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"I swear the d.a.m.n mutt was around here!" Li recognized this as Faye's voice, but without any of the careful and polite reservation she had before when she was in the presence of strangers. "He simply vanished from my heat sense. That simply does not happen."
"Perhaps you are tired, Faye." Launcelot's voice. "Come, look at how you sweat. You have exhausted your strength."
"Because we're in a forest. I cannot just set everything ablaze. I have to concentrate my flames, and you know how much that drains me." A pause, as if she was sighing. "The woods really do not suit me, nor do they suit Stella. Her explosions are not fine-tuned for closed s.p.a.ces like this. Can you not get quests somewhere else? Use your n.o.ble connections."
"I am next in line to inherit the t.i.tle of Lakely, and the Lakelies have guarded Riviera for generations! We must ensure these forests are clear of monsters for the good of the city."
Launcelot burst into Li's view, his gauntlet on his chest to emphasize his commitment to his duties. Faye stood next to him, wearing a scowl as ever, while the other two party members, both women, trailed behind, looking timidly behind them.
"You-," Faye said as she stared at Li, her eyes widening through her scowl.
Li blinked as well. Faye looked entirely different from before. The woman did not stand out much aside from her scowl beforehand, standing a little on the taller side but with average features and nondescript, shoulder-length brown hair that could have belonged to almost any girl.
But now, there was no mistaking she was not ordinary. Her hair had turned a shining orange, becoming immaterial and flickering like fire. In fact, they were pure fire, emanating heat that pulsed with distorted waves. Her entire body was covered in flames, and on a closer look, it was possible to tell that these flames came from her body – her body was the fire itself, her normally tanned skin turned into a bright orange that fluttered in the wind.
After a second or two of surprise pa.s.sed between Li and Faye, though 90% of the surprise came from Faye, the remaining 10% expressed in Li slightly raising a brow, the adventurer instantly reverted to her original form. The fires around her body fizzled away, her hair settling back into wiry brown strands and her skin regaining its healthy tan.
Launcelot stepped in front of Faye, almost pushing her behind him. He moved quickly, his large frame surprisingly agile. He laughed and smiled as he talked to Li, his armor clinking as he raised his arm into a wave.
"Good sir! It is truly the sun's blessing that you are well." Launcelot motioned to his body. "Look! I am unharmed, so I do apologize if I made you carry out elixirs for nought. And it is all thanks to this wondrous shield."
He banged his fist on the shield to make a point.
Li noticed that Faye had shrunk back to fall in line with the other two women in Launcelot's party, her normally forward demeanor thoroughly dampened. Launcelot acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened, but Li could tell by how the shielder looked at him that he wanted Li to follow along.
"Don't let that get you thinking you can back out of your contract now," said Li, deciding to oblige the man for now. He was sure he would not just let the matter pa.s.s by given time to talk.
"And the little dragon?" said Launcelot as he bent forward a little, looking at the wyrm sleeping in Li's arms. "Truly, has she grown a little?"
"She has," said Li. "A little alpha direwolf makes for a good meal, I can tell you that."
Launcelot snapped to attention. "The direwolf? It has been slain."
"You can thank her later." Li nodded towards the wyrm, and she squirmed in his arms, adjusting herself to a more comfortable position.
"Most certainly I will!" Launcelot gave a firm smile to the wyrm, the kind Li could imagine him giving to a fellow adventurer for fighting side by side with him against some monstrosity. A look of solid respect and appreciation. "If there is anything left of the wolf's carca.s.s, then take it to the guild. I will inform them that you have completed this hunt for us, so the reward is all yours."
"Sounds good." Li waited, looking at Launcelot. It was obvious the knight wanted to say more, that he was thinking of something to say by the way he nodded ever so slowly to himself. It was a very faint gesture, and, contrary to how loud and hotblooded he was, indicated that he could manage himself subtly or, though it was hard to imagine, lie with some skill.
"Ah yes," said Launcelot. He cast a quick glance to Iona, giving her a smiling nod before looking back to Li. "I am afraid I have a few trifling matters to discuss about our newly forged contract, may the sun bless it so. If you are heading back to your home, then perhaps we could discuss it there?"
"I have no objection to that." Li said to Iona, "Right?"
"Nothing to worry the good lady about," cut in Launcelot. "The night grows dark and I am sure she is tired."
"I do not tire-"objected Iona, but Li quickly cut her off.
"If it's just something minor, then I wouldn't want to keep you from getting a good night's sleep. We have a full day's work tomorrow, after all."
Iona took Li's word as final commands, and she grew silent, acquiescing to him.
"Wonderful!" Launcelot exclaimed. He quickly began to drive everyone to his pace, waving his party towards him as he made his way out the forest, his white cape fluttering behind him. "We shall escort you out the forest, and at the cottage, my party members will guide the good lady to her home for there are countless manner of ruffians of ill repute roving the streets of Riviera at this hour."
= = = = = =
Li and Launcelot stood across from other on rickety stools, the cottage's fireplace humming out gentle crackles between them. The wyrm slept on her side near the fire, craving its intense warmth. Beside her lay the alpha direwolf's skull, picked utterly clean to the point it almost shone. Old Thane slept in his room, the door firmly shut.
"I'm a.s.suming you didn't want to talk to me one on one just for a contract," said Li.
"Correct," said Launcelot, his gauntleted hands laid atop each other on his knee. "I simply wished to explain what you saw."
"I can put two and two together," said Li. "She has a power, right? The fiery one. She's a hero."
"Yes, that much is obvious."
"Come to think of it, your party members appear rather…weak? I can tell they aren't accomplished mages or rangers," said Li. He knew by a.n.a.lyzing their levels that where Launcelot was level 44, his party members did not break past 30. The disparity was large enough to the point where they should have been hindrances to the shielder. "All of them, not just the one with fire. Then the other two are also heroes?"
"Truly, nothing escapes your sight."
"I see." Li had never thought much of it before. He knew that this was not like Elden World where people could just type in general servers and find party members of a similar level to them. He figured Launcelot was simply making do with the people he had available.
But to have three heroes in his midst?
That was certainly quite interesting. Li had lived here long enough by now to know that heroes were quite rare. It was part of the reason why Jeanne was such a celebrity as well. Not only was she powerful, but she was also a hero, and the temples here taught that heroes were the pinnacle of humanity, evidence that they were special and above all other races.
"You will not ask more questions?" said Launcelot.
"I'm waiting for you to explain."
"Well, I suppose that it is upon me to do so." Launcelot shrugged and sighed. "My party consists entirely of heroes that I have met for I strive to protect them."
"From what? Heroes seem pretty well-liked all around. If I recall, it's even a crime to hurt them. What do you have to protect them against?"
"From…," Launcelot looked around nervously before he leaned in towards Li, his voice hushed. "I trust our words shall not escape this room?"
"You won't have to worry about that."
Launcelot looked at Li before nodding. "You have the look of an honest man, my friend. It does put my mind at ease." He coughed into his hand. "I protect them from the crown."
��The very crown that puts them on a pedestal?"
"That is well and true what the crown says, but reality is always colder than the ideal." Launcelot paused to collect himself. He smiled sadly. "It is so very strange that even now, I feel such fear to speak against the crown, against the rules, when I have been trampling them underfoot for a decade. What I am to speak about would be considered treason, and to hear of it may set danger upon you. Are you certain you wish to hear?"
Li almost scoffed at Launcelot. "When I say something, I mean it. Now go on, tell me."