The sun continued traversing the brilliant blue sky that was defaced by the magecraft halo in the distance as the Expedition team continued traveling south. Altoria was now effortlessly carrying the pack Ritsuka had started with, declaring that if they did not take turns carrying the burden then it would be an insult to her strength. Ritsuka was left with no alternative but to agree to the party members taking turns with the pack. The travel speed of the party had not dropped or increased however, as the pace was still a leisurely but determined walk to avoid needless exhaustion. It was in that fairly lax atmosphere with an undercurrent of natural urgency that the group conversed.
“I’m so ashamed that I said I’d fight on my own earlier,” said Jeanne in casual self-recrimination. “Thanks to all of you, I feel stronger than ever. Even if I’m up against myself, a witch, I have nothing to be afraid of now that you are with me.”
The word ‘witch’ brought back to Ritsuka’s mind what happened at the fort. Or more precisely, the facial expressions that Jeanne made after being rejected by the French soldiers stationed there. Out of concern, Ritsuka asked, “Being called a witch… Are you alright?”
“I am fine,” said Jeanne right away. But Ritsuka couldn’t help shaking the feeling that the girl was forcing herself to be fine. “Needless to say, it saddens me that they’d mistake me for that other Jeanne. But it can’t be helped. In fact, it hasn’t been more than a few days since I was burned at the stake… If a resurrected me caused a massacre in Orleans, then I can’t blame them for being scared of me. I was afraid the British might be stirred up, but it would appear they are remaining quiet at this time. We should seek out the Jeanne who they call a witch and defeat her. But for now, we should scout around first. The goal is simple, but reaching it, not so much.”
By the end of her speech, Jeanne had her finger lifted up as though it was a lecture on morals. Ritsuka really couldn’t help but see her as a class president type after all.
[As expected. Jeanne D’Arc is well-versed in the art of war. Like she said, an assault on Orleans is ill-advised. It’s an unfamiliar land and we have yet to set up any bases. For now, take the initiative and gather intel on their defenses. As for the witch Jeanne- Or shall we call her Dark Jeanne? I would like to find out what kind of Servant she is. The rest is up to our forces. It would be good to have more allies.]
“To that end, Doctor, please work hard on repairing the other Coffins so you can send reinforcements,” said Ritsuka with manipulative cheerfulness.
[I- I’m already working on that. Don’t go making it seem like the only thing I do is slack off.]
Ritsuka thought he heard someone’s suppressed snickering on the other end of the line. Mash however was thinking in a different direction.
“Jeanne, is there a reading on any other Servants besides ourselves?”
Before Jeanne could answer Mash’s question, Ritsuka responded with one of his own.
“Other Servants? Why do you ask, Mash? Shouldn’t there only be Dark Jeanne in Orleans?”
“Not necessarily, Senpai. After all, no one summoned Jeanne, so isn’t it possible that other Servants have appeared on their own as well?”
[Hmm. It’s not impossible. And if other Servants have appeared that are not aligned with any group, neutral Servants if you will, it would be extremely helpful if they were to join forces with us.]
“Or to eliminate them before they can interfere with our task,” added Altoria.
“I see,” said Ritsuka in that tone of enlightenment that is immediately followed by a question. “But why are you asking Jeanne about that?”
It was actually Jeanne who answered Ritsuka’s question, however.
“It’s likely Mash knows about the abilities of my class. But, I’m sorry. As I am now, I am incapable of using my ability as a Ruler to detect other Servants. Like other ordinary Servants, I cannot detect them unless I am within a certain distance.”
[Likewise, our connection with that era is tenuous. So we can only scan the areas around you, our link to that era. Seems we’ll have to gather information on Servants as well as on Orleans.]
Ritsuka’s feet stopped moving as a lightning bolt thought struck his brain.
“Wait, what about the other Jeanne? If Dark Jeanne is a Ruler, then…”
Everyone’s face instantly turned serious and dower, with Jeanne reacting the quickest as she was most familiar with the abilities of a Ruler.
“I was careless. There is that possibility. The other me- Uh- No, Witch Jeanne- Urgh, it’s too confusing, I will also refer to her as Dark Jeanne!”
“You’re the easily flustered type, huh, Jeanne,” said Ritsuka with an out of place smile.
