A total of nine Psionics cried out at once as they finished their collective chant. Amplified several times over by their Synchronous Chanting Skill, the resulting wave of mental jamming magic spread out like a tidal wave, covering a distance of nearly fifty meters. The orcs caught up in it began to stumble and cry out in confusion and pain, forcing them to ease off their assault. The raptors’ spear-and-shield toting front line then pushed forward as one, knocking the greenskin mob off their feet and into the stagnant swamp below. The water was only knee deep so it was unlikely they’d drown or anything, but the mud and filth would still make it difficult to get back up.
The raptor phalanx then backed off, putting several meters between themselves and their enemy. This gave the magic-wielding mercenaries and adventurers acting as their support the space they needed to do their thing. Dozens of Wizards, Warlocks, Pyromancers and Cryomancers unleashed a chaotic assortment of area effect Spells, killing the orcs by the hundreds. Unfortunately it was the only magical volley they would be able to get off before the greenskins rallied.
A deafening cry swept over the muddy bog. All at once the effects of the Psychic Blackout disappeared and the greenskins exploded out of the shallow waters with rage and power blazing in their eyes. They clashed against the raptor’s front line with renewed vigor, giving the Warriors and Paladins no time to rest or gather their wits while the healers strained their MP reserves to support them. The next collective Psychic Blackout would surely come in mere moments, but it would still be as short-lived as the previous one, as well as the one before that.
The reason for which was the presence of a warlord. This one was standing at an impressive three meters and wielding something that was probably intended to be an axe, but was more like a random slab of rusty metal tied firmly to one end of a really big stick. It wasn’t sharp by any means of the imagination, but it was still heavy enough to make anyone or anything hit by it go splat. Yet as chilling as that thought was, what truly made this orc a threat was his ability to direct and empower the Green Tide.
This was possible through a number of Skills he had unlocked after Ranking Up into a warlord. The one he used just now was called Commanding Shout and had the effect of fighting off the Psychic Blackout and bringing the mentally disturbed grunts back into the fold. Another of the especially troublesome Skills was Fodder Field, which protected dense gatherings of orcs under his command from being bombarded with magic. Most Spells and Skills aimed at the parts where the Fodder Field was thickest would fizzle out and fail, accomplishing nothing but wasting the user’s MP.
That was why the Spell-slingers within the enlightened coalition had to wait for the Psionics to disperse the dampening field in order to unleash their power. Alternatively they could target the fringes of the enemy formation, but that was likely to do more damage to their own allies than the enemy forces. Physical projectiles such as arrows, spears or giant boulders could still be used, of course, but one tended to run out of ammunition surprisingly fast when faced with an orcish scourge. The archers within the punitive force were dangerously low on arrows despite being told to bring as many as they could carry because the other side was constantly getting reinforcements. For every orc that fell in battle, another would appear from an adjacent area. The grunts were being pulled towards the conflict like a moth to a flame, and they wouldn’t stop until the one calling out to them was put down.
In other words, the raptor forces would not be able to claim victory until the warlord was eliminated.
“Git ‘em boyz! Give dem scalies a right proper bashin!”
Which was precisely why the orc kept a considerable distance from the front lines while he bossed the lesser orcs around.
Yet another wave of greenskins slammed against the raptors’ shield wall as that loudmouth in the background egged them on.
“Broadfang! Arrow formation!”
A powerful, clear voice called out to the physically and mentally exhausted warriors from behind. The line reacted entirely on reflex as a pair of them stepped back while their allies sidestepped to fill in the resulting gap like a steel curtain. The ones that split off then knelt down next to each other and raised their massive circular shields over their heads. There was a bang and a scrape as Hesk landed one armored foot on each shield, followed immediately by both of her subordinates launching her forward as if they were springboards.
The Hero of the Sword, who incidentally was wielding a spear simply because she personally found it a more effective tool of war than the one in her title, landed amidst the sea of orcs by stepping on one of their faces.
There was a flash of red as her tribe’s secret weapon drew a perfect circle around her, cutting down every greenskin within its reach. Hesk pushed forward towards the warlord, striking with the Orc Poker in short rapid thrusts at the savage vermin around her. It ripped through flesh, bone and air alike, producing a gruesome sound that was almost like a hymn of carnage. It was certainly music to Hesk’s ears as she carved her way towards her target. She didn’t even need to stop and finish off the ones she had struck down, as the Orc Poker’s specialized venom made the greenskins’ very flesh fall off their bones in disgusting, bloody lumps.
Unfortunately this also meant the soldiers that followed in her wake were now wading through swamp water filled with rapidly decomposing orc bits, but they didn’t have a choice in the matter. Their Paragon and Hero would not be able to push forward if the Broadfang phalanx didn’t cover her rear. They advanced in a narrow wedge-shaped formation, widening the gaps that Hesk made in the enemy horde. They could not advance very far into the sea of orcs without suffering heavy damage, but they and their allies would suffer far greater losses if that warlord was not eliminated posthaste.
Which was something the extra-large orc wanted to avoid if at all possible. It wasn’t like their intent was a mystery, especially since he saw the lizardfolk use this same tactic to eliminate another of his peers. Granted he was a bit late to the party and didn’t see exactly how it went down, but saving his own hide came first. Not because he was a coward, but because the Green Tide in his head constantly reminded him of his importance as a leader and living relay station. That was why he decided to fall back. Even though his blood boiled with excitement at the thought of fighting that shiny-armored lizard at the very front, backing off and letting the ‘scalies’ be drowned by the Green Tide was the more strategically sound option.
