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Ankle-Biters' Crusade

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Ankle-Biters' Crusade

"Ah! This can't be happening!"

Frantically, Subaru looked around the marketplace, searching for any trace of that red-brown hair he was so familiar with.

All around him were various people: humans and demi-humans of wildly different appearances, and yet none of them were the one he sought.

"Where could she have gone…? Damnit!"

No matter where he turned, there were no traces of her tell-tale ribbon or white-and-black maid uniform anywhere!

Pushing through the crowd, Subaru searched and searched to no avail.

He could not find her, no matter where he looked.

Just where in the world had Petra run off to!?

In another part of the capital, near the Astrea residence, Reinhard was panicking…just a bit.

He could not find his lady anywhere in the house, and he was more than sure that her departure had to be recent since he could…well, he could tell. Just like he could tell salt from sugar, he could tell when someone had left.

When did he get such a power?

"Come now, ya prick," a gruff voice spoke within his very soul. "Ya can't have los' her so easily, ya failure of a man! Ya call yerself a man, ya little fish!?"

He was tempted to ask for forgiveness, but then he remembered he should not talk to the mean voice in his head when others can hear him. Just as he was about to apologize to the voice, it spoke again.

"Agh! Jus' get goin', ya worthless fish! Are ya gonna catch 'er or nah!?"

For once, Reinhard agreed with the Sword God's voice, and set off in search of his disappeared lady.

As luck would have it, Priscilla was also looking for a certain someone.

"Looking" was an exaggeration: she was merely waiting for Schult to return. The world worked in her favor, and she wanted him to return, so therefore he would come back unscathed.

Al went out to look for him, so the gears of fate were already in motion.

Indeed, if she wanted Schult back, he would come back by any means, and that included Al bringing him home. Maybe if that jester did a good enough job, he would get a reward.

First, though, she was going to have a little talk with Schult about disappearing from her sight.

"Haya, Julius?"

Julius turned to where Anastasia sat, adjusting her hat. "Yes, my lady?"

"Julius," she repeated. "Where's Mimi? I haven' seen her all day."

He thought for a moment, trying to recall when he had seen the orange kitten. "I am afraid I do not know, my lady, but perhaps her brothers do."

"We haven't seen her either!" one of the triplets, Hetaro, answered from the other side of the room.

"Ah see," Anastasia said, giving herself one final look-over in the mirror. "Does Ricardo know?"

"Sir Welkin isn't here," Tivey answered, handing his brother a wand.

For a second, Anastasia remained as she was, before saying, "Julius, if Mimi's lost, can ya be a dear an' find her, please?"

Julius nodded, because of course he would help find a small demi-human girl in the middle of the capital. "I shall get to it right away."

He did, in fact, get to it right away.

In the slums of the capital, within a ruined building that was once a loot house, there was a gathering.

The people within could not be any more different: one was a royal candidate, two were servants, one was a mercenary, and the last two were…something…

At the head of the group, a blonde girl dressed in a ruined yellow dress stood. "Alright everyone! Welcome to the Ankle-Biter Division! Who hasn't been here before!?"

Three people raised their hands: one of them was a pink-haired boy dressed like a butler while the other two were dirty and raggedy twins.

"We have a question, tsu," one of the raggedy ones said. "How long will this take? Mama will be looking for us."

"For you," the boy's brother corrected. "We still don't understand why you follow that woman around, tsu!"

The younger and better-dressed of the two brothers shook his head in disapproval at his brother's words.

"So, I was wonderin!" one of the people there, a small girl with a white uniform and orange hair, spoke. "What are we doin' today!? I know a good, good restaurant!"

Another girl, one with auburn hair who was wearing a maid's dress, added, "But, we don't have money, right? How can we go to a restaurant without money?"

"We can just eat the food," the younger, unkempt brother opined. "It's not like they can force us to give it back once we ate it, tsu."

"But stealing is wrong!" a boy with pink hair and a butler's outfit complained. "Besides, Lady Priscilla gave me some coins to spend! It might be enough…hopefully…"

The older of the two brothers sighed. "This better be a good restaurant…we'd hate to waste our time, tsu…"

"Hey, hey, we'll decide on the restaurant later," the girl in the ruined dress, Felt, said. "Why don't we get going in the meantime!? C'mon, let's go get a bite!"

Murmurs of agreement spread through the gathered crowd, and all of them stood, ready to follow their "leader" wherever she took them.

