I stay on the ground for a while. A corner of my brain realizes that doing so constitutes a death sentence, but the rest of it doesn’t seem to care. Maybe it’s too busy listening to the complaints coming in from my body. Everything is still attached, and I suppose that, technically, I’m not injured, but I feel like I was just squeezed through a meat grinder. At this point, I’m wondering if it wouldn’t be better to just die.
That bitch kept kneeing me in the stomach with earth-shattering force – literally, earth-shattering. Fortunately, all my clothes are defensive artifacts that increase the power of my shielding magic, or I would definitely have died right then and there. Even then, I could still feel my defenses breaking apart with each blow, and the residual vibrations from the shockwaves punched me in the gut like a battering ram.
I feel nauseous…
And I feel disgraced.
The fight didn’t last long, but while it lasted, not a single one of my attacks actually landed on my opponent. This is simply humiliating. AK-A-13 danced circles around me while I blundered forward like a blind cripple. That display was unworthy of me.
The main problem is that my enemy simply moves way too fast.
I knew AK-A-13 heavily strengthened her own body while she was in Planar Tower, but I couldn’t have imagined it would reach this extent. I have to use my own reinforcement magic at full power for my eyes to even catch a glimpse of her movements. Otherwise, I would only see a few vague blurs before being smacked around, not even knowing what’s hitting me. However, not only does it require a whole half of my qi to maintain my increased physical capabilities – which is still better than flying, at the very least – but the fact of the matter is that I’m just not used to moving at such speeds. Everything goes too fast. I don’t have any time to consider my next move. During the fight, I did manage to react to AK-A-13’s attacks, just barely, but all my counters were clumsy and flurried. I was just flailing around.
None of my training courses ever included battling quite that fast. For the good and simple reason that it’s just not a practical tactic for most of the enemies I might face, so my instructors didn’t focus on that. Indeed, the amount of energy required to sustain this sort of speed would usually be used much more intelligently in a wide-area destructive spell that would wipe out any threat in the vicinity. Well, someone with more qi at their disposal could afford the expense, but a 1st-rank god like me is rather restricted on that point. All energy I expend on reinforcing my body is energy I’m not leveraging toward actually winning the fight.
Right. This is the issue.
It’s not a question of being strong or weak. It’s simply a question of suitability. I’m well-equipped to fight against human gods, but I shouldn’t see AK-A-13 as such. She might look humanoid, but she’s truly more like a wild godbeast. Her tactics, strengths and limitations are all different from normal people.
Primitive, simplistic magic. An absurdly strong body.
I need to adapt my own strategy as if I am fighting an Ironbacked Leopard or something. I’ll no doubt see more success this way.
I struggle to my feet, clutching my aching stomach, and look around. A heavy fog, created in the clash of magic between Akasha’s ice and Orsino’s lightning, covers the surroundings. Neither of them is in sight.
I hope Orsino’s fine. He really helped me out on this one; I’m glad I brought him along. Without his intervention, it would have gotten seriously dangerous for me.
I take a deep breath and am about to cast a spell to wipe away that fog, making sure first that my shield is back at full strength, when a strong gust of wind suddenly buffets my face. For a moment, I wonder if Orsino preceded me on the magic I’d planned, but then a desperate shout breaks the strained silence the heavy, tarp-like fog brought over the scene.
Orsino’s desperate voice is followed by the distinct crackle of his electricity. The fog hanging in the air is thick and dense enough to conduct his power everywhere, and tiny bluish electric sparkles flit here and there all around me, as if hanging mid-air in the mist.
Damn it. That didn’t sound good.
Did Akasha turn her attention to him after he interrupted her attempt to kill me? Judging by his scream, she must have caught him in close combat, his weakness.
I better hurry.
I have to return the favor and save him!
But I fear my inward promise is given the lie a moment later, when one more powerful impact yet again rocks the earth under my feet, followed immediately by a sickening wet sound, halfway between a bursting balloon and a bug being squashed under a boot. The blood drains from my face as I imagine what could have produced such a revolting noise, and the sprint that was supposed to bring me to Orsino’s aid dies in its cradle.
