“Dead? What do you mean, dead?”
“I’m sorry, sir. When we lost contact with them, we sent a few men to investigate, but they failed to find any survivors.”
“Are you sure they’re dead? Did you find the bodies?”
Jarod hesitates for a moment before replying. “While we didn’t find any bodies, as such, we did find… some sort of black goo.”
“Yes. The same kind we found in the battlefield near Aldenfell, where AK-A-13 escaped the Planar Prison, where soldiers appeared to have… melted. We suspect these men too were discovered and eliminated in the same way.”
Taking a deep breath, I lean back into my chair.
The plan to incite the devils into attacking the Springfield estate and lure out Akasha has been underway for a few days, already, but the devils aren’t stupid. I’m perfectly conscious that manipulating their opinions and feeding them false information without arousing their suspicions aren’t easy tasks, and that they will require time. Which is why I dispatched some agents to keep an eye on the Springfields and Akasha, just in case the situation changed and we had to adjust our plans.
But for all of these agents to end up dead…
And without even getting the opportunity to warn anybody.
It’s only when no one made contact for their usual regular reports that Jarod, as spymaster of the empire, discovered that something had gone wrong.
“So, AK-A-13 knows somebody’s watching her, now, does she?” I mumble, more to myself than anybody else.
“That is likely. Although she shouldn’t have had any way to identify the men she killed.”
“Hmm.” I raise my head to look up in Jarod’s eyes. “I wouldn’t describe your men as incompetents, Jarod. So do you have any ideas how they could have messed up so badly that their target would notice all of them?”
Jarod shakes his head with a helpless look on his face. “I have frankly no idea, sir. I could’ve accepted it if one or two of them had been discovered, but for every single one to fall in such a small lapse of time… I don’t know what happened. I can only apologize for this blunder.”
“Do we at least have an idea where she’s going?”
“I’m sorry, sir, but the agents in every direction around the city were systematically killed, so we currently have no way to determine her destination. I sent more men to investigate more closely and look for traces of her passage. I’m still waiting for them to come back to me on that.”
“Sir, now that AK-A-13 has left the Springfield estate on her own, should we put the devils on hold, for now?”
The whole point of the plan involving the devils was to lure her out in the open, out of the duke’s sphere of influence. If she’s really left of her own volition, it means our wish has already been fulfilled and the plan is no longer needed.
Still, now that we’ve started, we might as well go through with it.
Even if the devils do not affect AK-A-13 herself, they might still cause some damage to Solaire Springfield’s forces. Weakening his military power is a worthy goal, even on its own.
“No. Keep going with it. We’ll see what the devils will do for us, what opportunities they might give us.”
Jarod nods, clearly approving of my decision. “Understood.”
“And find where AK-A-13 is going, of course. Warn me when you have something.”
“Yes. It seems like she attacked a branch of the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, there. She then killed a few soldiers during her escape. Along with the city lord, a man called Yarang. 8th rank.”
“I know him. Or at least his reputation. Little more than a bandit, from what I hear. I doubt many people will mourn his passing.”
And the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce.
It’s a fancy name, and I suppose it does sometimes trade in perfectly legal goods, but this organization is basically a glorified slavery ring, quite often standing with one foot toeing over the line of the law.
A bunch of repulsive bastards, all in all.
Good riddance, I say.
“Isn’t slavery outlawed in Rigonn?” I idly ask as I reflect on how this news will change the situation. “I thought Duke Springfield had made sure of that.”
“It is, and he did, sir,” Jarod replies. “I asked myself the same question when I heard what happened. I looked it up, and it turns out Kohln stands in a very peculiar position, geographically speaking. Just on the border between Rigonn and Altera. That whole area has been heavily contested over the years, its ownership going back and forth between the two countries, and a good dozen different treaties overlapping each other have turned Kohln’s law into a very fuzzy matter. This peculiar legal situation has basically turned the city into a hotbed of black markets and barely legal enterprises. One of which is the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce.”
“And the duke stood for that?”
“He didn’t have a choice. Not with Yarang there as the city lord. He might not have been a very savory character, but his strength and influence were real. Until now. I suspect things are going to change in Kohln, now that he’s gone.”
As inattentively as I am listening to him, I almost miss the hidden meaning in Jarod’s words. When I do catch it, my gaze snaps up to him.
