Rain soon found the person who had been invisibly investigating him as he entered the plaza. He was in a corner, along with two others.
He had never seen the other two before, but the silver-haired man was a face he had seen ten years ago, though he had not anticipated a reunion with him.
He had thought that they would never meet again.
Rain noticed Gunther standing inconspicuously near them and called out to him first.
"……Nothing. I simply thought that something was about to come up."
"I see. That's sensible of you, as always."
Rain laughed and suddenly stopped before he prompted Kris up close to Joe.
He met the other man's gaze from up his horse.
"It's been a while, boy. Our positions have reversed from before. It's been ten years, but do you remember me?"
Joe looked away for a brief moment and turned his eyes to Shelfa. He furrowed his brows, puzzled.
But he then shook his head lightly and turned back to Rain.
……He had the same reaction as King Leygur. Well, it's only natural to be puzzled after seeing the Little one.
Feeling around his memories of the previous battle, Rain nonchalantly replied,
"I'm not a kid anymore. ……But I remember you of course, Joe Lamberck. What's the Fearless God-General of Chandrys doing here?"
"But, you really don't look twenty-five. You're surprisingly young."
Rain frowned as something interrupted from the side.
"……Who're you, woman?"
Folnier opened her eyes wide and promptly allowed her features to crumble as she began laughing like a man.
"I would never stand it for a normal person to call me that, but perhaps this is a part of your personal virtue. I actually find your open-hearted attitude quite reliable,"
Folnier said as she smiled enchantingly. She continued,
"I am Folneir Lucida Chandrys. As my name suggests, I'm the empress of Chandrys. I know this is a bit of a strange place……but won't you talk with us for a bit, Sir Rain?"
Even Rain and Shelfa unmounted from Kris after Folnier introduced herself, and both groups began exchanging information regarding the current circumstances. However, Rain's attention was focused on Joe, and Folnier was zealously observing Rain. Thus, it was difficult to say whether their exchange was successful or not.
That aside, when Rain explained the reason for their march as he'd been asked, Folnier became stiff and suddenly began to rattle on and on.
"Then, you mean to say that you surrendered your royal castle, your final stronghold, and evacuated?!"
"Well, if you put it simply, then yeah. Geez, the world changes too fast. The army, which was the national army yesterday, is a wandering army today."
Rain shrugged as if it had nothing to do with him.
Rain's attitude had not changed in the slightest even after learning that Folnier was an empress. He did not have any special sense of inherent respect for royalty to begin with. Furthermore, it wasn't even as if Folnier paid Rain's wages. Thus, he did not see any need to speak to her with respect.
The man called Shing or something that he'd been introduced to earlier frowned at him repeatedly, but, naturally, Rain couldn't have cared less.
"Anyhow. Things might change later, but that's what the situation is now. So even if you propose an alliance… Well, it's not like I'll be the one deciding that in any case."
He lowered his gaze to his liege standing beside him and continued,
"how about it, Princess?"
Shelfa looked surprised at suddenly being called upon.
Still, after a moment of contemplation, she candidly disclosed to Folnier,
"……While I'm happy for your proposal, the situation is as Rain has just described it. My household no longer commands the entire Sunkwoll kingdom. Only Rain and Lord Ralphus has remained my ally. Is that still all right with you?"
"S, so readily?! In other words, you, a member of royalty who is to become the next ruler, no longer control even a single plot of land?!"
"Oh, you're right."
It was exactly as Folnier had said.
Shelfa opened her bright blue eyes wide and giggled.
She had found it peculiar that, just until yesterday, there had been an uproar about her coronation ceremony and debut, but she had become penniless overnight.
Come to think of it, she had left the castle with just the clothes on her back, so she did not have even a single copper, let alone territory to her name.
"You're exactly right……. I don't own anything anymore."
"——Wha! A, are you serious?"
Folnier became exasperated and grew angry as if she herself was in Shelfa's predicament. She could hardly believe how composed the girl, a ruler like herself, was.
Shelfa had her own excuse that "even if I don't have any land to my name, I am satisfied as long as my beloved Rain is by my side," but Folnier would have probably gotten angry if she made her true opinion known.
Both female rulers were beauties that drew in attention, but the quality of their beauty were of different kinds, and they belonged to completely different worlds on the inside.
Only——. Rain was no longer listening to Folnier scolding next to him. He did not see Shing frequently turning his head toward him, worried, and neither did he notice that Gunther had nonchalantly moved next to Shelfa as if he was covering her.
