I look at the fragments of the demon-sealing stone in my hand, at the corpse of the apostle squad leader at my feet, and at his angry comrades rushing toward me, and I ask myself…
What the fuck am I doing?
…I have no answer to that question, myself.
Akasha casting that fog spell was quite a boon to me. This sort of environment is simply perfect for my concealment magic to show off its strength. So, as soon as the fight started, I disappeared and headed right the opposite way from her, because it would have been suicide to get involved in a fight of her level.
Not everyone carries the power to fight off entire armies, after all.
Except, I told myself at that moment, perhaps Akasha herself doesn’t, either. Oh, she is strong. Very much so. But 5,000 apostles? That might be a bit much, even for her, especially when she’s hampered by a demon-sealing stone.
I would expect any normal, sane person to retreat or negotiate, if they ever felt their abilities were not up to the task, but that girl is a devil. Even if all the armies in the world got together and charged at her howling for her blood, she would probably welcome them with open arms. After all, those are just the kinds of fights devils relish, murderous lunatics that they are.
Which is why, I told myself again, perhaps more stupidly this time, I need to make sure she wins.
Because if she doesn’t, neither do I.
Which brings me here, with a broken demon-sealing stone in my hands.
And in quite a pickle.
I’m rather proud of the ease with which I dispatched the apostle who held the stone. One thing working in my favor was that he didn’t have any distinguishing features that might have singled him out as its holder – no guards, no strategic defensive position within the army. It was truly hiding a tree in a forest. Which makes some sort of sense, I suppose. The demon-sealing stone prevents Akasha from tracing the source of its own qi fluctuation, so she’d have to look for it by eye. Hiding it this way, so inconspicuously, turns finding it into a matter of luck, rather than skill.
However, I’m not a demon at all. My senses are in no way affected by demon-sealing stones.
Quite the glaring omission on their part, if I do say so myself. Perhaps they just disregarded my presence here because I’m the single weakest person on this battlefield?
However the case may be, it was a trivial thing for me to follow the trail of qi right up to the apostle who carried the stone. And then, with everyone busy moving toward the ferocious, obvious threat that is Akasha and then with that strange, distant explosion grabbing their attention, my concealment magic allowed me to get up close and to end his life in a single strike.
Then I took the stone and destroyed it.
It was a bit of a gamble, to be honest. I’m not sure exactly what negative effects breaking the stone might have on Akasha, but I didn’t see what else to do. In any case, I doubt it could be worse than ending up magic-less against 5,000 apostles.
But then what?
It’s only now that I realize my mistake.
What on earth got into my head to do something so reckless?
Now, I understand why I was never the one to plan out the operations I conducted for the majin in the past.
Oh, as I just proved, I can assassinate an apostle easily enough, as long as he doesn’t see me coming. But all the concealment magic I can bring to bear will not avail me when there is such an obvious corpse right next to me. It only works when whoever I’m trying to hide from has something else to draw their attention apart from me.
My magic is mental suggestion, not physical invisibility.
So, when the subordinates of the apostle I just killed are throwing themselves at me with murder in their eyes – which eyes I can’t actually see, hidden as they are beneath their helmets – I find myself, as I already described, in quite a pickle.
…What to do, then?
Escape would be a good first choice, probably.
Right. Let’s do so right away.
I don’t turn around – you don’t put your back to the enemy during a fight – but I quickly shuffle back toward the fog bank. Before I can reach it, however, the earth underneath my feet shifts, and I barely have the time to throw myself to the side before a sharp stone spike suddenly rises up from it.
As I roll in the grass, I produce another knife. This one, however, I don’t throw.
Because it’s my last one.
I really need to rid myself of this habit I have of discarding every weapon right after using them once… That was a precaution I always took in my youth, back when I was an unsanctioned murderer rather than an actual, lawful, state-approved assassin, and I never got past the reflex.
