Chapter 84: The Hero’s Determination
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As much as he hated to do it, Ichiro had to rest before he got to Aura’s capital. Not in the sense of sleeping, but in taking a break; he had been running nonstop for a week and a half, stopping only to sleep and eat, and that constant overexertion had taken a toll on his body, Hero or no. So, he took ka day entirely to rest and recuperate in an inn outside of the capital, waiting until he was in peak form before he went to go spring whatever trap was waiting for him.

But that didn’t mean he couldn’t go over his plans one more time. He had two major problems going into this operation: the first was that he didn’t know where his companions were being held, but that wouldn’t be an issue. He could probably get the information from Connie, and failing that, there was almost certainly going to be someone who would contact him to let him know where he was supposed to go.

After all, he had been specifically called here, and the capital was too big for just a general statement to allow either party to find the other. Connie had confirmed that his companions would indeed be here when he came, so he wasn’t worried about the location being a lie, so it just came down to getting where he was going, preferably in a way the swarm didn’t want him to. If he had to break through some buildings to come in through an unorthodox angle, he would; damage to the city could be repaired, but whatever the swarm had planned was almost certainly going to be much harder to fix.

Which brought him to his second problem. It was almost certain that his companions would have been assimilated into the swarm by the time he got there. After all, if he was in their situation, he would have assimilated any prisoners, and he was the good guy, so there was no way they wouldn’t do the same.

The implications he had gathered from Meg and Neph indicated that there would be some sort of brainwashing element to assimilation, so they may even be willing to attack him, depending on how thorough the brainwashing was. Still, they were weak compared to him, so it wouldn’t be too difficult to disable them without hurting them.

Then, he just had to defeat whatever fighters the swarm had on hand, take his companions back, and undo their brainwashing. The fighters might prove a little trouble, but at the end of the day, it was really only the Hero he had to worry about, and surely she couldn’t be all people had made her out to be. And, even if she was, Ichiro was four times as powerful as most Heroes would be at his level, so even if she was at the max level of three hundred, he should be able to take her down with the sheer difference in their stats alone. The rest were but an afterthought. There was no way they could step into the realm of Heroes, much like how Meg and Neph had quickly been left behind by him.

So, the tense day passed, and early the next morning Ichiro set off, rejuvenated enough to feel confident in going to battle. It took him about an hour to reach the gate, and already a small line was forming while the guards checked the travelers over. The line was only five or six people long, though, so it didn’t take long before he was in the front.

As the guard looked him over, she frowned. “Yamamoto Ichiro, the Hero?” She asked.

“Yes. Is this important for customs?” Ichiro asked warily.

“We’ve been expecting you.” The guard said, ignoring his question. “You’ll find what you’re looking for at the colosseum.”

Ichiro took a moment to analyze the woman with his Blessing, and, as expected, she was a member of the swarm. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m sure you don’t, Mr. Ichiro.” The guard said. “It would be best if you didn’t keep your friends waiting, though. You may pass.”

She stepped aside, motioning into the city. Ichiro gritted his teeth and walked through, waiting until he was out of sight before slipping into an alley. He wasn’t sure if he was being watched, it was too hard to tell on the main street, but if he was, he needed to lose his pursuers, and if less people were around, he would be able to utilize his Skills more effectively.

If he was being followed, he wasn’t able to sense anyone, even with Dangersense to aid him in finding hostiles. And…come to think of it, Dangersense hadn’t reacted to the guard at the gate, either, despite the fact that she was his enemy. His quick overview of her with his Blessing didn’t show anything that would prevent Dangersense from detecting her, so…she must not have thought of him as an enemy.

Strange. Still, he had no time to ponder that; he needed to get t his over with as fast as possible. The more time his enemies had to prepare, the harder it would be. As he moved through the streets, he made liberal use of his Blessing to find someone he could safely ask for directions from.

To his alarm, over three fourths of the women he saw were part of the swarm. Oddly enough, not a single man was, but if these numbers held were the same across the whole city…almost half of it could be turned against him if he wasn’t careful. Most of them had next to no combat ability, but he was sure that wasn’t important if they were disposable pawns. Fortunately, he could probably escape via the rooftops, which would insulate him from the majority of these people.

He got directions from a man who was running a stall, and asked a couple of probing questions, but it would seem that this stall owner, at least, hadn’t noticed anything odd in the past few weeks. Ichiro couldn’t blame him for that, though; if he didn’t have his Blessing, he would have no clue that almost half the people on the streets were brainwashed to be enemies of the world, they just seemed to be going about their days as normal. Assimilated housewives were out doing laundry, assimilated children were playing with normal kids, everything was…normal.

They were just waiting for their time to strike, he told himself. They had to be. He refused to believe that they could just live on as if nothing was different. So, he kept a careful eye on them as he moved, gradually inching closer to the colosseum. They showed no signs of noticing his presence, but there was no telling if one of the ones he didn’t analyze was somehow relaying information back to their superiors.

