Hero — Part 3
Editors: Speedphoenix, Joker
Somewhere between thirty and forty men in black oozed out of the forest. They stood in a semi-circular pattern with their backs to the trees as they stared down the lone warrior that had stayed behind.
“Is this barrier your doing?” The man who appeared to be the squad’s commander raised his voice.
“It is,” affirmed Nell. “It’s a barrier I put a lot of magic into, and it’s really hard to break. I’m sure you’d be able to make your way around it if you went far enough, but the others will all have escaped by the time you make it. If you want it out of your way, then you’re going to have to kill me.”“Well, if I must, then I suppose I will,” muttered the commander. His tone was so neutral it was disturbing; it dripped with nothing but indifference. “You heard the girl, men. Kill her.”
Every single fiend kicked off the ground and broke into a dash.
And so did Nell.
She didn’t bother waiting for them to reach her.
A battlecry erupted from the depths of her throat as she charged straight into enemy lines. She attacked the first man she noticed and tore her blade right through him as she passed him by; she didn’t even turn to look at the man whose life she had stolen.
Her second target was the unit’s commander. One of her unique skills, Accelerate, kicked in as she boosted straight towards him and drove her weapon into his flank. Her attack contained all the speed and force of a cannonball. And yet, it somehow wasn’t fatal. The commander managed to twist his waist just far enough to avoid being slain.
Backup came immediately. A wave of arrows began flying at Nell the moment she had finished swinging her blade. She had no choice but to defend or be pierced by the barrage.
“Bore through my enemies! Sacred Arrow!”
She bobbed and weaved to dodge every single incoming projectile before retaliating in kind and firing off several dozen arrows of light. Unlike her enemies’, Nell’s aim proved true. Several archers died where they stood, their bodies impaled by shimmering stakes of light.
Daggers, armblades, and other armaments designed for the sake of assassination went on full display as the robed figures drew their weapons. Again, they all charged at her. And again, they failed.
“Hide! Barrier of Concealment!”
She created a veil even darker than the night itself and concealed herself from her foes.
As seasoned killers themselves, the men in black knew that she had yet to leave the space. They didn’t know much about the barrier’s effects, but they understood that she was still within it. That was why they plunged their blades straight into the darkness without a moments’ hesitation.
Only to hit nothing.
It wasn’t as if they had guessed wrong. Their instincts were dead on. Nell was still within the barrier. She hadn’t phased out of their plane of existence or transported herself elsewhere. She had simply ducked.
She bent her knees and dropped herself low enough to avoid all of their attacks before retaliating with a spinning slash aimed at each man’s torso. The sensation of her blade rending flesh travelled up her arms as her face was painted in a fresh coat of sanguine—not that it meant much of anything at all, in her eyes. Again, she didn’t so much as cast a glance at the men she slew. With all the power of her Accelerate skill at her back, she kicked off the ground and launched herself at the one man her eyes had been trained on ever since the battle’s inception: the enemy commander.
The short-haired swordsman knew that taking his head was her only shot at victory. She was a powerful force. An undeniably powerful force. But they were many, and she was one. It simply wasn’t possible for her to thin out their numbers if they continued to coordinate. Her only shot at victory, the only thin sliver of a chance she had, was to mess up their chain of command and take advantage of the ensuing chaos.
Alas, it was not meant to be. The commander had already seen her trick once and survived. It simply wasn’t going to work a second time. He raised his dagger and parried her blow perfectly despite the sudden burst of speed that accompanied it. Unfazed, she stepped forward to deliver a heavier, more convincing blow. But she couldn’t. The hero’s internal alarm suddenly began to blare, so she followed her gut and twisted her neck just in time to avoid an arrow that had come from right behind her.
Her target didn’t miss the opening created by her sudden dodge. He managed to graze her shoulder with his dagger despite her best efforts to avoid the obvious, telegraphed strike. It was shallow. Very shallow, but it was still a wound nonetheless. Nell grimaced in pain and retreated as she quickly glanced in the direction that the projectile had come from.