I stand unmoving for a long time, in the middle of the fog, listening carefully for more sounds and trying very hard to convince myself that what I think happened didn’t just happen.
But the only thing that reaches my ears is my own ragged breathing.
“Move. Move, move, move. Damn it, Gareth, move. Right now.”
Whispering quietly to myself, I shake off the shudders climbing up my spine like the legs of a crawling centipede and slowly walk toward the point those… undetermined noises… came from. My fingers are clenched around the familiar hilt of my sword tightly enough that my knuckles turn white.
Soon, I reach the edge of a crater. There wasn’t any such thing here before the fog covered the battlefield.
Letting out a deep breath, I wave my arm, and a strong wind abruptly blows, dispersing the fog in my immediate surroundings, revealing the grisly spectacle at the bottom of the crater.
A block of ice is resting at the very center of the crater. But the white of the ice is stained with crimson. And pieces of Orsino, all torn flesh and shattered bone, are strewn everywhere around it, like gruesome decorations placed next to an altar to set off its grandeur. One of his arms flew halfway up to the lip of the crater and lies there, its fingers bent in something like a grasping eagle’s claw, as if demonstrating how hard its owner fought his eventual fate and sought to escape it. Nearest the block of ice, resting lifelessly against it, is Orsino’s head, his face an almost unrecognizable ruined mess of blood and meat. Something seems to have pierced right through his skull and out the other side.
All this, I see in the short second before I turn away, wrenching my frozen gaze from this disgusting spectacle, slapping a hand against my mouth to prevent myself from vomiting.
The terrifying scene I just saw keeps flashing into my mind despite my attempts at keeping it out. My breathing is rough and uncontrolled, and getting more so by the second. Until I bend over and empty the contents of my stomach onto my own boots. I keep retching even long after I have nothing left inside me to throw up. My eyes are tearing up at the burning pain in my throat.
Coughing and wiping my mouth on the sleeve of my robe, I straighten up and take a deep, coughing breath before forcing myself to look again.
He sacrificed his life to help me.
Fighting the nausea once again welling up inside me, I slowly climb down the slope of the crater, keeping an alert gaze on the block of ice, my shields at full power. When I arrive near it, my gaze is drawn to Orsino’s destroyed head, and as much as it was difficult for me to look, just a minute earlier, now I can’t tear my gaze away from it.
It’s not the first time one of my subordinates dies for me. I don’t remember it myself, but Father told me once that, when I was very young, the Mera family sent assassins after some notable characters of the Adkins family. I was targeted, as well, and several of the gods assigned to me sacrificed themselves so that I could escape the ambush alive.
…He saved my life.
…I was supposed to save him right back.
Gritting my teeth, I tear my gaze away, violently enough to make the muscles in my neck hurt.
“I’ll see to it that your family lacks for nothing, Orsino,” I swear aloud, pointedly not looking back down at what’s left of him. “Your years of service have been appreciated and will be rewarded accordingly.”
Avoiding Orsino’s mangled remains, my eyes instead land on the irregular block of ice resting next to me. I didn’t have the mind to notice it earlier, but a blurry shadow nests in the middle of the ice, though its surface is too opaque to make out any details.
Though I don’t need to.
It’s not hard to guess what – who – is sheltering inside.
I grit my teeth so hard I can hear them grind against each other. The hilt of my sword creaks in my desperately strong grip. I feel a deep, burning anger rise up from the pit of my stomach.
Once more, this monster has taken a life. The life of a good man, of a god who might have accomplished great things, if only he’d had the time, if only he’d been given the chance. This worthless bitch has torn that time and that chance away from him. Not only that, she’s reduced him to such a pitiful state. There isn’t even a whole corpse for me to bring back to his wife and his son.
Orsino’s desperate, terrified scream before he died seems to echo in my ears again, and with a snarl, I lift up my sword and stab it down toward the block of ice.
Time to put an end to this revolting creature once and for all, to cleanse the world of this Tainted monstrosity!
