That is the backbone of running an empire, apparently.
It’s all rather tedious, but not exactly difficult. Most of the work is delegated to subordinates selected a long time ago by my father. Subordinates already used to their responsibilities, who all know to deliver proper results.
Indeed, just that the seat of ‘Emperor’ has fallen onto my lap doesn’t mean that the entire hierarchy and command structure is going to change. That would be ridiculous. Since everything already works pretty well, there is no real need to replace people left and right. At most, I only need to clean up those who suddenly get it into their heads that I might be an easier target than Father, and try to rise above their station.
The flow of it never seems to stop.
Understandably so. As a matter of fact, it would be more disturbing if that flow did stop, because most of that paperwork has more of an informative role than anything else, and I need to keep abreast of everything going on in the Empire, now.
And outside of it, too.
Though I won’t be the one to handle the coming war against the majin. Foss can do that on his own.
Diplomacy will be required of me at some point, but probably not anytime soon. For now, just sending Milla there to do lay the groundwork will be sufficient – it’s not like she’s got anything better to do with her life, anyway. She probably won’t actually achieve anything concrete over there, but that doesn’t matter. A bit of bloodshed needs to happen, first, before the real negotiations can take place.
I can only deplore the tragedy of it, but deep down, I also recognize the necessity. The majin are like a herd that needs to be culled regularly, so that they don’t start stampeding out of the bounds of their enclosure. If only they could understand that this is for their own good. Surely, they must see that a thorough revolt against humanity would only result in their own destruction. And even if they won, what could they possibly do without humanity to hold their hand, when everything of value they have comes from us?
I sigh and force my focus back on the report I’m trying to read, a dry piece about the respective assets of the major mercenary groups operating within the human kingdoms.
But my mind keeps trailing back to Haris and Orsino’s mission.
My thoughts keep worrying at the issue.
At first, I was supposed to accompany them, to bring the count to three-on-one in our favor, but I eventually decided that I couldn’t risk my own safety – at the time, Father was in such a critical state that it was unclear if he would even recover, and someone needed to take the reins of the empire.
Even in my own eyes, this decision was uncomfortably close to cowardice, but I had no choice in the matter. The responsibilities that abruptly landed on my shoulders were too heavy for me to move without thinking.
And I do remember Father’s warnings, even if they rankled a bit.
That I am no match for her…
I feel my brows crease as I remember the conversation that led to these words.
When it comes to cultivation, I, Gareth Adkins, am a genius.
This is not a boast, but an objective truth. I’m already close to becoming a 2nd-rank god at only 17 years old. Without even talking about a little plane like Caldera, even among my contemporaries on the Godrealm, I am vastly superior. Perhaps only that daughter of the Ye family could match me in cultivation speed – and the only reason for that girl’s success is pure luck, so she doesn’t really count; it’s not her own talent that she’s using.
Of course, my genius is not just limited to my ability to refine qi faster than other people. Father keeps repeating to me that rank isn’t everything, and he is right, of course. I too am very conscious of the fact that raw power isn’t sufficient.
But indeed, it’s just as effortless for me to master the actual, practical use of magic in battle.
Yes, I am a genius.
There is place in this statement for neither arrogance nor modesty.
So, when my father, who is perfectly aware of my abilities, tells me that I am inferior to AK-A-13, a barbaric, idiotic brute who took almost 300 years to achieve a level of power roughly equal to my own, who’s spent all that time scurrying around in the palm of our hand without even realizing it, it is somewhat difficult to swallow.
And even if it is true that I am still weaker than her, that doesn’t mean I should avoid the confrontation. Warriors are tempered in precisely those sorts of uphill struggles. This mission really would have been a perfect opportunity to battle a strong opponent in a real, life-or-death battle.
An opportunity for growth.
Even beyond such selfish motives, this unnatural mutant is too much of a danger to be allowed to roam free on Caldera – or anywhere else, for that matter. I only have to look at the cruel and sadistic way in which she killed Jodene to see that she is evil. There is no question about it. No matter where she goes, it will be nothing more than allowing a bloodthirsty wolf into a flock of sheep. Thus, it is my responsibility, as one with the power to act, with the power to help those countless innocents that may fall prey to her, to stop her before she can reap too many victims.
Justice itself demands her death.
And yet, I had to relinquish my place.
It stung. It felt like I was running away.
But for the greater good, I ground my teeth, sacrificed my own feelings on the matter, and sent Haris and Orsino to fight the enemy alone.
