Chapter 2: The Return
Gunshots filled the air along with shrieks born from the maws of vicious monsters.
The skies above the eastern part of the Bartfort barony were filled with slithering and undulating bodies as nightmares flitted about. Insectoids whose wings fluttered at such a rapid pace that they were almost invisible, barring the prismatic hue of the light reflecting off them, scoured the floating islands along their migration path for the sake of food. They would consume whatever was available before pushing on, leaving naught behind.
Gunfire sailed up to meet the encroaching horde from the land below. Some civilian men who’d taken up rifles, sheltered by half-cover provided by buildings, let fly bullets that tore through the sky and smashed into the chitinous shells. Viscous fluids burst from the holes punched into the bodies of those that were unable to avoid the shots.
The horde paid no mind to their ranks that fell, instead focusing on the presence of fresh meat that their mandibles could pry off the bones. They would have descended upon the militia had it not been for the soldiers of the barony, each equipped with an outdated but reliable set of powered armor that offered them superior protection along with assault rifles. Few as they were, those assembled focused on eliminating those that descended.
Then an Apex came crashing down, one that was on the larger end and standing almost two stories tall. Six thin legs supported its massive, elongated frame as its mandibles pulled apart to reveal rows of needle-like teeth. Sparks dances around it as bullets bounced off its harder exoskeleton as its hooked forelimbs unfurled and lashed out.
Metal screamed as the armored men caught in the attack were thrown about, bodies sent into a spiral and scattered. It was only thanks to the durability of their equipment that none of them had been split in half. But more than a few of their exosuits were sparking and twitching. Some of them were also groaning and slow to get back to their feet compared to others—injured no doubt.
“Fall back!” One of the armored men shouted with the crest of the Bartfort house emblazoned on the pauldrons of his exosuit, signifying he was one of their knights, as he extended his hand back towards a large boulder. A deep, dark violet swaddled his body and his veins bulged from beneath his skin as that same hue wrapped around the massive stone. Then he roared at the top of his lungs as he motioned forward, using his Telekinetic Septima to throw the boulder forward. “RRRAAAAAHHHH!!”
It smacked the creature in its upper body and there was an audible crunch as it twisted and staggered from the blow. Its legs moved in jittering motions as the exoskeleton around its chest and head were cracked, glimmering fluids seeping out. But it was still capable of fighting back, which it did by lunging for the Adept that had struck it, now panting in a half-crouch from the exertion of his power.
His suit’s propulsion system kicked in as he kicked off the ground, taking to hovering in the air. Limited flight was within the capabilities of the model but, compared to more modern ones, it could only be done for short bursts. So, while he still had time aloft, he fired down with his assault rifle upon the creature from above as the bullets pelted the cracked exoskeleton and left fissures to spread as they chipped away at the sensitive bits beneath the shell.
The monster grew aggravated by his presence and then used its wings to gain air before swatting him down. The sound of wrenching metal as his exosuit bore the brunt of the impact at the expense of its durability rang out over his scream of pain. Scraps of steel flew in every direction as delicate equipment beneath the protective covering was damaged, breaking the armor’s power-frame and leaving it heavy on his body. The knight barely managed to get upright as the towering insectoid closed in with its serrated arms ready to tear him apart.
That was when a red-and-silver blur slammed into the monster like a ballista bolt, throwing it off balance and sending it to the ground where it scuttled around to get upright. At the same time, the projectile slid to a stop next to the barely standing knight. It was then he saw it was a young man donning a sleeker model of powered armor that was white around the torso and pauldrons, while the gauntlets and grieves were red, and a metallic sphere floated around him.
Then suddenly more metal spheres soared from the backside beneath what looked to be wings. They rocketed towards the larger monster as it was getting on its feet, but rather than crash into it they surrounded it in a sort of rigid pattern and light ran between them. Abruptly, the ones closest to the creature began shooting tongues of electricity into it.
An ear-splitting screech rang out as the insectoid writhed beneath the invasive bolts that shot into it, moving around erratically as it tried to escape. But the orbs remained constant with it, a set rotation that never changed even as it matched its movements. On the ground, in the air, they stayed locked on long enough for its body to collapse before bursting into particles of mana before they floated around the armored warrior, who glanced back at him as the visor covering his face then split apart to reveal it to be the son of his Lord.
“Master Leon?” The aged knight struggled to stand properly. “When did you get back!?”
“Nicks and Father are on the way!” Keeping his eyes on the remaining monsters, he aimed a sidearm towards the distant ones and pulled the trigger. Bolts of light cut through the air, piercing their bodies with ease and scattering them into motes. “I’ll clean up here, so fall back with the others and get your injuries tended to!”
“To leave the battlefield to you would be—”
Leon cut him off. “That suit’s power-frame isn’t working because of that fall so you can barely move in that thing as is! At the very least take cover and fire from a distance until Father gets here. I’ll cull their numbers until then!”
And what that, the jet wings on his suit flared outwards and the visor closed over his helmet once more. Leon shot into the air and left the eldest knight serving his family behind without waiting for a response. Normally, he would be more respectful considering all the man had done for him over the last few years, but as he told his father and brother before he left them behind, they didn’t have time with the situation being this urgent.
It was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
“Wow, this is the largest wave of monsters I’ve seen since we left the Tower.” The A.I. known as Lola noted through the earpiece Leon wore as she floated next to him. Her artificial consciousness was currently occupying an Automated Combat Support Pod, with her processors currently alternating between controlling the P-Bits while also powering the exosuit he was using. “Is it always this bad, or is it one of those ‘game events’ you mentioned?”
“The first wave of the migration is always rough,” Leon responded as he fired shots from the sidearm that she had reproduced for him to use based on research from one of the Glaives. It was a photon emitter that fired out laser bolts that weren’t particularly strong or intense, but they were an endless source of ammunition and were effective enough against the current threat. “And don’t think I didn’t hear those air quotes!”
