Chapter 35 – The Country of Light

Julius had a very…interesting time on the journey to Zemava. After his latest meeting with Claire, he just sort of…stared blankly off into the distance, watching the coast as their ship continued its voyage. He had a feeling that Douglas and Tisma knew why, but he refused to talk about it. 

At the very least, those two quickly found themselves busy with teaching the students, so he wasn’t bothered too much…After that run-in with Kiyoshi, Douglas decided–well, was more like directly demanded to by Sylsa–to teach them all how to break at least some forms of illusions, since, even if they didn’t affect Sophia, they couldn’t constantly rely on her to save them.

Julius definitely had an interesting time watching said training, since he easily made a game out of trying to guess what illusions Douglas was putting his students through based on their reactions. Most of the ‘illusions’ were just things like temporarily taking away their sight by making everything look completely dark, but, occasionally, Douglas did catch them off guard with something way more out there. Thankfully, the crew of The Ocean’s Roar quickly figured out to stay away from them while they were training after Sue nearly punched out a crewmember she thought was a demon.

Meanwhile, Tisma had taken to teaching the students the more physical arts when they weren’t busy with Douglas’s mental stuff. It mostly took the form of sparring on the wide-open deck, but she did also show them some better techniques for channeling magical energy through their muscles to boost things like strength, durability, stamina, and so on. 

Funny enough, since Sophia didn’t have to do any of the illusion training, she wound up being Tisma’s most frequent “training partner”. Suffice to say, it was a good thing she was already really experienced with healing magic, because Tisma was not the type to let up on exercises just because someone was “supposed to be a support role”.

Actually, there were those “war clerics” in Sollamava, so maybe Tisma was onto something…

Speaking of, once they started passing along the arid coast of Sollamava, Tisma moved right into giving history and culture lessons about her home country to their curious students.

“Right…so, it’s like…hm. How do I say this…” 

Well at least she was trying to. 

“…Armor isn’t that important to us?” Tisma frowned and crossed her arms over her chest, bowing her head in thought. The ship was currently passing along the Sollamavan coast, so she basically had all of the marble buildings along the sandy, hill-covered coast as a background. “Like…We have armor and all. But we’re naturally tougher so most weapons bounce off us or even break.”

“Is that why you use heavy weapons like a hammer?” Mask asked, politely raising a hand.

“Oh, that’s a good point. Yep, we definitely do that. Axes too. I’d say it’s why a lot of my people go into the mercenary and soldier businesses, but there’s still plenty of ranchers and fishers out there, so I guess it just has to do with their mentalities. That’s probably a good lesson for all y’all: don’t assume a person’s personality or profession based on their race. It’s a great way to wind up looking like an idiot.”

“But you do still have that warrior thing going on,” Sergio pointed out.

“Yeah, but what race doesn’t have a ‘warrior thing’ goin’ on? I’ve met plenty of human warriors and soldiers, but it’s just not smart of me to assume every human I meet is gonna know how to fight. And that’s another lesson there: a warrior and a soldier are different things. Warriors fight for themselves, soldiers fight for a cause or a nation.”

“What if their cause is themself?”

“Then they’re a noble. Or just really self-centered.” Shrugging, Tisma looked out toward the coast. “Anyways, going back to the lesson. While we do use a lot of heavy weapons, you won’t really see any small stuff like daggers or rapiers unless it’s for ceremonial stuff.” 

“…Such as?” 

“I dunno. I never really cared for that stuff myself and my family’s all farmers, so they never taught me stuff like that.” 

“Oh? You’re from a family of farmers?” Sophia asked, “What’s grown in Sollamava?” 

“A lotta things. Olives, grapes, and…I’m not quite sure how to describe ‘em to y’all. They’re like…little red fruits with pins in them called cactus pears.”

“If she ever offers you any, take the pins out first,” Julius advised, wincing at the memory of a needle jabbing straight through his tongue.

“Hey! That takes away the challenge!” 

“Eating fruit shouldn’t be a challenge Tisma…” 

“Peppers.”

Julius blinked. “What? Peppers aren’t fruits.”

Tisma raised an eyebrow at him.

“…I thought they were vegetables.”

“And that’s because you’re a dockboy, while I happen to be from a damn dynasty of farmers. So hush.”

