93. Stand and Fight
Something had to happen.
Something had to be done.
But their hands were tied. The Iron Champions Company had planned this for months. They had prepared for this, devoting as many resources as they could to carry out this plan. They wanted to cripple the Valiant Dreamers Company, and they were willing to use any underhanded trick to achieve it.
Did anyone expect them to go this far— just because the Valiant Dreamers Company had sabotaged a few of their monopolized Dungeons? Perhaps assassins should have been expected. That Baris was poisoned was a failure on the part of every member of the Valiant Dreamers Company.
But everything after that— the sieges, the attacks, the massacres. It was not out of the incompetence of their company. It was because the Iron Champions Company were even more vindictive, cruel, and evil than Edithe had thought.
Or, at least, that was what she was telling herself.
Starting a war over this? The red-haired woman shook her head, then felt her fists tighten to a ball. Killing my friends over a stupid Dungeon? If someone had warned Edithe a few months ago that this would happen just because a map over a high Silver Rank Dungeon was stolen, she would have laughed in their faces.
But this was the reality. The Iron Champions Company had unofficially declared war. And the moment the Valiant Dreamers Company made it official, they would have been assaulted on all fronts.
“The corpses of the assailants of the training grounds have been identified, and we’ve determined that these were assassins. They were not affiliated with the Iron Champions Company in any way, other than a possible contract between the two right now.”
“But didn’t you say that the Iron Champions Company themselves were the ones attacking us?”
A voice spoke over Hadrian. Jeremy— a Platinum Rank adventurer whom Edithe was acquainted with. He pointed an accusing finger at the leader of the Valiant Dreamers.
“We had switched up our guards for the training grounds. We thought that the ones attacking us would be adventurers, not assassins. If we had known that, we would’ve kept Ian on duty that day!”
“We assumed, from the information we had, that everything that had happened so far was the work of only the Iron Champions Company. But now we know that they’re also hiring outside forces to kill our members. That was a mistake on my part, and I apologize for it, Jeremy.”
“What about these assassins then?”
Another person spoke up. This time, it was someone Edithe was less familiar with. A Gold Rank by the name of Mariah. She wore a scowl on her face like it was the shawl around her neck. A [Summoner] at around the same level as Edithe, the two should have been friends or at least known each other better.
But unfortunately, she never stuck around the company often.
“Could they be those assassins you antagonized? By letting that girl stay with us, you’ve loosed that pack of dogs, the Harrowed Vindicators, on us!”
Edithe felt her jaw clench, mostly to keep herself from speaking up. She was not in the best of moods right now, and she was using every bit of willpower she had to keep herself from slapping that woman across the face. Leave Rachel out of this.
But Hadrian spoke for her, a calm and collected voice of reason that almost made him resemble his father.
“We’ve checked with every contact we have. None of those assassins that attacked us have ever been associated with the Harrowed Vindicators. We’re still not sure if they’re even part of a group or individual assassins the Iron Champions Company hired, but we know for a fact this wasn’t the Harrowed Vindicators’ doing.”
Mariah sat back, murmuring a complaint under her breath. Hadrian swept his gaze around the room— it wasn’t a formal meeting. Not like the one Edithe had been in just yesterday. It was to alleviate the concerns and questions anyone would have had about what was currently happening and what could possibly happen in the future.
“Any other questions?”
Hadrian asked, waiting for a response. When none came, he nodded and placed his hands on the table.
“Then we’re done for the day. If you have further worries, don’t be afraid to speak up. We’re the dreamers. Don’t forget that.”
The room slowly emptied out. The Silver, Gold, and even Platinum Ranks streamed out of it, pouring out into the Adventurers Guild below. The ones who attended had mostly been members of the Valiant Dreamers who weren’t actually as attached to their cause or the company itself. A few, like Jeremy and Edithe, were part of the core group. But the rest were those who only signed up for the benefits provided by the company, doing the bare minimum to stay a member.
Edithe, however, stayed behind. Hadrian turned to face her, raising a brow.
“You have a question, Edithe?”
She felt apprehension seize her momentarily— the doubt and uncertainty of the others from earlier made her second guess whether she should speak now. Hadrian was swamped with those who had been completely caught off-guard by what was happening, demanding something to be done, as though he had known this was going to happen.
