The Major is strong.
My arms ache as I swing my sword one more time. Even in my current state, it’s far and away a cleaner, stronger slash than I’ve ever managed during training. This fight has pushed me past my limits time and time again.
However, my sword is once again deflected. Before it can reach its target, an invisible force pulls the blade to the side.
Since the direction and intensity of this force changes every time, I can’t adjust. I can’t predict how I should resist it or how much strength I should put in my sword arm to negate the attraction. Too little and my sword will be pulled off course; too much and I will overreach and leave myself open to a violent counterattack.
To make matters worse, the fight between Akasha… between AK-A-13 and Direnni has concluded. I can’t believe he’s dead. He was the strongest of the local gods from Caldera Father trained after he arrived on this remote plane. Even if Direnni didn’t come from the Godrealm, he was still a 2nd-rank god. Who knew AK-A-13 had such strength? Even more so, Direnni’s magic renders him mostly immune to physical damage. To fight him head on, force him to transform and go all out, only for him to finally die so helplessly like that…
There was nothing I could do to help him. That cowardly monster’s hidden at the center of what is essentially a walking glacier. My blade magic isn’t designed for widespread destruction but for surgical strikes. Blowing through all that ice – and it doesn’t feel as brittle and fragile as normal ice, either – is impossible for me.
The Major punishes my instant of inattention severely. Two whirling pieces of rubble, each several meters across, soar through the sky toward me, from the left and right. The point of my sword draws a blue line of blade magic, splitting one of the projectiles in two. The impulse contained in the cut sends the fragments flying harmlessly past the sides of my body, but it’s already too late for me to turn around and deal with the other one.
I grit my teeth, and just before a terrific impact sends me flying to the side, I manage to channel my qi into the shielding formations weaved into my clothes. I’m still flung away, but most of the damage is absorbed by a membrane of light which appears a centimeter or two away from my body. With more magic, I regain control of my flight trajectory, swooping back toward the Major.
But a headache is already mercilessly pounding at my temples.
I’m reaching my limits. This fight has not been a particularly long one, but it’s been drawing everything from me. I have to simultaneously hold myself aloft with flight magic, attack and block attacks with blade magic, and since the depletion of the last magic core I carried, I’ve also had to activate my shields manually. Even if I recover the qi I spend with every breath I take, even if I avoid qi exhaustion by not casting spells too big for me, it still requires perfect focus to use magic properly. And maintaining perfect focus and concentration for an extended period is exhausting. Practitioners are trained to force their brains into obedience and keep this clarity and focus even when they should be lying on the floor, asleep or unconscious, but continuing to cast spells when one’s body is begging for rest carries a measure of risk.
A much lesser measure, however, than leaving myself at the fickle mercies of a notorious majin mass murderer and an insane devil addicted to violence and destruction.
Pushing myself, I send a few desperate slashes toward the Major. A field of gravity deflects all of them. The deadly rays of blue light veer away from their previous trajectory seemingly of their own volition, as if refusing to come close to the Major and harm her.
It’s incredibly frustrating to see all my attacks fail so pitifully. At least, if they were blocked or parried, I would have the notion that I’m accomplishing something. But to see them all fade away without ever coming in contact with their target is simply demoralizing.
Fighting a god of a higher rank is a more difficult challenge than I expected.
Which makes AK-A-13’s victory against Direnni rankle all the more. Why can she do so, when I can’t? Is there something fundamentally different between us? What does she have that I don’t?
…No. There shouldn’t be. There shouldn’t be anything.
In point of fact, my talent and skill are much higher than hers! What she accomplished in 300 years, I did in less than 20! If we were both disciples of the same sect, I would be one of the most elite inner disciples, while she would… Well, actually, she wouldn’t be a disciple at all, as no school would ever accept such a poor student.
The only difference lies in our opponents. Direnni was an honorable and upright man. He attacked AK-A-13 head-on, without any tricks. This allowed her to use her most significant advantage, her powerful body, to the full. The Major, on the other hand, is craven and gutless. She only attacks from a distance and never allows her opponent close to her. This removed most of the strengths of my blade magic.
No wonder I’m in a difficult position.
