71 The new request

「Empyrean Mercenaries Camp Site – Day 29th Month of Dark」

-No. I'm afraid I don't know anything about it.

Lusine Isra replies to the young merchant as she puts the object he showed her back on his desk. The object is a piece of metal with the shape of a semicircle, as small as a harmless pebble on the side of the road. When the merchant Theodoric asked her - a rouge assassin - "Can this piece of metal kill people?", she thought he was joking and had prepared some punishment for wasting her time, but she put that on hold the moment Theodoric explained about the origin of this object: It was found inside the skull of the deceased Paladin Origen, back when they examined his body before cleaning it for his funeral. Just a piece of metal, but due to the lack of detail surrounding Origen's final moments, Theodoric decided to keep it for further investigation.

-It seems to be a projectile. I have heard about Lunae assassins employing strange tools for their jobs, I thought you would know more about them.

Theodoric replies behind his working desk, with both his hands by his chin.

-There is an exotic Lunae technique that uses small balls made of steel as deadly projectile. They use them by focusing their strength of their fingers and shoot them with velocity stronger than an arrow. I don't know any further, but the object you showed me is not the same one used in that technique. Its shape makes it hard to launch with fingers alone. I don't think it is something used by Lunae assassin. Have you try asking that witch in your group about it?

The blonde merchant sighs as he replies.

-Already did before I have to ask you. She didn't know either. Anna can tell this is not something created by magic, but an alchemical constructed item instead. Still, Anna told me this is something even an amateur alchemist can create, so in the end, how it was made does not matter, but rather how it was used.

-Too bad I don't have an answer that can satisfy you. My specialty is killing people, not giving people sound counseling. The next time you want to call me, better prepare a name you want to erase firsthand.

The pony-tail girl with covered face replies. While the mystery surrounding Origen's death is an important problem to solve, in the end it interests her none. Her job won't change, no matter the situation.

-Does it hurt if you stop being rigid even for a moment? You haven't change at all ever since the first time I met you. Even after you and your pals went rouge, you still keep your loyalty to the principles of the place you left behind.

A smile appears on Theo's lips, completely unbaffled to his conversation partner being an ex-professional assassin hailed from a kingdom full of them.

-An assassin without principles is nothing more than a simple murderer, rouge or not. Principles were what shaped our country as it is today. It's hard for an outsider like you to understand.

-I may know nothing about assassins or killing arts, but I do know a few things about principles. My Master drilled them through my head back when I was still a trainee merchant, after all. Always stay true to your words, keep your promises, negotiate fair and clear, sell quality merchandise, do not be greedy, predict things for the long run…staying true to your principles is a way to maintain reputation, and with reputation comes business deals…were what he used to teach me whether I like it or not, back when he was still alive.

The woman assassin has a longing look as she replies to the merchant's words.

-Did your Master save three dying assassins on the road out of principle?

-Not out of principle, but out of kindness. It mattered not to him whether you were assassins or peasants. He might be an grumpy old man, but he wasn't the type who would fret about saving someone in need. He did not seek to exploit you three as assassins under his employ, you proposed that to him as a way to pay your debt, just like how you wanted to pay your debt to him with your service for me as proxy.

Lusine starts to give Theodoric a glaring look.

-And you exploited us for all of our worth. Maybe instead of principles, he should have teach you good manners to make you bearable enough to converse with.

-Maybe you could teach me instead, not out of your assassin principles, but out of kindness.

Theodoric smiles, but the woman assassin realizes his intention and simply replies with a staring look.

-If you don't have any tasks left for me then I shall take my leave.

Without waiting for Theodoric's replies, Lusine exits through a hole in the tent behind his bookcase instead of the main entrance guarded by his men. While he has already used to this, Theodoric can't help but feel annoyed with how three deadly assassins can have access to his tent with wild abandon, and he can't even tell his closest friends about it.

-She's still hard to deal with as always…

Theodoric mutters to himself, it's been quite sometimes since the first time he met them during his apprenticeship as a merchant under his Master. He feels like their relationship hasn't change at all. All he wants is to make that deadly assassin capable to feel some hesitation before striking him down in case Theodoric ends up on her bad side. The current Lusine surely won't take more than a second to slit his throat should the need arise. If Theodoric can solve this quick, certainly the nightly sleep would feel better for him.

