This has been one of those chapters that I had to rewrite again and again. I knew what I wanted to have happen, but couldn't find the appropiate medium, and eventually, I split it in two because of how long it got. I wanted to honestly capture what this version of Naofumi would be going through here. And well, I won't spoil anything more, so...

On with the chapter.


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Updated: April 6th, 2020 12:00 P.M. (EST)


Chapter Thirty-Seven: The Purity of a Soul


A few hours after the Capital (9 Days Until the Next Wave of Catastrophe)

Naofumi sat in a chair next to a bed. His damaged armor was gone. He was dressed in clothes he normally wore when he went to bed at night in an inn. He still had dried blood on one side of his neck, courtesy of Motoyasu. Dried tear tracks ran down both sides of his cheeks. He stared at the sleeping figure below him.

Lying in the bed on her back was Raphtalia. Her damaged armor had also been taken off, and she was dressed in a white nightgown. A blanket covered her up to her chest, and her arms were resting on top of the blanket. They were covered in bandages soaked with holy water like the rest of her body. From the balls of her feet all the way up to the top of her neck. There was also a large bandage wrapped around the top of her head. Her face was exposed, but the black signs of the curse she was inflicted with poked out from the edges of her bandages around her cheeks and hair. The only sign that she was still alive was the gentle up and down motion of her chest as she breathed in and out. And the grimace that appeared every now and then on her face when pain intruded on her sleep.

'... I … I did this to her…'

Van, Eclair, and he had carried Raphtalia into this room earlier. He had been such an emotional wreck and so close to a complete mental breakdown by that point from all that had happened that he was pushed out of the room so Eclair and Van's nurses could treat Raphtalia without him getting in the way. He couldn't even calm himself to help her... he'd been so scared...

Sensing his growing unease, Eclair tried to tell him what happened wasn't his fault. She probably said some other things, just like the few other people that came by to try and talk to him. But he couldn't remember who or what they'd said. His mind had too much to process. And, finally, when his brain had settled somewhat, the nurses and exhausted Eclair came back out, having finished their job. He was allowed back in. And he had been in here ever since. Sitting dutifully in his chair, holding one of Raphtalia's bandaged hands in his.

This feeling that was filling him now… was it numbness? He swore he couldn't feel anything. Nor did he want to feel anything.

Raphtalia was sleeping peacefully, but he knew no such peace. These last few hours had been absolute hell… his brain had processed what had happened, but he couldn't allow himself to think about it. He couldn't find it in him to care about it. He couldn't care about the fact that he'd escaped the Capital. He couldn't care that he'd saved both Eclair and Melty from horrible situations and that they were both safe. He couldn't care that he'd been reunited with Ren, Itsuki, Filo, and Raphtalia… he couldn't even be happy about the fact that he'd finally been able to punch Bitch in the face and actually hurt her.

It had all come at too high a price. And if he were to allow himself to feel anything now after shakily building himself back up to this point, he was going to lose it. He was going to break down. He was going to suffer.

So he just sat there, staring at her steadily breathing form.

'... I… I killed people today.'

His mind betrayed him, thinking over what had happened. He remembered at least five knights that had been killed by him. Three or four of whom hadn't tried to attack him. They had been some random knights trying to pull the wounded away to safety or putting out fires.

He'd killed those that were trying to protect others...

'I tried to burn down a city…'

His cursed flames had torched many of the buildings around the square he and Bitch had been fighting in. Though some of Bitch's spells had also gone astray, his flames had caused far more damage and were harder to put out. There had also been fires deeper in the city that Melty and Eclair couldn't reach. Who knew how many more people had been killed from that… who knew how many more had suffered from the loss of their homes or their families because of him...

And then... there was the wonderful person lying on the bed in front of him right now.

'I did this to her… I hurt her… I hurt Raphtalia…'

He had attacked everyone that came close. Including her. He'd almost choked her to death. He'd tackled her to the ground, burned her with his flames repeatedly, and thrown her into a wall. But she still got back up. She still kept on trying to reach through to him despite the pain he caused her. It was only because of her that he was sitting here now. Freed from the Shield that had blinded him and almost consumed him.

...

One of the nurses from earlier came back into the room. Why... he wasn't sure. He assumed it was a verbal lashing for what he'd done to his companion. Or maybe she was delivering some bad news. Either way, he was already preparing himself for the worst. Mentally trying to shut himself down again and stay numb...

The nurse sat in a chair next to Naofumi. She didn't speak at first…

"How is she?" Naofumi dryly asked.

The nurse opened and closed her mouth several times. She looked conflicted as to what to say. Had he turned his head to look at her, he might have taken note that this nurse was a cute young dog demi-human. She was blushing and muttering to herself nervously since she was in close proximity to the Shield Hero. A being revered and worshipped by almost all demi-humans.

"... She isn't going to make it, is she?" Naofumi asked quietly. Van had told him earlier that she would live. But that had been a noble, not some doctor.

The nurse quickly snapped out of her daydreams at his words. "No Sir Shield Hero!" She said quickly. Averting Naofumi's imminent mental breakdown. "The healing spells you applied along with your friend's light magic were more than enough! She's going to survive…"

Naofumi continued to stare at Raphtalia's peaceful face. A part of him should have felt relieved. He was grabbing the memory of those previous nightmares and kicking them in the balls with the news that Raphtalia was going to live… Van was right... she was going to live…

But... "Then, what's the bad news?"

The nurse looked surprised, and then concerned at the Shield Hero's tone of voice. She also felt guilty about having to tell him any sort of bad news. "I'm afraid…... My senior, Rebecca, tells me that the holy water we have isn't strong enough to completely remove this curse... we're fortunate it's one of the lower-tier curses and not something higher… but it's going to take some time to get the holy water we need for it." She said quietly. "And longer before she's fully healed."

"And what does that mean?" Naofumi dryly asked.

"I'm… I'm afraid that means if the shipment of holy water we requested for isn't delayed... it'll be at least two weeks before she fully recovers..."

Naofumi was quiet. His expression unreadable in the presence of the nurse. Again, the thought ran through his numb mind. He had done this to her. He'd let his hatred for Myne consume him, and Raphtalia had paid the price. The next wave was nine days away… if she tried to fight in her condition, she could die… and that was only the tip of the iceberg for a slew of other problems he probably had to be informed of but didn't have the capacity to bring himself to care about at that moment.