It had been roughly two or so months since they had departed the Tower and made their way back to the territory that belonged to Leon’s father. During that time, Lola had been gathering data thanks in part to her advanced capabilities. It seemed that since the time of the war a lot of the advanced technology that had been present in her era had been lost.
Part of it was no doubt due to the sheer number of deaths caused by the calamity, with fewer of those who had the technical skills surviving. But the shifting of the environment had caused a great deal of loss as well. Not that it was completely backward, as some of the development and adaptation of certain technologies were fairly advanced all things considered, but the Tower easily eclipsed even the most advanced technology she had seen so far.
On the other hand, Leon claimed it was thanks to bad world-building since the setting was originally that of a video game that was a mix between a visual novel and platformer. He claimed to have been reborn in this world after dying in his previous life in Japan, which based on the cross-references that she made, seemed to have been set some time in the past before the first known Adepts. She was tempted to consider him delusional to a degree, though the scans she had done showed he hadn’t suffered brain damage or a chemical imbalance that would warrant it.
Besides, some of his information was scarily accurate in ways it shouldn’t be without some form of foreknowledge. And it wasn’t like there weren’t individuals with precognition in the past given that espers and mediums were recorded throughout history as being attuned to some of the upper layers of the Lifewave that granted them their extrasensory abilities. Granted, Leon himself wasn’t attuned to any of those layers so he shouldn’t have access to any of those capabilities.
It was something of a mystery she had a passing interest in solving, but she wasn’t exactly in a rush. Besides, even if he was slightly cuckoo, he was nice enough while they were traveling, and her directive was still to help Humans like him.
Plus, it was still better than being stuck in the Tower with no one to talk to.
“My bad,” she apologized as Leon landed on the ground hard, allowing the shock absorbers within that part of the suit to store the kinetic energy and convert it into additional electrical energy within the spare battery packs that her Master developed in the past called ‘Bullits’. “Anyway, the White Tiger is in tip-top shape, so we can go all out.”
The suit that Leon had found in the ruins had belonged to her Master, and because it was both ill-suited for the current environment and something she wanted to preserve, Lola had offered to instead make him a new one that was more suitable based on the information she gathered during their visit to the more civilized parts of the kingdom when he went to sell off the Glaive and register his findings with the Guild.
Of course, Lola wasn’t willing to risk the Tower being found by Adepts that might decide to scavenge it for loot. So, they had to mask the information to a degree by claiming a small island that they had found with the sensors in the Smilodon was the original location. Leon didn’t particularly care about what happened to it afterwards since neither he nor his family had the funds to upkeep or develop an island, so offering it up basically stopped him from getting taxed on it. He was sure that once the Royal Family scoured it for any other traces of lost technology, they would just give it to some noble as a vacation home.
But with the time between the offer and getting the Azure Glaive through the proper channels, Lola had managed to scan the more recent models of the powered armor used by the nobility to fight more efficiently. She used them as a template for his new suit—albeit much better designed and integrated with her own technology to compensate for his lack of Septima, including those devised from research done on two of the Glaives she had brought along the way.
She had called it the White Tiger, which Leon noticed seemed to be a theme when it comes to her naming convention. Or maybe something she picked up from her original creator. He didn’t exactly mind, so long as it worked. “Can we target multiple enemies this time?”
“Just line ‘em up and I’ll zap ‘em good!”
There was an attachment to his suit that could use his brainwaves to operate the P-Bits. But Leon hadn’t had enough training to do that while also operating the suit’s flight system. That was why she was filling in her former role as a Combat Support Pod by configuring them into the subroutine that could reproduce the effects of the Azure Striker Septima by using the pix stored within them, which the P-Bits managed by arranging themselves into different formations. In this case, half were used to create an inner layer that generated the electrical field, while the outer layer condensed them into bolts that could be directed outwards.
Leon took to the air, expending one of the charges within the storage packs to increase the output of the jets and took flight. The Bullit Dash’s sudden acceleration was more than he was used to, but the suit was accommodating enough that it didn’t overwhelm him. He lined up behind the swarm that tried to go further inland. “Do it!”
Lances of lightning shot forward, the constrained current piercing through the exoskeletons of the insectoids as the electricity shocked them from the inside out. The violent discharge dispersed those caught in the swarm. And with their deaths their bodies broke apart into motes that dissipated into the invisible mana permeating the atmosphere as they passed though until none were left. “This EX-Weapon is really effective on ‘em, huh?”
“It’s convenient,” Leon admitted, hovering in the air as the discharge ceased and taking stock of situation as the EX-Weapon began to recharge. Lola had tried to explain how it worked to him, but the most he could understand was that due to her A.S. Drive it would eventually replenish itself. “Still, they shouldn’t have gotten this close. I’d bet this is Zola’s idea on getting even.”
“You think she had something to do with the monsters?”
“No, but she knows when her family are supposed to have their men here since any sign of instability scares away merchants needed to support the island. All she would have to do was pass on a message and tell them to arrive a bit later than usual due to some complication. That way any deaths or injuries or damages were just unfortunate rather than her breaking the terms of the marriage contract, allowing her to be a spiteful pain in the ass and get away with it.”
The Bartfort Household were a Barony, but they were a poor one that only had this singular floating island since they had by chance met the requirements when it came to military power, wealth, and political influence that some auditor on behalf of the Kingdom decided that was good enough. The wealth came from the fact that they owned land that was capable of generating some measure of income and a population to match, the political influence came from the fact that they were previously a Baronet family until their grandfather’s generation and thus had enough generations of effort to merit it, and the military power came because of the knight families they had under their banner.
