The S.S.S. Teresa’s Judgement pulled into the relatively small dock. The ship was tied to the wooden pier, the gangplank lowered, and the sailors and deckhands started unloading all of the cargo. The passengers trickled out of the vessel steadily, though each of them had a rather troubled look on their faces. The voyage had been far from peaceful, as evidenced by the countless dings, scratches and cracks that covered the hull of the once pristine vessel. While traversing the ocean was always a dangerous venture, this particular trip had been considerably more eventful than usual.
However, the cause of this added danger was not, despite what some people thought, due to the presence of the Hero of Chaos, nor was it caused by a Shift.
It was because the convoy was too small. Cross-continental travel was typically performed by groups of fifteen to twenty ships, sometimes more. The more sizeable the armada, the better it acted as a deterrent against monster attacks, especially krakens. Compared to the standard fare, however, these six would have looked like a juicier target to the ocean’s beasts, resulting in more frequent disturbances. The aquatic beasts had no way of knowing that each ship in the smaller convoy carried a quantity and quality of adventurers far above average, otherwise their attacks would not have been so numerous.
Admittedly the crew and passengers won resoundingly each time and many of them were now stronger for it, but avoiding combat altogether through a show of force would have been preferable. The frequent fighting had been both tiring and disheartening, and the thought that they now had to deal with the biggest orcish scourge in centuries was not helping their morale. Setting foot on solid land did seem to slightly invigorate their spirits at least, as the gloomy atmosphere was slowly giving way to a more serious and purposeful intensity.
“Wow, there really are a lot of raptors around here, huh?”
“We are in their homeland, Rowie. Would be weird if there weren’t.”
Except for Rowana and Keira. The elf-beastkin pair had a general air of casual wonder around them that made them seem like tourists. The way they kept shooting glances at the reptilian residents was bordering on rude, but the locals were used to it. Though most adventurers had seen a raptor or two during their time, seeing so many of them in one place was probably quite jarring. Especially since it was mostly the males that tended to venture onto other continents, meaning that this was the first time the vast majority of these smoothskins had seen a female of the species.
Male raptors could be crudely described as alligator-like lizards that walked on two legs. Covered in scales, with long flat snouts and muscular tails, they were the enlightened species that were the furthest away from humans. The way their protruding ankles bent their legs in a crude S-like shape was another of their very distinct features. As was the fact that their women lacked breasts. It was still very easy to tell the females from the males though, as the former had features that were more akin to snakes than alligators. Their snouts were shorter, faces rounder, scales smoother, and body and tail in general noticeably slimmer.
However, the biggest difference between raptors and other enlightened was something that was hinted at in the lack of breasts on the females - the way they reproduced. Raptors weren’t born like mammals, but hatched from eggs. A mother would usually lay a clutch of two or three of these whenever she was successfully fertilized, allowing the species to swell in number much faster than other races. Raptors were actually the most dominant of the enlightened by a wide margin if one were to look at the world as a whole. It was a statistic that was easy to overlook or dismiss on Atica, but it was impossible to ignore here on Velos. Even this relatively small port, which was supposedly an Alliance colony, was practically overflowing with the scaly folk.
It was therefore quite understandable that Rowana, Keira, and the rest of the first-time visitors couldn’t help but stare. The novelty of it would wear off quickly, but the all-female couple’s attention was grabbed by something else before that could happen. Namely by a massive figure making its way straight towards them.
Standing at a ridiculous height of roughly three and a half meters, this man was so huge that his entire upper body was visible over the crowd of people. His head was covered by a thick layer of swept-back hair, bushy eyebrows and mustache and a glorious full beard, all of which were a radiant blond in color. The sleeveless tunic he wore exposed his massive arms and shoulders, which were thick enough for a full-grown person to hide behind, much like his legs. He was incredibly well muscled as well, despite the fact that the staff he was carrying suggested he was a magic user rather than a front-line fighter.
It was that particular piece of gear that caught Boxxy’s attention. The metal rod was almost as tall as its owner, and was either forged out of or plated with gold. The staff’s head was shaped like a wide circle that was hollow in the middle save for a bright blue gemstone that glittered enticingly in the sunlight. The shiny object was held in place by a half dozen metal spikes, each of which was attached to the inner side of the large golden ring. Six more spearhead-shaped tips jutted outwards from those spots, giving the staff a rather menacing and potentially lethal shape.
Nevertheless, this six-spiked symbol clearly had some sort of special significance to the man. It was stamped at the front of his tunic, on his round belt buckle, on each of the metal plates strapped to his forearms like bracers and was also on the cover of the heavy leather-bound tome dangling off of his waist by a chain. And now that Boxxy’s initial ‘Ooh, shiny!’ moment had passed, it was able to recognize this symbol as a Solar Crest, which was commonly associated with the Sun God’s faith.
