“Boss! Hey, Boss! A little help, here! Boss, boss, boss!”
I frantically dodge the clawed swipe of the snarling, slavering demon trying its very best to tear my head off my shoulders. I duck under its arm at the last second and hear it buzz past my head, the wind of it ruffling my hair in a chilling reminder that it was just that close to cutting my face into ribbons.
“Sif,” I hear the Major say in an infuriatingly calm voice, “if you don’t stop screaming right this second, I really will leave you to die. As it is, I might leave you to die even if you continue talking, so do try to put every chance on your side and stay silent, will you?”
I choke back another scream as one more demon pounces at me from beside the first. I scramble back again and trip on my own feet in my hurry. I let myself drop, rolling over the floor just in time to see the pouncing demon sail over and past me. I quickly get back to my feet and dash in a circle around the first demon, putting it in a line with the second in order to give myself a few moments before the two of them manage to encircle me or before a third creature decides to take interest in me and finally hammer the last nail in my coffin.
I dare not to call for help anymore, as I’m sure the Major will make good on her threat if I dare to disregard it, but I console myself by cursing at her as loudly and violently as I can within the safe confines of my own mind.
What kind of work environment is this, that my direct superior stands idly by as death coils its skeletal fingers around my throat and prepares to squeeze the life out of me? I must have made a terrible mistake in my career choice, somehow.
Maybe, I should have followed Momma’s advice and taken up the family’s haberdashery.
…Well, that’s a lie. There was no haberdashery. And I haven’t seen my mother since I was, what, 9 years old? I reckon she’s dead by now, like my father and pretty much every other asmodian on Caldera. Tough luck all around, I guess.
But what’s most definitely not a lie, is that I’m really starting to regret taking the Major up on her employment offer, all those years ago. It might have allowed me to evade the death penalty that was waiting for me on account of the few dozen murders I was accused of, back then, but right at this moment, a quick chop of the headman’s axe seems positively bright and cheery, compared to the idea of being eaten alive by a bunch of ravenous demons.
And all of this just in order to look for another ravenous demon who, despite being tentatively cuter than the ones trying to kill me right now, is even deadlier than all of them put together.
…Speaking of her, I wonder if Akasha is still going around without any clothes on?
That would be a nice motivation to look for her, I have to say. I hold great respect for naked girls and their plight to live closer to nature in this cruel, cold, industrial, artificial world of ours.
Maybe she’ll let me kiss her again, if I ask her?
This really isn’t the important question, right now.
The important question is, is karma an actual thing? Are my years of evil, evil deeds coming back to haunt me in the guise of extreme workplace bullying? Was the fact that the person who became my boss turned out to be an even more evil person than I influenced by some sort of cosmic force that tallied up my goodness and evilness points and decided I deserved a cruel elven bitch leading me into a demon nest, then indifferently spectating the subsequent fight from on high?
Really, karma is the only thing I can imagine which would explain the sheer ridiculous extent of the bad luck that’s hounded me for the last year and a half. Even looking past my being captured and imprisoned by the humans – I did manage to escape rather quickly, after all, so it evens out – I was actually forced to sneak into human territory only a few days after successfully sneaking out. Bad luck alone wouldn’t be enough to account for the fact that I just had to stumble on Milla’s so-called diplomatic mission right as I returned to majin territory, that I had to fail in saving her and basically watch her die, that I had to be forced back into working for the very person who killed her lest I, in turn, be killed myself.
There isn’t that much bad luck in the whole universe, surely.
And I feel like I’m starting to ramble.
It’s probably due to the stress of my imminent and gruesome demise by way of demon-induced evisceration.
As doom approaches and a third beast finally decides to fight for a portion of my corpse – the others just watch from a distance, apparently content to gaze upon my flailing, desperate form – I fling my dagger into its face to keep it occupied and dive to the side to avoid the other one lunging for my throat, taking refuge from my enemies behind a tall boulder conveniently jutting out of the ground there.
