Chapter 43 – Every Backstory is Tragic

“So are you all masochists at that church?” Cyrus asked the instant they all sat down at the table, eyeing Julius’s bandaged up body, “Because there’s such a thing as taking a fetish too far.”

“Don’t be gross, pops,” Mira retorted, earning a pout from her pops.

“What? I haven’t seen you three for a few days and when I do see you, Julius is covered in bandages. It was a honest question.” 

“It really wasn’t.” Julius said as he tried moving his sore arms. The medicine he’d been given was having some effect in dulling the pain, but it was still pretty present. Not too bad that he couldn’t walk to a restaurant nearby the 

“Well at least he’s still able to walk around,” Seona said as she leaned back in her seat, next to Mira, “If they wanted, they could have left him on the floor until he was able to get up.” 

“Speaking of.” Turning away from Seona, Cyrus looked at the last person at the table. “Why are they here?” 

“Partially to ensure Brother Julius doesn’t run before his training is completed, and partially because I was also feeling a tad famished,” Zia replied, smiling. And this time they could all actually see the archbishop’s clean-shaven face. Assuming they needed to shave…

At any rate, Julius could finally see Zia’s face, and they were a pink-skinned cambion–half-demon–with short, white hair; a somewhat narrow jawline; short, goat-like horns; pointed ears; and red, demonic eyes like Seona’s. Except red instead of teal. Yeah.

“Does that first one happen often?” Julius asked. 

“Rarely, but I wished to make sure with you, given you were thrown into the deep end.” 

“Hm…well in that case.” Putting on a way to familiar smirk, Cyrus leaned toward Zia. “Since we are no longer in the temple, can we get acquainted~?”

“Gods below!” Mira cried as she recoiled at the horrific sight of her pops flirting. 

“Cyrus, can you not?” 

“Yes, I would prefer not to experience this as well,” Zia deadpanned, staring flatly at Cyrus as he pouted again.

“Fine fine, I’ll hold back my talents as un séducteur pour aujourd’hui. But only because I can’t deny such a blunt refusal.”

“Hmph. Good to see there’s something decent about you,” Mira muttered, then raised an eyebrow at her pops, “Still, ‘talents’?”

“Bien sûr! I am very talented with wooing the hearts of gentlemen, ladies, and all others in between or outside!” The sad thing was, Cyrus wasn’t wrong; the jackass could be surprisingly suave when he wanted.

“I honestly find that hard to believe, and I only exist because apparently you’re promiscuous enough to sleep with one of your worst enemies.”

“Cutting deep there, but I refuse to accept this besmirching of my honor, particularly when I severely doubt you could do any better, oh daughter of mine.”

Mira’s eyes narrowed for a moment before she abruptly turned to Seona. “Hey.”

“Eh? Ah, what?”

“You’re a beautiful vision of a world I cannot hope to understand, but desire to more than anything else I have ever wanted~.” She leaned in close, raised her hand, palm up and fingers forward, until it nearly touched Seona’s chin, and smiled warmly. “Your sapphire lips draw me to you like a wondrous treasure draws a thousand thieves, and it would be my honor and infinite pleasure to see your jeweled eyes look to me with even a measure of the adoration I feel for you~.”

“…” Wow. Seona’s cheeks were completely purple. She stared at Mira for a few seconds, transfixed, then dropped her gaze to her lap, her fingers fidgeting in her lap. “…k-kay…”

Mira smiled back, then patted Seona’s head and grinned at Cyrus. “Beat that.”

“…I admit, I am somewhat impressed,” he conceded, crossing his arms over his chest, “Hm…Well, I would try to one-up you, but Jules and Zia have both made it very clear what they think of me flirting with them. Unless either feels like allowing a simple attempt?”

“No,” Julius immediately and bluntly denied, but Zia, the poor fool, was looking amused. 

“Hmm…I suppose I’ll let you have a chance. Do your best.”

