(To read the previous part, click here)
“Uh, guys,” Nino said, “not to interrupt this tender moment, but… Karel’s probably almost here by now!” “I am here,” Karel said. He stood ominously at the entrance of the cave, a silhouette against the blinding white snow of the mountain. He drew his blade and pointed it at Canas. “You. Are you the one they call The Hermit on the Mountain?” “Huh? Me?” Canas asked, confused. “Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes!” He puffed out his chest and spoke confidently. “I am indeed The Hermit on th-“ Niime pushed him aside. “Did you really think I’d stand by and let you throw your life away?” Niime asked Canas. “I don’t leave this mountain enough to know what I am called by the world, but I guess that’d make me the hermit on the mountain. On this mountain, I am called Niime. But there was once a time when the world called me Vivienne.” “I care not for what you are called,” Karel said. “Then you know not to whom you speak,” Niime said, “Though the fault is not yours. I imagine the powers that be have been quite thorough in their efforts to strike my name from the history books.” “I care little for your history, or any other ramblings of a senile old woman. You are quite different from the fabled dark mage I’d heard legends of.” Niime cackled. “You think I’m senile, do you? Ah, perhaps you’re right. All that was a lifetime ago. Perhaps I’m no longer a worthy opponent.” “No,” Karel said, forcefully, “Your façade of weakness will not fool me. I understand little of magic, but even I can sense that you possess a fearsome power. The strength of your dark magic is almost enough to rival even Nergal’s.” “Almost?” Niime asked indignantly, “How dare you barge into my own home and suggest that my mastery of elder magic is second to anyone else’s? I should strike you down where you stand!” “I encourage you to try,” Karel said, “But before we fight, I’d like to be perfectly clear that if any of your friends or family intervene, they will pay for their meddling with their life. That goes for you too, Jaffar.” He pointed his sword to a shadowy corner, from which Jaffar emerged. “Tch.” “I agree,” Niime said, “I have much to teach this whelp, and I won’t have you interrupting my lesson.” “I will teach you not to underestimate me,” Karel said, “En Garde!” “Actually, hold up a second,” Niime said, “Before we fight, could I warm up a bit? It’s been so long since I’ve ever actually fought, I need to make sure I still remember how. I trust it wouldn’t be a problem if you let me cast a single Flux tome before we begin in earnest?” “Hmph. Very well,” Karel said, “My blade’s hunger will not be sated if I cannot fight you at your full strength.” “Thank you very much, young man!” Niime said, “Now, where did I put that book…” She searched around the pockets of her robes. “Ah! Here it is! Ahem…”
With an otherworldly chant, Niime summoned a sphere of darkness, which quickly melted and seeped into the ground. In then rose up from below Karel’s feet, coalescing into an orb around him and exploding with dark energy. He leaned backwards, avoiding the attack by the narrowest possible margin. His eyes widened in shock as he jumped to the side just in time to dodge a second explosion behind him. He looked down and saw that darkness continued to rise from his shadow. He just barely managed to dodge a third explosion. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. When it seemed the explosive assault had abated, he smiled. “So you can smile,” Niime remarked. “Only when fighting a worthy opponent,” Karel said, quickly scowling. “I see,” Niime said, “Why is that?” “The time for your questions has passed!” “It is a poor student who won’t answer his teacher’s questions,” Niime said. “I’m not your student. I’m your opponent!” “Incorrect,” Niime said, “I may be your opponent, but you are not mine. If you want me to fight you, you must answer my questions in return.” “I am not here to bargain with you,” Karel said, “I am here to kill you!” “Then do it.” Niime said, holding her arms out to her sides as if preparing to embrace death. “What madness is this?” Karel asked. “I’m calling your bluff,” Niime said, “You don’t want to kill me, you want to fight me. And I won’t fight you unless you answer my questions.” “You’d really risk your life for some answers?” Niime cackled. “I am pretty crazy,” she admitted, “Just ask my son.” “Huh? Uh, er, w-well…” Canas stuttered, causing Niime to cackle again. “Enough of these games,” Karel said, “I believe that you are willing to risk your own life, but would you risk hers?” He pointed his sword at Nino, who shuddered in fear. He began walking towards her. “Would you fight for her?” “NO!” Niime’s voice exploded with elder magic, inhumanly loud and impossibly deep. It was enough to stop even Karel in his tracks. “You will not harm Nino. But I will not fight you. Because if you take one more step towards her, Nino, Canas, Jafar, and I will execute you. There will be no fight,” Niime calmly explained, “We will put you down like a dog. And I don’t know if you are a spiritual man, but if there is any afterlife, I will see to it that the tattered remains of your soul are in no shape to reach it.” “Pfeh,” Karel said, “Very well. I’ll answer your questions.”
