Chapter 50 – The Final Stretch Rides Again

Tenvoc was a whole hell of a lot stronger than Leok and her four arms made it weird to try punching her. She could easily defend with two of her arms while attacking with the others, and it didn’t help that Julius was pretty sure she was trying to kill him instead of just beating him up.

Still, that didn’t mean he was going to make it easy for her. Shame the training hall was getting so wrecked though.

And right on cue, Tenvoc disengaged again, flipped up–she could move damn fast for someone so huge–high enough to land her hooves on the wall, and kicked off in a burst of force, nearly shattering the stone as she rocketed straight at him with both her right fists cocked–intimidating as all Hell but also incredibly stupid–so he moved swift to the side–leaning back to dodge an attempted lariat with her lefts–and used the momentum to drive the tip of his foot straight into her stomach.

There was a sudden boom and then Tenvoc was in the ceiling. Hm. Maybe he trained a little too hard with those monks–And then he was jumping back as she immediately shoved herself off and tried to crush him with a quadruple axe-hand that cracked the floor. 

Hm. Actually, maybe his sudden strength was just a latent thing? He did do some crazy shit when he was younger and all–And while he continued that line of thought, Julius took the slight pause to slam his fist into Tenvoc’s face right as she turned, getting straight into her guard before she could try a counter hit and smashing her nose in–and it wasn’t like he could afford to hold back against the archdevil.

Or so he told himself as he grabbed her horns and slammed her already wrecked nose right into his knee. And then repeated it a few times. Okay, maybe he held a little bit of a grudge for how she nearly crushed his chest when he was younger–”GH!”

Fuck, got too distracted, that was four muscular arms wrapped around his torso and pulling him in close as she got back to her feet–to her hooves?–with a smirk, black blood leaking down her face and staining her teeth. “Gotcha, ya cocky lit-”

So Julius did what came natural, let go of her horns, and slammed his hands straight into her temples. Which was right at the base of her horns so it did kinda sting his hands a little–…Huh. Tenvoc’s eyes had gone completely black. That probably wasn’t-

And that’s when Tenvoc decided to fall backwards, her grip suddenly loosening as her face dropped into slack-jawed unconsciousness, but still not nearly enough to let Julius go before he wound up landing right on top of her. 

Specifically face-first onto her horns. So yeah, a broken nose and maybe something else cracked. 

Geh…definitely a crick in his neck. Shaking himself loose, Julius rolled off of Tenvoc and rubbed at his neck, thankful that his new training kept any blood from gushing out of his nose. Granted, that didn’t really help the broken part, but eh. Really, he was just glad he beat her after what happened last time. 

It was kinda funny too. She’d pestered him for a match all day yesterday–well, after teatime with Claire’s god-moms, which had still felt awkward, if a little less hostile after Rot left–and only gave up when he and Claire went to bed–he was pretty sure she would’ve kept on going even then, but Claire’s threat in response actually managed to cow her–though she’d started up again after breakfast. And yet, here they were, her on the floor and him the winner. He did have to admit, that felt good.

Now what to- 

“SONOFABITCH!” Sitting up fast enough to almost snap in half, Tenvoc whipped around, looking for Julius. 

“Well that was fast.” Julius sighed, climbing to his feet as he kept his eyes on Tenvoc. “You good now?”

“Fuck you!” 

“Guess not.” He sighed again, frowning as Tenvoc jumped to her hooves, glaring at him again. “Do we really need to keep doing this?”

“Oh what, you’re backin’ down now ya fuckin’ pansy?” 

“Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m doing. I don’t feel like fighting you and I’m pretty sure I just won.”

“Fuck you ya did!”

“You went unconscious and hit the floor. Most places consider that a loss.”

“Slagshit! Best two of three!”

Jeez, not even Leok was this stubborn…Hm. There was an idea. “How about I introduce you to someone else who likes fighting?” 

Tenvoc blinked, then scowled. “What, you’re foistin’ me off on some other bitch cos you’re too craven to fight me yourself?”

“…Basically,” he replied without a hint of shame. 

“Feh. Can’t believe I lost to a bitch like you…” 

“Well it happened. Now are you going to wait here, or come with me?” 

“Just start walking you craven bitch.” 

And so he walked. He’d honestly heard worse, and from people that weren’t murderous, fight-happy archdemons that literally embodied physical violence, so yeah, whatever. At least now he had a better idea of where everything was in the castle, and, thankfully, the big war room was in the main chunk of Castle Valondrac.

Less thankfully was the fact that both Fergus and Seth happened to be there when he arrived in the round room two floors above the training hall. So were Claire, Cyrus, Jonathan, Leok, and Valon, though they were all gathered closer to the map set up on a blackboard and while it was nice to see some of them, it really didn’t distract from the fact that the two generals that came closest to killing him–or killing one of his students–were in the same room as him.