Cyrus whistled and chuckled, grinning at the archbishop. “Oh, certainement, ma chérie.” And then he simply leaned in close, and spoke softly, somehow so quietly that no one except Zia could hear a word.

It was almost comical how quickly they went from calm composure to very obviously restraining themself, and then to a very, very bright red blush until they finally flinched back from Cyrus, staring at him with wide eyes. “…H-Hm.”

“Damn. Guess I was wrong,” Mira admitted with an annoyed frown as she leaned back in her seat.

Julius, on the other hand, wondered if it’d be rude to go sit by himself as he glanced at the flirting duo.

“So…should I go, or…?” The instant he asked about his departure, Julius felt a death grip on his arm as Zia grabbed him.

“Please don’t leave me alone with him.” 

“…Well Seona and Mira are still here.”

“You know what I mean.” 

“Heh, so what about you, Jules?” Cyrus asked.

“Don’t flirt with me.” 

“Non non, not that. I was asking if you wished to show off your flirting prowess.” 

“…My what now?” 

“Come now my friend, I’m sure even someone like you must be able to woo or charm someone with some effort.” 

“…I’ll ignore the back handedness off that, and instead say that I’m covered in bandages so even if I did have prowess in that, it wouldn’t work.” 

“Ah my friend, that’s where you’re wrong! If you play your cards right, it will give you an air of mystery~!” For the second time in a week, Julius found himself in the position of “the student”, though this time he wished he was back at the church with someone dislocating his arm instead of whatever the fuck this was. 

“…So hey, darklanders, why don’t you all share some stuff about your cultures and whatever,” Julius said instead in a, probably futile, attempt to change the subject.

“Oh. Well, thank you for confirming my theory, Brother Julius.” Eh?

He glanced at Zia, who was looking a little less flustered and a little more curious. “And that theory would be…?”

“You’re a lightlander.” …Oh yeaaaah, he never actually brought that up to anyone. Wait, shit, was that bad?

“…Is that going to be an issue?”

“I-I don’t think it should be,” Seona spoke up with a frown as her blush finally subsided.

“Do not misunderstand me, I don’t mean it as condemnation,” Zia replied, “It was simply good to have a confirmation, as well as an explanation for why Brother Julius is so obviously unfamiliar with our lands. And why he happens to have tattoos related to the Rakuli deities of Metal and Heat.”

Oh. Ohhh, so that’s why they knew about the metal magic. Julius had just assumed they “saw it in his aura” or something. Though that did raise a question. “Do darklanders not have metal magic?”

“Oh, we do. We simply don’t invoke the Rakuli to act with it. We people of the Dark Lands are far more attuned to the children of our gods than those of the Light Lands. Correct me if I am wrong, but you channel the arts of the Rakuli through your own inborn talents, and use markings to settle and quell their influences.”

“…If you mean we can use elemental magic naturally, then…yes?”

“Not quite.” They smiled. “All people of Estus have the potential talents for magic. Some more so than others, true, but the key difference, I would say, between the peoples of the Light and Dark are that we of the Dark have always been willing to embrace the demonic, while even your most faithful of clerics abhor channeling the angelic.”

…Huh. Well, Julius knew absolutely nothing about religion, so… “Cyrus, is that true?”

“What? Why are you asking me?”

“You’ve slept with plenty of clerics, you should know this.”

Ignoring Mira’s little noise of disgust, Cyrus huffed. “That’s terrible reasoning, but fine, I would say what they’re saying is accurate enough. Angels are certainly summoned far less often than demons, at least in comparison, and I’ve never really heard of them actively trying to enter Estus without a god directing them, so it stands to reason that our peoples just interact with them less. ‘Embracing’ them is also rarer, if just because of that same lack of presence. That, and I think they consider chastity or modesty a virtue for some reason, so there’s the cultural aspect on their side.”

Something about how he said that made it seem like he’d been rejected by an angel. And Julius really didn’t want to ask to find out. 

