Sometimes the quickest route to defeat isn't necessarily caused by a lack of equipment or skill, but due to a difference in support.

The bow, the sword, the spear, and the shield, each had their own strengths and purposes, but for the longest time, Naofumi had felt as if he were scrounging in the dark.

If Shirou hadn't been summoned with him, then he may as well have been at his wit's end trying to find a legitimate means to level properly without being able to output substantial damage.

The Shield offered versatility and support, but severely lacked any damaging capabilities such that Naofumi would struggle to kill a slime. In fact, he did struggle to kill a slime as it took numerous blows to defeat compared to Shirou's single slash. It was frustrating, but he'd long since come to accept that this was just how things were with the Legendary Shield.

There was no need to actively find a means to harm an adversary, and instead, he should focus on keeping his allies alive. This was the true essence of a Shielder or tank's role in any party set up.

Still, if it were another timeline in which Shirou wasn't summoned with Naofumi, and tragic events occurred forcing Naofumi to adapt on his own, then perhaps Naofumi wouldn't have considered such a path.

Fate works in mysterious ways, and with Shirou to provide enough DPS (Damage per second), Naofumi had specialized and gathered materials and skills related primarily to support.

He was a tank in every sense of the word, able to provide buffs and debuffs based on the type of Shield Series he equipped.

Ever heard of the tank-meta?

Sometimes the most frustrating and dangerous opponents in games weren't the high damage dealers, but the numerous control skills of the front-line supports.

Naofumi felt a surge of incomprehensible excitement while staring at Ren who stood opposite to him on the makeshift arena. The only other person he'd consistently sparred against was Shirou for training, and Shirou was a cheater who adjusted to fend off against Naofumi's tactics after understanding the gimmicks of his support and debuffs.

Ren wasn't Shirou though.

There wasn't some convenient tool or self reinforcing ability that could counter Naofumi's supports.

In short, Naofumi didn't consider Shirou as normal, and as such this was his first trial run from a certain aspect.

If he couldn't damage his adversary to the point of surrender, then there was only one thing for a Shield main to do.

I'll support you all the way. So, come!

He smiled encouragingly with deep meaning.

Ren shivered, unable to discern the intention of Naofumi's smile, but under the watchful gaze of the crowd, he was pressured into maintain his aloofness and posture.

The size of the spectators had only increased after the spectacle with Shirou and Motoyasu, and the scale of fervor went up in tandem considering it was a spar against Legendary Heroes. Shirou wasn't counted as a Legendary Hero, so there wasn't anything too symbolic in his winning or losing, but Naofumi was different.

This was the Hero of the Shield vs the Hero of the Sword.

Naturally, Melromarc's residents wished for the Hero of the Sword's victory as the Shield Hero was mainly idolized by the Demi-humans. Melromarc was a stout believer of the Three Heroes Church.

The supporters of the cult or church of the three Heroes were the most vocal in their cheering, and it caused Ren's back to straighten as he postured with an air of mystery and charm. He looked like the sort of hero who would accomplish something great, not claim credit, and then wait until it ultimately discovered that he was the one who did it.

It was the art of the humble brag, and likely Ren's ideal image of a hero.

"No hard feelings, Naofumi. You have the weakest class out of the four of us, so I'm taking the win," Ren had no reservations in declaring his victory.

A twitch formed over Naofumi's lip, but he held himself back from replying snidely by viewing Ren's boasting as baseless. In fact, it was Ren who should be concerned as the difference in their levels was to the point it wasn't certain that Ren would be able to damage him.

"Start!" The match was signalled to begin by an impromptu call from Itsuki.

Bringing his shield up, he focused inwardly and chose a specific shield series.

[Air Strike Shield] Install.

This series of shields instantly creates a shield for defence anywhere within his range. It also had specific attributes of wind in which he'd invested training into. For example, he could create shields that float in mid-air, able to be stepped on or used as leverage platforms. In any case, there was another more important aspect it possessed.

By adding wind blessings onto an Air Strike Shield, he could throw the shield with remarkable speed at enemies. Of course, the damage was light and the only real effect was a knock-back status, but the crux of the point was that the wind blessing enabled the shield to be thrown with just a thought.

At its core, the wind blessing that comprised the essence of his Air Strike Shield Series was in fact a speed buff granted by his shield.

Support skills were at the basis of most shields Naofumi owned, and unlike another timeline, there was no need to be creative in methods to harm others. This time it was full support.

As for other Shield Series he'd use during this match, he didn't consider using any more of them as he already had a large advantage with the lvl difference.

