"You should keep your shoulders narrowed when facing an opponent, never squared unless you're a brawler."
A thwack resounding before a dull thud followed as Keel fell on her butt, hissing softly in exclamation.
"It reduces the space available for an attacker to strike and forces them to work around you if you have better armour, or evasive technique."
"Owie," Keel groaned, rubbing at her head which wasn't even bruised by the wooden sword Shirou was using. The sword was evil, no doubts about it. There was no way to explain how it hurt so much despite leaving no real signs of lasting damage.
"If you don't want to get hit. Either dodge or block. There are no other options in combat."
"Yes," she stuttered out. She worked to orient herself and get back onto her feet, only to have them swept from under her when she did so.
Falling face first, she ate grass as she groaned, her body sprawling on her stomach. An in-dent of her forehead could be seen from the unexpected fall, and dirt and grime were clinging to her cheeks and the fur of her ears. It was a miserable sight, but determination would never waver.
Her fingers searched for purchase beneath her before she angled her hands to push off from beneath her shoulders. Her legs worked next, tucking in her knees into a crouch, before she froze, a shadow looming over her. Craning her neck up, and doing her best to appear sheepish, she stared up at Shirou with the most pitiful expression she could muster.
"Sorry, that's not going to work," Shirou said, smilingly as he kicked Keel in the stomach and had her flat on her back.
Blue skies were all that she could see, a flock of birds gliding mockingly over head. It wasn't fair. Why couldn't she fly? No-wait. Why was she seeing the sky?
"You lost focus. Never let your attention leave your enemy. They won't give you the chance."
"I was standing right in front of you after having knocked you down. What gave you the notion that an enemy would give you the time to recover and get up so forwardly? You should have rolled or tried to gain distance as your first instinct."
Keel panted for breath, eyeing Shirou down this time as she quickly got back onto her feet before another strike came in.
"Good. An enemy can't stop you from standing back up if you're fast with it. However," Shirou suddenly stepped forward within the blink of an eye.
"Nonononon! Wait! Time out!" Keel raised her guard, her face shrinking into her shoulder, a flinch over her features.
Nothing came despite the pain Keel expected from that cursed wooden sword in Shirou's hands.
Opening her pursed eyes, Keel shivered when she saw the wooden sword hovering over her head.
"Just for the record, if I were an enemy, I wouldn't have stopped." Shirou drew back his sword and let it fade away into motes of glowing energy, leaving Keel to wilt in relief.
"W-Why is this so hard?" Keel moaned, dropping down to her knees in an effort to catch her breath. "We just asked to be trained?" Not tortured. She kept to herself.
"This is training," Shirou insisted, straightening his back and frowning. "You and Raphtalia were the ones who insisted on this despite being only childr-"
"Were not children anymore," Keel stressed. "Demi-humans age different!"
"Does that mean you want to continue?"
Keel coughed, unable to meet Shirou's eyes. "I, I wasn't that bad, was I?" She asked tentatively.
"Unlike Raphtalia, you at least remembered to keep your spear in your hands when I dispatched you," Shirou commented offhandedly.
Raphtalia who was still panting in exhaustion off to the side kept yelling 'unfair!' between breaths. Her sword was still a distance away from her when she'd been knocked over and Shirou's attention fell solely on Keel. She was just too tired to retrieve it, and reeling from Shirou kicking dirt into her eyes to get an easy opening.
"Ignore her," Shirou said to Keel while smiling wryly at the aggrieved pout Raphtalia was sending him. Raphtalia was definitely listening in. "Not everyone fights fair, and you have to expect it to be in control."
"Hey Shirou," Naofumi interrupted at this moment.
All eyes turned to him, Shirou in particular with a raised brow.
"I remember you telling me that you weren't exactly the best trainer, but that you don't need to be since you can get the experience from the swords you make, right?"
Shirou nodded slowly, not really seeing what Naofumi was getting at here.
"What kind of sadistic person owned that sword? Not only does it have some sort of freaky aura, but to do anything just to win speaks little of the person's character."
Keel and Raphtalia winced in agreement with the question, but Shirou didn't even bat an eye.
"My older sister," he responded.
Wordlessly, Naofumi walked up to Shirou and placed a hand on his shoulder. "Must have been rough."
