The sound of a wagon's wheels creaking along an uneven dirt road created a constant droning noise to an otherwise scenic trip through Northern Roble's countryside headed towards the south. Seated within the wagon was a young teenage girl hunkered down by the corner, and idly leaning her chin over a hand, grumbling under her breath.
Her name was Neia Baraja.
She had short blonde hair and beady black eyes slanted upwards, giving the impression that she was constantly glaring at others. What was worse was that the dark circles around her eyes made the people around her think that she was the kind of person who hung around criminals and the despot in seedy back alleys. She was carrying a sword at her waist, emblazoned with the crest of the Holy Kingdom's knight order. Additionally, a dark tinted cape was adorned over the upper parts of her hunter's garments, worn like a shroud.
"You know…if you smiled more, and stayed up less from Paladin training, you wouldn't have those dark circles under your eyes that make you look like you're glaring all the time."
Neia perked up. At the same time, she managed a concisely annoyed grunt that teenage girls were renowned for in the view of their parents.
Pabel Baraja, Neia's father, felt adequately stumped, an index finger scratching over his head. This wasn't the fragile, earnest, and innocent daughter he remembered. Where was the six-year old daughter who carved a wooden doll for him to remember her by in his travels? Where did she go?!
In fact, Pabel could never remember a time when Neia wasn't raptly paying attention to him whenever he visited. Due to kingdom tours, and as a member of the Nine Colors of Roble, Pabel was often away from home, leaving his daughter's upbringing to his loving wife. This could be the primary reason why Neia aspired to be a Paladin like her mother rather than a Ranger like her father.
Speaking of said mother, Pabel gave a pleading look to the steel-armored woman seated across from Neia. Her features weren't overly beautiful, but they weren't ugly either: Platinum blond hair, a straight face, and a stalwart demeanor in Roble Knight robes. More importantly, the contrast between a tender wife, and an aloof and collected one blended into a perpetual indifferent expression.
Like mother, like daughter.
Pabel knew his wife was actually quite caring. It was just that her natural expression always made her appear studious to a fault. He had a sneaking suspicion that it was why her superiors in the Paladin Order favored her. Her 'conduct' was exemplary. On the other hand, Neia's expressions still needed to develop beyond a natural glare. Maybe when she was older, she'd become a spitting image of her mother? The Gods know that his wife seemed convinced of it from her own personal experience which she refused to share.
In any case, Pabel's pleading look towards his wife fell on deaf eyes. She wouldn't help him get through to their daughter, especially when Pabel hadn't exactly justified his actions to his wife either.
Flustered, Pabel felt like he'd rather be hunting for wild game for tonight's supper, but he knew that he couldn't. His family was still waiting for an apt explanation for why he'd suddenly just insist on them departing Northern Roble to venture South for a place called Camelot. In fact, they'd been there already with the north's delegates, but it was only now that they were able to pack their belongings and make the move official. Besides, he wasn't the only one who was doing it. That bloke Gemas was as well; it was just that Gemas's wife was farther away.
regardless, Pabel knew that Neia was upset that he'd just pulled her away from her training as a Paladin especially when she was on the crucial stage of seeking an apprenticeship for the job class.
Needless to say, but his wife wasn't exactly the most pleased with Pabel either. One for hindering their daughter's career path, and two for forcing her to choose between her duties as a Paladin and her personal sentiments for family. In the end, love won out, and that's why she was here. However, this didn't mean that she, like her daughter, wasn't owed an explanation.
As far as Pabel's wife was concerned, he dug the hole, so it was only fair that he should fill it back to level ground on his own.
"Alright, fine you both win, alright?" Pabel sighed while handling the reins of the horse pulling the wagon. While the other two sat inside, he was the one driving on the seat up front separated from his family by a pile of packed luggage.
"As long as you know," Pabel's wife snorted while crossing her arms. "Now spill, and it better be a good reason."
Curiously, Neia looked over at Pabel, no longer able to keep moping to herself for much longer when she still respected her dad as a member of the Nine Colors. Moreover, as she didn't get to see him much, there was no way she wasn't excited about his presence, even if it did take her away from her personal pursuits.
Rationality was what won out. Her dad wasn't impulsive. Both Neia and her mom knew that. Which was why if one ignored their grumbling, one could see the bond the family shared in that they packed up and listened to Pabel's judgment.
Now was simply the time for explanation. A justification to make swallowing down what they were leaving behind easier. Pabel understood this, and would no longer delay it.
"Ask away," Pabel sighed; inwardly wondering if they'd take him for his word with how far-fetched it was going to sound.
Pabel need not give any other prompting. There was no doubt that his family was curious over his sudden actions as of late.