He hushed.

“So yeah, cactus pears are a major export. They’re tricky as all hell to eat, but they taste really sweet and foreigners like them. The same goes for a lot of pepper varieties around, plus pomegranates, poultry, and pork. We’ve got some big boars in the region, so the meat goes for a lot.”

“Minotaurs eat meat?” Sophia asked, then flinched when the others gave her a confused look. “A-Ah, sorry, was that rude?”

“Nah, it wasn’t. You’re an outworlder, you don’t know all the things these goofs do. As for the meat thing, I’m guessing you were asking on account of these?” She lifted a leg and tapped at her hoof.

Sophia nodded, still looking flustered.

“Heh. Seriously, don’t worry about it. It’s actually a funny thing for us too. See, while minotaurs in general are fine with lots of meat types, like fish, poultry, and pork, we do have bad reactions to eating stuff like beef and horse. It just doesn’t go down right at all, so we avoid it. It’s kinda why you won’t see many cow ranches around, but other farms are just fine. Hell, you’ll see more rhinos than cows in these parts.”

“…Rhinos?”

“Yeah, they’re like big gray beasties, got horns on their faces. They make pretty good steeds.”

“Steeds?? Th-Ah, wait, um…I d-do know what they are. I’m just…kind of surprised. I thought, um…Well, I guess Gorokiva was kind of Japan-ish, so I shouldn’t think everything would line up exactly with a standard European thing,” Sophia muttered, starting to mumble under her breath as she hit one of those weird little culture clashes that tended to confuse outworlders.

Tisma was experienced enough to just roll with it though, so she just shrugged and continued on with the lesson.

It was certainly interesting hearing her try to teach them about her home country, especially since she had some trouble trying to explain some things like specifics on their history and traditions. She could explain important events, holidays, and how most of those traditions worked just fine, but she wasn’t exactly the best at the small details. 

Shame that they couldn’t actually stop in Sollamava, but while it wasn’t outright illegal for them to enter the country, it would be difficult to move around if they were recognized as the previous heroes. Or, to be more specific, recognized as Cyrus’s friends by anyone in power. 

Hm. Maybe the reason Cyrus went to the Dark Lands was to avoid all the trouble he was in…and that small thought made Julius wonder what his friend could have probably done in the Frost Lands and Sun Lands to completely remove them as options.

Regardless, their journey had to continue, and continue it did as they sailed past the Sollamavan coast and towards Zemava. And when they reached the northern borders between the two nations…the land didn’t seem to change that much, actually, from what they could see. 

Nice coastal plains, a coastal cliff every now and then, and even the occasional forest as the climate moved from arid heat to temperate. However, one thing of note was that whenever they passed by any towns or ports, they could see three white statues–one taller one with two smaller ones flanking the central figure–near the center of those communities.

Now, normally something in the center of a town, even a small one, wouldn’t be easily visible from a ship a fair distance at sea. Unless it was pretty big. 

Like those statues were. 

Of course, aside from that, everything was rather normal. None of the towns really stood out too much. Their houses were simple and looked like the kind of buildings you could see anywhere. Wood and stone, usually with tiled roofs and their own personal decorations. Simple and nice. That being said, the same couldn’t be said for the capital, Divica. 

Now the best, kindest way Julius could put it was that Divica was…very easy to spot. 

Even if most of it was blocked from view by it’s pretty high walls–which, of course, acted as the city’s main means of defense–the bright, marble buildings that lined the coast and the wall itself made it obvious where they were at. Yes, the Capital of Light seemed to do it’s damnedest to be as bright as possible, and, as such, marble seemed to be the main component of construction in every single thing the city could produce.

At least with how far from the Dark Lands they were, there probably wasn’t much, if any, fighting going on in Zemava. So they had no need to worry about their precious marble breaking easily from invasions. 

Granted, Julius was probably being uncharitable there. Divica was gaudy, but the people who lived there weren’t complete idiots. Those big fancy walls were probably layered with enchantment over enchantment to fortify it as much as possible so something like a catapulted stone would feel like a pebble chucked at a boulder. A really big boulder that could shoot back. 

Point was, it was probably fine. Hell, orichalcum was apparently mined in the region, so they probably used some of it to reinforce their stuff…Or, alternatively, they used it for more decoration.