"…You have no idea," Shirou shook his head, snorting. "Don't get me wrong. She was a good older sister, but she's a whole different person when she fights. She hates losing and is fiercer than a tiger. Speaking of which, do you want to train as well?"
"No," Naofumi answered far too quickly to be normal. "What's there to train anyway other than be a better punching bag?" Naofumi raised his shield. "Not like a shield needs much training."
"You shouldn't be taking this lightly Naofumi," Shirou advised.
"And you're not roping me into being a Pop-up Pirate! I know how this is going to go. With my defence stats, hardly anything will do much damage, meaning you'll have to use the stronger weapons."
"That is the point!"
Naofumi scratched at his head, trying to find a way to get his point through someone as combat oriented as his primary attack party member.
"Naofumi its still better to get training in a controlled environment than in live battle," Shirou reasoned. "It can help you improve."
"No. No it won't." Naofumi deadpanned. "Resistances are a different matter, but unless you're forgetting, my defence stats won't increase from taking damage but only through EXP points. Rather than train, it's better for me to farm and improve my Def stats. What benefit would I have in being a pin cushion?"
Shirou opened his mouth to reply, but Naofumi was faster.
"What? Unless you expect the Shielder to dodge?"
Silence followed the statement.
Shirou considered what was being said, and ultimately had no choice but to let the issue drop. Unlike Keel and Raphtalia, Naofumi nine-out-of-ten-times would choose to block rather than dodge. In the case where Naofumi would choose to dodge, the attack would have to be overwhelming and Shirou had no plans of shooting a Noble Phantasm his party member's way.
"You win," he relented, bringing an end to the morning impromptu training session.
Brunch was a rather candid affair with no one speaking in favour of devouring what was in front of them despite already eating breakfast prior. There was just something about being kicked and beaten that left the two Demi-humans utterly famished.
For Shirou and Naofumi's part, they ate leisurely and relaxed while the other two gorged on fried eggs, layered bacon strips, and meat buns they'd procured from town prior to the Wave. In their lack of care, the two were stuffing their mouths with their hands, quickly eating away at the amount of cooked food. Honestly, it was such a surreal sight considering that just the previous few days they were children.
Shirou shook his head and focused. "Naofumi," he called, watching as his friend perked up. "You said we needed to secure better transport? Will you be doing that while I look into an agreement I had with the King?"
"Yup," Naofumi answered while taking a bite from a loaf of bread. "Traveling on a shield by air is good and all, but not much outside battle. It's far from comfortable and one mistake and we're all plummeting to the ground. I plan to look into a carriage or something that can wheel us over from town to town while gaining experience."
"Don't forget you'd need a horse to pull the carriage," Shirou reminded.
"I'm not stupid. We just need the funds first, so I'll look into things after the awarding ceremony."
Naofumi fell into silent contemplation afterwards, and Shirou was content to leave Naofumi to it. Unlike Naofumi, Shirou wasn't exactly sure how a proper 'growth' build was done in video games. This left most of the decision making regarding EXP and leveling to Naofumi who would then offer suggestions about what stats to consider and builds to make per role.
It was pretty smooth sailing from here, and the only reason that the party had yet to depart for class-up or fulfill their other objectives, was that they were awaiting a summons. Unlike an alternative timeline where the Shield Hero was defamed and had no reason to appreciate an awarding ceremony, the Shield Hero was quite expectant this time around. His party had no doubt contributed the most.
"Is this the Shield Hero's party?!"
Speaking of which, this just might be it.
"It is," Shirou called out, waving the knight who'd just arrived on horseback over.
Said knight easily complied, but leered in disgust when he noticed Keel and Raphtalia still eating; then took note of their living condition camping outdoors rather than inside a well refurbished establishment. Neither Shirou or Naofumi missed this action despite it vanishing half-a-second later into a cordial smile.
At the knight's stare, both Keel and Raphtalia suddenly stopped eating, ashamed at their lack of manners.
"Keel, Raphtalia, you don't-" Naofumi couldn't even finish before the two rushed towards the nearby creak to clean themselves up as much as possible. "Have to mind him," he trailed off.
"Are you here to take us to the distribution ceremony?" Naofumi inquired irritably.
What gave the knight the right to look at his party members like that?
Rather than answer right away, the knight merely shook his head. "It's for a more personal matter," the knight stated before eyeing Naofumi and then gesturing towards Shirou, Keel, and Raphtalia.
