The Tale of the Hero King.


“WAAAAAAAHH!!!”

Fentashia Village.

Population, less than fifty people. All Elves. Mostly adults. The total number of kids…

Seven.

“Mommy, Daddy!!!”

The only notoriety it carried was that the people of the village would welcome visitors with open arms.

“Damn! This shit hole hardly has anything for us to use!”

Sitting between two kingdoms, the village served as a rest haven for travelers moving between them.

“What should we do about the little brats?”

Out of nowhere, the two kingdoms waged war. One of which, took the initiative of establishing a base of operations here at Fentashia Village.

“Leave them. This Village is ill-suited to act as a base. If the other Kingdom comes, then all they’ll find here are corpses and empty houses.”

As I stood there, crying more than I thought was possible, the soldiers who raided our village left with what little we had. It wasn’t just me either. The other kids that the soldiers ‘spared’ were also crying.

Twin sisters shook their lifeless mother, begging her to wake up. One kid was pinned under his dead father. His back was riddled with arrows. Another one tried to act as the leader to calm the others down despite the tears running down his face. There’s the one girl I remembered who tried to chase after the soldiers but gave up after they left through the right entrance gate of the village. Lastly, one kid died after trying to save her grandpa from their collapsing home.

As for me? Well, I was just standing there.

Crying, crying, and more crying.

Why? Was it the injury I got from a soldier that nicked my left cheek with his sword? No, that wasn’t it.

It’s because it was the only thing I could do to drown out the noise of the burning town I once called home.

I cried so much that I eventually passed out from exhaustion. By the time I woke up, I found myself at an Orphanage.

Built secretly within an enclosed forest, the Orphanage Santa Kestana is a haven for anyone who found themselves alone. It didn’t matter what race you were.

A vast majority of those living here were victims of war.

This is the story of how this Orphanage eventually outlived its purpose.

The story of my life.

And…

Most importantly.

The story of my beloved.

“Goodness, child. It would be so much easier for us to communicate if you could just talk to us.” It was another day at the orphanage. Every kid had a simple task to teach us life skills for when we get adopted.

“Stop it, Gertrude. Isn’t it enough that Ninya does what she’s told without complaints? I’d say she’s an angel compared to some youngins here. If they could only carry out their tasks without any fuss…”

“…” I was…five around that time. It’d been two years since I came here to this orphanage. Due to various reasons, I couldn’t muster a single word since that incident. The only semblance of noise I’d make were grunts or subtle hums of confirmation or denial.

“Alright, Ninya. Go on now. You’ve earned a break for the rest of the day. Spend it however you like.” There were a few workers at the orphanage who understood me without me uttering a single word. But many of them found my silence creepy and would purposefully ignore me if I asked them for something.

Well, ‘ask’ is a loose term since I didn’t speak. I was more like pointing and gesturing my intentions or things I wanted from them.

“…” As soon as I finished my chores and was given free rein on what to do, there was always one place I’d go to.

“Ninya, Ninya! Let’s play!” Sometimes, I’d get approached by one of my friends back in Fentashia village. She was the unspoken ‘leader’ of us kids. The oldest at ten years old, she was the one who was saved by her dad.

“Forget about her. Someone who doesn’t talk isn’t fun to play with, Brehenya.” The boy who’d often followed Brehenya and had a massive crush on her is Zachery.

He’s a rude kid to me, but he has a kind heart overall. He’s been at this Orphanage before any of us kids in Fentashia.

“Don’t say that Zachery! We’re playing hide and seek, Ninya. I bet you’d do great at hiding.” Looking back, I regretted being so cold to her. After all, she was just looking out for me.

And so…

“…” I walked away from her without a single gesture.

Walking past the front yard of the Orphanage, I saw a bunch more kids playing with each other. It’s not like I didn’t have the desire to play. It’s just that I developed a form of PTSD that’s triggered by large and/or noisy crowds. Whenever I’m forced into a situation with lots of people around, I’d stuff wet cloth into my ears that I’d tear off from my clothes and look down at the ground.

When my PTSD’s triggered, the memories of what happened in the village incident race through my mind as if I was experiencing it again firsthand. Most times, I’d start crying. But in rare cases, I’d go into shock.

It’s why most kids and adults avoid being around me. The adults did so mostly out of consideration, and the kids mostly from being creeped out.

At first, I felt lonely being alone, but I quickly adjusted and even grew to prefer it. I’d spend my free time sitting under a lone black gum tree. I just liked the peace and quiet I got there. Though, I couldn’t get any of that today as the owner of the Orphanage was sitting there already.

Ulfritz Fringze.

A man who I guessed was in his mid-thirties, the mix of green and red autumn leaves cascading the tree was symbolic of his mixed aged and youthful appearance. Tall, but always hunched over. Muscular, but skinny. A soft-sound voice, but fair skin. His hair was an odd mix of white and black strands. It was hard to tell which color was more prominent.

No one at the Orphanage knew what his age was at that point. But I didn’t care. All I wanted was for him to leave my spot. He started showing up there when I first separated myself from the other kids after my first PTSD episode.

I’d hide inside nearby bushes and would wait for him to leave. Sometimes, it took hours, other times, he’d leave after a few minutes. I always caught him in the middle of reading some sort of book.

Apart from the fact that I didn’t know how to read at the time, I was too far away to see what he was reading. Sometimes, I felt compelled to move closer and see what he was reading, but I didn’t want to risk blowing my cover. This went on for weeks until one day, he spotted me. I wasn’t as covert as I thought I was.

“I know you’re there, Ninya. Why don’t you come over here and join me?”

I hesitated to come out, but I eventually stood up and walked up to him.

It was starting to get chilly that time, so he was wearing a sweater vest over his green shirt.

“You should try and hide the tips of your ears better the next time you want to hide from someone.” Beneath his rounded glasses, he saw me through the buses with his olive-green eyes. “So, why were you hiding from me anyways?”

“…” Since he knows I don’t talk, he wasn’t surprised at all when I answered him by pointing at his book.

“Oh? You’re interested in what I’m reading, are you? Do you know how to read?” Shaking my head, he softly smiled before taking his sweater vest off. He puts it down on a spot under the tree before sitting down next to it. “Take a seat next to me on my vest here. I imagine it’d be more comfortable if you’re sitting down while I read this book for you.”

I was skeptical at first. But, I’d been observing him for a while now and sensed no ill intent, so I slowly approached him and sat down next to him like he wanted.

“Here, let me give you a closer look at the front cover of the book.” Giving me a good view of the front cover. “The title of the book is called ‘The Adventures of the Hero King.’ It’s a story about a Hero who got crowned king of his people after peacefully solving the problems plaguing his kingdom. He wants to spread peace to the other kingdoms neighboring his, hence the title of the book.” Flipping to the first page, he would change his tone of voice to match the different characters in the story. His vocal range alone wasn’t enough to make the story immersive, so he compensated with acting talent. He was so good at it that I could visualize the scenes if I closed my eyes.

[“My liege! You can’t leave us! Surely the other kingdoms can solve their problems?!”

“As my steward and close companion, you’ve seen firsthand just as much as I how corrupt the world can be. I set forth to liberate our people from unjust rulers before I became their new king. Now that I’m King, I was made aware of the other Kingdoms with their unjust rulers. How can I sit idly by while neighboring Kingdoms far and wide suffer under the rule of their tyrannical kings and queens?!”

“I understand where you’re coming from. But you just recently freed this Kingdom and became its King! Do you have any idea how badly this will ruin your reputation if the people of this Kingdom think their King has left them?”

“You know I’ve never cared about my reputation. To begin with, I only accepted the proposal of being their King to appease them. But, now that I hold that title, I will make good use of it and free other Kingdoms suffering poverty and war. As my Steward, I shall anoint you as King of this Kingdom in my absence. Know that, above all else, you are my precious friend. So I trust you with keeping this Kingdom safe in my absence.”

“My liege…”]

“Taking action, the Hero King sets forth on his journey to free the neighboring Kingdoms from their corrupt rulers. But he did not approach them with blade in hand, but with pen and paper. Still, the Hero King would face many perils that forced his hand, so the Gods blessed his soul, protecting him from evil.” Ulfritz’s narration skills were superb the whole time he read the first chapter. It helps that there’d be the occasional illustration that didn’t require me to learn how to read to understand.

The first picture in the book was of a young man with black spiky hair. His face was drawn in such a way that his eyes were hidden by a shade of black shadows. Still, even without seeing the entirety of his face, his smile was oddly soothing and felt familiar somehow. As the book described it, he only carried a blade for self-defense. His primary tools were an ivory black quill pen and a red journal with no cover on it.

Satisfied with reading the first chapter, Ulfritz set the book aside before smiling at me.

“What’d you think? Do you want me to keep reading this story for you?” He only read the first chapter to me, yet, I got hooked. Without a second thought, I nodded in response before he chuckled. “I see. Let’s use this opportunity to teach you how to read and write while we’re at it.

I was still young, so I wasn’t a fan of learning stuff when I was supposed to be having fun. Even though I pouted at him to make my point, Ulfritz knew what to say to convince me otherwise.

“If you learn how to read and write, then you can make your own stories! I think it’s the perfect hobby for you, Ninya. It’s a nice, quiet hobby where being left alone is excusable since you need focus.” The promise of having justification for being left alone and the idea of writing an epic as great as the ‘Hero Kings’ was too good to pass up. “Good, I’m glad you agree with me. For now…” Looking up at the orange sky, we had to stop since it was getting late. “Let’s go back to the Orphanage for now and get something to eat.” After putting on his sweater vest that I was sitting on after I got up, I followed closely behind him before we went back to the Orphanage for the night.