What he was paying attention was the surge of power that Joe Lamberck, who was accompanying him, was giving off and was flaring up in the flames of rivalry.
Rain said with a low voice.
He braced himself and glared back at Joe, who was staring into him. He felt Joe's 'power' tingle on his skin just by standing there.
"It'd certainly be unexpected……but are you picking a fight with me?"
"I had no such intentions——"
Joe replied while laughing,
"but, you really haven't changed. You're just the same as you were ten years ago."
"Yeah? Everyone who knew me in the past usually says that I've gotten more shameless."
"That's just on the outside, is it not? I can tell. Your true nature has not changed in the slightest. You're just as you were then,"
Joe answered quietly. He continued,
"when I met you that day, you were a warrior with eyes like a wolf's, and you're still that way today. ……I would like a match with you at least once."
"Didn't we already have one?"
Joe said as he casually placed a hand on the hilt of his katana.
Rain had also placed a hand on his magic sword by then. It wasn't clear who had moved first, but there was no doubt that they had moved at almost the exact same time.
And, Joe spoke his next words almost like a cue.
Even if he hadn't intended to, he had challenged Rain in the most correct way possible.
"If you think you beat me that day, then you're sorely mistaken. Nothing……has been decided yet."
A dangerous light flickered in Rain's eyes as he heard Joe's words.
"Oh~……? I guess you don't mind if your slogan of 'invincibility' crumbles to dust, huh."
Fornier's voice, which was still rattling on beside them, and the hushed whispers of the citizens in the plaza completely disappeared from their minds.
They both knew that the other was a strong opponent. They no longer had the leeway to allow their attention to wander elsewhere.
Joe turned around and instinctively distanced himself. As if they were about to cross swords.
Rain, too, instinctively opened his legs out a little. He never looked away from his opponent's eyes even for a moment.
Just then……a breeze blew and carried along a withered brown leaf.
The two opponents drew their swords at the same time and crossed each other.
The leaf was split into four and was blown away.
They both groaned and twisted their upper bodies to hit back at their opponent behind them as they crossed paths. There was no delay in their movements as both magic swords aimed at the other wielder's vitals.
Crackle crackle crackle!
The two magic swords crackled as bluish white sparks scattered around them. Rain had cut his cheek and Joe's shirt had been cut around the shoulder, and both were bleeding lightly from their wounds.
Shelfa and Folnier screamed as they finally realized that something was up. However, their voices did not reach either of their targets.
"——How many decades has it been since someone's inflicted a wound on me? ……As expected of you!"
"It's a bit too soon to start bragging!"
Rain took a step toward his opponent as they locked swords and headbutted Joe on the forehead.
Joe instantly moved to avoid it, but Rain was just a bit faster. Unable to dodge it completely, he took the blow.
Joe purposefully threw himself to the stone paving behind him and splendidly flipped backward with one had on the ground.
He immediately readied his katana again, but——
"How naïve of you! But I'm up here!"
Rain danced through the skies like a bird in flight, half-turned midair, and swung down his magic sword in a single blow with all of his might. Joe caught the attack, which would have split his head in two if it had hit, spectacularly.
The two clashed, swapping positions and changing their postures in a dizzying manner numerous times. They were so fast that Shelfa and the others saw the illusion of four or five swordsmen were fighting.
Joe and Rain danced in between the two magic sword's attacks.
They were undeniably in mortal combat, of course, but their moves were so perfect that spectators gazed at them in wonder.
Joe's radiant silver-white magic sword drew multiple trails of light aimed at Rain's black hair. They were met by blue flashes of light that had not withdrawn in the slightest. The crossing magic swords created countless afterimages as they clashed repeatedly and scattered sparks as they crackled. The two outstanding swordsmen had easily crossed blades over ten times within the past few seconds.
The people in the plaza stopped moving and had their eyes glued on them.
"You're not human, are you, you bastard? Are you one of those daemons that were supposed to have been extinct?"
Rain asked, his doubt coloring his words as he jumped back to distance himself for the time being.
"I'm not. Besides, it's not like you're entirely human either."
With that last yell, the black shadow became a blur and charged forward. The few meters between the two opponents was basically nothing to Rain. He appeared in front of Joe in a blink of an eye and scythed his magic sword horizontally.
Joe reacted with inhuman speed and caught Rain's blow with his own magic sword.
However, Rain did not miss how Joe's body had wavered in the slightest bit and took the chance to rotate his tall figure and backward roundhouse kick his opponent in the temporal region.
There was a heavy crash.
