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Chapter 1

The Supporting Cast’s Stories

Red & Rit’s Apothecary.

I did a little stretching to clear the grogginess, bathed in the morning rays.

It was just yesterday that we came back from the fairy village, that I fought Van the Hero. I was happy everyone made it back safe and that I could return to my routine.

Unfortunately, not everything made it back.

“My bronze sword is broken.”

My damaged sword leaned against the wall next to the door to the house. It had cleaved clean in two during the fight with Van. The other bronze sword I lent to Van for the battle was so bent out of shape that it didn’t fit in its sheath.

It hadn’t been able to endure the Hero’s abilities, owing to the force of his attacks.

“If it weren’t a battle with bronze swords, I would have died. I started using bronze swords out of stubbornness, hoping to avoid mortal fights after Ares forced me out of the party. To think that would genuinely end up saving my life…”

This wasn’t the first time, either. When I fought Ruti after her Hero blessing was unleashed by the Sacred Avenger, a bronze sword’s frailty was what saved Ruti and me.

“I wanted a powerful sword while traveling, but now that I’m taking it easy, I recognize that there are more important qualities.”

The way of the sword was truly deep.

“Maybe I can open a local sword school when I’m a bit older.”

Rit leaned out from the window. “What are you talking about?”

We had already said our good mornings. Since we slept in the same bed, waking up at roughly the same time was pretty standard. Whoever woke up first was always careful to get out of bed without rousing the other. Yet we still got up almost one after the other.

This morning, we shared a smile at how groggy our greetings were.

It was a small thing, but it was the pleasant start to another nice day nonetheless.

“A local sword school… Maybe I should teach the shotel.”

“Hoping it will catch on in Zoltan?”

“Shotels are great. Just one can handle any situation!”

“Longsword or saber. Those were the official options for our knights, so I don’t really know much about using a shotel.”

“The Red- and Rit-style academy, offering the bronze-sword course and the shotel course.”

“Yeah, that would be a pretty out-there school.”

I’d been to plenty of different cities and villages, but I’d never seen a sword school with a combination like that. To be fair, no place specifically instructed people on how to use bronze swords. Shotels weren’t popular in many regions, either.

It caught on in Loggervia because the southern mercenaries the duchy hired during the goblin king invasion fifty years ago wielded them. The mercenaries were granted residency as a reward for their efforts during the fighting, and so they shared their combat style, strengthening Loggervia’s army. As a result, Loggervia became the only northern country where the shotel was a popular weapon.

“Shotels have so many uses, though.”

Rit couldn’t understand why her favored weapon wasn’t more popular across the continent.

Honestly, I couldn’t recommend it as a standard weapon for knights…


Seeing my face, Rit puffed her cheeks up, and she grabbed her practice shotel and handed it to me.

“I’m teaching you how to use one. Think of this as a continuation of your morning stretches!”

“I did learn the basics while I was knight, you know.”

“Did you train to use a shotel yourself?”

“No, it was just practice to know how to deal with one if I encountered it during a fight.”

“That alone can’t convey a shotel’s appeal. You have to be taught by someone who really understands its marvels.”

I took the weapon from Rit.

“All right. May I ask for an introduction filled with passion for the shotel?”

“Leave it to me! My special training imbued with love for you and shotels will absolutely convince you!” Rit’s cheeks turned red.

So cute.


A shotel is a double-edged sword that curves into a half circle. By making use of that curve, a shotel can cut into an opponent around a shield or pull a mounted enemy from their saddle. But that shape hampers its reach compared with a straight blade, and its center of gravity is also different, making it harder to use.

“Any Loggervian sword master would tell you a swordsman who relies on reach is no true warrior. If you want longer reach, use a pike, not a sword. Skillfully using the sword you have is proof you’re a true fighter,” Rit argued passionately.

Big, long weapons were showy, but superior reach also placed the cutting edge farther away from your hands.

In the Kingdom of Avalonia’s teaching, the part farther from the hand was easier to stop. Blocking the end of an opponent’s blade with the part of the sword near the cross guard and then shifting to a counterattack was one of the ideal forms of defense.

Someone who’d mastered defensive techniques with a single knife could easily defeat an unskilled longsword wielder who relied on strength.

“To a shotel user, the lack of reach isn’t a handicap. C’mon, Red, raise your sword!”

I took a stance with the shotel Rit had given me.

“Hmmm, not quite.” Rit moved behind me and reached around my body to adjust my stance. “Your right hand should be a little higher—raise your wrist… Yeah, more like that.”

She physically adjusted me to fit what she envisioned.

“I’m pretty sure I was copying your stance,” I said.

“My stance is an adaptation. This is more fundamental. Remember, this is what I taught Al before.”

Al, huh? Kind of nostalgic. I hadn’t seen him around in a while, but apparently, he was a full-fledged adventurer these days. Some people had even taken to calling him “the young genius of the blade.” He probably wouldn’t visit Zoltan much anymore.

“I’m sure he’ll be glad to have the familiar sight of our shop when he does stop by.”

“Yeah. We might not have many amazing medicines that are useful on a quest, but no one forgets their first adventure and starting equipment.”

“Quaint items are part of an apothecary’s charms.”

We had a little laugh at that.

I practiced swinging a shotel with Rit, building up a bit of a sweat.

“I’m done filling out the displays!”

“I finished checking the medicines that were ordered!”

We hurriedly went through the opening preparations.

Training with Rit proved so much fun that we lost track of time.

At this rate, we’d have to delay opening the store by ten minutes.

“Well, that’s just the Zoltan way!”

“If anyone comes on the dot, we can give them some tea and ask them to wait a few minutes.”

People in the capital would have found that infuriating.

In Zoltan, everyone was surprisingly indifferent to waiting or making other people wait.

During the old days, I would have grown annoyed thinking of all the things I could have done had I not been delayed.

We had so much to do back then—turning the tide on a world-scale war with just a handful of people. A journey to forcibly do the impossible with the power of the Hero. Massive battle lines that spanned the entire continent. Countries everywhere retreating and losing ground.

There was no just slipping off alone into dungeons to slay an evil mage or dragon for a quick and easy happily ever after.

The demon lord’s army was a military organization with a well-developed hierarchy. If it lost a commander, another officer immediately assumed the position. That’s not to say there was no disruption, but it wasn’t enough to make their forces crumble. Our little party had to do the work of an army fighting the demon lord’s troops. We needed to build a mountain from thousands of corpses with just a few people, and only then would we achieve a single victory. Once finished, it was time to do it again, over and over all around the continent, pushing the battle lines forward everywhere.

Even if that was God’s role for the Hero, it was too unrealistic, if you asked me. So I’d tried to create situations where the human armies could win for themselves instead.

While my comrades had rested, I used my Lightning Speed to run to neighboring towns to gather information, negotiate with the local generals, and devise a strategy.

I’d decided what locations should be held and which ought to be abandoned. I hadn’t been able to discuss it with Ruti because the Hero didn’t allow her to ignore anyone in trouble.

That’s why I had to be the one to do it.

“Red.” Rit put her hand on my cheek. The warmth pulled me back to reality. “Let’s have fun today!”

“Yeah, let’s.”

Those hard days were behind us.

The constant fighting had left something of a psychic scar, but my time spent here with Rit and Ruti, now free of her blessing, had saved me.

Only half a year ago, I couldn’t sleep without a sword close by in case of an emergency. Knowing my weapon was broken would have kept me up all night.

Someone rang the doorbell.

“Welcome!” I greeted. “Sorry, we’re still preparing to open. If you aren’t in a rush, we’ll provide some tea while you wait.”

The old half-dwarf lady smiled gently. “That’s no problem at all. I would love to have some tea.”


After ten, the morning traffic calmed a bit.

The locals who’d kept inside all winter were venturing out more often as the days grew warmer. Admittedly, they’d all retreat back to their homes to escape the summer heat, but that was Zoltan for you.

This was the season when folk were most active and lively.

“The weather is great today!” Rit peered out the window.

The sky was bright and clear, a perfect spring day.

Spring was short-lived in this corner of the world. How many lovely days would we get this year?

That thought made today feel all the more special, so I took a spot next to Rit and looked out at the sky.

