THE PHANTOM HAWKEYE

by Adri Mars

CHAPTER 2: HEROES

The Royal Palace of the Empire of Echizen

Gratian, Echizen

April 9th (after lunch hour)

Overlooking the entire view of Echizen's grand capital city of Gratian, the gracefully angel-faced Princess Asuna of Exeter played the role of an amateur beastmaster by having a little meeting with the birds perching on the balustrade of the palace balcony. Like the way fairy tales written about beautiful princesses being serenaded by the wild animals, she, on the other hand, whistled along with the sparrows and the thrushes, with one small bird clinging on to one of her fingers. Now officially engaged to marry the very enigmatic heir to the Empire of Echizen, Crown Prince Dartagnan, she moved in to the Echizenian Royal Palace two months ago, just two weeks right after the official announcement of their engagement. Knowing her prince needed to do his royal duties in preparation for his future coronation, she knew she had to improvise one way or the other whenever she wasn't busy herself within the palace walls by doing other activities that may not even considered princess standards.

While whistling along the melodious sounds of the birds surrounding her, she heard a rather painful note from another bird not too far away from where she was standing. She turned her head to notice that one sparrow wailed in sadness to see a fellow sparrow lying dead on the surface.

Princess Asuna tiptoed silently to where the birds were at the balcony area. There was a stereotype throughout Gaia regarding refined princesses being disgusted at anything involving war, violence, and death. Apparently for the alluring Princess Asuna, that was not the case for her.

"What's wrong, little friend?" Asuna asked the bird. She bent down to see the dead bird, and with her bare hand, she gently picked it up and laid the stiff bird on to her left palm.

"You poor thing," Asuna whispered. "What's happened?" She gazed up at the sky, wondering if there were any predators or any other unseen forces that may have killed this unfortunate soul.

"You may be just a bird, but birds meant to live a long life, ne?" The princess gave a slight grin and brought her right hand, covering the dead bird altogether. She slowly closed her eyes and began to whistle a tune.

Just some moments later, she felt something moving inside her hands. She opened her eyes and slowly lifted her right hand away. Right then, the bird that was dead just a few moments ago was now standing, chirping, ready to flap its wings to fly away.

"Now, isn't that better, little friend?" The princess muttered with her grin. "But you're still weak. You need to rest a bit."

She headed back inside her chamber, where she approached a large cage with different types of birds inside. She brought the newly-revived bird in the cage in order to recover. Sure, she may have revived an animal from the dead at this point, however she did not have any capabilities to recover the newly-revived victim at the same time. Like every mage and healer out there, they may have powers, but there were always limits. Once she placed the bird inside, she filled the dish inside with more bird seeds and water to feed them. Though she may have a huge collection of birds in her cage, they do not remain in the cage forever. These are the birds that were once dead and she had the opportunity to revive them. She referred to this cage as the infirmary cage, where she plays the nurse and the birds become patients on their way to recovery.

Just as she was finished with the cage, she heard the drawbridge gates leading to the surrounding courtyard of the palace entrance opening. She overheared the words from the guards stating "Welcome home, Your Royal Highness," immediately indicating that her betrothed, the alluring heir to the Echizenian Empire, Crown Prince Dartagnan, just arrived from his horseback trip. As the prince entered, four familiar men, also on horseback, followed him from behind. She already knew three of them, but the fourth one tailing them was definitely a new guest she hasn't greeted yet.

The raven-haired regal beauty donning in a sky blue satin dress dashed back inside and made her way down to the grand lobby area of the palace. Just as the five young men entered with escorts from their troops and aides, she met and welcomed her love and his comrades with open arms. Prince Dartagnan returned the embrace along with a kiss on the cheek.

"Welcome home, my love," the princess chirped, loosening up her grip around his shoulders. "And welcome home to you boys: Erlich, Ferris, and Marlon!"

"And a good day to you do, Your Highness," Erlich led the greeting, as he, Ferris, and Marlon bowed their heads to her.

"Never mind the bowing, you need to update me with your adventures around Cloris County and the Eros Council rite!" Princess Asuna chuckled. "The emperor had to take off at an emergency meeting with the Senate. Empress Regina and the twin princes, Ehren and Edsel, are of course, still in Carme attending the grand opening of a new specialized middle school of wizardry there, so in short, I have the entire palace to myself!"

The boys chuckled as the prince coughed. "Asuna, you remember Lord Galen Gulliver, don't you?" He introduced their new guest in the palace. Galen bowed as the princess nodded.

"Of course I do, dear Dartagnan. Welcome to our humble abode, Lord Galen."

"A pleasure to be here, Your Highness," Galen responded with the usual formalities.

The slightly spiked up platinum blonde-haired prince coughed once more. "We have a lot of very important issues to discuss about that needs to be done in private, everyone." His emerald eyes slowly began to scan around the area for a few seconds, then turned to his princess. "My princess, this is quite surprising."

"Oh? What's that?"

"Where's Captain Angus? He's not here today?"

The princess gave a snicker. "I gave him the day off today."

The three non-Echizenian guests turned to Galen, who seems to feel a little out of place at this point. "Captain Angus is Exeterian assigned by Princess Asuna's worrywart father to be the princess' personal guard," Ferris smirked. "But he acts more like a fanboy than he is of a respectable knight."

The princess sighed in embarrassment. "I didn't need a personal guard at all, but Father insisted. And he's so overprotective that he would do anything to ward off any man who would come close to me. Even he mistakes Dartagnan as one of those he needs to ward off as well, which embarrasses the emperor, of course."

Dartagnan gave a light chuckle. "Captain Angus never really liked me in the first place. But anyway, enough of that. Shall we talk about these issues in private over tea and cakes?"

Moments later, the teens of the elite arrived at the prince's personal chambers, where Dartagnan ordered the servants and guards to do their task of guarding the hallway leading to his chambers. The table was that of a perfect square that can fit two seats per side. Naturally, the royal couple sat at one side. Erlich and Galen sat on the side adjacent to the prince. The two Lindblumian lords sat adjacent to the princess. The maids entered with chamomile tea and powdered teacakes on a tray, but that was all they had to do. Princess Asuna insisted that they will be serving themselves from the tray and that they will call them when the tea and the cakes are all gone. Once everything was set and were now helping themselves, their private meeting finally began.

Erlich placed the legendary Starblazer rifle back in its case, as it was given to him earlier by one of the servants at the entrance. With the way Dartagnan gazed at the rifle, it was eminent on the first topic that the prince would like to speak to them about.

"With the way your emerald jeweled eyes gaze at the ivory Starblazer, Dartagnan, I suppose you would like to discuss about what happened earlier at the Eros Council rite at Luveon City?" Erlich snickered as he sat back up on his seat, with the rifle case now sitting underneath his seat.

"All four of you were mumbling this and that that I didn't understand a single word about what happened earlier," Dartagnan sighed, sipping on his tea. "Now, could you start all over please?"

Ferris gently scratched the right side of his chin. "Erm, which one you want to hear first? How we did with the Eros Council matchmakers or Galen's BFF?"

The prince sighed, shaking his head. "Do I have to spell it out for you all? The latter, of course!"

Galen blinked his eyes nervously. "So… you want me to talk about Dudley Bly, Dartagnan?"

"Why didn't you jerks introduce me to him earlier? Just because I finished my meeting with the council head, that doesn't mean we had to go home straight away—"

"Ah! It's for your protection, Your Highness!" Marlon blurted out quickly. "We all got chased by fanatic girls all throughout Luveon City. Even Galen here was also being chased around even if he's already engaged to the lovely Lady Larissa. They'd still chase you even if you're already engaged to Princess Asuna."

The princess joined in the conversation, bringing the randomness back in to subject. "Dudley Bly, this is the villager teacher that you spoke of, Galen? Your friend from school?"

Galen nodded. "He's really cool! I think he deserves to be in our exclusive circle. I know how both of you are picky when it comes to this circle, but…"

"Eventually he will be in the circle, you know. The 277th Crown Regiment, most especially," Ferris made a note. "He's a little… unique… but he's alright, actually."

"Well then," Dartagnan interrupted. "What happened earlier today during the Eros Council rite with Mr. Bly? Care to tell me word for word?"

Erlich nodded in agreement. "Dart, we… actually, let me speak for myself first. I believe that we may have found the Phantom Hawkeye. It seems this year is the thirtieth year already."

"Eh?" Marlon asked curiously. "I thought you said that you think Dudley Bly is another guardian of the Phantom Hawkeye?"

"I said, Marlon, that there's a fifty-fifty chance that Dudley Bly is the Phantom Hawkeye or the guardian of the Phantom Hawkeye. I don't know about you guys, but I personally think that Dudley is the new Phantom Hawkeye."

Galen nodded in agreement. "Much as I hate to say this, and I know Dudley doesn't look anything extraordinary when you look at him, but I too believe that he's the Phantom Hawkeye… whether he likes it or not."

"Will you guys tell me why you feel that Mr. Dudley Bly is the Phantom Hawkeye?"

Erlich volunteered to go first, contemplating at the time when Dudley spotted his Shadow Sinclair sword for the first time. "I already noticed it way before he even took note of the Starblazer strapped on my back, Dart. We were standing at a good distance that he could see my entire body and just the handle of my Shadow Sinclair sticking out from my back… but there was just no way in hell that he would be able to spot the 277th Crown Regiment emblem on the handle of my sword. There's just no way. He would have to be just a few inches closer to me for him to be able to see that. We were standing apart approximately five feet from each other."

"Eh? How's that related to the Phantom Hawkeye bit, Erlich?" Ferris asked curiously.

"Don't you guys remember how the legend goes?" Erlich reminded. "The legend said about the Phantom Hawkeye: his eyesight, especially his right eye, has the same precise telescopic vision as powerful as that of a hawk's. At a far distance, the Phantom Hawkeye can see all the vivid details, most especially his target. The legend also states, anyone keen to notice these small details of a simple human being will easily detect that person is the chosen Phantom Hawkeye by the spirit of the Starblazer and exceeding visual acuity is one of them."

"But… how can you know that Dudley's right eye is the one that has higher visual acuity than his left?" Marlon asked another curious question.

"Doesn't matter, Marlon," Erlich sighed. "The fact still stands that Dudley was able to see the emblem on my sword's handle while he's standing about five feet away from me."

"Any more symptoms that would confirm your beliefs regarding Dudley Bly?" Dartagnan continued to prod.

"Yes, Dart. After he gave me back my sword when I let him take a grasp of it, he spotted the Starblazer crossed underneath my sword's scabbard. Now, the general public, even the Eros Council matchmakers earlier, noted that I only have one sword strapped on my back. Dudley, on the other hand, thought I had two swords strapped on my back. Him spotting the Starblazer mistaking it as a second sword really threw me off there."

"And… it really scared us too," Ferris gasped. "No normal human being would just be able to see the Starblazer just like that. Plus, if I remember it correctly, the Starblazer's spirit would choose the guardians first before it finds the new Phantom Hawkeye of this period."

"There's more, Dartagnan," Erlich continued, nibbling on his teacake. "I gave in to Dudley's insistent about my so-called second sword and revealed the Starblazer to him. This was when it finally got me convinced that he is the Phantom Hawkeye. When he took a hold of the Starblazer, it's like it was just natural to him. Remember how we were all able to see the rifle ourselves but we couldn't even figure out how to use it or how to handle it because of its intricacy and weight? Dudley Bly grabbed the rifle from me with just one hand and then used its riflescope properly, facing a tree. It was like he and the Starblazer became one in the same."

"Ah!" Princess Asuna exclaimed, covering her mouth in shock. "Then, we finally found our Phantom Hawkeye then!"

"My goodness," Dartagnan gasped, "if that Dudley Bly really is the Phantom Hawkeye, then your suggestion of carrying the Starblazer along with you during our Cloris County trip and to the Eros Council rite really did work wonders. You are one clever guy, Erlich."

"So," Ferris said, "have we come to a conclusion now that Dudley Bly is really the Phantom Hawkeye?"

The prince fell silent and began to contemplate. The others also did the same, reciting the entire legend of the Phantom Hawkeye and comparing him to Dudley Bly earlier today.

"Oh, and when we said bye, he just randomly asked us if we liked singing or not," Marlon shrugged his shoulders. "Well, I'm sure that's got nothing to do with the Phantom Hawkeye but… I wonder why he would ask such a random question."

"Singing, huh," Dartagnan chuckled. "I have something to say about that but I can save it for later."

