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Chapter 1

Hero Countermeasures

Three days had passed since Van the Hero and his comrades left for the south seas to increase their levels.

There was a chime as the shop door opened.


Rit and I called out in unison.

“Hey, Red!”

“Huh? What happened to the high elf lady?”

The half-elf carpenter Gonz and the half-orc furniture craftsman Stormthunder walked in.

“Your selection dropped while you were out, but looks like you’ve restocked pretty well,” Gonz remarked as he eyed the shelves.

“I went to the mountains yesterday to gather some ingredients. A few herbs need to be dried first, so it will take a couple of days before we have everything we typically do.”

“Oh? Look at this go-getter, workin’ hard right after a vacation. I would’ve taken it easy for a few days at least.”

Gonz guffawed as he grabbed some hangover medicine. Meanwhile, Storm gave Gonz a cold stare, but he also took some hangover medicine.

“Your stuff really is the best, you know. With this, I don’t have to worry about drinking straight through the night.”

Despite giving Gonz the stink eye, Storm hardly had any room to talk.

I smiled and then looked away.

“Still, what a shock for the Hero to come all the way out to Zoltan. Talk about a jerk, though.”

Gonz picked up some cold medicine and a few disinfectants, too.

“Got that right.” Storm nodded and grabbed three bags of medicinal cookies.

Yarandrala understood plenty about the effects of various medicinal herbs, but using a skill to turn them into medicine required a different sort of knowledge.

Thanks to all the work Rit and I put in, our apothecary was now a regular stop for lots of people.

Rit and I had returned from our vacation in Sant Durant to sold-out shelves and a drawer filled with order slips for medicines that had gone out of stock while we were gone.

The back-ordered items were all inexpensive commodities, but I was glad that goods made at our store were so important to people.

“Oh hey, why don’t we go out drinking tomorrow?” Gonz put his chosen items on the counter. “A get-together to celebrate getting back from vacation.”

“Oh, that’d be great. Let’s hear some stories from your trip.”

Storm leaned in with Gonz.

If it hadn’t been for the current situation, I would’ve agreed in a heartbeat. However… “Sorry, I’ve gotta refuse. I’ll be sure to let you guys know when I can make it.”

“Really? All right. I’ll be looking forward to it.”

Gonz graciously accepted that answer.

It was the Zoltan way not to probe too deeply into personal matters. Storm looked like he wanted to say something more, but Gonz held out a hand to stop him and then smirked.

“So, how was your holiday with Rit?”

Zoltan folks didn’t pry very much, but those in this part of town still loved their dirty stories.

Gonz had a lewd smirk on his handsome elven face, and behind him, Storm crossed his arms and flashed a grin.


“That will have to wait, too,” I said. “Once we’re drinking, I’ll talk until the grapes turn to wine.”

“Hah-hah-hah, lookin’ forward to it.”

Another peaceful day in Zoltan.

I headed over to Dr. Newman’s clinic in Zoltan’s working-class neighborhood.

“Red! It’s been a while!”

Elenora the nurse sat at reception reading a book. She smiled upon seeing me.

“Good morning.”

“Any souvenirs from your trip?”

“A few different types of dried river fish.”

“Oh? I’m sure the doctor will enjoy them, but I’d prefer something sweet.”

“I thought you might say that, so I also got a bottle of local apple juice.”


Elenora giggled.

“We sampled a bit during our stay, so I can vouch for the flavor.”

“I can’t wait. I’ll try it with the doctor later.”

Elenora stowed the package of dried fish and the bottle of apple juice in a basket typically kept beneath the counter.

This clinic accepted goods in addition to money. I saw some meat, some vegetables, a bundle of nails, and some metalwork in the basket.

Noticing my gaze, Elenora smiled and shrugged. “It’d be nice if he were a little more selective about what he took as payment. This wooden doll isn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of treatment; he always insists things like this are enough.”

“It’s because everyone counts on Dr. Newman.”

“Even so…”

“Hah-hah. It’s fine.” A warm voice cut Elenora off before she could complain more. “My clinic earns enough to live off of. And that metalwork will likely sell for more than the cost of a checkup, won’t it?”

“Ugh! You’re always like this!”

Dr. Newman, clad in his white coat, smiled at Elenora’s reply.

“What? If we ever go hungry, I’m sure the kind people in the neighborhood will gladly treat us to some food. When people are in trouble, I help them; when I’m in trouble, they help me. This is a good town.”

“Well, sure, but…”

“All right, enough of this. I have to take care of Red’s medicine delivery.”

Dr. Newman clapped his hands to end the conversation. Elenora let out a little sigh, acting exasperated, but grinned as she returned to her work.

She didn’t usually act like she took her job very seriously, yet she undoubtedly respected Dr. Newman’s approach to business.

“Now then, it’s been a while, Red.”

“Sorry for any trouble while I was away.”

“It’s no trouble at all. This is Zoltan. Even an apothecary and a doctor can take some time off when they need a break.”

“You hardly ever take holidays, though.”

“That’s because I love my job.”

Dr. Newman was one of the few exceptions to the general rule of Zoltan sloth. The man was no stick-in-the-mud, however. He’d spend evenings with Gonz and the others on occasion. He never indulged excessively, but he enjoyed his drinks all the same.

It was only natural that the people of the neighborhood loved him.

Depending on the timing of the seniority system, he might even wind up a part of the Zoltan council.

“…Mhm. It looks like all the medicine I ordered is here. And last year’s blood needle deficit doesn’t seem to be an issue anymore.”

“The medicinal plants are all growing well this year. And we’ve got my sister’s plantation, too. We’ll have plenty of herbs to spare.”

“That’s great to hear.”

After completing his review of the delivery, Dr. Newman offered me a cup of coffee.

That’s rare.

“You can’t really call Zoltan coffee luxurious, but I still like the flavor.”

“Yeah, it’s simple and has a nice feel to it.”

We enjoyed the pleasant aroma that wafted with the white steam while sipping from our cups.

“Listen, about that Van boy…” Newman peered into the contents of his mug. “Do you think that he’s really the Hero?”

“Cardinal Ljubo from the holy church is his guardian, and Father Clemens has acknowledged Van publicly, so I’m sure at least a handful of people have used Appraisal on him. Passing him off as the Hero after that would be difficult unless he was the genuine article.”


Van the Hero had humiliated Zoltan and endangered it by bringing salt dragons to wreak havoc. And when asked for an explanation, Van had made no attempt to disguise his motivation.

“If salt dragons destroy Zoltan, then its slothful people will be motivated to fight the demon lord’s army.”

Could he really not imagine how people would react when they heard that?

Van had a cardinal’s backing, so no one would dare try to harm him. Still, the people of Zoltan had no interest in cooperating with him, either. The boy had brought the outrage on himself.

Van was fortunate that foreign crewmen who sailed the secondhand ships the Zoltan navy had bought to replace those lost fighting Veronia were still in town. The giant Vendidad operated on steam power, requiring fewer hands than a large galleon. I didn’t know the exact number, but a ship that huge likely still needed dozens of people.

By gathering the foreign sailors drinking at the harbor while waiting for the next vessel out of Zoltan, Van managed to take the demon lord’s ship to the south seas.

“Since he left, it’s been dead quiet at every tavern in the harbor district,” I said.