"If she had a class up, and if she somehow got ten levels higher... she could recover more easily from this curse… but without a way to get her a class-up…"

"I'm afraid there's nothing more we can do for her until the original shipment of high-quality holy water Master Van ordered for a member of Sir Itsuki's party arrives from Faubley..." The nurse finally said sadly. 'If it arrives…' With the dangers mounting around the kingdom, who knew if it would arrive before the problems did.

...

Naofumi said nothing. He felt nothing but that numb feeling. The feeling eating away at his insides. Van had tried his best with the nurses he had on hand as well as Eclair. But…

The nurse got up. "I'll leave you now, Sir Shield Hero." She said quietly. Guessing by Naofumi's silence that there was nothing more he required from her.

Naofumi said nothing and kept his grip on Raphtalia's hand. He heard the door open and close. And then there was silence… He knew he was alone in the room with just her now.

He didn't want to think more about it… he wanted his mind to leave him alone… but...

'In my dreams before... I succumbed to the Cursed Series.' It made sense now. It was like his mind had been trying to warn him what would happen if he let his anger and hatred get the better of him. 'I gained all that power, but I paid a terrible price... I haven't killed her now. But what about the next time? What about the time after that? What then?' His Shield Menu finally showed the Hope and Rage series in the skill tree, side by side with each other. He had the first tier of the Hopeful series unlocked, but he had unlocked the second tier of the Rage series during his duel with Myne. He hated it... Yet, ironically, it was only because of that shield that he and his party had survived long enough for Itsuki and Ren to arrive.

What would happen the next time he had no choice but to equip the shield to survive? Would he unlock a third, a fourth, maybe even a fifth series? Would he even be able to stay in control if he tried again? And then what? Would Raphtalia be fully recovered by then… would she have a class up and be able to stop him… or… or would she be in her current condition… would he end up killing her and everyone he cared about in another senseless rampage…

'I could end up doing the same thing again…' He clenched the hand that wasn't holding Raphtalia's. 'I don't want to use that shield… but I might not even have a choice!' He wasn't naive enough to think he wouldn't use it again. He'd already seen its stats. It stats outclassed all his other shields in every way, even the Shield of Hope I. Not only that, but it also allowed him to dish out damage! If he was put in a situation where they were going to die, he'd have no choice but to equip it if he wanted his party to have the best chance of survival. But if he equipped it, there was the chance that he could kill his party! 'Damn it!'

It was all his fault. If he just hadn't picked that fight with Bitch. If he had only chosen to walk away instead of stopping to gloat at the end of the duel. If he hadn't let his anger get the best of him… 'Just damn it all!' His fist pounded the leg of the chair under him. It didn't even scratch the wood because of his low attack stat. Much to his frustration and irritation.

He finally had a Shield that allowed him to attack. It didn't lower a target's defense. It didn't trap them or rely on environmental factors to cause damage. It gave him a deadly counter along with Iron Maiden. It gave his shield bash skill an attack boost. It was a shield meant to be used to attack others. But what had he done with it?! What had he done when he was finally given the chance to pay back every wrong he had ever received!?

He hurt her. Out of everyone he could have tried to hurt, he hurt Raphtalia...

He'd thought it was impossible for him to hurt anyone before, especially Raphtalia. But when he'd unlocked this shield, when he'd been given the power to hurt Bitch, when he'd finally been given the ability to make her pay for existing, he killed others instead! He destroyed part of a city! He almost killed Raphtalia! The one person he valued more than anyone else in the whole world!

Guilt pressed on Naofumi's mind. He felt tears of frustration prick at the edge of his eyes. And he squeezed them shut. Trying to force them all back. To think, he'd finally found the one way he could actually attack everyone and everything… and it had resulted in him doing this!

'No, I can't let this break me now! I have to be strong! I have to be numb! I have to… I have to be numb… I can't let this… I can't let this break me… not in front of her… not… not like this...'

Of all the things he could have thought about, a memory came to his mind.

"You've always believed in me. Now I will prove I believe in you…" Raphtalia rested a hand on his shoulder. "I swear to be your sword forever, and to always stand beside you." The two of them were in the duel arena. And she was smiling for him. That smile that said that everything would be alright.

"I could never hate you Master Naofumi… no matter what others say about you."

He gasped in shock at recalling the memory. 'She's always believed in me. She's trusted in me since the beginning… and now… ... ... I…'

The floodgates broke, and Naofumi started to sob. 'It's all my fault!' "I'm sorry. I'm sorry Raphtalia." He said to her quietly between sobs again and again.

It was all his fault. He couldn't try to hide it. The pain of the guilt that was flooding his soul, making it feel impossible to breathe. Like he was choking on empty air. He had killed people. He had set fire to a city. He had done terrible things. But worst of all, he had hurt her. She had loved him and trusted her life to him when she got her slave crest, and yet here she was. Hurt. Because of him.

How could she ever forgive a monster like him for hurting her and so many others with a hateful shield? 'If I only hadn't allowed myself to use that stupid shield! If I had only tried to think of something else. If I had only… if I had only…' He continued to sob. Feeling like his world was coming apart…

How could Raphtalia trust and love him now?

"Nao… Naofumi…"

He heard his name come softly off her lips and felt her hand in his move. He looked down at her face. Tears were still escaping from his eyes, but he could see her trying to smile. Tears were also in her eyes, but her smile drew him in. The smile that said that everything would be alright.

She had been sleeping when his mental turmoil woke her up. It made her sad to see Naofumi like this. And the bandaged hand he had been holding moved up to wipe the tears from his face. The simple action stunned him. 'How can she still be so kind after what I did to her?'

"I'm so happy that you're safe now." Her voice… it had no spite in it… it was pure, just like her soul.

How could she look so happy… when he'd… "No... no! Don't talk that way to me!" He said, suddenly feeling furious. He looked away from her. "You saw what I did back there! I don't deserve any forgiveness from you! I'm… I'm a monster! I'm a-"

"Naofumi…" Her hand grabbed his chin and forced him to look back to her. Raphtalia's face was rock hard. She suddenly didn't look so pure anymore. "Stop belittling yourself right now. Or I'm going to smack some sense into you this instant."

