The age-old story of a man transported to another world
Seven million lives. Hundreds of battles. Four years.
The cost of arriving at this point was far too high, even if scholars and commoners alike understood that it could have been far worse.
"Ready?" Niko Holland asked the handful of weary men and women around him. All were caked with blood, dirt, and viscera, swords and axes and bows and maces heavy in hands sore from holding them. Chests heaved beneath dented, torn armor as the troops tried to suck in even one more breath.
Niko's brown skin and eyes made him stand out, even in a group that contained elves and dwarves. In this land so far from his own, black, coarse hair like his was a rarity; keeping it nearly shaved was the best course of action, though he'd allowed himself a modest goatee.
"Never have we been ready." Princes Eugenia Taner Frostrose wiped sweat from her brow and gave him a hard grin. "But has that mattered even once?"
The princess- Crown Princess, since the death of her older brother Themi Arrat Frostrose had moved her to first in the line of succession- stood out in a different way than Niko did. Whereas his looks were exotic, her features were more typical of the people of Gaitra: auburn hair and brown eyes were common- though the strong highlights of gold at her temples was a trait of the royal family- and her olive tones would fit in nearly anywhere in the world.
What made her catch a person's eye was the nature of her attractiveness: she had the features of a beautiful man, rather than those of a pretty woman. At least facially, Nia best compared to the lovely youths that other, older men would fall for, and her talent with a sword and enthusiasm for the martial arts lent to that image. She stood nearly at six feet, just a hair shorter than Niko, and years of combat had shaped her body into that of a soldier.
Niko, unexpectedly, had found himself attracted to her from the moment they met. He looked back on that time now with fondness, but it had been awkward back then. "We'd probably fail if we ever were ready," he admitted.
Beside him, Madra the Dwarf snorted and shifted her mace in her hands. "And it wouldn't be nearly as fun, hey?" A recent, deep cut over her left eye had finally stopped bleeding, but the injury had made vision on that side difficult. Aside from the grime of a long-fought battle, her armor was in the best shape: most enemies simply didn't notice the short warrior until her weapon was buried deep in their torso. Her hair, currently black from ashes previously used as camouflage, had once shown a bright copper down to her strong shoulders; she'd more than once lamented that she might have to cut it all off and grow it anew.
"Only you Dwarves could think this was fun." The slim Elf Sihlbrie instantly regretted her words, as she knew at least one other would chime in. For her own part, she couldn't wait to get it over with. She'd been fortunate to have the blood of High Elves coursing through her veins, so a little transformation magic to darken her hair and skin- a pale blonde in the case of the former, and porcelain for the latter- so her currently black hair was not a problem. Sparkling eyes that couldn't decide if they were emeralds or sapphires cast about anxiously, always expecting the dangers she couldn't sense coming whenever she was outside of a forest.
Dwarves weren't battle-hungry; they just liked a challenge. But despite their many recent contests- and numerous close calls- the Beastman Aurlyon Gram was itching to get back into the carnage. Even among those of his kind, who lived for the fight, Gram's lust for battle was extraordinary. Among other things, it had led him to being the most feared pirate on the seas for a time; his reputation had made it difficult to find a challenge, and so he'd abandoned that life and thrown his lot in with the people around him on what (he'd hoped) was a hopeless quest. Though not one of them was within a foot of his own height or came close to his strength or musculature, Gram thought he'd never find a better group of comrades to fight with, even the waif-like Sihl.
The great bipedal lion of a man made an expression that was as much smile as sneer, throwing his golden-maned head back with a short roar of a laugh. "Still not used to the blood, girlie? Best run back to tha' trees, then, cuz ain't nobody here gonna listen to your complaints."
This wasn't the "final campaign" any of them had expected: none among them would have thought their showdown with the demon army's leader would take place in the remnants of a once quaint fishing village in the middle of nowhere. That it was mostly intact and yet mostly empty was unsettling for the group, as they'd had to fight their way through hordes of enemies to get this far.
"I'm not afraid of blood!" Sihlbrie shot back. "But I'm not a carnivore like you: the smell of so much of it just makes me sick." She didn't add that the derelict atmosphere made her just as nervous as large crowds did.
She should have taken her cue from Duetto, the black-cloaked assassin lurking behind her. His being so relaxed should have been an indicator to everyone else that there was no one else in the vicinity, stalking them in shadow. "Your more acute sense of smell still hinders you," he said in a whisper that was nonetheless easy to hear. "That is unfortunate."