Of course, now, I don’t have a weapon anymore, and the demons just have to circle around the boulder to catch me and tear me apart, but in desperate times such as these, surviving for a few more seconds is a victory in and of itself. I wish demons weren’t immune to poison, at least. That might give me something like a fighting chance.
“Damn it, but this is getting a bit dangerous, isn’t it? I’m really going to die at this rate.”
In desperation, I look up toward the sky. There, in the air, unsupported by anything, floats the Major, looking down at me. Contrary to my own precarious position, she is certainly very safe. None of the demons can fly, so all of them are focused on me instead of her. And the bitch sure isn’t helping me.
A corner of my brain still believes that the Major wouldn’t let me die so pointlessly like this, that she still wants me to help her look for Akasha – for some unexplainable reason; she could probably do it on her own without my assistance – but under the current circumstances, it’s getting more and more difficult to listen to that small corner of my brain, as the noose tightens around my neck. If this is supposed to be some sort of training or punishment, I have to say it’s a bit excessive. After all, against demons, a single scratch can be enough to end a life. In a rather painful way, I might add.
And seeing her just looking down from up there, like she’s watching a bunch of ants play around…
Suddenly, I feel my temper rise up and take control of my mouth.
“Hey, you cunt!” I shout, quite boldly if I do say so myself. “We all know you have a very nice ass, so how about you move it down here and help me take care of these bastards? Pretty please? With a motherfucking cherry on top?”
But then, my brain registers precisely what words I just employed.
And cold sweat starts streaming down my back, the demons prowling around me all but forgotten.
This isn’t boldness. This is recklessness.
For a moment, I wonder if it would be useful to apologize for that little outburst, when I abruptly feel the weight of the Major’s stare settle onto my body. Which is not metaphorical. My feet actually sink a few centimeters into the earth and my back bends under its push.
One good thing about this weight, however, is that it isn’t limited to me alone. The demons trying to circle around the boulder sheltering my fragile little life also have trouble holding themselves upright. Their legs tremble and shake, and every step they take is a manifest struggle.
Oh my, oh my, oh my…
Am I going to be crushed to death? Will I leave only a little greasy stain on the earth of this wilderness, to remind the world that there, once upon a time, stood a beleaguered asmodian who was murdered by her own disgruntled boss?
It’s when I’m starting to hear the strained creaks of my own bones that the weight suddenly disappears, then reverses.
With a sickening lurch in the pit of my stomach, I start falling toward the sky, my limbs flailing for purchase. Unfortunately, I’m caught somewhat off guard by the abrupt change in gravity, and my fingers only painfully scrape against the boulder behind me before I leave it behind in my unwilling, uncontrolled, upward tumble.
The speed of my ‘fall’ is fast enough that it’s only an instant before I reach the Major’s altitude. She extends a hand as I pass by and grabs me by the collar, twisting it tight enough around her fingers that I choke and cough and fail to take any more breath again. Fortunately, this does interrupt my upward course, and I end up ‘hanging’ upside down in front of the Major, my face right in front of hers.
“Sif, I must have misheard you. Did you say something to me, just now?”
“Gack! Aagh, gah!”
“Hmm.” The Major rubs her chin thoughtfully. “No. That wasn’t what you said. Your words were rather vulgar, but they were still actual words.”
“Ngh, ca, can’t… breathe…!”
“Ah, yes. My apologies.”
For a brief second, the Major’s grip on my collar tightens even more and I fear my windpipe is going to be crushed, as if the bitch wants to demonstrate just how little effort it would require for her to kill me, but then the clamp around my throat finally loosens and I can taste sweet, sweet air again.
“Haaaah, haaaah, haaaah…”
“So, what was it you were saying to me?”
“Haah, haah… W–What? Oh… I was, um, thanking you for the opportunity to train my combat skills. Facing off against several demons by myself is something I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time, so it was truly a pleasure to see my dream come true. I couldn’t help myself from gushing in pure joy.”
The Major nods sagely, pursing her lips. “I see, I see. That’s what it was. Well, I’m glad you see it that way. I was actually just tormenting you for fun, but if you have such a positive outlook on things, far be it from me to break your delusion.”
