A cold, dark, dank cell.
The walls are smooth, solid, dirty stone. The door is made out of plain metal, and slides to the side when it opens, instead of swinging. A narrow hatch can open in the middle of the door, to pass food, but when it’s closed, no seams betray its position. There is no small grate designed to take a look inside the cell before opening it, though, because the door itself is magically see-through – from the outside only, of course.
This is a high-security prison cell.
The Major is probably worried that I’d escape, if she put me anywhere else, that I’d come up with some kind of devious plan that would see me free in under an hour.
Unfortunately, she vastly overestimates me.
I actually don’t have much experience escaping from prison, because I actually don’t have much experience being caught in the first place. I don’t think I could even escape from a conventional cell, with barred windows and things, let alone a sealed stone-and-metal box like this one.
She even went as far as taking away all my clothes and keeping my hands shackled with magic-inhibiting manacles.
This is just going way overboard.
I’m definitely going to freeze to death, in here.
…I hope someone comes soon.
Preferably an attractive young woman.
That would be nice. It’d warm me up.
Maybe not the Major herself, though. That’d cool me right the fuck back down.
…Well, I don’t actually know if the Major qualifies as either young or attractive. The only reason I even know that she’s a woman is that, early in our association, one evening where I’d gotten too drunk for my own good, I made a few ill-advised advances toward her. She probably didn’t expect me to do something that stupid, because I took her by surprise and managed to get a pretty good feel of the body hidden beneath those all-concealing garments – which was very nice – before she broke all my limbs and beat me half to death – which was very not nice.
That was a really close brush with death, now that I look back on it. If I tried to do the same thing, these days, I’d probably get obliterated on the spot.
…Enough thinking about that. This is just depressing.
Let’s just reflect on my current situation.
…Except that’s even more depressing.
I’m definitely going to die, most likely in a terribly painful way.
And no one will even care.
Well, I will definitely care.
So that makes one.
Eileen, the pretty daughter of that merchant. She’ll care, too. She’s going to have some real trouble finding someone else who can do the same things I did to her that day. She’s going to spend the rest of her life unsatisfied and frustrated, thinking back on those few hours of bliss she spent in my arms.
Tss. I really am a sinful woman, ruining lives everywhere I go.
Akasha, too. What’s that little dumbass going to do without me? She will have no choice but to remember oh-so-helpful Sif, when she exterminates a country or three based on ridiculous misunderstandings and sheer lack of common sense.
Of course, I’ll still be dead, so I won’t see any of that.
Should I try and beg for my life?
I don’t think that will have much effect on someone like the Major, but I don’t really see what else I could do.
Perhaps, try to pay for my life with information?
That might work. Since I escaped from the Planar Prison, I should hold lots of precious intelligence. For example, a list of the most notable people trapped inside it, the location of the teleport formation allowing entry into the prison, and of course, how to escape it. Knowing these things might not mean much to regular citizens, but the Major – and maybe even Yulan – might like to know this, in case they intend to launch some sort of rescue mission.
I wonder if that’ll be enough to barter for my safety.
I suppose I’ll see how things pan out.
And sooner rather than later, it seems, because when my train of thought concludes, I hear a series of clanging and scraping and ratcheting sounds as half a dozen locks open one after another. With the last lock out of the way, the door finally slides to the side to reveal the figure of the Major, apparently alone and still wearing a hood to hide her face, as always.
Without a word, the Major enters the cell, the door sliding shut again behind her. The sounds of the locks ring out once more as they re-engage, leaving the two of us together inside the cramped room.
The Major makes no attempt to approach me and simply stays in front of the door, looking down at me for a while without saying a word. If anyone else were doing so, I would assume they’re just entranced by my nakedness, but this woman is probably just wondering how exactly she’s going to kill me.
I shift awkwardly atop the narrow bunk, trying to find a position in which the shackles don’t bite into my wrists too painfully, and wonder if I should be the one breaking this uncomfortable silence.
In the end, I’m spared from that when the Major speaks up first. “Once again, it has been a while, Sif,” she says in her usual wavering, buzzing, artificial voice.
“Ah, um, yes.”
The head under the hood tilts interrogatively. “Oh? Where is your usual glib tongue?”
