Chapter 43 – The Mighty Melee

Waking up with an elf drooling on their chest was an interesting experience for Michael. Not least because the elf in question was still wearing absolutely nothing as she snuggled up to them under the blankets. 

In some ways, they had gotten used to Anaya. In others, they were fairly certain they were going to burn a hole in the bed with how warm their face was.

“Mnhh…e-eesh, why’s it so hot…” That was another thing to note. Noriko was also pressed up against them, because apparently their chest was just…comfortable for some reason?

“The first possibility is that you’re pressing against an angel of fire,” Michael stated quite dryly, “The second would be that you decided to pile three sets of blankets on top of us and it’s the middle of summer.”

“F-Fehh…but Seona’s chilly, she should balance it…” That was yet another thing. They also had a dullahan sleeping in their bed. Granted, it was more that she was sleeping on a bed that was pressed very close to the bed they were sleeping on, but still.

While Michael still stood by their decision not to punch the dullahan, they also really didn’t think that would extend to her sticking around and the angel was starting to rethink the lessons they’d learned already.

“…oh, right. I brought you a gift last night.”

“Mn? What?” Noriko blinked up at them, visibly sweaty.

“…I’m removing the blankets.”

Moments later, after finding where they’d left their pants and thus the gun inside of them, Michael handed over the present they’d intended for Noriko. “I thought you might like it. It’s a weapon similar to your crossbow–”

“Oh hey, a flintlock! Wow, it’s been a while since this gal’s seen one of these!” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that she already knows what it is… “Heh, y’know, if this was back home, this gal would probably be honorbound to duel you for handing her this.”

“What? Why?”

“Oh it’s an old thing. You know how trends are, they eb and flow, and there was a time where Gorokiva was all about matchlocks because they were brought over from Yayuero and the samurai were like ‘ah ha, the perfect weapon to use against monsters’ only for it to turn out they were, like, super ineffective against even basic stuff like slimes. Good at killing people, pretty okay at killing skeletons and beetles, really bad at killing anything too hardy or too gelatinous. Something about the shock dispersal? This gal doesn’t remember exactly, but her history lessons say the shogun branded them a coward’s weapon anyways and now it’s seen as insulting to receive one as a gift.”

“…I see. Hm.”

“Yeah there’s a reason why people still use crossbows instead, especially since you can enchant them to shoot even better. It helps that they’re cheaper to make too, since you need to do all kinds of stuff like carving the rules and fixing in a small enough elemental stone that can work for it. They’re more commonly used down in the Sun Lands and some parts of the Frost Lands, but they never really caught on up here, outside of pirate groups and stuff.” Despite her words, Noriko did seem interested by her new gift though, aiming down the sights and checking the firing mechanisms.

“So…not a good gift then?”

“Heh. Maybe to some people, but this gal still likes it, so thanks~” Noriko said before heading over to her clothes to start getting dressed.

“Take a bath first, you reek of sweat.”

“Aw, rude. This gal takes back her thanks then, hmph.”

Michael rolled their eyes, but soon enough, their various bedmates were up for the day. Baths were had, clothes were worn, and breakfast was had, all before the trio of travelers headed to the next arena of the day where the melee was planned to take place. Well, the trio plus one.

“Why are you hanging around?” Michael asked Seona as she followed along with them.

“Hm? Oh, I thought it would be neat to see the Light Lands! I’ve never been here before, after all.” The dullahan paused, frowning. “I think. Hm.”

Anaya giggled, seeming more at ease with the demon’s presence. “You get lost really easily, huh?” 

“No, not really, things just aren’t where I expect them to be. The mortal world’s just weirdly physical, everything all…concrete distances and spacing, it’s weird.”

“Right??” Michael said, finally finding someone who agreed with them.

For some reason, that made Anaya giggle even more, but soon enough, the trio–temporarily a quartet–made their way to the melee field, which was a noticeably smaller area than the jousting field consisting of four stands set up around a boxed in area, with fences and banners blocking off the ring from the outside.

“Good morning and welcome to the Mighty Melee Arena,” another teenaged page began as they approached, her tone noticeably bored as she slouched on her entry table, “Are you intending to participate in the melee?”

“I am. I signed up yesterday under the name ‘Misha Redwing’.” The angel gestured towards her papers. “It should be in there.”

“Yeah, they are, you’re good,” the teen confirmed, despite not even bothering to check, “So welcome to the tourney. Is this your team?”

Michael blinked. “Team? The melee requires a team?”

“Yeah? Didn’t you read the sign-ups? The melee had a three person minimum for participants.”

In fairness to Michael, they’d had many other things on their mind the previous day. Hm. I can’t put Anaya in danger, she’s not a fighter–Wait.