"Hey! Rein! Man, I'm so glad to find you here!"

Within an alley right next to the market district, Subaru crossed paths with his old friend, the Sword Saint.

"Ah, Subaru," Reinhard replied. "It's good to see you, too. Unfortunately, there is something important that I must do, so I'm sorry for cu-"

"C'mon, buddy, no apologies! I'd love to help you out but…uh…I'm in kind of a pickle myself, heh! You wouldn't have happened to see a girl, about 13 years old, wearing a maid dress?"

Shaking his head sadly, the Sword Saint answered, "No, I haven't, unfortunately. Sorry about that. I would like to know, though: have you seen Lady Felt recently?"

"Nope," he sighed. "Hey, isn't this a little weird? I mean, there can be some connection between these two things, you know!? I got it! I just need to think like Light!"

"Whoever this 'Light' is, they must surely be very intelligent for you to seek to imitate them," Reinhard commented.

Subaru smiled and struck his famous pose, with one finger pointing to the sky. "You bet! Say hello to detective Natsuki Subaru and his junior partner Reinhard!"

Chuckling, the redhead said, "Well, I presume I can take the role of junior 'detective' for now…however, on to more pressing matters: the disappearance of both Lady Felt and your friend…"

"Petra," Subaru added.

"Their disappearances could be related, like you said. I do believe it would be best to investigate this together."

"Alright, junior detective!" the black-haired teen proclaimed. "Let's go find our missing friends!"

"Heya, mister! Wouldja happen to know of any good places to eat!?"

As excited as always, Mimi waved her hands up and down, trying to catch the attention of an oddly-dressed merchant.

The Ankle-Biters, as they called themselves, had agreed that they should go out to eat before anything else, but said decision only led to arguing over where they could eat something.

The younger of the two unkempt brothers, who called himself Roy, said he was fine eating anywhere, while his brother Lye said he would not eat anything not "gourmet," whatever that meant.

So now Mimi was the one tasked with asking for recommendations.

The man she decided to ask was a trader who, according to Felt, took up residence near the loot house after it collapsed. Mimi had to admit; she really liked this trader's attire! He had a shoe on one foot and a sandal on the other as well as haphazardly-dyed hair and a gray robe missing a sleeve.

Also, his store – which doubled as a carriage – was filled with cool-looking things! Maybe Anastasia would like something from here!

"Sorry, tiny one," he responded, not taking his eyes off a black book he was reading. "No restaurants worth eatin' at around here. Only good one I know is 'Niowl' down by the knights' barracks, but that's…kind of far. Besides…I doubt a kid wants to listen to knights argue over politics all day long…"

"I'm not a kid!" she answered, crossing her arms and giving a proud grin. "I'm turning 15 in two weeks!"

"Good for you," was his response, eyes still looking over whatever that nondescript book had inside. "It's expensive. Do you have money?"

"Yessir! I always make sure to have some money to spare!"

"You're a very responsible little annoyance. Now, if you want to get there while it's not full, hurry along. There's only like an hour left before the knights go on lunch break."

"Wow, really!? Howdja know that, mister!?"

For a split-second, the man's eyes widened in realization of what he said, before he just smiled softly and put away the book into his pocket. "Well, I'm good friends with the restaurant's owner. He and I? As solid as they come. Now run along, you, before they make you wait hours for a bite."

The small girl gave him a beaming grin. "Alright mister thank you!"

With that, she went running back to the others to tell them what she discovered.

Julius was having no luck today.

He had spent who-knows-how-long searching for Mimi all around both the market district and the noble district, and now he was heading to the royal castle.

Along the way, he picked up an…eccentric ally…to say the least…

"I believe the guards at the royal castle may know something," he told his partner. "They are the best of the best. Nothing in this city happens without them knowing."

"Kyahaha! The royal knights, he says! Aren't you one of them!? How come we're in this situation if your royal knights are so good!?"

She called herself "Lady Palecal," and as far as Julius was concerned, she was a noble through and through. From what he had been told, Palecal was the daughter of a man with influence in the Gustekan church, and she had quite repeatedly emphasized the connection her father had with the famed Mad Prince…as if that would somehow help the search.

Her appearance stood out quite a lot: short and black hair with a single long strand on the right side of her head, scarlet eyes, and a petite figure with a short but ornate black/violet dress and a red crystal necklace.