This also explains why AK-A-13 suddenly launched a sneak attack on Direnni, earlier. She no doubt predicted their defeat if our opponents were reversed and did everything she could to anger Direnni and force him to fight her instead of the Major. When she saw that they would be at a disadvantage, she immediately started to play tricks.
The more I think about it, the greater becomes my conviction that this was a deliberate ploy. This whole competition was a trap all along! AK-A-13 must have allied with the Major beforehand, no doubt using that traitor Duke Springfield’s contacts in majin territory. While she grabbed our attention by entering the arena and attacking the spectator stands openly, the Major prepared a spell and killed 3 of the gods accompanying me. And then, the majin spectators launched a barbaric, savage assault on our side.
I understand, now.
The majin took advantage of the Inter-species Competition to launch a preemptive attack against the human empire! How shameless!
I’m still buried in my own thoughts, somehow skillfully avoiding and parrying all of the Major’s attacks, when something, a subconscious instinct, warns me of impending danger. I look down at the broad back of the ice spider AK-A-13 created.
Thousands of spears of ice are growing on the spider’s back, almost like the spines of a porcupine. Then, they all simultaneously shoot toward me, like a rain of arrow rising toward the sky.
I take a deep breath and focus most of my magic on my flying spell, to improve my agility and speed in the air. I weave around and dodge the ice spears aiming for my life. A few I can’t fully avoid I strike down with my sword.
bang! bang! bang!
The rain of spears seems unending. And it probably is. Considering AK-A-13’s ability to create ice – one just has to look at this gigantic spider to get an idea of it – she can probably keep up this sort of bombardment forever.
But I, on the other hand, can’t hold on for much longer. And the Major is interfering with my flight, pushing me in the path of the spears even as I strive to avoid them. It’s like she’s taunting me, casting only subtle, little spells instead of fully attacking as she did before.
She knows I’m at the end of my rope.
A surge of anger floods my mind, and I start shouting at the top of my lungs. “Are you not ashamed of yourselves?! Two against one? Have you filthy majin no honor at all?”
If this was a fair fight, I’d kill them! I’d kill them both easily!
Despair starts to creep in. Casting the simplest of spells is becoming a strain – painful, even.
I can’t die here!
I have so many great things left to accomplish. I’m the most extraordinary genius in the younger generation of the Adkins family and even of the entire Godrealm! I’m to become the successor to the seat of Family Head after my father! I’m to command the armies of humanity on the Godrealm and secure our place against our enemies! I’m to usher in a new age for the Adkins family and finally dethrone the Ye Family as the top of the Septentrion!
I absolutely can’t die here!
What can I do to stay alive?
What is it that I can do?
It doesn’t take me long to hit upon an idea.
It’ll be risky, but…
I glance at the Major. She watches my struggles, aloof and unreachable. Powerful and strong. I clench my teeth in rage.
“How about you have a taste of this, then?” I shout.
I wave my hand, and the Sword Soul Crystal Father gave me when I started learning blade magic appears in front of me, wreathed in purple light. My heart bleeds at the idea of sacrificing such a precious thing. I was supposed to study it until I reached 3rd rank. Then, when I was strong enough, I would absorb it and strengthen my magic with its powers. It’s not even designed to be used as a weapon, really. But if breached, the magic held within should hopefully explode, sending rays of sword light flashing everywhere.
With a bit of luck, this will kill my enemies.
Or at least cover my retreat.
Mere flight won’t let me escape the radius of the crystal’s explosion in time, so I cast one of the more arcane spells of blade magic I’ve learned. At the time, I argued that blade magic was made to attack, rather than flee like a beaten dog, but Father insisted. I’m thankful today that I listened to him.
I tighten my grip on the hilt of my sword and channel all my qi into the sword before casting the spell. An instant later, as the fluctuations of energy radiating from the Sword Soul Crystal quickly become wilder, the sword soars away, pulling me along much faster than I could with usual flight magic. The acceleration feels powerful enough to almost yank my arm out of its socket, but I hang on.
Then, the crystal explodes. Bright, deadly purple light shines behind me.
Damn, I’m not far enough!
At this rate, I’m going to get pulled into my own attack!