Erlich then spoke out from silence. "I'm really serious, Dart. I really do believe that Dudley Bly is the Phantom Hawkeye. Everything that we witnessed with him earlier today perfectly fits the description."

"But Erlich, he's not even of noble blood. The Phantom Hawkeye has always been of noble blood, right?'

The prince raised an eyebrow towards Ferris. "Remember history class, everyone. The historical list of all the Phantom Hawkeyes stretched for about eight centuries and that most of them come from the empires of Anatolia and Calaberos and they were all of aristocracy. Lunaria still has yet to have a Phantom Hawkeye and Echizen only had one so far— the previous Phantom Hawkeye from thirty years ago."

Princess Asuna nodded in agreement. "And, speaking of the previous Phantom Hawkeye, he was also a commoner."

"Eh?" Ferris and Marlon gasped in shock. "But… how can that be?"

"The legend never stated that the Phantom Hawkeye is that of aristocratic blood anyway," Erlich snickered. "His superb marksmanship and his tactical skills at warfare has nothing to do with class. Anyone with the heart and mind of becoming a superb gunner would have those types of skills and mindset." He sipped on his tea and then continued. "I can tell that Dudley Bly doesn't have a very high self esteem. He insisted that he's just Dudley Bly. When I shook his hand introducing one another earlier, I knew immediately that he's got something hidden in his sleeve that he isn't showing us right then."

"No, I wouldn't say it that way," Galen broke his silence. "I would say that he's got something hidden in his sleeve that he's afraid of showing to anyone."

Dartagnan gently slammed his fist on the table surface. "Starting tomorrow, Galen, would it be possible for us to meet?"

"Meet?" Galen asked curiously. "Do you want me to come here to Gratian again or will you be visiting Luveon City?"

The prince shook his head. "I mean, would it be possible for you to arrange a meeting between Dudley Bly and myself? Because we are sure that he really is the Phantom Hawkeye, it is our duty as guardians, as the legend goes, to keep mum of the Phantom Hawkeye's real identity. Remember, it's only right after he kills the rising evil sorcerer that we can finally reveal his true identity. I would like to have a private meeting with him. I don't want anyone from the palace or anyone in the general public to know that the Crown Prince of Echizen is seeking a commoner teacher who may be the Phantom Hawkeye."

Galen gulped nervously. "Um… we have a bit of a problem with that… Dartagnan."

"I don't care if he's homeless, Galen. If you want I can disguise myself as a commoner so no one would be able to detect my identity in public…"

"No, it's not that, Your Highness," Galen sighed. "You see… Dudley doesn't believe that he's the Phantom Hawkeye."

The prince acknowledged with a nod. "I can understand him, Galen. I would react the same way if I were in his shoes earlier."

"The thing with Dudley is… as Erlich says… he doesn't have a really high self-esteem. It's got something to do with his past. I mean to tell you the truth, I'm his only friend whom he can actually consider a best friend. He's not very good with people, even though I've always convinced him to meet new friends."

"But he's engaged himself, yes?" Princess Asuna asked curiously. "I believe that's what you said?"

"I mean, when it comes to guys, Princess," Galen sighed. "He gets nervous and gets intimidated easily, especially with guys bigger than him and of course, anyone from nobility as well." He sighed once more and faced everyone at the table. "I know this may be too much to ask, but… I don't know what to do to help Dudley be more confident in himself. I've done all I can, but I guess with the whole class and what not, he seems to separate himself from everyone else."

The princess simply smiled. "You want us to be friends with him also?"

"I like him already, you know," Marlon sighed along. "If he has that problem of having low self-esteem, then imagine how he would feel when he does find out that him being the Phantom Hawkeye. He's going to have a complete nervous breakdown, knowing that there will be high expectations of him and that failure is not an option."

"He's been through situations like that before, Marlon, and he's overcome them on his own," Galen answered. "So I don't think he should be fine once the fact finally sinks to him."

"I agree with Marlon also," Ferris nodded. "I mean, if you think about it, Galen, being the Phantom Hawkeye means he will have to kill another human being. Just looking at Dudley Bly, obviously he hasn't harmed a single fly before."

"He does occasional hunting, remember," Galen frowned. "But you know, that's part of living in a rural area like Sweet Apple Valley. He's killed animals before."

"But to kill another human being is a whole different story. He's not just out there hunting for food and game. He would be ending a life of one of his own."

Dartagnan hushed everyone at the table. "Alright, enough arguing about that. Now, I know that everyone sitting around this table are the ones who can see the Starblazer at first sight. This already means that we're already chosen as the guardians of the Phantom Hawkeye. Why don't we do what we can to help Dudley gain his confidence and give him all the necessary training that he needs to accomplish the mission of killing the sorcerer using the Starblazer and the Silver Pearl bullets? Guardians aren't just there to keep the Phantom Hawkeye safe. They're there to help him guide his way in to completing his destined mission. Now, to the public, we are of the ruling class, but in the 277th Crown Regiment, we are merely guardians and the Phantom Hawkeye is our leader."

Both the princess and Erlich nodded in agreement. "From what we have now," the princess began, "we all have different roles as chosen guardians. Dartagnan is a crusader. Ferris is a knight while Marlon is a berserker. Naturally, Galen here is our conjurer."

"My princess is our cleric," Dartagnan grinned.

"And Erlich is…" Right then, all eyes were directly towards the Lunarian swordsman.

Erlich blinked once he noticed everyone staring at him. "What?"

"A death knight!" Marlon gasped. "All four of us attended the same academy growing up and we all decided to be swordsmen, but you are one nasty badass warrior! Plus, of course, the black suits you a lot."

"A death knight, huh," Erlich smirked. "Call what you like, Marlon. I'm just simply a unique type of swordsman."

"A deadly swordsman with death on his mind!" Marlon snickered.

"Ugh, please don't make me sound like a ruthless murderer, Marlon!"

"All of us are guilty when it came to killing other people, but it was all in self-defense. We mostly killed thugs and heartless murderers on the way who try to harm the innocent. Erlich, on the other hand, was merciless when it came to fighting and killing!"

"You're the berserker, Marlon, shouldn't that be your role?" Ferris chuckled.

"I may be fast at hack and slashing, but Erlich seriously has no mercy!"

Dartagnan joined in. "Don't forget we also have Captain Angus as our axe knight." Princess Asuna gave a frown, still feeling disbelief that her tag-along personal bodyguard was also one of the lucky individuals who was able to see the Starblazer before his eyes.

"Now that we speak of being warriors," Erlich continued. "In two weeks is this year's Art of Warfare Tournament, isn't it?"

"It's also Dartagnan's eighteenth birthday also," the princess reminded. "And according from the official schedules, from what I can remember, they both land on the same day."

The crown prince gave a smirk. "Because it will be the day I will be turning eighteen, I now finally have the right to organize my own birthday celebration without any intervention from the meddling traditionalist parents and other advisers." He lifted his head and glanced at the boys. "And you guys are gonna help me organize it."

Galen gave a nod. "I do most of the event organizing back at Luveon City because my father the mayor just don't know what he's doing during these things. I believe I can be your greatest asset when it comes to parties, Your Highness."

"And that is the reason why I brought you along in here, Galen," the prince grinned. "Thank you for coming along."

Erlich coughed. "What about the Art of Warfare Tournament, Dart? How are your plans for your celebration be affected with this worldwide event coming up?"

The prince whistled in his usual calm state. "No worries, Erlich. My ideal celebration for my eighteenth birthday will also include the tournament itself."

"That's a relief," Marlon sighed. "Imagine the entire empire, your parents especially, would be so ticked off if you demanded to even postpone the tournament just for the sake of your birthday celebration."

Dartagnan shook his head. "My plan isn't going to be just a celebration of my eighteenth birthday. I also want this to be a celebration of the spirit of the Echizenian youth and also a celebration in dedication to the world's greatest warriors."

"That would be one grand celebration then, Dartagnan," Asuna cheered.

"And of course, it would be one special celebration that would lure our Phantom Hawkeye friend to us as well."

The rest of the table gave perplexed looks at the prince. "Lure… you mean lure Dudley here?" Galen asked curiously.

"As stated, Galen," the prince nodded.

Galen gently scratched the side of his head. "I don't understand, Your Highness. Why are we requiring Dudley to come to us? Why not we just travel over to Sweet Apple Valley to visit him? I mean, do you know how long it is for him to get to Gratian all the way from Sweet Apple Valley? Unless if he got lucky and hitch a ride on someone's carriage, it would take him at least a day to get here on foot."

The prince softly laughed. "Galen, did you forget what I said earlier? As guardians, we must keep the Phantom Hawkeye's true identity mum from the public. Knowing my reputation in public, as well as your reputation as well, Galen, everyone will suspect of us being seen in his village."

The princess nodded quickly. "Dartagnan's right, Galen. People will wonder what is Mr. Bly's business with the Echizenian Royal Couple visiting his home unannounced. They won't suspect us visiting him in private, they will suspect Mr. Bly."

Galen sighed, realizing where the royal couple was coming from. "You're right. This is going to be difficult for him. He has no choice but he himself would have to travel here at Gratian."

"Don't worry too much, Galen," Erlich snickered. "You may look at Dudley as some defenseless and meek-looking guy, but looks can be deceiving. I just have this feeling that he isn't as weak as you think."

"No, he isn't. I mean, that's not what I'm trying to say, Erlich! I know he's not weak, but I already warned you guys about how he is with meeting strangers and…"

The prince coughed to get their attention. "Listen, Galen. Everyone. My plans for my birthday is solid foolproof that the Phantom Hawkeye Dudley Bly will want to come here."

Galen blinked his eyes, still feeling skeptical. "How would you do that, Your Highness?"

"You'll see, Galen. I am about to explain my plan right now."

#

Sweet Apple Valley Elementary School

Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County, Echizen

April 15th (morning)

Almost a week passed and Dudley already got accustomed to having that very same red-streaked black hawk accompanying him from home to the elementary school to his university at Gratian and then back home again. When he prepared breakfast, the black hawk would be perching at the sill of the kitchen window. When he would have his lunch with his fiancee and fellow teacher Laine Como, that same black hawk would watch guard of him at a nearby tree. Whenever they felt like having a picnic at the open space, the black hawk would just be sitting at a nearby object, also keeping an eye on him. Through these days, Miori, his mother, and even his youngest sibling Drake already noticed of the black hawk's unsolved presence at their household. Just yesterday, even Laine herself began to notice the bird as well.

Dudley began to feel weary of the bird's presence, so much that Laine decided to stop by their village church for a blessing. She may even thought that the black hawk may represent something ominous. Once they did and the priest gave them a blessing, that same darn black hawk was still around and its presence was getting a whole lot closer to them than they used to. This only indicated to them that the red-streaked black hawk was no bad karma or some sort of an evil curse. It may even be the opposite of that despite the ominous-looking colors it possessed.

Just as the couple was already nearing their workplace, an official courier who traveled all the way from the capital city of Gratian arrived on horseback and halted right at the center of the village square. Using a hand bell, he called attention to those already present around the square and even advised others to call out their fellow villagers who were still at their homes or out in the fields. Once the square area finally became crowded enough, the courier stood still, and with the speakerphone on hand, he began to read the latest announcement.

"Hear ye, hear ye, all good Echizenians of Sweet Apple Valley! I bring you very important news coming straight from the great capital city of Gratian and from the grand Royal Palace of our great empire!" The courier cried while he continued to ring the handbell.

The 5'5" mocha-haired, green-eyed Laine Como whispered softly on to her beloved's ear. "What is going on? The bell is about to ring!"

Dudley hushed her. "Nevertheless, this is coming from the Royal Family, so it's important that we should all listen."

"At such an early morning no doubt?"

"Let's listen, Laine. This could be very important."

They waited for the courier to speak out.

"As many of you know, two very important events will be occurring on the same day, April 30th. First and foremost, the 250th annual Art of Warfare Tournament is to commence on that day. The second would also be the eighteenth birthday of our most beloved heir apparent, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Dartagnan. As a few of you know, it is tradition that once a youngster reaches the age of eighteen that he or she may now have the right to organize and plan on how they would want to celebrate their birthdays. His Royal Highness the Crown Prince wanted to have a joint celebration, not just in honor of his birthday, but he wants to take the opportunity of this day to dedicate it to all of Gaia's greatest warriors of all backgrounds and skills and to dedicate this same day to the spirit and pride of our youth. To make the story short, the Crown Prince would want everyone to join in the festivities at Gratian.