Joe blocked the kick with only his right elbow, but his entire body was still thrown back because he wasn't able to neutralize the impact. Rain leapt at him again as his body flew in the air. At the same time that Joe safely landed on the road, Rain's magic sword fell down upon him like falling light.
Joe avoided the magic sword just before it made contact by twisting his body. Then, he stabbed his katana into the stone paving and used it as a pivot to kick Rain's completely open flank.
It was Rain's turn to be thrown back.
However, he quickly regained his posture upon landing. Both opponents ran at each other with a speed that had surpassed the limits of humanity.
"That's my line!"
"Both of you, step down!"
Folnier jumped in in between the two with her arms spread out as they made to clash once again.
"Y, you idiot!"
Joe and Rain, who were about to deal finishing blows on the other, stopped in their tracks in terrified surprise.
It was only possible because they two of them were outstanding knights, and if the match had been between anyone else, Folnier would have undoubtedly died. Joe's silver-white magic sword had just been about to pierce Folnier through the back, and Rain Siren's Blade had stopped just before rending through her torso.
Then, Joe let out a sigh of relief while Rain snorted out largely out of anger and with a little bit of a cold sweat.
"Your Majesty, you would have been dead by now if it wasn't us!"
The two men protested furiously, but Folnier could not have cared any less as she narrowed her cat-like eyes. First, she turned around and said,
"Well, don't be too angry. You're at fault here too, you know? It was an impressive battle……but why did you start crossing blades out of nowhere? It's not like you, Joe."
Joe uncharacteristically mumbled. Folnier pat his shoulder saying, "well, whatever," before turning to confront Rain.
"You showed me something good. To think that there was someone in the world who could fight on equal terms with Joe."
"……Are you blind? Where were you looking? In another minute, he'd have been laying in a pool of blood, saying his last words like, "ugh, in the end, I was no match for you……""
Joe, who had already re-sheathed his katana, shook his head and laughed as Rain said his piece in such a matter-of-fact manner. He had long since regained his composure.
Folnier's eye's sparkled brighter as she said,
"that confidence of yours is only possible because your abilities are the real thing……. You're most certainly worthy of being called a genius. If not, you wouldn't have been able to put up a proper fight with Joe at the young age of twenty-five or so."
Folnier's red tongue traced the lines of her lips as she spoke. Rain's anger subsided and he furrowed his brows. She continued,
"I was almost about to make a mistake about you when I first heard that you had abandoned the castle. But there's no mistaking that strength of yours. It was truly greater than the rumors say."
Then, someone called out, "Rain!" When Rain turned around, he saw Ralphus and Gazaram and all of the others galloping back on horse.
That was all fine and good, but Rain belatedly noticed that Gunther had his magic sword at the knight-captain named Shing or whatever's neck, so he asked him what was wrong.
"Nothing. This man was about to draw his sword to assist half-way through the fight,"
Gunther replied calmly.
Shing gulped. Gunther looked so straightforward that Shing could not tell if he was being serious or not.
"Oh, good work. It's fine now……I'm not up for it anymore, and we were interrupted anyway."
Gunther immediately drew back his magic sword at Rain's words. Shing's trembling breath that followed was impressive. The edges of Folnier's lips lifted as she watched and she drew even closer to Rain.
She laughed as she said,
"Shing is quite skilled himself, but to immobilize him so easily. You have truly skilled subordinates……. You seem to have a good eye for people. ——And yet,"
she lowered her voice,
"I can't comprehend how a man like you can be satisfied serving under a ruler like that."
"What, is this an invitation by any chance? The kind where you're trying to get me to work under you instead?"
Rain said in a normal volume, causing Shelfa's, who had been listening in to the exchange, shoulders to twitch.
"……Do I need to answer?"
Folnier replied, without sparing a second glace at Shelfa. As Rain silently scowled, she suddenly tiptoed and planted her lips on his cheek. He felt her soft, seductive lips.
"I'll be waiting for you anytime. I've grown a sudden interest in you,"
he heard her whisper clearly despite that she had quickly pulled away.
Rain voiced his indignation with a scowl while he scrubbed his cheek. Folnier, who didn't look like she had taken any offense, saw Ralphus and the others drawing closer and turned around, saying, "let's meet again, Rain."
……From the direction she was going, she was apparently heading for Galfort Castle.
Shing followed after his ruler in a hurry and Joe, too, continued after them silently. But, he turned around to look at Rain just once. When Rain nonchalantly looked back, he turned back around without a word.
Ralphus unmounted as he arrived and looked to Folnier's party.