…Is she gloating at me?
That just won’t do at all.
“My tongue has frozen solid,” I say. “You probably can’t notice, since you’re wearing a dozen layers of clothes, but some idiot I won’t name saw fit to take off mine, and I’ve been freezing ever since.”
The Major nods. “I see. I do apologize about your clothes. But you know I’m not one for pointless risks.”
“Indeed. But you are one for pointless deaths, it seems.”
The Major’s head tilts the other way. “Oh? Is that criticism I hear? On that point? From you? I’m surprised. Self-righteousness isn’t a trait I would have associated with you.”
“You misunderstand. I’m not morally outraged. I’m just making a general comment on the situation. You killed 300 majin to get rid of one inconsequential human, just because of a private grudge. Even for you, I’d say that’s going a bit too far.”
The Major stays silent for nearly a full minute before answering. Eventually, she sighs. “Haaaa. I agree. This grudge, as you so easily call it, really does bring out the worst in me. But while we’re on the subject, why exactly did you try to get in the way?”
I put a frown on my face. “Didn’t I say it? That, even for you, this was going a bit far? This sort of thing is just wasteful, and…”
Something, barely even recognizable as a chuckle after the distortion applied to her voice, escapes from underneath the Major’s darkened hood and interrupts me. “Do you really expect me to believe that? The Sif I know would never risk her life to save innocent civilians she’s never even met before, no matter if there are 300 or 10 million of them. In fact, she wouldn’t even blame me for it afterward, like you’re doing now. That callousness is one of the reasons I recruited you, all those years ago. Now, it has been a little while since we’ve last since each other, admittedly, but not so much that you would have changed so thoroughly.”
“So, if you’re not actually angry with me because of the collateral damage,” the Major continues, speaking over me, “then could it have something to do with that ‘one inconsequential human’?”
I did my best to avoid thinking about her – it wouldn’t do me any good, and I’m not one for torturing myself when the Major will most likely do that for me – but when the conversation heads in this direction anyway, I can’t help but feel a pang of… something. I try to control my reaction, to show nothing of my inner thoughts on my face, but when I see the Major suddenly rear back, when I feel the weight of her stare on my face, I know that I let it slip.
“Sif, are you actually grieving?”
“Don’t be ridi…”
“You are! You are grieving!” There is more astonishment in the Major’s voice than I’ve ever heard before. “Unbelievable. Truly unbelievable! I have to say, I was quite surprised when I learned you’d escaped the Planar Prison, but this is on another level entirely! I was absolutely certain you saw women as nothing more than disposable pleasures, but it turns out even you…”
I’m not sure what expression she can see on my face at this moment, but when the Major sees me keep my silence, her words abruptly stop. Then she shakes her head and lets out a sigh. “Hmm. I apologize. That was… quite insensitive of me. I was just a bit surprised.” She sighs again and leans back against the door behind her. “Well, I don’t know the exact nature of your acquaintance with the Imperial Princess, but I offer you my condolences, for what they’re worth.”
“…It’s my turn to be surprised, now. I didn’t think I’d ever see you show sympathy to anyone.”
The Major nods. “I know. I don’t do so often.”
“How did you do it? How did you blow up the governor’s palace?”
“Hmm… I suppose it doesn’t matter if I tell you. Just in case Aran-Riha couldn’t make the kill, I forced one of the servants working inside the palace to swallow explosives. By examining Aran’s corpse, I thought it might be your work, as strange as it seemed at the time, so I changed the plan to capture you before killing Milla Adkins. I sent Anton and Rigelis to grab your attention so that I could sneak up on you more easily. And once I’d caught you, I detonated the explosives the servant was carrying.”
“Ah. So the dwarves were baiting me, not the palace’s guards.”
“That is correct.”
“How did you force the servant to swallow the explosives?”
“By threatening to kill his family.”
“As I said, it does bring out the worst in me.”
“It really does.”
The silence stretches between us for a while until the major breaks it again. “Do you want to kill me? To take revenge for the Princess’s death?”