Higher ranks meant more obligations, and with it more problems. They owned land and because of that they could generate wealth. But land on the frontier was notorious for being either the sites of conflicts with neighboring regions, routinely pillaged by pirates, or close enough to the migratory paths of monsters that they were routinely attacked.
In the past, they could afford to simply let the monsters munch down whatever was on this side of the mountains and kill the strays that lingered afterwards. That was because they didn’t need the extra land to be used to generate income before becoming a Barony. But because they owed more to the Crown after receiving an increase in their rank, they had to develop and make use of that section of land, which meant they had to actively deal with the swarms and had to increase their military power—weapons, airships, exosuits, and Adepts capable of dealing with these things.
Weapons had to be bought since they lacked the means to manufacture them on the island. Airships grew progressively more expensive depending on the construction and capabilities. And powered armor required constant maintenance and upkeeping. Those were a pain to constantly deal with, but they weren’t the most expensive asset.
It was the Adepts themselves who were the most valuable resource when it came to military power and the rarest. Anyone who had a reasonably powerful Septima could easily get themselves into a Knight position anywhere, even if they were an unranked Commoner. And if your power was useful, you could even get adopted into the Sixth Rank or above. Since that was the case, why waste your talent here in the outskirts where you’d have to risk your life against monsters for whatever a poor Baron could give you?
Most of the people who lived on their territory weren’t gifted with powerful Septima. The knights in their service weren’t above the norm either save for a few. And there were fewer of them now than in their grandfather’s time. So, whether they liked it or not, they needed at least a few more combat-capable Adepts among their ranks.
That was why Balcus agreed to marry Zola even though he had been courting Luce at the time. It had been a bad year and they lost a lot of good people, including Luce’s father and brothers, making her the last of the Roheisa line who had been serving their family even before their grandfather’s time. Scum or not, Zola’s Household were a Fifth Rank Viscount Household and provided knights and soldiers of their own when the swarms came every year as part of their contractual military service. And being tied to them meant that the Bartforts had enough status that they could take out a large enough loan to afford the equipment their people needed to survive.
So, when she made the offer from on-high, what choice did their father have but to accept? Leon didn’t blame him for it. No one could when he did it for their people. It was his duty as a noble after all, and it proved that he truly cared for the people under his rule.
“Zola’s the type who enjoys having power over others because she’s in a higher rank,” Leon continued. “Father put up with all her demands except when it came to me, and she used that opportunity to make our family suffer in poverty. She probably couldn’t wait to see him broken from having paid so much and still had to throw me out, only I came back with a pending ennoblement from higher up to shove in her face.”
Zola could ‘tolerate’ her husband having illegitimate children with a mistress. But having a Minos share the same family name was something she didn’t have to put up with because of the way things worked here. That was why once he was officially recognized as a Minos due to lacking a septima by the average age and not a late bloomer, she demanded a tribute from them that wasn’t counted towards the loan he had to take out with their family, which already had a predatory high interest rate attached. Add that in with the taxes that had to be paid to the Crown, and they were dirt poor while still having obligations that came with their rank.
Leon recalled days when his father starved himself, so his children remained fed. The shame on his mother’s face as she had to explain why Jenna couldn’t have even a single dress like the ones Merce always wore when she visited. He couldn’t even hate Jenna when she finally asked why the rest of them had to suffer because he had to be born broken, nor how Finley never spoke to him more than necessary afterwards.
It was undeniable that they had suffered. Not just because he had been born a Minos. But because despite that they still acknowledged him as one of their family. They were suffering for the price for being decent human beings.
That was why Leon had to pay them all back.
“Leon, I’m picking up a big one closing in,” Lola chimed in, which grabbed his attention. His visor received a visual feed of an even larger monstrosity than the one they’d killed a bit ago, traveling in the center of the main swarm. It resembled more of a dragonfly with a massive head and compound eyes that size of small airships, four transparent wings that fluttered so quickly that the rest of its smaller counterparts kept their distance around it lest they be blown away. “How do you want to deal with it?”
“We’ll get rid of it before it can cause any damage ourselves,” Leon declared before darted towards the ground and landing with a stomp next to one of their knights. After informing him of the impending attack and that he would deal with it, he shot off before they could say otherwise or attempt to follow him.
The jets accelerated at full speed as one of the Bullits was expended in order to rocket the duo towards the incoming swarm while they were still in the distance above the forests outside of the village. The tracks of land were left as both a windbreak that shielded the farms and buildings from the cold winds during the winter and provided breeding grounds so that the wildlife population wouldn’t decline, since that was one of their primary means of feeding themselves. It was the best place to confront them.
The design of the suit prevented it from breaking under the strain of the g-forces, allowing it to achieve acceleration surpassing the existing models of armors. However, the battery packs themselves only had a limited charge, so the initial acceleration would peter out after a few seconds. But with plenty of surfaces to bounce off, like the upper branches of a hearty tree, he could refill the expended cartridge before he accelerated once more. Using a string of consecutive Bullit Dashes allowed them to get within range of the swarm well before they could advance closer to the village. “Take care of the bits, Lola!”
“OK!” The P-Bits arranged themselves into formation and lightning began to pool before being woven through the bits and launched forward. Streaking bolts lanced into the horde ahead of him, ripping through their ranks and creating an opening for him to approach the Swarm Leader. Unlike the small fries who were instantly killed by the voltage as it devoured them from the inside out, its glossy exoskeleton was far more durable as the electric streamers wormed over its body.
Its compound eyes reflected the red and silver glint of their armor as they closed in and it chittered aggressively.
“We got its attention now!” Lola chimed in as the bits ceased their discharge while it darted forward, attempting to follow its predatory instincts to snap up the fast-moving prey approaching its mouth with its mandibles. Leon twisted his body for snap-roll that shot them just beneath its underside as the jaws clamped shut. As he passed beneath it, he slammed the barrel of the gun against its thorax so that the light emitter marked it with a luminous ‘X’ before burning a charge to Bullit Dash as he pulled away to the right, avoiding the lash of its tail as he reoriented himself. “That was awesome!”