Without me to help them, this will be a hard battle to be sure, but the two of them are gods, after all, even if they are only provincial gods. The refining and martial techniques they’ve been given are certainly low-class, but they are so only by the standards of the Godrealm. On Caldera, these techniques are the best of the best. Certainly better, in any case, than Akasha’s own haphazard, self-taught fighting style. If Haris and Orsino stay smart and careful and apply their numerical advantage properly, they should be able to emerge victorious despite the difference in raw power between them and their opponent. Both of them are even carrying artifacts, to further even the playing field.
All in all, the odds should be in their favor.
Really, I can’t see any major flaw with the plan I came up with. The chances of success aren’t exactly high, but failure won’t mean much, either. There is no reason not to take a shot at it.
In any case, it will probably take a few days for news to come back.
The battle might not even happen at all, in fact. It’s possible Akasha will simply bypass Fushia City and continue on her way to… wherever she’s going…
Time will tell.
I let out another sigh as I finish reading the contents of the report in my hand, then reach for the next.
Just one more, and then I’ll take a rest.
I just happen to have a new spell I want to try, too.
This’ll be perfect to relax a little.
Time told, and what it told isn’t pretty.
The mine, collapsed. The city, destroyed. All its citizens, reduced to ashes drifting in the wind. Haris himself, dead. Haris’s artifact, destroyed.
How in the void did things end up this way?
This is quite a lot worse than the worst I had expected.
My face is pale as I watch Orsino being tended to by the healers and listen to his report of what happened.
So many casualties…
I shake my head and sigh inwardly.
None of this would have happened if not for AK-A-13.
“I seem to remember telling you to protect the city, no?” I ask Orsino in a cold voice. “Do you know how many innocent people have died because of your failure to carry out your mission properly?”
Orsino doesn’t flinch at the accusation. “Young master, the city was only destroyed because Haris’s artifact malfunctioned. I’m not sure exactly what happened to it, but… In any case, I wasn’t even aware that that big lummox had been issued an artifact in the first place. Seems like something I should’ve been told, to be honest.”
I consider for a moment if I should answer the question. I suppose I might as well…
“The artifact was still a prototype, so it misbehaving isn’t exactly a surprising development. You remember the troubles you had with your own, before the countless rounds of tests and adjustments it had to go through, I think? It’s the same thing. Haris was told to only use it if it became absolutely impossible for him to win without it. If you had taken this seriously and properly supported him, he wouldn’t have had to use it at all, would he?”
Orsino shakes his head. “Young master, even if we had cooperated perfectly, I don’t think we would have won, either. Our information on the target was either incorrect or insufficient.”
I frown at him.
Is he trying to discharge himself of all responsibility in this matter?
“And what do you mean by that? You had all the information you needed. You watched images of her previous battles, didn’t you? You were properly briefed on what your enemy could do.”
We’ve been watching this little girl for 300 years. We know everything there’s to know about her – even more than she knows herself, probably. The only mystery left to AK-A-13’s power is the method she used to defeat the Sulfur Frog. But even then, she almost died herself during the battle, and she actually lost an eye, which means that, no matter what she’s hiding, it won’t be something that can bring up her strength by all that much.
Orsino purses his lips for a few seconds as he thinks on his answer, then asks, “Well, young master, what do you think the effective range of AK-A-13’s magic is?”
“Around 200 meters,” I reply without hesitation.
“Right. That’s what we thought, too. So why did it suddenly jump up to a full kilometer when we attacked her? Black smoke was coming out of her limbs, too, for some reason. And her overall behavior was clearly abnormal. She was much more vicious and violent than we’d expected. At first, she actually focused her attacks on the city and its inhabitants, rather than on Haris and I. It wouldn’t have been a realistic goal to protect so many people against a god who’s already more powerful than either of us.”
A 1st-rank god’s magic’s range should average between 100 and 150 meters, depending on how close they are to breaking through to the next rank. Someone who tries to reach farther than that will run the risk of exhausting his qi – nothing more than suicide. Akasha’s range of 200 meters is rather high, but still possible, considering her power at the peak of the 1st rank.
But one kilometer would be…
An outstanding 4th-rank god?
Though, she did develop telepathy and telekinesis much earlier than should normally be possible…
It’s speculated that the abnormalities in the development of her soul are caused by mutations the Taint brought to her dantian. Examining her corpse after the Sulfur Frog killed her would have brought confirmation of that, but…
In any case, there is no way this barbarian is a 4th-rank god.
“Was she channeling her spells through an artifact?”
“Unlikely. I didn’t see her carrying anything.”
“It could have been concealed under her clothes.”
An amplifying artifact is the only explanation I can come up with to account for such an increase in her magic’s range. As far as I know, she shouldn’t have carried any artifacts with her from the Planar Tower, but she might have found one since she escaped, as improbable as that sounds.