Naofumi went silent in shock. Her face softened, but she grimaced and lowered her hand. 'Just gripping something caused her pain. And it was because of the curse. The curse I inflicted on her-'

"Stop thinking you inflicted this on me Naofumi." Raphtalia interrupted his line of thought. "Because you didn't. It was my fault I wouldn't give up on you, not yours."

Damn, even while cursed and in pain, she could still read his mind. Just how good could she get?

She softly smiled again. "Please, please don't beat yourself up because of this Naofumi. It hurts me when you do this to yourself." She whispered.

He looked at her in disbelief. "W… what?"

She continued to smile for him. "Back there, I had this feeling... That power you unleashed… you were hurting because you couldn't control it… you couldn't control what you were doing… I knew deep down you didn't want to do any of it… And I couldn't bear that you were being forced to act against your own will... so, given that I was able to save you, this doesn't bother me in the slightest." She finished happily.

He continued to stare at her. How could he not beat himself up? He had killed people? He had destroyed homes. He had hurt her! The pure, genuine Raphtalia of all people! He couldn't even find it in himself to smile! It was like he'd reset to his own cynical self back when he'd learned about Bitch betraying him! Only the cynicism wasn't being directed at other people. It was being directed at himself! He couldn't trust himself anymore!

Raphtalia sighed. "What did I tell you about beating yourself up over this?"

"But how can't I when I'm the one that hurt you?" He asked, mainly to himself. He put his head in his hands and started to cry again. He'd hurt the person who trusted him the most in this world. How could he not hurt after doing that?

"I'm alright. I'm stronger than I look. And I know if I just rest then I'll feel better soon." She still continued to smile hopefully for him while consoling him.

"But… what if I do this again… what if… next time you don't recover…"

Naofumi sniffed. Raphtalia's hands raised again and moved his hands away. She cupped his face. He tried to look down at the floor. But her soft, understanding, deep tea-red eyes continued to hold his in place. "That will never happen. Not as long as I'm around." She said. "If I have to, I'll get stronger. I'll become strong enough so you don't have to use that shield again. And if you do have to use it, I'll be right there with you to pull you out."

Naofumi stared at her. Despite the pain, Raphtalia moved one of her bandaged fingers to wipe away tears from under one of his eyes. "Please, I want you to forgive yourself Naofumi." She said. "Don't carry this burden alone. You've already had to carry too many since being summoned to my world. Let me take some of it away from you."

She was already tired again. But her hands stayed in place. "But, but I, I can't-" Naofumi said.

"Yes, you can." She said quietly. Her hands moved behind his neck, and he instinctively leaned forwards so she could sit up and hug him. His head resting on her shoulder. His hands felt the bandages covering her back. It brought more tears to his eyes at how thoroughly Raphtalia had been hurt for his sake.

"I know in my heart you didn't mean to hurt me or anyone else back in the Capital. I know you didn't mean to kill those knights... And I know you'll try your hardest in the future not to let that happen again." She felt his hair. "You'll be okay. I know you will."

"But Raphtalia, I'm not okay!" He embraced her tightly while crying into her hair. Her hand continued to move comfortingly through his spiked hair. "Please… please Raphtalia." He whispered. "I don't know what to do anymore. I, I thought I had everything figured out, but now, I'm so lost. I'm… I'm afraid... I'm so afraid that I could end up doing this again. To you... to Filo..."

Had he not promised to keep them safe? Had he not promised as the Shield Hero that he'd protect the innocent from harm… then how could he have lost control today? How could he have lost it and hurt everyone? How could he have killed a knight that wasn't trying to attack him... how could he have attacked Filo and everyone else that tried to stop him… how could he have possibly hurt her?

How could he have hurt his Raphtalia of all people…

"Naofumi." She whispered back. "I know you… I know that you're a good person… I know you have a kind heart… and I know that, even though you lost today, you'll come up with a plan. You'll find a way to prevent what happened from happening again. I know you will. It's in your nature."

"But… what if I can't…" He whispered softly. What if the next time he was forced to use that shield...

"You will… because you're the Great Shield Hero… and the man I fell in love with… there's no force in this world that can hold you down forever, Naofumi." Raphtalia whispered in his ear. "I should know. I have tried and failed too many times to hold you back from what you want to do."

Her quip at him actually elicited a small chuckle. Raphtalia was definitely fine. Somehow, she really was okay and didn't think any less of him. But it didn't stop him from holding her close to him or keep one of his hands moving along her hair. Which felt as soft to him as ever. "I don't know what to do Raphtalia…" He whispered. "And… and that scares me more than anything else… I don't want to lose you or Filo..."

"Then… for now... will you stop beating yourself up, and hold me until I fall asleep?" She asked.

He sniffed and pulled back a little. Her tired eyes stared into his. "I don't want you to blame yourself for this. It was my choice to try and bring you back from that dark abyss, and I won't regret having done so." She repeated firmly, yet lovingly to him.

He continued to stare into her eyes. They stared at him with kindness and care. Deep down, no matter how she acted, her soul really was the purest he'd ever met. "O… Okay." He finally whispered. He could try and do that, at least for her.

Raphtalia smiled for him. "I love you Naofumi… and thank you for staying with me..." She closed her eyes, and Naofumi cradled her close. Despite the curse, her hair still smelled of her. Bringing him some comfort.

Her arms relaxed at her sides, and, within minutes, she fell into a more peaceful sleep. Her pain from the burns melted away into comfort, being held in Naofumi's caring embrace.

'Raphtalia…' He pulled back after a moment and laid her down gently. He continued to hold one of her hands in his. And he wiped a few more tears away from his eyes as he looked down at her beautiful face. Calm and peaceful in sleep.

She wasn't the lucky one… he was. To have someone like her in his life… "I… I love you too… Ra-Raphtalia." He finally admitted, his voice breaking. "... So… so much…" His words breaking into sobs at the end.

He'd realized it. It had taken some time away from her, worrying if he'd ever see her again to help him along the path. But he'd finally realized it, right before his duel with Myne. He was in love with this girl from another race and another world. She'd grown up over the last two months, and broken through all of his defenses and taken his heart before he knew what hit him.