"Were you hit with some sort of confusion magic?" Pabel's wife was the first to speak up, concern evident in her gaze. "I've heard rumors of something big happening in the south from the Paladin Order's main northern branch."
"If only it was that simple," Pabel slumped his shoulders and glanced back at his wife. "I'm not under some sort of spell, and those rumors you've heard are truer than you'd believe. Something big did happen, and I stumbled on it on a scouting mission to discover the source of the rumors."
"And?" Neia uncrossed her arms and placed them over her lap, clearly more interested than she was letting on.
"I found darkness, light, and a hero."
A snort echoed as Pabel knit his brows in exasperation. His wife was laughing at him, and even his daughter looked a bit let down at his words.
"I was being serious," he coughed and spoke gravely, causing his wife to at least reconsider her initial thoughts that Pabel had been joking.
"Explain," Pabel's wife leaned forward, resting her elbows over her thighs.
"Easier said than done," Pabel complained, wetting his lips as he fell into recollection. "There were monsters, skeletal, and profane with black shadows surrounding them. It's hard to describe, but the magic around them was no Tier Magic I've ever seen. It was an ominous kind, and their numbers were overwhelming as they lay siege to a single bastion of defense where civilians and ordinary soldiers alike were taking refuge- A castle surrounded by towering white walls and guarded by the noblest knights I've ever seen."
"You might as well say this was in North Roble. We have the same white walls. It's even called the Great Wall," Neia interjected, lips tugging into a frown. It didn't help that it felt as if Pabel was narrating some swindler's exaggerated hoax.
Pabel sucked in a breath, craning his head back to stare at his wife almost anxiously. "W-What happened to my daughter?" He accused his wife; just short of pointing fingers. "When did she learn to doubt me?! I've never lied to her!"
"She grew up," Pabel's wife nodded, unimpressed with Pabel for thinking their daughter so naive. "She can't just trust everything she hears. Moreover, you don't think you just mistook that invading force for a new species of Demi-Humans from the Abelion hills? It is that time of year when they act up."
"Do you really think I'd make that kind of mistake?" Pabel rebutted, calming down and shaking his head at being doubted by his own family.
"...No. Forget I said it." Pabel's wife immediately conceded. Don't get her external features wrong, inside she was soft. It was one of her charms; the contrast in perceived and actual character. "Still, I know you, Pabel. Whether they're Demi-humans or not, you must have some sort of assumption about this already to be moving this decisively?"
Neia stared between her father and mother, before her attention focused on her father who relented.
"I don't know," Pabel answered honestly, a shudder traveling down his back. "All that I do know is that my senses as both a father and a ranger are telling me where it's safe."
"Where it's safe, huh?" Pabel's wife could say nothing against that, but Neia was more specific. She crawled over the luggage and sat by her father's side at the front of the wagon, causing Pabel's emotions to swell with reminiscence. All that was left was if his daughter would sit over his lap, but she obviously wasn't going to do that.
"And is Camelot safe?" Neia asked.
Pabel nodded without a moment's hesitation to his daughter. "Aye. Safest place you'll likely find in all the land."
"Why?" It was such a teenager question. Also likely the most repetitive one.
"Do you believe in the legends of our kingdom?" Pabel patiently asked rather than being direct. "You know, the legend of our Valkyrie Knight who shielded the kingdom from the reaches of the Evil Deities, the Demon Gods, with her sacred blade?"
Neia grunted, rolling her eyes. She wasn't some kid that needed to be led on anymore. "What does that matter?" She complained.
"Humor me," Pabel said more to his wife who was listening in than Neia.
Pabel's wife kept silent, choosing to see where this was going. Meanwhile, Neia's features scrunched up in resignation.
"Well, the other apprentices in the Paladin Order believe the legend just as much as they do the Four great Gods in the temple," Neia answered tentatively, her focus trained on her father's features. "Recently, I've also heard word that the legend of the Valkyrie is more worshiped now in the south than in the north."
It was a tactful answer, but not the one Pabel wanted.
"I was asking about you?" Pabel specified.
"Well…maybe?" Neia couldn't bring herself to forego rationality for blind faith. Stories were just stories. What mattered was upholding justice and values as spoken of in the way of the Paladins.
Pabel chuckled at his daughter before dropping a bomb shell on his family. "I saw her."
Pabel's wife sighed, closing her eyes and adopting a lecturing pose. "Pabel, didn't I always warned you to not get carried away with-"
"She is the ruler of Camelot."
"Her? Sure she's beautiful, but one's look don't define one as the Holy Valkyrie."
