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Chapter 2: The Sea of Margr

Part 6: The Night

(This correlates Ellomyer Update #8)
  
There were a number of places one should expect to find a child. An orphanage, a school, and a playground were all reasonable guesses. Walking between the burning remains of a wooden barricade amidst a sea of fresh corpses on the other hand, was generally not. Those few who did find it reasonable had likely experienced very disturbed childhoods themselves, and should consider seeking help. Ideally, this help should not come in the form of a deranged automaton. After all, the chances of establishing a healthy relationship with an insane warmachine are roughly 1 to 100. In the face of any evidence to the contrary, it is wise to remember that when it comes to 1 to 100 chances, tales are generally only told of the very few who are successful. The other 99 stories are often too short and bloody to be worth telling in any form other than as a cautionary tale atop a tombstone. Even then, the tales are generally summed up as, “Young foolish girl meets crazy walking blender. We had to pour her into this grave. The end.”

Unfortunately for Ro, she possessed both a disturbed childhood and an insane machine as her therapist. Therefore, she found it completely reasonable that she was passing between the burning remains of a wooden barricade, and amidst a sea of corpses. She wore a mask of bravery as she did so. However, the day’s events had taken their toll on the girl, and a mask of hopeful confidence was all she could muster. Unconsciously, she was muttering beneath her breath the creed Hiero spoke whenever he arrived to save a life.

Earlier in the day, before the great battle against the margr had begun, Hiero had instructed Ro to stay behind the barricade and protect the young and elderly as he went off to the front lines. Ordinarily, the knight would have talked up Ro’s duties like a carnival barker in order to convince Ro that she wasn’t just a burden to him. She would have believed it as she always did. It hurt too much to consider the alternatives. This time however, Hiero hadn’t fed her any tales of grandeur. Instead he had told her in no uncertain terms that he was leaving her behind in order to keep her safe, but promised to return.

The mechanical knight’s rare, somberly spoken words had left a number of feelings tumbling within Ro. She felt small at being treated like a burden, and a little angry at being treated like a child. Greater than either emotion however, had been the feeling of fear. Though she was doing her best to push away the thought, the truth remained; Hiero had only ever sent her away when things were truly desperate, and one time when a bizarre numenera device somehow gave the robot a temporary allergy to small children. Even in those cases, he had never before been ‘somber’ about it.

Still, she had obeyed. When the battle eventually came, and Ro left to join her friend, Nir, in protecting the weak of Ellomyr, the young mutant girl had done her best to swallow her concerns. The nagging fear that things would never be the same still sat it the back of her mind, but for a time her faith in Hiero had held it back.

Now however, her doubts were preparing to swallow her.

She refused to let them. Even now, as she stomped by the bodies or margr and man alike, she fought against her fears with the sort of pouting, tunnel-visioned defiance only a child could master. Hiero, she told herself, was too incredible to die. He could take on a dozen margr without trouble. A few hundred more was just like extra kindling for a fire. Hiero was only missing because he was out in the field waiting for Ro to come find him. It was a test. The stupid thoughts in her stupid head would see, and when they did they would feel very…stupid.

The girl furrowed a brow at her own train of thought. She was never very good at insults and curses, especially not compared to Hiero. He never used the really bad words, but Ro decided it was probably because he was smart enough to know lots of other colorful and more interesting phrases like bile-hearted miscreants, and balemorphic defilers. Right now, she wished she could say stuff like that to scare away the dark thoughts in her head.

Suddenly, Ro became aware that there was no one around to judge or rebuke her. A trill of mischievous energy took hold. Maybe just one. For justice. The girl smiled. Balling her fists to her chest, she shouted in the most heroic tones a worried preteen’s vocal cords could manage, “Holy dancing haberdasheries! If you malicious un-hopeificators don’t get out of my head, and stop making me think bad things about what happened to Hiero, then I’m going to punch you with my JUSTICE FIST!” The girl uppercut the sky, and stood amidst silence. Shame and embarrassment crawled up Ro’s back in equal measure with the power she felt. Pumping her arms, she rode the feeling of blind courage for as long as she could and stomped over to the base of one of the still standing barricades. She then began to climb a nearby pile of bodies towards the top of the not-entirely-on-fire wooden post. When she reached the plateau of the barricade, her energy gave out, and she collapsed.