The truth was, everyone had been taken by surprise by the current events. Even Baris and Hadrian were no exception. So, Edithe felt bad for speaking out against their decisions, but she felt that it was the right thing to say.
“This can’t go on, Hadrian.”
Her words were simple, straight to the point. The leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company paused. He peered closely at her, not saying anything. Then he nodded.
She blinked, seeing how empathetic he was to her cause. To the anger she was feeling. Paige. Edithe stepped forward, one hand forming a fist as the other gestured vaguely behind her.
“Then why aren’t we doing anything about it? This is war. That was what Gabriel had said from the start. Why are we just sitting around, letting them cut us down like lambs to the slaughter?!”
Catching her breath, Edithe realized she was yelling. She backed up, quickly murmuring an apology.
“No, you’re right.”
Hadrian sighed. The leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company— still so young and inexperienced— took a seat and rubbed at his temples.
“I agree with you, Edithe. However, I agree with my father as well. What he’s saying— the fact that the Iron Champions Company has planned such a long time for this— it puts us at a severe disadvantage. Any move we make will result in casualties. But I don’t think we should let them act as they please either.”
“But your father, Baris, thinks we shouldn’t strike back.”
“No. He thinks we should hold out. We have allies. People who will support us in covertly fighting against the Iron Champions Company. But those are far and few amongst the pull we could get if we officially declare war.”
“Then why don’t you declare war?”
Edithe stared at him. The tired man. One who was backed up into a corner with nowhere else left to go. He could either lash out first or stand on guard for the enemy to strike. Both would result in getting beaten and hurt. But which would result in a victory?
“Dad thinks that we’d minimize the risks if we hold them off. That the attrition we’d suffer from many small attacks would be far less than the death toll from a full-scale assault. That’s why he wants me to hold off in declaring war.”
“But he’s not the leader of the company, is he?”
Hadrian’s head snapped up. He met the red-haired woman’s gaze, her fiery red hair burning like the anger in her heart. Was she being reckless by suggesting this? Was this the same as what happened with Lucerna and her team? No— back then, we charged in when no one in our team was hurt. Now, it’s different. Paige was dead.
And so many others too.
“You’re the leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company. No matter what Baris says, he can’t stop you from pushing your weight as our leader and declaring war.”
“But… he wouldn’t approve of that.”
“Because he disagrees with your judgment.”
Turning her head to face the window, Edithe saw the sun standing high in the sky. It was still afternoon. In fact, it was barely even noon. The day had just begun, and so many things had already been done. Things had been busy. It proved how productive one could be if they really put in their all to something.
“He thinks that declaring war is reckless. And despite disagreeing with him, you trust him. Because you believe in him.”
“Yes. I’m still inexperienced, Edithe.”
The blond man cast his gaze to an open palm. He clenched it and spoke through gritted teeth.
“This all happened with me as the leader of the company. It never happened with him. He knows more than me, so I have to trust him.”
“Then why not trust the Baris that made you the leader, Hadrian?”
Edithe faced him. She met his eyes, speaking confidently, knowing that she was right.
“He entrusted you with this job. Talk to him. Tell him why you think he’s wrong. And make preparations for war. I’m sure if you do that, Baris will see your point and concede.”
She cut him off and spoke not out of anger or fear, but from the passion and certainty that had been cradling in her heart.
“This cannot go on.”
The young man looked at her. At the truth she was saying. And he slowly nodded.
“I will talk to him.”
Hadrian got up and started out of the door. A small smile spread across Edithe’s face but was quickly stymied from knowing what was to come next. It would be war. And that was not something she was looking forward to.
Stopping right at the doorway, he glanced back at her. Conviction on his face. The plan he must have had been fostering secretly ready to be unleashed.
“And call every Gold Rank adventurer to be back at the headquarters by tonight. Every Silver to the training grounds. I’ll have the Platinums be split up personally. Gabriel will be with the Silvers, so don’t worry about them.”
“Wait, tonight? Why?”
He stepped out into the hallway, turning away from her.
“We’re going to be declaring war. Tomorrow.”
I watched as the dim torches in the distance drew closer. The smoke from the flames filled the night horizon, breaking free from the layer of treetops ahead. They were small, thin lines reaching out to the sky, and I probably would not have noticed them if not for how numerous they were.
Various people were coming at us. People who were making their move in the middle of the night. That set of an alarm in my head. The Harrowed Vindicators?