A breeze caressed my face.

This world was filled with fighting, but there were also tranquil moments, like standing with someone special and gazing outside.

Quiet times like this made me happier than any praise I ever received as a knight or a hero.

What did being a hero even mean? I worked to grow strong to protect Ruti. I never sought out the glory of heroism.

“Did you develop your skills in search of honor and glory?” I asked Rit.


She enjoyed the pleasant breeze as she thought on the question, likely recalling the days before we met.

“Honor’s probably not really the word for it. I just wanted to live my way.”

“Your way?”

Rit was a princess of Loggervia.

The duchy was known as a major military power. Excluding its ally, the Kingdom of Avalonia, Loggervia had a few diplomatic problems with its neighbors. Possibly as a result, the aristocrats of Loggervia tended to hail from military lineages.

For all the battle in the nobility’s blood, a princess like Rit, who’d run away from the castle to adventure in disguise, was a rarity.

“I wasn’t the only one who snuck off, you know! Everyone talked about me being some improper princess, but when they were young, Father and my master traveled the world in disguise! A carefree princess who was never in line to inherit anything was nothing compared with Father—the crown prince—gallivanting around!”

“I see, so you got that from your dad, then?”

“He became a dignified ruler after taking the throne, marrying, and having children. He was wild in his youth, making it really weird that he tried to lecture me for sneaking off.” Rit chuckled.

“But you love your father, right?”

“Mhm. A man who strove to be a dignified and coolheaded king for his country’s sake, a father who cared for and watched over his family, and a swordsman who wished to run wild and free. Father was complex and contradictory, but I respect how he tried to be himself without giving up any portion of his identity.”

I’d spoken with the duke briefly in the past, but I’d never seen anything more than the wise ruler who coolly analyzed the state of the war.

A leader capable of granting a party of outsiders command of Loggervia’s best-trained fighting force was rare. Even a knight like me understood just how much courage that decision took.

Undoubtedly, it had been a painful choice, too. The duke was the sort of man capable of swallowing that bitter pill.

“Ha-ha, I’m not surprised he only ever showed you his stern side. However, the night he made that decision, Father broke his practice shotel during training,” Rit said.

“Did he? I see…”

“The worry in his heart came out in his fighting. For a master like Father to snap his sword…”

Rit had competed with us when our party arrived in Loggervia.

Hoping to overturn the decision to relinquish command of the royal guard to the Hero’s party, she’d tried to prove that Loggervia could protect itself alone. Her actions had partly been motivated by the fact that her master, Gaius, was commander of the royal guard, and she didn’t wish to see him humiliated. Still, I imagine she was upset to see her father mortified over his inability to protect his nation, too.

“Okay, getting back to the question of why I ran away from the castle to go adventuring…” Rit looked at me. Standing at the window as we were, I felt the warmth of her body, and she mine. “…I didn’t want to become a hero. I ended up being called one because of what I did, but it was never the goal.”

“So why did you do it?”

“Freedom. I wanted to live my way, to do what I wished. I ran off to save someone. I fought because there were evil people I couldn’t forgive. And when I wanted to be a princess, I came back and behaved like one. I tried to save Loggervia because I love it. It was always me living how I liked. Being a hero would have tied me down.”

“Tied you down?”

“Right, that image of heroism. Brave and fearless, never crying, the ideal that everyone looks up to. I didn’t want to be that sort of person. I preferred the freedom to run away to save my life if necessary, to cry, to get mad.”

“I see. Beautiful. That’s just like you.”

“That’s the reason I adventured. And it’s the same now.” Rit put her arms around my neck and hugged me. “I’m free, and I’m here because I want to be here. I want to be with you forever. That was true when I adventured, and it still is when I hug you blissfully. That will never change.”

“You’re strong.”

Being with Rit had helped me stand again.

I wrapped my arms around her back and returned the embrace.

“Thanks, Rit.”

“Heh-heh. Thank you, Red.”

I was with her because it was what I wanted, too.

A feeling swelled inside me…

…and that’s when the bell chimed again.

We immediately broke apart and reassumed typical business demeanor.


Although retired, we were still battle-hardened veterans.

Switching from an embrace to serious mode before the door opened was easy.

“So hard at work even on such a nice day? I’m impressed.”

“Hello, Dr. Newman. If you have an order, I would have been happy to deliver it for you,” I said.

“It’s such a nice day that I felt like taking a little stroll.”

I nodded. “I was just thinking of going for a walk with Rit later.”

“That’s a good idea. Ah, I’d like two dozen painkillers and the same number of hemostatics and bandages.”

“That’s quite a lot. Should I carry them to your clinic?”

“No, that’s all right. When I was young, I worked as a traveling doctor and lugged around a box of medicine, so that won’t be a problem.”

Dr. Newman took the medicine I laid out on the counter for him and started packing it into his leather bag.

“…How is Cardinal Ljubo’s condition?” I asked.

“The danger has passed. We got to him too late for healing magic to be much help, so he won’t be able to move for a while, and the scars will remain, but he will survive. He has tremendous vitality, and his determination to survive is far beyond that of an average person.”

“I guess it makes sense for someone who’s climbed so high among the church ranks.”

“He’s not the sort you see here in Zoltan.”

A shadow crossed Dr. Newman’s face.

Ljubo was currently his patient. Apparently, Van had stabbed Ljubo after losing control. Such a terrible wound would have slain a normal adventurer on the spot. However, Ljubo possessed the powerful Divine Blessing of the Cardinal, and he was high enough of a level to travel with Van.

More than anything, he was fortunate to be injured at an inn, as he was quickly discovered and taken for treatment.

The only healer who could get to him quickly was a person with a low level that only afforded them weak healing spells. Fortunately, that sustained Ljubo long enough for Dr. Newman to arrive.

“…Are you all right?” I asked. “Ljubo ruined your teacher’s life.”

The doctor whom Newman had studied under had been wrongfully banished as a heretic by Ljubo at the behest of other medical professionals who’d bribed the cardinal.

“I cannot help but hate him, and I admit I’ve thought about killing him. The tiniest mistake on my part would have meant his death.”

“It is rough having to save your enemy, but killing a powerful member of the church isn’t something you can sweep under the rug. Even if it was a medical mistake, or perhaps especially, considering your blessing is the Doctor, they would blame you for not fulfilling your blessing’s role and have an inquisitor take you away.”

“It’s pretty rough when a doctor’s error is dubbed heresy. Naturally, I’m being careful not to make any mistakes.”

“If a cardinal dies, the church will make it a huge deal and force the matter. So…maybe it would be better to entrust Ljubo to another clinic?”

Dr. Newman shook his head. “Red, I’m not that devout when it comes to the church’s teaching. I had a pretty terrible experience with one of their inquisitors, after all. But I’m grateful to God for this.”


“I spoke to Ljubo about everything. When he realized he couldn’t move and that someone who hated him controlled whether he lived, his face froze in terror…and he begged for forgiveness.”

“I’m sure. He’s the sort who would lower his head to anyone to survive.”

“But I didn’t forgive him. I doubt I ever will.”

A dark rage clouded Dr. Newman’s usual warm expression.

“But you didn’t kill him,” I said.

“Of course not. I’m a doctor. No matter how much I might hate him, as a doctor, I must save his life. That’s what I learned from my teacher. As the student of a doctor who lost his hands needlessly and still tried to leave behind his knowledge for me to save the sick, I settled things with Ljubo.”


“I’m trying to beat the past that’s tormented me.”

“I see. So that’s why you have to be the one to heal him.”

Dr. Newman smiled at that. After checking the medicine, he put the bag over his shoulder.

“Thank you. I was looking for someone to talk about this with,” he said.

“If a simple apothecary like me will do, I’ll lend an ear anytime. Especially for such a valuable client.”

“Just a typical sort of conversation between a simple apothecary and a simple doctor.”

After a smile, Dr. Newman returned to his clinic, and the shop was quiet.

“Everyone has their own burden to bear.” Rit sounded moved.

All the people who came to our shop had their stories, just like we did. And they all came with baggage.

“Trouble like that is why I didn’t want to make Ruti shoulder the fate of the world alone simply because she was the Hero.”