"……Who were they, just now? I hurried back because I felt uneasy about the man."
He saw the tears all over Rain's clothes as he spoke and stiffened. He continued,
"Well, it's a bit complicated. Anyhow, I crossed swords a bit,"
Rain said, as if nothing had really happened. He continued,
"but the match was already over. ……Though I don't know if the other party will agree with that."
Isn't that right, Princess?
He looked over to Shelfa in a relaxed manner for her confirmation……and then Rain tilted his head.
Shelfa was despondently hanging down her head. She was suddenly depressed for some reason.
Gazaram, Leni, and Selphie arrived late and separately and looked at Rain and Shelfa while trying to figure out what was going on. Selphie, especially, had a weirdly sharp look in her eyes (or so Rain thought).
To add insult to injury, Ralphus took back the question that he had just been about to ask and was looking at Rain with reproachful eyes for some reason.
In any case, Rain felt the need to justify himself and said,
"……I didn't do anything. What's wrong, Princess?"
"——Nothing. Nothing at all,"
Shelfa replied in a depressed and quavering voice that heavily suggested that there was something wrong.
She wiped away at her eyes with her fingers, and the reproachful looks, including those of the general public, increased tenfold. Naturally, the target of their gazes was none other than Rain.
"……Like I'm saying, I have no idea either."
Rain denied his involvement with a wave of the hand and called Shelfa over, pulling her somewhere away from everyone else.
He stooped over and looked into her moistened azure eyes.
"What is it? Did something happen to bring you down so much?"
"……Just before, I saw her ki, kiss you on the cheek, Rain, and my heart started to hurt a lot for some reason……. I know that I'm being silly."
Then, she gently looked Rain in the eye and continued,
"and, I finally realized that I can't even reward you properly anymore, and I felt so bad about it…… I must be really stupid to not have realized this until now. But, even still, I still want you to be by my side, Rain. ……I'm selfish too, on top of being stupid."
"Oh, that's what it is. So, that vixen said something to you, didn't she? Don't mind her, it's nothing for you to worry about. And relax, you're still super rich as a ruler should be……putting the matter about your territory aside. Well, we'll be able to reclaim your lands soon too."
Rain cast a glance at their comrades, who had their gazes fixed on them, and smiled at Shelfa, who was tilting her head to the side with a still-forlorn expression.
Then, Shelfa's almost-crying expression came apart and she smiled back at him.
"……I'll explain in more detail when we reach the castle. For now, just know that your wallets are plenty rich as they are. And about the kiss……that's…"
——Something like that is basically just a greeting, isn't it?
was what Rain had been about to say before he reconsidered it.
After all, Shelfa had withdrawn the smile that she had finally shown and was waiting for the rest of his reply with a nervous expression. He didn't want to say anything carelessly.
After thinking about what he could say to turn her gloominess back into a smile, what he came up with was something along the lines of, "besides, do you know how babies are made?" and there was no way that he could twist it to make Shelfa laugh so he dismissed the idea instantly.
He wasn't some drunken greenhorn trying to hit on a girl. Besides, he could already guess what the answer would be without having to go out of his way to ask.
And so, he said the next thing that popped into his head without really thinking about it.
"……Ah~. If that bothered you so much, then let's do this. On of these days when we're in the baths or something, I'll kiss you all over the place."
——It was equally vulgar.
Of course, Rain had only said this as a joke in order to lighten up the mood. He thought that Shelfa would laugh again if he said something like this.
However, Shelfa expressed her glee with her whole body and exclaimed, "really?!" while clasping her hands in front of her chest. She was suddenly giddy with joy and her sorrows had all but vanished.
"I can't wait!"
……Perhaps I shouldn't have said that.
Folnier laughed after a quick look back at Rain and the others who were in the middle of a slight dispute.
"We were fortunate to have met with Rain. ……But I don't care too much for that princess."
"Indeed. There would be none more reassuring to have as an ally as he,"
Joe said candidly as he nodded.
He believed that it was only right to acknowledge his opponent's strength as it was due.
"Putting his actual abilities aside, however, he's got quite the large attitude. ……As does his subordinate."
"Shing, don't hold it against him just because you were done in,"
Folnier chided him with a wry smile.
"N, never. I simply——"
Leaving Shing behind, flustered, Folnier turned to Joe as they walked and said,
"I've been wanting to ask. Joe, why didn't you use your trump card?"
She had made the suggestion out of simple doubt.
"No. That……will not work on Rain. I can guess as much without actually having to test it out."
"Oh? Then, what about magic? Your magic is almighty."
