238. Interlude - Edithe's Evolution Part 5
It was finally time to end it all.
Edithe chose her second Class hastily— it wasn’t like she had too many options to choose from. It was all the basic Classes. She didn’t want to be an [Archer] or a [Rogue]. She considered double Classing in [Mage], but eventually decided against it.
She settled with [Warrior] for now. That’d give her the benefits of a [Battle Mage] without actually being a [Battle Mage] once she was higher-leveled. And it wasn’t like what she chose now mattered too much. Edithe could always choose another option later on if she decided she didn’t like being a [Warrior].
Resetting her second Class from Level 15 back to Level 10 was less daunting than going from Level 60 back to Level 10. All she had to do was speak with a [Priest], then she’d get to try out a new and different Class.
The only reason the red-haired woman made a choice now was because of what was about to happen: the final battle in this company war between the Valiant Dreamers and the Iron Champions.
The Valiant Dreamers moved. They headed to the headquarters of the Iron Champions Company. Yet, it wasn’t going to be a grand, climactic battle to close the curtain on this stage. That was why they moved so quickly.
Hadrian had interrogated Orbur Vale, one of the former leaders of the Iron Champions Company. A so-called champion, according to their hierarchy. What Orbur Vale said illuminated the inner-workings of the Iron Champions. One of the most important things being how half the champions were killed long before the company war started.
It sounded insane, to Edithe. But she remembered Orbur saying something similar amidst her battle with him. Orbur had told her that Bulan Dishar, the highest-leveled member of the Iron Champions, was slain by Demons. And considering what she’d been told by Hadrian and Baris, she knew that Orbur was telling the truth.
This information spread throughout the company like wildfire. It shocked everyone— Celine had been flabbergasted when she found out. Celine. One of the Edithe’s closest friends, and someone who’d always been carefree and relaxed.
That just showed the gravity of the news. It vindicated Edithe, somewhat. But she still felt like more could be done— that Hadrian could tell the others the truth.
“We need to tell them the reason why this company war even happened in the first place, Hadrian. It’s finally time.”
Hadrian pursed his lips. He glanced over at Baris— Edithe and Hadrian had finally decided it was time to speak with Baris about their concerns. Unfortunately, Baris was still adamantly against it.
“We’ve already told the others about the Iron Champions. That’s not a secret we wanted to keep— simply a hunch we had very little proof of. And now that Orbur himself shouted it to the world, we can tell the others.
Baris shook his head.
“But the Sword of Alexander? My family’s lineage as a Vampire? These are not facts to leak to the world. It’ll make us targets.”
“We already are targets.”
Edithe ground her teeth hard. It was almost like she could hear the grinding of the top layer of teeth against the lower one— if she’d been stronger, she probably would’ve been able to dislocate her jaw from that act alone.
“The whole reason this war started was because of that. Because everyone— except for our own company— knows about this. They’re targeting us because they know. Why can’t you see that, Baris?”
“Calm down, Edithe.”
Hadrian placed a hand on her shoulder, and she glared at him. He spoke placatingly, turning towards his Father.
“I am on your side, Edithe. And Dad, I truly believe in what she’s saying. Don’t you think that it’s a waste to keep an artifact as powerful as the Sword of Alexander hidden away? Especially when this is what they’re after? With it, we could end this war with no more casualties.”
“And we’d paint a target on our backs for all to see.”
Baris spoke simply, crossing his arms.
“There is no argument here, my son. I know that you’re the leader of the Valiant Dreamers Company, and you may do as you wish. Tell the truth to the others. But I shan’t gift you the Sword of Alexander to wield. There will be no proof— no reason for you to do.”
“Other than the fact that it’s what’s right?”
Edithe snapped. Baris sighed.
“You may have lost all respect for me, but I still respect you. Perhaps that is why my son decided to side with you. But unfortunately, you are young, Edithe. Power such as this can’t be used without the right cause. And this— this isn’t the right cause. I am sorry.”
With that, he spun around and left the room.
Edithe cursed, massaging her temples. Hadrian watched his Father leave. He looked over at the red-haired woman.
“We tried, Edithe. If we tell the others about it—”
“We won’t have the Sword of Alexander, and we’ll be even bigger targets than we are now.”
That was, arguably, a worse position to be in than now. Edithe understood that— that was why Baris refused to cooperate. She took a deep breath and faced her leader.
“So, what now then?”
