It was quiet, now. In a unnatural clearing within a dark forest, a man sat with his back against a tree, staring northward. Around him were broken trees, burnt underbrush, large craters, and others signs of a major battle. Even the tree he leaned against ended a few inches above his head. The only sound was his labored breathing, and the occasional drip of blood from his wounds. He would have to heal those soon — but not yet. He could still ignore them for a while.
A collapsed fortress was visible in the distance. He and his friends had been there just yesterday. They had fought a great, terrible battle, and had emerged triumphant against a powerful tyrant. They had survived, and all together they had headed out to return home.
“So how did it come to this, huh?”
The man muttered aloud, but no one responded. He would have been surprised if they had. His left hand occasionally stroked the head of hair lying in his lap; his right hand still lightly held his bloodstained sword. Even now, he couldn’t quite bring himself to drop it. There could be demonic beasts around, after all.
Well, the demonic beasts had most likely fled with everything else, though.
Almost absently, his eyes wandered around the ruined clearing. His gaze alighted for a moment upon his old partner, Alfred. When the two of them were both young and stupid, they had worked for the Adventurer’s Guild together, along with a few other young idiots. Miraculously, they had survived long enough for Alfred to be scouted as a Royal Knight of Aveci Kingdom, while his friend decided to study magic with an old hermit, out in the desert.
It was Alfred who had called him out of his semi-retirement. A demon king had established himself on the surface, and was invading Aveci with large numbers of demonic minions. The hermit, his master, had long been dead, so the man had seen no reason not to aid his former companion. Alfred’s master, the king, had seemed pleased to gain such a powerful figure as an ally, and had promised all sorts of rewards to the man, including his own daughter. He didn’t really care about rewards; after so many years of self-sufficiency, material wealth and high status were no longer important to him; furthermore, the princess hated him. And yet…
‘Sorry, old friend. But to a knight, his King’s orders are absolute.’
His gaze moved on, to Rosem, the Wizard. His magic had been powerful and subtle, flexible and delicate, and everything in between. A genius only seen once in a generation — although his skill at handling ladies was abysmal. He and Alfred had spent many evenings ‘consoling’ the young man for his latest broken heart, while expertly rubbing salt in his wounds.
Although they all knew the truth, that he loved only one woman with all his heart…
‘You killed her, you bastard! You damn monster! The one who should have died…was you!!’
For a moment, he looked out into the forest. Somewhere out there was Feybri, the Hunter. A latecomer to the party, he lived in a village on the southern edge of this forest with his wife and children. He was a cold, taciturn man, but undeniably skillful; he led them to the very foot of the Demon King’s fortress, and waited there for their return.
‘You are too dangerous to live, beast. I will kill you here, before you can threaten my village.’
On the far side of the clearing lay Tifi, the Rogue. She almost never spoke, and had a prickly atmosphere besides. Alfred and Rosem had always treated her gently, but the man had never pried into her circumstances, and gave her the distance she seemed to desire. As they traveled together, though, she seemed to get used to his presence, and often would sit next to him for rest breaks or meals — much to Rosem’s dismay.
His eyes left Tifi, and returned to the fortress in the north. He did not look down, at the beautiful face rested in his lap. His tears were dry, now, but…he could not look down. Dared not look down.
‘I had to do this. Because you are an abomination in the eyes of Aeolis. Please don’t hate me…’
“As if I could hate you…”
His words trailed off, and once again the sound to be heard was his labored breathing. Nothing could be heard from his friends, but that was natural.
He had already killed them all, after all.
The attack had caught him completely by surprise. Of everyone in the party, his mental fatigue had been the highest. He had fought for most of the previous day against that peerless existence, the Demon King, while the rest of the party supported him while dealing with the King’s summoned minions. In the end, he had struck the King’s head from his shoulders, and the powerful Demon’s death throes had completely destroyed his own fortress. The man protected everyone as they fled, and later had stayed up all night to watch over his companions, while they slept and recovered.
Perhaps that is why Tifi had been able to approach without him noticing in the slightest. He had left his broken armor behind, so she had been able to stab through his tunic straight into his heart with very little resistance. That should have ended it right there — but before his mind even registered the pain, his sword had been swung free of the scabbard at his waist and buried itself in Tifi’s chest.
