Pre-A/N: Prepare yourselves. 30k. Nothing More. Let's go,
Bigger A/N later at Chapter 25.
Beta: Worldbringer of Joseun
"Alright, before we begin, any questions?"
"Yes, one," Michitaka said with his hand raised. "Why are we all in the same carriage?"
"It's easier for me this way," Illya replied with a shrug. "Do you really want us all to be in separate carriages when I explain this?"
"And why didn't you explain earlier, perhaps days earlier?"
"Yeah, well, you were all too busy packing up and whatnot, so there wasn't any free time," Illya refused to admit she had forgotten to set up a meeting earlier.
Presently, they were all seated in a small and cramped carriage. Illya could have just the guild leaders here, but she didn't want to risk them explaining something wrong to their retinue. At the very least, none of them were wearing their armor. Could you imagine how cramped that would be? Instead, they wore a very formal uniform– a darkened blue that enforced the idea of unity– that players with the tailor subclass had worked on.
The only reason that she had learned about it earlier than planned was because Eisel eagerly messaged her about it, as he had wanted her measurements for it… even when the armor and clothing in this world fit every adventurer regardless of size. The most glaring example being her armor from before she drank the appearance-changing potion.
Old habits died hard, she supposed.
"Look," Illya sighed. "The sooner this hopefully short meeting is over, the sooner we can go back to our own carriages."
"I'd hope so," Shiroe sighed. "Sorry, guys. Illya did run a quick explanation for me. It is indeed important that we all sit down and listen. What will be explained will be relevant to our upcoming conference."
"And why are her guildmates not here with us?" Henrietta asked. "Would it not be prudent for them to be here as well, seeing as you yourself explained how well versed they are?"
"Considering I already went through it with them last night, I decided they were free to opt out," Illya continued to explain.
"And what are we meeting for, exactly?" Michitaka asked as the carriage around them shook.
"The Landers at the conference we will be attending," she replied. "Or more specifically, the notable names, what they do, how well respected they are, and how much influence they have. Basically, I'm going to explain all of that."
"Riveting," Michitaka moaned before he raised a brow. "And how'd you obtain all of this information?"
"A lot of merchants have loose lips," Illya answered. However, it was Ferlna that told them what to expect as she had lived alongside the nobles for the majority of her life. "Anyways, shall we get started on the big hitters, or in other words, the ones we shouldn't piss off?"
At the lack of arguments, she began.
"At the very top of the list of people we need to worry about are those of the Cowen family," she started. "I trust that none of us here need explanations as to who they are?"
"I might need a refresher," Michitaka admitted. At the raised brows sent his way, he bristled. "Look, I didn't exactly focus on the whole lore thing. I play this game for its make-believe market, not to look into the backgrounds of NP– Landers."
"Fair enough," Illya nodded. "The Cowen family is essentially the most influential house of the Eastal League of Free Cities. Every other house– or family, clan, whatever you call them– while still influential, doesn't come anywhere near as important. They're situated in the city of Maihama, which has a population of around thirty-thousand Landers. Not to mention the city itself being a central trade hub, which only elevates the economy of the place. You essentially have every other house in the League trying to eat out of their hand."
"So it's less about convincing every noble and more just him?" Krusty mused. "I suppose that it is not as simple as it seems?"
"Yep. While the head of the House Cowen– Sergiatte Cowen– has taken a backseat in all official proceedings, his word is basically the law. However, like all fantasy civilizations, family plays a huge role in influencing decisions, which is why we're also taking a look at his family members. If a single one of them feels that we aren't worth the effort to assimilate, it'll end up being very hard to set up peaceful relations. Especially since the Ancient Court of the Eternal Ice, the place we're heading to, is situated in Maihama, their territory. If we get off on the wrong foot, it'll make future endeavors much harder for us."
Krusty frowned at the information and sighed. "I see, very well. Who of House Cowen would be least likely to cooperate with us?"
"Likely the traditional nobles of the family, meaning those who like to treat adventurers as glorified gophers instead of equals," Illya answered. "Of them, you'd want to keep an eye on Saraliya Tsuleu-Arde Cowen, Sergiatte Cowen's daughter– and yes, her name is a mouthful. If you're not confident in saying it, don't. Just say Lady Cowen, because mispronouncing a noble's name basically means you don't care enough to remember it. That is not what we want."
"Sariya– I mean, Saraliya," Michitaka already failed. "That doesn't roll of the tongue… but where have I heard that before?"
"Ah, Mamanesia," Shiroe muttered to himself. Illya blinked at the name. Wasn't that the nickname the devs had for her? "If I recall correctly, she leads some sort of agency– a counterintelligence agency, correct?"
Michitaka sighed. "… Yeah, that'd be where I heard it from,"
"As you can see, not all rulers are transparent. The Cowen are no different," Illya reminded. "Shiroe is right. Saraliya leads a specialized group of information gatherers and serves as the metaphorical brain of the family. You might want to warn your Assassin about them, lest she gives herself away on accident."
And she only found out about it because Ferlna had encountered them in the past, yet the Lander didn't seem overly keen on explaining why. She emphasized that it wasn't important to know how she found them out, but some coercing from Tohsaka proved fruitful.
This counter-intelligence agency saw her as a threat to their integrity, mostly due to the fact she continually ignored any and all warnings that came her way when it came to her research, but said warnings were less about safety and more about her conduct. It was one of many factors that led her to leave their capital for a more open city like Akihabara.
"Noted," he frowned. "And she is a traditionalist, you say? What makes you say that?"
"Considering how many players enjoyed getting verbally abused by her in-game," Michitaka laughed to himself. "Yeah, I can imagine she doesn't hold adventurers in the highest regard."