Decorations like the absolutely colossal statue lighting up the bay near the city.

“‘The Elder’s Attendant’, otherwise known as ‘The Keeper of the Coast’, ‘The Watcher of the Bay’ and ‘The Shining Colossus’,” Douglas said as he strolled up alongside Julius, who was staring at the huge statue from the bow of the ship. Most of their students were also crowded around, but closer near the railings, watching in obvious interest as they pulled in closer to what was likely the shiniest city they’d ever seen in their lives. “Standing at around three hundred and fifteen feet tall and composed almost entirely out of orichalcum, with a marble foundation and mixed ore supports, it portrays a robed, ambiguously gendered figure, intended to be a servant of the goddess Lucere representing all those who follow her will, holding a lantern aloft to so guide the noble souls of her followers into her grace, and has stood as the city of Divica’s eternal vigil for almost three thousand years, acting both as its most signature furnishing and a symbol of the entire nation’s prosperity.”

“…What a gaudy prick,” Julius replied, immediately earning a brief cackle from Douglas, which got him a few curious looks.

“It also makes a damn good lighthouse!” he shot back, before breaking down into laughter again while Julius couldn’t help but grin.

“So why’re you playing the tour guide now?” Tisma asked when she walked up too, glancing more towards the coast as more and more of the large city came into view.

“I may as well do something while we wait to pull into the harbor,” Douglas replied, shrugging.

“Heh. Well, why don’t you tell the kids about the city then? They’ll wanna know more about all of it, I’m sure.”

“Good point, and certainly not a way of getting rid of me, certainly not, now if you’ll excuse me!” And off Douglas went, heading over to their students to start explaining things like why there were floating balls of light all around the bay–namely: fairies, especially the ‘light’ variety, were weirdly attracted to the city–or what was up with all the crystals in their decorations–namely: high elves liked shiny things.

“So what’s up?” Julius asked, glancing up at Tisma, “Why’d you need Douglas away from me?”

“I didn’t really, but I figured if he hung around, we’d get sidetracked by some kinda thing or another.” She crossed her arms over her chest, frowning at Julius. “You need to hide that sword of yours.”

“Huh?”

“Jules, Zemans, especially the ‘religious high elf’ type, really don’t like demon shit. Your sword now counts as two demon shits, and we’re bringing it right into their capital. We don’t want you getting attacked by an angel again.”

“One time.”

“It nearly got you banned from the city. The only reason they let you in was on the condition that you purify the demonic influence from your body.”

“And it worked.”

“No, it didn’t.” Tisma frowned. “My memory’s not that shit, Jules. They suppressed it for, like, two seconds before it all came roaring back the instant you walked in the Dark Lands.”

“It didn’t come…roaring back.”

“You were roaring a whole hell of a lot at that Khor prick. Well, less roaring and more shrieking when your voice cracked.”

“…Why. Why would you bring that up,” Julius said in the deadest tone possible, trying to ignore how quickly his face was heating up. And the vague, phantom sensation of his throat feeling sore again.

“Because this shit is important. You’ve been having a lot of resurgences with the Butcher, according to you and Doug-”

“Yeah, but we’re fine now,” he interrupted, “I figured out it was just some-”

“Jules.” He paused. She sounded serious. “I don’t think there’s anyone stupid enough to try shit with you, especially when we’re literally about to go fight the Demon Lord’s forces, or you try to seduce said Demon Lord-” Yep, face was definitely red. “-but things could get unpleasant if you decide to just march on in there with a demon sword radiating demon power. Especially since you’ll probably read as demonically possessed to any angels looking at you.”

“…Okay, so…what do you want me to do?”

Tisma grinned. “Well, I do have a couple solutions in mind.”

Julius gave her a flat look. “Is this that thing you’ll do where you already had the solutions prepped but you just wanted to talk me into accepting them first?”

And then she frowned. “…You say it like that and it sounds manipulative…Also wrecks my fun, but whatever.” She then reached into her pack and pulled out a full scabbard made of some white material and covered with black markings. “I got this made for your sword to cover all of the demonic energy coming off it. The leatherworking was all me, but I got your three mage girls to help out with the enchantments.”