She was still fast asleep. Yet her hand gripped his comfortingly. As if she were still telling him that everything would be okay. She loved him enough that she'd make sure of it.

He sighed. Love could only do so much. Love wouldn't bring those he killed back. Love wouldn't undo what he'd done back in the Capital… love wouldn't get rid of her curse, nor his cursed shield...

After a moment, he finally stood up. He laid Raphtalia's bandaged hand down next to her side. He then moved a lock of hair away from her face as he stared at her one last time to make sure she was okay... 'I'll try... Raphtalia... just...' He sighed, and then he left the room.

The comfort left.

He felt guilt for what he'd done all over again.


The next room over, a few minutes before Naofumi left

"Sir Itsuki."

Itsuki looked up from his chair. "Is everything okay Rachel?" He asked.

Rachel nodded as she entered the room. She'd changed out of what she had been wearing for the battle for some simple black mage robes. Her dyed black hair draped itself freely on her shoulders. "I just wanted to inform you that Aksel is recovering well from the gash he got on his arm during the battle."

"Okay. How about the others?" He asked.

"Crystal is in our room resting. Karn is training with one of Sir Naofumi's party members. I'm taking a break from training the demi-human mages in Lord Reichnott's village."

"That's good… and Maya?" Itsuki asked.

"... What do you think?" Rachel dryly chuckled after a moment.

"Oof... Poor Aksel." Itsuki said tiredly.

"I don't know what he did while she was growing up. But she loves to bother him more than anyone else in the party Sir Itsuki. I'd almost swear she's actually infatuated with him if it wasn't her nature to be playful."

"Yeah…" Itsuki said.

"No matter how much he acts like it bothers him though, I'm sure he likes Maya's company. He grew up around demi-humans. He's probably happy to have a demi-human to talk to again." Rachel said.

"Yeah…" Itsuki was faced away from his party member, looking at the girl in the bed next to him.

"... Is Rishia's condition still the same?" Rachel asked. Taking a seat on the bed next to Rishia's prone form so she'd be in Itsuki's line of sight.

...

Itsuki slowly nodded. "She's just as we left her when we traveled for the Capital." He said, his voice containing a tinge of sadness. Even though it had been four days… he'd hoped when he left with Ren that she'd be better when he got back… but after coming in here earlier… he'd found her condition still hadn't changed.

Rishia had bandages soaked in holy water wrapped around parts of her body similar to how Raphtalia looked now. The curse afflicting her wasn't near as bad as Raphtalia's. Her HP bar was back in the yellow zone. The holy water Van already had on hand was enough to start lifting it from her skin. Yet, for some reason, even though she was slowly recovering, the poor fueh girl still hadn't woken up.

"Are you worried about her Sir Itsuki?"

Itsuki looked from Rishia to Rachel, who was staring at him in concern. Itsuki was about to ask what she meant when he realized it. Tears were falling from his eyes again. Just like when he'd first walked into the room earlier to find Rishia still asleep. He wiped them away. "A little bit, but I'm sure she'll be fine." He answered.

"Are you sure that's what you're thinking right now Sir Itsuki?"

"..."

Rachel decided not to press. It looked like if Itsuki was pushed anymore, he was going to break down just like when he'd discovered what he'd accidentally done to Rishia. "If you need me, I'll be training Lord Reichnott's mages. It's sounding like we're going to need them soon. Let me know if you need anything."

"... Alright. Thanks, Rachel." Itsuki said sadly and tiredly.

Rachel got up, bowed respectively to Itsuki, and left the room.

'Rachel… she really is concerned about my well-being…' Another tear escaped, and he wiped it away. He went back to staring at Rishia. As if somehow hoping that staring at her would be enough for the Fueh girl to stir in her cursed sleep.

After another moment, another person entered the room. "Is she still not awake?"

"... No… unfortunately not, Ren." Itsuki answered.

Ren walked up beside the blonde bowman. He wasn't really good at comforting others, so he was silent, thinking over what to say to his friend…

"Is… are Raphtalia and Naofumi okay?" Itsuki asked. Wiping away another single tear with his arm.

"Haven't you checked on them since they're on the other side of that wall?" Ren asked, pointing at the wall behind Rishia's bed.

Itsuki didn't answer, and his face became more downcast. Ren, realizing what he said, mentally facepalmed at his insensitive answer. "I just tried to stop by… she was awake, but I decided it'd be better not to walk in." He said.

"Why? What happened?" Itsuki asked.

"Well... Raphtalia was hugging and comforting Naofumi when I peeked open the door." Ren said. "He… he was taking what happened pretty hard." He still couldn't get the image of Naofumi looking so utterly destroyed out of his mind. "And I felt it'd be better not to bother them…"

"Oh…" The two were silent for a while.

...

Outside, a door opened. Footsteps traveled down the hallway away from the two. Naofumi had just left.

...

Itsuki balled his hands into fists. Tears of frustration were gathering in his eyes. "Why… why did all this have to happen?!"

"What do you mean-" Ren was asking, surprised at Itsuki's outburst.

"I was only trying to free demi-humans that were being abused by their masters! Naofumi and Raphtalia were out there trying to do good as Night Merchants! And you were actually being a hero defeating dangerous monsters and protecting villages! So why did everyone out there turn on us!?"

"Slow down Itsuki. What brought this on?" Ren asked incredulously.

"We're Cardinal Heroes Ren! We're supposed to be the ones in the right here! We're supposed to be on the side of justice! Yet the people out there turned on us! They turned on Naofumi and, and-" Itsuki looked like he was going to pull his hair out, trying to explain his thoughts.

Ren's face hardened. "Yeah, we are heroes. But this isn't a game Itsuki. This is real-" He tried to calmly explain. He'd already told Itsuki before he didn't see this world as a game anymore. But Itsuki had blown it off back then. Itsuki had pushed on, still thinking this was all a game.

"But I don't want to think this is real! This is supposed to be my favorite game Ren! We've been trying to do good! Heroes aren't supposed to be treated this way! We aren't-"

Slap!