I don’t need to think about this one before shaking my head. “Of course not. Revenge is a fool’s errand. Only the weak want it, but only the strong can afford it. Do you seriously believe that I, puny 4th-rank warrior Sif, could ever kill you, invincible 9th-rank warrior whatever-your-actual-name-is?”
“As a matter of fact, I do believe that, yes.”
“Well, you’re wrong.”
“Aren’t you always going on about how everyone can be assassinated, given proper preparations?”
“I’m not actually an assassin. I’m mostly a spy. In any case, I assume you’re going to kill me first, once this little discussion is over?”
“You assume correctly.”
Hearing the words said so explicitly, I feel a small jolt of fear run through my body, but they don’t actually affect me as much as I thought they would. I did expect things would end like that, so perhaps I’d already mentally prepared myself.
“And you’re not afraid telling me this will motivate me to frustrate your interrogation?” I ask. “If I’m going to die either way, I might as well do my best to keep my mouth shut.”
“There is no point in acting brave at this point. We both know you’d never hold up against torture, so you might as well save yourself some pain.”
“Ah. Yes. We both know this. I was somewhat hoping that I was the only one who knew this, to be honest.”
“How could I not, when it’s the very reason you’re here?”
“Sif, do you believe I’d want your life simply because you killed Aran-Riha and tried to interfere with my plans in Elphen?” The Major shakes her head. “Of course not. Your skills are much more valuable than his, and since you had a proper reason for what you did – as unexpected as it was – I’d have let you back in the team without blinking.” The Major lets a small pause accentuate her next words. “But you talked.”
“Ah. I was somewhat hoping you didn’t know about this part, either, actually. But didn’t you compliment me for my glib tongue, earlier? It sounds a bit contradictory to blame me for it, now.”
“A glib tongue is fine. But not when it’s spewing secrets to our enemies. You were captured by the humans 1 year, 4 months, and 16 days ago, then quickly sent to the Planar Prison. This, we know. Then, I have two questions for you. One, why did the humans send you to the Planar Prison instead of simply executing you? Two, why did half of my operatives – your old teammates – meet sudden, violent deaths over the past year?”
I feel my eyebrows rise in surprise. “Half?”
“More than half, actually. 9 out of 17 are dead – well, 10, now that you’ve killed Aran-Riha. Even I am starting to feel the noose tightening around my neck.”
“Huh. I have to say, I didn’t expect that. Those humans sure work fast, don’t they? No wonder we’re losing the war, with this sort of efficiency.”
“No matter how fast they work,” the Major continues, her tone still perfectly calm and civil, “they would never have achieved this if you hadn’t told them everything they wanted to know.” Her voice hardens perceptibly. “You made a deal with them, didn’t you? Your life, in exchange for information.”
“Yes. I was wondering if I could make the same deal with you, if at all convenient?”
The Major shakes her head. “I’m afraid I’ll have to decline. The humans didn’t know you as well as I do, so they didn’t realize they could have both your life and the answers to their questions.”
I let out a shaky laugh. “Ha… Haha… That is a real shame.”
“So, traitor. How about you start by telling me exactly what happened to you after you were captured.”
This isn’t going very well.
I’m definitely going to die, at this rate.
But if we’re throwing blame around, I have my own piece to say, as well.
I swallow my fear, then tilt my head to the side, precisely as the Major did at the start of this conversation. “Oh? Is that criticism I hear?” I ask, imitating the tone she used at the time. “On treachery? From you? I’m surprised. Hypocrisy isn’t a trait I would have associated with you.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” the Major asks, not a shred of anger in her voice, even after having her own words thrown back into her face.
“Are you the one playing dumb, now? Then let me tell you something else we both know, Major. That I am very good at what I do. I do not get caught quite so easily.”
“Reality begs to differ.”
“Precisely. So let me rephrase. I do not get caught quite so easily, unless my own allies betray me to the enemies I’m supposed to infiltrate.”
“…Are you accusing me?”
I find myself glaring at the Major, as if she is the prisoner and I’m the one performing the interrogation. “Damn right I’m accusing you. Those fucking apostles were waiting for me, right after I took on the identity prepared for me. Prepared for me by you. I never even had the opportunity to do anything incriminating, because they were onto me before I even had the opportunity to do anything at all. Now, I’m not saying I’m perfect. But I am saying that I never mess up this badly. Ever. I am a fucking professional. And more to the point, I am an infiltrating professional, too.”