Hadrian tilted his head back. His eyes flickered.
“Maybe… maybe we don't have to tell everyone about it. Not just yet. But those we can trust to remain silent. Do you have any suggestions?”
Edithe blinked. Then she nodded.
“I know… a few.”
“Well, that’s a lot to unload on me the night before a huge battle.”
Celine stood in a tent under the blue light of an enchanted lamp. Hadrian and Edithe had explained the situation to her— she was one of the few trusted individuals they decided to divulge this secret on.
“It is a lot, yes. When I found out about this, I was… shocked. I was in disbelief for days. I thought I’d had a nightmare— that I dreamt it all. But it is the truth.”
Edithe held her friend's gaze as she spoke. Celine furrowed her brows.
“So, this weapon— the fabled Sword of Alexander— can literally end this war in a single swing. And Baris doesn’t want to use it because… he doesn’t want it to be in the wrong hands?”
“And he fears that it will draw more unwanted attention to us.”
Hadrian nodded. Celine shrugged.
“That’s kinda fair, honestly. I don’t fault him for it.”
Edithe blinked. She exchanged a glance with Hadrian, who was also surprised by the reaction. Celine went on.
“Sure, it’s a bit of a dick move, using us to protect something we know nothing about. But… it’s not black-and-white, you know? It’s more morally gray. Between disclosing this secret and abusing the Sword of Alexander’s power, or keeping it stashed away and safe— I’d be torn too. Maybe I’d even agree with him if I had more time to think about this.”
“You… you can’t be serious, Celine.”
The red-haired woman was speechless, but her friend just chuckled.
“Hey, maybe if you told me about this sooner, I’d be able to let this settle in better. As it is now, I just want to get out of this final battle alive. And maybe spend some time with Nora tonight— if you know what I mean. You can join if you want.”
Celine winked at Edithe. Then she turned to Hadrian.
“And no, you may not join.”
“I wasn’t going to ask.”
“Good. I like women, not men.”
Celine patted them both on the shoulders, starting out of the tent. The runes around the tent flaps dimmed as she reached for it, letting noise from the outside seep in. There was a loud clamor from outside— cheers and jokes and joy. Adventurers gouging on booze and wine as they feasted. A party before the final battle. Before it finally ended.
After this, there would be no more unnecessary deaths. At least, that was what most of them thought. But Edithe knew that it wouldn’t be long before another group targeted the Valiant Dreamers.
“What do we do, Hadrian?”
She closed her eyes, feeling the exhaustion settle in— knowing that there was still a long road ahead of them. Unlike everyone else who thought it was over after this.
“I’m not sure. But I think we should stave off telling the others for now.”
The red-haired woman’s gaze snapped up.
“I mean— for after the war is over.”
She was aghast. For a moment, she thought Hadrian had changed his mind. Like Celine, he decided he agreed with Baris more. But no. Hadrian shook his head.
“Celine is right. This is a lot to drop on someone the day before a big battle. I know this is important to you, Edithe. You have a strong sense of justice. I know. But… this problem isn’t really an immediate one.”
Edithe turned away from Hadrian. Her right hand reached across to grab her left elbow as she shifted.
“I really don’t know. I just… want to protect my friends, Hadrian. That’s all.”
“And we will protect them. We’ll try our hardest to do what’s right.”
“But are we really doing what’s right? You heard what Celine said— maybe we’re wrong. Maybe…”
She trailed off. Hadrian stared at her from behind. There was too much responsibility placed on her shoulders. Honestly, she preferred being a Gold Rank adventurer— back with Paul and Hana and her original party. As a Diamond Rank, she was burdened with too much. With the strength to change things, and the knowledge that things weren’t as clear-cut as she’d like them to be.
“I don’t know…”
Edithe shut her eyes. She heard a shuffling from behind her. Hadrian approached her, and slowly wrapped his arms around her. She felt his warmth as he gently hugged her from behind.
“I don’t know either, Edithe. This is a lot to take in. But I’m sure we’ll figure it out. We have to figure it out. So many lives depend on us. If they can trust us, then can’t we trust ourselves?”
The red-haired woman felt her worries momentarily burn away. She felt at ease, like she was sitting by a cozy campfire in the middle of a chilly night. Then Hadrian drew back, and she turned to face him.
She started. Then she chuckled.
“I told you, I’m only interested in serious relationships, Hadrian.”
There was a moment of silence before he spoke.
