It was worse. It was so much worse than Julius ever could’ve imagined.
He’d expected screaming. He’d expected yelling. He’d expected them to get outright banished from the island. Maybe even from the entire nation!
He really didn’t expect to have to see Chief Hiroto Torahiko burying his face in his arms, visibly shaking as he…possibly cried into his desk.
He didn’t know who here felt the worst here. Him, Douglas, Tisma, or the poor bodyguards behind the desk who were watching their boss very possibly break down in tears over his ‘failure’.
No, wait, he did know who felt the worst. And that was very clearly Hiroto.
“…It’s…uh…It’s gonna be okay?” he finally offered, ignoring how Douglas and Tisma both very desperately shook their heads at him, trying to keep him from making things worse. But, really, how much worse could it get at this point?
“How could it!?” Hiroto cried out as he finally looked up–Yuuuup, tears were definitely streaming down his face. “Because of my arrogance I let the core I was supposed to protect get stolen! That which was faithfully guarded for so long, taken under my care! My ancestors have guarded the temple for thousands of years, from before Gorokiva even formed as an empire-” Holy shit that was a long time! “-and in only two decades, I’ve managed to lose its most important component!”
“Uh… well you don’t have to worry about it. We’ll be getting it back as soon as we can-”
“You don’t understand Goldforge!” Hiroto shouted as he stood up, his fingers–more like claws by this point–visibly digging into the wood of his desk, “Even if you do, the shame I’ve brought upon not only myself but my entire clan shall never fade! I’ll never be able to live it down!” Julius bit down hard on the inside of his cheek in a desperate attempt not to come clean.
“…If I may,” Douglas spoke up, very hesitantly, “This situation may be bad, but crying over it won’t change anything, though I will say, I am glad you are allowing your emotions out in a good environment like someone who isn’t a repressed lunatic.” Julius didn’t know if Douglas was talking about him there, but he still felt weirdly offended. “At the very least, you should take this setback for what it is, merely a simple problem to be solved, and strive forward with your head held high, ready to face whatever may come.”
“…You’re right. You’re…You’re very right. I must make amends for my error.” Huh. That actually worked- “But I see now, the only way I can do so is to rectify my mistake!” Hiroto suddenly pulled his claws free and slammed his hands hard on his desk with a determined flame in his eyes. “So, even if it is only for a small amount of time, allow me to join in your journey!”
“…E-Excuse me?” Douglas croaked.
“You’re in need of a boat to Zemava, correct? I’m a skilled seafarer, so I’ll take you where you need to go!” He suddenly turned his gaze back at his bodyguards. “Juzo, Omezo, prepare The Ocean’s Roar! The crew should be gathered post-haste and supplies must be prepared for the voyage as soon as possible! We leave once everything is ready and not a second later!”
“Hai Shicho!” both men shouted, immediately saluting their chief as Hiroto grinned back at the three idiots who thought this mess was the best course of action to take.
“Thank you for allowing me this second chance! I will never forget your kindness!” He bowed deeply to them, then immediately headed right out of the room with his men, leaving a shocked Julius, bewildered Douglas, and exasperated Tisma behind.
“…” Tisma let out a sigh after about a minute of pure silence. “…Honestly, that one could’ve gone a whole lot worse than it did.”
“…I…guess so, yeah,” Julius replied.
“We’re all still really damn stupid though.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that’s…that’s pretty right.”
And so, the next leg of their journey began!
Kind of. It did take a little while to actually get everything and everyone together, and Julius’s less gung ho students–Sergio and Sylsa, namely–were a little annoyed that they were jumping right back into the journey instead of getting to rest, but that’s just how the world worked sometimes. A really dumb lie can spiral out of control because the person lied to reacted differently than expected. It was a good lesson to learn.
Not that Julius would ever impart that lesson to anyone. At least not while in earshot of the Torahiko Clan.
Speaking of, the clan members–which accounted for Hiroto’s actual direct family members and the people who were married or adopted into the clan from either the mainland or the neighboring islands–had gotten that ship of theirs ready ridiculously quickly. Apparently it was kept in reserve for important matters, so the Torahikos would always have at least one ship around if they needed to travel.