“It’s not over yet,” Leon pointed out as he opened fire with his blaster. Leaving aside how well the suit controlled thanks to the neural readers beneath the helmet, pulling that off that snap-roll would have put far more of a strain on his body than he could handle without her suit compensating. Even now he began flying backward as he held down the trigger, sending a constant barrage of laser shots that homed in on the Swarm Leader as it gave chase, waiting for the EX-Weapon to recharge so he could do more than chip damage.
The monstrous insectoid chittered violently as it tried to dodge. But no matter how it moved, it was pelted by the superheated bolts that scoured its exoskeleton where it had been marked with every hit. It might not have been doing a lot of damage, but enough of the shots would eventually melt through its chitinous hide. Not that the monster was content to sit there and take it as it shrieked and then cracked its abdomen like a whip in their direction.
“I’m putting up the Flashshield!” Lola said as the motion released what looked to be spines from the terminal end of its abdomen. They cut through the air like spears, covering a wider area to skewer him out of the sky, only to be rebuffed as the bits began circling him and wove together an electrified field. The protective shell lasted until the bombardment ceased before flying to the marked target and entering the lightning-generation formation once more. “Now for the counterattack! Stellar Spark!”
With the P-Bits locked on the Swarm Leader was bombarded by lightning. Trapped as the outer bits served to funnel the electricity inwards while the inner bits directed the concentrated charge into its body. It jerked around in unsettling motions as it tried to escape only for the bits to match its movements until the weapon energy was drained and the mark itself faded.
“I don’t think it’s got a lot of fight left in it,” Lola said as the bits returned, her A.S. Drive funneling into the energy partition dedicated to the EX-Weapon system to begin recharging it. “A little more time and I’ll have something strong enough to finish it ready to go!”
Leon was about to ask what she had in mind when he noticed those massive compound eyes locked onto them were starting to glow with an unearthly light. Then the insectoid released an ear-splitting screech that rippled out with such force the sound waves rattled the very trees. Its translucent wings began to beat even faster, no longer merely being used for flight but to generate harsh winds.
Is it trying to knock us away? Leon thought as the wind buffered the pair to the point where the normal propulsion was barely able to keep them from being blown away. Then he noticed that its tail appendage was aimed towards them and decided to burn a Bullit to have the jets propel him to the side.
It proved to be the right call as one of the spines from before speared through where they had been at speeds that were far faster than before. More followed afterwards, spine after spine fired towards them at speeds that would punch through a normal exosuit with ease, reminding him of just how much he hated bullet hell segments. “Lola!”
The P-Bits encircled him and deflected the incoming spines that he couldn’t avoid with the Flashshield, each one entering the radius of the protective field charred by the electrical nature as they were repulsed. It wasn’t ideal since it wore down the energy partitioned to the EX-Weapon, so Leon focused on avoiding them as much as he could while chipping away at its exoskeleton by free-aiming his gun. The bombardment was then followed up by the Swarm Leader rocketing itself forward as a last-ditch attempt when it became clear that the spines weren’t sufficient.
It shot forward like a missile with its mandibles opened wide. The Flashshield couldn’t tank that kind of hit with that kind of mass behind it and would have split Leon in half if he didn’t avoid it. He burned another Bullit and rocketed upwards at the last minute, leaving it to pass beneath them as its wings finally ceased to glow once its desperation attack failed.
Now was the time to finish it. “End it, Lola!”
“Shred Storm!” The P-Bits surrounding them began to glow as they quickened their rotation before suddenly sweeping out with the same speed that was normally reserved for the Bullit Dash. In a flash, the Swarm Leader was torn asunder by what appeared to be glowing comets that left behind a red tail in their wake like blood from the claws of a tiger that ripped through the air itself. It chittered weakly as its wings abruptly ceased their beating and it plummeted down to the trees below.
And as soon as it hit the ground, its corporeal form burst into countless motes of light that slowly winked out to mark its death.
“Aw, yeah! A perfect finish!” Lola cheered excitedly as they hovered in the air.
“Closer than I’d like at a few moments, but we make a good team,” Leon admitted freely before turning back in the direction of the village. “Let’s head back and clean up.”
“Sure thing, Partner!”
It was evening before the things were settled and the first wave was culled.
Leon himself sat on a tree stump closer to the outskirts of the village where most of the soldiers and knights were stationed. A wet cloth was hanging over his head and covering his eyes to block out the amber light of the setting sun as he cooled down, his helmet retracted with only the headset affixed to his dark hair remaining. Lola was slotted into a compartment in the suit with the rest of the P-Bits and running diagnostics and reviewing the combat log for future improvements.
He sat there and listened to the various men that voiced relief that the initial wave had been culled, anguish from the injuries sustained, or concern at the lack of support they’d received this time. That was when a deluge of water smacked him abruptly, drenching him to the point where he ended up tasting the salt in it. He coughed as he tore off the rag now clinging to his face and spat out the excess saltwater. “Was that necessary, Nicks?!”
His older brother, Nicks, stood ahead of him in a similar model of exosuit that the knights wore. Their family coat of arms was emblazoned on the back and larger than the others normally on the shoulders to indicate he was a member of the household and thus a higher rank. And next to him were two spheres of water that undulated as they hovered in the air.
Nicks, Jenna, Colin, and Finley all had control over generating liquids within their family as their Septima. Nicks generated saltwater, which was pretty bad for farming and hitting monsters in the face with them didn’t exactly do much in terms of damage. Colin’s was inconsistent since he was so young, and his attempts seemed to add some kind of impurity into the water that they weren’t sure of. Jenna could produce freshwater, which made her useful when it came to keeping the farmland healthy even if she hated it. Finley… well, she kept to herself mostly but seemed to be in the same boat as Jenna, though he noted that the water she produced tended to be colder.