The next day, I was more motivated to finish my chores. It did lead to me making mistakes along the way, but I got what I wanted in the end.

I can’t recall exactly. Was it fifteen, no, ten more minutes? The point is, I got a bit more time to myself. Arriving with a small notepad in my left hand and a pen in my right, Ulfritz made a routine where we would start reading practice. Nearly every day, he would read me a chapter. Afterward, he’d start at the beginning again and ask me if I understood what was being said in the book by reading it.

Uncooperative as I was with my lack of vocalization, Ulfritz found a workaround by patiently asking me to gesture positively or negatively if I understood anything that I was reading.

After that, he’d start with writing practices. It wasn’t anything hard. He started with the basic ABCs on the first day. In the days after that, he would take keywords from the chapter he read to me and have me write it down. He would then quiz me on what word I should use based on what the word means.

I would get stuck sometimes, and I’d pout and stick my tongue out in protest. It’s embarrassing to look back at how juvenile I was acting. Even then, Ulfritz never got angry. Frustrated, maybe. But never angry.

As his lessons continued, I learned how to write down basic sentences on a separate notepad I carried to communicate. There were some words that I’d misspell, and I often made grammatical errors. The other kids at the Orphanage would laugh or call me weird for using a notepad to talk, while some caretakers point out my mistakes as if I was an idiot.

“Come on now, no one will take you seriously if this is how you write your sentences, Ninya. I’d hate to hear these sentences uttered aloud, let alone read them.” Gertrude says that she scolded me out of good intentions, but it felt more like an insult. And thankfully, I wasn’t the only one who saw it that way.

“Gertrude, Ninya is making great strides considering two-week progress. You should praise her for her efforts, not reprimand her for her mistakes.”

“Ah, Ulfritz, sir! I didn’t…” As far as I can remember, I’ve never seen Ulfritz angry. The look of disappointment he gives is honestly scarier. Without saying another word, Gertrude knew what Ulfritz wanted her to do. Turning to face me, she bowed to me before apologizing. “Sorry…” A lesson that I learned before I even came to this Orphanage was to never boast about being right. It’s enough to prove someone wrong, and even better when they acknowledge it.

~ Don’t worry. Apology accepted.

Showing Gertrude that I didn’t mind by handing her my written response with a smile, she responded with a smile back. At the corner of my eye, I saw Ulfritz smiling as well.

I know I shouldn’t be too boastful, but you can never be too proud to do what’s right, right?

[“Ha! I can’t believe it! To think you’d fall for such a simple trap! ‘Hero King’. Coming here alone in this back-rat alley just to die!” Despite the overwhelming number of forces surrounding him, the ‘Hero King’ recognized that the people here were not out for blood by choice. From their ragged clothes, rusty weapons, and emaciated bodies, the ‘Hero King’ Held not a blade in either hand, but a coin purse and all the food rations he had.

“Thank goodness. I’m so glad that the rumors were false. I’m ill-equipped to help the sick and dying. It is not too late for all of you. Lay down your arms and start anew. Trust me to reinvigorate this Kingdom, and bring it back to its former glory.” At that moment, the Vagrant that lured the ‘Hero King’ as well as those who surrounded him felt a tinge of pain in their hearts.

Did he use a spell of sorts to temporarily incapacitate his foes? Nay. It was the tinge of guilt that struck their hearts. Realizing their mistake, they threw down their weapons one by one before taking a knee in front of him as a sign of respect, apology, and fealty to the ‘Hero King’.]

It’s been two years since Ulfritz and I first started reading together. I asked him to stop reading ‘The Adventures of the Hero King’ every day somewhere in the middle of that time. It’s not that I got tired of hearing it. Quite the opposite! At the speed he was reading, he would’ve finished the whole book in no time. So I had him slow down his pace to one chapter every other month. I treated our reading sessions like a treat, so I spent my time reading other books.

Mostly other story books, while a few of them were educational books that I begrudgingly read at times.

~ This is the third Kingdom he’s gone to, right? It’s a nice change of pace from the first two Kingdoms where he had to fight.

Thanks to Ulfritz’s tenacity, patience, and great teaching skills, my grammatical and spelling abilities improved significantly to the point where I’d hardly make mistakes. Reading what I wrote on my notepad, he smiled and nodded in agreement.

“I agree. Sometimes, a lack of hostility can make a lasting impression compared to winning them over through violence. If you ask me, the Hero King regrets that the first two Kingdoms he freed were done through violence. Maybe, if he had gained more knowledge and experience, he could’ve avoided conflict.”

~ But he had no choice, right? He spoke his intentions to them just like he did here, but they laughed and mocked him for it. So aren’t they the bad guys for brushing him off like that?

“Heh, I’m sure he had the same idea at first. But as the Hero King’s journey continued, his outlook began to change. The people in the first two Kingdoms were only ever taught how to take from others. They had military might and men that granted them their perceived right to do so. But you must remember that the people as a whole are not at fault. It’s those in power who corrupt the people they’re supposed to protect that are.”

Sometimes, the way he’d explain the perspective of the Hero King sounded like it hit close to home. It’s as if he could empathize with the Hero King on a personal level. Because of his insight, he was able to explain what he thinks the Hero King was thinking clearly.

“If those in power can avoid getting their hands dirty by convincing or bribing the people under their rule to fight for them, they absolutely will…”

On that day’s reading session, he had fallen asleep after explaining the Hero King’s perspective to me. The first few times he did that, I’d wake up him right away, but that day, I couldn’t bring myself to wake him up. Serene and peaceful, watching Ulfitz sleep so soundly made me feel tired too, so without putting much thought into it, I sat on top of his legs, moved his arms to wrap around me, and I nuzzled up against his chest before falling asleep.

By the time I woke up, I was back in my bed. Looking around, the other kids were already asleep. I slept longer than Ulfritz did, so when he woke up, he carried me and brought me back here.

The beds we Orphans slept in were always soft, warm, and comfy, so I had no issues sleeping in mine.

Yet…

I remember clutching my bed sheets that night in discomfort as I tried to go back to sleep.

The next day, before he even got to pull out a new book for us to read, I sat on his lap, huddled up to his chest with my arms up against them, and fell asleep on the spot.

[“Tsk! If it wasn’t for that damn blessing the Gods gave you, you would’ve fallen under my heel by now!” The ‘Hero King’ had successfully made his way to the throne room where he fought valiantly against the Demon King.

Slash! Slice! Boom! Swish! Weave! Roll! One after another, the Hero King couldn’t afford to lose focus even for a split second. Screaming for him to stop, his bones creaked and cracked under the intense pressure he felt as he braced and blocked the Demon King’s blows. His muscles would tear from the amount of force needed to match the Demon King. The blessings he received from the Gods and proof of his valiant heart after saving the Five Kingdoms gave him the edge he needed to win the fight.

Waiting for the right moment to strike, the Hero King parries the Demon King’s blade, knocking it out of his hands before pointing the tip of his sacred blade at the Demon King’s neck.

The sounds of their heavy breaths filled the ruined throne room as the Demon King was on the verge of total defeat. All the Hero King had to do at that point was to cut the Demon King’s head off.

“What are you waiting for?! FINISH ME! Isn’t that what the blasted Gods told you to do?!” Despite the Demon King’s provocations, the Hero King decided the battle was over. Dropping his blessed blade to the floor, the Demon King watched the blade bounce and clatter before sitting motionless in front of him.

“The Gods may have said something along those lines…but I am no monster…” The Hero King’s words confused and angered the Demon King. Was it because of his blind preconceptions of what’s right and wrong that stopped him from finishing him off? To the Demon King, it was akin to an insult.

With anger and pride boiling his blood, the Demon King brandished his demonic claws and sliced the Hero King’s chest. Sending the Hero King flying, he lands on his back before the Demon King points the Spade of his sharp tail at the Hero King’s neck.

“Too bad for you, because I am…”

“No, you’re not.”

“What do you mean I’m not?! I have horns I can impale with! I have wings that let me fly! Discolored purple skin that makes me look ‘Demonic’! I possess claws that rend the flesh of idiots like you! I even have a bladed tail that’s inches away from your neck! What part of me do you see that makes me NOT a monster?!” It took less than five seconds for the Hero King to answer.

“I saw your people on the outskirts of this castle. They spoke highly of you because of your compassion toward them. Their loyalty to you isn’t born from fiendish desires like a thirst for blood or violence. They follow you because you care for them. You wish the best for your those judged wrongly for being born different from humans. Monsters crave violence, chaos, and bloodshed for no other reason than to cause pain, misery, and despair. But you, Demon King, fight so those under you don’t have to. In that sense, you are more Human than some ‘Humans’ I have crossed blades with. I’ve had to slay dozens of corrupt Humans. And while some Monsters earned their titles through their actions, you are a Monster only by your physical appearance. Through your actions, the name Demon King suits you well. After all, the King fights for his people.” The situation had now reversed. The Demon King’s victory was within his grasp. All he had to do was slit the Hero King’s throat.

However…

The Hero King’s words resonated with the Demon King’s. For the first time crossing blades with a human, he was the first to whom he felt a sense of comradery.

