Biggest thanks for Ace-Triad helping me with SPAG edit. Also thanks to Angel Wraith for reading my rough draft and provide important feedbacks.

More author note at the end for people who are interested to see me blabber some more.

The combined force of the Shield Hero, and the Knight Templars of the Three Heroes' Church are free to move into the castle after the undead are taken care of. But instead of moving in right away, Jaune ordered everyone to recover their strength first, and clean up the battlefield as well as their manpower allows.

Martin, their only priest, starts going around, giving chants and prayers to all the fallen to make sure their body won't be risen by the strong necromantic energy. Alfred, and later Nikos begin to dig a hole in the ground with the help from Gaston and Lucatiel. Not for all the centuries old skeletons and dried up husks unearthed from their ancestral crypt, but for the newer bodies of the fallen Three Heroes' Church expedition members.

The princess turned adventurer is more than grateful to use this short rest to regain her breath. Her Naofumi on the other hand is more than a little eager to start picking shields off the ground after he chucks a stamina potion. The young man absorbs batches of his new spoils into his shields, hopefully growing stronger for their upcoming expedition.

"Brother Richard, lend Sanctus to Shield Hero for him to copy." Jaune turns to the peasant turned knight after watching the Shield Hero for a while. "It's not a shard weapon, but it's still one of our strongest artifacts."

"But, of course." Richard moves over and hands the gold gilded ivory shield to Naofumi, the other young man looks a little hesitant to take it in hand. "Don't worry, it's not as heavy as the wheel."

"That shard weapon you were talking about. What is it?" Naofumi takes Sanctus into his hand while shooting a curious look at Jaune. "I heard it once or twice."

"They are magical weapons created with a shard broken off from a Legendary Weapon. Like Lord Commander Fordring's Ashbringer." The young Arc stands up and holds his hand for their priest. "They are the strongest magical weapons in the world save for a fully empowered Legendary Weapon. Brother Martin can probably explain it better than I do."

Naofumi doesn't seem to pay the older priest any attention. Instead, he scratches his chin while looking down at his feet. Finally, he looks up. "If a shard from a Legendary Weapon can make very strong weapons, should I chop or smash my shield to pieces? Maybe this'll save more people from the Wave if we have dozens and dozens of strong shields to go around?"

Chapter 58: Into the Breach

She should have expected this. The princess feels like kicking herself from not expecting her Naofumi to say something selfless, yet completely dumb like this.

Naofumi wasn't the first hero to become fascinated with the shard weapons. Although most of the past heroes are more interested to know if they can further empower their own legendary weapon with the broken shards of previous heroes. Of course, her Naofumi would think something opposite of that. Especially after the outburst of that meddlesome Jackson.

He is more concerned at how to save more lives in the current crisis than his own safety. In doing so, he just gave explicit permission to Three Heroes' Church, an organization founded with the explicit intention to fight against the Shield Hero, the decision to neutralize his greatest weapon if they took up on his offer.

Good thing he said it to Jaune and not some other conniving cutthroat, or zealous fanatic of the faith. It's been a long time since their official courtship ended, but she expects the Arc boy to do the right thing.

"No! Most definitely NOT! Sir Shield Hero!" The dutiful Arc boy did not fail Mein's expectation. "A legendary weapon's growth potential is unlimited, and you can grow much more powerful than a few dozen shard artifacts. It was not dutiful for me to admit my reliance on a hero, but I was not lying. We need heroes like you to survive the Wave of Catastrophe."

"Brother Jaune is correct. There is also the time and effort to craft a shard artifact to consider." Martin walks over to Naofumi just as the shield on his arm turns into Sanctus. "A Legendary weapon's shard can't be used straight away in forging a magical weapon. It needs a series of rituals for preparation. Plus, you need a master enchanter and a master smith working together to create such an artifact through a series of complicated processes. Even if you break your shield and give us a hundred shards, we can't process them quick enough to use them for the current wave. It's much better for heroes like you to grow stronger and end a wave as fast as possible, than spreading the power around others and try to mitigate the damage."

Good, now the Shield Hero knows how difficult it is to create a shard artifact, he won't be as easily manipulated by someone else with ulterior motivation.

"I see... guess I shouldn't have tried to pass the responsibility to someone else." Naofumi nods his head along as he taps on his new shield with his finger. "But I still want to find some way to share my power with other people. If we have more strong people to fight back the Wave, there'll be less people getting hurt when it's over."

"You will find a way, Lord Shield Hero. A hero always does. I have faith in you." The older priest rests a hand on the Shield Hero's shoulder for a brief moment. He walks away to continue his prayer from earlier.