It was a pretty nice ship too. Julius had no idea how ship terminology worked–clearly bringing shame upon his seafaring sister’s good name–but it was a three-masted one with red sails, so…a barque? Maybe? It was pretty spacious too, though there were a ton of people working around it. It even had actual bedrooms instead of all the beds and hammocks filling up the, uh…below deck area? Whatever that was called. Hull? It was larger than the Finja’s, so…
Point was, Julius didn’t know much about how boats worked–despite growing up in a port town and having an older sister who’d captained multiple ships–but the Torahiko Clan members very clearly did, and he was more than content to get settled in and take some time to rest and relax. And avoid Hiroto. That was definitely a part of it, and another thing he would never admit. He was really picking up a lot of those in a very short amount of time.
And that was why he was currently in a sleeping cabin within the boat, one that he’d have to share with Douglas and Tisma, but, for now, he was alone. Something which he was ridiculously grateful for. He just needed some time to himself at this point, and getting some rest sounded like a fantastic idea.
First though…Lifting up his tunic, Julius looked down at his body, his fingers going over the various new scars that riddled his chest. There were three bad ones right on the side of his abs, right where Seth had dug his claws in. Luckily, Douglas had fixed them up enough so he didn’t have outright gouges in his chest, but there was definitely a lot of white scar tissue.
Still, at least if someone didn’t believe him about almost being ripped apart by a dragon, he had plenty of proof to the contrary.
Julius sighed, laying back and scratching his side as he stared at the ceiling. He had the top bunk, of course, and the bed was plenty comfortable…
So, really, it didn’t come as much of a surprise when he found himself back in that familiar white void.
“Well, well, well,” Claire said the instant he noticed her. She was sitting across from him again, the usual checkerboard table in between them. Though, huh. It seemed redder? Actually, the floor around them had a checker pattern too now. White and red, alternating forever. Even the void above them had some red in it, like stars in a sky. “Well, well, welly welly well.”
“…Are you doing a thing?” he asked, “It seems like you’re doing a thing.”
Claire shrugged. “In a sense, I am. The thing I’m doing is mostly trying to gather my thoughts because apparently you completely kicked the asses of my REMAINING FOUR GENERALS!” And there was the yelling. Though she seemed more exasperated than angry this time, huffing in annoyance and sinking back in her chair. “Jeez, this was embarrassing. Two days and you apparently handled three of my best easily!”
“I…wouldn’t say ‘easily’,” Julius replied, semi-consciously scratching his side again, “And didn’t you say ‘four’ at first?”
“Yes, yes I did. Ariel might’ve lost before you beat up the other three, but I’m counting her because she was one of my last generals in the Light Lands. Also because she finally got back home around the same time as the other three, though she happened to be completely naked and literally dropped into my lap while I was having dinner.”
Julius blinked. “…What.”
“Yeah, it was certainly something.” She looked like she was trying not to smile. “I’m sure all the ministers I had over to discuss the war campaign appreciated the view too. They were definitely staring quite a bit.”
“…I feel like that probably didn’t end well for them.”
She shrugged. “They’re still alive, if that’s what you were worried about. Ariel was insanely pissed off at Kiyo though, once she got past all that embarrassment. But let’s put my subordinate’s nice spidery body aside in favor of the much more important matters we have to discuss.”
“Yeah, duh.” She smirked, starting the chess match with a knight. “Even if you wrecked every last one of my invading generals, I still got that Lightning Temple core. It’s not exactly what I wanted, but even if my future army isn’t as strong as I wanted it to be, it’s still going to be growing bigger and bigger, the longer you lightlanders take.”
Ah. Right, fuck. “…Right, but, uh…I’m sure you realize whatever you get from the core, it won’t be nearly as good as you were hoping for.” Wow, that was a weak comeback, and she definitely noticed it.
“Perhaps~. Despite its massive power, the Temple Cores only really make simple, weak-minded creatures. At least, initially.” She leaned forward with another, wider smirk. “But then, they do have those cute ‘mini-bosses’ they make, don’t they? And then there’s bosses…I’m sure a decent, say, ‘outside influence’ could make sure my new toy produces all the strong minions I could ever want.”
“And I’m guessing you have a way of doing that.” Well shit.
“Ha! Ah, I’m glad you’ve finally caught on~! Sure, it’ll take some time, but I’m sure my big project here will be finished long before you arrive at the border.” Leaning back in her throne, she hummed in thought, tapping at her chin. “Let’s see…You still have the gaudy Temple of Light to get through, and then you have to return to your pitiful home kingdom to begin the march to the Dark Lands, correct? Aw, such a shame that skyship of yours was damaged! That would have helped things substantially, no~?”
