Of course, Xenomyr stands atop a balcony with his arms raised high. His booming voice, which still manages to amaze me, echoes across the entire hall.
“O New Heroes! Now is the time to prove yourselves! You have been given the month to hone your skills and prepare for battle! Show those wretched Elves that they are making the wrong choice! Show our great county of Entrendei that you are capable of protecting the people! You have been granted the titles of Heroes! Now is the time where you live up to that name! Tonight! I send you forth, and I wish you all a safe journey! Make us proud!”
The cheers started. Some even from the Second Batch. I did not cheer. I wonder how much of that speech was the truth. I doubted every word that came out of that man’s mouth. Being in the vault earlier today, and training throughout the month had made me think. What really was the Church? What was their goal? How had they risen to power, and why were there so much followers? It seemed so wrong. The vault had so much riches and treasure stashed in there that it could bring wealth to the entire country and then some. How did the Church earn such wealth? Did they steal it all from the ruins of the Demon Territory? Was it a series of donations, much like Flavio’s oh so precious treasure? What happened to the King?
I’ve never questioned it extensively. Sure, I had my doubts, and they spiked when I read through the Demon’s documents, but none of that had mattered to me in the end. I was going to go home, and hopefully forget about my unfortunate misdeeds. In the end, whatever change I tried to make would be rendered useless. The fools that were my classmates could wither away with whatever the Church had planned for them. I was so close to actually getting home tonight, but the implications of the Church’s actions decided to haunt me now, of all times.
Say I was to go home. What would become of the Second Batch? They are an obviously uncared for, untrained, mishappen bunch. They would go to battle against Elves who had probably done nothing wrong. Would they survive? Would the Elves hunt them all down to extinction? Were the Elves misunderstood just like the Demons were? Argh! Why is this appearing all in my head now?! The anxiousness from performing this operation was clearly affecting my thought process.
I decided to make a compromise with myself. I would speak to Daigo as briefly as possible, in order to warn him of the dangers of the Church, and then execute my plan. Daigo was the immediate leader of the Second Batch, not mentioning the fact that he had a class of Hero. Surely, he could convince the rest of the summoned to be careful and follow his way. I could only hope that he could believe me. I wasn’t exactly sociable with many of my peers.
Xenomyr started to exit the room as Bors projected his voice, ordering everyone to line up. I needed to make this quick. I wouldn’t be able to follow Xenomyr to his quarters if I was slow. I had no idea where he was located, and I was completely relying on tailing him. I scooted towards Daigo.
“Ren? Whaddya want? Ain’tcha supposed ta be in line?
“Th-that doesn’t matter r-right now just l-listen.”
“Y-yes. I-I’ve done some, uh, research, and uh, the Ch-church is up to no good. The El-elves are innocent. J-just thought y-you should know that. A-as the leader of us all.”
Of course, my voice was shaky and quiet. And I was making some grand assumptions here, but I was entirely convinced that the Church was going to do something unsavory. Xenomyr had some vile motives, I could feel it. I hope I didn’t sound like a conspiracy theorist.
“…Yeah, yeah. Whateva ya say.”
Daigo, you fool. It is completely understandable that you do not believe me, but it was… frustrating. I didn’t want it to frustrate me, but it did. This should have been a simple matter, but it seems like I dug myself into this hole with my lack of communication. Daigo was so entirely brick-headed it hurt. Even if I didn’t tell you, Daigo, I’m pretty sure that something is very obviously wrong here. Why do you think only some people cheered for Xenomyr’s speech? Did you not comprehend that we weren’t directly trained? Some people here are going to take one step on the battlefield and perish the next moment! I sighed to myself and spoke back.
“J-just be careful…”
I did what I could. My guilty conscience wasn’t fully removed, but it was good enough. If Daigo had even an ounce of brain in his body, he would do something. I switched my gaze back to Xenomyr, and slowly crawled across the edges of the hall. The assembled military force, as well as the Second Batch was still getting into formation. Just what I needed to cover me as I moved around. As soon as Xemomyr reached the doors to the hall, I activated my first set of [Mana Smoke Bombs].
