For every meeting, there is a parting.
My first parting was losing my mother.
She was never especially healthy, but after she gave birth to Shun, her condition rapidly deteriorated until she passed away.
“Is it possible the true queen had a hand in it?”
There were rumors to that effect, but I don’t believe my father’s first wife would do anything so careless.
I can’t exactly call her an ally, but I do have a certain faith in her.
For better or for worse, she is a key figure in our government. She only takes actions that she thinks will benefit the kingdom.
…And to be honest, I don’t really need to know the truth about how my mother died.
I just didn’t want to hate anyone for it.
I was terribly sad about the loss of my mother, and I didn’t want that sadness to turn into hatred for someone else.
Not the true queen, despite the rumors.
And not Shun, who had in a sense been born at the cost of my mother’s life.
I didn’t want to hate either of them.
Especially Shun. Hating him seemed like it would be rejecting the final proof that my mother lived, and that frightened me.
A hero should never hate someone for personal reasons.
That sort of feeling wouldn’t make my mother proud.
I kept on reminding myself of that, and so I was able to simply grieve my mother’s death without resenting anyone for it.
If there was one person I was angry with, it was probably myself for not being strong enough.
If only I was stronger, maybe I could have saved my mother.
That feeling has stayed with me ever since.
When I saw the people who lost their families to the human-trafficking organization.
People whose parents were killed by monsters.
The coffin that contained Mr. Tiva’s body.
“People live and someday die. We cannot change that. Nor can we choose how we will die. But what we can choose is how we live. It’s not how he died that’s important but how he carried himself in life. Thinking about what you can do for the dead, what you could’ve done for the dead, is nothing but a form of arrogance. All the living need do is grieve the dead and remember how they lived.”
Those were the words of my teacher, Elder Ronandt.
I constantly find myself wishing that I was stronger, and every time, I remember his words.
Everyone will die someday.
That means there will inevitably be partings.
I’m sure my teacher has experienced far more partings than I have; there’s no way to avoid them.
I think he was trying to tell me that I should accept them when they come, instead of dwelling on regrets, and keep on living life to the fullest.
But for me, living my life as best as I can means that I don’t want to see someone die before my eyes.
If they’re in reach, I want to save them.
In fact, if they’re not in reach, I’ll find a way to save them anyway.
Even if it means hurting myself in the process.
That’s how I want to live my life.
I’m sure my teacher would be angry if he heard me say that.
But I just can’t change the way I live.
I’m sorry, Master. I’m probably going to die young.
“Hrm. All right, this is an order from your master. You are forbidden to die before me. Understand? And when I die, you have to cling to my casket and cry even harder than you did today.”
Master, I might not be able to obey that order after all.
So if that time comes, you’ll have to scold my casket instead.
You stupid apprentice! you’ll say.
Yes, I accepted my death long ago.
But…I didn’t want to let anyone else die.
That’s why I decided that I would be the first.
I swore I would be, and yet…
Before my eyes, Yaana disappears from sight under the queen taratect’s leg.
I can’t process what I’m seeing.
Yaana was at my side just a second ago.
I can still feel her warmth where she grabbed my arm.
Now I don’t see Yaana anymore.
Even though she was right here.
She was here…
Instead, I only see the queen taratect’s leg.
Which means Yaana must be under there…
“I have to save her.”
My own murmur startles me back to life.
Why am I just standing around in shock?
I’ve got to save Yaana.
It’ll be fine. I can still rescue her.
She’ll be okay. She has to be!
Falteringly, I try to stagger toward the queen taratect.
“What the hell are you doing?! Snap out of it!”
Then someone grabs my hand from behind.
My head is shoved downward, forcing me to the ground.
The queen taratect’s leg passes just above my head.
Another sweeping attack.
Even with my high stats as the hero, a single hit might very well kill me.
Realizing I just narrowly escaped death, I finally start to regain my composure.
“Hey! You finally snapped out of it?!”