The Shield Hero hands the holy shield back to Richard and looks at Jaune again. "Hey, do you mind if I take some of the shields off your... fallen friends? I know it's a pretty shitty thing to do to the dead people. But I can fully empower a shield I unlocked, if I feed it more copies..."

"It's not disrespectful to pick up the arms of the dead, when you are fighting on their behalf." Much like Martin before, Jaune briefly lands his hand on Naofumi's shoulder. "Containing the undead scourge was the goal of our fallen brothers and sisters. You are only honoring their memories by following their stead. And now, we need all the advantages we can get."

"Here's a shield for you - catch!" Richard throws one of the heater shields used by a fallen templar at Naofumi, who manages to capture it in his hands after some initial fumbling. The former peasant's eyes come to rest at a war hammer roughly the size of a battering ram made of black metal. "What are we to do with Sir Leeroy's hammer? It's too heavy for us to even carry. But we can't leave it here, can we?"

Jaune walks over to Richard. He kneels down, grasps the handle of the weapon and tries to pull it up a few times before standing back up. "We'll have to leave it here for now. Hope it won't be taken by undead, or some scavenger."

"I can carry it for you, if you want to." Naofumi's words make both young knights turn to look at him. The Shield Hero gives his legendary weapon a few fist bumps. "I can keep it inside my shield, it doesn't matter how heavy the thing is."

"A most practical offer. I thank you, Sir Shield Hero." Jaune and Richard move aside to let Naofumi walk over to the gigantic warhammer resting on the ground.

The Shield Hero bends down and moves his shield close to the weapon. There's a small spark bursting out of the emerald in the center, and Naofumi lets out a surprised 'huh' afterwards.

"Is there something wrong, Sir Shield Hero?" The blonde Arc boy quickly kneels down right beside the Shield Hero.

"Oh, nothing wrong. Just surprised. I got a prompt about a new shield I can unlock if I absorb this hammer." Naofumi's eyes wander from the hammer to Jaune, and back to his price again. "I... didn't think I could unlock a new shield from an enchanted hammer... could I do that from other magical weapons?"

"Mighty nice of you to say it out loud first." Richard bends down from Naofumi's other side. "Aren't you hero types always looking for new ways to enhance your weapon? Thought you'd just go ahead and absorb it without telling us."

"That's not nice, I'm not some kind of thief. Isn't this hammer some important weapon for your church?" Naofumi frowns at Richard's assumption, the Shield Hero clearly doesn't appreciate Richard's low opinion of him. "I promised you guys I'll keep it safe for you. It's a pretty shitty thing to do if I go and absorb it for myself."

"If it helps our quest, maybe you should-" Jaune didn't get to finish his sentence when Richard suddenly cuts him off.

"Don't say it!" The peasant turned knight grabs Jaune's head and turns the Arc boy to face him. "You need to THINK, before you speak!"

"Don't be too hard on Jaune, Dick." Nikos steps closer between the two boys, forcing Richard to let go of the blonde knight. "He already had a hard time with Consevatie, and Jackson."

"That's why I'm doing this, for his own good!" Richard gives a quick spit to Nikos before turning back to face Jaune. "Consevatie already left to paint you a traitor and heretic in our order. What would happen to you if you let the Shield Hero absorb one of our most powerful non-shard artifacts?"

The Arc boy blinks a couple of times, realization slowly dawns on his face yet still firm on his own stance. "If my own condemnation is the price for preventing a disaster in the making..."

"What of your family? You think House Arc is going to get away smelling like a rose if their golden son gets condemned for heresy?" By now, Richard is all but spitting in Jaune's face in exasperation. "And what of your mentor, Preacher Logarius? You don't think Cromwell and his sycophants and bootlickers will hurt him for your actions?"

Jaune's mouth moved a couple of times but no sound came out. After a while the grim situation Richard painted for him finally seemed to sink in. "...I didn't think that far."

"Well, you should!" Richard tosses the Arc boy's face away from his hand as he takes a step back. The peasant turned knight jabs his own head with his finger a couple of times for emphasis. "You are the noble boy here. You shouldn't let a farm boy like me point this out for you."

"And here I thought a noble's life was easy..." Naofumi's eyes went up from the hammer to the arguing church knights.

"It's only easy, if one neglects their duty. Stuffing their face bull of broche, and living their worthless lives off the hard work of common people." Lucatiel's voice is cold behind her silver mask. The metal visage makes it hard to tell if her ire is aimed at the Shield Hero who makes light of a noble's responsibilities, or the corrupted aristocrat who shirks away from said responsibilities. "For someone like my lord, it's a heavy burden that only lifts till' death finds him."

