Hero — Part 2
Editors: Speedphoenix, Joker
Nell was on guard. The pursuit she was subject to forced her to remain on edge at all times. The numerous enemy encounters she had engaged in were more sporadic than they were cohesive; the men in black only confronted her with one small unit at a time. Still, the chase was intense. The fiendish horde almost seemed endless. Countless foes had fallen to her blade, but reinforcements continued to flood out of the woodwork regardless.
The men were silent. Though there had been many of them, not one had leaked their orders—not that they needed to. Their actions clearly suggested that they had been instructed to kill everyone that resisted them, details be damned. Nell and her companions had no choice but to keep moving—if they wanted to live, that is.
“Nell!” Ronia raised her voice right as the hero finished dispatching another wave of enemies. “We need backup! Now!”
The swordsman pursed her lips. They were in a bad spot. A really bad spot. She didn’t really want to acknowledge Ronia’s statement. Agreeing with her meant involving Yuki and, subsequently, exposing him to danger. That was the last thing she wanted. Even the thought of it plagued her with guilt. But she knew that it couldn’t be helped. They would have to reach a city in order to get any backup. And frankly, there weren’t any nearby. The fiends were sure to take them down before they made it.
Yuki was the only one they were capable of contacting, the only person that she and the people traveling with her could rely on to provide them with the help they so desperately needed. Her reluctance didn’t stem from her knowledge of his strength. In fact, Nell knew that he would be able to overturn the near-hopeless situation at hand. She just didn’t want to be the reason that he was put in harm’s way. But she wasn’t the only person here. The hero knew that many a life was at stake.
“…Yeah, I guess you’re right.” The hero silenced the part of her screaming in self-reproach and reluctantly acknowledged the mage’s demand. “We don’t really have any other choice. Use the orb.”
Ronia reached into the pouch she had on her waist the moment her friend agreed to her pleas. But before she could grab the item in question, she was subject to a sudden assault. Her crisis detection skill allowed her to sense it. The taciturn mage knew that the enemies’ archers had unleashed a volley upon her.
So she dodged.
She pushed with as much force as her legs could muster and hit the deck. Ronia wasn’t a frontliner. She wasn’t very agile. Still, the mage managed to roll out of the way and avoid all bodily harm even in the face of her lack of physical strength. It was an action that everyone but her found commendable.
Because the same couldn’t have been said for her equipment.
Rather than hitting her, the arrow she so narrowly avoided drove its tip straight into her bag’s string. With nothing to hold it, the leather pouch fell straight to the ground.
There was a crack, a loud crack.
Ronia gasped in dismay as she swivelled around to retrieve the container and its contents.
“Bore through my enemies! Sacred Arrow!” Ronia wasn’t the only one to turn. Nell did too. The hero created several projectiles made of light and sent them flying at the enemy archers.
“Follow her lead! Don’t let them get any closer!”
Spurred on by the human, the wingbearers also raised their bows and began launching arrows, one after another, in an attempt to keep the enemy in check.
Having her allies return fire provided the mage with just enough time to grab her pouch. She turned around the moment it was in her hands and retreated to safety while looking inside—an act that led her to grimace.
“This is bad. They’re broken…” she muttered.
“Both of them!?” asked Nell.
“Yeah!” Ronia’s expression warped in panic. She clenched her teeth and began to tremble as she realized that everything had gone wrong. They had lost their only hope at survival. And it was all her fault.
Like Ronia, Nell’s eyes widened. She too recognized the fact that they had just lost their contingency plan. A sense of hopelessness assailed her mind. But she drove it away. The hero knew that panic would serve no purpose on the battlefield, so she took a deep breath and forced herself to remain calm.
Rather than overreacting, she redirected her energies towards racking her mind, towards finding a way out of the seemingly hopeless situation that they were stuck in. And, after a brief delay, she found it.
“Can you fix them, Ronia?”
“…I think so,” said the mage. “I’ve been looking at their circuits and trying to understand them for days. I can definitely fix them. But I’ll need a few hours.”
“That’s great! Now keep running! We’ll figure something out later!”
“Wow! You’re so brave! Good job sitting through all of that. It must have hurt.” Mekina smiled at the child whose injuries she was taking care of before giving him a pat on the shoulder. “Okay, you’re all set! Next patient please!”
After briefly glancing at the intelligence operative tasked with taking care of the wounded, Nell turned back towards the pair of warriors sitting before her. “How are things looking, Regillis?”
“It appears that we are safe for the time being. Your Barrier of Illusion has thrown them off of our trail,” replied the wingbearer. “However, we must remain vigilant. There are far too many of them. It is only a matter of time before they discover us once more.”
