Chapter 34 – A New Journey

To the surprise of no one, least of all Michael, it turned out taking the motor carriage instead of normal transportation had some unintended side effects, the worst of which being that the stupid thing was–for some reason or another–a practical magnet for monsters of all types. The moment a large boar crashed into the side of their vehicle was less a random accident and more a herald of their journey to come as the group found themselves waylaid by minor monsters again and again.

They knew there was a reason such vehicles were never invented by natural Estians, just as they were positive they weren’t the only person in their group to hold these concerns.

Now if only reality matched their expectations. 

The twang of a crossbow’s string echoed out as a bolt launched straight through the eye of a leaping cyclops-spider. “Nice! That’s another cyder for this gal!”

“That’s not what they’re called,” Michael groused, idly launching a pair of firebolts to blow apart two more attempting to ambush them from the tall grass on the other side of the car.

“Nah, it is, she knows the lingo better than you do.”

“…The ‘lingo’??”

Noriko didn’t answer their question, instead just noting down one tally for herself and two for Misha on the notepad beside her atop the roof of the car. “Right, so that’s two more for you–Ah, damn, you’re still in the lead-Oh!” Up went the crossbow and a bolt went straight through another arachnid’s single eye. “Woo, that’s a twofer!”

“What? Why would that one count for two?”

“Cause it’s a tekli, not a cyder. See, it’s got four legs instead of eight.” She gestured at the slightly larger, crimson, and also cycloptic arthropod twitching on its side before the beast began to dissolve into red powder. “This gal’s pretty sure they’re more mite-ish than spider-ish too? Even though they’re bigger than the usual cyder.”

“That’s still not what those are called.”

Noriko gave them a pat on the shoulder even as she casually shot another tekli leaping from the brush. “It’s okay that you’re out of touch, this gal will work with you on it.”

“I am not out of touch, you’re touching me right now.” For some reason, that just earned another pat on the shoulder from Noriko. However, before their competition could continue, the car began to slow down and came to a stop, signaling a pause for them as Noriko lowered her crossbow. 

“Everything okay, Anaya?” 

“Yeah, just checking the map!” Sticking the guidebook out the window, Anaya pointed at a nearby rock. “Does that look like an upside down head?” 

Tilting their head, Michael stared at the rock. 

“…yes?” 

“Okay good, we’re on the right path.” Bringing the guidebook back in, Anaya continued to go over it. 

“So, does that head look familiar?” Noriko asked as she settled back in. 

“…Should it?” 

“Well you know, you seem to know a surprising amount of history, so this gal’s wondering if that rock is like, actually a piece of a statue of a long forgotten lord that was destroyed.” 

“I don’t know every historical figure.” 

“But you’ve gotta know some, right? Oh, quick, who was the emperor two thousand years ago?”

“…” Michael frowned, tilting their head in thought and idly blasting a slightly larger cyder–cyclops spider that was approaching from the side. “…Was Gorokiva around two thousand years ago?”

“Huh. This gal…thinks so, though maybe not in its current form? Still, did you not, like, pay attention to anything back then?”

“Not particularly. I was either following around heroes as a ‘guide’ or working as the pontiff’s bodyguard at that time, and I stopped focusing on being a guide and more on just fighting things when they called on me because they kept expecting me to know everything about everywhere. Gabriel was always better about keeping track of those things so I just left it to her at some point.”

“Huuuuuh.” Noriko nodded, casually shooting an orange slime attempting to eat one of their wheels before the car started driving again, turning down the right hand path. “Hm…think slimes should count for one or more?”

“One, they’re too common.”

“That’s fair. Oh, what about Luceneva? This gal’s pretty sure that was around two thousand years ago. Did you know their monarch?”

“From what I remember, Luceneva was relatively small back then. Nation’s in general weren’t as large or as well defined as they are now, and the main reason for that dominion’s longevity is the blessing Elder Lucene granted its first king.”

“Right, for defending the Light Lands against evil darklanders. Weird how he got singled out for getting a kingdom.”

“No, it was sunlanders that time.”

Noriko blinked, looking over at Michael and missing the tekli that the angel blasted out of the air. “Eh? It was?”

“Yes. They don’t teach that?”

“It’s not a lesson this gal remembers.”

Michael shrugged, launching a bolt that split into three to blow up a trio of charging stoneboars. “It was a thing back then. The Pahseinalan Empire, the then rulers and creators of the entire Sun Land continent, were faltering after the Autumn War of the Gods and tried to make a push into the Light Lands to recapture their glory days as a major conqueror, failed miserably and broke apart in the years following.”