"How about this? I'll only keep the hammer safe for you guys now." Naofumi stands up from his crouch and holds his hands up in a peace offering. "We don't know what's causing this undead scourge thingy. Maybe we are already through the worst. Or maybe I'll get to unlock some other strong shields with what we find on the way. I'll only absorb that hammer if we get pushed into a corner and are about to die."

Richard and Jaune exchange a look, and they both nod their heads. "That works." "A most prudent plan."

"How about those three?" Richard looks over at the broken statues, and remains of the undead monsters littered across the field. "Those were pretty unique boss monsters. Maybe you'll unlock some strong shields from them?"

"Oh, good thinking! I'll try it out." Naofumi quickly bends back down to store Grant into his shield storage. The young hero leaps back up and jogs over to the remains of the undead bosses with his bodyguard dutifully following behind.

Privately, the princess wonders if her Naofumi should have absorbed Grant for himself. Obviously, putting Jaune into a tough situation is cruel for the Arc boy who has courted her a while ago. But the Shield Hero likely will not get another explicit permission from someone in charge of the Three Heroes' Church to absorb one of these artifacts.

Then again... Jaune is part of the reformationist faction within the Three Heroes' Church. People like him are likely what's holding back the orthodox radicals from antagonizing... if not outright harming her Naofumi. If the Shield Hero does something like stealing a magical artifact from the Three Heroes' Church on the permission granted by the reformationist, he'll likely destroy whatever fragile balance the order currently has. From here, it'll spiral the faith, if not the entirety of Melromarc into further turmoil than the nation is already in thanks to Father's actions.

This is probably for the best.

The remains of the undead bosses did unlock some newer shield forms for her Naofumi. Most notable being the stones transformed by the wraith's possession. The Rune Stone shield was a fairly tough, if heavy addition to the Shield Hero's arsenal. But it further empowered one of his favorites: the [Geo Shield] apparently grows stronger as her Naofumi unlocks more shield forms with stone properties.

With both teams rested and prepared, they slowly begin to advance behind the gate into the castle proper. Inside, the roads are staircases are winding slowly towards the top where the old Boletaria Palace lies. Despite the grandeur of the old kingdom, it was still clearly built with defense in mind considering all the vantage points.

The undead roaming the walkways and towers utilized the terrain to their full advantage. Almost as if they are a well trained army, and not a bunch of weak and mindless dead walking.

Skeletons and dried up husks armed with bows fire arrows down at them, or toss stones, pottery and whatever other undesirable things at them.

Death Knights clad in ancient runes scribed armor pulsating with the negative energy of the Pale Realm stand guard in the middle of narrow walkways and stairs to protect their feeble allies.

Ethereal Black Phantoms, making a mockery of their own valiance in life, jump out of almost every corner and shadows, catching everyone in surprise time and time again.

If it's only the Shield Hero's party, there's a good chance they would have lost someone by this point. If not from the constant barrage of arrows and stones, then the first time a Black Phantom makes their lunge at her, or Raphtalia. Despite the versatility of the Shield Hero's abilities, her Naofumi can only focus his attention on one thing at a time.

"[Tortoise]!" With a loud command from Jaune, he links shields with Richard and Alfred. The dome of hexagon shaped barrier shimmers into existence over everyone's head, bouncing the arrows and stones away from their heads.

"His wrath unyielding, [Emit Force]." With a quick prayer, battle priest Martin tosses out a white sphere of Miracle energy over their heads, it tears through the bones and carcass at the point of impact, sending the others undead over the right side of the walkway tumbling down.

While the men are busy contending with the mob, Nikos charges out of their formation and crosses the spear with a fully armored Death Knight. The hulking horror of metal, bones and necromantic energy must not be as intimidating as it looks, as it gets knocked down after three strikes by the other red head.

The Shield Hero's party aren't idling around either. Their two oversized birds jump up to the other side of the walkway and start to physically replicate what Martin did with his Miracle.

More Black Phantoms jump out from both sides, either looking like knights in ancient armored designs, or rangers in their traveling cloaks. One of them gets dangerously close to Mein, before he's parried by Éclair who got a new shield from a fallen templar. Lucatiel finishes that phantom off with her holy fire coated great sword.

Around her, the raptors of the church expedition, and the rest of Naofumi's party engage with more phantoms and revenants.

The Shield Hero fires his [Air Strike Shield] at a phantom knight who tries to creep up and strike Raphtalia from the side. The energy shield parries the ghostly sword just in time and knocks the assailant of the lost Q'ten Lo princess away, who proceeds to turn around and end its unlife with a quick stab of her blessed sword.

"Watch out for your sides, Raphtalia. But good work." Naofumi gives the girl a thumbs up, earning a smile from her.