Whoever it was she was dressed to impress, she would not fail.

"This is a rather sudden event, my lady," he replied, bowing his head. "Forgive me for taking up too much of your time, but I believe it is in our best interests to work together to find our missing acquaintances."

"Tsk," was all she said in response.

Julius could swear he heard her mutter something about an assassin being more effective than him, but he brushed it off.

To the Ankle-Biters, the restaurant was a whole new world.

A myriad of weapons was displayed on the walls, and paintings interspersed between the showcased tools of war depicted the most famous tales in Lugnican history: the covenant's formation, the Demi-Human war, the death of the White Whale, and more.

There were already some knights present and they mostly kept to themselves, but all of them had to take a short sidelong glance at the ragtag group.

For almost everyone in the group, this was their first time coming to this restaurant. Had it not been for one of them having some experience, they would have been completely clueless.

"I came here once," Schult told them as they all sat down around a table. "Lady Priscilla said that…um…fate had brought her here and we accompanied her."

"This 'Lady Priscilla' sounds like quite the person, tsu," Lye commented, moving a bit of hair that was covering his eyes. "We would really like to meet her."

"She, uh…she ended up getting into a fight with one of the waiters here," the pink-haired butler said with a mixture of shame and pride while pointing at a wall with a vaguely human-like set of cracks around it.

Felt whistled. "That's…sure is something…nice to know she's capable of that."

Before any of them could say more, the door opened and in walked a woman wearing the uniform of the city guard. She walked toward one of the knights, a young man whose armor seemed too big for him, and whispered something in his ear that startled him.

The two left together in a hurry.

Everyone in the Ankle-Biters' table shared a look of tacit agreement…except Roy, who was more fixated on the menu.

"Ah, I don't want to be the one that points out the obvious, but…that seems really suspicious," Petra stated, pointing out the obvious.

"Yep, it does!" the pocket-sized Iron Fang member answered with a grin. "I'm bored! Let's find out what they're up to!"

Across her, Felt nodded. "Yeah, let's! We have nothing better to do, anyways!"

"Ah, but we wanted to try one of these," Roy sighed, pointing at a name on the menu.

With varying degrees of enthusiasm, the Ankle-Biters decided to give chase to the enigmatic duo.

"Sorry, pal: truth is that I ain't seen anyone like that around these parts."

In the slums, the very colorful trader was speaking with a one-armed man whose attire resembled that of a bandit far too closely.


"Nah, it's alright, brother," the helmeted man said. "Just to make sure: you didn't see a short kid dressed like a butler? Anyone at all similar?"

"There was a girl," the trader replied. "White clothes, about waist-high, orange hair. No one else came by today, though. Business just ain't that good, ya know?"

Al's shoulders dropped. "I hear you. Whole country feels slow, lately."

"You're spot-on. Here I was hoping the White Whale's passing would help trade…seems like people are still afraid to go out or something."

"I also wonder why."

Both men turned to face the person who had spoken and found the famed Finest Knight – who bore an expression of barely-contained irritation – accompanying an unknown woman in violet and black.

"Al," Julius said, his eyes pleading with him to make up some excuse to get the woman away from him. "What a pleasant surprise. I believed you to be over at the Baroness's estate."

"Small change of plans, brother. I'm looking for Schult. You know, the little one with pink hair?"

"What a coincidence: I also happen to be looking for someone. Mimi Pearlbaton. Would you happen to have seen her? She is about waist-tall and orange-haired."

The bandit-like "knight" let out a chuckle. "What a coincidence! This guy here happens to have seen someone like that, righ-"

It was only when Al turned to ask the trader that he noticed his shock and dread. The trader had paled, and his terrified gaze was fixed on the woman accompanying Julius.

"What's wrong?" said woman teased, her voice mocking the trader. "Come now, don't tell me you've never seen a lady as lovely as myself."

"The…the…you're…but…I…I thought…how…"

"You okay, brother?"

"Forget him," she said. "I think someone got his tongue."

Julius snapped his fingers and managed to break the trader's trance by just a little. "Mister, my acquaintance says you saw a short girl with orange hair pass by. Is that correct?"

His eyes flickered between Julius and the woman as he answered, "Ye-yes? I think so…she uhh…she went down to the mark-…no, it was a restaurant, yes. A restaurant by the knights' barracks. One called 'Niowl,' yes."