By the time I stop rolling and get back to my feet, the closest apostle is already on me. His halberd is slicing through the air toward me, with more force than I could possibly wield myself. I don’t try to match his strength. I jump back and put my knife up to block, my other hand on the flat of its blade to try and prevent it from breaking at the first blow. It works, but only just. The knife doesn’t break, but cracks appear all over the metal. There is no way I can use it to stab anything, now, especially not freaks covered in armor like those I’m facing now.
The impact sends me flying back. I roll over the ground again and try to immediately stand up, before my opponent can press his advantage, but the next blow comes before I can properly fix my stance. And more apostles are approaching behind the first, just in case a miracle happens and I somehow manage to kill this one.
…This is pointless. These bastards may not be on Akasha’s level, but they’re still a lot stronger than me, especially in a straight fight. I don’t have time to raise my knife and block. Even if I did, the blade wouldn’t hold against another strike like the previous one.
I watch the halberd swing down at me –
– when an eerily silent but almost blindingly fast mass of chitin and legs bounds over me and tears right through the apostles attacking me as if they weren’t even there.
It’s a spider. A black, strangely metallic-looking spider, huge beyond any other spider I’ve ever seen before – and I’ve seen some pretty bad ones. Its eight legs are more blades than actual legs, and it puts them to good use.
I watch dumbfounded for a few seconds as the spider wantonly slaughters every apostle in sight. Some of them manage to harness either magic or blade to strike back against the spider before they die horribly, but nothing seems able to put so much as a scratch on its exoskeleton, despite it all.
The spider leaves only corpses in its wake, and none of them whole.
…What kind of monster is this?
Where did it come from?
And why did it go right past me?
Did Akasha bring it here?
I slowly turn around, almost scared to find another such creature right behind me, looking me in the eyes. But instead of more giant spiders, what catches my sight is the fog bank. At some point, without my notice, it shrunk to half its previous size and started spinning, faster and faster, like a short, stocky tornado. White flecks flash across its rim, reflecting the light of the sun, and shoot out, as if they weren’t attached inside the tornado firmly enough and the speed of its spinning had dragged them loose. Except that those white flecks’ own speed as they cut through the air is even greater than that of the tornado itself, and their accuracy as they strike down apostle after apostle never falters.
And beyond the fog tornado, blotting out the sky, is an enormous white hand, perhaps 200 meters high, its clawed, pointed fingers visibly sharp despite their humongous size.
The hand swings down. The wind displaced by its fall pushes against my body, strong enough to make me stumble back – though it does nothing to thin out the fog tornado.
The giant hand slams into the ground.
The earth shakes.
I stumble and fall to my knees.
I don’t try to get up again, this time.
All the apostles are completely ignoring me, now – which is a welcome change of pace – and their army is in tatters. Corpses are strewn about, here and there over what was an almost idyllic plain, just a few minutes ago, and more join the ranks of the dead every second. Explosions of magic and cries of effort or pain or death split the air.
Their enemies are so much more powerful than them it’s almost comical, but those are apostles, after all. Despite their horrendous losses, they still advance toward their targets in good order, their army dividing, one strand attacking the giant spider while the other circles around the fog tornado toward what I assume is Akasha herself. And even when the comrades next to them are ripped apart, their bodies smashed to grisly, bloody pieces, the remaining apostles still charge forward, undaunted, their armor blackened by the blood of their fellows.
Apostles will always be apostles, I suppose…
Those were probably ordered to guard the Planar Prison’s exit and kill any escaping prisoners. But their commanders probably didn’t anticipate that someone would come around who could annihilate this army altogether. They never gave the apostles instructions to follow in case the opposition turned out to be too powerful to resist.
And apostles will never go past their orders. They will follow them to the letter, almost to the point of stupidity, even if those orders are tantamount to suicide. They will never complain, never betray, and never flinch. But neither will they come up with new orders for themselves.
Even now, they continue to charge, heedless of their dwindling numbers.
Since the tornado is in the way, I can’t actually see what Akasha is doing, but, sometimes, fragments of bodies are flung through the air from behind it, soaring over the heads of their living comrades rushing after them, entrails and blood raining down all the way. For my own peace of mind, I try not to wonder in too much detail about what happened to the owner of those fragments.