Hopping down from the tree and landing next to Daniel with a soft thud, I immediately shook the Human man awake. He rubbed at his eyes, groggily looking up to face me.
“Huh— what? Is it morning already?”
“No. You’ve only been asleep for an hour.”
He clicked his tongue and snapped his eyes shut.
“Salvos, I know you don’t like—”
“It’s not that!”
I spoke hurriedly. One of my companion’s eyelids slowly reclined back up— he met my gaze and sighed.
“Is it urgent?”
“...Am I allowed to sleep for five more minutes?”
I paused, tilting my head back up. I saw the fumes in the distance, getting closer. Then I shook my head.
Daniel pulled himself up, drawing himself awake with a deep breath. A labored breath. He grimaced, placing a hand on his knees.
“Ouch— I think I might need a bit more healing potion if we’re going to get into a fight. I’m still not fully recovered from earlier.”
“We should run.”
I spoke simply, stopping him from summoning a vial of the red liquid. I lowered his hand down and grabbed his stuff.
“I think it might be the Harrowed Vindicators.”
“The— the bounty hunters?”
I cocked my head.
“I thought they were assassins.”
He immediately collected his items— quickly sweeping up the campsite of everything important— and stored it in his Dimensional Storage Unit. I watched as his bedroll, his flask of water— everything— vanished the moment he laid a hand on them.
“I want one.”
“I’ll get you one. But later.”
Sheathing his sword onto his side, the Human man turned to meet me. The two of us nodded.
“Let’s go. Now.”
And we were off. In the darkness, under the thick canopy of trees, blocking the dim light from the stars and moon above. We moved quickly and swiftly, darting around the thickets barring our path. I could have moved faster on my own, but Daniel was my companion.
I wasn’t just going to leave him alone.
I held onto his hand, pulling him forward so he could run just a little faster. I also kept an eye locked onto the approaching lines of smoke. They were slowly getting further and further away. They probably had no idea we had already begun getting a move on.
If they did, they would have picked up their pace— which they weren’t doing. So that gave me some confidence. I whispered to Daniel’s ear as he and I walked out into a small clearing in the forest.
“Think we should hide?”
Gesturing at some nearby hills peaking over the treetops, I continued.
“There are probably some holes or caves we could wait in. Maybe stay there for a day or two until we recover all our Skills, stamina, and mana.”
Daniel grimaced as I proposed the idea. He slowly shook his head and looked at me apologetically.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. If they’ve come after us this far, they probably have some kind of tracking Skills or artifacts that would lead them to us no matter what. We should just keep going.”
“But if they can track us down, won’t they keep following us?”
“Maybe. But as you said, I’d rather not fight them until I’m back at a hundred percent.”
The two of us were still exhausted from the day’s events. I was less so than Daniel, but if this really was the Harrowed Vindicators coming after us once again, I didn’t think we’d be able to take them on until both of us were ready to fight.
Although, both of us have leveled since our last clash with them… I glanced back up above the canopy of trees. The smoke was indeed coming in our direction once again. They really did have some way to track us down.
I turned back to Daniel and made another suggestion.
“Shouldn’t we at least have a look at them first? If they’re the same level as last time—”
“They won’t be.”
I cocked my head.
“They just won’t. Trust me.”
He seemed so certain. So certain that I decided to just trust him.
Spinning back around, I activated [Self Haste] and swept Daniel off his feet. He sputtered as his arms waved in the air.
“What are you doing?!”
“...what did you say? Speak slower—”
And I ran.
I dashed forward, zipping into and through the trees. Even while carrying him, I moved faster than I would have from dragging him along and running. I had [Self Haste] activated, after all. I was not only faster, but my senses were sharpened.
I ran over the roots that stuck out of the ground and threatened to trip me. I dodged around the groves that grew so dense wouldn’t have fit in it. I even avoided stepping on the fallen branches from the trees, careful not to leave anything behind that could let our pursuers follow after us.
I became like the leaves in the wind. The breeze carried me forward— did I know where I was going? Absolutely not. And yet, that only served to help us.
If we didn’t know where we were going, our pursuers wouldn’t either. Their tracking Skills had to end, eventually.