"It's not quite almighty. ——And besides, he can use magic as well. He's a Dragon Slayer, after all."
"Yeah, you're right, he is. I didn't believe it at first, but I believe it now. Hahaha……a Dragon Slayer, huh? It's my first time seeing one."
"That's only natural. You don't usually see one too often."
"That's true too, ahahah!"
Folnier laughed in a cheerful manner. Her mood seemed to have lifted considerably upon meeting Rain. She probably thought that her efforts up until now had been greatly rewarded.
Joe concurred with that sentiment.
Only, he did not think that it would be so easy to make that man their ally.
Folnier finally stopped her content laughing and abruptly looked up at Joe.
"But, even someone as good as you suffered quite the number of wounds, albeit shallow."
"My opponent was who he was. But Rain should have suffered a similar number of wounds as well."
"Hmm, that's true. Even still, it looks like you found yourself in a bit of a predicament, considering the wound on your throat. Not that I could follow what was happening."
After all, you two were moving too fast for me to see.
——The latter half of Folnier's words did not reach Joe, who had stopped in his tracks.
He felt like icicles had formed in the core of his body as he hurriedly placed a hand at his neck.
When he pulled it back in front of his eyes, he saw that it was wet with blood. Though small, he had suffered a wound there.
……And unlike the ones elsewhere, Joe had not noticed this one at all.
It needn't be said that his only opponent had been Rain. It must have happened during their fierce battle.
The wound at his throat quickly disappeared the moment he noticed it.
Folnier, who had also stopped walking, lowered her voice as she watched it happen as if it was normal.
"Don't tell me……you didn't notice?"
"——No. I see…… No wonder he let me go so quietly despite being so recklessly obsessive about the match."
Joe recalled Rain's earlier words.
"Are you blind?"
"In another minute~"
I had thought that Rain was simply exaggerating……. But wasn't that too naïve of me? In truth, he marked my vital point and I didn't even notice.
——It seems that I've underestimated that man.
As Joe began walking again, he made a quiet vow in his heart.
Should we ever get a rematch……I'll fight will all my might. Things won't go the same next time, Rain.
They had planned to go straight to Galfort Castle, but they arrived a little later than expected. This was because Folnier had said that Safir would refuse an audience with them if they went in with Joe's clothes in tatters.
Joe had absolutely no objections at all, so he straightened up his appearance and they had a meal before going to the castle.
It was highly unusual for the empress herself to attend a surprise visit with no prior warning at all.
However, Joe had always liked her ambitious nature. This was why he never went out of his way to stop her. Besides, he had the confidence that they would never suffer a defeat as long as he as with her.
He had been wary of Rain, but Rain had already left Galfort. Now, there was nothing left to fear.
Thus, they boldly named themselves and had the gatekeeper announce their arrival…… But they were kept waiting for a rather long time in a spacious room because Safir-or-what's-his-name wasn't showing up.
Shing said impatiently as he did his best not to look at Folnier's legs, which she had crossed rather high up.
They hadn't drunk even a single sip of the black tea that had been served to them, and it had already gone cold a while ago.
"Hmmm. ……Is it possible that he doesn't believe our identities?"
Folnier looked to Joe in displeasure.
He felt like she was asking for his opinion, so he replied.
"Even still, I cannot praise him for simply keeping us here waiting. It's not the attitude that a ruler should take. He should still take the fact that we could really be who we say we are into consideration,"
At this point, he thought that this Safir-or-whatever-his-name-was was far too unreliable. After all, they had already been made to wait for almost an hour.
Just then, the sound of multiple footsteps reached Joe's ears, though the other party couldn't have possibly heard the three of them complaining.
"……It seems that it will be impossible to hope for a proper audience."
Folnier promptly reached for the sword that she had left beside her at Joe's words. Joe felt that she had great instincts.
"A large number of armed knights and soldiers are approaching. It appears that they intend to capture us."
Shing, who had a strong sense of responsibility, abruptly stood up upon hearing what Joe had said. He placed a hand on his sword and glared at the door.
After a short while——
The door was opened with a scarily unreserved force. A crowd of armed knights and soldiers noisily entered the room with a visibly arrogant man who looked like a noble at the lead. They surrounded Folnier's group of three in a semi-circle and drew their swords.
Joe immediately tried to step in front of Folnier to cover her, but she was so bold that it was almost fascinating.
She held Joe back with one hand and directly glared down at the noble who looked like the representative of the guards and his men.