“Right, so any reason why darklanders interact with demons a lot?” he decided to ask instead.

“Many reasons really, so I cannot speak for every case,” Zia replied, “Though I suppose if I had to give one specific answer, it is merely that most demons tend to be more independent than angels.” 

“Really? But aren’t there specific demons under certain Ouzan?” 

“There are, but rather than the ‘familial’ bond angels claim to have with their gods, demons are more of a ‘superior-subordinate’ relationship. As such, until given specific orders, demons are more or less able to do what they wish, unless they are summoned by someone skilled enough to bind them to their will.” 

“Huh.” Well, that probably explained why Marrow gave him power when he was against one of her blood demons. 

“Of course, given that they are specifically created by their ‘parents’ angels tend to be in smaller numbers, made even more apparent with how they tend to not ‘embrace’ often. As it stands, the heat angels of Maleficaba are probably the only ones who have embraced mortals in any similar regard. 

“Whereas with demons, you can easily see that isn’t the case, yours truly being a clear example, along with many other members of the church.”

“Yeah. ‘Embracing’. Right.” How was it that half his conversations wound up inevitably turning towards sex? “So darklanders…tend to have more ‘variety’ in their appearances because of those ‘interactions’ with demons?”

“Correct. Though such interactions weren’t necessarily sexual.” …Julius had the sudden, vague worry that he was somehow letting everyone hear his thoughts. “Many of them involved a person making deals for power and then becoming altered through such deals, which they then passed onto their own descendants.”

“Oh, so sex was involved,” Cyrus said, grinning as Zia shot him a small frown, though it did get strained when Mira scowled, “Ah. Pardon.”

“Regardless of Mister Gerrish’s inability to remain on topic or mature-”

“Hey.”

“-those occurrences really are why we have so many divergent races within the Dark Lands. As for why the lands themselves are rather…altered, that owes itself to the sheer amount of powerful individuals that have flooded the regions with magical energies. Deals made have altered landscapes and races, while the influence of the gods has granted immense power, yet came with heavy prices.”

“To say it in a less wordy way,” Mira cut in, “The Dark Lands are weird and crazy because the inhabitants are weird and crazy and don’t mind messing around with the millions to billions of demons out there. Hell, the simple presence of the hellgates probably causes a ton of bullshit on their own.”

“…” Julius was a little afraid to ask, but… “Hellgates?”

“Openings to the infernal realms. Or abyssal realms, if you want to call them that. I mean, either one works.” She shrugged. “People tend to make them to make the summoning process easier. You can get a lot of demons quicker if you just open up a big gate instead of using individual circles.”

“…And, uh…wouldn’t somebody doing that risk hundreds of demons overwhelming them and then invading the rest of the world?”

“Oh sure, probably. After all, that’s how you lightlanders keep justifying invading and overthrowing their sovereign lords.”

Julius blinked, then frowned. “The hell’s that supposed to mean?”

She raised an eyebrow, actually looking confused. “What? You guys come in all the time and kill the ‘Demon Lords’, don’t you? You’re not from the Dark Lands, so that makes it an invasion.”

“You mean after they invade us and kill thousands of people for their own ego? Because I don’t think it counts as an invasion then.”

Her eye twitched and she frowned stubbornly. “Sure it does. It’s a retaliatory invasion, but it’s still an invasion, just like you could say your ‘heroes’ killing their lords counts as an assassination.”

“Er, Mira, you shouldn’t-” Cyrus started-

“No, let her finish, I want to hear why it’s fine for your ‘sovereign lords’ to start killing people for the fucking fun of it,” Julius snapped, glaring at Mira, who glared right back, leaning forward on the table.

“Ah, Julius–” Seona tried-

“They’re not my sovereign lords. I’m not a darklander, remember? I’m just-”

“Some outsider spitting whatever the hell she feels like because she has no damned context?” 

“Hey, fuck off! You wanna bitch, but how many darklanders do your ‘heroes’ kill everytime they invade, huh?”

