Despite everything that had happened until now the Pope of the Church of the Three Heroes was still smiling. He was too dangerous, Naofumi needed to put an end to him here and now. He was in pain and he was getting tired. The Shield of Wrath was powerful, but it was also a curse. How do I stop this guy? Naofumi wondered. As if in answer the words of a spell popped into his head. He didn't know exactly what it would do, but he had nothing else.
"This is the name of the punishment for the foolish sinner who shall be sacrificed to God. Pay now the full measure of your sins and suffer my wrath! Blood Sacrifice!"
The instant he completed the spell Naofumi screamed. Blood gushed from his nose, mouth, and eyes. In a hundred different places his skin tore open and bled. He could feel his muscles tear and even heard his bones creak. Was this spell some kind of suicide maneuver?!
Seeing this the Pope burst into laughter and pointed to him. "You see! God has won, Shield Devil!"
His laughter cut off suddenly when a massive sets of steel teeth popped up out of the ground surrounding him. It was like a gigantic bear trap with seven sets of jaws. All seven suddenly snapped shut, their steel teeth biting into him deep. The Pope's only answer was a wordless howl. The jaws opened and closed rapidly, as if hungry. The divine weapon he'd been holding began to crack and quickly broke apart. After perhaps thirty seconds, the spell concluded, and steel trap vanished. By then the Pope of the Church of the Three Heroes was nothing but bloody chunks.
When it was over the battlefield was silent. Allies and enemies alike were just staring. Even Naofumi thought what had happened gruesome. Without even noticing it he slipped off Firo's back and fell to the ground.
"Master! Master's bleeding! Someone help, master!" Firo screamed.
He could hear Raphtalia shouting his name. He was feeling very, very tired. From somewhere he heard a voice he didn't recognize.
"Medical corps hurry! You must save the Shield Hero's life! This is a royal decree!"
He wondered who that was but was too tired to worry about it. He closed his eyes.
The following day Naofumi was still unconscious. He had been moved to a fortress on the edge of the capitol. The queen of Melromarc, Melty's mother, had brought him here along with the other heroes and their companions. Naofumi had received constant treatment from the royal healers. The burns and cuts had all been cured and he was breathing peacefully, but he hadn't woken up yet. Firo was in her little girl form and was curled up on his chest asleep. Raphtalia was sitting in a chair beside him. A few feet behind her was Melty. A pair of healers were also in the room. Though they'd assured everyone Naofumi was no longer in danger, two of them were always kept on hand just in case.
The door to the infirmary opened and a statuesque woman with purple hair, a crown, and an extravagant gown entered, her face obscured with a fan. Trailing on her heel was Motoyasu.
"But I don't understand why-"
The queen turned to him, keeping the fan over most of her face. "I have explained my reasons to you, Spear Hero. Many of the agents of the church are still active. Until they can be arrested it is best that we keep our location a secret."
"Even from the king?"
Queen Mirelia gave a single curt nod. "I don't yet know the degree of his involvement in this conspiracy, whether he was an active participant or simply a willing tool. I know he genuinely loves both of our children, so I cannot believe he would conspire to have one of them murdered." Melty gave a silent nod in agreement. "Nevertheless, until I am absolutely certain of his role in all this secrecy is key."
"I understand, but do you really need to keep Mein locked up? She's your daughter!"
"I am aware of that," the queen said in a voice that could turn blood to ice. Motoyasu paled a bit. "I will pass judgement on her, depending on my sentence you may need to acquire a new companion."
"My decision is final, Spear Hero. Please do not argue with me any further on this matter."
"Okay, I get it," he sighed. Motoyasu glanced over at everyone else. His eyes immediately focused on the angelic form of Firo.
Raphtalia put a hand on her sword and stood up. "Don't even think about it," she growled.
He held his hands up and left.
"Why am I surrounded by so much selfishness?" The queen muttered.
"Mother," Melty hurried to stand in front of her. "Thank you for doing so much for Naofumi."
The queen closed her fan and put it away. She gave her daughter an indulgent smile. "So, it's Naofumi, not Shield Hero? My, my, have you two gotten close in your short time together?"
Melty's cheeks blushed a bright red. "N.. No, it's not like that! B… But he saved my life. I have a debt to him, and I want to repay it."
Her mother continued to smile at the little girl. "Oh? Is that all it is, just a sense of obligation?"
The girl's cheeks got even redder and she stared down at the floor.
"Well I agree that we owe him a great deal. For rescuing you, and much else besides."
"Ah," Raphtalia hesitantly approached. "Thank you for helping Naofumi-sama. I am very grateful." She bowed.
"I am the one who should be grateful for all he has done for this country and this world. I am well aware of how unfairly he has been treated. I promise you that will be rectified. I will see to it he is given the respect and assistance he has earned."
"Thank you, your majesty. I am very relieved to hear that." Her tail began to wag vigorously. "I am sure Naofumi-sama will be grateful to you too. Though, ah, please don't be offended if he is a little rude. He, ah, can be that way sometimes."
