“…Whitehare, the Dark Lady!!”
Despite the barrier, the Dark Lady had shown up inside the city.
She was the culprit behind the rapid destruction of eleven World Tree Saplings, guardians of the human race. She had been declared the Dark Lady for her dangerous ideology. Together, the large countries had signed a request for the three Heroes, including Gold, to defeat her.
Her combat power was unknown. According to eyewitnesses and rumors, she acted alone. Some said she had frozen a whole city, citizens and all.
The Dark Lady had astonishingly white skin and hair, blood-red eyes, and were clad in a similarly-colored dress that didn’t leave much to the imagination. Those rabbit ears that could belong to no one else fit with what Gold had heard of her, yet seeing her with his own eyes, he thought she looked no different from a normal, slender, cute-looking young girl, if he ignored her demihuman characteristics.
Just as Gold was about to glare at the Dark Lady, his vision and his thoughts wavered for a fraction. She was declared the Dark Lady due to the threat she posed, but could the rumors have been exaggerated? How could such a tiny girl possess such power? Her bare arms and shoulders looked so fragile, Gold thought he could break them just by a squeeze.
Even with the experience and instincts he’d honed until now, he thought it impossible that she could be more powerful than the Troll King, the Dark General approaching this city. Yet another part of him, the intuition of a Hero who had received a Blessing from the arch-elemental of light, dared not challenge the girl in front of him.
She was no person. She was an unfathomable something in the shape of a person.
“Milord, please give the order!”
“We’d turn that demihuman girl into naught more than rust on our blades!”
But not everyone shared his intuition.
Even with the wealth of experience Gold had, it was the first enemy he’d felt such a strange dissonance for. He wasn’t even sure if the other Heroes could feel what he did.
Before Gold’s raspy voice could finish the order, the youths of nobility, his Imperial Knights, had already pulled out their weapons and charged at the girl.
“Foul demihuman!” “Die!”
For a brief instant, the young men of nobility had been mesmerized by the sight of the alluring girl of white, but once they understood their opponent was a demihuman — in other words, cattle — they immediately saw her as nothing more than an animal to butcher.
The white girl silently narrowed her eyes at the attacking men. In a gust of speed, she intercepted, her sharp claws piercing their hearts.
Dying gurgles, painful cries, and fearful shrieks rang out. She was too fast, too strong. She was tearing throats, crushing necks, and stabbing hearts so effortlessly, as if the men were balloons and she was the needle.
Finally coming to his senses, Gold screamed, pulling out the greatsword strapped to his back. An aura of light surrounded him as he swung at the white girl. She took out a dagger in a flash, blades clashing in sparks and a shrill ringing of metal.
The girl immediately jumped backward after the clash. Her eyes slightly widened as she looked at Gold’s face. She discarded the dagger that was now nothing more than a handle, its former blade broken at the base.
“Damn you… Dark Lady!! Why are you doing this?!”
To Gold’s angry question, the girl named Shedy only tilted her head in response. She looked at the destroyed facility, then at the silent corpses of the Imperial Knights, then turned back to Gold.
“Everything!! Do you find joy in ruining the peace of this country? This world?” Gold shouted, enraged. Shedy just faintly frowned.
“…why would I enjoy it?”
“Whatever, it’s not important. By the way, are you sure you have the time to be talking with me?”
The sound of something breaking rang from afar. Gold could hear faint screams of people.
“The barrier’s gone, you know? What’s protecting the walls? Even the lower-ranked trolls are coming. There’s only one thing that could be happening.”
Shedy bluntly said, her voice level, cold, and impassive. Gold paled.
The time Gold estimated the Troll King would take to reach them had stood on the assumption that the barrier was working normally.
One of the barrier’s capabilities was to cover all the space of a limited area like a castle, filling the air not unlike a hemisphere of water. But for larger areas like towns and cities, it could only cover the outer layer of the area in the form of a wall, or perhaps a border line.