And she even admits it…
“Why would you do that? Don’t you want me to help you look for Akasha?”
“Oh, I do. But I certainly wouldn’t mind if you suffer a little along the way. Or do I need to remind you that 10 of your erstwhile comrades are dead because of you? Now, I won’t pretend that we were all one big, happy family and that I cry at night thinking of them and how they were all too good for this sinful world, but they were still my subordinates.”
“Now, do you understand why I’m a little cross with you? Do you understand why the fact that you’re still a tiny bit useful to me is the only reason you’ve not already suffered a very painful death?”
I sigh inwardly. I indeed can understand, but it’s not like I had much of a choice in the matter, either. If I didn’t spill out everything I knew about the Major’s little operation, the humans would definitely have tortured me until I either talked or died. And with their truthtellers, I couldn’t even lie my way out of this predicament. A predicament I still hold to be due to a betrayal on the majin side of the equation, by the way.
So I don’t really think I deserve all this abuse…
Of course, I’m not going to say any of that. The Major isn’t exactly famous as a particularly reasonable person, after all. Voicing my disapproval of the treatment I’m subjected to would most likely worsen things, rather than improve them.
Still, it would probably be a good idea to get a few things out of the way before going any further. If I’m going to die anyway, there is no point in me cooperating. I might as well end it on my own terms.
“Yes, I can understand. But I get the feeling that you’re going to kill me regardless of the result of our search. If that’s the case, I’d appreciate it if you said so right away and cut the suspense short.”
The Major tilts her head curiously at my words. “Why would you think that? Didn’t I tell you that I’d spare your life if we were successful?”
Taking a deep breath, I look into the Major’s dark eyes and say, “Because you’re not wearing your hood anymore. Neither are you altering your voice.”
This is what’s been getting me riled up the most, ever since we started on this little mission of ours. The Major has always been a shadowy, mysterious figure. Nobody knows who she is or what she looks like. I had already learned, by pure chance, that she was an elven woman, but even I didn’t know anything more.
Except that, ever since going on Akasha’s trail, she’s dropped the hood, and she’s been talking to me in what I assume is her original voice.
The Major looks relatively young – which doesn’t mean much, since she’s part of a rather long-lived species. She has dark hair and dark eyes, and she’s altogether quite pretty, which once again is fairly standard for an elf. In fact, that’s what she is. Random elf A. Passerby B. Innocent civilian C. It feels a little strange for her to have such a normal, common appearance, considering that, from a human point of view, she’s probably something like the most terrible war criminal who ever lived. I’d have imagined her looking more evil, perhaps with red eyes like a devil – which would kind of make her look like an aged-up, scarless Akasha, now that I think of it. But no. She’s just an elf I wouldn’t really notice if we crossed each other in the street. Her voice too is rather normal; a bit low for a woman, but not cavernous or gravelly.
“Aaaah, I see what you mean,” the Major says, looking suddenly enlightened. “However, you don’t need to worry. The reason I’m not hiding my face to you is because it doesn’t matter if I do anymore.”
That doesn’t sound very comforting to me…
The Major directs a pleasant smile toward me. “It’s very simple. If we don’t find Akasha in a reasonable timeframe, I’ll consider your mission a failure and kill you. At which point, you knowing what I look like won’t matter. Right?”
“R–Right. But what if we succeed?”
“If we succeed, then it won’t matter, either,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Because I’ll be dead anyway?”
“No, no. I told you I’d let you live, Sif, and I meant what I said. Whether your life is forfeit or not truly, solely depends on your performance.”
“Let me finish,” the Major cuts me off, squeezing my throat hard enough to smother my words. “The thing is, you see, that if we do find Akasha, then I simply intend to retire. I’ll just disappear. Even if you describe my appearance to all my enemies, tell them what I look and sound like, what I usually wear, what my favorite color is, it quite frankly won’t matter in the least, because I’ll be gone.”
“Wait… Retire? What do you mean, retire? Retire?”