Nicks gave Leon a stern glare before they shot forward and smacked him twice more for good measure. “You flew off ahead of us and then went off on your own to deal with the swarm. Just because you got back after playing Adventurer for a few months doesn’t mean you can do that. The only reason I’m not doing worse is because you didn’t get yourself injured.”
“If I hadn’t then someone could have died because Zola decided to be more of a bitch than usual,” Leon said, justifying breaking ahead to deal with the threats as he shook his head to get the water out. “Speaking of which, let me guess—engine trouble, right?”
Nicks’ frown at Leon turned into a glower. Not directed at his brother, but to the topic at hand. “Yeah, ‘engine trouble’ they said while claiming they would be another week late. Bastards.”
The first wave was always the worst, but smaller waves tended to follow the migration pattern. It was a problem that they had to put up with since the species of monsters themselves came from further out beyond a more turbulent area. Those tended to be more manageable since they didn’t have a Swarm Leader guiding them, but every injured or dead man made life harder. That week was likely meant to give them time to stew in the aftermath of what they probably expected to be a far more devastating encounter, arriving before the second wave so they were reminded of just how invaluable Zola’s grace was.
“It could have been much worse,” Nicks continued, eyes rolling over the White Tiger suit as water rolled down it. “And no one else can use that suit, right?”
“You’ve heard how Lost Items tend to be at times,” Leon said. “I’m lucky it didn’t require a specific Septima to operate, but the moment I put it on it registered me as the user and won’t let anyone else use it.”
“Probably for the best then,” his brother settled on with a shrug. “At least we can have your old armor issued to someone else since you’ve got that one now. Just try not to break it. If that armor really is a Lost Item along with that ship, then chances are once it breaks it can’t be easily fixed.”
Leon was a bit upset about having to lie, but that was simply how it had to be for now. Lola could repair or even make another suit with resources and time. But while she might accept that Adepts were the majority without wanting to genocide them en masse, that didn’t mean she was eager to pump them out wholesale. Besides, she was the one powering the suit with her personal A.S. Drive, which was responsible for most of its capabilities. Trying to power two of them at once could overheat the engine.
“Anyway, once I’ve officially gotten my ennoblement title, I’ll be able to handle things here while you’re at the Academy,” Leon told him. He already had the letter explaining that he was guaranteed Ninth Rank—Knighthood within the hierarchy of nobility in the Kingdom.
There were twelve ranks in the Holfort Kingdom, three of which were impossible to attain unless you were royalty. The lowest two at Eighth and Ninth Rank were both classified as being Knights, but there was an unspoken distinction between them. The Ninth Rank could be given out as a Title by even regional lords like their father, but while it conferred recognition for merit it could also be considered an Honorary Title since the person it was bestowed upon didn’t have to carry out duties seriously and even non-combatants could obtain it so they could be called a member of the nobility.
Eighth Rank were Royal Knights that had real authority and were expected to behave as such. The Royal Family recognized them with a ceremony and even paid them higher compensation and a pension along with several other benefits. However, to be recognized could take a decade of service or more and the title wasn’t inheritable.
Only Seventh Rank, a Baronet or Baroness, and above were inheritable. Just getting to that rank typically required a lifetime of service, or a decent chunk of land in their name. Most of the nobles never actually went further to receive the rank of a Baron because of the wealth disparity and lack of land available. Not that the Crown couldn’t point at a baronetcy with a high enough population and say that was good enough if they needed to place a higher tax on someone.
“Not really looking forward to going back there,” Nicks admitted. “The classes Dad wants me to take are boring and the things are so expensive that I have to spend my free time in Dungeon or working part-time. He keeps telling me I should try to make decent connections as well, but that’s easier said than done considering all things.”
“Sucks for you,” Leon told him with a grin. He honestly didn’t want to go to the Royal Academy, knowing the mess that the next three years would bring. Only the firstborn sons and girls from Sixth Rank and higher were required to go, and they all got shunted into Special Education courses separate from those below. For the men, it was because they were set to inherit land holdings and needed the education, while women were expected to be able to handle the duties of their spouses if they were away during a conflict or died—which was disturbingly more common than ideal.
Nicks was the second son of the Bartfort Household, but he was the illegitimate son since Zola was the legal wife of their father and had her son ahead of him. He was a spare heir, so he had to go to gain a general education. But Rutart was first in line to inherit the title of Baron once their father passed it along.
Mind you if something ‘happened’ to Rutart then Nicks would be the one to obtain everything. But considering Zola kept him at her family estate and oversaw his rearing, that wasn’t likely to happen. The fact that their father’s demesne would fall into the hands of someone who never lifted a finger to defend their home didn’t sit well with them, but nothing could be done about it.
Their father had at least ensured that Nicks would be kept on as a vassal knight. He would inherit the land that their mother’s family owned since she was the last surviving member and passed it on to him. Since most of the other knight families and soldiers recognized him as their father’s child, they wouldn’t cause problems and would remain loyal so he could deal with the affairs on the island while Rutart stayed on the continent.
The same couldn’t be said for Leon, who Zola wanted to have banished and failed to recognize. That was the reason Leon had to jump through hoops to get the Ninth Rank, since having the title bestowed upon him by his father could be challenged by Zola’s family. Being from a Viscount Family that was married to the Bartforts and a higher rank, they could easily revoke it or use it as leverage against them. So being an independent, if honorary, Knight that was bestowed the title by the Crown was sufficient since no one barring a Duke or Duchess would even question or challenge it.