Everyone stopped. There was a squeal or two. There was many people questioning the sound they just heard. I activated more bombs.
Everyone started to move again. There was panic, there was screaming. I heard Bors’ voice yell out some instructions that no one was following. Some of the Second Batch darted from the room. Some soldiers did the same. I almost tripped on one of the toddlers from the summoned as I made my way to the doors and quickly followed Xenomyr and his two escorts. They moved quickly throughout the dark night. I heard some angry sentences from the old twig himself.
“Who dares intrude into our castle?! We were to send the New Heroes to battle! They dare defy the Goddess?! They dare defy me?! Lead me to my quarters, NOW!”
I’ve never seen the man so angry. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any emotions besides the ones he displays while preaching atop his stupid balconies. To make sure I wouldn’t be noticed, I activated, once again, [Cat’s Paws] and [Illusionary Presence]. They were currently my best skills for sneaking, though I was sure that I would get a headache after using them for the third time today, and for extended periods. As another safety measure, I activated [Night Vision]. It’s exactly as it sounds. The skill allows me to see better at night. I needed to use this in case Xenomyr had any spies or guards lurking around.
Xenomyr was walking briskly among the various stone paths. His guards, despite being the ones who were supposed to be leading him, were struggling to keep up. What the heck? The man always looked to be a frail and shaky figure, but was he actually well-built this entire time? Was he acting the part of an old man to male him seem weak? If that’s the case, then I have to admit, it’s a good strategy.
As I was stalking behind his entourage, I could hear the yells and screams of the castle residents around us. I made sure to periodically activate the bombs, so that the chaos would be extended for as long as possible. I swear every time a set of them blew up, Xenomyr started to walk a little bit faster. I was matching his stressed state. I kept looking around, eyeing for anything that might seem out of place. I had to walk carefully yet move with a speed that matched his. No mess-ups were allowed, for I would perish at the slightest mistake. Sure, I had some skills up my sleeve, but a Rogue is suited for secret killings. A one-on-one fight won’t cut it. When I was in my original body, Fujimoto had challenged me to a duel to show off his power as a Hero. Of course, the class forced me to accept, and I was up against his holy longsword with two daggers and a shortsword. I lost spectacularly. I wasn’t about to repeat that here.
Suddenly Xenomyr stopped, and I immediately halted my steps. I heard various people from his direction, and lots of shuffling.
“Go, go, go! Get to the bunkers! Trust the Church military to protect us while we are under attack!”
I could only assume it was an evacuation. People looked like they were carrying their entire lives into those bunkers. …Wait hold on, the bombs weren’t supposed to be that serious. It was just to give people a little scare. It was simply a distraction for me to get away. Guys, calm down, they’re harmless.
“Mommy? Mommy, where are you?”
A little girl cried for her mother.
I felt a twang in my heart. Now I was seriously guilty about this. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I was selfish, wasn’t I? Doing everything just to get home. But didn’t I deserve it? Wasn’t it right for me to leave? I didn’t want to be here, and I was dragged into this place, twice! Look, it makes sense for me to go home. I’m causing all this panic, surely this world had no uses for a fiend like me. Let me be like a stain to be wiped of a table. It was simple. These smoke bombs and these terrified people were only temporary. It was a one-time thing. I just needed to leave, and this was necessary that’s all. I refocused myself for the millionth time this month. Always with these annoying, unnecessary thoughts. Always distracting me. They would all be gone when I got home, surely.
The evacuators now behind us, we started to cross a bridge. I knew where we were going. We had arrived at the grandest cathedral in Castle Grawden. It was called Celestine’s Cathedral. I’ve only visited this place once, back when I was part of the First Heroes. It was a brief visit, and only to do an errand I was tasked with, so I never got a good look at it. It was isolated on the other side of a chasm, hence the long, stone bridge leading to it. The outside sported a faded gold paint, serving as a contrast to the white walls of the castle just behind us. It had seven towers with bells at each one, with the biggest one being near the front. Their ringing could be heard every 7th day of the week. It was headache inducing if you got too close.