The Major is going to retire? What nonsense is this?
That’s absurd. That’s so absurd, in fact, that I’m having some real trouble wrapping my head around the idea.
For me, the Major’s existence is a fact of life. She was already butchering humans when I was born, she’s butchering humans now, and she’ll be butchering humans in the future as well. That’s just how it is. But for her to suddenly speak of retirement, like she’s a completely ordinary office worker or something…
“What do you mean ‘what do I mean’? I mean precisely what I said. I’m going to retire to the countryside with my family and live in peace and quiet, away from noisy, dirty civilization.”
“Family? Family?! Since when do you have family?!”
The Major, housewife extraordinaire.
This isn’t on the level of simply ‘absurd’ anymore. This must be a dream. Or a nightmare, I’m not sure. One thing I know for certain is that it can’t be real. Right. It must be a joke.
The Major just shakes her head at my incredulity. “Well, it doesn’t really matter. Suffice it to say that, one way or the other, you’ll cease to be my problem sometime soon, so what you know about me is irrelevant.”
This doesn’t make sense. This whole business doesn’t make any sense.
Why would the Major retire? Well, I can accept that she wants to stop fighting, somehow. She’s been doing this for a very long time, so it wouldn’t be too far-fetched for her to want it to finally stop, and live in a different way. But the way she said it frames it like finding Akasha is a prerequisite for her retirement. Like finding Akasha is the very reason she’s going to stop fighting.
I don’t get it.
And why is she so motivated to find that little girl in the first place? I’d at first believed the Major wanted to recruit her – a devil god would be a powerful asset in her fight against the humans – but with this new revelation, it doesn’t seem like this is it.
In fact, now, I get the distinct feeling that the Major doesn’t actually care much at all about the war between majin and humans. It feels more like she’s doing it simply because she wants to, like a hobby. But I can’t sense even a shred of reluctance or remorse in her voice when she speaks of retiring and abandoning all her responsibilities.
And what about Yulan?
Right. What about Yulan?
“Won’t Yulan say something about you retiring? Aren’t you one of his greatest agents? He’d feel the loss, if you were to suddenly disappear. Won’t he try to hold you back?”
The Major blinks at that, as if the question never even occurred to her. “Yulan? Who cares about this idiot? He can continue his hopeless little war if he wants; I don’t see why I should sacrifice my own wishes for his sake. It’s not like the humans will exterminate the majin, anyway. And even if they do, there are other planes out there. No big deal.” She frowns suddenly and leans in toward me. “Also, I’m not one of his agents,” she growls. “I’m nothing more than a business partner. If it ever looks like I follow his orders, it’s only because it’s convenient for me to do so, and because it advances my own interests. But Yulan doesn’t have the power to order me to do anything. I’m not one of his goons, got it?”
Oh, my. Looks like a touchy subject. Better tread lightly.
“Loud and clear, boss!”
And suddenly, with a nod from the Major and a flick of her hand, I spin back right-side-up, my blood seemingly running in the wrong direction for a second. I blink and shake my head a few times to try and clear it from its dizziness. Fortunately enough, the Major doesn’t let me fall back down into the demon nest below. Instead, I stay floating in the air next to her.
In the meantime, the Major glances down at the murderous beasts roaming under our feet. Their heads are tilted up toward us, their eyes gazing hungrily at the prey hanging frustratingly out of the reach of their fangs and claws.
“Now, should we clean up these… repulsive… things…?” The Major seems about to use her magic to destroy all the demons below when her voice slowly trails off and, imitating the demons, she too looks up. “What the…?”
I’m not sure when they arrived, but pitch black clouds are rolling all over the sky, gradually covering it, turning day into night a few hours early. Quickly, the clouds have spread all the way to the horizon, and the world falls into darkness.
It looks intensely creepy.
“Um, are you doing that, boss?” I ask in a deliberately cheery voice, licking my dry lips and fighting the small shiver creeping up my spine.
“No, it’s not me.”
The Major’s voice is sober and serious. Grave, even. She’s looking up at the dark cloud cover, frowning thoughtfully.