The man raised his massive hand in greeting as he approached while smiling and staring straight at Keira. The catgirl stiffly raised her arm to return the greeting, her mouth agape in an expression of shock and awe. Rowana had a very similar reaction to her wife-to-be, though seemed to snap out of it a lot quicker. The giant came to a rumbling halt in front of the pair and looked down at them with a positively beaming smile that seemed to make the silent promise that all would be well.
“Miss Keira Morgana, am I right?”
His deep, almost booming voice washed over the pair, but the catgirl seemed to be still too surprised to actually respond with anything resembling a proper greeting.
“You are huuuuuuge!”
“Uh, please forgive her rudeness mister,” Rowana called out from besides her. “She gets a bit overly excited when she sees things for the first time.”
“Gyah hah hah hah!” he laughed loudly in response. “Don’t worry yourself, my dear! I was told she was an excitable one, so I expected something like this. Besides, being looked at with such pure-hearted wonderment is a reaction I’ve learned to appreciate.”
The catgirl’s exclamation was not entirely an act, as Boxxy had never seen such a splendid specimen of a giant before, especially not this up close. It had caught glances of these massive enlightened before, but it never cared enough to approach them. And now that one of them had come to it, it couldn’t help but stare at all that muscle that was surely bulging with flavor. It was honestly having a hard time containing its appetite. Not to mention it also wanted to get its tentacles on that giant’s shiny stick.
However, before it could even think about either of things, it first had to deal with a more pressing matter.
“Wait, you know of me?” Keira asked after abruptly snapping out of her stupor.
“Aye!” the giant confirmed.
“I’m pretty sure I’m not all that famous this far south…”
“Your pal Nao spoke highly of you last time we met, and he informed me through magic you would be arriving here a few days after us, so I decided to wait for you lot to catch up.”
“Ah… Well, so long as you didn’t hear about me through some awful rumors, then I don’t have any complaints. Anyway! Like you said, I’m Keira, but who might you be?”
Boxxy knew of the man’s identity thanks to the information it gathered before setting off, but its Facade would not have had the opportunity to chase after rumors, so it played dumb.
“I’m Orrin Mildenhall. Some folks call me ‘Sunbeard,’ but just ‘Orrin’ will do. As you can probably tell, I’m a giant, a Priest, and current Hero of the Sun.”
“Wow, another Hero?” Rowana stated bemusedly. “First Keira, then Nao, then that Sigmund fellow. It almost feels like you guys are coming out of the woodwork all of a sudden.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” Orrin replied, “but there are quite a few of us floating around these days. Wait, you two have already met Sigmund Law?”
“Uh, yeah,” Keira stated while looking around. “I can’t go into details, he visited me in Azurvale to discuss a certain matter.”
“Ah. Nothing violent, I hope. I heard you and his predecessor had a… conflict of interests.”
“No, no, nothing like that. It wasn’t even personal, just some business between our two patrons.”
More specifically, it was a discussion involving a trio of half-divine half-demon siblings that needed taking care of.
“That’s good. I haven’t met him yet, but he did leave one of his people here with a message. However, I’m afraid it is not something that concerns civilians.”
Keira and Rowana exchanged some knowing looks, then the elf then smiled and lightly pecked the catgirl on the cheek.
“I’ll be fine, sweetie,” she said reassuringly. “I have to help my brother unload and organize those alchemical supplies, you go ahead and do what you do best.”
The woman in white went off towards a group of elves unloading a rather obscene amount of crates from the ship while her girlfriend sent her off with a smile and a wave. Afterwards Orrin led Keira towards a barn-like structure he had commandeered as a temporary living space. He would’ve stayed at the inn next door, but his plus-sized frame made it difficult to fit in regular buildings.
Once inside and out of sight, the giant was slightly taken aback when he saw the catgirl’s face. Not just her expression, but also her body language and demeanor had changed entirely, to the point where it appeared as if a completely different person was wearing her face. The slack-jawed tourist he met moments ago had been replaced by a woman that exuded a sense of purpose and determination without him even realizing it.
“So, what’s going on here, Orrin?” she asked matter of factly.
“Ah! Right, so. Like I said, one of Law’s subordinates approached me when I first arrived,” the man replied in a low voice. “Teresa’s chosen has called a meeting of the Heroes, a conference to discuss this orc situation. His man was supposed to pick me up the instant I arrived, but I asked him to wait until I could ask you and Nao about it. So, what do you think?”
“I see. He probably wants to pool our knowledge and resources in order to figure out a way to repel this threat before it engulfs the civilized portion of the continent.”
“… He does?”