Since their barony was originally founded by accepting independent knights, they could easily set him up as a household knight. He wouldn’t have land, but he would still live with his family and do everything he already was. He would set out with Lola to help her gather data as promised, but for someone who didn’t have grand ambitions, things were good enough for him.
So naturally, things didn’t go that smoothly when the messenger arrived a few days later with an offer from the Crown he couldn’t refuse.
[—Several Days Later—]
“The Royal Family wants me to attend the Academy as a Scholarship Student!?”
Leon had been out and getting in some target practice when his younger brother had come to tell him that they had a guest for him from the Capital. He had expected it to be a courier to deliver the ennoblement of Ninth Rank, marking him as a Knight. He hadn’t expected the courier to deliver a missive from the Queen herself.
“In light of your accomplishments at such a young age as an Adventurer, the Royal Family has decided to offer the chance to attend the Academy’s Special Education courses under a scholarship,” explained the courier, who was an aged man well into his older years with a butler mustache and monocle. “Should you manage to graduate, there is also a guarantee of being elevated to Eighth Rank.”
Leon did his best to mask the sheer disbelief at that statement as he glanced out of the corner of his eyes toward his father. The man was doing a better job of hiding whatever skepticism he felt as he ran over the paperwork detailing the offer in full. But he at least gave a slight inclination of his head to acknowledge that something was off about it as well.
Leaving aside the fact he knew that there were no Minos among the Eighth Rank, the offer was a little too good. Go to school and get a guaranteed paycheck for the rest of your life? That sounded like the kind of sales pitch military recruiters gave to get commoners to sign themselves up to be sent to the meatgrinder, which was exactly what he wanted to avoid.
Leon was certain there was some kind of catch to it, even if he couldn’t quite peg it yet. There was also the factor that he wasn’t supposed to be the Scholarship Student attending the Academy. Had he somehow shifted events by giving them the Glaive ahead of time that made him take her slot? If that were the case, then it could cause problems later on if he accepted.
Besides, he didn’t care about being elevated to Eighth Rank. He only needed Ninth Rank to get what he wanted. “Not to be ungrateful—”
“Leon accepts the offer from the Crown graciously,” his mother said while setting her hand on his shoulder in a show of parental support. Or so it appeared. The fact that her fingers were digging into his flesh and the saccharine smile she wore while facing him sent a chill down his spine made it less of support and more of a warning. “Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”
He swallowed. “R-Right. Forgive my hesitation, I’m more than happy to accept the Crown’s offer wholeheartedly. It’s just that I never imagined that the Royal Family would go out of the way to bestow a scholarship to someone like me. Are you sure you have the right—”
Her nails dug into his shoulders.
“—I mean am I the only Scholarship Student attending?” Leon finished while trying to maintain a straight face. “I’ve never heard of a scholarship being given out, so I’m just curious if there are others as part of the program?”
If the man noticed any oddities in the fact that his voice rose a pitch, he hid it well. “Ah, I suppose the uncertainty is understandable given that this is a new initiative being pushed by the Queen. There were two slots in the Academy set aside for a male and female candidate, and your accomplishment as an Adventurer merited the slot for the male candidate. I will be shortly visiting the female candidate to inform her as well.”
Leon was still skeptical for a number of reasons. But considering his mother would likely start drawing blood if he voiced another word to reject it, he wisely kept his mouth shut as his father finished going over the paperwork. They hammered out the finer details and suddenly found himself enrolled in the Royal Academy.
His silence lasted until the very moment the man departed. “Mom, that was—
“—too good to be true,” Luce finished for him as she gently peeled back his collar to see if she’d actually hurt him. “An offer that gives you a chance at an education that costs so much for free? A prestigious rank that has ties to the Crown itself and guarantees financial stability for the rest of your life? All on the Royal Family’s coffers?”
She slowly shook her head as she outlined those facts. His mother might not have attended the Academy or lived in the Capital, but she knew something that was too good at a glance. “No, sweetheart. More than likely whatever you sold them simply put you in their minds and they decided to use you for some political purpose.”
“Then why are you forcing me to go?”
“Because it’s an offer that gives you a chance at an education you normally wouldn’t have, financial stability you wouldn’t have, and a rank that you wouldn’t have. There’s something off about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was too good for you to pass up. Most others in your… situation wouldn’t get that chance.”
The way she hesitated to say that final sentence got the implication across well enough without her having to say another Minos wouldn’t be so lucky with how the Kingdom was structured. To be honest, they were lucky to have two children attending as impoverished as they were. It was pure pragmatism that both Jenna and Nicks were attending.
In Nicks’ case, it was because he was the spare heir. Even then he still had only general education and had to work part-time to pay for his needs outside of the base finances for tuition. His grades weren’t exactly stellar, but realistically that didn’t matter so long as he graduated.
It was different in Jenna’s case. His parents covered everything because it offered her a chance of marrying up in life because of the number of bachelors from different islands. If she managed to find a suitor to get engaged to, it could possibly secure them capital or resources that could improve their barony if the dowry was large enough. And unlike Nicks, she didn’t have to work part-time by justifying that she needed to at least appear wealthy enough to attract a suitor who didn’t think she was dirt poor.
Sending Leon was never in the cards. He was a third son and a Minos. There was too little to be gained for too much cost when the best he could hope for was being a household knight. His little brother also would likely not be able to attend when he came of age if their fortunes didn’t improve from here on.
“I wish that I could have done so much more for you, Leon,” Luce continued softly with a hitch in her voice. “You’ve always been a clever boy, and you picked up on learning so easily. That’s why, even knowing something else is going on, I want you to take advantage of it while you can. So that you can have a future and a chance at a life that your father and I can’t give you.”
And, having said that, she gave him a kiss on the cheek before heading to get started on dinner.
