The Stampede — Part 1
Editor(s): Joker, Speedphoenix
“Welp, time to find the asshole responsible for this mess.”
I popped my stealth skill, spread my wings, and rocketed my way into the night sky. The darkness did nothing to impede me; my body was far too high spec to find itself deterred by a lack of light. Directing my eyes towards the horde was all I needed to do to observe it in detail.
“Damn… That’s a lot of monsters.”
My map had already informed me of the size of the force I would be dealing with. But seeing it approach with my own two eyes gave the monstrous army a whole new sense of impact. Creatures that normally lived deep within the forest had left their habitats in droves to march to civilization. Branches were snapped underfoot and grasslands were trampled beyond recognition as the horde senselessly pushed forward without the slightest care for the damage they caused on the way.
There weren’t enough of them to traumatize me, as the Wicked Forest’s ants had, but still, I found myself almost completely overwhelmed by their sheer numbers. Fortunately, I was able to reel in my sense of awe by focusing on the observation that their ranks lacked even the slightest sense of order. Infighting was ever prevalent. When two groups belonging to different species found themselves side by side, they would cause damage to each other’s ranks. They would squabble, fight, cripple, and kill without remorse. It was chaos.
Nell had explicitly cautioned me against letting down my guard, which, admittedly, I often did. I had the tendency to shut off my brain and act without thinking of much, if at all. That said, I was sure that I would be able to resolve the situation at hand even if I did accidentally let my focus slip. All the practice I had put into fighting large groups had paid off. I’d gotten fairly skilled at wiping out hordes of monsters far more powerful than this one, and I was confident that I would be given no trouble whatsoever. Looks like playing scout paid off. Now I don’t just think I can dick around. I know I can.
“Now all I have to do is worry about dealing with him,” I made a note to self as I turned my eyes back towards the city. And my one remaining concern. Ehhh… you know what? He doesn’t really seem to be doing much. Hell, he’s more or less just sitting around and watching shit happen. I’m willing to bet he’s already done his part, so I’m just going to put him on the shit-list and deal with him later. First thing’s first, gotta get these damn monsters off the chopping block.
I directed my gaze downwards after repositioning myself over the ramparts, where I found Nell running back and forth, carrying supplies wherever she went. Most of the goods she delivered consisted of arrows and cannonballs, projectiles that the soldiers could use to defend their homes from afar. She wasn’t the only individual transporting ammunition. Many other soldiers, merchants, and civilians were doing the same. There simply weren’t enough shells or bolts where they needed to be. The attack had been far too sudden to give the guards enough of a warning to prepare.
At first, I suspected that the townspeople had lent their aid out of goodwill because they wanted the soldiers to succeed, but I soon realized that I couldn’t have been further from the mark. They weren’t contributing to the war effort because they wanted to help, but rather, because they wanted to live. Just as there hadn’t been any time to restock on ammo, there hadn’t been any time for an evacuation. Helping the men that would soon take to the front lines was the only thing that any noncombatant could do to better his or her chance at survival.
I landed in an obscure corner, retracted my wings, and exited Stealth upon ensuring that there wasn’t anyone looking my way. After a few minutes worth of navigation, I found myself close enough to everybody’s favourite hero to catch her attention without raising my voice.
“Hey Yuki.” She finished putting down the box she was carrying and turned to face me. “Wait… Are you really wearing one of those silly masks again…?”
“Of course,” I said, a matter-of-factly, “every hero’s gotta have a mysterious dude with a mask in their party. That’s just how the world works. It’s the natural order of things, and basically an unbreakable law.”
“Uh huh… Sure, Yuki, whatever you say.” She smiled, wryly.
The mask I had put on wasn’t any old mask. It was the exact same one I had worn the last time I had visited Nell’s country. It featured a fairly simple design, with a star under one eye, and a teardrop under the other. While I certainly did find the mask to be, for lack of a better term, totally badass as fuck, style had not in fact been the main reason I had opted to don it. I knew that keeping my identity a secret would provide me an edge and allow me to play my cards more easily.
“So, yeah, I finished checking everything out.” I reached for a few boxes and started to help out as I talked. “The horde’s more or less made up of nothing but goblins and orcs. The strongest-looking guys were the ogres, which basically means there’s nothing but small fry. We can wipe ‘em out easy.”