Eventually, he reached the side of the colosseum. It was a large, open-air stadium, one that was apparently used as a place to conduct plays or concerts in more modern times, but its construction made it clear what it originally had been used for. The walls were high and enchanted with spells that would increase their durability, and they were much thicker than the walls of a regular building.

But that was what it took to contain a monster if it somehow escaped. And, presumably, they were going to try and use that to keep him trapped inside, somehow, not that it would –

“Mr. Ichiro, the entrance is this way.” A woman said, walking out of the crowd of people using the road and up to him. “I’m sure you’re not thinking about breaking in and causing a scene in the middle of the street, so I can lead you to your friends, if you would wish.”

Ichiro regarded her warily, analyzing her with his Blessing. She was one of the colosseum’s staff, specifically a snack vendor, and she was painfully weak, next to no combat ability. It was an odd choice of person to come guide him, but…she couldn’t do anything to him, so it was fine for now. She could take him through the entrance, and then he could split from her, make his own way to wherever his friends were. “Fine.” He said. “Lead the way.”

“Thank you for your understanding.” She said, flashing him a smile. “I was worried that you would do something rash and break the colosseum. It would be quite annoying if we had to close for a few days while we repaired whatever damage you caused.”

“Why are you helping them?” Ichiro asked. “I mean, they took you, changed you, and I know there’s some mental components to it, but you’re a slave now, doesn’t that bother you on some level?”

The woman looked at him like he had grown another head. “I beg your pardon?” She said indignantly. “I am not a slave!”

“But you’re forced into the whims of whatever your leader wants! I mean, look, you had to presumably close down all business today to accommodate this farce!”

“I fail to see your point.” The woman said testily. “If it was Queen Alisha asking, we would have had to do the exact same thing, and my life has been significantly better ever since I converted.”

“Name one way.” Ichiro said flatly.

“The ache in my joints has completely vanished, my relationship with the colosseum management has become significantly more friendly, and I have several new helpers around the kitchen that handle the more menial aspects of my job for me, to name a few.” The woman said. “And, once we get more established, we’ll never need to worry about food or poverty again, it’s astounding.”

“Then what about your helpers? Surely someone has to pay for your convenience.”

The woman snorted. “I don’t think cats, rats, and birds care so long as they’re being fed.”

“Cats…and rats.” Ichiro said. “Is it sanitary to have them help in the kitchen?”

“I make sure they’re washed well, and no hairs get in the food.” The woman said. “It’s not like they’re making food, they’re just helping clean up or fetch utensils for me. But look, you’re clearly not going to be satisfied no matter what I say, so let’s just drop this.” She stopped in front of the entrance to the colosseum. “I’ll leave you here. Your friends are waiting in the center of the arena, try not to break too much stuff, okay?”

With that, the woman walked off back into the road, leaving a confused Ichiro behind. They were just going to…leave him alone? He thought for sure they were going to try and guide him down some predetermined path in an attempt to get every possible advantage, but if they were going to give him the full ability to wander and find the most advantageous way for him to approach, that was fine.

He turned back to the colosseum, using his Blessing to scan every available surface and make sure no traps or tricks were waiting for him. And, satisfied that there wasn’t, he stepped inside, still carefully analyzing everything before he made any moves. It made for slow progress through the colosseum, but it was better than being caught off-guard by some unexpected trick.

By and large, the colosseum was what he had expected. There were paths for the spectators to reach their seating, some spaces for shops, and an employee only section that included the old kennels where they would keep monsters.

Unfortunately, he couldn’t find a tricky way to access the center of the arena. The best he could do was to peek in from above and analyze everything. His companions were sitting on a cushion in the center of the arena, bound together with rope. And, as he had feared, they had been assimilated into the swarm.

His Blessing indicated that they had been somehow combined with a pair of strong monsters, a phoenix and a nightmare. Still, they didn’t look any different, which was a good sign – it meant that whatever had been done to them wasn’t something that would be immediately obvious for the rest of their lives and, once he undid whatever conditioning they were under, they would find themselves stronger than they had been before with no real downsides.

Meg had always been frustrated with how weak she was compared to Ichiro, and Neph was the type to never complain about getting stronger, so perhaps, in an odd way, the swarm had done him a favor; once he saved them, the very power that the swarm had given them would be leveraged to fight against the swarm.

He took a few minutes longer to scout the area, making sure no ambush was lying in wait before he finally walked into the arena, staff already drawn. “Meg, Neph,” he said, “I’m here to save you. I know you’re part of the swarm now, and likely have been brainwashed, but please, if any part of you remains, I would ask that you struggle against their conditioning, remember who you really are.”