For some reason, Noriko gave them a pat on the shoulder and a thumbs up then. “You see, Mishi? You really are good at explaining things!” 

“…Those stoneboars should count for three points each.”

“Eh? Aw, c’mon, it was a compliment!”

The tallies continued to rise on their way to the Long Divide, as the canyon between Gorokiva and Luceneva was known as. Borders between nations were easy to decide when there was a natural barrier in place, and the vast canyon–larger than the smaller valleys present through Akino that fed into it–stretched from the mountains forming Gorokiva’s northern border all the way to the southern seas along its coast. The canyon itself went below sea level, so there was a perpetual river running through it, sourced from springs within the northern mountains, or so Anaya’s guidebook proclaimed.

As for how the canyon was surmounted by those interested in traveling between nations, it did dip and wane throughout its length, especially more southward, but the area where their group was going had a different, somewhat simpler solution in mind: bridges. 

Not mere rope bridges either, though there were certainly some present when the touring trio–plus Charlie–made their way to canyon’s edge; since traffic between nations often included far larger caravans and carriages, larger, more sturdy bridges were required, and while the roads were still fairly clear and empty due to the recent countrywide curse, that just meant the trio had an easy time of making their way onto one such large, stone bridge that spanned the width of the canyon.

By all rights, it should have been an easy crossing, made all the easier by the fact that the roads were mostly clear of other travelers. The key word there being “mostly”.

Though the armored knight standing in the middle of the bridge with his sword planted into the bridge underneath him seemed less like a traveler and more like an obstacle. A very heavy obstacle in bulky, pitch-black plate, a black feathered plume standing from his helm while a dark cape hung under somewhat oversized pauldrons.

“…”

“…”

“…” Anaya leaned out of the window again. “Ah, hey, Misha, Nori. What do I do here?”

“Continue driving, he’ll move or be crushed,” Michael suggested.

“…Hey Nori, what do I do here?” Rude.

“This gal’s with Mishi, just keep driving. He’ll move or he won’t.”

“See? She agrees with me.”

“…” Anaya leaned further out of the car, now facing the knight. “Ho the traveler! You seem to be in the middle of the bridge! What’s with that?”

“Greetings and fell tidings, foolish wanderers! Dost ye seek passage over mine bridge?!” the knight said, his voice echoing metallically in his black helm.

“Your bridge? Isn’t this a public bridge?”

“Foolish wench! This bridge is mine for I, Sir Lancel the Black, have declared it as such! Now none may pass, lest they defeat mine esteemed self in glorious combat!”

“Run him over,” Noriko insisted, though Anaya shushed her.

“Really? There’s no other way past you?”

“None! All who wish to pass must pay mine price!”

“So he’s a highwayman?” Noriko muttered, “This gal didn’t think they still existed.”

“Oh we get lots of them in Nalori,” Anaya replied, glancing back, “There’s pretty much no one  policing the roads back home so the smarter bandits just set up toll booths.” She looked back to the knight. “So are you just in it for the fight or can we pay your price with money?”

“I’m not paying him,” Michael said, though they were shushed too.

Lancel seemed to consider that, judging by his thoughtful head tilt, before he pulled his sword free of the bridge and pointed it at them. “For two billion gold, yes, you may pass.”

“I’m gonna run him over,” Anaya said, though this time Michael decided to interrupt by leaping from the roof to land in front of the car, “Wh-Hey! Misha, I was gonna!”

“No, you’re not. He’s a demon,” they replied, checking to confirm with a deeper Look. The knight indeed had a distinctly non-mortal aura, though it was somehow halfway between the natural corruption of a demon and the dim stagnancy of an undead. Demonic undead…a death knight, maybe? “I’ll handle him.”

“You were just getting bored of the small fry,” Noriko commented, completely inaccurately.

“Oh ho. So you shall be mine foe, oh red-winged cardinal?”

Michael stopped short, their eyes narrowing. “How did you know that?”

“Best me in combat, and you may learn the answer,” Lancel intoned, shifting into a readied stance with his pitch-black sword and his equally black kite shield.

“…If nothing else, I commend you on your adherence to a style.” Michael extended their hand and formed a spear of flame, twirling it around and readying themself too.

A crow cawed in the distance, the signal for the angel to burst forward in a blast of flames and stab surprisingly easily straight through the center of the knight’s breastplate as he made a really sloppy and telegraphed overhead swing. Their spear just completely punched through the metal like it was made of wet paper. So…hm.

