Eris struggled as two large men carried her away. For each step they took, they would knock the wind out of her as her midsection thumped into their shoulder blades.
It continued just long enough to drain her, but after they turned the next corner, they finally laid her back on her feet and pulled the bag off her head.
Her long, black hair had come undone while they handled her like a sack of potatoes. Meanwhile, she fixed her clothes and, rubbing her abdomen, grumbled, amid fits of coughing, "That hurt, damn it..."
You idiots, I almost suffocated.
"That's the point, young lady," one said while holding a big smirk on his face, "it's supposed to look authentic."
"Tsk. Whatever," she said, wiping her mouth after a cough, "Hurry up and alert the guards. There isn't much time before they bag the girl. I'll catch up in a second."
"Right, you take care now, miss." Thus, the two went ahead at a leisurely pace and left her to recover.
Alright, everything's going according to plan so far.
That the so-called heroine didn't immediately save me after getting bagged like that... probably means she couldn't. Thankfully, I need not pretend to have been kidnapped myself and convince her to kill him herself, but...
That tells me something strange must be happening behind the scenes at the Royal Palace.
The pain in her abdomen, and the accompanying nausea soon subsided.
So who is this girl? And why is she pretending to be the Legendary Hero?
Having fully recovered, she fixed her glasses then hurried to catch up with her men.
Hm, while that's an interesting lead to pursue, it'll have to wait for now.
Lost in thought, she walked, reviewing in her head the details of the plot she had hurriedly formed just the night before.
It's not an ideal situation, but if I could at least wash my hands of this entire affair in her eyes, I wouldn't need to lose everything.
A couple of well-meaning villagers just happened to pass by and freed me from my would-be kidnappers. We then sought help from the guards, busy keeping the peace at the Harvest Festival. Learning that their fief lord has been kidnapped, the guards will come in force just as the handoff is happening. In the ensuing chaos, those two will join in and accidentally kill Roderick.
Knowing him, he probably has an escape route plotted in such an occasion, which is why Eckhart and her men are standing-by in the forest to make sure no one escapes.
Being alone, she did not bother to hold back her smirk.
It's perfect. From the outside, it looks as if Roderick was simply being reckless, and got himself killed trying to kidnap the heroine. Count Rosteforough wouldn't know my involvement if none of his men survive. Still, that pig of man won't be pleased, but I'm sure I can slowly work back to his good graces again.
She hastened her step. The light at the end of the tunnel twinkled right before her eyes. It was so close, she could almost reach out to it.
Phew... No need to hurry. I can take my time. For now, I'll have that cheeky brat owe me for saving her, and one day, I'll relish throwing her out in the streets at my leisure!
Hmph! Just you wait - you'll all regret ever crossing m-
Just as her pace had reached a light jog, her foot landed in what seemed to be a puddle.
At the same time, she felt something crumble beneath her feet, releasing a dull splat.
It was difficult to see with the street lamps spread sparse around that minor street, but the sound and texture did not suggest that it was just water.
Oh, you must be kidding. How could this be happening right when-
When she moved her foot, however, she then stepped on something soft and round, like a ball but with more rigidness to it. Though she first held off in disgust, she soon forced herself to look down.
And there she saw, at her feet, a smattering of dark liquid streaking outwards from the object.
"What... in the world...?"
She pulled her foot away.
And when she finally took a closer look, in that very same instant, she recoiled, violently, in realization.
"Kya!" With a loud shriek, she leapt backwards, almost losing her balance as she landed.
"Wha- wha-" She panted heavily. "what is this!?"
It rolled slightly to the side, following her momentum. And with half a revolution, it soon faced her - the head of the man she spoke with naught but a minute ago. It met her with mouth wide agape and eyes rolled back into its skull. It continued rolling just a second more before stopping as the nose touched the ground.
Her pounded so hard, she thought her chest would explode.
This... what... why...!?
Her mind was a garbled mess. Try as she might, she couldn't make any sense of the situation.
She only knew one thing:
She was in grave danger.
But as she turned around to run, she noticed a dark silhouette moving at the corner of her eye.