On the other side, the spider is still rampaging, and still unharmed.
After cutting in half all the apostles nearest to it with a swipe of its front legs, it suddenly scoots down, and its jaws open. A torrent of black, viscous mist gushes forth from its mouth, washing over everything in a wide arc in front of it.
The apostles touched by that mist start melting.
Their armor, their clothes, their flesh, their bones… In just a few seconds, even their screams of agony have been silenced, only leaving black puddles of blood where people once stood. In the scope of that mist, even the grass is gone, and the earth looks dented, withered, dying. Even the air itself seems blackened and dirtied by the attack.
…What the fuck is that thing?
Akasha herself was bad enough, but this…
What exactly did I bring back with me to Caldera?
Soon, the spider has mopped up all the apostles that I can see. When I wonder if it’s going to turn to me and subject me to the same fate it did everyone one else here, the spider instead stops moving and opens its mouth wide. An instant later, all the blood around it rises up off the ground and streams out of the apostles’ corpses to soar directly into its mouth. Then, the mangled bodies around the spider suddenly twist and jerk, as if suffering from convulsions, and their magic cores burst out of their skulls and follow the tainted blood down the spider’s gullet.
…I’ve seen Akasha do the same thing before, so I’m not as surprised as I could have been, but the scale here is much greater than I’d seen before. There are probably 3,000 people’s worth of blood – and just as many magic cores – soaring through the air. It’s a strange spectacle.
Once its meal is finished, the spider turns around, not toward me, but toward the fog tornado. Without pause, it rushes directly through it, completely ignoring how deadly it is to the apostles circling around it, and disappears from view, leaving me alone in the middle of a field of exsanguinated corpses.
Judging by the sound, the battle on Akasha’s side also seems to be reaching a conclusion.
Which I suppose would imply that nearly all the apostles are already dead.
5,000 of them, dead in just a few minutes…
Usually, majin forces would require countless sacrifices to perform such a feat. After all, among apostles, the common soldiery are at least 5th-rank warriors, whereas regular majin soldiers are 3rd- or 4th-rank warriors at most. It doesn’t seem like such a huge gap, but with people numbering in the thousands, the difference certainly takes its toll. And apostles are infamously hard to kill; their bodies are so tough it’s hard work to make sure they stay down.
Usually, I would see Akasha’s victory as a great blow against humanity. Something to celebrate.
But now, this miracle has been accomplished so casually that it’s almost anticlimactic…
If I could only convince her to go back with me to Mel Senshir and help us fight the –
No, wait a minute…
Go back to Mel Senshir? I doubt anyone there would welcome me. And what ‘us’ am I even talking about? There is no ‘us’. I’m already out of the war. Anybody who gives a shit should know by now that I was sent to the Planar Prison. There is no reason for anyone to believe I could ever escape from there. Truly, if chance hadn’t made me stumble on Akasha, I never would have returned to Caldera. The sheer improbability of it is staggering.
So, for all intents and purposes, I should be considered the next best thing to dead, on this plane.
Should I take this opportunity to just find a pretty girl and retire to the countryside and live out the rest of my life in peace?
…Well, I can think about that later.
In any case, I have no duty or incentive to convince Akasha to enter the war on either side. It’s none of my business anymore. And I doubt anyone would readily accept a devil’s help, anyway.
The same spectacle I witnessed with the spider soon also takes place on Akasha’s side. Blood and magic cores are harvested from every corpse and soar through the air, heading behind the fading tornado, probably toward either Akasha herself or that mysterious spider.
When the tornado’s mist clears up enough to allow sight to pass through, everything has ended. I see Akasha strolling peacefully in my direction, as if she didn’t just exterminate an entire army. The spider is nowhere to be seen, however. I can only assume Akasha un-summoned it.
I slowly get to my feet and walk up to meet her halfway, careful not to trip on any dead body fiendishly hiding in the grass, hoping to break my ankles as one last act of defiance. Off to the side, I can see that a vast swath of the plain has been crushed flat where Akasha slammed her giant ice hand into the ground. Only twisted bits of flesh and bone and armor remain there, so I try not to look at it too much.