What he failed to realize, however, was that Hesk and her comrades were ultimately nothing more than a distraction.
A skull-masked shadow darted out of the shallow waters behind the orc just as he turned to run, producing so little noise that it was impossible to hear in this chaotic battleground. There was a flash of metal and a whisper of ‘Backbiter’ as the assassin’s twin daggers ripped through and completely severed the monster’s spine at his waist. The warlord let out a roar of pain and shock as his legs gave out and he began to fall backwards, only to have Kaede leap up and slam her needle-like knives through both of his ear holes and into his brain. She clambered on top of and leapt off of his still falling body, striking down a couple of grunts that had their backs turned towards her as she made her landing. She then proceeded to move rapidly through the gaps between the orcs, slashing at them as she ran by like some sort of ghostly serial killer while moving towards her allies.
Once Kaede was past their lines, the Eight Tribes’ forces fell back and rebuilt their ranks under the cover of another collective Psychic Blackout. The Spell’s effects would stick around for much longer now that the last of the warlords was finally dead, giving the fighters and casters alike some much needed breathing room. Hesk took this chance to fall back far behind her allies so that she could take a moment to recuperate. She had spent over two hours ceaselessly killing orcs and chasing warlords, and needed every chance to rest that she could get. Even if her body had a lot of stamina and endurance due to her being a Level 89 Warrior, it also demanded a lot of energy in order to perform as well as it did.
Wearing armor made from a relatively lightweight metal such as mithril helped with that, though not as much as one might imagine. Hesk’s Physical Conditioning Skill, available to most fighter-type Jobs at Level 60, greatly reduced the burden that her equipment had on her body. In fact, she probably would have been in better shape if she had shown up in her adamantite armor set instead. The orcs were most definitely not pulling their punches in this fight, and having the extra weight would have kept her from being knocked around whenever she took a hit. The only reason she didn’t bring it was because of the terrain, as she would have constantly been sinking into the swamp’s soft and muddy soil.
And if Hesk had a choice between fighting the orcs or fighting the environment, she would pick the former without question.
“Good work, mud-breath,” Kaede commented in a cheery manner. “Bit of a slowpoke, but you make an excellent amount of noise.”
Hesk took a deep breath to center herself, then looked up at the nosferata standing upright on her shoulders.
“Nuh-uh. The water’s filthy.”
“You literally just swam through it to ambush the warlord.”
“That was then, this is now.”
Having very little patience left, Hesk grabbed the masked girl by the ankle. She tried to slam her face-first into the mud she seemed to hate so much, but the Hero of Death somehow slipped out of her grasp mid-swing. She did a flip through the air, landed on a half-rotten tree trunk that was poking out of the nearby waters, and sat down cross-legged on the driest part of it she could find.
“Better luck next time,” she said nonchalantly.
Hesk let out another sigh. Dealing with this wannabe jester was nearly as exhausting as exterminating a thousand orcs, though in a mental rather than a physical capacity. She could not wrap her mind around how someone with such a lax attitude could be so capable. Then again, much of Kaede’s competence could probably be attributed to her being one of Keira Morgana’s former students, the self-proclaimed Crimson Blades. It may have been an odd thing for her to admit to given that their patron deities were at odds with one another, but Hesk couldn’t help but feel a certain kinship with the Hero of Chaos. Though the two of them had vastly different methods, means and motives, they both shared a powerful drive for self improvement.
That was the conclusion Hesk had come to after briefly sparring against Keira shortly after the Hero conference ended. It was a given that the cat-eared woman had talent since she was chosen by a God, but her blades were tempered by discipline and wisdom far beyond her years. She didn’t blindly rely on physical ability, reflex and Skills, but fought by trying to constantly outsmart and out-think her opponent. Hesk had suspected that Keira might have fallen into the pitfalls of arrogance and overconfidence that typically came with rapid growth in Levels, but that friendly bout put those concerns to rest. It was evident that the numerous and varied adventures Keira had been through had turned her into a veteran combatant. She could even give Hesk a run for her money when it came to orc killing, despite the fact that the raptor had been doing that nearly every day for over a decade.
It was therefore rather disheartening that Kaede, who was arguably the closest thing Keira had to a peer, was such an insufferable child.
“Why don’t you go make yourself useful and help clean up this mess?” Axel’s Hero hissed while gesturing towards the fighting in the distance. “We need to cull those beasts and retreat before another warlord makes an appearance.”
“C’mon, you really think a fourth one will show up?”
“I may not be certain, but I know it is unwise to prolong conflict with the orcs more than necessary. Or would you rather I contact Morgana and ask of her opinion on whether you should slack off or not?”
Kaede’s body visibly stiffened at those words, after which she sheepishly climbed down from her perch and stepped into the brown water with a couple of wet plops. She mumbled something along the lines of ‘spoilsport,’ then practically ran off towards the frontline. She leapt into the confused mass of brain-scrambled orcs and began swinging her daggers, cutting into spines, skulls and hearts with each fluid motion. It was actually quite impressive how quickly and cleanly she could eliminate targets that were not capable of adequately fighting back. Impressive, but also slightly detestable.
“One little, two little, three little savages~♪
Four little, five little, six little savages~♪
Seven little, eight little, nine little savages~♪
And there’s still a hundred thousand to gooo ~♪”
Admittedly she could probably do so without singing that ridiculous song, but Hesk had more important things to worry about. Like the fact that there were far too many warlords around. This may have been only her second scourge, but she had studied past conflicts with the orcs extensively as a child. Though they often butted heads with one another, Ranked Up greenskins cooperated with one another on occasion. Stronger warlords dominating weaker ones and forcing them to serve as lieutenants was significantly more common, which was most likely what Gutzstompa had done to all of these.