I don’t have the qi capacity to both cast the Flying Sword spell and activate the shields weaved into my clothes. It’s one or the other. Decisively, I abort my blade magic and spin around.
A ray of purple sword light is about to touch me. Faster than I would’ve thought possible, faster it seems than a human could ever manage, I bring my sword up in front of me and expertly deflect the ray away from me. I do the same for the second ray and the third. But they seem just as inexhaustible as AK-A-13’s ice spears were earlier. The Sword Soul Crystal’s rays thrust deep into my body, stabbing holes into my chest and slashing open my legs and cutting into my arms.
For a few moments, I fear using the crystal to escape was nothing more than suicide, but then the light fades away.
I’m still alive!
I’m terribly injured, but I’m still alive.
The joy of it is almost enough to overwhelm the horrible pain of my wounds.
And though I didn’t see what happened to her, the Major seems to have been hit even worse than I was. That’s another comfort. I’m close enough to see her fall out of the sky, and I almost want to go back there in order to cut her head off myself and rid the world of this walking plague. But… I’m also close enough to see that AK-A-13 is none the worse for wear, even after the destruction wrought by the Sword Soul Crystal. It carved deep scores in the back of the gigantic spider within which she’s encased, but none of them go far enough to reach her.
I grit my teeth and cast the Flying Sword spell again. This time, I leave without turning back.
I should be flying fast enough to escape AK-A-13, especially after her fight against Direnni. Perhaps, the fall of the Major may even buy me some more time, though I don’t think I can hope for this monster to spend too much time taking care of her injured allies. I likely won’t have too much of a head start.
In just a minute or two, I cross the entire breadth of the Island. Admittedly, it isn’t very vast. I land on the beach, the Betwixt Sea stretching all the way to the horizon before me. My legs are weak; I merely take a few steps, my hand pressed over the terrible injuries I’ve sustained, before they fail me and I fall heavily to my knees.
My eyes are blurry, and shamefully, I have to admit that tears of pain are leaking out of them and streaming down my cheeks. My breathing is labored. I feel both hot and cold at the same time.
I feel like I’m having a nightmare. How did this day turn so wrong?
I glance down at my wounds and can see bone in some of them.
“Uuuuuh…” A small whimper escapes me, and I take a deep breath, clenching my jaws to prevent my chin from trembling too much.
What did my instructors say I should do if I found myself injured and alone?
I can’t remember.
I remember that I refused to learn healing magic because I wanted to focus on my blade magic. I felt that, in any case, someone else around me would have learned it anyway, and they could cast it for me then. Surely, Direnni knew some form of healing magic?
But now, everyone else is dead.
The world starts spinning around me. I feel dizzy. Uncontrollably, I collapse in the sand, my blood painting it red. What should I do? Do I have something in my space ring I could use to…
I do have medicinal pills. They’re not Rebirth pills, of course – even the Adkins family isn’t quite wealthy enough to distribute such priceless treasures to all of its members – but they should be enough to deal with such injuries. I almost forgot about them, since I’ve never had cause to use them before. I don’t even remember how long ago it was that I put them in there.
Slowly, painfully, I extend a strand of qi toward the ring on my thumb. It takes me longer than it should, and even for such a simple task, my meridians scream in pain, and several times, I almost want to give up, but through great effort and willpower, I manage to get a few pills out and into the palm of my hand.
…Which one is it?
I have an assortment of pills, each of a different color. I’m quite sure at least one of them must be a medicinal pill designed to recover quickly from even severe injuries, but I can’t remember which one it is.
I stare at the pills in a daze for a few seconds, before simply swallowing them all at once. I know it’s quite reckless, as the pills might interact with each other in strange ways and cause dangerous secondary effects, but I don’t have a choice. Any more dithering and I really will die.
And more than anything, I want this unbearable pain to stop…
Now, I’ll give myself 30 seconds to recover my breath before continuing my retreat across the sea. I should at least have that much allowance before AK-A-13 follows after me.
I start counting to 30 inside my head, but my eyes close before I reach 10, and I lose consciousness.
I wake up with difficulty to the sight of a pair of boots standing just a few centimeters away from my face. They’re quite dirty. Flecks of mud pepper the leather, and the sand of the beach stuck to those flecks and inside the leather’s creases. My own boots would never be this messy. They’re always waxed properly every morning; the servants see to that before I get out of bed.