The fighting in between the streets and stairs gradually die down as more and more undead are dusted. Eventually, they reach a plateau after a long climb above an inclined road and a few stairs on both sides.

The place has a patch of grass and dirt in the middle with some trees, now withered from the strong negative energy saturating the castle. Splinters of wood from half, or fully smashed wooden stalls and walls mixed with broken pottery, rotten food and occasional glimmer of trinket reveals this used to be a marketplace.

"Hold." Jaune holds his fist above his head and looks at the Shield Hero. Not seeing any objection, he continues. "We'll take another rest here before proceeding to the palace proper. Brother Martin, set up some wards and prepared a [Sanctuary]. Brother Richard, go with Sister Pyrrah to the right. I'll go with Brother Alfred to the left. We'll cleanup any undead see to ambush us in the buildings while our raptors and Sir Shield Hero's men protect brother Martin."

"What, you aren't going with your sweetheart?" Richard's quip is cut short by the former gladiator. With a quick kick to his heel, the coliseum grand champion nearly trips the former peasant down.

"Just go with me." Nikos mumbles after her breath. It's hard to tell if she's more upset with the match up, or Richard's comment.

The remnants of the church expedition split up to clear around their temporary camp. While Martin is busy drawing holy symbols on the ground and chanting, Naofumi walks over to a destroyed stall littered with broken pottery and starts to pick them up. Mein quickly catches up with him. "What are you doing with them, Master Naofumi?"

"They are made of clay. I want to see if I can use them to fortify my [Clay Shield]. I have enough money to pay for them... but why waste money if I can get it for free?" Naofumi picks up a few shards and holds them against the gem on his legendary weapon. After a flash, his shield turns into a round slab of clay that looks like some cover of a pot. "Ha! It works!"

It takes the princess a little bit longer to remember that clay also serves to empower her Naofumi's [Geo Shield].

Raphtalia quickly trots over to them. The girl in her adult body helps Mein pick up more broken clay shards for the Shield Hero, while Yatsuhashi stands behind the three of them keeping guard. Not too long after, the two pairs of templars finish their patrol and Martin completes his ritual. They sit down around the withered trees and dried up grass, drinking water and having some light snacks to regain their strength.

Mein uses the time to open up her status window. The princess in disguise noticed the star near her name, and the number '40' after her level. It took a lot of time and... injuries... but the important thing is she finally managed to achieve the pinnacle of common level range!

Take that! Mother!

She didn't even need Father's knight capturing the monsters for her to kill like her little sister!

"...we'll have to go to a Dragon Hourglass to have our potential unlocked." From Kyubey's emotionless explanation to the Shield Hero, Mein can guess others in the party had similar ideas as her. "We'll be able to raise our level above 40 to 100, like Farkas here. It's known as 'Prestige Level Range' among adventurers."

The wolfman lets out a soft growl at Kyubey's mention.

"And where is the closest Dragon Hourglass?" Naofumi puts down his water skin and looks at rabbit demi-human.

"In the capital. The cathedral of the Three Heroes' Church." The demi-human's words bring silence to everyone.

"Sir Shield Hero has proven to be a steadfast ally. I'm sure his eminence Pope Balmus will allow his companions to get their well deserved class-up." Jaune's words are optimistic, but from the eye roll of Richard, it's clear not even everyone under his command shares his thoughts.

"What about other places?" Naofumi doesn't directly comment on the Arc boy's response. Instead, he continues to press for information. "Weren't we talking about going south to some other provinces after the next Wave?"

"Yes, both the former capital of Gallia, and Romalia have their own Dragon Hourglass." Kyubey clearly catches up to the Shield Hero's meaning without having it spelled out.

"I do not recommend Sir Shield Hero to visit the church in Gallia." Martin turns around to look at them. "The land of Gallia suffered the most during The Great War. Our brothers stationed there can be very old fashioned as a result."

"It's true, Master Naofumi." Mein edges closer and whispers into the Shield Hero's ear. "Prince Joseph stopped the invasion army for nearly four years. The land of Gallia was torn asunder by war during that time. Most people blame the beastmen... and the Shield Hero by association. The last Shield Hero's many reforms was what turned Siltvelt into the strongest nation at the time."

"What about Romalia in that case?" Obviously, this was her Naofumi's first choice considering their whole talk about getting him sanctioned by the Four Heroes' Church. But he's showing the proper precaution by pretending ignorance despite all the help from Jaune's group.

It seems some of her lessons managed to stick in his mind.

"I should not say something to reflect poorly on my own faith..." Martin closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "But it's true. The Four Heroes' Church will be more fair when it comes to treating all heroes. Vicar Serevare, the leader of the Four Heroes' Church's Romalia branch, is open-minded, and Romalians never experienced pain from the occupation or war on their land thanks to Prince Joseph. Sir Shield Hero will be welcomed warmly in the south."

