“Come on, come on, they’re nearly on us!”

Everything comes to me in a daze. My body’s too badly hurt to think straight, and the world crashes down on me in a chaotic maelstrom of light and sound. When I finally catch my breath, I realize that I’m running, forcing myself to move as I’m led by the person holding onto my arm, running for dear life. The sky is covered by dark, thick clouds with rain blurring my sight.

I focus my eyes and recognize the person clinging to my hand: a young woman my age, my adventuring partner and friend. Her long, black hair is covered in dirt and mud, and her outfit—a dark cloak thrown over a shirt with pants and boots—is torn up with claw marks and stained with blood. “What’re you waiting for?! Let’s go!” she  yells at me desperately. “R-right!” I pick up my pace to match hers, looking back and glancing at what we’re running from. It’s hard to see them in the cold, rainy night, but I can see them clearly. A group of humanoid shadows, with pitch-black bodies and piercing white eyes, mist curling from their bodies as they chase us. I remember these creatures were responsible for the destruction of several villages, nothing compared to anything seen before. Having lost my weapon and exhausted all my spells, all I can do is run. The woman suddenly stops, and I see why. We’ve reached the edge a frighteningly high cliff overlooking a river. The shadows are nearly upon us, a few seconds away. My mind frantically races for a solution, a way to escape with our lives, but it’s no use. I turn to the girl, who looks at me with a sad smile and a worrying look in her eyes. “I’m sorry, Nate,” she says, in her soft, quiet voice. “But please, live on.”

 

“Wait, what’re you–?!” Before I process it, she pushes me off the cliff, sending me down to the river. I hear myself screaming her name, desperately reaching out for her, but it’s pointless. I have just enough time to see their claws pierce through her flesh and see her blood spray through the air before I hit the water.

 

-

 

Reality pulls me back as the memory ends, my body gasping for air. I look around to see my surroundings. I’m not in a forest or standing atop a cliff dressed in armor. I’m just dressed in the bartender uniform of the tavern I work in, standing behind the bar overlooking the wooden seats and tables filled up by customers, most of who are adventurers. The magicians dress up in cloaks and staffs, while warriors wore a mix of leather and metallic armor equipped with bladed weapons like swords and axes.

“Hey Nathan, are you feeling alright?” A voice asks me. I’m in too much of a daze to recognize whose voice it is, but it’s probably one of my coworkers.

“Y-yeah, I’m fine,” I say, dismissing their worries. I remember I used to be a Paladin for the Kingdom, up until the incident from two months ago. Even then, the memory of losing her stays fresh in my mind.

I was about to fill up a glass of water for myself when the doors swung open, an eye-catching individual entering the tavern. It was a fairly attractive young woman with long, black hair, armored in a metallic silver chestplate and matching boots and gauntlets, along with culotte shorts. Her sword was sheathed in its scabbard, but the white shield attached to her left arm had a familiar insignia on it: “天”.

“So she’s a knight of the Kingdom…” I mumble under my breath, before straightening up as she made her way to the bar. “What can I get you?” I ask her.

“Information,” she says. “You wouldn’t happen to know where Nathan Felix is, right?”

I suddenly stiffen up. I was well-known in the Kingdom, but I had gotten too used to being far away from a place where everyone knew my name. “N-never heard of him,” I say, looking away in a bad attempt to play dumb.

“Really?” she asks as she sits down and leans forward, the look on her face showing plain as day that my lie wasn’t the least bit effective. “The most popular and most heroic Paladin of our glorious Kingdom, enlisting in the army at fifteen and becoming renown for his unmatched skills, only to disappear a year later? Never heard of him?”

“I wouldn’t know,” I repeat myself, “and even if I did, who’d ask for him?”

“Right, excuse my poor manners,” she says, standing upright and placing her hand over her chest in a kind of salute. “My name’s Micha, a Paladin in-training. His Highness has appointed me your as new partner for an important case, Sir Felix.”

I had already retired from the Kingdom officially, and made it clear why I left. I couldn’t understand why they suddenly wanted me back. “What’s the Kingdom want from a has-been like me, though?”

“It’s about those… those creatures you encountered,” she says. “They’ve been appearing more recently, attacking in larger numbers, and they’ve become brave enough to go after the larger towns, too.”

“The Kingdom’s military is better than it was. They should be able to handle… whatever creatures you may be talking about.” True enough, the training programs of new recruits were drastically different from what they once were, and more recruits had an aptitude for the magic arts.

“That’s the thing, Sir Felix,” Micha said. “Those creatures, they’re… changing. Evolving. And now His Highness strongly believes you are the Kingdom’s last hope at survival.”