Everyone lived their own story.

Should a fight between a girl who happened to be born with the Hero blessing and the demon lord who coincidentally possessed the Demon Lord blessing really decide everything?

Were others merely bit players in the grand story of the Hero and the demon lord?

“I can’t accept that we’re all so insignificant. Whatever Demis’s will, the people’s wants matter,” I said.

Being born with the right blessing didn’t matter. Anyone who tried to save the world of their own volition was a hero. Even without the tremendous strength of the Hero, if many good people worked together, they would save the world.

“Thinking back, I got in the way so much in Loggervia, but you were never harsh with me,” Rit remarked.

“From a strategic perspective, it was a gigantic pain. Someone who acknowledged us as heroes and knew our strength yet still desired to save her homeland was a dazzling sight to behold.”


“Also, it was cute how you charged forward, full of confidence, only to mess up.”

“Ugh.” Rit’s expression stiffened, and her cheeks turned a little red.

In the old days, she was a little too focused on antagonizing us and didn’t fully comprehend the might of the demon lord’s army. The demon lord’s forces wouldn’t lose to someone that blind to their true enemy.

“Nearly half a year has passed since Ruti quit, yet the war situation isn’t too bad,” I remarked.

Rit nodded. “Supposedly, humanity is slowly starting to win.”

Humans took repeated losses for a while, but Ruti the Hero’s efforts bought time for the armies to regroup.

The strength of the demon lord’s army was far superior to that of any nation on the continent, but it had to cross a great ocean. Plus, humanity had greater numbers.

Countries had refused to cooperate with one another, instead focusing on myriad smaller, short-term goals. This led to victories for the demon lord’s army. Raising troops and crossing a border to aid a neighboring land was no simple feat. Did Demis think that humanity would unite around the Hero once the armies of evil attacked? Nations would refuse to cooperate even if the world was ending tomorrow. The possible balance of power the day after tomorrow too often claimed precedence.

Things had since changed, though. Veronia previously maintained a stance of neutrality while supporting the demon lord’s army from the sidelines, but now it fought for humanity. Almost every nation on the continent was battling together as one.

Meanwhile, the demon lord’s forces had lost a key to their invasion, the air supremacy of Gandor of the Wind and the wyvern knights. Similarly, Altra of the Water and the serpent divisions had been wiped out by Esta.

Losing a pair of leaders and their troops weakened the demon lord’s army considerably. It was unable to hold the territory it had claimed and was slowly ceding it back to the nations of Avalon.

Yielding a bit of ground hardly meant the demon lord’s army was out of the fight, but at the current rate, it was poised to be overwhelmed by humanity.

“The shrinking front line will prove advantageous for the enemy, though.”

If the demon lord’s troops relinquished some land and fell back to a more manageable position, they would have an easier time coordinating offensives. Humanity’s counterattack would likely stall at the fortress along the border of the former Flamberge Kingdom.

Deadlocked battle lines were typically a call for negotiations and an armistice to end the conflict. Unfortunately, there was still no sign of any diplomacy from the demon lord’s army. No one knew whether its leaders were open to the idea.

Even if humanity broke past the fortress thanks to the work of some brilliant strategist and then went on to eliminate all enemies on the continent, human shipbuilding and naval knowledge could not weather the seas around the dark continent. The demon lord’s army would survive.

Attacking the demon lord’s territories and wholly eradicating the menace was impossible.

“But that’s something for kings and generals to worry about,” I said.

Rit shrugged. “Right, it’s not like we know what the demon lord’s after.”

“It feels wrong to dub the invaders an army of evil created by God, then never devote any greater consideration to it. The current demon lord must have a goal.” Despite saying as much, I couldn’t think of one.

In the past, I’d tried not to ponder the topic.

A story about discovering why the Hero and the demon lord existed instead of one about the Hero defeating the demon lord. It promised to be a grand quest that would challenge God and the world.

Back when I searched for a way to free Ruti from the Hero, I had researched her blessing.

Using my position as second in command of the Bahamut Knights of the Kingdom of Avalonia, the largest nation on the continent, I’d plumbed every record I could get my hands on.

Yet the answer always eluded me. To find anything more, I required access to the secret church archives at the Last Wall fortress.

Those records were open only to the father and cardinals. Undoubtedly, the history of the church that was the proxy for God contained something that could lead me closer to the purpose of the Hero and the demon lord.

There probably wouldn’t be much more than some old story, though. That’s what I assumed, anyhow.

“At the very least, I need to do what I can here for Van before he resumes his journey,” I said.

As the Guide who once traveled with a different Hero, I had a responsibility to Van if he intended to fight and fulfill his role.

“When did you get the idea to return to the ancient elf ruins?” Rit asked.

“I guess after Van stabbed Cardinal Ljubo,” I replied.

Rit grimaced. “That definitely made it clear how unstable he was.”

“I never imagined his blessing might run wild like that. According to the church’s teachings, such a thing shouldn’t be possible for the Hero, so it’s not surprising I never came across anything like it in the records.”

The Hero lost sight of himself and attempted to kill his comrade.

What if this isn’t the first time something like that has occurred?

“I’m going to check on Cardinal Ljubo tomorrow and then make plans,” I said.

Rit nodded. “Then let’s take it easy today, in case things start getting busy later.”

“Sounds good. We can worry about tomorrow’s problems tomorrow.”

Rit beamed from her spot beside me.

I set all other thoughts aside to focus on spending time with her.


“What do you think? About time to make lunch?” I asked.


I couldn’t help but smile at the cheerful response.

Rit and I started living together last summer. Preparing lunch for her had become commonplace, but she was always delighted.

And because she was so clearly happy about it, I took great joy in it as well.

Nothing about today was exceptional, yet…

“All right, I’ll put in a little extra effort to make something really delicious.”

“Really?! What are you going to make?!”

“Hmm, how about spring vegetables with steak on the side?”

“Not the other way around?”

“No, the vegetables are the main dish, and the steak is the side.”

“Fresh, seasonal vegetables are delicious. I can’t wait!”

After an excited send-off from Rit, I headed to the kitchen.

Now to put all my knowledge to work and make some lunch.

I retrieved a basket of spring vegetables we’d received as payment for medicine.

“They all look nice and fresh. We should enjoy them while they’re still tasty.”

I smiled a little, and the scent of onion stoked my hunger.

The meat was nothing special, but these vegetables were top-class. They were perfect for a main course.

Peas, asparagus, and onion cooked in a paprika-butter glaze.

Mushrooms and baby broccoli in a garlic sauté, oven-baked anchovies with cheese and paprika, and simple vegetables grilled in olive oil.

And for meat, I used a beef roast I’d purchased for a stew. I carefully sliced the tendons to soften the roast before tenderizing it and prepared a tomato-based sauce that would pair well with all the greens.

It was well past noon by the time lunch was ready.

Each dish was simple, but there were too many for a household kitchen to handle… I’d gotten a bit carried away.

The white bread and a pitcher of water with cut lemon and herbs floating in it were the final pieces.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Rit! Can you help me set this out on the table?!”

“I’ve been looking forward to this!”

The joy in her reply was palpable.


I hung a sign on the door saying we were away for lunch.

With two of us running the place, we could alternate breaks to keep from outright closing, but that logic stood no chance against the temptation to enjoy eating together.

“Thanks for the meal!” Rit said excitedly.

Steak juices seeped from the meat when I cut into it.

The buttery sweet and colorful vegetables glistened from the glaze, and the green colors of the garlic sauté were appropriately spring-like.

The red paprika and melted cheese atop the baked anchovies were delightful.

Although the grilled vegetables were only a casual assortment, the simplicity brought out a delicious freshness.

And to top it all off, the hint of lemon and herbs from the water in our cups proved refreshing.

Rit reached for the garlic sauté.

“Mmmm! That’s good!” She broke into a smile. “The texture is great!”

Mushroom and baby broccoli possessed a crisp, crunchy texture. That was especially true when they were fresh.

Next, Rit took a bite of the meat.

“And it goes great with steak.”

The beef was cooked to a slightly pink medium well, tender enough that a knife passed through it easily.