Speaking of headaches, I was starting to get one. I decided to undo my skills and hide near the entrance as Xenomyr addressed his guards.
“Alright, leave me! Help those at the castle evacuate! I have business to attend to!”
Business? Xenomyr, what type of business could you possibly have at this hour? Whatever his deal may be, I was filled with relief. I wouldn’t have to take out any guards in order to reach the man himself. He scurried inside, and I followed soon after.
The inside of the Cathedral had an entirely different atmosphere than the craziness spreading around Castle Grawden. The screams and booms were completely blocked out by the thick, stone walls of the place. The first room was simply a gathering room. There was a fountain gushing water, which I assumed was for blessings. There were grand hallways to the left and right, but Xenomyr ignored them as he pushed open the giant wooden doors, each decorated with markings of gold. I quietly slipped in as they were closing. The actual place in which religious gatherings were held was huge. It was long and tall, with a fair amount of width to it. There were eight sets pews, 4 on each side, with an altar towards the farthest edge of the room. It was raised upon a small set of stairs, and it sported all the assumed necessities to hold a gathering. Though, something that was interesting to me was the sheer amount of space between the first row of pews and the altar. There was an open space, and it had a circle with markings on the floor. I could only assume it was a religious symbol. Quite possibly the most notable thing was the grand tapestry behind the altar. It showcased what I assumed to be the Goddess. The tapestry depicted her as a tall and beautiful figure. Fairest skin, and white hair, with traces of velvet. Her eyes were laced with gold and she had on flowing white garments. It displayed a commonly talked about event, where the Goddess, in the night, shined her light upon the people below her.
As I slowly walked a fair distance behind Xenomyr, I noticed that the only light source was candles. It was enough to see where everything was, but only because there was something special about them. The flames were golden and had obvious sparkles flow from its licks. They shined much brighter than any candle I’ve ever seen. Xenomyr made his way behind the altar as I placed myself on the circle in the center of the open space. He grabbed a lever against the wall and yanked it down, causing the ceiling to creak open, and the moonlight to shine directly on me. What was this about? No matter. Now was the time for confrontation. I readied myself and took a deep breath.
“Xenomyr! I have come to talk with you!”
Perfect. No shakiness, no weakness. My voice sounded firm. The twig of a man turned towards me.
“…So, you have come to me yourself, Hero. The Goddess must have blessed me on this cursed night.”
Uh, what? Was he expecting me or something? I didn’t give myself away when I was snooping around, did I? What did the Goddess have to do with this? That response threw me off a bit.
“Wh-what do you mean? I came to discuss something of importance. I don’t mean to participate in some religious ceremony.”
“Of course, of course… Speak then, Hero.”
…His vibe was throwing me off. He didn’t seem like his preachy self, nor did he even remotely question anything I was doing, like how I had known he was here, or why I had to come to him specifically.
“Xenomyr, this body isn’t mine. I-I don’t know if you recognize these clothes, but these are Ren’s clothes. Or, rather, my clothes. When you sent me home, I woke up back here looking like this. You can fix this, right?”
He granted me a smile that made me uncomfortable.
“Please, no “Miss”, I’ve heard it too much. Just call me Ren.”
“Well then, Ren, if you are truly who you claim to be, I’m going to ask you some questions. Answer them.”
Now he’s quizzing me? Why?
“Give me the names of the five strongest First Heroes, first name, then last, along with their classes.”
“…Toshio Fujimoto, class of Hero. Ayaka Hisoka, class of Arch-Mage. Then there’s…”
I listed the other three, who fell far below those two, even if they were powerful in their own right.
“Excellent. Now, how long did it take for the First Heroes to slay the Demon King?”
“About three years.”
“Good. What month did Lord Fujimoto, along with his… intelligent peers accept promotions to become nobles?”
“The fourth month.”
“And its name?”
I said the name
He smiled yet another unsettling smile. This was starting to get tedious, what was the point here?
“Okay then, Ren, what month were you supposedly sent home?”
“The eighth, four months after the subjugation of the Demon King.”
“Good. Now, what is the name of our Goddess, who granted you another chance at your miserable life?”