It didn’t matter if the two were vastly different in how they looked. To finish the Hero King near death from blood loss would be the same as losing a brother in arms.

“…it seems…I need to do a bit of traveling myself…” Rescinding his tail, the Demon King casts a healing spell on the Hero King, sealing the open claw marks on his chest before taking a knee.

“Demon King?”

“Tell me, Hero King. What did you learn from your travels? Perhaps I can learn a thing or two…”]

~ So, the Hero King won the battle, right?

“He didn’t just win the battle. He gained an irreplaceable ally.”

~ Right, the previous chapters gave hints of what the Demon King was really like.

“Indeed. Some swear fealty to their King in the promise of power, fame, and fortune. But some of the monsters that fought for him were different. To gain the loyalty of someone to the point where they’d risk their life for them doesn’t come from selfish gain but trust. You pay so much attention to the smallest details. You’ve made great strides for the past good for you.” Hearing Ulfritz praise me felt really good, so I couldn’t help but blush and smile every time he did so.

“Ah…” I was too preoccupied smiling like a dope to realize Ulfritz had moved his face close to mine. Seeing his face up so close, I instinctively brought my notepad up between his face and mine. “Oh, sorry about that. I guess I got a little too close for comfort.”

I wasn’t sure six years ago, but Ulfritz’s age was definitely on the older side. His voice had gotten weaker, his glasses thicker. The color of his pupils faded even more into a grey-green color. It was odd because he didn’t have a single wrinkle on his face, but his ‘aura’, for lack of a better word, felt weak. He would have trouble getting up after sitting under the gum tree for a few hours.

“I just wanted to get a closer look at your beautiful eyes. Pearlescent pink. I’ve never seen an elf with that color. They say that eyes are the ‘window of the soul.’ I couldn’t help but admire your soul beneath them.” Before, I didn’t know what compelled me to do what I did back then.

Grabbing his right hand, I felt so giddy and happy at what he said that I pulled it toward the top of my head. Even though his hands were rough and calloused, I could’ve cared less about the mess I was making of my hair before I moved his hand around while chuckling.

“Ehehe…”

“Ninya…did you just?” I didn’t utter a single word, but hearing my voice was enough to make Ulfritz happy. Seeing him happy made me happy too, so I smiled and giggled even more. “Your voice, it’s so beautiful. It matches how you look inside and out perfectly!” His praise just then left me stunned. I wanted to say thanks, but no words came out when I opened my mouth. Seeing that, Ulfritz put his left hand on my right shoulder.

“It’s alright, Ninya. You don’t have to utter a single word. There’s more than one way to convey emotions, like what you did just now.” Because I couldn’t bring myself to talk, I panicked and looked around for my notepad. As soon as I got it, I wrote my response.

~ But…you said my voice is beautiful. The other kids make fun of me still for not talking, and the caretakers get annoyed with me. Shouldn’t I be able to talk now?

“Listen closely, Ninya. We all have something we prefer not to do, right? For what my poor vision is worth, I can see that talking would’ve caused you a lot of heartache. What matters to us is to do things that make us feel comfortable. There’s no need to rush things. For now, hearing your voice alone is cause for celebration. And, if you still feel like that’s not enough, I’ll help you smile more and more until you utter your first words again…” I wanted to write a response, but my hands shook so much that it was impossible to write anything. Rather than write how I felt, I dropped my notepad, drenched from the tears that fell from my eyes, before I ran toward him for a hug.

“There, there. I understand, Ninya. I’m so glad to hear your voice for the first time. We’ll work together for as long as it takes…” It was rare to see him smile and laugh this much. I wanted that to be the norm onwards…

Little did I know…

That would be the last time I saw him.

The next day, I woke up abruptly after hearing the caretakers talk to one another in a frenzy.

“Gertrude! Where did Ulfritz go?!”

“I don’t know! He wasn’t in his room when I got there. All of his belongings were gone too!”

Ulfritz was well-liked by everyone in the Orphanage. Everyone there was stricken with grief.

I was no exception. As a matter of fact, I was in complete denial. I went to Ulfritz’s room, but as they said, he and all his belongings weren’t there. The room was scrubbed clean of everything he had.

Then, I figured if he’d be under the Gum tree we always read together under. So I ran as fast as I could there. From hitting the walls of the Orphanage on my way out to tripping on tree roots and rocks outside, my tears made it hard to see clearly. Covered in cuts and bruises, I eventually got there.

“Ha…ah…” Between my vision getting blurry from hyperventilating and the tears flowing out of my eyes, it took two minutes for my vision to clear up for me to see the tree. When Ulfritz was nowhere to be seen, I felt the fatigue from all the running I did hit me all at once before my knees gave out.

Sitting on my hands and knees, the adrenaline that rushed through my body didn’t ebb one iota. My heartbeat was the only thing I could hear as I felt my chest tighten from grief. I was shaking while slamming my fist again and again on the ground.

Why? Why did he leave?!

“Ah…” I wanted to scream, so I raised my head high, waiting for my voice to come out. But it never did.

If silence could equate to loudness, my screams would’ve been deafening. I grasped my throat hard to the point that I caused bruising and left cuts with my nails. I curled up, groaned, and flailed my arms and legs violently. I couldn’t bring myself to scream like I wanted to.

I grew to hate my trauma even more because of it.

It took several minutes before I finally exhausted myself enough to calm down.

“…” Listening to my heartbeat slowing down, I saw something on the spot under the tree where Ulfritz sat at. Even though I was exhausted, I managed to walk to that spot before seeing what it was.

It was ‘The Adventures of the Hero King’ book. He must’ve it there, knowing that I’d be here.

Picking up the book, I sat on Ulfritz’s spot and held the book tightly against my chest.

“Alright, Ninya. You’ve been in this Orphanage for a long time now. There’s no need for you to go through an application process. You know what we expect of you. Are you sure you want this?”

~Yes, With the number of caretakers that left after Ulfritz’s disappearance, someone has to step up and help you out, Gertrude.

Three years have passed since Ulfritz’s sudden disappearance. Leaving as suddenly as he did, it’s a good thing he set up a chain of command in his absence. In the event that Ulfritz had to go somewhere or disappeared, Gertrude would be the owner.

Because of how differently Gertrude ran Santa Kestana, some of the caretakers who were loyal to Ulfritz left. It’s not that Gertrude was bad at running the place, but without Ulfritz, they didn’t feel inclined to stay.

So, at age fourteen, I figured it was my turn to show my thanks for what Santa Kestana gave me and work as one of its few caretakers.

We only had three other caretakers aside from me and Gertrude since then. The number of orphans to look after doubled shortly after, so there were about forty kids to look after. It was hard, exhausting work looking after that many kids.

The warring Kingdoms brought deaths to tens of thousands of lives, many of which had kids that either died in the war or starved to death. The ‘lucky’ few that survived would end up in Orphanages like ours. Some of the Orphanages were bigger than ours, while others were smaller. Either way, the number of kids that lost their parents from the war caused many Orphanages to overfill and eventually refuse new Orphans.

I heard tales of Orphans adopted in troves, only to be raised as soldiers. As long as they were over thirteen, they were on the spot. Some Orphanages didn’t know about that, some would turn a blind eye to it to relieve the workload, and a few disturbing places encouraged kids to fight. Bribed with money or simply saw the kids as excessive baggage, it sickened me to the core to think there’d be some people out there who could knowingly send kids out to wars to kill or be killed.

Naturally, Gertrude and I would review potential parents extensively before letting them adopt. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had so few people come because hardly any people wanted to adopt kids to raise them with love and care.

To keep things fair, we would divide the times we’d look after the kids on an eight-hour rotation schedule. I would take over the midday shift when the kids are most active.

Brehenya was never adopted. Instead, she moved out when she became an adult. She took Zachery with her since the two were dating at that point. From what I heard recently, the two got married. I’m happy for them.

“Sister Ninya! My kite got stuck again. Can you get it for me?” Maxie. Sweet little kid. Even after being disowned by his parents during a marital disagreement, he had nothing but smiles wrapped in a bundle of energy.

~Sure, hang tight, and I’ll get it for you.

I was so close to being able to talk again. I was sure that after I laughed with Ulfritz, I’d muster the courage to speak. But, when he disappeared the next day, I found it harder to laugh or make noises.

“Thanks, Sister Ninya!” It was hard to smile and wave at these kids at times. Not because I didn’t like my job but because I was still hurting from when Ulfritz left.

Thankfully, the kids don’t notice my facade and continue to laugh and play as they should. I’d often offer to help the caretaker before or after my shift. I don’t mind pitching in and helping out, even when I don’t have to.

There is one specific time in the morning when I want to be alone. Just before the sun would rise in the morning, an hour before my shift, I’d get up and walk to the same spot Ulfritz read to me.

Reading the same book over the years, I could recite the whole story in my head without reading a single page. Still, I open it and read it anyway as a coping mechanism. There was just something about opening the book and reading that relaxed me. It’s like Ulfritz is right here with me whenever I read it.

“…” I’m not sure how old this Gum tree is, but I want it to live for as long as possible. This place holds many memories for me, and this tree witnessed all of it. I might as well take care of it the best I can.

“Ninya, is there nothing I can say that’ll convince you to come with me?”

After another three years have passed, I’m now seventeen years old. Santa Kestana could finally retire as all the kids got adopted six months prior. The war between the neighboring Kingdoms had finally come to an end. The Kingdoms that were once at each other’s throats finally came to an understanding.