"I believe she had declared us sanguineous beings that forgo consequences," Takayama Misa added. "And that was a quote from one of her dialogue options, after the Subjugation of the Bandit King questline."
"That's only if you fail to protect the village in that one side quest," Shiroe added. "Or if you don't do that side quest at all."
"I forgot about that… but that just proves my point. You can see why it is important to change her perspective, yes?" Illya convinced. "However, if it was just her, it'd be much easier. Her husband, Phenel Tsuleu-Arde Cowen, might think the same way. This could extend to all three of their children– because you know how impressionable kids are."
"And her kids are?" Krusty asked.
"Riselthea and Raynessia, the first and second daughters, and Iselus, the first son and first heir to House Cowen," Illya recited. "But we don't have to worry about the first daughter as she left the house in disgrace. Something about having eloped with a knight?"
"How romantic," Henrietta smiled.
"Yes, but as a result, good ol' Saraliya became a lot more protective of her remaining children. This ultimately makes it harder for us to convince her of our good intentions, or for her children to convince her of anything. Her wariness seals that particular avenue of manipulation."
"Is manipulation even necessary?" Takayama Misa criticized.
"With the worst option being a war with the Landers and an unpeaceful life in Theldesia, I'd do much worse."
"I suppose that we should hope that never comes to pass," Shiroe prevented a potential argument before it could even begin. "Back to the Cowen family, I know that Saraliya and Phenel will likely be our biggest hurdles, but what about Sergiatte Cowen's other children? I know nobles do not only have one heir apparent."
"That would be Langrissa," Illya sighed. "Unfortunately, she rarely partakes in societal gatherings, and as a result, any information we have on her is flimsy at best, hearsay at worse. She is the second daughter of Sergiatte though, so there is always the possibility that it'd help if she had a good opinion of us."
"So in Sergiatte's inner circle, the vast majority would rather see us back to being mere servants," Krusty frowned. "What of Sergiatte himself? Would he share his daughter's opinions?"
"No, there's not much chance of that happening," Illya said. "According to what I've gathered, he's a very well-respected and open-minded ruler. He would be much more willing to open peaceful relations… provided we do not give him reason to think otherwise."
"Susukino biting us in the back again, correct?" Michitaka growled. "Why would they even lump us in the same circle as them?"
"As far as they're concerned, we could be biding our time," Krusty smiled. "To be fair, that is not a far-fetched assumption. We are indeed ageless, so assuming we play a waiting game, biding our time until only people that accept us remain before conquering them peacefully, is not without merit."
"You people scare me sometimes," Michitaka sighed. "Right, is that everyone from the Cowen? Do we have any other heavy hitters or lords to take note of?"
"A scant few, mostly because the Cowen are who we are trying to appeal to the most," Illya answered. "There's the Saiguu House, a well-loved family by the Landers. The Kiliva House, who oversees the Magical City Tsukuba. Finally, the Barte House, which handles the Fortress City Mogami. Can you guess why these are important?"
"Tsukuba… there are specific reagents that only come from that city. Not to mention, a lot of magical research is done there," Shiroe mused. "Do you think they'd be capable of reproducing some of Akihabara's innovations? Like the Ocypete?"
"Wha–?" Michitaka cried out.
"Unlikely, because the magical research community is a bit… behind. You know what they say about peace and stagnation, they go hand in hand," Illya snorted. "Sadly that is the case. However, if you want to take a closer look at the academic side of magic, ask lord Kiliva himself. Or you can attempt to gain entry to the presentation center near the basement. It's where their scholars usually gather and discuss the latest developments."
"That sounds like a goldmine," Michitaka was appeased and allowed his business sense to take over. However, he followed it with a frown. "But I doubt they'd let us in without an invitation."
"Indeed. Being invited to the Lord's Conference doesn't mean we are also invited to the Scholar's Conference," Illya nodded but snuck in a grin. "Which is fortunate that one of my guild members was invited."
"Truly?" Shiroe asked with surprise. "How have you managed that?"
"That was more my guildmate's doing than mine, I admit," Illya had the decency to not take credit. "Nevertheless, whatever goes on in that meeting, we will know."
That is if Rin doesn't have a full-blown rant about their academia. If she did, that'd probably take an hour or so.
"Moving on, the Fortress City Mogami," Illya continued. "The reason we have to keep an eye on them is that it's the only city capable of producing max-leveled weaponry, even if their stats are horrendous."
"There's no telling if they could improve in time, and thus, equip every Lander with the capacity to harm us," Shiroe nodded. "I see. I will keep that in mind."
"Because I'm trying to figure out how to best explain my worries…" Illya sighed. "Alright look, remember how much of a pain Susukino is being right now, basically rimming the outskirts of our city and looking for a way in? What makes you think they might be the only adventurers looking for a piece of the pie?"
Both Shiroe and Krusty narrowed their eyes. As expected, they caught on quickly.
"To be frank, House Saiguu is not even from Eastal, but lord Sergiatte sent invitations to all well-known houses, of which Saiguu is," Illya explained. "The House isn't even situated in Eastal, yet it would've been discourteous to not offer an invite. From what we know, it is a house residing specifically in the Holy Empire of Westlande. You guys realize that there are adventurer cities there too, right? How do you think they're handling the adventurers from there?"
"Not a single clue," Michitaka frowned. "So we're just using the Saiguu, if they even show up, as a way to gather information about other adventurers?"
"And there might be houses from neighboring countries…" Michitaka sighed and rubbed his face. "It's like looking at a large checklist and each checkbox has a list under it. Damn it, lady luck. Why'd I have to lose rock-paper-scissors…?"
"At the very least, we have a competent ally in Shiroe," Krusty smiled. "And of course you, Illyasviel."
"Let's hope we won't have to carry you all," Illya snickered. "Right, that's everything. Any remaining questions?"