It wasn’t expensive meat, but proper preparation had turned it into an easy-to-eat steak.

“Mm! Today’s lunch is great!”

Rit’s blissful reaction was the greatest reward possible.

I reached for the garlic sauté.

Eating with Rit made it even tastier than when I’d checked the flavor in the kitchen.


After lunch, we returned to work.

And after a little while.

“Riiit, I’m here!”

The voice was quiet, but it still carried clearly from the door.

“Lavender?” I said.

A little fairy entered the shop. “I hate you, Red! Bleh!” Lavender stuck out her tongue when she saw me.

“Not a fan, huh?”

“You’re the human who hurt Van! I’ll hate you until the end of time itself!”

Despite her words, she didn’t attack me, and that was proof that we’d built up a good enough relationship.

Lavender was a particularly special being, even among fairies. Her true name was Ketu, the archfay of calamity. Her small form was a facade and seal that contained her true nature. She was a mythical creature capable of holding her own against Rit and Ruti together, and that was if she held back. At full strength, she likely surpassed the demon lord’s four heavenly kings.

“If you had been around during our journey, the fighting would have been a lot easier,” I remarked.

“I don’t intend to travel with anyone other than Van! And I happen to like this form because Van said I’m cute. I won’t do anything to break this form when I’m with Van!”

“So the other day was an exception, then?”

“Van was in trouble… I am a little grateful that you helped him. But that doesn’t change the fact that you hurt him, so I hate you!”

Lavender glared at me.

I grimaced slightly and looked at Esta, who stood behind the fairy.

“No matter what anyone might say, I’ve come to believe that Lady Ruti’s party was the more orthodox of the two.” She grinned from behind her mask. “The present one consists of Van the incomplete hero, the calamitous and fickle fay Lavender, the greedy and worldly Cardinal Ljubo, a mysterious and masked wannabe guide, and Albert, who’s running around taking care of things for me. Even our goals are scattered…”

“If I can be useful to everyone by running around, then I couldn’t ask for more.” Albert had arrived.

“I hate you, too!” Lavender stuck her tongue out at Esta and flew over to Rit. “Hey, Rit! Let’s chat more about love! Esta’s always talking about boring things!”

“After work,” Rit replied.

“What if I go get a big gold nugget? That’s worth more than the bits of silver you’ll earn from running a place like this, right? If I put a little pressure on the fairies, they’ll bring me one right away.”

“How crude.”

Lavender stuck her tongue out again at my remark.

Archfay were generally adored by others of their kind, often becoming leaders of fairy villages. I understood why others avoided Lavender, though. Admittedly, that was less about her being selfish and more because she was a being of calamity.

“I know you’re thinking something mean about me,” Lavender said, eyes narrowed.

“Not at all. I was just pondering fairies in general,” I replied.

For all their intelligence, fay creatures were closer to monsters than people.

They were not beings to be humanized, yet it was very easy to imagine Lavender bullying weaker fairies the way a person would.

“I’m sure you could get quite a lot of gold relatively easily, Lavender,” Rit said.

“Mhm, humans are so strange, desperately chasing after bits and pieces of gold and silver! They’re so easy to gather!”

“But to me, the time I spend working with Red is worth more than any treasure.”

Lavender looked like she suddenly had a revelation.

It was a bit embarrassing hearing that while standing next to them, but apparently, putting it so bluntly helped Lavender understand.

“If that’s the case, then I guess there’s no helping it. I’ll have some wine while I wait in the back.” Lavender flew off into the living room as though she owned the place.

Sheesh, fairies are troublesome.

But human logic meant nothing when it came to them. Shrugging and laughing it off was the best I could do.

“That’s Lavender, I guess. Why did you come by, Esta?” I asked.

“Sorry for the trouble. I’d intended it to be just Albert and me, but when I said we were going to your shop, Lavender insisted on coming. Apologies for the disruption, but it is a good sign.”

“It’s fine,” Rit answered. “I don’t mind talking about love with Lavender. She doesn’t understand human sensibilities, but she gets along well with those she likes.”

“I see. Lavender has never had any affection for me, so I never knew that,” Esta said.

I gave a weak smile. “Sounds like you’ve got a rough journey ahead.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Esta mirrored my expression. “As for why I came…”

“Ah, if you wanted some tea, I could make some,” I offered.

“Tea would be nice. It’s not a pressing matter… I just wished to report on Van’s condition and to speak about the upcoming adventure.”

“I see. Rit told Lavender she’d have to wait until the workday was finished, but should we close up to talk now?” I said.

Esta chuckled a little. “No, I’ll wait until evening, too. It’s not such a priority that it has to get in the way of your time together.”

She had really grown more flexible. It was surprising from the perspective of someone who’d known her for so long.

“In that case…” Rit seemed to hit upon an idea. A shallow smirk formed on her face, as though she’d thought up a trick. “There is a nice café a short walk from here. The coffee is delicious.”

Esta considered it for a moment. “Coffee, huh? But a pointless stroll…”

“Since you came all the way to this part of town, it would be a waste not to try it. It’s fine. Albert doesn’t have anything to do, either, so the two of you can go.”

“Together with Albert?!” Esta looked flustered.

I never knew she could turn so red…

Even I kept my cool when eating with Rit after we reunited…right?

A vague memory of Nao making fun of us for acting like a couple of teenagers flashed through my mind, but I decided to ignore that.

“Forcing Albert to walk that much would be improper,” Esta said.

“Eh? Ah, not at all. It isn’t that far. I’ve been there several times before,” Albert replied.

“Right, you used to live here…but we came to discuss Van, so there’s no cause to leave the apothecary,” Esta reasoned.

Albert nodded. “That’s true. Although, it is a bit of a shame. One of my old comrades, a woman named Ria, took me there once. Rit’s right. The coffee is quite nice.”

“What? You went with a woman?”

Esta’s expression changed! Well, she was wearing a mask, so I couldn’t really say what her face looked like, but she was shaken enough that it was evident despite the mask.

“What are you, a teenager?” I couldn’t help myself. Rit laughed, and Albert just cocked his head in confusion.

“Yes, right after the Zoltan Adventurers Guild introduced me to Ria, we needed to build some connection and trust. I was still new to Zoltan, so she and my other party members invited to me to eat with them,” Albert explained.

“I…see…” Esta sounded dejected.

She was a pure paladin who’d devoted herself to religion and combat from childhood. Esta had focused on her mission, training knights and mastering the spear without getting involved in the church’s power struggles. She never desired to lead her own parish one day.

Esta was the sort who stoically went about her work, believing that was all there was to her life. A freer existence was a foreign concept, and on top of that, she was falling in love.

It was akin to a lifelong merchant picking up a sword for the first time. They overreacted to every one of the opponent’s reactions. From an outside perspective, it was an incredibly strange way to brandish a weapon.

Being a spectator for once was pretty fun.

“I get the feeling you are thinking something rude about me,” Esta said.

I shook my head. “No, not at all.”

The masked woman narrowed her eyes at me. I chuckled and decided to throw her a lifeline.

“You always send Albert out on errands, right?”

“Mrgh, I just…”

“Rewarding an attendant for their hard work is part of a knight’s duty, isn’t it?”

“…Th-that’s right, ahem.” Esta nodded, then forced a little cough.

No, really, that was seriously forced.

“Mm, Albert.”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“You always help me. As a knight, a trustworthy attendant is more valuable than any magic gear.”

The circuitousness was killing me, and Rit fought back giggles desperately.

“It isn’t much as a reward, but would you like to have coffee together?”

“Thank you very much. It really is an excellent café, so I would gladly take you there.”

“Um. Mhm, p-please do…,” Esta answered awkwardly.

Nothing like this would’ve happened while we were traveling together. This scene was only possible after Theodora became Esta.

I lacked any proof, but I had the feeling that she could become stronger as Esta than as Theodora.

Esta wouldn’t struggle as much thinking about what she could offer when the Hero outpaced her in strength. At least, that’s what I thought.

Albert turned from Esta to me. “Also, I have a request for you, sir.”

“You do?”

There was a serious look on his face. I stood up from my chair.

“After today’s meeting, I would like for you to spar with me.”