I blink a few times, until the memory of my situation finally comes back to me and hits me like a runaway train.
I take a sharp breath and push myself off the ground, trying to roll away from whoever’s standing in those dirty boots. Unfortunately, I forgot about my injuries and my exhaustion. I only manage an awkward shuffle before I flop powerlessly back down, barely a meter away from where I’d just been lying.
I scowl at the pain. It does seem like it’s less intense than before, but it’s still so bad I almost can’t move at all. And the sand just went into my injuries. It stings. I feel more tears threaten to fall, but I forcefully suppress them. There is no way a man of the Adkins family could spill tears in front of someone else.
And a new pain has been added to the others. A low, smoldering fire seems to have lit in my belly, and someone appears to be slowly fanning the flames.
Did they interact with each other when I swallowed all of them, as I feared?
Or perhaps the alchemist who made them was too incompetent and sold my family some faulty goods! If I ever find him, I’ll definitely force him to partake of his own poisonous merchandise!
“Your Imperial Majessssty, is sssomething wrong?” a voice asks from the direction of that pair of dirty boots. The voice is distinctly male, but very thin and high, and a strange whistle accompanies all the ‘s’ sounds in his speech. What kind of accent is that?
‘Your Imperial Majesty?’
Is it an ally?
Thank the void.
I force my clenched jaws open, and a few slurred words come out. “What does it look like? I’ve been injured. And poisoned. Hurry up and call for aid. And if you have any medicine, give it to me. You’ll be generously rewarded upon my return to Alsomn.”
What answers me is a reedy little laugh. “Hehehe. Of course, Your Imperial Magnanimousnesssss. And would you like a little ssssnack, to go along with that? Milk and honeyed bread, perhapssss? Hehehehe.”
“Who…!? You dare…!”
Pushing through the pain, I raise my head to glare at the insolent scum who had the guts to speak to me this way. When I catch sight of his chalk-white face, however, my whole body stiffens.
Under a pair of glowing red eyes full of mean-spirited glee, a wide, cruel smile reveals rows of small, razor-sharp teeth and a forked tongue darting in and out from between thin, bloodless lips. The man’s nightmarish appearance is capped off by lacking both hair and ears. Even his nose is replaced by two thin slits in the middle of his face. It looks utterly non-human and disgusting.
“A devil?” I ask, putting a smirk on my lips. “Did you come here to die, monster? If nothing else, I applaud your courage, to dare show yourself in front of me.”
As I speak, I unsteadily make my way to my feet. I try my best to wipe any trace of pain or exhaustion from my features, but seeing the mocking eyes of the disfigured snake-man in front of me, I don’t think I’m very successful. It probably has something to do with me telling him myself that I was both injured and poisoned, a minute ago…
“Hehehe, Your Imperial Majessssty, are you sure you should be sssstanding up? What if your injuries open up again? We wouldn’t want that, now, would we?”
I glare at him. “Injuries or not, I’m more than enough to tear you limb from limb, monster.”
This is the truth. This snake is no AK-A-13. He’s only a 5th-rank warrior. I can kill him in one strike. The only thing that worries me is that AK-A-13 herself or the Major might feel the qi fluctuations caused by my magic and hurry in pursuit.
I’m under no illusion that I can fight either of them in my current state.
I’ll need to finish this fast, then.
Keeping my eyes on the snake-man, I slowly reach for my swo…
W–Where is my sword?
“Are you looking for this, Your Majesty?” another voice calls from behind me.
I whirl around, raising my leaden arms in a defensive combat stance, and come face to face with a dozen other devils, standing calmly on the beach. One of them sits on a rock jutting out of the sand, in the center of the group. He has my precious sword in his hands.
I recognize him. He was there, in Dorn. Why is he still alive? I distinctly remember ordering Carla to kill all the devils, back then.
“Ah, forgive me for the late introduction. My name is Salem. You may see me as… an ambassador for my people, perhaps. Though my role is not quite as strictly defined as that.”