This spar was just practice anyway, he surmised.

The jewel in the middle of his shield shone in resplendent green light.

-Heft your weary arms up high and never give way, for the breadth of this shield will grant thee all with the favour and protection of the wind.

Ren moved, dashing in for a quick strike.

Everything was within prediction.

Naofumi's eyes darted and searched, his shield coming up to guard at his chest while he glanced at Ren's movements.

Left foot, right foot, weight shifts, all fell within view.

"Air Strike Shield!"

The emerald hue of a translucent-like shield came within view, hovering directly in front of Ren's path.

Pinioned feathers intertwined, crossed, and unfurled in a decorative motif serving as a coat-of-arms across the shield's base that seemed to come to life. The air stirred, the aura of gales and storms drawing in the scent of morning dew.

'Blessings of the wind be upon you.'

Naofumi channeled his focus, and the moment Ren tried to bypass his shield with a quick burst, he immediately casted a wind blessing for a fraction of a second on Ren's pushing back heel.

Naturally, this abruptly increased the amount of agility and dexterity on Ren's back heel, and drastically sped up beyond his own calculations.

The sudden mismatch of a force was all it took for tragedy.

Ren tripped, flying way passed his intended stop location and smashing his face straight into the Air Strike Shield.

Utter silence resounded. No one could help it.

Naofumi's actions were too subtle, and the activation of magic was entirely overshadowed by the verdant glow of the Air Strike Shield.

The most heinous aspect of this method was that it was difficult to discern, as only the target of the support skill would feel the changes, and even then, the timing made it practically impossible to react or notice.

This meant that to the eyes of spectators and even to Ren himself, he looked thoroughly inadequate.

The concept of this approach was similar to nudging or shoving a sprinter mid-sprint at max speed, instantly destabilizing the runner. Another analogy was to take this same sprinter and apply a speed boost to only one leg while in the middle of a race.

A fall was inevitable, and the damage of crashing at full speed into the Air Strike Shield was the same as running full speed into a wall. It did much more damage than if Naofumi had actively attacked.

"It was a mistake. The Sword Hero can't be this clumsy."

"Mr. Ren, Goodluck!" Ren's party still showed their support, though they were cringing somewhat.

Murmurs were starting to spread through the crowd, and Shirou shook his head in a 'what can you do' gesture.

Flustered, Ren couldn't understand how he could have possibly fallen and lost balance. Worse, the damage from crashing his face into the air shield caused all feeling on his nose to numb.

Cradling his nose, Ren shook his head to get the world to stop spinning before looking dumbly at his foot. How could he have been so careless when under the spotlight?

The tips of Ren's ears burned with indignation and self reproach while the life bar at the edge of his periphery view revealed a smidgen of red as it decreased.

"That won't happen again," Ren took a better stance, making sure to keep his legs squared to maintain balance.

Naofumi flashed that same 'well intentioned' smile which inwardly unnerved Ren.

Dashing forward, Ren slowed his speed to something manageable, and soon enough, when he didn't fall, he regained some confidence in himself.

Shifting the tassel tied to the hilt of his swift sword, he went in for a concise stab. As Ren began the thrusting motion, his feet planting onto the ground in a fencer's stance, a subtle flow of support aura was released from Naofumi.

This was just plain evil.

Naofumi casually stepped to the side and watched Ren redirect a strike on him, but ultimately fail.

A part of Naofumi felt bad when Ren pushed off his legs and looked like a flying swordfish shooting out of the water. A simple push of the feet forward gave the result of a full-powered lunge.

Ren himself looked dazed at the uncontrolled speed of his attack and widened his eyes when he realized that another Air Attack Shield was in front of him.

Missing Naofumi completely, time seemed to slow as the tip of Ren's sword clashed against the shield. The sword didn't break nor bed, but was jutted in place which was nothing good. Ren's forward momentum followed up and the jutted end of his pommel smacked into his chest, winding him and causing him to gasp.

Again, the crowd fell silent at the apparent blunder.

Another attack came, this time an overhead sweep that ended up overextending, leaving Ren open to a Shield Bash which threw him to the opposite side of the arena.

Silence.

The most mortifying fact for all spectating was that the Shield Hero hadn't caused a majority of the damage the Sword Hero sustained. Instead, as purplish abrasions formed over Ren's face and a limp appeared in his stride, it was evident that a majority of the damage was from Ren's own 'overexcitement' leading to tragedy after tragedy.

"This is the Sword Hero? Did we get the wrong person?"