“You’re saying Solaire Springfield sent AK-A-13 to Kohln to get rid of a political opponent? To kill Yarang and destroy the Blackwood Chamber of Commerce, one of the symbols flouting the laws he pushes forward?”
“I believe so, sir. It would make sense.”
I slap my hand over the desktop in front of me. “Damn, the bastard is crafty. Or maybe we’re just stupid. We really should have seen this coming. We already knew Akasha had thrown her lot with him; it stood to reason that he would make good use of her to remove some eyesores.”
Jarod nods thoughtfully, as if reflecting on his actions, before continuing, his tone studiously neutral. “Her actions were witnessed and reported by the local populace. A bounty has been issued by the Imperial Office of Law Enforcement.”
Once again, it takes me a moment to register the meaning of his words, so absurd are they. A disbelieving laugh can’t help but rise up in my throat. “Hah… And you didn’t stop them? Do you have some sort of grudge against whatever bounty hunters are going to pick up this contract?”
The bounty system is also used in the Godrealm, and some hunters there are real monsters that would give elders of the Septentrion a run for their money, but on this remote little plane…
An image of a bunch of grubby peasants, armed with rusted knives and bent pitchforks, attacking Akasha, suddenly pops into my head. I have to make an effort not to laugh out loud.
“Do I have to remind you that two gods together couldn’t win against that monster? And you put a bounty on her head for mortal warriors?”
Even Jarod has the courtesy to look embarrassed at this. “I felt that even such a little interference might make her way a bit more difficult. I was just thinking we should use every tool we have.”
…Is he seriously saying that?
I’m pretty sure he just wants to get back at Akasha for melting all the agents he’d assigned to her surveillance into goo, a while back.
But I’m not going to interfere.
Bounty hunters risking their lives to capture criminals and dying in turn is a matter of course. All of them should be perfectly conscious of the risks of taking up this particular job. At least, if Akasha killing this Yarang has already been made public, it should already intimidate most weaklings into giving up the chase.
Eventually deciding that there’s indeed not much reason to purposely cancel the bounty, I urge Jarod to continue his report. “So, I feel like I’ve been asking this question a lot, recently, but do we know where AK-A-13 is, now?”
And as expected, Jarod just shakes his head. “I’m sorry, sir.”
I let out a frustrated sigh and lean on the desk, propping my chin with one hand. “This is really starting to get frustrating. We’re always one step behind… If we could just pin her down for a bit, we could definitely end her.”
“Manipulating the devils will give us that opportunity. That is the whole point of this plan, after all.”
“I know. Now, we just have to make it successful.”
To me, this sounded like a conclusion to this conversation, but seeing Jarod hesitate to speak, I wonder if we have more to discuss. His presence here was purely to report the latest news on Akasha’s movements; I don’t think there is anything more to be said, at the moment.
And I still have a ton of work to go through in my capacity as the – acting – God-Emperor, which fact Jarod definitely knows, so he wouldn’t just stay here to chit-chat.
“Is there anything else?” I prompt.
“Sir… I heard the funeral is planned to take place right before your coronation, on the eve of the inter-species competition?”
I can’t keep a frown from appearing on my face. “And what of it?”
Noting my reaction, Jarod hesitates for a moment longer. “Sir, I feel it would not be all that suitable for a funeral to directly precede your coronation. It might cast a shadow on…”
Before Jarod can finish his sentence, I raise a hand and interrupt him. “All right, no need to say more. I’ve already made my decision.”
Who cares if it’s suitable or not?
Since Milla’s body couldn’t even be recovered, the least I can do is to send her off with proper ceremony.
“Sir, I really think…”
“You’re a spymaster, Lord Jarod. Not a steward or anything else of the sort. Just focus on spymastering and don’t worry about the rest. You’re dismissed.”
Perhaps the cold laced in my voice makes it clear that, this time, the conversation is over. Jarod stands up from the seat in front of my desk, and bows solemnly, before taking his leave.
“So, what kind of damage are we talking about, here?”
“Rather extensive. A good half of the duke’s troops have been killed in action. His personal manor, along with many buildings throughout the city itself, have visibly collapsed, so it’s clear the Springfields had some difficulty repelling the assault. It’s already been confirmed that the duke himself is alive, though injured. I’m afraid more information than that will not be easily forthcoming. With the increased vigilance of the city guard and martial law in effect, it’s become harder to get anything substantial without risking our long-term assets in the city.”
“Hmm. Good enough.”