“That’s how I see it. Like I said, I’ve met the man before. He’s a bit of an idealist, so he’d definitely try to find a solution that that doesn’t involve sending people to their deaths in a head-on collision against a hundred thousand orcs. ‘Cut off the head and the body will rot,’ something like that.”
One would think that killing off the warboss that had united the various orc clans and warbands would be enough to make the horde crumble due to infighting, but that was not the case. Once unified under the same banner, an orcish scourge could only be stopped by routing them completely through an overwhelming show of force. Taking out the leader would certainly help, but it would not miraculously end the conflict.
“Hmm, that would indeed be preferable,” Orrin mused while stroking his beard. “We would undoubtedly suffer heavy casualties if we were to face them in battle, but if sinister forces are at work… Do you think it possible to rout the enemy by eliminating this hypothetical enemy?”
“Everything’s possible, Orrin. But, I believe it is very likely that some unseen threat is at work. Lunar sent her shut-in of a Hero here to figure out the root cause of this mess, which I doubt she would do unless there was something to find. If unearthing and eliminating this ‘source’ has a chance to stop this thing dead in its tracks, then we would be foolish not to investigate it while we can.”
“Oh-hoh! I see Nao’s claims that you were wise beyond your years was no mere boast. I hadn’t even considered any of this until now.”
“Speaking of which, how did you and Nao even meet? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I came to him to seek aid with one of the divine duties that Solus had tasked me with. As have you, judging from what he told me.”
“Ah. Well, I hope your Quest went better than mine did,” Keira said, her eyes glazing over slightly.
“I don’t know about yours, but mine was a roaring success thanks to our fuzzy-eared friend.”
Orrin had the unenviable burden of reuniting the scattered giants and rekindling his people’s faith, as well as their hope. Part of that required that their culture, teachings and customs were preserved, which included the Lightbinder Job. The scrying-specialized occupation was originally widespread among his people, but the destruction of Percepeia by the Boneshaper had turned it into a dying art. Finding someone who could teach the Job onto Orrin so that he could, in turn, pass it onto others was why he approached Nao for help.
All things considered, his was a slightly more important and surprisingly less dangerous mission than tracking down a collection of divine cutlery that only existed as a prank.
“Anyway, I appreciate you informing me of this meeting,” Keira stated, getting the conversation back on track. “Neither myself nor Nao would want to be left out of it, assuming Sigmund will have us.”
“He would be a fool to dismiss either of you. And from what I gather, the Hero of the Hammer is no fool.”
“He’s at least brighter than the last one, I’ll give him that. Where is this conference being held, though?”
“They’re holding it at a fortress southeast of here, some five days away by foot. Apparently it’s the expedition’s main staging area and the first place the orcs will hit.”
“Okay, and how will we be getting there? You said Sigmund sent someone to pick you up?”
“Aye. The man has a griffin on standby, and he’s ready to leave at a moment’s notice. Supposedly the trip will take only half a day by air if we don’t run into any trouble from the local wildlife.”
“Yeah, about that. How many people can we bring along without overburdening it?”
Griffins were mighty beasts to be sure, but they were far from the only flying monster around. Of particular note were the jungle’s winged hydras, which actually looked more like multi-headed wyverns. That was why it was important to manage the weight of the griffin’s load, as it would limits its agility and mobility if it was too heavy.
“You wish to bring others with you?” Orrin asked with a cocked eyebrow.
“Of course. This may be a Heroes-only thing, but I wouldn’t feel right leaving without my traveling companions. Or my gear. And you should already know Kuro would never let Nao go to the front lines on his own. Especially after I, uh, dragged him into a bit of unexpected trouble last year.”
“Hmm, I suppose that is a good point. I’ll have to check with the man how many his bird-beast can carry, but a few extra people should not be a problem. I’ll ask him to be sure, so could you tell me how many people you want to bring along aside from those two wolf-lads?”
“Two - Fizzy and Hilda. They’re both excellent front line fighters so they should be a huge asset to the defense of that fortress should the orcs get any ideas, even if they can’t join in on this Hero stuff. Oh, I should probably mention Fizzy is a mithril golem so she’s a good bit heavier than a normal person, despite her small size.”
“Ah, I assume that would be the radiant white girl I saw prancing about on the deck of your ship?”
The one skipping around was actually Plus, but Orrin’s guess was close enough, so Keira replied with a nod.
“Very well,” he continued. “I’ll make the arrangements, you should get your luggage ready. Hmm? Is something the matter, miss Morgana?”
The catgirl’s eyes had suddenly veered off to the side while her fuzzy ears twitched ever so slightly.
“… Yeah, I think we have an uninvited guest.”
The catgirl flicked her wrist, causing a knife to fall out of her sleeve and into her hand. She gripped it by the blade with two fingers and spun around, flinging the blade up towards the barn’s rafters. The giant’s eyes tracked the weapon as it flew into the air, right up until the point where it disappeared inside a shadowy corner. One that Orrin was quite shocked to find had a voice.