The two had an unexpected number of things in common: they were about the same height and build, they looked to be around the same age, and they both had a reverence for life that was out of place on the battlefield. Duetto's hair was nearly as long as Sihl's, but was somewhere between black and gray, and eternally gathered into a large braid that almost reached the small of his back. At its end hung a dagger-like adornment that had, like all the professional killer's equipment, spilled its fair share of blood. Though adept at virtually any weapon a person could wield, his armament consisted of a seemingly limitless number of daggers and throwing knives, expertly concealed on his person.
Loia Vertiche sighed, hand on her chest, as she tried to calm her racing heart. Despite having been on the battlefield for over a year now, the twelve year-old was still not used to the fighting. The amber-eyed child was the only healer that had managed to make it this far, pushing herself to carry on the legacy left to her by her father. She was no warrior, but she could at least keep the actual fighters alive and kicking. The pressure was greater than ever now, though, as Loia had been the only one of just a handful of nearby healers that had managed to keep up with the heroes.
Sir Anden Forey tousled the girl's feathery blonde hair, knowing how she felt. He was also a run-of-the-mill Gaitran citizen who had become a run-of-the-mill Gaitran knight. His eyes, a pale blue, smiled down reassuringly at the child under a mop of ruddy hair in sore need of maintenance. All around them, the weapons and armor of heroes- most of them shorter than himself, as he stood half past six feet- stood fast; that his gear- standard-issue sword, plate, and mail for a soldier of Gaitra- was still largely functional was a miracle.
If there was anything he considered remarkable in his whole life, Anden figured it was that he was still alive. The other dozen or so around him- excluding Loia, of course- were all well-known from previous exploits. By contrast, he was hardly well known even among his own comrades.
But it was that success in mediocrity that gave Anden hope. Their situation might have been somewhat dire, but if he could survive this far, then their victory against the Lost Malefect wasn't out of reach.
"Since we all seem to have caught our breath, let's go." Niko pointed to the meeting hall ahead: the largest building in the town, large enough to house the whole of the place's likely population of maybe fifty or so. "We can't get out of this barrier until we win, anyway, so there's no turning back."
With that, the small group moved forward.
Anden couldn't believe how wrong he'd been. Clutching Loia's body as the lifeblood rapidly drained out of her, the carnage before him refused to make sense in his mind.
Madra was dead, torn into four pieces off to one side. The other dwarf that had made it this far lay nearby; his head was yards away, lost in the attempt to avenge his countryman.
Gram was struggling after having lost his right arm and eye. There was still a smile on his face, but the heaving of his massive chest indicated he wasn't enjoying the conflict as much as he let on. Losing his dominant hand was a major loss, but the Beastman would consider it as minor a setback as possible. The missing eye was of greater concern, but as a close-combat warrior, it wasn't anything he couldn't adapt to. Besides, magic could replace it by using his remaining eye; that wasn't an option for his arm.
Duetto had a fist-sized hole clean through his torso. Somehow, despite the location of the damage, his heart was still intact, and the injury didn't seem to be slowing him down much. Unfortunately, the blood loss would eventually force him to a stop, and his attacks didn't seem to be doing much harm to their enemies.
There were only three of them, but those enemies had reduced the heroes' numbers by two-thirds in a matter of minutes. The Lost Malefect was one of them, so his destructive power wasn't unexpected. The other two, however...
The Lost Malefect was called as such because of his control of the ancient machines known as automatons. They had made up the vast majority of his armies, though no shortage of his forces had also consisted of beasts and sympathetic Demons. The ability to create and control the magically-constructed machines had been thought lost with a Malefect that had appeared thousands of years ago.
The automatons that accompanied their enemy in this fight were unique. While the others used simple magic spells or basic weapons, these two employed a variety of both independent and coordinated tactics utilizing magic, weapons, and even their empty hands. Their movements weren't stiff or limited like others of their kind, but were those of seasoned veterans of the battlefield. Pair their flawless moves with limitless stamina, and it was easy to see how things had gotten so out of hand.
Only Niko, Sihl and Eugenia remained relatively unscathed, but the intensity of the half-our engagement had quickly drained them as well. Sihl's bow, a "legendary" weapon, had been splintered, leaving her with largely ineffectual daggers to fight with. Eugenia's celebrated magical sword was cracked, and one of Niko's two blades had also broken off.