“HYEEEUUUUUURGH!” Lancel cried out, the sword and shield dropping from his grip as he bowed his head. “A-Ahh…it is mine defeat…alas, so this is where mine end dost come…yet, in this, I cannot but feel satisfaction, for though you were mine rival, our battle was spectacular. I die without regret.”

And then he exploded.

Michael stared at the plume of black smoke and ash slowly blowing away in the wind, then turned back to the car. Both Noriko and Anaya’s faces echoed the genuine confusion they felt. 

“…That was stupid.”

“Kinda was, yeah.” Noriko looked at her notepad. “Hm…do we count that guy? Like he was a monster, so…”

“I get ten points for that.”

“What?? No, he was super weak!”

“Or I’m just incredibly strong.”

“Humility is a virtue, Misha,” Anaya called out, “Just mark him as five points, that’s still the highest you’ve gotten so far for one monster.”

“He was a unique monster though, so that should count for more.”

“…you’re weirdly competitive about this.”

“How about we split the difference and say he was worth eight?” Noriko suggested.

“…fine.” With the points tallied, their journey continued, and Michael finally, finally left the warm plains of Gorokiva behind for…the still fairly warm plains of Luceneva. There were a lot of plains on this side of the continent, though the grass did seem greener on the Lucenevan side. Also shorter in general, though there were more bushes, most of which turned out to be lying in ambush.

“We should just burn every bush we see,” Michael suggested as they blasted another shrub-beast.

“This gal’s not counting them as points if you do that,” Noriko replied, taking a break to do some maintenance on her crossbow, though she did pitch a knife through a bushboar’s head, “Alright, so shrubbies are going to count as one point since they’re definitely common and you started the thing of boars counting for three, so those should count too.”

Michael frowned as they sent a lance of flame through a hefty cyder trying to spit acid at them. “Those were stoneboars, not bushboars–”

“Boars in general are counting for three–Oh hey, was that a cocyder? Gonna mark that for two since it’s an advanced type.”

“Cocyder?”

“Corrosive cyclops spider. Easier to say, like how shrubbie is easier than ‘shrub-beast’.” She fixed up her crossbow and tested it by popping a green slime. “Also, real quick, why are hedgehogs called that when they’re like little shrews instead of bushy pigs?”

“Because bushpigs are a thing, presumably.”

“Huh…this gal’s gonna ask Naya to confirm when we stop next. She’s a druid so this gal figures she’ll know for sure.”

“She’ll just say I’m right.”

“Maybe, but we won’t know for sure until our next stop!” Which was sooner than Michael would have preferred, and for a far stupider reason than they ever would have appreciated.

“HALT, FOUL WENCHES!” shouted another knight in full plate armor, who looked identical to the previous knight, except this one was in all red instead of all black. “I, SIR PERCEL THE RED, AM HERE TO TAKE MY VENGEANCE ON YOU DISHONORABLE KNAVES!”

“…”

“…” Noriko looked over to Anaya. “So yeah, bush pigs are real?”

“Yeah, they’re a type of boar. You can usually find them in denser forests of different types, and they’re pretty aggressive. Social though, so they’re usually in packs.”

“And do they relate to hedgehogs?” Michael asked.

“Not in the slightest. Hedgehogs are named that because they’re usually found in hedgerows and their snouts look like a pig’s, the etymology is completely unrelated. I’m pretty sure they’re not even originally from the same parts of the world but, y’know, creatures travel and magic makes things weird. Remind me to tell you two about the Deepwoods sometime, I had a whole talk with Polly about it–”

“FOUL REPROBATES, YOU SEAL YOUR FATE!” The knight drew his weapon, which was also different. A mace this time, instead of a sword. “I, PERCEL THE RED, SHALL TAKE MY VENGEANCE FOR MY BROTHER’S CALLOUS MURDER!”

Michael immediately looked up, scowling. “If you’re referring to that idiot Lancel, I killed him honorably! It was a duel!”

“LIES AND DECEIT! You know not of honor! I can see it in your very bearing, wretched celestial!”

“Huh, that’s two of them that know you’re an angel,” Noriko commented, deepening Michael’s scowl.

“And the last one didn’t mention anything about how they knew it.”

“Maybe they’re working for the leviathans?”

Anaya peeked her head out further. “Would they be? The demons you had to deal with in Goroki weren’t anything like these guys, right?”

Michael shook their head. “They weren’t, no, but that doesn’t mean much. Demons come in a number of varieties, so it would be stranger to see them all be exactly the same.” They tilted their head, frowning in thought. “Some of the more basic demons tend to be identical, but those also tend to be more like beasts or drones than sapient beings.”