The battle against the margr had ended, but not without great cost. The monsters had broken past the barricade, destroyed the watchtower, and taken many lives before they were finally driven out. The margr had even found where Ro, Nir, and the other children had been hiding. Ro had done her best to fight them off…

The mutant shook her head to keep herself from losing focus. She had climbed up the barricade for a reason. Courage faltering, Ro again whispered Hiero’s heroic creed like a prayer against the demons in her head, “When hope is all but lost, and evil reigns unopposed…” She looked out over the horizon.

She saw moonlight spilling over a burnt and ravaged landscape in a way that made the freshly spilled blood of the many fallen glisten like rubies in the dark. What she didn’t see however, was Hiero’s light. The mutant’s heart sank. Her limbs felt heavy. Despair reached out its fingers from the back of her mind.

She slapped it back.

Heroes didn’t give up so easily. Hiero wouldn’t have given up so easily. In times like this, the knight always seemed to move with a confidence Ro could never understand. It was as if he could see what he was looking for, hidden just beyond the horizon. She tried to do the same, but all she saw was black. So, she pretended. Hiero was still out there. Probably. Possibly. Maybe.

“Probably not.” Whispered doubt.

She pushed her fears away once more, this time slower. She had to keep faith. After everything that had happened, faith was the only thing holding her together. She needed to find Hiero. Things would make sense again once she found him. Hope flickered. She needed to find him soon.  

One last time, voice beginning to quaver, the young girl repeated Hiero’s creed. Then, she channeled the courage of her hero, stood tall, and hopped off the post. She landed in a pile of bodies with an, “ow.” When she climbed out of the pile, she continued moving away from the town with her best impression of the knight’s confident stride. It wasn’t a very good impression. She had her chest puffed out like a bird in a mating dance, and a look that bordered on ‘tearful constipation’ stamped across her face. If Hiero could have seen her however, he would have been proud. All pretenses of earlier fearlessness had fallen away, and the terror at an unfair world shone naked in her eyes. Yet, in spite of all the darkness within and around her, she was still moving forward with the same look of desperate and defiant courage that had first convinced the knight of her potential.

But Hiero couldn’t see her now.

Because Hiero wasn’t there.

Ro was alone, and alone the girl continued. Her eyes scanned the fields for the telltale glint of metal in moonlight as she marched. Time too marched on, and the night grew darker. Slowly, a confident stride gave way to a hurried jog. The hurried jog soon quickened into a fearful run. Finally, the fearful run became a panicked sprint. Breath ragged, Ro moved as if the demons in her head were at her heels, and her eyes whipped left and right as she searched the fields for signs of her hero.

In the dark, she tripped. The mutant felt herself fall amongst several bodies. When she opened her eyes, the first thing she could see was the severed arm of some poor human who had lost it in battle.

  
Something snapped.

Ro recalled the moment the margr had found her and the other children. “I was too weak to protect them.” Ro recalled her friend, Nir, using her power to open a portal away from the village for the others to escape. “I couldn’t help her.” Ro recalled trying to pull Nir through as the portal collapsed, only to be left with a severed arm. “I couldn’t save her.”

A wave of despair crashed over the child, and her chest grew tight as she stared at the arm. Ro had seen severed arms before. She had grown accustom to weakness and suffering long before she ever met Hiero. Even the loss of close friends was no new wound for the child. It was why she had been able to feign optimism as she led the children and elderly back to the village.

But now?