Meg and Neph shared a look. “That makes this easier.” Neph said, standing up and letting the rope that was binding the two fall loosely at her feet. As she did, the forms of her and Meg blurred, then resolved into something entirely different than what they had been before. And, as he looked them over, Ichiro’s heart sank.

They had both been human before, but now they were decidedly not so; Neph had gained horse ears and a horse tail, and her hair had changed color, becoming a flowing mane of black, dotted with white, matching with her ears and tail. The hair and horse parts seemed to glow with a slight rainbow hue, and the dotted white shifted around it, giving the impression that he was looking into space itself as he stared into it. She had gained a few inches of height, and her customary plain shirt and trousers had been refitted to match. Her eyes were sharper than they had been before, looking down at Ichiro with something that was a mixture of pity and…contempt?

Meg’s change was even more prominent. The most immediately noticeable difference was the addition of two large flaming wings on her back, but they were only the beginning. Meg’s skin pulsed with an inner light, as if fire itself was running through her veins, and her hair had become a mixture of orange and red, the colors shifting and dancing as if the hair was a burning flame. She hadn’t gained any height, but Ichiro couldn’t help but notice that she was a decent bit curvier than she had been before.

“Ichiro, you have the wrong idea.” Meg said, standing and letting her hand fall to her sword’s hilt. “The swarm is nowhere near as bad as we thought. You wouldn’t understand, because you haven’t seen the inside of the dungeon yet, but everyone is so…happy. So many societal problems have been solved by the simple act of just…understanding each other. Most of us are almost exactly the same as we were before, just with shifted loyalties and an added appreciation for our sisters.”

Most of you.” Ichiro emphasized. “So, there are people who have changed drastically?”

“Four of us.” Neph said. “For three of us, Owen, Meg, and myself, we have slight changes due to being converted with strong monsters. They’re all minor, and we remain mostly ourselves. Then there is Queen Alisha, who was…significantly changed.”

A chill ran down Ichiro’s spine. “Queen Alisha? As in the ruler of Aura?”

Neph nodded. “The very same. She attempted to plant the seeds of rebellion, and Amelia went further than they had expected in making her happy to serve. It’s a mistake that won’t be made again, but…personally, I think she deserved it. You didn’t interact with her much, but she was a bad person, rotten to the core.”

Ichiro frowned “Doesn’t it make you upset that your personalities have been altered?” He asked. “Some part of you has to be!”

“It was a little scary before it happened, but it’s been a lot more manageable than I thought.” Meg said. “We went into it knowing full well what would happen, and we were given the option to decline, so you can’t blame the swarm for it. They’ve done nothing but try and accommodate our wishes since the moment we were converted, and all they’ve asked in return is for us to help them here. They’re good people, Lord Yamamoto. You want to better the world, and the swarm is unequivocally better than any option I’ve seen. You should really think about joining up with us, you’ll understand once you’ve experienced it for yourself.”

“If you don’t, we’ll be forced to make you.” Neph said. “I know you believe in your own strength, but let me repeat something; you are no match for Amelia. She…she’s far stronger than I had given her credit for, and you’re still inexperienced. She’s the most powerful magician of all time, and she has fully freed herself from the shackles that normal Heroes face. You won’t win here, Ichiro, so it would be best if you just came quietly.”

Ichiro grit his teeth, planting his staff into the stone floor of the colosseum. “We’ll just have to see about that. I haven’t gone all out before, so I’m also far stronger than you’re giving me credit for.”

He twisted the staff, focusing his Mana and beginning to chant. Instantly, Neph rushed forward, a pain assaulting his head as some mental attack was fired at him, but he ignored it, continuing to chant as she drew near.

When she reached him, he smoothly ducked out of the way of her swords, then planted a kick on her stomach, sending her flying backwards several yards. She was faster than she had been before, much faster, but Ichiro was a Hero, and even with her increased stats, she didn’t reach his level.

A lance of fire erupted from Meg, but Ichiro simply raised an arm, using his Dualcast Skill to cast a quick shield spell, and the fire harmlessly dissipated. And, as their opening attacks finished, so too did Ichiro’s chant. His staff melted into the ground, integrating itself into his spellwork as he uttered the final phrase. “Garden of the World Tree!”

There was a rumbling, the ground shifting as the dirt beneath the stone raged, plants attempting to spear out through the stone. It took longer than Ichiro had expected, but they came through all the same, trees growing throughout the arena as one absolutely gargantuan tree formed behind Ichiro. A surge of power filled his body as the spell took effect, and he looked up at Meg and Neph, determination burning in his eyes. “Let’s do this.”

I had sort of planned to have the whole confrontation in this chapter, but it would just have ended up being too long, so I split it into two parts here.

As such, I'm going to refrain from commentary until next chapter, when we'll be finishing the fight, so...look forward to it!

And, as always, thanks for reading!