“I was almost convinced, until you made that joke at the end.”
“Sorry about that. But my point still stands. If you expect me to display any sort of loyalty to people who stabbed me in the back like this, well, you really shouldn’t.”
“I think you mean that I shouldn’t expect you to display any sort of loyalty, period.”
“That, too. But you especially shouldn’t if you stab me in the back first, is what I’m saying.”
“I see. Still, your complaints would ring a lot louder if they were true. And I assure you I did not leak your false identity to anyone.”
“Well, someone did. So I’d appreciate it if you didn’t stick that ‘traitor’ label on me quite so one-sidedly.”
“Do you even care if people call you a traitor?”
“I care when those people are about to kill me for it.”
“Ah. Understandable.” The Major ponders for a short while, then continues. “All right. Let’s table that for now. Just answer the question. Tell me what happened to you after you were caught.”
“Or you can wait to answer until after I torture you, if you prefer we follow the usual procedure?”
“No, thank you. I think I’ll pass on that.”
“A 7th-rank werewolf? How on earth did you get away from this alive? There’s no way you could have taken him in combat.”
“I know. Sending such a monster after me was way too much. I have no idea why, but people keep overestimating me. It’s really sad. But as it happens, I didn’t take him. Someone else did.”
“Someone else? In the middle of a remote forest? At night? How convenient. Are you sure you’re not just coming up with all this on the spot? Are you just weaving some tall tale and laughing at me behind your breath for taking you seriously?”
“I’m really not. Go grab a truthteller if you don’t believe me.”
“I most certainly will. Later. Continue the story, for now.”
“Well, when I was about to get killed, a devil arrived through the teleport formation and saved my life.”
“Save your life? A devil?”
Even through all the distortion, I can hear the thick skepticism in the Major’s voice.
“Yes.” Then I remember my conversation with Milla. “Well, maybe not. I’m not sure. Something like it, in any case. I think.”
“I’ve always appreciated your unerring accuracy and eloquence, Sif. It’s what I like most about you.”
“All right, all right. Fine, then. It wasn’t a devil. When I was about to get killed, a little girl with white hair and glowing red-on-black eyes arrived through the teleport formation and slaughtered everyone but me in half a second.”
“A little girl appeared and killed a 7th-rank werewolf, a 6th-rank ettin, and a 5th-rank oni in half a second.”
“And why didn’t this little girl kill you, while she was at it?”
“Because I was lying on the ground looking very unthreatening.”
“I doubt a devil would care about that.”
“This one is a bit more reasonable than most. In any case, this little girl wanted to escape the Planar Prison, too, so we ended up traveling together, finding the exit and going through it, at which point we went our own separate ways.”
“…I’d prefer a more precise description of these events, rather than this vague summary, please.”
“If you don’t even believe the story I’m telling, I don’t really see the point in going into the specifics.”
The Major sighs. “Well, we can come back to that later. So this devil girl escaped with you, did she? What else do you know about her?”
And at this point, a thought hits me.
The Major works directly under Yulan’s command. As far as I know, Yulan wants to keep a specific secret under wraps, to the point where he wouldn’t mind using violence to permanently silence potential security risks.
Revenge is a fool’s errand, yes.
But I’m not going against the Major, here. I’m simply answering her question to the best of my ability. If what she learns puts her in danger, it’s really none of my business.
I firmly keep the smile off my face and say, “The most important thing I know about her is that she’s ridiculously strong. Much, much stronger than even a 9th-rank warrior.” I see the Major lift her head, her interest apparently piqued. “In fact, as she explained it, this little girl went beyond the normal ranking system altogether. She called herself a god. If you want more information on this, you should ask Yulan. Apparently, he’s a god, as well.”
The Major strokes her chin with a gloved hand, but unfortunately, I don’t find any of the signs of surprise and astonishment I would have expected at such a revelation.
Did she already know about it?
Actually, now that I think about it, is this woman a god, herself?
…Damn it. This was such a good opportunity.