“I am serious, Edithe.”
Even though Hadrian had let go of her, Edithe still felt some of his warmth, and it crept up to her face. She nodded, starting past him.
He gave her a confused look, and she simply grinned as she waited at the edge of the tent.
“Come on, we’ll figure all this out after the battle. Let’s just get this over with for now.”
And it was time for the final battle.
The battle that would put an end to it all.
The headquarters of the Iron Champions Company lay before Edithe. It was built into the side of a mountain, ten miles north of Holmfirth. They’d previously been located far closer to Holmfirth, but for whatever reason, they relocated a few years back.
According to Orbur, that was because of what happened: a Demon slayed half of the champions of the company. Many of those who were in charge were purged— and those who complied were spared. How did it get to that?
Apparently, one of the champions, Bulan Dishar, had been investigating a cult— the Church of Regnorex— and they were far more powerful than the Iron Champions could ever imagine. A Demon had taken Bulan’s life. The same Demon took his place after. What happened next was a gradual and secretive takeover of the company. When Orbur found out what happened, it was too late.
“So, there are Demons in there.”
Celine eyed the base from afar. Edithe nodded.
“There are, yes.”
“You know, I’ve never actually seen a Demon before. You’ve fought one, right? With your old team.”
Edithe spoke simply. She remembered that fateful day—
Paul knocked her aside as a column of smoldering ash crashed down from the sky. The entire village burned around them— a hellscape so terrible that Edithe wouldn’t even dream it in her worst nightmares. Panic overtook her. She choked on ash and smoke as Eloy created a stone wall around the party.
The Greater Demon smashed through the earth with a roar. It grabbed Eloy and crushed his head. Edithe’s screams turned into a coughing fit.
Paul spun around, raising his blade. He faced the Greater Demon without any fear in his eyes. His words came out muffled, but Edithe heard it clear as day.
The Spirit appeared next to the red-haired woman, facing Paul.
“It appears we are so thoroughly screwed, aren’t we?”
“That we are.”
How? How can they be so calm? Edithe wondered, even as the Greater Demon charged at them. It trampled over Silvia’s corpse, knocking it aside and into a nearby house. The building collapsed.
Paul shook his head, turning to the Spirit.
“Take Edithe and get her out of here. Make sure she’s safe, no matter what.”
“I was going to do that regardless of your instructions.”
Hana picked Edithe up as she struggled. The Spirit didn’t face Paul as he braced himself for the oncoming attack. With a soft sigh,
“An idiot, to the very end. I can see why you fell for him, Edithe.”
There was a splat. Edithe’s eyes widened as she saw the man she loved die to an insurmountable force. Hana brought her to a nearby building, hiding her under a pile of rubble.
Edithe tried to speak and nothing came out. Her vision began to blur, exhaustion and pain overwhelming her. She reached out for her best friend—
“But I’m sorry, I’m a bit of an idiot too.”
With that, Hana dashed off, drawing the ire of the Greater Demon away from her master. And with a terrible crunch, everything went dark.
Edithe returned to the present. The Valiant Dreamers were slowly infiltrating the Iron Champions’ base. The red-haired woman walked alongside Celine as they entered the cavern fort from the side. She gripped her friend’s hand tightly.
“I won’t let anything happen to you, Celine.”
Celine blinked, not sure where that came from. Edithe was prepared to do whatever it took to protect her friends.
But strangely enough, the base was empty. There was nothing there.
A cool silence gripped Edithe as she stalked down the hallways, hearing only the echoing of her footsteps in the darkness. The chill prickled across her skin like ants poking their tiny little feet into her. Her hair stood at attention as though it could guard her from whatever lurked within the shadows. Celine’s voice caused Edithe to jump out of surprise.
“You think they all left?”
The red-haired woman glanced over at her friend. She looked around— then she saw it down the corridor. A splotch of blood leaking down in a lazy drool.
“I… don’t think so.”
Edithe shook her head. She started forward to investigate the blood, then it was gone. Her eyes narrowed.
“Wait, where did it go?”
“Where did what go?”
Celine cocked a brow. Edithe cast her gaze down both sides of the corridor. She saw nothing— no more blood painting the floor.
“I swear I saw—”
Edithe shook her head.
“Nevermind. Let’s continue.”
And the pair of adventurers led the way, followed by other lower ranked adventurers. They spread out wide, trying to search every room they could find. The place wasn’t abandoned. It still had most of its equipment and facilities running. So, why was it empty?
