Claude did a double take as he realized who he had been talking to all this time. He had heard that the princess didn’t have much in the way of combat abilities, so he hadn’t expected someone like her to directly confront him. His guard had been down because of her low level of mana. Quickly scanning the surroundings, he expected some guards to be around.
“Don’t worry. I came alone. After evaluating the skills that you possess, this was the only way to approach the two of you. It may seem reckless of me to do so, but I’ve been watching for quite some time.”
Katalina was displaying nerves of steel, even as Eryn’s sword continued to dangle inches from her head. It didn’t look like she had any way of defending herself. The tip of the sword came even closer to goad her.
“And why would you do that? If you knew where we were, then why haven’t you tried to apprehend us?” Eryn glared at her with suspicion.
But strangely calm still, Katalina continued.
“Because I wanted to know what kind of people killed Father. Don’t get me wrong. I cannot forgive the blood upon your hands, but neither can I pass judgment upon you two without seeing for myself who I am dealing with.”
“Was this the Prince’s verdict?” Claude asked.
Katalina gave a bitter smile. “Of course not. He’s rather quick to draw swords. Both he and the Chancellor want you two dead without question. So no, I’m doing this under their radar.”
Katalina had sent one of her inventions to track the two fugitives, ever since they escaped from the castle. The events leading up to the Duke’s murder invoked a sympathetic rage in her. And because of that, she was willing to give them some benefit of the doubt, even as she watched them kill others.
“The fact of the matter is that ‘you killed’. But the reasons behind them aren’t as clear-cut as simply being criminals. You had little choice but to fight,” she continued explaining.
Over the past weeks, Katalina had disguised herself while following them, watching the events play out through the safety of a viewing portal. The battles against soldiers and mercenaries, the daily interactions shared between them, and even, the tender moments of their… nightly activities – Katalina studied them all. And then, she came to a conclusion.
Claude and Eryn were not inherently bad people, but ones who were cornered to the point where they forced their hand. And it was this decision that led her to approach Claude. Beyond those fierce strikes was a heart that simply wanted to do his best for his Master.
“So, even if you know all that… do you think that we’ll just simply let you go?” Eryn eyed her in question.
“That is one option, to let me act as a mediator,” Katalina began, “but neither my brother nor my dear Lamps will listen to this line of reasoning. Quite stubborn once the initial idea is implanted in their heads. So if you take me hostage instead, then that might open up opportunities for negotiation. Plus, they can’t carelessly attack you in fear of hurting me.”
Claude walked over and plucked Eryn’s sword tip away from Katalina’s head.
“I’m down with this. We can use any help that anyone can offer.”
Eryn sheathed her sword, but a downcast expression hung upon her face. The plan was sound, but she couldn’t help feeling anxious about it. A sinking feeling emerged at the bottom of her stomach.
And as the next few days passed by, she slowly started to understand why.
No longer did she spend all her time alone with Claude. Their focus was redirected to watching over the enigmatic princess. Naturally, when people came for their heads, Katalina had to hide somewhere as the two of them fought. It wouldn’t do for them to mistakenly attack the princess in hiding and spoil her plan. Nor could Katalina give off the appearance of favoring renowned criminals.
But as Eryn took care of her opponents with a Fire spell that left them burnt to a crisp, she looked over to see that Claude had gone easy on his side. This ragtag bunch of bloodthirsty scoundrels, they had been truly aiming to end their lives without question. But even still, Claude’s opponents merely lay upon the ground unconscious instead of in pieces.
And then, Claude looked over at the Princess peeking from behind a barrel, which instantly told Eryn why. He was holding back for her sake. He was playing the nice guy. He was making himself look good before her.
And for some reason, that made Eryn annoyed.
She began noticing all the gentle interactions between Claude and Katalina. The casual talk, the brief smiles, and how Claude’s eccentric personality caught her interest. Eryn noticed it all, and slowly, the sinking feeling spread throughout her body.
As if compensating for Claude’s purposeful gentleness, Eryn’s strikes became stronger, and her magic more potent. It was like some power spurred her on as her emotions overcame her. She could feel it spewing from her core.
And at night, her advances upon Claude grew hungrier and more passionate. Like she was making up for lost time when Katalina was constantly around them, the desire to feel needed exploded at the first opening.
She wanted validation. She wanted to know that Claude still fought for her sake. The doubts in her mind would be blown away as long as she could feel his touch upon her, devoting every fiber of his being to please only her.
Because… because he was all she had left.
Finally, the Prince’s army finally caught up to them. And as planned, Katalina stepped forward to negotiate for leniency. Prince Oswald and Chancellor Lamps were at the head of the unit.
“Please, Brother. If you would give them a chance… We were wrong to shackle them blindly due to traditions! Let them serve the kingdom on their own terms!”
Before a large squadron of several hundred, they had no choice but to talk down their opponents. Even with their combined strength, the Master/Electi pair couldn’t hope to escape from this unscathed. This was the moment that they had dreaded. But with Katalina offering a different voice of reasoning, they pinned their hopes on her success for more favorable outcomes.
Their brief respite of freedom would end, and they would have to serve the kingdom in reparation for their sins. But at least, they both would get to live. That should have brought some relief.
But for some reason, Eryn felt small next to the backs of Katalina and Claude, who took a few steps forward to face their enemies. And somehow, thoughts of how nice they looked as a pair flooded her mind.
