The three drew their weapons with only a moment of hesitation after Leitha fired. They didn't immediately advance, but she was already knocking another arrow.
“He’s lying. Trying to hide something.”
Oh, trying to hide something am I? Maybe because the real answer had to do with me commanding the souls of the dead! This was a Morton’s Fork if I’d ever seen one.
“Okay, trusting your comrade is great and all, but you folks need to *chillax*.” <Mage Hand> grabbed at Leitha’s bow, directly pulling on it. “I'm not interested in fighting; I've got my hands full caring for this one.”
Chuckling on the inside, I took a fencing stance to minimize Tagalong Girl’s exposure. In addition, as I didn't want to engage, I activated all my senses as well as <Graverobber’s Footsteps> and <Conjurer of Cheap Tricks>. I didn't possess nearly enough spells to even begin testing for Buff Overload, and given how cheap it was worth it even though their benefit would be circumstantial at best.
“You are ignorant. It is not just you cursing the spirits.” Leitha pulled upon her bow, easily overpowering <Mage Hand>. Well, it wasn't meant for this sort of thing, so it couldn't be helped. “You attempt to hide whatever those girls are. Their accursed nature is not meant to be.”
“Leitha, you've pushed things too far already. Though we can't avoid a fight, we shall take them to the Church. I won't have us become vigilante executioners.” Ritz interjected. At least he wasn't for straight up killing slightly suspicious people.
“Hey wait, what’s this about needing to fight? We can still walk away peacefully. In fact, we’ll hop on our wagon and—”
“No. Even as a registered mage, your actions can’t be passed off as the strangeness of your ilk. We shall drain you and take you before the Church.”
“Drain me?” Even as Ritz raised his sword, I questioned how the word was used. I noticed Lukas backing off to retrieve his weapon, but was curious enough to keep talking. “That has quite the ominous ring to it.”
“Your blood shall be offered to the Patriarch as penance. If you have the strength to cling to life, upon reaching the Church you shall be judged according to your sins. After which you will finally be given the opportunity to recover and once more walk a righteous path.”
“Hahaha, *nothankyou*. <*Magic Dart*><*Magic Dart*><*Magic Dart*><*Magic Dart*><*Magic Dart*>” Since it seemed like they incapacitated mages by keeping them perpetually drained of blood I was not giving them the chance to bring me in.
Unsure of what their ‘health pools’ would be, and uninterested in killing people who were probably quite rightly suspicious, I didn't shoot at them preemptively. It cut down on the hypocrisy for the moral education Tagalong Girl would get later, because they were not strong enough to warrant not holding back.
None reacted before the first dart was launched, Leitha only retreated at the second, realizing it wasn’t heading towards her by the third; at which point both Corsair and Ritz charged forward — admittedly a good strategy against many casters.
Unfortunately for Lukas, my true target, the incantation was not overly loud. Between the speed and low-visibility of the shots, three landed properly. Nadziak flying out of his hand, it avoided total sundering, but a bend could be seen. Least offensive of the four, I tried favoring him by putting him out of combat in the most kind way.
Such a genteel method wouldn't work on the charging duo.
Corsair and Ritz truly made an outstanding duo. Despite starting at different distances in response to unexpected stimulus, they timed themselves to reach me simultaneously. Corsair charged forward with a long dagger at great speed while trying to keep a narrow profile, Ritz ran slower, his sword back to hide his range and in decent form for attack or defense.
If they reached me at the same time, it would be difficult to fend them both off. If.
“<Mount>” A meat shield, or meat wall appeared in front of Corsair. With no time to slow, I heard a satisfying thump. In addition I waited until the moment it would also block Leitha’s line of sight towards me. Now I could deal with Ritz in a respectable manner as two party leaders.
Taking a step back while parrying with one of my many swords, Ritz’s lunging thrust was exploratory. Without followup, he hurriedly backed off.
“You're too tall.” Bemoaning my stature, he charged in again, in a fully defensive position.
I needed to tire him out before Corsair got his bearings. With an excess of swords that were more or less disposable, I violently struck down.
Just the first collision caused Ritz’s legs to strain. He was strong, but I was around twice his strength. Hammering down again and again, his knuckles whitened. Swords weren't meant to handle such abuse; my blade was inferior, but his did not get off lightly either.
Metal shrieks scraped through the air as the swords ground against each other. Ritz gasped and reeled, but in a straight contest of strength like this, my body was simply of a higher tier. Even if he had the energy to strike at one of the large openings of an overhead swing, he wouldn't be able to block my final strike. Still I awaited the moment of upset when Corsair joined the fray, or Leitha could make a good shot.