"Even if the Spear Hero was defeated, he still didn't trip over his own feet. This is kind of sad…"

Ren was going mad. If he didn't suspect that Naofumi had something to do with his sudden lack of performance, he'd be a fool.

"Y-You! Stop that!" Ren had enough. His eyes were narrowed into a glare, and a feeling of helplessness assailed him when the crowd gave him judging looks as if he was trying to redirect blame.

Even Itsuki and Motoyasu who'd regained consciousness and was spectating with bandages on his chest were shaking their heads at him.

This isn't fair. Ren felt blood rush up to his face and his vision swam with indignation.

"Stop what?" Naofumi played coy.

"You're doing it on purpose!" Ren could only argue this point. Otherwise, didn't that mean his poor performance reflected mediocre ability? He wasn't some noob.

Naofumi remained impassive. "Am I? Or are you just failing?" He goaded.

Ren was at a loss for words, and shutting his mouth was all that he could do to prevent profanity which would crush his image more. His reputation was being ruined.

In contrast, Naofumi was all smiles.

Yes. The angrier the opponent the better. Yelling was music to his ears.

This strat was practically cancer, but it was the only real thing he had going for him.

The less reserved the opponent was, the more erratic movements could be exploited. The harder they attacked, the greater the reflection damage, and Ren's current status was the best example.

Ren looked like he'd been through a war zone, haggard and panting from frustration.

"Thunder Sword!"

An arc of magic lightning pulsed from Ren's sword and shot forward in an instant with the same might as the Thunder Spear Motoyasu had used.

The difference between Shirou and Naofumi when receiving the attack however, was that one actually paid the proper courtesy to face the attack seriously…the other not so much.

Ren attacked from a distance while Naofumi was too absentminded to pay attention.

[-1 Hp]

He did notice the minuscule dip in his Hp though and shook his head wryly. He was far tankier than Shirou and could shrug off most fatal damage like nothing, and this wasn't even counting lvl gap. It was a happy sentiment as it meant he was exceedingly difficult to kill.

Ren didn't share the sentiment.

"What sort of bullshit is this!?" Ren felt like he was being pushed to his wit's end, but the crowd wasn't amused.

For all the flare Ren's attack had which rivaled Motoyasu's, the result was just tragic.

"Since when was the Sword Hero a coward! Hurry and attack!"

"What are you waiting for?!"

Ren gritted his teeth, fully knowing that he didn't have the magic energy to launch consecutive Thunder Swords. More importantly, they proved too ineffective and he'd probably pass out from exhaustion before doing anything substantial.

Resolving himself, Ren charged back into the fray.

Almost an entire two-hours passed.

Ren stopped moving entirely, anxious and embarrassed as the crowd's jeering grew larger and larger.

"You and I are enemies!" He declared, red-faced and bruised all over.

Over the course of this spar, he'd fallen, tripped, actually ended up stabbing himself, and now the feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. Most stifling of all, was that Naofumi's friendly smile had never waned. Instead, after every 'accident' Naofumi even had the gall to ask if he as okay.

"Don't blame the Hero! He's still new!" Ren's party members were yelling back at the crowd, trying to defend him, but their actions were just as much of a blow due to the uncertainty in their tones.

At least with Shirou it was over quickly and Motoyasu had saved a majority of his dignity. Right now, Ren was feeling too ashamed to show his face to anyone based on the looks he was getting from the once supportive crowd.

"Why so serious? This is just a spar." Naofumi, as if feeling bad, tried to lighten the mood.

"Then attack me and stop standing there!" Ren snapped.

Indeed. Naofumi hadn't moved once from where he was standing as if to emphasize that he hadn't done anything and all the damage Ren received was his own fault.

"Move and attack you? I don't do damage," Naofumi replied as if it was obvious, ignoring the murder on Ren's features.

Obviously, Ren wasn't convinced.

"You're the only one who's hurting yourself, so why are you mad at me?" Naofumi reasoned patiently.

"Y-You're a bully…" Ren looked ashen.

The fact that the words were true indeed, made it seem as if swords were piercing through Ren's chest. It was difficult to breath from sheer frustration, and it wasn't because of the sword wound that nearly stabbed him.

"You're mocking me," he gnashed out through gritted teeth. "Let's see what you do if I don't move from here."

Naofumi whistled and remained unaffected, choosing instead to get to the point of the matter.

Suddenly, an Air Strike Shield whizzed past Ren's head and lodged into the ground beside him.

Ren looked at the sizable shield that cratered the ground dumbly.

"If you really stay in place, what's to stop me from just throwing these at you? I know that they don't do much damage, but they don't exactly cost much Mp to cast and I can whittle you down no problems. Are you really going to just stand in place?"