Putting her hand on her mouth in a perverse display of nobility, the woman laughed. "Kyahaha! How splendid! Some poor meatbag who lives in a carriage knows more than your royal knights! Oh, this is too funny!"

"Thank you for the information," the Finest Knight spoke, bowing his head. "Al, would you care to accompany…us?"

"Yes, 'us' indeed," the noblewoman chuckled. "Until I find my…whatever, you said you could help, and unless the Sword Saint himself shows up right this instant, I'm not letting you go!"

Sighing, Julius pleaded with Al to accompany him and give him some reprieve from the woman's incessant mockery.

"Ah, shucks," the Baroness's "knight" said. "I guess I can save some time by working with you, brother."

Following the two suspicious individuals was easy, especially for someone like Felt.

Her Divine Protection allowed her to move like the wind itself, making something normally dangerous like weaving between rooftops into a trivial task.

Given that the rest of the Ankle-Biters were completely ordinary, she could not expect them to keep up. Instead, they followed her as best they could on the ground, making sure to keep a good distance from their targets.

Felt noticed that the two "guards" were walking toward a rather…unpopular district. As far as she was aware, the district held only a ruined mansion and a couple of shady thugs. Those with the worst of luck would find themselves face-to-face with a particularly bad-tempered mobster that ran some rackets in the district, but something gave Felt the impression that these two were not working for said criminal.

Underneath her, the two people walked into a deserted alleyway. It was a shortcut, Felt thought, and a rather unoriginal one at that. Good. These two were not as intelligent as she believed, or at least they were not creative.

"It's been too long," the suspicious man spoke. "House Avril was supposed to reap the benefits…but we're left cleaning up the others' scraps."

"She trusted a Vollachian," the woman replied. "What did she think would happen?"

"Exactly. And now…we're stuck with those 'cul-'"

"Associates. Remember that."

Looking down on them, Felt could tell her initial assumption had been right: whoever these people were, they most surely were not out in this district for charity work.

She tried to remember anything she knew about a "House Avril," wracking her brain for the tiniest scraps of information she could recall. If they were calling themselves part of a "house," then they were of some noble lineage or had connections to one, but the name "Avril" rang no bells for her.

It was not as if she really cared about the nobles in the first place, but Reinhard was always telling her to study the most important families and their history.

She snapped out of her thoughts upon hearing the sound of wood creaking. The man and woman had reached a dead end, but the woman was moving aside some pallets of old wood someone had haphazardly abandoned there.

Beneath the pallets was a trapdoor.

"Hey, look! It's Appa Man!"

With almost child-like excitement, Subaru ran toward the merchant's stall, which was overflowing with appas.

Subaru spoke with the scarred merchant like he was reuniting with an old friend. It made Reinhard feel a little, tiny bit sad. He could count the number of friends he had on one hand.

"Ah, don' get all sof' on me now, ya pathetic excuseova man," the Sword God's voice said in his head. "An' ya call yerself a Sword Sain'…how laughable. Keep mopin' about frien's an' you'll just make yerself more pathetic, you fish!"

Sorry, Reinhard thought.

"Here ya go again with th'se apologies," the God spoke. "A real man tak's what's his, ya hear!?"

From the stall, Subaru called out to him. "Hey, Rein! Look at that! Appa Man here saw Felt and a couple of other kids pass by! He says they went toward some old part of the noble district!"

"For the last time, my name is KADOMON!" the appa seller half-sighed-half-yelled in exasperation.

"Ok, got it, Appa Man! Hey, I'll drop by for some of those when I have time, alright!? Thanks again!"

While the merchant shook his head, Subaru strode toward Reinhard and explained the directions he had received.

"I fear for Lady Felt," Reinhard said. "Even if she is capable of handling herself, districts with a large number of criminals are no place for her."

"Same here," his friend added. "Poor Petra…well, let's go fetch them. Hopefully they won't get in trouble!"

"I hope you are right, Subaru…just…one thing."

"What is it?"

"Lady Felt is not a 'kid.'"

"Dude, she's like, knee-tall."

Reinhard sighed and shook his head in defeat.

"This place is sca~ry, tsu."

Lye had originally come to the capital because of a rumor: apparently, there was a set of duels set to occur in the red-light district, and it would feature the strongest and most skilled fighters.

Roy just happened to be in the city, and what better way to have a family bonding activity than to go eat a bunch of gourmet names and memories?

