When the symbols flash, all the dead leaves that were scattered over the surface of the teleport formation are instantly disintegrated. So are the nearest overhanging branches from the surrounding trees.
Everything that was inside the radius of that circular platform at that moment suddenly disappears.
Which includes the oni.
Half of him, that is.
The part of his body that had yet to pass the edge of the teleport formation is gone, while the front of his body, keeping the previous momentum of his rush, falls limply to the ground of the clearing with a disgusting, wet, squishy sound.
And in the place of all that disappeared now stands a little girl of perhaps 10 or 11 years old, calmly looking up at the sky, not paying the least bit attention to the rest of us.
But, even though this little girl is arguably responsible for the death of the oni, no one here dares to say anything about it. Not even Ralgrermn or the ettin, who both are almost four or five times her size.
Because it is absolutely clear to all those present here that this little girl isn’t a little girl at all.
That, is a monster.
She doesn’t look angry. She’s not displaying any kind of threatening behavior. She’s not even looking in our direction. And yet, the pressure born from her simple presence is like a waterfall pounding onto my chest as I lie there on the ground, making it hard for me to even breathe. I know that if I’d been standing a second ago, I would have already fallen to my knees under this weight – the last surviving oni certainly has; Ralgrermn and the ettin are barely hanging on.
The stars above me look dimmer than before and the wind stops blowing and all the sounds of the forest – small animals scurrying in the bushes, birds taking off into flight, tree leaves rustling – abruptly disappear, as if everything in the world is trying to remain unnoticed in the face of a dangerous predator. Only the sound of my own beating heart is left, deafening in my ears.
That, is definitely a monster.
I know the moment this monster deems me to be a threat, that will be the moment I die, no matter how many incendiary grenades or other devices I can conjure.
And then, as if it had never existed in the first place, the pressure abruptly disappears, swallowed back into the monster’s small body, and the world returns to normal. The only sign that I didn’t imagine it all is the cold sweat coating my entire body and my gasping for breath.
…Was that her qi pressure?
Just what rank do you need to reach for it to be so overwhelming?
The monster is still looking up silently. I’m not sure what she’s expecting to find in the sky, but I’m certainly not going to bring attention to myself by asking her the question.
After what seems like a very long time, in which no one dares to move and no one dares to speak, the monster finally lowers her head with a small, quiet sigh, and her features come more clearly into my sight.
She looks… strange.
She has elf ears, so maybe that makes her an elf, but then again, she also has wolf ears and a furry tail and even a horn, so I have no idea what species she is supposed to be, exactly.
Her skin is white as snow, and her hair whiter still and very long. The only patches of color on her body are her legs and right arm, covered in black up to her calves and forearms, as if she were wearing boots and gloves. Her left arm, on the other hand, looks different from her right. It’s made from some kind of white, opaque material, rather than skin, but it’s too dark in this forest for me to make out what it could be.
She should have been quite a beautiful child, once, but no longer. The entire right side of her face – and quite a bit of her body, too – is covered in what I can recognize as the same kind of chemical burns I used to suffer when I improperly handled dangerous materials when I learned pharmacology in my youth. In fact, the monster’s entire body, which, even though I’m not exactly in the mood to appreciate it, I can’t help but note is very much naked, seems to be more scar tissue than actual skin.
The damage she suffered over her face must have impacted her right eye, too – or maybe the concept of symmetry just doesn’t appeal to her – because it looks different from her left. It’s completely black, with several tiny pinpoints of red light spread seemingly randomly over its surface, while her left has a black sclera surrounding a red, slitted pupil that glows very brightly in the darkne–
Wait a second…
Glowing red pupil? Black sclera?
What’s an apostle doing here?
Even though this place is called the Planar Prison, there is no need for guards. And apostles certainly don’t commit crimes against humans – unless ordered to, of course – so she’s clearly not here as an inmate. In short, there is no reason for an apostle to suddenly appear in this place.
Or she’s not an apostle?
Indeed, it would make more sense if she was one of their less controlled cousins.
