The Hero’s Return — Part 3
Editor(s): Speedphoenix, Joker
The wooden, horse-drawn carriage rattled as it slowly made its way down a well-trodden dirt path. Upon sticking my head out the window, I found us surrounded by a seemingly endless field of green. Untamed, waist high grass extended as far as the eye could see in every which way. Wave-like patterns spread through the emerald sea as it fluttered to and fro in the wind. It was, in all fairness, a beautiful sight. One I couldn’t enjoy. There had been nothing but green for hours, and I was sick of it. We were the only thing that stood out from the backdrop. The armed men surrounding our wagon, visible from a mile away, were second in conspicuity only to the vehicles they guarded. Distinct as they were, the men were effectively the same as the environment. They offered nothing of interest to gaze upon. The same went for the carriage in the front of us, the only other member of our convoy. It was too bland to entertain me.
With a sigh, I repositioned myself back inside the coach and looked at the girl I shared it with. Her usual energy was nowhere to be seen. Brooding had led the light that normally filled her eyes to be replaced by a dark melancholy, one only emphasized by the rigid frown that accompanied her furrowed brows. The way she lifelessly leaned against the side of the carriage with her face propped up by a wrist was so depressing it was lovely. I know this is really inappropriate, but I really wish I could snap a few pictures of her right about now. This’d definitely be one for a museum or archive somewhere.
Calling the situation at hand complicated was practically an understatement. Both she and the kingdom were involved in far more turmoil than was necessary by any means. And it had all stemmed from the “prince’s” revolt, the conflict that I had joined and at least in part resolved. My intervention had brought the armed revolution to a close. The prince’s supporters had been purged en masse. They were captured, convicted of high treason, and sentenced to the guillotine. Their heads quite literally flew by the dozen. And that was precisely why the kingdom’s political climate had failed to recover.
Removing the prince’s allies had left as many empty government positions as it had headless carcasses. Allysia naturally compensated for its loss by finding new government officials. But most of its new hires were still green. Their lack of experience prevented them from getting much done. In the end, it had fallen to the king to take up the mantle. He had single-handedly shredded mountains upon mountains of administrative work and saved his kingdom from collapse. But there was only so much that one man could do. He had no choice to split his focus between internal affairs and foreign relations in the case that other sovereign entities chose to interfere in his business. It was a well-made choice. Because interfere they did.
As a major human power, Allysia had no shortage of enemies. Countries both near and far stuck their noses in its business. They attacked the kingdom both directly and indirectly. The direct attacks took the form of skirmishes. Small armed forces stemming from foreign nations would alternate between executing non-committal attacks and conducting military exercises along the border in order to force Allysia’s already strained executives to pay them heed. And that was on top of harassing Allysian traders and causing a whole plethora of other minor issues that begged the brass’ attention. The king and his men were able to leverage their nation’s extensive might to quell every issue that arose. But that wasn’t to say that the kingdom was unaffected.
With that said, the most significant foreign power-centric problems stemmed not from any blatant military or economic action, but rather, espionage. Foreign surveillance agents were only made more effective by the kingdom’s restaffing efforts. Its new hires were leaking as much information as they were made privy to. Some were bad actors. They willingly traded treason for treasure. Others were simply less than competent. They were far too green to keep secrets and often allowed themselves to divulge details pertaining to their work.
Raylow, the man whose carriage made up the other half of our caravan, had only lost as much sleep as he had due to the frequency with which he needed to travel between the capital and his home. He was, in effect, running around as frantically as a headless chicken in order to get everything under control. There were an endless number of things for him to do in spite of the sudden drop in the number of political rivals he had to face.
The king’s faction wasn’t the only group involved in the country’s restoration. As a major contributor to the monarch’s salvation, the church had also taken it upon itself to calm the masses and bring order to the kingdom. That was simply its natural duty—any religious organization’s natural duty.
People were known to flock to faith in times of hardship. High crime rates and low standards of living were two of religion’s most powerful proponents. Hope was what allowed the people to surmount the grief that inevitably came with a medieval understanding of the medical sciences. There was death around every corner. Famines were commonplace. Many diseases, wounds, and infections remained effectively untreatable. That was why. That was why believing that there was something beyond their morbid, bland lives allowed them to carry on. The promise of relief, the trust that a greater authority would one day bring them salvation, be it in this life or the next, was one of the few things that prevented the populace from succumbing to despair.
For Allysia’s people—and all of humanity—that greater authority was the church. And the hero that served as its symbol. Nell.
They worshipped her. They were indoctrinated in their early childhoods and conditioned to believe that she was their saviour, the shepherd that would guide them into the light. The fact that she lived in Allysia had only made the people even more reliant on her presence. To them, she was equivalent to their peace of mind.
That was why many saw her untimely expedition to the demon realm as a sign, as evidence that the kingdom’s sole guardian was failing to do her duty. They failed to comprehend that parading around the country was by no means necessarily the hero’s best course of action.