Naofumi got the hint, but wasn't one to force his party members to leave just because someone said so. He turned towards Shirou in order to confide with him, and only acquiesced to the knight's request at Shirou's nod.
Standing up and taking Keel and Raphtalia with him out of ear-shot, they gave Naofumi and the knight a little privacy. Of course, within reason. Shirou was unwilling to leave the two out of sight and even considered enhancing his hearing to eavesdrop if not for how fast the exchange went.
As it would turn out, the knight barely spoke a few words before giving Naofumi something that caused him to become somewhat flustered.
The knight left without soon after, and Shirou, Keel, and Raphtalia then gingerly approached Naofumi. Naofumi didn't even seem to register their arrival in his daze.
"I don't suppose that was the escort to the ceremony?" Shirou probed.
Naofumi mutedly shook his head, his voice failing him despite the small smile that wouldn't wipe off his mouth.
"Something good happened, I take it?"
"Yeah, you could say that," Naofumi finally eked out, grinning. He kept whatever the knight had given him to himself, an action not missed by everyone.
"So, what did he give you?"
Shirou gave Naofumi a flat look, causing Naofumi's features to turn sheepish, cheeks reddening in embarrassment, but still refusing to show it.
"L-Let's just say that spring may come early," Naofumi replied cryptically. "A-And that my heroics are finally being recognized!"
Spring? Shirou was oblivious at the worst of times, but it didn't mean he wasn't intuitive when someone was being direct with him.
"A woman had a knight deliver you something?" He guessed, watching Naofumi splutter in denial.
Shirou shook his head, but evidently, he wasn't the only one paying heed to the conversation. A startled exclamation left Raphtalia's mouth before she forcibly muffled her own voice, looking as if she'd swallowed a lemon.
"L-Lord Naofumi, you can't just trust -s-such deceitful methods…" Raphtalia objected sourly, staring daggers towards Naofumi's pocket. "You should get rid of it," she then suggested too quickly to be normal, a coldness in her demeanor.
Shirou disagreed with the notion of carelessly tossing away something that someone may or may not have poured their emotions over so callously. However, he kept his opinion to himself as it didn't seem like Naofumi was the type of person to disregard someone's heartfelt sentiments.
"It's fine Raphtalia," Naofumi waved off in embarrassment, missing the twitch brewing over Raphtalia's lips. "It's nothing too serious."
"Lord Naofumi, you're blushing," Raphtalia's features were dead as she pointed out; venom practically lacing her tone which went unnoticed given her generally reserved character. "It must be a curse. Allow me to purify it."
Keel frowned. "Raphtalia, I didn't know you had healer skills-"
"Keel." Raphtalia craned her head subtly towards her friend and lowered her voice into a whisper. "Shut. Up."
Keel shuddered, the hairs on the back of her neck raising at the frigid glare her friend was giving her. She knew as a demi-human that they were more in tune with animalistic instincts. However, this was the first time she realized how territorial they could be.
She'd heard stories from her father about how her deceased mother constantly used to 'stake a claim' to ward away other females. Yet, her father never mentioned just how this action was done.
Then again…Keel absently glanced towards Shirou and imagined some whore hanging off of his arm, and suddenly the same frostiness bled into her face. She'd have to come up with her own ideas here. Subsequently, she gave Raphtalia a nod of encouragement which softened Raphtalia's features before Raphtalia went back to persuading Naofumi that whatever he received was evil.
Keel on the other hand was left in a state of apprehension, now that her mind had drifted towards other women taking Shirou away.
Just the thought had her tail and ears raised up in agitation, as her canines flashed over her lips.
"Is this the Shield Hero's party?!" A new voice called out.
This time there were no doubts that the new knight that appeared was the one that would lead them to the distribution ceremony.
However, Keel had tensed upon noting the gender and beauty of the escort.
The female knight was stunning. Her strawberry-blond hair resembled fine silk cascading down past her shoulders and accentuating a face as enchanting as Raphtalia's. The deep cerulean of her eyes twinkled in the light of her astute demeanor, wearing a buttoned-down dress-shirt with golden motifs hiding a considerable bust. White coloured thigh-length riding boots were worn over leather trousers, and a sword was strapped to her hip in a sheath. The boots themselves appeared a bit tight around the thickness of her legs, but the volume and muscle tone spoke of an athletic stamina build.