It was Hyrince who pushed me down.
He’s on the ground, too, having just barely avoided the queen taratect’s attack.
His forehead is bleeding, and his breath is ragged.
Even his shield has been bent out of shape, crumpled from the enormous impact it took.
Looking closer, I notice that his left hand is twisted at an unnatural angle.
Hyrince stood in front of the queen taratect to let us get away and took an attack from it head-on.
It looks like he managed to protect himself with the shield, but even then, it did some serious damage.
“Hyrince?! Your arm!”
“No time to worry about that right now! We’ve gotta get out of here!”
Hyrince pulls himself up with his unbroken right hand and yanks me to my feet by the collar.
“Wait a minute! I have to save Yaana!”
As I try to dig my feet in, Hyrince’s face twists with despair.
And then he says it.
“Yaana’s already dead!”
The undeniable words I can’t bear to hear.
It’s as if time has stopped.
I must have already known. I just didn’t want to admit it.
The queen taratect…stomped on her…and crushed her to death.
“She gave her life to protect you, so you’ve got to survive!”
Hyrince grabs my shoulder and pulls hard.
Then he jumps back with me in tow, sending us to the ground again.
The queen taratect’s leg whooshes by where we were standing just moments ago.
The same leg that crushed Yaana.
In that instant, something breaks inside me.
“Julius! Can you stand?!”
I hear a cold voice come out of my mouth, though it doesn’t sound like mine.
“Hyrince, you go on ahead.”
“What the hell are you…?”
“I’ve got to kill this thing.”
Hyrince catches his breath at my sudden intensity.
I stand up and raise my sword.
“Julius! This is crazy!”
Hyrince tries to stop me, but it doesn’t matter.
A hero isn’t supposed to hate anyone for personal reasons.
But from this moment on, I’m not fighting as the hero. I’m fighting as Julius Zagan Analeit!
I shove Hyrince back.
Then, just as the queen taratect’s leg comes sweeping sideways again, I duck down and avoid it.
The queen taratect is massive.
Because of that, its movements are clumsy.
It’s insanely fast for its size, but if I know an attack is coming, I can dodge it!
Hyrince shouts my name from behind me, but I keep pressing forward.
Using Dimensional Maneuvering, I sprint into the sky until I’m right next to the queen taratect’s main body.
I’m aiming for the base of its leg, where its joint is attached.
Its exoskeleton is probably too tough for me to even leave a scratch.
But if I attack the joint…!
But my sword is deflected without mercy.
Forget the exoskeleton—I can’t even dent the joint, where it should be weaker.
Why am I so powerless?!
I despair at how feeble I am.
But there’s no time for that: The queen taratect’s massive abdomen is hurtling toward me.
It’s trying to crush me with its body!
Given its enormous size, that would be all too easy.
And because of that size, its attack radius is so large that I can’t dodge it!
Unable to avoid the queen taratect’s body slam, I am pushed down to the ground.
But right before impact, I use Earth Magic to make a cavern just large enough for me to safely escape.
I slide into the opening to avoid getting crushed.
The queen taratect, probably assuming it finally finished me off, stands up again.
I crawl out of the ground and run.
Legendary-class monsters really are horrifying, though I already knew this.
Like the Nightmare of the Labyrinth and the phoenix.
All the legendary-class monsters I’ve encountered have been gigantic, and this one is no exception.
Our fight so far has made the queen taratect’s strength painfully clear.
Most of its power comes purely from its high stats.
Its attacks with its giant legs are simple, but that’s more than enough to be a lethal weapon.
And its defense is so high that none of my attacks can touch it.
Simple as the issue is, it limits my options severely.
Essentially, I need an attack that will pierce its defense.
And since my attacks couldn’t touch it, in spite of my status as the hero, it’s painfully clear how impossible a task that will be.
But I can’t back down now.
Yes, I know that Yaana’s death was my fault.
Because I insisted that I wouldn’t run away, Yaana died protecting me.