They turned to Seona, who stared curiously back. “Yes?”

“Are you willing to fight alongside–”

“Oh sure! I’m up for it!” Huh. That was easy. “Like I said, I have nothing better to do besides hang around, so I might as well see what Light Land deathmatches are like.”

“It’s not a deathmatch–“ They paused, glancing at the teen, who was keeping a neutral expression. “It’s not a deathmatch, right?”

“No? Why would it be?” she asked, “Look, if you have your team, just head in. You can figure out more when you’re in there.”

“Ah, excuse me, where would the spectators’ entrance be?” Anaya asked, “This one looks like it leads right to the field.”

“Around the side, over there,” the teen said, inclining her head in a vague direction.

“…thanks. Well, good luck with the tourney, you three! I’ll be cheering you on!”

“Thank you–” Michael paused as Anaya suddenly gave them another kiss on the cheek.

“For luck~”

“…ah…th-thank you,” they mumbled, watching her leave for a moment, before stiffening as Noriko poked their side, the human radiating amusement.

“Think you can focus on the match, Mishi~?”

“Of course I can. Let’s…let’s get going.”

“Whatever you say~!” Noriko sing-songed as she followed after Michael, with Seona trailing after the two of them, “Also, is it just this gal, or was Purple-Eyes back there kinda weird?”

“A little, yep,” Seona agreed, which…what?

“What do you mean?”

Noriko shrugged. “Just a vibe this gal got. Something seemed–”

“Ah, welcome to the field!” another teen, this one blonde, chirped as they approached, a box in one hand, “Please stand still!”

“Eh? Ah, why–Oh, okay, this is happening,” Noriko mumbled as the page affixed a…badge? Yes, a small badge–a round one with three heart-shaped stones set in it–to the front of her shirt, before continuing along and doing the same for Michael.

“What are these supposed to be?” Michael asked, frowning at the page’s presumption.

“Shield badges~! Or life badges, I guess? They’re for the melee, to make sure everyone’s safe and secure!” she explained, before pausing as she reached Seona, “Ah–Hello! You look…foreign!”

“And this gal doesn’t?” Noriko said, raising an eyebrow.

“I am!” Seona agreed with a bright smile, “I look forward to participating in this competition!”

“…Sure! Here, let me.” She fixed the badge to Seona’s coat and gave it a little pat before saluting. “Enjoy the melee!”

“Wait, could you explain–and she’s already leaving.” Michael sighed, frowning.

“Well, maybe we can find someone else who can tell us about the rules?” Noriko suggested. 

“Hm, I believe Yvonne mentioned seeing me at the melee, so she might have joined.” 

“Nice! If she’s in this tourney then it’s like we have two teams together! Course we’ll still have to beat her team in the end, but it still raises the chances of us getting to the end!” 

“That is true… oh, before we go any further.” Michael turned to look at Seona. “Please make sure not to lose your head out on the field. After yesterday’s incident, it would probably cause a mess if the locals saw someone walking around headless.”

Looking up from the badge on her coat, Seona gave a thumbs up. “Don’t worry, I’ll do my best! I’m pretty good at fighting!” And with a flick of her wrist, a scythe appeared in her hand, which, much like dullahan, radiated death to Michael.

“No. You’re not using that.” 

“Eh? Aw, why not?”

“No lethal weapons. It’s not a deathmatch, we mentioned that earlier.”

“Yeah, this gal’s pretty sure even the best shield charms wouldn’t hold up to something like that,” Noriko pointed out, “That scythe feels like it could cut you if you stared at it too hard. Oh, and you probably shouldn’t use any flame spears either, Mishi, considering you punched straight through plate mail with one before.”

Michael nodded, before glancing around the field. Plenty of armored individuals were already gathering across the arena–in general, the armor seemed more practical than the ostentatious gear that was at the joust, with a number of the crowd dressed in simpler padded cloth and chainmail or leather armor, though many still wore plate–and there appeared to be…barrels? Barrels of weapons and boxes of badges, where some more pages and knights from the academy were standing.

“Please form an orderly queue to receive your equipment!” “No shoving!” “Remember to grab blunted weapons from the barrels! No bringing your own!” “One badge per person! If you double up, you will be disqualified!” “If you remove the badge at any time, the charms on it will break and you will be disqualified! Only remove the badge if you want to forfeit!” “Keep magic limited! Buffs and debuffs are allowed if you register as a supporting class, but no elemental casting!” “No ranged weaponry! It’s a melee, people, if I find another gun or crossbow, I’m burning it!”

“Hmm…this gal could probably get away with keeping her knives as long as she doesn’t use them,” Noriko murmured as Michael strode over to a barrel and picked out a quarterstaff.