“According to one of my patients, no one’s upset about that. Apparently, a lot of the guests were ill-mannered. Just between the two of us, I heard that straight from an inn owner.” Newman shrugged. “Sure hope none of those sailors run afoul of Cardinal Ljubo on the voyage.”

“…Have you met the cardinal before?” I asked.

Dr. Newman set his mug on the table and sighed.

“This was a long time ago, and from his perspective, I doubt I was anyone worth remembering…but yeah. We met when he was still a young inquisitor.”

Ljubo had been an inquisitor before climbing the church ranks to become a cardinal. He’d served as an inquisitor at around the time I’d joined the Bahamut Knights, so I’d never interacted with him.

“To sum him up…well, I suppose he was a reasonable inquisitor.”

“‘A reasonable inquisitor’…?”

The look on Dr. Newman’s face told me he didn’t mean that in a positive way.

So that’s it.

“I imagine he could live pretty comfortably like that.”


He was the sort of inquisitor who used his authority to take bribes.

Honestly, that sort was preferable to the self-righteous inquisitors who tortured people without any guild, but…

“The doctor who taught me the medical arts was quite poor. He was the sort who accepted a late payment once a patient recovered and had the money.”

“And that’s why you operate your clinic the way you do?” I asked.

“If anything, seeing how much he suffered left me careful to ensure I always get what I’m owed. He had bean soup for lunch every day. It wasn’t even proper food if you ask me. I eat what I like, when I like.” Newman’s face darkened. “Because he was poor, he had nothing to give Inquisitor Ljubo. And my teacher wasn’t the type to keep quiet to get along with others. He believed anyone with the money for a bribe should use that wealth for treating the needy.”

“I’m guessing that made him a target.”

“That’s right… Other doctors didn’t appreciate that he treated patients for practically free. So a few of them paid Ljubo to get rid of him.”

“How so?”

“Ljubo accused him of creating narcotics. Said that was how he kept his business running despite never getting paid. ‘An action deviant from the Divine Blessing of the Doctor,’ he called it. Ljubo took my teacher away, claiming he needed proper guidance. I can still see it all so clearly.”

“What did they do to him?”

“His hands were cut off to keep him from making any more medicine.”

“That’s horrible…”

“‘Now you can devote yourself to treating people, as one with the Doctor blessing ought to,’ Ljubo said. It was awful…”

“What happened after?”

“By the time I arrived at the clinic the next day, my teacher had already left town. He left behind a medical document written in a barely legible scrawl. My guess is he wrote while holding the pen in his mouth. However, he remained true to his profession.”

This was the first time Newman had spoken of his past with me.

I get why he wouldn’t want to talk about it…

“I don’t know what he’s doing now. I hope he’s alive somewhere… To be honest, part of the reason I came out to Zoltan was because I wondered if he might wander to a place like this, so removed from everything. Unfortunately, that hunch turned out to be wrong.”

Newman took a sip of coffee, and his tense cheeks relaxed a bit.

“Sorry to talk your ear off. I suppose I can’t help but worry a bit…”

“About Cardinal Ljubo and Van the Hero?”

“Ljubo punished an innocent man for money. I can’t believe he’d devote himself for the sake of the Hero or the world.”

So he’s worried that the man who harmed his teacher might also threaten peace in Zoltan. I can’t deny the possibility.

Ljubo surely didn’t have any particular desire to destroy Zoltan, but judging by what Tisse said, he believed any mistakes Van made in Zoltan would serve as good learning experiences for the new Hero.

The fate of a tiny settlement in the middle of nowhere was a trivial thing to one of the church’s highest-ranking members.

Can’t say I like the idea of that.

“Red, you’re different from me, right? You’re not like the simple village doctor who couldn’t do anything but run away from the inquisitor.”

“I suppose so. I do at least have a little more experience fighting, and I’ve got some trustworthy comrades, too…and I don’t have the power to save people who are sick, as you do. So yeah, I’d say we are a bit different.”

“Then I suppose I’ll do my best here as a doctor.”

“Yeah, and I promise I’ll do everything I can as well.”

“Thank you, Red. It seems I’ve grown timid with age.”

He smiled, as if a bit more hopeful, and I returned the expression.

“Another difference is I have a cute girlfriend while you’re alone.”

“Hah-hah-hah… You… Don’t blame me if I hit you, okay?”

We laughed and enjoyed a pleasant conversation befitting a Zoltan afternoon.

I’d like to meet the doctor who taught him someday.

When a patient came in complaining of stomach pain, I took my leave.

The white petals of the blossoming sapphireberry trees lining the path were already starting to scatter. The foliage was shifting from spring to summer colors.

There was time yet until the hot months, but it looked like it’d be warmer than usual.

If so, everyone will just lie around.

“Four deliveries! Rush order!”

“Right away!”

A shopkeeper and his son who were peddling dyed goods called to each other. The boy, who was around fourteen, carried a big crate on his back, and his gait was unsteady as he rushed off. They’d lived in Zoltan longer than I had and appeared to know they wouldn’t want to do any work this summer.

Everyone was working hard now so they could take it easy during the hot days.

“Let’s get our blessing levels up to four this month!”


A group of three adventurers walked by, getting psyched up.

Hmm. A Warrior, a Cleric, and a Craftsman.

Most likely, they had other jobs and adventured on the side. They wore patched-up old armor as they headed out of town to hunt monsters. It had only been a few days since the dragon attack. Were they tough or just unconcerned?

“That’s one of the good things about Zoltan,” I muttered.

“Yes, I agree.”


“Hi, Red! I hoped I’d bump into you!”

A smile bloomed on the high elf Yarandrala’s face.

It was evening at Red & Rit’s Apothecary.

“Thank you very much.”

After seeing off the last customer, I closed up shop.

“Everything flew off the shelves today.”

I’d restocked that morning, but the displays were looking barren already.

I’d need to pull an all-nighter to get our supplies ready.

I need to go to Ruti’s plantation tomorrow.

“Mhm, come. My plantation is doing well. I’m sure we have what you need.”

Ruti nodded beside me, copying how I crossed my arms on the counter.

“Sorry to interrupt while you’re making plans for tomorrow…”

I turned around.

“Shall we go over what we’ve discovered so far and discuss our Hero countermeasures?”

Rit, Ruti, and I were assembled in the store, along with…

“All right, let’s figure out how to kick that Hero jerk’s ass!”

“You mean how we’re going to run him out of Zoltan without fighting.”

“Either way, he’s a dangerous opponent.”

…Danan, Yarandrala, and Tisse.

They were all comrades who’d fought alongside Ruti when she was still the Hero.


Yarandrala’s spell enveloped us.

“There’s no one spying on us or eavesdropping.”

“And no one hiding the standard way, either,” Tisse added.

Undoubtedly, no human could evade both Yarandrala and Tisse.

The living room.

Six world-class heroes sat around a table in the candlelit room.

“First of all, a final confirmation. Van’s got no support nearby except his party members, right?” I said.

“No. Definitely not,” Yarandrala answered.

Everyone else nodded.

“Cardinal Ljubo apparently expected to use church funds to purchase support from the Zoltan church and local adventurers,” Tisse reported.

“We investigated all available lodgings and didn’t find anyone in his pocket,” Ruti explained.