"Scary too," Melty added.
"Rest assured I won't take offense. I am willing to go quite far to try and make up for what has been done to him by my family and my people. I intend-" The queen cut off when one of her shadows suddenly appeared at her side. "What is it?"
The shadow glanced at Raphtalia and Melty. She leaned in to whisper in the queen's ear.
"What?!" The queen cried out.
The shadow nodded and hurriedly whispered more. Melty and Raphtalia looked at each other nervously.
"Noisy," Firo lifted her head and yawned.
"I see," the queen took her fan back out and snapped it open. "Bring them here at once." The shadow bowed quickly and vanished.
"Is something wrong?" Raphtalia asked.
"It would seem so."
"Is it the church? Are they attacking?" Raphtalia was surprised when the queen shook her head.
"No, it is a different problem."
A few minutes later two people were led to the infirmary. Queen Mirelia awaited them with her face covered below her eyes. Raphtalia, Firo, and Melty were standing behind her. The first person through the door was a svelte middle-aged man wearing a bright red and gold long coat and vest. His hair was bright red and he had a pair of fox ears, his bushy tail was snapping back and forth. Behind him was a plump woman in robes that was made of mixed up splotches of black and white. She had two squat ears atop her head, the one on her right was white and the one on her left was black. As soon as they were in the room it was the man who spoke.
"So, we meet again, Queen Mirelia. I wish I could say it was a pleasure." He gave her a slight bow that was very rushed.
"Chancellor Kluger," the queen spoke with icy courtesy. "I have received reports of demi-human forces massing along our border. Can you tell me the reason for this?"
"That is in response to your massing soldiers all along our border. Would you kindly explain the reason for it?"
Damn it Aultcray, she thought. Your stupidity is going to start a war! "That was a mistake which I have already mended. I have ordered my troops to return to their garrisons. I can assure you I have no hostile intentions towards Siltwelt."
"How comforting to hear," he said politely. His tail though was going even harder. "And what are your intentions towards the Shield Hero? Are they equally benign?"
Behind her fan she licked her lips. She'd been sparring with Chancellor Kluger for weeks and it had taken all of her efforts to keep him from severing diplomatic relations. He was very clever and very hostile towards her and her kingdom. When the news that her idiot husband had summoned all four of the Legendary Heroes it had very nearly sparked a war.
"I intend to give him the same treatment and support as all of the heroes who fight against the waves."
"Is that so?" He asked pleasantly. He drew out a piece of paper from one of his coat pockets and proceeded to unfold it for her. "Does that mean you intend to imprison or murder the other heroes as well?"
What the chancellor was holding out in front of her was one of the bounty posters that had been plastered all throughout the countryside. It depicted the Shield Hero with his hands wrapped around Melty's throat and a murderous look on his face. The poster declared that he had murdered royal guards and abducted the princess. A massive reward was promised for the 'Devil of the Shield' dead or alive. The queen's heart sank. How was she supposed to explain this?
"Naofumi-sama never kidnapped me! He saved me!" Melty declared.
The queen gave her daughter a sharp look and the girl immediately quieted.
"That's right!" Raphtalia stepped forward. "Naofumi-sama would never hurt a child! He saved her life from guards who tried to kill her."
Mirelia wanted to groan. She understood why the girl was defending the Shield Hero. Under different circumstances she would have applauded her loyalty. But this was only making the current situation worse.
"Who are you?" Kluger asked.
"My name is Raphtalia. I am Naofumi-sama's sword."
Beside her Firo was jumping up and down. "Firo is master's bird!"
Firo transformed into a filoial queen.
Kluger blinked. "I see, so you are the Shield Lord's companions?" He gave Raphtalia and Firo a much deeper bow than he had offered the queen. "It is a very great honor to meet you. Where are the others?"
"Others?" Raphtalia asked.
"His other companions. I would like to meet them as well."
"It's only us."
"What? Well, I suppose I should be glad that at least the two of you were allowed to join his party when he was summoned."
Raphtalia opened her mouth but the queen jumped in. "Indeed, they have both been excellent companions to him." Things would only get worse if he found out they had both been acquired in a slave shop.
Kluger turned his focus back to the queen. "If he saved the second princess then why was he accused of abducting her? Why was he treated as a criminal?"
"That was due to a conspiracy by the Church of the Three Heroes." She had wanted to keep all those events a secret from the outside world, but there was no choice now. "They were responsible and have already been dealt with."
"Oh? And do they also control this country's military? I was under the impression that only the crown can mobilize the army. Or was I mistaken?"
"It was not done by my order. I am still investigating who was responsible, but they will be punished. I can promise you that."
"I, my king, and my people know just how much your promises are worth." He suddenly walked past her, Raphtalia, Firo, and Melty to the bed where Naofumi lay. He stood there and stared down at the sleeping figure. He then placed a hand to his heart and dropped to one knee. The mage who had arrived with him did the same.
Queen Mirelia got a very bad feeling in the pit of her stomach. She'd just had to deal with one group of fanatics, now she had a whole different one to worry about.