But I never heard anything about devils being sent into the Planar Prison before. I don’t pretend to be particularly well-informed on the history of this place, but as far as I know, only majin have ever been exiled here. If this is the start of a trend, and devils are going to be brought in alongside more regular prisoners from now on, this is going to be trouble for everyone.
The good news is that devils are already quite rare, and they’re not the kind to let themselves be captured alive so easily, so there shouldn’t be many of them in here at any one time.
But some devils can control the demons around them and form entire armies of them, I hear. If such a thing were to happen in this place, where demons are so much more numerous than on Caldera…
…Well, actually, it wouldn’t really be my any of my business, now, would it?
Right. Let some more powerful and important people worry about all that. As long as I’m alive, everything’s fine. A little 4th-rank warrior like me doesn’t have any hope of affecting such grand events in any case.
I’ll just lie there on the ground, looking the appropriate degree of harmlessness, and go with the flow.
I don’t remember devils being as strong as that monster, though, so I can only hope that no one here will annoy her – which is actually a pretty tall order, considering devils’ famously short tempers and proclivity for extreme violence.
Fortunately, the monster doesn’t look particularly annoyed, at the moment. In point of fact, her face is so completely devoid of expression or emotion that it almost makes me wonder if she’s actually alive, in a proper sense. She looks empty.
…Could she just be a very realistic golem?
The monster finally looks around at us, as if she has just now noticed our presence here.
Her mismatched eyes rove over me – I very dutifully not meet her gaze – then go to the ettin, examining him a little longer than she did me, then reach Ralgrermn and stop. Even though her face is still as blank and expressionless as before, I get the feeling that the monster is surprised to see him, for some reason, whereas she pretty much disregarded me and the ettin.
Do they know each other?
Or has she never seen a werewolf before?
At least, Ralgrermn doesn’t seem to enjoy her attention. He’s squirming uncomfortably under her gaze, seemingly hesitating on whether or not he should run away or fight or speak or simply stay silent. It’s almost funny; a 7th-rank, 3-meter-tall werewolf, frightened by a little girl.
I can’t exactly blame him, though. I had to repress a shudder myself, a second ago, when she glanced at me.
I look at the other two.
The ettin looks… angry? Is he angry out of shame at his own fear? Ettin society takes personal strength and valor in combat as its members’ most important qualities, after all. Was this one outraged that such a small child would frighten him? Well, I doubt even an ettin would be stupid enough to act on that anger, unless he has a death wish.
As for the last surviving oni in that small group of hunters, the monster has yet to even look at him. And surprisingly enough, he’s disregarding the monster right back. Instead, his eyes are fixed on the disgusting half-corpse of his comrade, his face covered in grief. Silent tears are streaming down his cheeks. His chin is trembling with suppressed sobs. His fists are balled up into fists. A picture of sadness and pain.
…Well, that’ll teach him to chase me down and try to kill me.
My eyes return to Ralgrermn as I prepare to take pleasure in his misfortune from my perspective as someone who, in contrast to him, was safely ignored by the monster, when suddenly, against all my expectations, the ettin proves himself to be, as a matter of fact, suicidally stupid.
The brute lets out a loud roar, exposing the rough, uneven fangs in his mouth, the sound shaking tree leaves loose to come rain down upon the scene, and charges toward the teleport formation and the monster standing atop it, his meaty hands reaching behind his back and grasping two enormous cleavers, his huge belly quivering with each of his steps.
There is enough strength in his arms to cut down large trees in one strike and turn boulders into gravel, and the size of his enemy is so inferior to his own it’s almost comical, but even so, there is only one thing I can say to this idiot:
Have a nice death.
The monster’s face is still as blank as ever. She doesn’t appear flurried in the slightest by the sudden attack. She just turns her head toward the ettin and stares at him.
The ettin jumps up to the teleport formation with remarkable grace, considering how fat he is – I can feel some qi fluctuation coming from him as he does, so he’s probably using wind magic to improve his performance – and swings down his cleavers at his enemy one after another. There is some faint distortion in the air around the edges of his blades, which makes me think the ettin cast a spell on them to improve their cutting power.
The little girl still doesn’t move.