“Ah, welcome to the joust, here–Oh, you already have your badges?” one of the pages noticed, before waving them off, “Okay just grab your weapons and go then, please, don’t hold up the line!”

“Fine, fine,” Michael muttered, idly noticing Seona pick out a blunted farming sickle and grimace, looking displeased.

“Feh…maybe I should just go for a quarterstaff too…mm, but the balance is gonna be completely off…” 

“Just pick one with a heavier weight on the end.”

“Ehh, but it’s not the same…I wonder if I could strap this to the end of a staff…?” Leaving Seona to figure out if she could connect the two weapons, Michael walked back over to Noriko, who was now armed with a dull sword and talking with a familiar face. 

“Hello Misha!” Yvonne greeted upon noticing them, as smiley as ever and wearing her bronze armor again with a badge affixed to the front of it. Odd how they can get those to stick into metal. Maybe there’s some type of adhesive?

“Hello again, Yvonne. I see you’re also planning to use a quarterstaff.”

“I am indeed! I’ve done well enough with polearms before, so why not?”

“Well this gal personally thinks a sword’s cooler,” Noriko said, completely incorrectly–No, wait, she said “personally thinks”, it’s an opinion…Still an incorrect one. “And she also wanted to ask a few questions, Yv! Like where’s the rest of your team?”

“Hm? Oh, Ortie’s over in the stands there.” She gestured towards a section of the stands where, indeed, her orcish partner could be seen, sitting and reading a book while utterly dwarfing the halflings in the seats beside him, who seemed a little curious at his presence. And now that they were looking at the stands, Michael decided to see if they could spot Anaya…Ah, there she is.

It looked like Anaya had found decent enough seats out in the lower parts of the stands, somewhat close to the action and right beside some man in a blue doublet, itself a similar shade of sapphire blue that a number of participants appeared to be wearing. And judging by the blue serpents decorating their gambesons, those people were working for the Sapphire Scales mercenary guild…who definitely seemed to be out in force.

“Yeah, it looks like the mercenary groups stacked their decks here,” Yvonne noted, noticing where Michael was looking, “Those white ones also brought a big team, at least a dozen. Which makes it even stranger that those red boys aren’t here, the, ah…furies, right?” Oh, them. “They were really set up for things, but then their jouster didn’t show and now their team’s missing. Weird, innit?”

“Ah…yes, very strange. I had nothing to do with that.”

“…er…I wasn’t implying you did, but now I’m thinking about it.”

“Mishi’s like that, but back on topic, is it just you joining in the melee?” Noriko asked.

“Hm? Yeah, I’m riding solo for this one.” Wait, what?

Michael furrowed their brow. “I thought the competition required a team.”

“That’s not what I heard. And they let me sign up just fine on my own.”

“This gal is noticing a whole lot of people here seem to be in groups smaller than three. She also couldn’t help but notice Yv’s badge looks really different from ours,” Noriko pointed out, gesturing towards the three shields that decorated Yvonne’s badge instead of three hearts.

“That…hm.” The angel’s frown deepened as they looked around the arena, trying to spot the page that had handed them their badge–And instead, they spotted a far too familiar pair of knights in yellow and blue. “Noriko, Pine and Coco are here.”

“Oh yeah, that’s their armor. Well, shit, that’s probably not good.”

“No, it’s not…do you think I could get away with attacking them now, before the competition starts?”

“We could just tell the tourney judges that there’s a pair of demons trying to cause problems.”

“There’s a pair of what?” Yvonne asked.

“Oh, yeah, so there were these demons that tried to attack us before–Well, hm, not really attack us, more tried to make us play really stupid games–”

“Wow, lightlander not-deathmatches are way different than I expected,” Seona commented as she came up with a makeshift scythe, successfully created by roping her sickle to her quarterstaff, “There’s a lot more darklanders and demons than I thought there’d be. Also, real quick, but I have to say, I’m impressed they managed to make badges that inflict the pain of dying without actually killing us.”

“…They did what?” Michael asked, turning to the dullahan right as a loud voice echoed out.

“GOOD MORNIN’ EVERYONE!!” Lonnie Redrige greeted from a large booth amidst the stands, his voice amplified to sound out over the entire field by a wand with a sound-stone on top, “I HOPE Y’ALL ARE HAVIN’ A NICE DAY OUT HERE IN QUEENSHILL! I KNOW I AM! YOU FOLKS MIGHT KNOW ME ALREADY AS LONNIE REDRIDGE, AMBASSADOR FROM GAROTIVA, AND I HAFTA SAY, IT’S REAL NICE BEIN’ IN SUCH A LOVELY COUNTRY!