Esta regarded Albert with surprise; however, her expression softened after a moment. “Please, Red. I would appreciate it, too.”


Albert and I cut an interesting contrast. We’d both been pushed out of a party for lacking strength. I was ousted because of the Guide’s limits, and Albert was dropped because he couldn’t manifest the Champion’s potential.

The difference was that I gave up and searched for an easier, slower life for myself, while Albert never gave up on being a hero.

He’d taken one of the paths I could have.

Rit and I closed up shop for the evening. Lavender had finished helping herself to plenty of wine, and Esta and Albert were back from the café.

Albert and I stood across from each other in the backyard, holding wooden swords.

“We don’t know how long the discussions will take, so I figured we ought to do this first, before it gets too dark,” I said.

“Thank you very much, sir.”

Albert’s reply was refreshingly polite.

He’s become such a nice young man.

“So can he win?” Lavender sipped from her small cup of wine. Apparently, she intended to spectate.

“It would be pretty difficult for the Albert I knew. What do you think, Esta?” Rit said.

Esta shook her head. “Of course not. He has absolutely no chance of winning.”

“What? Fighting even if he can’t win? Humans really enjoy meaningless things.”

“The meaning is in the battle, not the victory. Being a swordsman is a far deeper thing than you think,” Esta replied.

Lavender shrugged. “Doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Esta kept her eyes fixed on Albert.

“May I begin?” Albert asked.

“Yeah, come at me however you like. Or would you rather I start it?” I replied.

“No, sir.”

Albert raised the sword in his left hand.

He’d lost his right during a battle with me. He’d since acquired a prosthetic to help, but it couldn’t manage the delicate and forceful movements necessary to wield a sword.

The two-handed, heavy weapons Albert once brandished were beyond him now.

“I’ll start.” Albert disappeared. “Martial Art: Swallow’s Approach!”

The technique closed the distance to the target quickly for a swift attack. It was popular among swordsmen with high blessing levels. When fighting monsters, it was quite useful, but…


My wooden sword sank into Albert’s stomach, causing him to buckle.

“Red?!” Rit shouted.

Lavender looked surprised. “Whoa, that Red guy’s merciless, hitting that hard.”

I didn’t let it bother me, though, and took a step back from Albert, who writhed on the ground.

“Swallow’s Approach can only move in a direct line toward your opponent, and the distance of the leap forward is fixed. An opponent familiar with it can easily read its travel.”

“Hah, hah… So that’s how you deflected my magic blade so easily the last time.” Albert took a few moments to catch his breath and stand back up. “Gh!”

This time, he took a big step forward with his left leg, thrusting without a Martial Art.

I stepped back with my right leg, evading while also hitting Albert’s shoulder.


Albert slumped and clutched the spot I’d struck.

Wooden sword or not, that had been a serious attack. An ordinary fighter would’ve been down and out.

“That looks painful… Does he hate Albert?” Lavender asked.

Rit looked a bit stunned, too.

“Albert!” Esta shouted. “I’ll heal you no matter your injuries! Fight until you’re satisfied!”

“Thank you…Lady Esta!”

I waited for Albert to stand back up.

Upon seeing that he could move again, I went on the attack.

I neutralized his counterattempt and beat him to the ground a third time.

And from there, the fighting continued until Albert couldn’t stand.


“Here, you must be thirsty, right?”

“Thank you very much. I appreciate it.”

Albert took the cup I offered.

Esta’s healing magic had mended his wounds, but spells couldn’t restore lost stamina.

After getting that battered, it wouldn’t be surprising for Albert to be out for the night. That he managed to keep sitting was impressive.

Esta and the others had gone back inside, but Albert and I were taking a short break outside before joining them.

“Did you get what you wanted?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. I feel much better having you fight me seriously. Last time, I lost without understanding what happened.”

When we clashed before, I defeated him as he swung his sword around furiously.

“I knew I wouldn’t win a rematch, but I wanted it to be a proper duel to learn how and why I failed. I hoped to understand the sword that changed my life.”

“Sorry about your hand.”

“It was a fight to the death. Sparing my life was mercy enough. And there are many things I’ve learned since losing that hand.” Albert rubbed his prosthetic. “My blessing level has risen significantly, and I think I’ve gotten stronger. But as a swordsman, it has been limiting.”

“Danan’s the only person who could lose their dominant hand and somehow end up stronger for it.”

Albert’s sword was bereft of liveliness. His thrusts were swift, yet they lacked precision and impact.

Switching to a one-handed style after fighting two-handed demanded new maneuvers he’d never considered before. It wasn’t an easy switch.

“Esta’s teaching you, right?”

“You can tell?”

“Well, she’s the only one in that party who could instruct someone in practical one-handed swordsmanship. It wasn’t too hard to deduce.”

“Ha-ha. For everyone else in the party, traditional combat techniques are secondary at best.”


We shared a laugh over Esta’s struggles.

“I am weak,” Albert declared.

“That’s not true at all. As you are now, you could proudly make it as a B-rank adventurer at the guild in Central. With the right party members, you might even reach A-rank.”

“But I’m not strong enough to survive the battles of the Hero’s journey, right? Because I’m a bad match for my blessing.”


“I will most likely die somewhere along the way.” Albert seemed at peace as he said that.

“You’ll fight to ensure you live, won’t you?” I asked.

“Of course. But I am still ready for what happens.”

I was unsure what to say.

I wanted to tell him that if he intended to die before even starting, it was better to quit this route. But did I really have the right to deny his resolution?

“That’s why I wanted to know your true sword before I left Zoltan. This might well be my last chance to meet with you or see Zoltan again.” Albert stood, wobbling a bit. “It was an enjoyable fight. Thank you, sir.”

“…Wait a moment.”

I hurried inside and came back with a bundle I’d tucked away in the back of the storage room.

“I want to lend you this.”

“What is it?”

Albert undid the wrapping, revealing a broken longsword.

“This is my trusty blade. The one I found during my journey.”

“Your sword!”

“Its name is Thunderwaker. We found it in an old lord’s tomb. It wound up like this after taking an attack from Ruti the Hero.”

“A sword that stopped a blow from the Hero.”

“It’s broken, but if you take the upper part of the blade and take it to a master smith, it should be the right length for a shortsword that can be wielded one-handed.”

“Break a hero’s blade?!”

“So that the next hero can use it. I’m sure that’s what Thunderwaker wants.”

Albert looked troubled, unsure if he was worthy of this. His strength was yet incomplete. And he’d been arrested as a criminal in Zoltan. He was uncertain whether he could be called a hero.

“I think of you as a hero,” I said. “I told you as much the last time we fought.”

“You told me I have the determination a hero needs…and I still find myself doubting that.”

“I never would have been able to risk my life to stop Van when he went on his rampage.”

“Huh? But that’s exactly what you did.”

“Only because I created a situation where I could win. I wouldn’t have done the same in your position.”

“…But I was just desperately stalling for time. Had Lady Esta not come, I would’ve died pointlessly.”

I shook my head. “But you won. You beat an opponent who was overwhelmingly superior because of the strength of your resolve. I can’t match that.”

The Guide didn’t have a skill that could bring about a miracle. If I knew I couldn’t win, I would retreat. That was my limit.

“You are worthy of this sword. Please, Thunderwaker.”

“I understand…” Albert rewrapped the broken sword. “Thank you, sir. I will fight well, so as not to dishonor this weapon.”

“I didn’t give it to you so you’d get all worked up,” I said with a smile. “This sword saved my life when I had my back against the wall with no way out. I believe it will do the same for you. When everything is done, come back to Zoltan and tell me all about the battles you went through with this blade.”

“So you’re telling me to come back alive.”

“That’s right. Come back alive.”

I wasn’t going to speak some blatant lie like “I’m sure you’ll survive.” Saving the world was a deadly task. Still, I’d hope for his safe return. I wanted to see Esta and Albert living in peace and happiness together at the end of their journey.

I wanted their story to have a happy ending.

“Understood… I will come to see you again.”

“I’m looking forward to it.”

I meant that from the bottom of my heart.


Come night, Rit, Esta, Albert, Lavender, and I all gathered in the living room.

“Are you all right now?” Esta asked Albert.