I froze. Did I hear that correctly?
“Allow me to explain! I’ll make sure you stay put.”
Suddenly the circle underneath me started glowing, and golden chains sprouted from the ground, forcing me into a position on my knees and rooting me to the ground. The chains bound me by my arms and legs. What the hell was going on?! I let my guard down, what did this old man do? You mean to tell me he packed some magic of his own? Or was it this damn circle? It was a sigil, wasn’t it?
“Our Goddess spoke to me on that day, Ren. She sent me a message, and as her vassal, I, and only I could carry out her task. Ren! Ren, she said to me, kill that child, sacrifice his useless body so that his soul may blossom in a new one! She instructed me to use this free soul in a forged body, one that would represent the Goddess herself! She would gift me with a physical portion of her. Do you hear that, Ren? Your body was to be as if she was in the flesh. The flesh! She could bring her unending benevolence to more than just the ingrates that were Demons, and the fools that are the Elves! I would carry out every single aspect of the Goddesses will! People would answer to me! They would answer to me because they would know that I am the will of the Goddess! YOU, REN! You were to make this happen. You would be the Goddess I showed to people. You were perfect! You have the body to become worshipped, do you see?!”
“THIS ISN’T MY BODY!”
I couldn’t take in what he had just spilled from his mouth. I felt tears falling from my face. I couldn’t accept it. He had killed me? On purpose? This Church, this man, was so delusional that they used the excuse of a Goddess to get rid of me and then reuse me as a pawn? I wouldn’t put it past them to manipulate people to their will, but to actively mess with someone’s life, especially with one who helped them achieve their rancid goals? What were there morals? They had none!
“You are in denial, Ren! By the Goddess, I shouldn’t even call you that anymore! You were to be Lumie! I sacrificed, my daughter, the only person I had to the Goddess, and she gifted my dear Lumie back with you! But your damned soul wasn’t cleansed when I removed your body. With the Goddess, I recreated Lumie just for you to mess it up! Do you realize that?”
“I don’t care about your daughter, or your Goddess, or the Heroes, or Entrendei, or Gresia, or anything about this place, fix this you insane bastard! Give me back my body! Send me home!”
“LUMIE! Your “body” that you speak of is gone! I burned it away, and it was nothing but a charred husk when I fed it to the dogs!”
I’m not Lumie, dammit! I could barely see through my silent tears. I wanted, no, I needed to break free of these chains and I had to go up and kill him. He was a stain upon this world, upon existence itself. He was rotten at the core, and his mouth spewed poison for every drawling word he dared to preach at me. Xenomyr snapped his fingers and the chains burned me, so much so that I had to repress a scream. My sword arm was especially affected. The chains vanished, and I struggled to get up. Xenomyr walked up right in front of me and lifted my face to the sky.
“Look at the moon, Lumie. The Goddess’ holy light is shining upon you at this very moment. Right now, you are basking in her glory! She is granting you the divine right to live in a body that will support her! You are no longer Ren; your body is nothing but the past. Submit to the will of the Goddess!”
If I wasn’t in this situation right now, I would think the moon is pretty. I would think how it was nice to see something pretty after being stuck in this castle for a month. I would think it would be a nice sendoff to a land where I could look at my own moon, the one I was familiar with. I would sit on the porch with my little sister, and my mom would slice us watermelon while my dad was reading a book. We’d just enjoy the night sky, and then maybe head inside to watch a movie together. It was such a simple life, why did it come to this? Why was I stuck in a cursed body, crafted by this man to see his daughter again? It sickened me that I looked like any offspring he could ever produce. I would feel sympathy for the loss of his daughter if he hadn’t sacrificed her himself.
Of all people, it had to be me? I wasn’t especially powerful, nor was my class one that would represent anything the Goddess had to offer. Was it simply because I wanted to leave? Because the other Heroes were more powerful, and the Church couldn’t afford to lose them? It boiled my blood just thinking about it. This damn Goddess! Silver hair, huh? I was to be her patron? Follow her every order? Was I just to be used as a pawn to lure in the people and then die in some battle so the Church can use my death as an excuse to fight some other race?