For an instant, I wonder if I’ve been wrong, if I’ve overestimated her and she’s going to be sliced apart without resistance, but then a small white spike suddenly appears without warning, hanging unsupported just beneath the ettin’s chin, pointing up at an angle toward his head.
Seemingly out of its own volition, the spike shoots upward, fast as lightning.
Even though it’s white, the spike is dull and opaque and, in the darkness of the night, almost invisible. And it appeared and was gone so fast that, if I hadn’t been lying down where I am, if I had so much as blinked, if I hadn’t specifically been paying attention, I wouldn’t even have known it was there in the first place.
If I had been in that ettin’s place, I would have ended up just like him.
I never would have even known how I died.
The spike plunges into the tender meat of the ettin’s throat and pierces into his head, bursting out of the back of his skull with a small spurt of blood and brain matter, instantly ending his life –
– then continues to fly, abruptly changing direction in midair and stabbing through the eye of the oni who’d been following just behind and preparing his own magic, before he can even react.
I can only assume he had hoped to take revenge for the death of the other oni, to use the ettin’s bulk as a shield to conceal his approach and strike the monster by surprise. Against someone else, that plan might have worked. From her position, she shouldn’t have been able to see him, and she might have disregarded the qi fluctuation coming from his imminent magic as coming from the ettin himself. But clearly, such a ploy is insufficient to threaten this monster.
After having reaped those lives, the small spike turns into faint white smoke, which then fades harmlessly into the night’s wind, leaving no trace of its existence.
And, just like that, two 5th- or 6th-rank warriors have died.
Without even having the opportunity to demonstrate their magic or martial skills.
Without fireworks. Without any astounding, ostentatious, eye-catching spellcasting. Just with a thin, five-centimeter spike suddenly appearing out of nowhere.
A small shiver runs down my back.
The monster is looking down at the corpse of the ettin, lying down at her feet, and at the corpse of the oni, fallen halfway over the edge of the teleport formation. She still hasn’t taken even a single step. She hasn’t moved at all, in point of fact. No emotion ever flickered across her face even as she slaughtered her opponents.
Just squashing a few ants. Nothing to make a fuss about.
I glance at Ralgrermn to see his reaction to seeing his last comrades be murdered.
But he’s not there anymore.
Where on earth did he go? He was here a second ago!
He wouldn’t be so insane as to…
I quickly look back to the strange little girl.
And there he is.
The monster is still focused on the corpses of her two victims, like she expects them to suddenly rise up and resume their attack, and Ralgrermn managed to take advantage of her distraction to sneak up on her unnoticed.
How can he be so stealthy? He’s a mountain of fur and fangs and muscle! That should be pretty conspicuous, shouldn’t it? And how can he move so quickly? Is this a 7th-rank warrior seriously making an effort? He’s so fast that, even though my eyes can reluctantly keep track of him, my body would never be able to react in time to dodge if I was the one he was attacking, even in my best condition.
It takes barely an instant for him to arrive behind the little girl, mercilessly slashing his claws down at the back of her neck.
His enemy appears singularly unimpressed with his performance.
She doesn’t even look back. She simply leans forward and to the side, just enough to evade the attack by the narrowest of margins, like she has eyes in the back of her head – which might just be the case, now that I think about it; I haven’t checked. At the same time, her leg rises in a sweeping back kick that makes her look more like a dancer than a martial artist.
Ralgrermn sees the blow coming and reacts in time. He crosses his arms in front of himself to block and even uses some kind of reinforcement magic on himself, his fur abruptly gaining a metallic luster, each hair turning into a sharp needle.
I’m pretty sure that, if I tried to punch him as he is now, my fist would be torn apart on contact.
He wouldn’t even need to move. I wouldn’t have any way to hurt him.
But unfortunately for him, the monster doesn’t operate under the same limitations I do.
The monster’s clawed foot slices through the air completely unimpeded by Ralgrermn’s block, severing both of his arms without sustaining the slightest injury from his reinforced fur, and even cutting deeply into his chest, his armor failing to provide him any noticeable protection.