"Very well... let's see what level I am... WHAT THE HECK?!" Naofumi's sudden outburst makes their animals all jump up in surprised startle and Raphtalia chokes on her water with a series of loud coughs. "Why am I still level 35?"

"Wasn't that what your level was last night, Master Naofumi?" Mein turns over to look at her Naofumi's status screen after patting Raphtalia's cough back down. Sure enough, the number 38 is right behind the Shield Hero's level icon. "Even if you didn't land the killing blows on those three boss monsters, you should still have enough EXP points to level at least once. Unless..."

Mein's eyes turn towards the remnant of Three Heroes' Church. They were the ones who landed the killing blow on two of the three undead boss monsters. Maybe all three of them, depending on which one of the animals Gaston led, trampled The Phalanx to death. If they aren't sharing their experiences with her Naofumi...

"Are you accusing us of unfaithfulness by excluding Sir Shield Hero's party from your rightful spoils?" Nikos stands up from where she sits. She isn't in any fighting stance, but her hands are holding both her spear and her shield. "Jaune was nothing but the most accommodating to your needs. He even offered to take responsibility to let Sir Shield Hero absorb Grant. I will not have you besmirch his name!"

Well... accusing isn't exactly the right word in her mind. But yes, she is very suspicious of the result. Growing up in Mother's court had made her become vary of the seemingly nice ones.

Not saying the only noble scion who sincerely had a courtship with her is one of those nice ones. But the first princess of Melromarc likes to keep a healthy amount of suspicion on everyone.

"Please, calm down. Sister Pyrrha." Jaune stands up and stands between Nikos and the Shield Hero's party. "We need to work together, especially now we are in a hostile land. Being paranoid of each other will get us all killed."

"Jaune is right, we aren't accusing anyone of anything here." Naofumi also stands up and holds his arms out trying to de-escalate the rising situation.

A bit too familiar for him to call a noble scion his given name, but it's not like anyone taught him the proper etiquette and Jaune doesn't seem to mind. Well... if he didn't mind Consevatie's assault and attempted murder on him, he probably won't mind a Hero calling him by his given name without given permission first.

"I was the one assigned to everyone in the battle formation before the battle started. There's no way anyone's trying to cheat my experience."

"That only leaves one explanation." Farkas looks up from where he is sitting and glances sideways at Naofumi. "The penalty Cardinal Heroes get for fighting too close together."

"Yeah, that's right! I didn't get any EXP either when we were fighting together at Motoyasu's party in Balafon!" Naofumi points his finger at the sitting werewolf with sudden thrust. He blinks a couple of times after announcing his theory. "Although I wonder who got too close."

"Isn't Stormwind just north down the Griffin's Spine?" Kyubey also looks up from his spot. "The Bow Hero was responsible for the small kingdom's revolt before the wave. Perhaps he tried to come north to fix things, and he joined the northern lord's push to take back Stolen Land?"

"Yeah, that sounds likely." Naofumi sits back down together with the two agitated Knight Templars. "It's probably what happened. And now Itsuki is wondering the same thing about why he's not getting EXP either."

"How far does the penalty affect you anyway, Shield boy?" Gaston tosses some beans out into his bird's mouth, he eyes one of the desolate shops and wonders out loud with a murmur. "I wonder if I can still find some dried up meat for my Wolfgang here... hmm..."

"Well... I never actually tested that out. We just each picked a direction for us to explore after our summoning." A blush slowly finds Naofumi's face as he scratches his cheeks. "And we didn't even do that after the Wave we fought. We really should have planned this thing out better..."

"Better get it done before the next Wave hits, boy. *sniff* That one has some meat that is still good." Farkas makes a few hard sniffs between talking. He points his snot towards a shop north west of them to Gaston, before resuming his talk with the Shield Hero. "Historically, different batches of heroes have different ranges of their penalty. Some even changed before their cycle of Wave of Catastrophe was over. It was said The Conqueror Mikage could have fought side by side with Shirou the Betrayer without mutually losing their EXP gain at the start, but they could barely stay in the same nation after King Mikage destroyed Kutenrou."

"Do, NOT, defile the honor of the Martyr of the Bow. Beast." Alfred clenches his wheel shield close. A bit of his madness from battle is creeping into his otherwise serene voice.

"As if you don't call The Conqueror by a shameful name. Fifty steps laughing at a hundred much?" Farkas growls back to the redeemed legionnaire. "We are pretty even in name calling, brass heads."

"Please, let us settle our religious differences after we aren't knee deep in the walking dead." Jaune stands up again before another fight, verbal or physical, can fully break out. "We can go back to hating each other after the crisis is over. For now, we need to act cordially and bear each other's arms."