“Yes, ma’am, I have rested enough. Sorry to keep you waiting.”

“Don’t worry about it… Also, you’ve got a good look on your face now.” Esta smiled happily at Albert.

“You think so?” he said.

Esta turned to me. “Thank you, Red.”

“Glad I could help.”

With that, we moved to the main topic.

“Okay, how is Van faring, Esta?” I asked.

“It’s safe to say he is stable now. The Hero blessing and his religious self-righteousness have both eased significantly. He is in much better condition now.”

“Good. Sounds like he’s well enough for me to check on him.”

I’d meet with him and Ljubo tomorrow.

“Is the Vendidad ready to leave port?”

Esta nodded. “Yes, it’s ready to go at any time…though it would be best to put together a new crew once we reach the next large town. Morale is too low from Van’s leadership.”

“Sounds rough, but not something to worry about while you’re in Zoltan.”

Van had thought it was a good and happy thing for people to die for the sake of the Hero’s quest. From a religious perspective, that wasn’t too strange, but to the sailors being treated as disposable tools, it probably felt a little too harsh.

There was no way they’d trust Van again. Deserters were bound to pop up in the coming months.

“So you can leave right after we’ve finished exploring the ruins and Cardinal Ljubo recovers,” I said.

“Depending on the situation, we might also leave Ljubo here and return to the front lines sooner,” Esta replied.

“Huh? You’d abandon him in Zoltan?” I didn’t mask my distaste. Lavender burst into laughter, gripping her stomach. “What a cold fairy, laughing when one of your comrades almost died.”

“I don’t want to hear that from the person who looks so upset about a half-dead man remaining in town,” she snapped back.

Lavender had a point, but Ljubo’s prolonged presence in Zoltan was bound to cause some kind of issue.

“If he can move, we will take him with us. He doesn’t want to be separated from the Hero anyway,” Esta asserted.

Cardinal Ljubo fought to rise in the church’s hierarchy. He wasn’t the sort of person to lose his drive after a setback like this.

“Our problems have certainly shrunk since we met to figure out how to deal with Van and Lavender,” I remarked.

Esta nodded. “True. That was a nightmare. I’ve been through my share of scrapes, but that was surely the worst.”

“Traitor.” Lavender fluttered around Esta’s head, raining little flailing attacks on it all over.

“Ha-ha-ha. It all worked out in the end. Real comrades can’t just blindly obey. You should think a little more about being a good partner for Van, too, Lavender… Hey, quit it. Don’t pull my hair.” Esta smiled initially, but as Lavender’s assault persisted, she lost patience and shooed the fairy away. Lavender responded by biting her fingers, turning it into a proper squabble.

I never would have thought Esta could get involved in something so childish.

The discussion was completely derailed.

“Wow, I’ve heard about meetings turning into fracases, but I’d never really experienced it myself.” Albert and Rit exchanged a look after my comment.

“I’ve seen it plenty of times. In Zoltan especially, it is almost the norm,” Albert said.

“Me too,” Rit agreed. “A lot of strange people end up being adventurers.”

I guess my experiences in the Bahamut Knights were different from those of this pair, who’d been more active as adventurers.

Admittedly, there were some problematic older knights whose goal for calling meetings was merely to go drinking, but I never really thought of those as meetings in the first place.

I wasn’t great at holding my liquor, so I had wished those functions would stop.

Esta came from a similar background, so this sort of thing was likely a new experience for her.

“I wonder if this kind of rapport is actually a good thing,” I said.

“Maybe,” Rit answered.

This squabble seemed frivolous, but perhaps the old Hero’s party wouldn’t have fallen apart had we built this sort of relationship on our journey.

At the very least, Theodora wouldn’t have suffered all alone.


“Good morning, Big Brother.”

“Good morning.”

Ruti and Tisse came by the apothecary early the next morning.

“Morning, you two,” I replied. “Care for some breakfast?”

“Mhm. I want to have your cooking.”

“Yes, thank you.”

I prepared a meal for four.

“Good morning, Ruti, Tisse.”

“Good morning, Rit.”

“Good morning.”

After greeting Rit, Ruti and Tisse took spots at the table.

“Today’s menu is eggs Benedict, a sauté of cabbage, spinach, and olives, some bacon soup, and berries with yogurt.”

I lined up each selection on the table.

“It looks great,” Ruti praised.

A poached egg and shrimp on buttered toast, eggs Benedict with asparagus and a lemon sauce—the enticing fusion of colors was also a selling point.

Ruti’s eyes gleamed as she beheld the food.

All right, no point in waiting around.

““Let’s eat.””

Ruti cut into the eggs Benedict.

“Mm, it’s delicious.” She smiled happily.

I was glad that she and Tisse got to sample some of the spring vegetables Rit and I had been given.

Together, the four of us made quick work of the remaining greens. Something about that made me happy.

Once finished, I washed the dishes with Ruti.

She offered to take care of it herself, but it was kind of nice to handle it together.


“Ah, thanks.”

We didn’t say much. The only sounds were the clinks of plates and tableware as we cleaned and put them away.

“…” Ruti kept quiet and washed everything earnestly. It was adorable, and she looked happy.


“I see.”

After breakfast, I told Ruti and Tisse that I intended to see Van and Ljubo today. They both nodded and then considered the idea for a moment.

“Do you really plan to investigate the ruins without bringing Ms. Ruti?” Tisse asked.

“Yes, I’d like her to watch things in Zoltan,” I replied.

“I don’t like it.” Ruti’s displeasure was evident from how her eyebrows arched. I’d already made up my mind, however.

The secret of the Hero slept in those ancient elf ruins. The first Hero’s sacred blade had sent Ruti on a rampage, and although she controlled her old Hero blessing with her New Truth one, I was still a little scared of her getting too close to the secret buried in those old structures.

Plus, Ruti was retired. There was no need for her to go delving after the secret of the Hero anymore. This was an adventure for the new Hero and his party, and for the Guide.

“I don’t like it at all. You’re my guide. And I want to be with you, Big Brother,” Ruti grumbled, puffing out her cheeks.

“But this is Van’s adventure. While we’re gone, please take care of Zoltan and the shop.”

“Mrgh, it’s not fair that Rit gets to go.”

The expedition group included Van, Lavender, Esta, Albert, Danan, Yarandrala, Rit, and me.

I would lead as a guide, while Rit would fulfill the scout role Van’s party lacked. She and I worked best together. Yarandrala would handle support because Ljubo wasn’t coming. As for Danan…

“I understand compensating for things missing from Van’s party, but why Danan?” Ruti asked.

“Because he’s strong.”

It truly was that simple. A lot went into balancing a party, but in the end, Danan was just really, really powerful. There was no telling what might appear in the ancient elf ruins, so keeping one tough guy around would make things easier.

In a pinch, we’d rely on Danan. Undoubtedly, he’d make something work.

I counted on him pretty often while we traveled together…

“Since you’re not coming, I thought it might be good to have some raw might on the team,” I replied.

“That wouldn’t be an issue if I came along,” Ruti argued.

“Now, now.” Rit did her best to placate my sister, but she remained grumpy.

“There’s plenty to do on your plantation now that it’s spring, right? I bet you’ve got more customers, too. Just take it easy here in Zoltan this time,” I said.

“That’s true, but…”

“We’ll be back before you know it, and things will be peaceful again. We can go for a walk after this is over.”

Ruti nodded, finally accepting. “…Okay. I’ll protect Zoltan to enjoy a stroll with you, Big Brother.”

“Is it really fine for me to stay behind?” Tisse questioned.

“Hmm,” I replied. Having Tisse around would definitely be reassuring. She worked well with others and could fill any role she was given. “But there are already eight of us. I don’t really want the party any larger than that.”

The ideal size for an adventuring group was five to six people. That was the optimal number for keeping commands quick and staying on top of everyone’s individual predicaments.

However, parties of three or four were more common. Finding five others you were willing to entrust your life to wasn’t easy, and coordinating six people could be a challenge. One person could stay out of the fighting and focus on leadership, but that tended to cause arguments. In every country on the continent, there was a strong belief that a commander needed to lead the charge to raise the morale and courage of their troops.