"As proud Echizenians, the Crown Prince wants us to come and celebrate and bring our warriors, both dead and living, and our children first in to our minds. There will be exciting live entertainment for all, performed by all of Echizen's schools from a small village to the biggest city, and without any restrictions, everyone is invited! If any one of you will be participating in this year's Art of Warfare Tournament or if any one of you have any children who have great talents in the performing arts, whether it would be dancing, acting in skits, singing, or even performing music through an instrument, you must let your youth showcase their talent to be recognized by the masses. Plenty of visitors from all around Gaia: from our vassal kingdoms, from Lunaria, Calaberos, and Anatolia, and of course, their own vassal kingdoms as well, will be here to celebrate the Crown Prince's eighteenth birthday, but the Crown Prince wants to show his pride of being an Echizenian through our immense talent. Echizen may be a powerful empire known for its strong military, but we Echizenians are truly not warmongers. Here is our chance to show the world that we are more than just a military empire, and that we will show them that no matter how they say it, the Empire of Echizen is the greatest empire of all Gaia!"

The crowd cheered loudly with enthusiasm and pride, just as the crier finally finished the announcement. At the square bulletin board, the crier began to hammer the announcement flyer that contained more information about the tournament and the birthday festivities. Once he was finished, the crowd quickly headed for the bulletin board.

Meanwhile, Dudley and Laine stayed behind, applauding with smiles on their faces.

"This is a good opportunity for us to train our children their beautiful voices as a choir, Dudley," Laine exclaimed gleefully. "At long last, the emperor is finally letting the Crown Prince become his own man and plan his own celebration. He truly is an exemplary royal after all!"

Dudley continued on applauding and whistling to show his enthusiasm. The cheering and the screaming in glee continued up to this point. "Are you telling me that you never liked the Crown Prince?"

Laine gasped. "No, I'm not saying that. It's just that… I thought… well I thought all royalty are a bunch of snobs who only think of themselves and the aristocracy."

"Galen is an aristocrat himself, you know."

"Well he's different! He's the son of Luveon City's mayor! I'm talking about the ones who have close ties to the Royal Family."

"Alright, alright." Dudley sighed. The couple decided to proceed to school while the rest of their fellow villagers continued to celebrate, only to find a familiar stout middle-aged man in a grand khaki-colored ensemble right at the front of the bulletin board.

Just to be sure that they do not get penalized for being late in school, they approached this particular man. "Principal Dooley! You're here, Sir!"

The stocky balding man, School Principal Alder Dooley, turned his head to see the teachers greet him. "Ah, Mr. Bly! Miss Como! Good morning!"

"What a morning, Principal Dooley," Laine chuckled softly. "We apologize that we'll be running late because of this public announcement."

"You don't need to worry about that. Even the children here are present right now. But I am excited for the Crown Prince's birthday celebration on the thirtieth! Ah, we must prepare our children for a show that we need to present to our beloved royal couple, the Crown Prince and the beautiful Princess Asuna of Exeter." He grinned and tapped his finger on to Dudley's chest. "I know how enthusiastic the two of you whenever you teach your students music, most especially with the singing!" He gazed at his gold watch from his inside pocket to check the time. "Well, school already started but that's alright. This morning is an exception. Let's head to my office to discuss further."

With no complaints, the teachers followed their boss to school, where they began their meeting. The principal explained that the courier did stop by the school to hand over the special invitations along with all the important information regarding the celebration. He handed the letters to the two teachers as Dudley read it aloud.

"'Mr. Alder Dooley, Principal of Sweet Apple Valley Elementary School, cordially invites you and your school to perform in a special stage concert in celebration of the eighteenth birthday of His Royal Highness Prince Dartagnan of our beloved empire of Echizen. His Royal Highness requests all schools of all villages, towns, and cities throughout the borders of Echizen to prepare a special performance involving the children from preschool to the early university grade levels that would represent the true meaning of being an Echizenian youth. The Crown Prince would love a variety of performances, such as an orchestra, dance performances, short acting skits, inspirational speeches that illustrates being young and Echizenian, and of course, singing. The theme of your performance not need to be patriotic. His Royal Highness enjoys every theme you may think of, even when it comes to love. After all, the Crown Prince and Princess Asuna are very much in love with each other more than ever. You are to choose at least two teachers with talent in the performing arts to direct and organize the students to perform. You may also have your teachers aged eighteen to nineteen to also showcase their own performance as well…'"

The principal cleared his throat, leaning himself against his desk. "You two are the only ones I know of who have such talent in performing arts, in particular, singing. I know that I always wanted to maintain silence in the faculty office, but I've always enjoyed hearing you two sing your duets together. According to the instructions, I am to assign two teachers who will be organizing our one performance with the kids, and since you're the only two among the teachers who actually have natural talent in music, it's simply perfect."

Laine gasped in excitement and held Dudley's left hand. "Isn't this wonderful, Dudley? For the first time ever, we will get to perform a special song in front of the royal couple! This may only be our one and only chance to be able to meet and shake hands with their royal highnesses face-to-face! Let's work hard together and make the couple happy. The children would be so happy to hear this great news!"

Dudley nodded nervously. "O-of course, Laine! I'm happy too! I would love us to form a choir with the students. We should choose a song that should really show the world what it means to be young and Echizenian. Or we can just compose a simple song with a lot of harmony with the children's voices. Even if we couldn't impress the entire world, at least the most important part is that it would make the crown prince happy, right?"

"Well then! It's definitely settled!" Principal Adler Dooley clapped his hands. "And along with that, you two should also perform yourselves. You know, the two of you young lovers have quite a lot in common with the royal couple. You're around the same ages, both arranged by the Eros Council two years ago on the same date at the same time, and of course, you're in love and are engaged to be married!"

Laine cleared her throat. "Actually, Sir, Dudley and I are just a few months older than the royal couple. Dudley turned eighteen two months ago. I turned eighteen two weeks after he turned eighteen. But that's beside the point."

Dudley gulped nervously once more. "I… well… we really have to do really well with our performance, Laine. I… I don't want us and our school to humiliate the Crown Prince if we mess up…"

She gently patted his hand again. "There you go again, Dudley. Stop thinking so negatively all of a sudden. We will definitely screw up if we don't do what we're supposed to do, ne?"

The principal hushed. "Ah, Miss Como, you'll have to forgive Mr. Bly. He's just nervous, that's all. I mean, it's not like everyday that we get to see the Royal Couple in person, right? This could be the only time that the two of you would be able to meet them up close at that event and I'm sure he wants to do all he can to leave a very good impression." Quickly, Dudley nodded in agreement.

"Oh Dudley. Don't worry about all that too much. I'm very confident that we will succeed. Alright?"

The redheaded teacher sighed out in relief. "Alright, Laine. Let's work together and make this performance the most memorable performance the royal couple— no— all of Gaia will surely remember."

"Starting later today, you would not have to teach all the core subjects to your students. I want you two to focus on creating a performance that would represent our school. You can always assign them homework with all the detailed notes." The principal continued to provide them more details on their new assignments, while both Dudley and Laine began to take notes from his assignment.

#

Orban Grove (forest between Luveon City and Sweet Apple Valley)

Cloris County, Echizen

April 15th (late morning)

After the grand announcement of two major events coming up at the end of the month was given to the public, the girls of Luveon Girls' High School just couldn't stop buzzing and gossiping and chatting about their dreams of meeting their former teen idol, Crown Prince Dartangan, on his upcoming eighteenth birthday. Every fifteenth of the month, the girls were taken to local places around Luveon City for a field trip to extend further their core studies. The girls would attend a live theater to watch a classic play as part of their literature class or even at the majestic capital city of Gratian to visit the Senate Hall and all other various government establishments as part of their history and social science classes. For math and various sciences, they would even attend the University of Echizen at Gratian to attend mathematics and sciences lecture classes. Sometimes Miori would see her brother Dudley there whenever he was on campus duty away from his teaching assignment.

Today, Ecology was their subject and it was time for the girls to be more familiar with the nature around their surroundings. In her class, Miori was the only one who was familiar with Orban Grove, while the rest of the girls with her were mainly from smaller neighboring towns and villages who had little or no exposure to the wild. The teacher assigned them to find a good example of true wildlife and sketch, draw, and color it on their sketchbooks and write a report regarding what they found. They have guidebooks of every single species common at Orban Grove to help them identify the species they chose. They were also allowed to take a photo and simply just sketch and copy what they shot on their sketchbook.

Miori, just like Dudley when he was at his younger age, was not exactly a favorite among the girls. Being the only girl in her class who came from Sweet Apple Valley, she was often gazed down upon due to her class and background, so much that some of these girls would only give attention to her only if she would do a few errands for them. They weren't exactly good errands either, but in order for her to gain their attention and at least a bit of acceptance, she had to find ways to protect herself from getting caught. If they were small errands, she would do them, but if they were errands that can harm other people, she would flatly refuse and then take on the taunting and the berating of the girls as her punishment for not being able to do them. In this case, those same girls who would often bug her for her attention now asked her a favor to go around the forest and take photos the rarest species she could ever find for their reports. Sure, that would be considered cheating, but at least it was harmless.

Somewhere within the depths of Orban Grove, Miori freely walked through the crowding pathway as if this were her home. She also felt free at this point from those girls who were annoyed with her constant singing that she began to sing and whistle, not only to entertain herself, but to also attempt to communicate with the surrounding forest animals who may be lingering nearby. On her way, she passed by other girls from other classes but nevertheless from the same school. Though she knew it was none of her business to begin with, she also has a habit of eavesdropping and keeping all the secrets to herself for her own record. She already took photos of whatever flora and fauna she may found interesting. While strolling, she stumbled upon a long durable thick branch on the ground that was slightly taller than herself and resembled a bit of a stake.

I may need this, just in case. She picked it up from the ground and proceeded along the way, using it as a shepherd's crook. Knowing how dangerous Orban Grove may be, she needed something to protect herself from any unexpected malicious attacks from animals and other creatures nearby. She found a fallen tree to the side and began to sit on it to rest and take a break.

Those same girls she overheard chatting nearby were still nearby. Resting her back against another adjacent pine tree, she took out her sketchbook and turned on her digital camera to begin sketching her chosen species for the assignment and placed her backpack and her branch next to her while she listened.

"… The Crown Prince Dartagnan may still be adorable, but Princess Asuna of Exeter already has her heart. But that's okay, there's a new boy who has taken over our hearts as of late!"

"Oh yes! He still has his three other friends! Too bad they're not Echizenian."

"What are you talking about? Two of them, Lord Ferris Crichton and Lord Marlon Pondercherry are from Lindblum, a vassal kingdom belonging to Echizen. We might as well call them Echizenians also while we're at it!"

"Sure, those two are pretty cute but the one I'm actually referring to is their hot friend who always wears black."

"Ah! The one that most Crown Prince fangirls always referred to as 'The Shadow Prince'! Gosh, what's his real name again? He's so gorgeously hot! Black really does suit his ebony hair and icy blue-gray eyes…"

"His black hair looks so soft and gentle to touch… somehow he gets more gorgeous whenever he just leaves his hair all messy and have those neatly-arranged forelocks covering his forehead. It gives him a more… mysterious and… intimidating aura…"

"Are you talking about that Lunarian cutie? Gosh, I've heard that all of the Lunarians are really heavenly good-looking and attractive, like they were the perfect people sent by the gods to make everyone's dreams come true. I mean, Lunarians, from what I heard, usually isolate themselves from the rest of the world that they would always hide away from anyone who isn't one of them. In fact, I even heard that they never let any outsider past their borders, not even through a small vassal kingdom of theirs."

"But the Empire of Lunaria is the closest ally of Echizen, so I'm sure there's a special exception for Echizenians and even our vassal kingdoms too."

"There is, otherwise that Lunarian Shadow Prince wouldn't be here visiting our lands, ne?"

One girl gave a giggle. "Wow, so that's the Shadow Prince. But how can they call him a prince? No one even knows what type of aristocrat he may be."

"Most likely he would be an aristocrat or even a member of the royal family. He can't be a plain commoner or else he wouldn't be that close to the Crown Prince and the Lindblumian lords…"

"Don't forget Lord Galen Gulliver, the mayor's son. He's in the Crown Prince's circle also."

Upon hearing Lord Galen Gulliver's name, Miori's ears peaked with interest. Anything that would mention his name may possibly have some kind of relation to her brother or something that her brother may know but isn't telling anyone else about it. Nevertheless, even though eavesdropping is wrong, she just couldn't help but listen along.