'That aside…'

Theodoric picks the strange piece of metal and examines it. The more he finds out about it, the more questions arise. Investigating this won't change the fact that Origen is dead, but the young merchant feels like the secret hidden within the origin of this insignificant piece of metal is far more important than stockpiling supplies or recruiting men for the next big war. The man had his life force drained, both his arms cut off, an explosion right at his torso, but this single piece of metal was the one thing the doctors predicted to be the cause of his death.

-Just…what in the world are you?

The merchant mutters to himself before realizing the futility of asking questions with no answers. He puts the piece of metal back to a metal box nearby before resuming to work on the piles of paperwork by his desk. Even though Theodoric is no fighter, he is nonetheless a soldier on his own battlefield. Papers detailing the procedures for coffee trading, reply letters from the Mercenary Guild about new recruits, scout reports regarding the situation on the frontline, supplies and weapons order contracts…and they never end, whenever he finishes one, three more will follow. Nevertheless, while Theodoric takes no joy in doing paperwork, he's not the one shedding their blood for his agenda. The last thing he should do is complaining about working under the roof of his warm tent while sitting comfortably on his chair.

-Now that's one thing done.

Theodoric signs the letter he has just finished and puts it into an envelope, he then proceeds to pour hot wax onto the envelope and stamps it with his own seal. It's a reply letter for his agents in the Suntos continent, the people he relies on to maintain his trade deals with the farmers at the Southern continent. Now that two major group of bandits in the area had been eliminated, trade can return to normal for merchants like him, all thanks to the effort of his friends Fino and Elisha.

However…there is another problem…

-Can I come in?

A female voice comes from outside of his tent's entrance. Seeing he has no reason to refuse, Theodoric calmly replies.

-Please do.

As invited by the owner, the girl from outside enters the tent. She's a girl with boyish short blonde hair and blue eyes, wearing a sleeveless combat sweater and tight brown pant. She may try to look like a boy, but her slender figure betrays her expectation, even though she went and picked a broadsword as big as her as the weapon strapped on her back.

-Any good news, Aisha?

Theodoric replies to the freelance mercenary who occasionally does works for him. While many mercenaries prefer a stable income through joining a company, there isn't a lack of sellswords who prefer the freedom to pick the job they want, and thus freelancers were born, Aisha is one of them, though the girl is practically a member of the Empyrean in all but name.

To reply Theodoric's question, Aisha simply shakes her head as she angrily sits to a chair nearby Theodoric's desk.

-She still hasn't decided to come out of her tent. She refused any food or drink and didn't want anyone to come inside. It's strange for Elisha to be this way. Now I'm starting to worry about her.

Suddenly, the boyish girl Aisha grabs Theodoric by his collar. However, the young merchant doesn't react negatively even if his assailant is glaring at him with eyes full of daggers.

-Did you do something you would regret, Theo?

Despite the hostile intention hidden within her grip, Theodoric, or Theo as she calls him, simply puts his hand onto hers and calms her down. Seeing the honesty behind his eyes and gesture, Aisha backs down without a fuss and returns to her seat, which is something Theo appreciates, considering he does not know how the female assassin hiding behind his tent would react if things do get out of hand.

-She has been like that ever since her return two days ago, from the mission I gave her and Fino.

Theo starts filling in the details regarding their trip to Suntos continent, about the bandit extermination job. According to Fino's report, the mission was a success…technically. The infamous Rudo Bandits was destroyed, but the situation proved to be far more complex than Theo thought. In the end, the two of them made it back home, but the village of the horse nomads were destroyed, along with half their population, not to mention it left Elisha a mental scar that is too easy for Theo to assume what happened.

After hearing what Theo has to say, the boyish freelancer silently groans before sighing. Theo keeps his silence, deferring the role of reopening the conversation to Aisha.

-You could have asked me to join them! Depending only on those two to take on a whole bandit gang is a bit too much, don't you think?

-They are my friends, I trust their abilities. Beside, you were on a job at the time, making it impossible to ask you.

Aisha suddenly slams her fist on Theo's desk as she replies.

-If you asked, I would gladly quit that job to join them! Three are better than two, don't you think!?