Startled, her mind completely blanked out, and the next thing she knew, she was running at full sprint, screaming at the top of her lungs.
She had no destination in mind.
It did not even matter that she might run into her own men, carrying Sylphia to the meeting point.
She just needed to get away, and fast.
Amidst her escape, it seemed that a strange, squishing sound was pursuing her.
She knew not what it was.
They were not footsteps.
These were far too soft; there was no patter, even assuming that her assailant was barefoot.
But somehow, she was sure that whatever it was, it had to have been a noise made by whatever had killed those men.
Oh Gods! Dear Gods! What is happening!?
She ran and ran. Yet no matter how many corners she turned, no matter what obstacles she scattered behind her, its pursuit continued unabated.
And soon, right at the precipice of a dim lamp post...
...it passed her.
Time seemed to freeze for just a moment, as her eyes, wrought in terror, crept to one side.
She wished that she saw nothing.
If everything until now had just been a paranoid delusion, then she might have accepted even that.
But it wasn't.
There, a bright golden orb streaked past, around which a black silhouette ebbed like a formless cloud.
"Igyaaaaaah!! Get away from me! Help! Somebody!"
She hoped that if she screamed loud enough, some passer-by might pick it up over the festivities at the market street. But not too long after, she felt a sharp, brutal blow crashing into her leg.
"Gnnn-!" Certainly, the shock was enough to silence her.
And so, she toppled face-first into the ground.
Rough soil ground against her fair skin, spreading red scratches all over her arms, legs and face.
"Peh!" The taste of iron dripped over her tongue as she spat out a clump of dirt.
She pinched her nose and immediately sensed the blood backing up into her sinus.
In her attempt to stand up, a sharp pain bit deep, locking up both her leg and spine. It sapped her of strength and slammed her back down on her belly.
What is this... What the hell is this...!?
A chilling thought then flashed her mind.
Is this the one who has been killing all of Eckhart's men!?
And now he's after me!?
"No..." Her voice trembled. "I can't die here!"
With all her might, she lifted herself onto her knees and crawled. She endured whatever pain seared throughout her body. If she could just make it to the next corner, she thought, then maybe...
But, there was nobody in sight.
No matter how hard she cried for help, no would come to her aid.
What did it matter if she crawled over to the next corner, or the one after that?
Everyone was half the village away, oblivious to the menace lurking in their shadow.
No one will save me, she realized.
Her hands clenched tightly, scraping the dirt beneath them.
Thus, she threw herself around. She endured the pain of flinging her maimed leg about, or landing hard on her hip. Through it, she focused her eyes on the figure standing before her.
The creature stood about the height of a small child - but a human, it was not. Its slit pupils seemed to radiate a ghostly halo of gold and its jet black fur almost faded away in the darkness, only offering the slightest silhouette even under direct moonlight. And above all else, its head resembled that of a cat.
"A..." She panted. "A monster!?"
Why is such a thing inside the village!?
She slid back with as much haste as she could muster, but it just followed her at a leisurely pace.
"Stay away!" she screamed, her face contorted in terror. "I said stay away!"
Why!? Why is this happening!?
Amidst her struggle, her hand fell by chance, upon the knife she tucked away in a belt under her skirt.
Her mind blanked out.
All she could hear were her own heavy breaths and the pulse racing beneath her skin.
She clenched its handle with all her strength.
Her fingers, all drenched in sweat, pulled the tiny blade from its leather sheath. Then, bending her one good leg beneath her hip, she sprung up and launched her entire body for a last-ditch effort.
It's kill-or-be-killed! In that case-
It staggered when she lunged her knife right at its bright, glowing eyes.
"Die, monster!" she screamed.
But before her blade even so much as scathed its fur, the cat demon grabbed her by the wrist.
Its paw, round and smooth, did not quite grasp her, as it hardly flexed far enough to even ring around her arm, but instead latched onto her, almost like a suction pad. It then wrenched her arm, forcing her to relinquish her weapon, at the same time putting her off-balance.
And again, she fell, disarmed and face-down, at the shadowy creature's feet.
