Jasper was sitting at his desk, on the second floor of the Lamos headquarters of the High-Sea Verse mercenary group.
In fact, he’d been sitting there all morning, already. And a large part of the night, too.
There was just so much to be done.
As the overall administrator for all of the High-Sea Verse’s affairs in the Thread, he was probably one of the busiest people within about 20,000 kilometers.
Responding to sightings and attacks of demons. Sending punitive expeditions against bandits lingering threateningly along important roads. Collating and analyzing intelligence reports coming from majin territory, in anticipation of a resurgence in the war. Expanding the Verse’s influence in the Thread and securing its advantages and position. Scouting new talents as potential members…
Of course, some of that, he could delegate to his subordinates, but in the end, he was the one who had to sign off on everything. And if there was one thing he’d learned, it was that you didn’t sign anything you didn’t read beforehand.
And then, there was dealing with the aftermath of that enormous explosion.
People demanding explanations, people blaming each other for it, people shouting out for a retaliation against the majin, because it just had to be them…
It was a real mess.
There had nearly been riots in Aldenfell, over the past few days, once the news had arrived of the scale of the damages. After heavy suppression from the city guard, things had returned to normal, at least on the surface, but anyone even remotely familiar with the capital could smell the undercurrent of fear and tension that ran through every street.
What’s more, as of yet, no one knew what had caused that explosion. No one could even approach the origin point of the blast to investigate, because the sheer amount of radiation poisoning the air as one got closer was enough to kill anyone in seconds. It made even the Frontline look as pure and uncontaminated as an elven village.
And that radiation spread its tendrils far. An area nearly 700 kilometers in radius had been rendered absolutely uninhabitable. Lamos’s territory had suddenly been cut by a fourth. Countless villages, two actual cities not too far from Aldenfell’s size, four fully staffed military forts, all wiped off the map in an instant.
It was truly unthinkable…
The death toll was still unclear, but it would be counted by units of 100,000.
What was even more worrying, though, was what effects such high radiation levels would have on the surroundings over the long term. The creatures that occasionally came out from the wasteland that was the Frontline were already so fearful… What kind of mutated monster would emerge from this newly polluted region, 10 or 20 or 30 years from now?
It was necessary to prepare for any eventuality.
Jasper leaned back into his seat and let out an exhausted sigh. He really needed some sleep.
He’d already become a 6th-rank warrior some years ago, and he was still training assiduously toward a new breakthrough, even with all his other responsibilities catching at his ankles all the time. Climbing up the ranks of practice had some effect on one’s health and longevity, of course, even without dedicated body strengthening, but it had limits. Jasper could go without sleep for a day or five, but more than that would be harmful – and he was way beyond that point, by now.
It was a life that could break the back of any man.
But Jasper could take it.
He had just focused back onto the latest reports from his intelligence teams when someone knocked on his office door.
“Enter,” he said without raising his head. He could tell who it was just by the pattern of the knocking. Someone opened the door and stepped into the room. “What is it?” Jasper asked, still reading.
“A visitor asking for you downstairs,” Sirona said.
“Tell them to come back later. I should be able to free up a bit of my schedule next year. Or the year after that, perhaps.”
“Are you sure, sir?” Sirona insisted. “I think you might be interested, this time.”
“I am pretty damn sure, yes,” Jasper said, his voice dry. He lifted his head to look at his guest, a young woman with very, very deep blue eyes. He gestured at the absurd heights of the piles of documents cluttering up his desk. “If it wasn’t obvious just by looking, I happen to be quite busy. I have no time to receive visitors, no matter how interesting they may be.”
Sirona only smiled at his response. “I see. Does that hold true even if the visitor was sent here by Milenna and asked for you by name?”
The name blew Jasper’s fatigue right out of his mind. A scowl appeared on his face.
What kind of trouble had that woman brought to his doorstep, this time?
But no matter how troublesome it was, he did owe her quite a lot, didn’t he?
He cursed quietly to himself and leaned back into his chair again. He let out a groan as he stretched sore muscles. Sirona’s smile widened. She’d obviously anticipated his reaction and knew what he was thinking.
Jasper sighed and said, “All right, then. What should I expect?”
“A devil, I think.”
Jasper breath caught in his lungs, and he coughed a few times. “W–What?”
“From what I saw of your visitor, I’d say she’s probably a devil.”