But Orsino shakes his head. “No. By the end of the battle, her uniform was completely destroyed. I would have noticed if she’d been hiding something underneath.”
“I see… Wait, ‘uniform’?”
“Yes. She was wearing a uniform, at first.”
“What kind of uniform? Train security?”
Depending on the markings, it might be possible to confirm the path she took to arrive in Fushia City, and the people she encountered on the way there. I think she should have boarded a train in Aldenfell, but I might be wrong…
“It looked like a maid uniform.”
“She was dressed as a maid.”
“What in the void… Her tastes are rather strange, aren’t they? Or did she just steal something at random from somewhere?”
I didn’t expect an answer to my mumbling, but Orsino blinks in realization and slaps his hands together. “Oh, right! I forgot about this, but it could be important.” He leans forward and lowers his voice. “Young master, AK-A-13 entered the city alongside Duke Springfield and his family, who were visiting Earl Odhran. She didn’t just board the same train as them, either. They seemed on fairly good terms. She even followed Springfield all the way into the earl’s estate.” Orsino thinks for a moment before continuing more hesitantly. “I also heard their train seemed to have suffered an attack, but I’m not sure what it was about, and the city was destroyed before anyone could really investigate.”
Ah, so she did board the train.
And… Duke Solaire Springfield…
The leader of the anti-war faction. A shortsighted fool who thinks he knows better than everyone else.
And now, it looks like he’s started colluding with AK-A-13.
A true enemy of humanity. His treachery really knows no bounds.
And abruptly, one of the reports I’ve read in the past few days, one lost in the sea of them that passed through my hands, jumps up into the forefront of my thoughts.
A message from Foss.
That he’d lost a 9th-ranked warrior and one of the artifacts given to him for use during the war. It was quite a large – and unexpected – loss, but the circumstances weren’t described in clear detail, so I sent word back to Foss asking for clarification.
But what I do know, is that the 9th-rank warrior who died was infected with the Taint.
Suddenly, it all makes sense.
Foss must have sent that warrior to assassinate Springfield. He attacked the train the duke had boarded and was about to accomplish his mission when Springfield made a deal with Akasha. A little 9th-rank warrior would last only an instant against her, and she’s already demonstrated her willingness to use her own blood in battle as a weapon in her fight against Jodene.
So then, Akasha really is lending her strength to the duke?
Her donning the uniform of a simple maid is a symbol of her subordination, is it?
Tch. A god letting herself become the servant of a mortal. This lowly mutant really has no pride, no dignity.
But what sort of agreement did the two of them reach?
What could the duke provide for her in exchange for her protection?
Who knows what Solaire Springfield will do, if he has a god at his beck and call? Especially one as vile as AK-A-13. The two of them together could deal great damage to humanity on Caldera.
For a moment, I sorely wish Father were here, so that I might ask him what I should do, but not only has he already left two days ago for the third laboratory, but this is also my task, my duty. Father is busy with more important matters and trusted me to handle all of this, so I will.
Hunting down AK-A-13.
Handling the aftermath of the battle in Fushia City.
Running the empire itself…
All of this is a test.
One that I will pass.
“And what about this… monster… that blocked the attack of your own artifact? Do you have any idea of its nature?”
Orsino shakes his head. “I’m sorry, young master. I was too far away; I couldn’t get a good look at it. It was just a vague, black, blurry silhouette against the night, really. But it was enormous. As large as a mountain. And it disappeared immediately after receiving my lightning bolt. It could be that some sort of creature able to control its own size was sleeping in the earth below the mine, and the landslide woke it up.”
I quirk a displeased eyebrow at the stupidity of Orsino’s suggestion. “That sounds rather far-fetched, doesn’t it? If that were the case, why would this creature have disappeared after your attack struck it? And why were there no signs of its presence beforehand? Did it just pop into existence out of thin air? Huh? Are you sure it wasn’t just an illusion of some sort, caused by the collapse of Haris’s artifact? Or Akasha used an artifact of her own to produce a magic shield with a somewhat strange shape in your attack’s path, which you mistook for a creature. Now, that already sounds a bit more plausible.”
“Well, I was sure it…”
“Enough,” I tell Orsino as I rise from my seat. “I’ll send investigators to Fushia City to see what they can dig up from there. Rest for now, and send word to me if you remember anything else you think might be significant.”
Without waiting for Orsino’s response, I turn around and leave the medical bay, ruminating on the unreliability of those provincial gods and on the next steps I should take to make up for their mistakes.