"'The Shadow Prince,' huh… I wonder what his real name is. Should we address him as Sire? My lord? My love?" The girls giggled at the last statement while Miori shook her head, sighing at the same time.

"There's even rumors that The Shadow Prince is closely related to the Crown Prince of Lunaria himself! He may probably be like a close cousin or something like that! Still… no one knows what type of noble or royalty he may be."

So there's no more Crown Prince Dartagnan in their idol list, but instead, they have this so-called Shadow Prince instead. I guess this is another aspect of being young and Echizenian… Miori sighed while she continued on her sketch.

She continued on eavesdropping when she felt a startle right when birds up at the branches and other harmless creatures nearby began flying off from their spots and stampeding away from an alarming scream. Even the girls she was eavesdropping on even screamed loudly and heard the loud crushing dead leaves and other nature sounds indicating their retreat. Without a second thought, she quickly placed her sketchbook back in her backpack, wore it on her back, along with her sturdy branch.

The screaming continued to echo through the air: "Help! Someone help me! I'm… I'm surrounded!" With the echo vibes, she traced it through hearing, hoping she would reach the source.

With her luck and instinct, Miori was able to reach her destination, but before she decided to make her grand entrance, she dropped her slightly weighted backpack on the ground, and with her stake-like branch, she tiptoed behind the nearby heavy vegetation to have her good look. Once she took a peek, she found a schoolmate of hers being surrounded by five dirt-and-leaf-camouflaged bandits surrounding her.

"There's no use screaming!" One of them sneered. "You know what we want— now give it or it's your life!"

"I… I don't have anything! I'm just a schoolgirl d-doing her assignment and…"

"Shut up if you know what's good for you! Hurry it up and empty your bag now—"

No time to wait around and see what they're going to do to harm the poor girl. She wore the same white top, stale gray skirt, navy blue vest, and red collar ribbon school uniform as Miori did, indicating that this girl was also a Luveon Girls High School student. It was just natural instinct for her to help a fellow schoolmate out, and with that, gripping her stake branch tightly, she dashed from behind, and with the blunt end, quickly knocked one of them. The bandits panicked and scrambled carelessly to see who distracted their plan of robbing the poor girl of her belongings. The girl screamed in panic immediately when one of them fell.

"Who— who's there?"

Miori remained in her defensive stance. "You jerks pick someone your own size and kind! Trying to rip off a poor defenseless young girl who has nothing but her school supplies? You oughta be ashamed of yourselves!"

The bigger bandit snickered once he took a look at the would-be hero. "Well look at what we have here… another schoolgirl wandering around the forest. Don't you know nice schoolgirls like you shouldn't be wandering around the forest like this? Because if you do—" Quickly, the bandit made his swift attempt on the armed girl.

"You wouldn't have to fear for your life with us owning this territory!"

Unfortunately for the bandit, Miori was a lot quicker. She side-stepped few seconds before the bandit's spear even reached her. Once he missed, she slapped both his wrists simultaneously with her branch, forcing him to drop his spear. Once he did, she ended it with another smack on the back of his head, causing him to fall unconscious. Once again, the defenseless schoolgirl screamed.

Miori turned to her schoolmate. "You better run! Hurry! And tell the teachers! It's not safe here!"

The girl panicked with her eyes wide open. "B-but… what about you? You'll get hurt!"

"Don't worry about me! Just run!"

The girl gulped, and giving sympathetic eyes to her fellow schoolmate's attempt to save her, she nodded, grabbed her bag, and dashed quickly as fast as she can. Immediately, Miori found herself now surrounded by the three remaining camouflaged bandits. The branch she picked up was simply second nature to her as with her brother and the rifle. While the bandits grunted, Miori snickered and twirled her branch from the exposed blunt end to the sharp end.

"You sure got a lot of nerve trying to mess with us!" The midget bandit opened his big mouth, continuing to use words to scare her. "You are now just messing with the Orban Tribe!"

"Never heard of you guys," Miori held her temptation to laugh back.

"What? How dare you mock us!" The tall and lanky bandit shouted. "Haven't your fellow people tell you how dangerous it is in these woods and warned you about us? Noobs like you should really learn and dare not enter our territory!"

"Ha! Funny," Miori snickered. "The problem with you is that—" Immediately she pointed her branch right at him. "My fellow villagers and I own this territory, and since we've never heard of you, you guys are the ones who should be leaving. Seriously."

"Why you—"

"And what on earth kind of bandits you people are? Picking on poor, defenseless girls just to do your dirty deeds. Too bad not all Echizenian girls are like that!" She gave a slight shove of her branch, as the three backed out from her. "Yeah, that's right! You three have this weird accent so obviously you ain't Echizenian, but whatever! You're trespassing at village property!"

"Now you've asked for it!" The lanky bandit raised up his machete and from out of the blue, struck on her branch, slicing it in half.

Miori may have found herself at a disadvantage as she no longer have her trusty pole to protect her. Nevertheless, luckily she learned how to defend herself using two smaller sticks. The three bandits advanced towards her, as she quickly grabbed the other half from the ground and ran to find a more open space. She knew that the situation was about to get serious at this point that it was best for her to run for safety before something may go wrong.

With her branch cut in half, both her sticks would not do any good with one of them having a machete on. Seeing as to how that lanky bandit's machete was able to cut her branch in two, she knew immediately the type of danger she just got herself in to. Still, at least she was able to save that poor girl. All she had to do now was to find a more open space, leading to where her teachers and fellow schoolmates were present so that they would be easily be captured for breaking common Echizenian law of thievery. Luckily for her, she knew the basic trails of the forest and the entrances and exits, thanks to her hunting trips with Dudley and her Uncle Clyde whenever he would train her brother how to hunt using a rifle and all sorts of available firearms.

Yes! I'm scot free! Miori's voice cheered in glee as she found herself speeding away from the bandits. Well, she was some good meters apart from the bandits for awhile if it weren't for a loose branch from a fallen tree blocking her trail that caught her left foot, causing her to fall down flat on the ground.

Miori slammed her first on the ground, but the slight pain that she received on her left leg prevented her from just getting up quickly and proceeded. My leg… I think I twisted my ankle… no, not my ankle… a shin splint? Still… it hurts…

Biting her bottom teeth, she began to crawl as fast as she can, dragging her injured leg along with her. The nearest bulky tree was too far away and the surrounding bushes were not heavy enough to get herself camouflaged. Just as she crawled on the ground, the bandits finally caught up to her with sneers and sinister laughter coming from their faces.

"Now… how's about we make a deal: How about you hand over all your belongings and we leave you alone, eh?" The short bandit threatened her.

Seeing that she left her backpack somewhere hidden, she knew she was already on a tight spot. "Sorry, but I don't have my school bag with me, so… I don't have anything to just… hand it over to you."

Normally a typical young girl would be crying in panic right now. However, if your name happened to be Miori Bly of Sweet Apple Valley, it would be a whole different story. After all, she had been picked on by neighborhood bullies before and thanks to them, she learned how to defend herself on her own before the schools finally taught them basic self-defense in their physical education requirements.

"What's that around your neck?" The lanky thief pointed his machete towards her neck.

She looked down and admitted to herself that she forgot about her silver and white gold pendant shaped like a clover. Quickly she held the clover tight to herself and faced her enemies. "Not this one…"

"It's either your little necklace or your life, Missy!"

Not this one… Miori gritted her teeth, still holding on to her pendant defensively. This is the only memory of my father …

"Not this one!" She continued to insist. She can feel her eyes about to form wet tears but her mind was telling her not to show any sign of fear against those who are about to strike her down. "I doubt you even killed anybody!"

"Hah! Do you really think we're that stupid? Don't be so stubborn, Girl! We're only asking for something little and you refuse to give it away?"

"This may be something little to you, but for someone like me, it means a lot, especially if it was given to you by someone who had gone away from your life forever!" She continued to grit her teeth and then spoke out more words. "I'm not letting this pendant be in the wrong hands. My future daughter will have this. If you want— I'll give you my vest… my shoes and socks… but not this…"

"Heh. Oh well, we have no use for such petty little clothes. Say your final prayers, Girl!"

Her heart immediately signaled her that these meek-looking bandits were serious about killing her right on the spot simply because she refused to hand over the pendant her father gave her on her fourth birthday. Because of her condition now, there was no escape. She would definitely be stabbed if she even dared start crawling away with her injured left leg.

There was only option left for her to do. Scream.

"Help! Somebody! Anybody! I'm about to die!" While screaming out those words, she closed her eyes tight and gripped her pendant tighter than ever.

Sadly, the only thing she could hear in return after her scream were more jeers from the bandits. She can already feel the air coming from the machete that was about to strike her.

Within split second, she heard loud thud on the ground rather than feeling the blade being driven through her. Even the jeering suddenly turned in to angry grunts as overbearing hoofs clapping on the ground became louder and louder.

Someone on horseback! I'm saved!

"Who are you? How dare you!" Immediately, loud grunts of pain and agony became more eminent.

Miori slowly opened her eyes to see the three bandits who were about to become murderers being knocked down in to a pulp by one gallant and courageous warrior in black. Though he had two swords on his back, at least that's what Miori spotted, he only used his arm to knock and elbow them while remaining on his shiny black horse.

What's this? All by himself! Good Gods! What strength and yet he's not of stocky build? Thank you Gaian Guards for answering my call for help!

Moments later, two more horsemen came and rounded the bandits in one spot with their swords drawn, circling around them. Miori assumed that the one in the black must be their leader.

"Well, what do you know. So you've been hiding here all along, eh?" The one in the olive green smirked. "Thought you losers are gonna get away from us easily?"

"W-wait! D-don't kill us!" One of the bandits begged.

"Oh don't worry," the one in beige smirked. "It's more fun torturing scum like you than simply chopping your heads off right here and right now!" He then turned to the other two. "What do you guys say, Marlon, Erlich?"

As the bandits stood still, the one in black jumped off from his pure black stallion and approached the bandits closely. He didn't even have to draw his sword and the legs of the three bandits became stunned stiff. He stretched out his arm at them. "You know why we're here for."

"W-we don't have it! I swear it!" The short bandit shrieked in fear. "B-but… we'll return it! We'll return it if you let us go—"

In a split second, the one in black drew his dark blade longsword from its scabbard and pointed it right at the three. "Do you think we're that stupid that we would just let you go like this? First the Royal Scepter, and now you are about to pick on an innocent girl who had nothing with her? Punishment is eminent."

"Okay, okay, okay! Y-you can go with us! J-just… just don't kill us, please!"

Erlich then slid his sword back in its scabbard and then turned to his two friends. "You guys go with these three. I'll check up on the girl."

"You got it, Leader!" Ferris grinned as he and Marlon remained pointing their swords at the three. "You heard the man. Move it!"

The three cried in fear as they led the two away from the area to retrieve what they stole from them. Erlich watched them to make sure that those bandits do not attempt to escape Ferris and Marlon. Once everything was cleared, he approached the troubled girl, now sighing in relief.

Miori gulped nervously once the one in black was approaching her. Ebony hair neatly arranged in forelocks. Deep ice blue-gray eyes gazing directly at her. All clad in black from his trench coat to his inner outfit to the strap of his sword's scabbard. Could this be what those girls she eavesdropped on were talking about? The so-called Shadow Prince of Lunaria?

She did admit to herself at this point though. This Shadow Prince wasn't just good-looking. He was extremely, elusively attractive, it's as if she had never seen such a dangerously enthralling young man to be considered Echizenian. Sure, a lot of outsiders think that Echizenian guys are darn attractive, but this particular one in black…

She found her heart beating fast as he got closer to her, not to mention her face transforming in to strawberry red. Calm down, she told herself. Just be cool. Stay cool or else he'll get the wrong idea.

"Th… th…. Th… Thank… you…" Miori studdered, now with her hands hanging on to the tree behind her.

"Are you alright, Miss?" Erlich spoke in the gentlest deep voice she has ever heard. She was so used to hearing her brother's voice all the time that she became accustomed to seeing guys in general sounding like him, but this one in black… Even his voice was as deep as the shadows that surrounded him from head to toe.

"I'm… okay… although…" She hasn't forgotten the pain she now has on her left leg. "My left leg…"

Without question, Erlich placed his hands around her waist so he could help her up. "Hold on to me." With no second thoughts, Miori followed his command by placing her nervous hands on to his shoulders.

