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 "...!!"

Anne opened her eyes; her chest began fluctuating due to her rapid breathing. Just recently, Anne had a terrible nightmare. Although she couldn't remember the details, she could still vaguely recall the blazing world shrouded in crimson while being chased by some wild beasts. Anne kept running with all her might, somehow managing to evade the beasts. Deep within her heart was a subconscious fear - she somehow felt that if she stopped running, she would be devoured mercilessly.

Luckily, it's only just a dream...

Anne let out a long sigh. Suddenly, a familiar voice sounded beside her.

"What's wrong? Having a hard time sleeping?"

"Eh?"

Anne blinked a few times in surprise when she noticed the owner of the voice. Rhode's usual expressionless face caught her attention as he leaned back on a chair beside her bed. Although Rhode's expression didn't reveal any joy or happiness, Anne felt so much better after seeing his familiar face. Her pumping heart had also slowly returned to its normal pace.

"Ah, Leader, why are you here? Did we win? Tell me we won!"

Anne hurriedly sat up and inquired with avid excitement. However, the moment she dragged herself up, a strong dizzy spell struck her and she fell back onto the bed.

"That's right, we won."

Rhode nodded and gazed intensely into the maiden's eyes without any expression. This action caused some insecurities to grow in her heart, and she unconsciously tugged her quilt to hide half of her face, leaving only a small gap to peek at Rhode. It seemed like she had finally understood what she had done wrong...

"L... Leader, Anne knows its Anne's fault. Anne shouldn't have disobeyed you, but that time-"

"Why didn't you listen to my orders?"

Rhode abruptly interrupted her halfway with a severe tone. Anne trembled slightly, but she still managed to reply with a smile.

"Erm... Leader... you had also seen it. That grandpa was threatening Anne, and if Anne didn't-"

Rhode briefly cut her off again, but this time, Anne noticed a slight change in Rhode's expression. She felt a chilly sensation spreading throughout the entire room and wrapped herself further with her quilt.

"Of course I've noticed it, but I also recalled that I'd mentioned before the matchup that no matter what happens, you need to act according to my orders... Of course, I'm aware that this wasn't particularly easy for you, but Anne..."

"... Why must you disobey my orders and consume some items that I've strictly prohibited?"

"Because... " Anne paused for a moment, "because Anne knew that the grandpa was so powerful and Anne was afraid of not defeating him! So..."

Anne's voice drifted off and lowered her head in shame.

"Did I not warn everyone that the side effects of the Awakening Potion will be too much to handle? Anne, I recalled that you were there too."

"Bu-But..."

Anne lifted her head to explain but was interrupted by Rhode's wave of his hand.

"But what? Do you think you will recover after just resting for a few days? Anne, do you know, you may even be unable to fight anymore."

"... Huh?"

Anne widened her eyes in disbelief as Rhode's words 'you may even be unable to fight anymore' resounded in her mind.

Unable to fight anymore? Is Anne unable to fight anymore?

"Although that potion raised your energy for a short period of time, now that the effects are over, your actual strength can't even be compared to even half of what you used to have... In other words, you can no longer go on an adventure with others anymore. Now, do you understand the severity of this matter?"

"This... This..."

Anne stared blankly at Rhode. Her heart naturally tried to deny Rhode's words, but the state of her body was the ultimate truth. In fact, since the time from when Anne had woken up until now, she felt incredibly weak. However, she reminded herself repeatedly that it was due to her being asleep for too long. Although Lapis had once warned her, she took no heed to it and thought that no matter how strong the side effects were, she would be fine after a few days rest.

But now, Rhode actually told her that she could no longer be with the others?

"No, no, no such things! Leader!"

Anne waved her arms frantically and hurriedly forced herself off the bed.

"Anne isn't that weak. Anne is only tired. Anne will be okay after a few days of rest. You see..."

As she spoke, she quickly scanned the surroundings and found her shield leaning on the wall. The girl quickly sprinted over, grabbed onto the enarmes and attempted to lift the shield.

"You see, Leader, Anne is fine. Anne is perfectly f-..."