My stubbornness, my sense of duty as the hero—that’s what killed her!
Because I was weak, because I wasn’t strong enough!
I know that running away is the best chance to ensure that her sacrifice isn’t in vain.
But if I did that, I would never forgive myself.
Yes, I do hate someone.
I hate myself for being helpless.
And I hate this queen taratect for killing Yaana!
“Do you want to use it?”
Just then, there’s a voice directly in my head.
Instinctively, my eyes flit to the other sword at my waist.
The voice belongs to the Light Dragon Byaku, who lives within that sword.
The Sword of the Hero.
It’s a weapon that only the hero can use, which can apparently defeat any opponent but can be used only once.
Byaku is asking if I want to use that sword now.
To be honest, I can’t say it isn’t a tempting offer.
The queen taratect is a terrifying monster.
It’d be incredibly difficult to fight it on my own and win, but if I use the Sword of the Hero, I might be able to defeat it instantly.
When I acquired the Sword of the Hero, I vowed to Byaku that I wouldn’t use it.
At the time, I thought that using this sword to defeat one creature or one person, accomplishing that with a power that wasn’t my own, would never be the path to true peace.
That hasn’t changed.
I still believe that the only way to create true peace is through persistent effort from the people living in that age.
But right now, I’m not going to use it for a different reason.
“If I use it now, I can’t use it on the Demon Lord.”
The queen taratect was sent here by the Demon Lord.
According to that demon general who called himself Bloe, the demons are being forced into battle because of the Demon Lord.
He said they would be wiped out otherwise.
I get it now.
If she’s strong enough to control a queen taratect, it’s no wonder they would have to obey her.
In other words, the Demon Lord is the cause of all this!
I can’t even imagine using the Sword of the Hero on anyone else.
“I know I was high-and-mighty about it before, but I will be using the Sword of the Hero after all. On the Demon Lord.”
It seems there is hatred in me.
For my powerless self.
For the queen taratect who killed Yaana.
And most of all, for the Demon Lord who sent the queen taratect here!
The Sword of the Hero loses its power after a single use.
If the Demon Lord can command the queen taratect, I’m sure I can’t beat her.
I’ll need the power of the Sword of the Hero.
…I’m so weak.
Too weak to accomplish anything on my own.
I couldn’t even protect the girl I loved…
It’s pathetic, but that’s why I have to use any help I can get.
“When that time comes, please lend me your strength!”
“…Very well, if that is what you wish.”
“No need to thank me. But what do you plan to do about this, then?”
The queen taratect looms before me.
“I plan to win.”
Honestly, I have no idea how I’m going to make that happen.
But even so, I have to win.
“If I lose, I’ll apologize on my hands and knees to Yaana on the other side.”
Maybe that would be all right, too.
Win or lose, I won’t have any regrets.
With that decided, my mind clears up a bit.
But I still have no intention of losing.
I’ll avenge Yaana. Whether that’s what she would have wanted or not.
I’m fighting because that’s what I want to do!
Not as the hero but as Julius Zagan Analeit.
“Here we go!”
I start forming magic!
A few cheap tricks aren’t going to do the job.
I need to use all the power I have!
Holy Light Magic: Holy Light Beam.
The Holy Light Beam hits the queen taratect head-on.
Its massive body might be a giant weapon, but it’s also a giant target.
But its defense is too high for that to be a serious problem.
Even a direct hit from my Holy Light Beam doesn’t leave a mark.
I knew that’s how it would turn out, though.
You won’t see me getting discouraged that easily!
The queen taratect’s eight eyes swivel toward me.
Then one of its legs vanishes.
It didn’t really disappear—it just moved so fast that it was near impossible to follow.
I dive to the side just in time to avoid a direct hit.
Even then, a shock wave erupts like a huge explosion went off right next to me, slamming into my body.
But I have no time to worry about that.
Another leg just vanished.
Despite its massive size, it’s unbelievably fast.