"My name is Éclair Seaetto," the woman inclined her head in introduction, face set into a cordial neutral which didn't go unappreciated.
To Shirou, something about a stern and dutiful female knight seemed to score all sorts of positive impressions with him. The fact that Éclair seemed unbothered by Keel and Raphtalia being demi-humans only served to bolster the impression.
Keel glanced from the knight, then to Shirou.
She didn't like this, she decided.
'Why couldn't it have been the sly bitch than someone who seemed nice and dutiful?'
If Keel 'inched' just that much closer to Shirou as a result of insecurity, her ears drooping and tail tucking in-between her legs as Éclair approached, then only Raphtalia noticed the action.
Her name was Eclair Seaetto, a proud High-rank knight of Melromarc, and overall studious woman. As deceiving as her appearance seemed, she wasn't the smartest. Instead, she always made up for her shortcomings by training and brute-forcing her way through problems. In her duty as a knight, this method has always worked with her so far, but she digressed.
Her newest task was to act as an overseer to help rebuild damaged towns from the Waves.
It just so happened that she had been redirected and told to escort the Shield Hero and his party to Melromarc's main castle first. Left unsaid, but this choice was born from Aultcray's wisdom. Unlike many people in the kingdom, Eclair was one of the few knights who harboured no ill will towards demi-humans which the Shield Hero's party was half-comprised of.
She was the perfect candidate and someone the Queen would have chosen if she wasn't temporarily away.
As for Éclair herself, she wasn't too keen on such a mundane task at first, but everything changed once she heard news of the Wave's successful defeat. By this point, she'd only heard far-fetched slander from the Three-Heroes Church, but even then Naofumi and Shirou were too busy farming in the middle of nowhere to disprove any of them.
The Shield Hero's party honestly wasn't what Eclair was expecting, but she was moved when she'd heard of their actions in the Wave of Calamity. Not only did they first move at the defence of the town, but the only party member that had joined the Shield Hero's party was said to be incredibly strong. She'd even heard word that he might be a Vassal weapon user equally deserving of praise.
One would have to forgive Éclair's momentary slip when she smiled at Shirou and Naofumi, especially Shirou as she felt a distinct veteran's aura around him. He seemed like a fighter, a knight like herself, and not the sort to be underhanded or sly.
"Your reputation precedes you both," she complimented to start a conversation, gesturing towards guards and sentries to allow them entry into Melromarc castle.
"I don't know of any reputation, but the pleasure's ours," Shirou replied lightly.
It was only natural at this point for Éclair to elaborate on what she'd heard at this point, but her intuition made her quite conscious of the way the blue-haired demi-humans was regarding her too intensely.
Keel, wasn't it?
Éclair reviewed the names she'd been introduced to before she began acting as a guide back to the palace. Glancing at Keel who was practically glued to Shirou's right side mere inches away, Éclair couldn't rid herself of the image of a growling puppy.
Why was she being glared at though? Did she do something wrong? Her etiquette was flawless.
She decided to put the issue to the back of her mind, but the longer she spent making small talk with Shirou, the more intense the staring became. Well, more like pitiful. Keel's features kept drooping, her teeth biting anxiously on her lips. 'Leave!' was practically screaming from her demeanor.
No matter what Eclair did, Keel just kept eyeing her to the point it only lessened when Éclair started talking with Naofumi. However, this did little to alleviate the situation. Keel's stare may have lessened, but the other demi-human, Raphtalia's, had only just begun.
There was no winning for Éclair regardless of who she chose to converse with. It was more apt to say that Keel and Raphtalia simply wanted her gone, and far, far away.
"Ms. Éclair, are you alright?" Shirou asked in concern when Éclair felt as if she was drowning from awkwardness.
Keel's breath hitched at the attention Shirou gave, practically quivering and looking at Eclair as if she'd wronged her.
"Yes, Lord Shirou. I'll be fine. We'll be arriving at the castle audience hall any moment now, so please prepare yourselves my Lords." Éclair consciously forced herself not to giggle when she saw Keel and Raphtalia's look of relief that the conversation was ending.
If Éclair couldn't catch on to what was happening at this point, then she wouldn't be much of an intuitive woman. The sudden urge to tease them did funny things to her heart, but she managed to hold herself back.