The most shocking fact about it was how quickly the war ended. Apparently, two key figures were responsible for it.

~I’ll be fine, Gertrude. Go on and live the rest of your life as you please.

“Ninya…please reconsider. Even after six years, Ulfritz hasn’t come back. I don’t think he’ll be coming back here anymore. Why don’t you come with me? You’re practically family to me, so I don’t want to leave you here all alone.” Thinking back, I couldn’t help but smile at how much Gertrude had changed. She found me creepy the first three years we’ve known each other. But in the end, she doated on me just as much as Ulfritz did with me.

That’s why…

~I can’t. I want to be here to welcome Ulfritz back.

“How can you be so sure, Ninya? You know as much as I do that Ulfritz was a frail man. He could be de…” Stopping short out of consideration, Gertrude shook her head before rephrasing her sentence. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to see you.”

~Thank you, Gertrude.

“Listen. As you know, we’ve always been short on funds here. The garden here and the generous donations from former Orphans kept us financially stable. Still, Ulfritz has an emergency stash hidden under his bed. There’s a hatch that leads to a small cellar containing an assortment of jewels and gold.”

~What? There’s a hidden cellar in the Orphanage?!

“Haha…he only ever told me about it. There are enough gold coins and jewelry to live two lifetimes. I never asked where he got it all from, but I want to guess he has some deep connections. Or maybe he was royalty at one point. Who knows? I do know that I trust him since his intentions were always pure.” Having said all that, Gertrude hands me a key. “This is the key to the cellar. If you truly intend on staying here, use those to sustain yourself. Make sure you use it incrementally. You’ll attract unwanted attention otherwise.” Gertrude gave me a farewell hug before saying one more thing. “Oh, and I’ll drop by for a visit next year.”

As soon as she was out of sight, I turned back around and looked at the Orphanage.

Worn down and in desperate need of repairs, Santa Kestana didn’t have repairmen on duty. With no one else in the building, I had to fix everything.

I wasn’t particularly strong, but I had to be to make the repairs. I relied on books and read up on things I didn’t know about. Fixing creaking and falling floorboards was easy with enough lumber.

On one hand, since I had Santa Kestana to myself, I had all day to make repairs when I felt like it and relax when I needed to. On the other hand, I had to do all of it.

Because of all the repairs that I’ve been doing, my hands ended up rough and calloused. Most girls would hate that, but I didn’t mind since, in a way, it reminded me of Ulfritz.

Still…

The number of things I had to fix in the building became problematic. There was too much to fix and little time to do it all. Even if I knew that, I was too stubborn to give up. This place was too important to me. Despite skipping meals and hours of sleep, I managed to keep Santa Kestana from falling apart.

Naturally, Santa Kestana retired its title as an orphanage and was more of a mansion with one person living in it.

Still, after all this time, I never checked the cellar under Ulfritz’s bed. I had plenty of chances when I’d go there and sleep in his bed. Sleeping there was one of the few coping mechanisms I had, so I took no shame in doing so.

Curious, I moved the bedframe out of the way. Gertrude was right. There is a cellar hatch under it. Using the key she gave me, I went inside the cellar. The place was left untouched for quite a long time. Spider webs covered the corners and edges of the walls, and thick layers of dust clung to every flat surface. Aside from that, I saw several brown leather bags filled to the brim with gold coins and assorted jewels.

When Gertrude said there’d be gold coins and jewels here, I expected only a small coin purse of gold and jewelry. But there were piles of them in each brown leather bag. Maybe Gertrude was on to something about Ulfritz being of royalty. I wondered something about Ulfritz, but before I could contemplate the answer, I already got a big clue when I saw an old sword and its scabbard in the cellar. The sword matched the description of the ‘Hero King’s’ first sword before he got his sacred one from the Gods.

I thought to myself…

‘It couldn’t be! Does that mean…’ To confirm my suspicions, I grabbed ‘The Adventures of the Hero King.’ book and went to the same gum tree to read over the story to confirm my suspicions.

When I got there, my whole body froze when I saw someone standing next to the Gum tree. Wearing a light brown tunic and faded white trousers, I felt a sense of familiarity around him.

It’s him. It has to be…

Six years…

Six…agonizing years.

He’s back.

He’s finally back.

Waves of emotions from relief, anger, happiness, and others that I couldn’t recall at the time hit me all at once. Like metaphorical floodgates that had already broken into tears, I felt a swelling deep inside my chest. Before I understood what it was, it suddenly came out.

“U-Ulfritz?!”

Upon hearing his name, his body jolted before he slowly turned around. His hair had lost its spiky luster as it hung loosely around his head, covering his eyes.

“That voice…is that you, Ninya?” While his voice sounded ragged, I definitely recognized it as his voice. His body had lost some muscle mass. He hunched over more than he was before.

“Ulfritz…ULFRITZ!!!” Running past the bushes and trees with reckless abandon, I didn’t care that I ruined my skirt and outfit that day. Jumping and tackling him, I knocked Ulfritz off his feet before we landed flat on the leaf-littered ground. “W-WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?!?!?!”

“S-Settle down, Ninya. I promise to explain every…wait? Did you just talk?” I was just as surprised as he was. After fourteen years of silence, I managed to find my voice again and called him out. I wanted to answer him, but I was crying so much that between the sniffling and tears obscuring my vision, all I could do was bury my face against his chest. To make my intentions clear, I clutched onto the collar of his tunic as hard as I could.

“I…alright, Ninya. Cry as much as you need to. Cry until you can’t cry anymore.” While hugging him, I felt a familiar sensation on top of my head. It was his hands. Rough and calloused like before, he gently ran his fingers down the length of my hair. “My, you’ve certainly grown, haven’t you? Your hair’s gotten long, but it’s still silky smooth. And judging from how you were able to tackle me to the ground, you’ve gotten heavier too.”

“Hey, I’m happy to hear you calling my hair silky smooth, but you know better than to comment on a woman’s wei-” My tears had cleared up to the point that I got a clear view of his face. I expected to see him with even thicker glasses, but he wasn’t wearing any. It wasn’t until I saw his eyes that I understood why. “Ulfritz…y-your eyes. What happened to them? Why did you leave the Orphanage without saying anything? Why?!” For Ulfritz, I’m it was a surreal experience to hear me speak so fluently. The same goes for me since I didn’t utter a single word until now.

“I…gee, alright. I promise to answer your questions, but you need to calm down. And…” At that moment, Ulfritz had put his hands on my shoulders. My thoughts had rushed back to the day Ulfritz had disappeared. Fearing he might push me away, I wrapped my arms tightly around his waist, nuzzling against him with my face under his chin.

“NO! Don’t leave! Everyone at the Orphanage left, Ulfritz! Everyone! Everyone but me…” Coming back just as quickly as they dried, Ulfritz’s tunic got drenched in tears. Realizing how panic-stricken I got, Ulfritz wrapped his arms around me reassuringly.

“I’m sorry, Ninya. I didn’t mean for you to go through so much. I’m not going anywhere. The way I am now, I doubt I can get anywhere far anyways…”

“Then…*hic*…how did you get here in the first place? Your eyes have turned white. Does that mean you’re blind now? How did you even get here like that?”

“I was going to get to that. Why don’t we sit down at our usual spot under the tree? It’s a long story, so we’ll want to be comfortable, right?”

“Right.” When I got off him, I noticed his legs were shaking as he stood up. I held his right hand and brought him under the gum tree before we sat down together.

“This is our spot, alright.” It was probably the nostalgia coming back to him since Ulfritz took the first few minutes we sat under the tree to unwind and relax. I was anxious to know why he went up and disappeared the way he did. Still, watching him zone out helped put me at ease as well. I remember leaning against his shoulder to unwind. Listening to one another’s heartbeat, I almost fell asleep before Ulfritz spoke. “Have you calmed down now?”

“As long as you stay here, then yes…”

“Ahah…alright then. So…you have ‘The Adventures of the Hero King’ book with you?”

“Of course I do.”

“Great. Now then, stop me if you’ve heard this before…” Initially, I thought Ulfritz went over the story from the beginning for nostalgia’s sake.

But…

[“Johnovan, you can’t leave us! Surely the other kingdoms can solve their problems?!”

“Henson, As my steward and close companion, you’ve seen firsthand just as much as I how corrupt the world can be. I set forth to liberate our people from unjust rulers before I became their new king. Now that I’m King, I was made aware of the other Kingdoms with their unjust rulers. How can I sit idly by while neighboring Kingdoms far and wide suffer under the rule of their tyrannical kings and queens?!”]

Johnovan. I’ve heard that name before. The name comes from a person who dethroned the previous King who ruled their Kingdom with an iron fist.

As I was recalling the details, I subconsciously spoke the name of the Kingdom aloud.

“The Kingdom of Photasia…” Stopping in the middle of retelling the story, Ulfritz turned to face me.

Sitting at the center of the other Five Kingdoms that the ‘Hero King’ liberated, Photasia treated its people with contempt as only those with a talent for killing or were of ‘noble’ standing had any chance of living comfortably.

Lusfarna, Jhouga, Segnatia, Welfrein, and Phreous. The Five Kingdoms were once ruled by Photasia. The first King of Photasia deployed five of his strongest generals to subjugate the other Kingdoms.

Succeeding in their tasks, the King of Photasia made the generals Kings of the Kingdoms they subjugated.