The red-headed minotaur had a beaming smile on his face that seemed to widen when he noticed Michael in the crowd, though his attention turned to the rest of the crowd quickly enough that the angel almost wondered if they were mistaken. “NOW I’D LIKE TO EXTEND MY THANKS TO THE BRAZIER KNIGHTS ACADEMY FOR ALLOWIN’ ME TO REFEREE THIS FINE COMPETITION! AND I LOOK FORWARD TO SEEIN’ WHAT ALL Y’ALL BRAVE WARRIORS CAN DO! MAKE SURE TO GIVE US A GOOD SHOW NOW, Y’HEAR?”

“Oh it’ll be the best show,” Seeker muttered, glaring straight at the screen in front of her. The smaller, boxier, less fancy screen, because she’d, well, broken her big mirror and bringing up a new one was taking more time than expected. She half-thought one of her sibs might be screwing with her by making it take so long, but whatever, she had a monitor, so she could monitor the show in front of her…Ugh. “That wasn’t even a real pun, damn it…”

“Madam Seeker, are you internally narrating again?” Lepo asked, earning an irritated noise from her boss, who’d dropped the stupid princess get-up in favor of her usual shirt and suspenders.

“That’s not a thing, shut up. And shouldn’t you be acting cuter? You’re supposed to be one of those squire things or whatever.”

“Just because you have me put on a stupid tunic doesn’t make me a squire,” her subordinate groused, before adding as an afterthought, “My lady.”

“Yes it does, now shut up. And where the fuck is Peaches?”

“Back,” Gesilstra, aka Peach, announced as she strode through the “doorway” she formed, her mortal guise of a cute blonde shifting into the splotchy, pinkish-orange shade that came naturally to Seeker’s adorable hybrid. She filled out more too, going from a youthfulness that could be mistaken as teenaged to distinctly adult; taller, for one, with sharper features and a fuller chest, fitting for a half-luxurian, though one would think the gulan half would make her at least sorta chubbier instead of all lean and predatory.

Either way, she was cute, if sorta lopsided, what with her right horn being bigger than her left and her right eye being a mouth while her regular mouth had a zipper for lips. The last part didn’t really add to the lopsidedness, but it was a fun detail. She had more zippers across her body, but Seeker wasn’t the type to share secrets~. Not without getting something in return.

Anyhow, Gesi zipped her doorway back up and Seeker idly admired her figure as she did. “Ah ha, see that, Leppy? Peaches there understood the assignment, which includes wearing the damn uniform as intended!

“Madam Seeker, the squires there were at least wearing shorts with their tunics,” Lepo noted as one of her many eyes kept watch on Gesi too, her own disguised “hair” shifting back to her natural, inky-black eyestalks. Or eye-tentacles, maybe? They were prehensile–

“Never mind that! Peaches, shit’s set up, right?”

“Grapes didn’t inform you?” Gesi asked, her head tilted curiously. Which made her fluffy pink hair look even poofier and highlighted her heart-shaped pupil.

“Madam Seeker thought it would be best if we gave our reports together to raise the tension,” Lepo answered for her.

“Oh, like usual then. Okay. I handed out the ‘life badges’ as instructed, mistress, but there was a dullahan-shaped snag,” the hybrid dutifully reported in her usual unenthused tone, “I don’t think we can get the elf with this plan.”

“Seriously!? Ugh, it should’ve been easy–Wait wait wait, back up back up back up, dullahan?” Seeker glanced at her subordinate, the burns beneath her eyes not yet healed from her previous rage. “The fucking headless psychopomps?! Why the fuck is one there!?!”

“It could be the death knights we’ve been using,” Lepo suggested, her cycloptic gaze–in the sense of her largest, “main” eye that took up most of her face–focused entirely on her boss.

“Fuck, that’s a good point, a way too good point, fuck me, and they’re going to ride my ass on this all because that fuck-up Morien got himself–No, no, you know what, no, no changing the plan here, no fucking around, just let Pine and Coco know that the dullahan’s on the list too. Whoever the fuck they are and why they’re involved doesn’t matter, they die before this shitheap can pile up even more.”

Her pair of eights bowed, accepting her order without protest. Even then, Seeker found herself biting her thumb as she focused back on the melee, her golden eyes narrowed at the building chaos on screen. Things were getting complicated. Too complicated. So it was better to keep things simple.

Everything would turn out just fine, so long as Michael suffered.

“AND EIGHTY-NINE TAKES ANOTHER SAVAGE BLOW!” announced a loud voice over the crash of mystic stone shattering fully under the heavy blow of mace into the side of one of the hundred currently filling the Might Melee Arena. A sound that was becoming all too common after the initial trumpets blared to signal the start.