"Fine." "Very well." Both of the most unhinged members in their respective party settle back down after Jaune's persuasion.

"Can you two see if there's more ropes inside that shop?" Mein turns around to look at who her Naofumi is talking with. It seems both Gaston and Kyubey stood up and were ready to explore.

"What do you need ropes for, shield boy?" The Lute hunter looks back at the Shield Hero, a confused smirk on his face. "Surely you aren't going to tie some monsters up and try to turn them into your companions? Or better yet, the undeads?"

"Well, I have this rope shield here." Naofumi demonstrates by switching out his rope shield, and makes a lasso out of it. "It's not very strong, but it's a good utility shield. I want to see if I can get more use out of it, once I fully break its limits."

"Alright, you heard the hero. Let's go find him some more ropes." Gaston gives Kyubey a nod as they walk away to explore the cleared out shops.

"Now, what was that [Tortoise] thingy you and your friends did?" Naofumi turns around and asks Jaune. "It covers more areas than my [Air Strike Shield]. And it forms up faster than my [Shield Prison]. It'll be really helpful if I can unlock it."

"[Tortoise] is a formation shield weapon art. You need thirty-six men for max effect, but it can be used by a minimum of three..." Naofumi begins to listen to Jaune's explanation of formation weapon art with wide eyes. The irony of the remnant of Three Heroes Church's expedition force having more actual shield users than his own with less men clearly isn't lost on the young hero.

Gaston and Kyubey return not too long after. They tossed the dried meat to the filorials and raptors, letting the beast have a small feast to keep them happy. More importantly, they did manage to find a bunch of ropes in the destroyed shops to raise the Shield Hero's rope shield limit. Sadly, only to three stars since each star needs more base material to unlock when it's not a close replica of the actual shield.

It's still better than nothing, with her Naofumi unable to get any EXP to raise his levels.

The sun begins to sink down towards the horizon, and the fight becomes more difficult with the undead both empowered by the darkness, the progressively stronger negative energy and their ability to see (or rather, sense) as well without light. Still, they push forward. Lucatiel reveals the location of a church near the palace catacomb. Even with the necromantic energy growing progressively stronger as they fight through the city into the palace, a previous hallowed ground should offer more protection against the unholy once it's properly warded again.

They'll take their shelter and rest inside the ruined church, and descend down into the source of the undead scourge on the morrow to end it once and for all. Hopefully without further casualties.

"The one time I'm actually killing things, and I'm not getting any EXP." Naofumi crushes a skeleton over the edge of the palace walls down with his wheel shield. It breaks apart even before they hit the floor a good thirty paces drop down. Their fragile body animated by unholy magic is especially vulnerable against Naofumi's blunt damage. The Shield Hero shakes his head, the playful tone suggests he's not as rueful as his words suggest. "Oh well, at least I'm getting a lot of new shields unlocked and mastered."

"Do not falter now. We are close to the church." Lucatiel the demi-human knight now takes the point as their guide, the church templar following close behind her ready to form up their defense. "After we make through the main hall to the side, it'll lead us to the courtyard where the small church stands near the catacomb."

"It's kind of empty, this hallway." Naofumi looks around, and sure enough. The ceiling of the old Boletaria palace is high enough to be a grand cathedral. Yet for a place close to the source of the scourge, it's not filled wall to wall with wandering undead like one would think.

Perhaps this is a sign the worst has already passed them?

"There's a black phantom ahead of us." The voice of Nikos draws Mein and everyone else's attention towards the other end of the long hallway. Sure enough, a phantom in dark, almost black red glow walks through the gateway into the hall.

It's another one of the knight variety, wearing full plate armor of ancient design. It has a long sword in one hand, and a small shield in the shape of what seems to be some kind of flower in the other. Yet unlike the rest of its undead compatriots, this one does not try to ambush them by leaping out of a corner, or charging out of the shadows.

No, if anything this black phantom seems oddly content as he wanders around in a leisure stroll around the ruined hall of the old Boletaria palace.

"You guys are seeing what I'm seeing, right?" Richard looks back at his fellow templar, who all look rather dumbfounded by this strange undead. "If this isn't some kind of a trick, I think we just discovered the world's first happy Black Phantom."

"You are our most knowledgeable member, Brother Martin. Is it supposed to do that?" Jaune turns around to look at the only battle priest of their group.

"Not according to our archive, no. They are supposed to be lost souls and evil spirits. Insane and without the sense of self they once had." Martin looks back at his fellow church knights. "But the world is vast and its many wonders boundless. The more we discover, the more we find our knowledge lacking. If this isn't some trick on the undead scourge, it'll be a good chance for us to gain more understanding of the spirit and the Pale Realm where the dead go."