“Oh sure, when they invade and murder civilians, it’s business as usual, but when it comes to killing soldiers we’re the fucking aggressors?!”

“I didn’t say that! I’m trying to take a fucking neutral stance here-”

“It’s not something you can be neutral on!”

“Then why the fuck are you acting so godsdamn friendly here, huh?? If darklanders are your fucking enemies-”

“They’re not! It’s their asshole lords that I have the problem with!”

“Then why aren’t you pissed at Valondrac, huh? Why do you have a massive crush on an ‘asshole lord’?!”

“Do not compare her to that BASTARD!

“Ahem.” Julius paused, realized he was standing–and also shouting–then glanced to the side. There was a waiter standing there. A cambion, kinda like Zia. Same skin color and eyes, though he had a square jaw and was bald. So there was that. “My apologies for the long wait, sir. If you would please take your seat and not shout?”

“…” Julius glanced past the waiter. There were a whooooole lot of people staring at their table. Hm. “…Y…Yeah. I can do that.”

And so he did.

“Ah, thank you Malcom. I’ll have my usual.” So apparently Zia didn’t mind the shouting.

“Of course, archbishop. Would your companions like to see the menus?”

“Certainly, thank you.”

And so, Julius obtained a menu. And then proceeded to very carefully read it and not look at anyone for a few minutes because his face was way too red and the bandages didn’t cover enough of it. He even kept it after mumbling out his order, if just so he had a way of blocking himself off from the rest of the table. Even as he received his food, the menu remained standing so Julius wouldn’t have to look at anyone. 

“…Shit, uh, I didn’t mean for that to…Well, I…Sorry, I’m not…good at talking with people,” Mira mumbled out, “I just…only really know darklanders. So, when you were-when I, I mean, I spoke first, you just…S-Sorry.” 

Instead of replying, Julius just continued to eat silently. He wasn’t about to get into another argument, he was trying to control his rage…

“Come on, you don’t have to accept my apology, but can’t you say something?”

“…” 

“Geh…P-Pops say something.” 

“I… feel like I should talk about us.” 

“Pops, please don’t say-” 

“Not that. It’s…I mentioned your mother was our former enemy and worked for a demon lord, correct?” 

There was silence, then a clatter of silverware. “Oh shit. Fuck. Fuck! I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t mean to call you-” 

“It happened, so just drop it,” Julius finally replied, trying not to sound too bitter.

“Julius, Mira didn’t know, so you don’t have to take that tone with her.” Which didn’t work.

Gritting his teeth, Julius went back to eating his food in silence.

“…I, uh…I do understand what the problem is now,” Mira said.

Julius didn’t reply.

“…I don’t think I’d react well at all if someone said I was the one at fault for everything with that bitch. Especially since it would…feel like they’re confirming something.”

“…”

“…” Mira audibly took a breath, like she was steeling herself. “I…grew up with my…mother, and my twin. We, uh…See, we weren’t in danger-she wasn’t. Or in trouble, or dealing with poverty or anything. Hell, mother practically had a fucking estate. Servants. All that. And…every single day, my mother ignored me.”

Julius kept eating. Maybe that was callous, but he wouldn’t interrupt. Sometimes people needed to talk, and he was hungry.

“Meanwhile, my twin, Bia…my mom lavished her with attention and gifts and praise. Whenever she was around, it was like I didn’t exist and Bia did. Like she’d put every single effort she had into making sure my twin was happy, and healthy, and taken care of and I was just…less than an afterthought. I, uh, learned later that every ‘servant’ we had was a corpse she was using magic to animate, so that explained why they didn’t seem to give a crap either.

She sighed a little shakily. “I wound up resenting Bia. Of course I did, it was so easy to blame it all on her, like mother would somehow start loving me if she wasn’t around. I wanted her affection, so Bia…seemed like an obstacle. A-And it’s weird, because, looking back on it, she was never…mean to me. She…didn’t act cruel, or like she was better, or…She liked pretty things and attention and getting…t-told she was special, and I wanted…so much of that.