However, this particular band of orcs was not large enough to warrant so many of them in one place. The only way that would happen normally would be if the ratio of warlords to grunts across the continent had become two or three times higher than normal over the past year, which was extremely unlikely. It was far more feasible to assume that they had been told by their boss to gather here, though that raised an entirely new set of questions. The fact that one of the three warlords that Hesk saw in this skirmish was a Necromancer only added to the peculiarity of the situation. Granted, he wasn’t a very good one, but the Hero felt confident there was no precedent for such a thing in the entirety of the Eight Tribes’ recorded history.
Seeing as how her fellow soldiers had the situation under control for the moment, Hesk decided to leave the battlefield and return to their staging camp at the edge of the swamp. She wanted to contact her allies and compare notes, as she had a feeling this overabundance of Ranked Up orcs was not her problem alone. Not just her fellow Heroes, but her superiors in the local military needed to be informed as well. She would have reported immediately, but she hadn’t brought any Comm-crystals with her since the fragile items would have undoubtedly gotten smashed up in the rough fighting.
As Hesk moved one foot in front of the other, however, she began to feel something was off. She froze in her tracks and looked at her half submerged legs, noting the tiny ripples coming off of her armored greaves. The swamp water was hardly still due to all of the soldiers, medics and support units moving around her, but this wasn’t caused by any of those. It was her armor, vibrating. And now that she was standing perfectly still, she was able to grasp why it was doing that.
The flooded soil underneath her feet was rumbling.
“Diggers!” Hesk shouted frantically at the soldiers around her. “Send word to all points, we have incoming diggers!”
But it was too little too late. It was mere moments later when house-sized cones of rock suddenly erupted from the stagnant waters. Two, five, nine, fifteen - they were starting to pop up faster than she could count, all over the battlefield. The cone-tipped rock formations then crumbled like eggs, revealing that their interiors were both hollow and filled with orcs.
Chaos enveloped the battlefield all over again as hundreds upon hundreds of greenskins began pouring out of the ground and into the raptors’ exposed back line. The magic users didn’t just wait to be slaughtered, however.
Powerful Spells tore through the swamp once more, ravaging the tunnel exits the orcs were spilling out of with a multitude of elements. Many of them were collapsed and sealed off almost immediately, but there simply weren’t enough Casters on hand to handle this many incursions. Nor were there enough foot soldiers and Psionics to stem the Green Tide on two fronts. Demonic familiars and conjured elemental guardians were sent out to engage the newly arrived orcs, but that was like tossing pebbles against a flood. The only thing that seemed to be holding its own was a tamed hydra that mostly just threw its enormous body weight around.
Looking at the whole picture, it was fairly evident the enlightened forces would have to retreat. The orcs would surely kill or capture many of them in the process, but it was better than being completely wiped out. Which was almost an inevitability at this point, as the warlord that orchestrated this subterranean ambush would surely show up to empower and direct the rabble. Hesk was never much of a ‘big picture’ sort of woman, though. She was no general, strategist or logistician. Even if she was lauded as a Paragon or a Hero or whatever, in the grand scheme of things she was nothing more than an excellent foot soldier with some flashy titles.
So she did the only thing she was good for - she fought. Hesk relentlessly attacked her enemy, and she would continue to do so until either someone stopped her or there were no more orcs to kill. The latter of which seemed unlikely to happen anytime soon, as the greenskins instinctively piled on top of her. She was a Natural Enemy of Orcs - one who had butchered over twenty thousand of their kind - and as such was immediately recognized as a major threat to the species’ continued existence. Thankfully the Perk had some more practical effects beyond making her a target. Not only did it boost her combat effectiveness against them, but it also restored a tiny portion of her HP and MP with every greenskin she slaughtered.
Which, considering the body count she was racking up, came out to a rather obscene amount. She slaughtered the orcs so rapidly and thoroughly that their corpses began to form a tiny island. One that was continuously expanding, as the raptor understood she had to stay as mobile as possible in order to avoid getting literally buried beneath the savages. Luckily there were no trees or vines in the immediate vicinity, so the greenskins found it difficult to leap onto her from above.
There were more orcs, though. There were always more orcs. Few people understood that better than Hesk. Every muscle, every joint, every fiber of her being was constantly in motion, for she feared that she would lose the instant she let herself relax. Granted, ‘victory’ was not something she expected to achieve under these circumstances, as the battle was already lost. The bright yellow flares that signaled the retreat were practically impossible to miss against the cloud-covered sky. The only reason she was even still alive was because of her anti-orc Perk and spear working in tandem to keep fueling her genocidal killing spree. There was no telling how long she could keep this up before her fatigue caught up with her, but she would be damned if she let herself fall to a bunch of savages that couldn’t even hold a sword right.
“Hold it, boyz!”
A rough, rumbling voice washed over the area. The grunts suddenly stopped throwing themselves at Hesk and backed off to a distance of about eight meters, where they formed a perimeter of sorts. The raptor secured her footing as best she could on top of their slaughtered kin and took this opportunity to take in her surroundings. Giving the monsters something to focus on had given many of her allies the chance to regroup and fall back, just as she had hoped. She still had some energy to spare if she wanted to make a run for it, but before that she had to deal with the big one that had inevitably shown up.
As it would appear, however, things were not that simple.
“Well,” Hesk mumbled. “Fuck.”
Because the orc that confronted her wasn’t just ‘a big one,’ but the biggest one.