“So you know about it? That makes things easier to explain then. That book I left behind for you, ‘The Adventures of the Hero King’ is my travel journal. And my name isn’t Ulfritz. It’s Johnovan.” Having read his journal over and over again, the bags of gold and jewelry, as well as the worn-out sword started to make sense. Before I had a chance to say anything though, Ul…Johnovan had his right pointing finger pointing up next to his lips, telling me to stay quiet.

Continuing with the ‘story’, he started adding additional dialogue to the story which were his thoughts like regrets for things he could’ve done better, or pride for the accomplishments he achieved.

Abridging the story since he knew that I know his story well like the back of my hand, things started to pick up when he went beyond what his journal says.

[“Henson! What’s the meaning of this?! Why is Photasia suddenly the center of attention across the other Kingdoms as the ‘Kingdom of War’?!”

“Oh, you’re back, my liege. Or should I say…Johnovan. How did your journey go about liberating the other Kingdoms go?”

“Forget about that, Henson! Answer me! Why do I see our youths out there being brainwashed into killing innocent civilians of other nations?!”]

“After my battle with Demon King, I expected Photasia to be in a better state than when I first left. Henson was a childhood friend of mine, so I had faith that he’d be able to rule the Kingdom fairly. But I was wrong…” Moving forward with his story, Henson got corrupted by the authority and power he gained when he ruled Photasia in Johnovan’s place. The sudden shift from his impoverished lifestyle to one of a ruler was too quick of a change for Henson.

“So what, he wanted more money once he knew what it was like to be rich?”

“From his perspective, yes. I took pride in Photasia as a Kingdom since it didn’t need to rely on outside merchants to trade for necessities. We had everything we needed to live comfortably there. You might’ve pieced it together already, but before I was the King of Photasia, the previous King groomed the people of the Kingdom into warmongerers. They weren’t satisfied with just ruling Photasia. They wanted the exclusive goods the other Kingdoms had, like food, mining sites, and so on.”

“They succeeded in conquering the other Kingdoms, turning the denizens into slaves forced to work in the land they don’t own and had to pay exuberant tax cuts to appease the ‘Nobles’ and the ‘Royal family.’”

“Right. So when I overthrew the King of Photasia with Henson, I set off to free the other Kingdoms. If I knew that the title of King would’ve corrupted him so, I wouldn’t have left Henson in charge. I should’ve stayed in Photasia and sent people I trusted to liberate the other Kingdoms. Instead, they all turned on me for the promise of wealth and power. As for the citizens of Photasia turned into slave laborers, they considered me a traitor for abandoning them to save the other Kingdoms.”

“That’s awful. The Gods who came to your defense, right?” Whether one would call it naivety or false hope, the sorrowful look on Johnovan’s face made it clear as day that I was wrong.

[“Do you have any idea how badly this will impact us?! People are losing faith because they believe we blessed a ‘False Hero’! Loyal followers and believers are leaving in droves because of your actions! Centuries of building trust between the faithful are gone in mere months! Nothing you say will ever excuse you for the stain you left behind! Johnovan Fringze of the Photasia Kingdom, you are barred access to the gate of heavens upon your death!”

“…”

“That doesn’t even cover the fact you refused to kill the Demon King. Even after we told you to slay him to appease the humans who prayed for salvation, you refused to kill him.”

“I never regretted that decision! The Demon King fought in self-defense. He loves his people. He fights for their sake, not his!”

“So, you even befriended that demon, did you? Well, Johnovan, tell me. Is ‘this’ what you had envisioned when you said you wanted to see this world in peace?”]

“Showing me glimpses of what Photasia Kingdom had turned into, Arch Angel Ravael mocked my vision of peace with pictures of people forced to work to death, fight wars they never asked, and those who lost loved ones in the midst of it all. Giving me divine punishment fitting for my ‘vision’ of peace, the Gods have cursed me with progressive blindness and weakness. Over time, my vision would worsen, and my body along with it.

“So that’s why you’re blind…”

“Yes. At first, not knowing how quickly it would worsen was torturous. But I grew to accept it. Shortly after I accepted my fate, I opened up Santa Kestana Orphanage. I figured that if my actions caused a chain of events that led to children losing their families, friends, and homes, the least I could do was give them a place to go.”

“I see. And the sacks of gold and jewels under your bed?”

“Oh? Gertrude told you about the hidden stash, did she? Those were gifts from the Demon King. Initially, I refused them since I shunned the idea of riches and was scared of being consumed by greed. He talked me into accepting them.”

“And how did he do that?” Subtle as it was, Johnovan smirked before he looked up at the sky. Even though he couldn’t see, he still stared up as if he could.

“Monster or Human, you’ll find many people who see things differently than you do. That’s how he explained it to me. The gifts don’t have to be for me alone, but for the people I care for.”

In other words…

“So he convinced you to keep them to give to others or use them FOR others.”

“Yes. I wouldn’t have been able to make Santa Kestana as big without them. I wouldn’t be able to pay for the caretakers either if an emergency came up. I forgot to mention this, but Gertrude was among the few people in Photasia who believed in me. Sickened by what it had become, she came with me, and we opened Santa Kestana together.” It was stupid to feel this way when I first heard it, but I felt a knot in my chest when Johnovan talked about how long he and Gertrude had known each other. Though, bringing up Santa Kestana did remind me that one of my questions was left unanswered.

“Hey, so why did you leave in the first place? You left before you could uphold your promise to help me talk…”

“Ah, right. Well, before that. I’m sorry that I couldn’t keep my promise. I bet the others must’ve been surprised to hear you talk.”

“No…you’re the first to hear me speak aloud, Johnovan. I was so surprised when I saw you that my voice suddenly came out.”

“Really? Heh…ahaha…”

“What, what’s so funny?”

“It’s just…in a way, I kept my promise. It took six years, but what led to you finding your voice was seeing me again after all this time.” No one would blame me if I decked him in the face there and then. Johnovan had a lot of nerve laughing about his six-year absence, only to take credit for my voice coming back.

“Geez…you shouldn’t laugh about that. Leaving for six years without saying anything is pretty cruel, you know? Everyone in the Orphanage was hoping for you to come back. Now, I’m the only person left who stayed behind.”

“I had to leave. If I came back, I would’ve endangered everyone’s lives at the Orphanage.”

“What? What do you mean by that?”

“When I was out buying supplies for the Orphanage, I was jumped by a group of mercenaries. I managed to knock them out. One of them had a piece of paper. It had a picture of me and a bounty on my head.”

“A bounty?!”

Yes, they placed a bounty on his head. It wasn’t a small sum either.

“Thankfully, the group of mercs that I ran onto was by mere chance. But I knew that wouldn’t be the case for long. At some point, someone could recognize me and find out where I live. To avoid getting everyone in Santa Kestana involved, I had to leave. My past sins were catching up to me, so it was only right that I’d have people come for my life at some point.”

Visibly shaking from trying to keep his composure, tears ran down his cheeks, balling his hands into fists out of frustration and guilt.

“Ninya…I’m so sorry…” Choking on his words, I could tell how hard it was for Johnovan to speak from how tense his throat looked. Practically sniffling with every breath, he pulled his knees to his chest before he hid his face. “I’m so sorry…if it wasn’t for me…Fentashia village would still be-”

“Stop! Don’t say it!”

“Ah! R-right…I didn’t mean to bring back bad memories of-”

“No, that’s not it.” Taking pause, Johnovan went nearly silent. “Did you send those soldiers to Fentashia village?” Unable to answer me, his mouth was half open, hoping for something to come out. “Even if your actions eventually led to those soldiers attacking my village, it was their choice to kill and pillage, not yours.” It hurt to see him like this. So far, he’s only told me who he really was and what he did in the past. Personally, I don’t think he did anything wrong. He just wanted to help others.

He’s suffered enough…

“Johnovan…”

So badly…

“Please…don’t cry…”

I wanted to comfort him so badly…

“Ninya?” I held his cheeks with both hands. Futilely wiping his face dry of tears, I gave him a gentle kiss on his forehead.

“Remember when occasionally, I’d wake up sweating and crying from the nightmares of Fentashia Village? I would head straight to your bedroom and ask if I could sleep next to you. I felt safe in your arms, so much so that I’d forget about my nightmare. When you left, my nightmares came back. But this nightmare was different. Can you guess what my new nightmare was? It was the day you disappeared.” A gasp came out of Johnovan’s mouth.

“I cried in frustration and wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. But I couldn’t. I spent days without eating and hardly drinking anything before Gertrude convinced me to stay healthy because she told me you wouldn’t be happy to see me so malnourished when you’d come back.”

“Ninya…”

“Point is, while I’ll never get over my trauma of losing my family and most of my friends in Fentashia Village, I can’t get what I lost back. But you helped ease the pain of loss. And when you left without saying anything, the pain of losing you was just as bad, if not worse. Now that the man I love is back after the six years he’s been away, there’s no way I’d let him go again.” A small part of me was glad he was blind since my whole face was as red as a tomato’s.

“Love? Did…you say, love?”

When I say love, I don’t just mean the kind of love a child would have for their parents. I don’t know how much older Johnovan is, but I’m only a year away from adulthood. I’ve felt this way for him for quite a while now, so there was no point in hiding how I felt.