"In short, you don't know what's going on either." Richard rolls his eyes at their priest's rambling. "Could have said that from the start."

"Well, if it's a trap someone has to spring it. If not... let's see what this ghost wants." Naofumi moves over to the front of their group. "Let me go greet him, I have the strongest defense."

"Absolutely NOT, my thane!" His sworn shield immediately disagrees. "You also have the lowest attack. If this is a trap, you are more likely to be cut off from us all."

"Then come with me, you can watch my back." Naofumi turns to his bodyguard. "The sun is setting, and we are wasting our time standing around arguing."

"The Shield Hero is right, we are wasting our own time standing around." Jaune's grip around his sword tightens. "I'll go together with the Shield Hero and his Sworn Shield. We'll be armed enough to pull back if it's an ambush, but we won't suffer a total loss if it's some other tricks. Such as the undead trying to cave in the building and bury us."

"If the undead try to collapse the palace, we'll need someone to take charge of the bigger group." Lucatiel turns to look at the leader of the church expedition. "I'll go in your stead. I'm a paladin of the Silver Hand chapter. I'm as fit to fight the undead as you Templars, but you make for a better commander."

"I'm coming with you, Sir Lucatiel." Éclair takes a step behind her knight. "I finally reunited with you after all... these. Life or death, we shall not part again."

"Are you two close, like sisters or something?" Richard's brow seems to rise into his helmet at the faithful affect Éclair is showering her knight.

"Yes, she is mine..." Lucatiel didn't finish her introduction when Éclair cut the demi-human knight off.

"Squire!" The last heir of House Seatto shouts out without any hesitation. "I was Sir Lucatiel's squire before the 1st Wave, and the sacking of both Silver Keep and Port Harp."

A far cry from her awkward lie back in the Smith Demon's shop! Considering back then, even her naive Naofumi was able to see through Éclair's lie. Did Mein's effort and influence finally bear fruit on the Seatto heiress, or is the knight being extra careful in front of members of the Three Heroes' Church? The faction that supposedly had a hand in her father's death?

Either way, the first princess felt proud of Éclair's change.

"What if you get HURT! And I'm not THERE!" Raphtalia's abrupt scream brings the princess out of her mind with a startle. Clearly, the little girl in her adult body lost control of her emotions again. Her voice trails quieter between sniffing. "So, sorry, Master Naofumi. I lost my control again... I'm just worried about you."

"I know, I know. Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself. I'll make a rock dome above us if they collapse the building on us. And I'll have Yatsuhashi, Ecl..ea and her knight watching my back if it's an ambush." Naofumi closes his arms around Raphtalia's head and lets the raccoon girl rest her head on his chest. His eyes settle on Mein herself next. "Watch over Raphtalia. I'll be right back."

"Do not worry, Master Naofumi. Raphtalia is in good hands." The princess gives the Shield Hero a nod as she takes Raphtalia over in her arm. Before the smaller group goes forward, she reaches her hand over to give a firm squeeze and shake in Éclair's hand. The last Seaetto hesitate for a brief second before returning the gesture.

The Shield Hero, and his three chosen companions, part ways with the bigger group and walk deeper into the palace hall, towards the odd Black Phantom. The undead spirit seems to notice the approaching group as it slightly picks up its pace.

Before the Shield Hero, or anyone else in his little group makes a gesture or sound, the Black Phantom beats them to it by waving at them and speaking in a thick, rich accent with a slight echo. "Greetings. Prithee, do tell if you are more figment of mine imagination? I seem to have gotten lost in mine memory of my time among the living, and now I can't return to my rest."

"Wah-?" Comes her Naofumi's eloquent response. Judging by the quietness, the others with him aren't in any better state than the overall casual, and friendly way an undead monster greets them. Especially after a hundred or so others of its kind tried to curve their faces off.

"This palace of Boletaria. How long since I last wandered its grand halls? Centuries, a millennium, many millennia? Time has little meaning after I was found wanting by the gods, and taken by the angel of death into the eternal embrace of the pale realm." The phantom knight continues to speak almost as if reciting a poem. He looks around, looking melancholy at the cracked walls and fallen pillars. "The last time I witnessed such devastation, it was during the height of the Second Scourge. May haps the folly of my father, and the resulting desolation forever etched into my memory much deeper than any happy one after."

"What's he even talking about?" Mein can barely hear her Naofumi speaking quietly to Éclair. "Is he talking about the undead scourge right now?"