“If there were anyone else, they would’ve shown up when Yarandrala and I were fighting him,” Danan added.

Rit bobbed her head. “I asked around among the adventurers, and apparently, Van’s party originally limited the request for crew on the Vendidad to C rank and above, but lowered it to D rank when they didn’t get enough volunteers.”

“If there were anyone else they could use, they wouldn’t have made such a desperate move to recruit help,” I said. That much was sure.

“At the very least, it’s nice to know we only have to worry about the Hero’s party.”

“Yeah, the church’s finest aren’t to be trifled with.”

The church was the largest organization on the continent. It recruited and trained some of the best around.

Before joining up with Ruti, Theodora had been a spear-fighting instructor for the church, and she hadn’t even been the greatest warrior at the clergy’s disposal at the time.

Considering how much she’d grown from fighting the demon lord’s forces, I doubted anyone at the church could match her anymore, but that didn’t make them any less formidable.

“Cardinal Ljubo probably intends to monopolize the glory from the Hero’s achievements,” I said.

“Either way, it makes our job easier.”

I nodded at Rit’s comment.

“So then, what about Van’s comrades?” I asked.

“We know a bit thanks to Theo—Esta.” Rit set three pieces of paper on the table. Each had a name, a drawing of the person, and their background.

“I did the sketches,” Tisse declared, her small chest puffed out with pride. Mister Crawly Wawly, standing on her shoulder, looked pleased with himself, too.

The images were well-done. Tisse had a lot of special skills, from reviewing hot springs to writing books.

My mental image of an assassin had changed a lot because of her.

My sister’s best friend was an interesting and charming individual.

“First, there’s the Hero himself, Van of Flamberge.” Rit pointed to the paper with the drawing of the boy possessed of a chivalrous, innocent expression. “He’s the last surviving member of the Flamberge royal family. His country was destroyed by the demon lord’s army. Van’s place in the line of succession was low, and he left to study at a monastery in Avalonia at a young age. King Flamberge probably intended for his son to serve the church to strengthen his nation’s connections with it. And thanks to that decision, Van was spared the flames of war.”

“Raised in a monastery, huh? He sounds pretty out of touch with the outside world.”

A monastery.

The church was a giant organization, but not immune to the ways of the world. Attempting to live strictly by divine law was difficult in reality, and no matter how faithful the cleric, there was always a need to strike a balance between divine mandate and mortal needs.

Claiming to tell the people the teachings of Demis merely by reading scripture at them wasn’t helpful. Real support required knowing how people lived, understanding what they desired, and considering how to get through to them.

That way, the words of Demis became words for the people. That was how some clerics saw it anyway. And they were the ones who’d instituted monasteries.

A monastery was not open to normal students. It was a place removed from worldly temptations. A building where students weren’t distanced from the divine for the sake of others.

Monasteries had been established as homes where one could exist solely for Demis.

Clerics who resided in monasteries were called monks, and they lived in them while contemplating only how to manifest divine law.

These days, so many years after the monasteries had been established, they were caught up in the church’s internal power struggles like every other facet of the organization.

“Van’s faith was nourished by growing up in a monastery. The members of the higher nobility in Flamberge believed that raising their children themselves was shameful. Their style was to entrust teaching and development to specialists,” I said.

“Isn’t that why there were so many feuds between members of the same family there?” Rit asked.

I shook my head. “I don’t know. I never lived in Flamberge, and I can’t claim to understand enough to criticize how things are done abroad.”

“Well, I want to raise mine properly myself!”

“I’m in complete agreement.”


Rit concealed an embarrassed smile behind her red bandana.

Raised as a princess in the Duchy of Loggervia, she still had the habit of hiding her mouth whenever she grinned.

The way she does that is so cute.


Yarandrala faked a cough.

Right, that derailed the conversation.

Rit’s face reddened, and she returned to the subject of Van.

“…There’s not a lot more we know about his past. He was sent to the monastery in Avalonia at a young age, and just a few months ago, during winter, he appeared at Last Wall fortress claiming he was the Hero.”

“And that’s where he met Cardinal Ljubo?”

“Yes. He was turned away at the gate, but he camped outside for days. After noticing that, Cardinal Ljubo summoned Van inside and spoke with him. At some point he recognized Van did have a genuine Hero blessing.”

“Only those with a Cardinal blessing can become cardinals. But the Cardinal blessing doesn’t have access to the Appraisal skill. Could he really be convinced of Van’s blessing just by talking to him?”

Rit crossed her arms and considered my question.

“Before Ruti, it wasn’t clear whether the Hero was fact or fiction, so maybe he decided to believe after comparing Van to her?”


Ljubo definitely had a Saint with the Appraisal skill confirm it at some point. He didn’t strike me as the sort to believe a boy claiming to be the Hero without any solid evidence.

“But after being recognized by the church, all he did was fight monsters and raise his level, yeah?” Danan asked as he read over the last bits of Van’s background.

“He lost quite a few comrades in the process, too,” I replied.

“Warriors of the church provided by Ljubo, probably. Guess he’s used to party members dying now.”

Yarandrala was mystified. “With the Hero blessing, shouldn’t he be unable to abandon his comrades? So how did that many people die?”

“It’s an issue of priority,” I explained.


“Yeah. Plenty of soldiers perished in battle while Ruti was there, but their deaths never slowed her down or left her incapable of going on.”

“Now that you mention it…”

“The Hero’s role is to save the world. If a person’s death can be judged a necessary sacrifice, then there’s no impulse to help that person. The world would never be saved if every soldier’s passing caused the Hero to freeze up.”

“But Van’s party members died while they were hunting normal monsters.”

“When battling normal monsters, Van apparently believes that his comrades’ deaths are justified and necessary. The Hero’s growth is more important than his comrades’ lives. If he believes that from the depths of his heart, then it’s conceivable that the Hero blessing allows him to abandon allies.”

“I can’t accept that!”

I laughed. The sound came out bitter. “The more you learn about blessings, the harder it becomes to accept a lot of things about them.”

Blessings were the work of God. Even if they were unacceptable by the standards of mortals, divine law justified them…but we were people, not deities.

“Pissin’ me off.” Danan clenched his fist. The disgust on his face, as an angry vein swelled on his temple, would’ve been enough to knock out an average adventurer on the spot. “How can that guy be the Hero?!”

“Because that’s what God decided. It’s not that rare for a blessing’s role and a person’s attitude to clash.”

“But this is the Hero, of all people!”

I was a bit surprised. Danan had previously claimed he’d only joined Ruti’s party because he thought it was the quickest route to defeating the demon lord. However, it was clear from his voice that he had strong feelings about this topic.

“I understand how you feel, but calm down,” Yarandrala chided. Still, it was clear she empathized. She vehemently rejected the Hero system that saddled one person with the fate of the world.

Tisse looked at me and smiled. “Ms. Ruti might not have seen us before the party broke up, but we saw her. The sight of her made us feel something. It’s the only reason we continued the hopeless quest to defeat the demon lord and save the world.”

“Right…,” I said.

Ruti had hated the Hero blessing, but her travels hadn’t been all bad. I hoped for her sake that there would come a day when that journey became a fond memory.