"You just haven't seen her draw her sword," Pabel replied.
Pabel's wife gently closed her mouth, skeptical yet able to hear no deceit in her husband's tone. Still, if Camelot was truly ruled by Roble's Valkyrie, it was no wonder Pabel would insist on moving there for their family's protection.
Focused on his wife, Pabel spoke to her in earnest as he noticed her finally lowering her guard.
"The world is changing, and with the appearance of evil beings and the legacy of the Demon Kings, it's only natural that heroes to combat them would emerge. Trust me on this. Camelot will be safe, and you never know…"
"Never know what?"
"There's rumors that under the Holy Valkyrie is an order known as the Knights of the Round. I'm no knight or warrior, but that's not the same for you. Maybe you can earn yourselves a position with Neia if she works hard and is talented enough?" Pabel shrugged.
"You're not lying are you, dad?" Neia still had her doubts. "Camelot is really ruled by the Holy Valkyrie?"
Pabel simply nodded, knowing that nothing he could say could fully convince his family until they saw it themselves- the Valkyrie's regality, charisma, and gentle aura.
Surely they'd come around to this abrupt decision to relocate.
Amidst the wound of the rolling wagon wheels, the Baraja family had a lot to dwell over.
To new beginnings, then.
-The Adventurer city, E-Rantel
Several weeks had passed before a shadow dressed in dark purple form-fitting attire skirted across the city out of sight. Her form was a blur, seamlessly blending in with the darkness overcast from the light of the sun.
Despite the bustle of the city's vendors, citizens, and patrolling guards, none could even notice the shadow's movements. All that was left was the odd scent of gooseberries and strange etchings marked over pieces of stone or wood. These were tracking runes, but it wasn't as if this form of magic was widely known if at all.
What everyone else would see was just some imaginative child's vandalism.
The Shadow continued on, completely unfettered by those that passed her by as she stood vigil atop the highest point of the tallest building of E-Rantel, the town's Adventurer Hall.
Crows cawed around her, many leaving feathers behind that were swept up by the Shadow and tossed out in a form of ancient scrying witchcraft from the far off isles.
Concentrating, the rambunctious voices from E-Rantel's Adventure Guild Hall discreetly filtered into the Shadow's ears.
"Gorton you bastard, you owe me money!"
"No, you owe me drinks you bastard! I saved your ass!"
"Cheers to the next mission!"
No. No. Not that either.
The Shadow was filtering through the cacophony of voices echoing within the tavern-like reception hall. What she needed was information, and knowing her wayward disciple's habits, she was sure that he must have come to this place of warriors. Sadly, she saw no real warriors here. Just boastful men and women who've never known the hardships of the land of shadows.
Suddenly, the Shadow's ears preened up, features growing focused.
"Cocky upstarts. They won't have that confidence for long after they deal with their first monster."
"They're just blue? Get it? You know like that other guy who walked in thinking that he was worth more than some F-Rank? Bastard didn't seem to know that there's a system in place. He can't just jump ranks."
"Oh him. Coward was all talk. Left as soon as he didn't get what he want-"
The Shadow cut off her connection to her spell. She got what she needed to hear.
Her disciple had indeed reached E-Rantel safely. What mattered now was retracing his steps and enacting retribution.
The Shadow took off, no one the wiser.
She knew her disciple's personality, so using this as a basis, she began looking around the city for anywhere he would have frequented. Bars, underground fighting rings, competitions, the Shadow found no traces despite visiting them all.
What happened next was sheer coincidence as she decided to shift her search to the more destitute areas of E-Rantel.
The crows notified her of two children practicing spearmanship in an open field by the outskirts of the slums. They were dressed rather poorly, and weren't the most well conditioned, but there was something there. Obviously, this wouldn't have interested the Shadow, but it all changed once the Shadow's admiration for the potential of warriors had the Shadow sneak a peek.
The Shadow froze, eyes narrowing when she took in the forms and actions of the two children wielding spears.
Those two- that spearmanship…
[The Rune Witch's Spearmanship]
The Shadow deftly maneuvered around the buildings and languidly followed the two once their training session had concluded.
Where the Shadow inevitably ended up was an orphanage where she heard something that amused her immensely from the mouths of the children.
That settles that. Her disciple had definitely been here.
Contemplating to herself, the Shadow considered whether it was the right time to interrogate the two children who were likely her grand-disciples if they were taught by her student. However, she'd never expected that someone had a good eye for potential in E-Rantel.
"Like I was saying before, are you both ready to travel to the capital of Re-Estize?"
The Shadow sized up the man trying to enlist the two children. It was a respectable bear of a man who was named Gazef. Of course, the Shadow had no idea of this, but Gazef was actually a man directly under the command of Re-Estize's King.