“Yes, I did. I love you, Johnovan. The Gods may have taken your sight, but not your heart. It takes a truly kind-hearted person like you to abstain from resentment toward those who shunned and hated you for doing what is right.” Watching Johnovan’s lips quiver before tears started to flow from his eyes yet again, It was sad and cute to see him trying to reel his emotions in. It was hard to tell if he was happy with how red his cheeks had gotten or how badly he was stricken with denial by hiding his face with his hands.

“But I’m an old, blind, irredeemable piece of trash! Good intentions or not, I made things worse in the long run! Why would you want someone like me?”

“Because you gave me purpose. You liberated me from despair. Even if I have to protect you from those after your life, I’ll suffer with you. Anywhere with you is paradise to me.”

It took me by surprise, but Johnovan rushed me with his arms outstretched before he wrapped them around mine. Watching Johnovan crying out loudly and shamelessly, my chest never felt so heavy and light simultaneously. The weight of his sins and burdens came crashing onto me. The anxiety and trauma of losing him left my mind there and then. We let our tears out without restriction. It didn’t matter how long it took or how shameless we looked.

Eventually, Johnovan’s cries died down until he grew quiet. As he went limp in my arms, his breathing slowed down to a calming pace before he fell asleep.

“Heh, you fell asleep, eh Johnovan?”

“Phew. That was quite a tearful reunion. I guess now’s a good time as any to show up.” Out of nowhere, just as when things calmed down between Johnovan and I, I heard an unfamiliar nearby. Acting on instinct, I turned to where the source of that voice was. “Hey, take it easy now! No need to give me that stare.” When I saw who that person was, my body relaxed almost immediately.

“…your appearance. Dark purple skin, demonic wings, horns, sharp pointy tail…”

“So you know what I look like from Johnovan’s illustration of me in his journal, do you? I guess you would, considering how often he’s read that to you.” I couldn’t sense any ill intent within him. Appearance-wise, he had everything a person would need to label him as a bad guy, yet the way he was smiling was so friendly that I couldn’t bring myself to push that kind of prejudice on him.

“That would make you…”

“Yes, not a proper way to introduce myself, I know. I initially planned on leaving the moment I knew Johnovan would be safe. Still, I couldn’t help but stay and watch you’re guy’s reunion. The name’s Alboron, Demon King of the Garenguld Monster Nation. It’s nice to meet you, Ninya.”

“Y-you know my name?”

“Course I do! Johnovan often talked about his life running Santa Kestana while he and I were traveling from Kingdom to Kindom to fix his ‘mistake.’” Emphasizing the word ‘mistake’ by air quoting with his fingers, he got closer to Johnovan and me until he was a few feet away. “Of the people he brought up, he mentioned you the most often with a smile. You’re a big reason why he’s back here now.” Saying that last part in an ‘as a matter of fact’ tone.

“I am?” Moving past us now, he leaned against the gum tree before he looked down at Johnovan.

“Yup. I’d explain more…but maybe we should save that discussion after we find a more comfortable place for Johnovan to sleep in?” I was happy to hold Johnovan while he was softly sleeping in my embrace, but he probably wasn’t too comfortable sleeping in the position he was in.

“Good idea. As sentimental as this place is for us, a bed would be better for him to sleep on.”

“I’ll carry Johnovan and follow you to Santa Kestana.” I led Alboron with Johnovan in tow back to Santa Kestana. Leading him to Johnovan’s bedroom, Alboron gently dropped Johnovan on his bed before we left to let him sleep in peace.

“Here you go. I don’t know if you prefer tea or coffee, so I made both.” I brought Alboron to the dining hall where he and I sat on a small table together.

“I like both, so I’ll drink both.” Laughing at himself, he drank the tea. Looking around the dining area, he hummed worriedly as his attention shifted from place to place in the dining hall. “Looks like this place has seen better days, huh?”

“I’m sorry. I should’ve known better than to invite a King here when the building is like this.” I’d been so busy repairing the building that I had to neglect cleaning it. Most of the dining tables had layers of dust and cobwebs on the top corners of almost every room. It was embarrassing thinking back.

“Don’t worry about it. You’ve been here alone for quite some time, right? I can’t expect a single person to clean this whole place easily. Anyways, I’ll explain where Johnovan and I have been for the past six years.”

“I want to guess that the two individuals involved with ending the war were you two? I didn’t know it before because he called you the ‘Demon King’ in Johnovan’s journal. And when he was here at the Orphanage, Johnovan went by his fake name Ulfritz.”

“Ah, so you know about that too? That makes things easier to explain. Yes, he changed his name to conceal his identity from the general public. I suspect the only other person who knew his true name is Gertrude.” In the six years that Johnovan was gone, I occasionally heard the caretakers talk about the other Kingdoms. Santa Kestana was closer to the Kingdom Lusfarna, a northern region known for its cold climate. Because of the lack of crops and sufficient wildlife to hunt meat, the Lusfarna attacked two neighboring Kingdoms for their goods.

Sitting on the east side of the continent known for its abundance of fish, Senatia sits on the edge of the western continent. A seaport city where its residents often traverse the seas to trade goods with the Eastern continent, they have merchants there and exchange goods there. Because of the abundance of fish and foreign goods Senatia has, the Lusfarna Kingdom sends soldiers there to strongarm them into giving up goods. Naturally, the war resulted in Senatia’s defiance.

As for the west side of the continent, the Kingdom of Jhouga was known for its agronomy. Blessed with life-giving soil, they had bountiful crops that grew local specialties highly sought after. The same goes for the wildlife that feast and often help spread said crops. Lusfarna is having trouble subjecting Jhouga under their control despite Jhouga’s considerably lower population count due to environmental factors.

As for the Kingdoms Welfrein and Phreous, they fought mining resources that existed south of Photasia. The caves have various metals and precious gems that fetched high prices due to scarcity.

“Photasia was the root problem between all the Kingdoms. I doubt you know this, but do you know why they built it in the first place?” I’m so glad I read up on history books as I got older since it let me prove Alboron wrong.

“Photasia was a joint project by the five Kings of the Kingdoms surrounding it. Rather than fight for it, they turned it into a convergence Kingdom where the Kings would meet every ten years to speak of any new developments in their Kingdoms. In these meetings, they swore an oath that the other Kings had only recently abolished. The oath was to never uphold information to one another and abstain from war.” With a short whistle followed by a smirk afterward, Alboron finished off his tea.

“Right. Photasia’s population was made up of small groups of people from the other Five Kingdoms as a sign of their neutral nature. Because Photasia had a bit of everything from each Kingdom, they eventually announced their independence when their population grew to match the other Kingdoms. They renounced its former status as a convergence Kingdom for the other Five to do their decade meetings as a show of power. You’d think the people of Photasia would be happy in their Kingdom, seeing that they have resources from the Five Kingdoms they used to be in, but no, they weren’t. The first two generations of Kings groomed Photasia into a Kingdom of war in preparation for invading the other Five Kingdoms after greed and power got the better of them. It eventually led to Photasia’s slow decay. You can guess what stopped them, right?” Alboron was sipping away at his coffee before he stared inquisitively.

“Johnovan…”

“Right again. Johnovan, Henson, and some like-minded allies joined him to end the suffering of the people of Photasia. He succeeded and led attained peace in Photasia for a short time. Things would’ve stayed that way if Johnovan minded his business and governed Photasia as its third King. But after taking the mantle of King, he felt responsible for the other five Kingdoms going to war with one another. Without their decade meetings, the other Kingdoms started plotting against one another. Coupled with Johnovan’s ideals of a world where everyone can and should get along, he decided to take a journey and free the other Kingdoms of their tyrannical rulers. The Gods even favored him for his heroic heart and granted him blessings and boons that earned him his namesake. You should know the rest from his journal.” To think Johnovan went through so much. It made me wonder just how old he was. That prompted me to ask Alboron about it.

“I know this is a bit out of topic, but how old is Alboron?”

“Oh, his age? His rebellion against the second King of Photasia started when he was fourteen. He was about nineteen by the time he fought me. He then opened Santa Kestana five years later at the age of twenty-four. Johnovan should be around forty-five by now.”

“Forty-five?! Why is his hair white already, and why is his body so weak?!” It came as a shock to me the first time Alboron told me Johnovan’s age.

“Johnovan told you he was cursed by the Gods after his ‘failures,’ right? The curse placed on him accelerates his body’s cell death. The strain of constantly regenerating cells causes his body to weaken. Because of the curse’s nature, there isn’t anything I can do. The only one who can lift the curse is the one who inflicted it. The best we can do is pray…” When I realized that I could do nothing to help Johnovan, I felt a sense of hopelessness similar to the one I felt back when Fentashia village.

How could the Gods be so unfair? Why did Johnovan have to suffer for other people’s sins? All he wanted to do was help others less fortunate than him.

“Anyways, I found Johnovan not long after he left Santa Kestana when one of my subordinates recognized him and noticed he was being attacked by mercs. When I brought him to my castle, the first thing on Johnovan’s mind was to end the war between the Five Kingdoms. He said he had to ‘right his wrongs.’ I initially told him it’d be hopeless, but after hearing the crazy bastard plotting to do it alone, I decided to tag along and help. Starting with Photasia, we overthrew Henson’s reign as King, and he got replaced by an old friend of Johnovan’s who helped him free Photasia from the previous King. From there, we went to the other Kingdoms one at a time. For every Kingdom we liberated, I tasked one of my generals, who used to lead my armies, to supervise them. It took six years, but we managed.” Alboron finished his coffee before he chuckled.