-If you quit your job midway, it would ruin your reputation, and as a mercenary, freelance or not, you know how important reputation is, don't you?

Aisha finds herself unable to answer, and reluctantly back down.

-I personally want you to be part of our company, but as long as you continue to be a freelancer in order to complete your goal, then I can't do anything that risk the role you're playing. Sending the two of them was the only choice I could make. The aftermath of the siege left my men weakened and wounded, yet the amount of work only increases in numbers, the recruits from the Mercenary Guild are nowhere to be seen thanks to loads of red tape, and the bandit activities in Suntos hampered the trade routes and damaged one of our major financial sources. I couldn't afford anything aside from sending two of my best to help sustain ourselves.

-I get it, I get it! You planned for everything. But I guess even you couldn't foresee the sudden things that might happen in a simple bandit extermination job.

Theo falls deep in thought. Aisha is right, he simply thought it would be an easy job, mere bandits couldn't contest over his trump card, a hero in flesh and blood with the support of a Maiden. But even that turned out to be more complicated than what he thought it would turn out, not to mention the sudden appearance of a dragon in flesh and blood.

-Not everything. If I can foresee anything, I should have learn to become a fortune teller instead.

There are times Theo wish he could be a fortune teller and read the future, it would help him a lot to avert the bad things happening to his friends. But in the end, that is merely a wish unfulfilled. He failed to prevent his friend Elisha from shutting herself thanks to the aftermath of the mission he gave her. While they may tell him it's not his fault, subconsciously Theo knows it only happened due to them following his order.

-So, now that Elisha is acting like this, what are you intending to do?

-I guess only time will tell. If you and Fino failed then I don't know who can. We can't force her in this matter.

Theo replies. Aisha sighs as she stands up from her chair, seeing the futileness of the conversation.

-The next time I come back, you better make her feel fine again!

With that as a farewell, Aisha walks out of the tent looking pissed. Theo can't help but let out a silent sigh. If he has to keep up with hard to deal with women all the time, maybe he'll go insane before the day he gets killed by an enemy's blade. Still, above all else, Theo himself wants Elisha's smile to return as soon as possible even without Aisha's threat. The beastgirl's smile is the one thing that keeps their morale from collapsing to the stress of the battlefield, and it will certainly sadden him and everyone else to see it hidden behind her tent.

-Still, what can I do? Tear down her tent?

Theo mutters to himself before he resumes his work. However, the distress puts a dent onto his productivity, and by the time the night arrives, Theo only manages to finish half of his paperwork. He goes out of his tent for a brief walk under the night, and of course, to relief himself of his bodily needs as well.

-Well, another all-nighter then.

After visiting the kitchen and asks the company's cook to send him his dinner by near midnight, Theo snatches away a loaf of bread as emergency ration and heads back to his tent. The guards guarding his tents have already changed their shift with another batch. Seems like there's nothing noteworthy to report, Theo thanks the two man responsible for his safety before heading inside his own tent.

To his surprise, Theo finds himself not alone in his abode. There is a girl standing in the middle of his tent, waiting for his arrival. His childhood friend Elisha, the catgirl with short black-hair, the Maiden in white robe. Yet the bright and cheerful girl he knows is standing there waiting for him in silent. Under the dim light of the crystals illuminating the tent, Theo sees that there are eye bags under her eyes. She also looks thinner than usual, something Theo is not surprised to see considering how she rejected food and drink during the time she shut herself in. But to express his worries right now isn't something he should do right now.

-You look like you could really use some sleep.

And surprisingly, it works. Elisha gives her friend a silent smile, enough to tell Theo he's on the right track.

-Don't just stand there, have a seat. Are you thirsty? Wait a bit, I'll make something.

Hearing his words, Elisha silently sits down the chair for guest while Theo heads to a small table by his bookcase. Atop of it is a strange device constructed through alchemy, a one of a kind in the world. Theo pours water into it from a bottle nearby, and he puts some black beans stored neatly inside a box on to the top of the device. After activating it, hot steam rises from the device thanks to the newly boiled water, and when mixed with grinded beans into powder, the mix starts to produce drops of dark liquid filled with strange aroma, both sweet and bitter.