Kluger and his companion got back up. His tail was flying so fast it was a blur.
"Why is our lord unconscious?! What did you do to him?"
"He was badly injured in a battle against the church. My healers have been treating him."
"Only him though!" Kluger waved at all the empty beds in the infirmary. "If this battle was so desperate where are the other heroes? Where are their companions? Why was only the Shield Lord so grievously wounded?"
Because all the others were useless, and he had to do most of the real fighting on his own. Mirelia had only arrived in time to see the battle's conclusion, but she'd heard the reports. For some inexplicable reason there was vast gulf in power between the Shield Hero and the others. They had been largely ineffective and would have all been killed if not for the Shield Hero's power. She couldn't admit that though, it would look like she and the other heroes were deliberately using him.
"It was the nature of his abilities, he endured the strongest attacks in order to allow the other heroes to fight freely."
"How convenient," Kluger's tail came to a sudden stop and he took a deep breath. "Let me be blunt, the disgraceful treatment of the Shield Lord has gone on much too long and will no longer be tolerated." From a different pocket a drew out a scroll with a wax seal on it. He handed it to the queen.
She confirmed it was the seal of King Leo the Seventh and broke it. She opened the scroll and read the contents. It consisted of just one paragraph and confirmed her worst fears.
"Your country will declare war on us unless we give you the Shield Hero?"
"WHAT?!" Raphtalia drew her sword and got in a fighting stance. Beside her Firo lowered her head and readied to charge. "You are not taking him!"
"Wait. Wait, you misunderstand." Kluger motioned for calm. "In Siltwelt we worship the Church of the Shield Hero, he is our god made flesh. In Siltwelt he will be treated with the respect he deserves. We will support him in every way possible and do anything he asks of us. Everyone from his majesty to the lowest peasant will be his loyal follower!"
"It's true," the mage who had been silent up until now spoke up. "We only wish to serve him that's all. Do you really think the Shield Lord is better off here? In a country where everyone hates him?"
"Not everyone hates him," Raphtalia said. "Lots of people know what a good man he is."
"And the rest?"
Raphtalia frowned. "I can't deny there are a lot of people who hate him. Naofumi-sama was planning to go to Siltwelt. We couldn't because of how heavily guarded the border was."
"He wanted to come to us, and he wasn't allowed to?!" Kluger said in outrage. He glared at the queen. "Tell me this was another mistake! You swore the heroes would be free to visit other lands if they wanted!"
She had made that promise and would have honored it. She couldn't really blame Kluger for his anger. Either she was a queen who broke her pledges, or she was a queen who lacked the authority to keep them. Neither circumstance spoke well of her.
"Queen Mirelia of Melromarc, there are only two choices. You can allow me to bring the Shield Lord to Siltwelt with me, or you can begin a war with my country. And I think you should know that both Shildfrieden and Faubley have agreed to join us if it comes to that. After stealing all four Legendary Heroes no nation trusts you. You can of course murder or imprison me," he shrugged. "But if I do not return by sunset that will be a signal for war."
Mirelia clamped down her jaw. She was sure she could have fixed things. She could have suppressed the church, given the Shield Hero justice, and convinced the other countries to maintain the fragile peace to facilitate stopping the waves. All she'd needed was just a little more time to put her plans into action! But Altcray's stupidity had made that impossible. If she refused to hand over the Shield Hero now there would be war. A war that might not only destroy her country but cause the whole world to fall to the waves as they all killed each other. To prevent that, to give the world any hope for survival, she had to maintain the peace between the countries.
"What?" Melty cried. "But mother you can't!"
"It's the only way, Melty. Or do you want thousands of people to die?"
Raphtalia looked uncertain. "Naofumi-sama did want to go to Siltwelt, but I don't know if he still does."
"If the Shield Lord wishes to return to this country, we will not stop him. Though I honestly can't imagine why he would ever want to. Of course, you are both welcomes to come as well, heroic companions. I can guarantee you will be well treated." Kluger nodded to the mage.
"I am the caster of spells and master of the arcane. I have studied and deciphered the law of magic! Show me the path home! Gateway!" A seven-foot-wide circle of light appeared in the room. "Please step through. This will take us to King Leo's castle."
Raphtalia hesitated and looked back at the queen. "I am sorry, but maybe this is for the best." She went to the bed and picked Naofumi up in her arms.
Firo's head was darting between Raphtalia and Melty. "What about Mel-chan?"
"She can't come with us, Firo. Come on, Naofumi-sama needs us."
"Firo doesn't want to leave Mel-chan!"
"I know," Raphtalia sighed. She looked back at them. "Goodbye." She carried Naofumi through the circle of light.
"Ah!" Firo stared at Melty.
"It's okay Firo-chan, we'll see each other again."
Firo stared but then nodded. "Okay then." She hurried through the circle.
Kluger turned and gave the queen a polite bow, his tail was at last calm. "Your majesty." He stepped through.
Last was the mage. As soon as she was gone the gateway blinked out of existence.