I removed my backpack, pushing the seed into the safest, yet deepest parts of it. As I got my backpack back where it belonged, I finally raised my head to look around. I was in utter darkness. I was confused, just for a moment, after all, I could see nothing. But that’s when it hit me - nothing glowed anymore.
I took out my torch once more, igniting the tip, making the room lit up by the bare-minimum dim light. Everything was still in its place. The grass, the trees, the vines. But I could see how they were all dying, almost like a grape was losing all of its water.
Surprisingly enough, the tree’s face was still there, but its eyes were closed, and mouth was shut. Ahean was dead - or at least whatever body they had inhabited.
Torchlight appeared from the tunnel, as three bodies rushed into the chamber, slightly confused by the fact that I was simply standing at the very center.
“Hiro!” Bill hissed.
I immediately rushed to them, noticing how Alice’s arm was around Bill’s shoulder.
“I-I can do it one last time,” she muttered.
“You really shouldn’t!” Bill muttered.
Arryn and Bill looked around the room, examining it. But nothing was as wonderful as it had been when I had arrived. If anything, everything was visibly dying. Arryn probably saw it more than Bill. I felt bad that they hadn’t experienced it. But perhaps it was better that they didn’t.
“Dead end?” Bill muttered, looking at me. His face was hopeless “Hello? Anything?”
I smirked. “There’s a way out. A very difficult one. But there’s one! I just need to find it!”
I began to walk around the room, examining the dead, occasionally falling plants and vines. At the same time, Alice pushed her wand against the entrance’s wall. A thick ice wall began to create itself between the corridor and the cavern. One last wall. Alice suddenly coughed, blood hitting her hand and the floor in front of her.
“Alice, you’re at your absolute limit. Stop it! That’s enough!” Arryn said, kneeling before her.
“I-It’s fine,” she muttered, giving us yet another smile.
“You should really stop!” I shouted as I pulled vines aside. There indeed was a hole - multiple roots entering there. But all the roots were all dried up, as they were a mere small string. “This is our way out!”
Bill rushed to me, pushing the vines aside as well. “This room is weird. Everything is dying. And then there’s a hole in a stone wall. I want some explanation, Hiro.”
“I wish I could,” I said. “But I don’t think we have that much time. But this will lead directly outside… somewhere.” To be honest, I didn’t want to tell them where exactly.
Bill examined the hole, crouching down. “It’s a fucking tiny hole.”
“We got to take our chances!”
“How do you think Alice will climb it?” Bill asked, looking at me. “There’s no way she has enough energy to do so. And we can’t carry her either.
I looked at him, thinking for a moment. I immediately removed my backpack, taking out some rope. I didn’t need to say anything before he understood. “I-” But he didn’t continue.
“This is our only chance. I got what we came here for. Now it’s just escaping,” I whispered. “There’s still some dirt and those dried up roots to make traveling simpler.”
“You got the Elder Heart?” Bill whispered.
“Alright,” Bill said, nodding as well. He took the rope, walked to Alice and began to tie it around her. “So, I’ll go first, and-”
“I’ll go first!” Arryn said.
“What? Why?” Bill responded.
“You’re still injured, Bill. Plus, I’m the one with arrows. I’m strong enough. I’ll go ahead, pull Alice. You can push. Plus I can scout ahead where to go. It’ll be too dark for you guys. You just follow the rope-line.”
“Well, I don’t think-”
“Bill. We don’t have time. Please! Do this for me!” Arryn said, taking the rope from Bill and began to tie it around herself.
There was a moment of clarity in Bill’s eyes. “Fine.”
Arryn walked to me, as Bill helped Alice up. She was muttering something to Bill. We could already assume what that was.
Arryn stopped in front of me. “Listen. Come last, and make sure Bill is fine. Alright?” she said, walking towards the hole. “Don’t let me down!” And before I could respond, she already entered the tunnel, following it carefully.
“Don’t do this to me,” I mumbled to myself. I immediately walked to help Alice towards the hole. “We’ll help you all the way, alright?” I said.
“I-I’m fine. I-I’m not dying. J-just out of energy. I-I can still crawl and pull myself forward,” she said, walking into the hole, crawling in it, still leaving more rope behind. But it was obvious that it was mostly rope that helped her to move forward. I couldn’t help but respect Arryn.
