I fully expected Seras to emerge from the sky and smite my stupid ass back to planet Earth for bestowing upon her people eldritch knowledge from across the multiverse. Thankfully, her divine retribution never came, Lydia’s invasive inquisition was already enough punishment.
At some point, we crossed the border and continued for several hours beyond, then made camp. Lydia used her first real reprieve since we met to finally introduce herself after we made camp a few miles away from the road.
“My full name is Lyudmilia, Crown Princess of the Kingdom of Renalis. It is an honor to meet you, Ranger Levin.”
I scratched my neck at her sudden shift back to formality.
“Staff Sergeant Joseph Barnett of the US Army, 75th Ranger Regiment, 3rd Battalion. The pleasure's all mine, Princess.” I saluted her. She smiled and waved down the stiff gesture.
Anna chose to sleep in the wagon instead of socialize; she looked exhausted beyond measure, so neither of us stopped her. We spoke in hushed tones over a gently cackling fire I started with my multitool’s ferro-rod, so we didn't disturb her.
“You really do hail from another world? I can only catch glimpses of it. Our bond is not so invasive and I am not so crass as to pry unnecessarily. I stand to pay you that much respect, if not more so.”
“It’s fine. My skeletons are pretty bad, but they aren’t as bad as they could be.” I tried waving off her concern, but I couldn’t really stop thinking about how violated I felt.
She must have heard that part. Damnit.
“So you were summoned here by Seras to slay a Demon God. You truly are a Hero, Levin. At the very least, one in the making.” She was trying to change the subject.
“You’re still calling me Levin? You already know it’s a fake name.”
“I prefer this name. I admit I am biased, but it’s the first name you chose in this world.” Lydia smiled wryly. I snorted but found myself attached to both. Joseph was who I am, but now, so was Levin. It was just one of the many masks all humans wear.
“Sure, I don’t mind either way. No, actually, Levin sounds better.” I rolled my eyes and grinned at nothing.
Lydia cracked a smile. “It certainly is more exotic.”
“So, what’s your goal, Princess?”
“Please, call me Lydia. I would much prefer that,” Her voice sounded desperate.
“Alright, Lydia. What did I stumble into last night?”
“To summarize in so little words: I am in exile. A coup was staged against my father by the Separatists Faction, led by Lord Hasting, my ex-fiance and the one who sent the Barghests after us.”
“Was your father some kind of tyrant?”
“All kings are tyrants. Some are just more tolerant than others,” Lydia miffly defended. It sounded like a weak excuse to someone who grew up in America, but it was common sense to a royal, so I didn’t press further on that.
“My father was one of the more tolerant ones, I assure you. But leniency can also be seen as weakness. Renalis has been unable to live up to its international obligations, and those obligations placed great internal pressure.”
“The Goddess Seras really didn’t provide you with much guidance.” Lydia raised her hand to the fire and plucked a piece of the flame. I watched, captivated, when she created shapes out of it while narrating her world’s history. It was like a shadow-puppet show.
“About 300 years ago, the Wizard Dalentous the Breaker tore a rift between the Material Plane and the Endless Abyss. Demon Gods and their endless hordes emerged from the rip in reality and launched a full-scale invasion. That was what you were sent to rectify, I assume. An impossible task, even for a lauded Hero. Many have tried over the last three centuries.”
I grimaced but said nothing. If I could see Rebecca again, then I would kill every single Demon from here to the bottom of that Endless Abyss.
“I envy that pure, unconditional love and devotion,” Lydia suddenly said after I thought of Rebecca. Her smile looked distant, now. She was probably caught up in her own memories.
“All nations eventually allied for survival. But the best we’ve managed is a tenuous stalemate with the demon hordes. Various deities eventually erected a barrier to contain the invasion, but it is not perfect and when it weakens, the demons spill out like a swarm of locusts, consuming all in their path. In order to keep the demons from causing further destruction, each nation must send individuals who have a Class once every five years into the fray. The number is based on the nation’s population density. Renalis has failed to meet this quota for the last 25 years. Other nations now refuse to engage with Renalis in any fashion - even trade has dwindled to a pittance. Worse still, many demons who escape the barrier can teleport and have been terrorizing the countryside. They rampage across the kingdom, unchecked, and my forces are spread too thin to eliminate them. No other nation wants to lend their forces to us, either.”
“So this begs the question: why can’t your nation keep up with the quota?”
“My father was too lenient. There is such a thing as too much kindness. He despised the idea of forcefully conscripting people to fight the demon hordes after they slew my mother, so he only took volunteers. You can imagine how effective recruitment was. Then, I gained Magecraft, my second Aspect, thus my Class became Dragon Mage. It’s rare and powerful, one tailored to warfare.
“But your father refused to send you.”
“Yes, and that sparked rebellion. The lords and ladies of the realm accused my father of nepotism and corruption. The country was driven to the brink already and any support that remained abandoned us in a single night. This prompted us to flee along with Anna.”