“I can’t,” I repeat, a throbbing ache building up in the side of my head. “I can’t help you. Because… because...” My voice trails off before I can finish the thought, but Micha finishes it for me.

“It’s… it’s Angela, isn’t it, sir?” The name brings back a flood of memories. For me, it had been a long time since someone last said her name out loud. “I… a lot of people know about her, how she was one of the best magicians in the Kingdom, and one of your trusted friends. We… we all look up to her as one of the bravest. So please, for her–”

“I can’t go back out there in the battlefield,” I say, louder than when I spoke to her before. “I still remember every detail about the night she died. I could’ve saved her, if I had been the one to push her instead, but… I didn’t. I don’t have the courage she has. You can call me a hero, but I’m really just the guy who couldn’t save the life that mattered to him most. You don’t deserve somebody who fails as hard as that. And… I’m sorry, I really am, but…” My voice began choking up, the words becoming harder to speak. I turned my back against Micha, so she wouldn’t notice the tears building up in my eyes as I frantically tried to wipe them away. “But… the hero you’re looking for is definitely not me.” I was met with an agonizing silence from her, so much that I thought she had already left. But she hadn’t.

“Did you know?” Micha suddenly asked. “That night, the night she... died... you saved my life.” I didn’t turn around, but she kept talking anyways. “My parents and I lived in a village that was attacked by those creatures. We barricaded ourselves in the house, but they clawed through anyways. I was sure that it was the end. But… we didn’t die. There was a flash of light, and all of the monsters were gone. I peeked through our boarded-up window, and you know who I saw? It was you, Sir Felix. Two months ago, you were the one that saved my life.” I wanted to say something, but my throat had frozen up, unable to utter a word. I felt her place a hand on my shoulder, warm with a familiar sense of kindness and sympathy. “So… I know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you are the one that the Kingdom—that I—am looking for. I know that you couldn’t save Angela,” she said. “I’m sorry. But, please… help me prevent others from undergoing such a cruel fate.”

I turned back around to see the knight again, her cheeks a faint pink. There was a familiar look in her eyes, filled with strength and valiance, but also compassion and unending warmth. Her gaze was just like Angela’s. “Micha, I…”

Suddenly, the boom of an explosion echoed from outside. There were other sounds, too… the clanging of metal, people screaming, and something else that I hoped I’d never hear again. “That hissing sound… don’t tell me–!” I jumped the bar and swung the doors open.

The town was a mess. People were running around, some screaming and running away, others were adventurers with weapons, charging in the opposite direction. The source of panic was around the village’s entrance, near the wooden watchtower’s position. I glimpsed adventurers fighting against some kind of creature, their numbers quickly diminishing. That was when I saw it. A monster of the night with a pitch-black body and glowing eyes, but it was… different than before. These shadows were towering at six feet with longer and lankier limbs, and I could see a mouth filled with rows of razor-sharp teeth.

“Damn… they’re even attacking places as fortified as this…?” The previous villages the shadows had only had a ring of gemstones that could ward off small, weaker monsters, while this one had actual walls and watchtowers. Micha wasn’t kidding when she said that they were changing. “Micha, listen to me!” I yell out, calling to her, who had just exited the bar with her sword drawn. “I need your help evacuating the villagers to the exit on the other side!”

“Wait, but what about you?” she asked.

I gritted my teeth, unsure if I could even pull of what I was planning. All I knew was that I didn’t want anybody else to be killed by these things. “I’ll… I’ll lure them away and meet back up with you!”

“But–!”

“Don’t argue with me!” I insist. “Just do it! Now!”

Before she could answer, I ran into the fray, the other adventurers beginning to retreat. I swept up a sword from a fallen adventurer and charged at the nearest shadow, which was raising its claws to deliver a finishing blow to the defenseless man man before it. Gripping the blade with both hands and bringing it over my head, I cleaved off both of the monster’s arms as easily as cutting through butter. It stepped back when it realized it was hurt, but soon enough, black tendrils shot out from the stumps of its arms and reattached its severed claws in a matter of seconds. “Its regeneration is even stronger than the last time…!” I mutter to myself. It felt frustrating, not having an enchanted sword in my hand. Magic was the only thing that actually damaged these creatures, and I did have a spell I could cast, but I only had one chance to get it right.