“Well, summoned by the leviathans or not, these guys are pains.”

“They are annoying, yes.” 

“Then let this gal handle this one!” Noriko said as she hopped off the roof and actually managed to dismount successfully. Which she looked far too proud of, a visible skip in her step as she strode over to the knight. “Sir Percel the Red, I am Noriko of Gorokiva, blood of the Empress and shinobi of the Three Shades! While I still breathe, I shall not allow you to lay a hand upon my buddy Mishi! So if you want her, fight me first!”

“Why is she talking like that…?” Michael muttered.

Percel seemed pleased though. “Very well then, noble maiden! It will be my honor to clash blades with such a valiant foe, instead of a dishonorable reprobate!”

“Hey!”

“He doesn’t even have a blade though?” Anaya said, but that didn’t seem to matter to the two combatants, who stood facing one another under the high noon, with the wind whistling across the plains.

Noriko had one hand upon the katana at her side, while Percel stood ready, shield raised and mace in hand. And with the crowing of a distant rooster who was definitely crowing far too late in the day, the two did strike! And Percel actually charged too, with a surprisingly vicious swing that would have caved in Noriko’s head if she wasn’t literally behind him already.

Noriko did a fancy flourish with her katana, wiped the bloody red blade on a cloth, then slid it back into its sheath just in time for Percel’s armor to rend and his chest to erupt with blood.

“HOOGLEBLAY!” he…cried? Before falling to one knee, clutching his bloody wound. “Ghah…to think I would die in such a way, defeated before my vengeance could be claimed…truly, my tale does end in tragedy…And yet, in this, I cannot but feel satisfaction, for though you were my rival, our battle was spectacular. I die without regret.”

He fell forward, solemn and silent, then exploded.

“Woo! This gal always wanted to pull that trick off!” Noriko cheered, beaming brightly as she turned.

“…That one only counts for seven.”

“Eh?? Mishi!”

“No.”

“But that’s unfair! Why was yours worth more?!”

Michael leaned back, crossing their arms over their chest with the finality of their proclamation. “The fact that there were two of them makes it less unique, thereby lowering the value.”

“Misha does have a point there,” Anaya agreed, as proper, “Hey, if there’s a third, would he just be worth six?”

“There’s definitely going to be a third.”

“Yeah, Mishi’s right, these things always come in threes,” Noriko also agreed, also as proper.

“I’ll take your word for it, but that’s also not really what I was asking.”

Michael shrugged. “It will depend on the quality of the next knight. Also, Noriko, is your sword cursed?”

“Hm?” She drew the katana again and stared at its blood red metal. “Oh. Whoops.”

They sighed. “I should have purified it after the fight with Gutter and Cleaver…”

“To be fair, you did have a lot more going on after that.”

“Hm…y’know,” Anaya began, “that sword might be what’s actually drawing all the monsters–”

“It’s the car.”

“It’s definitely the car.”

“…Hmph. Well I still like him.”

As Anaya grumbled, Noriko joined Michael atop the car again and the angel promptly went to work fixing the unfortunately accursed nature of Noriko’s sword. Fortunately, the silver alloy mixed into the steel did make it easier to fix than most cursed weapons; Michael usually wound up destroying those.

It did take some time though, which Noriko took full advantage of to try to raise her score, aided by a sudden influx of increasingly large slimes.

“They’re still just slimes, they should only be one point, maybe two.” 

“Technically large slimes are a bunch of smaller slimes combined, and based on the size it’s definitely at least five. So if anything, this gal should be getting more points.” 

“…Three points each.” 

“Fine, but if big slimes are only worth three, we’re going to need to make a chart to decide on point allocations for slime types.”

“I’m pretty sure you can buy those!” Anaya called out from the front, “People make monster guides, and there are some pretty extensive ones on slimes!”

“Oh nice! Then let’s add that to the shopping list for the next town we get too.” Noriko made a note on her notepad before raising a hand and blasting a spike of ice through a large, roiling fire slime searing its way through the grass. “Gonna call that one a four-pointer since it was big and elemental…heh, here’s hoping we don’t run into any monster problems in the next town.”

Michael shrugged, drawing a glowing finger across the blade to clear away the remaining red spots. “It shouldn’t be. Luceneva’s full of halfling villages, yes? So they’re probably peaceful.”