Her duties as a knight came first and foremost.
She didn't even realize her decision to keep to her principles only gave Shirou a better impression of her. He even nodded and looked warmly upon her, much to Keel's misery.
Taking a breath to calm her features, Éclair soon pushed open the door leading to Melromarc's audience hall where the King was seated on the throne in the Queen's absence. Nobles lined the sides of the carpet rolled down the middle, and the other three heroes stood at the end of it facing the podium-like structure near the throne.
Éclair's brows furrowed almost immediately.
Shirou and Naofumi may not have noticed the subtilties, but she did. Something wasn't quite right here. The nobles were whispering and the King's features were staring with helplessness.
"Someone dared break into the castle and steal the ring mother gave me as a child! I-It's priceless and something I hold truly dear."
The voice was far too familiar to Éclair, causing her to inwardly groan.
Malty, S. Melromarc.
Eclair frowned. Given her social standing, she was aware of the less than reputable nature of the Queen's eldest daughter. It didn't help that the King often spoiled her, and that the Church had probably egged whatever was happening on.
Pursing her lips, Eclair grew wary and more observant, but was pleasantly taken aback when the King appeared embarrassed about the whole ordeal rather than cooperative.
"Myne, you were a princess!" Motoyasu's boisterous voice echoed.
All the while, the Shield Hero and his party didn't appear to have clued into anything yet.
"I-I'm sorry to have deceived you Lord Motoyasu, but I had wished to experience the life of an adventurer rather than a princess. Wil you forgive me?"
"O-Oh course! The one who's unforgivable is the villain who would steal something so precious as a gift from a person's mother!"
"Lord Motoyasu, y-you'll help me seek justice?"
Éclair glanced towards the Shield Hero's party and noted how clueless all of them appeared aside from one. Naofumi appeared hesitant, flummoxed even as the shouted words began to register.
"Seek justice? Not only that, I'll personally handle this matter, deal with the perpetrator, and recover what was lost. You can trust me, I assure you."
"Lord Motoyasu…I-I can't thank you enough. My mother's ring is gold in colour and inlaid with a bright jewel at the center with several smaller gems near it. The word 'Melromarc' is etched inside the ring."
Slowly, surely, Naofumi rummaged for the very item given to him before their departure to the castle. Incredulity was plastered all over his expression while Raphtalia appeared the most indignant when the pieces began falling together in her mind.
"D-Do you all mean this ring?" Naofumi called out stiffly, raising the object in question up and drawing everyone's attention.
Up ahead where Motoyasu was still boasting before Myne and the other heroes, a dead silence formed.
Motoyasu's countenance was suddenly pale, his neck shrinking back and demeanor growing reclusive.
"I, ugh…I think there's a misunderstanding," he stammered.
"Lord Motoyasu, the ring is in his hands!" Myne refused to listen and pointed out, aggrieved.
Motoyasu coughed awkwardly, and pretended that he didn't hear a thing much like Aultcray who was pinching the bridge of his nose. Without the King's aid, the matter should solve itself here, right?
Something however told Éclair that that the issue wasn't just going to settle itself if the people in church clothes mixed in with the crowd had anything to say about it.
"So, it was the Shield Hero all along!"
"Do you all not see now of the Shield's true nature!"
"Evil! Vile! Filth!"
"The Hero of the Spear will end you for sure!"
"No, uhm, wait, uhm, since when did I agree to fighting!" Motoyasu's incredulous shout was left ignored.
The church members all began clamoring and inciting the masses, Naofumi's figure and protests growing smaller and smaller under the weight of public opinion. Éclair felt stifled at this all. In the time she'd spent with Naofumi and his party, she could say with confidence that Naofumi was no thief or crook. The goofy smile she'd even seen him with prior was at the forefront of her mind.
This was when it happened.
Light, warm and ever present shimmered throughout the hall.
Éclair had never seen anything like it. It was, it was surreal, inspiring even.
The shouts died down. The members of the church within the crowd left breathless in the glow. It was as if no lies or deceit were permitted in this space. The wicked would falter, the noble and righteous would stand.
Meanwhile, a hand placed itself comfortingly over a flustered Naofumi's shoulder. He turned and stared at Shirou who said only four words that alleviated all doubts.
"Leave this to me."
A sword was held firmly in hand.
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