Sirona nodded. “A devil.”
“Then why is the building still standing? Why isn’t the city in flames?” Jasper asked, not sure whether or not he was joking.
“If you don’t go down to meet her quickly, it probably won’t be standing for much longer, actually. This devil doesn’t seem like the most patient fellow I’ve ever seen.”
Jasper took a deep breath, then let it out in a breathless chuckle. “Haha… ‘Not the most patient fellow’, huh? When talking about a devil? Congratulations, you just got the big prize for the single most obvious statement of the century.”
“I suppose I did,” Sirona replied with a bright, cheerful smile.
Jasper could only feel helpless at that smile. Sirona might look harmless as can be, polite and amiable, but Jasper and she had known each other for a very long time, and he was very clear that her greatest pleasure in life was to revel in other people’s misfortune, the bitch. Which is why he’d arranged for her to be a receptionist downstairs. That way, she’d be the one to handle every mercenary who came back to headquarters to report the failures of their missions. She would always be showing a compassionate face to them, when she took down the details, but Jasper knew she’d be laughing inside the whole time. Jasper had always found the huge gap between her outward behavior and appearance and her actual personality amusing.
…Except when it was directed at him.
Jasper rubbed his jaw, his fingers scraping against his uneven stubble. “A devil… What does Milenna have to do with devils, now? Did this devil say anything? What does she want from me? Wait, ‘she’? Is it a woman?”
“A little girl, about 10 or 11 years old, maybe. She’s wearing a long cloak, so I couldn’t see any non-human features – except for her coloring, of course – so I don’t know what sort of devil she is, precisely. Most likely not a reptile, since she didn’t have any scales… And no, I didn’t have time to ask her for the purpose of her visit before she kicked Armen across the room.”
Jasper’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “Armen? Oh, you must have loved that. No wonder you’re smiling so much. He’s not dead, is he?”
“I don’t think so,” Sirona said, looking vaguely disappointed.
“Good. And what did he do to earn this devil’s ire?”
“He complained when the devil cut in line in front of him.”
Jasper sat dumbly for a few seconds before he could react to that. “Oh. Woah. Yes, I can see his crime now. What a villainous villain. Complaining when someone doesn’t follow such an obvious rule. Actually, it’s not even a rule! It’s just plain common sense!”
“Well, he was quite obnoxious about it,” Sirona said, shrugging. “And since when do devils care about rules or common sense? Can they even grasp the concept?”
Jasper frowned. “It doesn’t matter if Armen was obnoxious. Cutting in line might not be any big crime, but he was definitely in the right when he complained. And this is our headquarters. What’s going to happen to us, if we allow any random freak to come in and beat on our men whenever they want?”
Sirona’s smile brightened even more. “Well, in my book, anyone who beats on that pig is in the right. He almost spat saliva on me, when he was ranting. Can you imagine that? Atrocious.”
Jasper could only shake his head with a bitter smile on his lips.
…Still, a little girl defeating Armen?
The man was indeed unbearably obnoxious, Jasper knew, but he wasn’t such a weakling that he could get kicked around by just anybody. No one in the High-Sea Verse was. Which meant this visitor of his was dangerous.
Well, being a devil already made that quite blatant…
Jasper had seen both apostles and devils before, but never one of their children. It seemed pretty obvious that there must be some somewhere, but in that case, they must have been well-hidden. He couldn’t figure out why one of them would suddenly appear here asking for him. Sent by Milenna, too.
Whatever this was, it had bad news written all over it.
Jasper sighed again and rubbed his forehead. “Very well, then. Let’s not make this visitor wait too long, unwanted though it may be.”
Jasper stood up from his chair and left the office, Sirona following demurely behind him like the perfect secretary she very much wasn’t.
When Jasper arrived on the first floor, his eyes first went to the small figure almost completely covered by a sweeping red cloak he recognized as belonging to an apostle. With her head tilted down, her hood completed hid her face.
Standing like this, silently and peacefully, and wearing a cloak of this color, Jasper had to wonder if Sirona was wrong.
Was this really a devil?
Apostle seemed more like it.
But her attacking Armen so readily did put things into question…
The little girl was standing alone in front of the counter where Sirona usually worked. The mercenaries that should have waited in line behind her were instead taking their turns with other employees. No one had stayed behind the girl. Jasper could see a few of them throwing glances in her direction, every now and again, but the girl completely ignored them.