Ritz held out for a surprisingly long time, palms bleeding, sword chipped in dozens of places, nevertheless he stood his ground until my sword abruptly broke. In an instant his sword transitioned from a blocking position to a slash.
“I’ve more than one sword though?” Drawing a blade from Inventory in reverse grip, bracing it against my arm, the strike was knocked away. Ritz swiftly hopped back. “*Clever girl.*”
As soon as he backed off, Leitha loosed an arrow once she had a clear shot. It was the best one could do considering their physical limits, yet that subpar play could still match my current body.
It wasn't too disappointing, I wasn't supposed to be the melee combat type.
With Corsair coming from the side, it looked like their finishing move. I was fast enough to avoid that though. With my sword already braced for blocking, I angled it to take the arrow, the force of which I could use to spin and face Corsair.
It had a little more force than I expected.
With a breathy sha-sha-sha sound, the arrow without fletching pierced right through the metal and some way through my arm, pinning them together. Aghast, it seemed like the arrow encountered barely any resistance from the sword, I may as well have just used peasant armor in the first place.
A moderate injury taking a bit over 60 health, however that still meant I needed to take five more or so. In addition, due to the small cross section it hadn't actually done enough damage to proc a cripple debuff.
So while thoroughly unpleasant, it was possible to swivel around blocking Corsair. Unfortunately with my sword pinned against my arm, I couldn't properly counterattack, so I leaped backwards myself.
Apparently though I feel I landed quite gracefully, Tagalong Girl began to stir from the impact. I don’t think anything opposed the concept of letting her get some rest as much as the current situation. Corsair, apparently not one to let a small child wake in peace, came at me again.
My arm was fully dedicated to defense; I lost a marginal amount of health every time I blocked, but Corsair couldn’t land a hit.
“*Eat dirt and die, trash.*” So focused on the fact I couldn’t attack with my arm, he didn’t see my leg slamming into his side, burying him into the ground. I followed with an axe kick to his left arm and he screamed.
Oh come on, I still have an arrow in my arm. I didn’t even feel anything break.
I slowly circled away from Corsair as Ritz moved towards him, gaining time as Tagalong Girl slowly woke up. It wouldn’t be good for her to panic, not that she was likely to flail about, but I’d rather her not wake up with blades flying past her face.
“Rise and shine sleepy head. I’m sorry for pushing you so hard back there, but it’s time for another test. You don’t have to fight, so just stay calm and comfy.”
Ritz stood by as Corsair got to his feet. Leitha had another of her fletchless arrows nocked, yet seemed hesitant to fire. Able to get a closer look at the one in my arm, there seemed to be a coating of some sort, which I presumed helped entice the spirits into empowering it. Given its mystical properties, she probably didn't have too many of them, thus waiting for a more opportune moment to strike.
Whether that was true or not, they didn't make a move before Tagalong Girl opened her eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“Ah, you sound a bit hoarse. Here.” I brought out my flask of water before explaining. “I believe Leitha is some fraction of elf, probably a quarter or an eighth, which gives her some control over spirits. While I don't have any practical knowledge of *shamanism*, I would presume that it has caused her to evaluate us poorly. She attacked, and the others support the position to take us back to the church for an inquisition of sorts.”
“You...have an arrow through your arm.” While not sounding worried, she weakly pulled herself further into the haramaki while turning away.
“I guess I’ll take it out now, but you’re probably going to get more blood on you that way you know?”
“You’re not normal. They aren't reacting well because of that.” Pah, as if I didn't know an implacable image could cut both ways. Pulling out the arrow, I bled a little more profusely, though not enough to count as a status effect. With my haramaki removed I could store the arrow for more thorough examination later.
“Anyway, there’s more than just having the capability to survive. You need to know how to apply your power and what to do with it. I’m sure someone like you recognizes the impossibility of actually knowing what someone else is thinking, but at the very least I won't have you turn tyrant under my watch. With that in mind, observe how they fight so you may judge them at the end. If you think I should change how I am dealing with them, say so, and I shall obey. We start when they come, or at your orders.” Shifting her legs to the side to get down, I adjusted my grip. I could feel Tagalong Girl quaking as she moved herself. “You’ve barely rested at all. It’s safer right there, and easier for me to react the closer you are.”
She nodded, weakly wrapping herself around my arm. Now in an upright position, she gazed upon our opponents who were still giving us time.
I was thankful, but again it was a foolish move. They were giving themselves a breather, but with each moment the judgment of their leader was growing more clouded. The adrenaline in their system wore away, and without the simplistic response of fight or flight, they realized I’d been pretty much owning them while carrying a child in one arm.
