Late into the evening, the party had started to wind down. Having our fill of food and drink, Katsys and Ludmila started to doze off. It had been a long journey with little rest. We would take tonight to recover before setting foot into the mountains.
I brought the two of them to some guest rooms and laid them into bed. Having drank some diluted wine, the alcohol relaxed their bodies, and soon, light snoring could be heard.
In contrast, I had some undiluted wine. Though my tolerance was pretty high, it wouldn’t do to wake up with a hangover. I walked back outside into the cool air and headed to one of the wells to draw some water.
The village had become quiet as everyone had retired for the night. After refreshing myself, I would join them too. As I gulped down the cool liquid, free from any nastiness of sulfur, I felt a presence behind me.
Briefly choking on my water, I turned around to face the newcomer. Before I could draw my knife, a sword had been thrust towards me, stopping just in front of my chest. On the other end was a cloaked figure. The darkness of the night hid his face from view.
“Walk,” the figure said in a muffled voice as he indicated the direction with his sword. “I have no interest in the other two. Just you.”
I had no choice but to comply as I could already tell that he was no simple swordsman. Also, it didn’t seem like he was an assassin, since he could’ve just cut me down without a word. He had purposefully approached me with an objective.
I moved slowly in the direction that he indicated, the small motions of his sword continuing to guide me forward. We walked, away from the buildings, away from the earshot of any villagers, until we reached the edge of the wilderness.
“Are you going to tell me why you brought me here?” I asked when the man’s sword finally dropped.
With no reply, he suddenly got in a fighting pose and took a light swing at me. In a panic, I drew my knife and dodged away. The man continued to swing his sword at me, trying to catch me off-guard.
With my chef knife, I parried the strikes that I could time and dodged the others, all the while trying to look for an opening. Why did he suddenly attack me? He could have done it discreetly at any point without giving me a chance to struggle. My mind didn’t understand this man’s intentions.
“Why are you doing this?” I yelled at him.
“To have my way with you. After I’m done here, maybe I’ll have some fun with the two girls you are with,” the man said in an evil tone.
Immediately, I activated my skill in anger. His intentions laid bare, I could no longer hold back. Quickly, I advanced towards him. Dodging out of the way of a horizontal strike, I ducked down and dashed under it to bring myself closer. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him swiftly bring a gauntlet-covered fist towards my stomach in an uppercut.
I grit my teeth as I took the blow, knocking the wind out of me. Barely managing to keep my wits from the pain, I grabbed his arm and brought my knife over the gauntlet’s weak points. A few quick stabs created large cracks on the surface.
As the man pulled his hand free, the damaged gauntlet crumbled around his fist and fell to the ground. He briefly looked at his bare hand before facing me again. At this point, that was the only part of his body free from obstructions. I would target one of his pressure points and make him submit so that I could find out who sent him.
Trying not to make my strategy obvious, I went back to parrying his sword blows, all the time eyeing for a chance to grab his bare arm again. Just when I thought I had the chance, I felt a large collection of mana being drawn to the man’s sword. Abandoning my target, I leapt to the side to avoid it.
The sword hit the ground and created a vibration that shattered the ground. A large spray of hard earth blew outwards, pummeling the environment in front of the man. I felt a bit of debris connect that stung quite a bit. Luckily, the spray of hardened earth had just barely clipped me. I would’ve been taken out if I had stayed in front of him.
However, that attack seemed familiar.
“Hmph, you dodged that. It appears that your judgement is still sound.” The man called out to me in a much clearer voice than before. It was a voice I now recognized.
Pulling back his hood, Roderick showed his face. He had been talking in an odd accent that made it difficult for me to tell at first. I immediately lowered my knife in confusion.
“Sorry about that. I was testing you. It seemed rather suspicious for the Princess to be protecting a supposed murderer and kidnapper. After spying on you from afar and feeling the will to protect from your blade, it is impossible for you to have done the things that you have been accused of.”
“Then, why did you attack me? Wouldn’t it have been enough to just ask her about it?”
“There was still the possibility of you being controlled or in disguise. The murders happened in such a specific way that few people could achieve. The cuts were so sharp that it was easy to think that the ‘Demon Cleaver’ that could cut anything had done it. However, there appears to be discrepancies based on our exchange just now.”
Roderick explained the crime scene and detailed the events that the witnesses saw. This was the first time I had a clear picture of what I had been accused of.
“Cuts through armor and straight through flesh? My Crit ability doesn’t let me do that.” That one detail felt glaringly obvious in my mind.