As fate would have it, though, the duels were cancelled, and Lye was not the type to sulk for long. He got his brother and decided to go find something else to do, which hopefully included gourmet.

He could not say he was disappointed.

Whatever this group he had found even was, it mattered not. He found it quite amusing and…kind of entertaining. Sure, it was just dumb fun, but it was fun nonetheless. It also made Roy shut up about his precious "Mama" for at least a minute, so it was well worth the time.

"Look who's talking," Roy commented beside him. "If for nothing else, you should come with Mama for some new clothes, tsu!"

Ah, he just had to ruin it…

"Nope, not happening, tsu. We'll get rid of these clothes when they break, and only then."

"And yet, you claim to appreciate the 'finer' things in life, tsu…"

A little bit ahead of them, the girl with the ribbon on her head spoke, "Ah, please don't be so mean to each other…"

Roy gave a chuckle as Lye merely sighed.

Right now, their entire group was in the catacombs beneath the capital. It was nothing new for Lye: he had been here dozens of times. The others were all both amazed and scared by the dark tunnels that seemed to go on forever.

"Think we'll find food there?" his brother asked.

"If nothing else, then yes, tsu."

At the very front of the group, Felt called out, "Why are you two so obsessed with eating? Damn, even I'm not that hungry, and I lived in the slums!"

It was Lye who responded, his face wearing a sharp-toothed grin. "We're Sin Archbishops of the Witch Cult, representing Gluttony. It's in our nature, tsu."

"Yeah, sure," Felt answered with a snicker. "And I'm the queen of Lugnica…wait, actually…you know what I mean!"

The talking ceased as they came across a door. As expected, it was locked.

"What do you think's on the other side?" Schult questioned with evident worry.

"If there's bad guys, then we'll beat 'em up!" was Mimi's reply.

As the one closest to the door, Felt peered through the keyhole for a few seconds before saying, "I can't see much, but…the place looks big. It's like a basement or something! Hey, that's the guy we were…"

Without warning, the door opened.

On the other side stood the man they had been following, but his armor was gone. In its place, the man wore a religious-looking robe while his face was concealed by a mask like those frequently seen in parties.

Even with the mask on, the Ankle-Biters could tell he was both irritated and angry.

"And who are you?" he said, eyes darting from one member of the group to another. It made for a comical sight, given that even the tallest of them could only reach up to the man's ribs.

At the back of the group, Roy licked his lips and rubbed his hands together, muttering about how grateful he was to finally find a meal.

"No need to be shy," the man said. "It's not like I am going to scold you…"

Felt took a step back from him, weighing her options: she could fight, but there could be more of these cultists in there.

For a second, the man looked at her, and a flash of recognition hit him. "You! You're…!"

She cursed her luck. Of course the creepy and evil cult member had to figure out who she was. Seriously, she looked nothing like either of her posters, both the campaign and the "wanted" one!

The man turned toward the room on the other side and yelled.

"Hey, there's a royal candidate here!"

"Well, look who it is!"

The mocking glee in Subaru's voice was unmistakable, but it was not surprising.

"Julius, nice to see you."

Reinhard's response was just like him: simply perfect. Subaru wanted to rant about the unfairness of one man being so adored by whatever deity ran this world, but it was not as if they would hear him.

Their search for Petra and Felt led them to an old part of the noble district where, according to Reinhard's Divine Protection of Historical Knowledge, several aristocratic families had resided until the Demi-Human War. Now it was a kind of high-end slum for fancy criminals and conmen.

What surprised both of them was the fact that they ran into Julius, Aldebaran, and an unknown woman along the way.

"Well, it's Natsuki Subaru," the woman laughed with veiled disdain. "I expected someone of your reputation to be a little…older, perhaps!"

"Gee, Julius," the black-haired teen sighed. "Your new girlfriend is quite something. I think I'd prefer it if you went running back to Anastasia…"

Next to the Finest Knight, Al whistled. "You didn't tell me she was your girlfriend, brother…I mean, I get it, you know? Sometimes, the hottest chicks are the most vocal."

"I am not in a relationship with anyone, thank you both," the knight sighed while the woman kept chuckling to herself.

Reinhard bowed to the woman. "I am Reinhard van Astrea, a knight of this kingdom. May I aid you with anything?"

"And…you already know who I am," Subaru added. "Don't expect me to help, though."