Before we reach each other, Akasha suddenly seems to notice something about one of the bodies lying on the ground in front of her and bends down over it, her hands reaching out for it. I wonder for a moment what she could possibly be doing, until I realize that she’s only looting the red cloak off the corpse.
…Could it be she intends to wear clothes from now on?
I suppress my disappointment – it was quite pleasant to always have a naked girl next to me, even if that girl was a devil – and raise my hand in a vague greeting. “Hey. Good job, once more.”
Still working to get the cloak loose from its clasps, Akasha throws a glance at me, her red eye now shining as brilliantly as it ever did before. […You, as well.]
I killed an apostle and destroyed the demon-sealing stone, didn’t I?
I’m a true hero, the real thrust behind this glorious victory of ours.
I’m glad my contributions didn’t go unnoticed, at least. I’d almost forgotten about them myself.
“Thank you, thank you. We should probably leave this place, though. These apostles’ superiors will quickly notice that their troops have been exterminated. They might send reinforcements. We don’t want to be here when that happens.”
I doubt Akasha would be troubled by anything short of the God Emperor himself showing up here, but the same unfortunately can’t be said for me. So I’d really appreciate it if we could make ourselves scarce.
With a nod, Akasha stands up and stores her new cloak inside her space ring.
“By they way,” I continue as casually as I can, looking around me at the devastated countryside, “have you seen a giant spider around here? I caught a… glimpse… of one. I might have imagined it, though.”
Akasha doesn’t elaborate any further than that. I’m not sure if she wants to hide some of her abilities from me – something I would understand – or if it’s just her being her usual taciturn self, but I don’t want to take the risk of asking too many questions for my own good.
“I see. Well, now, the question is, in which direction should we go?”
[…Where are we?]
I shake my head. “No idea. I don’t recognize this place. I hear some people can tell their own locations by reading the stars, but I’m afraid that’s not one of my skills. And it’s still daylight too, so whatever. If apostles dare to appear here, we can at least be reasonably certain that we’re in human territory. Which means that, if we head east, we’ll be getting closer to majin territory, no matter what. What worries me a bit about this plan, though, is that heading east will bring us closer to the center of that explosion from earlier.”
I still have no idea what that thing was. Magic? It was certainly a lot more powerful than any spell I’ve ever seen before. I don’t think even Akasha could do this sort of thing. Or did the humans discharge some kind of new super-weapon? In a majin city? In Mel Senshir, even?
I hope not.
I might be out of the war, but still…
[…I’m not going to majin territory.]
“Huh?” Deep in thought as I was, it takes me a moment to process what Akasha just said. “Why not?”
I feel my eyebrows rise up in stupefaction.
This little girl is completely insane…
The war may have cooled down a bit in recent years, but if someone as obviously non-human as she is dares to stay in human territory without a good reason and a powerful backer, she’s definitely going to get herself ki–
Um, wait, no.
Rather, she’s definitely going to get other people killed.
A lot of them, most likely.
And now that I think about it, if Akasha did follow me into majin territory, she probably wouldn’t receive any warmer welcome than among humans, even with my introduction to help her. It’s not as if my being pretty will open all doors for us, and devils just aren’t the most popular creatures in the world, to say the least.
“I’m afraid you might have the right idea,” I say carefully. “Or maybe there is no right idea. The majin won’t be very well disposed toward you. Neither will the humans. And there isn’t any such thing as a devil territory. I’m not actually certain what you should do.”
[…I’m staying here.]
“You seem very sure. Do you have a plan?”
It really doesn’t seem to be a random choice.
Actually, since this girl was only ever a convenient way for me to escape the Planar Prison, I never did ask her for her long-term goals after we escaped. Perhaps I should, now that the question has become directly relevant to our situation.
“May I ask what they are? What is it that you intend to do from now on?”
Akasha stares at me for a solid minute before finally answering.
[…Look for my family.]