I snort. “Whatever you are, I suggest you pack up and leave, Salem,” I say, injecting as much scorn as possible in my voice when I call his name. “Do you think monsters like you will be allowed to do whatever they want on this Island while the strongest practitioners of both continents are here? Stay, and you shall be exterminated.”
Salem’s lips slowly lift into a smile.
The gills on both sides of his neck twitch every time he breathes. The very sight of him makes me want to puke. At least the majin are their own people, but he and his kind are a perversion of nature, cruel and heartless, worthy only of extinction.
“I’m sorry to break whatever hopes you may have, Your Majesty, but very little is left of ‘the strongest practitioners of both continents.’ Even their corpses are in pieces.”
A shudder creeps up my spine.
No way. Was this AK-A-13’s plan? The destruction of some of the strongest majin and human forces, so that her devil friends can swoop in and finish everyone off? Are the Major and Duke Springfield in on that plan?
These devious, repulsive, traitorous…
I need to get out of here immediately and warn my father!
“Your Majesty,” Salem says, interrupting my thoughts, “you might be wondering why I’m sitting right here, waiting for you to wake up.”
In my current state, killing one devil would be doable, even without my sword. But a dozen of them, all of them wary of me and itching for a fight… No. I need to buy time, look for an opportunity.
“Do enlighten me,” I say as casually as I can.
Salem nods politely and gathers his thoughts for a few moments before speaking, his fingers tapping rhythmically along the blade of my stolen sword, his eyes absently looking out at the sea whose waves crash relentlessly on the Island’s beach, just a few meters away. “A few months ago, I believe you visited a small human village called Dorn, correct?” He continues without waiting for an answer. “There, while you went to battle Lady Akasha, you sent one of your subordinates, a human female, to subdue and capture our little group. Fortunately, we somehow managed to escape her.” At this point, his eyes flick back to me, glowing more brightly than before. “Except, that is, for one of our numbers, who was caught and brought away.”
I notice that the rest of the devils are also glaring at me with pure hatred filling their eyes.
I muster my courage and glare right back at them. “So what? Are you telling me you came here to take revenge because my forces killed one devil? Are you perhaps under the impression that you’re victimized martyrs, fighting for a just cause? That every death your side suffers is a tragedy? Hmph. How many human lives do you think your kind has extinguished? How about you stop fucking around already, you hypocritical piece of trash?”
Salem continues silently staring at me for a few seconds, and the tension climbs so high it feels like bloody battle will break out any second, but then he smiles gently at me.
“No, no, Your Majesty. You’re correct. This is war, and in war, soldiers die. Indeed, they are almost expected to.” He pauses for a moment before his smile abruptly falls from his lips. “But things change when the one to die is our hope. Then, we do in point of fact think of it as a tragedy. A tragedy worthy of vengeance.”
What in the void does that even mean?
Salem shakes his head. “It’s actually rather amusing. I’m well aware that both you and the majin have been long frustrated by your inability to inflict significant and consequential losses to us. Well, congratulations, Your Majesty. At such a young age, you’ve managed to do what no one else could. You’ve crushed our hope so easily, with just a word and a wave. Almost by accident, really. A round of applause for His Majesty, everyone.”
And then, Salem actually starts clapping.
clap, clap, clap, clap, clap…
The rest join him, and I find myself standing before a group of devils, all slowly, deliberately clapping their hands, applauding me, an array of glowing red eyes staring unblinkingly at me, their disfigured, mutated faces stony and unsmiling.
It’s creepy and terrifying.
Everything about this situation feels intensely wrong. All the instincts in my body are screaming at me to leave this place as soon as possible.
But I dare not move.
I’m sure that the moment I try to fly away will be the moment deadly magic rains down on me. I still have trouble even standing; activating my shields is impossible. And I’m still too young for my body to have been strengthened beyond that of an average human’s. I won’t survive a concentrated attack from so many people.
Finally, Salem stops clapping, and the other devils follow his lead.
“Well, Your Majesty,” he says with a calm voice, “it’s not the end yet. For us, I mean. Hopefully, one day, a new hope will be born. In the meantime, however, we can’t exactly sit on our thumbs and hope for the best. Which is where you come in.”
“Hmph. Do you expect me to help you? How about you keep the dreaming for when you’re asleep?”