"Yes, just one," Krusty asked with narrowed eyes. "Are you truly sure that we should focus on the Cowen, and only the Cowen?"
Illya frowned. She was seeing where he was going with it.
"There is always the option of bettering relations with everyone except the Cowen, but that'd just make them our enemies. It is better to focus on the Cowen. Every other house is secondary, but that doesn't mean we have to treat them as if they don't exist. I'm saying that now preemptively, just in case one of you think that's a good idea."
That was all true, but there was also another reason. Illya didn't believe that the current Round Table was capable of mingling with every house at the same time without letting something slip, making a mistake that'll hurt them in the long run, if they tried buttering up more than just one house.
She'd rather handle that on her own.
From the look Shiroe was giving her, he knew what she was thinking. Due to the complete lack of reprimand, he must've believed it too.
"None of us are that stupid," Michitaka berated weakly. "But, when it comes to actually establishing these relations… I take it we'll have to make trade agreements or something? Start with the Cowen and branch out?"
"Perhaps not," Shiroe denied. "Maihama is already the center of trade for Landers, but if we step on their toes and lessen their revenue by creating agreements with the other houses…"
"It'd be like stealing business partners," Krusty muttered. "I see. There are ways around it, but such discussion should probably be held with the nobles in question."
"Which is why it is probably best that we end it here," Shiroe declared. "I'm sure we will all need rest for the journey to come. If we have any further questions, I'm sure that we can just ask along the way. Is that alright, Illyasviel?"
"Yes, that's fine," Illya agreed. "I already gave you guys the basics. That was all I wanted to do."
"Basics my ass," Michitaka sighed. "I feel like I listened to a whole essay."
"Just be glad that it's just an essay and not an audiobook."
"They're certainly taking their time in there."
Nothing else was said, save for the sounds of a rickety carriage. They were passing through open farmland with a rustic aesthetic. For Tohsaka Rin, such a sight was a novel experience. It is likely that she wanted to share it with the rest of her family one day.
However, to others, it was a nostalgic one.
"So, I presume there is a reason you are not resting in your carriage alone or discussing theory alongside your Lander companion," Waver Velvet mused. He tugged at his Round Table uniform as he sat at the front of their carriage. "What is it?"
Rin frowned at his side, holding the reins of a horse out of idle curiosity. "Is it truly unbelievable that I'd like to get to know a fellow guildmate?"
"If you were a regular person, perhaps not," he took a puff of his smoking pipe. "However, as we are far from regular people, I trust you understand otherwise?"
"Touche," Rin relented. "I merely wanted to know what your plan is for the upcoming conference."
"And the reason you set up a minor bounded field?" It was hard to not notice how the noise had all but faded, leaving only muffled noises as if coming through a cotton filter.
"You and I both know that there are some things we just can't risk being overheard."
"Merely seeing if being in a relatively peaceful week has dulled your edge," Waver put away his smoking pipe. "Very well. Do you wish for specifics?"
"You can be vague, as long as it doesn't interfere with either of the conferences."
"I am more or less worried about the future, think nothing of it."
"The future? What a broad worry."
"More specifically, what happens after this meeting," he specified. "Do not misunderstand. I am aware of our plans moving forward, yet what I worry about extends further than that. Much further."
"How much further?"
"Further than these island's oceanic borders. The countries that exist outside of this small land, the adventurers all around the world, and possible world-ending scenarios."
Tohsaka frowned. "Is that worth worrying over? I feel as if you are needlessly worrying."
"I know, but it served as a stimulating thought experiment," he continued. "Think of it this way. We already know that the Goblin King has arisen and threatens the land, as he does every few years in this world almost ritualistically. What is to say that a similar phenomenon does not occur on the other continents? Elder Tale was made with the Half-Gaia Project in mind, which means every feasible continent in our previous world exists in this one, albeit at a halved scale. That's seven continents facing their own potential world-ending scenarios or political upheavals such as this one."
"Do you worry that such events could reach us here?" The Tohsaka pondered. "I imagine world-ending scenarios are taken care of by the Association almost daily, so why is it worrying you here?"
True. There were always accounts of Dead Apostles running amok in hidden rural communities, which led to enforcers being sent to quell the situation. There was also the chance that some magus succeeded with his endeavors but called down Alaya's wrath upon them all. So why did it warrant his worry here?
"Because we are undying," he focused. "At the very least, I could look forward to the embrace of death and leave these potential problems to the future generations, but here? These issues will be the problems of all adventurers for eternity. Unless something happens, we will be repeating such actions again and again like machines. Saving the world might become a mere Thursday and the next apocalypse a Tuesday.
"With this immortality, it seems almost inevitable that we adventurers might see ourselves as something akin to gods, and dismiss the existence of those lower than us, those with a life span barely reaching triple digits, lest we succumb to caring about them far too much and numb ourselves to their deaths. Slowly but surely, we will cease to be completely human… That is an existence I do not wish to have."
"Back to the immortality thing…" Tohsaka sighed. "I suppose you're right, but what would worrying about it do for us now?"
"I'm not foolish enough to wallow in these worries, so you need not worry, Tohsaka," he said. "There is little I can do about it. Only true upheaval at a global scale can do anything, really. Again, it was a mere thought experiment. Think nothing of it."
"Then I shall do so," the Tohsaka heir sighed. "When did everything get so serious…?"
"Perhaps that is the nature of this world once you pull away from the fantastical setting and game-like overlays."
"… You know, if this is what you do for fun, I'd highly suggest finding a new hobby."
"My previous hobby was playing online games, but your advice is duly noted," Waver ceded. "Speaking of games, I believe we never discussed what led you, a Magus, to play Elder Tale in the first place. I trust it is an interesting tale?"
"One that involves trying to fulfill the wish of family, Lord El-Melloi II."