That is coffee, as Theo's Master once called it. And now, it is his favorite drink, enough for him to make a side living through trading coffee beans.

-Come to think of it. All the visitors I have today were women. Somehow I am both glad and scared.

Theo says out loud, making idle chat while waiting for his coffee to finish.

-Your men trust you. I'm sure they know you're not fooling around.

-If only men are as simple as you said they are.

Before the talk gets to the awkward territory, the device finishes making coffee. Theo quickly prepares two cups and pours the drink inside them. Afterward, he opens a small pot nearby and drops two cubes of sugar inside one cup before giving it to Elisha and takes the remaining cup for himself.

-Careful, it's still hot.

Despite his warning, the catgirl has no trouble handling the hot cup of coffee. Theo returns to the chair behind his desk with his coffee in hand. The loaf of bread still sit waiting on his desk, and without a moment of thinking, Theo tears it in half and gives it to the catgirl while he takes the other.

-Thank you, Theo.

The following moments is a simple silence, with the two of them eating their bland, cold bread while filling their throat with sips of hot black coffee. Despite that, the two childhood friends seem to enjoy the moment without any fuss. Elisha is eating tiny bits of bread, still trying to get used to the taste of food again, while Theo eats his bread quick without any care of taste, but the same is not applied to his treasured coffee.

-You used have a sweet tooth back when we were children, yet after you returned from your training with your Master, somehow you unexpectedly took a liking to this bitter drink. That really surprised me and Fino.

Under the support of food and drink, Elisha seems to be a bit more energetic, regaining glimpses of her former self. With a simple smile on his face, Theo replies.

-Things just happened. And while I still like sweets, after everything, I'm starting to understand why my Master liked this stuff so much. It also helps sustain me to pull some all-nighters for mountains of paperwork, like tonight.

Elisha seems amused and almost makes a comeback before she realizes she herself also hasn't had any sleep for the past few days, giving her no right to lecture Theo on his unhealthy habit. The two fall silent again to enjoy their drink.

-How are things…at the Aherin tribe?

The mood turns a bit sour after Elisha asks her question. Theo thinks it may still be a painful memory for her, but if she has the courage to ask, then he finds no reason not to answer.

-The winter is almost over, a few other tribes have returned from the South. They are helping the Aherin rebuild their tribe. The progress is slow, but with time, the Aherin tribe will return to how it used to be. The mental scar however maybe a different matter, but judging from what I saw during our time with our fallen friend Gust, I think their people are strong, they will persist through this ordeal.

A faint smile appears on Elisha's lips. She seems to have calm down after hearing Theo's words. The young merchant is glad his friend has gotten better, however, a single doubt remains in his mind. There is something more to this, or else Elisha won't sneak into his tent by night just for a cup of coffee.

-I got a message from an emissary of the Light God Church.

Theo remains silent, knowing his hunch is right. Elisha is still a liaison to the church, even if she is currently a member of his mercenary company. Is this about what happened at Suntos? Theo thinks the Church has its own intelligence network, so something like this may not escape their ears. They may want him to return Elisha back to their protection. After all, she is still a Maiden of Heloise, and they simply aren't willing to let her be endangered on his whim for his company's good. Theo finds his hands having cold sweat from the pure speculation in his head, but the truth solely lies within Elisha's words, not in his mind.

-It is about a request from the Holy Herald himself. I'm sure you still remember him.

-Not as the current Holy Herald, but simply as Reverend Jeremiel. I was surprised when the old man who always yelled at us everytime we came back after playing became the one sitting on the highest seat of Luminis's hierarchy. When he of all people became the Holy Herald, I used to think it was impossible for the Church to run out of incompetent priests to elect.

Come to think of it, the sole reason why Elisha is allowed to join his mercenary band is because of the ex-Reverend Jeremiel's approval. Theo understands him well enough to know he would actually force Elisha to come back after something like what happened at Suntos. If Jeremiel really asked, then Theo has no reason to refuse him, for Elisha's own good.

-Yes, the Church wasn't the most pleasant place in the past, but it was a dark time for all the Heaven Realm thanks to Demon King Bartolo's invasion. When Reverend Jeremiel became the Holy Herald, the reforms he made had started to regain the faith of people in the Church. And certainly, he cared not only for the good of the Church, but for the children of Lielos as well. I guess that is why His Holiness asked of me for this task…

Theo is a bit relieved when he heard the word "task". It means Elisha can still stay for the time being, but a task directly from the Holy Herald himself must be extremely important. Theo continues to listen to what Elisha has to say.