“Wot we gotz here, den? You’z dun look all dat tuff.”
It was Gutzstompa without a doubt. Leering over the rest of the orc filth, he stood at nearly five meters tall, held a weapon that looked like a weaponized tree trunk and was covered head to toe in spikes, skulls and chains. It was a spitting image of the one Gux had conjured during the meeting, though he was significantly greener and much more intimidating in person. That latter part was likely because he had killed enough raptors to earn himself the appropriate Slayer Perk, but Hesk refused to let her fear show.
“Bet I can still carve your heart out!” she hissed back while readying her spear.
“Ghrrrnnn!” the orc half-growled half-groaned while clutching an old chest wound. “I knowz dat pointy stikk. Datz MY pointy stikk!”
“Hah! Keep dreaming, beast! My clan’s had it for generations!”
“It gotz my blood in it! Dat makez it mine!”
“Then come a little closer, and I’ll happily put it back where it belongs!”
The surprisingly civil conversation was then rudely interrupted by a cloaked skull-masked figure that burst out of the water. Kaede leapt at one of the fodder orcs and used his shoulder as a stepping stone as she jumped even higher. Gutzstompa turned his massive frame around with a yell of ‘Wot now?!’ at the disturbance, but he wasn’t fast enough to catch the nosferata within his field of vision. She darted past his upper back and slashed at it with her daggers as her momentum carried her forward. She landed in the bloodied swamp and scrambled her way over to Hesk’s side as the orc turned his attention towards the two of them in a slow and deliberate manner.
“Iz dat all you gotz, humie?” he taunted with a snort. “You’z gon need more den sum fancy tricks to kill me!”
It was no mere boast, as Kaede’s attack had barely even scratched the surface of his skin, though not for a lack of trying. That was simply how ridiculously hard his body was. That said, it wasn’t as if she didn’t have something else up her sleeve. Or on her finger, for that matter.
“Hesk,” she whispered, “stick close to me.”
The raptor followed Kaede’s uncharacteristically serious advice and glued herself to the assassin’s back as best she could while minding her tail. A thick black mist then began pouring out of the skull-shaped ring underneath the younger woman’s right glove, instantly enveloping the two Heroes and hiding them from sight. The lump of smoke grew in size until it was bigger even than Gutzstompa, who was already backing off from the unknown phenomenon.
“Get movin, ya gitz!” he shouted at the other orcs. “Get in dere and stomp ‘em good!’
The greenskins let out another shout as they rushed towards the mystic fumes, but they had no chance of stopping what was about to happen. The ominous mist solidified itself into the shape of a massive figure wrapped in an elegant cloak sewn out of pure darkness. The only things visible inside the blackness of its gold-rimmed hood were two intensely glowing white points. It raised its skeletal hands high above itself, its ring-adorned finger bones grasping onto the handle of a heavily bejeweled scythe.
*SHWING SHWING SHWING*
The ornate blade was then swung three times in rapid succession, sending out ripples of concentrated death through the air with each wide, sweeping motion. Several hundred orcs fell over in an instant as the invisible waves passed over them. They twitched, spasmed and made gurgling noises, but they were already dead. Their souls had been so beautifully and cleanly severed from their flesh that their bodies had yet to fully realize their absence. Even these reflexive motions ceased after a few more heartbeats. When the hooded reaper dissipated seconds later, Kaede and Hesk were greeted by a horde of completely still orcs that had died without suffering a single scratch.
“What… was that?” the raptor asked warily.
The full answer to Hesk’s question was that the Hero of Death had unleashed the power of Mortimer’s Divine item, a ring called the Collector’s Loophole. Well, technically it was a former Divine item, as the relic had lost much of its power since the fall of the Adams Theocracy. Not the part where it would either permanently bond with the user’s bones or kill them if they weren’t a nosferatu, though. Those ‘security features’ were in there by mortal design and still very much intact. The deterioration made it so the ring could not be used freely, and instead had to be charged through the act of killing things. Lots and lots of things. Only once it had seen enough death would it be able to unleash its primary function, which was to conjure an avatar of the God of Death himself. This macabre manifestation would then instantly snuff out the lives of anyone below a certain HP threshold. There was also a limit to how strong a death-charge the Collector’s Loophole could hold, meaning that certain beings would need to be sufficiently softened up before it could claim their lives.
“A gift from my boss.”
However, all of that was entirely too much of a bother to explain even if the two of them weren’t in the middle of a war zone, which was why Kaede summed it up as such.
“Oh. Don’t suppose you can use it again?”
“Not a chance.”
What the nosferata had used up just now had been fueled by roughly one thousand and two hundred lives, which she had ‘collected’ over the course of the past four months of adventuring. Yet that wasn’t enough to even faze Gutzstompa. The orc warlord’s absurd vitality had allowed him to resist the instant death effect with no negative side effects, and was currently kicking at the orcs at his feet as if to confirm that they were no longer alive. He was also the main reason why Kaede kept her words so brief, as there were more important matters to discuss.
“So, I’ve got good news and bad news,” she whispered to Hesk. “The good news is that I made it impossible for that thing to recover HP with one of my Hero Skills.”
Though she did fail to do much to Gutzstompa with her initial attack, doing damage to him was not her main goal. Her intention was to place the Fatal Promise upon him, which she managed to do if the faint red light pouring out of the cross-shaped mark she left on his back was any indication.
“The bad news,” she continued, “is that I did that because I thought my other Skill told me he had just under ten thousand HP. Looking at it now though, seems I missed a digit.”