Ack, my leg...!
Frustration seeped from her lips, in the form of a low moan, interspersed with abrupt sobs.
Damnit! I can't walk...
She gnashed her teeth.
Hell, I can't even stand!
Gradually, it built up inside her, and soon overflowed, like the tears pouring down her eyes.
She pounded the dirt.
I can't die here! Not yet...!
She was exhausted. Her head throbbed and her arms felt like jelly. And yet with all her might, she tried to push herself off the ground, just one more time.
But this time, the predator was having none of it.
Before she could even extend her arms, it axe-kicked her right at the spine.
"Buha-!" It knocked the wind right out of her.
Her eyes blurred out.
Landing cheek first on the ground, all she could make out before her was her lifeless hand, trembling hopelessly as she tried, still, to move, however way possible.
The scene fell silent.
Eris, practically paralyzed from the beating she had sustained, laid on the ground, still as a corpse.
But she was not dead.
Oh Gods... is this my retribution?
One after the other, her crimes flashed before her - the people she had undone; the lives she'd ruined.
...but why now?
Why, when I was so close to my goal?
Her face contorted into a bitter frown.
Do you revel in such cruelty...?
She closed her eyes.
Or perhaps you simply look on with indifference?
As you have always done.
With their lives, as with mine.
And in her moment of resignation, a single thought remained in her mind.
"Emi..." she mumbled as tears streamed once more down her eyes.
My dear Emi!
In her mind, she glimpsed at her kind smile, still the freshest of her memories - more vivid, more fervent than even yesterday's.
Saint Laeticia, mother of mercy! Please... give me more time...
That girl... she is too young!
She knows not how terrible, how disgusting this world can be!
That every inch is infected with the scum of the earth.
The lowest, the filthiest...
"Scum..." she growled, as her weak fingers rolled into a fist.
...like her sister.
A cold wind swept across her hair, inviting her to her final rest.
Finally, the monster raised its jet-black blade.
If I don't come home... she is going to cry.
And I can't even hold her anymore.
She closed her eyes.
And I will never see her smile again.
And there, she laid. Battered, bruised.
A fitting end for a scoundrel.
Or so she thought.
Indeed, she waited for what seemed to be an entire minute for its blade to pierce her heart, but the final blow never came.
Instead, footsteps pattered closer and closer, reverberating in her ears.
A tiny voice, like ringing bells, then spoke, "Eris...?"
Her eyes popped wide open. There, a few paces away, stood a little girl, her pearlish-pink hair swaying gently in the breeze.
"You...!" Eris muttered, "what..."
Ah... so she fought off all those men...? Hah... hah... hahahaha...! She is the Legendary Hero, after all!
Clinging to her last strand of hope, she screamed, "M-my Lady...! Please, help me!"
"Hm?" Sylphia cocked her head. "Help? Eh? What's going on?"
"Huh!?" Her brows knotted in confusion. "Can't you see!? There's this monster-"
At that same moment, more silhouettes emerged from the darkness.
Two, three, then five - more and more cat-faced monsters seemed to dissolve out of the shadows.
"B-b-b-" In a fit of panic, she blurted out, "Behind you!"
"Behind?" The girl then casually looked over her shoulder and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, shrugged, asking, "What about them?"
As the monsters drew closer, Eris noticed that each was dragging something faintly-tan, like strangely shaped potato sacks, across the floor. And when they stacked up on top of one another, she realized:
They were the hired thugs.
Their clothes hung off what seemed to be their mummified remains - pale and lifeless, like all their meat was sucked out of them.
"Eeeek!" she screamed.
Amidst all this, the young lady said, with a jubilant tone, "Good job, boys! You'll get a special reward for this catch!"
"Ooh, man..." A deep voice then came seemingly out of nowhere, "That hit the spot."
"Oh? Does that mean you're ready to level up again?"
He then gave off a belch. "Augh... I dunno, give me some time to savor the meal."
"...so there's some sort of digestion going on? ...and how exactly?"
"Anyway, as I was saying, you really need to stop making me do that. I told you it feels weird sucking out the blood from live bodies."