Ralgrermn stumbles a few steps back, holding up the bleeding stumps of his arms in front of himself and looking at them dumbfoundedly. I guess, as a 7th-rank, it’s not everyday he meets someone who can walk all over him with such contemptuous ease.
I really don’t know what got into his head to attack the monster like that.
Did he want to avenge his comrades?
Did he think it would be his turn afterward and decided to preemptively make the first move?
Whatever his reasons, they didn’t serve him well.
The monster doesn’t retract her leg after the success of her attack. Instead, she uses the momentum of her back kick to spin around and face Ralgrermn in a movement so graceful and fluid she makes even the werewolf look like a clumsy old dwarf with a bum leg.
Once the little girl faces the injured Ralgrermn, she doesn’t even give him the opportunity to speak any last words.
I don’t know exactly what happens; it’s too fast for my eyes to properly take in. The girl’s left hand briefly turns into a blur – I get the feeling it stretches, somehow, but I may be wrong – and then Ralgrermn’s fearsome wolf head tumbles off his shoulders and falls to the ground with a revolting splat, his body following a few seconds later.
One 7th-rank werewolf, dead.
I’m not sure what I should say to commemorate the occasion.
The 7th rank is pretty much the pinnacle of strength on Caldera. In the entirety of Caldera’s population – around 400,000,000 people – there should only be about 20,000 7th-rank warriors. As for 8th- and 9th-rank warriors, they’re so rare most people will simply never see one of them in their entire lives.
Fights between warriors of such high ranks are incredibly violent. They’re like small-scale natural disasters. Buildings are toppled, hills are leveled, forests are burned down, lakes dry up, civilians die by the hundreds just from the aftershocks of the conflicting spells.
I’ve seen fights like those before. They are very much not the quiet kinds of fights.
Things explode everywhere. The earth trembles.
But the fight that took place tonight doesn’t look like any of those I saw in the past. This one was more like a fight between a 7th- and a 1st-rank warrior. One side cutting down the other before anyone can even properly display their might.
Absolute difference in power.
…Except that wasn’t what it was, was it?
The monster didn’t use any powerful magic. The only spell she exhibited was creating a tiny spike to stab her opponents. I’m not sure how she made it move through the air, or what rune it came from exactly, but I don’t think it was a high-rank spell. As proof, I didn’t even notice the qi fluctuation when the spell activated. And even after that, she didn’t even use any magic at all to kill Ralgrermn.
There weren’t any such things as ‘the aftershocks of conflicting spells’, because no one even got close to landing a hit on that monster. She just twirled around, swung a leg, swung an arm, and everyone was dead.
Absolute difference in skill.
And it gets a lot scarier when I remember the enormous weight of the qi pressure she radiated when she first arrived. It’s not that she didn’t have the raw power to destroy Ralgrermn with sheer force. She just didn’t feel the need to. She went easy on them.
I have no idea what kind of power you would need to bring 6th- and 7th-rank warriors to their knees just by standing there. 8th rank definitely isn’t enough. 9th rank? Above that? Is there even a 10th rank?
Whatever her rank, the salient point is that I’m definitely not that monster’s match.
Which fact resonates very loudly in my head when she turns to look at me, the last surviving person in this clearing apart from herself.
And then, she starts walking toward me, her gait as light and graceful as every one else of her movements, her tail swishing from side to side behind her in tandem with the sway of her hips, every time she takes a step.
It really makes me wonder if she’d be as flexible in be– no, this is really not the time to think about that.
When I see her approach me, almost as a reflex, I close my eyes and pretend to be dead.
That kind of deception wouldn’t fool a 3-year-old, but I have absolutely no idea what else I should do in that situation. With my current injuries, I couldn’t run, even if I wanted to. My life is completely at her mercy. If she wants to kill me, there is nothing I can do to stop her.
And if that happens, well, I don’t want to see it coming.
So I close my eyes.
And I wait.
The monster’s footsteps come to a stop next to me.
My heartbeat is loud in my ears. I need to consciously control my breathing, and it’s hard to stop my body from trembling.
A few endless seconds pass like that, until –
– I feel an ice-cold touch nudge my cheek a few times.