“And…when we were thirteen, I…woke up. The night of our birthday. And…” Mira swallowed, and put a hand on her chest. “…The bitch had cut her heart out. And put it in me. B-Because I was the special one. All along, I was the one…she wanted. All of that, all of…everything, was so we’d-we’d express whatever traits she wanted to encourage…Pride for her, e-envy for me. And that way, I’d have both…I would. I…Because of me-”

“No.” Julius was very careful not to shout that time. He did put the menu down a little too hard though as he stared at Mira. She wasn’t quite crying. “You didn’t do anything. You are not responsible for someone else doing something evil. No matter what they say, no matter how they justify it, you are not at fault. You can’t let yourself believe that. Trust me. I know.”

“Jules.” He glanced at Cyrus, who was outright crying, tears leaking down his cheeks and under his sunglasses and his voice choked, “…Y-You don’t need to tell them. It’s okay.”

“Yeah. I know. Thanks.” Julius sighed. “…I still want to.”

“…S-Sure.”

He sighed again, trying to collect his thoughts. Talking was tough. The kid needed context though. Someone to understand. “…Twenty-five years ago, a man named Irascagan decided he wanted to be a conqueror. He enlisted the aid of a being known as the Great Earth Dragon, Kigalori, along with three other monsters, and who knows how many idiots who bought his bullshit of a ‘new era’. 

“The most effective member of his band of murderers was the dragon. She ruined lands in a way few could match. Entire towns were reduced to rubble, with only the petrified corpses of their people left behind to mark that they ever even existed. So people went forward to try to stop them. We ‘heroes’ have a thing, about going to every temple in the Light Lands to ‘purify the lands’ and gain strength to take the fight to our enemies. But Kigalori didn’t wait until we were ready. So…as we neared the Fire Temple, we were ambushed.

“And the man I loved like a father was ripped in half right in front of my eyes. I can feel his blood on my face sometimes. Though I wasn’t even close enough to the spray. Because I was running.”

“We all ran,” Cyrus muttered, as though that made things better.

“I was the first to. I didn’t even think. I didn’t even consider my own sister, or my friends, or anything. I just ran until I couldn’t.” He sighed and scratched at his neck. “Anyways. You shouldn’t blame yourself. Though, hey, if you still do, just know you’re not alone in those thoughts.”

“…I guess,” Mira muttered as she looked away from him. Not ready to accept that yet–

And it was at that point that a sniffling and teary-eyed Seona not only brought Mira into a tight hug, earning a surprised yelp from her, but also reached across the table to hug Julius too.

“I-If I had known y-you’d been through so much, I would h-have been so much nicer to both of you when we meeeeeeeht!” And now he was stuck in a very odd angle thanks to the dullahan’s hug. She was practically pulling him onto the table–Why was she this strong, she was slender, what.

“I must say, these stories have been very enlightening. I imagine once that fear settled down, the anger you felt towards not only yourself and Kigalori must have been what called to Mother Marrow.” Ah shit. He just came clean about being a former hero to Zia. “Ah, don’t worry about your past, Julius. Mother Marrow thought it wise to give you power, so I shall accept her decision.” …Still sounded like they weren’t entirely happy with it. 

“Well, since they’ve said their part, I should as well.” Wiping away the tears at his eyes, Cyrus lowered his glasses and stared directly at Julius. Or at least that’s what it looked like to Julius, since, in his current position, he couldn’t exactly look directly at him. Seona’s shoulder was kinda blocking–“Why are you being a better father than me?”

“…Eh?” 

“You know what I’m talking about! As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always been rough and would rather punch someone than try and talk things out! So how exactly are you able to say exactly what Mira needed to hear!?” 

“…Pops why are you acting like this?” 

“I need to know! I mean I have to deal with the fact that I have a bunch of kids without any experience as a dad so I need to know how to act like one!” 