Before she could finish her sentence, she lost her balance and fell towards her shield. Although she didn't hurt herself when she fell into the concave part of the shield, it didn't feel good either. However, the girl didn't give up as she quickly pulled herself up. She bit her lips, placed both of her hands onto the enarmes once more, and reattempted to lift the shield. Alas, she failed again just as Rhode had predicted. Currently, Anne's strength wasn't even at Lapis' level, so it would be absurd if she could still lift the shield.

"Dong!!"

Anne used all her strength, but the shield wouldn't budge. Instead, her hands slipped, and she fell on her bottom. However, Anne was persistent. Yet again, she forced herself up and tried to lift it up again.

Rhode quietly observed while sitting on the chair. He didn't attempt to stop her. He noticed her sweat-drenched hair slowly sending streams of sweat trickling down to her clothes, revealing her pearly white skin. Rhode knew that Anne had already understood her situation and chose not give up - or perhaps - she didn't dare to give up.

Anne eventually lost the strength required to grab the shield. After every attempt, she would either slip and fall on her bottom or knock her head against the shield. However, Anne didn't stop as she was determined to make it work. Her face, elbows, arms and other parts of her body were all badly bruised from her repeated failures, but that wasn't enough to stop her.

"Ahh!!"

Anne fell backwards once more, but this time, a pair of hands supported her from behind.

"I think you have your answer now."

"Bu-But Leader, this may only be temporary..."

Still evidently at a loss, Anne looked back at Rhode like a child staring powerlessly at her father.

"Anne only needs to rest a while longer... Just a few days will be..."

Anne's voice softened. She was no dummy. She knew her body conditions more than anyone else.

But now, she began to tremble.

Naturally, Rhode felt Anne's body trembling involuntarily. He knew that It wasn't due to the overexertion, but of fear - this was a rare sight as Anne had never been afraid of anything. Her nerves were as thick as steel to the extent where even an opponent such as Rosen didn't frighten her. Furthermore, she even came up with plans by herself in order to defeat this old man by every possible way. This shows that there was no 'fear' in her dictionary.

But now, she's truly feeling fear.

"... Will... Leader make... Anne leave the mercenary group?"

Not long later, Anne murmured inaudibly, but Rhode clearly captured the tremor within her voice.

"This isn't decided by me. The choice lies with you."

Rhode answered Anne calmly, causing her to shiver.

"... Yes... Anne is... useless now..."

"Based on the current situation, it is indeed true," Rhode nodded before continuing, "but who knows what will happen in the future."

"Huh?"

Anne quickly turned around and gazed into Rhode's eyes with signs of hope.

"Leader, you mean there's a way to help Anne?"

"There may be a possibility," Rhode spread his arms and explained. "I will think of a solution for you. After all, you hold a key position within our mercenary group's - and I'm not willing to abolish it that easily. But before that, I have to emphasize once more - you'd better listen to my instructions. If you don't, then I will consider changing my mind."

"Please rest assured Leader!"

A broad smile bloomed on Anne's face as she placed both hands on her chest while looking into Rhode's eyes.

"Anne swears to always listen to Leader's words. No matter what Leader wants Anne to do, Anne will definitely do it! Anne promises to always obey! If, if Anne doesn't obey, Leader can instantly kick Anne out of the mercenary group!"

"Until then, I hope you can remember what you have just said."

Rhode nodded in satisfaction, and when he was just about to leave, he noticed Anne smiling ear to ear at him - he had to give it to her, this girl was an emotional rollercoaster. Just a while ago, her expression was as though it was the end of the world, and now, she was smiling brighter than the sun.

"Heh heh... Thank you Leader."

"... Thank me for?"

Hearing her express her gratitude which seemed to appear out from nowhere, Rhode pricked his brows and asked her curiously.

"Leader must be worried about Anne, so you were waiting for Anne to wake up, am I right? Now that it's already so late in the night but Leader didn't choose to sleep. This means you care for Anne, right? Right?! Thank you, Leader!!"

Anne threw herself into Rhode's arms and rubbed her forehead against his chest like a tiny kitten.

"Anne loves Leader the most because Leader treats Anne the best! You're indeed Anne's Leader, Anne loves you so much!~"

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