“Your turn,” I said, as I looked at Bill.
“No. Go ahead. Leave me,” Bill said after a short time.
“They will find this hole, and they will catch up. They are goblins, so they are small. I’ll stay here, and pretend I have the heart. I’ll buy you enough time to get out of this tunnel and maybe close it slightly. Get out of here and get help. And tell Alice and Arryn that I’m sorry. Arryn will probably be mad at you! But she’ll understand. Eventually.”
I looked at him, eyes widened. “Are you an idiot? Just go! I’m not gonna leave you down here. It’ll take them some time to find this hole behind vines. First, they’ll examine the tree, and then they might look for other exists.”
“No they won’t,” Bill said. “Even I could figure it out within seconds that whatever was down here is gone, and probably with you. This place is dying, Hiro. But if one of us stays here… No… If I stay behind, they’ll think I have it. And Thomas knows me. He believes me, that I would be stupid enough.”
“Why would you even want to do that?” I asked.
“Because I’m nobody. I’ve never been anybody. I’m the guy who can only hold up his sword and swing it, but I’ll never be great. But those two are special. I love them. They are my party. They have a huge future ahead. Arryn is an amazing archer. And Alice is an amazing sorcerer. They just need some time to work on their… not so great parts. But in the end, it was me who was holding them back. But the least I can do is to make sure they do have a future. And since you have something those two are lacking, you can help them. You have brains. You’ll be more useful than me. So go. Leave me. Maybe they’ll just capture me. Maybe I’ll die. But at least I won’t have any regrets.”
No, I thought. That bastard. That silly brave bastard.
I began to chuckle. “No,” I said. “If anyone stays, it’s me. I’m the hero, after all.”
I’m ashamed of myself. I’m not worth it.
Bill stared at me, confused. “Come on, you can think better lie than-”
I took out the fancy badge. It had always been in that one very special pocket. With a sigh, I showed it to Bill. “I’m sorry I deceived you. But you were never in any danger with me here. So leave. I can easily hold them back,” I lied.
Bill stared at me, stunned. “You’re the hero?”
I nodded, once more.
I am a lie. But at least you do have a family. I am only a lie.
“And what kind of hero would I be if I let our future generations sacrifice their lives, while I am around?”
Please, Bill. Don’t do this. You’re still great. Just the fact that you thought of this proves it.
“If I became a hero, Bill, you can become much more.”
Please, Bill. Just go. You should never follow someone like me. You deserve more.
“Trust me, Bill. I’m great. I’m amazing. So just leave everything to me. Trust your hero, the one you’ve followed and wanted to meet. Let me handle this.”
I’m the worst. I am cursed. So leave, and let me die. Let me be of some use. Please, Bill.
“So, go into that damn hole. I’ll be right behind you.”
But you’re right, Bill. They’ll find the hole soon. But it’s not your job to be the distraction. You can still be part of that great party. You can become something huge. And you’ll grow. Let me stay here.
“They need you, Bill. Go to them. You still have many adventures ahead.”
I might be a lie. But I am still the hero. So let me do this. Let me pretend to be the hero. Let me do this one last thing.
Bill looked at me, mouth slightly opened, eyes widened. “Oh my god!” he muttered. “I’ve always been your biggest fan. All those stories about you on the other side of the wall. You becoming a hero despite never being an adventurer. It was you!” he said, taking a step forward and hugging me. “And you’re a damn good actor. None of us thought you might be the hero himself,” he said, laughing.
I was surprised. I didn’t see that coming. He hugged me for a good five seconds, before letting me go. “Thank you for granting my last wish,” he said, smiling. “I’ve always wanted to meet and hug a hero.”
“W-what? Your last wish?” I said, confused. Suddenly I felt a pull, making me fall down on my back, dragging me away from Bill. “What the fuck?” I said as I began to look around, in panic.
“Don’t fight back,” Bill quickly said. “You don’t want to pull Alice and Arryn down from where they are, right? It could be too dangerous.”
I realized what was happening. I began to search the rope he had tied around me somewhere. But I could not find it. Suddenly I was near the tunnel’s entrance. I was also surprised that Arryn had that much strength. Or perhaps I was just that weak. And I couldn’t resist either, not after hearing Bill’s words.