“Is that magic?” I ask again, more to break the silence than because I actually want an answer to such an obvious question.
“I think so.”
“You think so? What else could it be?”
“I have no idea, but I didn’t know anybody on Caldera was this powerful. I didn’t know anybody anywhere could even be this powerful. I didn’t know it was possible.”
I glance back down at the Major. “More powerful than you?”
“Of course. Or do you think my magic has enough range to cover the horizon like this? I can at most reach 130 meters. This is… dozens of kilometers, at the very least…”
Dozens of kilometers…
The absurd things are just piling up, today, aren’t they?
What kind of existence do you need to be, to stretch your magic so far away? Such an ability would make one pretty much invincible, wouldn’t it? Before your opponents can even see you, you’re already raining spells down upon them…
Is it the God-Emperor?
Or someone else?
But shouldn’t I feel some kind of enormous qi fluctuation, then? The surge of qi should always be proportionate to the power of the spell that’s been cast. For something of that scale, the waves should be shaking the entire world.
And yet, I can’t feel anything.
If it didn’t look so wrong, this blackened sky might even pass for a natural phenomenon.
Loud roars suddenly break the strained silence that settled between the Major and I and force us both to look down, at the herd of demons below.
They’re not roaring at us, though.
All the demons in that nest are thrashing over the ground, twisting and jerking like they’re all having a seizure. And they’re clearly in pain. They keep screeching and moaning, until their bodies all abruptly burst apart and turn into black mist.
I blink in astonishment at the sight.
Did all those demons just spontaneously turn into… clouds of blood?
I watch in fascinated horror as half a dozen black clouds drift through the air, despite the total lack of wind, upward to the dark sky. All those black clouds of demon blood meet each other in midair and merge, then quickly disappear in the darkness, presumably flowing into the black clouds covering the sky, far above.
“Did you see that?” I ask in a hushed voice. “What on earth was that?”
With the demons that were threatening us now gone to the last, the Major slowly lowers us back down to the ground, her gaze still fixed on the black sky.
We stand there in the middle of the deserted demon nest, watching the sky silently, as if waiting for something. I wonder if I should try to say something, but the Major doesn’t look like she wants to talk. She’s still scowling at the sky. So I keep my silence, as well.
It’s only several minutes later that the black clouds start to diverge and the sky returns to its usual blue, with tufts and trails of a more natural white slowly drifting across it, like any other day.
It’s like nothing ever happened.
Blinking, as if I’m waking up from a long sleep, I glance left and right around us, but of course, the disappeared demons didn’t return. Their absence is the most definite proof that all this wasn’t just a dream.
I sigh heavily. “Just what was that all about? Have you ever seen anything like it? Why did the demons… dissolve? Could it be some sort of weapon the humans developed, maybe? Designed to exterminate the demons once and for all?”
“The humans don’t want to exterminate the demons,” the Major mumbles, shaking her head absently.
I hesitate for a few moments before asking, “Should we… do something about this?”
The Major finally looks away from the sky and back down at me, a small smirk on the edge of her lips. “Do what, exactly?”
“Well, I don’t know. Investigate?”
“Investigate? I don’t think so. Whoever did that could probably crush me with a twitch of their finger, let alone you. I’m certainly not going to go look for them on my own initiative.”
That does make a lot of sense. I can only assume I’m more rattled than I’d care to admit, suggesting we throw ourselves into danger like this. It’s quite unlike me…
“And we’ve got more important things to do,” the Major continues. “Whatever that magic was and whatever purpose it served, it has nothing to do with our mission. Just focus on finding Ak… on finding that devil you spoke of. That’s all I need from you. Let’s go.”
Watching the Major turn and walk away from me, I can only nod mutely and follow with heavy steps, though my gaze returns to the sky once more, seeking any trace of what just happened that might have been left over it. I find none.
Yes, this had nothing to do with our mission.
Surely, even with my bad karma tipping the scale, my road won’t cross with whatever ridiculously dangerous monster caused that strange phenomenon.