“That’s all we have for Van. It’s…not really much to go on.” Rit looked a bit troubled. “When it comes to his thoughts, there’s plenty to say, but regarding him as a person, he’s pretty simple. Van’s so straightforward there’s not much to him.”

“His world is small.” Ruti’s voice was cold. “Only Van and God exist in his world… No parents, no friends, no people he cares about.”

“Small, huh?”

Ruti was right. However, that small world was also the source of Van’s strength.

“His perception of things means he never doubts the values that form his faith. He never questions, never breaks. No matter what anyone else says or does, none in Van’s world can damage his values.”

Despite being pummeled by Ruti and left half-dead, Van had risen with a smile and declared that he would defeat Ruti. Worse yet, his only reason for doing so was to enhance his Hero blessing. It was logic predicated on pure faith without any rationality. None of us at the table were capable of the theological argumentation needed to beat such stubborn faith.

“Other than Theodora, we’re all pretty disconnected from the church.”

“Despite being members of the Hero’s party.”

That’s why church officials didn’t trust us and we’d had so much trouble during the fight at the Last Wall fortress, when Theodora had joined us.

“Knowing what we do about Van, I think our targets ought to be Ljubo and Lavender.”

“No argument here.”

Because of my Guide blessing, I had some thoughts on how Van was going about things, but this was not the time to bring them up.

It’d be a different story if the opportunity presented itself, but for now, it was best to focus on his party members.

“All right, Cardinal Ljubo and the fairy, Lavender.”

The remaining two pieces of paper.

A smiling man in the prime of his life with a condescending gaze, and a beaming fairy with cold eyes.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got almost nothing for Lavender. She’s a fairy who lived outside human society. Other than what Esta gave us, there’s nothing. Not even a rumor.”

“There’s a limit to the information we can gather in Zoltan, after all. There aren’t many travelers with news from beyond.”

“I used the flying ship to investigate abroad, but all I could turn up about Lavender was that she’s a fairy in Van’s party and always clings to him,” Tisse said.

Since Tisse could operate the airship, we’d asked her to gather intel outside Zoltan. Places that were weeks away by boat could be reached in a day on that vessel.

Ancient demon lord relics like the Vendidad and the airship had incredible capabilities.

I’d rather not give Van a flying ship.

“We know that Esta would prefer not to fight Lavender, and that’s reason enough to consider her a top-tier archfay.” Danan’s tone was serious. “According to Esta, she fell in love with Van at first sight, betrayed her kin, and gave him a Behemoth Ring, a treasure of her secret woods.”

“That’s quite the extreme love.” Rit had a pensive look on her face. “Why don’t Danan and I try negotiating with her?”


Danan looked shocked.

“Is that a problem?”

“No. But I’m not much for diplomacy outside of making threats. It’ll mostly be on you…”

Danan glanced at me, unsure of Rit’s plan.

“I think leaving that to you two will be fine,” I said.


“You’re no good at negotiations, but Cardinal Ljubo will recognize you from the Last Wall fortress. So if Lavender decides to fight, I want you to protect Rit while you both retreat.”

“Oh, bodyguard work? Okay, in that case, leave it to me!”

That was enough to make Danan accept it, and he grinned heartily.

“Do you have any reason to suspect talking with Lavender will be helpful?” Tisse asked. “We have no idea how she’ll react.”

Rit shook her head. “Success isn’t the goal. The first objective will be to discern her motives. I don’t believe she’s doing all this entirely without reason.”

“You think you can?”

“I’m in love myself, so I’m probably the one best equipped to understand her,” Rit answered confidently, her cheeks getting a little red.

“Exactly. If any of us has a chance, it’s Rit,” I agreed. “So the next is Ljubo.”

I picked up the remaining piece of paper.

“There’s enough background on him that recounting it all would be a hassle. He has the Cardinal blessing. In terms of career, he followed the standard corrupt-inquisitor path to his current post.”

“Just Ljubo? No last name?”

“So it would seem. He’s from the western region of the Kingdom of Avalonia. Born to a family that raised horses.”

“Not a pious or aristocratic upbringing.”

“He apparently went to the church and built a reputation for himself solely off his Cardinal blessing. He used the bribes he collected as an inquisitor to reach his present position. Perhaps he turned to taking bribes because he lacked financial support from his family to fund his career.”

Wicked ideals might have been the original reason he’d resorted to corruption, but…

“Whatever the reason, there’s no mistaking his fondness for treasures and luxury,” Yarandrala said.

From what I had gathered, his greed had shone through plenty of times during his tenure as a cardinal.

“His goal and his methods flipped somewhere along the line. The glitter of gold has that sort of magic to it,” I remarked. And thus, a newly minted, avaricious man was born. “But that straightforwardness leaves plenty of openings, too.” Greed was the easiest sort of motive to understand. “I’ll speak with Ljubo.”

“You?! But he’ll recognize you!”

When we were adventuring, Ljubo had seen Ruti, Danan, and me when we fought at the Last Wall fortress. Tisse had accompanied him and the rest of Van’s party on the quest to slay the hill giant Dundach. Plus, she was a part of Zoltan’s only B-rank adventuring group. If Van or his comrades grew suspicious of her, they’d end up trying to track down her partner, Ruti. I preferred to keep Tisse out of this if possible.

“I have the Disguise skill. Ljubo doesn’t have any ability to see through physical tricks, so it’ll be fine.”

“In that case, I’ll go with you as backup.” Yarandrala’s voice was firm. Ljubo didn’t know her. Although Yarandrala tended to be direct about her thoughts, she possessed enough negotiation experience to hide things when needed.

“All right. Rit and Danan will handle Lavender, and Yarandrala and I will deal with Ljubo. Ruti and Tisse will keep an eye out to intervene so we can safely escape if our discussions break down into a fight.”

“Got it.”

“No one’s better at fleeing than an assassin. Leave it to me.”

Mister Crawly Wawly hopped reassuringly.

“Has everyone memorized the info on these three? We have until they return from the south seas to prepare!” I said.

Everyone nodded. They were all reliable comrades.

I stood. “Okay. Now, how about some dinner?”

“I was waiting for that!”

Everyone laughed at Rit’s cheerful response, and with that, our meeting concluded.

The following day, I visited Ruti’s plantation.

“Welcome, Big Brother.”

Ruti greeted me with a happy look.

Actually, she’d come by my place for breakfast and walked to her farm with me…but when the plots came into view, she’d rushed ahead so she could pop out and greet me.

So cute.

“You were up late last night making medicine, right? If you tell me what you need and how much, I can gather it.”

“Sounds good. Guess I’ll leave that work to you today.”


Ruti’s voice was firm, and she clenched her fists.

I had enough training that one night without sleep wasn’t a big deal, but there was no need to force myself to do everything alone like I used to. I handed Ruti a note listing the herbs I needed.


After a little salute, Ruti headed to the fields in high spirits with tools in hand. The way she looked in her plain clothes suited to fieldwork, the sort a normal village girl might wear, made for a peaceful scene. There was no better sight.

I have to protect this.


Turning around, I saw Tisse holding a steaming cup.

“This might take a little while, so let’s wait inside.”

The two of us went inside the shed beside the plots. The office had more things in it than the last time I’d come by.

“We’ve had more purchase orders for herbs than just those from your shop.”

Ruti’s name had spread around Zoltan after the incident with Veronia. Her plantation still lacked a proven track record, but her name was enough to get a few people interested in doing business.