What the Major says afterwards pretty much confirms that I didn’t teach her anything new, here. “I see. If the devils suddenly have a god on their side, it is certainly important news. I understand why you felt confident in trying to make a deal with me.”
“Ah, yes. I mean…”
“By the way, you might already know this, but I suggest you keep your mouth shut about godhood and such. You might really put yourself in trouble if you talk about this to the wrong ears.”
“At least, the fact that you know about this at all might be enough to prove that you didn’t make it all up. Good. Continue, then. Give me more on this devil god of yours.”
“Um, well, like I said, she has all the hallmarks of a devil. White hair; messy; reaching all the way down to her knees. Red eyes with black sclerae – no wait, she only has one eye. I gave her an eyepatch to cover the other. She only has one arm, as well, but she’s replaced the one she lost with a magical prosthesis. Her face and most of her body are covered in scars. She never smiles. She never frowns, either. Oh, and she looks like a 10-year-old girl – I should probably have started with that. What else, what else… Ah, yes! She can’t speak, so she only communicates through telepathy. Her magic is ‘ice’ or a derivative, and she knows how to use it to devastating effect. And she has very nice breasts for such a little kid. They’re soft, yet firm, and just the right size, too. And to top it all off, she has no problem with public nudity, so it’s quite a feast for…”
“All right, feel free to shut up now.”
“I suppose this is everything you have? Everything relevant, I mean.”
“I think so. Oh, wait no! One more thing. It’s actually the first thing you notice about her, so I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before the rest.”
“What is it? Spit it out, already.”
“Yes, yes. This girl’s lips feel very cold and have a sharp and prickly taste not unlike…”
“That’s really not what I meant by ‘relevant information’,” the Major interrupts in an icy voice. “And how is that the first thing you’d notice about someone?”
“No, sorry. That’s not what I wanted to say. What I wanted to say is that she is a wolf-type devil. She has wolf ears on top of her head – along with elf ears on the side of her head – and a wolf tail. And she has a horn in the middle of her forehead, too. About 20 centimeters long. More unicorn than oni.”
I inwardly hesitate for a moment, but then decide to keep the existence of that black spider a secret. It might be an advantage I’ll need in the future. I do the same for the fact that Akasha’s telepathy is loud enough to reduce brains to starch when she’s not careful. Even if it won’t kill the Major, it might at least give her a bit of pain, which is always something.
I glance up at the Major to see whether I can find any signs that she might have detected my omissions…
But the Major isn’t moving at all.
She’s standing there like earlier, her back against the door, her face concealed, but it’s like her entire body has frozen solid, or like she’s abruptly been turned into a statue. I can’t see even the slightest twitch of motion, not even the small, almost imperceptible rise and fall of her shoulders when she breathes.
This doesn’t look like good news for me.
I wonder if I should speak up, ask her if she’s alright or something.
But I decide against it.
I stay silent.
It’s a good five minutes until the Major moves again.
She pushes off the door behind her and takes a step toward me. I work very hard not to flinch.
“And does this… devil… have a name?”
“Name,” the Major says in a growling voice holding enough killing intent to tell me quite unequivocally that I’ll die horribly if I don’t answer her with absolute truth and alacrity.
The Major’s silence is somehow even more unnerving than her threat-filled voice, so I quickly continue. “I swear I’m not lying! That’s what she said she was called!”
Another long pause tests my nerves before the Major asks another question. “After you two went on your respective ways, where did A– where did this devil go?”
I don’t hold any more ideas of hiding important pieces of information or spouting nonsense about breasts and lips. I just spill what I know, as quickly and accurately as possible. “She went west, deeper into human territory. She was searching for her family, apparently, as strange as that sounds for a devil, but even she didn’t know exactly where to start. She didn’t seem to remember much about her life on Caldera. She didn’t even know which country to head to, just that her goal was a mountain with pink flowers on it, I think? Or trees with pink fruits? Pink leaves? I don’t remember exactly.”
And then, the Major starts pacing.
From the door to the wall opposite, along the length of my bunk, and back again. Ever since she arrived, she’s always been careful not to get too close to me, even though I’m shackled, unarmed, and even naked, displaying her usual paranoid prudence, but it seems she’s thrown that out the window, now.