With an embarrassed blush, Jeanne continued on.
“Anyway, if that Dark Jeanne is truly a Servant then her Class, like mine, is Ruler. If that is the case, she will immediately be able to detect our location. We must be prepared for battle at all times. If possible, I would like to minimize our activities in any nearby towns and villages- But without any leads on our hands, I doubt that’s possible. In that case we should probably sleep outside of towns as much as we can.”
“Then to that end I would suggest we begin setting up camp shortly,” said Altoria, who was used to leading armies to war. “It is already too late to set up a camp when the sun begins to set, because everything must be in order before nightfall.”
“In that case, would you like to pick a spot for us to make camp for the night, Altoria,” asked Ritsuka.
“I do not mind.”
“Then shall I carry the pack for a while,” suggested Jeanne helpfully.
“Yes. I thank you.”
Ritsuka released a wry smile while watching as the female party mates, all of who were shorter than himself, pass around the large pack like it was weightless. Ritsuka’s chivalrous side was having to seriously readjust to his new situation.
* * * * *
The gentle crackle of the campfire acted as a slight punctuation to the white noise of the lightly gurgling stream that passed nearby. Jeanne stepped as lightly as her plate mail would allow as she returned from clearing the cookware and plates from the night’s meal, a rice based field ration, in the natural water source.
“Did Ritsuka go to sleep,” asked Jeanne as she set the kitchenware down near the fire to dry.
“Yes, surprisingly quick for someone who is unfamiliar with sleeping outdoors,” responded Mash.
“Is that so…”
Altoria responded to Jeanne’s worried tone.
“Exhaustion is the best sleep aid. But Ritsuka is fit in his own way. He should be fine after a night of rest. And with that,” Altoria stated while taking a reclining position near the fire, “Make sure to wake me in two hours, Mash.”
Mash agreed, since the party already decided that they would have two people on watch at all times as a precaution against being ambushed by Dark Jeanne or her undead army. With Mash’s confirmation, Altoria crossed her gauntleted arms over her chest and swiftly fell asleep in her armor with the practice of an experienced warrior. After a period of time, Mash dropped the question she’d been harboring for a while now.
“…I could be imagining things, but is there something you aren’t telling us?” To Jeanne’s uncomfortable silence, Mash continued. “I don’t mean to pry… I thought it best to confront you in case it should become an obstacle in battle.”
“No. You’re right to do so. As you wish, I shall tell you. It could be because my summoning was incomplete. Or- perhaps it’s because my original self died just a few days ago. How can I put it? It feels as if I am a ‘brand-new Servant.’”
“A rookie, you mean?”
“Yes. There is no future or past in the Throne of Heroes… But, for some reason I don’t have the power to access the records there. Therefore, it is difficult for me to act in my role as a Ruler. It feels like going into battle for the first time all over again. And that bubbly-looking mage from before…” Mash didn’t have the heart to correct Jeanne by telling her that Roman was just a doctor, and continued listening while Jeanne poured out her insecurities. “He called me a saint and a savior, but even with that expectation, I have no such power. …So, the thing is. I fear that I will become a burden to you.”
“Jeanne, if that’s all then it’s all right.”
“I mean, this also feels like my first battle. We are the same. As a Demi-Servant, I cannot fully harness my power as a Heroic Spirit. However, the Heroic Spirit inside of me said “It’s okay.” And Senpai- Master, trusts someone like me.”
Mash paused, trying to find the right words.
“…I don’t know how to say this, but Senpai didn’t choose to fight to prove something. Senpai is simply trying to do what should be done, I think. So, it’s all right. There’s no reason for you to worry.”
“A normal person who moves for the sake of others,” muttered Jeanne quietly while looking towards the sleeping boy. Then, having regained some small measure of confidence, said, “Thank you. I feel a little better. I am pretty familiar with this era and this country, so I should be able to act as a guide. Let’s give it our best tomorrow!”
* * * * *
Cu Chulainn’s firm grip on the red shaft left the end pointed down towards the ground as he thrust continuously. Cu had lost track of the number of times he’d repeated the motion, but that did not matter at all. His stubborn nature would not allow him to quit a task halfway, even if it was-
Squik, squik, squik
“OI! I just mopped there, ya Golden Bastard,” shouted Cu Chulainn at the top of his lungs at the man who’d walked through the spot the Lancer had just cleaned. In response, Gilgamesh slightly turned his head, looked Cu Chulainn up and down once over, and then gave a dismissive nasal “Humph” before continuing on his way.