Screams and cries of determination and violence rent the air with the whistles of swinging blades. Axes and mauls smashed down in brutal swings, crushing their wielders’ foes into little more than paste while arrows and slung stones flew through the air. Bolts of frost and flame scoured the endless tides while the chanting of valiant clerics brought strength and sturdiness to the defenders.

“HOLD THE LINE! LET NONE PASS US ON THIS DAY!” cried one such defender, crimson running down her spear as she drove it forward, through the line of pikes that served as their sole fortification, “WE HOLD STRONG FOR HONOR AND COUNTRY! FOR LUCENEVA–GAHK!”

The brave warrior fell back in a burst of red that showered her face and soaked her clothes.

“LOTTE!” cried a cleric in stained robes. He hurried to her side, kneeling in the sodden mud.

“H-Hahh…N-Niels? I-Is that you?”

“It is! Oh Lotte, please! You can’t go down, not like this!”

“I-It’s up to you now, Niels…you…you have to carry on…m-my legacy…” She tousled his curly hair, before falling back, limp.

“L-Lotte…no…NOOOOOOOOO–Gah, fuck, one of them hit me in the ear!” The halfling spearwoman snorted, giggling as her brother shot her an irritated look. “Oi, I thought you were ‘dead’.”

“And I thought you’d go for more than a second without getting hit by a mato. What was that ‘noooo’ business anyways?”

“It’s dramatic! That’s what you do during a death scene, c’mon.”

At a distance relatively far from the field of “war”, Michael stood at the short wall bordering the town of Rikfield, idly munching on a pastry and watching as around sixty or so people–a mix of locals and visiting adventurers–battled swarms of tomato and potato monsters, driving their spears into spuds and cutting down crimson…fruits? Vegetables?

“So this happens annually?” Anaya asked a fellow spectator, a halfling man sitting atop the wall.

“Oh aye, every year, right around this time. It’s funny, considering it’s usually after planting season, but call it a quirk of the land.”

“Huh. Alright, follow up, why does your village get attacked by monster tomatoes?”

“And potatoes, can’t forget the potatoes.”

“Right, sorry, potatoes too.”

The man puffed away on his pipe, seemingly collecting his thoughts. “Well there is a fun story there that I know. Not that I should be acting like an expert on history to elves.”

“Aw, it’s fine, it’s not like I know everything about everywhere.” She smiled cheerfully at him. “I’d be happy to hear what you know.”

“…Ah, well, it’s nothing too big. See, well, you know how some crops, like the tomato and potato, aren’t originally from the Light Lands, right?”

“Right?”

“Right, so, around when they were getting introduced, so the story goes, some folks got a little odd in the head about these fancy new crops from mysterious lands overseas and wound up planting ‘em all over the place. Way the story goes, a pair of families got competitive over these two crops in particular, on account of having a fondness for ‘em, and planted them all over the hills they made their homes outta, which wouldn’t be too much of a problem, excepting that these two families, clans really, made a big fuss over it.

“Now I don’t know the full details, on account of history and details being lost, plus my memory just not being perfect, but I do know some fell magics started being involved as things escalated, and the homes wound up turning into dungeons, pretty much, so now we’ve become pretty famous for having a competing pair of dungeons in the hills nearby and it’s become a tradition for folks to gather around and cut down whatever monsters pop out of the hills around this time.” He puffed his pipe thoughtfully. “It might be the anniversary of the feud falling apart, now that I think about it.”

“Maybe? I definitely don’t know, but thanks for the story!” Anaya beamed, before pausing as an explosion went up from the potato side of the field. “…Nobody gets hurt doing these, right?”

“Well I imagine the tatos and matos get plenty hurt, but nah, it’s mostly safe. There’s some injuries but never any real damage, especially since there’s always clerics around. The Tomato Dungeon and Potato Dungeon are on one of those guild brochure things and they’re ranked pretty low in terms of threat, so we get good traffic from beginning adventurers in general.”

“Hey Mishi, Naya!” Noriko called out as she returned, her arms full of…tomato and potato plushies? “This place has the coolest gift shops! Here, this gal gotcha this!”

Michael raised an eyebrow as Noriko handed over a potato wearing a brown helmet, with roots forming rudimentary arms and legs. “…what.”

“It’s a spud knight! Thought you might like it!”

“Aw, it’s so cute!” They promptly handed it to Anaya, who made a delighted noise and hugged it tight.

“Aw, not a fan of the knight? Well how about the Spud King?” This one had a white crown and a small, rooty mustache.

“…Why do the potatoes have a monarchy?” Michael muttered, before glancing at the other plushies. “Do the tomatoes have one?”