One of the men she had cut down had survived. He was on the ground and bleeding profusely. He was going to die. Period. But he was still a threat. He had the miniature crossbow affixed to his arm trained on her and he was sure to continue firing incessantly like the pest he was if she didn’t finish him off—not that she even had the chance to.
“Keep your distance! Stay out of her range!”
Her enemies immediately heeded their boss’ order. They backed off, drew their bows, and all fired upon her at once.
Nell tried. She tried as hard as she could. She rolled, dodged, or cut down every incoming projectile she could. But there were too many. It simply wasn’t possible for her to block every single projectile. Several arrows pierced her armour and dug into her flesh.
Pain shot through her nervous system.
The agonized screech she let out almost immediately morphed into a battlecry; she knew she couldn’t show weakness, so she toughed out the pain and charged straight at the irritating archers assaulting her.
Naturally, their immediate reaction was to begin backing off. But they couldn’t match her speed. They were doomed. She dashed into a group of them and delivered a series of fatal blows, each flowing perfectly into the next. Only when she was subject to yet another barrage of arrows did she finally stop attacking. She leapt out of the way, centered her blade, and got ready to fight with her back to the massive barrier behind her.
“Is that all you’ve got?” she laughed. “You’re going to need a lot more men than that if you want to kill me!” Her enemies had formed a semi-circle around her, but Nell put on a daring smile regardless.
“Well… if you insist.”
The commander’s reaction served as a cue. Enemy reinforcements began pouring out of the forest and taking their places around her. Their numbers were even greater than they had been at the encounter’s inception. So many men in black had gathered around her that she didn’t even want to begin trying to count them.
“It’s too much of a risk to leave you be. You’re too dangerous, far more of a concern than the imbeciles we call the wingbearers. Threats like you have to be… eliminated,” said the commander in a cold, flat tone. His eyes were narrowed and his gaze was piercing. To Nell, it almost felt as if he was evaluating her very essence and seeing her potential. “This will be where you die.”
His words led Nell to reflect on her actions. She had said far too much, and she was about to pay for it in blood. A wry smile appeared on her face. While she knew that her current circumstances were inevitable, she couldn’t help but feel as if she was in part responsible for them herself.
The battle had already lasted for hours. Literal hours. The night had long passed and the sun had long risen.
Nell’s body felt as dull and heavy as lead. None of her limbs listened to her anymore. They wouldn’t move the way she wanted them to no matter how hard she pushed. Unlike her opponents, who could take turns attacking in waves, she hadn’t had a moment to rest or refuel. She was so hungry that her eyes felt like they were spinning, and her throat was so dry she could feel her skin cracking as she breathed.
To make matters worse, she had lost a lot of blood. Too much. Her stamina slowly drained away as her vital fluids oozed from the multitude of scratches that covered her body. The arrows embedded in her shoulder and flank didn’t do much to help the situation either.
Her mana stores had long reached the bottom of the barrel. She only managed to cast the occasional spell because Durandal happened to have its own store of it. As much as she wished otherwise, she knew it wouldn’t last. Her holy blade would soon run dry, and there was nothing she could do about it.
Needless to say, her barrier had vanished with the last bit of her magic. That was why she had switched to retreating through the forest as she fought. Fortunately, the enemy had chosen to prioritize her over those she had helped escape. The commander had chosen to dedicate all of his resources to relentlessly chasing her down after coming to the conclusion that she was the larger long-term threat.
Technically speaking, Nell had succeeded. Her friends and the refugees they accompanied were hours away from the men in black. All because of her efforts. That said, it wasn’t as if things were really looking all that good for her. The fiends had her driven into a corner. Frankly put, she was screwed.