“However, with only Ms. Ruti and me running the plantation, we can’t take that many orders.”

“If you hire some people, you could expand.”

“No. Ms. Ruti and I discussed that at the start, and we’re not interested in making this a large business. We want to enjoy life.”

Tisse sipped her black tea with a tranquil smile.

I tried some as well. The mixed-in apple jam went well with the tea, creating a pleasant taste.

“I have prepared everything I can at the moment,” Tisse stated abruptly. She was referring to the Van situation. “But…ultimately, I am still an assassin. I don’t have confidence in my ability to resolve problems in ways beyond killing. I regularly think, ‘Is this really okay?’ ‘Is there nothing else I can do before Hero Van returns?’ And so on.”

“Ah. So you feel uneasy sitting here and relaxing.”


It was for a short while, but Tisse had accompanied Van and his companions and seen them fight.

“Van the Hero felt more scary than strong. My Assassin blessing told me he’d be difficult to kill. The feeling was greater than when I met Danan and Theodora.”

“Coming from the world’s strongest assassin, that certainly has weight. So his power is at least enough for him to aspire to save the world.”

“You crossed blades with him as well, right? What did you feel?”

I touched the hilt of the bronze sword at my waist.

My battle with Van had only been about stalling for time until Ruti arrived. I’d never intended to defeat him, and I’d known he didn’t mean to retreat. I’d leveraged the advantages I had to survive.

“Hmm, it was unmistakably the fighting style unique to the Hero… His idea of the Hero was very different from Ruti’s.”


“The Hero is a blessing with a wealth of skills to choose from. You can understand the sort of Hero someone aims to be by how they fight and the skills they take.”

In Ruti’s case, I’d given her advice on developing her abilities, so her ideas of the Hero included some of my own. Hers was a Hero that didn’t lose. No matter how terrifying the opponent, be it a superior warrior, countless armies, giant monsters, malicious conspiracies, invisible plagues and curses, or natural disasters…the Hero who was compelled to save everyone had to handle every kind of obstacle.

The Hero was undoubtedly the strongest Divine Blessing, but there were still bound to be fights Ruti couldn’t win. That’s why I’d suggested a Hero that didn’t lose. So that even if she couldn’t emerge victorious, that setback would never be the end.

“By the time I knew her, she was already stronger than everyone, but she didn’t get that way alone.”

“Honestly, even without her blessing, my little sister is a genius when it comes to sword fighting.”

“I think that’s probably because you taught her.”

“Because of me?”

Tisse giggled.

“People are more enthusiastic when they’re instructed by people important to them.”

“Ahh. That’s true.”

A good connection with your master was important.

“So then, from your perspective, what is Van’s idea of the Hero?”

“One without enemies.”

“Without enemies?!” Tisse’s eyes widened. Given how skilled she was at hiding her emotions, this had to be a considerable shock.

“There are no enemies for Van’s Hero.”

“Coming from you, that’s…”

“Er, well, I don’t mean it exactly like that.”

That was a bad way to put it.

“Van’s determined to become a Hero who will always win. He has a skill set optimized for endurance, and his Healing Hands mastery can push his damage on others. It’s a powerful combination. But it’s a build that doesn’t factor in the opponent. It’s an ideal that envisions simply winning with the strongest possible attack regardless of what his foes do.”

“Ah…I understand. You mean his sword has no thought except the confidence that he will triumph so long as he can use his best attack.”

While Ruti had considered every possible enemy in the process of making sure she’d never lose, Van sought the strength to win against every opponent with the same technique.

At a glance, the two methods were similar, but the approaches were opposites.

“That style is popular among people with high-tier blessings or those specialized in specific directions. I understand why someone with the strongest blessing chose that route. It’s not how I’d go about it, though.”

“Nor I. Observation is critical in my old line of work. An assassin’s blade is capable of incredible things, but anyone who relies solely on it will know defeat someday. I see.”

Van’s world was small. And that shaped the ideal Hero he strove to be.

“I don’t know if Van will be able to survive fighting the demon lord’s armies. Right now, he stands no chance against Ruti. If defeating him were all it took to resolve this, we’d have nothing to worry about.”

“Van’s relying on the strength of his blessing, but Ms. Ruti is a more powerful Hero.”


That’s why I remained so calm despite knowing Van aimed to kill Ruti.

“Unfortunately, Ruti’s might can’t break Van’s spirit. Because there is no enemy for his sword.”

“He doesn’t understand that he can’t win.”

“I wonder if that’s also part of his blessing…the courage to keep fighting without end, even when it’s hopeless.”

“Shouldn’t the Hero search for a way to defeat such a superior opponent?”

I shrugged. “Anyway, that’s the gist of what I gleaned while fighting him. Did that help you any?”

“Yes… I feel like I understand what was so frightening about Van. Admittedly, I still can’t put it into words, though.”

“Our opponent has the Divine Blessing of the Hero. He’s different from every other challenge we’ve faced.”

I smiled to put Tisse at ease.

“But right now, we’re acting to avoid fighting him. It would be a waste to get too cautious and forget about the day-to-day right in front of us.”

The door opened with a creak.

“I’ve gathered the herbs, Big Brother.”

“Good work. Can I see?”

“Mhm. Here you go.”

The basket Ruti held out contained the different things I’d requested, all neatly packed away. It was clear at a glance how much of each particular plant was bundled.

That’s my Ruti.

“Thank you. That’s everything I asked for.”


Ruti smiled proudly.


“That will cover the store’s inventory. Given the current situation, I wanted to avoid going to the mountains.”

“Was I helpful, Big Brother?”

“Of course. Thanks, Ruti.”


Seeing Ruti’s happy expression made me glad as well.

When I patted her head, Ruti wrapped me in a hug.

“Today is a good day,” she said, despite it still being early.

Once I got back to the shop, I set to work preparing medicine and left tending the counter to Rit.

“That’s enough for the medicinal cookies. So I can skim off the top layer from the boiling herbs and blend it with this paste…”

I didn’t have a skill to speed up preparation.

For me, it was all about making the most efficient use of time.

Turning over the hourglasses on the table, having herbs boiling and steaming while simultaneously crushing and blending other ingredients.

Grinding plants to make a paste, forming a solution by boiling them in water, creating an extract by steaming them. Herbs had many uses.

“I need to add some more wood to strengthen the flames. Ah, the charring on this pot has gotten bad. I’ll need to get it fixed up soon.”

I took the flask of extract from its holder and cooled it in a bucket of water.

“It’s been a while since I was this busy with work.”

Back when I was a knight, there were times when operations were coordinated by the second.

“I guess a little hustle isn’t so bad occasionally.”

It was a pleasant interruption to an otherwise slow-paced life.

“Sure is hot, though…”

Perhaps that was to be expected when I was working in a cramped space with a fire going.

I had a cloth covering my face to keep sweat from mixing into the concoctions, which only made it stuffier.

“It really feels like I’m working hard.”

That odd sense of satisfaction kept me feeling good while I took the pot off the flame.

The next step could wait until the contents cooled naturally.

“Time for a break… Whoops, looks like I’m a bit late on lunch.”

I stood and stretched, groaning as I worked out the kinks.

