Chapter 25:

A Moment of Courage

Chained Regalia

Two seconds.

Time felt as though it slowed as I evaluated the situation.

The frontmost attacker held an ordinary farm sickle, lightly chipped and dulled from use. The second, two or three steps to the other’s rear, had a far more formidable machete in its grasp.

Every detail, every minor piece of information, could mean the difference between life and death. In the fleeting moments that remained before contact, I had to absorb every little thing I possibly could.

One second.

They advanced in a line as opposed to charging parallel to one another, so their assault would be sequential, not simultaneous. An obvious tactical blunder, to be sure, but not a surprising one.

Their eyes gave it all away—they were empty and lifeless, and yet, paradoxically, they divulged the torrent of bloodlust that drove their very existence.

I had a very strange thought in that moment. Of course, I found these creatures horrifying; the thought that this used to be an actual person before their corpse was hijacked and corrupted by that cursed miasma was awful, and I would feel no guilt striking these monstrosities down. If anything, I’d probably feel more like I’d helped to put an agonized soul to rest.

And yet, in the strangest way, I felt the tiniest bit envious of them. They understood their purpose, and their conviction in pursuit of that purpose was unwavering. Even if the what and how were unforgivable, they understood their reasons for living, and they fought for them without hesitation.

There was no indecision, no doubt.

I envied that.


The reach of my sword easily exceeded that of both opposing weapons, but I allowed them to close that gap anyway. Tracing a crescent arc not too dissimilar to the curve of its own blade, the sickle-wielder slashed directly towards my neck.

If I struck first while I still had the range advantage, any number of things could happen depending on how they chose to respond. If I had more experience, or maybe just more confidence, I could make a more accurate prediction of the outcome, but as things were, I wanted to minimize all unpredictability.

But what they would do if I gave them the chance to act first? That was obvious. When it was so predictable, even I couldn’t screw it up—probably.

The weakness of any shaft weapon was the shaft itself. Admittedly, a farming sickle wasn’t exactly a ‘shaft weapon’, but it fit the bill close enough. Having thrust its entire body weight into this swing, the outcome of a clash between tempered metal and frayed wood was clear.

Completely ignoring the blade itself, which was moments away from boring into my neck, I slashed upwards to target the thin stretch of exposed handle, cleaving clean through it and neutering the attack. The upper half of the sickle was flung a short distance away, and what little remained of the handle failed to graze me given its initial trajectory.

The Lishkarn had no way of quickly cancelling its momentum, and it tumbled slightly to the side, directly blocking the other’s charge right before it could attempt an attack itself.

Or so I had mistakenly calculated.

The moment an obstruction had interrupted its path, it leapt—completely over the other Lishkarn and straight towards me. I should’ve been able to guess that, due to their immense physical strength, this kind of aerial assault would be possible, but I was completely caught off guard.

My sword was held at too awkward an angle from my previous strike to reroute it properly, so my options were limited.

If I didn’t get out of the way completely, our bodies would still collide even if I avoided its blade. If I toppled like that, it’d be able to easily kill me. Whether or not I had enough agility to dodge far enough on either side to come out unscathed was debatable.

Which means I—shit! What do I do!?

The battle instincts those three had spent day after day helping me hone took complete control of my body the moment my mind failed me. And those instincts screamed one single course of action at me.

And so my body moved neither back, nor left, nor right. Instead, it barreled straight ahead.

Since our velocities would be pointing in opposite directions, going straight would actually maximize the possibility we passed one another completely—at least, that was how I tried to rationalize it after the fact. Perhaps, in reality, my instincts were just reckless and irrational.

As I was still slightly crouched, I narrowly managed to skirt beneath the aerial Lishkarn as it soared overhead, and rushed straight into the first Lishkarn as it was still recovering from its botched swipe.

This pseudo-tackle took us both to the ground, and as we hit, I lost grip of my sword. I was a little disoriented, but the monstrosity was immediate in its reaction; no longer equipped with a weapon, it reached out and grasped my shirt with an iron grip, lifting me up slightly before forcefully slamming my spine back down onto the ground.