Leaders of the demon lord’s army often specialized in their command positions. Were it not for the war, I would have inquired about how they managed to raise soldiers who fought so bravely without their superiors beside them on the front lines.

“Our party was cobbled together at the last minute, and not everyone is used to working together. And Van’s party didn’t exactly have great teamwork before. I think keeping the party to eight people is best,” I said.

“I see. Understood.” Tisse bobbed her head, evidently accepting my reasoning.

“But, Big Brother,” Ruti began.


“Please be careful. God created the Hero, and it wasn’t out of compassion for people. As someone with the Divine Blessing of the Hero, I know that much for certain.”

“The reason…,” I muttered.

“If anything happens, call me. I will absolutely come to help, no matter how far away you are.”

“Thanks, Ruti.”

She was right. The Hero blessing didn’t exist to save people. That’s why I wanted Van, who fought for his blessing, to learn the truth.

I didn’t want him to regret his journey.

I stopped by Dr. Newman’s clinic to check on Ljubo at around ten in the morning.


“It’s Red here, Your Eminence.”

“Hmph. So the hero knight Gideon of Avalonia’s Bahamut Knights now works as an apothecary in this backwater of all places.”

“Do you mean to imply that I should be out fighting, Your Eminence?”

He shook his head. “No. I cannot understand resigning yourself to a boring job when you could earn more elsewhere. One man won’t make a difference in a war that spans the world. Van thinks differently, but I don’t believe some tiny town joining the fight will change things. War demands logical thought.”

This wasn’t the sort of perspective I expected of a holy man. Still, a person who only concerned themselves with appeasing God likely wouldn’t have sought to climb the church’s ranks, either.

Ljubo had achieved a position only possible for those with the Divine Blessing of the Cardinal. A cardinal was a title only those with the matching blessing could work toward. The rank was one of the highest among the holy church, the world’s greatest organization. Those with the Cardinal blessing were willing to do anything to reach that position.

And because that honorable path was open to them, all other routes were closed. I felt a bit of sympathy for those like Ljubo, who were born with the Cardinal blessing.

“Now then, you mentioned taking Van to those ancient elf ruins,” Ljubo said.


“I’m not too excited about that. That’s where that ancient elf weapon came from, correct?”

We never told Ljubo about Ruti, so he still believed an ancient elf weapon defeated Van.

“That’s why Danan and I will accompany him. We don’t expect a fight, but we’ll be ready should the worst occur,” I replied, calmly maintaining the pretense.

“Well, you are the one who stopped Van’s reckless rampage. I would prefer to go as well, but I’ll entrust this matter to you. I should be able to walk again soon, but it will be some time before I can fight.”

Despite nearly dying because of the boy he’d been looking after, Ljubo did not seem to harbor a grudge.

“Aren’t you scared of Van or angry with him, Your Eminence?”

“Me? Absurd. Van is the Hero. No matter how misguided he might become or what sins he commits, that does not change the fact that he is the Hero. I am a cardinal of the holy church, which represents God’s will. It is my duty to support Van.”

I sensed no doubt in his words. He was being genuine.

Ambition and faith.

It reminded me of Ares. What would Ljubo do if Van ever decided to quit?

At the moment, it seemed like Van was at peace with his role, so I guessed things were okay for the time being, but…


At noon, I left the shop to Rit and departed for the meeting place Esta told me about. Supposedly, Van was waiting there.

“This is it.”

I checked the note she gave me again.

This is definitely it.

“Tiger Heart sword school.”

The building stood in northern Zoltan.

It was a fairly popular school led by the former champion of Zoltan’s colosseum. A sign out front advertised, THE INVINCIBLE SWORDSMANSHIP OF THE UNSHAKABLE CHAMPION JANKO! However, Janko had lost to the current champion, the great hammer-wielder Volga, so the sign’s boast felt a little weak.

However, because of the income from his school, Janko could focus his time on the colosseum and not worry about adventuring to earn money. He couldn’t afford to change the sign.

Realizing my thoughts were straying, I refocused myself.

What was Van the Hero doing at a lowly sword academy?

Is he going around challenging masters of various styles?

No one in any other town or city would care.

“Guess I’ll go in.”

The door to the school was closed.

After making sure no one was around, I leaped over the fence and snuck inside.



“O-okay! I will be your partner for overhead defense practice!”

Van’s spirited voice was met with a shrill reply.

Peeking into the room, I saw Van looking serious and holding a wooden sword, and a man who seemed on the verge of tears.

The man was probably a teacher here. The other gathered students were quiet, and their eyes were watery as well. Tiger Heart Janko, former champion of Zoltan’s colosseum, watched Van with moist eyes hidden behind his bushy white eyebrows.

Teaching your techniques to someone so strong that they could kill you in an instant had to be one of the most painful things for a swordsman.

“Hah! Hah! Hah!” Van shouted, while the Tiger Heart–style instructor brandished his wooden sword without any trace of actual fighting spirit.

“Oh, he’s taking this seriously,” I muttered.

Van earnestly mirrored the fundamental defensive basics. These were the sorts of techniques a student of two to three months would practice. Van had focused too heavily on his blessing and ignored proper swordsmanship, but he should have learned the basics of combat from the church, and that included practical defensive techniques.

“That’s probably more his natural style,” I muttered.

Were it not for the miracle that changed Van’s blessing from the Cardinal to the Hero, he would have grown into a serious and earnest cleric.

I watched for a while as he repeated that basic movement.

Once the practice began to wind down, I stepped into the room.

Van perked up. “Ah, Gi—”


“Right, Red!”

Van hurried over to me.

The students of the school breathed a sigh of relief, glad to be free of the Hero.

“I went to see Cardinal Ljubo earlier. He’s quite resilient. In another few days, he should be able to walk again,” I said.

“I go to see him every day… He has every right to blame me for my loss of control, yet he merely says he’s glad I realized my sin.”

Van was crucial to Ljubo’s plans for himself. The Cardinal would never abandon the Hero, even if Van went on a rampage.

Never had I felt so glad to live a simple life as an apothecary.

“You forgave me, too, even though I hurt you. I wouldn’t blame you for holding a grudge, you know,” Van said.

“Oh, right.”

I did get cut pretty badly during our fight. Ruti had healed me immediately after, so there wasn’t even a scar, but ordinarily, I would have died.

“But I hurt you, too,” I replied. “We dueled; it happens. There’s no point to staying bitter over a duel.”

“Oh, really?”

Van probably couldn’t understand yet. However, his acknowledging that others would bear him ill will because he hurt them was progress. The old Van might have said something about how they ought to be grateful for being wounded for the sake of divine blessings. Any indication that Van saw people instead of blessings was a step in the right direction.

“Anyway, I thought we could head to the ancient elf ruins tomorrow morning,” I said.

“Finally…!” There was a mixture of anticipation and unease in his eyes.

“If you’re worried, we can always abandon the idea.”

“No, I want to go. If I can learn why I was given the Divine Blessing of the Hero, I know it will make me stronger. I’ll be able to stand tall and fight proudly as the Hero.”

Van looked uneasy but confident. He seemed like a genuine human being instead of the slave to his blessing he was previously.

Van remained worried about some things, but he wasn’t lost in the way he had been. Thus, I needed only to guide him to what he sought.

“You know, I didn’t think you’d visit a sword school,” I said.

“I started two days ago. I wanted to learn the basics before your lessons.”

Right. I’d promised to teach him a bit while we were on the road.

“So that’s why.”

“I don’t know how much time it will take to explore the ancient elf ruins, but I’m sure it won’t be that long.”

“Yeah, the plan is to return after a week at most.”

“I don’t have much time to learn bladework, so I became a short-term pupil at the most well-known school here in Zoltan,” Van explained.

This was the most famous sword school around, although some had doubts as to if it was the best. I hadn’t sparred with any of the teachers in Zoltan, so I couldn’t say for sure, but an academy that taught a style from Central was probably better quality. Tiger Heart–style was popular because Janko had made a name for himself in the colosseum.

Well, the basics are universal across disciplines, I guess.

“Hey, let’s move this conversation to somewhere else,” I said.

“…?” Van cocked his head.

“You should probably learn to pay a bit more attention to your surroundings.”