Ren slapped Itsuki across the face, hard enough that he was sent flying off his chair to the floor. "Don't you dare say that to me!" Ren yelled furiously. His calm and aloof manner was gone. "Don't you dare give me that crap that we're supposed to be above it all and that we're perfect! I am the last person you should be telling that to!"

Itsuki stared up at Ren in shock. "I already tried to warn you before, but you were too stupid to listen! So listen now Itsuki! That party member of yours that died wasn't an NPC! Raphtalia isn't an NPC! Van isn't an NPC! And that girl you're crying over right now isn't a damn NPC! Get that through your thick skull!"

Itsuki was still stunned as Ren continued. "This world isn't our fantasy games come to life! It's as real as you, me, Naofumi, and that damn idiot Motoyasu! The people here aren't limited by programming! They'll make their own decisions whether they're good or bad! We might have a leg up since this world reflects our games in one way or another, but at the end of the day it's real! Everything in it is real! All the people in it are real! Just because we're heroes doesn't mean that people still won't treat us like ****! Look at what they did to Naofumi since the day he was... was..."

Ren trailed off. Itsuki had more tears falling down his face now.

"I know…" He whispered.

"... what?…"

"You think I don't know by now…" Itsuki put his face into his hands and started to cry. Ren had completely misread the situation. Itsuki already knew the answer. But he hadn't wanted to admit it to himself. Maybe it had been some mentality he'd been gripping onto. Some defense mechanism to help shield the true darkness he'd encountered again and again in this world. But he couldn't hide from it anymore. Ren had hammered that nail deep into the coffin.

This game wasn't Dimension Wave. It wasn't any game Itsuki had ever played before to escape reality. Hell, it wasn't even a game. It had never been a game. It was reality. The reality he'd been trying to escape from all along.

"Hey… I didn't mean-"

"I've seen some terrible things, Ren… I've done some terrible things… I was only able to get by because I thought this was all a game… I thought this was like the isekai stories from my world come to life... I thought this was just some major story quest that would have a happy ending… but I was wrong."

Ren stayed quiet. More tears fell from Itsuki's face. The normally composed teen who wouldn't have looked out of place playing a piano cried. "I killed people Ren… I killed them because I thought they were evil NPCs… and when I failed to rescue demi-humans, I only pushed on because I had to think of them as NPC's for the sake of the story quest… and then... when I realized it wasn't a game… I froze… and my indecision cost Marx his life… and led me to hurt Rishia in an attempt to save the rest of my party…" He continued to cry. The green-haired girl next to him didn't stir. "It's all my fault..."

"Hey. " Itsuki continued to look down. "Look at it this way. At least we haven't been as bad as Motoyasu." Ren said.

...

Itsuki looked to Ren through his tears. He didn't feel any better.

"You're not very good at comforting others… are you?"

"I'd say that's one of his biggest flaws."

Ren and Itsuki looked at the doorway. Wyndia was leaning against it, staring coldly at the two of them. "Wyndia, I thought you were resting-" Ren was saying.

"And I have rested." She interrupted him calmly. "And you are not doing well at helping Sir Itsuki out, Sir Ren."

She walked in. Ren sighed, but didn't try to stop her. His attempts at trying to comfort Itsuki had face-planted into ten feet of concrete. It was impossible for her to mess up worse than him.

She gave the Bow Hero a lookover. Not saying anything for a while… "Sir Itsuki." She finally said. Her voice was softer than before. "Is it true that you seek justice for the demi-human races?" She asked.

Itsuki was somewhat caught off guard by her question. "Well, at first, it seemed like an excellent quest to undertake…" Itsuki admitted.

"At first?" Wyndia clarified.

"..." More tears leaked from his eyes. "After seeing the terrible things your people were being put through, it became more than just a quest. I wanted to help, but I-"

"And have you not helped them?" Wyndia interrupted.

"Well… Yeah, but I failed so many times-" Itsuki looked annoyed at her interrupting him.

"Do you think the demi-humans out there would agree that you failed?" Wyndia pointed outside towards the village. She didn't care that she was interrupting a Cardinal Hero of Legend. Itsuki did not need soft words. He needed to see the good he'd already accomplished.

Itsuki opened and closed his mouth… words wanted to come out. But he couldn't think of how to answer that. 'Do… do all the demi-humans I rescued out there think I'm horrible?' He honestly thought. He'd had the opportunity to meet Lily's mom once a week and a half after Lily's death. She'd still looked depressed about the loss of her daughter. But she'd been happy to see him. She'd taken the time to stop and thank him for saving her and her friends… and there had been similar experiences with other demi-humans even though he'd failed to save those close to them too from their nobles...

Wyndia's face softened. "I haven't had much chance to talk with everyone in the village here yet… but almost everyone I've talked to so far has the highest respect for you, Sir Itsuki. They wouldn't be here now if it weren't for you standing up to their owners. They wouldn't be free of the abuse and torture they were going through if it weren't for you. They look up to you almost as much, probably even more than the Shield Hero." If the history she'd read really was correct. The Bow Hero and Shield Hero had been introduced to this world when it fused with the other world, whatever that meant. It was like the Bow Hero had rediscovered his home roots, and was fighting to fix the damage his forebear had caused in the past.

Itsuki was silent. Wyndia graced him with a small smile. "You might not think it. But you are their hero now, Sir Itsuki. You saved them and gave them real value when no one else wouldn't."

More tears came to Itsuki's eyes. "But the Church knows they're here now… they'll be coming to slaughter them soon... it's my fault."

"And are you, Sir Bow Hero, going to allow the Church to have their way?" Wyndia asked. "Are you going to allow a group of innocent people to be slaughtered? Are you going to let their hope get snuffed out right after they've been given a second chance at life?"

Itsuki stared at Wyndia… his face hardened. "No." He stood up. "I refuse to let that happen."

Ren stared up at his friend. He recognized that glint in his eyes. It was the same thing he'd felt that first day after he'd been confronted with reality. "I won't let them. I'll stop them. No matter what it takes. I'll bring those criminals down! I'll protect the innocent all over this damn world! And I'll bring them to justice even if it kills me!" Itsuki said determinedly.

Ren smirked where he was sitting. 'Damn…' This was far better than seeing his friend down and depressed. Maybe he'd leave comforting others to Wyndia in the future.