“That announcer is really grating,” Michael groused as they batted aside an attempted cut and slammed their staff hard into the helmeted head of another combatant, sending him crashing to the ground in a sudden burst of blue stone as his badge broke entirely. He was Number 50, according to the commentator’s sudden announcement, and he was the sixth person eliminated thus far.

“Aw, this gal doesn’t mind it,” Noriko replied, keeping close to Michael’s back as she scanned the area for more prospective attackers, “Terry’s giving it his best up there, making sure the people know who just got their ass kicked.”

“They have eyes, he’s redundant.” The angel kept their own eyes moving, a frown deep on their face. Seona and Yvonne had separated from them early on; the former apparently deciding it would be “funner” to go off on her own, and the latter saying she’d probably just get in the way if she stuck to the middle of the melee. 

“Yeah but they can’t see everything that’s happening at once,” responded Noriko as she ducked under a sweeping staff, tripping the swinger as she did. With a downward stab, she took #73 out of the competition. “Besides, it helps us keep track of how many people are left.” 

“He could be less loud,” Michael muttered as they tried to focus on the battle. The loud announcer certainly didn’t help as he drowned out the sounds of combat with his voice, making it harder to know if someone was sneaking up on them. Whoever was singing also didn’t–

Eyes snapping wide opened, Michael brought their staff to the side, blocking a strong swing from a dull broadsword.

“Ooo, you’re pretty good! I thought you wouldn’t notice me!” Tanya the hellhound said, fully armored for the melee. 

“Guess these two know more about fighting than they do manners,” mused Ophelia’s voice, and a quick glance behind them let Michael know Noriko had blocked a hit from the leviathan’s blunted rapier. 

“Trying to go for a cheap shot, huh?” Noriko asked, as she and Michael moved away from the two. 

“Say that to your friend first,” Ophelia countered as she and Tanya stood next to one another, Michael finally noticing Naomi standing behind the armored duo. The bard’s fingers plucked the strings of her harp in a steady tempo, the music somehow bolstering the pair of fighters, and as the song built upwards, the two lunged in.

Michael jerked their head to the side, grimacing as Ophelia’s thrust came far closer to their eye than they appreciated–She really holds a grudge–before they swung for her head in turn–But that was what she wanted and the leviathan ducked in low, stabbing at Michael’s chest as the angel stumbled backwards, trying to bring their staff back in to block after overextending–

And where the angel was on the defensive, trying to block sharp thrusts from a clearly skilled fencer moving far faster than natural speeds, Noriko ducked and dodge swings of her own, weaving around Tanya’s heavy cuts and darting in, scoring a hit across the hellhound’s back and breaking the first of her shields–

Naomi’s voice didn’t even shake at the shattering sound–She was a professional, thank you very much–though her attention did shift as a Scale tried to take advantage of what appeared to be an easy target. The spearman lunged in, missing the bard entirely as she bent back and snapped a kick straight into his face in a picture perfect pirouette before driving the heel of her foot down into his chest, breaking two shields in one go and removing him from the competition–

Michael scowled as they caught Ophelia’s rapier on their staff–They pushed forward, making the leviathan bend back, then tried to swing, missing her as she twirled around the blow and jabbed straight into–PAIN

“GH–!” Pure agony ripped through them, driving the breath from their lungs as they almost fell, the shattering of the first heart on their badge sending a crackle of crimson energy across their body–It felt almost exactly like the moment Goldforge cut them open and they nearly fell, their leg giving out–

Michael blinked as they felt an arm around their chest and looked up, staring in some confusion at Ophelia. “What the hell was that?!”

“W-Wha–…ah, the, ah…th-the badges, they’re…wrong…C-Can’t remove them e-either, th-they’ll break-nh…” the angel tried to explain, the pain still making them twitch, confusion muddying their thoughts, “W-Why are you…why do you care?”

“…Eesh, I know you have a low opinion of me, ‘paladin’, but I’m not–Look, what would you do if someone suddenly seized up in front of–GAH!!” She suddenly shoved Michael back as the head of a halberd crashed into the ground where the two of them were, digging deep into the dirt between them. “Gods, wha–that’s sharpened, what?!”

“Ah, damn, thought I could get you easily there,” Pine complained as he straightened and brought the halberd in his hands back up to his shoulder, his yellow armor gleaming in the sunlight, “Shame, I was so hoping to get you back for smacking me before.”

“P-Pine. I should have known–Hhh…” They hissed, clutching at their chest, the pain still wracking their body, making their scarred wound flare up. “A-Another damn plot…W-What is it this time!?”

“Isn’t it obvious? The badges one of our colleagues handed out hurt you instead of protecting you.” He made an amused noise, tilting his helmeted head. “Is it really that hard to figure out? And here I thought you were so super smart you could instantly beat our games~”

“Gh…So what? You just want to torture me?”