"… I see."
It was then that he noticed the Tohsaka magus had dispelled the bounded field, allowing the sounds of mundane life, the idle chatter of fellow players atop horseback, fill the previously muffled silence.
"Ah, Lady Tohsaka," one Lander called out from behind them. Ferlna if he recalled correctly. "I was surprised when you disappeared, but perfect timing. I have a few pointers that I wish to go over for when we arrive, mostly for the research presentation. Is that alright with you?"
"Fine with me!" she answered as she handed the reins off to him. "As… enlightening as that discussion was Lord El-Melloi II, forgive me if I don't want to be a part of another."
When she disappeared back into the carriage, Waver scoffed as he let his thoughts wander. Not towards that drivel he came up with on the spot, but to the simpler days at the Clock Tower, to his classes and the students in them. The particular fools that kept him up at night with their inane antics and complete lack of decorum.
She would have fit right in.
He looked to the reins in his hands, then to the horse gradually slowing its pace for no perceivable reason.
… How were you supposed to use this thing?
"Are you sure this is where we're supposed to go, Tohya?" Minori asked.
"Of course I am!" Tohya replied, as sure as he's ever been.
"Are you sure?"
He sighed at the skepticism in his sister's voice, but he supposed it couldn't be helped.
Of course, there were a few times he's been wrong… and one time he's been horrifyingly wrong with Hamelin. However, this time, deep in his bones, he's almost pretty sure he was right. This time, at the very least, the place they were going was officially sanctioned by their guild master, Shiroe– or as close to official as you can get.
"You didn't misread the address, right?"
"I didn't! Look, it's up ahead!"
Sure enough, the path before them – renovated with gravel and stone – had sign boards all but pointing to the collection of buildings before them. However, Tohya could understand Minori's hesitation. The building wasn't anything like what they initially expected.
In contrast to a traditional school building being two or three stories maximum, the buildings here were nothing more than worn and torn office buildings, around three in total. There was a circular courtyard at the center which the pathway led to, but it looked recently renovated. There were leftover marks from what was clearly fallen debris, which didn't speak well of the structural integrity of the buildings.
Then again, all buildings looked like that, so there was probably no problem at all and he was just worrying needlessly.
"I guess you were right, Tohya," Minori said as she tugged at his collar. "Look. There's a crowd forming at one of the buildings."
The building to the far left of the entrance – the northern building his mini-map told him – had a collection of similarly leveled players like him standing around, with some even sitting idly and chatting to others. It was also a much larger group of players than he expected, they covered nearly a third of the courtyard itself. There was also a lot of higher leveled players at the entrance of the building looking over the assembly of adventurers.
"Should we head over there?" Tohya muttered. "Is there a way to figure out what class we're in?"
"How are you so sure that there's going to be different classes?" Minori asked. "But… it would make sense. You can't teach Samurai and Kannagi the same things."
"Let's think about it later and just sit with the others," Tohya sighed.
Honestly, he didn't even want to be here. When Shiroe-nii first brought up the idea of a training camp, he thought it'd be awesome! Finally, a chance at leaving the city! There were so many things he wanted to do with that freedom, like try out fishing, and maybe even experience a dungeon!
But then they found themselves here, at the outer rim of the city, but still very much inside of it. It was the same old Akihabara, the same old scenery, and not even a dungeon to explore. It was extremely boring!
At the same time, he couldn't really blame his guildmaster. He trusted him above anyone else, and when he said that he didn't want to risk them getting captured by a guild called Brigandia, Tohya believed him. That was why he was here, sucking up any complaints he had and putting full faith in this school idea.
It was a shame that Akihabara didn't have a proper school, because that meant there were no school buildings that they could use, or maybe he misremembered? That was pretty much all that he remembered from Shiroe-nii's explanations, and frankly, he didn't see the point in trying to remember.
Idly, he checked the clock in his menu, noting that it was halfway to nine in the morning, so if they were going with how school usually started, there was at least fifteen minutes left.
"Alright, everyone! Can I have your attention!?"
Tohya perked up at the Samurai in front holding a clipboard. She also had a whistle hanging off of her neck like a necklace. However, the most important thing he took note of was the wooden shinai she seemed to hold. How was that a thing? Could you buy those now?
"Thanks! Alright, we have close to two hundred of you who signed up, which is far more than we thought would turn up, not gonna lie. So, we're kindly asking for everyone to split up based on your class. This is so we can get a clear look at how many of you there are per class. Guardians, stand by someone called Naotsugu. Samurai, stay where you are. Monks…"
"Looks like we're splitting up," Minori sadly muttered. "Will you be alright on your own?"
"Of course!" Tohya smiled and gave her a thumbs up. "Don't worry, I'm sure this is going to be a breeze!"
Whether his attempts at assuaging her worries worked or not, Tohya found himself surrounded by Samurai. The woman at front, who Tohya already attributed to being some kind of teacher, took another look at her clipboard and nodded to herself.
"Okay. Looks like there are a lot more support classes, so that's interesting… Alright, you guys take this and pass it along," she said as she took out a bunch of folded paper from her inventory.
Tohya was among the first to grab whatever these were. After passing the excess along, he took a look at it and saw it was a map of each building, which each had six floors. It dictated which floor belonged to which class of adventurers. It also said that specialized classes for these classes are held there. For example, the third floor of the building was where samurais like himself would be taught everything they needed to know about their class.
Idly, Tohya noticed that the Kannagi floor was in a separate building entirely, the eastern building. The last building, the southern one, was their assigned dorm if they paid extra, which had around fifteen or so rooms on each floor. The upper two floors being for mainly girls, the following two floors for boys, and the floor under those being the instructor dorms. That was probably where Naotsugu-nii was going to be staying–
Wait… Shiroe-nii said that he paid extra– we're staying in dorms!?