Her majesty was so readily apparent that they all dropped their gazes or stepped back when she lifted her chin and slowly surveyed through their numbers.
"Oh? You bring your swords instead of courtesy when greeting the ruler of another country? Is that how things are run in Sunkwoll?"
"Y, you're quite strong-willed. However, milady, your carelessness brought this upon yourself. This is the will of our master, Lord……no, His Majesty Safir. My apologies, but——"
"That's enough, shut your mouth,"
Folnier cut off the man, who was explaining things with his chest purposefully puffed up with pride, without a second glance. The arrogant noble immediately shut his mouth at the tone of her voice, which was as sharp as a whip.
"I get the gist of the situation. In other words, Safir-or-what's-his-name thinks that it would be more beneficial to him to capture than to forge an alliance with us. His decision is truly one of a fool who cannot see the larger picture at hand. It seems that it was a mistake for us to have come to this castle,"
Folnier bluntly pointed everything out without hesitation, causing the middle-aged nobleman to twist his mouth into a frown.
He became more defiant and he stopped being polite as he replied,
"then, I'll have you come along quietly."
"Who said anything about going with you, fool?"
Folnier said on the spot and looked to Joe. She continued,
"I have no use for fools. Unlike Rain, Safir-or-whatever was a huge waste of time. ……What do you think?"
"I concur, Lady Fol,"
Joe wholly agreed.
"Any further attempts on our part will be to futile effort. We've already seen the extent of this man called Safir's caliber. ……And besides,"
he cast a cursory glance at the enemy soldiers below the captain rank,
"he doesn't seem to have any capable subordinates either. He wasn't blessed with worthwhile men, and the caliber of the person in question is lacking…… We're wasting time simply by associating with them."
The captain-ranked noble drew his sword, perhaps because he was angry at everything that Joe had said, or perhaps because he still had to play the part of a faithful subordinate.
"I don't give a damn about what you people intend to do! I'll have you come with me no matter what!"
The soldiers hurriedly closed in their encirclement at their commander's signal. Without looking even the least bit flustered, Folnier glanced at Joe and said, "Joe, I'll leave it to you."
"Please leave everything to me."
Joe stepped up in front of Folnier this time. He opened his downcast eyes wide and looked over the enemy soldiers.
His emerald eyes suddenly began to change color……
Several dozen seconds later, Joe and his party left the room behind them and were running through the palace halls.
"You should've just defeated all of them,"
Folnier addressed her complaints to Joe as they ran. She continued,
"it would have been easy for you."
"Indeed. However, there's nothing to be gained by killing the likes of them."
"It's because the Grand General is kind," Shing said fervently after Joe.
Joe smiled before he knew what he was doing.
Shing had been trying to cover for him.
Folnier neither denied nor concurred and simply scowled as she increased her speed. She took the lead and lightly ran through the corridor.
However, they heard voices demanding them to identify themselves and the sound of a raging wave of footsteps before they reached the exit.
Joe calmly turned around and suddenly turned the palm his hand out against the wall after measuring the distance between the wall and his two companions by eye.
An enormous amount of light and dense magical energy gushed out from his hand and destroyed the wall with a thunderous roar. It resulted in a crooked hole that was large enough for people to pass through.
Amidst the thick cloud of dust, Joe called out to Folnier and Shing, who had stopped in their tracks.
"I've created a path. Let us go through here. ——There's no point in overstaying our welcome."
Folnier was only surprised for a brief moment. She soon replied, "I agree!" and was the first one to leap through the hole. Shing and Joe followed after her.
Their pursuers were taken by surprise and did not chase after them immediately.
However, it seemed, as one would expect, that the thunderous roar from the destruction of the wall had reverberated throughout the palace.
A great number of soldiers, so many, in fact, that one began to question where they had even come from, bustled out of the palace and began to chase after Folnier's party.
The three of them ran, somehow avoiding the soldiers until they were unable to go any further because there were too many enemies.
They stopped in the vast courtyard of the castle, the very same courtyard that Rain had unleashed his magic in a few hours prior, although Joe and the others had no way of knowing this.
They turned their backs to the palace they had just ran out of and squared off against the soldiers that had pursued them.
"Tch. What a pain, there are like two hundred of them?"
Folnier spat out, looking truly annoyed as she looked at the soldiers.
Joe and Shing stood with Folnier in between them and restrained the soldiers that had come after them. The enemy had drawn their swords and had encircled the three of them at a set distance.
The only direction that the soldiers did not approach from was behind them. That was because they were backed up against the palace walls.
"That's as far as you go!"