He frowned at her playful, teasing tone, trying to ignore how cute she looked. It was time to focus! Kind of. Her voice really wasn’t helpful for focusing. “It would’ve, yeah. You’re really lucky that kitsune decided to mess with it before her fight.”
“Yes yes, Kiyo has always been rather cunning. Though she only has herself to blame for that surprise attack.” Claire’s tone soured there as her smirk dropped into an annoyed frown. “She should’ve known better than to attack a group by herself.”
“I don’t know about that,” Julius replied, “She was only unlucky to run into Tisma there. If she didn’t come to check on the crash, your general probably would have won.”
“Oh certainly so. Kiyo is a skilled illusionist and a decent enough fighter, but she works a lot better with someone actually taking up the physical part of it.” She paused for a second, frowning in thought. “Hm. Note to self, see how well Fergus and Kiyo work together. Oh, and, in case you were, don’t worry about either of them. They’re both fine.”
“…I mean, I didn’t really like Fergus and I didn’t meet ‘Kiyo’.”
“Yeah, but you will. You will meet Kiyo, to be specific. You probably still won’t like Fergus anyway because he’s sort of a prick.”
“I noticed.” Actually wait… “So ‘Kiyo’ survived Tisma hitting her? I mean, I didn’t want her to die or anything, just…didn’t she go flying into the sky?”
“Oh, that? Nah, she’s fine.”
“…Are you going to explain how she’s fine?”
Claire smirked and raised both her hands, wiggling her fingers. “Maaaaagiiiiic~!”
“…” He stared at her.
“…” She kept on smirking at him.
“Heh. Jonny and Seth are also fine, by the way. Not super great, considering you impaled Seth on your sword, lewd-” What. “-and exploded Jonny’s face, but them’s the breaks in this line of work. Though I’m glad you and your brats can show some restraint.”
“Uh…you’re welcome.” Julius shrugged, then paused for a moment and leaned forward with his arms on the table, staring intently at Claire. “Now that I think about it, I actually have a few things to ask you.”
“Oh? Serious time now, huh. Alright, ask away.” She grinned. “You can forgive me if I keep some future plans a secret though.”
“Don’t worry, it’s all past stuff. So…first, is Jonathan related to that ‘Percival Bleaksky’ guy you mentioned before? The one that supported…y’know.”
“…Wow, you really shoot right for the hard stuff. Yes, Percy was Jonny’s older brother, and Jonny was one of my first subordinates.” She shrugged, smiling a little more fondly, like she was remembering something pleasant. “He defected right to my side the instant he realized I was a better alternative than that arrogant prick.”
“Hm. And…was Percival a dwarf with a terrible accent?”
Claire blinked. “…No?? Why the fuck…he was a vampire–Okay, wait, there can be dwarven vampires, so-” She frowned, crossing her arms over her chest and staring down at the chessboard. “…I suppose ‘human vampire’ would be the right term? It doesn’t exactly sound right to me, but no, he wasn’t a dwarf. Hell, he was a blueskin vamp, so…wait, that would make him elvish…point is, unless your pal looks like that, it’s not him.”
“Okay, good.” So that at least eliminated one possible background for Percy, but left so many more open… “Well, moving on, what’s up with Seth’s name?”
“Seth, his name is just…Seth. I don’t know, it feels like it should be…fancier? Like Bonifaci, or Kigalori, or…uhh…Okay, not Caligori, but I just had a weird realization that the Elder God of Darkness has a very draconic name…”
“Or dragons have a very ‘Dark Elder’ naming convention,” Claire replied with a shrug, “Anyhow, Seth just retained the name he had from before he ascended to dragon status. There’s nothing really fancy about it.” She tilted her head, frowning. “I guess it isn’t the typical name for an icedrake, but cultures spread and so do names, so there we go.”
“Race of drakes from Brunzaba. Their ancestors made a deal with some Perfidian Duchess, meaning an ice demon, which involved trading their species’s natural weakness for cold for a worse weakness to heat. I doubt they realized it would give them that weakness, but deals like that tend to have bad consequences.”
“Right. That makes some sense…Last, uh, question.” He took a breath to steady himself. Honesty was best here. “…What would you say if I told you I had sex with a dragon?”