That Leon alone in the room as he scratched his head in frustration. He hated it. Not the fact that he had to go to the Royal Academy, but the fact that his mother felt that way to begin with. That he was the cause of it. Another thing he couldn’t pay back.
That was when the Combat Support Pod unveiled herself as the pix she had been using to camouflage herself was retracted. She had naturally been listening in. “Your mom is really proud of you, huh?”
“She’s always felt guilty that I was born as a Minos,” he said in Japanese on the off chance that someone overheard them. Since he didn’t live by himself, he used his native tongue and script when he couldn’t guarantee privacy or for sensitive topics since there wasn’t anyone else who could understand before he met Lola. It was one of his ties to his past life he could keep with him. “It just happens that I got my memories back at an earlier age, and so she wants to think I’m a prodigy to compensate for that.”
Leon hadn’t been a bad student by any stretch, even though he opted not to go to university so he could help support his family in his past. The fact that Holfort lacked a public education system meant that the educational standards for most of the population were fairly low in the border regions, with the only alternative being homeschooling or the Church. Even then, specialized knowledge to act as a mechanic for the exosuits or engineers for airships were relegated to private institutions like the Academy, which required having a sponsor for lower ranked individuals.
From their perspective, his behavior after he regained his memories seemed like he had suddenly become a prodigy given that he acted more mature and understanding than most kids his age would. Since he was an adult in mind and acted the part, he was often seen as more independent and that was part of why his father agreed to give him what he needed to find Lola. And Leon had rewarded that faith by coming back, which would only feed into their preconceptions and thus the image he had to uphold to them.
Leon scratched his head before turning to her. “Lola, I need a favor. Could you catch up to the ship before it gets too far out of our territory and figure out if the second person is a young woman named Olivia?”
“That’s the one who’s supposed to be the ‘Heroine’ isn’t it?”
“Yeah. I want to make sure that she’s the female student since it wasn’t supposed to be like this. The scholarship was supposed to be the excuse plot for the heroine to enter the Academy despite not being part of the gentry. But a slot for a male student wasn’t mentioned. I need to see if that’s changed too.”
It might have been a background detail that didn’t need to be elaborated. Or just to fill in how the world worked. If that was the case, then he supposed the slot was to be filled in by some mob who wasn’t suited to be a Love Interest to a special snowflake like the Heroine. But if by some chance obtaining the Glaive early screwed up her recruitment, it could cause real problems considering there was going to be a war in three years.
The neighboring Principality of Fanoss, ruled by a princess masquerading as a prince, would use a device called a Grimoire that enhanced her Mirror Septima to a great degree. She could use it to create countless copies of monsters, or even spawn a titanic monster into existence even though it cost her very life in the game. The Heroine’s power was needed so that the Love Interest could deal with all of that.
The pod bobbed up and down. “Sure thing! I’ll head out and try to dig something up for ya.”
And with that said she floated out of the nearby window and camouflaged herself.
Leon sighed before laying back on the couch with his arms behind his head as his mind ran over all the things that he needed to do to compensate for leaving for the Academy. He had hoped to help around his family’s territory, but he couldn’t do that from the Capital. Then again, he’d have access to the Dungeon and could use the money he gained from diving there to send back to his family while staying in practice.
The sound of small footfalls along the wooden floor drew his eyes towards the door before it flew open. Entering the room was a little boy with dark hair, dressed in a simple tunic and trousers. It was his little brother, Colin. “Big brother, it’s not true! You’re not leaving us!”
“Colin, you know you’re not supposed to run in the house,” Leon said as he sat upright as his brother came over and jumped onto his lap, looking close to tears. “Calm down and explain what’s got you so upset.”
“Finley said that you were going to go away again for even longer than before,” Colin explained.
That was when Leon caught the slightest bit of movement at the door and noticed the brown-haired young girl with golden eyes peeking over with a flat expression. His younger sister, Finley. He looked straight at her as he gently patted his brother on the head. “Did she now?”
Finley only turned away and said plainly, “He misunderstood when I tried to explain you were going to the Academy.”
Finley was always the hardest of his sisters to read. When she was younger, they didn’t really have much of a problem and spoke normally. But now she very rarely spoke barring short sentences and never seemed to make casual conversation, almost as if she were trying to avoid him or hide something. She didn’t act malicious, at least not overtly, but she tended to be blunt and pointed when it came to her responses to her brothers. Then there was the fact that she didn’t seem to like being in the same room as him anymore after Jenna’s outburst back then.
Not that he blamed her considering their circumstances. He suspected she was just as angry as Jenna but wasn’t as loud about it. He was wondering if he should count that as a blessing since he knew outbursts like that hurt his parents’ feelings more than his at this point, but as an older brother he did worry about what her relationship with the others would be like if she didn’t open up some or kept causing misunderstandings.
“I’m not going away for good,” Leon clarified to Colin while brushing his head, if only to clear up any misconceptions. “I’m going to the Academy just like Jenna and Nicks, so I won’t be around as often. I’ll be back for the semester breaks when they come back.”
“But I don’t want you to go again,” Colin said. “It gets boring when you’re not here. Mother and Father are always too busy, and Finley is mean.”
“I’m not thrilled about it either, but I don’t have a choice now. And Mom pointed out it’s probably the best chance I’ll get to learn something I wouldn’t otherwise.”
Holfort was rustic over in borderlands, but the Capital was further ahead since preserving the knowledge of the flying ships, air bikes, and powered armors that their ancestors originally used were essential to their military power. But in exchange for that, they were far behind in other fields that could make life easier for everyone else, and because of the limited access to education, there were few chances for it to be applied elsewhere.
Leon wasn’t exactly the most tech-savvy back in his previous life but spending time with Lola did make him curious. And learning more about how these things worked would possibly make him more capable rather than relying solely on the A.I. He was already taking advantage of her generosity more than he was comfortable with, and he wasn’t sure what he could do for her either to make up for all the help she gave him.