-His Holiness deems the war efforts in the Demon Realm vital for the future of the Heaven Realm as a whole. The loss of Origen is a huge blow to the Church and Luminis, but nonetheless that does not make him want to back down from fighting. The eight Kings of the Nine Kingdoms are still in argument about how many forces they need to send to the frontlines, and without a unified voice, the Church can't send more soldiers lest it complicates matters even more. However, the soldiers in the frontlines are always in need of healers, so there are going to be a batch of trained priests and priestesses coming to this place as the Church's contribution. And what His Holiness wants…is for me to help and escort them until they reach the frontlines.

Theo starts to understand the reason behind the Herald's action. Having priests and priestess helping out will not only strengthen the forces of the Alliance, but also solidifying faith of the common people to the church, and improving morales since many soldiers here are believers. Not to mention the Church houses a plethora of Light magic techniques, which are effective to deal with the wickedness of the demon kind. Picking Elisha is also a good decision, with Origen gone, she is the most prominent member of the Church in the frontline. Her presence will put the newly arrived priests and priestesses at ease, while her experience will help them survive and adapt to life on the frontline. However…

-Is there a problem? Do you have a reason to refuse?

Theo asks the catgirl. If Elisha is confident about this, she won't need to go to his place at night looking so conflicted.

-I can't tell you the details, even though I wanted to. The situation led to the siege of Melas made His Holiness afraid of the risk of information leak. What I can tell you…is that if I accept this request, I will do it as a member of the Church, not as a member of your company. The Church will handle the planning and preparation within their own circle. Even if I wanted to, I can't employ yours or Fino's help, and I know your hands are also tied, so I can't ask that of you.

-And? I know your hesitation must come from something else, not just this.

Elisha puts on a smile mixed with grief and sadness to reply her friend.

-It's just…I'm afraid and scared…

Suddenly, tears flow out from Elisha's eyes. She has yet to cry out loud, but it's clear that she's on the verge of collapsing just to cry to her heart's content. This catches Theo off guard, but he remains silent to listen to Elisha's words.

-You trusted me…with an important mission…Yet I failed you…I couldn't protect those people, and could only watch them die without being able to do anything…but…I was still saved, and for what reason but to witness my failure in all of its glory? Now, even the Holy Herald wanted to put the fate of his servants onto my hands…but…what if I fail them again? Just like how I failed the people of Aherin? I don't think I can handle…such an important responsibility…

Theo unconsciously stands up and approaches Elisha. And without thinking, the young merchant embraces the catgirl into his chest, covering the shorter girl under the care of his arms with his right hand on the back of her head.

-Cry all you want. I won't let anyone see you.

Elisha hesitates at first, but soon she finds herself unable to contain the flow of tears coming through her eyes. And she cries, cries with what little strength she regained from a piece of bread and a bit of bittersweet coffee. Cares not to be heard by the guards outside, Elisha cries into Theo's chest, wetting his shirt with her tears. His hands are warm, his fur coat is also warm, like a child's cradle, so comfortable, so peaceful. But eventually, Elisha has to return to her sense, to reality, not to continue to escape her duty. And so, Theo lets his arms go as Elisha wipes the remaining tears off her eyes.

-So embarrassing. I didn't even let Fino see me crying, yet you have been always by my side everytime I have the urge to cry.

-You are like the little sister I never had. This is the least I can do to you, Miss Crybaby.

Theo suddenly pinches Elisha's nose. The cat girl is annoyed at first, but soon after she finds herself smiling from Theo's playful attitude. She is glad she came to him for help, Theo has always been a good listener to the people in his company.

-But that doesn't change the future I must face. There is a good chance the demons may attack us during my escort, and if that moment comes, I will have to fight, and I may have to kill…

-Don't disturb yourself with thoughts like "I must be stronger, I must be able to destroy the enemy". You are not a warrior like Fino, you are our healer. Your compassion is your weapon, don't try to compare your strength with our warriors like that. You are fine the way you are, don't lose sight of yourself. If you find it hard to march on knowing you will have to kill, then refuse the Church's request and continue to be our healer. I'm sure the Holy Herald would understand.