Now she was alone, tired, and afraid. Years of fear, doubt, and cynicism bubbled at the back of the child’s mind whispering seditious thoughts of hopelessness in sympathy with the carnage around her. The rosy glass of idealism was shattering. She looked out to the field of bodies, and finally saw the grisly scope of it all. Hundreds of dead surrounded her, some still groaning as they bled out. When Hiero had sent Ro away, he had explained that war was nothing like the battles she had come to know in his company. She hadn’t understood back then, but was beginning to see it now.

She could train every day for the rest of her life, and become the greatest glaive the world had ever seen, but still be mortal on a battlefield like this. There were no techniques that could give her the arms to parry a hundred arrows, and no level of spear training that would teach her how to read the movements of a thousand men at once. Even heroes weren’t invincible in war.

Hiero was different though, Ro tried to tell herself. He was greater than a hero. There was nothing he couldn’t do.

“Then why did he send you away?” Her doubts replied.

Ro didn’t want to answer, but she knew the truth regardless. Deep down she had always known it. Now, she was just too tired to resist.

“Because I’m a burden.” Ro whispered.

“No,” her doubts hissed, “You were always a burden to him. He had accepted you as one.” The child winced. “Why did Hiero send you away.”

“Because,” The girl closed her eyes, “I was more than a burden.”

“What were you?”

Ro shook her head. She tried to defy her doubts.

“What would you have been, if you had been out here today?”

The mutant slowly lifted her head, and stared out at the sea of bodies. “Dead.”

“You said there was nothing he couldn’t do. Why wouldn’t he have protected you?”

“Because he couldn’t have. Because I was wrong. Because out here in a place like this even Hiero couldn’t have saved me!”

The first crack in Ro’s image of her hero began to form.

Ro found herself staring at the hand lying on the ground before her.

“Just like you hadn’t been able to save Nir. He would have been powerless.”

Anger began to burn in the child like a sick flame. In the moment the portal had collapsed, and Ro stood forced to watch as Nir sacrificed her life… Ro had hated her friend. Ro had been afraid to die, it was true, but she was a hero at heart. Trying to do the impossible, even if it meant dying, was what heroes did. More than she ever feared failing, she feared being incapable of even trying to do anything at all. In this way, Nir had betrayed her. As her last act, she had stolen Ro’s heroic death, and left her feeling utterly powerless instead.

The second crack in the ideal of Hiero started to form as the young mutant began to realize that even her hero, as fearless as he had seemed, had been afraid of the very same thing. It had been why he had sent her away. The knight could catch arrows, and parry spears, but not even he was so delusional as to think he had any hope of keeping a child safe against a thousand foes at once. The superhuman figure that Ro had long idolized, had been no different than her.

However, in sparing himself the feeling of weakness, Hiero had betrayed his student no differently than Nir.

A third and final fissure began to form, and the ideal of Ro’s invincible and perfect hero crumbled into dust. With it, so too did all the lies she had told herself. Finally, she could defy the ugly truth she had been hiding from no longer. Hiero had been wrong. He wasn’t coming back. She had seen the dozens of broken pieces of him as she had scoured the battlefield. A part of his face here. A part of an arm all the way over there. She had tried to hold onto hope, but all along had only managed denial.

Nir was gone, Ro was no hero, and Hiero was dead. Now, even the ideal of him was dying within Ro.

Hatred and misery boiled in her heart. She felt small, scared, and awful. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. A mutant street-rat, she had felt like this her entire life. Hiero was supposed to have made it go away, but now it was even worse. He had given her hope that the world wasn’t so bad, but he had been wrong. She wished Hiero was here. She wished she could look him in the eyes and scream at him how wrong he had been. She wished she could tell him how he had betrayed her. Tears began to bubble at the corner of the mutant’s eyes. She wanted to cry. She wanted to shriek out at the top of her lungs and beg the world not to be like this.