“Not here either.”
“I checked all the rooms down that corridor— can we move on now?”
Various adventurers reported to Edithe. She pursed her lips.
“Alright. We should regroup with the others.”
She nodded as they began streaming down back towards the entrance. Celine started too, but Edithe grabbed her.
Celine blinked, and Edithe closed her eyes.
“[Patron of the Skills].”
“Uh, what are you doing?”
“It’s one of my new Skills.”
Edithe gestured at her.
“You can now use any three of my Skills, excluding [Patron of the Skills] itself. Not only that, but you can restore three of your Skills’ uses immediately.”
Celine’s eyes grew wide, and Edithe grinned.
“Yeah, so… I suggest using something like [Aura of Greater Protection] now. You can save the other two Skills for later. No Passives, though.”
“That is… awesome!”
Celine quickly shut her eyes and muttered quietly to herself, activating [Aura of Greater Protection]. There was a flicker— and now she was protected.
Good, Edithe thought as they left the area. Her group made their way back out, passing through the same hallways as before. She paused at the spot where she caught sight of the blood earlier. She halted.
“What are you doing, Edithe?”
“Just give me a moment, I’ll catch up with you guys.”
“If you say so…”
Celine and the others continued on as Edithe went to investigate the spot. She knelt down, running a finger on the ground. Drawing back, she inspected her hand.
She rubbed her fingers together. There was no texture or feeling of blood. It was just… that. Her fingers being brushed against each other. But that couldn’t be right. Not unless Edithe’s nerves were getting to her.
However, what happened to everyone? Orbur said that the last of the Iron Champions awaited them here, held hostage by Demons. There were no Demons here. No Iron Champions. The Valiant Dreams took over this place without trouble.
Edithe narrowed her eyes. No, that couldn’t be right. She knew for a fact that this couldn’t just be it. After all, she just gained a new Skill. [Passive - The Protector’s Boon]. If the Valiant Dreamers had really won and overtaken this fortress, then she’d be able to tell where every single one of her allies were.
But she couldn’t. She didn’t even know where Celine had gone.
The red-haired woman stood up. She glanced around at the walls and ceiling. There was nothing there. She wrinkled her nose, smelling nothing.
“Nothing’s wrong. Nothing seems wrong. Which is completely wrong.”
Edithe scowled as she raised her staff. A light illuminated the room, revealing the plain floor and walls of the corridor.
“There was blood here. I saw blood here. I know I did.”
Her eyes flickered. An idea crossed her mind.
“Hm. If there really was blood here—”
She sent a chilling wave of cold wind over the ground. It wasn’t cold enough to create a layer of sleet over the stone— not unless there was a layer of something that could freeze over it. Edithe took a step onto the cooled ground… and she slipped.
The red-haired woman tripped and nearly fell flat on her back. She caught herself easily enough, stumbling back to her feet.
She eyed the ground and watched as the clean floor shed away like a layer of paint was peeled back. Ice formed over the stone— red ice. Blood ice.
“I knew it. I…”
Edithe blinked when she saw what pooled and mixed with the red blood. A blood-black void. It was like staring into nothingness. It didn’t freeze from her ice, instead still in its liquid form. That was… some potion concoction? Spilled ink?
No— that was Demon’s blood. Edithe wouldn’t imagine Demon’s blood. Her nerves weren’t getting to her. It was the blood of a Demon. And next to it, she saw the corpse of a blue man. Headless.
A dead Demon.
Edithe staggered backwards.
She saw the collar around its neck, tightly gripping onto its skin. And Edithe realized what was going on— she realized why she couldn’t see it in the first place.
Edithe’s mouth moved.
There was a scream. She heard it echo down the hallway. She rushed forward, speeding down where Celine went. Her staff shone as an [Aura of Greater Protection] overcame her.
“No, no, no, no, no!”
She turned a corner, nearly slamming into a wall. She forced herself to continue, readying all the spells she knew in her repertoire.
Edithe whispered, gritting her teeth. Screams and spells echoed in the distance. Her heart raced with her to get to her friends.
“It’s happening again.”
She finally rounded the last corner, reaching the entrance of the headquarters. And there, hovering high above a crowd of adventurers, limned by the moonlight, was the shape of an insect. A creature that floated with buzzing wings. A rotund and corpulent body.
Belzu, the Primeval Demon.