“Just so you know, as Johnovan and I went from Kingdom to Kingdom, he would bring up his time as Santa Kestana’s owner from time to time. He mentioned that he was happiest working in that Orphanage. Do you know when he was at his happiest? I’ll give you a hint. He was happiest whenever he talked about someone who insisted on being read books to…” With a knowing smirk, Alboron waited for me to say something.

“…” While I didn’t say anything in response, I guess my red cheeks were enough for him to go with before Alboron continued.

“Before his time would come, Johnovan wanted to come here to Santa Kestana. He didn’t think you’d still be here since he was confident you’d be adopted. So he wanted to sit at the Gum tree and reminisce. Thankfully, you were still here like I thought you’d be.”

“How’d you figure?”

“Simple. Since Johnovan often talked highly of you, I figured that he is just as important to you as you are to him. And I was right. I’m glad I eavesdropped and heard your tearful confession.” Even though Alboron was good-natured, his demonic personality meant he wasn’t above petty teasing as he puckered his lips mockingly.

“My, how unbecoming of someone whose supposed to be King of his castle…”

“Ah! Speaking of, I should get going.”

“What, already?”

“Yeah. I told you everything you needed to know about where Johnovan has been for the past six years and his reasons for doing so. I was going to stick around if no one would be here. But, since you’re here, I know he’s in good hands. I have to go back to Garenguld castle. Gotta make sure things aren’t falling apart in my presence.” As I walked with him back to the front door, Alboron offered his right hand for me to shake before leaving. “Ninya, take care of Johnovan for me, alright?”

“I will. Thank you for bringing Johnovan here, King Alboron.” When we shook hands, I felt something on my palms before I pulled away from his hand. “What’s this?”

“That’s a magic-infused pendant. If you need my help, just pour a bit of your mana into the pendant, and it’ll send a signal to me. If I can’t help you, I’ll send one of my subordinates.” With that, He waved goodbye before leaving.

“Now then…what should I do now that Johnovan’s back?” I had more questions to ask him. For now, I should be happy he’s back. “He’ll probably be hungry when he wakes up. In that case, I should cook him something.”

“…” Waiting for five hours after Alboron left, I saw Johnovan’s nose twitch from the corner of my eyes while reading a history book to pass the time. “Ugh…wh-where…” He got up slowly before he turned to the source of the smell. “That smell…”

“Baked potato with slices of beef covered in veggie broth. An adventurer’s staple, or so I heard from a certain someone.”

“Ahaha…I wonder who that could be…” Letting out a few chuckles, I had his meal on a bed tray before putting it on his lap for convenience’s sake.

“Eat up. I’m sure you’re hungry.”

“I sure am. Thank you for the meal.” Watching him eat fervently, I could barely contain the urge to question him. I wanted Johnovan to explain his situation more.

Was it hard helping those who abandoned him? How could he be so kind-hearted and selfless? I know I would have resentment in my heart if I was in his shoes. Knowing what the Gods did to him, I wanted to curse them at the top of my lungs.

I wanted to be angry on his behalf. Just thinking about it made me reflexively bite my bottom lip to the point of drawing blood.

“Ninya, are you angry?” Halfway through his meal, he stopped and turned to face me. “I can’t tell by sight, but I can feel hostility growing within you.”

“I…I’m not mad at you, Johnovan. Or…yeah, maybe I am in many ways. I’m mad that you left without saying anything for one. But, after Alboron told me what you did for the past six years, I have to wonder. Why help the other Kingdoms? You saved them before, but when you came to Photasia and got kicked out and called a traitor, did the other Kingdoms have your back? No, they didn’t!” It was hard to look at Johnovan since every time I looked at him, his resentful frown and faded eyes reminded me of what he got for helping others.

“Instead, they blamed you when Henson sent his forces to attack them. And the Gods punished you as if you did it! I don’t understand…”

“…Ninya…I’m happy that you’re angry on my behalf. Alboron was much the same way. A small part of me did feel that way at some point. At the time, I was so shocked by the betrayal and lack of loyalty that I couldn’t bring myself to fight back. I was crushed under the immense weight of it and crumbled. When I opened Santa Kestana as an escape from my failures, I wondered if I was atoning for my sins, however small it was. But, after bonding with everyone in the Orphanage and realizing what led them here, I felt that I needed to do something about it.” Despite his blindness, he had a sharp gleam in his vacant eyes.

“When I got jumped by that merc group six years ago, I felt like that was a sign for me to fix my mistakes while I still could. And thanks to Alboron, I managed to do so.” Finishing the rest of his meal, I stayed silent until he finished it. “Phew! It tastes just like how I made them. I never knew you were such a good cook, Ninya.”

“I’m glad you like it. My first few attempts weren’t great. Gertrude helped me improve, though. I’m sure she’ll be glad to see you back when she comes next year.”

“Gertrude’s coming back?”

“Yup. Gertrude’s going to visit next year to check up on me. You’d better not go anywhere before then…no, scratch that. You’d better not go anywhere, period.” I’d like to imagine that despite his blindness, Johnovan saw me pouting at him based on his smile.

“I don’t think I can go anywhere on my own anymore. Unless the Orphanage got remodeled, I might be able to navigate here through memory.”

“I’m here too, Johnovan. I don’t mind walking you wherever you need to go. If you want something to eat, I’ll cook for you. If you want to go outside for fresh air, I’ll take you outside. If you need help bathing, I can-” Seeing Johnovan’s face turn a deep shade of red from embarrassment was always a sight to behold. Only I had the pleasure of seeing him like that.

“Ah! I-I can bathe myself, Ninya!” Raising his voice while hiding his face with his hands, it would’ve fit the mood more if I teased Johnovan a bit more. But I wanted to know if he loves me the same way for me the way I love him.

“Johnovan…” Speaking as softly as I could, I gently pried his hands away from his face. “About what I said earlier before you passed out. Do you love me back?”

“Y-you’re bringing this up now?”

“Yes, and I want a serious answer…” Averting his eyes as if he could see me, seeing the lump of air form in his throat made me feel anxious as I waited for an answer. “I take it when you said you love me, it’s not the kind of love between a parent and child, right?”

“Johnovan…” It wouldn’t be the last time, but that was one of the few instances where I genuinely got annoyed with him.

“Alright, alright. I’m sure taking care of a blind fool like me will be quite a burden, but if you’re serious about this, then I’ll dedicate what little life I have left to you. If you’ll me, then my answer is simple. I love you too, Ninya…” Getting the answer I had hoped for, I couldn’t hold back before I jumped on the bed with him. Kissing him right on his lips, he returned the favor with a kiss of his own.

“Hey, Johno…dear?”

“We’re getting to that already? Well, what is it, honey?”

“Welcome home…” We spent the rest of the time catching up for about two hours before we slept together. There was so much more I wanted to talk to him about, but now that I know he’s here to stay, there’s no need to rush.

At least, that’s how I felt at first.

“H-honey, do you need help with anything?”

“Hmm? No, don’t worry about me, dear. Dinner’s almost ready, so just hang tight, okay?” I wanted to deny it. Alboron warned me time and time again, but I was desperately denying what was clearly in front of me. “Tonight’s dinner is packed with lots of vitamins to help keep your strength up.”

“Don’t get the wrong idea, it’s every man’s dream to have a woman who loves them to dote on them, but I feel useless just sitting around all day.” They say even if someone can’t see you, smiling can help with sounding happy.

“Is that right? Think of it as me repaying you for all the trouble I caused as a kid. You’d spend hours talking to me whenever I had a fit after all.” It was hard, really, really hard.

“Haha, I do recall those moments. Since you didn’t talk before, all I could do was wait for you to come out.” Every time Johnovan stood up, his legs would shake. His knees were in constant threat of buckling under. Even though he was only in his late forties, Johnovan had the strength of someone in their eighties. I have to be careful walking him up and down the stairs.

“Yeah, but hearing you talk to me on the other side of the door was always reassuring. And I knew you would always be there, even if I holed myself up for half the day.” I read every book I could get my hands on regarding curses. Maybe there was something I could do to cure him.

But as Alboron said, the only person who could lift the curse from Johnovan was the one who cast it.

Even if it’s gone, who’s to say the damage caused by it would be reversed? It would just prevent his symptoms from getting worse.

“Yup. You were difficult to deal with, but I’m glad you’ve grown into a splendid woman. Far from what I deserve.”

“Stop that. Stop beating yourself up so much and eat.”

I haven’t given up on finding a solution yet, but while looking for one, I also prayed to the Gods to forgive Johnovan. Praying for forgiveness when Johnovan did nothing wrong irritated me to no end. It went against what I believed to be common sense. Tempted to curse the Arch-Angel Ravael several times, I abstained for one reason and one reason only.

To see Johnovan freed from the torment this curse is causing him.

“Hmm…you sure know your way around spices. Even with these dead tastebuds, I can taste the love you put into this meal with every bite.” Johnovan puts on a brave face whenever he knows I’m around, but I know he’s hurting. “Hmm, is the roof leaking again? I felt something wet on my lap just now.”

“Y…yea…I’ll take care of it later…” It was frustrating…

Was it cruel of me to confess my love to him? Because of me, Johnovan’s found the will to live for as long as he could. But if living meant a life of suffering, then maybe I should’ve let him die while he was still comfortable.

God…

Is it really too much to ask for forgiveness?! I want Johnovan to live, but I don’t want him to suffer either! The duality of it made me break into silent tears.