She didn’t. She wouldn’t. She couldn’t. In the face of everything, she still wanted to be a hero. A world where heroes didn’t exist was too awful to be real. So, she clutched what little hope she could hold as all the beautiful lies she had told herself crumbled around her. On her knees, she curled herself like a child in a burning building, and fought back tears as one by one the grains of a better world seeped from between her fingers. With every grain, the pain in her chest grew. Like water in her lungs, she felt as if she was drowning. Her jaw worked, silently begging the words she refuse to speak.

“Please.”

She begged for Hiero to come tell her how silly she was being.

“Please.”

She begged for Nir to come tell her it was going to be alright.

“Please.”

She begged for anyone to come save her.

But no one came. Alone the girl lie there; dying on the inside, but still refusing to cry. Her one last grain of defiance forbid it. Every part of her screamed to give in, to let go, and let the numbness wash over her. Yet, she denied it. This defiance was all she had left of Hiero. The courage to stand against the darkness, even within her, was her greatest treasure. She held on to it even as she felt like her chest might collapse. It was astonishing, she mused, how much the pain felt like dying. Her mind grew distant. She wondered if it could end like this, fighting so hard to hold on against despair that her body gave out before her will. She would have liked that. She could say she never gave up. That however, wasn’t how things worked.

It wasn’t clear when, but eventually she had lost. No longer was she hoping for a better world and someone to save her. Now, she was just hoping someone would come along, and end her pain before she had to admit that the world she wanted to believe in didn’t exist.

The sound of approaching footstep brought the hope of sweet release. She prayed it was a margr. She didn’t want the villagers to find her now. If it was a villager, she would have to go back to living. She would have to acknowledge this awful world. Against her prayers, it was not a blade that fell upon her.

In the haze of despair, she felt a hand settle its weight upon the back of her smooth head. It was warm, metallic, and familiar. Her mind froze. After everything, it refused to recognize the hand. It was another lie. It had to be. She was dreaming. It was the only thing she could accept.

Then, the voice spoke, “When hope is all but gone, and evil reigns unopposed…” It was as deep and booming as ever, and it had paused as if awaiting a response.

“Look to the horizon…” The words tumbled out of the child before she could stop them,

The hand glided over the side of Ro’s face, and beneath her chin. “And there you will find me.” It lifted her head so that she could see the figure before her. Silhouetted in moonlight, all she could make out was the outline of a severely damage knight-like figure, and a dimly glowing gas at the center of its chest. “A star shining like the rising dawn; my heart burns with the faith of all humanity. Villainy, know and fear my name. For so long as there is but even one to hope against the night, I, Hiero Sol, Guardian of Humanity, shall be there to bring forth the light.”

Ro kneeled speechless. A thousand different thoughts and emotions raced through her head.

“Ro, are you alright?”

“You abandoned me.” The girl said with all the rage she could summon.

Hiero shook his head. “I told you where you could find me.”

The sidekick scowled and flashed her jagged teeth. Tears once more threatened to fall. “I looked for you, but couldn’t find you. You weren’t there. You sent me away because you couldn’t protect me if I was in the battle, and you were afraid I’d die. You were afraid of being weak, but then you left me so you could die like a hero, and I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“I would never abandon you Ro. I told you I would come back. I was always here, even if you couldn’t see me.”

“How was I supposed to know?”

The knight knelt down. “Trust I suppose.”

“What if you were wrong?”

“Well, that’s when trust matters most.”

“I tried.” The girl whimpered.

The knight seemed to consider her words and brushed a thumb over the girl’s cheek. It was, in spite of everything, clean of tears. “I know. I understand how scared you must have been. You were very brave, and I’m very proud of you.”

The girl’s chest shuddered at his words. Praise felt like ice on the open wound of her shame. She didn’t feel brave.

“Do you know how I understand?”

Ro shook her head.