Wyndia's smile dropped. "That's good, Sir Itsuki. But I'd prefer it if you didn't die, or go it alone." Her voice was calm and neutral again. "Rely on your party members. They'll help you to hold to that promise. As I do now for the promise Sir Ren made to me." She looked coldly at Ren, who nervously gulped.

"I know they will." Itsuki said. "I trust them."

Wyndia stared at Ren a moment more. A flush of red entered her cheeks, but before Ren could figure out why, she huffed and walked back through the doorway. "Stay strong, Sir Itsuki." She said as she left. "Our world needs the help of all the Cardinal Heroes."

...

The two were left alone in the room with Rishia.

"You… have an awesome party member there Ren," Itsuki said after a moment.

"Yeah… I don't deserve to have her help…" Ren said. "Yet… she still helps me even when she doesn't have to." It was almost like there was another reason she was doing these things.

"Did… did you ever get over what you did to Wyndia?" He still remembered Ren telling him the story about being fooled into killing the dragon.

"I… I don't know if I'll ever get over that…" Ren said, looking to the opposite wall. The dragon Gaelion had imprinted the memories of Wyndia's parents into his brain. He couldn't forget. "There are times where it still hurts a lot to think about it… but I know if I let it stop me, I'll never be able to make it up to her. So I'm trying to get stronger. So I can prevent that from happening again."

Itsuki continued to look at Ren. "Yeah… I guess we're both on the same path."

"No, I think we're on the paths we were supposed to be on now. Something Naofumi knew long before either of us." Ren said.

"..."

"..."

Itsuki got back into his chair. "We have things we need to talk about." He said seriously. He looked much better now than before.

"Wouldn't it be better to go see Naofumi now-" Ren was asking. Now that Itsuki was better, they'd stand a better chance at comforting Naofumi.

"Trust me. With how attached he is to Raphtalia, it'd be better to leave him be for as long as possible." Itsuki said seriously. "He's deeply hurting. And if my guess is right, he also succumbed to a Cursed Series like me. He'll need time to think it over. And if I'm being honest, I'm not much better than you at providing comfort to other people."

Ren frowned. "Alright. But we can't leave him out of the loop forever." Ren said.

It was official. Itsuki was ready for business. Wyndia had managed to pull him fully out of the bog he was in. At least for the moment. "I should ask. What is a Cursed Series, Itsuki?" Ren asked.

"I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that I think I unlocked it after killing the first noble I confronted over slavery." Itsuki said with a grimace. "I used it every time we faced nobles after that. It's on another level power-wise, but it left me feeling weird, almost empty afterward. And when I unlocked the next tier when my party was ambushed, it was like I wasn't the one in control anymore." The bow was labeled the Bow of Justice II in his Bow Menu. But it couldn't possibly be that. It was like it was hiding it's true identity from Itsuki. A possibility he wouldn't have honestly considered before if he'd thought this was still a game.

"And Naofumi also has something like it unlocked?" Ren asked.

Itsuki nodded. "We didn't arrive in time to see the main fighting. But I checked one of the black fires on my way over. It was definitely cursed flames, like the ones that were unleashed from one of the Cursed Skills I used on a Church Shadow."

Ren grimaced. He'd seen plenty of those black fires running along the outer wall of the city. "Do you have a Cursed Series too Ren?" Itsuki asked.

Ren... shook his head after a moment. "No. At least, I don't think I do." He muttered.

"What do you mean?" Itsuki asked.

Something pricked at the edge of Ren's mind. Like a memory that wanted to resurface.


Wyndia stared in shock for a moment more. "No… mama… papa…" The little four-year-old Wyndia sat back against the wall of the cave and started to cry anew.

"Protect her…"

The images around Ren finally stopped. He stared at the ground, wide-eyed in shock. He had no thoughts. He had no feeling. All he had was a realization that had slammed through everything he'd thought he'd known since he'd woken up with the Legendary Sword in his hand.

"This isn't a game."

Then, everything around Ren turned to black.


Ren shook his head. Maybe he was just overthinking it. Still, though he hadn't noted it back then, it'd almost looked like there was something in that blackness. Some shape he couldn't make out...

"Well, anyway, I also need to go over with you what you learned from the archives of the Three Heroes Church. Along with how your party got away intact." He said. "Then we can move on from there."

Ren shook his head. "Actually, our escape there was also thanks to Wyndia."

"Seriously? Can I trade party members for her?"

Ren gave Itsuki a soft glare…

"Alright, I was kidding. But how did she do it?" Itsuki asked.

"It involved the magic you saw back in the square," Ren said, thinking back on what had happened. "And a whole lot of running."


12 Days before the Wave of Catastrophe

"Bakta, switch!" Bakta, who had been taking the knights' attacks on his armor, sword, and shield, jumped back at Ren's yell. Welt and Ren rushed into his place, attacking back.

"Ahhh!" Two of the Church Knights in front of them fell back from the wounds they received. But then three more knights took their place, and Welt and Bakta jumped back to allow Bakta to tank again.

"As source of thy power we order thee! Decipher the laws of nature, and blow our targets away in a gust of wind! Zweite Gust!" Farrie and Tersia chanted.

"As source of thy power we order thee! Decipher the laws of nature, and blow our targets away in a gust of wind! Anti-Zweite Gust!" The Church mages chanted almost simultaneously.

Tersia and Farrie's wind spell died out before they could cast it. The two of them grimaced where they were being protected in the corner behind Ren. "Sir Ren. We can't cast any of our magic! They keep interfering!"

Ren scowled. He wasn't going to go down like this! "Switch!" Bakta jumped back, and this time Ren and Wyndia jumped forward.

"Crimson Blade!"

"Fast Fireball!"

Ren sent a slash of fire into several knights. Wyndia slapped the blades of several knights away with her katana to slam a fireball she formed in her hand into the chest of a knight before the Church Mages could dispel it. The Church Mages immediately began casting spells in retaliation.

"Fast Gust!"

"Fast EarthBall!"

Tersia and Farrie tried again to cast their magic while the mages were trying to cast their own spells.

"Anti-Fast Gust!"

"Anti-Fast EarthBall!"