It had to be.

“Ninya…thank you for always taking care of me. I love you…” Having said what he did while I was crying, I desperately wiped the tears from my cheeks. Trying to force a smile, I held his hands with mine, holding them gently.

“Of course. I love you, Johnovan. I’ll be here for you always.”

That night after Johnovan fell asleep, I threw my resentment away and prayed genuinely to the Gods above.

“Please…if you’re up there, I beg of you. If there’s even a bit of compassion in your hearts, find it in your hearts to forgive Johnovan. I beg of you…” I can’t recall how many times I repeated those words. I did so until I was close to passing out. Going back to bed with Johnovan afterward, I wrapped my arms around him before I fell asleep.

“Hnngg…ah…” After last night’s exhausting prayers, I woke up somewhat rested. Looking at the grandfather clock ticking directly in front of the bed, it showed that it was ten in the morning. “I overslept…” Getting off the bed, the first thing on my mind was food. “Today, I think I’ll make eggs and sausages…” Stretching my arms up high, I took a deep breath before heading to the kitchen to make breakfast.

Bringing the two finished breakfast plates on a wooden bed tray, by the time I got to the bedroom, I saw the balcony windows doors open with Johnovan leaning forward onto the wooden handrails.

“Ah, you’re up. Taking in a breath of fresh air to start the day?” The sun’s glare was at just the right angle to obscure my view of Johnovan. I just had to move closer to where he’s at to solve that problem. Moving just close enough so that the sun wouldn’t be a problem, I couldn’t believe what I saw once my eyes adjusted.

“Ninya…this is real…right? I’m not dreaming, am I?” I only noticed Johnovan’s hair had turned black briefly before he turned around. His vacant white eyes were nowhere to be seen. In their place were vivid Jade-colored eyes.

“J-Johnovan…” As if time had slowed down, I noticed that the color of his skin was the same shade he had back in his prime. It’s not just the color, but his complexion was noticeably better.

Then, there’s the fact that he was walking with no difficulty. Before, his legs would shake with every step he took. His body’s physique practically screamed heroism with his well-defined, lean muscles. His short-sleeved shirt and knee-length pajama shorts showed off his toned forearms and calves.

His hair was strikingly different from what it was like before. Jet black, his hair was a spiky mess that no comb could ever tame.

And finally, I know I mentioned this already, but his eyes had such a lustrous sheen. It’s like they’re carved directly from the precious gemstones his eye color was named after.

“I hardly recognize you. You’ve gotten taller. Your body matured splendidly. I can hardly believe I held your beautiful figure in my arms when we slept. Your silky smooth hair tapers down to your waist. Whenever I ran my fingers down your silky-smooth hair, I felt at ease from how soft they felt to the touch. It helps that they carry a flowery scent.” It was hard to believe. How could Johnovan look so young? Did my prayers actually work?

“And your eyes…the sun’s reflection casts a beautiful gleam to their pearlescent pink color.” When he got within arm’s reach, he gently put his right hand on my left cheek. “The scar on your left cheek healed nicely. I can hardly see it.” Oddly, the one thing that didn’t change was his touch. His hands still felt calloused like before.

A wave of emotions hit me before I felt the strength in my legs give in.

“Whoa, don’t drop the bed tray now. Don’t want to let good food go to waste. Especially ones made by you.” Holding onto my waist to make sure I wouldn’t fall, I got my bearings just in time before standing straight again.

It took every ounce of willpower I had to wait for him to set the tray down on a table nearby. The moment he finished and turned back around, I ran straight for him and tackled him to the bed.

“J-JOHNOVAN! WH-WHAT HAPPENED?!?!?! Why do you…look so young?!” I couldn’t be bothered to wait for a response before I started poking and feeling his body all over. His muscles were the real deal. His skin was soft and smooth to the touch. His hair was prickly and thick. The more I touched him, the more I wanted to feel.

“I…I’m not sure. But I was dreaming…and somehow, Arch-Angel Ravael visited me in my dream and lifted the curse that’s plagued me. He then changed my body back to before I got cursed. The Gods got prayers from people around the continent. Most were from people I didn’t know personally but helped in some way. Then, some payers came from close friends like Alboron.” Suddenly, Johnovan gently wraps his arms around my waist, pulling me tighter in his embrace. “Then, there’s you. The one who prayed for me every single day.”

“He heard my prayers?”

“He did. Here’s what he told me…”

[“I…did you just say what I think you said?” In my dreams, Arch-Angel Ravael restored my vision first, just so I could see him before she slowly took a knee in front of me.

“Yes, I’m sorry…” Arch-Angel Ravael said to be the messenger of Gods, was on his hands and knees, begging me for forgiveness. “At the time, the Gods were at a loss for a solution on how to quell the human’s dwindling faith when the Hero King they blessed with divine power was thrown out of his own Kingdom and was called a traitor. As you know, we didn’t care what the cause or reason was, so we punished you as a way to redeem ourselves.” From what Alboron told me, Angels and Gods were a prideful race that rarely admit their faults. To see a high-ranking Angel like him prostrating with his wings spread out, was the most sincere form of apology one could get from them.

“P-please, you don’t need to apologize. No matter how good my intentions were, it didn’t change the fact that I left my home Kingdom. If I hadn’t, then the people I freed wouldn’t have had to suffer at the hands of Henson. My suffering is nothing compared to what the people of Photasia went through…”

“I see. Some of the prayers we heard said as much. Henson was the one who made the people of Photasia suffer, yet you take the blame as if you were responsible for it. A truly selfless man…”

“Prayers, what prayers?” When he finished apologizing, Ravael told me about the people who prayed for me. For three years, people from across the continent prayed to thank me for bringing peace back to their perspective Kingdoms. Alboron was the one who spread the truth of what happened between me and Henson to his generals and, by extension, the people in each Kingdom his generals were in charge of. When the news reached Photasia, many felt guilty for blaming me for its downfall during Henson’s reign.

“Do you know whose prayers were heard the most from? She’s the one closest to your heart…”

“Ninya…” Ravael had a hell of a grin afterward. Then, he offered his right hand for me to shake.

“Johnovan, the next time you wake up, you’ll be able to see Ninya and personally thank her. I now lift the curse from your body. In addition, I’ll grant you back the time you lost suffering at the effects of my curse and bring your body back to its prime before the curse took effect. You fought to free the people of Photasia and those from the other five Kingdoms, after all. You gave countless people their freedom and lives, so it shouldn’t be an issue to give you yours back.”]

“After that, I shook his hand before everything turned white. That’s when I woke up.” Laying together in our bed, I leaned against Johnovan’s chest. “Ninya…I have a lot of things to say, but right now, the only thing that comes to mind is Thank you…” I felt his arms trembling just now. Then, I felt something wet fall down my left cheek before I looked up at him. “I convinced myself that I deserved everything that had happened to me after I got abandoned by my friends and family in Photasia. But deep down, I felt so resentful. I only tried to help, but no one believed me. I had no choice but to accept being the bad guy because it was the only thing people saw me as!” Letting his true feelings out, I had to do something to comfort him.

“It’s alright, Johnovan. You were braver than anyone else in Photasia. Any other person in your situation would’ve undoubtedly turned evil if they were in your shoes.” Seeking comfort, Johnovan changed positions and leaned onto me. Burying his face in my chest, I brushed my fingers across his hair while gently patting him on his back. “I’m sure you have plenty to say to the people back in Photasia. So if you want to, we can always go there.” Johnovan’s hug got a little tighter before he relaxed his arms. Then, pulling his head off my chest, he wiped the tears from his face before shaking his head.

“No, I don’t need to. I’m done traveling, at least for now. Right now, I want to settle down here in Santa Kestana with you.”

“The building’s all broken down, though. I tried to fix it myself, but I’m not good with carpentry…”

“Well, it’s a good thing I’m back in my prime. We’ll fix Santa Kestana together and bring it back to its former glory!”

“You mean, almost to its former glory.”

“Huh? What do you mean by that?” I gave up on this idea considering his condition years ago…

“It’s just…Santa Kestana is quite big. Even if we fix it up, the place feels barren with just the two of us…” Knowing exactly where I was going with this, Johnovan’s face got as red as a tomato’s.

“Maybe after we tie the knot…we can have seven or so kids to help make Santa Kestana feel more lively?” Sometime between when I was fourteen and seventeen, I read a book about several elf species. Most elves have bright green, ocean blue, or wood-bark brown eyes. My eyes were pearlescent pink. At first, I thought it was a mutation of sorts, but I belonged to a rare group of Elves known as ‘Estrus Elves.’ With our unusual eye color, Estrus Elves are genetically compatible with most creatures like Mermaids, Goblins, Orcs, Demons, etc.

“S-seven?! That’s a tall order…” Humans are no exception, of course.

“H-huh? That’s a perfectly normal amount to have, right?” It’s believed that Estrus Elves came about due to the Goddess of Love Eros’s influence on Greenland Elves due to their Xenophobic nature, which persists in Estrus Elves in their youth but goes away as they reach sexual maturity. No matter who they mate with, Estrus Elf offsprings always inherit their pearlescent pink-colored eyes, which the offspring pass onto others, and so on.

“We’ll make Santa Kestana lively again! Now that your body is in its prime, you’d better show me your heroic spirit…” Wrapping my arms around his neck before planting a deep kiss, I left it at that since we hadn’t eaten yet. “You’ll need it if you hope to satisfy me…”

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