“Because I was scared too. It’s true that I told you to stay away in order to keep you safe, but it wasn’t to keep myself from feeling weak. Every moment that you aren’t near me is a moment I worry that something will happen to you, and, if something did happen, I would have been powerless to stop it. That makes me very afraid.”

“You can’t be afraid though. A hero has to be fearless.”

Hiero gave a booming laugh, and stood up tall. Even falling apart, he cut an imposing figure. “No, I’m afraid you’ve been mistaken. A hero should never be fearless. A hero must be brave. Fearlessness is born from denial, and it’s a black and ugly thing. But bravery?” The knight pounded his strongglass chest. “That’s born from hope and faith. Becoming a hero is not about never seeing the darkness that exist. It’s about learning to see the light that could be, even when others can’t. So, you see its true that I was afraid, but I’ve got the faith of humanity in my heart.” Hiero drew his hand from his starlight heart and placed a finger over Ro’s. “That means I have faith in you too. I trust you Ro. I believe in you even when you don’t believe in yourself because I know that there’s a hero in you bright as day. I’m not going to leave you Ro. I refuse to leave you until at least the day comes that you can see it too. Trust me. Have I ever been wrong before?”

Ro, sniffled and balled her fists until her knuckles went whiter as she tried desperately to not look like someone about to bawl their eyes out. Her body trembled, and her voice quavered. She wanted to believe him. She wanted it more than anything, but she was afraid to trust again. She tried to tell him that she believed him, but her doubts spoke instead. “I’ve heard people say you aren’t really a hero. They tell me the general public thinks you’re just a crazy automaton.”

“WHAT?” Hiero shouted.

Ro flinched, eyes wide.

“Oh, so Mr. Public thinks he can trash talk about me to my own sidekick. That man needs to learn to keep his opinions to himself, and stay in his own lane. I don’t care if he is a general, I ain’t one of his lousy soldiers.”

The young mutant gave a confused look. “Hiero, I don’t think you understand-”

“No! You’re the one who doesn’t understand. That man and his apparent ancestors have been criticizing me and everything I’ve done for 89 years! But do you know what the worst part is? He’s a coward who hides from me every time I try to find him. I’ve only ever managed to track him down once, and he pretended he didn’t even know who I was. He just kept screaming, ‘I’m not The General Public, I’m just General Publique! Please stop shaking me!’ He thought he was so wily because he changed the inflection of his name, but I showed him and he’s never forgiven me. So, you know what you can do, Ro? You can go and look ‘Mr. THE General Public’ in the eyes and tell him he can shove off and take his opinions with him.”

Ro, looked dumbfounded. Then, the corners of her mouth began to twist upwards, and a small single laugh squeaked its way out. Her body began to shake, and the tears in her eyes finally started running. All at once, the emotions she had been holding back burst out, and she collapsed into a mess of tears, laughter, and sobbing.

Hiero rushed down to Ro and placed his hand on her shoulder. “What is it Ro? The General? Ghosts?” Terror gripped the knight, “Are you being haunted by the GHOST of General Public?”

If possible, the strange half laugh, half sob intensified. The mutant girl lunged forward and wrapped her arms around the knight’s neck. Still sobbing, she hugged him as if he might vanish at any moment. She was smiling. Lost in all of her emotions, she couldn’t remember why she had ever doubted Hiero in the first place. To the young girl, he was everything she had believed in and more.

Hiero didn’t know what had come over his sidekick, but wrapped her in his one good arm regardless.

Like that, the two remained for minutes until Ro’s throat grew sore of laughing and her tears went dry. In the quiet of the night, she tightened her embrace and whispered the words she had often let go unspoke, “I love you, Hiero.”

“I love you too.”

Warmth flared in the girl’s heart as she embraced the closest thing she had ever known to a father before another thought finally struck her. “Um…you know…I’d love you even more if we could get out of this field of dead people. It really smells.”

“Ah, yes.” The field was indeed a poor backdrop to a heartwarming moment. “Let’s go back to Ellomyr.”