Slowly and gently, he lifted her up in to a sitting position. He found a flat-surfaced rock nearby and placed it underneath her left leg to have it elevated. Miori sighed in relief. "Thank you… I… I don't know what to do to repay you.."

"What happened here?" Erlich asked with concern.

"They were about to attack a schoolmate of mine… and I just heard her scream while I was drawing my assignment… I tried to fend them off myself, but I was careless… and they were trying to steal the pendant my father gave me before he disappeared and… I just couldn't afford giving this up because it's the only memory that I have of my father… I rather have myself killed than have them take my father's gift away…"

"You fended them off yourself?"

"There were five of them. I was able to knock out two of them when I got in to the scene with a sturdy branch I just happened to pick up on my trail." She told him the rest of the story that got her at the helpless position just as he and his two friends arrived mounted.

"What bravery!" Erlich gasped in astonishment. "The girls I've come across in my life wouldn't even dare fight back against a gang of notorious goons like them. But still… what you did was dangeorus, especially that there were more of them."

"There was no one around. We were left unsupervised. I had no choice. If I ran out and call for help and by the time we get back, it may be too late. Luckily for me I know my way around this forest for me to trace that poor girl's cries for help. Knowing the girls in my school, they would never rush to save one of their own."

Erlich then gazed at her slightly greased face, and then to her dark honey-colored shoulder-length hair being tied over by a red ribbon headband. Slowly he noticed the clover pendant around her neck and the rest of her school uniform attire up to her injured left leg.

"I have seen your uniform before," Erlich indicated. "I will make a guess— Luveon High School?"

Miori nodded. "The all-girls high school at Luveon City. Although segregated we wear the same pattern attire as the boys do."

"A friend of mine told me about it. He was a graduate of the boys high school." Erlich nervously chuckled. "Ah, I'm sorry if I'm bothering you with too many questions. I'm a visitor here in your nation."

I knew it! Lunaria! Miori's inner voice shouted with glee. You must be the one that those girls were ogling and giggling about. I have to admit they were not wrong about you being this gorgeous…

"Don't worry. Welcome to the rural, simple side of Echizen." Miori gave a smile. Erlich then moved himself from sitting across from her to sitting right next to her. The blonde found her heart throbbing again once she felt the long sleeve of his black trench coat touching her left arm.

"I'll wait with you. I'm waiting for my two friends to return with the royal scepter."

She blinked curiosly. "Royal Scepter… then… you're of royalty?"

Erlich almost felt himself startled and gulped. "Ah… well… I'm a friend of royalty. Let's just say that."

"This royal scepter must be of high value, obviously. Does it belong to any particular kingdom?"

The black swordsman bit on his bottom lip. "Well… my friends and I are having our own private tutoring at Orban Cove, not too far from here."

Orban Cove, of course. That's where Dad and his friends used to go out fishing. That's also where Dudley, me, Drake, and the entire village would have our summer festival with a good swim under the sun!

"I see."

"Then from out of the blue, these bandits attacked our camp from out of the blue and stole the royal scepter from the captain's hands. My friends and I volunteered to look for them and hunt them down. There were seven of them in the beginning. We were able to capture two of them. I was rather surprised that there were only three of them left when we got to you."

Miori smiled. "I'm glad I'm able to help in some way, even though I wasn't aware."

"So, I should also thank you. I guess you and I are both heroes." For the first time, the elusive black swordsman gave a smile at her. Immediately her heart leapt for joy, for not only the Shadow Prince had the most gorgeous face and a gorgeous build, but somehow he wasn't giving her the dark aura simply because there was black all over him from top to bottom. Rather, she felt the warmth of security coming from him. Her heart was already reminding her that she can definitely trust him.

Silence fell between the two for a few moments. Miori needed to break the silence so neither of them would feel awkward at this situation. Without even thinking further, she blurted out the words she wasn't supposed to reveal in the first place.

"Are… are you the Shadow Prince?"

Erlich's eyes shifted towards her. "Say what?"

"I… I mean…"

"Did you just say 'Shadow Prince'?" Miori quickly closed her mouth once he glanced right at her with curious expression.

Darnit, why do you have to be so handsome when you have that confused look… She heard her inner voice sigh within her. "Um… well… it's just that… earlier… some girls from my school were talking about their new… um… idol."

"Just great," Erlich sighed. "Another name to be added to my long list of names."

"Long list of names?"

"Ebony Enforcer… Black Berserker… Nocturnal Blades… Death Knight…"

"Eh? Death Knight?" Miori found herself about to giggle while Erlich grinned, shrugging his shoulders.

"And now I have 'Shadow Prince'?"

"Echizenian girls fall in love with love too much for them to come up with names like that, I guess."

"And here people who don't live in Echizen or within the empire borders say that your people are a bunch of warmongers which was why your nation is considered the most powerful in all of Gaia in terms of the military and the arts of warfare."

"Ahahaha… hah…" Miori returned the chuckle nervously. "Warmongers? Us? Not even close."

"Please do inform me, Miss."

"I was told that the power of true love helps us overcome any obstacles. If there's anything in our way, we'd do anything… and I mean anything… for us to fight against that obstacle in order to reach our goals… all for the sake of true love…"

Immediately, once she mentioned the two words, she found herself coming in to realization of two things. First, she felt her heart breaking slightly, realizing that Lunarians also go through the Eros Council to find their soulmates and there is a high chance that this enigmatic swordsman next to her may already have a soulmate of his own. The second realization she had was the forewarning that the Eros Council matchmaker mentioned to her during her one-on-one interview a week ago back at Luveon City:

"Miori, take heed of this forewarning. Before the Eros Council actually finds your potential soulmate, you will meet someone… a young man with such mesmerizing beauty but immensely incredible strength— a prince-like warrior with a dark aura whom you may find yourself become attracted to. When that happens, the Eros Council will observe and see if this particular young man may win your heart and you win his… And then, we'll go from there."

When those words were spoken to her that day, she still stuck to her belief with the Eros Council system. Black isn't exactly her favorite color and any guy wearing black on a daily basis meant bad news to her and that she must stay away from those types of guys. However, this particular young man whom she still hasn't asked for his name yet…

And with those two things in mind, she quickly covered her mouth with a loud gasp.

"Hm? Something wrong?"

Quickly she moved away from Erlich when she even neglected the fact that her left shin was elevated and the sharp pain suddenly ran upward to her entire leg. "Ouch… ow… ow…"

"Careful, Miss. Don't forget that splint of yours…" Without expecting anything, he reached his black-gloved hand to her. She was hesitant at first, but considering her situation at this point, she had no choice but to keep her composure and reached to hold his hand. Gently, he dragged her back to her spot, where they now sit back together.

Okay, Miori. Enough clowning around. There's gotta be other things that you can talk about other than random stuff… What could it be… what could it… oh…

While she let her eyes scan Erlich from bottom to top, she did notice something that they can talk about. She reached her hand towards the handle of his Shadow Sinclair sword, only to get startled when the owner quickly took her hand gently, steering it away from the handle of his swords.

"I… I'm sorry… it's just that… your sword is…"

Erlich reacted with a smile. "The Shadow Sinclair?"

"Y-yes… and your other white one that looks like a sword from far away but when you get closer it's actually the butt of a rifle…"

Suddenly, the boy's smiled suddenly disappeared. No way, he thought. She could see the Starblazer too?

"Ah… well… I'm both a swordsman and a marksman. It's convenient to have two different skills for survival, you know." He had no choice but to lie about the marksman portion. Sure, he has some skills in marksmanship himself but he just preferred the sword over the rifle. Still, he thought. There can't be this much guardians just to protect the Phantom Hawkeye, whoever that may be.

Miori nodded in agreement. "My brother… occasionally hunts with my uncle and… well, he has quite the natural talent with hunting and handling rifles and guns and… his girlfriend, I mean fiancee, is a daughter of the local gunsmith at Luveon City. Well, the family's from Sweet Apple Valley but her father's gunsmith business is at Luveon City and um… you sure got a really beautiful, well-crafted rifle…"

Erlich gave a suspicious stare. "You're no longer interested in my sword?"

"Well, your sword with the black handle and… everything is black about your sword… well, it's really well-crafted too, but… I'm afraid I'm only more familiar with rifles and guns and… spears."

Erlich needed to be careful at this point. Sure, it was nothing when Dudley became interested in the Starblazer rifle enough for him to entrust him with handling the rifle itself. He admitted to himself that he had a bit of prejudice against girls, but the fact that he's got an injured girl next to him, he really needed to take extra care for both his and her own good.

She noticed that he still hadn't released her hand at this point. "At least… can I have a little touch?"

"You find my sword and my rifle more worthy of your touch than my hand?"

Wh-what did he just say? Did he… I mean… calm down, Miori, obviously he's teasing… don't let him see you blush…

"I… well it's nothing like that…"

Erlich chuckled. "My hand will keep you safer and more secure than my sword and rifle combined, Miss. Trust me."

"That's not fair, Sir. Obviously you have some kind of prejudice against girls."

"You're injured, my lady. I'm just being cautious for both our safety."

"I'm not just a girl, I'm Echizenian! Didn't your friends tell you about Echizenians in general, most especially Echizenian girls?" She gritted her teeth and fought to get her hand released.

"Ooh. Feisty. My type." He smirked as he continued to grip her hand tighter, leaving the girl screaming.

"You… you really won't let go, won't you? Are you always like this with girls altogether? Always the teasing type and make the girls cry and pout?"

He simply grinned. "When I have the chance."

"R-right…"

Just as she continued to struggle to release herself from the boy's strong clutches, they were caught with a loud gasp right in front of them. They turned their heads to see Erlich's two Lindblumian lord friends, Ferris and Marlon, already arrived on horseback along with another Luveon Girls High schoolgirl riding on Ferris' horse.

"You fiend!" Marlon gasped with eyes widened. "I knew I had no trust in you when you told us to go and retrieve the scepter ourselves! I knew you would be making your own move against our troubled lady!"

Immediately, Miori released her hand from Erlich's and then lowered her head, hiding her blushing cheeks from the other two boys. Erlich then cleared his throat. "It would simply be overkill if I was the one who went after those thieves with the three of you… and besides, she's injured and couldn't walk. It'd be better if I stayed here until you two return."

The girl who came with Ferris at this point, spoke for the first time. "That's her, Lord Ferris… the brave girl who saved me from the bandits earlier." Though her words referred to Miori, her eyes were directed towards Erlich. As for the black swordsman, Erlich also recognized the girl.

"Is that so?" Ferris grinned while Marlon gave a frown.

"No wonder he's flirting with her now…"

"Eh?" Quickly Miori scooted away from Erlich to avoid any embarrassing blushes. "N-None of that stuff happened… we were just comparing the sizes of our hands like this…" She opened her right hand, showing off her palm.

Promptly, Erlich stood up from his spot. "Well, we better bring these girls back to their class now, right?" Ferris muttered, turning to the girl sitting behind him.

"If you don't mind, Lord Ferris, I would like to ride along with Er—" Just as the girl was about to ask Ferris' permission to switch rides, Erlich broke her off with another concern.

"Hold on, she can't walk." With a loud whistle, his black stallion quickly arrived on spot and stopped in front of him. He turned to Miori and without asking properly, carried her by the waist and sat her sideways on to his horse.

"W-wait! What the…"

"Do you expect yourself walking through the forest with that splinter on your leg, Miss?" Erlich laughed. "The least we could do was to get you to the nearest infirmary."

"Alright, alright." Miori surrendered immediately and remained on Erlich's black stallion. The girl with Ferris gave a slight glare at her direction, but the heroic girl did not even notice.

Erlich climbed over his horse. "Hang on tight, Miss."

Shyly she placed her arms around his waist. Ferris turned to the girl with him. "Lead us to your class, Lady Lyra."

"Just straight ahead from here, Lord Ferris."

Miori overheard the name of the girl she rescued earlier: Lady Lyra. She had just rescued a noble lady from getting harmed by those forest bandits. Even though it was somewhat a failed effort from saving herself, at least she was able to save someone else's. Ferris lead the pack, with Erlich and Marlon following him from behind.

When they arrived at the open field not too far from the entrance towards the grove, all the similar-uniformed girls were already on the spot, along with the teachers and law enforcement officers nearby. On one area, the seven bandits from earlier were arrested by these law enforcement officers for looting anyone passing by through the forest, and of course, threatening murder on the defenseless and the innocent. Once they arrived and Miori received first aid from the teachers, it was time for the three gallant young men to bid their farewell. The other schoolgirl, Lady Lyra, sat right next to Miori, while the three boys bowed respectfully to the two girls.