In her defense, those floating stick-like 1’s were kind of hard to see even without looking at them through a layer of filthy swamp water.
“I don’t get what you’re saying, Kaede.”
“That orc has ninety six thousand HP.”
Hesk swallowed audibly when she heard that mind-boggling number. Was such a thing even possible? Or was this another of this girl’s games? No, that wasn’t it. Kaede goofed around, but surely she wasn’t stupid enough to joke about something like this. Besides, there were other, more pressing concerns that Hesk needed to address at this point in time.
“Don’t suppose you have a backup plan of some kind?”
Such as how they would even begin to tackle this abomination.
“You could say that,” Kaede nodded. “There’s this secret technique of the Morgana family that Keira taught me.”
“Yeah. It’s risky and requires some fancy footwork, but it just might work.”
“Good enough for me. What do we do?”
“See how the big guy’s still confused by what just happened to his minions? We can use that to our advantage.”
“Alright, but how?”
Kaede sheathed her daggers beneath her soggy cloak and turned to face Hesk. Though the raptor could only see the bright red irises of the nosferata’s eyes, she was left with the distinct impression that there was a confident smile underneath that skull mask.
Hesk barely even had the chance respond before Kaede darted off, skipping from one orc corpse to the next as she hotfooted it out of there with all due haste. It was ultimately hard to argue with the validity of that ‘plan’ though, so the Hero of the Sword chased after her all the same. Even if it was somewhat cowardly, the battle was already lost, so there was absolutely no merit to fighting an orc with kraken-like vitality with just the two of them. Things might have been different if her phalanx was still intact or if she had any form of magical support, but neither of those things were present. Her comrades were already either dead or gone, and under these circumstances Hesk preferred to join the latter rather than the former.
Unfortunately for her, Gutzstompa wasn’t about to give her a choice in the matter.
“Oi! Come back here wif dat pointy stikk! RRRAAAGH!”
The orc slammed his massive club into the swamp floor, sending a destructive tremor towards Hesk. It kicked up mud, water, blood and corpses alike as it hurled towards her like some sort of subterranean missile, catching up to her in seconds. It made the ground beneath her feet heave, quake and split apart as it opened up a chasm-like hole around her. Hesk was unable to get out of the way in time and fell into it, her vision filling with mud and water as the swamp rushed in after her.
Hesk scrambled to her feet, throwing off her helmet so she could wipe the filth from her eyes while cursing her own incompetence. She really should have known better. Of course the monster that made that underground ambush happen would have some sort of earth-moving Skill. It was a surprisingly common ability among warlords too, though this was the first time she’d seen one this well developed. Even if it was hardly the only ‘first’ she had experienced during this campaign, and the weirdness of it showed no signs of letting up. Though, if her gut feeling was right, there was a good chance none of that would be her problem after a little while.
Having cleared up her vision as best she could, Hesk pulled a silver flask from the pouch at her hip and drank the viscous alchemical mixture within.
You have consumed an Entrenchment Elixir.
Your wounds have been healed. HP +1,000.
Your stamina regeneration has increased by 100% for 60 minutes.
Resistance against physical trauma increased by 50% for 60 minutes.
This was something of a specialty of southern alchemy which was on par with a Rejuvenation Potion in terms of potency. Though it only restored less than a quarter of her max HP - a far cry from the total regeneration of its pink-colored elven counterpart - it was the best preventive medicine in existence. Unfortunately it also had some nasty side effects that would manifest the instant it had run its course, such as making a few teeth fall out and giving her an unbearably upset stomach. Hesk was hesitant to drink it earlier since it would make her unfit for duty for the next three days, but that would only matter if she lived long enough to actually experience those conditions.
Hesk finished the sour-tasting liquid and threw away its container just in time to see Gutzstompa drop into the hole with her. The miniature tremors released by his stupidly heavy frame making contact with the ravaged ground caused a minor mudslide along its edges, widening the chasm ever so slightly. The hole looked just big enough to accommodate his massive girth and height, but for someone of Hesk’s size it was almost like being stuck at the bottom of a well. She lacked the athletic aptitude to leap out of it in one go, and there was no way she’d make it up those unsteady and slippery walls fast enough. All things considered, raising her spear and bracing herself for the fight of her life seemed like the only thing she could do.
There was a bright side to this, though.
“Grrh! Where’z dat tricky humie gone off to?!”
Unlike before, the orc’s tone was utterly devoid of arrogance or mockery. It sounded cautious, borderline fearful even. It was a small thing, but enough to cause a dry smile to float onto Hesk’s serpentine face. Even she was stuck in this crater with an incomprehensible monstrosity and no clear means of escape, the fact that Kaede was able to get away brought her some measure of satisfaction. She most definitely did not resent the girl for leaving her here and running off to save her own skin. Just the opposite, actually.
This entire crisis was the Eight Tribes’ problem, not Kaede’s or Mortimer’s. She had every right to bail the instant the big boss showed himself, yet she stuck around and did everything in her power to support Hesk. Not only did the Hero of Death save her fellow female Hero from a dishonorable death at the hands of the faceless, unnamed rabble, but she also gave her a fighting chance against their leader. Granted, it wasn’t a hugely favorable one, but it was a chance nonetheless.
And that alone was enough to make Hesk consider her a benefactor.
“Don’t you worry, beast,” she sneered. “You’re about to meet her master.”
The agile Warrior dashed towards the orc, intending to skewer him on this ‘pointy stick’ he seemed to be fascinated with.
