couldn’t deny what he had just thought— what he had just observed moments earlier.
Hearing his name broke the [Hero] from his thoughts. Faith steadily met his gaze, even as he tried to turn away. She spoke softly.
“When I was in Elutra, I did what was best for myself. But now, I’m doing what’s best for my country.”
Daniel hesitated, not sure whether he should offer her a response. He did, anyways.
“And that is?”
“Begging for you to come back.”
Faith stood up and bowed deeply at Daniel. Her bodyguards protested— Elisha sputtered. Even Jaakko and his team seemed aghast at this action.
“The only reason we brought war with the Inoria Empire was that we saw what they were doing. What they were trying to become. They will not just be content with victory. My whole family will be executed. Our people will suffer under their rule. There have been… rumors. Whisperings of how the Inoria Empire has been working with Demons to win the war. And if that’s true, could you imagine what they’ll do with our citizens? The kind of sacrifices they’ll make of them?”
The mention of Demons and sacrifices drew the attention of Salvos, who had previously been more or less left completely clueless at the conversation. Daniel watched as she instantly clung onto the only thing she knew about and spoke up.
“Humans are good sacrifices for Demons! They’ll all be killed!”
She answered honestly, not realizing how grim that sounded. Grimacing, Daniel expected Faith to lash out at the brutal truth. But instead, the princess agreed.
Faith raised her head and met Daniel’s gaze. Her jade eyes seemed to almost lose its color. Her flowing orange hair that had once made him stop and stare at it as if it were a gorgeous sunrise now instead burned with the conviction in her voice.
“I am throwing away all my pride. I have left my status in the gutter. Now, I am asking from one person to another. Not as a princess to a [Hero]. But from Faith to Daniel. Please come back. Only you can save us from them.”
The words— the pleading words of the princess that helped summon him— hung over his head as Daniel stood there. She was a [Mage]. Not a weak one at that either at Level 41. Since he had last seen her, she had leveled a dozen times over. So she certainly had been working hard on her own.
Was it proof of her words? Was it true what she was saying? Perhaps.
He knew the Inoria Empire had been winning the war, even before he left. He had provided a morale boost. And his [Hero’s Slash] had allowed him to kill anyone who had been stronger than him on the battlefield. His coming was what changed the tide of war. Then he left.
Because he was sick and tired of politics, of being used, and of killing.
But now Daniel was still fighting. He was still being hunted. And the fate of hundreds of thousands rested in his hands. At his level, he could maybe even make a difference if he came back.
No, he corrected himself and stared at an open palm, I am more than capable of making a difference.
It was the only sensible decision. He would save hundreds of thousands of lives. He was a [Hero]. There was one logical answer and it was—
Daniel spoke the word simply. With the same sincerity that Salvos often carried. Faith stared at him for a moment, her expression unchanging. Then a single reply came back.
The Valiant Dreamers were split into two different groups. Just as Hadrian had ordered, all the Silver Ranked dreamers were placed with the trainees in the training grounds just outside of the city, while the Golds were kept in the headquarters within the city. The Platinums were split between the two locations. For example, Jeremy and his team were over at the training grounds while Celine and her team were in the headquarters.
There were only two Diamonds in the company that were near Viechester. Hadrian and Gabriel. They had other Diamonds amongst the Valiant Dreamers— a few Edithe could name off the top of her head like Uland Gredrun or Ismail Zushad— but they were off on their own adventures.
Last she heard, Ismail was exploring the Beastmen plains. Meanwhile, Uland was who knows where.
So, it was up to those that were present. It would have been best to keep them all in one spot. But not only were there too many adventurers— especially trainees— to just fit them all into their headquarters, this was also part of their strategy.
Divide and conquer.
They gave the Iron Champions Company two targets to attack. Each target would have a Diamond Rank stationed there. Gabriel would be at the training grounds while Hadrian would be at the headquarters. This was because not only was Gabriel overall higher leveled than Hadrian, but he also had a second Class suited to protecting others. Hadrian’s second Class was more for his own combat prowess.