“Hello again Goldforge. How’s your stomach?” Seth drawled, chewing on something as he glanced over, his bare feet up on the round table. Though the white-feathered dragon-drake was otherwise dressed, this time, in a loose white shirt and equally baggy blue pants.

“Fine? How’s yours?” he replied, very deliberately sounding as confused as possible. He was not interested in picking any fights, so he basically went with Plan A of Conflict Defusing: act like Douglas.

“…” Seth stared at him for a few seconds, then sighed and grabbed another…chicken wing. There was a platter of chicken wings on the table, right on top of a second map they had laid out–

“Who the hell is that supposed to be?” Fergus growled–much like an actual wolf, because obvious reasons–pointing at Tenvoc. He was also dressed a lot more casually in a half-black, half-brown doublet emblazoned with a golden spear, crossing across his chest. Also, he was blond. Like, a light, whitish-blond, hanging long in multiple braids with a short but bushy beard covering the lower half of his face. 

For some reason, that stuck out to Julius; he wasn’t sure what he expected but he really didn’t think Fergus’s hair would be blond–

“Tenvoc di Violentia Phlegel, who the fuck are you supposed to be?” the demon in question snapped, glaring right back at Fergus and right, conflict was happening.

“So! Tenvoc, that’s Leok over there. She likes to fight too.” Pointing over at the bored looking-orc, Julius directed the devil’s attention thataway, then turned back to Fergus. “So, you and Cyrus, huh?”

“And what of it?” Wow, there was a lotta hostility there. 

Julius just shrugged though as Tenvoc let out an irritated huff and walked past him, heading for Leok. “I was curious. He’s my friend, so I want to know if this is a serious thing or a fling. That, and I really didn’t think he was your type.”

“You don’t know a thing about me, Goldforge.”

“Yes, Fergus shows little interest in the ‘fighter’ types,” Seth drawled again in his usual low tone, his eyes following Tenvoc as she walked up to Leok–easily standing above the already 6’6” orc–before he glanced back at Julius, “In fact, he shows more interest in poets.”

“Huh. Really?” Julius asked, earning another annoyed scowl from Fergus.

“You’re an ignorant lightlander, so I’ll forgive your damn stupidity this time.” Huh. How generous. “A true warrior does not seek a warrior for a mate. The drive to dominate one another would cause conflict and promote disharmony in their clan. As such, a warrior should seek a gentler soul to quell their furious blood, while a gentle soul should naturally submit to a warrior capable of protecting them.”

“…Huh. I never thought of it that way.” Hm. Would he count as the “gentle soul” for Claire? She did have all that ambition and actual drive to dominate… “So…you think Cyrus would be a good mate for you?”

“Potentially. His fertility and promiscuity allows for blood ties that would benefit my clan.”

Well. “So you are serious about him?”

“No, that was just sex.” Fergus shrugged. “He’s my type.” 

“…Right. So…ha-” Hearing a crash, Julius felt immensely thankful for the distraction. Then felt a little less thankful when he noticed Leok walking past him with an amused smirk on her face, some blood leaking down her nose, and an unconscious demon with splinters in her hair slung over her shoulder. And then a lot less thankful when he saw a far less amused Claire staring at her now broken mapboard. 

“Well, I suppose we’ll have to use the other map,” Claire muttered, glancing over at Julius with a frown, “Any reason why you brought Tenvoc up here?”

“…In my defense, I didn’t think she would just attack Leok.” 

“Sure, sure, the demon embodying bloodlust certainly wouldn’t attack someone out of nowhere.” Her tone was drier than the air in Maleficaba and right, okay, excuse needed.

“…So uh,” Glancing around, Julius looked around the room. “…why is there a knife in the map?” 

Jonathan went rigid for some reason. “Er, I do not think that ma-” 

“Yes, Jonathan, why don’t you tell Julius just why there is a knife in our original big fancy map? One that looks like it was stabbed in quite, quite deeply?” 

“…As I said, such matters are not important right now, my most benevolent and merciful of ladies.” 

There was nothing merciful in Claire’s smirk. “Oh Julius~. Would you mind taking a look at the knife there and telling me what crest you see on the hilt~?”

Jonathan couldn’t afford to break the staring contest his boss had forced him into, but Julius did notice the almost desperate way the vamp was trying to signal him with his other hand. He probably didn’t want Julius to play along…Crap, now he felt guilty. He didn’t want to screw over Jonathan just to distract from his own fuck up–

“It’s Bleaksky’s stupid night sky,” Fergus spoke up, scowling again and interrupting that moral conundrum, “Can we get on with this?”