I realized how stupid I was. I should have known that I had no choice. I should have looked at last time and seen that the Church had control of everything they wanted to. No one would believe me if I repeated anything Xenomyr just said to me. I was stuck in a deadlock, hopeless. With these thoughts stirring in my mind, I resolved to do the only thing I could. Run. I needed to leave. By myself this time. Before I could attempt anything, Xenomyr spoke again.
“Lumie! Pay attention! Wipe these pathetic tears from your face and rejoice! Tonight, you will be granted divine power. The Goddess herself will ensure that you will be successful. Look into the moon!”
He grabbed my face and forcibly kept my eyes open, forcing me to look at the moon. I managed to close my left eye. I tried to remove his arm, but his grip was surprisingly strong. I desperately tried to claw him off me, but my singed arms didn’t help.
“Do not resist! Accept your fate, Lumie!”
My eye was burning, and all I could see at this point was flashes of light. It alternated between a pale blue light, and a gold one. My headache grew exponentially. A beam that held these two colors blasted into my body, and I felt pain all over. I couldn’t help but scream this time.
I felt myself fall to the floor. Xenomyr looked at me with disgust.
“Lumie! Why did you close your other eye? You only have a portion of what you could have gotten! You dare ignore the Goddess’ blessing? Always with these problems, the entire month! First, I find out that your soul retains aspects of your previous consciousness, and I have to break it! You should have been obedient! Then I learn that you provide no cooperation with your fellow Heroes, and that you practice alone. Now, you show resistance against something so holy and grand, it angers me so! You were the one who threatened the castle tonight, weren’t you? Just so you can talk to me. INSOLENCE! Foolish child, you have no choice. You are our Hero!”
Despite the pain searing through my entire body, and the new energy that pulsed through my right eye, I stood up and looked up at him directly. So, he kept watch on me the entire time. He knew what I was doing and how I was acting and what I was planning. I was doomed from the start. This Church never provided a chance for me, did they? I felt my anger and sorrow and regret and stupidity and desire to just go home and be normal again flow through me, and I gave him a calm, simple answer.
I could see the anger distorting his face.
“What did you say, girl?!”
I channeled some of my confidence and clearly stated my thoughts right at him. I doubt he would care, but I needed to resolve something within myself.
“I refuse. I refuse to be some pawn that dances around fulfilling your every wish. I refuse to go and slaughter more innocent beings like I have before. I refuse to be your patron, and I refuse to be Lumie. I refuse to house a body that isn’t mine. I refuse to accept whatever “gift” was just forced into me, and I refuse to be the hero you want me to be.”
His face contorted further. My hands were shaking, and even that was shooting pain through my arms, but I ignored it and drew my shortsword. I needed to make a point.
“Most of all, I refuse to live a life that isn’t mine.”
I then thrusted my sword into Xenomyr’s stomach, causing his face to now show pain with his anger.
That wound wouldn’t be enough to kill him, but it would leave a mark. I tried to inflict further damage, but he had cast some sort of magical barrier around him. I could harm him no farther in this state, so I left him to collapse on the ground and made my retreat. I ran across the bridge and through the castle. I ran around the corners and past the halls. I pushed past people evacuating from bombs that didn’t do anything. I made it to the front, panting heavily, trembling. Pushing through my tired state, I scaled the wall and jumped into the moat.
Swimming in the moat I declared a rebirth for myself. I would break any connections I ever had with the Church. I would save the Elves, in an attempt to make up for my mistake with the Demons. I would save the Second Batch, even though I couldn’t stand them. Then, I would save myself. I don’t know why I tried to rely on another person. More times than not, they never provided the way I needed to. One could never truly trust others. It would be better for me to go solo. I would become Ren again, I swore. Then, I would go home. At this point, it was the only thing driving me to keep on. So I continued moving.
I managed to reach the other side of the moat, despite my injuries. I channeled [Light Feet] and then ran some more. I ran like I always had. From people, from monsters, from my problems, from reality. To escape those once again, I ran. And I did so until I collapsed in the middle of the nearest forest from pain and exhaustion.