“Oh my, looks like I was found out.”
A very calm, soothing, and feminine voice.
Its owner leapt out of the darkness and landed on the wooden floorboards in front of Keira, who was already in a combat-ready stance while wielding an extra pair of knives. The giant himself seemed ready to fly into action, but stopped himself when he saw the intruder. Her lithe body was wrapped in a hooded cloak so black it seemed to suck the light out of the environment. Her shoulder pads, chest plate, bracers and the layer of mail underneath it all were all forged out of a darkened material that was so un-shiny it was hard to tell it was metal. Her slender legs were wrapped in a pair of dark grey thigh-high leather boots, likely enchanted with sound-dampening magic.
However, what gave the Hero of the Sun pause was the ivory-white skull-shaped mask this intruder wore, which obscured everything but her crimson red pupils.
“… By my beard,” he muttered. “Is that…”
“Yup, that’s me,” the girl responded casually while twirling Keira’s knife between her fingers. “Name’s Kaede. Hero of Death. Mortimer’s Reaper. Garbage-woman of the Gods. Part time blade for hire and full-time expert on stabbing things.”
“And also one cheeky brat.”
Kiera lifted her right arm as she said so, then struck the nosferata on the head with the pommel of her dagger with speed and force that were perhaps higher than was necessary
“Ow! C’mon, Keira! No need to be so salty just because I finally got the drop on you.”
“Try that again.”
“Ouch! Okay, okay! I’m sorry for eavesdropping!”
The catgirl raised her hand again, causing Kaede to flinch back and cover her head with her hands in a way that was almost like a conditioned reflex.
“Ma’am! I’m sorry for eavesdropping, ma’am!” she corrected herself. “Please don’t hit me anymore, okay? You might trigger a Clash!”
“Oh? But the Clash of Fate only activates if you fight back. You weren’t about to do something stupid like oppose your teacher, were you?!”
“N-n-no, ma’am! I wouldn’t think of it, ma’am!”
“Of course not. Because you don’t think. How many times do I have to tell you stop using Shower in a Bottle all the damn time?! You practically reek of hylt fruit! Any moron with a nose would have spotted you! Have you learned nothing?!”
“I swear, Kaede, you better fix that habit of yours, or I’m going to slice your damned nose off. Hero or not, I will not have one of my students be caught and killed because of such an amateurish mistake! Are we clear?!”
“Yes, ma’am! Crystal clear, ma’am!”
“Good girl. Orrin?”
“Y-yes, ma’am? I mean, uh, miss Morgana?”
“Kaede here just volunteered to help our cause, so we’re bringing her along. She’s a bit green, but she should still prove useful. Tell your man to get ready and that you will be bringing six passengers along with you. I’ll go fetch Nao and the others, meet you back here in fifteen to twenty minutes.”
Keira returned all her knives to their hiding spots within her outfit and left the building without another word, leaving Orrin to scratch his head while Kaede rubbed hers.
“So, uh, Hero of Death, huh?” the giant said in an attempt to dispel the awkward atmosphere.
“Yeah. Still a newbie, though,” the girl replied. “As I’m sure you can tell.”
“Uh-huh. Mind telling me what you’re doing here?”
“Thought this orc business would be a good place to get some fast Levels, so I came here by stowing aboard one of those six ships. Then I saw you and Knifey Wifey over there run off together, so I followed.”
“Dare I ask why you did that?”
“Cross-continental boat tickets are expensive.”
“No, not that. I mean why did you hide instead of approaching us normally?”
“No real reason. Force of habit, I guess.”
Another awkward moment of silence followed, after which Orrin decided to ask the question that was bugging him the most. It wasn’t anything to do with the girl’s morally dubious profession though. Even if he personally found the thought of putting a price on someone's life to be abhorrent and deeply disapproved of a fellow Hero acting as an assassin, he at the same time recognized the need for such things. After all, death could be used to nurture and protect life, it was almost a necessity in certain aspects. And there was nobody better at putting filthy heretics and godless heathens in the ground than Mortimer’s chosen.
Orrin didn’t like it, but he understood it.
“She’s your teacher?”
This, however, was something he did not expect in the slightest.
“Haah… Yeah,” Kaede responded with a sigh. “A friend recommended I visit her for Ranger training. It was the most grueling three months of my life. She’s strict and harsh, but she taught me what it means to truly fight for my survival. Among other things.”
“Other things?” the giant asked. “Like what?”
Kaede turned her crimson eyes upward, meeting Orrin’s puzzled gaze.
“Mmm, well… Long story short, those orcs don’t stand a chance now that she’s here.”