"What am I supposed to do?" She shrugged. "I can't fight using real weapons, after all."
"That's why I said to just hang back and let them kill the guy for you!"
"Eeh? But that's no fun."
"...are you right in the head, little girl?"
Who is she talking to? Has she gone mad? ...Have I gone mad?
"My Goddess, meow." All of a sudden, the monster standing over her said, in a high-pitched voice. "I have captured this furless, meow. I was met with some resistance, so I took the liberty of incapacitating it, meow."
"Mm! Good work!" She gave the cat-thing a thumbs up.
Eris' eyes glazed over. It only seemed that, the longer she watched the absurd scene, the more her head spun.
These things... talk...?
Soon, the young lady turned her attention to her secretary, still lying on the ground. "Heheh! I bet you're real confused right about now! Well, first off, this is my living weapon. Sebastian, say hello."
Upon closer inspection, it seemed as though the design on the fan shuffled itself and after a single moment, formed a pattern resembling a face. "Oh, er, um... hello," it said, with the same, deep voice as earlier, "I'm Sebastia- ah, no, hey! Don't ignore me, little girl! I said stop making me-"
A living weapon...!? Since when did she have such a thing!? And she never told me!?
With a soft snicker, the young lady crouched beside her. Then, without hesitation, she pinched the woman's cheeks and pulled them side-to-side.
"Nnggh-!" Eris cringed from the pain.
"Ah..." A cruel grin stretched across her face. "Those eyes... I wondered how you would look like with those - desperate, terrified eyes. Though they suit you just fine, I think your usual glare might have grown on me." She then placed a sultry finger on her lip, adding, "Right, Eris?"
What is she saying? Why is she talking like that? Is this really that same girl...?
She shook her head.
Wait, now's not the time! If she's the one controlling these beasts, then I need to convince her!
"W-wait!" Eris reached out her hand. "My Lady, you've got it wrong! I-I wasn't-"
"Aww, come on. You're still going to keep up the act?"
"No use hiding it - I knew about your plan to kidnap me."
Her eyes trembled. "No..." weakly, she muttered, "...that-"
...was just... to catch him off-guard...!
"Well, I didn't know the timing, but I could just hole myself all day in my room or the dungeon - have these boys guard me. I didn't expect your invitation, though. The harvest festival was fun, wasn't it? Lucky it's celebrated at night, and I could even have them run around the village, if I wanted! Hahaha!"
"My Lady, please... listen to me...!"
But her faltering voice failed to reach the girl's ears.
Instead, she continued her rant, "Well, despite being a rotten traitor, I must admit, you are a competent woman. You don't just work diligently at your job, you actually put some thought into it. That, and your no-nonsense approach, made you an efficient worker. I'll praise you for that."
The girl then grabbed her by the cheeks and looked her in the eye.
"But you know, I am disappointed. I didn't want to believe it. I thought it might have been someone else causing all the ruckus around Dellwick. It made no sense that you would, on one hand, work so tirelessly for its sake, and on the other, also cause the problems plaguing it... Heck, I still can't believe it now."
Without letting her speak, Sylphia then let go of her cheeks and said, "But thanks to your guardian angel, the pieces started coming together."
"So you haven't noticed? Well, I guess it's natural." She then turned to the monster who hounded Eris to her current state. "He is one of the best, after all. Right?"
As she said this, the cat monster then bent down on one knee and said, "Nya. I am honored by your praise, dear Goddess, meow."
"Ever since the whole bandit fiasco started," Sylphia continued, "I've posted these guys to protect all of us. You. Me. Rika. Well, in your case, ever since that incident that night in Eddingset, I didn't really know whether I could fully trust you or not, so I had this guy report on where you went and who you met."
"Edding...set?" Her eyes widened. "You saw that!? And... you've been spying on me all this time!?"
The revelation crashed down on her like a thunderbolt. Her entire body locked up as, in the span of a single second, her mind raced to fit this new fact within her internal chronology of events.