The Church mages dropped their spells and retaliated. Wyndia had been lucky enough to have said the spell right as she was slamming it into a Church Knight. The less time it took the spell to hit the target, the harder it was to interfere with it in time.

Bakta took Ren and Wyndia's place again. They'd taken down several knights, but none of the Church Mages. And the Pope was still standing there. Smiling down on them as if he had all the time in the world. "For walking corpses, you don't know when to give up. It would be so much simpler if you allowed God to purify your souls."

"As source of thy power we order thee! Decipher the laws of nature! Cleanse our target in the flames of the holiest! Purify their souls, and offer them up unto the true Gods of our world!" Drifa Holy Flames!" The Church Mages cast the spell together.

The Church Knights jumped to the sides, right as a bright white flame appeared out of a pentagram over the Church Mages. "Get back!" Bakta got in front of everyone and braced his shield.

The spell slammed into it. And the resulting explosion destroyed Bakta's shield and sent him flying into a bookcase behind the group. "Bakta, no!"

The Church Knights roared in anger as they charged forward again. Ren, Welt, and Wyndia were forced to take Bakta's place and fight. The noble knight looked out for the count. And it took all three just to keep Tersia and Farrie protected.

'Damn it!' Ren wanted to send another skill at the Pope. But after how his last one had been easily deflected, he was too afraid to try. If any of his high power skills got deflected on him and his own party, then it would be game over. But he could already hear the sounds of more knights charging down the stairs, and without Bakta, they weren't going to be able to block more of the mages magic barrages. 'What do we do?!'

He deflected two blades, and a third left a small gash on his arm. That was the other thing. Despite his effort and training, he still wasn't greatly skilled in using a blade. He needed more training to sword fight with multiple opponents.

"Thunderbolt Slash!" He retaliated with launching a skill against the knights.

"Aughhh!" A few dropped to the ground in front of him. 'Maybe if I don't attack the Pope. Then he won't get the chance to reflect any of my skills. But if he used one of my skills to reflect that attack, is it possible that sword he's wielding can use my other skills-'

"Sir Ren, do you trust me?" Wyndia asked him all of a sudden.

Ren was surprised enough that another Church Knight slashed his chest plate. He retaliated by kicking the knight away. "Do you have an idea to get us out of here?" Ren asked.

"Possibly. But I'll need a moment to focus." She said. She deftly knocked away a knight's blade and then slashed him across the chest. Forcing him back to deal with the new wound.

"As long as we have a chance, then go for it." Wyndia jumped back at receiving confirmation from Ren. "Welt, help me out! Tersia, Farrie, cast as many spells as you can!" Ren ordered.

His party members immediately obeyed without question. Even Farrie and Tersia.

"Fast Wind Shot!"

"Fast EarthBall!"

"Fast Fire Ball!"

"Earth Hole!"

"Anti-Fast Wind Shot!"

"Anti-Fast EarthBall!"

"Anti-Fast Wi-"

"Anti-"

Tersia's spells started to break through the Church Mage's attempts at interference magic. To interfere required the opposing mage The two of them didn't even bother to use chants to increase the strength of their attacks. They were doing the absolute definition of spamming spell after spell. And the Church Mages couldn't keep up with the two of them. So several of the weakened spells managed to come to life, hitting into the Church Knights. Their MP bars also started to drop like crazy in Ren's status vision. They wouldn't be able to keep the barrage up for long.

Wyndia moved along the bookshelves. Feeling with her hands and most likely with her magic senses.

"Air Strike Bash! Crimson Blade! Thunderbolt Slash!" Ren was casting all the skills that he could as well. Protecting both himself and Welt. His weapon started to smoke, likely from skill overload.

Welt also pushed himself. He didn't use magic. But he knew his way around a sword. He was so used to protecting Tersia and Farrie that protecting Ren between skills came naturally. The two of them together managed to hold the horde of Church Knights back for the moment.

"Your struggles are meaningless. You will be purified. That is your fate. It is as God has decreed." Pope Balamus declared triumphantly as if he had already won.

Wyndia stopped. She was near where Bakta had hit the bookcase. He was groaning and getting onto his knees. She could hear something else. The way her family had escaped from under the Church before. It was on the other side of the wall. Her fire magic wouldn't be enough to blow open a hole though.

She hadn't used this magic in front of any of the others before. Not even Sir Ren. But now... 'I can't hide this part of me from Sir Ren any longer… either I trust him to get us out of this… or…'

Without thinking more on it, Wyndia started to chant. "I call upon the power of the Earth to come to me and take form."

Ren paused in-between skills while Welt protected him. 'Is she saying a chant for a spell?' He thought confusedly. Glancing over at Wyndia. It was unfamiliar. It didn't even match with any of the high leveled spells he'd heard others use in his game before coming to this world.

Pope Balamus paled. "No, she couldn't have."

"Couldn't have what?" A Mage asked.

"Stop that girl right now!" He suddenly ordered his mages.

Ren didn't recognize whatever magic Wyndia was using. But he realized enough when Balamus started freaking out that it was a good sign for them. "Air Strike Bash!" He launched another skill, sending more of the knights flying backward into the Church Mages. Sowing confusion among them.

"We don't know what kind of magic she's casting!" One of the mages said fearfully.

"No! Knights, stop her before-"

While Pope Balamus had been speaking, while Ren was fighting, while Welt was protecting, and while Tersia and Farrie spam launched spells. Wyndia continued chanting.

"Dragon Vein, hear my petition! Earth Vein, lend me your strength! Give me the power needed to break us from this prison! Give me the power to turn our defeat into a victory!" Wyndia chanted, before placing both hands on the wall in front of her. "Come forth! Black Fire Explosion!"

Boom!

A burst of energy burst out from Wyndia's hands, slamming into the wall with the force of a wrecking ball. The shockwave from it sent many of the knights flying back. Pope Balamus raised his robe, grimacing as the shockwave and accompanying wave of dust washed over everyone.

After a few seconds, the dust cleared. Ren's party members were gone, including Bakta. Though the fragments of his shield had been left behind. There was a big hole in the wall where Wyndia had cast the Dragon Vein magic. On the other side was the Melromarc Sewage system. The same way her parents had managed to escape before after a stranger had freed them from their slave crests years ago.