This type of ‘membrane’ barrier had its pros and cons. The disadvantage was that like the railway barrier, once monsters slipped through a part of it, they were free to act on the inside unimpeded. On the other hand, the advantage was that the barrier was more focused, more powerful, and the bigger it was, the better the range for its monster-repellant effect.
In other words, with the size of the enormous barrier covering the capital, its repelling effect extended for several kilometers. It should have slowed the trolls down quite a bit.
Even if the Troll King moved on ahead of the army and attacked by himself, the barrier and the walls should be able to withstand his assault until Gold could get there.
But in the end, the city had met with the worst case scenario. The Troll King was going ahead while the barrier was destroyed.
“You sure you don’t need to go?”
Shedy slightly tilted her head. Gold held his greatsword in a death grip, teeth clenched tight.
If he left the Dark Lady here to head to the walls, the castle wouldn’t have enough defenders. The Sapling might be destroyed.
If he fought the Dark Lady, the walls would fall. With reinforcements still a long way away, the Troll King would easily overwhelm the garrison, and the trolls arriving afterward would then be free to wreak havoc among the citizens.
Either he believed that the garrison can hold on, or he put his trust into the Holy Knights of the castle.
Either he prioritized protecting the country and the emperor as royalty, or he prioritized protecting the people as a Hero.
Gold ran for the walls.
He didn’t know which was the right choice. Perhaps both Goldi, the royalty, and Gold, the hero, were wrong.
But he still moved. He moved as a man who wanted to save the townspeople, the children who had cheered for him with smiles on their faces.
And he thought he heard the faint voice of the Dark Lady behind his back.
He must have misheard.
Gold arrived at the battle in an express carriage. He saw a rampaging five-meters giant swinging around a humongous axe.
Just as he thought, it seemed the Troll King had gone ahead alone. He didn’t see any of the King’s subordinate trolls, but his opponent was still a Dark General. The garrison were hanging on by a thread. Every swing of the King’s battleaxe tore apart limbs and flesh of several soldiers. The garrison soldiers were attacking with everything they had, but arrows were bouncing off the Troll King’s thick skin, and flesh burned by spells took only a moment to heal.
The most dangerous thing about a troll wasn’t their enormous size nor their freakish strength. It was their regeneration.
[Troll King] [Dark General] [Magic Points: 965/1200] [Hit Points: 4540/4600] [Total Combat Power: 36000]
Could Gold win? He had less than half of the King’s combat power, no specialized equipment, and no old comrades.
“No, I must win…”
Around half of the garrison, formerly numbering two thousand, were either dead, or wounded and were retreating.
They needed to either defeat the Troll King before his minions could arrive, or they needed to hold on until the nobles came with reinforcement.
Both might be impossible. Or they might not win even with reinforcement.
All the same, retreat was not allowed for a Hero. The only choice for Gold was to fight, until either victory or death.
“Here I come, Troll King!”
His opponent replied with a roar.
Greatsword clashed against battleaxe. They were dealing wounds to each other, all the while healing themselves with spells or regeneration.
At first glance, they were equal. But even if Gold was barely managing with his speed and magic, he lacked power and support. His sword could not deal any critical wounds to the Troll King, yet he himself had received heavy blows, and every time he healed himself with spells, he was losing magic. Slowly but surely, Gold was being cornered.
Some among the garrison could still move and were aiding Gold, but they were soldiers with only a hundred, maybe two hundred combat power. They were wasting their lives without even managing to slow down the Troll King.
After some time, the battle moved away from the walls and into the urban area.
Bruised and bleeding, Gold still readied his greatsword. On the other hand, while the Troll King had lost some magic, most of his external wounds had healed.
It was hot. Gold didn’t know if it was because of his wounds, or because of his fatigue. So hot that sweat was pouring off of him, and his lungs were burning with every breath he took. As Gold brandished his sword, preparing to continue the fight, he noticed a kid cowering by the side of a house that looked like it could collapse at any time.