The blade, tinted blue with my magic, pierces through the first few centimeters of ice like a hot knife through butter. I feel a surge of savage, bloody satisfaction at the achievement.
I’ve finally ended it!
Father! I’ve finally ended it!
The instant I think AK-A-13’s life is forfeit, something – something ridiculously heavy and fast – slams into my back. My full-power shield shatters and disperses like a tiny little cobweb in front of a crashing meteor. In the face of that single blow I receive, all my defenses, which held up well enough during the short fight against Akasha, mean absolutely nothing.
I lose my grip on my sword and my dagger. I lose my grip on everything. And I’m blasted away into the distance like a leaf before a hurricane, speed turning the world around me into a blur.
Is this how Akasha felt when she was struck by the displacement grenade?
Strangely enough, however, I don’t feel as much pain as I should. Certainly, my entire body hurts from the suddenness and violence of the acceleration I was subjected to, but whatever it was that struck me was powerful enough to plough through my shielding magic like it wasn’t even there. By all rights, my unprotected body should have been turned into paste – no, into mist, to scatter in the wind. Except I’m not. I haven’t lost any limbs. I don’t even have any broken bones!
I’ve flown almost halfway back to Dorn before the parabola I draw through the air brings me back down toward the ground. I hastily cushion my fall with a burst of the same wind magic I used earlier to dissipate the fog that had covered the battlefield, then spin around as soon as my feet touch the ground, my hands, free of the blades I dropped, rising in front of me in a textbook-perfect martial art guarding stance.
But there is nothing behind me.
Whoever sent me flying didn’t follow me.
That’s not too surprising. If they’d wanted to kill me, they could have done so with absolutely zero effort. In fact, it was probably more difficult for them to hold back enough not to kill me – which, in its own right, is an impressive demonstration of control of their strength.
But why would anyone do this?
Are they perhaps aware of who I am, and who my father is? Whoever attacked me must be afraid of incurring the wrath of the Adkins family. It’s the only reason I can come up with to explain why I’m still alive to have these thoughts.
But, once again, why?
Is someone protecting AK-A-13?
Another of the Septentrion trying to profit from Father’s research? I can’t pretend to understand what it’s all about, but I know it’s important to the family. It’s not implausible that someone else might have somehow learned of AK-A-13’s existence and tried to take her for themselves.
As the feeling of that terrifying force suddenly pushing against my back comes back to me, cold sweat streams down my face and coats my back, making my clothes stick to my skin. I have to deliberately control my breathing to avoid falling into panic. Even then, my stance isn’t steady. My legs are shaking; my hands and fingers trembling uncontrollably as the shock settles in.
Never have I been so close to death before…
Even against Akasha, when I was in danger, I still had the ability to resist. I wasn’t completely powerless.
My eyes dart everywhere, looking for a threat – for anything at all – but the scene in front of me couldn’t be more ordinary. I landed in the forest north of Dorn. Stuck between the two mountains, the trees here certainly aren’t very big or leafy or pretty. But there is nothing to indicate that a god far above my own level is nearby. Looking at these calm woods, it’s almost like I dreamt the whole thing.
I don’t know how long I stay, almost paralyzed, nerves tight with fear, just waiting for something to happen.
Eventually, though, my hammering heart calms down. I lower my arms that are starting to get sore and relax my stance…
I jump in fright at the voice suddenly appearing right behind me, my heart once more beating so hard it feels like it’s going to burst out of my chest any second. I spin around to face the voice and move to run away from it at the same time, which almost ends up with me tangling my feet and tripping to the ground. As it is, I stumble a few steps away like a drunk before I manage to regain my balance and look with wide eyes at the owner of the voice.
Clara is standing there, just a few meters away, her hand still raised in greeting. She seems frozen in place, her eyes examining me with obvious surprise. Behind her, floating in the air with shackles around his ankles, wrists, and neck, is the humongous devil I told her to capture when we started the operation.
“Um, sir? Are you all right?”
“Are you all right, sir?” she asks again. “You’re white as a sheet. Did something happen? Where are Orsino and AK-A-13?”