Gutzstompa met her charge by performing an underarm swing with his weaponized tree trunk, which dug into the flooded ground at his feet. This sent a deluge of dirt, water and rocks at the raptor, but she barreled through them as if they were mere raindrops. The orc then kicked at her with his spiked boot, which she countered with a Martial Art.
The foot that was almost as big as she was crashed into the shield affixed to her left arm, stopping dead in an instant. Hesk was then smacked to the side by the warlord’s hand at a speed which she could not track, sending her flying into the chasm’s wall. She peeled herself off of it and hopped to the side as soon as she was able, only narrowly avoiding Gutzstompa’s kick. She swung her spear at his leg as she dodged, but it bounced off of his green hide as if it was made of rubber. She still did damage to him, but having kraken-like HP crammed into such a relatively compact frame meant that even puncturing the skin was going to be something of a challenge.
A similar series of events repeated itself multiple times over the next few minutes, with Hesk dodging boulder-sized limbs while barely doing anything in return. This hole in the ground may have trapped her here, but it also limited her opponent’s range of movement. That was only at first though, as the orc’s Skills gradually widened the crater as he pummeled its walls and floor until it resembled a dwarven arena. The speed and sharpness of his movements were also picking up steadily as he put forth more and more effort.
Things seemed to be getting worse for Hesk, but she still held onto a sliver of hope. With Fatal Promise in effect, Gutzstompa’s body could not recover from any wound, no matter how minor it seemed. Hesk also had the Warrior Job’s Continuous Assault Skill, which amplified the damage of her attacks every time she landed consecutive hits on the same spot. It was a feat that would not have been possible without her formidable mastery of the spear, but it accomplished her goal of making a deep enough gash in the warlord’s leg to draw blood.
This, in turn, allowed the Orc Poker’s specialized toxin to invade Gutzstompa’s body and begin eating him from the inside out. Or at least that was the theory, but the more Hesk fought, the more it seemed like it wasn’t affecting him at all. Which wasn’t the case. The poison most definitely had an effect on the towering orc, but his incomprehensible vitality combined with his Legendary Endurance made it so minute it wasn’t even noticeable. He showed no signs of slowing down or struggling no matter how much Hesk widened his leg wound.
The raptor did her best not to lose heart even though her best efforts seemed in vain, but courage and determination alone could not change the fact that she was horribly outmatched.
Though she put up a valiant effort, Gutzstompa eventually managed to catch her by crushing her tail with his needlessly large club, pinning her in place and making her wail in anguish. With her crushed limb limiting and dulling her movements, Hesk was not able to avoid the orc, who crushed both of her legs by stepping on them. He then grabbed her by the torso and viciously pulled on her, stretching her out until her body could no longer hold itself together.
You have been dismembered. HP -1,832.
Your body has sustained crippling injury. Max HP reduced by 35%.
Hesk let out an agonizing yell as her legs and tail were ripped from her torso. Crippled, bleeding and nearly blacking out from the pain she was in, it was fairly obvious the raptor could no longer put up a fight. Though the spirit was willing, her mangled body was too weak to even maintain the grip on her spear, which fell into the bloodied waters below with a splash. The orc lifted the battered raptor up to his eye level, holding her by the neck and shoulders as if she was some sort of doll or pet animal. Which was fairly accurate considering that was how much of a threat she was to him personally, but even this orc couldn’t help but be a bit impressed with her performance.
“Wuz gud fite, scalie!” he told her with a wide grin. “Well, maybe not ‘gud,’ but a solid warm-up! Now I’z all ready to find dat big red thing that’z been smashin me boyz all morning!”
The raptor’s missing limbs made it rather difficult to parse this creature’s gloating, though she would be hard pressed to grasp what he was talking about even if she could. After all, she had no way of knowing that the only reason Gutzstompa was in the area to begin with was because he was looking for a certain someone. Having all this power from the the hundred-thousand-strong Green Tide coursing through him and nobody to unleash it on had been quite frustrating for the orc. So, when his underlings told him of a certain archfiend that had gone on a rampage around these parts, he showed up in force in order to knock her about a bit for fun. He couldn’t find hide nor hair of her though, which wasn’t surprising considering she had died in combat and her body had long ago evaporated. He instead stumbled upon this fun little skirmish, which was what led him to this point in time.
With his host of greenskins dead and one of the Gods’ chosen caught firmly in his grasp.
“Shame dat humie got away,” he complained to nobody in particular. “Oh well, least I got one of you gitz!”
“If you- Kehak! If you strike me down,” Hesk squeezed out while gasping for air, “I shall become more powerful than- Guh!”
Gutzstompa was none too willing to hear her last words, however, and instead merely pulled towards his maw, whereupon he bit her head clean off with a gruesome crunch.
You have been decapitated. HP -3,830.
You have died.
And so ended the life of Hesk of clan Susk, Paragon of the Broadfang tribe of Velos and chosen Hero of the Sword. Throughout her life she had known only violence, bloodshed, discipline, and loss. A rather depressing existence that was nevertheless the standard quo for those that bore the burden of being Axel’s chosen. No matter what anyone else said, however, Hesk always considered the fact that she had been personally recognized by the God of War and Combat as being worthy of bearing his name upon her shoulders to be the greatest of honors.
It wasn’t like the job was without its perks, either. Not only did it earn Hesk the respect and recognition of her peers, but she was also given access to three special Skills. She never had much use for the one called Essence Concealment, but she understood why other Heroes - especially those in Kaede’s shoes - might have need of it. The second ability, which was unique to her particular patron, was Martial Prowess. It was a passive Skill that significantly increased the rate at which combat-focused Jobs and Skills increased in Level. Not very useful in a pinch, but it nevertheless allowed her to get stronger at a rate that would be impossible otherwise. Her third and final divine gift, on the other hand, was significantly flashier, and was arguably the most powerful Hero Skill in existence.