“…And it doesn’t seem like they’ve got any intention of giving up,” sighed Nell.
“They do not wish for us to tell others of their underhandedness. There is much evidence to support the saying that demons obey the strong. However, it does not encompass the whole truth. We only obey those with might if they act in a manner deserving of our respect. The fiends know this. I do not know why they have suddenly begun acting so shamelessly,” said Regillis, in a grave tone. “Refusing to offer them our loyalty appears to have driven them out of their minds. They cannot allow us to live long enough to reveal their desperation. It would label them dishonourable. Their infamy would be accompanied by a severe loss of influence. I do not believe they will call off the pursuit.”
Nell’s group was situated in an old ruin a bit away from the village. While they hadn’t managed to truly lose their pursuers, they had at least gotten them off their coattails for the time being. The most prominent nearby structure was a large statue. It looked as if it would have once been a towering, majestic sight to behold, but all the wear and tear it had been subject to had all but destroyed it. Making out its former appearance from what remained was impossible.
Many a wingbearer rested at the statue’s feet, lying on their backs and sides to abate the overwhelming sense of exhaustion that assaulted them. The few that were up and about were handing out the little bits of food they happened to have on hand and helping the other members of their tribe.
The scene almost made their temporary encampment appear like something along the lines of a makeshift military hospital. Those on the ground functioned as the patients while those on their feet played the part of caretakers. However, unlike a field hospital, the wingbearer camp was severely lacking in misery. That wasn’t to say the people were cheerful. Some wore foreboding frowns. Others clearly looked as if they had resolved themselves for death. But no one had given up hope. No man, woman, or child had fallen to despair; the wingbearers refused to conduct themselves in a manner not befitting a proud clan of warriors.
It was this sort of behaviour that led Nell to understand exactly why they were regarded as such a powerful force in times of war. It all stemmed from their attitudes. Their calm and composed outlook had allowed them to earn many an achievement.
“How far away did you say the nearest city was again?” asked Nell.
“I believe it is a two day march. It would not take nearly as long if we were to fly, but taking to the skies and revealing ourselves to the enemy would only lead to our demise,” said Orias.
One of the largest problems faced by the wingbearers was the fact that they couldn’t make use of their greatest asset: their wings. Their inability to do so was a two-part problem. It was half because they would have trouble flying due to the lack of vision that accompanied the darkness, and half because it would allow the enemy to spot them with ease. They had no choice but to remain stuck to the ground. Like Nell and the other humans, they had conducted their escape with their feet.
“They are sure to know that we wish to reach civilization. They have likely planned to ambush us immediately prior to our arrival,” said Orias.
“…I guess that means we have no choice but to hope Ronia comes through.”
Nell glanced in her friend’s direction as she spoke. The mage was immersed in her task. No one else faulted her for dropping the orbs, but she felt a heavy sense of responsibility nonetheless. That was why she had devoted every last fibre of her being to fixing the red orb of correspondence. It was her way of owning up to her mistake and solving the problem that she had inadvertently caused.
The intensity of her gaze and her lack of frustration seemed to indicate that all was going well, that she would be able to complete her repairs if given enough time. And that was the problem. Nell didn’t think that they could stall for long enough, at least not with the way things were. Ronia would never be able to truly focus on her work if she had to stay on the move. Conversely, sitting around would ultimately subject them to a heavy assault.
Things were looking bad. Really bad.
The hero knew that every hour she bought would improve everyone’s chances, that buying a day would all but guarantee everyone’s safety. Something had to be done.
“…I do not wish to question your judgement,” said Regillis doubtfully. “But are you certain that calling for aid will better our chances? Did you not say that you have only a single individual willing to assist you?”
“It will,” said Nell. “I trust him enough to bet everything I have on him. I know he’s strong enough to pull through for us. In fact, he’s so much stronger than me that I can’t even tell how strong he is.”
“That is quite impressive. If you are willing to praise him to that extent, then I will trust you and expect the best.” said Regillis with his eyes wide. “I would have wished for the opportunity to cross blades with him and see his skills for myself were we not in such dire straits.”
“Indeed. I would very much love the opportunity to spar with him should we survive,” added Orias.
The warriors’ comments led Nell to flash a wry smile. Both were still eagerly looking forward to challenging powerful foes despite the situation at hand.
While Nell might have, to some extent, enjoyed it, the relatively peaceful atmosphere was not meant to last.
“We’ve spotted a group of enemies to the southwest! They’ll reach us in about ten minutes!” A panicked warrior dashed into the camp as he gave his report.
“It appears that they do not wish to provide us even a moment of rest,” said Regillis, bitterly.