It takes a few seconds for my harried brain to understand Clara’s words. Even then, I barely manage to form a half-coherent answer. I vaguely wave my hand toward the collapsed hill that served as the battlefield for today’s confrontation. “Oh, huh. O–Over there.”
Clara tilts her head. “Is the fight over? Is AK-A-13 dead?”
“Yes, I mean, no, but… Um, huh… That’s… I just…”
Clara looks dubiously at me. Even I know my behavior right now is a mess, but despite my efforts to calm down, every word I say comes out as if from the mouth of a lunatic.
“I see,” Clara says slowly. “Sir, I’ll go get Orsino, then, shall I?”
Without waiting for me to work up the courage to tell her Orsino’s dead, Clara starts walking toward the battlefield where Orsino and I fought Akasha, the huge devil floating along behind her.
More to the point, she starts walking toward the point where the person who threw me flying is most likely still standing.
A terrible premonition given birth in my heart, I raise a hand and take a step after Clara to grab her and prevent her from dooming the both of us with her stupidity.
But the moment my foot touches the ground and brings me a half a meter closer to AK-A-13’s position, the entire world stops moving, and Clara and I stop in our tracks.
Bloodlust, so thick and heavy that the very air coagulates around us, rises up in the distance and covers the world. The wind stops blowing. The tree leaves stop fluttering. The sky darkens perceptibly. Images of rivers of blood and mountains of corpses and dark, hungry maws filled with fangs flash through my mind, burying every other thought underneath them.
My eyes widen until they almost fall out of their sockets. I hear my teeth chattering. My breath freezes in my lungs. My heart lurches unsteadily, on the cusp of failing. My body itself is shutting down, without obvious cause, as if it’s simply a law of nature that everything should be dead under the heel of that boundless bloodlust, and I’m simply, inexorably moving toward that natural state.
A bird falls out of the sky and crashes next to me, dead. A tiny corner of my mind that still manages to maintain a modicum of sobriety realizes that I’m going to end up like this as well, in just a few seconds, when the bloodlust abruptly retracts back to where it came from. I see out of the corner of my eye that Clara too has been freed, as she mutely falls to the ground on her hands and knees, her shoulders heaving, her entire body shaking uncontrollably.
For a small, mistaken instant, I give inward thanks to that mysterious expert for his mercy – I have no doubt that the owner of that bloodlust is the one who threw me away from AK-A-13, earlier.
But then, the rumbling starts. At first, I feel more than hear it, like the faint tremble of a deep earthquake spreading from the ground and into my feet. Except that this rumbling gradually becomes louder and louder until, like the ocean of bloodlust before it, it fills the entire world. Pebbles on the ground are rolling and bouncing around. The trees and leaves are all violently vibrating.
As it becomes louder, the rumbling’s tonality and pitch also change, and I finally realize what it is.
The growl of a beast.
When the growl turns into a full-throated roar, an explosive gust of wind swipes across the forest, originating from the direction of the crater sheltering the frozen AK-A-13, like a breath pushed out of a monstrous throat. A visible tidal wave of air sweeps across the entire forest. Trees are violently uprooted and flung through the sky, and both Clara and I are blown away, falling onto our backs and rolling over the ground.
The roar continues unabated, still getting louder and higher, and soon, it blends into a screech that sounds for all the world like nails scraping on a blackboard right next to my ears.
Still on the ground, I scream but barely hear myself beneath that horrible noise. I see the trees and the earth splintering and shattering and turning to dust all around us, as if the world itself is ending. I hurriedly cover my ears with the most powerful shield I can muster, and it too vibrates and trembles, even closer to breaking from this simple soundwave than it was from AK-A-13’s blows.
Blood leaks out from my nose and covers my lips. My teeth ache. All the muscles in my body are shivering. Even my eyeballs are twitching painfully, as if getting ready to burst. Tears of blood cover my cheeks and drip down to the ground.