Some fellows are still willing to risk their lives for ideals, and while it was somewhat charming to see Ritz’s resolve, their morale plummeted. Tagalong Girl ended up calling for things to begin.
“Head for Leitha. She is the initiator, so if any of them suffer it should be her.”
“Your wording implies a little more vengeance than I would like. Nevertheless, I don't disagree that she should take responsibility. As you command.”
Throwing my broken sword at Corsair, Ritz stepped in to block it. Slightly cowering as it rebounded into the air, I used the gap to charge towards Leitha unobstructed. Lukas rushed towards her to help, but he’d gained too much distance while circling towards Corsair.
Keeping composed, Leitha drew back her bow fully, holding it even as I got closer. Banking on a fatal shot was quite brave after seeing how things went the first time. Perhaps if she masked the tells of when she was about to shoot it would have worked. Still, knowing there would be no time to nock another arrow, Leitha held out until I was only a few meters away.
“<Mount><Mage Hand>” Diving under the new horse, dampening the fall with magic, I kept Tagalong Girl secure in my arms like a human roll-cage, hoping it wouldn't make her sick. Preserving most of the momentum I sprung up, delivering a headbutt just below her ribcage.
A lithe build of elvish blood stood no chance, and she gained a few inches of air before falling on her back. Nauseous and rolling around, I picked up and tossed away her bow with my foot.
“Haaaa!” With a shout Lukas closed in, intending to separate me from Leitha with a shield bash. Stepping slightly to the side, I accepted it at an angle to reduce the impact. Taking minor damage, I swept one of his legs before he could regain his balance.
“Threaten him now.” Despite being taken along for an intense ride, Tagalong Girl stayed cognizant of the situation. I took out a sword and put it to the prone man’s neck.
“You three of you gather together over there. Drop your weapons first.” I smiled at how commanding she managed to sound, despite being weak as a babe. The joy of a strong pupil was somewhat mollified by her choice of demands.
“Your magic is a danger. We can't let you—”
“Explain yourself after you’ve dropped your weapons and assembled.”
“Look at her you two, you doubted that she was corrupt as well.” Leitha sounded rather arrogant for someone speaking between dry heaves.
“Assemble or your companion suffers.” Her face scrunching up in frustration, at least she gave warning. Then again, if you negotiated ruthlessly like this, you couldn't be half hearted about it. Well I'd rather that than have her be fully committed to the idea.
“Kazuma, are you really listening to her?” Hahaha, we seemed to be inadvertently playing good cop, bad cop. Not that it was desirable, as I wanted Tagalong Girl to be a good cop. I guess if she was a moral paragon to start we would have had nothing to work on.
“Stab his hand.”
“Hahaha~ okay, remember what I said earlier? This isn't about vengeance. Now you wanted them rounded up, probably so it would be easier to kill them. Care to explain why?” I already had an idea, but I wanted her to put it in words to be certain.
“They’re threatening to bring us to the Church, we can’t let them tell anyone about us.”
“And why would that be?”
“What do you mean why? Even you would be unable to handle the Church if they come after us.”
“And there it is.” I rapped my knuckles on her head. “If, if, if. Do you know how wide the world is? Do you honestly think such a large and slothful organization is going to bear down on us just from the word of these four? Correct me if I’m wrong, but measly beast hunters don’t have the means to track down a small group of vagabonds like us.
“It’s not bad that you thought of killing them, it is a very final and secure way of doing things. But it’s not always about being 100% confident in the outcome, the process is important as well. ‘If you want the power of the stars, you need to shine like the sun’ or something like that. Hmm, well I’m not sure that saying is sensical if you haven’t been exposed to the proper media…”
“No, I understand.” Tagalong Girl shrunk further into the haramaki, almost disappearing into the blue cloth. “I shouldn’t take the existence of others so lightly.”
“Well, you’ve learned many things today, so all’s well and good. Apologies to you four, I truly didn’t intend to subject you to violence at the start. The opportunity just came knocking and it was two birds, one stone. The three of us shall head out now, I suggest you all tend to your wounds for a few days. Both parties would be more comfortable if we don’t collide again.” With a deep bow, I stabbed my sword into the ground next to Lukas. “Take it. I have plenty and I’d rather you not get killed because I disarmed you. Now then, we’ll be off.”
“You’re just leaving?”
Despite the hostile and confused glares from behind me, there were still four of them. I demonstrated mercy and the willingness to accept risk to myself for the benefit of others, as well as returning a weapon to one who tried to wrong us. Mmhm, I did well showing off several facets of heroism in one encounter. Hopefully Tagalong Girl would take it to heart.
Hopping aboard our wagon, I cast <Mount> yet again, and we rode of into the night.