Heavy breathing and sword tips that dragged against the ground told the tale:
They were all going to die.
Legs shattered by a single crushing blow earlier on, Anden wouldn't even have the honor of meeting his end on his feet. He couldn't even redeem himself in his last moments by protecting the child in his arms: Loia no longer drew breath.
Still, there was no choice left but to fight. If they fell here, only the gods would stand in the Lost Malefect's way, and they were unlikely to lift a finger unless directly threatened.
Anden recognized this, understood that giving in would doom untold numbers of lives, and lamented his ability to do nothing but watch.
Somehow or another, Gram had managed to slow the bleeding from his wounds, and now seemed to be planning something. His signature smirk had returned, something vaguely resembling a plan- things he hated relying on- forming in his mind.
He let his head droop as if the pain was too much, and focused on straining every nerve in his body to its limit. Gram's muscles condensed, every sinew compounding its already considerable strength. His metabolism shifted, making his bones as dense as steel and the claws of his feet grow rapidly. Digging them into the earth, he tapped into the power of his Flame and waited for the perfect moment: he would have just one chance.
Duetto, ever the observant and perceptive combatant, was the only one to notice. There was benefit in that, as their enemies would not take note, either. But it also meant that he couldn't clue in his allies as to what Gram- and he- was doing.
Thankfully, the remaining three could be counted on to survive on their own for a moment or two.
Eugenia and Sihl were paired up against one of the automata, hoping advanced tactics would be enough to prevail where sheer numbers had failed before. In truth, trying to fight three enemies with fourteen had been difficult because of limited space: the meeting hall had almost immediately been destroyed due to that very reason. Now that their numbers had been cut down, they were actually fighting a little better.
They hadn't improved so much, though, that Niko could singlehandedly take on both an automaton and the Lost Malefect. Yet, that was exactly what he was attempting. The Twin-Blade Hero was holding his own, despite significant damage to the weapons for which he'd become famous, by relying almost entirely on his intuition for every strike, parry, and step. Instead of using his Flame as Gram did- and shortening his life span in the process- Niko channeled the magic-enabling mana in his body into strengthening his form from the bones out. It would have a similar end result- his tendons and muscles were likely to be shredded when this was all said and done- but he could sustain it for far longer, though it didn't increase his physical capabilities by nearly as much.
This was his trump card, a technique that had helped him grow in record time, and overcome improbable odds in the past. Gram was busy preparing his, pushing it beyond what he might otherwise have done. Like most Beastmen, magic was alien to him, even if he had one of the largest pools of mana most had ever seen.
Duetto had a number of them, but only one or two might prove useful in this sort of battle. As it currently stood, none of them could help him, but maybe soon...
Sihlbrie's ace had been taken away with the destruction of her bow. The Millennium Yew, given enough time, could have taken one target immediately out of commission, but one automaton had focused on disrupting the long-distance attackers almost as soon as the battle had begun. Between that and the frequently-shifting location of the battle, she had never had the chance to fire the Flame arrow that was capable of extinguishing both Flame and mana.
Nia's most powerful attack was prohibitively destructive. Her Superbolt would vaporize the small town, blind everyone but herself, and possibly still miss the target while striking unfortunate allies. It was a magical skill used to decimate armies, not meant for pinpoint strikes. Everyone had agreed it would be a last resort, as Eugenia could invoke it almost instantaneously, but she prayed it wouldn't be necessary.
Duetto interrupted Niko's fight, taking the automaton away and leaving the Malefect to his comrade. It wasn't particularly effective against the magic machine, but the assassin was able to "charm" it into paying more attention to him than anything else. The ability saw more success when there were less distractions, which the deaths of the others had helped facilitate. With this grim thought in mind, he turned off his senses of sight, smell and taste, diverting that focus to touch and sound, and began the painstaking process of steering the actions of every other individual on the battlefield.
Of the other two encounters, one was more difficult to drive than the other. If he'd been asked beforehand, Duetto would have thought the three-way battle would be harder to influence, and he'd have been wrong: the two women were very deliberate with their attacks, and their opponent responded accordingly. It made their next moves easy enough to predict in his current state.
In contrast, the clashing of swords and magic that occurred between Niko and the Lost Malefect was happening too quickly and unpredictably. It was also more dangerous, with those two combatants trading more deadly blows with each passing moment.
Four agonizingly long minutes had passed since Duetto had noticed what Gram was doing. Four very lengthy minutes during which a wrong step could have doomed them all. But now the Beastman was ready, having thrown his very life force into this last-ditch effort.