"Please, do take care of yourselves next time," Erlich spoke as part of his parting words.

"I seriously would like to repay you for saving my life," Miori said, now with ice being compressed on to her left leg. "If it weren't for you, who knows what would have happened…" In the meantime, Lady Lyra also had her eyes gazing right towards the young swordsman in black.

Ferris began explaning: "Those forest bandits are not from this area at all, but they were escaped thieves from Mokingshire, a vassal kingdom close to the border of Echizen, about a hundred miles west from here. According to the officers there, all of Orban Grove is actually neutral lands belonging to the people of Cloris County and it is contained as a hunting and gathering ground for Luveon City and a few neighboring villages, most especially Sweet Apple Valley."

"Thank you for informing me that," Miori gave a calming smile. "At least I wasn't wrong to claim that Orban Grove is Sweet Apple Valley territory, somewhat."

"Well then," Erlich gave a nod. "We must head off now."

"Aw, parting is such sweet sorrow," Marlon pouted. "We have to get back to our friends now and return the royal scepter. We really do wish we'd spend more time together, getting to know each other and—" Immediately, he felt pain from the shove that Ferris gave him on his gut with just his elbow. "Okay… I'll shut up now, Ferris."

"Take care on your journey back, all you three," Lady Lyra smiled sweetly, even though her eyes were directed right at Erlich. "We'll have you in our thoughts and prayers."

"Thank you, Lady Lyra," Erlich answered, bowing his head. "We never really expected that you also attend this school as well."

Miori's voice began to mutter within her. Wait… these three guys and this Lady Lyra girl know each other?

"I'm new to Luveon Girls High School," Lady Lyra answered. "Today is my fifth day being here."

That explains it. She's new here. No wonder she was all by herself out there…

"Well then," Erlich nodded. "We don't want to keep you waiting, your teachers may get angry." The three men headed for their mounds and climbed on top of them, ready to go.

"W-wait!" Miori shrieked from out of the blue. "Wait a bit… Sir… I… uh…"

Deep inside she could hear her voice call out. No, we can't just say goodbye like this and never see each other again… not like this…

"What is it?" Erlich asked curiously.

"I… um… will we be able to see you again?" Miori bit her lip with her mind hoping he would say yes. "My conscience isn't comfortable with us just parting like this and then not see each other again. I really do owe you for my life, Sir…"

The three men gazed at each other, with Ferris and Marlon grinning right at Erlich. Moments later, the black swordsman turned to Miori.

"May I ask for your name?"

Miori found herself speechless with her heart leaping for joy. Now they were definitely getting somewhere. This handsome stranger just asked her for her name! Who would have thought!

"My name is Miori… Miori Bly."

"Mi… o… ri…" Erlich softly murmured her name in a soft whisper while she nodded to confirm the pronunciation. Even his youthfully rich, deep voice sounded so mesmerizing that her heart began to throb rapidly agian.

"Then yes. We will see each other again, Miss Miori." He winked right at her, while Ferris and Marlon snickered behind him.

They exchanged their goodbyes with each other with waves, as the three made their way back through the forest and then meet their friends they left behind.

Miori gave a sigh of relief while Lady Lyra simply chuckled, then sighed.

"What's so funny?" Miori asked curiously.

"You should be shouting for glee at this point that he spoke to you and asked for your name."

The village blonde gazed at the baby-faced brunette. "What do you mean?"

"Don't you know who just saved your life earlier?" Miori shook her head. "I can see that you don't know his name.".

"I forgot to ask him…" She sighed and lowered her head.

"Well, he's the type who makes some promises and keeps them. When he said that you two will see each other again, he actually means you two will see each other again."

"I… I really hope so…" She placed her hands on her blushing cheeks while thinking of the black swordsman again.

"Well, we didn't properly introduce ourselves. My name is Lyra Sorano. My father is the Baron Kenneth Sorano and Baroness Griselda. We moved back here after my father was offered a position as part of the Echizenian Senate."

"Oh? Moved here from where?" Miori asked curiously.

"From Lunaria, actually."

Miori's eyes widened. "Lunaria?"

"My father has close ties with many Lunarian nobles and he was part of the Lunarian House of Lords and worked closely with the royal family there. I was born and raised in Lunaria myself, but both my parents are purebred Echizenians. I've visited Echizen a few times for family visits, but last weekend, we moved back here. My father was born in Gratian, my mother here in Luveon City. She wanted me to graduate from the same school as she did, therefore I'm enrolled here now."

"Wow. That's really cool." The two found their mugs of tea and both sipped slowly.

"Um, just call me Miori. I'm just a commoner who lives at the village past the grove."

"Well, alright then, Miori," the refined lady smiled. "In that case, call me Lyra."

"Are you sure? I mean I don't want the other girls here to think I have no respect and manners in addressing girls of noble birth."

Lyra simply shook her head. "I don't have any friends here. Will you be my first?"

Miori grinned. "I would like that… My very first real friend."

The two girls giggled as they shook hands, although as for the noble girl, Lady Lyra also made a rival out of Miori for the Shadow Prince Erlich von Siegmund's heart.

#

Echizen Royal Coastal Camp

Orban Cove, Cloris County, Echizen

April 15th (noon)

Meanwhile somewhere within the grove, the three friends on horseback sped through the trails they already mapped when they got here earlier in order to have an easier way to get to the coast, where their friends, Crown Prince Dartagnan, Princess Asuna, and their caravan of troops had been waiting. Ferris placed the once-stolen royal scepter wrapped in a cloth right in front of him to be sure that no one stabs him at the back just for the scepter to be re-stolen again. Moments later, they found natural light at the end of the forest and rode through the exit. Just a few more miles to go and they will be reaching their picnic area.

Once they did moments later, they were greeted by high-ranking military officers and tended to their horses right after the three got down. They headed to the sky blue tent with the intricately-designed coat of arms consisting of a black hawk and a golden dove with all other details at the front. Anything with that coat of arms printed in the front meant that this belonged to the royal couple.

When they entered, they were greeted by Crown Prince Dartagnan and Princess Asuna, along with Asuna's bodyguard, the stocky-built Captain Angus standing behind her. Ferris unwrapped the scepter and handed it to the princess.

"As promised, Sweet Princess, here is thy royal scepter," Ferris knelt on his right knee and presented it to her.

The princess chuckled and took the long scepter. "This isn't a royal scepter actually, Ferris. It's just a scepter."

"Eh?" Ferris blinked in confusion. "But you said it was important that we all thought that it's a symbol of your authority as a royal princess of your kingdom, Exeter."

"It is important, but not in regards to my title and authority. This scepter increases the level of my powers… if you know what I mean." She stood her scepter on the ground with a tight grip. "Those bandits can steal as many scepters as they can, but not this particular one." Like a pole weapon, she twirled the silver-colored scepter with just one hand. "This can also serve as a weapon also, don't you think?"

"My Princess… um… don't do that… it's too dangerous!" Captain Angus warned the princess as Asuna quickly pointed the top end of the scepter, carved with a dove with pink and ice blue gems studded on it, right at her bodyguard.

"Captain Angus, I appreciate your concerns about me but please, even with this scepter? Don't forget that this isn't just a scepter, this is my scepter. Are you trying to indicate that I don't know what I'm doing at this point?"

"N-no… it's just that… well…"

Dartagnan shook his head. "My dear Asuna, once we get married and then become the new rulers of the entire empire in the future, what did you say would be the first thing you would like to do as the new Empress of Echizenian Empire?"

Asuna smirked. "All girls of all Echizenian vassal kingdoms are required to learn and be trained on self-defense, not just Echizenian girls." She then sighed and lowered her head. "I was a completely helpless princess all my life until you came in to my life, Dartagnan. You taught me everything on self-defense… from basic sword-fighting and melee…"

"Um, yes. Yes, Your Highness. I understand." Captain Angus dropped his head in shame.

Ferris cleared his throat to divert attention as Erlich silently walked to the dining table and sat at the corner, resting and giving out an aura that he wanted to be alone for the time being. "Well then, Your Highnesses… and Captain Angus too… speaking of Echizenian girls…"

Marlon grinned and nudged his fellow Lindblumian lord. "Guess what. While we were hunting for those bandits, we stumbled upon a poor defenseless Echizenian damsel in distress earlier today! The hero of the day, our very own Erlich von Siegmund of Lunaria, dashed heroically in his agile and powerful steed, and knocked down the remaining three bandits about to do harm to the poor lass with just one arm!"

"She wasn't defenseless…" Erlich muttered softly. "She was injured…"

"Hm? Come again, Erlich?" Dartagnan asked curiously with a smile on his face. "Please, guys, tell us what happened over there."

"According to one witness, a Lunarian-born young girl of noble birth who goes by Lady Lyra Sorano explained to us what happened," Ferris began. "She said it was her fault for wandering off from the rest of the class that the bandits caught up to her. And then the girl Erlich rescued earlier came to her rescue. There were seven of them when they invaded our camp and stole your scepter, Princess. We were able to capture two of them but the five escaped. Apparently the girl Erlich rescued was able to knock two of the five down and Lady Lyra made her escape to call the police forces." He cleared his throat and sighed. "Despite of what Marlon said about the 'Echizenian damsel in distress,' that particular girl is actually the hero."

Erlich nodded in agreement. "I have to admit. I felt rather embarrassed. I know I'm impartial with girls, but somehow I love being the hero of the story. Apparently with this one, I was just a backup reinforcement to save a hero from getting killed." The thought of the situation earlier somehow made him blush lightly.

The princess cheered and applauded. "That would be a wonderful story to be passed on through generations, Erlich! A dashing, handsome hero in black rescuing a defenseless, injured damsel hero from the clutches of death! So romantic!"

"N-no… nothing like that, Princess…" Erlich bit his bottom lip to keep his cheeks from blushing even more. "Nothing… like that…"

"Princess! What on earth do you speak of?" Captain Angus began his warnings again. Dartagnan and the three boys sighed with frowns on their faces as a result of the antsy captain's interruption.

Marlon sighed once more. "Although once we got the scepter back when law enforcements from Luveon City came to arrest those bandits, we caught our ice-hearted death knight Erlich von Siegmund flirting with the lovely damsel…"

"I was not flirting with her, Marlon," Erlich defended himself, once again, controlling himself from blushing even more by turning his head away from them.

"You were holding hands and all that!"

"I was preventing her from getting her clutches at the Starblazer, Marlon!"

Immediately, silence fell within the scene. Erlich's eyes opened wide once he realized what he just blurted out. That's right, he thought. She saw the Starblazer crossed underneath the Shadow Sinclair sword and even wanted to touch it as well.

"She saw… the Starblazer… strapped on my back along with my sword…" Erlich took a deep breath and lowered his head. "What is the Starblazer spirit thinking? That poor girl… she was close to near death when I got there… and then the Starblazer suddenly decides to become visible to her…" He lifted his head and faced those already gazing at him. "Dart, what's going on with the Starblazer's spirit? Does it need that many guardians to protect the new Phantom Hawkeye?"

Dartagnan approached the table and sat right across from Erlich. "There may be two possible ways as to reason why the Starblazer decided to choose that girl as one of the guardians, Erlich."

"How does the legend go again, Dart?"

The prince called for the others to sit around the table, which also included Captain Angus. "At this point, let's all forget about ranks and classes. We're speaking as the 277th Crown Regiment now."

"What is this you speak of now, Your Highness," Captain Angus asked curiously in his stern voice. "First and foremost, the safety of Princess Asuna is my priority."

Asuna shook her head. "The Starblazer spirit chose you to be one of the guardians of the Phantom Hawkeye. This is the reason why the prince and I established the 277th Crown Regiment in the first place. When you are in the presence of the Crown Prince and myself, as well as Erlich, Lord Ferris, and Lord Marlon, your first priority when it comes to safety is the Phantom Hawkeye."

Captain Angus sighed, decided to remain silent to give some respect to the princess.

Dartagnan picked up from where Asuna left off. "Aside from my father, Emperor Gadriel, and my mother, Empress Regina, I was the first to see the Starblazer right in front of our eyes when the Kurotaka Order, the guardians and keepers of the Starblazer Rifle, came by for a visit three years ago to inform that they had a vision that the new Phantom Hawkeye would be an Echizenian again, just like the one thirty years ago. Father did not waste any time for us to establish a brand-new regiment that will consist of Gaia's most powerful warriors, however, the inner elite of the regiment will only consist of those that the Starblazer spirit chooses to become the guardians of the Phantom Hawkeye."