On the other side of the room, in the bar space, a few medics were leaning over a large, supine form, administering treatment. They didn’t look too flurried, and if they were still at it now, it probably meant that Armen’s life indeed wasn’t in any danger.
Jasper was relieved. As long as no deaths had occurred, the incident could still be swept under the rug. It wasn’t as if fights were rare among mercenaries, after all. This time, the spectators would be surprised that an established warrior like Armen could be beaten black and blue by a little kid, but even that surprise would fade quickly enough. The incident would soon be forgotten.
Jasper calmly took the last few steps down the stairs and approached the counter where the little girl was waiting.
When he stood in front of her, she raised her head to look at him.
With her hood propped up by the black horn growing from the center of her forehead, he could finally see her scarred, expressionless face. It was quite ghastly. While the left side bore the kinds of marks that might have been left by a variety of cutting or slashing tools, the entire right half appeared to have been corroded, somehow, perhaps by some sort of acid. It probably affected her right eye, too, because she wore a black eyepatch over it. The other eye was staring at him unblinkingly and glowing brightly red.
Before Jasper could say anything, a youthful but cold and monotonous voice echoed inside his head.
“I am, yes. I heard Milenna directed you here to look for me? May I ask why?”
[…I want an identification card.]
Jasper almost reeled from the blow of those words. What kind of request was this?! The High-Sea Verse was indeed authorized to issue identification cards, but that was only to its members, not to normal citizens.
Did Milenna want a devil to join the High-Sea Verse mercenary group?
She was a member herself, so she had to know the rules, right?
The group did allow majin in, sometimes, as long as they had a clean background and a sponsor to vouch for them and their good behavior. Even then, it was ridiculously rare, and they weren’t exactly popular among their colleagues.
But a devil…
That was something very different…
Jasper frowned and looked around. A few mercenaries were throwing glances in this direction, clearly eavesdropping on the conversation – though, they probably didn’t get much out of it if the girl didn’t include them in her telepathy. He looked back at the girl and pointed a thumb over his shoulder. “Let’s continue this upstairs, shall we?”
Even as Jasper spoke, as if she’d been expecting this all along, Sirona took a step forward and lifted the hinged top of the counter, then stood aside to make way for this strange visitor of theirs.
Without a word, the little girl stepped forward, her bare feet not making a single sound as they stepped on the wooden floorboards. Strangely enough, while her face was as white as he’d expected from a devil, the skin of her feet was instead jet-black. It looked subtly wrong, too, like it somehow wasn’t even skin. Jasper wondered for a moment if she was wearing shoes or armor of some kind, but no, she clearly wasn’t.
…This wasn’t really the time to wonder about that, though.
Jasper turned around and led the way up the staircase toward his office on the second floor. The moment he turned his back on her, he had to work very hard to repress the shiver that crept up his spine, and all the fine hairs on the back of his neck suddenly raised on end.
He smiled bitterly.
It looked like his body didn’t enjoy the idea of putting his back to this creature.
This visitor was definitely dangerous.
What was really galling, though, was that Sirona didn’t seem to show any kind of reaction at all.
Once everyone was seated – Jasper at his desk, with the devil girl across from him, and Sirona on a chair to the side, with her back to the wall – Jasper crossed his legs and said, “So. You want an identification card, do you?”
The girl nodded.
She hadn’t removed her hood upon entering the office, but her cloak had opened when she sat down, revealing the naked body underneath. She didn’t seem to care in the slightest, though.
Perhaps devils simply had no concept of modesty.
Well, if she didn’t care, Jasper certainly wouldn’t either. Sirona would complain afterward that he didn’t make any remark about it, but if he did actually make any sort of comment, she’d complain anyway, so he might as well not bother. It wasn’t like he’d be interested in a girl so young, anyway, especially since her body was just as scarred as her face.
“That can probably be arranged,” Jasper said finally, still a bit reluctantly.
He had thought about it while they walked to his office, and while it didn’t really sit well with him to let an unknown devil join the Verse, it was Milenna’s request, after all. Of that, he was sure. There was no need for a signed letter or anything. Just using that name alone was proof enough.
And since it was a request from her, he had to at least make an effort.
“There are a number of procedures you’ll need to go through,” Jasper continued. “First is this.” He slid a sheet of paper across his desk. “Please fill in your personal information.”