Well… it wasn't that different to camping out, except there was a lot less wilderness involved. Tohya supposed that looking at it like that was a lot more reasonable. For some reason, thinking of it as a dorm school made it seem a lot worse.
"And this is your schedules for the upcoming week," the woman added– T41G4, or Taiga as her username suggested. "There's honestly not a lot to do on the first day, so you can explore to your heart's content, but try not to leave the grounds without permission. We have Assassins patrolling the surrounding forest– wow that sounded bad, but it's just for protection! You never know if some creep, a much higher-leveled creep, just pounces and kidnaps you. Do you guys understand?"
A series of nods came from the group of Samurai, to which she sighed in relief. "Before I let you guys go, check on your assigned dorm first! This is just in case you don't like your roomie. We can get you reassigned if you want."
"Yeah, a roommate!" She smiled. Ah shoot, did he say that out loud? "It was on the form you signed, remember?"
Come to think of it, Shiroe-nii did hand him a piece of paper, but he pretty much focused on a few words and Shiroe-nii's own explanation… He should've read the fine print.
"Is that all? Okay, dismissed!" She loudly declared as she turned away. "We'll prepare lunch for you when the time comes, so be sure to be at the cafeteria by then!"
Tohya hastily looked at the guide he was given and noticed that the cafeteria was at the bottom floor of the dorm building. However, he also realized that he didn't know what his dorm number was– if there was a dorm number in the first place.
"Um– and she's gone…" Tohya muttered. He looked around to see the crowd of Samurai disperse, leaving him relatively alone. "Well, that was a thing. Time to find Minori."
Maybe she'd have a better grasp of things than he did.
It took them two hours on horseback to get to the gates of the city, but it had taken longer due to the horses needing to slow down a couple of times.
Just because their bodies automatically knew how to ride horses, didn't mean they didn't feel their bums get sore as all hell from the journey– which was just plain weird because adventurers barely flinch from a stab to the gut.
Seriously, why was their body so inconsistent?
Upon entering the city of Maihama, Illya immediately noticed the looks of caution that the initial guards met them with. They were allowed inside the city, but the surrounding Landers decided to take no chances and avoid their carriages.
It seems that news of Susukino reached this far too…
That would no doubt prove a problem for future relations, but as long as they improve their current reputation without seeming like pushovers, all should be well.
Much easier said than done.
If only Susukino had been dealt with a week or two ago. If Brigandia wasn't causing a ruckus, the Landers here at Maihama might've treated them less like wild animals and more like guests.
It took a few minutes of traversing through the city's main road, but eventually their main destination came into view… and it truly was a picturesque sight.
The Ancient Court of Eternal Ice.
The base of it is a large pearl-white medieval-styled castle surrounded by an imposing stone wall, yet that did not hinder the aquamarine roofed towers from easily gazing down from above. Those walls were also surrounded by magical bodies of ice instead of a far more traditional moat of water.
Although, it was less that the ice surrounded the castle but more that it enveloped the building in its icy embrace. That didn't mean it was easier to assail as a result.
The ice was slippery, so invading from anywhere but the entrance, of which was but a single stone bridge, made any would-be assailants literal sitting ducks against a hail of all manner of arrows and spells. The ice didn't even melt from the strongest fire-based spells in Elder Tale's repertoire, which gave rise to its 'Eternal' epithet.
This far away, Illya could not see through the open windows, but she did not need to see into it to know what it looked like.
She knew enough about how a castle looked from the inside. Some knowledge of that came from exploring the castle itself before this world became a reality, but most of it came from experiencing life in a castle, surrounded by the unending howl of frigid winds.
Wrestling her mind back from her distasteful past, Illya focused on the upcoming welcome party.
Steel armor covered by near-black cloaks, comically large hats reminiscent of what the messenger wore, and halberds ready at their side. These were likely the hand-picked royal guards, not to be confused with the defense mechanism in Akihabara. They stood tall and proud as they eyed the Round Table adventurers. They unnecessarily took note of how they dismounted, unsummoned their mounts, and made their way to the bridge.
There was being cautious, then there was being overtly wary.
A guardsman approached and requested identification, to which they handed the invitation that the messenger gave them. Rin and Ferlna handed over their own invitation for their scholarly meeting, which allowed them to quickly continue down the bridge.
"... It's actually kind of nerve-wracking, now that we're actually here," Michitaka muttered as he eyed the bridge around them. "Wait, this bridge has no guardrails? How did I miss that?"
"Perhaps you never noticed them because you rarely leave Akihabara, outside of leveling?" Krusty offered with a smile.
"How the hell is this bridge even supported?" he continued. "It's a thick slab of rock over a gaping chasm of ice– which can fit two buildings side to side! This thing should've caved in on itself!"
"If I recall, there are some invisible support pillars beneath, something that the Alvs did to make it look aesthetically pleasing," Shiroe pondered before narrowing his eyes. "And while I understand that you are nervous, please refrain from being overtly loud."
"Yeah, yeah. A good impression, I know," Michitaka muttered back, but he took a look at the ice below once more and frowned. "Do you think they've tried mining the ice before? Having a never-melting source of ice would be incredibly valuable."
"There have been attempts in the past, but none have been too fruitful," Ferlna, who was trailing a little behind the group with Rin, answered. "A common mining tool simply does not have enough power to penetrate it, nor has anything we have tried afterwards. Mundane or magical."
"There goes that idea," Michitaka sighed at the loss of a new venture. "Maybe we need a level hundred miner to do it. Subclass and all that."
"I suppose we can add that to one of our deals, should it prove a viable venture," Shiroe smiled. "However, that will come after the negotiations succeed."
"Certainly hopeful, aren't you?" Illya snorted.