“Nope, they’ve got a parliament. Though this gal thinks there’s some kinda hierarchy in place since she found a ‘mater matron’ and ‘mater matriarch’.”

Michael didn’t even know how to begin addressing that. 

“Cardinal Michael, Noriko of Gorokiva, your reckoning is at hand!” Oh for Light’s sake.

Michael and Noriko turned to the knight standing on the other side of the wall. Again, fully armored; again, in full plate; again, with a plume and a cape and exaggerated pauldrons, except this time, all of it was in green.

“Oh for fuck’s sake,” Noriko muttered, “Seriously? You’re coming at us right now?”

“Yes. For I am Gale the Green, and I seek vengeance for the deaths of my brothers!”

“Uh…is there something going on here with this guy?” the halfling man from earlier asked, pointing to the knight.

“He’s a death knight, a type of demon,” Michael answered, “So I would advise you to distance yourself.”

“Right, don’t need to tell me twice.” He promptly hopped off the wall and started calling out to the other townsfolk, warning them of the monster while Noriko sighed.

“Alright, guess we’re dealing with another one. Naya, you’re up!”

“What? Ah…no, thank you. I’m not a fighter.”

“Aw. But this gal thought you were, like, some kinda hidden master druid!”

“…Nori, I have a wooden leg.”

“Plenty of hidden masters have wooden legs! Probably! You just need to apply yourself!”

Michael sighed. “I can handle it if it’s that much trouble, Noriko.”

“Nope, if Anaya’s not up, then this gal can take him just fine! Though remember, she gets more points if he turns out to be cool.”

“…On second thought, I definitely should fight him,” Michael decided.

“…”

“…”

The two stared each other down, neither flinching for a moment, before Noriko spoke once more. “Jan ken pon?” 

“What?”

“Ah, right. Rock paper scissors?” 

“…What?”

“…Quartz, parchment, shears?”

“Oh, that.” And thus, the game was played, and upon Noriko’s victory via deceptive parchment against Michael’s sturdy, stalwart quartz that definitely should have won, the human handed her plushies to Anaya then hopped over the wall and walked a ways away from the town, standing to face the knight on the grassy field. 

“Do you really wanna do this, buddy? Your two pals went down really easily, and this gal feels like the pattern’s going to hold.”

“On my honor as a knight, I must stride forth to meet my fate. If I am to die this day, so be it. You may take your strike first. I bear you no ill, yet I shall show you no mercy.” He had an axe at his belt, instead of a sword or a mace. It was as green as the rest of him, and decorated with vines along the head.

“Alright, don’t say this gal didn’t warn you.” Noriko drew her blade, which now gleamed a proper silver in the sunlight, and rushed forward. In seconds, she was behind the knight and sliding her katana back into its sheath as his head separated from his body, eliciting some shocked gasps from the crowd of onlookers that Michael just noticed were peeking over the wall.

“…I thought they would hide,” Michael muttered.

“Eh, it is a pretty neat show–…uh, hey, he’s not falling.”

“Sorry big guy,” Noriko said, clicking her katana back into its sheath, “but I really wasn’t interested in a big speech this–”

“My turn.” She stiffened, turning as the headless knight brought his shining axe straight down on–Onto the fiery staff Michael held in their hands, blocking the knight’s cut. “Ah, treachery then. The honor of this duel is lost.”

“As though you didn’t try to trick Noriko!” Michael snapped, shoving the knight back.

The headless demon seemed to regard them, before picking his head off the ground by the plume on his helm and setting it back into place. “I never said her first strike could kill me. Is it not fair to take our turns? You interfere, therefore this is a duel no longer.

Burning green eyes gleamed in the shadows of his helmet. “Now it’s a fight.

Gale moved with a sudden speed, far quicker than his large frame would suggest, and Michael jerked back, blocking heavy yet somehow quick strikes with their staff as much as they were able–Then his shield smashed into their face and they went skidding across the grass.

Noriko shook off her shock and ducked in low, swinging for his side and slicing into suddenly solid armor, her blade leaving little more than a knick where it hit. Her eyes widened before she melted into shadow, narrowly avoiding his sudden chop. She moved around the knight, aiming to find a weak point, then yelped as she felt the grass suddenly stab upwards, tiny plants twisting into sharp spikes that somehow jabbed even into her shadowy form.

She hissed, twisting around and then leaping back as more spikes erupted from the ground. She landed, then ducked as a vine swung from his hand and nearly caught her neck. Noriko could feel her teeth lengthening under her mask as she went low, a clawed hand gripping the earth as she snarled and flipped the grip of her blade, holding it outward.