“Lady Thrillseeker does, yeah. I mean, why else do you think we gave the badges to your friends too?” Michael went very, very still. “It’s a shame we couldn’t get your elfy girlfriend in the mix too. I wonder how much pain she could take before her heart would give out–”

Between one second and the next, Michael’s quarterstaff had gone from a length of wood to a blazing spear that pierced straight through the yellow plate of Pine’s suit and out the other side–A snarl came to their lips as they saw the helmet fall to the ground and the catlike demon landed behind them, springing off his hands and landing with a sharp, cheeky smile.


“I’ll allow it,” Redridge decided, not that Michael was paying much attention to that as they seethed at the smirking demon, ripping their spear free of the armor in a spray of molten metal.

“What in all the hells is going on here…?” Ophelia murmured, before stiffening, “Wait, is your friend also wearing one of those trapped badges?”

Michael blinked, glancing at the leviathan. “You mean–Noriko! Yes, she’s also–”

“TANYA! NAOMI!” Both of Ophelia’s teammates paused at the leviathan’s shout, turning to her. “Don’t go after the shortstack, her badge is trapped! There’s a demon here saying it’ll kill her if the hearts break!”

“Eh? They do? Oh, ah, alright! Got it!” Tanya said, immediately backing off of Noriko as Naomi nodded, her voice only wavering slightly in some confusion before she rallied and the two noticeably moved to start blocking other combatants from getting to Noriko, much to the human’s visible surprise.

“Oh wow, that’s some surprising nobility there!” Pine commented, sounding impressed, “And here I thought you two didn’t like each other! I was getting that vibe, you know, and then you went and screwed things up for me, which I can’t say I appreciate.”

Ophelia scoffed. “I don’t like the bitch at all, she’s a judgemental asshole–” Rude. “–but I don’t want her dead. Besides, I wanted a legitimate match against her, not whatever bullshit you’re trying to pull here.”

“…Thank you,” Michael said, nodding to Ophelia, “I was…I was completely wrong about you. I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, well…whatever. Just don’t die and you can make it up to me,” the leviathan insisted, actually stepping in front of Michael as she faced off against Pine, much to the demon’s amusement.

“Aw, cute. Always nice to see ladies getting along, though I personally prefer catfights instead~”

“…” Ophelia actually lowered her rapier, looking at Michael. “Is this guy seriously your nemesis?”

“No, but he works for her,” the angel explained.

“You could do a lot better.”

“I’m aware–” Instinct drove Michael to grab Ophelia and leap out of the way, just in time as a heavy spear pierced straight through Pine’s discarded armor and nearly went through their back, before the enormous polearm–more like a sword blade affixed to the top of a spear–swung the empty armor into a pair of combatants, smashing their shields in bursts of blue as a goliath-sized knight in deep purple armor lined with gold–including a golden crown at the top of his head, stepped forward, red eyes gleaming in his helm.

“Oh, I didn’t mention that I brought friends, did I?” Pine said as he spread his hands, cards floating between his palms, “Meet Roland the Royal Knight. I’m sure you’ll get along, but if you don’t, don’t worry~! I brought plenty of other friends~! Some you might already know~”

Michael scowled as the trio of Lancel, Percel, and Gale were brought out by the hellcat, the black, red, and green knights assembling in dramatic poses. “Seriously!? Again?!”

“AND IT SEEMS NUMBER FIVE HAS BROUGHT OUT…SUMMONS? AH, IS THAT ALSO ALLOWED?” echoed the announcer’s confused voice, before Redridge replied again.

“I’ll allow it.”

“Shit, okay, what the actual fuck have you been dealing with, paladin?” Ophelia muttered as she got to her feet again.

“Demons, mostly, do you have a lethal weapon on you?”

The leviathan simply tossed her rapier aside before forming a new one out of ice, answering that question quite succinctly and just in time for the trio of knights to leap into the fray–Though Michael had worse things to focus on as the purple knight–Roland–swung for their head with that enormous spear of his.

They ducked low, judging as shattering noises rang out from the spear connecting with the other combatants–The shields on the badges clearly weren’t meant to block lethal weaponry because they all burst at once, even for warriors who still had their full three, and the shock was sending them flying–before they had to contend with Gale’s axe swinging down at them–They smacked it aside with their spear and drove their fist into his chest, smashing it in and blowing the knight off his feet–

A blazing greatsword nearly took their head off and they rolled to their feet, eyes wide at the sudden appearance of a knight in orange–Then an icy warhammer smashed into spear right as they brought it up, hitting hard enough that they still felt something in their arm creak–The hearts didn’t break, they were fine–before they pushed back against the light-blue knight–Then another spear thrust nearly went through their chest–

But it didn’t, and they caught Roland’s spear underneath their arm, a sudden thought coming to their mind as the gripped its haft tight and sent a rush of heat through it, the metal burning brightly with a holy flame that made the royal knight flinched back, letting go as his hands burnt–And Michael twisted the spear around, bringing it to their hand and letting loose with flames that twisted the demonic implement to their side, the sword-spear shifting to fit their hand before they lunged, going beneath a flaming swing and returning with one of their own that split the flame knight straight in half.