It was the basic task of receiving a new applicant. How many years had it been since Jasper had last done that? It felt nostalgic, like he’d gone back 30 years into the past, when he was still a young employee laboring in front of the same kind of counters he’d set up downstairs. Jasper couldn’t help but feel a bit of self-satisfaction at the thought of how much he’d climbed up the hierarchy since his debut. It was something this girl would be able to boast about, later on. The overseer and administrator for the whole of the Thread accompanied her for the entire registration process.
The girl’s question brought him back out of his own thoughts.
He looked at her, a bit startled. “Why? Well, because the identification card is nominative. It bears your information, so that no one but you can use it. Don’t worry. We don’t ask for anything sensitive; it’s only the basics, like your name and your age.” He gestured at the form. “Just take a look.”
The little girl seemed to hesitate for a moment more, but then delicately reached out for the piece of paper with a jet-black hand. Her thin fingers all tapered to very sharp points and looked slightly longer than they should on a human’s hand, making them look a bit skeletal.
After glancing at the form, the little girl took up the pen next to it and started writing. Even in something as simple as this, every motion was economical and optimized and fluid and graceful. There were no wasted movements at all.
Jasper couldn’t help but be impressed. He had no idea what kind of training method the devils or apostles had managed to come up with, for someone so young to have achieved such fine control of her body. If he could replicate it and institute it as a mandatory basic course for each new member, the High-Sea Verse would definitely reach new heights. Though, when he looked at the girl’s scars, he had to wonder if he’d ever have new applicants ever again, if he did put that plan into execution… No one in their right mind would sign up for a round of training if they knew they’d end up like that.
Soon, the girl put the pen down, then slid the sheet of paper back toward Jasper.
He leaned forward and glanced over its contents.
Species (leave blank if human): Demon
Current warrior rank: I don’t know.
The fields below that, like magic or proficiency in various disciplines, were left completely blank. Those were marked as necessary only for people who actually wanted to eventually climb up the ladder and reach an actual, decision-making seat within the High-Sea Verse mercenary group. Normal members didn’t need to fill them in.
But, as for what the girl had written there…
Her calligraphy was certainly beautiful. All the characters were precisely drawn, with not a single stroke out of place. But the contents… The name was fine, but everything else was strange. The age was absurd, the species didn’t make any sense, and the rank…
Jasper swallowed a sigh and opened one of his desk’s drawers. From it, he retrieved a small, blank, glass sphere, wispy strands of grey mist floating about inside it. When his fingers closed around it, the grey mist roiled, and quickly, six small stars floated up to the sphere’s surface, sticking against the glass. The sixth star looked slightly dimmer than the others.
Without any reaction to this phenomenon, Jasper placed the sphere on the desktop, in front of the girl – of Akasha.
“Please touch the sphere. Gently. Without breaking it, if at all possible.”
Nothing happened at all. The mist inside didn’t move. The small stars didn’t light up.
Was this devil a normal person, who had never refined the slightest bit of qi in her whole life?
That couldn’t be true. The sheer sense of danger Akasha radiated was one of the strongest Jasper had ever seen. When he closed his eyes, it was more like a wild beast was sitting across from him, rather than a young child. Jasper certainly couldn’t pretend to be in his prime anymore, but his senses would never deceive him to that extent. This little girl’s attainments shouldn’t be any lower than his own.
Jasper reached out to the sphere. The six stars lit up.
He frowned in thought. “Could you touch the sphere while revolving your qi as hard as you can, please?”
A black finger landed on the sphere with a clink, and then –
– a pressure like a falling mountain crashed into the room, driving both Jasper and Sirona deeper into their seats. The building itself trembled, as if battered by an earthquake. Dust fell from the ceiling. A few of the books neatly stored within Jasper’s bookcase along the wall were shaken loose and fell to the floor. Some of the piles of documents on Jasper’s desk collapsed, scattering sheets of paper everywhere. The large windows set into the wall behind Jasper split with a small crystalline sound, long cracks spreading over the glass.
Jasper knew that, in one more second, he would lose consciousness. He felt as if his internal organs were being clutched into someone’s merciless hand. His lungs were trying to work, but they couldn’t expand enough to draw in any air. He tried to draw out his own qi to counteract the effects of the pressure, but it was as if all of it was being squeezed inside his dantian, completely trapped and out of his reach. Perhaps, if he’d been prepared for it, he might have been able to bear with this pressure a little better, but it had been completely unexpected, and now, he was drowning in it.