Salem rubs his chin and smiles. “Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I do expect you to help us. Though your help may not come willingly, it will be invaluable nonetheless.”
My eyes narrow suspiciously, and I ready myself for a fight. “What is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning of this is, we’ve decided to take a page from your esteemed father. He advanced the cause of humanity on Caldera by experimenting on our bodies and exploiting our abilities. Don’t you think there is a certain poetry to it for us to advance our cause by doing the same to his own flesh and blood?”
All the hairs on my body stand on end at his words, and my heart starts beating frantically. Dread starts to creep over my thoughts.
What are these evil creatures planning to do to me?
I shall not allow it! Absolutely not!
I take a deep breath to steady myself and center my balance. “Do you think worthless little beasts like you can stand in front of a god and spout whatever gibberish you want? Come, then. Step forward and let me show you the difference between us.”
Inwardly, I pray they do not call my bluff.
Salem doesn’t rise to my provocation. He only nods sagely. “A ‘god,’ yes. This is not the first time we hear this – if you’ll excuse me – rather conceited title. The greatest resource in this war. The determining factor toward victory. You have many such human ‘gods’ on your side, whereas we only have one devil ‘god’ on ours, and she’s not entirely cooperative. Nor reasonable.” Salem gives a gentle smile at those words, as if reminiscing on a fond memory. “We already suspected you of being one of those ‘gods’ and planned accordingly.”
The more I hear, the heavier my heart feels, like a stone is pressing down on it with crushing weight.
Still seated, Salem laughs lightly. “Hahaha, as it happens, most of our preparations went up in smoke when our goddess decided to take a swim in the harbor. It was quite unexpected, I have to admit. Well, we had other trump cards, of course, but… is it not a great good news that we only needed to employ a single one of them?” Salem gives me a small smile. “Is it not quite economical? That we would so simply stumble upon our target taking a nap on the beach, his weapon discarded and his defenses broken?”
All the devils start grinning at me, their already ugly faces suddenly turning even more hideous and horrifying.
“Oh? Then bring it on!” I shout, loud enough to bolster my failing courage. “Bring out your trump card! I’ll trample it into the dust along with all of you!”
“No, no, Your Majesty. You misunderstand. Why would we have waited? We already brought it out, so to speak, half an hour ago. Right now, this trump card is flowing in your bloodstream. Or do you really think we would stand there in front of a so-called ‘god’ without the assurance that he can do nothing to us? Gloating and taunting are only appropriate when in an impregnable position, Your Majesty.”
My hands start shaking. “You…! What have you done to me?!”
“Hmm. If I had to describe it in one word, I would say that we have ‘won.'”
Then, as if to punctuate his sentence, a minute pulse of magic bursts from within Salem’s body, and pain more intense than any I’ve ever experienced – than any I’ve ever imagined – explodes inside me.
I drop down on all fours, only barely preventing myself from falling flat on my face. My eyes bulge out of their sockets, and my throat locks up at the sheer agony of it. My trembling fingers instinctively clench into fists, my nails scraping against the coarse sand of the beach until they crack and break.
I would scream if I could, but instead, I’m forced to stare in panic as the veins all over my body slowly turn pitch black.
“N… No… No…!”
“Please, rest easy, Your Majesty,” Salem says distantly, from the other side of the universe. His voice is full of kindness and comfort, but the mockery underneath fills every single one of his words. “The potency of the Taint injected in your body has been greatly reduced, and its effects dampened. We couldn’t entirely stop its intrinsic purpose, so it’s still eating away at your body and soul to transform you into a devil, but it’s doing so very, very slowly. You will not die, Your Majesty.”
Salem says so like it’s a blessing, but at this moment, I almost want to die.
I want it to stop.
I want the pain to stop.
Footsteps come closer, and Salem crouches next to me. He pats me on the shoulder companionably. “Well, Your Majesty, we should get going. We still have a lot of work to do and a lot of things to accomplish together. With your help, Your Majesty Gareth Adkins, we shall do great things.”
Salem stands back up, and soon, two other devils grasp my arms and drag me away.
No, no, no…
I still have so much to accomplish! It can’t end like this!
Not like this!
Father, help me!