"Wait a minute, there's one thing I don't understand," Ferris scratched his head. "So, since we're chosen to be guardians simply when the Starblazer spirit decides to reveal the rifle right before our eyes while no one else can see it, how can we be sure that our friend Dudley Bly is the Phantom Hawkeye?"

"I'm about to get to that part, Ferris," Dartagnan grinned. "Last night, my father and I had a long talk in his office about the mechanics and details regarding the Phantom Hawkeye legend. He said that the Starblazer's spirit won't be the only one that would determine the chosen Phantom Hawkeye. There's one more."

"One more?" Marlon blinked his eyes in curiosity.

"My father was still a crown prince thirty years ago when he served as a guardian of the previous Phantom Hawkeye, so he already knows all this. I'm glad I took the time to talk to him about it," the prince sighed in relief. "I informed my father before that I want to assemble the best-ever regiment for this crucial mission of eliminating the rising sorcerer without help, but he was understanding enough that he would pitch a bit of help or two regarding the requirements of someone becoming the Phantom Hawkeye."

"Okay, then what is it, Dart? Tell us!" Marlon exclaimed.

"Patience, friend. I'm about to get there," Dartagnan snickered. "A familiar spirit of sorts known as Rutilus Auge is also the indicator of the new Phantom Hawkeye. If that person is able to see both Rutilus Auge and the Starblazer with his naked eyes, then it is officially confirmed that he is the chosen new Phantom Hawkeye. My father said that Rutilus Auge is the Phantom Hawkeye's most faithful companion. It helps the Phantom Hawkeye determine the right targets, the distances of the targets, and like the rest of us, is also a powerful guardian. If anyone dares attack the Phantom Hawkeye, Rutilus Auge will be the first to attack that enemy before they reach him."

"Wow… a familiar… like a pet…" Marlon muttered.

"Exactly. A very special, magical pet. Rutilus Auge is also a great ally to the guardians as well. It uses itself to signal the guardians where the Phantom Hawkeye is located when we're distant from each other. Of course, that's just one of its functions. There's so much more that familiar spirit can do. Like the Starblazer, Rutilus Auge is also only visible to the Phantom Hawkeye, the Phantom Hawkeye's family and relatives, and the guardians."

"So," Ferris asked curiously, "how does this Rutilus Auge look like?"

"Father said that Rutilus Auge is a giant black hawk with a red streak just right above its right eye. The person chosen as the Phantom Hawkeye will see Rutilus Auge wherever he goes. Because it is a special guardian, wherever the Phantom Hawkeye goes, it follows him everywhere. Even when he's asleep at night, it would perch by the window or at a nearby tree, just anywhere close to its master. That's how loyal and faithful Rutilus Auge is."

"Wow…" Princess Asuna gasped in shock. "So, all we have to do now is to look for that black hawk with a red streak above its right eye and then we'll examine to see which person it's following all this time. Then we'll find our Phantom Hawkeye?"

"Your Highness, it's not that simple," Captain Angus joined in. "Why don't we just do a process of elimination. The Phantom Hawkeye must be a very skilled marksman, so maybe we should go through the military units within the Echizen Empire and narrow it down to our gunner units?"

Dartagnan simply shook his head. "You're right about this not being simple, Captain Angus. However, the previous Phantom Hawkeye, according to my father, isn't just the first Echizenian Phantom Hawkeye in history, he's not a military gunner also. He's a simple man from humble beginnings who was a village hunter and a village patrolman all at once. No one even knows how this man measured up compared to our finest military gunners, Captain Angus, but plenty of the veterans who were there when he was active said that he had such precise, remarkable marksmanship beyond comparison to any other notable gunner around the world. As the legend goes, the identity of the Phantom Hawkeye is very discreet, and as such, the Starblazer spirit and Rutilus Auge would simply choose a total nobody to be the Phantom Hawkeye."

"So… are you saying… even a penniless pauper may even be the Phantom Hawkeye, Your Highness?" The captain raised an eyebrow, showing disgust at the thought.

"That's exactly what I'm saying, Captain."

"Even the weakest and the puniest of the weak and puny?" The five teenagers present nodded in agreement. "That's… that's blasphemy! The past Phantom Hawkeyes back in history are all of noble blood! It's unimaginable that a mere commoner would bear such a prestigious title as the Phantom Hawkeye!"

"Obviously you're not doing your homework properly, Captain Angus," Princess Asuna rolled her eyes. "The Starblazer does not see any borderlines between people and which one will have the privilege to earn the Phantom Hawkeye name."

The prince continued on. "The elites of the 277th Crown Regiment, in other words the guardians, I believe, is almost complete. We already have four types of swordsmen already. We have a conjurer-in-training, our friend Lord Galen Gulliver. We have our healer here, Princess Asuna, and of course, Captain Angus, our axe warrior. The only ones we are now missing is the Phantom Hawkeye himself, a relative of the Phantom Hawkeye who has exceptional self-defense and personal warfare skills, and his beloved. The relative and the beloved may be of any type of fighter, but the Phantom Hawkeye obviously must be a highly-trained marksman who knows how to handle all types of firearms from pistols to rifles."

Right then, from out of the blue, Erlich, who had been listening along while being silent at the same time, gasped with his eyes opened wide. "No…"

"What's wrong, Erlich?" Dartagnan asked curiously.

"I still believe that Dudley Bly is our Phantom Hawkeye…"

"Don't worry, Erlich. From your accounts in the past, I too also believe that Galen's friend Dudley Bly is our Phantom Hawkeye."

"That's not what I meant, Dart. It's just that… Now I thought about the girl I rescued earlier… about how she also spotted the Starblazer strapped on my back…"

"Aww," Ferris grinned. "Is this the reason you've been silent all this time, Erlich? You've been thinking about that girl you saved earlier, didn't you? Man, and I thought that Lady Lyra Sorano was the cutie that caught your eye. She seems to be very familiar with her."

Once again, Erlich tightened a fist, glaring at Ferris. "Lady Lyra Sorano was one of my old childhood friends. We're not that close but we've known each other for a long time. Nothing more than that."

Princess Asuna giggled. "Aww, I always knew the death knight Erlich von Siegmund has a soft spot somewhere within his rock-solid heart. Isn't love at first sight truly beautiful?"

The black-clad swordsman glared. "You've got the wrong idea! I'm just concerned about something… about her…" Quickly he snapped his head towards the prince. "Dart… the girl I rescued from the bandits earlier…"

"What was her name again? Moira or something?" Marlon asked curiously.

"It's Miori, Marlon," Erlich corrected him. "Miori Bly."

"Ah, such a simple name! Miori Bly!" Marlon chuckled, but not for long when the entire table realized one little detail.

Bly…?

Quickly, the teenagers stood from their seats and shouted: "Dudley Bly's sister?!"

Ferris slowly sat back on his seat. "Of course… it makes all sense now! When we first met Dudley at the Eros Council rite a week ago, he wasn't there because he was getting registered. He was there because his sister was getting registered to be… matched…"

"Then that sister… it's her…" Erlich murmured softly. He sighed then and lowered his head with his conscience speaking.Why do I feel sad all of a sudden, thinking about her having her name registered with the Eros Council… I wonder if they already found her a match already…

"And… and the fact that Dudley's engaged too…" Marlon quickly covered his mouth along with a gasp. "This is… it all makes sense now!"

Dartagnan hushed. "Calm down, everyone. Don't worry. We'll eventually meet all three of them, remember. They will be arriving at my birthday celebration at the end of the month. You see, this morning, Asuna and I created the invitations personally to all the schools around Echizen. My father's secretary was able to retrieve the official personnel files of our friend Dudley Bly. He's a schoolteacher at Sweet Apple Valley Elementary School teaching mathematics, science, history, and music. His betrothed, Miss Laine Como, is a fellow teacher in the same school, teaching language, writing, the arts, and of course, music. The couple has a habit of making up their own songs and singing it as a duet. Before we left for our picnic, I already received a letter via our couriers coming from the principal of the school both Dudley Bly and Laine Como teach. They will be having all the children sing two songs as a choir in dedication to Echizenian youth life and to Asuna and me. After that, the teachers themselves will have a duet performance."

"Oh, how wonderful!" Asuna exclaimed happily. "I look forward to that!"

"Ah!" Ferris snapped his fingers. "Now I know why Dudley asked us before if any of us love singing, and Erlich answered that he does. It's because he sings… and his future bride sings!"

Erlich smiled. "I wasn't lying when I did tell him that I do like vocal music. I too look forward to their performance."

"Then, it's settled," Dartagnan snapped his fingers. "We'll keep an eye for Rutilus Auge the red-streaked black hawk to fly by on that day and if it does appear when Dudley Bly goes on stage, then it's already confirmed."

"That would mean that if Dudley Bly and Miori Bly are able to see the Starblazer, that means Laine Como will be able to see it too," Marlon indicated.

"Exactly, Marlon. Exactly."

#

Sweet Apple Valley, Cloris County, Echizen

April 15th (late afternoon)

After the entire day of preparation for the upcoming celebration gala of the Crown Prince Dartagnan's eighteenth birthday, Dudley and Laine were the last people to leave the school aside from the maintenance crew. The couple divided the tasks for the day, with Laine warming up the voices of the students and Dudley already writing a few short songs on his own while playing the piano. They also decided that the children will be singing two songs: one will be about patriotism of being an Echizenian youth. The other will be a celebration song of the love between their future emperor and empress after Emperor Galadiel's time is over. After the children's performance is over, the couple will also have a chance to perform a duet in celebration of the importance of true love while being young. In short, a love song. Like any other youth around Echizen, their students are also huge fans of the royal couple and used the thought of being able to meet and shake hands with the prince and princess gave them motivation to work hard with their songs.

After the two teachers locked up the school, Dudley and Laine took the main road to go home. Dudley opted to take Laine home first as her home was only a four-minute walk away. Whistling the song that he and Laine will be performing for Crown Prince Dartagnan's birthday celebration, they passed by an open grass field where he spotted their fellow village men practicing what it looks like target shooting with pistols and rifles. Apparently, Uncle Clyde Cole, his mother's older brother and his male guardian since the disappearance of his father, was present, recording everything on a digital camera.

"Ah! Dudley! Miss Laine!" Immediately, his somewhat overweight uncle waved happily to his nephew and his bride-to-be.

"Uncle Clyde! What a surprise!" The couple approached the field until he reached his uncle. The two men embraced each other quickly and the uncle gently kissed the girl's back of her hand. "What's going on here?"

"It seems there is a change of schedule regarding His Royal Highness Crown Prince Dartagnan's birthday celebration."

"What? Already? Since when?"

"Oh, just now. The crier came by a few moments ago to announce the change. They will hold the Art of Warfare Tournament for two days. I'm a little curious as to why they decided to have the firearms competition be held during daytime on the 30th, while all the others, such as swords and open-handed combat, will be held on the 29th."

Laine shrugged her shoulders. "That is very bizarre, Mr. Cole. To separate the marksmanship competition away from the rest of the events, don't you think?"

"Hm, you're right about that, Laine," Dudley nodded.

"And since majority of Sweet Apple Valley are gunners and spear fighters, these men are now preparing for the tournament," Uncle Clyde

"Wait… all of these guys will be competing in the Art of Warfare Tournament?"

"You know, we haven't had any winners representing our little village, Dudley, since your father."

The redhead gave a perplexed expression on his face. "My father? He competed?"

"Before he married your mother, he was an expert marksman all around Cloris County. He sure made quite an impression on the Royal Family, most especially our current emperor today."

Dudley gasped in astonishment. "Emperor Gadriel? He and Father knew each other?"

"They did, of course. Winners do get the privilege on meeting the Royal Family. Back then, Emperor Gadriel was His Royal Highness Crown Prince Orsino at that time."

"And… he isn't doing anything regarding Father's disappearance?" The teacher tightened his fists, right upon hearing this now-revealed fact.

"Calm down, Dudley," Laine gently rubbed his shoulders. "Listen to your uncle first." Dudley sighed in response as his uncle continued.

"They're doing all they can to find your father, all these twelve years, Dudley. Without you and your siblings being aware of it, we do receive as many updates as we can through letters directly to your mother. We decided to update you when they find something incriminating, but as of now, nothing yet."

"But still…"

"Have faith on the emperor, Dudley. Knowing him, when it comes to the most intimate people in his life, he would never give up on them. I know… he would never give up at all…"

Dudley remained silent and then slipped his hands through the pockets of his black loose trousers. Clyde gazed right towards his future niece. "Miss Laine, how's your father's business as of late?"