Gazef had seen the potential that the two kids, the Shadow's grand-disciples, Chris and Charlotte had, and didn't want them to waste their talent away.
"You said you'd provide for the orphanage?"
"Papa Cu will be proud?"
The Shadow snorted from up high at those empty promises. Then again, she wasn't the type to intervene in her disciple's matters either. She had a feeling that if she swooped in now to interrogate her two grand-disciples for her own student's whereabouts, she'd be saddled with two new brats who would try to follow after her like ducklings.
In the end, the teacher would always be more capable than the students. She couldn't possibly lower herself that low.
Still, she had to give some sort of gift, or maybe some protection for her line's newest proteges. She just hoped that her student had a good eye for disciples.
Marking the two children with a discreet Rune, the Shadow nodded to herself.
It would seem that the legacy of her teachings and her disciple's efforts would live on.
Pulling up her mask to her nose, the Witch of DunScaith quietly returned to her pursuit.
In the capital city of the Baharuth Empire, and within the audience chamber of the 'Bloody Emperor,' the Emperor was welcoming a delegation of emissaries from the Roble Holy Kingdom.
No matter how Jircniv regarded the delegates sent from Roble, he couldn't decide whether they were from the north or south by their demeanor. Instead, he made a mental game regarding how long winded their introductions would be, but was pleasantly surprised when they went right to the point.
Good. This saved on time, and there was still much to do.
Rubbing at his temples, Jircniv languidly slumped his shoulders while considering whether it had been a good idea to send Nero out just to subdue bandits. Admittedly, he missed her presence. She was exuberant yet so full of herself that it reminded Jircniv of his own habits.
'Imperial Privilege,' Nero had called it.
Truly, she was amusing, if not because Jircniv found himself agreeing with her.
The demeanor of an Emperor couldn't be faked.
Now, it was enough time spent on idle thoughts. Relations between kingdoms were just as important as policy making.
A solemn air surrounded the dignitaries, causing Jircniv to hum in thought.
"A great evil?"
The words echoed not from the side of the dignitaries, but from Jircniv's own advisors. To sum up what had already been said, these delegates from Roble, primarily composed of priests, were preaching about a coming evil and the notion of forming alliances between kingdoms to combat said evil.
To be honest, it was hard to believe, and yet these dignitaries made a distinction between themselves and the rest of Roble. They seemed to have come from a place in the Holy Kingdom called Camelot?
Jircniv had never heard of it before, nor the faith of these priests who believed more in the legend of Roble's national hero than that of the Four Great Gods that Roble was known for.
In any case, it didn't change that the news that the delegates were sharing sounded interesting. In the end, it was better to be prepared than be doubtful and find oneself on the backfoot of a disaster.
Jircniv steepled his fingers together as he leaned forward on his throne, glancing to the few advisors of the prior Emperor that remained for their opinions.
An old senator was most vocal. He was a conservative who was too traditional to have participated in bribery or treachery which was why Jircniv hadn't exencuted him with the other former senators of the Empire.
"Bah, what do those religious fanatics take us for? fools?" The old senator was blunt, white and red toga swaying as he took a step forward to address the reception. "The age of the Evil Deities has long since come to an end. This is nothing more than a fabrication without factual basis."
"We seek only to inform and prepare, lest tragedy strikes," the lead delegate did well to maintain his composure and answer thusly. "By the Holy Valkyrie's suggestion, we seek only to form alliances against the encroaching dark!"
The old senator was far from convinced, and he was basically acting as the spokesperson on the Baharuth Empire's side. If Jircniv thought that the old senator was acting out of line, he would have spoken up by now, but he didn't. Instead, he remained silently watching.
"For all your bluster, pray tell why not a trace of uneasiness can be seen on your faces?" The old senator continued to question.
"Roble's Holy Valkyrie protects us."
"That children's tale you people consider a national hero?"
Here, a vein popped over the faces of a few delegates.
"Mind your words, senator!" The shout echoed through the audience hall, the man's face growing red from indignation. "One swing of our Valkyrie's sword and your vaunted walls would crumble!"
"You should mind yours," Jircniv spoke up for the first time, eyes narrowing. The aura of a ruler emanated from his form, his back straight, features regal. "Careful that I don't take those words as provocation. By all means, quibble with each other, but do not tarnish the integrity of my Empire."
The delegates had no choice but to acquiesce to the warning laced in the tone.
"My most gracious apologies."
"Hmph. If that would be all, you may be dismissed as I take counsel with my advisors for this matter."