“Bill, what the fuck?” I said as my head was pulled slightly into the tunnel. Again I was stopped for a moment. Arryn must’ve been confused why it was suddenly a lot harder to move forward. But the dried up roots made it a lot easier to slide. That’s when I realized that the rope was tied to my backpack. If only I could get the backpack-
My hands were grabbed and were forcefully tied together, even if I tried to resist. “No can do,” Bill said from the other side. I could feel how something was pushed inside my palm. “Don’t worry. I didn’t tie them too hard. You’ll soon be able to get them removed. But then it’ll be too late. You won't be able to go back. Not anymore. Only forward,” Bill said with his half laugher, pushing me deeper into the cave, even if I tried to resist.
Soon after, I was yet again pulled even deeper tunnel. I didn’t understand when or where did he grab the rope? Or, perhaps, he hid it well? “Bill. Don’t be stupid!” I said.
“Quiet now,” Bill’s whisper echoed to me, as he pushed vines in front of the entrance, hiding last of the dim torchlight away.
And there was only darkness.
I could hear many sounds while trying to get my hands untied. But my voice was frozen.
“Bill!” an echo finally reached me. It was a barely recognizable voice, belonging to the only other human in that whole place. “Did you really think you could escape from me? Where are the others?”
“Hello, Thomas. They all went the other way to get some help,” Bill responded, laughing. But I guess I fucked up by not following them. “No, Thomas. Don’t take any further steps. Do you know what’s in this bag? And you know what will happen if I stick my sword into it? Here’s a hint. Something will stop beating.”
No Bill. You bastard, I thought. Tears soaring down my cheeks.
“Don’t be hasty now. You have no way out. And you can’t be alone. All those ice walls…”
“Do you really think that our mage could create so many blockers for you? Low adventurers like us aren’t capable of that. But it was a good diversion. I can do magic now, Thomas.”
“What do you want?”
“There are many things… most importantly… out of here… but let me…”
The words became unclear, merely echoes. And no matter how much I tried to understand, I couldn’t. I finally removed the rope around my hands. Immediately I turned around, searching a way to get my backpack off. Bill’s words echoing in my mind. He was right. I knew it was pointless. It was too late.
Hero, my ass, I thought. I can’t even save the lowest ranking adventurers. I’m a catastrophe. A real lie.
But I couldn’t let his sacrifice be in vain. So I turned around, pushed my elbows against the ground - the dirt and roots - and began to push myself forward. I didn’t think or feel anything. I could barely see anything. It was a pitch black tunnel. But even that wasn’t as dark as my mind.
Light tried to escape from somewhere. A very dim light. As I tried to find the source, I ended up looking at my hand. The light came from inside my palm.
I opened it, slowly. On my palm was lying hero’s badge, lit up, spreading its light everywhere in front of me.
My tears landed on the badge, cleaning it from the dirt.
Of course. Of course, my power had to awaken right now, I thought. Of course, it just had to happen In the darkest dungeon, at the darkest moment, when I felt hopeless.
Is this some kind of joke?
But I remembered something. A memory. Followed by another. All those moments I had spent with that party. Even if they had been only a mere few days. And I remembered more. I remembered the council, Aldrynte, her father.
I had always been lonely. Stuck in that house. Only thing accompanying me were those stories, those books, and my own imagination.
Yet here I was, doing something. I had become someone. And someone had to take on this baggage. Someone had to be that ass when it was necessary. Someone had to live with this pain. And I was about to place it all on Bill. In some sense, death felt like an easier way out than continuing this path.
But the truth was that my only failure right now was not respecting Bill’s decision, his determination, his resolve.
I looked at the hero’s badge, tears finally stopping. There was still much I had to do. There were still many things I could do. And most importantly, Bill wasn’t dead yet. And he might not be dead. He might just become a prisoner. A trading card, perhaps?
So I looked ahead and began to push myself forward. When I had to climb up, I climbed up. When I caught up with Alice, I began to help her, push her, carry her at climbs. Even if I felt like my fingers wanted to bleed, I had to push forward.
This was my resolve as a hero.
And I only wish that at the very end of this tunnel, there was some light.
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- Matthew E. Damson
I'm someone whose pen-name is Matthew E. Damson. Some others know me as Elven. I'm also known as elf, elfie, elves, pointy ears, and some more. To be honest, I have no idea why they call me other names, but they create nicknames, not me.
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