Trusting my instincts, I move to one side.
A gust of wind barrels past me.
It must be because the queen taratect has swung its leg again.
I move my own legs and keep running around, knowing I could be crushed if I move a second too late.
But I have no way of winning if I just keep dodging.
As I run, I start casting a new spell.
Then I unleash another Holy Light Beam.
I’m aiming for its giant eyes!
The eyes are a weak point for any living being.
Even with the queen taratect’s unbelievable defense power, its eyes must still be vulnerable.
Sure enough, the queen taratect dodges for the first time, even though it’s ignored all my other attacks thus far.
It deftly avoided the Holy Light Beam that would’ve hit it right in the eyes.
That must mean that if I can hit its eyes, I can damage the queen taratect.
The time between the initial casting of Holy Light Beam and when it lands is incredibly short, so it usually doesn’t miss.
That said, it takes a while to construct, so it can be easy to anticipate when I’m preparing it.
Just now, though, the queen taratect dodged my Holy Light Beam after it was fired.
Which means the queen taratect is as fast as the Holy Light Beam or even faster.
It’s not that it wasn’t able to avoid my attacks up until now. It simply didn’t dodge them because it had no reason to bother.
The only way I can damage the queen taratect is to stop its movements somehow and hit its eyes with all my might.
…Stop this massive thing from moving?
Is that even possible?
No, I can’t get intimidated now!
I knew going in that my chances of winning were slim!
The queen taratect is a living creature, too.
It’s not invincible, nor is it immortal.
That means I can beat it.
I can, and I will!
The queen taratect’s eight eyes fix on me.
For the first time, I can see an emotion in those eyes.
Thus far, it’s been fighting me almost automatically, without showing any interest at all.
It looks like the real fight’s about to begin.
Just as I start to brace myself, I’m suddenly sent flying.
Blood sprays from my mouth.
I can’t even tell what just happened.
All its attacks thus far have been frightening, too, but none was so fast that I failed to process what was happening.
Does that mean it’s been holding back all this time?
As my thoughts churn wildly, the queen taratect slowly starts walking.
Deliberately slowly, as if to show off its enormous form.
I jump to my feet.
In response, the queen taratect slowly raises its leg high in the air.
As if it wants to show me what true despair looks like.
To be honest, it really does feel like this is as far as I can go.
I even glance at the Sword of the Hero at my hip, wondering if I’ll have to use it after all.
As that leg comes down, I’m almost certain that I’m about to die.
But I don’t.
A huge barrage of spells strike the queen taratect in the side.
Who in the world did that?!
Looking in the direction the magic came from, I see a large group of soldiers charging this way on horseback.
The soldiers who were at Fort Kusorion.
I thought I told them to run…
“Protect Sir Hero!”
“We’re here to help!”
“Just use whatever you’ve got!”
Galloping around on horses, the soldiers keep casting spells.
Magic like that won’t hurt the queen taratect.
But, perhaps annoyed by it, the gigantic monster lowers the leg it was about to bring down toward me.
“What kinda soldiers would we be if we made the hero do everything?!”
“Sir Hero saved my child! This is my one chance to pay him back!”
“We’ll show ’em what humans can do when our backs are up against the wall!”
The soldiers shout as they charge forward, as if they are letting out all their fear.
“They all came running to help you.”
Somehow, Hyrince is standing at my side.
“But I thought you ran away?”
“Moron! As if I’d ever leave you behind!”
Hyrince raps me on the head with his broken left hand.
“Same goes for everyone else. They couldn’t just run away and leave you here. Everyone is hoping and praying for you to live—don’t you get it? That includes Yaana.”
How am I supposed to respond to something like that?
After all, I’m being selfish right now.
I’m fighting as an individual, not the hero.
“I can’t make everyone go along with my selfishness…”
“Sure you can. You always put yourself last, y’know? No one’s gonna mind if you wanna be selfish for once in your life.”