“Good work!” Rit’s voice rang out. “Ready for lunch? I made food, so come have some!”

“You made lunch?”


After washing my hands, I went into the living room and saw the dishes Rit had made lined up on the table. Sausage and sunny-side-up eggs, sautéed tomatoes and mushrooms, tomato-simmered broad beans, bread and jam, and a lettuce and cheese salad.

For dessert, there were cherries and apples.

“It looks great.”

“Unlike you, I can only manage simple cooking, but the feelings I put into it are just as strong!”

“That you made so much is plenty. Let’s dig in.”


Rit’s cooking was simple. The more manipulation you did, the more influence cooking skills had, so less complex dishes tended to be tastier.

I’d made the jam and salad dressing, and the sauce for the tomato-simmered beans was one I’d used to flavor the soup I’d made that morning. The bread came from a local baker. The dessert was just cut fruits, meaning a cooking skill wouldn’t have affected the flavor. The eggs, sausage, and sautéed tomatoes and mushrooms had all been cooked and salted for taste.

I had a bite.


As expected of Rit. She clearly understood the limits of food preparation without a relevant skill and chose the best dishes she could.

I could tell from the simple and marvelous food just how much thought she’d put into making something I’d enjoy. Just like she’d said, this meal was imbued with her feelings. That was what made it great.

“Here’s the plate.”



Rit and I stood shoulder to shoulder doing the dishes.

I used a brush made from palm fibers to wash while Rit wiped with a dishrag and then put the dinnerware back on the shelf.

Everything had been set in a bucket of water to make it easier to clean, and the stack was quickly shrinking.

“Here’s the last one.”

“Since it’s the last, I’ll do an extra-good job on the drying!”

The plate squeaked in Rit’s hands as she wiped it down.

“Okay, perfect!”

Rit beamed, and naturally, I did, too.

“Good work, Rit.”

“Good work, Red.”

We high-fived with both hands once we finished, then hugged and kissed each other on the cheek before returning to apothecary responsibilities.

I returned to the workroom.


I started humming to myself, a clear indication of my good mood.

“Should I make powdered titan crab shell and scorching stone powder?”

Both were rare ingredients, but only a few grams of each was needed to make a single dose of medicine.

Keeping the ingredients in storage and breaking off just a fingernail-size portion to crush when necessary was more than enough. However, if there was time to spare, there was no problem with grinding up a little now.

I stored the powder I made in a bottle and set it on the shelf.

Then I mixed the solution that had boiled in the meantime with another herb and added some honey to make a pill.

And finally, I divided up the medicines.

“Phew. That’s all of the reserves taken care of.”

I gave myself a pat on the back as I examined the tightly packed shelves.

Peering out the window, I saw it was already evening.

“I just made it by closing time. Maybe I should check on Rit.”

After changing out of my dirty clothes, I headed to the storefront.

“Thanks for the purchase!”

I was just in time to see Rit say good-bye to a customer.

There were still two others picking out what they wanted.

“Red! Finished making everything?”

“Yeah, just now.”

“Great! Good job!”

Rit’s shoulders tensed a bit.

She really wanted to hug me, but held back because of the customers. I understood that only because I felt the same desire.

“Eh-heh-heh, it’s about thirty minutes until closing time. What are you going to do? You can take a break if you want.”

“No, I’ll keep you company.”

“Heh-heh. Okay.”

I stood next to Rit.

The two of us managed the counter together. We counted money, packed orders and handed them to customers, and explained various medicines’ effects.

A break would’ve been nice, too, but I enjoyed working together with Rit.

Any moment spent with Rit was a content one.

““Thanks for the purchase!””

Closing time.

We saw off the last patron, an adventurer who’d come to get medicine for a quest tomorrow. She thanked us with evident relief. “I don’t know what I would have done without this.”

“We sold lots of medicine! And ran out of cookies again! Yep, it really feels like a good day’s work!”

“We haven’t developed any new products, but our clientele is still increasing.”

“Our apothecary’s reputation has gone up. Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah, it’s nice that more people know our shop.”

The simple apothecaries Red and Rit had found a home in Zoltan and were able to enjoy a happy life.

“All right, shall we close?”


I left the counter to Rit and headed outside with a broom.

I hung the CLOSED sign on the door.

“There we go.”

When I looked up, I saw the sign above the entrance with RED & RIT’S APOTHECARY written on it.


I returned to the store.

“Something up?” Rit cocked her head.

“No, I just felt like cleaning up the sign out front a bit.”

I took a towel and bucket from the washroom and took the ladder from the closet before heading outside again.

First, I wiped the sign down with a dry towel to remove the dust.

“Somewhere along the way, this dirt gave it all a bit of gravitas.”

The fresh, new sign had gotten messy while hanging out front, but that signified everything the shop had been through. I felt a little melancholy for dusting it off.

When I finished, I wet the towel in the bucket of water and started washing.

Once the sign was clean again, I noticed it had a different feel from when it was new.

After climbing off the ladder, I suddenly found myself thinking that we were lucky to have had such a good sign made for us.

That night, I locked the storefront and turned around.

“I’ll be back soon, Rit.”

“Okay, take care. I’ll be back soon, too.”

“Yeah, take care.”

We chuckled a bit in the moonlight before parting.

I was going to gather information for my talk with Cardinal Ljubo, and Rit was doing the same for her talk with Lavender.

How would she sway Lavender when we hardly knew anything about her…? I couldn’t begin to guess. That was why I’d entrusted it to Rit, I suppose.

I had to focus on the things I could do.

My destination was the church in central Zoltan.

A voice replied, “Right on schedule” after I used the door knocker.

Unhurried footfalls approached.

When the door opened, I saw Bishop Shien wearing comfortable clothes. A smile crossed his wrinkled face.

“Zoltan people are casual when it comes to time, so it’s surprising to get such a prompt visit.”

“Hah-hah. Aren’t you from Zoltan?”

“I studied at the church in Central. Anyone who dared to sleep in would get a terrible scolding from the deacon in charge.”

“It must have been rough when you were at the bottom rungs.”

“You seem like you’ve had your share of difficult work when you were at the bottom rungs, too.”


“Hah-hah. Don’t worry. I’m not trying to pry.” Bishop Shien grinned. “Now then, it seems the hot water has come to a boil while we were chatting. The truth is, you were so on time I didn’t have the tea ready.”

“Sounds great. It was warm today, but it’s still a bit chilly at night.”

I stepped inside, and Bishop Shien led me to his quarters. I took a seat across from him.

“Now then, it seems you have something you wanted to ask me.”

“It’s about Cardinal Ljubo.”

His expression grew serious, and he nodded. “I suspected as much.”

“I heard that you spoke with Cardinal Ljubo when you went to negotiate to keep the church from intervening in the conflict with Veronia.”

“Indeed. His Eminence was among those pushing for war and had backed a military intervention. It was necessary that I convince him to abstain.”

“How was he?”

“Hmmm… I am just a simple country bishop, and it has been a long time since I left Central for Zoltan, so I don’t have much confidence in my eye for people. But if my impressions are enough for you…”

“I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

“I got the impression Cardinal Ljubo was a reasonable man.”

That same sort of description again…

“When I heard he was in favor of intervention, I was suspicious, expecting fierce opposition… Yet upon my meeting him, Cardinal Ljubo had a smile and received me quite reasonably.”