I just watch her, nonplussed, as she mumbles unintelligibly to herself, until I can’t hold it in anymore.
“Ah, uh… Hmm… Major? A–Are you all right?”
The Major abruptly rounds on me, and snarls, “Shut the fuck up, Sif. I didn’t fucking ring you, so keep it the fuck down while people are fucking thinking, would you?”
And then she goes right back to pacing and mumbling.
I think it’s the first time I hear the Major swear. She usually speaks quite politely, even when she orders the slaughter of countless people or even tears them apart with her own hands.
I’m not certain what I did to annoy her so much that she’d go off like that, but I sure don’t want to do it again.
So I follow her instructions.
And I shut the fuck up.
Except that doesn’t work very well.
During her next round of pacing, when passing next to my bunk, the Major rounds on me once again, and I jump in fright. Before I can show any more reaction, however, a grip like a steel clamp seizes my neck and hauls me up, bringing my face close in front of hers, though her features remain shadowed by her hood.
“Eeeek! I–I’m sorry?”
“You said she has scars, right?! Scars?! One eye?! One arm?!”
“W–What? Huh, yes?”
The bloodthirst my reply elicits almost makes me lose control of my bladder, but through miraculous asmodian secret techniques, I reassert my will over my body and prevent my dignity from taking a serious blow.
The Major fumes quietly for a few more seconds before she throws me back onto the bunk – its surface is quite hard, and there are no covers to pad my fall, so it’s a bit painful – and takes a few steps away.
“All right, all right,” she says, seemingly trying to calm herself down – which I would be very thankful for. “Fine. Human territory, huh? That’s fine by me.”
And then, unexpectedly, she just leaves, blasting the cell’s door – along with a good part of the wall around it – right into the corridor beyond with a wave of her hand and a burst of magic, making the entire building shake on its foundations.
The Major’s hurried footsteps leave me behind, staring blankly after her, dumbfounded, hunched in a corner and trying to make myself as small as possible. I understand so little of what’s happening that it doesn’t even occur to me to escape until the footsteps come back, an undetermined amount of time later, and the Major bursts back into the cell.
“Sif! Get a move on, already! What the fuck are you waiting for?!”
“Um, my execution? I think?”
Isn’t that what I was waiting for?
I’m not so sure anymore.
“What?” From her voice, I can imagine the Major blinking in confusion beneath her hood. “Oh, right! Whatever. Who cares about that? If what you’ve said is the truth and we can find this little girl, I’ll spare your life. So get up. Come on, quickly!”
My own confusion overpowers my fear, and even as I stumble to my feet, careful not to step on any of the sharp debris of the destroyed door and wall of my cell, I ask, “Huh? Where are we going?”
“Are you daft? To human territory, of course. Didn’t you say yourself that’s where she’d gone? Hurry the fuck up, kid!”
Am I not 158 years old?
No, there are more important questions to ask…
“W–Wait a second, please. I’m going, too?”
“Yes.” The Major shakes her head. “It pains me to say this, but I might not be able to recognize her. And this is too important to risk making any mistake.”
“No, no. I assure you she’s quite…”
I cut myself off before I finish my sentence.
Isn’t this my chance?
I have no idea what’s going on, but as long as we find Akasha, I’ll live, right? Even though I lost count of how many times I thought I’d die during this conversation, did I manage to squeeze my way to survival?
Let’s not lose this opportunity!
“You can count on me, Major! I’ll definitely find Akasha for you!”
“Good, good. I’ll definitely pardon all your crimes if you… Um…? Wait a minute…”
The Major, who was preparing to leave the cell again, slowly turns back to me, something dangerous in her voice. A powerful pressure suddenly appears, pressing down upon my body and keeping me in place. The bunk, along with the walls, ceiling, and floor around me start cracking under the strain of this pressure.
“You… What did you say, earlier? I heard it quite clearly… Something about how her breasts feel? And something about how her lips taste? Yes? Did I get that right?”
“W–What? No, I just…”
“You! Did you actually kiss her?! As I thought, you really deserve to die! I changed my mind! As soon as this is done, I’ll fucking butcher you with my own hands! I’ll fucking grind you into dust!”