“I’m not really sure ogres count as ‘small fry.’ Most people are terrified of them,” said Nell. “But as much it freaks me out to think this, I can see where you’re coming from. The things you and your pets fight in the Wicked Forest are way stronger than ogres could ever be.”
“Yeah, it should be easy unless I trip over my own feet.” I said with a chuckle. “Er, well, more like I guess it would be if I was going to be handling this the way I normally would, but I’m not. I wouldn’t be doing you any favours by sticking around and showing off, so I’m going to be keeping out of sight and staying as far from the spotlight as I can.”
“I don’t really think it matters, does it?”
“It does.” I answered her question with a shake of the head. “I know this is just going to sound like I’m bragging and being a piece of shit, but I’m not. I’m too strong.” I frowned. “I’m not exactly all that good at the whole finesse thing. Since I rely mostly on brute force, I end up being about as flashy as flashy gets. And I’m not just talking about my spells either. If I accidentally punched an orc too hard, it’d probably explode. And that means I’m basically guaranteed to draw more eyes than you. Normally, that’d be fine, but you’re not exactly doing all that well in terms of job security right now. The last thing we need is for people to start spreading rumours about you being weaker than one of your companions.”
“Ughh…” She groaned in a mix of displeasure and sadness. “Yeah, I guess you’re right…”
Naturally, my intention hadn’t been to make her feel down, so I kept talking.
“But, you see Nell, it ain’t all bad news. Because this is the perfect chance for you to show an entire city that you’re the real deal.”
“I-I’m not really sure chance is the right word here…”
“Sure it is. All you have to do to prove that you’re worthy of your title is run down a ragtag group of monsters and call it a day.” I knew she wasn’t quite convinced just yet, so I changed up my approach. “Alright, think about it this way.” I pointed towards the monsters. “That right there isn’t a horde about to knock on the city’s gates. It’s an opportunity. They’ve brought you their lives on a silver fucking platter. All you gotta do is open the door and start swinging. That’s it. You got this.”
A moment of silence passed as she gazed upon the approaching monsters.
“Okay… I’ll give it a shot.”
“That’s the spirit. You get em, tiger.” I brought my lips closer to her ears as I switched from laughing in amusement to speaking in the gravest of tones. “Watch your back. There aren’t any monsters in the city. But that doesn’t mean we’re without any enemies. I’ve picked up on one sitting around inside the city.”
“What!?” Nell reacted with a start. “Are you sure we shouldn’t be dealing with him right away? What if he does something while we’re fighting?”
“I wouldn’t worry too much about it. He hasn’t been doing much besides just biding his time,” I said. “I think he’s probably already done his part and just sticking around to see the aftermath, but I’ll be keeping an eye on him just in case.”
And I mean literally. I had deployed a cloaked evil eye in his vicinity, and not just any old evil eye. The item I had put to use this time was effectively a mark two. It still resembled a mark one in that it held the same silhouette, but was now a good bit larger. The mark two model traded its smaller form factor for a much larger battery. Its upgraded powercell was able to hold enough juice to keep it running for a full two hours. Heh. The more the dungeon grows, the better my tools get. Won’t be long before I have a whole bag of top-secret gadgets up my sleeve at this rate.
“Well, looks like they’re almost here, so I better head off,” I said. “But yeah, like I said, just take it easy and do your thing. The monsters you’re up against are weak. This’ll be a cakewalk so long as you stay on your toes.”
“Okay. I’ll keep that in mind and do my best.”
“Alright. You all set?”
She nodded, so I took the liberty of going on ahead. I placed one foot off the side of the wall and allowed myself to fall. Upon hitting the ground, I turned and motioned to the brown-haired girl atop the ramparts to follow.
“Do I really have to…?” She groaned, but shook off her hesitation almost immediately. “Oh, fine!”
I repositioned myself and made sure to catch her before she hit the ground. One of my hands ended up under her knees, while the other supported her back.
“That was terrifying… And it wasn’t even my first time doing it,” she said in a whisper.
“Oh yeah, something like this did already happen, didn’t it?”
“Mhm. It was back at the bar, remember? You went off the rails and started making fun of someone’s hair.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. This is definitely the first time this has happened,” I said in a flat tone.