The ice knight rallied, swinging overhead, and a swipe split his arms at the elbows before a twirl and a cut sent him collapsing in two diagonal halves before Michael twisted with the momentum and threw the spear straight through the royal knight’s head, ripping it clean off in a burst of pure flame before they formed their new spear in their hand again, the shape easily returning to them as they scanned the area for Pine and his monstrosities, only to find Ophelia piercing Percel through the eye as she drove the taller knight to the ground, ripping her rapier clear while Tanya, on the back of Lancel, gripped her opponent around the head and twisted, snapping his head all the way around–

“Cahahahah! Oh wow~! You ladies are tough~!” Pine applauded, a cheshire grin splitting his face before he flicked a hand filled with cards. “Shame my boys come back so easily~”

And out came the trio of knights again, all in the same poses, before Pine lifted another card. “Don’t worry though, I know how to keep the show from growing dull~”

Space seemed to warp and the trio of knights warped with it, black, green, and red mixing into a dark brown as a knight with a hound-headed helm and matching pauldrons suddenly charged out, moving fast and–Past Ophelia and Tanya to slam a clawed hand into Naomi.

“NAOMI!” Ophelia screamed as the burst of blue echoed out and the bard went flying, smashing across the ground and rolling as her harp splintered–

Tanya howled and Michael felt themself already moving, aiming to help–Then another knight, a gray one, was in front of them, blocking with a massive shield that just barely held back their spear as they tried to drive it through–Then another shattering sound echoed out and the angel felt their eyes go wide as they looked back in time to see Tanya land at Ophelia’s feet, her badge broken entirely and her arm bent in a way it shouldn’t be–

“NO!” the angel shouted as the Hound Knight stalked up to Ophelia, the leviathan staring at her friend, frozen, shocked–They pushed off from the Shield Knight and moved–Then felt blood burst from their mouth as a second hit collided against their side.

Michael crashed to the ground, their muscles seizing as the crimson PAIN wracked their body–Their chest was open, it had to be open, they could feel it bleeding–when they heard the crash of steel against steel and saw Noriko deflecting a heavy swing from a giggling pink jester wielding an executioner’s axe before driving a knife into the monster’s throat and throwing a second kunai into the back of Hound Knight’s neck before the jester even burst, pink confetti raining down their area–

“N-Nori?” Michael managed, still shuddering.

“Yeah, sorry, this gal was trying to avoid–Just stay here, okay, need to save tall and bitchy,” the ninja quickly explained before charging across the field, moving fast, faster, her bestial side coming out again as she leapt onto the Hound Knight’s back as the monster tried to grab at the kunai digging into the spot between his helmet and his cuirass, first driving the kunai in deeper and ripping it out before shoving it and another knife straight into the eye-slits of his helm.

The knight’s howl somehow wasn’t the loudest noise on the field of combat, and Michael heard a chuckle sound out behind them. “Well damn, looks like you got unlucky, elfy. Ah well, sucks for you–”

The angel stiffened at the shattering sound and a glance behind them showed Pine idly brushing off some fragments of metal from his gloved hand and a man in blue lying on the ground nearby, a massive dent in the side of his breastplate.

“Oof, that could’ve been bad. Imagine if you’d been taken out by a peon like that! Sinners, Lady Seeker would’ve lost it! Her temper, I mean, not implying my dear lady is crazy, no m’am!” The demon chuckled, adjusting his cufflinks. “But still. It wouldn’t do to have you ‘eliminated’ like this. Not before our lady has her revenge.”

“R-Revenge…?” What could she…is it…? “F-For Morien?”

“Oh no, not for him. Not specifically him, I mean. No no, the revenge is for you taking what’s hers, m’am. And Morien, even if he was trash, was hers, and that you stole him so readily really upset our dearest lady! And you know what they say, two eyes for one.”

“…Morien wasn’t hers. He was his own person.”