Additionally, the headquarters would be a smaller area to protect. Perfect for a [Warrior] type like Hadrian to defend. Whereas the training grounds was a large plot of land, which better complemented the [Alchemists] area of effect Skills.
If the Iron Champions Company had really planned to invade and begin sieging the Valiant Dreamers Company the moment war was declared, they would have to split up their adventurers and assassins. They would certainly try to concentrate more forces on at least one of the targets. But there was no way they would know which location was better protected.
It was up to chance for them.
But they had their own allies too— as evinced by the assassins who were aiding them.
Edithe wasn’t sure what assassin group they were from or who supplied them to the Iron Champions Company. She just knew that many of them had been above Gold Rank. Some of them even had powerful artifacts that allowed them to covertly infiltrate the Valiant Dreamers months prior to this escalation. It had been planned and calculated by the Iron Champions since the beginning, and perhaps they were also ready for a counterattack right now.
Hadrian had left the headquarters to declare war. He went by himself, marching down the empty morning streets of Viechester, which seemed more eerie than usual. Perhaps it was the mist that cloaked the roads which made Edithe feel this way— or it was the dread that came from the impending siege to come that drew the droplets of sweat down her neck.
Whatever it was, she couldn’t help but fear for Hadrian’s life as he went alone. He was a Diamond Rank. Not even a team of Platinums would be able to take him out. But if the Iron Champions dedicated more resources than they thought— say, if they had sent multiple Diamond Ranks here too— then that would have meant they could slay Hadrian the moment he made the declaration and left the Adventurers Guild.
It was a tense wait.
Everyone in the building remained silent, despite the fact that it might have been the last time some of them might have seen each other alive ever again. War was being declared while they just waited. A company war. Not the same as war between countries— certainly not something a country was supposed to be involved in. Nor its citizens.
But it was still war. And the adventurers were now soldiers. Normally, they would be fighting over resources. Some kind of an artifact. Maybe an advantage or influence over a certain area. This, however, was a war of revenge.
At least, that was how Edithe initially saw it.
After hearing Hadrian speak the night before, she realized the leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company had thought it out. It was not a war of revenge in his mind— it was what was necessary to reduce the casualties suffered on both sides. Attrition would only hurt more in the long run, so they had to stand and fight.
The silence that hung over the heads of everyone in the headquarters broke as the gates slowly swung open. A figure appeared within the mist. A shadow covered by the white, wispy vapor that seemed to pull back like a curtain when the figure made their entrance. Edithe watched with bated breath as the figure revealed themselves.
And she sighed in relief. It was Hadrian. And he—
He had a severed head in his hands. The leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company tossed it aside and strutted forward, his blade covered in blood like how his body was covered in wounds.
The mist behind him cleared out, revealing what lay before the gates. A dozen hooded individuals, all collapsed and cut up. Edithe’s eyes grew wide as she saw this scene. She did not rush forward like the others— like Sophia who worriedly approached the leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company.
“Hadrian— are you alright? What happened. Were they…?”
“Assassins. And no. They weren’t coming for me. I realized that they wouldn’t risk attacking me. Instead, they would take their chance to come for the headquarters once I left it unguarded. So I returned as quickly as possible.”
There were a few gasps. Those who still couldn’t believe that there were that many assassins hiding out there. But it made sense to Edithe. It had been a misty morning— but what she had seen was no natural forming mist. It had been magic.
And they were almost ambushed. Fortunately, Hadrian stopped them right in time.
“Close the gates.”
Hadrian ordered, and a few Gold Ranks quickly got to work. The [Warriors] shut the heavy metal bars while [Mages] activated the runes along the walls. A flicker ran over the headquarters of the Valiant Dreamers, covering it almost like a dome. It was not a barrier that could hold out someone like Hadrian— but it would only fall if enough Level 40 or Level 50 adventurers flailed on it.
Which was why there would be someone standing guard at all times. It was time. The city had been notified of the company war. Citizens were ordered to hide in their homes. The Valiant Dreamers Company was going into lockdown. War had begun, and Edithe felt her faith from before…