Hyrince assures me that it’s all right, even though it means dragging so many people into a desperate life-and-death battle.
“You’re gonna win, right?”
“Then get it done like a real hero!”
The queen taratect starts moving again, as if it were waiting for our exchange to end.
But it turns toward the charging soldiers.
The giant beast’s mouth opens.
It’s going to use a breath attack.
The same attack that destroyed Fort Kusorion!
I jump between the queen taratect and the soldiers.
Quickly, I form a spell.
“Listen up, Julius. If all you want to do is use magic, skills are plenty for that. But if you truly want to master magic, that isn’t good enough. How do you normally create and unleash spells? Be aware of that, and ask yourself how you can do it stronger, faster, and more accurately.”
That’s what my master taught me.
So I try my best to be mindful.
How am I using magic, and what do I want it to do?
Right now, what I want is a sturdy shield that will protect everyone!
“Instead of trying to bear the brunt of its power, I simply changed its direction.”
I remember something Mr. Tiva once said.
“If your opponent is too strong, you won’t accomplish much by trying to block their attacks head-on. At times, you must create an opening by redirecting their strength.”
This must be what he meant!
I tilt the shield of light I’ve created at an angle.
When the queen taratect’s breath attack comes roaring out, I deflect it with my shield.
The impact is intense.
It’s too strong for me to fully deflect it.
At this rate, it’ll break through!
“If you can’t do it on your own, we’ll just have to do it together, right? Even if you’re not strong enough alone, we’ll be strong enough as a team. Take what just happened. You might not’ve stood a chance if you were alone, but we were with you. That’s why we all made it back alive. You’ve got friends who want to fight at your side, see? So try to depend on us more.”
I call out the name of the dear friend who said those words.
Right away, Hyrince runs over to support me.
He must be in pain, since his hand is broken, but he still pushes with all his might.
With Hyrince’s help, I push back the breath until it changes direction and bounces off harmlessly into the sky.
The queen taratect recoils, looking taken aback for the first time.
The soldiers seize that opportunity to charge forward on horseback.
With the queen taratect’s high defense, that probably wouldn’t cause it any pain.
But as the dozens of knights charge at once during the monster’s brief moment of hesitation, even if it doesn’t cause any damage, it’s more than enough to knock those legs off-balance.
The queen taratect stumbles a couple of steps.
It’s a small opening but a clear one.
“I’m on it!”
Hyrince pushes me forward, and I use that momentum to leap up high.
Using Dimensional Maneuvering, I whirl through the air, filling my sword with holy light.
The queen taratect glares at me.
I choose one of its eyes and stab my sword into it with all my might!
The queen taratect’s screech of pain rattles the very air.
I finally managed to do some damage to it!
All I did was crush one eye, but that’s more than enough!
“Magic items are made to be used, y’know? Ain’t no point dyin’ to conserve ’em.”
“Weapons are part of your strength, too. What’s wrong with using them to win?”
Hawkin’s and Jeskan’s words play back in my mind.
Right, this is the perfect time to use that!
I reach down and draw it from its scabbard.
No, not the Sword of the Hero.
It’s a short sword.
A magic sword known as an “exploding sword.”
The last of the ten magic swords that my master gave me!
Like the Sword of the Hero, they can be used only once.
I thrust this one deep into the queen taratect’s wounded eye.
Then I cast a Holy Light Beam to drive it in even deeper!
There’s an explosion.
And then a moment of silence.
“It’s coming down?!”
The queen taratect’s massive body slowly leans to the side.
I hurriedly move away from it.
Seconds later, the enormous monster crashes to the ground, creating huge tremors in the earth.
Hyrince murmurs in disbelief.
I slowly raise my sword to the sky.
One of the soldiers raises a cry of triumph.
I keep holding my sword aloft, acknowledging the cheers.
Don’t cry yet!
As long as people are watching, I have to keep being the hero.
Later, when I’m alone, that’s when I’ll cry my eyes out.
But I think I can at least be allowed a scream.