His mind had frozen from shock, but even as Tifi fell away, with a strange expression of relief and two whispered words, Sir Alfred’s halberd descended like a meteor, and his body reacted on its own to swing his sword up to deflect the blow.
The scene progressed like a nightmare. He heard the words spoken to him by Alfred, screamed at him by Rosem, but the meaning escaped him. He watched his sword sluggishly deflect every strike from Alfred, while his free hand deflected arrows from Feybri and countered magic from Rosem. It seemed like it would be a one sided contest; his friends attacked with full intent to kill, while he could barely move his sword to respond, while his vision blurred with tears. He should have died a hundred times over.
The next to die was Rosem. Consumed by his anger, misled by his target’s passive responses, he threw all caution to the wind and began to cast a powerful magic. Circles of runes appeared in the air around him, shimmering green and gold, and began to converge together. This magic would lacerate and burn everything nearby, perhaps even Rosem himself — but something within his target felt the threat, and responded in kind. His sword darted out, and from it flowed power — a power which tore through Rosem’s circles and closed on him like the jaws of a giant predator. Rosem died with a look of mingled rage and despair upon his face.
Feybri moved from place to place, pausing only to fire another arrow at the monster fighting nearby. At this point, he had no expectation that his arrows would slay this monster; he only hoped that an opening might be created, so that the knight might strike it down. But without Rosem to restrain the monster’s magic, it was free to retaliate. With a single gesture, the ground beneath Feybri exploded, breaking his body and tossing it deep into the forest. As he lay there, dying, he thought of his family, and prayed to any god that might be listening that they would survive what was inevitably to come.
Through all this, Alfred continued to press his attack against his old friend. He had been an adventurer once, and a free man. But now he was a Knight, and a Knight obeyed his master even in folly. Though it pained his heart, he would strike down his old friend, for the good of Aveci Kingdom. Or so he had thought — but despite a perfect assassination strike from the king’s pet, despite numerous wounds all over his body, despite his tears, confusion and despair, his old friend stubbornly kept fighting. And although Alfred’s own wounds were constantly healed, and his fatigue refreshed, his mental strength was being constantly shaved off. He began to forget why he had begun this battle, and his attacks began to dull.
And then he judged an angle wrong, and his friend’s sword cut right through the metal shaft of his halberd. If Alfred had been fresh, he might have still recovered; but the sudden shock was too much for the current him, and he hesitated for a moment. But it was a moment he couldn’t afford, and with the instincts of a predator, his old friend struck through this gap, piercing his magical plate armor, and destroyed his heart. Alfred’s expression as he fell was quite wry, and he looked up at his friend with a wry smile. He had always wondered just how strong his friend could be, and now he knew; how could he hate losing to such a man? His eyes never left his friend’s devastated face, even as life left them.
The man couldn’t see anymore. The world was just a blur, and his tears wouldn’t stop. But he could still hear soft footsteps running toward him. He could sense in his heart the terrible, glorious power approaching him, prepared to finally destroy him, body and soul. For the first time he felt fear: not for his life, but for hers.
For the first time, he attempted to restrain his own instincts. He knew he could not allow her attack to land, but he restrained the power within him attempting to burst forth, and he forcefully controlled his own sword arm. Dashing the tears from his eyes, he concentrated, and swung with pinpoint precision. Her hand, covered with dark coruscating energy, flew off across the clearing, and as her body collapsed he caught her. He mustered everything left in him to try to heal her — but it was already too late.
Feeling her life ebbing away, he finally screamed out his pain and despair. He looked down at the beautiful woman in his arms, and cried and cried.
“Why? Serika, why did you do this to yourself?”
With tears in her own eyes, she gazed up at him, and told him.
Serika was a Priestess and a follower of the god of healing, Aeolis. She lived in the capital city of Aveci, and she was loved by all. She had a kind word for everyone, and would give healing to those who could not otherwise afford such a luxury. She was quite beautiful, and the strongest healer that had been seen in decades. It was said that she was blessed by Aeolis himself, and few who met her would gainsay the claim.