I almost wonder if I’m going to die just like this when I catch sight of the huge, rhino-like devil, still floating unconscious in the air. He looks even worse than I probably do. His whole body is shaking and twisting. It almost looks like countless worms are crawling under his skin, as if his blood is running backward through his veins or attempting to burst out of his arteries.
But then, it really does.
The huge devil bursts open, like an overripe melon being crushed by a battering ram. I’m not sure if it’s due to the vibrations of the unearthly screech or something else, but that heavily muscled, 2.5-meter-tall frame breaks apart into a black cloud of blood mist, which then unnaturally soars through the air, dodging around the branches of the few still-standing trees, heading up toward the sky and quickly merging with the black clouds covering it in every direction.
What in the void?
Are those clouds made out of demon blood or something?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the leisure to investigate anything about this situation. I can’t even stand up. It takes everything I have to hang on to my consciousness.
And then, all of a sudden, from one instant to the next, that horrible screech stops, not even a residual echo of it remaining.
“Guh, huh, huff…”
I cough out a few mouthfuls of blood and wipe my palm against my face. It comes out red with blood, but I don’t care.
I’m alive! I made it!
Gritting my teeth, I work my way up to my feet and stumble over to Clara’s prone form. I trip on my own feet before I can make it to her and fall on my face next to her unresponsive body. Groggily climbing to my knees, I shake her shoulder to try and wake her.
“Clara. Hey, Clara.”
She doesn’t respond. I’m about to roll her over onto her back to check her state, when I notice that night seems to be falling.
Gasping, I lift my head up toward the sky.
A clearly unnatural tide of clouds, all pitch black, is gradually covering the entire sky, slowly stretching all the way to the horizon and plunging the world into darkness.
“Haaah, haaah, haaah… No way. No way, no way, nowaynowaynoway…”
Tendrils of panic creep into my body and take hold of my heart. All the heat seeps out of me, leaving me as if bathing in ice-cold water.
What in the void is happening?
Is this really Caldera? Worthless little backwater Caldera?
What kind of monster is hiding on this plane?
What would something this powerful be doing here?
And how powerful is it, really?
I’ve seen Father fight before. Not even he could possibly cover the entire sky with his power like this. Would even the head of our clan be able to accomplish such a feat?
By the time my thoughts have caught up with the situation and I can form a proper thought again, a moonless night has fallen. I can only see the forms around me by silhouettes and outlines.
Slowly, I stand up and turn around to face the north.
There, a gigantic, indistinct form is standing, only visible because it is even blacker than the night around it. It dwarfs even the two mountains on either side of it.
My gaze falls onto this titan in time to see a bright, glowing red sun slowly open over its surface, 7 more following in short order.
I stand transfixed, in the dark, until those 8 red suns subtly move.
A small, strangled, sputtering whimper escapes my clogged throat as those eyes, each as big as a hill, focus on me. I feel their attention like a physical weight slamming into my mind. I feel my soul strain and creak, threatening to shatter and disperse in the face of that unbelievable presence. Something wet and warm trickles down the bottom of my robes and forms a pool at my feet.
A demon godbeast…
Probably something like an 8th- or 9th-rank demon godbeast.
This plane is forfeit. Dead. Gone.
And so am I.
The huge demon stares at me for a few seconds more, before something rises up and stretches out from the main bulk of its silhouette.
When the monster’s leg falls down, looking slow and ponderous from this far distance and with its enormous size, it strikes the ground like a falling, city-sized hammer. It’s only a single step, but gullies and crevices and canyons crack the earth in every direction. The plane’s crust buckles and splits open, and the mountain on my left-hand side directly collapses, a terrific landslide sweeping over the surrounding land, Dorn and the forest in which I’m standing included.
But I couldn’t care less about the landslide.
Because that gigantic monster just took a step.
In my direction.
Heedless of everything, I turn around and bolt. I trip on Clara’s unconscious body and fall to the ground, but it barely even registers. I push with my feet against her flank and use her as a springboard to scramble the next few meters on my hands and knees before I manage to get my feet under me and start running again, my magic drawing on the wind harder than ever before to help me flee just a second faster.
Leaving everything behind, I run from this place without turning back.