"I find that having some hope is better than none."
"Can't argue with that," Rin muttered from behind her.
"I suggest we stay silent for now. We are nearing the castle itself," Krusty reminded. "Also, there are nobles watching us from the windows."
Michitaka frowned. "What are we, circus animals?"
Illya sighed as she combed her hair. She caught Rin's raised brow but ultimately shrugged. "Until we prove otherwise, we might as well be."
A room lit by magical crystals fashioned into a chandelier, bookshelves filled to the brim with both accords and reports, and a stylized wooden table with close to ten seats surrounding it.
Despite the excessive number of chairs, there were only four people seated within the room.
"It appears that the adventurers have arrived," a male with a distinctly curt voice announced. He had pale blonde hair, a stout nose, and nobility exuding every facet of his posture and demeanor. "They… carry themselves differently. Much less like dolls with how they idly chatter amongst themselves."
"It is as the reports have said. Nevertheless, they are still adventurers," a similarly curt yet feminine voice replied, reminiscent of a melody. She appeared as a beauty with silver hair styled in an orderly fashion leading to a drape down the side of her nape. A calm and serene smile, adorned like a jewel, rested on her face. "Father, how shall we proceed from here?"
"You're speaking as if we're changing the plan at all," A far lazier woman snorted in a carelessly crude tone. While this woman shared the same features as the other woman, she had a far less orderly demeanor as her hair had been carelessly draped over her eyes, yet her lower facial features remained visible, of which a frown was easily seen.
As if a switch had been flicked, the serene woman became much less serene and much more irritable.
"Langrissa… need I remind you to mind your tone?"
"Oh, is the Pearl of Eastal getting riled up? There are barely any people here, Saraliya, but I suppose that doesn't matter to you," she snorted once more. "Phenel seems to have failed to remove that stick up your–"
"–It appears that your lack of etiquette is reflected in your lack of a spouse–"
Just as the two daughters looked to bicker once more, the High Lord of Eastal, the Duke of Maihama, acted.
The resounding echo of his clapped hands silenced further arguments.
"Saraliya, your sister is correct. The adventurers have appeared and seem willing to partake in conversation. I see no reason to treat them any different to a foreign dignitary."
"These foreign dignitaries are residing within our borders," she sighed. "The integrity of Eastal is at stake, father. If we allow mere adventurers to declare themselves a nation of their own, what is to say that more daring commoners will partake of the same?"
"Adventurers have always resided within our land before," Langrissa said. "What makes this any different?"
"There is a difference between skilled immortals that never ask questions and immortals that have far too many," Phenel chose that time to cut in, likely in defense of his wife. "Father, once again I must protest. This is a risky venture. What if it be true that these adventurers run rampant within our home? Even if we slay them, they will merely stand once more and return, stronger than they were before."
"Which is why we are meeting with them," Sergiatte Cowen declared. "Rather than appear as an antagonistic force, appearing as a beneficial aid will be much more beneficial for the League and Eastal as a whole."
"The same was once said of the Alvs," his skeptical daughter replied. "Must we repeat the mistakes of the past, father?"
"The mistake of our ancestors was through neglect and misunderstandings. Our ancestors saw the Alvs and envied their power and riches. Out of jealousy, they eradicated their civilization, slaved their young, and ended their culture," the High Lord of Maihama declared with a furrowed brow. "We shall not err as they once did."
"Their err was in playing with idle hands," Saraliya continued. "We have time. It is not my intention to antagonize these adventurers, yet they have proven themselves violent, as seen with the Ezzo Empire's Susukino. If we fail, they will challenge our autonomy, and do upon us what we have done to the Alvs. I am merely stating that even a mighty dragon has a reverse scale. We've subdued the Alvs once, we can do so once again with the adventurers."
"And what catastrophe will arise from that?" Langrissa snorted. "Once the Alvs were cornered, they cursed us with those demi-humans monsters. What manner of monster will assail us then?"
A clap reverberated within the room. Both of the quarreling women frowned as they looked towards the interloper, both mild irritation and caution very much present on their faces.
"Let us hope we never find out," Sergiatte finalized as he lowered his hands. He eyed his family members, almost urging them to speak up once more. When they didn't, the Cowen family head rose from his seat. "Phenel, ensure that the chosen attendants do not disrespect the adventurers– our guests. In regards to the adventurers, we will offer them a noble title if need be. However, that is open for debate– not with the rest of the nobles, but with the adventurers. Thus is my decree. Am I clear?"
"… Very well, father," Saraliya nodded. Her sister did the same.
"I will retire to my quarters until later tonight. I suggest the rest of thee do the same."
Once Sergiatte Cowen, High Lord of the Eastal League of Free Cities, left the room, Langrissa sighed and made her own way out. However, this only drew further ire from her sister.
"Must you be so blase, Langrissa?"
"Must you be so arrogant, Saraliya?"
The door once again closed, but this time it was slammed shut.
"You two are truly sisters," Phenel chuckled to himself. "And we haven't even learned why your sister decided to involve herself in this issue."
"She will reveal to us her reasons in time," Saraliya, known to most as the Pearl of Eastal, maintained a calm noble demeanor as she rose from her seat. "Phenel dear, do as you were tasked. I shall retire as father advised."
"And nothing more, correct?"
Her eyes narrowed but a sly smile made its way on her lips. "Perhaps."
A tired sigh left him. "Do try to keep it subtle."
"As if it were ever in any doubt."
Tohya wandered the building aimlessly. Originally, he wanted to find his sister and explore the 'campus' together, but when he couldn't find her right away, he decided to explore.
He had first explored where his 'classes' would take place, but the floor it was to be held in wasn't that different to the other floors that taught the other two Warrior classes. Training dummies, a large blackboard, and benches for people to sit down. The only variations he had noticed were the different katanas on display, but they were just level 1 weapons, so he had no idea why they were even here.