“Are you going to reclaim your country?”
“I am duty bound to do so, but unless I can resolve the quota issue, then it is futile.” She crushed the dancing flame in her palm.
“Is that why you asked me to be your champion?”
“Yes, champions are those who voluntarily fight the demons on behalf of Renalis. But it is an empty title with no monetary value or political significance.”
“Will a Hero meet the quota?”
“Are you sure-”
“Will a Hero meet the quota?”
“Yes, there is no doubt, but-”
“Anna is going to be pissed.”
“Why?” Lydia sounded jarred by the sudden change in conversation.
“Because she rode all this way just to go back.”
Lydia laughed and I found it one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve heard since I resurrected.
To be honest, I wasn’t all that miffed about being used as Lydia's political bargaining chip. My interests aligned with Lydia’s and, if she could regain control of her country, then it may help me further down the line. All things considered, it was a better start than I expected. At least now I had an idea of what Seras wanted me to do. I would probably die in the attempt. Correction: I would die in the attempt, but I would never give up. I would never give up on Rebecca.
I slept into the late afternoon. Lydia was adamant about giving Anna as much time as she needed to recover.
“Truly, Ranger Levin? You will become a Champion?” Anna sounded elated after Lydia told her.
Anna gave thanks to the Goddess of Fertility and called my inexplicable appearance an act of divine intervention. I didn’t want to question her religious beliefs, but I had no idea what fertility had to do with me slaying Demons in Lydia’s name. Lydia probably sensed my mental confusion and told Anna to instead give thanks to Seras. That wasn’t the reason why I was confused, but I let it pass.
I decided to be more open with the Princess. Lydia was my only ally in this strange, new world, so I wanted to develop a closer rapport with her. Even if she took advantage of me, my situation couldn’t get much worse.
Almost a full day after we stopped traveling, Anna had finally recovered enough to walk around and cook, but not much else. I only learned recently that she drove the wagon for three days straight. I wanted to ask what her Constitution was, but she really disliked talking about her Status, so I kept from prying. According to her, most people in the higher social castes did not like talking about their Status. It was commonly perceived as rude and intrusive. Lydia was an exception. I assumed it was because she saw political value in associating with me and was desperate for a new and unrelated human connection after losing everything she held dear. I was apprehensive about trauma bonding with her, but I also wasn't in the best headspace all things considered, so I let her get as close as she wanted.
She was shocked when I told her I didn’t have a Subclass. Apparently even Heroes couldn’t choose exactly what Attributes or Skill Upgrades they wanted. Instead, they influenced their growth in a specific direction with training and life experiences.
For dinner, I field-dressed a freshly hunted rabbit; my Survival Aspect was really useful for this sort of adventure. Anna took the carcass from me after I skinned and gutted it and carved it into a stew then added what little spices I managed to forage nearby. The sweet smell of boiling meat filled my nostrils and I couldn’t help but stare expectantly at the pot.
“I can’t send you against the demon hordes without a Subclass. It is your key-defining trait, Levin. Don’t worry, I already knew it would take years or even decades before I could reclaim my throne.” Lydia conceded.
“If I really have an unprecedented amount of flexibility then there has to be a quicker and easier way for me to get a Subclass. Maybe if I level up, I can just pick one.”
"Most people will never reach 4th Level, Levin." Anna interjected and refilled my bowl with another ladle of rabbit stew.
“The only way to level up is through combat?”
“And the completion of a Quest, but yes. Most Attributes are increased over a whole lifetime. And even then, you may gain only six or seven.” Anna clarified and pushed another slice of hard travel bread into my bowl. I smiled gratefully. She was like a doting parent. And a wild ride-
Anna shot me a dangerous glare. I forgot she could read my mind while Telepathy (Group) was active.
“No, Levin. I cannot read your mind.” Anna corrected. “You are just very open with your thoughts.”
“Why can’t I read either of your minds?” I was honestly frustrated that only my thoughts were being constantly broadcasted.
“Her Royal Highness and I have been given some basic training to improve our resistance to mind-reading Spells and Skills.”
“Can you teach me?”
Lydia rolled her eyes. "I said I’d teach you Levin. All in due time. Now, do you really think I should return to the castle?”
“Yes, from what I know about coups, if you wait too long, then your enemies will solidify a stronger political position. If my Class really has as much leverage as you imply, then we should use it before it’s too late.”
“We'll stand together, then. I won't let them take anything else away from me. This time, I will show Lord Hastings and the upstart mongrels who follow him what it means to inherit the Dragonheart Aspect."
Anna covered her mouth and spoke with tears rimming the edges of her eyes, "Your Highness does that mean-"
"Any who dare oppose me will be burned to ash by dragonfire." She nodded resolutely at Anna.
"Was your father always this intense?" I asked with a raised brow. She had gone from an energetic princess, to a warrior willing to burn her detractors to a crisp. That certainly wasn't normal.
"No. My father was a gentle soul. But he married into my family."