“Do you think he is a good cleric?”

“I believe he is keenly attuned to his interests.”

He’d probably recognized how unfavorable it was to continue pushing for war and so pulled back. Did that mean I ought to try convincing him that remaining in Zoltan was wasteful?


When he saw me slip into contemplation, Bishop Shien’s gaze sharpened. His eyes were those of an adventurer more than those of a priest.

“The deacon who taught me warned me that Cardinal Ljubo is not to be trusted.”

“‘Not to be trusted…’?”

“Yes. He is not the sort who hesitates to betray. There are no public records of it, but apparently, he accused the priest who’d been like a father to him of heresy and had him executed.”

“It’s hard to believe there’s no surviving account of that.”

“It was for a cardinal—surely a piece of some internal power struggle.”

“So Ljubo chose someone useful over someone who took care of him?”

This cardinal was a dangerous man. Perhaps that befitted one of Van the Hero’s comrades.

Someone who felt little in the way of obligation or empathy might not respect promises, either. He likely wouldn’t care much about any damage that befell Zoltan so long as it helped Van. I’d need to limit myself to Ljubo’s personal costs and benefits when dealing with him.

Honestly, that sounded like a challenge, but it would be easier than trying to sway Van himself.

Three days later, Ruti and I left Rit to close the shop in the evening and headed to a field away from the main road. Once sure we were out of sight, Ruti summoned a spirit mount for us to ride.

“It’s been a while.”

“This is a first for me.”

We rode through a glade and into the forest.

Suddenly, a fog appeared, but as we pressed forward, I heard the sound of a brook.

“Things were a bit different the last time I was here. Let’s try following the sound.”


Ruti pulled the reins and changed direction as we proceeded through the woods.

After a little while, the mist cleared, and we reached a collection of mushroom houses.

“A fairy village.”

Ruti looked around.

Rit and I had visited this place once.

“I get to see it with Big Brother.”

Ruti seemed pleased.


The fay gathered around me.

“Nice to see you!”

“It’s been a while.”

“‘Been a while’?”

The fairies cocked their heads and then started laughing as if I’d said something funny.

“Hee-hee, the flow of time means little to us, so a few minutes or a few hundred years are much the same.”

A beautiful woman with a body of translucent water greeted us. Her bare body was a perfect beauty, the sort typically found only in paintings.

“Welcome to my humble pool!”

This was Undine, archfay of water.

The fairies, who were previously cursed, now looked healthy and cheerful.

“Here’s the item you requested.”

“Thank you. I appreciate it.” I received the leather bag.

“Not at all. You are our benefactor and friend. You may ask for such presents whenever you desire,” Undine said with a smile.

In truth, I should have prepared something as thanks, and the fact I hadn’t been able to bothered me a bit.

Once this thing with Van is settled, maybe I’ll come back with something.

While I thought it over, Ruti looked all around.

“What’s happening?” Ruti asked Undine.

“Nothing. This is just preparation to ensure the water will remain the same brook it was the day before.”

“Because of the Hero? Or the fairy?”

Undine put her hand to her mouth, surprised by Ruti’s inquiry.

“You are quite perceptive. The fairy.”

“Lavender, huh?”

“That is apparently what she is calling herself.”

Undine’s expression turned serious.

If Lavender can make an archfay look like that…

“She is a truly terrifying being who must be avoided.”

“Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. We’re trying to get her and the others to leave Zoltan.”

“I see. In that case, you must not let your guard down around her. There is no other fairy so fickle or loving of destruction.”

Undine had always looked cheerful, even when weakened by a curse. For her to look so intense now meant Lavender was truly a grave threat.

“That aside—” Undine’s cheerful smile returned in the blink of an eye, “—since Red’s little sister has come to visit, we have to make sure she enjoys herself before leaving!”

The fairies fluttered around Ruti.

“Do you want tea and cookies?”

“Or do you want to dance with us?”

“No way, you should take a stroll with us!”

Ruti was a little surprised by the pushy creatures.

She smiled and took my hand. “You should play with us, too.”

After enjoying ourselves in the fairy village, we secretly hopped the wall back into Zoltan in the dark.

Is Rit going to be annoyed?

“Big Brother, today was a good day.”

Ruti was happy, so I figured it was okay.

Another three days later, we were in the backyard at night.

“Are you ready, Brother?”

“Yeah, ready when you are.”

I held up my bronze sword.

Ruti stood across from me with a stick.

The branch was about the length of Ruti’s sword and of its replica that Van wielded.

I was about to start combat training with Ruti.

“Here I go.”

Ruti slowly raised the stick into a middle stance. Tremendous pressure emanated from her. This was the strongest girl in the world.

Ordinarily, no one would dare dream of facing such overwhelming force.


Ruti disappeared after a single breath.


She merely charged straight at me and swiped with the stick, yet she did so with such speed that my eyes couldn’t keep up.


My sword deflected her attack.

I couldn’t see the incoming strike, but I knew the timing it would land with.

“That’s my big brother. I’m going to keep coming.”

The stick flashed.

Clack! Clack! Clack! Clack! The sound of metal against wood rang out countless times.

I was able to parry because Ruti was using a stick. Were it a holy sword, my blade would be long since shattered.

I suppose a bronze sword does have its limits…



Dodging Ruti’s swipe at my neck, I pressed my sword against her stick the moment it reached the end of its arc.

However, no sooner did our weapons meet than Ruti’s arm vanished. A blink later, the stick was pressed against my neck.

“I give up.”

I relaxed and surrendered.


After I caught my breath, my muscles were crying in agony.

“That stings…”

So by using a magic potion to raise my reflexes and strength while also employing the special breathing method I learned as a knight, I can just barely manage to keep up…

“Are you okay?”

Ruti’s hand shone gently as she touched me.

Healing Hands immediately restored the damaged muscles.

“Thanks, Ruti.”

“You’re welcome.”

I used every possible trick I could and only barely managed… Ruti’s strong.


Rit rushed over with a towel in hand.

“No one else could take that much while fighting Ruti.”

“It isn’t an actual battle, though.”

The training was just Ruti attacking with a stick and me defending. She wasn’t allowed to do anything but strike, limiting the patterns of her actions.

“Had she wielded a sword, my blade would have broken.”

I held the bronze sword up in the moonlight. There were nicks on the blade from where it had met the stick.

“Leftovers from when I couldn’t deflect and had to simply block.”

Parrying and guarding had different timing. When facing an opponent with a strong weapon with a fragile one of your own, like a bronze sword, it was crucial to deflect the force of incoming blows without catching too much of the power on the blade itself. By parrying with perfect timing, Ruti could defend against even a giant’s blow with that wooden stick.

“But…he’s not an opponent to intentionally fight with a weak weapon.”

I’d originally used a bronze sword, because it was my little way of resisting the memories of all that time I’d spent fighting. My old life had left me unable to sleep without a weapon in reach, even though I wanted to live peacefully.

Since Ruti had been freed from the Hero blessing’s impulses, I’d managed to get my mind in order, and now I slept just fine without a sword at hand. I kept using a bronze sword because there was no reason to buy a more expensive one, and I’d grown attached to the weapon.

However, a bronze sword wouldn’t be very reliable when I was going up against the Hero and his comrades.