Jircniv decided to close the meeting here before resuming later. Nothing productive would come from a negotiation with both sides too heated to discuss proper terms.
The dismissal was more of an implicit 'cool your heads,' order, but it still left both sides feeling rather put out.
Watching the delegates leave, Jircniv went back to address his own people, waiting for them to express their opinions, but found his mind wandering before too long.
Most of his people didn't believe the words of the delegates.
Jircniv frowned. What he needed wasn't a simple opinion, but logical deduction skills to back it up.
Maybe Nero would have had a better say on the matter, but she wasn't here right now.
"A great evil is coming, huh…?" Jircniv trailed off, a hand cradling his chin.
To agree to an alliance with this 'Camelot' in Roble, or not to agree, and sit and wait?
Baseless or not, Jircniv's senses were tingling. Great change was sure to be coming to the world, and perhaps what would come next would be a battle for the survival of humanity as a species. A fight for the future.
The Empire would stand ready for this new threat.
Elsewhere, as the delegates Jircniv had dismissed were on their way back to a residence Jircniv had given them for accommodations, many were grumbling under their breath.
Most of these delegates were people who had seen the 'Holy Valkyrie' unleash her sacred sword to wipe out the creatures of darkness. Their faith was strong, the basis of a new religion centered on the Valkyrie which was why the group was primarily composed of priests.
After Jircniv's sudden dismissal, the group was too worked up to wait for a guide to lead them back to their designated residence. Hence, they found themselves wandering, too proud to admit that they were lost. After all, they were delegates, the faces that represent their kingdom.
How could they let their country be looked down upon as a result of their own actions?
Inevitably, they would stumble to the wrong place while trying to cool their heads.
One of the Emperor's art rooms.
They entered a private viewing room with numerous paintings and antiques. However, nothing else drew the attention of the delegates more than a grand painting at the center of the room. It was the grand centerpiece and-
"W-What sacrilege is this!"
It was a painting of Nero entering one of the Baharuth Empire's private baths in the midst of disrobing. A silken bathing dress that was practically see-through was slipping down her shoulders, just barely hanging on by the small bulge of her shoulder blades. Her back and the upper cheeks of her butt were laid bare, feet wading into the bath's water, creating ripples.
Her modesty was saved only by flower petals thrown by servant girls attending to Nero from the sides.
The accentuation of her curves, the contours of pert hills and alluring crevices was masterfully painted and drawn to a near realistic degree. There was no doubt that Nero might very well have modeled herself for the picture if the expression on her face was any indication.
Nero had her head turned over her shoulder, giving a half-lidded and side-eyed stare as if she knew what everyone was looking at, and narcissistically approved of it. Even the smile over her lush lips appeared suggestive, amusement coloring her expression, an all too intentional sway in her hips.
Many delegates who lay witness to the painting commissioned by Nero herself and delivered as a gift, swallowed, their mouths suddenly going dry. (Only Nero would consider a picture of herself posing as gift-worthy)
"To have so accurately captured the image of our Valkyrie and desecrated it with obscenity- there must be a spy in the kingdom!"
The head priest, the leader of the delegation, took immediate action to rally his brothers and sisters.
"Pretend you didn't see it! Pretend you didn't see it! How devious! These bastards of the Empire devised a cunning trap to test our faith! We can't just leave in a fluster either. That's what they want! As diplomats, we must preserve our kingdom's dignity and depart this den of evil in an orderly manner."
"Right! As expected of the head priest!"
Words of appreciation abounded, but a strange red tint formed over the head-priest's cheeks as he cleared his throat, looking utterly solemn. "You all leave first…I'll sacrifice myself and head out last."
"Honorable Bishop, such a sacrifice cannot be made by someone of your importance…allow this lowly one!" Someone else tried to take the role, a twitch forming on the head-priest's face.
"I've already decided on the arrangement, now go!"
The delegates began trying to pull each other to the exit, but it was as if stakes had been nailed to their feet. Their legs didn't budge an inch.
"This is the curse of the Evil Ones! We must not squabble here!"
"Faith! Purity! Integrity!"
"Faith! Purity! Integrity!"
"Faith! Purity! Integrity!"
"Faith! Purity! Integrity!"
"We must keep it!"
"Are they going to come out of there or not?" The escort originally assigned to lead the Roble delegates to their designated room was starting to grow impatient.
"Faith. Purity. Integrity!"
"Should we inform the Emperor?" Asked another escort.
"Faith! Purity! INTEGRITYYYYY!"
"Psh, religious fanatics."
The two escorts glanced knowingly at each other and nodded, knowing what was in that room. Lucky bastards.
-Praise the moon.
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