I could break armor and weapons due to the mana flow through them that highlighted weak points, but I had yet to see those appear on the body of a living thing. It would be pretty coincidental for the weak points on armor to align with that on a person’s body. Even with beasts, I only knew where to slash after memorizing their weak points. However, Roderick’s explanation had suggested that every cut had severed both steel and flesh.
“Exactly. An exchange of blows cannot lie about what one is capable of. Even when I felt you break my gauntlet, the blade of your knife stopped abruptly upon hitting skin. Furthermore, I sensed no bloodlust or ill intent in your attacks. Just a determination to subdue me. Would a killer have that kind of aura? I think not.”
Roderick had concluded that I had been falsely accused. He returned his sword to his scabbard and stuck out his hand for a truce. I told him my side of the events, especially the portion where the Princess had likely been mind-controlled by the Chancellor.
“Do you have proof?”
“No. Just what Princess Katalina has told me.”
“That’s a mighty risky accusation without evidence, but if it were true…the country is in far more danger than we had ever known. As we speak, the Prince and the Chancellor are rallying the people on their side to track down the two of you. You’ll be difficult to shelter if you remain in this country.”
“That’s what I figured.” I sighed at the truth of this.
Roderick placed a hand on my shoulder to reassure me.
“Don’t worry. I’m going to head back and gather trustworthy people. We’ll keep an eye on the Chancellor for any shady business. From what I’ve heard, your lovely master has been doing the same. It’ll take a while to convince the people to join our cause, but until then, make sure you keep the Princess safe. I would be heartbroken to lose the taste of your cuisine.”
“You bet. I’ll make sure that I come up with something so spicy that not even you can handle it during my absence.”
“Looking forward to it.” Roderick waved as he walked away from me into the night. I felt a bit more reassured that some people were still on my side.
Hopefully, it wouldn’t take too long for people to start seeing reason. But with the Chancellor’s influential position and the likelihood that he could control people with his magic, they could be in for a tough fight.
Still, I had to believe in them while I did what I could for now. I rubbed my body in the places that were sore from Roderick’s last attack. The pain wasn’t so great that I needed to use our precious supplies; Katsys could just cast a healing spell later if it was still bad. Walking back towards the guest house, I let out a long yawn as my body was ready to retire for the night.
The two girls were still asleep when I arrived, so I slipped into my bed and closed my eyes. Within moments, I was sound asleep as well.
A deafening rumble could be heard all around me.
My mind felt muddled. My body was in pain.
The scent of smoke drifted in the air. It was too difficult to know where it was coming from. It felt like everything was on fire around me.
I looked up. My vision was too blurry to clearly make out the scene in front of me. However, it may have been better if I hadn’t been able to see at all.
Buildings had turned into wreckage. The ground had large cracks. People had fallen over.
Were they dead? It was quite possible.
During this entire time, only one thought rang through my mind.
Why had this happened? Why was I here? Why had everything gone so wrong?
I jolted from the bed.
My heart was racing. My palms were sweaty. I had the unmistakable feeling of waking up from a nightmare, but I couldn’t recall what had caused me to react like this. Taking a moment to recollect myself, I took some deep breaths that slowly calmed the beating of my heart.
The beds next to me were already empty. I looked out the window. The sunlight was already brightly penetrating into the room. I had apparently overslept.
Rushing out of bed, I nearly ran into the two girls who had just happened to return to check on me. Ludmila was carrying a plate of food meant for myself. That was nice of her.
As I started eating, Katsys noticed a small limp in my step that I had barely felt. It seemed like the damage from yesterday’s fight was still there. I had to explain to her about Roderick’s visit, and how he had forced me into a fight to understand my motives.
“Leave it to him to get too heated when absorbed in something.” Katsys puffed her cheeks at the captain that she was used to seeing around the castle.
Reaching over to the areas that I pointed out, Katsys chanted a healing spell. With a warm glow enveloping my left side, the achiness drifted away. Giving my body a shake, it felt good as new.
“Thanks. I guess it’s time for us to cross the mountains and say goodbye to Sistina for a while. I’m sure someone from the Faulkner family will contact us when they’ve paved the path for our return.”
The three of us nodded to each other. We only had to cross the mountains to be free of the Chancellor’s influence. His position had no sway in a foreign country. Of course, we would have to hide the fact that Katsys was a princess, but it’s not like holding her hostage would do any good. If anything, the reports about Sanshiro had suggested that it was a neutral country that wasn’t interested in the politics of others. What kind of livelihood would we find across those mountains?
Cracking the reins of the horse, our wagon headed to the base of the mountain. Though there would be no one pursuing us from behind anymore, I wondered what dangers were waiting for us ahead.