“…Uhhh…you’re going to have to be a lot more specific there. I’m imagining this isn’t hypothetical either?”
Shit. Okay, no retreating. “A while after I proposed to you that, um, first time-” Oh no, she was blushing, she looked cute, fuck, no, ignore it. “-I…went to the Fire Temple. And you know about how I gave the core of that temple to the boss of Xelsha, right?”
“Yes I do,” she replied, raising an eyebrow at him as her blush subsided. “You’re referring to the Dragon Lord–or Great Dragon if you wanna use that term–Galinori Aloisia Osanna Hascimagni Arancoda di Ebkai then?”
…Okay, he had to admit, he was really impressed she knew Arancoda’s full name off the top of her head. Still. “Yeah. I, uh…had sex with her.”
“…Cool. And?” She still had her eyebrow raised. “What, do you want me to add her to my harem?”
“No, I–Wait, your harem?”
“Yeah? It would be mine. I’m the higher status partner here, so if I’m taking additional lovers, then it would be my harem.” Claire shrugged. “It’s not exactly established yet, but there’s plenty of precedent for the protocol here. And I guess taking female lovers would help prevent the succession crisis stuff that screwed over Lusiarch’s empire?” She leaned back in her seat again, staring up at the ceiling now. “I honestly hadn’t considered it before, since I figured this would be a monogamous situation, but lightlanders do tend to have polyamorous things, huh?”
“…N-Not…exactly?” Julius…wasn’t quite sure where this conversation had gone. And he was really desperately trying not to picture what Arancoda being in Claire’s ‘harem’ would involve. “It’s…legal, sure, but…I guess it depends on the individuals? I know Richard’s wives aren’t really happy with him most of the time, but I think that’s mostly because he’s spent most of their marriages flirting and fucking other people, so it’s not exactly a healthy example. Ah, just to confirm, you are okay with the, uh, Arancoda thing?”
“Again, yeah. We’re not married yet, you doofus. I’m not going to get mad over something this inconsequential.” Her lips quirked up in a fonder smile. “Though I think it’s adorable that you got this worried about what I’d think~.”
He tried not to grin. “Okay.”
“Regardless, whatever relations you may have in the past don’t matter to me. Though I hope you aren’t like your bardic friend. Having so many kids left and right with random people is something I don’t want to deal with.”
“Oh. Yeah, no, I don’t do that.” Apparently Cyrus’s reputation had spread…Or, hm. “Wait, is Cyrus in the Dark Lands?”
“Yeah, duh. You didn’t know that?”
“…I don’t…really send a lot of letters.” Julius shrugged, feeling oddly embarrassed. “I just tend to check if everyone’s still alive and such every so often. I don’t really ask for details or anything.”
“…That’s odd, but sure, whatever works for you.”
He shrugged again. “It’s just…I don’t like troubling people? So…uh, anyway, what’s Cyrus been up to?”
“…Oh gods dammit…”
Claire abruptly snorted. “Ha! Ah, wow, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone’s face drop that fast. Anyhow, yeah, your friend certainly has a lot of sex. I’ve been having a few people keep an eye on him ever since he entered the Dark Lands in case he tried anything ‘heroic’, but he seems content to just sing and seduce wherever he goes. Apparently he’s really good at both.”
“Yeah, that’s him.” Julius sighed. “He’s…skilled at his talents, I guess. It’s gotten him and the rest of us in trouble plenty of time, but he’s also saved our asses with his silver tongue countless times.”
Surprisingly, she didn’t smile there. She just stared at him with an odd expression. “…I don’t understand you, Julius. You seem so fond of all your allies, yet you also say you don’t check up on them often, and even then, you don’t ask much. Why is that?”
…Well wasn’t that a question. “Ah…hm…it’s just a bit embarrassing to-”
“Julius, please don’t lie to me. We know enough about one another to be past that stage. If you don’t want to tell me, then just say that.” …Oh. Huh.
“It…wasn’t that much of a lie but…Just…give me a moment.” Taking a deep breath, Julius braced himself for some really rough crap he really didn’t feel like remembering. “After the war…no, after Kigalori’s death, I wasn’t in the best of headspaces. So I was pretty distant to everyone. I only really talked with them when it was important or necessary.