As for his brother, Leon decided to put him at ease by lifting him up as he stood. “Anyway, since I have some time, how about I show you a little trick I can do with the new suit that allows me to fly with other people?”
His soured expression vanished and was replaced with a bright smile. The natural reaction considering he was too young to fly around in an exosuit on his own. “That sounds awesome! Let’s go!”
Leon noticed that Finley was half-turned in their direction and frowning slightly before she walked off.
He really didn’t understand her much at all.
[—Finley Fou Bartfort—]
Finley really hadn’t been trying to hurt Colin when she told him that Leon would be leaving.
When their mother had told her that Leon had gotten a scholarship to attend the Academy, she knew that meant he would be gone as long as Jenna and Nicks were. She also knew that Colin would be devastated, so she had been trying to explain that Leon wouldn’t be there to baby him like he always did. The boys of the family were rather close with each other, and she knew that Leon tended to dote on Colin since he was little, so the boy didn’t take him being gone for long periods of time well.
He used to try to dote on her as well, but Finley didn’t like being treated like a child. Not only because she had a sense of quiet pride, but she didn’t think it was appropriate to be treated as a child anymore. Not while the rest of her family was struggling.
She felt shameful when she learned just how bad their circumstances were, being an ignorant child at the time. So blissfully ignorant of all the times their parents had grumbling stomachs and why they spent so much time patching their clothes rather than buying new ones. To understand why her brother always seemed to have that same sad look as their parents that made him look so much older compared to how young he looked when he was with her like he was with Colin.
It was hard for her to face him after that or tell any of them about her own problems, so she kept to herself most of the time to avoid adding to their burdens. These were the chains she shackled herself with in the same manner the rest of her family did in their own way. The only one without bindings were Colin himself, still ignorantly blissful. She felt both happy for him but also prickly that he got to remain that way when she couldn’t.
“—can’t be serious! Why now?” Her ears perked up as she made her way to the garden out in the back. She peeped around the corner where her older sister was having a… heated discussion with her mother as a sphere of undulating water that had been drizzling over the plants came crashing down and soaking the ground. Her control tended to waver when she got upset. “Leon doesn’t belong there!”
“Your brother did something amazing,” her mother pointed out. “One of the first scholarship students in history. Can’t you at least be a little happy for him?”
“He’s a Minos!” Jenna said pointedly. “He isn’t going to be welcomed there, Crown-sponsored or not! And then, if word that he’s related to me gets around, I won’t be able to find a good husband! That’s why he should stay here!”
Her mother couldn’t look more disappointed in her if she tried. “You know, as your mother, I don’t blame you for wanting to marry someone and move to the Capital since most of the girls your age want that more than anything else. But at the very least try not to do it at the expense of your brother. At the end of the day, you’re still family no matter what.”
And with that she began to walk off in the other direction to tend to the laundry that had been left to air dry, leaving behind her eldest daughter without looking back.
Had she done so she would have seen that her fingers curled inwards and dug into her palms so hard that her shoulders were left trembling. Jenna turned to her attention to the air and water began to pool into a ball as she clenched her teeth, all while muttering under her breath, “Who do you think I’m doing this for in the first place…?”
That was when Finley decided to show herself, acting as though she hadn’t been spying on the argument. “Is something wrong?”
Jenna sighed and vented her frustration to her younger sister, whom she had the best relationship within the household. “Leon finally gets back and he’s already ruining my plans! It was bad enough he disappeared for three months and they all blamed me for it, and now this! Why can’t he ever just keep himself out of trouble!?”
She was referring to how awkward things had gotten in the household after Leon went on his adventure. While becoming an Adventurer was seen as something that was respected, it was also dangerous and part of the reason having a strong Septima was lauded. Leon had none of that and didn’t tell anyone other than their father anything about his intentions or where he was going until before he departed.
The first week Jenna was sure he would have come back after realizing how hard it was and just settle down. Then a month passed with no word from him, and they started to worry. Then two months passed and the thought that he was dead hung heavy in their minds and hearts even if no one said anything aloud. But because no one said anything aloud, Jenna had become paranoid that everyone blamed her for his absence—especially their mother.
Finley had more than once caught her sister staring at the door to his room while he was gone.
“All the effort I spent last year will be wasted,” she continued. “The time spent learning about the various circles, making nice, and getting a read on who I could marry for us to not have to rely on that witch… it’ll be pointless if people think I’ll be like Mom and give birth to a Minos.”
Noble families often hid their shame, especially when it came to something like having a child without Septima. A woman who could give birth to a Minos like Leon was a woman who had lower value to people their station and above in this society. And Jenna was aiming for a viscount or higher so that they could sever ties with Zola’s family, so it was something she desperately wanted to hide.
“…Is it really that bad when he’s going to be a Royal Knight by the end?” Finley asked.
Jenna huffed. “Girls talk in the Academy, and some mentioned before we left the Academy that Minos uprisings and Sky Pirates were becoming more frequent even though their parents try to keep it quiet. That doesn’t happen in our territory since everyone loves Dad and knows how he treats Leon, so it doesn’t cause us many problems. But the Crown has no doubt heard of it and so they need someone they can point at and say ‘he’s a Minos but look at how high ranked he is because he did something to help us, so rather than rebel try to do that instead’.”
Hearing that caused her frown to deepen. “Then Leon is—”
“Nothing more than a prop for the Crown to quell the Minos before they become violent,” Jenna said with a nod. “Leon’s accomplishments don’t mean a thing. He was just lucky enough they picked him as their tool, nothing more. Everyone at the Academy will know it too since that’s how this world works after—use or be used. Remember that.”
She would. For better or worse.