“Hmph. Spoilsport…well, long story short, Jonathan stabbed it into the map while he was being dramatic and it’s now a permanent fixture. One we keep ruining with worse markings because nobody feels like fixing it.” 

Julius paused, looking over the rest of the map stretched across the table, more like a tablecloth than a strategic aid. “…Like the giant stain on the Sun Land portion?” 

“And the grease stains underneath the plates of food. It’s why we were using a different map, though now we have to use the old one.” Left unsaid was why they had to use the old map, but Julius still winced.

“Right…Uh, and you don’t have a replacement?” 

“That-” Claire pointed back to the wreckage on the floor. “-was the replacement. We have more, but not ones that have that amount of detail. So come on everyone, we’re going to the table.” 

“As you command, oh gracious Demon Lord~!” Oh right, Cyrus was here.

“Why were you so quiet?” Julius asked as he finally took a seat, along with the rest of the gathered group; notably, Valon pulled out Claire’s seat for her before taking the seat beside her. Maybe he should move over there?

“What is silence but music in waiting~? One must let things take their course between lovers before one is to intercede~.”

“…So you wanted to listen to Claire make fun of me?”

“You understood that tripe?” Jon-…J…Jonathan asked.

“You’re one to talk,” Fergus grumbled. Apparently that wasn’t as shocking as Julius thought it was, since no one else reacted…

“Well…we were party members for a while. You kinda get used to it…Though, now that I think about it, Cyrus is different in how he talks compared to Jonathan.”

“Of course! A bard like him can’t compare to a noble being of the night such as my esteemed self!” Hm. Maybe he shouldn’t have said that last part out loud.

“Your arguments aside, we still have things to plan.” Claire smirked, lacing her fingers in front of her face and gazing over them. Somehow, despite the table itself being round, it felt like she was sitting at its head…Wait, was her chair bigger than everyone else’s? “First and foremost, we have a March to begin.”

Every general at the table promptly straightened–aside from Valon, who was already sitting up straight–and gave Claire their full attention. 

Meanwhile, Julius quietly stood back up and walked over to Claire’s side as she began the meeting. It just felt…better, being beside her for it. Though he did notice everyone’s eyes following him as he walked. Well, whatever, she smiled so he was good.

“Now then, first and foremost will be our advance party, which will be led by Seth. Now, I trust you know where to go and what to do.” 

“Take Hans and Fergus to the troops to set defenses,” Seth replied, serious and right to the point, “No engaging with the enemy unless we’re attacked, and we establish a solid outpost to command from.”

“Exactly. Now the next company will be our scouting party.” She glanced up. “Kiyo, I hope your tribe is ready to set out?” 

“Just give the order~.” Slowly looking up too, Julius realized the kitsune was lounging in the rafters. Hm. Well, no one was mentioning it, so best not bring it up. 

“Now before she left, I was going to remind Leok that she and Ariel will be in the primary with me. Julius, you will also be accompanying us.”

“Huh? I will?” 

“Yes, you will. You won’t do much good here, sending you with the advanced party is just asking for trouble-” Seth smirked and Fergus frowned, but neither one of them disagreed. “-and I’m not certain you’ll be able to help the scouting party.” 

“Oh…well, okay then.” He didn’t have any objections to it in theory, he just…well, this was a weird thing to discuss. Being apart of an invasion and all…Wow, he really flipped roles here. Though, this time, he’d keep things from going out of control. He knew he could.

“Now, this may not be my place to speak, but Jules can be quite stealthy when he wishes,” Cyrus decided to speak up, also reminding everyone that he was at the table, “Although, even he cannot meld with the shadows like his lovely younger sister~.” Right, he was going to hit Cyrus after the meeting.

“Be that as it may, he’s too out of practice to be of use to our scouts.” …Well, Claire wasn’t wrong.

“That and I’m sure Lady Claire would prefer he stays by her side~,” teased Kiyo from the rafters. 

“Now, as for Autumn–” So not even acknowledging that huh? “–she will be in the reserve division. And with Johnathan taking charge of our naval forces, that will leave Sieda and Valon in protecting the castle and ensuring our supply chains remain unhampered.” 

“Ah yes, my most wondrous talents at admiralty shall soon-”

[Understood, Mistress,] Valon interrupted, earning a pout from Jonathan. Then they looked at Cyrus. [Mister Cyrus Gerrish, I insist you remain at Castle Valondrac for the duration of the March.]

“Oh? Well this is some sudden, quite unexpected news~.” Cyrus chuckled, grinning at the rest of the table. “Am I in trouble for something here?”