Perhaps the little one hadn’t managed to evacuate in time. The kid was crying and rooted to the spot, perhaps out of fear.
The Troll King roared and attacked, taking advantage of Gold’s moment of distraction. He didn’t have the strength to block the attack with his sword. And if he dodged, it would hit the kid.
Gold howled. He wasn’t thinking. He just jumped at the kid, using his own body as a shield.
With his current condition and his defense, he might just die together with his protectee. Even so, Gold could not ignore the child.
But the Troll King bellowed, this time out of pain. Suddenly, blood spurted out of the monster, as if his old wounds had all reopened at the same time. His flesh twisted, his bones broke, and finally, his stomach ruptured from the inside. The herculean Troll King collapsed as a hunk of meat.
Gold could only stare dumbfounded. And then his eyes caught the girl of white appearing from the bloody mist, herself covered from head to toe by the blood of the Troll King.
“…t-the Dark Lady…?! Why are you…?”
“No reason, really… If I had to say, well, I suppose it’s my reward for trying to save a kid.”
Gold was bewildered. What was this girl? She possessed enough power to effortlessly put down a Dark General. She was sowing chaos throughout the world. She was the enemy of all. Why would she save children?
The blood marring her pure-white skin disappeared, as if absorbed into nowhere. Then Gold saw what she was holding in one of her hands. His eyes widened in shock.
“Y-you… that is…”
“Oh, yes, here, gift for you. Very obvious message, isn’t it?”
She unceremoniously placed it on the debris. It was the head of the emperor of Torrann, faintly frosted, face frozen in a rictus of fear.
“B-brother… then… the castle…”
“Fell. Nobody survived. Sapling’s gone too. You get it, don’t you?”
Then this oppressing heat was due to the destruction of the Sapling?
The emperor was killed, the Sapling was destroyed, the castle had fallen. Torrann Empire would be no more.
Gold laid down the unconscious child. He put his bloodied hands on the greatsword he had dropped and pointed it toward Shedy, arms trembling.
“Why… why do you save children and do this?! Whitehare! Did you think nothing of this city?!” Gold shouted.
The Dark Lady killed people. Destroyed countries. Defeated a Dark General. Saved a child. He was thrown off balance by the contradictions and the cruelty she had shown.
Shedy tilted her head in puzzlement, then pointed at a nearby wreckage.
“If you hadn’t covered for the kid back then, they’d probably have been killed. But then, why did you not save her?”
Gold strained his eyes. He saw a woman, possibly a canine beastman, buried among the wreckage. She had long since drawn her last breath.
“Isn’t she life, just like you? Why the discrimination? She was alive just a while ago, you know?”
From where Gold was standing, both the beastwoman and the kid would have been in his view. But Gold only saw a single person to save. The human kid.
“Demihumans… aren’t humans.”
“Really? Funny that. To me, humans, demihumans, goblins, they’re all equally life.” Shedy said, sounding like she was saying the most obvious thing in the world.
“You jest…” Gold let out a strained laugh, trying to wave off her words as nonsense, but somewhere deep inside him, he was disturbed.
He felt as if he’d just realized something crucial. He was the Hero who protected the world… but whose world was he protecting?
Gold was tongue-tied. He didn’t know how to give form to the thoughts whirring in his mind. Shedy looked at him coolly, then turned away.
“Well, if you don’t know, that’s fine. Farewell.”
In a daze, Gold could do nothing but stare at the Dark Lady as she disappeared in mist. Then he collapsed on his knees, sword clanging on the ground.
A few days later, the troll army was routed after having lost their leader. But Torrann Empire, now no longer possessing a Sapling, could not sustain themselves as a country. The Republic of Savanhuit to the south had also lost their Sapling. With the downfall of the two large countries, the small countries around them began to be slowly ground down by the remnants of the troll army.