“So why do you only smile when fighting a worthy opponent?” Niime asked. “I am the sword demon,” Karel said, “I live only that my blade may spill blood. It is only in combat that I feel alive.” “What must happen to a man to convince him he is a demon?” Niime asked. “I am no more a man than the sword I hold,” Karel said. “Then what are you?” Niime asked, “Because you are no demon. A demon feels only hate, if anything at all. Demons do not smile, even when they kill.” “You speak as if you know of demons,” Karel said. “I know precious little of them,” Niime said, “But certainly more than you.” “Whatever,” Karel said, “Are you satisfied with my answer?” “With that one, I suppose,” Niime said, “But why did you only smile after I attacked? Did you not think me a worthy opponent before?” “I was not yet sure,” Karel said. “And a mere Flux was enough to convince you? I hope you realize that was only the faintest taste of my power.” “It is not your magical power that makes you a worthy opponent,” Karel said. “Oh? Well, I was about to fight, but I must say that I am now intrigued. Explain yourself.” Niime said. “Any above-average mage is more powerful than the most powerful swordsman,” Karel said, “For what is a man with a sword next to the raw destructive power of the elements themselves?” “Not to mention elder magic, which is far more destructive and powerful than anima magic,” Niime chimed in. “Yet I find so few mages to be worthy opponents, for the same reason that a sword will always best an axe; combat is about more than just power. One must be quick and cunning enough to gain the upper hand over their opponent. And you have displayed a cunning that I have seen in very few mages, despite all their supposed wisdom. Which is why my blade hungers for your blood more ravenously than it has in years. Any further questions before I am allowed to sate it?” “No, I’m finished. I thank you for your compliment, and hope that you have learned from me as I have learned from you.” “Pfah.”
Karel dashed towards Niime and swung his blade with blistering speed. He was surprised that she didn’t seem to make any effort to avoid his attack, and even more surprised that his sword passed through her body with no resistance. He heard a chant behind him, and turned around to see that Niime with her hands surrounded by a dark aura, preparing to hit him with a magical blast. He ducked to avoid her attack, but it never came; instead, the energy around her hands coalesced into a manacle that bound his left foot to the ground. He slashed at her again, but once more struck only the air; the illusion he attacked dissipated into a shadowy mist. Niime had teleported to a safe distance, and summoned a small ball of dark energy energy, about the size of a fist. With a horizontal wave of her hand, it split into a row of 8 orbs, each the same size of the original. With a vertical wave, they multiplied into a square of 64 orbs. She pushed her hands forward, causing the orbs the top row of orbs to fly towards Karel, then the second row, and so on, the time between attacks decreasing with each one. Even with his foot held firmly in place, Karel managed to dodge or deflect all of the orbs sent his way, causing them to bounce around the walls of the cave, eventually fusing into a large sphere above his head that grew with each dodged attack. When the second last row was depleted, Niime pushed her hands out to her sides, sending the entire final row at once, and dropping the large sphere. Karel ducked under the smaller spheres, but didn’t see the second attack until it was too late; it exploded, shattering his restraint and knocking him to the ground.
Karel laughed. “What’s so funny?” Niime asked. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s managed to hurt me,” Karel said, “You have my sincerest thanks for this excellent battle.” “Well, as the winner, the pleasure was all mine.” Niime said. “This battle is far from over!” Karel stood up and closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, hoping to strike her down before she could react. His blade sunk into her flesh, causing everyone to gasp in horror. But something felt wrong. He turned around to see Niime far behind him, preparing to cast a spell. “I guess that trick won’t work on you anymore,” Niime said. Karel dashed towards her and struck her down before she could finish her spell. But he knew she was too clever to just lose like that. He turned around to see where she’d teleported. He turned around to see her gathering a massive amount of energy, enough to easily kill him if she landed an attack with it. But he didn’t intend to give her the chance. Before she could finish her spell, he closed the distance and sunk his blade into her flesh, immediately turning around to see where she’d teleported next. He turned around just in time to see her shoot a huge orb of dark energy at him. As he prepared his stance to dodge the attack and strike yet again, he noticed the blood on his sword, far too late. He turned around, but before he could finish off the real Niime, a lance of dark energy pierced his stomach, stabbing clear through his torso and out his back. The huge attack that Niime had been charging passed through him harmlessly, a mere illusion. He fell to his knees, defeated.