"Wait, Renalis was originally a matriarchy?"
"That is correct. Renalis was once the roost of an ancient female dragon, Goldfire Renala."
“All right, fine. But killing another person is-”
“Levin, don’t step on my resolve.”
“It’s our last resort. Let me handle the situation if it gets violent.” I couldn't stomach watching Rebec- no, Lydia, taking another life.
“Thank you, Levin.” Anna interrupted as I saw Lydia about to protest.
We spent the next few hours planning out a triumphant return, but honestly speaking, none of our ideas had any realistic way of working out. The only factor I couldn’t properly account for was our overall combat power. Both Anna and Lydia assured me that no one else reached 5th Level in all of Renalis, but until I saw it for myself, I had to remain skeptical. The only reason we survived until now was because of my rifle and I only had 5 rounds remaining.
“Your lack of equipment is a problem.” Lydia admitted.
“I need some kind of ranged weapon. My most offense-oriented Aspect is Marksmanship.”
“A bow and arrow shouldn’t be too difficult to acquire. Perhaps a sword as well?”
I shook my head. “No idea how to use one of those.”
“A spear and a dagger, then,” Anna suggested. They were simple weapons in comparison, so I agreed.
“A sharpened stick and a bandit's weapon. Those are not nearly as heroic.” Lydia scoffed with folded arms.
“It’s not about heroism. It’s about pragmatism, Lydia.” I quipped with a grin.
“You shall have lessons after I reclaim my throne.”
“Yes, Princess.” I playfully rolled my eyes.
With a more concrete idea of what we should do next, we continued our journey further from the Renalis border. According to Lydia, this land, Altanova, was unclaimed by any of its neighboring kingdoms. A cult of demon worshippers destroyed the government, and it was now a haven for all sorts of unsavory characters. That was the main reason Lydia fled here; she hoped Hastings wouldn’t chase her too deep into this region and focus on consolidating power, instead.
As soon as we stepped into a settlement our first order of business was procuring new clothing. My military fatigues, Lydia’s torn dress, and Anna’s maid uniform stood out too much. I certainly was going to miss stealing glances at Anna - it was one of the few things I did to pass the time.
Once we all were redressed, we bought a simple longbow and two quivers of 30 arrows. I slung a quiver over my shoulder and strapped one to my right hip. I had no idea how to use a bow, so I was going to rely on Marksmanship to do all the heavy lifting. Lydia told me that was fine for now, but in order to truly master my Aspects, I would have to train them at some point. Finally, I added a spear and a long knife to my inventory. The spear I had to hand carry, so I used it as a walking stick. I wore the long knife at my waist.
In order to buy everything, we pawned off several pieces of jewelry worn by both the girls and acquired a pittance in Magic Crystals. It was an obvious rip-off, but we needed whatever we could get. I scowled at the greasy merchant who rubbed his hands like a fly over a corpse after we left, but we needed to keep a low profile, so starting problems at this juncture wasn’t an option.
Lydia wanted to sleep at the local inn, but I advised against it. If the local reputation was as bad as the pair implied, then the wagon and the horses would be gone by the time we woke the next morning. Instead, we traveled over half a day back toward the Renalis border and returned to our original campsite. I didn’t dare to turn off Telepathy (Group) while we were in hostile territory and it was obvious we were being tailed, because four red dots were always present somewhere behind us.
“60 arrows isn’t enough to take down Renalis’ entire military.” I said after we left the small, shanty town.
“I just need to make it to the castle. If I can present you to the nobility, then they should accept you as my champion. I wasn’t the only one to benefit from my father’s kindness. Lord Hastings is a 3rd Level Summoner and yet he has not been sent to fulfill the quota. The entire basis of his coup is mired in hypocrisy and self-preservation. His supporters just want a lamb to sacrifice to the Alliance.”
“And I'm that lamb.”
Lydia cringed. “Levin, I didn’t mean to undervalue you. I know I’ve been preying on your goodwill.”
“It’s fine, I’ve already accepted payment from Anna.”
“W-what?! When?! Where?! How?!” Lydia shrieked. She looked scandalized and Anna blushed red. I just smirked and sighed at the memory. I considered myself a decent man, but I was still a guy and with Anna’s offer, I couldn’t refuse a bit of sexual relief while Lydia wasn’t looking. It wasn’t my first time having a friend-with-benefits; it was common enough during wartime. I made sure Anna enjoyed it though. I wasn’t a total dirtbag.
“But I didn’t hear your thoughts! Anna! Did you teach him how to shield his mind without telling me?!”
Anna scurried away and focused on washing our clothes in the nearby river. Lydia chased after her, and demanded a detailed account of our secret rendezvous while I retreated into the wagon and closed the white cover over the roof and door after a loud, exaggerated yawn. It was obvious to anyone watching that I was about to fall asleep.
Hidden beneath the cover, I strung my new bow and nocked an arrow while I observed four red dots slowly approaching the camp.