She had many suitors, but had rejected them all. Even the king himself had been firmly rebuffed. Her sense of her own duties kept her from growing close to any one person; she loved all equally, just like her god. But when news spread of a Demon invasion, she heard of all the people dying on the front lines. She wanted to go immediately to aid the army, but neither the kingdom nor her own temple would let her leave. She was more valuable here, they insisted, and conspired together to keep her safe at home.
But then the public announcement of the Demon King Suppression Team came, and she decided that her time had come. She personally approached the Royal Knight charged with leading the team, and insisted on her involvement.Sir Alfred had been reluctant to allow such a prominent figure to join what he personally felt was something of a forlorn hope, but support for her inclusion came from an unexpected corner.
“It seems the girl has some skill. I’m not much of a healer myself, so why not let her come along?”
And that is how Serika met the man who came to be known, not long after her death, as the Invincible. Just like everyone else, he came to quietly adore the young woman as well.
And so he sat now, with her head in his lap, and remembered her life. In a way, she had been the true leader of the party. Oh, Sir Alfred had led them, certainly; but where he would have pressed on with their great mission, she would constantly turn aside whenever she heard of people suffering. What should have been a journey of less than a month, took more than four months to complete, as Serika charged back and forth across the country, slaying a dragon in one place, uncovering a corrupt official in another, diving into a dungeon to rescue a party of adventurers, and healing anyone she happened to come across.
“So what happened, Serika?” He stroked her hair gently, and gazed at the castle in the distance. “Who taught you that spell? Why did you use it? Why…were you so desperate?”
He was still coming to grips with their betrayal, but it was Serika’s part that confused him the most. In Alfred’s case, there was at least a history of conflict between them, and they had argued in the past over issues like duty, honor, and loyalty to one’s king. He had thought them to friendly arguments…but perhaps he had been the only one to think that way. Feybri had always been afraid of him; Rosem had been jealous of how close Tifi would stay to him. He didn’t understand Tifi’s motives…but then again, he never had. He had respected her silence, and had never pressed her for explanations. Therefore, he could not complain about not comprehending her actions at this point.
But Serika was different. He had fought beside her, protected her, and had received her support in return. They had chatted together, laughed together, and mourned together for those they could not save. He had loved her, not as a woman, but as something like a younger sister. And yet, she had turned against him, funneling her very life into a forbidden magic meant to reave his life at any cost. Why?
The sun above reached its zenith, and began its long descent, while the man considered this one question at length. As his body healed itself, his mind began to shed its despair and confusion, and his thoughts slipped into something like a meditative state. He thought carefully about his companions last words, and the times they had spent together. He thought about the king who had sent them forth, and the country they had traveled through. And as his thoughts became clear, he realized that Serika had said something quite strange.
As part of his studies under that old hermit, the man had studied the gods. His master had been quite obsessed with them, in fact, and would often regale his student with long stories about all sorts of gods, major and minor alike. The man had learned much, and one of the things he had learned was that certain gods would declare an anathema, or abomination, which their worshipers would have to strictly reject or cease to receive their blessing.
But the great god of healing, Aeolis, had never declared any abominations. He proudly bore the titles “Great Preserver” and “Friend of All Things” for his legendary willingness to extend healing to anything, regardless of any other factors. It was said that a true follower of Aeolis would heal their own murderer with a smile. So why would Serika have called him “an abomination in the eyes of Aeolis,” when she should know that her god would allow no such thing?
Having reached this essential question, it didn’t take him long to come to a certain conclusion.
“You were…lied to, it seems,” he said sadly.
Serika had not been a fool, in most ways. She had seen enough of the dark side of people that she would not trust without reason…but there was a blind spot in her perception. She was greatly loved by the god Aeolis, and she extended the faith she had in the god to the high ranking members of his clergy without quite realizing that they were not nearly as close to the god as she was.
And so, the Arch-priest of the temple could have taught her the spell “just in case.” And when she had contacted the temple after the fall of the Demon King, that same Arch-priest could have made some excuse to cast the man as “an abomination,” and insist that she work together with the others to eliminate him. Serika might have been confused and upset, but she would not have doubted the words of her superior, and since Alfred was likely already prepared to follow up, she was most likely swept up in events, and never managed to think about things clearly.