“Damnit!” I continue charging towards the monsters, grabbing a torch hanging from one of the building’s walls with my free hand and waving it around like a madman. “Hey! Over here!” I yell. “All of you, I’m right here!” The monsters replied with hisses, charging towards me. “That’s right…” I mumble, grinning to myself. “Come catch me if you can…!” I make a break towards the tower, quickly going through the shadows in my way. There was no way I could kill them with a normal sword, so all of what I did was just slashing at them and knocking them back, all of which were ineffective. I quickly reached the tower and slipped the sword through my belt, tucking it away as I used my free hand to climb the ladder and wave the torch around in the other. “Focus on me, you monsters!” Despite my shouts, my throat was becoming hoarse, my voice carrying less and less.

From atop the tower about three stories high, I could see the whole of the village before me. There were still groups of monsters cornering the people who hadn’t escaped in time. “I still need to draw their attention… but how can I…?” My eyes wandered around the watchtower as if there would be a solution there, when I saw it. An unlit lantern with oil still inside, a few bottles of beer atop a small table, and a bell hanging from the roof. Keeping my eyes on the creatures, I began ringing the bell furiously while waving my torch. On cue, the shadows furthest from me suddenly had all their attention directed at me and began closing in on the watchtower and leaving the villagers alone, who quickly headed towards the exit.

Despite my own situation, a strange sense of satisfaction and relief washed over me. The villagers were safe, and all the shadows focused in on me. Masses of them were regrouping outside the village, safe and far from the claws and teeth of these things. Seeing them all like that made me think of all the people I saved yet couldn’t remember. With my situation, I was certain I was going to die saving this village, but I didn’t mind at all. “A hero’s death…” I mumbled. “I’m not one, but whatever… there are still worse ways to die–?!”

I was interrupted when the tower started shaking. All the shadows were clumping together, climbing up the supports and ladder. They had arrived earlier than I wanted them to, but it didn’t matter. “Can’t I even get a moment of peace with you guys around…?” I growl at them, and turn back to the alcohol and oil behind me. I immediately began to douse the monsters in the alcohol and oil, and once I was done, I dropped my torch on them, setting them ablaze. I wasn't sure if that would hurt them, but it would buy me enough time to cast a spell that definitely would.

I raised my hand above my head and began focusing, feeling power flow into my hand until it was glowing with a bluish light of energy, shining as bright as a star in the sky. “Awaken, Ice! I beseech you, enshroud my foes in a glacial howling wind! [Subzero Shocker]!” Thrusting my hand down at the shadows, all that built-up power was unleashed in an unrelenting torrent of ice, snow, and freezing air. At the end of it, the ones I had set alight were completely frozen like the others, my spell effortlessly overpowering the flames’ heat.  Their icy statues began cracking apart, without any signs of them regenerating.

Suddenly, the tower began shaking again, more violently this time. I thought some of them survived, but when I looked down, I saw that the supports of the watchtower were frozen and breaking up. I suddenly began looking around for a solution, to see that on the other side of the village was a large lake. With little choice, I jumped from the tower, descending into the depths below. The moment I hit the water, a sense of déjà vu washed over me. Just like two months ago, entire world, submerged in water, spinning and tumbling around as I panicked and flailed my arms to try and break through the surface of the water. But unlike before, at the edge of the water stood the woman I was hoping to see, safe and unhurt.

“Micha…?” I begin treading through the water towards her, reaching out with a helping hand to get me on my feet.

“I must say you had me worried there for a while, Sir Felix,” she admitted as she grabbed onto my hand and began pulling me out of the water. “But you handled the situation extraordinarily. I feel like I could’ve learned a thing or two from you."

“What’re you talking about?” I ask teasingly. “I’m going to be working with you for quite a while, dealing with these shadows, so I’m sure you’ll have learned more than a few things by then.”

Her eyes suddenly went wide with surprise. “I-I’m sorry, you’ll be… working with me? W-wait, so… that means…!”

“Yeah, of course. If the Kingdom really is taking on a nation-wide threat like this, it may need all the knights and Paladins in the country. And… I don’t want to leave these people at those monsters’ mercy… not again. So… yeah, of course I’ll help you and the country out...,” I say, offering her my hand again. “...that is, if you’ll be willing to have me.”

“O-of course!” She snaps out of her shock and happily takes my hand. The shock on her face fades away into awe and joy, which suits her a lot better. “It’ll be an honor to work with you, Sir Felix!”

“We’re going to be working together for quite a while, so please, call me Nate,” I say to her, smiling. Strange as it was, it felt good, saving people again. Of course, it wasn’t going to be easy, and I was probably going to fail again, but if Micha had taught me anything, it was that it wasn’t about the people you lost, but the ones you saved. Not to mention, even when I would fail, I think that somehow, I’d turn out alright…

...because she was here, right now, helping me take the first step.

The ones you save 

BY Anton vellon

 

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