“Thank you for your understanding, sir. More importantly than all of this, however, I’ve learned that, while the number of demons who attacked the city was low, they were all outstandingly powerful,” Jarod says, his face turning grim. “Especially one, who was strong enough to fight evenly against Finram Springfield, then escape, alive and well.”
At this revelation, both Malthur – vice-commander of the apostle legions, here on behalf of his father – and I unconsciously tense.
Jarod only shakes his head when Malthur scoffs at his words. “This information has been confirmed repeatedly, by enough different sources to fully convince me.”
Even though I’m not quite as vocal in my disbelief as Malthur, I also cannot suppress the shock inside me.
How on earth could there be a 9th-rank devil?
That doesn’t make any sense.
Devils don’t really fit the concept of ‘ranks’, since they don’t refine any qi, but just like for AK-A-13, it’s still possible to approximate one, based on their combat ability, the potency of their soul – or the coagulation degree of their consciousness, if they’re mortal – the amount of energy stored inside their dantian, and the range of their magic.
Only, while devils and apostles enjoy a steadier growth than actual people – which is one of the main reasons they make such good soldiers, along with their expendability – it is still much, much too soon for one of them to match a 9th-rank warrior. Even Akasha herself, the single most successful and powerful existing ‘devil’, took more than 200 years to reach this point. Furthermore, for a devil to grow, they will necessarily need to feed on great amounts of demon blood. In the Planar Tower, with its inexhaustible demon hordes, such a factor is not a problem, but on Caldera, where demons are much scarcer, it would take an incomparably longer time for a devil to build up proper reserves of energy.
As proof, even the strongest apostle today is only 7th-rank.
Did the devils find a way to increase the speed of their own growth?
It’s still too early to make any kind of conclusion, but I’m sure this information will greatly interest Father. After struggling unceasingly for the past 300 years to understand what made AK-A-13 into what she is, this new anomalous 9th-rank devil might prove to be the key to the whole mystery.
I might not be aware of the exact goals of Father’s research, but considering his attachment to it, I have no doubt it is vital.
I absolutely must not miss this opportunity to help him.
When I raise my head, Malthur and Jarod are silently waiting for my conclusion.
“Jarod, I want the records of all the devils who escaped from the first laboratory, 100 years ago, when the Major attacked. I’ll take a look at them myself and see what I can find in them.” After a moment of consideration on the likely number of such records I might find on my desk tomorrow morning, I quickly amend my instructions to try and limit my workload. “Keep those who have already been confirmed dead, please. I don’t think I’ll need those.”
“I’ll also add another objective to this plan of ours. Capture that 9th-rank devil. Alive.”
My new orders cause Malthur’s face to stiffen a little, though he probably expected them when he heard Jarod’s report and saw my reaction to them. “Sir, may I ask who you intend to send on this mission? I must warn you that capturing a 9th-ranker alive would be much more difficult than killing him, which in turn would be much more difficult than simply defeating him.” His eyes shift left and right, and he continues more slowly, as if carefully picking his words. “I’m not sure any mortal manpower would be up to the task, sir.”
“I know. Orsino has already fought AK-A-13, so he’ll be coming with me. And, hmm, Carla is available, right? Her mission up north is already concluded, I think. I’ll take her, as well.”
“W–W–Wait, sir. I mean, please wait, sir. Do you intend to go yourself?”
Both Malthur and Jarod seem to share reservations on this particular part of my plan. It’s true that I had yet to warn them that I intended to directly participate.
“Yes, I will. The empire can run itself for a few days; it won’t collapse so easily. And I want to end this right now. I won’t tolerate any more mistakes. Which is why I’m doing it myself. It’s not like you need to worry about my well-being, either. I can tell you quite frankly that there is not a single force on this plane that could stand up to three gods working in concert, including AK-A-13.”
After a glance from Malthur as if asking him for help in dissuading me, Jarod speaks up. “Sir, I still don’t think you should risk yourself on the battlefield, like this. As the leader of humanity, you should…”
“Save it, Jarod. As the leader of humanity, what I should do is clean this mess up. AK-A-13 has caused enough damage already. I’ll put a stop to it.”
“This isn’t up for discussion.” I look at Malthur and Jarod in turn. “You send the word to Orsino and Carla. And you, keep me appraised of how the situation evolves with the Springfields. We’ll need to time our assault to begin as soon as AK-A-13 makes contact with the devils.”