“Are there any other places we can use to take shelter nearby!?” shouted Nell.
“…” Regillis closed his eyes for a moment as he contemplated the question. “There is a valley half a day’s distance away. It is the perfect place for us to hide, but it will serve little purpose if they discover us before we reach it.”
“…Alright,” said Nell, after a deep breath.
The hero stood up, looked in the direction of her enemies, and took a few quick steps forward.
“Nell!?” Orias opened his eyes wide. “What are you—”
“Isolate! Barrier of Separation!”
A massive wall suddenly materialized itself between Nell and the warriors, one created by the hero’s barrier-based unique skill. The towering, translucent structure went on as far as the eye could see. It was literally several kilometers long.
“Do you wish to take them alone!? What is the meaning of this!”
Both warriors immediately began hitting the barrier as they shouted in concern. But she didn’t pay their worries much mind.
She knew that something had to be done. The status quo had to change. That was why she had to step up to the plate.
It was the only way.
“Take care of everyone, you two.”
“We cannot simply leave you to perish! It is not you, but we who are their targets!”
“If you want to help me, then protect Ronia,” she voiced a string of words resembling the ones that the chief of the wingbearers had said to her upon her departure. The phrase was accompanied by a smile, a stiff smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Make sure she’s safe enough to finish her repairs, okay?”
The next two to approach the wall and call for her were Ronia and Mekina.
“If you don’t want me to die, then get out of here and finish those repairs, Ronia!”
“What are you talking about!? Stop being stupid and get rid of this bar—”
“Take care of Ronia for me, Mekina.” Nell ignored the mage’s protests and cut them off as she began speaking to her other companion. “And make sure you keep taking care of everyone that’s hurt too, okay?”
“…Of course, dear.” The older human agreed after a moment’s hesitation.
“Of course!? What do you mean, Mekina! Don’t just listen to her! Stop her!” Ronia’s screams were laced with panic and dread. But again, they were ignored.
Though Nell was facing her friends, she could hear a series of footsteps coming from behind her. The enemy was closing in. Rapidly. “They’re here already! Just hurry up and go!”
“We’re leaving, Ronia!” said Mekina.
“But that means—”
“No buts! If you really want to help her, then start running!”
“We haven’t achieved any of our objectives yet! Make sure you don’t abandon the mission, okay!?” Mekina craned her neck to give the brown-haired hero one last look as she took off.
“Don’t die, Nell! No matter what!” Likewise, the mage did the same as she broke into a sprint.
“Rest assured, Nell. You have our respect, and we will protect your friends even if it costs us our lives,” said Regillis.
“I hope that the tides of war will turn in your favour,” said Orias.
Hearing everyone’s parting words caused Nell’s smile to relax and become more natural. She couldn’t help but find the frantic manner in which everyone else was acting a bit amusing.
After watching them leave, she turned back towards the foes headed her way and drew her divine blade from its sheath. The holy weapon glowed. Durandal basked its surroundings with a pale light. And as she raised it in front of her, she closed her eyes and took another deep breath.
She was ready. The barrier had consumed a massive amount of mana, but she still had about half of it remaining—not that she was all that dependant on her mana to begin with. Nell wasn’t a mage. She was a swordsman. She could continue to fight even if her magical reserves were drained dry.
The footsteps grew clearer with every passing moment. There were dozens of foes coming her way. At least.
Fear struck her. Her pulse quickened; her heart beat so hard and fast that she began to find it obnoxious. Her legs trembled. She felt like she was about to collapse.
Not once did the thought of fighting for glory and honour cross her mind. Frankly, she wanted to turn tail and run as far away as she possibly could. But she couldn’t. She didn’t know why fate had played her the hand it did, but whatever the case, she had wound up a hero. The heroes that she had always looked up to, the literal legends whose tales were passed down by the bards and minstrels, never fled in the face of danger. They were known for functioning as living shields. Their power was always used for the sole purpose of protecting others. And they never failed. They would always cleave through the forces of evil and restore the world to its rightful, peaceful state. Even if it meant putting their own lives at risk.
And it was her duty to do the same.
She couldn’t run.
She had to fight.
Nell was severely lacking in experience. She barely qualified as a hero. And she definitely lacked the pride that came with the heroes of old; there were no major achievements to her name.
Still, that didn’t change the fact that she was a hero.
She couldn’t just sit by and let things be.
So she made herself smile.
The action was so forced that she could feel her mouth cramping up. But she kept the act up nonetheless.
“This is as far as you go.” An intrepid grin appeared on her face as she readied herself to bathe her holy blade in blood.