Ren said nothing. He would remain still as it was a fact that he took more damage from his own attacks then anything Naofumi could throw at him. At least this way, he could save his image by deflecting each Air Strike Shield.

"Suit yourself," Naofumi said one thing, but thought another as he inwardly clicked his tongue.

This spar had already wasted two-hours, and if Ren was adamant, Naofumi knew that he was facing another situation like the Elder Earth Dragon. He'd win eventually, but he didn't want to waste another day's worth of time.

Why couldn't Ren just swallow his pride and give up?

Naofumi would just have to think outside the box.

There was that one thing, wasn't there…?

Naofumi pinched the bridge of his nose and carefully surrounded himself with air-tight Air Attack Shields, before pausing in his actions and reconsidering. A second later, and the same formation of Air Attack Shields formed around Ren instead.

[Shield Prison]

Alarmed, Ren merely raised his guard as he'd learned that sudden movements would instantly throw him on the ground.

The Shield Prison was only partially complete with the top portion left with a hole in which Ren could peer out of. Still, Ren wasn't too concerned as Air Strike Shield wasn't a threatening ability.

Everything changed when Naofumi produced an odorous substance that was not only unpleasant to the noses of monsters, but equally rancid to humans.

It looked like a pile of mushy monster shit.

"W-What are you doing?" Ren's gaze kept shifting from the Shield Prison he was inside, to the only opening in which he could make an escape. He then understood Naofumi's intentions when said odours object was aimed inside the Shield Prison.

The reason Naofumi kept this 'odorous object' on hand was that it was useful when out farming in the higher-level areas with Shirou. Monsters there were numerous and often too strong for him to deal with alone. However, the unpleasant scent of the odorous object kept Naofumi from being eaten. This was his common tactic to keep stronger monsters away from him while he and Shirou grinded.

In any case, Naofumi distinctly recalled fainting the first time he was exposed to this scent, and he'd technically win the spar if Ren fainted.

Without any warning or hesitation, he chucked towards the Shield Prison.

There was no way Ren could still while knowing what was about to happen.

At the last moment before Ren could jump out of the enclosure, he leapt too high from another support buff and immediately paled when he noticed what was in front of him.

No. Nooo! Oh God Noooo!

It was the simple things really, and mixed with odd coincidences and bitter timing, the outcome was already pre-set. After all, there was only one opening in the direction facing Naofumi, which meant only one place to escape from, and one place to throw in the odorous substance before sealing the Air Attack Shields.

A muffled wail of despair echoed out before a body collapsed inside the Shield Prison before the cover was put on top to prevent the smell from permeating.

Said odorous object had hit Ren in the face, and he was now frothing at the mouth.

Even Naofumi felt that it went a bit too far. "Uhm, sorry," he called out sincerely. He had no intention to actually hit him.

Ren could hardly speak as he gagged inside the prison, but Naofumi continued regardless.

"That one really wasn't my fault though! I didn't think you'd jump up to receive it."

What was he? A dog playing fetch or Frisbee?

Finally, Ren passed out from exhaustion, anger, and humiliation.

Seeing that the match was over, Naofumi was quick to free Ren and cover the odorous object with a ball of slime which quickly ate it, neutralizing the smell.

The crowd had yet to speak since the moment the Shield Prison formed, and with the Shield Hero's blatant victory, members of the Three Heroes Church weren't satisfied one bit.

Gradually, all gazes turned to the last Hero who hadn't yet fought.

Itsuki felt beads of sweat form over his brow.

No. No way. Those two weren't human.

Itsuki suddenly felt pressured. What happened with Ren was just too weird, but heedless of what Itsuki thought, the crowd still regarded him.

"We can't just let the Shield Hero win!"

"That match was flawed! The Sword Hero just hasn't matured yet!"

"We still have the Bow Hero! He'll regain our honour and prestige of our church!"

Itsuki's complexion fell when Shirou and Naofumi appeared within his sight as if asking him to choose. Even his party members looked nervous on his behalf, Rishia Ivyred even tugging on his sleeve and shaking her head in silence.

"No, it's fine," Ren said quickly to the crowd and Shirou and Naofumi. "I'll stick this one out."

Unlike Motoyasu and Ren, he had no real inclination to accept this spar, as the bow he was eyeing was still in Erhard's shop.

Besides, neither Motoyasu or Ren ended up with good ends.

This sparring session was over.


The figures of Ren, Motoyasu, and Itsuki could be seen together as they collectively sighed.

They all started from the same place, so why was the difference so large?