The students stared at me. A downtown apothecary was speaking casually with Van the Hero.

It was only natural that they wanted to know why.

People in Zoltan already knew that I was actually fairly strong, but even so, it was better to change the location before people got too suspicious.

“All right,” Van replied. “Let me speak with Mr. Janko first, since he’s been so helpful.”

“Yeah. You should thank him for the lessons.”

This was Van’s last day here. Now those shuddering students would be free.


“Please wait!” a voice called to Van and me right as we left the school. Turning around, we saw Janko himself. He was trembling, and he gritted his teeth as he stood before us.

“What is it, Mr. Janko?” Van asked.

Janko’s face was ghostly pale as he all but shouted, “Van the Hero! I would like to spar with you just once, please!”


Van and I were both stunned.

A match with Van?!

“M-Master! What are you saying?!”

Students hurried to their teacher, frantically trying to stop him.

Despite my earlier remarks about Janko, he was among the top ten swordsmen in Zoltan. Yet he had no chance of matching Van the Hero.

“I won’t forget your teachings, and I am grateful for them…but I don’t think it would be a real fight between the two of us.” Van offered the middle-aged instructor the simple truth with a boyish innocence.

“I know full well my sword has no chance of victory… If I kept silent, I could return to being a simple master in Zoltan.” Janko shook as he spoke. “But today is the only chance I’ll ever get to spar with you! This moment, right now! This is my only chance to cross swords with the Hero! The world’s strongest! As a swordsman, I would regret it for the rest of my life if I held back now!”

Master of a small-time school or not, Janko was still a warrior.

“Red.” Van looked to me.

“So long as you don’t have any issues with it, why not indulge him?” I said.

Van looked like he didn’t get why Janko wanted to fight. “Understood. Then please, sir.”

That was his answer.

As expected, the fight was over in an instant.

Van easily evaded Janko’s slash, and his attack landed on the older man’s torso.

I quickly gave Janko a potion to help him recover.

Van had used a Merciful potion on his sword to make it nonlethal, but his strike still inflicted the kind of pain that could kill someone from shock. Janko had risked his life by asking for a match.

Even after I fed him a cure potion, he remained unconscious.

He likely wouldn’t wake up soon, yet I couldn’t help but think he looked satisfied.

A battle he never expected had found him in Zoltan. For a swordsman, there was perhaps no greater stroke of good fortune.

“Why did he want to fight me?” Van wondered.

“You’ll understand one day if you keep practicing,” I replied.


If I had to boil down the difference between a swordsman and a fighter who carried a sword, it was that the weapon itself became the swordsman’s goal. The swordsman saw value in their style and techniques. Their blade wasn’t merely a tool for fighting. The true devotees to the sword wondered how well their attacks would fare against the world’s strongest and what an opponent like that was capable of.

“Even though he lost…he seems pleased.”

“Yeah. Be proud, Van. You fulfilled a man’s impossible dream.”

Van still didn’t seem to understand.


After arranging everything for tomorrow with Van, I informed Yarandrala and Danan of the plans on my way back. Yarandrala still despised the Hero, but Danan had accepted Van’s reform quickly and tried to placate the elf.

Knowing the two of them, it’d be fine.

With everything set, we were ready to depart whenever.

Following a late lunch at a food stall, I headed to my final stops for the day.

I met Galatine from the Adventurers Guild along the way and informed him that the incident with Van had been resolved without issue.

I also visited Gonz and Tanta and promised to take a day off to sail a boat down the river in a couple of weeks.

Peaceful days had returned to Zoltan.

The last errand was at Drake’s Armory.

“Red, eh? Don’t tell me you broke your sword again!”

Mogrim greeted me as he often did. I’d only recently bought the bronze sword that shattered during the fight with Van, so I understood where he was coming from.

“…And that’s the situation. Do you have any bronze swords in stock?”

“If you go around breakin’ ’em like twigs, I’m not sure I want to keep selling them!”

Glancing at the angry dwarf, I fished through a bin of cheap, used, and mass-produced weapons.

“Huh? There are no bronze swords here.”

“I ran out because you keep breaking them all.”

“I haven’t broken enough to exhaust your stock!”

Mogrim heaved a sigh.

“It’s the time of year when new adventurers start poppin’ up. A bunch of kids bought them up recently. I’m fresh out.”

“I see…”

This was a catastrophe.

“How about buying a normal weapon?” Mogrim suggested. “I can make you one the same size as a bronze sword.”

“No, I need it right away.”

“Then pick a sword off the wall! Cheap swords are dangerous, so I don’t want you using one of them!”

“Your bronze sword cut through the skin of that gem beast. If it can hold against a monster like that, then it’ll be fine no matter what I face.”

The legendary gem beast we fought at the Wall at the End of the World—a remnant created by the ancient elves.

Mogrim gnashed his teeth. “Don’t go twistin’ things! Just listen to your smith when it concerns weapons!”

Mogrim was a crafting specialist, and he really didn’t like me risking my life with a low-quality tool like a bronze sword.

I understood the feeling, but…

“Hahhh,” Mogrim sighed. “If I refuse, you’re just going to buy one somewhere else, aren’t you?”


“Fine, then. Wait a bit.”

Mogrim went into the back of the shop.

After a few minutes, he came out holding a sheathed, one-handed sword.

“Here, a bronze sword.”

“So you had one after all.”

I took it from him and inspected the blade. Its sharp gleam suggested craftsmanship of a level that left me dubious as to whether it genuinely was a bronze sword.

“Who tempers a bronze sword to this level?” I asked.

“Hmph. On a whim, I got curious about how far I could enhance a bronze sword. So I gave it a shot. That’s all.”

Mogrim had grown tired of me buying cheap blades, so he decided to create a bronze sword with a proper edge. Crafting a fine weapon out of steel would have been far easier, making this a very roundabout kind of sword.

Ah. So it’s a pretty good fit for me.

“I’m not havin’ a comrade die ’cause of my handiwork. With this, you can cut down as many monsters around Zoltan as you like, and you won’t find a single crack in the blade.”

“Thank you, I’ll buy it.”

Using a bronze sword was part of my style. Perhaps you could call it a pointless obsession.

Mogrim was kind enough to satisfy my conviction with his own as a blacksmith.

I need to take good care of this weapon.

“Don’t go doin’ something stupid like dying tryin’ to save that sword. If it breaks, I’ll make another.”

Urk. He saw right through me.

Mogrim was a good sort.


With all my work finished for the day, I was free to return home.

Both of my hands were full with purchases for exploring the ruins.

An adventurer was always prepared.

“I’m back.”

“Welcome home, Red!”

“Welcome home, Big Brother.”

Rit and Ruti both greeted me when I came in. When I took my coat off, Rit grabbed it for me.

“It’s pretty hot out. I could’ve gone without a jacket,” I remarked.

“Summer’s on the way, after all,” Rit said.

When I sat down, Ruti brought me a cup of water from the kitchen.

“Here, Big Brother.”


I’d started to sweat a bit outside, so the water was nice.

“How did it go?” Rit asked.

“Everything’s set. We’re heading out tomorrow.”

“I see. It’s exciting, exploring ancient elf ruins!” Rit sounded pleased. I guess her adventurer’s blood was stirring. That was reassuring.

“You know.” I took another sip of water. “I feel like I’ve talked to a lot of different people these past couple of days.”

Each of them had their firm convictions.

Were I still the man I was upon first arriving in Zoltan, the one who’d lost his only purpose in life, those people wouldn’t have meant much to me.

However, spending more time with Rit and Ruti opened my eyes. I recognized that everyone had their passions and met them with my own.

“Maybe that’s a bit overly sentimental, though,” I mused quietly with a wry smile.

Van and his party would depart Zoltan once we were done with the ancient elf ruins. Danan intended to leave, too. And there was no telling how long Yarandrala would remain. I was just a small supporting player in their grand stories.

But that was fine.

Hearing tales of their heroic exploits someday was enough for me. And if they ever felt like stopping by Zoltan sometime to share a story or two, I’d be proud to know I’d played a part.


A customer entered, and Rit and Ruti greeted them cheerfully.

This was my home.

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