“Well, we don’t intend to fight for the moment.”

“But there’s no harm in being ready for it. Right?”


That was the point of training with Ruti.

I was practicing my defense to ensure a safe retreat if a battle with Van the Hero became inevitable.

“All right, Ruti, again, please.”

“Got it.”

I’d used what was an expensive magic potion to me these days for this training.

I ought to get the most out of it before the effects wear off.

Practice with Ruti continued for another hour.

Even with my Immunity to Fatigue, an hour of dealing with Ruti’s attacks was enough to wear down my body and spirit. Had it been anyone but Ruti, I would’ve started complaining by now.

By the time it was finally over, I was dead tired. However…

“My turn!”

Rit stood ready, barehanded instead of holding a weapon.

Pushing yourself when exhausted was how you reached a breakthrough and climbed to a new level. That was the excuse I gave myself anyway. Honestly, I just wanted to train with Rit, too, since I’d practiced with Ruti.

“All right, I’ll try a three-attack combo that begins with a high kick. The movements will be improvised after the opener.”


The training with Rit involved combinations in which she announced her opening strike. The practice was meant to test both our offensive and our defensive techniques.

“Go for it, Big Brother.”

Ruti tied a handkerchief to her stick and waved it like a flag to cheer me on while she sipped apple juice.


Rit’s leg flew upward.

It was a high kick from a distance.

I leaped back to dodge it, and she spun her body to loose a second kick.

With both her legs in the air, she planted her hands on the ground to pivot and unleash a kick down at me from above for the third attack.

It was a beautiful maneuver, enough to take my breath away even though I was on the defensive.

Perhaps because Rit used two swords, kicks were her bread and butter for unarmed fighting.

Rit’s kicks were strong enough to break an average warrior’s neck, but this was training, so she didn’t put all her strength into each blow.

However, I didn’t have any skills for fighting without a weapon. If I blocked one of her strikes, I could end up with my arms broken. So I did my best to evade incoming attacks.

“A high-low combo followed by a roundhouse!”

Rit continued unleashing different strikes.

I defended in response, but hand-to-hand fighting was something I only practiced on the side. I couldn’t stop everything and took more than a few hits for it.

“Not quite!”


While taking a kick, I seized Rit’s leg the moment it stopped moving.

The fighting style was different, but the breathing techniques of swordsmanship were still effective.

Rit tried to get her leg free, but before she could, I swept her other one out from under her.

Her stance broke immediately.


I made sure to catch her before she hit the ground.

“Heh-heh-heh. That’s my Red.”

“I took a couple hits, though. In a real fight, my movements would have dulled from the damage. This one’s your win.”

“Hmm. Maybe. Well, there’s no winners or losers in training.”


The two of us chuckled.

It was more like we were working out together than fighting.

A competition without any intent to actually beat the opponent was interesting in its own way when compared to standard battle.

“I want to try, too,” said Ruti.

“Okay. We can take turns so everyone gets a shot,” I replied

“Our match was completely one-sided at the colosseum in Loggervia, but I should have a chance in a bout of unarmed techniques!” Rit declared

“Big Brother taught me how to fight…with extreme attention to detail. So I won’t lose in this kind of battle, either.”

Rit and Ruti were getting fired up.

I had confidence with a sword, but far less with my fists. That Ruti boasted about my training her in weaponless fighting was a bit troubling.

Regardless, she and Rit clearly enjoyed sparring with each other.

Such a thing would’ve been impossible for the old Ruti.

Even when her attacks weren’t intended to defeat an opponent outright, she still had the overwhelming might of the Hero.

She could call upon that intense pressure when necessary, of course, but these days she was able to keep it in check and practice forms and stances with people besides me.

Seeing how much fun it was for her reinforced my commitment to protecting our life here.

I’m not gonna let some new Hero disrupt things.

“Next is me and Ruti,” I said.

“Mhm. A step in, middle kick aimed at the chin, a spear hand aimed at the neck, three strikes to center mass, leg sweep, and follow-up attack when you fall.”

“O-okay. Whenever you’re ready.”

I’d taught her some hand-to-hand fighting, but I didn’t recall that combination.

It’s probably best that I don’t face the Hero without a weapon…

Late that night, after the special training concluded and Ruti left, hot water from the tub overflowed and spilled onto the floor.


Rit and I groaned with delight.

“The water feels great.” Rit’s voice was relaxed.

I agreed completely. “A bath after a good workout is sublime.”

“I wonder if our muscles are going to be sore tomorrow.”

“I had some good exercise recently from that sparring match with Danan, so I’ll probably be okay.”

“What a shame. I was going to suggest we massage each other.”

Rit giggled and took my hand.

It’d become normal for us to bathe together.

“Rub rub.” Rit started massaging my hand. “I’ll have to settle for just this, I suppose.”

“I-it’s just a massage. We can just do that whenever we like, can’t we? It feels nice even if I don’t have muscle aches.”

Why’d I have to open my big mouth?

“Heh-heh-heh.” Rit’s face reddened a bit as she smiled happily. “True. Shall we have a massage match when we get out of the bath?”

I’m sure it was just the water that made my face feel so warm.

“Y-yeah.” My response came out weaker than I’d intended. I needed more training. “So should we call this practice, too?”

Rit burst out laughing.

“I don’t think there’s any part of you I haven’t touched or vice versa…” I was losing my composure more and more as she spoke. And she was enjoying seeing me shaken.

Is she getting flushed because of the bath?

“You’re the only one. The only man who has touched me here,” Rit said as she held up her big, soft breasts. And then an impish grin flashed across her face.

“But I don’t know if I’ve touched here yet.”


I poked a spot on her breast with my finger.

Rit shuddered.

At least I can do this much without too much trouble!

“Mrgh! You touched there just the other day!” Rit wrapped her arms around me.

Water splashed out of the tub.

“I don’t know if I’ve touched you here before, though.” Rit kissed an old scar on my neck.

“Don’t you touch that every day?”

“Heh-heh. I like that part of you.”

There were more splashes.

Even in the warm bath, Rit’s skin against mine was still hotter than anything.

I held her tight, and she looked into my eyes. Her soft lips met mine.

“I love you.”

Rit was beautiful as she said that. I smiled gently, face red.

The bedroom.

I was holding Rit while looking at the moon through the window.

“It sure is beautiful tonight.”

Rit closed her eyes. I gently massaged her slightly sweaty shoulders. “Heh-heh.” She giggled, but kept her eyes closed.

This was a moment of irreplaceable happiness.

“…They’ll be back soon, won’t they?”

Rit opened her eyes.

Van and his party.

The sleepiness evaporated from Rit’s face.

I took a deep breath and focused my drifting mind.

“He’s raising his blessing level. I don’t know how high he’ll get before he’s satisfied, but going on what Theodora said, he should be back soon.”

“We’ve done all we can, haven’t we?”

“Yeah. We have.”

We were only capable of so much, but we’d done our best to prepare.

“Let’s give it our best shot.”


Why were we fighting against the Hero and the church, against the embodiments of what was right?

After today, I knew exactly why.

Even if our opponent was a blessing meant to save the world, I refused to waver.

Our happiness was far more precious than the Hero.

Rit and I held each other and fell into peaceful sleep.

And the Hero returned to Zoltan.

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