She gave me a blatant, disapproving, silent glare, but I averted my eyes as much as humanly possible as I set her down.
“Hey! Someone get over here! I just saw a couple guys fall off the ramparts! I think they might’ve gotten stuck outside!” reported a civilian.
“W-What!? That’s terrible! Open the gates, and hurry! Get them in here before the monsters get close enough to attack!” One of the soldiers barked an order at another before looking over the wall. “Hey! You guys alright down there?”
The response led me to frown.
“Soooo… uh… I kinda wasn’t planning on having them open the gate.” I said with a sheepish grin. “And that doesn’t exactly seem like the best idea with the horde as close as it is. You got any ideas?”
“Mhm!” nodded the brunette. “I’ve got just the thing.”
She raised an arm and pointed it at the ramparts with her palm open and her fingers straight.
“Barrier of Separation!”
A massive wall expanded out from her hand. The gargantuan construction, which ran parallel to the city’s outer bulwark, more than just spanned the the entire settlement. It went on for as far as even my eyes could see.
“W-what the hell!?”
“W-where’d that come from!?”
The soldiers began shouting. Their voices were laced with confusion and panic, and they clearly demanded an explanation. But I decided to pay them a grand total of zero percent of my attention and instead direct it all towards Nell’s newly formed roadblock.
“Huh… Neat. So this is what your barriers look like?”
“Mhm.” She leaned towards me and smiled. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I never did get the chance to show you this unique skill of mine,”: she said. “It’s really sturdy. It’ll be able to keep our allies safe from any stray projectiles. The only downside to it is that it cuts us off from the scoundrel in town. I won’t be able to stop him if he does anything. But I’m sure you’ll be able to sneak in, even if worse comes to worst, right?”
I was curious as to the barrier’s sturdiness, so I decided to rap it a few times with my knuckles. After confirming that it at least sounded solid, I punched it just for good measure. Much to my surprise, it remained completely unscathed. I, however, did not. Ow… I don’t know why I didn’t expect that to hurt. Note to self: don’t punch walls.
The wall’s ability to hold against one of my attacks proved that it more than sufficed. We no longer needed to worry about any of the civilians or soldiers; any considerations with regards to spells and projectile weapons were well accounted for. We were free to let loose and go wild.
“Wow. Honestly, I’m pretty damn impressed.” I reached into my inventory, grabbed one of the MP Potions I literally never used, and chucked it at her as I spoke. “But it looks like that one cast drained half your mana. Here, take one of these. It’ll make up for it.”
“Thanks!” She took it to her lips, only to grimace as she tasted its contents. “Wow… it’s really bitter.”
Though she didn’t enjoy the restorative, she ended up gulping down the rest of its contents in one breath. I took the momentary lull in the conversation as an opportunity to pull my good old favorite weapon out from my personal rift in space.
“Hey Enne, you ready?”
“Mhm…” The blade almost seemed to yawn as it responded, slowly and groggily. “…Fight time?”
“Yeah. Sorry, were you asleep? I didn’t mean to wake you up without any warning, but something’s come up.”
Enne was my signature weapon. There simply wasn’t any way I could have possibly left her behind. The only reason she hadn’t been out in the open was because she had wanted to give Nell and I some time alone. I had in fact been looking for an opportunity to let her get some fresh air for quite some time, but neither of our rides had ended up being the most enjoyable experiences, so I had ultimately opted to keep her tucked away. The plan I settled on was letting her out as soon as we stepped into our room, but the incident at hand sent my agenda flying out the window. Sorry for keeping you locked up for so long, Enne. Thanks for bearing with it. I promise I’ll spend a whole day playing with you once we get back from this trip.
“Yuki.” Nell spoke my name in a worried tone. Following her eyes led me to direct my gaze towards the countless torchlights with which the night was lit. The army was massive. There were so many monsters coming our way that their footsteps had merged into a never-ending, loud rumble.
I slung Enne over my shoulder and turned to face the incoming horde. A grin crept on my face, not that it could be seen beneath the mask I had donned.
“Looks like we better get down to business.” Turning only my eyes towards the hero, I spoke to signal that the time had come.
The hunt was on.