"No, the way he's talking... I think he meant the second Wave of Catastrophe from long ago. Almost around the time it happened..." Éclair's voice sounds unfocused, almost as if the knight is speaking out of knee jerk reaction rather than formulating a proper answer with her mind. Her slowly moving head also suggests the Seaetto heiress is looking over the Black Phantom, inspecting it. Her back suddenly makes a jerking motion. "Wait, the weapons you are holding... it's the gilded rune sword and shield. You are Ariona the Wise! Son of Allant the Valiant!"

"Huh?" Éclair's sudden exclamation seems to finally capture the phantom knight's attention and drags him out of his own revelry. "Ariona the Wise? A rather conceited title if I imagined this for myself. Why, I think it would have been more fitting if I was remembered as Ariona the Weak, Ariona the Pampered, or even Ariona the Suicidal. In any case, I have always preferred the name 'Ostrava'. Tis' not the name given to me by my father, yet it was the name I used when I first met my good friend."

"Ostrava of Boletaria, the fake name used by Ariona the Wise during his youth when he fought to stop the second Wave of Catastrophe! You ARE Ariona the Wise! Then... the good friend you are speaking about must have been the Second Spear Hero!" Éclair can barely contain the eagerness in her voice. Considering her strings of misfortune, meeting a heroic ancestor of hers is probably like finding a light in total darkness, or taking a fresh breath of air after nearly drowning.

"Such enthusiasm. I'd like to think not even I would be presumptuous enough to imagine a young lady knight gushing over my name. Does that mean you are also souls wandering the pale realm?" Ariona the Wise, or Ostrava hangs his shield behind his back and extends his hand and pushes against the wall. "It's... solid. Not a figment of my imagination? Then this means... it's not the pale realm of the dead. I'm walking under the sun of Medea again?"

"Not for long." Naofumi looks over at the shadow growing longer alongside the wall. "The sun is already setting, and we are trying to make it to the church before it sets."

"What foul sorcery brought me back to the land of the living again? I was not worthy to become a Servant of the Gods like my good friend, or Sir Biorr. So I can't be on a mission from the Gods. Unless-" Ostrava backs away from the wall, he clenches his hands. "Did Father's folly repeat itself now over how many years? Is history repeating itself?"

"What do you mean by your 'father's folly', Your Grace?" Lucatiel takes a step forward, both to get closer to the black phantom to get his attention, and to shield her lady Éclair behind her body.

"None of this 'Your Grace' business, lady..." The phantom of Ariona the Wise turns around to look at the demi-human knight, he pauses a little before bowing down to Lucatiel in a show of courtesy. "I'm sorry, milady. I'm afraid in my stupor, I neglected to ask your names."

"Lucatiel of House Seaetto. A knight of the Silver Hand Order..." The demi-human knight takes a moment to consider her answers. "I... suppose I'm the chapter master now, with me being the last Silver Hand. I used to serve House Seaetto, descended from your bloodline."

"An order of knights, you say? It seems some traditions of Boletaria did pass down through time." The phantom knight nods to himself, back to looking content again. "So, it wasn't for nothing..."

Lucatiel waited patiently for the phantom knight to continue. When it's clear the spirit of the long dead king isn't going to say anymore by himself, she finally asks again. "I'm sorry, Your Grace. But I was asking about Old King Allant the Valiant?"

"Ah, yes. Do pardon me again. You were asking about Father." Ostrava puts a finger underneath his helmeted chin. "What do you know of him?"

"He was the King of Boletaria who valiantly led his knights and men to fight against monsters left over from the First Wave of Catastrophe, before falling to the monsters in the second Wave."

"The what and what now?" The black phantom of the long dead king cocks his head to the side, clearly unfamiliar by the terms used by Lucatiel. "Oh, you must mean the demons and the First Scourge. Well... it's true Father fought them in his youth. But as he grew older, he became more and more melancholy. And he started to believe the scourge was a blessing to rid this world of the rotten depraved. I still don't know how he did it, but he became an agent of the Scourge."

"What? You can't mean..." Éclair's voice is no longer full of energy, and only a sense of terror remains.

"I'm afraid so, young lady. Father, in his folly, somehow caused the Second Scourge."

End Note

Sadly, this is a pretty slow chapter that's mostly setting up future things.

I wanted to show Naofumi actually being a bit of rapport here with the less fanatically crazy Three Heroes Church, but obviously there's still tension underneath the calm with the brief spat between Farkas and Alfred.

Éclair meets her ancestor, learning the not so reputable history of her ancestor that's lost in history. Poor Éclair, she either gets forgotten in Fanfiction completely, or gets the treatment of a kicked puppy.


And of course, just like Malty is slowly getting to become a better person with everyone else's influence, she's also influencing the more pure hearted member she interacting with to have them be less naively honest.