As to why the Arch-priest would induce her to throw her life away, well, there were several possible reasons. Jealousy of her power, or fear that she would claim his position, for instance. But as he was Arch-priest of a temple based in the capital, there was another possibility that the man found more likely.
There were too many threads that led directly back to the king of Aveci, after all.
Alfred, a Knight of the king. Rosem, the king’s own Wizard. Tifi, who served the king directly in some unknown capacity.
Serika, who had rejected the king’s advances, and who made little effort to hide her distaste for the royal.
The man, almost healed now, thought about these things, examining matters from different angles, deciding whether he had truly understood the situation. In the end, what he had was merely guesswork, based on a few words spoken by people who were dead now. He wasn’t certain that what he suspected, was in fact the truth. But in the end, he did come to a certain conclusion.
He sighed, and spoke out to his friends, whom he knew could no longer hear him. “I’m sorry, everyone…this was all my fault.”
What the man felt now was mainly regret. He regretted losing his old friend Alfred, his best rival, in a political struggle the man had not even realized he had entered. He regretted that he had not spoke more with Rosem, about magic, about Tifi, about a lot of things. He regretted that he had not made any effort to know Feybri, to show the taciturn villager that this powerful person he travelled with had never intended any harm to his family. He greatly regretted that he had not done more to reach out to Tifi, to learn more about her.
His regrets over Serika could have filled a small volume.
But above all, he regretted how lightly he had taken his companions. He had never considered their reasons, their motives. He had never reached out to them, not really; he simply followed along, and when a difficulty arose he simply swept it aside with his knowledge and power. He had certainly worked together with them, but in his heart, he was simply looking out for them. He had no interest in Avici Kingdom, or in any reward, and even the Demon King was not something he considered a problem.
If he had only been paying attention, he might have noticed the inconsistencies in Alfred’s behavior, and Rosem’s wary gaze. Had he been prepared, he would not have killed Tifi no matter what provocation she attempted, and suppressed the others without greatly harming them. At the very, very least, he could have ran away.
He should have seen through the king, who was too fearful to leave a powerful person to just do whatever he wanted.
And Serika. To the very end, he had not discussed her faith with her even once. The man did not worship Aeolis, of course, but he had learned plenty about that eccentric god from his own master. But he had not brought it up, and had left her to worship her god without any comment.
If he had done so, would he have noticed, that she was being misled? Perhaps not — but he regretted from the bottom of his heart that he would never know for sure.
“There’s so much I could have told you. So much I could have taught all of you.
“I treated you like children, and you deserved better than that. I didn’t understand you, even for an instant.
“I tried to protect you all, and I failed. I ignored too much, and this is the result.
“I’m sorry, I really am. I don’t mind if you hate me, wherever you are now.
“But since I survived, I’m not going to let this happen again.
“I’m going to pay attention. I’m going to talk to people.
“I’m going to explain things. I’m going to teach. I’m going to make sure people don’t rely on others to tell them what to do.
“Because that’s the only apology I can make to you. You were my friends, you know?”
Tomorrow, he would have to figure out what he was going to do next. He had a goal, but no clear idea of how to achieve it, or even a place to begin. But he had to go back to that capital and see if his speculations were correct, and if it was the king trying to kill him which had led his friends to their deaths. He didn’t intend to seek revenge; he simply felt that he needed to know for sure.
As well, he felt that he should investigate the use of forbidden magics in Aeolis’ temple, and possibly even contact the god himself about the issue. If he did, he would be able to apologize personally for losing Serika. Perhaps the god might even issue him some task as a penance; it would do nothing to bring her back, but perhaps the man would be able to find some peace in it. Aeolis was well-known as a kind and generous god.
Yes, tasks to accomplish, things to investigate, that would help him now. But that is for tomorrow.
Today, he has to dig some graves.
Five years later, the king of Avici was dead, and his kingdom destroyed. Then, about three years after the fall of Avici, at a location not far from the former capital, a certain academy opened its doors for the first time…