Then again, these looked nothing like regular classrooms, so they probably served some function.
After that, the young Samurai decided to look at the training grounds outside, but they were pretty much filled and occupied by other players. They were mostly talking to each other, but Tohya eyed a few higher-leveled players helping them too, either by answering questions or giving general advice.
Lastly, Tohya found the toilets.
That was helpful.
With not much else to explore, Tohya decided to head towards the cafeteria with a smile on his face.
"I wonder what they have…?" he muttered with his hands clasped behind his head in relaxation. "I mean, I heard cafeteria food in general was pretty bad, but maybe it'd be different here? I didn't really bring a lunchbox either… ah, do I have to pay? Or is it free?"
He really wished he had asked that question, because before he came here, he had deposited most of his gold to the guild's storehouse. Sure, it was pretty much filled to the brim with much more than he could afford, but he wanted to contribute to it in some way.
That decision seemed to be biting him in the bum right about now…
"Step aside, for you are in the presence of a magical genius! Yes, it is I, Rundelhaus Kode!"
Just as Tohya stepped into the cafeteria, he blinked at the voice to his right.
Standing there was a Sorcerer twirling his staff around like a street performer. However, unlike those street performers, he flamboyantly posed with a hand to his face as he pointed his staff towards what looked to be an instructor.
Said instructor, a member of the Black Sword Knights, seemed to sigh and rub his eyes in exasperation.
"There's always those types, aren't there…?" he muttered. "Look, I was just asking if you're sure that you're enrolled? I didn't notice your name on the list of students."
"Ha! As if an aspiring adventurer such as myself would forget such a thing! I merely sought to introduce my illustrious self!"
"So you paid, right?"
"My abilities are unparalleled! As is my value as an adventurer!"
"… Kid, we won't laugh if you really didn't. We can sign you up if you want."
Just as the weird Sorcerer shifted his pose to say something else, a familiar voice called out from behind them.
"Ah! It's you!" the appearance of the Samurai instructor, Taiga, garnered the weird Sorcerer's attention. "Oi, kid! What're you doing here?"
"Ah, miss adventurer!" Oh look, the guy recognized her. "Splendid timing! This fellow said something about a–"
"Eh, whatever. Come with me! I can't leave you unsupervised!"
"Pardon–? Why are you dragging me away!?"
"Uh… so is he participating here or not?"
"He is! I'll handle the extra paperwork so don't worry about it!"
"This is inhumane! I demand to be–"
The sounds of the Sorcerer's complaints faded as the Samurai instructor dragged him along, eventually turning a corner and disappearing from everyone's view.
"Yeah… I'm not getting involved with that guy."
It'd be nice if Minori didn't get involved with any weirdos like that guy. Then again, she was much smarter than he was, so she probably already knew that. He was much more suited to smacking things with a sword. Good ol' Minori, he could always rely on her.
Even when he couldn't walk, when he needed his sister to help him around, and when he acted like a complete jerk, she always helped him. He always wanted to pay her back, which is why when they found themselves in the game, he took her by the hand and led her to what he believed to be safety.
Next time, should there ever be a next time, he ought to properly look at who he decides to trust. Otherwise, it wasn't just him who'd suffer.
"Excuse me, can you move? I could walk around you, but the other door is locked."
Tohya blinked as he turned around, meeting the amber eyes of some ginger dude. He was carrying a box of fruits and vegetables, but it was easily as large as Tohya was. Could he get as strong as that if he gained more levels?
"Oh, whoops," Tohya muttered in realization as he walked further into the building. "Sorry, I was thinking about something."
Hmm… Did I meet this guy somewhere before?
"It happens," the guy said as he walked inside. "Are you a student? The food will be ready in a few minutes."
"Nah, I'm good. I'm waiting for my sister."
"Sister?" he muttered with what looked like a sad smile. "At least you're together. Take care of yourself!"
"Yeah… will do," he muttered. Damn, he really did look familiar. Did he meet him somewhere before?
"Did we meet…? Ah, yes we did. A month or so ago, but we didn't really introduce ourselves to each other," the man replied in slight realization. Damn, he spoke out loud again. The man continued to walk towards what was probably the designated kitchen as he replied. "Also, your sister seems to have already taken a seat over there. I suggest you go to her."
Tohya blinked as he followed the man's gaze, which led to a wooden table surrounded by four wooden chairs. Seated in two of those chairs was Minori and what looked to be… a familiar face from their time at Hamelin.
"Isuzu?" he muttered before he turned back to the man. "Ah, thanks for the help, Nii-san!"
"It's Shirou. Oh, and enjoy your lunch!"
Shirou? Tohya blinked as he walked away.
Shiroe… Shirou… Hmm, that's going to be a bit confusing. Ah well, he'd probably get used to it.
"How's the curry going along, nyaa~?"
Sakura blinked as she stirred a rather large pot. The aroma coming from it was inviting, rich with the smell of various spices and herbs. She turned away from it to face a figure standing a few steps away from her.
Said figure also had the head of a cat.
"Ah, it's coming along well, Nyanta-san," she replied. "I think I've leveled my subclass enough for this much, but any more herbs or ingredients and it'll blacken."
"Hmm… I suppose that this is fine. The kids will certainly enjoy it, nyaa~," he smiled. "I've finished with the rice and drinks. Is the bread finished baking?"
"It's been a few minutes, so probably not," Sakura frowned. "If only the last batch didn't blacken…"
"It couldn't be helped," her beloved said as he entered the kitchen with the Newlywed's Apron. Only Shirou would wear such a thing with a bright smile on his face. "We didn't know the minimum level to make bread was sixty."