“You know, you’re lucky I can’t hit you without ending your role in this competition because that type of naivete really does deserve a smack. Oh well. You’ll learn, one way or another, and this is just another part of teaching you. So watch the show, if you would. We’ve already taken steps to ensure it’ll be a free viewing~”

Michael tried to catch their breath–They didn’t need to breathe, or at least they shouldn’t, but their chest was still tight and they could see Ophelia pulling Tanya away from the fray, bringing her over to the side–The fighting was still ongoing, but there seemed to be just as many people, not less–Some of the people weren’t people, they were jesters in red, yellow, blue, pink, green, black, orange–They were keeping the real competitors away from the center and–

Noriko was still fighting the Hound Knight. She crouched low to the ground, knives in hand, her teeth bared in a snarl, her serpent-like tail extending out as she dove under a heavy swing from the monstrous knight, who held a greatsword in one hand and moved like a beast, his helmet more like a metallic head and his teeth chomping as blood leaked from his ruined eyes–

“She really is a brutal girl. Maybe we should look into recruiting her?” Pine mused, watching Noriko score a long cut along the beast’s side–Shallowly, too shallowly, his metal hide kept it from piercing too deep– “Though she is a lightlander, so her soul would go to your types instead…maybe if we make the offer as she’s dying? Plenty of mortals find interested gods on their deathbeds. Though…well, I’m sure no one will notice if we swipe one little–”

“If you swipe one little what now?”

Pine had a moment to blink before he noticed the sickle hooked around his neck before he was suddenly flung away from Michael, sailing over the battling crowd as Seona huffed in some annoyance. “What a jerk. Hey Misha–Woah, you don’t look good.”

“Nh-N-Never mind me, help Noriko,” Michael insisted as they pushed themself up, fighting through the tremors.

“Oh yeah, sure. Just to check though, the demons aren’t part of the competition, right?”

“N-No. O-Ophelia and Tanya, the leviathan and the hellhound a-are fine, the rest are cheating.”

“Sweet! That makes this way easier!” And in an instant, Seona’s makeshift scythe transformed into a full, wickedly sharp scythe topped with a skull, its silver blade gleaming with a deathly light before she swept it outward and there were several loud pops as the field cleared of jesters, all of them erupting at once as startled combatants flinched back or missed their attacks at the sudden lack of opponent.

The only monster remaining was the Hound Knight, and he straightened, twitching and shuddering before letting out a blind screech, halfway between a howl and an all too human scream, before lunging in–And a second later, his head tumbled to the ground, bouncing slightly as the rest of the corpse crashed to the ground beside Michael and began to dissolve into smoke.

“Woah, that’s a weird one,” Seona commented, leaning on her scythe as she stared at the dissolving demon, “Less like a dead soul and more like…echoes of one? Or…more? Weird, very weird…”

“Y’know, this gal would be kinda annoyed that you handled that guy so easily if she wasn’t just relieved that prick is dead,” Noriko said as she came over and helped Michael up, letting the angel lean on her, “Hey, you okay, Mishi?”

“…I-I’ll be fine. Just…don’t let anyone hit you while these things are active. It…It hurt far too much, and that was when it was affecting me.”

“Aw, hey, don’t worry, this gal’s tough too. She’ll be fine–And she won’t get hit so it won’t matter,” she interrupted their protest, giving them a pat on the back.

“…So long as you do.” They turned their gaze back to the crowd, frowning as the announcer expressed his shock at the sudden confetti, though his attention seemed to divert soon enough. Something about a rematch? 

They shook it off, focusing…then something came to mind. “Wait. There were two of them.”

“Two of whom?” Seona asked, still seeming far too casual.

“Pine has a partner, Coco. Where is he–” Michael blinked. Then stared. Then…slowly raised a hand…and touched their face, before looking at the black blood staining their finger.

“Dang. I was hoping I could strike before anyone even realized I was here.” Coco sighed, frowning a little, which was a bizarre thing to see on his stretched, six-eyed face, his white fur clear of the blood that was soaking the arm he’d driven through Seona’s chest.

The dullahan blinked, staring in genuine, abject confusion at the clawed hand sticking through her body before she choked, lurching as crimson energy sparked across her body–And then Coco ripped her head off and tossed it aside, almost casually, before lifting up her seizing body and tearing it fully in half, tossing the pieces across the arena to sudden screams all around. 

Michael stared, their grip on Noriko tightening as they heard a…they weren’t sure what noise it was, but it echoed in their head. Something bad. Something deeply bad, because that–

“Did you forget me~?” 

Their eyes went wide and they tried to twist, only to feel Noriko suddenly push them and the flash of claws in their eyes–

Then they were on the ground and Noriko was screaming out, red lines across her back as crimson energy burst up all across her body. It was loud, loud, far too loud, and the grinning hellcat turned towards them, his claws dripping with blood, his body elongated and lanky before he stepped over to Nori and raised a foot–

And Michael saw RED.

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