She winked at him, and for the shortest instant, her eye turned an amethyst-purple. "Aw, how unfortunate. You won't help out this poor, lovely lady?"

Subaru crossed his arms, scoffed, and grinned. "While I do not doubt your loveliness, such underhanded tactics won't work on a detective of my caliber!"

"Diketihve?" the woman spoke, lifting an eyebrow.

"Ah, it's uhh…from my homeland. You see, a detecti-, never mind! We're wasting time! What are you guys doing here anyway!?"

In unison, both Julius and Al responded.

"Attempting to find Mimi, of course."

"Tryin' to find that little pink flea Schult."

Reinhard put a hand to his chin, deep in thought. "Hm, it may be as you feared, Subaru: these disappearances could be connected."

"Yeah, and that's creepy as all hell!" he replied. "Seriously, do we have a Hansel and Gretel situation on our hands!?"

"Although I do not know what you are referring to, naturally, I believe this situation to warrant further investigation," the purple-haired knight uttered.

Al, on the other hand, gave a nervous chuckle. "Yeah, brother, let's just hope there's no witches in town today. I've met enough of 'em for a lifetime…"

Reinhard gave him a dubious look. "You met a witch?"

"Nah, what I meant is…I met none, and I'd like to keep it that way."

Although the Sword Saint narrowed his eyes, he just shook his head after a short silence. "I see. I'm sorry for intruding on your personal matters."

"Ok, ok, enough apologizing and talking," Subaru interrupted. "We're looking for some missing kids: Petra and Felt. Do you have any clue where they'd be?"

"Lady Felt is not a chi-"


"I assure you, Lady Felt is merely sma-"


Finally, Reinhard relented. "I believe I speak for everyone when I say we should combine our numbers and knowledge, yes?"

The noblewoman, a smug smile on her lips, said, "Well, I quite believe the contrary."

"Cope with it," was Subaru's response. "We're doing what Rein says."

The noblewoman's face of seething rage was payment enough for him.

"We just came from a restaurant," Al said, breaking the tension. "They told us to look around here."

"My buds have found no traces," Julius added. "I am seriously beginning to doubt if this is the right place."

The Sword Saint nodded. "We spoke with an appa merchant who saw Lady Felt and some other children come this way. This district is…quite unsavory, I fear. The shadow of House Avril looms large here…"

The half-elf's knight saw how both Julius and Reinhard grimaced upon hearing of this noble house, so he asked, "What's that?"

"House Avril was disbanded after the Demi-Human War ended," the Finest Knight explained. "They were widely accused of treason and collaboration with…Emperor Drizen Vollachia. The events of Picoutatte were the final straw, and the house officially disbanded, although rumors run that some of their members still hide in this district, hoping to reclaim their old glory."

"It is as he said," the Sword Saint spoke. "The city guard investigates these rumors but…there is no proof. If such turncoats are behind all this…"

Silence spread for a couple seconds before the noblewoman said, "Damn all of you! By the Dragon, are you gonna be all doom and gloom or actually do something!?"

"Ya know, I can't believe I'm saying this…but I agree with the mean girl," the black-haired knight opined.

"My name is Palecal."

"Yeah, whatever she said."

The Gustekan's sharp glare was colder than the blizzards of her home country, and yet Subaru paid it no heed.

Al raised his hand. "So, uh…we gonna get moving or…?"

"Yes, we should get going," Reinhard conceded. "We know the missing children and Lady Felt are somewhere in this district. Julius's spirits found no trace of them, which means that they must be hidden from plain sight."

"The restaurant's owner told us the kids left after some city guards or something," Al added. "Now, if I were a treasonous bad guy, where would I hide?"

"Near the Avril manor, but not somewhere obvious," Julius said. "The manor has importance to them, but they cannot simply live in it, and they need to conceal their activities."

"So…somewhere not too easily accessible," Subaru concluded. "Not easily accessible and identifiable by their own. Something like a hidden passage?"

"You…you…you are all so unbelievably stupid," Palecal commented. "What's stopping you from just…asking around…?"

With mock horror, Subaru half-yelled, "We can't just do that! Our knightly pride hangs in the balance!"

"Then ask the Sword Saint to do something! Anything!"

"I will try to do something," the aforementioned Saint spoke. "Indeed, I will…oh."

"What is it, Rein?"