The downside was that it required a rather depressing condition to be fulfilled before it could be activated.
͏̴72̡̨К̴гj̨͢R̵№̶̧@͠҉̡м́͟J҉̷Q̨͏Q̢̛͞0̷o0/҉͜/͢/͜͝Ó̢51̀͡(͞ ̵̸°̶̛ ̡̀ʖ̵͜ ̡°̶)͠fB̀͘͜0͠͝>҉<
And that was for the Hero of the Sword to die in honorable combat.
ExeCutive permiss̛s̷sion̷ granted.
Eternal Crusade is now active.
Thank you, and have an enlightened day.
The cloudy sky split open as a beam of bright blue light fell out of it and on top of Hesk’s freshly decapitated corpse. Gutzstompa, who had yet to even swallow the raptor’s head, found himself being knocked backwards like a ragdoll, a sensation he had not experienced in decades.
“Zog! First dat smoky thing and now dis flashy thing!” he complained as he rose to his feet. “Why are humiez and scaliez alwayz so tricky?!”
“Because we, as enlightened, cannot hope to match a monster’s savagery,” Hesk’s voice came from within the light. “It is only through intangible things such as courage, honor, faith and unity that we could ever hope to stand up against ones such as yourself.”
The raptor then stepped out of the light with all of her limbs attached, her helmet upon her head and her spear held firmly in her grasp. However, she was clearly not the same as before, as both she and her equipment now gave off a soft pale blue glow while being ever-so-slightly transparent.
“Plus,” she added in a quiet voice, “it also helps to have a God or two on our side.”
She then fastened the grip on her weapon and stepped towards the orc with newfound determination.
“So wat?” the orc scoffed at her. “For all dem God-shite you’z gotz, you’z still as puny as evah! You fink you can stop Gutzstompa just cuz you gotz all shiny?! I’m da strongest orc dere iz!”
“You may have a point there,” Hesk admitted while looking down at her glowing hand. “Even like this I do not know if I possess the strength to beat you. However, you do not face a single Hero of the Sword.”
A spectral war axe then flew out of the column of light behind her, spinning through the air and lodging itself firmly in Gutzstompa’s shoulder.
“You face all of them.”
The owner of said axe, a ghostly dwarven warrior clad in ridiculously thick armor and sporting an even thicker beard, charged out of the divine luminescence. He was then followed by a sword-wielding Warrior, a mace-toting Paladin, an angelic Monk, another axe user, and that was just the start. More and more of the spectral fighters poured forth from the light. Each of them once a legend in their own right. Each one a great Hero of old.
And every last one positively brimming with the desire to cleanse this world of the orcish filth that stood before them.
“Get the bastard!”
“His head is mine!”
A hundred of history’s mightiest Heroes fell upon the dumbfounded orc like some sort of unruly mob. The greenskin naturally tried to fight back, crushing, smashing and batting them away with all he had, but they got up no matter how hard or how often he knocked them down. His previously nigh-impenetrable skin became riddled with cuts and bruises almost instantly. It was actually somewhat ironic that ‘da strongest orc dere iz’ was currently getting his generous green ass handed to him by a numerically superior force that swarmed over him without end. Quite a few of them flooded out of the crater and scoured the battlefield for any surviving orcs to decapitate, but most decided to settle for the greenskin in front of them. Not only was it overkill, but the sheer fervor with which Hesk’s predecessors tore into him made the raptor feel slightly hypocritical after that ‘savagery’ comment she made earlier.
“Aren’t you going to join in?” a female voice called out to her from behind.
Kaede had appeared seemingly out of thin air in true Hero of Death fashion and walked up to stand next to Hesk as the two of them watched Gutzstompa get his comeuppance.
“I’m pretty sure you can stick him in the crotch a few times,” the nosferata suggested. “Y’know, if that’s your thing.”
“I’ve had my fill of combat for one lifetime,” the other shook her head, “so I think I’ll pass. Besides, the others seem to have a handle on it.”
Even though she said that, the orc’s high pitched screams as his teeth were yanked out of his jaw and shoved into his eyes were significantly more satisfying than Hesk would’ve thought.
“Why are you here, Kaede?” she asked after a short while. “I was certain you had already run away.”
“I did, though I couldn’t help but come back and check on you when I saw the light show. It’s… not quite what I imagined it would be.”
“What do you mean?”
“Morty informed me about this Skill of yours when he found out we’d be working together. Well, not so much ‘informed’ as he ‘bitched and moaned,’ but still, an unstoppable army of dead Heroes? The way he put it sounded suspiciously and worryingly close to necromancy. Yet after seeing it for myself… I honestly don’t know what to say.”
“Other than ‘goodbye,’ you mean?”
“… Yeah. I guess that’ll do.”
Though Hesk appeared to be standing next to Kaede, she was already as dead as the rest of these specters. Her own mangled corpse was resting beneath the knee-deep swamp water somewhere behind her, staining it red with her blood. She’d have been well on her way towards being reincarnated if it wasn’t for the fact that her soul was now Axel’s property for all eternity. It wasn’t all that bad considering Hesk’s only other alternative was to be stripped of her memories, personality and identity. Not to mention the thought of her being potentially reborn as one of the very monsters she spent her life fighting against was sickening in and of itself.