“Damn it,” shouted Cu Lancer, who’d been tasked with some of Chaldea’s janitorial duties as he threw the red plastic mop onto the ground. Cu Chulainn wasn’t so prideful that he thought he was above working for his food – he’d spent some time as a literal guard dog after all – but being looked down on was something else entirely. Cu Chulainn had already manifested his spear and was a second away from hunting a golden heart when he heard a sharp, “Lancer,” behind him.
“Hmm? Oh, it’s you, Saber. Or rather, Artoria, right? Whadda’ya want?”
Artoria strode forward confidently, her footsteps squeaking on the wet floor which caused Cu Lancer to click his tongue in annoyance, until she was directly in front of the blue garbed man. Once there she said, “I require a training partner.”
“Ooooh,” asked Cu Chulainn with a predatory grin creeping across his face. After all, he was a man who was down for a duel at any time. “Shall we take over the training room? It should be spacious enough that neither of us would need to hold back.”
“No need, we can begin here,” said Artoria sternly.
“I’m usually not one to say we shouldn’t bother others, but don’t you think the hallway’s a bit-”
“Begin on the third count, Lancer!”
“Oi,” called Lancer, dropping into a stance to deliver a deathstroke, with his spear tip pointed downwards and his legs ready to release the power of a full strength thrust. “I dunno what’s jumped up yer-”
“Jan! Ken! PON!”
Artoria’s hand pushed forward, the fingers spread to indicate scissors. Cu Chulainn stared at that posture for a moment before he disappointedly asked in a low growl, “What the hell, Saber?”
“I already told you, I require a partner for my Jan Ken training. Emiya already refused at length, so I decided to seek you out. Now, retake the initial positioning, so we might start in earnest.”
Cu Chulainn hurled his legendary spear like a pro golfer might do his club and shouted, “Don’t go pulling me into your crazy crap, Saber! It might not look it but I have a job to do. Go play in a corner if you wanna act like a child!”
Cu Chulainn touched the underside of the mop on the ground with his toes, flicked them upwards, tossing the mop into mid air where he caught it and spun the tool three times behind his back while pivoting before planting the mop head into the custodian bucket to get the cleaning surface wet again. The needlessly flashy move served for Cu Chulainn to turn his back on Artoria to show just what he thought of her request as well as getting his equipment ready for the task ahead. There were a lot of hallways in Chaldea, afterall. After a moment of digesting the Lancer’s refusal, Artoria said, “Very well. I will search elsewhere for a training partner. But if you change your mind, I will look forward to our bouts.”
Cu Chulainn went back to putting all his frustration into attacking the floor until it sparkled, but the golden bastard’s voice as he addressed Saber could not be drowned out.
“If you’re looking for a partner, then I suppose I could-”
“Rejected,” came the harsh and instant reply.
A few minutes later Cu Chulainn shouted, “Hold it right there,” to a passing lavender streak. The form of Medusa flipped once, pointing herself back towards the Lancer she’d passed by while coming to a skidding halt on the curved wall of the main hallway of Chaldea. With real professional passion, Cu Chulainn shouted, “I don’t care if you run on the walls all day, Medusa, but don’t go leaving any footprints, cause I’m not gonna be the one cleaning them up! You scuff up the walls, then you’ll be the one cleaning them! Understand!?”
Medusa stood up straight with her long hair carried by gravity towards the floor at a ninety degree angle from her body as she processed the demand; her attentions switching from Cu Chulainn, to the wall under her feet, and back to the Lancer, before saying, “Understood. I will take proper responsibility for my conduct. If that is all…”
Lancer lightly waved Medusa away as she gave a polite bow before resuming her wall running. The acceleration caused enough disturbance to flop Cu Lancer’s rat tail around a little as the man bent back to his task. Immediately after, a blue and blonde streak passed him by through the impetus of chained Mana Burst accelerations, shouting, “Wait, Rider! I need a training partner!”
“I just mopped there, ya English gom,” shouted the repurposed Lancer towards the disappearing figure’s back.