"I happen to have received a Divine Protection…for locating lost children…"

"That is good news," came Julius's response. "Yes, marvelous. You can use that to find Lady Felt and the rest, yes?"

"But Lady Felt is no-"

"Rein, buddy…let it go, dude."

For the first time ever, the Sword Saint looked like a sad puppy.

"For decades, House Avril has been toiling around in the shadows…living off of the charity of others…but no longer."

With an almost maniacal grin, the young man in the party mask turned to the Ankle-Biters.

"It was my grandmother's fault…all of it! But I can fix it! And…I need you to help me!"

All around him, the others began murmuring to each other. There had to be about a dozen people excluding the Ankle-Biters, all wearing party masks and strange but expensive clothes.

"Yes," the man said. "Yes, I need a royal candidate's help…and this is a divine miracle! All I need is for you to di-"

The Avril leader's speech was cut short by a lengthy yawn, courtesy of Mimi.

"Mister! I'm hungry! Do you have food!?"

For a second or two, the leader looked confused. "Uh, I think I do. Somebody check if there's anything left over from that last gathering, I'm pretty sure we had some plates' worth. Alright, so…where was I?"

Schult raised his hand. "Something about a royal candidate."

"Ah, yes. Well, I need a royal candidate to di-"

"You have food, tsu?" Roy interrupted. "Can you get us some too?"

Sighing, the leader nodded. "Just consider yourselves fed, fine? Everyone here can eat if they want. So, about the royal candid-"

"Sorry to interrupt, but is there anything to drink?" Petra asked.

The leader snapped his fingers and one of the people gathered around walked off. "I'm sure we can find some water, if that's alright. Well, I was just about to talk about the royal candidate, right? I simply need them to…uhm, what was the word…oh, yes, I need them to di-"

Before he could finish, the door was kicked in and went flying, narrowly missing him.

"Damn it, Rein! How come your entrances are so much cooler than mine!? Seriously, I was just gonna kick the door open! You almost knocked out the enemy!"

At the entrance stood the Sword Saint with an expression of controlled anger. Behind him, Subaru, Julius, Al, and Palecal had formed a line.

"Woah!" the leader said. "Wait! This isn't what it looks like!"

"Hey, brother," Al spoke. "I just heard you say you need a candidate to die. That's kinda suspicious, you know?"

Immediately, the leader went into a panic, moving his hands faster than the naked eye could follow. "This is all a mistake! A misunderstanding! I never said 'die!' I was going to say 'direct!' I need her to direct some attention my way! I charge membership and we really need money here! Look around you! We live in an old basement!"

Reinhard sighed. "You aren't lying. Are you from House Avril?"

"Yes…what's left of it…"

"I see. What were you doing here?"

With a sheepish smile, the leader spread his arms and answered, "It's…a book club…yay!"

The only sound that could be heard was the steps of one of the Avrils, who brought with her several plates of food. She stopped dead in her tracks when she saw the group at the entrance.

"You guys look like a cult," Subaru commented. "Believe me, I say this as someone who's met quite a couple of them."

Just as the leader was about to say something, Felt threw a shoe at the Sword Saint. "Damn you, stupid mister Perfect Knight! How'd you even find me!?"

Naturally, Reinhard caught the shoe mid-air. "Lady Felt, I feared for your safety. The Divine Protection of Lost Child Location allowed me to follow you here. I am truly glad to see you are unharmed."

"I'm not a child!"

With a smug grin, Reinhard turned to his black-haired friend and nodded.

"Schult," Al said with some relief. "Ah, you little punk…if you run off again, you're on your own. You're lucky Princess was in a good mood…"

"Julius!" Mimi yelled as she was naturally unable to use her inside voice. "Julius! Do you have some food on you!? We're starving!"

While Julius responded to the cat-girl's question, Petra opened her mouth to speak, but decided to remain silent, instead fidgeting with her hands.

From behind all the knights, Palecal gave an only-slightly-maniacal laugh. "Kyahaha! Finally! Roy, the next time y-"

She shifted her gaze from one of the raggedy brothers to the other and scowled.

"Ah, you're here too…"

"Yes, tsu. We're here as well…"

"You guys got beef or something?" the one-armed man asked, though his tone made it seem more like a statement.

"We wish we had beef," was Roy's reply. "We're hungry, tsu…"

"We'd give you beef if you cooked it," his brother spoke, making a face of disgust.