Laine smiled happily. "Doing wonderful actually. His crafting is improving more and more. Since you already mentioned the Art of Warfare Tournament coming up, it seems his business will be booming soon."

Dudley chuckled, placing his hand on Laine's, still holding his shoulder. "Your father should have more pride and confidence. He is one of Cloris County's most revered and respected gunsmiths around."

"You know, Dudley," Laine snickered, "should Echizen ever get involved in a major war and you have been drafted to go out there and fight, I will be a valuable asset to you. I'll be sure to treat your wounds and provide you with unlimited supply of ammo for your guns and rifles. With my father's crafting book, I'll even make you the best rifle you can ever use for battle."

"War…" Dudley muttered. "Do you really think Echizen itself would be entering war? Never mind providing reinforcements at other empires and other vassal kingdoms, but Echizen by itself…"

Just as the conversation about war was about to continue, a young girl still wearing her school uniform arrived in a hurry along with a group of pre-teen boys behind her. Once she reached the field, she breathed heavily to catch up to her breath. After, she ran close to Dudley and Clyde.

"Dudley, Uncle Clyde, so glad I was able to find you guys here!"

Dudley blinked in confusion. "Miori, why aren't you changed in your clothes yet?"

"H-hear me out, Dudley…" Her brother placed his hands on her shoulders to calm her down.

"Okay. Go slowly, Miori," Clyde said.

"It's… it's Drake…"

"Drake? What about him?" Dudley asked curiously when one of the boys with her stepped up.

"Mr. Cole, Mr. Dudley, Drake is trapped in the forest! He was being chased by a grizzly!"

"Eh? In the forest? Orban Grove?" The boys nodded quickly. "What on earth was he doing there at this hour?"

"Uncle Clyde," Miori interrupted, "remember today is field trip day for both Luveon High School. The girls had their field trip to the forest earlier this morning. This afternoon was the boys' turn."

"It's all our fault we lead him there," one of the boys cried. "We found this really huge bear and we wanted to take a picture so we can draw that thing for our assignment, but then we ran out of batteries in our cameras so we dragged Drake there so he can take a picture. The camera flash scared the bear and it started chasing him. We were too powerless against that thing so we decided to run for help—"

Clyde then quickly grabbed two rifles: one for himself, while he tossed the other towards Dudley. The redhead quickly caught the rifle.

"Laine, stay here with Miori and the boys," Dudley said. "Uncle Clyde and I will find Drake." His fiancee nodded in agreement.

"We'll pray that you find Drake safe. Please be careful."

Because the entrance to Orban Grove wasn't that far, the uncle and nephew decided to go on foot to find the youngest Bly sibling.

#

Orban Grove (forest between Luveon City and Sweet Apple Valley)

Cloris County, Echizen

April 15th (late afternoon)

"Drake! Where are you Drake? Say something if you can hear us!"

Dudley and his Uncle Clyde were already three miles within the grove to search for the third Bly child, thirteen-year-old Drake Bly, somewhere being chased by a grizzly bear somewhere within the forest. Good thing that the sun was still somewhat out even if it was setting already so they can use the light to find their way through the thick trees.

The uncle and nephew had been through most of Orban Grove several times because it was designated as a hunting and gathering ground. Many of their villagers would come here to hunt wild animals for food and in some cases, game, while many of the women arrive here to gather wild edible fruits and vegetables and among other things. They already memorized every single landmark they could see and also created different trails and paths that would help them navigate through the trees. Still no sign of Drake, Clyde and Dudley stopped by a small rock formation on the ground that divided in to two paths.

"Let's meet at this spot, Dudley. We'll split up. You take the right path. I'll take the left."

"Okay, Uncle Clyde. Be safe."

"You too, Dudley." Right then, the two men split up, taking each of the paths, continuing their search.

The redheaded teacher continued on walking on the trail without any sign of fear. Surely if this were the first time he was going through the grove he would be scared stiff right now, but that was how he was when he was very young when his father first took him in their first hunting trip. While he continued through the trail, he can hear a myriad of nature sounds echoed through the tree. He stopped immediately, then closed his eyes while holding on to his scopeless hunting rifle. While concentrating on the nature sounds and the slight chill of the forest breeze, his ear suddenly caught a rather distinctive nature sound.

The sound his ear was able to isolate delighted him a bit. The sound chirped in a melodious pattern as if it was singing. As the chirping melody continued, it became louder and louder. Dudley knew that once the chirping becomes louder, it meant that the culprit behind the chirping was also nearby. Once the chirping melody was loud enough that it was just right across from where he was standing, he slowly opened his eyes.

At the tree right in front of him, he half-expected what he hoped he would see. That same giant black hawk with the red streak above its right eye perched at a branch low enough for Dudley to see it in detail. For the first time since its stalking last week, the predator bird began to make that melodious chirp again.

"So here you are again, my black-feathered friend," Dudley spoke his words towards the hawk. "I'm looking for my brother Drake. I already know you won't be attacking me now, but if you are a friend, will you help me?"

Few seconds later after he spoke the words, the hawk began to chirp melodiously once more. This had got to be one strange hawk, Dudley thought in his mind. I know sparrows and song thrushes sing and chirp, but hawks?

Dudley listened to the chirping of the hawk. A few moments later, somehow the squealing that the hawk made was registering through his mind. It was as if it was trying to speak to him. Without being aware at this point, his mind can now translate what the hawk was trying to say to him.

"What are you saying…? Trust my ear and my eye?"

The hawk spread its wings and then flew immediately right towards Dudley. The redhead gasped in panic and quickly closed its eyes. Moments later, he felt a feathery presence right on his shoulder. He slowly turned and found the hawk already perching on his left arm. Luckily his dark brown blazer was thick enough for its talons to not pierce his skin. The hawk made its soft squeal again.

Trust your ear and your eye.

Dudley gulped nervously and then returned to closing his eyes again, concentrating more on the nature sounds. He thought that maybe he may be able to isolate the voice of his brother and even the growling of the bear chasing him.

My name is Dudley Bly. Nice to meet you, oh mighty hawk.

The hawk answered with its chirping melody.

I am called Rutilus Auge. Call me Rutilus. I am your servant and your best friend, Master Dudley.

Dudley gasped in shock to hear that the chirping somehow translated in to his own language, but then continued on his concentrating.

"Scream, Drake… where are you…?"

Trust your ear and your eye.

Moments later after concentrating while not moving an inch, he heard dashing footsteps closing by. Based on the intensity of the footsteps, Dudley detected that someone was approaching him from southwest. With that, he opened his eyes, shifted himself towards southwest, and then pointed his rifle forward. Without a rifle scope, it would be more difficult for him to aim, however, the incredible strength of the vision of his right eye does help him use his rifle efficiently. Just as the figure was becoming visible on his right eye, he called out. The hawk flew away from his arm and then headed forward.

"Drake! Is that you? Say something!"

Immediately, the dashing figure coming near him answered: "Dudley? Is that you? Hurry, we have to run! A huge bear is after me! Hurry!"

Right then, Drake Bly, a dark red-haired freckled thirteen-year-old, still in his school uniform, arrived next to him and then hid. "You better head back and find Uncle Clyde."

"No, I'm not leaving without you, Dudley! What are you doing, just drop the rifle and let's get outta here!"

"We won't be safe if we keep on running together, Drake. Now get out of here now!" Few seconds later, the humongous bear suddenly appeared, speeding ferociously towards their direction. This was definitely going to be difficult.

"It's running really fast, Dudley! We gotta go!"

"Y-you're right. Let's run!" But just as Dudley was about to turn his head, he heard the loud shrilling of that same red-streaked black hawk behind him. He turned his head and found the hawk already attacking the bear on its head using its powerful talons.

"What are you doing stalling, Dudley?"

You must run, Master Dudley. Don't worry, I'll be alright. Hurry!

Immediately, the chirping of the hawk turned in to words again in his mind. Right then, Dudley shook his head.

I won't run away. I have to save you too, Rutilus…

Without hesitation, he raised up his rifle, using his telescopic right eye as his guide. The bear was already using its powerful arms to capture the hawk, who kept flying and perching and flying, dodging all of its attacks. He thought of aiming right through the heart, but because of its size and anatomy, he knew that the poor bear will be suffering until it finally dies. Rather than suffering, he would rather have this monster go through an instant death.

Fly away now, Rutilus. Now!

Few seconds later while keeping his right eye directly towards the bear's head, Rutilus, the red-streaked black hawk, quickly flew away from the bear. The bear then continued to dash right towards them.

Just a few feet apart left, he pulled the trigger. A loud bang instantly scared all the nearby birds and other animals nearby to run away. The bear suddenly fell backward with a loud growl, and then dropped down dead. Dudley took a deep sigh, while Drake quickly embraced him from behind.

"That was… that was crazy, Dudley… w-we could've just run away…"

Dudley took a deep breath. "I'm too slow and weak to run, Drake… and I have a weapon to use…"

"Either way, you're a true hero, Dudley. Not very many people would just jump in to save those who are in trouble with a monster like that."

"I know, Drake. That's why as your brother, I have to take care of things in my own hands knowing I can't rely on anyone else for help but family."

"You're the greatest hero ever to exist at Sweet Apple Valley, Dudley!"

"I'm glad you're still alive, Drake." The older Bly turned his head and then smiled at the hawk.

Thank you, Rutilus.

The black hawk suddenly flew back and landed on Dudley's left shoulder. The hawk chirped again.

I was born to serve you and your family, Master Dudley.

"Wow! What an awesome-looking hawk!" Drake gasped happily. "It really did save our lives, right Dudley?"

"It sure did."

The brothers walked back together to that rock split where they were to meet their Uncle Clyde. When they got there, Drake sat on the rocks and rested.

"You should really consider entering, Dudley."

"Oh? Entering what?" Dudley sat next to him.

"The Art of Warfare Tournament, firearms competition. That was an awesome shot you had with that bear earlier. Normally it would take a lot of bullets to finally kill that thing, but you… with just one shot on the head! No hunter would be able to do that on a monster that big!"

Dudley shook his head. "The kids are my priority, Drake. You know Laine and I are assigned to train our students to sing two songs as a choir on the Crown Prince's birthday."

Drake then turned his head towards his older brother. "You know, Dudley. Anatolia is a heavy favorite in the firearms competition for the past five years. Even though we're always hosting the tournament, we seriously suck at the firearms competition."

"I guess Echizenians are more in to melee fights, especially with swords."

"No way! Echizen has the best marksmen military in the world! Why haven't we won a single title in the firearms competition? That's what I don't understand! I seriously think you should enter the tournament, Dudley. Represent Echizen with pride! A-and you look really good in burgundy red, white, and black!"

"Red, white, and black, huh?" Dudley muttered their national flag's colors: a red flag with a white X-shaped cross, along with a red-outlined white box at the center with a dragon sewn in black.

"If you win, the Royal Couple will be so delighted that they're gonna think you're the coolest Echizenian ever! They would seriously want to be friends with you, that's for sure!"

Dudley broke in to laughter. "You hope too much, Drake."

"I had a really strange dream last night, Dudley. I dreamed that you are the new Phantom Hawkeye and then you had a cool crew of guardians, traveling around Gaia and kill monsters until you finally found your destined target. You became a true hero and a legend!"

"You're kidding, right? Me, Phantom Hawkeye? It's not like I'm always armed with guns on a daily basis except for hunting. What makes you think that I'm really fit to be the Phantom Hawkeye?"

Drake snickered and gazed right at the hawk. "I know it's silly of me to ask of you, but do you think my brother Dudley would make an ideal Phantom Hawkeye?"

The hawk squealed its voice, answering Drake, despite that the younger Bly boy would not understand a thing.

That is because Master Dudley is the Phantom Hawkeye. Hearing the translation in his mind, Dudley's eyes widened in shock.

"See? Even the hawk agrees with me, Dudley!"

The redheaded teacher dropped his head and closed his eyes. No no no, not that Phantom Hawkeye thing again. Galen and his three friends before all believed that I'm the Phantom Hawkeye, now Drake also?

"Heeey! There you are!" The two brothers quickly stood up in a startle, only to find their Uncle Clyde already waving at them.


Hello again! Please read and review, and also, let me know if the chapters are too long for you. I have a habit of writing long chapters and I'm trying to shrink it as much as I can. Thanks for reading again!