A different noble from before walked out from the crowd of soldiers. He continued,
"we're not going to kill you to anything. It'd be best if you quietly let yourselves be tied up and beg His Majesty for mercy."
"Insolent fool! How dare you speak to me that way! I'm still an empress, so hold your tongue!"
Folnier shot back without missing a beat.
The noble's face immediately flushed red, perhaps because he wasn't used to being scorned.
"……His Majesty is currently resting because he's not feeling well. But he still gave us his orders. His Majesty has decided that it was not necessary for him to meet with you and has told us to capture you instead. In other words, my words from before were not meant to be taken as a request!"
"And neither was mine, you bumbling idiot! To begin with, the reason that we visited with only the three of us is because we had the confidence to get away even if things ended up like this. Haven't you even considered that?"
What? the noble finally began to show his apprehensions.
Folnier looked at Joe out of the corner of her eye and asked, "sorry that I'm calling on you twice in a row, but you're up again."
"Understood. It wouldn't be impossible for us to cut through two hundred of them……but this way is much faster,"
he said as he moved in front of her without hesitation.
The soldiers began to stir at his firmly resolute words.
Only the nobleman with thin eyebrows remained cocksure.
"Hmph. Enough with your bluffs. As if there'd be multiple monsters like Rain! And you probably used up all of your magic with during your attack before,"
Instead of responding to every little detail, Joe simply spread out his arms in silence. His elegant, muscular body began to emit a faint light. He closed his eyes before they changed color like they had before.
From beside him, Folnier requested,
"Joe, bring out a dragon! I've yet to see one!"
It was only natural that she hadn't.
Aside from a smaller species of dragon called little dragons, proper ancient dragons did not approach places where people lived. They typically avoided humans. There were rare occasions where dragons attacked people to eat them, but those were the exceptions among exceptions.
Joe smiled wryly and answered, "understood," as he concentrated. ……He drew up an image of the strongest mythical beast that he had seem several times before.
Joe opened his eyes when the pathetic screaming began.
Enshrined in front of him was a creature that was at least fifteen meters long.
Its entire body was covered in hard scales and its tail was thick and long. The tail alone was several meters in length. Black thorn-like spikes stuck out in sporadic clumps at its back. A low growl……one that was reminiscent of distant thunder rang from the depths of this thick neck.
Joe turned to take a look at the dragon. The eyes resting on its large cranium were so red that they seemed to be boiling with rage.
He inspected the dragon's giant, dazzling eyes from up close.
"Yes. I've only seen one from a distance myself……but this is what it looked like."
It was of passable workmanship.
Joe smiled at Folnier, who was captivated like an excited child as she watched the dragon, and nodded at Shing, who was pressed flat against the wall, to signal that everything was all right before standing next to the dragon he had created.
He observed the soldiers who had begun to flee and scatter with ashen faces. He had thought that the nobleman would have been the first to run, but the latter was surprisingly courageous. Or, perhaps, he was simply holding on to his pride. He stopped falling back even as he continued to tremble and rebuked his men who had broken formation.
"Don't falterrr! This thing just appeared out of thin air! There was nothing there before! It's an illusion, a mere bluff!"
The stampede died down, possibly because the commander's shouting had taken effect. Or, it could have been because the soldiers were more afraid of the consequences they would later face for running away. Sunkwoll nobles were infamous for being merciless to their subordinates.
"L, look! You can't fool me! Your bluff won't work. Ha, hahaha!!"
"A bluff, is it……? I suppose you can call it that."
Joe did not deny the noble's claims.
After all, he technically wasn't wrong.
But——he had failed to understand a crucial point.
"You are correct in saying that this dragon is an illusion of my creation. However, if you are unable to believe that it's only an illusion even in the slightest……then you will die."
After Joe gave his warning, he turned to his illusion and ordered,
as though it was under his command.
The dragon roared so ferociously that the soldiers felt like their souls would leave their bodies and slowly began to move their way.
Each and every time its legs, covered in lustrous black scales, moved as it walked across the earth, the heavy pressure of the hard impact of its footsteps seemed to gorge into their lungs.
This was also a part of Joe's spell, of course. Both the sound and the vibrations were merely illusions.
The soldiers saw deep footprints left behind the dragon's wake, but they only saw this because they were entrapped within Joe's illusions. There were no actual footprints there.
But the soldiers did not know this. A third of the soldiers that had pursued Joe's group suddenly fell to their knees at the illusionary dragon's first roar. They looked at the approaching dragon with faces so pale they looked like the dead. They backed away while still on their knees, or on their behinds, as they tried to run away, perhaps because their bodies would not listen to them.