Gale regarded her with a curious gaze, then whirled without warning, his cape flowing outward as Michael dove forward, their spear missing by inches before he drove a brutal kick into their abdomen, earning “oof”s and winces from the onlookers. Michael bent double, unable to stop their natural reaction to be slammed in the gut as Gale raised his axe high–Then leapt back again, sparks filling the air as Noriko’s sword scored across his armored chest.

She kept an arm around Michael, steadying her friend as Gale tossed his shield–Her eyes went wide and she shoved Michael down with her as the metal kite went sailing straight over their heads, then pushed them away and rolled to avoid another cut driven straight down into the ground.

Vines coiled around Gale’s now free hand and launched back, wrapping around Michael’s throat and squeezing tight as the knight turned towards Noriko. “Stay still and allow my strike, or I shall take my cut from your friend.”

Noriko snarled on reflex, her hackles raising as she watched her friend start to choke. She didn’t even think Michael needed air, but apparently getting their throat crushed by vines was still bad…So she straightened her stance and looked the knight straight in the eyes.

There was no respect there. Only cold satisfaction. “Idiot.”

Gale gripped his axe and strode–stumbled forward, his eyes widening as he felt roots wrapping around his feet and coiling up his ankles. He looked as he felt his grip on the plants around him grow tenuous and saw the druid Anaya on the field, her hands pressed into the grass as she grinned at him. 

He had a moment to realize even his own vines had stopped reacting to his will before an eruption of fire burned away that connection entirely, and then there was a cold, silvered blade stabbing straight through his throat while a blazing spear pierced through his back and out his chest.

“What was that?” Noriko asked, grinning up at the knight as green blood leaked down her blade.

Idiot,” Michael rasped, before pushing their flames higher and hotter and burning straight through the core of the knight. Fire erupted out of every opening in his armor, searing every inch of the demon, before finally he stood, smoke pouring from the slits in his helm.

“…” The knight twitched, before speaking his last. “…well shit.”

And then he exploded, bursting in a shower of mud and green blood as the townsfolk cheered to the traveling trio’s victory. 

“Woo! That was a great show!” 

“This a new addition to the event?” 

Blinking, Michael stared in confusion at the townsfolk and adventurers who apparently didn’t realize they were in very serious danger mere seconds ago.

“Thank you~! We did our best~!” Noriko said with an overdramatic bow. It would be very impressive, if it weren’t for her dripping with mud and slime.

Anaya clapped though. So…Michael just sort of…half-bowed, playing along. The applause was somewhat nice.

Walking around in filthy robes was less so, but Anaya and her new halfling friend were leading the way, so they elected to accept it. The town in general was far more bustling since it seemed the event had ended and a number of “defenders” had returned to enjoy the spoils of their victories. Which apparently included roasting skewered potato monsters on a spit.

“Want one? Only two silver a stick,” one proprietor called out as they passed. And, well, Michael was somewhat curious…

One purchase later and they were idly munching on salted and buttered tato as they followed their group through a full festival.

“Yeah, things tend to really pick up after the event, on account of the defenders bringing back plenty of tatos and matos,” the halfling–whose name was apparently William–explained as he led them past booths and stalls that definitely weren’t there when the trio had arrived, “Eating food monsters always struck me as kinda weird, even living here my whole life, but in the end, it’s not much different from eating a beast you hunted. Just gotta make sure to pick out the metal bits.”

“This gal’s pretty sure that’s true when hunting animals too,” Noriko chimed in, glancing around, “So does no one mind the mess? Because she’s noticing a lot of dripping defenders.”

“Oh you don’t need to worry about that, folks know how messy monster hunting can get. Heck, lots of the defenders decide to wear white as a kinda competition thing, where you get counted out if you get too filthy.” He gestured at some of the adventurers in question, many of whom were indeed wearing white cloth. Some were even unstained, probably indicating they were actually competent. William then pointed ahead, towards some buildings with what appeared to be curtained stalls set up. “There’s places set up to clean off over by the inns and the local shrine if you’d prefer to wash up now.”

“Hmm, we probably should find somewhere to stay for the night,” Anaya murmured, tapping her chin, “Any recommendations?”

“Eh, not really, our two biggest are fine. Just know that if you pick one, the other will ban you.”

Michael paused. “What? Why?”

“Remember those feuding clans I mentioned? Yeah they just moved into town after the whole hill thing happened, and they wound up opening some inns to recoup the money they lost. Been in town for generations and they still can’t stand each other.”