The assassin's machinations were also, finally, complete.
Seeing and reacting were two very different things. Nearly everyone saw Gram's body as it first sprang into motion, but not one of them could respond at the same speed at which he moved. A golden-furred blur, stronger than steel and the size of a boulder shot through the battlefield. Left hand forward, Gram's claws ripped through the metal and stone forms of the automata, shattering their artificial bodies like glass in the blink of an eye.
But things weren't quite perfect: Gram was going to miss the Lost Malefect by a hair's breadth, as he was falling away from the path of the Beastman's attack. Even as the living projectile strained to redirect his path, he knew he wouldn't be able to bend his route enough.
And then the Lost Malefect's movements slowed, nearly to a stop.
Anden hadn't really been able to keep up with the conflicts going on all around him. He could see most of Sihl and Nia's fight, but only flashes of the other scrums were slow enough for his eyes to pick up.
Beyond that- beyond what he could see or hear- something else had been encroaching upon his awareness. A thought had played around the fringes of his mind, one that made no sense, and yet occupied more and more of his consciousness until he'd forgotten Loia's weight in his arms.
And then, with no real idea why, he'd done it.
Out of a chunk of rubble, one of hundreds in the now-decimated little town, Anden's greatsword protruded at about shoulder height, cutting off the Malefect's retreat. He'd launched it there on an unexplainable impulse, and it had, inexplicably, paid off.
Gram's attack would land, in a manner of speaking.
Underneath the cloak that obscured his body from view, the Malefect wore armor that just barely prevented the Beastman's claws from tearing through flesh as it had previously shredded metal. The force of the blow drove the Malefect into the debris beyond, impacting thunderously. A cloud of dust burst forth, and then silence settled over the battlefield.
Those who could still fight were on their guard, but Sihlbrie could sense the barrier around them collapse: if the Malefect was still alive, he no longer had the strength to fight.
Niko and Eugenia sensed the same thing a moment later, and the two approached the pile of rubble cautiously. Exhaustion tried to make itself known, but Niko kept his sword point up, wary for any remaining tricks; the Malefect hadn't made anything easy thus far, so it wouldn't be smart to expect that to end now.
Labored, raspy breathing and the light sound of plates of body armor clinking against each other were the only sounds as Niko pointed his intact sword at the still-hidden face of the Malefect. "Checkmate," he said, hoping his own breath was steady.
"Indeed," came the rough reply. Either magic or the Malefect's mask- a smooth, gray oval that hinted only at the shapes of eyes but otherwise had no detail- further distorted the voice.
Niko cocked an eyebrow, but remained vigilant. "Who are you?" he asked. "Who do you think you are, to destroy so many lives like you have?"
"The same as you: strong."
By now, Duetto and Gram had also closed in, and they cast skeptical gazes upon their defeated opponent.
"You've all made your choice on how to use your strength; so have I. If we were weak, we'd be at the mercy of the strong."
Eugenia grit her teeth in anger. "So you killed because you could? You destroyed because you possessed the power to do so? You ruined this world for a reason as simple as that?"
He responded with chuckling that devolved into a brief fit of coughing.
Evil. He didn't like using that word, especially in this world with so many motivations and influences, but Niko could think of nothing that fit better. He thought of a phrase from his own world- if not his own country- and wondered if he were up to the task: Slay evil immediately.
Niko found himself admitting, though, that his motivations were far more personal than that. How many friends had he lost in these last few years? How many lives had slipped away before his very eyes?
No, he couldn't think like that. That sort of mentality was part of why his hometown was embroiled in the kind of all-encompassing violence he'd hoped to one day escape. Even if it was for the right reasons, Niko couldn't let himself take this life with hatred in his heart.
But it had to be taken, and he had to do it. "I guess it doesn't matter, in the end." Niko took a deep breath, steeled himself, and plunged his blade downward. There was resistance and the painful sound of metal scraping against metal as the sword pierced the Malefect's armor, and then the tip of the weapon broke as it entered his chest.
Almost immediately, a thunderous boom heralded the appearance of a dazzling pillar of blinding light that engulfed Niko and the Malefect. It struck with awesome force, knocking everyone still standing off their feet.
Duetto and Sihlbrie were the first to recover: the former first back on his feet, the latter first to regain vision. It took her a moment or two to understand what she saw, and that understanding squeezed her heart painfully.