Just barely, the Pope was able to make out Ren carrying a very tired Wyndia before they turned a corner deep in the sewage tunnel and disappeared.

"After them!" The Pope ordered the Church Knights that were getting back up. One of them was missing. "Make sure the false Sword Hero and his party don't make it out of those sewers alive!"

"But what about the demi-human?" One of the knights asked.

"Didn't you say she was your property?" A Mage asked.

"Kill her." Pope Balamus said.

"Um, but didn't you say she was valuable to you-"

"If she was blessed by a dragon, then she's far too dangerous to be allowed to live now. Now go! Purge them all in the name of God!" The Pope ordered, barely keeping his voice from sounding angry and frustrated. "Those are orders from God!"

"Yes, your excellency!" The Church Knights ran into the sewers after Ren and his party.

They ran into a large cream alligator monster that was pretty hungry.

Some of them got lost in the maze of tunnels and were forced to the surface.

But they never did find out where Ren and his party had gone. Along with their missing comrade.


Present

"So that's how you escaped…" Itsuki looked to be thinking to himself.

"I know I already told you about it before. But I never asked if Dragon Vein Magic existed in your game or not?" Ren asked.

Itsuki shook his head. "No, the first I heard of it was when you told me on our way to the Capital that Wyndia could use it." He said. Ren hadn't had much time to explain since they'd rushed to the Capital as quickly as they could. Now that things had settled down for the moment, they could finally talk.

He was thinking hard to himself. "So that's more evidence that this really isn't like our games at all." Itsuki continued.

"Either that, or it was deep lore I never learned about in my world," Ren said with a nod. While some things were different than the actual game, the class system and events lined up pretty well. The fact that the next wave was happening in nine days also matched up with the game.

"Do you know how to learn Dragon Vein Magic?" Itsuki asked.

"Wyndia told me it requires receiving a blessing from a Dragon," Ren answered. "Beyond that, I have no idea. She hasn't told me much about it other than that and the fact that it requires a lot of energy at her current level to cast it."

"Okay." Itsuki thought some more… if it took a dragon to learn how to use Dragon Vein Magic, it was no wonder either of them had heard of it before. And they weren't sure if it could be just any dragon. Plus, normally, when a giant fire breathing lizard was placed in front of you, your first instinct was to either run away or kill it. Talking was out of the question. "Are you sure you wouldn't want to trade Wyndia-"

"Not on your life." Ren cut him off.

"Okay. How about you tell me about the Leruno incident then?" Itsuki asked.

"You mean Motoyasu's major plant blunder?" Ren sarcastically asked.

"Yeah, how did that go down?"

"I have to say. I am never going to look at plants the same ever again. It took us three days to kill the boss plant the first time. Then we were heading back, thinking we killed it, when it's seeds sprouted into a stronger boss. So we had to regroup and…"

The two continued to talk. With Itsuki laughing about some of the details of Ren's misadventures with mutated plants. And though Ren didn't realize it, just doing that was helping Itsuki to feel better. Even though Rishia was stuck in a cursed sleep. Even though Marx was dead and he'd have to avenge him, doing something this normal with Ren was working wonders.

They'd eventually have to go and talk to Naofumi. There were many things that were about to go down. But today, it was good to just sit and talk with a friend.

No matter how much he sucked socially.


Author's Notes:

Mother of Holy Weapons! This was one of the hardest and roughest chapters for me to write. I want to give props to best girl Raphtalia here. I don't care what all your opinions are, she's the best. She's not the perfect character, has her own flaws, makes her own mistakes, but ultimately she still does her best to stand by Naofumi, even through fire and brimstone. Can we take a moment to praise our Best Girl Raphtalia here?

Next chapter, we'll likely be seeing how events have turned out at the Capital. Along with Naofumi working on getting over the guilt of what happened. He better too. Crap is about to hit the fan. For now. Here's an omake. Let's end some of the depression we read here on a more positive note.


Hero Clips!


Embarrassed Tsunderes


"Sir, Sir Ren!" Wyndia was blushing madly, and looked super embarrassed.

"What is it Wyndia?" Ren groggily asked. He'd just finished using Van's bathhouse to clean up after the battle, and had walked out with a towel wrapped around his waist. Leaving the rest of his body on display for the poor demi-girl.

"You, you're, you're…" Wyndia was seriously blushing like mad. 'Oh no! I didn't, I didn't realize Sir Ren looked so hot underneath that armor!' She thought. Her tail wagging crazily behind her.

This was… this was!... HE WAS SO HOT!-

"Hey, Wyndia, are you okay?"

"Gah!" Wyndia shook herself out of her daydream. Ren was in front of her, fully dressed, and looking at her weirdly. "Wh-What?!" She asked.

"I was saying thank you for helping Itsuki earlier, but then you started staring at nothing-" Ren was saying, looking concerned.

"No I wasn't you idiot!" Wyndia hit him over the head with a fist. Either her face was red because she was really angry, or really embarrassed. Either way, the hit dropped Ren to the ground because of the surprise of the sudden attack and the force behind it.

"Ow, what was that for-" Ren was trying to say.

"Idiot! Idiot! IDIOT!" Wyndia started hitting him over the head again and again.

"Ow! Stop it! Ah!" Ren covered his head, trying to protect himself.

"I'll teach you to make a fool out of me!" Wyndia continued to pommel him. Forcing Ren into the fetal position.

'What did I even do?!' Ren thought, thinking he was going crazy. One moment he'd been thanking Wyndia for helping Itsuki, then the next, she'd been looking at him weirdly, and now, she was beating the living hell out of him!

"GAHHHHHHH!"

Naofumi watched was going on with a smirk. He was having to do his best not to laugh. "Master Naofumi, what are you thinking about now?" Raphtalia asked with a sigh beside him.

"I'm just thinking I'm glad I didn't have a Tsundere girl fall in love with me." He said happily.

Raphtalia blushed at the comment. But didn't deny it as they held hands and watched.

"Wyndia, please, what did I do wrong-" Ren pleaded.

"EVERYTHING YOU DAMN IDIOT!"

The embarrassed tsundere girl was too afraid to admit she'd been daydreaming about seeing his naked chest and thinking he was hot.


Till Next Time

Allen