They looked over at the pair of inns, one with red roofs, green walls, and tomato-y decorations and the other with brown roofs, yellow walls, and potato-y decorations, and just sighed. “Is there a third option?”

“Nope.”

“Well the tomato place matches Mishi better, so let’s go for that one,” Noriko suggested and Anaya nodded thoughtfully.

“Yeah, that sounds good to me.”

Michael felt oddly offended. “It’s partially green, that’s more of an Anaya color-”

“So you agree then, good! It’s unanimous!”

So apparently they were staying at the tomato place. It had some other name but Michael had zero interest in learning more about it than they had to.

“Do we have to clean up outside?” the angel muttered, frowning at the scarlet curtains around the side of the establishment and studiously ignoring those of the adventurers present who lacked their standard of modesty.

“Eh, people bathe outside all the time, this gal doesn’t see a problem,” Noriko said, promptly pushing into an unoccupied curtain. A second later a shirt flew out that Michael stepped to avoid.

“Pff-Ah, Nori’s reasoning aside, the innkeepers said defenders aren’t allowed in until they’re cleaned up,” Anaya explained, “And you two definitely got messy out there. Don’t worry, I’ll bring some new clothes for you.”

“…” Michael sighed. “Fine.” And stepped through the curtain, though they blinked when Noriko squeaked and tugged her pants back into place. 

“Ah…M-Misha, hey? What’s, uh…”

“…I’m supposed to use the other stall,” they realized, feeling their face warm as they averted their gaze, “I’ll just-”

“Hey now, no need to get embarrassed~” She certainly recovers quickly… “It’s not like you haven’t seen me bare before~”

“…” They promptly stepped out, went to the unoccupied stall next to Noriko’s, and took a very cold shower. Mostly because they weren’t actually sure how the shower was supposed to work and it was really weird trying to figure out the faucets.

“You turn the one with the red runes to make it hot–blerk–!” was the noise Noriko made as Michael shoved her back down.

“Don’t peek over the stalls.” Still, the advice was helpful enough, and a significantly warmer shower soon followed. 

Afterwards, Michael considered just reforming their robes to dress again, but Anaya did say she was going to get them clothes, so they decided to just wait for her to get back as they used some heat magic to dry themself. They could trust her to bring them something appropriate.

“…’Mato Master’,” Michael read, staring at the red shirt presented to them. It had words stitched in green across the chest. Why, they weren’t sure, though their best guess was some type of labeling… “What is this?”

“A novelty shirt! Places sell them. Since we’re staying at the tomato place, I thought I should grab some related merch! Oh, but I did get a ‘Tato Terror’ shirt if either of you–”

“This gal will take that one!” Noriko immediately called out.

And soon enough, the two were properly…the two were dressed. “Why do these socks go so high?”

“It’s a fashion thing,” Anaya explained, beaming. 

Michael didn’t quite know what to make of the primarily red and green outfit they were wearing, though at least the shorts were fairly modest. Red shirt, green shorts, a mix of red and green for the undergarments–The fact that these were all apparently novelty items confused them deeply, but they weren’t about to question it.

Noriko was dressed similarly, though hers was yellow and brown everywhere Michael’s was red and green, and she had a skirt instead of shorts.

“I grabbed some more if you want to try something different, but I figured this is good for now. Anyways, here’s the key for tonight.” Anaya handed the key over, still smiling cheerfully with her bags of merchandise. “Do you mind if you bring my stuff up? I’m gonna go bring Charlie over from the stables since there’s a closer one around here.”

That had certainly been an interesting conversation. Motor carriages weren’t exactly a thing, so the stablehands were fairly bewildered, but accepted the oddity with reasonable grace. The fact that they saved money on feed probably helped.

“Of course. Noriko, go with her.”

“Eh? Eh…yeah, sure, why not? C’mon Naya, let’s see the town!” Noriko grinned before fixing a spare mask in place over her mouth, then looped her arm through Anaya’s, walking off with the druid with a rather cute skip in her step.

Cute? Michael blinked, then shook their head, adjusting their grip on their bags as they headed into the inn and upstairs to their room. The day was winding down anyways, afternoon drifting into evening, so it was best to get situated. The inn did look fairly nice–though maybe that was in spite of the very green and red decor–with carpeting and smooth walls, illuminated by small lightstone lamps. 

Very cozy all around, and as they reached their bedroom, they had a good feeling for the evening. At the very least, it would be a comfy place to rest.

Though that impression dropped the instant they opened the door to see a demon in lingerie relaxing on their bed. “Evening, Mikey~”

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