I did it, Yaana.
While everyone celebrates the defeat of the queen taratect, Hyrince quickly walks away.
Noticing him, I silently follow.
Then Hyrince stops.
Just as I move to join him…
“Don’t come any closer!”
…he shouts to stop me in my tracks.
“Don’t! Julius, don’t you dare come over here!”
She’s right here.
But Hyrince won’t let me see her.
“Please. I’m begging you—don’t come over. Don’t look. I’m sure Yaana wouldn’t want you to see her like this, either…”
Hyrince’s voice is choked with barely suppressed sobs.
Yaana is hidden behind him, his broad back blocking my view.
But Hyrince is begging me not to look.
That alone is enough for me to imagine what sort of awful state she must be in.
And I can’t bring myself to ignore Hyrince’s words and go see for myself.
I’m not…brave enough…to look.
…What kind of hero am I?
How can I call myself a hero if I couldn’t even protect the girl I loved?!
Tears start to well up in my eyes, but I force them down.
I can’t cry just yet.
Thanks to Hyrince’s warning cry, I just barely manage to block the blade that’s coming toward me.
I hear someone click their tongue nearby and immediately swing my sword in that direction.
There’s the shrill clash of metal on metal as our weapons collide.
It’s none other than Bloe, the demon general I was fighting before.
He jumps back, his surprise attack ending in failure.
“You seriously still want to fight?!”
The queen taratect is dead.
That must have been the demons’ big secret weapon.
Since we defeated it, surely their morale is broken by now.
So why does he still want to fight?
Looking behind him, I realize the demons have gathered in this spot.
And by the looks of it, they’re still raring for a fight.
Hearing the commotion, the human soldiers come over to gather behind me, too.
“Take your soldiers and leave. I don’t want to fight anymore.”
I tell Bloe to withdraw.
He must have realized in our last fight that he couldn’t beat me.
Since his surprise attack failed, he has no way of winning.
And the last thing I want right now is more battle.
“Please. Don’t make me keep fighting on a grudge.”
If we fight right now, I’ll take out my hatred on these demons.
They might be victims of the Demon Lord, too.
Which is why I don’t want to fight them.
“We’ve gotta fight now!”
Ignoring my earnest feelings, Bloe readies his sword.
“Hero! You’re crazy strong; I’ll admit that! But it’s still no use! If you had such a hard time against one of her spawn, you’ll never beat the Demon Lord!”
Bloe starts ranting in the language of demons, as if he can’t keep forming sentences in human language anymore.
“You can’t win, dammit!”
His voice is full of bitterness.
“I’ve gotta kill you here and now for the sake of all demons!”
Then he charges toward me.
I’m sure he has his own reasons for not giving up.
But I do, too, you know!
I can’t let myself get killed now after Yaana died to protect me!
I knock Bloe’s sword aside and use the backswing to slash into his body.
Bloe collapses in a spray of blood.
His halting last words come out in demon language, but I can guess at their meaning.
I can sense the anguished feelings behind them.
But I can’t show mercy to an enemy who’s attacking me.
Looking away from Bloe’s body, I turn toward the remaining demons.
“I’ll say it one more time. Leave now!”
I give them a final warning.
If they still insist on coming at me after that, then I’ll have no choice…!
But then a single girl steps out from among the demons.
A girl who’s so pale white that it sends a shiver down my spine.
“Listen closely, Julius. Humans are weak. Incredibly weak. Most humans are even weaker than I am, which is why they look at me and say that I’m strong. But I’m only human, too. I’m strong by human standards, but that’s all.”
Out of nowhere, I recall something my master once said to me.
“To those with true strength, the power of mere humans is nothing.”
I’ve experienced that for myself before.
Long ago, when I witnessed with my own eyes the feared monster known as the Nightmare of the Labyrinth.
For some reason, I feel that same fear now.
Then the girl opens her eyes…
A scarf flutters to the ground, its owner gone.