So instead of going through that, once the Eternal Crusade ran out she would join the other ghosts in the Hall of Heroes. It was a mythical place within the Aether, and the closest thing to an afterlife on Terrania. Inside they would be treated to all the feasting and fighting they could ever want, a reward for their lifetime of strife, hardship, and dedication. At least until the next Eternal Crusade, at which point they were expected to hop in and resolve whatever crisis was plaguing the mortal realm. The spectral army would also gain a member with each ‘outing,’ making the Eternal Crusade all the more powerful for their next successor.
Assuming said successor was deemed worthy of entering the Hall of Heroes, of course.
As for those already in this extremely exclusive club, they seemed to have finished turning Gutzstompa into an unrecognizable pile of meat and were currently cheering their ghostly lungs out. The pillar of light they had all come from began to wane and shrink, suggesting there was no more reason for any of them to linger. Kaede was also quite sure of the warlord’s demise, as her Eyes of the Dead God could no longer pick up his name or HP.
“Guess you need to get going now, huh?” she said matter-of-factly.
“Indeed,” Hesk confirmed. “However, if you were to permit me, there is one last thing I would ask of you before I go.”
“Asking is free.”
“My… body should be back there somewhere. It’s probably not a pretty sight to look at, but my gear and the Orc Poker - the real ones - ought to be scattered around it. Could you please return those to my clan? Those that inherit my duties will surely have need of them.”
“I dunno, sounds like work.”
“Aaaand if I’m going to do work, I expect to get paid for it.”
“… You’re serious?”
“No, I’m Kaede, and money is the one thing I don’t joke about.”
“Can’t you just chalk it up to the dying wish of a fellow Hero?”
“First of all, I didn’t really know you all that well. Second, you’re already dead, so you technically missed your chance for a ‘dying wish.’ And lastly, I can’t pay my bills with gratitude, good intentions or fuzzy feelings.”
“Haaaaah,” the ex-raptor sighed deeply. “My tribe will probably offer a bounty for my equipment’s return if you hold onto it for a few weeks.”
“Yup. That’ll do.”
Hesk walked away from the nosferata while shaking her head and went to greet her fellow specters. They offered words of welcome, congratulating her on her ‘death day’ while also teasing her about the fact that she fell to something as common as an orc. A few also greeted Mortimer’s representative with a small wave that the nosferata awkwardly returned. The heavenly light then disappeared altogether, and all of the specters began to fade away like dust in the wind. Hesk was also fading fast, though she still found the time to turn around and offer some final words.
“Farewell, Kaede. Though it was brief, it was good to fight by your side.”
“Yeah, yeah, same here. Now shoo, go take a massive dump on Morty’s job description or whatever it is you battle maniacs do.”
“Wow,” the axe-wielding dwarf next to Hesk exclaimed. “She’s kind of a cunt, isn’t she?”
He then disappeared along with the rest of his fellow incorporeal crusaders, leaving Kaede with a comeback and nobody to give it to.
“… And you’re kind of an oversized hairy dildo!”
She still said it out loud, though that didn’t help ease her troubled spirit nearly as much as she had hoped.
Though she was quite truthful when she said she did not know Hesk that well, Kaede nevertheless liked the scary lizard lady. She had some of the best reactions to the nosferata’s shenanigans that the youthful trickster had ever seen. She was certainly more fun than that incomprehensible monstrosity masquerading as a catgirl. The fact that Keira Morgana was actually some terrifyingly powerful creature many times more incomprehensible than some big dumb orc was both mind-boggling, and impressive.
It was also a very dangerous piece of knowledge to have, as someone with a secret that big would likely go to great lengths to keep it. Worse still, it was also safe to assume that it knew that Kaede knew of its true identity, seeing as how it had apparently killed not one, but two of her predecessors in a single night. Thankfully this ‘Boxxy T. Morningwood’ seemed determined to stay in character to an almost religious degree, so all the nosferata had to do was act like Keira Morgana was a real person.
Granted, doing so wasn’t difficult considering how incredibly thorough and convincing its performance was, though that certainly didn’t help with Kaede’s peace of mind.
Compared to dealing with that cartload of explosive mega-worms, removing the mithril armor off of Hesk’s dismembered corpse was almost like a vacation. Thankfully the gear’s Self-Repair enchantments were still in working order, so even the heavily dented leg and tail bits would return to pristine condition in a few days’ time. Kaede also undertook the grim task of collecting the remains themselves with the intention of giving them a proper send-off. Nothing fancy, just a cremation so that nobody else would need to see her in this horrible state. Maybe putting her ashes in a nice urn that her friends and comrades could say their goodbyes to.
“Something black with blood-red rubies, I think,” she mused while stuffing a soggy leg into a sack. “Oh, and skulls. Can never have enough skulls. Wait, what do raptor skulls even look like underneath all those scales? Ah well, I’m sure they’ll be cute.”
There wasn’t any deep meaning behind that gesture though. Kaede was merely doing her duty as a devout follower of Mortimer. Though the metaphor was a bit disrespectful, what she was doing was no different from a garbage man taking care of the garbage. It most definitely was not because she felt like she’d actually made friends with someone who knew she was a hired killer.
“It’s not, okay?” she mumbled under her breath.
A sudden noise interrupted Kaede’s rationalizing just as she was about to pack everything up and leave this horrible hole-in-the-swamp. She spun around and scanned her surroundings, but saw no signs of life. The only thing around was a pool of filthy water, some random debris floating in it, and Gutzstompa’s minced leftovers.
*SPLURCH CLUTCH MULCH*
“Oh… That’s not good.”
And only one of those things possessed the capacity to make sounds that meaty.