"And that the Newlywed's Apron only gives up to fifty levels," Nyanta sighed. "An oversight on my part, as I am responsible for this kitchen. For that, I am sorry nyaa~"
"It's fine," Shirou said as a familiar bundle of white leaped up to greet him. "Hello, Raijuu. You haven't been misbehaving?"
Her pup simply barked before licking his face. He also leaped back down and entered what Sakura called his personal dog house. She couldn't exactly let him sleep in her bosom while she was cooking, now could she?
Although, Sakura did sigh as she eyed her pet. Once again it became much more lethargic and less hyperactive. Maybe something about being around strangers made it this way? It was certainly more at home with the dungeon monsters- and by at home, she meant at ease with tearing them apart with its jaws.
At the very least, Raijuu helped serve as a kitchen guard, in case someone sneaked in to steal something.
Shirou opened the oven and was met with a blast of heat to his face. "The sourdough needs a few more minutes, but the cookies might be done."
"Excellent!" Nyanta smiled. "Now, we should get the plates prepared. Where are they?"
"Naotsugu-san said he wanted to help, so I had him hand the plates out," Shirou said as he took the cookies out of the oven. "Do you think the kids will be fine with using steel plates? I can probably head out and buy some wooden ones."
"No, that's fine. We're already saving costs by having you make the plates and cutlery instead of commissioning them from elsewhere," Nyanta mused. "At the very least, we don't have to worry about cleaning them. Simply storing the plates in our inventory and taking them out cleans them quite easily, nyaa~"
"The small miracles," Sakura smiled. "It is a shame that there aren't any other chefs. We could use some more help. Two-hundred students are no joke."
"It can't be helped. Most of the chefs each guild could spare are… needed elsewhere."
Such as the front lines, where combat guild players set up camp in case infiltrators from Susukino would arrive from outside. Good food was essential in keeping their morale up, and having good chefs provide strong buffs for them while they're there was more of a bonus.
Of course, there were a bunch of lower-leveled chefs in each guild, but if the subclass wasn't higher than level thirty, then it was hard for them to even help, especially considering the number of mouths they were feeding.
Outside help was also not an option. This area, bought and controlled by D.D.D, allowed player versus player combat in order to aid players in their learning. Only members of the Round Table and affiliated guilds were trusted enough to be close to the kids.
It was entirely too feasible for someone to be hired as a chef or janitor and lay low. Therefore, it was Krusty's decision to employ these restrictions, not Illya's or Shiroe's. However, they agreed to it, so that was the end of that argument.
"At the very least, we'll get a few more chefs from the Marine Organization tomorrow," Nyanta sighed. "A few of their chefs finally reached level sixty, so they'll be able to help with most of the main dishes. I'll be able to leave the deserts to you two, once that happens. Oh, and I suppose it will free up your schedules to attend a few classes nyaa~"
Yes, classes. Just when they thought they had already graduated, they were thrown back into campus. While they supported their former caretaker's decision to be proactive, they weren't exactly thrilled despite the fact they were all model students in some shape or form.
However, Sakura also understood why Illya wanted them to attend a few classes as she eyed her skill tree. The branches kept extending and now she had a surplus of abilities, or skills as Illya called them, but she barely knew what they did.
She had mostly kept to using the first few healing skills she had, which left the other six or so skills relatively untouched. She also had skill points that could be used to strengthen those skills, but Sakura didn't know if she could get those back so she hadn't dared touch it.
And that didn't even include Racial skills.
She imagined that Shirou was also experiencing a similar issue, as the damage output of his skills was starting to catch up to a casual rain of traced swords. Of course, Noble Phantasms still did more, but he imagined that would change once he reached the level cap, whenever that will be. The two of them might have to start incorporating those skills into their combat style, even if Sakura personally disliked combat.
That, and learn what a real dungeon diving experience was like, as Illya had called their past attempts a sham. Apparently, the dungeons they went in were either too weak for regular battle and so they didn't learn much, or outside their skill level as their latest dive had showed.
They'd have to try once again when everyone returned, maybe with the full guild including Taiga and sir Velvet, just to be safe.
Oh dear… she definitely changed somehow if these were what she was thinking about lately.
"You aren't going to supervise us?" Shirou honestly asked, focusing more on the earlier part of Nyanta's reply rather than the latter as she had. He had also started plating the curry for the slow trickle of students arriving.
"I find that you two are much more capable than I gave you credit for, nyaa~" Nyanta explained. However, he rubbed his chin in thought. "However, I may require some aid in teaching the new recruits. Just because they reached a high level as a chef, doesn't mean they know how to cook."
"I suppose that's true," Sakura nodded. Just because you were level 100 doesn't mean you knew how to make a pizza. They could also be slow at knife-work, or maybe lack the attention to detail to know if something was getting overcooked or not. So many minute details in a kitchen can be overlooked from carelessness.
Especially recent level sixty chefs. They likely had the subclass before they arrived in Theldesia, as a way to get easy stat buff consumables, and hadn't expected to use it to become actual chefs.
That, and cooking in a kitchen is different from cooking at home. Her beloved Shirou had experience in that when he worked in Copenhagen, and she had as well through some part-time jobs. There was a lot less time to spare, and they couldn't just stand and think of what to do next.
Then again, this was a school kitchen and not a restaurant.
"I might need more help!" Shirou shouted. "The line is getting larger!"
"Oh, and that is our queue," Nyanta chuckled to himself. "Shall we?"
"Coming!" Sakura called as she helped plate the curry.
At the very least, the next few days weren't going to be boring. Stressful perhaps, but not as stressful as attending an event with nobles from throughout the country.
Sakura loved her sister, but she did not want to be anywhere near that environment.
A simple day, with simple worries. That's where she wanted to be.
A/N: No time to talk. More posting must be done.