They had seen all of her tactics. She had crawled through the underbrush, waded through mud, and thrown off her enemies with barriers of concealment and barriers of illusion. And in exhausting her kit, she came to realize that her enemies were specialists. The proficiency with which they tracked her seemed to indicate that they possessed skills capable of aiding them in their pursuit. She couldn’t escape. It didn’t matter what she did. They would always find her, engage her in a skirmish, and eat away at the tiny bit of stamina she had left. She knew she couldn’t hold out for much longer. Her body had hit its limit.
Nell had long lost track of the number of times she had swung her sword. She didn’t know how many men she had killed, nor did she remember the amount of time she had bought—not that it mattered. Knowing the metrics associated with her plight wouldn’t have changed anything. The same couldn’t have been said for knowing the terrain, however.
Because the hero soon found herself staring down a grassy plain.
The trees that she had used to keep herself hidden from her enemies were gone from her field of view. She had reached the edge of the forest. The long game of cat and mouse she had been engaged in had come to an end.
“You’ve certainly wasted quite a good bit of my time.”
Spinning around, Nell found herself staring down the enemy commander, the man who had ordered his underlings to chase her to the point of creating trauma. She took up a stance with her blade as soon as she saw him, but she was too late. One of the men in black slugged her in the gut before she could truly ready the weapon.
It was a solid hit, one that hurt so bad she felt her consciousness grow hazy. Before she could recover, she was hit again. A second man ran up to her while she was still bent over and kicked her holy sword right out of her hand. Under normal circumstances, she never would have let such a thing happen, but she simply didn’t have the strength or stamina to keep a good grip on her sword when she was as exhausted as she was.
Rather than finishing her with his blade, the fiend followed up his attack by grabbing her now empty hands and violently pulling them behind her. He then kicked her in the back of her knees and forced them to buckle before presenting her to his commander.
“Let me guess…” Nell said between heavy pants. If looks could kill, hers would have finished off the enemy’s leader in an instant. “You’re going to beat me up… and make me look as miserable as you can… before killing me in front of my companions… Just to make an example out of me.”
“Well, we certainly will hurt you. You’ve given us quite a lot of trouble, so I’d say that it’s only fair. As for killing you? I happen to have other plans,” said the commander. “Chasing you around for as long as I have has given me a bit of a… change of heart. You see, I happen to like women like you.”
“Well, I hate men like you,” said Nell.
The man didn’t mind the fact that Nell had spat an insult at him. In fact, her act of defiance led him to squat down in front of her with the lewdest of grins plastered all over his face.
“Yes, yes, that’s exactly it! That unwavering attitude! That unbreakable resolve!” he said, ecstatically. “I can’t wait to take you back to my manor and… reeducate you. You can fight back all you want. It won’t change a thing. I’ll drill my teachings into your body. And soon, soon, I’ll break you in. You’ll be shaking those hips of yours and begging me for what I want before you know it.”
A series of chills ran down Nell’s spine as the man tenderly stroked her cheek with his fingers. She felt as if she was being caressed by an insect; his fingers were more feelers than they were digits. Driven by a sense of absolute revulsion, she glared at him with renewed vigour.
“Besides, you’ve killed quite a number of my men. I can see that you’re quite the fighter. Throwing all that talent away would be nothing short of wasteful, don’t you think?” he asked. “Well, what do you say? Spread your legs and wag your tail for me, and I’ll let you live a life of ecstasy.”
The commander grabbed Nell’s jaw and slowly raised it such that she was looking right into his eyes. Almost as if by reflex, she opened her mouth to scream in refusal, but she stopped right before she did. She swallowed her words, silenced her emotions, and began speaking in a steady, neutral tone.
“If I say yes… will you let my friends go free?”
“Why, of course I would.” The man flashed a conman’s smile before continuing in a tone that screamed he was lying at the top of his lungs. “I don’t care what happens to them anymore. You’re all that matters. Say yes, and I’ll let them go free.”