But long before she could make sense of her situation, the girl was already grinning happily, saying, "Mm! Well, he couldn't just follow you everywhere, but I've got a good gist." Her silky hand then traced the contour of Eris' jaw. "You regularly meet with some spook, don't you? I wonder who he works for? And you seem to have a lot of friends around town. I wonder which of them is your contact with the bandits?"
She swallowed her breath.
"Oh, yes. I also know you've been coordinating the recent attacks. Though that wasn't the work of this little guy here. See, you made a terrible mistake." She flashed a smug look and asked, "What do you think that is, Eris?"
But she merely grit her teeth and refused to answer.
"Hmm... not even gonna guess? How boring." She sighed. "Well, fine - your mistake was, you decided to make agents out of the merchants of Dellwick."
She clenched her fists. "So they... sold me out...?"
"In a nutshell..." Sylphia rolled her head from side to side, "...yes. Well, who could blame them? It was a simple choice, really. They answer to one thing, and one thing alone - money. So, get this, it turns out - the moment someone else comes along with a better deal, it's incredible how they just turn on a dime! Hahahaha!" She slapped her forehead, laughing. "Hilarious."
Eris grimaced. "So you being penniless was also a ruse...!"
"Penniless? Well, actually, that is true. I don't have a lot of money on me. But that doesn't mean I have nothing valuable to offer."
Her face contorted in utter confusion.
"It's fine that you don't understand yet, my dear." Sylphia tapped her on her cheek. "Anyway, here's what's going to happen. You will meet your contact. You will explain that the guards just happened to pass by and saved us from your hired bandits. He will get angry. He will probably threaten you. It doesn't matter. But you are not to say anything about me knowing about your little scheme. Capiche?"
So her aim is Roderick?
...or perhaps someone higher?
"And don't get any funny ideas. These guys-" She pointed her thumbs at the monsters around them. "-my kobolds, they'll be watching you."
"One suspicious twitch from you," Sylphia ran her thumb across Eris' throat and said, "and your head will come flying off."
These are the infamous 'Terrors of the Frontier'!? But how!? Where'd she get them!? And more importantly, how is that they're obeying her commands!? And she's let them inside the village, in the middle of a crowded festival!? Is this girl insane!?
Feeling an immense pressure gathering in her chest, she racked her brain for a way to escape her current situation...
Damnit! She won't listen to anything I say... I can't even prove that I was turning on that damned Roderick!
...but found none.
I'm cornered! At this state, I have no choice but to play along...
Then, like it nothing had happened just now, the little girl beamed a warm smile, at the same time extending a helping hand towards her. "Alright?"
I don't really care about Roderick, but..
Slowly, she reached her hand out.
What is wrong with this girl...? It's like she's a completely different person...
And as her fingertips inched closer to hers, she felt a foreboding deep in her chest - like she was reaching out to a demon of immeasurable evil, dressed in the pure white robes of an angel.
Nonetheless, Eris squeezed out the words she needed to say, "I... will do as you say."
"Hihi!" Sylphia grinned. "Great!"
What will happen to me afterwards? As soon as she gets her hands on him, she'll have no more use for me...
"Well then, let's get you off the floor, now." The little girl clasped Eris' hand and helped her up to her knee.
Then, just as she was about to stand, she winced from a stabbing pain running up from her shin.
"Uwah!" the girl squealed, "Don't surprise me like that. Hm?"
After a quick inspection, Sylphia smacked the kobold who attacked Eris.
"I told you not to be too rough with her!" she then said, "Look, her leg's a mess!"
It shrank back, squealing, "N-nyaa! I'm sorry, my Goddess, meow! I did not expect her to be armed, meow!"
She sighed. "Whatever. I guess it's fine." Then, turned to Eris and jeered, "A little souvenir you can keep with you, eh? Maybe for the rest of your life? Pfft, hahahaha!"
Her head drooped down, like a marionette that had its strings cut.
She could see them still - even when she closed her eyes. That amber-dipped iris, reflecting the moonlight. It shined oppressively over her, without rest.
From that day forward, she began to shudder from the laughter of children. It reminded her of this very moment, when she, for the first time, lived in abject terror.