“…Huh. Thank you.” He took the scabbard, smiling a little. “This is really nice…I don’t know if I’ll really need it, but I appreciate the thought-”

“Ah ah, I’ve still got one more.” And then she held out a necklace to him. A necklace made with white beads and… 

“…Did you put Leok’s tusk and two dragon teeth onto this?”

“That I did. I had Doug shrink them down a bit so they’d fit better, and the smaller beads are made from what I found of that Jon guy’s teeth.”

“…Why??”

“It’s cover.” She jangled the necklace, smirking. “It’s a protective necklace. The demonic magic in all the parts should block out anything you’d give off from the Butcher.”

“…Doesn’t this count as a ‘demon shit’ they would get upset about?”

“Alright, first thing, you can’t use ‘demon shit’ as a singular without it sounding gross, and second thing, all this’ll read as is a necklace of teeth and beads. You can say it’s all from beasts you beat in fights if you want, but I made damn sure to check that it wouldn’t give anything away. Besides, it’s not uncommon for adventures to have necklaces with trophies from the creatures they’ve beat.”

“…That’s stuff like fingers or ears. The majority of those people are complete psychos.”

“And you’ll be the exception.”

“…” Well…on the one hand, he was touched by his friends’ concern and really appreciated everything they were doing. On the other…teeth necklace. “…Thanks. Again. Really.”

Tisma chuckled and ruffled his hair once he took and put on the necklace, earning an annoyed grimace. It did fit pretty well, but he very quickly shoved it under his shirt so no one would notice it. Which left it sitting way too close to his bare chest for comfort, but whatever. That was just the price to pay.

Anyways, soon enough, The Ocean’s Roar was pulling into the massive harbor of Divica, which formed the seaside entrance into the city. Basically, if someone were to look at the capital from above, they’d see a place shaped vaguely like a crescent moon. A pretty huge crescent moon, with the Temple of Light set more towards the center of the city. So maybe like one with a second, smaller circle sticking out through the carved bit. Sort of like a winged orb, maybe? 

Julius couldn’t fly, so it wasn’t like he had a fantastic sense of how it would look from up above.

As for the harbor itself, it was a big harbor with a ton of docks where ships of all types were set, though the merchant vessels were clearly more towards the outer docks, around the ‘wings’ of the city, which both had some fairly big statues at their ends. They were kind of like more stone guardians for the city–which already had plenty of those around in the forms of hundreds of angel and griffin statues just generally all over the place–but were around 90 feet tall and were clearly modeled after two of the triarchs.

Those weren’t exactly important though, because really, who cared about the decorations around?

“-and if you look towards the bridge to our right, yes the one stretching over that canal there, you’ll see an absolutely fascinating emblem entirely unique to the country of Zemava!” Douglas would. Douglas would care.

Julius, who by that point was just leaning on a railing out of the way of the crew, glanced over to where he was pointing. And yup, there was an emblem on that bridge. A winged, four-pointed diamond, with four smaller diamonds forming it, each in a different color and marked with a symbol. He couldn’t exactly see the symbols, but the top one was a ruby-red, the left an emerald-green, the right a topaz-yellow, and the bottom a sapphire-blue. Pretty fancy for a simple shape. 

As far as he remembered, the smaller diamonds symbolized some of the other light land gods, though he briefly wondered why there were only four. There were definitely more gods than that in the Light Lands.

“-the guardian angels of Zemava!” Oh, wait, shit, Douglas was explaining it. Guess he was wrong about them symbolizing gods…unless Douglas was the one wrong instead…he did remember hearing once that if people tried to learn too many different things, it could get mixed up in their heads…

Continuing his own mental debate, Julius failed to pay attention to the rest of the lesson–which he probably should’ve since he barely remembered anything specific about the city–as the ship docked into the port among a number of similarly sized ships. However, before they moved off the boat, Julius motioned for Sylsa’s attention, because he did happen to remember one important thing.

“Question, how many ear plugs do you have?” 

“Oh, uh, just the one pair. Why are you asking?” 

“You’ll see soon enough. Make sure to have them in, okay?” With an almost confused nod, Sylsa started searching for said plugs as Julius turned to his other students. 

“Okay so, when someone announces who we are, you’re all going to want to cover your ears.” 

“Why?” 