“Afterwards, when we all went our own ways, I didn’t really try keeping in touch for a few years. They all visited on their own every now and then, but it took a few years for me to get better, and even now I’m still not great. But the giant gap of time where I didn’t seem to care made it difficult to talk with them.” Sighing, he stared at the table, the chess game left forgotten. “But well…I guess I was still better off than some of the heroes of the past.”
“True, I’ve heard such things. Stuff like that is usually kept well hidden, secrecy for the sake of a pleasant narrative, but some knowledge can’t be kept secret. Such as information about your mentor’s former teammates.”
He winced. “…Yeah.”
“…” She stared at him some more, studying him, then spoke up again, “If I may ask, why do you think this constant cycle of war and peace started?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
“Just a simple question. Why did these wars start? And don’t tell me something like ‘well I was told’ or something of the like. People like you and me don’t get where we are by being mindless drones.”
“Right…So…I’m not really sure.” Biting his lip in thought, he considered the question. “I’d like to think it was for a good reason, but I know that isn’t true.”
“Hm…Simple, but acceptable.”
“Why do you want to know?”
“It’s just something I ask those close to me.” Claire waved her hand and the chessboard vanished, and ten images replaced it. They were like little balls, showing different people in different places, seven of whom he recognized. “I did the same to all my generals as well.”
“Pitiful beings like those from the Light Lands fear what they don’t know,” Autumn replied to an unheard question as she sipped from a tea cup in the middle of a large garden, filled with vibrant plants in hundreds of different colors.
“I dunno, some old assholes probably wanted ta show off their strength by tryin’ ta beat us down,” muttered Leok as she boxed a punching bag, her eyes narrowed and her fists sending loud ‘cracks’ of sound through the otherwise empty training hall.
“Ho ho, what a fascinating question…In this old man’s humble opinion, they merely blamed us for everything that was going wrong,” answered Hans as he glanced up from his book, sitting in a plush armchair in the middle of a large library.
“Hmph. It matters not why it happened. We must simply protect our own,” Fergus responded as he walked alongside Claire down a familiar hallway filled with paintings and suits of armor.
“Simply put, they’re mindless beasts following the whims of their gods,” mocked Ariel as she relaxed to the sound of orchestral music, idly conducting along to the beat with a lazy smile in the seats of a concert hall.
“‘Why’ doesn’t matter. It happened and we have to deal with it,” said Seth, mid-dining, his plain blue shirt heavily stained with the juices from his raw steak. He was in a more folkish–bipedal, drakinoid, humanoid, whatever–form there, though he was still pretty much covered in blue scales. He also had white feathers for hair–or would humans have hair for feathers? Food for thought–and just a generally more lean, narrow figure.
“My my, to think my lady would ask me such a thing out of the blue. The only answer I could give that would suffice, is to say conflict has and will always exist,” offered Jonathan as he swirled a wine glass, one leg up on a wide windowsill, the moon illuminating him in the open air.
“Hm…I’ve never really cared for the past, so I can’t say. I’m much more interested in the future. After all, I still need to find a spouse~,” said an orange-haired woman–who he assumed was Kiyoshi–as she looked at a map in the middle of a war-room, its surface covered with small figures representing their allies and enemies.
“Oh, that’s simple. Cause we’re different,” came a dour response from a redheaded goblin, twisting a screw into some large, shelled machine. He couldn’t really make out much of her appearance with all the protective gear she was wearing.
“I am unsure, my lady. All of my studies of the past have been conflicting. So I am unable to come to my own decision.” And the final answer came from an intense looking golem, carved out of silver-green mithril and visibly designed to look to look like a monstrous demon or ogre, with large tusks curling down and up from the top and bottom of their mouth. Despite their appearance, they had a calm tone and their turquoise eyes seemed…thoughtful.
“In the end, despite our common goal, we’re all different. But it is because of that difference that we are able to go so far.” Smiling as the images faded, Claire once again stared at Julius. “It’s also partly why I’m interested in you. So, even if my reign may be coming to an end soon, my ideas won’t, simply because people like you know of them.”
“…Right. This is gonna end soon.” One way or another, all of it would end.
“Hmph. Come now, you’ve come much too far to start hesitating.” Julius felt himself start to tumble as his chair suddenly disappeared, before Claire grabbed his hand and pulled him close, her lips pursed-…
“There. I hope that will suffice until we meet again. I’ll make sure to await you with bated breath~.”