The hero twisted her lips into a frown, as if to express that she was in the midst of contemplation. She let the stiffness leave her muscles in order to express that she was no longer thinking of resisting.
Naturally, the man standing behind her also loosened up; he relaxed the grip he had on her arms.
He fell for the act. Everyone fell for the act.
The moment the fiends lowered their guards was the moment she acted. She wrenched her arms free and drew the blade hanging from her waist. Her first target was the commander. Her blade tore right through the hand he had on her chin and cut his wrist clean off.
Next, she attacked the person that had been responsible for holding her down. She cut off both his arms before mustering up just enough strength to leap away. The weapon she had in her right hand was not Durandal. It was Lunar Blossom, her side arm. The dagger he had given her. She had carried it on her person ever since it was first gifted to her. Back then, Nell had known little to nothing about daggers and their usage. Now, however, things were different. She had put herself through an extensive amount of training in order to ensure that she was worthy of the blade. The hero had not only acquired the dagger mastery skill, but also raised it all the way to its third level in the span of roughly a month.
Her proficiency could be seen through her stance. The reverse grip she held her blade in brimmed with confidence.
“I refuse! I’d rather fight to my last breath than join the likes of you!” The commander had promised that he wouldn’t hunt down her companions, but she knew not to trust him. The chance of him following through on the agreement was less than that of a monkey with a pen accidentally reproducing a famous piece of literature
She had only momentarily played along with his ruse in order to buy just one extra moment in hopes that it would raise her allies’ chances.
“Fine! Then lament your choices as you die!” shouted the commander. “Men, capture her! Do whatever it takes! Don’t let her escape, and don’t let her off with an easy death! Make her feel pain, suffering, and humiliation! Carve the meaning of disgrace into her body as you drain her blood and turn her into a lifeless corpse!”
A sense of impending doom assaulted Nell as she watched the man bark out orders while nursing his wrist. Chances were, she was going to die. She had been on the verge of death for quite some time, but now, it was finally going to really happen. It was a discouraging thought. But Nell didn’t give up. She was more than willing to offer herself up and fight to the death if her sacrifice brought her friends safe passage.
The brown-haired swordsman had never amounted to much of a hero. She was just an ordinary girl that happened to have been shoved into the role, and she lacked the experience necessary to perform it. Still, she was satisfied. Because her last act would finally make her worthy of her title.
While it was unfortunate that she never did get to see Yuki again, she knew that he would be able to take her place. That he would protect everyone in her stead. That, unlike her, he would unconditionally succeed.
He always seemed nonchalant, unconcerned with the events happening around him. Even so, he would always invest his energies into helping those that needed it. He would reach out to those that needed it most and startle them with aid that they had never expected.
Thinking of him, remembering him, brought a smile to her face.
Her enemies were drawing closer. Looking around prompted a mix of emotions to swell within her.
And the indomitable desire to crush her foes.
Again, they drew closer.
So Nell roared. She bellowed at the top of her lungs to express all of the emotions raging within her as she readied herself for her final confrontation.
A confrontation that would never happen.
Something approached from the air. It cut through the air at an incredible speed and caused the earth to tremble as it descended upon the grassy plain. There was a powerful shockwave; the force of its high speed landing kicked up a massive cloud of dust. Reflexively, she brought up her arms to shield her face from it.
Likewise, the men approaching her had also defended their eyes from the dust. But they had failed to resist the shockwave. The force of the impact had sent them tumbling through the air.
Looking through the gaps in her arms, she noticed a humanoid silhouette within the dust cloud.
“Hey Nell. What’s up?” She was greeted by a familiar voice. One that she had eagerly looked forward to hearing. One belonging to the man that had occupied her thoughts on her deathbed.
As the dust cleared, her eyes confirmed what her ears had told her.
He had finally come for her.
“Geez. You’re so late!” Her eyes dampened, and her lips warped into a bit of a pout as she complained at him in a voice filled with heartfelt emotion.