Finally, when darkness was about to encroach upon his vision, the pressure abruptly vanished.
Jasper drew himself up in his seat and took several deep breaths, like a man surfacing after a long dive underwater. He shook himself, striving to calm his wildly beating heart.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that Sirona was sprawled in her seat, unconscious. A stab of worry made him stand up, although his legs were almost too weak to bear his weight. He walked over to her, ignoring Akasha, and pressed two fingers against the side of her neck. Her heartbeat was strong, if a bit flurried. And she was breathing normally, her chest rising and falling naturally.
She should probably be fine.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Jasper turned back toward his desk. Akasha was still waiting there, her face as impassive and dispassionate as before, as if nothing worthy of note had even happened. She’d taken back her finger from the sphere. Jasper hadn’t seen if any stars had lit up, but he didn’t want to try again.
He felt cold sweat coat his back.
Just what kind of strength was this?
This… This wasn’t a little girl at all…
Jasper forcefully suppressed his fear and confusion and slowly made his way back to his chair. He sat down and took a long, deep breath. Lowering his eyes, the form Akasha had filled entered his eyes again.
Species (leave blank if human): Demon
Current warrior rank: I don’t know.
No matter who – what – this girl was, Milenna had sent her here. And as much as Jasper called it as her ‘bringing trouble to his doorstep’, at the same time, with all her contributions to it, he was sure that she would never act against the Verse’s interests.
With shaky fingers, Jasper took up the same pen Akasha had used earlier and corrected the form.
Age: 29 ⬛
Species (leave blank if human): ⬛⬛⬛oni
Current warrior rank: ⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛⬛ 5
Sponsor: Jasper Kelsen (119836)
Jasper had hesitated for a minute on the rank. He believed it would have been more accurate to write ‘9’, but this would have brought too much attention to this whole affair, if anyone ever noticed it. After all, by accepting Akasha’s membership and directly issuing her an identification card, without any background checks of any kind, he was already breaking quite a few rules – quite a few laws. It would already be hard enough to cover up everything that had happened here today; it wouldn’t do to worsen things by recording Akasha’s real information.
“This should do it,” Jasper said aloud. His voice sounded strange and flat to his own ears, for some reason, like it didn’t echo properly in his ears. He glanced at Sirona, but she was still unconscious. He’d have to do the rest himself. “I’ll go prepare the card for you. Wait here a minute, please.”
The girl had left without another word, card in hand.
Jasper was still seated behind his desk, but he hadn’t gone back to work, yet. He was staring at nothing, his hands flat atop his desk. He felt conflicted about the whole matter. Should he warn the authorities about this monster? Giving advance warning to them about a devil on the loose seemed the obvious thing to do, especially one as strong as that. The army would be mobilized. Demon hunter organizations would be gearing up for battle…
The question kept trotting around his head, but Jasper hesitated. He knew Akasha was a potential danger, but probably not to the High-Sea Verse. To them, she might even be an asset, if they played their cards right.
Though, it felt less like boldness and more like suicidal recklessness to try and use a devil…
In the end, Jasper decided to wait and see. For now, he wouldn’t warn anybody of her presence in human territory, but neither would he actively involve the Verse in her affairs. It wasn’t like he had a responsibility to anyone but the mercenaries under his command, after all. No matter what happened afterward, it wasn’t really any of his business.
“How long do you intend to pretend you’re still unconscious?” he asked finally.
Sirona immediately straightened up in her seat, her usual smile back on her lips, perfectly composed. “My apologies. I still felt a little light-headed.”
“Right. You just didn’t want to work, rather. Well, no matter.” Jasper sighed, glancing around his office, at the scattered books and sheets of paper all over the floor, at the fissured glass of his windows. “Help me clean this mess up, would you?”
“My apologies, once again. I still need to go back to work downstairs. We’re already short on staff, so it wouldn’t do for me to procrastinate like that. And I’ll need to comfort our people that everything’s fine. They’re probably wondering what this qi pressure was all about. Please, excuse me.”
Sirona scampered out of the room, almost running away, closing the door behind her before Jasper could make a proper response.
The office was still for a few moments before a defeated sigh broke the silence.