Julius had no idea what was going on now. “…Well, I mean…experience?” 

“Oh? You have kids of your own, Brother Julius?” Zia asked.

“Well, yeah, kinda.” He’d known most of his students for years, so he had plenty of experience with kids. 

“What!? I knew about the dragon, but you’re telling me you’ve had other paramours?!”

“What. No, no you’re not–Seona please let go of me so I can talk to Cyrus.” Pulling himself free, Julius looked at his friend. “Look, you’re misunderstanding, they’re not my kids.”

“Not to worry, Brother Julius. Even if your lover had them from a previous relationship, I’m sure they love you like a father nonetheless.”

“You’re not helping.”

They smiled. “And yet, I still find myself amused.”

“…Sure. Anyways, I meant they’re more like kids that I look after. They’re my students.”

Cyrus gasped. “You’re the new Blake!?”

“…Didn’t we go over this? I mentioned your daughter was one of my students.”

“Ah-Oh. Right, you did. Ohh, that makes far more sense now…”

Julius sighed again as Zia outright giggled. Well, at least someone was having fun here. “Right, well, I might as well come right out and say it then. I’m Julius Goldforge, former hero and the mentor to the current heroes. I hope that won’t be a problem.”

“It may be, or it may not be,” Zia responded, smiling mysteriously, “Your blessings from Mother Marrow and your obvious attraction towards the Demon Lord Valondrac do paint you in a more intriguing light than many ‘heroes’. Still, while young Mira was not born from our lands, her attitudes are not uncommon among those of the Dark.” Their red eyes almost shone in the lights. “Do not expect your desires to be met with unanimous approval.”

“I don’t, and won’t,” Julius replied evenly, careful not to lose his temper, “I know there will be problems, as some of her generals already made it clear. I just plan to work on them when they come up. At this point, I’d honestly count it as a win if I just get to Valondrac’s castle without having to fight anyone.”

“Excuse me.” Julius blinked, then glanced to his side. And then up. There was a very tall woman standing next to him. She was wearing a black coat and burgundy pants, and had a black, wide-brimmed hat over her dark, curly, tied-back hair. Her skin was lightly tanned, and one of her brown eyes–the right one–had a red tint to it. “You said your name is Julius Goldforge?”

“…Nope. I didn’t. You completely misheard me. I…am…” He looked at Cyrus.

“…Oh, well, yes, this is my friend…Darius Coldforge!” Why the fuck did he have to pick Darius of all names… “Which sounds a great deal like the thing that you just said but is not so thank you for your time but we really must get back-”

“No, I was right the first time.” Fuck. The woman stared down at him, then smirked, showing a hint of very sharp teeth. “General Fergus Marcuson sends his regards, Sir Goldforge.”

…Welp. He definitely wasn’t getting that win.

Julius took a deep breath, then pushed up, staring at the woman. “Right. Let’s take this outside.”

“Good. I can’t summon the horses indoors.” What.

“What?”

“What?”

He raised an eyebrow. “Horses?”

Seona gasped. “You have horses?? What kind??” What? No, focus–

“Hellhorses? I don’t know the breed. Should I know? I never thought to ask.” The woman was frowning and Julius was pretty sure he lost track of this conversation. “They have red flames?”

“Ooo, Duidani warhorses??”

“Yes, those.”

What was happening. “Uh, Miss…?”

“Yes.”

“…Miss Yes?”

“No. What?”

Julius looked at the rest of the table. Seona just seemed excited, Mira was studying the woman intently, Cyrus was…also studying her intently but Julius had a feeling it was for different reasons, and Zia was just eating. Hm. “…I’m sorry, who did you say you were?”

“I didn’t.” …Right.

“…Why are you here?”

“To bring you to Lord Valondrac.” What. “We need horses for that. Thus, we go outside. Yes?”

…Huh. Okay then.

Maybe he would get that win.

Maybe.

…Probably not.

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