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Claire replied with a shrug, “Val has some concerns about what you might do while our troops are moving, along with a few other thoughts.”

“Oh ho, so that’s it. You’re worried I’ll turn right back to the Lucene’s then?” He tapped a little rhythm against the table, earning an immediate glare from Seth and some tensing from the other generals. “Jules here obviously thinks you aren’t the type to go around hurting people for no reason, or even going out of your way to harm them when you do have one. So why, exactly, do you think I would suddenly give up my life as a wandering musician to go right back to war when I absolutely despise bloodshed, La Dame des Ténèbres?”

[May I answer?] At Claire’s nod, Valon continued, [Mister Cyrus Gerrish, I have a concern that allowing you to travel with the troops will result in your engaging multiple sexual trysts with them.]

The sound of Julius’s palm meeting his face sounded far louder than he thought it would in the following silence.

“…Quoi.” Seeing Cyrus dumbfounded was nice though.

[While this is not an inherent issue-] Oh gods they were still going. [-the high potential for pregnancies with your apparent heightened virility-] Cyrus’s jaw dropped. [-leads to concerns for combat capability. A number of organic races are noted for their propensity towards heightened libido following battle due to increased adrenaline, so one of your talents remaining within their presence raises these potentialities to unacceptably high levels.

[In contrast, allowing you to remain at Castle Valondrac vastly decreases the chances of impromptu encounters among multiple–] Seth was blatantly trying not to laugh, his lips twitching rapidly as he kept his arms crossed over his chest while Fergus…Fergus was actually blushing and looked so completely done and irritated, Julius was actually surprised he hadn’t interrupted Valon yet. [-and the ensuing consequences of such trysts would have fare less of an impact due to the more contained and less combat-heavy nature of the location–] How the fuck was Jonathan the only stoic one at the table?!

[In summation-] Oh thank all the gods–well, maybe half of them–it was ending- [-your promiscuity is too much of an issue, please do not travel with our army. However, if you wish to play music for the subjects residing in Castle Valondrac, you may. I do, however, request you do not impregnate too many of them.]

Welp, that did it. “BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA-”

“DAMMIT JULES WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN TELLING THESE PEOPLE?!” Cyrus shouted as he stood up and slammed his hands on the table, his face completely red with an oh so rare embarrassment, “I AM NOT THAT BAD!”

Julius didn’t care to reply. He was too busy trying to keep his stomach from busting as he laughed and laughed, which, of course, completely broke Seth too, his own cackles quickly joining Julius’s as the rest of the table either tried to hide their smiles, blushed, or rolled their eyes in exasperation.

“Really now, can none of us be professional for one moment?” Jonathan huffed, earning an abrupt giggle from Claire, who finally stopped trying to hide her own amusement-

Then Valon suddenly stood and slammed their hand right on the winged orb that flashed into existence over the table, smashing it right into the burn mark that used to be Xelsha on the map and cutting out all the laughter at once as the other generals immediately leapt to their feet. 

It did take Julius a second, but he calmed down quick and kept his grip on the hilt of his sword, staying quiet as he prepared for anything that could appear.

“Hm…” Reaching over to the burn mark–which looked like it spread when the orange sphere burst–Claire picked up a folded paper that was left behind by the orb. “Interesting. A magic messenger…Not many would send one directly to me.” 

 “…Must be important then.”

“I suppose I’ll see.” Opening the paper, Claire began to read what was on it. And almost immediately, her cool composure broke as she stared incredulously at what she was reading. “….Hn…hn hn hn.” 

[Is it troubling news, Mistress?]

“…There has been a small change of plans. Seth, you will head to Xelsha first. Kiyo, lead the scouting party in that direction as well.”

“Hm? Any reason you want us to go into that territory?” Kiyo asked, now hanging upside-down from the rafters by her feet.

“It appears there will be one more meeting before the fate of the Light Lands is sealed.” Claire stood up and visibly composed herself, before smirking. “We’ll be having a little detour before the March begins. Consider it our prelude to a far grander tale.”

And so, a new course of action was decided, and the fate of the world changed once more.

“Julius, Gerrish, could you stay back a moment?” Claire asked a little while later as the meeting wound down, new courses of action decided and plans set up.

“Of course, oh belle dame~.”

“I’m going to punch you,” Julius said, giving his friend an irritated glare, “I am going to punch you and you will deserve it.”

“That I may, but! For now, shall we not hear what your lovely fiancée has to say~?”

“Hmph. What’s up, Claire?”

Claire paused for a second, took a slow breath, then nodded to both of them, resolute in her course of action. “Where the fuck is Shioneri Island??”

Oh, so this was a Douglas plan…

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