Even after hearing Theo's words, Elisha still looks conflicted.

-That maybe is what I want at the bottom of my heart, but I can't just ignore this and pretend it's not my problem anymore. Especially with what happened to the Aherin tribe, I can't keep being ignorant and content with fighting through healing people's wounds when people still keep getting hurt and killed…

Theo sighs. If it comes down to this, then he has no reason to hold back.

-Then I won't be naïve for your sake anymore. If you are still willing to go and help them, and if an enemy shows up before you, do not hesitate, kill them. Don't let your compassion hold you back, if you are willing to step on to the battlefield then it's your job and duty to kill, or else, you would only letting yourself meaninglessly killed.

Elisha feels like Theo's aura changed. The current man before her isn't the big brother willing to lend his chest to a crying sister, but a stern, cold, and calculated mercenary leader who sells death as a merchandise. No matter the time they spent, Elisha still hasn't be able to get used to this side of him, to her, he has always been a caring big brother, and that makes her forget his job, his role and his ambition.

-Even so…

-Don't make any excuse. If you do this, don't expect your hands to stay clean afterward. To get to where we are today, even I and Fino have to do things we would deeply regret, but if we want to make our actions to have meaning and impact, we can't be half-hearted about it and expect things would go smoothly if we stay true to our belief and moral. Fino may still have some hope and kindness left inside him, but mine may have already dried out at this point. If you ask me for my honest advice, I would simply tell you to shut up, stop whining, kill your enemy and don't think anything meaningful about it. It's simply what we call 'normal' in this forsaken shithole of a continent.

Says Theo, the same man who willingly ordered his assassins to set a makeshift hospital on fire just so he could gain an edge on the negotiation table, the same man who rose to where he is today on the blood of innocent farmers rebelling against an unjust king, and made his kind-hearted friend directly performed the deed. Without any honeyed words masking his face, Theodoric is simply a despicable human being, unworthy of being near anyone with proper moral, and he understands that, he experienced that, and he wants to teach the girl he think as his sister the lesson he had from all of those experiences.

Elisha seems scared of this facet of Theo she isn't used to. But her compassion wins over her fear, whatever he says, she knows it's for her old good. Elisha unconsciously reaches her hand toward Theo's face, but he catches it midway, and simply keeps holding her hand.

-The battlefield is a gray place. Nobody can define what is "Right" and "Wrong" once the bloodshed starts. But if there is something I still firmly believe in that terrible place, it is: taking a life to protect another is not a sin. Elisha, don't hesitate to kill if you want to protect someone. I'm sure Lielos would forgive you if you take a life to protect another. If not, all of his children would already face divine retribution a long time ago, ha ha ha.

Theo ends his words with an ironic laugh, but Elisha simply nods. Suddenly, the catgirl hugs him tight, surprising even the man who was bold enough to hug her minutes prior. After feeling enough of his warmth, Elisha lets him go, with a smile on her face mixed with a blush.

-Thank you, Theo. I understand now. I will make preparation by tonight and leave next morning. It's a shame I can't say goodbye to everyone though, but if everybody is busy with their job then it can't be helped.

-Why say goodbye? It's not like you'll work for the Church forever afterward. You are a member of my Empyrean Mercenaries, if the Church wants you back, I won't give you up without a fight!

Theo's reply manages to get a giggle out of the catgirl. Nonetheless, Elisha knows she has overstayed her welcome, Theo has his paperwork to do and she also has to make preparation for the sortie tomorrow morning.

-I will return, please wait for me, Theo.

-I wish you all the luck in the world, Elisha.

The two exchange smile before Elisha finally bids her farewell and walks out of Theo's tent. With his last guest of the night out of sight, silence returns to the merchant's abode. Yet he still has yet to resume his paperwork. Theo glares at the top of his tent. The cloth has blocked away the entrance to the sky and the night, without any chance to see the Moon and the stars through its thickness. Nonetheless, it fails to make Theo try in hope to reach a God who is no longer around in this world.

-Dear God…Dear Lielos, if you can still hear my voice then please…protect your child Elisha in my stead.