“Let’s just say…things get loud around here when the ‘chosen heroes’ arrive.” With his part said, Julius walked down the board onto the docks of Divica with Tisma and Douglas at his sides. Hm. Maybe he should’ve let Douglas take point…Well, whatever.

Once they got down, a middle aged man–a green-bearded high elf in a blue and white dock manager’s jacket–who had been approaching the ship stopped and stared at them in obvious recognition.

Immediately, he turned around and shouted out towards the crowd of curious onlookers–mostly dockworkers and sailors who were looking over at their very distinct ship, though there were definitely other people in the crowd, so maybe word had gotten around already. 

“THE HEROES ARE HERE!” As he continued shouting that damn phrase over and over again, more and more people began to look over and gather, excited chatter quickly filling the air. 

And soon enough, Julius spotted some white-clad soldiers rushing up to them, all armored in fancy, shiny platemail and tabards and all carrying a very familiar instrument in their hands. The gathering soldiers quickly set up in lines flanking the lowered gangplank of the ship, forming up in rows. And once they were in position, every last one of them put their trumpets up against their uncovered lips and, almost simultaneously, the three veteran heroes covered their ears as the soldiers announced their presence with loud fanfare. 

Honestly, Julius wasn’t sure he enjoyed the hero worship that went on around Zemava. He’d had a very awkward time of it the last time he was here–mostly because he was a steaming ball of anger and angst back then–and he really didn’t feel like getting idolized until a random yellow angel decided he was a threat and tackled him. Again.

Hell, it wasn’t like that even stopped those weirdos. He still got proposal letters from Zemavan nobles…No, wait, did they have nobles? There was something about the whole theocracy thing there…Well they had desperate rich people, so that was basically the same thing

Anyways, a quick glance behind him showed that most of his students had figured out they should be covering their ears, but, judging by the pained expressions on Maria, Adrien, and Sergio’s faces, at least three of them hadn’t reacted in time to cover to avoid the first blast. Though Mask didn’t seem to be covering-…Right, no ears. Actually, they seemed to be pretty happy with the trumpeting, weirdly enough, considering they were swaying along to the music. Or maybe they were just dazed-

Huh. The music cut off. 

Julius looked back ahead of him, and blinked at the sudden hush that seemed to be spreading over the crowd. The trumpets had completely cut out and, suddenly, all of the people in the crowd were starting to kneel down. 

No, not kneel. The huge crowd of people–everyone, from the oldest to the youngest, even if they had to be assisted–were suddenly getting down and outright prostrating themselves as they parted like a valley around the person walking towards them. Only the soldiers stood standing, but even they kneeled once the person walked past each of them, standing at the bottom of the gangplank and staring up at them with a peaceful smile.

Julius had seen them before. He hadn’t met them, but he’d seen them before.

They were the exact likeness of one of the larger angel statues around the city. 

But…they didn’t look anything like a light angel.

Instead of being made of pure white light, the angel’s skin looked like it was carved out of pure, white marble, though the only skin Julius could see was the bottom half of their face. Their lips were painted a sapphire blue that matched the long robes they wore and they moved almost like they were gliding, their feet hidden completely by the bottom of their gold-lined robe, while their hands were similarly hidden by their long sleeves, also embroidered with gold, which was stitched to look like…waves, maybe? 

And, of course, all that gold was matched by the half-helm that covered the entire upper half of the angel’s head, which had a gold and blue visor covering their eyes and two gold wings spreading from its sides.

Though none of that gold shone half as bright as the halo floating only a few inches above the angel’s head. Now that looked like it belonged to an angel of light. 

Granted, a blue one. Which was weird, because Julius was pretty sure angels of light couldn’t come in colors, but then here was this one with marble skin and a blue halo that bizarrely reminded him of the water angel back in Orin. Something about it just seemed…watery, despite it being pure–if blue–light.

“Greetings, noble heroes,” the angel suddenly spoke, their voice like a swelling orchestra. But also like tides? There was a weird disconnect there that made his eye twitch. “I am the Second Cardinal of Iudex, Gabriel. I welcome you to Divica, and respectfully ask that you please follow me.

“I am here to take you to the Pontiff of Light, Lord Caius Vocula.”

……Greeeeeeeeeaaaat.

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