Day came. The sun rose over the horizon. My [Self Haste] had run its course hours ago. And Daniel protested me carrying him ‘like a princess’ so I let him run by my side on his own. I’d like to be carried like a princess, was the inane thought I didn’t say to him at the time.
We continued fleeing our pursuers. We made our way out of the dark and dimly lit forest, cutting into relatively clear and open flatlands. Then back to another forest. An entire day passed— the sun began setting low into the sky— before we even stopped for a brief reprieve.
Exhaustion was beginning to set in once again. Without any stamina potions to use, we had to rely only on [Rest] to recover. But that would not have been enough. The only reason we dared to take a break was that our Skills were ready now. His Skills, specifically.
We waited for a bit. Just to see if we were still being hunted down, even after all the running we did. And when the dome of light overhead changed into a dome of darkness, we saw the little kindlings of flame pop up in the distance. And we got up and began to move again.
“There are dozens of them. More than the last time.”
“Even if they’re all Gold, we can take them.”
I spoke confidently, even as I followed him under the blanket of leaves.
“My worry is that they aren’t all Gold, Salvos. That they’re all Platinum. Do you think we’d be able to take them on then?”
I chewed my lower lip, uncertain.
“Then what if there’s a Diamond too? Someone as powerful as Belzu.”
“That’s not possible!”
I stopped mid-step. The Human man whirled around as I crossed my arms.
“Lily was Level 103, and she’s a Fairy that’s lived for thousands of years! A weird Human can’t possibly surpass her in only a few decades!”
“Well, you’re a weird Demon who has surpassed many Humans and Spirits and Demons in only… what, two, three years?”
I corrected him. He raised his shoulders in a shrug.
“It’s possible, and while not likely, it’s possible.”
Trudging on, the [Hero] spoke in a grim voice. Also, in English.
“Unfortunately, you have to fear the worst in these kinds of situations. I knew someone once. She always said it was better to be safe than sorry. That was her favorite catchphrase that she never followed. Still, I’d rather not die from a fight we can avoid.”
I groaned— partly because I didn’t expect the change in language. However, since he kept to English the entire time, I understood what he said without a problem. Even if it was a little bit jarring.
“But it’s not something we can avoid, Daniel. They’re going to keep coming after us. And we’re going to keep running. We have to fight.”
“No, we don’t. If we can lose them—”
“We can’t lose them.”
I was vehement about it. They had been following us for an entire day. Even after I had run as fast as I could with Daniel in my arms, they never once lost track of us!
“Daniel, if they were really as high leveled as you think, why couldn’t they just catch up to us right now? If they were stronger than us, at least one of them has to be faster than you.”
He bit his tongue, unsure how to respond. I glanced back— at the trails of smoke that were still far away but getting closer.
“Isn’t it possible then that they’re just waiting for the best time to attack us, when we’re exhausted after you’ve lost days of sleep? Or worse, leading us to a trap?”
His eyes grew as I continued, creating a kusarigama and twirling its sickle in my hand. The blue flames from my Skill lit up the forest around us, just barely. It let us see our surroundings better, even if it let others spot us better too.
“But it’s possible.”
I turned around, sweeping my gaze through the trees until it landed in the direction of our pursuers.
“They’re going to reach us anyway. We’re going to have to fight them. I saw we do it while we can both face them at our best— before we’re both tired and unable to put up a fight.”
My companion stayed silent for a moment. Just a moment. Were my words persuasive? Did I make a good argument? I was not well versed in Human interaction, but I knew Daniel. And I knew he would agree with me.
His answer came a split second after I took a step forward, already prepared for battle.
“I guess you’re right—”
There was a flicker. My eyes snapped to the left, and I leapt back.
But I was too slow. The crossbow bolt struck the Human man across the chest. It sent him flying back, as I reached out to grab him, the impact stronger and harder than even a blow from a [Musur Craver].
The world slowed around me. I blinked and everything grew dim for an eternity. Then my head turned at a glacial pace towards the source of the attack.
At the shadowed figure hiding with the trees. No— not figure, figures.
A dozen figures surrounded my downed companion and me from all sides. They wore hoods over their faces— a dark cloak that obscured their entire body. Weapons were already drawn, a battle already instigated. They had just arrived, and they attacked us instantly.
There was no hesitation behind their actions. That was what assassins did. Bounty hunters hired to hunt down a [Hero].
The Harrowed Vindicators.