Niime began cackling, but the pain in her side cut her off. “Right. This,” she said, wincing in pain at the wound from Karel’s sword, “Canas, if you’d be so kind…” “Right, of course,” Canas said, grabbing a Mend staff and healing his mother with it. “What are you waiting for?” Karel asked, his breath coming in pained gasps, “If you intend to kill me, be done with it.” “I don’t want to kill you,” Niime said. “Then what will you do with me?” Karel asked. “Well, I want to teach you a lesson,” Niime said, “But I can’t teach you unless you’re willing to learn.” “And what would you have me learn?” Karel asked. “That you are no demon,” Niime said. “Again with this nonsense?” Karel asked. “I have no problem letting you live,” Niime said, “I just need you to say that you want to.” “Pfeh. I don’t care either way. I want nothing but the blood of the strong.” “You can’t fight if you’re dead,” Niime said, “Is it not worth staying alive, even if it’s just for that?” “To live by the sword is to die by the sword,” Karel said, “I made my peace with that long ago.” “Why?” Niime asked, “Why are you so committed to denying your own humanity that you would die before admitting to it? I don’t understand.” “Ha,” Karel laughed, weakly, “I guess some mysteries are beyond even the grasp of the legendary Hermit on the Mountain.” “Oh, please,” Niime scoffed in annoyance, “I’m just trying to provoke you into doing some self-reflection. You’re not some mysterious enigma. You’re just afraid.” “I do not fear death,” Karel said. “I think you do,” Niime said, “But what you fear even more is your own humanity.” “If you’re going to kill me anyway, I’d prefer you do it soon and spare me your speaking in riddles,” Karel said. “No, you will listen to me,” Niime said, “You want so desperately to believe that you’re a demon, because a demon cannot be blamed for the people it kills, any more than a fox can be blamed for eating chickens. It is simply in their nature. A human who acts as a demon does is broken, but what is broken can be fixed. And that terrifies you. Because if you could be fixed, then you had a choice. You are truly guilty for the sins you have committed. So it’s easier for you to lie to yourself.” “That… that’s not true,” Karel said, shaken. “Seriously?” Niime asked, incredulously, “Since you’re being so stubborn, I won’t let you live unless you also admit that you’re scared.” “I’m not,” Karel said, “I feel nothing.” “Really?” Niime asked, “Never? You mean to tell me that you’ve never once in your life felt anything that wasn’t the thrill of combat? You’ve never enjoyed food, or drink, or the company of a friend, or family? Or a lover?” “Never.” Karel said, defiantly. “Well, I tried my best,” Niime said, “Have fun bleeding out.”
“Karla!” Nino interrupted just before Niime finished him off. “What about Karla?” “N-never,” Karel said, much less confident, “She was nothing more than another strong opponent to me.” “That’s not true!” Nino said, “I remember now. I wasn’t like eavesdropping or anything, but I happened to be nearby when I heard her talking about how you used to play together when you were kids!” “You misremember,” Karel said, coldly, “And even if there were ever any humanity inside me, it died long ago.” “It’s not too late to change!” Nino cried, “It’s never too late. I was told my whole life that I was stupid and useless. That nothing I ever did was good enough, and that I was just a burden who got in everyone’s way. And I believed it. I thought I’d be stupid and useless forever. But then I had friends who believed in me. Friends who gave me a chance to change. And thanks to them, I know that I’m not stupid or useless! So I believe in you. I want to give you a chance to change!” “Your words won’t change me,” Karel said, “They can’t wipe away the sins I’ve committed.” “Nothing can,” Jaffar said, “They will haunt you to the grave and beyond. You can either die a coward, or live to repent and atone.” “Do you really think it’s that easy to repent?” Karel hissed. “I know it isn’t,” Jaffar said, “I’ve been where you are. I know how hard it is. But all it takes is one person believing that you aren’t a monster. You know who that person is. Go to her and tell her the truth.” “I… you’re right.” Karel said. “I trained for so long to inherit this sword, that I forgot everything that wasn’t the blade. I… I just…” “Well, you seem to have learned your lesson, so I’ll just go ahead and-” the lance vanished, causing Karel to cry out in pain. Niime quickly healed him with the Mend staff.
“I… thank you,” Karel said, “It seems that you really did have much to teach me. I thought the path I traveled was the path of the sword, but I now see that I am mistaken. I will find a new path, even if I must cut it with my own blade. I hope that our paths cross again someday.” “That’s lovely,” Niime said, “Good luck with that.” With a small bow of his head, Karel departed. Several minutes later, they all heard clanking armor echoing from deeper in the cave. Niime sighed. “Is that-” “I thought I heard arguing! Is everyone OK?” Wallace asked, loudly, “I may have gotten a little lost on the way here, but I came as fast as I could!” Nino laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”