Every ounce of air in my lungs flooded out, and I was helpless as it pinned me down and raised its other arm with the clear intention to rend my body open with it.

My vision was blurry, but I understood the desperate situation I was in. I frantically felt around the grass for my sword, but I couldn’t find it immediately.

In order to buy time, I desperately did the first thing that came to mind, as asinine as it was. I shoved my left hand into its mouth, and rapidly manifested as many of those little table knives as I could possibly muster—the exact same kind I’d manifested many times in the past. Suddenly, it felt like indulging in that stupid little habit of mine had been preparation for this precise moment.

Given how little focus I’d applied to their creation, the results were mangled and distorted, and many vanished quickly because I’d failed to properly maintain their existence, but none of that mattered right now. Regardless of quality, dozens of small metal objects bouncing in and out of reality flooded into its throat, and the sudden feeling of an unfamiliar assault from within stalled the Lishkarn’s movements for a fraction of a second.

And, as if the gods had willed it, the hilt of my sword fell into my other hand’s grasp at the same moment.

I wasn’t completely certain, but I was pretty sure I let out some kind of bestial shout as I thrust my sword into its midsection. Putrid black miasma leaked from both sides of the wound, and just looking at it somehow made me feel sick. To ensure the thing was dead, I pulled my blade out through the side, cleaving through a large section of its torso as I did so. More foul darkness erupted from within, and I started to gag.

I knew I wasn’t in the clear yet, so I tried to recover as quickly as possible. I threw the twice-dead corpse off to the side, but before I could get up, the machete-wielding Lishkarn had already recovered and approached me.

I didn’t even a chance to react before I heard a shout in the distance, and, suddenly, a linear beam of light penetrated the monster from behind, scorching a hole in its breast. At nearly the same time, another figure entered my vision with so much speed that the sound of her footsteps felt like they lagged behind her movements, even though I knew that was impossible.

Her blade had so much velocity backing its thrust that a small crater formed around where the sword pierced the Lishkarn’s body, quite literally denting it from the impact. It was clear from the way its arms slumped that the two successive attacks from either flank had been enough to kill it.

“Sorry I left you with two of them. You managed just fine, though, as I was certain you would.” Lucia extended an arm towards me, helping me to my feet.

“I guess. I ended up getting your help and his for the second one, though.”

A short distance away, I could see Mason, whose attention had turned away from us and returned to the others.

My gaze drifted in that direction, too. The four outside the farmhouse had backed up quite a bit in our direction, but they seemed to be managing. There looked to be one particularly hulking Lishkarn lying dead on the ground, with over a dozen wounds dotting its body in various places. I’m glad that one wasn’t in the barn…

At that moment, something pressed up against my back. Maybe in my delusions, I could imagine it was her hugging me from behind, but I knew it was just Lucia standing back-to-back with me to keep watch in the other direction.

“I know we said we’d watch each other’s backs, but this is a little too on the nose, don’t you think.”

“This is hardly the time for jokes.” She sounded unimpressed, and I was frankly a little disappointed. I thought that was a good one, though…

She was right, admittedly; we weren’t in the clear yet. I didn’t consider myself particularly talented at mathematics, but I could at least count to four, which meant that there had to be one more Lishkarn that had been hiding in barn. It was either still in there or had exited while we were engaged with the others. If it was the latter, it could be anywhere by now.

We both cautiously scanned our surroundings. Somehow, I found the suspense scarier than actually being locked into a fight. I had to actively calm my breathing to keep it in check.

A ways to my side, I heard a cry. “Look out, ya two!”

Both of our gazes shot in the direction of the shout. Cliffe, the caller, was locked in a struggle with a Lishkarn of his own, and as a result, the best he could do was give a warning about another one encroaching in our direction. It was partially camouflaged by shrubbery and moving slowly, which is why we hadn’t seen or heard it yet, but once our attention had been drawn to it, it began a mad dash towards us.

I feel a lot safer right next to her.

This time, as I braced for contact, I felt a lot less scared than I had been a little bit ago.

Three down, one to go!

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