Among the Ankle-Biters, Schult gasped. "You don't eat cooked meat?"

Clearing his throat, Julius spoke, "I would like to clear this confusion. The Avrils were traitors to the kingdom, so how did they become a…book club?"

"It's mostly because of two things," the leader answered. "We need money, first of all, and…we wanted to do it."

"I am afraid I do not understand."

"Consider it like this: after what happened, we wanted to get back at the king, you know? Thing is, we had no money or anything, so we began doing this to get a couple of coins and…next thing we knew, everyone was more interested in the books than in committing treason…so…"

"He's telling the truth," Reinhard clarified. "While his motives are…dubious at best, he is not lying, at least not intentionally."

A bright and hopeful smile appeared on the leader's face.

"Unfortunately," the Sword Saint went on. "This is an illegal operation, and we will have to take you all in for questioning."

In mere seconds, the bright smile fell, and a frown replaced it.

"It is as he says," Julius affirmed.

"Then I'll play along," the masked leader stated. "Just…this isn't…we are not who we were decades ago."

With a nod of his head, the Sword Saint accepted the man's statement, and the search came to an end.

Nearly a month after the "incident," the Ankle-Biters reunited once more.

"Heya, mister! Remember me!?"

"By the Dragon…you multiplied…"

The strangely-dressed merchant with multi-colored hair from last time was taking inventory when a certain orange-haired, tiny, and hyperactive cat-girl came to him…this time with her brothers.

"Why are there three of you now?" he asked, shifting his gaze from one of the tiny mercenaries to the others.

Tivey spoke for all of them when he said, "We have always been three."

"There was only one of you last time…"

"Mimi ran off by herself last time. Now, she at least had the common sense to tell us."

Mimi's response to her brother's remark was to hit him in the head with a wooden staff she carried.

Chuckling, the trader asked, "Why'd you show up here now? Last time you wanted food, now whaddya want?"

"Mister! Ya wouldn't happen to know if that restaurant from last time is full right now, right!?"

"Hmm…it might be. Some big-name Vollachian came by for peace talks recently, ya know? I think her name was…Missigre? Whatever, she's apparently in the castle, so lots of people in that district. If you feel like walking a bit more, there's a good place down the market district, alright?"

The cat-girl gave an excited jump, which only reached up to the trader's hip. "Alright! Thanks mister!"

With those words, she turned and ran toward the ruined loot house, her brothers following as best they could.

The merchant smiled.

"What an odd choice of apparel you wear."

It was hours later, in plain afternoon, when the merchant was visited again, this time by a strange woman. She was a demi-human clad in a strange, flamboyant dress. Nine fox tails swung gently in the breeze behind her.

"I could say the same," he responded. "You look like a wealthy customer. Is there anything special I can get ya?"

"Information," the woman said plainly, taking a short puff of her pipe.

"What about?"

"See, I brought with me an attendant. She is a…petite girl, demi-human, has horns, brown hair…ring any bells?"

Shrugging, the merchant spoke, "Sorry, only tiny kid I've seen today is that orange one. You might have some luck asking down by the market district or up by that new bookstore…it was 'Avril' something, if I remember correctly."

The woman, in turn, gave him a short nod. "I see, I see…farewell, then."

She turned, and took some steps away from the trader before he called out, "Hey! You're a customer! Pay me!"

"Apologies," was her answer. "You're not particularly…interesting."

And with that, she left.

"Hey, lady! Don't just leave! Damn you!"

Frustrated, the trader threw his black book at the floor and sighed in defeat.

"Everyone! Welcome back to the Ankle-Biter Division!"

Just like the last time, Felt stood in front of the gathered crowd and enthusiastically greeted them.

Unlike last time, there were some new members: the two Pearlbaton brothers, a girl in an ornate kimono who had horns on her head, and a blond girl with twin drills.

"Since there's some newcomers, has anyone told them how this works?" she asked the group.

The girl with the drills gave a huff. "Of course, I suppose."

Felt smiled. "Alright then, just remember this: the only rule here is that there's no rules! Just don't do anything…bad."

Her gaze landed on Lye.

"Yes, I mean you. No picking fights with renowned warriors, much less when they're the SWORD SAINT."

"Tsu," he replied, nodding sadly.

Someone among them laughed, and Felt's smile grew bigger.

It was time for the Ankle-Biters' second crusade to begin.