If not for the fact that Heroes couldn't form up in the same party to gather experience, then all three may have put aside their reservations and called out for aid.

Watching Naofumi and Shirou leave without another word, Ren, Itsuki, and Motoyasu all had mixed feelings. On one hand, they wanted to ask for tips as they believed that Naofumi knew hidden secrets in the similar game that they all played, but on the other, they had their pride.

"We're irreconcilable," Ren shuddered, spitting on the ground while feeling nauseous from the after taste. He'd just woken up a few minutes' prior through healing magic from a party member.

"C'mon man. You can't really blame Naofumi for your lack of skill," Motoyasu chuckled while patting Ren on the back, before thinking better of it as he didn't want the smell on Ren to get on him.

If Ren noticed, he didn't react, but the blaze of resentment only burned stronger after hearing Motoyasu's words.

"Lack of skill?" Ren said incredulously, his mouth opening in exasperation. "You both actually think it was my fault that I lost the match?"

"Well," Itsuki muttered while scratching at his cheek sheepishly, all but implying his thoughts while Motoyasu just continued chuckling before wincing from his injuries.

It was kind of hard to stay neutral here. From everyone else's perspective aside from Ren, it just looked like Ren beat himself up through shoddy coordination while Naofumi just stood there with a shield ready for Ren to bash himself onto. Of course, the last ending gimmick was evil, but considering Ren had bored Naofumi for the entire spar, it seemed somewhat justified to play a prank than take things seriously.

Ren couldn't believe what was happening.

"Y-You guys are too much!"

He sulked while his features darkened.

Motoyasu had a sling over one arm, and numerous bandages from skid marks, but he believed wholeheartedly that he came out better from this experience then Ren.

The three shared a long moment of silence before going back to the topic of why they'd sparred in the first place:

The weapons from Erhard's shop.

Two of them were already taken by Shirou and Naofumi, and the fact that those two would become even stronger because of it left them feeling envious. The weapons must have been good considering their price and special rules of purchase.

In Ren, Motoyasu, and Itsuki's eyes, those weapons may very well be bonus weapons or end game gear weapons locked behind exclusivity of contract. They had to meet some sort of prerequisites, then why did Naofumi and Shirou obtain them so easily.

There was only one answer.

Gold.

They'd somehow stumbled on a fortune of sorts. Why else would Erhard have given the weapons without fuss.

Ren and Motoyasu could only lament the situation, but that didn't mean it was the same for Itsuki. There were only going to be a few more days before the first Wave of Calamity would begin, and getting stronger was in everyone's best interest.

Itsuki hummed in thought.

Thinking about it, it wasn't that Erhard said that they weren't qualified to purchase the weapons on display, but that they didn't have the adequate funds to buy them. They had wanted to skip out on payment by using the replication effect of their Legendary Weapons, but they weren't able to inspect the equipment in their hands.

As expected of an end-game weapon. Those specifications were certainly placed there to bar illegitimate access from the Legendary Heroes.

This meant that the value and capability of those weapons were that much better than ordinary.

He had to obtain it. Itsuki decided. Whether or not the bow still in Erhard's shop was good, he'd be able to tell after purchasing it legally without any complications.

Itsuki suddenly looked at Motoyasu and Ren thoughtfully, and slowly nodded.

"Can you both help me buy that bow?" He asked slowly. "I'll help you buy your own weapons the next time we see one in the shop," he offered.

Motoyasu considered the prospect while placing a hand beneath his chin.

Individually, none of the heroes could purchase the weapons, but if they pooled their resources, they had enough to purchase one. Now that two of the weapons were gone, and only one remained, Itsuki's request became viable at least to Motoyasu.

Motoyasu already had everything he needed, and earning a favour from Itsuki in the future may prove helpful. "Fine, but remember your own words."

Itsuki nodded with gratitude. He then looked to Ren after obtaining Motoyasu's support.

Ren gave Itsuki a cryptic look before slowly nodding his head. No one knew what he was thinking, but it became evident a moment later.

"On one condition," he raised a finger.

"Of course," Itsuki agreed without waiting, but then his features stiffened the next second.

"Have a spar with Naofumi in Melromarc's public plaza."

You petty snake!

More than gold or power, misery loves company.


Meanwhile, both Shirou and Naofumi felt an odd sense of apprehension as they got ready to farm for EXP with Keel and Raphtalia after the earlier spar.

Was it just them, or did it seem like the children were growing?


Thanks for reading! This is part 1 of the double update set for today and tomorrow with tomorrow's update being Fate: Beyond the Gate.

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