It wasn’t entirely their fault. Most of the country’s population remained uneducated. And few were capable of truly understanding a concept as abstract as a long term investment. The church’s silence didn’t help, but they had no choice. The expedition was a top-secret mission that could be compromised by the tiniest of leaks. As straight lies were unsustainable, they had chosen to describe her as being locked in the midst of battle for the sake of their God and his people. It was an excellent decision, one that could—and would—have quelled all but a few unsettled souls.
But then, Nell vanished. In more than just the eyes of the citizens. The month she’d spent in the dungeon was one in which she stayed off the radar. The one and only letter she’d sent failed to suffice as a report. It described that she was safe, but failed to explain where she had gone or why. As there had been no follow up reports, it was impossible for management to discern whether the first had been forged, written under coercion, or otherwise untruthful. To her coworkers, superiors, and other associates, she was effectively missing in action. And that unsettled them. Significantly. It was like the country’s one and only nuke had suddenly upped and vanished.
Under normal circumstances, it wouldn’t be all that strange for her to lose contact. Unlike a nuke, she didn’t sit in a silo all day. She had a job, and a dangerous one at that. Staying in touch was a luxury she often couldn’t afford. That was why all would have been fine had the precise circumstances not been what they were.
The source of all Nell’s misfortune was a government employee, a still incompetent new hire that had accidentally revealed that contact with her had been lost, and that her whereabouts remained unknown. Providing this knowledge to the public had led chaos to breed. It came to be known that this was not the first, but the second time that the hero had suddenly vanished without a word.
Allysia’s people soon began calling her abilities to question. And frankly, though their allegations were false, they were, in a way, justified. Unlike me, the average Joe wasn’t privy to the fact that Nell had far more potential than every other human on the planet. They weren’t able to see her numbers, let alone the rate at which they had grown. But even if they could, little, if anything, would change. Because numbers meant nothing to them. They didn’t understand what values were supposed to be. Nor would they have the cognitive ability to grasp the intricacies and implications of existing at one of the normal distribution’s furthest ends. In the general public’s eyes, Nell was only worth as much as the achievements she had yet to accrue. Some had even started a movement that called for her to be removed from her post and replaced.
Ultimately speaking, the situation at hand was more or less my fault. It was all because of the fact that I’d chosen to keep her locked up in the dungeon for too long. Twice.
What does that mean to me? I raised my eyes to meet hers as I evaluated my thoughts on the matter. I only went with this stupid ass harem idea at first because Lefi was basically making me. But you know, what? Nell’s grown on me. A lot.
I was confident in saying that I had no intention of letting her slip out of my grasp. I wanted her to keep living with us. And I was very tempted to simply have my way and be done with it. But I knew that things were a little too complicated for me to simply make a declaration and call it a day. Nell had deep connections with the humans. And her connections left her with a heavy burden she likely felt obligated to bear.
“Yeah?” She slowly raised her head and looked at me.
I didn’t actually have my thoughts sorted enough to form them into words just yet, so I picked her up and plopped her down in my lap to buy a few moments of time. And as I did, I indulged in her warmth, in the comfort that was Nell.
“Y-Yuki!? W-what are you doing?” She reacted with a start.
“Nothing. Just appreciating how soft and warm you are.”
“W-w-w-where did that come from!?”
“Touching you, duh,” I laughed, then paused just long enough for the mood to turn solemn. “So? You sort your feelings out yet?”
“My feelings? You mean about being a hero?”
“More or less, yeah.”
I was met with silence as she pursed her lips in indecisive lament.
“You see, Nell. I—we—already think of you as one of us. Everyone in the dungeon loves you, and we’d like you to stay. But we know that you’ve still got your duties. You’re a hero. Unlike us, you can’t just laze around in a castle all day. You’ve got things to do.”
“Why did you end up choosing to go through with this whole hero thing anyway?”
She spent a few moments hesitating. Her mouth opened and closed, and opened and closed.
“I… I wanted to help.” She eventually managed to squeeze the words out, slowly, painfully. “I wanted to help the people. And my mom. She raised me all by herself. Her life was hard. I wanted to make it easier.”
“Being a real hero is all I used to want. But not anymore. Now, I want to be with you more than I want to be a hero. And I hate myself for it. I hate myself for being so indecisive. But I’d hate myself even more if I were to just give up and abandon my duty.” Her voice started to crack as she choked back her tears. “Why do I have to be so half-baked? I can’t ever do anything right. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I’m supposed to fix, or how.” The dam holding back her emotions broke. Soggy, sad droplets burst from the cracks and flowed down her cheeks. “I don’t know what to do with myself anymore…”
The hero, the woman, buried her face into my shoulders and wept. I knew that nothing I said would truly make her woes go away, so I simply ran my fingers through her hair over and over as she continued to cry.