‘Claude would no longer be mine. Under the command of the Kingdom, under Katalina, Claude would fight for someone besides me… Just look how he hovers over her now. Like a champion, guarding and protecting… What about me? Where does that leave me? Tossed aside since all I have is my body. My heart. All of it, already claimed. Of course, he’d want more. Of course, he’d protect Katalina instead-”
Eryn’s thoughts were interrupted as the loud clang of metal being drawn from its sheath echoed across the plains. Prince Oswald pointed his sword at them.
“The Electi, he seems to be under control. I’ll give you that.” But then, he shifted his sword ever so slightly to the side, straight at Eryn. “But what of her? My Chancellor speaks of a disturbing aura emitting from her.”
Claude shot a look of surprise at that accusation. With his eyes, he could indeed see that an inferno seemed to be brewing within her, but not fully understanding the concept of mana in this world, he merely played it off as something normal. But now, he began to question it.
‘Why did her aura feel so dark compared to his?’
Granted, his own aura was tainted purple, unlike the blue auras of the enemies he fought. But Electi and Masters were special, weren’t they? Still, it didn’t explain why Eryn’s shade was so much richer and deeper in hue.
“Such auras are unnatural! They go against the very Gods’ powers. Summoned as heroes, but having chosen to walk off the divine path, that is what the aura of purple means!”
Unlike Claude, who was shocked with this revelation, Eryn’s face was stony. She had known it all along. At the first sign of purple from Claude’s eye skill, the Gods had already cursed them. They grasped for too much, thereby perverting the natural progression of strength. They could tap into that power, but they didn’t have the proper guidance to accompany it. And what else would people call those that had fallen out of Gods’ graces than-
“Demon! You have gone too far into darkness! We cannot put our kingdom at risk, even at the request of the Princess!”
And just like that, negotiations crumbled. A team around Chancellor Lamps each pulled out a gun-looking contraption and fired. Swirls of circular magic converged all around Eryn. In another moment, each of those swirls opened up and hands reached out to grab her.
Flashes of the Duke’s men surrounding her weeks ago triggered her trauma. Once again, they were only targeting her. Only her. Like she was the curse. Someone specifically hated by the Gods. That was what her existence came down to.
Eryn turned to escape but a pair of arms went for her neck before the others. It was that last straw that broke her senses. Her hand reached immediately for her sword in a panic, drawing it from the scabbard with a mighty spinning slash.
If they were going to come for her, if she was going to die, then she wouldn’t go quietly. She watched as limbs were sliced before the portals were crushed. But still, the weight of someone strangling her from behind persisted.
She shook the person off her and spun around, seeing Claude dashing toward her in a panic to stop her rampage.
‘Even you have abandoned me now, haven’t you? When my disgusting, horrible self is revealed…’
Her arm swung, cleaving the person holding her in two easily. However, a glimpse of light blue hair passed her vision. Eryn’s eyes widened, suddenly realizing why Claude was in such a rush. The person she had just struck was Katalina.
The Princess had dived for her, wrapping her arms around Eryn to shield her from the others. To prevent them from striking. But Eryn struck first, thinking that she, too, was an attacker. The sight of the Princess’s body bisected in two caused everyone to freeze.
But that lasted only for a moment. Howls of rage echoed throughout the plains as the proof of Eryn’s unsalvageable humanity was on full display. A mistake it was, but she had just slain her strongest supporter, their only hope. Now, there was no one to stop the kingdom from going full offensive to rid her existence.
Claude finally reached her and took one look at her dejected face. The face of someone that had truly gone too far. Unforgivable traitor that she was, he had every right to reject her now. Especially after she realized that part of her was glad that Katalina couldn’t use her charm on Claude anymore.
“Come on! Lift up your sword! I can’t take them on all by myself!” Claude yelled instead.
She looked up in surprise. Even with the rumble of a stampeding army next to them, he only looked at her. His brown eyes only reflected her face within them. A bit of strength returned to her arms and legs. She had resolved to fight until the end, but apparently, she wasn’t alone.
It was them against several hundred. It was their last dance.
But at the end of it all, she was still cursed.
The Prince’s army started retreating. The combined might of the pair had unexpectedly routed them. Eryn’s wide-range magic had sent more than half to their grave, if one could count the dead that were indistinguishable from ashes. Tettering on exhaustion, Eryn’s magic had barely kept most of them at bay. But as she scanned the surroundings for Claude, he wasn’t so lucky.
Claude could only fight close-combat, and being an amateur that merely possessed instant kill attacks, he took many hits in the chaos. She found him sprawled on the ground, bleeding profusely. Red dyed the trampled grass around him, the pool of blood making it obvious that his life was on its last dregs.
The state of his body made Eryn burst into tears. Why had she survived once again when the ones she loved had to suffer? Why did she live at the cost of others?
Eryn knelt down and cupped Claude’s head between her hands, staring at his face in sorrow.
“I-I never wanted things to be this way… I never wanted to fight. To kill. To force you to do the same… I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”
She could apologize for the rest of her life and never expect forgiveness. But he would give it to her anyway. Without question, with the same smirk that he always had when facing danger, Claude committed himself to stand by her for an eternity.
“I… love… you… E-ryn… al-ways…”
Eryn bit her lip as her tears wouldn’t stop. She should have believed more in him before it came to this.
“I know, Claude. You’ve shown me time and time again. Even if I doubted you. You tore through it all. You made me believe. You stood by me even with how horrible and despicable I had become. I thought I could handle it all, even with everyone glaring at me in hate but you.”
The light in Claude’s eyes started to fade. And with that, any hope Eryn had was gone. There was nothing left. Every future was now morbid and dark, just like her heart. One by one, her emotions peeled away. Everything but one bitter feeling.
“But without you, what do I have left in this world? For I have nothing left to lose. It can burn. All of it.”