The dragon's second howl shook the atmosphere, and ferocious vibrations it caused reached through the soldier's very bodies (or so they thought).
"It, it's reaaaaaal!"
someone shrieked like they were coughing blood.
This was the final straw. The majority of the soldiers who had still stood their ground finally began screaming unintelligibly and were scrambling to escape. Even the soldiers who could not run crawled in an attempt to get as far away from the dragon as possible.
There were only a rare few who thought that they could face the strongest mythical beast and win. Dragons were even worshipped as gods in some areas. The soldiers had, intelligently enough, abandoned the idea of fighting it from the start.
However, only the noble from before remained stubborn. Even as he slowly but surely ran away, he aggressively continued to yell, "don't ruuuun, or you'll be punished for it later, you bastards!"
But even then, he made no move to step out and fight himself.
"Joe, shut that fool up! It makes me want to vomit when I see commanders who are only all talk!"
After Folnier said this, Shing furrowed his brows and said,
"indeed. The troops that he commands are something else,"
and sympathized with the soldiers.
"Then it cannot be helped. Though, I would have liked to settle things without having to kill."
Joe sighed and focused his consciousness on the illusionary dragon.
The dragon's mouth suddenly opened wide.
It sucked in the air with a loud roaring sound. Upon hearing the illusion, the noble, who had been unpleasantly stomping on the ground, turned around. He was about fifty meters or so away. Conveniently enough, there was no one around him. Everyone else had already fled. Having finally understood this, the noble opened his narrow eyes and looked around in a panic. He finally decided to turn tail and flee.
However, it was too late.
The dragon had achieved its objectives.
After letting loose a deafening howl, the illusionary dragon released its gigantic, crimson breath. The noble, who had instinctively turned to look at it, stopped in his tracks with a blank look on his face. The writhing orange flames swallowed him as he was and continued to extend forward. Joe had calculated the direction that the flames had been emitted from, so no one else was caught up in the blaze. The dragon's breath hit a few trees, but they remained completely unscathed.
The noble, who had fallen face-down, remained after the blinding breath attack had finally faded. Evidently, he did not believe that the dragon had simple been an "illusion" as he had claimed to. Though, that was generally the case.
"Then, shall we pull out?"
Joe looked to Folnier without putting out the dragon.
"Yeah. But, aren't you able to take over this castle all by yourself?"
Folnier asked in a teasing manner.
"Unfortunately, this consumes too much magic. Especially if I'm bringing out large-scale illusions like this. I cannot use this attack enough times for it to be of use during a siege. And, its ultimately just an illusion, so it won't damage the castle itself……. Besides, even if we managed to capture the castle, we wouldn't be able to hold it with just the three of us."
Folnier smiled suspiciously as Joe offered his honest insight. Joe had seen her smile like this before.
……In all of Joe's memories, nothing good have ever come from Folnier when she smiled like that.
And so, he braced himself a bit when she said,
"no, not with the three of use,"
and cheerfully continued,
"I've decided, Joe. Let's leave for now and come back again with a car."
"……Surely you're not…"
"I sure am."
Folnier stuck out her abundant chest and surveyed Galfort.
She placed a hand on her slender waist and sonorously declared,
"we, Chandrys, will have this kingdom for our taking!"
Joe took a long and hard look at Folnier. Then, just to make sure, he asked,
"are you serious?"
"How rude. I'm always serious."
"——Certainly, Safir is hardly a noteworthy opponent. However, that man is also here in this kingdom. ……Please don't forget that he——"
Joe pointed at the gigantic mythical beast he had produced and continued,
"once defeated the strongest of mythical beasts. He has accomplished the impossible. Aren't you taking Rain a little too lightly?"
"I know he did! That's why, in regards to Rain's and the other one——er~, that's right, Ralphus. I won't touch the territories they govern. My only enemy is Safir. Surely, you have no complaints about that."
Shing cut in, somewhat exasperated,
"are you trying to make Lord Rain and his crew yours, little by little, along with the rest of the country, Your Majesty?"
"Hahaha. You're pretty sharp, Shing. But yeah, I think it'd be nice if that happened. There's at least some room to negotiate. I'm not a stingy ruler. I'd gladly give a man of Rain's caliber a generous reward in return. I'd reward Ralphus accordingly as well, of course. I'd even be fine with giving that princess of theirs an allowance to live off of, too,"
Folnier said in a crisp voice.
……Evidently, she was dead serious.